R.I.P. or Long Live Trotskyism?

Date: 2023-01-24T05:33:20+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Shamus Cooke responds to John Kelly’s new work on the world Trotskyist movement, ‘Twilight of World Trotskyism,’ arguing that the core elements of Trotskyism remain relevant today.


When Leon Trotsky was assassinated by an agent of Stalin in 1940, many pronounced the movement around him dead too. The irrelevance of “Trotskyism” has been declared several times since, most recently by John Kelly’s new book The Twilight of World Trotskyism

Kelly’s book is a combination of sociological study and eulogy, with the first sentence condemning the dead movement outright: “The Trotskyist movement has an unparalleled record of political failure.” The point is driven home by citing neither a revolution led nor a national election won by Trotskyists, though Kelly cites “the possible exception of Sri Lanka” (later Bolivia is considered and dismissed as an exception to this ironclad rule, to be discussed below).  

While Kelly’s research spans the world, he focuses most attention on the four countries — the UK, France, Argentina, and the USA — where he believes the movement’s roots sunk deepest (based on the number of existing Trotskyist groups). Like others before him, Kelly’s book attempts to grapple with that secret-something at the heart of Trotskyism that accounts for its past failures and current coma, which Kelly believes is permanent.     

While peeling back the rotten layers of Trotskyism, Kelly seems to find at the core— the basic precepts of Leninism, i.e. revolutionary marxism. Kelly then accuses Trotskyism of a “dogmatic” application of Leninism, especially the Trotskyist insistence on revolutionary leadership and working class independence. 

The deeper one delves into Kelly’s book the more obvious it becomes that his bias against Trotskyism is actually applied to revolutionaries in general. Kelly’s political bias — and thus his viewpoint of Marxism — is seemingly  colored by an attachment to capitalist-style democracy, which to him appears unassailable. The only acceptable choice for socialists, therefore, is a reformism of the broad and bland type.   

Because Kelly does a sloppy job of explaining the key ideas of the movement, responding to him requires some explanation of basic Trotskyist thought. In doing so this writer intends to show that components of Trotskyism remain important elements of Marxist theory, i.e, there are relevant ideas for workers seeking to understand capitalism and revolution, which are becoming increasingly relevant as the global capitalist crisis deepens.

A Rotten or Robust Seed?

To understand Trotskyism it is important to study its birth, where the revolutionary kernel gained potency. Trotskyism was born during an era of revolutionary, anti-capitalist upsurge, where the USSR became recognized as the “experts” of revolution after 1917 —  the first socialist revolution. 

When Lenin died in 1924, a power struggle brought Stalin to power, who coined the term “Trotskyism” in order to undermine the movement of revolutionaries — called the Left Opposition — that challenged Stalin on many key policies and strategies (Victor Serge’s autobiography gives interesting details about the Left Opposition movement). 

In 1927, Stalin exiled Trotsky from Russia, after which the Left Opposition faced increasing repression leading up to their annihilation in Stalin’s purges. Immediately prior to his exile Trotsky had criticized Stalin’s policies in China, where the Communist Party had been pushed to unite with the capitalist Kuomintang Party during a revolutionary upsurge. The Kuomintang responded by slaughtering the Communists in the Shanghai massacre. 

Similar strategies later deployed by Stalin would result in more tragedy. Trotskyism matured as a movement through its criticism of Stalin for failing to deploy successful revolutionary strategies at key historical moments. 

For example, the enormous German socialist movement allowed the Nazis to come to power “without a broken window” as a shocked Hitler bragged. When Trotsky was warning the German Communists of their passive, suicidal strategy, Stalin led the German Communist Party to calmly assert “after Hitler, our turn,” i.e., allow Hitler to come to power because we’ll win the next election — an election Trotsky correctly warned would never come. Trotsky gave dire warnings that Hitler would annihilate the largest Communist Party outside of the USSR within Europe’s most industrialized country.  

