Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004


NOTE: This is an old, unpublished article written around the time of the bombing of Yugoslavia, which was a "contemporary" event at the time of writing.



This article examines links between underlying beliefs, discourse, style and propaganda in contemporary British Trotskyism. While officially endorsing a mechanistic materialism, in practice Trotskyism also stresses agency. Trotskyites believe Trotskyism represents a necessary course of action dictated by 'interests', a concept which structures political analyses. The claim to hold 'correct' ideas versus workers' 'false consciousness' derives from linguistic essentialism and a neophobe outlook stressing history and tradition. Trotskyism has strongly naturalised beliefs and spheres of legitimate and illegitimate dissent. Underlying assumptions shape Trotskyite media products, generating disregard for audience views, a style stressing anathematisation and invective, and non-engagement with, or inversion of, the relationship between Trotskyism and common sense. Such factors impede Trotskyite political effectiveness.


Many contemporary Trotskyites claim to be living in a historical period ripe for alternative politics. In some ways, this claim is well-founded. Many people, particularly Labour supporters, are increasingly unhappy with the state of the mainstream political parties. In a context where the main parties accept the functioning of largely unrestrained markets and a work-led model of welfare, Trotskyites are prepared to defend welfare-state policies of a kind which retain wide support. In the context of growing social exclusion through ever more demanding economic conditions, welfare cutbacks, and a wave of repressive legislation, Trotskyism offers a potential alternative for the outsider to the social system which is the root of their exclusion. As the Seattle protests showed, potential exists for alternative political approaches to emerge. Yet, in spite of all this, the number of Trotskyites in Britain remains very small.

This article shall examine Trotskyite discourse, underlying beliefs, style, and propaganda strategy with a view to accounting for its failure to attract members of its intended audience, i.e. workers and others who feel oppressed by the present socio-economic system, to its own politics and cultural products. Through the application of concepts drawn from research on the mainstream media, the article will examine the ways in which Trotskyite media products (newspapers, magazines, journals, pamphlets and books) rely on and utilise particular discourse and structures of meaning. Once the underlying beliefs and method of Trotskyism are established, the article will assess how these elements influence Trotskyite propaganda strategy and the style of communication used in the Trotskyite media, with a view to accounting for political failure.


As a political current, Trotskyism can be expected to contain an implicit philosophy and conception of the world, and as a media product, the Trotskyite press can be expected to contain a form of structuring discourse giving meaning to its 'factual' and political content. These expectations are based on studies of the mainstream media. Such studies reveal the use of particular concepts to structure coverage, such as using Cold War relations to structure international news or discourse around 'anarchy' and 'violence' in coverage of strikes and demonstrations . Such structuring discourse often has a closing effect on wider social relations, reinforcing conceptual incapacities so as to render some forms of discourse 'impossible'ý. Michael Freeden has noted similar processes, with similar meaning-producing and structuring effects, in political discourse, processes he terms 'decontestation'ü. Also, media and political discourse, like all discourse, contains an implicit philosophy. As Gramsci rightly notes, in 'the slightest manifestation of any intellectual activity whatever, in "language", there is contained a specific conception of the world' , a conception containing implicit answers to important philosophical questions . Often, this underlying conception is 'spontaneous' and undeveloped; sometimes, it contrasts in whole or in part with consciously endorsed philosophical beliefs.

Trotskyite writings can therefore be expected to contain an underlying philosophy as well as meaning-structuring discourse. Most Trotskyites subscribe to an explicit epistemo-philosophical position, a materialist theory drawn from an 'orthodox' reading of Marxism. Thus, for Workers' Power, 'The Marxist method is based on materialism... Materialism... tries to explain psychic phenomena by... qualities of matter... The motives that determine the conditions under which individuals act are ultimately economic.' (WP 230:7). This positivistic materialism supposedly generates an 'easily comprehensible set of laws' (WP 230:7) which parallel those in nature; revolutions 'obey approximately the same laws as earthquakes' (SA 74:16), and perceptions that a rival 'abandons materialism' are seen as proof of their mistakenness (WP 239:9). In contrast to this expansive materialism, the dialectic is usually reduced to a handful of intuitive insights such as 'the transitory character of everything' (WP 230:7) or even 'a codification of common-sense' (WL 28:38). In practice, dialectics is often simply an excuse for not being as mechanistic and fatalistic as strict materialism dictates. For Ted Grant of Socialist Appeal, dialectics provides a distinction between 'real' Marxism and false versions. 'Here again, we see the results of substituting formalistic thinking for dialectical analysis. The advocates of this theory [i.e. state capitalism] base themselves on pure abstractions... A materialist approaches the subject in an entirely different way' . Such approaches are decontestations stressing the materialist pole of 'dialectical materialism'. Resultantly, politics aside, the official materialism of most Trotskyites is almost indistinguishable from mainstream empiricism and positivism.

How far this simplistic materialism is the underlying philosophy implicit in Trotskyite literature is, however, debatable. The commonly observed incompatibility of reductionist materialism with 'voluntarist' party activity is only one aspect of a deeper problem with economistic beliefs. Trotskyites are inconsistent in their application of materialism, tending to leave room for human agency in concrete political discussions. This agency-based element is expressed not only in conceptions of the party, but stylistically in the Trotskyite press, through positive exhortations to action (eg. 'What will you do for socialism?', WL 40:31, and 'Stop imperialism's bloody war', FRFI 149:8-9), and negative attacks on political opponents for taking the 'wrong' actions (eg. 'TUC class collaboration', SA 70:8). Human action is not merely a 'dialectical' exception to a reductionist general rule, but a central element in Trotskyite discourse.

