Leon Trotsky
In Defense of Marxism


Between the founding of the Fourth International in 1938 and his death in 1940, Trotsky made a number of invaluable contributions to Marxist theory. Writing on the coming world war, on the defense of the conquests of the October Revolution against imperialism and against the Stalinist bureaucracy, on the integration of the trade unions into the capitalist state, Trotsky deepened the characterization of the epoch which he had made in the founding program of the Fourth International, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.” Lenin had called imperialism “the highest stage of capitalism,” an era of wars and revolutions. Trotsky based himself on this historical view of the tasks of the proletariat. Mankind’s productive forces had begun to stagnate, and society was consequently threatened with the destruction of civilization itself; this crisis of humanity could be resolved only by proletarian revolution. However, for the proletariat to successfully conquer power, the crisis of leadership within the working class must be resolved: the Fourth International would be built only in the course of implacable struggle against the established social-democratic and Stalinist leaderships, both now gone over to the camp of counterrevolution.

The construction of this alternative leadership, and all the problems involved in it, constitute the essence of Trotsky’s struggle. It was a task undertaken, necessarily, in a period initiated and characterized by defeats for the proletariat and victories for the blackest reaction, particularly in Germany and Spain. The same crisis that produced Fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain, and strengthened the parasitic bureaucracy within the degenerated workers’ state in the USSR, produced many varieties of the politics of disorientation among the pettybourgeois of the “democratic” countries. Tossed between the fascist ruthlessness of finance capital on the one hand and the potential power of the proletariat on the other, they were prey to the superficial attractions of “popular fronts,” which embraced all lovers of democracy, regardless of class interest. Insofar as the working-class parties were included in such fronts, it was through the middle-class apparatus that controlled them. The spate of so-called proletarian culture in the thirties was an attempt by the left middle-class intelligentsia to tailor the working class and its strength to the demands of this “democratic” alliance. It was permissible to extol the strength and vitality of the working class, but it was a sin to mobilize it independently for revolution.

The Fourth International of Trotsky was naturally anathema to the vast majority of these petty-bourgeois intellectuals and their bureaucratic allies. Lawyers, historians, scientists and literary men alike found no difficulty in accepting the falsifications of the Moscow trials, in which Trotsky and the whole Bolshevik “old guard” were “proved” to be imperialist and fascist agents of long standing. But in the course of Trotsky’s battle against the Stalinist bureaucracy, a number of intellectuals of the left were attracted to his ideas, and participated in the work of the early groups, which eventually were to form the Fourth International. The Trotskyist criticism of the abuses of Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR and in the Communist International enabled many of these individuals to square their socialist convictions with the degeneration of the workers’ state and the betrayals of the international communist movement. At the same time, the brilliant contributions of Trotsky in many fields impressed them, in contrast with the leaden orthodoxy that had overtaken all spheres of Marxist scholarship at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

For the most part, those won on this sort of basis turned out to be accidental figures who made only fleeting contributions to the work of the Left Opposition and the Fourth International. The essence of Trotsky’s fight evaded them. To learn how to criticize the abuses of Stalinism was one thing, but to do this consistently in the context of defending the gains of the October Revolution was another. Such defense was possible, and is still, only by the method of proletarian revolution. The construction of new, revolutionary parties for the social revolution in the capitalist countries, and for the political revolution against the bureaucracy in the degenerated workers’ state—this task was to prove the dividing line for the professed supporters of Trotsky. The first year of the Second World War posed the question more decisively than ever before. Stalin had signed his pact with Hitler; Soviet troops were in Poland and Finland; the Communist parties of the world were making propaganda against the French and British imperialists but less against the German imperialists. Consequently there was a hysterical reaction from the “democratic” middle-class intelligentsia which had until now accepted the line of “unity” of Communists, peace-lovers and democrats against Hitlerism. In this “democratic” milieu, many who had previously had to stand forth with criticisms of Stalinism had the duty to defend the USSR, despite the policies of Stalin. But they found the pressure of their professional surroundings stronger than the necessities of the historic struggle for the political independence of the working class. Like the erstwhile “allies” of the working class in the “popular fronts” they found it necessary to condemn unconditionally the actions of the Kremlin, and eventually to support the war of the “Western democracies” against fascist Germany and Italy, which were sustained by the Stalin-Hitler pact. For a brief interim period they talked, like Burnham and Shachtman, about a “third camp”—what Trotsky called “the camp of the stampeding pettybourgeois!”In Defense of Marxism is the record of Trotsky’s writings against a group of these capitulators who raised the flag of opposition in the Socialist Workers Party (USA) in 1939. The leading exponent of the views of this opposition was James Burnham, later to achieve fame as the author of The Managerial Revolution, and notoriety as an open advocate of atomic war against the USSR. In fact, The Managerial Revolution was based upon the theories expounded already in 1933 by Bruno Rizzi. His book, La Bureaucratisation du Monde (The Bureaucratization of the World) is referred to by Trotsky in the discussion contained in the present volume. Burnham added nothing but a hastily gathered series of impressions in the intervening years. Recently, scholarly investigators in Europe have been painstakingly rediscovering the resemblance between the two books, after two decades during which sociologists and political “scientists” had come to treat The Managerial Revolution as some sort of gospel. Lenin was not wrong when he insisted, sixty years ago, that the weakness and near-disintegration of bourgeois ideology necessitated the existence of revisionism within the Marxist movement. Only this would be able to provide the rationalizations necessary to capitalism in the epoch of wars and revolutions.

