Alex Callinicos




3 Orthodoxies

3.1 Uncritical positivism and uncritical idealism

Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 that even Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit contains implicit within in it “the uncritical positivism and the equally uncritical idealism of Hegel’s later works – that philosophic dissolution and restoration of the existing empirical world” (Marx and Engels 1975: 332). The thought is that by making Absolute Spirit, a hypostatization of human mental life, the subject of history Hegel prevents the categories of his dialectic from obtaining any critical purchase on the world. Thought and reality, so abruptly fused in the Absolute, the identical subject-object of both nature and history, fall asunder, so that thought, supposedly omnipotent over reality, in fact (as Wittgenstein put it) leaves everything as it is. An analogous oscillation between “uncritical positivism” and “uncritical idealism” can be seen at work in orthodox Trotskyism.

Orthodox Trotskyism was constituted, as we saw in the previous chapter, by the decision to preserve Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state by extending it to China and Eastern Europe. This move was in fact merely the most important instance of a powerful drive to defend his thought from refutation. Cannon’s denial in November 1945 that the Second World War was over in order to avoid admitting that Trotsky’s prediction that the Stalin regime would not survive the war was an extreme case of the same drive, but there are many other examples of a similar tendency. Thus Mandel in 1951 seized on Pablo’s prediction of a “War-Revolution” that would settle the hash of both Stalinism and capitalism to argue that “[t]he period elapsing between the Second and Third World Wars will appear in history as a temporary interlude, and the prediction of Trotsky that the bureaucracy would not survive a war would find itself historically confirmed” (Germain 1974: 23).

Thus seeking to immunize Trotsky’s theories from refutation carried with it the danger of transforming them into a set of dogmas. All too frequently this danger was realized. The Transitional Programme drafted by Trotsky and adopted at the First Congress of the FI in 1938 became an especial object of veneration. This document was thus named because it contained a set of “transitional demands” – for example, the indexation of wages to prices (“the sliding scale of wages”). These were intended to bridge the old division in the Second International before 1914 between the minimum programme of limited reforms attainable within a capitalist context and the maximum programme whose implementation would require the establishment of worker’s power. Trotsky argued that the economic crisis was so acute that the struggle for even the most modest improvement in working-class conditions would come into conflict with the capitalist system itself. By agitating for transitional demands the FI would draw around it workers who would discover in the course of their efforts to realize these demands the limitations of reformism. Thus Trotsky described the transitional demands as “stemming from today’s conditions and today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat” (Reisner 1973: 183). The idea was not a new one – Lenin’s slogan “Bread, Land, and Peace” is probably the best example of a transitional demand – and the early Comintern sought to make it the basis of the Communist parties’ daily agitation. Trotsky does not seem to have been especially strongly committed to the particular demands contained in the Transitional Programme, and stressed the importance of being able “to put forward at the right moment sharp, specific, fighting slogans that by themselves don”t derive from the ‘programme’ but are dictated by the circumstances of the day and lead the masses forward” (Trotsky 1973e: 143). This warning was generally ignored by orthodox Trotskyists, who tended rather to treat the detailed demands outlined in the Transitional Programme as unalterable. This went along with a propensity to make a fetish of the idea of “The Programme” itself: its presence or absence was treated as the decisive factor determining whether or not a particular movement would realize the revolutionary potential attributed to it. Typically involved in these attitudes was a refusal to contemplate the possibility that Trotsky was mistaken in assuming that future capitalist economic expansion was ruled out. This bred an economic catastrophism of which Healy and his followers provide the classic case. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s they ignored the abundant evidence of a world-wide boom to announce an imminent, and drastic slump. For the Healyite WRP the actual onset of global recession in the early 1970s was greeted with a fervour almost comparable to that of a Christian fundamentalist in the face of the Second Coming.

