Q. Did Trotsky ‘invent’ the term ‘racist’ in 1927?

Over the last few months, Shermon Burgess — a/k/a ‘The Great Aussie Patriot’ — has begun to increasingly indulge in the perpetuation of a range of radical right-wing memes, not only about Islam and the left but multiculturalism, the United Nations (Agenda 21) and allied topics. One of my favourite memes is the one about Trotsky inventing the term ‘racist’.


Short answer:


Long answer:

[Source : The ‘Trotsky Invented The Concept Of Racism’ Myth, One Million United, January 1, 2010.]

The Myth

Nick Griffin [BNP leader]: No it’s because people like the BBC have demonised the word racist and have set about demonising us.
Gavin Esler: Demonised the word racist? There is somehow a good side to racism is there?
Nick Griffin: Ah, it’s a canned term. There’s no good side to racism. If you mean hating people, you’re doing it now. You’re not letting me explain for a start. Racism was a concept invented by Leon Trotsky, a Communist mass-murderer to demonise his opponents and stop people talking about certain issues.

Nick Griffin on BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ 25th May 2007.

The Truth

The concept of scientific racial supremacy was invented by Gobineau before Trotsky was born. Trotsky used the term racism to describe it, but racism only became an epithet to describe racial prejudice after he died.

This is a very popular myth with neo-Nazis and other White Nationalists, who especially enjoy pointing out that Trotsky was born into a Jewish family. According to them a Judeo-Communist conspiracy is trying to destroy Western civilization and the white race, etc, etc, etc and invented that word to silence people… yawn. Funny that Nick Griffin should use a staple argument used by anti-Semites isn’t it? It can be found all over the Internet and Griffin was obviously defending his right to be racist by the looks of things. His argument, which is the general one, is that the concept of racism was invented by a Communist to stifle opposition and freedom of speech. But where did Trotsky use the word? There are two alleged sources, the first one is ‘What Is National Socialism?’, published on June 10th 1933.

The theory of race, specially created, it seems, for some pretentious self-educated individual seeking a universal key to all the secrets of life, appears particularly melancholy in the light of the history of ideas. In order to create the religion of pure German blood, Hitler was obliged to borrow at second hand the ideas of racism from a Frenchman, Count Gobineau, a diplomat and a literary dilettante. Hitler found the political methodology ready-made in Italy, where Mussolini had borrowed largely from the Marxist theory of the class struggle. Marxism itself is the fruit of union among German philosophy, French history, and British economics. To investigate retrospectively the genealogy of ideas, even those most reactionary and muddleheaded, is to leave not a trace of racism standing.

On the plane of politics, racism is a vapid and bombastic variety of chauvinism in alliance with phrenology. As the ruined nobility sought solace in the gentility of its blood, so the pauperized petty bourgeoisie befuddles itself with fairy tales concerning the special superiorities of its race. Worthy of attention is the fact that the leaders of National Socialism are not native Germans but interlopers from Austria, like Hitler himself, from the former Baltic provinces of the Czar’s empire, like Rosenberg; and from colonial countries, like Hess, who is Hitler’s present alternate for the party leadership. A barbarous din of nationalisms on the frontiers of civilization was required in order to instill into its ‘leaders’ those ideas which later found response in the hearts of the most barbarous classes in Germany.

… In the sphere of modern economy, international in its ties and anonymous in its methods, the principle of race seems unearthed from a medieval graveyard. The Nazis set out with concessions beforehand; the purity of race, which must be certified in the kingdom of the spirit by a passport must be demonstrated in the sphere of economy chiefly by efficiency. Under contemporary conditions this means competitive capacity. Through the back door, racism returns to economic liberalism, freed from political liberties.

The second reference is from The History of the Russian Revolution, written in 1930 and translated and published in 1932. In here the word ‘racism’ does not appear, but ‘racist’ does.

Slavophilism, the messianism of backwardness, has based its philosophy upon the assumption that the Russian people and their church are democratic through and through, whereas official Russia is a German bureaucracy imposed upon them by Peter the Great. Marx remarked upon this theme: ‘In the same way the Teutonic jackasses blamed the despotism of Frederick the Second upon the French, as though backward slaves were not always in need of civilised slaves to train them.’ This brief comment completely finishes off not only the old philosophy of the Slavophiles, but also the latest revelations of the ‘Racists’.

