Leon Trotsky

In Defense of Marxism

From a Scratch –
To the Danger of Gangrene

(Part 2)

Conjunctural Defeatism, or Columbus and the Egg

Let us now check up on how Shachtman, aided by a theoretical vacuum, operates with the “realities of living events” in an especially vital question. He writes:

“We have never supported the Kremlin’s international policy ... but what is war? War is the continuation of politics by other means. Then why should we support the war which is the continuation of the international policy which we did not and do not support?” (Loc. cit., p.15)

The completeness of this argument cannot be denied; in the shape of a naked syllogism we are presented here with a rounded-out theory of defeatism. It is as simple as Columbus and the egg! Since we have never supported the Kremlin’s international policy, therefore we ought never to support the USSR. Then why not say it?

We rejected the internal and international policies of the Kremlin prior to the German-Soviet pact and prior to the invasion of Poland by the Red Army. This means that the “realities of living events” of last year do not have the slightest bearing on the case. If we were defensists in the past in connection with the USSR, it was only out of inconsistency. Shachtman revises not only the present policy of the Fourth International but also the past. Since we are against Stalin we must therefore be against the USSR too. Stalin has long held this opinion. Shachtman has arrived at it only recently. From his rejection of the Kremlin’s politics flows complete and indivisible defeatism. Then why not say so!

But Shachtman can’t bring himself to say so. In a previous passage he writes:

“We said – the Minority continues to say it – that if the imperialists assail the Soviet Union with the aim of crushing the last conquest of the October Revolution and reducing Russia to a bunch of colonies we will support the Soviet Union unconditionally.” (Loc. cit., p.15)

Permit me, permit me, permit me! The Kremlin’s international policy is reactionary; the war is the continuation of its reactionary politics; we cannot support a reactionary war. How then does it unexpectedly turn out that if the pernicious imperialists “assail” the USSR and if the pernicious imperialists pursue the uncommendable aim of transforming it into a colony, that under these exceptional “conditions,” Shachtman will defend the USSR “unconditionally”? How does this make sense? Where is the logic? Or has Shachtman, following Burnham’s example, also relegated logic to the sphere of religion and other museum exhibits?

The key to this tangle of confusion rests in the fact that the statement, “We have never supported the Kremlin’s international policy,” is an abstraction. It must be dissected and concretized. In its present foreign as well as domestic policy, the bureaucracy places first and foremost for defense its own parasitic interests. To that extent we wage mortal struggle against it, but in the final analysis, through the interests of the bureaucracy, in a very distorted form the interests of the workers’ state are reflected. These interests we defend – with our own methods. Thus we do not at all wage a struggle against the fact that the bureaucracy safeguards (in its own way!) state property, the monopoly of foreign trade or refuses to pay Czarist debts. Yet in a war between the USSR and the capitalist world – independently of the incidents leading up to that war or the “aims” of this or that government – what is involved is the fate of precisely those historical conquests which we defend unconditionally, i.e., despite the reactionary policy of the bureaucracy. The question consequently boils down – in the last and decisive instance – to the class nature of the USSR.

Lenin deduced the policy of defeatism from the imperialist character of the war; but he did not stop there. He deduced the imperialist character of the war from a specific stage in the development of the capitalist regime and its ruling class. Since the character of the war is determined precisely by the class character of society and the state, Lenin recommended that in determining our policy in regard to imperialist war we abstract ourselves from such “concrete” circumstances as democracy and monarchy, as aggression and national defense. In opposition to this Shachtman proposes that we deduce defeatism from conjunctural conditions. This defeatism is indifferent to the class character of the USSR and of Finland. Enough for it are the reactionary features of the bureaucracy and the “aggression.” If France, England or the United States sends airplanes and guns to Finland, this has no bearing in the determination of Shachtman’s politics. But if British troops land in Finland, then Shachtman will place a thermometer under Chamberlain’s tongue and determine Chamberlain’s intentions – whether he aims only to save Finland from the Kremlin’s imperialistic politics or whether in addition he aims to over throw the “last conquest of the October Revolution.” Strictly in accordance with the readings of the thermometer, Shachtman, the defeatist, is ready to change himself into a defensist. This is what it means to replace abstract principles with the “realities of living events.”

Shachtman, as we have already seen, persistently demands the citation of precedents: when and where in the past have the leaders of the opposition manifested petty-bourgeois opportunism? The reply which I have already given him on this score must be supplemented here with two letters which we sent each other on the question of defensism and methods of defensism in connection with the events of the Spanish Revolution. On September 18, 1937, Shachtman wrote me:

“... You say, ‘If we would have a member in the Cortes he would vote against the military budget of Negrin.’ Unless this is a typographical error it seems to us to be a non-sequitur. If, as we all contend, the element of an imperialist war is not dominant at the present time in the Spanish struggle, and if instead the decisive element is still the struggle between the decaying bourgeois democracy, with all that it involves, on the one side, and fascism on the other, and further if we are obliged to give military assistance to the struggle against fascism, we don’t see how it would be possible to vote in the Cortes against the military budget ... If a Bolshevik-Leninist on the Huesca front were asked by a Socialist comrade why his representative in the Cortes voted against the proposal by Negrin to devote a million pesetas to the purchase of rifles for the front, what would this Bolshevik-Leninist reply? It doesn’t seem to us that he would have an effective answer ...” (My emphasis)

This letter astounded me. Shachtman was willing to express confidence in the perfidious Negrin government on the purely negative basis that the “element of an imperialist war” was not dominant in Spain.

On September 20, 1937, I replied to Shachtman:

“To vote the military budget of the Negrin government signifies to vote him political confidence ... To do it would be a crime. How we explain our vote to the anarchist workers? Very simply: We have not the slightest confidence in the capacity of this government to conduct the war and assure victory. We accuse this government of protecting the rich and starving the poor. This government must be smashed. So long as we are not strong enough to replace it, we are fighting under its command. But on every occasion we express openly our non-confidence in it: it is the only one possibility to mobilize the masses politically against this government and to prepare its over throw. Any other politics would be a betrayal of the revolution.”

