[Classics] In Defence Of Marxism

Introduction to 2010 Edition

This book is correctly regarded as one of Trotsky’s finest classics. It is the product of a sharp polemic within the American Trotskyist movement in the period 1939-40. This was a dispute that touched on the very fundamentals of Marxism. It was for this reason that Trotsky participated in the debate in the form of a series of articles and letters that are brought together in this volume. The issues covered concern the essence of Marxist theory, and deal with such questions as the class nature of the Soviet state, the defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack, Bolshevik principles of organisation, as well as an explanation of dialectical materialism, the basic philosophy of Marxism.

Following the October Revolution of 1917, class-conscious workers everywhere rallied to the defence of the young workers’ state. This was clearly the first duty of all communists internationally, to fight against imperialist attack. Trotsky’s Left Opposition, established in 1923, was no exception. Defence of the Soviet Union, despite the distortions and crimes of the Stalin regime, was paramount. Even in the early 1930s, when Trotsky changed his position from reform of the Soviet state to the need for political revolution, defence of the USSR against imperialist aggression was still an essential part of the programme.

However, this position was later challenged by certain American Trotskyists in the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party following the wave of anti-Soviet hysteria that surrounded the Stalin-Hitler pact of August 1939.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was founded in 1938. It had its roots in the birth of American Trotskyism a decade earlier, after James P. Cannon and a group of co-thinkers had been expelled from the American Communist Party. While the SWP had certain points of support in the working class and led the historic strike of teamsters in Minneapolis in 1934, it had attracted a large layer of members who had not been schooled in the ideas of Bolshevism. Many had come out of the Socialist Party and lacked a revolutionary Marxist tradition. Although many were good members, they had not developed a proletarian class outlook and tended to reflect the pressures of ‘public opinion’. With the stampede surrounding the Stalin-Hitler pact, many within the party began to question the character of the Soviet Union.

This led to an attempt to revise the party’s position about the defence of the USSR. A grouping in the leadership around James Burnham, the editor of the party’s theoretical magazine, submitted a document entitled ‘On the Character of the War’ on 5 September 1939, soon after the signing of the pact. This stated that:

It is impossible to regard the Soviet Union as a workers’ state in any sense whatever… Soviet intervention (in the war) will be wholly subordinated to the general imperialist character of the conflict as a whole; and will be in no sense a defence of the remains of the socialist economy.

This was an attempt to abandon the defence of the USSR on the very outbreak of the Second World War, at a time when this was more urgent than ever.

Within a week, Trotsky wrote a letter drawing out the broad implications from James Burnham’s position:

[T]hat all the revolutionary potentialities of the world proletariat are exhausted, that the socialist movement is bankrupt, and that the old capitalism is transforming itself into ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ with a new exploiting class. (See this volume, p. 2.)

The middle class elements within the leadership of the SWP had become affected by outside pressures. This led them to challenge the basic traditions and principles of the Marxist movement. A leading group, headed by James Burnham, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, began a seven-month struggle. This challenge was, in the words of Trotsky, “an attempt to reject, disqualify and overthrow the theoretical foundations, the political principles and organisational methods of our movement.” (See p. 122.) The dispute would finally lead to a split in the Trotskyist movement, where some forty per cent of the membership would leave to form the Workers’ Party.

Trotsky, who had been living in exile in Mexico City, collaborated with the majority grouping around James P. Cannon to defend the traditional positions of the party. For them, the defence of the USSR was fundamental. This, however, went hand in hand with the need for a political revolution to replace the Stalinist regime with a regime based on genuine workers’ democracy, as under Lenin and Trotsky.

On 25 September, Trotsky wrote a contribution entitled ‘The USSR in War’, which went to the heart of the matter.

