Source: Fourth International, Vol.1 No.6, November 1940, pp.164-172.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.
“I grit my teeth upon losing my time in the reading of these absolutely stale documents. The errors are so elementary that it is necessary to make an effort to remember the necessary argument from the ABC of Marxism.” – From a letter of Trotsky dated Jan. 3, 1940, commenting upon the faction documents written by the petty-bourgeois revisionists who split from the Fourth International in 1940.
One of the greatest battles of his revolutionary career was fought by Leon Trotsky in the last year of his life – the battle against the petty-bourgeois opposition in the Socialist Workers Party, American section of the Fourth International. When these elements of the party, in response to the pressure of the democratic bourgeoisie, attempted to revise the program of the Fourth International after the outbreak of the second World War, Trotsky put aside the biography of Stalin upon which he was working and turned his full attention to this internal danger that threatened our international organization. His decision was not made without cost – the publishers were clamoring insistently for long overdue manuscripts and had refused to advance him further royalties. The household at Coyoacan faced deprivation, but Trotsky rejected offers for well-paid articles in order to devote maximum time to combating the challenge of Burnham’s vulgar empiricism, Shachtman’s eclecticism, Abern’s school of intrigue. He directed his analytical skill to exposing the anti-working class origin of the ideas of Burnham, intellectual leader of the group. Trotsky fought for the Marxist program which he had painstakingly forged for the Fourth International, and for those willing to learn explained with precision his method, the Marxist method, of arriving at revolutionary answers to the political problems posed before the working class by world events. Trotsky’s writings in this struggle – some of the most brilliant and profound he ever wrote – would make a thick book, could well constitute a text of Marxism for new members of the Fourth International.
The battle against the petty-bourgeois revisionists reached success sooner than Trotsky had expected. They deserted from the party last April in the most miserable and cowardly fashion, set up a rival organization based on ideas in complete opposition to those of Leon Trotsky. Within a short time their ideological leader James Burnham deserted – as we had predicted – to the camp of the bourgeoisie. The proletarian majority of the party, strengthened and fortified by what had been learned in the factional struggle, found themselves handling the Marxist method with a new ability and self-confidence, settled down in the trade unions to intensified work which has already brought to the party a twenty-five percent increase in membership since the split.
Now with the death of Trotsky, the revisionists have launched a deliberate campaign to blot out the memory and significance of this last great ideological battle of Trotsky. That this campaign involves slandering Trotsky, belittling him, even presenting evident falsities as truth seems to be of small concern to them. They make “compensation” with choruses of hallelujahs about his greatness in general. They attempted this during the faction struggle, but then it was more difficult, for Trotsky enjoyed the rare historic privilege of being able to answer them himself, of being able personally to prevent them from converting him into a harmless ikon.
This latest attack on Trotsky by the petty-bourgeois revisionists takes the not unexpected form of an “appreciation” of Trotsky’s place in history. The “appreciation” appears in the September New International in an issue-filling feature article written by J.R. Johnson together with an appendage to this article written by Max Shachtman. It is fitting in a sense that the revisionists should utilize the pages of the New International in making public their “appreciation” of Trotsky’s place in history. It was not a half year ago that Trotsky scathingly called them to account for betraying their trust and stealing the New International from the American section of the Fourth International. He wrote:
“The discussion in the Socialist Workers Party of the United States was thorough and democratic. The preparations for the Convention were carried out with absolute loyalty. The minority participated in the Convention, recognizing thereby its legality and authoritativeness. The majority offered the minority all the necessary guarantees permitting; it to conduct a struggle for its own views after the Convention. The minority demanded a license to appeal to the masses over the head of the party. The majority naturally rejected this monstrous pretension. Meanwhile, behind the back of the party the minority indulged in shady machinations and appropriated the New International which had been published through the efforts of the entire party and of the Fourth International. I should add that the majority had agreed to assign the minority two posts out of the five on the editorial (board of this theoretical organ. But how can an intellectual ‘aristocracy’ remain in the minority in a workers’ party? To place a professor on equal plane with a worker – after all, that’s ‘bureaucratic conservatism.’ ...
“Long political experience has taught me that whenever a petty-bourgeois professor or journalist begins talking about high moral standards it is necessary to keep a firm hand on one’s pocketbook. It happened this time, too. In the name of a ‘moral ideal’ a petty-bourgeois intellectual has picked the proletarian party’s pocket of its theoretical organ. Here you have a tiny living example of the organizational methods of these innovators, moralists, and champions of democracy.” (Socialist Appeal, May 4, 1940.)
During the last year of Trotsky’s life they picked the pocket of his party. Now with his death, they are attempting something on a grander scale, nothing less than wiping out the lessons of one of Trotsky’s greatest ideological victories. They forget that Trotsky left a living heritage.
Upon reading the article featured in the New International, the one by J.R. Johnson, one is struck by the fact that no historical name is too distant from the subject at hand to escape the telescopic eye of Johnson. Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Livy, Amyot, North, Holinshed, Froissart, Baboeuf, Gibbon. Guizot, Abraham Lincoln, Voltaire, Michelet, Green, Macaulay, Mommsen, Carlyle, Oswald Spenglen the Old Testament, George Washington. Cervantes, Souvarine, and dozens upon dozens of others altogether too numerous to repeat in the scope of this reply rush past in a torrent of Johnson’s learning. And if they appear without reason or connection and take no part whatever in the basic structure of his “appreciation” of Trotsky, yet they appear and thereby prove that Johnson has them at his finger tips just as if he had bought one of those 25¢ review books which the college boys use for cramming, and read it through in a hurry before writing his “appreciation.”
