Terry Brotherstone and Paul Dukes (eds), The Trotsky Reappraisal, Edinburgh University Press, 1992, pp264, £30.00

‘The’ reappraisal is an ambitious title. This book is certainly not the last word on Trotsky, nor is it really intended to be so, but is a selection of papers read at the ‘Trotsky After 50 Years’ conference at Aberdeen University for which Brotherstone and Dukes were responsible, a report of which, under the heading ‘Work in Progress’, appeared in Revolutionary History, Spring 1991. This colloquium gave an opportunity for a mixture of historians and other academics, including some Trotskyists, to speak on a number of aspects of Trotsky and Trotskyism.

Of any such work it can be asked both whether there was a coherent theme and what was left out. (Amongst the interesting contributions omitted were Tom Kemp on Trotsky and the USA, Gregor Benton on Chinese Trotskyism and democracy (a fascinating paper), and Miklos Kun on Trotsky and the illegal anti-Stalin movement in the 1920s and 1930s.) The response to this must be that there was no coherent theme, and that some valuable material was omitted. It would seem that the reputation of some authors gave them a place in the book even if they say little that is new.

The contributions come from three sources, firstly, academics from what was then the USSR, secondly, Western academics with no particular sympathy or support for Trotsky, and, finally, academics who consider themselves Trotskyists, or at least, more broadly, Marxists.

Soviet scholars tend to express concerns which are on the whole very different from those in the other two groups. They defend Trotsky against Stalinist slanders, and spend what to Trotskyists may seem excessive time on elementary points. They devote much space to narrative history. Valery Bronstein (Trotsky’s great-nephew) outlines the horrors that befell Trotsky’s family. A straightforward account of Trotsky’s train and its role in the Civil War is provided by NS Tarkhova, while Boris Starkov gives a lively account of the Ryutin group in the 1930s and its opposition to Stalin. Starkov points out that the opposition to Stalin was led by people who had long careers as Bolsheviks, and that many of them had initially fought against the opposition. He shows that well into the 1930s, widespread hostility to Stalin and the leadership appeared in the party and in groups of workers.

The ‘Western’ academics participated in different sorts of ventures. They have little need to defend Trotsky from slanders long exposed. They are part of different debates. Some aim, if not to bury Trotsky, at least to ensure that his spirit never stalks the land. Perhaps the most extreme of this group is Philip Pomper of the Wesleyan University of Connecticut. He explains Trotsky’s psychological hangups and, in particular, how ill-fitting footwear demonstrated Trotsky’s feelings that he could not fill Lenin’s shoes. Poor Trotsky! In the same vein Robert Daniels suggests that:

The attraction [of Marxism] was not logical but psychological, and psychology governed as well the ways in which different Russian Marxists addressed the problems of the waiting period between the still unachieved bourgeois revolution and the ultimate proletarian revolution. (p146)

George Kline from Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, tears into Trotsky’s defence of ‘terrorism’. Kline’s piece is based on the problem of the ‘obsessive future orientation of Marx and Marxist-Leninists (including Trotsky)’ (p156). It seems that because Marxists have a concern for the yet unborn, they lack all morals and have no feeling about the people actually living now. This is contrasted with the more bourgeois love of existing communities. There is no discussion by Kline of the way in which capitalist states have demonstrated this love by driving millions into war and slaughter during this century. There seems little evidence that people went (and go) to war because of the benefits to them as people, and, surely, states that turn workers into killers, have ‘future orientations’. Despite hearing and reading Kline, I still think that the future of humanity is important, and the question of the kind of future that our species will have is a real issue. Kline’s argument is centred on the idea that Trotsky disassociated ends and means, and was willing to do anything to achieve Communism. This argument is clearly weak. Towards the end of Their Morals and Ours, Trotsky says:

The liberation of the workers can only come through the workers themselves. There is, therefore, no greater crime than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories, friends as enemies, bribing workers’ leaders, fabricating legends, staging false trials, in a word, doing what the Stalinists do. (LD Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours, London, 1968, p46)

This is not to say that any methods will do. Rather the reverse, as the means are a consequence of the goals. What Trotsky did was to reject the conventional hypocrisies of bourgeois life. In particular he opposed the idea of absolute moral standards beyond and above social relations. The explanation of the social function of lies may be distasteful to some, but the logic is inescapable. He pointed out that absolute standards are either based on some god or on moral truths, which ultimately take us back to some kind of god (ibid, pp8-9). The ruling class defends such standards in theory, but, in fact, rejects them whenever its class interest demands it. So what Kline, Pomper and Daniels share is a kind of special pleading against Marxism. The psychological reductionism of Daniels and Pomper is not applied to bourgeois politicians, and neither are Kline’s moral judgements applied to George Bush and his friends.