After the historic failure in Germany — a giant blow against socialism internationally — Stalin took an even more conservative approach to the Spanish Revolution, which remains among the more powerful of modern revolutions.  Stalin used the USSR’s resources to bolster a capitalist government after the capitalists had already fled to the fascist side. Trotsky’s writings on Spain remain a classic of Marxism, analyzing the events that led to the undermining and eventual failure of a powerful revolution, the result of which helped consolidate German and Italian fascism — thus encouraging Hitler’s aggressive war stance that led to World War II. 

These back to back victories of fascism ended the real opportunity of European-wide socialism — in both cases the revolutionary forces were large but made strategic mistakes that Stalin refused to acknowledge, and thus the Communist Parties within the USSR’s orbit were prevented from learning from them. 

If one were to only read Trotsky’s essays on the rise of fascism in Germany and the Spanish Revolution, it would be easy to see why his ideas remain important: Marxists study modern revolutions because they offer critical lessons about defending and using working-class power, up to and including how to complete a revolution by avoiding the pitfalls of sectarianism and opportunism (traps that many Trotskyist groups have themselves fallen into). 

Does Revolutionary Leadership Matter?

Kelly strongly suggests that Trotskyism’s original sin is its attachment to building a revolutionary party, while the movement is mocked for endlessly suggesting that failed revolutions of the past could have succeeded “if only there had been a revolutionary party,” etc.

There is some truth to this. The Trotskyist movement does pay much attention to the fact that history is overflowing with reformist leaders who betrayed working class social movements, as well as reformist leadership that failed to take the action necessary to mobilize the working class to prevent counter-revolutionary coups.

The workers’ movement demands clarity on who its friends and enemies are, so that yesterday’s betrayal doesn’t mean a blind-sighting tomorrow. Few socialists are unfortunately dedicated to drawing important political lessons on key matters (one recent example being the reluctance of many US socialists to condemn progressive Democrats for strikebreaking against the railroad workers).      

But do workers need an explicitly revolutionary organization? Kelly gives a hard no. However, if one believes that socialism is a necessary goal it’s reasonable to conclude that there should be an organization dedicated to pursuing the cause. Just as the capitalist class has leadership pursuing their interests, workers need their own leadership, beyond often insular labor unions. This becomes especially important in times of crisis, where the working class needs leadership capable of escaping the capitalist straight jacket. 

Revolutionary periods are rare, and even rarer are working class victories in revolutions. Trotskyism was born out of necessity, to discuss revolutionary strategy during a time of historic upheaval when discussion was otherwise being shut down. If Trotsky had important insights for revolutionary organizing, what accounts for his offspring’s inability to organize an international Communist movement? 

Trotskyism’s Stunted Adolescence

After the German and Spanish failures, Trotsky declared in 1938 that a new international revolutionary movement was needed — in effect making “Trotskyism” official. He was assassinated two years later. Shortly after, the USSR shocked the world by defeating Nazism, which gave Stalin’s faltering ideas a surge of new life, instantly boosting the numbers of USSR-connected parties internationally where many party militants felt duty bound to attack or kill any Trotskyist they came across. 

Then another unexpected twist in 1949: the Chinese Revolution, creating another powerful magnet for socialists  internationally. There were seemingly two successful ideologies to emulate, and both declared Trotskyism a key enemy (Mao used Trotskyism as a bogeyman only because he watched Stalin consolidate his power with the tactic).   

The Trotskyist groups that remained were a tiny, infant movement hunted down by capitalist and communist alike. 

Kelly’s book mentions that Trotskyists were either jailed or killed during revolutionary epochs in China, Vietnam, Greece, and Cuba— and Trotsky himself was murdered by a Stalinist in Mexico — yet several pages later Kelly oddly asks “why” Trotskyism didn’t play a larger role in revolutionary periods. 

Trotskyism faced yet another unexpected barrier after World War II: capitalist stability. Suddenly revolution seemed unnecessary in the western world: just when it seemed that international socialism was imminent everywhere it began to stall. 

The fact that Trotskyism survived at all is a miracle, given the overwhelming gravitas of Stalinism, Maoism, and later the Cuban Revolution. But the Trotskyist seed still sprouted important offshoots, seemingly without soil, sun, or water, while being trampled underfoot on all sides.

