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The Academic Discourse of Trotskyism

In a recent post I ranted about the supposed trotskyist domination of first world marxist academia.  This post, however, raised more questions than it answered.  Intended to be a piece about the necessity of waging ideological struggle in academia––and using trotskyism/post-trotskyism as an example of a type of marxism that I believed had successfully waged this struggle at the centres of capitalism––it ended up devolving into something of a complaint about a possible trotskyist "gate-keeping".  Thus, two of my faithful readers and comrades were slightly confused about the focus of my argument: when they brought up examples of non-trotskyist first world marxism that was academically influential, and I replied that even these examples were influenced by a trotskyist discourse, it became evident that my messy rant had ended up being about something than it was initially intended.  Losing its focus halfway through, it had moved into a territory that I was unwilling at that time to fully address––mainly because it was getting too long and it was not until reading the comments that I realized I was unconsciously addressing something other than what I had set out to write.

Thus, the problem at the end of the entry had nothing to do with the success of trotskyist ideological struggle at the centres of capitalism but, instead, what I meant by this supposed success and why, specifically, I believe that the trotskyist discourse has thoroughly influenced first world academic marxism––even when it claims it is not trotskyist.  As one commenter rightfully pointed out: "How can a theory/organization/school of thought still be called 'Trotskyist' if it categorically rejects the central ideas of what's traditionally called Trotskyism? […] you need to be more precise."  Unfortunately, the problem is that I have dreaded writing the type of post that would answer this question even before it was asked.  For this question speaks to a deep-seeded problem I have had with the influence of trotskyism that I have censored myself from writing since I began this blog because, my rants about orthodox trotskyite dogmatism notwithstanding, I felt it might be interpreted as "sectarian" regardless of how historically based and thoughtful its intention.  While I openly identify as a maoist, I still count people who adhere to various trotskyist and/or post-trotskyist positions, as much as I disagree with them, as fellow travellers and I did not want to be perceived as actively writing screeds against them personally.  And yet the questions in that comment string were apt and, because of their aptness, I think it is fair to say that my unwillingness to address this problem for years (despite the odd post here and there) speaks more to my liberalism than a real "anti-sectarianism"––for I should not personalize my critiques of an ideological formation but, rather, proceed with them in a principled manner.

Point being, this trotskyist influence over what can properly be called marxism in the privileged intellectual sphere (that is, the sphere of academia) has irked me for a long time.  Indeed, I did not realize how much it irked me until I finished the above cited entry about the supposed trotskyist influence in first world academia and discovered, thanks to the comments, that I was really talking about something else.  Indeed, it has irked me so much that I have had to grit my teeth and joke about my feelings towards this type of marxism because I knew––because it is impossible not to know––the power the trotskyist discourse exerts over every type of marxism located in first world academia.  Indeed, it is almost impossible to have an argument about the veracity of this discourse because, the moment you criticize it in certain ways, you are treated as heretical by an acceptable academic marxist discourse… even marxists who claim they are critiquing trotskyism will not be amenable to a critique that attacks the very foundations of its claims.

Trotskyism has been so reified in first world academia as the marxism that it has even influenced indie films' perception of communism

So what do I mean when I speak of a trotskyist discourse that has influenced the way that marxism has developed within first world marxist academia?  First of all, I mean that the marxists who came out of the Fourth International, because none of them were involved (nor could they be involved) with any significant and concrete class struggles, engaged themselves primarily in the intellectual sphere and produced a generation or two of marxist academics who set up their headquarters––since they could not set up their headquarters in working class movements dominated by the "Stalinism" they despised––within academia.  This was difficult, perhaps even laudable, but not impossible; the bourgeoisie overseeing intellectual privilege, at that point in time, were more amenable to a marxism that was critical of the Soviet Union under Stalin.  From this point on, in my opinion and experience, all expressions of theoretical marxism within academia would be influenced, to some extent, by a marxist discourse dominated by trotskyism.  Keep in mind that this does not mean that there were gaps in this discourse, because no discourse is fully determining and there are always fissures.  The Monthly Review group, as one of the commenters in that jumbled post rightfully pointed out, is one of the main exceptions to this rule.  But exceptions aside, trotskyism did set a discourse that any academic marxist would need to address if s/he was able to survive as an academic.

