Written: 9 January 1934.
Published: in New International [New York], Vol. XI No. 2, March 1945, pp. 59–62.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Damon Maxwell, July 2008.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
The American labor movement is very much stirred by the President’s “plan” for sixty million jobs and Wallace’s “plan” for implementing the promise of the presidential campaign. In reality, neither the President nor Wallace has any plan at all. However, the idea that some sort of plan is necessary to increase production and guarantee employment is now a settled concept with many American workers. We therefore print an important letter by Leon Trotsky advising the Belgian comrades and the Belgian labor movement on the attitude they should adopt toward a plan for making capitalism work.
The de Man plan dealt with in this letter was nothing so nebulous as the vaporings of Wallace and Roosevelt. De Man was a labor leader who published a complete and well-documented “labor plan” for pulling Belgian industry out of the crisis and restoring permanent prosperity. It created quite a stir at the time but soon disappeared from public notice in the conflict that developed between the working class and the Belgian fascists under Leon de Grelle, who called themselves Rexists.
Revisionist plans cannot solve the capitalist crisis or eliminate the class struggle. Nevertheless, they pose a problem which demands a certain answer. Despite the differences between Belgium and the United States, Trotsky’s method in dealing with the problem is of the greatest interest and value to the American Marxist movement and the class-conscious workers.
De Man produced this plan for making capitalism work. He was also very active in international conferences and intrigues among “men of good will” to prevent imperialist war. Having failed in both instances this labor leader ended up by joining the Germans as a collaborationist. True to himself, he could never at any time envisage the only solution to capitalist crisis and capitalist war – the revolutionary struggle of the workers, culminating in the seizure of power. – The Editor.
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Needless to say that in the last few days I studied with the greatest attention the newspapers, magazines, minutes and letters sent by you. Thanks to a very fine selection of material, I was able to acquaint myself in a comparatively short time with the question as a whole and with the essence of the differences which arose in your organization. The strictly principled character of your discussion, free from any personal exaggerations, gives a most favorable impression of the whole spirit of your organization and of its moral-political level. It remains only to express the hearty wish that this spirit be pre-served and strengthened not only in the Belgian section but that it should become the prevalent one in all our sections without exception.
The considerations which I wish to express further on the question in dispute itself cannot pretend either to fullness or completion. I am removed from the theater of action. Such important factors as the mood of the masses cannot be grasped through newspaper reports and documents only: it is necessary to feel the pulse of workers’ meetings, which, alas, is beyond my reach. However, inasmuch as it is a question of general suggestions on principles, the position of an outside observer perhaps certain advantages as it enables detachment from details and concentration on the main thing.
I shall go over now to the matter itself.
First of all – and I consider this the central point – I do not see any reason that would impel us to withdraw the slogan: “Let the Belgian workers’ party take power!” When we first advanced this slogan we were all, of course, fully aware of the character of the Belgian social-democracy, which does not want to struggle and does not know how to struggle, which for a number of decades had been used to playing the role of a bourgeois brake on the proletarian locomotive, which tears power outside of a coalition, as it needs bourgeois allies to be able to reject the demands of the workers.
We know all this. But we also know that not only the capitalist regime as a whole but also its parliamentary state machinery entered into a stage of an acute crisis which bears in itself the possibility of quick (relatively) changes of mood of the masses, as well as quick successions of parliamentary and government combinations. If it should be taken into consideration that the Belgian social-democracy together with the reformist trade unions dominate absolutely the proletariat, that the Belgian section of the Comintern is utterly insignificant t and the revolutionary wing extremely weak, it would become clear that the whole political situation must suggest to the proletariat the thought of a social-democratic government.
