Joseph Hansen

A Trotsky Anthology

(Fall 1965)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.4, Fall 1965, pp.98, 125-127.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The great economic and social crisis that swept the United States in the thirties pointed, it seemed clear at the time, to a spectacular rise in class consciousness among the American workers. One of the fundamental objectives of Roosevelt’s policy was to block this development. The revolutionary socialists on the other hand sought to further it. All their discussions on perspectives in the United States in those years revolved around this possibility. Trotsky encouraged an energetic approach to the problem. He held that the notorious backwardness of American political life could give way to highly advanced forms of the class struggle, which, once started, could proceed with characteristic “American speed,” placing the socialist revolution on the order of the day.

There would be many advance indications of such a leap, some of sensational nature like the threat of a fascist movement. Others would appear more indirect although they would be nonetheless important. Among these would be a noticeable shift in attitude toward Marxist theory. No longer would it be dismissed in intellectual circles as outmoded or irrelevant. It would, Trotsky held, begin to be taken seriously. In the land of pragmatism this would certainly take an active form and we could expect to see a generation of Marxists who would make worthy contributions of their own.

The outbreak of World War II, of course, brought the crisis of the thirties to an end in the United States, replacing it with the immense boom of the war years. World War II came to a close with the decisive victory of the Soviet Union over German imperialism – against the backdrop, provided by American imperialism, of the smoking ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All this greatly altered the logic of world events. The United States underwent decades of glittering prosperity upheld by colossal preparations for a nuclear conflict and by the expansion of American military bases to the center of Europe and the shores of Asia. Roosevelt’s policy of softening the class struggle through timely concessions became a permanent feature of government, practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike.

This was supplemented by Mc-Carthyism – initiated by Truman – the worst and most prolonged witchhunt in the history of the country. Among the consequences of these major changes was prolonged postponement of the radicalization of the American workers, the beginning of which Trotsky had observed with such fascinated attention from Mexico in the years of the rise of the CIO and the first storm signals of a native American fascist movement. Only today are we beginning to see indications in the United States of the intellectual ferment which Trotsky forecast before his death at the hands of a Stalinist assassin twenty-five years ago.

And significantly enough, it is toward Trotsky’s writings that the inquiring youth and independent-minded intellectuals of today are drawn. There is a definite rise in interest in “Trotskyism.” The 384-page paperback anthology The Age of Permanent Revolution is a case in point. [1]

The project was conceived by the late C. Wright Mills, one of America’s leading intellectuals, after first-hand experience with the Cuban Revolution convinced him that he must finally begin a genuinely serious study of Marxism. In the course of his intensive if belated investigations, he came to the conclusion that no matter what one’s final judgment might be concerning the validity of Trotsky’s theories, it was impossible to really understand present-day world realities without knowing them.

To further this understanding among American intellectuals and students, he decided to sponsor an anthology of Trotsky’s writings and to contribute an introduction, presenting his own conclusions, although they were not yet fully formed. He enlisted the aid of George Novack in making the selection and providing explanatory notes. However, Mills’ untimely death prevented him from proceeding with the project. The publishers then turned to Isaac Deutscher to sponsor the book and to provide an introduction.

The felicitous choice of selections in the anthology is mainly due to George Novack. As a well-known figure in civil-liberties work in the thirties, he was active in organizing the John Dewey Commission of Inquiry which provided Trotsky with an opportunity for a fair hearing in defending himself against the monstrous slanders levelled in the Moscow frame-up trials. Trotsky met Novack in Mexico and was much attracted to him as a representative of the young radical-minded American intellectuals of the thirties Trotsky hoped to find in him a staunch partisan of dialectical materialism, a hope that proved to be not misplaced.

At the time Novack was, of course, already a student of Trotsky’s thought. Today there are few in the world who are as well acquainted with Trotsky’s immense literary production or who have comparable appreciation of the essence of Trotsky’s outlook. When C. Wright Mills approached him for help in studying the vast field of Marxism, he was knocking at the right door. And from Mills, Novack gained a fresh impression of the limitations and strengths of the American intellectuals of today and their likely lines of exploration in the field of Marxism.

In his introduction, Deutscher pays tribute to the “many-sidedness and balance” of the selection of Trotsky’s writings presented in this anthology. The tribute is well deserved. In view of the sheer quantity of Trotsky’s output, the task of deciding what to select as “representative” was a formidable one. The problem of presenting excerpts without injuring them by separating them from their context was even more hazardous. Through concise introductory remarks to the various sections and ample footnotes to historical and biographical references, Novack managed to bridge the gaps very effectively.

