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Albert Gates

The Heritage of Leon Trotsky

And the Role of the Workers Party

(19 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 33, 19 August 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

“Is the Workers Party a Trotskyist organization and is Labor Action a Trotskyist paper?” The question is one that is often asked us, and the answer to it is: Yes! The question, however, deserves a fuller answer than that, and it is the intention of this article as well as others that appear in this issue of Labor Action to supply that answer.

It is, for example, well known that there were serious differences of opinion, notably on the “Russian Question,” between comrade Trotsky and the members of the Workers Party. We were sharply criticized by comrade Trotsky, and criticized him in return. Yet we consider ourselves Trotskyists. Only two groups find this a strange phenomenon. Oddly enough they consist of opposites. One group is so staunchly Trotskyist, it would distort Trotsky’s ideas into an uncritical cult, and excommunicate all dissenters. The other group, considerably more amorphous, is so preoccupied with preening its “democratic” feathers as against the “bureaucratism” of Leninism-Trotskyism, that it finds itself unable to tolerate a difference of opinion between revolutionists. Thus, one group contradicts the very essence of Trotskyism through canonization of the great revolutionist. The other distorts his work and teachings through ignorance or deliberate falsification, as the case may be, and so justifies its own escape from revolutionary politics into the miscellaneous swamps of utopianism, liberal mumbo-jumbo and worse.

Many men and women have contributed to the great body of socialist theory. Among these certain names stand out for their exceptional contributions – for example, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who built the massive foundations of scientific socialism, or the beloved leader of the Russian Revolution, Lenin. There are others as well, giants who in knowledge, practice, and organization advanced the revolutionary movement immeasurably: for example, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht. Leon Trotsky is one of these. Each of these was a creative contributor to the edifice of socialist theory and organization, and from them we have learned, as well by their disagreements as by their agreements, the method and meaning of Marxian principles and investigation.

Trotsky’s Great Struggle Against Stalin

In the struggle that Trotsky waged against the gravedigger of the revolution, Stalin, until a Stalinist assassin struck him down at his work table, the revolutionary program was pitted against a counter-revolutionary distortion of that program. Issues of tremendous historic importance, both inside and outside of Russia were at stake, and from the pen of Trotsky came documents fired with a brilliance of Marxian Leninist theory, emphasizing and elaborating the basic revolutionary principles of the communist movement. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of each of these historic issues: the problems of Russian economy, the nature of party democracy, the Lessons of October as they were related to the struggle of the working class outside of Russia, the problem’s of the Chinese Revolution, the struggle against fascism, and many others. Nor is this the place to discuss Trotsky’s elaboration of Marx’s theory of the Permanent Revolution which had the most intimate bearing on the development of the revolutionary movement, especially in the “backward” countries such as China. It is enough to say that the Trotskyist tendency was characterized by the firmness of its internationalist convictions, its struggle for a democratic regime in the party, and its application of independent Marxian analysis to the multiple problems of our day.

We were allied with Trotsky, as members of the same movement, in his struggle against Stalin. Many of us who are now members of the Workers Party helped to build the first Trotskyist organization in the United States, the Communist League of America. Today, in the Workers Party, the revolutionary principles as enunciated by Trotsky form the framework of our program, and serve us as a guide in the interpretation of new problems. Those of you who are most familiar with our history know that the Workers Party grew out of a split in the Socialist Workers Party in 1939–1940. We are not concerned here with the nature of the regime (Cannon’s) that provoked the split. The principal issue in dispute was the defense of Russia: should revolutionists defend or not defend Russia under any conditions. We said no. Trotsky, and with him the majority of the SWP, said yes.

Our Differences With Him

Trotsky based his position on the argument that Russia was a degenerated workers state. Our party, after an intense discussion, arrived at the conclusion that Russia was not a workers state, and at our second national convention in 1941 adopted the position that Russia was a bureaucratic collectivist state, the unique phenomenon of a bureaucracy that had succeeded in destroying the revolution and taking over the state power in a country where the working class had vanquished capitalism and nationalized property.

Trotsky defended his position on the premise that the distinguishing feature of a workers state was nationalized property; but, since the party and other instruments of working class control had been destroyed by the Stalinist bureaucracy, he called this a DEGENERATED workers state. We argued that nationalization without workers’ control was not socialist in quality, that working class democracy was essential to a workers’ state for it operated according to different historical principles from a capitalist state. Though in his last major works, The Revolution Betrayed and others, Trotsky conceded that a new type of state, neither capitalist nor working class, was theoretically conceivable, he maintained to the end that Russia was a degenerated workers state. (For a fuller exposition of this point, see Max Shachtman’s essay in The New Course.)

It is idle speculation to question what would have been the development of Trotsky’s views, whether the new crimes of Stalin would have led him to a new policy as the Stalinist crimes in the Germany of 1930 to 1934 led him to a new policy then: to call for the formation of a new revolutionary international, the Fourth.

