Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Review of 'Marxism and the History of Art'


Andrew Hemingway (ed), Marxism and the History of Art, Pluto Press, London 2006.

As a discipline art history has long been characterized by snobbery and elitism. For the ruling class it has been seen as a soft (harmless?) option for its less able sons and daughters. In this it has mirrored the elitism of the art world generally, which an ‘anti- philistine’ section of the bourgeoisie has made it its business to hegemonise, partly through big money (Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Saatchi etc) and partly through a small detachment of genuine ‘experts’ or ‘ connoisseurs’ ( Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Brian Sewell, even Anthony Blunt in his way).

Despite this the twentieth century saw a number of highly sophisticated Marxist scholars make a major contribution to the development of the subject. Inevitably they tended to be marginalized and neglected, frequently having to work in very difficult circumstances , both East and West. The radicalization of academia in the sixties and seventies brought the emergence and reemergence of some of them to a temporary prominence, but the swing to the right in the eighties and after, with the collapse of communism and the turn to postmodernism , has sidelined them once again.

With this book, and a series of other initiatives, Andrew Hemingway ( working in concert with other contemporary Marxist art historians) is seeking to ensure that this rich legacy is not thrown on the scrap heap but survives to contribute to the debates of today an tomorrow.

The book is a collection of essays, all written by people at least very sympathetic to Marxism, on such figures as Lifshits, Antal, Klingender, Raphael, Lukacs, Hauser, Schapiro, Lefebvre, Benjamin, Adorno and others. Most of the essays present their subject by means of a combination of biographical material with an overview of their main ideas. Some, such as John Roberts’ discussion of ‘the ideal spectator’ and Hemingway’s account of ‘New Left Art History’ are more thematic in approach.

The central issue covered, from a variety of angles, is the debate, which ran through Marxist art history as through the wider society, over modernism – modernism versus classicism, versus bourgeois or social realism, and versus socialist realism. On balance the book comes down – just about, I think – on the side of modernism. Particularly interesting in this context are Stanley Mitchell’s contributions on the ‘Marxist conservative’ Mikhail Lifshits and the humanist, somewhat mystical, Max Raphael.

Slightly out of kilter with the rest of the collection, but very welcome (to me), is Caroline Arscott’s chapter on William Morris which discusses his engagement with so-called ‘primitive’ art. Morris is not usually considered in such company, but I consider that his ideas on art, especially his notion of ‘pleasure in labour’ as the fount of art, are one of the most valuable elements in his multi-faceted work and deserve more attention.

One of the stated aims of this book is to ‘plug a gap’ by providing, in a single volume, an overview of the Marxist art history tradition for students who wish to study it and lecturers who wish to teach it. Overall it succeeds in its aim and will undoubtedly prove useful to its intended readers. Nevertheless I have some reservations.

First, the general reader should be warned that the focus is heavily methodological ( though the language is not too obscure) and one learns relatively little about art as such. Second , there are some surprising omissions – for example, no account of John Berger, and T.J. Clark discussed only in passing – perhaps the result of the exaggerated academic prestige in some quarters of the continental Europeans. Third, there is a tendency to an attitude of ‘beleaguered pessimism’ which is reflective of the milieu of the contributors more than the state of the movement and resistance in the wider world.

Finally I was left with the conclusion that artists influenced by Marxism and socialism – there have been many – have generally been considerably ahead of the Marxist art historians. But perhaps that is as it should be.

John Molyneux
September 2006

The Meaning of Class

As we saw in the last of these columns the concept of class struggle played a crucial role in Marx’s theory of history. For Marx class struggle was the main driving force in history and the means by which one mode of production is transformed into another, for example feudalism into capitalism or capitalism into socialism. But what is meant by class?

In modern capitalist society this question has become very confused, and not accidentally so. On the one hand the term is very widely used – in the media, in literature and in daily life – because the existence of layers of people with very unequal amounts of wealth, and widely differing life styles and opportunities is so obvious that it cannot be denied. On the other hand our rulers have a massive interest in ensuring that people, especially working people, do not develop a clear understanding of it, do not, in other words, develop class consciousness.

