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John G. Wright

Jan Valtin: Out of the Fight

(June 1941)

From Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 5, June 1941, pp. 135–138.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jan Valtin’s autobiographical narrative, Out of the Night, belongs to the writings of a lost generation of European revolutionists. The leading characters that pass through the pages of his book are semi-fictionalized, semi-factual thumb-nail sketches of men and women who – in the interval between World War I and World War II – began as revolutionists. Confronted by history with the task of leading society toward new beginnings and a new life, they tried to assume the responsibilities of participating in and guiding the revolutionary struggle of the working class against capitalism. When that struggle was led by the parties of the Second and Third Internationals to catastrophic defeats, Valtin and his friends failed to carry on. Originally, they had gravitated toward communism (Bolshevism) but instead of Bolsheviks they became demoralized agents and dupes of the GPU (Stalinism). Neither Valtin nor any of the chief characters in thisbook proved capable of rising to the level of the historic tasks.

Each defeat left in its wake a quota of deserters. Some deserted to Fascism; others, Valtin among them, to the camp of bourgeois democracy. As against the relatively few who died physical deaths, a great many found themselves plunged into a darkness worse than death, drained of all capacity to struggle, robbed of all will to victory, sustained by nothing except the biological urge to survive. To call the roll of Valtin’s characters is to run the gamut of human bankruptcy and degradation. This is the picture he presents of his generation. Only philistines who expect to engage in great struggles without incurring any defeats would seek to explain the terrible fate of this lost generation solely on the basis of the defeats. To be sure, all defeats take their toll. But unprecedented as were the defeats of the last quarter of a century, they far from explain the tragedy of Valtin’s generation.

They Separated Practice from Theory

The tragedy of Valtin – who in this book rises to the stature of a social symbol – is the tragedy of the activist who never bothers his head about theory.

Drawn towards Bolshevism by his emotions, he failed to develop beyond this initial and elementary stage of revolutionary activity. Emotions may suffice for art, but never for revolution. He engaged in political struggles and yet it never once occurred to him that he owed himself a political accounting. He believed that only “counter-revolutionists,” only Trotskyists bother with such things. He idealized the Stalinist bureaucracy. He identified Stalinism with Leninism, the defense of the Stalinist bureaucracy with the defense of the Soviet Union.

The strategy and tactics of the class struggle, the theory and practice of the class doctrine – Marxism – its decisive importance in his own work and in the destinies of his class – all this remained for Valtin, as for thousands of activists like himself, a closed book sealed with the seven seals of the GPU.

He had the emotional urge to become a Bolshevik but he never became one because he never learned the cardinal lesson of Bolshevism, tested in the entire experience of modern history. “Marxist cadres capable of leading the proletarian revolution,” wrote Trotsky in the very heat of the struggle against Hitler in 1932, “are trained only by the continual and successive working out of problems and disputes.” Bolshevism developed under Lenin only in constant and irreconcilable struggle against the ideologies and programs of the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks in whose ranks there were many sincere, devoted but misled revolutionists. Lenin and Trotsky never tired of warning and teaching the activists that loyalty to principles is the first loyalty of a Bolshevik. Only those who can assimilate into the very marrow of their bones the primacy of the ideological struggle can ever hope to emulate the example of the Russian Bolsheviks. Valtin never learned this lesson, that is why he remained for so long only a cog in the most monstrous apparatus of repression in history, Stalin’s GPU and then became, not a revolutionist but a vulgar bourgeois democrat.

Valtin joined the German Communist party in 1923, became integrated in the apparatus of the GPU in 1926 and served the Kremlin as a loyal and trusted agent for the next eleven odd years until 1937 – when he not only broke with Stalin but with the labor movement as well. His chief arena of activity was in the maritime industry. He sailed the seven seas. He was active in many parts of the world, including the Pacific coast of the United States. He participated in demonstrations, engaged in strikes and tested himself in military actions on the barricades (Hamburg events of 1923). He spent three years in the San Quentin penitentiary and three more years in Hitler’s prisons. Each time he went to jail in the service of the Comintern. He escaped from the Fascist butchers by entering, on the instructions of the GPU, into the service of the Gestapo for the purpose of counter-espionage. In point of activity his experience was intense and varied beyond the common run. It brought him nothing except disillusionment, disintegration and disaster.

He Drew No Political Lessons

Among the events to which he refers in his book are: the post-war crisis of capitalism (1918–21); the German revolution of 1923; the Chinese revolution of 1925–27; the periods of the First and Second Five Year Plans in the Soviet Union; the mass purges of the Comintern; the German events (1931–33) and Germany under Hitler; the Stalinist shift to the People’s Front policy; the Spanish Civil War; the Moscow Frameup Trials, and so on.

