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The New International, September 1946


Ernest Erber

Leon Trotsky and the Workers Party

What is the Great Heritage He Left?


From New International, Vol. 12 No. 7, September 1944, pp. 201–204.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Leon Trotsky

August 21st marks the end of the sixth year that the world revolutionary Marxist movement has carried on without the guiding brain of Leon Trotsky.

His death at the hands of Stalin’s axe-man left the world movement without a real titan at its head for the first time in its history.

The infancy and childhood of the movement was fortunate in having the intellectual leadership of one of the greatest minds of all time, Karl Marx. It was doubly fortunate in having in Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, a genius in his own right, whose true stature always remained obscured in the public mind as a result of his modest subordination to the towering height of Marx. The period of the formation of the Second International under the sound, experienced guidance of Engels, his last great service to the working class, coincided with the rise of the Marxist movement in Russia. The latter was soon to replace the intellectually declining movement of Western Europe as the center of uncorrupted Marxist thought and as the source of a revolutionary socialist renaissance on a world scale. Vigorous young Russian Marxism produced two men to fill the international leadership left vacant after the death of Marx and Engels – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

Though the personalities of Lenin and Trotsky were in considerable contrast and though their unique gifts excelled in different fields, they were both men of genius. It is most unfortunate that, due to their contrasting personalities and the sharp factional lines of the Russian underground movement, Lenin and Trotsky never formed a Marx-Engels relationship. The beginning of such a collaboration after the revolution never found a period of normal political life necessary for it to flower. Since their unique gifts excelled in somewhat different fields of thought and work, such a collaboration would have been especially fruitful.

Outside of Stalinism, which can no longer be considered a proletarian current in the ideological sense, all those who accept Lenin as the heir of Marx likewise accept Trotsky as the heir of Lenin. To rank Trotsky as the last of the four great titans of Marxism has become a commonplace.

In the mind of the public, Trotsky initially earned his place in history due to his role in the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. Though he was a co-thinker with Lenin in pioneering the establishment of the first workers’ state, his special talents as the organizer and brains of the military struggle caused him to be regarded primarily as Lenin’s brilliant chief of staff. His role as the latter obscured, not only in the eyes of the public but also within the early communist movement, his pre-eminent place as a Marxist theoretician, already firmly established at that time, even if not widely accepted, by his central contribution to Marxist theory – the concept of the permanent revolution which he began to develop in 1904.

Trotsky’s Fight to Preserve Marxism

Great as were his achievements before and during the revolutionary period, his true stature was revealed during the seventeen-year long fight he began in 1923 for the preservation of the Marxist program and the revolutionary cadres. To stand upright, the Marxist banner firmly held aloft, throughout the continuous decline, degeneration and defeats that became the hallmark of an epoch and to found a movement to carry on the revolutionary tradition was a role which only a man cast in the mould of a Marx, Engels or Lenin could fulfill. No one can understand the Trotsky heritage unless he understands the true nature of this epoch and the place which Trotsky occupied in it. The survival of the Marxist program and those revolutionary cadres that exist today is so uniquely the result of his work that one shudders to speculate upon how much of the Marxist tradition would have survived had his life terminated with Lenin’s. Trotsky’s heritage can only be appreciated fully when one understands the period of 1923 to 1940.

The defeat of the working class in the post-war revolutionary wave ending in 1923 permitted capitalism to settle down to its own “stabilization.” But the pre-war world of capitalism was gone for good. The 1870–1914 era of continued economic expansion, growth of political democracy, liberalism and pacifist internationalism, gave way to the bitter post-war disillusionment. The industrial graph of capitalism became a fever chart. The ruddy glow of bourgeois democracy in the Weimar Republic and the re-created small national states proved to be, not a sign of health, but the last flush before death. Bourgeois democracy proved impossible amidst the economic decay of an out-lived social order. It gave way to the most vicious and unbridled reaction.

It could not be otherwise. Mankind lived in a social order that had really died in 1914. The stench of the corpse left nothing unaffected – but nothing. From economy to politics to culture to morals – everything suffered a breakdown. Society sank ever deeper into the filth which engulfed the lowlands and splashed up to the summits.