Those academics who were not Trotskyists and who had valuable contributions to make included Udo Gehrmann of Halle University, who, in a paper rich in ideas, raised the question of the way in which the great French Revolution of 1789 and the nineteenth century revolutions influenced Russian revolutionary thinking, and Alec Nove, who looked at Trotsky and the NEP. This is a much misunderstood area, and for this reason alone Nove’s contribution is welcome. He clears away the old argument that Trotsky never really supported the NEP, and he gives an idea of the sophistication of Trotsky’s thinking on the Soviet economy of the 1920s. Where I feel that he errs is in suggesting that Trotsky’s ‘class analysis’ led him astray. Trotsky’s support for heavy industry was intended in large measure to ensure that the working class developed its social weight in Soviet society. Nove thinks that Trotsky should have seen the bureaucracy, and especially Stalin, as the main enemy, whereas Trotsky focused on the rising kulaks, the NEPmen, Bukharin and those associated with him. In my view, Nove misses the key issue, which was that the workers had to create Socialism. Bureaucracy was based on the heterogenous nature of Soviet society. In the long run, the bureaucracy could only be destroyed by the death of its social base. In the short run, the bureaucracy had to be attacked by an opposition politically rooted in the working class and its drive to construct a Socialist future. When Nove says that the opposition was impractical, he seems to be basing his argument on a narrowly economic conception.

The Marxist contribution to the volume is of high quality. Baruch Hirson takes up Trotsky’s ideas on black nationalism with reference to both South Africa and the USA. His balanced criticisms of Trotsky stand in the true Marxist analytical tradition. Hirson’s piece must be read by all those who are thinking seriously about the role of the working class in South Africa. Hillel Ticktin’s look at Trotsky’s political economy of capitalism is a serious paper which draws together a substantial amount of Trotsky’s economic writing and subjects it to analysis. Ticktin points to differences between Trotsky and Lenin in their analyses of imperialism. His exposition of Trotsky’s ideas on the nature of equilibrium under capitalism is clear and enormously valuable, especially as such equilibrium seems to be disappearing at the present.

One of the finest papers in the book comes from Richard Day. His is an ambitious project — the location of Trotsky as a political theorist. First, Day sets up Trotsky against Hegel, Marx and Engels, and then against his contemporaries Lenin, Bukharin and Stalin, and finally against a more modern writer, Jürgen Habermas. Day’s comments on the early writers may upset some Marxists — in particular when he argues that Engels pacified Marxism. Day argues that Engels thought that reason was merely a product of nature. According to Day:

Engels helped to create confusion for an entire generation of Marxists. If the material world evolved of its own accord and produced thought as a reflection of matter, how could thinking beings undertake to make the social world rational? (p121)

Although Trotsky partially agreed with Engels, he differed from him on the vital issues, above all on the active role of consciousness, in that ‘Trotsky’s philosophical differences with the tradition stemming from Engels distinguished him clearly from the mainstream of Bolshevik thought’ (p122). In Day’s view, Lenin changed his position drastically between writing Materialism and Empiriocriticism and the Philosophical Notebooks — the latter being very similar to Trotsky’s position.

In Day’s picture, Bukharin stands in the Engels tradition, in which consciousness grows simply out of nature. The treatment of Stalin is commendably brief and appropriately damning, but, both in the conference itself and in re-reading Day, I get the impression that Habermas is in there simply as a more modern example against whom to measure Trotsky. As I recall, he said during the discussion on his paper that it was impossible to find any modern Trotskyist who had presented any theoretical advances worth considering. The conclusions based on this portion of his paper add little to Trotsky’s thinking about the problems of Stalinism.

The opening essay is by Paul Dukes, and the book’s last chapter is by Terry Brotherstone, who says that the editors have not attempted to select papers so as to produce a synthesised conclusion on Trotsky, but rather that the book is a ‘working tool, a stimulus to further study’ (p240).

For me, this is the whole point of such a project. Its heterogeneity is a major merit. Even the more reactionary papers raise questions that Trotskyists have to answer. The quality is uneven, and, while the poorer papers have little to commend them, the better ones do help us to gain a more rounded picture of Trotsky 50 years on. Trotskyists who are concerned with revolution and not with the Trotsky Heritage Industry will find that there is much to think on in this book.

Geoff Barr