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James Burnham

Science and Style

A Reply to Comrade Trotsky

(February 1940)


Appendix, to Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, London 1966, pp.232-256.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dear Comrade Trotsky:

I find the Open Letter which you have addressed nominally to me more than a little disarming. It is not easy, I confess, for me to undertake an answer.

In reading it I was reminded of a conversation I had some while ago with one of our good comrades from Central Europe. We were discussing, in that idle and profligate way we intellectuals have, the possible conflicts between the aesthetic sense, the feeling for beauty, and the demands of political action. He told me a story.

A number of years ago, the country in which he lived was going through a period of social crisis. The masses were surging forward, heading, it seemed, toward revolt. One morning, near the height of the movement, a crowd of many thousand workers gathered on one side of the wonderful great square of the capital city of that country. Our comrade was assigned as captain to direct one wing of the workers’ detachments.

The sky was dark blue, with the white morning sun throwing across the square the shadows of the buildings that lined its sides. From the side of the square opposite the workers, the troops of the police filed out and took formation: in straight rows, mounted on their tense horses, equipment gleaming. At the shout of command, in a single swift gesture their sabres were drawn, and flashed in the rays of that white sun. The second command came: forward against the workers.

The instant had come for reply: for our comrade, to launch his wing of the workers into a driving counter-attack. But for a long moment he found his will paralysed and his voice stopped by the sensuous beauty of the unfolded scene. And all that day, while the bitter struggle lasted – more than fifty were killed that day, hundreds wounded, our comrade among them – he could not forget that sun, those shadows, that blue sky, those whirling horses and flashing sabres.

So, too, on this verbal battleground, pale reflex – and indispensable spark – of the battles in the streets, I, when all my will should be concentrated in launching my ranked arguments into counter-attack against your letter (so wrong, so false, so very false), find I must stop awhile in wonder: at the technical perfection of the verbal structure you have created, the dynamic sweep of your rhetoric, the burning expression of your unconquerable devotion to the socialist ideal, the sudden, witty, flashing metaphors that sparkle through your pages.

How unpleasant and thankless a duty to submit that splendid structure to the dissolving acids from those two so pedestrian, so unromantic flasks: logic and science!

Comrade Trotsky, while reading and thinking about this Letter, I recalled also the first time that I had ever given really serious attention to your work: in a lengthy review of the first volume of your History, published in the July 1932 issue of The Symposium. I re-read that review, which I had not done for many years. There, too, I found that I had been compelled to discuss first of all your style, your wonderful style, which in fact I analysed at considerable length. And I saw more clearly than ever before what is, in my eyes, an important truth: that you have a too literary conception of proof, of evidence; that you deceive yourself into treating persuasive rhetoric as logical demonstration, a brilliant metaphor as argument. Here, I believe, is the heart of the mystery of the dialectic, as it appears in your books and articles: the dialectic, for you, is a device of style – the contrasting epithets, the flowing rhythms, the verbal paradoxes which characterise your way of writing.

Comrade Trotsky, I will not match metaphors with you. In such a verbal tournament, I concede you the ribbon in advance. Evidence, argument, proof: these only are my weapons.

The Skeleton Undraped

I will now summarise your argument:

With reference to your own position, you assert the following:

  1. The philosophy of dialectical materialism is true.
  2. Marxian sociology, in particular the Marxian theory of the state, is true.
  3. Russia is a workers’ state.
  4. A tactic of defence of the Russian state in the present war is correct.

With reference to the position of the opposition – or, more exactly, of Burnham who you claim expresses the ‘essence’ of the opposition – you assert the following:

  1. Burnham is a bourgeois democrat.
  2. Burnham rejects dialectics.
  3. Burnham rejects Marxian sociology, in particular the Marxian theory of the state.
  4. Burnham denies that Russia is a workers’ state.
  5. Burnham’s practical politics are ‘abstentionist’.
  6. Burnham rejects Bolshevik organisation theories and methods.

But you not merely assert these individual propositions. You are even more concerned to assert certain connections which you allege hold among these propositions.

With reference to your own position, you thus assert the following additional propositions:

  1. From dialectical materialism, it follows that Marxian sociology, in particular the Marxian theory of the state, is true.
  2. From the Marxian theory of the state, it follows that Russia is a workers’ state.
  3. From Russia’s being a workers’ state, it follows that a tactic of defence of the Russian state in the present war is correct.

With reference to Burnham’s position, you assert the following connections:

  1. From Burnham’s being a bourgeois democrat, it follows that he rejects dialectics.
  2. From his rejection of dialectics, it follows that he rejects Marxian sociology, in particular the Marxian theory of the state.
  3. From his rejection of the Marxian theory of the state, it follows that he denies that Russia is a workers’ state.
  4. From his denial that Russia is a workers’ state (and from 1 and 2), it follows that his practical politics are ‘abstentionist’.
  5. From his being a bourgeois democrat and his rejection of dialectics, it follows that he rejects Bolshevik organisation theories and methods.

So far as I have been able, I have been scrupulously fair in presenting here your central argument. These 18 propositions constitute that ‘unified conception’ whose absence you so deplore in the point of view of the opposition. But as soon as these propositions are made explicit, as soon as they are brought to the surface from beneath the shrouds of metaphor and rhetoric, it is clear that each of them stands on its own feet, that each would have to be proved independently of the others. Moreover, the structure of your argument, of your ‘unified conception’ and ‘explanation’, stands or falls on the truth of all of these propositions. And who, even of your most ardent supporters, would be so brash as to claim that you have proved all of them to be true?

Examination shows, more specifically, that these 18 propositions are either trivial or irrelevant or obviously false or at the least unproved. It would be wearisome, and unnecessary, to demonstrate this with reference to each of these propositions; every comrade has, indeed, material at his disposal to carry out the analysis for himself. I shall confine my attention to only a few of those which raise special problems.

