Trotsky taught us class action

By Max Shachtman

TWO years ago, an assassin in the employ of the Stalinist camarilla that rules Russia drove a pickaxe into the head of Leon Trotsky and killed him.

The way of the assassin, Jackson-Morand, was typical of the way of his masters. Even before the fight between them and Trotsky broke out in the Communist Party of Russia, they never faced him in fair and square debate or struggle.

They always operated best from behind the scenes, skulking in the corridors and the dark corners, for the weapons they employed to crush the revolutionary ideas and socialist ideals represented by Trotsky were not of a kind that anybody displays or boasts about openly. They were the weapons of the lie, of deception, of forgery and misrepresentation, of hypocrisy, of frame-up, of ambush, of the stab in the back.

What other weapons can reaction bring to bear against the ideas of revolutionary socialism, the ideas of working class freedom, which nobody represented more brilliantly, more single-mindedly, more honourably in his time than Leon Trotsky? How else can the banner-bearers of truth be stopped or delayed in their advance than by disloyal trickery, skulduggery and the foul stab in the dark?

That is how Trotsky was disposed of by the gang of cut-throats who saw in him the living combination of conscience and brain of the great Russian Revolution which they had destroyed in order to established their own reactionary sway. But hard as it was to dispose of Trotsky, it is a hundred thousand times harder to dispose of the ideas he represented and the truths he taught because they rest upon the irrepressible needs of the working class and all the oppressed.

For that reason, Trotsky’s ideas will never be forgotten so long as there are exploited and oppressed people fighting for victory. For the same reason, Trotsky will be forever enshrined in history after that victory has been won.

What were his ideas? What do they mean for the American working class today?

Over and over again Trotsky showed by logic arguments derived from the rich experience of social struggles throughout the world that there is only one class left in modern society capable of leading the world out of the multitude of contradictions and conflicts that continue to tear it to pieces at the expense of the toiling masses. That class is the working class.

Be it in a backward country like Russia or an advanced state like England; a fascist country like Germany, a semi-feudal militarist dictatorship like Japan, or a democratic country like the United States; a colony like Ceylon, a half-colony like China, a modern imperialist metropolis like England – the working class alone is the consistently progressive class. Any social task that it does not solve by its own independent action will either not be solved at all, or else will be solved in a most reactionary and harmful way.

You can spot a scoundrel and a fraud a hundred miles off by the scientific test provided for us by Trotsky (and by his own great teachers before him, Lenin, Marx and Engels). You can detect the agent or apologist of any type or variety of exploiter — on the big scale of a monopoly capitalist or the small scale of a trade union bureaucrat — by what he says about the role of the working class.

He will always say, in one set of worlds or another, that the working class must follow the leadership of somebody else; that the working class is composed of a fine bunch of fellows, especially fine for working hard, but that it really is not suited for leadership of society; that the working class is composed of splendid fighters, but they need a clever boss over themselves, preferably one working for the capitalists and their social system.

Watch them like hawks, warned Trotsky. Watch them, be their name Stalin or Hitler, Churchill or Roosevelt, Chiang Kai Shek or Gandhi, Ley or Bevin, or Lozovsky or Green. For all the great differences among them, they have at least this in common: they teach the workers not to rely on their own class strength, not to rely on their own class organisation, not to rely on their own class leadership.

“The emancipation of the working class is the work of the working class itself”, said Karl Marx. Trotsky showed how true this was in a hundred different cases. But not merely by professorial argument. He showed it right in the heat of the struggle in every part of the globe, in a dozen different varieties of situations.

No social or political movement can advance progressively, can bring the people to an improved position in any respect, and do it in a durable, consistent way, unless it is led by the working class and spearheaded by the revolutionary working-class party.

The Russian Revolution cannot be kept alive and consolidated unless the working class is at the helm, taught Trotsky. Oh no, said the mob of upstart bureaucrats, that’s not at all necessary. We’re not theoreticians like Trotsky, we’re not utopians like Trotsky, we’re clever and practical people.

We’ll take care of everything by kicking the workers out of power and taking control ourselves.

We’ll take care of the rest of the world by making the international labour movement a tool in our hands for manoeuvring cunningly among the imperialists abroad. The result of the work of the “practical” bureaucrats was the assassination of the Russian Revolution and its great achievements.

The Chinese people can gain their national freedom and emancipate themselves from the yoke of foreign imperialism only if the Chinese workers establish their own power with the aid of the working peasants, taught Trotsky. Oh no, replied all the smart, ever-so-practical politicians.

You can’t do that in such a backward country as China. In the first place, the imperialists will be very angry with you. In the second place, the Chinese capitalists will run right over to the imperialists. We must prevent that at all costs, even if it means that we ourselves keep the workers and peasants under heel. They are excellent for fighting purposes, but they’re either too stupid or too dangerous to take over power.

The result of the policy of the “practical” people is visible the world over today. China is further from national freedom than she was fifteen years ago. The workers are suffering the most intense misery and oppression under Japanese imperialist rule on the one side, and are being used as cannon fodder for the plans of opposing imperialism on the other side.

You can’t fight the plague of fascism unless the workers unite and take the leadership, unless they are organised and trained for fighting instead of whining, unless they take the road to independent class power, taught Trotsky. You can’t bring all humanity out of the abyss of barbarism into which it is being pushed down, you can’t take the high road to a society of free and equal human beings, you can’t replace the putrefying, stinking older order with the new order of socialism unless the proletariat is freed, first, from its dependence on other classes and other leadership, unless the proletariat is first organised as an independent class, with its own programme, army and leadership.

The failure of the working class everywhere to follow the teachings of Leon Trotsky has produced the heavy defeats it has suffered. Its most recent product is the slaughter of the peoples in the war, and pounding blows being delivered labour in one country after another, the United States included.

Of all that Trotsky taught, this fundamental idea of the complete independence and need of self-reliance of the working class is the one upon which all the others rest. Of all that Trotsky taught, including those ideas and tactics which in our judgement were erroneous and with which we found it our duty to disagree, nothing could possibly weaken the power of this fundamental idea.

In this sign we shall conquer, says the old motto. If the working class is to emerge from the dreadful crisis in which it finds itself today, especially in this country where it is so vastly powerful and uses this power so poorly; if the working class is to conquer in spite of all – and conquer it must and will – it will do so in the sign of Trotsky’s wise and tested teachings.

It will conquer as the sworn foe of the capitalist class everywhere; as the foe of all its attorneys and pillars, be they social-democratic, trade-union bureaucrats or Stalinist exploiters; as the foe of imperialist war; as the foe of colonial oppression; as the foe of fascist barbarism. It will conquer as the champion of internationalism, of world-wide brotherhood of the peoples, as the trailblazer of proletarian revolution and socialist freedom.

• From Labour Action, August 1942