Against the Stream - a Discussion between Trotsky and CLR James

Submitted by AWL on 11 May, 2005 - 10:18 Author: Trotsky/CLR James

European Stalinism began to collapse with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The former USSR satellites on whose people Russian Stalinism had imposed totalitarian dictatorship for nearly 50 years began to free themselves from Russia overlordship. Stalinism in the USSR itself collapsed completely when an inept hard-line Stalinist attempted coup failed, in August 1991.

The collapse of Stalinism destroyed the vicious counterfeit of socialism that had ruled there in the name of socialism and communism, but really in the interests of the Stalinist bureaucratic ruling class. It thereby created some of the conditions for a rebirth of real socialism. But that “rebirth” is taking much longer than we might have hoped.

Though the collapse of Stalinism created new possibilities for unfalsified Marxist socialism, the mere collapse was not in itself sufficient for Marxist revival. The 15 years since Stalinism crumbled have been years of immense capitalist expansion.

The collapse of Stalinism seemed to be a negative verdict by history on all possible attempts to replace capitalism with a planned economy. Capitalism had triumphed over its Stalinist rival; capitalism was vindicated: the future would be like the capitalist past, only with many of its kinks and problems ironed out.

Not only Stalinism crumbled, but also the sort of reform socialism which the Labour Party once embodied. Vast numbers of socialists, even when they were critical of Stalinism, accepted the idea that Stalin was nonetheless an historical advance beyond capitalism and that it would be replaced by working class democratic socialism, not as it has, by a chaotic return to caplitalism.

Many were intimidated by the wave of anti-socialist propaganda, proclaiming the “death” of socialism.

Large numbers of such people gave up on socialism when capitalism and not working-class power replaced Russian and Eastern European Stalinism.

The forces that might have provided the drive to re-win the working class and the labour movements of Europe to authentic Marxist socialism were thus severely depleted.

And then much of the Trotskyists left that existed when the USSR collapsed, itself collapsed morally and politically. The biggest revolutionary group in Britain, the SWP, has collapsed into an astonishingly political degeneration that lines it up with reactionary political Islam and with the Stalinoid-Islamist George Galloway.

In Against the Stream (1938), Trotsky analyses the reasons why, though the Trotskyists had been tragically proved right in the key political issues of the 1930s — the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, the corruption that was Stalinism — they had not become the powerful organised force they needed to be. It is a comment in discussion with his US comrades. We reprint it here as an aid to comrades today understanding the conditions that have so far inhibited the development of revolutionary Marxism. That it will revive — if the Marxists play their part — is as certain as the fact that class struggle is endemic to capitalism.

The question is why we are not progressing in correspondence with the value of our conceptions, which are not so meaningless as some friends believe. We are not progressing politically. Yes, it is a fact, which is an expression of a general decay of the workers’ movements in the last fifteen years. It is the more general cause.

When the revolutionary movement in general is declining, when one defeat follows another, when fascism is spreading over the world, when the official “Marxism” is the most powerful organisation of deception of the workers, and so on, it is an inevitable situation that the revolutionary elements must work against the general historic current, even if our ideas, our explanations, are as exact and wise as one can demand.

But the masses are not educated by prognostic theoretical conception, but by general experiences of their lives. It is the most general explanation — the whole situation is against us. There must be a turn in the class realisation, in the sentiments, in the feelings of the masses; a turn which will give us the opportunity for a large political success.

I remember some discussions in 1927 in Moscow after Chiang Kaishek stifled the Chinese workers. We predicted this ten days before and Stalin opposed us with the argument that Borodin was vigilant, that Chiang Kaishek would not have the chance to betray us, etc. I believe that it was eight or ten days later that the tragedy occurred, and our comrades expressed optimism because our analysis was so clear that everyone would see it and we would be sure to win the party. I answered that the strangulation of the Chinese revolution is a thousand times more important for the masses than our predictions. Our predictions can win some few intellectuals who take an interest in such things, but not the masses. The military victory of Chiang Kaishek will inevitably provoke a depression and this is not conducive to the growth of a revolutionary faction.

Since 1927 we have had a long series of defeats. We are similar to a group who attempt to climb a mountain and who must suffer again and again a downfall of stone, snow, etc. In Asia and Europe is created a new desperate mood of the masses. They heard something analogous to what we say ten or fifteen years ago from the Communist Party and they are pessimistic. That is the general mood of the workers. It is the most general reason. We cannot withdraw from the general historic current — from the general constellation of the forces. The current is against us, that is clear.

I remember the period between 1908 and 1913 in Russia. There was also a reaction. In 1905 we had the workers with us — in 1908 and even in 1907 began the great reaction.