So what did Trotsky mean by racism and racist? In the first quotation Trotsky says, “In order to create the religion of pure German blood, Hitler was obliged to borrow at second hand the ideas of from a Frenchman, Count Gobineau”. Who was Gobineau and what were his ideas? Arthur de Gobineau (1816 – 1882) wrote a book entitled An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races in which he proposes that the ‘white race’ is superior and that the Aryan branch of it in Northern Europe was the ‘Master Race’. He also believed race-mixing led to chaos. I bet you thought the Nazis invented all that didn’t you? Anyway, so Trotsky said Hitler created a ideology based on a pure German race and nicked ideas from Gobineau… err, well he did! Trotsky said the Nazis were practising an ideology based on race, which goes without saying is true. He was not trying to stop the Nazis talking about certain issues, he was criticising the concept of their race-based ideology. So if Griffin disagrees with Trotsky presumably he believes the Nazis didn’t have a racial ideology, or Trotsky was wrong to even mention it.

In the second quotation Trotsky says the Slavophiles believe Russians to be inherently democratic, an idea that he rubbishes. He says that also finishes off the claims of the racists. But again he is attacking the idea of racial differences not accusing the Slavophiles of saying racist things.

In both cases Trotsky is commenting on an existing ideology of racial superiority/difference, so he therefore did not invent the concept of racism. No more than the person who invented the word ‘cat’ was the inventor of cats!

Therefore what was the context Trotsky was using those words in, if he only is attacking the idea of inherent racial differences? In the 1930s the word ‘racism’ meant according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “[t]he theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race”. Which sounds exactly like the way Trotsky was using it. No doubt that applies to his earlier usage of ‘racist’ too.

In fact in the 1930s, also according to the OED, the word ‘racialism’ (dating from 1907) meant “belief in the superiority of a particular race; prejudice based on this”.

The current meaning of racism, that of prejudice, has only been attached to it since World War II. Prior to World War II it meant the difference between races. Conversely, ‘racialism’ no longer means racial superiority or prejudice. By the 1960s it had been made redundant as ‘racism’ had replaced it, but William Du Bois redefined it to mean the belief that differences exist between human races. In other words what ‘racism’ meant before World War II when Trotsky was using the word in his writing. A complete reversal.

Therefore the current accusations of racism directed at the Far Right do not mean the same thing as racism did in Trotsky’s writings. The concept of racial superiority itself goes back before Trotsky was even born and he didn’t coin ‘racialism’, which meant in the 1930s what ‘racism’ does today. Just as if Trotsky mentioned ‘gay’ in his writings he’d have meant happy or colourful, not a homosexual.

The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism was founded as the The League Against Pogroms in 1927, [it] later became the International League against Anti-Semitism and in 1932 it acquired its present name. Magnus Hirschfeld wrote his book Racism in 1933 (trans. into English in 1938) and is generally credited with inventing the word itself. As he was a gay Jew he isn’t too popular with the Far Right either. So there is doubt as to whether Trotsky did originate the word, but even if he did he was using it to describe something that no-one would dispute: that Nazi Germany had an ideology based on the racial differences between Germans and others.

Trotsky did not invent the concept of racism, it was Gobineau the grandfather of Nazi racial politics!

One last little thought: why would people like the BNP, who aren’t apparently racist, object to the very existence of the word? If they weren’t racist and neo-Nazis, why would they say the word has no legitimacy because a Communist invented it? If you did away with the words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ that would significantly reduce the stigma of such behaviour. So why would the BNP want that if they aren’t racist? Presumably for the same reasons they want to abolish the Race Discrimination Act: they want to be able to be as racist as they like, with no legal or moral impediments.

See also : The Ugly, Fascinating History Of The Word ‘Racism’, Gene Demby, NPR, January 6, 2014 | “Race suicide” (January 1, 2011) | Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe (March 9, 2012).

Anarchy = Trotsky + Time

    “The activity of the soviet represented the organization of anarchy. Its existence and its subsequent development marked the consolidation of anarchy.” ~ Leon Trotsky

Awesome! In a stunning rejoinder to the followers of Juan Posadas, the Socialist Equality Party in Australia held its founding congress in Sydney on January 21-25, 2010 — almost fourteen years after it was formed.

What explains this historical anomaly? As Sherlock Holmes remarked in Sign of the Four (1890), “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” Having considered, and then eliminated, all the other factors, the only reasonable conclusion I can arrive at is this: The Marxist scienticians at the SEP have invented a Time Machine!

