The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 23           July 7, 2003  
Defending Marxism,
its dialectic method
(Books of the Month column)
The following are excerpts from the article “A petty-bourgeois opposition in the Socialist Workers Party” by Leon Trotsky. The entire article, dated Dec. 15, 1939, can be found in the book In Defense of Marxism by the same author, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month in June. Trotsky was a leader of the October 1917 Russian Revolution and of the Bolshevik party. Following the death of V.I. Lenin—the central leader of the Bolsheviks and of the October revolution—Trotsky led the international fight for the program for world revolution developed by the Communist International under Lenin’s guidance, against the counterrevolution by a bureaucratic caste whose chief representative became Joseph Stalin. He was expelled from the Soviet Communist Party in the late 1920s and forced into exile by Stalin’s regime.

In this article, Trotsky defends the materialist foundations of scientific socialism, responding to those in the workers movement in the late 1930s who bent to the pressure of bourgeois public opinion during Washington’s buildup towards entering the spreading imperialist war in Europe. He explains why working people must oppose assaults by the capitalist powers on the degenerated Soviet workers state, and why only a party that fights to bring growing numbers of workers into its ranks and leadership can chart a revolutionary course. Copyright © 1995 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted here by permission.

It is necessary to call things by their right names. Now that the positions of both factions in the struggle have become determined with complete clearness, it must be said that the minority of the National Committee is leading a typical petty-bourgeois tendency. Like any petty-bourgeois group inside the socialist movement, the present opposition is characterized by the following features: a disdainful attitude toward theory and an inclination toward eclecticism; disrespect for the tradition of their own organization; anxiety for personal “independence” at the expense of anxiety for objective truth; nervousness instead of consistency; readiness to jump from one position to another; lack of understanding of revolutionary centralism and hostility toward it; and finally, inclination to substitute clique ties and personal relationships for party discipline. Not all the members of the opposition of course manifest these features with identical strength. Nevertheless, as always in a variegated bloc the tinge is given by those who are most distant from Marxism and proletarian policy. A prolonged and serious struggle is obviously before us. I make no attempt to exhaust the problem in this article, but I will endeavor to outline its general features.

In the January 1939 issue of the New International a long article was published by Comrades [James] Burnham and [Max] Shachtman*, “Intellectuals in Retreat.” The article, while containing many correct ideas and apt political characterizations, was marred by a fundamental defect if not flaw. While polemicising against opponents who consider themselves—without sufficient reason—above all as proponents of “theory,” the article deliberately did not elevate the problem to a theoretical height. It was absolutely necessary to explain why the American “radical” intellectuals accept Marxism without the dialectic (a clock without a spring). The secret is simple. In no other country has there been such rejection of the class struggle as in the land of “unlimited opportunity.” The denial of social contradictions as the moving force of development led to the denial of the dialectic as the logic of contradictions in the domain of theoretical thought. Just as in the sphere of politics it was thought possible everybody could be convinced of the correctness of a “just” program by means of clever syllogisms and society could be reconstructed through “rational” measures, so in the sphere of theory it was accepted as proved that Aristotelian logic, lowered to the level of “common sense,” was sufficient for the solution of all questions.

Pragmatism, a mixture of rationalism and empiricism, became the national philosophy of the United States…. But times have changed and the philosophy of pragmatism has entered a period of bankruptcy just as has American capitalism.

The authors of the article did not show, could not and did not care to show, this internal connection between philosophy and the material development of society, and they frankly explained why.

“The two authors of the present article,” they wrote of themselves, “differ thoroughly on their estimate of the general theory of dialectical materialism, one of them accepting it and the other rejecting it…. There is nothing anomalous in such a situation. Though theory is doubtless always in one way or another related to practice, the relation is not invariably direct or immediate….”

What is the meaning of this thoroughly astonishing reasoning? Inasmuch as some people through a bad method sometimes reach correct conclusions, and inasmuch as some people through a correct method not infrequently reach incorrect conclusions, therefore…the method is not of great importance. We shall meditate upon methods sometime when we have more leisure, but now we have other things to do. Imagine how a worker would react upon complaining to his foreman that his tools were bad and receiving the reply: With bad tools it is possible to turn out a good job, and with good tools many people only waste material. I am afraid that such a worker, particularly if he is on piecework, would respond to the foreman with an unacademic phrase. A worker is faced with refractory materials which show resistance and which because of that compel him to appreciate fine tools, whereas a petty-bourgeois intellectual—alas!—utilizes as his “tools” fugitive observations and superficial generalizations—until major events club him on the head.

*James Burnham and Max Shachtman were leaders of a petty-bourgeois opposition in the SWP. Burnham was a philosophy professor at New York University. After his split with the SWP in 1940, he became openly anticommunist, worked for the CIA, and later served as editor of National Review. Shachtman, a founding leader of the Communist League, a predecessor of the SWP, led a minority faction in the 1940 split and subsequently became a right-wing social democrat.  
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