Friday, February 12, 2010

The Long Strange Posthumous Life of Leon Trotsky, by David McReyonlds

A very interesting piece by David McReynolds.  David is not and never has been a member of the SD, USA. He has done yeomen service for the cause.This reflects David's view of the split in the original Socialist Party, USA. We are thankful for his permission to post this article.  

(EdgeLeft is an occasional column by David McReynolds, it can
be circulated without further permission)

The Long Strange Posthumous Life of Leon Trotsky

Historically the Socialist Party USA had two major splits. The
first was after the Russian Revolution, when there
was an international split in all socialist parties between
those who accepted the leadership of Lenin's Third
International and those who didn't. In the US, Debs, who had
proclaimed himself "a Bolshevik from the tip of my head to
the tips of my toes" -- reflecting the overwhelming
international support for the Russian Revolution -- then led
the Socialist Party in rejecting Lenin's "21 demands".

There followed the split which led to the formation of the
Communist Party. The second major split - (actually two
in almost one year) - was the right wing split in 1936 by the
Social Democratic Federation which wanted to support
Roosevelt, breaking with Norman Thomas, and the split by the
Socialist Workers Party which, under James Cannon,
had entered the Socialist Party and then in 1937 split, taking
much of the youth of the Socialist Party with it.

By the 1960's (in fact even by 1951, when I joined the
Socialist Party) both the Socialist and Communist Parties were
shadows of the past, battered by various currents. The
Communist Party was never able to build a mass base here
after the Cold War began - Communism was seen not simply as
"radical" but as "treasonous". The Socialist Party, in no
small part because, fearful it might be accused of being
communist, spent too little time on what it favored,
and too much time making sure its skirts were clean. (There is
nothing simple about this - the Communist Party always
had internal dissent, and there was a serious left wing in the
Socialist Party, which I joined when I came into the SP).

Thus when we leap forward to the "final split" in the SP in
1972 we are talking about midgets. Max Shachtman took out
his people to form the Social Democrats USA (actually, he had
the majority at the 1972 convention, so for a brief moment
he was the SP - it is ironic that it is Shachtman's group
which has since totally vanished). Michael Harrington
finally broke with Shachtman and split to form the Democratic
Socialist Organizing Committee which morphed into
today's Democratic Socialists of America. The remnants of the
old Socialist Party, some on the left, some on the right,
regrouped under Frank Zeidler in 1973 to form what is today
the Socialist Party USA, and which is, pretty much, the
legitimate heir to the party of Debs and Thomas. (It is under
the banner of this group that I ran for President in
1980 and 2000).

In the real world nothing is static. The Socialist Party,
which has about 1,000 members, has attracted newer members
who are not aware of the history, and whose radicalism
includes an admiration to Lenin and Trotsky. The SP is
not anywhere near another split - only genuine Trotskyist
groups can split when they have less than a 1,000 members.
But I've been fascinated by this odd posthumous life of
Trotsky, and want to reflect on it here.

There really aren't any Leninists running around - there are
lots of people who belong to "Marxist/Leninist" groups, such
as the Communist Party, but there are simply not a dozen
different Marxist/Leninist groups in this country. There are
large numbers of socialists who are not even aware that there
was a Marxist tradition before Lenin, and independent
of Lenin. There must be a few Stalinist groups, I am sure I
could find them on google, but not even the
Communist Party today counts as Stalinist. Stalin has almost
no heirs. In fact, the interesting thing about
Stalin is that almost no one wanted to duplicate his politics.
The Japanese and Italian Communist Parties broke with
Moscow very early, not long after Tito had taken Yugoslavia
out of the "Communist Bloc". Mao (a man Stalin
once thought might best be "eliminated") defied Stalin almost
from the beginning. The Vietnamese were careful,
in taking aid from both China and the Soviet Union, not to
duplicate the Soviets in their own political patterns
(there were never any purge trials in Vietnam to equal those
in the Soviet Union). And Cuba stands almost in
its own tradition, bending to Russia when it depended of
Moscow's aid, but building on Cuba's own traditions.

It was as if everyone looked at Stalin and thought "there is a
lot there we don't want to repeat". Even the Soviets, to the
astonishment of the West, broke with their own "tradition"
when Stalin died, and, after the murder of Beria, allowed
a peaceful transfer of power to Khrushchev.

