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Leon Trotsky 19350600 On the Organizational Question

Leon Trotsky: On the Organizational Question

June 1935

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 14, New York 1979, p. 585-595, title: “Underground Work in Nazi Germany”]

Trotsky: What do you consider to be the task of the inner leadership?

K: P. should among other things take responsibility for education in the groups. Sch. should work the region. F. should be agitprop leader (what this entails is, to be sure, not clear from O.’s remarks).

Trotsky: It is impermissible for a comrade of the inner leadership to go down to the groups and do educational work. This sacrifices the security of the organization. There is some question whether exceptions might be allowed in the case of Group X because of the excessively close acquaintance of the members. The first prerequisite of underground work is that the leadership achieve clarity about its nature, that is, about questions of security of the organization and leadership, making new arrangements if necessary.

Hence the leadership has responsibility for maintaining security in every respect, precisely because it takes responsibility for very concrete tasks of a secret nature which exclude open functioning in the groups. Such tasks are, for example, (1) transport and courier service, (2) arranging for distribution and transmission of materials, (3) external political, agitational, and propaganda activities. No one should act on his own initiative in all these areas; instead, the leadership must come to formal decisions and strictly observe them. This is the only way to achieve regularized activity.

As for the further work of the leadership, it must (a) distribute the materials to the individual groups, already arranged and in ready-to-use form, (b) occupy itself with a review of the political questions on a continuing basis, (c) work out political instructions for the inner circle, i.e., consulting with it about political work, for example, in important discussions, in propaganda, etc. In the case of a discussion, say, it is always necessary to determine how the material should be distributed, the discussion carried out, and the report given to the leadership. (Also, of course, transmitting reports on discussions to the leadership abroad in proper form with the conclusions well summarized.)

Furthermore, regular reporting must be organized. The leadership must, of course, test to see which comrade can carry out this task or that, but it must always take into account that you cannot force anyone to do anything and that you must be patient. (NB: If you just think how unspeakably bad your organizational work has been up till now, then it goes without further saying that the members had to have as much patience with the leaders at the time as the leaders with the members. I am convinced’ that at your leadership meetings no fixed agenda is worked out and no attempt is made to summarize the decisions — even in the most abbreviated form. But such things are indispensable and an important tool for self-control and self-education. You must get used to orderly decision making and strict carrying out of decisions. At every meeting the decisions reached at the previous meeting must be reviewed on the basis of minutes, and things overlooked placed on the agenda again. Organizational things are difficult to learn, so no one needs to feel “belittled” or “exalted” by such reviews. But in general a leadership must have ten times as much patience with the members as the members with the leadership.)

Making reports is of course one of the most important tasks. The leading comrades themselves must pick out an area to report on. They can do this much more easily because many threads run together in their hands and because they have more of an overview.

The best form for reports: Investigation of what happens politically. Study the question (you study it by collecting the facts), as concretely as possible, making continual reports. You have to get together and ask yourselves what can be done in this area or that (the outstanding example: the church question). Communication of the leadership with the inner circle and through them with the groups provides political discussion in the course of which you should continually demand new concrete facts. If you proceed in this way, you will, moreover, have your hands full with things to do and little time for idle talk and squabbling. On the contrary, on the basis of real" work you will find more and more real satisfaction.

Further tasks of the leadership are preparing the correspondence for abroad and circulating the complete correspondence. In the regions it must deal only with the trusted people. Again the general rule in all conspiratorial work: it concerns only the leadership and the leadership may utilize only specially suitable and trustworthy comrades.

