Applying Trotsky’s lessons today

November 9, 2016

Ashley Smith and Todd Chretien respond to the debate about an essay by Trotsky.

Opposing imperialist intervention in Syria

I'M GLAD comrades are reading and discussing Trotsky's classic article "Learn to Think" and its implication for the left's position on the Syrian Revolution, and I welcome the readers' views it has provoked in Socialist Worker.

I won't respond in detail to Charles Peterson's contribution ("When Trotsky's thinking went astray"). Suffice it to say that I think Peterson misses the Marxist forest for a factional tree. In his effort to defend the followers of Max Shachtman from Trotsky's insults, he exaggerates what is a marginal and largely unstated issue--about the nature of Russia during the era of high Stalinism--into the central one.

In the process, he dismisses Trotsky's invaluable discussion of revolutionary methodology for positioning ourselves on questions of opposing imperialism and building solidarity with revolts from below. It would have been a better use of Peterson's obvious talent for polemical argument to engage today's actual debate with a whole section of the campist left that has betrayed solidarity with the Syrian Revolution.

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By contrast, Tim Adams' letter ("Avoiding the trap of U.S. aid") rightly recognizes Trotsky's manifest insights. But he objects to my formulation in the introduction that Trotsky defends the right of oppressed nations to seek aid even from imperialist powers in pursuit of their own liberation.

Trotsky does not use this turn of phrase, but I believe it is implicit as a counter to the ultraleft proposition that it is always wrong to accept such aid.

Of course, there are distinctions between having that right, exercising it and revolutionaries in imperialist countries supporting its use. Making the call on whether to support the use of that right--and this is Trotsky's central point--can only be made based on an evaluation of the actual struggle on the ground.

Now, reasonable people can disagree about where the struggle is at in Syria. But I think Adams has adopted a mistaken position when he asserts it is "has been largely defeated or otherwise forced underground by the brutality of Assad's onslaughts."

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

Almost everyone recognizes that we are in a counterrevolutionary phase in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. But there is a big difference between defeat and being driven underground. And neither condition leads automatically to withdrawing our defense of revolutionaries' right to secure aid to continue their struggle.

The Syrian Revolution is certainly beleaguered under the combined assaults of various counterrevolutionary forces--most importantly Assad's, backed up by Russian imperialism, Iran and Hezbollah. But it is not dead either, in its civic, military or popular character.

There are still local coordinating committees operating in liberated areas. There are some independent forces of the Free Syrian Army. And there is still popular opposition to the regime. Recall last March, amid one of the many failed ceasefires, Syrian revolutionaries turned out in protests in almost all the liberated cities--against not only Assad, but also al-Qaeda's affiliate, the Nusra Front.

Even more powerfully, in besieged eastern Aleppo, revolutionaries marched during the most recent cease-fire in October, again calling for the downfall of the regime. Even in the desperate conditions of besieged eastern Aleppo today, the BBC reports that Syrians refuse to bow to the demand of Assad and Russian imperialism that they leave their homes.

The BBC quotes Dr. Ossama, one of the few remaining physicians in a city of over 250,000, declaring:

I am staying because it is my land and my city. It's my home. We have nothing to eat. We will run out of bread and fuel in a month. Our best hope is that the siege is broken. But we are not asking for bread or food we want freedom and social justice. Many people would prefer to die in Aleppo than to leave it. If we go out of Aleppo we will lose our home and our home is our life...and the regime and the Russians would win.

However embattled, the revolution is not completely defeated. Therefore, I believe Adams is mistaken in opposing the right of the non-sectarian revolutionaries to secure aid and assistance to continue it, even if it comes from the U.S.--as long as they retain their independence and do not become proxies for imperialism. This should apply to our stance toward the White Helmets humanitarian organization. Despite getting some funding from the U.S., it plays an essential role in saving people from slaughter at the hands of the regime.

To oppose revolutionaries receiving aid and assistance when it is common sense to the remnants of the revolution risks cutting ourselves off from them. We also risk cutting ourselves off from the revolutionaries in exile who are pivotal in the struggle today and in the future. We must stand with them.

