Richard Seymour is the author of Against Austerity: How we Can Fix the Crisis they Made, which is due to be published in March. Pre-order from Pluto here. He has also written Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens (2012), American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism (2012), The Meaning of David Cameron (2010) and The Liberal Defence of Murder (2008). His writes regularly runs the popular blog Lenin’s Tomb.
His style is extremely provocative – which we love. In that vein, here’s his newest Comment is Free piece published in the Guardian. Enjoy!
‘Yes minister, we are all Trots now’
‘Lord Deben’s ‘Trotskyite’ jibe against green activists follows a long Tory tradition of commie-baiting. Let’s embrace it.
You’d better love fracking. You don’t want to be called a “Trotskyite”, do you?
Lord Deben, the government’s independent adviser on climate change, (aka the Conservative ex-minister John Selwyn Gummer), has warned that green campaigners with “extremist” views close to Trotskyism are putting the battle against global warming at risk.
What is it about the Conservative party and the spectre of Trotskyism? During the scandal of the government’s unpaid workfare programmes, when several businesses were flash-mobbed in order to highlight their participation, the Tories blamed the Socialist Workers party for engineering the protests. SWP members were exultant, but puzzled: “Since when were we that efficient?” Michael Gove fondly referred to opponents of one of his free schools as “Trots”. Boris Johnson fancied that the previous mayor of London’s office was filled with the very same beasts.
In a sense, this is a very old-fashioned type of anti-communism, a variant that Joel Kovel has referred to as “black hole” anti-communism, in which everything that is not virtuously “free market” is compressed into a single communist entity. In this purview, there is a consistent focus on the figure of a cabal, a small knot of conspirators orchestrating havoc. This idea is commensurate with a certain conservative view of society as a unified, well-ordered hierarchy in which everyone is happy with their lot. Social conflict is not a normal or inevitable state in a democratic class society, but rather is something whipped up by “extremists” with malign motives.
This conception has been at the root of “counter-subversive” practices since Edmund Burke imagined that the French revolution was brought about by a conspiracy of freemasons and other secret societies. Indeed, we forget at our cost that the major conspiracy theory of the 20th century was anti-communist. And, generally speaking, this took a racialised form. In the United States, communism was almost invariably viewed through the lens of black insurrection. In the Third Reich, of course, it was seen as part of a Jewish conspiracy. The point of anti-communism, then, was not to identify real atrocities perpetrated in the name of communism, but to establish a chain of equivalence linking social struggles to communist conspiracy.
It is tempting to see this Tory bombast about “Trotskyites” as simply a pale, beleaguered, toothless version of past anti-communisms. In this case, however, one has to wonder, why don’t the Tories simply berate “commies”, as their ideological antecedents would have done? After all, the term “Trotskyite” – which Trot-baiters generally prefer to the more neutral usage, “Trotskyist” – has a peculiar history.
On 19th January 1937, an indictment was drawn up in Moscow that charged 17 people with offences against the Soviet Union, particularly that of belonging to the “Trotskyite centre”, which sought – it was alleged – to overthrow the state and bring back private capitalism. Trotsky had become the most notorious opponent of Stalinist repression – something that, since he came from the Bolshevik old guard, had to be explained away as apostasy.
The term “Trotskyite” was thus an insult, but in a complex way. It meant subversive, terrorist, criminal and so on; but it also meant reactionary and counter-revolutionary. (Those liberals who spent the “war on terror” denouncing opponents of American wars as traitors to progress, apostates of the great liberal revolutions, would understand this nuance well.) At any rate, the right, when it appropriated the term, dropped the association with counter-revolution. By the time the “Trotskyite terrorist international” became a focus of US senatorial investigations, the term was simply a name for a variant of political lunatic plotting to bring down civilisation.
I think there are a number of reasons that “Trotskyites” have become a convenient whipping post for the Conservatives. First of all, the Trotskyist parties that expanded in the flux of 1968 and beyond, subsequently proved to be the major surviving residue of revolutionary socialism after the collapse of the Berlin wall, albeit with many now entering their own crises. Second, the label “communism” is no longer charged with menace. There was a time when, at least to many adherents and opponents, communism was a whole orientation of state power. It could kill. Today, it is a philosophical “hypothesis”, or a slogan to be brandished in a half-ironic way by radical students: “Full Communism Now!” There’s even a certain chic in the term, if truth be told.
Finally, however, direct anti-communism has been discredited. It is not just historically irrelevant; its manifest evils have been exposed to light and ridicule many times. If conservatives want to persist in blaming real social antagonisms on a few saboteurs, they must by necessity tweak the language.
I come from a Trotskyist background and, though I no longer care for the term, I can’t help taking a certain pleasure in the idea that everyone to the left of John Selwyn Gummer is a Trot. I suggest the next time the Tories use the label, we take them up on it. Yes, minister, we are all Trotskyites now.’
First published in the Guardian 21st January 2014.