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Socialism on Trial – Part V

Posted by devildog6771 on August 9, 2011

Cover of "Socialism on Trial"

Cover of Socialism on Trial

Political Principles and
Propaganda Methods

Defence Policy in the Minneapolis Trial:

Socialism on Trial

Part V

By James P. Cannon

1. Our strategy in the trial

In the Minneapolis “sedition” trial, as in the months-long trade-union battle which preceded and led up to it, the American Trotskyists were put to the test and compelled to show what stuff they are made of. In both instances they conducted themselves in a manner befitting disciples of Trotsky and met the test in all respects.

In the fight with the trade-union bureaucracy, which attracted national attention, it was clearly shown who the real leaders of militant labor, the real men of principle, really are. In the trial before the bourgeois court the party, by the conduct of all its members involved, earned the right to the confidence of the revolutionary workers. The two struggles, which in reality were two sides of one and the same struggle, marked a climactic point in the activity of the American movement which had developed in a restricted circle since its inception thirteen years before.

During that time the party, with some local exceptions, had gained the attention only of the vanguard of class-conscious workers. At the trial we had the opportunity, for the first time, to speak to the masses—to the people of the United States. We seized upon the opportunity and made the most of it and applied in practice without a serious fault the basic principles which had been assimilated in a long preparatory period. Since then the movement in the United States stands on higher ground.

A critical study and discussion of the trial cannot fail to be of the highest value to the Fourth International, especially to those sections which have yet to reach the turn in the road which leads from the propaganda circle to mass work. For our part we welcome the discussion and will do our best to contribute something useful to it.

From the first moment after the indictment was brought against us in the Federal Court at Minneapolis last July we recognised that the attack had two aspects, and we appraised each of them, we think, at their true significance. The prosecution was designed to outlaw the party and deprive it perhaps for a long time, of the active services of a number of its most experienced leaders. At the same time it was obvious that the mass trial, properly handled on our part, could give us our first real opportunity to make the party and its principles known to wide circles of workers and to gain a sympathetic hearing from them.

Our strategy, from the beginning, took both sides of the problem into account. Naturally, we decided to utilise to the fullest extent each and every legal protection, technicality and resource available to us under the law and the Constitution. A party leadership hesitating or neglecting to do this would frivolously jeopardise the legality of the party and show a very wasteful attitude indeed toward party cadres. Such a leadership would deserve only to be driven out with sticks and stones.

On the other hand, we planned to conduct our defence in court not as a “criminal” defence but as a propaganda offensive. Without foolishly disregarding or provoking the jury or needlessly helping the prosecutor, it was our aim to use the courtroom as a forum to popularise the principles of our movement We saw in this second proposition our main duty and opportunity and never for a moment intended to let purely legalistic considerations take precedence over it. Therefore we sternly rejected the repeated advice of attorneys—some who assisted Goldman in the trial of the case as well as others who were consulted about participation—to eliminate or play down our “propaganda” program and leave the defence policy to the lawyers.

From the rather unhappy experiences of past trials of militants in the courts of the United States we knew what following such advice would mean: Deny or keep quiet about the revolutionary principles of the movement; permit the lawyers to disavow and ridicule the defendants, and pass them off as somewhat foolish people belonging to a party which is not to be taken seriously; and depend on spread-eagle speeches of the lawyers to the jury to get the defendants off some way or other.

The October plenum-conference of the party unanimously endorsed the National Committee’s recommendations on courtroom policy. The resolution of the conference laid down the policy as follows:

“The policy of the party in defending itself in court, obligatory for all party members under indictment, can only be one that is worthy of our movement and our tradition; no attempt to water down or evade our revolutionary doctrine, but on the contrary, to defend it militantly. At the same time we maintain that we have a legal right under the Bill of Rights to propagate our principles.”

That is the policy we took with us to the trial. It guided us at every step in the proceedings. And we think it can be safely said that the policy has been amply vindicated by the results. Our principles were widely popularised, a hundred or a thousand times better than ever before, and our conduct before the court has met with approval and sympathy from the militant workers who followed the trial and read the testimony.

The trial was by far our greatest propaganda success. Moreover, even those workers who disagree with our program, have approved and applauded our conduct in court as worthy of people who take their principles seriously. Such is the testimony of all comrades who have reported on the reaction of the workers to the trial. On a recent tour across the country from branch to branch of the party we heard the same unvarying report everywhere.

Naturally, our work in the trial was not perfect; we did only the best we could within the narrow limits prescribed by the court. More qualified people can quite easily point out things here and there which might have been done more cleverly. We can readily acknowledge the justice of such criticisms without thereby admitting any guilt on our part for socialism does not require that all be endowed with equal talent, but only that each give according to his ability. It is a different matter when Comrade Munis—and other critics of our policy—accuse us of misunderstanding our task and departing from Marxist principles in the trial. To them we are obliged to say firmly: No, the misunderstanding is all on your side. The correct understanding of our task in the courtroom and the sanction of the Marxist authorities, are on our side.

In undertaking to prove this contention we must begin with a brief analysis of a point overlooked by Munis as well as by the others: the social environment in which the trial was conducted. Our critics nowhere, by so much as a single word, refer to the objective situation in the United States; the political forms still prevailing here; the degree of political maturity—more properly, immaturity—of the American proletariat; the relation of class forces; the size and status of the party—in short to the specific peculiarities of our problem which should determine our method of approach to workers hearing us for the first time from the sounding board of the trial.

Our critics talk in terms of trials in general and principles in general, which, it would appear, are always to be formulated and explained to the workers in general in precisely the same way. We, on the contrary, dealt with a specific trial and attempted to explain ourselves to the workers as they are in the United States in the year 1941. Thus we clash with our critics at the very point of departure—the analysis, the method. Our answer to their criticism must take the same form.

We shall begin by first setting forth the concrete environmental circumstances in which our party functioned in the United States at the time of the trial and the specific tasks and propaganda techniques which, in our opinion, were thereby imposed. Then we shall proceed to submit our position, as well as that of our critics, to the criterion which must be decisive for all of us: the expressions of the Marxist teachers on the application of the points of principle under discussion.

2. The setting of the trial

The United States, where the trial took place, is by far the richest of all the capitalist nations, and because of that has been one of the few such nations still able to afford the luxury of bourgeois democratic forms in the epoch of the decline and decay of capitalism. Trade unions, which have been destroyed in one European country after another in the past decade, have flourished and more than doubled their membership in the United States in the same period—partly with governmental encouragement. Free speech and free press, obliterated or reduced to travesty in other lands, have been virtually unrestricted here. Elections have been held under the normal bourgeois democratic forms, traditional in America for more than a century, and the great mass of the workers have freely participated in them. The riches and favoured position of bourgeois America have also enabled it, despite the devastating crisis, to maintain living standards of the workers far above those of any other country.

These objective circumstances have unfailingly affected both the mentality of the workers and the fortunes of the revolutionary political movement. The revolutionary implications of the shaken economy, propped up for the time being by the armaments boom, are as yet but slightly reflected in the consciousness of the workers. In their outlook they are far from revolutionary. “Politics” to them means voting for one or another of the big capitalist parties. The simple fact that the organised labor movement has not yet resorted to independent political action, even on a reformist basis, but remains in its political activity an appendage of the Roosevelt political party—this simple fact in itself shows conclusively that the American workers have not yet begun to translate their fierce militancy in the field of economic strikes, directed at individual employers, into terms of independent politics directed against the employers as a class. As for the Marxist party, with its program of the revolutionary transformation of society, it has been able in such an environment to attract the attention of only a few thousands to its message and to recruit into its ranks a still smaller number of the most advanced and class-conscious militants.

