On Leon Trotsky's Their Morals and Ours. (Bookmarks)

By Hume, Mick | New Statesman (1996), December 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

On Leon Trotsky's Their Morals and Ours. (Bookmarks)


Hume, Mick, New Statesman (1996)


This piece should probably begin with the disclaimer "I'm not a Trotskyist, but..." Talking to other journalists about my past life as editor of the late Living Marxism magazine, an intelligent Tory (that is to say, he no longer works for the party) asked me: "Which end of the ice pick were you in the old days?" In other words, did my sympathies lie with Leon Trotsky, or with the Stalinists who assassinated him using that tool? There wasn't supposed to be any "third way" on the left.

And I was always staunchly anti-Stalinist. Indeed, part of the rationale for launching a magazine called Living Marxism at the end of the cold war (marketing never having been my strong suit) was to suggest that there could be an alternative to the dead Soviet system.

Yet I was never part of the student politics that passed for "the Trotskyist tradition", either. Not all anti-Stalinists could get excited about the endless debate over whether the Soviet Union was "state capitalist" or a "degenerated workers' state" -- the modern equivalent of that old theological dispute over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin (there were a few pinheads in this one, too). Some of us were even less enamoured of the infantile Trot attitude towards the Labour Party, whereby the naughty children blew raspberries at their parent, but only until it was time to run home for their tea (meaning, campaign for Labour in an election).

So no, I am not a Trotskyist. Yet, ignoring the inanities of his acolytes, and all the issues about his role in the Soviet Union, when I read the writings of the man himself 20-odd years ago, they did help to open naive eyes with some insights that still serve a purpose. Trotsky's Writings on Britain, for instance, taught me the iron law of history: that the Labour Party could never hope to change the world while it lacked the guts to deny the Prince of Wales his "pocket money". The collection Art and Culture cuts through much of today's "conceptual bullshit" on cultural issues, ridiculing the notion of judging the arts by political standards (an area where new Labour has more in common with Stalinism than it might comfortably admit).

However, the work that struck the student Hume hardest was probably Their Morals and Ours, a slim volume written during the mid-1930s while Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union. Against the background of Stalin's show trials, the rise of fascism, the Spanish civil war and the approach of the Second World War, it provided a response to the allegation that "Trotskyism is as bad as Stalinism". As such, it is irrelevant today. None of these once-heated debates could matter much now to anybody but the political equivalent of a stamp collector.

But the final few pages still echo. There, Trotsky threw down a challenge to the notion that any absolute--what he called "eternal morals"--could guide human action. Reading it at a time when Margaret Thatcher's Tory government was selling its policies as a moral crusade, I found this all too relevant to the world in which I lived.

As Trotsky pointed out, what a given society considers good and moral changes with shifting social and historical contexts; today's crime is tomorrow's convention (as with the law on abortion). …

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