Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Notes on In Defence of Marxism

Trotsky mural

Trotsky's writings collected in In Defence of Marxism showed that the degeneration of the Fourth International [FI] was already well under way in the late 30s before his assassination in 1940. Trotsky had to fight against the petty bourgeois opposition which refused to regard a state ruled by Stalin as a degenerated workers state. Underlying this fight was the capitulation of the opposition to US social chauvinism in the labour aristocracy. But even more telling, this capitulation resulted from the abandonment of dialectics or what Trotsky called the ‘Crisis of Marxism’. The FI did not have the social base in the working class nor the leadership cadre capable of sustaining a true internationalism in the face of imperialist war. Thus, already at the time of Trotsky’s death, the leading section, the Socialist Workers' Party [SWP] in the heart of the leading imperialist country, the USA, was set on a course of self-destruction. 

Social chauvinism however, was not confined to the US section. Vietnam showed already during the 30s that the FI French section in Vietnam was opportunist towards the Stalinists after the popular front period began in 1936. Conversely the ICL group in Vietnam was sectarian. Thus even before the war and Trotsky’s death the roots of the FI were already degenerating.

During the war the tiny FI split into opportunist and sectarian wings under the pressure of Stalinism. The US section buckled in the face of fascism and defended US ‘democratic’ imperialism. Trotskyism in Europe and in the colonies split along the same lines. This in itself was hardly surprising as the Stalinist parties had to impose ruthless discipline, including assassinations to keep its own ranks from rebelling against its popular fronts propping up the imperialist regimes in pressing revolutionary uprisings.

During the war the imperialist powers used the Stalinist popular front to good effect to behead and destroy working class revolutions in Europe and the colonies. Trotsky’s prognosis that the war would see workers rally behind the FI so that either the imperialists would be defeated along with Stalinism by the socialist revolution, or, that imperialism would win and create a new situation of global barbarism not yet foreseen, was proven wrong. Imperialism survived thanks to the Stalinists. This disoriented the FI. Some like Cannon of the US SWP believed that the war was continuing, while others like Pablo believed that Stalinism was a historically progressive force in the defeat of fascism. Of course had Trotsky survived the war he would certainly have recognised reality and rallied the FI to fight its degeneration and liquidation into reformism.

Weakened by the wartime struggles, the FI failed to recognise or correct the material causes of these weaknesses. Trotsky had made the exposure of the causes of these flaws his main task before his death. At their roots, so Trotsky said, was the failure of the FI to embed itself in the working class (including the colonial and semi-colonial working class) so that it could not function as a truly revolutionary Marxist international party.

A world party of revolution would have to draw on the experience of the struggles in every part of the world; imperialist, semi-colonial and in the degenerated workers states. This would allow the experience of objective reality of these struggles to interact with the subjective experience of the party so that it could correct any errors in its program. For Trotsky, unless the objective and subjective realities were united in the democratic centralist party there could be no application of dialectics. There was no unity of theory and practice.

Without this global grounding in the proletarian and peasant struggles the party would be sucked into the petty bourgeois milieu of the big cities in the imperialist countries. This would result in the over-representation of the petty-bourgeois in the composition of the party in the imperialist sections and huge pressures to capitulate to social chauvinism and Stalinism.

This was the twin crisis of leadership and of Marxism that Trotsky warned of before his death. The crisis of leadership was the failure to build a healthy world party of revolution. The crisis of Marxism naturally flowed from that as Marxism would cease to be a living Marxism and become bogged down in dogma.

Thus the key to understanding the significance of the twin crisis is that any failure of a leadership (and party) to be able to apply the dialectical method in relation to objective and subjective reality must lead to failure and defeat. No wonder Trotsky called Schachtman’s rejection of dialectics a “betrayal of Marxism”.