Not content with having achieved the extremely difficult — some suggest impossible — task of travelling [backwards] in time, the party makes an even more ambitious boast: of being “indisputably” the only Trotskyist party in Australia. Socialist Equality Party (Australia) holds founding Congress, wsws.org, February 24, 2010:

Most essentially, Beams said, the past 25 years had clarified the role of the Pabloite opportunists who once claimed to represent genuine Trotskyism. In Australia, as in France, they were now seeking to establish “broad anti-capitalist parties” with non-revolutionary tendencies and had entirely repudiated Trotsky and the Fourth International. Unlike the previous period of mass radicalisation from 1968 to 1975, the SEP was now indisputably the sole Trotskyist party.

The Freedom Socialist Party, Revolutionary Socialist Party, Socialist Alternative, Socialist Party, Solidarity and Trotskyist Platform would surely beg to disagree.

Speaking of Trotsky, as already indicated, Robert Service’s new biography has really upset his contemporary followers. Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party (UK), refutes attacks on Leon Trotsky at one of the sessions of the Socialist Party’s ‘Socialism 2009’ conference:

In The great anti-poll tax victory (February 26, 2010), Taafe also has a crack at the anarchists who “occasionally latched onto and viciously attacked the organised anti-poll tax movement”. According to Taafe, “It remains an incontestable historical fact that it was neither the official leadership of the labour movement nor small left groups – without a feel for the real pulse and movement of the working class – that provided the leadership for the decisive poll tax victory. It was, instead, the vilified and persecuted forces of genuine Marxism gathered around the newspaper ‘Militant’ which played the crucial role.” Further, “Ultra-left sectarians and anarchists [following the London anti-Poll Tax rally of March 31, 1990]… accused Militant supporters of “collaborating with the police”. This was totally false. Tommy Sheridan and the other leaders were overwhelmingly re-elected to head the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation.”

Taafe’s account may be usefully contrasted with Danny Burns’ Poll Tax Rebellion (AK Press/Attack International, 1992). After noting, inter alia, the fact that the gutter press joined police efforts to identify alleged rioters, Burns quotes Socialist Party nee Militant member and Secretary of the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation Steve Nally as stating that “We are going to hold our own internal inquiry which will go public and if necessary name names” (p.105). (Note that a similar campaign against protesters was mounted in Australia following the G20 protests in November 2006, the role of the gutter press this time being played by Fairfax and The Age.) The task of defending the accused was eventually taken up by an independent group, the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, formed over and against the wishes of the leadership of the Federation.

Elsewhere, Taafe’s Communist Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) has issued a statement on the apparent split in rival international the International Marxist Tendency (IMT): Open letter to the members and former members of the IMT (March 2, 2010). The ideological leader of the IMT (which, sadly, has no section in Australia but, oddly enough, does in Aotearoa/New Zealand) is Alan Woods.

In Defence of Marxism An Attack Upon Bakunin Anarchism, Or: A Case of The Woods Seeing The Tree.

Woods provides a fairly orthodox Marxist / Leninist / Trotskyist critique of Bakunin, who is invested with the same status within the anarchist tradition as Marx is within Marxism. Wrong, but also routine.

See also : Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists, Routledge, 1980 | An Anarchist FAQ – Anarchism and Marxism (infoshop.org).


Greece Braces for Deeper Spending Cuts
The New York Times (AP)
March 3, 2010

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece will announce painful new spending cuts Wednesday to lift the country out of a major financial crisis, a day after Prime Minister George Papandreou said the country was in a “‘state of war” and was fighting for national survival…


Portraying the Poor, BBC4, February 28, 2010. “Paul Mason explores the image of poverty and the working class that has been created by writers. From Friedrich Engels’s reports on the Salford slums in the 1840s through to Raphael Selbourne’s story of a young Bangladeshi woman in present-day Wolverhampton, by way of George Orwell’s expeditions to Wigan and the hop fields of Kent, our picture of the poor has been painted by members of the middle class. Paul Mason asks if this outsider’s view gives us a full and fair account, or if it says more about the attitudes of the literary class than about the poor themselves. Interviewees include Orwell’s biographer DJ Taylor, Polly Toynbee (author of Hard Work: Life In Low-Pay Britain); Michael Collins (author of The Likes Of Us: A Biography Of The White Working Class) and Raphael Selbourne (author of Beauty).”