The forty million American workers, casting an almost solid labor vote for Roosevelt, remain in the first primitive stages of class political development; they are soaked through and through with bourgeois democratic illusions; they are discontented to a certain extent and partly union-conscious but not class-conscious; they have a fetishistic respect for the federal government as the government of all the people and hope to better conditions for themselves by voting for “friendly” bourgeois politicians; they hate and fear fascism which they identify with Hitler; they understand socialism and communism only in the version disseminated by the bourgeois press and are either hostile or indifferent to it; the real meaning of socialism, the revolutionary Marxist meaning, is unknown to the great majority.

Such were the general external factors, and such was the mentality of the American workers, confronting our party at the time of the Minneapolis trial, October, November, and December 1941. What specific tasks, what propaganda techniques were imposed thereby? It seems to us that the answers are obvious. The task was to get a hearing for our ideas from the forum of the trial. These ideas had to be simplified as much as possible, made plausible to the workers and illustrated whenever possible by familiar examples from American history. We had to address ourselves to the workers not in general, not as an abstraction, but as they exist in reality in the United States in the year 1941. We had to recognise that the forms of democracy and the legality of the party greatly facilitate this propaganda work and must not be lightly disregarded. It was not our duty to facilitate the work of the prosecuting attorney but to make it more difficult insofar as this could be done without renouncing any principle. Such are the considerations which guided us in our work at the trial.

Our critics do not refer to them; evidently they did not even think of them. Our method is a far different method than the simple repetition of formulas about “action” which requires nothing but a good memory. More precisely, it is the Marxist method of applying principles to concrete circumstances in order to popularise a party and create a movement which can lead to action in the real life of the class struggle, not on the printed page where the “action” of sectarian formalists always begins and ends.

The accomplishment of our main task—to use the courtroom as a forum from which to speak to those American workers, as they are, who might hear us for the first time—required, in our judgment not a call to arms but patient, schoolroom explanations of our doctrines and ourselves, and a quiet tone. Therefore we adapted, not our principles but our propaganda technique to the occasion as we understood it. The style of propaganda and the tone which we employed are not recommended as a universally applicable formula. Our propaganda style and tone were simply designed to serve the requirements, in the given situation, of a small minority Marxist party in a big country of democratic capitalism in the general historic circumstances above described.

Comrade Munis accuses us of popularising our propaganda and defending ourselves (and the party’s legality) at the expense of principle. Our statements at the trial are held to be “decidedly opportunist”; to “border on a renunciation of principles”. Following such and similar assertions we are informed that “it is a very grave error to substitute manoeuvers for principles”. This maxim—not entirely original in our movement—can be accepted with these provisos: that the maxim be understood; that a distinction be made between “manoeuvers” which serve principle and those which contradict it; and that it be applied to actual and not imaginary sacrifices of principle. This is the gist of the whole matter. The Marxist teachers did not change their principles, but in explaining them they frequently changed their manner and tone and points of emphasis to suit the occasion. We had a right and a duty to do the same. An examination of our testimony from this standpoint will bring different conclusions from those which our critics have so hastily drawn.

3. Violence and the transition to socialism

We were charged in the first count of the indictment with “conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violence” in violation of the statute of 1861 which was originally directed against the slaveholders’ rebellion. In the second count we were charged, among other things, with “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence” in violation of the Smith Act of 1940.

In our defence we flatly denied we had either “conspired” or “advocated” violence, and by that we did not in the least intend to deny or repudiate any principle of Marxism. We claimed the right to explain our position. We testified that we prefer a peaceful social transformation; that the bourgeoisie takes the initiative in violence and will not permit a peaceful change; that we advise the workers to bear this in mind and prepare to defend themselves against the violence of the outlived reactionary minority class.

This formula—which is 100 percent correct in the essence of the matter and unassailable from the standpoint of Marxist authority—did not coincide with the contentions of the prosecuting attorney, nor help him to prove his case against us. But that was not our duty. From entirely opposite considerations our exposition does not meet with the approval of Comrade Munis nor coincide with his conceptions. That is not our duty either, because his conceptions are arbitrary and formalistic—and therefore false.

The prosecutor wanted to limit the whole discussion of socialism to the single question of “force and violence”. We on the other hand—for the first time in an American courtroom—tried to make an exposition, if only a brief and sketchy one, of the whole range of Marxist theory, as in an elementary study class for uninitiated workers, to the extent that this was possible within the narrow framework prescribed by the court’s rules and the repeated objections of the prosecutor, assigning the question of force in the social revolution to its proper proportionate place and putting the responsibility for it where it properly belongs—on the shoulders of the outlived class.

We carried out this task to the best of our ability at the trial. Of course, thesis precision and full-rounded explanation are hardly possible in a rapid-fire impromptu dialogue, with answers compressed to extreme brevity by time limitations, prosecutor’s objections and court rulings. We cannot claim such precision and amplitude for our answers, and reasonable people should not demand it of us. Even Trotsky admitted the possibility of flaws in testimony which he gave in somewhat similar but more favorable circumstances before the Dewey Commission. In reply to Van, who had criticised one of his answers in the published record of the Inquiry, he said:

It is possible that there is some lack of precision in the stenographic report. It is not a matter here either of a programmatic text well thought out, or even of an article, but of a stenographic report drawn up by the Commission. You know that I did not even have the chance to revise it myself. Some misunderstandings, imprecisions may have crept in. Enemies can make use of them, but serious comrades must grasp the question in its totality.[1]

Here it may be in order to explain that American court procedure, unlike that of many other countries, does not permit defendants to introduce worked-out statements and “declarations”. They must answer orally, they must make their answers short and are liable to be cut off at any time by the objection of the prosecutor or the ruling of the judge. In such an atmosphere a witness is under constant pressure to condense his answers and to omit explanations which may be necessary for full clarity but which are not interesting to the court.

We mention these factors only to ask the same kind of reasonable allowance for shortcomings which Trotsky asked, not to disavow anything we said. By and large, making all due acknowledgement of imperfections, omissions and inadequacies in the oral testimony, we accomplished our propagandistic aims at the trial, and we stand on the record. The court record, published in thousands of copies, became and will remain our most effective propaganda document. It is an honest and forthright revolutionary record. Nobody will succeed in discrediting it.

What did we say about violence in the transformation of society from capitalism to socialism? This is what we said:

1) The Marxists prefer a peaceful transition. “The position of the Marxists is that the most economical and preferable, the most desirable method of social transformation, by all means, is to have it done peacefully.”[2]

2) “It is the opinion of all Marxists that it will be accompanied by violence.”[3]

3) That opinion “is based, like all Marxist doctrine, on a study of history, the historical experiences of mankind in the numerous changes of society from one form to another, the revolutions which accompanied it, and the resistance which the outlived classes invariably put up against the new order. Their attempt to defend themselves against the new order, or to suppress by violence the movement for the new order, has resulted in every important social transformation up to now being accompanied by violence.”[4]

4) The ruling class always initiates the violence, “always the ruling class; always the outlived class that doesn’t want to leave the stage when the time has come. They want to hang on to their privileges, to reinforce them by violent measures, against the rising majority and they run up against the mass violence of the new class, which history has ordained shall come to power.”[5]

5) That is our prediction. But “of course, we don’t limit ourselves simply to that prediction. We go further, and advise the workers to bear this in mind and prepare themselves not to permit the reactionary outlived minority to frustrate the will of the majority.”

