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James Burnham

The Politics of Desperation

Some Notes on the Article A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition
in the Socialist Workers Party

(January 1940)

From New International, Vol. 6 No. 3, April 1940, pp. 75–80.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

We are publishing herewith, for the information and study of our readers, the complete text of one of the political documents circulated in the ranks of the Socialist Workers Party by the Opposition group during the discussion that has just closed. We think this document is of more than purely internal-party interest, and we hope to be able, in future issues of the review, to make public other key documents of the SWP discussion. – ED.

WHAT A COMFORT it will prove to Max Eastman! For ten years he insisted that what separated him from us was – dialectical materialism. For ten years we replied: No, Max Eastman, you are only fooling others and yourself, and trying to fool us; what separates you from us is your unwillingness to accept the political program of the international revolution, and the practical political consequences that flow from that program. We will not permit you to evade the political issues by turning the debate aside into the abstract regions of speculative metaphysics.

But Eastman, it seems, was right all along. The real root of the matter, the ineluctable heart and core – it is now Trotsky who makes it at last clear to us – is, precisely – dialectical materialism. Burnham rejects dialectical materialism: from this original sin flow, like the conceptual links of the endless closed chain of the Hegelian universe, all the errors and crimes of the party opposition. But, we recall, it is not today or yesterday that Burnham rejected dialectical materialism. Indeed, since he never accepted it, he can hardly be said ever to have rejected it. His opinion of dialectical materialism has been a constant: it has not been unknown in the Fourth International. A curious coincidence, and a mark of almost criminal laxity, that Trotsky waited until 1940, in the midst of a bitter factional struggle on concrete political issues, to discover its burning and all-vital importance.

The rule says: we must think things through to the end. The discovery having been made, even if so belatedly and under such exceptional circumstances, the International must draw the consequences. Trotsky must, I would feel, now propose a Special Commission to investigate and weed out all traces of anti-dialectics that have crept into the Socialist Workers Party through Burnham’s activities during these years. It will, I am afraid, have plenty of work cut our for it.

It might begin, for example, with the party’s Declaration of Principles, its foundation programmatic document, which was, by an oversight, written by Burnham. With the war actually started, it will have to devote particular attention to most of the pamphlets and articles on war, since most were written by Burnham. Surely it cannot overlook the political resolution for the last convention, also the product of Burnham’s Aristotelian typewriter; or, for that matter, a fair percentage of all the political resolutions for conventions and conferences and plenums during the past live or six years. And not a few special articles and lead editorials in the Appeal and New International, the political document motivating the break with the Socialist Party – as well, come to think of it, as the first resolution proposing entry into the Socialist Party (the anti-entrists were, evidently, right, since the whole orientation sprang from anti-dialectics). And the Spanish resolution, around which centered the chief political light in the Socialist Party. Let us not speak of the fact that perhaps the bulk of motions, resolutions, articles on American politics (the main enemy is, is it not, in our own country?) came from the same tainted source.

And let us above all not mention that even today, when anti-dialectics has come into the lull anti-revolutionary open, the party was compelled to turn – to Burnham, in order to formulate a political plan in connection with the Congressional session (Appeal, issue of December 30th) and to ask – Burnham, to defend the policy of the party when criticized by a local branch (Rochester; unanimous PC motion, meeting of January 9), and to accept Burnham’s motions (as against both Cannon and Cochran) when an important branch (Newark) asked how to handle the spreading Food Stamp Plan.

But the investigation will unearth even more curious, and ironic circumstances. It will find, to take one instance, that at the founding convention of the SWP, the lengthy Russian resolution itself, the resolution which defeated Burnham was, with the sole exception of the paragraph or two repeating the dictum that “Russia is a workers’ state,” – written by Burnham. All, that is, of the concrete analysis, all that dealt with origins and sources and conditions and relations and predictions and history and changes, was the product of anti-dialectics (anti-dialectics operating, true enough, largely on material unearthed by Trotsky); dialectics contributed to the resolution – the “fixed” category (“workers’ state”) of “vulgar” and “Aristotelian” thinking.

The reply comes: Agreed, Burnham has done some service in his day; when, a tame petty-bourgeois journalist, he submitted himself docilely to the “proletarian element”, he could reach correct Marxist conclusions in spite of his dialectical peccadilloes; now, with the war broken, he capitulates to the mighty pressure of the Hooks and Eastmans, becomes a petty-bourgeois “enraged”, and all his proposals, motions, speeches, articles, are false and “absolutely stale”. If he were a dialectician, he would understand how this happens. If he would recognize his heresy, confess, and resubmit it, he might even live to do further service in the future. But a more central point is: not whether Burnham has done service in the past or will behave in the future (both very minor problems), but how the past illumines in its own way the sudden appearance on the scene of dialectics at just this time, at the time when Burnham is in an opposition struggling against Trotsky and Cannon over the concrete political issues of today and tomorrow.