In fact, the text of the book has a remarkable flow and consistency so that the anthology gives the rather astonishing effect of standing as a whole in its own right. It is somewhat like listening to Trotsky himself briefly indicating his views on a series of subjects. Out of the book thus emerges an unusually faithful presentation of Trotsky’s own personality as a political scientist. This is the man as he really was, Novack says to the honest inquirer in the United States. Judge him and his ideas for yourself.

In their selections, the editors of the Trotsky Anthology, rigorously follow the central logic of Trotsky’s own outlook and the great revolutionary is permitted to speak for himself on topics which some of his admirers of today find embarrassing such as the role and program of the Fourth International. Thus excerpts from the Transitional Program and The Manifesto on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution are included in the anthology. The Fourth International was of paramount interest to Trotsky and it was really in its cause that he gave his life. Not to have included these selections and others closely relating to this theme would have distorted the image of Trotsky which Novack set out to provide.

In his organization of the material, Novack seeks to adhere to both the logical line of Trotsky’s development as a political scientist and to the actual sequence of events in the life of the revolutionary socialist leader. Where a choice has to be made due to the limitations of the form, Novack gave precedence to the logic. This tends to bring uppermost Trotsky’s development as a theoretician and his life of action, beginning with his contributions prior to the 1905 Revolution and ending with his founding of the Fourth International and participation in one of its important discussions involving basic theory.

Since this is done through selections from Trotsky’s own writings, we are provided with a really remarkable view of the main sequence of events in the first forty years of this century as seen by one of the world’s most acute observers, who was at the same time one of the two leaders who had the greatest impact on the outcome of the history of that period (the other one being Lenin).

Thus this pocket-size book offers quite a treasure: An explanation of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, the key to understanding the main pattern of revolutionary developments not only in Russia but throughout the colonial world today; an analysis of the causes of World War I and the impetus which that war gave to revolution on an international scale, an analysis that holds basically for World War II and the great revolutionary upsurge that came in its aftermath; the gist of Trotsky’s explanation of the rise of the Soviet Union to world power, how the first workers state fell victim to a bureaucratic caste, and the alternatives facing the Soviet people today; some pieces from Trotsky’s unique contribution to the understanding of fascism and how to combat it; items dealing with countries as varied as the United States, India and China; two samples of his efforts to expose the Moscow trials; a good indication of his views on party building.

Along with all this are excerpts from Trotsky’s writings in the fields of culture, literature, art, morals, science and philosophy. The book begins with the young revolutionist’s vision of the twentieth century in which he was to play such an outstanding part; it closes with the mature genius envisioning the inspiring future of mankind.

How well have Trotsky’s theories and revolutionary optimism withstood the test of events in the twenty-five years since his death? Isaac Deutscher seeks to answer this question in the introduction. His general conclusion is that while Trotsky turned out to be wrong in particular instances and in the tempo of certain outcomes which he forecast, still he has been borne out remarkably well on all the really fundamental issues.

Referring to the “social optimism” of Marx and Engles as contrasted to the Liberal belief of their time in the automatic progress of bourgeois society, Deutscher says:

“They formulated a dual historical prognosis: mankind, they said, will either advance to socialism or relapse into barbarism. Trotsky constantly elaborates this dual prognosis. Fifty or thirty years ago the bourgeois Liberal considered it to be unduly dogmatic and unduly pessimistic; now he is inclined to dismiss it as ‘starry-eyed optimism.’

“Granted that the danger of society’s relapse into barbarism now looks more menacing than ever, and that even Trotsky could not foresee just how desperately acute the alternative – socialism or the collapse of civilization would become in the atomic age. But then the Marxist school of thought and Trotsky in particular can be reproached only for not being fully aware of how profoundly they were right. Yet Trotsky’s optimsim was no profession of passive faith; nor were his forecasts the horoscopes of a soothsayer. His confidence in man’s future is predicated on man’s capacity and willingness to act and fight for his future.

“His dum spiro spero [While there’s life, there’s hope! ] was a battle cry; each of his prognostications was a summons to action. So understood, his optimism in the atomic age is more valid than ever. The closer man may be to self-annihilation, the more firmly must he believe that he can avoid it, the more intense and fanatical must be his determination to avoid it. His optimism is essential to his survival, while supercilious disillusionment and resigned pessimism are sterile and can only prepare us for suicide.”

As for Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, Deutscher underlines its solidity as “a profound and comprehensive conception in which all the overturns that the world has been undergoing (in this late capitalist era) are represented as interconnected and interdependent parts of a single revolutionary process.” The theory was confirmed first of all in the triumph of the October Revolution in Russia and the establishment of the first workers state in history.

