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How Revolutionary Consciousness Develops

An Essay on Trotsky’s Legacy

1. Introduction

In commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Trotsky—that is, in coming together from our varying backgrounds of belief, commitment, and experience to mark the occasion collectively—we are doing three things, at least.[1] First, we are acknowledging a life of immense moral grandeur, a unique testimony to the invincibility of the revolutionary spirit. Second, we are making our modest contribution to redressing the massive historical injustice done to Trotsky, by the decades of official slanders heaped upon him, and thereby we are also perhaps making it more difficult for such slanders to take the place of argument within the worker’s movement in future. (We should also remember that his assassin, after his release from prison in Mexico, was awarded a generous pension in the Soviet Union and decorated with the Order of the Red Banner.) Third, and most importantly, we are seeking to understand how the legacy of Trotsky’s life and work enables us to continue with the struggle against oppression and exploitation to which his life was devoted.

I do not believe it would be appropriate to commemorate Trotsky by elevating him, or his ideas, above criticism. Precisely because the controversies around his ideas have been so inflamed, we are in need of sober assessment of both his achievements and his limitations. I do not seek to avoid those controversies.

I begin with the question of “permanent revolution”—the term most closely identified with Trotsky and Trotskyism. I try to show how the meaning of the theory has itself been changed by the failure of Trotskyism as a political current, and then examine the basic characteristics of Trotskyism which have resulted from its failure. On the basis of this examination, I argue that the question of revolutionary consciousness is central to the dilemmas of Trotskyism as an ongoing tradition, and then turn to Trotsky’s own writings—above all, his masterly History of the Russian Revolution—to assess his contribution to our understanding of the question which gives this paper its title: what is revolutionary consciousness, and how does it develop among the masses? Finally, I consider the question of Trotsky’s legacy as it presents itself to present-day South Africa, as the SACP seeks to “eradicate all remaining vestiges of Stalinism in our style of work,” as the negotiation process continues, and as huge masses of the oppressed are drawn into new and still uncharted forms of struggle, in which more than five hundred have lost their lives even in the last week. [2]

2. “Permanent Revolution”

In the preface to the first edition of Capital, published in 1867, Karl Marx replied to the argument that his analysis of capitalism in England would not be true of Germany as well: “Intrinsically,” he wrote, “it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that spring from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies winning their way through and working themselves out with iron necessity. The country that is more developed only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”[3] It was to this passage, and to similar passages in Marx’s writings, that early Russian Marxists would refer in arguing that Russia had to pass through the capitalist stage, after a bourgeois revolution, before the struggle for socialism could begin.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was complete agreement among Marxists that the only revolutionary transformation that could take place in Russia would be bourgeois in character. There was disagreement about whether the bourgeoisie or the proletariat would lead this bourgeois revolution; but this did not affect the question of the character of the revolution itself. Some Marxists - Lenin, Trotsky Luxemburg - even held that the regime it established might be proletarian in character, though its historical tasks would be essentially bourgeois. But it was only in 1906 that, for the first time, the possibility of a revolution in which the proletariat took power in Russia, as the first step in a world proletarian revolution, was raised.

The name given to this idea was “permanent revolution,” and its author was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had played a leading role in the revolution of 1905, had been elected president of the Petrograd Soviet, which was the leading body of the revolution, and had been first defendant at the trial which followed the suppression of the revolution.[4] In a text written in prison, Results and Prospects, Trotsky reflected on the argument that “if the capitalist bourgeoisie is not strong enough to take power, then it is still less possible to establish a worker’s democracy, i.e. the political domination of the proletariat.”

