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Luxemburg was the leading exponent of a Marxism in the spirit of Marx. One indication of this, paradoxical at first glance, is that she was one of the very few leading Marxists who did not treat Marx's writings as holy writ.
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Trotskyism
and the Vanguard Party

By Ulli Diemer

Trotskyists, for those uninitiated into the sometimes confusing and special world of left-wing politics, are followers of Leon Trotsky, the man who was with Lenin a principal leader of the Russian Revolution, and who opposed the policies of Joseph Stalin. Stalin was able to gain control of the Soviet state after Lenin’s death, while Trotsky was driven out of the country and eventually murdered.

Leon Trotsky

Trotskyists’ ideas have often been misunderstood or distorted. The Moscow-oriented Communist Parties and the Peking-oriented Maoists insist on calling them ‘Trotskyites’, the label being a term of abuse that is supposed to signify that Trotsky’s ideas don’t qualify as a coherent system of thought, as an – ism.

It is only relatively recently that the writings of Trotsky and other Trotskyists have become widely and inexpensively available in English, and particularly in Canada. The widespread availability of Trotskyist materials and history in Canada now is due primarily to the establishment of Pathfinder Press in Toronto, which is dedicated to their dissemination and is pursuing an ambitious publication schedule to achieve it.

Still, the activities of “the Trots” are fairly familiar to students on many Canadian university campuses. At the University of Toronto, they have been an institution for a number of years, with their candidacies for student council elections, their literature tables, their Vietnam demonstrations, and their call to “Repeal the Abortion Laws”, to name only a few.

Their story begins with the founding of the “Fourth International” by Leon Trotsky after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s Fourth International saw itself as the legitimate successor to the Third International (the Comintern), founded by Lenin, and destroyed by Stalin. This Fourth, or Trotskyist, International, was to be the world-wide organization to which local Trotskyist parties would adhere.

However, the Trotskyist organizations, tiny to begin with, almost immediately began to display a tendency to disagree among themselves, and to split into even tinier rival factions and groups, each claiming to be the only true interpreter of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. As a result, in addition to the official Fourth International, there grew up (and continue to exist) a swarm of other Trotskyist groups, each claiming to be the nucleus of the vanguard party.

In Canada, for example, the official Trotskyist organization split only last month, and, in addition, there are at least three or four other groups calling themselves Trotskyist.

One of the main common assumptions all Trotskyist organizations share is the Leninist theory of the vanguard party. Most Trotskyists accept Lenin’s assertion, in What Is To Be Done, that the working class by itself can never go beyond ‘trade union consciousness’, that revolutionary consciousness will have to be brought to it from the outside by socialist intellectuals organized in a vanguard party. If workers were to join the party, said Lenin, they would do so as intellectuals who also happened to be workers. He insisted on a small, rigidly centralized and disciplined party, saying this was the only way it could act effectively, and the only way to prevent opportunism and deviation in the ranks.

Lenin was unable to cite support in the writings of Marx and Engels for his views on party organization (they had often expressed contrary ideas, in fact). He did, however, support his arguments with copious quotations from the writings of Karl Kautsky, the leading German theoretician. Kautsky shortly afterwards was to profess a reformist approach that Lenin rejected. Significantly, however, Lenin saw no subsequent need to reject Kautsky’s theories on consciousness, while Kautsky also found it unnecessary to alter them to accommodate his now-reformist orientation.

Lenin’s own views were to undergo some significant changes, but he never again published a systematic work on organization and consciousness. Lenin, in fact, was primarily a master tactician, able to change his approach dramatically in response to events. It is an irony of history that Lenin’s flexible approach to revolutionary politics has given rise to competing political orthodoxies marked by their theoretical rigidity, each tendency laying claim to the “Leninist” label by selecting quotations from Lenin’s works that seem to support their interpretation.

Many of Lenin’s ‘followers’, unfortunately, have ignored his later warning that What Is To Be Done belonged to a particular historical period and should not be taken as a general theory of the party and of organization. Rosa Luxemburg understood this when she warned that one of the main dangers of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s theories was that they threatened to make a necessity (dictated by special and backward conditions in Russia) into a virtue.