The tone of my reply only feebly reflects the ... amazement which Shachtman’s opportunist position produced in me. Isolated mistakes are of course unavoidable but today, two and a half years later, this correspondence is illuminated with new light. Since we defend bourgeois democracy against fascism, Shachtman reasons, we there fore cannot refuse confidence to the bourgeois government. In applying this very theorem to the USSR it is transformed into its converse – since we place no confidence in the Kremlin government, we cannot, therefore, defend the workers’ state. Pseudo-radicalism in this instance, too, is only the obverse side of opportunism.

Renunciation of the Class Criterion

Let us return once more to the ABC’s. In Marxist sociology the initial point of analysis is the class definition of a given phenomenon, e.g., state, party, philosophic trend, literary school, etc. In most cases, however, the mere class definition is inadequate, for a class consists of different strata, passes through different stages of development, comes under different conditions, is subjected to the influence of other classes. It becomes necessary to bring up these second and third rate factors in order to round out the analysis, and they are taken either partially or completely, depending upon the specific aim. But for a Marxist, analysis is impossible without a class characterization of the phenomenon under consideration.

The skeletal and muscular systems do not exhaust the anatomy of an animal; nevertheless an anatomical treatise which attempted to “abstract” itself from bones and muscles would dangle in mid-air. War is not an organ but a function of society, i.e., its ruling class. It is impossible to define and study a function without understanding the organ, i.e., the state; it is impossible to gain scientific understanding of the organ without understanding the general structure of the organism, i.e., society. The bones and muscles of society consist of the productive forces and the class (property) relations. Shachtman holds it possible that a function, namely, war, can be studied “con cretely” independently of the organ to which it pertains, i.e., the state. Isn’t this monstrous?

This fundamental error is supplemented by another equally glaring. After splitting function away from organ, Shachtman in studying the function itself, contrary to all his promises, proceeds not from the abstract to the concrete but on the contrary dissolves the concrete in the abstract. Imperialist war is one of the functions of finance capital, i.e., the bourgeoisie at a certain stage of development resting upon capitalism of a specific structure, namely, monopoly capital. This definition is sufficiently concrete for our basic political conclusions. But by extending the term imperialist war to cover the Soviet state too, Shachtman cuts the ground away from under his own feet. In order to reach even a superficial justification for applying one and the same designation to the expansion of finance capital and the expansion of the workers’ state, Shachtman is compelled to detach himself from the social structure of both states altogether by proclaiming it to be – an abstraction. Thus playing hide and seek with Marxism, Shachtman labels the concrete as abstract. and palms off the abstract as concrete!

This outrageous toying with theory is not accidental. Every petty bourgeois in the United States without exception is ready to call every seizure of territory “imperialist,” especially today when the United States does not happen to be occupied with acquiring territories. But if this very same petty bourgeois is told that the entire foreign policy of finance capital is imperialist regardless of whether it be occupied at the given moment in carrying out an annexation or in “defending” Finland against annexation – then our petty bourgeois jumps back in pious indignation. Naturally the leaders of the opposition differ considerably from an average petty bourgeois in their aim and in their political level. But alas they have common roots of thought. A petty bourgeois invariably seeks to tear political events away from their social foundation, since there is an organic conflict between a class approach to facts and the social position and education of the petty bourgeoisie.

Once Again: Poland

My remark that the Kremlin with its bureaucratic methods gave an impulse to the socialist revolution in Poland, is converted by Shachtman into an assertion that in my opinion a “bureaucratic revolution" of the proletariat is presumably possible. This is not only in correct but disloyal. My expression was rigidly limited. It is not the question of “bureaucratic revolution” but only a bureaucratic impulse. To deny this impulse is to deny reality. The popular masses in western Ukraine and Byelo-Russia, in any event, felt this impulse, understood its meaning, and used it to accomplish a drastic overturn in property relations. A revolutionary party which failed to notice this impulse in time and refused to utilize it would be fit for nothing but the ash can.

This impulse in the direction of socialist revolution was possible only because the bureaucracy of the USSR straddles and has its roots in the economy of a workers’ state. The revolutionary utilization of this “impulse” by the Ukrainian Byelo-Russians was possible only through the class struggle in the occupied territories and through the power of the example of the October Revolution. Finally, the swift strangulation or semi-strangulation of this revolutionary mass movement was made possible through the isolation of this movement and the might of the Moscow bureaucracy. Whoever failed to under stand the dialectic interaction of these three factors: the workers’ state, the oppressed masses and the Bonapartist bureaucracy, had best restrain himself from idle talk about events in Poland.

At the elections for the National Assembly of western Ukraine and western Byelo-Russia the electoral program, dictated of course by the Kremlin, included three extremely important points: inclusion of both provinces in the Federation of the USSR; confiscation of landlords’ estates in favor of the peasants; nationalization of large industry and the banks. The Ukrainian democrats, judging from their conduct, deem it a lesser evil to be unified under the rule of a single state. And from the standpoint of the future struggle for independence, they are correct. As for the other two points in the program one would think that there could be no doubt in our midst ~s to their progressiveness. Seeking to get around reality, namely that nothing else but the social foundations of the USSR forced a social revolutionary program upon the Kremlin, Shachtman refers to Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia where everything has remained as of old. An incredible argument! No one has said that the Soviet bureaucracy always and everywhere either wishes or is able to accomplish the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. We only say that no other government could have accomplished that social overturn which the Kremlin bureaucracy notwithstanding its alliance with Hitler found itself compelled to sanction in eastern Poland. Failing this, it could not include the territory in the Federation of the USSR.