But this must force us to ask just what was the academic discourse initiated by trotskyism?  As the commenter and comrade cited three paragraphs above pointed out, how can a discourse be trotskyist even if it claims to not be trotskyist?  Just what do I mean by this discourse.  I think this discourse, that affects even self-proclaimed non-trotskyist marxist academics, first and foremost means a narrative about Trotsky and Stalin––and thus a narrative about the Bolshevik Revolution––that has become hegemonic in the academia of the centres of capitalism.  Indeed, if a marxist academic were to suggest that Trotsky was a "wrecker", as the international communist movement (excepting that tiny and "fringe" minority of what would become the Fourth International) at the time would see him, and that Stalin was correct when it came to this line struggle, they would (and they have) be treated as apostates.

The fact that Trotsky is treated as more ethically viable than Stalin is indeed the hallmark of this discourse.  The majority of supposedly "independent" marxists will not challenge this dogma––either refusing to engage in this argument, or going so far as to mock anyone who would suggest that Stalin, rather than Trotsky, was correct in this line struggle.  The fact that Stalin has been targeted by bourgeois history as some murderous totalitarian is one thing, and the discourse accepted by anti-communists everywhere.  But the fact that this same narrative is considered acceptable to marxist academics at the centres of capitalism, when we are usually suspicious of any narrative produced by the ruling class, is the result of a trotskyist discourse that runs parallel to cold war propaganda; it is the influence of trotskyism in the academic spheres that has made it alright for marxists to agree with the anti-communist ideology about the Stalin-era Soviet Union, justifying it according to "marxist" categories.  One only needs to look at the work of supposed marxists in academia when it comes to the Stalin versus Trotsky debates following the ascendance of the Fourth International.  And any marxist academic need only to compare the names Trotsky and Stalin to their thesis supervisor to understand the force of this discourse.

None of this is to say that Stalin was entirely correct and without fault––in this area, I abide by what the Chinese Communist Party said to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev.  Even still, the fact that I think that Stalin properly won the line-struggle against Trotsky in the Soviet Union, that Stalin, despite his faults (which should be criticized), remained the leader of the international communist movement until Mao, is something that is considered non-admissible in today's academic context.  Indeed, the fact that the majority of the world's oppressed did see Trotsky as a "wrecker" of class struggle after his failed line struggle should be treated as significant and not, as we are now meant to believe, the product of some Stalinist conspiracy.  Harry Haywood, after all, speaks of how the line-struggle between Trotsky and Stalin in the Soviet Union was not even close to conspiratorial.  Being in Russia at the time, he reports on how the work of Trotsky was disseminated widely, how the entire working class that was literate studied Trotsky's critiques, how Trotsky himself was a brilliant orator and gave a great defense of his position, but how he still failed and was rejected by the entire international at the time.  This was not, as we are now expected to believe, simply a palace coup.  But why do we think this?  Why, in other words, is it acceptable for marxist academics to ignore this historical fact, to ignore the position of the international communist movement, that would eventually come to see trotskyism as a "fringe" (Haywood's terms) and disruptive development, when it comes to this significant split?

My point here, however, is only to point out that it is entirely significant that academic marxism now accepts a specific discourse about Stalin and so-called "Stalinism" and that this, more than anything else, is the influence of trotskyism.  I treat this as significant because trotskyism's core dogma is not about the so-called "permanent revolution" but primarily about anti-stalinism.  Indeed, it fundamentally defines itself as anti-stalinism more than anything else: orthodox trotskyists attack every communism they despise as "stalinist" and they focus obsessively on a "socialism in one country" that they see as the hallmark of "stalinism".  Moreover, trotskyism is the tradition that is most responsible for inversely theorizing "stalinism" because so-called "stalinists" always claimed they were only "Marxist-Leninist" and that Stalin was just a Leninist revolutionary.  Thus, everyone who is a non-trotskyist marxist-leninist, according to trotskyists, is a "stalinist"––especially if they believe that a socialist revolution can be accomplished in a single country without waiting for the workers of the advanced centres to lead the revolution.  This obsessive anti-stalinism, then, might be the only dogma of trotskyism.  Thus, if it was unsuccessful in making its other theories hegemonic in academia, trotskyism has been successful in this one area: an uncritical anti-Stalin-Trotsky-was-the-victim stance is at the root of the majority of academic marxism.

