Editorial Notes

Herberg Quotes Trotsky

(April 1931)

Written: April 1931.
First Published: The Militant, Vol. IV No. 7, 1 April 1931, p. 2.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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We learned from Shakespeare that the devil can cite scriptures for his purpose, and this maxim is called to mind by the attempt of the Right wing of American Communism to make use of a quotation from Trotsky. In the March 14th issue of the Revolutionary Age, Herberg takes a few sentences from the revolutionary writings of the leader of the International Left Opposition and tries to fit them into an opportunist frame. In his search after an “authority “ for the idea that objective causes predetermine the passivity of American labor in the crisis, he cites, as “explanation which deserves serious consideration “, the following remarks in Trotsky’s autobiography:

“After a period of big battles and defeats, a crisis has the effect of depressing rather than arousing the working class. It undermines the workers’ confidence in their power and demoralizes them politically. Under such conditions only an industrial revival can close the ranks of the proletariat, pour fresh blood into its veins, restore its confidence in itself and make it capable of further struggle.”

As a general proposition it cannot be denied that international experience has tended to confirm this clear and precise formulation of the question. If Herberg were referring to it in that sense no one could object. But in offering Trotsky’s general formula to explain away a radical perspective of the American crisis, Herberg distorts its meaning and applies it to a specific and concrete situation where it does not fit. Trotsky’s conclusions, as quoted by Herberg, presuppose a number of factors which are absent in the concrete case of the American crisis and its effect on the labor movement.

In the first place, our crisis did not follow “a period of big battles and defeats “, of the workers, except in the case of the miners. In the second place, the passivity of the workers did not arise from the crisis, as Herberg implies, but existed over a long period before it and arose on the basis of the prosperity. And finally, we maintain that the crisis has already exerted more of a radicalizing than a depressing influence on the working class of America. Illustrations : The unemployment demonstrations; the increase of Communist and Socialist votes; Lawrence strike, etc. From all these facts, which are specific peculiarities of the American crisis situation, it is clear that the opportunist has quoted the Marxist only to distort him.

How significant is this little incident! Out of the voluminous literary productions of Trotsky – a veritable library on the theme of how to grasp the revolutionary situation and win the victory – the American Brandlerites extract one small paragraph devoted to retreats and defeats, and quote it, with approval, in a false connection. Anything will do – even a chance word from Trotsky – to bolster up the theory that “the reserves of American imperialism “ remain unshaken. The “reserves” of the masters of America are undoubtedly very great, but the reserves of the proletariat are even greater. In our opinion the crisis is serving and will serve to awaken more workers to the consciousness of this fact.

Contradictory forces are at work in the crisis, but its main effect, already revealed to a certain extent, is to arouse wide sections of the workers out of the stupor and passivity induced by illusions of permanent prosperity. The crisis is thus maturing the conditions for a militant labor revival on an unprecedented scale. In view of all the circumstances of America’s setting in the world situation, it is most reasonable to calculate that this development, once well started, will march with seven league boots. Proletarian Communists, in contradistinction to opportunist theorizers of defeat, will hold such a perspective and work for it. On this point a quotation from comrade Trotsky (not one torn from its context and misapplied, but one directly contributed to the American situation) will be in order. In his letter to the first National Conference of the Communist League in the early part of 1929 he said:

“We must not for a moment lose sight of the fact that the might of the American [capitalism rests more and more upon a foundation of world economy with its contradictions and crises, military and revolutionary. This means that a social crisis in the United States may arrive a good deal sooner than many think, and have a feverish development from the beginning. Hence the conclusion: It is necessary to prepare.] [1]

These clear and refreshing words outline a bold revolutionary perspective for the American proletariat. For that reason Right wing snivellers, who seek to invoke his authority for an opportunist policy, would never think of repeating them.

Note by MIA

1. In the print version available to us the passage in square brackets is missing. The text has been restored from Trotsky’s original letter.

Last updated on: 14.12.2012