Perhaps, however, it was only that the American comrades were naive, being only (by their own admission) “students” of dialectics rather than ordained dialecticians, and did not recognize the monster they were harboring. But then there is a new, and this time international, scandal to explain: Two years ago Max Eastman wrote in Harper’s Magazine a theoretical attack on Marxism. Trotsky thereafter wrote me a personal letter requesting and proposing to me that I answer Eastman and defend the theories of the Fourth International against his attack (which, a few months later in the New International, I did). I was neither more nor less of a dialectician then than today. My views on the subject were as well known to Trotsky then as today. I therefore enquire: By what right did Trotsky make this proposal to me? By what right did he entrust the theoretical defense of the Fourth International against a theoretic opponent who was himself an anti-dialectician to – an avowed anti-dialectician? Was he ignorant then about the importance of dialectic, but suddenly wise today? Or was he light-minded and irresponsible in giving the defense over to a theoretic enemy? Equally astounding: last June, after the article Intellectuals in Retreat, after my review of Haldane in Partisan Review where I once more summarized flatly my point of view toward dialectics, Trotsky, through Abern, requested me to edit and cut 1,000 words from his introduction to the Longmans Green edition of Capital – and to do so at my own discretion. An extraordinary attitude toward one’s own theoretical work: to turn it over to an irreconcilable enemy for revision!

Dialectics and Finland

Trotsky complains that I do not take dialectics seriously, limiting myself to “rather cynical aphorisms”. I have not, it seems, the proper attitude of respect toward sacred doctrine, and this is unbecoming in a Marxist. It is true that, considered as an alleged scientific theory, I do not take dialectics seriously, any more than I would take seriously, as alleged scientific theories, any other theology or metaphysics. How can I take a doctrine seriously when, during the course of an entire century, its alleged “laws” or “principles” have never even been formulated – they have only been named, given titles. How can I even say whether I agree or disagree with, for example, the “law of the change of quantity into quality”, when no one yet has told me or anyone else what that law says? Of what use are all the metaphors (good and bad) and the “examples” brought forward to illustrate the “law” when no one has yet stated what they are supposed to be illustrating?

It would be the easiest thing in the world to make me take dialectics seriously, and to persuade me of its truth, if it is true. All that would have to be done is the following: Formulate its laws in a clear and unambiguous manner, in such a manner that the terms used in the formulation refer directly or indirectly to objects or events or procedures or operations that are publicly recognizable in the experience of any normal human being; and show what predictions can be made about the future on the basis of deductions from these laws. Then I will grant that dialectics is significant, and will take it seriously. Show, second, that on the basis of deductions from these laws predictions about the future can be made that are verifiable and verified, and that they enable such predictions to be made as well as or better than any alternative proposed hypotheses. Then I will grant that these laws are not merely significant but true. An Open Letter to Burnham on dialectics is announced. It will give an opportunity for this enlightenment. Looking back over the hundred years’ failures of the past, I am not over-optimistic about its coining this week.

I do not take dialectics seriously as a scientific doctrine, but I take very seriously indeed the uses to which dialectics is put in some political disputes, in particular by Eastman, the anti-dialectician, in his way, and by Trotsky in the current dispute. I object, and very strongly, to the substitution of theological disputation in the manner of the Council of Nicaea (which split Europe over the question of whether the Son of God was of “one substance” or “similar substance” with the Father), of loose metaphors and platitudes about science and pseudo-science in the style of the 19th century popularizers of Darwin, for – clear discussion of the genuine issues of the politics of 1939 and 1940.

Consider: the opposition raises questions with reference to the war, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the actions of the Soviet Union, the invasion of Finland. The reply is: the problem is whether or not Russia is a workers’ state. The opposition demonstrates convincingly that a decision on the definition of the class character of the Soviet Union cannot answer the strategic and tactical issues posed to the movement. The reply is: the problem is the laws of dialectics. (There is a fourth stage which does not appear in written documents: the abominable personal gossip with which the Cannon clique corrupts its followers.) In an analogous manner, the opposition makes and proves concrete criticisms of the conservative and bureaucratic Cannon regime. The reply is: the problem is the alien petty-bourgeois social roots of the opposition.

Why is dialectics brought into the dispute? In the first instance, as an obvious and mechanical maneuver, which deceives no one of “trying to drive a wedge into the ranks of the opponents.” But more generally: to evade issues that cannot be and have not been answered on their own legitimate plane, to escape from an inconvenient reality to a verbal jousting ground, to confuse and turn aside the attention of the membership from the actual problems that face them, to – in the century-sanctioned way of all “authority”, all “dogma”, all bureaucracy – brand the critic as heretic so that his criticism will not be heard. The textbooks (“the school bench”) give a name to this device: Ignoratio Elenchi or Irrelevant Conclusion. The remarks on it of Whately – a contemporary of Darwin, by the way – are not, however, themselves irrelevant:

“Various kinds of propositions are, according to the occasion, substituted for the one of which proof is required: ... and various are the contrivances employed to effect and to conceal this substitution, and to make the conclusion which the sophist has drawn answer, practically, the same purpose as the one he ought to have established. I say ‘practically the same purpose’, because it will very often happen that some emotion will be excited – some sentiment impressed on the mind – (by a dexterous employment of this fallacy) such as shall bring men into the disposition requisite for your purpose, though they may not have assented to. or even stated distinctly in their own minds, the proposition which it was your business to establish.”

