Leon Trotsky

In Defense of Marxism

Three Letters to Farrell Dobbs [1]

First Published: Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism, New York 1942.
Checked against: Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, London 1966, pp.201-206.
All footnotes stem from the latter edition.

March 4, 1940

Dear Comrade Dobbs,

It is of course difficult for me to follow from here the feverish political evolution of the opposition. But I agree that they produce more and more the impression of people who are hastening to burn all the bridges behind them. Burnham’s article Science and Style is not unexpected in itself. But the calm acceptance of the article by Shachtman, Abern and the others is the most disappointing symptom, not only from the theoretical and political point of view, but also from that of their genuine ideas concerning the unity of the Party.

So far as I can judge from here, they wish a split under the name of unity. Shachtman finds, or better to say invents “historical precedents.” In the Bolshevik Party the opposition had its own public papers, etc. He forgets only that the Party at that time had hundreds 0f thousands of members, that the discussion had as its task to reach these hundreds of thousands and to convince them. Under such conditions it was not easy to confine the discussion to internal circles. On the other hand the danger of the co-existence of the Party and the opposition papers was mitigated by the fact that the final decision depended upon hundreds of thousands of workers and not upon two small groups. The American Party has only a comparatively small number of members, the discussion was and is more than abundant. The demarcation lines seem to be firm enough, at least for the next period. Under such conditions for the opposition to have their own public paper or magazine is a means not to convince the Party but to appeal against the Party to the external world.

The homogeneity and cohesion of a revolutionary propaganda organization such as the SWP must be incomparably greater than that of a mass party. I agree with you that under such conditions the Fourth International should and could not admit a purely fictitious unity under the cover of which two independent organizations address the external world with different theories, different pro grams, different slogans and different organizational principles. Under these conditions an open split would be a thousand times preferable to such a hypocritical unity.

The opposition refers also to the fact that we had in certain periods two parallel groups in the same country. But such abnormal situations were temporarily admitted only in two cases: When the political physiognomy of both groups or of one of them was not clear enough and the Fourth International needed time in order to make up its own mind about the matter; or a co-existence of two groups was admitted in the case of a very sharp but limited concrete disagreement (entrance in the PSOP [2], etc.). The situation in the United States is absolutely different. We had a united party with a serious tradition, now we have two organizations one of which, thanks to its social composition and external pressure, entered, during a period of a couple of months, into an irreconcilable conflict with our theory, our program, our politics, our organizational methods.

If they agree to work with you on the basis of democratic centralism, you can hope to convince and to win over the best elements by common practice. (They have the same right to hope to convince you.) But as an independent organization with their own publication they can only develop in Burnham’s direction. In this case the Fourth International can not have, in my opinion, the slightest interest in granting them its cover, i.e., to camouflage before the workers their inevitable degeneration. On the contrary, the interests of the Fourth International would be in this case to force the opposition to have its experience absolutely independently from us, not only with out the protection of our banner, but on the contrary, with the sharpest warning openly addressed by us to the masses.

This is why the convention has not only the right but the duty to formulate a sharp and clear alternative: Either a genuine unity on the principle of democratic centralism (with serious and large guarantees for the Minority inside the Party) or an open, clear and demonstrative break before the forum of the working class. [3]

With best greetings,
W. RORK [Leon Trotsky]

P.S. I just received the Cleveland resolution on Party unity. My impression: The rank and file of the Minority do not wish a split. The leaders are interested not in a political but a purely journalistic activity. The leaders presented a resolution on Party split under the name of a resolution on Party unity with the purpose of involving their followers in a split. The resolution says: “Minorities of the Bolshevik Party both before and during the First World War” had their own public political journals. What minorities? At what time? What journals? The leaders induce their followers into an error in order to camouflage their split intentions.

All hopes of the Minority leaders are based on their literary capacities. They assure one another that their paper would surely excel that of the Majority. Such was always the hope of the Russian Mensheviks who as a petty-bourgeois faction had more intellectuals and able journalists. But their hopes were in vain. A fluent pen is not sufficient to create a revolutionary party: a granite theoretical base is necessary, a scientific program, a consistency in political thinking and firm organizational principles. The opposition as an opposition has nothing of all that; it is the opposite of all that. This is why I agree with you completely: If they wish to present Burnham’s theories, Shachtman’s politics and Abern’s organizational methods to the external public opinion, they should do it in their own name without any responsibility of the Party or of the Fourth International.