Trotskyists in particular have tended to fetishize what they believe is Leninism, and have displayed a remarkable inability to understand objections to their version of the ‘vanguard party’. Ernest Mandel, for 25 years the leading theoretician of the Fourth International, retreats into caricature and distortion when dealing with critics of Lenin such as Rosa Luxemburg. Mandel invents a straw man that he labels ‘spontanaeism’ – roughly, the idea that revolution will happen completely spontaneously – which he then proceeds to ‘demolish’, ignoring the fact that none of those he pretends to be arguing against hold such a view. In the hands of Mandel and the Trotskyists, a serious debate over the form that a revolutionary party should take, over the relationship between the party and the working class, over the relationship between organization and spontaneity, degenerates into the assertion, made without proof, that Leninism is the only alternative to anarchism. Luxemburg, a severe critic of anarchism as well as of Lenin, would not have taken agreed.

One of the main problems with the Trotskyist theory of the vanguard party is that it fails to take into consideration the fact that Lenin evolved his theories under very different historical circumstances. He wrote for czarist Russia, where any socialist party was illegal, and where political activity therefore had to take place under very different conditions from those in a modern urbanized society. The vast majority of the population was peasant, while the working class itself was poorly educated and in fact largely illiterate. The problems of achieving political ‘consciousness’ were therefore significantly different than they are in a context where near-universal education and literacy exist. In their circumstances, the Bolsheviks were of necessity a small minority in the population, and had to play a different role from that of a mass party. Certainly Lenin never conceived of a vanguard party numbering in the millions, as the Communist parties of Europe now do.

"Don`t you know the emancipation of the working classes can only be achieved by the working classes themselves?" - "No, but if you hum a few bars I`ll try and fake it" - Cartoon by Elaine Farragher

Lenin’s theory also differs markedly from Marx’s concept of the self-emancipation of the working classes. For Lenin, the proletariat, unable to develop its own consciousness and unable to form its own revolutionary organization, must be led and disciplined by revolutionary bourgeois intellectuals. It therefore becomes the object and not the subject of history.

Essentially, this represents an attempt to provide organizational solutions to political problems.


Critics of Leninism have pointed out that what is at issue is not the incontestable fact that intellectuals formulate ideas. The question is: do we adopt organizational forms that institutionalize the divisions between people with different ‘levels of consciousness”, or do we set out to develop forms that seek to overcome these differences?

The Trotskyist approach is consistently elitist: for example, they hold their policy debates in secret, so that the unschooled masses will be exposed only to the correct line as determined by the vanguard. Terrible confusion would apparently result were the ‘unconscious’ workers to be exposed to hearing differing positions on a particular issue. Of course, since any revolutionary organization worth its salt is infiltrated by the police, the practice of not revealing opposing positions in public means that the police know more about the political debates within the vanguard party than does the working class.

This theory of consciousness is diametrically opposed to Luxemburg’s insistence that political consciousness can be raised only through the widest possible public discussion and involvement in public affairs.

Perhaps the crucial contradiction inherent in the vanguard-party model, with its insistence on centralized authority at the top to guard against the less ‘conscious’ rank and file taking incorrect positions, is that it ignores the ancient problem: who guards the guardians? This is no empty theoretical issue: the history of the entire Leninist movement, Trotskyist or otherwise, could easily be written as a history of one party leadership after another leading organizations into dead-ends, defeats, and debacles against the wishes of much of the rank and file.

With its arbitrary and formal divisions between leaders and led, the ‘democratic centralist’ vanguard party often becomes a divisive influence in the working class movement, and frequently ends up acting as a brake on spontaneous upsurges that originate outside the party. The organizational model is closed and rigid, so the party tends to become increasingly inbred and separate from the people it is supposedly trying to reach and represent.

Perhaps the major irony of the Trotskyists’ insistence on a united disciplined party under centralized leadership is that what this model actually produces is factionalism, disunity, and split after split. Every Leninist with leadership pretensions secretly imagines himself to be the new Lenin, the infallible leader prepared to split any organization that deviates from what he sees as the correct line. The hothouse world of the Trotskyist vanguard party concentrates tensions and egos that sooner or later explode.

Whatever else he or she may be involved in, the primary point of reference for a Trotskyist is always the Trotskyist organization – or perhaps the faction within the organization he or she belongs to. Those who have been active in student politics will be aware that Trotskyists are almost invariably considered outsiders in struggles, manipulative hustlers who are trying to push their predetermined ‘correct line’ on others.