Let us suppose, however, that I accept the entire first half of Trotsky’s article, that I grant my errors on dialectics, and accept dialectics as the key to truth and socialism. What has changed with reference to the political issues in dispute, the problems discussed in the second half of his article? Nothing has been changed a centimeter. Everything remains just as it was when dialectics had never been mentioned. For Trotsky does not in any respect whatever establish any connection between what he says about dialectics in the first part of his article, and what he says about the defense of Russia, the Soviet-Finnish War, and the “organizational question” in the second half. Does anyone doubt this? Let him re-read the article, and see for himself. It follows therefore that the entire discussion of dialectics is totally irrelevant – as Trotsky himself presents the discussion – to the political questions. “Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of nebulae ...” Very well; let it be so. Now show us how from generalizations of that type it follows – even by the most dialectical of logics – that ... the Red Army is introducing workers’ control in Finland and we ought to defend it.

The fact that Trotsky thinks and says there is a necessary connection between his dialectics and his politics has nothing to do with the question of whether there actually is such a connection. All through history, men have thought and said that there were connections between their scientific investigations or practical decisions on the one hand and their theologies or metaphysics on the other. Pasteur said that there was such a connection between his bacteriology and his Catholic faith; Einstein today between his field physics and his pantheistic idealism; Millikan finds God proved in his cosmic rays.

Either the dialectics is relevant or irrelevant to the empirical and practical questions in dispute. If it is irrelevant, to drag it in is scientifically useless. If it is relevant, the empirical and practical questions can in any case be settled on their own merits on the basis of the available evidence and our goals. In neither case is a decision as to dialectics required.

Trotsky writes: “To demand that every Party member occupy himself with the philosophy of dialectics would be lifeless pedantry.” I want to enquire: if it is true, as Trotsky claims, that dialectics is “the foundation of scientific socialism”, if rejecting does, as he declares, define the one who rejects as an alien class influence, if dialectics is indeed the method whereby we can solve correctly political problems, then by what conceivable principle does Trotsky conclude that it would be “lifeless pedantry” for more than a few Party members to occupy themselves with it? Rather would we have to say that dialectics must be the first and last study of all party members if they wish to be consistent and clear-headed revolutionary socialists.

Or must we seek another kind of explanation for Trotsky’s dictum: There is one doctrine – the “secret doctrine” – for the elite, the leaders, the inner circle; and another – the vulgar doctrine – for the mass, the ranks, the followers. What is the relation of the followers to the secret doctrine? They are not to know it, to study it, to test it in their own conscious and deliberate experience: that is excluded as “lifeless pedantry.” But may they then consider it unimportant, or reject it? Not on your life: then they are alien class elements. No: they must believe, they must have faith. As for the doctrine itself, it is safe in the hands of the elite; they will bring it out on appropriate occasions (a sharp factional fight, for example) to smite and confound the Enemy.

For my own part, I do not believe in Faith.

My friend and colleague Max Shachtman (may he forgive me for the reference, as I must, perforce, forgive him for what he has recently written about me) says: I do not really understand much about dialectics; I am only a humble student of the subject; of course I believe in it as all good Marxists must. This attitude is not unique in Shachtman. Whenever I have talked to any pro-dialectics party comrade about dialectics – or tried to talk about it – I have been given the same response (except, to be complete, in the case of Wright, who seems to think he understands dialectics because its words so well express the conflicts and shifts and confusions in his own attitudes and actions). We do not really understand it; we believe of course; we cannot formulate its laws; we cannot tell you how you can test them; some day we hope to get around to studying it. This response is as characteristic of pro-dialecticians in the Cannon clique as in the opposition. Few even pretend to “understand”, for example, the first part of the Trotsky article which I am now discussing.

Now I ask Shachtman and all these comrades of the party: if you don’t understand it, if you can’t explain or prove it, why then do you “believe” it? Whence springs your faith?

Throughout the centuries, it has been characteristic of religious groups to have two doctrines: the “esoteric” doctrine of the “inner circle”, the monopoly and carefully guarded secret of the high priests; and the “exoteric” doctrine of the “outer circle”, for the followers. Is this not exactly the situation with dialectics – whether or not you “believe” in dialectics? And the existence of an esoteric doctrine is always potentially reactionary, anti-democratic. It is so because the esoteric doctrine is by the nature of the case irresponsible, not subject to control by the humble followers, a weapon in the hands only of the priests.

For the method which I advocate – the method of science – there is only one doctrine, available to all. And what it says is subject always to tests that can be made by any normal man. There is no revelation, and no short cut, and no prophet.

I conclude on dialectics with a challenge:

In the letter dated January 3rd it is clearly implied that my attitude toward dialectics is incompatible with my being editor of the theoretical journal of the party. In the article (p. 11) it is stated explicitly that my rejection of dialectics represents the influence of another class.

