Leon Trotsky

A Letter to Albert Treint

(September 1931)

Written: 13 September 1931
First Published: From The New International, Vol.4 No.2, February 1938, pp.56-58.
Translated: By The New International.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Dear Comrade Treint:

As I was able to convince myself from our correspondence and now from our conversations, your mind turns constantly not to questions of program and policy but rather to isolated incidents in the past. Tirelessly and – if you will allow me – with the bias of a prosecutor, you ferret out the mistakes of others, thinking in this way to minimize your own. Previously in correspondence and now in personal talks, I made several attempts to shunt you from this, in my opinion, barren path to the path of the vital and actual problems of the revolution, but you stubbornly persist on your own. Pursuing the tradition of the period when you stood at the head of the French party, you continue to demand of everybody the admission of their mistakes. I am forced to take my stand on the level to which you reduce our political discussion in order once and for all to draw a line under certain questions. Inasmuch as in your researches you operate with isolated petty episodes, data, chance conversations, and so on, elements, that is, which do not at all allow of verification, I prefer to answer you in writing.

First, I shall begin with an “admission of my mistakes.”

Yes, in the early part of 1924 I did allow my name to be signed, in my absence, to Radek’s theses on the German revolution. These theses were erroneous – to tell the truth, not so grossly in error as were the theses of the Comintern – and were in conflict with everything that I wrote and said prior, during, and after their compilation by Radek. Doubtless it was a blunder on my part. But there was nothing “principled” in this mistake. The plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International found me ill in a village, 40 kilometres away from Moscow. Radek communicated with me by phone, which functioned very poorly in winter. Radek was being hounded at the plenum. He was seeking support. He declared categorically that the views presented by the theses were identical with those I had developed in my speeches and articles, and that Pyatakov had already signed them. He asked me to add my signature without insisting upon reading the theses since he had only half an hour before the decisive session. I agreed – not without inner wavering – to give my signature. Yes, I committed an error in placing too much confidence in the judgment of two comrades, Radek and Pyatakov. For, as a matter of fact, the two of them, perhaps even in agreement with Brandler, introduced into the theses a number of formulations which were intended to mitigate Brandler’s guilt, and to justify the conduct of Pyatakov and Radek themselves, who supported Brandler in many things.

After acquainting myself with Radek’s theses, I did not hide either from their author or from any other comrade my disapproval of the theses. In speeches and articles that were issued as pamphlets, and later in entire volumes, I formulated time and again my appraisal of the German situation, which had nothing in common with Radek’s theses. This appraisal, which I arrived at approximately in July 1923, I have upheld unaltered in its essentials to this very day. Herein I naturally include the appraisal of Brandler’s politics, that of the Zinoviev faction of the Comintern, and so on.

It is a noteworthy fact that not a single member of the Zinoviev clique utilized in Russia my signature to Radek’s theses, for my attitude towards the Brandlerites was far too well known. From September 1923 to January 1924, Zinoviev and Stalin even defended Brandler against my allegedly unjustified attacks. But far more important is another aspect of the matter which has apparently completely slipped your memory. With all its errors as regards the past, Radek’s resolution contained a most important warning as regards the future: it stated that the directly revolutionary situation had passed, and that a period of defensive struggles and preparation for a new revolutionary situation was in store. In my eyes this was the central point. On the other hand, the resolution of the Comintern continued to steer a course toward armed insurrection. Hence flowed the ill-fated policy of ultra-leftism of 1924-25. Had I been present at the plenum, and had the adoption of one of these two resolutions hinged upon my vote, I would have voted for Radek’s resolution, notwithstanding all of its mistakes in regard to the past. But you, Comrade Treint, voted for the resolution of the Comintern which resulted in the greatest calamities and devastations. That is why you are hardly the proper prosecutor even as regards Radek’s poor resolution.

In 1924 you couldn’t of course be acquainted with the behind-the-scenes history of Radek’s resolution. At that time, you had the right to invest my signature to Radek’s theses with an exaggerated importance, without juxtaposing them with what I had personally said and written on this very question. But since that time almost eight years have elapsed. All the most important documents have long been published in all languages. My book on the Comintern [The Third International After Lenin] states everything essential insofar as the policy of the Brandlerites in 1923 is concerned.

I ask you: What do you expect to glean now, in the autumn of 1931, from the chance episode of my signature to Radek’s theses? Why not give yourself an answer to this question? Why not formulate your reply in writing?

Furthermore, you persistently cite my declaration that in all fundamental questions on which I disagreed with Lenin, Lenin was right as against me. This declaration is contained in the platform of the Opposition bloc of 1926. You, like Zinoviev, seek to draw directly or indirectly from this declaration the conclusion that you were correct in the criticism which you and your faction directed against me from 1924 to 1927 – if not entirely then at least partially so.