Shachtman is aware of the overturn itself. He cannot deny it. He is incapable of explaining it. But he nevertheless attempts to save face. He writes:

“In the Polish Ukraine and White Russia, where class exploitation was intensified by national oppression ... the peasants began to take over the land themselves, to drive off the land lords who were already half-in-flight,” etc. (Loc. cit., p.16)

The Red Army it turns out had no connection whatever with all this. It came into Poland only as a “counter-revolutionary force” in order to suppress the movement. But why didn’t the workers and peasants in western Poland seized by Hitler arrange a revolution? Why was it chiefly revolutionists, “democrats,” and Jews who fled from there, while in eastern Poland – it was chiefly the landlords and capitalists who fled? Shachtman lacks the time to think this oot – he is in a hurry to explain to me that the conception of “bureaucratic revolution” is absurd, for the emancipation of the workers can be carried out only by the workers themselves. Am I not justified in repeating that Shachtman obviously feels he is standing in a nursery.

In the Parisian organ of the Mensheviks – who, if that is possible, are even more “irreconcilable” in their attitude toward the Kremlin’s foreign policy than Shachtman – it is reported that “in the villages – very frequently at the very approach of the Soviet troops (i.e., even prior to their entering a given district – L.T.) – peasant committees sprang up everywhere, the elementary organs of revolutionary peasant self-rule ...” The military authorities hastened of course to subordinate these committees to the bureaucratic organs established by them in the urban centers. Nevertheless they were compelled to rest upon the peasant committees since without them it was impossible to carry out the agrarian revolution.

The leader of the Mensheviks, Dan, wrote on October 19:

According to the unanimous testimony of all observers the appearance of the Soviet army and the Soviet bureaucracy provides not only in the territory occupied by them but beyond its confines – an impulse(!) to social turmoil and social transformations.”

The “impulse,” it will be observed, was invented not by me but by “the unanimous testimony of all observers” who possessed eyes and ears. Dan goes even further and expresses the supposition that “the waves engendered by this impulse will not only hit Germany powerfully in a comparatively short period of time but also to one degree or another roll on to other states.”

Another Menshevik author writes:

“However they may have attempted in the Kremlin to avoid anything which might smack of the great revolution, the very fact of the entry of Soviet troops into the territories of eastern Poland with its long outlived semi-feudal agrarian relations, had to provoke a stormy agrarian movement. With the approach of Soviet troops the peasants began to seize landlords’ estates and to form peasant committees.”

You will observe: with the approach of Soviet troops and not at all with their withdrawal as should follow in accordance with Shachtman’s words. I cite the testimony of the Mensheviks because they are very well informed, their sources of information coming through Polish and Jewish immigrants friendly to them who have gathered in France, and also because having capitulated to the French bourgeoisie, these gentlemen cannot possibly be suspected of capitulation to Stalinism.

The testimony of the Mensheviks furthermore is confirmed by the reports of the bourgeois press:

“The agrarian revolution in Soviet Poland has had the force of a spontaneous movement. As soon as the report spread that the Red Army had crossed the river Zbrucz the peasants began to share out amongst themselves the landlords’ acres. Land was given first to small holders and in this way about thirty per cent of agricultural land was expropriated.” (New York Times, January 17, 1940.)

Under the guise of a new argument Shachtman hands me my own words to the effect that the expropriation of property owners in eastern Poland cannot alter our appraisal of the general policies of the Kremlin. Of course it cannot! No one has proposed this. With the aid of the Comintern the Kremlin has disoriented and demoralized the working class so that it has not only facilitated the outbreak of a new imperialist war but has also made extremely difficult the utilization of this war for revolution. Compared with those crimes the social overturn in the two provinces, which was paid for more over by the enslavement of Poland, is of course of secondary importance and does not alter the general reactionary character of the Kremlin’s policy. But upon the initiative of the opposition itself, the question now posed is not one of general policy but of its concrete refraction under specific conditions of time and place. To the peas ants of Galicia and western Byelo-Russia the agrarian Overturn was of highest importance. The Fourth International could not have boycotted this overturn on the ground that the initiative was taken by the reactionary bureaucracy. Our outright duty was to participate in the overturn on the side of the workers and peasants and to that extent on the side of the Red Army. At the same time it was indispensable to warn the masses tirelessly of the generally reactionary character of the Kremlin’s policy and of those dangers it bears for the occupied territories. To know how to combine these two tasks or more precisely two sides of one and the same task – just this is Bolshevik politics.

Once Again: Finland

Having revealed such odd perspicacity in understanding the events in Poland, Shachtman descends upon me with redoubled authority in connection with events in Finland. In my article A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition, I wrote that “the Soviet-Finnish War is apparently beginning to be supplemented by a civil war in which the Red Army finds itself at a given stage in the same camp as the Finnish petty peasants and the workers ...” This extremely cautious formula did not meet with the approval of my unsparing judge. My evaluation of events in Poland had already taken him off balance. “I find even less (proof) for your – how shall I put it? – astonishing remarks about Finland,” writes Shachtman on page 16 of his Letter. I am very sorry that Shachtman chooses to become astonished rather than think things out.

In the Baltic states the Kremlin confined its tasks to making strategical gains with the unquestionable calculation that in the future these strategic military bases will permit the sovietization of these former sections of the Czarist empire too. These successes in the Baltic, achieved by diplomatic threat, met with resistance, however, from Finland. To reconcile itself to this resistance would have meant that the Kremlin placed in jeopardy its “prestige” and thereby its successes in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Thus contrary to its initial plans the Kremlin felt compelled to resort to armed force. From this fact every thinking person posed to himself the following question: Does the Kremlin wish only to frighten the Finnish bourgeoisie and force them to make concessions or must it now go further? To this question naturally there could be no “automatic" answer. It was necessary – in the light of general tendencies – -- to orient oneself upon concrete symptoms. The leaders of the opposition are incapable of this.

Military operations began on November 30. That very same day the Central Committee of the Finnish Communist Party, undoubtedly located in either Leningrad or Moscow, issued a radio manifesto to the toiling people of Finland. This manifesto proclaimed:

“For the second time in the history of Finland the Finnish working class is beginning a struggle against the yoke of the plutocracy. The first experience of the workers and peasants in 1918 terminated in the victory of the capitalists and the landlords. But this time ... the toiling people must win “

This manifesto alone clearly indicated that not an attempt to scare the bourgeois government of Finland was involved, but a plan to provoke insurrection in the country and to supplement the invasion of the Red Army with civil war.

