Balance SHeet of Trotskyism in the United States, 1940-1947 by C L R James 1947

II. Trotsky’s Role in the 1940 Split

But if 1940-1947 gives us the experience of the American splitters and forewarns us against all who take even the most hesitating steps along that road, 1940 also gives us the method of Bolshevism in foreseeing and meeting such a crisis in the movement. Trotsky had for years foreseen the crisis in the American movement, and increasingly it became apparent that the method of his intervention was designed as an object-lesson for the whole Movement.

As he himself had to point out, from the first day of his arrival in Mexico in 1937, Trotsky tried to build a cadre in the United States which would answer and destroy Hook and Eastman, Burnham and all the anti-dialecticians. The Minority never understood why Trotsky “introduced” dialectic into the dispute of 1940 and to this day spreads the slander that he did so in order to hide his bankruptcy on the Russian question. In Europe, for historical reasons, the class alignments had posed all serious problems in class terms expressed by political parties and philosophical concepts based on different classes. In the United States, however, this was not so and the pragmatic method of thought ruled in all classes of society. It was precisely Leninism which for a generation had fought the most vigilant fight against all the peculiarities of thought which the Russian historical development had created in Russian life. This was an equally urgent task, in fact a more urgent task, for the party in the United States. The fact remains that although Trotsky tried to stimulate all the so-called intellectuals in the party to undertake this task with the necessary seriousness, he failed to get any response.

Pragmatism was merely the theoretical expression of a more vicious political enemy – the theory of American exceptionalism. It is the theory that the United States can somehow escape the European development, if not indefinitely, then for a lengthy period. In 1.921 when the Comintern realised that for the moment the revolution in Europe had receded, it posed boldly the question of the revolution in the United States. Trotsky’s writings of 1921-1926 are permeated with this idea.

The early rejection of the Labor Party slogan was based on the expectation of a rapid development of the revolutionary movement in the United States. And in 1937 the Transitional Program, like all serious Marxist programs, was elaborated above all on production and general social relations in the most advanced capitalistic country in the world – the United States. In 1939 Trotsky supervised an elaborate program of theoretical and practical activity to prepare the party, the organised labor movement and the Negro masses for the revolutionary struggles of the Negro people. From 1937, therefore, through 1938, to the presentation of the Transitional Program, to the July Conference in 1939, Trotsky was laying a foundation for the comprehensive theoretical and practical rearming, or for that matter, arming of the American party. This was needed to ‘begin the task of making a revolutionary impact upon the .political development of the world revolutionary .crisis in the U.S. For years this might seem to apply to the American comrades alone. Now the post-war developments in world politics and the International itself show that this problem affects every single section and tendency. Most of the centrifugal forces in the International are based upon the perspectives of an economic stabilization, “the democratic illusions” of the masses in Europe and indefinite postponement of revolutionary crisis. The most politically illiterate of Europeans know that the, sole prospect of economic rehabilitation in the world is the American economy. So that behind that basic conflict of perspectives in the International and the tendency to political and organizational adventurism is nothing else but the belief in the stability or the exceptionalism of American capitalism. The American question as Trotsky saw it in 1937 for the American party is now in 1947 the question of the fundamental .evaluation of the perspectives of capitalism.

When Shachtman joined with Burnham to say that they could both agree to disagree on dialectic without prejudice to concrete political issues, Trotsky reacted violently. Well before the split he wrote immediately to Shachtman. that “The section on the dialectic (is) the greatest blow that you, personally, as the editor of The New International could have delivered to Marxist theory.” (In Defense of Marxism, p. 46.) In Trotsky’s view, “It was absolutely necessary to explain why the American ‘radical’ intellectuals accept Marxism without the. dialectic (a clock without a spring). The secret is simple. In no other country has there been such a rejection of the class struggle as in the land of unlimited ‘opportunity.’”

Trotsky was fighting, it must be understood, for a comprehensive preparation for revolution. He was sharp toward Shachtman who had unmistakably revealed the Menshevik conservative tendencies in his politics. In April 1938 Trotsky presided over discussions preliminary to the Transitional Program. Trotsky was urging proletarianization but not in the sense of merely going into factories.

Right at the beginning he separated the Transitional Program from the reformist. “It is not the reformist minimum program which never includes workers’ militia, workers’ control of production.”

This was to be made even to the farmers.

“And we propose to you that you create farmers’ committees to look into the bookkeeping of the, banks; every farmer will understand that. We will say: The farmer can trust only himself; let him create committees to control agricultural credits – they will understand that. It presupposes a turbulent mood among the farmers; if cannot be accomplished every day. But to introduce this idea into the masses and into our own comrades, that’s absolutely necessary immediately.”


One who was present and who afterwards became a leading figure in the Workers Party was hostile to these ideas, as is obvious from the transcript of the proceedings.

“I believe it is not correct as you say to put forth the slogan of workers’ control of production nor the other transitional slogan of workers’ militia. The slogan for the examination of the books of the capitalist class is more appropriate for the present period and can be made popular. As for the other two slogans, it is true that they are transitional slogans, but for that end of the road which is close to the preparation for the seizure of power. Transition implies a road either long or short. Each stage of the road requires its own slogans. For-today we could use that of examination of the books of the capitalist class, for tomorrow we would use those of workers’ control of production and workers’ militia.”

