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Albert Goldman

A Fighting Voice of Freedom!

Trotsky’s Teachings Are Not a Dogma but
a Critical Guide to Political Thought and Action

(19 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 33, 19 August 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Like all great thinkers who participated actively in the struggle for human progress, Trotsky left a body of ideas which, in reality, cannot be understood without grasping the method and the spirit of the man. To accept Trotsky’s ideas as dogmas, to repeat them mechanically without comprehending that they must be understood in the light of conditions that prevailed at the time Trotsky first advanced them, is to do exactly what he fought against throughout his whole mature life.

It is contrary to Trotsky’s method to solve a theoretical problem primarily by a system of reference and quotation. It is contrary to Trotsky’s method to assume that he or anybody else was always correct and to argue and act on that basis.

Important to Understand Method

Six years after the assassination of Trotsky by an agent of Stalin it has become clear that Trotsky is not immune to the fate that has befallen all great thinkers after their death. Those who, day in day out, proclaim that they and they alone are the “official disciples” and insist that the world listen only to them show that they do not comprehend or do not want to comprehend the essential method of the “master.” One need only consider the ideas presented and the tactics followed by the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party in the last few years to realize that the formal acceptance of Trotsky’s ideas without an understanding of his method can easily lead to a course that is the exact opposite of what Trotsky would have followed were he alive.

It is, of course, impossible to be certain as to what policies Trotsky would have proposed as a solution to all of the problems confronting us at the present moment. It happens frequently that those who base themselves on the same general method differ sharply on particular theoretical or practical problems. There is and there can be no general method in the science of revolutionary politics which guarantees that those who accept it will agree on all questions. There is only one condition where one can be reasonably certain of no differences – where fascism or Stalinism prevail.


If it is impossible to be certain as to what policies Trotsky would have followed with reference to all of our problems, we can, however, be certain that Trotsky’s method excludes some of the policies followed by the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party. The latter, following Trotsky, hold that we are living in the epoch of proletarian revolution. From this general proposition they conclude that in Europe democratic, slogans are not to be raised or are of secondary importance. It is impossible to conceive that Trotsky would have reached such a conclusion, because he determined his attitude on such a question not alone from the general proposition of the nature of the epoch but from a close analysis of the particular factors which determined the consciousness of the masses at a particular moment.

There can be legitimate differences on the nature of the slogans that are to be used if these differences are based on a different estimate of the consciousness of the masses or as to whether a particular slogan is or is not what the masses want to struggle for. But one does not follow the Trotskyist method if he deduces slogans from a general characterization of the epoch we live in.

His Approach to Current Issues

Nor is it possible to imagine that Trotsky would have opposed (as do the leaders of the SWP) the slogan of “wage increase without price increase” on the basis that it was not included in the program of transitional demands formulated in 1938 or because of a certain formula contained in that program. If the masses, disturbed by a very rapid increase of the cost of living, can be set into motion by the slogan of freezing of prices, no formula would have prevented Trotsky from adopting such a slogan.

With the greatest of confidence, we can rule out the idea that Trotsky would have opposed unity between the SWP and the WP. Were he alive we can take it for granted that by this time there would be unity. For Trotsky would have recognized the obvious fact that the WP is a revolutionary party and that it would be of great benefit to the revolutionary movement if two revolutionary parties were to unite. The fact that there was a split in 1940 is something to be regretted by those who consider it to have been a mistake, but it is not a cause for opposition to unity.

Trotsky could not possibly have raised the present differences between the parties as a barrier to unity because, in the first place, he had confidence in his ability to defend his position and, in the second place, he was completely opposed to any policy which favored the building of a monolithic party.

Of one thing we can be absolutely certain. Under no circumstances would he have tolerated the devious and dishonest methods pursued by the SWP leaders in order to prevent unity. It is above all in pursuing such methods that they have betrayed the spirit of Trotsky.


It can be taken for granted that the question which would have occupied most of his attention is the defense of Russia. What can be said as to his probable attitude? Here we are on more debatable ground. Would he have clung to the formula: nationalized property – therefore defense? It is a subject of interesting speculation.

Stalinism and Defense of Russia

We can be certain only that he would not have been bound by the fact that previously he had formulated a certain proposition with reference to the nature of the Soviet Union and the necessity of defending it. For Trotsky was not one to be bound by a formula. Living reality was far more important to him.

If one takes living reality into consideration one is compelled to recognize the fact that the victory of the Stalinist army has led only to the crushing of the socialist revolution. Trotsky contended that the defense of Russia must be subordinated to the interests of the world revolution. The defense of Russia means working for the victory of the Stalinist army but it is that very victory which constitutes as great a danger to the world revolution as the victory of the armies of any fascist country. Would Trotsky not have seen that the advantages of nationalized property are far outweighed by the harm to the proletarian revolution which the victory of the Stalinist army is sure to bring?

One can readily see the justification for following a policy of defense under a condition that prevailed in 1940, when one could still expect that the war and a victory of the Stalinist army might lead to a revolution in Europe which would destroy Stalinism. But history has proved that the victory of the Stalinist army has been a very important factor in preventing the European revolution. It seems safe to conclude that Trotsky would have started with that conclusion and not simply repeated his formula about nationalized property. The very first principle of every revolutionary Marxist is not to cling to a formula of yesterday.

In the light of the real method of Trotsky one finds it difficult not to throw up his hands in despair when one sees in a resolution adopted by an international conference of Trotskyist parties the idea, with reference to the occupying Stalinist armies in Europe, that the sections should “tolerate the presence of the Red army only to the extent that it is a friendly proletarian armed force having as its objective to guarantee the fulfillment of agrarian reform and the state-ization of the means of production against imperialism and against national reactionary elements, without hindering in any way whatsoever the free development of the working-class movement.” Such nonsense could be written only by people who are slaves to a formula. Alas we must admit that a genius is unable to prevent followers from bringing shame upon his ideas.

They who, like the leaders of the SWP, claim that Trotsky’s program is a “finished program” or an “unchanging program,” have in reality very little in common with Trotsky. They may publish Trotsky’s writings; they may celebrate his anniversaries and proclaim undying devotion to him; they may shout that they are the only real Trotskyists and all others are only “counterfeits.” But this does not make of them Trotskyists in spirit and method. We must remind everybody that the Stalinists publish Lenin’s works with full commentaries and celebrate his anniversaries. But this does not make Leninists out of them.

Far closer to the spirit of Trotsky are they who disagreed with him and still disagree with him on many subjects but who understand that it is above all necessary to follow his method which means to base oneself on the general principles of Marxism and to analyze living events for the purpose of finding the best possible policies in the struggle for the victory of socialism.

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