Kelly discusses these barriers for Trotskyism’s failures and doesn’t dismiss them outright. He adds, correctly, that when some of the above barriers dissipated, opportunities did open for the movement, which Kelly refers to as the “golden age of Trotskyism” (spanning the late 60’s to the 80’s). During this time tiny groups grew their numbers and influence, as well as made important gains for the working class (to be discussed below). But Kelly notes that their influence hit a wall due to self-inflicted wounds (in some cases he’s obviously correct).

Ultimately building an organization from scratch — any organization — is difficult, and compounded when the goal is revolutionary socialism. In the last 50 years Trotskyism’s failures — including endless splits — were mirrored by virtually every other revolutionary grouping.

The Beating Heart of Trotskyism: The Internationalism of Permanent Revolution

Kelly’s book dedicates its attack on the theory of Permanent Revolution in a mere paragraph, dismissing it because it’s simply been “disproved” by revolutions in China, Algeria, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Cuba — a claim that would raise the eyebrow of any Trotskyist, since each case can be gracefully analyzed by using the theory of Permanent Revolution. A pillar of the theory explains how poorer nations cannot achieve their basic economic and political goals without making inroads against capitalism, i.e, transitioning to post-capitalist society (Cuba is an especially obvious example of this phenomena). 

Permanent Revolution also applies to developed nations during revolutionary turmoil, since every country must ask the same basic question in times of social-economic crisis: can the goals of the movement be achieved under capitalism? The theory of Permanent Revolution ensures that we at least ask this question, and offers important insights on how to come to a solution, which is why it will remain a fixture in Marxist theory. 

Permanent Revolution is not a complicated idea, but often reduced to gibberish by academics and socialists of the anti-Trotskyist variety, who know that to attack Trotskyism means they must reduce its core ideas to nonsense. A key component of Permanent Revolution is the concept of internationalism. 

Why Internationalism vs ‘Socialism in One Country’ Still Matters

Previous generations of revolutionaries took internationalism for granted, but its meaning has been confused by Stalinist and reformists alike. When Marx said “the working man has no country” it wasn’t meant to be a pithy catchphrase, but a central pillar of revolutionary thought that helped direct strategy and tactics, lest the ruling class successfully lures socialists away from socialism — and thus back to capitalism —  by promoting wars of the trade or military type — using patriotism, ethnic nationalism, religion, racism, etc as powerful tactics.  

Internationalism still matters because nationalism destroyed the last two socialist internationals: the mighty 2nd Socialist International collapsed because the major socialist parties in Europe supported their respective ruling classes as World War I erupted, pitting the working classes of each nation against one another. 

The 3rd International (Comintern) also collapsed for committing the sin of nationalism, since the USSR prioritized its existence over the working classes of other nations. Trotsky was mocked for calling for the need of a 4th international in 1938, after concluding that the USSR-dominated 3rd International had ceased to perform as an organization pursuing revolution and socialism. Instead, it was being used to pursue the national interests of the USSR’s bureaucracy through promoting capitalist stability abroad.  

Trotsky was vindicated shortly after his death, when Stalin voluntarily abandoned any pretense of internationalism by unilaterally abolishing the 3rd International. He naively believed his capitalist war time allies would be nicer to the USSR if he explicitly abandoned the project of international socialism. However Stalin wasn’t rewarded for his actions. In the wake of WWII the USA and Britain immediately formed NATO in order to start the Cold War, and there was no longer a 3rd International to do anything about it.  

After the Chinese Revolution Mao essentially copied Stalin’s nationalist form of socialism, which Stalin called “socialism in one country.” In practice this meant that other nations would be denied socialism in order that the USSR and later China could keep their fledgling worker states. 

