What’s so bad about being a Trotskyist?

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

So: what exactly is so bad about being a Trotskyist? The extent and gravity of the far left’s infiltration into Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party depends on who you ask.

For Corbyn’s opponents the presence of a virulent new revolutionary strain within the ranks seems very real. Wherever one looks, it seems, the Militant undead are rising under the cover of the membership surge to resume their abortive 1980s takeover project, lobbying aggressively to consolidate power in the hands of the party membership to enforce a form of Bolshevik ‘democratic centralism’, and employing the pro-Corbyn Momentum group – a cuckoo in the Labour nest – as their vehicle.

For Corbyn’s supporters such fears have more to do with the desire of the party’s old guard to hold on to power than the genuine threat of a leftist insurgency. They see the membership surge as the British expression of an international anti-austerity movement exemplified by new European parties such as Podemos and Syriza, Scotland’s Radical Independence Movement, and, across the Atlantic, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon.

But though there is fierce disagreement about the extent of any Marxist incursion, there is less dispute that it is a bad thing, whether understood as mortal threat or mere irritation. Though, as has been exhaustively documented, not every former Green, Liberal Democrat or returning Old Labour veteran has escaped the attentions of the party’s ‘Compliance Unit’, most have found a home in Labour’s increasingly broad church. But for most, it seems, Trotskyists, remain beyond the pale, distinguished by an unmistakeable whiff of sulphur.

The unacceptable face of radicalism

Why? The standard response seems straightforward enough: Labour is a social democratic party and they are revolutionary Marxists. Labour believes in the necessity of the state and the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy as an agent for progressive change. They want to break up the state and replace it with a network of popular assemblies practising a radical participative democracy. Labour believes capitalism can be made to work for the common good. They want a post-capitalist system based on the principle of co-operative production. And so on.

These are, of course, profound philosophical differences. But it is less often acknowledged that the far left is oriented to a distant horizon, prepared to play a long political game in pursuit of its ultimate objectives. Pick up a book on Marxist strategy or scan a typical Trotskyist ‘mission statement’ – for example that of the Socialist Party, or the Socialist Workers Party, or the Alliance for Workers Liberty – and it soon becomes clear that the eschatological goal of establishing a utopian workers democracy is discussed in rather the same terms as religious believers anticipate the Kingdom of Heaven. It will happen – one day.

For now, though, the imperative is to push for anti-austerity measures that can be implemented today, through conventional democratic means. A typical agenda might include the renationalisation of key industries, new wealth taxes, stronger trade unions and the reversal of public sector spending cuts. For sure, some proposals – notably speculations about taking the financial sector into public ownership – go far beyond what is proposed even by Corbyn and McDonnell, who thus far seem content to edge Labour back towards some form of what used to be considered garden variety social democracy.

But much of it would appeal even to moderate Labour members. And, for all its vaunted pragmatism, Labour has always permitted itself some latitude for dreaming. It is possible, for example, to be both a respectable member of today’s party and to believe in the smooth transition of Britain’s rapier neoliberal economy to an ecologically sustainable steady state system, or that its byzantine social security architecture can be rebuilt around a universal basic income, or that it can offload its nuclear arsenal.

And Labour continues to honour a British radical tradition tracing its lineage to the likes of the Levellers, the Chartists, William Blake, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and William Morris, a tradition that continues to find latter-day standard bearers, most recently, perhaps, Tony Benn (and to the extent that he was one of Benn’s acolytes, Corbyn himself). Morris, famously, was one of Tony Blair’s political idols, and along with Ruskin and Carlyle is a significant figure for the – still – influential Blue Labour project.

And yet to return to the thought of these heroes of the British labour movement is to enter a world at least as revolutionary as that of today’s Marxists. The major political statements of Ruskin and Morris, for example, Unto this Last and News from Nowhere, express a visceral hostility to an industrial capitalism they saw as imprisoning the great mass of workers in a hell of alienated labour, Morris going so far as to provide a blow-by-blow account of a bloody revolution in Trafalgar Square.

Ruskin, Morris and other early British radicals dreamed of a pastoral socialism that sought to liberate humanity’s creative capacities from capitalist utilitarianism. The influence of that radicalism showed itself in the wording of Labour’s original constitution, which as late as the 1990s promised to ‘secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. And it surfaced as recently as the mid–1970s when Benn, as Industry Secretary, attempted to push through reforms for a significant extension of worker self-management across major British industries.

The Arcadias of Ruskin and Morris, and Benn’s ideal of enfranchised labour, inhabit the same imaginative universe as the Marxist ideal of worker democracy, though the similarities are obscured by the very different literary and philosophical worlds in which each tradition moves. Marxist thought continues to employ a Teutonic philosophical grammar quite alien to the language of British socialism, being much more at home with cerebral abstraction than the romanticism of a Blake, Keir Hardie or Nye Bevan, and has a futurist orientation, tending to look ahead to the construction of gleaming new technologically advanced socialist cities in contrast to British radicalism’s penchant for rural idylls.

