Ernest Erber Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Ernest Erber

Flashback on “Russian Question”

The 1939 Dispute in the Light of the New Documents

(February 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 2, February 1948, pp. 50–53.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The captured German archives bearing on German-Russian relations during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, published by the U.S. State Department, are of special interest to our movement. The infamous pact and the train of political and military events it set in motion were the immediate cause of the sharp political struggle that split the American Trotskyist movement in 1940 and led to the formation of the Workers Party. The documentary material released by the State Department now permits an instructive re-examination of the two points of view that struggled for dominance in the then united Socialist Workers Party.

The signing of the pact on August 24, 1939, did not catch our movement entirely unawares. Trotsky had already indicated the strong possibility that Stalin would seek an understanding with Hitler after the “collective security” policy had suffered shipwreck at Munich. [1]

Yet the actual news that a German-Russian pact had been consummated, breaking suddenly and without warning, came as a distinct shock to the party. The party’s reaction revealed that despite Trotsky’s reference to the possibility and many similar references in the party press, neither Trotsky nor the party leadership in this country had given any serious thought to the possible consequences of such a major realignment of Kremlin strategy.

The view prevailed, somewhat vaguely, that a German-Russian pact would not be different in essentials from the Franco-Russian pact of 1935 and that its consequences would be similar. The party was especially concerned to combat any concessions to bourgeois-democratic sentiments which might open the way to favoring the democratic imperialist powers against the fascist imperialist powers. As a consequence, the thoughts of the party were directed toward the similarities between the Franco-Russian pact and a possible German-Russian pact rather than toward the differences. The thought of the party confined itself to the concept that capitalism is capitalism, whether in bourgeois-democratic France or in Nazi Germany; that a pact is a pact; therefore, a pact with Germany in place of a pact with France could not possibly change anything essentially.

The shock which the party experienced by the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin pact was born of the fact that the pact was signed at a time when Hitler was making overt preparations for an attack upon Poland and the pact was obviously part of the diplomatic preparation for the impending military operation. However, it was not clear, during the first days following the pact, just how Russia figured in the deal. The emphasis in our analysis of the pact was upon Stalin’s fear of war. Stalin’s part in the pact was described as a capitulation to Hitler’s demands in a cowardly effort to buy neutrality in the impending war.

This was in line with the traditional views of the Trotskyist movement: that the main antagonism in the world was between Russia, the workers’ state (however degenerated), and the common interests of the capitalist powers; that the bureaucracy was seeking to restore capitalism within Russia; and that, consequently, the bureaucracy was capable of playing only a capitulatory role in world affairs, unless Russia was directly and militarily attacked, in which case the bureaucracy would fight in defense of its own survival.

The movement had come to think of the bureaucracy solely in terms of “socialism in one country,” of Stalin’s timidity and conservatism; and to think of Stalin’s statement, “not one inch of foreign territory, not one inch of ours,” as really inviolable Kremlin doctrine. Such a concept precluded even giving thought to the possibility that the bureaucracy could conduct an aggressive foreign policy for purposes of expanding Russia at the expense of the capitalist world.

Stunned by Polish Invasion

The false overemphasis upon Stalin’s fear of war and his “capitulation” to Hitler did not impede the party in making a vigorous campaign against the Stalinists on the issue of the pact. The party’s weekly organ, the Socialist Appeal, spread itself over pages with a loud note of “we told you so.” Issue after issue was filled with lengthy analyses of Kremlin treachery, exhortations to the Stalinist rank and file and the unequivocal slogan of “Down with the Hitler-Stalin pact!” That the latter slogan had no counterpart in our campaign on the Franco-Russian pact in 1935 went unnoticed in these first weeks. The entire party and its press bristled with hostility toward the Kremlin’s latest move and mobilized itself with political confidence and aggressiveness to make the most of it among the thousands of pro-Stalinists who were repelled by the pact.

