Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

The Ukraine question

A Reply to Trotsky’s Polemic

An article by Leon Trotsky, The Problem of the Ukraine, in which he called for an independent Ukraine, was published in the 9 May 1939 issue of Socialist Appeal (USA). [1] Hugo Oehler of the Revolutionary Workers’ League attacked it. Trotsky’s reply first appeared under the title of The Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads in the 15 and 18 September 1939 issues of Socialist Appeal. [2] It was republished in the December 1949 issue of Fourth International. It is to this reply of Trotsky’s that we have the rejoinder of Oehler’s, published in the November 1939 issue of International News, and which we publish below.

At the end of his first article, Trotsky said of his position: “This appears to me to be the correct policy. I speak here personally and in my own name. The question must be opened up to international discussion ... There is little time left for preparation.”

As the preface to Trotsky’s article in the 1949 Fourth International put it: “The only opposition to Trotsky’s slogan of independence for the Ukraine came from the small sectarian Oehler group.”

In spite of the unequal literary ability of the contestants, for Oehler was not the most fluent of writers, the polemic is interesting and important for the issue around which it revolves, and which still exists today – the national question and the Russian state. In addition, for those concerned with the history of our movement, Oehler’s article is of some historical interest in itself, as it lists the differences of the two groups, and reveals the circulation of their respective organs, though not the groups’ memberships. In fact, the American Trotskyists numbered about 800 [3], and the Oehlerites about 200. [4]

Oehler argues against Trotsky’s propaganda for an independent Ukraine and its secession from Russia as being a petty bourgeois policy detrimental to the class interests of the working class in general and the Soviet Union’s in particular. Oehler pits workers’ democracy against Stalinism, that is to say, Russian centralism. Although Oehler does quote Lenin and the theses of the Second Congress of the Third International, he omits a relevant statement Lenin made on the subject in 1914 in his essay written against Rosa Luxemburg, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, and also the notes dictated by Lenin to his secretary at the end of 1922, and first published under Khrushchev in 1956 under the title of The Question of Nationalities or of ‘Autonomisation’, though these latter were not available to Oehler. [5]

In The Right of Nations to Self-Determination Lenin said:

The demand for an answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the question of secession in the case of every nation may seem a very ‘practical’ one. In reality it is absurd; it is metaphysical in theory, while in practice it leads to subordinating the proletariat to the bourgeoisie’s policy. The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle. Theoretically, you cannot say in advance whether the bourgeois democratic revolution will end with a given nation seceding from another nation, or in its equality with the latter; in either case, the important thing for the proletariat is to ensure the development of its class. [6]

As applied to Russia this algebraic formulation of Lenin is given more detailed and arithmetic expression in an early part of the same article:

Russia is a state with a single national centre – Great Russia. The Great Russians occupy a vast, unbroken stretch of territory, and number about 70 million. The specific features of this national state are: firstly, the ‘subject peoples’ (which, on the whole, comprise the majority of the entire population – 57 per cent) inhabit the border regions; secondly, the oppression of these subject peoples is much stronger here than in the neighbouring states (and not even in the European states alone); thirdly, in a number of cases the oppressed nationalities inhabiting the border regions have compatriots across the border, who enjoy greater national independence (suffice it to mention the Finns, the Swedes, the Poles, the Ukrainians and the Romanians along the western and southern frontiers of the state); fourthly, the development of capitalism and the general level of culture are often higher in the non-Russian border regions than in the centre. [7]

Although these remarks were made three years before the October Revolution, the revolution did not alter Lenin’s opinion on the matter. At the end of 1922, paralysed and unable to write, he dictated the following, one of his last communications to the party:

It is said that a united apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?

There is no doubt that that measure should have been delayed somewhat until we could say that we vouched for our apparatus as our own. But now we must, in all conscience, admit the contrary; that apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and tsarist hotch-potch, and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the course of the past five years without the help of other countries, and because we have been‘busy’ most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.

It is quite natural that in such circumstances the ‘freedom to secede from the union’ by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk. [8]

These dictated notes were directed against Stalin, whose removal from the position of party General Secretary was proposed by Lenin. The Soviet Union and the world were left to mourn the fact that this proposal was not carried out. On reading this polemic between Trotsky and Oehler, one may wonder whether, as Lenin does in these quotations, they sufficiently identify Stalinism with Russian nationalism.

Furthermore, on 13 November 1922, at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, only 43 days before dictating The Question of Nationalities, Lenin raised a question mark against the Communist International itself, in which he said:

At the Third Congress in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist parties, and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian ... it is too Russian ... it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And ... if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out ... I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further success ... All that was said in the resolution has remained a dead letter. [9]

In effect Lenin is saying here that the Communist International is suffering from the same defect as the Soviet state – Russian nationalism.

So Lenin executed a shattering volte-face on the character of the Communist International and the Soviet state. In 1917 Lenin’s defeatism expressed in the April Theses stunned the leaders of the party. In 1922 Lenin’s thoughts on the Soviet state and the Communist International seemed so outrageous to the leadership that they considered him to be ill, and no longer competent.

