Max Shachtman

On the First Anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s Death

The Revolutionary Optimist

(August 1941)

From New International, Vol. VII No. 7 (Whole No. 56), August 1941, pp. 168–70.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan (December 2012).

IN DESTROYING Leon Trotsky, Stalin succeeded in destroying the fountainhead of revolutionary optimism of the twentieth century.

When Trotsky spoke of himself, as he sometimes did, as one drenched with the optimism of progress, he was not referring primarily to that remarkable revolutionary temperament which readily acknowledged setbacks but never a final defeat. He referred rather to the scientific analysis of capitalist society and the perspectives flowing inexorably from it which served to nourish that temperament, to sustain a confidence in the future that was an much a part of him throughout his conscious life as those outstanding talents that marked him out among even the greatest contemporaries.

Nothing else can explain the calmness with which he could live through the twelve years of reaction between the time when he was chairman of the first Soviet of St. Petersburg in 1905 and when he took over the same post – and in what a setting this time! – in 1917; the sureness with which he foretold and analyzed every new revolutionary situation even in the period of world reaction which inaugurated, accompanied and followed what he sometimes called with faint sarcasm “my fall from power”; the complete absence of personal rancor at the most perfidious of his adversaries, the absence also of the sulkiness and petulance typical of those who have lost and lost for good, the naturalness with which he escaped the living death of the disarmed warrior whose only companions are staling reminiscences.

In his youth, Trotsky linked himself firmly for all his life with the mightiest force in all history, the proletariat, and none of the vicissitudes of his exciting career was strong enough to weaken that link even a little. His confidence in the working class, not so much in what it was at any given moment but in what it had to become and had to accomplish, had nothing at all in common with a mystical Tolstoyan “faith in the people” – indeed, there was almost a frigid non-religiosity about Trotsky. It was based, instead, on an unassailable objective analysis of the immanent laws of the development of capitalism, of its origins and its rise, and of the irrepressible growth of the class which capitalism must keep alive in order itself to live but which, in order to live, must struggle to the end against the conditions of life represented by capitalism!

The socialist victory of the proletariat is as inevitable as the collapse of capitalism, Marx said over and over again. An unshakable belief in that was part of Trotsky’s blood stream. Was that merely a belief in the effectiveness of the “inevitability of socialism” as a rhetorical phrase, as has sometimes been said also of Marx’s references? No, it was more than that, infinitely more. In the course of a visit to Trotsky, we discussed the question for about half an hour. In those thirty tightly-packed minutes I think I learned more about what Marxism meant in speaking about the inevitability of the victorious socialist revolution than I had in reading hundreds of pages; more accurately, perhaps, Trotsky’s remarks threw a discriminating and unifying light on what I had read.

We had been talking about Max Eastman’s book, Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution, which was enjoying a certain vogue among radicals and radical theoreticians at the time. There was an enormous amount of nonsensicality in the book. But at the same time it repeated a seductive argument on which I often argued with Eastman without feeling that I had as firm and conclusive a position on it as I had on other questions of revolutionary theory. His point, in brief, was this:

Marx’s belief in the inevitability of socialism was Hegelian mysticism, an anthropomorphic attribution of purposiveness to nature and history. Lenin, on the other hand, even though he occasionally gave lip-service to “inevitability,” was a “revolutionary engineer” at bottom. He did not say: Here are two banks; a bridge will inevitable grow from one to the other. Rather, he drew up a plan and built the bridge.

Arguing further, Eastman developed what seemed a rather ingenious distinction between “condition” and “determine” in the writings of Marx. Marx, he wrote, used the two terms interchangeably, even identifying the one with the other. It is true that the development of capitalism creates the conditions for socialism, that is, makes socialism not only desirable but also possible (this, of course, was written before Eastman discovered that Marxism and socialism were failures because Marx, unlike Mr. Samuel Insull, was unable to make a living for his family). But it is not true that this development determines the advent of socialism, that is, makes socialism inevitable. The evolution of capitalism, in other words, conditions (bedingt) the socialist revolution but does not determine (bestimmt) it. To attain socialism, Eastman insisted severely, you cannot sit by with a metaphysically passive reliance upon the good intentions of history – you must have a plan worked out by revolutionary engineers who are actively engaged in bringing about the revolution, something like what Eastman was doing.

