By Emily Dong. Originally published in Avant Garde Journal – https://avantjournal.com/2023/11/09/trotskyism-a-warning-to-the-young-generation/ .
Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Trotskyism has reemerged in a new form in America. There is no Stalin or World Communist Movement to oppose, yet this new form of Trotskyism not only exists today but is influencing the American Left and, most dangerously, the worldviews of young people.
Neo-Trotskyism, the most recent form Trotskyism has taken, is characterized by the fact Neo-Trotskyists do not announce that they are Trotskyist but will continue to claim Leon Trotsky and his theories are revolutionary. Neo-Trotskyists still hold onto the belief that Trotsky is equal to Lenin, and that his ideas represent advanced thinking considering the class struggle in the United States. For example, there are existing organizations whose historical roots, especially amongst their older members, are or were in Trotskyist parties such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). When carefully observed, their political practices don’t differ much from the practices that characterized traditional Trotskyist parties. Positions of Trotskyism are seen in its new form: allegiance to abstractions of “permanent revolution,” claiming to be the leadership or vanguard of movements, and a persistent link to racism.
What makes Neo-Trotskyism so sinister is that most radical groups that attract and influence young people today would never openly define themselves as Trotskyists. But they essentially are, because their political assumptions and worldview are. It’s why there are common political and tactical positions among the Left today, which this article will parse out.
In this moment when the working class is in rebellion against the ruling elite, Trotskyism is at best an eclectic mix of empty sloganizing and previously rejected and outdated theories. Trotskyism has risen out of its historical irrelevance to shepherd young people, seeking a radical alternative, away from our revolutionary inheritance and what W.E.B. Du Bois called the imperative of peace and justice. In the past, Trotskyism directed its animus against the World Communist and National Liberation Movements. In its Neo-Trotskyist form, its function is to cynically turn young Americans away from their own people, dismissing the American people’s democratic and revolutionary potential. Ultimately, it thwarts the possibilities of unity of the people, including anti-racist and working class unity. Without a scientific understanding of the revolutionary process in the United States, young people have no way to unite with the people in achieving the revolutionary future—a new nation and a new civilization.
It is important to name and call out Neo-Trotskyism, so that the young generation can examine the assumptions through which they view the world and themselves. In doing so, they can take up a revolutionary framework that allows them to join the American people in our historical task of fighting war, imperialism, and neo-colonialism. We already see this task being taken up as students and other youth—protesting against the U.S. and Israeli war against Palestinians, including significant numbers of Jewish youth—are saying almost in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. that we want to be on the right side of history and the right side of humanity.
The Left’s Response to Rage Against the War Machine
A tenet of Neo-Trotskyism is its support for the war machine. In February of 2023, a politically diverse group ranging from progressives to Libertarians organized a rally called “Rage Against the War Machine.” It was held at the Lincoln Memorial under the shared call to abolish the CIA, free Julian Assange, and stop interventionist wars, in particular Ukraine. The rally not only called on people to march together to the White House under an anti-CIA, anti-deep state banner, but also highlighted that the war in Ukraine was not an invasion by an “imperialist” Russia but in fact an interventionist proxy war by America to threaten the rising East. Taking place at the great symbolic grounds of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, Rage Against the War Machine featured speakers such as Tulsi Gabbard, Dennis Kucinich, and Ron Paul. The rally asked Americans whether a state that lets Biden fund Ukraine in war—while its people at home experience worsening poverty, gun violence, and despair—is truly a democracy.
In the weeks preceding the Rage Against the War Machine event, leftist groups including A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) (both of which I identify as Neo-Trotskyist), and Black Alliance for Peace vocally opposed the event. They said that some chosen speakers were “far-right” and allies of Donald Trump, such as Jimmy Dore, Paul, and Gabbard. Their opposition was essentially over the event’s openness to Trump supporters, which they declared negated the event’s anti-war and anti-interventionist call and therefore was an attempt of the “far-right” to appropriate the anti-war movement. The assumption of these leftist groups is that they are the real anti-war forces and therefore have a “right” to decide who can march for peace.
A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, PSL, and Black Alliance for Peace then organized their own protest in March to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, called “Peace in Ukraine – Say NO to Endless U.S. Wars!” This opposition effort, to the point of organizing a competing rally in the same city of Washington, D.C., made little political sense for organizations purportedly serious about peace.