Yet some four weeks later the party and its press reacted to the Russian invasion of Poland in an entirely different manner. Far from spreading itself over pages with “we told you so,” the party press was all but struck dumb. For the next months it was to express itself in a mumbling, stumbling fashion that was in stark contrast to the ringing self-confidence, almost cockiness, that had traditionally been the hallmark of the Trotskyist press.

The fact is that the Russian invasion of Poland threw the party leadership into utter confusion and divided it into a minority which sought to face the new events and work out a revolutionary policy and a majority that persisted in remaining confused about what Russia was up to.

Baffled by the unexpected turn of events, the majority fled the world of actuality and took refuge in what it reverently referred to as “the party’s fundamental analysis of the character of the Soviet state.” [2] The editors of the press were instructed to deal with the new events from this “fundamental” position. Should the revolutionary movement declare itself a partisan of the Russian army in the invasion of Poland? All efforts to pry loose from the majority an answer to this question – really the only question that shrieked for an answer – were frustrated by the intransigent determination of the majority not to commit themselves to anything until they heard from Trotsky. Efforts by the minority to commit the party to a condemnation of the invasion were defeated. Even a reference to Stalin’s move as “sinister” was rejected.

The unwillingness of the majority to take a position on the events in Poland was due to the fact that the “fundamental position,” specifically the slogan of “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union,” seemed to demand of them a role which their past training as revolutionists and their spontaneous revolutionary reactions caused them to shy away from – namely, the role of Stalin’s helpers (no matter with what curses for Stalin) in picking bare the broken body of the Polish nation and (no matter how reluctantly) giving objective aid to the counter-revolutionary blows which the Russian army would strike against the revolutionary movement of the Polish workers and peasants. Does the slogan of “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union” really demand this of us? the majority asked itself. While they wondered and marked time waiting for Trotsky’s answer, the minority answered, “Yes, it does, if you really adhere to that slogan. That is why the old position must be revised. Given the evidence of the new stages of degeneration of the bureaucracy as seen in the Hitler-Stalin pact and the division of Poland, we must give up ‘unconditional defense’ and defend the Russian state only under those conditions which are consistent with the needs of the world revolution.”

Outlived Diagnosis

Trotsky’s views arrived in the form of his well-known article, The USSR in War.

Reduced to their bare essentials, Trotsky’s views in The USSR in War were already presented in his letter to Cannon dated September 12, 1939 (In Defense of Marxism, by Leon Trotsky, p. 1). A reading of the bare points of his argument in this letter, unprotected by his literary and polemical skill, makes it far easier to see the chinks in his structure. It was Trotsky’s concept that the workers’ state in Russia could only be replaced by the restoration of capitalism, either from within or from without. The proof that capitalism had been restored would be the dissolution of the nationalized property. Therefore, as long as the latter remained, Russia remained a workers’ state. As long as Russia remained a workers’ state it had to be unconditionally defended in any military conflict with a capitalist state. To conceive of the end of the workers’ state, according to Trotsky, with the continuation of nationalized property meant to conceive of a new social order that was neither working-class nor capitalist, i.e., bureaucratic-collectivist. The latter, Trotsky claimed, meant the overturn of the whole Marxist concept of historical development in our epoch. Trotsky’s reasoning could be summarized in the formula: nationalized economy equals workers’ state equals unconditional defense.

But what if Russia emerged from the war with its social relations unaltered? What if the existing situation was continued into the post-war period? This was inconceivable to Trotsky. The rule by the bureaucracy on the basis of nationalized economy would soon come to an end. Therefore, why meddle with our “fundamental analysis” on the eve of the great war that will resolve everything? [3] So what if Stalin expands the territory of the Soviet Union and nationalizes property in the occupied areas? Even if we did not foresee this, it is of secondary importance. It is a mere episode in the war and not the beginning of a new role of expansionism for the bureaucracy.

