New publication of the Fundación Federico Engels.
15 euros •320 pages
In Defense of Marxism gathers together Leon Trotsky’s writings and letters concerning the political crisis which developed inside the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the US section of the Fourth International, in the years 1939-1940.
These writings occupy an outstanding place in the theoretical armory of Marxism and they are a guide to understand, not only the methodological and programmatic foundation on which to build a revolutionary party, but also to understand dialectical materialism as a tool to interpret reality. The reading- and frequent rereading -of this book should be a paramount task for any militant.
If you are engaging with this book for the first time, it’s important to characterize its historical context. SWP internal crisis started a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War, when a few prominent intellectuals in the party questioned Trotsky’s analysis regarding the class nature of the Soviet Union. This was the starting point, but the controversy quickly reached the point of reneging dialectical materialism as the method of Marxism and questioning of democratic centralism. It was definitely a struggle between the petty-bourgeois and proletarian wings of the organization.
Trotskyism in the US
Similarly to other sections of the Left Opposition, the US section was initially composed by militants who were expelled from the Communist Party because they rejected Stalin’s politics. For a number of years, it was a small minority, which was not able to play a significant role in the class struggle.
But the events of the 1930’s produced an important transformation in the development and implementation of US Trotskyism. Those years were marked by social and political upheavals which had extraordinary breadth. The crack of New York’s Stock Exchange in October of 1929 was the first signal of a deep economic crisis that affected all of the capitalist world for more than a decade, and had devastating consequences for the working-class.
The massive layoffs and growing poverty triggered the willingness to fight back and a left turn in important sections of industrial workers. Amongst other consequences, it led to the birth of a new union confederation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which started to dispute the hegemony of the biggest union at the time, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had a reformist character.
The boom of class struggle in the USA, together with the internal problems of the Soviet Union and the advance of fascism in Europe, brought towards American Trotskyism a significant number of figures from the intellectual scene in New York and the East Coast, as well as radicalized workers.
The number of strikes escalated, both numerically and in the intensity and radicalization of its goals. 1934 was a decisive year, marked by three historic conflicts: the Dockers strike in the East coast, which led to a 4 day long general strike in San Francisco, the almost two-month long strike of Electric Auto-Lite Company workers in Toledo (Ohio), and the Minneapolis general strike, which was propelled by transport workers and was led by the city’s Trotskyist group, with the support of the Communist League of America, which was the name of USA’s section of the Left Opposition at the time.
The Minneapolis’ strike culminated in a resounding triumph and gave a strong push to the Communist League. Workers from all over the country were able to ascertain that the methods of Trotskyism worked and led to the victory and, as a result, they decided to join its ranks, a process that was strengthened when a number of trade-unionists that led the Toledo strike also joined the League.
These events led to a new stage in the history of US Trotskyism. As workers started to join the party, its social composition started to change, as well as its daily tasks. An organization directed, almost exclusively, to theoretical debate and propaganda work started to turn in a party with increasing roots in the working class which started to play a significant role in a number of fronts in the class struggle.
The role of US Trotskyists became even more relevant when, in the summer of 1935, Stalin launched his popular front policy, which advocated an alliance between the communist parties and the sectors of the bourgeoisie that purported to be democratic. The revolutionary objectives were to be indefinitely delayed; socialist slogans were abandoned; all over the world, the communist parties loyal to Stalin pushed for agreements with the bourgeoisie and took for themselves the role of restraining working-class struggles, leading to defeats like the one suffered in the Spanish Revolution. In the US, the Communist Party became the main supporter of President Roosevelt and his New Deal policy.
The constitution of the SWP, in January 1938, was a step forward which reflected the increased roots of the party amongst the working-class and the big opportunities which opened to the forces of Marxism. But no transformation happens without shakes and jolts, and the SWP was no exception. In Defense of Marxism is the analysis and answer from Trotsky to the inevitable occurrences in the development of a revolutionary party: “the key to the current crisis consists on the conservatism of the petty-bourgeois elements, which have only experienced a purely propaganda school and still haven’t found the way to class struggle. The current crisis is the final struggle of these elements for their self-preservation.”
The class character of the Soviet State
Two of the first writings on this book- The USSR in War and Again and once more again
about the nature of the USSR- are devoted to clarify the character of the Soviet State and the attitude of revolutionary Marxists towards Stalin’s warring initiatives and the coming world war.
Trotsky characterized the Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state”, starting from the fact that the revolutionary achievements from October 1917- essentially the nationalization of the means of production, the monopoly of foreign trade and centralized planning of the economy- were a decisive blow in the capitalist relations of social production, clearing the way for the transition to socialism.
The task of building socialism in Russia was always connected with the triumph of revolution in Europe and worldwide. In fact, building the Communist International, founded in March of 1919, was a fundamental part of this strategy, and Lenin, Trotsky and many other Bolshevik leaders devoted enormous efforts to this task.
But the obstacles faced by Russian communists were formidable: scarcity and the economic collapse due to Russian’s historic backwardness, as well as the devastation caused by the First World War and the Civil War which followed, added to the failure of the revolution in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy…, increasing the isolation of the Workers’ state.