We considered beforehand that the setting up of such a government would be undoubtedly a step forward. Of course, not in the sense that the government of Vandervelde, de Man & Co. would be capable of playing any progressive role in the replacement of capitalism by socialism, but in the sense that under the given conditions the experiment of a social-democratic government would be of progressive importance in the revolutionary development of the proletariat. The slogan of a social-democratic government is thus calculated not on some exceptional conjuncture but on a more or less lengthy political period. We could give up this slogan only in case that the social-democracy – before its coming to power – should begin greatly to weaken, ceding its influence to a revolutionary party: but, alas, today such a perspective is purely theoretical. Neither the general political situation, nor the relation of forces within the proletariat permit the withdrawal of the slogan: power to the social-democracy!
Certainly not the plan of de Man, bombastically called the “Labor Plan” (it would be more correct to call it: the plan to deceive the toilers) can make us abandon the central political slogan of this period. The “labor plan” will be a new, or a renovated instrument of bourgeois-democratic (or even semi-democratic) conservatism. But the whole point of the matter lies in the fact that the extreme intensity of the situation, the imminence of dangers, threatening the very existence of the social-democracy itself, force it against its will to seize the double-edged weapon, very unsafe though it is from the point y of view of democratic conservatism.
The dynamic equilibrium of capitalism is gone forever, the equilibrium of the parliamentary system is cracking and crumbling. And finally – this is a link of the same chain – the conservative equilibrium of reformism which is forced to denounce the bourgeois regime publicly in order to save it, is beginning to shake. Such a situation is replete with great revolutionary possibilities (together with dangers). We must not retract the slogan power to the social-democracy, but, on the contrary, give this slogan an all the more militant and sharp character.
In our midst there is no need to say that this slogan must not contain even a shadow of hypocrisy, pretense, softening of contradictions, diplomatizing, pretended or qualified trust. Let the left social-democrats use butter and honey (in the spirit of Spaak). We will use as heretofore vinegar and pepper.
In the material sent to me there is expressed the opinion that the working masses are absolutely indifferent to the Labor Plan and are in general in a state of depression and that under such conditions the slogan “power to the social-democrats” can only create illusions and produce disappointment later on. Unable from here to get a clear idea of the moods of the different layers and groups of the Belgian proletariat, I fully allow, however, for the possibility of a certain nervous exhaustion and passivity of the workers. But, in the first place, this mood itself is not final: it must be rather of an expectant than of a hopeless nature. No one of us thinks, of course, that the Belgian proletariat is already incapable of struggle for years to come. Within the proletariat there are plenty of moods of bitterness, hatred and resentment and they are seeking a way out. To save itself from ruin, the social-democracy needs a certain movement of the workers. It must frighten the bourgeoisie to make it more agreeable. It is certainly mortally afraid that this movement should go over its head. But with the absolute insignificance of the Comintern; the weakness of the revolutionary groups and under the fresh impression of the German experience, the social-democracy expects immediate danger from the right and not from the left. Without these prerequisites the slogan “power to the social-democracy” would in general be meaningless.
None of us can have any doubts that the plan of de Man and the agitation of the social-democracy connected with it will sow illusions and provoke disappointment. But the social-democracy, its influence on the proletariat and its plan, its Christmas congress, its agitation are objective facts: we can neither remove them, nor skip over them. Our task is twofold: first, to explain to the advanced workers the political meaning of the “plan,” that is, decipher the maneuvers of the social-democracy at all stages; secondly, to show in practice to possibly wider circles of workers that insofar as the bourgeoisie tries to put obstacles to the realization of the plan we fight hand in hand with the workers to help them make this experiment. We share the difficulties of the struggle but not the illusions. Our criticism of the illusions must, however, not increase the passivity of the workers and give it a pseudo-theoretic justification but on the contrary push the workers forward. Under these conditions, the inevitable disappointment with the “Labor Plan” will not spell the deepening of passivity but, on the contrary, the going over of the workers to the revolutionary road.
