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Leon Trotsky 19381200 Petty-Bourgeois Democrats and Moralizers

Leon Trotsky: Petty-Bourgeois Democrats and Moralizers

[December] 1938 and 1939

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 14, New York 1979, p. 865-872]

A. Is it possible you are not frightened by the successes of fascism?

B. Fear is not a political response. In a state of fear, it is impossible to say or do anything intelligent. One must understand causes and deduce methods of action from them. In the advanced capitalist countries, which are now countries of imperialism, democracy has finally and totally exhausted itself, or to put it another way, imperialism has developed social contradictions of a kind that a democratic framework cannot make room for; this is why democracy, which seemed eternal, immutable, and the highest form of governmental administration, is collapsing now in country after country.

A. Does that mean, for your part, you want to help the fascists demolish democracy?

B. Here you fall into crude sophistry, seeking a scapegoat for your own politics. Don’t forget that in Italy, Germany, and Austria, and so on, democracy’s ascendance was total; all the possible variants of coalitions, blocs, People’s Fronts, were thoroughly utilized; the current that I represent was a very insignificant minority and could not exert influence on the fate of these countries. The same is true of Spain as well; also now, of France and Czechoslovakia. Under these conditions to demand that critics from the left lay down their arms, seal their lips and allow you to continue the policy of blocs, People’s Fronts, and so on and so on, means, in fact, to do a service for fascism.

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A. But don’t you recognize that workers have a duty to support bourgeois democracy when it is threatened by an imminent fascist overturn?

B. I recognize, of course, that workers must beat back and crush fascism when it threatens even imperialist bourgeois democracy. But workers must do this by their own means and with their own methods. In this connection, there is an old Marxist formula which says: “March separately, but strike together.” In France, the Socialists and Communists for several years marched together with the Radicals. But when the time came to strike against reaction, they broke off relations and began to strike at one another. One might ask, What sense did it make to march together? The French proletariat would undoubtedly have been in the front ranks of the struggle against any threat from fascism or other forces of reaction; but for this to occur, there was no need to participate in the masquerade of the People’s Front, hand in hand with their worst exploiters and oppressors, the Radical Socialists. For the working class, it would have been enough to remain in their own organizations and to carry on their own policy, for then the betrayal of the Radicals at least would not have caught the French workers off guard. I confess it is not without a feeling of awkwardness that I find myself obliged to explain such elementary truth to you.

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A. But what about now, in China, during a war with Japan?

B. If you wish, we can have a separate discussion on China. But it is a bad Marxist who tries to fix common rules for imperialist France and colonial China. Not to distinguish oppressor countries from oppressed countries is the same as not to distinguish between the exploiting class and the exploited. Those who place imperialist and colonial countries on the same level, no matter what democratic phrases they may use to conceal this fact, are nothing but agents of imperialism.

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A. But you contribute to Liberty?

B. Yes, I contribute to Liberty. That is, from time to time I use this magazine, as well as a number of others, to have the opportunity to make my ideas heard. But no thinking person lumps me with Liberty and makes me responsible for that magazine. Any thoughtful and honest person will understand and say that I use Liberty in the present exceptional conditions the same way I use a railway car, no more and no less.

But to take part in any joint action against the war and against fascism with Mr. Jouhaux and those like him, I would consider a betrayal. Jouhaux, an agent of imperialism, bears full responsibility for French imperialism’s suppression of Algeria, Tunisia, Indochina, and the other colonies. Thousands of revolutionary students, workers, and intellectuals sit in the prisons of French imperialism and Jouhaux is one of their jail-keepers To engage in one or another political activity hand in hand with him would mean to take responsibility for him in the eyes of the oppressed masses. This is treachery; this is betrayal.

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A. What do you think about the fate of democracy?

B. The old democracy, that we know from the history of Great Britain, France, and the United States, is doomed. The question of whether or not I believe in democracy is unimportant. What is important is that democracy does not believe in itself. I can’t resist citing one small but clear illustration, despite its personal character. Isn’t it astounding that the government of the most powerful democracy in the world does not dare allow one individual to spend several months in the United States to work in its libraries?

A. Who was that?

B. Me.

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Yes, there are mistakes in Marxism and in Bolshevism. You, it must be said, have not pointed to them, but we will take your word. But are there not also defects in capitalism, and also in bourgeois democracy and in the entire system of reformism? Perhaps you could tell us, gentlemen, by what methods you propose to correct the small defects of capitalism and the small weaknesses of bourgeois democracy?