Given these views of Trotsky, the majority felt released from the need of making detailed analyses of the Hitler-Stalin pact and the concrete events in Poland. The latter questions were sidestepped by Trotsky through the device of saying that once the Polish territories were added to the Soviet Union our political role in such areas becomes the same as in Russia itself. What our attitude should have been in the minor war which the Russian army waged in invading Poland was not even hinted at.

The minority, on the contrary, occupied themselves closely with the concrete events. Their then position of “defense of the Soviet Union only under certain conditions” made mandatory a constant and detailed analysis of what was taking place. As a result, the polemics between the majority and the minority took a peculiar course. The majority chose to be what they called “fundamental.” The minority chose to be concrete.

The actual course of debate revealed, however, how artificial the “fundamentalist” approach was. The party could not dodge the concrete events. It was forced to answer. Likewise, the majority spokesmen in the inner-party debates were forced to descend from the lofty heights of sociological abstractions from time to time and express an opinion on what was going on in the world of everyday affairs. It is only the somewhat sparse record of these latter reluctant excursions into daily events that affords us now the possibility of probing the majority’s analysis of the Hitler-Stalin moves in the light of the new documentary evidence.

The majority found it difficult to accept the view that the Russian invasion of Poland was prearranged with Hitler. Though they were equally skeptical of the Stalinist claim that the Russian army was invading Eastern Poland to save the population from the Nazis, they leaned toward the explanation that the invasion had the purpose of defending the Soviet Union against Germany.

Cannon, in his first speech to the party membership on the Polish events, mainly skittered around giving any explanation [4] but expressed this concept more or less clearly:

For a week or so we had quite a flurry in the party about the invasion of Poland, and demands to change our line on Russia because of it. In this, for the first time, we saw unmistakable signs of the powerful pressure of bourgeois-democratic public opinion on our party. We had to ask ourselves many times: Don’t they know that Western Ukraine and White Russia never rightfully belonged to Poland? Don’t they know that this territory was forcibly taken from the Soviet Union by Pilsudski with French aid in 1920? [Internal Bulletin of SWP, Vol. II No. 3, November 14, 1939, p. 10.]

At a later point in the same speech he emphasized his view of the Russian invasion of Poland as a defense against Germany with the following analogy:

“Defense” in war also means attack. Do you think we will respect frontiers when we make our revolution? If an enemy army lands troops at Quebec, for example, do you think we will wait placidly at the Canadian border for their attack? [Ibid.]

This aura of revolutionary defense of the Soviet Union was being thrown about the Kremlin’s invasion of Poland more than a month after Molotov, we now learn, had telephoned the following message to the German Ambassador at Moscow:

I have received your communication regarding the entry of German troops into Warsaw. Please convey my congratulations and greetings to the German Reich government. Molotov.

New Pattern of Imperialism

In reply to Cannon’s speech from which we have quoted, Max Shachtman put forth the following views for the minority:

Stalin crushed Poland jointly with Hitler. The spoils of their victories are being jointly divided throughout Eastern Europe. But also, in another sense, he is pursuing an “independent” imperialist policy of his own ... Like every bureaucracy, the Stalinist is interested in increasing the national income not in order to raise the standard of living of the masses but in order to increase its own power, its own wealth, its own privileges ... A policy of expansion, which under Lenin and Trotsky would mean extending the basis of the socialist revolution, means under the Stalinist bureaucracy, degenerated and reactionary to the core, a policy of imperialism. That is, it has an imperialist policy peculiar to the Soviet regime in its present stage of decay. [Ibid., p. 14A.]

How accurately this summary of the Kremlin’s motivations was we now learn from the projected Four-Power pact, which was to divide what Hitler called the British bankrupt estate between Germany, Russia, Japan and Italy. Secret protocol No. 1 in the draft of the pact read:

(4) The Soviet Union declares that its territorial aspirations center south of the national territory of the Soviet Union in the direction of the Indian Ocean.

