William F. Warde

Trotsky on the Role of the USA

(July 1951)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.12 No.4, July-August 1951, pp.114-118.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
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.

Leon Trotsky looked upon the United States as “the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged.”

This country was marked out for such a role, not because its inhabitants were possessed of unique virtues beyond the reach and ability of other peoples but because of the entire course and tendencies of world development in modern times.

Thanks to exceptionally favorable historical circumstances and natural endowments, the productive forces of modern society and its techniques – which are the mainsprings of progress – had reached their highest levels here.

The wealth and productive facilities of America could supply the material basis for a new social organization which would ensure plenty for all in the shortest time. But the capitalist ownership of industry and the monopolist control of the government stands in the way of using these riches and facilities for the benefit of the American people as a whole and for mankind.

Two Main Contradictions in US

Because its economic and financial strength is locked within the framework of capitalist relations, America finds herself simultaneously impelled in two opposite directions. On the one hand, Trotsky explained,

“... it is precisely the international strength of the United States and her irresistible expansion arising from it, that compels her to include the powder magazines of the whole world into the foundations of her structure, that is, all the antagonisms between the East and the West, the class struggle in Old Europe, the uprisings of the colonial peoples, and all wars and revolutions.”

The United States is thus subjected, externally and internally, to tremendous revolutionary pressures far greater than any other advanced country has had to withstand.

On the other hand, the operation of these same forces produces just the opposite effect, transforming “North American capitalism into the basic counter-revolutionary force in the modern epoch interested in the maintenance of (capitalist) ‘order’ in every corner of the terrestrial globe.” That is why, for all its vast material achievements, the United States has appeared to the rest of the world, not as the trailblazer to socialism, but as the supreme embodiment of its opposite – capitalism.

These words, laying bare the dynamics of -the world role of America, were written almost a quarter of a century ago. They have been entirely confirmed by the course of events.

Trotsky’s First View of America

A Marxist, who understood how world conditions and tendencies dominate the development of every separate nation, Trotsky always took as his point of departure the review and analysis of world economic and political relations. The problem of America’s role in world affairs first preoccupied his attention when he was expelled from France and then Spain for his socialist anti-war activities and came to New York in the third year of the First World War.

Shortly after his arrival in January 1917 he addressed an international meeting of welcome in the following words:

“It is a fact of supreme importance that the economic life of Europe is being blasted to its very foundations whereas America is increasing in wealth. As I look enviously at New York – I who still think of myself as a European – I ask myself: ‘Will Europe be able to stand it? Will it not sink into nothing but a cemetery? And will the economic and cultural center of gravity not shift to America?’”

In one of the New York libraries he assiduously studied the economic history of the United States.

“The figures showing the growth of American exports during the war astounded me; they were, in fact, a complete revelation. And it was those same figures that not only predetermined America’s intervention in the war but the decisive part that the United States would play in the world after the war, as well. I wrote several articles about this at the time, and gave several lectures,” he wrote in My Life (pp. 270-271).

“Since that time the problem of ‘America versus Europe’ has been one of my chief interests. And even now I am studying the question with the utmost care, hoping to devote a separate book to it. If one is to understand the future destiny of humanity, this is the most important of all questions.”

Foresaw World Importance of USA

After his return to Russia, despite his absorption in the Russian revolution or more accurately, precisely because of it, the question of America keeps recurring again and again in his work. In the period between the close of the civil war in the USSR and the outbreak of World War II, the role of US imperialism loomed in his mind as the paramount problem of world economy and world politics.

As early as 1920, in the Manifesto issued by the Second World Congress of the Communist International, he set forth the main considerations on the dynamics of American monopoly capitalism. These guided the outlook of the Communist International in its most progressive years until Lenin died, and Trotsky’s own thinking on the subject over the next two decades.

With its decisive intervention in World War I, the United States had become thoroughly imperialistic, displacing Britain as the master of world capitalism and compelled to pursue an aggressive policy of expansion on a global scale. Henceforward, the needs of the imperialist ruling class and their tool, militarism, would tend more and more to dominate not only American life but the entire course of international affairs.

