MIA: History: ETOL: Documents: International Communist League/Spartacists—PRS 3

18 June 1983

To the Democratic Socialists of America

Written: 1983
Source: Prometheus Research Library, New York.
Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman, Prometheus Research Library
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2006/Prometheus Research Library. You can freely copy, display and otherwise distribute this work. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive & Prometheus Research Library as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & editors above.


This 18 June 1983 letter to Stanley Aronowitz, a leading supporter of the DSA, is edited from a xeroxed copy found in Dick Fraser’s personal papers. Fraser sent a xerox of the letter to DSAer Dorothy Healey. Here we include a page of the manuscript which we were unable to locate for the first printing of this bulletin.


According to the eminent existentialist philosopher Walter Matthau, the greatest thing in life is winning at the horse races. (That’s the Gospel according to Damon Runyon Chapter I:1. For myself, it is real greatness when the horse is one that nobody else likes; everybody thinks he’s a dog and he goes off at 10 to 1 or better.) Matthau goes on to say that the next greatest thing in life is losing at the horse races. (Ch. I:2.) However, for those of us who are a bit politically inclined, and don’t get to the track all that often, if the greatest thing in life is listening to Stanley Aronowitz lecture on Marxism, the next greatest thing is when he makes an error. And since I am a fan of yours, the next greatest thing should be if you are able to point out the error (or errors) which I now will do, to find out if it is indeed the third greatest thing in life.

I choose the first time I heard you speak: something about ideological trends, and your most recent talk on the crisis of Marxism.

The first one is memorable for me, not only because the error, though a minor one, has stuck in my mind for these several years, but also because it was the occasion on which I formally introduced my dear friend Roberta to our way of thinking. She had been through feminism a few years ago, was something of a mystic, and was becoming a nurse. It is my good fortune, that having spent the last six years under the rule of the medical profession in its present barbaric state, that I can number among my few personal friends some of the nurses who have had to put up with me in the various hospitals in which I have been confined. You may be gratified to know that since that lecture, Roberta has become more than a casual sympathizer of our way.

At any rate, the point is, that during the course of your lecture you asserted that the function of the Reformation was to make religion a private matter. I was shocked, because I had come to realize that you were not only our most entertaining lecturer, but that you had a deep insight into contemporary problems, and had an extraordinary knowledge of Marxism. Well, Marx and Engels didn’t think that way about the Reformation. I have lost nearly all of my old library, but I believe that the whole subject is dealt with at least in the Marx-Engels correspondence, if nowhere else.

What you say may have been one of the motives of the Lutheran Reformation, exemplified by the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. However, there was little or no practice of this doctrine in the actual German Reformation, which failed miserably. Luther left religion in the tender hands of the petty princes, Protestant and Catholic, who devastated Germany for a couple of centuries in the religious wars, in which the religion of the miserable subjects was automatically changed with the victory of one or another prince. There was no religious privacy in that Reformation.

According to Marx and Engels you are wrong essentially. The historic task of the Reformation was to break the international stranglehold of the Church on all European society, which prevented the emergence of autonomous national states to serve as vehicles for the production and distribution of commodities. The Calvinist Reformation did just this: it first achieved mastery at Geneva; there followed the great Dutch Revolution, creating the first capitalist state in Europe; overthrew a “barbaric feudalism” in Scotland; unsuccessful in France, the Huguenots nevertheless forced a break with the Pope and permitted France at least to achieve political autonomy; established the parties of the Great Rebellion in Britain, which in turn laid the foundation for the French Revolution, which did not end the international sovereignty of the Pope, but assured the victory of the bourgeoisie.

When I studied the Reformation, I found very little of the making of religion a private matter in the Calvinist church. The main feature of that church was its function as a revolutionary machine. It comprised the total organization of the population against Popery and in nationalism and for capitalist morality. All piety and morality, far from being private matters, were rigidly monitored by the church hierarchy.