Everybody invented slogans and methods to win the masses and nobody won them — they were desperate. In this time the only thing we could do was to educate the cadres and they were melting away. There was a series of splits to the right or to the left or to syndicalism and so on. Lenin remained with a small group, a sect, in Paris, but with confidence that there would be new possibilities of a rise. It came in 1913. We had a new tide, but then came the war to interrupt this development.

During the war there was a silence as of death among the workers. The Zimmerwald conference [of the Marxist anti-war left] was a conference of very confused elements in its majority. In the deep recesses of the masses, in the trenches and so on, there was a new mood, but it was so deep and terrorised that we could not reach it and give it an expression. That is why the movement seemed to itself to be very poor and even this element that met in Zimmerwald, in its majority, moved to the right in the next year, in the next month. I will not liberate them from their personal responsibility, but still the general explanation is that the movement had to swim against the current.

Our situation now is incomparably more difficult than that of any other organisation in any other time, because we have the terrible betrayal of the Communist International, which arose from the betrayal of the Second International. The degeneration of the Third International developed so quickly and so unexpectedly that the same generation which heard its formation now hears us, and they say, “But we have already heard this once!”

Then there is the defeat of the Left Opposition in Russia. The Fourth International is connected genetically to the Left Opposition; the masses call us Trotskyists. “Trotsky wishes to conquer power, but why did he lose power?” It is an elementary question. We must begin to explain this by the dialectic of history, by the conflict of classes, that even a revolution produces a reaction.

Max Eastman [who helped publish Trotsky’s work in the US, but later became a fervent “anti-communist”] wrote that Trotsky places too much value on doctrine and if he had more common sense he would not have lost power. Nothing in the world is so convincing as success and nothing so repelling as defeat for the large masses.

You have also the degeneration of the Third International on the one side and the terrible defeat of the Left Opposition with the extermination of the whole group. These facts are a thousand times more convincing for the working class than our poor paper with even the tremendous circulation of 5,000 like the Socialist Appeal [publication started by the US Trotskyists in the late 30s].

We are in 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 would never forget this explanation in order not to become pessimistic — we, the vanguard of the vanguard.

Then this environment creates special groups of elements around our banner. 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 organisations.

You find in every country a lot of foreigners who are not so easily involved in the labour movement of the country. A Czech in America or in Mexico would more easily become a member of the Fourth International than in Czechoslovakia. The same for a Frenchman in the US. The national atmosphere has a tremendous power over individuals. The Jews in many countries represent the semi-foreigners, not totally assimilated, and they adhere to any new critical, revolutionary, or semirevolutionary tendency in politics, in art, literature, and so on. A new radical tendency directed against the general current of history in this period crystallises around the elements more or less separated from the national life of any country and for them it is more difficult to penetrate into the masses.

We are all very critical toward 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.

It does not signify that we must be satisfied with the situation. Insofar as it concerns France, it is a long tradition of the French movement connected with the social composition of the country. Especially in the past the petty-bourgeois mentality — individualism on the one side, and on the other an elan, a tremendous capacity for improvising.

If you compare in the classic time of the Second International you will find that the French Socialist Party and the German Social Democratic Party had the same number of representatives in parliament. But if you compare the organisations, you will find they are incomparable. The French could only collect 25,000 francs with the greatest difficulty but in Germany to send half a million was nothing. The Germans had in the trade unions some millions of workers and the French had some millions who did not pay their dues. Engels once wrote a letter in which he characterised the French organisation and finished with, “and as always, the dues do not arrive.”

Our organisation suffers from the same illness, the traditional French sickness: this incapacity to organise and at the same time lack of conditions for improvisation. Even so far as we now had a tide in France, it was connected with the People’s Front. In this situation the defeat of the People’s Front was the proof of the correctness of our conceptions just as was the extermination of the Chinese workers. But the defeat was a defeat and it is directed against revolutionary tendencies until a new tide on a higher level will appear in the new time. We must wait and prepare — a new element, a new factor, in this constellation.

We have comrades who came to us, like Naville and others, fifteen or sixteen or more years ago when they were young boys. Now they are mature people and their whole conscious life they have had only blows, defeats, and terrible defeats on an international scale and they are more or less acquainted with this situation. They appreciate very highly the correctness of their conceptions and they can analyse, but they never had the capacity to penetrate, to work with the masses and they have not acquired it. There is a tremendous necessity to look at what the masses are doing. We have such people in France. I know much less about the British situation, but I believe that we have such people there also.

Why have we lost people? After terrible international defeats we had in France a movement on a very primitive and a very low political level under the leadership of the People’s Front. The People’s Front — I think this whole period — is a kind of caricature of our February revolution. It is shameful in a country like France, which 150 years ago passed through the greatest bourgeois revolution in the world, that the workers’ movement should pass through a caricature of the Russian Revolution.

It is a tremendous factor in producing the mentality of the masses. The active factor was the degeneration of the Communist Party.

