Conversations with Trotsky
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This collection presents all of Earle Birney’s known published and unpublished writings on Trotsky and Trotskyism for the very first time. It includes their correspondence as well as a selection of Birney’s letters and literary writings. 

Before he became one of Canada’s most influential and popular twentieth century poets, Earle Birney lived a double life. To his students and colleagues, he was an engaging university lecturer and scholar. But for seven years—from 1933 to 1940—the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was the focus of his writing and much of his life. 

During his years as a Trotskyist in Canada, the United States and England, Birney wrote extensively about Trotsky, corresponded with him, organized Trotskyist cells in two countries, and recruited on behalf of Trotskyism; he also lectured on Trotsky and interviewed him over the course of several days. One of his two novels is based on some of these activities. 

The collection traces the origins of Trotsky’s mistrust of “the British” to his experiences in Canada; shows Birney’s influence on a major shift in Trotsky’s policy of “entrism” in British politics; includes the largest body of Trotskyist criticism in Canadian literary history; and demonstrates the need for a radical re-reading of Birney’s poetry in light of his Trotskyism.



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The University of Ottawa Press gratefully acknowledges the support extended to its publishing list by the Government of Canada,
the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council. This book has been published with the help of a grant from the
Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, through the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program, using funds provided by
the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Copy editing: Robbie McCaw
Proofreading: Michael Waldin
Layout: CS
Cover design: Édiscript enr.
Cover image: Cubo-futurist rendering of Trotsky, uncredited (attributed to Yuri Annenkov,
Earle Birney’s published and unpublished works contained in this volume are reprinted with permission from the Estate of Earle
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Birney, Earle, 1904-1995
[Works. Selections]
Conversations with Trotsky : Earle Birney and the radical 1930s / edited and with an introduction by Bruce Nesbitt.
(Canadian literature collection)
Includes bibliographical references.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-0-7766-2463-1 (softcover).--ISBN 978-0-7766-2464-8
(PDF).-ISBN 978-0-7766-2465-5 (EPUB).--ISBN 978-0-7766-2466-2 (MOBI)
1. Birney, Earle, 1904-1995. 2. Trotsky, Leon, 1879-1940. 3. Birney, Earle, 1904-1995--Correspondence. 4. Trotsky, Leon,
1879-1940-- Correspondence. 5. Authors, Canadian (English)--20th century-- Correspondence. 6.
7. Communism. I. Nesbitt, Bruce, 1941-, editor II. Title. III. Series: Canadian literature collection
PS8503.I72A6 2017 C811’.54 C2017-902263-6
Printed in Canada by Gauvin Press
© University of Ottawa Press, 2017For Carolyn and WailanArt, culture, politics need a new perspective.
—Leon Trotsky, 18 June 1938Contents
1: Report to the Toronto Branch of the International Left Opposition
2: Letter to an American Medical Student
3: Mine Strike, Martial Law and a Student Delegation
4: To the Section Bureau, CPUSA, Salt Lake City, Utah
5: To the Salt Lake Section Committee, CPUSA
6: A Letter Refused by the Salt Lake City Press
7: In Defence of Party Democracy
8: The Struggle Against British Imperialism
9: Birney to Trotsky, 5 November 1935
10: Interviewing Leon Trotsky, 19–23 November 1935
11: Conversations with Trotsky
12: Further Conversations with Trotsky
13: Trotsky on the Canadian Farmer
14: Birney to Trotsky, 8 December 1935
15: Birney to Trotsky, 16 December 1935
16: Incident in Berlin
17: Trotsky to Birney, 19 January 1936
18: Birney to Trotsky, 14 February 1936
19: Birney to Trotsky, 27 February 193620: Birney to Trotsky, 29 January 1937
21: Another Month—January
22: Another Month—February
23: Another Month—March
24: Birney to Joe Hansen, 15 November 1937
25: Trotsky to Birney, 27 November 1937
26: Birney to Trotsky, 2 January 1938
27: Canadian Capitalism and the Strategy of the Revolutionary Movement
28: The Land of the Maple Leaf Is the Land of Monopoly
29: Is French Canada Going Fascist?