Consequently, for more than a century, the ruling class has been happy to fund academics (particularly sociologists) and pundits to come up with a variety of theories and concepts of class. They have not minded very much about the content of these theories on one condition – that they disputed and ‘refuted’ the Marxist theory of class, the only one they really feared.

The principal strategy in this ideological mystification has been to treat class as essentially a subjective matter, a question of how people see their own and others’ position in the social structure and how they define their own class identity. Max Weber, the early 20th century sociologist who is the key intellectual figure in much of this debate, focused primarily on ‘status’ and ‘status groups’, rather than economic class, as being the main factors in social action, with status defined as prestige in the eyes of others.

Even when class is defined by occupation, as is the case in many governmental and sociological statistics, which appears to be an objective criterion, the ranking of the occupations – for example teachers as middle class, mechanics as working class – is done on the subjective basis of presumed status.

Treating class as subjective makes the concept highly unstable, varying from year to year, decade to decade, country to country, and also opens the door to regular claims that class divisions have disappeared or are no longer important, and that viewing politics in class terms is out of date.

By contrast Marxism, though obviously concerned with class consciousness, insists that class divisions are objective – they exist in the structure of society independently of people’s awareness or conception of them. For Marx, class divisions derive from and are based on the relations of production in society. Often this is expressed in the phrase ‘class is defined by relationship to the means of production’, usually with the rider that ‘it is a question of ownership or non- ownership’. But, although it points in the right direction, this formulation is inadequate and can be misleading. Slave owners, feudal lords and capitalists are all owners of the means of production but they are three different classes. Similarly, in modern society, neither a middle manager in Samsung nor a shop floor worker are owners of the means of production but they are not both members of the same class.

A fuller understanding of the Marxist theory of class requires a grasp of three points. First, that the relations of production of society form a totality, a definite system of production, and classes are defined by the roles they play in the system as a whole. It is necessary to start from the system as a whole, not from individual cases.

Second, that classes are a matter not only of relations between people and things (means of production – land, machines, factories etc.) but also of social relations between people; classes are formed in conflict with one another.

Third, that what drives the conflict is not envy or different life styles or even just inequality, but exploitative relations of production, that is the systematic extraction of a surplus (profit) by one group of people from the labour of another group. Class struggle derives from exploitation in the process of production and from there extends to every aspect of social life.

It is the concept of exploitation ( to be explained further in my next column) which differentiates the Marxist theory of class and which is absent from all the bourgeois, liberal and sociological accounts. Exploitation creates an objective conflict of interests – first over pay, hours of work, conditions etc. and then over housing, health, education, law and order, foreign policy (warfare versus welfare) and so on.

Apply this analysis to modern capitalist society and, with some important local variations, we find essentially the same class structure in all developed countries.

At the top, stands the ruling or capitalist class, which owns or controls the major means of production, and lives on the profits it makes from the employment of wage labour. Not every member of the ruling class, e.g .some top politicians and state officials, is personally involved in the employment and profit making, but they are all tied into it and depend on it.

In opposition to them stands the majority, the working class, who live by the sale of their labour power and are exploited by the capitalist class. The working class includes both manual and white collar workers – nurses and teachers as well as dockers and car workers. If people live primarily by the sale of their labour power they are part of the working class whether they work in mines and factories or call centers and colleges.

Between these two main classes stand various intermediate strata, commonly called the middle class, who shade into the ruling class at their upper levels and the working class at their lower levels. There are two strands in the middle class, both hierarchically organized. On the one hand, small business owners, the petty bourgeoisie, who are either self employed or employ a few workers. On the other, managers. Managers may appear to be working class in that they do not own the means of production and are paid wages or salaries, but in fact they are not paid to work as such and are not exploited, they are paid to manage and enforce the exploitation of the workers under their control. Such managers exist not only in private companies, but also in schools, hospitals, and the state bureaucracy.