The declaration of the so-called People’s Government published on December 2 states: “In different parts of the country the people have already risen and proclaimed the creation of a democratic republic.” This assertion is obviously a fabrication, otherwise the manifesto would have mentioned the places where the attempts at insurrection took place. It is possible, however, that isolated attempts, prepared from without, ended in failure and that precisely because of this it was deemed best not to go into details. In any case, the news concerning “insurrections” constituted a call to insurrection. Moreover, the declaration carried information concerning the formation of “the first Finnish corps which in the course of coming battles will be enlarged by volunteers from the ranks of revolutionary workers and peasants.” Whether there were one thousand men in this “corps” or only one hundred, the meaning of the “corps” in determining the policies of the Kremlin was incontestable. At the same time cable dispatches reported the expropriation of large landholders in the border regions. There is not the slightest ground to doubt that this is just what took place during the first advance of the Red Army. But even if these dispatches are considered fabrications, they completely pre serve their meaning. as a call for an agrarian revolution. Thus I had every justification to declare that “The Soviet-Finnish War is apparently beginning to be supplemented by a civil war.” At the beginning of December, true enough, I had at my disposal only a part of these facts. But against the background of the general situation, and I take the liberty to add, with the aid of an understanding of its internal logic, the isolated symptoms enabled me to draw the necessary conclusions concerning the direction of the entire struggle. Without such semi-a priori conclusions one can be a rationalizing observer but in no case an active participant in events. But why did the appeal of the “People’s Government” fail to bring immediate mass response? For three reasons: first, Finland is dominated completely by a reactionary military machine which is supported not only by the bourgeoisie but by the top layers of the peasantry and the labor bureaucracy; secondly, the policy of the Kremlin succeeded in transforming the Finnish Communist Party into an insignificant factor; thirdly, the regime of the USSR is in no way capable of arousing enthusiasm among the Finnish toiling masses. Even in the Ukraine from 1918 to 1920 the peasants responded very slowly to appeals to seize the estates of the landlords because the local soviet power was still weak and every success of the Whites brought about ruthless punitive expeditions. All the less reason is there for surprise that the Finnish poor peasants delay in responding to an appeal for an agrarian revolution. To set the peasants in motion, serious successes of the Red Army are required. But during the first badly prepared advance the Red Army suffered only failures. Under such conditions there could not even be talk of the peasants rising. It was impossible to expect an independent civil war in Finland at the given stage: my calculations spoke quite precisely of supplementing military operations by measures of civil war. I have in mind – at least until the Finnish army is annihilated – only the occupied territory and the nearby regions. Today on January 17 as I write these lines dispatches from a Finnish source report that one of the border provinces has been invaded by detachments of Finnish émigrés and that brother is literally killing brother there. What is this if not an episode in a civil war? In any case there can be no doubt that a new advance of the Red Army into Finland will confirm at every step our general appraisal of the war. Shachtman has neither an analysis of the events nor the hint of a prognosis. He con fines himself to noble indignation and for this reason at every step he sinks deeper into the mire.

The appeal of the “People’s Government” calls for workers’ control. What can this mean! exclaims Shachtman. There is no workers’ control in the USSR; whence will it come in Finland? Sad to say, Shachtman reveals complete lack of understanding of the situation. In the USSR workers’ control is a stage long ago completed. From control over the bourgeoisie there they passed to management of nationalized production. From the management of workers – to the command of the bureaucracy. New workers’ control would now signify control over the bureaucracy. This cannot be established except as the result of a successful uprising against the bureaucracy. In Finland, workers’ control still signifies nothing more than crowding out the native bourgeoisie, whose place the bureaucracy proposes to take. Furthermore one should not think that the Kremlin is so stupid as to attempt ruling eastern Poland or Finland by means of imported commissars. Of greatest urgency to the Kremlin is the extraction of a new administrative apparatus from among the toiling population of the occupied areas. This task can be solved only in several stages. The first stage is the peasant committees and the committees of workers’ control. [2]

Shachtman clutches eagerly even at the fact that Kuusinen’s program “is, formally, the program of a bourgeois ’democracy’.” Does he mean to say by this that the Kremlin is more interested in establishing bourgeois democracy in Finland than in drawing Finland into the framework of the USSR? Shachtman himself doesn’t know what he wants to say. In Spain, which Moscow did not prepare for union with the USSR, it was actually a question of demonstrating the ability of the Kremlin to safeguard bourgeois democracy against proletarian revolution. This task flowed from the interests of the Kremlin bureaucracy in that particular international situation. Today the situation is a different one. The Kremlin is not preparing to demonstrate its usefulness to France, England and the United States. As its actions have proved, it has firmly decided to sovietize Finland – at once or in two stages. The program of the Kuusinen government, even if approached from a “formal” point of view does not differ from the program of the Bolsheviks in November 1917. True enough, Shachtman makes much of the fact that I generally place significance on the manifesto of the “idiot” Kuusinen. However, I shall take the liberty of considering that the “idiot” Kuusinen acting on the ukase of the Kremlin and with the support of the Red Army represents a far more serious political factor than scores of superficial wise acres who refuse to think through the internal logic (dialectics) of events.

As a result 0f his remarkable analysis, Shachtman this time openly proposes a defeatist policy in relation to the USSR, adding (for emergency use) that he does not at all cease to be a “patriot of his class.” We are happy to get the information. But the trouble is that Dan, the leader of the Mensheviks, as far back as November 12 wrote that in the event the Soviet Union invaded Finland the world proletariat “must take a definitive defeatist position in relation to this violation.” (Sozialisticheski Vestnik, No.19-20, p.43) It is necessary to add that throughout the Kerensky regime, Dan was a rabid defensist; he failed to be a defeatist even under the Czar. Only the invasion of Finland by the Red Army has turned Dan into a defeatist. Naturally he does not thereby cease to be a “patriot of his class.” What class? This question is not an uninteresting one. So far as the analysis of events is concerned Shachtman disagrees with Dan who is closer to the theater of action and cannot replace facts with fiction; by way of compensation, where the “concrete political conclusions” are concerned, Shachtman has turned out to be a “patriot” of the very same time as Dan. In Marxist sociology this class, if the opposition will permit me, this class is called the petty bourgeoisie.

