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Trotsky Week: opening remarks by Geoffrey Swain

Hello and welcome to Trotsky Week!  By way of opening proceedings, I took my trusty voice recorder off to Glasgow University and asked Professor Geoffrey Swain to tell us why he studies Trotsky… and why he thinks Trotsky should be studied.

GS: There’s a difference between why I study Trotsky and why I think other people should study Trotsky, and I’m not sure how you reconcile the two.  Why I got interested in Trotsky was the mis-match between his post-revolutionary career and his pre-revolutionary career, and an ambition to see if the two could be matched up.  Before the Revolution, you have someone who is often described as a Menshevik; although he is not entirely a Menshevik, particularly on the issue of cooperating with Liberals.  But he has these huge clashes with Lenin.  And then suddenly, in the 1920s, he becomes the most loyal Leninist disciplinarian, particularly in exile, enforcing all this rigid party discipline; which is one of the mainstays of the various Trotskyist groups which have evolved and still exist, and still occasionally taunt people who write about Trotsky.

That apparent contradiction of someone who is lax on organisational questions and then hard on organisational questions, an apparent Menshevik and then the leading revolutionary… how do you match that up?  And that’s what interested me.  That’s why I started writing my biography.   My theory is that I do reconcile that in the book, but maybe others disagree.

So that’s what interested me, but why other people should be interested in Trotsky… I think now, for some of his writings of the 1920s, when he’s talking about the transition from capitalism to socialism.  Not the writings where he’s attacking Stalin and Bukharin, but when he’s still got some say in economic matters, and he’s thinking about how you get a planning system up and running.  And those articles of 1925-26 – by 1927 I suppose we’re getting into attacks –  when he’s posing the question of how you begin to accumulate, and direct, and plan; I think that these are interesting,  and often, when you look at them closely, far more flexible than they are portrayed.   The debates about planning in the 1920s tend to be caricatured as “Trotsky wants planning, and Bukharin and Stalin don’t”, but in fact there’s an awful lot of common ground.  Trotsky is always happy to combine elements of the market with planning in the transition period; he always sees that transition period as long-lasting, and there is a continuity when he starts to criticise Stalin’s zigzag policy.  If you look at some of the stuff Trotsky writes in the early 1930s, when he’s calling for Stalin’s policies to be moderated, he’s actually getting quite close to some of those writings of the 1920s.  As a theorist of how planning and the market can be developed, and a market economy gradually replaced by one that has more and more planning elements to it, I think he has a lot of things that are still of interest.  Perhaps only in Latin America these days, but nevertheless I think there are interesting things there for everybody who thinks in a vaguely socialist framework.

KM:  What would you recommend as a first point of contact with Trotsky’s writings?

GS: I would still recommend that people begin with his autobiography because it is such a captivating study, although obviously what he says at certain times does not entirely coincide with what happened: it’s his interpretation of what happened.  The strengths of it are in the emergence of his ideas, the power of his ideas, the description of his time in emigration and escaping from exile, his role during the Revolution and Civil War… that’s inspirational, and I think it’s still that which gets people interested in Trotsky and revolutionary ideas.  I think that you couldn’t begin with the economic problems of the 1920s, and you couldn’t really begin with his work on the Civil War.  When you look back at most of his writings on the Civil War – and very often all sorts of things that he wrote – written down, they sound rather banal.   You have to imagine the rhetoric.  So, many of his writings are not where I’d begin.   If someone wants to get a sense of who Trotsky was, I would go back to the obvious thing and that seems to be his autobiography.  Not the History of the Russian Revolution, because there you have far more problems of his own interpretation confusing what actually happened, but the autobiography gives you a sense of the man and his interests.

Many thanks, Geoffrey, for speaking to us and opening the floor for this week’s debate.  Tomorrow Kirsty asks Professor Ian Thatcher about Trotsky, critics and challenges.

Geoffrey Swain is the author of Trotsky in the Longman Profiles in Power series.  You can see VL’s review here.

5 comments on “Trotsky Week: opening remarks by Geoffrey Swain

  1. Hilary
    August 30, 2010

    Thanks for an excellent introduction to the week. Some unravelling of the stereotype already.

  2. Jackie
    August 30, 2010

    I like the idea of trying to reconcile a person’s contradictory stances. And in some cases, like Trotsky, one would have to wonder how much events & situations were influencing him & how much was his own philosophy evolving? That was such a fraught time, with so many drastic changes, that I wonder how much was self-preservation & how much organic.

  3. kirstyjane
    August 30, 2010

    Thank you for the kind comments! Jackie, the questions you raise are crucial ones to Trotsky scholarship – to all historical enquiry, in fact. Certainly imposing some kind of fixed value on Trotsky does nobody any favours, and yet it is so often done…

  4. SamRuddock
    September 1, 2010

    I think you summed up (though far more coherently!) my thoughts on this fascinating introduction, Jackie. I look forward to hearing other perspectives on this contradiction over the coming week.

  5. Pingback: Trotsky Week on Vulpes Libris « Kirsty Jane McCluskey

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