First I want to ask: Where in the program of the Socialist Workers Party or the Fourth International is a belief in dialectics made part of the programmatic basis of our movement, the acceptance of which defines the conditions of membership? And if it is not, by what right does Trotsky or any one else attack me politically or object to my editorship of an organ of the International on the grounds of my attitude toward dialectics?

Is not our movement founded on its program, decided by conventions representing the membership? Or – do we communists hide our views, and is our real program something different from our public and adopted program?

But if Trotsky is justified in what he says about dialectics, and the conclusions he draws in connection with dialectics, I say further:

Let him propose to the forthcoming convention that this lack in our program be filled, that the convention adopt a specific clause, to be added to the Declaration of Principles, affirming acceptance of the philosophy of dialectical materialism.

If he does not make such a proposal, then only one of two conclusions is possible: either what he is now writing about dialectics is not meant seriously, is mere polemical rhetoric for the faction fight of the moment; or dialectics is indeed an esoteric doctrine, not suited for the public opinion of the party to pass upon, but a private monopoly of the priests.

If he does make the proposal, it is true that he will have only one precedent in the history of labor politics: Stalin’s program adopted at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, in which the abandonment of Marxism was consummated. I confess that I should not like to feel that our movement is ready to regard such a precedent as appropriate.

The Finnish Invasion and the Perspective of the Third Camp

If by a “workers’ state” we mean that form of society transitional from capitalism to socialism, then Russia today can be considered a workers’ state only on the basis of its nationalized economy. Of those various major features of the “transitional society” described in advance (in State and Revolution, for example), no one, absolutely no one in any political camp except that of the Stalinists themselves, maintains that any other socialist factor remains in Russia today except the nationalized economy. Nationalized economy, must, therefore, in the view of those who hold that Russia is a workers’ state, be a sufficient condition for so characterizing it, and by a workers’ state Marxists have always meant, from Marx on, that form of society which is transitional from capitalism to socialism.

The assumption therein involved I, of course, reject. I hold that at least one other major condition is necessary for that form of society which is transitional to socialism – namely, workers’ democracy; and that therefore Russia today is incorrectly characterized as a workers’ state. This was Marx’ opinion; and his opinion has been entirely confirmed by the experiences of the last fifteen years of Soviet history.

Nevertheless, even if the assumption is granted, if it is thus further granted that Russia today is a workers’ state, this will not at all suffice to motivate a tactic of defense of the Soviet State and the Red Army in the present war (just as, conversely, if the assumption is denied and it is thus denied that Russia is a workers’ state, this will not by itself suffice to motivate a tactic of defeatism). We cannot deduce a tactic of defense from our definition of the Soviet state any more than we could deduce it from the “law of the negation of the negation.” Nor are we aided further in determining our tactic by the assumption that nationalized economy, in and by itself, divorced from the concrete social and political and historical relations which form the context of the nationalized economy, is “progressive” (an assumption which is involved in the initial assumption of our “dialectical” defenders of the workers’ state doctrine – an assumption which effectively eliminates all the changing actual reality which they say dialectics teaches us to take into account, and substitutes: a static, abstract category).

The general strategic aim of our movement is the world proletarian revolution (and socialism). We all hold (in words, at any rate) that this aim is now a goal not for the indefinitely remote future, but for the present period, that is, for the war and the postwar period. We concretize our goal in the statement of our “war aims” – united socialist states of Europe, the Americas, a free Asia and Africa, a world federation of socialist republics. Presumably we mean these seriously.

Any tactic we propose, therefore, can be justified only by proof that, directly or indirectly, it is in fact the best available means for reaching our general strategic goal.

Even granted, then, Trotsky’s assumptions, granted that Russia is a workers’ state, the tactic of defense can be justified only if certain additional propositions are, in fact, true.

These would have to include: (a) Defense of the Red Army is in fact the best available means of defending the nationalized economy (which, for the purpose of discussion, let us assume to be in and of itself progressive); (b) Defense of the Russian nationalized economy as a primary task is the best available means for promoting the world revolution.

But everyone grants (in words, at least) that the defense of Russia is not the only major necessary means for achieving our general strategic aim; other necessary means include, certainly: the overthrow of Stalinism; colonial revolts; the lifting of the revolutionary consciousness of the masses; the deepening of the class struggle throughout the world, in at least several major nations to the point of successful proletarian revolution. In and of Itself, defense of the present (i.e., Stalinist) Russian state and the Red Army, even if 100 per cent successful, would be of not the slightest value in achieving our goal; on the contrary, would make our goal impossible, since it would mean only the continuation in power and the extension of Stalinism.

The two propositions required by Trotsky to justify the tactic of defense therefore involve a third: (c) Defense of Russia in the present war does, in fact, serve as the best available means, or as an integral part of the best available means, for promoting colonial revolts, the lifting of the revolutionary consciousness of the masses, the overthrow of Stalinism, the deepening of the class struggle throughout the world (including, naturally, Russia itself and those countries against which Russian military action is conducted), and the completion of this struggle in successful revolutions.