It is his struggle against this revisionism and for the continuity of revolutionary Marxism that constitutes the essence of this book by Trotsky. For the building of the Fourth International, and particularly of a section inside the USA, this fight against revisionism necessitated a return to the fundamental basis of Marxism, dialectical materialism. Burnham and Shachtman protested violently that Trotsky’s exposition of materialist dialectics was a diversion, that the “concrete questions” must be the deciding questions. They asserted that agreement on political perspectives did not in any way depend upon agreement on the Marxist method. But the very discussion in which they were engaged had a character that could not be understood except through this method. Marxists insist that the so-called concrete questions of current politics must be approached from the class criterion, i.e., by a method which contains the premise of the actual content of the forces whose struggle makes up these “concrete questions.” If a tendency within our movement rejects this approach, they accept, one way or another, the categories of bourgeois thought, categories for the various fields of thought that abstract the latter from the class struggle which is their material base.

In other words, the struggle against the petty-bourgeois opposition in the SWP in 1939–40 was not just an argument about immediate political questions, nor about the “philosophical” questions that Trotsky introduced. It was a struggle of living forces, of the proletarian revolutionaries fighting for Bolshevism in the Fourth International against the revisionist representatives of bourgeois class interests. Trotsky explained this in his “Open Letter to Burnham”:

“The nub of the matter however consists in this, that discussion has its own objective logic, which does not coincide at all with the subjective logic of individuals and groupings. The dialectic character of the discussion proceeds from the fact that its objective course is determined by the living conflict of opposing tendencies and not by a preconceived logical plan. The materialist basis of the discussion consists in its reflecting the pressure of different classes. Thus, the present discussion in the SWP, like the historic process as a whole, develops—with or without your permission, Comrade Burnham—according to the laws of dialectical materialism. There is no escape from these laws.”

All the theoretical positions taken up by the Burnham-Shachtman opposition derived from its class character, and Trotsky pointed out at the beginning that the party had necessarily to embark on a long and exhaustive struggle:

“Like any petty-bourgeois group inside the socialist movement, the present opposition is characterized by the following features: a disdainful attitude toward theory and an inclination toward eclecticism; disrespect for the tradition of their own organization; anxiety for personal “independence” at the expense of anxiety for objective truth; nervousness instead of consistency; readiness to jump from one position to another; lack of understanding of revolutionary centralism and hostility toward it; and finally, inclination to substitute clique ties and personal relationships for party discipline.”

The fight against the petty-bourgeois opposition to centralism against their rejection of the traditions of the movement was the same as the struggle to defend dialectical materialism against the dominant pragmatism of the American radical intelligentsia, which the opposition carried into the SWP. Cannon and the SWP majority leadership fought tenaciously to defend and build the party and to drive out the opposition, once they had proved intractable to every attempt to win them to revolutionary positions. But the principal lesson of the 1939–40 controversy was lost on this leadership, with tragic results. The philosophical outlook carried into the SWP by the petty-bourgeois opposition was not just a set of arguments picked up by Burnham and the others to justify their capitulation to the pressure of “democratic” opinion. It expressed the dominant mode of thought in American bourgeois ideology. This same pragmatism permeates every sphere of capitalist ideology in the USA, including of course the labor movement. Trotsky gave a serious warning to the SWP that unless a systematic struggle for materialistic dialectics was constantly waged against pragmatism, then a revolutionary vanguard would not be built in America. A scientific understanding of American imperialism and its whole social and political superstructure, necessary for the elaboration of correct strategy and tactics, cannot be gained except through a thoroughgoing critique of the pragmatist heritage. This is not an academic pursuit to be allotted only to philosophical “specialists” in the party (though it includes specialist work, of course), but a constant fight inside the revolutionary party for the dialectical materialist outlook and method. Dialectical materialism is the unity of theory and practice. It is in the practical struggle to lead the proletariat and build the party that the essential problems of the fight against pragmatism are brought to the surface and hammered out. This was the importance of the 1939–40 discussion. It was the first step, and a prodigious one, in this whole process of a fight for Marxism in the SWP.

