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Leon Trotsky 19381104 Latin American Problems: A Transcript

Leon Trotsky: Latin American Problems: A Transcript

November 4, 1938

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 14, New York 1979, p 782-794]

Trotsky: Some of our comrades have proposed a general discussion upon the political situation in Mexico and Latin America in view of the return of Comrade Curtiss. The discussion will be of a general character with the sole view of informing our comrades of the situation.

Curtiss: The last few days have been very busy for me in trying to get some clarity and unity into my notes. ... I am more acquainted with the local situation in Mexico than I am with the rest of Latin America.

It appears to me that comrades in Mexico, in Puerto Rico, in Cuba, and in other regions, as much as I have been able to observe, have an extremely mechanical approach to the problems of permanent revolution. They take an idea, tear it out of its context, and I think that this in part gives rise to some of the difficulties you have heard about in the Mexican situation.

Mainly it is a misunderstanding of the question of skipping over stages. The literature of the revolutionary movement is posed mainly from the point of view of the industrially advanced countries and only understood in the light of the industrially advanced countries. For example, this question of skipping over stages is posed like this for the Mexican comrades: Why can't we in Mexico skip over intervening stages and arrive directly at the stage of proletarian revolution?

No attempt is made to look upon the movement from the point of view of accomplishing the democratic tasks. They are not used to thinking in that fashion, and this I believe gives rise to many misunderstandings.

One question, for example, is the relationship in Mexico between the liberal bourgeoisie and our movement, the Fourth International. When an attempt is. made to correct the Mexican comrades, they pose the abstraction of the permanent revolution and then come back with the claim: "Comrade Trotsky is reneging on his principles in regard to Mexico because of his desire to safeguard his exile." This is not always expressed openly but it lurks in the back of the minds of the comrades.

It is not very difficult to argue against this, utilizing the case of China, as it is somewhat similar. In the case of the other countries with semi-colonial problems, our attitude is generally the same. The comrades there are not particularly well-read or interested in these problems. What they are interested in is what strikes them immediately.

An explanation is necessary about the relationship between our movement and the general democratic movement. Emphasis should be placed upon the study of each concrete case, not upon abstractions only but upon each concrete case. For example, if socialism were achieved in the United States, it would be possible for all countries to skip these intermediate stages. Each special circumstance will have to be taken into consideration and an attempt made to telescope them into a shorter space of time.

Trotsky: On the question of permanent revolution in colonial countries—

Curtiss: Just a minute if I may—I would like to emphasize one more question. The misunderstanding on the part of leading comrades on this concrete question gives rise to difficulties and obstacles that make it practically impossible to approach the mass movement in Mexico, to approach the movement of the people generally.

Trotsky: Yes, I believe that Comrade Curtiss is right. The question is of tremendous importance; and schematicism of the formula of permanent revolution can become and does become from time to time extremely dangerous to our movement in Latin America.

That history can skip stages is absolutely clear. For example, if a railroad is built through the Yucatan jungles, it is a skipping of stages. It is on the level of American development of roads.

And when Toledano swears by Marx, that is also a skipping of stages, because the Toledanos of Europe in the time of Marx swore by other prophets.

Russia skipped the stage of democracy, not totally, but compressed the stage. The fact is well known. The proletariat can skip the stage of democracy, but we cannot skip the stages of the development of the proletariat.

I believe our comrades in Mexico and other countries attempt abstractly in respect to the proletariat, even in respect to history generally, to skip—not with the masses over certain stages, but over history generally—especially over the development of the proletariat.

The working class of Mexico participates, cannot help but participate, in the movement, in the struggle for the independence of the country, for the democratization of the agrarian relations, and so on. In this way the proletariat can come to power before the independence of Mexico is assured and the agrarian relations are reorganized. Then the workers' government can become an instrument in order to resolve these questions.

It can occur; possibly it will occur. But it is necessary to lead, to guide the workers—issuing from the democratic tasks to the taking of power. Not to pose an abstract socialist dictatorship to the real needs and desires of the masses, but starting from these daily struggles to oppose the national bourgeoisie on the basis of the workers' needs, winning the leadership of the workers and gaining the power.

