Alex Callinicos





While Trotskyism has not had a good press among Western social scientists, Leon Trotsky himself is too great a figure to ignore. After his role as one of the chief leaders of the Russian Revolution – President of the St Petersburg Soviet in both 1905 and 1917, organizer of the October rising which brought the Bolsheviks to power, founder of the Red Army, and architect of victory during the Civil War of 1918-21 – Trotsky’s subsequent fate – exclusion from power by Stalin and his allies after Lenin’s death in 1924, exile from the Soviet Union in 1929, and assassination by an agent of what is now called the KGB in 1940 – lent a tragic quality to a career so intimately involved with the decisive event of the twentieth century. Trotsky’s formidable intellectual powers as social theorist, political analyst, and writer – perhaps best displayed in the great History of the Russian Revolution (Trotsky 1967) – commanded the respect of many wholly unsympathetic to his politics. Moreover, it was his good fortune to have his life recorded by Isaac Deutscher (1970a; 1970b; 1970c) in what is without doubt one of the outstanding biographies of our time. It is an indication of Trotsky’s stature that now, fifty years after his murder, one of the main issues in the reappraisal of the past currently under way in the USSR is the demand for an honest appreciation of his role in the Revolution and its aftermath.

But Trotskyism – the intellectual and political tradition founded by Trotsky – is quite a different matter. One of his lesser biographers, Ronald Segal (1979: 403), dismisses Trotskyism as “a factional disorder”. This accurately summarizes the dominant image of Trotskyism as a welter of squabbling sects united as much by their complete irrelevance to the realities of political life as by their endless competition for the mantle of orthodoxy inherited from the prophet. As we shall see, this image has a large degree of truth. Yet the marginality and fragmentation of the Trotskyist movement do not of themselves constitute grounds for dismissing the ideas which it embodies and has sought, in various ways, to develop.

Trotskyism as a political current defined itself by the rejection of the two dominant definitions of socialism – those provided by Stalinism in the East and by social democracy in the West – and by the reassertion of what it took to be the traditions of October 1917 – of the revolutionary transformation of society by the proletariat democratically organized through workers’ councils. The radicalism of these ideas helped condemn the Trotskyists to the margins of the labour movement, but the political vision they conjured up attracted in the early years talents as diverse and remarkable as those of the working-class agitator James P. Cannon, the pioneering black writer C.L.R. James, and the Surrealist poet André Breton. In the 1930s and l940s an astonishingly large number of what later become known as the New York Intellectuals became directly or peripherally involved in the American Trotskyist movement – among them Saul Bellow, James Burnham, James T. Farrell, Clement Greenberg, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Mary McCarthy, and Dwight Macdonald – before drifting rightwards towards Cold War liberalism or neo-conservatism (see Wald 1987). Revived by the commotions of 1968 and after, many Trotskyist groups were able to attract a new generation of activists. Many of the most important contemporary Marxist theorists can be seen as working in, or from, one variant or other of the Trotskyist tradition – among them, Neville Alexander, Perry Anderson, Daniel Bensaid, Robin Blackburn, Robert Brenner, Pierre Broué, Tony Cliff, Hal Draper, Terry Eagleton, Norman Geras, Adolfo Gilly, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman, Nigel Harris, Michael Lowy, and Ernest Mandel.

This tradition is best understood as the attempt to continue classical Marxism in conditions defined by, on the one hand, the success of the advanced capitalist countries in weathering revolutionary pressures that were at their greatest in the inter-war years. and, on the other, the betrayal of the hopes raised by the October Revolution by the rise of Stalinism in the USSR and its extension after 1945 to Eastern Europe and China. Deutscher (1984: 245) lamented the

striking, and to a Marxist often humiliating contrast between what I call classical Marxism – that is, the body of thought developed by Marx, Engels, their contemporaries and after them by Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg – and the vulgar Marxism, the pseudo-Marxism of the different varieties of European social-democrats, reformists, Stalinists, Krushchevites, and their like.

