Leon Trotsky

Some Questions on
American Problems

(August 1940)

Written: 7 August 1940.
First Published: Fourth International, Vol.1 No.5, October 1940, pp.132-135.
Translated: By Fourth International.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
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.

QUESTION I: What should be the role of a draftable revolutionist in the United States now?

(a) Should he try to avoid the draft?

(b) To what extent should the party try to conserve its cadres?

(c) Should the party concentrate most of its strength in the military or industrial sections of the country?

(d) What are the alternative roles of a woman revolutionist in this war?

TROTSKY: If he is draftable, then let him be drafted. I don’t think he should try to avoid the draft he must go with his generation and participate in its life. Should the party try to conserve its cadres by saving them from the army? This means conserving them in a very bad sense. When the best part of the population is mobilized, then our cadres must be among them.

Should the party concentrate most of its strength in the military or industrial organizations? This depends upon the size of the militarization and mobilization. If the greater part of the population is militarized then the greater part of our party would also be in the army.

About the women – inasmuch as the women will replace men in many branches of industry and social work, our comrades will also play the role of their generation.

We should understand that the life of this society, politics, everything, will be based upon war, therefore the revolutionary program must also be based on war. We cannot oppose the fact of the war with wishful thinking; with pious pacifism. We must place ourselves upon the arena created by this society. The arena is terrible – it is war – but inasmuch as we are weak and incapable of taking the fate of society into our hands; inasmuch as the ruling class is strong enough to impose upon us this war, we are obliged to accept this basis for our activity.

“Program For Peace” Is Not Serious

I read a short report of a discussion that Shachtman had with a professor in Michigan, and Shachtman formulated this idea: “Let us have a program for peace, not war; for the masses, not for murder,” etc. What does this mean? If we do not have peace, we cannot have a program for peace. If we have war, we must have a program for war, and the bourgeoisie cannot help but organize the war. Neither Roosevelt nor Willkie are free to decide; they must prepare the war, and when they have prepared it they will conduct it. They will say they cannot do otherwise, because of the danger from Hitler, etc., of the danger from Japan, etc. There is only one way of avoiding the war – that is the overthrow of this society. However, as we are too weak for this task, the war is inevitable. The question then, for us, is not the same as in the bourgeois salon – “let us write an article on peace, etc.”, which is suitable for publications like The Nation. Our people must consider it seriously; we must say: the war is inevitable, so let us have an organized workers’ program for the war. The draft of the youth is a part of the war and becomes part of our program.

It is questionable whether the United States will send an expeditionary force at this time. I have the impression that they are not disposed to send an army to Europe or anywhere else for a couple of years, because you cannot create such an army over-night in a country where you do not have a military tradition, as, for instance, in Germany, where for centuries they have had a tradition of Prussian militarism.

Now the capitalists wish to create this tremendous army of millions, to create officers, to create a new military spirit, and they have begun with full success to change the public opinion of the nation toward militarism. At the time that Roosevelt made his campaign speech, there was an outburst of public opinion for isolationism, but now all this sentiment belongs to the past – to the childhood of the nation – in spite of the fact that it took place only a few months ago.

Now the national feeling is for a tremendous army, navy and air force. This is the psychological atmosphere for the creation of a military machine, and you will see it become stronger and stronger every day and every week. You will have military schools, etc., and a Prussianization of the United States will take place. The sons of the bourgeois families will became imbued with Prussian feelings and ideals, and their parents will be proud that their sons look like Prussian lieutenants. To some extent this will be also true of the workers.

Separating the Workers from the Bosses

That is why we must try to separate the workers from the others by a program of education, of workers’ schools, of workers’ officers, devoted to the welfare of the worker army, etc. We cannot escape from the militarization but inside the machine we can observe the class line. The American workers do not want to be conquered by Hitler, and to those who say “Let us have a peace program”, the worker will reply, “But Hitler does not want a peace program.” Therefore we say: We will defend the United States with a workers’ army, with workers’ officers, with a workers’ government, etc. If we are not pacifists, who wait for a better future, and if we are active revolutionists, our job is to penetrate into the whole military machine. Of course, out of this army, tomorrow they might select a corps to send to some battlefield, and no doubt this corps will be annihilated, but war is a risky business and we cannot invent any medicine against these risks.

