Leon Trotsky Leon Trotsky. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica argues for the relevance of Trotsky’s notion of the united front in a review of John Kelly’s book Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain

Counterfire has already posted an excellent review of John Kelly’s book on Trotskyism by Alex Snowdon here, and I seek to build on that discussion.

Kelly’s book deserves attention, not just because it is researched thoroughly and well written, but because it asks a pertinent question for the labour movement in Britain.

Namely, Kelly is interested in why a revolutionary strand of the labour movement – ‘Trotskyism’ – continues to persist but why it nevertheless continues to fail to break through and become a mass phenomenon.

No study of British ‘Trotskyism’ in the last 40 years has emerged, but, at least on the surface, this should have been the time when ‘Trotskyism’ made a breakthrough.

Indeed, Kelly puts it provocatively: by the end of the Cold War, the Labour Party had moved rightward and Trotskyism’s main ‘competitor’ to the left of the Labour Party, the Communist Party, had all but disappeared.

Surely, if there was a moment for a breakthrough, this should have been it? Yet, ‘Trotskyist’ groups appear to have squandered the opportunity.

Over-emphasising the doctrinal factor

Born as a separate small strand in the global labour movement in the 1930s, when Trotsky concluded that the hold of Stalinism over the Communist movement had become so strong that it necessitated an organisation split, ‘Trotkyism’ (Trotsky himself eschewed the term, hence the quotation marks) for a long time existed on the margins of the left.

But the ‘Golden Age’ of ‘Trotskyism’ in Britain, when ‘Trotskyist’ groups appeared to be universally on the path towards growth, Kelly argues, started in the second half of the 1960s and ended in c. 1985. They then went through a period of disintegration, and then one of stasis, which lasts to this day, according to Kelly.

Parties like the Socialist Workers Party might have gone on to play an important role in major social movements during this period, like the Stop the War Coalition in the 2000s, and they might have gained significant influence in the wider labour movement as a consequence, but they still failed to ‘break through’.

Why was this? Kelly argues that ‘Trotskyist’ groups were characterised by three different logics from their beginnings, namely, that of a doctrinal sect, a political party and a social movement.

The former tendency, which crucially includes the notion of preserving the teachings of Leon Trotsky in particular, made the ‘Trotskyist’ groups incapable of successfully adapting to growth and to non-sectarian social movement work without undergoing crisis and disintegration as a result.

Kelly’s book appears to suggest that the sect logic allows ‘Trotskyist’ groups to persist because they offer members a political worldview but that any major outward turn by ‘Trotskyist’ groups in practice leads to crisis as the preservation of doctrine is unable to cope with the complexities of building social movements.

That ‘Trotskyist’ groups have tended to splinter is an accurate observation and a difficult dilemma for ‘Trotskyists’. But Kelly’s own diagnosis for why they have failed to break through is only partially convincing.

Going beyond doctrine

As Alex Snowdon argues, one major flaw in Kelly’s argument is that there is ‘too much preoccupation with what Kelly calls “doctrine” and not enough focus on how various groups actually responded to major issues arising in the contemporary world’.

Moreover, for me, Kelly dismisses too easily the importance of what he calls ‘external barriers to recruitment and retention’ (pp.120-122). These include objective trends that are independent of ‘Trotskyist’ doctrine: declining party figures in Europe since the 1980s; the end of the Cold War; and declining working class militancy after the defeat of the Miners’ Strike.

Kelly correctly notes that some groups, like the Socialist Workers Party and its international tendency (the International Socialist Tendency), did in fact grow despite these difficult external trends, but that its crisis came on the back of its attempt to deal with the problems of success in the 1990s and 2000s.

Indeed, the SWP appeared to grow in influence through social movement work like the Stop the War Coalition. Kelly contends it simultaneously lost members, which is disputable. It also recruited new, radicalised layers.

But the party did face a series of damaging splits after a relatively successful electoral vehicle, in the form of the Respect Coalition, to which the SWP was central, hit a fork in the road. Later, a rape scandal involving a leading figure in the party led to more splits and slow decline.

Combining the subjective and the objective factors

The example of the SWP does to some extent suggest that the subjective element – choices made by the party since c.1985 – did play a major role in allowing the party and its tendency to buck the apparent trend of decline after the end of what Kelly calls the ‘Golden Age of Trotskyism’.

Moreover, it would appear that the usual problem for ‘Trotskyists’ did re-assert itself in the SWP, namely, that its growth in influence once there was a turn outwards did indeed lead to crisis over time. When Counterfire split from the SWP in 2010, it in fact cited the SWP’s retreat from united front work as its reason.

But the problem for Kelly’s explanation is that there is no example of a revolutionary anti-capitalist group from any tradition associating itself with the revolutionary experience of 1917 which has made a lasting breakthrough in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

To some extent, therefore, the problem of the lack of a breakthrough has to be understood as a combination of subjective and objective factors.

Surely, the fact remains that most groups to the left of the mainstream social-democratic and traditional communist parties across Europe existed at the margins of society for much of the Cold War.

Born at a low ebb of the worker movement in the 1930s, the ‘Trotskyist’ groups were squeezed by the Stalinist and social-democratic parties, and then had to survive in the context of the long post-war boom, which only petered out in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The mode of being of the ‘Trotskyist’ groups, regardless of their doctrinal or ideological attachments, was to some extent necessarily that of sects trying to survive in a hostile environment. Any attempt to break out of a sect mentality would also necessarily lead to crises and splits.

Moreover, since the end of the Cold War, the ideological environment has remained hostile to revolutionary anti-capitalist groups. Although the organisations that they had competed with in the Cold War have been in decline since 1989, the revolutionaries’ own association with the experience of 1917 has created barriers that have reinforced these groups’ marginality.

