Pan-Americanism and Socialist Internationalism: A Critical Reading of “If America Should Go Communist”

by Rick Gunderman

In 1934, disgraced Russian revolutionary Lev (Leon) Trotsky published If America Should Go Communist.

Trotsky’s role and status in the international communist movement is controversial, and his farcical view of Soviet history and the obvious detachment from dialectical materialism comes out swinging in most of his works. This one is no exception.

Ideological Flaws and Contraditions in If America Should Go Communist

Trotsky strongly opposed Mao’s theory of the “bloc of four classes” as a means to achieve success in China (which it did), but in If America Should Go Communist he gleefully suggests that the American capitalists could be brought into the socialist revolution “by showing that support of the soviets alone offers them the prospect of salvation” (which never happened).

Trotsky suggests that American farmers can be brought into the revolution “providing, of course, that the revolutionary leaders adopt a farsightcd and moderate policy toward them” – or, in other words, to form an alliance with them. He rabidly opposed the same type of alliance between the workers and peasants of Russia, which proved very successful in collectivization.

Trotsky tells Americans that everything that the American upper class has told them about socialism is true, but that their socialism will be totally different. Not that this is entirely untrue – socialism will take different forms in different countries depending on particular conditions. But he bases this claim not on historical materialism, but on the backs of every mendacious claim against the Soviet Union.

“They shudder lest Americans be regimented in their habits of dress and diet, be compelled to subsist on famine rations, be forced to read stereotyped official propaganda in the newspapers, be coerced to serve as rubber stamps for decisions arrived at without their active participation or be required to keep their thoughts to themselves and loudly praise their soviet leaders in public, through fear of imprisonment and exile.

They fear monetary inflation, bureaucratic tyranny and intolerable red tape in obtaining the necessities of life. They fear soulless standardization in the arts and sciences, as well as in the daily necessities of life. They fear that all political spontaneity and the presumed freedom of the press will be destroyed by the dictatorship of a monstrous bureaucracy. And they shudder at the thought of being forced into an uncomprehended glibness in Marxist dialectic and disciplined social philosophies.

They fear, in a word, that Soviet America will become the counterpart of what they have been told Soviet Russia looks like.”

But not to worry, Americans – YOUR communism will be totally different!

Why? An assortment of mundane reasons, from the fact that “Americans are enthusiasts and sportsmen before they are specialists and statesmen” to “Everybody below this group (big capitalists) is already economically prepared for communism.” But the real kicker:

“Who…will fight against communism? Your corporal’s guard of billionaires and multimillionaires? Your Mellons, Morgans, Fords and Rockefellers? They will cease struggling as soon as they fail to find other people to fight for them.”

Nothing but a totally metaphysical and idealistic approach to political struggle could produce such a phony claim. Trotsky seems to think that once socialism has established even a shred of power in the United States, everyone will simply fall in love with it. But politics is not a romance novel, nor is it some kind of infectious disease that once “caught” will render the victim a life-long and dedicated socialist.

When has a revolution ever gone about unopposed? The American Revolution was supported by approximately 1/3 of the population, according to Howard Zinn. The French Revolution was not only fought against, but ultimately defeated (although this would not spell the end of republicanism in France). There is scarcely an example in history of a revolution that did not meet stiff opposition, and fewer examples of resistance dying immediately after revolutionary victory.

Trotsky’s suggestion that the American enemy will collapse quickly is patently ludicrous. History has proven that the American capitalists are among history’s most merciless and vicious, not to mention powerful.

Trotsky continues throughout to make major predictions for successful socialism in America, some legitimate, some less so. In the end, he seems to believe that a socialist system can be set up in the United States that will be so plainly successful and beneficial to those involved that American farmers and workers will simply see that socialism is better.

Trotsky believed that the American capitalists held such a weak grip on the country’s culture and political discourse that the process of socialist transformation will go about as if it were a dinner party. Foreseeing “few opponents of the soviet revolution,” he suggests that, “one can trust to American inventive genius. It may well be that you will take your unconvinced millionaires and send them to some picturesque island, rent-free for life, where they can do as they please.”

