Vulpes Libris

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.

The prophet unread: Leon Trotsky on Britain

Trotsky on BritainLike 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

13 comments on “The prophet unread: Leon Trotsky on Britain

  1. Dr John Latham
    September 1, 2010

    An interesting review/appreciation of a text. I was left, however, wondering a few things. Did Trotsky spend much time on his British writing? How of if did he respond to the General Strike? Did Trotsky overestimate the potential for revolution in Britain as he seemed to do in some of his other writings on other countries? Could the review have focused more on the text than on events after the great man’s death? I ask these questions not because I am necessarily unsympathetic with contemporary variants of Trotskyist thinking, but because I enjoy reviews which spend a little more time on describing the text and its context.
    Best wishes,
    Jon.

  2. kirstyjane
    September 1, 2010

    Like Dr John, I found this article very interesting – actually, precisely because the author brought a contemporary focus to it. Yes, it’s perhaps more of a response than a review. But I find the process of genuinely working with Trotsky’s thought in a modern context, without dogmatism or facile comparisons, both tremendously stimulating and very worthwhile.

    In the spirit of Trotsky Week, I hope other readers will be open to giving their impressions.

  3. annebrooke
    September 1, 2010

    Just popping in to say I really did like this Trotsky/Britain link – I don’t have anything deeply profound to say (sorry!) but I thought the take on this was very good!

    🙂

    Anne

  4. Hilary
    September 1, 2010

    I have to say that I am sitting in the back seat, enjoying the ride this week. I have so much to learn about Trotsky – including the fact that he wrote on Britain at all. I found this post very enlightening – especially for its contemporary commentary. And I loved the opening remark – how very, very true, and why had I never noticed that? Thank you, Michael.

  5. Melrose
    September 1, 2010

    What I am finding as Trotsky Week goes on is that the man seems to be far more than what some “traditional Trotskyists” would have you believe. To me, he has seemed some dim and distant historical figure whose political position is cast in stone, and whose followers would prefer it remain that way. However, reading the commentaries this week, Trotsky seems like a man whose stance, if he was living today, would have evolved to cope with the present political scene. Interesting that he was so prophetic about today’s politics in the UK.

  6. Shelley
    September 1, 2010

    Hmm. I never thought of footnotes as adding to the fun!

  7. Ken
    September 2, 2010

    I wonder if the reading of Trotsky’s lessons from here are a little too telescoped. In particular, it seems to me that Trotsky, as presented in the review, hopes for the Labour Party to be Britain’s revolutionary cadre. Yet, despite the elevated claims of collaboration and class traitorship that get bandied about to leaders that make any sort of attempt to move the Labour Party from class agitation, the party exists in a fine British radical tradition – to achieve reform through Parliament, rathr than through revolution.

    That is to say, that Trotsky and the reviewer seem to be hoping for the Labour Party as they want to see it, not as they actually exist. Labour, for all its crusading rhetoric, relies on getting into governmental power for its existence. Otherwise its members might as well join small groups like the SWP and Militant. And class agitation alone is simply not enough to win electoral power in Britain – hence the need to find wider appeal. Sure, Labour’s not a party that exists _purely_ to win power, in the way that the Conservatives do. But it sets them apart from ‘true believer’ movements, too.

    So in terms of Trotsky’s lessons for today – is he really helping us understand the Labour Party and its leadership, or is he romanticising a view of the Labour Party that appeals to certain parts of its membership, but is simply out of line with the reality of both party members and Labour tradition itself?

  8. Hilary
    September 2, 2010

    @Shelley – have you ever dipped into Gibbons: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? It’s all pretty marvellous stuff, but he keeps the best bits for the footnotes! I’m a huge fan of footnotes – and a good index too.

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

  10. paraffinalia
    September 5, 2010

    The problem, I think, is that the Labour Party has gone from being a social democratic (Wilson?), or reformist socialist (Attlee), party which believed that capitalism could be controlled for the benefit of working class people (think of Roy Hattersley who used to be considered right-wing) or could be changed into socialism, though not (Stalinist) communism, to a vote-winning machine which wants to be the Democratic Party because it has enjoyed too many episodes of The West Wing. Trotsky seems to have seen the party as containing possibilities, given that it commanded the allegiance of so many workers, but thought that its leadership (not its members) would betray the working class in the long run. He was right about Ramsay Mac, and would have been right about Blair.

  11. SamRuddock
    September 5, 2010

    “The curse of a prophet is to see his polemic turned into doctrine”

    Very well said. My biggest problem with Trots is the militarism that they ascribe to him. The SWP and Militant have been in this camp and are the main reason I have been turned off them. But what a man says should be read, thoughts not ascribed to him.

    Despite generally not liking retrospective history or ascribing contemporary significance to works about past issues – for me the interest of history is uncovering what things meant in their day rather than what they mean now – you make a compelling case for why we should continue to read Trotsky’s work on Britain. I learned a great deal from this article and what’s more, it is one of the best written ones I’ve read in a while.

  12. paraffinalia
    September 5, 2010

    I don’t think ascribing militarism to Trotsky is such a mistake, but it is a mistake to assume that he wanted the Civil War. It might be an idea for many Trots to read up on Gramsci’s analysis of the difference between war of movement and war of position.

  13. SamRuddock
    September 6, 2010

    Now Gramsci I get on with! I really should go back and read more by him though, it’s been a while.

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