30: Trotsky to Birney, 5 June 1939
31: Birney to Trotsky, 6 June 1939
32: War Is Here—What Now?
33: Escape by Emetic
34: On “Proletarian Literature”
35: The Brave New Words of Aldous Huxley
36: Cecil Day Lewis, The Loving Communist
37: Proletarian Literature: Theory and Practice
38: What Do Canadians Tell Stories About?
39: R.M. Fox: Worker–Fighter
40: Soviet Fiction and American Fustian
41: The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway
42: Polygamous Communists from Toronto to Salt Lake
43: Yorkshire Proletarians
44: The Rhymes of the Irish Revolution
45: The Lost Irish Lenin?
46: Onward with Edward Upward
47: The Two William Faulkners
48: John Bull’s Other Hell
49: The English Worker50: New Writing in Britain and Elsewhere
51: The Fiction of James T. Farrell
52: The New Byronism: Poets and the Spanish Civil War
53: Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
54: The Left Theatre in English
55: Whitewashing the Stalinist Persecutors of Artists
56: The Mad Sanity of Henry Miller
57: To Arms with Canadian Poetry
58: Fashion and Change on Broadway, or Propaganda Is What You Disagree With
59: New Writing and Literary Stalinism
60: Erika Mann and the Middle-Class Martyrs of Fascism
61: Literary Stalinism: Lehmann vs. Birney
62: Changing Minds in Wartime
ENVOI, 1940
63: In Memory: Lev Davidovich Bronstein
Nearly 35 years ago I appealed for a substantial re-reading of much of Earle Birney’s
prose and poetry of the 1940s and 1950s, in light of his lengthy association with the
1great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Birney, after all, was perhaps Canada’s
best twentieth-century poet writing in English, and for seven years Trotsky was the
focus of Birney’s own writing and much of his life. For the most part my appeal has
gone unanswered.
An obvious question arises. Why, given Birney’s comments over the years about his
21930s activities, have most critics of Birney chosen to ignore his Trotskyist sensibility?
The reasons for this wrong-headed near-unanimity are not complex. As Alan Wald has
observed about the United States and Western Europe, “whatever the personal political
views of the majority of the university- and business-employed cultural critics, and
whatever their social and political commitments might be, the bulk of the literary
3criticism they produce is filtered through a system of powerful institutional constraints.”
Other reasons include fear and ignorance.
Nearly all literary critics publishing in English Canada are employees of public and
private institutions, largely educational, such as universities, colleges, collegiate
institutes and high schools; a few others are journalists writing for newspapers and
general magazines. More likely than not the critics’ reputations and incomes depend on
what their colleagues and employers judge to be acceptable, however much their
4institutions may claim to adhere to standards of academic freedom. Within most
departments of literature, the notion that politics could influence creative writing is
almost an anathema.
The relatively small number of English-Canadian critics and historians who have
identified themselves as Marxists, and the minuscule number of books and articles that
include Marxist analyses of Canadian literature, suggest a strong anti-Marxist bias
among the overwhelming majority. Canada’s prevailing political environment has not
been hospitable to Marxism; only two Communist politicians have ever served as
federal members of Parliament (Fred Rose, from 1943 until he was expelled in 1947,
and Dorise Nielsen, from 1940 to 1945), two each in the legislative assemblies of
Manitoba and Ontario, and a handful of municipal representatives in Winnipeg and
Toronto. In the 2011 federal general election, the Communist Party of Canada and the
Marxist–Leninist Party of Canada received a total of 12,819 votes out of 14,823,408
5votes cast.