Dialectics as a Red Herring

‘Since in the course of the factional struggle,’ you write, ‘the question (of dialectics) has been posed point blank ...’ How innocent, objective and impersonal, Comrade Trotsky! Dialectics, suddenly, like Banquo’s ghost, thrust its wild face into our political midst, to dismay all sceptics. But, alas, as in the case of all ghosts, it was a very human hand that manipulated the apparatus producing our supernatural phenomenon; and that hand was yours, Comrade Trotsky. Like all good mediums, you attribute the visitation to the working of another and a higher realm – to ‘the logic of events’, the ‘historical course of the struggle’ – but like all good observers, we will admire the artistry, and smile at the explanation.

I can understand, and even sympathise with, your recourse to dialectics in the current dispute. There is little else for you to write about, with every appeal you make to actual events refuted the day after you make it, with each week’s development in the war smashing another pillar of your political position. An argument about dialectics is 100 per cent safe, a century ago or a century hence. Among those lofty generalities, no humble and inconvenient fact intrudes; no earthyest or observation or experiment mar their Olympian calm; those serene words remain forever free from the gross touch of everyday events.

I have participated in a number of previous faction fights, some very bitter, some in which you also were concerned, Comrade Trotsky. Where was dialectics then? How did it happen that no word came from you in those times about the dangers of my rejection of dialectics? Can it be (the suggestion is so banal as to be unseemly in these philosophical days) that the difference has some connection with the fact that in those previous disputes I happened to be on the same side as you? Is the speculation altogether absurd that if, by a chance that cannot be completely excluded, I happened today to be with you and Cannon, dialectics might not have appeared so, shall we say, prominently on the scene?

Comrade Trotsky, I regard you as one of the most competent historians and political scientists in the world. I did so yesterday, when I agreed with you on most points, today when I disagree on a number of very important questions, and will doubtless tomorrow. My beliefs, tolerant scientist that I am, are not at the service of my immediate factional interests. But your qualifications in these fields do not automatically assure your competence also in the fields of philosophy, logic, natural science and scientific method.

I find about 75 per cent of what Engels wrote in these latter fields to be confused or outmoded by subsequent scientific investigation – in either case of little value. It seems to me (and as a Marxist I do not find it astonishing) that in them Engels was a true son of his generation, the generation of Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley, of the popularisers of Darwin who thought that by a metaphorical extension of the hypothesis of biological evolution they had discovered the ultimate key to the mysteries of the universe. Nevertheless, Engels made a real effort to acquaint himself with the philosophy, logic and science of his day, and wrote with this acquaintance in mind.

You, however, serve up to us only a stale re-hash of Engels. The latest scientist admitted to your pages is – Darwin; apart from Aristotle, the only ‘logic worthy of attention’ is that of – Hegel, the century-dead arch-muddler of human thought. Comrade Trotsky, as we Americans ask: where have you been all these years? During the 125 years since Hegel wrote, science has progressed more than during the entire preceding history of mankind. During that same period, after 2300 years of stability, logic has undergone a revolutionary transformation: a transformation in which Hegel and his ideas have had an influence of exactly zero.

You ask me: ‘Do you hold that the progress of the sciences, including Darwinism, Marxism, modern physics, chemistry, etc., have not influenced in any way the forms of our thought?’ But it is to yourself that you should address this question, not to me. Of course I hold that they have (and one way that they have influenced it is to show that Hegelian dialectics has nothing whatever to do with science). How the sciences have influenced the forms of thought no one will ever discover by spending even a lifetime on the tortuous syntax of the reactionary absolutist, Hegel, but only by studying modern science and mathematics, and the careful analysts of modern science and mathematics.

In a most sarcastic vein, you keep asking me to ‘take the trouble to inform us just who following Aristotle analysed and systematised the subsequent progress of logic’, ‘perhaps you will call my attention to those works which should supplant the system of dialectic materialism for the proletariat ...’ as if this demand were so obviously impossible of fulfillment that I must collapse like a pricked balloon before it. The sarcasm is misplaced, for the demand is the easiest in the world to fulfil. Do you wish me to prepare a reading list, Comrade Trotsky? It would be long, ranging from the work of the brilliant mathematicians and logicians of the middle of the last century to one climax in the monumental Principia Mathematica of Russell and Whitehead (the historic turning point in modern logic), and then spreading out in many directions – one of the most fruitful represented by the scientists, mathematicians and logicians now cooperating in the new Encyclopedia of Unified Science. For logic in its narrower sense, C.I. Lewis’ Survey of Symbolic Logic is an excellent, though not easy, introduction. I am afraid, however, that in all of these works you will find scarcely a single reference to Hegelian (or Marxian) dialectics; nor will you in those of a single reputable contemporary scientist – except the Soviet scientists, whose necks depend upon such references, or one or two Kremlin hangers-on, like J.B.S. Haldane, in other nations. The study of these works would be not uninteresting; but I am afraid that when we finished we would be not much nearer the solution of the question of the role of Russia in the war.

You have an altogether incorrect idea of logic, Comrade Trotsky. You draw an analogy between a machine or instrument and logic: ‘Just as a machine shop in a plant supplies instruments for all departments, so logic is indispensable for all spheres of human knowledge.’ This analogy is false. For our politics, the analogy to a machine or instrument or tool is not logic or ‘method’, but the party; the party, the actual party, is the instrument we use to achieve our political goals. Logic is indispensable to human knowledge only in this respect: that logic states the conditions of intelligible discourse, so that we ‘violate’ logic only at the risk of talking nonsense. But no one has to know the science of logic in order to make sense or even to be a great empirical scientist – in fact very few people know logic, which is a highly specialised and, when divorced from empirical knowledge, rather useless subject. Perhaps a clear knowledge of logic (‘method’) will aid someone to make sense, to be a better scientist (especially in highly theoretical science does this seem possible); but experience does not indicate that this happens as often or as importantly as logicians would like to think it does. Otherwise we may be sure that there would be much less unemployment among logicians.

Nor is there any such thing as an ‘unconscious logician’. I read your passage on ‘unconscious dialecticians’ – your peasant woman and fox – with amazement, hoping to discover that the entire section was meant only humorously. But I was forced to the conclusion that you intended it seriously also. By your reasoning, a toad – or for that matter a stone – must be a scientist, because, forsooth, they both act in accordance with the law of gravity! What makes a scientist (differentiating him from a savage or a stone) is not that he behaves in accordance with scientific law – which all things do equally; and if they don’t, the scientific laws are altered to explain better how they do act – but the fact that the scientist knows the laws, and knows them not ‘unconsciously’ (whatever that could mean) but quite consciously, deliberately.

