Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

3. Revolutionary Policy and Falsification

From Informations Ouvrières, no.485, 29 July-5 August 1970

Without any doubt – and we are not the only ones to stress it – one of the characteristics of the political period in which we have entered is the interest shown in Trotsky’s writings, and everything that concerns him. As a consequence of the search for a revolutionary Socialist programme and of the wish to understand the experience of Bolshevism, which inspires thousands of young people, we have seen many reissued or original works of Trotsky.

But at the same time it is a general phenomenon that introducers are not content to ‘introduce’ and to place such and such a work in the context of the development of the thought and actions of Trotsky, but to inflict a long exposition of their own views on the reader.

The selection of writings on the Second World War, collected and prefaced by Daniel Guérin, does not escape this rule. [1]

And – whatever the reservations which one would have about the way in which certain articles have been mutilated – the texts collected in this volume on the thirtieth anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination are a tribute to the clarity and relentless fight of an activist, and a magisterial example of the theoretical capabilities of a great Marxist.

The texts offered by Guérin extend from an article in August 1937 On the Threshold of a New World War to unfinished note left by Trotsky in his desk after the GPU agent Mercader had smashed his skull.

The Method of D Guérin

Daniel Guérin could only publish a certain number of documents within the limits of this book, and this was a difficult choice. But he is up to a riskier operation: in a number of cases he is happy to give us extracts from a text. Well now, Guérin uses a method which is the opposite of Trotsky’s: he explains in his Preface that he deliberately left out passages which had no connection with the question. But to be precise, for Trotsky the war was not a phenomenon in itself but “the continuation of politics by other means”, and as a result his explanation does not take on its full significance except in the context of elements apparently irrelevant to the “question discussed”. Worse still, certain cuts seem opportunistically to favour Guérin’s theories in his Preface, not an understanding of the thought of Trotsky. We will return to this point.

What Guérin stresses most is the fact that Trotsky’s articles on the war consist of “a series of extraordinary prophecies”, for example the fact that in 1937, before Munich, he had fixed very precisely a delay of two years before the outbreak of war, and had analysed the basic trends in the future conflict from the point of view of international alliances and the general line of military strategy.

Though that is correct, the insistence on presenting Trotsky as an inspired and solitary genius masks the essential point. Indeed, Trotsky did have genius, and he joined to his mastery of Marxism a profound knowledge of international phenomena and the social factors which were to be found behind military or diplomatic combinations. In other words, his astonishing understanding of the dynamics of international developments found its roots, not in his gifts of ‘superlucidity’ but in his unequalled capacity – an expression of his prodigious intellectual gifts indeed – to apply the Marxist method. The forecasts that he fires off start from the decisive facts of the class struggle. In 1937 it was not enough to say that the working class, demoralised by the successive defeats caused by its leaderships, was not capable of stopping the race to war, and with a sure hand to trace on the blackboard the world’s evolution and to calculate in some way the date of the conflict, even if that is the starting point.

In other words, contrary to Guérin’s assertions, it is because Trotsky was not an “attentive and passionate observer” of a “succession of changing scenes” but a revolutionary leader who struggled so that he could attain such precision and rigour in his analyses. Of all the conclusions which Trotsky drew from the inevitability and proximity of the Second World War, the most important is the one that Guérin forgets: the proclamation of the Fourth International, the historic justification for whose foundation is found in the Transitional Programme, which theoretically generalises the experience of class struggle in our epoch in which the concrete conditions of theoretical and political disaster in the working class movement obliged to carry out the essential task of maintaining the organisational cadre and preserving the historical continuation of the movement with a proletarian internationalism that is still alive.

Guérin does not speak about that, but the texts that he himself has chosen justify without contradiction the method which led to the proclamation of the Fourth International in 1938, as they do the role played in the war by that International.

The masterly text – The Manifesto of the Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, dated 26 May 1940 – happily reproduced as a whole, alone would justify every militant worker getting this book without delay. Guérin writes that it “saved the honour of the world working class”. But he does not seem to understand that this document is only conceivable on the basis of the Transitional Programme and that what has given it this meaning is the activity of the sections of the Fourth International saving, not “the honour of the world working class”, but internationalism as a strategy, the struggle for the Socialist revolution, even if these sections which formed the “vanguard of the vanguard”, though not exempt from weakness, yet resisted the ordeal, “these precious cadres”, who as Trotsky had foreseen, “will not be swerved from their road by any wave of chauvinism, nor intimidated by Stalinist Mausers and knives.” [2]

Was Trotsky Divided Against Himself?

But there is something worse. Guérin, not content with omitting what is essential in Trotsky’s activities at the start of the second imperialist conflict, goes on to pure and simple falsifications. Thus we learn that “Trotsky was two men, on the one hand a revolutionary internationalist, the spokesman of the Fourth International, and on the other a leader who was still very much a Soviet militant”.

