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Critique of "Trotskyist" organizations: Arash Azizi, Pham Binh, Louis Proyect

Louis Proyect, “an unrepentant Marxist”, has published an article by Arash Azizi “After Trotskyism, What? Some Personal Thoughts”.

The article discusses personal experience of Arash Azizi in one of many Trotskyist organizations, International Marxist Tendency (IMT), and rejects this type of organization as a path of revolution. What reasons does he give?

1. “Ultra-left turn that IMT has taken in the last few years”. Specifically: “Abandoning of the fundamental orientation to the Labour Party in Britain (signaled by the change in the paper’s masthead) which happened to come only months before the historic election of Jeremy Corbyn; similar distancing from the traditional organizations of the working class in other countries; advocating abstention in the Brexit referendum; and the refusal to endorse Bernie Sanders’s campaign are just some examples”.

2. Sectarian character of the IMT: “To be a member of the IMT, you’d need to share in an article of faith that I’ll try to honestly summarize as such: ‘IMT [with a membership that is today probably around 2000 worldwide, at most] is the only genuine Marxist organization on the planet. It alone has the “correct ideas” [an astonishing term that even the Catholic Church doesn’t use with such certitude], which are encapsulated in the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Engels and Trotsky [maybe, a book or two by Rosa Luxembourg] and those continued by Ted Grant and the IMT. It alone can offer the workers the revolutionary leadership that is needed to win power and build socialism.’”

  • “Bizarre conclusion will follow: In IMT, you’d often hear that if a revolutionary movement happens while IMT is still a small organization this is a bad thing since “we need time to prepare”.
  • “It also follows that work of no Marxist writer or theoretician after Trotsky’s death in 1940 is worth considering, except for the few fellows that have had the honor of working with the IMT”.
  • “Elections are dismissed as ‘bourgeois democracy’ and civil and political rights decried as ‘bourgeois formality’.”

3. IMT doesn’t really study world history, global liberation movements, as they actually occurred in XX century. Azizi writes: “The Iranian communist movement goes back to 1920 and it has had all sorts of experiences, including that of state power in short periods. According to the IMT, this rich tradition offered nothing and all we had to do was translating the articles of the international to Persian.” Also: “all experiences of 20th century socialism, from China and Tanzania to Italy and Japan, are decried as “Stalinism”.

4. IMT doesn’t really study economics, or anything at all. “There is a pretense that there are easy answers to questions of building a successful socialist economy, polity and judicial system. If only the men with “correct ideas” were at the helm!”

Arash Azizi next comes to defending the smallness of Trotkyist organizations in the life time of Trotsky. They were small, according to him, because the members were persecuted:

“This smallness was due to a brutal policy of oppression. Trotsky and his followers were some of the most persecuted people on the planet in the post-war period. Imagine being active in a situation in which, in addition to the usual animosity of the state and the capital, you’d have to battle large socialist states and massive communist parties around the world who, at times, would even go to the length of physically exterminating you”.

Such apology is not justified. In history, there have been a number of persecuted organizations, who nevertheless managed to grow, even, and especially because of the persecution. A number of religious and working class organizations immediately come to mind. 1) Christians in the times of the Roman Empire, 2) Protestants and Puritans in the times of the Reformation, 3) Working class unions, such as IWW of Bill Haywood (early XX century), 4) Social-democratic parties at the end of XIX – beginning of XX century, such as the German social democratic party (law against socialists under Bismarck), and the Russian social-democratic party (almost all of the first congress members were arrested).

So, we should attribute the smallness not to persecution of Trotskyists, but to another cause. I believe this cause is that since the late 1930’s, the working class can no longer be considered the “revolutionary”, as production has entered the epoch of information technology: the development of computers, the atomic bomb, automation of production.

The basic tenet of Marxism – the industrial working class as protagonist of socialist revolution – is no longer true since the beginning of World War II (in 1930’s). This was first clearly expressed by Jean van Heijenoort, a secretary of Trotsky, and the first chairman of the Fourth International, in his 1948 essay “A Century’s Balance Sheet”, reflecting upon the thesis proposed in 1848 by Marx. Specifically, van Heijenoort says:

“What the proletariat is incapable of achieving is a leadership which will be faithful to its interests, will understand and defend them boldly, imaginatively, and tenaciously.”