*     *     *

Now, for your thought-provoking lecture on the crisis of Marxism. I found myself in basic agreement with the main thrust of your thesis as I understood it. Whether it is a crisis of Marxism or a crisis of Marxists and their organizations, I confess I haven’t made up my mind. It is quite true that neither classical Marxism nor the Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky has given anything to many of the critical problems which have arisen today, and around which new movements tend to arise. I believe that this is both because of the particular stage of capitalist decline in which we live and because of historical peculiarity. On the other hand Marx, in adapting Hegelian logic to materialist philosophy, political economy and history, has given us quite fine methodological tools—the best that I know of—to deal with social reality.

In my opinion the trouble with Marxists has been that they have refused, or have been unable, to use these tools in concrete analysis. They have become largely dependent upon existing doctrine, and attempt by deductive logic to determine the shape of existing reality. Existing doctrine, as you have observed, doesn’t treat with many present-day problems. This does surely bring in a crisis of doctrine, but I don’t believe it overthrows the methodology which has been left us by the masters if we choose to use it.

I am mainly concerned with one specific problem which illustrates the limitations of modern Marxists. I was disappointed that in your description of the areas of present social conflict which have precipitated an upsurge of semi-proletarian movement in the country (and to an extent in the world generally), areas where guidance from Marxism is lacking, you did not single out the question of race as the most critical—which I believe it to be.

Modern history has demonstrated, particularly in the great Russian and Chinese revolutions, that great historical transformations in the present capitalist world may be achieved not because of the orderly evolution of capitalism and the class struggle. The advancement of capitalist economic decline may accumulate crises which become the motive forces of revolution. But in opposition to this normality, some historical transformations have come about because of national historical peculiarities. This will probably be the case in the U.S. The most important peculiarity—and the one which reveals a basic weakness and contradiction here—is racial structure, which overlays the class structure, distorting it.

Marxism has given virtually nothing to this problem which would enable us to understand and cope with it. It is not that Marxists have had nothing to say on this question. On the contrary, our libraries and bookstores are loaded with what Marxists have had to say. The limitation of Marxists has been that on the basic theoretical level, they have, for the most part, written little but worthless claptrap. They have done more to obscure the nature of the problem than the authors of the racist doctrine.

Well, under separate cover I am sending you what I wrote 30 years ago on this matter. May I say with becoming Trotskyist modesty that it was and remains the only definitive materialist analysis of the whole race question in the U.S. It represents what a working person (a “raw worker” as Rose Karsner categorized me when I first joined the movement) who became a largely self-educated scholar can do with the tools which the masters have left.

Partly because of some experiences I had had, after 1946 I became dissatisfied with everything that both the Communist movement and ours had to say on this subject, and this challenged me to find out the truth. I ignored everything that Marxists had written on this subject. They had for me done already too much to obscure it. I studied the black scholars, of whom there was a whole galaxy in the early part of this century. I merely attempted, and I believe successfully, to synthesize their basic thoughts, adding only a little of my own and of my one collaborator. I did not document the work—I wasn’t enough of a scholar for that—but that is its only defect. No black militant has ever read it or given me an audience who has not identified with it. Not many white radicals think much of it, because they seem to have been steeped either in Stalin’s bureaucratic edict for a black state in the cotton belt or C.L.R. James’ Marcus Garveyism of 1939. I have found the black nationalism of white radicals to be a most poignant expression of the theoretical poverty of the movement.

Anyway, I would appreciate very much if you would take time to read it and honor me with a comment.

*     *     *

In that lecture there were two statements, entirely peripheral to the main thesis, which got to me like a sharp stick in the eye.

I. You discussed the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution, saying words to the effect that you didn’t know what caused it—but that Trotsky’s analysis had been wrong. You didn’t elaborate that, which makes it difficult to cope with, but I believe you meant it seriously, so I have to take it at face value.

By no means do I subscribe to everything that Trotsky wrote or said. However, his analysis of the process of bureaucratization of the Party, Soviet and the Comintern is probably the most important thing that he ever wrote except The History of the Russian Revolution, and I don’t think deserves to be brushed off by a more or less off-hand remark.