The Theory of “Blocs𔄭

To justify his bloc with Burnham and Abern – against the proletarian wing of the party, against the program of the Fourth International, and against the Marxist method – Shachtman has not spared the history of the revolutionary movement which he – according to his own words – studied especially in order to transmit great traditions to the younger generation. The goal itself is of course excellent. But it demands a scientific method. Meanwhile, Shachtman has begun by sacrificing scientific method for the sake of a bloc. His historical examples are arbitrary, not thought out and downright false.

Not every collaboration is a bloc in the proper sense of the term. By no means infrequent are episodic agreements which are not at all transformed and do not seek to be transformed into a protracted bloc. On the other hand membership in one and the same party can hardly be called a bloc. We together with comrade Burnham have belonged (and I hope will continue to belong to the end) to one and the same international party; but this is still not a bloc. Two parties can conclude a long term bloc with each other against a common enemy: such was the policy of the “People’s Front.” Within one and the same party close but not congruent tendencies can conclude a bloc against a third faction.

For the evaluation of inner-party blocs two questions are of decisive significance: (1) First and foremost against whom or what is the bloc directed? (2) What is the relationship of forces within the bloc? Thus for a struggle against chauvinism within one’s own party a bloc between internationalists and centrists is wholly permissible. The result of the bloc would in this case depend upon the clarity of the program of the internationalists, upon their cohesiveness and discipline, for these traits are not infrequently more important in determining the relationship of forces than their numerical strength.

Shachtman as we said before appeals to Lenin’s bloc with Bogdanov. I have already stated that Lenin did not make the slightest theoretical concessions to Bogdanov. Now we shall examine the political side of the “bloc.” It is first of all necessary to state that what was actually in question was not a bloc but a collaboration in a common organization. The Bolshevik faction led an independent existence. Lenin did not form a “bloc" with Bogdanov against other tendencies within his own organization. On the contrary he formed a bloc even with the Bolshevik-conciliators (Dubrovinsky, Rykov and others) against the theoretical heresies of Bogdanov. In essence, the question so far as Lenin was concerned was whether it was possible to remain with Bogdanov in one and the same organization which although called a “faction” borc all the traits of a party. If Shachtman does not look upon the opposition as an independent organization then his reference to the Lenin-Bogdanov “bloc” falls to pieces.

But the mistake in the analogy is not restricted to this. The Bolshevik faction-party carried out a struggle against Menshevism which at that time had already revealed itself completely as a petty-bourgeois agency of the liberal bourgeoisie. This was far more serious than the accusation of so-called “bureaucratic conservatism,” the class roots of which Shachtman does not even attempt to define. Lenin’s collaboration with Bogdanov was collaboration between a proletarian tendency and a sectarian centrist tendency against petty-bourgeois opportunism. The class lines are clear. The “bloc” (if one uses this term in the given instance) was justified.

The subsequent history of the “bloc” is not lacking in significance. In the letter to Gorky cited by Shachtman, Lenin expressed the hope that it would be possible to separate the political questions from the purely philosophic ones. Shachtman forgets to add that Lenin’s hope did not at all materialize. Differences developed from the heights of philosophy down the line of all the other questions, including the most current ones. If the “bloc” did not discredit Bolshevism it was only because Lenin had a finished program, a correct method, a firmly welded faction in which Bogdanov’s group composed a small unstable minority.

Shachtman concluded a bloc with Burnham and Abern against the proletarian wing of his own party. It is impossible to evade this. The relationship of forces within the bloc is completely against Shachtman. Abern has his own faction. Burnham with Shachtman’s assistance can create the semblance of a faction constituting intellectuals disillusioned with Bolshevism. Shachtman has no independent program, no independent method, no independent faction. The eclectic character of the opposition “program” is determined by the contradictory tendencies within the bloc. In the event the bloc collapses – and the collapse is inevitable – Shachtman will emerge from the struggle with nothing but injury to the party and to himself.

Shachtman further appeals to the fact that in 1917 Lenin and Trotsky united after a long struggle and it would therefore be incorrect to remind them of their past differences. This example is slightly compromised by the fact that Shachtman has already utilized it once before to explain his bloc with – Cannon against Abern. But aside from this unpleasant circumstance the historical analogy is false to the core. Upon joining the Bolshevik party, Trotsky recognized completely and whole-heartedly the correctness of the Leninist methods of building the party. At the same time the irreconcilable class tendency of Bolshevism had corrected an incorrect prognosis. If I did not again raise the question of “permanent revolution” in 1917 it was because it had already been decided for both sides by the march of events. The basis for joint work was constituted not by subjective or episodic combinations but by the proletarian revolution. This is a solid basis. Furthermore in question here was not a “bloc” but unification in a single party – against the bourgeoisie and its petty-bourgeois agents. Inside the party the October bloc of Lenin and Trotsky was directed against petty-bourgeois vacillations on the question of insurrection.

Equally superficial is Shachtman’s reference to Trotsky’s bloc with Zinoviev in 1926. The struggle at that time was conducted not against “bureaucratic conservatism” as the psychological trait of a few unsympathetic individuals but against the mightiest bureaucracy in the world, its privileges, its arbitrary rule and its reactionary policy. The scope of permissible differences in a bloc is determined by the character of the adversary.