Why, I asked myself, did the editors of the New International see fit to let their blue pencil pass up these flights of high school essay writing? By wringing ten or twenty thousand useless words out of Johnson’s article, they would have had room in their memorial issue for more material on Trotsky, perhaps even a few words about their appreciation of the issues which were important enough to end with their breaking with Trotsky. They would have had room to say a few words about what they think now of the relation between materialist dialectics and Marxist politics, the class analysis of the state and defense of the Soviet Union, bureaucratic conservatism and Bolshevik organization of the party.
However, the mystery of their forbearance with the blue pencil is not difficult to solve. Let us examine Johnson’s article a little more closely, turning aside for the moment from the fireworks of “erudition” which are there for no other purpose than to blind the reader’s eyes.
What is the thesis of Johnson’s “appreciation” of Trotsky? Johnson himself states it: “And yet this superbly gifted theoretician, executive, and leader of men on the grand scale, who achieved so much in the realm of politics, was a very defective politician.” This sentence expresses the main purpose of the entire article: Johnson praises Trotsky’s brilliance as a theoretician only in order to lay down an authoritative basis for making Trotsky out a gullible and pathetic fool in practical politics, and therefore in the politics of the last faction struggle in which Trotsky engaged and in which Johnson bitterly opposed Trotsky.
Here is how Johnson elaborates his thesis:
“In a different age he would not have been a politician at all ... It is characteristic of him that, immersed in his work, he never saw the dangerous growth of bureaucracy until Lenin, with an agonized urgency, pointed it out to him and asked for help. Lenin’s immediate preoccupation was to take the political and practical steps necessary to break up Stalin and his clique. Here Trotsky failed completely ... found himself pushed out of power as if he were a fourth-rate bureaucrat ... Ins political naivete and the idealism of his character are almost incredible but for his own unsuspecting documentation ... in the hands of Kamenev and Stalin he was a child ... warned and warned and warned again, wandered about like a child in a forest of wild beasts.”
We learn from Johnson that “... actual power Trotsky had none ... Trotsky was rooted nowhere ... Trotsky’s power in the party was seen for what it was – a glittering shell ...” And the crown of thorns Johnson places on Trotsky’s brow as a politician: “But this – and nearly all his other mistakes – flowed from a constant incapacity to acknowledge perhaps even to himself, the full depravity of Stalinism.”
How could Johnson say this? It has been a truism in our movement that the whole battle against Stalinism, the entire continuation of the Marxist tradition in opposition to Stalinism is due precisely to no one else but Trotsky. No one understood the “full depravity of Stalinism” better than Trotsky.
If Johnson had been with Trotsky when he received the news of the slaying of his son Leon Sedov by Stalin’s GPU, he would not have been capable of uttering this abomination.
And here we draw attention to a peculiar characteristic of all these off-hand “appreciations” of Trotsky’s practical ability as a politician – they lack any supporting evidence ... They jut out from Johnson’s copious references to ancient history, to literature, and to esthetics like unlanced boils.
If we take Johnson’s “appreciation” at its face value, we are faced with an absolutely astounding contradiction in Trotsky’s character. A man of action on the “grand scale,” one of the world’s greatest theoreticians, “One of the most powerful agents of social dynamics who has lived in this or any other time,” yet turns out to be naive in politics, a “child in a forest of wild beasts.” How is this possible? One would think that Johnson must have racked his brains to discover an explanation or at least a historic precedent, even a minor one, to make understandable how a revolutionary politician who stands beside Marx, Engels, and Lenin nevertheless completely unlike them found himself ludicrously incapable of uniting theory and practise – that is, of understanding one of the first elements of the materialist dialectics of which he was a master.
Nature abhors a vacuum, even in Johnson’s articles. Johnson seems to feel this. He tries to fill the vacuum with an explanation of sorts for this first rate puzzle. “... whatever policy Trotsky was following,” runs Johnson’s explanation, “whatever tactical compromises he found it necessary to make, he himself, being the man he was, was bound to fail.” This is Johnson’s analysis of Stalin’s coming to power over Trotsky’s opposition. “... being the man he was, was bound to fail.” Because of psychological reasons, personal failings, Trotsky could be nothing but a child in practical politics, and so was inevitably beaten by Stalin!
Such an explanation explains nothing, as Johnson himself remarks quite correctly elsewhere in his article. “The bourgeois critic will explain it in terms of personal ability ... idiots and bourgeois scoundrels always emphasize Trotsky’s personal brilliance whereby they seek to disparage Trotsky’s method ...” We do not take upon ourselves the prickly task of determining in what category Johnson is placed by his disparagement of Trotsky’s political abilities through his emphasis of Trotsky’s brilliance.
Rather than accept Johnson’s explanation that it was due to psychological reasons that Trotsky was incapable of uniting in himself the theory and practise of politics, we prefer a different explanation: that Johnson himself has made an artificial division in Trotsky’s character which does not exist in fact.
In the struggle for power in the Soviet Union following the death of Lenin, the Left Opposition under the leadership of Trotsky organized tens of thousands of workers into a nationwide struggle against the bureaucratic degeneration that had set in under the leadership of Stalin. Their battle shook the bureaucracy to its foundations; but the ebb of reaction following the revolution, strengthened by the defeat of the workers’ revolution in one country after another in Europe and especially in Germany, bolstered up the Stalinist bureaucracy, and it conquered.