Unless these three propositions are true, then the tactic of defense is not justified – no matter what may be the truth about dialectics and the definition of the Russian state. Their truth can be established in one way and one way only: not by changing quantity into quality or uniting opposites, but by relating them to the relevant evidence that can be brought to bear from modern historical experience – including prominently the evidence presented by the first months of the war itself.

As soon as these propositions are formulated, it is clear that Trotsky and the Cannon clique have utterly failed to present sufficient evidence to permit us to regard them as true. Proposition (a), especially on Trotsky’s premises (which include the belief in a “fundamental contradiction” between the bureaucracy and the nationalized economy) is certainly at best very doubtful, and becomes increasingly doubtful as we observe the economic program in the small Baltic countries – now Russian provinces, in the declaration of the Kunsinen government, and for that matter in Poland, or if we estimate the probable effects of increasing economic collaboration with Germany.

But it is Propositions (b) and (c) which are crucial; and any child should be able to realize that all the evidence from the beginning of the war, far from giving any remote likelihood of their truth, shows them to be undeniably false.

Trotsky, concentrated on the sociology and psychology of polemics, does not recognize explicitly the nature of the scientific problem posed in the dispute. Nevertheless he is compelled to give it implicit recognition. He seems to sense that all the thousands of words he has been writing since September on the “workers’ state” and dialectics are beside the point; and he tries to introduce at last – a few hundred words out of the many, many thousands (chiefly on p. 10 of the mimeographed version of the article I am now discussing) – some evidence for the truth of the key proposition (c).

What is this alleged evidence? I will quote the central sentences:

“In the second case (Poland and Finland) it (the Stalinist bureaucracy) gave an impulse to the socialist revolution through bureaucratic methods ...

“... the resolution (of the opposition on Finland) does not mention by so much as a word that the Red Army in Finland expropriates large land-owners and introduces workers’ control while preparing for the expropriation of the capitalists ... they (the Stalinists) are giving – they are compelled to give – a tremendous impulse to the class struggle in its sharpest form ... The Soviet-Finnish war is evidently already beginning to be completed with a civil war in which the Red Army finds itself at the given stage in the same camp as the Finnish petty peasants and the workers, while the Finnish army supports the owning classes, the conservative workers’ bureaucracy and the Anglo-Saxon imperialists ... in this ‘concrete’ civil war that is taking place on Finnish territory.

“As for the Kremlin it is at the present time forced – and this idnot a hypothetical but a real situation – to provoke a social revolutionary movement in Finland ...”

Now the first thing to be observed about this alleged evidence is that the whole world – including Trotsky himself – knows it to be false. Nothing of this kind has happened or is happening. Trotsky, indeed, admits it to be false when, in the letter dated January 5th (to “Joe”), evidently replying to the qualms his statements about Finland had raised even in the stern breasts of the Cannon clique itself, he “explains” what he wrote by saying ... that such things did happen – in Poland! – and will happen in Finland. But what he said in the article was that they had happened and were happening in Finland. (From where, by the way, Comrade Trotsky, did you borrow this method of “explanation”?)

(In passing, it was the opposition that pointed out, long ago, that an embryonic civil war began in Poland; and this fact was repeatedly denied and ridiculed by Cannon.)

What did actually happen – so far as we can learn by sifting all the reports – in Poland, Finland (and let us not forget Lithuania and her two sisters), up to now?

In Poland, important manifestations of the class struggle, including embryonic revolutionary steps, began – before the Red Army marched and independently of Russia – with the military and civil breakdown of the Polish bourgeois government. This is a normal and natural occurrence in all countries, whatever the character of the opposing army, when the home government goes to pieces. In a number of towns (including, apparently, Vilna and Warsaw itself) embryo “Soviets” arose on a loose basis, with labor and other popular organizations assuming de facto many of the tasks of sovereign power; in the villages, peasants began ousting the landlords – or, more exactly, the landlords had already run away.

It is quite possible (though the evidence is far from clear) that in some sections the march of the Red Army excited certain hopes – at least hope in comparison to the fears of the advance of the Reichswehr, and even encouraged some peasants to bolder steps in occupying the land of their former masters (who were no longer there to oppose them). These hopes were in the shortest time liquidated, together with the persons of any peasants or workers hardy enough to persist in them. The regime of Stalinism – and Stalinism without completely collectivized economy – was imposed by the representatives of the GPU. In the Vilna region the embryo “soviet” was smashed and the militants killed, in preparation for handing the territory back to bourgeois Lithuania.

Then the Red Army took over the three small Baltic states. Anyone who thought that in that action “the Kremlin (was) forced ... to provoke a social revolutionary movement” was rapidly undeceived. From the reports, a few underground communists began to show their heads. With public statement (released in the world press) and by police action, the Red Army joined the Baltic government in shoving those heads down again, and in reinforcing bourgeois rule and capitalist economy in those nations.

Meanwhile, it was revealed to all who had initially doubted it that Hitler and Stalin had divided Poland in complete and prior agreement.

These events were observed by the workers and peasants of the world, and above all, we may be sure, by the workers and peasants of the other nations bordering Russia – not least by the people of Finland. Not being highly skilled In sociological definition nor belonging to the inner dialectical circle, they drew nevertheless, in their humble way, certain conclusions (where they had not already drawn them from the Trials and Spain). Their conclusion, in short, was: the Red Army in this war is not our ally.

