On being a Trot

I got called a “Trot” the other day.  Trot these days, is used as a generalised insult.  I’m not sure if out there beyond the leftie trainspotter world many know what Trotskyism actually is, or how “Trot” got its pejorative status, but its worth a closer look at what Trotskyism is and isnt, and what that means for post-Indyref Scotland  

RIC 2014 was amazing, and it has certainly noised up the political scene.  I doubt it was simply coincidence that Sturgeon just happened to pick a venue a few hundred metres away from RIC, but the SNP are far too dignified to attack another popular pro-independence movement.

The Labour Party on the other hand lost its dignity a long time ago.

Michael McCann MP for East Kilbride replied to a tweet about RIC from Common Weal with

When pressed to explain what he meant by “Trot” he clarified with…

So lets take a look at these “extremists, infiltrators and people who follow a revolutionary agenda”.

Who are they?

The answer isnt as simple as it appears, Trotskyism is a strange beast, part myth, part history and part theory.  Being a Trot has a long history as an insult, hell, even Trotsky was called one; and being self-defined Trot in Britain has generally meant signing up to a political cult, while the Trot label was used to mark out anyone to the left of Ghengis Khan.  Nevertheless Trotsky wrote a significant body of theoretical work, which shouldn’t simply be discarded just because Trots are so damn awful.

Where does the term “Trotskyism” Come From?

Well, there is no one better to ask about that than dear old Leon himself, who published the letters he had received on this very issue.  The term Trotskyism was coined by two Stalinist apparachiks, Zinoviev and Kamenev to describe the Left Opposition, formed in 1923 as a faction within the Bolshevik Party.  This “Trotskyism” was designed from the start as a slur in a classic move, straight out of the Alinsky’s Rules – “pick the target: freeze it, personalise it and polarise it”  


Letter from G. Piatakov

Dear Leon Davidovich:

You ask me to inform you what I am able to recall about the speeches of Lashevich and Zinoviev on the occasion of a discussion with Leningrad comrades on “Trotskyism” which took place at Kamenev’s home. I no longer remember all that was said. But since I have always been deeply disturbed by the question of so-called “Trotskyism,” and since the attitude of the Opposition of 1925-1926 towards this question was always of enormous political interest to me, I remember quite clearly what Zinoviev and Lashevich said to us. I do not recall the exact words but the sense of what they said I remember well, namely:

“Trotskyism” had been invented in order to replace the real differences of opinion with fictitious differences, that is, to utilize past differences which had no bearing upon the present but which were resurrected artificially for the definite purpose mentioned above. This was told to the comrades from Leningrad who were wavering on the question of “Trotskyism” and to whom it had to be explained how and why the legend of “Trotskyism” had been created.

Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, Chapter 7


Trotskyism never was about Trotsky’s theories. Trotsky quotes Zinoviev, the true author of the legend of Trotskyism as saying

…it was a struggle for power. The trick was to string together old disagreements with new issues. For this purpose ‘Trotskyism’ was invented.

Zinoviev, who coined the term Trotskyism, plays a key role in a little bit of 1920s British political history.  The Zinoviev Letter, which he proportedly wrote while still a member of the Polit Beauro, to the CPGB urging them to infiltrate the Labour Party and push for a more radical agenda, was leaked to Daily Heil Mail. Although it probably didnt change the outcome of the 1924 election, many Labour Party supporters felt disgruntled with the Communist Party which they blamed for losing them the vote with their association.  Shortly afterwards, Zinoviev defected to the Left Opposition, joining the Trotskyists he had played such a role in demonising.  Zinoviev always denied writing the letter, but the denials coming from the USSR were weak, as Zinoviev could always be denounced as a Trotskyist.