This titanic struggle has been reduced by Johnson to nothing but a personal feud between Trotsky on one hand and Stalin on the other. We learn that Trotsky was too lofty and noble to “grub” in politics and that Stalin being vile, vicious and underhanded was bound to win. Johnson leaves out the class struggle in his explanation. History according to this type of analysis is nothing but the affair of great men who win or lose according to their personalities. Did the Czar lose to the Russian Revolution because he had an “idealistic approach to life,” was unable to lower himself to “grub” with “tricks and dodges” in nasty politics? Did the workers win the Russian Revolution because Lenin was a schemer, a trickster, with a “trace of rascality”? Johnson will answer of course that the Russian Revolution was won because there was a revolutionary upsurge of the Russian workers, that is, the class struggle at that time was favorable to a revolutionary victory of the workers. It is easy for Johnson to see the class struggle at work in a period of victory; but in a period of defeat it is not so easy for him. In the war of classes he sees only personal feuds, “idealist” Trotsky opposed to “unscrupulous men not fit to clean his pen.” And of course Trotsky “being the man he was, was bound to fail.” Johnson reveals his limitations; they are the limitations of a tendentious petty-bourgeois historian not too concerned about the accuracy of his facts, a vulgar politician lacking the dialectic method.
Johnson’s views of politics are the views of a petty-bourgeois intellectual drawing back from the class struggle, talking about morals, not too careful about his own, and hence convinced that it is all a dirty low business. Johnson’s views of politics were never Trotsky’s views. Trotsky understood and lived politics; Johnson does neither. Johnson is only projecting his own subconscious in his article and naming it “Trotsky.” Trotsky was incapable of separating his practical life from his ideas. Politics was his lifeblood. When he returned to Russia after the February revolution, Trotsky returned as a Leninist and lie remained a Leninist to his death. Whoever has worked closely with Trotsky knows how he loved the battleground of politics. He was a fighter from head to foot. So perfectly had he united theory and practise in his own life that it was impossible for him to sit back placidly in an armchair and watch the class struggle pass by like scenery from a train window. No, far from being the “idealist” who ‘kept “somewhat aloof” from his fellows, Trotsky was a man of action through and through. He kept aloof only from philistines and sycophants. As has been exactly remarked by one of his closest co-workers, Trotsky “chained himself to his desk like a galley slave.” He was a writer simply because writing was a powerful weapon in the class struggle and because for long years he was prevented by the class enemy of the workers from using more powerful weapons. The heart and brain of Leon Trotsky were the heart and brain of a working class politician. His life was completely political. In this epoch that is the same as completely conscious. Johnson would not comprehend this.
Even in small personal things, Trotsky was an activist. I doubt that Johnson would ever have dared to write down his theory of a writing desk Trotsky if he could have enjoyed the opportunity of being with us on a trip Trotsky once took to Guadalajara before the modern highway was constructed. Some hundreds of miles of mud holes – Trotsky out of the car mile after mile up to his knees in mud, spattered from head to foot with mud, red brick mud even in his white bushy hair, pushing the automobile, losing his white cap, organizing campesinos, ropes, drivers when we were completely bogged down.
At every point at the front in the struggle with the mud, happy as a boy in the country on the first day of summer when he takes his shoes off. Trotsky really enjoyed that trip. It was as full of action as if we had been a contingent of the Red Army enroute for battle. “Just like the good old days,” Trotsky said enthusiastically, face flushed. “The road is just like a Russian road.” Trotsky knew how to get down and “grub.” He was no back seat driver.
Trotsky waded into politics the way he waded into that mud. For forty years of his life he was in the forefront of the political battles of the working class. Not once in those forty years did he falter, not once become faint-hearted, or concede to moods of despair. He was an activist. He carried out his ideas in daily practise. He went through three revolutions, helped organize the Third International, founded the Fourth. In those forty years he fought Czarists, bourgeois statesmen and diplomats, petty-bourgeois centrists and ultra lefts of all hues of the rainbow, Stalinists, thieves, traitors, careerists, every conceivable type of politician who is an enemy of the workers, Trotsky met them all in action. He knew all their tricks and dodges, answered their lies before they themselves saw the necessity for the lie. Trotsky understood all aspects of the politics of the class struggle from practical experience. That was not the least part of his great value as a teacher of revolutionary working class politics.
Johnson mentions the materialist dialectic, the Marxist method, so many times in his article that one cannot escape being impressed with the fact that Johnson must be a dialectician. This was a wise provision on Johnson’s part and shows that in his universal range and erudition he is not unacquainted with the lowest type of politics. For if Johnson had not so patiently repeated so many times his reference to the dialectic in general, we should have surely taken him for what he is, an unconscious empiricist and formalist. It is his lack of acquaintance with the dialectic which explains Johnson’s peculiar handling of certain well-known historical facts. This observation is not original with us. Trotsky was the first to note it on the occasion of Johnson’s visit to Coyoacan. In Internal Bulletin Vol.II, No.7, Trotsky’s remark about Johnson is recorded:
“I have noticed here the same fault ... and that is a lack of dialectical approach, Anglo-Saxon empiricism and formalism which is only the reverse of empiricism.”
While I am on this point I might report a conversation I had with Trotsky almost exactly a year ago during the opening stages of the factional struggle but before Johnson had taken a definitive position with either of the factions, still limiting himself to a sideline resolution on the Russian question which was closer to the position of James Burnham than any other.
Trotsky asked me about Johnson’s other political activity in New York – was he working well in the party? learning some of the elements of Bolshevik organizational practise? “He seems to be working with great energy for the party,” I responded rather cautiously; “but I know only in general what he is doing.”
Trotsky seemed satisfied at hearing this news.
“It would be very good if he could launch some serious work with the Negroes.”
“He seems to be making some successes in that field. His department is going night and day.”
“That is good.”
I could not resist a question: “Do you think that Johnson is greatly influenced by Souvarine?”
Trotsky hesitated – spoke in the rather intimate tone which meant he preferred that for the time being it remain “between us.” “When he visited me, I waited during his whole visit for him to mention his relations with Souvarine. I thought he would surely want to discuss it, but he left without saying a word. I felt that it was disloyal of him.” The Old Man told me this almost apologetically.
It was clear that he had been hurt by Johnson’s silence about his well-known relations with Souvarine, bitter enemy of Trotskyism, that he was uneasy about this silence, nevertheless wished to place nothing in the way of the possibility of Johnson’s developing into a Bolshevik.