Thus, regardless of those identifiable concepts that are hallmarks of trotskyism-qua-trotskyism, the discursive identity of trotskyism is that which defines itself first and foremost as a rejection of what it was the first to name as "stalinism"––a theoretical description of marxism that trotskyism first defined.  At the time of trotskyism's emergence from the Fourth International and the construction of its ideological discourse, there was actually no such thing as "stalinism" per se.  Rather, those who would be defined as "stalinists", including Stalin and the entire Comintern, saw themselves as "Marxist-Leninists" (for it was Stalin, we must remember, who initially coined the term Marxism-Leninism) and, inversely, saw trotskyism as not being "Marxist-Leninist" (the reasons for this have recently been explained in this article).  The coherence of the trotskyist discourse, therefore, primarily focused on setting itself apart of the international communist movement by naming this movement's mainstream stalinist and then, because they had coined the term, theorizing an ism that the rest of the communist movement (including Stalin) did not see as something that possessed any theoretical significance.

To be fair, trotskyist theorists needed to first name and theorize the phenomenon that had caused Trotsky to be expelled from the Soviet Union.  This was, after all, the fundamental fact of their identity as trotskyists: if they had named themselves after someone who had been kicked out of the most important revolutionary movement to date, and if they were claiming that Trotsky was the true heir to Lenin's mantle even though the rest of the world at that time thought otherwise, they had to give a theoretical meaning to that which was claiming they were counter-revolutionary in order to reverse the charge and prove the inverse.

Hence stalinism, a theory that is actually the foundation of trotskyism.  Indeed, all of its theories can be seen as a rejection of theories accepted by the rest of the international communist movement at the time which, according to the representatives of the Fourth International, was false communism and that they, in a reversal of what was being said about them, were the guardians of a pure and authentic marxism.  Stalinism, then, was not marxism but, rather, an autocratic phenomenon that develops out of a degenerated/deformed workers state: stalinism was "socialism in one country" (a theory it must be pointed out, that is treated as greatly important by trotskyists so as to explain stalinism, but that the supposed stalinists themselves only take seriously when it is applied to them by trotskyists), stalinism is a bureaucratic authoritarianism that has betrayed socialism.

One can argue about the other hallmarks of trotskyism-qua-trotskyism (i.e. "permanent revolution", Trotsky's version of the theory of "combined and uneven development"), even dismissing them, without actually setting themselves apart from the foundations of the trotskyist discourse.  If one abides by the aforementioned criticism of Stalin, the Soviet Union, and thinks of a "stalinism" in the terms that trotskyism first defined––and indeed needed to define in order to define itself––then one has not really separated oneself from this discourse.

Within first world academic marxism, then, there is often an uncritical consensus that Stalin was a monstrous and totalitarian figure, the greatest problem that actually existing socialism confronted, perhaps even as monstrous as Hitler!  And though Badiou has pointed out that the "lumping together of Stalin and Hitler was already a sign of extreme intellectual poverty" (Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, 3), this liberal discourse of "totalitarianism" is often uncritically accepted by academic marxists even if they don't use that term.  Indeed, the fact that the story Trotsky tells of the Soviet Union runs parallel to bourgeois historiography is also rarely critiqued; in fact, it is sometimes taken as a badge of pride––"we're so critical that we can even accept the bourgeois story of 'our' crimes as correct."  Well, if this was a qualification for critical thought than we might as well accept the reactionary and ahistorical bullshit promoted in The Black Book of Communism as Marx's own truth!