In the mainstream media, human action is portrayed in terms of choice, free will and responsibility. Trotskyites utilise different structuring concepts. The concept of necessity occurs only rarely in explicit discourse, but its usage suggests fundamental significance. For instance, Workers' Liberty claim: 'Socialism is not a utopian ideal, a blueprint for society that exists in the minds of some people. It is a social necessity, it is a practical necessity. It is the direction that the masses of the people must take in order to save society from disintegration, in order to satisfy their social needs. To be a socialist merely means to be conscious of this necessity, to make others conscious of it, and to work in an organised manner for the realisation of the goal' (WL 52:29). This statement implies several underlying beliefs. Firstly, it implies the known existence of a single, imperative path of social development. This helps explain the imperative and urgent claims and calls to action made in the Trotskyite press. Secondly, it implies a methodological individualism implicit in the fear of social disintegration. This also appears in the idea of 'capitalist anarchy' (eg. 'Break with the anarchy of the capitalist free market' is one of Socialist Appeal's twelve core demands). This fear, combined with the presumed impossibility of achieving ideationally-conceived goals (which are 'utopian'), may imply a primary value-orientation to order rather than freedom. This reading is supported by explicit statements also: 'Democracy should not be confused with the "tyranny of structurelessness"' (WL 52:15). Thirdly, it implies a delimitation of future possibilities into 'socialism' versus barbarism/anarchy/disintegration. And fourthly, it implies that people, although apparently free and capable of conscious intentionality, are driven by deeper goals of which we may be conscious but which have an imperative character regardless of such consciousness. Trotskyites see themselves as merely making us aware of these deeper impulses, which are already aligned to Trotskyite discourse. This self-perception is central to their media and propaganda strategies, since it implies that they are merely trying to make explicit beliefs which already exist in the minds of their intended audience, rather than to encourage adherence to ideas subtantially different from the audience's present beliefs.

In the extract above, these underlying impulses are termed 'social needs' and 'necessity'. More frequently, necessity occurs implicitly in the concept of 'interests', as in the statement by Trotskyites writing in the (broader, not exclusively Trotskyite) newspaper Action, 'we grouped the left around making the basic and necessary positions in the interests of the working class' (2:14:7). The concept of interests forms a central part of Trotskyism's meaning-structure and provides the foundation for other structuring concepts, particularly 'class'. 'Interests' are the foundation for an essentialism which provides Trotskyites with a formula for assessing political currents and events. This essentialism is clearly demonstrated by the usage of an (unreferenced) quote from Marx in Workers' Liberty: '[one must] distinguish the phrases and fancies of the parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves from their reality' (WL 55:37). The concept of 'interests' and related discourse occur in virtually every sphere covered by the Trotskyite press. Governments, for instance, are categorised according to whose interests they operate in. 'To judge the different parties, it is necessary... to examine the programs... to see if what they do in practice corresponds to what they say in words. On that basis, it is easy to conclude which one best serves the interests of socialism' (WL 52:34). 'Blair's government is a bosses' government', because 'where it really counts and on almost all secondary issues too, Blair comes down on the side of the bosses' (WL 45:4). The alternative is 'a workers'government that would serve working-class interests' (WL 52:8). 'Only... the objective of a workers' government, defined and measured by our class interests, can give coherence to the fight we have to wage' (WL 52:14). Interests thus become both criterion for assessment and basis for action.

Similarly, in international relations, if an action is demonstrably in the interests of western capitalists rather than local populations, it is condemned as 'imperialist'. Take, for instance, the Kosova crisis. For Class Struggle, 'It takes the cynical ruthlessness of a world dominated by imperialism... to portray the present large-scale military aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as an intervention to safeguard the interests of peoples' when in fact it is in imperialists' own interests (CS 26:2). Ditto for Socialist Appeal: 'behind all the hypocritical talk of humanitarian and peacekeeping missions lies cynical calculation and self-interest' (SA 68:14). Similarly, for Socialist Review, 'The vast majority of people in the Balkans... do not want war. War makes things much worse for working people' (SR 230:6). The argument, which is not otherwise substantiated, implies that the latter assertion leads necessarily to the former. Not all Trotskyites agree with such analyses; for some, 'The Serb drive against the Kosovars' and 'ethnic cleansing... was both NATO's reason [for bombing Serbia], because it signified that things were on the brink of getting out of control, and NATO's excuse' (WL 56:3), so that, although NATO should not be supported, it is the 'lesser evil' (56:6). What is most significant for understanding the Trotskyite media, however, is the similarity of style and structuring discourse across political divisions. For Workers' Liberty too, the concept of interests is fundamental: 'NATO remained fundamentally concerned with securing stable conditions... and with asserting US power, not with the rights and interests of the Kosovars' (WL 56:3).

The idea of 'interests' also structures Trotskyite ethics. For instance, their criticism of the state is based on a conception of class assuming that classes always pursue their interests. 'The state... can be reduced to "armed bodies of men" in defence of private property'. Why? Because 'Its upper stratum is staffed by representatives of the ruling class who are trained to maintain the existing order of things. The various arms of the state are imbued with this class viewpoint, together with its prejudices' (SA 67:66). This instrumentalist case implies that the state will always act in line with those who staff its upper echelons, and there is nothing to fear in state power itself. Sure enough: 'Our democratic rights are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end' (SA 67:66). And although they are in favour of democracy, Socialist Appeal are also prepared to argue that Stalinism 'in the last analysis... represented the working class' by defending nationalised industry and a planned economy, which are supposedly working-class interests . Again, there is division over the specific politics; for Workers' Liberty, Stalinism involved a 'counter-revolution' and a 'new bureaucratic ruling-class' (WL 16:3), destroyed workers' power (16:5) and so was not in workers' interests. But the core orientation to the principle of 'interests' remains the same. For instance, 'democracy has a purpose: to be more effective in action' (WL 52:15).

The concept of 'interests' thus performs a role of structuring analyses of particular events and issues in a meaning-inducing manner legitimating political action. This concept represents the most visible manifestation of a conception of human nature as an essential phenomenon and human action as inevitably motivated by particular factors rather than others. The conception implies a form of functionalism involving an inversion of cause and effect. For instance, if the consequences of a government's actions serve the 'interests' of 'bosses' rather than workers, it is shown to be a 'bosses' government' in its essential nature, and this essential nature becomes an explanation for its actions. Such a conception furthermore implies a simplistic psychology in which people always know their own interests (or at least should), so that if actions have interest-affecting consequences, they are analysed as essentially interest-led (rather than, for instance, as generating accidental consequences, or as based on beliefs which favour particular social forces). While such an analysis clearly makes the world meaningful for Trotskyites, it also creates difficulties in engaging with people who 'objectively' fall within the Trotskyites' intended audience but do not share the Trotskyite conception of where their own interests lie. In such cases, the only modes of comprehension available to Trotskyites are to believe that the individual in question has been fooled and is a victim of lies, illusion, hypocrisy, ignorance or stupidity, or that the individual is not really a 'worker'. Alternatively, Trotskyites can simply deny that such non-Trotskyite workers exist, usually by inferring from interests to beliefs, as in the statement 'it does not question capitalism and so its programme is seen as utopian' (Socialism Today 41:5). Most Trotskyites prefer a variant on the classical Marxist 'false consciousness' problematic. For Grant, for instance, 'the proletariat is not entirely homogeneous', and 'There are important differences based on different layers of the class - skilled and unskilled, backward and advanced, organised and unorganised, and so on' (my emphasis) , while for Workers' Liberty, 'the consciousness of most workers does not correspond to their objective interests' (52:18).

