Friday, June 15, 2018

Trotskyism and tradition

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The following is a comment posted by someone identifying himself as ‘muskrat’, with a reply by Frank Brenner.

I think it interesting that David North has given the attention to Steiner and Brenner that he has. He must have a special place in his heart for you guys. Probably your critiques of the SEP/WSWS and North strike a bit too close to home. Also, familiarity can bread contempt, and I am sure that both North and you guys get some enjoyment sharpening your wits at each other expense.

I do enjoy reading the WSWS on a regular basis. I have (over the last year or so) studied up pretty well on Healy, Wohlforth, North including their careers and organizations. I was a long time Trotskyist although never affiliated with their tendency. I no longer see myself as a believer in the Trotskyist narrative. I think peak oil, peak non-renewable resources and overpopulation will pretty much take care of the idea that humanity will abolish capitalism and happily enter into a future of leisure and technological nirvana. The SEP seems to think that the workers of the future will spend their abundant free time attending operas and going to art museums. I have noticed that they and other left groups ignore topics that would tend to disrupt their narrative.

I have not given up on the struggle to for the abolition of capitalism, but I see a much different future will be coming our way, much more along the lines of what Richard Heinberg writes and speaks about.

Trotskyism has proven itself to be almost uniquely capable of splitting into smaller groups and subgroups. Wohlforth references an 800-page book written on the history of world Trotskyism written in around 1985 in his autobiography. I read that book 15 or 20 years ago. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of groups and tendencies out there. Just think what of an updated version of what the world Trotskyist family would look like 34 years after the original book was written. Many of these groups claim to have a direct (and correct) pipeline to the great Trotsky himself including the SEP. None of these groups like to be called sects, despite the fact that all of them aptly fit the dictionary definition. I read Sedova's resignation letter from the 4th International and found it quite interesting. I noticed that most Trotskyists haven't commented much on what she had to say, but it probably means something when Trotsky's widow breaks with the movement her husband organized. Most Trotskyists engage in a form of Trotsky hero worship, and many like the SEP, SL and Permanent Revolution spend a lot of time finding Trotsky quotes to sprinkle into their articles. Most of these groups will admit that Trotsky made some mistakes in the abstract but few will ever bring to light what those mistakes were. Some folks seem to view Trotsky's writings as sacred literature, such as the Transitional Program. Few seem to grasp the there is a "sell by" date on some Marxist writings including Trotsky’s. Marxism is supposed to be "scientific socialism". Marxism is supposed to be a living dynamic methodology, and yet so many Marxists out there treat it as a dogma. In my estimation were Trotsky or Marx still alive today it is highly probable that they would have refined their ideas to incorporate new scientific discoveries and other data into their world views. It is also a possibility that this new information might have dramatically altered significant portions of their concepts. Trotsky has been gone now for 78 years. In 1940 most easy to exploit oil was still in the ground waiting to be pumped. High quality veins of copper,coal,iron and etc. were still available to be mined. The human population was half as large. Things are different today. We are nearing the collapse of industrial civilization.


Frank Brenner responds:

Marxists don't hang on to a tradition out of some fetish. There isn't a Marxist anywhere who wouldn't be overjoyed if we could consign all the works of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky to a library specializing in outdated causes. But for that to happen, capitalism would first have been consigned to the garbage dump of history. It's the persistence of capitalism that keeps Marxism relevant, and never more urgently than now.

But that's not just true of Marxism. William Faulkner’s much quote line - the past isn't dead, it isn't even past - seems to hang over all political life. Trump's election had people running to buy used copies of a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis (It Can't Happen Here). The rising tide of right wing populism in Europe has evoked a flood of analogies to Weimar Germany and the onset of Nazism. It's as if the postwar era (until the collapse of the Soviet Union) was an anomaly, a relatively brief (by historical standards) era of peace and prosperity before we got back to the way things really are under capitalism - authoritarianism, xenophobia, burgeoning neo-fascism, war and social inequality of neo-feudal proportions.

