Wrong, wrong, wrong ...

Irrational optimism

Mike Macnair responds to Rex Dunn’s arguments about Trotskyism and May 1968

Rex Dunn’s exchange with me over the last few weeks calls for a little more than just another letter.1 It is, nonetheless, necessary to avoid most of the beguiling byways of historical details into which one might be drawn, in order to focus on the core issues.

My original point in the talk which provoked the exchange was one which I have made in several ways, repeatedly, before. The modern far left is characterised by a politics which is in the last analysis Bakuninist. That is, it imagines that, if masses can be mobilised in strikes and on the streets, they will radicalise and become revolutionary in ways which (it is imagined) are impossible in more ‘normal’ times; and that this is the centre of the road to the overthrow and replacement of capitalism.

I call the politics Bakuninist because it is, in essence, the core of the 1860s-80s Bakuninists’ alternative to the ideas of Marx and the ‘Germans’, in spite of the fact that the modern left groups in question would mostly call themselves ‘Marxist’.

The image of the French May 1968, I have argued more than once, serves as ‘charter’ for this politics. The far left defines itself as the ‘revolutionary’ left by virtue of its commitment to these ideas, as opposed to ‘parliamentary’ politics and to ‘gradualism’.

The result is an endless succession of attempts to get masses on the street or on strike without fighting to change political ideas or to organise. And these repeated attempts prove merely demoralising; and simultaneously, a ground for deepening far-left opportunism and abandonment of the political platform of workers’ power and socialism in favour of forms of liberalism enragé.

I argued specifically in this talk that, while capitalist political managers promoted the ideology of Fabian gradualism and ‘managerialism’ in the 1950s-70s, so that ‘revolution’ in the sense of strikism (etc) looked like a political alternative to this, from the later 1970s capitalist political managers moved back towards classical liberalism - including positively advocating extraparliamentary actions and the revolutionary overthrow of states, in the interest of free markets and ‘human rights’.

Once this change took place, the far left’s Bakuninist version of ‘revolutionism’ turned out to be unable to distinguish between anti-capitalist revolution and pro-capitalist revolution, and has in particular succumbed to being conned by ‘revolutionary’ theatrics of ‘colour revolutions’ in eastern Europe and elsewhere. This happened most strikingly in the ‘Euro-Maidan’ events in Kyiv.

Comrade Dunn’s June 14 response is misconceived because it takes my argument to be addressed to Trotskyism as such, though in reality my argument is addressed to the post-1956 ‘new left’ - and the parts of the post-1968 far left which were heavily influenced by ‘new left’ ideas. Mao Zedong’s 1930 essay, ‘A single spark can start a prairie fire’,2 was a favourite among the European and North American ‘soft Maoists’ of the period, who shared the general approach which I criticised.3 In Britain, the ‘new left’ approach was more clearly expressed in 1970s International Socialists-Socialist Workers Party Cliffism than in 1970s International Marxist Group Mandelism, and in particular in the version of Cliffism which set up Rosa Luxemburg as representing a strategic alternative to Lenin (ie, was further from orthodox Trotskyism).

That being the case, the vast bulk of comrade Dunn’s June 14 article, discussing the post-war history of the Trotskyist movement, is completely irrelevant to the argument I offered.


For this reason I do not mean to engage with his points in detail at all, beyond the last point I made in my June 21 letter. This was that, when the Fourth International in 1947 called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from eastern Europe, it broke with Leon Trotsky’s explicit line in relation to the 1939 partitioning of Poland and the Soviet invasion of Finland,4 in favour of Max Shachtman’s line. I pointed out there that withdrawal of Soviet troops “would have led in short order to a new imperialist aggression against the USSR”.