“You know,” he added, “he is a typical product of British empiricism. He has the Oxford tradition. It is not a good tradition. He has many handicaps to overcome.”
Later, in December, as it became clear that Johnson was definitively with the petty-bourgeois revisionists, Trotsky included the following paragraph in his article, A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party”:
“Gangrenous skeptics like Souvarine believe that ‘nobody knows’ what the dialectic is. And there are ‘Marxists’ who kowtow reverently before Souvarine and hope to learn something from him. And these Marxists hide not only in the Modern Monthly. Unfortunately a current of Souvarinism exists in the present opposition of the SWP. And here it is necessary to warn young comrades: beware of this malignant infection!”
Bearing this warning in mind, let us now see what kind of pillars support Johnson’s “appreciation” of Trotsky’s errors in practical politics.
In addition to Trotsky’s acting like a “child among wild beasts,” Johnson informs us that “twice his enthusiasm, his love of the idea, nearly wrecked the Russian Revolution.” From a friend of Trotsky and especially from one who claims to be a follower, this is news indeed. Previously we were aware that such views were held only by the Stalinists. One might ask Johnson why during his visit with Trotsky he did not bring up the question of the two times the Russian Revolution was “nearly wrecked” by Trotsky. A discussion on this question between Johnson and Trotsky would have proved of interest to the Fourth International. But let us proceed immediately to an examination of the pillars supporting Johnson’s thesis.
Trotsky we learn from Johnson “made a terrible error in 1918” at Brest-Litovsk ... “Trotsky persisted in chasing a mirage of his own imagination and his obstinacy cost Russia dearly ...”
What was the “terrible error”? Johnson does not inform us.
What was the “mirage” Trotsky “persisted in chasing”? Johnson is silent, offers not even a single historic reference. In what did Trotsky’s “obstinacy” consist? A complete erudite blank.
How did it “cost Russia dearly”? Incredible but true – Johnson does not offer even one word of explanation!
Like the confessions of the defendants in the Moscow Trials who testified for Stalin, Johnson merely informs us that Trotsky “nearly wrecked” the Russian Revolution. Argument, proof, evidence – not a single shred. Why? Is it perhaps because Johnson after going back to Herodotus wishes to spare his reader further wearisome references from the dust bin of history?
Lenin, Johnson informs us, saved the Soviet Union from Trotsky’s “error” at Brest-Litovsk.
It is well-known to all students of the Russian Revolution that Trotsky and Lenin were in agreement in all matters of principle concerning Brest-Litovsk; they differed episodically only on secondary questions.
Up until now only the Stalinists have attempted to dispute this.
The next “error” of Trotsky we learn was in 1920 during the dispute on the Trade Union question, when “oblivious to the reality, he let his imagination run away with him again ... Had Trotsky had his way he would have placed the Soviet state in mortal peril”!
This pillar of Johnson’s argument, unlike the first, does not rest on a solid erudite vacuum. He bases it on “evidence.” We quote his “evidence” in full:
“He did not want to militarize labor as the Stalinist liars report, but he wanted to fuse the trade unions with the state administration. His basic argument was that Russia was a workers’ state and therefore the trade unions, as the workers’ organizations, could administer the state. Lenin’s reply was devastating. ‘Comrade Trotsky says that Russia is a workers’ state. Excuse me, that is an abstraction.”
What are the facts? Lenin and Trotsky were polemicizing not over the nature of the workers’ state in 1920 but (1) over Trotsky’s proposals to remedy certain ills in the Soviet economy, proposals of Trotsky’s that were actually a preliminary draft of the New Economic Policy, but which were mistakenly opposed at that time by Lenin, (2) over a substitute plan of Trotsky’s when the first was rejected that the “war” methods of communism be applied properly and with system, thus eliminating an independent role for the trade unions, a position in which Trotsky basing himself on purely economic considerations was mistaken. The factions proved very temporary and the dispute lost all importance when Lenin from political considerations formulated the New Economic Policy which relieved the tension in the economy. Trotsky immediately accepted the NEP, seeing in it his own plan of the year before. The differences between Lenin and Trotsky in 1920 as at Brest-Litovsk were only episodic differences. Curiously enough the petty-bourgeois revisionists ‘ attempted to utilize this same discussion on the Trade Union question against Trotsky while Trotsky was still alive. He had an opportunity to answer it himself. Here is Trotsky, at his best in polemics, posing the truth against falsehood:
“To camouflage his failure to understand the essence of the problem of the nature of the Soviet state, Shachtman leaped upon the words of Lenin directed against me on December 30, 1920, during the so-called Trade Union Discussion. ‘Comrade Trotsky speaks of the workers’ state. Permit me, this is an abstraction ... Our state is in reality not a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state ... Our present state is such that the inclusively-organized proletariat must defend itself, and we must utilize these workers’ organizations for the defense of the workers against their state and for the defense of our state by the workers.” Pointing to this quotation and hastening to proclaim that I have repeated my ‘mistake’ of 1920, Shachtman in his precipitance failed to notice a major error in the quotation concerning the definition of the nature of the Soviet state. On January 19, Lenin himself wrote the following about his speech of December 30: ‘I stated “our state is in reality not a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state” ... On reading the report of the discussion, I now see that I was wrong ... I should have said: “The workers’ state is an abstraction. In reality we have a workers’ state with the following peculiar features, (1) it is the peasants and not the workers who predominate in the population and (2) it is a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations”.’ From this episode two conclusions follow: Lenin placed s«ch great importance upon the precise sociological definition of the state that he considered it necessary to correct himself in the yery heat of a polemic! But Shachtman is so little interested in the class nature of the Soviet state that twenty years later he noticed neither Lenin’s mistake nor Lenin’s correction!