And so the entrist Trotsky legend was born, several years before in 1934 Trotsky started advocating entryism, and based not on Trotsky’s theories, but on a forged letter. Trotsky’s entryism was of an entirely different type than that proposed by the Zinoviev letter.   Trotsky advocated a short term entryist programme into existing large socialist or social democratic organisations, with the aim of peeling off a section of its most radicalised members with which to form an alternative International to the USSR dominated Comintern.

In 1936, Zinoviev met a sticky end.   Denounced as Trotskyist, he was accused of terrorism and executed in the first Moscow Show Trial for being a member of the “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center” which they accused of having killed one member of the Soviet leadership, and of planning to kill others, including Stalin, paving the way for the acceleration of the Great Purge, which drove Stalin’s dissenters into gulags and graves.

Trotskyism was now not only associated with deception through entryism but now also had also implications of political violence.  Like the modern day “war on terror”, the  manufactured terrorism of Trotskyism was used to justify the mass murder of up to a million people.

The constructed Trotskyism of Zinoviev saw the elevation of the individual through personalisation.  Just as Marx had renounced Marxism when he saw what others had done with it, Trotsky would have spun in his grave had he seen what the Left did with Trotskyism, rather than recognising it as a slur, they embraced it as an alternate pole.  For although it was Stalin who created the Cult of Personality which reigned over Soviet Russia in the 1930s, as denounced by Khrushchev in the 1956 Secret Speech, it was Trotsky who got handed the mantle of theoretical leadership, despite the many other contributories to the development of socialist thought at that time.

A Potted History of British Trotskyism

In 1938, the Fourth International was born and held its initial congress.  By the time Trotsky was murdered in 1940, the English sections were already squabbling.  When the UK section of the Forth International (Revolutionary Socialist League: RSL) was formed through a merger of three existing groups, one – the Workers International League (WIL) – had remained outside, within two years another two groups had formed outwith the formal international, the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL), a split from the main RSL and the Labour League of Youth, an organisation which had been set up as a youth wing to the Labour Party, but which had become hostile to it.

Things really didn’t get any better, the squabblings continued… 
(more alphabet soup to follow  …keep up now!)

The RWL merged with the WIL, combining to form the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which eventually won over the Fourth International “franchise” before eventually dissolving into two factions: the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) and the Socialist Review Group (SRG).

The WRP collapsed in the 1980s after its General Secretary was discovered to be a serial rapist and that the organisation had been covering up for him.  Healey had led the WRP basically through intimidation and violence.  He had attracted some celebrity backers, most notably the Redgraves, but is generally described as a cult, where bullying and isolationary tactics were used to keep its members in line.

The other group, the SRG, turned into International Socialists (IS), led by Cliffe and then eventually into today’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which is pretty much collapsed, after it was discovered that their General Secretary, Martin Smith, was a serial rapist and the organisation had been covering up for him (spot a pattern?).  Today, the SWP is known in common parlance as “that rape cult” with skuffles breaking out between feminists and SWP members across the UK.

Also out of the RCP emerged the nasient new Revolutionary Socialist League, led by Ted Grant which would eventually turn into the Militant Tendancy, a semi-secretive entryist organisation within the British Labour Party and the forerunner of today’s Socialist Party.  This strand of the three trends, did manage not to elect a serial rapist as its General Secretary but it did however spawn Tommy Sheridan, celebrity misogynist extraordinaire so it doesn’t get off the hook entirely.  It too is frequently described by ex-members as a cult, and indeed was used as a case study for political cults.

As can be seen, the history of British Trotskyism is …a history of guru figures, some of which turned out to be monsters, some which just inspired them.  Misogyny is rampant, cultishness embedded and internecine bickering endemic.  But that isn’t the myth of British Trotskyism, horrible tho its history is.  The myth of the Trot is the left constructed through the eyes of the Right.  It is the continuation of the demonisation of the Left started by Zenoveiv.

British Trotskyism, the Myth.

