From Fourth International, vol.5 No.8, August 1944, pp.229-231.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.
In his brilliant essay, The Role of the Individual in History, Plekhanov summarized the Marxist view on this subject as follows:
“A great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historic events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time, needs which arose as a result of general and particular causes. Carlyle, in his well-known book on heroes and hero-worship calls great men beginners. This is a very apt description. A great man is precisely a beginner because he sees further than others and desires things more strongly than others. He solves the scientific problems brought up by the preceding process of intellectual development of society; he points to the new social needs created by the preceding development of social relationships; he takes the initiative in satisfying these needs. He is a hero. But he is not a hero in the sense that he can stop the natural course of things, but in the sense that his activities are the conscious and free expression of this inevitable and unconscious course. Herein lies his significance; herein lies his whole power.”
Plekhanov wrote these profound words in 1898. Yet it would be difficult to find a more appropriate, a more exact, a more scientific charactarization today of the genius of Leon Trotsky whose untimely death at the hands of a Stalinist assassin we commemorate this month for the fourth year.
Like that other revolutionary giant of our time with whose name his own is inseparably linked in history, like Lenin, Trotsky was a beginner, a hero, in more than one sense. Each, in his own way, traced the fundamental features of the Russian Revolution to come long before 1917; they saw further than the Mensheviks, than all the others of their generation who occupied themselves with the problems of Russian society. Together, they guided the revolution, when it came to the successful establishment of the first workers state. They desired it more strongly than all the Martovs, than all those who vacillated at the head of the revolution which raised them to leadership.
The great social needs of the time, which arose from the decline of capitalism and its inability to fulfill the wants of society, required an answer. Marxism supplied the answer: the international proletarian revolution. Marxism supplied the theoretical weapons for its achievement in the great works of the beginners of modern scientific socialism, of Marx and Engels.
It was in sharpening these weapons, in guarding them against all those who attempted to blunt them. in applying them to the “new social needs created by the preceding development of social relationships,” and in taking the initiative in satisfying them, that the genius of these two giants of the Twentieth Century consisted.
Together they laid the foundations of the first workers state and led it safely through three and a half years of civil war and imperialist intervention. Together they conceived that state as a fortress of the international working class, of its world revolution.
Together, in founding the Communist International, they upheld Marxism as the doctrine of revolutionary internationalism which had been betrayed by the social chauvinists of all nations in the holocaust of the first world war.
After Lenin’s death, the role of beginner, of the one who “sees further than others and desires things more strongly than others,” fell to Trotsky alone. It is precisely in this latter period, in the period of world reaction that followed the initial success of the international proletarian revolution and threatened to engulf it, that the heroic figure of Leon Trotsky stands out in its brightest light. The success of the revolution, the flood-tide of the first proletarian victory, raised from the depths of the people many talents. In the glow of that victory a whole galaxy of talented men rose to the level of the historical tasks. The dark, reactionary aftermath undermined this whole generation of titans. Stalin finished the process by the physical destruction of his purges. Only the greatness of Trotsky, foreseeing and solving the new problems arising for mankind and taking renewed initiative in their solution, survived in that battle against the stream.
Philistine, petty bourgeois skeptics and cynics and others, demoralized by their lack of a Marxist anchor in the midst of the wave of working class defeats, saw only the surface phenomena. The whole outcome of the ebb and tide of reaction and revolution in the social convulsions of the post-Leninist period appeared in their limited horizons only as the personal defeat of Trotsky. In their view Stalin won in a struggle of two individuals, in which the former turned out to be the weaker. Ah, if the “strong” Lenin had lived, everything would have been different, they concluded. And then – turned their backs on the teaching of both of the great masters.
Infinitely more profound was the view of Krupskaya who shared with Lenin the years of his Marxist training as well as the years of his triumph. She understood what had happened. In 1926, when Stalin undertook the first steps in the repression of the Trotskyist opposition, she declared: “If Ilyitch were alive, he would be in prison today.” She knew as a Marxist, as Plekhanov had said, that the great revolutionist, like all the great, “is not a hero in the sense that he can stop the natural course of things, but in the sense that his activities are the conscious and free expression of this inevitable and unconscious course.”