Q: What role does the rise and existence of fascism play with reference to the possibility of violence?

A: Well, that is really the nub of the whole question, because the reactionary violence of the capitalist class, expressed through fascism, is invoked against the workers. Long before the revolutionary movement of the workers gains the majority, fascist gangs are organised and subsidised by millions in funds from the biggest industrialists and financiers, as the example of Germany showed—and these fascist gangs undertake to break up the labor movement by force, raid the halls, assassinate the leaders, break up the meetings, burn the printing plants, and destroy the possibility of functioning long before the labor movement has taken the road of revolution.

I say that is the nub of the whole question of violence. If the workers don’t recognise that and do not begin to defend themselves against the fascists, they will never be given the possibility of voting on the question of revolution. They will face the fate of the German and Italian proletariat and they will be in the chains of fascist slavery before they have a chance of any kind of a fair vote on whether they want socialism or not.

It is a life and death question for the workers that they organise themselves to prevent fascism, the fascist gangs, from breaking up the workers’ organisations, and not to wait until it is too late. That is the program of our party.[6]

That is all any Marxist really needs to say on the question of violence in a capitalist court or at a propaganda meeting for workers at the present time in the United States. It tells the truth, conforms to principle, and protects the legal position of the party. The workers will understand it too. To quote Shakespeare’s Mercutio: “’Tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve”.

Comrade Munis, however, is not satisfied with our “lamentable dialogue”, allegedly “destined to pacify the easily frightened conscience of the jury about who initiates the violence”. The above-quoted answer advising the workers to “bear in mind” the violent course of the ruling class and “prepare themselves”, is not “sufficiently explicit and energetic”. (He underestimates the acuteness of the workers.) “Why not”, says Comrade Munis, “raise the voice at this point and call upon the workers to organise their own violence against the reactionary violence?”

Why not? Because it was not necessary or advisable either to raise the voice or issue any call for action at this time. We were talking, in the first place, for the benefit of the uninitiated worker who would be reading the testimony in the paper or in pamphlet form. We needed a calm and careful exposition in order to get his attention. This worker is by no means waiting impatiently for our call to violent action. Quite the contrary, he ardently believes in the so-called democracy, and the first question he will ask, if he becomes interested in socialism, is: “Why can’t we get it peacefully, by the ballot?” It is necessary to patiently explain to him that, while we would prefer it that way, the bosses will not permit it, will resort to violence against the majority, and that the workers must defend themselves and their right to change things. Our defensive formula is not only legally unassailable, “for the jury”, as our critics contemptuously remark—as though twenty-eight indicted people in their right senses, and a party threatened with illegality, can afford the luxury of disregarding the jury. It is also the best formula for effective propaganda.

These defensive formulas are not our invention; they come directly from the great Marxists who did not believe in the good will of the class enemies and knew how to organise action, that is, mass action, against them. And these same teachers and organisers of mass actions likewise never failed to appreciate the value of democratic forms and party legality and to hang onto them and utilise them to the fullest extent possible. Our teachers did not shrink from force; they never deluded the workers with the promise of a peaceful, democratic transformation of society. But they didn’t speak of violence always in the same way, in the same tone and with the same emphasis. Always, in circumstances in any way comparable to ours, they have spoken as we spoke at the trial. Proof of this is abundant and overwhelming.

The first formulated statement of the communist position on the question of violence and the transition to socialism appears in Engels’ “Principles of Communism”, a “catechism” written in 1847 which is generally regarded as the first draft of the Communist Manifesto. Engels wrote:

Q[uestion] 16: Will it be possible to bring about the abolition of private property by peaceful methods?

A[nswer]: It is to be desired that this could happen, and Communists certainly would be the last to resist it.[7]

Engels didn’t promise such a solution and he didn’t forget to add: “Should the oppressed proletariat at long last be goaded into a revolution, the communists will rally to the cause of the workers and be just as prompt to act as they are now to speak.”

The last statement of Marxist authority, expressed by Trotsky ninety-three years later, follows the same pattern as that of Engels. In the summer of 1940 the Dies Committee conducted a raid on a comrade’s house in Texas and carried off some party literature. Anticipating an attack on the legal position of the Socialist Workers Party, Comrade Trotsky wrote us a letter, advising us how to formulate our propaganda and defend ourselves “from the legal point of view” and warning us “not to furnish any pretext for persecutions”. This letter, as though written to answer in advance the ultraradical quibbling about the Minneapolis trial, was printed in Fourth International, October 1940, p. 126. Trotsky wrote:

The Texas story is very important. The attitude of the people involved can become decisive from the legal point of view.

We, of course, cannot imitate the Stalinists who proclaim their absolute devotion to the bourgeois democracy. However, we do not wish to furnish any pretext for persecutions.

In this case, as in any others, we should speak the truth as it is; namely, the best, the most economical and favourable method for the masses would be to achieve the transformation of this society by democratic means. The democracy is also necessary for the organisation and education of the masses. That is why we are always ready to defend the democratic rights of the people by our own means. However, we know on the basis of tremendous historical experience that the Sixty Families will never permit the democratic realisation of socialist principles. At a given moment the Sixty Families will inevitably overthrow, or try to overthrow, the democratic institutions and replace them by a reactionary dictatorship. This is what happened in Italy, in Germany, and in the last days in France—not to mention the lesser countries. We say in advance that we are ready to reject such an attempt with arms in hands, and crush the fascist dictatorship by a proletarian dictatorship.

This position corresponds to the historical reality and is juridically unattackable.[8]

These words, written by the founder of our movement in the last month of his life, were not chance remarks thrown off at random. They were written in direct connection with an expected prosecution, and he specifically warned us that “the attitude of the people involved can become decisive from the legal point of view”. He knew the value of party legality and did not want us to jeopardise it needlessly. Do not, he said almost in so many words, accept the prosecuting attorney’s accusation that we advocate conspiratorial violence by a minority. Present the question in a way which “corresponds to historical reality” and which is, at the same time, by its defensive formulation, “juridically unattackable”.

That letter was the guiding line for our policy at the trial. We took the words of Trotsky as Marxist authority. For us there is no higher. Our movement, the movement of the Fourth International which stems directly from the struggle of the Trotskyist Opposition in Russia since 1923, embodies in its doctrine and its tradition the whole of Marxism and the whole of the precepts and example of Lenin, developed and applied to conditions of the post-Lenin period. We know it is the fashion in late years for some people to contrast Lenin to Trotsky and to refer to Lenin as the primary authority. The Oehlerites in the United States, for example, advertise themselves as “Leninists” of this type; and even Shachtman, dabbling with radicalism for a season, tried to invoke Lenin against the military policy elaborated by Trotsky. There is no more truth or merit in this burlesque than there was in the attempt of the opportunists during the First World War to appeal to Marx and Engels against Lenin.

All four of the great Marxist authorities—Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky—are united in an uninterrupted continuity of experience reflected in Marxist thought. For us, Lenin is Marx in the epoch of the First World War and the October Revolution. Trotsky is Lenin in the epoch of Stalinist degeneration and the struggle against it, the epoch of fascism and the Second World War and the preparation of the new rise of the international revolution of the proletariat.

