David North
Leon Trotsky and the Development of Marxism

Article One

On October 16, 1977, Tom Henehan, a member of the Political Committee of the Workers League, was assassinated in New York while supervising a social activity that had been organized by the Young Socialists.

Two gunmen, Angelo Torres and Edwin Sequinot, entered the Ponce Social Club, where the YS dance was being held, and, with the assistance of a third man, Angelo Rodriguez, staged a provocation at the entrance to the dance hall.

Tom Henehan noticed the commotion and ran to the entrance. There he was shot five times by Torres. Another leading member of the Workers League, Jacques Vielot, was shot by Sequinot as he attempted to get at Torres.

Gravely wounded in the neck and chest, Tom was rushed to Wyckoff Heights Hospital by Vielot, who managed to drive to the hospital despite his own serious abdominal wounds.

Henehan was still conscious as he was wheeled into the hospital’s Emergency Room. However, for reasons that have never been explained, the supervising surgeon chose not to attempt surgery to stop Tom’s internal bleeding, though this is standard medical practice. Instead, he was left in the Emergency Room until he died of shock approximately 90 minutes after arriving at the hospital.

Several hours after Tom’s death, which occurred shortly before 3 a.m., the surgeon had Vielot brought into the operating room to remove bullets that threatened his life. He survived and recovered fully.

A Political Murder

Tom Henehan was the victim of a political murder. His assassination came at a crucial point in the investigation conducted by the International Committee of the Fourth International into the circumstances surrounding the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in August 1940. The investigation had just uncovered the fact that Joseph Hansen, the leader of the revisionist Socialist Workers Party, had secretly sought to establish, with the assistance of the US State Department, a confidential means of communicating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the weeks following the assassination of Trotsky. Only a few months before Tom’s murder, Hansen had written that the continuation of the investigation would have “deadly consequences” for the International Committee.

Now Tom Henehan lay dead at the age of 26 years and 7 months, a martyr of the Trotskyist movement who gave his life to liberate the working class from capitalist oppression. The capitalist press imposed a virtual blackout on all reporting of his murder. Neither the Socialist Workers Party nor the Stalinist Communist Party printed a word about Comrade Henehan’s assassination in their newspapers. The SWP would not even issue a statement condemning his murder; instead they parroted the official police line by telling their members that the shooting of Tom was a “senseless killing.”

The police in Brooklyn, New York—the site of the assassination—claimed that there had been only one gunman, Torres, and that he could not be found in spite of an “all points alert.” As for Sequinot, the police released him from custody minutes after he had been identified by eyewitnesses as Torres’ co-gunman.

For the next three years, the Workers League and the Young Socialists waged a tireless campaign in the labor movement to force the District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn to apprehend Torres and Sequinot. Union officials representing several million trade unionists and tens of thousands of workers and youth sent letters and signed petitions demanding the arrest of Torres and Sequinot, much to the surprise of the police investigator who had told the Workers League just 10 days after the shooting: “Henehan was just a commie and his death would be of interest only to other commies.”

On October 15, 1980, Torres was arrested and booked for the murder of Tom Henehan and the shooting of Jacques Vielot. Official records obtained by the Workers League revealed that he had been arrested on a previous occasion by the police and quickly released, despite the outstanding warrant for the killing of Tom. Two months later, despite great reluctance, police also apprehended Edwin Sequinot. Both had been living in Brooklyn since the murder of Tom at their home address.

In July 1981, Torres and Sequinot went on trial for the murder of Henehan and the shooting of Vielot. Torres was found guilty of second degree murder and attempted murder, and was sentenced in August to 25 years to life imprisonment. Sequinot was found guilty of manslaughter and attempted murder, and was sentenced alongside Torres to a minimum of 25 years imprisonment.

However, as far as the Workers League is concerned, the investigation into the assassination of Tom Henehan is not over. The gunmen are in jail, but those who planned and ordered the killing have yet to be brought to justice. Based on the revolutionary strength of the working class, we are supremely confident that we shall expose every aspect of the conspiracy to murder Tom Henehan.

Five years after his death, the memory of Tom Henehan burns as brightly in the Workers League and every section of the International Committee as ever. There are hundreds of thousands of workers, youth and anti-imperialist freedom fighters all over the globe who know of Tom Henehan’s struggle and who are inspired by his life and his death.

Tom was only 26 when he died, and his activity inside the Workers League spanned just 4-1/2 years. But no member of our movement who knew Tom can ever forget his determination, enthusiasm and utter dedication. He possessed a great innate “feel” for the struggles of the labor movement and this enabled him to establish very close connections with a broad cross section of the working class, ranging from unemployed youth and shipyard workers in Brooklyn to coal miners in West Virginia.