It is perhaps appropriate here to consider why it was that the Trotskyist movement should so often have displayed the characteristics of religious sectaries. One could plausibly argue that it is generally true of radical movements in adverse circumstances that they dissolve into disputatious fragments. Christopher Hill has, for example, traced the complex process through which English revolutionaries sought to cope with the rule of Cromwell’s major-generals and the Restoration – internal disintegration (the Fifth Monarchists), accommodation (the Harringtonians), retreat into political quietism (the Quakers) or into art (Milton) (Hill 1984). Certainly we can see many analogies with what happened to the Trotskyist movement from the 1940s onwards. Furthermore, the inability to influence events is itself likely to encourage splits: since there is no way of settling differences in analysis or policy by practical tests, why not break away? By transforming the theoretical basis of the movement into a set of irrefutable dogmas orthodox Trotskyism strengthened this temptation. Each distinct current sought to establish itself as the sole authentic interpreter of the tradition’s founding texts. Orthodox Trotskyism was further disabled by the idea of the Fourth International itself. Its predecessor and model, the Comintern, had been based on the Bolsheviks’ ability, as the leaders of a successful revolution, to rally a substantial portion of the Western labour movement to the new International. The Comintern was thus a mass organization, at whose first three congresses (1919-21) at least the views of its predominantly Russian leadership were challenged and criticized in the light of the experience of the Communist parties’ attempts, sometimes successful, to influence the huge social conflicts of the time (Hallas 1985). The pretensions of a political current numbering a few thousands to be such an International had a crippling effect on the Trotskyist movement, in particular encouraging delusions of grandeur in the “unknown men” who took charge of the IS in the mid-1940s as the leaders of the “World Party of the Socialist Revolution”. The attempt to follow events in many countries, integrating them into a global perspective and offering detailed tactical advice to local groups, was something which Trotsky could more or less pull off, though at a price, but, continued by his epigoni, it invited the disasters which actually occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The result was the absurdity of a plethora of groupings, usually with a few hundred members apiece, each claiming either to be, or to be engaged in the “reconstruction” of, the Fourth International. Hardly more inviting was the alternative pursued by the USFI after 1963 of seeking to prevent further splits while hanging on to the fiction of the Fourth International by endless compromises which sought to hold together political tendencies (respectively the supporters of Mandel and of the American SWP) which often seemed to have little left in common.

One consequence of making a theory immune to refutation is that, as Popper (1969: ch.1) pointed out, it is then consistent with any set of observations. The obverse of a dogmatism so rigid as to ignore any contradictory evidence is a flexibility so supple that it can incorporate everything into its framework, at the price of explaining nothing. Ernest Mandel is probably the best example of this tendency within orthodox Trotskyism. A brilliant and prolific writer and orator, especially skilled in debate, Mandel has, by the scope and erudition of his major economic treatises – Marxist Economic Theory, Late Capitalism, The Second Slump – lent a much needed prestige to the USFI, whose main leader he has been for the past quarter-century. There is in fact an organic connection between Mandel’s conception of scientific method, as elaborated and applied in his economic writings, and his defence of Trotskyist orthodoxy. In Late Capitalism, his main attempt to account for the long post-war boom and its subsequent collapse into crisis at the end of the 1960s, Mandel rejects a “monocausal” theory of the evolution of capitalism. On the contrary,

up to a certain point all the basic variables of this mode of production can partially and periodically perform the role of autonomous variables – naturally not to the point of complete independence but in an interplay constantly articulated through the laws of development of the whole capitalist mode of production. (Mandel 1975: 39)

He lists six such variables – the organic composition of capital; the distribution of constant capital between fixed and circulating capital; the rate of surplus-value; the rate of accumulation; the turnover time of capital; and the relationship between Departments I and II, the sectors producing capital and wage goods, respectively – and much of the book is devoted to exploring the way in which these variables shaped the post-war world economy.

The difficulty, particularly from the point of view of Marxism’s aspiration to be a theory of the social totality, is that Mandel provides no general account of the relative importance of the variables. This does not seem consistent with Marx’s (1973: 101) own “method of rising from the abstract to the concrete”, which treats certain features of the economy as more fundamental than others, and it is indeed remarkably close to the “theory of self-contained factors” vigorously denounced by Trotsky (for example, 1981: 389ff.). Substantively, Mandel’s stress on multiple causality leads at times to a syncretism perhaps most evident in his unsuccessful attempt to integrate the idea of long waves of economic development (most fully formulated by Kondratiev) with Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (see Harman 1978). One advantage, however, of this preference for pluricausal explanation is that apparent refutations can be dealt with through the discovery of some additional, hitherto ignored, factor. Mandel applies all the subtle skills of a medieval schoolman to distinguishing relevant factors – for example, identifying no less than five distinct wars within the Second World War (Mandel 1986: 45). The effect is to deprive social theory of the interaction with potentially disconfirming observations. Thus, Mandel (1979b: 171) argues that Trotsky was mistaken in his “short-term predictions” rather than in “his understanding of the grand lines of development of our century”. Stalinism and capitalism did go into crisis, albeit in the 1960s and 1970s rather than at the end of the Second World War. It is as if Trotsky’s theory were a film which, when first shown, was run too fast. Slowed down to the proper speed, the film is fine. This hardly accords with the urgency of Trotsky’s predictions, his insistence on the temporary and parasitic character of the Stalin regime, his claim that if the war did not issue in revolution Marxism itself would stand refuted. A theory thus denied any friction with experience is likely, not to anticipate events, but always to lag behind them, preserving its integrity at the price of the loss of any explanatory power.


Last updated on 13.3.2001