Now then: “F. should be agitprop leader.” What is this supposed to mean? As far as cultivating individual relationships is concerned, everyone is a propagandist. Evaluating the question of how far we can go with external propaganda is a task for the entire leadership (after careful investigation of all the details based on the work of the entire organization) and not an area for specialization. We must be extremely cautious about working with the old CP concepts and divisions of labor, which are nothing but covers for political ineptitude. Those who understand nothing about politics usually invent “posts.” You must never imagine that one person can carry out a task alone — careful and collaborative consultation is required. Classification here is idiocy. Every one of the tasks mentioned is a collective task for the leadership (and in a broader sense for the organization as a whole) which cannot be “divided up” as such. The inner leadership must evaluate, for example, whether and to what extent external propaganda is possible. Let’s take the church conflict for example. Can we perhaps put out a leaflet with protests and demands concerning this? And in what form? It is clear, of course, that we must make an effort to sharpen the conflict wherever a real opportunity arises. In the church conflict it isn’t absolutely necessary to act in the name of the IKD. (We have no experience in such things and must first become accustomed to the kinds of work and underground methods involved.) Let us assume that something happens, and we have to take a position on it. Perhaps we put out a leaflet which says: At such and such a place the Nazis perpetrated this despicable act without any provocation (analyze the grounds in the most political way possible). It is clear that National Socialism lives by the brutal suppression of every sort of criticism, and that it cannot grant the smallest freedoms (not in religion, not in professional associations, and of course no political freedom). And then you sign the leaflet as a beginning with let us say, “A Group of Freedom-loving Citizens and Workers.” If the church reuses demands perhaps we can put out another seemingly neutral leaflet in which we call for general freedoms, the right of association, the press, etc. Use all of the Nazi atrocities to write a propaganda article to stir up general indignation. Political exposes and support to every form of opposition — we must develop along these lines and appear as the pacesetter of liberation.

What opportunities are there for us to come forward as the IKD? What kind of work are we doing with the SP, the CP, etc.? We have Trotsky’s letter to the French workers now — an extraordinary opportunity for propaganda. Isn’t it possible to put out something like that? (NB: Newspapers should be sold and not given away. The leadership must determine when to begin sales and external propaganda, but we cannot refrain from all propaganda for years on end.)

Furthermore you should strive to put political questions down on paper and to write articles. We need contributors to our press.

And finally, there must be periodic reports on the organizational and political activity of the group and the region. Here it is of extraordinary importance to summarize the experiences, decisions of the leadership, results of the work, political events and their analysis, etc., etc., to forward this to the national leadership (and with their help to the whole national organization) and abroad in order to establish a real national organization, consistent exchange of experiences, and unified work on a national scale.

The inner circle is made up of the most reliable and most active comrades and should in particular regulate liaison and communication with the groups. You should avoid things like considering someone as a member of the inner circle because he gives special reports. No! What is essential is whether he is reliable and dependable enough to maintain contacts with the groups and carry out political assignments. The inner circle is especially concerned with regulating meetings, transmission of materials, collection of reports. Before I forget: I don’t believe that it is your practice to circulate reports and letters in the groups — and this is not the case only with you.

K: That’s right. This is something that has already been a subject of concern. We’ve suffered from it.

Trotsky: And rightly so! This is one of the greatest shortcomings. Organizational secrets, written documents relating to this, and letters with addresses are of course no concern of the membership, but the reports and the political letters from both the leadership and individual members must be brought to everyone’s attention. Without this there is neither control nor sufficient information. And without both of these there is neither an overview nor organizational-political education and development. It must never be forgotten: all education is based on reciprocity and control. He who can learn nothing from the dumbest and simplest person will carry away nothing but the mere words of the most clever. I could give you amazing examples. Thus, under all conditions every report and all non-conspiratorial material must be given to the groups so that the comrades (a) will have an example of how reports are in fact written (many comrades shy away from writing a report or a letter because they always think it has to be something “profound”; but any random example will convince them that it is not a feat of acrobatics), (b) can make additions and add new facts,

(c) will have an overview of what has already happened and what has not happened.

K: The inner circle also takes control of how the comrades work and makes a criticism of their work.

Trotsky: How do the comrades work? Do they work in groups or as individuals?

