What Was it Anyway?

Reviewed by Paul

Sean Matgamma (ed.), The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism: Debates, essays and confrontations of post-Trotsky (London: Workers Liberty, 2015), 780 pp., $30.

Not so many decades ago, Susan Sontag pronounced Communism to be “successful fascism,” presumably a system that would endure in the East Bloc for generations if not centuries. Back in the 1950s, in her cold war classic The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt congratulated the past victims of American slavery for being downright fortunate, at least compared to the victims of Russian (and German) totalitarianism, in the Russian case apparently a Red Nightmare without end. In truth, the Soviet Union, the whole East Bloc, China, Cuba and Vietnam essentially provided the Necessary Enemies for American capitalism’s military-industrial economy and prompted the ideological overlay articulated by liberal and conservative intellectuals alike. Now we are a quarter century past the breakup of the USSR, and the discussion seems to have revived, most notably from the Left, with Michael Lebowitz, an advisor to the late Hugo Chavez, making the argument that socialism may take centuries marked by regular setbacks – assuming that ecological survival after another century of class society is even possible.

Discussion of “State Capitalism” (or something else like it), carried on today perhaps most vigorously among Chinese Marxists, last hit its peak in the 1940s, and as the title of this vast compendium suggests, mainly after the assassination of Leon Trotsky. Before and even in the midst of the Second World War, capitalism was thought by many to be doomed in near time, succeeded by some form of state-controlled society. Would it be fascism, communism or something else, like a higher level of the New Deal so deeply desired by millions of left-leaning Americans? Victory of the Allies, notwithstanding dreadful reports of past and present persecutions and forced migration of those deemed unfriendly to Stalin’s regime, raised the Red Army prestige to the max and seemed for an extended moment to promise an era of peace ahead.

No such thing. The critics of what was called “Stalinism” had been furiously pronouncing that the contradictions within Russia would make any postwar peace impossible. Hawkish Harry Truman was the one with the (atomic) power to make world peace impossible, and the Russians walked into his trap--or brought it upon themselves, according to different theories. At any rate, Stalinism survived….and the theorists of that evidently mysterious system multiplied their efforts.

Trotskyists, compelled since the end of the 1920s to prove logically that Stalin’s bureaucracy had betrayed the true course of Lenin (naturally also, Trotsky), were not the only theory-spinners on the Left, but they were the most determined and prolific. Hence, all these decades later, The Two Trotskyisms. Never, perhaps, has one volume--stretching the binding almost to the breaking point—seen so much intense argumentation, largely drawn from the journals of the 1940s-50s -- “largely,” because the introduction by the editor, naturally a Trotsykist graybeard, is a book in itself running well over a hundred pages.

There is a conceptual problem here, from the outset. A relatively major school of thought or two, within or at the fringes of Trotskyism, offered what can only be called a third or fourth Trotskyism well beyond the “two” of the titles. The global reputation of C.L.R. James, one of the militantly dissenting theorists, has survived the halcyon days perhaps better than any in the two streams, with the possible exception of theorist and detective story novelist Ernest Mandel. Another problem is even greater. The loyal or orthodox followers of Trotsky believed, long after his death, that Stalinism, authoritarian state control of the economy in the name of socialism, constituted a sort of “deformed workers’ state,” eminently worth defending during the Second World War (not that, ideas apart, Trotskyists had much role in defending Russia), destined to survive Stalinism and return to a truer course. For them as for most of the rest of the world, the role of the Red Army and Russian civilians in defeating the Germans had more or less saved civilization. The theory of a better society emerging could be extended willy nilly to all sorts of places, and Communists leaving their respective parties, along with those remaining, looked to the third world liberation struggles led by avowed Marxist-Leninists with great hopes, in some cases even today. In the case of Cuba and Vietnam, Trotsky loyalists actually recovered from political marginality to play valuable if not usually leading roles in the US and a few other locations where support and antiwar sentiment at large could be usefully organized.