It is the struggle between the capitalist class and the working class that shapes the basic political terrain in modern society. The middle classes play an important role – the ruling class cannot run society without them – but politically they tend to vacillate between the two main classes according to which is exerting the stronger ‘gravitational pull’.

In many less developed countries there is another large class, the peasantry, which plays a significant role in production and politics, but even where the peasantry are still a majority, it is usually the battle between capitalists and workers which is decisive. And on a world scale it is absolutely clear that it is the struggle between the international bourgeoisie and the international proletariat that will determine the fate of humanity,

John Molyneux
September 13, 2006

How Society Changes

As I explained in the last column Marx’s theory of history centred on production. The way a society organizes the production of the necessities of life constitutes its mode of production, the economic base which shapes its superstructure- its law, politics, religion, philosophy, morality, art etc.

But how does one mode of production change into another? For Marx, himself, and for us today, for everyone who is anti-capitalist, i.e. wants to get rid of the capitalist mode of production, this is the crucial question.

To answer it we must go back to the fact that Marx distinguished two aspects of production: the forces and relations of production. It is the interaction and conflict between these which lays the basis for fundamental social change.

The forces of production are the capacity of a society to produce goods: its resources, labour, knowledge and technology. Examples include: the spears and bows and arrows of stone age hunters; the ox or horse drawn ploughs of the medieval farmer; the textile mills, spinning jennies and steam trains of the industrial revolution; the production lines, power stations and computers of modern industry.

The relations of production are the social relation people enter into in the process of producing. They range from the primitive communist clan of hunters and gatherers, to slave owners and slaves of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, to landlords and serfs or peasants, to capitalist employers and wage workers today.

Marx argues that it is the level of development of the forces of production that shapes the relations of production. ‘ The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist’. The forces of production, however, tend to grow, by no means evenly or at a uniform rate, but over time they tend to advance as human beings discover ways to produce more effectively. At a certain stage in their development the forces of production come into conflict with the existing relations of production (which are also society’s property relations). While at first these relations had assisted the growth of the productive forces, they now become an obstacle, a ‘ fetter’ on their further development. Then , says Marx, ‘ there begins an epoch of social revolution’.

When this contradiction sets in the whole of society is thrown into prolonged crisis. The old ways of doing things no longer work. The old ideas and established institutions start to lose their authority. New critical and revolutionary ideas start to emerge. The crisis is only resolved when a new mode of production with new relations of production is established and society is able to move forward.

This, in essence, was what happened in the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe and is what lies behind the general crisis of capitalism today, now operating on a world scale. It is why, despite the existence of productive forces easily capable of supplying everyone on the planet with a decent living, thousands of millions suffer poverty, malnutrition and homelessness. It is why we are beset with endless conflict and wars and why we are threatened with environmental catastrophe. It is a crisis that will be ended only with the establishment of a new mode of production – socialism.

Put just like this ( and, for various reasons, Marx did sometimes put it this way) the whole process can sound mechanical and automatic – economically determined and independent of human action. But nothing could be further from the truth and nothing further from Marx’s real meaning. This is because the conflict between the forces and relations of production is also a conflict between social classes.

Ever since the end of primitive communist hunter-gatherer society, the relations of production have been, at the same time, class relations, relations of exploitation and oppression in which one class ( the class which owns and controls the main means of production) is the dominant or ruling class – in Ancient Society the slave owners, in feudalism the landed aristocracy, in capitalism the bourgeoisie. This class has a vested interest in the existing order which is the basis of its power and privileges. Faced with a challenge from developing productive forces it does not at all say ‘ Our time is up. Let us vacate the stage gracefully’. On the contrary it fights bitterly to defend the status quo - ‘ our way of life’ or ‘ civilisation as we know it’, as they say.

The developing forces of production are also linked to and produce a definite class – under feudalism the growth of manufacture and trade gave rise to the bourgeoisie, under capitalism modern industry gives birth to the working class or proletariat. The resolution of the crisis, and the fate of humanity, depends on the outcome of the struggle between the old ruling class and the new rising class.