The relationship of elements within the bloc was likewise altogether different. The opposition of 1923 had its own program and its own cadres composed not at all of intellectuals as Shachtman asserts, echoing the Stalinists, but primarily workers. The Zinoviev Kamenev opposition on our demand acknowledged in a special document that the 1923 opposition was correct on all fundamental questions. Nevertheless since we had different traditions and since we were far from agreeing in everything, the merger never did take place; both groups remained independent factions. In certain important questions, it is true, the 1923 opposition made principled concessions to the opposition in 1926 – against my vote – concessions which I considered and still consider impermissible. The circumstance that I did not protest openly against these concessions was rather a mistake. But there was generally not much room for open protests – we were working illegally. In any event, both sides were very well acquainted with my views on the controversial questions. Within the 1923 opposition, nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand if not more stood on my point of view and not on the point of view of Zinoviev or Radek. With such a relation between the two groups in the bloc there might have been these or other partial mistakes but there was not so much as a semblance of adventurism.

With Shachtman the case is completely different. Who was right in the past and just when and where? Why did Shachtman stand first with Abern, then with Cannon and now back again with Abern? Shachtman’s own explanation concerning the past bitter factional struggles is worthy not of a responsible political figure but of a nursemaid: Johnny was a little wrong, Max a little, all were a little wrong, and now we are all a little right. Who was in the wrong and in what, not a word of this. There is no tradition. Yesterday is expunged from the calculations – and what is the reason for all this? Because in the organism of the party comrade Shachtman plays the role of a floating kidney.

Seeking historical analogies, Shachtman avoids one example to which his present bloc does actually bear a resemblance. I have in mind the so-called August bloc of 1912. I participated actively in this bloc. In a certain sense I created it. Politically I differed with the Mensheviks on all fundamental questions. I also differed with the ultra-left Bolsheviks, the Vperyodists. In the general tendency of politics I stood far more closely to the Bolsheviks. But I was against the Leninist “regime” because I had not yet learned to understand that in order to realize the revolutionary goal a firmly welded centralized party is indispensable. And so I formed this episodic bloc consisting of heterogeneous elements which was directed against the proletarian wing of the party.

In the August bloc the liquidators had their own faction, the Vperyodists also had something resembling a faction. I stood isolated, having co-thinkers but no faction. Most of the documents were writ ten by me and through avoiding principled differences had as their aim the creation of a semblance of unanimity upon “concrete political questions.” Not a word about the past! Lenin subjected the August bloc to merciless criticism and the harshest blows fell to my lot. Lenin proved that inasmuch as I did not agree politically with either the Mensheviks or the Vperyodists my policy was adventurism. This was severe but it was true.

As “mitigating circumstances” let me mention the fact that I had set as my task not to support the right or ultra-left factions against the Bolsheviks but to unite the party as a whole. The Bolsheviks too were invited to the August conference. But since Lenin flatly refused to unite with the Mensheviks (in which he was completely correct) I was left in an unnatural bloc with the Mensheviks and the Vperyodists. The second mitigating circumstance is this, that the very phenomenon of Bolshevism as the genuine revolutionary party was then developing for the first time – in the practice of the Second International there were no precedents. But I do not thereby seek in the least to absolve myself from guilt. Notwithstanding the conception of permanent revolution which undoubtedly disclosed the correct perspective, I had not freed myself at that period especially in the organizational sphere from the traits of a petty-bourgeois revolutionist. I was sick with the disease of conciliationism toward Menshevism and with a distrustful attitude toward Leninist centralism. Immediately after the August conference the bloc began to disintegrate into its component parts. Within a few months I was not only in principle but organizationally outside the bloc.

I address Shachtman today with the very same rebuke which Lenin addressed to me 27 years ago: “Your bloc is unprincipled.” “Your policy is adventurism.” With all my heart I express the hope that from these accusations Shachtman will draw the same conclusions which I once drew.

The Factions in the Struggle

Shachtman expresses surprise over the fact that Trotsky, “the leader of the 1923 opposition,” is capable of supporting the bureaucratic faction of Cannon. In this as in the question of workers’ control Shachtman again reveals his lack of feeling for historical perspective. True, in justifying their dictatorship the Soviet bureaucracy exploited the principles of Bolshevik centralism but in the very process it transformed them into their exact opposite. But this does not discredit in the least the methods of Bolshevism. Over a period of many years Lenin educated the party in the spirit of proletarian discipline and severe centralism. In so doing he suffered scores of times the attack of petty-bourgeois factions and cliques. Bolshevik centralism was a profoundly progressive factor and in the end secured the triumph of the revolution. It is not difficult to understand that the struggle of the present opposition in the Socialist Workers Party has nothing in common with the struggle of the Russian opposition of 1923 against the privileged bureaucratic caste but it does instead bear great resemblance to the struggle of the Mensheviks against Bolshevik centralism.

Cannon and his group are according to the opposition “an expression of a type of politics which can be best described as bureaucratic conservatism.” What does this mean? The domination of a conservative labor bureaucracy, share-holder in the profits of the national bourgeoisie, would be unthinkable without direct or indirect support of the capitalist state. The rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy would be unthinkable without the GPU, the army, the courts, etc. The Soviet bureaucracy supports Stalin precisely because he is the bureaucrat who defends their interests better than anybody else. The trade union bureaucracy supports Green and Lewis precisely because their vices as able and dexterous bureaucrats, safeguard the material interests of the labor aristocracy. But upon what base does “bureaucratic conservatism” rest in the SWP? Obviously not of material interests but on a selection of bureaucratic types in contrast to an other camp where innovators, initiators and dynamic spirits have been gathered together. The opposition does not point to any objective, ie., social basis for “bureaucratic conservatism.” Everything is reduced to pure psychology. Under such conditions every thinking worker will say: It is possible that comrade Cannon actually does sin in the line of bureaucratic tendencies – it is hard for me to judge at a distance – but if the majority of the National Committee and of the entire party who are not at all interested in bureaucratic “privileges” support Cannon they do so not because of his bureaucratic tendencies but in spite of them. This means that he has some other virtues which far outweigh his personal failing. That is what a serious party member will say. And in my opinion he would be correct.