This analysis described the phenomenon (a classical one) of the triumph of the counterrevolution in the name of the revolution. Over the years Trotsky compared in detail the successive stages of the reaction with that of the French Revolution, identifying the rise of Stalinism with the fall of Robespierre and the destruction of the Jacobins, and the stages of reaction—the Directorate, First Consul, Napoleon’s Empire, and finally the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. There was a controversy surrounding the final product of the Russian reaction: did not the final restoration in France indicate the road that the Soviet Union was traveling—toward the restoration of capitalism? Trotsky defeated this argument with the demonstration that the restored monarchy had been an essentially bourgeois monarchy and did not represent a restoration of feudalism. He showed that the Soviet Union, in retaining the basic conquests of the Revolution, must continue to be defended.

The coup by which Stalin consolidated power was made possible by the devastation caused by the Civil War. The first major political problem that the Soviet state faced was obviously: who is going to run the country? The vast illiteracy of the masses of people dictated that the personnel of a bureaucracy be recruited largely from people of privileged classes of the old regime, including the Czarist bureaucracy. However dangerous this may have been, as long as the party of the proletariat was in control, Lenin was confident of maintaining the revolution. In 1921 he described the situation in this way: “We have a workers state with bureaucratic appendages.”

But after his death, the bureaucracy was able to inundate the party itself. Although I have lost most of my old library, I recall that Trotsky included the statistics in The Revolution Betrayed. At the time of the revolution, the party membership was about 115,000 members. In spite of severe erosion during the Civil War, it had increased to perhaps 500,000 in about 1921. By 1924, however, Stalin as General Secretary had been able to flood the party with 240,000 new members, largely recruited from the privileged section of the population, composed of bureaucrats of an alien class origin [the “Lenin Levy”]. This was at a time when the proletariat had been virtually destroyed.

After consolidating its power, the bureaucracy forever after was concerned primarily with maintaining its privileged position. It gradually crystallized into a privileged caste. The bureaucratization of the party was followed by that of the Soviets and finally the Comintern.

The first decisive politico-economic turn made by the new ruling stratum was to search for a non-proletarian social base, and they turned to the peasantry with the dictum “enrich yourselves.” This created the kulaks. When the wealthy peasants staged their bloodless uprising in 1929, Stalin abruptly turned to their extermination and decreed forced collectivization, the combination of which destroyed agriculture and created horrible famine.

In foreign policy, the bureaucracy turned to rapprochement with the imperialists and the colonial bourgeoisie, particularly in Britain and China. The trouble arose not because of renewed diplomatic relations and trade agreements, which were absolutely necessary for survival, but because bureaucratic instinct demanded that the Communist parties of the world base their policies upon these diplomatic arrangements. In this way, through purges of leading Communist cadres, the Comintern was eventually degraded into a mere arm of Soviet foreign policy. Already, by 1926, when Britain and China were in revolutionary turmoil, the hands of both parties were tied to the capitalist class. In Britain, this was accomplished through subservience to Ramsay MacDonald as he betrayed the general strike. In China, although Trotsky had initiated the entry of the CP into the Kuomintang in perhaps it was 1922 or ’23, he and Zinoviev both realized the limitations of coalition with the class enemy and demanded an end to it as the revolutionary period approached, but the bureaucracy was too comfortable with Chiang Kai-shek and couldn’t break. The CP was all but physically destroyed.

Regardless of the fact that the Trotsky-Zinoviev analysis of the problem in 1926-27 was not adequate to encompass the later unfolding of the Chinese Revolution under different conditions, at that time, it was quite correct. If it had been considered by the Comintern in time, it could have meant the difference in the outcome of the whole history of China.

The Soviet Economy was first organized in an exclusive, bureaucratic manner. Just divide the branches of industry among the available communists.

Trotsky’s proposal to create a planned economy was rejected as “super-industrialization.” When the old method had utterly failed to revive the economy, Stalin finally agreed to the principle of planned economy. However, by this time, all democracy had been stripped from the soviets, and if there is one thing in history which completely validates your present criticism of the lack of democracy in the Soviet countries, it is that lesson. Without some democratic control the nationalization of the means of production loses a great deal of its vitality—principally its ability to adjust to new circumstances. That was the problem with the five-year plans. Unrealistic planning preceded bureaucratic bungling of execution. And it went on like that. It took roughly 50 years to unravel the tangle in the economy created by that early history of planning without democratic responsibility. I doubt that even now the industrial planning is fully rationalized.