This raises another difficulty for Trotskyite discourse. Most Trotskyites believe that their own analysis is the best or even the only true mode of understanding the world, and that those who disagree with them are 'backwards' or wrong. The assumption that class interests can be assessed independently from self-perceptions by real workers is merely one aspect of this perspective. Socialist Appeal actually claims to be 'the only tendency with correct theory, tactics and orientation' (68:21). Such claims are justified primarily on an empirical basis. This empiricism sometimes occurs in a very raw form. For Workers' Liberty, for instance, 'Our chief ideas are not obscure results of specialised research... They are the simplest, most direct translation into political programme of the lessons taught by wide experience of working-class solidarity and struggle' (WL 52:16). For Socialist Appeal (citing Lenin), 'an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory', and 'The working class will learn from the painful experiences of life that capitalism offers no way forward' (SA Millennium Supplement p. 8). Trotskyites also use 'workers' experience' as the test-case for their ideas (eg. SA 68:10). However, it is unclear precisely how this 'experience' can be assessed if it is not to be derived from the actual beliefs of workers or from research. There is also a tendency to argue from conclusions to principles to 'prove' one's case, as with rejecting post-feminism for a 'very bad' 'overall impact' because 'it implies an indifference to attempts to reorganise the world' (WL 59-60:59), an approach which is probably rooted in faith in the experiential basis of present transformative agendas.

The conceptual content of the idea of 'workers' experience' lies in other important elements of the methodology and structuring framework of Trotskyism. Firstly, there is a certain linguistic essentialism in Trotskyite discourse, which sees some words and forms of expression as directly expressing reality rather than as social constructs, and sees alternatives to these preferred forms as illusory and obscurantist. Such a position is theoretically primitive, but by no means inexplicable; Pateman suggests that such attitudes are typical in a context of underdeveloped conceptual capacities . Furthermore, it has been noted previously in regard to reductionist, mechanicist, and positivistic forms of Marxism . Evidence of such an attitude to language is not difficult to find. Take for instance Socialist Appeal: 'The Green Party manifesto identifies the symptoms of a society in crisis... but it refuses to identify the underlying cause, the capitalist system, and so cannot prescribe a cure' (SA 70:8). At first sight this appears to be an empirical-analytical argument, but the author is suggesting that the core of the Green Party's analysis is accurate. Rather, the party is indicted for failing to couch its criticisms in the 'correct' terminology. Similarly, in a review of a book criticising pre-war collaboration with fascism by British politicians, Socialism Today argues: 'The authors are a bit timid to see the class (they tend to use the word "elite") relations at play' (ST 37:32). The use of one term rather than another is seen as evidence of detachment from reality. Ditto for Socialist Review: 'Their distancing of themselves from politics based on class has led the social democratic and Labour left to abandon any notion of ordinary people having a say in how to change the world or how to run it better' (SR 230:6). This implies that the failure to orient towards a particular concept is the root of all the failings perceived in social democracy.

Trotskyites see themselves as expressing working-class 'interests' and 'experience' because they see their own unconventional means of expression as somehow being the only language which describes 'reality'. This has a crucial impact on the style of presentation of political issues; the fixation on finding 'The socialist answer to the euro' (WL 53:15) or explaining 'How... socialists view the environment' (SA 70:8) often reflects an attempt to fit ever-changing political situations into pre-existing categories. Success in doing so is treated implicitly as proof of the political validity of both the classical categories and the specific analyses. Deviation from such categories is, in contrast, a mark of failure. Grant, for instance, attacks the idea of the bureaucracy as a class because it breaks with the 'Marxist' idea of class as constituted by ownership of the means of production10, without addressing the possible analytical usefulness of redefining 'class' to take account of social change.

The second reason for the claim to reflect 'workers' experience' lies in a strange form of affective and theoretical neophobia. This is not a new analysis; Perry Anderson for instance suggests that Trotskyism is 'inclined... towards conservatism' and that 'The preservation of classical doctrines took priority over their development'11. It is important not to underestimate the impact of this inclination on the Trotskyite method of analysis and communication. Thus, a motion (regarding a sudden policy change) passed by A.W.L. Conference and published in Workers' Liberty states: 'such a radical shift... should have been made deliberately, openly, and accounted for in Marxist fashion in terms of out previous positions and our tradition... The N.C. [National Committee] should have given priority to maintaining our tradition' (WL 54:32). Also: 'Subsequently Workers' Power would rationalise their separation by dogmatising the "kitsch-Trotskyism" of the early-1950s variants... in mirror-image to Workers' Liberty's gradual process of working back beyond this tradition to purer roots' (WL 52:22). Apparently, therefore, Trotskyites respond to the inadequacy of existing 'traditions' by looking further back into their history.

This traditionalist neophobia helps explain the importance of history as a mythical element in the Trotskyite press. In the eight issues of Workers' Liberty during 1999, no fewer than 130 pages - over a third of the total content - was devoted to historical topics. In the 11 issues of Socialist Appeal during 1999, historical features ran to 55 pages (15%), a lower figure but still substantial for a political publication. There is nothing 'wrong' with historical coverage, and much of the material is potentially of interest, at least to armchair historians. But the question remains of why historical issues are perceived as being of direct political relevance by Trotskyites. A possible answer lies in their neophobia and resultant claim to be building on a 'tradition' which must be maintained at all costs. Historical material is used to legitimate the categories used in contemporary political analyses, i.e. as a demonstration of the validity of concepts such as 'interests' and 'class'. Furthermore, as in nationalism, so in Trotskyism the past is used as a source of symbolic and affective resources. Past victories are used to validate present political positions. Take for instance the following remarks about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. 'Reviewing the events described above it is impossible not to see similarities with today. Then as now the working class was under attack from a privileged elite... Then as now the bosses were seeking to use unjust laws... In the 1830s what kept the flame of trade unionism alight was the will and steadfastness of people such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Their stand acted as a beacon to those willing to defend workers' interests... The Tolpuddle Martyrs saw, in the most graphic terms, exactly which side the law is on when it comes to workers versus bosses and the best way we can honour their fight and sacrifice is to remember that point today' (SA 70:27). Thus, the past is used as a source of mythical convictions in the present, with 'class' substituted for 'nation' as the element of continuity. This process also occurs in the history of ideas; hence the widely recognised tendency to exegesis and canonism among Trotskyites.