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As regards the petty-bourgeois democrats — conservative and cowardly — they in general cannot imagine any possible role but that of toadying to the liberal bourgeoisie or the reaction. This is why to them it is absolutely indisputable that anyone who does not go with them tailing liberal imperialist democracy is ipso facto an accomplice of fascism. In other words, they start from a total denial of the possibility of an independent proletarian policy — in this lies the entire secret. This rejection of independent proletarian politics is now pressing upon the petty bourgeoisie with particular force as a result of the degeneration of the Soviet Union, the defeat of the workers in Italy, Germany and Austria, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and so on, and so on, and in view of the fact that the working class of the world has been thrown backward into a totally defensive position. But precisely in such a period, the revolutionary vanguard has the duty with special vigor and implacability to uphold the independent historical truth of the proletarian vanguard. Here opens the unbridgeable gulf between Marxists and the conservative petty-bourgeois democrats who once a week recall that they are socialists.

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These gentlemen, made of light-mindedness and ignorance, think that great historical questions are solved with the aid of tricky rhetorical formulas, cheap newspaper declarations, etc. They are capable of learning nothing. If tomorrow they learn nothing from the example of Czechoslovakia and France, repeating formulas which have experienced a total and ignominious bankruptcy; if tomorrow the system in the USSR collapses, they will shrug their shoulders and move to the next point on the agenda.

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Engels and Marx were always beset with charges that they were only the helpers of reaction. Engels wrote: “Marx and I were always in the minority and never minded it a bit.” Lenin, in his turn, predicted his own fate, saying that revolutionaries who are persecuted in life, hounded, and shamelessly slandered, are usually declared to be virtual saints after their death in order to serve the cause of the oppressors against the oppressed.

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The attempt of the bourgeoisie during its internecine conflicts to oblige all humanity to divide up into only two camps is motivated by a desire to prohibit the proletariat from having its own independent ideas. This method is as old as bourgeois society, or more exactly, as class society in general. No one is obligated to become a Marxist; no one is obligated to swear by Lenin’s name. But the whole of the politics of these two titans of revolutionary thought was directed toward this, that the fetishism of two camps would give way to a third, independent, sovereign camp of the proletariat, that camp upon which, in point of fact, the future of humanity depends.

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The “betrayal” of the Social Democracy during the war was a malignant expression of its incompatibility with the new epoch. Amid the fire and smoke of imperialist war, a new International arose which counterposed to the reformist methods of adaptation to bourgeois society, the methods of revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society. If the Second International was a political instrument of the proletariat in the epoch of industrial capitalism, the Third International was called upon to become the instrument of the proletariat in the epoch of the triumph of finance capital, the disintegration or downfall of democracy, the breakup of the old balance of power, and wars and revolutions. Social institutions do not, however, voluntarily leave the stage after they have exhausted their mission. This is true of private property, the nation state, and the regime of democracy and its political parties as well. The old political institutions and forms proved to have the most vitality in the most privileged bourgeois nations. The same is true of the reformist organizations of the proletariat. The conciliatory politics of the British or North American trade unionists was possible only because the Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie was wealthy enough to keep feeding the millions of unemployed. Leon Blum got the opportunity to head a People’s Front government twenty years after the war only because imperialist France came out of that war the victor and expanded its territory and its colonial domain. However, the difference in fate of the reformist parties of different countries is measured only by the term until their downfall. The old trade unions, like the old workers’ parties, are now no less remnants of history than is private ownership of the means of production.

It is true that in the years after the war, the Social Democracy attained an extremely powerful outward image. The working masses, agitated and embittered by the war, raised on their shoulders to power the party which they were accustomed to seeing as their leader. But precisely this belated political ascent of the Social Democracy exposed its internal emptiness and rottenness.

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Whereas the Social Democrats solidarize themselves in a totally open way with national imperialism, the Russian Mensheviks still try through force of habit to link work in the service of imperialism with general abstract slogans of internationalism. By the term “active internationalism,” the Russian Mensheviks mean their bustling and clamorous adaptation to the official slogans of imperialist democracy. In other words, instead of exposing the real content of the policy of imperialism, democratic or fascist, they try to help one of the camps conceal its real interests under abstract slogans. This they call “active internationalism.”