Of course the party can make certain exceptions of those men who are necessary for a certain job, but this concerns only individual exceptions, and here we are discussing the rule. Furthermore, our comrades should be the best soldiers and the best officers and at the same time the best class militants. They should provoke in the workers a mistrust of the old tradition, the military plans of the bourgeois class and officers, and should insist upon the necessity of educating workers’ officers, who will be absolutely loyal to the proletariat. In this epoch every great question, national or international, will be resolved with arms-not by peaceful means. It doesn’t depend upon my will or your will, but is caused by the contradictions of the society which has put this problem before us, and from which we cannot escape. That is why it is the duty of every worker and revolutionist to learn how to manipulate arms skillfully.

About the losses in the trade unions, if we have a large mobilization, then the unions will immediately lose the best elements and only the older people will remain. These people are not as likely to be persistent. On the other hand, the younger generations for the first time in history will feel themselves armed – by the State itself! It is absolutely correct that in the first period we will have an explosion of chauvinistic patriotism, and that we will be isolated even more than now, and that this period of activity will inevitably be limited by repressions, but we must adapt ourselves to the situation. That is why it would be doubly stupid to present a purely abstract pacifist position today; the feeling the masses have is that it is necessary to defend themselves. We must say: “Roosevelt (or Willkie) says it is necessary to defend the country; good! Only it must be our country, not that of the 60 families and their Wall Street. The army must be under our own command; we must have our own officers, who will be loyal to us.” In this way we can find an approach to the masses that will not push them away from us, and thus to prepare for the second step – a more revolutionary one.

Profound Importance of French Events

We must use the example of France to the very end. We must say, “I warn you, workers, that they (the bourgeoisie) will betray you! Look at Petain, who is a friend of Hitler. Shall we have the same thing happen in this country? We must create our own machine, under workers’ control.” We must be careful not to identify ourselves with the chauvinists, nor with the confused sentiments of self-preservation, but we must understand their feelings and adapt ourselves to these feelings critically, and prepare the masses for a better understanding of the situation, otherwise we will remain a sect, of which the pacifist variety is the most miserable.

We must also say that the war has a tendency toward totalitarian dictatorship. War develops a centralization, and during war the bourgeois class cannot allow the workers any new concessions. The trade unions will therefore become a kind of Red Cross for the workers, a sort of philanthropic institution. The bosses themselves will be under control by the State, everything will be sacrificed to the army, and the trade union influence will become zero. And we must say of this now: “If you don’t place yourselves on a workers’ military basis, with workers’ schools, workers’ officers, etc., and go to war on the old style military basis, you will be doomed.” And this, in its own way, will preserve the trade unions themselves.

Even if the United States sends armies abroad, to Europe or Asia, and the mortality rate will be expectedly high, we cannot make exceptions for our comrades, because on the other hand we cannot foresee the tempo of revolutionary development in Europe or Asia, and perhaps the American army will enter such a country during a revolutionary beginning. In that case even two or three of our men can play a tremendous role during such a period. They might try to use this American army against such a revolution, and in that case even one courageous man can turn the regiment into another direction. This cannot be foreseen – there are too many unknowns; but that is why we say we must all go with our class.

We Cannot Stand Aside from Our Class!

I do not believe that a revolutionary can remain aside for the first critical period – say, a year or so – and then come with his stick and hat and say, “Now, comrades, we will begin the revolution!” Excuse me for making a caricature of this. But if he is in the army and tells the others about the dangers in the bourgeois institutions and advises them to create a workers’ program for war, in spite of all the chauvinistic attacks upon him, and even if they turn him away, they will later say, “Remember, he told us so.” And then he becomes an authority. This is repeated in every war, and not only in wars but in strikes and trade union movements. All they have to remember is: “This man warned us and we rejected him.” Then he becomes their leader, a hero.