The same picture is evident in labour struggles. The members of the competing vanguard parties are (justifiably) seen as outsiders with separate loyalties and hidden agendas rather than as ordinary workers. Even when members of these organizations are elected to represent workers in union elections, as they sometimes are, it is rarely because of their politics, but rather in the belief that despite their affiliations, they can be trusted to work hard when it comes to the basics of grievances and union negotiations.

In general, the peculiar institutional forms and membership requirements of the vanguard parties, and the resulting frequently unprincipled behaviour of its members, tend to breed distrust among workers and students, and therefore greatly hinder their long-term political effectiveness.

Too often the Leninist party is blind to the effects of acting as ‘the vanguard of the working class’ without the support of the working class itself. For example, last year Toronto Trotskyists sponsored a May Day March, featuring all of 65 people marching down Yonge Street on a Saturday afternoon, chanting slogans and waving red flags. Any sensible worker who participated in this farce would have been demoralized, if not by the size of the march alone, then by its self-portrayal of the left as a band of loonies, competing with the Hare Krishnas and Jesus Freaks for sidewalk spaces while working class shoppers stopped and gaped, or studiously ignored them. Yet the organizers of the march wouldn’t dream of thinking that there might be a qualitative difference, not just a quantitative ones, between such a parade and one of 10,000 people. The party comes to see its actions as a substitute for those of the working class. In the party’s paper, the march is reported as a great success.

These failings are largely rooted in the Trotskyists’ mechanistic conception of consciousness and therefore of revolution. For instance, the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ are seen as different spheres corresponding to different levels of consciousness, the one coming after the other, and quite separate. The ‘masses’ purportedly progress from action to experience to consciousness, while the ‘advanced’ workers progress from experience to consciousness to action – a rigid schema if there ever was one.

The crucial thing for a party to do, according to the Trotskyists, is to find the “correct” slogans and ‘transitional demands’ which will set the revolutionary process in motion and keep it moving forward. It’s a mechanistic model that has more in common with eighteenth-century physics – or perhaps with fairy tales about magic words and secret doors – than it does with Marxism.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) the vanguardist schema doesn’t correspond to reality. Working people have shown themselves quite capable of evolving political and revolutionary consciousness and forms of organizations on their own in any number of situations, from the English Chartists of the 1830s to the Hungarians in 1956 to the Cubans in 1959 to the French in 1968. The Trotskyists’ weak excuse that there were ‘advanced workers’ in these struggles who led the others is not only frequently untrue, but contradicts their own theory. If people with more experience and knowledge tend to emerge as leaders more or less spontaneously in the course of a struggle, where does that leave the theory of the vanguard party? Lenin’s position is very clear and very specific: only intellectuals organized in a vanguard party can bring about revolutionary consciousness and provide true revolutionary leadership. History shows that Lenin’s theory is clearly and specifically wrong.

The current Trotskyist leader Ernest Mandel floats another argument. He says that revolutionary organizations formed by the coming together of local base groups from below (advocated by some European revolutionaries as the way to build a party) failed to seize power in Italy during the upheavals in 1969, so therefore they are unviable. This is an odd argument coming from a Trotskyist. Trotskyist vanguard parties have been spectacularly unsuccessful throughout their 40-year history in accomplishing anything significant, let alone in seizing power. If the party-from-below approach is judged a failure after four years, where does that leave the Trotskyist approach to party-building?

Another crucial element of Trotskyist theory is its attitude to the Soviet Union, which Trotskyists call a “degenerated workers’ state”. By this they mean that it is a state that is superior to capitalism (in transition to socialism, but not yet arrived at socialism), but one that has ‘degenerated’ because power is held by a parasitic bureaucracy that has to be ousted before the transition to socialism can be completed. The reason they consider it superior to capitalism is that productive property (factories, mines, etc.) is no longer privately owned, and that the state plans the economy.

This Trotskyist schema would seem to be in violation of the basic Marxist precept that economic relations are relations between people, not legal relations or relations between things. In the Soviet Union and its satellites, boss-worker relations remain, even though the state formally owns the factories and government bureaucrats plan the economy. Arguably, the only essential economic difference between the Soviet bloc countries and the private-property countries is that instead of many capitalists, only one, the state, owns the economy.