The Training of a Revolutionary

But we cannot understand Tom Henehan’s life and his role in the Workers League simply by adding up the sum of his personal qualities. As Mike Banda, General Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain, said at the memorial meeting held in New York City just six days after Tom’s death: “Revolutionaries are not born. They are forged. They are trained out of the experiences of this movement, out of the intervention of its leadership, out of the whole struggle of past generations.”

This was, of necessity, true for Tom as well. His political development was bound up with the historical struggles that have tempered the Trotskyist movement for nearly six decades and out of which the Workers League itself emerged. The real heart of cadre training is the conscious subordination of all who join the Party to the revolutionary principles through which the historical continuity of the Marxist movement is expressed. By “historical continuity,” we have in mind the unbroken chain of political and ideological struggle by our international movement against Stalinism, Social Democracy, revisionism, and all other enemies of the working class.

The individual talents of different cadre are no substitute for this collective responsibility to assimilate and work off of the political and theoretical conquests of our movement historically. Lenin, Trotsky, the Bolshevik Party and the Left Opposition are not merely great leaders and organizations of the past about whom we occasionally read and pay tribute to on special occasions. In all its theoretical and practical work, in the development of the dialectical materialist method which makes possible the elaboration of scientific revolutionary perspectives, the International Committee carries forward and enriches the work of the great progenitors of our movement.

In 1916 Lenin characterized this epoch as that of imperialism, the highest and final stage of capitalism. In 1938 Trotsky reaffirmed this scientific analysis, defining this historical period as that of capitalism’s death agony. All the vast political and economic changes on a world scale since Trotsky’s death have confirmed time and again the historical validity of this analysis, and, therefore the scientific character of the dialectical materialist method through which it was developed.

Sixty Years of Struggle

It is almost exactly 60 years since the political struggle which was to lead to the emergence of Trotskyism as the specific tendency representing the historical continuity of Marxism erupted inside the Politburo of the Russian Communist Party. In late 1922 Lenin was shocked to learn that in his absence, Stalin and other Bolshevik leaders had supported the weakening of the state monopoly on foreign trade that was essential for the defense of the Soviet Union against world imperialism. Lenin saw in this opportunist decision a serious symptom of political degeneration within the Bolshevik leadership which reflected the growing bureaucratization of the state apparatus and the Party as a whole. Already gravely ill, having only partially recovered from a stroke in the spring of 1922 which had impaired his speech, Lenin turned to Trotsky for political support in the struggle to reverse the incorrect decision on the issue of the foreign trade monopoly.

On December 15, 1922, shortly before his departure to Gorkii (for the purpose of physical recuperation), Lenin wrote to Stalin:

I am now through with putting my business in order, and am in a position to leave without worry. I have also come to an agreement with Trotsky to stand up for my views of the foreign trade monopoly. There is only one thing that is worrying me extremely—it is that I am unable to speak at the Congress of Soviets …

I am resolutely opposed to any delay on the question of the foreign trade monopoly. If the idea should arise, for whatever reason (including the proposition that my participation in the question is desirable), to postpone it until the next plenum, I should most resolutely object to this, because I am sure that Trotsky will be able to stand up for my views just as well as I myself. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 45, pp. 602–3, emphasis added)

Confronted with the combined opposition of Lenin and Trotsky, Stalin and those who had voted with him against the foreign trade monopoly retreated. On December 21, 1922, Lenin wrote to Trotsky:

It looks as though it has been possible to take the position without a single shot, by a simple maneuver. I suggest that we should not stop and should continue the offensive, and for that purpose put through a motion to raise at the Party congress the question of consolidating our foreign trade, and the measures to improve its implementation. This is to be announced in the group of the Congress of Soviets. I hope that you will not object to this, and will not refuse to give a report in the group. (Vol. 45, p. 606)

The struggle over the question of the monopoly proved only to be a prelude to an even sharper struggle which almost immediately arose over the handling of the issues of the Georgian nationality by Stalin and the head of the Cheka (secret police), F. Dzerzhinsky. On March 5, 1923, Lenin sent the following urgent note to Trotsky:

It is my earnest request that you should undertake the defense of the Georgian case in the Party C.C. This case is now under “persecution” by Stalin and Dzerzhinsky, and I cannot rely on their impartiality. Quite to the contrary. I would feel at ease if you agreed to undertake its defense. If you should refuse to do so for any reason, return the whole case to me. I shall consider it a sign that you do not accept. (Vol. 45, p. 607)

Lenin, on the same day, then wrote a letter to Stalin threatening to break off all personal relations with him, on account of the rudeness with which Stalin had addressed Lenin’s wife.