“I shall not dwell here on the question as to just how correctly Lenin aimed his argument against me. I believe he did so incorrectly – there was no difference of opinion between us on the definition of the State. But that is not the question now. The theoretical formulation on the question of the state, made by Lenin in the above-cited quotation – in conjunction with the major correction which he himself introduced a few days later – is absolutely correct. But let us hear what incredible use Shachtman makes of Lenin’s definition: ‘Just as it was possible twenty years ago,’ he writes, ‘to speak of the term “workers’ state” as an abstraction, so it is possible to speak of the term “degenerated workers’ state” as an abstraction.’ It is self-evident that Shachtman fails completely to understand Lenin. Twenty years ago the term ‘workers’ state’ could not be considered in any way an abstraction in general; that is, something not real or not existing. The definition ‘workers’ state,’ while correct in and of itself, was inadequate in relation to the particular task; namely, the defense of the workers through their trade unions, and only in this sense was it abstract. However, in relation to the defense of the USSR against imperialism this self-same definition was in 1920, just as it still is today, unshakeably concrete, making it obligatory for workers to defend the given state.” (New International, March 1940)
Even C.R. James, to whom Johnson refers and whom he seems to admire, takes a view of the Trade Union discussion in variance with that of Johnson:
“In 1920 Trotsky, whose work took him about the country, had observed that the economy of the country could stand the forced requisition no longer and had proposed the first outlines of the New Economic Policy. The Central Committee rejected the proposal. This was the origin of Trotsky’s insistence on organizing the Trade Unions as organs of the State. If War Communism continued, he foresaw collapse unless the unions were knit tightly into the fabric of the Soviet State. The moment Lenin agreed to NEP, Trotsky accepted Lenin’s Trade Union policy.” (World Revolution, p.127.)
The importance of a correct version of the 1920 Trade Union discussion is apparent. Johnson’s analysis of Trotsky as an idiot in politics rests upon a falsification of historical fact!
We now come to the most astounding bit of sleight of hand in Johnson’s article. After giving us the two “errors” that “nearly wrecked the Russian Revolution,” and then explaining to us contrary to all the basic principles of Marxism that the rise of Stalin to power was due to Trotsky “being the man he was” rather than due to class forces in struggle, Johnson flicks his wand and presto changeo! we see why he concocted these two “errors” and made Trotsky’s personality lose out to that of Stalin.
“The last of his blunders,” says Johnson of Trotsky, “which may be conveniently (sic!) dealt with here was his political position on the Russian invasion of Poland and, particularly, of Finland. As in 1920, pursuing an idea to the end, he repeated his formula: Russia is a workers’ state and therefore it must be defended.”
“As in 1920!” ... The whole trick is laid bare for the shoddy and contemptible politics it is. Not a word about the issues of the great battle Trotsky waged in 1940. Not a single phrase of reference or explanation either pro or con about principles at stake – nothing but a false reference to an “error” concocted out of a misunderstanding already answered by Trotsky! That is Johnson’s “appreciation” of this great battle Trotsky waged in 1939-40 for the basic principles of Marxism.
Now we see why Johnson referred on such a grand scale to Gibbon, and Herodotus, and Abraham Lincoln, the Origin of Species, Livy, Thucydides, Oswald Spengler and Souvarine. It was a careful build up to establish his own authority as a scholarly historian so that when he mentioned Trotsky’s “errors” casually in passing, they would be accepted by the unsuspecting reader as the truth. And all this humbug for no other purpose but to cover up the revisionist role of the petty-bourgeois opposition in their struggle against Leon Trotsky in the last year of his life! They are anxious, you see, about the heritage left by Leon Trotsky.
And now we have the key to understanding the vague insinuations levelled by Johnson in this same paragraph in regard to the petty-bourgeois revisionists splitting from Trotsky’s organization and the reasons for it. “But sharp as were the differences,” we are assured by Johnson, “between the present Workers’ Party (the name the petty-bourgeois group assumed) which was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party, a split was not necessary on this question alone. Trotsky knew that, but despite his unwillingness he was cunningly maneuvered into a position in which his authority and energy were unscrupulously used for an aim he did not have in mind. When he recognized what was happening, it was too late.”
Please, Mr. Johnson, why are you afraid to name names? Don’t you mean James P. Cannon and the majority – those in the United States who supported Trotsky against Burnham? Then why not say so? I confine myself to answering your provocative slanders with some exact quotations from Leon Trotsky indicating very clearly his views on the split, its “necessity” and who was responsible for it:
“Only the other day Shachtman referred to himself in the press as a Trotskyist. If this be Trotskyism then I at least am no Trotskyist. With the present ideas of Shachtman, not to mention Burnham, I have nothing in common. I used to collaborate actively with the New International, protesting in letters against Shachtman’s frivolous attitude toward theory and his unprincipled concessions to Burnham, the strutting petty-bourgeois pedant. But at the time both Burnham and Shachtman were kept in check by the party and the International. Today the pressure of petty-bourgeois democracy has unbridled them. Towards their new magazine my attitude can only be the same as toward all other petty-bourgeois counterfeits of Marxism. As for their ‘organizational methods’ and political ‘morality,’ these evoke in me nothing but contempt.
“Had conscious agents of the class enemy operated through Shachtman, they could not have advised him to do anything different from what he himself has perpetrated. He united with anti-Marxists to wage a struggle against Marxism. He helped fuse together a petty-bourgeois faction against the workers. He refrained from utilizing internal party democracy and
from making an honest effort to convince the proletarian majority. He engineered a split under the conditions of a world war. To crown it all, he threw over this split the veil of a petty and dirty scandal, which seems especially designed to provide oar enemies with ammunition. Such are these ‘democrats,’ such are their ‘morals’!