To this argument, Trotsky replied: “Marxism is above all a method of analysis—not analysis of texts, but of social relations. Is it true that, in Russia, the weakness of capitalist liberalism inevitably means the weakness of the labour movement? Is it true, for Russia, that there cannot be an independent labour movement until the bourgeoisie has conquered power? It is sufficient merely to have put these questions to see what a hopeless formalism lies concealed beneath the attempt to convert an historically relative remark of Marx’s into a supra-historical axiom.” In assessing the character of the coming revolution, then, it is necessary to consider more than just the level of the productive forces of capitalism: “The proletariat grows and becomes stronger with the growth of capitalism. In this sense the development of capitalism is also the development of the proletariat towards dictatorship. But the day and the hour when power will pass into the hands of the working class depends directly not upon the level attained by the productive forces but upon relations in the class struggle, upon the international situation, and, finally, upon a number of subjective factors: the traditions, the initiative and the readiness to fight of the workers.”[5]

The revolution would be “permanent,” Trotsky held, in that it would go over from the overthrow of Tsarist autocracy to the establishment of the worker’s democracy without interruption, and in that it would go from its national context to the international arena, as workers in other countries would follow its example. It is worth adding, because confusion on the meaning of the term is widespread, that at no stage did Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution entail that revolution was possible in all times and places, or that the world revolution consisted of a simultaneous outbreak in many or all countries.

It was only in 1928 that Trotsky generalized his model of Russian Revolution, and argued that bourgeois revolution could no longer take place in any backward capitalist country. (It was accepted among Marxists that socialist revolution was necessary in advanced capitalist countries.) For this reason, Trotskyists have argued, it is necessary for the proletariat to lead the struggle against national oppression in backward capitalist countries on the basis of a programme of its own demands, in order to establish a worker’s state as a step towards world revolution. It is this argument, above all, which has led to the abuse and slander, the accusations of workerism and ultra-leftism, which are constantly hurled at Trotskyism and at Trotsky.

3. Has the theory of permanent revolution proved correct?

Fifty years after Trotsky’s assassination, and more than eighty years after he first put forward the theory of permanent revolution, it may seem appropriate for us to ask: has the theory of permanent revolution been proved correct by historical events or not? My own belief is that this no longer a politically serious question for us to ask. As this view will not be popular with either Trotskyists or Stalinists, I had better explain it briefly.

The theory of permanent revolution proved itself in Russia in 1917 to contain one of the most penetrating political insights of the century. Perry Anderson observes that the idea of permanent revolution advanced by Trotsky to predict the course of the Russian Revolution proved accurate on a number of counts: “No bourgeois revolution occurred in Russia; no intermediate capitalist stabilization developed; a working-class insurrection installed a proletarian state within a few months of the end of Tsarism; and this state failed to construct socialism once it was isolated in a single country.”[6] What Trotsky did not predict, of course, was that worker’s democracy could be destroyed in the Soviet state, not by capitalist intervention, but by a communist bureaucracy, whose rule has lasted seven decades so far.

In other backward capitalist countries—in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, Cuba—it has also proved impossible for revolutions led by the working-class and the peasantry to limit themselves to the tasks of establishing a bourgeois order. But in each of these societies there was an even smaller industrial proletariat than in Russia, the revolution was based predominantly on the peasantry, and no worker’s democracy—or democracy of any kind—came to be established. Nor have these revolutions provided any model for advanced capitalist countries, or brought the revolution any closer there. If it is to be said that these revolutions have proved the theory of permanent revolution “correct”, then that theory is reduced to nothing more than the most general refutation of a theory of historical stages through which each society must pass.

It might be said that the theory of permanent revolution has demonstrated its superiority over rival theories. The Stalinist theory of revolution in backward capitalist countries—known since 1960 as the theory of national-democratic revolution[7]—has proved itself to be far less successful in predicting the course of the revolution in the 20th century. The “non-capitalist route to socialism” undertaken in such “national-democratic” states as Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Iraq, the Congo, Guinea, Somalia and Burma has proved to be a dead end.[8] The theory of national democratic revolution is already being rendered incoherent by the abandonment of the idea of a “world socialist economy” towards which the states which made this revolution were to have been orientated. In South Africa, supporters of national democratic struggle are already abandoning its claims, and the process can be expected to continue.[9] But it would be a peculiar logic to deduce from the failure of one theory of revolutionary change—that of national democratic struggle—the correctness of its rival, that of permanent revolution. The possibility must be allowed that both theories have failed, although in different ways.

