6 Nov 2010


'Trotskyist sects, with their pseudo-scientific and alienating talk of 'vanguards' 'the periphery' 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and so on are still in (small) business 70 years after his death is, perhaps, a testimony to the brilliance of Trotsky's vision. But it is now time to move on, really!'

I don't think I would use the phrase 'Last Century Left', I am happier to stress the need for '21st Century Socialism' which seems a more positive and strategic approach. Nonetheless an interesting article from my good friend Larry O'Hara in the newly revamped Notes from the Borderland site. On 'Troskyist Sects', I think Dr O'Hara might have a look at some of the writings of Hugo Blanco, who is like me is positive about the movement of some Troskyists groups in an ecosocialist direction. Many on the left are rethinking their politics and when I see left groups supporting the changes in Latin America, fighting the cuts, building campaigns for climate action or supporting (eco) socialist trade union candidates like Jerry Hicks, all I can say is good! So I am not sure that calling people 'Last Century Left' is good for dialogue.

Incidentally I am not from a Trotskyist or Lenninist background, I do need to have a careful read of Trotsky's writings such as 'The History of the Russian Revolution' which is am told a classic. While I have been critical of Trotsky's approach to ecology (not that this was much different from most of the left at the time), his notion of 'permanent revolution' perhaps breaks with 'stageist' types of Marxism which is important.

However when it comes to the left, I am keener on Marx, Morris, Luxemburg and Che!

Anyway see what you think of the analysis here.

An important phrase in the NFB lexicon is the term we coined circa 2000, that of 'Last Century Left'. It has a precise meaning, though often wilfully misinterpreted. While we ourselves come from, and remain on, the Left, we do not think the penny has dropped with the multiplicity of Leftist groups, drawing inspiration from Lenin Trotsky or the various strands of reformism (including the Labour Left) about just how disastrous the 20th Century turned out to be for those advocating Left politics. Exactly where on the Left we have come from can be illustrated by our attitude to various historic events and trends


Yes, we would have supported it at the time, but not as Bolsheviks. Rather, our sympathies lie far more with the Left Social Revolutionaries (SRs), who in any event provided far more personnel to execute the seizing of power in October 1917 than the Communists. Regarding the vexed figures of Lenin & Trotsky, we believe the early Trotsky in his reply to Lenin's 'What is To Be Done' (in 'Our Political Tasks' 1904) correctly predicted the dangerous Jacobinism that Leninism fundamentally was. We would have been with the workers and sailors of Kronstadt rebelling against the Soviet government in 1921, resisting Trotsky's attempt to 'shoot them like partridges' or indeed to militarise unions as outlined in his 'Terrorism & Communism' (1920). Equally, we would have been with the Workers Opposition of Alexandra Kollontai, which secured 43% of the votes at the 1921 Party Congress.

If we support the 1917 Russian Revolution against Tsarism, does that make us ideologically complicit in the crimes of Lenin and later Stalin? Not really: the path we would have liked the Russian Revolution to take was using the mir (village commune) as the basis of the new regime--not just Left SR policy, but a possibility strongly entertained by Karl Marx himself in his letters to Vera Zasulich of 1883 (on which see Shanin's excellent book 'Late Marx & The Russian Road'). We certainly have some sympathy with Trotsky in his later struggles with Stalin--but the damage had been done by the fact that fundamentally Lenin never gave 'All Power To the Soviets' but abrogated it to the party and hence himself--and his successors. From the 1920s onwards, the Russian Revolution (and the Comintern) were examples of how not to do revolutionary politics as opposed to beacons of good practice. The reactionary posturing of the Communists in Spain's Civil War, the disaster of 'Popular Frontism' and the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact were not just aberrations.

While Trotsky's writings in the 1930s remain of interest, he was far better at raising problems than solving them. Thus, he early on saw the danger fascism/Nazism presented to humanity (while the Comintern was practising 'Third Period' lunacy), but his all-too-rationalist approach made Trotsky incapable of understanding, never mind effectively defeating (with his small band of followers) the Nazi menace. The subtlety and far-ranging analysis of Paul Tillich in 'The Socialist Decision (1932) moves into areas way beyond Trotsky--and especially his epigones. To raise problems is no bad thing--Trotsky's Transitional Programme (1938) addressed an issue still bedevilling revolutionary socialists/Greens to this day--how to move from a defensive (or economistic) struggle for reforms in present society to the future and better post-capitalist one. Not calling for reforms allows capitalist forces to dictate the agenda--as the Con-Dem government in the UK is currently seeking to do. Calling enthusiastically for detailed achievable reforms (demands) risks incorporating those arguing for them within the current system. Yet calling for demands unrealisable within capitalism risks burnout disillusion and irrelevance. Trotsky's attempt (anachronistic in detail but the principle is what counts) in his 'Transitional Programme' was a stab at solving this dilemma. A dilemma that must of necessity face any genuinely radical force that garners electoral/popular support within existing society The late Trotsky even grappled with the class nature of post-revolutionary Soviet society--tantalisingly allowing for the possibility that should it survive World War 2 it might not be socialist in any meaningful sense. Sadly, Trotsky did not live to tell the tale--and his enduring legacy of brilliant phrase-mongering has too often been murdered by tedious epigones littering the political scene, albeit in far fewer numbers than hitherto. That Trotskyist sects, with their pseudo-scientific and alienating talk of 'vanguards' 'the periphery' 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and so on are still in (small) business 70 years after his death is, perhaps, a testimony to the brilliance of Trotsky's vision. But it is now time to move on, really!


Ben Courtice said...

Interestingly, while criticisng the "last century left" they seek to identify with the Russian pre-revolutionary SR party, practically a "century-before-last left". This article is confused and despite some good commentary on things like Trotsky's Transitional Programme I'm not sure what it achieves. Their detailed analysis of who they like and who they don't like in the 20th Century left undermines the final comment to "get over it".

David said...

Getting caught up who done what debates about the Russian revolution is a hazard for any just about any revolutionary leftist, marxist, anarchist or other. Ironically this article suggesting we all “move on” from political definitions based on the experiences 100 years ago has simply encouraged me to think about them once again. Coming from a a small marxist group, which in its long history has been through various Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist and Trotskyist phases, I agree that we need to build something fundamentally new, to fit a fundamentally new period in the struggle against capitalism.

But old habits die hard, which is why I’m taking the time to express my amazement at the author’s expression of sympathy for the Left SRs.

Sure, they didn’t sell out the peasant-worker revolution like the right-wing of their party, or the Mensheviks, who joined the coalition Provisional Government with the capitalist parties. And they were partners with the Bolsheviks in the first Soviet government.

But when the Bolsheviks took the hard decision to sign a peace treaty with Germany, the Left SRs not only resigned from the government in protest, they launched an armed uprising, endangering the revolution at a critical moment, and then carried on a campaign of assassination against the Bolsheviks.

It’s hardly surprising then that the Bolsheviks developed a mentality that only members of their party could be trusted to lead the revolution.

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