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The New International, September 1943


An Open Letter to Max Shachtman

A German Trotskyist Speaks Up


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 8, September 1943, pp. :248–250.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Dear Shachtman:

In the course of the past year, I have been made aware on different occasions of reports and “insinuations” somewhat to this effect:

1. “Some people are of the opinion that the German comrades are tired and demoralized. As they see it, you too (that is, I, the writer of these lines) have retired, and have not shown a sign of life for a long time. This is most deplorable ...”

2. “Some people show the tendency constantly to minimize and ridicule the Germans and their views. They call you tired and pessimistic characters who are to be dealt with cautiously ...”

Every time, I answered the bearers of these reports (and I note here only the “mildest” ones):

“What’s that to me? Everyone according to his needs and abilitiesl I regard all that as gossip and am resolved as always to stick exclusively to the political views and acts of those friends or foes whom I have to deal with. The moral label (’demoralization’ or any other) may be applied only after the political situation has been scrupulously examined. Great persons grow by themselves, littles ones are made by God. Or: little persons dabble in psychology because they are not big enough for political questions. Weak in psychology, into the bargain, they are given to formalism. Steeped in formalism, they land inevitably in gossip-mongering. Thus the circle is closed. Go ahead and see how you make out.”

That, dear Shachtman, is how matters stood up to the time your article (New International, March 1943) appeared. With this article you raised the theme of the “demoralization of the Germans” out of the sphere of private gossip into that of public discussion, and I consider that now is the time, for the good of all concerned, to say a few appropriate words. You may well believe at the very outset that I have no intention of waxing morally indignant over the charge of “demoralization.” I am much rather prepared to maintain as far as possible the sprightly tone of your polemic, for the aim of this letter is simply to stand the affair on the political feet on which it belongs. As soon as this is accomplished, everyone can write his own moral verses. I will of course not fail to chip in a few of my own.

Unfortunately, there is a whole series of questions that I cannot enter into at all, and others that I can only skim over lightly. In the very first place, I admire the rashness with which you pass off your views on National and Colonial Problems as Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism. By my beard (which I have just shaved) that is – to use a “sprightly” expression – the most colossal nonsense I have read in years! No, my dear fellow, here I come right to the point and so far as the colonial problem goes I take decisively the side of the “Cannonites.” If I cannot do this in the case of the “national question,” and thereupon, without regard for persons, simply establish what the facts are and what is politically obvious, that changes nothing at all in the friendship that I otherwise have for the aforesaid “Cannonites.” Somewhere or other, we all make a mistake once – political discussion exists for the purpose of clearing up such mistakes. Summa summarum (as we say): Morrow and Morrison, against whom you let loose so furiously, have a correct position en général, whereas you are as wrong throughout as it is possible to be.

Distorted and false through and through is also everything you say about the history of the Three Theses, that is, about the fact, indisputable in itself, that almost a year was required to decide upon its publication. If I were in your position I would not, in the first place, have raised such an outcry against the “Cannonites” on the matter of “publication.” For there was a time when Shachtman belonged to them and had a decisive influence there on publications. Precisely at that time came the non-publication, achieved by Shachtman upon all sorts of pretexts, of certain German writings, as, for example, the Theses on the Construction of the Fourth International. Hand on my heart, dear friend! You didn’t do a bad job on us then for our “independence of spirit” – nowadays things are published, even if late but nevertheless at least they are published in the end. I cannot help seeing in this a great advance over your administration.

And then: if you had been just a little less precipitate and had oriented yourself a little better, you would have stumbled over the joke that the Three Theses reached publication so late only because the “organization” of its discussion – ha, ha! – was wanted. We live in an epoch of brusk turns; there’s nothing can be done about it. And your story is given a brusk turn when you learn that the most zealous advocate of that “organization” which was certainly the most comical thing, in our opinion (what’s true should remain true for everybody), was none other than Marc Loris.

I’m not joking! ... The rôle that Marc Loris played in the whole affair is presented in a thoroughly false way in your article. In your version, he is raised to the position of a courageous martyr on the basis of the alleged guilt of the wicked “Cannonites,” when in reality (from your standpoint – I myself don’t care about it, I am only “turning” history) he was their Guardian of the Grail. And while you distribute light and shadow so unjustly, all the political facts get hopelessly muddled up on the other side. You overlook completely, for example, that

  1. Marc Loris was and remains our adversary in the national question;
  2. that Morrow declared himself explicitly in agreement with Marc Loris on all points of principle (and quite rightly so, as investigation would show);
  3. that you yourself, for all the differences in words, agree with Morrow and Morrison in political results (and that alone decides!).

