International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International (1990): 50 years since the assassination of Trotsky

A discussion of Marxism with Soviet Students

David North: I would like to give a short reply to the introduction. Our movement, which is the Fourth International, has always been an implacable enemy of Stalinism; and we welcome every step toward the destruction of Stalinism and its legacy. We are well aware of the enormity of the crimes which Stalinism committed against the Soviet people, the millions of victims for which it is responsible. We also know that these crimes were committed in the name of socialism and Marxism. Stalin presented himself as the greatest Marxist He murdered all those who had been in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party; and thousands of Marxist intellectuals and revolutionists who were active in many different fields were also persecuted and usually murdered. Marxism, rather than being an instrument of revolutionary thought, was turned into a sort of state religion. This began with the embalming of Lenin, and from then on Stalinism systematically disassociated Marxism from genuine critical thought.

Therefore, I can imagine that there are many of you who have come to view Marxism in a very negative way. And you should be hostile to the reactionary dogmatism and lies. Young people should rebel against all that and seek the truth.

In considering the future of the Soviet Union, Trotsky always warned that the final outcome of Stalinism, if not overthrown by the working class, would be the restoration of capitalism. Trotsky termed the triumph of Stalinism the first stage of the bourgeois counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. The triumph of Stalin was the triumph of the bureaucracy over the people. Trotsky warned that without a political revolution, that is, without the overthrow of the bureaucracy by the working class, Stalinism—which is based on an anti-Marxist conception of a national socialism, a form of economic autarchy that has more in common with fascism than it had with Marxism—would inevitably produce a crisis which the bureaucracy would seek to solve on the basis of capitalist restoration.

The bureaucracy has no interest in socialism. It’s only interested in its privileges. It fears the working class far more than it fears the imperialists. Today there are hordes of bureaucrats who, having brought the economy to a state of ruin, hope to save their position by selling off large sections of the Soviet economy to the international bourgeoisie. They believe they can secure their privileges by transforming themselves into managers, compradors as direct agents of the international bourgeoisie in the Soviet Union. But the consequences for the Soviet masses would be catastrophic. The real answer to the crisis of the Soviet Union lies in the democratic mobilization of the working class against the bureaucracy. The working class should fight for the destruction of all the privileges of the bureaucracy, the democratic reorganization of the economy in the interests of the people, the liberation of the trade unions from the shackles of the bureaucracy, the elimination of all the rights and privileges of the bureaucracy and the publication of all their sources of income, and the democratic reorganization of distribution. Inseparably bound up with this program is the forging of an international alliance with the working class because, ultimately, the fate of the Soviet Union depends upon the fate of the international revolution.

Q: Do you view Marxism as a method or as a world view, a conception?

DN: Dialectical materialism is the outcome of a revolution in theoretical thought, the outcome of the developments in German classical philosophy. It is a method of critical thought and analysis. It is neither a formula for providing readymade answers nor a substitute for intense empirical investigation. It is a method of orientation. No quotation settles an argument. The idea that questions are answered simply by finding a quotation is a Stalinist distortion of Marxism. The dialectical method, as we understand it, is a means of reproducing in thought, through ever more complex concepts, reality.

Q: How did Trotskyism develop Marxism? Why do you think that there are Trotskyists? What do you think Trotskyism is?

DN: Trotskyism is Marxism. Trotskyism is a Marxism which developed in a struggle against the betrayal of the Russian Revolution.

Q: Some people think Trotskyists fight Stalinists only because Stalin deprived him of power. What is it for and what is it against?

DN: Trotskyism is for socialism, for the taking of power by the working class on an international scale, for the abolition of capitalist exploitation and the reorganization of society on a planned scientific basis.

Q: How will the world be reorganized after the taking of power?

DN: We can’t offer an exact blueprint. But, in general, the working class, having taken power, will reorganize production to meet the interests of the masses and not for the profits of a few.

Q: That’s just a utopia. We have already had socialism.

