Demarcations and differences do not require treating others like heretics from some true religion

By Mike Ely

I’d like to build upon whatwas said in our discussion of the mentioning of Trotsky by one of Nepal’s leading Maoists.

First, the point in all of this is that we need to find a way to be clearly,  shockingly revolutionary, but not sectarian. This is a challenge (in a left where anti-sectarianism is the banner of reformism). I think it is possible, and I think many of us are eager for it.

Starkly non-sectarian, fiercely revolutionary. With all that this implies and demands.

TNL said (excerpted from among other things):

“I am quite pleased to see Bhattarai quoting Trotsky, if only to shake up the dogmatists. …  I’d love to see a similar openness to the full range of heretics from Gramsci through Fanon and beyond. Being “on guard” against heretical ideas is deadly to revolutionary theory… A genuinely scientific outlook is unafraid of heresy and knows that seemingly disproven ideas come back to life all the time in the light of new experiences or theoretical advances in other areas. The Trotskyist critique of building socialism in one country was problematic more because it was politically paralyzing than because it was analytically wrong about the limits of what could be achieved and its revival in a much smaller country in a more globally integrated world economy makes complete sense to me.”

I think there are a number of sides to approach here.

1) Treating ideas as heresy has been a way of shutting down debate without engaging deeply with the actual lines. It is a terrible method. Communism is not a religion with religious doctrines, apostates and heretics.

And in the history of the Comintern, treating Trotskyism (and other currents) as heresy went hand in hand with (a) insistently treating leftist opponents as spies, cops and proven counterrevolutionaries, and (b) with a policy of highly sectarian shunning that is typical of some small Anabaptist christian cults.

We need to deal with ideas openly and honestly — and even ideas and programs that we believe are very wrong should be treated that way, so that the struggle over ideas deepens everyone’s understanding of the key issues and the best methodologies. And (as several people have pointed out) there are often within overall “incorrect” ideas and “packages” elements to learn from — undercurrents that while perhaps secondary contain important truths, or insights or critiques.

2) I think that we need to uncover the key lines of demarcation that will define revolutionary regroupment in our time. They will be new in some surprising ways.

This assumption has a few subordinate theses:

a) I think we do need both regroupment and lines of demarcation. I am not for vague temporary unities based on deceptive appearances of agreement. This is because revolutionary preparation requires that we do specific things, and lean away from other things. It is because some analyses and verdicts are helpful guides to revolutionary practice, and others lead toward a swamp that can squander chances at revolution.

b) I don’t think those lines of demarcation are simply the aggregate of PREVIOUS lines of demarcation — as if our current truth and synthesis arises by adding onto previous sedimentary layers of previous communist verdicts.

Put in historical terms: I don’t think we simply say “Amen!” to a specific analyses emerging from the clash of Marx-Bakhunin/Duhring, then Lenin-Kautsky, the Stalin-Trotsky, then Mao-Krushchev — and from those struggles (and what those players perceived as lines of demarcation) we can deduce (by simple historical study) our principles for today. In other words, it is methodologically wrong to universalize “whatever Marx said” and then “whatever Lenin said” — without taking their work as the hypotheses of their times, which need to be viewed critically in light of experience and new thinking.

There are many reasons for that:

First, some of what we have learned in the last fifty years affects how we sum up previous verdicts of Marxism. Second, some things don’t pose themselves the same way today.

Example: In the struggle over “socialism in one country” I have always thought that it was pretty clear that the Soviets needed to try to press along the socialist road in the 1920s (alone if necessary). What was the alternative? But I have never thought that this settled the question and problems — of seeking building socialism isolated from the world market in a world dominated by capitalism. And there remains issues about whether you can build socialism in very small and poor countries alone, whether you need regional revolutions in many cases to even start on that road, and also what the highly integrated world market now means for socialist economics in even large revolutionary countries. And how long you can “build socialism in one country” if the world revolution doesn’t rescue you with new socialist revolutions…

It is not like “the verdict was settled correctly by Stalin in 1924-27, what is your problem? why would you raise that today?”

Mao said “study critically, test independently.”

3) I don’t think mushing everything together makes sense. Or treating all ideas as functionally equal (n a naive or relativist way).

I have argued strongly for not confining communist theory to three (or five) classic canons. There were others who contributed significantly to revolutionary theory who we should respectfully learn from (and I include Althusser, Gramsci, Mariatigui, Mazumdar, Kaypakkayya, Badiou, Prachanda, Freire, and quite a few others.)

But I don’t think revolutionary theory is an eclectic mosaic, where small shiny fragments are placed alongside each other, each with their own distinct integrity, origin and value.

I do think there needs to be a process of critical synthesis — a striving for integrated theory (rather than a “situational ethic” toward ideas.) I think we should draw creatively from a wide range of sources (learning from both the correct and incorrect) — but i think we need to end up with a synthesized and coherent method and program.