K: L., for instance, is a specialist on the economy. We observe and see what our individual friends can do and then assign them their particular tasks. We ask ourselves: Are the comrades in a position to do a particular kind of work, and do they do it? We have established a set plan for the work of the groups again, which fundamentally includes the following points:

(1) Street supervision; (2) factory supervision; (3) making a criticism of all legal and illegal newspapers and materials; (4) political and newspaper reports; (5) reading a daily newspaper, reports and taking positions on day-to-day questions; (6) study of our Marxist literature; (7) participation in a legal organization (trade union, labor front, air raid wardens, church organization, etc.); (8) educational work in the groups; (9) contacts with other people, receiving reports about them, recruitment of new people.

Trotsky: Starting with contacts: How far can a new contact go? I have been observing for some time and I find that we are very rigid. The sympathizer question has to be reviewed. We can try to get sympathizers to (1) provide material assistance, (2) become readers of the newspaper, (3) provide a cover address for some purpose or other.

Naturally, with some we will achieve little, with others everything. It seems to me that we are not geared to turning sympathizers into members and instead are demanding 100 percent certainty, which is not possible. A lot depends on orientation: development into long-term sympathizers or into revolutionaries. In many cases a tested sympathizer can be made into a useful member.

And what do you consider a sympathizer? Is the “sympathy” directed more toward a person or the cause? Both forms have to be utilized to overcome certain technical difficulties. A devoted personal friend who is sufficiently isolated from the movement could, for example, keep the files. You have such friends (for addresses too) and should make an effort to decentralize the files by area of work.

On factory and street supervision and newspaper criticism: In carrying out these tasks the leadership and the inner circle must show the way. You must supervise the inner circle yourselves. The leadership and the inner circle must take the lead in commenting on Unser Wort and the other materials. Many issues of Unser Wort and documents were in X, but I don’t know of any thorough criticism by the leadership. And this throws significant light on the absurdity of O.’s complaint that there is too much “unprocessed” material in X. Perhaps there really isn’t that much to “criticize”; they are in general satisfied, only miss this or that, wish they had more of it, and are, moreover, in agreement. I myself am not of this opinion. There is a great deal to criticize. But the “criticism” exercised so far runs absolutely along these lines. We have comrades in high positions who confuse nitpicking with criticism, but carelessly pass over obvious absurdities and contradictions and even sing hymns of praise to bad work. There are comrades like this in X too. Of course we are not “angry” with these comrades, but as long as they themselves do not find out where the real deficiencies lie, they should not feel superior to others and they should not demand anything of them that they themselves are not yet capable of. This makes the “argument” over materials which “others” have not “processed” even more stupid.

On reports: We have had reports from X. For a time X was the leader in this respect; more than half of all reports came from its region. Unfortunately things have not developed further along these lines but regressed significantly. It is to be hoped that there will be a reawakening here too in connection with the new tasks. And of course, the leadership must once again give an example, start things off, and not use what others have “not” done as excuses for itself.

On education: If possible, classes and workshops should be held. Special practice is necessary here and a great deal of experience has to be gathered — the circles are today one of the major forms of activity and are far too insufficiently developed.

As for the classes held up till now in X, many mistakes have been made, and the comrades have been antagonized. Under all circumstances you must be honest, not make a class into a secret or something for the “chosen few,” make it known through the stewards when a class will be given. It is wrong to divide up the classes in the way you have done. You sat down beforehand and said: This one or that is no good for this class. Openness toward the comrades is necessary. If you’re going to have a class, tell everyone. The number of participants must be left open and the class can be repeated accordingly. Then you discuss the composition and say: Come to an agreement among yourselves about who will take the class first. You should also consult, look for suitable topics in the groups, ask the comrades what they are interested in, and perhaps let them choose the topic themselves.