“Herein lies his significance” Plekhanov concluded, “herein lies his whole power. But that significance is colossal, and the power is formidable.” That colossal significance, that formidable power – which the philistines have no understanding of – Trotsky displayed precisely in the struggle with Stalin, from its inception in 1923, and particularly in the years that followed.
It was in the course of that seventeen years’ struggle that Trotsky, in defending Marxism, in rescuing the ideas of Lenin from Stalinist falsification, made his greatest contributions to the science of the proletarian revolution.
He and he alone, traced the degeneration of the Soviet state from its earliest bureaucratic manifestations until its present corruption under personal and totalitarian rule of Stalin. From the initiation of the ruinous theory of “Socialism in one country” through to the great betrayals that finally unleashed upon the working class the present devastating war. He taught the revolutionary workers of the world what to reject in this degenerated first workers’ state as treachery to their class; what to defend in it as a conquest of the revolution of 1917 necessary to their further progress.
Trotsky, and he alone, analyzed the forces in German society that led to the defeat of the working class and the rise of Nazism as a menace to the whole world proletariat. In the process, he armed the vanguard of the workers with the only strategy and the only tactics of defeating fascism – a task for which both social democracy and Stalinism proved themselves impotent and bankrupt.
Trotsky alone exposed the nefarious role, the Menshevik politics of Stalinism in China. In the course of his brilliant polemics, he developed the whole program of the colonial revolution by means of which the enslaved masses of Asia, Africa and South America will free themselves from imperialist oppression.
Trotsky was the first to recognize and outline the enormous predatory role of American imperialism, rising as the most powerful counter-revolutionary force in the world. He was the first to provide the masses of Europe with the rallying cry, the Socialist United States of Europe, in which the whole strategy of the struggle against the new imperialist colossus is summed up.
Trotsky, above everyone else, detected from the beginning the social elements leading to revolution in Spain and in France and provided the theoretical arms for the revolutionists in the ensuing struggles there.
Then, after Stalinist treachery aided in betraying the Spanish revolution and the French workers’ struggles in 1936, Trotsky pointed out every move in world politics leading to the inevitable outbreak of the second imperialist war. To combat the depredations against the working class by means of which imperialism aimed to prepare itself for the new holocaust and to conduct the war for the shrinking markets, Trotsky hammered out the great program of Transitional Demands. As the whole world became transformed into an armed camp, he drew the sharp outlines of our proletarian military policy.
All of these tremendous contributions were crowned in the foundation of the Fourth International in September1938. The Fourth International is Trotsky’s legacy to the working class of the world. It is the continuation of the party of Lenin under the conditions of the world reaction that engulfed and destroyed his Bolshevik party in the Soviet Union. It is the instrument that alone is capable of overcoming this reaction and of extending to a world scale the October revolution which the Bolshevik party began in Russia in 1917.
Trotsky’s greatness, his ability to see further, is concentrated above all, in this crowning achievement. All of his criticism of social developments led to the inescapable conclusion: the conditions for proletarian revolution are overripe. The only element lacking is leadership – the tested party of the working class. It was to the building of this crucially imperative element that Trotsky particularly devoted his great brain and his almost super-human energy in the whole last period of his life.
His entire life set the example for the type of party toward which he strove. In his great speech “On the Foundation of the Fourth International” he expressed this attitude most succinctly:
“Only the Fourth International looks with confidence at the future,” he said. “It is the world party of the socialist revolution! There never was a greater task on the earth. Upon every one of us rests a tremendous historical responsibility. Our party demands each of us, totally and completely. Let the philistines hunt their own individuality in empty space. For a revolutionary to give himself entirely to the party signifies finding himself. Yes our party takes each one of us wholly. But in return it gives to everyone of us the highest happiness: the consciousness that one participates in building for a better future, that one carries on his shoulders a particle of the fate of mankind, and that one’s life will not have been lived in vain.”
He “desired things more strongly than others.” And he strove to infuse the greatness of his strong will into the party which he founded.
