Alex Callinicos




3 Orthodoxies

3.2 The big battalions

The paradox of orthodox Trotskyism is that, by seeking to preserve the letter of Trotsky’s theory, it deprived the latter of much of its substance. This is clearest politically with respect to the agency of socialist revolution. Trotsky, in line with his general commitment to classical Marxism, conceived socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. But if the Eastern European countries were deformed workers’ states, then forces other than the proletariat could carry through socialist revolution. Trotsky (n.d.: 56) had, in his polemic against Lenin’s conception of the party after the 1903 Congress, identified the danger of “substitutionism”: “The group of ‘professional revolutionaries’ was not marching at the head of the conscious proletariat, it was acting in ... in place of the proletariat.” Trotsky later accepted Leninism as consistent with proletarian self-emancipation, but, in their disarray after 1945, many of his followers were drawn towards substitutionism – not that they were in any position to supplant the working class, but they attached their hopes to forces acting in its name.

Pablo’s policy of long-term “entry sui generis” into the Communist parties (see Section 2.2 above) was one example of this tendency. But the greatest temptation came in the case of those revolutions, in what we now call the “Third World”, where Stalinist movements led peasant armies to victory around a programme of national rather than social liberation – Yugoslavia, China, Cuba and Vietnam. On the face of it, these upheavals might be thought to count as a refutation of the theory of permanent revolution, according to which backward countries can only defeat imperialism where the working class assumes leadership of the national struggle and breaks with capitalism (see Section 1.1 above). The response of the FI leadership was rather to assert the contrary. Thus the Third World Congress declared in 1951: “The dynamics of the Yugoslav revolution confirms the theory of the permanent revolution on all points” (Fourth International 1969b: 57). Just because this and later such revolutions had secured national independence and carried extensive land reforms or nationalizations, they must have been carried out under the leadership of the working class. The alternative – that the theory of permanent revolution was false or at least required modification – was simply too much even to consider. Other inconvenient developments – the relatively peaceful disintegration of the European colonial empires and the transformation of some Third World states into newly industrializing countries – were disposed of by asserting that these changes failed to meet Trotsky’s insistence that “the complete and genuine solution (not the beginning of a solution) of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution” could he achieved only by the proletarian overthrow of capitalism (Mandel 1979b: 73; see also Lowy 1981; Callinicos 1982b).

Characterizing the great post-war Third World revolutions as socialist might preserve Trotskyist orthodoxy, but at the price of introducing new difficulties. For one thing, as Michael Lowy (1981: 214) acknowledges, in all these cases “not only was the proletariat not directly the social agent of revolution, but the revolutionary party was not the direct, organic expression of the proletariat”. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese, Chinese and Cuban Communist parties “were the political and programmatic expression of the proletariat by virtue of their adherence to the historic interests of the working class” and the fact that their “ideologies were proletarian” (Lowy 1981: 214-15). So a movement can be proletarian even if it contains very few workers among its members and has no involvement in the everyday life and struggles of the proletariat. The scope thus offered for substitutionism is clear enough, particularly when we recall that the “proletarian ideologies” of these movements were variants of the Stalinist “Marxism-Leninism” which Trotsky so unremittingly attacked as vulgarized and debased distortions of the revolutionary socialist tradition. This entire line of reasoning irresistibly calls to mind Brecht’s famous poem after the 1953 Berlin rising, in which he suggests that the East German government should dissolve the people and elect another one in its place.

But even granted the proletarian character of the Yugoslav, Chinese and Vietnamese Communist parties, and (even more dubiously) of the 26 July Movement in Cuba, which only espoused Marxism-Leninism after the 1959 Revolution, there remained another more fundamental problem: how could Stalinism, dubbed by Trotsky counter-revolutionary on a world scale, overthrow capitalism in these instances? The answer was simplicity itself: these movements were not Stalinist after all. As Mandel (1983: 54) put it:

The dictatorship of the proletariat was established in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, and Cuba by pragmatic revolutionary leaderships that had a revolutionary practice but a theory and programme that was adequate neither to their own revolution, nor especially to the world revolution.

Neither Stalinists nor “revolutionary Marxists”, Tito, Mao, Ho and Castro – were “left centrists”, whose “lack of a correct programme” had “negative practical consequences”; nevertheless, “[t]he fact that they carried out a socialist revolution ... is infinitely more important than their lack of an adequate theory” (Mandel 1983: 54).

“Centrism” is the name given by Lenin and Trotsky to those socialist currents characterized by their vacillation between reform and revolution, the classic instances being Karl Kautsky and the Austro-Marxists. How then could “left centrists” carry through socialist revolutions in parts of the Third World? Answers to this question tend to lay great stress on objective circumstances, what Lowy (1981: 158) calls “the logic of the revolutionary process itself”. Thus Pierre Rousset (1975) argues that a combination of socioeconomic pressures and national tradition (notably Confucianism) allowed the Vietnamese Communists to break “empirically” with Stalinism and carry through the anti-colonial revolution to its finish. No doubt such factors must be taken into account in any explanation of the Vietnamese Revolution, but these hardly encourage one to describe it as a socialist revolution, at least from the standpoint of classical Marxism, which places such a strong stress on the self-conscious character of such transformations. History instead operates according to Hegel’s ruse of reason, bringing about socialist revolutions whose agents are largely unaware of what they are doing. In Trotsky’s (1976a: 349) own words, “the permanent character of the revolution thus becomes a law placing itself above history, independent of the policy of the leadership and of the material development of revolutionary events”.