So my views on this are different from relativism and eclectics — or the powerful tendency that leans away from theory and demarcations altogether.

4) I think we should mull over a point that the Nepali Maoists have stressed about both philosophy and questions of political unity.

“Historical and dialectical materialism is the philosophy of revolution; it not only applies to society but also in human thinking. The unity and struggle of opposites is its fundamental law. It means every entity divides into two, and each of the two aspects transforms into its opposite. We think the latter is the principal aspect for us communists.

“It is our opinion that the ICM, in general, failed in the past to grasp the totality of this law of dialectics. Our class paid more attention to ‘one divides into two’ in the past and is doing so at present, but knowingly or unknowingly it has skipped grasping and applying in practice the transformation of one aspect into its opposite, the principal aspect. Because of this mistaken grasp, in practice at least, our class applied the dialectics of negation in two-line struggle so as to create splits among our own ranks instead of helping to unite by creating the material environment to make the wrongdoing comrades transform. In other words, our class practiced unity-struggle-split, not unity-struggle-transformation.

“The fatal consequences that the communists are confronting to date justifies [proves] this fact. Our ranks must correct it, and our Party is trying  to do so.”

5) On the question of Trotsky in particular.

I have always been against the demonization of trotsky (as an agent, anti-christ whatever). He was a revolutionary leader in the Soviet Union who make significant contributions (from the 1905 Soviet to the creation of the red army). And I have (all my life) carefully read his main works, theories and biographies.


I have to say of the various communist theoretical and political figures, Trotsky’s work has not struck me as particularly valuable.

Trotsky seems to embody a particular strain of European socialism that is even more inclined toward inevitabilism, reductionism, teleology, objective idealism, theory of the productive forces, workerist economism, euro-chauvinism etc. than several other forces that emerged out of the Comintern.

Many of the features of Stalin’s philosophy and ideology that we criticize seem even more pronounced  Trotsky’s.

Also I think that Trotsky’s specific politics have been fairly discredited by history  — including particularly his specific theory of “what went wrong” in the USSR.

Here are the theories and verdicts that I have seen as central to this political current… and I list them because (on balance) I think they are not correct.

In my opinion Trotskyism is defined by a web of core ideological and political positions (despite the diversity of today’s declining and loosely Trotskyist trends.)

  • Permanent Revolution — opposition to a view of      communists leading anti-feudal antiimperialist revolution in the poorer      third world countries (taking the socialist road through two-stage New      Democratic revolution)
  • Theory of Degenerate Workers State and its conception      of a bureaucracy (as a stratum) playing an increasingly self-conscious and      autonomous role in reversal of revolutionary politics
  • Theory of Deformed Workers State (which negates the      need for a trotskyist party, and posits a theory of “revolution with a      blunt instrument”)
  • a particularly idiosyncratic and often highly sectarian      view of what vanguard parties are, and the role of historical programmatic      “continuity” in their development.
  • Trotsky’s transitional programme (i.e. a particular      view of mass work in non-revolutoinary times that i perceive as classic      economism)
  • a particular view of socialism (assumptions about world      system, political forms, prerequisite productive basis etc.)
  • a developed theory of the productive forces (i.e. I      believe Trotskyism shares with both Stalin’s politics and then later      revisionist politics a mechanical view of the interaction of productive      forces and politics).
  • a particularly pronounced euro-centric view of both the      working class and the worldwide transition to socialism
  • A view of the peasantry and anti-feudal tasks in the      world revolutionary process that has led to an underestimation of the      anti-colonial revolutions of the past 50 years (and of the remaining      anti-feudal tasks of revolution in  countries like Nepal, Peru and      many parts of India.
  • a particular view of working class united front (based      on a time-specific analysis of the communist-socdem hostility in Germany)      and (as part of that) an idiosyncratic view of fascism (very different      from the later Comintern’s analysis of “openly terroristic dictatorship of      the most reactionary sections of the bourgeoisie”)

There are some subordinate ideological and political issues:

  • Trotsky’s view of art and culture
  • Trotsky’s theory of military doctrine (very different      from Mao’s)
  • A highly mechanistic and undialectical theory of      “parallelogram of forces”
  • A view of History (with a capital “H”) which protects      and promotes a lot of the Hegelian teleology within Marxism.

I list these things because I think we should allow space to permit discussion of these things. The days are long gone when it was a norm to shun Trotskyism, dismiss its views without engagement or demonize those who merely mentioned Trotsky’s name. (That too is a line question, and if more breaks are needed, then fine.)

But I also feel that, in those discussions we will have, I will find myself arguing against the core views that have defined Trotskyism since Trotsky — simply because i think that this current basically got the key things wrong.


I’m not into obsessively memorizing, revisiting and reenacting the demarcations of the distant past. That is a wrong method. But in the CURRENT discussions of politics and ideas, I do think we need to make demarcations together (over time, through collective engagement).