DN: No, you have not. The first task of breaking with Stalinism is to understand that socialism never existed in this country. The Soviet Union is not a socialist country. In his book, Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky defined the USSR as a transitional society, between capitalism and socialism—a society whose ultimate fate had not been decided. The Fourth International has continuously exposed the bureaucracy’s claims that “developed socialism” exists in the USSR. When Khrushchev came to the United States and said, “We will bury you,” the Trotskyists said that was a lot of empty, bureaucratic boasting. The productivity of labor in the Soviet Union was then, and is still today, far below the productivity of labor in the United States. How can you have socialism when socialism requires the highest development of the productive forces? Stalinism was based on a reaction against fundamental Marxist conceptions. When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, it was never on the basis of the idea that socialism could be built in an isolated, backward country. The development of socialism depends, above all, on the extension of the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries.

Interjector: This is a monologue. This is obvious, what you are saying.

DN: If it’s obvious, then why do you say you’ve had socialism?

Interjector: We’ve already had revolution and the power of the working class. But it did not succeed.

DN: The revolution degenerated. The Russian working class took power in a backward and overwhelmingly peasant country. The failure of revolutionary struggles in Western Europe imposed a terrible isolation upon the Soviet Union, and the development of Stalinism was the political price of this extended isolation. There was the development of a huge bureaucracy. This bureaucracy usurped power from the working class. The struggle between Trotsky and Stalin was the struggle between the working class and the bureaucracy. The defeat of Trotsky, the illegalization of the Left Opposition represented the political usurpation of the power of the working class by the bureaucracy.

Q: But did Trotsky have any real political alternative to Stalinism? Wasn’t he hostile to the peasantry? Weren’t his ideas unrealistic?

DN: I doubt that you have had the opportunity to read Trotsky’s report to the 12th Congress in 1923. In 1923, Trotsky gave a lengthy report to the party congress, attempting to explain the fundamental problems facing the Soviet Union. He drew a very simple graph which became famous all over the world. He showed the comparative prices of agriculture and industrial goods. The ascending line indicated the prices of industrial goods. This descending line indicated the price of farm commodities. In other words, industrial goods were extremely expensive because of the low productivity of labor. The farm commodities were very cheap and they were rather plentiful. The lines on the graph resembled an open scissors; and Trotsky vividly explained the significance of these two lines by referring to the gap between industrial and agricultural prices as the “scissors crisis.” He said as the gap between the price of industrial goods and the price of farm commodities increased—as the scissors opened even wider—the stability of the Soviet regime and the survival of the October Revolution was going to be called into question. Because the October Revolution was based on an alliance between the working class and the peasantry; and if the working class could not provide the peasantry with cheap industrial goods, there would inevitably be a split between the working class and the peasantry. This would have, he warned, a catastrophic impact.

For this reason, Trotsky proposed that the state had to give increasing attention to the planned development of industry to bring the price of industrial goods down and to create a more rational economic relationship between the town and the village. He proposed as well the use of tax policy in order to increase the income of the state. He said the tax policy would have to fall more heavily on the wealthier sections of the peasantry, but he said that this tax policy had to be based on the following principle: that every year the peasant should earn more than he earned the year before.

After Trotsky made this report, the Stalinist faction—which was just beginning to take shape—began a campaign against him for referring to any danger of a split between the working class and the peasantry. They accused him of “underestimating the peasantry.” That was the first great lie. Trotsky said the peasants need less compliments and more tractors because only on that basis could there be a revolutionary development of agriculture and an intelligent, rational modernization of the Soviet economy.

Along with this, Trotsky made the following point. He said the Soviet government had two principal levers for economic development: the short lever of economic policy domestically, the long-term policy of international revolution. That is, that the working class, having taken power in the advanced capitalist countries, would provide the resources necessary for the development of Soviet industry. When Trotsky first spoke of economic planning and industrialization, he advanced very cautious rates of growth. But he said it was absolutely necessary for this to begin in order to prevent a catastrophic split between the proletariat and peasantry. All of this can be read when you get your hands on the Platform of the Left Opposition which was then published in 1927. This was rejected. Trotsky was expelled along with Preobrazhensky, Pyatakov and all the others.