Between traditionalism and a treatment of certain forms of language as self-evident expressions of reality, there is good reason for suspecting that the Trotskyite press contains a tendency towards naturalising social phenomena and beliefs, establishing spheres of legitimate and illegitimate dissent, and constituting possible and impossible discourse. And, indeed, such a tendency exists. Take, for instance, the following claims made by Ted Grant. Firstly, 'As a matter of fact, if the idea of state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism is correct, then the whole theory of Marx becomes a utopia. Let us proceed from fundamental propositions. According to the theory of Marx, no society passes from the scene of history till it has exhausted all the potentialities within it. For a whole historical period, the Soviet regime made unexampled strides forward... We have the absurdity of a new revolution... a proletarian revolution... changing the economy into - state capitalism'12. Secondly, the third-camp Trotskyites 'may argue that unless the working class has direct control of the state, it cannot be a workers' state. In that case, they will have to reject the idea that there was ever a workers' state in Russia, except possibly in the first few months'13.

The logical structure of these arguments requires, in order for the arguments to be valid, several unstated premises. The first argument takes the form that, given that Marxism is incompatible with third-camp concepts, third-camp concepts are therefore invalid. This is not the only possible logical conclusion; the same argument could instead demonstrate the falsehood of Marxism or the need to adapt Marxist theory to changing social realities. The supposed persuasiveness of the argument rests on the elimination of these concepts from the sphere of the possible or legitimate. Grant's argument thus implicitly rules out both the possibility of Marxism being 'utopian', a proposal which is treated as absurd, and the possibility that part of Marxist theory may be wrong without the whole approach collapsing, which is simply treated as logically impossible. In the latter argument, the existence of naturalised discourse and limits to what is conceived as possibly true is clearer: the criterion of workers' control is invalid for the sole reason that it leads to the 'absurd' conclusion that Russia was never a 'workers' state' except perhaps for a few months. Yet this argument is maintained by numerous historians. Thus, there is considerable evidence that numerous beliefs are used as naturalised discourse by Trotskyites.

Thus, beneath the overt elements in Trotskyite propaganda and journalism, there are implicit, unquestioned assumptions which appear as assertions or unwritten premisses in arguments rather than being subject to direct demonstration themselves. Those who do not share these assumptions are considered to be speaking absurdities, and their arguments are unlikely to be treated seriously. Take for instance Workers Liberty's special issue on left unity (WL 52). The issue is split into four parts. The first is an attack on Blairism, while the fourth deals with historical perspectives on organisation. The remaining two sections, dealing explicitly with unity, are oriented entirely towards other Trotskyite organisations, suggesting that these organisations exist within a 'sphere of legitimate dissent' inaccessible to other tendencies. This is not to say that opponents are never discussed - Blairism for instance is the subject of much coverage - but where they are, it is only because their actions are deemed 'newsworthy' by Trotskyites, and the tone of the discussion is similar to that reserved by the mainstream media for 'extremists'. To take another example: Ted Grant's book, advertised as 'a comprehensive defence of the ideals of the October Revolution' (SA 54:24), devotes Chapter 4 to 'the nature of Stalinism' and the defence of Grant's analysis against alternatives. However, in practice only Trotskyite alternatives are examined. Of the non-Marxist theories, several are missing completely - Richard Pipes for instance is not even cited - while others are dealt with only in passing. Milovan Djilas, for instance, appears three times in the main text, only one of which refers to his theory of the 'new class' (in a list of five thinkers whose disparate views are grouped together). Again, it appears that other Trotskyites, though 'absurd', fall within a sphere worthy of debate and criticism, whereas mainstream historians and non-Marxist critics - even those such as Djilas whose work has much in common with Marxism - fall outside it. The phenomenon is common to Trotskyites, although the boundaries vary; the S.W.P., one commentator claims, is 'happy to debate with social democrats but not with more orthodox Marxists' (What Next? 14:20). Furthermore, in the aftermath of Seattle, Trotskyites are increasingly open to engagement with environmental and direct action movements, prefiguring perhaps a more open Trotskyite politics in the near future. The constitution of spheres of legitimate dissent remains at present, however, a central aspect of the Trotskyite media.

Decontestation is also widespread in the Trotskyite media, in various forms. Sometimes, Trotskyites decontest in almost exactly the manner conceived by Freeden (1994), defining and proposing uses and instantiations of abstract political concepts drawn from mainstream discourse. The most common instance of this is the concept of 'democracy' in Trotskyite discourse. For Workers' Liberty, democracy and socialism are treated as mutually inseparable concepts: 'Socialism is impossible without democracy... Socialists are democrats - or they are not socialists' (John O'Mahony in Socialism and Democracy p. 3). Democracy is conceived as meaning not merely an electoral majority but an ongoing representative relationship; it is 'the best possible approximation to direct self-rule, or a system even minimally responsive to the interests of the electorate' (Socialism and Democracy p. 37), which is explicitly counterposed to the 'bourgeois' conception of democracy. The author is clearly laying claim to this concept and denying it to rivals; Thatcher was undemocratic since much of what she did was not wanted by people who elected her (Socialism and Democracy p. 37), social-democratic leaders 'bear direct personal responsibility for the diminishing of parliamentary democracy' because they handed over power to the military and civil service (Socialism and Democracy p. 40), the unelected parts of the state represent a serious anti-democratic danger (Socialism and Democracy p. 40, 48-9), and, a recent commentator adds (with, I believe, substantial justification), 'Certain basic democratic freedoms are at stake' in disputes with the Blair government, since basic rights are threatened by the corrosion of trial by jury, 'appalling proposals' for extending anti-terrorist laws which corrode freedom of speech, and anti-immigration laws (Action 2:18:7). Trotskyites, in contrast, including those whose positions are contested by the A.W.L., are democrats (Socialism and Democracy p. 47).