You tell us that workers, proletarians, are ‘naturally inclined to dialectical thinking’. Where are these workers, Comrade Trotsky? It seems to me that you are presenting a very damaging advertisement for dialectics. The only workers I, or anyone else, know anything about are these human beings found in the mines of Kennecott Copper, the mills of US Steel, the ships of the merchant marine ... These workers, in spite of what has been happening in the world, continue to trust John L. Lewis and Citrine and Jouhaux and Stalin, continue to vote Democratic or Republican, continue to believe in capitalism. I think they will change their thinking, perhaps one day very quickly. But I find their thought, for the most part, false or where not false, confused. If this is what you mean by ‘dialectical thinking’, I can agree with you.

In all the elaborated confusion of your new remarks on dialectics, you make only one attempt at an argument in favour of dialectics; and this argument, upon examination, turns out to be both irrelevant and reactionary. ‘All the great and outstanding revolutionists,’ you write, ‘ – first and foremost, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Franz Mehring – stood on the ground of dialectic materialism’; whereas many deserters from the revolution began with an attack on dialectics. Is this weapon not identical in form with the weapon in extremis of all reaction: do you dare to disbelieve when our fathers believed, and their fathers and fore-fathers before them? Has not virtually every single one of us had to break through this very argument in taking our place on the side of socialism? The argument is not an iota more valid when a socialist employs it.

Even if it were true – as it is not – that every revolutionist believed in dialectics and everyone who was against the revolution disbelieved, this fact (interesting as it would be from a psychological and historical point of view) would not have the slightest relevance to the question of the truth, falsity, or scientific meaninglessness of dialectics. These are two entirely different types of question.

You yourself are well able to recognise this difference when you are not subordinating truth to factional rhetoric; indeed, you have often most tellingly insisted upon it. For example: In analysing the Moscow Trials, you (and all of us) showed that the confessions of the defendants could be proved false by the available evidence, by their internal contradictions, and by an understanding of the historical process which culminated in the Trials. The Stalinists replied – and very effectively from the point of view of many persons – by pointing to the undoubted fact that they all did confess. We said: this is a different question altogether, independent of the question of the truth or falsity of the confessions themselves; we also have our hypotheses about why they confessed, but even if these latter are incorrect, it has nothing to do with the truth of what is said in the confessions.

Why Marx, Engels and Lenin believed in dialectics is a problem for psychological and historical examination, and stands on its own feet.

But your account of ‘who believed what?’ is, shall I say, a little incomplete. You turn a couple of pages of somersaults explaining away the awkward fact that Liebknecht did not accept dialectics while Plekhanov did. But how about the Mensheviks pretty much as a whole, Comrade Trotsky? I have always read that they devoted as much or more attention to writing about and defending dialectics as even the ultra-dialectical Bolsheviks. And, much more pertinently: what of the Stalinist theoreticians, Comrade Trotsky? The bibliography of Stalinist writings on dialectics would fill a shelf or two, I assure you. And, very conspicuously, the sectarians. Did you know, Comrade Trsotky, that of those who have been in our ranks during the past decade, the one by far most concerned of all over dialectics was Hugo Oehler? (It was Oehler, come to think of it, who was the only predecessor of yours in attacking me for anti-dialectics during a political dispute. That was over the problem of SP entry; somehow, at that time, you, Cannon, and even Comrade Wright, failed to recognise that your bloc with me was unprincipled and that principled politics demanded that you should line up with Oehler until the ‘fundamental question’ of dialectics was cleared up. Instead, we hung together on the ‘conjunctural’, episodic, merely empirical tactic of entry. Fortunately, we have learned principles since that day.) Isn’t it remarkable that when our bookstore, under its new impulse, begins advertising treatises on dialectics, the list is mostly of Mensheviks, Brandlerites, Stalinists even? ... And how about Shachtman and Abern, whose dialectics haven’t prevented them from going astray with me? Now I naturally understand that all these turncoats – ‘are not really dialecticians’, are just giving lip-service to dialectics, etc.

Can it be, Comrade Trotsky, that the only really real (conscious and unconscious) dialecticians are: those who agree with you politically!

You reproach me as derelict in not taking up arms against the opium .of religion-dialectics. Well, Comrade Trotsky, I will match my writings on dialectics during the past decade with yours against religion (or for dialectics); we are, I suspect, fellow-sinners with respect to our anti-narcotic duties.

Nevertheless, you have placed dialectics on the agenda. Very well. I will debate the question with you. But I will do so only when the two conditions already given in my recent article (The Politics of Desperation) are fulfilled: First, that you make clear what we are debating about by formulating significantly the laws and principles of dialectics. I am not, let me repeat, merely going to juggle words with you. Second, that we discuss dialectics and not utilise dialectics as a red herring to throw the party and the International off the track of the political issues before us.

I do not recognise dialectics, but, as you say, dialectics recognises me. Evidently, if Cannon has a majority at the Convention, this recognition will be a blow on the head in the form of a resolution adding acceptance of dialectics as part of the programmatic basis of the party – if I interpret your remarks correctly, you have answered my challenge on this point even before receiving it. I do not know whether to find this plan more ludicrous or shocking. Let me ask, in an off-the-record, non-factional aside: Whatever the merits of dialectics, do you imagine, have you so lost your intellectual bearings as to imagine, that such a question can be settled by the present sort of factional dispute, followed by a vote at a Convention – a vote, moreover, which would be determined by hard factional lines drawn on quite other issues? But perhaps I can answer my own question, for there is a sense in which such questions get settled in such a manner – yes, the history of the past two decades has taught us how to decide even that 2 plus 2 equal 5.