The innate conservatism of Canadian universities in training new blood for the
professoriate is a further factor. A young Marxist literary scholar in English Canada
would have great difficulty in finding a knowledgeable and sympathetic guide or
supervisor among senior academic staff for the simple reason that almost no such
sympathetic mentors exist. The professoriate is generally bourgeois and
To these may be added fear—a well-founded concern among academics that an
open espousal of Marxism could lead to unwelcome scrutiny not only by departmental
chairs, deans and other senior administrators, but also by federal intelligence officers.
Canada’s security service—since 1984 the Canadian Security Intelligence Service—
had its origins in the 1920 merger of the federal Dominion Police and the Royal
Northwest Mounted Police, to form the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Whilethe RCMP’s counter-subversion branch had long had its eye on apparent subversives
affiliated with universities, branch officers stepped up their activities on campuses
during the Cold War, especially in the 1960s. Recruitment of informers on campuses
was well under way in the late 1960s, and telephone taps on university telephones
6were allowed in 1971 with the authorization of the federal Solicitor General. As early
as 1941 Stuart Wood, the Commissioner of the RCMP, identified young radicals—he
meant communists––as the Force’s “most troublesome problem”; since then,
“members of the world’s most famous police force ventured onto campuses to collect
information, to spy, to observe, to investigate, to interview, to counter subversion, to
7search for evidence of espionage, to take classes, and to warn.” Few Canadian
academics would feel comfortable attracting this sort of attention from CSIS, however
A final factor inhibiting any wide-spread recognition of Birney’s Trotskyist sensibility
is awkward to state baldly, but it must be said. Most English-language literary critics in
Canada are quite ignorant about the various strains of the country’s far-left literary
history, most notably the stark differences between Stalinism and Trotskyism. Many
Canadian scholars are well-versed in the intricacies of what passes for contemporary
Marxism, often derived from post-war French philosophers and European cultural
observers. But of Trotskyism in their own back yard––silence.
Part of the problem is the dearth of research on Trotskyism among Canadian
political historians, and the lack of memoirs by participants in the Trotskyist movement.
The handful of senior Canadian scholars who have written about the revolutionary left
have tended to focus on the Communist Party of Canada, with incidental references to
Trotsky; others have simply bypassed Trotskyism. As late as 2005 Bryan Palmer could
observe that older “scholarship on Canadian communism in the 1920s, such as William
Rodney’s 1968 Soldiers of the International, has not really been revisited since Ian
Angus offered a stimulating Left Opposition [that is, Trotskyist] reading of Tim Buck and
8Canada’s Party of socialism, in 1981.” It is noteworthy that Palmer considers himself
“a bit on the margins” because of his interest in labour history: “What really puts me
outside of most academic convention…is that my own background has been one of,
n o t just sympathy with, but commitment to, the Trotskyist movement and its
interpretation of history in terms of the revolutionary movement since 1917 and the
9Russian Revolution.”
Scarce as Trotskyist political history may be in Canada, English-Canadian literary
criticism grappling with political influences is exceptionally rare. Scholars such as
Candida Rifkind, James Doyle and Elspeth Cameron have offered some useful
analyses and information about social struggle and Canadian literature, but nearly
10nothing about Canadian Trotskyism. Little has changed in the 20 years since Larry
McDonald’s acerbic (and accurate) observation that “Canadian literary studies have
thus far confined themselves largely to thematic, mythological, psychological or
rhetorical analyses of our literary history. The theoretical (and ideological?)
predispositions of my discipline have worked to suppress and devalue the ‘influence’ of
political convictions and activity on the ‘creative process’”:
Writers’ relationships to mothers, to the landscape, or to literary forebearers are
treated as influential internal experiences that shape their artistic sensibilities,
techniques, and (de-politicized) moral visions. On the other hand, writers’
involvements with political organizations, ideological theories, or politicized
cultural praxis are treated as irrelevant external experiences that leave
essentially untouched their ethical convictions and artistic consciousness. Ourliterary criticism has dealt with political affiliations, and even immersion in radical
11socialist activities (when it has dealt with them at all) as jarring background.