Let us begin by posing the question of the nature of the Soviet state, not on the abstract-sociological plane, but on the plane of concrete political tasks. Let us concede for the moment that the bureaucracy is a new ‘class’ and that the present regime in the USSR is a special system of class exploitation. What new political conclusions follow for us from these definitions? The Fourth International long ago recognised the necessity of overthrowing the bureaucracy by means of a revolutionary uprising of the toilers. Nothing else is proposed or can be proposed by those who proclaim the bureaucracy to be an exploiting ‘class.’ The goal to be attained by the overthrow of the bureaucracy is the re-establishment of the rule of the soviets, expelling from them the present bureaucracy. Nothing different can be proposed or is proposed by the leftist critics. It is the task of the regenerated soviets to collaborate with the world revolution and the building of a socialist society. The overthrow of the bureaucracy therefore presupposes the preservation of state property and of the planned economy. Herein is the nub of the whole problem. (See pp. 4-5.)

Trotsky attempted to eliminate terminological and secondary differences and concentrate on the essentials of the problem. However one may describe the class character of the USSR, what difference would this make to the policies pursued within the USSR? The opposition failed to answer this question and instead raised a whole series of ‘concrete questions’ in an attempt to broaden the dispute.

The opposition within the SWP was certainly heterogeneous, consisting of three separate tendencies. One was led by James Burnham, a philosophy professor at New York University, who was the main theoretician of the opposition and graphically articulated its anti-Marxist character. He would later achieve fame as the author of The Managerial Revolution, and notoriety as an advocate of using atomic weapons against the USSR. The Managerial Revolution was based upon similar reactionary theories put forward by Bruno Rizzi in his book The Bureaucratism of the World, which is referred to by Trotsky in this volume. Martin Abern, a co-founder of American Trotskyism, headed a group which disagreed with Burnham’s views, but was obsessed with the removal of the Cannon ‘regime’ from the leadership. Max Shachtman, a talented writer and co-founder of the movement, took up an independent position between Burnham and the orthodox views of Trotskyism.

The last two tendencies were not prepared, for the moment, to base themselves firmly on Burnham’s politics. This resulted in an unprincipled bloc, which avoided basic principles and desired to confine the discussion to immediate questions. As a consequence, Burnham cynically withdrew his 5 September document to help cement his bloc with the other tendencies. From this point onwards, the opposition set out to challenge, in a light-minded manner, a whole series of points on Marxist theory.

In his article entitled ‘From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene’, Trotsky explained that these revisionist views had been germinating within the American movement for a number of years. The hysteria of the Second World War had simply brought matters to a head. Stalin’s pact with Hitler allowed Russian troops to invade Poland and Finland. This resulted in a wave of anti-Soviet propaganda that created panic throughout the progressive middle class, the social milieu that the intellectual members of the SWP were most in contact with. The defence of the Soviet Union under such conditions became impossible for such people. Soon, Burnham and Shachtman were talking about a ‘third camp’ between Washington and Moscow – what Trotsky described as “the camp of the stampeding petty bourgeoisie”.

Unfortunately, one of the main weaknesses of American Trotskyism, as with the early years of British Trotskyism, was its low political and theoretical level. Added to this was the fact that, as Trotsky explained:

[A] whole revolutionary generation which, because of a special conjuncture of historical conditions, [had] grown up outside of the labour movement. More than once in the past I have had to speak and write about the danger of these valuable elements degenerating despite their devotion to the revolution. What was an inescapable characteristic of adolescence in its day has become a weakness. Weakness invites disease. If neglected, the disease can become fatal… It is necessary to re-arm. (See p. 139.)

The opposition’s disdain for theory, especially dialectical materialism, which underpins the whole outlook of Marxism, proved disastrous. Its failure to understand the Marxist method inevitably led to a reliance on bourgeois pragmatism and empiricism. This was of the greatest concern to Trotsky and featured prominently throughout his contributions to the SWP debate. “The discussion has revealed that wide circles of the party lack a sound theoretical education”, he stated. “It is necessary to so utilise the discussion that it raises the theoretical level of the party.” (See p. 137.)