Although democracy is particularly popular, one also finds other decontestations of mainstream concepts. Defences of welfare are sometimes couched in terms of 'rights' (eg. 'education as a right', WL 35:13); anti-union laws and repressive legislation are seen as threatening freedom, which is also invoked as a general goal (eg. 'Ideas for freedom', WL 37:47); some issues are discussed in terms of 'justice', which seems to be used in a de-juridicalised sense and is occasionally conceived as 'natural justice' (eg. FRFI 153:12, 13). These concepts, however, are only weakly articulated to each other or to other ideas, and they appear most frequently in reference to defensive campaigns, suggesting a peripheral role in Trotskyite theory and a link to the partial reliance of Trotskyite activism on causes to which mainstream concepts have already been attached.

Decontestation occurs more frequently with regard to specifically Marxist concepts, where Trotskyites are in conflict with formulations by anti-Marxists, Marxist intellectuals, Stalinists and each other. The seemingly ever-present education columns (eg. the 'Marxism: The Basics' series in Workers' Power) are particularly blatant. Purporting to explain the most central elements of Marxist theory to beginners, their reading of the Marxist 'classics' is typically selective and involves applications to present situations. Engels' remarks on the genesis of the family, for instance, are taken as leading directly to contemporary demands such as free childcare services (WP 232:7). Discussions of theory often play a similar role, including the selection of excerpts from 'classical' works. For instance, Workers' Liberty go to substantial effort to decontest the concept of 'democratic centralism' in line with their own reading of it as including 'continuing, ongoing, freedom of criticism' (WL 27:39). Some concepts are decontested in very different ways by different groups. The concept of 'degenerated workers' states', used by Workers' Power to condemn Stalinism for 'exclud[ing] the working class from power' and to justify 'the smashing of bureaucratic tyranny through proletarian political revolution' (WP 'Where We Stand' regular column), is used by Socialist Action to justify uncritical support for the claims of, for instance, China as being about 'which class should rule' (Socialist Action Rewiew 2:4:2).

It is surprising, however, how far certain concepts remain in a contestible form within Trotskyite discourse. Core concepts such as 'socialism', 'revolution' and 'class' occur frequently but are rarely specified, defined, instantiated or related to other concepts. Some of these beliefs occur as bipolarities, dichotomies or negations; 'workers' oppose 'bosses', 'socialism' negates 'capitalism', and 'revolution' counterposes 'reformism' (though not 'reforms'). On one level, 'socialism' is decontested, since it is conceived as identical to Marxism and Trotskyism; but the instantiations usually typical of practically operative decontestations are largely absent from all these concepts, except in historical articles and occasionally abroad. This may be indicative of some degree of confusion, although such concepts may well be articulated to non-conceptual referents of an emotional nature, in the manner of Sorel's 'myths'. Certainly, Trotskyites identify their own activity with the concepts of 'socialism', 'revolution' and the 'working-class', and this alignment substitutes to some extent for instantiation.

The relationship between British Trotskyite discourse and classical Marxism is less clear-cut than it may initially appear. Although Trotskyite terminology is drawn from the 'classic' works of authors such as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, uses of such concepts differ greatly from other readings and sometimes between Trotskyites also. Some concepts (eg. alienation) are, on the whole, missing, and citations are highly selective. The resultant discourse appropriates classical Marxism but in such a way as to leave considerable leeway for reinterpretation. Contemporary Trotskyism, indeed, has made itself almost immune to many criticisms directed against classical Marxism by absorbing beliefs which, while presented as part of the 'tradition', almost certainly originate in more recent 'New Left' theories and struggles. For instance, Socialist Appeal's core demands include opposition to racism, sexism and environmental destruction.

Many of the phenomena outlined here are not specific to Trotskyites, and do not suggest some particular far-left pathology. The constitution of spheres of legitimate and illegitimate dissent, the creation of impossible discourse, the symbolic use of the past in the present, the decontestation of political concepts and the structuring of discussion around a limited number of core concepts are all common to the Trotskyite and mainstream media and political parties. The concept of 'interests' in Trotskyite discourse is epistemologically and ontologically problematic, but the same can be said for mainstream structuring concepts such as 'order'. That Trotskyite writers often claim to speak for a group from whom they in fact deviate is little different from the frequent claims of television interviewers or tabloid journalists to speak for 'the nation'. That Trotskyite journalism is sometimes led by its discourse to instrumentalise democracy or support oppressive regimes is similarly unexceptional; this too occurs in the mainstream media14. Trotskyite decontestation is neither particularly closed nor particularly dogmatic when compared to mainstream parties and journalism; indeed, some Trotskyite reworkings pay far closer attention to possible alternative meanings than their mainstream equivalents (eg. Socialism and Democracy). Even Trotskyism's crude materialism finds its reflection in the concept of 'the facts' employed by mainstream journalists.

Thus, there is little fundamental difference between the processes at work in the Trotskyite and mainstream media, as opposed to beliefs projected through these processes. There is, however, a fundamental difference in the social significance of the two phenomena. The mainstream media have a very large audience, and, although the extent of audience effects is debated, their location in broader cultural and social relations suggests some capacity for structuring discourse used in the media to be generalised among readers or viewers. The Trotskyite media, in contrast, has a limited audience. The distribution of newspapers, magazines and books relies primarily on one-to-one sales by the small number of active Trotskyites. The total number of readers is therefore small. Furthermore, readers are rarely exposed exclusively to Trotskyite writings. Most often, they consume mainstream media products also. Another important difference is that, alongside their general role in explaining the world, Trotskyite publications have an explicitly partisan and propagandistic function which the mainstream media avoids.

In this context, Trotskyite media products are faced with the difficult task of finding and maintaining an audience, as well as motivating action on the part of existing readers. However, the attempt to perform these functions is necessarily conditioned by the underlying beliefs and structures of meaning outlined above. The underlying assumptions of Trotskyites about (for instance) human psychology or the impulses at work in their intended audience come to play both consciously, in their selection of propaganda approaches, and unconsciously, in their style and mode of engagement with issues, phenomena, and other people, performing a constraining role on the possible strategies to be adopted. In the next section, the impact of the beliefs outlined above on these strategies, and their possible connection to the failure of Trotskyite publications to gain and hold a mass audience, will be examined.