This is anything but pre-determined.. In Europe the failure of the bourgeois revolution in Italy and Germany in the 16th century set those countries back three hundred years – they did not even achieve national unification until the 19th century. In China ( and by extension Korea) the old imperial order was able to suppress the development of capitalism with the consequence that they entered the 20th century as deeply impoverished, perennial victims of imperialism. The defeat of the workers’ revolution in Germany in 1918-23 led to the rise of Stalin and Hitler and was paid for in blood by more than 70 million people.

The ruling class has much on its side, wealth, tradition, ideology and in particular state power, which has been fashioned specifically for the purpose of holding down the oppressed classes. The struggle of the revolutionary class has to be both an economic and a political struggle, a struggle for state power. Victory in the struggle depends on political consciousness, mobilization and organization. A significant part of that is what we, as activists, do now.

John Molyneux
19 August 2006

Their History and Ours

In the first five of these columns I have set out some of Marx’s key political ideas on the working class, capitalism, revolution and internationalism. Although these ideas are important in themselves, they also form part of a wider system of thought, Marx’s theory of history which is usually called ‘historical materialism’.

Historical materialism is the backbone of Marxism as a whole. It provides an overview of the whole of human history from the Old Stone Age to the modern era and it is the method used by Marxists to analyse not only past events like the French Revolution and the Second World War, but also current developments such as the rise of China and the Lebanon War. And its not just a theory but also a guide to action.

Some people will say why bother with a theory of history at all, why not just stick to the facts. But this is an illusion. In history, indeed on any day in history, there are an infinite number of ‘facts’, of things that happen. ANY account of history, whether it admits or not, depends on a general theory in order to decide which facts are important for human development and which are not and what are the likely relations between these facts.

Mainstream history, the kind that dominates in the media and in school, is mainly based on the ‘theory’ that what shapes history is, first and foremost, the actions of powerful individuals – emperors, kings, politicians, generals and the like – particularly the battles they fought, the policies they pursued and the laws they passed. This theory, fairly obviously, expresses the standpoint of the ruling classes who naturally assume that it is they who make history.

An alternative theory, popular with intellectuals, is that history is shaped primarily by ideas – either the ideas of great philosophers like Plato, Aristotle , Confucius etc. or disembodied ideas like ‘order’, ‘nationalism’, ‘democracy’, ‘economic growth’ which mysteriously capture society at various times and express the ‘spirit of the age’. The great weakness of this approach is that it fails to explain where these ideas come from or why they arise when they do.

Then there is an approach which appeals especially to academics. It denies that history is driven by any single factor. Rather it says that history is shaped by various different ‘factors’ – a bit of economics, a bit of politics, an element of class, an element of religion and so on. In recent years ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are often added to the list. This method, sometimes called ‘pluralism’, sometimes ‘postmodernism’, suits those who do not want to make up their minds or take sides, but want to present their ideas as unbiased, sophisticated and profound. Its defect is that it explains neither how the different ‘factors’ arise nor how they interact – it simultaneously explains everything and nothing.

What unites all these approaches is that they tend to view society and history from the top down. Marx’s theory of history is quite different: it is history from below, from the standpoint of the working class, and openly acknowledges itself to be so. It does not deny that the deeds and ideas of powerful individuals play a role in history but it does not begin with them. It begins with the everyday actions, the work, of the many millions of ordinary working people struggling to make a life for themselves.
Historical materialism is not only more radical than the various mainstream, i.e. bourgeois, theories, it is also more coherent and more scientific. This is because it starts where history has to start, with real human individuals and their needs and what they do to meet those needs. ‘ The first premise of all history’, writes Marx, ‘ is that men must be in a position to live in order to “make history”. But life involves before anything else eating, drinking, clothing, a habitation and many other things.’ Of course animals also have material needs but the difference is that humans produce their means of subsistence through social labour.

Historical materialism, therefore, focuses first on production: on the technical means through which it is achieved, which Marx calls the forces of production, and the social relations between which it involves, which Marx calls the relations of production. Together the forces and relations of production form definite modes of production or economic systems, such as ancient slave society, feudalism and capitalism.