And planning and state ownership are of course increasingly common phenomena in the west as well – they are not unique to the Soviet states.

The concept of a workers’ state itself, degenerated, deformed, or otherwise, is highly dubious. Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was of a short-lived transitional stage between capitalism and socialism. A deeply entrenched dictatorship not of, but over the proletariat – the “degenerated workers’ state” – has nothing in common with Marx’s vision. A “workers’ state” in a country like Poland or Romania, where the workers have never seized or held power, seems senseless.

Of course, the question is not primarily the academic one whether Russia should be considered a state capitalist country or a workers’ state, but rather the political roots and implications of these views. The willingness of the Trotskyists to defend Russia as a workers’ state calls their entire conception of revolution into question.

Trotsky’s own record is illuminating in this regard. He considered it entirely acceptable for a “workers’ state” to be ruled by the party “on behalf of” the workers, played a leading role in crushing the workers’ and sailors’ uprising at Kronstadt, advocated the militarization of trade unions, and insisted on the necessity of one-man management in industry rather than workers’ control. Indeed, one of Stalin’s most telling points against Trotsky’s charges of bureaucracy was to point out that Trotsky himself was ‘the patriarch of the bureaucrats’.

In the West, Trotskyist strategy often hinges on their attitude to the “workers’ parties” such as the Canadian NDP, the tactic generally being one of infiltration. Publicly, they advocate more socialist policies for these social democratic parties. What they actually hope to do, but don’t admit publicly, is to recruit the most progressive people within the social democratic party and then split away at a future data. The fundamental dishonesty of joining an organization and professing loyalty to it while secretly plotting against it is of no concern to Trotskyists – but it certainly helps to explain the visceral distrust with which Trotskyists are often regarded.

In practice, the infiltration tactic often becomes the entire perspective. Thus, in 1938, the Canadian Trotskyists resolved to “continue to concentrate their main efforts on work within the CCF, with a view to climaxing their activities by a complete programmatic and political fight at or around the national fall convention of the CCF, with a perspective of completing the experience within this declining reformist organization.” Some 36 years, and countless thousands of organizing hours later, the perspective remains the same and the work within the NDP grinds on, with the Trotskyists infiltrators not one step closer to “climaxing” their activities within the party than they were when they started.

A similar tactic is adopted in the unions: publicly demand more left-wing policies from the union officials, while maneuvering to try to take control of leadership positions within the union bureaucracy. Beginning with the understanding that it is important to relate to unions because so many workers belong to them, their perspective quickly degenerates into endless and generally fruitless attempts to take them over. The Trotskyists’ tactic becomes a strategy, and greatly narrows their perspective and their practice.

When they act on their own, the Trotskyist organizations seem to move to either one of the extreme poles of reformism and ultra-leftism. Of the two main Canadian groups, for example, the one, the League for Socialist Action (LSA), with its youth group, the Young Socialists (YS), organizes for years around single-issue reformist slogans that are never integrated into an overall strategic perspective, such as “Withdraw U.S. Troops” or “Repeal the Abortion Law”.

The other, the Revolutionary Marxist Group (RMG) organizes around such realistic concrete slogans’ as “Oust the Generals – Workers to Power” (for Chile); “Only One Solution – Revolution” (for Quebec); and “For a Red Middle East”. Predictably enough, their main orientation is to recruiting others leftists and militants and students – mass work can wait, presumably until they figure out how to talk to ordinary people.

Indeed, one of the most consistent achievements of the Trotskyists over the years has been to drive people away from radical politics. The number of burned-out and alienated ex-Trotskyists greatly exceeds the number of active Trotskyists. Their transparently manipulative tactics in the organizations they infiltrate tend to drive ordinary members away, forever wary of anyone identified as a Trotskyist.

Despite its long record of splits and failures, the Fourth International continues to cling to a perspective that has burned out generations of activists. The best thing that Trotskyism has contributed to the left, in fact, is a cohort of ex-Trotskyists who have gone on to do good work after leaving Trotskyism behind. One wishes that more militants would move directly to doing the good work without taking a detour into the dead end of Trotskyism.

A shorter version of this article was published in The Varsity, March 22, 1974.

También disponible en español: El Trotskismo y el Partido de Vanguardia.