In these conditions, Marx’s words were materialized: “the development of the productive forces is, practically, the first absolutely necessary condition to achieve communism because, without its development, only poverty would be socialized and this would renew the struggle for basic necessity, restarting the old chaos”. The triumph of the bureaucratic counterrevolution headed by Stalin and his clique was based in the aforementioned negative objective conditions, comprehensively analyzed by Trotsky and the main cadre of the Russian Left Opposition,
By stripping the working-class of actually exercising political power, suppressing workers’ democracy from the heart of the Communist Party and the running of the State, the bureaucracy felt as the ultimate mediator between classes. Basing itself in the use of violence and the monopoly of political power, it laid out a totalitarian regime to defend its privileges and interests.
But this bureaucracy could not be considered a new social class. It resembled a parasitic caste which obtained its economic privileges from stealing the surplus value in the process of distribution and assignment of resources by the State it controlled, but its power was borne out precisely from the material basis achieved by the October Revolution: the nationalized economy. The bureaucracy based itself in a proletarian bonapartist regime, using a term from Trotsky, but the means of production were not owned by it, as it happens with capitalists.
Defense of the USSR
As a conclusion for his analysis, Trotsky proposed that the Stalinist regime was intrinsically unstable and that, in the long term, it would either develop trends towards the reestablishment of capitalism or it would be toppled by a working-class revolution with an exclusively political character, which would topple the bureaucracy from power and renew the lost working-class democracy, keeping the planned economy and the productive relations achieved in October 1917.
In Trotsky’s opinion, it was the obligation of workers everywhere to defend the USSR against imperialism, in spite of its bureaucratic deformations and the counter revolutionary politics of the Stalinist leaders. Moreover, this was the best way of averting the threat of capitalist restoration and to lend the necessary support to the most class conscious layers of the working-class to again raise a genuine Bolshevik program. Only in this way 1917’s red knot could be tied again and the political power could be regained from the hands of the usurping bureaucracy.
Trotsky’s positions nourished Left Opposition’s program and Bolshevik-Leninists in the USSR and all over the world, in spite of the persecution by Stalin’s police apparatus. But, in those years of revolution and counter-revolution, with the advance of fascism in Germany and Italy and the perspective of a new world war, Trotsky found himself in a minority. Communist Parties everywhere, under the protective umbrella of the Stalinist bureaucracy, hectored against Trotsky and his ideas, proclaiming the “ultimate triumph” of socialism in the USSR.
In the ranks of the left which was critical towards Stalin, including in the ranks of the Fourth International, the pressure of the events- especially after the pact between Stalin and Hitler on the 23rd of August of 1939- reinforced the trends that reneged the working-class character of the USSR, reaching the conclusion that the achievements of the revolution had been completely wiped away.
As a consequence, this position led to the evaluation of the bureaucracy as an oppression social class similar to the bourgeoisie- in fact, some of the theoreticians behind those trends classified the Stalinist regime as “state capitalism”- and, consequently, to deny that the working-class had to lend any type of support to the Soviet Union.
These sectors, amongst which SWP’s petty-bourgeois intellectuals were included, not only considered the bureaucracy as a new ruling class, but also predicted that Stalinism would end up joining with Hitler’s Germany and other fascist countries to expand its dictatorial social system to the whole world. The interventions of the Red Army in Poland and Finland gave a strong impulse to the supporters of these theories in the US academic scene, which was also felt inside the SWP.
Prominent party leaders, such as the philosopher James Burnham, the intellectual Max Shachtman, and Martin Abern, demanded from the leadership organs that they stopped classifying the USSR as a workers’ state and, as a result, to abandon the USSR's defense in case of an imperialist attack. Trotsky, James P. Cannon, SWP’s general secretary, and the working-class trend in the party did not just militantly opposed this attack but also, in the course of the controversy, brilliantly defended the proletarian character of the party and its revolutionary program.
Defending dialectical materialism and building the revolutionary party
Burnham, Shachtman and the layer that supported them, which represented the minority in the SWP’s National Committee, continued with the polemic, although changing the emphasis of the debate; once their arguments about the nature of the USSR and the bureaucracy as a social class were exposed, they counter posed by questioning the “internal regime” of the SWP and its dialectical materialism.
First in a blurred and confused way, and then in a hysterical tone, these academic intellectuals and their circle of university students denounced the alleged “conservatism” and “bureaucratism” of SWP’s leadership, and its inability to understand the “new political phenomena”. The debate revolved around burning questions on the party’s strategy and program, its internal regime- democratic centralism- the role of the workers, the position of the “enlightened” petty-bourgeois sectors that were getting close to the party and how to achieve the discipline necessary to forge a tool capable of preparing its own forces to topple capitalism.
In face of the system’s profound crisis and the extreme sharpening of class struggle, with the most complete expressions being the triumph of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution, to erect a new Bolshevik leadership capable of replacing the social democrats and Stalinists was a life or death task for the world’s working class.
During the ten years that passed since his expulsion from the USSR in 1929, Trotsky devoted all of his efforts to reorganize the forces of revolutionary Marxism through the International Left Opposition and, later, the International Communist League, forebearer of the Fourth International, founded in August 1938.