The mode of production, Marx argues, constitutes the ‘real foundation’ or economic base of society ‘on which arises a legal and political superstructure’ and which ‘conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’.

Marx’s insight here turns upside down the way these things are usually put. To give some examples: we do not live in a capitalist society because people believe in capitalist ideas, people believe in capitalism because we live in a capitalist society (which began to develop spontaneously out of the soil of feudalism long before it was conceptualized by anyone); the Atlantic slave trade and western imperialism were not caused by racism, rather racism was caused by the slave trade and imperialism, which were part of the expansion of capitalism. Or, to be absolutely contemporary, Islamophobia is not the cause but the consequence of US imperialism’s desire to control Middle Eastern and Central Asian energy supplies.

It is important to point out that Marx was able to have these insights – so invaluable for understanding both past history and current politics – because he had already grasped the revolutionary potential of the working class. How he developed them into a full blown theory of social change and revolution will be discussed in the next column.

John Molyneux

Trotsky Slandered

Review of Trotsky, by Geoffrey Swain, published by Pearson Longman, 2006

‘Readers of this biography,’ writes Geoffrey Swain, Professor in Russian and East European Studies at Glasgow University, ‘will not find their way to Trotskyism.’ Well, some might despite the author’s best intentions, but this cannot be regarded as an overstatement. There are now many books on the life and politics of Leon Trotsky (1) and this is one the worst. It casually, but outrageously and repeatedly, slanders Trotsky. Perhaps such slander should be ignored, but I, for one, am fed up with the casual ‘academic’ slandering of great revolutionaries. Such books do real damage. They find their way on to university booklists, especially the booklists for the author’s courses, and exercise an influence on some students. They say, with the full weight of academic authority behind them, ‘Don’t even begin to look to Trotsky (or Marx or Lenin – Lenin is a favourite for this kind of treatment) for an intellectual alternative to the present system,’ and, inevitably, many of the students lack the resources to reply or even to discern the fraud that is being perpetrated. I, therefore, intend to respond – without academic diplomacy.

Swain does not hang about. On page 3 of his introduction he offers the following assessment of Trotsky’s intellectual capacity and theoretical contribution.

Trotsky scholars might be surprised to find in this biography that there are no references to Baruch Knei-Paz’s great study The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky...[his] approach makes Trotsky a far greater thinker than he was in reality. Trotsky wrote an enormous amount and , as a journalist was always happy to write on subjects about which he knew very little. Trotsky could write beautifully, but he was no philosopher. Knei-Paz does a better job than Trotsky himself in synthesizing his ideas. Trotsky was jobbing journalist and revolutionary activist and his writings cannot be divorced from their context. Trotsky’s first revolutionary comrade, Grigorii Ziv, doubted that Trotsky had the patience to fully engage with Marxism as an intellectual tool. A similar verdict came from Lunarcharskii …[who] concluded…” he is as bold as can be in opposing liberalism and semi-socialism, but he is no innovator.

Leaving aside the merits of Knei-Paz (2), this is, by any standards, a monstrous, in legal terms ‘perverse’, judgment. I am well aware that journalism can be an honourable profession – one thinks of John Reed, Paul Foot, John Pilger, Eamonn McCann, Robert Fisk (all of them more than journalists)- but to describe the author of The History of the Russian Revolution as just a ‘jobbing journalist’ is laughable, no it is slander of the first order. For those who have read The History further comment is superfluous; for those who have not it is in three volumes, runs to more than 1200 pages, and combines in one majestic whole a broad theoretical analysis of the Revolution’s place in history and an exposition of its internal dynamic as it unfolded day by day in the deeds and thoughts of the different classes and parties and their leading, and not so leading, spokespersons. It is widely considered to be the greatest historical work of the twentieth century. Nor does The History stand alone: Trotsky’s other major theoretical works include Results and Prospects ( which sets out the theory of permanent revolution), The Third International After Lenin, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (which to date remains the foremost Marxist analysis of Nazism and how to fight it), The Revolution Betrayed and Literature and Revolution. Swain ‘deals’ with this large body of inconvenient evidence by simply ignoring it. Not a single one of the works I have cited, nor the theoretical analyses they contain, is either summarized or discussed anywhere in Swain’s book.