The failure of the theory of permanent revolution has been, in the first place, a failure to win mass support for the concrete strategies which Trotskyists have proposed on the basis of that theory. There is, unavoidably, a small philosophical point to be made here. A theory of revolution differs from a theory of some biological process, for example, in that the outcome of the revolutionary process—unlike the biological—is always affected by the existence of the theory itself. A theory of the formation of a particular plant species can be correct even if no-one believes it except the person who thought of it, and even if that person should stop believing it. But a theory of revolution, which consistently fails to win the support of a significant section of those which it predicts will make the revolution, cannot be correct in the same sense. Put differently, a theory of revolution is also, as Trotsky himself always knew, a theory of revolutionary consciousness: that is, a theory of the conditions in which the truth of that theory becomes apparent.

I do not intend to pursue this philosophical point much further, nor would it be fruitful to do so. We could continue to refine our philosophical understanding of “correctness” in a revolutionary theory, and we could examine ever more closely the historical details of revolutionary struggles in the 20th century to see where they conform to the theory of permanent revolution or do not, and if, at the end of the process, we could prove the theory’s correctness, then the theory itself will have been changed by the process. Our proof of the correctness of the theory would have to be put to the test of practice; but if it passed that test, then the proof itself will have become part of that theory. Our theory of revolution would now hold that revolution can take place in backward capitalist countries once the slanders against Trotsky and the distortions of Trotskyism have been exposed, and once the masses have come to see how Stalinism has stifled their own revolutionary consciousness.

For this reason, if we are to assess the meaning of Trotsky’s legacy for our own struggles today, we cannot do so on the basis of a simple answer to the question of whether the theory of permanent revolution has been proved correct or not. Instead, we need to separate the different components of Trotskyism, and consider the manner in which they have been changed by the Trotskyist struggle to uphold the theory of permanent revolution.

4. Three components of Trotskyism

For a considerable period of his life as a revolutionary, Trotsky himself denied the existence of a separate school of thought which could be described as Trotskyism. In 1906, he deliberately took the phrase “permanent revolution” from the writings of Marx, in spite of his awareness of the confusions which could be caused by “this rather high-flown expression”, in order to show his own continuity with the Marxist tradition.[10] In the struggle within the Bolshevik Party after Lenin’s death in 1924, he emphasized his commitment to the principles of Lenin. It was probably only after his deportation from the Soviet Union in 1929 that the supporters of the former Left Opposition, led by Trotsky in the Soviet Union, came to see themselves essentially as Trotskyists. The founding of the Fourth International in 1938 gave institutional expression to Trotskyism, although Trotskyists of all varieties still claim continuity with the “essential ideas” of Marx, Engels and Lenin to this day.

It is Trotskyism that has been consolidated Trotsky’s legacy, and it is necessary to set out more systematically its basic components. These can be reduced to three:

(i) Insistence on internationalism in theory and practice:

This is the most basic characteristic of Trotsky’s own political thought. From the first formulation of the idea of permanent revolution in 1906 through to the eventual elaboration of his theory of combined and uneven development in the first chapter of his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), Trotsky located Russian society in its international context, examining the way in which investment by foreign capitalists weakened the will and the capacity of the local capitalist, strengthened the state and the autocracy, and created a larger, more concentrated working-class, ready to absorb the most recent international trends in revolutionary theory and practice. It was this internationalism of theoretical outlook that made it possible to foresee proletarian revolution in Russia. At the same time, it was only through the most resolute internationalism of practice—through the Russian working-class supporting the struggles of workers throughout the world—that their revolution could survive and flourish.