This perspective was summarized by him as follows:

“The (First) World War has completely dislodged the United States from its continental conservatism (‘isolationism’). The program of ascending national capitalism – ‘America for the Americans’ (The Monroe Doctrine) – has been supplanted by the program of imperialism. ‘The Whole World for the Americans’.” (The First Five Years of the Communist International, p.109)

Perspectives in Europe and America

Trotsky sketched out the book he hoped to write on the interrelations between the Old World and the New in a

number of speeches delivered in 1924 and 1926 to audiences of Russian workers. These were later published by the Soviet State Publishing Mouse under the title: Europe and America. In his speeches Trotsky reviewed the prospects of world development as they appeared in the mid-Twenties. He pointed out how imperialist America was moving out into all world channels and taking the offensive against its rivals.

What did this mean for Europe?

“This means that Europe will be permitted to rise again, but within limits set in advance, with certain restricted sections of the world market alloted to it. American capitalism is now issuing commands, giving instructions to its diplomats. In exactly the same way it is preparing and is ready to issue instructions to European banks and trusts, to the European bourgeoisie as a whole ... This is its aim. It will slice up the markets; it will regulate the activity of the European financiers and industrialists. If we wish to give a clear and precise answer to the question of what American imperialism wants, we must say: It wants to put capitalist Europe en rations.” (Europe and America, p.16)

Following the defeat of the German revolution in 1923, America’s new role in Europe enabled the bankrupt capitalism to be temporarily stabilized there. Trotsky was the only one who emphasized that the intervention of the Almighty Dollar had become the most important factor in European life. The German Social Democracy, the French Radicals and the British Labor Party adapted themselves materially and ideologically to this situation and put forward a new gospel of salvation through the aid of American gold and loans.

These economic and political conditions helped prop up European capitalism at the time and fed the democratic and pacifist illusions of its “leftist” parties. Meanwhile, however, the inexorable pressure of American imperialism upon Europe was disrupting world economic relations and preparing new conflicts. The staggering material preponderance of the United States excluded the possibility of economic upswing and regeneration for capitalist Europe. “If in the past it was European capitalism that revolutionized the backward sections of the world, then today it is American capitalism that revolutionizes overmature Europe,” pointed out Trotsky. America was pushing Europe into an economic blind-alley from which there was no escape except through the proletarian revolution.

Internal Repercussions of New World Role

But this expansion of US imperialism into Europe and Asia was bound to have momentous consequences not only for Europe but for the United States itself.

“The more the United States puts the whole world under its dependence, all the more does it become dependent upon the whole world, with all its contradictions and threatening upheavals ... America is no longer a self-sufficing whole. In order to maintain its internal equilibrium the United States requires a larger and larger outlet abroad; but its outlet abroad introduces into its economic order more and more elements of European and Asiatic disorder.” (Europe and America, pp.68-69.)

The crash of 1929 was the first demonstration of the consequences of this inescapable interdependence.

One of the outstanding peculiarities of American imperialism Trotsky singled out for examination was the mask of democracy and pacifism donned by the American monopolists, no less predatory, dictatorial and ruthless than their European predecessors. This has deceived, as it still continues to do, many people. Thanks to the special conditions of American development, and its relative geographical and political isolation, this pacifist and democratic mask had, so to speak, become glued to the imperialist face making it difficult to peer beneath it and pry it off. This feature has persisted to the present day. But as American imperialism grows more openly militaristic and reactionary in its operations, the discrepancy between the real face and the mask is becoming more apparent, as, for example, the Korean war illustrates.

So long as Lenin lived the basic ideas outlined above constituted an important part of the programmatic position of the world communist movement. It was generally accepted by Marxists that one of the first tasks of the proletarian revolution was the establishment of the Socialist United States of Europe as the only progressive way of resolving the internal chaos of the Old Continent. This slogan was, in fact, formally accepted by the Communist International in 1923.

Stalinism and America’s Role

But in Lenin’s lifetime the world revolutionary movement did not succeed in formulating or adopting a definitive international program. This was not done until 1928 when at the Sixth World Congress, a program drafted by Bukharin and Stalin was finally adopted. The basic ideas of Leninism received only lip service, but were scuttled in action. And among the things that went overboard were all of Trotsky’s scientific expositions of the interrelations between capitalist America and the rest of the world, Europe in particular. The slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe was the very first to be scuttled.