Instead Swain offers as corroboration a quotation from the esteemed Ziv (whose own contribution to Marxist theory stands at zero) , who only knew Trotsky as a youth and whose last, fleeting, contact with him appears to have been in New York in early 1917, by which time Ziv had become a supporter of the First World War. This is backed by a quote from Lunarcharskii , which dates from 1923 (before most of Trotsky’s main theoretical works were written), which is unrepresentative of Lunarcharskii’s overall assessment of Trotsky and which is any way palpably false; Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is clearly one the most important innovations in Marxist theory since Marx, likewise his analysis of fascism. This is a bit like saying Shakespeare was good comic dramatist but couldn’t handle tragedy and then writing a book about him which doesn’t mention Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.

Even worse, because it denies one of the central principles of Trotsky’s entire life, is the following assertion, also in the introduction but repeated in the conclusion:

There is little [in this book-JM] about world revolution. Trotsky believed in world revolution but no more and no less than every other Bolshevik, and like all other Bolsheviks this belief was largely rhetorical…It was only in exile in 1933 that internationalism actually became central to Trotsky’s purpose.(p2-3)

Here only the first sentence is true. The rest is arrogant garbage. Reading the comment on the Bolsheviks I could not avoid thinking of Professor Swain secure in his Chair at Glasgow University and wondering whether this man had ever in his life held a principle for which he was required to make a serious sacrifice. The Bolsheviks were men and women who risked their liberty and their lives for their ideas, who suffered, not by way of exception, but virtually as a rule imprisonment, Siberia and exile and who, almost alone among Europe’s socialist parties, took an internationalist position in August 1914. And he has the gall to say they were not serious about their beliefs.

As for Trotsky the evidence for the centrality of internationalism to his theory and practice long before 1933 is so abundant that to present even the main body of it would fill this whole journal. In 1904 Trotsky opposed the Russo- Japanese War on an internationalist basis.(3) The theory of permanent revolution developed in 1905-6 is internationalist in its premise – Russia’s combined and uneven development is a product of its relationship to international capitalism – and in its conclusion – that a victorious socialist revolution in Russia would be able to sustain itself only if the revolution spread to Europe. (4) In his years of exile prior to 1917 Trotsky was actively engaged with the revolutionary movement in a number of countries, including Austria, the Balkans, France and the USA. In 1914 he, with the Bolsheviks and Luxemburg and Liebknecht, was one of the few to remain loyal to internationalism and played a leading role in the famous anti-war Zimmerwald Conference in 1915. After October he was appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs, in part because of his internationalism and at Brest-Litovsk he, at first, refused (mistakenly) to sign a peace with the Germans on internationalist grounds. From 1919 –1922 he played an active and leading part in the Communist International.(5)

Swain knows all this and mentions much of it but only as isolated individual ‘facts’ and he does not allow these facts to affect his argument. He even claims that Trotsky really supported Stalin’s doctrine of socialism in one country. He bases this claim on Trotsky’s silence on the question in 1925-26 (which was for tactical reasons and did not at all signify agreement) and a couple of quotes taken out of context from Trotsky’s discussions of economic construction. (6) He completely ignores a) that Trotsky had opposed socialism in one country in advance in Results and Prospects, and b) Trotsky’s major theoretical critiques of socialism in one country in The Third International After Lenin ( which runs to 72 pages and predicts with striking accuracy the affect the doctrine will have on the international communist movement), Permanent Revolution and Appendix II of The History of the Russian Revolution – all of which were written before 1933.

Faced with the undeniable importance of international questions (principally Germany 1923, Britain 1926, and China 1925-27) for Trotsky in these years Swain has a neat solution.