Political and Moral Decline of Workers’ Movement

The great split of the organized working class into a reformist and revolutionary wing during the years of “sturm und drang” became ideologically meaningless as both wings kneeled in the mire. From pre-war critics of capitalism, the reformists now became its indispensable saviours. They struck down the revolution and grubbed along in the twilight of capitalism as its ministers, taking responsibility, governmental responsibility, until relieved of this task by fascism. No maneuver was too shoddy and no prostration before the capitalists too debasing. Where Luxemburg once wrote reams of indignant denunciation of South German provincial Social Democrats for making unprincipled blocs with liberals, “Socialist” police chiefs now forebade May Day marches and gave orders to fire upon demonstrators.

But the stolid stupidity of the reformist bureaucrats doing the dirty work of capitalism was soon “caught up with and outstripped” by the studied duplicity of the new Russian rulers. They made a science of seducing the finest motives, the holiest purposes, and the most consecrated watchwords of the Socialist tradition. In place of revolutionary idealism, the new masters enthroned the dictum that ultimate success was all that mattered. The Marxist explanation of the class basis of morals became for them the barbarous concept that nothing that “serves the Soviet fatherland” can be immoral. Murder, character assassination, torture, blackmail, informing and debasing “public confessions” became virtues in the service of the fatherland. [1]

Thrown off balance by the halt in the forward march of Socialism and depressed by the atmosphere of defeat, the politically conscious workers felt themselves on the defensive and sought to cling to that which was at hand. For the reformist workers this meant the struggle to defend bourgeois democracy as the repository of their post-war gains. Socialism became ever more a chimera and the defense of some “Weimar” or other ever more an urgent reality – particularly as each passing year saw additional hundreds of thousands of the embittered victims of capitalism pass over into the camp of fascism.

The goal of Socialism was everywhere replaced by the fatal trap of “anti-fascism.” Its results were nowhere better illustrated than in Austria, where the hounded and retreating working class produced from its ranks that incomparable band of rank and file Schutzbund men. Poorly armed and poorly organized, they mounted the barricades with the deliberation of an army of the doomed. They offered themselves as a desperate, sacrificial rear-guard, not even to save an army in retreat, but to save the honor of their class.

In the ranks of Communist workers, the place of “defense of democracy” was taken by “defense of the Soviet Union,” until with the 1935 change in Russian foreign policy the two concepts became identical in Stalinist politics. As the prospects of revolution in their own country seemed to diminish, the existence of that “sixth of the earth” loomed as an ever more imposing reality. Soon they lived for nothing else. As the rise of Hitler made the threat to the “fatherland” all the more real, the old Communist cadres were more and more taken into the confidence of the party chieftains and taught, with a knowing wink, the grand strategy of “defending the land of Socialism” at the expense of their own native working class interests. The Communist ranks became ever less dupes and ever more “insiders” who were playing their little, but necessary, role in saving Russia.

“Socialism,” “Class Struggle,” “Class Solidarity,” all the brave words with capital letters that once aroused and inspired the awakening pre-war generations, were now only pronounced for holiday effect on May Day. Workers considered it “old stuff” that gave forth a stale odor. Nor could it have other than a false ring when mouthed by “Socialist” ministers busy ministering to a sick capitalism. These concepts were replaced in the worker’s thought with a growing skepticism, given vent by a shrug of the shoulders and a defeatist, “What else can one do?”

This decay of class feeling and militancy was an inevitable result of the decay that penetrated the entire social organism. No class, above all not one so basically rooted in the productive process as is the proletariat, can base its politics upon the status quo of a rotting society without beginning to rot politically itself. The proletariat could only save itself in a revolutionary struggle against the status quo.

Trotsky’s Preservation of Marxism

But only a tiny segment of the working class understood this and was willing to wage such a fight. More accurately, it was not even a segment of the class but only an ideological grouping that consciously expressed the historic aims of the working class and identified itself with the most advanced program and revolutionary traditions of that class. This core of irreconcilables was all that was salvaged from the revolutionary years. They remained all but immune to the all-pervading decay of the times. Their existence was the fruit of Trotsky’s labors.