Comrade Dunn’s June 28 response argues that the case for calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops was “motivated by rational optimism”. It is hard to explain on this basis why Trotsky - certainly a ‘rational optimist’, if not an over-optimist - did not make such a call and explicitly refused to make such a call in relation to both Poland and Finland in 1939-40.5 As late as the 1940 Manifesto of the Fourth International he wrote:

… the advanced workers understood that the crimes of the Kremlin oligarchy do not strike off the agenda the question of the existence of the USSR. Its defeat in the world war would signify not merely the overthrow of the totalitarian bureaucracy, but the liquidation of the new forms of property, the collapse of the first experiment in planned economy, and the transformation of the entire country into a colony; that is, the handing over to imperialism of colossal natural resources, which would give it a respite until the third world war. Neither the peoples of the USSR nor the world working class as a whole care for such an outcome.6

It should be clear enough that even 50 years later the collapse of the ‘eastern bloc’ in 1989 and of the USSR in 1989-91 has precisely not set free the curbed energies of the working class from the incubus of Stalinism. Rather, to paraphrase the 1940 Manifesto, it has ‘transformed entire countries into semi-colonies’ and ‘handed over to imperialism colossal natural resources’.

‘Rational optimism’

Nonetheless, the issue is a real one. If calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1947 was ‘rational optimism’, and the illusory belief that the working class could have taken power in France in May 1968 is ‘rational optimism’ - then ‘rational optimism’ has a very specific meaning.

‘Rational optimism’ must in this argument of comrade Dunn’s require us to imagine that the working class can, and can only, break through to power by a general-strikist policy, in the absence of prior ‘gradual’ work to build a mass workers’ party and all the other necessities of a mass workers’ movement;7 and that this real possibility was blocked by the existence of mass reformist and Stalinist parties and trade unions (and by Soviet troops in eastern Europe).

The post-war history of Trotskyism then becomes relevant. But it only does so if (a) revolutionary crises which could have led to Trotskyist victory without a pre-existing mass Trotskyist party were defeated because of the presence of Stalinist and reformist parties; and (b) Trotsky’s and the pre-war Trotskyists’ view was actually a general-strikist line like that of the ‘new left’ groups.

Both propositions are false. The first is, in substance, to collapse into Bakuninism. By assuming that it is only the obstacle of Stalinism and reformism which has defeated mass strike waves and revolutionary outbreaks, it fails to take into account the experience of defeated mass strike waves and revolutionary outbreaks before the rise of Stalinism and, indeed, of reformism. The reason is that the general strike or mass strike wave poses immediately the question of the coordination of production, disrupted by the strike action, and hence authority over the whole society.

Hence, if we imagine some sort of ‘Rapture’ in the year 1945 miraculously removing all the members and supporters of the Socialist and Communist Parties to heaven, so that the Trotskyists stood alone8 in relation to the unorganised masses - then the fate of the mass movement would certainly have been that of yet another failure of a short-lived spontaneous movement. Grouplets of hundreds or less are simply incapable of giving effective leadership to millions. The necessary supposition is that the mass strike wave can produce a workers’ revolution without a workers’ independent political party.

It is, of course, true that parties can grow rather rapidly under the right conditions. For example, the Chinese Communist Party, starting with 50 members in 1921, after its 1922 entry in the Kuomintang grew to around 1,000 members in January 1925 and then to around 58,000 in April 1927.9 This sort of story can be paralleled elsewhere. But this was not in a brief crisis, but over five years, during a prolonged period of instability - and when there was, in substance, no pre-existing mass workers’ party.

The second proposition is obviously false. Trotsky, writing against Lenin in 1904 in Our political tasks, certainly defended a ‘spontaneist’ or ‘objectivist’ position, that the logic of the class struggle would override the issue of parties and their leaderships. But in 1917, on his own later account, he recognised that he had been wrong, as against Lenin on the party question.

Thereafter, he consistently argued for the necessity of a party. The lessons of October (1923) contains sharp polemic against strike fetishism and Soviet fetishism. The 1931 pamphlet The revolution in Spain famously contains, close to its conclusion, the statement that “For a successful solution of all these tasks, three conditions are required: a party; once more a party; again a party.”10 In the 1940 Manifesto the formula is:

There remains the question of leadership. Will not the revolution be betrayed this time too, inasmuch as there are two Internationals in the service of imperialism, while the genuine revolutionary elements constitute a tiny minority? In other words: shall we succeed in preparing in time a party capable of leading the proletarian revolution? In order to answer this question correctly it is necessary to pose it correctly. Naturally, this or that uprising may end and surely will end in defeat owing to the immaturity of the revolutionary leadership. But it is not a question of a single uprising. It is a question of an entire revolutionary epoch.