The study of Marxist literature: There is a prevailing tendency to measure comrades by what they have or have not read. This was unequivocally clear from O.’s organizational plan for last year. There it said, in essence, more or less, that only those who have read a certain number of Marxist works can be counted “fully” [as members]. Under certain circumstances you will have to reconcile yourselves to the fact that there are comrades who are not going to read Anti-Dühring and will also not participate in classes. In these things as in others one must be very flexible! Everyone must be taken as he is — a set “program” whose requirements everyone must fulfill is of no use here. As individuals, all the comrades act differently but the common minimum has to be (1) get the paper and be responsible for it, (2) make a financial contribution, (3) carry out specific and sometimes very modest work of a technical or other nature.

But I must say again, always give our friends an example, and don’t hold them in contempt because they haven’t read Anti-Dühring. In making judgments about comrades, orient toward what is most important: the movement. That is, if the political movement in a country starts to grow, then suddenly comrades who were not of much use become necessary, because now, all of a sudden, a field of activity has opened up for them in which they can move. You must wait for this time and look at comrades from the angle of their potentialities. Anyhow, before we reach the point where everyone is “up to par” we will have to wait a long time. In the future we will need very experienced and dedicated people for every post. Real relationships of trust on the basis of solid work, confidence in the leadership — one is unthinkable without the other.

So, no rigidity in questions of work. At first, demand work only from the leadership and the inner circle and in this way set an example for the comrades. Above all, it is necessary to overcome arrogance in one’s own consciousness. For comrades who today are “not very good” can be in important posts tomorrow, for example, commanders in the Red Army, who are at least as important as Commissar for People’s Enlightenment O.

If you wish to make yourself hard, it is indispensable to be elastic. Otherwise you are only obstinate. In general, intellectuals have a much more difficult time in this area than workers. They are more difficult to discipline than workers because usually they have broader knowledge to start with, a formal education which makes them arrogant. Intellectuals have big plans in their heads and comprehend everything in the bourgeois realm very easily; but not Marxism. They don’t understand how, for instance, the masses go into motion. The schoolmasters used to do all their thinking for them.

Intellectuals must give much more attention to self-discipline. They usually learn strict compliance only slowly and through a series of serious crises. At a certain stage even the best intentions are no longer enough. One must be able to relinquish one’s ego; then one becomes far more tolerant towards others. Intolerance is always a sign of inward imbalance. In X almost the entire group suffers from this malady. Marxism develops a certain attitude towards life because one can observe its correctness in daily life on the street. It must be a vital concern for our lives and cannot be treated as an academic question. This, then, must be learned: how to let the basic intellectual (or theoretical) precepts of Marxism color everyday life. It is not a question of a good suit or a shabby one or of manners — you may remember how mercilessly I ridiculed Bauer and others who confused the essence of Bolshevism with a tasteless provincial and philistine spirit.

Moreover, one makes the revolution with relatively few Marxists, even within the party. Here the collective substitutes for what the individual cannot achieve. The individual can hardly master each separate area — it is necessary to have experts who supplement one another. Such experts are often quite passable “Marxists” without being complete Marxists, because they work under the control of genuine Marxists. The whole Bolshevik Party is a marvelous example of this. Under Lenin’s and Trotsky’s supervision, Bukharin, Molotov, Tomsky, and a hundred others were good Marxists, capable of great accomplishments. As soon as this supervision was gone, even they collapsed disgracefully. This was not because Marxism is a secret science, it is just very difficult to escape the colossal pressures of the bourgeois environment with all of its influences.