But Trotsky while dead, is still very much alive. Sometimes as
a ghost on the far right - Max Shactman became the first
true neo-conservative, embracing the system. His followers
took key positions in the Reagan Administration and in the
right wing of the Democratic Party. Younger readers may find
it hard to believe (I admit that even I do) that Shachtman,
who went into the Communist Party in its early years, traveled
to the Soviet Union, was a significant leader
of the American Communist Party, ended his life supporting the
US invasion of Cuba (the Bay of Pigs), the US
invasion of Indochina, shifted from a position critical of
Israel to one of fervent support of Israel. I knew Shachtman
well, and while I didn't like the man, or trust him, I would
never have thought he would have ended in the camp of the

The original Trotskyist movement in this country formed in the
late 1920's, headed by James Cannon and Max
Shachtman. It was authentically revolutionary, had an
honorable tradition of work in the trade union movement.
It reflected the international split, following Lenin's death,
between Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet
Party, and Trotsky, the brilliant, courageous military leader
of the Red Armies. Stalin insisted that a world
revolution was not in the cards history had dealt, that the
only hope was to build "socialism in one country".
Trotsky, by far the more revolutionary, and internationalist,
argued that "socialism in one country" would become
bureaucratic, militarized, and fatally "deformed". Both men
were right. There was to be no world revolution.
Germany, which had a powerful socialist movement, did not have
a revolution and could not rescue the young Soviet
Union. Trotsky was right, the Soviet Union became a police
state. There was one crucial shift, however, which
caused Trotsky to the end of his life to argue that the Soviet
Union had to be defended in any conflict with
the West - private property had been collectivized, and the
old class had been destroyed. Shachtman split over
the matter of the Soviet invasion of Finland, setting up what
would beome the Independent Socialist League, which
lasted until it merged into the Socialist Party in 1958.

Some contempoary Trotskyist groups, such as the ISO
(International Socialist Organization) represent what
might be called Shachtman's radical positions of the 1950's.
The official Trotskyist group, the Socialist Workers
Party, long since became a cult, focused on support of Cuba
largely ignoring its own Trotskyist past. There are
other groups which owe a debt to Trotsky - Solidarity, while
hardly an orthodox Trotskyist group,
comes out of that background. New Politics, founded by Julius
and Phyllis Jacobson (and a journal on which I was once a
member of the editorial board) had its origins in a kind of
"left Shachtmanite" position. I felt I served as
the "shabbas goy" on the editorial board, since I was
primarily a pacifist, and had never been a Trotskyist.
At one point - and perhaps the last intellectually significant
split in the Trotskyist movement - Bert Cochran formed
a new publication, the American Socialist, which had a brief
useful life but could not be sustained.These groups
have made real contributions to the American Left.

They made, for the most part, a very serious effort to uphold
the best of the Russian Revolution, while being
frank about the disaster of Stalin. Some of the Trotskyists
did finally face the problems inherent in Leninism,
the vanguard theory of change, the concept of democratic
centralism, and the fact Trotsky himself was not
really any nicer than Lenin. There are always apologies made
for the violent suppression of the workers
uprising at Kronstadt - and I wish the Trotskyists, and
Leninists, some of whom are now in the Socialist
Party, would realize that if one can justify mass murder
because the situation demanded it, they should be
much more hesitant in writing off the Socialist Parties in the
West because they, too, made compromises. I guess
my question to the Leninists is why are crimes and mistakes
acceptable if committed by the followers of Lenin,
but not if committed by the non-Communist left. (Thus far the
best answer I've heard is that in the name of the
revolution, murder, while regrettable, is defensible).

The Workers World Party, formed in 1956, when the Socialist
Workers Party had a split over the Hungarian
Revolution, (WWP supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary)
became a thorn in the side of many of us, with its
range of front groups - the International Action Center,
ANSWER, etc. In due time WWP had a split of its own,
the Party of Socialism and Liberation, which took ANSWER with
it. WWP still exists.

If one had time and the inclination, the list of those who
were in the Trotskyist movement, or touched by it, is truly
remarkable. Dwight Macdonald's Politics, Dissent Magazine, and
literally dozens of small Trotskyist groups.
My own primary mentor, A. J. Muste, was briefly - very briefly
- in the Trotskyist movement. The Trotskyist movement
has had one great advantage over the Communists - with very
few exceptions they never actually had power.
And thus they could be pure. All those who hold state power
will find that it forces compromises.