How Nationalism Aborted 20th Century Socialism

It’s impossible to overstate the damage that a nationalist approach has done to socialism. Trotskyists have spent considerable time analyzing this nationalist wreckage so that the mistake isn’t repeated in the future. One need only  imagine the heights socialism could have reached if the USSR and China hadn’t let their dueling nationalistic approaches result in the “Sino-Soviet split.” Instead of building international socialism the two most important revolutions in the 20th century fought each other in proxy wars, to the thrilled benefit of US imperialism.   

Such an approach led to a cascade of bad moves, such as Mao inviting Nixon to China as a way to weaken the USSR. Kissinger’s book On China discusses in depth how the US used China against the USSR, and how Mao and Deng were willing accomplices in the project, since the Chinese Communists considered the USSR a greater national threat than US imperialism.   

Mao and Deng didn’t simply make a theoretical mistake in picking the US over the USSR, they were pursuing the interests of the Chinese national bureaucracy rather than international socialism. This “national interest” style of socialism resulted in consistent anti-socialist actions, such as China’s invasion of Vietnam and China teaming up with  US imperialism during the Angolan civil war— where on the other side they found Cuba and the USSR. China also teamed up with US imperialism during a proxy war in Cambodia against the newly-victorious Vietnamese revolution. 

Stalin’s nationalist sins were equally egregious, though often expressed themselves differently, such as by pressuring communist parties abroad to pursue partnerships with their establishment governments, known initially as Popular Front governments, a strategy that doomed the Spanish Revolution and aborted many other possible revolutions, since in times of crisis socialists were invited or begged to join capitalist governments to create “social stability” that was used to bury revolutionary movements in the name of “national salvation.” 

Some nations suffered more than others. Tragedy struck the enormous Indonesian Communist Party after it was lulled to sleep in a Popular Front-style dynamic in 1965, under nationalist President Sukarno. Nearby China under Mao sent neither troops nor a public comment to protect the up to million socialists and their supporters, who were slaughtered during the US-backed coup.  

Time and again the US racked up Cold War victories by practicing a capitalist-style internationalism, while China and the USSR practiced a socialism rooted in nationalism: the USA was playing capitalist chess against China and the USSR’s socialist checkers. 

The result was that socialists concluded that US imperialism was more powerful than it actually was, and consequently that revolutionary organizing was nearly impossible. Forgotten is the fact that the Russian, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cuban revolutions were won or consolidated by barefoot armies; while similar armies defeated colonialism in Africa and the Middle East. 

Another lasting consequence of China and the USSR’s nationalist worker states is that they became uninspiring: the weird hero worship of Stalin and Mao wasn’t a symptom of socialism, but the expression of a worker state struggling for survival. 

When Stalin declared that socialism had been achieved in the USSR, Trotsky wrote The Revolution Betrayed, in part to explain the difference between an under-developed worker state and socialism. Because the USSR and China became uninspiring, socialists elsewhere became attracted instead to a new global movement centered mainly in the global south called the “non-aligned movement” (aligned neither with USSR/China nor the western capitalist nations). Many in the non-aligned movement looked for the ever-elusive “third way” to emancipation that neither capitalism or “existing socialism” seemed to offer. 

In reality the non-aligned movement further split the socialist movement and was, again, dominated by the big nations of the movement that pursued their own nationalist goals, until they were picked off, one by one, by US imperialism, which easily conquered the already-divided movement (US coups in the Congo, Ghana, Indonesia — and Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War — effectively ended the movement’s vitality).   

Again, one need only to imagine if the USSR and China worked together to build socialism internationally: many of the non-aligned nations would have happily aligned themselves with the growing socialist project, helping protect them from US coups while creating an inspiring force for the international working class.

Ultimately the worker states built in several nations never matured into real socialism — a higher productive base than capitalism — because they largely limited their resources to national states, while capitalism took advantage by pursuing a US-empire focused on international trade. 

The above key lessons of the 20th century must be incorporated into a common Marxist ideology so that these historic mistakes aren’t repeated. The survival of the word “Trotskyism” is arguably due to the above history being ignored by other Marxists. 

Are Trotskyists Against Reforms?