These “Leninists”—God save the mark!—are fond of repeating isolated quotations from Lenin as fixed and final answers to current problems which arise ever new and in infinite variations of circumstance. A greater distortion of Leninism—which is a method, not a collection of bible texts—can hardly be imagined. They repeat the words of Lenin on this or that occasion without understanding that Lenin did not always repeat himself and had nothing but contempt for such thoughtsaving substitutes for living Marxism. An instructive sample of this practice is the attempt of Munis to picture us as “rejecting” Lenin because we took the liberty of saying a sentence he wrote about insurrection in czarist Russia in 1906 is not applicable for our propaganda in the United States in 1941.

Our frank avowal before the court that we are disciples of Lenin is not enough to satisfy Munis. Our statement that in our movement “he holds a position of esteem on a level with Marx”; that “the basic ideas and doctrines, practiced, promulgated and carried out by Lenin, are supported by our movement”—these declarations, in the judgment of our critic, are not sufficient to constitute an acceptance of Lenin. He seems to think it is necessary to repeat and accept as gospel every word Lenin said on every occasion regardless of what Lenin himself may have said on the same subject on other occasions.

He cites the question of Mr. Schweinhaut the prosecutor, reading a sentence from Lenin’s The Revolution of 1905: “‘It is our duty in time of an uprising to exterminate ruthlessly all the chiefs of the civil and military authorities.’[9] You disagree with that?”

Naturally we denied that this is a statement of party policy here and now, modifying it as follows: “We do not agree with the extermination of anybody unless it is in case of an actual armed struggle, when the rules of war apply.” In reality this was saying, out of deference to Lenin, a great deal more than needs to be said on the subject of extermination before a capitalist court or in a propaganda speech in the United States at the present time. But this does not satisfy Munis. Why, he demands, say “anybody” instead of “the civil and military chiefs”? “Why reject the paragraph?” We must repeat Lenin word for word!

Why must we? Lenin didn’t repeat himself word for word. Far from it, he changed and modified such formulas to suit occasion without ceremony. In fact on the very eve of the October Revolution, he changed this particular formula so radically as to give it a quite different “milder” meaning in order better to serve his political aims at the time. In his letter to the Central Committee, dated September 26-27, 1917, a letter calling for the organisation of the insurrection, he omits any reference to “extermination” and simply says: “we must … arrest the General Staff and the government” (our emphasis).[10]

On still another occasion, September 14-16, 1917, offering a “compromise” to the Social Revolutionary and Menshevik majority, Lenin proposed that they form an SR-Menshevik government responsible only to the Soviets. Such a government he said, “In all probability … could secure a peaceful advance of the whole Russian Revolution”. Should the proposition be accepted by the SR’s and Mensheviks, then:

I think the Bolsheviks would advance no other conditions, trusting that the revolution would proceed peacefully and party strife in the Soviets would be peacefully overcome thanks to really complete freedom of propaganda and to the immediate establishment of a new democracy in the composition of the Soviets (new elections) and in their functioning.

Perhaps this is already impossible? Perhaps. But if there is even one chance in a hundred, the attempt at realising this opportunity is still worth while.[11]

In this case Lenin asked nothing more of the “civil and military chiefs” among the “ruling” petty-bourgeois democratic parties than that they take power and assure “really complete freedom of propaganda”. Returning to this question again on October 9, 1917, he wrote:

Our business is to help get everything possible done to make sure the “last” chance for a peaceful development of the revolution, to help by the presentation of our programme, by making clear its national character, its absolute accord with the interests and demands of a vast majority of the population.[12]

Thus, Lenin proposed to fight “the civil and military chiefs” in three different ways, according to the circumstances, on three different occasions—by “extermination”, by “arrest” and by “peaceful propaganda”. All were equally revolutionary. The occasions and the circumstances in each case were different. Lenin took such variations into account and changed his proposals accordingly. He never made a strait jacket out of his tactical formulas. Neither should we—if we want to be genuine Leninists.

That “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with the new”—this is an axiom known to every student of Marxism. It is wrong to entertain or disseminate illusions on this score, and we did not do so at the trial. But it is a great mistake to conclude from this that violence and the talk about violence serve the revolutionary vanguard advantageously at all times and under all conditions. On the contrary, peaceful conditions and democratic legal forms are most useful in the period when the party is still gathering its forces and when the main strength and resources, including the resources of violence, are on the other side. Lenin remarked that Engels was “most correct” in “advocating the use of bourgeois legality” and saying to the German ruling class in 1891: “Be the first to shoot Messrs. Bourgeois!”

Our party, which must still strive to get a hearing from the as yet indifferent working class of America, has the least reason of all to emphasise or to “advocate” violence. This attitude is determined by the present stage of class development and the relation of forces in the United States; not as Munis so generously assumes, by our exaggerated concern for a “light sentence”. As a matter of fact the question of violence was given ten times more proportionate mention in our testimony at the trial than it has been given in the propaganda columns of our press during the past ten years, including the voluminous contributions of Comrade Trotsky.

Expressing disdain for our repeated painstaking explanations “about who initiates the violence”, and our “general tone”, which, he says, “makes one feel embarrassed at times”, Munis offers us “proud valour” as a substitute. Had we been gifted with this rare attribute we should have said, according to Munis: “The workers and farmers should respond to the daily violence of the bourgeoisie with majority and organised violence of the poor masses. We do not predict but rather we assure, we ask, we advocate temporary violence of the majority against the permanent organic violence of the reactionary minority.”

We don’t know much about “proud valour” and had no need of it; we did not appear at the trials as posturing actors but only as party militants with a practical political task to carry out. Naturally, it is a good thing for a revolutionary militant to have ordinary human courage enough to take those risks which are implicit in the struggle against capitalism. And we can add: He should also have enough prudence to avoid unnecessary sacrifices. The lack of either of these qualities can be a serious personal deficiency. But the possession of both, and in good working order at that, still does not suffice to answer the most important question confronting us at the trial; namely, what formulations, what tone, what emphasis on the question of violence could best serve our cause under the given conditions? The answer to the question must be political, not theatrical.

Lenin unquestionably burned with indignation and hatred for the oppressions of the people and knew about the violence of all kinds that is inseparable from a regime of class domination. Also, while it is quite impossible to speak of “valour” to say nothing of “proud valour”, in connection with the unpretentious and matter-of-fact Lenin—such knightly grandiloquence would fit him as oddly as a silk hat—there is evidence that he had nerve enough to fill his post. Lenin was the most stiff-necked rebel in history. But his approach to the question of violence, as to every other question, was determined by political considerations. He did not by any means employ one universal formula and one kind of emphasis such as Munis prescribes for us. Indeed, he was far less “radical” in his formulations for the propaganda of the Bolshevik Party in the months, and even the weeks, directly preceding the victory than is Munis in his demands on our party which at the time of the trial could only be described properly as a small and isolated propaganda group.

It is most revealing to read how the great master of revolutionary strategy, returning to Russia after the March revolution, developed the work of mobilising the masses around the Bolshevik Party by means of propaganda. The Bolshevik Party grew by leaps and bounds, but nevertheless remained a minority for many months. It should be instructive to any “violence” fanatic to see how Lenin, under these conditions, persistently tried to shove the question of violence into the background and to ward off a premature test of strength. Even as late as October 9, as we have seen, he was offering “to help get everything possible done to make sure the ‘last’ chance for a peaceful development of the revolution”. When he finally called for action it was for mass action and there was no theatrical bluster about it. The Bolshevik Party, thanks to its preliminary propaganda work, had the mass force to carry the action through to victory.