The original draft of the Stalin-Bukharin program did not even contain a reference to the United States by name; this, along with a few other formal references, was included only under the pressure of Trotsky’s criticism, from his exile at the time in Alma-Ata, Central Asia.

To the conservative, narrow-nationalistic Stalinist bureaucracy the state boundaries of Europe represented the same untouchable fetish as to the capitalists. They not only failed to understand the reactionary character of these state boundaries, but as experience was to prove, following World War II, they maintained them intact in Eastern Europe.

They never understood, as Trotsky pointed out in his classic critique of Stalinism, The Third International After Lenin, that “the inevitable further development of American expansion, the contraction of the markets of European capital, including the European market itself, entail the greatest military, economic and revolutionary convulsions, beside which all those of the past fade into the background.” (p.7)

They were blind, as they still are, to the fact that

“the further inexorable pressure of the United States will reduce capitalist Europe to constantly more limited rations in world economy; and this, of course, implies not a mitigation, but, on the contrary, a monstrous sharpening of inter-state relations in Europe accompanied by furious paroxysms of military conflict, for states as well as classes fight even more fiercely for a meagre and a diminishing ration than for a lavish and growing one.”

The culmination of both of the above-outlined processes has been taking place before our very eyes.

Following the crash of 1929 when fraudulent pacifism still remained the official pretense of Washington, Trotsky once again emphasized that precisely the international strength of the US and its tremendous productive capacity, requiring the whole world as an outlet, would impel America’s monopolists toward the conquest and domination of the globe. “The changes introduced ‘by the (first world) war into the American structure have in turn made the entry into the world arena a life-and-death question for American capitalism,” he warned in an article, Nationalism and Economic Life written for Foreign Affairs.

“There is ample evidence that this entry must assume extremely dramatic forms ... Sooner or later American capitalism, must open up ways for itself through the length and breadth of our entire planet. By what methods? By all methods. A high co-efficient of production denotes also a high co-efficient of destructive force.” (Reprinted in Fourth International, September 1945)

Insight on “New Deal”

Six years before the outbreak of World War II in the theses War and Fourth International Trotsky predicted:

“Capitalism in the United States is running head on into those problems which impelled Germany in 1914 upon the road of war ... For Germany it was a question of ‘organizing’ Europe. For the United States it is a question of ‘organizing’ the world. History is taking mankind directly into the volcanic eruption of American imperialism.”

These words were written at the height of the “New Deal” ballyhoo. In his study of US capitalist development – “Twentieth-Century capitalism’s most perfect mirror” – Trotsky set forth the reasons why Roosevelt’s reforms and oft-repeated pacifism would not allay the warlike and dictatorial trends of the monopolist magnates but on the contrary reinforce them and prepare the soil for their open manifestation.

“The New Deal policy with its fictitious achievements and its very real increase in the national debt is unavoidably bound to culminate in ferocious capitalist reaction and a devastating explosion of imperialism.” (The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx, p.25.)

These prophetic words, written in 1938, outline the grim realities of recent years: US participation in World War II, the Truman Doctrine, Taft-Hartleyism, the unbridled witch-hunts, the growth of militarism and the feverish preparations for World War III.

That is the reactionary side of American developments. So far as the revolutionary perspectives are concerned Trotsky originally inclined to the view that the socialist revolution was far closer in Europe than in the United States. But he always qualified this position. In a letter written in 1929 to the first conference of the Communist League of America, the pioneer Trotskyists, he repeated this thought but immediately added that a turn of events was possible that could alter the succession of revolutionary events and pull the United States into the front rank of the revolution as well as the counter-revolution.

Perspectives on Labor in USA

By next year, however, he drastically revised his estimates of American revolutionary potential.

“It is nowhere written,” he then concluded, “and theoretically it cannot be substantiated, that the American workers will perforce have to pass through the school of reformism for a long period of time. They live and develop in another period, their coming to maturity is taking place under different circumstances than that of the English working class, for instance ... It is not at all permanently established that the United States will be last in the order of revolutionary primacy, condemned to reach its proletarian revolution only after the countries of Europe and Asia. A situation, a combination of forces is possible in which the order is changed and the tempo of development in the United States enormously accelerated” (The Militant, May 10, 1930.)