None of this justifies abusing the Marxist tradition by turning it into a dogma. The relationship of contemporary Marxists to our tradition always has to be a dialectical one. We work, within the limits of our abilities, to transcend the tradition - which is to say, to reexamine old assumptions, extend our analysis to aspects of social and economic life previously ignored and above all else to try to grasp what is new in the objective situation and how that reshapes mass consciousness. But - and this is crucial - we do that work while standing on the shoulders of giants. Dogmatists never stand. Others (including you, it would seem) have decided to jump off. I think those are both mistakes.

You say that you haven’t given up on the struggle to abolish capitalism. But when you walk away from the Marxist tradition - which of course I identify with Trotskyism - then that’s just what you have given up on. I don’t mean this in a moral sense. Lots of people condemn capitalism. But what they don’t have (or, as in your case, have abandoned) is any hope for an alternative to the system, let alone any way of fighting to bring it about.

As to your references to peak oil etc., this is hopelessness dressed up as an argument. Not that I’m denying the seriousness of the environmental crisis, but arguments like this have the character of a deus ex machina. An impending objective crisis (e.g. environment, population, peak oil etc.) will overwhelm human society and bring capitalism crashing down. Or, to cite the title of Naomi Klein’s recent book on climate change, This Changes Everything. But it doesn’t - not by itself.

To be sure, any of these crises may lead to collapse and calamity. But by itself this will not bring an end to class exploitation. All it will do is change the conditions of that exploitation, making them tremendously worse. Or possibly bring all of human society crashing down. Peak oil-type arguments aren’t a political perspective for radical social change but a dystopia bred of hopelessness. Dystopias can, on occasion, be enjoyable reading but they contribute nothing useful politically. Basically, they amount to handing the human race an ultimatum: Here is the truth, and if you refuse to accept it, you will be destroyed! Perhaps this sort of approach works if you’re a Klingon possessed of a mammoth death starship, but in a human context it will achieve nothing except to breed despair. Here you might be considerably better off consulting the yellowed pages of your old Trotskyist texts.

It’s true - the history of Trotskyism since 1940 has been a record of countless splits, producing ever tinier groups and sects with so many acronyms you’d need a catalogue the size of a phone book to figure them all out. But who on the left has done better: the social democrats? the Stalinists? the Maoists? the anarchists? In the broad historical context, the entire left has suffered a terrible shipwreck. The more ‘established’ left didn’t undergo so many splits - they simply betrayed every principle they ever claimed to stand for and drove their working-class base into the hands of the neo-fascists. The Trotskyists held on to their revolutionary beliefs but kept banging their heads against the brick wall of the postwar boom and the Stalinist bureaucracy. Bang your head for long enough and it goes to pieces.

But a new generation is emerging politically, and it has the bizarre notion that it can actually change the world. To bring that off, it’s going to need, not dogma, but insight - and it won’t find more of it anywhere than in the remnants of the Trotskyist tradition.


Unknown said...

Just a brief note about your comment that the post war era, 1945-1991, was an anomaly, a brief period of peace and prosperity before the downside of capitalism re-emerged stronger than ever. Well, the Vietnam Wars, 1946-1975, the Korean War, 1950-1953, the Communist victory in China, 1949, the partition of India.... and so on and
the continuing deep poverty of the First and Second Worlds should put paid to that idea. Are we genetically doomed to never get beyond this fence, that the highest morality is that we take care of our own and bugger the rest? A tribal mentality?? Don't go soft on me here.
I am a fan of your disputes with the SEQ. Frank, if 2% of the body politic voted for the extreme left in the U.S. elections in the Great Depression, what are the chances for Marxism there today? Conditions for revolution would have to be equal to those in Russia in 1917 and these would be terrible; the 1917 cure in Russia turned out to almost be worse than the disease. I know about the conditions then, even so, the Bolsheviks made sure their tribe was strongest by enforcing the Red dictatorship to survive and win the civil war. Is this what Marx meant by the dictatorship of the proletariate?

Stan Roseberg said...