Beginning his struggle in one of the chief centers of the gangrenous growth, in Moscow itself, Trotsky gathered about him men of integrity who turned flint-like faces against the stream. In the midst of the growing popularity of “being practical,” Trotsky took his stand upon theory. As the mass of the party functionaries reconciled themselves after 1923 to a long period of Russian isolation in a capitalist world and embraced the new nationalist concept of “Socialism in One Country.” Trotsky became the incarnation of uncompromising principles and preached permanent revolution and proletarian internationalism.

Though many, if not most, of his Russian collaborators were to break under the combined strain of physical suffering and the depressing effect of unchecked defeats, their example inspired similar handfuls in other countries to take their stand upon principle. Their struggle kept alive an indispensable tradition and trained an invaluable cadre. The Russians who grouped themselves under the banner of the Opposition hoped, to strike off the spark for a new revolutionary flame in the Communist International. But it was in keeping with the character of the epoch that they succeeded only in striking off additional sparklets that glowed feebly in an engulfing darkness. But these “sparklets” stood upon a firm ideological rock. Neither the pressure of popular opinion nor the violence of persecution could overwhelm them. History has few examples to compare with the twenty-year-long struggles of the Trotskyist movement to survive against the combined pressure of its enemies. Barely tolerated in the bourgeois democracies, persecuted in the fascist dictatorships and colonial empires and ruthlessly exterminated in Russia and wherever else Stalinism came to power, the movement survived solely by a deep conviction in its program. Executions in Russia, assassinations in France, Spain, Switzerland and Mexico, murder camps in Germany and imprisonment in practically every nation of the world could not kill the ideas the movement lived by. Less dramatic but just as present in the lives of members of the movement in those countries where it had legal status was the persecution of Trotskyists as uncompromising revolutionists by governmental agencies, employers and trade union officials. “Trotskyism” was a reason for not being given a WPA job in New York and “Trotskyism” was a reason for sharecroppers being evicted from government settlements in Missouri. In recompense there was neither a “one-sixth of the world” to look to nor a hold on a union apparatus nor even a “Socialist Milwaukee.” The movement lived and survived on its program.

The Trotskyist movement has come through the epoch of the great defeats with least loss of principle, of honor and of integrity. But the movement withstood the siege at a terrible cost. For two decades it struggled in enforced isolation from the main stream of the working class. Trotsky’s rôle, however, was not the cloistered refuge of intellectual detachment. Those who favored a cloistered existence were lost. Trotsky built a movement and saved Marxism as a banner in relentless struggle against the tide on every battlefield of the epoch: the struggle over the “New Course,” the Anglo-Russian bloc, the Chinese Revolution, the Third Period insanity, the German events of 1930–33, the Spanish Revolution of 1930–31, the French events of 1936–38, the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow Trials, the defense of Bolshevik morality against Stalinist perversion and reformist detraction and the defense of international solidarity against the defeatist acceptance of imperialist war as the last barrier to world fascism.

Trotsky as Link Between Generations

It is still too soon to judge adequately how much we owe our intransigence and clarity to the titan who captained the fight. Without Trotsky it would have been all but impossible. He personified the link between the two epochs of Marxism. He lived the latter half of his political life so that the best of the old epoch might be preserved and transplanted to new cadres. The physical destruction of Trotsky was more than an insane emotion with Stalin. It served a cold-blooded, practical purpose. But it came too late to achieve its aim completely. Trotsky had not fought in vain. He left behind more than illuminating ideas set on paper. He left a living movement schooled in the “old” Marxism [2] and his examples in applying it to two decades of political life.

The movement which Trotsky founded maintained itself intact as the revolutionary Marxist current. It would, however, be expecting the impossible of a movement to so insulate itself for nearly two decades as to remain wholly unaffected by the ideological disorientation and disintegration unloosed upon the workers’ movement by the simultaneous decay of capitalism and of the first workers’ state. Nor did the Trotskyist movement remain entirely immune. The virus of bureaucratic degeneration, to which the workers’ movements fell victim since the end of the First World War, also found its way into the veins of the Trotskyist movement.