Adams' opposition to the demand raised by many for the U.S. to drop food not bombs is also misguided. We should remember that the U.S. is currently engaged in a massive aerial war against ISIS, in cahoots with Russia--a war that threatens to make conditions even worse in Syria.

What is wrong with demanding that the U.S. stop this murderous war and instead drop food for starving people in Aleppo and other besieged cities? Not only is this an eminently humanitarian measure, but it would also provide people like Dr. Ossama with the caloric intake to continue the struggle for liberation.

I believe Adams comes close to adapting to the pressure of the prevailing left position that insists our task must be to solely oppose American imperialism.

Thus, Adams states, "While U.S. imperialism is far from the only cause of the ongoing crisis in Syria, the focus of revolutionaries in the U.S. who stand in solidarity with Syrians must be to force an end to U.S. involvement in Syria."

But like the dominant and mistaken position on the left, this downplays the main imperialist intervention currently going on in Syria--Russia's blitzkrieg in support of Assad's counterrevolution.

We have to continue to oppose all imperialist interventions, plus regional ones like Iran's and Saudi Arabia's, and extend solidarity to the ongoing if beleaguered struggle of Syrian revolutionaries. In addition, as Adams rightly argues, we have to demand that all countries open the borders to desperate refugees and provide them sanctuary and all assistance they need to rebuild their lives.

That is the best way to think about Syria and the task of international socialist revolutionaries today.
Ashley Smith, Burlington, Vermont

A mischaracterization of Trotsky

CHARLES PETERSON ("When Trotsky's thinking went astray") is right to set Trotsky's "Learning to Think" article in the context of debates around the nature of the Soviet Union during the degeneration/counterrevolution led by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s (although I don't believe it undermines the basics of Ashley Smith's introductory remarks). However, Charles errs badly in dismissing Trotsky's critique of, and strategic approach to, the USSR rising bureaucracy as "campist."

In fact, Trotsky's withering polemics against the Stalinist system called for workers to rise up and overthrow the ruling "communist" elite. At the same time, the novelty (and imperfect information available) of the form of Stalin's counterrevolution led Trotsky to believe that some economic ghost of the revolution remained worth defending against invasion by Western European powers.

One can accept Tony Cliff's periodization and characterization of Stalin's rise to power, written long after the fact, I believe, without dismissing as "campism" Trotsky's real-time Marxist attack on Stalinism. One might even admit that the revolution, although mortally wounded, had not drawn its last breath in 1928-29, but might have responded in novel ways to external shocks for a few years to come.

Did Trotsky cling too long to the ghost of nationalized state property? Was he inordinately concerned that "Trotskyism" might simply become "anti-Stalinism" among a layer of intellectuals? Can his formulations about the Russian invasions of Poland and Finland be criticized? Again, one can answer in the affirmative without recourse to slander. But Charles calls Trotsky a "social patriot"--that is, a nationalist in favor of imperialist war.

Charles further argues that Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya (he forgets to add the embarrassing James Burnham) were all "absolutely correct to break with the campism of the majority" of the Trotskyist movement on this question.

I think reasonable revolutionaries can have different points of view on these evolving positions. I do not believe, with hindsight, we can say that they were all "absolutely correct" to "break" (that is, split) over this question (I used to believe that). Charles doesn't go into details, but the "break" implied not only a change of attitude, but an organizational split. Perhaps Charles doesn't mean to draw a straight line between these two senses of the work "break." It is at least worth discussing.

Trotsky wrote to Shachtman on December 20, 1939, on the eve of the split, imploring him to reconsider the organizational implications of his political analysis: "If I had the possibility I would immediately take an airplane to New York City in order to discuss with you for 48 or 72 hours uninterruptedly. I regret very much that you don't feel in this situation the need to come here to discuss the questions with me. Or do you? I should be happy."

The terms of Trotsky's exile in Mexico forbade international travel. It is a shame that Shachtman's conclusions forestalled his.
Todd Chretien, Portland, Maine

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