Saturday, December 17, 2016

1990 preface to In Defense of Marxism

'In Defense of Marxism':
an essential work to
understand USSR's social
and political structures

From the 10 August 1900 issue of The Militant

The following is the preface to the third
edition of In Defense of Marxism by Leon
'Trotsky, to be published this month by
Pathfinder. The preface is copyright @
1990 and reprinted by permission of Path-


Unleashing decades of pent-up anger and
frustration, millions across Central and East-
em Europe took to the streets in the closing
months of 1989 and early 1990 demanding
justice and political rights. By July 1990,
when this preface was written, they had
toppled or shaken most of the regimes dom-
inated by Stalinist Communist Parties. In
doing so, they opened the door for working
people to break out of the political cocoon
they were wrapped in for more than four
decades by the repressive policies of the
privileged bureaucratic castes in these coun-
tries. The disintegration of the Stalinist par-
ties and the formation of weaker and more
unstable regimes create the possibility for
workers and farmers to take the first steps
toward getting involved in political life, or-
ganizing to defend their class interests, and
being influenced by struggles of working
people and national liberation fighters in
other countries.

The parasitic petty-bourgeois caste in the
Soviet Union, too, is being wracked by this
crisis. Workers' strikes are mounting. Mobi-
lizations of nationally oppressed peoples
threaten secession from the USSR by repub-
lics from the Baltics to Azerbaijan.

Moreover, economic stagnation has led to
a decline in workers' living standards and to
growing popular unrest and protests through-
out Central and Eastern Europe and the So-
viet Union. In the face of this situation, most
of the regimes -both the new governments
in most Eastern European countries and the
Communist Party-dominated regime in the
Soviet Union -have initiated steps to re-
structure their economies by employing
wider use of capitalist market methods and

These momentous changes are stimulating
interest and discussion among working peo-
ple, students, and others around the world.
There is a thirst for a clear explanation of the
economic, social, and political contradictions
in the structures of these countries, where
capitalist ownership of basic industry and

banking was overturned decades ago.
Questions include: What is the social char-
acter of these states? Is capitalism being
restored? What, if anything, is there for workers

to defend in these societies? What is the
character of workers' struggles? What should
be the stance of working people in the United
States and other countries to these develop-
ments? What is the relationship of workers
in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to
struggles against capitalist exploitation and
imperialist domination around the world?
The republication of this book by Leon
Trotsky is a helpful guide for working
through answers to these and other questions.
As a central leader of the October 1917
Russian revolution and of the Communist
International in its early years, Trotsky brings
insights from direct experience. Although the
' articles and letters in this volume were writ-
ten 50 years ago, their evaluation of Soviet
society and its contradictory place in world
·politics is not only accurate but essential to
understanding the permanent crisis of the
Stalinist parties and the growing instability
of the regimes in Eastern and Central Europe
; and in the USSR itself.

In the late 1920s Trotsky had been ex-
pelled from the Soviet Communist Party and
forced into exile by Joseph Stalin. Trotsky's
"crime" was to have continued to fight for
the communist course that V.I. Lenin and the
Bolsheviks had followed before the bureau-
cratic degeneration of the revolution under

"Stalinism" refers to the counterrevolu-
tionary policies of the privileged social caste
that emerged and consolidated its power at
that time and continues its domination in the
Soviet Union to this day. These Stalinist
policies were endorsed by the leaderships of
parties that called themselves "Communist"
around the world. They subordinated
workers' struggles to serving the diplomatic
needs of the caste in the Soviet Union and,
after World War II, of the castes that exer-
cised power in other countries where capi-
talism had been overturned in the decade
following the war.

In 1939--40, when the materials in this
book were written, Trotsky was living in
exile in Mexico. In August 1940 he was
assassinated by an agent of Stalin.

Trotsky wrote these articles and letters as
part of a debate inside the Socialist Workers
Party during the opening stages of the second
interimperialist world war. The key issue in
dispute was what kind of party needed to be
built in the United States and around the
world: a revolutionary party that was truly
part ofthe working class and its struggles,
or ·a petty-bourgeois radical party calling
itself working class in words, while buckling
in deeds to bourgeois public opinion? What
kind of party could stand up to the pressures
of the capitalists' intensifying prowar propa-
ganda and anticommunist hysteria?