I return, finally, to the query I raised in my previous article. I will grant you your ‘logic of evolution’, from quantity to quality to united opposites, from the distant stars all the way to your dialectical peasant-cook and foxes. And now, Comrade Trotsky, please, please, explain to me and all of us: how, just how, does there follow from any and all of this the answer to the political dispute we are arguing, a dispute over the strategical orientation of our movement during the first phase of the second world war? Your inability to answer this question – and you will not be able to answer it – proves that your introduction of dialectics is an evasion, a perfumed trap for the unwary.

What Are Fundamentals?

It is a popular illusion of ancient lineage that the ‘fundamental questions’ are those dealing with the grand and often-capitalised nouns like God, Freedom, Immortality, Universe, Reality, Creation, and the like. The churches have always been anxious to sustain this illusion, since these pretended questions, being outside the domain of science, can then be claimed as the peculiar province of the church, and thus the church alone gives answer to man’s fundamental problem. I judge, Comrade Trotsky, from your attack on the opposition for ‘neglecting fundamentals’, that you remain a victim of this illusion.

Since you and Cannon, following the example of Hardman, Oehler, Muste and Jack Altman, have by now pretty clearly established the fact that I am a teacher, I shall take the liberty of drawing for a moment from my teaching experience. Many students who enter my introductory courses in philosophy have heard vaguely that philosophy deals somehow with ‘fundamentals’; and they register for the course with the hope of hearing ‘answers’ to just such questions as I have referred to. To their surprise, and often to their dismay, they discover that their attention is turned to quite another set of topics: they learn to become critical of their beliefs, and how to test them; they learn the difference between significant statement and nonsense; they learn how to clarify problems and how to answer them – when they can be answered; they learn how science has developed and what the scientific enterprise means, what a hypothesis is, how it is .confirmed or refuted; they learn how the vast ‘fundamental questions’ are not genuine questions at all, but requests for emotional satisfaction – and how the abuse of the intense feelings surrounding these capitalised words has for many ages been used by church and authority, by priest and philosopher and ‘tyrant, to serve obscurantist and reactionary ends. A number of the students resent what they have learned, feel cheated in the expectations they had formed of the course (expectations, in actuality, of verbal balm for their wounded and disoriented feelings), and they do not reregister for the second term. But others, and I believe the best of them, gradually realise that they are reaching daylight from a land of mists, and they find a new confidence like a man whose brain clears after a drunken stupor.

There are no fundamental questions ‘in general’, Comrade Trotsky. Within each systematised field of knowledge there are certain principles which can be regarded, from the point of view of that field, as fundamental: either in the logical sense of being the basic axioms, postulates, and theorems upon which the logical structure of the field rests; or in the instrumental sense of being the directing aim or purpose which the field serves. But in each field to which we may refer, there are different ‘fundamentals’.

The only fundamentals relevant to our present dispute are the fundamentals of politics – presumably we are not banded together as a society of mathematicians or a school of art. The fundamentals of politics are constituted by: the central aim, together with the most important means which are regarded as necessary in achieving that aim. Isn’t that obvious? In order to remain members of one political organisation, we of the Fourth International must agree on our central aim: namely, socialism. And we must agree on the most important means which we regard as necessary for achieving that aim: the dictatorship of the proletariat, the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society, the building of the party, etc. What means are ‘important’ and how closely must we agree on them? This we cannot answer in advance; only experience can show us, and the limits of required agreement may vary from time to time. Experience has already shown that persons cannot long remain in the same political party if they differ over such a means toward socialism as involved in the dispute over the revolutionary or parliamentary road; it has similarly shown that they can remain in the same organisation when they differ over such a means as a labour party.

Our basic programme (and the same analysis holds for any political party) is properly speaking simply the statement of our central aim and the most important means regarded as necessary to achieve it. It is this, for example, that, in fact, determines the conditions of membership and directs our activities. In addition, of course, in order to meet the requirements of day-to-day or even year-to-year practical activity, the basic programme is supplemented by guiding statements on means regarded as less crucial or more temporary (labour party, New Deal ... etc.). These, though binding as guides for the party, need not demand agreement from all members, nor constitute conditions of membership.

But what about Marxian sociology (the theory of the state) and dialectics? for it is upon the alleged rejection of the former and Burnham’s rejection of the latter that you condemn the opposition’s ‘disregard of fundamentals’.

In the first place, it is a direct falsehood to say that I, or any other member of the opposition, rejects the Marxian theory of the state. We disagree with your interpretation and application of the Marxian theory of the state; but all of us proceed in our analysis from the basis, among other factors, of the Marxian theory of the state. Since when have we granted one individual the right of infallible interpretation? All of the opposition disagree with your application of the theory to the role of Russia in the present war; some of us (for example, Carter and myself) believe further that the application of the theory to the whole problem of the proletarian dictatorship requires clarification. But none of us denies the theory (though naturally, for my own part, I accept it as a hypothesis, not as revealed dogma). What else but my insistence on the theory do you suppose would have led me to call my column Their Government – a name I selected some time before joining the Fourth Internationalist movement?

However, the theory of the state is not a ‘fundamental’ of politics in precisely the same sense that I have explained. If it is fundamental, it is so from this point of view: that it has been pretty clearly demonstrated that from no other hypothesis can we consistently reach such conclusions as are embodied in many of the planks of our basic programme (rejection of parliamentary road, attitude toward imperialist war, dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.), whereas any other theory of the state leads to different (and wrong) conclusions about the necessary means for achieving socialism. Thus it would seem that acceptance of our basic programme logically entails acceptance of the Marxian theory of the state, though this may not be clear at every stage to every person. Nevertheless, so far as politics goes, it is the programme and the empirical consequences that follow from it which are fundamental in relation to the theory of the state, rather than the theory fundamental in relation to the programme.

But there is no sense at all in which dialectics (even if dialectics were not, as it is, scientifically meaningless) is fundamental in politics, none at all. An opinion on dialectics is no more fundamental for politics than an opinion on non-Euclidean geometry or relativity physics. By claiming that it is, you from your side, and Eastman from his, are alike submitting to the same vulgar and damaging illusion to which I referred at the beginning of this section.