Trotsky on Inevitability

Trotsky hadn’t read Eastman’s book (at least not at the time we were discussing it) but declared himself against Eastman and his views. They were then still on good personal terms and Trotsky wrote Eastman an amicable letter which warned him that in all Trotsky’s experience he knew of no revolutionist – “not one” – who started to attack Marxian dialectics and didn’t end up with abandoning socialism itself. Trotsky was a good prophet about Eastman, too. But the latter was outraged: “You haven’t even read my book and yet you are against it!”

But Trotsky knew what was involved. I recapitulated to him Eastman’s argument and he took it up without hesitation. It is an argument, he said, that can impress only “Anglo-Saxon empiricists and rationalists” (“... nur solche kann es imponieren”); the book had been endorsed by that distinguished sociologist and statesman, H.G. Wells, among others. “Eastman seeks to fuse Marx with Freud, rather to replace Marx by Freud. He understands neither Marx nor Freud” – Trotsky himself greatly admired and respected Freud and was very familiar with his writings – “and above all he understands nothing of Hegel.”

Capitalism creates the conditions for socialism, but the [evolution is not determined by them, it is not inevitable, Trotsky paraphrased Eastman. How then does the revolution nevertheless take place? How is it that it did take place, it, the socialist revolution, and no other, in October, 1917 – and took place, moreover, more or less exactly as the Marxian analysis, had predicted? Because the point was reached where, of the conditions for the socialist revolution created by capitalism, all of those necessary for the revolution were present. In other words, possibility turned into necessity, which is precisely what happens and must happen when all the conditions are at hand.

“The whole thing is there in Hegel’s Logic. If he has read it, he does not understand it. He does not understand, above all, the dialectic of the transformation of quantitative change into qualitative change. When the quantity of the conditioning circumstances reaches a certain point, when all the conditions for the revolution are at hand – and they are all created by capitalism itself – these conditions become qualitatively different. From making the revolution possible, they make it necessary. The revolution is inevitable. To use Eastman’s confused terminology, the revolution is no longer conditioned, it is determined. That is what we had in the October.”

Trotsky surely was anything but a bystander passively and benevolently allowing “history” to evolve inevitably to socialism. It might be said that one of his favorite phrases summed up his life: “I am part of that inevitability, of that inevitable process!” He meant, of course, that his work, and the work of the movement with which he was always inseparably associated, whose arsenal and tradition he endowed so liberally with the riches of his intellect and nobleness – that these constituted precisely one of the conditions necessary for the victory of socialism. One of the conditions? The most important one! Trotsky’s life was a supreme concentration on mobilizing the international working class so that this “condition” could be realized.

His greatest contribution to the freedom movement of the working class was undoubtedly his work in organizing the Bolshevik revolution, the event that shook the world more violently than it had ever been shaken since the days of the great French Revolution, but more fundamentally than it was shaken at the end of the eighteenth century. It would take a thousand times more falsification of history than Stalin’s zealots have accomplished – and they have not been inactive in this field – to erase Trotsky’s name from the place it occupies in that revolution.

Yet that revolution was in a deep sense the victory of Trotsky’s ideas, of the ideas of Marxism whose fiercest and most luminous partisan he was and which he developed so brilliantly. Between Marx and Trotsky who, I believe, reached his greatest stature in the period of his “defeat” – the period of the struggle against the Stalinist counter-revolution from 1923 to 1940 – there is a direct line of continuity. That line is represented by Trotsky’s development of the fundamental Marxian theory and strategy of the permanent revolution. His name will be most durably associated with that theory, the one he began to work out in his own youth and in the youth of the Russian revolutionary movement and which, regardless of the fortunes of the factional struggles for which that movement was known, always distinguished him from all other Russian Marxists and socialists.

