How strange it is that an obscure Tsarist prison warder in Odessa is commemorated forever in thousands of tiny, irritable revolutionary sects. But that is who the real Trotsky was, and that is all we know about him. The future leader of the 1917 Petrograd putsch, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, hurriedly scribbled his former jailer’s name in a false passport as he fled from Siberian exile in 1902, hidden in a haywain. He later complained that he had no idea he would be stuck with being ‘Trotsky’ for the rest of his life. But would this enduring movement, as persistent in the world as the measles, have survived so long under its founder’s real name? I doubt it. There is something about the word ‘Trotskyist’ — energetic, slightly crazy, inherently funny and melodramatic, that gives the brand its enduring power.
Even now, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson is making our flesh creep with allegations of Trotskyist wickedness among Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters. He doesn’t know the half of it. But I beg him — and you — not to worry. Trotskyists can be guaranteed to sink, burn and destroy each other, if left alone, and are too boring, self-obsessed, incompetent and internecine to do anyone any serious harm except themselves. The danger comes from elsewhere.
I write as an ex-Trotskyist, or ‘ex-Trot’, who — despite nowadays preferring Edmund Burke to Lenin — is marked for life by fun and games, and a certain amount of spite as well, among the comrades in the sunny days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
All I ask is that you call me an ex-Trotskyist, a technical description, not an ex-Trotskyite, a term of abuse employed by Stalinists. Because, you see, this is a world of linguistic niceties that would keep Noam Chomsky happy for years.
Strictly speaking, I wasn’t even a proper Trot. My grouplet, the International Socialists, held to the belief that the Soviet Union was ‘state capitalist’ rather than a ‘degenerated workers’ state’, as orthodox Trots contend. So we weren’t members of either of the rival ‘Fourth Internationals’ (neither would admit to being the Fifth) which supposedly united us across the planet. Some hope. We chanted rude ditties about each other (one, called ‘The Workers’ Bomb’, sung to the tune of the ‘Red Flag’, ended with the line ‘And though our comrades all shout “Balls!”, we’ll stand beneath it when it falls.’ We couldn’t abide each other, and those endless finger-jabbing arguments about such things may be the reason why I now can’t bear theology.
My main aim as a university revolutionary at York was (I now confess) to do down the rival International Marxist Group, whose chief national ornament was Tariq Ali. Their members had secret code-names (until I found them out and published them), and we regarded them as frivolous dope-smokers. The difference was emphasised by the names of our newspapers — ours was Socialist Worker, theirs was Red Mole. Our contest once led us both to seek recruits at the Kit Kat factory, where they distributed (I am not making this up) a special publication called The Chocolate Mole. Elsewhere the competition came from the Socialist Labour League, headed by the appalling monster Gerry Healy, of whom we again sang, to the tune of the hymn ‘For All the Saints’: ‘Now we are few, once we were lots and lots, which is the case with all small groups of Trots, led by Gerry Healy.’ Despite Healy’s seemingly hypnotic power over various wealthy showbusiness donors, who at one stage financed a daily newspaper, his party came to nothing as usual.
In those days, few of us bothered with the Labour party, which in the latter years of Harold Wilson appeared to be a political corpse. The great Marxist thinker Ralph Miliband had written a volume called Parliamentary Socialism in which he concluded persuasively that the Labour party was a complete waste of time. I often wonder if either of his sons ever read it, as I did. My own sect’s alluring election slogan was ‘Vote Labour without illusions’, as if there was any other way to do so. But buried deep within Labour was the thing you think of as ‘Militant’ but which we all knew was the Revolutionary Socialist League. Its members were instructed to deny its existence, but you could always tell them because of a particular leaden style of debate and a specially ridiculous type of finger-jabbing which we guessed they must have learned at training camps on Merseyside, where the RSL was based.
They were ‘entryists’, who joined Labour because they hated it and wanted to take it over. As soon as anyone knew this was going on, it was more or less bound to fail. But in any case, Trotskyism was always too narrow and too romantic to succeed. Stalin, the cynical bureaucrat and master of manoeuvre, ended up as the head of a superpower. Trotsky, orator of genius, inspired general, superb journalist and true believer, ended up being murdered by one of Stalin’s agents in a suburb of Mexico City. Both men, I should stress, were merciless killers. But one understood politics and the other didn’t.
And so the real revolution in the Labour party, which most of Fleet Street has never understood, was inflicted not by Trotskyists, but by the legions of the dull — Eurocommunists who realised Bolshevism was obsolete, quietly captured think tanks and policy committees, and used the apolitical figure of Tony Blair as the front for a Gramscian cultural, constitutional, educational and sexual revolution, whose greatest triumph was to capture the Tory party as well as the Labour party.
As I watch our modern politicians embracing equality and diversity, the unmarried family, globalism and open borders, I am ceaselessly reminded of Maynard Keynes’s remark ‘Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.’ It’s a pity ‘Gramsci’ is so much harder to pronounce than ‘Trotsky’. But I fear that those who shriek and point at Trotskyist bogeymen in Jeremy Corbyn’s party will never understand what the real danger is. Indeed, they may be part of it themselves.