Propaganda strategy and style of argument derive partly from the underlying beliefs of the propagandist or journalist about the nature of their audience and the potential effects of media products. Several of the beliefs outlined above are relevant to understanding Trotskyite practice in these areas. Firstly, the belief that Trotskyism has gained an understanding of a reality independent of human subjectivity or belief, and that necessary actions and processes can be derived from this understanding, downgrades the importance of persuasion in relation to the validity of the Trotskyite perspective. Whereas for mainstream journalists and party spindoctors, the failure to gain readers or party supporters is seen as indicting their strategy if not their entire perspective, for Trotskyites the conviction that their analysis is in accord with reality, that 'The inner logic of history is with us, helping us' (WL 52:18), acts as an insulation from audience rejection, and there is some suspicion of audience-targeting as a practice tarnished by commercialism (eg. FRFI 152:8). This, combined with the neophobia outlined above, tends to impede adaptations in style and strategy. Furthermore, the claim to understand the essential nature of reality, while based in practice on a mixture of functionalist tautology, linguistic fetishism and a mythic 'tradition' as much as on evidence, leads to a claim to hold the only 'correct' perspective. This perspective is seen as a simple, integral whole, and rarely as requiring enrichment from discursive exchange with other belief-systems, although the orientation to the 'experience of struggle' provides some room for tactical reorientations and gradual theoretical changes. Where the Trotskyite line clashes with the beliefs of others, however, it is automatically assumed that the others are in the wrong. The idea of subjectivities reflecting partial truths and therefore requiring engagement and comprehension is alien to the Trotskyite perspective. The result is an approach which has little time for the existing views of potential audience members, even as beliefs to be overcome, and which focuses instead on explaining 'reality' in the simplest terms possible. Take for instance the following statement by the Spartacist League: 'Unless we win these youth to our full programme, their contradiction will most likely be resolved in the direction of reaction and obscurantism' (Enlightenment Rationalism and the Origins of Marxism, p. 45). It is assumed that the 'correctness' of these views will itself provide audience comprehension and support. Similarly, for Workers' Liberty, since their own ideas are the expression of working-class experience, 'We should be able to unite on them' (WL 52:16). This assumption leads to a tendency to refuse to engage with the existing beliefs of potential readers.

This simplistic understanding of audience psychology as conforming to a rationalist model where 'correct' arguments automatically generate support is reinforced by other assumptions. The concept of 'interests' contains an implication that there is a single model of what people would believe if left to their own devices. Deviations from this model are comprehended primarily as the products of lies, hypocrisy, and the manufacture of illusions by bourgeois forces. If people persist in refusing to accept the 'obvious' reality once the illusory nature of their views is explained to them, Trotskyites tend to assume that they are either cynical liars or ignorant fools. Furthermore, since socialism is in the last instance recognition of necessary realities, anyone who disagrees with the 'correct' analysis is not a socialist. For instance: 'The socialist who gives any credence to Saddam Hussein is no longer a socialist' (John O'Mahony, "War in the Gulf: Issues for Labour" in War in the Gulf, p. 13).

Thus, debates with intransigent opponents often degenerate into slanging matches, with both sides determined to discredit one another as stupid, non-socialist or the victims of absurd illusions. Callaghan is right that 'the vice of excessive invective... was... made into a virtuous model for imitation' and that arguments usually consist of 'heaping odium on political opponents instead of rebutting arguments', a 'process of merely anathematising' beliefs rather than debating them15. Take the following examples, from a debate about Israel/Palestine between Workers' Liberty's Sean Matgamna and former I.S. activist Jim Higgins. 'Jim Higgins operates with a darker toned Disneyfied version of history' (WL 33:15). 'He is awash with prejudice' (33:17). 'Your standpoint has nothing in common with Marxism' (33:17). 'Arguing with Sean Matgamna is rather like wrestling with a warm jelly' (WL 34:40). 'Cliff has been a carrier of poison to the left he influences' (34:41). 'Delving further into the Matgamna polemical method we encounter that special form of arrogance that insists on setting all the terms of any debate and finding significance in a failure to follow him up any logical blind alley he may choose' (WL 38:36). 'At this point I find myself very impolitely thinking that Jim Higgins is incorrigibly stupid' (38:40). The same is true of others also. The A.W.L. is guilty of 'knowing, wilful distortions', claims Alan Thornett of Socialist Outlook (WL 56:19). Over the Balkans crisis, 'all other trends capitulated to nationalism in one form or another', claim Socialist Appeal (SA 68:21).

A part of this tendency to argue through anathematisation is the establishment of closure through the delimitation and decontestation of core terms in Trotskyite discourse, often to substitute for debate and delegitimate rival Trotskyites. One common approach, for instance, is to constitute a limited number of issues as an 'acid test' of the real character of people and organisations. The concepts used are often not underlying philosophical, conceptual or ethical principles, but relate to everyday disputes. This approach is a logical extension of the idea that the real character of a person or group is found, not in their ideas, but in whose 'interests' they act in. Thus, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! state in a letter to subscribers: 'we do not believe what other organisations do necessarily matches their words. We apply four tests to any organisation claiming to be socialist: 1. Has it broken with the Labour Party? 2. Does it support the struggle for Irish freedom [against the British presence in Northern Ireland]? 3. Does it support socialist Cuba? 4. Does it believe that a new movement in Britain must base itself on, and represent, the poorer sections of the working class?' These points seem to be emphasised to differentiate FRFI from other Trotskyites. It may well be due to the 'acid test' approach that much of the Trotskyite press focuses the bulk of its coverage on a handful of contentious issues (eg. Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, Russia, Bosnia, Kosova) at the expense of other, equally contentious questions (eg. the Rwandan conflict, which most Trotskyite publications covered sparsely if at all).

Furthermore, the aggressive polemical style is explicitly endorsed in theory. For Workers' Liberty, 'Debate involves dispute and contradiction! If you enter a debate, you must be prepared to have your opponents say that your position is undesirable in some way or another: nationalist, pro-imperialist, reformist, ultra-left, whatever. The requirement for a proper regime of debate on the left is not that we all promise never to say anything impolite or wounding about anyone else's ideas - if we did, there would never be any debate' (WL 56:20). Furthermore: 'A democratic regime... cannot and should not remove the element of passion and anger from serious political disputes' (WL 52:15). And 'if no-one were offended or outraged by the speech or writing no-one would want to challenge it' (WL 12-13:3).