Added Bonus!

Icepicks At Dawn : Robert Service ~versus~ Leon Trotsky

    Today, I saw a dog,
    Yes, a dog.
    Talking to a pig,
    Yes, a pig.
    They were on the pavement,
    Discussing Trotsky.
    Not brotsky or crotsky or drotsky or frotsky.
    But Trotsky.

US British historian Robert Service done written a new book on Trotsky. Apparently, the news outta Leningrad Harvard isn’t good, and Trotskyists everywhere are taking up their metaphorical cudgels to go into battle for the dead Marxist. Thus:

[AWL] Review of Robert’s Service’s biography of Trotsky, November 12, 2009: “Trotsky towered over the early years of the 20th century. He faced terrible adversity and fought with tremendous power. Service’s book, despite his pretentions, has little to offer anyone who wants to understand the real Trotsky. No doubt it will put off a few gullible souls. But there is far too much of interest in Trotsky’s marvellous life to be soiled by this tired and pathetic slander”;
[CWI] Service with a snarl: Academic refuses to answer questions, The Socialist, November 18, 2009 / A ‘dis-Service’ to Leon Trotsky, Peter Taafe, The Socialist, October 13, 2009: “The most nauseating aspect of this book is the highly personalised attack on Trotsky”;
[SEP] In The Service of Historical Falsification: A Review of Robert Service’s Trotsky, David North, November 11, 2009: “There is one final issue that needs to be raised, and that is the role of Harvard University Press in publishing this biography. One can only wonder why it has allowed itself to be associated with such a deplorable and degraded work. It is difficult to believe that Service’s manuscript was subjected to any sort of serious editorial review… it provides its imprimatur for a slanderous and slovenly work. Is Harvard today, in a period of political reaction and intellectual decay, atoning for its earlier displays of principles and scholarly integrity? Whatever the reason, Harvard University Press has brought shame upon itself. One suspects that at some point in the future, with the recovery of morale and courage, it will look back upon this episode with great regret.”

Sounds awesome!

Trotsky: A Biography
Robert Service
Harvard University Press

Robert Service completes his masterful trilogy on the founding figures of the Soviet Union in an eagerly anticipated, authoritative biography of Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky is perhaps the most intriguing and, given his prominence, the most understudied of the Soviet revolutionaries. Using new archival sources including family letters, party and military correspondence, confidential speeches, and medical records, Service offers new insights into Trotsky. He discusses Trotsky’s fractious relations with the leaders he was trying to bring into a unified party before 1914; his attempt to disguise his political closeness to Stalin; and his role in the early 1920s as the progenitor of political and cultural Stalinism. Trotsky evinced a surprisingly glacial and schematic approach to making revolution. Service recounts Trotsky’s role in the botched German revolution of 1923; his willingness to subject Europe to a Red Army invasion in the 1920s; and his assumption that peasants could easily be pushed onto collective farms. Service also sheds light on Trotsky’s character and personality: his difficulties with his Jewish background, the development of his oratorical skills and his preference for writing over politicking, his inept handling of political factions and coldness toward associates, and his aversion to assuming personal power.

Although Trotsky’s followers clung to the stubborn view of him as a pure revolutionary and a powerful intellect unjustly hounded into exile by Stalin, the reality is very different. This illuminating portrait of the man and his legacy sets the record straight.

See also : John Gray, Behind The Myth, Trotsky: A Biography, By Robert Service, Literary Review, October 2009 | Bloodstained Chancer, George Walden, Standpoint, October 2009 | Shoot them like partridges, Poumista, November 20, 2009.

Not brotsky or crotsky or drotsky or frotsky. But Trotsky. (And hipsters.) (September 6, 2009) | The Long Strange Posthumous Life of Leon Trotsky (September 1, 2009) | Trot Guide 2009 (July 11, 2009).

The Long Strange Posthumous Life of Leon Trotsky

EdgeLeft : The Long Strange Posthumous Life of Leon Trotsky

…an occasional column by David McReynolds, it can be circulated without further permission…

Historically the Socialist Party USA had two major splits. The first was after the Russian Revolution, when there was an international split in all socialist parties between those who accepted the leadership of Lenin’s Third International and those who didn’t. In the US, [Eugene] Debs [1855–1926], who had proclaimed himself “a Bolshevik from the tip of my head to the tips of my toes” — reflecting the overwhelming international support for the Russian Revolution — then led the Socialist Party in rejecting Lenin’s “21 demands” [V. I. Lenin, ‘Theses on Fundamental Tasks of The Second Congress Of The Communist International’, 1920].