Latin American society, like every society—developed or backward—is composed of three classes: the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, and the proletariat. Insofar as the tasks are democratic in a large historical sense, they are bourgeois-democratic tasks, but the bourgeoisie here is incapable of resolving these democratic tasks, as the bourgeoisie was incapable in Russia or in China.

In that sense, during the struggle for the democratic tasks, we oppose the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. The independence of the proletariat even in the beginning of this movement is absolutely necessary, and we especially oppose the proletariat to the bourgeoisie in the agrarian question, for that class will rule in Mexico as in every Latin American country which has the peasants. If the peasants remain in support of the bourgeois class, as is now the fact, then it will be such a semi-democratic, semi-Bonapartistic state as now exists in every country of Latin America, with inclinations toward the masses.

This is the period in which the national bourgeoisie searches for a bit more independence from the foreign imperialists. The national bourgeoisie is obliged to flirt with the workers, with the peasants, and then we have the strong man of the country orientated to the left as now in Mexico.

If the national bourgeoisie is obliged to give up the struggle against the foreign capitalists and to work under the direct tutelage of the foreign capitalists, then we have a semi-fascist regime, as in Brazil for example. But the bourgeoisie there is absolutely incapable of creating democratic rule, because on one side stands imperialist capital, on the other side they are afraid of the proletariat because history there skipped a stage and the proletariat became an important factor before the democratic organization of the whole society.

Even in these semi-Bonapartistic-democratic governments the state needs the support of the peasants and through the weight of the peasants disciplines the workers. That is more or less the situation in Mexico.

Now the Fourth International recognizes all the democratic tasks of the state in the fight for national independence, but the Mexican section of the Fourth International is in competition with the national bourgeoisie before the workers, before the peasants. We are in permanent competition with the national bourgeoisie as the only one leadership which is capable of assuring the victory of the masses in the fight against the foreign imperialists.

In the agrarian question we support the expropriations. That does not signify, of course, that we support the national bourgeoisie. In every case where it is a direct fight against the foreign imperialists or their reactionary fascist agents, we give revolutionary support, preserving the full political independence of our organization, of our program, of our party, and the full freedom of our criticism. The Kuomintang in China, the PRM in Mexico, and the APRA in Peru are very similar organizations. It is the People's Front in the form of a party.

Of course, the People's Front in Latin America does not have so reactionary a character as in France or in Spain. It is two-sided. It can have a reactionary attitude insofar as it is directed against the workers; it can have an aggressive attitude insofar as it is directed against imperialism.

But in our appreciation of the People's Front in Latin America in the form of a national political party, we make a distinction from France and from Spain. But this historical difference of appreciation and difference of attitude can be permitted only under the condition that our organization doesn't participate in the APRA, Kuomintang, or PRM, that it preserves absolute freedom of action and criticism.

The questions of the conquest of power and of socialism should also be concretized. The first question is the conquest of power by the workers' party in Mexico and the other advanced Latin American countries. The second question is that of building socialism. Of course, it would be more difficult for Mexico to build socialism than for Russia. Yet it is not at all excluded that the Mexican workers may conquer power before the workers of the United States if the workers of the United States continue to be as slow as they are now. I will say that it is especially possible if the imperialist movement in the United States pushes the bourgeoisie to domination over Latin America [presses the bourgeoisie in its drive for domination over Latin America]. Latin America is for the United States what Austria and the Sudeten were for Hitler.

As the first step of the new stage of American imperialism, Roosevelt or his successor will show the fist to Latin America in order to assure their economic-military tutelage over Latin America, and that will provoke a more decisive revolutionary movement, as in China—we believe with more success. Under these conditions the workers of Mexico can come to power before the workers of the United States. We must encourage them in this direction.