His critique of the failed German Revolution on in 1923 was simply camouflage for an attack on his then domestic opponents Zinoviev and Kamenev. It was the same with his writings on the British General Strike, although here his opponents were Bukharin and Stalin. As to his enthusiasm for China in !927, that too was essentially domestic in focus, for Chiang Kai- shek’s destruction of the Chinese Communist Party was simply a metaphor for Thermidor, for what would happen in Russia if the kulaks ever found a general. (p.3)

Swain is trading, for this cheap slur, on his audience not having read the texts in question, for it is hard to imagine how anyone who had read them, with their combination of passionate polemic and theoretical acuity ( I wish I had space to quote them ) could accept his cynical interpretation. Nevertheless it is obviously a line of argument with a future. How about, ‘The anti- Vietnam war protestors didn’t care about Vietnam, they just had a grudge against LBJ over the draft.’ Or, ‘The SWP only opposed the wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon because of what Blair was doing on privatisation and the Labour Party’. Nearer the mark might be, ‘Swain has no real interest in Trotsky, he has only written this book for the money and another entry on his publication list’.

Sadly, refuting slanders takes much longer than issuing them and it is therefore impossible in the space of a review to pursue any but the grossest of Swain’s falsehoods and misrepresentations. One that has to be noted, however, is his insistent repetition of the old Stalinist charge that Trotsky ‘underestimated the peasantry’. Swain tells us that , ‘Trotsky’s attitude to the peasantry was his Achilles’ heel’(p.216). In fact Trotsky never denied, in theory or in practice, that the peasants would play a crucial role in the Russian Revolution. What he argued was that the peasantry was unable to play an independent role, i.e. independent of the leadership of one of the main urban classes, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. In this Trotsky based himself on Marx’s famous analysis of the peasantry in the Eighteenth Brumaire and the whole history of peasant revolt in Russia and internationally (7), moreover he was vindicated by the actual course of the Russian Revolution.

What the Stalinists did in accusing Trotsky of ‘underestimating the peasantry’ was run together, in a single demagogic phrase, Trotsky’s attitude to the peasantry before and after the October Revolution. Prior to the Revolution the ‘underestimation’ consisted of rejecting Lenin’s view that the existence of a large peasant majority in Russia excluded the establishment of workers’ power.(In this Trotsky was proved right). After the Revolution it consisted of overestimating the obstacle the peasants constituted to the construction of socialism and exaggerating the threat of kulak (rich peasant) inspired counter revolution. If Trotsky did exaggerate the kulak threat it was not because he was wrong about the peasants but because underestimated the threat posed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Swain sheds no light on this question , but simply echoes the Stalinist line.

Swain’s book also contains an absolutely astonishing omission.. There is no mention of, not a single sentence on, Trotsky’s campaign in 1930-33, from exile in Prinkipo, to alert the German Communist Party to danger posed by Hitler, to criticize the strategy imposed by Stalin, and to urge the formation of a united front against the Nazis. Given the brilliance of Trotsky’s writings on the subject and the extreme importance of the events this omission amounts virtually to historical censorship. How can it possibly be justified? Not, I assume, by ignorance, nor by considerations of space – Swain manages to devote a couple of pages to Trotsky’s affair with Freda Kahlo ( the priorities of The News of the World at work here, I suspect), and whole sections to the relatively minor episodes such as the Vienna Pravda of 1908-10 and the Vienna Conference of !912(8). Presumably Swain did not think he could get away with claiming that for Trotsky Hitler was just a ‘metaphor’.

The book also says next to nothing about such minor matters as the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow Trials, the international slander and persecution of Trotsky as a fascist agent, Stalin’s purges and gulag, or the little question of whether socialism was actually built in the USSR. Trotsky’s spats with Victor Serge and Ante Ciliga are, however, featured, while the struggle for the Fourth International is. of course, dismissed as a trivial irrelevance.