The propaganda campaign began against Finland, and then the invasion. For a number of days, the Red Army triumphantly advanced. The Kuusinen government was proclaimed, issued its program (a bourgeois, not a proletarian program, by the way, in spite of Trotsky’s dialectical deduction that the Kremlin must use social revolutionary policies – bureaucratically carried out; the Kremlin did not consult Trotsky).

What was the effect – the actual effect that happened, not the effect that we can read about in our former theses (which coincides with what Trotsky writes in the present article) or deduce from theories? The effect was, not to stimulate, but to wipe out what there had been of the class struggle (and there had been more than a trace of it) in Finland, to throw the Finnish workers and peasants into the hands of their own bourgeoisie. This is proved, first, by reports which, properly sifted, can legitimately be believed; but, second, independently, by what may be deduced from (1) the failure of the Kuuslnen government to excite any favorable response and (2) the high morale of the Finnish army which is obviously supported by a huge percentage of the population. This last fact the NC majority and Trotsky explain by the shockingly Philistine argument that the Finnish army has such good supplies and training – as if the Red Army were equipped with bows and arrows.

This reaction was not surprising. Knowing the Red Army fought against their interests, and seeing no third alternative, the Finnish workers drew what seemed to them the only possible conclusion under the circumstances: to fight desperately for the bourgeois “fatherland”; with the third alternative (an Independent struggle for freedom and power against the main enemy, at home, and the invading enemy) excluded, they chose what appeared to them as the “lesser evil”. Those responsible for this reactionary conclusion are the imperialists on the one hand and the Stalinists on the other (and all others!) who, ruling out the third camp, posed the choice exclusively as either Mannerheim’s army or Stalin’s.

On the other side, according to our theses (War and the Fourth International), the Russian soldiers and workers should have been reacting as follows: “Within the USSR war against imperialist intervention will undoubtedly provoke a veritable outburst of genuine fighting enthusiasm. All the contradictions and antagonisms will seem overcome or at any rate relegated to the background. The young generations of workers and peasants that emerged from the revolution will reveal on the field of battle colossal dynamic power.” But (to paraphrase a remark of Trotsky’s), “events did not recognize our theses.” In the Finnish war, the Russian soldiers and workers have shown – just the opposite, as everyone knows. There is no mystery here. The soldiers fight so poorly, so unenthusiastically, because – though without benefit of dialectics – they understand clearly enough that in this war the Red Army fights not for but against their interests and the interests of workers everywhere, and of socialism.

Who is it who is closest to socialist consciousness; those Soviet soldiers and workers who recognize the reactionary character of the war, are resentful and distrustful of it, and show no enthusiasm for it; or those (notably including the G.P.U.) who are whipped up into a frenzy of Stalino-patriotism for it? We, the opposition, say: the former. Trotsky is compelled by his doctrine to say: the latter.

But, in the further course of the Finnish war, will not the class struggle re-assert itself in Finland? Certainly, as we have declared from the beginning. When the Finnish defense and the Finnish government begin to crack, just as in Poland the overt class struggle will re-appear; workers and peasants will take social revolutionary steps, will, perforce, begin moves toward independent power and sovereignty. Above all will they do so if there are revolutionists and militants among them who have not, meanwhile, been functioning as spies of the counter-revolutionary Bed Army, but have made clear to them that their struggle, In the first instance directed against the main enemy at home, finds an also implacable enemy In the Kremlin and all its institutions, that the Red Army marches in not to aid them but to crush them; and if internationalists within the ranks of the Red Army have guided in a parallel manner the ranks of the Red soldiers, urging them to throw off the yoke of the Kremlin-GPU and to join in common struggle against their oppressors with the Finnish workers and peasants – not to obey the orders of the Kremlin to reduce the workers and peasants of Finland to a new type of slavery.

Does the policy of the Kremlin (through “compulsion” or voluntary will, it does not matter) in reality stimulate the class struggle, the social revolution? If so, then Marxism has been wrong from the beginning, for then the struggle for socialism can be carried on by bureaucratic-military means as a substitute (good or bad) for the popular, conscious and deliberate mass struggle of the workers and peasants. To accept Trotsky’s interpretation of the events of the present war is to accept the theory of the Bureaucratic road to socialism. I refer the reader to Max Shachtman’s excellent discussion of this point in his recent reply to this same article of Trotsky’s.

But is not the Kremlin stimulating the social revolution by its new policy, both directly through its own state agencies, and by the new line of the Comintern? If this is true – as Trotsky now holds – we cannot possibly explain intelligibly to the workers the meaning of the new line of the CI (and we have not done so up to now – everyone recognizes that from reading our press), we have no sufficient reason for not re-applying for admission as a faction of the CI.

