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Trotskyism refuted? - A response to the ISN critique of Trotskyism

John McAnulty

27 February 2007

The Irish Socialist Network recently published a long article on Trotsky(see their website at, aimed at refuting Trotskyism as a way forward for the workers movement in Ireland.

The method of approach, a form of historical analysis, raised some eyebrows, as it is not long ago that the ISN stated that it was not interested in long articles about the past, preferring to operate in the here and now. Nevertheless, the article is to be cautiously welcomed as an advance on the usual name calling and slander that pass for debate on the Irish left.  It attempts to base an argument on history and, to some extent, to write a balanced article by acknowledging some of the strengths of the Bolshevik leaders.

That welcome must be tempered by a recognition that the article fails utterly. It turns out not to be about Trotskyism, but to rather be a refutation of Trotskyism, Leninism and the whole Bolshevik tradition. (Opposition to Stalinism is assumed by the tone of the article, but one would have thought that this would have been made more explicit).  During the article the author refers critically to the length of the Deutscher trilogy on Trotsky.   Deutscher himself complained that his work was too short to do justice to the issues of revolution and workers power that dominated Trotsky’s life.  In a similar way the ISN article begins by seeming rather long but concludes by being far too short for the task it sets itself, attempting to demolish some of the dominant theories of revolutionary Marxism in a few sentences without the necessity for evidence on which to base the refutation. One is left with the feeling that history has been waiting for the ISN author to record their opinion and set the record straight.

This fundamental weakness of method dominates the article.  We have a series of mini potted histories followed by an opinion.  The assumption is that history speaks for itself.  In reality the writer is interpreting history through a set of ideological positions that are not clearly set out.  This leads to circular argument where we learn that the ISN interpretation supports the ISN conclusion. Quelle surprise! 

That theory boils down to history as conspiracy. The conclusion is that the programme of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks was not what it appeared to be, a programme for the liberation of the working class, but rather its opposite, a plan to dominate and suppress the workers.  We are asked to discard the whole sweep of Lenin and Trotsky’s life on the basis of a few decontextualised quotes put forward by the ISN!

History never speaks for itself.  Theory informs historical practice.  To be fair to the subjects of the ISN article the writer would have to put forward the Bolshevik’s ideas, examine how they are contradicted by reality and by the Bolsheviks own internal contradictions and put forward their own alternate theoretical position.  This the writer fails to do.

This absence of theory leads to utter confusion at a number of points in the critique.  One example is on the Bolshevik insistence on internationalism and spreading the revolution beyond the frontiers of the USSR.  This insistence rests on the Bolshevik (and Marxist) understanding that human consciousness and relationships rest on a material basis.  It was simply inconceivable that the relationships of socialism could exist for long in a country where much of production was still feudal. The society had to have a strategy of advancing towards what Marx called abundance.  In the absence of such a strategy Marx had argued that ‘the same old crap’ of class exploitation was bound to reappear. It was equally inconceivable that a small economic bubble could abolish the law of value in an already globalised economy where the capitalist mode of production is dominant.  Because of confusion on this issue it sounds as if the author thinks that the difference between Stalin’s ‘Socialism in one country’ and the Marxist position is merely tactical.

Irish Trotskyists are not people who worship at the church of Lenin and Trotsky.  They are people who agree with the theoretical contributions of Lenin and Trotsky (in fact a rather rare species in Ireland and certainly not a description of left currents like the SWP or SP). Trotskyists are people who believe that concepts such as the Leninist concept of imperialism, of democratic centralism, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, of joining with others in democratic united fronts rather than the lowest common denominator of the popular front.  Anyone who wants to demolish Trotskyism will have to demolish these theories in the here and now rather than by simply advancing potted histories to support unfounded opinion.

Is the Leninist theory of imperialism still relevant?  If so the imperialist settlement in the North should be opposed by socialists and there should be no talk of Sinn Fein as part of the left.  Is the theory of permanent revolution applicable? If so the resolution of the national question should be a major part of the socialist programme.  Should our alliances be on the basis of what needs to be done, with socialists free to advance their own programmes?  If so any alliance with trade union bureaucrats should not be based on supporting said bureaucrats.  Any electoral alliances, such as those proposed by the ISN, should not end up at the lowest common denominator of social democracy.

As well as demolishing the arguments of Marxism the article should advance an alternative.  As it is, the critique has a slight flavour of anarchism without a coherent exposition of that current.  The strongest positive position put forward is of a frantic fetishism of unstructured ‘bottom up’ democracy.  This leads to a direct slander – the claim that the Fourth International is undemocratic. During the period covered by the article not only did the international organisation have procedure for opposition tendencies and currents but also a practice of people exercising those rights and a full debate around issues such as Cuba, armed struggle, our attitude to the Soviet union and so on. 

In the case of the ISN its attachment to democracy is a highly suspect position.  From outside the organisation appears both secretive and intolerant of criticism.  There is no mention on their website of the Campaign for an Independent Left (CIL).  This was a major initiative of the organisation from which they appear to have withdrawn, but their supporters are left without balance-sheet or explanation. Hardly the basis for a full democratic discussion!  When Socialist Democracy tried to engage them in what we saw as a fraternal discussion the response was distinctly lacking in warmth. 

The fetishism of unstructured democracy is not a Marxist position. Marxists support democracy.  They believe it can help prevent the decay of organisations but it is not a guarantee. Members of the ISN have in front of them the history of the Official republican movement and the current decay of the Provisionals.  It should be self-evident that a greater democracy would have slowed the decay of these organisations but not prevented it and that the motor of decay was in part mistaken political positions that eventually collapsed and also the fact that the new positions were based on the material interests of sections of these organisations and their supporters.  The great advantage of democratic centralism is that it is democratic, and democratic in such a way as to maximise political debate and education.

The ISN abhors cultism, but the argument put forward in the Trotsky article put it at the cusp.  If it advances beyond potted history to honestly and openly address the issues of theory and clearly present its own programme it will be doing Irish socialism a service.  If, despite protests, it continues with the method of the current critique it will become the cult it abjures, using ‘theory’ to attack others and copper-fasten positions decided in advance.


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