This speaker was .and is entitled to his own views. But it is clear to us that he had these ideas long before the split, long before his position on Russia, long before the idea of the “Third Alternative” had assumed definite shape, long before the Stalinist parties had become “totalitarian parties.” The split did not cause these. These were the basis of the split. We can, today, understand the violence of Trotsky’s immediate rejoinder.

“How can we in such a critical situation as now exists in the whole world, in the U.S. measure the stage of development of the workers’ movement? You say it’s the beginning and not the end. What’s the distance – 100, 10, 4 – how can you say approximately? In the good old times the Social Democrats would say: Now we have: only 10,000 workers, later we’ll have 100,000, then a million and then we’ll get to the power. World development to them was only an accumulation of quantities: 10,000, 100,000, etc., etc. Now we have an absolutely different situation. We are in a period, of declining capitalism, of crises that become, more turbulent and terrible and approaching war. During war the workers learn very quickly. If you say we’ll wait and see and then propagate, then we’ll be not the vanguard, but the rearguard. If you ask me: Is it possible that the American workers will conquer power in 10 years? I will say, yes, absolutely possible. The explosion of the CIO shows that the basis of the capitalist society is undermined. Workers’ militia and workers’ control of production are only two sides of the same question. The worker is not a bookkeeper. When he asks for the books, he wants to change the situation, by control and then by direction. Naturally our advancing slogans depends upon the reaction of the masses, we know what side of the question to emphasize. We will say Roosevelt will help the unemployed by ,the war industry. But if we workers ran production, we would find another industry, not one for the dead but for the living. This question can become understandable even for an average worker who never participated in a political movement. We underestimate the revolutionary movement in the working masses. We are a small organization, propagandistic and in such situations are more sceptical than the masses who develop very quickly. At the beginning of 1917 Lenin said that the party is 10 times more revolutionary than its CC and the masses 100 times more revolutionary than the ranks of the party. There is not in the U. S. a revolutionary situation now. But comrades with very .revolutionary ideas in quiet times can become a real brake upon the movement in revolutionary situations – it happens often. A revolutionary party waits so often and so long for a revolution that it gets used to postpone it.”

This is the whole debate of 1947 Summarized. Right or wrong on the Russian question (and we hold that Trotsky was wrong on the Russian question), Trotsky was militantly on the offensive against those who could not understand what he afterwards summed up in the phrase – “the death-agony of capitalism.”


The sharpness of Trotsky’s attack against Shachtman on dialectic came shortly after his sharp attack against petty-bourgeois political conservatism. In 1940 Trotsky combined the two attacks. In his article, “From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene,” specially directed against Shachtman, Trotsky gave his definitive summing up of the split of 1940.

“ ‘Since when have you become specialists in the question of philosophy?’ the oppositionists now ironically ask the majority representatives. Irony here is completely out of place. Scientific socialism is the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process; namely, the instinctive and elemental drive of the proletariat to reconstruct society on communist beginnings. These organic tendencies in the psychology of workers spring to life with utmost rapidity today in the epoch of crises and wars. The discussion has revealed beyond all question a clash in the party between a petty-bourgeois tendency and a proletarian tendency. The petty-bourgeois tendency reveals its confusion in its attempt to reduce the program of the party to the small coin of ‘concrete’ questions. The proletarian tendency on the contrary strives to correlate all the partial questions into theoretical unity. At stake at the present time is not the extent to which individual members of the majority consciously apply the dialectic method. What is important is the fact that the majority as a whole pushes toward the proletarian posing of the question and by very reason of this tends to assimilate the dialectic which is ‘the algebra ,of the revolution.’ The oppositionists, I am informed, greet with bursts of laughter the very mention of ‘dialectics.’ In vain. This unworthy method will not help. The dialectic of the historic process has more than once cruelly punished those who tried to jeer at it.” (In Defense of Marxism, p.103-10,4)

That is the dispute now. That was the dispute then. There is not a line in that quotation about defensism or defeatism, or the Russian question; nothing ‘but dialectic and the modern proletariat. Today, infinitely more than when he polemicized against Shachtman in 1938, 1939 and 1940, the analysis and perspectives of Trotsky are valid.

We all have to learn from the campaign of 1940. Trotsky strove, as the great Bolsheviks have always done, to defeat opponents and to reconcile the factions as far as that was possible by raising the whole level of the discussion to a higher plane. As he wrote just previous to the section quoted above.

“It is precisely the party’s penetration into the trade unions, and into the workers’ milieu in general that demands heightening the theoretical qualifications of our cadres. I do not mean by cadres the ‘apparatus’ but the party as a whole. Every party member should and must consider himself an officer in the proletarian army.”

In his letter to Cannon of January 9, ,1940, (In Defense of Marxism p.96) he shows his fears that some comrades would not understand what he was doing, nevertheless, “I am sure it is now the only way to begin the theoretical education of the Party, especially of the youth and to inject a reversion (sic) to empiricism and eclectics.” On January 16 he wrote to Warde as “one of the comparatively few comrades who are seriously interested in the methodological questions of our movement” and asked him to form a theoretical association for the study of the philosophical doctrines of the movement. He welcomed eagerly the prospect of articles against symbolic logic.

Now today we face the actual crisis for which Trotsky was preparing the Movement. But if the tendencies represented by the splitters of 1940 have now reappeared all over the International, the defenders of Bolshevism have let the initiative slip away from their hands. They have not met the theoretically bankrupt and organizationally disruptive elements with an analysis of today’s problems on a level corresponding to the actual disintegration of bourgeois society. This balance sheet could not possibly perform its function if it did not emphasize this dual aspect of the American experience.