The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars, and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective. History will provide it with enough opportunities and possibilities to test itself, to accumulate experience and to mature. The swifter the ranks of the vanguard are fused, the more the epoch of bloody convulsions will be shortened, the less destruction will our planet suffer. But the great historical problem will not be solved in any case until a revolutionary party stands at the head of the proletariat.11

Trotsky’s course of action after 1933, in calling for new parties and a new international rather than carrying on as an external faction of Comintern, arguably failed to grasp the extent to which the advanced workers remained loyal to Comintern and the communist parties in spite of the catastrophic defeat in Germany. The reason for Trotsky’s choice at this point was, however, that he was determined to avoid the error of undue conciliation of political opponents and failure to build a serious organisation, which he himself recognised had affected his work between 1904 and 1917 (and in particular between 1914 and 1916).

This was, indeed, ‘rational optimism’, and the argument of the 1940 Manifesto just quoted was also ‘rational optimism’. But though rational, it was radically misinformed.

First and fundamentally, there were not about to be “long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars, and new uprisings”, but after 1948 a radical restabilisation of capitalist rule worldwide, thanks to an enormous destruction of capital values in 1939-48, the transfer of world hegemony to the USA and the creation of the cold war regime. Trotsky had in 1938 imagined the world situation as “the death agony of capitalism”; in fact, it was merely the death agony of British world hegemony.

Second, Trotsky certainly imagined that the Stalinist regime could not survive the war: the stresses of war would force either Soviet defeat or the overthrow of the regime. In the words of the 1940 Manifesto, “The Kremlin has once again revealed itself as the central nest of defeatism. Only by destroying this nest can the security of the USSR be safeguarded.”

This belief rested on implicit assumptions about the military character of the war, which were explicit in Trotsky’s military writings of the early 1920s - ie, that the further development of industry would make the war more like the 1914-18 western front. The fall of France and Norway falsified this assumption, but Trotsky did not have time to work through the implications - that is, when the Nazis invaded the USSR, Britain and the US would be driven by the German successes in the west to ally with Stalin. The consequence of this alliance and the resulting Soviet victories was the global plausibility of Stalinism among workers and colonial peoples.

Third, Trotsky imagined that he was in contact with a large, if suppressed, opposition in Russia; but in fact, his supposed contacts were wholly controlled by the NKVD Russian security apparat, through the agent, Mark Zborowski.12 Had the Russian Left Opposition really existed (other than in the form of disorganised survivors in the gulag), then, in turn, if the war had taken the course Trotsky predicted, there might have emerged a large Trotskyist party in Russia, with profound implications for the rest of the world.


But after the victory of the USSR in World War II (and in the midst of the Chinese civil war, shortly to end in the collapse of the Kuomintang regime and victory of the CCP) to call for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from eastern Europe in the hope that the microscopic forces of the Trotskyists - a lot less than they had been in 1938 - could lead the masses to power, would have been irrational optimism (if it was any sort of optimism at all, and not merely an aspect of the Fourth International’s attempts at this period to reunify with the Shachtmanites13).

The point is utterly fundamental. Comrade Dunn accepts that the Trotskyists were too weak for their ideas to become a material force, yet also argues that the Stalinists prevented this from happening. But the question posed is: why were the Stalinists able to do so? OK, there were NKVD operations, assassinations and so on. But the Bolsheviks before 1917 faced the notorious tsarist Okhrana secret police ...

The same issue arises even if you imagine (as comrade Dunn does, but I do not) that the Parti Communiste Français could have taken power in May 1968 in France, after it had been educating the French working class for 20 years in cross-class coalitionism, pacifism and gradualism. Still, why was the PCF able to stop the strike wave, and so on?