This slice of booty proved unsatisfactory to the Kremlin and it drafted a counter-demand which provided for additional territories. The latter was submitted to the German government on November 26, 1940. On December 18, Hitler ordered his army to begin preparations for an invasion of Russia. He had concluded that the imperialist appetite of the Kremlin was such as to endanger German imperialist ambitions, especially if Germany tackled England first.

The dispute was still raging around the Polish events when items began appearing in the press that indicated a possible Russian move into the Baltic countries. The minority immediately seized upon these new developments to strengthen their thesis that the Russian expansion into Poland was not merely an “accidental” departure from its role of capitulation to the world of capitalism, but part of a new pattern of Russian imperialism. The majority answered with denunciations of the “irresponsible speculations” which the minority were introducing into the discussion. The charges of “speculation” were hardly out of the mouth of the majority when, to their dismay, Stalin forced the Baltic states to grant Russia military and naval bases, thereby surrendering their sovereignty. The majority immediately interpreted the Kremlin’s moves as directed against the German advance into Poland. The Socialist Appeal of December 1, 1939, wrote editorially:

At the same time, however, the Kremlin lives in deadly fear of the possibility that despite all its courting of German imperialism, the latter will make peace with Britain and turn on Russia. It is against that dread day that the Kremlin’s moves in the Baltic are calculated. The military and naval outposts secured from the other Baltic countries, plus similar outposts from Finland, would close the defensive circle of the Baltic against Germany.

When, six months later, the Russians dissolved the Baltic governments completely and added their territories to the Soviet Union, the German Foreign Office gave its view in a circular telegram to all German missions abroad which read:

The unresisted reinforcement of Russian, troops in Lithuania, Latvia and Esthonia and the reorganization of the governments of the Baltic states, sought by the Russian government to bring about more reliable cooperation with the Soviet Union, are the concern of Russia and the Baltic states. Therefore, in view of our unaltered friendly relations with the Soviet Union, there is no reason for nervousness on our part, which some of the foreign press has tried to impute to us in only too transparent a manner.

Not having learned their lesson from the events in Poland, the majority continued to see the Kremlin’s moves in the Baltic states and Finland in terms of defense against Germany. The same issue of the Socialist Appeal which we quoted above commented on the Russian moves against Finland along the traditional lines. “This unmistakable bid [by Chamberlain] to Germany came at a time when Stalin seemed to be readying his grab of Finland, a move that Germany cannot possibly relish, for it would put Soviet Russia astride Germany’s vital northern trade routes.”

As usual, this interpretation, flowing from Trotsky’s “fundamental analysis,” ran counter to the facts. The new documentary evidence is unnecessary to establish this, since the majority was forced to eat crow and write the following in the February 1940 issue of The New International:

That Hitler was highly gratified by Stalin’s becoming involved in war with Finland was clearly shown at the time of the invasion by the Berlin press which congratulated Stalin! Stalin’s involvement in the war strengthens Hitler’s western front, gives him greater bargaining power with the Allies, more thoroughly entangles Stalin in the pact, opens wider channels to the resources of the USSR ...

Sidestepping Comes to End

The majority found it possible to say the most contradictory things when dealing with the concrete events, but the “fundamental analysis” remained unquestioned. Why should it be questioned? The “fundamental analysis” was constructed out of materials that had no relationship to daily events. That the latter should serve as a test of the basic theories was denounced as “empiricism.”