The fact remains that up to the time of the assassin’s blow, Trotsky had not changed his position, and that in the course of presenting his position he polemized very sharply against us. But the fact also remains that the bases of our analyses of Russia and Stalinism, which we have developed far beyond any point stated by Trotsky himself, derive from the direction he gave us in his series of brilliant interpretations. In no sense is this meant by way of minimizing our differences; quite the contrary, the difference was a grave one for it involved what is, after all, one of the fundamental questions of our epoch: the nature of Russia and Stalinism.

The Spirit of Trotskyism

Now, it is possible to reduce the man to a saint, and cheapen his works into oracular texts. The Socialist Workers Party does precisely that. The sum of their understanding goes no further than the specific lines written by Trotsky; thus, if Trotsky wrote one thing based on the events of 1936 it is impossible to amend that view, or revise it, in the light of the events of 1946. To us, that is the very opposite of Trotskyism, and defeats its ends. It is, in short, a revolting spectacle that defies the very spirit of the man’s life and work. No man in our generation was more proud than Trotsky in his devotion to Lenin’s teachings. Yet, in the great days that followed the Russian Revolution, Trotsky did not hesitate to take issue with Lenin. Did that make him less of a Leninist? Hardly. How Trotsky flayed those who stifled the meaning of Leninism by converting Lenin into a sacrosanct figure! In this connection, it is worth our while to reread Trotsky’s earliest major polemic against the depredations of the bureaucracy in Russia, The New Course (recently republished by the Workers Party). What is The New Course, if it is not a plea for critical, creative thinking in a democratic party atmosphere? Without that there is stultification – and the party is destroyed in the grip of bureaucratic ignorance. The great revolutionists themselves, Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, invariably turned away with horror and distaste from those misguided followers who considered it sufficient to repeat their “lessons” by rote, as though Marxism were some bodyless catechism.

Consult The New Course again, and you will find that it is an unanswerable argument against monolithism in the party, that is against the self-destructive idea (for a revolutionary party) that all must share the same view, that differences of opinion on matters of policy are impermissible. In that respect too, those who stand on the virtue of their “official” Trotskyism, while creating a monolithic regime in the party, contradict what is to us of the Workers Party a salient characteristic of Trotskyism. By way of illustration, we gladly acknowledge the existence in our party of comrades who hold different points of view on Russia, including Trotsky’s point of view.

It is precisely because we take a creative analytical approach to the problems of our day, and the interpretation of historical events, that we call ourselves Marxian revolutionists and Trotskyists. We study the writings of these great teachers; and we study their method. How did they tackle this problem? How did they judge this situation? The method of applying to the class struggle, internationalist principles is of the Utmost importance. So applying this method, we worked out our policy on the “national question” in Europe – the necessity for raising once more to the foreground, in the particular situation of Nazi occupation and allied occupation that followed it, democratic slogans, slogans for national liberation. Trotsky may have agreed with us; he may have disagreed with us; it is conjecture in any case. What we do know is that we approached the new problem created in Europe during and after the war, armed with revolutionary principles which served us as instruments of analysis and decision.

The Transitional Program

Among Trotsky’s greatest contributions as leader of the Fourth Internationalist movement, was his development of the “transitional program.” This program is incorporated into our Party program. Not word for word, nor line by line. As Trotsky intended it should be, we have applied it according as the situation demanded, amplified it; interpreted it in the context of our problems. This transitional program, which Trotsky put forward in a document of monumental insight, The Death Agony of Capitalism, was intended to bridge the gap between the politically conscious level of the masses of the world today and their historical future in a socialist society; its purpose was to advance slogans of a qualitatively higher social level than immediate demands that pose the necessity for fuller revolutionary socialist action. The Death Agony is magnificent in its revolutionary vision; but to bow before each of its formulations as holy writ is to make of it a shabby caricature out of keeping with its author and its intent. The Workers Party understands the transitional program as a weapon for the socialist reconstruction of society, and we utilize it against the bankrupt system of capitalism as the situation dictates. Thus we have given prominent place in our transitional program to what we have called the GM Program, though the struggle of the GM strikers and the demands that issued from it, occurred long after the Death Agony was written.

Revolutionary socialism is the most vital of all political philosophies, constantly refreshed by the experience of the working class and the application of Marxian theory. Certain principles we consider basic; without them there is no revolutionary perspective: class struggle as against class collaboration, working class internationalism, anti-imperialist war, the building of the revolutionary party, and others of equal meaning. It is necessary to study these principles, to seek them in the writings of the great revolutionist and in the record of their work. They are the principles upon which we stand in the struggle against capitalist rule and Stalinist reaction. We will not tolerate class collaborationism or social patriotism in our ranks, though we welcome REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALISTS regardless of this, that or the other differences in approach or policy. As revolutionary socialists we are partisans of the Trotskyist movement, dedicated to building the international revolutionary movement, proud allies of the great teacher, Leon Trotsky.

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