On April 25 he protested in Pravda against “dark insinuations” of “Minister Nekrasov” about “the preaching of violence” by the Bolsheviks:

You are lying, Mr. Minister, worthy member of the “people’s freedom” party. It is Mr. Guchkov who is preaching violence when he threatens to punish the soldiers for dismissing the authorities. It is Russkaya Volya, the riot-mongering newspaper of the riot-mongering “republicans”, a paper that is friendly to you, that preaches violence.

Pravda and its followers do not preach violence. On the contrary, they declare most clearly, precisely, and definitely, that our main efforts should now be concentrated on explaining to the proletarian masses their proletarian problems, as distinguished from the petty bourgeoisie which has succumbed to chauvinist intoxication.[13]

On May 4 the Central Committee of the party adopted a resolution written by Lenin. The aim of this resolution was to restrain the Petrograd local leadership which was running ahead of events; to put the “responsibility” for any violence on the “Provisional Government and its supporters”; and to accuse the “capitalist minority” of reluctance “to submit to the will of the majority”. Here are the two paragraphs from the resolution:

1. Party propagandists and speakers must refute the despicable lies of the capitalist papers and of the papers supporting the capitalists to the effect that we are holding out the threat of civil war. This is a despicable lie, for only at the present moment, as long as the capitalists and their government cannot and dare not use force against the masses, as long as the mass of soldiers and workers are freely expressing their will and freely electing and displacing all authorities—at such a moment any thought of civil war would be naive, senseless, preposterous; at such a moment there must be compliance with the will of the majority of the population and free criticism of this will by the discontented minority; should violence be resorted to, the responsibility will fall on the Provisional Government and its supporters.

2. By their outcries against civil war the government of the capitalists and its newspapers are only trying to conceal the reluctance of the capitalists, who admittedly constitute an insignificant minority of the people, to submit to the will of the majority.[14]

Doesn’t this sound surprisingly like “the lamentable dialogue about who initiates the violence” concerning which Munis so haughtily protests? Indeed, the similarity is not accidental. Our formulations did not fall from the sky. We had taken the trouble to read Lenin, not in order to memorise his words but to learn the essence of his methods of approaching and mobilising the masses while the Bolsheviks remained in the minority.

On May 5 the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, fighting against enemy provocations on the one side and revolutionary impatience in the party ranks on the other, adopted another resolution on Lenin’s motion. It is worth reading over ten times by any comrade who may be impressed by light-minded talk about “action” by a party which lacks the necessary mass support for action. The resolution says:

The slogan “Down with the Provisional Government!” is an incorrect one at the present moment because, in the absence of a solid (i.e., a class conscious and organised) majority of the people on the side of the revolutionary proletariat, such a slogan is either an empty phrase, or, objectively, amounts to attempts of an adventurous character.[15]

If these ideas are correct and we believe they are, then it is certainly reasonable to conclude that the Socialist Workers Party in the United States has some long, hard days of propaganda work, of patiently explaining, ahead of it. By such means it must secure a mass support before it can afford the luxury of much talk about action. Lenin drew these conclusions for the Bolshevik Party, and laid down precise instructions accordingly, only six months before it was to become the majority. The same resolution says in another paragraph:

The slogans of the moment are: (1) To explain the proletarian policy and proletarian way of ending the war; (2) To criticise the petty-bourgeois policy of placing trust in the government of the capitalists and compromising with it; (3) To carry on propaganda and agitation from group to group in every regiment, in every factory, and, particularly, among the most backward masses, such as domestic servants, unskilled laborers, etc., since it was their backing in the first place that the bourgeoisie tried to gain during the crisis; (4) To organise, organise and once more organise the proletariat, in every factory, in every district and in every city quarter (our underlining)[16]

On May 6, still hammering at irresponsible violence-mongers, the greatest leader of revolutionary action, who believed in first “explaining” and “convincing” and “winning over the majority”, wrote:

The crisis cannot be overcome by violence practiced by individuals against individuals, by the local action of small groups of armed people, by Blanquist attempts to “seize power”, to “arrest” the Provisional Government, etc.

Today’s task is to explain more precisely, more clearly, more widely the proletariat’s policy, its way of terminating the war.[17]

Marxism, without a doubt, is the doctrine of revolutionary action. But it has nothing in common with “violence practiced by individuals”, “local action of small groups”, or any other form of “action” wherein individuals or minorities attempt to substitute themselves for the masses. In other words Marxism is not anarchism or Blanquism; it wages irreconcilable war against such tendencies. The revolutionary action which Marxism contemplates is the action of the masses, of the proletarian majority, led by the vanguard party. But this action, and the party’s leading role in it must be, and can only be, prepared by propaganda. That is the central lesson of the development of the Bolshevik Party after the March revolution and the eventual transformation of its slogans from propaganda to action. That was Lenin’s method. It was less romantic than that of impatient people who dream of short cuts and miracles to be evoked by the magic word “action”. But, in compensation, Lenin’s method led to a mighty and victorious mass action in the end.

A party which lacks a mass base, which has yet to become widely known to the workers, must approach them along the lines of propaganda, of patient explanations, and pay no attention to impatient demands for “action” which it is unable to organise and for exaggerated emphasis on “violence” which, in the given conditions, can only react to its disadvantage. When one considers how persistently careful and even cautious, was Lenin’s party to avoid provocation and cling to its formula of peaceful propaganda while it remained a minority, the merest suggestion that our party, at the present time, with its present strength, take a “bolder” course appears utterly fantastic, like a nightmare separated from living reality. Lenin wrote:

The government would like to see us make the first imprudent move towards revolutionary action, as this would be to its advantage. It is exasperated because our Party has put forward the slogan of peaceful demonstrations. We must not cede one iota of our principles to the petty bourgeoisie, which is now marking time. The proletarian party would be making a dangerous mistake if it based its tactics on subjective desires where organisation is required. We cannot say that the majority is with us; what we need in the present situation is caution, caution, caution.[18]

From the foregoing it should be clear that our disavowal of “responsibility” for violence in the testimony before the court at Minneapolis was not a special device invented by us “to reconcile the jury”, as has been alleged; our formulation of the question, taken from Lenin, was designed to serve the political aims of our movement in the given situation. We did not, and had no need to, disregard legality and “advocate” violence as charged in the indictment.

But neither did we represent ourselves as pacifists or sow pacifist illusions. Far from it. We elucidated the question of violence and the socialist transformation of society in the same way that our great teachers, who organised a revolution, elucidated it. More than that, we gave a sufficiently frank and precise justification of the defensive violence of the workers in the daily class struggle this side of the revolution. The court record bulges with proof that we had indeed advocated the organisation of workers defence guards. The testimony goes further—and this is a not unimportant detail—and reveals that we translated the word into deed and took a hand in the actual organisation and activities of defence guards and picket squads when concrete circumstance made such actions possible and feasible.

We are not pacifists. The world knows, and the prosecutor in our trial had no difficulty in proving once again, that the great Minneapolis strikes, led by the Trotskyists, were not free from violence and that the workers were not the only victims. We did not disavow the record or apologise for it When the prosecutor, referring to one of the strike battles in which the workers came out victorious, demanded: “Is that Trotskyism demonstrating itself?” he received a forthright answer. The court record states:

A: Well, I can give you my own opinion, that I am mighty proud of the fact that Trotskyism had some part in influencing the workers to protect themselves against that sort of violence.

Q: Well, what kind of violence do you mean?

