Leon Trotsky‎ > ‎1935‎ > ‎

Leon Trotsky 19350924 Letter to Abraham J. Muste

Leon Trotsky: Letter to Abraham J. Muste

September 24-25, 1935

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 14, New York 1979, p. 608-615, title: “An Appeal to A.J. Muste”]

Dear Comrade Muste:

Your letter did not reach me until recently as I am at present not in Hønefoss but under a doctor’s care in Oslo. I regret very much, therefore, that these lines will not reach you before October 4. This, however, is not the result of elements under my control.

Since yesterday I have gone over the documents you sent me with all the care which they deserve.

Cordial thanks for the confidence your letter reposes in me. I feel that I can repay it in no better fashion than to state my candid opinion of the state of things in the American party.

The basic point for me remains the political position of the Oehler group and the approach to it of the various groups in the party. Why? Because the Oehler tendency is a form of a disease, because it has international implications (and international connections), and because, if we are serious about building the Fourth International, it must be internationally defeated.

I do not know whether Oehler and his close associates have changed their position. If so, I will be very happy. The fact remains, however, that the Oehler group in the past year, a period so important to us, has stood in close connection with our enemies, combated our movement and our best elements. That is what is politically decisive.

Every ideological and factional fight raises dust. Groups accuse one another of disloyalty, of unreliability and even of dishonesty. In the Bolshevik parties, even in their best periods, this was not entirely avoided. (We should not raise any illusions in retrospect.) If, however, we wish to separate the realities from the forms and the incidental aspect, one must always try — so I at least try to proceed — to understand the issue from an international point of view as well. Tell me with whom you go internationally and I will tell you who you are. Let us estimate the situation somewhat. The Oehler group rested itself on Bauer and his supporter Eiffel. Bauer is now in the SAP, that is, in a thoroughly opportunist organization which fights us to the hilt. The Oehler group supported Vereecken who broke with us. The Oehler group combated our French group upon whose position we pride ourselves. In this connection we come to a most important point, one which cannot be disputed.

Nobody was bound to accept the “French turn” in advance. Everyone had the chance to express his opinion and his criticism freely. One year, however, has passed. Facts have spoken. He who closes his eyes to facts is incurable. Let us assume that the turn had proved to be a mistake (that we found no support in the SP, were expelled, etc.). This was a possibility that had to be reckoned with. But the failure of a tactical turn is far from being a capitulation. Oehler has accused the French section and our international organization of capitulation, of betrayal. In this question the French section and the international organization have the right to expect of the comrades of the Workers Party some political satisfaction. That is, if the actions of the Oehler group are not formally judged, none of us will know how to understand it.

The Oehler group has made propaganda for the periodical Que Faire. This publication is the enterprise of five or six individuals who have either split from us or have been expelled and who represent at least seven tendencies.

The Oehler group declared that the Stockholm Bureau was the only central youth organization for the new International. In reality the thoroughly opportunistic majority of this bureau stands in inflexible opposition to the Fourth International and has “shut out” the representative of the ICL, Comrade Held.

The Oehler group defended the SAP against us. The SAP, however, takes a much worse position toward us than the American Lovestoneites, to whom, by the way, the Walcher group has a spiritual tie through their past history and training.

The Oehler group denied the right of our French youth section to be represented in the miserable Stockholm Bureau, and demanded this right for the Spanish youth without even knowing anything about them.

On the basis of this information, which Bauer received from his American friends, the SAP is now spreading the information in their bulletins that the WPUS stands on the verge of collapse.

In a word, the Oehler group stood in the course of this all-important year on the other side of the barricades, in closest association with people who fought our sections, slandered and lied about them. That is a fact. It cannot be disposed of. To this fact I believe all tendencies in the WP are bound to take an exact and unequivocal position.

The Oehlerites claimed that Cannon and Shachtman were in secret contact with the Social Democratic leaders. That was proven to be false. The Oehlerites, however, are really in contact with betrayers and renegades of the Bauer stripe. This fact is internationally known, is used by our enemies and brings our friends under a cloud. The WPUS must, in all its groups, take a position on this fact.

I will assume for a moment that C-S [Cannon and Shachtman] are really taking an opportunist approach to the question of the SP. First, however, it lies with the future to make the transfer to a higher political stage where this tendency of which C-S are accused will be brought to light and will be vigorously fought by us. But these tendencies, which really belong to the future, do not today constitute the main hindrance in our way. That is the sectarianism which finds its worst expression in the Oehlerites.