What happened then after the expulsion of Trotsky and the Left Opposition? What they had warned about throughout the 1920s finally happened. The peasantry, dissatisfied with the absence of industrial goods, started to withhold grain from the cities. There was the famous grain crisis in 1928-29. In typical fashion, the Stalinists now turned hysterically and empirically to the left. I use the word “left” in quotation marks. And that was the beginning of the collectivization campaign which was carried out brutally and had nothing to do with the rational development of Soviet economy.

Again, when you are able to obtain them from the Bulletin of the Left Opposition, please read the articles Trotsky wrote in 1930, ‘31 and ‘32 on the catastrophic dangers that this collectivization campaign posed to the development of Soviet economy. And, of course, this catastrophic economic policy led inexorably to mass terror both against the peasantry and the working class and all those inside the party who had opposed Stalin’s policy.

Q: Even if we accept everything you say, what should we do now? Can we now in our present situation alone wait for the outbreak of world revolution?

DN: I want to make it clear that we do not believe that it is a question of the Soviet Union doing nothing until world revolution flares up someplace else. The Soviet Union urgently needs an expansion of world trade. It urgently needs increased economic contact with the advanced capitalist countries and no Marxist would oppose that. To suggest that we believe that revolutionary policy is incompatible with the Soviet Union developing contacts with the West is wrong. One only has to refer to the early years of the Soviet Union where, under Lenin, the Soviet Union engaged in large-scale diplomacy and achieved considerable successes. Not a small factor in these successes was the enormous sympathy of the working class internationally toward the Soviet Union and which was a huge factor in the way in which these diplomatic arrangements were worked out. Every bourgeois government had to take into account the feelings of the masses of workers. The decisive question is: what is the overall strategy which guides even such necessary economic contacts? Are these economic contacts an auxiliary means of developing Soviet economy while at the same time the Soviet Union pursues a revolutionary international policy or are these contacts simply part of an overall policy of integrating the Soviet Union into the structure of world capitalism?

This may come as a surprise to you, but the international statements of Gorbachev are not very different from that which has been made by Stalinists before him. We heard of “peaceful coexistence” and “detente” from Brezhnev and Khrushchev and all the others. In fact, during the early 1970s, when Nixon was invited to the Kremlin under conditions where the United States was bombing Vietnam, this was seen as an act of typical Stalinist hypocrisy which was characteristic of Soviet diplomacy for decades, where the interests of the international working class were always subordinated to the immediate needs of the Stalinist bureaucracy. This policy has reached its culmination with an international policy which is directed openly toward the integration of the Soviet Union into the structure of world capitalism and the effect of this will be devastating.

How is this reintegration into capitalism going to raise the living standards of the masses of people. Have you been following the developments in Poland? The Polish government has brought over Jeffrey Sachs from Harvard University to reorganize the Polish economy along capitalist lines. This has produced almost immediately a real economic catastrophe.

Now, what would be the impact of this policy in the Soviet Union? If anyone here wishes to explain to me the benefits of capitalist restoration, go ahead. But I think that this is a completely bankrupt policy.

We favor other measures to alleviate the crisis. But they take as their point of departure a revolutionary struggle against this bureaucracy. First of all, break the power of the bureaucracy over the means of distribution. Revive Soviet democracy so that what is produced is in accordance with what is needed. Soviet democracy is the political precondition for a scientific accounting of the real resources in this country and, along with that, an intelligent, far-sighted plan for developing economic relations with the capitalist countries—not in the interests of a new Soviet bourgeoisie, but in the interests of the working class.

Q: This would entail a lot of violence. How do you envisage taking power? How do we know that a new bureaucracy won’t appear after the taking of power? Will we not have to kill off all the wise people and put in idiot commissars?