If the leaders seek only to preserve themselves, that is what they become; preserves – dried preserves. If they enter the movement, they give the impulse to five, ten, twenty others. It is more important to multiply our cadres than to preserve them, and they can be multiplied by the hundreds. Our cadres need education and experience in mass movements, and how can they get this outside the life of the masses? No, it is not possible to jump out of your epoch. Moreover, we would have to make arrangements with the General Staff, and I am sure they would not agree with the idea of escape!

The Coming Change in the American Workers

QUESTION 2: How will the backwardness of the United States working class advance or retard the growth of fascism?

(a) What are the possibilities of the wartime dictatorship becoming a full fledged fascist dictatorship?

TROTSKY: The backwardness of the United States working class is only a relative term. In many very important respects it is the most progressive working class of the world; technically, and in its standard of living.

We can look forward now to a change in the economic situation of the United States – a very brusque change, and then when the war comes, to the misery which will follow. Even now, under the program of militarization, with millions upon millions thrown into the war machine, the rapid lowering of the standard of living for the working class will produce a very rapid change of mind in the American workers.

The American worker is very combative – as we have seen during the strikes. They have had the most rebellious strikes in the world. What the American worker misses is a spirit of generalization, or analysis, of his class position in society as a whole. This lack of social thinking has its origin in the country’s whole history – the Far West with the perspective of unlimited possibilities for everyone to become rich, etc. Now all that is gone, but the mind remains in the past. Idealists think the human mentality is progressive, but in reality it is the most conservative element of society. Your technique is progressive but the mentality of the worker lags far behind. Their backwardness consists of their inability to generalize their problem; they consider everything on a personal basis.

Now, the war will teach the American workers social thinking. The economic crisis has already begun and in the CIO we see the first reaction of the workers – confused but important. They begin to feel themselves as a class; they see 10 to 14 millions of unemployed, etc. Now the war will continue to teach them social thinking, and this means revolutionary thinking.

Fascism Will Come Only If We Fail

About fascism. In all the countries where fascism became victorious, we had before the growth of fascism and its victory, a wave of radicalism of the masses; of the workers and the poorer peasants and farmers, and of the petty bourgeois class. In Italy, after the war and before 1922, we had a revolutionary wave of tremendous dimensions; the state was paralyzed, the police did not exist, the trade unions could do anything they wanted – but there was no party capable of taking the power; as a reaction came fascism.

In Germany the same. We had a revolutionary situation in 1918; the bourgeois class did not even ask to participate in the power. The Social Democrats paralyzed the revolution. Then the workers tried again in 1922-23-24. This was the time of the bankruptcy of the Communist party – all of which we have gone into before. Then in 1929-30-31 the German workers began again a new revolutionary wave. There was a tremendous power in the Communists and in the trade unions, but then came the famous policy of Social Fascism, a policy invented to paralyze the working class. Only after these three tremendous waves, did fascism become a big movement. There are no exceptions to this rule – fascism comes only when the working class shows complete incapacity to take into its own hands the fate of society.

In the United States you will have the same thing. Already there are fascist elements, and they have of course the examples of Italy and Germany. They will therefore work in a more rapid tempo. But you also have the examples of other countries. The next historic waves in the United States will be waves of radicalism of the masses; not fascism. Of course the war can hinder the radicalization for some time but then it will give to the radicalization a more tremendous tempo and swing. The war cannot organically change developments but only retard them for some time, and then give them a push. War, as we have said before, is only the continuation of politics by other means In this sense, I am sure you will have many possibilities to win the power in the United States before the fascists can become a dominant force.

We must not identify war dictatorship – the dictatorship of the military machine, of the staff, of finance capital – with fascist dictatorship. For the latter there is first necessary a feeling of desperation of large masses of the people. When the revolutionary parties betray them, when the vanguard of workers shows its incapacity to lead the people to victory, then the farmers, the small business men, the unemployed, the soldiers, etc. become capable of supporting a fascist movement, but only then.

A military dictatorship is purely a bureaucratic institution, reinforced by the military machine and based upon the disorientation of the people and their submission to it. After some time their feelings can change, and they can become rebellious against the military dictatorship.