To return to the dispute between Trotsky and Oehler, we must assume that in 1939 the war was behind the thoughts of both participants in this debate, and therefore have to consider to what extent the outcome of the war revealed the truth or error in the arguments. It must be conceded that the war did not lead to the weakening of the Russian centre and the strengthening of the periphery in the shape of Ukrainian independence, etc, but rather the reverse, a weakening of the periphery and the strengthening of the centre round the “Great Leader of His People in the Patriotic War, Stalin”, or as Lenin expressed the matter, “the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers” were drowned “in that tide of chauvinistic Great Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk.”

So much for Trotsky’s side of the debate. What of Oehler’s position, that of “workers’ democracy against Stalinism”? The history of the Russian proletariat from the end of 1939, until quite recently, is the history of an inert terrorised mass impervious to outside influence. All the revolts since 1945 against Stalinism, or Russian nationalism as I prefer to call it, have taken place in the satellite states, Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and have been mainly proletarian in character, but without having the slightest effect on the Russian workers.

The latest events in the Soviet Union have once more placed on the agenda the questions raised in this 50 year-old polemic. Will ‘workers’ democracy or secession’ or ‘workers’ democracy and secession’ be a solution to the problem of the Soviet Union, and which party or group, if any, will advocate which policy? All this, as the phrase goes, remains to be seen.

Ernest Rogers



1. L.D. Trotsky, The Ukrainian Question, 22 April 1939, in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, New York 1974, pp.301-7. It has been republished recently in Ukrainian Peace News, Volume 2, no.2-4, Winter 1988.

2. L.D. Trotsky, The Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads, 30 July 1939, in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, New York 1977, pp.44-54.

3. Dwight Macdonald, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, quoted by Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, Oxford 1963, p.421.

4. Sid Lens, Unrepentant Radical, Beacon Press, Boston, 1980, p42.

5. V.I. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determinacion, in the Collected Works, Volume 20, Moscow 1977, pp.395-454, The Question of Nationalities or ‘Autonomisation’, Collected Works, Volume 36, Moscow 1971, pp.605-11. It appears that Trotsky was in possession of these notes, but for some reason did not publish them. He did quote from them in The Third International After Lenin, Pioneer Press, 1936, p.303, and in the article The Problem of the Ukraine of 1939, he says that “Lenin’s correspondence dealing with these matters remains unpublished to this day. We hope to publish a section which is at our disposal.” Although Trotsky quoted from Lenin’s unpublished notes, Isaac Deutscher, in spite of having access to all the Trotsky archives, does not seem to have been acquainted with them. He gave a talk on the BBC Third Programme when the notes were published, which was printed in the American Socialist, April 1959, under the title of Lenin’s Last Dilemma, and as The Moral Dilemmas of Lenin in Ironies of History, London 1966, pp.167-73. He ended his article with the following sentence:

For 33 years this message was to be concealed from the Soviet people. Yet I think in these words – “I am, it seems, strongly guilty before the workers of Russia” – in his ability to utter such words – lay an essential part of Lenin’s greatness.”

I believe that Trotsky did not publish Lenin’s notes because he (Trotsky) considered them ‘extreme’ and ‘undiplomatic’. Otherwise, why did he wait until 1939, 16 years after the events, before speaking of publishing them? His essay The Suppressed Testament of Lenin, published by Pioneer Publishers in February 1935 (and republished in V.I. Lenin and L.D. Trotsky. Lenin’s Fight Against Stalinism, New York 1975, pp.30-60) is mainly devoted to refuting Emil Ludwig, and there is no mention of The Question of Nationalities.

6. V.I. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, op. cit., p.410.

7. Ibid., p.407-8.

8. V.I. Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or ‘Autonomisation’, op. cit., pp.605-6.

9. V.I. Lenin, Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution, in the Collected Works, Volume 33, Moscow 1976, pp.430.

Due to the outbreak of the second world imperialist war and the dismemberment of Poland by the Stalin-Hitler agreement, the question of the Ukraine is now posed more sharply than ever as the key to Eastern Europe. The struggle raging around the Ukraine will inevitably become more intense. To a great extent, the solution of this question will determine either Hitler’s line of march to the East or the fate of the Soviet Union.

An analysis of our differences with Trotsky on the theoretical problems involved will clearly reveal the differences between nationalistic centrism (Trotsky) and proletarian revolutionary internationalism (the Revolutionary Workers League). In the Socialist Appeal of 9 May, Trotsky first presented his call for separation of the Soviet Ukraine from the USSR. We presented a brief reply to his false line in the Marxist of July. Now Trotsky enters into vicious polemics (Socialist Appeal of 15 and 18 September), wherein he uses strong language and weak arguments. We regret that a man of Trotsky’s experience in the revolutionary movement neither quotes our position correctly nor argues against our position. Not only does he use false arguments, but he sets up straw men to argue against.

