Leon Trotsky‎ > ‎1935‎ > ‎

Leon Trotsky 19350228 Letter to the Polish Comrade V.

Leon Trotsky: Letter to the Polish Comrade V.

February 28, 1935

[Writings of Leon Trotsky, Vol 7, 1934-1935, New York 1971, p. 200-205, title: “Centrist Combinations and Marxist Tactics”]

I have read your letter about the conference of the organizations of the LAG with great interest and profit, for your report proved to be really revealing. But I must say from the very start that the conclusions you draw from the facts that you so correctly observed appear to me to be one-sided and even false. You are at once an opponent of the entry of the French section into the SFIO and a proponent of the entry of the ICL into the IAG. You are wrong on both counts.

From your own descriptions, it appears that we were confronted at the sessions of the IAG only with diplomatic representatives of various centrist groups and tendencies oriented in various directions, and that every one of these diplomats was particularly interested in not binding himself to anything and was, therefore, inclined to be very liberal toward the others. In other words, the prevailing principle was live and let live, or create confusion and let confusion be created.

The life of the IAG consists of the publication of documents from time to time, which do not mean very much, and of conferences every year and a half or so in order to prove that they are not sectarian, i.e., that, in contradistinction to the cursed Bolshevik-Leninists, they are not at all inclined to inconvenience one another. Thus the IAG becomes an asylum for conservative centrist diplomats who do not wish to risk anything and who prefer to let the omnivorous historical "process" take care of the most burning problems of our times. Should the above-mentioned "process" succeed, perchance, in creating a new, good Fourth International with steady posts for the diplomatic gentlemen, then the latter will most obligingly condescend to recognize the accomplished fact But up to that time, they would like to leave the door open. Perhaps the Second and Third will merge after all and thus produce from both of these mutually complementary bankruptcies a new and flourishing firm. It will never do to spoil such an opportunity for oneself. Particularly must one avoid being pinned down to distinct principles, because our epoch is much too uncertain and the principle much too inflexible and, on top of that, there are those Leninist hot spurs who are always there to wave under your nose the contradiction between principle and action.

You have observed very well that the people from the SAP, whose spirit dominated the conference, made quite radical speeches in which they advanced our principles quite passably, in order all the better to snap their fingers at these same principles when the time for the adoption of decisions came around. You remark very aptly that this is indeed classical centrism itself. When it is a matter of an honest, naively centrist state of mind of the masses, it is possible, under favorable circumstances and a correct policy, to hold one's own and to push the masses forward. But when one is confronted only with the leaders, and when these leaders are "classical" centrists, i.e., conniving centrist speculators, then very little can be expected from such a labor community, which is neither laboring nor communist. To win five young workers in the SFIO for Marxist ideas is a hundred times more important than to vote on innocuous, i.e., deceptive, resolutions or even to record one's vote against them within the four walls of these conferences.

Such gatherings of solid bureaucrats, particularly when they come from different countries, often make a very imposing impression. It's best "to be there." One is not so "isolated" and, with aid of God, one can gain influence and prestige. — What a naive illusion! One possesses only that power that one conquers, i.e., the power of revolutionists welded together with clear ideas.

What is your objection to our turn in France? You quote from a letter of a representative of the Left Bund (Poland), in which it is quite correctly affirmed that a numerically small group can exert great influence, thanks to its ideological clarity. But from this indisputable fact you also draw the unexpected conclusion that the latest turn of the ICL is harmful to its growing influence and that the unfortunate consequences extend even as far as the Left Bund. How is that to be understood?

The strength of the Bolshevik-Leninists consists, you say together with the representative of the Left Bund, in the clarity of its ideas. Since you maintain that our influence has receded since the turn (which is a hair-raising untruth), it is to be assumed that our ideas had in the meantime lost their clarity. That is indeed the point in question. Has our French section since its entry into the SFIO become less determined, more confused, more opportunistic? Or has it maintained a completely irreconcilable attitude with regard to its fundamental position? That, my dear friend, is what you should decide for yourself, or else your whole judgment rests on a completely lopsided logical basis.

Since, you say, firmness in principle and ideological clarity determines the influence of the Bolshevik-Leninists, the change in our organizational methods has become fatal for the influence of our organization. That does not rhyme, dear friend. You can, of course, venture the opinion that the change in organizational methods (entry into the SFIO) was a departure from ideological clarity. That is quite possible. The only question is, is that really the case in this instance?

I maintain that none of our sections has as yet had the opportunity to formulate its ideas so sharply and to bring them so directly before the masses as our French section has done since it became a tendency in the Socialist Party. And if one is able to observe, then one must come to the conclusion that the entire life of the Socialist as well as the Communist parties is now determined or at least influenced, directly or indirectly, positively or negatively, by the ideas and slogans of our small French section.

I can very easily conceive that comrades in Poland or some other place who do not read French and cannot keep track of French life may be affected unfavorably by the bare fact of the entrance into the Second International. But in revolutionary policy, it is not the immediate impression that counts but rather the lasting effect. Should the entry into the SFIO prove fruitful for the extension of our influence, then the Polish and other comrades will have to revise their evaluation of the turn we made. The majority of comrades, as a matter of fact, have already done so. It is correct that a small group with clear ideas is more important than one that is, perhaps, large but heterogeneous. But we must not make a fetish of this phrase. For the small group must seek to create the necessary public for its correct ideas. And in doing this, it must adapt itself organizationally to the given circumstances.

