L. Trotsky

Perspectives of Marxism

Open Letter by Leon Trotsky to V.F. Calverton on the Revolutionary Intellectuals

(November 1932)

Written: 4 November 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 51, 31 December 1932, p. 3.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2014. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Dear Comrade Calverton:

I have received your pamphlet, For Revolution, and read it with interest as well as advantage to myself. Your arguments against the American “knights of pure reform” are very convincing, certain of them are really splendid. But, so far as I understand your inquiry, what you wanted from me was, not literary compliments, but a political evaluation. I shall be all the more willing to grant your request since the problems of American Marxism have acquired at the present time an extraordinary importance.

By its character and structure, your pamphlet was most appropriate for the thinking representatives of the academic youth. To ignore this group would, in any case, be out of the question: on the contrary, it is necessary to know it and talk to it in its language. However, you yourself have frequently emphasised in this study those thoughts which are elementary to a Marxist that the overthrow of capitalism can be affected only by the proletariat. The revolutionary education of its vanguard, you rightly proclaim as the chief task. But in your pamphlet, I do not find the bridge to that task, nor any indication of the direction in which it must be sought.

Calverton Omits Revolutionary Realities

Is this a reproach on my part? Both yes and no. In its essence your little book represents an answer to that kind of petty bourgeois radical (in America they seem to be wearing out the threadbare name of liberals) who is ready to accept the boldest social conclusion on condition that they involve no political obligation. Socialism? Communism? Anarchism? All very good but in no other way than that of reform. To transform from top to bottom society, morality, the family? Splendid! but by all means with the permission of the White House and of Tammany. Against these pretentious and fruitless tendencies you develop as said before, a victorious argumentation. But this dispute thereby inevitably takes on the character of a domestic debate in an intellectual club where there is a reformist and a Marxist wing. So thirty and forty years ago in Petersburg and Moscow the academic Marxist disputed with academic Populist: must Russia pass through the stage of capitalism or not? How much water has flowed over the dam since that time! The very necessity of taking the question as you do in your pamphlet throws a glaring light on the political backwardness of the United States, technologically the most advanced country in the world. Insofar as you neither can nor have the right to tear yourself out of the American background, there is no reproach in my words.

Yet at the same time there is a reproach, since, beside pamphlets and clubs where academic discussions for and against revolution are carried on, in the ranks of the American proletariat, with all the backwardness of its movement, there are different political, and among them, revolutionary groupings. You say nothing about them. Your pamphlets does not mention a word about the so-called Socialist party, nor the Communists, nor the transitional formations, not to speak of the struggling factions within Communism. This means that you are talking to nobody in particular and calling them to nowhere in particular. You explain the inevitability of the revolution, but the intellectual who is convinced by you can quietly smoke his cigarette to the end and go on to the order of the day. Insofar there is in my words an element of reproach.

I would not put this circumstance in the first place if it did not seem to me that your political position as I conceive it from your articles is typical of a quite numerous and theoretically very valuable stratum of left intelligentsia in the United States.

Intellectuals Fear Consequences of Clarity

To talk of the Hillquit-Thomas party as a tool of the proletarian revolution is evidently out of the question. Without having achieved in the slightest degree the power of European reformism, American Social-Democracy has appropriated all its vices, and barely passed childhood, has already fallen into what the Russians call “dog-senility”. I hope that you will agree with this evaluation and perhaps explain these considerations on many future occasions. But in the pamphlet For Revolution you did not speak a word about Social-Democracy. Why? It seems to me because, after speaking of Social-Democracy, you would have had to give an evaluation of the Communist party too and this is not only a delicate but also an exceedingly responsible question, which imposes obligations and leads to consequences. Perhaps I may be mistaken in thinking so with respect to you personally but many American Marxists obviously and ostentatiously avoid fixing their position with respect to the Party. They consider themselves friends of the Soviet Union, sympathize with Communism, write articles about Hegel and the inevitability of the revolution and that is all. Still that is not enough, since the instrument of the revolution is the party, is it not?

I would not like to be misunderstood. Under the tendency to avoid the practical consequences of a clear position, I am far from understanding the concern for personal well-being. Admittedly, there are many quasi-Marxists whom the Communist party repels by its aim of bringing the revolution out of the discussion club into the street. But to dispute about a revolutionary party with such snobs is a waste of time. What we are talking about are the other, more serious Marxists, who are in no way inclined to be scared by revolutionary action, but whom the present Communist party disquiets by its low theoretical level, bureaucratism and lack of genuine revolutionary initiative. At the same time, they say to themselves, that is the party which stands furthest to the Left, which is bound up with the Soviet Union and which represents it in a certain sense. Is it right to attack it, is it permissible to criticize it?

