Why for socialists the working class is central

Max Shachtman

WE consider ourselves as heirs of the Trotskyist movement when it was a living movement in the full sense of the word, when it represented the imperishable tradition of revolutionary Marxism. And today, 25 years after the founding [in 1928] of that movement, looking backward with a minimum of maudlin sentimentality and a maximum of calm, objective and reasoned analysis — what do we celebrate on this 25th anniversary?

What do we seek to represent in the working class movement as a whole, of which we are an inseparable part? What fundamentally justifies our independent and separate existence, our stiff-necked obduracy in maintaining that existence, in refusing to give up in insisting not only that we will hold on to what we have but get more and more until our ideas infuse the bloodstream of the whole working class movement?

It is the essence of revolutionary Marxism — that respect in which it always differed, as it differs today, from every other social and political tendency, from every other movement, from every other mode of thought in society.

And that essence can be summed up in these four words: Marxism is proletarian socialism.

They say — by “they” I mean professors former professors, aspirant professors — that there are as many schools of socialism as there are socialists. Every Princeton student bursts his seams when he hears this: “There are other socialisms, and which of the 57 varieties are you referring to?”

I, who like a joke as well as the next man, would be the last man in the world to dream of depraving these poor, intellectually poverty-stricken apologists for a decaying capitalist social order of their little joke. And you will admit it is little.

So I will say: Yes, historically and actually — if it will make you happy, and after all we socialists are for the extension of happiness — there are 57 and even a greater number of socialisms.

When Marx came on the intellectual scene, in Germany, in France, in Belgium and in England, there were any number of socialisms; and there were socialisms before Marx was born; and there were socialisms promulgated after he died. Marx mentioned a few in his deathless Communist Manifesto. There were the “True Socialists”, the Christian socialists, the reformer socialists, cooperative socialists, the reformer socialists, cooperative socialists, bourgeois socialists, feudal socialists, agrarian socialists, royal and imperial Prussian socialists. They existed and continue to exist. In our time we had “National-Socialists”; we have had if I may say so “Stalinist socialism”. Stalinist socialism — I don’t like to say that, but we do have all sorts of “socialists”.

But even if it gives the professors and the Vassar students another burst seam, I say there is one socialism that we adhere to. Even if we will not say that this is the “true” socialism, that it is the “right” socialism, that it is the “genuine” socialism — we will say that it is our socialism.

If you don’t find it “true” you can become a royal and imperial Prussian socialist, you can become a Stalinist “socialist”, you can become (every man is entitled to his joke) a “Sidney Hook socialist”. For we believe in everybody having the right to be any kind of socialist, or anti-socialist, he wants. We claim no more for our socialism, than the fact that it is ours.

Marxian socialism is distinguished form all the others, not in the fact that it holds to the so-called labour theory of value, and not even in the fact that it developed the ideas of dialectical materialism, and not even in the fact that it participates in and prosecutes the class struggle. Its fundamental and irreconcilable difference with all the others is this: Marxism is proletarian socialism.

The great discovery of Marxism — what distinguished it as a new socialism in its day, what distinguished the great discovery of Karl Marx in his search for a “bearer of philosophy” as he used to say in his early days, in his search for a “carrier” out of the contradictions of capitalism — the great discovery of Marxism was the revolutionary character of the modern proletariat.

That is the essence, that is the durable characteristic, of Marxian socialism. Proletarian socialism, scientific socialism as distinct from all other socialist schools, from utopian socialism, dates from that great discovery — the social revolutionary character of the modern proletariat.

When speaking of socialism and socialist revolution we seek “no condescending saviours” as our great battle hymn, the International, so ably says. We do not believe that well-wishing reforms — and there are well-wishing reformers – will solve the problems of society, let alone bring socialism.

We are distinguished from them all in this one respect above all others — we believe that task belongs to the proletariat, only the proletariat itself. That is a world-shattering idea. It overshadows all social thought.

The most profound, important and lasting thought in Marxism, the most pregnant thought in Marxism is contained in Marx’s phrase that the emancipation of the proletariat is the task of the proletariat itself. It is clearly the most revolutionary idea very conceived, if you understand it in all of its great implications.

That is why we are in the tradition of the Paris Commune, for example, the first great attempt of the proletariat to emancipate itself. That is why we are in the tradition of the great revolution in Russia — the Bolshevik revolution — the second great attempt of the proletariat to emancipate itself. That’s why we defend it from its detractors. That’s why we are so passionate about it. That’s why we are, if you will, so “dogmatic”. We know what we are defending even if they do not always know what they are attacking.

And that is what we learn all over again from Trotskyists what we have begun to forget, what we have begun to ignore, what we have begun to take for granted.

