Thursday, June 6, 2019

Conference on Trotsky: Interview Part II

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This is the second part of an interview I conducted with the organizer of the First Academic Conference on Trotsky in Cuba, Frank García Hernández.

Links to part I of my Interview and the Spanish language versions are below.



A.S.     What difficulties and obstacles did you run into in arranging for the Conference?

F.G.H.  The Germans say that the realization of every enterprise involves 80% planning and 20% execution. The difficulties, which were many, occurred mainly in that 80%. The planning was affected, to a large extent, by the prejudices that still exist in Cuba about Trotsky. This caused some decision-makers to have a certain negative predisposition and therefore at the beginning it was very difficult to organize. But then, little by little, the preparation began to move forward, much more so when the colleagues from the Institute of Philosophy endorsed the project. And the other big problem we faced was the economic issue that, in essence, was saved by the alliance made by the Cuban Institute of Cultural Research Juan Marinello and the Institute of Philosophy. Later, in practice, other problems arose, some unexpected, others anticipated. But that is normal.

A.S.   How would you judge the success or failure of the Conference.   (I thought it was a great success despite some problem we had like not enough time for all the participants.)

F.G.H.   We made a big mistake: underestimating the problems. Until the last moment, there were participants who changed the name of their presentation; hence, the first day we did not have a printed program. As a result of our over-confidence and also as a result of financial difficulties, the panels were over-subscribed. I tried to accept all the proposals that were sent. I did not want to put a brake on information coming to Cuba. I had already gone through the bad experience of having to reject a large number of applications from foreign countries: 192 requests from around the world. It was ether that audience or the Cuban public. It was either the audience of specialists or the public. We did not have room for both.   If we had better financing - which was not possible as we are going through a very serious economic crisis in Cuba today - then we would have held a four-day conference. There would have been time to open the exhibition of the photos of Leon Trotsky that were provided  courtesy of the Leon Trotsky Museum in Mexico. Had we the funding we could have accommodated an international academic audience of more than 200 or 300 people. In addition, for economic as well as technical reasons, simultaneous translation was impossible and the presentations took twice the time that had been planned. That diminished the quality of the presentations of course.  One consequence of the abbreviated presentation time was that some of the moderators, without asking me, decided to eliminate the question and answer sessions.

But in essence I think the event was a success. It laid down the seed for something that will be most appreciated by the Cuban people: the publication of the papers that were presented and the debates that they provoked. For the first time in Cuba, a Cuban publishing house will publish a book about Trotsky and the political, historical, social and cultural phenomena that were generated around this Bolshevik.

A.S.  How would you characterize the attitude of the Cuban government toward this Conference?
F.G.H.   The answer is the expected one. In Cuba it has never been said that Trotsky is not what the Soviet comrades said he was. Yet Fidel Castro, in his famous interview with Ignacio Ramonet in 2006, which in Cuba we know as One Hundred Hours with Fidel, said in a positive tone that, comparing Stalin with Trotsky, the latter without doubt, was the most intellectual of the two. Coming from the Commander-in-Chief this was a very important statement but at the same time it was largely unknown because it was another phrase in a book of 800 pages where other topics grabbed more attention from the Cuban public, for whom, moreover, Trotsky and Stalin represented problems from another time and another place.  I think it was one of the few times Fidel talked about it. Then, as discreet as were those words of the leader of the Cuban revolution on Trotsky, so was the attitude of the government towards the congress likewise discreet.

A.S.   Can you explain why there is a hunger for reading the works of Trotsky among the Cuban people?

F.G.H.   It is logical. Those works had been censored. They were never published in Cuba. That's enough. And if it is true that in reality there is nothing illegal about publishing Trotsky’s works, the simple fact that in the time of the USSR Trotsky was anathemized creates a myth around him: the myth of the forbidden. Later, Leonardo Padura published his exceptional novel about Trotsky called The Man Who Loved Dogs. Padura is well known in Cuba but everyone knows that he is not the favorite writer of the establishment.

At that time, the novel served to create certain expectations around the old Bolshevik. Many learned about the purges and persecutions led by Stalin thanks to that text, which was also published in a very limited  print run - not as a result of any action by the government - but because of restrictions established by Padura’s Spanish publisher. On the other hand I am sure that the publishers on the island were not very enthusiastic about this book. And among Cuban university students the revelation that there is a censored Marxist, or at least one who was ostracized, drew a lot of attention. That had previously happened with Gramsci, Foucault, Bourdieu and Rosa Luxemburg, authors who were never banned, but whose works disappeared from bookstores or, most of the time, were never published.

Panel with (left to right) Robert Brenner, Suzi Weissman, Paul LeBlanc, Eric Toussaint.


Saturday, June 1, 2019

Conference on Trotsky: Interview Part I

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The following is the first part of an interview I conducted with the organizer of the First Academic Conference on Trotsky in Cuba,Frank García Hernández.

The Spanish version of this interview is available here:
Entrevista con Frank García Hernández: Parte I

Alex Steiner, New York, June 1, 2019


A.S.  I know you wrote your dissertation on the history of Trotskyism in Cuba. Can you tell me how you first became interested in this topic? 

