Monday, June 17, 2019

First International Academic Meeting on Trotsky: Part II

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This is the second and concluding part of my review of the First International Academic Meeting on Trotsky in Cuba.   Link to Part I: First International Academic Conference on Trotsky in Cuba.


I received the following note from Suzi Weissman - adding some qualifications to my account - shortly after I published my review of the first two days of the conference.

Just for the record, I too, because of time constraints, was unable to develop my arguments, but I certainly don't think Serge was at the level of leadership of the revolutionary generation that Trotsky was, nor was he the kind of towering theoretical giant. But his writings give us a real sense of the struggle of the left opposition and he was its best chronicler and historian, not to mention novelist. Serge lived his political life in Trotsky's orbit, though there were real differences between them, that were exacerbated by Etienne. 

Day Three: Morning Session

The third and final day of the Conference witnessed some fireworks.  This was inevitable given that many of the conference participants had diametrically opposed views and were very passionate in defending their position.  The only surprise for me was that the conference did not feature more of these contentious dust-ups.  Undoubtedly that would have been the case had there been more time for discussion.  As it was, much of these debates took place during the question and answer sessions when many delegates, instead of asking a question, used their time to make a speech defending their position or opposing a rival position.  This was unfortunate but completely understandable as there was no other outlet for airing disagreements.

The morning session was largely devoted to the development of Trotsky’s views during his period of exile in Mexico. Daniel Perseguim from Brazil gave a fascinating presentation on how Trotsky’s experience in the New World led him to explore new dimensions in art and culture.  He began his talk by discussing Trotsky’s contributions to the Bulletin of the Opposition when he was in Mexico. ( Being something of an amateur archivist myself, I was very impressed by the fact that Perseguim had in his possession the last issue of the Bulletin of the Opposition.)  Paul LeBlanc provided the following excellent summary of Perseguim’s talk.

Daniel Perseguim, commenting that Trotsky’s ongoing contributions to a variety of journals over the years (in a sense, his work as “a journalist”) reveal an evolution of thinking and sensibilities, from the first issue of Iskra in 1900 to the last issue of the Russian-language Bulletin of the Opposition. This has framed Perseguim’s own research project of tracing Trotsky’s writings in his final period of exile, in Mexico, within which the final issues of the Bulletin of the Opposition (from number 54-55 in 1937 to number 87 in 1941) were published. Trotsky’s emigration to Mexico provided a relative freedom that, according to Perseguim, changed the relationship of forces on the Left to the detriment of the Kremlin. One source of enrichment in the thought of Trotsky and his co-thinkers was the influence of the indigenous cultures of the Americas – an important assertion for which there was an unfortunate lack of time to develop. A clear example of evolution in Trotsky’s thinking on the relationship of art and revolutionary politics was provided by comparing a formulation in his 1924 work Literature and Revolution and the 1938 manifesto he drafted for the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI), the latter emphasizing the absolute necessity for autonomous artistic creativity missing from his writings of fourteen years earlier. Perseguim argued that further systematic research into Trotsky’s writings during his final exile might change our understanding of this revolutionary theorist. (Trotsky in Cuba, 2019)

The next speaker was José Alberto Fonseca Ornelas from Mexico. His theme was Trotsky’s insistence on the independence of the working class in the struggle against imperialism. He noted that the Popular Front policy of Stalinism in the 1930’s, when translated to the conditions existing in Latin America, meant the subordination of the working class to the forces of bourgeois nationalism. He discussed two examples where the Stalinist policy had a disastrous effect, that of Cuba and of Mexico.  He noted that in Cuba the Stalinist Communist Party actually supported the dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1940’s. In Mexico the Communist Party urged the powerful trade union movement to align itself with the radical nationalist regime of Lázaro Cardenas.  This eventually resulted in the Mexican unions becoming little more than an appendage of the bourgeois Mexican state and has had a debilitating effect on the class struggle in Mexico to this day.  He noted that whereas Trotsky was grateful to Cardenas for providing him with asylum in Mexico and defended the Cardenas government against U.S. imperialism when it expropriated the foreign owned oil companies, he insisted that the Mexican working class needed to form its own independent political party and never subordinate itself to the PRI or Cardenas.

