Trotskyism and reformism today

Previous | Next

Reply by Siritunga and Peter Taaffe

The following is a reply to points made by Chris Rodrigo in e-mail correspondence and in a long letter to Siritunga Jayasuriya, General Secretary of the United Socialist Party (USP), Sri Lanka. It is the result of a collaboration between Siritunga himself and Peter Taaffe, of the International Secretariat (IS) of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), in consultation with other members of the CWI’s Secretariat and of the USP’s Executive Committee.

Throughout the document, the first person plural (we) has been used and Siri and Peter are referred to in the third person singular (he). After the first sentence, CR is referred to as CR throughout.

Chris Rodrigo, to whose recent written material we are replying here, deserves some credit as the person who first introduced the Sri Lankan comrades to the British organisation and then to the Committee for a Workers’ International. While in Britain, he was won to the ideas of the Militant (later the Socialist Party) and in the 1970s he facilitated the visits to Sri Lanka - of Ted Grant and, a little later, Peter Taaffe. These led to the adherence to the CWI of the main opposition left group within the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) - the Vama Samasamaja.

After playing this ‘facilitating’ role, CR played very little active part in Sri Lankan politics, living for most of the time abroad. This has not stopped him, however, from being a commentator on left politics in Sri Lanka and particularly on the policies and actions of those who came from the ‘Samasamajist’ tradition. This has included the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP), set up in December 1977 following a number of expulsions from the LSSP starting in 1972. (The NSSP was, from its foundation until 1989, a section of the CWI. Now it is a section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI).)

Intellectuals and the workers’ movement

An informed commentator who cannot be fully active in the workers’ movement but is well grounded in Marxist and Trotskyist history, its methods and programme can sometimes make useful contributions. Marx and Engels themselves, after the failure of the 1848 revolutions, disengaged from the sectarian squabbles of isolated émigré groups in order to concentrate on laying the theoretical foundations for the rise of future powerful mass movements of the working class – writing Das Kapital, for instance. However, it is not accurate to say that Marx and Engels were "uninvolved". Even in the relative lull in the workers’ movement which followed the 1848 defeats, they pursued an active correspondence, making efforts to seek out adherents to their ideas and constantly commenting on world and national politics from the standpoint of scientific socialism. Later they set about the monumental task of building the First International.

The efforts of intellectuals in the neo-colonial world today can be helpful, as long as these intellectuals are modest enough to admit that, because of their lack of involvement in day-to-day activity, their commentaries and advice, especially about current politics, can have limitations, sometimes severely so. Many recognise this, and seek to write and speak from a Marxist point of view but not insisting on a strict adherence to their views. The workers’ movement worldwide, and particularly the Trotskyist movement, will always welcome those intellectuals who seek to tie themselves ideologically to the workers’ movement. If, however, they are arrogant, see themselves as merely disdainful and detached observers, uninvolved and stubbornly uninfluenced by the day-to-day march of the workers’ movement, then a different attitude will prevail. The same applies to those who have joined what the former American Marxist Max Schachtman called the "League of Abandoned Hopes", former adherents to Marxism and Trotskyism who subsequently reject these ideas.

Arrogance – which is unfortunately the hallmark of the majority of this stratum, particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism – has no part whatsoever in a genuine movement of Marxism and Trotskyism. CR, unfortunately, manifests precisely this malady in his recent comments on the situation in Sri Lanka.

Socialism and Sri Lankan elections

In a fairly lengthy document dated April 14, 2004, commenting on the Sri Lankan elections, CR criticises the NSSP. He also dismisses the considerable achievements of the CWI’s section, the United Socialist Party (USP), in these elections. In a note sent to Clare Doyle, a member of the International Secretariat of the CWI, accompanying the document he comments: "I have already sent this to Siri, but he rarely takes what I say very seriously." Little wonder! A perusal of his document, and particularly the criticisms of the USP, led by Siritunga, shows that he has abandoned a Marxist and Trotskyist approach.

This is spelt out in a message from CR to the NSSP in June 2004, circulated to Siri on a discussion list. He states: "I had a long (and rather costly) telephone conversation with Niel (of the NSSP) some days back. He pointed out that some of the claims I had been making about Bahu are wrong.

"Unlike Siritunga, Bahu and the NLF/NSSP do not call for Socialism as an immediate goal, Niel insists. He says they have a social democratic perspective of reforming capitalism with economic and political reforms, especially towards more democratic institutions.

"So I have been wrong to associate Bahu and the NSSP with Siritunga’s call for Socialism as the solution to all problems. I do apologize for this misrepresentation.

"If Niel will send me any more corrections to what I have claimed against them, I will also circulate that to everyone." Bahu and the NSSP have not, to our knowledge, refuted CR’s claim which means that they have gone over to a "social democratic position". It seems they now accept that a programme of reforming capitalism is the only possible policy for Sri Lanka. From this note, it appears as though Bahu, a former revolutionary "firebrand" in Sri Lankan politics, has also adopted the standpoint of CR.

CR, in the company of the overwhelming majority of petty bourgeois intellectuals in the neo-colonial world throughout the 1990s, has adopted a reformist position of amending and "improving" the existing economic and social system, capitalism. Socialism, insofar as it remains a goal, is relegated to the dim and distant future. Accordingly, those like Siritunga and the USP - those who remain faithful to genuine Trotskyism in Sri Lanka - deserve the most severe criticism, if not scorn, from these people. As we have pointed out, in our recently published book on the history of the CWI (A Socialist World is Possible), CR is not alone in abandoning his former Trotskyist position.

