Leon Trotsky

Open Letter to Vandervelde

(December 1932)

Written: 5 December 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 1, 7 January 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
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.

Citizen Vandervelde,

A few years ago you addressed yourself to me with an open letter concerning, if I am not mistaken, the repression against the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionists. Generally and invariably, you stood up against the Bolsheviks In the name of the principles of democracy. It is your right. If your criticism did not obtain the intended result, it is because we Bolsheviks proceed from the principles of the revolutionary dictatorship.

The Russian Social Revolutionists, your co-religionists in democracy, opened up, in their time, the terrorist struggle against us. They wounded Lenin and sought to blow up my military train. Turned over to the Soviet tribunal, they found in you one of their most rabid defenders. The government to which I belonged authorized yon not only to come to Soviet Russia, but to come before the tribunal as the attorney for those who tried to kill the head of the first workers’ state. In your plea, which we reproduced in our press, yon invariably appealed to the principles of democracy. It was your right.

On December 4, 1932, I stopped in transit with my traveling companions in the port of Anvers. [1] I had no intention either of propagandizing for the dictatorship of the proletariat, or of coming forward as the defender of the Communists and strikers arrested by the Belgian government who, so far as I know, committed no assaults upon the members of the Brussels government. A few of my companions, and my wife with them, wished to visit Anvers. One of them, for the purposes of his voyage, needed to get in touch with a consulate in the town. All of them were categorically prohibited from touching the soil of Belgium, even under escort. That part of the port where our boat was located was carefully encircled. On both sides of the boat stood police sentries. From the deck we were able to pass under review the policemen of democracy, military as well as civil. It was an imposing spectacle.

The number of dicks and cops – you will permit me this familiar designation for the sake of conciseness – exceeded the number of sailors and dockers. The boat looked like a temporary prison; the adjacent section of the port, like a prison courtyard. The police chief took a copy of our papers – even though we were not entering Belgium and had not been authorized to disembark at Anvers. He asked to receive my explanations for the fact that my passport is made out to the name of Sedoff. I declined to engage in any discussion with the Belgian police, with whom I had nothing to do.

The police officer tried to act with threats: he declared that he had the right to arrest anybody whom the boat’s sailing route chanced to conduct into Belgian waters. I must, however, acknowledge that there were no arrests.

I request you not to find in my words any complaint. It would be ridiculous to complain about such a trifle in the face of what the toiling masses and especially the. Communists are made to undergo throughout the world at the present time. But the Anvers episode seems to me to be enough of a pretext for returning to your old Open Letter, to which I did not reply at that time.

I hope I am not mistaken in counting Belgium among the democracies. The war which you carried on was – isn’t that so? – the war for democracy. After the war, you were at the head of Belgium as minister and even as Prime Minister. What more is necessary to bring democracy to its complete unfoldment? On that score, I think, there can be no discussion between us. Why then does this democracy nevertheless reek so much of the police spirit of old Prussia? And can one believe that the democracy which experiences such nervous convulsions at the chance approach of a Bolshevik, will prove capable of neutralizing the class struggle and of guaranteeing the peaceful transformation of capitalism into socialism?

In reply you will undoubtedly call to my mind the Ve-Cheka, the GPU, the deportation of Rakovsky and my own expulsion from the Soviet Union. That argument is beyond the point. The Soviet regime does not adorn itself with the bedraggled plumes of democracy. If the passage to socialism were possible within the state forms created by liberalism, the revolutionary dictatorship would not be necessary. For the Soviet regime, the question can and should be put of knowing if it is capable of teaching the workers the struggle against capitalism. But it is absurd to demand that the proletarian dictatorship should observe the forms and the rites of liberal democracy. The dictatorship has its rigorous methods and logic. The blows of this logic often enough fall upon proletarian revolutionists who took part in the establishment of the regime of the dictatorship. Yes, in the development of an isolated workers’ state, betrayed by the international social democracy, the bureaucratic apparatus has acquired a potency which is dangerous for the socialist revolution. I have no need of this being called to my mind. But before the class enemy, I assume full responsibility not only for the October revolution which produced the regime of the dictatorship, but also for the Soviet republic as it is today, with its government which exiled me to a foreign land and deprived me of my Soviet citizenship rights.

We have destroyed democracy in order to master capitalism. You are defending capitalism allegedly in the name of democracy. But where is it hidden, this democracy?

Not in the port of Anvers, in any case. There were dicks, cops, gendarmes equipped with rifles. But not even the shadow of the democratic right of asylum was to be found there.

And in spite of everything, I quit the waters of Anvers without the slightest pessimism. During the midday pause, dockers gathered on the deck, emerging from the hold or coming from port. There were two or three dozens of them, of these strong and serene Flemish proletarians, blackened for the most part by coal dust. A cordon of detectives separated them from us. The dockers contemplated the tableau in silence, taking the measure of everyone present with their eyes. There is a solid docker winking his eye in the direction of the flatfeet. Our deck replies with smiles; a movement surges through the workers. They have recognized their own. I do not say that the Anvers dockers are Bolsheviks. But by a sound instinct they took their place. In resuming their work, they smiled amicably at us and many of them brought their gnarled fingers to their caps in sign of greetings. There it was, our democracy.

When the boat descended the Scheldt, in the misty fog, all along the quais, with their cranes paralyzed by the crisis, cries of farewell resounded from the port from unknown but faithful friends.

In finishing these lines between Anvers and Vlissingen [2], I send the workers of Belgium a fraternal greeting.

December 5, 1932

Notes by TIA

1. Anvers is better known in the English-speaking world as Antwerp.

2. Vlissingen is often known in the English-speaking world as Flushing.

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Last updated on: 6 February 2015