Stalinism Drives Intellectuals to Quandary

The opportunist and adventurist vices of the present leadership of the Communist International and of its American section are too evident to require emphasis. In any case, it is impossible and useless to repeat within the framework of this letter what is said on this theme in a series of independent works. [1] All questions of theory, strategy, tactics and organization end by becoming the object of deep divergences within Communism. Three fundamental factions have been formed, which have succeeded in demonstrating their character in the course of the great events and problems of recent years. The struggles among them have taken on all the sharper character since in the Soviet Union every difference with the current ruling group leads to immediate expulsion from the party and to State repressions. The Marxist intelligentsia in the United States as well as in other countries is placed before an alternative: either tacitly and obediently to support the Communist International as it is, or to be included in the camp of the counter revolution and the “social-Fascists”. A part of the intelligentsia chooses the first way; with closed or half-closed eyes, it follows the official Party. Another part wanders without a party home, defends where it can the Soviet Union from slander, and occupies itself with abstract sermons in favor of the revolution without indicating through which gate they can go to meet it. The difference between these two groups, however, is not so great. On both sides it is an abdication from the creation of an independent opinion and from the courageous struggle for it, which is precisely where the revolutionary begins. On both sides we have a type of fellow-traveler and not an active builder of the proletarian party. Certainly, a fellow-traveler is better than an enemy. But a Marxist cannot be a fellow-traveler of the revolution, and besides, the experience of history bears witness that in the most decisive moments the storm of the struggle hurls the majority of the intellectual fellow-travelers into the enemy’s camp. If they still return, it is only after the victory has been consolidated. Maxim Gorky is the most colorful but not the only example. In the present Soviet apparatus, incidentally, clear up to the top a very important percentage of people stood fifteen years ago openly on the other side of the barricades.

Marxism No Dogma – Guide to Action

It is necessary to remember that Marxism both interprets the world and teaches how to change it. The will is the moving element in the domain of knowledge, too. If Marxism loses its will to transform political reality, it loses the ability to understand it. The Marxist who, for one secondary consideration or another, does not carry his conclusion to the end betrays Marxism. To overlook the different Communist factions, so as not engage and compromise oneself, signifies to ignore the activity which through all its contradictions, forms the vanguard of the class; it signifies to cover oneself with the abstraction of the revolution, as with a shield, from the blows and bruises of the real revolutionary process.

When the Left bourgeois journalists summarily defend the Soviet Republic as it is, they accomplish a progressive and praiseworthy work. For a Marxist revolutionary, it is absolutely insufficient. The task of the October revolution, do not forget, has not yet been accomplished. Only a parrot can find satisfaction in the repetition of the words, “the victory is assured”. No, it is not assured! The victory is a problem of strategy. There is no book which indicates in advance the correct orbit for the first workers’ State. The head does not and cannot exist which can contain the complete formula for Socialist society. The roads of economy and politics must still be determined through experience and created collectively, that is, in permanent conflicts of ideas. A Marxist who limits himself to a summary sympathy, without taking part in the struggle on questions of collectivization, industrialization, the regime of the Party, etc., stands no higher than the progressive bourgeois of the type of Duranty, Louis Fischer, etc., but on the contrary, lower because he misuses the name of revolutionary.

To avoid direct answers, to play blind man’s buff with great problems, to remain diplomatically silent and wait, or still worse, to quiet oneself with the thought that the present struggle within Bolshevism is a question of personal ambitions, means to protect mental laziness, to yield to the worst Philistine prejudice, and to be doomed to demoralization. On this subject, I hope we shall not have any differences with you.

The policy of the proletariat has a great theoretical tradition and that is one of the sources of its power. A trained Marxist studies the differences between Engels and Lassalle with regard to the European war of 1859. It is necessary to do so. But if he is not a pedant of Marxist historiography, not a bookworm but a proletarian revolutionary, it is a thousand times more important and urgent for him to elaborate for himself an independent opinion about the revolutionary strategy in China from 1925 to 1932. It was precisely on that question that the struggle within Bolshevism first reached the state of an explosion. Impossible to be a Marxist without taking a position in a question on which depends the fate of the Chinese revolution and of the Indian, too, that is, the future of almost half of humanity!

American Marxism at Cross Roads

It is very useful to study, let us say, the old differences among Russian Marxists on the character of the future Russian revolution; naturally, according to first hand authorities, and not the ignorant and disloyal compilations of the epigones. But incommensurably more important is it to elaborate for oneself a clear understanding of the theory and practice of the Anglo-Russian committee, of the “third period”, of “social-Fascism”, of the “democratic dictatorship” in Spain, and the policy of the united front. The study of tha past in in the last analysis justified by the fact that it helps one to orientate himself in the present.