Trotsky's standpoint was that of the work-
ing class, both inside the Soviet Union and
internationally. He explained that clarity on
the class character and contradictions of the
Soviet Union was interlinked with the polit-
ical tasks and orientation of revolutionary
workers the world over. It was necessary to
distinguish between the nationalized prop-
erty relations that resulted from the expro-
priation of the capitalist class, which were
conquests of the workers and peasants during
the opening years of the Russian revolution,
and the counterrevolutionary policies of the
privileged social caste. Only by doing so
could working people around the world
know what they should do to defend the
Soviet Union against impending military at-
tack (which came with imperialist
Germany's invasion in June 1941, less than
a year after the final items in this collection
were written).

The underlying cause of World War II was
the rivalry among the competing capitalist
ruling families of the imperialist countries,
Trotsky explained. A manifesto on the war
drafted by Trotsky and adopted by the SWP
and other revolutionary organizations in May
1940 outlined the tasks of working people as
they were dragged into the slaughter by the
capitalist rulers. (See Writings of Leon '
Trotsky 1939-40, Pathfinder, 1973, pp.l83-

Trotsky's analysis of the economic and
social structures of the Soviet Union and the
counterrevolutionary character of the Stalin-
ist bureaucracy, which the SWP shared, has
been tested by history and confirmed. More-
over, the prognosis that the war would lead
to a new wave of working-class revolutions
and anticolonial uprisings was also borne out,
although in ways that Trotsky and the SWP
did not and could not have foreseen.

Despite the Stalin regime's continuing

counterrevolutionary course during the war,w
the workers and peasants
of the Soviet Union suc-
cessfully beat back the
German imperialist in-
vasion. The military
turning point came in i
early 1943 when Soviet
resistance broke the
siege of Stalingrad. The
victories of Soviet work-
ing people, won at great
human and material cost,
not only defended the
conquests of the October
revolution and pre-
vented the restoration of
capitalism and imperial-
ist domination in the So-
viet Union. They also
gave a powerful impulse
to anticolonial and other
national liberation strug-
gles throughout Africa,
Asia, the Pacific, and the
Caribbean. And capital-
ist property relations
were overturned in the
late 1940s and early
1950s in Yugoslavia,
elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe,
North Korea, China, and then North Vietnam.
The extension of the socialist revolution,
however, occurred under the domination of
Stalinist, not revolutionary, leadership.
Moreover, the strength of Stalinism in the
workers' movement in Western Europe, es-
pecially France and Italy, blocked any chance
for socialist victories in a major imperialist
power. Thus, the revolutionary advances irri-
pelled by the triumph of Soviet working
people over imperialist aggression did not
"inevitably lead to the overthrow of the bu-
reaucracy in the USSR and regeneration of
Soviet democracy," as Trotsky had antici-
pated. These advances did not result in a
political revolution that restored power to the
Soviet working class under the leadership of
a renewed communist party.

In Trotsky's 1936 book, The Revolution

Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and
Where Is It Going?
(Pathfinder, 1972), which
is an essential complement to In Defense of
Marxism, he based his prognosis of a political
revolution in the Soviet Union on the com-
munist consciousness that still existed among
tens of thousands of workers who had gone
through the October Revolution or had been
deeply influenced by its revolutionary lead-

In the decades since, however, this polit-
ical consciousness has eroded so much under
the stultifying conditions imposed by the
Stalinist regimes that today there is no com-
munist working-class vanguard in the Soviet
Union or anywhere in Central or Eastern
Europe. Instead, there has been a sharp break
in continuity with the rich communist tradi-
tions of the early Soviet government under

Lenin's leadership and the first five years of
the Communist International.

