Alex Callinicos




2 Crisis

2.2 Conventionalist stratagems

The crisis of the Trotskyist movement after 1945 is an instance of quite a common problem in the history of the sciences. Imre Lakatos (1978:1) suggested that theories are best seen as “scientific research programmes” which develop through the formulation of successive refutable auxiliary hypotheses. Where a research programme predicts “novel facts” it is “theoretically progressive”, and where some of these predictions are empirically corroborated it is “empirically progressive”. A programme which fails to predict, or whose hypotheses are refuted, is by contrast, “degenerating”, a prime candidate for replacement by another programme, as Copernicus’s supplanted Ptolemy’s in astronomy or Einstein’s Newton’s in physics. Each programme has a “hard core” of hypotheses which are treated as being immune from refutation, unlike the dispensable auxiliary hypotheses. One sign of a degenerating programme is the emergence of what Karl Popper (1970: 82-4) called “conventionalist stratagems”, designed to protect the hard core from the persistent refutation of its auxiliary hypotheses, in the way that Ptolemy’s late medieval followers sought to render his geocentric model of the planetary system consistent with observation by tacking on epicycles.

Popper and Lakatos alike defined a scientific theory as one that stipulates the conditions of its own refutation. Interestingly, Trotsky in one of his last writings fulfilled this requirement. During the 1939-40 debate with Shachtman and Burnham he argued that if the Second World War did not lead to a revolution which would settle accounts with Stalinism and capitalism alike,

it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting class on an international scale ... The historic alternative, carried to the end, is as follows: either the Stalin regime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society, or the Stalin regime is the first stage of a new exploiting society. If the second prognosis proves to be correct, then of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist programme, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia. (Trotsky 1973c: 9)

Trotsky thus believed that the refutation of his predictions would place in doubt the truth of Marxism itself. Perhaps in part because the stakes were thereby raised very high, Cannon and his “unknown men” in the IS initially refused to recognize any conflict between Trotsky’s prognoses and the development of world politics at the end of the war. In what is a classic example of a conventionalist stratagem, Cannon (1977: 200) even declared in November 1945:

Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage and is now in the process of regroupment and reorganization for the second. The war is not over, and the revolution which we said would issue from the war in Europe is not taken off the agenda. It has only been delayed and postponed, primarily for lack of a sufficiently strong revolutionary party.

If the facts didn”t fit the theory, so much the worse for the facts. Similarly, the International Conference declared in April 1946 that Europe would “remain on a level approaching stagnation and slump” (quoted in Grant 1989: 380). This claim, and its corollary, that there could be no restoration of bourgeois democracy, was challenged by the French section of the FI, the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), and the British RCP. On the latter’s behalf, Cliff (1982: 24-39) was able very effectively to refute Mandel’s attempts to explain away the abundant evidence of economic recovery. Similarly, Grant (1989:125) pointed out what was evident to everyone except the IS and the SWP leadership: “Everywhere in Western Europe since the ‘liberation’, the tendency has been for a steady movement towards bourgeois democracy and not towards greater and greater dictatorial regimes”. Nevertheless, although the RCP leadership displayed a greater sense of reality than Cannon or Mandel, they too believed that the revolution predicted by Trotsky had only been postponed. Thus Grant (1989: 381) argued that a new recovery can only prepare the way for an even greater slump and economic crisis than in the past”.

The nature of the “buffer zone” in Eastern Europe was, however, the greatest source of difficulty. The initial reaction of the FI leadership was to refuse to regard Moscow’s new satellites as workers’ states. Mandel argued on behalf of the IS in September 1946: “The nature of the economy and of the state remains bourgeois in these countries” (quoted in Frank 1969: 48). This position, though reaffirmed at the Second Congress of the FI in April 1948 (Fourth International 1948), was too evidently in conflict with the identity of social and political structures in the USSR and Eastern Europe to be sustained indefinitely. The majority of the RCP leadership had already anticipated the direction eventually taken by the FI. Jock Haston unsuccessfully argued on their behalf at the Congress that “the economies of these countries are being brought into line with that of the Soviet Union” (quoted in Bornstein and Richardson 1986b: 217). In the event, the IS began to slide in the same direction within a few months of the Congress. The precipitant proved to be Yugoslavia’s break with the Soviet bloc in June 1948. The IS reacted on 1 July with an “Open Letter to the Communist Party of Yugoslavia” which declared: “You hold in your hands a mighty power if only you persevere on the road of socialist revolution”, and noted in conclusion “the promise of victorious resistance by a revolutionary workers’ party against the Kremlin machine ... Long live the Yugoslav Socialist Revolution” (quoted in Hallas 1969: 29).