But that does not signify that they will build their own socialism. They will resolve to fight against American imperialism and they will, of course, reorganize the agrarian conditions of the country and abolish the perfidious and parasitic society which plays a tremendous role in these countries, giving the power to the workers' and peasants' Soviets and fighting against the imperialists. The future will depend upon events in the United States and the whole world.

Curtiss: As Comrade Trotsky was speaking, many questions that comrades ask one another over all Latin America and many parts of the world arose in my mind.

Let us discuss the case of Mexico. There are two problems that are connected. At the start of the labor movement here, I believe when Morones was the most important figure, the argument of Morones was that it would be possible to conquer power in Mexico but that the workers could not dare do so because of the inevitable military intervention of the United States.

No matter what his own opinion was about the necessity of socialism, Morones took care of himself first of all.

Now we find theoretically posed in El Popular, Lombardo Toledano's paper, the reverse of the same problem. And there was one article in El Machete, the Stalinist organ, which I did not study extremely carefully, similarly posing the question as to whether or not it would be possible to achieve socialism in Mexico or achieve the conquest of power peacefully. I am conscious that the workers give quite a bit of thought to this question. It is posed in many articles. The new socialists are all intrigued with this idea.

The actual path toward the conquest of power seems to take the form of union control. The union struggles for control. The butchers, for example, have threatened to go out on strike in order to gain control of the slaughterhouses. The railroads are under workers' administration.

I don't know exactly what the situation is in the petroleum industry, but here are some of the reports. That in the mansion formerly owned by a representative of the oil company, the representative no longer lives there. Instead a trade union bureaucrat occupies his place.

The question of democracy, it appears to me, not only is a question of state form, but a burning question within the labor movement. A concrete problem that our comrades in Mexico face is how to meet the bureaucracy. I thought the trade union bureaucracy in the United States was pretty bad, but I think they are just taking lessons from the Mexican bureaucracy. An iron hand is wielded. If the members do not obey, they are excluded. The advance of our movement hinges on that particular question.

There is a bureaucracy of the state and also a bureaucracy of the unions, and in many respects they are not so very far apart in Mexico. That is a problem in both spheres that is becoming very acute.

I think the concrete application of the transitional program to Mexico will have to take into account these laws and these backgrounds. Attempts at workers' control, attempts to democratize the trade union movement. I think it is necessary to issue a slogan of armed workers' militia, not only against the bourgeoisie, but to defend the conquests they themselves have already made from the trade union bureaucrats.

On the question of winning over peasants. Here we find that the schoolteachers seem to play a key role. . . . The schoolteachers, along with the railroad workers, are the connecting link between the peasantry and city workers.

Two questions I would like Comrade Trotsky to comment on: One, our attitude toward the petroleum expropriation and arising bureaucracy and the attempt of the bureaucracy to place part of the burden on the workers; and, two, the exact reason for the swing leftward on the part of Cardenas—why the swing is so decisive, and why so deep, because of all the presidents, Cardenas seems to have gone further in facing the land problem than any other.

A note on the APRA. It is an important organization but subsidized at the present time by the Mexican government. One of the chief arguments of the APRA and of the leaders of the APRA, and I think this is a question not only for the comrades of Latin America but also for us in the United States, is this: They claim there is no chance or no use in attempting to have anything to do with the workers of the industrially developed countries because they are not interested in colonial problems.

I think the attempt by comrades of the Fourth International in industrially advanced countries to face the problems of the colonial and semi-colonial countries would be a strong blow against the argument of the APRA.

Lankin: I would like a little more information about the Mexican organization. How many members it has and what the composition of the party is. What publications, etc.

Curtiss: It is difficult to determine the exact number. It is in a stage of reorganization.

Social composition: Composed of two levels, schoolteachers arid workers. The workers are in the main of the building trades, not industrial workers but building-trades workers.

The official publication is a newspaper, Cuarta Internacional. It has a very good circulation. The group has done a great deal of publishing but very little of it is sold, most of it is distributed.

Of course, Clave, a new theoretical magazine, is very sympathetic to our point of view.