DN: There would be no point in having a revolution if that were to happen. Certainly, having overthrown the bureaucracy, the working class will be able to draw upon the lessons of history and prevent the emergence of a new bureaucratic elite.

The people do not want violence, but the question is: What will be the reaction of the bureaucracy to the demand that their power be removed? Are they prepared to surrender their power peacefully? We saw what happened in China in which unarmed youth and workers were massacred and we know that there have been examples of extreme violence used, for example, in Tbilisi and cases where poison gas was used. After all, this is a bureaucracy that is dripping with blood. I don’t believe that one can place one’s trust in the pacific nature of the bureaucracy and their willingness to surrender power peacefully. However, we have also seen the powerful movement of the miners and the working class in this country and the powerful movement of the working class can completely isolate this bureaucracy and the more powerful the mass movement, the less violence will be necessary.

Q: The bureaucrats are not going to give up power. The new Supreme Soviet is showing that there is no big change, without the exception of glasnost. Glasnost is not freedom of the press, not freedom of the word.

DN: No. This is still a police state. The space between the bars is somewhat wider.

Q: I have a fundamental question. As a bourgeois liberal, I think that all the problems are caused by the working class coming out on the political arena and that is why conditions are so bad in this country. Why do you think that the working class has any revolutionary potential? Can you reassure me that the taking of power by the working class will not lead to a new bureaucracy? And one more question. Do you think that the working class includes more than blue collar factory workers?

DN: Of course. There are many different layers in the working class. As a self-proclaimed admirer of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois liberalism, you should not forget that the twentieth century also included the First World War, the Second World War, fascism, not to mention the catastrophes which capitalism and imperialism have produced for the peoples of the backward countries. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to many different parts of the world and the reality of capitalism is quite different from the one you appear to have. As far as bourgeois democracy is concerned—this is an interesting topic for us as we live in a bourgeois democratic country—maybe you’d like to know about what it’s like to try and sell revolutionary newspapers in the United States, or even to conduct militant labor activity. We sell a newspaper in the United States. We supposedly have freedom of speech. So we take the newspapers outside a factory. We frequently confront security guards who threaten to call the police if we continue to sell. We technically have the democratic right to sell the paper. But the police will come and arrest us because they know it will cost us a lot of money to get out of jail and to get a lawyer to fight this harassment.

Or we may be selling at a shopping center and police will instruct us to leave because the shopping center is owned by a capitalist real estate magnate and therefore private property. Therefore, we have no right to sell there. Over the last few years, our party has spent thousands of dollars getting comrades out of jail, simply for selling the newspaper.

The activities of our party are not reported in the capitalist press, even when we are official candidates in public elections. You only get two viewpoints in the American press: basically, that of the Democratic and Republican parties, both bourgeois parties. When the working class fights to defend its living standards, goes out on strike, the employers have the right to hire strikebreakers. If workers try to prevent the strikebreakers from coming into the factory, there’s a court injunction saying that that’s illegal.

In New York City, there’s a strike presently going on by telephone workers. About two months ago, one of the workers was standing on the picket line. A strikebreaker deliberately hit him with a car and rode over him and killed him. This person, the strikebreaker, was not even given a traffic violation. Not a single bourgeois newspaper reported the incident.

We presently have a strike taking place in West Virginia of coal miners. Eleven workers were arrested. Before dawn they were dragged out of their beds and they’re facing charges on frame-ups of up to 80 years in prison. Bourgeois democracy is democracy for the bourgeoisie, but not for the working class. All our newspapers are owned by multimillionaires and powerful corporations. You’re not aware of this. You think this is simply propaganda. Bourgeois democracy in America is completely prostituted. When we approach these questions, we approach them from the interests of the working class.

Q: Do you think that Trotskyism today is in a crisis? Now you are no longer alone in criticizing Stalinism. Trotskyists were always persecuted in this country, but today we see this unique situation that we confront here. Is Trotskyism in a crisis? How can you interest us? How can you distinguish yourself? What means can you give us?