The international defeats of the 1920’s brought on, as a conditioned reflex, the nightmare of the Third Period. Stalin’s giant intellect produced the theory of social fascism and the united front from below, characterized the Social Democracy as only one variety of fascism, prohibiting any approach to the united front of the working class. Hitler marched through Germany by the path created by this division in the class, without which he could never have come to power without civil war. This catastrophe brought on the Moscow Trials, as if to demonstrate to the world that everyone but Stalin was responsible for the failures. During the purges of that period every single surviving member of Lenin’s Political Committee, save one, I think, was murdered or executed.

The popular front comes next for the International. Totally disregarding Lenin’s thesis on the united front of the working class, it was such a relief from the Third Period madness, that Communists everywhere embraced it joyfully, hook, line and sinker, and have never recovered. This permanent coalition with the capitalist class led directly to the defeat of the Spanish working class, the abandonment of France to Hitler and the emasculation of the parties everywhere. I am weary of hearing over and over again that the Spanish tragedy was caused only by German and Italian bombers, etc. It’s nonsense. The die was cast before Franco ever landed in southern Spain with his Moroccan troops.

Trapped in a coalition government with the capitalist class, the working class parties were powerless to secure adherence of Moroccan nationalists or the southern peasantry. Abd el-Krim, the legendary leader of the Rifs, went to the Popular Front and assured them that even an emancipation proclamation would prevent Franco from recruiting an army there, but the Spanish capitalists were the imperial masters of the African colonies. Likewise with the peasants. The capitalist class was the biggest landlord in Spain, having taken all the Church lands and some more during the revolution of 1931. This was a fact that even Felix Morrow, our best propagandist, failed to understand in his otherwise fine analysis of the Spanish Civil War.

Every international catastrophe brought more purges at home. This time they reached into the ultimate defense of the Soviet Union, the Red Army, where the cream of the officer corps was ripped off. Even a careless scan of the phony Hitler diaries would have revealed their fraudulent nature as Hitler is imagined as commending Stalin for his execution of Tukhachevsky. He would never have said that in private—he would have gloated over it and ridiculed Stalin for falling into the trap, for it was the Gestapo which framed the general of the Red Army, precisely to weaken the Soviet Union militarily.

I can’t force myself to belabor this question longer. Trotsky’s analysis of this evolution of bureaucratization of the Soviet political economy and its product were complete and proven sufficiently to require more consideration than the old cliches.

Is all this only ancient history, to be forgotten along with everything that is either unpopular or distasteful? I don’t think so. I don’t see how we can possibly understand either the Soviet Union today or the Communist movement of Europe without knowing its origins. Furthermore, I have found that analysis and the refreshing analogy to the Thermidorian reaction in France to be extremely helpful in understanding the rise of the Slave Power in the 19th century U.S.—which brings us closer to home because the whole problem of race relations today is intertwined with what happened in the early part of the 19th century. Without that revealing insight into the French Revolution, I don’t know if I would have been able to understand what seems most important to me today.

*     *     *

Just yesterday I received from a friend the Socialist Review which contains the second of your pieces on Socialism and Beyond. I haven’t had time to study it yet, but a cursory reading of it allows me a brief comment. In all respects it is the most important thing that I have read concerning the problems of the left in general and our movement in particular. Many of your thoughts have been on my mind a long time, but I have seldom had an opportunity to say them.

*     *     *

One of the greatest ironies that I know of is that it was precisely the exceptional analytic achievements of the Old Man that made for the sectarianism which was part of the failure of the SWP. We used all the arguments which could be derived from his writings, and used them continuously. We proved and predicted on a global scale. We became hypnotized by our propagandistic successes. Then came the Minneapolis strikes which became one of the major achievements of the modern labor movement before the CIO. We got the feeling that all we had to do was to hold on to the doctrine, ready-made for us and perfect—that is, hold on to every jot and tittle, without even the slightest alteration. The purity of doctrine coupled with Cannon’s trade union expertise was a sure formula for winning ’em all. When the Old Man was killed, the fountain dried up. The ideological cupboard was bare and we were left with the formula, which was totally inadequate for the changing world.