“But all this will prove of no avail. They are bankrupt. Despite the betrayals of unstable intellectuals and the cheap gibes of all their democratic cousins, the Fourth International will march forward on its road, creating and educating a genuine selection of proletarian revolutionists capable of understanding what the party is, what loyalty to the banner means, and what revolutionary discipline signifies.
“Advanced workers! Not one cent’s worth of confidence in the third front of the petty-bourgeoisie!”
That Trotsky was “cunningly maneuvered into a position” for “an aim he did not have in mind,” that is, split – what nonsense! Trotsky anticipated this argument long before Johnson thought it up. It is not the first time it has been hurled against Trotsky in a faction struggle. Here is how Trotsky anticipated politicians such as Johnson:
“Rumors, personal speculations and simple gossip cannot help but occupy an important place in petty-bourgeois circles where people are bound together not by party ties but by personal relationships and where no habit has been acquired of a class approach to events. It is passed from ear to ear that I have been visited exclusively by representatives of the majority and that I have been led astray from the path of truth. Dear comrades, don’t believe this nonsense! I collect political information through the very same methods that I use in my work generally. A critical attitude towards information is an organic part of the political physiognomy of every politician. If I were incapable of distinguishing false communications from true ones what value could my judgments have in general?” (From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene)
When the threat of split was raised by the revisionists Trotsky wrote:
“In any case, threats of split will not deter us from presenting a Marxist analysis of the differences. For us Marxists, it is a question not of split but of educating the party. It is my firm hope that the coming convention will ruthlessly repulse the revisionists.” (Internal Bulletin No.9. January 1940.)
After the revisionists consummated their split, Trotsky wrote:
“The petty-bourgeois minority of the SWP split from, the proletarian majority on the basis of a struggle against revolutionary Marxism. Burnham proclaimed dialectical materialism to be incompatible with his moth-eaten ‘science.’ Shachtman proclaimed revolutionary Marxism to be of no moment from the standpoint of ‘practical tasks.’ Abern hastened to hook up his little booth with the anti-Marxist bloc. And now these gentlemen label the magazine they filched from the party an ‘organ of revolutionary Marxism.’ What is this, if not ideological charlatanism?” (Socialist Appeal, May 4, 1940)
In the archives left by Trotsky are three pages of notations I saved from his table after a discussion he held with some members of the revisionist group in July. These three pages are of rare historic interest. They are notes made by Trotsky in English during the discussion for his closing speech. Written in black, red, and blue pencil, with interconnecting arrows, brackets, underlinings, numberings, they constitute the outline of his remarks. I quote only what pertains to the slander concerning Trotsky’s estimate of the split: “Orr: ‘Cannon forced us in the spleet ... spleet ... The spleet came in spite of us ...” Trotsky took up that point in his speech and ridiculed it with the most withering blasts I have ever heard in a polemic. The essence of his argument was, what kind of politicians do you consider yourselves if you let someone force you to make a split? Then he listed point by point everything the majority did to prevent a split – the democratic discussion in which literally hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of words were written, the guarantees of democratic rights for the minority made at the convention, the continuance of the minority in all posts they held; then comes the following notation: “The spleet is accomplished, as inevitable historic fact ... No reason for a spleet? The spleet is not accident – inevitable.”
Trotsky knew as well as anyone in the proletarian majority that we would have preferred not to have had a split. He knew as well as Johnson that it was the petty-bourgeoisie who deserted from the party behind the coat tails of “snob Burnam!” as Trotsky’s notation spells it on one of the pages.
Trotsky’s estimation of the split did not change before his death. The following is taken from the stenographic record of a discussion held with him later in July:
“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 yon wish a new confirmation of this, we have an excellent example in the article of Dwight Macdonald.” (Pre-Plenum Discussion Bulletin, September 1940)
Trotsky’s vast experience in proletarian politics made it clear to him that given a petty-bourgeois wing gone mad, turned irretrievably in stampede toward the bourgeois camp, who rejected all guarantees for their continued existence as a group in the party, who could be kept in the party only by conceding to their demands for a complete revision of the theory and practise of Marxism, the condition for further growth of the party was a split. The initiation of the split and therefore the assumption of responsibility for the split by the revisionists was one of the decisive empirical evidences of the hopelessness of saving the group from its headlong flight away from the Marxist party. That was why Trotsky called the split “inevitable.”
Trotsky was such a “defective politician,” such a “gifted intellectual,” had such an “idealist approach to life,” according to Johnson, that he was even incapable of detecting the politics of the GPU agent who murdered him.
“He had been warned against his murderer but this GPU agent earned his favor by an exaggerated devotion to Trotsky’s political position. For six months he discussed politics with the greatest living master of politics and Trotsky never detected a false note, apparently set no trap for him.”
This is contrary to fact.
Who warned Trotsky? When? Who of all Trotsky’s friends had the slightest notion that Jacson was an agent of the GPU before August 20?
As for discussing politics for “six months,” Trotsky met Jacson for the first time on May 28, saw him – merely because he was the husband of Sylvia Ageloff – but a few times and was alone with him only once before the assassination.  The story that Trotsky carried on many political discussions over a long period of time with Jacson is the GPU story.
“Appreciations” of Trotsky by anti-Marxists seem to be the fashion now among those anxious to cut down Trotsky’s role in history. An “appreciation” of Trotsky in the style of Johnson’s article has appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s Partisan Review. The New Leader ran a series worthy of that despicable rag. The Modern Quarterly did not forget to give him a few pages. Shachtman, however, contents himself with an appendage to Johnson’s article in which he repeats much that Johnson says, adding however his own characteristic note:
“Our comrades, the writer included, had more than one difference of opinion with Trotsky, not only while the split was taking place in the American section of the Fourth International, but often before it. But what weight in the scale have even our differences on the question of the Soviet Union in the war compared with all that Trotsky taught us about the principles of the Russian revolution, about the course of its development and its decay? What weight in the scale have our differences with him on the estimation of the regime in the Socialist Workers Party and of the merits of the respective groups compared with what he taught the whole revolutionary movement about bureaucratism and workers’ democracy, beginning with The New Course in 1923 (and even earlier), compared with the truly titanic and uncompromising struggle he conducted for almost twenty years against the most Vicious and most powerful bureaucracy the labor movement, and perhaps society as a whole, had ever seen?”