The final letter Lenin wrote that day was addressed to Georgian comrades who had been the victims of Stalin’s bureaucratic abuse of authority:

I am following your case with all my heart. I am indignant over Orjonikidze’s rudeness and the connivance of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. I am preparing for you notes and a speech. (Vol. 45, p. 608)

However, before these notes could be written, Lenin suffered the massive stroke later that same day that incapacitated him and led to his death 10 months later, on January 21, 1924.

These struggles were not a personal conflict between Lenin and Stalin. Without realizing it himself, Stalin was manifesting a process of bureaucratic degeneration within the Bolshevik Party that was the result of objective material pressures of world imperialism upon the first workers’ state. The economic backwardness of the Soviet Union, inherited from Tsarist Russia and intensified by a decade of imperialist war, revolutionary upheaval, and then struggle against counterrevolutionary forces, the delay in the extension of the socialist revolution into Western Europe, and the imperialist encirclement of the USSR: these were the conditions which gave rise to the growth of bureaucracy within the Soviet Union and the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party. Far from being an evil genius who masterminded his way to absolute power, the political weaknesses of Stalin made him the instrument of bureaucratic reaction within the USSR.

The founding of the Left Opposition in the autumn of 1923 was the response of the most politically-developed Bolsheviks, led by Trotsky, to the increasing danger of degeneration within the Party leadership. Trotsky’s initial analysis of these dangers, published under the title The New Course, provoked an outraged response among all those in the Party apparatus and state bureaucracy who felt, upon reading his articles, a sharp rebuke to their conservatism and implicit threat to their growing material privileges.

Socialism in One Country

The political significance of the growing polarization within the Bolshevik Party became clear when, in late 1924, Bukharin and Stalin advanced the novel proposition that socialism could be established in the USSR without the victory of the proletarian revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and the United States. This fundamental revision of Marxism, which separated the fate of the Soviet Union from the whole development of the World Socialist Revolution, reflected the growing preoccupation of an expanding bureaucratic elite with the defense of its own material privileges. Having adopted the position that socialism could be built in the Soviet Union without the overthrow of imperialism, the Stalinist faction moved inexorably—although, at first, unconsciously—toward a policy of accommodation with world capitalism. As Trotsky was to explain, if socialism could truly be built in one country, the international aims of the Soviet state would tend increasingly to focus not on world revolution—as that was no longer viewed as essential for the survival of the USSR—but on merely preventing direct military intervention by this or that capitalist state against the Soviet Union. This outlook set the stage for the destruction of the Third (Communist) International as a revolutionary force and its transformation into a compliant instrument of the foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy. This was the essential political content of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s attack on the theory of Permanent Revolution, which, from 1925 on, was denounced again and again as the “original sin” of Trotskyism.

The concept of “Permanent Revolution,” however, was not a subjective invention of Trotsky’s mind. It was abstracted initially by Marx in 1850 from his analysis of the class relations in European society revealed in the course of the democratic revolutionary struggle of 1848. This concept was elaborated and enriched by Trotsky through his profound historical examination of the objective development of capitalist society, in which the transition from the era of democratic revolutions to social revolutions was carefully traced. Trotsky did not proceed from the concept to the external world. Rather, he explained how the concept reflected, at different stages in the development of the Marxist movement, the objective changes in the class struggle as a law-governed process.

Dialectics vs. Metaphysics

In this objective exposition as the real historical development, Trotsky demonstrated the bankruptcy of the metaphysical mode of thinking, which, proceeding from formal logic, rigidly counterposed the democratic revolution to the socialist revolution.

Characteristic of all the denunciations of the theory of Permanent Revolution, especially in the course of the 1925–27 struggle over the policies of the Third International in China, was the theoretically stultifying and politically disastrous metaphysics of the Stalinist leaders—above all, of Stalin himself. These “epigones” argued: China must complete the “stage of the bourgeois-democratic revolution; China is waging a national struggle against imperialism; Chiang K’ai-shek is waging a progressive struggle against feudal warlords. Therefore, the Communist International and the Chinese Communist Party must support and subordinate itself to Chiang K’ai-shek and the bourgeois Kuomintang. As if to set a condition on what was essentially an utter betrayal of the independent interests of the Chinese working class, which doomed the revolution to a catastrophic defeat, the Stalinists asserted that the alliance was merely temporary.