Heijenoort makes a hypothesis that a reason for degeneration of proletariat has been Stalinism. But, he immediately says:

“Stalinism, however, is not the single and final cause of the stagnation. Before it, we had Social Democracy. And now, the degeneration the Trotskyite Fourth International, although without practical importance, is still an extremely bad sign. Stalinism is, after all, only the most monstrous link in a chain of bankruptcies. Finally, it is as much an effect as a cause, or it is a disease which attacks an already feeble organism to make it still more feeble.”

So, in history there were at least 3 different, antagonistic types of organizations that attempted to speak in the name of proletariat (actually: 4, if we include anarchism). In historical order, these were: 1) social-democracy, 2) communism, that degenerated into Stalinism, in USSR, Maoism, in China, all the way up to Abdullah Ocalan cult among Kurds of PKK. 3) Trotskyism, as a critique of Stalinism, has degenerated into numerous sects and “Internationals” which have no real political influence, and which have adopted anti-revolutionary ideas. Witness, for example, Gilbert Achcar arguing that Russia is as much imperialism as the Western countries, and that it is even worse capitalism than USA because of what it did to its own people in Chechnya.

Question comes: what people will take up the revolutionary task now? My hypothesis: these are “universal” people, for they are not confined to any one class, or narrow professionalism. These are people preparing a classless society, hence they are capable of working in various positions. They can be both manual workers and intellectual. They can organize people and move whole projects forward in various roles. These are people of knowledge and continuous learning. 

Program which A. Azizi proposes: “Marxists and those (like myself) who have an affinity for the 1917 tradition need to unite with others around the political and practical double goals of A, improving the lives of the working people and the oppressed here and now, B, striving at a radical transformation of society and building of a socialist alternative to capitalism.”

However, if we’re to strive for “a radical transformation of society”, we should at least agree on our theory. But such agreement is not there: “It is silly for socialists not to be organizationally united in pursuit of goals today because they disagree over the class nature of the Soviet Union”. The “Russian question” is of deep theoretical importance. For revolutionaries, it is impossible to be in the same organization with people such as Gilbert Achcar (see above).

***

The experience of Arazh Azizi vis-à-vis IMT is not unique. Other people have had similar experiences with other “Trotskyist” organizations. For example, Pham Binh, a rather prominent analyst of the "Occupy" movement, has written “Thinking of joining the ISO?”, in 2013. He doesn’t criticize the ISO on the question of theory, specifically that organization declared the USSR to be “state capitalist”. Rather, he talks about the internal regime in the organization.

1. It is not democratic. Issues are decided upon by leadership, before they’re put to the discussion by the rank-and-file members. Pham Binh: “ISO leaders not only lead these pre-meetings but also have separate leaders’ pre-meetings where plans and proposals to be put forward in the all-member pre-meetings are discussed and decided upon”.

In fact, it is an elitist, oligarchic type of organization: “only the ISO’s leadership and the Federal Bureau of Investigation know how many members there are at any given time. The rank and file is in the dark”.

In fact, it is a hierarchy: “There are no horizontal channels of communication between branches and the general membership; information and political arguments at the rank and file level therefore move in only one direction – vertically, upwards”.

There is no right to form factions within the organization (which directly follows from #4 above): “Someone with an idea or proposal has to either fight for their view through these successive administrative layers either on their own as an individual or wait until the yearly pre-convention discussion period to propose it before the organization, but they cannot form a faction to fight for their viewpoint at convention because ISO members do not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to form factions”.

It’s not an organization of rebels, but of conformists: “Dissidents and deviationists face not an uphill battle but a veritable cliff to break through hardened groupthink just to gain a hearing; often an idea or proposal that is generally dismissed or derided when it comes from a rank-and-file member will be readily and eagerly adopted when that same idea or proposal comes from the Steering Committee or other leading personnel”.

The organization is ruled by an undemocratically self-appointed committee through the form of elections it holds: “The ISO continues to use the British SWP’s closed slate system to elect its leadership, meaning the previous year’s Steering Committee submits the coming year’s Steering Committee to the convention as a single bloc for an up-or-down vote by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot. This makes it impossible for the membership to hold even one Steering Committee member accountable unless they can assemble 12 or more additional names for an entirely new slate. This practice is winner-take-all run amok, and the result is not a one-party state but a one-slate party; as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977. Conventions are exercises in unanimity rather than a place where substantive differences are aired and ironed out in a vigorous and above-board manner”.

