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The New International, September 1943

Max Shachtman

Trotsky and the New Course

On the Third Anniversary


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 8, September 1943, pp. 231–232.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On the anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky, we reprint the concluding paragraphs of Max Shachtman’s evaluation of Trotsky’s earliest work against Soviet bureaucratism. The New Course, which is now ready for its first publication in English. Shachtman’s essay, devoted to a critical historical analysis of Trotsky’s work, makes up the second half of the book, the first part of which contains The New Course itself.

Our criticism of Trotsky’s later theory of the “workers’ state” introduces into it an indispensable correction. Far from “demolishing” Trotskyism, it eliminates from it a distorting element of contradiction and restores its essential inner harmony and continuity. The writer considers himself a follower of Trotsky, as of Lenin before him, and of Marx and Engels in the earlier generation. Such has been the intellectual havoc wrought in the revolutionary movement by the manners and standards of Stalinism that “follower” has come to mean political serf, worshipper, or parrot. We have no desire to be this kind of “follower.” Trotsky was not, and we learned much of what we know from him. In The New Course he wrote these jewelled words, which are worth repeating a hundred times:

If there is one thing likely to strike a mortal blow to the spiritual life of the party and to the doctrinal training of the youth, it is certainly the transformation of Leninism from a method demanding for its application initiative, critical thinking and ideological courage into a canon which demands nothing more than interpreters appointed for good and aye.

Leninism cannot be conceived of without theoretical breadth, without a critical analysis of the material bases of the political process. The weapon of Marxian investigation must be constantly sharpened and applied. It is precisely in this that tradition consists, and not in the substitution of a formal reference or of an accidental quotation. Least of all can Leninism be reconciled with ideological superficiality and theoretical slovenliness.

Lenin cannot be chopped up into quotations suited for every possible case, because for Lenin the formula never stands higher than the reality; it is always the tool that makes it possible to grasp the reality and to dominate it. It would not be hard to find in Lenin dozens and hundreds of passages which, formally speaking, seem to be contradictory. But what must be seen is not the formal relationship of one passage to another, but the real relationship of each of them to the concrete reality in which the formula was introduced as a lever. The Leninist truth is always concrete! ...

Leninism is orthodox, obdurate, irreducible, but it does not contain so much as a hint of formalism, canon, nor bureaucratism. In the struggle it takes the bull by the horns. To make out of the traditions of Leninism a supra-theoretical guarantee of the infallibility of all the words and thoughts of the interpreters of these traditions, is to scoff at genuine revolutionary tradition and transform it into official bureaucratism. It is ridiculous and pathetic to try to hypnotize a great revolutionary party by the repetition of the same formulae, according to which the right line should be sought not in the essence of each question, not in the methods of posing and solving this question, but in information ... of a biographical character.

There are “followers” who seem to think that the whole of Trotskyism (that is, the revolutionary Marxism of our time) is contained in the theory that Russia is still a workers’ state and in the slogan of “uncondiditional defense of the Soviet Union.” They merely prove that they have retired from a life of active and critical thought, and from the realities of life in general, and confine themselves to memorizing by heart two pages of an otherwise uncut and unread book. They would be the first to deny, by the way, that the whole of Leninism is contained in Lenin’s theory of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” or in his strictures against Trotsky and the theory of the permanent revolution.

What Trotskyism Is

The whole of Trotsky, for the new generation of Marxists that must be trained up and organized, does not lie in his contradictory theory of the class character of Russia; it is not even a decisively important part of the whole. Trotskyism is all of Marx, Engels and Lenin that has withstood the test of time and struggle – and that is a good deal! Trotskyism is its leader’s magnificent development and amplification of the theory of the permanent revolution. Trotskyism is the defense of the great and fundamental principles of the Russian Bolshevik revolution and the Communist International, which it brought into existence. Trotskyism is the principle of workers’ democracy, of the struggle for democracy and socialism.

In this sense – and it is the only one worth talking about – The New Course is a Trotskyist classic. It was not only a weapon hitting at the very heart of decaying bureaucratism in revolutionary Russia. It was and is a guide for the struggle against the vices of bureaucratism throughout the labor and revolutionary movements.

Bureaucratism is not simply a direct product of certain economic privileges acquired by the officialdom of the labor movement. It is also an ideology, a concept of leadership and of its relationship to the masses, which is absorbed even by labor and revolutionary officialdoms who enjoy no economic privileges at all. It is an ideology that reeks of its bourgeois origin. Boiled down to its most vicious essence, it is the kind of thinking and living and leading which says to the rank and file, in the words Trotsky once used to describe the language of Stalinism: “No thinking! Those at the top have more brains than you.”

We see this ideology reflected in the every-day conduct of our own American trade union bureaucracy: “We will handle everything. Leave things to us. You stay where you are, and keep still.” We see it reflected throughout the big social-democratic (to say nothing of the Stalinist) parties: “We will negotiate things. We will arrange everything. We will manoeuver cleverly with the enemy, and get what you want without struggle. You sit still until further orders. That is all you are fit for.” We even see it in those smaller revolutionary groups which are outside the reformist and Stalinist movements and which consider that this fact alone immunizes them from bureaucratism. We repeat, it is a bourgeois ideology through and through. It is part of the ideas that the bourgeoisie, through all its agencies for moulding the mind of the masses, seeks to have prevail: “Whatever criticism you may have to make of us, remember this: The masses are stupid. It is no accident that they are at the bottom of the social ladder. They are incapable of rising to the top. They need a ruler over them; they cannot rule themselves. For their own good, they must be kept where they are.”

The New Course and the Party

The New Course does more than dismiss this odious ideology that fertilizes the mind of the labor bureaucracy. It analyzes its source and its nature. It diagnoses the evil to perfection. It indicates the operation needed to remove it, and the tools with which to perform the operation. It is the same tool needed by the proletariat for its emancipation everywhere. Its name is the democratically organized and controlled, self-acting, dynamic, critical, revolutionary political party of the working class.

The counter-revolution in Russia was made possible only because Stalinism blunted, then corroded, then smashed to bits this indispensable tool of the proletariat. The bureaucracy won. “If Trotsky had been right,” says the official iconographer of Stalin, Henri Barbusse, “he would have won.” How simple! What a flattering compliment to ... Hitler. The bureaucracy not only won, but consolidated its power on a scale unknown in any country of the world throughout all history. Stalin himself is now the Pope-Czar of the Russian Empire.

But that is only how it seems on the surface; that is how it is only for a very short while, as history counts. “Any imbecile can rule with a state of siege,” said Rochefort. Only the really powerful and confident can rule by establishing peaceful relations in the country. That, the new bureaucracy, without a past and without a future, cannot do. The combined efforts of world capitalism cannot do that nowadays, still less the efforts of the Stalinist nobility. The latter has succeeded in establishing “socialism” for itself and “in a single country.” It will not live long to enjoy it. Together with all modern rulers, it is doomed to perish in the unrelenting world crisis that it cannot solve, or to perish at the hands of an avenging socialist proletariat.

Cromwell’s Roundheads marched with Bibles in their hands. The militant proletariat needs no divine revelations or scriptural injunctions, no Bibles or saviors. But it will march to victory only if its conscious vanguard has assimilated the rich and now-more-timely-than-ever lessons to be learned from the classic work of the organizer of the first great proletarian revolution.

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