The X Group as a whole: It does not seem to me that the group is hopeless at all, and particularly because there are political proofs to this effect. I could not follow in more detail the course of its discussion about the turn in the French League [in 1934], but it is clear that the X Group revealed the greatest amount of political life precisely at the time of the turn. That is certainly no accident. I base my opinion, rather, on letters that I received (which I always read very carefully and compare with one another), and I think that this discussion, which brought on a crisis in all the other groups, shows that your group is fairly well developed politically, and that all of the attendant circumstances testify to the conclusion that it can be made into a normal group again on the basis of political questions. At that time there was not less substance for personal conflicts and frictions than today. “Normally” in the other groups, these conflicts broke out on the occasion of the turn. In your group, they receded and the political danger welded you together. There was no crisis and the political and organizational life remained intact. We must base ourselves on this and take it as a proof of political maturity. For the X Group this was, in fact, a marvelous opportunity to test and apply certain organizational and political ideas which it had been concerned with much earlier and more thoroughly them was the case with other groups. One can say without reservation that consciously or unconsciously at that time the whole group put its theoretical understanding to the test. The experiment was entirely successful. I never hesitated for an instant to use you as an example. For don’t think that your position was not important. Nationally and internationally it made our victory easier and strengthened our position from the outset. That is not a small matter — it is everything. Now we must apply ourselves to systematic work on the questions at hand in order to be able to return to political work with the experience of two years. I maintain that in times when one must attend to political matters, when political news is coming in, and the interest of the group should be concentrated on political questions, the real character of a group comes to the fore. And in this respect I am optimistic about you. Ninety percent of your difficulties can be traced back to technical shortcomings. One could even go so far as to say that in fact your political and theoretical reserves have created a certain perplexity and a certain lack of political friction. In contrast to all others you understood the French turn so well that you did not apply it to the SAP in a more or less mechanistic way. On the church question, say, our comrades are pacesetters. That is: we have a certain uniform tradition — from what we learned in a few years of common work [before 1933],! to the French turn, to the SAP question, and to present-day tasks, there is a straight line. The problem now is, after all the organizational and methodological mistakes, to find the road to regular, organized practical work, which is all the more necessary as more and more political tasks present themselves. I am sure that with something like a general “amnesty” and with generosity we will be moving forward quickly again. And in a while, today’s “tragedies” will excite only mild laughter (to be sure: without forgetting the lessons of the tragedies). As I said, I have less doubts about all this because there will soon be political work to do. The first rule: the leadership should not worry itself about gossip and neither should all good comrades.

On the feeling occurring now and then that we have been marking time and have wasted two years: In reality, no work actually performed is in vain, however negative it may seem. Seen concretely, it is through work that we educate and develop ourselves. And if after two years there were no other result but that we made an accounting of a chapter in our lives and gained recognition of this or that mistake, then even that is a result that cannot be highly enough valued for personal and collective development. We are always looking for examples of the dialectic. Well, here is one! What good master tailor has not thoroughly ruined a dozen suits in his apprentice and journeyman’s years? No, we should try with all our power to fish out the positive elements among the negative (insofar as there is any correctness in the judgment that the last two years of work have been in vain) and direct all our efforts toward decisively overcoming the weaknesses and shortcomings that have come to light during the last two years on the basis of our experience. In general, people learn only from their mistakes — especially in the proletarian movement. All the comrades who went through the old movement could, I suppose, from a certain viewpoint, regard this as “wasted” time. In reality, this activity, seemingly in vain, made us what we are today: halfway Marxists, at least.

It will appear that we are marking time as long as we do not now go over to actually carrying out the real necessary work on the basis of the experience we have gained. Anyone drawing a balance sheet today would have to say: had the work suggested here been carried out by the leadership and in the leadership, significantly more progress would already have been made and there would be organizational advances to record.

Moreover (and much more important) a certain marking of time in the political sense is unavoidable as long as political life is so narrowly limited and hemmed in that only circles, small groups and the like can exist. This fact — that fascism leaves little room for political life (for the time being we have no workers’ movement, only a life in circles) — will exhaust many comrades under conditions of illegality, will make the situation seem hopeless to them, and heighten their dissatisfaction with the organization. On the other hand, this process has a good side: under no other conditions can such stable, well-trained, and disciplined cadres be formed through determined work as under the conditions of illegality.