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The light-minded babblers and phrase-mongers who call themselves friends of the USSR make references to the fact that the capitalist reaction and the so-called Trotskyists alike attack the USSR. The capitalist reaction attacks the fact that in the USSR there exist public ownership of the means of production and a monopoly of foreign trade, i.e., the most important conquests of the October Revolution. We Marxists attack the fact that the bureaucracy is systematically undermining the conquests of the October Revolution and that its continued rule endangers the public ownership of the means of production and the monopoly of foreign trade. To lump together directly opposite ideological trends is the same as identifying criticism of liberalism by the feudal reaction with criticism of liberalism by the proletariat. Liberals always busy themselves with such identifications. Marxists are always merciless in denouncing this.

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But if from our — that is a Marxist — standpoint, an agreement [of the USSR] with Hitler is not different in principle from an agreement with Leon Blum or Daladier as agents of French imperialism, then from the standpoint of the Second and Third Internationals, the difference is decisive. A bloc or even a semi-bloc between Stalin and Hitler signifies the collapse of the entire structure of lies, treachery and betrayal constructed since approximately 1934 and brought to an end by a series of catastrophes.

The fawning before France, England, and the United States pursues the particular interests of self-preservation: This in its way is practical politics. But the ideology built through the Comintern, as regards “People’s Fronts” and the alliance of the democracies, represents a 100 percent reactionary falsification. The annihilation of the old generation of Bolsheviks, of all revolutionaries in general, necessary in order to strengthen the Bonapartist regime of oppression and exploitation, represented quite practical politics. But the trials, the accusatory combinations, the confessions which were put together in the Moscow courts, represented a total falsification. The ideology of “People’s Fronts” and — from a juridical point of view — Vyshinsky’s indictment speeches, have the same political qualities. The collapse of all this grandiose falsehood is approaching with seven-league boots. This collapse is a necessary link, an initial link, for further revolutionary development. Revolutionary politics will not tolerate masks. Its principle is to say what is; the collapse of the lies of Stalinism will pave the way for the triumph of this principle.

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The [Spanish] revolution subjected classes, parties, individuals, and doctrines to the test of experience. One must clearly understand what suffered defeat in the revolution and what, on the other hand, found its highest confirmation. All parties and organizations of the working class proved themselves bankrupt. From this, it is easy to conclude that not only anarchism but also Marxism was defeated. However, that is not quite the case, A mass Marxist party did not exist in Spain. The organization which called itself Marxist in fact functioned in a way that was totally at odds with every Marxist doctrine. Marxist analysis long ago showed that the epoch of democratic revolution for the capitalist countries had long since passed. Marxist doctrine showed that only by uncompromisingly advancing the class struggle could [the working class] succeed in time of revolution in uniting around itself all of the toiling and oppressed masses and insure victory. The parties calling themselves Marxist artificially and forcibly set bourgeois limits to the revolution and substituted class collaboration for class struggle. This policy meant a total break with Marxism, and precisely for that reason it suffered a bitter defeat. A defeat for a capitalist party, or even a Communist party, is not a defeat for Marxism; it is, on the contrary, the highest proof of Marxism’s correctness. The matter is just the opposite with respect to anarchism. It proved in principle unable to provide answers to problems of the revolution. Marxism, as well as anarchism, wants to abolish the state. But, contrary to anarchism, Marxism understands that to abolish the state, you cannot turn your back on it. The state will remind you of its existence by striking a blow at your skull while your back is turned. Revolution is the highest concentration of power. In its essence, revolution signifies the struggle of a new class for state power. Because the anarchists do not understand the nature of the state, they end up being captives, in the servitude of the state power of the bourgeoisie. Their leaders are transformed into bourgeois state ministers. Anarchist doctrine has led to a dead end.

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Victor Serge claims that his enunciations, statements, and corrections, always revolving around his own personality, must without exception be printed by the workers’ publications. Why? On what basis? What does Victor Serge represent today in the workers’ movement? An ulcer of his own doubts, of his own confusion, and nothing more. We have other tasks and concerns. Our paper is needed for other goals. We serve the revolution of the proletariat as it is and not the revolution which is being prepared by the moral confectioners. What do people of the Victor Serge type represent? Our conclusion is simple: these verbose, coquettish moralists, capable of bringing only trouble and decay, must be kept out of the revolutionary organization, even by cannon-fire if necessary.

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