Firstly Trotsky points out that we are opposed to his slogan for the separation of the Ukraine from the Soviet Union. And then Trotsky speaks of us and says: “He is for the world revolution and for Socialism – ‘root and branch’.” This leaves the impression on the reader that we counterposed to his false slogan the demand for the world revolution. We are for the world revolution; however, we counterposed to Trotsky’s slogan, not the world revolution abstractly, but a concrete line of march for the present situation. The following position on this question, from the Marxist of July, which Trotsky ignores, is as follows:

Enmeshed in capitalist contradictions in the Western Ukraine, confronted with Stalinist degeneration within Soviet Ukraine, with both sections beaten down under the hammer blows of the imperialist struggle for the redivision of the world, the problem of the Ukraine calls for special attention. The policy the revolutionary Marxists present is first and foremost the independent action of the working class. This is possible only on the basis of the political and organisational independence of the revolutionary Marxian organisation. In the Western Ukraine this independent class action calls for those steps that prepare the class in action for the social revolution. In the time element it makes no difference where the workers are successful first, in the social revolution of the Western Ukraine or in the political revolution of Soviet Ukraine. In the Soviet Ukraine this independent class action calls for such a political revolution and the extension of this workers’ victory to the rest of the Soviet Union and for the social revolution internationally. Only on this basis can the working class extend the October Revolution.

Does this position in any way sound as though we are counterposing the sectarian position of world revolution to a concrete, but false slogan? No, it is a concrete but different line of march.

Next, Trotsky takes a sentence out of our document which, in part, states “If the workers overthrow Stalinism ...” And Trotsky retorts: “But Stalinism must first be overthrown.” And, Trotsky says, the slogan of the separation of the Ukraine from the Soviet Union is how to accomplish this. He states: “And in order to achieve this [the overthrow of Stalinism – Ed.] one must not shut one’s eyes to the growing separatist tendencies in the Ukraine, but rather give them correct political expression.”

In the first place, this slogan for the separation of the Ukraine is not the workers’ road to overthrowing Stalinism. What is important in this quotation of ours that Trotsky uses, is the whole argument that preceeds it and the reason we use this argument. Let us deal with that aspect. In the Marxist the quotation Trotsky plays with is immediately preceeded by an excerpt from Trotsky’s original article in which he states (and we reproduce it here):

In the face of such an internal situation (degeneration under Stalinism) it is naturally impossible to even talk of the western Ukraine voluntarily joining the USSR as it is at present constituted. Consequently the unification of the Ukraine presupposes freeing the so-called Soviet Ukraine from the Stalinist borders.

The line of argument used by Trotsky is that a united Ukraine presupposes the separation of the Soviet Ukraine. Trotsky in his original quotation, not we in our reply, starts with the premise that after the workers’ political revolution against Stalinism is completed in the Soviet Ukraine, then we shall separate. Our position, and the quotation Trotsky uses makes this clear, is that we present the opposite line of march – if the political revolution against Stalinism in the Ukraine is successful, we shall drive deeper. The next sentence of our article on the extension of the political revolution, which Trotsky does not quote, is as follows:

If the workers regain their position in Soviet Ukraine before the proletarian revolution in the Western Ukraine they should drive deeper into the Soviet Union against Stalinism and the other imperialist agents. (emphasis in the original)

Why then, does Trotsky take one sentence from our article and talk about our position “if there is a revolution”, when in his preceding quotation this is his position. And the polemic on this question, as our first article clearly shows, is not over the first aspect, but the second aspect of the question. Trotsky says separation if we gain workers’ rule in the Ukraine, we say use the fact of re-established workers’ Soviets to drive deeper into the whole of the Soviet Union to dislodge Stalinism. We repeat, we will come back later to the first part of the question – the line of march for a political revolution in Russia.

Again let us quote Trotsky and our comment, not from his polemic against us, but from his first article, from which the following quotation is reproduced from our first article:

Trotsky says: “The question of first order is the revolutionary guarantee of the unity and independence of a workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine in the struggle against imperialism, on the one hand, and against Moscow Bonapartism, on the other.” This is begging the question. This “first order” of Trotsky is about the tenth order. To have a unified and independent Ukraine, the workers and peasants must succeed with a proletarian revolution in three capitalist countries, and must carry through a political revolution in Soviet Ukraine.

This quotation reveals that in our first article against Trotsky we argue against the position of his first order of unity and point out that before such unity there must be a revolution, and a revolution in several places. In his reply he accuses us of what we previously exposed as his position.


In our first article, immediately following the quotation dealing with the question of “presupposing”, is the following sentence: “Not turning our backs on the Soviet Union, but its regeneration and reestablishment as a mighty citadel of world revolution – that is the road of Marxism.”

Trotsky quotes this sentence from our document and then claims our position logically leads to this: “With this method, but with far greater logic, one might say ‘not defending a degenerated Soviet Union is our task, but the victorious world revolution which will transform the whole world into a World Soviet Union’ etc. Such aphorisms come cheap.” We don’t know where Trotsky got the second cheap quotation, but we do know that it fits his position like a glove and has nothing in common with the first quotation of ours.