No. The present policy of the Kremlin stimulates the class struggle and is “socialist” only in the same general sense as Wilson’s policy with reference to “defeatism” in Germany in 1917–18, or Chamberlain’s policy in his broadcasts to and leaflet-droppings on Germany today, or Hitler’s similar appeals. These “revolutionary” policies – with respect to the enemy country – are all simply supplementary military-strategic devices. As a matter of fact, in this sense the most “radical” of all of them at the present time is Hitler’s, not Stalin’s: Hitler’s New Year speech was far more “socialist” than the proclamation of the Kuusinen government. True enough, the nation employing this device is always playing with social dynamite – above all in this war. Even Chamberlain’s propaganda is capable of “stimulating the class struggle” within Germany under appropriate circumstances – but we hardly support it, for that reason (though we do support the class struggle, no matter how stimulated). But the more usual effect is for it to aid in stifling the class struggle in the enemy nation, (precisely because it is not internationalist in character, and because the workers understand it as merely a maneuver of a rival oppressor). This is just what has happened in Finland, just as in Germany after the Chamberlain leaflet raids.

Cannon and Trotsky tell us: But then you want the imperialists to take over the Soviet Union. This is nothing but the standard slander which has always been directed against those who uphold the internationalist position of revolutionary defeatism. We are for the defeat of all the belligerent armies and the overthrow of all the belligerent governments; but for defeat and overthrow not by the opposing armies in the field, but by the third camp, by the workers of each respective country.

But Cannon and Trotsky say nothing of the meaning of their alternative in relation to the general strategic aim, to the world proletarian revolution. How, just how, will a defensive tactic with respect to the Red Army serve the development of the revolution, how in this war – not the war of our theses – where the Red Army fights, in alliance with the Reichswehr, for the defense, preservation and extension solely and simply of the power, privileges and revenues of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy? Trotsky and Cannon do not tell us, cannot tell us. And yet their position could rest only upon a clear, convincing and reasonable answer to this question.

The position of the opposition is based upon the perspective of the collapse of existing governments, upon the optimistic expectation of mass revolt against the war. It is summed up as: the strategy of the third camp. In this war, the actual war which has broken out and is now going on, the revolutionists must take their stand unambiguously in the third camp, the camp of the workers and peasants, of the oppressed of the entire world, of the peoples of India and Africa, the camp of struggle against the camps of all the belligerent powers and the belligerent governments. Today the troops of the third camp are atomized, disordered and disorganized, scattered through the framework of society. Tomorrow their ranks will close; they will form in great army corps; the popular army of India, the revolting Negro divisions of Africa, the workers’ fronts of Germany and the Ukraine and France and the United States ... But they will do so successfully only if the troops of tomorrow can hold clearly and simply and unambiguously before themselves the firm strategic aim: the third camp, the camp of struggle against the war and the war-makers, for workers’ power and socialism.

Trotsky and Cannon, desperately clinging to a doctrine no longer adequate to meet the test of events, have abandoned the strategy of the third camp. How revealing that even the phrase (used so effectively – after being mistakenly borrowed from the opposition – in putting forward the revolutionary position in the ALP controversy between Rose and the Stalinists) has dropped out of the party press and agitation! They have joined one of the belligerent camps, one of the war camps. In this can be seen the basic defeatism of their perspective (they, who accuse us of being defeatists!), defeatism toward the possibility of successful proletarian revolution in the course of the war. They are compelled, more and more, to argue for Stalinism as the “lesser evil” (their description): this lesser evil is the goal they place before the workers – a fine goal indeed to inspire revolutionary struggle! They must reason in terms of the maintenance of existing governments (what if, Cannon asks in debate, Finland takes over northern Russia?). Everything is turned upside down. The strategic aim of world revolution issuing out of the war is subordinated to defense of Russia. Their whole policy becomes oriented around the tactic of defensism with respect to the Red Army – on the very best account, the part usurping the place of the whole. For the sake of a hand the head and heart are sacrificed.

Trotsky has permitted a frantic clinging to a false doctrine to drive him, in short, to a policy of defeat and desperation.

What the Record Shows

In the article, The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism, we analyzed the character of the Cannon group, its regime, and its present policy. We showed that it is not a principled tendency, but a permanent clique; that its only real policy is self-maintenance; that it on all occasions subordinates political to organizational questions; that in actuality it has no genuine program, but only the substitute for a program – the substitute being usually borrowed from Trotsky.

In the present dispute, Trotsky puts forward the program which the Cannon clique appropriates, and Trotsky supports – unconditionally – the Cannon clique. It does not, however, follow that the analysis which we made of Cannon’s present policy applies also to Trotsky. I wish now to examine briefly the political record of Trotsky since August 21st with the aim of throwing some light on the problem of how Trotsky has reached his present impasse, in which he finds himself upholding an incorrect political perspective, a false analysis of events, and a sterile, cynical and rotten bureaucratic clique. I will draw only upon facts which are well known, and which can be checked at every point.

For more than a week following the first announcement of the Nazi-Soviet agreement – the most startling International shift of recent years, and obviously of the most peculiar moment to the Fourth International – Trotsky made no public statement to the press. He then gave out two short and very general statements in which he did not attempt any analysis or prediction; in fact they summed up to little more than the view that there was nothing much to be said about the agreement. Trotsky issued no statement – so far as we know – on the outbreak of the second world war, the most momentous event in the history of mankind. In fact, he has to this day made no general analysis of the war and its meaning, a lack which has been widely remarked among the general public.