And here, too, I begin with an “admission of my mistake.” And this time likewise the error was not of a principled character: it rests completely and exclusively on the plane of inner factional tactics.

In its general form, my declaration that Lenin was right as against me is unquestionably correct. I made it without doing the least violence to my political conscience. Lenin did not come over to me, I went over to Lenin. I joined him later than many others. But I make bold to think I understood him in a way not inferior to others. If the matter involved the historical past alone, I would make no exceptions to my declaration. It would be unworthy of Lenin’s memory, and at the same time beneath my dignity, for me to attempt, now that Lenin is no longer alive, to demonstrate out of mere ambition that on such and such questions I was right as against Lenin.

Nevertheless I violently opposed the declaration which you now so avidly seize upon. Why? Precisely because I foresaw that a declaration on my part would be seized upon by all those who were and who remain equally wrong both as against Lenin and me. On the question of my disagreements with Lenin, the Zinoviev faction and its French section have written a great many pages, theoretically absurd, politically reactionary, and in considerable measure, slanderous. With my acknowledgement of Lenin’s correctness, Zinoviev sought, if only partially, to throw a veil over the previous criminal “ideological” work of his own faction against me.

Zinoviev’s position at that time was truly tragic. Only yesterday a recognized leader of anti-Trotskyism, he on the next day bowed to the banner of the 1923 Opposition. At the sessions of the Central Committee all the speakers took every occasion to fling in his face his own declarations of yesterday, to which he could say nothing in reply. The same thing was done day in and day out by Pravda. On the other hand, the advanced Petrograd workers, followers of Zinoviev, who had engaged honestly and seriously in the struggle against “Trotskyism,” could by no means reconcile themselves to the sudden 180-degree turn. Zinoviev was confronted with the danger of losing the best elements of his own faction. In these conditions, a number of comrades from the 1923 Opposition insistently argued with me: “Let us give Zinoviev some general formula that would enable him, if only partially, to defend himself against the blows of the Stalinists on the one hand, and against the pressure from his own Petrograd co-thinkers on the other.” I had no objections in principle to a defensive formula of this type, but on one condition, namely, that it contained no principled concessions on my part. The struggle around this question lasted for weeks. At the last moment, at a time when it was already necessary to hand in a finished platform to the Central Committee, a clear-cut diplomatic break occurred between us and the Zinovievists precisely over the question of this formula which interests you so much. We were ready to introduce a platform independently in the name of the 1923 faction. As is always the case, intermediaries were found. Changes and corrections were introduced. In our own group, it was decided to make a concession to the Zinovievists. In our group I voted against the concession, finding it excessive and equivocal. But I did not break on this question either with the leading centre of my own group or with the Zinovievists. However, I did warn my friends that I would not raise the question so long as only the historical past was concerned. But as soon as it would be posed as a programmatic or political question, I would of course defend the theory of the permanent revolution. This is precisely what I did later.

That is what really took place. Now you know. You naturally could not have known in your time. But a great deal of water has gone under the bridge since 1926. We passed through the experience of the Chinese revolution. It has been revealed with absolute clarity that the sole antithesis to the theory of nationalistic socialism is the theory of the permanent revolution. The same question was posed with regard to India, and gave us, in particular, a test of the theory of “bi-composite ( two-class ) parties.” Now the problem of the permanent revolution unfolds before us on the arena of the Iberian peninsula. In Germany the theory of the permanent revolution, and that theory alone, stands counterposed to the theory of a “people’s revolution.” On all these questions the Left Opposition has expressed itself quite categorically. And I myself, in particular, have long since explained in the press the mistakes of the Russian platform of 1926, insofar as it contained concessions to the Zinovievists.

I ask you: What do you desire to glean today, in the autumn of 1931, from the circumstance that in the autumn of 1926 I deemed it necessary – rightly or wrongly – not to protest publicly against the purely formal concessions which my then political friends thought it necessary to make to the Zinovievists? Why not reply to this question in writing!

Now I could with complete justification raise some questions concerning your own past. Have you understood that whatever might have been this or that partial mistake or sin, the basic nucleus of the 1923 Opposition was and remains the vanguard of the vanguard, that it conducted and still conducts a struggle for the theory of Marxism, for the strategy of Lenin, for the October Revolution; whereas the opponent grouping to which you belonged carried through the fatal revision of Leninism, shook the dictatorship of the proletariat and weakened the Comintern? Have you understood that in the struggle against “Trotskyism” you were the unconscious tool of the forces of Thermidor? Yes or no?

However, I shall not insist on your answering this question, although it is of far greater importance than all those petty incidents on which you vainly waste your time and mine.