DN: The events which are taking place are a powerful vindication of Trotskyism. Sixty years have passed since Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union and 50 years since he was murdered by a Stalinist agent. And despite all the persecution, these ideas are once again becoming available to the Soviet people. As Trotsky wrote, the laws of history are more powerful than the bureaucratic apparatus.

Whatever the political confusion, inevitably the availability of these writings is going to produce a profound interest in Trotskyism, and I have no doubt a Trotskyist movement is going to emerge inside the Soviet Union—of necessity, because the political ideas of Trotsky will be vindicated by the test of events inside the Soviet Union today. When you ask us what are we doing, the International Committee is seeking to build the world party of socialist revolution. In all the countries where we work, we are fighting to unite the working class in a single political party on a world scale. The International Committee of the Fourth International is active in North America, in Europe, in Asia, in Australia and in Latin America. Profound developments in the structure of world capitalism are driving the working class to see the need for an international revolutionary organization. Internationally organized capital confronts the working class in every country. Workers in America as well as in Germany or in any other country are finding that it is impossible to conduct a struggle against the bourgeoisie on a purely national level. I believe that in the coming period, and you will not have to wait a long time, it’s going to become increasingly clear to the Soviet people that the solution to their problems requires above all a unity with the working class beyond the borders of the USSR.

Permit me to make a criticism. Let me assure you I welcome every question and criticism you have made. I don’t expect to convince you in a short meeting. You have started asking questions and never let anyone stop you. But if I can make a criticism, I still believe that you tend to see things very much in a simply national framework. This is understandable to the extent that the government has for so many decades imposed isolation upon you. But it is important to see the developments within an international framework and it is important to understand the events within the Soviet Union as part of a world crisis and not simply a Soviet crisis. This internationalist outlook will be profoundly decisive in resolving the problems which you confront. There is an international working class. And there is a working class in America which feels profound sympathy for the Soviet working class. And it is in the working class that the Soviet people will find their most profound and strongest allies. The American worker or the German worker is not interested in Soviet markets and cheap labor. They want the international unity of the workers to improve society; and at long last the conditions are created for workers all over the world to develop real political collaboration. I hope that this will continue and that you will have the opportunity to travel beyond the Soviet Union and critically analyze the conditions which confront the working class in the capitalist countries.

Q: What is your attitude to the unity of progressive forces? Do you work with the Communist Party?

DN: The first problem you have to recognize is that the Communist Party in the United States supports the bourgeois politicians. The Communist Party supports the subordination of the working class to the Democratic Party so an alliance with the Communist Party would be to accept class collaboration in the United States. The question is program. Our party fights for the political independence of the working class from the bourgeoisie. We call for the formation of a mass Labor Party, a party based on the trade unions and independent from the parties of the ruling class. That is completely opposed by the Communist Party. The Communist Party creates completely artificial categories. They divide politicians into warmongering politicians and peace-loving politicians. Basically, that comes from the period when the Communist Party was functioning as simply the political instrument of Soviet diplomacy. There’s no basis for unity with the Communist Party. Our party fights to politically educate the working class in its own class interests. If you objectively analyze the policies pursued by the Stalinists outside the Soviet Union, it’s led from one disaster to another.

Q: Where do you live and work?

DN: Detroit is the political center of the party of which I am a member.

Q: Do you work directly for the party?

DN: We publish a weekly newspaper called the Bulletin. I’d like to show you. This is the last issue before I....

Q: I wish we could publish as good a quality newspaper.

DN: I’ll tell you how we do it. We raise money from the working class. Every month we have a $15,000 fund so we go into the working class quarters. We don’t get money from the bourgeoisie. We don’t have advertisements. This is a paper which is supported entirely by the working class.

Q: Do you really believe with your heart and soul that if the working class in the US takes power, there will be a better life?

DN: Without any question. If the enormous resources of the United States are placed at the service of the people and not at the service of a handful of multimillionaires who control our society, this would lead to an enormous, incalculable improvement in the conditions of the people.