Trump: Ten brief notes

This is a perfect storm and perfect scene for the repetition of mistakes on the left as we scrabble around for good news to salvage from disaster. Here are ten points which sift through some of the reactions from the left, some of them quite ridiculous, and try to orient us to a better understanding of what has happened. Trigger warning: contradictions ahead.

  1. Trump is a cultural phenomenon. The culture that breeds it includes The Apprentice, the US TV show that Trump starred in from 2004. This glorification of ‘business success’ incites the audience to admire a wealthy bully who stands as an exemplar of what it is to have made it as an individual in US America, and what that requires in terms of competition and humiliation. Trump channels a greedy desire for victory over others and vicarious participation in a corrupt cynical politics that is predicated on making money. Trump needed pots of money to stand and win in this election, but, more than that, he needed a cultural assumption that the accumulation of money is a good as such.
  2. His victory reinforces existing institutional arrangements. The intervention of FBI Director James B Comey in the crucial final days of the vote indicates that the central power structures of the United States have been fermenting and crystallising for some time around a neo-conservative agenda. The claim that Trump’s power base lies in the redneck and poor and unemployed communities distracts attention from where the real danger lies. This is something that Clinton could not counter, because she herself was part of that same power structure which relies on and admires a central elite core with wealth backed by the threat of violence. The election of Trump represents a shift inside the apparatus, not so much a revolt against it.
  3. There is an invisible majority that is not for Trump. The popular vote for Clinton was over a million votes more than what Trump got. The electoral apparatus – funnelling of the vote in the primaries through the two major parties and then the count of the final vote through the colleges – guarantees a disenfranchisement of the poorest communities. This is a version of the ‘first past the post system’ in which key power brokers are able to facilitate a cascade effect which then overrides the popular vote. Trump has a mandate of about a quarter of the US American electorate, that is, an electorate which already excludes millions more people.
  4. There was a significant vote against Clinton and the State. Clinton did not deserve the popular vote that she got, and the distribution of the vote as it was – with about fifty percent of the electorate not voting – show that it was not so much that Trump won, but that Clinton lost this election. There was an astonishingly lower proportion of the vote among the Black and Latino communities, much lower than Obama got in the last election, and much much lower that Obama got the first time round. Some of those who voted for Trump must also be included in the revulsion against Clinton, though this was mistakenly directed at the ‘emails’ rather than her collusion in the coup in Honduras, for example. This means taking care not to demonise all those who voted for Trump.
  5. There was an alternative to two-party rule. There were a number of alternatives which included, if we disregard the libertarian right which was able to attract some of the protest votes, the Green Party which, with Jill Stein as candidate, was able to garner over a million votes, that is over double what the Greens got last time round, and, of course, there was Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, and Sanders standing aside and handing over some of his votes and all of his energy to Clinton was a disastrous mistake. Trump would not have been loyal to the Republicans if he had failed to win their nomination, and Sanders should not have been loyal to the Democrats.
  6. Trump is worse than Clinton. But there is a huge debate over what exactly this banal statement actually means; whether it means that Trump is a Le Pen figure, a fascist, which might mean that the appropriate slogan should have been one borrowed from France ‘Votez l’escroc, pas facho’ (vote for the swindler, not the fascist). No, that kind of approach was part of the corralling of the anti-capitalist (and anti-racist and progressive ecological vote) into the Clinton campaign, and it actually demobilised people. The momentum of the Sanders campaign needed to be kept going throughout as an alternative, to show that resistance was possible, and to build a movement against Trump and what he represents.
  7. Trump is not a fascist. He is a populist, which is not to say that fascism itself does not play the populist game. He is a businessmen well used to starting with an extreme opening gambit and then negotiating down to realistic goals. In the first days he, quite typically for a neoliberal pragmatist, back-peddled on his opposition to ‘Obama-care’, on the building of the wall (it could be a fence in parts, he said, which it already is), on the number of migrants he planned to expel, and denied that he planned to register Muslims. But this is not reason to breathe a sigh of relief, for the destruction of health provision and racist measures will be implemented, but more ‘efficiently’, with the blessing of the Republicans. This will also include some bitter disappointments for trans activists who did support him. He reassured his allies in NATO that he would defend them. This is business, big business, though not exactly ‘business as usual’.
  8. This is a victory for racists. It is not business as usual because it is dripping poison into political debate, which is evident in the appointment of Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, a virulent antisemite and champion of white nationalism as a policy advisor. The appointment is symbolic, and the license for hate that Trump is willing to give to those who have been loyal to him during the campaign entails a particularly vicious form of symbolic violence. This is the symbolic violence of those who are determined to shift the debate onto their terrain so that objections to racism and sexism are to be viewed as ‘political correctness’. Racism is part of the equation which runs alongside sexism – the attack on abortion rights being one indication of this – and contempt for environmental concerns. Trump is not fascist, but he opens the way to fascism.
  9. Trump is now a Republican politician, with all that entails for foreign policy. The Democrats have historically been less protectionist than Republican administrations, and more interventionist. The two aspects go hand in hand, and this is what is behind the threat by Trump to make the NATO allies pay. Arms industry shares soared the day after the election, and this is because Trump is more than happy to tie support for dictatorships abroad with arms sales. It is when they pay, when it suits US-American big business interests, and when they put the money up front, that the new administration will back them up, against whatever enemies they choose, external or internal.
  10. This election is disaster not only inside the United States, but also globally. It signals a shift of foreign policy which, while admittedly less interventionist directly, will be willing to reinforce the power of dictators willing to do business with the US. That includes Putin, with applause in the Duma at the results, and, of course, Assad, for whom this is a green light to continue with his deadly assault on the left opposition to his regime, and it includes Saudi Arabia who will be the linchpins of a ‘Sunni triangle’ alliance with the murderous regimes of Egypt and Turkey, and China, whose praise for Trump has been muted as yet, but whose regime will also benefit. Antisemitism at home goes hand in hand with Christian Zionist support for Israel.