The other Trotskyism, known as the Third Camp (for its opposition to both capitalist and communist “camps”), the very one polemically supported by editor Matgama, was in quite a different place. One section, hewing to class struggle doctrine, has for more than a half century found ways to support militant sections of organized labor. An opposing section, led by polemicist-strategist and Trotsky-translator Max Shachtman, drifted sharply rightward during the 1950s-60s, straight into the arms of the US labor bureaucracy. Third Camp theorists of both types held to the view that all authoritarianism in the name of Marxism was wickedly false, a denial of the true history and destiny of labor.

The hundreds of pages of The Two Trotskyisms are not for the faint of heart. Had the debate been more two-sided or many-sided, it would surely have been more approachable. The editor has editorially, with few exceptions, deemed one side (with many participants) to be unequivocally correct, the other side (with fewer participants, quite a few of them destined to be cursed by their critics) utterly mistaken and, in polemical spirit, treated as downright perverse. The orthodox Trotskyists lose on points, if not by a knockout. Nevertheless, by dint of vast documentation from Trotskyist journals and even internal bulletins (these mimeographed documents were once all the rage, and with cheap postage, reached members eager to self-educate…and argue among themselves), this volume contains a treasury of Marxist formulations along with a fair amount of Dirty Fighting (picking on personalities, using nasty language, etc).

It would be unfair to say that this book is for specialists or those with a somewhat perverse interest in the intellectual arguments among groups of only a few hundred, polemicizing vigorously and sometimes venomously against each other. Disappointment and disillusionment with the Soviet Union is an inescapable trope of the twentieth-century Left. The complexities of what it might mean for orthodox (or self-described orthodox) Marxist-Leninists to lead movements against colonialism across a vast swath of would-be nations remain very much a mystery. That very disillusionment, indeed, offers hawks like US representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power, a rationalization for her continuing strategy of war, war and more war, all in the name of humanitarianism. (She also introduces the newest edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, no incidental connection: military conquest of the planet is pure kindness and surely will – with luck, smart bombs and many trillions of tax dollars – banish totalitarianism forever.)

The arguments within The Two Trotskyisms, in short, are real. No short review can do them justice, but perhaps it is useful to raise a central point, both present and absent in this volume. What, the critics of Stalin’s seizure of power asked, did state ownership of the means of production mean, after all? Even the mildest socialists had assumed that the state would advance in its ownership, step by step, as the working class voted socialist politicians into office. Only anti-socialists predicted that State Socialism would be anything but benevolent…except to capitalists. Hardly anyone, among the world’s leading socialists, thought avowed Marxists would come to power in the backwoods of the globe, and few socialists before the Russian Revolution even criticized the ravaging of the underdeveloped world by competing empires, the human (and nonhuman) slaughter that predicted today’s eco-devastation.

Grim reality forced itself upon Marxists at the outbreak of the First World War, and perhaps, from one perspective, the Russian Revolution was mainly a consolation for the failure of that larger dream, the patient march of the western proletariat to a power that would, true to Marx himself, finally dissolve the State.

Marxists of the 1920s-40s could not see it this way, of course. Russian Communism, love it or hate it, would be central for an age. C.L.R. James offered one way out of the narrative of State Capitalism Russian-style as good, evil or even a mixture of both. For James and a little circle of thinkers and activists around him, the key was not who owned the factories and such, but rather the social relations of the people working in them. Did they share the labor democratically, make the key decisions from the center of production rather than having orders dictated from above? It is a good question, even if James and his comrades did not grasp that it had already been asked in general form by the Industrial Workers of the World, among others, a generation before the Russian Revolution. It may also—as James claimed—to be closer to Marx’s own intent than mere change of ownership. Does it still matter in societies where production has largely shifted abroad? Another point worth pondering.

Logic chopping will always prove more interesting than vegetable chopping, for some members of today’s households (I hesitate to be gender specific), and in The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism, there may be a record number of logics to chop, within a single volume. To mix metaphors: reader, dive in, if you are so inclined. No fanatical reader in the field of Trotskyism will want to miss the opportunity.

Reviewed by Paul Buhle Madison, Wisconsin paul_buhle@brown.edu