To understand, there is no better place to start than here

By Robert Fine


Review of Sean Matgamna: The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism: The fate of the Russian Revolution volume 2 (London: Workers Liberty, 2015)

Faced with the slaughterhouse that Russia had become under Stalin’s rule, faced with the Pact that Stalin forged with Hitler to divide up Poland between them (and hand the largest Jewish population in the world to the most deadly antisemite in the world), faced with the brutalities of the Soviet Union’s own military expansionism in Poland and Finland, Leon Trotsky did not hesitate to use the word ‘totalitarianism’ to refer to the regime of barbarism practiced in the USSR and by the USSR in the countries it occupied. Nor did he hesitate to liken the rule of barbarism emerging in the USSR to that emerging in Nazi Germany.

Trotsky recognised that the system of property and power arising in the USSR was not the same as that arising in Nazi Germany, but this appeared to him as less significant compared with what they shared in common. In this regard, Trotsky was right. True, Trotsky in his own imagination still clung to the remnants of social ownership, state property, rational bureaucracy and proletarian power that had once characterised the post-revolutionary social landscape. Social theory often lags behind social development and we should not be too surprised if in his ongoing attempts to understand the dizzying rise of totalitarianism in both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Trotsky sometimes found himself a few paces behind. Famously he held on to his characterisation of Russia as a ‘degenerated workers state’.

What is more remarkable is that Trotsky was wise both of the increasingly anachronistic formulations nearly all Marxists used to close their eyes to what was a terrifyingly new and incomprehensible reality and to the multiple excuses most Marxists used not put all their resources into resisting the triumph of this reality. This was not only true in relation to the Soviet Union but also in relation to Nazi Germany. If talk of a ‘degenerated workers state’ was a way of evading reality in the one case, the image of antisemitism as a mere instrument for the repression of the proletariat, peripheral to class domination, destined to disappear as Nazi rule was consolidated, was no less the illusion of most Marxists in the other case. Even looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to date the evolution of Stalinism and Hitlerism into totalitarian forms of domination. Perhaps it was a bit earlier in the former than the latter but in both cases it was some time around the mid to late 1930s. It is small wonder, then, if the conceptualisation of the world failed to keep up with the world itself – even in the case of a writer, activist and former front-runner of the Russian Revolution like Leon Trotsky, who never abandoned his efforts face up to the present, to understand even that which was most immediately difficult to understand, to resist solace in the phantoms of the past.

One of the many strengths of Sean Matgamna’s edited collection on The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism (London: Workers Liberty, 2015), and in particular of the introduction he wrote to it – which in itself is an expression of a political life’s work as the most original, critical and humane Trotskyist thinker of his age – is to read Trotsky’s late writings in a developmental mode (i.e. in terms of Trotsky’s direction of travel) and in a situated mode (i.e. in terms of what Trotsky was doing when he wrote what he wrote), rather than as a collection of fixed ideas and abstract formulae that had long since lost any human meaning (i.e. the Orthodox Trotskyist ways of reading Trotsky). There is a vast difference between using words like ‘degenerated workers’ state’ to signify apologetics for the brutal Stalinist regime and using these words to signify a determination to resist and overcome totalitarian rule. The words might be the same but the meaning of the words in their actual political use was quite different.
While Trotsky’s cultivated instinct was to resist oppression from whatever source it came, the basic instinct of orthodox Trotskyism was to decide which ‘camp’ to support and which to oppose and then subordinate all other moral and ethical considerations to the primacy of one camp over the other. This method, the method of seeing the world in terms of camps and declaring one camp to be the ‘progressive’ one and the other camp to be the camp of ‘reaction’, unfortunately continues to this day – for example, in the form of a dichotomy between ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘imperialism’.

Today it is a common political decision of inheritors of the orthodox Trotskyist mantel to support any movement or regime they place in the camp of ‘anti-imperialism’, notwithstanding their democratic deficiencies, racist and antisemitic proclivities, and oppressive practices toward the very people they purport to represent. There is of course nothing wrong in making distinctions between power and resistance, imperialism and anti-imperialism, oppressor and oppressed, etc. but there is something politically disabling in fetishizing these categories, turning them into absolutes, and substituting them for thought. Worse still, representatives of orthodox Trotskyism like James Cannon, or Gerry Healey after him in the UK, imagined themselves as little totalitarian leaders, bossing around their small bands of followers, tailoring reality to their image of it.

By contrast, there is something very refreshing about Sean Matgamna’s generous as well as critical spirit in the way he approaches Trotsky himself, the orthodox Trotskyists gathered around James Cannon, and the heterodox Trotskyists with whom he rightly identifies – the dissenting Trotskyists that gathered around Max Shachtman and the New International, brilliant men and women like C L R James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, Hal Draper, et al. Some remained Marxist, some chose the Western camp over the Soviet camp, and some made gargantuan exertions to revise and extend Marxism in the light of the experience of totalitarianism that no pre-existing body of political thought was equipped to confront.

Sean Matgamna himself is a child of this heterodox Trotskyism who has all his political life endeavoured to keep the tradition intellectually alive, politically active and ever responsive to a rapidly changing world today even when we find ourselves without any banister to hold on to. Perhaps no one of our generation has done more than him to scratch beneath formulae like ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ and ‘nationalism of the oppressor’ (in Ireland, Palestine, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, etc.), to uncover the human meaning hidden within these terms, to reach out for human solutions to the social, democratic and national questions they raise.

If the key question in the 1930s and 1940s was how to understand, respond to and overcome totalitarianism in power and the totalitarian tendencies of modern society, it is arguable whether Marxism was well equipped for this task. Perhaps we need to read Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism alongside Trotsky. One problem was the allure of totalitarian movements for revolutionary intellectuals both of the left and the right – an allure that undoubtedly attracted Cannon and the orthodox Trotskyists among others. Partly this was about the Siren songs of power. Sean Matgamna records their eulogies to the glorious ‘Red Army’, not to speak of its secret police, rising to the defence of the Soviet Union and then not only defeating the Germans in the East but also invading and occupying half of Europe after the war. In the eyes of orthodox Trotskyism the thin pretext of creating ‘deformed workers’ states’ simply sugared the pill of being in awe of Russian power.

The other problem was about the radical character of totalitarian movements, left and right. In their most self-confident moments, they were against ‘liberal’ notions of private property, rule of law, punishment, personal morality, family loyalty, state bureaucracy, legal justice, national boundaries, world culture, the idea of humanity itself, etc. They were ‘against’ not in the sense of being merely critical but of actively seeking to destroy all that they saw as rotten in the world. In this sense they were revolutionary. In actuality they ushered in the coming barbarism. Totalitarian movements devalued all values. The problem was not so much that Stalinism was counter-revolutionary but that totalitarians were hyper-revolutionary – throwing out every bloodied baby they could find with the bathwater.

Trotsky and to some extent Trotskyism did their best to make sense of what must have seemed utterly senseless, like the prioritised mass murder of millions of quite innocent people, but they were somehow too close to the phenomenon to do it the justice they sought. Yet to see how hard they tried, how valiantly they struggled, how readily they sacrificed their own futures for the sake of some basic understanding, there is no better place to start than here. I hope Sean Matgamna’s ‘introduction’ can be drawn together with other of his writings to speak to us directly in one volume.


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