To the plan itself I shall devote in the next few days a special article. Because of the extremely urgent character of this letter I am forced to limit myself here to just a few words. First of all, I consider it incorrect to liken the Plan to the economic policy of fascism. Insofar as fascism advances (before the conquest of power!) the slogan of nationalization as a means of struggle with “super-capitalism,” it simply steals the phraseology of the socialist program. In de Man’s plan we have – under the bourgeois character of the social-democracy – a program of state capitalism which the social-democracy itself passes off, however, for the beginning of socialism and which may actually become the beginning of socialism – against the social-democracy.
Within the limits of the economic program (“Labor Plan”) we must, in my opinion, advance the following three points:
It is necessary now to take up the political side of the Plan. Two questions come here naturally to the fore: (1) the method of struggle for the realization of the plan (in particular the question of legality and illegality) and (2) the attitude toward the petty bourgeoisie of the city and village.
In his programmatic speech published in the trade union organ, de Man rejects categorically the revolutionary struggle (general strike and insurrection). Can anything else be expected of these people? No matter what the individual reservations and changes intended mainly for the consolation of left simpletons may be, the official position of the party remains that of parliamentary cretinism. The main blows of our criticism should be aimed along this line-not only against the party as a whole, but also against its left wing (see below). This side of the question-of the methods of struggle for nationalization – are pointed out with equal precision and correctness by both sides in your discussion so there is no need for me to dwell on it much longer.
I wish to bring out only one “small” point. Can these people earnestly think of revolutionary struggle when in their hearts they are ... monarchists? It is a great mistake to think that the king’s power in Belgium is a fiction. First of all this fiction costs money and should be eliminated if only out of economic considerations. But this is not the principal side of the matter. In time of social crisis ghosts frequently take on flesh and blood. The same role that Hindenburg, Hitler’s ostler, played in Germany before our very eyes, the king may play in Belgium – following the example of his Italian colleague. A series of gestures made by the Belgian king in the last period clearly indicate this road. Whoever wants to struggle against fascism must begin with the struggle for the liquidation of the monarchy. We must not permit the social-democracy to hide itself in this question behind all sorts of tricks and reservations.
Revolutionary posing of questions of strategy and tactics does not mean at all, however, that our criticism should not follow the social-democracy also to its parliamentary hideaway. New elections will take place only in 1936; until that time capitalist reaction in alliance with hunger can break the neck of the working class three times over. We must pose this question in all its sharpness to the social-democratic workers. There is only one way to speed up new elections: to make the functioning of the present Parliament impossible by sharp opposition to it, which merges into parliamentary obstruction. Vandervelde, de Man & Co. must be branded not merely because they do not develop the revolutionary extra-parliamentary struggle, but also because their parliamentary activity serves not at all to prepare and bring nearer and realize their own “Labor Plan.” Contradictions and hypocrisy in this sphere will be, clearly understood even by the average social-democratic worker who has not yet grown to the understanding of the methods of proletarian revolution.
The question of the attitude to the intermediary classes is of no less importance. It would be foolish to accuse the reformists of placing themselves on “the road of fascism” because they want to win over the petty bourgeoisie. We too want to win over the petty bourgeoisie. This is one of the essential conditions for the full success of the proletarian revolution. But there are fagots and there are fagots, as Molière says. A street peddler, or a poor peasant is a petty bourgeois, but also a professor, an average official bearing a distinction badge, an aver-age engineer – is also a petty bourgeois. We must choose between them. Capitalist parliamentarism (and no different parliamentarism exists) leads to Messrs, lawyers, officials, journalists coming out as the licensed representatives of the starving artisans, street peddlers, small clerks and semi-proletarian peasants. And finance capital leads by the nose or simply bribes the parliamentaries from the sphere of petty bourgeois lawyers, officials and journalists.