This collection gathers together nearly all of Birney’s known published and unpublished
writing on Trotsky and Trotskyism, including their personal correspondence, a selection
of other letters on Birney’s political work, and his literary writing from a demonstrably
12Trotskyist perspective. As well as providing original source material for helping to
understand Canadian Trotskyism, the volume traces the origins of Trotsky’s mistrust of
“the British” to his experiences in Canada; shows Birney’s influence on a major change
in Trotsky’s policy of “entrism” in British politics; clears up the authenticity of an
important interview with Trotsky, using the Trotsky–Birney correspondence; includes
the largest body of Trotskyist criticism in Canadian literary history; and demonstrates
the need for a radical re-reading of Birney’s poetry in light of his Trotskyist sensibility. I
have undertaken to present Birney’s little-known writing from 1933 to 1940 for two
reasons: to throw some light on a nearly ignored area of Canada’s political and literary
history, and belatedly to honour a promise I made to Earle some 30 years ago.
Perspectives on Earle Birney (Downsview, Ontario: ECW, 1981), p. 181. Trotsky was born
as Lev Davidovich Bronshtein on 7 November 1879 (26 October in the Julian calendar) in
Yanovka, now Bereslavka, Ukraine. He first used the nom de guerre “Trotsky” in 1902 on
a forged passport prepared for his escape from Siberian exile.
For a representative sample of opinions, see Bruce Nesbitt, ed., Earle Birney (Toronto:
McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974). One critic has undertaken a survey of criticism and a useful
Marxist reading of Birney’s poetry: Harvey E. MacLean, Radical Perceptions: The
Influence of Politics on Earle Birney’s Early Poetry (Carleton University, unpublished MA
thesis, 1990). John Z. Ming Chen and Yuhua Ji present a neo-Marxist interpretation of
Birney’s Down the Long Table in ch. 6 of their Marxism and 20th-Century
EnglishCanadian Novels: A New Approach to Social Realism (Heidelberg: Springer, 2015), pp.
Alan Wald, Writing From the Left: New Essays on Radical Culture and Politics (London:
Verso, 1994), p. 125.
See, for example, Barry E. Hogan and Lane D. Trotter, “Academic Freedom in Canadian
Higher Education: Universities, Colleges, and Institutes Were Not Created Equal,”
Canadian Journal of Higher Education, XLIII.2 (2013): “If the universities are unable to
maintain their unique identity, then they are in danger of losing their historic rights and
privileges that formed the basis for academic freedom—rights that could easily be
substituted with lesser ones such as bargained rights….[T]he concept of academic
freedom will continue to be re-evaluated, reinvented, and possibly even replaced in the
coming years” (79–80).
Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Official Voting Results: Forty-First General Election,
2011, table 8: Number of Valid Votes by Political Affiliation, Web.
Steve Hewitt, Spying 101: the RCMP’s Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917–
1997 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), p. 31. One recruitment attempt is
known to the editor personally.
Ibid., p. 3.
“Maurice Spector, James P. Cannon, and the Origins of Canadian Trotskyism”, Labour/Le
Travail, LVI (2005), 96, citing William Rodney, Soldiers of the International: A History ofthe Communist Party of Canada, 1919–1929 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1968); Ian Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist Party of
Canada (2nd ed.; Montreal: Trafford, 2004 [1981]).
Quoted in Fred Mazelis, “Interview with Bryan Palmer, Biographer of James P. Cannon,
Founder of American Trotskyism—Part 1,” World Socialist Web Site, 28 September 2007,
Rifkind, Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature, and the Left in 1930s Canada (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 2009); Doyle, Progressive Heritage: The Evolution of a
Politically Radical Literary Tradition in Canada (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University
Press, 2002); and Cameron, Earle Birney: A Life (Toronto: Viking, 1994). Rifkind
demonstrates the influence of Ian McKay’s theories of the left and left history: see McKay,
“The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,”
Canadian Historical Review, LXXXI.1 (2000); “For a New Kind of History: A
Reconnaissance of 100 Years of Canadian Socialism,” Labour/Le Travail, XLVI (2000);
and Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (Toronto: Between the
Lines, 2005).