The subsequent years revealed ever more clearly that this unity of theory and practice, the need to develop theory, had not been absorbed by the SWP leadership. Marxism was seen by them as a program and a set of ideas that conformed to the interests of the working class, a sort of natural conclusion for any class-conscious worker to accept. They did not grasp the Marxist theory of knowledge, the social, class basis of all ideology in society. They never worked through the historical roots of their own political and ideological background in the American labor movement. Besides understanding, as Cannon so well did, that Marxism was the necessary successor to the best traditions of the IWW and the early militant struggles of the American working class, it was necessary also to understand the limitations of these early movements, the opportunist and sectarian traits, of a special “Amercan” and pragmatic character, which they necessarily brought into the Communist movement.

For years this basic weakness in the SWP was not obvious. Inevitably, the ripening of the crisis of American capitalism brought it to the surface. So responsive to the international contradictions of imperialism is the United States, that the preliminary battles of the American revolution already contain an enormous explosive charge. Far from the wealthy imperialist countries providing examples of “peaceful roads to socialism,” their social structures are characterized by the most extreme contradictions. Generations of “adjustment,” “compromise,” and pragmatic patching-up have only allowed the more concentrated accumulation of all the basic problems. The superstructure of politics has been dominated by the representatives of the middle classes and the better-off workers. Their ideological nostrums have served for a long time to create an image of permanent adjustment and readjustment. But this very exclusion of the larger layers of the working class from the bureaucratic and political forms of “official” society and of the labor movement, has prepared the violent and elemental outbreaks which now characterize American society. The “recognized” protest movements, themselves only the left arm of the whole conservative superstructure, rather than the expression of organized revolt, are utterly unable to consciously respond to this situation. For that a Marxist leadership is required. It could only have been prepared along precisely the lines indicated above, by the use of the dialectical method to probe beneath the surface of every development within the US and internationally. Without a struggle against revisionism, constantly renewing and developing the materialist and dialectical foundations of Marxism and the party’s program, any movement is in danger of falling victim to the responses of the left petty bourgeoisie instead of developing an independent program for the masses who are impelled into struggle with the deepening crisis of capitalism, joined in our day with the mortal crisis of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Within the Fourth International, a new revisionism matured in the years after the Second World War. It took the form, pressed most consistently in the ideas and methods of Michel Pablo, at that time the Secretary of the International, of a capitulation to the Kremlin bureaucracy. Reaching its peak in 1952–53, this liquidationist tendency threatened the very existence of the International and its sections. The postwar “relation of forces” on a world scale was interpreted by Pablo in a way quite foreign to Marxism. According to this interpretation, not only was the bureaucracy able to survive the war, but its control over the international communist movement continued even when capitalist power was destroyed in whole new areas, from Yugoslavia to China. Pablo concluded that the crisis of imperialism would lead inevitably to a Third World War, which he called the war-revolution, because in it the workers’ states controlled by the Stalinists would have to fight for their existence against the imperialists, and this would lead to revolutionary struggles for power in the capitalist countries, under the leadership of the Stalinist parties. The consequences would be “centuries of degenerated workers’ states.” Since this process was already afoot, and did not await the building of Trotskyist parties, said Pablo, it was the obvious responsibility of Marxists to recognize the objective forces at work and act accordingly. The evident result was liquidationism.

It was only when Pablo’s line threatened to disturb the SWP’s internal life that Cannon was jolted into recognizing the liquidationist and revisionist character of Pabloism. At the end of 1953, Cannon published the “Open Letter” of the SWP to the Trotskyist parties of the world, denouncing Pabloism as a non-Trotskyist tendency and making a definite break from it. He characterized the break with Pabloism as equally decisive as the breach between Bolshevism and Social Democracy in 1914. Yet the SWP failed to carry through this split in the manner taught by Trotsky in 1939–40. After only a few months the theoretical discussion died. Instead of driving to the methodological and philosophic roots of this international revisionism, Cannon and the SWP leaders very soon found themselves negotiating for “reunification” with the Pabloite forces and drawing away from the International Committee, which they had supported since 1953. Their convention resolutions and policy statements began to be characterized by equivocal and then by clearly revisionist formulations on questions of international perspectives. Eventually the “reunification” they sought was achieved, not on the principled basis of carrying through the struggle begun in 1953, but precisely on the so-called concrete questions of the type so beloved of Bumham-Shachtman in 1940. What Burnham and Shachtman were unable to do to the SWP in 1940 was achieved by Cannon in 1961–63. Avoiding a discussion of the theoretical basis of the 1953 split, he returned to the Pabloite camp on the grounds that these concrete questions found the SWP and the Pabloites in identical positions.