A: This was what the deputies were organised for, to drive the workers off the street. They got a dose of their own medicine. I think the workers have a right to defend themselves. If that is treason, you can make the most of it.[19]

With this testimony we said all that needs to be said on the question of violence in the daily class struggle, as in the previously quoted testimony we said enough about violence and the transition to socialism. If this method of presentation did not help the prosecutor, we can say again: That was not our duty. If it is objected that even in this example of the Minneapolis strike, dealing with an indubitable case of working-class violence, we insisted on its defensive nature, we can only reply: In real life the difference between careful defensive formulation and light-minded “calls for action” is usually, in the end result, the difference between real action and mere talk about it.

4. Is it correct to say we prefer a peaceful transition?

Our repeated insistence at the trial that we prefer a peaceful transition to socialism, and that we resort to violence only as a defensive measure, brings objection and ridicule from our critic. “Why not”, says Munis—“why not ask forgiveness, besides, for seeing ourselves painfully obliged to employ violence against the bourgeoisie?” It is possible that others may regard our formulation as lacking in aggressiveness and militancy but, being more indulgent than Munis, pass it off as a legal euphemism, justifiable under the circumstances. To be sure, our formulation helped our position from a legal standpoint and we did not hesitate to emphasise it in this respect. Also, in our opinion, the declaration that we, the Trotskyists, prefer a peaceful change of society, is a good propaganda approach to the democratic-minded. American workers. These two considerations are very important, but we are quite ready to agree that they would not justify the use of a false or hypocritical statement or a statement contradicting principle.

We were guilty of no such dereliction. Our formula in this case also is the formula of the Marxist teachers. They not only insisted on the desirability of a peaceful change of society, but in certain exceptional circumstances, considered such a peaceful revolution possible. We, on our part, rejected any such prospect in the United States, but at the same time declared our preference for it and accused the ruling bourgeoisie as the instigators of violence. In this we were completely loyal to Marxist doctrine and tradition. On the witness stand at Minneapolis we mentioned the opinion of Marx and Engels in regard to England in the 19th century. Here is the exact quotation from Engels:

Surely, at such a moment, the voice ought to be heard of a man whose whole theory is the result of a life-long study of the economic history and condition of England, and whom that study led to the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means. He certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a “pro-slavery rebellion”, to this peaceful and legal revolution.[20]

We should have added that the conditions of England in Marx’s time exist no more and therewith his calculation is out of date and no longer applicable. At any rate, we made this clear with regard to the United States.

In Terrorism and Communism, a book aimed from beginning to end at the bourgeois-democratic fetishism of Kautsky, Trotsky defended the violence of the proletarian revolution as a weapon forced upon it by the violence of the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie; never did he renounce a preference for the peaceful way. In his introduction to the Second English Edition, published in England under the publishers’ title, In Defence of Terrorism, he explains the position as follows:

From the Fabians we may hear it objected that the English proletariat have it quite in their own hands to come to power by way of Parliament, to carry through peacefully, within the law and step by step, all the changes called for in the capitalist system, and by so doing not only to make revolutionary terrorism needless, but also to dig the ground away under the feet of counter-revolutionary adventurers. An outlook such as this has at first sight a particular persuasiveness in the light of the Labor Party’s very important successes in the elections—but only at first sight, and that a very superficial one. The Fabian hope must, I fear, be held from the very beginning to be out of the question. I say “I fear”, since a peaceful, parliamentary change over to a new social structure would undoubtedly offer highly important advantages from the standpoint of the interests of culture, and therefore those of socialism. But in politics nothing is more dangerous than to mistake what we wish for what is possible. (Our emphasis.)[21]

We tried to say the same thing at the trial in our own words and in our own way, suited to the circumstances. In this classic formulation of the question, the legal and propagandistic advantages of our “preference for a peaceful transition” fall into their proper place beside, and subordinate to, the most weighty considerations of all: “The interests of culture, and therefore those of socialism”.

Trotsky, again, in his introduction to the book on The Living Thoughts of Marx, foretold a violent revolution for the United States, but he did not neglect to place the blame on the ruling class and express a different preference. Said Trotsky:

It would be best, of course, to achieve this purpose in a peaceful, gradual, democratic way. But the social order that has outlived itself never yields its place to its successor without resistance.[22]

Lenin, as has been shown heretofore, denied the accusations of Bolshevik responsibility for violence so often that more than one critic of that revolutionary time, sick with radicalism and impatient for “action”, might well have reproached him for the “euphemistic, sweetened character” of his statements and taunted him with the ironical query: “Why not ask forgiveness, besides?” However that may be, Lenin, preparing the greatest mass action in history by means of propaganda, insisted right up to the end that he preferred the peaceful road.

On October 9-10 he promised support to the Soviets “in every way” if they would but assume power and thus secure a peaceful development:

The proletariat will not hesitate to make every sacrifice to save the revolution, which is possible only by implementing the programme set forth above On the other hand, the proletariat would support the Soviets in every way if they were to make use of their last chance to secure a peaceful development of the revolution.[23]

In the same article he maintained that even at that late day the Soviets had the possibility—“probably their last chance”—to secure a peaceful development:

By seizing full power, the Soviets could still today—and this is probably their last chance—ensure the peaceful development of the revolution, peaceful elections of the deputies by the people, and a peaceful struggle of parties inside of the Soviets; they could test the programmes of the various parties in practice and power could pass peacefully from one party to another.[24]

As late as September 29 he contended that in Russia, under the unique conditions which he cited, “at that exceptional moment in history”, a peaceful transformation was even probable:

The peaceful development of any revolution is, generally speaking, extremely rare and difficult, because revolution is the maximum exacerbation of the sharpest class contradictions; but in a peasant country, at a time when a union of the proletariat with the peasantry can give peace to people worn out by a most unjust and criminal war, when that union can give the peasantry all the land, in that country, at that exceptional moment in history, a peaceful development of the revolution is possible and probable if all power is transferred to the Soviets. The struggle of parties for power within the Soviets may proceed peacefully, if the Soviets are made fully democratic, and “petty thefts” and violations of democratic principles, such as giving the soldiers one representative to every five hundred, while the workers have one representative to every thousand voters, are eliminated. In a democratic republic such petty thefts will have to disappear.[25]

Trotsky, in his History, has explained this strategy of the Bolsheviks which was untainted by the fetishism of violence:

The transfer of power to the soviets meant, in its immediate sense, a transfer of power to the Compromisers. That might have been accomplished peacefully, by way of a simple dismissal of the bourgeois government, which had survived only on the good will of the Compromisers and the relics of the confidence in them of the masses. The dictatorship of the workers and soldiers had been a fact ever since the 27th of February. But the workers and soldiers were not to the point necessary aware of that fact. They had confided the power to the Compromisers, who in their turn had passed it over to the bourgeoisie. The calculations of the Bolsheviks on a peaceful development of the revolution rested, not on the hope that the bourgeoisie would voluntarily turn over the power to the workers and soldiers, but that the workers and soldiers would in good season prevent the Compromisers from surrendering the power to the bourgeoisie.

The concentration of the power in the soviets under a regime of soviet democracy, would have opened before the Bolsheviks a complete opportunity to become a majority in the soviet and consequently to create a government on the basis of their program. For this end an armed insurrection would have been unnecessary. The interchange of power between parties could have been accomplished peacefully. All the efforts of the party from April to July had been directed towards making possible a peaceful development of the revolution through the soviet. “Patiently explain”—that had been the key to the Bolshevik policy.[26]

These words of the two greatest leaders of Marxism in action should have an instructive value for all revolutionary militants. Lenin’s sincere and earnest talk about a “peaceful development of the revolution”; his offer to “make compromises” to assure “the last chance” for it; Trotsky’s summary statement that the “key to the Bolshevik policy” had been the simple prescription: “patiently explain”—in all this it is shown that Lenin and Trotsky were completely free from radical bombast about violence. But in return, they organised a victorious proletarian revolution.