Since the war began, Trotsky has made only two specific predictions of any importance. The first was when the Red Army was mobilizing on the borders of Poland, when Trotsky stated that Stalin did not know why the army was mobilizing. A short time later he was compelled to recognize that the Polish invasion had been carried out by prior agreement with Hitler. A few weeks before the Finnish invasion, Trotsky was preparing an article for a magazine. According to an outline of this article which was received in New York, he therein predicted that there would be no Finnish invasion (that year at any rate) but that the issues would be “compromised”.

The first major article written by Trotsky was the one which was published in the New International (The USSR and the War). This did not concern itself in a single sentence with the problems and prospects of the war already started, but with the most general possible theoretic issues. The second (published in an internal bulletin) was on the class character of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile (and continuing through the present) have been numerous shorter documents dealing with the internal factional struggle, the overwhelming percentage of them concerned with such issues as the character of the groups in the party and their methods, etc. The next long document (the one here under discussion) brought in one new subject: the dialectics; and a new document (the Open Letter to me) on the same subject is now promised. The only specific statements about current events in this document (those on Finland) turn out, by Trotsky’s own admission, to be false.

So far as I am aware, he has said nothing about the taking over of the three Baltic countries. And nothing was said about the taking over of Poland and the invasion of Finland until after these events occurred.

Let us sum up the undeniable general features of this 4½ months’ picture: virtually no specific predictions, and those made disproved by events; nothing specific foreseen in advance; no proposals or guides for action in advance; a minimum concern with the major historical action now occurring – the second world war; a maximum of energies devoted either to general theoretic questions (up to and beyond dialectics) or immediate internal polemic.

This picture has a great political-symptomatic importance. This is easily grasped when we compare it with Trotsky’s almost invariable political record in connection with other major historic occurrences (none of which since the Russian revolution approaches the significance of the second world war) – such as, for example, the German events or the Trials. There, while not neglecting general theoretic concerns or internal factional struggle when necessary, Trotsky has been distinguished over all other political figures in the entire world for precisely what is absent now: for immediate and constant reaction to the events; for exact predictions, so often brilliantly confirmed; for stating at every stage guides for the action of the workers; for illuminating by specific analysis the meaning of actually occurring events. The whole world knows this.

To the present picture, we must, unfortunately, add further elements: Trotsky not merely supports the Cannon regime, but whitewashes it 100% – an attitude which even its most ardent follower in the party could not even pretend to justify by objective reference. Trotsky not merely condemns the opposition, but slanders it, misstates and distorts not merely its views but its very words. Trotsky (for example, in the sheaf of letters of the first days of January) indulges in absurd exaggerations.

Now Trotsky has amply proved by his entire career that he above all takes ideas, doctrine, principles seriously, that he bases himself upon and operates from principles. When we keep this in mind, the picture of these months falls into a classic and often repeated pattern: the pattern of one who proceeds from a theory, who is motivated in his actions by that theory, but where the theory itself is false. Clinging to the theory becomes under these circumstances an act of desperation; and the desperation communicates itself to the actions, even to the very style.

The theory, the doctrine, at all costs. But the doctrine is not in accord with events. Then, refusing to abandon the doctrine, there are only two solutions: to evade events (by treating, say, of very general theoretic questions or of dialectics), and to falsify events to bring them into accord with the (false) doctrine. No intent to deceive is involved in this: it follows almost automatically when one clings desperately to a false doctrine.

Therefore also the opposition must be smashed at any cost. The only vehicle for the doctrine is Cannon (who will accept any doctrine that suits his clique purpose). Therefore complete support for Cannon. But here, too, just as in treating international events, Trotsky must pay a heavy price – and the price, alas, is assessed not merely against Trotsky but against the International and indeed in the last analysis against the workers everywhere – for his false doctrine. To implement his (false) doctrine he finds he can utilize only a rotten bureaucratic clique; but by supporting this clique he becomes an accomplice in and defender of its crimes against the movement.

If we realize that Trotsky proceeds seriously and firmly from theory, and that this theory with relation to the war is false, his present political position, and the manner of his political and organizational intervention in the party dispute – so puzzling and often shocking to many comrades – become at once intelligible. (This of course is not that “class analysis” which Trotsky demands from all Marxists. All that such analysis could mean in his case would be: what social group is aided by the effects of Trotsky’s present policy? The answer is perfectly evident: the Russian bureaucracy. His present policy is a deviation from the direction of the international proletarian struggle for socialism, toward Stalinism.)

The party and the International face in the immediate future the most serious decision of many years. We will either be dragged by a false doctrine, a distorted perspective, and a bankrupt regime into a blind gulf where the waves of the war will leave us floundering and finally drown us; or we will, with however painful a wrench, break out onto the high road, the best soldiers in the one army to which we can give our loyalty; the army of the third camp.


January 10, 1940

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