Every great revolutionist has had his epigones, his false disciples, those who bowdlerize and distort his great ideas. Marx and Engels had their epigones in the reformist revisionists around Bernstein and Kautsky, who corrupted and destroyed the Second International. Lenin’s epigones were headed by Stalin and they laid low the Third International. In the Fourth International there were candidates for the role of epigones too – epigones of Trotsky. They were the revisionists of Marxism that arose in the Socialist Workers Party around Burnham and Shachtman. Fortunately, Trotsky was able unlike Marx, Engels and Lenin, to confront these would-be epigones in his life time. The last great ideological struggle of his life, was a struggle in defense of Marxism in which Trotsky exposed the would-be epigones as outright opponents and enemies of the “Trotskyism” which they claimed to espouse. In the course of that struggle, every foundation stone of the Fourth International, from the organizational conception of the party to its basic theory, from its tactical program to the fundamental philosophy of dialectic materialism came under attack. Trotsky led the irrefutable defense. Trotsky characterized the neo-revisionism as essentially, skepticism.
“If we dare to call the people for a revolutionary change of society, we carry a tremendous responsibility,” he explained to the petty bourgeois skeptics, “which we must consider very seriously. And what is our theory, but merely the tools of our action? These tools are our Marxist theory because up to today we have not found better tools. A worker is not fantastic about tools – if they are the best tools he can get, he is careful with them; he does not abandon them or demand fantastic non-existent tools ... It is very characteristic of the disappointed intellectual. He sees the war, the terrible epoch ahead with losses, with sacrifices, and he is afraid. He begins to propagate skepticism and still he believes it is possible to unify skepticism with revolutionary devotion. We can only develop a revolutionary devotion if we are sure it is rational and possible, and we cannot have such assurances without a working theory. He who propagates theoretical skepticism is a traitor.”
In guarding the party against this treacherous poison, in proving once again, against the skeptics, the rational base of Marxist theory, Trotsky strengthened more than ever the revolutionary devotion of its ranks. He could challenge his own fate in this conviction:
“The hangmen think in. their obtuseness and cynicism that it is possible to frighten us. They err. Under blows we become stronger. The bestial politics of Stalin are only politics of despair. It is possible to kill individual soldiers of our army, but not to frighten them ... It is not possible to frighten us.”
The four years since his death have only confirmed Trotsky’s conviction over and over again.
The assassination of the Old Man was, indeed, an irreparable loss to our movement. But Trotsky had already said: “Under blows, we become stronger.” They could not frighten us ... The forces of Trotskyism took the blow as a challenge and redoubled their efforts.
American imperialism followed Stalin’s blow with another heavy attack: the jailing of the 18 leaders of the Socialist Workers Party. Again, as Trotsky predicted, “Under blows we became stronger.” We redoubled our efforts in the face of the new challenge.
The heavy hand of imperialist persecution has in the latest instance fallen upon the British Trotskyists. Again, we can be sure, the challenge will be met by a strengthening of our forces. “It is not possible to frighten us.”
A week before the outbreak of the present war, the French ambassador to Germany reported to his Foreign Minister his historic interview with Adolph Hitler:
“If I really think – I (Ambassador Coulondre) observed – “that we will be victorious, I also have the fear that at the end of the war there will be only one real victor: M. Trotsky.” Interrupting me, the Chancellor shouted: “Then why have you given Poland free reign?”
By “M. Trotsky”, of course, both the spokesman of French “democracy” and the head of German fascism meant the socialist revolution which Trotskyism alone represents today. As the present phase of the war, the defeat of Nazi imperialism, nears, the fears of Coulondre and Hitler are being re-echoed by the Allied statesmen. Vice President Wallace and former Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles warn of the danger of a “Trotskyist Germany” arising to shake all of Europe. They merely repeat the dread and the consternation they have heard expressed in the Kremlin. Stalin’s murder of Trotsky could not lay the specter of Trotskyism. “The bestial politics of Stalin are only politics of despair.
The greatness that was Trotsky – his role as the beginner who sees further than others and desires things more strongly than others – has been rooted imperishably in the party, in the International which he prepared, founded and consolidated. It has entered history now as an objective factor.
The patent fears of the present rulers of the world only underline Trotsky’s reminder:
“We are not a party as other parties. It is not by chance that the imperialist reaction persecutes us madly, following furiously at our heels.”
In the knowledge that the persecutions of the imperialists are in reality futile attempts to stop the relentless course of history, we can gain only the greatest confidence from the fears they express about Trotskyism. We can share the firm conviction that the Old Man expressed at the founding of the Fourth International in 1938:
“During the next ten years the program of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions and these revolutionary millions will know how to storm earth and heaven.”
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Last updated on 1.9.2008