Kelly’s book insists that a fatal flaw of Trotskyism is the assumption that reforms under capitalism are either impossible or not worth fighting for, since the real solution to all social ills is socialism. But Kelly also spends a chunk of his book evaluating different social movements led by Trotskyists that were created to fight for reforms. This contradiction isn’t explained in the book, though Trotskyists consider the tension between reforms and revolution to have been reconciled by Lenin in Left Wing Communism, as well as many of Marx’s writings. 

It’s true that Trotskyists believe that an economic system based on class oppression will never be fully reconciled by reforms. But like most Marxists, Trotskyists fight for social reforms in order to defend and strengthen the working class, and because revolutionary movements usually begin as social movements that demand reforms (the biggest revolutions were based on a few reformist demands, eg. ‘bread’, ‘peace’, ‘land’, ‘freedom’, etc.)  

When Trotskyists do engage with social movements, Kelly accuses them of “failure to grasp the relationship between class struggle and class consciousness” — a topic too complicated for the couple of pages Kelly dedicates to it, and too nuanced to fully respond to here. 

Kelly seems to be saying that engaging in class struggle doesn’t automatically raise class consciousness, which may be partially true: class consciousness is notoriously hard to measure, and hard and fast conclusions about how it develops are usually one-sided or shallow. 

One classic way to attempt to measure class consciousness is examining the amount of strike activity and mass demonstrations, which Kelly mocks Trotskyists for fetishizing. But Marxists since Marx have used similar tactics (even capitalist economists are forced to rely on such data in their attempt to analyze the labor market, or the discontent of voters, etc.). 

Marxists generally consider a strike or protest to be a revolution in miniature, meaning that the working class has risen up — to varying degrees — against their capitalist oppressors. For example, a new union at a workplace is usually met with ferocity by the company, and the outcome is either a destroyed union or a new balance of power at the workplace: for the average person such an experience has a deep, educational effect on the psyche.   

Kelly also seems to want to prove that Trotskyists are wrong to want to organize mass demonstrations, since they neither result in more class consciousness nor more members for Trotskyist groups. Like most Marxists, Trotskyists do believe that engaging in mass action is important, and often leads to radicalization even if one doesn’t join a Marxist group. Mass action has many magical effects on consciousness, as John Berger explained in The Nature of Mass Demonstrations. This writer, for example, joined the socialist movement after passively attending an Iraq War protest in 2003, and so did thousands of others around the world.   

Evaluating Trotskyist Organizing in Action

In one section of Kelly’s book he mentions notable Trotskyist organizing victories. Kelly obviously views these wins  as exceptions to the rule that are mostly unremarkable — the victories are thus minimized and their effect on the broader movement erased, forcing us to address the bias here.   

Kelly mentions in a mere half sentence that a British Trotskyist group — the Militant Tendency — played a leading role in the campaign against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax: the infamous campaign led directly to the removal of the poll tax and the removal of Thatcher as Prime Minister. Yet Kelly treats this historic knockout blow as a glancing jab.

Another unremarkable half sentence is dedicated to the Trotskyist-led 1934 Minneapolis general strike, a strike that was pivotal in radicalizing the US labor movement at a key juncture in US history. The strike leaders — most famously  Farrell Dobbes — went on to lead a national organizing drive that created the modern Teamster Union.

Kelly minimizes the Trotskyist organizing of the US Socialist Workers Party during the Vietnam war, whose large impact on building mass demonstrations against the war is outlined in the book Out Now

Kelly was unimpressed when he discussed several prominent UK organizations led by Trotskyist groups, even though he admits that “all of these bodies organized extremely large protests.” He seems to yawn at the million person protest in 2003 because it didn’t result in stopping the Iraq war. 

Kshama Sawant’s back to back victories at Seattle City Council are briefly mentioned, though unmentioned is the enormous impact the campaigns had on the Left in the USA: her initial election victory moved thousands of young people away from anarchism — the dominant ideology of the US Left at the time — towards socialism. Sawant’s group, Socialist Alternative, has successfully  defended itself from relentless attacks from Seattle’s corporate elite — including Amazon — showing what a small group of dedicated Marxist organizers can achieve, including the expansion of the demand for a $15 minimum wage and reviving the demand for rent control. Sawant remains the only high-profile socialist politician in office unbroken by establishment pressure.  