Their insistence on organizing against, rather than joining, Rage Against the War Machine is a capitulation to the Democratic Party’s anti-Trump narrative that paints white workers as backwards, racist deplorables. They dismiss the historic number of American people who oppose war, may vote for Trump or do not vote at all, and seek an alternative to the status quo of war. These groups’ opposition to Rage Against the War Machine helps hinder, not build, unity of the people in a struggle to prevent world war.
It shows that for groups claiming a political position of peace, they are more interested in opposing Trump than uniting their people. As a result, these organizations lead young people to the conclusion that the Democratic Party, the main force behind interventionist and genocidal wars such as Ukraine and Gaza, is the better option to Trump.
This political maneuver and orientation is Trotskyist and called permanent opposition. “Permanent opposition” combines two historical references associated with Leon Trotsky: permanent revolution and Left Opposition. Trotsky and his supporters in the Russian Communist Party formed the Left Opposition, disagreeing with the Soviet Union’s direction led by Lenin and Stalin. They opposed Lenin’s New Economic Policy that focused on carefully developing the war-destroyed country’s economy. The Left Opposition supported the theory of permanent revolution, which insisted that socialism in Russia was futile without sparking “world revolution.” World revolution for them is a series of reckless, self-defeating maneuvers, where it is all or nothing. Hence, the building of socialism in the Soviet Union was nothing but a trivial project. In the end, they defined the Soviet Union as counter-revolutionary, and the building of socialism in the Soviet Union as a retreat from the world revolutionary process. “Permanent revolution” is Trotskyism’s opposition to peace.
Du Bois explained his disapproval with Trotskyism, whose opposition to the Soviet Union only benefited the ruling elite of the West. He saw the Soviet Union as an important human experiment of science and democracy, one that could inspire the Black Proletariat in freeing America from herself. The Soviet Union, on the difficult road to building a new nation in a world chained and contained by imperialism, was worth defending for all humanity:
“The only hope of human unity today lies in the common cause, the common interests of the working classes in Europe, Africa, and in Asia. That is why in the custom house of Otpor, the last outpost of Russia, stood the motto in all languages, ‘Workers of the World Unite!’ Yet in the face of the world militarism and new nationalism, Russia, intent on her internal tasks, must put down Trotskyism with ruthless hand, lest the armed world smash in blood the hopeful beginnings of a state seeking to replace private profit with public welfare.”Russia and America: an interpretation, 1950
Permanent revolution also teaches young people to see today’s world as the result of the failure of socialist revolution—at least in the West—often discounting or forgetting altogether the anti-colonial struggles waged and won by darker peoples of the world. The theory of permanent revolution is anti-scientific and anti-historical. It replaces objective dialectics of history with subjectivism. At the end of the day, the only answers are found in opportunism and the self-promotion of individuals, movements, and parties controlled by Trotskyists. It obscures the fact that revolutions and history are made by ordinary human beings in the face of dying systems and ruling elites who desperately seek to hold onto power.
Oriented toward permanent opposition, so-called radical groups often organize protests devoid of ideological clarity and purpose. Protests are organized to appear radical and revolutionary, attracting young people seeking a radical alternative. Missing is the political, moral, and spiritual education that will be required for people to bring about radical transformation.
Ironically, the framework of permanent opposition is reflected in the trend of radical groups, such as the Workers World Party, Socialist Workers Party, International Socialist Organization, and Socialist Alternative, splitting over and over again until some simply do not exist anymore. Meanwhile, the young people who went along for the ride become burnt out and disillusioned by the politics of permanent opposition and empty protests.
The Amazon Labor Union’s Internal Battle
In recent years, there has been excitement around a “new wave” of militant, organized labor, in particular a wave of strikes in the spring and summer of 2023 including that of railroad workers, UPS drivers, autoworkers, and screen actors and writers. The event that catapulted and legitimized the “comeback” of organized labor was when Amazon workers in Staten Island successfully won their union election against the behemoth company in 2022. The JFK8 warehouse was the first and only facility to form a union, despite a publicized attempt at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama which failed to win an election twice.
The Left jumped on the narrative of a new, militant labor movement. Chris Smalls, the President of Amazon Labor Union (ALU) who had organized his Staten Island coworkers even after Amazon fired him for union activity, became the darling of the Left. ALU, made up primarily of Black and Brown workers, was seen as evidence of a multiracial working class awakening, with the implication that it would help Democrats defeat Trump’s fascism.
But just one year after ALU won its election, a group of former ALU members calling themselves the Democratic Reform Caucus began publicizing their opposition to the leadership of Chris Smalls. The Reform Caucus wanted Smalls to step down as President, accusing him of being ineffective and unpopular amongst the rank and file workers. With Smalls refusing to step down, the Reform Caucus called his presidency illegal and illegitimate.