2. A lot of time is wasted on “organizational” activities: “The frenetic pace of meetings, pre-meetings, paper sales, study groups, and branch meetings eventually takes its toll and large numbers (perhaps a majority) of people leave the organization within a few years of joining because these activities do not directly and concretely contribute to winning tangible gains or changing people’s lives for the better. The rate of turnover is especially high among workers and people of color, the very people who historically have been the backbone of socialist and radical movements”.

The organization has a bureaucratic routine: “During the 1999-2011 period, there were four distinct political upsurges from below in the United States: the anti-globalization movement (cut short by September 11), the 2003-2005 movement against the Iraq war and occupation, the 2006 immigrants’ rights movement that culminated in a one-day political general strike by immigrant workers on May 1, and the 2011 Occupy movement that began with Occupy Wall Street. The ISO did not grow exponentially the way RSDLP did in 1905 and 1912-1914 during these upsurges because the organization’s practice is too rigid and conservative to attract radicalizing workers, students, and oppressed people who want to get onto the field of battle and fight, not attend an endless series of meetings, pre-meetings, post-meetings, Socialist Worker sales, contact meetings, new member meetings, and study groups that constitute the ISO’s “branch routines.”

3. The organization is not interested in the issues which people fight for, but in recruiting members: “Because of the ISO’s strong emphasis on individual recruitment through ideological conversion, fellow activists often see or feel that the ISO – as an outside, pre-existing entity – is opportunistically “raiding” a coalition for new members. These feelings are heightened if and when the ISO’s involvement comes to an end because it has concluded that the fight is going nowhere in the near term or that people are not moving in the ISO’s direction (towards recruitment) politically. Rarely is there the feeling among non-ISO activists that ISOers involved are truly “one of us” due to this habit of popping in when a struggle heat up and dropping out when things cool down.”

4. The organization stifles even the internal debates: “As you begin going to study groups, you discover the ISO as an organization has a whole range of positions on theoretical, historical, and foreign policy questions ranging from topics like privilege and the one-state solution in Palestine to Trotsky’s theory of permanent that you are expected (or even duty-bound) to defend even if you personally disagree with them. This practice is fundamentally at odds with the practices of the Bolsheviks who never insisted that members defend a particular view of the European revolutions of 1848 or the French revolution of 1789. Lenin and Bukharin hotly debated the question of national self-determination and independence for countries like Ireland during World War One precisely because there was no Bolshevik line on questions of this sort”.

5. The organization engages in stock speculations, thus tying it to its national ruling class. Moreover, it does so without knowledge about such speculations by its general members: “rare is the ISO member who knows that the organization’s 501(c)(3) – the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC) – bought and sold thousands of dollars in Caterpillar stock in 2010 in spite of the ISO’s support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign’s targeting of Caterpillar for selling Israel the bulldozers it uses to demolish Palestinian homes and kill activist Rachel Corrie”.

“They (members of ISO) have no clue what the organization’s assets or liabilities consist of and are denied any formal control over CERSC. They cannot discuss and decide how best to spend CERSC’s $1.5 million in yearly revenue on organizing projects when these matters are handled internally as a state secret and questions about them from members are viewed as a sign of disloyalty to socialism rather than what they actually are – a principled commitment to the basic democratic norms working-class people are entitled to in their organizations”.

Louis Proyect comments on ISO involvement in stocks: “While not quite in the same category as trading in Caterpillar, the SWP owned “new economy” stocks when the Militant was railing against the phony “new economy”.

***

These accounts of “Trotskysist” organizations show them to be: 1) tied to the imperialist ruling class, through speculations in stocks and bonds, 2) highly undemocratic in structure, 3) bureaucratic in their operations, 4) dogmatic and sectarian in their approach to theory and politics, 4) not sensitive to the needs of their members, or protests movements,

The theoretical issues which were raised are: 1) social nature of modern revolutionary class. 2) Social nature of the USSR and the states which have been formed after its break-up.

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