(ii) Belief in the unfailing revolutionary will and energy of the masses, and the working class in particular:

Trotsky’s internationalism of outlook was focused, above all, on explaining and understanding the possibilities of proletarian revolution in Russia. He was a revolutionary activist—orator, pamphleteer, strategist—of enormous capacity. Above all, he could sense and utilize the feelings of the masses, and he retained a lifelong conviction of the essential willingness of the masses to sacrifice for the noblest of human ideals. This conviction was Trotsky’s strength, but also his weakness. In the period after the civil war, when the revolutionary energies of the working class had been exhausted, Trotsky allowed himself to be outmaneuvered by Stalin, precisely because he misjudged the apathy of the masses.[11] Trotsky himself, and even more so his followers after him, came to build the assumption of the unfailing revolutionary energy of the masses into the Trotskyist critique of Stalinist leadership, while much less attention was given to the question of why the masses continued to follow that leadership. (iii) Dogmatic certainty of the adequacy and correctness of their own perspectives:

In exile from the Soviet Union after 1929, Trotsky stood so far above his comrades as almost to be removed from any political community. None of his comrades had tested their ideas in revolutionary struggle as he had; many were drawn along by Stalinist or bourgeois ideology. In this context, it is hardly surprising that Trotsky came increasingly to insist on the “correctness” of the “essential ideas” of Marxism, sometimes, as in his In Defence of Marxism (1940), without much critical interest in the ideas themselves. In the years since Trotsky’s death, factionalism has become the hallmark of organized Trotskyism. This dogmatic belief in the certainty of their own perspectives—first and foremost, in the impending crisis of world capitalism, and in the revolutionary purpose behind any mass action - —expresses itself sometimes as an unwillingness to take proper account of historical evidence and at others as a sectarian blindness. It expresses itself also in the manner in which the dullest aspects of Stalinist philosophy—the dialectic of nature, and the like—are reproduced in Trotskyism. Insofar as Trotskyism typically regards Marxism as a finished and complete body of though, it has little need for real philosophical exploration.

I do not set out this third component of Trotskyism, its dogmatism, in a spirit of scorn or dismissal; and I think that anyone who makes use of it in that spirit reveals their own political and intellectual shallowness by doing so. Trotskyist dogmatism is, above all, the product of many decades of isolation and persecution, as the prestige and resources of the Soviet state and its allies have been used unstintingly to cut Trotskyism off from the mainstream of working-class organization and debate. If this is the historical tradition of Marxism, in opposition to Stalinism, then all of us are poorer for Trotskyism having had to pay that price. We are poorer, because that dogmatism has made Trotsky’s legacy less accessible to many, and has prevented its full development. But no matter how heavy that price has been, if it has made it possible to preserve a militant tradition of Marxism, whatever its shortcomings, and has also made it more difficult for Stalinism to abandon its revolutionary pretensions, then we cannot doubt that it was a price worth paying.

5. Trotskyism and the theory of revolutionary consciousness

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution broke dramatically with the historical conception of a series of stages through which all societies would inevitably pass. In doing this, it inevitably laid great stress on the emergence of revolutionary consciousness. Marxist theorists such as Plekhanov, who upheld a strictly stagist conception of history, played down the role of consciousness, and did so as a direct consequence of their stagism: “Scientific socialists,” wrote Plekhanov, “are striving for socialism not because it is desirable, but because it is the next stage in the magnificent and irresistible forward-march of History”; “Social Democracy swims with the tide of History,” and the causes of historical development “have nothing to do with human will and consciousness.”[12] In breaking with stagism, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution already raised the question of revolutionary consciousness.