There followed the split which led to the formation of the Communist Party. The second major split — (actually two in almost one year) — was the right wing split in 1936 by the Social Democratic Federation which wanted to support Roosevelt, breaking with Norman Thomas [1884–1968], and the split by the Socialist Workers Party which, under James Cannon [1890–1974], had entered the Socialist Party and then in 1937 split, taking much of the youth of the Socialist Party with it.

By the 1960s (in fact even by 1951, when I joined the Socialist Party) both the Socialist and Communist Parties were shadows of the past, battered by various currents. The Communist Party was never able to build a mass base here after the Cold War began — Communism was seen not simply as “radical” but as “treasonous”. The Socialist Party, in no small part because, fearful it might be accused of being communist, spent too little time on what it favored, and too much time making sure its skirts were clean. (There is nothing simple about this — the Communist Party always had internal dissent, and there was a serious left wing in the Socialist Party, which I joined when I came into the SP.)

Thus when we leap forward to the “final split” in the SP in 1972 we are talking about midgets. Max Shachtman [1904–1971] took out his people to form the Social Democrats USA (actually, he had the majority at the 1972 convention, so for a brief moment he was the SP — it is ironic that it is Shachtman’s group which has since totally [?] vanished). Michael Harrington [1928–1989] finally broke with Shachtman and split to form the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee which morphed into today’s Democratic Socialists of America. The remnants of the old Socialist Party, some on the left, some on the right, regrouped under Frank Zeidler [1912–2006] in 1973 to form what is today the Socialist Party USA, and which is, pretty much, the legitimate heir to the party of Debs and Thomas. (It is under the banner of this group that I ran for President in 1980 and 2000).

In the real world nothing is static. The Socialist Party, which has about 1,000 members, has attracted newer members who are not aware of the history, and whose radicalism includes an admiration [for] Lenin and Trotsky. The SP is not anywhere near another split — only genuine Trotskyist groups can split when they have less than … 1,000 members. But I’ve been fascinated by this odd posthumous life of Trotsky, and want to reflect on it here.

There really aren’t any Leninists running around — there are lots of people who belong to “Marxist/Leninist” groups, such as the Communist Party, but there are simply not a dozen different Marxist/Leninist groups in this country. There are large numbers of socialists who are not even aware that there was a Marxist tradition before Lenin, and independent of Lenin. There must be a few Stalinist groups, I am sure I could find them on Google, but not even the Communist Party today counts as Stalinist. Stalin has almost no heirs. [Almost. See : Protestant Stalinist Party. Also : arch-rivals Catholic Trotskyist Party of America. Discussion here and below.] In fact, the interesting thing about Stalin is that almost no one wanted to duplicate his politics. The Japanese and Italian Communist Parties broke with Moscow very early, not long after Tito had taken Yugoslavia out of the “Communist Bloc”. Mao (a man Stalin once thought might best be “eliminated”) defied Stalin almost from the beginning. The Vietnamese were careful, in taking aid from both China and the Soviet Union, not to duplicate the Soviets in their own political patterns (there were never any purge trials in Vietnam to equal those in the Soviet Union). And Cuba stands almost in its own tradition, bending to Russia when it depended of Moscow’s aid, but building on Cuba’s own traditions.

It was as if everyone looked at Stalin and thought “there is a lot there we don’t want to repeat”. Even the Soviets, to the astonishment of the West, broke with their own “tradition” when Stalin died, and, after the murder of Beria, allowed a peaceful transfer of power to Khrushchev.

But Trotsky while dead, is still very much alive. Sometimes as a ghost on the far right — Max Shachtman became the first true neo-conservative, embracing the system. His followers took key positions in the Reagan Administration and in the right wing of the Democratic Party. Younger readers may find it hard to believe (I admit that even I do) that Shachtman, who went into the Communist Party in its early years, traveled to the Soviet Union, was a significant leader of the American Communist Party, ended his life supporting the US invasion of Cuba (the Bay of Pigs), the US invasion of Indochina, shifted from a position critical of Israel to one of fervent support of Israel. I knew Shachtman well, and while I didn’t like the man, or trust him, I would never have thought he would have ended in the camp of the enemy.