The whole method of thought of Oehler is un-Marxian and undialectical. He has a certain conception of every question and bothers little about the realities of any situation. Thus he works without trouble on the conception of the excellent Stockholm Bureau; with the conception of the Spanish youth who only wait for his friendly gesture; with the conception of the SAP as friendly to the Fourth International; with the concept of the mighty and revolutionary Que Faire? etc., etc. I have not considered a single political tenet of Oehler which was correct. He lives in an out-and-out perverted world. He has only a sovereign contempt for reality. He has no political mind and the tragedy of it is that he presents himself as a political leader, thus causing confusion. The anti-Marxist pattern of thought which he uses and which is completely divorced from all reality must, in my opinion, be examined in the most decisive manner by the WP, for one must learn from such events in order to be able to go forward.

With all this I do not mean to say that Oehler can find no place in the ranks of the Fourth International. The problem of leadership is to estimate such persons correctly and find the right place for them to function. Ryazanov thought for years that he was a political and trade union leader and only caused confusion. As a Marxist historian, however, he did exceedingly valuable work for the labor movement. Similarly the members of the WPUS must be warned against the political ideas and actions of Oehler.

Out of these last documents, I have gained the impression that the bloc of Muste-Weber-Oehler seeks to assert itself against C-S. I cannot, my dear and esteemed Comrade Muste, align myself with this bloc, either directly or indirectly. In the light of the national and international situation only one bloc seems to me to be progressive; Muste-C-S-Weber against Oehler. That is also the only way to bring the temporarily misled Oehlerites to their senses and to keep the damages of the party convulsion down to a minimum.

You may answer me: and what about the “methods” of C-S, the question of the regime, etc.? In your document you say quite correctly that the methods depend on the political line. I might answer to this that this affects not only the “leadership” or the majority of the leadership but the opposition as well. A second consequence seems to me, however, even more important: the connection between organizational forms and methods does not flow automatically and directly from the political position. Many other factors also play a part. If one seeks to correct the leadership and its position in a small organization which has no great mass basis, one may explode the entire organization. Far be it from me to attempt to take the responsibility for the manner in which C-S conduct themselves. I can very well understand that one or another group in the party should protest against specific methods. Even here, however, we must preserve a sense of proportion. Genuine democratic centralism you will establish when you have more “democracy,” that is, more masses in your ranks. That, however, you can only accomplish when you have cleansed your party of sectarianism.

Two examples: I cannot judge whether Cannon purposely provoked Zack in order to in turn provoke the Oehler faction. The question in itself is not without significance, but it must be judged in connection with concrete surrounding circumstances. The political position of Zack is basically false and Oehler did not pass up the chance to take up his defense. That is clear, unequivocal and significant.

Your documents reproach The New International for publishing an article against the SAP at the moment when the central committee was establishing fraternal relations with the SAP. It is quite possible that the method of the editor of The New International was not correct in this case. But this question fades into the background compared to the position of the central committee to the SAP, and to whether or not it is correct. To me, for example, it is impossible to understand how The New Militant and why The New Militant can give publicity to the miserable, opportunist, thoroughly antagonistic Neue Front. The Dutch comrade Schmidt, who was allied and worked with the SAP for many years, has found it necessary to declare the most uncompromising war against it. In De Nieuwe Fakkel he recognizes that the “Alchemy” article’s insistent stand that the Fourth International will be built without and against the SAP has been proved correct by the actions of the SAP. That alone is significant and about this matter your theses say nothing.

In order not to allow any room for misunderstanding, I must again repeat: I am ready to assume, a priori, that Comrades C-S sought to resort to hasty and thereby over-severe organizational methods. I have noticed this tendency in other sections as well. The last twelve years of the history of the Comintern and the general turmoil in the movement have not been without their effect on us. In the fight against the soulless apparatus, one was oneself more or less bureaucratized; the oppositions hasten to resort to the weapons of breaking discipline and of split, the leadership hastens to mechanical suppression or expulsion. One depends far too little on discussion, on ideological struggle, on the testing of ideas through joint political experience. Here we must all unlearn and relearn to build the Fourth International on a sound basis. To this sound basis, however, it is necessary to come by rejecting combinations that divide political tendencies on purely organizational grounds.

I am glad that the Political Committee, by official action, has characterized my letters as private documents, as personal advice. I never had any other conception. The explanation gives me the possibility of bringing my views to the fore with full freedom. I need not tell you that — as far as I am able to evaluate them — my evaluation of the situation does not rest on any personalities or sympathies. I view this crisis as a testing period, which the party will survive with great gains for itself, and I hope to stand in the closest political and if possible personal relationship to the representatives of all the various groups.

I also need not tell you, Comrade Muste, that for you I have the warmest personal regard and affection.

The letter is not signed by me for I have dictated it to my friend Jan Frankel, who is here in the hospital to visit me and who will get off the letter to you with all possible speed.