This aggressive style and essentially hostile mode of engagement with alternative beliefs is widespread among Trotskyites, when they actually engage at all. This mode of engagement may have a ritualistic significance for members of a particular group, who remain convinced that their belief-system is capable of dismissing all others effectively. But it is unlikely to convince someone who holds the views which are being anathematised. Interestingly, Workers' Liberty's defence of this general approach treats it not as a particular strategy adopted in order to convince, but in a naturalised manner, as if one cannot argue except by anathematising and using invective. It is therefore probable that the underlying naturalised discourse of Trotskyism produces a mode of argument incapable of generating engagement with those outside the Trotskyite subculture. This is a major problem for Trotskyism since most of its target audience ('workers' and oppressed groups) falls outside this subculture (although it also has progressive effects, particularly in leading Trotskyites to support freedom of speech).

In general, the naturalisation of elements specific to Trotskyism precludes engagement with people who do not endorse the naturalised beliefs or fall outside the sphere of legitimate dissent, since the naturalised elements are asserted or implied rather than argued. In the mainstream media, similar treatment of outsider discourse is similarly ineffective in persuading, tending instead to generate 'deviance amplification'. The mainstream media has the advantage, however, that its core beliefs are widespread. Trotskyism by contrast is attempting to enter a hostile cultural milieu. As Gramsci rightly argues, Marxism in order to succeed would have to overcome most elements in common sense, which is drawn from past beliefs, tends towards conservatism, encourages fatalistic acceptance of the status quo, is hostile to dialectics and tends to accept mechanical and mystical beliefs16.

However, the naturalisation of elements in their own discourse tends to predispose Trotskyites to the assumption that the common sense of ordinary workers shares their underlying assumptions (which are, it will be recalled, perceived as obvious and self-evident). Conze sees Marxism as 'nothing but a codification of common sense' (WL 28:38). Workers' Liberty see the empiricism of ordinary workers as leading naturally to the endorsement of the Trotskyite party as the best available 'tool': 'When a worker learns that a tool is useful and necessary, he does not throw up his hands in despair because there are many varieties of the tool offered to him. He reads carefully the claims made for each variety and the description given of what it can do, and he judges from experience which one really serves the purpose best'. Alternatively, 'he' (workers are apparently all men) makes 'the best possible scientific test of which [belief-system] is most scientific. It is not so very much different in politics' (WL 52:34). This implies both that politics is like mechanics and that workers have learnt equally the logic of both. Given that workers are in large numbers failing to choose Trotskyism, this seems to imply either that common sense and empiricism do not yield the most valid result, or that Trotskyism is invalid. However, Trotskyites clearly feel that workers' common sense is in fact pointing them towards Trotskyism, in spite of the evidence. Furthermore, for Socialist Appeal 'what we understand instinctively is explained and crystallised in this journal' (70:26). Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! glorifies 'the culture of the "little man", the "regular guy" who stood up for justice and common sense' (151:13), and one correspondant claims that 'Dialectical formulae are not always a substitute for common sense and if something seems incomprehensible, mad or disgusting... it probably is' (151:15). Generally, common sense is assumed to accord with Trotskyites' own beliefs, but adherence to it sometimes stretches to the endorsement of capitalistic common sense beliefs; for instance, 'we all know that there is no such thing as a free meal' (SA 74:9). There is also some limited awareness of problems with common sense. When the Conservatives adopted the Common Sense Revolution slogan, The Socialist printed a 'star letter' citing Galileo as evidence that common sense contradicts science and progress (131:8). But little attempt is made to expand this insight, and some commentators even rely on both forms of discourse simultaneously. Dan Katz, for instance, demands 'a little common sense' from the left while attacking 'common sense "left" opinion' (Action 2:12:6).

Thus, actual common sense, falling outside the sphere of legitimate dissent, is usually treated as non-existent, and Trotskyites assume that the common sense of ordinary workers tends towards Trotskyism and treats it uncritically. This inverts the relationship between Trotskyism and society in its coverage in the Trotskyite press. In social relations as conventionally conceived, Trotskyites are 'outsiders' in almost every way, subculturally as well as politically. Trotskyites, however conceive their role as that of insiders within the 'real' society (as opposed to the illusory society of bourgeois ideology), and as a result, their relationship to their audience is similarly inverted. The problem of overcoming common sense is simply not addressed. Once the Trotskyite attitude to common sense is understood, an important element in their strategy - asserted, imperative presentation - becomes more explicable. Headlines such as 'Socialist policies now' (SA 70:2) and 'Blockade Blair's roadshow to Ruin! Defend the welfare state' (SO 12:1) are expected to appeal to impulses already existing in a semi-repressed form in the minds of ordinary workers and others.

However, the individual slogan - however justified - is unlikely to win support directly. According to Albert and Hahnel, because workers accept their condition under capitalism as inevitable and inescapable, they develop rationalisation strategies which include avoiding stimuli likely to increase their dissatisfaction with their lives17. As Brinton argues: 'the idealistic tactic consisting of explaining to people that they are oppressed is useless, as people have had to suppress the perception of oppression in order to live with it. Revolutionary propagandists... are seldom successful... Because such endeavours come up against all the unconscious defence mechanisms and... the various rationalisations'. This 'somber image' is inaccurate, but 'has more truth in it than most revolutionaries can admit'18. Thus, workers avoid cultural products of the kind produced by Trotskyites for complex psychological reasons. Trotskyism is presently unable to analyse, engage with, or attempt to overcome these psychological barriers because its own implicit psychological perspective, rooted in rationalism and the concept of 'interests', is too undeveloped and simplistic. Trotskyism's mechanical materialism may even reinforce fatalistic acceptance of the existing system.

