A. On 30 November Russia invaded Finland, and a five month war followed, in the course of which there was a serious possibility that French and British troops would land to aid the Finns, and that Russia would come into World War Two on Hitler’s side.
Whereas Poland was conquered quickly, and in terms of active Trotskyist policy presented no major immediate political problems - the policy for the USSR was applicable to the conquered territory - the general policy for what was unfolding in Finland had to be worked out on the move. Which side were the Trotskyists on? Did they want the Stalinist state to defeat Finland?
Finland was a bourgeois democracy, with the Social Democrats the biggest party in Parliament (85 out of 200; 40% of the vote) and governing in coalition with the Agrarian League. In the two decades of Finnish independence, a major agrarian reform had been carried through. There was a strong Finnish labour movement.
The cause of war was Finland’s refusal to give up strategic areas to Russia; but there was no knowing whether a Russia victorious in the war would limit itself to such demands. A full Russian occupation of Finland would destroy the Finnish labour movement no less than fascist occupation of west European countries would destroy their labour movements.
Trotsky would later comment (April 1940): “During the war with Finland, not only the majority of the Finnish peasants but also the majority of the Finnish workers proved to be on the side of their bourgeoisie. This is hardly surprising since they know of the unprecedented oppression to which the Stalinist bureaucracy subjects the workers of nearby Leningrad and the whole of the USSR”
But the Trotskyists were for the “unconditional defence” of the “degenerated workers’ state”. That meant defence against capitalist attacks irrespective of the policies of the Russian autocracy. What did that imply for Finland? Unconditional support for Russian victory? Or what Trotsky would rightly call “conjunctural defeatism” — while being for the "defence of the USSR against imperialism", wanting the defeat of Russia in Finland? That was Shachtman's position and that of the SWP minority.
But Trotsky himself had already approximated to “conjunctural defeatism”: “We have never promised to support all the actions of the Red Army which is an instrument in the hands of the Bonapartist bureaucracy. We have promised to defend only the USSR as a workers’ state and solely those things within it which belong to a workers’ state...
“In every case the Fourth International will know how to distinguish where and when the Red Army is acting solely as an instrument of the Bonapartist reaction and where it defends the social basis of the USSR...” (‘Again And Once More’).
Why should this not apply to Finland? Max Shachtman and the other “degenerated workers’ state”-ists in the SWP minority said it should. Trotsky, backed by the majority in the SWP leadership, said it could not.
The Finnish conflict was now part of the Second World War. It might soon lead to Russia being directly embroiled in the World War. There could be no “conjunctural defeatism” here.
And Finland’s rights? In the world war such rights would be destroyed one way or another.
“The invasion of Finland unquestionably aroused on the part of the Soviet populace profound condemnation. However, the advanced workers understood that the crimes of the Kremlin oligarchy do not strike off the agenda the question of the existence of the USSR. Its defeat in the world war would signify not merely the overthrow of the totalitarian bureaucracy but the liquidation of the new forms of property, the collapse of the first experiment in planned economy, and the transformation of the entire country into a colony...
“Finland’s resistance to the USSR was, with all its heroism, no more an act of independent national defence than Norway’s subsequent resistance to Germany. The Helsinki government itself understood this when it chose to capitulate to the USSR rather than transform Finland into a military base for England and France. Our wholehearted recognition of the right of every nation to self-determination does not alter the fact that in the course of the present war this right does not have much more weight than thistledown. We must determine the basic line of our policy in accordance with basic and not tenth-rate factors...” (May 1940).
Trotsky feared that any approach saying that Finland was an exception would be an uncontrollable break in the “defence of the USSR”.
On these issues, though Trotsky wrote the polemics, he was backed by SWP leaders who held to a wide range of positions.
James P Cannon, who would shape post-Trotsky Trotskyism, thought that such things as the invasion of Poland were military-technical matters, for the Russians to judge and not the business of Trotskyists at a distance to endorse or to condemn. Albert Goldman initially thought that the Trotskyists should positively support the occupation of eastern Poland. Trotsky, on the available records, did not attack their positions, though in his polemics he denounced Shachtman and other “degenerated workers’ state”-ist opponents for forming an unprincipled coalition with Burnham on the grounds that Burnham had long rejected the “degenerated workers’ state” thesis.