When Vandervelde, de Man and Co. talk of attracting to the “Plan” the petty-bourgeoisie they have in mind not the masses, but their licensed “representatives,” that is the corrupted agents of finance capital. When we speak of winning over the petty bourgeoisie, we have in mind the liberation of the exploited submerged masses from their diplomaticized political representatives. In view of the desperate position of the petty-bourgeois masses of the population, the old petty bourgeois parties (democratic, catholic and others) burst along all seams. Fascism understood it. It did not seek and does not seek any coalitions with the bankrupt “leaders” of the petty bourgeoisie but tears from under their influence the masses, that is, it performs in its way and in the interests of reaction that work, which the Bolsheviks performed in Russia in the interests of the revolution. Precisely in this way presents itself the question now also in Belgium. The petty bourgeois parties, or the petty bourgeois flanks of big capitalist parties are doomed to disappearance together with parliamentarism, which sets up for them the necessary stage. The whole question lies in who will lead the oppressed and deceived petty bourgeois masses, the proletariat under revolutionary leadership, or the fascist agency of finance capital.
Just as de Man does not want a revolutionary struggle of the proletariat and tears a courageous opposition policy in parliament that could lead to a revolutionary struggle, just so he does not want and fears a real struggle for the petty bourgeois masses. He understands that in its depths are hidden stores of protest, bitterness and hatred which may turn into revolutionary passions and dangerous “excesses,” that is into revolution. Instead of this, de Man seeks parliamentary allies, shabby democrats, catholics, blood relations from the right who are needed by him as bulwark against possible revolutionary excesses of the proletariat. We must know how to make this side of the question clear to the reformist workers in the daily experience of facts. For a close revolutionary union of the proletariat with the oppressed petty bourgeois masses of the city and village but against government coalition with political representatives and traitors of the petty bourgeoisie!
Some comrades express the opinion that the very fact that the social-democracy comes out with the “labor plan” must shake up the intermediary classes and, with the passivity of the proletariat, ease the work of fascism. Of course, if the proletariat will not fight, fascism will be victorious. But this danger follows not from the “Plan” but from the great influence of the social-democracy and the weakness of the revolutionary party. The protracted participation of the German social-democracy in the bourgeois government paved the way for Hitler. Blum’s purely passive abstention from all participation in the government will also create the prerequisites for the growth of fascism. Finally, the announcement of the attack on finance capital, without a corresponding mass revolutionary struggle will inevitably speed up the work of Belgian fascism. It is, therefore, not a question of the “Plan,” but of the treacherous function of the social-democracy and of the fatal ro1e of the Comintern. Insofar as the general situation and in particular the fate of the German social-democracy force upon its younger Belgian sister the policy of “nationalization,” this together with the old dangers, opens up new revolutionary possibilities. It would be the greatest error not to see them. We must learn to strike the enemy with his own weapons.
The new possibilities can be utilized only under the condition that we continue tirelessly to stress to the workers the fascist danger. For the realization of no matter what plan workers organizations must be preserved and strengthened. It is necessary, therefore, first of all to defend them from fascist gangs. It would be the worst stupidity to hope that a democratic government, even headed by the social-democracy, could save the workers from fascism by a decree prohibiting the fascists to organize, to arm, etc. No police measures will help if the workers themselves will not learn to deal with fascists. The organization of proletarian defense/ the creation of workers militia is the first, unpostponable task. Whoever fails to support this slogan and does not carry it out in practice does not deserve the name of a proletarian revolutionist.
There remains only to say something on our attitude towards the left social-democracy. Least of all here do I want to say something final as until now I was unable to follow the evolution of this grouping. But what I read in the last few days (series of articles by Spaak, his speech at the congress of the party, etc.) did not produce a favorable impression.
When Spaak wants to characterize the interrelation between the legal and illegal struggle, he quotes ... Otto Bauer as an authority, that is, the theoretician of legal and illegal impotence. “Tell me who your masters are and I will tell you who you are.” But let us leave the sphere of theory and turn to actual political questions.
