Barry Lee Woolley, Adherents of Permanent Revolution: A History of the Fourth (Trotskyist) International, University Press of America, 1999, pp356
ACADEMIC histories of Trotskyism, such as those of Robert Alexander and John Callaghan, are either so out of sympathy with their subject, or based upon so defective a methodology, that they can only be used with caution to gain a real understanding. And the writer of this book, whilst admitting that Alexander has done ‘just about as well as you can without being in the movement’ (p325), describes him as writing from ‘an academic point of view divorced from actual contact with the Trotskyist movement’, without ‘a real feel for the Trotskyist use of Marxist “theory” as polemical weapon’ (p329). On the other hand, apart from personal memoirs, those written by insiders or participants, such as David North or Pierre Frank, are so factionally slanted that the truth only puts in a rare appearance as a casual visitor. So our hopes can only rise when we learn that Woolley had ‘a personal participation in many of the events’, and ‘intimate friendships with early international Trotskyist leaders’, which ‘allowed some of the clandestine operations of the Trotskyists to be made known to the author’ which ‘would never have been told to a “bourgeois historian” according to general Marxist-Leninist principles’ (p viii).
However, when we examine his sources, and the use he makes of them, we can only turn back to such a disinterested observer as Alexander with a sigh of relief.
The sheer range of factual howlers must make this book one of the last century’s major achievements, a century by no means deficient in the cult of the big lie. Trotsky’s repudiation of Max Eastman was not insisted upon by his comrades as a way of remaining in the party, but was due to lack of courage (p23), Ted Grant was present at the 1933 conference (p40), when Van Overstraeten’s group was still ‘numerically strong’ (p42), and, best of all, ‘there is no reason to believe the German events of 1932-33 motivated Trotsky to call for a new International when earlier German, British and Chinese events hadn’t. There isn’t even a hint of a progression of disillusion in the Stalinist Third International in Trotsky’s vitriolic writings on the subject.’ (p47) Greece was ‘represented by Michel Raptis’ at the founding conference of the Fourth International (p86); Victor Serge was ‘a Stalinist-turned-Trotskyist leader’ (p328); Bob Smillie, Mark Rhein, Willy Brandt, George Orwell and Paul Frölich were all Trotskyists (pp124-5, 257), whereas Chandu Ram was British (p263); during the Burnham-Shachtman debate Trotsky ‘would not discuss the issue which initiated the debate, namely the Soviet Union’s actions in World War II, including its invasion of Finland’ (p135), and he was responsible for a split he had tried to avoid (p137). Coming on to the period after the war, apparently Chinese Trotskyists were never imprisoned (p325); Posadas’ split was over the Sino-Soviet dispute, where he supported the Russians (p191); the Bolivian Trotskyists entered the MNR in 1952 on Pablo’s insistence (p246); Molinier ‘never rejoined the Trotskyists’ (p309 n50); the Comintern still existed in the 1970s (p315 n42); the Marcyite ‘World Workers Party’ is ‘Trotskyist’, and we could go on. The writer certainly does.
And when we examine the ideological setting of these grotesqueries an even more woeful picture emerges. For example, Woolley’s ‘intimate friendship’ with Arne Swabeck (pp viii, 46, 333), who abandoned Trotskyism for a rabid Maoism, has introduced into the narrative more than a dash of vulgar Stalinism. This is particularly so when we come to the Spanish Civil War, where the masses are described as a ‘red rabble’ (p298 n46) and the POUM repeatedly as ‘the outstanding representative of Trotskyism in Spain’ (p116; cf pp44, 84, 299 n56, 303 n84, 304). Indeed, since ‘landlords and factory managers were also not spared the death penalty by political groups’ (p117), the Stalinists, who had ‘realistically separated the fight against war and fascism from the revolutionary struggle for power’ (p32), banned May Day in Barcelona ‘for fear of mass violence’ (p122), had to disarm the militias ‘to put a stop to the arming of criminal elements by the Anarchists and Trotskyists’ (p120), and were finally ‘forced to eliminate their political opponents’ (p118). But this was all to the good, for the aim of the Trotskyists was ‘to make sure the Spanish people were subjected to as much bestiality and death and destruction as it was possible to dish out under the name of humanistic Marxism’ (p75). They were, after all, ‘able to bring down persecution upon themselves from the very start of their movement’ (p114), and as for Trotsky himself, he ‘can be said to have almost willingly cooperated’ with the GPU (p103).
