Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 24, 2020

Thoughts triggered by the 80th anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s assassination

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

This week a number of links to tributes to Leon Trotsky showed up on my Facebook timeline. Most came from groups still dreaming about the possibility of a new Trotskyist international. They were occasioned by the eightieth anniversary of his assassination on August 21, 2020.

In a New Politics article inspired by the anniversary, Dan La Botz posed the question “On the 80th Anniversary of Trotsky’s Assassination—What If He Had Lived?” Since Dan has just published a novel “Trotsky in Tijuana” was his “attempt to understand Trotsky the man and the political leader by projecting his life into a future he did not live to see.” These are the sorts of questions La Botz said he grappled with in the novel:

In my novel, I ask more particular questions both political and personal: What would have become of Trotsky if he had survived and lived in Tijuana for the next thirteen years? How would he have analyzed the Second World War and how would he have explained the Soviet Union’s victory over Hitler’s Germany? What would he have thought of the expansion of the Communist system to Eastern Europe? Seeing the stress he was under, might his wife Natalia have sought a Freudian, Reichian psychoanalyst to work with him? Might Trotsky have had another love affair like his earlier affair with the artist Frida Kahlo? What would have happened to his project, the creation of a Fourth International and its fractious national sections and strong-willed leaders? How would he deal with aging?

I never thought much about these questions before, partly because “alternate history” type fiction along the lines of “If Hitler Had Won WWII” don’t interest me that much. I passed on Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”, which imagines a world in which a victorious Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan rule the world. My focus is exclusively on the past and the present. My only concern about the future is whether we will make it to the year 3,000 given the insanity of the capitalist system in what Trotsky accurately described as the “death agony of capitalism”, the original title of The Transitional Program.

If Trotsky had trouble enough in trying to get a Fourth International off the ground in the thirties, he would have had even bigger problems in the forties and fifties, if he lived that long. Soviet Russia came out the war cloaked in glory after having been instrumental in defeating the German war-machine. For an embattled and isolated Trotskyist movement, hopes tend to be pinned on some cataclysmic event that will push the masses in the direction of a group, no matter how small, that has the “correct” analysis and strategy.

That kind of apocalyptic mentality existed in every Trotskyist group, even in the Socialist Workers Party that had a more secure mooring in reality than others that had less contact with the “Old Man”.

In 1943 and 1944 the world Trotskyist movement expected the end of WWII to usher in the same types of revolutionary cataclysms as WWI. The International Resolution under consideration by the FI stated categorically that the allies would impose military dictatorships. It considered American capitalism to have begun an “absolute decline” in 1929. This decadent system said the resolution “has no programme for Europe other than its further dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets”.

The choice for the worker’s movement was stark. Unless they made socialist revolutions, they would face “savage dictatorship of the capitalists consequent upon the victory of the counter-revolution.” The workers would rise to the task since it was “in a revolutionary mood” continent-wide.

This analysis of the world situation was strongly influenced by Trotsky’s conceptions from the start of the second world war which were of a “catastrophist nature”. He could not anticipate any new upturn in the world capitalist economy based on Keynesianism and arms spending. Trotsky’s catastrophism can be traced back to the early days of the Comintern. I recommend Nicos Poulantzas’s “Fascism and the Third International” as a critique of this tendency in the early Communist movement. No Bolshevik leader was immune from this tendency to see capitalism as being in its death throes. Stalin and Zinoviev incorporated this thinking into their “third period” strategy. Stalin eventually lurched back and adopted a right-opportunist policy. What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early 1920s Comintern.

This ultraleftism stared Felix Morrow in the face, who like a small boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes, ventured to state that American imperialism might not have been on its last legs in 1945. He argued forcefully that the most likely outcome of allied victory was an extended period of bourgeois democracy and not capitalist dictatorship. Therefore it is necessary for revolutionists, Morrow advised, to be sensitive to democratic demands:

…if one recognizes the probability of a slower tempo for the development of the European revolution, and in it a period of bourgeois-democratic regimes — unstable, short-lived, but existing nevertheless for a period — then the importance of the role of democratic and transitional demands becomes obvious. For the revolutionary answer to bourgeois democracy is the first instance more democracy — the demand for real democracy as against the pseudo-democracy of the bourgeoisie. For bourgeois-democracy can exist only thanks to the democratic illusions of the masses; and those can be dispelled first of all only by mobilizing the masses for the democracy they want and need.

One of the main areas of contention between Morrow and the leaders of the FI was how these differences in policy would play out against the background of German politics. The SWP was convinced that the German working-class would lead the rest of Europe in the fight for socialism. A document states that “the German revolution constitutes the essential base of the European revolution, that it alone can provide the indispensable, genuinely harmonious political and economic organization for the Socialist United States of Europe.”

Morrow disagreed completely with these projections. He stated that the document contains not “a single reference to the fact that the German proletariat would begin its life after Nazi defeat under military occupation and without a revolutionary party.”

What was the source of these false projections? “To put it bluntly: all the phrases in its prediction about the German revolution — that the proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers’ committees, workers’ and peasants’ soviets, etc. — were copied down once again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority.” Evidently dogmatism is not a recent trend in the Trotskyist movement.

Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One of the charges against him made by Pierre Frank contained an interesting thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he said:

The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe, then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation, for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead. From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage. If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its work to these new conditions — conditions for a while of slow painful growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc.

Frank’s fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it returned to its “catastrophist” roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly every year or so for the last 45.