The publicized internal conflict was jarring, since ALU hasn’t even been able to get Amazon to the bargaining table, let alone settle a first union contract. Then in 2023, the Reform Caucus took the extreme step of filing a federal charge against Smalls, which the judge dismissed since ALU’s constitution, submitted when the Amazon workers won the union election, called for new elections after a contract is in place.
The Reform Caucus was not only promoting disunity in the middle of what will inevitably be a difficult, if not impossible, contract fight against one of the world’s wealthiest corporations—a fight that will require hard-fought unity. The other troubling thing was that many of the Reform Caucus leaders were college-educated “salts” originally recruited to help organize JFK8. “Salts” are people who take a job in a specific workplace in order to organize a union “from the inside.”
After Smalls and his friend and coworker Derrick Palmer led walkouts in 2020, resulting in Smalls’s termination, college-educated young people got jobs at the facility to join the organizing drive. Many are self-described socialists and leftists who relocated to Staten Island from places like California and New Jersey. One is an Executive Member of the Communist Party USA in New York. Beyond Amazon, prominent union organizing drives which sparked the “new wave” of the labor movement used salts. The first successful union drive at Starbucks in Buffalo, NY was led by University of Mississippi’s first female Rhodes Scholar who was recruited by a professor and labor consultant Richard Bensinger to salt Starbucks.
ALU is an extreme example of how today’s college-educated, bourgeois youth think that to liberate the working class from the enemy of monopoly finance capitalism, they must “become” a worker (salt) in order to lead the workers. As the Democratic Reform Caucus shows, this means to intervene in ongoing, organic organizing efforts. This is different from joining the working class, through common principles of humanity, in the liberation struggle. The Reform Caucus now essentially claims to know better than Smalls, who led his coworkers in one of the most important and successful instances of organizing the unorganized in recent years. This is the opposite of college students in the Civil Rights Movement, who left the safety of the North and went South to heed the leadership and moral authority of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Proletariat. These young people, many of whom were white, were prepared to lose their lives in the battle against a violent white supremacy undermining real democracy and freedom in America. They were looking to join, not take over, the Black Freedom Movement which was forcing America to remake and redefine herself.
After originally lauding and following Chris Smalls’s lead, salts in the Democratic Reform Caucus now seek to take over and lead the rank and file. This carries more weight in a time where the poor and working class are challenging the undemocratic rule of the ruling elite. The Reform Caucus tellingly also uses the rhetoric of “democracy” to claim Smalls is preventing democratic elections from being held, almost portraying Smalls in the way the ruling elites portray Trump and his tens of millions of followers.
Neo-Trotskyism encourages college-educated leftists to see themselves as separate from and above the people. They seek to “lead” the working class rather than unite with the working class. Smalls must be ousted because of his political independence and refusal to take leadership from leftist salts. On the salts, Smalls made it clear that, “They didn’t make or break us, but they were definitely helpful,” and distinguished between salts and real Amazon workers by saying, “[The salts’] task was and is to support the workers.”
The Trivialization of Martin Luther King Jr.
The dismissal of Martin Luther King Jr. is not new. But the trivialization of King and the Civil Rights Movement today sabotages the American people who need King more than ever to achieve a new nation.
The erasure of King comes from the Trotskyist abstraction of racism as divorced from its class roots and thus the class struggle. Trotskyism asserts that the white workers’ task is leading the class struggle in the United States, while the Black workers’ task is fighting racism. As clarified by Anthony Monteiro’s essay “Trotskyism: Racist Voice in the Left,” Trotskyism kills the possibility of a whole working class united in their common struggle against what King termed the triple evils of poverty, racism, and war. To trivialize the Civil Rights Movement is to overlook the fact that the greatest period of the organization of workers in the South was stimulated by the Civil Rights Movement, out of which came labor leaders such as Henry Nicholas of District 1199C and William Lucy of AFSCME and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
Neo-Trotskyism carries the same racist assumption that the Black Proletariat cannot lead the whole working class in advancing revolutionary democracy. In place of the struggle among white working people to recognize the centrality of the Black Proletariat, Trotskyists present what in essence is a skin strategy, a class disunity strategy. In this sense, they prolifically patronize Black people while in essence undermining their historic role in the fight for democracy and class unity. Exaggerating what were in fact tactical differences, not differences in aims, between King and Malcolm X, Trotskyists assert that Malcolm was a revolutionary, and King was a mere reformist and liberal.