We might therefore ask what trace remains of the writer’s boasted years in the American Socialist Workers Party, followed by a close working contact with the Workers League and the Spartacists (p333), and subsequent access to ‘the personal collection of Mr James Robertson’ (p334) and ‘sources within the Socialist Workers Party and the Spartacist League who wish to remain anonymous’ (p335). The simple answer is rather more than his share of poisonous factionalism and sectarian dogmatism. The movement is described as a ‘Trotsky-led organization of cults’ (p96; cf p81), ‘a narrow fanatical international clique’ (p31) of ‘unstable elements who were to be fanatics about trivial political points’ (p39) acting in ‘a futile attempt to establish the purity of socialism’ (p vii). This is certainly the mentality he gained in the movement, for it failed to teach him the simplest proposition of revolutionary thought, that there can be no such thing as ‘orthodox Marxism’ (pp11, 182, 207, 223). And his particular brand of ‘orthodoxy’ comes out painfully clearly. Cannon’s support for Lore’s expulsion was ‘more out of a disinterest in foreign matters such as Trotskyism, than out of conviction’ (p23; cf p24). Pablo’s ‘entrism sui generis’ was ‘attempted liquidation into the Stalinist movement’ (pp vii, 225-6), and yet was somehow at the same time a perspective of ‘virtually abandoning political activity within the European mass movement’ (pp190-1), whereas 1965-69 was ‘the period of the rise of revisionism in the USFI’ (p213). The Gelfand Case becomes ‘a book of historical significance’ (p330). The only modification Woolley makes in this historical picture is to suggest that a major cause of the decay of ‘orthodoxy’ in the Trotskyist movement in the 1960s and 1970s was the ‘degenerate habits’, particularly sexual ones, picked up by the ‘undisciplined sons and daughters of the upper-middle classes’ on college campuses (p230).
It is barely surprising, therefore, that his analysis displays no evidence of any command of Marxism at all. Hitler was a ‘brother Socialist’ of Stalin (p116). Labour parties are variously described as ‘left-liberal political organizations’ (p57) or ‘social democratic (that is, liberal or socialist)’ (p31). The united front is not an approach to the mass movement, but where ‘Marxists of different tactical views could collaborate in a united front for a specific purpose’ (p12). Entrism becomes ‘a raiding mission to recruit cadres’ (p49), ‘a blatant attempt to steal the cadres or parties and programs built by others’ (p51), ‘so sapping the strength of them as to eliminate them’ (p58; cf p76). Permanent Revolution boils down to using ‘Social Democrats and social democratic demands as a starting point for the transformation of the democratic movement in Russia into a Communist one’ where ‘the Social Democrats were to be duped into supporting the proletarian revolution by working for impossible demands’ (p12). For transitional politics are no more than ‘a program of using the existing liberal movements in democratic countries to build a revolutionary movement… by so aggravating liberal demands as to make their realization only impossible’ (p91), meant to ‘attract liberals in a front with Communists’ (p92). The entirety of Marxism is thus reduced to a series of unpleasant manoeuvres and petty intrigues. They even crop up in the ‘Appendix of Party Names’, where someone in the Spartacist League has carefully provided him with the identities of ex-associates still active in the mass movement (pp225-63), even though they played no part in the period covered by his book, which ends in the early 1970s.
The only original component Woolley brings to his construct is an obsession with morals, particularly sexual ones. It becomes an all-purpose explanation, transcending other causal factors. Some examples are simply hilarious: ‘By lack of background and an intention not to renounce his fornication, Trotsky was blocked from seeking a religious philosophy of life’ (p4), for ‘orthodox Marxism… served to rationalize his youthful academic failure and promiscuity’ (p10). Strange sexual comments start on the first page and crop up all the way through: the early south Russian revolutionaries were ‘individuals of a dissatisfied and immoral nature’ (p1), whereas Trotsky’s ‘sexual immorality and inattention to personal finances identified him as a Bolshevik’ (p5). Every new actor appears on stage bearing a ready made moral tag. Natalia Sedova is repeatedly described as ‘Trotsky’s mistress’ (pp17, 33, 314, etc). Lev Sedov, ‘Trotsky’s older illegitimate son’ (p10), and Jeanne Martin were ‘permanent adultery partners’ (p19); Fischer and Maslow were ‘fornication partners’ (p28), and Frida Kahlo ‘a vulgar, drug using and sometimes sodomite third wife of Rivera’ (p291). For sheer entertainment value I can thoroughly recommend the first section in Chapter 8, ‘Socialist Sodomites and Sorcery’ (pp229-31, together with n3, p322). We even get a glimpse into the writer’s own tormented spiritual odyssey when he says of Eastman that ‘his perspicacious understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of Communism almost leads him to the Christian view of the depravity of man’ (p328).
Most of us would accept that the morality of the Alabama Bible belt does not equip us to understand political movements in the twentieth century, though why it was necessary to write a book of over 300 pages to prove it remains a mystery to me.