So much for this very too brief run down. I have read Trotsky,
and Lenin, and Stalin, and a number of others from
that period. I liked Lenin and still do - I just don't agree
with him. My own path led me to Gandhi. I liked Trotsky
a bit less, though I concede he was brilliant. Issac
Deutscher, in one of his three volumes on Trotsky, cites the
case where, in one of the inner-party fights, Trotsky felt he
had to make a temporary peace with Stalin. The price
which Stalin exacted was that Trotsky withdraw his support
from two of his own key allies. Which Trotsky did. Not
surprisingly, his allies, once abandoned, sided with Stalin in
the next round of in-fighting and helped seal Trotsky's

All of which brings me to a deeply flawed film I rented from
Netflix - Exile in Buyukada.Deeply flawed because
while showing Trotsky's arrival in Turkey, where he spent the
first period of his exile, the sound track, featuring a
narration by the wonderful actor, Vanessa Redgrave, is
"buried" under the music. There are occasional
sub-titles, but essentially the film is only worth watching
for the sense of that period. And it is to that sense that
I now want to turn my attention, (while, by pure chance,
listening to a new recording of a Shostakovitch work,
featuring the Internationale).

Let's leave aside the manipulations of Shachtman, the
betrayals of the Neocons, the chaos created by Workers
World . . . and turn back to the events in the Soviet Union.
That Trotsky would be expelled from the Communist
Party and sent into exile was unthinkable. He had been
essential to the revolution. He did not leave the young
Soviet Union as a dissident - he left it as a believer in the
revolution. He and his wife knew they faced death
wherever they went, from Stalin's agents (who did finally
murder him when he was in Mexico).

Trotsky had no allies within the socialist movement. He
despised the socialist parties of the West. The problem
was that he had no allies at all except for the opposition to
Stalin which, in the Soviet Union, could not be
expressed without risking certain death. In the West the
Trotskyist movement was a small splinter in the
side of the Communist movement, under steady ideological
attack as "agents of the State". To support Trotsky
was genuinely heroic - no one was going to pay you! You had no
chance at career advancement. You had
no allies in power anywhere in the world. The Communists would
check out books by Trotsky from public
libraries in order to destroy them (and I knew one
Shachtmanite who checked out those same books from
public libraries in order to save them from destruction -
theft in the name of love).

The Communists held power in the Soviet Union. Their parties
in Western Europe were strong. And strong even
as far away as Indochina, and China, and Japan.

So those of us who have basic disagreements with Trotsky -
essentially the same disagreements we have with
Lenin - should pay the history of Trotsky some respect. He was
no a democrat. It has been said, by one of those
in post-Soviet Russia, that if Trotsky had won the fight
against Stalin the outcome would have been just as
many executions - but with a far more literary flavor. The
sadness of Trotsky's life is that once the internal fight
in the Soviet Union had been decided, Trotsky was an heroic
but lost figure. His followers in the US ended
on the subversive list, were hounded from their jobs by the

But always and always, those who took Trotsky's side cannot
help but look back and think what the Soviet
Union might have been if only Stalin had lost that fight. I'm
very much among those who feel that American
socialists need to look to American history - not Russian or
Chinese or Cuban history - to chart our course.
But no one who has looked back at the early part of the 20th
century can fail to be thrilled
by that moment when it seemed as if the workers were actually
in control of history. It was this
painful memory Trotsky carried with him as he began the first
of his exiles in Turkey.

May I suggest - though my Trotskyist and Leninist friends will
not hear me - that the greatest honor one could
pay to Leon Trotsky would be to let him rest with the honor he
earned. And, as he broke with Stalin, so let us
break with all undemocratic efforts at revolution, which would
make human beings merely "means to the
end". Humanity - each life - is an end in itself. As A.J.
Muste said, "there is no way to peace - peace is
the way". So too, revolution begins now, as we empower
ourselves to think for our own time.

(David McReynolds worked for the War Resistes League for 39
years, retired in 1999, and lives with his two cats on the
Lower East Side. He is a former Chair of the War Resisters
International. He can be contacted at:

No comments:

Post a Comment