F.G.H.   About 10 years ago I was reading a book about Antonio Guiteras that my grandfather gave me. At the end of the book there was a chronological table. Arriving at 1933 it recorded that on September 12 of that year the Bolshevik Leninist Party (PBL) had been founded. Pages later I read that Sandalio Junco, its founder, was murdered by Communist Party assassins on May 8, 1942. It was quite a surprise for me. Later I found another book but this time it was about some interviews that the intellectual and friend Julio César Guanche had with other Cuban intellectuals. The title was The Project and the Power. I recommend it. He asked, among many other things, about the PBL and another one of its founders: the Cuban surrealist and Trotskyist poet Juan Ramón Breá. None of the interviewees could say much about them. Then, in 2013, I read another book of the  collected memoirs of the Cuban intellectual Grazziella Pogolloti. In one of his chapters he mentioned the wife of Juan Ramón Breá: an English poet and Trotskyist of Australian parents who fought alongside Breá and Benjamin Peret in the Spanish Civil War. She had lived in Cuba until 1960 and had been well known in the most important literary circles of the country. But there was not much bibliography about her either. On or about 2014 my master's thesis was about the Movement of Rural Landless Workers of Brazil (MST), but curiosity made me change the subject. Today apparently there are new people interested in learning the history of Cuban Trotskyism, but until a few months ago there were only a few people. In Cuba, the main historian who studied the subject had died and left a work with important errors that everyone later repeated. I decided then to write the complete history of Cuban Trotskyism. Contrary to what some may believe, I had no problem with the academic authorities. On the contrary, I was encouraged to continue the investigation. My dissertation received the highest reviews. There was no problem. I presented it on April 26, 2018. On June 1 I was already broadcasting my decision to hold the 1st International Leon Trotsky Academic Event.



A.S. What made you decide to organize this conference?

F.G.H.   In November 2016 I taught a postgraduate course in Santa Clara about     the life and work of Leon Trotsky. The room was completely full. Thanks to Leonardo Padura's novel about Trotsky, The Man Who Loved Dogs, the interest was immense. I had photocopied a copy of The Revolution Betrayed and everyone asked for it. Many asked me about Trotsky's writings on art and literature. In Cuba, students do not like to read digitally. Although they are millennials, they prefer to make marks on paper books. They asked me so many questions that I could not answer them all. They were shocked to see the photo of Zinoviev beaten with the prisoner's poster. The farewell letter from Adolf Joffe impressed everyone. One of them wrote a poem to Joffe.  He later published, in a cultural magazine, a fragment, in January 2018, of the speech with which Trotsky founded the Red Army.

Months later I met Yunier Mena, the Cuban philology student who participated in the event. He is of peasant parents and lives in a peasant cooperative. We wrote a manifesto about poetry and communism called Communist Poets. I realized that there was a sector of youth, especially in Santa Clara with a big disposition towards a Marxism that they did not know. Again, The Revolution Betrayed caused a great impact. Among them was a young lady who would later become my wife. I realized then that it would be a great selfishness not to bring to Cuba a thought that had long since landed in our libraries.



A.S. Can you tell me something about the people and groups that helped you organize the Conference?

F.G.H.   In the beginning I started this adventure alone. Most thought I would get tired. When I explained my intention to organize the conference, they looked at me as if I were crazy. Today some tell me that it was really something others could have done, but at the beginning those others did not exist. Most did not believe that many foreign guests were coming. They thought it would two or three at most. No one ever believed that there would be 192 requests just from foreign delegates.  First, I asked for support from the Cuban Cultural Research Institute Juan Marinello, where I work. They were not very convinced, but they accepted. They suggested that I also make the same proposal to sponsor the conference to the Institute of Philosophy. They did have more interest. The project had much more to do with them. Afterwards my friend Javier Ortiz, another university student and artist, suggested the idea of ​​doing the event at Casa Benito Juárez. He made a strong presentation to the person who is now my friend, the Co-Director of the Juárez museum, Miguel Hernández. It is a beautiful and wide place. The other two institutions had much smaller spaces.

Misunderstandings did not come from any of the people of these institutions, rather they were from people who did not know the subject. For those who have no knowledge of Trotsky, the old Bolshevik is still the devil. Even more in Cuba. In addition, no State likes to introduce theories that may cause certain discomforts. Actually, knowledge of Trotsky would not do any harm to Cuba, rather, it would help us a lot. But prejudices without knowledge do much harm. Sometimes prejudices are similar to faith. Unquestionable

But the main help in the organization of the conference came from my partner Lisbeth Moya González. She had suffered an accident and her leg was in a cast. The plaster cast was removed just prior to the conference so that she could participate in the event. And my companion Yunier Mena Benavides. Thanks to him, countless tasks were solved. There was also the student Eduardo Expósito who worked in silence solving problems that nobody saw because they did not happen but they were potentially serious. He is a student of mechanics and is very close to the workers. He comes from a very proletarian neighborhood with big social problems. He is the proof that Marxism is not exclusive to the intellectual elite. There is also the designer of that beautiful poster that promoted the event, Yaimel López. He did not charge a penny to make the design and he is today one of the best and most highly valued Cuban designers. And to the Colombian and Cuban musicians who composed the farewell musical theme: the friends Santiago Barbosa and Luna Catalina Tinoco. In addition, credit is also due to the comrade and Basque nationalist, Guillén García, who so graciously offered his bar La Bombilla Verde and gave away a beer for each guest at the event. And my family. Although it seems a bit sentimental, my family provided great support, especially my mother and my grandmother. It is fair to recognize everyone. We should also mention Verde Gil and Ana Isabel, two compañeras who came at their own expense from Santa Clara. That's why they deserve honor. And they also did some homework at the event. And always, very important: to all the Cuban workers and the world that made the event possible. Without the working classes and their struggle today we would not be talking about revolution behind our desks.