This has been the case even though heterogeneous radical left formations often have filled the void left by rightward moving social democracy or traditional communist parties.

Despite an opening for the left, the message for the vast majority of activists of the labour movement has been that something different has to be attempted from what was tried the past, and the onus has remained on revolutionary anti-capitalists to prove the worth of Marxist ideas.

Overcoming the sect mentality

That in a sense means that the period since the end of the Cold War cannot be seen straightforwardly as one in which the revolutionary anti-capitalist left should have made a breakthrough.

Advances were indeed possible, but they were made difficult by objective circumstances. Moreover, mistakes were more costly for them, as their return to marginality reinforced sectarian tendencies within them.

Without discussing the concrete strategies and tactics employed by different groups in their concrete world-historical context, moreover, Kelly is unable to explain why some were more or less successful than others at different points.

Kelly does note that the International Socialist Tendency was, historically, one of the ‘Trotskyist’ groups that was less burdened with notions of historical continuity with Leon Trotsky and more ideologically heterogeneous and open.

Moreover, it was on a subjective level less encumbered by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, as it started from the premise that there was nothing socialist about the party-states associated with the USSR after the Stalinist turn.

So while he can explain its temporary resurgence after the end of the Cold War, Kelly merely asserts that the reasons for its failure had to do with the sect mentality.

But it is worth pointing out that the strength of the International Socialist tradition from its inception was in its refusal to treat any thinker in the classical (i.e. pre-Stalinist) Marxist tradition as an infallible authority. Indeed, its founding act was to rebel against Trotsky’s defence of the USSR as a workers’ state and his predictions for the post-Second World War era.

The united front as an anti-dote to the sect and a key to reviving classical Marxism

It may be worthwhile to suggest that any loose attachment to the term ‘Trotskyism’ in this instance did not lead to the canonisation of any particular set of texts but at most denoted the need to reject the Stalinist departure from the notion of the classical Marxist tradition that, in the words of Karl Marx, ‘the emancipation of the working class has to be the act of the working class itself’.

In that sense, ‘Trotskyism’ seems to be the only significant tendency in the labour movement that preserved the notion of ‘socialism from below’ but also preserved a sense of the importance of the Leninist party. That Trotsky embodied the notion that classical Marxism can lead to a successful working class uprising, the October Revolution in Russia, but also reject the Stalinist counter-revolution, is important.

But his ideas should be treated as a part, and indeed an important part, of the classical Marxist tradition that includes figures like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci and others. Reviving the tradition means developing its ideas to fit with the needs of the labour movement today.

Here, the spirit of Trotsky himself is important. Indeed, one important notion that ought to help revolutionaries in the task of breaking from the sect mentality is the united front method. This was not Trotsky’s idea, but he is centrally linked to its defence from Stalinist perversions in the 1920s and 1930s, as I have argued elsewhere.

The main notion behind the idea is that revolutionaries cannot hope to break workers with a reformist consciousness from their reformism either by standing aside from their reformist struggles or by uncritically joining them.

Rather, revolutionaries need their separate organisations to work out strategies and tactics to deal with the uneven and contradictory consciousness of workers in their struggles against capitalism, structured around the capitalist state, in a competitive inter-state system.

But they also need to constantly seek points of common reference with reformist groups and organisations willing to fight for the cause of workers.

It is only by inspiring mass struggle that revolutionary groups can hope to show significant sections of workers that workers themselves have the power to change the world, rather than that they are powerless and should place their hopes in representatives to conduct the struggle for them from above.

The united front method is not just critical in terms of the relationship between revolutionary groups and the working class. It is also important for the internal life of the revolutionary organisation. Correctly used, it can counteract a fossilised and authoritarian internal regime, and therefore sectarianism.

Taking a world view of revolution

This would be a major lesson for new revolutionary socialist groups emerging across the world.

Indeed, it is the question of the global which would be my final thought on Kelly’s book. Kelly focused on British Trotskyism, and it would be unfair to ask why he failed to look at the world movement in detail.

But any serious revolutionary group, especially emerging from a ‘Trotskyist’ milieu, needs to take an internationalist standpoint: capitalism is a global system and, in the last analysis, it can only be defeated at the global level. 

After all, that was the notion behind Trotsky’s polemic against Stalin and Bukharin, and their notion of building ‘socialism in one country’.

However, it should be noted that world ‘Trotskyism’ spectacularly failed to break through during the Cold War in largely peasant societies, especially in Asia and Africa.

‘Trotskyists’, following the notion that the working class was central to the world, tended to organise in the advanced industrialised countries. 

One might have expected this to change over the last couple of decades, as since the end of the Cold War, vast sections of the world underwent a significant process of urbanisation, industrialisation and the creation of new sections of the working class in the service sector.

Since revolutionary anti-capitalist forces have been in retreat in this period, however, there was no breakthrough in those societies either, as might have been expected. Some pockets of revolutionary anti-capitalism now exist in countries like South Korea, Egypt, Pakistan or Brazil. But revolutionary anti-capitalist groups looking primarily to the working class have not grown significantly so far in China or India, or across much of Asia or Africa.

This needs to be taken seriously by those who want to build a revolutionary alternative. It is currently a weakness that ‘Trotskyists’ operate predominantly only in Western Europe and the Americas.

New generations of workers will face the menace of world capitalism without the burdens of the past. Nonetheless, if they wish to face this menace without repeating the mistakes of the past, they will need to learn the lessons of history. The method of the united front would serve them well if they are to avoid the pitfalls of sectarian as well as of reformist practices.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.