This all means that it is a grotesque mistake to see his election as a ‘chance of a lifetime’, as some on the left saw Brexit, or as an ‘opportunity’ for change in which the working class that supposedly supported Trump will supposedly abandon him when he does not deliver. No, this is, rather, as Trump himself declared, ‘Brexit, plus plus plus’, and is of a piece with a shift to the right globally, one which will encourage and strengthen the right in every single country. Yes, we do hope for opportunities in the midst of this new contradictory reality, but these will have to be built from the base up, inside the US and internationally.

These notes were prepared for Left Unity Manchester, and amended following a very useful discussion at a meeting, thanks to all those who participated, agreed, disagreed, and sharpened some of these points.

Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left

Here is the further reading, with web-links from ‘Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left’

These further readings, with web-link suggestions to complement them, do not map one-to-one onto the keywords in this book. And some of these readings illustrate some problems with these debates rather than neat ways to resolve them. What is most important now in these texts is to explore further how the different ideas link with each other, and so many of these references span the different debates around each of the keywords.

Achcar, G. (2006) The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers; London: Saqi. This detailed analysis of the so-called ‘war on terror’ shows how Western intervention constituted the Islamic fundamentalist organisations as both enemy and partner of imperialism to destroy the left. An interview with Gilbert Achcar about the themes in the book after the Paris massacre is here:

Ahmed, S. (2010) The Promise of Happiness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. This book includes the classic essay ‘Feminist Killjoys’ by Sara Ahmed, a motif taken up by many other feminists as a critique of all the various forms of enjoyment that buttress power and violence against women. See also Ahmed’s essay ‘Walls of Whiteness’ here:

Anievas, A. and Nisancioglu, K. (2015) How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism. London: Pluto Press. This study shows how capitalism is grounded in territorial control which intimately links the fate of the ‘West’ with, in Walter Rodney’s term, the ‘underdevelopment’ of the rest of the world. An interview with the authors about Eurocentrism is here:

Arruzza, C. (2013) Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism. London: Resistance Books. This book provides a detailed overview of the range of different debates at the intersection of Marxism and feminism, including the impact of Black feminism and queer theory. The ideas in the book are explored further by Cinzia Arruzza here:

Bourne, J. (1987) ‘Homelands of the mind: Jewish feminism and identity politics’, Race and Class 29 (1): 1-24. Jenny Bourne’s article was a controversial intervention into identity politics that got a bad reception from some anti-Zionist Jewish feminists in the UK. The questions of identity and the way it is addressed as something ‘intersectional’ is explored in a different context in Sharon Smith’s 2013 ‘Black feminism and intersectionality’ here:

Burstow, B. (2015) Psychiatry and the Business of Madness: An Ethical and Epistemological Accounting, London: Palgrave Macmillan. This book is produced from years of radical feminist political activity in and alongside the psychiatry and disability movements, drawing on the voices of the oppressed to explore how the psychiatric apparatus appears from the standpoint of those subject to it. The arguments are linked with contemporary political struggle in Asylum: Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry which can be accessed here:

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge. This is one of the classic grounding texts for what became known as ‘queer theory’ and, more importantly, of ‘queer politics’ in ‘third-wave’ feminism that was expressed in HIV/AIDS activist movements like ACT UP. The argument in the book is explored further here in relation to Islam and secularism in a 2009 text Is Critique Secular? by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler and Saba Mahmood here:

Chen, K. (2010) Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. This book provides a ‘standpoint’ argument of a quite different type, grounding the political resistance to imperialism in Asia on the terrain of intersecting histories of China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The global context is also addressed in relation to Western feminism and imperialism here:

Combahee River Collective (1977) ‘History is a Weapon’ This document was written as one of the founding texts of Black feminism, making a strong standpoint argument for autonomous collective organisation. The text is available here:

Davis, A. (1981) Women, Race and Class. London: Women’s Press. Angela Davis, once a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America, and campaigner against the ‘Prison-Industrial Complex’, works at the intersection of different forms of exploitation and oppression in this book; Chapter 13 of her book, on ‘Women, Race and Class: The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective’, is available here:

Debord, G. (1967) Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red. Guy Debord, the leader and master of the ‘Situationists’, provides a polemical analysis drawing on Hegel and Marx of the way that radical action is ‘recuperated’. There is an illustrated guide of his argument here:

Ebert, T. (2009) The Task of Cultural Critique. Champaign, IL: Illinois University Press. Teresa Ebert takes on a number of different cultural theorists, including Slavoj Žižek, from a feminist and Marxist standpoint; her 1995 essay ‘(Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism’ is available here:

Fanon, F. (1967) The Wretched of the Earth. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Fanon’s book, which was published in France with an incendiary introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre and promptly banned, is a classic of anti-colonial and post-colonial writing. It is work that needs to be taken forward with feminist critique, with one attempt here:

Federici, S. (2004) Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia Silvia Federici writes in the Italian autonomist tradition that takes that Marxist politics in a more explicitly feminist direction than, for example, Antonio Negri. There is an interview with her here:

Firestone, S. (2015) The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. London: Verso. Shulamith Firestone was one of the inspirations for a ‘radical feminist’ strand of ‘second-wave’ feminism; the first chapter of her book ‘The Dialectic of Sex’, which was originally published in 1970, is available here:

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? London: Zero Books. Mark Fisher’s book addresses the way that neo-liberal capitalism today presents itself as normal and natural; it is an analysis that can be situated in relation to ‘new materialist’ feminist theory articulated by Karen Barad which precisely aims to show how what is normal and natural is constituted as such; she outlines this argument here:–new-materialism-interviews-cartographies?rgn=div2;view=fulltext

Foucault, M. (1981) The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction. Harmondsworth: Pelican. First published in 1976, Michel Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’ was intended to be the first volume of a six-volume study that could eventually, perhaps, have addressed feminism. There have been claims that Foucault himself named neoliberalism and then became rather fond of it, a claim rehearsed here:

