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Vol. 72/No. 11      March 17, 2008

Historical materialism: science of social revolution
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from In Defense of Marxism, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for March. The book contains Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky’s writings in defense of the theoretical foundations, political principles, and organizational methods of Marxism against a petty-bourgeois current in the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. The letter excerpted below is to James Burnham, who along with Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, led a grouping in the SWP that bent under the rising pressures of bourgeois patriotism in the middle classes during Washington’s buildup to the second imperialist world war. Burnham left the communist movement in 1940, became an open anti-communist, and later editor of the National Review. Copyright © 1973 Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

You have expressed as your reaction to my article on the petty-bourgeois opposition, I have been informed, that you do not intend to argue over the dialectic with me and that you will discuss only the “concrete questions.” “I stopped arguing about religion long ago,” you added ironically. I once heard Max Eastman voice this same sentiment.

As I understand this, your words imply that the dialectic of Marx, Engels, and Lenin belongs to the sphere of religion. What does this assertion signify? The dialectic, permit me to recall once again, is the logic of evolution. Just as a machine shop in a plant supplies instruments for all departments, so logic is indispensable for all spheres of human knowledge… .

In the article “Intellectuals in Retreat,” written by you in collaboration with Shachtman and published in the party’s theoretical organ, it is categorically affirmed that you reject dialectic materialism. Doesn’t the party have the right after all to know just why? Do you really assume that in the Fourth International an editor of a theoretical organ can confine himself to the bare declaration: “I decisively reject dialectical materialism”—as if it were a question of a proffered cigarette: “Thank you, I don’t smoke.” The question of a correct philosophical doctrine, that is, a correct method of thought, is of decisive significance to a revolutionary party just as a good machine shop is of decisive significance to production. It is still possible to defend the old society with the material and intellectual methods inherited from the past. It is absolutely unthinkable that this old society can be overthrown and a new one constructed without first critically analyzing the current methods. If the party errs in the very foundations of its thinking it is your elementary duty to point out the correct road. Otherwise your conduct will be interpreted inevitably as the cavalier attitude of an academician toward a proletarian organization which, after all, is incapable of grasping a real “scientific” doctrine. What could be worse than that?

Anyone acquainted with the history of the struggles of tendencies within workers parties knows that desertions to the camp of opportunism and even to the camp of bourgeois reaction began not infrequently with rejection of the dialectic. Petty-bourgeois intellectuals consider the dialectic the most vulnerable point in Marxism and at the same time they take advantage of the fact that it is much more difficult for workers to verify differences on the philosophical than on the political plane. This long-known fact is backed by all the evidence of experience. Again, it is impermissible to discount an even more important fact, namely, that all the great and outstanding revolutionists—first and foremost, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Franz Mehring—stood on the ground of dialectic materialism. Can it be assumed that all of them were incapable of distinguishing between science and religion? Isn’t there too much presumptuousness on your part, Comrade Burnham? The examples of Bernstein, Kautsky, and Franz Mehring are extremely instructive. Bernstein categorically rejected the dialectic as “scholasticism” and “mysticism.” Kautsky maintained indifference toward the question of the dialectic, somewhat like Comrade Shachtman. Mehring was a tireless propagandist and defender of dialectic materialism. For decades he followed all the innovations of philosophy and literature, indefatigably exposing the reactionary essence of idealism, neo-Kantianism, utilitarianism, all forms of mysticism, etc. The political fate of these three individuals is very well known. Bernstein ended his life as a smug petty-bourgeois democrat; Kautsky, from a centrist, became a vulgar opportunist. As for Mehring, he died a revolutionary communist.

In Russia three very prominent academic Marxists, Struve, Bulgakov, and Berdyaev, began by rejecting the philosophic doctrine of Marxism and ended in the camp of reaction and the Orthodox Church. In the United States, Eastman, Sidney Hook, and their friends utilized opposition to the dialectic as cover for their transformation from fellow travelers of the proletariat to fellow travelers of the bourgeoisie. Similar examples by the score could be cited from other countries. The example of Plekhanov, which appears to be an exception, in reality only proves the rule. Plekhanov was a remarkable propagandist of dialectic materialism, but during his whole life he never had the opportunity of participating in the actual class struggle. His thinking was divorced from practice. The revolution of 1905 and subsequently the World War flung him into the camp of petty-bourgeois democracy and forced him in actuality to renounce dialectic materialism. During the World War Plekhanov came forward openly as the protagonist of the Kantian categorical imperative in the sphere of international relations: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” The example of Plekhanov only proves that dialectic materialism in and of itself still does not make a man a revolutionist.  
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