At the same time, Trotsky had never subscribed to the idea of the vanguard party set out in Lenin’s What is to be done? (1902). Lenin’s position on the problem of revolutionary consciousness was clear: “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. . . [Without this] there could not have beenSocial-Democratic consciousness among the workers . . . The history of all countries shows that the working-class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.”[13]

This, Trotsky wrote in his first political text, Our Political Tasks (1904), was the theory of an “orthodox theocracy” seeking to substitute the party for the working-class: “Lenin’s methods lead to this: the party organization at first substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization; and finally a single ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.” Trotsky’s sketch anticipates the rise of Stalin some twenty years later in chilling detail. In place of Lenin’s model, he proposes: “The party must seek the guarantee of its stability in its own base, in an active and self-reliant proletariat, and not in its top caucus, which the revolution . . . may suddenly sweep away with its wing.”[14]

In the revolutionary tumult of 1917, Lenin and Trotsky had no difficulty in settling their differences: Lenin moved towards Trotsky’s conception of the proletarian character of the revolution; Trotsky adopted much of Lenin’s conception of the party; Lenin himself held that the masses were “a hundred times more leftward” than the Bolsheviks,[15] and Trotsky was later to echo the phrase with approval.[16] But this was in a period when Trotsky stood at the helm—sensing, articulating and responding to every shift in the mood and aspirations of the masses; assured of his place, along with Lenin, as leader of the Bolshevik Party. The same view of the relationship of party and masses becomes increasingly difficult to sustain in a period of post-revolutionary exhaustion, and still more so when the party has become an instrument of Stalinist terror and manipulation, and the working-class is drawn either to reformism or to the apparent might of Stalinism. The result is that the ideas of Trotskyism and its reals situation point towards two different, and conflicting, theories of revolutionary consciousness. How does the working-class become aware of the need for the revolution? The theory of permanent revolution replies that the harshness of their conditions in the backwards capitalist countries, and the still greater suffering of other oppressed classes, will draw them to far more revolutionary conclusions than will occur among any grouping dominated by the radical intelligentsia. Workers will seek out the most revolutionary theory, from the struggles of the most advanced countries, and test it in their own struggle. As they sense their own determination growing, and the impossibility of sustaining the old order, so they will drag the parties of the working-class along with them to the final assault on the capitalist order.

How does the working-class become aware of the need for revolution when Stalinism has come to dominate their movement? The real situation of Trotskyism requires that individual workers—or activists, or intellectuals—are gradually initiated into the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism and the perspectives of the Trotskyist organization concerned. Some will progress faster than others, no doubt; but almost all will have to absorb the “essential ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky,” often including their views on the vanguard party, the character of the Soviet regime, and the history of Trotskyism into the bargain. Those who absorb these ideas will, in turn, convey them to others in their organizations, factories and the like. There is no doubting the seriousness of those involved in this activity; and I’m sure that there is much which is overlooked in my brief sketch of it. But if it has any truth in it, then it stands clearly in conflict with the answer originally implied by the theory of permanent revolution.

It might be argued that these two conceptions of revolutionary consciousness refer to two different levels of political activity: the first to the process involved in mass upheavals, and the second to the building of a revolutionary vanguard. To some extent, this is true. But the more the tradition which is in possession of the theory of mass revolutionary consciousness is limited to the practice of building the revolutionary vanguard, the more it will tend to conflate the two. The real legacy of Leon Trotsky, fifty years after his death, faces us with the question: what is revolutionary consciousness, and how does it develop among the masses?

6. “The Molecular Work of Revolutionary Thought”

At the same time, Trotsky’s life and work provide us with a treatment of this question of unrivalled richness and complexity. His sense of how the masses came to see the need for revolution was at the heart of his activity in 1905 and 1917, and the question is equally as central to his writings on those revolutionary periods; above all, in his greatest work, The History of the Russian Revolution. The historian provides a distillation of the work of the revolutionary, and Trotsky himself points out the connection between the two roles in the preface to his History: “The difficulties which stand in the way of studying the changes of mass consciousness in a revolutionary epoch are quite obvious. The oppressed classes make history in the factories, in the barracks, in the villages, on the streets of the cities. Moreover, they are least of all accustomed to write things down. . . . Still the historian’s situation is by no means hopeless. The records are incomplete, scattered, accidental. But in the light of the events themselves these fragments often permit a guess as to the direction and rhythm of the hidden process. For better or worse, a revolutionary party bases its tactics upon a calculation of the change of mass consciousness. The historic course of Bolshevism demonstrates that such a calculation, at least in its rough features, can be made. If it can be made by a revolutionary leader in the whirlpool of the struggle, why not by the historian afterwards?”[17]