It was confirmed again in opposition to Stalin’s theory of “socialism in a single country,” and this in face of the fact that “from the early nineteen twenties to the late nineteen forties, all appearances of the world situation spoke against Trotsky’s doctrine.” Deutscher declares:

“Stalin’s triumph, long-lasting though it was, turns out to have been as transitory as the situation that had produced it. ‘Socialism in a single country’ can now be seen as the ideological reflex of temporary circumstances, as a piece of ‘false consciousness’ rather than a realistic program.”

Stalin’s theory was abandoned “to all intents and purposes” when Soviet troops “in pursuit of Hitler’s armies, marched into a dozen foreign lands, and carried revolution on their bayonets and in the turrets of their tanks.”

Following this came the triumph of the Chinese Revolution “which Stalin had not expected and which he had done his best to obstruct.” The march of the international revolution had been resumed.

“And ever since, Asia, Africa, and even Latin America have been seething. In appearance each of their upheavals has been national in scope and character. Yet each falls into an international pattern. The revolutionary dynamic cannot be brought to rest. Permanent Revolution has come back into its own, and whatever its further intervals and disarray, it forms the socio-political content of our century.”

If Trotsky’s “great anticipatory idea” has been confirmed by history, the confirmation, as in the case of all thinkers and political leaders, has not been one hundred per cent, Deutscher points out. In the Chinese Revolution, for instance, “whereas with Trotsky it was an absolute axiom that the revolution must come from town to country and cannot succeed without urban initiative and leadership,” yet the revolution was carried from country to town by Mao’s guerrilla army.

The Chinese Revolution constitutes an outstanding instance of the historical fact that “not one of the social upheavals of the last two decades has been strictly ‘the work of the workers’.” Yet it would be “rash to jump to the conclusion, drawn by some writers, notably the late C. Wright Mills, that all this disproves the Marxist conception that considers the industrial working class as the chief ‘historic agency’ of socialism.” Deutscher reminds those of this view that for over a century

“... the working classes of Europe were indeed the chief agents of socialism and that generation after generation they struggled for it with an intelligence, passion, and heroism that amazed the world.”

The historical record extends from the deeds of the English Chartists to the proletarian insurrections of 1905 and 1917. To this Deutscher might well have added that since 1917 the workers on an international scale have repeatedly displayed readiness on a heroic scale to move toward socialist revolution. This was a cardinal point with Trotsky. Deutscher’s rejoinder to those who see no hope in the capacity of the workers is well taken:

“A sense of proportion and perspective is needed to avoid generalizing about a long term historic process from one particular phase of it.”

Deutscher sees evidence of a “comeback” of Trotskyism today and indications of its eventual triumph even within the bureaucratic fortresses of the Soviet Union and China. The reciprocal accusations of “Trotskyism” lodged by Khruschchev and Mao against each other in the Sino-Soviet dispute are not without a grain of truth in both cases. But at the present stage, the elements of Trotskyism in the policies of Moscow and Peking are grotesquely combined with “elements of Stalinism.” The truth is that the re-emergence of Trotsky’s ideas has only begun in the world Communist movement and it remains to be seen how it is going to proceed.

An oversight in Deutscher’s fine introduction is his failure to point to the Cuban Revolution either as evidence confirming the validity of the Permanent Revolution or as a great step forward in the appearance of new revolutionary forces outside the official Communist movement. The Cuban Revolution is especially important for its impact in the United States, a good example being the book written by C. Wright Mills on the subject. The Trotsky anthology in which Deutscher’s introduction appears is itself a product of the repercussions of this revolution, Mills having turned in the direction of serious study of Marxism and particularly of Trotsky as a direct result of his trip to Cuba and his lengthy conversations with the Cuban leaders. Had Mills lived to write his projected introduction to the anthology, he would scarcely have left out reference to the Cuban Revolution, with its special meaning for Americans. Perhaps in subsequent editions of the anthology, Deutscher will want to consider this development, which is viewed by the world Trotskyist movement of today as the opening of the socialist revolution in the Western Hemisphere.

In discussing Trotsky’s conversion to the views of Lenin on the kind of party required by the working class to achieve victory, Deutscher insists on the decisive difference between the concept held by Lenin and the kind of party maintained by Stalin. This is excellent and from it one can easily grasp Trotsky’s view on the need to fight with all one’s energy for realization of the Leninist concept in opposition to Stalinism. Deutscher, however, has a position of his own which he intimates in passing by commenting on the “relative fruitlessness” of much of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalin and by declaring that outside the USSR,

“Trotskyism has not been a vital political movement: the Fourth International has never been able to make a real start.”