Kelly was similarly unmoved by the Trotskyist organizing inside the Chicago Teachers Union, led by Jesse Sharky,  which is arguably the most militant and effective union in the US, spawning copycat teachers’ unions across the country that helped contribute directly to the 2017 teacher strike wave that rocked the southern states and continues to reverberate with large educator strikes every year.  

Many other examples of Trotskyist-led political and labor campaigns — such as the Australian dock workers — could be cited as well, and are forgotten in Kelly’s book. The biggest victim of Kelly’s amnesia is Sri Lanka, where the Trotskyist political party, Lanka Sama Samaja, led the revolutionary movement that brought general strikes and independence to the country. Kelly’s brief mention of Sri Lanka virtually erases the immense Trotskyist impact on modern Sri Lankan history.  

The Bolivian revolution of 1952 is given similar treatment, even though Trotskyist connected political and union leaders were on the front lines of the years-long revolutionary struggle. Kelly dismisses Sri Lanka and Bolivia, in part, because in these two countries Trotskyist organizations existed before Stalin’s Communist Party came into being— thus the key barrier to Trotskyist organizing was removed. How this undermines the relevance of the examples isn’t otherwise explained.

The above examples of Trotskyist organizing are especially important because, in each case, a Left political group punches a 1000 lbs above its weight — a rare phenomenon in Left politics (and politics in general). When it does occur there are usually ideas worth examining, if not copying. The Trotskyist groups who fought in these battles didn’t have a well-connected network of well resourced Communist parties to draw assistance from. They relied mostly on a Marxist-inspired tenacity to mobilize working people against the boss and political establishment, and a tradition of serious political analysis to draw upon.   

The essence of Trotskyism is ultimately class struggle coupled with revolutionary strategy and internationalism, i.e. the same revolutionary Marxism as Leninism. The movement has a history of solid analysis that has helped organizers navigate the complicated landscape of class relations in times of crisis, as the above examples show. 

In evaluating Trotskyism as a movement Kelly doesn’t seem to appreciate that revolutionary organizing is by nature fickle, where explosions of class conflict create tsunamis more suited to crush a socialist organization than be surfed by it. When a wave is caught, however, would-be surfers in other countries examine the technique and strive to emulate it. 

Ultimately any revolutionary organization faces excruciating difficulties functioning effectively under capitalist rule. How could it be otherwise? You cannot compare a revolutionary political group to a liberal organization — one faces every social/political barrier—up to prison or murder— while the other receives accolades and resources from the establishment. 

The Real Problem With Trotskyism

In a revealing section of Kelly’s book Trotskyism is critiqued for its alleged fetish of shallow, revolutionary rhetoric. Platitudes from Trotskyists are then quoted as proof: “socialism or barbarism” and “rotting capitalism can offer no way out for the masses of the world.” To highlight the repetitive usage of such phrases Trotskyist Alan Woods is quoted from 1999: “the progressive role of capitalism has ended.” 

Perhaps it’s true that certain phrases get overused, since there’s only so many ways to say “capitalism is the problem” and “socialism is the solution.” But It’s also worth examining whether the above quotes are true. Has capitalism played a progressive role in society since 1999? 

There have been technological advances, but politically the western world has shifted consistently to the right, to the point that historic inequality is normal, as is the occasional destruction of whole civilizations — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen — by US imperialism. Nevermind the blind acceleration toward climate armageddon.  

Ultimately Kelly betrays a distaste for Trotskyism’s unwillingness to compromise with capitalist society and its hatred of class oppression. Kelly implies that if only the movement was less dedicated to revolution — and thus more conciliatory to capitalism — new opportunities may have arisen to stave off the Trotskyist death rattle.  