If I may speak for myself, I can tell you I will never forget the explosion in my Communist smugness when for the first time I read Trotsky’s criticism of the draft programme of the Comintern, written when he had already been banished to Alma-Ata in 1928, written for the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International. What a commentary it is on the Communist movement in 1928 that, so far back, that precious Marxian document, which is so fresh to this hour, had to be written in exile in Russian in 1928 — in exile! It had to be transmitted by theft; Cannon had to steal his copy in Moscow from the Comintern secretariat and smuggle it into the US. It had to be disseminated here in the Communist Party illicitly, to three or four people who would read it behind locked doors — because if the leaders of the CP found out that we had it (let alone that we were reading it, let alone that we were favourably influenced by it) they would put us on trial and expel us, and they did.

To read that work and to know what was really going on in that fight of Trotskyism, that it was always a question of international socialism versus national socialism, the coordinative efforts to bring about socialism of the entire working class of the world as against the messianic, nationalistic utopian idea that it could be established in one country alone by the efforts of a benevolent bureaucracy of the working class — that had a shattering effect upon our thinking.

We learned then from Trotskyism what we hold so firmly to now: There can be no socialism without the working class of the world, no socialism without the working class of Russia. Twenty-five years later we see the results of building socialism without the international working class – without the Russian working class and against the Russian working class. No matter how many books you leaf through, no matter how old they are, where will you find the story of such an unendurable tyranny as has been established in the Stalinist countries, where “socialism” has been built without the working class and against the working class?

We are the living carriers and embodiment of the ideas to be learned from these events. We are its living teachers, for those whom we can get to listen in these days of darkness, confusion and cowardice.

In this country we have learned far more about the meaning of the idea of an American labour party, a labour party based on the trade unions, than we ever dreamed was represented by that idea when we first put it forward in 1922 in the American Communist movement, than when we put it forward again and again later in the Trotskyists movement. To us it represents a declaration of independence of the working class, its first great step in the country toward self-emancipation, and also to us it represents the remedy for that series of tragedies, calamities, misunderstandings and frustrations represented by New Dealism — that is, collaboration of the working class with a benevolent liberal bourgeoisie.

And what it represents runs through everything we say and everything we do and everything we want others to do in the United States and elsewhere: Not with them — not under them — you yourselves are the masters not only of your own fate but the masters of the fate of all society if you but take control of society into your own hands! That is your destiny! That is the hope of us all.

We are optimistic because that will remain our hope in the greatest hours of adversity, while everywhere else lies pessimism. Our role is to teach Marxism, that Marxism which is proletarian socialism, Marxist politics, socialist politics. Our idea of politics boil down to this revolutionary idea — to teach the working class to rely upon itself, upon its own organisation, upon its own programme, upon its own leadership. Upon its own ideas and need for democracy, and to subordinate itself at any time to the interest, the needs, the leadership, the programme, the movement, the organisation, or the ideas of any other class.

We regret that in other branches of the socialist movement or what is called the socialist movement, that idea does not dominate every thought. We are proud that in our section of the socialist movement it does dominate every thought. We are proud that in our section of the socialist movement it does dominate every thought and every deed. That’s why we are Marxists; that’s what we learned all over again in many intellectual and political battles under that peerless teacher and peerless revolutionary Trotsky.

And we start by teaching socialists to rely upon themselves.

When we read for the first time the New Course by Trotsky, his work directed against the first big and dangerous manifestations of bureaucratism in the Russian Soviet state, another explosion took place in our smugness. I venture to call it — it’s an awkward phrase and I hope it’s not too badly misunderstood — a bible of working class democracy. This was Trotsky’s brilliant simple overwhelming pamphlet on how a socialist movement should act inside and outside, how a socialist state should act, how socialist leaders and socialist ranks, the socialist elders and the socialist youth, should act toward themselves and one another…

What we have learned more sturdily than every before, what is more completely a part of our Marxian idea of proletarian socialism, is that there is no socialism and no progress to socialism without the working class, without the working class revolution, without the working class in power, without the working class having been lifted to “political supremacy” (as Marx called it) to their “victory of democracy” (as Marx also calls it). No socialism and no advance to socialism without it! That is our rock. That is what we build the fight for the socialist future on. That is what we’re unshakably committed to.

Look at what has happened — I hold them up as horrible examples — to all and singly who have renounced this struggle after having known its meaning. They have no confidence in the social-revolutionary power of the proletariat — that is the alpha and omega of them all. One will embroider it with colour thread and another with another, but at bottom that is it.

I claim to know whereof I speak because I know so many of them and know them so intimately — excuse me, knew them so intimately and know also what caused their renunciation of the struggle. They have been corrupted by that most ancient of corrupt ideas: that as for the lower class, there must always be one; that the lower class must always be exploited and oppressed; that there is not other way. That’s their real feeling and that’s what caused their renunciation of the struggle.

They are the Stalinists in reverse. They have lost their faith in the socialist faith for that reason and for that reason primarily and fundamentally.

They have lost their respect for the working class because for so long a period of time it can, and it has, and it does, lie dormant and stagnant and seems to be absolutely passive, immobilised in permanence. In other words, they have doomed it — this working class which has shown itself so capable of so many miracles in the past hundred and two hundred years of its struggle against the bourgeoisie and against oppression in general — doomed it to eternal servitude. That’s why they are not Trotskyists; that’s why they’re not socialists; that’s why they’re not democrats; that’s why they’re not people with human integrity any longer.