This discourse about Stalin and "stalinism" is so hegemonic in academia that to even suggest, in proper academic marxist circles, that maybe Trotsky was more responsible for wrecking the international communist movement than Stalin is generally unwise (and the fact that I am writing this here, where it will probably be read by my academic peers, is something that might possibly affect my already non-existent career prospects).  Indeed, to suggest that the discourse of stalinism runs parallel to a cold war discourse about Stalin-as-mass-murderer and that we should be suspicious about these kinds of things is bad for one's academic health––or at least enough to get yelled at by people who don't want to believe that their understanding of Stalin era Soviet Union and its supposed crimes is not "progressive" as they somehow and bizarrely want to believe but actually a banal and common belief amongst reactionary historians.  Nor does the fact that the vast majority of the world's communists (meaning those who don't live at the privileged centres of capitalism) tell themselves a different and more critically nuanced story of the Soviet Union under Stalin.  Hell, even leftists living in the former Eastern Bloc who remember that era do not, for some reason, believe what we are supposed to believe here about that period: the Russians who can remember the Stalin era proudly bear his picture on victory day marches, the Eastern Orthodox Church has received overwhelming requests to make Stalin a saint (this is hilariously ironic), and even in places like the Ukraine where we are told that Stalin personally and intentionally exacted the worst totalitarian policies (a claim initially made by the cold warrior historian Robert Service who has now, in fact, distanced himself from that theory), there is a communist party that tells a more critical story about the famine.

All of this is to say that we must ask ourselves why a certain narrative about Stalin vis-a-vis Trotsky is accepted without much criticism by academic marxists at the centres of capitalism.  One only needs to mention the name Stalin without the same hatred as the liberal media and one's fellow marxist theorists will react with suspicion and ire.  And the reason for this reaction cannot solely be blamed on the effects of a bourgeois ideology that has become common sense even for marxist academics (which is also true and must be recognized as partially determinate), because many of these marxist academics pride themselves on their ability to demystify bourgeois ideology.  When it comes to demystifying this same ideology when it is applied to the actually existing (and failed) socialisms, however, the same critical analysis is rarely applied: Lenin was good, Stalin was bad, and Mao was just another Stalinist––this is the common narrative that is told about the two world historical communist revolutions, with various permutations, and so we need to note that this is precisely the narrative about these revolutions that was initially told by trotskyism.  That is, the willingness to accept that bourgeois propaganda is partially right in these areas, while challenging it thoroughly in every other area, is not accidental.  It is a result of the success of trotskyists in waging ideological struggle in academia.

None of this is to say, of course, that Stalin and the failures of the Soviet Union shouldn't be criticized (they did fail, after all, and so they must be criticized... as Mao should also be criticized), but that those of us who criticize Stalin, and the Soviet Union that he supposedly ruled with an iron fist, from a position other than the one endorsed by trotskyism have a very difficult time making our narrative acceptable in first world academia.  Indeed, any attempt to challenge the Trotskyist narrative of Stalin and so-called "stalinism", even if all we're trying to do is reject what we see as a critique from the right in order to replace it with a critique from the left, is greeted with asinine charges of being apparatchik of some soviet bureaucracy that no longer exists.

Really, we're not interested the debates and fights of the Stalin-Trotsky era; actually, we're kind of annoyed that they still exist.  The fact that we're still forced to focus on this historical division––that it is brought up when some of say to our academic peers that we are maoists––is because trotskyists are primarily obsessed with this division.  Their identity, after all, comes from this split (and true to this identity they keep splitting) and so it is the discourse surrounding this split that is the primary legacy of trotskyism's influence on academic marxism at the centres of capitalism.