The Permanent Revolution

Several times, he promised himself, and others, to write a definitive work on his theory of the permanent revolution. He planned to present it in the full flower of its development in the course of three decades of inner-movement struggles and of world social development. To the superficial Stalinist critics of the theory who confined themselves to counterposing quotations from Lenin’s pre-war writing to Trotsky’s pre-war writings, he gave the warning hint that in his work he would point out what even his most bitter critics did not see or understand, that is, those points in his theory which were wrong and those points in which Lenin was right. For one reason or another, he never got around to writing it – an irreparable loss to our generation of Marxists.

The only more or less systematic presentation of his more rounded out and, so to speak, internationalized theory of the permanent revolution is contained, so far as I know, in a masterpiece of concise exposition, the preface to the American edition of a polemic against Radek and Co. which we published in this country under the title, The Permanent Revolution. It belongs among the more important classics of Marxism and of political thought in general. But although there is no larger systematic presentation of his theory, it is nevertheless available in different form. Trotsky never abandoned the theory of the permanent revolution, even though, at one moment in the struggle of the Opposition in the Russian Communist Party, he seemed prepared to withdraw the term “theory of the permanent revolution” only in order that the debate occur on the substance of his theory rather than on the label, on the political issues of the day rather than on historical and apparently outlived questions.

To understand this theory, which is truly the most audacious and realistic theory of the development of the class struggle ever put forward, it is necessary only to follow the struggles of Trotsky himself. To understand this theory, it is necessary only to study the course of the great Russian revolution, the hugest possible confirmation of its correctness; and to study along with it the course of development of the revolutions in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, particularly of China from 1925 to 1931. Much of the material is lost in the obscurity of speeches and writings of Trotsky since 1917, and especially since 1923, some of which are nowhere available, others of which have never been translated from the original language. Fortunately, the essential material has not only been preserved, but also translated into English; and even where the editions are exhausted, the revolutionist worth his salt, the revolutionist who wants to give full meaning to his work, will not wait for a reprint but will make it his business to get hold of copies in one way or another, and read and re-read them until he has assimilated the vast wealth of revolutionary teachings they contain. And only those militants who do this, and who do it in the spirit of the critical Marxist who succeeds in doing more than repeat slavishly formulae learned by rote, and who employ their knowledge in active fighting in the class struggle – only they will have equipped themselves for effective participation in the historical process that leads to socialism.

The Fourth International

Trotsky’s ideas were his fighting program; his banner the Fourth International. The Kremlin Borgia was determined that Trotsky should not live to see the victory of the Fourth International, of which he was so completely sure; and the Borgia succeeded. But the architect of the Fourth International was easier to kill than the program of the Fourth International. It cannot be slain. We share Trotsky’s confidence, so incomprehensible to the journalist-of-the-day, because we know why he was so confident.

No other way out of the dreadful morass in which the peoples of the world find themselves has been left to them by a poisonously disintegrating social order than the way of the program of the Fourth International. Whatever else it is possible for us to believe, we do not and cannot believe in the complete extinction of society, at least not until the extinction of the planets. And if society is to live, if even what we know of civilization is to be preserved – much less socialism attained – the little folk of the world, the workers, the peasants, the slaves in the colonies must plant the flag of the Fourth International all over the world, must march to victory with its program. There is no other way out – none, absolutely none.

The revolution in permanence! that was the battlecry of communism in Marx’s day. The permanent revolution, the revolution that continues and spreads until it has burned out of the hearts and minds and lives of mankind all semblance of human exploitation and oppression, of the rule of men over men! That is our battlecry today. It is our indomitable conviction.

What more enduring monument could mankind build for Trotsky than this world victory? What more befitting monument? Was not his whole life its strongest foundation stone?

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 25 October 2014