You are wrong, Comrade Trotsky. The opposition is very much concerned with fundamentals, but with political fundamentals. Our political fundamentals are expressed by and large in the programme of the International and the party. We are proposing to revise one section of that programme, just as we have revised other sections in the past; but we propose to revise it precisely from the point of view of the basic and fundamental planks of the programme: the central aim of world socialism and the crucial means which we jointly regard as necessary for the achievement of that aim.

Comrade Trotsky, you have absorbed too much of Hegel, of his monolithic, his totalitarian, vision of a block universe in which every part is related to every other part, in which everything is relevant to everything else, where the destruction of a single grain of dust means the annihilation of the Whole. I am as opposed to totalitarianism in philosophy as in the state or in the party.

It is false that we reject Marxian sociology; it is false that I reject fundamentals in rejecting dialectics. It is doubly false when you try to bolster up your shaky case on ‘fundamentals’ with the pretended story that with reference to the events of the present war, the opposition has had a purely episodic position that changed and veered with every change in passing events – that ‘the tasks in Finland’ were split from ‘our position on Poland’, and so on. It is not we but you, Comrade Trotsky, and much more grossly Cannon, who, since the war began, have confused the party, those who read our press, and you yourselves, with a succession of bewildering shifts in position which have shown nothing but the helplessness of your doctrine in the face of events. Anyone who has read the Appeal knows this to be most blatantly the case. We, on our side, from the time when, shortly after the war began, we saw clearly what kind of a war it was and what Russia’s role in it, have consistently analysed events in the light of a single strategical orientation – which we call the strategy of the third camp, it in turn based upon our fundamental objectives. We have made no ‘principled’ distinctions between Poland and the Baltic countries and Finland; but you and the Cannons and Goldmans have done so, issuing from week to week, self-contradicting analyses and directives. You cannot help doing so, because your central strategical orientation – defence of the Stalinist state and its army – is now in direct conflict with the fundamental objectives of our movement, and you are attempting the impossible – to juggle them both in the same hand.

Your appeal to ‘fundamentals’ is of exactly the same character as your essays on dialectics: a red herring to divert attention from the political issues at stake.

The Namelessness of Science

You make very merry, Comrade Trotsky, over the anonymity, the namelessness, of the science for which I stand. You find it most droll when our document advocates ‘bold, flexible, critical and experimental politics – in a word, scientific politics’. ‘With this formula,’ you remark, ‘one can enter any democratic salon.’ I want no misunderstanding, none whatever and no chance of any, on this point.

You find these adjectives ‘pretentious and deliberately abstruse’. What is pretentious and abstruse about them, Comrade Trotsky? They are words that every child is acquainted with.

Do they describe science or not, Comrade Trotsky? And if Marxism is part of science, do they describe Marxism or not? Is it the word-magic you find lacking? Where is the dispute clarified by calling for ‘Marxist’ politics? The dispute is over what kind of politics, in the present instance, Marxist politics happens to be. And for me, certainly, ‘Marxist polities’ means ‘scientific politics’; if it did not, then I would reject Marxist politics.

But more may lurk here than we have yet brought to light.

Does science as you understand it, and the truths it demonstrates, have a name? What name? ‘Proletarian’ science and ‘proletarian’ truth – class science and class truth?

If that is right – and I cannot fathom the point of your sneers if it is not – then indeed there is a gulf between us.

Yes, most certainly, the science and the truths I stand for are anonymous, nameless. They are the monopoly of no man or group or class, but a common human possession; for them all men are equal. The truths that science tells are as true for Stalin as for Trotsky, for Morgan as for Cannon, for Roosevelt as for Browder. Naturally, the psychological and social interests (including, conspicuously, their class interests) of men may constitute obstacles, even insurmountable obstacles, to their discovering or admitting these truths; but the truths themselves are based solely on the evidence, and the evidence is available to all men.

You are on treacherous ground, Comrade Trotsky. The doctrine of ‘class truth’ is the road of Plato’s Philosopher-Kings, of prophets and Popes and Stalins. For all of them, also, a man must be among the anointed in order to know truth. It leads in a direction diametrically opposite to that of socialism, of a truly human society.

You issue many warnings to the young comrades of our movement. I add an ominous warning to the list: Beware, beware, comrades, of anyone or any doctrine that tells you that any man, or group of men, holds a monopoly on truth, or on the ways of getting truth.

‘I Don’t Smoke ...’

‘Throughout all the vacillations and convulsions of the opposition, contradictory though they may be, two general features run like a guiding thread from the pinnacles of theory down to the most trifling political episodes ... the second general feature intimately bound to the first, namely, a tendency to refrain from active participation, a tendency to self-elimination, to abstentionism, naturally, under cover of ultra-radical phrases ...’

Again the mighty wind of the rhetoric, the sweeping style backed here with the delicious wit of the repeated phrase, ‘Thank you, I don’t smoke’.

The unsuspicious might gather from the mountainous style in this passage that here at last a real point was being established, and that acres of evidence, of proof, will be spread before us to justify the rhetoric. But the analytic microscope is able to disclose: exactly two, two and no more, items offered for exhibit; two taken singly, and utterly unrelated to the hundreds of other items that constitute the political course of the members of the opposition taken singly or as a group. The opposition is ‘abstentionist’ in practical politics because: (a) Burnham was opposed to Trotsky’s appearing before the Dies committee; and (b) the opposition rejects both sides equally in the Finnish-Russian conflict. Even if both specific charges were justified, when they are compared with the cosmic general conclusion, I can only remark with Prince Hal, as he read over the list of the colossal quantity of wine that Falstaff had ordered as compared with the tiny piece of bread: ‘Oh, monstrous! But one poor half-pennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!’

But let us consider also the two items.

There is not the slightest reason for considering the Dies question as relevant to the general politics of either of the two contending factions. Again you proceed from a totalitarian conception, which relates everything to everything, with iron bonds. The NC opposition members divided on this issue; in the ranks, the attitudes expressed crossed the faction lines in both directions. In the eyes of any sensible person, it was certainly a question about which a difference of opinion was natural, and where – assuming that there was a clearly correct opinion – a mistake is to be understood easily as merely a mistake.

But it is surprising to me, Comrade Trotsky, that you are so ill-advised as to bring up this miserable episode in the present context – as an argument against the opposition!