Kaveh Bovieri from Montreal next presented a paper that attempted to explain the difference between a historical account from a Marxist perspective and conventional bourgeois historiography through the lens of Hegel’s Philosophy of History. He noted that in the Introduction to the Philosophy of History Hegel discusses three types of historical accounts: First is what Hegel called “Original history”, which is an empirical account of events by contemporary witnesses.  Herodotus and Thucydides are prime examples of this type of history. Next is what Hegel called “Reflective History”. This type of history attempts to work up the empirical material contained in Original History and find some kind of pattern or lesson. At its best this type of history can give us genuine insights into the historical process whereas at its worst it can become a rationalization for an ideology. Christian historical accounts of the lives of the saints and martyrs that justify the triumph of Christianity over the previous pagan culture are a good example of the worst type of Reflective History.  The best of Reflective History would be accounts that look back into the records of historical events in order to find the real patterns and separate those from myths and apologetics.  Examples of this kind of history would be recent accounts of the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction in the Southern states of the U.S. that depict its radical and democratic nature while disposing of the myths propagated by historians sympathetic to the Confederacy that the period of Reconstruction represented a corrupt takeover of Southern states by Northern carpet-baggers. 

The third type of historical account Hegel discusses is what he calls “Philosophical History”.  It is far from obvious what is meant by this as philosophy deals with universal concepts whereas history supposedly deals with contingent particulars.  How can these two be put together?  It is best to quote Hegel’s own description of Philosophical History:

The only Thought which Philosophy brings with it to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process. (The Philosophy of History,  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, translated by J. Sibree, page 22, Batochie Books.)

After briefly discussing Hegel’s classification of historical explanations, Bovieri contended that Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution presents us with a synthesis of all three types of accounts.  Bovieri’s argument relied on a close reading not only of Trotsky but of Marx’s statement,

No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.(Marx, Preface to Critique of Political Economy)

I cannot do justice to Bovieri’s presentation although I agree with his main point.  One illustration of his thesis is the difference between the kind of historical explanation provided by Trotsky and the kind provided by the best non-Marxist account of the Russian Revolution, Alexander Rabinowitch’s 3 volume work, Prelude to Revolution, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, and The Bolsheviks in Power. Rabinowitch provides, in the lexicon of Hegelian terminology, a synthesis of Original History and Reflective History. He presents a wealth of contemporary material from the Russian archives, much of it new, and uses it to make the point that the Russian Revolution was a genuine popular uprising led by the Bolsheviks and not a coup by a tiny minority as legions of anti-communist historians had long maintained. I interviewed Rabinowitch in 2017, the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, when he summarized his findings about the popular nature of the revolution.

Missing in Rabinowitch’s account however is what Hegel called Philosophical History. It is this dimension that Trotsky adds to the historical narrative. To quote from his Preface to the History of the Russian Revolution,

The history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. That, however, is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of a preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author’s task.

The next presenter, Héctor Puenta Sierra, from the Socialist Workers Party in the U.K., defended Tony Cliff’s analysis of the Soviet Union as a form of “state capitalism”. He argued that Cliff’s analysis resolved some problems in Trotsky’s original analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy as a parasitical growth on a degenerated “workers state”.  Sierra’s presentation triggered much contentious debates during the question and answer session, particularly when he said that the classification of the Soviet Union as “state capitalist” had the advantage that one need not equate the demise of the Soviet Union with the death of socialism. Paul LeBlanc responded that no Trotskyist ever equated the fall of the Soviet Union with the end of socialism, regardless of one’s estimation of the class nature of the Soviet state. 

S. Sándor John, a supporter of The Internationlist group, spoke forcefully about the necessity to defend the gains of the Soviet Union against imperialism and denounced those tendencies, such as Cliff’s and  Shachtman’s, that considered the Soviet Union as just another variety of capitalism and imperialism, as a betrayal of internationalism. In response Dan LaBotz defended Shachtman’s thesis, “Neither Washington nor Moscow”, as being consistent with the position of Lenin and Trotsky during World War I, that no support be given to any of the contending imperialist powers.

The final presentation of the morning session was by Gabriela Pérez Noriega, Director of the Museo Casa de León Trotsky. Perez first introduced a video featuring a recent interview by Alan Woods, the leader of the International Marxist Tendency, with Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban Volkov. Volkov, now in his nineties, was unfortunately not able to travel to attend the conference in person.  I had met Volkov at a conference on Trotsky at Fordham University in New York back in 2008 and was gratified to see that he is still politically active. Volkov greeted the conference and noted its historic significance. He paid homage to his grandfather; whose ideas are still relevant to the struggle for socialism.  Following the video Pérez spoke. LeBlanc, once again, has provided a nice summary:

After the short video, Pérez (citing the Russian’s historian Dmitri Volkoganov findings of materials in the Stalin archives) emphasized that the dictator was animated by great fear of Trotsky, which is why he sent an agent with an ice-axe to destroy one of the greatest brains of revolutionary Marxism. She observed that such enemies continued to slander Trotsky viciously down to the present day, pointing to the recent anti-Trotsky film series produced by right-wing filmmakers in Russia and distributed globally through Netflix. Those at the conference and others, with their own serious work, were pushing back against such assaults. Pérez then discussed the development of the Museo Casa de León Trotsky, noting that it had in recent years added to its mission an emphasis on defending the right to asylum for the oppressed and the persecuted – which had been central to the last chapter of Trotsky’s struggle. Revitalizing the Museo, this commitment was reflected in its investigations of and support for the recent migration movement that had surged through Mexico. Inviting everyone to visit the Museo Casa de León Trotsky, she concluded with a quote from Trotsky’s final testament: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”

Day Three: Afternoon Session

The afternoon session was packed with a number of presentations.  The overall theme was Trotskyism in Latin America and the struggle against imperialism.  The final three sessions were devoted to an examination of Trotskyism in Cuba.  I can only mention a few impressions from the afternoon session. I once more refer to Paul LeBlanc’s summary for a more thorough description.

Ernest Tate, a veteran activist from Canada, gave a presentation on the role of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in changing the political climate in Canada towards an acceptance of the Cuban Revolution. His talk was largely a summary of a chapter from his memoir, Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 1960s. (The chapter is available online at Tate memoir Chapter 15.) 

Tate generalized the experiences of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee as an example of the importance of international solidarity work for the defense of anti-colonial revolutions not only in Cuba, but also Vietnam and Algeria. He defended the politics of gathering political resistance around a single issue. 

Another presenter, Burak Sayim, a member of the DIP (Workers Revolutionary Party) of Turkey, gave a talk on Che Guevara and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. He maintained that Che subscribed in practice to the theory of permanent revolution.  I would have questioned Sayim on this had there been time. While it is true that Che departed from the Stalinists by devoting his last years to the expansion of the revolution internationally, he at the same time failed to see the revolutionary potential of the working class, concentrating his activity on the attempt to create guerilla foci among the peasants in the countryside.  Che’s ideas were based not only on the experience of the Cuban Revolution, but on what he took to be the model of the Chinese Revolution. While there may have been some outward resemblance, Che’s rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class was, I would maintain, completely at odds with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.  

Rafael Bernabé from Puerto Rico, gave a presentation on the role of the Communist Party in Puerto Rico in defanging the labor movement on that island.  To quote LeBlanc’s summary,

The Puerto Rican Communist Party – the central force in building Puerto Rico’s powerful labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s – was committed to building an alliance with the “progressive” and “democratic” imperialism of the United States, particularly in the struggle against fascism during World War II. To facilitate this, the Puerto Rican Communist Party liquidated itself, which consequently facilitated the collapse of the labor movement. An economic boom combined with Cold War anti-Communism resulted in substantial political disorientation. Bernabé recalled that Trotsky had emphasized the need, in the Americas, for an “Americanized” Bolshevism to confront and defeat American imperialism. Instead, a bureaucratized Bolshevism (in the form of Stalinism) ended up confronting American imperialism – and had proved incapable of bringing victory. The struggle must continue, based on lessons learned from the past.

Bryan Palmer from Canada, the author of an important biography of the founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon, gave a presentation on Cannon that emphasized that the stereotypical view of Cannon as lacking theoretical depth is completely mistaken.  I quote from Paul LeBlanc’s excellent summary of Palmer’s remarks,

Bryan Palmer, drawing on new research for the upcoming second volume of his James P. Cannon biography, discussed the relationship of Cannon and another founder of US Trotskyism, Max Shachtman, with each other and with Trotsky, from 1928 through the 1930s. Cannon has had an misleading reputation of being provincial, weak on internationalism, and “innocent of theory,” while his former young protégé Shachtman has often been seen as cosmopolitan and theoretically sophisticated. Trotsky’s assessment in the early 1930s was that Shachtman was overly inclined to place “chumminess” above principle and too often unreliable on political matters; eventually he placed greater trust in Cannon. In the early 1930s a generational divide had opened up among US Trotskyists, with a younger group headed by Shachtman impatient and hostile toward the older Cannon – bringing to mind a Freudian sons-slay-the-father dynamic. Shachtman was soon reconciled with Cannon, a close and fruitful cooperation being generated by several major developments: the New York hotel workers strike; the Minneapolis teamsters strikes; the struggles against fascism and Stalinism; merger with another left-wing group headed by A.J. Muste; a battle against internal sectarian tendencies; and a decision to merge the US Trotskyists into the Socialist Party. Yet differences between the two reemerged: Shachtman was inclined to focus on negotiations and maneuvers with an organized tendency of militants in the Socialist Party (with hopes of perhaps taking over the Socialist Party), while Cannon (anticipating a split) preferred to build Socialist Party branches outside the control of the Socialist Party leadership, and helping advance labor struggles in California and Minnesota. When Trotskyists were – as Cannon anticipated – ejected from the Socialist Party, they took many labor militants and youth with them to form the Socialist Workers Party, that was able to play a leading role in helping to found the Fourth International in 1938.