“Sex and (Left-Wing) Politics,” Socialist Studies Bulletin, no. 44 (1996), pp. 79, 72.
Other Trotskyist articles by Birney (hereafter EB) may well exist, perhaps unattributed
because he often concealed his identity with pseudonyms, or because of the obscurity of
the sources. For example, “Robertson” is listed as the author of five articles in the
underground edition of Socialist Action for 1939, but I was able to find only one of these
and possibly a fragment of another: see Textual Sources for item 32. Similarly not all of
EB’s extensive correspondence has been located, potentially including letters that would
be important for understanding his political activities.A c k n o w l e d g e m e n t s
I am grateful to the staff of many libraries and archives in Canada, the United States
and England, notably those of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of
Toronto; the Houghton Library, Harvard University; the Tamiment Library and Robert F.
Wagner Labor Archives, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University; the Rose
Main Reading Room, the New York Public Library; the British Library, London; Archives
and Special Collections, the Elizabeth Dafoe Library, University of Manitoba; Library
and Archives Canada; and the Morisset Library, University of Ottawa. I am especially
indebted to the Honourable Madam Justice Wailan Low of the Ontario Superior Court of
Justice, the love of Earle’s life for more than 20 years before his death in 1995, for her
friendship and patience, and to my wife Carolyn Strauss, whose unwavering
encouragement and support have been essential to my finishing this volume.Introduction
Dr. Alfred Earle Birney would become one of Canada’s most distinguished men of
letters, full of honours when he died at the age of 91 in 1995: an Officer of the Order of
Canada, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, awarded the Royal Society’s Lorne
Pierce Medal for literary accomplishment of “special significance and conspicuous
merit”, and twice a recipient of Canada’s major literary honour, the Governor General’s
Literary Award, for his poetry. An unlikely communist revolutionary, he became an
officer in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, a well-published academic
(he was an expert on Chaucer), a respected teacher of creative writing, and an
influential mentor to a generation of Canadian poets. He was also a literary polymath:
poet, novelist, dramatist, autobiographer, short-story writer, editor, critic and radio
scriptwriter, among others.
Despite his regal and vice-regal honours, Birney deeply resented being
characterized as a member of Canada’s self-appointed establishment. When a senior
Canadian critic implied that his “socially directed poetry” lacked “a genuine feeling for
class,” and that “our [Canadian] poetry of the thirties gives one the feeling of having
been written neither by Brahmins nor by prols,” Birney responded briskly. “My parents
were largely self-educated; my mother came from generations of Shetland fisherfolk
and crofters; an immigrant girl, she was working as a waitress in a miner’s hotel in the
Kootenays when she married my father, who was the son of a small-town butcher. My
father was by turns a cowpuncher, brakeman, prospector, paperhanger, soldier, and
unsuccessful bush-farmer. There was never a time when we weren’t
poor-but-all-toohonest ‘prols’”:
I was doing heavy farm work with horses before I was twelve; at sixteen, axeman;
seventeen, swinging picks and sledgehammers on winter relief; eighteen, oiling
swamps with a forty-pound barrel-pump on my back. Eventually I paid my college
fees from such work and from earned scholarships. Even after I joined the
genteel ranks of the B.A’s I still had to spend a summer housepainting with my
father, to get the fare to Toronto to start the M.A. From then on until World War II I
confess I earned a lousy living as an academic, in between depression layoffs.
Then I spent four years in ranks which were neither closed nor circumspect and
1only rarely intellectually sophisticated––the Canadian Army’s.