But while I am ready to put aside questions relating to the past, I can’t permit any ambiguity or half-statements in principled questions that concern the present and the future.

What is your attitude to the theory of the permanent revolution, Comrade Treint? Do you still uphold that arch-reactionary criticism, Thermidorian in its social roots, which you developed in the past jointly with all the epigones and in complete solidarity with them? On this cardinal question there are and cannot be any concessions. There is no room here for any reservations and equivocations. The question has been dealt with in theses, articles, and books with utmost clarity. It has been tested in the experience of colossal events. All the sections of the Left Opposition – above all the Russian section – stand exclusively and completely on the basis of the theory of the permanent revolution. Your clear and unambiguous answer to this question is a necessary preliminary condition for solving the question of whether we can work together within the framework of one and the same faction.

This cardinal programmatic question, which counterposes the Bolshevik-Leninists to the centrists and the right-wingers, contains a whole series of questions that flow from it:

What is your attitude in general to the slogan of the democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants for colonial countries in particular, and especially for India?

What is your attitude to the idea of workers’ and peasants’ parties?

Do you consider correct the formation of the Krestintern and the policy of the Anti-Imperialist League?

What is your attitude to the slogan of the Soviet United States of Europe?

All these questions which met with anti-Marxian decisions at the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern retain a great importance even today.

A correct answer to these questions is, as was already stated, from my point of view absolutely indispensable for establishing a programmatic precondition for joint work. But programmatic premises are not enough. There remain questions of tactics and of organization.

In this sphere our correspondence has already revealed very serious and sharp differences which my initial talks with you have unfortunately not at all mitigated. So as not to repeat myself, I refer you here only to two documents: my letter to you of May 23, 1929, and my criticism of your draft declaration upon your entry into the French League May 23, 1931. I enclose copies of both documents.

In conclusion I should like to express a general consideration which might perhaps prove of assistance in better understanding my evaluation of your position. In the ranks of the Left Opposition, especially its French section, a spiritual disease is rather widespread, which I would, without going into an analysis of its social roots, call by the name of its most finished representative: Souvarinism. It is – approaching the question on the plane of political psychology – a disease combining the paralysis of political will with hypertrophy of rationalizing. Cabinet wit without roots, without an axis, without clear aims, criticism for criticism’s sake, clutching at trifles, straining at gnats while swallowing camels – such are the traits of this type, concerned above all with the preservation of its narrow circle or personal “independence.” A circle of this kind, too irresolute to join the social democrats, but likewise incapable of the politics of Bolshevism, incapable of active politics in general, is primarily inclined to jot notations on the margins of actions and books of others. This spirit, I repeat, is most graphically expressed by Souvarine who has finally found an adequate medium for his tendency in the shape of a bibliographical journal, in which Souvarine subjects to criticism everything and everybody in the universe as if in the name of his own “doctrine.” But the whole secret lies in the fact that Souvarine has no doctrine and, by virtue of his mental makeup, cannot have. In consequence, Souvarine’s spiritual creative work, which lacks neither wit nor resourcefulness, is by its very nature parasitic. In him are combined the calcined residues of communism with the as yet unfolded buds of Menshevism. This precisely constitutes the essence of Souvarinism, insofar as it is at all possible to speak of any essence here ...

[paragraph omitted by the Editors of NI because it had no bearing at all on the subject of the letter ...]

You wage a stubborn struggle not for a given system of ideas and methods but for your own “independence,” and it is altogether impossible to obtain any conception of just what is the content of this independence. Comrade Treint, this is nothing else but the disease of Souvarinism. With all my heart I hope you will be cured of it

This question, which is to a considerable degree personal, would have far less significance if both of us were members of a large healthy proletarian party. But with us, it is as yet a question of a small faction which defends under exceptionally difficult conditions the banner of Marx and Lenin. For a fighting faction of this kind, the bacillus of Souvarinism is far more dangerous than for a big party. It would of course be criminal to split frivolously with isolated groups and even isolated individuals. But it is even more criminal to permit such an initial composition of a factional organization as would paralyze or weaken its aggressive propagandist spirit its political fighting capacity. That is why there are certain conditions when it is necessary to say: we defend a certain sum of ideas, but you defend a given sum of commentaries to our views; let us try not to interfere with each other, and function separately. Perhaps experience in its purer form will teach us both something. When we meet again on a new stage, we shall draw the balance, and will perhaps be better able to arrive at an understanding than we can today. I do not say that this is the sole conceivable solution, or that it is the best one. But I do not at all consider it as excluded.

Kadikoi, September 13, 1931

L. Trotsky

return return return return return

Last updated on: 15.4.2007