II. Mao’s Stalinism. Just another peripheral point. I was a bit stunned by your remark that Mao was a Stalinist. Again without any elaboration. That is not quite true. After 1927 at least until the Long March Mao was in constant opposition to the Comintern which had become tightly held by Stalin. The disastrous twists of the Comintern were particularly cruel to the Chinese. Particularly the Third Period. The theories that designated the Social Democracy as fascist turned in China into the theory that the nationalist bourgeoisie was not capitalist at all, but feudal, and even after the Japanese invasion, was the main enemy and had to be constantly fought militarily. Needless to say this precluded any possible united war against the Japanese. To take this situation from bad to impossible, Stalin conceived the idea that the Chinese nationalists were preparing a war against the Soviet Union and that “apocalyptically” (John Rue) the Chinese Revolution must be sacrificed for the defense of the Soviet Union.

Overlaying these sources of conflict was the fundamental one involving the peasantry. Stalin refused to admit that his policies had led to the utter defeat of the revolution in 1927. The Chinese proletariat, a smaller minority of the population than even the Russian workers at the time of the revolution, had been mauled by Chiang Kai-shek probably worse that Hitler was to maul the German proletariat. Mao seemed to understand this and proceeded to ignore whenever possible the constant directives from Moscow to attack the cities where the proletariat was ready to revolt again.

All through this dismal period Mao ignored, resisted, defied and struggled against every policy of the Comintern, and for that was expelled three times from the Central Committee, barely retaining Party membership, imprisoned once and put under house arrest once.

When Ch’en Tu-hsiu, the founding leader of the Party, was expelled in 1929, Li Li-san was placed in the leadership of the Central Committee, and took charge of Stalin’s policy of extermination of the kulaks (which was simply absurd when bureaucratically transplanted to China) and the Third Period, both of which were ordered by the VI Congress of the Comintern. Li was unable to pursue either policy effectively, nor was he able to completely defeat Mao’s peasant policy and his resistance to the policies of the Comintern. He was summoned to Moscow, which was second best to expulsion, and the regime of the 28 Bolsheviks was inaugurated. They were young Communists who had been sent to Moscow to study. (I was acquainted with two Communists who had attended the Lin School in Moscow during that period. They returned to the U.S. anti-Semitic and anti-Trotskyist in the extreme. They were no less hostile to Browder principally because they claimed he was a Jew.)

A long and bitter struggle between Mao and the Central Committee which nearly devastated the Party ensued and caused Mao’s third expulsion and his imprisonment in 1934. However, within a year, operating from a strong base in the Army, he succeeded in overthrowing the 28 Bolshevik Central Committee and reorganizing that Committee. He then organized the 7th Plenum of the Central Committee, which had not met since 1928, at the Tsun-yi Conference [1935] which adopted his complete political, military and organizational policy, which was subsequently adopted by the 7th Congress of the Party. By then the Comintern was powerless to interfere to any extent in the operation of the war.

The long internal conflicts, the abrupt changes in policy, the extensive purges and the final complete defeat of the Comintern greatly weakened its authority in China. This was followed by the Long March, in which its basic policy was scrapped, and World War II and the dissolution of the Comintern, all of which left Mao able to pretty much go his own way until his final victory over Chiang and the consolidation of Soviet power in China.

The [1929] expulsion of Ch’en Tu-hsiu was precipitated by his open confrontation and challenge to Stalin’s whole policy in his “A Statement of Our Views.” His expulsion ended his effective political career in the Chinese Revolution. This I view as one of the tragedies of the revolution. For he was not only one of the most able and devoted of the old leaders, but was the finest scholar among them, having been able to modernize the written language and other achievements.

Mao evidently took his demise as a warning and chose not to follow his path of confrontation with Stalin. He masked his non-Stalinism by dissimulation. For instance, in describing his own works, he states that he has “developed Lenin’s and Stalin’s theses on the revolutionary movement in colonial and semicolonial countries, as well as Stalin’s theses on the Chinese revolution.” But he goes on to describe only his own ideas, referring to Stalin only in regard to a thesis of the later period of the first united front with the Kuomintang (circa 1923). But nowhere does he state that Stalin’s later positions were correct. (See “Resolution on Some Questions in the History of Our Party,” 1945.)