And they had prepared so well that the transfer of power did indeed take place in Petrograd without any large-scale violence. We did not falsify the historical fact at the trial when we said there was “just a little scuffling, that’s all”. The violence came afterward, initiated by the “proslavery rebellion” which was eventually crushed by the mass force of the people led by the Bolshevik Party. These impressive facts give the explanations and formulas of Lenin and Trotsky a certain authority for those who want to be Marxists.

5. “Submitting to the majority”

Comrade Munis is dissatisfied with our assertions at the trial that “we submit to the majority”. The Oehlerites also are scornful of this declaration and represent it as some kind of capitulatory repudiation of our principles in order to impress the jury. All these assumptions are without foundation. Our “submission to the majority” was not first revealed at the trial. We said it before the trial and continue to repeat it after the trial. It is a correct statement of our position because it conforms both to reality and necessity. Moreover, our Marxist teachers said it before us; we learned it from them.

What else can we do but “submit to the majority” if we are Marxists, and not Blanquists or anarchist muddleheads? It is a timely occasion to probe into this question because we believe any ill-considered talk about some kind of mysterious “action”, presumed to be open to us while we remain not only a minority, but a very small, numerically insignificant minority, can lead only to a dangerous disorientation of the party. An exposition of the Marxist position on this question can also be useful as an antidote for any remnants of the half-Blanquist tradition of the early years of the Comintern in America.

The pioneer communists in the United States (and not only here) heard of the Bolshevik victory in Russia long before they learned about the political method and propaganda techniques whereby the Bolsheviks gained the mass support which made the seizure of power possible. Their first impressions were undoubtedly coloured by the capitalist press accounts which represented the revolution as a coup d’Ètat engineered by a small group. This distorted conception was epitomised by the title given to the American edition of Trotsky’s classic pamphlet Terrorism and Communism, which was published here by the party’s publishing house in 1922 under the completely misleading title: Dictatorship versus Democracy. We took the “dictatorship”, so to speak, and generously handed over to the bourgeoisie all claim to “democracy”.

This was far too big a concession, perhaps pardonable in a young movement lacking adequate knowledge about the democratic essence of the Bolshevik program, but by far out of date today. The bourgeoisie have always tried to picture communism as a “criminal conspiracy” in order to alienate the workers who are profoundly democratic in their sentiments. That was the aim once again in the Minneapolis trial. It was our task at the trial to go out of our way to refute this misrepresentation and emphasise the democratic basis of our program; not in order to placate our enemies and persecutors, as is assumed, but in order to reveal the truth to our friends, the American workers.

We cannot eat our cake and have it too. We must either “submit” to the majority and confine ourselves to propaganda designed to win over the majority—or, we must seize power, more correctly, try to seize power and break the neck of the party, by minority “action”.

Marxist authority is clear and conclusive in choosing between these alternatives. When we took our stand in court regarding “submission” to the majority we were not “folding our arms” and making “opportunistic” statements of “passivity in the face of the imperialist war”, as we are accused. Nothing of the sort. The testimony states, repeatedly, and with sufficient emphasis, that, while “submitting to the majority”—that is, making no minority insurrections or putsches—we are organising, speaking, writing, and “explaining”; in other words, carrying on propaganda with the object of winning over the majority to our program, which is the program of social revolution.

Neither were we simply trying to “make an honourable impression on the jury without taking into consideration that we should talk for the masses”. To be sure we did not stupidly disregard the jury which held the fate of twenty-eight comrades, not to mention the legality of the party, in its hands. But we were speaking also, and especially, “for the masses”. We testified primarily for publication. It was our deliberate aim to convince those who would read the testimony in printed form of the truth that the proletarian movement which we aspire to lead is a democratic movement, and not a “conspiracy”, as the prosecutor and the whole of the capitalist press would picture it, and as loose talkers would unconsciously aid them to so picture it; not a scheme to transfer power from one clique to another, but a movement of the majority in the interest of the majority.

In addition, it may as well be said candidly that this testimony was also deliberately designed as an educational shock to such members and sympathisers of our movement as may still, at this late day, be dabbling with the idea of a shorter cut to socialism by some mysterious prescription for “action”.

The Marxist authorities have all spoken in one voice on this question.

The Communist Manifesto, the first and the most fundamental statement of the principles of scientific socialism, defined the proletarian movement of emancipation, in contradistinction to all others in history, as follows:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.[27]

The communist political method and strategy follow ineluctably from this basic premise. Nowhere and never have the authoritative representatives of Marxism formulated the question otherwise. The Marxists aim to make the social transformation with the majority and not for the majority. The irreconcilable struggle of Marx and Engels against the Blanquists revolved around this pivot.

In 1895, summing up the experience of fifty years, Engels wrote, in his Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France:

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of the unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisations, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that.[28]

The successors of Marx and Engels followed in their footsteps. The experiences of the Russian Revolution confirmed in life the basic premise of the founders of scientific socialism. It was precisely because Lenin and Trotsky had assimilated this concept into their flesh and blood that they knew how to concentrate their whole activity on propaganda to win over the majority, biding their time till they gained the majority, and resorting to “action” only when they felt assured of the support of the majority.

What did they do in the meantime? They “submitted to the majority”. What else could they do? Lenin explained it a hundred times, precisely In those months and days when the Bolsheviks were consciously preparing the struggle for power. In his “April Theses” on “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”, published in Pravda on April 20, 1917, a few days after his return to Russia, Lenin wrote:

As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience.[29]

A few days later, he returned to this question, explaining the reason for this attitude, the reason being that “we are not Blanquists, we are Marxists”. On April 22 he wrote:

To become a power the class conscious workers must win the majority to their side. As long as no violence is used against the people there is no other road to power. We are not Blanquists, we do not stand for the seizure of power by a minority. We are Marxists, we stand for proletarian class struggle against petty-bougeois intoxication, against chauvinist-defencism, phrase-mongering, and dependence on the bourgeoisie.[30]

Not once or twice, but repeatedly and almost continually, so that neither friend nor foe could possibly misunderstand him, in the months directly preceding the October Revolution, Lenin limited the Bolshevik task to the propaganda work of “criticising”, “exposing errors” and “advocating” in order to “win the majority to their side”. This was not camouflage for the enemy but education for the workers’ vanguard. He explained it theoretically as we, following him, tried to explain it in popular language at the trial.

Again, in April 1917, refuting the accusations of Plekhanov and others who accused the Bolsheviks of “anarchism, Blanquism, and so forth”, Lenin once again explained the question, for the benefit, as he said, of “those who really want to think and learn”. Into a few paragraphs he compresses a profound thesis which every member of the workers’ vanguard ought to learn by heart. He wrote:

In my theses, I absolutely insured myself against skipping over the peasant movement, which has not outlived itself, or the petty-bourgeois movement in general, against and playing at “seizure of power” by a workers’ government, against any kind of Blanquist adventurism; for I pointedly referred to the experience of the Paris Commune. And this experience, as we know, and as Marx proved at length in 1871 and Engels in 1891, absolutely excludes Blanquism, absolutely ensures the direct, immediate and unquestionable rule of the majority and the activity of the masses only to the extent that the majority itself acts consciously.