To substantiate their complaints and accusations the leaders of the opposition bring up disjointed episodes and anecdotes which can be counted by the hundred and the thousand in every party and which moreover are impossible to verify objectively in most instances. Furthest from my mind is indulgence in a criticism of the story-telling section of the opposition documents. But there is one episode about which I wish to express myself as a participant and a witness. The leaders of the opposition very superciliously relate how easily, presumably without criticism and without deliberation, Cannon and his group accepted the program of transitional demands. Here is what I wrote on April 15, 1938 to comrade Cannon concerning the elaboration of this program:

"We have sent you the transitional program draft and a short statement about the labor party. Without your visit to Mexico I could never have written the program draft because I learned during the discussions many important things which permitted me to be more explicit and concrete ...”

Shachtman is thoroughly acquainted with these circumstances since he was one of those who took part in the discussion.

Rumors, personal speculations and simple gossip cannot help but occupy an important place in petty-bourgeois circles where people are bound together not by party ties but by personal relationships and where no habit has been acquired of a class approach to events. It is passed from ear to ear that I have been visited exclusively by representatives of the majority and that I have been led astray from the path of truth. Dear comrades, don’t believe this nonsense! I collect political information through the very same methods that I use in my work generally. A critical attitude toward information is an organic part of the political physiognomy of every politician. If I were incapable of distinguishing false communications from true ones what value could my judgments have in general?

I am personally acquainted with no less than twenty members of Abern’s faction. To several of them I am obligated for their friendly help in my work and I consider all of them, or almost all, as valuable party members. But at the same time I must say that what distinguishes each of them to one degree or another is the aura of a petty-bourgeois milieu, lack of experience in the class struggle and to a certain extent lack of the requisite connection with the proletarian movement. Their positive features link them to the Fourth International. Their negative features bind them to the most conservative of all factions.

“An ‘anti-intellectual’ and ‘anti-intellectuals’ attitude is drummed into the minds of party members,” complains the document on Bureaucratic Conservatism. (Internal Bulletin, Vol.2 No.6, January 1940, p.12) This argument is dragged in by the hair. It is not those intellectuals who have completely gone over to the side of the proletariat who are in question, but those elements who are seeking to shift our party to the position of petty-bourgeois eclecticism. This same document declares: “An anti-New York propaganda is spread which is at bottom a catering to prejudices that are not always healthy.” (idem) What prejudices are referred to here? Apparently anti-Semitism. If anti-Semitic or other race prejudices exist in our party, it is necessary to wage a ruthless struggle against them through open blows and not through vague insinuations. But the question of the Jewish intellectuals and semi-intellectuals of New York is a social not a national question. In New York there are a great many Jewish proletarians, but Abern’s faction is not built up of them. The petty-bourgeois elements of this faction have proved incapable to this day of finding a road to the Jewish workers. They are contented with their own milieu.

There has been more than one instance in history – more precisely it does not happen otherwise in history – that with the transition of the party from one period to the next those elements which played a progressive role in the past but who proved incapable of adapting themselves with timeliness to new tasks have drawn closer together in the face of danger and revealed not their positive but almost exclusively their negative traits. That is precisely the role today of Aberns faction in which Shachtman plays the role of journalist and Burnham the role of theoretical brain trust. “Cannon knows,” persists Shachtman, “how spurious it is to inject in the present discussion the ‘Abern question.’ He knows what every informed party leader, and many members know, namely, that for the past several years at least there has been no such thing as an ‘Abern Group’.” I take the liberty of remarking that if anybody is here distorting reality it is none other than Shachtman himself. I have been following the development of the internal relations in the American section for about ten years. The specific composition and the special role played by the New York organization became clear to me before anything else. Shachtman will perhaps recall that while I was still in Prinkipo I advised the National Committee to move away from New York and its atmosphere of petty-bourgeois squabbles for a while to some industrial center in the provinces. Upon arriving in Mexico I gained the opportunity of becoming better acquainted with the English language and thanks to many visits from my northern friends, of arriving at a more vivid picture of the social composition and the political psychology of the various groupings. On the basis of my own personal and immediate observations during the past three years I assert that the Abern faction has existed uninterruptedly, statically if not “dynamically.”

The members of the Abern faction, given a modicum of political experience, are easily recognizable not only by their social traits but by their approach to all questions. These comrades have always formally denied the existence of their faction. There was a period when some of them actually did try to dissolve themselves into the party. But they attempted this by doing violence to themselves, and on all critical questions they came out in relation to the party as a group. They were far less interested in principled questions, in particular the question of changing the social composition of the party, than in combinations at the top, personal conflicts and generally occurrences in the “general staff.” This is the Abern school. I persistently warned many of these comrades that soaking in this artificial existence would unfailingly bring them sooner or later to a new factional explosion.

The leaders of the opposition speak ironically and disparagingly of the proletarian composition of the Cannon faction; in their eyes this incidental “detail” carries no importance. What is this if not petty-bourgeois disdain combined with blindness? At the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democrats in 1903 where the split took place between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks there were only three workers among several scores of delegates. All three of them turned up with the majority. The Mensheviks jeered at Lenin for Investing this fact with great symptomatic significance. The Mensheviks themselves explained the position the three workers took by their lack of “maturity.” But as is well known it was Lenin who proved correct.

If the proletarian section of our American party is “politically backward,” then the first task of those who are “advanced” should have consisted in raising the workers to a higher level. But why has the present opposition failed to find its way to these workers? Why did they leave this work to the “Cannon clique”? What is involved here? Aren’t the workers good enough for the opposition? Or is the opposition unsuitable for workers?

It would be asinine to think that the workers’ section of the party is perfect. The workers are only gradually reaching clear class consciousness. The trade unions always create a culture medium for opportunist deviations. Inevitably we will run up against this, question in one of the next stages. More than once the party will have to remind its own trade unionists that a pedagogical adaptation to the more backward layers of the proletariat must not become transformed into a political adaptation to the conservative bureaucracy of the trade unions. Every new stage of development, every increase in the art ranks and the complication of the methods of its work open up not only new possibilities but also new dangers. Workers in the trade unions, even those trained in the most revolutionary school, often display a tendency to free themselves from party control. At the present time however, this is not at all in question. At the present time the non-proletarian opposition, dragging behind it the majority of the non-proletarian youth, is attempting to revise our theory, our program, our tradition – and it does all this light-mindedly, in passing, for greater convenience in the struggle against the “Cannon clique”. At the present time disrespect for the party is shown not by the trade unionists but by the petty-bourgeois oppositionists. It is precisely in order to prevent the trade unionists from turning their backs to the party in the future that it is necessary to decisively repulse these petty-bourgeois oppositionists.