Yet throughout his narrative Valtin does not so much as attempt to draw a single political lesson. There is no answer to any of the burning questions. No hint of any desire to seek for a political evaluation of any of the experiences. No matter what happens – there is always a blind, cynical acceptance of the Kremlin’s orders.

What caused the debacle in Germany in 1931–1933? Valtin reports a conversation with Arthur Ewert, one of the Comintern leaders at the time. The Stalinists were then recklessly pursuing the policy of “Social-Fascism.” No united front with the “social-Fascists,” i.e., the Socialist Party which dominated the German trade union movement! No program for a joint struggle against Hitler! The ranks of the German working class remained split at a time when unity of front was a life-and-death issue. Stalin’s policy played directly into Hitler’s hands. It paralyzed the masses. It led, as Valtin correctly reports, to united actions between the Stalinists and the Nazis. Ewert expressed himself in opposition to this false and fatal course. What did Valtin do? “I did not ask myself,” he writes, “who was right and who was wrong.” The fate of Germany, and not Germany alone depended on the answer. In his eyes, it was unimportant. His “duty” was to denounce Ewert to his superiors in the Kremlin.

“My duty as a Communist,” he explains, “was to betray Arthur Ewert, my respected teacher.” Valtin has broken with Moscow but he still continues to vilify the name of communism. If he was taught such “duty,” it was never in the school of Bolshevism. The first duty of any man who aspires to call himself a communist is to fight for a correct political line. The only duty Valtin ever learned, or performed, as a docile and unscrupulous police agent, was to obey. He still helps to cover up all the abominations and crimes of Stalinism by this and many other assertions to the effect that in the rigid observance of “communist” duty is to be found the explanation for GPU treachery, GPU corruption, GPU infamy. It has become second nature with Valtin to think as a GPU’er. With Hitler’s victory there came as usual a change of line, a complete somersault. From the refusal to guarantee the unity of the working class confronted by its mortal enemy, Stalin turned to the acceptance of unity with the “democratic” section of the bourgeoisie, and diplomatic alliances with the democracies. Valtin first learned the news in Hitler’s jail. Through the lips of one of his comrades, also in jail, he reports:

“The Comintern policy has been modified. Now it’s Front Populaire, we defend democracy because democracy gives us the best chance of organizing the armed insurrection. An important tactical maneuver, though many of the comrades here are bitter about having gone to prison for a policy that’s now declared erroneous by Moscow.”

As is to be expected, Valtin himself does not express any “bitterness” or surprise at the change. He raises no doubts about the policy pursued prior to the turn. Nor is he impelled to evaluate the new policy for what it is. He passes on the Stalinist lie that the change involved only questions of “tactic.”

As a matter of fact he accepted the policy of the People’s Front all the more unquestioningly because his own degeneration was in its final stages. In explaining how he wormed his way into the Gestapo, he candidly avows:

“Many of the things I said (to the Gestapo) were not lies, they were conclusions I had arrived at in the self-searching and digging which many thousand lonely hours had invited.”

These “conclusions” were his first steps on the road of capitulation to the democratic wing of the imperialist bourgeoisie – a capitulation he was to consummate later on.

His break with the GPU and his capitulation to the bourgeoisie were two sides of Valtin’s process of degeneration. The fate of Firelei, his wife, whom his superiors betrayed to the Gestapo, served to speed up this evolution of the blind tool of Stalinism into an equally blind tool of “democratic” imperialism.

Campaign after campaign led only to defeats. “Like most communist campaigns,” writes Valtin, “this one, too, left a wake of shattered hopes, broken homes, and misery for its guileless participants.” Each defeat was hailed as a victory.

But why Stalinism led and can lead only to defeats – this was none of Valtin’s business while he himself participated in these campaigns. All the freer does he therefore feel now to leave the reader with the impression that the fault really lies with Bolshevism, that Bolshevism can lead only to defeats.

The Mind of a GPU Agent

Valtin looks back on all past experience through the mind and eyes of a GPU’er who himself remained unaware of the stages of his own degeneration as a revolutionist. To believe Valtin, the German Communist Party of 1923 did not differ essentially from the same party in later years. To the diseased GPU mind the Comintern of Lenin appears as if it were the corrupt, treacherous agency of Stalin. The Comintern underwent a profound transformation. Valtin reports these “changes” as if they were really of slight importance.

For instance, when he is freed from San Quentin in 1929 and returns to party activity, he is warned by one Soeder:

“Be careful about what you say when you meet the comrades higher up. You’ve been away a long time.”

“The Comintern,” continues Soeder, “has changed its face. It has been unified. It is now going like a torpedo. One direction only. No more vagaries. No internal discussion. No compromises.”

“I was to learn,” comments Valtin, “much more about this change of face during the coming weeks. Zinoviev and Trotsky had been purged. Bukharin was pushed away from the helm of the Comintern. Stalin now dominated Russia and, therefore, the Comintern as well.”