And yet fissures in this discourse have already existed and are becoming more noticeable.  Today, theorists such as Badiou and Ranciere, who come from a tradition that rejects the importance of the trotskyist narrative, are growing popular.  That is, this discourse is no longer as powerful as it once was, though it still possesses a strong influence, and in the entry that inspired this one I was only speaking of its history to date.  My intention of naming this discourse, and pointing out is successes, was mainly to encourage Marxist academics who find it unsatisfactory to embark on the same ideological struggle as the trotskyists and establish counter-discourses that complexify a story of actually existing socialism that now has become stale and is revealing its inability to be properly scientific––if its primary explanation of the failure of the Soviet Union and other revolutions is based on personalities, then it is doing little more than retell the bourgeois historian tale of history being made by great individuals.  If marxist academia is still focused, whenever it comes to talking about the history of the 20th centuries great revolutions, on the story of Stalin's monstrosity and Trotsky's martyrdom, then this is precisely because of the strength of the trotskyist discourse to become common sense.  Holes in this common sense are now appearing, but we still need to understand its origin if we are to challenge its dominance.


  1. This is much more clear and I hear you. My own take on Stalin/"Stalinism" is not dissimilar from yours....Althusser's critique of the "Stalinian Deviaiton" that gave rise to the "Posthumous Revenge of the Second International" is perhaps the key LEFT critique of Stalin. Hobsbawm and Losurdo also are good on this - the former being perhaps the most widely read Marxist in the world.

    1. Yeah I agree with you about Althusser, though his influence in academia is considered pass√©––like, he was this important guy in the 60s but only important now because of the people he taught and was some sort of prefiguration of Foucault. Indeed, Althusser is treated with more importance by post-structuralist academics rather than marxist academics. Hobsbawm is also an interesting exception and trotskyists really don't like him. In fact, often when he's mentioned in academic circles people bring up the fact of his "stalinism".

    2. Yeah - its similar for both of them - even appreciations (and I think of Gregory Elliot in both cases) there is always chiding for "staying in the party" and so forth. Althusser's influence never really left when it comes down to Marxist political science/empirical work, filtered through Poulantzas, but in terms of theory/philosophy, you're probably right. And in/re Hobsbawm, I'd add the whole British CP historian's school (Thompson, etc.). That Haywood piece is an eye opener. Also - those academics who love Lukacs forgegt about the interview he gave in the early sixties where he takes the same position as you on the line struggle, condemns Stalin's excesses but claims - and using his writing to back it up - that Trotsky would have been worse. I think one of the interesting things opened up by those like Lih and Ridell etc - communist historiography (and Lih is unsparing in his critique of Trotsky's reading of Lenin, thoughi mplcitly)., whatever tradition they come out of - is to show that Trotsky and Stalin were two players in a multi-line struggle within the Comintern. To my mind, they both were wrong on some key issues.

    3. Good points. I've addressed your last point before, in that earlier piece on the Trotsky-Stalin line struggle, but it's always worth bringing up. Not only were they both wrong on key issues, they had some strangely similar positions but at different times (i.e. especially concerning the peasant question). It's important, also, that you brought up Lukacs because the way he is approached in academia is *always* within an anti-stalinist framework: during my grad student days I was in three separate classes at two different institutions where the same story was told––Lukacs is this great thinker who would have been greater had it not been for his "stalinism", and now we're going to read the book that he denounced because he had to denounce it because he was such a party-liner, and this book is his greatest book ever!

    4. Yup. I had the audacity to make the point in a paper, which got a strange comment....

      And this morning, Alex Cockburn died and nearly all the "appreciations" make the point that "we love him even though he was a Stalinist"

    5. Whoa... I didn't know Cockburn died, let alone these bizarre "appreciations."

      You'll have to tell me about that strange comment sometime...

      Also, I meant to link this essay to the entry:

      I dont' necessarily agree with the author's general political line [this comes from Camejo's North Star network], but his critique of Trotskyism is pretty dead on. I was reminded that I forgot to link it somewhere above (which I probably should) when you mentioned Lih in an earlier comment, since the article cites Lih.

    6. I read the piece- North Star is not backed by Camejo (who is dead) but by Pham, who is an ex-Trot who I generally find myself in agreement with much of the time. He - like myself - is in favor of multi-tendency approaches though (like myself) has written of their limitations - when he first wrote about them he was attacked by the US ISO. He regularly gets picked up on Ridell's blog which is where I discovered his work....