A.S. Why did you insist that this was an academic conference and not a forum for political groups?

F.G.H.   I insisted on that because different Trotskyist political groups contacted me directly and, in a direct way, very respectful, they told me that we had to politicize the event. They maintained that an academic conference was not so important, that we had to refound the Fourth International in Cuba. I respected their considerations, but what would Cuba gain in bringing political groups that would try to explain to us the Cuban reality? The worst of the limitations that hamper those who are interested in Cuba, is that they cannot access the books, the research and the theory that we do in Cuba. Today we are in the midst of a very powerful debate within the Cuban left. We develop very good theory. But our books are not on Amazon. Of the debates that can be found in our blogs about and from Cuba, I want to mention Iroel Sánchez's Sleepless Pupil, Julio César Guanche's Thing. There is also La Tizza, La Joven Cuba and Trinchera, three very combative young groups, whose debates are invisible for the majority of foreigners. Foreigners moreover are prejudiced by the criticism of the extreme right, the criticism of the extreme left and the discourse of the left in solidarity with Cuba. I am not even counting the mainstream media that never tell the truth or say it half-heartedly, which is sometimes worse. Then it happens that sometimes from abroad, it is thought that in Cuba there is a Stalinist dictatorship or a communist paradise. I always say to the compañeros who visit Cuba: everything you know about Cuba is a lie, but at the same time everything you know about Cuba is true. I would love to speak with all the Trotskyist organizations in the world, I admire them: The International Group, the Fourth International, the American and British SWP, Allan Woods, the Turkish DIP, the Argentine FIT, the Brazilian PSTU, the American PSL, anyone. I am willing, I would like to give everyone a to-do list to make visible the Cuban reality. In fact, on May 9 and 10, I thought of giving a brief history course of the 60 years of the Cuban revolution. A course that I had prepared years ago. I can send the notes for this course to whoever is interested, but it would not be of the highest quality.   After two weeks of sleeping only three or sometimes two and a half hours a night, my body was exhausted.  I am willing to go anywhere without charging a penny for that course. Although I am not a Trotskyist, all the Trotskyists of the world, all the revolutionaries of the world, all those who fight against capitalism and for socialism are my comrades.

Frank opening the Conference. The Co-Director of the Juárez museum, Miguel Hernández, is on his left.










Monday, May 27, 2019

First International Academic Meeting on Trotsky - Part I

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From May 6 to May 8 of this year I participated in the first International  Academic Meeting on Trotsky in Havana, Cuba.  Its official title was , ‘Leon Trotsky: life and contemporaneity - a critical approach’. The Conference was a historic occasion, marking the first time any such international gathering devoted to the life and ideas of Leon Trotsky had taken place in this country, where his legacy has been a topic of intense interest and occasional repression.  The fact that it took place at all in spite of bureaucratic opposition from certain sectors of Cuban officialdom hostile to Trotsky owes everything to the energy and enthusiasm of the main organizer of the Conference, Frank García Hernández.  Frank, supported by his partner Lisbeth and a few friends achieved an almost impossible task with hardly any resources – gathering approximately 100 delegates from 15 different countries to participate in the Conference, arranging for accommodations for participants, personally meeting every individual arriving at the airport,  arranging for the venue for the event, arranging for sponsors for the event, planning the different panels, arranging many other cultural events for Conference participants and dozens of other tasks that made the Conference possible.  And he managed to do all this with only occasional access to the Internet, severely limiting his ability to communicate with Conference participants.  Sponsors of the event included the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research where Frank works as a researcher, the Cuban Institute of Philosophy, Casa Museo León Trotski in Coyoacan, Mexico, and the Karl Marx Center for Socialist Studies in Mexico City.  The sponsorship of the event by the Casa Museo León Trotski was particularly noteworthy. The Museum contributed a photographic exhibition to the event and also made a generous donation of books by Trotsky in Spanish.  (Unfortunately the books and other material donated by the Museum were being held by Cuban Customs.) In addition, Trotsky’s grandson and for many years head of the Museum until his retirement, Esteban Volkov, gave his greetings and enthusiastic support for the Conference by video.  

Frank García Hernández opening the conference.
Museo de Beníto Juárez

The First Day of the Conference


The venue for the Conference was the Museo de Beníto Juárez in old Havana. This colonial era villa has been re-purposed as a public cultural center dedicated to the Mexican Revolution and its great hero. One cannot imagine a more appropriate location for a Conference dedicated to one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution. Frank, followed by the director of the Museum, made some introductory remarks welcoming the delegates to Cuba and to the Conference.