The movement could only survive the great defeats and retreats by a most vigilant struggle against every kind of adaptation to the drift of events, i.e., centrism. In doing this the movement drew heavily upon the theory and practice of Bolshevism in its most hard pressed days, the rigid underground life under Czarism and the military life of the party during the Civil War days of 1918-21. Much of what the Bolsheviks were forced to do out of the stem need to survive was idealized and presented as a model. Any practice or theory that found precedent before the Fifth Congress of the Comintern was considered firmly established by that fact alone. Political concepts and organizational practices were passed off in the ranks of the movement, not always without opposition, however, as being “genuine Bolshevism,” which, when submitted to critical examination, were revealed to be semi-Stalinist or, more accurately, Zinovievist survivals.

The American Trotskyist movement was particularly beset by such survivals. The “leader cult,” cliqueism, concepts of monolithism, a party political life zealously shielded from the eyes of “outsiders,” a concept that theory would be supplied by Trotsky or that it was all solved by the “finished program,” an American boorishness toward the sections abroad, a disregard for the lack of education of the membership in theory, an impatience with all innovators and critics, especially the youth, and, in general, that which can be best described as bureaucratic conservatism. Anyone familiar with the American Trotskyist movement recognizes these immediately as the features of the Cannon clique which dominated the movement until 1940 and today operates the Socialist Workers Party as its own private experiment in monolithism and bureaucraticism

Trotsky and the 1940 Split

The struggle against this virus in the Trotskyist movement came to a head in 1940 with the crystallization of an opposition, numbering some forty per cent of the SWP, that split to form the Workers Party. The issue which occasioned the struggle, and which, from the outset, was inter-related with the “organizational question,” was the attitude of the party toward the slogan of “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union.” This opened to question the theory which history has proved to be Trotsky’s greatest theoretical error – the theory that Russia is a degenerated workers’ state because its economy is nationalized. We have submitted that theory to innumerable criticisms in these pages and cannot expand upon our views at this point. Trotsky’s adherence to “unconditional defense” had the unfortunate effect of blinding him to what was really involved in the “organizational” dispute in the SWP. He took his stand with the majority out of political solidarity and relegated to secondary importance the minority’s telling indictment of the majority’s management of the party. Trotsky’s role in the ensuing struggle stands in sorry contrast to any other chapter in his life. Worst of all was the fate that never permitted him to re-evaluate his role and undo his errors as it was possible in his earlier life, above all in undoing the false organizational policy he pursued before 1917. Still a prisoner of the closed circle logic of his position on the “Russian question” (Russia is a workers’ state because the property is nationalized and the property remains nationalized because Russia is a workers’ state), at the time the furious faction struggle broke out in 1939, he was not able to pursue the promising questions he raised in his article on The USSR and the War, written on the very eve of that struggle. Feeling it necessary for the movement to enter the trials of wartime existence with a firm program, he plumped hard for the existing position on the Russian question. Unfortunately, Stalin’s assassin got in his deadly blow before Trotsky could live to see the outcome of his policy, both on the historic scale in terms of Russia’s role in Europe and on the organizational scale in the speedy degeneration of the party leadership he had supported.

The Fourth International After Trotsky

In the period since Trotsky’s death, parties of the Fourth International, above all the Socialist Workers Party, which poses as its theoretical guide, have presented a sorry spectacle as defenders of Trotsky’s ideas. Utterly incapable of any independent thought, either in theory or politics, they have compounded a record of sectarian sterility relieved only by admixtures of opportunism – mostly sectarianism in Europe and opportunism in the United States. The judgment that the present leadership of the Fourth International is composed of political bankrupts is a harsh one, but the record does not permit a milder verdict.