The “catastrophism” of the Trotskyist movement is built into the manifesto that created it, the Transitional Program. This is the political legacy of Trotsky’s uncritical acceptance of the perfect wisdom of the early Comintern. How could it be otherwise, since at that time Trotsky itself was one of the key leaders. He made it his business to straighten out any wayward Communists, like the French, who stepped out of line. The organizational legacy of the Trotskyist movement is in Zinoviev’s schematic “Marxist-Leninist” model. The ultraleftism of the political roots and the sectarianism of the organizational roots make for a powerful inhibition to growth. As we struggle to create new political and organizational paradigms, it will be important to shed ourselves of such counterproductive models.


  1. I think there is much truth in what you have written, comrade. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, conditions will work towards creating a mass, left/progressive/labor party in this country. With any luck it will be democratic, multi-tendency and able to “agree to disagree” and still work together on important issues of common estimate.

    Comment by Kurt T Hill — August 24, 2020 @ 7:48 pm

  2. As much as I, like many, are suckers for the hegemony, argument I’m tired of holding off from pulling the trigger.Endless discussion, interim arrangements, untied fronts with class traitors, reinforcing all the bullshit in working peoples heads. Tell me when does it end?

    Comment by Arthur Birnbaum — August 24, 2020 @ 9:59 pm

  3. I had a chance to read through these documents around 12 years ago. I was and remained convinced that Morrow, et al, were correct, mostly. Ted Grant, as it happened, also had a similar analysis, about the only one in Europe who disagreed with the consensus. I think it is well argued essay.

    Comment by David Walters — August 24, 2020 @ 11:03 pm

  4. This is a brilliant piece of work knitting together a critique of a certain tendency within Trotskyism. I hate the word ultra-left ever since it was used ruthlessly against me in the 70s by the followers of Barnes. But older and wiser (I hope) I now tend to hold on to Trotsky’s statement that three revolutions had taught him patience. A revolutionary upheaval will come of that I am certain but where and with what outcome I do not have a clue and neither does anyone else.

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — August 25, 2020 @ 12:36 am

  5. Hindsight is 20/20 of course. But overall you’re correct. The question is what to once we realize the situation. The left communists and Rosa Luxemburg were right about every criticism they laid against Lenin and the old man. Where did it get them? Shot, killed, arrested, forgotten. The Grant route of dissolving into an “militant” supporters wing of a non-proletarian party is certainly not the right answer either.

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — August 25, 2020 @ 4:30 am

  6. It’s interesting that Shactman and his Workers Party / ISL seemed, as I recall, to have a more accurate notion of what was occurring with, among other things, their idea of the permanent war economy.

    The group that eventually became the IS preserved this non-apocalyptic view of the working class. We began our entry into the working class as the tide of working class militancy was rising, in the mid-60s.

    By the time of our national convention in 1976, it was obvious that this tide was receding as the contract fight in the Teamsters Union the year before had succeeded in building a strong rank-and-file contract fightback and a caucus, TDU, that exists to this day. However, the subsequent fight over the UAW contract, was nowhere near as successful, and the r&f caucus that was formed did not survive.

    I would also point out that the militant Black caucuses formed in the labor movement were also gone by the mid-70s.

    And was exactly at this point that the SWP began its move into the working class.

    Comment by davidberger6799 — August 25, 2020 @ 7:10 am

  7. “What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early 1920s Comintern.”

    You seem to have confused Trotsky with Amadeo Bordiga.

    The Comintern’s 21 conditions established the basis for its organisational independence from the 2nd International.
    But, as Trotsky wrote after its 3rd Congress in 1921:-
    “…victory can be gained only by the skilled conduct of battles and, above all, by first conquering the majority of the working class.”

    For this reason, 3 delegates from the Italian Socialist party were seated at the Congress, despite its rejection of the “21 Conditions”

    Trotsky also defended a United Front policy towards French Socialist party in 1922, warning that workers who were absorbed in their struggle for a piece of daily bread or meat, wouldn’t understand the splits between working class organisations.


    Trotsky also suggested that his US supporters should join the Socialist party., in which they set up the ‘Appeal’ Group
    This “didn’t involve liquidation (neither did Ted Grant’s in the UK Labour party) – they were both expelled.
    Broad mass parties are usually even more ‘liquidationist’ than entryists (e.g. the PT in Brazil)

    Felix Morrow was correct in his critique of the European Secretariat of the F.I. after WW2.

    As Morrow succinctly put it
    “Real democracy is unattainable under capitalism. Precisely for that reason we ask the workers to fight for it.”

    Had Trotsky survived, he would almost certainly have agreed with Morrow’s analysis and opposed his expulsion from the SWP.
    This might have stopped Morrow from joining up with Shachtman on the rebound, thereby halting his trajectory towards political oblivion.
    Unfortunately, he didn’t…

    Comment by prianikoff — August 25, 2020 @ 12:35 pm

  8. Since neither Trotsky nor Grant were ultimately successful, it’s all moot anyway. Now what?

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — August 25, 2020 @ 1:32 pm

  9. One big problem with Trotsky is that he tended to view everything through the prism of Petrograd 1917 and the early Soviet regime and the early Comintern. This was recognised in the 1930s as a problem by August Thalheimer and his comrades in the German Communist Opposition. That Russia was very much an exceptional case and that sanctifying the experience through the Comintern, making the Soviet Communist Party an obligatory model — and this was the Soviet party as it was in 1920 and not 1917, that is, a militarised organisation that ruled through a political monopoly — did not help those wishing to seize power in advanced capitalist countries, where conditions were very different to Russia in 1917. The Fourth International adopted this viewpoint, and carried on with it after Trotsky’s death, and many Trotskyists still maintain it today. Trotsky’s analysis of the degeneration of the Soviet Union was the best one available and is still valuable today; but his insistence on the universal application of the Soviet experience was faulty during his time, and an anti-capitalist movement today needs to elaborate a strategy and tactics applicable to today’s world.

    Comment by Dr Paul — August 29, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

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