The original Trotskyist movement in this country formed in the late 1920s, headed by James Cannon and Max Shachtman. It was authentically revolutionary, had an honorable tradition of work in the trade union movement. It reflected the international split, following Lenin’s death, between Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Party, and Trotsky, the brilliant, courageous military leader of the Red Armies. Stalin insisted that a world revolution was not in the cards history had dealt, that the only hope was to build “socialism in one country”. Trotsky, by far the more revolutionary, and internationalist, argued that “socialism in one country” would become bureaucratic, militarized, and fatally “deformed”. Both men were right. There was to be no world revolution. Germany, which had a powerful socialist movement, did not have a revolution and could not rescue the young Soviet Union. Trotsky was right, the Soviet Union became a police state. There was one crucial shift, however, which caused Trotsky to the end of his life to argue that the Soviet Union had to be defended in any conflict with the West — private property had been collectivized, and the old class had been destroyed. Shachtman split over the matter of the Soviet invasion of Finland, setting up what would beome the Independent Socialist League, which lasted until it merged into the Socialist Party in 1958.

Some contemporary Trotskyist groups, such as the ISO (International Socialist Organization) represent what might be called Shachtman’s radical positions of the 1950s. The official Trotskyist group, the Socialist Workers Party, long since became a cult, focused on support of Cuba largely ignoring its own Trotskyist past. There are other groups which owe a debt to Trotsky — Solidarity, while hardly an orthodox Trotskyist group, comes out of that background. New Politics, founded by Julius [1922–2003] and Phyllis Jacobson (and a journal on which I was once a member of the editorial board) had its origins in a kind of “left Shachtmanite” position. I felt I served as the “shabbas goy” on the editorial board, since I was primarily a pacifist, and had never been a Trotskyist. At one point — and perhaps the last intellectually significant split in the Trotskyist movement — Bert Cochran [1913–1984] formed a new publication, the American Socialist, which had a brief useful life but could not be sustained. These groups have made real contributions to the American Left.

They made, for the most part, a very serious effort to uphold the best of the Russian Revolution, while being frank about the disaster of Stalin. Some of the Trotskyists did finally face the problems inherent in Leninism, the vanguard theory of change, the concept of democratic centralism, and the fact Trotsky himself was not really any nicer than Lenin. There are always apologies made for the violent suppression of the workers uprising at Kronstadt — and I wish the Trotskyists, and Leninists, some of whom are now in the Socialist Party, would realize that if one can justify mass murder because the situation demanded it, they should be much more hesitant in writing off the Socialist Parties in the West because they, too, made compromises. I guess my question to the Leninists is why are crimes and mistakes acceptable if committed by the followers of Lenin, but not if committed by the non-Communist left. (Thus far the best answer I’ve heard is that in the name of the revolution, murder, while regrettable, is defensible).

The Workers World Party, formed in 1956, when the Socialist Workers Party had a split over the Hungarian Revolution, (WWP supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary) became a thorn in the side of many of us, with its range of front groups — the International Action Center, ANSWER, etc. In due time WWP had a split of its own, the Party [for] Socialism and Liberation, which took ANSWER with it. WWP still exists.

If one had time and the inclination, the list of those who were in the Trotskyist movement, or touched by it, is truly remarkable. Dwight Macdonald‘s [1906–1982] Politics, Dissent Magazine, and literally dozens of small Trotskyist groups. My own primary mentor, A. J. Muste, was briefly — very briefly — in the Trotskyist movement. The Trotskyist movement has had one great advantage over the Communists — with very few exceptions they never actually had power. And thus they could be pure. All those who hold state power will find that it forces compromises.

So much for this very too brief run down. I have read Trotsky, and Lenin, and Stalin, and a number of others from that period. I liked Lenin and still do — I just don’t agree with him. My own path led me to Gandhi. I liked Trotsky a bit less, though I concede he was brilliant. Isaac Deutscher [1907–1967], in one of his three volumes on Trotsky, cites the case where, in one of the inner-party fights, Trotsky felt he had to make a temporary peace with Stalin. The price which Stalin exacted was that Trotsky withdraw his support from two of his own key allies. Which Trotsky did. Not surprisingly, his allies, once abandoned, sided with Stalin in the next round of in-fighting and helped seal Trotsky’s fate.