Yes, the feeling against conscription in the United States could possibly become a point of departure for such a rebelliousness. Here is our opportunity to show the workers how the bourgeois class resolves its problems, and we could say:

“You see, they now want to impose upon you a Prussian militarism, with its lack of regard for workers’ lives.” We could demand, possibly, the election of officers – and this can become a very good slogan. “Officers elected by the soldiers themselves.”

American Economy During the War

QUESTION 3: What are the possibilities of building a self-sustaining economy in the Western Hemisphere?

TROTSKY: Not very good, especially during the war. During the war we will have a deepening of self-sustaining misery throughout the whole Western Hemisphere. The war is only the beginning – the results will remain for decades. Even Hitler, who now has Europe, and tomorrow will have Great Britain, has only hungry people. He must have the colonies, and that signifies the oceans – and that means a fight with the United States for the dominions of Great Britain. This would be a long term conflict, and after the German soldiers and sailors have been at war, they will return home to a country of misery, of famine and pestilence. These are Hitler’s gains for the next years.

When the United States goes to war they will introduce a war economy. This means sacrificing everything for the army and war purposes – and misery for the population. How can there be a self-sustaining economy for the United States? In times of peace you have 10 million unemployed – and this in a time of relative prosperity; during crises you have 13 to 14 million unemployed. Moreover you must export. To do this you must import. What? Products that will ruin your farmers, who are even now being supported artificially? No, there is no possibility. Instead, it is necessary to organize a kind of fascism – an organized control of the misery, because what is fascism except the organization of misery for the people. The New Deal tried to do it in a better way but did not succeed, because at that period you remained too rich for a fascist misery. However you will become poorer and poorer, and as a result the next New Deal will be in fascist form. The only solution carries the name of Socialism.

The Pan-American conference is probably the last spectacular form of convulsion of the Rooseveltian Good Neighbor policy. The United States cannot enter a world war, or even make serious preparation for it without assuring first the full domination of the Latin American countries. Their real assurance is their American fleet and aircraft, so that the iron fist shows beneath the Good Neighbor policy. We saw that Argentina was a bit rebellious, but that was their last convulsion of independence. Washington will not permit such a rebellious attitude. The armies, of course, have a world purpose, but the immediate step is first directed to South America to teach them to obey. For the United States, Latin America is like Austria and Czechoslovakia was to Hitler – a springboard to the larger things.

As to whether the United States will take direct control over the Latin American countries, Canada, or let them remain under governorsᡄgauleiters – we will see both! We will have various combinations in the next period, and Washington will name the terms.

On the “Workers” Party

QUESTION 4: In your opinion were there enough political differences between the majority and minority to warrant a split?

TROTSKY: Here it is also necessary to consider the question dialectically, not mechanically. What does this terrible word “dialectics” mean? It means to consider things in their development, not in their static situation. If we take the political differences as they are, we can say they were not sufficient for a split, but if they developed a tendency to turn away from the proletariat in the direction of petty bourgeois circles, then the same differences can have an absolutely different value; a different weight; if they are connected with a different social group. This is a very important point.

We have the fact that the minority split away from us, in spite of all the measures taken by the majority not to split. This signifies that their inner social feeling was such that it is impossible for them to go together with us. It is a petty bourgeois tendency, not a proletarian. If you wish a new confirmation of this, we have an excellent example in the article of Dwight Macdonald.

First of all, what characterizes a proletarian revolutionary? No one is obliged to participate in a revolutionary party, but if he does participate, he considers the party seriously. If we dare to call the people for a revolutionary change of society, we carry a tremendous responsibility, which we must consider very seriously. And what is our theory, but merely the tools of our action? These tools are our Marxist theory because up to today we have not found better tools. A worker is not fantastic about tools, if they are the best tools he can get he is careful with them, he does not abandon them or demand fantastic non-existent tools.

Burnham is an intellectual snob. He picks up one party, abandons it, takes up another. A worker cannot do this. If he enters a revolutionary party, addresses the people, calls them for action, it is the same as a general during a war – he must know where he is leading them. What would you think of a general who said he thought the guns were bad – that it would be better to wait for 10 years until they had invented better guns, so everybody had better go home. That is the way Burnham reasons. So he abandoned the party. But the unemployed remain, and the war remains. These things cannot be postponed. Therefore it is only Burnham who has postponed his action.