Kelly doesn’t simply dismiss the revolutionary rhetoric but argues the counterpoint, where he seemingly concludes that capitalism retains its vitality, and consequently that revolutionaries will continue to be doomed to irrelevance. He cites examples of the expansion of civil rights for the LGBTQ movement and a variety of pro-worker legislation, both in the US and Europe. He is right to acknowledge the victories of the LGBTQ movement, which was the result of decades of struggle, i.e. the victories were not because of capitalism but in spite of it.  

During these decades the position of the working class in general has been devastated, to the point that the US resembles a failed state with many European countries not far behind. Many LGBTQ youth in the US face less discrimination — in some regions of the country — while being unable to afford housing, healthcare, or gas.  

Neoliberalism in the western world was a counter-revolution against the post-war “new deal” reforms, but the rightward shift never stopped: once inequality was unleashed, far-right political strategies were needed to enforce the new status-quo. Every progressive proposal is increasingly viewed as an existential attack against an isolated and brittle oligarchy.   

In this capitalist morass Kelly remains optimistic about parliamentary progress, citing the brief success of broad left projects like Podemos and Syriza, which have been largely digested and discarded. The political outcome has been   Left demoralization and a new search for something progressive within capitalism’s borders that won’t be immediately stomped out.  

Trotskyist groups don’t dismiss all the examples Kelly gives. Different groups have given “critical support” to the projects in Venezuela and Bolivia, since they contained revolutionary social movements, while agitating from the inside and outside that the governments take further action against capitalist power.  

Eventually Kelly resorts to the reformist trump card: “No parliamentary democracy has ever been overthrown by a workers revolution.” The conclusion here is obvious: revolution is impossible. Kelly’s point is only partially true, but it isn’t as profound as the reformists imagine. Parliamentary democracy has been overthrown by capitalist fascism/dictatorship on many occasions, though most commonly when a Left-leaning government gets elected, for example in Spain, Chile, and most recently in Peru. 

In each case the political dynamic is reduced to naked class struggle, where revolution becomes a real possibility. The revolutionary road is always the last one taken, and only out of necessity. In recent years the conditions that create these dynamics have increased with frequency. 

The Capitalist Crisis Demands a Fresh Revolutionary Synthesis 

Kelly is correct that Trotskyism faces a new challenge today, but a similar challenge is faced by all revolutionaries, who have yet to recover from the collapse of the USSR combined with China’s turn towards the market. The best ideas deployed by the best organizers were forced to farm in salted soil. 

The biggest barrier is perhaps that pro-capitalist illusions get raised in times of sustained booms. Since 2008 capitalism’s vitality has been due mostly to money printing and weak unions, where corporations benefited from cheap loans and low wages. Those days are over, though many among the middle-class Left have yet to realize it, hoping that their reformist approach will remain relevant. Left academics, journalists, well paid labor leaders, and other left-wing careerists achieved a comfortable life within capitalist society, and thus believe only cosmetic changes are needed.  

The middle-class Left scoffs at the delusions of revolutionaries, who respond with laughter at the naivety of “socialists” attempting to reconcile a “fair, just and peaceful capitalism.” In times of social-economic peace, Marxists can appear out of touch, and in times of crisis the ideas of capitalist-liberalism get tossed in the trash, pushing workers to reach for socialism and the rich for fascism.

The new revolutionary socialist movement will likely look different than its Cold War predecessors, while being rooted in the theory and practical experience of the working class in struggle, which Marxism has continued to analyze and promote most consistently. In this project Trotskyism has filled important gaps.  

A new revolutionary socialist international won’t be created by decree, but through action and evaluation of the strategies — current and former — needed for the working class to overcome the twin crises of economy and climate. Revolutionaries are in the process of re-grouping, and the successful ones will look for inspiration in whatever grouping offers it, leaving 20th century squabbles behind while incorporating key lessons of the previous century. During this process the heart of Trotskyism will continue to beat. 

The term “Trotskyism” may eventually fade away, but its core planks will be used to help build the hull of the ship capable of navigating the working class through revolutionary waters. Infusing revolutionary movements with the best ideas of Marxism will eventually be done by those untainted by the 20th century sectarianism that plagues the working class to this day.   

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