All of which brings me to a deeply flawed film I rented from Netflix — Exile in Buyukada. Deeply flawed because while showing Trotsky’s arrival in Turkey, where he spent the first period of his exile, the sound track, featuring a narration by the wonderful actor, Vanessa Redgrave, is “buried” under the music. There are occasional sub-titles, but essentially the film is only worth watching for the sense of that period. And it is to that sense that I now want to turn my attention, (while, by pure chance, listening to a new recording of a Shostakovitch work, featuring the Internationale).

Let’s leave aside the manipulations of Shachtman, the betrayals of the Neocons, the chaos created by Workers World… and turn back to the events in the Soviet Union. That Trotsky would be expelled from the Communist Party and sent into exile was unthinkable. He had been essential to the revolution. He did not leave the young Soviet Union as a dissident — he left it as a believer in the revolution. He and his wife knew they faced death wherever they went, from Stalin’s agents (who did finally murder him when he was in Mexico).

Trotsky had no allies within the socialist movement. He despised the socialist parties of the West. The problem was that he had no allies at all except for the opposition to Stalin which, in the Soviet Union, could not be expressed without risking certain death. In the West the Trotskyist movement was a small splinter in the side of the Communist movement, under steady ideological attack as “agents of the State”. To support Trotsky was genuinely heroic — no one was going to pay you! You had no chance at career advancement. You had no allies in power anywhere in the world. The Communists would check out books by Trotsky from public libraries in order to destroy them (and I knew one Shachtmanite who checked out those same books from public libraries in order to save them from destruction – theft in the name of love).

The Communists held power in the Soviet Union. Their parties in Western Europe were strong. And strong even as far away as Indochina, and China, and Japan.

So those of us who have basic disagreements with Trotsky — essentially the same disagreements we have with Lenin — should pay the history of Trotsky some respect. He was not a democrat. It has been said, by one of those in post-Soviet Russia, that if Trotsky had won the fight against Stalin the outcome would have been just as many executions — but with a far more literary flavor. The sadness of Trotsky’s life is that once the internal fight in the Soviet Union had been decided, Trotsky was an heroic but lost figure. His followers in the US ended on the subversive list, were hounded from their jobs by the FBI.

But always and always, those who took Trotsky’s side cannot help but look back and think what the Soviet Union might have been if only Stalin had lost that fight. I’m very much among those who feel that American socialists need to look to American history — not Russian or Chinese or Cuban history — to chart our course. But no one who has looked back at the early part of the 20th century can fail to be thrilled by that moment when it seemed as if the workers were actually in control of history. It was this painful memory Trotsky carried with him as he began the first of his exiles in Turkey.

May I suggest — though my Trotskyist and Leninist friends will not hear me — that the greatest honor one could pay to Leon Trotsky would be to let him rest with the honor he earned. And, as he broke with Stalin, so let us break with all undemocratic efforts at revolution, which would make human beings merely “means to the end”. Humanity — each life — is an end in itself. As A.J. Muste said, “there is no way to peace — peace is the way”. So too, revolution begins now, as we empower ourselves to think for our own time.

David McReynolds worked for the War Resisters League for 39 years, retired in 1999, and lives with his two cats on the Lower East Side. He is a former Chair of the War Resisters International. He can be contacted at: dmcreynolds[at]nyc[dot]rr[dot]com.


1. Maoist Internationalist Movement (MIM) (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) [See : On crackpots engaged in pigwork, January 10, 2009]
2. Prairie Fire Organizing Committee
3. US Marxist-Leninist Organization (Hoxhaist) [See : Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory, November 9, 2008]
4. Communist Voice Organization (Anti-Revisionist/Marxist-Leninist)
5. Workers Party USA (Hoxhaist)
6. Freedom Road Socialist Organization (post-Maoist/Marxist-Leninist) [See : We Are Family]
7. Revolutionary Communist Party USA (Maoist/Avakian)
8. Ray O. Light Group (Maoist) [Revolutionary Organization of Labor, USA]
9. Progressive Labour Party (ex-Maoist/Stalinist) [This is an official web blog featuring some of the articles from Progressive Labor Party’s CHALLENGE NEWSPAPER.]
10. Marxist-Leninist Organizer
11. League of Revolutionaries for a New America (post-Maoist)
12. Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (ex-Gorbachevist/Democratic Socialist)

Added Bonus!

Trotsky’s ghost wandering the White House
Jeet Heer
National Post
June 7, 2003

Influence on Bush aides: Bolshevik’s writings supported the idea of pre-emptive war

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