You have a curious way of reasoning. It is in keeping with revolutionary principle to utilise bourgeois parliamentary institutions as a forum. This is not in dispute, and never has been in our ranks. But then you go on to deduce from this that it was correct to accept the Dies invitation; and that, irrespective of results, the decision was correct, and opposition to it was a proof of violation of revolutionary politics. Your reasoning here is very similar ‘to that which you employ in connection with dialectics and the theory of the state.

But our principle does not hold that it is always correct to try to utilise every bourgeois parliamentary institution. That would be a completely absurd interpretation. We recognise that principle does not exclude, for example, our going to court against even a working-class opponent; but we are very cautious indeed in applying this principled permission. We will sit in Congresses, but not always or in every Congress: sometimes we boycott a Congress, as you, certainly, should very well remember. The principle does little more than to leave the question open; the specific decision always has to be based on an estimate of how the specific situation is related to our political aims, and which tactic under the given circumstances will best serve those aims.

When the invitation to the Dies committee came before the PC, the problem was to estimate what the consequences would be with respect to our aims; there was no problem over principle. Comrade Bern and I made one estimate; the rest of the Committee, and yourself, another.

Who was right? One could not be very sure then – it was in part a guess. But one can be sure, in my opinion, now, because now we have the actual consequences to judge by. I was prepared, indeed anxious (as I stated before the New York membership), to be proved wrong. But, unfortunately, Bern and I were proved even more correct than we had imagined.

The truth is that Dies won hands down. That is obvious to anyone who looks at events and not at abstract dogmas.

What were the actual consequences:

In the first place, we were compelled to tell a base lie to our members and sympathisers. This lie took the form of an editorial in the Appeal in answer to Zack, pretending that we had changed our views on the Dies committee because of this, that and the other consideration, when in truth it was because Trotsky had been asked to testify.

The further consequences were that, through the publicity connected with the invitation and the later withdrawal, we in effect gave a partial white-wash to the Committee and its purposes, to the renegades who had appeared before it; we, you might say, legitimised the Committee in the eyes of the radical workers (not of the democrats, who were most of them well enough pleased with the committee for some time back). And we also gave what could only seem as a sample of cynical opportunism in our own agitation.

If you had actually appeared before the Committee, this might have been counter-balanced by your testimony – though, having watched the Committee’s procedure carefully, and the publicity it received, I continue to doubt it. But you did not. Do you think your statement in the Appeal, with its few thousand readers, compensated for all the damage?

(Your way of reasoning here is identical with that which you employ in connection with the invitation to Hook, Eastman, et al. given at the end of our article, Intellectuals in Retreat. Shachtman and I had sufficient wisdom to understand that none of our opponents would be bold enough to accept the invitation – we discussed the question carefully beforehand. When you read the invitation, you, misjudging the men we were dealing with, flew into a panic, and wrote in horror that we were turning the magazine over to the democrats. Experience proved that we were right and you mistaken. And now you have the temerity to accuse us of a lack of political sagacity!)

As for your second exhibit in substantiation of your charge of abstentionism – our policy with respect to the present war. We, you say, ‘withdraw from the struggle’, ‘do not take part in this filthy business’. Here your rhetoric and your content equally betray you, Comrade Trotsky. Your reasoning on the matter of the Dies Committee is of a type so peculiar that I have seldom heretofore met with it; but your reasoning on this second item comes from a well-known, a very well known variety. It is the eternal charge of reaction when it attacks the supporters of the third camp. How many times do we find it in the writings of 1914-18! And today it re-appears from all sides. In this country, The New Leader is perhaps the most skilful exponent, and I particularly recommend the column of Charles Yale Harrison for instances of its shrewd manipulation. How Harrison rips into the ‘pacifists’ and ‘Utopian socialists’ and all the other ‘Idealists’ – you could have borrowed your very phrases from him. You’ve got to take sides now, he shouts; no more standing in your ivory tower! True enough, he takes Mannerheim’s side and you Stalin’s. But both of you now unite in the attempt to hide from the sight of the workers the only side that can deserve socialist loyalty: the side of the third camp. No, Comrade Trotsky, we do not withdraw from the struggle, or advocate any withdrawal. But we are concerned with whom we struggle, and for what. And we will not fight alongside the GPU for the salvation of the counter-revolution in the Kremlin.

So much, then, for the two items of pretended ‘evidence’ by which you bolster your grandiose charge of abstentionism.

But to bring such a charge against the present opposition, and myself in particular, is – apart from your two items – to put things at their mildest, absurd. Without any hesitation, I can say with no chance of motivated denial from anyone, that of all leading members of the party, the charge of abstentionism has the remotest application to me. I am, indeed, almost notorious in the party for trying to find ways of participating in almost anything that shows itself on the political horizon: from Ludlow amendments to elections; from Ham and Eggs to labour parties; from conferences to anti-Nazi demonstrations. If any charge were to be seriously brought against me, it would – and with a certain measure of justification – be the exact opposite of abstentionism. Unlike Cannon and Cochran, I am not one of those who are able to boast about how I never make political mistakes. But my mistakes are not abstentionist mistakes. Even the most sung of my mistakes of the past year – over policy in auto – was the insistence that we had to head toward one of the conventions (Martin’s) as against the initial Cochran-Clarke policy which was that of boycotting both conventions.

In this respect, furthermore, I am not at all an exception, but typical of the leading members of the opposition. During the past few years, it is from them that virtually all proposals for active participation in actions of all kinds have come, as against the passive, negative approach of Cannon-Goldman-Lewitt. This difference is for the most part written into the record of the party. The record of the leaders of the YPSL is most illuminating in this connection. This charge of abstentionism, like your other charges, is the product only of the nightmare you are imaginatively creating out of your own false doctrine, and has no relation to reality.

The verdict on the evidence: Proposition (5), like Propositions (3), (C), (II), (III), (IV) ... – unproved; further: false, utterly false.

What Are the Issues?

The dominant issues dividing the ranks of our party and the International are not dialectics or sociology or logic. To pose the question in this manner is an evasion or a fraud. It is with the greatest impatience and reluctance that I have written on them to the extent that I have.

