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Leon Trotsky 19300110 Letter to Siegmund Kanagur

Leon Trotsky: Letter to Siegmund Kanagur

January 10, 1930

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 2, 1930, New York 1975, p. 71-74, title: 'To Patiently Explain']

Dear Comrades1,

You ask for advice on what line of conduct revolutionary elements in the Austrian social democracy should follow. Unfortunately, I know too little about the composition, aims, and methods of your group to do this (having only the first issue of your paper Revolutionärer Sozialdemokrat, Comrade Frey's letter, and your letter to judge by). Therefore, instead of giving tactical "advice" in the strict sense, I feel obliged to dwell on several questions of principle; for without a preliminary clarification of these, an exchange of opinions on practical matters would prove to be built on sand.

The phrase I used to characterize the basic tasks of Austrian communists, "to patiently explain," seems dubious to you. You say that some two years ago it might have been appropriate to patiently explain but that in view of the tempestuous way events are now developing, there is no time for that. "Now it is too late, " you repeat further on.

I see a certain misunderstanding here. In my short work on the Austrian crisis I deliberately noted in parentheses that the formula "to patiently explain" was introduced by Lenin in April 1917. Six months after that we held power. This means that patient explaining by the revolutionary party has nothing in common with delaying tactics, gradualism, or sectarian aloofness. To "patiently explain" does not by any means imply explaining things in a desultory fashion, lazily, one tablespoonful a day. By this formula in April 1917 Lenin was saying to his own party: "Understand that you are a small minority and acknowledge it openly; don't set yourself tasks you don't have the strength for, such as the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government; don't be afraid to place yourself in opposition to the defensists, whom the overwhelming majority of the masses are following today; try to understand the psychology of the honest defensists — the worker and peasant — and patiently explain to them how to break out of the war." Lenin's advice meant, in other words, "Don't think that there are any fancy recipes or gimmicks by which you can suddenly grow stronger without having won over the consciousness of the masses; devote all your time, all your revolutionary impatience, to 'patiently explaining.'" Such is the true meaning of Lenin's words.

One must not of course go to the opposite extreme and interpret my words to mean that I basically assume the Austrian communists will come to power in seven months. That is, to say the least, not very likely. But if one assumes that events really will develop at a tempestuous speed in the coming period (which cannot be excluded), this only means that the gains to be made from "patient explaining" will rapidly become greater.

Therefore the phrase "now it is too late" seems to me a total misunderstanding. What other methods can there be for proletarian revolutionaries? Sheer political impatience, which wishes to reap before it has sown, leads either to opportunism or adventurism or to a combination of both. In the past five or six years we have seen, in every country, dozens of examples of both opportunist and adventurist attempts to artificially strengthen the proletariat's position without the conscious participation of the proletariat itself. All these attempts have ended in failure and only weakened the revolutionary wing.

You write that the social democratic masses in Austria are in a revolutionary mood but that their readiness for revolution is paralyzed by the powerful apparatus of the Austrian social democracy. The masses, you say, lack "only (nur) the appropriate leadership." "Only”! But this tiny word "only" encompasses nothing less than the entire activity of the revolutionary party, from the first propaganda efforts to the seizure of power. Without winning the confidence of the masses in the experience of struggle there can be no revolutionary leadership. In some periods it takes decades to win this confidence. In revolutionary periods, months can produce more (with correct policies) than years of peaceful events. But the party can never leap over this basic task. It confronts the proletarian revolutionaries of Austria in its entirety. The phrase "to patiently explain" refers above all to this task: "Win the confidence of the workers!" And it warns against bureaucratic self-deception, which of necessity leads to adventurism, and against masquerading methods, against behind-the-scenes machinations, whose aim is to cheat history and force one's will upon the class.

You may say that all this is correct in principle for communists but does not contain any pertinent instructions for "revolutionary social democrats."

I will not now dwell on the fact that in our epoch the concept "revolutionary social democrat" is self-contradictory. If this does not mean communist, then apparently it means leftward moving centrist. Neither the social base nor the political contours of your group is clear to me from your letter or from your newspaper.

In contrast to what the social democracy says about you, your paper declares that your Provisional Committee is far removed from the communists (see the article on Leuthner in number 1). In that case, what are your differences with the communists? There is no indication of any. Do you have differences of principle separating you from communism, or is it only the mistakes of official communism? In my opinion the theoretically bankrupt and politically sterile formula of social fascism represents one of the main obstacles to the task of "patiently explaining." Does your group agree with that formula or not? A clear answer to this question is absolutely necessary: one's entire perspective and all of one's tactics are shaped, especially in Austria, by how one answers. But while declaring that you are far removed from the communists, you nevertheless do not divest yourselves of responsibility for the political formula that has paralyzed official Austrian communism.

In another article in the same issue you say that the basic democratic orientation of Austro-Marxism is wrong and that this is the root of all evil. Far be it from me to deny this. But surely the treachery of the social democracy in the given situation consisted in the fact that it refused to fight for democracy and surrendered democracy to fascism by purely parliamentary methods. It is precisely along this line, as I see it, that the anger of the social democratic workers is now likely to be expressed. And all the while, your paper answers this feeling of indignation with general formulas about the bankruptcy of democracy in general.

In your paper there is no clarity of principles. But it is well known that such clarity is a great advantage in politics. On the other hand, I do not see the paper's half-heartedness as a reflection of the indecisiveness of opposition-minded social democratic masses. An oppositional social democratic organ that truly expressed the mood of honest worker social democrats, infuriated at their leaders, would have enormous symptomatic importance (which of course would not mean for us that a relentless struggle against its indecisiveness would be excluded; on the contrary it would presuppose that). Unfortunately the first issue of your paper does not have such symptomatic qualities. Its indecisiveness and ambiguity have the characteristics of a clique.

Added to this is the fact that in the newspaper itself I only encountered one name, that of Dr. Reich, who is unknown to me, I am sorry to say. The Provisional Committee acts anonymously. If this is done on account of the police, it can't be helped. Nevertheless one must clearly recognize how much the anonymity of a new group can hinder it in its struggle for the confidence of the masses.

You express apprehension that the Austro-Marxist bureaucracy might deliberately flood your Provisional Committee with its agents. Yes, provocation is inseparably linked with bureaucratism. One can combat it only, however, by forging closer ties with the ranks. If your group represents a tendency in the ranks of the social democratic workers, it is through their intervention that you will drive out the leaders, not through chasing after ambiguous bureaucrats. The workers know very well who in their ranks believes blindly in the leaders, who criticizes them, and who is angry at them. Selection from below in such cases is a thousand times more reliable than selection from above. But for that, of course, one must enjoy support from below. Do you?

Naturally I do not entertain the slightest suspicion that there is simply camouflage involved here, i.e., an attempt by communists to appear as "revolutionary social democrats" and thus artificially create an independent social democratic party as a bridge to communism. Methods of masquerade never led to any good results in revolutionary proletarian politics. Recent years have provided ample illustration of that.

Comradely greetings,

L. Trotsky

1 In the Russian text: “Comrade”