Another consequence of the self-perception of Trotskyites as insiders, and also of their view of the world as split between different groups according to 'interests', is their tendency to see persuasion and argument as a 'fight', 'battle' or 'struggle'. For instance, Workers' Liberty maintain that there is a 'constant battle on the "ideological" front, the battle of ideas within the working class' (WL 52:12), and their articles on culture and theory are given titles reflecting this method.
An article on post-modernism comes under the heading 'The battle of ideas', while one about Stanley Kubrick is headed 'The Cultural Front' (WL 55:2, 19, 27). Workers' Power headline one of their articles 'Taking sides in the science wars' (WP 230:14-15). And 'The Spartacist Youth Clubs... pursue an unyielding fight with youth over mysticism and religion' (Enlightenment Rationalism and the Origins of Marxism, p. 46). This conception of ideational dispute is almost certainly connected to the failure to engage with opponents or with the process of convincing others as a real relation between thinking people rather than a simple counterposition of opposites. Gramsci is quite right when he sees belief in the similarity of combat and persuasion as an "illusion" (1971:432).

The roots of this approach in the Trotskyite conception of 'interests' are shown in the following exceptionally extreme but nevertheless demonstrative example, provided by Cliff Slaughter, then a W.R.P leader. For Slaughter, Marxism must fight 'ideas imported into the working class by ideologists of the middle-class'. 'More and more this fight has to be carried out against those who appear themselves to be Marxists and socialists' but who are actually reformists who must be exposed by the precise knowledge accessible only to the W.R.P.19.

Thus, the effectiveness of Trotskyite propaganda is impeded severely by factors implicit in the underlying discourse and meaning-structures of the Trotskyite media. Trotskyite discourse contains implicit assumptions about the nature of the intended audience which are in contrast, often diametrically, with the relationship between Trotskyism and other cultural currents as it occurs in social relations. This is not to say that the problems of Trotskyism are all, or even primarily, rooted in discourse. The isolation of Trotskyism, its often bureaucratised organisational structures and its culture of hyperactivity all place barriers between Trotskyite groups and ordinary people, and often, psychological and organisational considerations are at least partly causal in relation to Trotskyite discourse. At their most cynical, it serves Trotskyite leaders very well to have a perspective likely to bind members tightly to the organisation through a shared hostility to other forms of discourse; at their least cynical, Trotskyites invariably take on board elements in their organisational practice in a naturalised form, and project these outwards as propaganda and journalism. On a psychological level, too, some Trotskyites have a confused desire for a better type of human being (eg. SA Millennium Supplement p. 8) or a more integrated society (eg. Action 49:6) alongside their substantive and humanistic beliefs, and this may well affect their attitude to their audience. However, the effect also works in reverse; widespread discourse can generate and legitimate problematical organisational structures. Take the following excerpt from Workers' Liberty's Basic Education Course: 'The devotion of the militant to the party is a product of... conviction... It is achieved... by way of the education of the militants in a revolutionary outlook and psychology, and a devotion to the organisation as the embodiment of this' (Basic Education Course, Reading for B4, Section III). Here we see the clear overlap between discursive elements such as the idea of an already-existing 'correct' viewpoint with organisational aspects such as a desire for 'devotion' to the party. Thus, while discursive issues may not be the sole cause of Trotskyite failures, they are certainly one of the causes.


Trotskyism has to date failed to develop into a serious alternative to mainstream political tendencies, and the discourse and structures of meaning present in Trotskyite media products, although not the sole reason for this failure, play an important role in impeding engagement between Trotskyites and their intended audience. Underlying beliefs, such as the stress on 'interests' and the naturalisation of Trotskyite views as "self-evident", generate a style of communication and propaganda which fails to engage with the beliefs of ordinary workers and others. In addition to helping to account for the failure of Trotskyism to gain a substantial social base, the relationship of such processes to structures of communication shared between the Trotskyite and mainstream media reinforce the conclusion that the latter are only effective due to existing in a sympathetic cultural environment. The failures of Trotskyism also demonstrate that the promotion of alternative forms of discourse requires methods very different from those used to reinforce existing discourse, and that such methods require a careful and critical engagement with the problem of gaining and convincing an audience.


Action (initially Action for Health and Welfare, later Action for Solidarity), London:WSN
Class Struggle, London (details not listed) [CS]
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! London:Larkin Publications [FRFI]
Socialism Today, London (details not listed) [ST]
The Socialist, London:Socialist Publications
Socialist Action Review London:Quality Futures Ltd.
Socialist Appeal London:SA Publications [SA]
Socialist Outlook London (details not listed) [SO]
Socialist Review London (details not listed) [SR]
What Next? London:R. Pitt
Workers' Liberty London (details not listed) [WL]
Workers' Power London:Newsfax International/Workers' Power [WP]

A.W.L. (1991) War in the Gulf London:Phoenix Press
A.W.L. (1994) Socialism and Democracy London:WL Publications
A.W.L. (1996) Basic Education Course London:details not listed
SPARTACIST LEAGUE (1998), Enlightenment Rationalism and the Origins of Marxism New York:Spartacist Publishing Co.


1. Greg Philo, John Hewitt, Peter Beharrel and Howard Davis (Glasgow University Media Group), Really Bad News (London, 1982), p. 5-6, 13-15; Jonathan Bignell, Media Semiotics. An Introduction (Manchester 1997), p. 27.

2. Trevor Pateman, 'Impossible discourse' in John Corner and Jeremy Hawthorn (eds.), Communication Studies. An introductory reader (London 1993) p. 64-5.

3. Michael Freeden, 'Political Concepts and Ideological Morphology', The Journal of Political Philosophy, 2:2 (1994) p. 156.

4. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London 1971) p. 323.

5. Gramsci, ibid., p. 351.

6. Ted Grant, Russia. From Revolution to Counter-Revolution (London 1997) p. 205.

7. Grant, ibid., p. 218.

8. Pateman, op cit., Ref. 2, p. 59-64.

9. Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Minneapolis 1995), p. 303-4.

10. Grant, op cit., Ref. 6, p. 209.

11. Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London 1979) p. 101.

12. Grant, op cit., Ref. 6, p. 218.

13. Grant, ibid., p. 218.

14. Philo et al., op cit., Ref. 1, p. 14-15.

15. John Callaghan, British Trotskyism. Theory and Practice (Oxford 1984) p. 23, 24, 202.

16. Gramsci, op cit., Ref. 4, p. 68, 187, 324, 423, 435.

17. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Unorthodox Marxism (Boston 1978) p. 198.

18. Brinton, cited Albert and Hahnel, ibid., p. 215.

19. Callaghan, op cit., Ref. 15, p. 87.


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