Book Reviews: ‘Adherents of Permanent Revolution – A History of the Fourth (Trotskyist) International’, & ‘Capitalism’s World Disorder’
‘Adherents of Permanent Revolution: A History of the Fourth (Trotskyist) International’. By Barry Lee Woolley (University Press of America, 1999)
With the decline in the fortunes of the left-wing of capitalism’s political apparatus, books about the organisations of the radical left – once commonplace – are now much rarer. Here Barry Lee Woolley charts the rise and fall of the Fourth International in a largely narrative account of the coalescence of the Trotskyist movement at the International’s foundation in 1938 through its various sclerotic episodes in the post-war period until the mid-1970s.
Though much of it is well researched, this is an unusual work for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is rather US-centric, focusing overmuch on the role of the US Socialist Workers Party in the Fourth International. As Woolley is a former member of the American SWP and still has a great number of contacts in the US Trotskyist movement, this is perhaps understandable; whatever, Woolley certainly provides a good genealogical chart of the US Trotskyist movement and is able to calculate that in America alone three new Trotskyist parties have arisen on average per year.
Rather less understandable than all this is his current political orientation which seems to owe less to the political God Trotsky than the Christian Lord Almighty worshipped by the evangelicals in the American Bible Belt. This is evidenced in his peculiar obsession with ‘morals’ in general and male homosexuality in particular, the growth of which he claims was largely responsible for changing the outlook of the world Trotskyist movement in the 1960s:
“[a] change in recruitment patterns transformed the predominantly burly worker cadres of the early Trotskyist movement into the predominantly petty bourgeois, college-recruited, effeminate cadres of the world Trotskyist movement at the time of the tenth World Congress . . . [The Socialist Workers Party] even participated in the building of mass marches around the issue of special legal privileges for sodomites.”
Woolley would certainly appear to have an unhealthy preoccupation with this topic, with one chapter even having the bizarre, incomprehensible by-line “Socialist Sodomites and Sorcery”. Perhaps Woolley is living testament to the charge that membership of Trotskyist sects buggers up the brain.
Despite the large amount of time that has clearly gone into producing this generally well-referenced work, there are a number of factual errors too. The account of the British Trotskyist movement is good if only partial, but there really is no excuse for Woolley referring to British Trotskyist leader Tony Cliff as Ygael Gluckstadt when he is correctly mentioned elsewhere as Ygael Gluckstein. There are many other similar errors, so much so that they eventually become annoying.
Woolley is shortly to produce another volume, this time on the history of the American Trotskyist movement. For his sake and ours let’s hope he gets in contact with a good therapist before then, preferably one that can also give him a hand with his proof-reading.
‘Capitalism’s World Disorder’, by Jack Barnes. (Pathfinder Press 1999)
“You can shirk [the trouble of expressing yourself clearly] by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in . . . [this] will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning, even from yourself.” So wrote George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language, in 1946. Anyone who wants to see what he meant should read Jack Barnes.
While reading a book about capitalism which claims “not to mystify and obscure but to reveal and clarify”, you might expect to find an explanation of exactly what capitalism is and how it works. When you read Barnes, however, all you will find is a collection of words and phrases that sound good, but which he intends to mean very little: capitalism, imperialism, socialism, communism, vanguard, leadership, revolutionary, class struggles . . . the reader is left to figure out what these glorious-sounding words might mean.
But this isn’t an error on Barnes’s part. It must be, to some degree, his aim. If the author (who is national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party in the US) went to the trouble of defining his terms, then he would have more of a problem convincing people of his argument. He would certainly have trouble recruiting martyrs for his “revolutionary” war—a war between different groupings of the working class, killing each other in a pointless debate over who should lead and exploit them. If anyone is in any doubt about what Barnes aims to achieve, he tells us clearly in the conclusion to one of his chapters: “It can be done. It was done in Russia, and the way the Bolsheviks did it is what we seek to emulate”.
In other words, Barnes wants a revolution to establish capitalism in a capitalist country! He wants us to fight a war with the modern state. Any volunteers?
Practically every page of his book makes some reference to the need for good leadership and a strong vanguard. Without that, the working class are lost, he thinks. But be careful! Because although “good” leadership—such as that provided by their heroes Lenin, Guevara, and Castro—will lead you to the paradise that is Cuban state-capitalism, what will “bad” leadership give you? Something even worse. The offspring of the coup d’etat will then be born “deformed”, and you will have to make do with a “deformed workers’ state”. Although we are not told exactly what this means, either.
Barnes urges us to fight and struggle for socialism. But what does he mean by the term? Does he see the revolution leading immediately to a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of producing and distributing wealth? We don’t know what he means because he won’t tell us. He’ll take us there. How will we know when we’ve got there? Don’t worry. Barnes will let us know. It’ll all look something like Cuba. That is, something like what we’ve got already. The new rulers will tell us where we are and what we are to do: Go to Work. After the “revolutionary” war, everything stays the same.
Unfortunately, the book’s title and the blurb on the cover make the right noises. Imagine someone interested in the causes of their problems—and in what the recent J18 and N30 demonstrations might have been about—turning to this book to gain an understanding of capitalism and the revolutionary alternative. Although people are intelligent enough to reject the ideas presented in this book, the problem is that they might assume that this is what revolutionary politics is all about. Barnes and his Trotskyist party will then have been responsible for turning yet another person away from radical political ideas, and back to apathy and cynicism. Their deformed workers’ party is one of the greatest friends the capitalist system could have.
So what is the appeal of Trotskyism? Its romanticism. The remoteness of its ideas from the experiences of real life. Its appeal to emotion rather than thought. Its vision of revolution is something like the war in JRR Token’s Lord of the Rings. It is a fantasy far more interesting than the wage-slavery of everyday life, but which is dangerous because it is not the lives of elves and hobbits that are at stake: it is ours. Jack Barnes sees himself as Gandalf the wizard, and one day he believes that he will mount his white horse and lead us to war, then on to freedom. For the sake of entertainment and escapism, read this book. For the sake of humanity, don’t even follow Barnes to the corner shop.