In any case, if “pragmatic revolutionary leaderships” can get rid of capitalism in large parts of the Third World, what is the point of the Fourth International? In some variant or another, this difficulty had been around since the late 1940s but was rendered more acute by the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979. The American SWP greeted this event, along with the Cuban Revolution and the coup which, also in 1979, placed the ill-fated regime of Maurice Bishop in power in Grenada, as “the re-emergence of proletarian revolutionists in power – for the first time since the Stalinist-led bureaucracy put an end to such leadership in the Soviet Union and expunged proletarian internationalism from the Communist International more than half a century ago” (Barnes 1983: 10). The appearance of this “revolutionary Marxist current, ... living and struggling to extend the socialist revolution today” (Barnes 1980: 30) conjures up the prospect of “a worldwide political convergence of forces which might unite the Cuban Communist Party, the Sandinistas and the USFI in “a mass, communist International” (Barnes 1983: 77). Moreover, American SWP leader Jack Barnes (1983: 69) argues, Trotskyism is itself an obstacle to this “convergence”, since “probably 80 per cent of those on a world scale who present themselves as Trotskyists ... are irreformable sectarians”. The roots of this sectarianism are to be found in Trotsky himself, since the theory of permanent revolution rules out the possibility of the establishment of “workers’ and farmers’ governments”, representing “a stage in the class struggle where capitalist property relations have not yet been abolished, but workers and farmers have conquered political power through a genuine revolution” (Barnes 1983: 35). The Cuban, Nicaraguan and Grenadan Revolutions all passed through such a stage preliminary to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a change involving primarily the nationalization of the means of production, which occurred only in Cuba.

These arguments represented the most dramatic example of the drift to Stalinism which had been a constant temptation for orthodox Trotskyists since the late 1940s. The idea of “workers’ and farmers’ governments” in particular was strikingly reminiscent of Lenin’s old formula of the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” which Trotsky had so forcefully criticized after the 1905 Revolution and then again in the debates of the 1920s (see Section 1.1 above). The American SWP, indeed, swiftly developed a style of political analysis strongly reminiscent of Pablo’s division of the world into “progressive” Eastern and reactionary Western blocs in the early 1950s (see Section 2.2 above). This whole change of direction was strongly resisted by Mandel and his supporters within the USFI (see, for example, Mandel 1983). But these efforts could not conceal the fact that the American SWP under Barnes had simply drawn the consequences of orthodox Trotskyism. Both sides were agreed that proletarian revolutions had occurred without the proletariat taking any active part. It mattered little whether the makers of these revolutions were called “revolutionary Marxists” or “pragmatic revolutionaries” or even “Stalinists”. If they could achieve socialism from above, without workers’ councils taking power, then Trotskyism had lost its raison d’ étre. Not even all Mandel’s formidable forensic skills could conceal this simple fact (Callinicos 1984).

Orthodox Trotskyists outside the USFI have attempted similar balancing acts to Mandel’s, with equal lack of success. When the British RCP anticipated the FI’s development by declaring the Eastern European “buffer zone” workers’ states in 1947–8 (see Section 2.2 above), Ted Grant had formulated the concept of “proletarian Bonapartism”. This was an interesting example of what Lakatos (1976: 20ff., 83ff., 93ff.) called concept-stretching”, where a theory is defended from refutation by the extension of its concepts to cover apparently aberrant cases. Marx had coined the term “Bonapartism” to describe regimes where the state, while not controlled by the bourgeoisie, acted in the latter’s class interests (Draper 1977: Bk II). Grant (1989: 231), following but developing formulations of Trotsky’s, extended the concept from capitalist to workers’ states, and advanced the general proposition that “[f]or quite a lengthy period, there can be a conflict between the state and the class which that state represents”. “Stalinism”, Grant (1989: 302) argued, “is a form of Bonapartism that bases itself in the institution of state ownership, but it is different from the norm of a workers’ state as fascism or bourgeois Bonapartism differs from the norm of bourgeois democracy”. On this basis, Grant (1989: 350) was more generous than the USFI about the successes of “proletarian Bonapartism” in the Third World, in 1978 describing China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Syria, Angola, Mozambique, Aden, Benin, and Ethiopia as deformed workers’ states. Although criticized by other orthodox Trotskyists, the list reflected Grant’s relatively consistent. use of statization of the economy as the criterion of the existence of a workers’ state. He resisted, however, the temptation to welcome the makers of these revolutions into the Trotskyist camp – for example, in 1949 attacking the IS’s treatment of Tito as “an unconscious Trotskyist” (Grant 1989: 298). The pressure towards substitutionism nevertheless found political expression. Having joined the Labour Party with the rest of the RCP majority in 1949, Grant became the principal figure of the Militant Tendency, which emerged as the strongest organized left grouping inside the Labour Party at the end of the 1970s. Practising a far more long-term version of entrism than anything envisaged by Trotsky, Militant supporters expected catastrophic economic crisis to radicalize the Labour Party and provide mass support for a left government which would effect “[a]n entirely peaceful transformation of society” by means of large-scale nationalization authorized by Parliament through an Enabling Act (Taaffe 1986: 25 and passim). On this scenario, a transformed social democracy would play the kind of role which other orthodox Trotskyists thought some versions of Stalinism would perform (McGregor 1986).


Last updated on 13.3.2001