The answer, of course, is in the first place that the large majority of the advanced workers supported either the reformist labour or socialist parties) or the communists (or else were ‘pure trade unionist’ militants).

Secondly, this was not merely a matter of a sentimental attachment to the belief that the socialist parties, or the communist parties, were ‘really’ revolutionary parties. (If that had been the case, ‘betrayal’ might have led to large splits and the creation of mass revolutionary parties - as occurred in Germany and elsewhere in 1914-20.)

As far as the labour and socialist parties were concerned, rejecting communism in favour of loyalty to the ‘democratic’ (meaning liberal) constitution had already become ideologically foundational to them in the 1920s.

The communist parties had lost a lot of members in the ‘third period’, but had then recruited a lot in the ‘people’s front’ period; and, though they lost members in 1939-41, the episode was short enough for them to grow sharply in 1941-45. At this period came the victories of the USSR and their consequences - Soviet troops on the Elbe, communist-led partisan victories in Yugoslavia and Albania, the expansion of the CPC-held zone in China, the partitioning of Korea and Vietnam; all under the ideological banner of the people’s front, national roads to socialism and the party monolith.

Trotsky wrote in 1937 that the Stalinist bureaucracy has no ideology:

In keeping with its essential interests the caste of usurpers is hostile to any theory: it can give an account of its social role neither to itself nor to anyone else. Stalin revises Marx and Lenin not with the theoretician’s pen, but with the boots of the GPU.14

This was plausible enough for its own time. But, in reality, Stalinism had no ideology in this period because it had no victories to its credit. In contrast, the labour and socialist parties could point to real reforms achieved (apparently) on the basis of constitutional loyalism. It is for the same reason that the Soviet regime found it necessary to conduct fantastical show trials, and even after these to assassinate Trotsky as well as his son and a number of his associates.

All this changed with the Soviet victories in World War II and their consequences. Now Stalinism could become an ideology, and one not merely produced by OGPU-NKVD-KGB operations run out of Moscow, but reproduced in competing centres (in rough chronological order: Belgrade, Beijing, Havana, Tirana, Pyongyang ...) and in wholly independent Stalinist, Maoist, and so on, parties in various countries.

The consequence is that the “two Internationals in the service of imperialism” amounted to a very much larger obstacle to Trotskyism than any of the post-war Trotskyists (or the various new leftists) imagined: both had sunk deep roots in the consciousness of the advanced workers.

This, in turn, has the consequence that the Trotskyists - or any other left opponents of ‘official’ communism, for that matter - faced a long haul struggle to engage with the existing supporters of ‘official’ communism (and of social democracy); not a short route to trigger revolution.

Left opponents of ‘official’ communism and of social democracy commonly tried another route: this was to try to build up rival organisations in competition with these forces by recruiting newly radicalising militants, on the basis that the Stalinists and social democrats were irreformable. But, in reality, it turned out that this approach required adapting to the politics of social democracy or Stalinism and pretending to be the only ‘genuine left’ - and it generally could not get further than a few thousand.

As time has gone on, the optimism has become more and more obviously irrational and has reduced itself to an ‘official’ optimism for which the size of every demonstration and the significance of every strike is exaggerated, and every political difficulty affecting a government is a ‘crisis’.

Wasted years

At the end of the day, it turned out that the 1940 Manifesto was right to say that “The Kremlin has once again revealed itself as the central nest of defeatism. Only by destroying this nest can the security of the USSR be safeguarded.” It was the top bureaucracy itself which restored capitalism - to make way successively for the kleptocrat oligarchs, and after them for the new Bonapartist-nationalist securocrat, Vladimir Putin.

It just took a lot longer than Trotsky anticipated. The frontal assault of German capital ended in defeat and strengthening the Soviet regime. The USA used much more gradual methods of techno-blockade, military-expenditure attrition and enticement in the borderlands (on both sides: bank loans to lure the Yugoslav, Polish, Hungarian and Romanian bureaucratic leaders; Christian and social democracy and Labourism for the western Europeans; land reforms and toleration of protectionism for Japan and the ‘Asian tigers’). US state actors expected from the 1970s that these methods would bring down the Soviet bloc; they just did not expect the way it actually happened.