Divided against himself Trotsky then combines an internationalist Dr Jekyll and a Mr Hyde, who leans towards social patriotism, so that, according to Guérin:

This second Trotsky allows himself to be led into taking up positions that seem to contradict those of the first Trotsky – the internationalist. It is thus that, foreseeing or even calling for the entry of the United States into the war on the side of the Western Allies, Trotsky was led into lambasting the American pacifists, considered as ‘Enemy No.1’ by him, and of encouraging the United States to accelerate its military preparations.”

We know how Trotsky posed the question of the defence of the conquests of October. We can find an example elsewhere on page 120 in the book introduced by Guérin:

To renounce defeatism in relation to that imperialist camp to which the USSR adheres today, or might adhere tomorrow, is to push the workers of the enemy camp to the side of their government: it means to renounce defeatism in general. The renunciation of defeatism under the conditions of imperialist war, which is tantamount to the rejection of the Socialist revolution – rejection of the revolution in the name of the ‘defence of the USSR’ – would sentence the USSR to final decomposition and doom. [3]

Guérin then adds:

Trotsky did not hesitate to proclaim that America must not stay neutral. According to him it was necessary to give Hitler such a decisive blow that Stalin would cease to fear him. And he encouraged the American workers to engage in intense military preparation.

In other words, Trotsky gives a progressive rôle to American imperialism, and invites workers in the United States to put themselves behind it! By assembling extracts of the discussions by Trotsky with the leaders of the SWP (the American section of the Fourth International), Guérin seeks a shadowy existence to his thesis. He alternately denounces petit-bourgeois pacifism with passages of analyses of the world situation (it is inevitable that the United States would enter the war) and extracts the pieces of the discussion which bear on the opportunity of voting for the Stalinist candidate at the election.

Marxism and the War

The falsehood is quite apparent. Taken together the discussions on the international situation have the object of showing that the Stalinists would ‘turn’, that is to say, abandon their conjectural position of defeatism vis-a-vis their own imperialism as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact. The discussion on the presidential electoral campaign combines two aspects: firstly, the necessity of opposing Roosevelt (whose programme was the preparation of an imperialist war) with a working class candidate; and, secondly, in the absence of a working class candidate from the trade unions or the SWP, Trotsky advised a call to vote for the candidate of the American Communist Party, a worker candidate who opposed (even if from a Stalinist position) the war preparations of its imperialism. The question is not to support the Stalinists because they were less ‘militarist’ than the others, or that they annoyed American imperialism on its road to war, but to use the electoral campaign to fight it, and among its cadre to work to prepare the workers duped by the temporary defeatism of the American CP and to reject its inevitable turn to social-patriotism.

It is indeed correct to say that Trotsky lambasted the pacifists for their sermons, for if they failed to disarm imperialism they did disarm the workers politically. “War is the continuation of politics by other means”, and this formulation also has value for the workers’ movement. The inevitable war will be the terrain on which the independence and the interests of the working class must be defended. Trotsky suggests some transitional demands to develop the proletariat’s struggle against its own imperialism so that it would not be handed over to bourgeois militarists. It was the later development of this policy which the leaders of American Trotskyism carried on from prison.

Whichever way we look at it, Guérin’s method is far from being that of a historian. We often see notices that it is forbidden to throw filth over a wall. Over some works one should not throw certain introductions. But we must not be discouraged. We must carry on. We must read and study the writings on the Second World War, for they constitute an indispensable weapon to maintain their line in the continuing struggle about which Trotsky in the Manifesto of the Emergency Conference went on:

The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective. History will provide it with enough opportunities and possibilities to test itself, to accumulate experience, and to mature. The swifter the ranks of the vanguard are fused, the more the epoch of bloody convulsions will be cut short and the less destruction will our planet suffer. But the great historical problem will not be solved in any case until a revolutionary party stands at the head of the proletariat. The question of tempos and time intervals is of enormous importance; but it alters neither the general historical perspective nor the direction of our policy. The conclusion is a simple one: it is necessary to carry out the work of educating and organising the proletarian vanguard with tenfold energy. Precisely in this lies the task of the Fourth International. [4]



1. Leon Trotsky, Sur la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale, Textes rassemblés et prefacés par Daniel Guérin, Editions La Taupe.

2. L.D. Trotsky, A Fresh Lesson: After the Imperialist Peace at Munich, 10 October 1938, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, New York 1974, p.78.

3. L.D. Trotsky, The USSR in War, 25 September 1939, In Defence of Marxism, New Park, London 1966, p.20.

4. L.D. Trotsky, Imperialist War and the World Proletarian Revolution, Manifesto of the Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, May 1940, Documents of the Fourth International: The Formative Years 1933-40, New York 1973, p.346.

Updated by ETOL: 24.7.2003