The term “Trot” came into common parlance in the 1980s.  As Thatcherism rose, the left was painted as loonies which wouldn’t allow little children to sing common nursery rhymes and promoted Black single parent lesbian wheelchair users at every opportunity. Concern for women’s rights, LGBT rights and anti-racism work was denigrated and dismissed as the work of “Trots”.  Very few of those who championed these issues came from the formal tradition of British Trotskyism.  Rather this generation of activists were political graduates of the social movements of the 1970s – the women’s movement, the Gay Rights movement,  and anti-racism campaigners.  But the epithet stuck.

In the meantime, the Militant Tendancy, in its entryist guise within the Labour Party had taken control of Liverpool city council and had strong influence within the Labour Party Young Socialists – a throwback to Trotskyist current within its predecessor, the Labour League of Youth.  “Trot” became a term of abuse not only to be hurled by right wingers at lefties, but gained traction among those who considered themselves left-wing.

Even well into the 2000s, the “Trot” label had traction.  So much so that when Robert Fisk, called Jack Straw an “old Trot”, Straw was moved to write to the Independent, denouncing Trotskyism

Whatever other frailties I may have (many), I have been consistent in my opposition to Trotskyism and the false consciousness it engenders. (I was first taught to spot a Trot at 50 yards in 1965 by Mr Bert Ramelson, Yorkshire industrial organiser of the Communist Party.)

 Jack Straw, letter to Independent, 16th November, 2004

But what did Trotsky actually say?

Trotsky was one of the most prolific writers of the Russian Revolution writing volumes on its history and on the theory of Marxist-Leninism. Most who had actually read some Trotsky can see at least some value in his meanderings.  His main contributions were the development of the Marxist theory of “Permanent Revolution” and the tactic of the “United Front”.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution proposed a counterbalance to the Stalinist idea of “socialism in one country”, unlike Marx, he argued that it was not necessary for a society to pass through a stage of bourgeoise dominance within the nation.  Rather the proletariat of the nation should act in accordance with international class interests, making the revolution permanent and ongoing, rather than risk becoming stuck at the first staging post of the socialist path.

This theory is worth revisiting in the situation Scotland finds itself in 2014, with RIC a major counter-balance to the ever-rising SNP.  Trotsky argued that the reason why the Russian Revolution was never completed was because imperialism would not allow the basic needs of humanity to be met on a national basis, moreover that globalisation, still in its infancy in Trotsky’s day, had outgrown the potential of the nation-state on which capitalism relied.  Consequently if successful progress was to be made within an oppressed country, one must not only challenge the imperial power, but also the national bourgoise.

And we should never forget that there are bourgoise demands contained within the desire for independence, for example that  a greater share of the oil wealth retained in Scottish hands rather than handed over to London without too many questions being asked about exactly which hands this wealth would fall into.  These demands ignoring that the economic grip of imperialism, which sees our natural resources exploited for the benefit of multi-nationals is at least as strong, if not stronger, as the grip of the British State itself.  A Scottish bourgoise may slow the handover of these resources, but they cannot arrest or reverse the process.  Only a movement which is tied to international class interests can do so.

Trotsky’s other major theoretical contribution was the “United Front”.  The theory of the United Front was that revolutionaries should join with reformist organisations and struggle together with non-revolutionary workers in defending their immediate basic interests.  This is sometimes confused with entryism, but  entryism is a tactic, rather than a theoretical stance, while the United Front stands in contrast to the “Popular Front”.

In the independence campaign, we saw the emergence of a Popular Front in the YES movement, but without the undertones of fascism which had prompted the development of the tactic.  Unlike most other Popular Fronts, it had no defined organisation at its head – YES Scotland being a rather vacuuous figurehead which produced pretty pictures and poignant films, for others to pour their hopes and dreams into.