Our position is not to separate a section of the Soviet Union where the workers carry through a political revolution, not to turn our backs, but instead to defend the Soviet Union by extending that partial victory to the rest of the Soviet Union and by re-establishing a genuine workers’ democracy. The second idea, which belongs to Trotsky, states just the opposite – ‘not defending a degenerate Soviet Union’.

The separation of the Soviet Union which, according to Trotsky, is first necessary before there can be a united Ukraine – is the position of no defence of the Soviet Union. And secondly, this “cheap aphorism” of Trotsky’s is the position of the ultra-lefts. It is not our position. Anyone who is half-way familiar with the RWL literature on the Soviet Union knows that we stand for the defence of the Soviet Union.

Twice, in the first column of the article in polemic against us, Trotsky tries to make us out as sectarians and ultra-lefts, but both times he does not present our position. This,is a necessary introduction to his article to prepare the groundwork for his readers so he can present his centrist position against our Marxist position and already have his readers convinced that the position he is arguing against is ultra-left sectarianism.

Trotsky says: “Assuredly, the separation of the Ukraine is a liability as compared with a voluntary and egalitarian Socialist federation; but it will be an unquestionable asset as compared with the bureaucratic strangulation of the Ukrainian people.”

What Trotsky says is true, but this is not the main axis for the workers or for the Marxists. More important than the fact that separation is an asset to the Ukrainian people, is the effects of separation on the workers and the defence of what remains of the October Revolution. Again we must say that the workers’ victory in the Soviet Ukraine must be used to extend that victory into other parts of Russia against Stalinism – as well as outward towards Western Ukraine. This is the real defence of the Soviet Union.

“The economy of the Soviet Union enters integrally into this plan”, says Trotsky. The planned economy of the Soviet Union may be affected by the separation, he says, but “an economic plan is not the holy of holies”. In this argument he ridicules us because we “forget” the economic aspect of the question. Trotsky should know that there is no solution for the economy of backward Soviet Ukraine on the basis of the slogan of separation.

In either case, a proletarian revolution in the Western Ukraine or a political revolution, or both at once, calls for a drive inward into the rest of the Soviet Union against Stalinism, as well as against the imperialists, in order to solve any of the economic problems confronting the Soviet Ukraine as well as the rest of the Soviet Union. To tell the workers and peasants of the Soviet Ukraine that they must separate to better their economic position because the bureaucrats have warped the plan is false. To tell them to oust the bureaucrats and take power in the Soviet Ukraine, and use this as a lever to extend the political revolution to the rest of Russia and to correct the plan, not only in relation to the Ukraine but to the whole of the Soviet Union, is the correct relation of the plan to the Ukraine.

It is not the plan, as Trotsky claims, that is the important economic aspect of the question of the right of self-determination. More important than the question of a plan and its breakdown under Stalinism with its negative effects upon the national problem, is the question of the property relations. We did deal with the decisive economic aspects, but Trotsky ignored the argument. We stated in the Marxist that: “The right of self-determination under capitalism and the right to self-determination under the Soviet rule do not have the same axis.” What is the different axis? The property relations. Separation of the colonies under capitalist economy from the imperialist mother country further disrupts and accelerates the conditions for revolution. But to use the slogan of the right of self-determination under the property relations of the Soviet Union is to negate the whole of Marxism on this question as presented by Lenin.

To issue a slogan for separation of national minorities under a capitalist economy and under the different property relations in the Soviet Union are two different things. Trotsky does not see this difference and criticises us for not considering the economic relations!

In his polemic Trotsky extends his error in attempting to answer us. What he only implied in his first article he now states clearly in the second article. For example: “Only a direct and bold posing of the Ukrainian question in the given concrete circumstances will facilitate the rallying of the petty-bourgeois and peasant masses around the proletariat, just as in Russia in 1917.”

We agree that the agrarian problem and the national problem have not been solved, and especially not under Stalinism, which has aggravated all the contradictions. But that is not the dispute now. The question is: do you elevate an auxiliary slogan to win allies above the line of march for the working class? The first quotation we present in this article from the Marxist clearly shows that our line of march is the independence of the working class in action. The national minority and the peasants will be won as allies only on this basis. Trotsky turns this concept upside down and places the interests of the petty-bourgeois in the Ukraine above the interests of the proletariat, and the defence of the Soviet Union. We counterpose to Trotsky’s Ukrainian nationalism, proletarian internationalism.


Let us give some more quotations along this same line from Trotsky: “This means that the proletarian vanguard has let the Ukraine national movement slip out of its hands, and that this movement has developed far on the road to separatism.” There is a “growing strength of separatist tendencies among the Ukrainian masses”. “The great mass of Ukrainian people are dissatisfied with their national fate and wish to change it drastically.”

Trotsky correctly sees the effects of Stalinism upon the Ukrainian section of the Soviet Union, degeneration and the development of nationalist tendencies. But one does not eliminate the cause – Stalinism as the agent of the imperialists ’ by capitulating to the nationalist tendencies. To use the slogan of the right of self-determination and the national question to disrupt imperialism, to weaken imperialism, is not the same as to use the national question for Ukrainian separation from the Soviet Union.