In the theses, I very definitely reduced the question to one of a struggle for influence within the Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. To leave no shadow of doubt on this score, I twice emphasised in the theses the need for patient and persistent “explanatory” work “adapted to the practical needs of the masses”.

Ignorant persons or renegades from Marxism, like Mr. Plekhanov, may shout about anarchism, Blanquism, and so forth. But those who want to think and learn cannot fail to understand that Blanquism means the seizure of power by a minority, whereas the Soviets are admittedly the direct and immediate organisation of the majority of the people. Work confined to a struggle for influence within these Soviets cannot, simply cannot, stray into the swamp of Blanquism. Nor can it blunder into the swamp of anarchism, for anarchism denies the need for a state and for state power in the period of transition from the rule of the bourgeoisie to the rule of the proletariat, whereas I, with a precision that precludes any possibility of misinterpretation, advocate the need for a state in this period, although, in accordance with Marx and the lessons of the Paris Commune, I advocate not the usual parliamentary bourgeois state, but a state without a standing army, without a police opposed to the people, without an officialdom placed above the people.[31]

Again explaining wherein “Marxism [differs] from Blanquism”—he obviously considered it absolutely necessary for the advanced workers to understand this so as to be sure of their ground at every step—he wrote in a letter to the Central Committee of the party on September 26-27, 1917:

To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning-point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy, and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.[32]

Naturally, when Lenin, or any other Marxist, spoke of the necessity of the revolutionary party having the support of the majority he meant the real majority whose sentiments are ascertainable in various ways besides the ballot box of the bourgeois state. On the eve of the insurrection he wrote his devastating attack on Zinoviev and Kamenev, who opposed the insurrection on the ground, among other things, that “we do not enjoy a majority among the people, and in the absence of that condition insurrection is hopeless”.

Lenin, in “A Letter to the Comrades”, written on October 29-30, scornfully dismissed the authors of this statement as “either distorters of the truth or pedants who want an advance guarantee that throughout the whole country the Bolshevik Party has received exactly one-half of the votes plus one, this they want at all events, without taking the least account of the real circumstances of the revolution”. Nevertheless, he took pains to prove the Bolsheviks had the majority by “facts”: “the August 20 elections in Petrograd” … “the district council elections in Moscow in September” … “the new elections to the Soviets” … “a majority of the peasant Soviets” who had “expressed itself against the coalition” … “the soldiers are passing en masse over to the side of the Soviets” … “Last, but not least … the revolt of the peasantry”. He concluded his argument on this point by saying: “To doubt now that the majority of the people are following and will follow the Bolsheviks is shameful vacillation.”[33]

Once again disavowing Blanquism, he wrote in his polemic against Zinoviev and Kamenev:

Military conspiracy is Blanquism, if it is organised not by a party of a definite class, if its organisers have not analysed the political moment in general and the international situation in particular, if the party has not on its side the sympathy of the majority of the people, as proved by objective facts …[34]

On September 25-27 Lenin called upon the Bolshevik Party to take power. In this famous letter, addressed “to the Central Committee, the Petrograd and Moscow Committees of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party”, Lenin, with the logic and directness which characterised him, states his premise and his conclusion in the first sentence:

The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands.[35]

He was not worried about a “formal” majority; “No revolution ever waits for that”. But he was sure of the real majority. He insisted upon the revolution “at this very moment”, as he expressed it, not sooner and not later, because:

The majority of the people are on our side. This was proved by the long and painful course of events from May 6 to August 31 and to September 12.: The majority gained in the Soviets of the metropolitan cities resulted from the people coming over to our side. The wavering of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, and the increase in the number of internationalists within their ranks prove the same thing.[36]

The prosecution at the Minneapolis trial attempted to convict us, as charged in the indictment of an actual “conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violence”. We successfully refuted this accusation, and the indictment covering this point was rejected by the jury. The most effective element of our refutation of this absurd charge against our small party was our exposition of the democratic basis of the proletarian program, of the party’s reliance on the majority to realise its program, and its corresponding obligation, while it remains in the minority, to “submit to the majority”. In making this exposition we had a legal purpose, but not only a legal purpose, in mind. As with all the testimony, it was designed primarily to explain and simplify our views and aims to the workers who would be future readers of the published court record.

We also thought a restatement of the Marxist position in this respect would not be wasted on the members of our own movement and might even be needed. The discussion which has arisen on this question only proves that we were more correct in this latter assumption than we realised at the time. Socialism is a democratic movement and its program, the program of the vanguard party, can be realised only with the support of the majority. The party’s basic task, while it remains in the minority, is “propaganda to win over the majority”. To state this was not capitulation to the prejudices of the jury; it is the teaching of Marx and Lenin, as has been shown in the foregoing references.

[This section continues directly in part Part VI]


[1] Trotsky, “Letter on Defeatism”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937-38) (Pathfinder Press: New York, second edition, 1976), pp. 123-124

[2] Cannon, “Socialism on Trial”, see this edition, p. 32

[3] ibid. , p. 31

[4] ibid. , p. 31

[5] ibid. , p. 32

[6] ibid. , p. 33

[7] Engels, “Principles of Communism” in Marx & Engels, Selected Works , Vol. 1 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1949), p. 89

[8] Trotsky, ”How to Defend Ourselves”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40) (Pathfinder Press: New York, second edition, 1973), p. 343

[9] See note 7 in previous section.

[10] Lenin, “Marxism and Insurrection”, Collected Works , Vol. 24 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1944), p. 27

[11] Lenin, “On Compromises”, Collected Works , Vol. 25 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1944), p. 310-311

[12] Lenin, “The Tasks of the Revolution”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, p. 40

[13] Lenin, “A Shameless Lie of the Capitalists”, Collected Works , Vol. 24 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1944), pp. 110-111

[14] Lenin, “Resolution of the Central Committee of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) Adopted April 21 (May 4), 1917”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, p. 201

[15] Lenin, “Resolution of the Central Committee of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) Adopted in the Morning of April 22 (May 5), 1917”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, pp. 210-211

[16] ibid. , p. 211

[17] Lenin, “Lessons of the Crisis”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, p. 214

[18] Lenin, “Report on the Current Situation April 24 (May 7)”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, p. 237

[19] Cannon, “Socialism on Trial”, this edition, p. 163

[20] Engels, “Preface to the English Edition”, Capital , Vol. 1 (Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1974), p. 113

[21] Trotsky, “Inroduction to the Second English Edition”, Terrorism and Communism (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1941), p. xli

[22] Trotsky, Marxism in Our Time (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1970), p. 35

[23] Lenin, “The Tasks of the Revolution”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, p. 48

[24] ibid. , p. 47

[25] Lenin, “The Russian Revolution and Civil War”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, pp. 34-37

[26] Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (Monad Press; New York, 1980), Vol. II, pp. 312-313

[27] Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto & Its Relevance for Today (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1998), p. 55

[28] Engels, Introduction to “The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850” in Marx & Engels, Selected Works , Vol. 1, pp. 199-200

[29] Lenin, “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”, Collected Works , Vol 24, p. 23

[30] Lenin, “The Dual Power”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, p. 40

[31] Lenin, “Letters on Tactics”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, pp. 48-49

[32] Lenin, “Marxism and Insurrection”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, pp.22-23

[33] Lenin, “Letter to Comrades”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, pp. 194-198

[34] ibid. , p. 212

[35] Lenin, “The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power”, Collected Works , Vol. 24, p. 19

[36] ibid. , pp. 19-21

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