    7. I didn't say it was backed by Camejo, I referred to it simply as "Camejo's North Star Network"––as in, he started it. I'm well aware that he's dead, lol.

    8. Oh - what I was saying is htat Pham started the page using the doesn't have continuity with the original SWP split that became the NSN.

    9. Yeah, just read the "About" page. It declares that it's inspired by Camejo, and takes its name from Camejo, rather than what I assumed.

  2. I think your piece is important. But I think the roots of anti-Stalinism in academia have to be found on a more deeper level than just Trotskyite badgering. There is that, but a lot more. As Jordy pointed out in an earlier post, a lot of British historians left the party after Khruschev's grand secrets but found themselves not particularly enamoured with Trotskyism. The same goes for Third World Marxists like Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon and George Padmore, whose particular problems with the "Marxism-Leninism" of the FCP or the Comintern were refracted (at least in Cesaire's case) through a critique of Stalin. Often, they looked at the Chinese Communist Party as a corrective. However, none of these critics would deny the importance or role of the Soviet Union (even under Stalin) but criticized the reified application of Marxism-Leninism and the anti-revolutionary revisionism thereof. Indeed, none of them seemed to know or care much for Trotsky and Trotskyism.

    Ultimately, you're right that a Trotskyite discourse of anti-Stalinism has won out, rather than the more nuanced and considered approach taken by other Marxists. The critique Cesaire and Fanon made of the FCP could just as easily be applied to Trotskyite theory of permanent revolution.

    1. What I was speaking about here was the Trotskyist influence in *marxist* academia which, I think, is primarily defined by its anti-stalinism and is first and foremost (aside from bourgeois ideology) pushing their specific discourse about Stalin and stalinism in first world academia. You're correct that the third world marxists also had a critique of Stalin, but this critique is not the same critique as the one levelled by Trotskyism. Nor has it had significant influence on the hegemonic discourse of academic marxism. Indeed, their influence in academia, where it exists, is on "post-colonial" studies and has been kept successfully out of the marxist academic mainstream.

  3. I think anyone in agreement with Pham Binh needs to read more of his writing. He strikes me as a liquidationist. He makes a good argument for a multi tendency party and a reassement of the meaning of democratic centralism. My fear is that he takes this too far and favors a party that would essentiallly be a talk shop, where, politically speaking, members who could do whatever they wanted.

    Pham also sees the US military as a liberating force in the Mideast.

    1. I'm not in agreement with Pham Binh on his political line in any way shape or form. I think he wrote a good expose of some problems of Trotskyist as a former Trotskyist––and I feel it is interesting to always place ex-Trots against current Trots––but otherwise I think he is an abhorrent apologist for imperialism. In fact, I have attacked his positions elsewhere on this blog. But just because I disagree with some bad marxist on most points, does not mean everything he writes is worthless: some of the best attacks on Trotskyist entryism have come from Trotskyists who went through that experience (though this analysis needs to be separated from its other problems), and as the old saying goes "a broken clock can be right twice in a day."

  4. Would like a source on Robert Service's distancing himself from his past claims about Ukraine. I ask out of a sincere desire to rebut anti-communist propaganda.


    1. You caught a typo, actually. I meant Robert Conquest and not Robert Service. I guess since Service also writes wound literature anti-communist biographies about figures in the Soviet Union the typo makes sense. Except, really, you shouldn't have to worry about rebutting people who quote Service since the man isn't considered a serious scholar of the Soviet Union––he's one of those popular biographers whose books wouldn't pass academic standards.

      Conquest, though a reactionary, is an academic historian and has established himself as an authority. He's also responsible for crafting the Holodomor narrative. Moreover, as I qualified in my comment, it is not as if he's completely walked away from his position about Stalin and the Ukraine only that it is more of a "terror campaign" than a "genocidal campaign" and this has to do with his engagement with Mark Tauger's research. I can't remember the source (problem with blog posts is that they're written not as academic papers), particularly since it was so long ago, but I remember that context if that helps. Something from JSTOR search archives?


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