A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Like God and Orwell, Marx and Trotsky never enter an argument on any side other than that of the person introducing them. ‘Marx teaches us …’ is as clear an invitation to close the door as ‘Welcome Jesus into your life’. Like Jesus, however, neither Karl Marx nor Leon Trotsky should be blamed for those who knock on doors and preach their gospel.
The Trotskyist trend in European politics has long been an anglophone phenomenon: countries with strong Communist parties, such as France and Italy, had Trotskyist fringe groups of no great influence compared to the PC, although Trotskyist groups in France have recently taken a modest share of the vote. In Britain, and to a lesser degree Ireland, the major groups claiming Trotsky in their family tree, the Socialist Workers Party and the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party), have had an influence far greater than their numbers should have allowed them. The SWP was a major player in the anti-Fascist movement of the 1970s, while the Militant claims much of the credit for the anti-poll tax movement which led to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Today, the SWP is in the process of tearing itself apart, after involvement in a number of failed electoral alliances, while the Militant, after expulsion from the Labour Party in the 1980s, is a small, though unsplit, group with a number of elected officials in local politics and in the trade union movement. (Declaration of interest: I am a member.) The influence of other groups of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the International Marxist Group, is more diffuse but important in journalism, general campaigning and the universities. Tariq Ali, Christopher Hitchens, Robin Blackburn and others started their activism on the Trotskyist left of the late sixties and early seventies.
The various groups on the British Trotskyist left share certain positions which can be traced back to Trotsky: the orthodox Marxist view that revolutionary change is necessary; hostility to the Labour party, even on the part of those groups inside it; a distrust of other groups on, or claiming to be on, the left. Most of these positions can be found in some form in Leon Trotsky on Britain, containing his 1925 book, Where is Britain Going?, and some supplementary material: a series of articles on Britain written in 1925 and 1926, responses to the book from the press and figures such as Bertrand Russell and J. Ramsay MacDonald and writings from 1926-8 under the heading ‘After the General Strike’.
The first pleasure of the book, if you are expecting ‘running dogs’ and dreary Communist Party boilerplate (never done better than in Attilla the Stockbroker’s farewell to Mickey Finn of T-Rex) is how sharp it is. If the translation gets him right, Trotsky is a polemicist writing to excite an audience. He writes like a platform speaker, of the kind common in the days before politics became a game of mirrors played on television. His portraits of the leading British politicians of the time remain a pleasure to read, and easily adapted for other purposes: his objection to Ramsay MacDonald’s wearing court dress to meet the King is that the clothes match the politics of accommodation and gradual change that is no change at all.
A further joy is that this prophet prophesied: in a discussion of ‘England’s decline’, America is showing England her place at every step: on the one hand, by the methods of diplomatic pressure; on the other, by measures of a banking nature, always and everywhere a pressure of America’s gigantic economic preponderance. [“Thanks to Churchill”, writes the conservative Daily Express, “England falls under the heel of American bankers.”] Taking a clear view of the factual facts, Trotsky has seen how things are going and says so. We could imagine him seeing the ‘banking crisis’ years before it happened. Six years before the National Government, he could write of Ramsay MacDonald, and others, that even a slight acquaintance with their qualities ‘is quite sufficient to prove to us how catastrophically the contradictions between the demands of the masses and the obtuse conservatism of the leading upper circles of the Labour Party will grow, particularly if this party should come to power again.’ Indeed, with the possible exception of the Attlee government, which only points up the contrast with the rest, we might say this of most Labour leaders, and especially of the last two.
Polemic from the past can be entertaining, but that is not usually a good enough reason for reading it. Even Swift needs footnotes to be fun. Trotsky’s pamphleteering remains worth our consideration because so little has changed. His targets in Where is England Going? are the leaders of the Labour party and of the labour movement, who can be relied upon to betray their followers once they get a whiff of the appearance of power. Real power is in the hands of the bankers and any emancipatory project, whether or not it be revolutionary Communism, must take account of the real balance of forces. Reality may be brutal but self-delusion is worse.
In the last few years, as Labour has abandoned even social democracy, senior members have encouraged the banks and the financial services ‘industry’ to drag us into the hole we are in, and enrich themselves while doing it. It is not going too far to say that we are in a recession because social democrats stopped thinking of socialism and the renegade Trots in the cabinet threw out their old pamphlets. It is possible to now feel some sympathy for Gordon Brown, chronicler of Red Clydeside, if he is taking the time to look back on where he started and on what he became.
You need not have any sympathy with Trotsky, or Trotskyism, to enjoy reading his work, or to appreciate the insight. The curse of a prophet is to see his polemic turned into doctrine and his principles into metaphors, but we still have the original, unfiltered source. Trotsky was right, before the fact, about many things and his observations remain sound, as long as we do not try to make facile equations between past and present. The clarity of his expression is the clarity of his thought: ‘as radical as reality itself’.
Leon Trotsky on Britain, Pathfinder Press, ISBN 0-87348-850-4