Was it all futile?
Review: John Kelly's 'Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain'
Moreover, as Kelly shows, Trotskyism has also had fatal weaknesses. Leon Trotsky was a great political leader and a penetrating thinker, but he suffered from what Kelly calls ‘conceit’ (though a more modest man would scarcely have survived his terrible ordeals). He believed there was only one road and only one organization could take it. His followers have imitated him in this if not in his greater virtues. Thus each group, although often numbering only hundreds or fewer, dismisses its rivals with labels like ‘pseudo-lefts’ and ‘the sects’. Kelly gives some lurid examples of such sectarian rhetoric. (The SWP has a rather more genteel approach: it does not denounce its rivals, it simply pretends they do not exist. It would not dream of calling its ex‑members ‘renegades’; it just ignores their ideas and fails to review their books.)
There is much more here that is informative and illuminating. Yet I think Kelly misses what Trotskyism meant for my generation. Trotsky provided an alternative narrative of the Russian Revolution. If that revolution had spread to the rest of Europe, if Stalin had not crushed his rivals, then things might have turned out differently; it was not inevitable that 1917 should lead to a squalid dictatorship. So real socialism, not the milk-and-water reformism of the Labour Party, was possible. Then came 1968, which Kelly sees merely as ‘student protests’, but when ten million French workers were on strike. Revolution looked possible and since we had no other model, we envisaged that possibility in terms of 1917.
Though overall membership of Trotskyist organizations has been declining since the mid-1980s, Trotskyism remains, in Kelly’s words, ‘remarkably resilient’. This can be explained by the high levels of activity of the members, and their willingness to be bled financially. And this in turn can be understood only in terms of the very deep intellectual and personal commitment of members to revolutionary ideas.
Now it looks very unlikely that any of the small groups (what the French used to call groupuscules) described here will lead a revolution. But for all that, I don’t think it was just a waste of breath. For our generations Trotskyism, at its best, was the form taken by what the American Marxist Hal Draper, in his magnificent pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism, called ‘socialism from below’ – the belief that socialism, if it comes, will be the product of the self-emancipation of ordinary working people through mass action; it will not be the result of relying on elected representatives or on liberation by ‘progressive’ armies. What form it will take in the future cannot be predicted, but history always works by continuities as well as ruptures, and somewhere amid the acres of print that Kelly has scrutinized, the spark of human liberation still lives.