We have pointed out before that this slogan is part of our strategy to win allies, that it is not a principled question, and that at certain times, under certain circumstances, we reject the use of separation because it plays into the hands of the imperialists. The independence of the Ukraine plays into the hands of the different imperialists just as much as did the separation of the Sudetenland or of Danzig at the moment. On this basis Stalinism would gain, too, by revealing what the slogan will accomplish. That is the reason we stated that separatism plays into the hands of Stalinism, a statement which Trotsky ridicules.


Clarity can be of tremendous value to us here. Let us briefly review Lenin’s line for the Ukraine (that is, for national minorities in a workers’ state). In his speech of 19 March 1919, replying to discussion of the proposed new party programme (at the Sixth Congress of the CPSU), comrade Lenin summarised the Ukrainian national problem in a manner totally alien to Trotsky’s approach:

The Ukraine was separated from Russia by exceptional circumstances, and the national movement did not take deep root there. Insofar as it did manifest itself it was knocked down by the Germans. This is a fact, but an exceptional fact. Even with the language there the position is such that it has become uncertain whether the Ukrainian language is the mass language or not. [cf. V.I. Lenin, Speech Closing the Debate on the Party Programme, Collected Works, Volume 29, Moscow 1977, p.194]

Going one step further we examine the theses of the Second World Congress of the Communist International on the national question. Sections 7 and 8 clearly present the proletarian view on national federation in a workers’ society:

The federative principle appears to us a transitional form toward the complete unity of the workers of all countries. The federative principle has already practically demonstrated its conformity to the end pursued, just as much in the course of the relations between the Russian Socialist Federated Republics and the other Soviet republics (Hungarian, Finnish, Lithuanian, in the past; Azerbaidjan and Ukrainian at present) as in the heart of the Russian Republic itself, with regard to the nationalities which formerly had neither a state nor an autonomous existence (for example, the autonomous republics of the Bashkirs and the Tartars, created in Soviet Russia in 1919 and 1920).

The task of the Communist International is to study and verify the experience (and the further development) of these new federations based on the Soviet form and the Soviet movement. Since we consider the federation a transitional form toward complete unity, it is necessary for us to work toward a closer and closer federative union, bearing in mind: 1) the impossibility of defending (without the closest union among them) the Soviet republics surrounded by imperialist enemies who are infinitely superior in military power; 2) the need for a closer economic union of the Soviet republics, without which the rebuilding of the productive forces destroyed by imperialism, and the security and well-being of the workers cannot be assured; 3) the tendency for the realisation of a universal economic plan whose regular application could be controlled by the proletariat of all countries, a tendency which made itself evident under the capitalist regime and which certainly ought to continue its development and reach perfection under the Socialist regime. [cf. V.I. Lenin, Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, Collected Works, Volume 31, Moscow 1977, pp.146-7]

Bearing the above in mind we continue with Trotsky’s quotations: “Have Stalin and his Ukrainian satraps succeeded in convincing the Ukrainian masses of the superiority of Moscow centralism over Ukrainian independence or have they failed? This question is of decisive importance. Yet our author does not even suspect its existence” – says Trotsky.

To Marxists the axis is not ‘Moscow centralism’ (reformism) v. ‘Ukraine independence’ (centrism). To us the question of workers’ democracy v. Moscow centralism is the correct axis.

Within the framework of our road to state power and the ousting of Stalinism is the strategical line of smashing deeper into the Soviet Union on the basis of gaining a foothold in any area. This calls for a struggle to re-establish workers’ democracy, and not separation.

But Trotsky places the Ukrainian petty-bourgeois interests (separation) above the interests of the working class (workers’ democracy). We may state that the struggle for workers’ democracy is a part of the problem of the road to power, the real defence of the Soviet Union.

All of these above quotations reveal that the auxiliary problem is made into the main problem by Trotsky, who turns upside down the relation of forces in the line of march to overthrow Stalinism and places the petty-bourgeois line above the working class line.

Trotsky says: “The slogan of an independent Ukraine advanced in time by the proletarian vanguard will lead to the unavoidable stratification of the petty-bourgeois and render it easier for its lower tiers to ally themselves with the proletariat. Only thus is it possible to prepare the proletarian revolution.” Trotsky speaks of the proletarian revolution. Does this mean that a proletarian revolution is needed in the Soviets, that capitalism exists there? If so, this is the ultra-left position. Has Trotsky changed his position on Russia? Or does this mean that the slogan of the independence of the Soviet Ukraine will help the proletarian revolution in the Western Ukraine? But Trotsky says in the original article the following: “Consequently the unification of the Ukraine presupposes freeing the so-called Soviet Ukraine from the Stalinist boot.” On Trotsky's basis then, it does mean first a political revolution in the Soviet Union, and then a proletarian revolution.

