Reviewed by Will Podmore
Aug. 23, 2018

Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain, by John Kelly, paperback, 295 pages, ISBN 978-1-138-94381-0, Routledge, 2018, £29.99.

At present, there are more Trotskyist groups than ever before, 22 in Britain alone, and a record 23 Trotskyist Fourth Internationals. In 1967 there were only six Trotskyist groups in Britain and just five Fourth Internationals. So, Trotskyism is clearly on the up!

Similarly, there are 15 Trotskyist groups in Germany, 13 in the USA, 13 in France, 11 in Spain, 11 in Brazil, 8 in Greece, 8 in Italy, and 7 each in Argentina, Australia, Canada and Mexico. Even their united fronts are divided – they now have three anti-austerity bodies in Britain alone. Clearly division is in their DNA.

This divisiveness partly explains ‘the complete absence of a mass Trotskyist party anywhere on the planet’ and ‘the failure of any Trotskyist group to have led a socialist revolution, successful or otherwise’. All their efforts to sell their papers, all their recycled motions, all those demos, all their furious mutual denunciations, so meticulously chronicled in Kelly’s book, have resulted in what? In 90 years of failure, in every single country, across every single continent – complete, permanent failure.

Why is failure built into Trotskyism’s DNA? Kelly cites the SWP’s Tony Cliff musing in 1992, after the last coal mine closures, “Imagine if we had 15,000 members of the SWP and 30,000 supporters … socialists could have taken 40 or 50,000 people to parliament. If that had happened … the government would have collapsed.”

Kelly comments, “Leaving aside the wishful thinking about government collapse, the quote encapsulates one of the most familiar themes in Trotskyist accounts of working class defeats and revolutionary failures: if only there had been a mass revolutionary party … then the outcome would have been entirely different. This counterfactual history has been applied to a host of struggles … Yet this type of reasoning is completely unilluminating. In place of empirical and theoretical analysis of why existing Trotskyist organizations were unable to win support and gain influence in these struggles, we are offered retrospective speculation about what could have happened if only the party had become a mass organization.” This feeble, futile dreaming is classic idealist thinking, a sure-fire predictor of failure.

Kelly sums up, “The main source of these persistent weaknesses of political intervention and theoretical analysis lies in the foundation stones of the Trotskyist movement, the core elements of doctrine … the theory of permanent revolution, the tactic of the united front, the construction of rank and file union groups and a programme of transitional demands …”

Trotskyists even misunderstand revolutions. They imagine that working classes line up ‘for revolution’. In reality, working classes fight for real needs like peace, land and bread, or for wages and jobs, not for a programme of demands.

Trotskyists call for united fronts against whatever is their current obsession, usually the equally irrelevant far right. But to join their fronts, you must agree with everything that they demand, so, inevitably, the fronts dissolve in division and tears.

Trotskyists believe that trade unions are potentially revolutionary bodies, so when they are not revolutionary, this must be because their current leaders are betraying the members. Trotskyists then feel obliged to create ‘revolutionary’ rank and file groups to replace the current leaders, thus splitting and weakening our unions.

Trotskyists also completely misunderstand nationalism: they see nothing progressive in it, ever, so they denounce as chauvinism any hint of nationalism, however innocent.

Trotskyism is riddled with fatal flaws. It is innately, chronically divisive and sectarian. It is programmed to fail.