Flattering for the Americans, to be sure, but little more than American exceptionalism rehashed in socialist terms. Hardly a trace of class struggle analysis.

Phony Internationalism

Trotsky’s lack of political genius, however, shines with full dimness when he suggests that:

“Within a few weeks or months of the establishment of the American soviets, Pan-Americanism would be a political reality.

The governments of Central and South America would be pulled into your federation like iron filings to a magnet. So would Canada. The popular movements in these countries would be so strong that they would force this great unifying process within a short period and at insignificant costs. I am ready to bet that the first anniversary of the American soviets would find the Western Hemisphere transformed into the Soviet United States of North, Central and South America, with its capital at Panama. Thus for the first time the Monroe Doctrine would have a complete and positive meaning in world affairs, although not the one foreseen by its author.”

This is all Trotsky has to say about the consequences of socialism in the United States for the other nations of the Americas. That once established, it will swallow up all other nations almost immediately and will forge a grand union of the entire Hemisphere.

A wonderful idea, but inapplicable under the terms Trotsky outlines.

Can this happen immediately after a socialist revolution in the United States? Should it happen immediately?

The chief problem with Trotsky’s analysis is the sheer lack of consideration for national self-determination, a noticeable departure from Leninism. Leninist theory holds that a nation’s right to determine its own destiny must always be paramount – a direct reaction to the workings of imperialism. The inability to exploit the wealth of other nations weakens capitalism.

But how does national self-determination fit into a socialist world?

Simply, nations cannot be coerced into union with other nations. It must be a voluntary process determined by exact historical and material conditions. In Marxism and the National Question, Stalin asks, “What solution would be most compatible with the interests of the toiling masses? Autonomy, federation or separation?” He answers himself thusly:

“In the middle of the nineteenth century Marx was in favour of the secession of Russian Poland; and he was right, for it was then a question of emancipating a higher culture from a lower culture that was destroying it. And the question at that time was not only a theoretical one, an academic question, but a practical one, a question of actual reality….

At the end of the nineteenth century the Polish Marxists were already declaring against the secession of Poland; and they too were right, for during the fifty years that had elapsed profound changes had taken place, bringing Russia and Poland closer economically and culturally. Moreover, during that period the question of secession had been converted from a practical matter into a matter of academic dispute, which excited nobody except perhaps intellectuals abroad.

This, of course, by no means precludes the possibility that certain internal and external conditions may arise in which the question of the secession of Poland may again come on the order of the day.

The solution of the national question is possible only in connection with the historical conditions taken in their development.”

Does Trotsky present anything close to this concrete analysis of national self-determination? Does he suggest a union of nations with some similarities (perhaps a reunion of Panama and Colombia, or another shot at the Federal Republic of Central America) before they consider federation with more dissimilar nations? Considering his belief that Soviet Russia eradicated the culture of lower nations in the USSR, does he believe that American cultural imperialism will be impossible in the Union of American Socialist Republics? Has he put forth a single idea on how to safeguard against such a possibility?

How can someone who calls themselves internationalist or socialist possibly conceive of a union of equal nations without asking these questions?

All in all, Trotsky’s theorizing about how socialism will proceed in America is flawed in its approach, but also useless in its conception. Nothing will dictate the path to socialism, and ultimately communism, in the United States other than the course of the actual struggle. Trotsky cannot make predictions based on flawed preconceptions and wish them into reality, although that was indeed his characteristic approach to revolutionary theory.

It is useless to imagine how or when America will go communist, much less what the immediate results will be. For this to be a possibility, a whole host of events need to transpire, and the size and influence of the revolutionary movement at the key moment will dictate success or failure, and will subsequently dictate the course of the revolutionary transformative process. It is unpredictable – the most we can do now is build the revolutionary forces, not talk in circles about the details of a future event.

What is instead important is the position that revolutionaries in the United States, and in Canada as well, take account of what our status as citizens of imperialist countries means to the revolutionary movement.