The development of American Trotskyism during the 1930s was a difficult task, given the objective difficulties at the time. Faced with the background of international defeats of the working class, the nightmare of the Moscow Trials and the impending world war, the development of the revolutionary movement faced many obstacles, not least the difficulty in penetrating the working class and its organisations. The Trotskyist movement was fighting against the stream, a fact that Trotsky certainly recognised:

We are a small boat in a tremendous current. There are five or ten boats and one goes down and we say it was due to bad helmsmanship. But that was not the reason – it was because the current was too strong. It is the most general explanation and we should never forget this explanation in order not to become pessimistic – we, the vanguard of the vanguard… There are courageous elements who do not like to swim with the current – it is their character. Then there are intelligent elements of bad character who were never disciplined, who always looked for a more radical or more independent tendency and found our tendency, but all of them are more or less outsiders from the general current of the workers movement. Their value inevitably has its negative side. He who swims against the current is not connected with the masses. Also, the social composition of every revolutionary movement in the beginning is not of workers. It is the intellectuals, semi-intellectuals or workers connected with the intellectuals who are dissatisfied with the existing organisation… We are all very critical towards the social composition of our organisation and we must change, but we must understand that this social composition did not fall from heaven, but was determined by the objective situation and by our historic mission in this period. (‘Fighting Against the Stream’, Writings 1938-39, p.64.)

Under these circumstances, it was even more important to maintain the principles and conquests of the Marxist movement against the attempts at revisionism and theoretical backsliding. It was essential to face towards the working class in the trade unions, factories and workplaces. Above all, it was essential to conduct a determined struggle against bourgeois influences within the movement, which reflect the pressures of capitalism on the revolutionary organisation. These difficult objective conditions, which were present in all the advanced capitalist countries, were especially hard in countries such as the United States (and Britain) dominated by its long anti-theoretical traditions, especially pragmatism and empiricism.

As soon as Trotsky set foot in the Americas, he expressed these concerns. George Novack and Shachtman met Trotsky when he arrived in Mexico. Novack, who became Trotsky’s secretary, recalled their conversations:

January 10, 1937 – the day after Trotsky and his wife Natalia had landed in Mexico. His party was on the troop-guarded private train sent by the Minister of Communications to ensure their safe conduct from Tampico to Mexico City. That sunny morning Shachtman and I sat with Trotsky in one of the compartments, bringing the exile up to date on what had happened during his enforced voyage from Norway.

Our discussions glided in the subject of philosophy in which he was informed I had a special interest. We talked about the best ways of studying dialectical materialism, about Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and the theoretical backwardness of American radicalism. Trotsky brought forward the name of Max Eastman who in various works had polemicized against dialectics as a worthless idealist hangover from the Hegelian heritage of Marxism.

He became tense, agitated. “Upon going back to the States,” he urged, “you comrades must at once take up the struggle against Eastman’s distortion and repudiation of dialectical materialism. There is nothing more important than this. Pragmatism, empiricism is the greatest curse of American thought. You must inoculate younger comrades against its infection.” (W.F. Warde, ‘Trotsky’s Views on Dialectical Materialism’, International Socialist Review, 1960, p. 111.)

Max Eastman and other radical intellectuals had been attracted to the Trotskyist movement during the late 1920s. In fact, Trotskyism was quite fashionable amongst certain sections of the intelligentsia at the time. However, they had one thing in common: they all repudiated dialectical materialism. Their whole outlook was saturated with ‘common sense’ pragmatism. These radical circles, who could be friendly to the USSR when it flirted with the allied ‘democracies’, suddenly went into a frenzy over the Stalin-Hitler pact. With the approaching war, they faithfully lined up behind their patriotic ruling class. This revulsion had its direct reflection inside the SWP with the emergence of the Burnham-Shachtman-Abern opposition.

Despite Trotsky’s advice, it was left up to him to directly answer the revisionist attacks of the opposition. While Burnham and Co. attempted to shift the argument away from the class nature of the Soviet Union on to ‘concrete questions’, Trotsky sought to bring the debate back to the importance of the Marxist method. Without a correct method, it would not be possible to understand anything, let alone the questions in dispute. In his next major contribution to the discussion, ‘A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party’, Trotsky among other things outlined the essential characteristics of the opposition:

Like any petty-bourgeois group inside the socialist movement, the present opposition is characterised by the following features: a disdainful attitude towards theory and an inclination towards eclecticism; disrespect for the tradition of their own organisation; 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 towards it; and finally, inclination to substitute clique ties and personal relationships for party discipline. (See p. 61.)