Yet there is a significant gap in this story, verging on the disingenuous. Quick to
establish his membership of the proletariat, he omits any mention of the long period in
which he actively worked for the revolution of the proletariat. Birney started his MA at
the University of Toronto in late 1926, and Canada declared war on Germany on 10
September 1939. During those thirteen years Birney spent seven as a Trotskyist in
Canada, the United States and England. He recruited in behalf of Trotskyism, lectured
about Trotsky, organized Trotskyist cells in two countries, wrote extensively about
Trotsky, corresponded with Trotsky, and interviewed Trotsky in person over several
days. What was it about this bugbear of capitalism—alternatively the “bright comet
2across the political sky” for so many —that attracted Earle Birney, a 28-year-old
Canadian graduate student, in early 1933?
Leon Trotsky was a giant in an era of prodigious revolutionaries. “If Lenin, hard and
unbreakable, was the axle of the [Russian] Revolution, Trotsky was the roaring wheel,”3one historian has said. Five years after Vladimir Lenin successfully launched the
October Revolution of 7 November 1917 (25 October on the Julian calendar, then used
in Russia), and a year before his death on 21 January 1924, the Russian leader clearly
favoured Trotsky to be his successor, rather than Joseph Stalin. Bed-ridden in a
sanatorium and suffering from the effects of his second stroke, Lenin dictated letters to
his secretaries Maria Volodicheva and Lydia Fotieva, intended for members of the
forthcoming 12th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). In them he
described Stalin as a man with “unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am
not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient
caution.” He urged the delegates to “think about a way of removing Stalin” from the post
of general secretary of the party. “Comrade Trotsky, on the other hand … is
distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most
4capable man in the present C[entral] C[ommittee].”
Lenin had asked Trotsky to head the new Bolshevik government created after the
October Revolution, but inexplicably Trotsky had declined. Since then Trotsky and
Stalin had become grim adversaries in the Communist Party’s five-man Politburo. By
the end of 1925 Stalin outmanoeuvred Trotsky in both the Politburo and the much
larger Central Committee; within two years Stalin’s grip on power was strong enough to
force Trotsky out of the party. He then exiled Trotsky to Alma-Ata (now Almaty in
Kazakhstan), and expelled him from the USSR in 1929. Trotsky’s subsequent exile in
Turkey, France, Norway and Mexico lasted until 1940, when he was assassinated by
one of Stalin’s agents.
Yet outside the USSR, Trotsky’s myriad followers would continue to be inspired by
his writing and extraordinary accomplishments: “He was a whirlwind organiser who
could bring any chaos to order, a terrific orator who could swell the hearts of thousands,
a literary intellectual whose writings on culture, history, political philosophy and military
tactics are still fresh and brilliant, a rare military commander who combined mastery of
5mobile warfare with a charisma which roused exhausted soldiers to die for him.” While
Stalin would use “Trotskyism” as a term of opprobrium in Russia (and eliminated
anyone he deemed a “Trotskyite”), large numbers of revolutionaries internationally
rallied around Trotsky’s theories as a purer and more authentic form of socialism than
One of most succinct descriptions of Trotskyism, curiously, was put forward by the
Right Honourable Herbert Morrison, UK home secretary and minister of public security,
in a secret memorandum to Winston Churchill’s war cabinet during the Second World
Trotsky denounced the supplanting of the “continuing world revolution” by Stalin’s
plan to establish Socialism in the Soviet Union as a prerequisite. He opposed the
replacement of democratic discussion of party policy by the personal dictatorship
of Stalin, the weakening of the influence of the Soviets (Councils) in the face of a
rising bureaucracy, and the revival of economically and socially privileged
classes. The Trotskyists do not regard the form of society which now exists in
Russia as socialism––they believe that true socialism can be achieved only by
more or less simultaneous revolution over the greater part of the globe; and they
are bitterly hostile to the Stalinist regime because it has not only “betrayed the
revolution” in Russia itself, but by using the national Communist parties as the
instruments of its “reactionary” policy abroad has retarded the development of the
working class towards world revolution.The ultimate aim of the Trotskyists is the establishment by means of uprisings
all over the world of Workers’ Governments which will introduce common
7ownership and worker’s control of the means of production.