Utopian visions

But the mainstream left’s discomfort with the Marxist tradition runs deeper than a mere discomfort with abstruse modes of expression. To understand the profound social democratic suspicion of Trotskyism, with its complex ambience of allure and danger, it is necessary to explore the visionary thoughtworlds of the revolutionary years of the early 20th century, a time of open-ended dreaming that continues to inspire today’s radical socialists, particularly as personified by the life and work of Leon Trotsky himself.

For its supporters the Soviet Union’s first years were charged with a sense of utopian possibility, the 1917 Revolution seeming to herald the real prospect of Marxist insurgency across much of western Europe. Though the fledgling workers republic was battered by appalling trials – civil war, counter-revolution, blockades and economic destitution – the radical left looked to it for the first shoots of the new post-revolutionary society. The Soviets may have been in the proverbial gutter, but they were most definitely looking up at the stars: in 1924, amidst the chaos surrounding him, Trotsky in the closing pages of Literature and Revolution was still able to express Bolshevik revolutionary Prometheanism in the most exulted terms:

Communist life will not be formed blindly, like coral islands, but will be built consciously, will be tested by thought, will be directed and corrected. Life will cease to be elemental, and for this reason stagnant. Man, who will learn to build people’s palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic, will not only be able to add to his own life richness, brilliancy and intensity, but also a dynamic quality of the highest degree. The shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements.

Paul Le Blanc’s life of Trotsky quotes one observer’s as describing the revolutionary as ’A son of a bitch, but the greatest Jew since Jesus Christ’, but it may be more appropriate to draw a comparison with another Jew, St Paul. Trotsky continues to hold something of the same significance for today’s radical left as does the Apostle for evangelical Christians: both were eloquent, unflinching upholders of the faith who stayed true in the face of persecution, exile and eventual martyrdom. One of Trotsky’s supporters recalled the great man’s displeasure when challenged on a non-negotiable article of faith:

I felt the sweeping fury of LD’s wrath … his words cutting, his eyes flashing blue sparks of fire – I saw before me the figure of Moses, breaking the tablets with the Ten Commandments … and felt shaken.

Like St Paul, Trotsky could be hard. During its early years he was one of the Soviet regime’s most ferocious enforcers, leading the imposition of draconian economic and democratic controls deemed necessary to secure fragile Revolutionary gains. As a ruthless commander of the Red Army he could write:

We were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ’sacredness of human life’. We were revolutionaries in opposition, and have remained revolutionaries in power. To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only be solved by blood and iron.

Though his latter-day followers continue to debate endlessly the necessity for that harshness – was he right to support repression of the Soviets? Or to put down the Kronstadt rebellion? – any regrettable brutality is redeemed by his subsequent readiness, at grave personal risk, to defend the essential ideals of the Revolution against the corruption of Stalin’s creeping bureaucratisation.

Trotksy and family in exile. Image: Wikipedia

Both as an increasingly isolated figure within the USSR and in exile Trotsky worked ceaselessly to explain how the Revolution had been de-railed and might be set back on track. And, notoriously, for generations of social democrats, he developed strategies his followers continue to employ to pursue the revolutionary cause. Trotsky encouraged radicals to develop ’transitional programmes’ designed to build ‘revolutionary consciousness’ amongst the masses, to be implemented through clandestine ‘entryism’ into established centre-left parties. These concepts continue to form the essential foundations of long-term revolutionary strategy, allowing radicals to advocate progressive reform while keeping the ultimate objective of revolution in sight.

Such ostensible duplicity has earned Trotskyists a reputation for sly skullduggery, but that Machiavellian notoriety is somewhat flattering. Marxist entryists have failed to exert much lasting influence on centre-left parties, and certainly not in the UK, where even significant insurgencies such as those of the early 1980s were decisively quashed.

If anything it would be more accurate to suggest that the consistent failure of militants to gain significant political traction indicates a certain political innocence. Somewhat like Trotsky himself, who lost all of his political battles with the much more ruthless Stalin, revolutionaries tend to be rather more comfortable with discussion and ideas than practice. Trotsky, the great man of ideas, persisted in believing in the raw power of argument to win the day against the darker political arts. After one passionate address to an enthralled audience, a colleague warned an ebullient Trotsky: ‘Do you think Stalin is now considering how to reply to your arguments? You are mistaken. He is thinking of how to destroy you.’ Trotsky never lost his soaring faith in the evident rightness of his revolutionary cause, believing victory could be conjured through sheer visionary force. As one purple passage in his memoirs proclaimed:

The experience of my life, in which there has been no lack either of successes or of failures, has not only not destroyed my faith in the clear, bright future of mankind, but, on the contrary, has given it an indestructible temper. This faith in reason, in truth, in human solidarity, which at the age of 18 I took with me into the workers’ quarters of the provincial Russian town of Nikolaev – this faith I have preserved fully and completely.