If the differences were so minute, of such light weight in the scale – just why did Shachtman decide to join Burnham in opposition to Trotsky and split from the Fourth International? Are splits made so lightly in the proletarian party? “What weight in the scale” indeed have “our differences” with Trotsky? Precisely the weight of a petty-bourgeois opposition to a proletarian line. And let us once more make clear to Shachtman – he quite evidently does not learn easily from Trotsky – the differences were not minor episodic differences as Shachtman’s article would indicate. Trotsky pointed out that the differences went right down to the most basic concepts of Marxism, and not only the Marxist concept of party regime, but the Marxist concept of the class nature of the state, and the significance in politics of the Marxist method of analysis. Trotsky’s description of Shachtman in the faction struggle applies with equal validity to the appendage Shachtman wrote for Johnson’s article:
“Shachtman’s own explanation concerning the past bitter factional struggles,” writes Trotsky, “is worthy not of a responsible political figure but of a nurse-maid: – Johnny was a little wrong, Max a little, all were a little wrong, and now we are all a little right. Who was in the wrong and in what, not a word of this. There is no tradition. Yesterday is expunged from the calculations – and what is the reason for all this? Because in the organism of the party Comrade Shachtman plays the role of a floating kidney ...
“Shachtman has left out a trifle: his class position. Hence his extraordinary zigzags, his improvisations and leaps. He replaces class analysis with disconnected historical anecdotes for the sole purpose of covering up his own shift, for camouflaging the contradiction between his yesterday and today. This is Shachtman’s procedure with the history of Marxism, the history of his own party, and the history of the Russian Opposition. In carrying this out, he heaps mistakes upon mistakes. All the historical analogies to which he resorts, speak, as we shall see, against him.” (From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene)
These lines were not written hastily by Trotsky. They were the culmination not only of a long experience with Shachtman but of the profundity and sharpness of Shachtman’s break with Marxism. For years Trotsky in conversations and correspondence had labored to break Shachtman loose from the petty-bourgeois intellectual fringe of the movement and turn his face toward the workers. This personal interest Trotsky took in the development of Shachtman was not an especial tribute to Shachtman but an evidence of one of Trotsky’s political characteristics. Trotsky never let anyone depart from the movement without a struggle to save him. Trotsky never came in contact with anyone with the slightest possibilities whom he did not try to bring closer to Marxism. Trotsky understood the value of cadres.
This characteristic of Trotsky as a politician is revealed with especial clarity in a letter he wrote to Shachtman during the factional struggle which was published in Internal Bulletin No.6, January 1940:
“... I don’t hope to convince you with these lines, but I do express the prognosis that if you refuse now to find a way towards collaboration with the Marxist wing against the petty-bourgeois revisionists, you will inevitably deplore for years and years the greatest error of your life.
“If I had the possibility I would immediately take an airplane to New York City in order to discuss with you for 48 to 72 hours uninterruptedly. I regret very much that you don’t feel in this situation the need to come here to discuss the questions with me. Or do you? I should be happy ...”
Trotsky signed this letter with a warm expression of friendship. Shachtman did not see fit to waste a postage stamp in reply to Trotsky. The differences you understand had no “weight in the scale.”
In order that one may measure the stature of Trotsky, as revealed in this letter with that of those who are now “appreciating” him, it is necessary to relate a story which Trotsky told more than one of his secretaries, and which he told the last time in the presence of myself, James P. Cannon and Farrell Dobbs. It is the story of a small incident, one afternoon in the life of Leon Trotsky. To those who know the participants, the truth of it will appear self-evident.
During the trip in a tanker across the Atlantic after Trotsky was expelled from Norway, the food was horrible. Natalia, in delicate health for years, just released from nerve-wracking months of internment while friends were shot down in Moscow, worrying about the fate of her youngest son, found herself forced to go hungry. She grew weaker, more ill. As they neared tropical Mexico she had dreams of some kind of fruit, oranges. At Tampico, one of the burning hot ports in the Gulf, they were taken by Shachtman to a hotel. Trotsky asked Shachtman as a personal favor to go out immediately and get some fruit for Natalia. He himself was hungry too. Shachtman promised, took the key to the room, locked the old couple inside for safety, and went out for fruit. Natalia and Trotsky waited.
They waited fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, forty-five minutes. One hour.
It was stifling in the room. No water. No tea. Nothing but heat. They were afraid to hammer on the door. They did not speak Spanish. The first person who came might prove to be a Stalinist. Trotsky told us he could never forget that wait ...
They began to fear for Shachtman’s safety.
Late in the afternoon they heard the key rattle in the door. It was not a GPU agent – it was Shachtman finally returned.
“And the fruit?” asked the Old Man.
“Oh,” said Shachtman laughing light-heartedly at his own expense. “I forgot it.”
He had been sight-seeing.
“It’s not that he had bad intentions,” explained Trotsky. “It’s just that he does nothing seriously. But I could not forget his leaving us like that, especially leaving Natalia after she had been thinking of fruit when we reached Mexico.”
In a delicate little footnote Johnson informs us that
“This does not mean that this writer, for instance, is in complete agreement with everything Trotsky wrote. There are not negligible sections to which he is absolutely opposed. These will be taken up in good time. But the disagreements are family disagreements.”