The petty-bourgeois minority demanded complete freedom to criticise anything and at all times in order to expose the ‘bureaucratic degeneration of the leadership’. They protested against the ‘over-centralism’ of the regime at every occasion. Trotsky countered:

You do not see that our American section is not sick from too much centralism – it is laughable even to talk about it – but from a monstrous abuse and distortion of democracy on the part of petty-bourgeois elements. This is at the root of the present crisis…

Petty-bourgeois, and especially declassed elements divorced from the proletariat, vegetate in an artificial and shut-in environment. They have ample time to dabble in politics or its substitute. They pick out faults, exchange all sorts of titbits and gossip concerning happenings among the party ‘tops’. They always locate a leader who initiates them into all the ‘secrets’. Discussion is their native element. No amount of democracy is ever enough for them. For their war of words, they seek the fourth dimensions. They become jittery, they revolve in a vicious circle, and they quench their thirst with salt water. Do you want to know the organisational programme of the opposition? It consists of a mad hunt for the fourth dimension of party democracy. In practice this means burying politics beneath discussion; and burying centralism beneath the anarchy of the intellectual circles. When a few thousand workers join the party, they will call the petty-bourgeois anarchists severely to order. The sooner, the better. (See pp. 121-122.)

Trotsky exposed the political weakness of the opposition by addressing an article written by Burnham and Shachtman called ‘Intellectuals in Retreat in the New International’, which was supposed to be a critique of Eastman and Hook. The authors Burnham and Shachtman wrote the following:

The two authors of the present article differ thoroughly on their estimate of the general theory of dialectical materialism, one of them accepting it and the other rejecting it… There is nothing anomalous in such a situation. (See p. 63.)

For them, their disagreements about Marxist philosophy had no relevance to concrete political questions. This clear expression of petty-bourgeois pragmatism demonstrated their contempt for Marxist theory, views which were now being reflected even within the party’s publications.

According to Trotsky:

He [Burnham] possesses a method – pragmatism. Shachtman has no method. He adapts himself to Burnham. Without assuming complete responsibility for the anti-Marxist conceptions of Burnham, he defends his bloc of aggression against the Marxist conceptions with Burnham in the sphere of philosophy as well as in the sphere of sociology. In both cases Burnham appears as a pragmatist and Shachtman as an eclectic… Not more than a few months passed before Burnham and Shachtman demonstrated that their attitude toward such an ‘abstraction’ as dialectical materialism found its precise manifestation in their attitude towards the Soviet state. (See pp. 66-67.)

From this position, Trotsky proceeded to contrast the method of dialectical materialism with formal logic, which became the central feature of his contributions. Both Burnham and Shachtman objected to Trotsky’s intervention on dialectics as a diversion and ‘red herring’, and demanded the argument return to concrete questions. They had no time for the Marxist method, which they regarded as irrelevant. However, all questions can only be understood in their material context, in their contradiction, class content and evolution. This requires a correct method. In the absence of the Marxist method, consciously or unconsciously, one is forced to adopt the established bourgeois method.

In his ‘Open Letter to Burnham’ Trotsky explained:

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 dialectical 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. (See p. 108.)

This finally forced Burnham to issue his notorious document ‘Science and Style’ (See appendix, pp. 251-280), which revealed clearly and openly his and the opposition’s break with Marxism, beginning with dialectical materialism:

Comrade Trotsky, you have absorbed too much Hegel, of his monolithic, his totalitarian vision of a block universe in which every part is related to every other part, in which everything is relevant to everything else, where the destruction of a single grain of dust means the annihilation of the Whole. I am as opposed to totalitarianism in philosophy as in the state or in the party. (See p. 266.)

On Burnham’s publication of ‘Science and Style’, Trotsky remarked:

The abscess is open. Abern and Shachtman can no longer repeat that they wish only to discuss Finland and Cannon a bit. They can no longer play blind man’s bluff with Marxism and with the Fourth International. Should the Socialist Workers Party remain in the tradition of Marx, Engels, Franz Mehring, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg – a tradition which Burnham proclaims ‘reactionary’ – or should it accept Burnham’s conceptions which are only a belated reproduction of pre-Marxist petty-bourgeois socialism?