Thirties, Trotsky became increasingly preoccupied with the problems presented by revolutionary prospects in the United States. He was firmly convinced that the very position of the United States as the foremost capitalist power made it impossible for it to escape the effects of the disintegration and decay of world capitalism.

The collapse of the entire capitalist economy which began in the United States demonstrated this. The two chief objective factors required for a sweeping social change were already present: on the one side, the highly developed forces of production which could easily be tripled once capitalist parasitism was eliminated and, on the other, a deepening social crisis.

A revolutionary movement further requires a progressive class interested in and impelled toward a radical transformation of productive and property relations. This too existed in the formidable American working class which embraced the majority of the population and could give leadership to the distressed farmers and oppressed Negroes.

The remarkable organizational capacities of this central social force were dramatically displayed in the battles that gave birth to the CIO, the most important product of the great storms that shook America from top to bottom during this period. The CIO lifted American labor to new heights. This organization of the industrial workers is ordinarily looked upon by superficial observers as nothing more than a change in the trade union movement.

Saw Significance of CIO

But it is far more than that, as Trotsky perceived. The CIO was a colossal mobilization of the vanguard of the industrial proletariat pitted in combat against the corporate giants who rule America, a combat from which the workers had emerged victorious in their immediate objectives. It was a surging, seething rank-and-file revolt, organized and led on picket lines by militant leaders from the shops, mines and mills, democratic in spirit and bold in its methods of struggle.

“The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses,” Trotsky summarized in 1941. [sic!] He had previously noted in the founding document of the Fourth International:

“The unprecedented wave of sit-down strikes and the amazingly rapid growth of industrial unionism in the United States (CIO) is the most indisputable expression of the instinctive striving of the American workers to raise themselves to the level of the tasks imposed on them by history.”

However, although this new union movement born of the radicalization of the industrial workers was profoundly revolutionary in its potentialities, these did not find means of expression at this first stage. Trotsky analyzed the reasons for this retarded and drawn-out development. He saw the biggest internal obstacle to the progress of the CIO in the conservative character of its capitalist-minded top leadership, seconded by the Stalinists. This leadership did its utmost to keep the insurgent masses within the narrow confines of bargaining with the corporations and collaboration with government boards and mediators. They subordinated the independence of the CIO to the needs of their political coalition with Roosevelt, as subsequently with Truman.

Proposal for a Labor Party

The second obstacle was the immature political and class consciousness of the American workers, their lack of traditions of independent political activity, their illusions about Rooseveltism, which were cleverly exploited by the leadership. Yet there were already signs, such as the setting up of Labor’s Non-Partisan League that the ranks were chafing at their subservience to the capitalist political machines and would enthusiastically respond to a clear call for a definitive break with them.

How could these tendencies be fortified? The CIO as the economic expression of the new stage in the advancement of American labor had virtually overnight become a powerful political factor that could – and should – be able to blaze another political pathway for the entire American people. The growth of the CIO and the deepening decline of American capitalism made the creation of such a new political instrument imperative. “We must put forward a proposal which can enable the trade unions to throw their full weight into the political balance,” urged Trotsky beginning with 1938. Under the given conditions that meant the formation of a national Labor Party.

Such a party need not be reformist and in any case the Marxists should endeavor to make it the most effective agency for solving the problems of the working people. One way was the presentation of a basic program for such a party, a program of transitional demands which could both meet the needs of the current stage of struggle and. lead the workers forward to the conquest of power through a Workers and Farmers Government.