Yes, dear Shachtman! for all the sprightliness of your polemic, you are an innocent angel! I am tempted to apply the lines you wrote about Morrison to your own article, mutatis mutandis, and to say:

“Six (not only three!) solid pages of denuded and processed forest are covered with a wordy and terribly embarrassed effort to refute the Cannonites. If you want a primer on how to say Yes, No and Maybe in systematic rotation, read the Shachtman article.”

Yes, dear Shachtman, read the Shachtman article! After having once more mauled the abused forest for six pages in it, he comes to the “epoch-making” conclusion “that the struggle for genuine [sic!] national freedom, be it in China or Belgium, Servia or India, can be relaunched only [sic!] under the leadership of the proletariat, that is, under the leadership of the only class capable of breaking with both imperialist war camps.

That seems not bad, eh? But read it calmly and convince yourself by going over the articles of Morrow, Morrison and Loris that you are not the only medicine man who lights up the right road for the struggle for national freedom with this weighty lamppost. Only under the leadership of the proletariat? God protect you and your “genuine” doctrine, which is accidentally also the doctrine of Morrow, Morrison and Lorisl The difference in the words may be ever so great between you (so far as the national question in Europe is concerned), in substance you say the same thing. More plainly: every one of you recognizes the necessity of being the “champion” of the national movement with fine words and formulae, but all of you, faced with the precise question of what you think of doing with the existing movement (which is already “re-launched”), give the proud answer: Here are my conditions. You could make the thing much less ceremonial, however, and say simply: Nothing! It is this abstract, passive, negative position that binds you together. – You acted most unjustly, dear Shachtman, to abuse Morrow and Morrison for what is so dear to you yourself. This first of all.

Secondly, the Three Theses (just as do the masses) turn their naked behinds from the very outset to the admirable attempt to polish the moon a perfect white with “genuine” proletariat pepper, and say:

Here is the national movement, and it is a progressive movement according to both the objective conditions and the aspirations of the masses. We have to accept it, just as it is, for the proletarian leadership is not “ordained,” it is conquered. Only the most intimate participation can enable us to destroy the bourgeois influence in stubborn struggle against all other tendencies, to lead the movement to victory and to shift it over to the socialist revolution.

When you read this, dear Shachtman, you will, I trust, be inclined with all your strength to call “such” a conception “petty bourgeois” and your own “Marxian.” Here, where I am only a steadfast brusk turner of false histories, I gladly allow you the pleasure, and believe: You acted most unjustly a second time in asserting that the Three Theses are “in any case” not hostile to your own “viewpoint.” In heaven’s name: the political line of demarcation runs (in the national question!) between you, Morrow, Morrison and Loris on one side, and the Three Theses on the other. It is completely incomprehensible to me (objectively) how we could be “on the right track” from your viewpoint, when the Three Theses and you are moving in diametrically opposite directions.

However, as already stated: all this can neither be motivated nor expounded today. It serves more as a preparation for the “German problem,” which has reached the public wrapped in flagrant falsehoods and will now, also in public, be translated into articulated political language. I can imagine your surprise when you learn that this “German problem” must first be extracted from the following passage in your article:

“So far as we know, the German comrades have not replied [to Morrow’s article]. It is deplorable, but not entirely surprising. After having been none too politely kicked around, abused and threatened for their independence of spirit, put under the gag, and then insulted by a reply from Morrow (not so much by the reply itself, mind you, but by the fact that Morrow was assigned to write it), there is little wonder that some of them end up disheartened and even demoralized. Answer at this date? And Morrow? ...”

This whole magnificent display, dear Shachtman, has been cooked up by you alone! It moves so smoothly ... and revenge is sweet ... and I don’t mind acknowledging right off that I have nothing against the “method” of dragging an opponent through all available literary gutters. The writing individual is no mass movement, however, and therefore I now put a condition to him. This condition reads: the facts underlying the execution must be demonstrated – otherwise there is a literary judicial murder.