The dominant, the fundamental issues, in the present dispute are two, one involving the entire International, the other particularly concerning the Socialist Workers Party.

The first is the central political issue. This has been clarified and simplified by the course of events and the discussion. What it concerns is the problem of the strategical orientation of the Fourth International in the present phase of the second world war. It is an issue which every single party member can understand clearly, without any obfuscation from Hegel and dialectical foxes.

The practical politics of every active and serious political organisation is normally governed by what might be called a strategical focus, an axis around which the major part of agitation and action revolves. The Popular Front, for example, constituted such a focus, or axis, for the Stalinist movement during a number of years: the agitation, actions, proposals, analyses of the CI and its sections revolved around this strategic centre. For our movement, during several years, the orientation toward the Second International was such a focus.

Today there are two tendencies in the Fourth International. They are differentiated by the fact that they propose two sharply different strategical orientations, different axes to govern our practical politics.

Trotsky-Cannon propose the strategy of defence of the Stalinist bureaucracy as the lesser evil. It doesn’t make any difference what Trotsky-Cannon say about their policies; this is what it comes down to in practice. This focus governs their major specific proposals, their agitation, their interpretation of events, their predictions (not always, not consistently, but on the whole – sufficiently to determine the practical direction), their weighting of agitation (in the Appeal, for example), and so on. Let any party member re-trace in his mind the events of the past months, let him read the party press and internal documents, remember the speeches and committee proposals; and he will see for himself how an understanding of this underlying strategical orientation provides a clear pattern which makes the events intelligible.

The opposition, nationally and internationally (for the dispute has of course already spread beyond the borders of our party, as it should), proposes the strategy of the third camp. Any party member who makes a similar review of the actions of the opposition during this period, their proposals and speeches and articles, their interpretations of what is happening in the world, their emphases and stresses, will similarly see for himself how an understanding of this opposed strategical orientation provides an adequate pattern and guide.

This conflict of strategical orientations is the central political issue, and nothing else. When once this key is grasped, a decision should not be hard for the membership of the party and the International. Ninety-five per cent of the polemical output of Trotsky-Cannon can be estimated for what it really is: irrelevance, evasion, smoke-screen. The distinguishing feature of the present factional struggle is not the difficulty of the question at dispute – it is an unusually simple and direct question, but the difficulty of understanding what the question is. This difficulty results from the fact that Trotsky-Cannon, standing on a hopeless position, indefensible on its own merits, are compelled to devote their entire factional energies to the attempt to prevent the membership from seeing what the question is.

The second central issue is the question of the regime in the Socialist Workers Party. This question has been thoroughly treated in the document, The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism. No reply has been made to this document; and it is safe to predict that no serious reply will be forthcoming.

These are the issues. The course of our movement will depend on the answers given to them.

Morality and Polemics

Comrade Trotsky, in the course of your intervention in the. present dispute, you have struck such heavy blows against the Fourth International that, for my own part, I am not convinced that the International will be able to survive them. I say advisedly that your blows have been directed ‘against the Fourth International’; from the narrower factional interests of the opposition they have altogether failed of the effect you have intended; the ranks of the opposition have increased and their determination been strengthened as a result of them, and it is only Cannon’s followers who have been disconcerted.

You have done these injuries directly, in your own name; and indirectly, by lending your illustrious name as a cloak for the rotten clique of Cannon.

You have elected to defend a false theory and a wrong policy; and to stand as attorney for a cynical group of small-time bureaucrats. No one can choose such a course and hope to avoid its consequences; as evidenced by your recent articles and letters, these consequences step by step are swamping you.

The truth can only destroy a false doctrine; and therefore you are compelled to evade the truth, and to hide it.

To evade the truth? Witness: Your systematic failure to take up the actual problems posed not only by the opposition but by the realities of the war. Your unscrupulous dragging in of dialectics as a polemical manoeuvre. Your endless discussions of everything under the sun – except the actual issues which the party is facing.

To hide the truth? Yes: Your failure to mention, even, that a belief in dialectics has been professed by Stalinists, Mensheviks, sectarians and others among the enemies of the proletarian revolution. Your never saying a word about property relations in the three Baltic countries which are now Stalin’s provinces. Your failure to say a word about the shifts and contradictions in the policy of Cannon toward the war, as shown in committee votes and Appeal articles from the days of Poland onward. Your silence, your so very diplomatic silence, on the specific charges which the opposition has brought against the Cannon clique.

At the very beginning of the struggle, you made not the slightest effort to discover what the position of the opposition was; at every stage you have made no effort to verify a single report relayed to you by Cannon and his followers. In your documents you have not once tried to present fairly the position of the opposition, but have invariably given a carefully distorted account of its position – in direct contrast to us, who have always used the most scrupulous care in trying to show exactly what your position is (precisely because only in that way can the membership be genuinely educated). Similarly, on a broader scale, you have distorted what is happening in the war. You attribute to me a position on Russia, on Marxian sociology, in philosophy, which does not have the slightest resemblance to that which I actually hold, and which is well known to you. In your Open Letter you have gravely distorted the history of the relations between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks to accord with your immediate polemical aim.

The distortions breed offspring in their own image. In your article, A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition ..., you discovered a non-existent civil war going on in Finland. Then, in later articles, you have tried to get out of the bad hole you had dug for yourself by denying you had said what you said, by giving it another significance than that contained in the clear words of your first statement. You invented an origin in the Communist Party for ‘the Abern group’, and make no effort to abandon the invention now that it has been undeniably disproved. You wrote of the opposition’s resolution on Finland, ‘As to just how these three “concrete” circumstances (in Finland and Russia) will be “taken into account”, the resolution doesn’t give the slightest inkling ...’, when the very next lines of the resolution outline the answer to this very problem.

Your defence of a false doctrine drives you away from the truth; your defence of a bureaucratic clique compels you toward the methods of such a clique. When in the history of our movement was a more infamous, and more gratuitous, slander introduced than that footnote to the letter signed ‘Rork’ (on the ‘press’), where the opposition is so clearly linked with ‘Stalinist influence’? Where is there a record of a more disloyal sneer than the one you direct against Abern (who has devoted his entire life to the movement) on the basis of a remark falsely attributed to him by the gossips of the Cannon clique?

