Leon Trotsky

Perspectives of American Marxism

(November 1932)

Written: November 4, 1932.
Source: From the Arsenal of Marxism, Fourth International, Vol.15 No.4, Fall 1954, pp.128-131.
Translation: John G. Wright.
Transcription & Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.

This open letter was written to V.F. Calverton when he was editor of the magazine Modern Monthly (formerly Modern Quarterly). Calverton considered himself a Marxist and an intellectual fighter for socialism; and in those depression years, when the system of American capitalism was tottering, he grouped around himself and his magazine a considerable number of leftward-moving writers and intellectuals. Among the contributors to Modern Monthly were such names as Sidney Hook, Lewis Corey, Bertram Wolfe and others, virtually all of whom – including Calverton himself – were sooner or later to abandon their socialist ideals and capitulate to the pressures of American imperialism.

The letter was first published, in Russian, in the Bulletin of the Russian Opposition, No.32, Dec. 1932, and appeared in English in Modern Monthly, Vol.7 No.2, Mar. 1933. It is published here in a new translation by John G. Wright.

* * *

Dear Comrade Calverton:

I received your pamphlet, For Revolution, and read it with interest as well as profit to myself. Your arguments against the American “knights of pure reform” are very convincing, certain of them are really splendid. But, so far as I understand your request, what you wanted from me was not literary compliments but a political evaluation. I am all the more willing to grant your request since the problems of American Marxism have acquired at the present time an exceptional importance.

By its character and structure, your pamphlet is most appropriate for the thinking representatives of the student youth. To ignore this youth would, in any case, be out of the question; on the contrary, it is necessary to know how to talk to these students in their own language. However, you yourself repeatedly emphasize in your study the thought which is elementary to a Marxist; namely, that the abolition of capitalism can be achieved only by the working class. The revolutionary education of the proletarian vanguard, you correctly proclaim as the chief task. But in your pamphlet, I do not find the bridge to that task, nor any indication of the direction in which it must be sought.

Is this a reproach on my part? Yes and no. In its essence your little book represents an answer to that special variety of petty bourgeois radicals (in America they seem to be wearing out the threadbare name of “liberals”) who are ready to accept the boldest social conclusions provided they incur no political obligations whatever. Socialism? Communism? Anarchism?

Very good! But not otherwise than by way of reforms. Transform society, morality, the family from top to bottom? Splendid! But absolutely with the permission of the White House and Tammany.

Against these pretentious and sterile tendencies you present, as I have said before, a very successful line of argumentation. But this controversy itself thereby inevitably takes on the character of a domestic dispute in an intellectual club with its own reformist and its own Marxist wing. It was in this way that thirty and forty years ago in Petersburg and Moscow the academic Marxists disputed with the academic Populists: must Russia pass through the stage of capitalism or not? How much water has flowed over the dam since that time! The mere necessity of posing the question as you do in your pamphlet throws a glaring light on the political backwardness of the United States, technologically the most advanced country in the world. To the extent that you neither can nor have the right to tear yourself out of the American conditions, to that extent there is no reproach in my words.

Yet at the same time there is a reproach. For, side by side with pamphlets and clubs where academic debates for and against revolution are carried on, in the ranks of the American proletariat, with all the backwardness of its movement, there are different political groupings, and among them, revolutionary ones. You say nothing at all about them. Your pamphlet does not mention the so-called Socialist party, nor the Communist party, nor any of the transitional formations, in particular the contending factions within the Communist movement. This means that you are not calling anybody in particular to go anywhere in particular. You explain the inevitability of the revolution. However, the intellectual who is convinced by you can quietly finish smoking his cigarette and pass on to the next item on his daily agenda. To this extent there is in my words an element of reproach.

I would not have put this circumstance at the top of the list if it did not seem to me that your political position, as I judge by your articles, is typical of a rather numerous and theoretically skilled stratum of left intelligentsia in the United States.

There is, of course, no need to talk of the Hillquit-Thomas party as an instrument of the proletarian revolution. Without having achieved in the slightest degree the power of European reformism, American Social Democracy has acquired all of its vices, and, barely past childhood, has already fallen into what the Russians call “senility of dogs.” I trust that you agree with this evaluation and have perhaps, more than once even, expressed similar views.

But in the pamphlet For Revolution you did not say a word about Social Democracy. Why? It seems to me because, had you spoken of Social Democracy, you would have also had to give an evaluation of the Communist party. And this is not only a touchy but also an extremely important question, which imposes obligations and leads to consequences. I may perhaps be mistaken with respect to you personally, but many American Marxists obviously and stubbornly avoid fixing their position with respect to party. They enroll themselves among the “friends” of the Soviet Union, they “sympathize” with Communism, write articles about Hegel and the inevitability of the revolution and – nothing more. But this is not enough. For the instrument of the revolution is the party, don’t you agree?