Petty Bourgeois Skepticism

Dwight Macdonald is not a snob, but a bit stupid. I quote: “The intellectual, if he is to serve any useful function in society, must not deceive either himself or others, must not accept as good coin what he knows is counterfeit, must not forget in a moment of crisis what he has learned over a period of years and decades.” Good. Absolutely correct. I quote again: “Only if we meet the stormy and terrible years ahead with both skepticism and devotion – skepticism towards all theories, governments and social systems; devotion to the revolutionary fight of the masses – only then can we justify ourselves as intellectuals.”

Here is one of the leaders of the so-called “Workers” Party, who considers himself not a proletarian but an “intellectual”. He speaks of skepticism toward all theories.

We have prepared ourselves for this crisis by studying, by building a scientific method, and our method is Marxism. Then the crisis comes and Mr. Macdonald says “be skeptical of all theories”, and then talks about devotion to the revolution without replacing it with any new theory. Unless it is this skeptical theory of his own. How can we work without a theory? What is the fight of the masses and what is a revolutionary? The whole article is scandalous and a party which can tolerate such a man as one of its leaders is not serious.

I quote again: “What is the nature of the beast (fascism), then? Trotsky insists it is no more nor less than the familiar phenomenon of Bonapartism, in which a clique maintains itself in power by playing one class off against another, thus giving the State power a temporary autonomous character. But these modern totalitarian regimes are not temporary affairs; they have already changed the underlying economic and social structure, not only manipulating the old forms but also destroying their inner vitality. Is the Nazi bureaucracy a new ruling class, then, and fascism a new form of society, comparable to capitalism? That doesn’t seem to be true either.”

Here he creates a new theory, a new definition of fascism, but he wishes, nevertheless, that we should be skeptical toward all theories. So also to the workers he would say that the instruments and tools they work with are not important but they must have devotion to their work! I think the workers would find a very sharp expression for such a statement.

It is very characteristic of the disappointed intellectual. He sees the war, the terrible epoch ahead, with losses, with sacrifices, and he is afraid. He begins to propagate skepticism and still he believes it is possible to unify skepticism with revolutionary devotion. We can only develop a revolutionary devotion if we are sure it is rational and possible, and we cannot have such assurances without a working theory. He who propagates theoretical skepticism is a traitor.

Our Own Actual Analysis of Fascism

We analyzed in fascism different elements.

  1. The element which fascism has in common with the old Bonapartism, is that it used the antagonisms of classes in order to give to the State power the greatest independence. But we have always underlined that the old Bonapartism was in a time of an ascending bourgeois society, while fascism is a State power of the declining bourgeois society.
  2. That fascism is an attempt of the bourgeois class to Overcome, to overstep the contradiction between the new technique and private property without eliminating the private property. It is the “planned economy” of fascism. It is an attempt to save private property and at the same time to check private property.
  3. To overstep the contradiction between the new, modern technique of productive forces within the limited borders of the national state. This new technique cannot be limited by the borders of the old national state and fascism attempts to overcome this contradiction. The result is the war. We have already analyzed all these elements.

We Must Make Use of Every Intellectual

Dwight Macdonald will abandon the party just as Burnham did, but possibly because he is a little lazier, it will come later.

Burnham was considered “good stuff” at one time? Yes, the proletarian party in our epoch must make use of every intellectual who can contribute to the party. I spent many months on Diego Rivera, to save him for our movement, but did not succeed. But every International has had an experience of this kind. The First International had troubles with the poet, Freiligrath, who was also very capricious. The Second and Third Internationals had trouble with Maxim Gorki. The Fourth International with Rivera. In every case they separated from us.

Burnham was, of course, closer to the movement, but Cannon had his doubts about him. He can write, and has some formal skill in thinking, not deep, but adroit. He can accept your idea, develop it, write a fine article about it – and then forget it. The author can forget – but the worker cannot. However, so long as we can use such people, well and good. Mussolini at one time was also “good stuff”!

Coyoacan, D.F.
August 7, 1940

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Last updated on: 22.4.2007