It is moreover impermissible to forget that the actual or possible mistakes of those comrades working in the trade unions reflect the pressure of the American proletariat as it is today. This is our class. We are not preparing to capitulate to its pressure. But this pressure at the same time shows us our main historic road. The mistakes of the opposition on the other hand reflect the pressure of another and alien class. An ideological break with that class is the elementary condition for our future successes.

The reasonings of the opposition in regard to the youth are false in the extreme. Assuredly, without the conquest of the proletarian youth the revolutionary party cannot develop. But the trouble is that we have almost an entirely petty-bourgeois youth, to a considerable degree with a social-democratic. i.e., opportunist past. The leaders of this youth have indubitable virtues and ability but, alas, they have been educated in the spirit of petty-bourgeois combinationism and if they are not wrenched out of their habitual milieu, if they are not sent without high-sounding titles into working-class districts for day-to-day dirty work among the proletariat, they can forever perish for the revolutionary movement. In relation to the youth as in all the other questions, Shachtman unfortunately has taken a position that is false to the core.

It Is Time to Halt!

To what extent Shachtman’s thought from a false starting point has become debased is to be seen from the fact that he depicts my position as a defense of the “Cannon clique” and he harps several times on the fact that in France I supported just as mistakenly the “Molinier clique.” Everything is reduced to my supporting isolated individuals or groups entirely independently of their program. The example of Molinier only thickens the fog. I shall attempt to dispel it. Molinier was accused not of retreating from our program but of being undisciplined, arbitrary and of venturing into all sorts of financial adventures to support the party and his faction. Since Molinier is a very energetic man and has unquestionable practical capacities I found it necessary – not only in the interests of Molinier but above all in the interests of the organization itself – to exhaust all the possibilities of convincing and re-educating him in the spirit of proletarian discipline. Since many of his adversaries possessed all of his failings but none of his virtues I did everything to convince them not to hasten a split but to test Molinier over and over again. It was this that constituted my “defense” of Molinier in the adolescent period of the existence of our French section.

Considering a patient attitude toward blundering or undisciplined comrades and repeated efforts to reeducate them in the revolutionary spirit as absolutely compulsory I applied these methods by no means solely to Molinier. I made attempts to draw closer into the party and save Kurt Landau, Field, Weisbord, the Austrian Frey, the Frenchman Treint, and a number of others. In many cases my efforts proved fruitless; in a few cases it was possible to rescue valuable comrades.

In any case I did not make the slightest principled concession to Molinier. When he decided to found a paper on the basis of “four slogans” instead of our program, and set out independently to execute this plan, I was among those who insisted upon his immediate expulsion. But I will not hide the fact that at the Founding Congress of the Fourth International I was in favor of once again testing Molinier and his group within the framework of the International to see if they had become convinced of the erroneousness of their policy. This time, too, the attempt led to nothing. But I do not renounce repeating it under suitable conditions once again. It is most curious that among the bitterest opponents of Molinier there were people like Vereecken and Sneevliet, who after they had broken with the Fourth International successfully united with him.

A number of comrades upon acquainting themselves with my archives have reproached me in a friendly way with having wasted and still continuing to waste so much time on convincing “hopeless people.” I replied that many times I have had the occasion to observe how people change with circumstances and that I am therefore not ready to pronounce people as “hopeless” on the basis of a few even though serious mistakes.

When it became clear to me that Shachtman was driving himself and a certain section of the party into a blind alley I wrote him that if the opportunity were mine I would immediately take an airplane and fly to New York in order to discuss with him for seventy-two hour stretches at a time. I asked him if he didn’t wish to make it possible somehow for us to get together. Shachtman did not reply. This is wholly within his right. It is quite possible that those comrades who may become acquainted with my archives in the future will say in this case too that my letter to Shachtman was a false step on my part and they will cite this “mistake” of mine in connection with my over-persistent “defense” of Molinier. They will not convince me. It is an extremely difficult task to form an international proletarian vanguard under present conditions. To chase after individuals at the expense of principles would of course be a crime. But to do everything to bring back outstanding yet mistaken comrades to our programme I have considered and still consider my duty.

From the very Trade Union discussion which Shachtman utilised with such glaring irrelevance I quote the words of Lenin which Shachtman should engrave on his mind:

A mistake always begins by being small and growing ever-greater. Differences always begin with trifles. Everypone has at times suffered a tiny wound but should this tiny wound become infected, a mortal disease may follow.”

Thus spoke Lenin on January 23, 1921. It is impossible not to make mistakes; some err more frequently, others less frequently. The duty of a proletarian revolutionist is not to persist in mistakes, not to place ambition above the interests of the cause but to call a halt in time. It is time for comrade Shachtman to call a halt! Otherwise the scratch which has already developed into an ulcer can lead to gangrene.

January 24, 1940.
Coycacan, D.F.


2. This article was already written when I read in the New York Times of January 17 the following lines relating to former eastern Poland:

“In industry, drastic acts of expropriation have not yet been carried out on a large scale. The main centers of the banking system, the railway system and a number of large industrial undertakings were State-owned for years before the Russian occupation. In small and medium-sized industries workmen now exercise control over production.

“The industrialists nominally retain a full right of ownership in their own establishments, but they are compelled to submit statements of Costs of production, and so on, for the consideration of the workmen’s delegates. The latter, jointly, with the employers, fix wages, conditions of work, and a ‘just rate of profit’ for the industrialist.”

Thus we see that “the realities of living events” do not at all submit themselves to the pedantic and lifeless patterns of the leaders of the opposition. Meanwhile our “.. abstractions” are becoming transformed into flesh and blood. – L.T.

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Last updated on: 22.4.2007