I would not like to be misunderstood. Under the tendency to avoid the practical consequences of a clear position, I do not at all mean the concern for personal welfare. Admittedly, there are some quasi-“Marxists” whom the Communist party scares off by its aim of bringing the revolution out of the discussion club and into the street. But to dispute about a revolutionary party with such snobs is generally a waste of time. We are talking about other, more serious Marxists, who are in no way inclined to be scared by revolutionary action, but whom the present-day Communist party disquiets by its low theoretical level, by its bureaucratism and lack of genuine revolutionary initiative. At the same time, they say to themiselves, that is the party which stands furthest to the Left, which is bound up with the Soviet Union and which “represents” the USSR in a certain sense. Is it right to attack it, is it permissible to criticize it?

The opportunist and adventurist vices of the present leadership of the Communist International and of its American section are too evident to require emphasis. In any case, it is impossible and useless to repeat within the framework of this letter what I have said on the subject in a series of independent works. All questions of theory, strategy, tactics and organization have already succeeded in becoming the object of deep divergences within Communism. Three fundamental factions have been formed, which have succeeded in demonstrating their character in the course of the great events and problems of recent years. The struggle among them has taken on all the sharper character since in the Soviet Union every difference with the current ruling group leads to immediate expulsion from the party and to state repressions. The Marxist intelligentsia in the United States, as in other countries, is placed before an alternative: either tacitly and obediently to support the Communist International as it is, or to be included in the camp of the counter-revolution and “social fascism.” One group of intelligentsia has chosen the first way; with eyes, blinded or half-blinded, it follows the official party. Another group wanders without a party home, defends, where it can, the Soviet Union from slander, and occupies itself with abstract sermons in favor of the revolution without indicating through which gate one must pass to meet it.

The difference between these two groups, however, is not so great. On both sides there is renunciation of the creative effort in working out an independent opinion, and renunciation of the courageous struggle in its defense wihch is precisely where the revolutionist begins. On both sides we have the fellow-traveler type and not an active builder of the proletarian party. Certainly, a fellow-traveler is better than an enemy. But a Marxist cannot be a fellow-traveler of the revolution. Moreover, as historical experience bears out, at the most critical moments the storm of the struggle tosses the majority of the intellectual fellow-travelers into the enemy’s camp. If they do return, it is only after the victory has been consolidated. Maxim Gorky is the clearest but not the only example. In the present Soviet apparatus, incidentally, clear up to the top a very important percentage of people stood fifteen years ago openly on the other side of the October 1917 barricades. Is it necessary to recall that Marxism not only interprets the world but also teaches how to change it? The will is the motor force in the domain of knowledge, too. The moment Marxism loses its will to transform in a revolutionary way political reality, at that moment it loses the ability to correctly understand political reality. A Marxist who, for one secondary consideration or another, does not draw his conclusions to the end, betrays Marxism. To pretend to ignore the different Communist factions, so as not to become involved and compromise oneself, signifies to ignore that activity which, through all the contradictions, consolidates the vanguard of the class; it signifies to cover oneself with the abstraction of the revolution, as with a shield, from the blows and bruises of the real revolutionary process.

When the left bourgeois journalists summarily defend the Soviet Republic as it is, they accomplish a progressive and praiseworthy work. For a Marxist revolutionist, it is absolutely insufficient. The problem of the October Revolution – let us not forget! – has not yet been solved. Only parrots can find satisfaction in repeating the words, “Victory is assured.” No, it is not assured! Victory poses the problem of strategy. There is no book which sets in advance the correct orbit for the first workers’ state. The head does not and cannot exist which can contain the ready-made formula for socialist society. The roads of economy and politics must still be determined only through experience and worked out collectively, that is, through a constant conflict of ideas. A Marxist who limits himself to a summary “sympathy” without taking part in the struggle over the questions of industrialization, collectivization, the party regime, etc., rises to a level not higher than the “progressive” bourgeois reporter’s of the type of Duranty, Louis Fischer and others, but on the contrary stands lower, because he abuses the calling of revolutionist.

To avoid direct answers, to play blind-man’s-buff with great problems, to remain diplomatically silent and wait, or still worse, to console oneself with the thought that the present struggle within Bolshevism is a matter of “personal ambitions” – all this means to indulge in mental laziness, to yield to the worst Philistine prejudice, and to doom oneself to demoralization. On this score, I hope we shall not have any differences with you.

Proletarian politics has a great theoretical tradition, and that is one of the sources of its power. A trained Marxist studies the differences between Engels and Lassalle with regard to the European war of 1859. This is necessary. But if he is not a pedant of Marxist historiography, not a bookworm, but a proletarian revolutionist, it is a thousand times more important and urgent for him to elaborate for himself an independent judgment about the revolutionary strategy in China from 1925 to 1932. It was precisely on that question that the struggle within Bolshevism sharpened for the first time to the point of split. It is impossible to be a Marxist without taking a position on a question on which depends the fate of the Chinese revolution and at the same time that of the Indian, too, that is, the future of almost half of humanity!