In 1914 the Bolsheviks were absolutely dominating the workers’ movement. It was on the threshold of the war. The most exact statistics show that the Bolsheviks represented not less than three-fourths of the proletarian vanguard. But beginning with the February revolution, the most backward people — peasants, soldiers, even former Bolshevik workers — were attracted toward this People’s Front current and the Bolshevik Party became isolated and very weak. The general current was on a very low level, but powerful, and moved toward the October Revolution.

It is a question of tempo. In France, after all the defeats, the People’s Front attracted elements that sympathised with us theoretically but were involved with the movement of the masses and we became for some time more isolated than before. You can combine all these elements. I can even affirm that many (but not all) of our leading comrades, especially in old sections, by a new turn of situation would be rejected by the revolutionary mass movement and new leaders, fresh leadership, will arise in the revolutionary current.

In France the regeneration began with the entry into the Socialist Party. The policy of the Socialist Party was not clear, but it won many new members. These new members were accustomed to a large milieu. After the split they became a little discouraged. They were not so steeled. Then they lost their not-so-steeled interest and were regained by the current of the People’s Front. It is regrettable, but it is explainable.

In Spain the same reasons played the same role with the supplementary factor of the deplorable conduct of the Nin group [the POUM]. He was in Spain as [a] representative of the Russian Left Opposition, and during the first year he did not try to mobilise, to organise our independent elements. We hoped that we would win Nin for the correct conception, and so on. Publicly the Left Opposition gave him its support. In private correspondence we tried to win him and push him forward, but without success. We lost time. Was it correct? It is difficult to say.

If in Spain we had had an experienced comrade, our situation would be incomparably more favorable, but we did not have one. We put all our hopes on Nin, and his policy consisted of personal manoeuvres in order to avoid responsibility.

He played with the revolution. He was sincere, but his whole mentality was that of a Menshevik. It was a tremendous handicap, and to fight against this handicap only with correct formulas falsified by our own representatives in the first period, the Nins, made it very difficult.

Do not forget that we lost the first revolution in 1905. Before our first revolution we had the tradition of high courage, self-sacrifice, etc. Then we were pushed back to a position of a miserable minority of thirty or forty men. Then came the war.

In 1910 in the whole country there were a few dozen people. Some were in Siberia. But they were not organised. The people whom Lenin could reach by correspondence or by an agent numbered about thirty or forty at most. However, the tradition and the ideas among the more advanced workers was a tremendous capital, which was used later during the revolution, but practically, at this time, we were absolutely isolated.

Yes, history has its own laws which are very powerful — more powerful than our theoretical conceptions of history. Now you have in Europe a catastrophe — the decline of Europe, the extermination of countries. It has a tremendous influence on the workers when they observe these movements of diplomacy, of the armies, and so on, and on the other side a small group with a small paper which makes explanations. But it is a question of his being mobilised tomorrow and of his children being killed. There is a terrible disproportion between the task and the means.

If the war begins now, and it seems that it will begin, then in the first month we will lose two-thirds of what we now have in France. They will be dispersed. They are young and will be mobilised. Subjectively many will remain true to our movement. Those who will not be arrested and who will remain — there may be three or five — I do not know how many, but they will be absolutely isolated.

Only after some months will the criticism and the disgust begin to show on a large scale and everywhere our isolated comrades — in a hospital, in a trench, a woman in a village — will find a changed atmosphere and will say a courageous word. And the same comrade who was unknown in some section of Paris will become a leader of a regiment, of a division, and will feel himself to be a powerful revolutionary leader. This change is in the character of our period.

I do not wish to say that we must reconcile ourselves with the impotence of our French organisation. I believe that with the help of the American comrades we can win the PSOP and make a great leap forward. The situation is ripening and it says to us, “You must utilise this opportunity.” And if our comrades turn their backs the situation will change. It is absolutely necessary that your American comrades go to Europe again and that they do not simply give advice, but together with the International Secretariat decide that our section should enter the PSOP. It has some thousands. From the point of view of a revolution it is not a big difference, but from the point of view of working it is a tremendous difference. With fresh elements we can make a tremendous leap forward.

Now in the United States we have a new character of work and I believe we can be very optimistic without illusions and exaggerations. In the United States we have a larger credit of time. The situation is not so immediate, so acute. That is important.

Then I agree with Comrade Stanley who writes that we can now have very important successes in the colonial and semicolonial countries. We have a very important movement in Indochina. I agree absolutely with Comrade James that we can have a very important Negro movement, because these people have not passed through the history of the last two decades so intimately. As a mass they did not know about the Russian Revolution and the Third International. They can begin history as from the beginning. It is absolutely necessary for us to have fresh blood. That is why we have more success among the youth. Insofar as we have been capable of approaching them, we have had good results. They are very attentive to a clear and honest revolutionary programme.

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