The camel had got its nose under the tent. If it was conceded in one case that a Stalinist party – whose general secretary, Tito, boasted of his firm way of dealing with “Trotsky-fascists” as he was breaking with Moscow (Cliff 1982: 67-8) – could carry out a “socialist revolution”, why should this not also have occurred in the rest of Eastern Europe? It took another three years for Pablo, Mandel and Cannon to accept this conclusion and the FI officially to register it. The Third World Congress declared of Eastern Europe in August 1951: “the structural assimilation of these countries to the USSR must be considered as essentially accomplished and these countries as having ceased to be basically capitalist countries”. The nationalization of the means of production, as in the case of the USSR, was a necessary and sufficient condition of the existence of workers’ states:

it is above all by virtue of their economic base, ... characterized by new production and property relations proper to a statified economy, essentially those of the USSR, that we have to consider these states as now being deformed workers’ states.

Unlike the Soviet Union, the product of an authentic socialist revolution that went wrong, and therefore a degenerated workers’ state, the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe had been born deformed. Thus:

It has turned out that the revolutionary action of the masses is not an indispensable condition needed by the bureaucracy to be able to destroy capitalism under exceptional and analogous conditions and in an international atmosphere like that of the “cold war”. (Fourth International 1969a: 54-5)

Since one main consideration involved in drawing this conclusion was the desire to preserve the integrity of Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR, proponents of the move were quick to point out that he had envisaged the possibility that the Stalinist bureaucracy might itself do away with capitalism (see, for example, Hansen 1969: 30-2). After the Soviet-German partition of Poland in September 1939 Trotsky (1973c: 18) predicted that

in the territories scheduled to become a part of the USSR, the Moscow government will carry out through the expropriation of the large landowners and statification of the means of production. This variant is most probable not because the bureaucracy remains true to the socialist programme but because it is neither desirous nor capable of sharing the power, and the privileges the latter entails, with the old ruling classes in the occupied territories.

Trotsky (1973c: 18) compared “[t]his measure, revolutionary in character – ‘the expropriation of the expropriators’,” but “achieved in a military-bureaucratic fashion”, to the abolition of serfdom in Poland by Napoleon’s occupying forces. Socialist revolution apparently could, like bourgeois revolution, be imposed from above. Trotsky (1973c: 19) nevertheless went on to qualify this judgement:

The primary political criterion for us is not the transformation of property relations in this or another area, however important these may be in themselves, but rather the change in the consciousness and organization of the world proletariat, the raising of their capacity for defending former conquests and accomplishing new ones. From this one, and the only decisive standpoint, the politics of Moscow, taken as a whole, completely retains its reactionary character and remains the chief obstacle on the road to world revolution.

This passage highlights the difficulty in which Trotsky’s identification of a workers’ state with a statized economy left his “orthodox” heirs. His objective was the kind of revolution envisaged by Marx and Lenin, and which had occurred, at least briefly, in 1917, in which the working class broke up the old state apparatus and replaced it with one under workers’ direct and democratic control. It was from this perspective that “the consciousness and organization of the world proletariat” was “the only decisive standpoint”, one from which Stalinism was condemned as “reactionary”. But if the Russian bureaucracy could “expropriate the expropriators”, not just in parts of Poland, but throughout Eastern Europe, surely this was of more weight practically to those wishing to get rid of capitalism than the aspiration, perhaps Utopian, towards socialism from below? Trotsky himself tended, in response to criticisms of his analysis of the USSR, to describe the classical Marxist conception of a workers’ state, based on soviet democracy and open competition among parties, as a “norm”, from which the Stalin regime was a deviation produced by particular historical circumstances (see, for example, Trotsky 1976b: 60-71). But Trotsky, a good pupil of Hegel and Marx, also followed them in rejecting the distinction between values and facts (Trotsky et al. 1973). The self-emancipation of the working class might prove to be little more than a norm incapable of realization and therefore politically irrelevant.

It was Pablo who drew the FI in this direction in the early 1950s. The intensification of conflict between the Eastern and Western blocs which reached its climax in the outbreak in 1950 of a limited “hot” war in Korea placed a Third World War firmly on the agenda. Pablo (1974a: 7) argued that this would be “an international civil war”, between world capital and labour, represented respectively by the Western powers and the Stalinist states, “Revolution-War”, “War-Revolution”. This prospect should be welcomed by Trotskyists, since world war would accelerate “the process already initiated of the convulsive transformation of our society which would be abated only with the triumph of socialism” (Pablo 1974a: 9). The fact that the “War-Revolution” could occur under Stalinist leadership should not give the FI pause since

the transformation of capitalist society into socialism ... will probably take an entire historical period of several centuries and will in the meantime be filled with forms and regimes transitional between capitalism and socialism and necessarily deviating from “pure” forms and norms. (Pablo 1974a: 10)

