Leon Trotsky

In Defense of Marxism

On the “Workers” Party [1]

First Published: Fourth International, Vol.1 No.5, October 1940; as part of the article Some Questions on American Problems. Reprinted: Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism, New York 1942.
Checked against: Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, London 1966, p.224.

QUESTION: In your opinion were there enough political differences between the majority and the minority to warrant a split?

TROTSKY: Here it is also necessary to consider the question dialectically, not mechanically. What does this terrible word “dialectics” mean? It means to consider things in their development, not in their static situation. If we take the political differences as they are, we can say they were not sufficient for a split, but if they developed a tendency to turn away from the proletariat in the direction of petty-bourgeois circles, then the same differences can have an absolutely different value; a different weight; if they are connected with a different social group. This is a very important point.

We have the fact that the minority split away from us, in spite of all the measures taken by the majority not to split. This signifies that their inner social feeling was such that it is impossible for them to go together with us. It is a petty-bourgeois tendency, not a proletarian. If you wish a new confirmation of this, we have an excel lent example in the article of Dwight Macdonald.

First of all, what characterizes a proletarian revolutionary? No one is obliged to participate in a revolutionary party, but if he does participate, he considers the party seriously. If we dare to call the people for a revolutionary change of society, we carry a tremendous responsibility, which we must consider very seriously. And what is our theory, but merely the tools of our action? These tools are our Marxist theory because up to today we have not found better tools. A worker is not fantastic about tools – if they are the best tools he can get he is careful with them; he does not abandon them or demand fantastic non-existent tools.

Burnham is an intellectual snob. He picks up one party, aban dons it, takes up another. A worker cannot do this. If he enters a revolutionary party, addresses the people, calls them for action, it is the same as a general during a war – he must know where he is leading them. What would you think of a general who said he thought the guns were bad – that it would be better to wait for ten years until they had invented better guns, so everybody had better go home. That is the way Burnham reasons. So he abandoned the party. But the unemployed remain, and the war remains. These things cannot be postponed. Therefore it is only Burnham who has postponed his action.

Dwight Macdonald is not a snob, but a bit stupid. I quote:

“The intellectual, if he is to serve any useful function in society, must not deceive either himself or others, must not accept as good coin what he knows is counterfeit, must not forget in a moment of crisis what he has learned over a period of years and decades.”

Good. Absolutely correct. I quote again:

“Only if we meet the stormy and terrible years ahead with both skepticism and devotion – skepticism towards all theories, governments and social systems; devotion to the revolutionary fight of the masses – only then can we justify ourselves as intellectuals.”

Here is one of the leaders of the so-called “Workers” Party, who considers himself not a proletarian but an “intellectual.” He speaks of skepticism toward all theories.

We have prepared ourselves for this crisis by studying, by building a scientific method, and our method is Marxism. Then the crisis comes and Mr. Macdonald says “be skeptical of all theories,” and then talks about devotion to the revolution without replacing it with any new theory. Unless it is this skeptical theory of his own. How can we work without a theory? What is the fight of the masses and what is a revolutionary? The whole article is scandalous and a party which can tolerate such a man as one of its leaders is not serious.

I quote again:

“What is the nature of the beast (fascism), then? Trotsky insists it is no more nor less than the familiar phenomenon of Bonapartism, in which a clique maintains itself in power by playing one class off against another, thus giving the State power a temporary autonomous character. But these modern totalitarian regimes are not temporary affairs; they have already changed the underlying economic and social structure, not only manipulating the old forms but also destroying their inner vitality. Is the Nazi bureaucracy a new ruling class, then, and fascism a new form of society, comparable to capitalism? That doesn’t seem to be true either.”

Here he creates a new theory, a new definition of fascism but he wishes, nevertheless, that we should be skeptical toward all theories. So also to the workers he would say that the instruments and tools they work with are not important but they must have devotion to their work I think the workers would find a very sharp expression for such a statement.

It is very characteristic of the disappointed intellectual. He sees the war, the terrible epoch ahead, with losses, with sacrifices, and he is afraid. He begins to propagate skepticism and still he believes it is possible to unify skepticism with revolutionary devotion. We can only develop a revolutionary devotion if we are sure it is rational and possible, and we cannot have such assurances without a work ing theory. He who propagates theoretical skepticism is a traitor.

We analyzed in fascism different elements:

  1. The element which fascism has in common with the old Bona partism is that it used the antagonisms of classes in order to give to the state power the greatest independence. But we have always underlined that the old Bonapartism was in a time of an ascending bourgeois society, while fascism is a state power of the declining bourgeois society.
  2. That fascism is an attempt of the bourgeois class to over come, to overstep, the contradiction between the new technique and private property without eliminating the private property. It is the “planned economy” of fascism. It is an attempt to save private prop erty and at the same time to check private property.
  3. To overstep the contradiction between the new, modern technique of productive forces within the limited borders of the national state. This new technique cannot be limited by the borders of the old national state and fascism attempts to overcome this contra diction. The result is the war. We have already analyzed all these elements.

Dwight Macdonald will abandon the party just as Burnham did, but possibly because he is a little lazier, it will come later.

Burnham was considered “good stuff” at one time? Yes, the proletarian party in our epoch must make use of every intellectual who can contribute to the party. I spent many months on Diego Rivera, to save him for our movement, but did not succeed. But every International has had an experience of this kind. The First International had troubles with the poet, Freiligrath, who was also very capricious. The Second and Third Internationals had trouble with Maxim Gorki. The Fourth International with Rivera. In every case they separated from us.

Burnham was, of course, closer to the movement, but Cannon bad his doubts about him. He can write, and has some formal skill in thinking, not deep, but adroit. He can accept your idea, develop it, write a fine article about it – and then forget it. The author can forget – but the worker cannot. However, so long as we can use such people, well and good. Mussolini at one time was also “good stuff”!

Coyoacan, D.F.
August 7, 1940


1. This article was written by Trotsky in English.

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Last updated on: 12.4.2007