The Tasks of American and Canadian Revolutionaries

We must render them every form of assistance (ideological, material or otherwise) in achieving their national independence from imperialism. Whether they are ideologically identical to us, as in Cuba, or not so much, as in Aristide in Haiti or Zelaya in Honduras, is irrelevant. Honest communists could support even a more conservative government, insofar as they resist imperialism and work for their own self-determination. This is the currently most popular line in the communist movement vis-à-vis Iran.

We must celebrate all attempts by the non-Anglo peoples of North America to assert their culture and to keep it healthy. We must salute all of their efforts to resist American/Canadian cultural encroachment.

We must demand an end to the indebtedness of most of the Americas to creditors in Canada, the United States, Europe, Japan, and other capitalist-imperialist countries. We must call, in our own countries, for the cancellation of all debts, and for reparations for generations of stolen labour and natural resources. We must demand that our governments render the governments of independent developing countries whatever assistance they request in achieving their developmental goals.

We must call for an end to the presence of all imperialist militaries in developing countries. We must call for the elimination of all unequal capital ownership and trade relationships between nations. All economic relations between countries must be negotiated on equal terms for mutual benefit.

The real test of genuine internationalism, however, is the extent to which a communist living in an imperialist country supports the right of self-determination for nations within their countries.

Canadian communists, to uphold the true spirit of internationalism, must support the right of the people of Quebec and the First Nations people to decide their relationship with the Canadian state. Should that include the desire for secession, this must be respected. They must also support the rights of national minorities to safeguard their culture and traditions, while at the same time agitating against reactionary traditions, such as those that oppress women.

American communists must unequivocally support the rights of the African American, Chicano and Native American nations to self-determination. Even if it is not currently on the order of the day, the possibility of the African American nation in the southeast and the Chicano nation in the southwest demanding political independence must be supported if it is made.

Does this mean that Canadian communists must necessarily demand an independent Quebec, or that American communists must necessarily demand the secession of Aztlan or New Afrika? Surely not. But if those demands are made, and it is the clear will of the people, then under those circumstances they must be supported.

At the same time, we must agitate and strive constantly for the termination of all unequal relationships between these nations and the Anglo-European nations of Canada and the United States. Not simply so that these new nations may be free – although this is obviously the case – but also so that the foundations can be laid for an eventual reunion on an equal basis.

If First Nations representatives to the Canadian parliament demand the right to use their native languages, then they must be guaranteed access to an interpreter so that the entire parliament may understand them. A future socialist Canada would consider this a given, but we must strive for it now, immediately, in the name of the sovereignty of the many indigenous nations of Canada.

If African-Americans demand the right to have African American Vernacular English an official language in schools where they are the majority, then communists must support this demand. We must support calls for reparations, land reform and other such things to benefit African American communities.

On what basis can a nation’s sovereignty be established?

Physically, it can be established where the nation exists. For a nation to be considered a nation at all, as distinct from a national minority, it needs a defined territory where its members form the majority or a significant plurality of the population. For example, the map below shows regions of the US southeast where African Americans form a historic majority:

And the map below where Hispanics, a community in which Chicanos are a constituent member, are the dominant nationality:

There have been historical calls for the creation of independent countries in these regions. The possibility that this could solve many of the historic racial problems in the United States must not be written off.

As distinct from a nation, a national minority does not form a majority or a plurality in a wide expanse of definable territory, but generally lives among a larger, “dominant” nation, even in particular districts where they are the majority. As such, African Americans are a national minority in Detroit or Chicago, where they are surrounded by the Anglo-European nation of the United States, but would be the dominant nation in Atlanta, New Orleans or Birmingham, where the surrounding land is majority African American.

Conclusion

It is important that communists, and all those supporting national self-determination, familiarize themselves with the complexities of the national question. The Marxist-Leninist Study Guide offers a valuable collection of works on the subject.

These are radical positions to be sure, but only so in the face of imperialist ideology. But they reflect nothing less than real adherence to real internationalism, a genuine dedication to the elimination of all unequal relationships between nations. Only by this way can the ultimate disappearance of distinct nations, through voluntary union of socialist and peace-loving nations, be achieved.

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