It is not possible in a short space to provide a comprehensive review of this Conference.  Given the large number of presentations at the Conference and the difficulties of concentrating on talks interrupted by translations from Spanish into English and from English into Spanish I can only provide a very short and limited review. One of the other participants at the Conference, Paul LeBlanc, wrote a more comprehensive review of the Conference. Readers who are interested can find his account of the Conference together with personal reflections about his visit to Cuba posted here: Trotsky in Cuba, 2019

Of the participants at the Conference, the largest delegations came from Brazil, the United States, Canada, Mexico and of course Cuba. In addition there were participants from Peru, Venezuela, Turkey, Austria, Belgium, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Costa Rica and a number of other countries. The topics covered in the Conference were as diverse as the list of participants.  Broadly speaking they can be divided into several categories: An assessment of Trotsky major contributions to Marxist theory and revolutionary politics, Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism, revisiting old political disputes in which Trotsky was involved, reflections on cultural issues inspired by Trotsky, disputes and splits within the organization founded by Trotsky, the Fourth International, and historical accounts of the Trotskyist movement in several different countries.

I can only mention the presentations I found most interesting. The caveat here is that I undoubtedly missed some presentations and it was sometimes difficult to follow the talks due to problems with acoustics and translations.  Also, with a couple of exceptions, the presentations were invariably a compressed version of a longer essay which I did not have the benefit of reading.

The first panel, consisting of Paul LeBlanc, Suzi Weissman, Robert Brenner from the U.S. and Eric Touissaint from Belgium, had as a broad theme Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism.  Paul LeBlanc and Eric Touissaint gave very eloquent presentations on this topic. LeBlanc in particular gave a very moving account of the heroic defiance against Stalinist tyranny by Trotsky’s followers in Russia as they were exiled, tortured, starved and eventually murdered in camps like Vorkuta. To quote from LeBlanc’s summary of his presentation,

I noted Trotsky’s assertion that Stalin represented a more serious assault on the socialist and communist workers’ movements than Hitler – the Nazi leader’s assaults were from the outside, whereas Stalin’s were from within, with practices that would pollute, disorient and discredit the struggle for socialism. He went on to discuss the resistance in Soviet Russia of Left Oppositionists associated with Trotsky, especially their heroic struggles in the face of certain destruction in 1937-38, inside the Stalinist gulag. Referring to Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy and related theory of permanent revolution, and to the program of the Left Opposition – explications of these were dropped from the talk for time reasons – he emphasized their relevance for today.

Suzi Weissman defended Victor Serge against Trotsky.  She pointed out that the differences between Serge and Trotsky were deliberately stirred up by a Stalinist agent who had managed to infiltrate the Trotskyist group in Paris.  This person, then known as “Etienne”, later exposed as Marc Zborowski, had won the confidence of Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov and became the Secretary of the international Trotskyist group. Undoubtedly Weissman was correct to emphasize that Zborowski’s malevolent influence made it far more difficult for Serge to communicate with Trotsky, and was partly responsible for the personal break between the two. But that is not to say there were not real and fundamental political differences between Serge and Trotsky. I felt that Weissman underestimated the breadth of these differences and also overestimated the importance of Serge, whom she tended to view as someone of almost equal stature to Trotsky in the fight against Stalinism and the defense of the October Revolution.

Robert Brenner gave a presentation on the Left Opposition in Russia and the economic theories upon which their founding document, The New Course, was based. Brenner believed that Trotsky and the Left Opposition, and for that matter Lenin, made a fundamental mistake in their analysis of the Soviet economy, particularly in their assessment of the role of the peasantry.  Whereas the Left Opposition saw the rise of the middle peasants following the introduction of the NEP (New Economic Policy) as a strengthening of capitalist forces within the Soviet economy and thus a danger to the very foundations of the October regime, Brenner feels this was based on a misunderstanding. His contention is that this layer of the peasantry had no interest in the accumulation of surplus value but was only interested in working their plot of land.  Therefore the danger to the Soviet Union from this sector did not exist and had the Left Opposition recognized that fact they could have in good conscience made an alliance with Bukharin, who advocated a policy that favored the continuation of the NEP and who encouraged the growth of the middle peasants.  Brenner thinks that due to their mistaken analysis of the Soviet economy, Trotsky and the Left Opposition assessed the Bukharin faction as Right wing and more dangerous than the so-called Center faction of Stalin.  They thus rejected the possibility of an alliance with Bukharin which could have prevented the victory of Stalinism. As it turned out Stalinism was by far the more serious danger to the Soviet Union.  

This is a thesis that Brenner has argued for many years.  While I find that thought experiments based on possible alternative paths in history can sometimes provide useful insights, this particular one raises at least as many questions as it tries to answer. Was there a realistic possibility of such an alliance? Even had it been possible, would Bukharin’s participation in the Opposition have made any substantial difference in the struggle against Stalinism? Finally, how could the Left Opposition possibly know without the benefit of a crystal ball, just how destructive Stalin and the bureaucracy would become as they were organizing in 1923-1924?  I am sure I am not doing justice to Brenner’s arguments as he did not have sufficient time to develop them.