Time and space allow for no more than the briefest survey of the manner in which Trotsky, the historian, reconstructs the inspired intuitions of Trotsky, the revolutionary. But even by discussing a single passage—taken from the chapter entitled “Who led the February revolution?”—it will be possible to see what questions could be posed of this work, and what lessons learned. The February Revolution caught the revolutionary parties, including the Bolsheviks, by surprise. The fact that the political leaders who were on the spot did not guide it, but rather tried vainly to hold it back, led to the misconception, in Trotsky’s view, that the revolution was spontaneous. Trotsky draws together the sweeping outlines of his narrative: “The mystic doctrine of spontaneousness explains nothing. In order correctly to appraise the situation and determine the moment for a blow at the enemy, it was necessary that the masses or their guiding layers should make their examination of historical events and have their criteria for estimating them. In other words, it was necessary that there should be not masses in the abstract, but masses of Petrograd workers and Russian workers in general, who had passed through the revolution of 1905, through the Moscow insurrection of December 1905, shattered against the Semenovsky Regiment of the Guard. It was necessary that throughout this mass should be scattered workers who had thought over the experience of 1905, criticised the constitutional illusions of the liberals and Mensheviks, assimilated the perspectives of the revolution, meditated hundreds of times about the question of the army, watched attentively what was going on in its midst - workers capable of making revolutionary inferences from what they observed and communicating them to others. And finally, it was necessary that there should be in the troops of the garrison itself soldiers, seized, or at least touched, in the past by revolutionary propaganda.

“In every factory, in each guild, in each company, in each tavern, in the military hospital, at the transfer stations, even in the depopulated villages, the molecular work of revolutionary thought was in progress. Everywhere were to be found the interpreters of events, chiefly from among the workers, from whom one inquired, ‘What’s the news?’ and from whom one awaited the needed words. These leaders had often been left to themselves, had nourished themselves upon fragments of revolutionary generalisations arriving in their hands by various routes, had studied out for themselves between the lines of the liberal newspapers what they needed. Their class instinct was refined by a political criterion, and though they did not think all their thoughts through to the end, nevertheless their thought ceaselessly and stubbornly worked its way in a single direction. Elements of experience, criticism, initiative, self-sacrifice, seeped down through the mass and created, invisibly to a superficial glance but no less decisively, an inner mechanics of the revolutionary movement as a conscious process. To the smug politicians of liberalism and tamed socialism everything that happens among masses is customarily represented as an instinctive process, no matter whether they are dealing with an anthill or a beehive. In reality the thought that was drilling through the thick of the working class was far bolder, more penetrating, more conscious, than those little ideas by which the educated classes live. Moreover, this thought was more scientific: not only because it was to a considerable degree fertilised with the methods of Marxism, but still more because it was ever nourishing itself on the living experience of the masses which were soon to take their place in the revolutionary arena.”[18]