All these slanders, distortions and omissions do serve a purpose, however. Swain’s avowed focus is on the period when Trotsky was in power or near to power, the decade of 1917- 1927 and the years of Trotsky’s direct struggle with Stalin.(9) What they enable Swain to do is to treat that struggle in largely personal terms, as a battle for power between rival individuals, devoid of real principles and in isolation from wider social forces.( I imagine he thinks of it as something like the rivalry between Blair and Brown).He attributes Trotsky’s defeat partly to partly to ‘personality failings’, characteristic of Trotsky from his youth, partly to a ‘disagreement about how the party should operate’, with Lenin as much as with Stalin, and partly to his ‘ideological obsession with the kulak danger’.(p.4) I doubt Swain realizes it but this is all taken more or less directly from Stalin. It is not only factually false but also a miserably inadequate methodology – a species of the long discredited ‘great man’ theory of history.

‘History’, wrote Marx, ‘is the history of class struggle.’ This applies as much to Russia in the twenties as it does to everywhere else. Trotsky lost to Stalin because, at the time in question the social force he represented – the working class – was weaker than the social force Stalin represented – the rising bureaucracy. There were two ways in which Trotsky could have won : through the victory of the international revolution or, possibly, through abandoning the working class to engage in an unprincipled personal power struggle – in that case he would have ceased to be Trotsky. That the first option did not materialize is Trotsky’s and humanity’s tragedy; that he rejected the second , despite extraordinary difficulties and pressures, is his greatness. Swain’s inability or unwillingness to comprehend any of this leaves him with the distinction of having produced what is probably the most mendacious account of Trotsky since the days of high Stalinism.

1. These include: Isaac Deutscher’s magnificent trilogy, The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast; Tony Cliff’s Trotsky (4 Vols); Pierre Broue, Trotsky; Victor Serge and Natalya Sedova, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky ; Ernest Mandel’s Trotsky – a Study in the Unity of his Thought and Trotsky as Alternative; Baruch Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky; Ian Thatcher, Trotsky; Dimitry Volkogonov, Trotsky: the Eternal Revolutionary; John Molyneux, Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution; Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism. Of these Deutscher’s is the finest literary-historical achievement, Cliff’s the best and most detailed politically, and Hallas the best introduction. Unsurprisingly Cliff, Mandel, Hallas and Molyneux receive no mention in either Swain’s book or his bibliography – presumably lest the readers might find their way to Trotskyism !
2. Long ago I wrote a highly critical review of Knei-Paz’s book for the Critique journal. Unfortunately I cannot find a reference for it, but it was reprinted in Hillel Ticktin and Michael Cox (eds), The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, London 1995.
3. Bizarrely for his own argument Swain actually records this fact (p.18) but presumably fails to notice the contradiction.
4. Again Swain quotes Trotsky to this effect (p.29).
5. Trotsky’s articles and speeches fill two volumes, see Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vols 1 and 2, New York ,1972.
6. Trotsky’s silence in 1925-6 was one of a number of hesitations and tactical compromises he made in order to avoid an irrevocable split. In my view these were mistakes and derived ultimately from Trotsky failure , because his of lack of a theory of state capitalism, to see that the Stalinist bureaucracy could become a new ruling class. These matters are discussed in some detail in John Molyneux, Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution and Tony Cliff, Trotsky (Vol.3):Resisting the Stalinist Degeneration. What Swain does is exploit these hesitations to misrepresent Trotsky’s fundamental views.
7. There is a basic Marxist principle at stake here. Until very recently the overwhelming majority of the world’s exploited and oppressed were peasants not workers. If it were not for this political weakness, produced by their objective economic and social circumstances, they and not the proletariat would be the main revolutionary class, as was argued by the Narodniks in Russia and by various third wordlists in the sixties.
8. What these events do show is Trotsky at odds with Lenin, and Swain follows the Stalinist practice of highlighting every disagreement with Lenin no matter how minor or superceded by history.
9. Swain claims that ‘The decision to concentrate on the years in power enabled me to do justice for the first time to Trotsky and Russia’s Civil War.’(p.2) Our ideas of justice obviously differ, but, once again, this is not even factually true. Tony Cliff, unmentioned by Swain, dealt with the Civil War and Trotsky’s role in it, at greater length and in greater detail ( and with much greater political understanding) in Trotsky (Vol.2): the Sword of the Revolution.

John Molyneux
August 2006