Despite having failed to spark a world revolution, at his death Trotsky left a legacy of
8anti-Stalinism and political theory that inspired many Marxists for decades.
Trotsky’s only direct experience of Canada was what he called “a gangster-like assault”
in 1917, when he and his family were hauled off their ship Kristianiafjord in Halifax
9Harbour, Nova Scotia, on their way from New York to join the Russian Revolution. On
telegraphed orders from the UK Admiralty in London, British and Canadian naval
authorities removed him on 1 April 1917. A dozen years later he recalled the event, still
irritated at the memory:
We were assured that the whole incident would be cleared up in Halifax. We
declared that the order was illegal and refused to obey, whereupon armed
bluejackets pounced on us, and amid shouts of “shame” from a large part of the
passengers, carried us bodily to a naval cutter, which delivered us in Halifax
under the convoy of a cruiser. While a group of sailors were holding me fast, my
older boy ran to help me and struck an officer with his little fist. “Shall I hit him
again, papa?” he shouted. He was eleven then, and it was his first lesson in
10British democracy.
He was interned as a German, even though he was a Russian travelling on an
11American passport.
Trotsky was no stranger to prison camps: as an 18-year-old he had been jailed by
the Czar’s police and then exiled to Siberia. He married his wife Alexandra just before
12their joint exile, and their daughters Zinaida and Nina were both born in Siberia. He
also spent 15 months in jail for his part in the unsuccessful 1905 Russian Revolution.
Now he was 37, a well-known revolutionary and journalist, and he was outraged at the
treatment he received in Nova Scotia from the “British investigation officers”
whose methods and morality are a perfect match of those of the old Russian
gendarmerie. In fact, we were taken by rail to Amherst, a camp for German
prisoners of war. There in the office we were subjected to a search, similar to
which I had not experienced even during my detention at the Petropavlosk
Fortress, since the undressing and the fumbling about the prisoner’s body by the
gendarmes in the Czar’s fortress took place face to face, whereas here in the
country of our democratic allies we were subjected to that shameless humiliation
in the presence of ten people. Those commanding rogues in charge were
perfectly aware of the fact that they were dealing with Russian socialists returning
13to their liberated revolutionary homeland.
Part I of his intake form recorded that he was 5 feet 8½ inches tall and that he weighed
170 pounds; in Part II Trotsky wrote that he was a Russian citizen, a journalist, and that
14he was a “Political Exile.” Trotsky’s life partner Natalia Sedova and their two sons Lev
(10½) and Sergei (9) were also removed from the ship and initially housed with aRussian-speaking family in Halifax; after 10 days they were allowed to move to the
Prince George Hotel downtown, so long as they reported daily to the police station.
Trotsky’s incarceration prompted furious diplomatic activity in Ottawa, Montreal,
London, Petrograd and Washington, DC. By 10 April news of his arrest appeared in
New York in the radical Russian-language periodical Novy Mir (New World, for which he
had written occasionally), and a demonstration was organized five days later in New
15York to protest his detention. Meanwhile Trotsky occupied his time by proselytizing
revolution among the German prisoners in the camp. The UK Admiralty finally
succumbed to international pressure, and he was released on 29 April. As he left the
camp, Trotsky reported, “the prisoners of war bade us a farewell we shall never forget
…. ‘[O]ur’ internationalists formed two lines along the entire camp, a band playing a
socialist march, arms stretching toward us on all sides. One of the prisoners made a
16speech extolling the Russian revolution.” On 3 May Trotsky and his family sailed
17away from Halifax on the Helig Olav, a neutral Danish ship, bound for the revolution.
He never saw Canada again.
Trotsky felt so strongly about his forced stay that he sent a long account to the
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Provisional Government shortly after he
arrived at the Finland train station in Petrograd on 17 May, and included it in a
18separately published pamphlet on the episode a few months later. He also made it
the subject of an entire chapter of his autobiography in 1929. The most lasting
consequence, however, was somewhat more serious than some adverse publicity for
Canada. For Trotsky considered the Canadians who humiliated him to be British, and
the month he spent in Canada turned him into a zealous enemy of “the British”
throughout his influential political life.