The FI’s sections would be best placed to influence events if they entered the social-democratic and even Communist parties since they could not “be smashed and replaced by others in the relatively short time between now and the decisive conflict” and, moreover, would develop centrist tendencies which will lead for a whole stage of the radicalization of the masses and of the objective revolutionary processes in their respective countries” (Pablo 1974b: 35). Entrism now meant, not the kind of raiding party for members involved in the “French turn” of the mid-1930s (see Section 1.3 above), but what Pablo called “entry sui generis”, a long-term involvement in the mass working-class parties in order to encourage and influence the development of centrist tendencies vacillating between reform and revolution.

At least in its practical conclusions this policy corresponded quite closely to what the British supporters of the IS had been doing for some years. As part of a process which led effectively to the destruction of the RCP and the abandonment of revolutionary politics by some of its ablest leaders, notably Haston, a minority led by Gerry Healy was permitted in 1947, at the insistence of the IS, to organize separately from the RCP majority and to enter the Labour Party. The demoralization and disorientation of the majority as a result of both internal disagreements and the difficulty of sustaining an independent organization in conditions of economic boom and a reforming Labour government, led them to decide two years later to disband the RCP and enter the Labour Party, where they were compelled by the IS to submit to Healy’s authority. Healy, in what proved to be the beginning of a long career as the Witchfinder-General of British Trotskyism, proceeded to purge “the Club” (as the British section was now known), of those of an independent mind, particularly the supporters of such RCP leaders as Cliff and Grant. Meanwhile, Healy and his chief ally, John Lawrence, produced an entrist paper, Socialist Outlook, in collaboration with left-wing Labour Members of Parliament, who could agree that the Cold War was a straightforward conflict between the “progressive bloc” and Western imperialism. (See, on the decline and fall of the RCP, Bornstein and Richardson 1986b: chs.6 and 7.)

Although the SWP leadership had been heavily implicated in the dismemberment of the RCP, and in a similar IS intervention in France which reduced the PCI to a rump led by the loyal Pierre Frank, Pablo’s apparent demotion of the Trotskyist movement to an adjunct of Stalinism was too much for them to swallow. Cannon (1973a: 80) quoted a member of the Chicago branch who asked: “If there are going to be centuries of Stalinism, what’s the sense of my going out and selling ten papers on the street corner?” Like her, Cannon baulked at a logic which seemed to deprive the existence of independent Trotskyist organizations of any point. The American, French, and British sections became bitterly divided by disputes central to which was the issue of “Pabloism”. Finally, in 1953 the IS and the SWP parted company. Cannon, and his British and French allies, led respectively by Healy and by Pierre Lambert, formed the separate International Committee of the Fourth International (IC) in opposition to the IS led by Pablo, Mandel, and Frank. The disintegration of orthodox Trotskyism into rival would-be “Internationals” proved permanent. The SWP and the IS did in fact succeed in organizing a “Reunification Congress” in June 1963, which established the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), but the titles proved hollow. The reconciliation involved the SWP shedding Healy and Lambert. Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL) – later renamed the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) – objected strongly to the claim, made by both the SWP and the IS, that the Cuban Revolution of 1959 had established a new deformed workers’ state. The SLL and Lambert’s Organisation Communiste lnternationaliste (OCI, later PCI) kept the IC going till 1971, when they too quarrelled and formed their own separate groupings. Meanwhile, Pablo had fallen out with Mandel and Frank, who did not see quite as much socialist potential in the Algerian Revolution as he did. The “Reunification Congress” was thus preceded by the departure of Pablo’s sometime ally, the Argentinian Juan Posadas, and followed by his own expulsion. Even the international regroupment achieved by the disposal of Pablo proved to be something of a pyrrhic victory. From the late 1960s the USFI suffered from chronic divisions, above all between a majority based particularly in the European sections and led by Mandel and the American SWP and its supporters.

This process of fragmentation of which the previous paragraph is an incomplete and greatly simplified summary, as is the accompanying diagram (see Fig. 1 [to be added later – MG]) which traces its course in the USA and Britain – should not conceal the fact that the parties to the various disputes shared certain crucial assumptions, in particular the belief that the USSR, China and Eastern Europe had broken with capitalism and begun, albeit in a bureaucratically deformed manner, the transition to socialism. These assumptions give orthodox Trotskyism certain essential features which underlie, and help explain, its infinite sectarian differences. These form the subject of the next chapter.


Last updated on 13.3.2001