Our awkward ancestors: Trotsky, Gramsci and the challenge of reconnaissance.

Author:McKay, Ian G.
Position::Book review

Emanuele Saccarelli

Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism: The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition, Routledge: London, 2008; 312 pp.: 9780415873383, 26.99 [pounds sterling] (pbk)

Socialists of the 21st century live in a world undergoing two connected and epochal capitalist revolutions: neoliberal globalization and environmental transformation. Spatially limited and temporally restricted approaches, i.e. the familiar liberal panoply of 'practical' and 'partial' responses to these interlocked revolutions, are transparently inadequate when measured against crises that challenge the sustainability of human civilisation. A new socialism that takes the survival of humanity itself as its categorical imperative must necessarily actualise Marx's theoretical vision of a rational and just regulation of humankind's metabolism with the natural world. Yet as soon as this socialist imperative is voiced, it is as quickly muffled by the bloodied weight of socialist history, with its failed states and post-Bolshevik disillusionment. In Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism, Emanuele Saccarelli captures something of this predicament when he writes that the 'proverbial elephant in the room' confronting leftists is the legacy of Stalinism: 'Any reconsideration of Marxism seeking to do more than provide yet another interpretive rift on various texts must account for this reality' (p. 11). One important term bearing on this mission, bequeathed to posterity by Antonio Gramsci, was 'reconnaissance' (Gramsci, 1971: 238, Q7 [section] 16) (1): an accurate, rigorous and historically informed analysis of each country we hope to revolutionise and (by extension) the international socialist movement we hope to inherit, critique, and transform. It is a Gramscian metaphor that nicely unifies urgency, realism, and collectivism: there is a real world, understandable through shared categories of analysis and empirical explorations, that we socialists are collectively called upon first to understand and then to change; and this combined project of understanding and transformation, this praxis of revolution, means that we must articulate our investigations together, in a campaign that unites us all in a massive, ultimately planetary co-ordination of information, insight and activism.

According to Saccarelli, today Leon Trotsky is the indispensable guide to the theory and practice of Stalinism, whereas Gramsci, helpful on some topics, is unreliable and politically suspect on many others. Saccarelli first addresses Gramsci's contemporary legacy, arguing that the 'Gramsci' we know today was made to measure by the 'Stalinist' Italian Communist Party. He also eviscerates academics who subsequently dallied with a domesticated, post-revolutionary 'Gramscianism'. Next, he analyses Gramsci's often implicit critique of Stalinism in the Prison Notebooks. In the book's second part, Saccarelli takes up the cause of Trotsky. Rather than engaging fully with Trotsky, 'a world-historical figure--for our times' (p. 191), rightly associated with a revolution that actually succeeded, academics have preferred to focus oil a Gramsci deeply infected by a compromising defeatism and even guilty of complicity with 'Stalinism'. Professor Saccarelli is an engaging, often savagely sarcastic polemicist, rising to the defence of his hero Trotsky against philistine academics, 'Stalinists' real and imagined, weak-kneed liberals, social democrats, and effete 'Gramscists'. Here is a vintage Leninist 'annihilating polemic' barely disguised as a heavily footnoted academic book which is the main reason why Gramsci and Trotsky is really a model of What Is Not To Be Done for those trying to rethink and reshape the next left.

As is the case in so many polemics, we are confronted here with a starkly dichotomised choice between two men. One, Antonio Gramsci, is rather like the J. Alfred Prufrock of the socialist tradition: vague, disconnected, introspective, even rather pathetic, a 'sickly silhouette' (p. 38) much loved by academics who, in their grandiose efforts to inflate this sad Sardinian into something more than his properly provincial status, are even neglecting the 'methodologically correct history of ideas' (p. 199, n9), one that would essentially confine him to the Italian peninsula. Hell-bent on producing a 'Gramsci' abstracted from his Italian context, 'Gramscian academia' has conveniently overlooked its hero's unimpressive record--one suggestive of a 'very recalcitrant and troublesome supporter of Stalinism' before his imprisonment, and the author of 'cryptic and indirect' critiques of it afterwards (pp. 54-5). Any comparison of this frail specimen with the brilliant, prophetic, decisive, strong and principled Leon Trotsky, unqualifiedly one of the 'great men' of the type saluted by Hegel in his Philosophy of History (pp. 249-50 n80), works to the Sardinian's disadvantage.