Above all do they reveal their bankruptcy in dealing with the Russian question. Here Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers’ state has proved to be a veritable straightjacket. The blame can no longer rest on Trotsky, not even a share of it. The six years since his death have been so filled with evidence as to the untenability of the theory that its defenders can no longer adhere to it out of the stupidity of inertia but require an active, agile participation in mental gymnastics to bridge the daily widening chasm between fact and theory.

The inability of the present “official” Trotskyist leadership to break from the strangling embrace of “workers’ statists” is partly explained by their lack of self-confidence in matters of theory, an understandable attitude in view of their record. They prefer to “cling,” as they always put it, to the position of Trotsky. The result is that it is precisely on the question where Trotsky committed his greatest error that they follow him with the faithful zeal of idolaters and epigones. They hash and rehash his writings, squeeze dry his unfinished manuscripts and submit his notes to chemical analysis in a vain attempt to shed new light upon this most perplexing question. However, they flee in terror from the thought that they may be required to undertake a revision of Trotsky’s views.

However, the lack of theoretical competence of these people is only a partial explanation. The rest of the explanation is found in the fact that it was no mere coincidence that the same people who rigidly adhere to “unconditional defensism” are also the defenders of monolithism, bureaucratic practices and other Zinovievist concepts of the role of the party. How could people have any other view of party who can write the following about Russia:

Factories, mills, mines, railroads, workshops belong to those who work them. The soil belongs to those who till it. A man who will not defend such treasures is either a coward or a traitor; a man who fights to the death for them is more than a hero – he is a socialist worker. (George Clarke, The Militant, Sept. 12, 1942)

To continue to see any kind of a workers’ state in Russia today is to make a breach with the very concept of socialism as described in the Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s State and Revolution. It means to give up proletarian socialism for a form of bureaucratic socialism. The ultimate logic of this position is revealed by those French theoreticians who see in Stalin’s conquest and nationalization of Eastern Europe the bureaucratic socialist revolution. They express regret that socialism must come in this manner, but that it is socialism they do not doubt. They bolster their views by a historical analogy to Napoleon’s armies spreading the bourgeois revolution over Europe. At this point the break with revolutionary Marxism increases. Can people whose views of socialism tend in this direction be expected to remain unaffected in their veiws of the nature of the revolutionary party?

We do not for a moment seek to minimize the importance of Trotsky’s views on the Russian question in his system of ideas as a whole. But we most decisively reject the notion of the epigones that “workers’ statism” is the essence of Trotskyism. The essence of Trotskyism is represented by his theory of the permanent revolution and his seventeen-year-long fight on its behalf against all forms of reformism, centrism, anarchism and Stalinism. The essence of Trotskyism is Trotsky’s method of political thought as demonstrated in his writings on China, on England, on Germany (1923 and 1930–33), on France (1934–36), on Spain (1930–31 and 1936–38), on imperialist war, on fascism, on the American scene, on the transitional program, on the colonial question, etc. These sum up the application of the theory of the permanent revolution in the form of Marxist politics. In this sense the only efforts to use Trotsky’s methods (not merely his quotations) in dealing with new political situations today are those of the Workers Party. Its six-year-long record of dealing with the political questions arising from World War II represent the continuation of the heritage of Trotsky in the field of Marxist politics. We lay no claim to Trotsky’s mantle. That already firmly rests on the shoulders of such theoretical giants of the “official” leadership as E.R. Frank, Joseph Hansen and Pierre Frank. The essence of Trotskyism, its real heritage, is to be found only in our party.


1. Just measure the depths to which Socialist morality sank when Lovestone’s paper (Workers Age, organ of the Communist Party Right Opposition in the US) found it possible to say that the Moscow trials were concocted of fantastic lies but objectively served progress and were, therefore, to be endorsed and defended. This was swallowed by hundreds of Lovestone’s followers who saw in it no contradiction of their efforts on behalf of Socialism.

2. The Socialist editor who, in defending the victims of the Minneapolis frame-up, referred to Trotskyists indulgently as somewhat naive people who still believe in the Communist Manifesto as originally written hardly realized the historical significance of his statement. Yes, Trotskyists are the only people to whom the great document of Marx and Engels remained a living program.

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