There are two basic conceptions at work in this condensed picture of the masses preparing themselves for revolution. The first is that of the preparation of revolution as a conscious activity. ( A few pages earlier, he specifies that “a revolutionary insurrection cannot arise either at the command of foreign agents, or in the manner of an impersonal process of nature.”[19]) It requires “workers capable of making revolutionary inferences from what they observed and communicating them to others”; it requires “the interpreters of events, from whom one inquired, ‘What’s the news?’” At the same time, this process is not co-ordinated according to the any plan: these workers, these interpreters of events are not necessarily aware of each other; they are “in every factory, in each guild, in each company, in each tavern, in the military hospital, at the transfer station, even in the depopulated villages”; often, they “had been left to themselves, had nourished themselves upon fragments of revolutionary generalisations arriving in their hands by various routes”; and they do not move towards a pre-established conclusion, or as Trotsky puts it, “they did not think all their ideas through to the end”. These two conceptions are integrated into a single, overall conception of the preparation of revolution as a conscious activity, which is yet not co-ordinated according to a conscious plan, in Trotsky’s phrase: “the molecular work of revolutionary thought”.

Again and again, with a detail too rich to be presented here, Trotsky returns to this metaphor, exploring and developing it; examining how molecular processes take place within the masses, how new layers are drawn into struggle, sometimes in support of the more conservative parties, but nonetheless with an idea that their presence in the political arena is of importance; and showing, above all, how the thought of the masses no longer merely “ceaselessly and stubbornly worked its way in a single direction”, but began to be “carried through to the end.”

Much of this historical construction is made by means of a brilliant and extraordinary succession of metaphors which depict the development of revolutionary consciousness in the masses - thus, there are currents in their moods, and an ebb and flow; molecular work and molecular regrouping takes place; the masses come to see themselves, their allies and their opponents in a certain light; they feel their own strength; are welded into a united force; they go ahead of their own consciousness in their actions, see their ideas through to the end, or fail to do so - and these metaphors carry the revolutionary narrative forward.

Occasionally, Trotsky abstracts from his own narrative, and attempts to explain the processes he’s describing in more general terms, and in particular seeks to explain the necessity or the inevitability of these processes. This abstraction seeks to reveal dialectical laws at work, processes of quantitative change transforming themselves into qualitative change, and the like. Here, it seems to me, Trotsky is least successful. The dialectic at work in his narrative, which is supple, flexible, always tracing through new contradictions and attentive to the unexpected elements in mass consciousness, and that in his abstraction of the narrative, which is law-like, or has the apparent form of law at least, and pretends to explain the results of all processes with too much certainty, are two different kinds of dialectic. It would take a more extensive analysis than is possible here to show how, and indeed whether, a coherent account of the development of revolutionary mass consciousness could be extracted from Trotsky’s own narrative, rather than from his abstract generalisation. But this has never been attempted.[20] And the point is that the history of Trotskyism—its isolation, its persecution, its insistence on the correctness of its own essential ideas and its eventual production of its second theory of revolutionary consciousness—all these have made such an attempt to draw on the rich resources of Trotsky’s work impossible to either Trotskyists or their opponents.

7. The Question of Trotsky in South Africa Today

In conclusion, let us turn momentarily to the question of Trotsky’s legacy as it faces us in South Africa today. Fifty years after the assassination of Trotsky, that question reduces itself increasingly to one of how different traditions within South African Marxism will respond to the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, and the subsequent shift in the balance of world forces.

So far, this has brought forth general statements of intention, rather than theoretical and historical assessments of any substance. Little has been done to re-examine the legacy of Stalinism, and even less to deal with that of Trotsky.[21] The struggle over the actual content of deStalinization in the South African liberal movement has hardly begun. And it would clearly suit Stalinists or former Stalinists, and it would have the advantage of familiarity for many Trotskyists, if that movement could undergo a deStalinization of a special type, requiring nothing more than general statements of intention and tactical adjustments.

In this way, however, we would be abandoning in advance the historical task of building a Marxist tradition in South Africa, which is both rational and militant, which seeks the greatest possible degree of theoretical rigour and coherence, and also addresses itself as directly as possible to the concerns and aspirations of the oppressed masses. None of us can tell in advance how the masses will make use of those resources of Marxism which are at their disposal. We know only that their struggle against oppression and exploitation will continue, and we can expect it to intensify, and that they will have need of these resources. No Marxist should be scared of putting their ideas to the test of free and open debate, and eventually to the test of mass struggle itself.