Just years after King’s assassination, Henry Winston warned of the danger of young radicals helping the ruling class by negating the significance of the Civil Rights Movement. Opting for super-militancy over ideological clarity and discipline, young radicals inadvertently helped unravel the growing people’s movement that King had led in consolidating around peace and democracy:
“[The super-militants] placed themselves in opposition to King, who was determined not to abandon, but to strengthen, the forces of the Civil Rights Decade, to deepen and broaden them into a realignment that could carry the struggle against poverty and racist oppression to a new level. […] But Nixon recognizes—and fears—what the super-militants refuse to see—the Civil Rights Decade created the pre-conditions for the much higher level of struggle needed in the period ahead.”“From Anti-Slavery to Anti-Monopoly Strategy,” Strategy for a Black Agenda, 1973
Winston defined the exceptional and revolutionary leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. toward the end of his life: “It is important to understand the meaning of this period, and the vital leadership role in it of Martin Luther King, who came to an awareness of the revolutionary relationship between the fight for rights, for security, for peace and the liberation struggle.” Neo-Trotskyists, similar to neo-cultural nationalists, divorce the class struggle from black liberation and the peace movement. This benefits the ruling class’s agenda to destroy a people’s movement which, transformed and united through the struggle to prevent war, will demand a new state and a peace industrial economy.
Beneath the ALU Democratic Reform Caucus’s opposition to Chris Smalls is a racist assumption that the Black Proletariat did not and cannot liberate themselves and the whole working class. This is the same white supremacist ideological tool of the ruling class that Du Bois took to task in Black Reconstruction. Du Bois showed that indeed the Black Proletariat did not just liberate himself from slavery and turn the tides of the Civil War to the North’s favor, but was also capable of governance and leadership:
“We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the jails and courthouses, rebuilt the bridges and reestablished the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”A Negro member of the Reconstruction legislature of South Carolina
By trivializing King, Neo-Trotskyism, not unlike bourgeois liberals, deliberately re-introduces the racist worldview that the Black Proletariat cannot be at the vanguard of a whole working class advancing the revolutionary democratic struggle in the country. This is an untrue, unscientific assumption about America’s history that also helps damn the democratic struggle today.
A generation of young people, shaped by Neo-Trotskyism’s racist worldview, dangerously views America’s history as one of failed revolutions. The Civil Rights Movement is not considered America’s Third Revolution, brilliantly led by Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of nameless, courageous Black and white people. The Civil Rights Movement is not seen as an unfulfilled revolution but instead as a failure, today blamed for driving Black people to the Democratic Party. So a whole generation of young people are at threat of not recognizing and receiving their revolutionary inheritance of the Black Freedom Struggle—an inheritance which clarifies the revolutionary possibilities of the whole American people.
The default to Neo-Trotskyism obscures a genuine understanding of the world and its possibilities in this time of crisis. The radicalism young people seek is undermined by the very theoretical and political framework they default to. Thinking, already impaired by postmodernism, is narrowed to dogmatism rather than creative, scientific, and revolutionary thinking that children and young people already engage in with curious, searching eyes.
Perhaps most importantly, Neo-Trotskyism disregards and undermines the revolutionary criteria and moral imperative of love. King called this revolutionary love agape—redeeming, overflowing love for humanity that is selfless, unconditional, and creative. In King’s words, it comes from loving others for their sake, not yours; it is an individual’s need “for belonging to the best in the human family.” Agapic energy, or soul force, drove the Black Freedom Struggle to force white people to face Black Americans as not just human beings but brothers and sisters. The American people were never the same, bitterly and beautifully transformed, having been thrust into the existential struggle for freedom from the ruling elite’s violent tools of racism, poverty, and war. Without love and what King says are the three dimensions of life—love for self, love for others, and love for the moral imperative of humanity—college-educated young people lose their connection to ordinary people. They lose the creative optimism and confidence to build a better future that comes from being close to ordinary people.
Trotskyism overlooks that the most advanced stage of the revolutionary struggle intersects at its moral and ideological dimensions. The young generation, who always seek a revolutionary alternative, must begin with King and the last American Revolution, the Black Freedom Struggle, despite thwarting attempts by pseudo-radicals including Neo-Trotskyists.
The hope today is for young people to push away a Trotskyist worldview foreign to the interests of the poor and working people of this country. It is imperative for the young generation to follow the footsteps of the new men and women forged by the Black Freedom Movement—to embrace our inheritance and, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, live for somebody. This is the meaning of revolutionary love.