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Reply to Liberal Critics

A.J. Muste

A Reply to Liberal Critics of Bolshevism

The Position of the Workers Party on Proletarian Dictatorship
and Worker’s Democracy in Light of Recent Events

(6 July 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. I No. 28, 6 July 1935, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Doubt and discredit are being thrown upon the entire Marxist-Leninist philosophy and upon the revolutionary movement of the working class by the policies of the present Stalin-dominated regime in the Soviet Union. When in connection with the signing of a pact between the S.U. and the imperialist French government, it is officially stated that “M. Stalin understands and fully approves the national defense policy of France in keeping her armed forces at the level required for security” and when Maurice Thorez, leader of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of France flatly declares: “Now I answer a question that has been put to me: In case of such a war launched by Hitler against the U.S.S.R., would you apply your slogan: ‘transformation of the imperialist war into the civil war?’ (against French imperialism, that is). Well, no! because in such a war it is not an imperialist war that is involved, a war between two imperialist gangs, it is a war against the Soviet Union” – then the enemies of the working class utter the taunt: “There goes your boast that the Workers’ State brings a new force into diplomacy, into relations between states, your claim that the working class revolution will put an end to imperialist wars.”

Liberals of all shades who had come to have a measure of sympathy for the revolutionary movement as perhaps the one practical instrument for the realization of their ideals are alienated; many of them go back to faith in phantoms like humanitarianism and religion to usher in the reign of peace. Reactionary and conservative trade unionists and Social Democrats who were on the defensive when the Soviet regime and the Communist International were making a clear-cut revolutionary attack on capitalism, imperialism and war, take fresh courage and obtain a fresh opportunity to confuse the workers and to strengthen their hold upon them. Into the hearts of many of the advanced workers strikes an icy blast of disillusionment and cynicism.

Stalin Sows Illusions

That social patriotism fastening itself upon the Second International should betray the workers and lead them to a ghastly slaughter, before they realized what was happening, that is understandable. From such an experience the working class can profit and therefore recover. But if now the International of Lenin succumbs to social-patriotism, calls upon the worker under whatever specious plea to defend the (imperialist) “fatherland,” doubt may well arise as to whether there is any way to save the revolutionary movement from corruption and defeat. “If the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?”

The revolutionary internationalists of the Workers Party in the United States and the parties and groups in other countries which have likewise raised the banner of the Fourth International, have the answer to this problem; and they alone in the working class movement today have an answer. It is not, however, with this phase of the degeneration of the Soviet regime and the Third International that we are primarily concerned here; but rather with a problem closely related to it.

The present regime in the Soviet Union is employing repression and terrorism on a large scale and of a brutal character, not only against those who are the enemies of the Workers’ State or those who can with some measure of plausibility be regarded as such, but also against revolutionists who are political opponents of Stalin and his henchmen. It is not necessary here to produce detailed evidence of the fact. The Soviet press itself caries daily reports of severe measures taken against old Bolsheviks, including recently those who have never had any connection with the Trotskyist opposition, for example, as well as against relatives of the men who have never participated in any political activity at all, as witness the case of Trotsky’s son, a chemist who was permitted to go on with his work for many years after his father’s exile, to which Nathalie Trotsky has recently called public attention.

When organizations such as ours protest against such repressive acts, we are met, and with increasing frequency in recent months, with the argument that protests from us come with poor grace and can hardly expect to get serious attention. We are told that we also believe in the proletarian dictatorship, that we justified acts of terrorism in the period when Lenin and Trotsky were the dominant figures in the Soviet Union, that in our opinion the workers, when they take power in the United States, should take whatever measures may be necessary against those who would desire to re-establish capitalism, and so on. The acts against which we protest are bound to occur under “dictatorships,” we are told, regardless of “the kind of dictatorship” which may exist. Only “democracy” such as we have in the United States provides any insurance against them.

Liberals Find a Moral

Thus the most liberal daily in New York, the N.Y. Post, in its editorial columns of June 24, 1935, reasons:

“The appeal of Mrs. Nathalie Trotsky in Saturday’s Post is recommended to the attention of parlor pinks and Communist ‘sympathizers’. It illustrates the evil effects sure to flow from dictatorship, no matter what its alibi – whether on the plea of ‘halting Communism’ as in Germany or the plea of ‘establishing Socialism’ as in Soviet Russia ... Communism and Fascism are new labels, but the founders of this country knew them under other forms. It was to break the power of a Tory King and to prevent the recurrence of similar despotism in this country that the founders of this country set up the safeguards of the American Constitution, the world’s oldest and still the world’s best ... Communists oppose the Hitler dictatorship but they condone the Soviet dictatorship. Trotsky opposes the dictatorship of Stalin but he would like to substitute for it the dictatorship of Trotsky. The case of Trotsky’s son demonstrates what happens under any kind of a dictatorship – whether Left or Right ... the use of suppression necessitates ever more suppression until rising resentment, deprived of peaceful vent, overthrows the regime. That applies to Russia under Communism as it applies to Germany, Austria and Italy under Fascism. Democracy will yet survive them all.”

In one of the closing chapters of Russia’s Iron Age, the much discussed book by the brilliant foreign correspondent, William Henry Chamberlin, long regarded as one of the most devoted and effective journalistic friends of the Soviet Union,” there is a very moving presentation of the same point of view!