The kind of sidestepping which Trotsky did on the question of what tactics the revolutionists should pursue vis-à-vis the Russian troops fighting their way into Poland was impossible in Finland. Here it was necessary to descend completely from the clouds of sociological abstractions and speak in terms of revolutionary tactics. The majority was finally forced to carry the logic of its “unconditional defensism” to its full dimensions by calling upon the Finnish workers to become “Soviet partisans,” i.e., work for the defeat of the Finnish army and the victory of the Russian army. [5]

Trotsky tried to place this unpalatable solution in the best possible light by stating: “The Soviet-Finnish war is apparently beginning to be supplemented by a civil war in which the Red Army finds itself at the given stage in the same camp as the Finnish petty peasants and the workers, while the Finnish army enjoys the support of the owning classes, the conservative labor bureaucracy and the Anglo-Saxon imperialists.” (In Defense of Marxism, by Leon Trotsky, p. 57.) Trotsky’s reference to it was the first and last news the world was to hear about the “civil war” in Finland. At a later date, information became available that the Finnish population, almost to a man, fled before the advancing Russian army as before a scourge. It was a far cry from Georgia in 1920!

The new documents explode another favorite line of reasoning used by the “fundamentalists.” This was to the effect that the “nub of the strategy” of all the imperialist powers was for a joint attack upon Russia for the purpose of dividing it among themselves. Since the “fundamental”antagonism was between the Soviet Union and the world of capitalism, they reasoned, the war was bound to conform sooner or later to such a line-up.

Wide of the Mark Again

As a consequence, the party press saw evidence of an imminent peace between Germany and England nearly every week. The hysteria on this theme reached its high point with the Russian invasion of Finland. One issue of the Socialist Appeal headlined the Finnish resistance as the beginning of the joint imperialist attack upon Russia. But only the popular press repeated this theme. Typical of their train of thought was the following:

The real military and financial aid of imperialism to Finland, the international political and ideological crusade against the USSR, the diplomatic jockeying, particularly of Britain in relation to Germany, all testify to the incontrovertible fact that the USSR stands face to face with the danger of a fully developed war of imperialist intervention. That war is already in its first stage. [Marxist Criteria and the Character of the War, by Murry Weiss, Internal Bulletin, Vol. II No. 12, emphasis in original.]

The new documentary material reveals how really wide of the mark the majority was shooting. It is now to be read that Sir Stafford Cripps was sent to Moscow as the British ambassador to win the Kremlin away from Hitler, that Stalin’s rejection of this British wooing was blunt in its defense of Germany and that the whole course of German diplomacy, as revealed in these documents, was directed against a rapprochement with England.

Hitler’s letter to Mussolini now reveals that the decision to attack Russia was born of a distrust of the Kremlin, especially of a fear that Stalin would attack the Germans’ rear if they launched an invasion of England. Yet the party press often dealt with the war during its first year as if it were a “phony war” or a mock war between Franco-British imperialism and German imperialism, the real aim of which was to mobilize their forces for a joint attack upon Russia.

Abstract reasoning from a so-called fundamental analysis and self-imposed blindness to the concrete events never carried a political tendency further afield from the truth than in the case of Trotsky and the majority on this question.

In 1940 one of the minority documents (The Judgment of Events) concluded its attack upon blind adherence to the “fundamental analysis” in the following words:

We have examined herein seven instances of the application of the majority views to the events of the Finnish war. The result in each instance is the same: the theories refuted by the facts. Our selection has not been arbitrary. So far as we can discover, we have included every important case of specific application of the theories to the war – that is, every important case where what was said can be checked by what happened.

We confess that it is hard for us to see how there could be a more conclusive demonstration of the falsity of the theories in question. And this demonstration retains its full force if everything that the majority has written about the social and psychological nature of the opposition, about dialectics and sociology and the auto crisis, is completely true.

At Zion City the followers of Glenn Voliva continue to believe that the earth is flat. They prove their theory, moreover, by ample reference to the Bible, and by the condemnation of all dissenters as heretics; nor has any assemblage of facts ever been able to shake them in their belief.

Are Voliva’s methods to serve as model for the science of Marxism?

This flashback into the disputes of 1939–40 has importance for the discussion of the Russian question now being carried on in the ranks of the Fourth International not merely to vindicate our point of view but also to vindicate the Marxist method of dealing with the concreteness of events as a test of political theory.