But either I am crazy or you are completely cuckoo! ... I can remember clearly having decided, immediately after receiving Morrow’s article, to answer him. And sure enough (we shall simply never finish with these turns!): a detailed reply is on the way! Ergo: “Answer at this date? and Morrow?” Sure, dear Shachtman, why not? So long as the subject allows for it, even the devil and his grandmother in person (who is supposed to be a pretty young woman, by the way) may be answered. Then why not Comrade Morrow, who, after all, has not done me any “evil,” and at most has the “tough luck” of not sharing my views in the national question? You obviously proceeded with the idea of doing me a favor by assuming that I am (a) “insulted by a reply from Morrow,” and (b) especially insulted “by the fact that Morrow was assigned to write it.” It happens that just the opposite worried me, and I was

  1. happy over Morrow’s answer (for it gave me the opportunity to develop the dispute in greater detail), and
  2. especially happy over Morrow’s answer (for he is a much less diplomatic opponent than, for example, Marc Loris).

You see, not a single conclusive word remains out of your fine polemic, but we are not yet quite finished. Your aim to have Morrow polished off with my assistance, yields the result that it is not Morrow who is insulted, but I.

Bah! think nothing of it! I think nothing of it either – I act that way only theoretically for a moment in order to straighten you out and to drag the “German problem” out from under the polemical de’bris. In this sense: You believed seriously that I ended up “disheartened and even demoralized” as a result of those puerilities (just take it all in all!) that you lay at the door of the “Cannonites” as misdeeds committed against us. Do you really believe “there is little wonder”? Oh, dear Shachtman, that’s the greatest affront you could ever have given me!

Purely theoretically, of course! – in practice, I continue quite unoffended: I admit the possibility of one fine day becoming tired, demoralized, and incapable of doing anything more. Such a situation might, especially under the influence of physical suffering, easily occur, and under such circumstances there would be “little wonder.” But that I would then run around and make the “methods” of the terrible “Cannonites” responsible for the wear and tear on my virtues – this wonder, dear Shachtman, you will never live to see! I would, on the contrary, attach the greatest importance to being first-class demoralized material and a spiritually clean corpse.

I think that therewith the last remnant of your artistic polemic has gone to the dogs and – here we are at the “German problem.” Have no fear! it is only the short tail that wags this letter. Like every tail, this one has – I do not know if this has already occurred to you – something uncommonly expressive about itself: it harmonizes, so to speak, the animal with the rest of his body.

What I mean is: you are not the only one, as shown at the beginning, who indulges in speculations of a moral nature on the Germans. Justice for you, as for everyone else, demands acknowledgment that the external picture does mislead one to such speculations: the sum-total of our activity leaves much to be desired and we are not in a position to accomplish the most urgent tasks. But inasmuch as a “Marxist” must not be content with external appearances, so, here too, the question must first of all be traced to its material domain. Looked at materially, the German problem is as simple as a brick. It is solved in principle the minute it is named. It is given a name by a simple sentence, which has the validity of an axiom in Leninism. Here it is, the sentence that dissolves all speculation into thin air:

No revolutionary organization without people who are materially in a position to work for it professionally.

Anyone who needs a moral on this basis, which is alone decisive, may lament the dismal waste of energy with which the Germans were forced to make their way for the past ten years (nota bene: without professional party workers!). I personally do not write here in order to react, with deeply justified bitterness, to a political shortsightedness that plays such a weighty role in the painful history of the German organization and in which you, again, are not without your share of responsibility. We carry on the struggle as long as it is possible – we take accomplished facts in our stride. In view of the fact that so many people believe that the heart of Bolshevism lies (as Bukharin once said!) in the insipidity of the provincial spirit ... yes, in view of this wholly insipid provincialism, I stick in the promised word and conclude:

The horse philosophizes over the whip one way and the driver another. Politics, however, is the art of selection, and the profound human aspiration to replace the horse with the motor and the whip with the electrical battery. Yours cordially,

June 17, 1943


P.S. – I have written this letter in my own name, if only in order not to spoil the joke of the matter. But I showed it to all the friends who could be reached and would “approve” it, for the “demoralization” concerns all of them just as much as does the “German problem.” Every one of them would have answered you in the same way, and it is thus to be understood as a collective reply.

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