April 4, 1940

Dear Comrade Dobbs,

When you receive this letter, the convention will have already progressed and you will probably have a clear idea if the split is unavoidable. In this case the Abern question would lose its interest. But in the case that the Minority makes a retreat, I permit myself to insist upon my previous propositions. The necessity of preserving the secrets of the discussions and decisions in the National Committee is a very important interest but not the only one and in the present situation not the most important. About 40 per cent of Party members believe Abern is the best organizer. If they remain inside the Party, you cannot help but give Abern the chance to show his superiority in organizational matters or to compromise himself. In the first session of the new National Committee, the first decision should proclaim that nobody has the right to divulge the internal happenings in the National Committee except the committee as a whole or its official institutions (Political Committee or Secretariat). The Secretariat could in its turn concretize the rules of secrecy. If, in spite of all, a leak occurs, an official investigation should be made and if Abern should be guilty, he should receive a public warning; in case of another offense, he should be eliminated from the Secretariat. Such a procedure, in spite of its temporary disadvantages is, in the long run, incomparably more favorable than to leave Abern, the New York Organizer, outside the Secretariat, i.e., outside the real control of the Secretariat.

I understand very well that you are satisfied with the present Secretariat. In case of a split it is possibly the best Secretariat one could wish. But if the unity is preserved, you can’t have a Secretariat composed only of Majority representatives. You should possibly have a Secretariat even of five members – three Majorityites and two Minorityites.

If the Opposition is wavering, it would be best to let them know in an informal way: We are ready to retain Shachtman as a member not only of the Political Committee but also of our editorial staff; we are even ready to include Abern in the Secretariat; we are willing to consider other combinations of the same kind; the only thing we cannot accept is the transformation of the Minority into an independent political factor.

* * *

I received a letter from Lebrun on the IEC. A peculiar people! They believe that now in the period of the death agony of capitalism, under the conditions of war and coming illegality, Bolshevik centralism should be abandoned in favor of unlimited democracy. Everything is topsy-turvy! But their democracy has a purely individual meaning: Let me do as I please. Lebrun and Johnson were elected to the IEC on the basis of certain principles and as representatives of certain organizations. Both abandoned the principles and ignored completely their own organizations. These “democrats” acted completely as Bohemian freelancers. Should we have the possibility of convoking an international congress, they would surely be dismissed with the severest blame. They themselves don’t doubt it. At the same time, they consider themselves as unremovable senators – in the name of democracy!

As the French say, we must take war-time measures during a war. This means that we must adapt the leading body of the Fourth International to the real relationship of forces in our sections. There is more democracy in this than in the pretensions of the unremovable senators.

If this question comes up for discussion, you can quote these lines as my answer to Lebrun’s document.

W. RORK [Leon Trotsky]

Coyoacan, D.F.

April 16, 1940

Dear Comrade Dobbs,

We received also your and Joe’s communications on the convention. As far as we can judge from here, you did everything you could in order to preserve the unity of the Party. If under these conditions the Minority nevertheless commits a split, it will only show to every worker how far they are from the principles of Bolshevism and how hostile to the proletarian majority 0f the Party. About the details of your decisions, we will judge more concretely when we have more information.

* * *

I permit myself to call to your attention another article, namely that of Gerland against Burnham concerning symbolic logic, the logic of Bertrand Russell and the others. The article is very sharp and in the case of the opposition’s remaining in the Party and Burnham on the editorial board of the New International the article should possibly be rewritten from the point of view of “friendliness” of expressions. But the presentation of symbolic logic is very serious and good and seems to me very useful especially for the American readers.

Comrade Weber devoted also an important part of his last article to the same item. My opinion is that he should elaborate this part in the form of an independent article for the New International. We should now continue systematically and seriously our theoretical campaign in favor of dialectical materialism.

* * *

Jim’s pamphlet [4] is excellent. It is the writing of a genuine workers’ leader. If the discussion had not produced more than this document, it would be justified.

With friendliest greetings for you all,
W. RORK [Leon Trotsky]

Coycacan, D.F.


1. These letters were written by Trotsky in English.

2. PSOP – Socialist Party of Workers and Peasants of France. – Ed.

3. The International Executive Committee should, a long time ago, have presented such an alternative, but unfortunately the IEC does not exist. – L.T.

4. This refers to The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, by James P. Cannon. – Ed.

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Last updated on: 25.4.2007