However, in this article, the second article, Trotsky is shifting his position. He would like to forget the first article where the united Ukraine presupposes the separation of the Soviet sector. In the second article he speaks of the proletarian revolution, which can only mean in the Western Ukraine. But in retreating to the position where he states there will be a combined relation, a parallel relation, as he states, he accuses us of what he is guilty of.

If Trotsky rejects his false formulations which he tries to pass off to us through only partial quotations from our article, and instead states that the separation of the Soviet Ukraine in time element will run parallel to the revolution in the Western Ukraine (and that the unity of the Ukraine does not, therefore, presuppose freeing the so-called Soviet Ukraine from the Stalinist boot) then Trotsky must state the following thought, which is nowhere to be found in his original article or reply: The slogan for an independent Ukraine is necessary to arouse the petty-bourgeois and peasant masses as an ally of the proletariat, to placate their present course of extreme nationalism, in the struggle of the workers in the Western Ukraine to carry through a proletarian revolution. In carrying through this proletarian revolution in the Western Ukraine we must demand of our forces in the Soviet Union that they also advocate, on the basis of a political revolution, the separation “of the Soviet Ukraine from the Stalinist boot” as a lever to rally the petty-bourgeois masses there too. The independent Soviet Ukraine will work out its own relations with the Russian Soviet, the Polish Soviet, etc.


But Trotsky has already declared that the action for the slogan for separation from Russia and the unification of the Ukraine is “the basic fact underlying the whole problem”. This means that the national question is placed as point number one against the above arguments, because our above arguments use the proletarian interests as point number one.

In reality, it means that Trotsky has not presented variants, but more than one position on the same question, none of which are correct.

Firstly, he presented the position that unification presupposes the separation of the Soviet Ukraine section from Stalin’s state. Secondly, he states a parallel relation between the (political) revolution in Russia and the (social) revolution in the Western Ukraine; but he does not define the relation of the social to the political revolution; in fact he ignores this question of the social (Western Ukraine) and the political (Soviet Ukraine) revolutions. He leaves this as an unknown quantity. The second position which states that “only thus is it possible to prepare the proletarian revolution”, thus ignores the political revolution in Russia.

Thirdly, he elevates the auxiliary slogan to win allies for the proletariat as the “basic fact”, as the “question of decisive importance”.

Fourthly, and not least, Trotsky presents a still different position, a position that one could agree with and in no way agree with the slogan for separation or his other positions. Trotsky calls this the “ideal variant”. Let us quote him in full:

Let us take an ideal variant most favourable for our critic. The revolution occurs simultaneously in all parts of the Soviet Union. The bureaucratic octopus is strangled and swept aside. The Constituent Congress of the Soviets is on the order of the day. The Ukraine expresses a desire to determine anew her relations with the USSR. Even our critic, let us hope, will be ready to extend her that right. But in order freely to determine her relations with other Soviet republics, in order to possess the right of saying yes or no, the Ukraine must return to herself complete freedom of action, at least for the duration of this Constituent period. There can be no other name for this than state independence. Now let us further suppose that the revolution embraces simultaneously also Poland, Romania and Hungary. All sections of the Ukrainian people become free and enter into negotiations to join the Soviet Ukraine. At the same time they all express the desire to have their say on the question of the interrelations between unified Ukraine and the Soviet Union, with Soviet Poland, etc. It is self-evident that to decide all these questions it will be necessary to convene the Constituent Congress of the Unified Ukraine. But a "Constituent" Congress signifies nothing else but the Congress of an independent state which prepares anew to determine its own domestic regime as well as its international position.

Why should Trotsky bring in this argument in the polemic against us, since it was not in his first article, unless it is a polemic against us, or at least unless he wants to leave the impression on his readers that this argument adds another nail to our political coffin, and reveals our ignorance of the question? In fact, that is exactly why this argument, this “ideal variant” is brought in. At the same time it is a cover-up for his other false positions. This position speaks of a political revolution throughout the Soviet Union and the ousting of Stalinism, and a social revolution in the countries of Eastern Europe, etc.

But the minute this “ideal variant” is coordinated with Trotsky's line on the question of the separation of the Soviet Ukraine, the ideal variant is negated. Most likely the political revolution against Stalinism in Russia will take an uneven development. In some areas it will be ahead of the others. Let us say in the Ukraine it is more developed than in other areas where the battle is raging, and we take power. Instead of using this base in Soviet Ukraine to drive deeper into the rest of Russia against Stalinism, we call for separation. This would be a body blow against the political revolution to smash the Stalinist enemies of the workers and other counter-revolutionary elements.

It is clear that our line of smashing deeper into the Soviet Union fundamentally contradicts the line of Trotsky for separation for the ends aimed at, ends that are not the desires of the Ukrainian petty-bourgeoisie, but the interests of the working class.