Trotskyism, Marxism and reformism – yesterday and today

Why comment here then on the remarks of this one individual who, as we will subsequently show, has departed, and quite substantially so, from the fundamental tenets of Trotskyism and Marxism in relation to the struggle today? The main justification for this reply is because CR, in the method and argumentation that he sets out in this document, is fairly typical of a layer that is in headlong retreat from Trotskyism under the banner of a "realistic and sane" policy. Moreover, in the way they criticise they are vituperous, if not downright spiteful to those who have steadfastly and courageously refused to bow to the huge pressures exerted by bourgeois ideas on the labour movement in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism (CR has urged Sri Lankan Samasamajists in London not to give any help to the USP).

Contrary to what he imagines, he is not at all "original"; he merely treads in the footsteps of previous Marxists who have gone over to reformist positions because of temporary historically unfavourable circumstances. The international Marxist movement during the boom of 1896 to 1914 was also forced to combat reformist trends within the German social democracy personified in Eduard Bernstein and echoed in other socialist parties throughout the Second International. Bernstein’s famous aphorism, "The movement is everything; the final goal nothing", became the watchword for reformists then and now. This is undoubtedly the position that has been adopted, perhaps unconsciously in the first instance, by others in retreat from genuine Trotskyism, such as the leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party. It is also the viewpoint of the USFI, as we have pointed out in the new book. These comrades would no doubt furiously reject the claim that they are reformist. They are merely adopting a practical "day-to-day" programme and are fighting for this in action, while still adhering to the goal of socialism.

But the essence of the matter and the fundamental criticism made by Marxists like Lenin and Trotsky against Bernstein’s ideas is that unless this day-to-day activity is indissolubly connected in the minds of the masses with the idea that capitalism cannot permit lasting reforms, and particularly in this era – that socialism is the only answer – then the consciousness of the masses is not prepared for future ruptures and breaks, that is for revolutionary situations. We reject of course the principle, falsely ascribed to the Jesuits, that "the end justifies the means". On the contrary the "end" – democratic and liberating socialism – determines the means which the workers’ movement must employ. These, therefore, have nothing in common with the dirty methods of Stalinism, which besmirches and denigrates the goal of socialism.

There was no justification from a principled Marxist point of view for Bernstein and Co to adopt the position that they did but, nevertheless, this was at a time when capitalism was still undergoing a powerful economic upswing, which came to a halt with the First World War. Reformist ideas, therefore, seemed "practical" and possible then. These conditions allowed the social democracy to separate the "long-term" programme of socialism from the day-to-day reformist demands. Even the struggle that Lenin and Trotsky undertook against the opportunist and ultra-left trends within the ranks of the Russian Marxists following the defeat of the 1905-07 revolution was against the background of a rising curve of capitalism internationally and the growth of the workers’ organisations. But what justification can there be at the beginning of the twenty-first century when the masses of the neo-colonial world in particular know from their own bitter experience that, after the dazzling promises held out to justify the adoption of neo-liberal policies, these countries face a catastrophe on the basis of capitalism? (See introduction to history of the CWI ‘A Socialist World is Possible’.)

Young intellectuals and the Left in Sri Lanka

The "bright young people" who CR is appealing to were, in the 1990s as he pointed out, "Attracted to new ideas in management and information technology". But he says nothing about the Sri Lankan masses who, because of this system, face a colossal worsening of their circumstances economically, and also because of the national question and the war – major problems which are insoluble on the basis of capitalism. Moreover, these "bright young people", after drinking at the well of 1990s capitalism found that it was poisoned. Under the impact of events they will swing radically towards the left as they see that the system cannot offer a way forward, either for the mass of the workers and peasants or for the majority of highly-educated youth. CR seems to forget that, in the past, Sri Lankan capitalism – even in a so-called "boom period" – was incapable of utilising through increased employment the talents and skills of many of the "bright young people" he refers to, including himself. They therefore were forced to ply their trade wherever they could worldwide. There is no possibility of breaking this cycle without ending the grip of capitalism and imperialism on Sri Lanka.

This, unfortunately, is "too simplistic" for CR; he doesn’t bother to disguise his disdain for the mass of the workers and peasants, who are the main agency of social change in Sri Lanka: "The kind of people you attract will depend on the nature of your overall perspective. If you have sound and sober perspectives, which take effort to understand because they reflect complex reality, then you will attract young people who have the intellectual power to become future leaders. If your perspectives are simplistic, then you will most likely surround yourself with the simple-minded." The outstanding Sri Lankan worker and leader, Siritunga Jayasuriya, merely attracts the "simple-minded" while CR and his like are appealing through "complex" arguments to the intellectual giants who are attracted by new ideas "in management and new technology".

To be sure, he is "generous" enough to congratulate the USP: "Interviewed on the BBC Sandeshaya programme, he (Siri)… attributed their success to their espousal of a clear, pure socialist platform." However, he then goes on to denigrate the efforts of the USP, as well as those who were less successful in this election, like the NSSP. He writes: "By any kind of reckoning, this is a dismal result, very likely the worst in the history of the Left in terms of votes garnered".