Trotskyists come conservatives…

March 25, 2008

Do either of you remember where Zizek talks about American Trotskyists becoming right wingers? I’m reading a piece by McNally and he talks about American Trotskyism in such a way that one can see how it happened:

Trotsky’s theory (developed in 1905-6) proved to be a profound anticipation of the class dynamics of the revolutionary process of 1917. Under the impact of the revolutionary movement in China in the 1920s, Trotsky soon extended the theory from Russia to the colonial world in general. In the colonies, he suggested, the same pattern will apply: a frightened bourgeoisie will pull back from the anti-colonial struggle; the latter will triumph only if led by a revolutionary party of the working class. While there were some important insights gained from this argument, it ran the risk of over-generalization. After all, in the absence of a working class as self-organized and combatative as the Russian workers’ movement of 1905 and 1917, why should petty bourgeois or bourgeois groups inevitably pull back from leading national struggles? Indeed, they didn’t. In countries like India, Algeria, Pakistan, Bangaldesh and dozens upon dozens more, nationalist movements not led by the working class did indeed establish independent nation-states. In China, a so-called Communist Party led such a struggle with no semblance of working class self-activity, and with no creation of organs of workers’ democracy.

The world after 1945 in fact saw a whole succession of national independence struggles in which working class movements played no meaningful role. Clearly this required some revision of Trosky’s theory. Whatever its strengths, it could not be used as a universally-valid prediction about national struggles in the age of imperialism. Some trotskyists did attempt to come to terms with developments that clearly failed to conform to Trotsky’s theory. Others, however, continued to cling dogmatically to the letter of Trotsky’s account. The largest U.S. trotskyist group (Socialist Workers Party) produced a document in 1974 for example, which argued: “In the imperialist epoch, the national bourgeoisie in the industrially backward countries betrays its own revolution. Bourgeois democratic tasks, including the achievment of national independence can be carried out only through the socialist revolution” (Dynamics of World Revolution Today, 137-8).

Now, the fact that this claim was obviously false (i.e. national independence was being achieved without socialist revolution) did not seem to matter. Trotsky had said it, therefore it must be true. But many trotskyists who took such a line started to see socialist revolutions and workers’ states everywhere: Algeria, Egypt, wherever a progressive-sounding nationalist regime took power. After all, if national independence could not be achieved without socialist revolution, then the achievement of national independence could only mean such a revolution had occurred. The fact that nothing resembling a socialist revolution could be identified—like millions of oppressed peoples taking to the streets and winning the rank and file of the army to their side, like mass strikes and workplaces occupations, like new institutions of popular self-government springing up in the workplaces and communities—did not seem to matter. Going much farther than had Trotsky, some groups began to argue that a hidden logic drove all nationalist struggles onto the road of socialist revolution. Even if they didn’t know it, bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists were actually making workers’ revolutions. The primacy of workers’ self-emancipation quickly disappeared (since almost any social group could now create socialism). And, inevitably, the line between nationalism and socialism became blurred. After all, if anti-imperialist nationalism automatically grows over into socialism, then the line between the two is quite fluid indeed. Some trotskyists who gravitated towards such views eventually went over to a more or less uncritical embrace of progressive-looking nationalism (Cuban, Nicaraguan, Grenadan) and gave up on the whole idea of permanent revolution and its insistence on independent working class and socialist organization within the national struggle (this was the evolution of the American SWP).

If all states are socialist by definition, then I guess it’s not a big leap to become an American nationalist! … Well, that’s probably just stupid to say. Maybe it makes more sense to talk about it in terms of beleif: If you beleive that all new nation-states are socialist and act accordingly for X number of years, then eventually you become a nationalist and not a communist! Maybe we can think of this as a really good (historical) example (rather than a ‘thought experiment’) of how belief reveals one’s unconscious fantasy (where fantasy is one’s theory of how the world works)…


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