What did not manifest itself was any sort of serious working class resistance to the restoration. The fall of the regimes and what followed it was the sharpest possible demonstration of the uselessness of both irrational-optimist spontaneism and third-campism. But it should also stand as a clear rebuke to those ‘official’ communists who, like Andrew Northall in his June 28 letter, assert the marginality of the Trotskyists (I agree), but then fail to see that ‘official’ communists’ political choices have to take primary responsibility for the utter demoralisation of Soviet and eastern European workers in the 1980s, and after and their inability to even contemplate resistance to the restoration of capitalism.

The forces to the left of ‘official communism’ (Trotskyists, Maoists, and so on) received a big boost from the large class struggles beginning before the time of the May 1968 events and carrying on for some years after. But, at the end of the day, when we - the post-60s far left - could have engaged in a serious project of building parties and an international movement to the left of the “two Internationals in the service of imperialism”, we did not do so. Instead we collectively engaged in endless efforts to be the single spark that lights the prairie fire.

Our commitment on this basis to ‘tactical intransigence, programmatic flexibility’ meant that we ended both with innumerable splits and with educating that minority part of the broader, advanced section of the working class that was willing to listen to us in ... ‘anti-factional’ refusal of the possibility of legitimate open disagreements; Dimitrov’s version of the united front through self-censorship; economism in electoral work; and popular frontism in the forms of ‘anti-fascist’ unity and of intersectionality.

The upshot is that a section of the younger generation, for whom ‘live’ Stalinism and Maoism are not even memories, but merely history lessons, imagine that these politics have something better to offer than the degraded versions offered by present-day ‘Trotskyisms’.

The task of building a real Communist Party still faces us. It may be that - like the Trotskyists, faced with World War II, and the left groups, faced with the episodic revolutionary crises which have emerged from time to time (as in Portugal in 1974-76, or Iran in 1979-80) - we will just have to do the best we can with totally inadequate forces to project an orientation to workers’ power and socialism as the way out of the crisis.

But our present task is the struggle for a Communist Party in times which do not immediately pose the question of power. Overcoming the temptations of the image of May 1968 in France as a ‘charter’ for strikist spontaneism and ‘agitate, agitate, agitate’ is a part of this struggle for a party.



1. My transcribed talk published in this paper on May 31; comrade Dunn’s ‘Trotskyism and May 1968’ (June 14); my letter (June 21); his response and Andrew Northall’s ‘official communist’ letter in response to comrade Dunn’s June 14 article (both June 28).

2. www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_6.htm.

3. Orthodox Maoists had more of a party conception.

4. Argued at length in articles collected in In defence of Marxism: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/idom/dm/index.htm.

5. I pointed out in Revolutionary strategy (2010), chapter 4, that Trotsky’s arguments in relation to the specific Polish and Finnish questions were problematic. I do not retract that argument. My present point is that Soviet defencism in general was required, because the irrationality of handing the territory back to imperialist subordination meant that third-campism on this front could not be justified to advanced workers.

6. www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fi/1938-1949/emergconf/fi-emerg02.htm.

7. Trade unions, cooperatives, mutuals, women’s organisations, youth organisations, etc and workers’ clubs of one sort and another.

8. Or, rather, in reality, accompanied by the anarchists, Bordigists, ‘council communists’ and so on.

9. T Saich, ‘The Chinese Communist Party during the era of the Comintern (1919-1943)’: https://sites.hks.harvard.edu/fs/asaich/chinese-communisty-party-during-comintern.pdf, at p14.

10. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/spain/spain04.htm.

11. See note 5 above.

12. Convenient summary at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Zborowski.

13. Eg, www.marxists.org/archive/shachtma/1947/03/unity.html (March 1947).

14. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/08/stalinism.htm.