Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Trotsky vs Baldwin: is 'gradualness' the British way?

The suffragettes: one of those inconvenient truths for Baldwin
Here's my brief introduction to Counterfire's re-posting of a classic Trotsky article from 1925:

Leon Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and, for several years afterwards, a leading figure in the socialist government of Russia's new workers' state. He was also a prominent voice in the international communist movement that mushroomed after 1917, writing about a wide range of international topics.

Analysis and action went together: he commented on major political developments with a view to influencing socialists in the countries he was writing about, hoping to influence the strategy and tactics they would pursue.

Britain had been shaken by strike waves and demonstrations after the end of World War One. In 1919 the country came closer to a revolutionary situation than at any other time in the 20th century. There was a period of fluctuating, sometimes dramatic, class struggle until the defeat of the General Strike in 1926.

This was part of a wider European upsurge that involved a number of countries, most significantly Germany, experiencing revolutionary upheavals. This wider upsurge was also the context for the growth of Communist Parties and for intense debates in the labour movement, which involved large reformist parties (like Britain's Labour Party) as well as the newer Communist Parties. In Britain the Communist Party was launched in 1920 and played a dynamic role in working class movements for the next several years, though it didn't have more than a few thousand activists.

Trotksy's published writings on Britain in the 1920s include the 1925 article re-published below. He begins by mocking the then Tory prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who was a huge figure in interwar British politics, and responds to Baldwin's dismissal of socialist ideas. Baldwin had returned to 10 Downing Street after the collapse of the first ever (but short-lived) Labour government in the previous year. At the time of Baldwin's speech - to which Trotsky was responding - there was consequently a fair amount of confidence and bounce in Tory ranks, but also an anxiety that stemmed both from several years of working class resistance and the spectre of communism emanating from Russia.

Trotsky moves on to the substance of his article. This is partly to do with the nature of how modern capitalist societies develop, and especially the way that wars and economic crises are engendered by them. But it also concerns something much more hopeful: if capitalism makes war and crisis inevitable, it also makes resistance - and indeed revolution - inevitable. And Britain - for all its fabled 'gradualness' - is not immune to that.

Trotsky documents how Britain's history is not the story of peaceful, gradual progress that Baldwin espoused, but a history of war, conquest, conflict and class struggle. He is especially scathing about the acutely violent record of British colonialism. He also notes how the English Revolution of the 1640s had been a vital motor of historical progress in Britain, a fact obscured by Tory fantasies of timelessness and social peace.

Trotsky goes on to sketch a radical, and truly bracing, alternative popular history of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which highlights the impact of wider international changes (especially the French Revolution) and the role of popular movements and workers' struggles. In this historical framework, Trotsky reasserts Marx's central idea that history is driven forward by class struggle and that hope lies in the self-emancipation of the working class. This, he shows us, is as relevant to supposedly 'gradual' and 'peaceful' Britain as to anywhere.


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