“One among many points of faith common to apologists of Communism and of Fascism is an overweening contempt for civil liberties, which are represented as unnecessary and inconvenient barnacles on the ship of progress. The longer I have lived in the Soviet Union, where civil liberties – freedom of speech, press, assembly, and election – are most conspicuously lacking, the more I have become convinced that they are of vital and tremendous importance, and that their existence or absence is as good a test as any of the quality of a nation’s civilization. The Communist (or the Fascist; their trend of thought in this question is strikingly similar) talks of civil liberties as of the outworn fetish of a handful of disgruntled intellectuals who are unable to rise to the necessary vision of the high and noble character and purpose of the Communist (or Fascist) state. But my own observation in Russia has led me to believe that a great deal more is at stake then the freedom of thought of the educated classes, although it seems rather obvious that culture becomes impoverished when the historian must alter his record of the past, the author must give a prescribed coloring to his characters, and free research in any field can be cut off by the will of an all-powerful state.”

In the Ukraine

“It was during my trip through the famine regions of Ukraine and the North Caucasus that I became utterly and definitely convinced that democracy, with all its faults, weaknesses and imperfections, is enormously superior to dictatorship as a method of government, simply from the standpoint of the common man. Is there any recorded case in history where famine – not poverty or hardship or destitution, but stark famine, with a toll of millions of lives – has occurred in a democratically governed country? Is it conceivable that the famine of 1932-33 could have taken place if civil liberties had prevailed in the Soviet Union, if newspapers had been free to report the facts, if speakers could have appealed for relief, if the government in power had been obliged to submit its policy of letting vast numbers of the peasants starve to death to the verdict of a free election? The countless graves of the humble and obscure famine victims, the peasants of Ukraina and the North Caucasus, of the Volga and Central Asia, are to me the final grim, unanswerable refutation of the specious Communist contention that freedom of speech and press and political agitation is only humbug by which the bourgeoisie tries to delude the masses.”

For good measure, and in order to emphasize the frequency with which the same tune is heard in these days, we may quote from the leading article in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine by Johan J. Smertenko: “John Howard Lawson finds Alabama in the grip of a fascist ‘terror’ because he and a lawyer of the International Labor Defense were placed momentarily under ‘illegal arrest’ and six Communists, also freed after trial, ‘are in daily and hourly danger of whipping, torture, and possible death.’ But he is unmoved by the thousands, slaving in the timber camps of the Arctic region because they will not forswear their religion, who pray for death as a release from their torture.

“Elmer Rice and Paul Sifton cry out dramatically against the soulless industrial system of America and glory in the industrialization of the mujik. The bread-lines of disorganized capitalism stir Edmund Wilson to eloquent rage, but the bread lines of bureaucratic communism are accepted as a necessary expedient in technological development. The peripatetic John Strachey deplores from some thirty lyceums and a half-dozen periodicals that ‘freedom of speech is abused by capitalists in this country,’ whereas in Russia it is merely ‘incomplete,’ since the inviolate censorship and ruthless suppression are exercised only against ‘the remnant of capitalists who wish to see the return of their system.’ (Among the capitalists are the dead or exiled authors: Andreyev, Artzibashev, Bunin, Korolenko, Kuprin, Merejkowski, Tolstoy, and, of course, Trotsky.)

“Thus too Walter Duranty, whose complacent dispatches in the Times contrasted the Nazi blood-purge with Lenin’s treatment of the ‘opposition,’ has been eloquently silent about the oubliette imprisonment and summary executions of the Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev faction. And Waldo Frank, whose burning protests against Kentucky violence almost scorched the pages of the liberal weeklies, does indeed ‘speak in a monstrous little voice’ of these official murders: ‘I realize that the peoples of Russia have their own background and that, it is utopian to expect them, because of their heroic prosecution of a great social cause, to behave in every instance according to our own rules and ideals ... In so far as it (Russia) appears, even to contradict justice at home, it is harming the cause of justice abroad. From the standpoint of this high strategy, if from no other, I deplore the recent executions.”

Answer of Workers Party

Whether or not they are personally disturbed by such questions, revolutionists in the U.S. will have to meet them. If the reactionaries and liberals between them, making use of Stalinist policies and actions, can make the American workers believe that, as over against capitalism, Communism means repression, regimentation, less freedom, personal dictatorship, etc., a formidable barrier against revolutionary progress will have been erected. We of the Workers Party have to defend the assertions of our Declaration of Principles: that the policies of “socialization of the means of production and exchange” which the Workers’ State will pursue “injures only the small handful of financiers, landlords and industrialists whose private control of the resources of the country is the source of hunger, unemployment and insecurity for the great bulk of the people,” that every willing worker can be assured of “a well-paid job,” security against unemployment, and insurance against industrial risks, old age, and sickness;” that there “will be no need for the Workers’ State to impose arbitrary and repressive measures upon small individual proprietors and farmers;” that the Workers’ State while functioning as a dictatorship of the working class against its enemies will assure and continually extend “far more genuine and substantial democratic rights to the masses than ever accorded to them under capitalism.”

(Continued in next issue)

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