Mao probably never supported Ch’en’s policies after he went into open opposition. However after Ch’en’s final expulsion, the Central Committee condemned open discussion in the party of his “liquidationism” as “extreme democratization.” It is of interest that this was a primary charge against Mao by Li, and continued to be for several years.

A misleading notion of the internal life of the Party is given by both Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley as a result of their interviews with Mao in 1936 and ’37 in which he makes no mention of the struggle with Li from 1928 to 1934 which was the central axis of the internal life of the Party.

While Mao seems to have completely avoided written reference to his disagreement with and struggles against Stalin’s and the Comintern’s basic lines, he had this to say about their organizational policy and the purges which he witnessed both in China and in Moscow: they

“invariably attached...damaging labels to all comrades in the party who, finding the erroneous line impracticable, expressed doubts about it, disagreed with it, resented it, supported it only lukewarmly, or executed it only halfheartedly. Labels like ‘right opportunism,’ ‘line of the rich peasants,’...‘line of conciliation,’ and ‘double dealing’...waged ‘relentless struggles’ against [them] as if...they were criminals and enemies. Instead of regarding the veteran cadres as valuable assets to the party, the sectarians persecuted, punished, and deposed large numbers of these veterans in the central and local organizations....Large numbers of good comrades were wrongly indicted and unjustly punished; this led to the most lamentable losses in the party....Comrades who upon investigation are proved to have died as victims of a miscarriage of justice should be absolved from false accusations, reinstated as party members, and forever remembered by all comrades.”

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Works,
Vol. IV, pp. 206-207

Mao thus survived Stalinism by dissimulation and is somewhat reminiscent of Claudius, who survived a whole series of the most brutal Roman Emperors by pretending to be a moronic dunce, and of Khrushchev, who lived through Stalin’s reign of terror by playing the role of a willing and obedient clown.

John Rue in his remarkable book, Mao Tse-tung in Opposition: 1927-1935 (Stanford U. Press, 1966), gives an intricately detailed and elaborately documented study of the struggle between Mao and Stalin’s agents. After the war he appears to have made his peace with Stalinism. However Rue, having made a definitive study of the history of the relations between Mao and Stalinism, says in his introduction that Mao

“fought his way to the chairmanship of the CCP in the face of continuous and determined opposition from Chinese party leaders appointed and supervised by agencies of the Comintern. He consolidated his power over the party in spite of everything its former leaders could do to overthrow him. He developed his political, organizational, and military lines in opposition to the lines the Stalinists expounded when they were in command of the central organs of the CCP: he developed his ideological line in his struggle to maintain his position of leadership on the Central Committee. So by 1945 Mao had few ideological commitments to Stalin. After that year relations between the two were dictated by their relative power positions. Mao, as the leader of the party controlling the weaker state, occasionally had to bow to the authority of Moscow, but even under great pressure he maintained intact the essential features of his special position.

“A careful examination of the revised edition of his works, which was published between 1951 and 1953, will illustrate the many problems Mao faced in denying the correctness of certain aspects of Stalin’s theory and practice to a Chinese audience while simultaneously maintaining officially correct and cordial relations with the omniscient dictator in the Kremlin. Such an examination is of general interest as an example of the use of sophisticated verbal camouflage by relatively weak groups who need to conceal their opposition status under the conditions created by a tightly disciplined and highly centralized international party regime.”

So what is the final product of his remarkable political odyssey? Mao undertook a brief sally into internationalism in his fine polemics against [Palmiro] Togliatti in 1964. For this, I was misled into writing (along with my former wife, Clara) in our resolution to the SWP convention the following year that “China was realigning the old Third International against the Kremlin.” Whatever Mao’s intention at that time, this did not come about. He received very little response to that one try and went back into his shell. He personifies the one big defect of the Chinese Revolution: he became crystallized as a national Communist, head and shoulders above Stalin’s nationalism, in which, however, there are similarities. As for Euro-Communism, having taken over much of the heritage of Social Democracy in their concern for the national welfare of the various countries in which they practice, I agree completely with your characterization. I am tempted to call these Communists Communo-Democrats.