Following the opening session there were a great many presentations, perhaps too many in the limited time we had.  I can only comment briefly on a few of these.

Of the panels in the second session on day one the only presentation that drew my attention was one by Andrew Gittlitz from the U.S., who gave a brief, but interesting presentation on the politics of Juan Posadas.  Posadas was a seminal figure in Latin American Trotskyism in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and he is particularly important for the history of Trotskyism in Cuba.  Posadas was the head of the Latin American Bureau of the Fourth International in 1953, at the time when there was a split in the Fourth International. Posadas was allied with the majority faction headed by Pablo, but soon parted ways with him and any connection with the Fourth International.  Posadas trained the initial cadre of what was to become the Trotskyist movement in Cuba in this period.  He was also very influential in Argentina and a number of other countries in South America.

Gittlitz noted that Posadas is remembered today mostly as a figure worthy only of mockery due to his idiosyncratic positions. He tended to believe in conspiracy theories and thought that UFO’s could be the savior of humanity if we could only make contact with the aliens.  He also believed in the conspiracy theory, then popular among some radicals in the period when Che Guevara dropped out of public life in the 1960’s, that Fidel Castro had Che Guevara assassinated because Castro would not go along with Guevara’s attempts to spread the revolution.  Needless to say such “theorizing” did not help the situation of the Cuba Trotskyists in that period.

But Gittlitz contention is that this concentration on the idiosyncrasies of Posadas does not address his main political problem, one that still haunts many groups calling themselves Trotskyists.  And that problem was Posadas’ tendency towards catastrophism – i.e. basing one’s politics on the belief that a word-wide catastrophe is just around the corner.  For Posadas, the catastrophe he saw coming was an inevitable nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the U.S.   Seeing such a catastrophe as inevitable, Posadas in fact welcomed it and thought that the working class revolution would finally triumph only after this holocaust.   Gittlitz point was that there is a lesson to be learned from an examination of Posadas that is relevant to left politics today.  Apocalyptic scenarios of imminent catastrophe that determine a perspective – always with the disclaimer “unless our tiny group quickly wins the leadership of the working class” -  are not alien to many groups coming out of the traditions of Leninism and Trotskyism.  Posadas may have presented an exaggerated form of catastrophism, and therefore easy to dismiss, but the politics of catastrophism is far from dead today.

Second Day of the Conference


The second day of the Conference was largely devoted to cultural and theoretical issues. Many of the presentations by the delegates from Brazil dealt with cultural issues associated with Trotsky and the Left Opposition.  Noteworthy among these was a discussion of the Russian avant-garde by Clara de Freitas Figueiredo and another discussion about Eisenstein’s film “Strike” by Marcela Fleury.  Both presentations relied heavily on slides to illustrate their themes and neither had sufficient time to develop their thesis properly.  The following is Paul LeBlanc’s summary of their presentations:

Presentations by two young Brazilian comrades (friends who were collaborating in their efforts), both on fascinating topics, would have required a half a day for adequate presentation and discussion. Clara de Freitas Figueiredo utilized slides to give a sense of the Soviet artistic avant-garde – Mayakovsky, Rodschenko, Eisenstein and others, combined in a radical artistic grouping, the Left Front of the Arts, referred to as LEF. LEF defined artistic realism as dealing with the materiality of the construction of a work, not as any attempt of an artistic work to create the illusion of reality. She asserted, without time to make her case, that concerns of LEF’s concerns coincided with cultural issues that Trotsky dealt with in his essays of the early 1920s, Problems of Everyday Life. She also argued that the quasi-religious cult of Lenin, that developed after his death (despite the opposition of Lenin’s widow Krupskaya, as well as Trotsky and some others) had a profound and “liturgical” cultural impact that – if I understood her correctly – was a thorny issue with which the avant-garde had to deal, but there was insufficient time for this idea to be developed clearly.

No less frustrating was the inability (given the time constraints) of the next speaker, Marcela Fleury, to develop her fascinating thesis on the correspondence between Eisenstein’s first major film, “Strike” (1925), with Trotsky’s theorizations of uneven and combined development and permanent revolution. She also utilized slides but would have been better served by showing clips from the film – for which, of course, there would not have been time. She appropriately emphasized the actual historical context of the film – which included worker dissatisfaction with the capitalistic impacts of the New Economic Policy, and also debates in the Communist International on the possibility of bourgeois-democratic revolution in China (positing two separate and distinct “democratic” and “socialist” stages of revolution – in contrast to Trotsky’s theory). She argued that Eisenstein’s film – contrasting the collectivism and solidarity associated with the working class and both the individualism and selfishness associated with the capitalist class, and the incompatibility of the two – connected with the contemporary sentiments and debates in Soviet Russia, tilting in Trotsky’s direction.

