Rethinking what we should learn

November 7, 2016

Readers Tim Adams and Charles Peterson give their views on Leon Trotsky's essay "Learning to Think" that was republished by SW with comments on its meaning today.

Avoiding the trap of U.S. aid

I AM glad to see a piece directly engaging with Trotsky's arguments on this question as they apply to our circumstances today ("'Learning to Think' today"). Too often, these works are either interpreted in a biblical fashion--as if they are timeless words of truth applicable regardless of context--or ignored altogether. However, I disagree with some of Ashley Smith's conclusions regarding how Trotsky's analysis relates to the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The gist of Trotsky's argument is that socialists should refrain from dismissing revolutionary forces that accept military aid from imperialist countries, simply on the basis that they accepted that aid. Instead, socialists should examine each situation in its given context and make assessments on the basis of what would strengthen the international revolutionary struggle. As Smith correctly notes, "The key for Trotsky is that revolutionaries must think through questions concretely with a focus on what will aid the cause of international socialist revolution from below."

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In the hypothetical examples that Trotsky discusses, the defeat of revolutionary forces (anti-colonial revolutionaries in Algeria, or a revolutionary workers' state in Belgium) would mark a disastrous setback for the international working class. On that basis, Trotsky argues that it would be necessary for class-conscious workers in imperialist countries (in fascist Italy, or "democratic" France) to defend shipments of arms from "their" imperialist government to the revolutionary forces. (For a similar reason, Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks should accept weapons from France and Britain to defend against a short-lived but disastrous German invasion after the Bolsheviks walked out of negotiations for the Brest-Litovsk Treaty).

So, as Smith points out, "receiving aid from an imperialist power for the cause of liberation is not an original sin." Instead, we have to assess each circumstance individually. That's why I take serious issue with his following statement:

Trotsky argues that revolutionaries in imperialist countries must defend the right of oppressed people to obtain resources they need for their struggles, including from the imperialist power that revolutionaries reside in. He contends that revolutionaries can and must do this without surrendering their implacable opposition to their own state's imperialism.

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Trotsky does not make any arguments about socialists defending the "right" of oppressed people elsewhere to receive arms from imperialist governments, or about the obligation of socialists in imperialist countries to respect that "right." As I see it, such a notion contradicts Trotsky's whole point, which takes a firm stance against such blanket notions without consideration of concrete circumstances. Instead, as discussed, we need to assess whether or not such a move would strengthen revolutionary forces in the conflict in question and throughout the world. Implicit in Trotsky's argument is that there are also circumstances when it is necessary to oppose efforts of an imperialist government to send military aid.

As it stands, I believe it is crucial that revolutionaries in the U.S. oppose any efforts of "our" imperialist government to provide aid to revolutionaries in Syria. I do not think there is any basis for comparing the examples used by Trotsky of a mass anti-colonial revolution--much less a revolutionary workers' state--to the state of the revolution in Syria, which has been largely defeated or otherwise forced underground by the brutality of Assad's onslaughts.

That does not mean slandering revolutionaries in Syria as "stooges" for U.S. empire if they ever accepted aid from the U.S. government. It is absolutely understandable that many people, especially Syrians under siege, would call for aid or a no-fly zone from the U.S. government--given the ongoing and horrific atrocities taking place. But we should oppose any effort of the U.S. government to send additional aid--military or otherwise--as such a move would only draw the United States further into the conflict, ultimately extending it and making prospects for a revival of the revolutionary movement even less likely. It also would greatly increase the risk of direct conflict with Russia, which would be disastrous for working people everywhere.

As our comrade Bill Crane recently argued:

Military aid from the U.S. does not come on its own. Aleppo is being bombed, so there has to be adequate force protection for starters, primarily aircraft. Which require bases, ground crews, forward air controllers. There have to be U.S. assets on the ground to receive the weapons and make sure they are being put to use correctly, which requires work by intelligence officers in the region. Successful airdrops, of food or weapons, require ground support, which in turn require fire support and further air support. All of this is a further escalation of the U.S. military's presence in Syria to which [we] are opposed. Even without the huge potential for mission creep, arms without bombs, or food without bombs for that matter is not a thing, it is just not what the U.S. military does.