Anderson (1976) took up the concept of classical Marxism and argued that those coming within its compass were distinguished by their organic involvement in the working-class movement of their day and by a theoretical concentration on the evolution of the capitalist economy, the political forms of bourgeois rule, and the strategy and tactics of class struggle. He contrasted this tradition with that of Western Marxism as it crystallized after the Second World War, a collection of thinkers – among them Adorno, Althusser, Della Volpe, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Sartre – characterized by their distance from any form of political practice and by their preoccupation with questions of philosophy and aesthetics. Trotskyism, basing itself as it does on the thought of one of the main practitioners of classical Marxism, has generally been intellectually resistant to the themes and vocabulary of Western Marxism. This may help explain the comparative lack of interest in Trotskyism displayed by contemporary social theory, which has, on the whole, been remarkably receptive to Western Marxism. Versions of Marxism formulated within the academy are likely to be more palatable to social scientists than those which still aspire to address the concerns and influence the actions of ordinary working people.

Russell Jacoby’s (1987: 5) stimulating polemical essay The Last Intellectuals mourns the passing in the United States of “public intellectuals, writers and thinkers who address a general and educated audience”. The New York Intellectuals represented a passing generation that has not been replaced; the left intelligentsia produced by the movements of the 1960s ended up in the universities where it produces a hermetic academic discourse incomprehensible to outsiders. This change is undeniable, and is not confined to the USA. Jacoby adduces various social causes – suburbanization, gentrification, the expansion of higher education – which destroyed the milieu in which the old politically engaged intelligentsia flourished and provided a different, and more isolated environment for their successors. No doubt these factors are of great importance, but there is also a political condition which Jacoby ignores. The major political experience shared by many New York Intellectuals was their involvement in the Trotskyist movement, which sought systematically to relate rigorous theoretical enquiry to practical involvement in the public world. Habits acquired in this context stayed with the New York Intellectuals even after they had moved on to very different political commitments. By contrast, the generation of 1960s left intellectuals tended to encounter forms of Marxism – Western Marxism or often highly Stalinist variants of Maoism – which made it much more difficult to combine critical theory and political practice.

Alasdair MacIntyre, himself a sometime Trotskyist, has recently stressed the importance of what he calls “tradition-constituted enquiry”, where

the standards of rational justification themselves emerge from and are part of a history in which they are vindicated by the way in which they transcend the limitations of and provide remedies for the defects of their predecessors within the history of that same tradition (1988: 7).

One does not have to accept MacIntyre’s claim that all criteria of rationality are specific to a particular tradition, let alone the tradition for which he now opts – Augustinian Christianity – to recognize the importance of tracing the manner in which traditions evolve through attempting to resolve the problems internal to them. We shall see that the subsequent history of Trotskyism was shaped by the great crisis of the 1940s, precipitated by the refutation of Trotsky’s predictions about the Second World War and its outcome. The differing responses made to this crisis irrevocably shattered the unity of the Trotskyist movement and produced three main theoretico-political strands, radically different from one another but all deriving from Trotsky: the “orthodox Trotskyism” of the various Fourth Internationals; those revisions of orthodoxy which tended to imply a break with classical Marxism (Shachtman and Castoriadis, for example); and the International Socialist tradition founded by Cliff, whose critique of orthodox Trotskyism was conceived rather as a return to classical Marxism.

It is this process of theoretical development, defined by the divergent solutions offered to the crisis of the 1940s, which forms the subject of the present book. What follows is very far from being a history of the Trotskyist movement – the nature of the series in which this book appears as well as the limitations of my own knowledge dictate this (though I have benefited from the recent explosion of historical research into Trotskyism reflected in the emergence of journals such as Cahiers Leon Trotsky and Revolutionary History). The aim of this study is rather to provide an intellectual history of Trotskyism as a political movement. The particular examples given are intended primarily to illustrate theoretical issues. These illustrations reflect the bias of my knowledge towards British and American Trotskyism. This has the disadvantage that, for example, the Trotskyist movement in Latin America is completely ignored. despite the fact that some of the most significant organizations are to be found in this region. The study’s bias does, nevertheless, have the virtue of bringing out the fact that Trotskyism has enjoyed some of its greatest influence (comparatively) in societies – Britain and the United States – where the general impact of Marxism has been slight. If the history I offer is somewhat stylized – some might say caricatured – it may still serve to dramatize the importance of the issues so fiercely disputed by those who have sought to continue Trotsky’s thought.


Last updated on 13.3.2001