Fraser, N. (2013) Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. London: Verso. Nancy Fraser is quite clear that she is still a feminist, despite the attempts to misrepresent her as arguing that feminism as such has failed because it has been recuperated under neoliberalism, and she makes her feminist commitment clear in her 2014 article ‘How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it’ available here:

Freeman, J. (1970) ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, Jo Freeman specifically addressed contexts in which some ‘consciousness-raising’ groups claimed to have dispensed with power, and her arguments are complemented and critiqued in Cathy Levine’s response ‘The tyranny of tyranny’ which is available here:

Greenstein, A. (2015) Inclusive Radical Pedagogy: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Education, Disability and Liberation. Abingdon/New York: Routledge. Anat Greenstein links the development of critique and practice around what is called in the United States ‘normalcy’ with questions of education and liberation; further attempts to link disability activism with feminism have been made here:

Guerin, D. (1973) Fascism and Big Business. New York: Monad Press. Daniel Guerin’s analysis of the rise of fascism, first published in 1939, focuses on the way that, despite the claims to be anti-corporate, fascism arises as a strategy of last resort for the bourgeoisie to destroy capitalism; an extract from Guerin’s book is available here:

Haraway, D. J. (1989) Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. London and New York: Routledge. This important book by Donna Haraway locates feminism clearly in relation to the exploitation and animals and the destruction of nature; Haraway’s ‘cyborg manifesto’, which takes the analysis in the direction of the relationship between women and technology, is available here:

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, a key figure in the Italian autonomist tradition, provide an analysis of capitalism as intrinsically global, and the book, which was followed by Multitude in 2004 and Commonwealth in 2009, became important in the ‘Occupy’ movement. As well as taking distance from Marxist analyses of imperialism, it also had little to say about feminism, which is reasserted here in the argument for Wages for Housework by Selma James:

Henley, N. (1979) Body Politics: Power, Sex, and Nonverbal Communication. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Nancy Henley shows how women are expected to take up less space than men, both in big public spaces and in more intimate settings, and to have a different relation to time; it is an analysis that provides some context for the changes in production analysed in Alex Williams and Nick Srinicek’s 2013 ‘Accelerationist manifesto’, available here:

Hochschild, A. R. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. The US American feminist sociologist Arlie Hochschild shows how women’s stereotypical capacities for ‘care’ become instrumentalised under capitalism with the rise of ‘feminisation’ of industry in the service sector, which is something Silvia Federici addresses in her 2010 article ‘Wages against Housework’ available here:

Kelly, J. (1992) ‘Postmodernism and feminism’, International Marxist Review, 14, pp. 39-55. Jane Kelly’s feminist critique of postmodernism homes in on the ‘theories of difference’ that run through a range of different ‘postmodernist’ approaches to language; the article, which was written before many feminists reworked these theories for themselves, is available here:

Klein, N. (2008) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Naomi Klein has combined scholarly analysis with socialist, feminist and environmental activism in a number of books, including in this one on the way that capitalism requires the systematic destruction of human resources in order to rebuild itself and stimulate profit; raw materials for the book are available here:

Knight, C. (2016) Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Chris Knight shows how the deep split between Chomsky’s academic work on linguistics and his political commitment actually has dire consequences for both aspects; an earlier journal article version of the argument in Knight’s book is available here:

Kollontai, A. (1977) Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai. New York: Norton Alexandra Kollontai, one of the most radical of the ‘first-wave’ feminists, was one of the Bolshevik leaders who put energy into the abolition of the family and the reconfiguration of personal relationships in the Soviet Union; an essay reclaiming Kollontai for contemporary Marxist feminism by Teresa Ebert is available here:

Kovel, J. (2007) The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (2nd Revised edn). London: Zed Books. Joel Kovel’s argument for ‘ecosocialism’ is grounded in a detailed description of the way that capitalism in a variety of different contexts must devote itself to the destruction of nature; the question which is touched on in the book, and which needs more work, is how ecosocialism connects with ecofeminism, a question addressed here:

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe were, with Stuart Hall in Britain, driving forces in theory of what was known at the time as ‘Eurocommunism’, and they both now provide resources for new social movements like Podemos. They link ideas from linguistics and Lacan’s psychoanalysis with the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, whose prison writings are available here:

Leon A. (1950) The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation. New York: Pathfinder Press. Abram Leon was a Trotskyist murdered by the Nazis, and his book was published posthumously on the prompting of the Belgian economist and secretary of the Fourth International Ernest Mandel; one of Mandel’s own texts on ‘the Jewish question’ is available here:

Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. This book by US American Black socialist lesbian feminist Audre Lorde includes the 1977 essay ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’ which is also available online here:

Löwy, M. (2010) Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situationism, Utopia. Dallas TX: University of Texas. Michel Löwy’s book provides a passionate description and defence of the variety of different challenges to orthodox Marxism from within the surrealist movement. It takes forward the arguments made by Trotsky in a document signed by André Breton and Diego Rivera in their 1938 ‘Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art’ which is here:

Millett, K. (1977) Sexual Politics. London: Virago. Kate Millet was one of the key figures in ‘second-wave’ feminism, arguing in this book for a radical feminist critique of dominant cultural resources which buttress patriarchy, which she defines as the domination of women by men and of younger men by older men; the second chapter of Millett’s book is available here:

Mitchell, J. (1974) Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Harmondsworth: Penguin. This classic text re-examined the hostility of some feminists to psychoanalysis, and argued that the shift from biology to language in the work of Jacques Lacan opened the way to thinking about transformation of society instead of adaptation to it, a line explored in this online volume edited by Carol Owens:

Mojab, S. (ed.) (2015) Marxism and Feminism. London: Zed Books. This edited book includes chapters on intersectionality and standpoint and on other key issues that span the different keywords in this present book; a short introduction to connections between Marxism and feminism and a list of more resources is available here:

Nayak, S. (2014) Race, Gender and the Activism of Black Feminist Theory: Working with Audre Lorde. Abingdon/New York: Routledge. This study is devoted to the work of Audre Lorde and to the connection between her theoretical writings and contemporary Black feminist political practice: Audre Lorde’s 1980 text ‘Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’ is available here:

Puar, J. (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, CA.: Duke University Press. Jasbir Puar shows how gay culture becomes harnessed to capitalist state practices and to imperialism as a segregated niche category of identity that then functions ideologically; the ideas are explored in the specific context of Islamophobia and Zionism here:

Raymond, J. (1980) The Transsexual Empire. London: The Women’s Press. Janice Raymond’s book gives a clear and polemical account of the radical feminist objection to ‘trans’, the way that gender binaries risk being reinforced as particular bodies transition from one gender to the other; some problems in Raymond’s account are outlined in Jacqueline Rose’s 2016 essay ‘Who do you think you are?’ here:

Reed, E. (1975) Women’s Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family. New York: Pathfinder Press. This book takes forward Engels anthropological claims in his classic 1884 text ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’. The specific consequences for an analysis of women’s oppression are spelled out in Evelyn Reed’s 1970 article ‘Women : Caste, Class or Oppressed Sex’ available here:

Rowbotham, S., Segal, L. and Wainwright, H. (2013) Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (3rd Edn). Pontypool, Wales: Merlin. The first edition of ‘Beyond the Fragments’ was published as a pamphlet in 1979, bringing together feminist activists from three different far-left groups in Britain; reflections by Johanna Brenner on this third edition, published during a time of crisis in the British left over questions of sexual violence, are available here:

Said, E. (2003) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin. First published in 1978, Edward Said’s book on ‘orientalism’ took up work by Michel Foucault and focused on the production and functions of representations of the exoticised and feared ‘other’; Said opened the way to further analysis of orientalism and feminisation, explored here:

Spender, D. (1980) Man Made Language, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Dale Spender shows how the English language is skewed against women to render them as less than human, and this provides a feminist context to the argument Jean-François Lyotard made about ‘language games’ as defining interaction in his 1979 book ‘The Postmodern Condition’; the introduction to the English translation of Lyotard’s book by Fredric Jameson links postmodernism with Mandel’s diagnosis of ‘late capitalism’, and is available here:

Spivak, G. C. (1990) The Post-Colonial Critic. London and New York: Routledge. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak translated and introduced writings of Jacques Derrida into English, reframing ‘deconstruction’ as something compatible with Marxism and feminism; her argument about a tactical use of identity categories in the notion of ‘strategic essentialism’ is explored here:

Tiqqun (2012) Preliminary Materials for a theory of the Young-Girl. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). The Tiqqun collective provide a diagnosis of the way feminised imagery functions ideologically, but also tend to repeat this imagery in their own critique, as is made clear in this critical appraisal and review of their work:

Trotsky, L. D. (1938) The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, This document, written as a founding text for the Fourth International, is usually known as the ‘Transitional Programme’, and the updating of ‘transitional demands’ for the present day has often been debated, as in this example linking it with ecological questions:

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books. This is an academic book for researchers that brings them out of their comfort zone and insists that any radical research worth the name must be rooted in the experiences and forms of knowledge of the oppressed. The ideas are worked through in the open-access online journal Disability and the Global South which can be accessed here:

Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Harmondsworth: Penguin. This book, with the argument that gross inequalities lead to greater unhappiness, has been influential on new generations of community and environmental activists, and the link with ‘gender equality’ has also been taken up by feminists like Carol Gilligan:

Williams, R. (1976) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana. Raymond Williams aimed to provide an overview of the keywords that have come to make up contemporary progressive culture, but although Williams himself was a ‘cultural Marxist’, he rather overlooked feminism and other new social movements; the analysis needs to also address a range of other links to radical critique, as it is here:


Globalisation: Linguistics and Imperialism

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work over the past two years. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in a new book ‘Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left’ which will be published in 2017 with a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

Trotsky: What was that?