Furthermore, the “ideal variant” is not only brought in to cover up the false line of separation, but in order to leave the impression that this ideal variant is the presentation of Trotsky’s position against us. In fact, we endorse this “ideal variant”, and also present other variants in our original article, variants that are most likely but not ideal. We presented this “ideal variant”, which in reality is not a variant, but instead the end we strive toward through possible variants. In our first article which Trotsky is criticising, he failed to quote the following:

It is not too early to envisage the time when the yoke of exploitation will be smashed, and the different sections of the Ukraine will be unified into a Soviet Ukraine. The precondition for this is the revolution in one or more advanced capitalist countries in Europe and the establishment of a Soviet system. This will be the beginning toward the consolidation of the United Socialist States of Europe. Under this structure the present relation to the Soviet Union will be supplanted by a new and higher stage in which the Ukraine as an entity in its own right will be affiliated to the Eastern Soviet. Within this framework we can speak of a free, independent, Soviet Ukraine.

In claiming we do not understand the Ukrainian question, Trotsky says: “But just now there is no victorious revolution, instead there is a victorious reaction. To find the bridge from reaction to revolution – that is the task.” Then he proceeds to tell us about the transitional demands of the Fourth International. This means that the slogan to separate the Ukraine from the Soviet Union is part of this Transitional Programme.

It is well that Trotsky brought out this programme clearly, and revealed the proper connection between the Ukrainian question and the transitional demands. The whole axis of the transitional demands is false, and each separate demand (as we have pointed out in the Fourth International, Volume 3, no.12) merely presents the concrete error in a given field.

We think it is no accident that Trotsky says that we must find the bridge from reaction to revolution. It is an outward manifestation of the false line of the transitional demands, and not merely a poor formulation. The correct theoretical position is not the bridge from reaction to revolution; but the bridge from capitalism (whether ‘reactionary’ or ‘reformist’) to the proletarian revolution. In a given concrete situation, for a specific country, the application of the line may be the relation from reaction through reform (both of which we oppose) to revolution. But the transitional demands are the new world programme of the Trotskyists. And the positions presented in the transitional demands are for all countries.

Trotsky leaves out the whole question of reform. The Transitional Programme therefore brings it in through the back window by centrist formulations which result in reformist deeds.


Let us consider the concrete errors of some important questions of the transitional demands in the light of the ‘bridge’ from reaction to revolution.

1. How to fight capitalism. “Fight Imperialism to Fight Fascism” says Trotsky in a letter published in the 8 October 1938 Socialist Appeal [cf. Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, pp.26-8]. Fight capitalism to fight Fascism is the correct position. In addition to the imperialists there are the small capitalist nations. Under this formulation the Trotskyists cover up: 1) Support for Cardenas in Mexico against England, but not a word against US imperialism. 2) Support to the Peoples’ Front in Spain through material aid and political criticism, etc. 3) Support for Chinese nationalists against Japan, etc. 4) Support for a Labor Party, a third capitalist party, against the imperialist parties, a slogan of the small capitalists against the big capitalists. 5) “Expropriate the 60 families” (United States) and the “200 families” (France).

2. Support for bourgeois democracy against fascism. It is true that the Trotskyists reject the reformist position of outright support for bourgeois democracy, but they have a centrist, tallendist position. Some of the more outstanding examples of this are the following, which our literature has taken up in detail: 1) Trotsky’s position on the Chinese situation, where he states we may even have to support rotten bourgeois democracy against reaction, in order to defend our working class rights. But life itself proves that the working class can only defend its democratic rights by a struggle against bourgeois democracy and all of its institutions; likewise, the same applies in the struggle against fascism. 2) For the slogan of the Blum-Cachin government in France before Blum was, in power, a slogan not based upon a Blum-Cachin government through soviets, but within the present capitalist structure. 3) The advocation of the Caballero-CNT-UGT government in Spain right after the Barcelona uprising. 4) The support for the Mexican government against British imperialism. 5) The support of Labour Party candidates. 6) The support for bourgeois bills in Congress; for example, the editorial of 31 May 1938 Socialist Appeal in support of the Wage and Hours Bill: “All sections of the labour movement do and must support the Bill”.

3. The independence of the revolutionary Marxian organisation. 1) The liquidation into the Socialist parties and centrist parties. 2) The support for the Labour (third capitalist) Party. 3) The establishment of a paper Fourth International, without even inviting the majority of its own affiliated sections to the conference, a one day conference to establish the new international. 4) The liquidation of the Marxian programme of the party, which means the political liquidation of the party, no matter how long the party continues to exist organisationally.

4. The state. 1) The support for left bourgeois governments as already stated: Spain, China, Mexico, etc. 2) The advocacy of support for a ‘left’ labour government in the United States when it takes power. Cannon’s slogan for a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government for the United States. 3) The Transitional Programme which states that it is correct to support left bourgeois governments on the road to power, before the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is established, as a step toward it, etc.

5. Revolutionary defeatism. A consistently false formulation, since the wrong position presented in the thesis War and the Fourth International – a position which reverts back to Trotsky’s last war position, which Lenin fought. In short, it is a position that accepts the term revolutionary defeatism but fills it with a false content. Instead of advocating that the working class work for the defeat of its own imperialists, the Trotskyists advocate that the revolutionary action of the working class will defeat the imperialists. Instead of advocating the defeat of the government and its armed forces through military defeats, the Trotskyists advocate only the defeat of the government. But the government can be defeated and the new ‘left’ government, such as Kerensky, can advocate the defence of the country.