While U.S. imperialism is far from the only cause of the ongoing crisis in Syria, the focus of revolutionaries in the U.S. who stand in solidarity with Syrians must be to force an end to U.S. involvement in Syria and the Middle East as a whole and demand an end to restrictions on the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

These are demands that Smith has discussed articulately many times over the last years, and I know there is no disagreement there. I look forward to more engagement with the perspectives of the founders of our revolutionary tradition as they relate to this question, as that will be crucial if we are to build a movement against the U.S. war machine--something we all agree is desperately needed.
Tim Adams, Columbus, Ohio

When Trotsky's thinking went astray

WITH ITS recent coverage of Syria, Socialist Worker, per usual, has distinguished itself for its clarity, principled internationalism and comradely tone. Ashley Smith's recent articles are models of how to oppose imperialist intervention from all sides of an increasingly multipolar world. Leon Trotsky's abysmal "Learn to Think," however, is the exact opposite of all of those things and should immediately be ditched from our arsenal.

To be clear, I am all for sharp polemics and "sick burns": Lenin and Trotsky reprints are some of my favorite contributions to SW. I've long been for more of them. And the present article contains some useful formulations and nuggets of wisdom, including the line, "The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign--this would make every sectarian a master strategist."

But in a debate characterized by rancor, citing as an authority an article beginning "Certain professional ultra-left phrasemongers" is a step in the wrong direction and an unnecessary departure from previous civility and patience. Even worse than this: Trotsky defends an indefensible, confused position throughout this article.

The fact that he starts by attacking all of his critics as dummies is the first giveaway that Trotsky is not arguing from the firmest position. Nor does his failure to cite arguments or name opponents inspire confidence. However, from the context, it is clear that the following 1934 thesis was the one being assailed by the "phrasemongers":

The proletariat of a capitalist country which finds itself in an alliance with the USSR must retain fully and completely its irreconcilable hostility to the imperialist government of its own country. In this sense its policy will not differ from that of the proletariat in a country fighting against the USSR. But in the nature of practical actions considerable differences may arise depending on the concrete war situation.

Contemporary readers should not be misled by the subtlety of the last sentence, as what Trotsky is arguing is clear: revolutionaries in different countries should take different attitudes to their bourgeois government's efforts in inter-imperialist war based on that government's attitude to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the misnamed "Learn to Think" takes the exact campist, preferential attitude to one imperialist bloc that Socialist Worker so consistently condemns.

Trotsky goes further astray in the next paragraph, where he states "The ultra-leftists consider this postulate, the correctness of which has been confirmed by the entire course of development, as the starting point" In reality, the ultra-lefts were correct on their rejection of this postulate, whose pre-postulate was the "unconditional defense of the Soviet Union," one of the key planks of the Fourth International.

Two months after this article appeared, the imperialist democracies capitulated to Hitler at Munich, to be followed within a year by the Hitler-Stalin pact, an offensive treaty to carve up Poland and extend each country's sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Trotsky and his followers engaged in the worst apologia for Stalinist expansion, demanding that Polish workers and peasants welcome the Red Army as liberators. On this invasion, and the subsequent foray into Finland, there is no question that the Old Man was a social patriot.

Ashley's introduction to the contrary, it was not true that "the key for Trotsky is that revolutionaries must think through questions concretely with a focus on what will aid the cause of international socialist revolution from below." Actually, what was key in this article was the invocation of a number of counter-factual conflicts to distract from the very factual conflicts brewing in which Stalinist Russia was already a participant--German expansion into central Europe, Russo-Japanese skirmishing in Northern China--and in which Trotsky had already chosen a side.

A minority within the American Trotskyist movement, led by Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya, was absolutely correct to break with the campism of the majority. We can and should do better than repeat the talking points of their factional rivals. Let's rely on SW's living writers, especially Ashley, to make our arguments about Syria, imperialism and the campist left.
Charles Peterson, Chicago

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