Workers throughout Eastern and Central
Europe, however, are regaining political
room to organize and become involved in
politics. They are seeking to fight back
against attacks on their economic and social
conquests as the regimes -new and old - .
in all these countries increase reliance on
capitalist methods and try to forge closer ties
to the imperialist ruling classes of Western
Europe, North America, and Japan. It is
through struggles like these that working
people from Berlin to the Pacific coast of the
Soviet Union will link up with fights by other
workers and fanners the world over, test
alternative strategies and ideas, and begin
anew the bUilding of proletarian communist

* *

The political crisis in the Socialist Workers
Party discussed by Trotsky in these pages ·
was precipitated by the signing of the "non-
aggression" pact between the governments
of the Soviet Union and Germany (the Sta-
lin-Hitler Pact) on Aug. 22, 1939, and the
outbreak of war a week later with the inva-
sion of Poland by German imperialism. A
substantial minority in the SWP leadership
and membership concluded that there was no
longer anything progressive in the Soviet
Union to defend. This panicky turning away
from historic conquests of the international
workers' movement reflected a more funda-
mental retreat from any perspective of build-
ing a revolutionary proletarian party in the
United States and worldwide.

For several years, Trotsky had been urging
the SWP to adopt an "orientation of the whole
party toward factory work" and to deepen its
active involvement in the industrial trade

unions. He called for systematic political
activity among workers who are Black.
"'They are convoked by the historic develop-
ment to become a vanguard of the working
class," Trotsky said. His views on these ques-
tions can be found in Background to "The
Struggle for A Proletarian Party" and Leon
Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-De-
termination, both published by Pathfinder.
Many questions of communist leadership
and party building that arose in the 1939-40
debate were also addressed in The Struggle
for a Proletarian Party (Pathfinder, 1972) by
James P. Cannon, SWP national secretary at
the time. This book remains a valuable com-
panion volume to In Defense of Marxism and
should be studied along with it.

For a broader picture of the effort to forge
a party of the working-class vanguard in the
United States, Pathfinder's foui-volume se-
ries on the struggle to organize the Teamsters
union in the Midwest is especially useful:
Teamster Rebellion, Teamster Power, Team-
ster Politics, and Teamster Bureaucracy. The
series was written by Farrell Dobbs, a prom-
inent leader of the Teamster organizing drives
in the 1930s who later served as the SWP's
national secretary. Dobbs describes the hard-
fought labor battles through which an entire
layer of working-class fighters learned how
to carry out serious revolutionary work in the
trade unions and were won to socialism. The
impact of the Teamsters' experience on the
evolution and development of the forces that
founded the SWP was deeply felt in the
1939-40 struggle, in which the proletarian
character of the party was challenged and
successfully defended.

During the period of capitalist expansion
following World War ll, the labor movement
was pushed out of the center of politics in
the United States. This began to change as
the 1974-75 international recession, the

deepest since 1937, registered the scope of
the economiC crisis facing the capitalist rul-
ers. To bolster declining profit rates, employ-
ers began squeezing more out of working
people and launched an assault on the unions.
Labor's resistance to this assault, which
has gone through ups and downs, has moved
the unions back into a central place in U.S.
and world politics. Moreover, the unions
have been deeply affected by the conquests
of social and political battles of recent de-
cades (the struggle for Black rights, the anti-
Vietnam war movement, fights for women's
rights, etc.) and by the changing composition
of the working class in the United States
(growing numbers of immigrant workers, the
increasing percentage of women).

In response, the Socialist Workers Party
entered a new stage of its evolution by turning
its face and activity to work in the industrial
trade unions. The 1978 report by Jack Barnes
for the SWP National Committee that
adopted this perspective explained that this
tum was necessary to "carry forward the
basic proletarian orientation the party has had
for decades." That report and other docu-
ments outlining a course to build a proletarian
party in the closing decades of the twentieth
century are contained in The Changing Face
of U.S. Politics, published by Pathfinder in

* *

In Defense of Marxism was first published
in 1942 with an introduction by George
Novack and Joseph Hansen, two leaders of
the SWP. Hansen was one of Trotsky's sec-
retaries in Mexico during much of the time
the 1939-40 discussion in the SWP was
taking place. Novack and Hansen updated
their introduction for the second edition of
the book in 1973.

The Introduction to the second edition, by George Novack
and Joseph Hansen can be read here.

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