September 25, 1935

Dear Comrade Muste:

I was forced to break off my letter yesterday as the visiting hour had run out. Today I have as visitor the same Comrade Held whom the “brother” party, the SAP, put out of the Stockholm Bureau, not because he is against but because he is for the Fourth International. I use the opportunity of his visit to round out my letter of yesterday. I want, at all costs, to avoid giving the impression that I passed over your documents’ section on the C-S attitude to the SP. No, I have studied it very faithfully. I have the impression that you have succeeded in proving that the position of C-S to the SP and to its left wing has undergone very considerable changes. I have not, however, gained the impression at all that C-S can be accused of capitulation. The question in America seems to me to be artificially built up as a reflex of the important tactical changes in Europe. In France and Belgium the question stood very plainly: should one or should one not enter the reformist party? In America no one proposes such a solution. What possibilities there may be for you within the SP can be found not by speculation as much as by action. I do not, of course, quarrel with the importance of a perspective to evaluate the possibilities and the dangers. In purely tactical questions, however, one should not be prepared to lay a line for eternity. The Workers Party feels it incumbent upon itself to function as an independent party. It does not really have to repeat every third day that it will not dissolve itself in a reformist organization. The need for such reiteration sounds more like a confession of weakness than a declaration of strength.

The question from this side of the ocean, I repeat, seems to us to have been artificially raised by the Oehler group. They, moreover, keep it no secret; they look for small unimportant symptoms to prove the plans drawn up in Paris mean a betrayal in America. Now we in Europe do not consider ourselves as betrayers. The fears and denunciations of Comrades Oehler, Stamm, etc., seem to us to be sectarian childish babble, their main question, and in this question we await a clear answer from the Workers Party.

Today I studied the documents which you sent to all sections of the party on August 14. I find there, for example, the statement by Stamm on August 5, “the capitulators of Charleroi.” What gives Comrade Stamm the right to characterize — or rather to abuse — the Belgian comrades in this way? The Charleroi group consists almost entirely of mine workers; there is not a single intellectual in the leadership. They are all over forty years of age, every one has been victimized by the employers for strike action, mass action, etc. All belonged to the CP from the beginning, and to the Left Opposition from 1923 on, without having weakened a moment. By their own efforts they have established a weekly paper which has appeared regularly for years. They joined the reformist party based on the trade unions, just as in England, not to capitulate but to fight the bitter struggle for the leadership of the vanguard. One can be of the opinion that their work will bring no results (although they have already considerable work to their credit). But how can one call them capitulators? They have capitulated to nothing and no one and do not intend to. It is correct that they must observe certain care in how they express themselves. In the unions revolutionists do the same thing. As I understand it, however, Comrades Oehler and Stamm think the combination of “legal” with illegal work goes only for the Workers Party. When, however, these combined methods are applied in the reformist party, it is betrayal. Comrade Muste, these comrades stand in crying contradiction to the most elementary conceptions of Marxism and Bolshevism.

And they complain about the “regime,” naturally not only about the regime of C-S, but especially about the regime of the ICL: all and everything is tainted with bureaucracy; everywhere we hound the genuine revolutionists who want to save us from the swamp if not from direct betrayal. When one reads such stuff, one either laughs or scorns, according to one’s temperament.

I do not at all want to idealize our methods or ways, but the sectarians (Bauer, Vereecken, Oehler, etc.) are really the last ones to give us lectures on the subject, for on the plane of organizational methods, as on the theoretical level, they are only a concentrated expression of our weaknesses. I will deal with this later in a longer theoretical article.

Two more observations. Our Belgian friends, the “capitulators,” speak in their paper Action Socialiste Révolutionnaire not of everything (they also have allies who have not thought matters through to the end as yet), but on the most important and burning issues — national defense, the turn of the Comintern — they take an open, excellent and Leninist position. And to speak the revolutionary message in Belgium today requires ten or a hundred or a thousand times more revolutionary courage than to do it in the United States which is not menaced by a Hitler.

The second observation is of a personal character. I do not believe that I can be accused of impatience toward these individuals. I could prove that by American examples: Field and Weisbord. I was in communication with both of them for a long time. They were both of them in my house for considerable periods. After the [first] expulsion of Field, I did everything I could to see that he was again accepted for membership. I also attempted to lay the tracks between Weisbord and the CLA. Not all the American comrades were enthusiastic about my efforts and perhaps rightly so. This same position I took in regard to Vereecken, Bauer, etc., but one does not go forward without a few splinters left on the way. Oehler’s claims against the leadership of the WP, I am firmly convinced, are entirely without basis, at least as far as the present period is concerned. The more strongly he is made to feel that, the more we will be able to hope that he will not be lost to us.

This letter also is not signed by me because it was typed only in the city and then sent off.