No one asks that a follower of Trotsky be in “complete agreement with everything Trotsky wrote.” Trotsky himself was not in “complete agreement” with everything he wrote. In the last faction struggle for instance, he pointed out that he made serious errors in the field of party organization before the October Revolution. He added that the petty-bourgeois oppositionists in 1940 were committing errors greatly similar to those he had made in the days before he became a Leninist. It is safe to assume however that Johnson is not referring to that period, but to the period after Trotsky became a Leninist. What are these differences – these “not negligible sections”? In an “appreciation” that sets out to give Trotsky’s “place in history” it is only fair to the reader that he be warned wherein the author differs in views from those of the man he is “placing” in history. There is no other way for the reader to judge the relative value of the writer’s estimation. If he agrees with the historian then he will consider the estimation all the more solid. If he disagrees he will at least know that this much of the worth of the estimation hinges on the value of the disagreements. Unlike a Marxist politician whose motto is to say what is, Johnson leaves us completely in the dark. We see only the vague forms of misty shapes called “not negligible sections.” From a man of Johnson’s erudition they might be fearful monsters!
A review of the past faction struggle however may shed a little light on these hobgoblins.
When the second world war broke out shortly after the pact between Hitler and Stalin was signed, Burnham, Abern, and Shachtman formed their grouping. Under cover of differences over how we should estimate the invasion of Poland and Finland by the Red Army they began a campaign for revision of the program of the Fourth International in regard to its estimate of the need to defend the Soviet Union. The differences however were discovered to be more profound as the struggle developed. In place of a highly disciplined cohesive proletarian party fighting as a unit for the socialist revolution, they advocated a heterogeneous party in which a minority at any time might publicly advocate views conflicting with those officially adopted by the majority of the party. Instead of a party built on the lines advocated by Lenin and Trotsky, they advocated a party built on the lines of the Mensheviks – a Norman Thomas all-inclusive party, a Dwight Macdonald dream party. Differences were discovered on the class analysis of the state, and on the applicability of the method of Marxism in analyzing world events. The opposition was clearly petty-bourgeois, alien to the working class. Trotsky summoned the ranks of the Fourth International to give them battle. Trotsky personally led this last great ideological struggle. When the revisionists found themselves, a minority at the convention which was called to settle the differences, they deserted the party and set up a rival organization.
The revisionists prefer silence now about the lessons of this historic struggle.
When they found themselves in opposition to Trotsky, the revisionists retaliated with a demand for “independent thinking.” An independent thinker according to them was a person who joined their group in independence from the majority – the implication was independent of Trotsky. The proletarian majority of the party was interested in arriving at a correct solution to the burning political questions posed by the outbreak of the world war, including the attack on the program of the Fourth International. “Independent thinking” in their estimation was a petty-bourgeois concept reflecting the wish of the petty-bourgeois to be “independent” of the class struggle. We do not know whether the revisionists still advocate “independent thinking.” They have not seen fit in recent numbers of their press to inform us about this burning requisite for a revolutionary. But Johnson apparently still believes in “independent thinking.” He demonstrated it in action by his splitting Trotsky into two personalities: the one, Trotsky a genius in theory; the other, Trotsky a simpleton in practise. Neither of these personalities correspond to the real Trotsky; in fact Johnson may be said to have demonstrated by this attempt that he has arrived at complete independence from anything in common with Trotsky either as theorist or practical politician.
From independent thinking the revisionists proceeded to discover that Trotsky was so two-faced, devious, double dealing, and “mesquin” that he propagates two political lines – one line for the unscrupulous and hypocritical sheep in the party, that is the Cannonites, another line in complete opposition to the first for the more intelligent general public and followers of Burnham. This was called “shame-faced defensism.” Dwight Macdonald even published a document on the “shame-faced defensism” of Trotsky which was never disavowed by any of his fellow-factionalists. And now Macdonald is busy continuing this sort of politics by publicly attacking the “basic tenets of Marxism,” including in his attack an “appreciation” of his own on Trotsky’s place in history. Neither Johnson nor Shachtman naturally are interested in defending the “basic tenets of Marxism.” They are interested only in presenting to the world their own “appreciation” of Trotsky’s place in history.
The culmination of politics of this “idealist” sort came with Burnham’s accusation that Trotsky in “capitulating to Stalinism” had become a “left cover for Hitler.” Monstrous charges! Neither Johnson nor Shachtman saw fit to defend” Trotsky against Burnham when the renegade levelled these charges. In fact they saw fit instead to follow Burnham out of the party within a few days. Do Johnson and Shachtman still believe that Trotsky capitulated to Stalinism and became a left cover for Hitler? Is this what Johnson means when he says that there are not “negligible sections” of what Trotsky wrote to which he is opposed?
If they think they can reduce such differences to the status of a “family disagreement” they are mistaken. Trotsky threshed out in public all his differences with these modern pygmy representatives of Menshevism. They lack the elementary honesty to state their differences with him even in their “appreciation” of his place in history. This also is a characteristic of a petty-bourgeois politician. Like the shopkeeper whose mentality they reflect, they peddle adulterated goods with the most moral expression in the world.
The “appreciation” these moralists offer of Trotsky far from being an honest attempt to estimate his historical role and to carry out in action the necessary consequences of that estimation, is nothing but a continuation of their struggle against the Fourth International. It is the spreading of the gangrene of petty-bourgeois revisionism already diagnosed by Trotsky. But like themselves as a political current, their “appreciation” is doomed to oblivion. Under the stainless banner of Trotsky’s Fourth International the coming period will see the triumph of the armies of socialism. All the dirt and filth of capitalism will be swept into the garbage can and along with it the faint-hearted skeptics and revisionists who thought through their puny and dishonest voices to halt Trotsky’s Fourth International from going forward.
1. See the article by Natalia Sedoff Trotsky in the Socialist Appeal Oct. 26, 1940.
Last updated on: 15.2.2006