My 2nd posting regarding your comment that 1945-1991 was a brief period of peace and prosperity before the downside of capitalism re-emerged stronger than ever. The Vietnam Wars, the Korean war, Chinese communism's victories, the partition of India, the mess in middle and South America (the OAS), and so on, puts payed to the idea of peace and prosperity then. We are tribal, genetically wired to push until we are stopped - for many individuals and certainly for nation states. Homo Sapiens killed off the Neanderthals - ethnic cleansing 100,000 B.C.
I'm a fan of your dispute with the SEC and D. North. I don't know who's right. I still don't know what either of you mean by dialectics, just a simple explanation will do. Isn't this the core of your dispute with the SEP? Enlightening workers? Preparing them for the penultimate uprising to throw out capitalism for worker domination of the world?
The trouble is that Marxism is an intellectual pursuit, its holy scriptures understood & interpreted only by intellectuals - Marx had no faith in his working classes understanding his economic ideas so he said one needed a Party to explain these to then.
Only with the addition of war in 1917 was the Russian Revolution possible. Russia was a basket case before 1914 and when war came, causing millions of casualties by the criminal incompetence of the 'leadership' was the revolution possible.
So the Bolsheviks took power and implemented the dictatorship of the proletariat via war communism and the red terror. The cure was almost as bad as the disease.
I don't see many workers in the SEP or in your readership on the perm-rev blog. It's almost as bad as slogging through M.A. or PhD. papers.
Stan R.

Anonymous said...

I should have said that the postwar years were a RELATIVE period of peace and prosperity. I was discussing this in broad strokes. But given that qualification, it's absurd to deny that there was any difference between the postwar boom and the preceding decades of depression and war. And equally that there isn't a stark contrast between the boom years and today's world. It's a contrast that millions of workers understand with painful clarity: their parents' and grandparents' generations could reasonably expect their kids to have a better life than them, but now the expectation is very different - children will be worse off than their parents. If you don't think that has huge political implications, then you're being deliberately obtuse.

As for the rest of what you have say about "tribal mentality etc." and about the Bolshevik revolution, I'm afraid I don't see much more than ignorance dressed up as ideas. But one point I would like to make: you don't seem to have much faith in the intellectual abilities of the working class, but you also feel that you yourself have figured out the meaning of history. How is it that you have been so blessed with enlightenment whereas you believe that blessing is beyond the reach of the great mass of humanity? Might it not be the case that your ideas are less an insight into history and more an exercise in narcissism? Just a thought.

Frank Brenner

Stan Roseberg said...

Hi Frank,
I'm glad you responded. You've accused my view as "ignorance dressed up as ideas." Can you explain what you mean by that? What I said about tribal mentality and the Oct. 1917 revolution I regard as true. The removable of the Neanderthals by Homo Sapiens is an acknowledged fact as is the Leninist takeover in Oct. 1917 the result of a left wing mecoup, a holding action by the Bols. until the left wing uprising of the German proletariat would get the rev. ball rolling worldwide.
That was a mistake which resulted in the horrors of Stalinism.
I have much faith in the intellectual abilities of the working classes but Marx didn't. That's why we have you guys to interpret Marx for them. This is well known, by you too! Dialectics plays the key role here, am I right? Marxists present the appropriate rev. path, yes? I wish you'd explain how this happens. Your best analysis was your coverage of the non use of the existence of the power of the Iraqi oil unions in 2003, its omission a terrible mistake committed by the WSWS people when they backed a cleric instead.
I feel blessed to have suffered your attempts to demean me - sarcastically saying I've found the meaning of history. Can you explain the process by which you've found this to be the case? You've avoided the tribal mentality bit, which I believe is the case explaining much of history. Marx believed the workers not receptive to Marxism, he believed the masses needed to be lead, thus the Bol. Party. He believed Marxist knowledge to be beyond the reach of the masses. I didn't say this, he did, otherwise you would be out of a job.
There is no need to insult me by attempting to misunderstand my motives, which you claim are an exercise in narcissism.
What does this mean? Why would you attack the messenger as well as the message? You do away with civility to get personal.I'm certainly not blessed with enlightenment. You mis
understand my motives - which you say are "an exercise in narcissism." Why would you try to attack the messenger and not the message? I'm on your side. I've been blessed with the same vituperation with which you accuse the WsWS people of hurling against you. I'm not versed with the attack- counterattack reflex that you guys withdraw into in the context of dialectical accusations or D. discussions. I'm probably punching above my weight here, but I believe you people can't step out of an argument to look at the whole of it. I'll feel; much better when someone can explain what Dialectics are and why their importance. I'm eager to learn.