In fact the SWP had accepted the liquidationism of Pablo. They found their way to this position primarily through subordinating themselves to Castroism and its middle-class following in the US, rather than by the direct subordination to the Stalinist apparatus that Pablo carried out. The endresult was identical, and Cannon praised the actions of Khrushchev in withdrawing missiles during the Cuban crisis of 1962 with the rhetorical question: “What else could he have done in the given circumstances?” Via Castro and Pabloism, Cannon arrived at exactly the point in methodology where stood Burnham and Shachtman in 1939–40. Instrumental in achieving this remarkable transformation was the same “radical milieu” in the United States that had provided the steam for Burnham-Shachtman. To insist on the independent mobilization of the working class behind a conscious Trotskyist vanguard would draw the accusation from these middle-class radicals of “sectarianism,” as they pointed to the successes of the new type of leader, Fidel Castro. This cheap impressionism was raised to the level of a “theory.” The cadres of the Fourth International were asked to accept the idea that revolutionary leadership would be thrown up “in the process of the revolution itself.” Not only that, but petty-bourgeois nationalist leaders would be forced by the objective logic of the struggle in some cases to become Marxists. Fidel Castro, for example, was a “natural” or “unconscious” Marxist. As always, empiricism showed itself only a short step away from the wildest idealism.

Inevitably, this abandonment of Marxism had its consequences in the politics of the SWP within the United States. We have already indicated that only a party trained in Marxist theory along the lines insisted on by Trotsky would be able to meet the especially virulent and explosive problems of the capitalist social crisis in the USA. The assassination of President J.F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963) drew from the National Committee of the SWP a letter of condolence to the widow! In the ever-mounting, raging torrent of the Negro movement, the SWP has tailed behind first the “democratic” and then the black nationalist leaders, providing them with a left cover. This even went so far as demanding the intervention of the armed forces of the US government to implement desegregation against the reactionary administrations of the Southern states! In the movement against the Vietnam war, SWP members have fought against those Marxists who raise the banner of the class war against their own bourgeoisie, siding with the Vietnamese workers and peasants, and calling for the military defeat of the US forces.

This degeneration calls to mind the various statements in this book by Trotsky concerning the extreme dangers as well as potentialities of the period of imperialist decay. All the more reason for the primary stress on the independent revolutionary party and its program. Trotsky writes in his “Open Letter to Burnham”: “The disintegration of capitalism, which engenders sharp dissatisfaction among the petty bourgeoisie and drives its bottom layers to the left, opens up broad possibilities but it also contains grave dangers.” Cannon fell victim to these dangers. In the course of the 1940 discussion he wrote a small book, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, which Trotsky praised highly as the work of a genuine workers’ leader. In that book, Cannon made a thoroughgoing characterization and critique of the pettybourgeois opposition. But the “turn to the working class,” which Trotsky had indicated and Cannon executed, would eventually be frustrated if the struggle for theory was not accepted as the lifeblood of the revolutionary party. Trotsky warned: “It is precisely the party’s penetration into the trade unions and into the workers’ milieu in general that demands heightening the theoretical qualification of our cadres.”

The SWP could not develop as the leadership of the American working class except by the most scrupulous attention to its international responsibilities. Just as it was the revolutionary experience of Trotsky and his mastery of Marxist theory, developed over generations of international struggle and particularly through the Russian Revolution, so the problems of building a leadership for the working class in the great struggles now facing the American workers will be resolved from the starting point of the experience and riches of the International Trotskyist movement in combating revisionism. Cannon and his friends prefer the type of “International” that permits the SWP to continue with its own brand of opportunist adaptation. In such a movement it is not possible to learn the real lessons of the fight with Burnham and Shachtman in 1939–40. But for the cadres of the International Committee of the Fourth International and its sections, in the USA as everywhere else, this book will be an indispensable guide and educator. Many thousands of young workers and intellectuals, drawn into politics by the crisis of imperialism and of the Stalinist bureaucracy, now developing at a frenzied pace, will learn from this book, which is already one of the classics of Marxism.

Cliff Slaughter