These panels were followed by a presentation by Armagan Tulunay from Turkey on Trotsky’s period of exile in the Turkish island of Prinkipo.  Tulunay mentioned that “Prinkipo” is actually the Greek-Byzantine name of the island. Büyükada is the proper name of this island in Turkish. Tulunay, a member of Workers Revolutionary Party of Turkey (DIP), maintained that the period of Trotsky’s exile, while presenting a number of challenges from the point of view of security, was one of the most productive of his career. It was also an imposed isolation from his comrades in France, Germany and other parts of Europe.  His requests for visas to these countries were all denied partly due to the hostility of the bourgeois regimes to this “dangerous man” and partly as a result of pressure from the Soviet government. A taste of this period of Trotsky’s exile was captured by the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura in his magnificent historical novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs:

Throughout that first year of exile, the most tiresome task facing his guards charged with the revolutionary’s security had been to deal with the journalists intent on getting a scoop, that of welcoming editors from around the world (who had offered contracts for various books and made generous advances capable of alleviating the family’s economic difficulties) and verifying that the followers who began to arrive were who they said they were. At the margins of these interferences, life on an island lost to history, inhabited throughout most of the year only by fishermen and sheepherders, seemed so primitive and slow that any outside presence was immediately detected. And although he was a prisoner, Lev Davidovich had felt almost happy for having found that place where a car had never driven and where things were transported as they were twenty-five centuries before, on the back of a donkey.

Whereas his isolation from his political comrades was deeply felt, another side of this period of Trotsky’s exile was that the lack of distractions – occasionally interrupted by visitors - allowed him the time to work intently on his classic, History of the Russian Revolution, as well as his autobiography, My Life and his Permanent Revolution. He kept up a lively correspondence with his comrades throughout the world during this period and continued the regular publication of the Bulletin of the Opposition.

Tulunay, shifting to a discussion of Trotsky’s influence on Turkey, maintained that there was some evidence that the great Turkish poet and an early supporter of the Russian Revolution, Nâzım Hikmet, was sympathetic to Trotsky.  She also noted that there was some evidence that Trotsky may have had a direct influence on the launching of the Trotskyist movement in Turkey, although the evidence is not conclusive.  We do not know for instance if any of the founders of Trotskyism in Turkey ever visited Trotsky while he was in Prinkipo.

The final talk in this session was given by Helmut Dahmer from Austria.  Dahmer’s thesis was that there was a certain aesthetic affinity between Trotsky and the great German cultural critic Walter Benjamin. I cannot do any justice to Dahmer’s presentation as I did not take detailed notes, but I can mention that he backed up his surprising thesis – after all one rarely puts Trotsky together with Benjamin – with textual evidence suggesting that Benjamin was likely influenced by Trotsky’s historical masterpiece, History of the Russian Revolution, as well as some of his writings on Britain.
The next panel featured more cultural motifs.  Most notable were talks by two Brazilians, Flo Menezes and Edson Luiz de Oliviera.  I will once more quote LeBlanc’s summary of their contributions:

Flo Menezes offered remarks on Trotsky and art, literature and culture. He began with a focus on the 1930 suicide of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky, and Trotsky’s comments that linked this act to negative pressures in the increasingly bureaucratic-authoritarian atmosphere of Soviet Russia. This led to an assault on that analysis by Anatoly Lunacharsky, a highly cultured Bolshevik of some prominence who was adapting to (and thereby distorting himself) the now-dominant Stalinism. Discussing Marxist conceptualizations of ideology and knowledge, Menezes emphasized that art and politics cannot be understood in the same way. Basing himself on the work of Marx, Trotsky was able to advance theorizations Marx had never had an opportunity to develop. Terming the Stalinist-backed artistic development of “Socialist Realism” anti-Marxist, Trotsky – while not uncritical of surrealism – allied himself with surrealists in efforts to push back Stalinism’s deadening cultural incursions. Menezes was about to enter into discussion about the Brazilian Marxist theorist and Left Oppositionist Marío Pedrosa – at which he ran out of time and concluded his presentation. Fortunately, the next speaker – Edson Luiz de Oliviera – dealt with Pedrosa, with a focus on the Brazilian Trotskyist’s appreciation for the work of the great German artist Käthe Kollwitz.

This cultural panel also featured a decidedly non-cultural presentation by Dan La Botz from the U.S.,  who strongly defended Boris Souvarine against Trotsky.  Souvarine, an early supporter of the Russian Revolution and one of the founders of the French Communist Party initially sided with Trotsky and the Left Opposition against the Stalinist leadership of the French CP. But he soon parted ways with Trotsky and the Left Opposition over their differing analysis of the nature of Soviet Union. Souvarine considered it to be a “state capitalist” society rather than a degenerated workers state as Trotsky had. To quote Paul LeBlanc’s summary,

La Botz’s contention was that Souvarine was superior to Trotsky in regard to his analysis of the Russian peasantry, his analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy, and his positions on democracy in the Soviet Union and the Communist movement.