Alex Steiner said...


You are making pronouncements about matters that you really know nothing about and doing it with an air of authority. For instance your conviction about the "tribal" nature of homo sapiens and your statement that homo sapiens killed off Neanderthals and that this was "ethnic cleansing". Where did you get that information from? Contemporary anthropologists are not so eager to make such definitive statements as you are making. All we know for sure is that the Neanderthals disappeared as a distinct group about 40,000 years ago. We also know from DNA evidence that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens interbred. There are theories that Neanderthals were wiped out by diseases that the Homo Sapiens inadvertently brought with them from Africa when they migrated into Europe. There are other theories that they were displaced culturally by the more advanced Homo Sapiens which also implies that they were not physically exterminated. And there are those theories that they were hunted down by Homo Sapiens. We don't at this point know which of these theories is true and possibly whether some combination of them are true. But you make your pronouncements on the basis of your belief that humankind is essentially barbarous. I think this is little more than a displaced religious conviction about original sin that you are carrying over. You do not have any understanding that humans have the capacity for empathy as well as the need to compete for scarce resources. In fact most of the higher animals have the same capacity for empathy. It's what makes cooperation and solidarity possible.

Your statement that the October Revolution was nothing more than a "left wing coup" is also based on ignorance. Anyone who has read Alexander Rabinowitch's history of the revolution, The Bolsheviks Come to Power - not to mention Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution -will know better. But I think you are going to believe what you want to believe in order to justify your pessimism about humanity. So be it.

muskrat said...

You maintain I am offering "hopelessness dressed up as an argument." How much study and research have you done in this area? There is a mountain of useful information available to look through. Richard Heinburg,Dmitri Orlov,John Michael Greer,and James Kunsltler, all come to mind as writers that have made some good contributions regarding the peak resource predicament. I do not advocate nor support many of their political conclusions but on the matter of depleted non renewable resources and human over population they make some convincing arguments. I would suggest that one big reason that the left including the bulk of the Trotsyist tendencies out there don't like to address this topic is that it can upset their narrative, namely that the communist future will be one of material abundance created by advanced industrial technology. When oil and other non renewable become less available and more energy intensive to extract (which is happening at this very moment) then it will take more not less human labor to maintain a complex civilization. This must inevitably impact the Marxist view of the communist future.

Around 15 years ago I decided to do something that I really should have done much longer ago. I began to study the writings of some of those Marxist tendencies that had disputes Lenin, and Trotsky as well. I read Otto Ruhle,Gorter,and in particular Paul Mattick sr, and discovered that the Council Communists made some cogent points. Even Schactman had some relevant things to say before his swing to the right. I had the good fortune to have access to a world class research university library, and at one point occasionally read some interesting things,like an account of the first purge trials by the Bolshevics led by Trotsky against the Left SR's. But before I digress further I will make the point that there are other revolutionary Marxist tendencies around besides the Trotskyist. With a "phone book" quantity Trotskyist groups around to chose from, which ones are the authentic ones I wonder. When Trotskyists talk of Trotsky they mean the post 1917 revolution Trotsky and really not so much the Trotsky prior. When I speak of a "sell by date" I am referring specifically to those writings that are related to a world that no longer exists. That is one reason that people don't go back to Marx's writings and programs relating to Europe in the 1840's very often. The world of monarchs and small kingdoms is gone. Likewise the further from departure we go from Trotsky's death the greater the possibility that his programs will not retain their relevance. Orthodox Trotskyists like the Spartacist folks might consider collecting all of Trotsky's writings and creating an algorithm. That way they would never have any doubt as to the correct Trotskyist position.

muskrat said...

Correction to my previous post. I meant to say Show Trial of the Left SR's not Purge Trial.