Trotsky learnt first-hand the difficulties and obstacles that inevitably appear in the process of building a revolutionary party in adverse historical circumstances. Isolated of the wider working-class masses by the campaign of lies and persecution unleashed by Stalin, which led to the killing of tens of thousands of communists in the USSR, including the Leninist old guard, he had to deal with a layer of young militants lacking social integration in the working class.
Many of the young people that got closer to the ranks of the Left Opposition did it as a rejection of Stalinism, but were neither Bolsheviks nor Leninists in a political sense, and tended to reflect all of the prejudices from the bourgeois social environments they came from. The same could be said from the intellectuals (in reality not Marxists, but fellow travelers), who rejected the Stalinist totalitarianism, but lacked a basis in Marxist theory and were totally vulnerable to the pressures from bourgeois public opinion.
This experience helped Trotsky quickly understand that the debate had a much broader reach than just the discussion about the nature of the USSR or the position in relation to the war. What really occurred was that a layer of the SWP, giving ground to the pressure of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politics, put into question the proletarian character of the party. In these circumstances, to conciliate with this tendency would only led to the undermining, from inside of the party, of all the efforts to build a revolutionary leadership worthy of the name.
Therefore, Trotsky took advantage of the debate which was underway to raise the political level and to provide the US section with the theoretical foundations to deal with opportunist deviations- which periodically crop up in the Marxist movement, reflecting the pressure of alien classes. This struggle led to loud protests amongst the intellectuals and their support base, which gave Trotsky the opportunity to issue a reminder about the ABC of the internal regime: ”What is party democracy for an “enlightened” petty bourgeois? A regime that allows him to say and write whatever he wants to! What is the “bureaucratism” for an “enlightened” petty bourgeois? A regime where the proletarian majority enacts its decisions and discipline with democratic methods. Workers, keep that in the front of your minds!”
The other axis of factional struggle was the rejection by the petty-bourgeois of dialectical materialism as a method to interpret the political, economic and historical processes, essential to outline the political program of the party: “ We say our dialectics is materialist because its roots are not in the heavens or the depths of “free will”, but in the objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of nebulae. On all the rungs of this ladder of development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative. Our thought, including dialectical thought, is only one of the forms of the expression of changing matter. There is place within this system for neither God, nor Devil, nor immortal soul, nor eternal norms of laws and morals. The dialectic of thinking, having grown out of the dialectic of nature, possesses consequently a thoroughly materialist character (...) Dialectic training of the mind, as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist, demands approaching all problems as processes and not as motionless categories.”
Against Burnham’s opinion, Trotsky insisted that dialectical materialism was essential to ensure a revolutionary practice. The categorical separation established by Burnham between the party’s political action and its theoretical and philosophical foundations is fundamentally false. Without a correct method of thought- Trotsky explains-it’s impossible to understand the internal dynamics of historical events and social phenomena, which are constantly changing. A party which is incapable of analyzing reality by looking at the contradictions and possible developments which are enclosed in that reality, loses the guiding thread of its practical activity and ends up being swallowed by the maelstrom of bourgeois institutional politics, capitulating to opportunism, or it lets itself be driven by sectarian formulae.
The dialectical method allows to see further beyond the avalanche of immediate events, to be emancipated from the empiricism and pragmatism which compose bourgeois political philosophy and it stops that definitions and categories formulated specifically to analyze current facts end up ossified and converted into empty slogans, which do not correspond to the changes and transformations produced in the struggle between classes.
The use of dialectics is essential to understand the process of developing consciousness and the objective factor that the reformist leaderships play to make it recede. It’s very common to hear sectarian groups pontifying about the low “level of consciousness” of the masses, in this way blaming them for every defeat, although in action they have shown a revolutionary instinct.
Trotsky is very clear when he approaches the fundamental question: “Only vulgar “Marxists”, who interpret politics as the direct and straightforward reflex of the economy, can think that the leadership straightforwardly and directly reflects the class. In reality, the leadership, after rising above the oppressed class, inevitably succumbs to the pressure of the ruling class. The leadership of the US unions, for example, reflects more the bourgeoisie than the proletariat. The choosing and education of a truly revolutionary leadership, which can resist the pressure of the bourgeoisie, is an extraordinarily difficult task. The dialectics of the historical process is shown brilliantly in the fact that the proletariat of the most backward country, Russia, was able to borne out, under specific historical conditions, the most farsighted and courageous leadership that we have ever known. On the other hand, the proletariat of the country with the oldest capitalist culture, Great-Britain, has, for now, the most servile and stupid leadership (...) all kinds of terrified and disillusioned pseudomarxists assume that the bankruptcy of the leadership simply reflects the incapacity of the proletariat to fulfill its revolutionary mission. Not all of our opponents clearly express this thought, but all- ultra-leftists, centrists, anarchists, not to mention Stalinists and social democrats- unload their responsibility in the defeats on to the back of the proletariat.”
We have no doubt that this book is an essential part in the development of the new generation of revolutionaries, but also indispensable for the formation of seasoned revolutionaries.