But without Trotsky the FI leadership succumbed to national chauvinism. The majority ultraleft line taken by the US SWP put the US working class, the most privileged labor aristocracy in the world, at the head of the fight in the ongoing world class war. Trotsky had called the US working class the most backward in the world because its class consciousness was held back by the labour aristocracy living off colonial super-profits. Yet Cannon thought it the most advanced proletariat and the leader of the world revolution.

The majority opportunist line in post-war Europe adapted to not only the survival but victory of Stalinism and liquidated the FI into Stalinism. It called Tito an “unconscious Trotskyist” and saw the expansion of the Soviet Union into Eastern Europe where it smashed workers uprisings as creating ‘deformed’ workers states that could be ‘reformed’ by bourgeois parliaments.

Neither the US or European sections based in the biggest imperialist powers took any notice of the mass Trotskyist sections in the colonies of Asia and semi-colonies of Latin America. In Ceylon, India and Indo-China where were mass Trotskyist sections which had fought bloody wars against the colonial powers aided by the Stalinists who eliminated the Trotskyist leaderships. The lessons of this physical ‘liquidation’ at the hands of the Stalinists would have corrected the ‘ideological’ liquidation of imperial-centric Trotskyism.

Nor after the war was there was there any attempt to draw on the experience of the colonial and semi-colonial Trotskyists to produce an honest balance sheet of the wartime defeats and capitulations. We won’t call these ‘betrayals’ since it was clear that the FI lacked the capacity to prevent defeats and capitulations. But we can conclude that the history of Trotskyism since 1946 was one of almost universal liquidation making the crisis of leadership and of Marxism extreme.


So Trotsky was absolutely correct to spell out in In Defence of Marxism the real problem underlying the ‘Russian Question’. It was the rejection of dialectics which had its material roots in the petty bourgeois composition of the FI leadership in Europe and the US. Dialectics in relation to the defence of the USSR meant understanding that workers property must be defended from capitalist restoration despite the Stalinists. Dialectics explained that the workers states had degenerated so that a parasitic bureaucracy took control of workers property in much the same way as the labour bureaucracy controls the unions in the capitalist countries. Therefore the bureaucracy was a caste inside the working class and not a class antagonistic to workers property unless it was able to defeat workers and restore capitalist social relations. Therefore the working class had to make a political revolution to remove the bureaucracy and restore workers control over it's class property.

Trotsky warned that the petty bourgeois leadership was exposed to the pressure of the social chauvinist labour aristocracy in the lead up to war and during wars. The FI had to confront and counter this. When Trotsky suggested that the SWP call for a vote for the CPUSA in 1939 the SWP leadership refused. Yet when the war began and the SWP leaders were arrested Cannon publicly said that fascism and not the US ruling class was the main enemy of US workers. So the SWP capitulated to the social chauvinism of the labour aristocracy during the war, and after the war refused to recognise it as a backward element in the world working class. In the American Theses Cannon said that the US labour aristocracy was the most advanced in the world and has not prevented the more oppressed layers of the working class from moving upward into the labour aristocracy.

The split in the FI before and during the war was to become congealed as a split between those who revised the bureaucracy from caste to class exploiting the workers in the SU and the other ‘Stalinist states’, and those who revised the character of the bureaucracy as parasitic on workers property, to defenders of workers property. But in both cases these one-sided apparently opposite positions, had a common unity. The subjectivity of the working class (the revolutionary party) was replaced by an objective process of revolution. This subordination of the subjective agency of the proletariat to the objective process of history has a name. It’s called Menshevism.

All currents in the post-war FI liquidated the party of the proletariat into the petty bourgeoisie in the form of one, the social democratic parties of the US and European labour aristocracies; two, the ‘anti-imperialist’ leaders of the colonies and semi-colonies; and third, the Stalinist leaders in the degenerate workers states.

Petty bourgeois parties while masquerading as the champions of the working people, all serve the interests of the ruling class since they are bought and paid for by the imperialist bourgeoisies.

In a future issue of Class Struggle we will look at each in turn.

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