1. The October 8, 1938, issue of the Socialist Appeal headlined: Trotsky Predicts Stalin Will Seek an Understanding With Hitler. Trotsky’s article said: “The collapse of Czechoslovakia is the collapse of Stalin’s international policy of the last five years. Moscow’s idea of ‘an alliance of democracies’ for a struggle against fascism is a lifeless fiction ... We may now expect with certainty Soviet diplomacy to attempt rapprochement with Hitler at the cost of new retreats and capitulations which In their turn can only bring nearer the collapse of the Stalinist oligarchy.”

2. A special meeting of the Political Committee, called to work out a line on the Polish events, was presented with the following motion by James P. Cannon, the national secretary, which was adopted by the majority: “The party press in its handling of Russia’s participation in the war in Poland shall do so from the point of view of the party’s fundamental analysis of the character of the Soviet state and the role of Stalinism as laid down in the fundamental resolutions of the party’s foundation convention and the foundation congress of the Fourth International. The slogan of an Independent Soviet Ukraine shall be defended as a policy wholly consistent with the fundamental line of defending the Soviet Union.” That was all.

3. “Such an adventuristic jump would be doubly criminal now in view of the world war when the perspective of the socialist revolution becomes an imminent reality and when the case of the USSR will appear to everybody as a transitorial episode in the process of world socialist revolution.” (In Defense of Marxism, by Leon Trotsky, p. 2.)

4. The only leader of the SWP who showed any concern for publicly defending the majority line in terms of the actual events was Albert Goldman, who tried to apply the “fundamental position” In his articles on the later invasion of Finland. For example, in the Socialist Appeal of March 23, 1940, Comrade Goldman wrote down what all the majority leaders had been saying: “... anyone who is not blinded by hatred of Stalin can easily see that what he is after primarily is to obtain defensive footholds. It is well-nigh impossible to explain what he has done thus far on the basis of the theory that he has entered into a partnership with Hitler to divide the British Empire or even (some have said it!) the whole world. Of course people do not have to consider facts; they can let their desires and imaginations run away with them. But then these people are not Marxists.” We quote Goldman because his remarks have the merit of being a forthright presentation of the SWP line, as well as because be was the only one who sought to defend it regularly and consistently. In this connection, it is significant to us that with the progress of later events it was Comrade Goldman who broke with Cannon and the Cannon line and is now a prominent member of the Workers Party. In a recent article setting forth his present views on Russia and defensism he has written that the position of the minority in 1940 “in the light of events, has proven to be the correct approach.” (NI, September 1947, p. 213)

5. The Socialist Appeal of December 9, 1939, carried a Statement of Policy by the Cannonite Political Committee which proclaimed their line to be “Soviet patriotism ... Unceasing criticism and exposure of the Stalinist methods of starting and conducting the war, but not the slightest relaxation of material and military support. The Fourth Internationalists in the Soviet Union will be the best soldiers in the Red Army and inspire it to victory over the imperialist bandits and the Stalinist betrayers.” This frank statement of their position was pried out of them by our insistence on an end to pussyfooting: on their part; but actual propaganda for the “defense of the Soviet Union” in the Socialist Appeal continued to play an insignificant role in its pages – after all, it was so unpopular! Even their May Day manifesto in 1941 had barely a scant word on the task of defending Stalinist Russia. In contrast, when Hitler invaded Russia and Stalin switched over to the Allied side, the very next issue of their paper bore the screaming headline “Defend the Soviet Union!” and an appeal to CP members told them: “You set the defense of the Soviet Union as your first task. We do likewise.” Cannon himself sent a telegram to Joseph Stalin calling for the release of Trotskyists from the GPU jails so that they might “take their proper place In the front ranks of the defenders of the Soviet Union.” He never explained why this telegram was not sent at the outbreak of the Russian-Finnish war, but only after American capitalism and bourgeois public opinion also became “defenders of the Soviet Union.”

Ernest Erber Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23 December 2014