The popular front of YES is over, for all that the SNP stayed at arms length for the majority of the independence campaign, the final leadership of Salmond and Sturgeon in the closing month identified them as its heir.  The SNP has now quadruled its membership.  But the SNP is not what many of its new members think it is.  The SNP is not YES in all its glorious ramshackle diversity, but a party machine, strategically aimed at power.  And ultimately it is the Scottish bourgoise which hold its reigns

Within that Popular Front of the YES Movement tho, new movements were organically taking shape: Women for Indy, Polish Scots for Yes, YES LGBT, National Collective,  Green Yes, Asian Scots for Yes, The Hills have Ayes, Bella Caledonia, Common Weal, Africans for Indy, Mums for Change, Gael Force Art, GenYes, Labour for Indy, English Scots for Yes, Italians for Indy, Green Yes, and many many others.  Many of these contained radicals, however the main left formation was RIC, which ran a major voter registration drive in working class areas and whose mass canvasses got thousands out on the streets chapping doors.

The United Front discussion is a moot one in today’s Scotland.  With the main fascist threat external, we have the luxury of reflection and development which is not possible at a more defensive time. There are now no mass worker organisations where we are  likely to find radicals hibernating within – these radicals are already active.  The traditional workers party is now despised by those of a radical bent, who have seen the Labour Party’s perception of Scotland’s people as cannon fodder, easily sacrificed to win them greater power.  With the enfeebled trade unions incapable of mounting a challenge to never-ending austerity, people are seeking other, more effective, outlets to challenge neo-liberal hegemony.

Radicalising the working class means going to the working class where ever they are, not only when they see themselves as a worker, but also when they see themselves as a woman, or a hillwalker, or an artist, or an English Scot.  It means seeking out the radical within these identities and extracting a class analysis.  Class is fundamental, but class is gendered, class is racialised, class is expressed in all the many varients of identity, not as an identity, but as a mediator of it.  

RIC offers an alternative strategy to both the United Front and the Popular Front – not a “Front” – a defined but limited ambition to be worked to achieve with non-radicals, but a multi-dimentional, multi-facetted container of radical ambitions from a range of traditions.  One which is able to connect with other radical struggles across the globe to seek common cause.

So “Trot” is kindof good, yeah?

To be honest, me and Trotsky dont see eye to eye on a lot of issues and to describe RIC as a “Trot convention” does a disservice to it politics.  Both the  SWP and the Socialist Party – the ever dwindling remnants of the British Trotskyist movement – embraced Scottish independence only once it was clear which way the wind was blowing.  Trotskyism has had very little formal influence on the organic and indigenous RIC movement.  Yes, there were definitely Trotskyists among us and many more who have been influenced by his thinking, at least to some extent.  But the vast majority have become radicalised by other writers and thinkers.

For all Trotsky had a lot to say, he had very little to say about patriarchy.  While he defends women’s right to an abortion and welcomes the emancipation of women that the communes achieve, his principle concern is of the protection of mothers and children.  Ciscentrism and heteronormativity encircle his work which starts with the assumption that monogamous marriage is the ideal – Trotsky’s “New Family” looked a great deal like the old, just better and with socialised laundries.  Is it any surprise that the three main Trotskyist organisations in post-war Britain have eventually ended up with either a serial rapist or a celebrity misogynist at its helm, when their main theoretician reduced the question of gender relations under capitalism to the provision of kindergartens and socialised laundries (not that any of these three organisations ever pushed very hard for either, mind you).

But “Trot” to a leftie works a bit like “slut” does to a woman, it is used pejorative label, which is brought out as condemnation, a manner of shaming into silence.  To disavow Trotsky is to follow the demand of the Show Trials, to mean that Zonoviev’s poisonous invention of the myth of Trotskyism has enveloped the legacy of Trotsky and his thinkings; and that the rampant misogyny in his avowed heirs is covered over by using the epithet “Trot” towards those who strive withing liberation struggles.

For our revolution to be permanent we need to to ensure that it is not only aware that it is operating in a context of imperialism, but also in a context of patriarchy, a context Trotsky and his many followers ignored.

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Updated: November 25, 2014 — 9:03 pm
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