La Botz’s point seemed to be similar to Suzi Weissman’s – that the Left Opposition and the struggle against Stalinism could have been strengthened if Serge on the one hand, and Souvarine on the other hand, would have been able to join forces with Trotsky in a common battle. No doubt I am missing the nuances of their arguments but that seemed to be their main themes. However, this speculative alliance would have required of one of the sides (Trotsky’s mostly in the opinion of Weissman and La Botz) to abandon their political differences with the other side.  While it was of some interest for me to learn more about the political biography of Souvarine and earlier of Serge, I did not find the speculation about how things might have turned out differently to be even remotely credible. Not that I am maintaining that Trotsky did not make any mistakes, sometimes serious ones, in his struggle against Stalinism.  He was after all a fallible human being and not a god. But when assessing the errors of a great historical figure such as Trotsky - as for instance his acceptance of the ban on factions – the larger historical context in which he worked should always be kept in mind. Monday morning quarterbacking for those not facing those same conditions is just too easy and often leads to superficial and simplistic condemnations.  

La Botz’s discussion was followed by a presentation from two Italian delegates. I was unfortunately not able to get very much out of these presentations because of the difficulties of translating from Italian to English. (There was a translation into Spanish.) Their topics covered the history of the Left Opposition in Italy and their relationship to Bordiga and other dissident communists. There was also a discussion of Trotsky and Gramsci. For my part further reflection on these important presentations will have to wait for the publication of an English translation of their talks.

My Presentation


Finally it was my turn to speak. The subject of my talk was “Trotsky as a Marxist Theoretician: The Evidence in the Notebooks.” The presentation was meant to provide an introduction to some of the main themes Trotsky discussed in what has been called his “Philosophical Notebooks”, an unpublished manuscript exploring a variety of philosophical issues that were only discovered in the 1980’s. I prepared a much shorter version of a long essay I had written, but once I got to the podium I realized that I did not have nearly sufficient time to complete even this shorter presentation. I therefore decided to only mention the highlights of my talk and illustrate them with a few quotes from Trotsky’s Notebooks.

I noted that Trotsky embarked on a study of Hegel’s Logic during his period of exile in the 1930’s, in some ways paralleling Lenin’s study of Hegel’s Logic during the dark days following the betrayal of Social Democracy at the start of World War I. Although each man faced very different circumstances, what tied these two events together, separated by two decades, was the impetus to unearth the theoretical basis behind the abandonment of revolutionary principles.

A recurring theme Trotsky pinpoints in the Notebooks is the importance of the “flexibility” of concepts. By this he did not mean that you can stretch the meaning of a concept in any direction you wish. Rather he was pointing to the dangers in rigid and ossified modes of thinking. A good example of the latter was the notion, accepted as dogma prior to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, that there is linear progression in stages from the bourgeois democratic revolution to the socialist revolution. The fact that this “stages” theory of Social Democracy had been resurrected by Stalin gave impetus to Trotsky’s turn to a study of dialectics. He regarded a review of Hegel’s Logic as a kind of inoculation against the trap of falling into rigidity and dogmatism.

I noted that the immediate impulse for Trotsky’s turning, or rather returning, to a study of dialectics was the encounter with his American supporter and translator, Max Eastman.  Eastman was one of those left intellectuals who considered the dialectic an unfortunate growth upon the Marxist edifice that needed to be rooted out.  Trotsky reacted strongly to Eastman’s dismissal of the dialectic. Trotsky considered an ongoing engagement with and study of dialectics a necessary element in the training of a revolutionary cadre. He said on more than one occasion that he knew of no instance in which an opponent of dialectical philosophy had been able to consistently maintain a revolutionary practice.
Among the topics I highlighted from the Notebooks was a discussion of psychoanalysis and its relation to dialectics. The subject of psychoanalysis comes up as a natural extension of a consideration of the relationship between consciousness and physiology which itself arises out of the philosophical problem of the relationship between Thought and Being.  Trotsky rejected the thesis of vulgar materialism that collapses Thought into Being, that sees consciousness as determined by physiology, a way of thinking typified by the Russian psychologist Pavlov. He did so without falling into the trap of subjective idealism as he always insisted that neither can consciousness be completely divorced from physiology.  Trotsky asks at one point in the Notebooks,

“The brain is the material substrate of consciousness. Does this mean that consciousness is simply a form of ‘manifestation’ of the physiological processes in the brain?”

Trotsky’s answer to this question was a ringing “NO”.  Throughout his life his understanding of materialism was marked by a strong anti-reductionism.  One can imagine what Trotsky would say to some of our contemporary neurophysiologists who base their theories on an ever-expanding form of reductionism. (The title of a recent popular book on the subject says it all, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures.) Trotsky’s anti-reductionist bent was undoubtedly influenced by his study of the Italian Marxist Labriola, who had a much deeper appreciation of dialectics than his German and Russian counterparts. This philosophical approach goes a long way to explaining Trotsky’s lifelong if not uncritical sympathy for Freudian psychoanalysis, which he viewed as a method of explaining the psyche, “…basing itself upon the inner determinism of psychic phenomena.”

Another theme explored in the Notebooks was evolution and the role of sudden qualitative leaps in the evolutionary process.  Trotsky emphasized that evolution must include sudden leaps as well as changes through gradual accumulation. He may not have been aware of it, but his thinking in this area went against the grain of Darwinian fundamentalists, who viewed then and still view today evolution as a process that takes place only through imperceptible gradual changes. In emphasizing the role of leaps in the evolutionary process Trotsky anticipated the work of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge whose theory of “punctuated equilibrium” broke with the prevailing anti-dialectical prejudices of the community of evolutionary biologists. 