You present the whole matter as if Vidal, frightened by the isolation of the French section, artificially invented the turn and imposed it upon the French section to the detriment of the whole movement

In 1929 Vidal wrote to a Frenchman who accused the Left Opposition of sectarianism, as follows: "You point to individual groups of the Left Opposition and call them 'sectarian.' We ought to come to an agreement on the content of this term.

Among us there are elements who remain satisfied to sit at home and criticize the mistakes of the official party, without setting themselves any broader tasks, without assuming any practical revolutionary obligations, converting the revolutionary opposition into a title, something akin to an Order of the Legion of Honor. There are, in addition, sectarian tendencies that express themselves in splitting every hair into four parts. It is necessary to struggle against this. And I am personally ready to wage a struggle against it, and not to be deterred, if need be, by old friendships, personal ties and so forth and so on."

The letter I quote from, which was written six years ago, then goes on to explain why the Bolshevik-Leninists carried on and had to carry on their work in sectarian form as a propaganda group under the given circumstances, after a series of great international defeats, and ends up with the prognosis that this stage will undoubtedly have to be surmounted — not without a struggle against those who want to deduce from the ideological treasures of our tendency the right to remain immovably conservative, until such time as historic development finally takes notice of them and cordially invites them to be good enough and take over the leadership of the working class. No, dear friend, it is not enough to have correct ideas. It is necessary to know how to apply them. How? There are no universally valid prescriptions for that It is necessary to investigate the situation concretely in each instance, in order to furnish the power of the correct ideas with the most favorable organizational lever.

At the time of the split with the Brandlerites, a comrade from the Walcher group turned to me to ask my opinion of the prospective entry of the minority into the SAP (I believe it was in 1931). My reply was approximately the following: the entry into this left Social Democratic party cannot in any case be condemned itself. It is necessary to know in the name of what principles and aims you want to bring about this entry. Therefore, it is obligatory, first of all, to elaborate a clear and unequivocal platform of your own.

As you know, Walcher and his people did not proceed in this manner. They have played hide-and-seek with ideas and still do to this day. This is what we condemn them for, not for joining a certain Social Democratic organization in a certain political situation.

I am informed that a young SAP man declared at the conference of the LAG: The turn of the Bolshevik-Leninists in France is a confirmation of the SAP principles. Serious people can only get a good laugh out of that, because entry in itself proves nothing; the decisive thing is program and action taken in the spirit of this program after the entry. Insofar as they are represented in the SFIO, the SAP produces the effect of formlessness and lukewarm centrism. Our people act in the spirit of Marxist clarity and determination.

But Lenin said it is necessary to break with the reformists, and we are now entering a reformist organization. This manner of counterposing things is completely akin spiritually to that of the Bordigists and their disciple Vereecken, but has nothing in common with Leninism. Lenin proclaimed the necessity of breaking with the reformists after the outbreak of the war, the world war. He pitilessly demanded this of the centrists. At that time there were not in any country outside of the Russian emigration any consistent Bolsheviks. The leftward-turning elements to whom Lenin appealed were centrists, rooted in the Social Democracy not only organizationally but ideologically as well. It was to them that Lenin said: You must break with the reformists. But in order to be able to say that, the Russian Bolsheviks participated zealously in the internal life of the French, Swiss and Scandinavian Social Democracy.

Our great advantage over 1914 consists of the groups and organizations of hardened Bolsheviks that we have almost everywhere, which are internationally aligned and, therefore, subject to international^ control. They don't have to be convinced of the necessity of breaking with the reformists. They are faced with an altogether different problem: how can and should our small group with its clear ideas best get a hearing among the masses under present conditions? The situation is complicated and involved, so overrun with the remnants of old organizations that, while preserving absolute irreconcilability insofar as our principles are concerned, organizationally we must be very resourceful, very spry, very supple and very enterprising. Otherwise we will decay even with the very best ideas. In his correspondence with Sorge, Engels complains dozens of times that the English and German Marxists in America brought matters to such a pass that they transformed the liveliest theory, Marxism, into a sectarian faith under cover of which to be able to remain passive instead of intervening with all their force and determination in the stream of the living labor movement.

Look at Spain, dear friend. In the midst of all the tremors of revolution around them, the leadership of our section there distinguished itself during the whole period by its doctrinaire passivity. Individually, many of our comrades fought courageously. But the section as a whole distinguished itself more by "objective" criticism than by revolutionary activity. That is undoubtedly the most tragic example in the entire history of the ICL. And observe, it is precisely this section that to the present day remains completely intransigent toward the "opportunistic" turn in France.

In America developments took a different course. Our League has joined with the Muste organization to constitute an independent party. The organization participates eagerly in the actual mass movement and has considerable successes to its credit And precisely for this reason, it has been able to show a clear understanding for the French turn, despite the difference in conditions and in the methods applied.

As Marxists, we are centralists. We are striving internationally also for the merger of the revolutionary forces. But as Marxists, we cannot be pettifogging doctrinaires, pedants. We always analyze the living stream and adapt ourselves to every new situation without losing our identity. Therein lies the whole secret of revolutionary success. And we must master this secret regardless of the costs.