North Korea and China: Trotskyist Follies

December 20, 2010 at 1:49 pm (Uncategorized)

This summer I re-subscribed to Workers Vampire Vanguard, the bi-weekly newspaper of the U.S. Spartacist League. Back  in the days when I was a Trotskyist I subscribed to WV and assorted other Spartacist publications. I belonged to another tendency, but we believed it was important to monitor the OTO (Ostensible Trotskyist organizations) press; moreover, WV was not just the best thing about the Spartacists, you could often learn something from it.

When I bumped into a salesperson at the G-20 demonstrations in the summer, perhaps it was nostalgia or perhaps it was the pouring rain, but I sprung for a sub. Now, I haven’t been a Trotskyist for over fifteen years, but I do read the paper just to keep up with things, and of course I look forward to the China article.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union almost two decades ago, many on the international Trotskyist left were disoriented. After all, their political programme had been based on a certain understanding of how the so-called degenerated and deformed workers states operated. When the end of the Soviet Union failed to fit that understanding , it took some of them a few years to square the circle. Unfortunately, instead of reflecting on their failed programmes many of the Trotskyist organizations simply mechanically transferred the ideas onto the pallid Stalinist copies still in existence.

The Spartacist League often describe themselves as “orthodox Trotskyists” to distinguish themselves from such ‘revisionsists’ as the Internationalist Socialist Tendency (the Cliffite state-caps) or the United Secretariat (the Pabloite popularity chasers). No, the Sparts and their offspring pride themselves as the last true, according to them, defenders of Red October,  defending the proletarian property gains in the deformed and degenerated workers states. Even when the real Stalinists have long since given up, on they tread, calling for a new October revolution and a reborn, or was it reforged Fourth International.

No article on the Stalinist states ever seems to be complete without that quotation from Trotsky noting those who cannot defend old positions cannot conquer new ones. The quotation is from Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism, a collection of letters and articles attempting to prevent a split in the US Socialist Workers Party around the issue of defence of the Soviet Union. Trotsky wrote a great many things, some of them, such as his History of the Russian Revolution are brilliant. But this book is shoddy, bullying and name calling at best (that always works doesn’t it?). THe only thing that makes Trotsky look good is that his followers followed an even more  crass line than he did. 

The words from the master are thrown against those who facing reality squarely, another injunction by Trotsky, have decided tha those so-called workers states aren’t worth very much anymore.  And to cling to China, Cuba and North Korea (we don’t hear much about Vietnam these days) doesn’t really mean much.

But back to the SL. Every few years or so, the Spartacist League publishes an article about China called ‘China on the brink’ or something like that. It’s always a long often well researched article, surveying the inroads capital has made into China, the social changes, and particularly the workers resistance and the so on. But near the end of the article, the SL sagely concludes that although China has moved along from last time they wrote this article, China still remains a workers state because the core of the state property forms remain proletarian.

Now, in the mid-eighties, the SL saw people leave the group to eventually became the International Bolshevik Tendency. This was my old group, and for many years the IBT positioned itself as a beacon of Orthodox Spartacism. They don’t talk that way anymore, but still retain the idea. (True confessions time: I was a member of the IBT from 1988 to 1995)

 Anyway, imagine my amusement when I read on the IBT web site an article bolding declaring Defend North Korea!” Ah, North Korea. If Stalin wanted socialism in one country, the North Koreans ambitions were not quite so grand: they settled for socialism within one family. Kim Il Sung; Kim Jung Il and the new one whose name escapes me. A brutal, paranoid dictatorship, and yet according to the article ” The defense of the North Korean deformed workers’ state is an issue of vital importance to the entire international workers’ movement.” Uh, huh.

In addition, they argue:

We are not particularly interested in who fired first—for Marxists, the essential issue is the necessity to defend the social gains represented by the overturn of capitalist property in North Korea (and China) against any attempt, whether foreign or domestic, to undermine or overthrow them. We militarily defend North Korea against imperialism despite the anti-working class character of the bureaucratized Stalinist caste headed by Kim Jong-il.

There’s a lot in this paragraph, but the nub of it is that capitalism was overthrown in China and North Korea and that the  post capitalist, if not actually socialist, character of these countries resides in their property forms. How exactly does that benefit the working class? While it would not likely benefit the working class in North Korea to have a pro-US regime running roughshod over them, living under a megamanial parasite who feasts while the population starves is a curious benefit too.

So on the brink we stand. I’m not much for waving  quotations around. They can be useful to illustrate an idea, but when they are used for authority, it reminds me a little too much of the church. Nevertheless, another one of those Trotsky letters is entitled “Learn to think.” Good advice indeed.



  1. james said,

    Interesting read. Thanks.

  2. Schalken said,

    Good post. I had the misfortune of running into a couple of Spartacists a couple years back. For some reason they thought that a table adorned with posters reading “HANDS OF THE CHINESE WORKERS STATE” and the like would attract people. It’s awful politics, but an even worse recruiting pitch.

    It’s pretty pathetic that for the most part the entire Trotskyist milieu has failed to figure out something that Marx and Engels bluntly stated: that “the transformation ― either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership ― does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. … The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head.”

    • fischerzed said,

      Funnily enough, the new issue of Workers Vanguard arrived today with the requisite article on Korea. Not only was the ‘line’ the same as the IBT article, but in many cases the wording was eerily similar. I’m not suggesting plagiarism, but an identicle mindset, seeing the world through the same rather forced worldview.

      In their article the SL argue the case for the superiority of North Korea:

      “Despite the rule of a nepotistic (!) and bizarre Stalinist regime, North Korea’s planned economy significantly outperformed the south until the mid 1970s, creating a modern industrial infrastructure.”

      So defence of North Korea rests upon its ability to develop the economy? Er, like capitalism does? And if we’re going to be picky, the mid 1970s were almost four decades ago. What exactly have the North Korean Stalinists done for us lately?


      • micah said,

        Unfortunately, that kind of reasoning can be traced all the way back to Trotsky and his insistence that “that socialism [in the USSR!] confronts capitalism today in tons of steel and concrete.” I often think of Stalin and his third-world epigones (especially Maoists) as being ‘developmentalists’ or ‘modernizers’ par excellence, but I guess it’s good to keep in mind that the distortion of Marxism to equate it with a doctrine of economic growth is something Trotsky deserves some blame for!

        Also disgusting: when I was arguing with the aforementioned Sparts, they based their claim of the superiority of China’s economy on the fact that the Chinese state ordered a certain amount of tents to be produced to house the victims of a recent earthquake. They reckoned that this demonstrated that the Chinese economy wasn’t solely based on production for profit. I pointed out that such things were exceptions, exceptions known even in western capitalist economies (the Jacobins, for instance, took over industries in order to produce arms, or reluctantly mandated prices), and that as a whole the chinese economy was no different than the western ones, i.e., workers were still exploited as wage laborers. They had no really good response to this except to continue talking up China (whose government, of course, they wished to see overthrown by the workers — but presumably not at the same moment as their cadres are sympathizing with it or defending it for some reason).

  3. Ballnoir said,

    Very good post! Thanks!

  4. bigchieftablet said,

    Great post! So, you were in the IBT. Who knew?!
    All the best

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