This comparative exercise is necessary, Saccarelli urges, because it is in Trotsky, not Gramsci, that we can find the indispensable tools with which to analyse 'Stalinism'. Much obviously depends on how we understand this term. Saccarelli adheres closely to the position of the Fourth International, with which he has been closely identified, in insisting upon a near-absolute distinction between Bolshevism and Stalinism--and on rejecting the liberal 'continuity thesis' that a predetermined linear process of cause-and-effect connected the first with the second. Yet he also dissents from Stephen Cohen's insistence on Stalinism as a specific kind of 'revolution from above', set in motion from 1929 to 1933 and consolidated from 1934 to 1953--an approach that defines Stalinism in terms of a particular dictatorial regime and its excessive, cruel and irrational practices, as well as the veritable 'mass religion' that came to be based upon it (Cohen 2008 [1977]: 25-8). Rather, Saccarelli's 'Stalinism' is largely a reiteration of Trotsky's 'mature, final word' in The Revolution Betrayed (1937) as interpreted by the Fourth International, which saw the Soviet regime as one that was transitional between capitalism and socialism, as the particular outcome of Russia's backwardness, the failure of the revolutionary movement in Europe, and the processes of exhaustion and bureaucratisation that typically set in after any revolution (p. 167). Counter-intuitively, then, Saccarelli's 'Stalinism' existed long before the advent of Stalin's regime and well after his demise in 1953; it also pervaded all the Comintern-affiliated parties--which became 'lifeless bureaucratic apparatuses' easily steered from Moscow (p. 211 n86). (2) A vast array of left-wing parties and intellectuals, indeed almost any leftist outside the Fourth International, can also be linked to Stalinism. (3) Even before it was 'fully formed', this 'Stalinism' entailed an 'extended, profound process of political, theoretical, and moral decay' (p. 214 n7).

In essence, after Trotsky produced The Revolution Betrayed in the mid-1930s, there was not a great deal left to be said on the subject (and so Saccarelli neglects virtually all the new archivally-based histories and collections of documents generated over the last four decades). For Saccarelli, it goes without saying that the rise of this 'Stalinism' should have been the central preoccupation of any aware Marxist theoretician after 1924--yet only Trotsky, standing virtually alone among prominent Marxists, was able to grasp the truth and act upon it. More myopic, distant and confused communists, e.g. Gramsci, are basically just distractions from the main Trotsky vs. Stalin event.

This orthodox interpretation suggests an emphatically essentialist method, one that takes up and refines one of Trotsky's positions on Stalin and makes it the Trotskyist position. In Saccarelli's reconstruction, any Trotsky writing that does not fit the Fourth International model can be set aside as a mere 'anticipation' of the master's 'mature' position or, if it was written later than The Revolution Betrayed, can be seen as a mere non-essential or rhetorical supplement to it. Yet, from a less Manichean perspective, it would seem that Trotsky had at least five implicit and explicit theories about Stalin and his regime.

First, and most problematically, there was Trotsky's Orientalising, biological and racial explanation--one that predominates in the early chapters of his Stalin, a work written well after Saccarelli tells us Trotsky had reached his 'mature, final' stance on the subject (and, remarkably, not even cited in this text). It must be remembered that Trotsky, deeply influenced by Darwin as well as Marx, worked within a framework that postulated a clear-cut pattern of human social development. Influenced by pervasive notions of Orientalism, Trotsky thus interpreted Stalin as the product of the deficient South, a 'fact' demonstrated by his enemy's bad manners, deficient grasp of theory, mis-shaped forehead, and even (by implication) the 'yellowish' tinge of parts of his body (Trotsky, 1967 [1941]: 3, 244; Trotsky, 2007 [1930]: 449). Trotsky, who regarded eugenics as an important component of the new socialist world wherein a 'superman' would emerge (Trotsky, 2005 [1925]: 206-7), thought that Stalin exemplified the 'savagery' and 'barbarism' that, in a biological as well as cultural sense, would become extinct after the advent of the new order. On this reading, 'Stalin' was an evolutionary throwback. Born into a declassed, virtually lumpenproletarian family, within a cultural milieu 'so primitive that life went unrecorded and flowed on almost without leaving any trace' (Trotsky, 1967 [1941]: 4), so poorly educated at a dismal seminary that his Russian language skills were as defective as various parts of his body--in all these respects Stalin was Trotsky's racialised and essentialised inferior. When this primitive product of the backward Caucasus shows some signs of intellectual capacity, they are said to be...

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