From the point of view of theory there is a big gap in the organization. The schoolteachers are well read in Marxism. Most of the other comrades know very little about Marxism from a theoretical standpoint. Some attempts have been made at education with some success in the cities, but it was not carried out on a national scale.

Lankin: You said before when you spoke about the unions that if you disagree with union leaders you can be taken off the job. Would a leader in the Mexican unions have full power in the sense of a government official over that particular group of workers, or do they have the same democracy they are supposed to have in the United States?

Curtiss: In all Latin American countries, the constitutions of the trade unions are perfect models of democracy, but the leaders carry on dictatorial practices. All unions have all sorts of guarantees, but these guarantees don't mean a thing.

A leader can expel anyone from the union, and the expelled member finds himself in a very, very disagreeable position. No attempt can be made at appealing the expulsion. The only real appeal would be the appeal of fists.

John L. Lewis, Green, and all our American trade union leaders like them have nothing on the Mexican trade union bureaucracy.

Robinson: I would like to ask how the Mexican section of the Fourth International is taking the decision of the conference which was printed in the Appeal. How is the Communist Party growing recently? Is it having success? Is it growing stronger? How do we stand in relation to the CP?

Curtiss: The Communist Party is a powerful organization in Mexico. It controls many public offices. When our comrades deliver literature to the post office, if it falls into the hands of the CP, it will never get to its destination.

The Stalinists of Mexico are making a drive for a total of 75,000 members. In the United States they are making a drive for 100,000 members. From this you can get an idea of the organizational strength of the CP. From the point of view of members, it is a powerful organization. However, it is wrong to look upon them as an unbreakable mass. . . .

The decision of the International congress was taken very, very poorly by the comrades in Mexico City, especially the Galicia group. It has given rise to many tendencies, and we may be left with a much smaller organization than we figure now. The decision was taken very badly by these comrades. They agreed to submit to the decision but only under protest. The motion to accept under protest was passed with only a few comrades voting against. . . .

Trotsky: Regarding the estimate of membership of the Communist Party in connection with its campaign for 75,000, I am very doubtful. Political statistics in Mexico are not the most exact in the world. For example, the CTM gives out as its membership, a million. When I asked a former official of the CTM if this were true, he replied:

"No, it is exaggerated."

"How many, a half million?"

"No, I believe forty or fifty thousand, and especially insofar as it concerns workers."

The figures of the Communist Party, however, are very, very confused.

Diego Rivera believes, and he knows the situation, that the party is strong in Mexico City. It had, I believe he said, 12,000 and not more than 14,000 members, some 11,600 or 11,700 bureaucrats, and 2,000 or 3,000 workers.

In regard to the bureaucrats, they cannot be politically recognized as genuine members of the party. The official leader of the trade union is a Communist. He obliges everyone under him to be a Communist. If they don't attend a meeting, they must forfeit their salary for five days.

The trade unions in Mexico are constitutionally statified. One cannot obtain a job if he is not a member of a trade union, and the bureaucratic trade unions receive dues through the state. With a teacher, for example, the leaders decided that every teacher pay 1.5 percent of his salary. The secretary of finances ordered that from their salaries 1.5 percent should be deducted for the trade union.

In the general context of Mexican politics, the trade unions are now at a very interesting stage. We now see a general tendency to statify the trade unions. In the fascist countries we find the extreme expression of this tendency.

In democratic countries, they transform the former independent unions into instruments of the state. The trade unions in France are being transformed into an official bureaucracy of the state. Jouhaux came to Mexico as a representative of his government in order to safeguard the interests of France in Mexican oil, and so on.

The reason for this statifying tendency is that declining capitalism cannot tolerate independent unions. If trade unions are too independent then the capitalists push the fascists in order to destroy them or to frighten the leaders with a fascist alternative in order to discipline them.

Jouhaux has been disciplined in this manner. He is sure that if he is a better republican, then the French will not establish a fascist regime. We saw in Spain that in the most anarchistic trade unions the leaders became bourgeois ministers during the war.