‘Engineers of the soul’

The shining faith that continues to energise Trotsky’s contemporary followers has the capacity to both compel and disturb. It offers a robust design for a life of committed activism, but seems touched by little sympathy for the notion that human flourishing is a various, fragile, complex thing that might yet find expression through economic and political frameworks that do not necessitate the fragmentation of the state, the comprehensive transcendence of the market economy, or the replacement of representative forms of democracy with popular assemblies.

Some of the most eloquent scepticism about revolutionary absolutism has evolved within the Marxist tradition itself. In his Memoirs Victor Serge, a life-long socialist and erstwhile colleague of Trotsky’s, wrote:

Bolshevik thinking is grounded in the possession of the truth. The Party is the repository of the truth, and any form of thinking that differs from it is a dangerous or reactionary error. Here lies the spiritual source of its intolerance. The absolute conviction of its lofty mission assures it of a moral energy quite astonishing in its intensity – and, at the same time, a clerical mentality which is quick to become Inquisitorial. Lenin’s ‘proletarian Jacobinism’, with its detachment and discipline both in thought and action, is eventually moulded by the old regime, that is, by the struggle against despotism. I am quite convinced that a sort of natural selection of authoritarian temperaments is the result.

Trotsky was aware of and disturbed by Serge’s questioning, but his response to such challenges was – always – to redouble his resolve, to focus on one true way with even great intensity.

Serge’s doubts anticipate the classic liberal criticism of the revolutionary mind elaborated by Isaiah Berlin. In one of many reflections on the temptations of the absolutist impulse, his lecture Democracy, Communism and the Individual (PDF), Berlin suggested that belief in socialist revolution as a condition for human emancipation was a manifestation of a severe strand in post-Enlightenment thought that placed excessive trust in human rationality:

Rousseau formulates the basic proposition of Communism, Fascism and all other totalitarian orders, namely that if one is sure that one has the correct solution to the questions ‘How should men live?’ and ‘How should society be organised?’ one can, in the name of reason, impose it ruthlessly on others, since if they are rational they will agree freely; if they do not agree, they are not rational. This denies that different ideals of life, not necessarily altogether reconcilable with each other, are equally valid and equally worthy.

Berlin argues that the ‘scientific’ school of Marxism that inspired the early 20th century revolutionaries insisted that it should be clear to rational observers that the course of human history is shaped by a fundamental conflict between two classes of people: a small elite owning the means of economic production, and the masses forced to work for them. It follows that liberation for the greater part of humanity is possible only by erasing that division through revolutionary change. The instransigence of those who fail to acknowledge the logical necessity for revolution can only be explained by fidelity to the ruling class or a lack of knowledge correctible through exposure to Marxist reasoning.

For Berlin the notion that class affiliation rather than rational discourse should be the measure of an individual’s political perspective undermines the very concept of democracy, which supposes that the worth of an opinion should not be judged on the basis of the social position of those who hold it. If revolutionaries are permitted to regard their opponents as not only mistaken but wilfully irrational, it becomes possible to legitimate their forcible re-education. Berlin wrote

Stalin’s famous pronouncement that intellectuals are ‘engineers of human souls’ acquires a genuinely sinister import. The metaphor is one whereby there is only one healthy or efficient condition for the soul, namely when it harmonises with the inexorable movement of society governed by unalterable historical laws, and the business of intellectuals is to adjust the individual soul to the complex mechanism or organism – it does not matter which it is called – independently of its own conscious desires, ideals, aspirations.

Though Trotsky’s courageous opposition to Stalinist repression is indisputable, he was not untouched by something of the same belief in the malleability of post-revolutionary humanity. To return to Literature and Revolution:

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman … Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonic, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human being will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

This mechanistic faith that – to use Berlin’s term – ‘the crooked timber of humanity’ can be straightened out if only the right social framework can be found continues to electrify much contemporary Marxist rhetoric.

Beautiful abstractions

It might be said that it is not the irrationality of the militant left that provokes, but its extreme rationality. Its perennial tendency is to wish that reality itself might have the same orderly, aesthetic quality as a pleasing line of political argument: to believe in the sheer power of thought to resolve the seemingly irresolvable. The wider left has always been wary of defining too sharply its political objectives and the methods by which it seeks to pursue them, conscious of holding on to a certain open-endedness and sense of humility.

By comparison with the elaborate scaffolding of Marxist analysis liberalism is a rather humdrum political philosophy that can be stated with some brevity, seeking the modest – though itself always elusive – objective of creating a social space in which multiple conceptions of the good life can co-exist. The revolutionary inhabits a more elaborately structured, and perhaps more intellectually and aesthetically satisfying world of ideas. But for the liberal it is precisely that cold beauty that threatens to turn real lives, in the real world, ugly: to restrict rather than extend the scope of freedom by forcing it through the narrow filter of revolutionary doctrine.

The paradox is, perhaps, that if political thought is indeed to liberate, to help human creativity, in all its diversity, to flourish, it cannot itself become a work of art, a self-thwarting abstraction that threatens to constrict the lives of those it wishes to set free.

The featured image is a detail from a 1920 anti-Bolshevik propaganda poster.