Instead of stating that we work for the defeat of our own imperialist government and armed forces through revolutionary action, even if this means the momentary victory of the ‘enemy’ imperialists, the Trotskyists advocate the defeat of our own imperialists as the lesser evil. Instead of pointing out that revolutionary defeatism is the line and is how the imperialist war will be turned into civil war, the Trotskyists present the position that revolutionary defeatism is synonymous with the slogan of turning the imperialist war into a civil war. The line of defeatism is the whole, the slogan is a small part, even though important.

Instead of independent class action against capitalism and the imperialist war, the Trotskyists centre all their energy on calling for the right to vote (Ludlow Amendment) to see if the country will go to war. This is parliamentary opportunism.

We could give many more examples in practically every field of activity where the Trotskyists have a non-Marxian position, a centrist position. But the above is adequate to explain our point on some of the principled questions.

Notice that every one of the above Trotskyist formulations on concrete work fall into the category of reaction v. revolutions, but not into the Marxist line of capitalism (reaction and reform) v. the proletarian revolution. Because their whole Transitional Programme is merely the summing up of previous years of centrist positions and reformist actions, they have embodied in this Transitional Programme the centrist position against reaction, but not the Marxist position against reform. As centrists they are left-reformers. They fight reformism, true enough, but they fight reformism from a centrist rather than from a Marxist position. And in order to drown us out from the left, they deliberately accuse us of being sectarians and ultra-lefts. If in principle we are to the right of the school of ultra-lefts, but to the left, in principle, of the school of centrists, Trotskyists, etc, then what is our tendency? It is Marxism.

The Trotsky position for the Ukraine, for the petty-bourgeois allies, is the counterpart to the new Trotsky position for the Negroes in the United States. They now advocate the right of self-determination in the Black Belt – if the Negroes want it.

The old Stalinist position on the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, which the Left Opposition fought, was later supplemented by its Stalinist counterpart in the United States with self-determination in the Black Belt. Trotsky now has the same centrist line in the Ukraine and in the South of the United States on the Negro Question. The form, however, is different for the national question. But at least Trotsky has a consistent centrist position for international application.

For three years Trotsky has been silent on our criticism of his centrist programme. Now all of a sudden he explains how sectarian and muddle-headed we are. Why? And why the Ukraine question? Why not the many other principled questions we have in dispute?

It must be remembered that on the eve of our expulsion from his movement he sent four letters to the United States section: one to the Cannon faction, one to the Shachtman faction, one to the Muste faction, and one to the Left Wing. Summed up they made one whole: that the Left Wing of the Workers Party and Oehler were strikebreakers because we accused the leadership of planning to liquidate into the Socialist Party, a liquidation we opposed, to say nothing about the many other principled questions in dispute. These letters were published in volume I, no 3, of our publication. Just the word from Trotsky that we were strikebreakers was enough to cement the groups against us, and since the Pope had spoken, we were doomed to quick expulsion. For that was all Cannon was waiting for to give us the axe.

From then until now Trotsky left us alone, except once when Shachtman tried to polemicise against us and again burned his fingers; and once when Trotsky flayed Eiffel for his ultra-left position on Spain and China and presented an amalgam of Eiffel and Oehler on the question. But the RWL had expelled Eiffel for the position Trotsky accused us of having! Now comes the Ukraine question.

He says we are only sectarians and muddle-heads – not opportunists like Vereeken and Sneevliet; that we will not live long enough to develop to that stage. We will live longer, longer than capitalism, because we present a Marxist line and have established ourself internationally as a part of a tendency (Marxism) separate from all varieties of ultra-lefts as well as the rainbow collection of centrists.

What Trotsky is really doing, even though we give him credit for understanding the importance of the Ukrainian question, (which we cannot say for his followers such as Cannon, Shachtman and others), is presenting a flank attack upon our international tendency. In the United States and in Europe we have given the Trotskyists more than a battle. Now we have the provisional International Contact Commission, and although Trotsky can say he never heard of it, he cannot really deny that he has heard of what is going on (just as he can say that the Marxist is a “tiny” publication, even though it has a circulation of over half that of the Trotskyist New International in his European sections, as well as his Mexican section, right under his nose. He at least knows that they have developed factions that for some unknown reason present the same fundamental arguments as the RWL.

Trotsky has no time to discuss our differences with him on revolutionary defeatism, on support for left-bourgeois governments, on support for third capitalist parties, etc., etc., but he does have time to take up our position on the Ukrainian question. We are very glad to hear from him on this. We think he has done the revolutionary movement a service to reveal even clearer Trotsky’s centrist position on the Ukrainian question, as a further indication of his entire centrist line.

Hugo Oehler
25 September 1939

Updated by ETOL: 18.7.2003