It is very useful to study, let us say, the old differences among Russian Marxists on the character of the future Russian revolution; a study, naturally, from the original sources and not from the ignorant and unconscionable compilations of the epigones. But far more important is it to elaborate for oneself a clear understanding of the theory and practice of the Anglo-Russian Committee, of the “third period,” of “social fascism,” of the “democratic dictatorship” in Spain, and the policy of the united front. The study of the past is in the last analysis justified by this, that it helps one to orient himself in the present.

It is impermissible for a Marxist theoretician to pass by the Congresses of the First International. But a thousand times more urgent is the study of the living differences over the Amsterdam “anti-war” Congress of 1932. Indeed, how much is the sin-cerest and warmest sympathy for the Soviet Union worth, if it is accompanied by indifference to the methods of its defense?

Is there today a subject more important for a revolutionist, more gripping, more burning, than the struggle and the fate of the German proletariat? Is it possible, on the other hand, to define one’s attitude to the problems of the German revolution while passing by the differences in the camp of German and international Communism? A revolutionist who has no opinion on the policies of Stalin-Thälmann is not a Marxist. A Marxist who has an opinion but remains silent is not a revolutionist.

It is not enough to preach the benefits of technology; it is necessary to build bridges. How would a young doctor be judged who, instead of practising as an interne would satisfy himself with reading biographies of great surgeons of the past? What would Marx have said about a theory which, instead of deepening revolutionary practice, serves to separate one from it? Most probably he would repeat his sarcastic statement, “No, I am not a Marxist.”

From all indications the current crisis will be a great milestone on the historical road of the United States. Smug American provincialism is in any case nearing its end. Those commonplaces which invariably nourished American political thought in all its ramifications are completely spent. All classes need a new orientation. A drastic renovation not only of the circulating but also of the fixed capital of political ideology, is imminent. If the Americans have so stubbornly lagged behnd in the domain of socialist theory, it does not mean that they will remain backward always. It is possible to venture without much risk a contrary prediction: the longer the Yankees are satisfied with the ideological castoff clothes of the past, the more powerful will be the sweep of revolutionary thought in America when its hour finally strikes. And it is near. The elevation of revolutionary theory to new heights can be looked for in the next few decades from two sources: from the Asian East and from America.

In the course of the last hundred-odd years the proletarian movement has displaced its national center of gravity several times. From England to France to Germany to Russia – this was the historical sequence of the residency of socialism and Marxism. The present revolutionary hegemony of Russia can least of all lay claim to durability. The fact itself of the, existence of a Soviet Union, especially before the proletarian victory in one of the advanced states, has naturally an immeasurable importance for the labor movement of all countries. But the direct influence of the Moscow ruling faction upon the Communist International has already become a brake on the development of the world proletariat. The fertilizing, ideological hegemony of Bolshevism has been replaced in recent years by the stifling oppression of the apparatus. It is not necessary to prove the disastrous consequences of this regime: it suffices to point to the leadership of the American Communist party. The liberation from .the unprincipled bureaucratic command has become a question of life and death for the revolution and for Marxism.

You are perfectly right in saying that the vanguard of the American proletariat must learn to base itself on the revolutionary traditions of its own country, too. In a certain sense we can accept the slogan, “Americanize Marxism!” This does not mean, of course, to submit its principle and method to revision. The attempt of Max Eastman to throw overboard the materialist dialectic in the interests of the “engineering art of revolution” represents an obviously hopeless and in its possible consequences retrograde adventure. The system of Marxism has completely passed the test of history. Especially now, in the epoch of capitalist decline – the epoch of wars and revolutions, storms and shocks – the materialist dialectic fully reveals its inexorable force. To Americanize Marxism signifies to root it in American soil, to verify it against the events of American history, to elaborate by its methods the problems of American economy and politics, to assimilate the world revolutionary experience from the standpoint of the tasks of the American revolution. A giant labor! It is time to start it with shirtsleeves rolled up.

In connection with strikes in the United States, where the shattered center of the First International was transferred, Marx wrote, on July 25, 1877, to Engels: “The porridge is beginning to boil, and the transfer of the center of the International to the United States will yet be justified finally.” Several days later, Engels answered him: “Only twelve years after the abolition of chattel slavery, and the movement has already achieved such acuteness!” They, both Marx and Engels, were mistaken. But as in other cases, they were wrong as to tempo, but not as to direction. The great Trans-Oceanic “porridge” is unquestionably beginning to boil, the breaking point in the development of American capitalism will unavoidably provoke a blossoming of critical and generalizing thought, and it may be that we are not very far away from the time when the theoretical center of the international revolution is transferred to New York.

Before the American Marxists open truly colossal, breath-taking perspectives!


With sincere greetings,
L. Trotsky

Prinkipo, Nov. 4, 1932

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Last updated on: 31 March 2009