S. Sándor John from the U.S. provided a riveting account of the Trotskyist movement in Bolivia in the 1950’s.  Bolivia was one of the few countries in the world, the others being Sri Lanka and Vietnam, where Trotskyism became a mass movement and captured a significant following in the working class. In Bolivia, the most important segment of society, the powerful the tin miners’ union, were solidly in the camp of Trotskyism.  Sandor described several near revolutions in the 1950’s and both the heroism and the errors on the part of the Bolivian Trotskyists. Those errors lead to the consolidation of power by a bourgeois nationalist party that turned against the working class.  Sandor, a Latin American historian, did a great deal of original research and interviews with veterans of this struggle. It is not possible to capture the flavor of his presentation in a broad-brush overview. 

There were three presentations on the history of Trotskyism in Cuba.  I was only able to absorb a few pieces of information from these presentations. Hopefully when all this material is published it will open new doors to research in this area. There were two separate periods in the history of Trotskyism in Cuba. The first was initially inspired by Trotsky and the struggle of the Left Opposition in the 1920’s and 1930’s. This current of Cuban Trotskyism seems to have disappeared sometime in the 1940’s as a result of repression by both the Cuban government and the Stalinists. A separate current of Cuban Trotskyism emerged in the 1950’s that originated out of the work of Juan Posadas.  This current of Cuban Trotskyism survived sometime into the late 1960’s (there are some disputes as to the exact date).  While the Trotskyists were supportive of the Cuban Revolution, they ran afoul of the Stalinist elements in the Cuban leadership. The upshot was the proscription of their newspaper and the jailing of its remaining members in the mid 1960’s. Rafael Acosta from Cuba  spoke about the last days of Cuban Trotskyism after the revolution.   Ricardo Márquez from Mexico spoke about one of the founders of the Cuban Communist Party who became sympathetic to the Left Opposition, Julio Antonio Mella.  Caridad Massòn from Cuba spoke about an early leader of Cuban Trotskyism, Sandalio Junco. Massòn questioned whether Junco could really be considered a Trotskyist.  She questioned whether Junco, who was murdered by Stalinist assassins in 1942, was killed for his political affiliation or for some other unkown reason. 

I may have misinterpreted her remarks, but I thought this was a back-handed attempt to legitimize the history of Cuban Stalinism.  I was not the only one who had this reaction to Massòn’s remarks.  One of the panelists from Mexico got up and stated that while there may be different currents within the Marxist tradition, Stalinism is not a Marxist current in any sense.  A lively discusion was elicited by these presentations which touched on the hostility towards Trotskyism in Cuba. Castro’s diatribe against Trotskyism at the Tri-Continental Congress in 1966 was mentioned. But it was also mentioned that there were periods in which the Cuban leadership evinced, if not a sympathy for Trotsky, then a certain degree of respect. The turning point in the attitude to Trotsky came with the publication in 2008 of Leonardo Padura’s novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which for the first time depicted to the Cuban public a sympathetic if not uncritical portrait of Trotsky.  (See my Interview with Frank García Hernández for more on this topic.)

The conference formally ended with the singing of the Internationale by the audience.

Farewell to Cuba       

Frank had planned one last event following the conference – an original musical arrangement composed especially for the Conference.  The composers were a duo from Colombia and Cuba, Santiago Barbosa and Luna Catalina Tinoco. Frank had arranged for us to convene in a bar and performance space that evening, La Bombilla Verde, where we were treated to the world premiere of a musical piece dedicated to Trotsky. This was truly a unique experience, one that I will always remember fondly.  Following the musical event there was some discussion about making this an annual event, with the next edition possibly to take place in Brazil next year.  I said my goodbye’s to Frank and the international friends I made at this conference. 

I left Cuba the next day with a positive feeling knowing that some seeds had been planted.  We will see what fruit they bear.

Alex Steiner, New York, June 17, 2019

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