Closely tied to his discussion of qualitative leaps is a consideration of the role of Catastrophes in the formation of the Earth.  According to the prevailing geological theories of his time, pioneered by Darwin’s friend Charles Lyell, the formation of the Earth is the result of very gradual changes over long periods of time.  Like Darwin, Lyell did not recognize a role for sudden catastrophic upheavals. Trotsky on the other hand speculated that catastrophes must play a role both in biological evolution and the formation of the Earth.  In fact catastrophes as one of the explanations for the formation of the Earth were until the last three or four decades considered a pseudo-science.  That began to change with the acceptance of the theory of Continental Drift. We now know that catastrophes are a regular occurrence and sometimes a determining factor in the history of the solar system, the geological formations of our planet, and the evolution of life.  The KT asteroid that collided with the Earth 65 million years ago and caused the extinction of most of the species on the planet, a discovery that was only made in the 1980’s, is just one of the most well-known examples of the role of catastrophes.

I noted in passing that Trotsky has been accused by certain left intellectuals, notably Slavoj Zizek, of being tone deaf to the dialectic.  I thought that anyone who has read Trotsky’s Notebooks, not to mention many of his other writings, could not possibly justify that position.

I concluded my talk by expressing my appreciation for the work of Frank García Hernández and the different sponsors for making this Conference possible. I was very happy to be in Cuba and to participate in this historical event.

During the Q&A period following my talk the Canadian author of the biography of James Cannon, Bryan Palmer, asked if the Notebooks can be considered in some ways an anticipation of the theoretical critique Trotsky would undertake in 1939 of the positions of Shachtman and Burnham, who preceded their rejection of the defense of the Soviet Union, a political question, by a rejection of dialectics,  a philosophical question.  I responded to Bryan by affirming that his point was a confirmation of my argument. I noted that when Trotsky began to work closely with his American followers, he repeatedly emphasized to them the importance of training working class militants in the movement in the art and science of dialectics. I mentioned that Trotsky had in particular entrusted George Novack, a leading intellectual in the Socialist Workers Party, with the educational task of delineating the difference between the philosophical approach of Marxism and that of pragmatism, the mode of thinking that emerges spontaneously in the American working class.  And while Novack did some important work in this area, the focus of the Socialist Workers Party in the years following Trotsky’s assassination shifted away from these theoretical issues, an eventuality which I believe played a role in the political disintegration of the SWP in the following decades.

Conclusion of Day Two


The program for the second day of the Conference concluded with two more presentations.  One was by Morgana Romao from Brazil and was titled, Leon Trotsky’s perception of the Soviet bureaucracy: Counterpoint to Hillel Ticktin. Unfortunately, I am not able to comment on this presentation without having read Romao’s text.  The second talk was by Niloofar Moazzami from Montreal. This is Paul LeBlanc’s summary of Moazzami’s talk:

Moazzami’s attention was drawn to Trotsky’s classic History of the Russian Revolution, which showed the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy resulted in the unstable alliance and growing conflict between two power-blocs, one dominated by bourgeois forces, the other consisting of a worker-peasant combination. She then suggested the value of comparing Trotsky’s analysis with works of other scholarship on revolution, such as Barrington Moore’s classic of historical sociology, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Of course, the worker-peasant triumph, with the October Revolution culminating in the creation of the Soviet Republic, soon led to crisis. Trotsky saw the early Soviet Republic, according to Romao, as a society in transition to socialism – but the problems facing it (economic underdevelopment, devastating impacts of world war and civil war, the relative isolation in a hostile capitalist world, etc.) caused it to develop into what became known as Stalinism, with its extreme bureaucratic-authoritarian distortions.

The proceedings of the day did not end with these presentations.  Frank had arranged for a special screening of a documentary that was still a work in progress, a 45 minute segment of the production by Lindy Laub of Trotsky: the most dangerous man in the world.  Suzi Weissman has elsewhere written of the problems Frank had in finding a venue to screen this film:

When we (I am the co-producer of the film) first told Frank we would like to show an excerpt at the conference, he was jubilant - he wanted the film to have its premiere in Cuba, imagining a huge and enthusiastic audience. We settled on showing a 21-minute trailer and a 24-minute segment of Trotsky in exile in Prinkipo, Turkey, from 1929-33 - that included his fight to get German social democrats and communists to unite against Hitler, his speech in Copenhagen and the suicide of his daughter, Zina, in Berlin.

Frank was in high gear trying to secure a venue - only to find nearly every screen in Havana closed to him and this film. Finding a public place to show it proved to be an impossible hurdle. No one wanted to take responsibility for allowing a portion of an unfinished, sympathetic documentary about Trotsky to be screened in their theatres. Finally, when it seemed the segment would not be projected at the conference, Frank got permission to screen it in a small theatre in the Centro Cultural Cinematográfico (ICAIC). Publicity for the showing was confined to a small announcement and word of mouth at the conference. But every seat was filled, and people stood and sat on the floor on every available inch of space - the audience was electric with excitement.  ( Neither Kings nor Bureaucrats ).