Leon Trotsky

On Dictators and
the Heights Of Oslo

A Letter to an English Comrade

(April 1936)

Written: April 22, 1936.
First Published: New International [New York], Vol.3 No.3, June 1936.
Translated: 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:

It is with great astonishment that I read the report of the conference of the Independent Labour Party in the New Leader of April 17, 1936. I really never entertained any illusions about the Pacifist Parliamentarians who run the ILP. But their political position and their whole conduct at the conference exceed even those bounds that can usually be expected of them. I am sure that you and your friends have drawn approximately the same conclusions as we have here. Nevertheless, I cannot refrain from making several observations.

1. Maxton and the others opine that the Italo-Ethiopian war is “a conflict between two rival dictators.” To these politicians it appears that this fact relieves the proletariat of the duty of making a choice between two dictators. They thus define the character of the war by the political form of the state, in the course of which they themselves regard this political form in a quite superficial and purely descriptive manner, without taking into consideration the social foundations of both “dictatorships.” A dictator can also play a very progressive role in history; for example, Oliver Cromwell, Robespierre, etc. On the other hand, right in the midst of the English democracy Lloyd George exercised a highly reactionary dictatorship during the war. Should a dictator place himself at the head of the next uprising of the Indian people in order to smash the British yoke – would Maxton then refuse this dictator his support? Yes or no? If not, why does he refuse his support to the Ethiopian “dictator” who is attempting to cast off the Italian yoke?

If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.

2. McGovern puts the “poor little Ethiopia” of 1935 on the same level with the “poor little Belgium” of 1914; in both cases it means support of war. Well, “poor little Belgium” has ten million slaves in Africa, whereas the Ethiopian people are fighting in order not to be the slaves of Italy. Belgium was and remains a link of the European imperialist chain. Ethiopia is only a victim of imperialist appetites. Putting the two cases on the same plane is the sheerest nonsense.

On the other hand, to take up the defence of Ethiopia against Italy in no way means to encourage British imperialism to make war. At one time this is just what was very well demonstrated in several articles in the New Leader. McGovern’s conclusion that it should have been the ILP’s task “to stand aside from quarrels between dictators,” is an exemplary model of the spiritual and moral impotence of pacifism.

3. The most shameful thing of all, however, only comes after the voting. After the conference had rejected the scandalous pacifist quackery by a vote of 70 to 57, the tender pacifist Maxton put the revolver of an ultimatum at the breast of the conference and forced a new decision by a vote of 93 to 39. So we see that there are dictators not only in Rome and in Addis Ababa, but also in London. And of the three dictators, I consider most harmful the one who grabs his own party by the throat in the name of his parliamentary prestige and his pacifist confusion. A party that tolerates such conduct is not a revolutionary party; for if it surrenders (or “postpones”) its principled position on a highly important and topical question because of threats of resignation made by Maxton, then at the decisive moment it will never withstand the immeasurably mightier pressure of the bourgeoisie.

4. By an overwhelming majority, the conference forbade the existence of groups inside the party. Good! But in whose name did Maxton put an ultimatum to the conference? In the name of the parliamentary group which regards the party machine as its private property and which actually represents the only faction that should have been sharply beaten into respect for the democratic decisions of the party. A party which dissolves the oppositional groups but lets the ruling clique do as it jolly well pleases is not a revolutionary party. It will not be able to lead the Proletariat to victory.

5. Fenner Brockway’s position on this question is a highly instructive example of the political and moral insufficiency of centrism. Fenner Brockway was lucky enough to adopt a correct point of view on an important question, a view that coincides with ours. The difference lies in this, however, that we Marxists really mean the thing seriously. To Fenner Brockway, on the other hand, it is a matter of something “incidental.” He believes it is better for the British workers to have Maxton as chairman with a false point of view than to have a correct point of view without Maxton. That is the fate of centrism – to consider the incidental thing serious and the serious thing incidental. That’s why centrism should never be taken seriously.

6. On the question of the International, the old confusion was once more approved, despite the obvious bankruptcy of the previous perspective. In any case, nothing more is said about an “invitation” from the Third International. But the centrist doesn’t take anything seriously. Even when he now admits that there is no longer a proletarian International, he nevertheless hesitates to build one up. Why? Because he has no principles.

Because he can’t have any. For if he but once makes the sober attempt to adopt a principled position on only one important question, he promptly receives an ultimatum from the right and starts to back down. How can he think of a rounded-out revolutionary program under such circumstances? He then expresses his spiritual and moral helplessness in the form of profound aphorisms, that the new International must come “from the development of socialist movements,” that is, from the historical process, which really ought to produce something some day. This dubious ally has various ways, however: it has even got to the point of reducing the Lenin International to the level of the Second. Proletarian revolutionists should therefore strike out on their own path, that is, work out the program of the new International and, basing themselves on the favourable tendencies of the historical process, help this program gain prevalence.

7. Fenner Brockway, after his lamentable capitulation to Maxton, found his courage again in struggle against the undersigned. He, Brockway, cannot allow a new International to be constructed from “the heights of Oslo.” I leave aside the fact that I do not live in Oslo and that, besides, Oslo is not situated on heights. The principles which I defend in common with many thousand comrades bear absolutely no local or geographical character. They are Marxian and international. They are formulated, expounded, and defended in theses, pamphlets, and books. If Fenner Brockway finds these principles to be false, let him put his own up against them. We are always ready to be taught better. But unfortunately Fenner Brockway cannot venture into this field, for he has just turned over to Maxton that oh so paltry parcel of principles. That is why there is nothing left for him to do save to make merry about the “heights of Oslo,” wherein he promptly commits a threefold mistake: with respect to my address, to the topography of the Norwegian capital, and, last but not least, to the fundamental principles of international action.

My conclusions? The cause of the ILP seems to me to be hopeless. The thirty-nine delegates who, despite the failure of the Fenner Brockway faction, did not surrender to Maxton’s ultimatum must seek ways of preparing a truly revolutionary party for the British proletariat. It can stand only under the banner of the Fourth International.

Leon Trotsky

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Last updated on: 19.4.2007