By Max Shachtman
It was in the fight against the Moscow Trials that so many many American radical intellectuals learned to understand the modern communist state and movement. Most of them became friendly to the Trotskyists; a few even joined their ranks.
But even though none of them remained Trotskyists for long, they took this insight with them for the rest of their lives. So did others during this stormy period. Still others gained this insight during the Hitler-Stalin pact. And still others were to acquire it only after the sanguinary suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, years later.
If there is one man to be singled out as the individual who was the main source of this insight, this understanding, this cleansing of the struggle for democracy and socialism from the corroding blight of totalitarianism, that man is Trotsky. No movement that I know of was ever so dependent on a single leader for its ideas, its guidance, and its inspiration, as was the Trotskyist movement. However that may be judged, it is a fact.
He may have erred in many ways, as indeed he did — in more ways, I believe, than today’s Trotskyists might grant. And not everything he said or did has endured the unmerciful test of time. But no matter how severely critics may rate him, objectivity and fairness would compel a recognition of his gifts.
He was the captain of the Bolshevik Revolution. Without any professional training, he was the creator and leader, and often the filed commander of the Red Army in the early days. The theory and politics of Marxism was the home in which he was an easy master. He was probably the greatest orator of his time, certainly the greatest in the revolutionary movement. The muscular elegance of his literary gift was not equalled by anyone else in the ranks of the Marxists, whatever their school. The purity and wholeness of his commitment to the socialist idea was unsurpassed and he was as unflagging in adversity, of which he had had an ample share, as he was unaffected in victory.
Early in the days when the process began that transformed the liberating hopes of the revolution into the reality of the new tyranny, he took his stand against the recession without asking if it was popular or unpopular to do so, without making sure first of all that victory was guaranteed in advance, without concern for his personal fate.
Against the rise of totalitarianism he planted his feet wide and stubbornly, never giving ground or bending his neck, fighting with open visor and with the weapons of his rich intellectual arsenal.
Even after all his comrades had fallen or conceded to the enemy, even after he was driven from exile to exile on three continents he did not waver in his chosen battle until his last day, and then only when a blow split open his skull.
There have not been many figures like this in the political world of our century. It is no wonder then that his ideas and his struggles opened the minds and lifted the hearts of many of the best of a whole generation, young and old.
The Trotskyists did not succeed in the thirties, or afterward, in becoming a real political force, as the Communists for a while did.
But while Trotskyism did not create a political party, it did create a political school. And many learned their politics and their ideals in it.
In studying in this school, in working in it, in fighting with it, there was much to learn. And if in later years, many found that some of it had to be unlearned, much of it proved nonetheless to be fructifying and durable; and it remained.
It would not be easy to find many of those who went throgh this school and fought its fight in the thirties who would express resentments or regrets. Justice Holmes once wrote: "A man should have a part in the passions and the actions of him time, at the peril of being judged not to have lived." Those of us who went through the thirties would subscribe heartily to these handsome words. We know how true they were then. You will surely understand me if I add that they are no less true of the sixties.
Max Shachtman 1967