Like most human beings, Leon Davidovich Bronstein was born and he died. He was born in 1879 in Ukraine, became active in left politics in Russia as a student and was imprisoned in 1905 for participating in protests and a failed uprising against the brutal Tsarist regime. It was a regime that was still feudal, barely developing capitalist economic relations that many Marxists at the time saw as being the necessary prerequisite for a transition to socialism. Leon, our hero, escaped from internal exile, taking the name of his jailor in Odessa to avoid capture, and that name is the one we know today as Trotsky.
One of the lessons of 1905 for Trotsky was that in place of a static ‘stage’ view of historical change, the globalisation of the world economy that had already been picking up pace at the time Marx was writing led to the possibility that protest could grow over from anti-feudal to anti-capitalist revolutionary politics. A ‘permanent revolution’ would therefore be one that was intrinsically internationalist, linking different kinds of struggles against exploitation and oppression. Actually, in practice, Trotsky himself as an individual was a little behind his own analysis. There was a gap. He had to shift rapidly during the 1917 October Revolution across Russia to join the Bolsheviks, something his enemies held against him afterwards. He then became one of the leaders of the Soviet Union, and of the Red Army which was combating invasion by fourteen capitalist countries keen to prevent this revolution from growing over into a genuinely ‘permanent’ and international one.
This is where another gap opens up between Trotsky as leader, now an inspiring strong personality able to lead the regime and its troops, and the revolutionary process itself. His role in the suppression of the rebellion by sailors in the fortress at Kronstadt near St Petersburg, then renamed Petrograd, made him complicit in the formation of the very bureaucracy he analysed so well. But personal failings do not invalidate the diagnosis he gave and his brave attempt to reassert what was most progressive and democratic about the revolution against Stalin’s ban on rival parties, internal factions and then on any dissent. Trotsky’s book ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ was the fruit of his own direct participation and reflection on the mistakes that had been made, and recognition that this crushing and distortion of the revolution was a function of its isolation. There could be no ‘socialism in one country’ as Stalin claimed while he massively increased his own power and that of the apparatus.
The Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1930s was determined to root out its internal enemies, and Trotsky was portrayed as the root of all evil, with claims that he was working with the fascists alongside a grotesque revival of Russian antisemitism used to target him and his followers. It is true, he was a revolutionary Jew who saw autonomous collective self-organisation of the oppressed as an energising force for authentic internationalism. He warned against the trap of closed nationalist politics, and against the disastrous mistake of Zionism which would itself settle Israel on the land of others. He worked as a journalist before the revolution – they are not all bad – and after that he became the conscience of the revolution, a reminder of what it should have been. That meant connecting political-economic protest with cultural rebellion, including on the position of women as an index of how progressive or reactionary a regime is. Trotsky’s activities and writings on culture span engagement with psychoanalysis – meeting with Wilhelm Reich in exile in Norway, for example – and surrealism, writing a manifesto for revolutionary art while in Mexico toward the end of his life, a manifesto that was published under the names of André Breton and Diego Rivera.
That broad contradictory open and inclusive practice of revolutionary politics is what characterises the best of Trotsky, and it provides the background for two further key innovations. We can link the two. The first was the recognition that there was a marginalisation of revolutionary groups with the rise of fascism and Stalinism and then of the Cold War, and a domination of left politics by large reformist social democratic parties or, in some places, by communist parties tied to the Soviet Union. In these new conditions, Trotsky argued for what has been called ‘entrism’; not the secretive manipulation of the larger party apparatus, but direct membership and participation in the mass movement organisations. This is one way of drawing those who thought voting would change the world into action themselves, to themselves become those who would change things.
The second innovation was voiced in the founding document of a new international organisation in 1938 the Fourth International, a document known as the ‘transitional programme’. For Trotsky, ‘transitional demands’ like a sliding scale of wages or for opening the books of the corporations were eminently reasonable and democratic calls that capitalism could not and would not agree to. It was ‘transitional’ because it brought those in struggle up against the limits of the regime, and it then became transitional in practice, growing over from a series of demands into a linked political challenge to capitalism itself. Again, what was crucial for Trotsky was that it would be through the collective self-activity of people themselves rather than through diktats by their leaders that any revolutionary change worth the name would happen. In this, Trotsky is close to the revolutionary democratic politics of Rosa Luxemburg who was killed in 1919 in Berlin on the orders of the social democrats after an uprising that would have broken the isolation of the Russian revolution.
All this is anathema to big dictators and those who want to be like them. Trotsky was murdered by an agent of Stalin in Mexico, the only country that would give him a visa, in 1940. His son had already been murdered in Paris. The agent plunged an ice-pick into Trotsky’s head. Those who use the term ‘Trotskyite’ as a term of abuse sometimes joke about ice-picks, and they focus on the personality of Trotsky himself, avoiding the theory and practice he helped to build. Those of us who call ourselves ‘Trotskyists’ admire his life struggle and try to learn from that, drawing a balance sheet which puts that life in context, and aiming to build a different context in which such a hardening of character and brutality of politics will no longer exist. He didn’t drink much, and by all accounts lunchtimes in exile before he died were not a bundle of laughs. There are no pictures of Trotsky with cats, something which makes him less immediately internet-friendly, but if you twist a Trotskyist’s arm they will sometimes admit that they did once name their cat ‘Rosa’ or ‘Leon’.
You can also read this article where it was first published and comment on it here.

Refusal: Of Sex Work

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work over the past two years. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in a new book ‘Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left’ which will be published in 2017 with a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

Trans: Bureaucratic versus Political

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work over the past two years. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in a new book ‘Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left’ which will be published in 2017 with a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

Justice: In Rojava

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work over the past two years. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in a new book ‘Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left’ which will be published in 2017 with a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.