Spaak took de Man’s plan as the basis of the campaign and voted for it without any reservations. It may be said that Spaak did not want to give Vandervelde & Co. the opportunity to bring the matter to a split, that is to eject the weak and still unorganized left wing from the party; Spaak retreated the better to jump. Perhaps such were Spaak’s intentions but in politics we judge not by intentions but by actions. The careful attitude of Spaak at the conference, his pledge to struggle with all determination for the carrying-out of the Plan, his statement on discipline, would have in themselves been comprehensible considering the position of the left opposition in the party. But Spaak did something else: he expressed moral confidence in Vandervelde and political solidarity with de Man not only on the abstract aims of the Plan but also with regard to the concrete methods of struggle.
The words of Spaak to the effect that we cannot demand from the leaders of the party that they tell us openly of their plan of action, of their forces, etc., had an especially inadmissible character. Why cannot we? For confidential reasons? But even if Vandervelde and de Man have confidential matters it is not with the revolutionary workers against the bourgeoisie but with the bourgeois politicians against the workers. And no one demands that confidential matters be made public at the congress! It is necessary to give the general plan of the mobilization of the workers and the perspective of struggle. By his declaration Spaak really helped Vandervelde and de Man to evade the answer to the most important questions of strategy. We can legitimately speak here of secrets between the leaders of the opposition and the leaders of the majority against the revolutionary workers. The fact that Spaak carried away also the “Socialist Guard of Youth” to the road of centrist trustfulness only aggravates his guilt.
The Brussels federation introduced at the congress a “left” resolution on constitutional and revolutionary struggle. The resolution is very weak, has a legalistic and not a political character, is written by a lawyer and not by a revolutionary (“if the bourgeoisie will violate the constitution, then we also ...”). Instead of posing earnestly the question of the preparation of revolutionary struggle, the “left” resolution makes a literary threat in the direction of the bourgeoisie. But what happened at the congress? After the most inane declarations of de Man who as we know considers the revolutionary struggle a harmful myth, the Brussels federation meekly retracted its resolution. People who are so easily satisfied with empty and lying phrases cannot be considered earnest revolutionists. Punishment was not late in coming. At the very next day the “People” commented on the congress resolution in the sense that the party will stay strictly within constitutional lines, that is, it will “struggle” within the limits indicated to it by finance capital aided by the king, judges and police. The organ of the lefts “Socialist Action” actually wept bitter tears: Why, yesterday, just yesterday, “all” were unanimous with regard to the Brussels resolution, why then today? ... Ridiculous lamentations! “Yesterday” the lefts were fooled to make them retract the resolution. And “today” the experienced bureaucratic dodgers gave the ill-fated opposition a little fillip on the nose. Serves them right! These matters are always handled so. But these are only the buds, the fruit will come later.
It occurred more than once that the social-democratic opposition was developing an extremely left criticism as long as it did not obligate itself to anything. But when the decisive hours came (mass strike movement, menace of war, danger of a government overthrowal, etc.) the opposition lowered its banner immediately, opening up to the besmirched leaders of the party a new credit of confidence and proving by this that it is itself only flesh of the flesh of reformism. The socialist opposition of Belgium is now going through its first serious test. We are forced to say that it slipped up badly right away. We must follow attentively and without prejudice its further steps, without exaggerating in criticism, without losing ourselves in sense-less rattle on “social-fascism” but also without making any illusions on the real theoretic and fighting temper of this grouping. To help the better elements of the left opposition to move forward, it is necessary to say what is.
I hurry greatly with this letter so that it might reach you yet before the conference of January 14th; therefore, its in-completeness and possibly a certain lack of systematic exposition. In conclusion I allow myself to express the hearty conviction that your discussion will end in a harmonious decision that will insure complete unity of action. The whole situation predetermines a serious growth of your organization in the next period. If the leaders of the social-democratic opposition should capitulate completely, the direction of the revolutionary wing of the proletariat will rest entirely on you. If, on the contrary, the left wing of the reformist party should advance to the side of Marxism, you will find in them a militant ally and a bridge to the masses. With a clear and unanimous policy your success is fully assured. Long live the Belgian section of the Bolsheviks-Leninists!
January 9, 1934
Last updated on: 8 February 2016