Impermissible for Marxist theoretician to pass by the congresses of the First International. But a thousand times more urgent is the study of the living differences concerning the Amsterdam anti-war congress of 1932. What is the value, in effect, of the sincerest and warmest sympathy for the Soviet Union if it is accompanied by indifference to the methods of its defense?

Is there now a theme more important for a revolutionary, more gripping, more burning, than the struggle and the fate of the German proletariat? Is it possible, on the other hand, to fix one’s relations to the problems of the German revolution while passing by the differences in the camp of German and international Communism? A revolutionary who has no opinion on the policies of Stalin-Thaelmann is not a Marxist. A Marxist who has an opinion but remains silent is not a revolutionary.

It is not enough to preach the utility of technology; it is necessary to build bridges. What would be thought of a young doctor who, instead of working In the operating room, would satisfy himself with reading the biographies of great surgeons of the past? What would Marx have said about a theory which, instead of deepening revolutionary practice, would serve to separate one from it? Most probably he would repeat his sarcastic sentence, “No, I am not a Marxist”.

All the evidence is that the present crisis will be a great milestone in the political road of the United States. The self-sufficient American provincialism is in any case nearing its end. Those commonplaces which invariably nourished American political thought in all its ramifications are completely worn out. All classes need a new orientation. A radical renewal, not only of the circulating but also of the fixed capital of political ideology, is imminent. If the Americans persist in their backwardness in the domain of Socialist theory, it does not mean that they will remain backward always. It is possible to venture without much risk a contrary phophecy: the longer the Yankees are satisfied with the ideological old clothes of the past, the more powerful will be the impetus of their revolutionary thought when its hour will strike. And it is near. The elevation of revolutionary theory to new heights can be looked for in the next few decades from two sources: the Asiatic East and America.

The proletarian movement has displaced in the course of the last hundred-odd years its national center of gravity several times. England, France, Germany, Russia – this was the historical sequence of the home of Socialism and Marxism. The present revolutionary hegemony of Russia can least of all claim a durable character. The fact itself of the existence of a Soviet Union, especially before the proletarian victory in one of the advanced States, has naturaly an immeasurable importance for the workers’ movement of all countries. But the immediate influence of the Moscow ruling faction upon the Communist International has already become a brake on the development of the world proletariat. The fertilizing ideology of Bolshevism has been replaced by the stifling pressure of the apparatus. It is not necessary to prove the disastrous consequences of this regime: it suffices to point to the leadership of the American Communist Party. The liberation from the witless bureaucratic command has become a question of life and death for the revolution and for Marxism.

You are totally right; the vanguard of the American proletariat must come to base itself on the revolutionary traditions of its own country too. In a certain sense we can admit the slogan, “Americanize Marxism!” It does not mean, certainly, to submit its foundations and methods to revision. The attempt of Max Eastman to throw overboard the materialistic dialectic in the interests of the “engineering art of revolution” represents an obviously hopeless and in its possible consequences retrograde adventure. The system of Marxism has completely passed the test of history. Especially now, in the epoch of capitalist decline – of wars and revolutions, storms and shocks – the materialistic dialectic fully reveals its indestructible force. To Americanize Marxism signifies to root it in American soil, to verify it against the events of American history, to explore by its methods the problems of American economy and politics, to assimilate the world revolutionary experience under the viewpoint of the tasks of the American revolution. A great work! It is time to approach it with the shirt-sleeves rolled up.

New Vistas Before U.S. Communists

On the occasion of strikes in the United States, where the decomposing center of the First International was transferred, Marx wrote, on July 25, 1877 to Engels: “The porridge is beginning to boil, and the transfer of the center of the International to the United States will yet be justified finally”. Several days later, Engels answered him: “Only twelve years after the abolition of bond slavery, and the movement has already achieved such acuteness!” They both, Marx and Engels, were wrong. But as in the other cases, they were wrong as to tempo, but not as to direction. The great porridge from the other side of the ocean begins to boil; the turn in the development of American capitalism will inevitably provoke a blossoming of critical and generalizing thought, and perhaps in not so long a time as from the transfer of the theoretical center of the International to New York.

Before the American Marxist open virtually grandiose, breath-taking perspectives!

Prinkipo, Nov. 4, 1932

With sincere greetings,


1. I permit myself to refer you to a New York weekly paper, The Militant, and a series of books and leaflets issued by the Pioneer Publishers. The paper as well as the publishing house belongs to the Communist League of America (126 E. 16th Street, New York City).

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Last updated on: 9 December 2014