In Germany and Italy this is assured in a totalitarian manner, the unions being incorporated directly into the state, together with the owner-capitalists. It is only a difference in degree, not a difference in essence.

We see in Mexico and the other Latin American countries that they skipped over most stages of the development. It began in Mexico directly by incorporating the trade unions in the state. In

Mexico we have a double domination. That is, foreign capital and the national bourgeoisie, or, as Diego Rivera formulated it, a "sub-bourgeoisie"—a stratum which is controlled by foreign capital and at the same time opposed to the workers; in Mexico a semi-Bonapartist regime between foreign capital and national capital, foreign capital and the workers.

Every government can create in a case like this a position of oscillation, of inclination [tilting or leaning] one time to the national bourgeoisie or workers and another time to foreign capital. In order to have the workers in their hands, they incorporated the trade unions in the state.

They skip over economic relations also, stages of development in the sense that they expropriated oil, for example, from foreign capital and yet didn't give it to the national capitalists. They don't distribute it or sell it to the Mexican bourgeoisie, especially because they are afraid of the class struggle of the workers, and they give the oil fields to the state.

They create a state capitalism which has nothing to do with socialism. It is the purest form of state capitalism.

At the same time they incorporate the workers, the trade unions, which are already statified. They incorporate them in the management of the railroad, the oil industry, and so on, in order to transform the trade union leadership into government representatives. The foreman is at the same time the representative of the workers, of their interests nominally, yet really the representative of the state over the workers. And he has the right—better to say the possibility—of ruining for the workers their chance to work, because in the name of discipline of the trade unions he can do it in the interest of production.

In that sense, of course, when we say the control of production by the workers it cannot mean control of production by the statified bureaucrats of the trade unions, but control by the workers of their own bureaucracy and to fight for the independence of the trade unions from the state.

In Mexico that is the most important task—the liberation of the trade unions from the tutelage of the bourgeois state and the liberation of the workers from the dictatorship of the bureaucrats in the trade unions. That is workers' democracy.

We must underline the fact that now the trade unions cannot be democratic trade unions in the old -sense of the word. The imperialists cannot tolerate them. In the old countries as well as in Mexico, they can be instruments of the imperialist bourgeoisie or revolutionary organizations against the imperialist bourgeoisie.

That is why, of course, we begin in Mexico with slogans— liberation from the state, workers' democracy, free discussion, and so on. But they are only transitional slogans, leading to the more important slogans of the workers' state. It is only a stage which can give us the possibility of replacing the present directors of the trade unions with a revolutionary direction [leadership].

They cannot be independent as in the good old times, tolerated by the bourgeoisie because it was possible to allow this much freedom to the trade unions. It is no longer possible now to establish the old democracy in the trade unions just as it is no longer possible to establish democracy in the state. It is an absolutely parallel development.

In Mexico, Toledano utilizes this condition only to assure his domination of the workers as every Latin American state uses it in order to assure its own dominance. It is a semi-Bonapartistic rule, inclined now to the left, now to the right. It depends upon the concrete historical stage in every country. But here we cannot skip the stages. We cannot say to the workers, Give us the leadership and we will show you what to do.

It is absolutely certain that the Fourth International is capable of assuring revolutionary direction to trade unions during the transitory stages in Mexico. The Fourth International will defend this Mexican stage against imperialist intervention. It is not as in France, as in the United States. We fight in order to prevent its being transformed into a colony, into slavery.

But as the Mexican section of the Fourth International, it is not our state and we must be independent from this state. In this sense we are not opposed to state capitalism in Mexico; but the first thing we demand is our own representation of workers before this state. We cannot permit the leaders of the trade unions to become functionaries of the state. To attempt to conquer the state in this way is absolute idiocy. It is not possible in this manner peacefully to conquer power. It is a petty-bourgeois dream.

That was Stalin's plan with the Kuomintang, and it was because of this idiocy of Stalin that the Kuomintang now rules China. We will enter the Kuomintang, said Stalin, then we will politely eliminate the right wing, then the center, and then the left. Thus we will conquer power without any trouble.