[1] Paper presented to Marxist Theory Seminar, University of the Western Cape, on Thursday 23 August 1990, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky.

[2] “Public launch of the Legal South African Communist Party. A Central Committee Report to Fraternal Organisations, (mimeo, 1991, p.1)

[3] K. Marx, Capital vol. 1 (Harmondsworth, 1976), pp. 90 - 91

[4] It would be possible to add every statement about the life and thought of Trotsky an encyclopedia of footnotes setting out the distortions of the Stalinists. One small example will suffice: a recent article in the SACP theoretical journal states that “[Trotsky] made dramatic speeches to Petrograd Soviet during the 1905 Revolution, but (like the Mensheviks) he opposed the call for armed revolution and played no part in the bitter street battles in Moscow.” (Dialego, “What is Trotskyism,” African Communist, no. 115 [1989], p. 69.) In fact, Trotsky opposed (along with all other Marxists) a Social Revolutionary call for terrorist reprisals against Tsarist ministers and was in prison at the time of the Moscow battles.

[5] L. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London, 1962), pp. 194-7

[6] P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London, 1976), p. 118

[7] The concept of “national democracy” was introduced in the declaration of communist parties in Moscow in 1960; cf. P. Hudson, “The Freedom Charter and the Theory of National Democratic Revolution” Transformation, no. 1, (1986), p. 18

[8] These “national-democratic” states are described in V.G. Solodovnikov, The Present Stage of the Non-Capitalist Development in Asia and Africa (Budapest, 1973), quoted in M. Lowy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development (London, 1981), p. 197

[9] “The immediate phase of our own struggle is not for a national democratic state … We have accepted that ours will be a mixed economy, which means in practise that it will remain predominantly capitalist … A mixed economy means some form of partnership with [the capitalists and their allies]” (Tony Karon, “Time for some new thinking,” New Era, vol. 5, no. 2 (Winter 1990), p. 5

[10] Quoted in Lowy, Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, pp 8-9

[11] Deutscher puts it graphically: “The revolutionary is in his element when society is in action, when it unfolds all its energies, and when all social classes pursue their aspirations with the maximum of vigour and elan … But let society be overcome by torpor, and let its various classes fall into a coma, and the great revolutionary theorist, be he Trotsky or even Marx, loses something of his vision and penetration” (The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-29 [London,1959], p. 461).

[12] Quoted in A. Walicki, A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism (Oxford, 1980), p.417

[13] V.I. Lenin, What is to be Done? (Moscow, 1969) , pp. 78, 31-32. Lenin drew on the ideas of Kautsky for this aspect of his theory of the vanguard party. For the more complex and often inconclusive ideas of Marx on revolutionary consciousness, cf. Carol Johnson, “The Problem of Reformism and Marx’s Theory of Fetishism,” New Left Review, no. 119 (1980), pp. 70-96

[14] Quoted in Deutscher, Prophet Armed, p. 90

[15] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 24, p. 364, quoted in M. Liebman, Leninism under Lenin (London, 1975), p.190. I have discussed related aspects of Lenin’s thought in my paper on “Leninism and Democracy” (Marxist Theory Seminar, March 1990)

[16] L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (London, 1936), pp. 445-6

[17] Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 19

[18] History of the Russian Revolution, pp. 169-170

[19] History of the Russian Revolution, p. 167

[20] The closest to such an analysis, that I know of, is Peter Beilharz, “Trotsky as Historian,” History Workshop, no. 20 (1985), pp. 36-55.

[21] I have already referred to Dialego’s attack on Trotsky and Trotskyism in African Communist, which is full of half-truths and distortions (see note 4 above). For a somewhat clumsier companion piece, and a spirited defence of Stalin, see Brian Bunting’s contributions to Learning Nation in New Nation, 15 and 22 June 1990.


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