With the economic nosedive of 1937-38 Trotsky expected a sharpening of the social crisis and a rapid radicalization of the labor movement which would open up wide-ranging revolutionary perspectives. Under the impact of this developing crisis, he remarked, “I believe that the change in the mentality of the American workers will come at a very speedy rhythm.” However, the military preparations, and then the war itself, cut across this line of development. But even though the war retarded the further unfolding of the social crisis in this country, it did not and could not alter the fundamental trends or overcome the inner contradictions of American capitalism. When conditions change, so will the mood and mind of the masses, Trotsky kept reminding the American Marxists. Then the workers will quickly discard their conservatism and prejudices and incline toward socialist ideas and the most radical solutions. What is essential at all stages in this process, through all the ups-and-downs of the class struggle, is to build a socialist workers party that will be ready, willing and able to provide the American workers with the kind of leadership they need and deserve. The struggles between capitalist reaction and the advancing hosts of labor can last for a long period “and during this time our people will steel themselves, become more sure of themselves, and the workers will say: ‘They are the only people capable of seeing the path’,” Under revolutionary conditions a party prepared to fulfill its tasks can become the decisive political force within the country in a comparatively short time, like Lenin’s Bolsheviks in 1917.

American Revolution and Soviet Bureaucracy

Nowadays the solicitors of support for the schemes of global conquest projected by the American militarists and monopolists depict the capitalist “free enterprise” system as the sturdy protector of civil rights at home and the carrier of democracy abroad – on B-29’s and flamethrowers. On the other hand, to frighten workers from the road of struggle for socialism, they point to the bogy of Stalinist totalitarianism and declare that such a police state is the inescapable outcome of a socialist revolution.

In an interview given to a St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter in February 1940 Trotsky explained that in reality it was the uninterrupted decay and sharpening crises of capitalism which generated fascist trends and gave rise to police states in the capitalist countries confronted by the demands of the workers for a better life. And that the Stalin despotism which strangled and replaced the working class democracy of the early Russian Revolution had nothing in common with socialism but was a horrible political relapse toward the worst features of class rule, fostered by the backwardness of Russia, the isolation of its revolution and the persistent scarcity of material goods.

Actually the victory of the workers revolution in so developed a country as the United States would remove these exceptional historical conditions and thereby eliminate the material reasons for the existence of any bureaucratic governing caste resting on poverty, scarcity and the scramble for privileges at the expense of the living and working conditions of the masses. The high technological and cultural level of the American workers would likewise guarantee an expansion of genuine democracy under a Workers and Farmers Government. Asked whether the rule of the workers would not necessarily mean the suppression of personal freedom and the surrender of civil rights, as the anti-socialists allege, Trotsky replied:

What a Socialist America Would Mean

“It would be a great mistake to think the socialist revolution in Europe or America will be accomplished after the pattern of backward Russia. The fundamental tendencies will, of course, be similar. But the forms, methods, the ‘temperature’ of the struggle, all this has, in each case, a national character. By anticipation it is possible to establish the following law: The more countries in which the capitalist system is broken, the weaker will be the resistance offered by the ruling classes in other countries, the less sharp a character the socialist revolution will have, the shorter it will be, the sooner the society will be reborn on the basis of a new, more full, more perfect and humane democracy. In any case, no revolution can infringe on the Bill of Rights as much as imperialist war and the fascism it will engender.

“Socialism would, have no value if it should not bring with it, not only the juridical inviolability but also the full safeguarding of all the interests of the human personality. Mankind would not tolerate a totalitarian abomination of the Kremlin pattern. The political regime of the USSR is not a new society, but the worst caricature of the old. With the use of the might of the techniques and organizational methods of the United States; with the high well-being which planned economy could assure there to all citizens, the socialist regime in your country would signify from the beginning the rise of independence, initiative and creative power of the human personality.”

Trotsky himself embodied the “independence, initiative and creative power of the human personality” to an exceptional degree. But he developed these traits through his entire life work as a socialist determined to bring forth conditions in our world which would make possible such a flowering and fulfillment of the human personality, not simply for a favored few, but for the billions of toiling and aspiring mankind. In his outlook the ultimate purpose and supreme justification of all revolutionary activity in our time was not only to liberate the economy from capitalist restrictions so that it could provide abundant material goods to satisfy the needs of all. This was indispensable and preliminary to a higher goal: the creation of a new type of human being cleansed of the abominations bred by class-divided society. The productive facilities of a Socialist America would derive their decisive importance and value from the great part they were destined to perform in the making of a free race of human beings for the first time on our planet.


Last updated on: 6.2.2006