Why the purges? Why the complete suppression of internal party democracy? Had nothing changed about the Comintern except its “face”? What was happening in the Soviet Union? Valtin never bothered to find out. On leaving Hitler’s jail, he learned about the Moscow Frameup Trials. He was no more curious and questioning then than in 1929. This is what destroyed him and not the defeats.

Real Bolsheviks, as we have already said, are tempered not only in day-to-day struggles, not only in learning self-discipline, not only in becoming skilled in organization but, above all, in fighting for a political line, and assimilating the political lessons of the past. Only in this way can they inculcate in themselves loyalty to principles and an unswerving devotion to the historical interests of their class. Nothing can substitute for this. The most indomitable will in the world in powerless to compensate for the inability to learn and assimilate proletarian politics.

Without a correct program, without a correct politics line, organizations which appear so imposing in point of numbers, votes, parliamentary seats, agents, resources, etc. invariably reveal themselves under the impact of events to be hollow shells. Conversely, those organizations which in the eye of philistines seemed insignificant and hopeless enter the arena. of history as irresistible, world-shaking forces. But this does not happen overnight, nor by wishful thinking. It comes only as a result of years of gruelling, unswerving political struggle against terrible obstacles and the most powerful enemies. Only in this way can a Bolshevik party be built. It takes time to build a party. It took more than thirty years of struggle to build the party which made the Russian revolution.

Valtin never learned the lessons of the Russian experience. He was still a child when the October revolution occurred. Most people are able to learn only from their own experiences. Individuals gifted with the capacity of learning from the experiences of history or from the experience of others are rare. But in politics as in personal life those men and women who for one reason or another fail to learn anything at all from their own rich, even if cruel experience become invariably transformed into dupes, frauds or bankrupts.

He Lived Between Two Worlds

Valtin dreamed two dreams.

“I dreamt,” he writes, “of being able some day to lead vast armies of workers in the fire lines of revolution. 1 also dreamt of being, some day, master on the bridge of the finest liners afloat”

To many individuals life thus appears as a choice between rising with their class or making a career for themselves in the bourgeois world. There is no bridging the abyss between these two “dreams.”

The international network of the Kremlin drew a great many of its recruits from among those who found themselves caught like Valtin between two worlds: the one, the dead world of capitalism, the other, the still unborn world of socialism. The sharper their sense of personal frustration, all the more eagerly did they accept Stalinism as their salvation and unconditional subservience as their duty.

The masses are confronted with a different choice. Millions of workers the world over must either lead mankind out of the terrible chaos of capitalism, with its bigger and better super-bombs, or endure ever greater slavery, suffering and degradation. The way “out of the night” for the masses is to struggle for socialism.

It was this historic necessity that Valtin translated into a dream. His avowed desire today is to expose the GPU and the Gestapo, in order to save not only other “dreamers” but bourgeois democracy to boot. He has learned nothing.

He does not know that really to expose the GPU or the Gestapo it is necessary to do more than compile a catalogue of their violence and deceit, their perfidy and bestiality, their cynicism and ruthlessness, etc. etc.- It is necessary to lay bare the social and political roots of these organizations; to show what historical forces brought them into existence; to explain whence they derive their terrible power for evil; what their goal is. Above all, it is necessary to point the real way out, to provide a program of struggle against them and the system that breeds all such monstrosities.

This is impossible for Valtin. That is why his book is so suitable for the purposes of reaction.

The enormous publicity which has attended the publication and sale of this book is unquestionably inspired in large part by the interests of the bourgeoisie. They can use much of Valtin’s material for building up a hysteria about “spies,” “Fifth Columnists,” “subversive activities,” etcetera. Furthermore, the American imperialists would like nothing better than to smear the entire labor movement with the crimes of Stalinism.

We have nothing but contempt for those cynical lackeys of imperialism who raise their hands in hypocritical horror at the infamies and bestialities of the GPU or the Gestapo. They want to utilize the revulsion and indignation of the masses in order to harness them to the war machine. The entire history, past and present, of “democratic” imperialism is written in blood and filth, violence and deception, oppression and ruthlessness. Those who, like Valtin or Eastman, tell the workers otherwise are only deceiving them. Still more, they aid all the imperialists to carry capitalism successfully through the gravest crisis in its history since the first World War.

The Stalinists, for their part, have attacked this book, and clamor for the deportation of the author. They “criticize” Valtin not because of the use to which the American warmongers are seeking to put his book, but because it contains a mass of obviously authentic information concerning the operations of the GPU and its role in the labor movement. He names names, cites places and dates. They fear the effect of these revelations not only on the more recent recruits to the GPU and the rank and file of their party, but on the mass of the workers, for instance those in the maritime industry. The Kremlin has good grounds to fear lest the American workers prove capable of thinking for themselves, and of drawing correct conclusions from concrete data which dovetails with their own experience.

Last updated: 4 November 2015