We know too well what such revisionism signifies politically in the past. Now in the epoch of the death agony of the bourgeois society, the political consequences of Burnhamism would be incomparably more immediate and anti-revolutionary. Comrades Abern and Shachtman, you have the floor! (See p. 206.)

Despite Trotsky’s challenge, they chose not to reply.

They had reached their limit. They were maintaining political solidarity with Burnham, who had completely broken with Marxism. After six months of discussion, Cannon and his supporters won a majority at the party convention. The minority – comprising a sizable forty per cent of the membership – instead of accepting the democratic decisions, split from the party and established a rival organisation, the Workers Party.

However, within a month of its foundation, Burnham resigned from the new party as he crossed over into the camp of American imperialism. As he wrote in his resignation letter:

The faction fight in the Socialist Workers Party, its conclusion, and the recent formation of the Workers Party have been in my own case, the unavoidable occasion for the review of my own theoretical and political beliefs. This review has shown me that by no stretching of terminology can I any longer regard myself, or permit others to regard me, as a Marxist…

I reject, as you know, the ‘philosophy of Marxism’, dialectical materialism. I have never, it is true, accepted this philosophy. In the past I excused this discrepancy and compromised this belief with the idea that the philosophy wasn’t ‘important’ and ‘did not matter’ so far as practice and politics were concerned. Experience, and further study and reflection, have convinced me that I was wrong and Trotsky – with so many others – right on this score; that dialectical materialism, though scientifically meaningless, is psychologically and historically an integral part of Marxism, and does have its many and adverse effects upon practise and politics. (See pp. 281-282.)

As expected, Burnham had openly repudiated dialectical materialism, the Leninist conception of the party, the transitional programme, Bolshevism, and other such ideological baggage. Within a few months, he published the notorious ‘The Managerial Revolution’ that proclaimed the inevitability of the totalitarian state.

While the Workers Party later split and eventually ended up in the American Socialist Party, the SWP failed to take Trotsky’s advice to turn towards the working class or politically steel and educate its members. After his death, the SWP under Cannon’s leadership politically and organisationally degenerated. Unable to grasp the Marxist method, they simply repeated like parrots the phrases of Trotsky. In the rapidly changing world of the post-war period, this led to one mistake after another. James Cannon, who was no theoretician, attempted to cover up his mistakes by using organisational measures to solve political problems. This proved disastrous and, by the early 1980s, this Zinovievite method finally resulted in the break-up of the SWP, as the new leadership of Jack Barnes openly repudiated Trotskyism. The handful that remained ended up as a pro-Castroite sect on the distant fringes of US radical politics. “The American section of the Fourth International will either become proletarian or it will cease to exist,” warned Trotsky prophetically. (See p. 124.) This prognosis was confirmed by events.

The degeneration and collapse of the SWP arose from the leadership’s complete failure, starting with Cannon, to learn the lessons of Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism. Meanwhile, Shachtman shifted politically to the right, until finally ending up supporting US imperialism’s war in Vietnam.

Today’s new generation, which seeks to understand the problems of building a Marxist tendency in Britain and internationally, will find within these pages an enormous wealth of ideas. The book is Trotsky at his best: razor sharp, profound, concise and well-written. Above all, it answers the revisionists and cuts through the theoretical confusion to produce a masterpiece that can rightly be considered a Marxist classic.

Amid the world capitalist crisis and the epoch of austerity that looms before us, events are transforming the consciousness of the working class. There has developed a widespread hatred towards the bankers and the parasites of big business. In the coming period, massive class battles are on the order of the day as the capitalists attempt to make the workers pay for the crisis. As the working class is propelled into action, the mass organisations, beginning with the trade unions, will be turned upside down. The young forces of Marxism will strive to reach and win over these radicalised workers and youth. But as 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. I do not mean by cadres the ‘apparatus’ but the party as a whole. Every party member should and must consider himself an officer in the proletarian army. (See p. 138.)

The republication of this book will assist this vital education and prepare the ground for the development of genuine Marxism in Britain and internationally.

Rob Sewell
London, January 2010