You sin more grievously than you even understand, Comrade Trotsky. In a cheap manner you twice grimace at Shachtman for trying to ‘conduct the revolution’ from ‘the Bronx’. Not merely are you here appealing to a usual reactionary provincialism, directed against the metropolis. Do you know what further meaning ‘the Bronx’ has in this country, Comrade Trotsky? Do you know that to nearly every American it means not only a New Yorker, but a Jew? And are you so naive as to think that our party – yes, even our party – is altogether immune to influence from such an association? The weapons you are now using have a fearful habit of back-firing.

You attribute to the opposition a practice of gossip and scandal-mongering. This is simply another of your ‘deductions’ from your airy theory: the opposition is petty-bourgeois; petty-bourgeois individuals go in for gossip; therefore the opposition gossips. Now I will not pretend that in a long faction fight either side can avoid completely a certain amount of personal gossip; to gossip seems to be a fairly general human trait. However, to state that the opposition uses gossip as a method is simply false, like so much else of what you say with no evidence whatever. It is not the opposition, but the Cannon clique which employs gossip as a tool, an instrument in the struggle, and, furthermore, its chief instrument. For some while, even before the present faction struggle began, it has been systematically corrupting the minds of its followers by the circulation of the vilest personal gossip. This is today its main stock in trade.

I find it revealing in the extreme that the structure of your Open Letter is draped around three tit-bits of gossip – all naturally unverified – in which remarks are assigned to myself, to Abern, and to Shachtman. This is symptomatic. The truth is that your Open Letter, in spite of its pretentious theorising and its grandiose rhetoric, is in reality only a kind of apotheosis, a super-sophisticated rendering, of the gutter-gossip of the Cannon clique. Stripped of its irrelevancies, this is what your Open Letter comes down to: Shachtman is a clownish and superficial Bronx intellectual; Abern a sly and treacherous intriguant; Burnham a professor. You deal with the ‘dialectical’ variations on these themes. The Cannon hangers-on provide the juicy filling that makes them so tasty a side-dish for evening coffee.

From what source springs this unending reiteration of ‘academic’, ‘school bench’, ‘professor’, ‘pedant’, ‘democratic salon’ ...? I have met this often before, Comrade Trotsky, in political struggle; and without any exception it has been a mark of reaction.

Please don’t try to tell me that even the gossip of the Cannon clique represents, in a somewhat distorted form, a ‘healthy’ and ‘progressive’ response of the ‘proletarian rank-and-file’. We know too well the originators of this gossip, and how close they are to being ‘healthy proletarians’. The proletariat does well, I grant you, to distrust petty bourgeois, very much including intellectuals and professors. This is in particular true where it is a question of personnel, of organisational leadership. But this does not in the least alter the reactionary character of making, as you do, the sly introduction of appeals to this feeling the central focus of your attack on our position, our arguments, our policy. In the actual context of the actual struggle, these appeals to anti-metropolitan, anti-intellectual prejudices have exclusively reactionary effects; they pander to backward provincialism, to anti-theoretical, anti-political even, bias. And these effects will be felt beyond the close of the present fight. Yes, they will plague you in months and even years to come when the political disintegration already well on its way among the Cannon forces reaches maturity. Perhaps even you will be discovered to be an intellectual and a big-city man, Comrade Trotsky.

A large section of the Cannon clique – especially its articulate spokesmen – are already deeply sunk in cynicism. They have no perspective beyond their votes. This mood expresses itself in the acceptance of the principle: ‘Anything goes!’ They act in accordance with this principle. Lies, slanders, gossip, denunciation, contradictions, brutality, fake indignation, rhetoric turned on and off with an actor’s spigot ... Anything goes! I watched these manifestations with dismay at, for example, the New York City convention. And they do more than corrupt the members of the Cannon clique itself. Many comrades came to me during the course of the New York City convention and remarked that they ‘were certainly learning a lot about politics through the faction fight’; alas, the lesson that Cannon and Cochran and Lewitt and Gordon were teaching them was the lesson of ‘anything goes’. You have done nothing to counter-act that lesson.

You attempt to turn aside all criticism of your ‘methods’ by two devices: You say that all who mention methods do so because they are losing on the field of political principles. You say that anyone who objects is doing so from the point of view of God or the Kantian categorical imperative or ‘the eternal norms of petty-bourgeois morality’. This is sometimes, even often, the case. But I have no intention of remaining silent about the methods you are now using out of any fear of being called a petty-bourgeois. My moral norms are not drawn from either religion or Kant, and we have refuted your present political policy with arguments and evidence, with a finality that I do not expect you even to try to challenge on its merits.

Yes, I judge a political struggle morally as well as politically. Socialism is a moral ideal, which reflective men choose deliberately, by a moral act. Cold and sober scientific analysis convinces me that this ideal dictates an appropriate morality which must govern the struggle for it. Just as we say that the white man cannot be free while the black man is enslaved, so a social order based upon truth and freedom and loyal cooperation cannot be won by those who in their relations with each other base their methods of action on lies and disloyalty and slander. It is dangerous to have a false political policy. But it need not be fatal: for the policy can be changed, if a critical, democratic and loyal morale prevails, when experience makes clearer the need for change. But it is disastrous if the very springs of action are poisoned.

You conclude your letter on a strange note, Comrade Trotsky.

‘If,’ you say to me, ‘we can arrive at an agreement with you on the basis of these principles, then without difficulty we shall find a correct policy in relation to Poland, Finland, and even India. At the same time, I pledge myself to help you conduct a struggle against any manifestation whatsoever of bureaucratism and conservatism ...’

In the face of the events of these past months, you will understand why such a pledge can carry little weight for me. As to agreement on principles: There is only one way in which such agreement is possible for me – when I am convinced that my principles are wrong, and others are right. And I am afraid that the metaphors, even of a Shakespeare, would not be enough to convince me.

February 1, 1940



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