Amidst a great US public outcry against Hitler’s ally Stalin over Finland, the US Trotskyist press tried to pretend that Finland was the same Finland as that of 1918, when the Finnish ruling class had responded to the danger of the workers’ revolution spreading from Russia to Finland by White Terror. They reprinted Victor Serge’s account of the Finland of that White Terror twenty years earlier.
Public knowledge of the realities of the Finland of 1939-40 could not but balance that in the heads of readers of the Trotskyist press at the time, but with the polemics of the time reprinted after 1940 and kept in circulation for decades, readers without such background knowledge were left with the idea that Finland was a military dictatorship under “Baron Mannerheim” (Carl Mannerheim, leader of the White Terror in 1918 and brought back from retirement to lead the Finnish army in 1939-40).
Much of the split dynamic in the 1939-40 dispute came from purely organisational issues in the SWP-USA around the question of the “Cannon regime”. To the call for some SWP leaders for a discussion of the USSR in the light of the Hitler-Stalin pact, Cannon responded by denouncing their “light-mindedness” and “irresponsibility”, and declared such a discussion to be a “luxury” they could not afford.
Trotsky took a contrary view: self-evidently a discussion was necessary. Trotsky prevailed, at first.
Trotsky’s letter to Cannon on this issue was left out of the selection of Trotsky’s writings in the 1939-40 dispute which was published as In Defence Of Marxism at the end of 1942, with a preface by two SWP-USA leaders - Joseph Hansen and George Novack - stating that “defence of the USSR” was part of the “programme” of the Fourth International. It was finally — most likely after protests — published as a footnote in Cannon’s companion volume, The Struggle For a Proletarian Party. A letter to the same effect from Trotsky to Cannon’s partner Rose Karsner did not see the light of day for 40 years, appearing finally in one of the “supplementary volumes” of Trotsky’s writings from the 1930s.
Trotsky got drawn into the organisational dispute as the politics of the conflict heated up. Cannon won a bare majority at the SWP conference in April 1940, though the minority got by far the majority of the youth organisation.
At the first Political Committee meeting after the conference, the minority were faced with a resolution by Cannon, condemning them; and when they abstained on that, they were immediately expelled.
That was the beginning of post-Trotsky Trotskyism. Within four months Trotsky would be dead.
In late 1942, in a world where the USSR was the much-lauded ally of Britain and the USA, and there was much popular good feeling for “Uncle Joe” Stalin as the tide of the prolonged Battle of Stalingrad was turned in Russia’s favour and Germany’s retreat began, the SWP-USA published a selection of Trotsky’s writings of 1939-40 which became the foundation text of post-Trotsky Trotskyism and its position on the USSR.
The selection contained both Trotsky’s very important The USSR In War and Again And Once More and some of Trotsky’s extremely savage attacks on Shachtman and others. As a polemical package it was formidable.
The polemics were an emotionally powerful and effective bar to any reconsideration of the “degenerated workers’ state” thesis (although erecting such a bar was not Trotsky’s intention, nor his position) — while to properly understand the importance of Trotsky’s innovation in The USSR In War the reader would need to have a serious understanding of the discussion on the nature of the USSR in the 1920s and 30s.
In the war many Trotskyists were murdered by Stalinists, and after the war the “orthodox Trotskyists” were reorganised in a Fourth International narrowly redefined as a one-tendency International, that of the “orthodox Trotskyists” after 1940 (see, for instance, the discussion of a dissident Italian Trotskyist group in Cannon’s Letters From Prison). It was dominated by the ideas of the SWP-USA and its co-thinkers.
By the late 1940s very few of the Trotskyists had the background knowledge to fully appreciate what Trotsky did in The USSR In War. Those of us who came to Trotskyusm in the 1950s, had even less.In In Defence of Marxism it seemed to be a severely theoretical discussion of basic issues that seemed to be expounded in the rest of the collection by way of the insistence on the “degenerated workers’ state” character of the USSR.