As against this, it was Trotsky’s opinion that to substantially affect the outcome of the battle against the Stalinist degeneration it was necessary to engage fully in the struggle. The conflict, moreover, was not over paltry matters. It involved all the key issues of the day, including some that have become increasingly acute such as the problem of building a working-class leadership capable of effectively meeting the threat of a third world war. It is difficult to see how Trotsky could have followed any other political course than the one he chose. He succeeded in destroying the prestige of Stalinism among the thinking vanguard, few as they were. Thereby he played a decisive role in clearing the way for the resurgence of revolutionary Marxism.

As for his work in founding the Fourth International, Trotsky acted as a responsible revolutionary political leader. On the one hand he pointed to the objective need for the Fourth International as the only revolutionary Marxist movement in an international situation characterized by the death agony of capitalism and an immense potential of mass struggles and elementary outbursts. There would be no absence of revolutionary opportunities in the coming period, he maintained. Indeed openings would arise for extraordinarily swift growth of sections of the Fourth International.

At the same time, Trotsky held that adherents of the Fourth International must prepare themselves for decades of difficult struggle. Trotsky stressed this in his own circle of followers. A typical statement is the following, included in the anthology (page 262):

“The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars, and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective.”

Here, too, in estimating how correct Trotsky proved to be, a sense of proportion and perspective, not to mention political judgment, is needed to avoid generalizing about the outcome of a long term historic struggle from one particular phase of it.

American Marxism

On another of Trotsky’s predictions, Deutscher in effect challenges the American intellectuals. Trotsky’s forecasts concerning the United States entering an era of proletarian revolution in which Marxism was about to conquer the American mind “were indeed far-fetched,” Deutscher declares. Instead of a profound economic crisis, American capitalism “achieved quite unparalleled expansion.” Consequently Trotsky’s prediction of “a great epoch of American Marxism” remains unfulfilled.

“Not only has the United States ‘refused’ to create any up-to-date version of proletarian socialism, but its working class seems to be further than ever from accepting any brand of socialism at all.” The American intelligentsia is no longer even leftish but a “legion of Panglosses believing that the American ‘way of life,’ slightly refurbished according to the Keynesian prescription, is the best of all possible ways of life.”

“Sadly misplaced” as Trotsky’s confidence was in “American Marxism” this does not in reality speak against him, in Deutscher’s opinion, but against his critics on this point. Trotsky was true to himself and to the basic conclusions provided by Marxist analysis about the future course of American society. The apparent triumph of the Panglosses is based on a postwar prosperity that contains among other poisonous ingredients “an armament fever lasting a quarter-century, including the madness of the nuclear arms race of two decades ...” It remains to be seen whether Trotsky was “thinking too far ahead in his American prognostications” or whether his thought was moving in the wrong direction.

In any case, time is growing short.

“Because of its social conservatism and political complacency the United States may have missed, or be missing, its greatest historical chance.”

“One would like to believe that Americans can as a nation still make good their lag in the field of ideas,” continues Deutscher, “but they have not much time to lose.”

It is on this note of challenge that Deutscher ends his introduction. One hopes that it will serve to help spur development of a serious appreciation of Marxism and of the contributions of one of its greatest protagonists as a realistic alternative to the illusions of the Panglosses.

Since Deutscher wrote his introduction, American capitalism has provided fresh evidence of how well Trotsky saw its international role in driving peoples onto the road of revolution. The most glaring instance, of course, has been Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. On the one hand, this has visibly heightened the threat of a nuclear war in which not only civilization but mankind itself could perish. On the other hand, the American aggression has inspired fresh resistance, beginning in South Vietnam and extending throughout the colonial world and into the centers of the West.

One of the most encouraging consequences was the early appearance of political opposition to the war inside the United States itself. The size and energy of this opposition at the opening of a war is unparalleled in American history. It gives great promise, if Johnson persists in deepening the war, of gaining in momentum. Inherent in this opposition is the radicalization of the American workers forecast by Trotsky at the end of the thirties. This outcome can occur with all the more explosiveness because of the undue delay in its appearance and because of the dynamic world situation in which it finally comes into being.

Thus it may well be that Deutscher’s challenge to the American intellectuals will be taken up even sooner than he might have anticipated. In that case Trotsky will rapidly come into his own in America. And the theory that best expressed the logic of world revolution when the mighty global process began in Tsarist Russia would then appropriately find its ultimate expression in the stormy social struggles now brewing in the main citadel of world capitalism.



1. The Age Of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology. With an introduction by Isaac Deutscher. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. 1964. 384 pp. $ .95.


Last updated on: 7.3.2006