Ask any of them point-blank (if you’re on sufficiently good terms with them): do you believe that the working class can every rule society and usher in a classless socialist regime? Do you believe that the working class has that capacity innate within it? Not one of them, if he is honest, will admit agreeing with it. You will notice everyone of them beginning to hedge and to hem and to haw and to talk about 25 other subjects — because in all of them the corrupt idea has taken sound and firm roots that the working class will always be oppressed and exploited by someone or another.

Look at Burnham and his “Machiavellians” — the whole theory is there, the whole snobbish bourgeois theory that goes back to feudalism and goes back to slavery before that: there have to be exploited workers and the best they can hope for is that the rulers fight among themselves and that in the interstices of this fight they may be able to promote their own interests just a little bit without ever changing their exploited status.

What is this at bottom but a variety of that notorious philosophy which the Stalinoid intellectuals and apologists used to whisper to us in justification of their support of the Kremlin: “You don’t mean to say that you really believe that the working class can emancipate themselves, can themselves take power?… They need a strong hand over them…”

These people can’t absorb the idea that the workers can free themselves. Take that diluted variety of these sceptics, the pro-war socialists (if you can call them socialists):

We would be for a Third Camp you see, if it existed. Show us a Third Camp and we would be the first ones to be for it — if it were big and powerful and had lots of dues-paying members. But there is no Third Camp now, so why be for it? But the minute it comes into being — we don’t believe that it will ever happen, of course, but if despite our scepticism it should come into being against capitalism (which were are not really for) and against Stalinism (which we detest), we will support it with all the power of speech and pen at our command. But until then allow us to be the snobs and careerists that we are.

Those who swoon with delight at being accepted nowadays in respectable society (of which, alas, we are not a part) have lost all respect for themselves — that’s what it is with the cynics, with the somewhat milder version, the sceptics, the climbers, the turncoats and the veterans who never saw combat in the class struggle and who nevertheless have the effrontery to live off pensions from the bourgeoisie today in various institutions reserved for them exclusively.

For us who have nothing in common with such people and want nothing in common with such people, in all their 57 schools, the 25th anniversary comes after a quarter century of defeats and setbacks, yes, but defeats and setbacks accumulated only because men and movements left the working class in the lurch.

But although it is silent so often, and silent for so longer, and although it is disoriented, this proletariat — today’s proletariat, or tomorrow’s like yesterday’s — will outlast this trial as it will outlast its old leaders and resume its iron march to socialist freedom. Our confidence in it, maintained these 25 years, is undiminished 25 years after we took up the banner of renewed faith in it and renewed willingness to learn from it, as well as to teach it what we know.

For the man who lives for himself, alone like a clod of mud in a ditch, like a solitary animal in a savage forest, 25 years of dedication to socialism is an incomprehensible as it is unendurable. But we are, thank god, not like the clods of mud, the careerists and the opportunists, the philistines of all sorts and varieties who have specially strong fountains of strength in this last trench of world capitalism, the United States. We are people who have been intellectually and spiritually emancipated by the great philosophical and cultural revolution in thought that Marx began and Trotsky so richly expanded. We are the fortunate ones who are not resigned and know that they need no resign ourselves, to the inevitability of advancing barbarism, to the decay and disintegration of society.

We know with scientific sureness that no reaction — not matter how strong at the moment, no matter how prolonged — can destroy that social force whose very conditions of existence force it into a revolutionary struggle against the conditions of its existence, the proletariat.

We know with scientific sureness that no matter how dark and powerful reaction may be at any given time, it not only generates but regenerates its gravedigger — that same proletariat, the only social force which class society has endowed with infinite capacity for recuperation from temporary defeat.

And we know with scientific sureness that the achievement of the fullest development of democracy which is socialism, is in safe hands when entrusted to the proletariat and in safe hands only when it is in its charge, for it alone must have democracy for its existence and it alone can realise it in full by its irrepressible aspiration for socialism and its unceasing fight for it.

For the man to whom the debasement and oppression of others is a mortal offence to himself, who cannot live as a free man while others are unfree, who understands that without resisting the decay of society there is no life worth living — for him the informed struggle against exploitation and social iniquity is the blood-stream of life. It is indispensable to the self-realisation of humanity and therefore to the attainment of his own dignity. It is the mark of his respect for his fellow man, of his yearning to gain the respect of others, and therewith to assure his respect for himself.

For such men, and we count ourselves as such these turbulent 25 years are a long episode that has given richer and stouter meaning to the moral life of all who passed through it with their loyalties unimpaired, and it is in this life, the life of freedom, that the founder of our contemporary movement Leon Trotsky was a startling example.

It is to the grand vindication of this life that lies ahead that we renew our bond tonight — the oldest and noblest bond in history, the bond that will be redeemed only on the day when the last chain has been struck from the body and mind of man, so that he may walk for the first time among his equals erect.

• From Max Shachtman’s speech on “25 years of Trotskyism in America”, delivered on 18 November 1953.