We of the Left Opposition pointed out that the right wing of the Kuomintang is imperialist. They have in their hands the army.

We cannot conquer power without opposing this machinery. Insofar as we are in the hands of the Kuomintang, we are in the hands of the genuine bosses of the country. Absolutely.

The APRA now affirms that they are the most revolutionary party in Peru. This is only because they are in opposition; but even in opposition they are more cautious than is the administration of Cardenas. Insofar as I can judge the last programmatic letter of the leader of the APRAists, the party is controlled by leaders who are connected with foreign capital. They are interested, like all the reactionary generals in Mexico, in building a dominating clique as an instrument of foreign capital, in working if possible for the increase of the national capital.

Of course, the interests of foreign capital and national capital are not always identical, and they come from time to time into sharp clashes. Thus it is possible in favorable conditions for the national capital to oppose the exigencies of foreign capital.

During the time of Roosevelt's "good neighbor policy," Cardenas tested the possibility of military intervention and he succeeded to a certain degree in conquering certain positions, beginning with English capital, then American, and so on. Now it seems that he is beginning to make concessions again. He tested the limits of the possibilities.

The national bourgeoisie needs an inner [domestic] market and the inner market is more or less a satisfied peasantry. That is why the agrarian revolution, especially at the expense of foreign owners, is a direct gain to the national bourgeoisie. The peasants will buy more goods and so on. This policy is of a political character. It is not clear at the beginning how far the limits are. The administration cannot say how long the bourgeoisie will tolerate, or how long the American bourgeoisie will tolerate, or how far it can go without intervention from Great Britain, and so on. That is why it is of an adventuristic character. From one side probing and from the other jumping, and then a retreat.

I believe that we must fight with the greatest energy this idea that the state can be seized by stealing bits of the power. It is the history of the Kuomintang. In Mexico the power is in the hands of the national bourgeoisie, and we can conquer power only by conquering the majority of the workers and a great part of the peasantry, and then overthrowing the bourgeoisie. There is no other possibility.

The APRA says that there is no use going hand in hand with the workers of the United States because they are not interested in colonial questions, the same with the European proletariat, and so on. The real reason for that attitude is the need for political protection from the White House. It is not an ideological mistake or error. It is a political calculation of the national bourgeoisie of Peru.

They know that they need the confidence of the White House, especially of Wall Street. If they win in Peru, they will need the protection of Wall Street as do all the governments now in Latin America, and if they enter into connection with the workers, to win them for the struggle, that signifies they must break all relations with the White House.

For some time it was difficult for me to get a clear picture of the program of the APRA. But the last letter of the head of the party is absolutely clear. He says that the United States is the guardian of Latin America's liberty; and if a foreign power threatens this liberty, the APRA will immediately call upon the United States, and so on—not a word about the workers.

It is a People's Front party. A People's Front is included in the party, as in every combination of such nature. Direction is in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie fears its own workers. That is why this party, although so strong that it could gain power by revolution, is afraid to enter that road. They do not have the courage or the class interest to mobilize the peasants and the workers, and they will replace them by military maneuvers or by direct intervention from the United States.

Of course, we cannot enter such a party; but we can create a nucleus in it in order to win the workers and separate them from the bourgeoisie. But under no circumstances can we repeat the Stalinist idiocy with the Kuomintang in China.

Curtiss: On the question of the statification of the trade unions, I think an important aspect of that is the National Labor Relations Board set up in the United States, which has played havoc with the fighting spirit of the workers.

I think that if we were to characterize the tendency in Mexico— the attempt to achieve a theoretical peace, a peaceful transition to socialism—it could be called a bureaucratic dream of the trade union leaders, who come into a soft and easy job through this process. That seems to them the acme of development toward socialism.

Trotsky: It would be well to ask our comrades in Mexico to verify the statistics of the Communist Party. Diego Rivera estimates 12,000 were in the central drive for 75,000. He is not exaggerating. The Communist Party itself credits itself with not more than a total membership of 24,000.