Proceeding from a concrete analysis of the nature of the epoch, the relation of class forces on a world scale and the specific features of Chinese society and the development of its revolution, Trotsky demonstrated how, in accordance with objective social laws, the “opposites” of the democratic-national revolution and social revolution became “identical” and were “transformed into one another.” [1]

Thus, Trotsky explained:

With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.” (Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, New Park, p. 152)

Trotsky warned that “The theory of Stalin and Bukarin, running counter to the entire experience of the Russian revolution, not only sets up the democratic revolution mechanically in contrast to the socialist revolution, but also makes a breach between the national revolution and the international revolution.

“This theory imposes upon revolutions in backward countries the task of establishing an unrealizable regime of democratic dictatorship, which it counterposes to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thereby this theory introduces illusions and fictions into politics, paralyzes the struggle for power of the proletariat in the East, and hampers the victory of the colonial revolution.” (The Permanent Revolution, p. 156)

Trotsky summed up the theory of Permanent Revolution as follows:

The conquest of power by the proletariat does not complete the revolution, but only opens it. Socialist construction is conceivable only on the foundation of the class struggle, on a national and international scale. This struggle, under the conditions of an overwhelming predominance of capitalist relationships on the world arena, must inevitably lead to explosions, that is, internally, to civil wars and externally to revolutionary wars.

Therein lies the permanent character of the socialist revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.

The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the national state. From this follow, on the one hand, imperialist wars, on the other, the utopia of a bourgeois United States of Europe. The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a new and broader sense of the word: it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet. (The Permanent Revolution, pp. 154–155)

Between 1925 and 1927, the Left Opposition (which, in 1926, was joined by Zinoviev and Kamenev and became the United Left Opposition) waged a life-and-death struggle to save the Bolshevik Party from bureaucratic degeneration and, through this struggle, the Communist International as well. At stake historically was the fate of the Soviet Union and the entire international proletariat. In an atmosphere poisoned by increasingly vicious falsifications and ever more ominous forms of physical repression, Trotsky, with the simplicity of a genius, analyzed, and summed up, in the concept “Permanent Revolution,” all the fundamental features and general laws of the World Socialist Revolution. In his presentation of the “Basic Postulates” of the theory of Permanent Revolution, set out in 14 points (see The Permanent Revolution, pp. 152–157), Trotsky advanced, not a set of inviolable and supra-historical formulas which were then to be mechanically imposed, but rather a dialectically developed theory to assist revolutionists in the scientific cognition of the concrete political tasks posed by the class struggle, from the standpoint of the independent revolutionary mobilization of the working class under the leadership of an international Marxist party.

The Sixth Congress

The expulsion of Leon Trotsky from the Russian Communist Party in November 1927 revealed the depth of its bureaucratic degeneration. The internal purge of the Left Opposition was accompanied by the bureaucratic expulsion of leaders of the Communist International suspected of Trotskyist sympathies, or who evinced any trace of independent political thinking. The entire Sixth Congress of the Communist International, held in 1928, was held under the sign of the struggle against Trotskyism. However, Trotsky, now exiled to Asiatic and malaria-ridden frontiers of the Soviet Union, prepared a critique of the Sixth Congress’ draft program. This document drew the balance sheet on all the political disasters which had been produced by the Stalinist leadership since the incapacitation of Lenin.

Accidentally, this document was translated into English and fell into the hands of a member of the American Communist Party delegation to the Sixth Congress, James P. Cannon. He secretly studied the document, found himself in agreement with its analysis and conclusions, smuggled it out of the Soviet Union at the conclusion of the Congress, and resolved to fight for its positions within the Communist Party. Supported by two other leading members in the Communist Party, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, Cannon declared his support for Trotsky’s position. No discussion, however, was permitted in the American Communist Party. A trial was hastily convened and Cannon, Shachtman and Abern were expelled from the Communist Party.

The first issue of The Militant, established as the organ of the supporters of Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party, carried a letter by James P. Cannon, which declared:

The struggle of the past five years has revolved around the living issues of the present period. It is our absolute conviction, based on the most objective study of all the material we could secure—and carried on in the face of previous prejudice—that on all of these basic questions of the period, the questions around which the whole life and future of the international communist movement revolve—Trotsky has been in the main correct and the true defender of Leninism. (James P. Cannon, The Left Opposition in the US 1928–31, Pathfinder, p.43)

In October 1938, six weeks after the founding of the Fourth International, Trotsky declared in a recorded speech:

It is necessary to remark that the birth of the American group of Bolshevik–Leninists, thanks to the courageous initiative of Comrades Cannon, Shachtman, and Abern, didn’t stand alone. It approximately coincided with the beginning of the systematic international work of the Left Opposition. It is true that the Left Opposition arose in Russia in 1923, but regular work on an international scale began with the Sixth Congress of the Comintern. (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938–39, Pathfinder, p.85)