He had no doubt that he had been interned on orders from London, but “even today
19the secret machinery of our arrest and our release is not clear to me.” UK documents
that remained classified until 2001 indicate that it was actually an officer of the
Directorate of Military Intelligence, Section 5 (MI5)—specializing in counter-espionage
20—who ordered Trotsky to be detained in Halifax. An agent had shadowed him from
New York on board the Kristianiafjord and then on the Helig Olav, and he observed in a
report to his controlling intelligence officer that Trotsky “is bitter in his denunciation of
Great Britain and says he is going to revenge himself to the utmost on the
English21speaking peoples.” Another observer—Kurt Reizler, counsellor at the Imperial
German Legation in Stockholm—mentioned that Trotsky “is said to have brought a
22burning hatred of the English back with him from this journey.”
He arrived in Russia as a revolutionary hero, joined the Bolsheviks and united with
Lenin in the October Revolution that overthrew the Provisional Government set up after
Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 15 March 1917. Trotsky became in turn president of the
Petrograd Soviet (1917); people’s commissar of foreign affairs (1917–1918) of the
Soviet Russian Republic, soon renamed the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist
Republic (and renamed again as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics); and founder
and head of the Red Army as people’s commissar of military and naval affairs (1919–
1925), all by the age of 45. Both he and Lenin realized that consolidating the revolution
was much more important than continuing to fight the Germans in the Great War.
Trotsky’s negotiation of a separate peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk on 3
March 1918 (the Great Powers—the UK, the United States, France, Italy and Japan—
refused to participate) unleashed a vicious civil war in Russia that would cost at least
23800,000 military deaths from 1918 to 1922. His Red Army eventually triumphed over
the various counter-revolutionary and anti-Bolshevik forces (generally called the WhiteArmy, after the white uniforms worn by tsarist officers), but not before numerous foreign
countries sent troops into Russia to aid the White Army—125,000 from 10 countries to
24Siberia and Russia’s Far East alone.
The first small foreign incursion occurred in March 1918 by British troops, and other
forces followed rapidly, including 4,210 Canadians in Murmansk, Archangel and
25Baku. Not all Canadian troops were keen to serve in Siberia. A contingent of the
Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force was scheduled to sail from Victoria on 22
December 1918; on the day before sailing, French-Canadian conscripts in the 259th
Battalion (Canadian Rifles) mutinied, and had to be loaded on board the troopship SS
Teesta at bayonet point. The expeditionary force accomplished little by the time it
returned to Canada in June 1919, and suffered only 24 casualties, including 19 who
26died during the expedition. The extent of Trotsky’s unabated rage at the British—
presumably including those Canadians—may be gathered from his order no. 159 to the
Red Army and Red Navy:
Red warriors! On all fronts you are encountering the hostile machinations of
Britain. It is from British guns that the counter-revolutionary troops fire at you. It is
munitions of British make that you have found in the depots of Shenkursk and
Onega and on the Southern and Western fronts. The prisoners you take wear
British clothing and equipment. The women and children of Archangel and
Astrakhan have been murdered and maimed by British airmen and British
explosives. British ships are shelling our shores …. Soldiers! Sailors! Your hearts
are often filled to overflowing with hatred for predatory, lying, hypocritical, bloody
Britain. And your hatred is just and holy. It multiplies tenfold your strength in the
27struggle against the enemy.
Birney’s interest in left-wing politics, Marxism and then Trotsky began during the
resumption of his PhD studies at University College in the University of Toronto (a PhD
teaching fellowship that he held at the University of California in Berkeley ran out with
the onset of the Great Depression). He has left several versions of the exact time his
political interests came to the fore in his reading. In item 63 (1940) in this volume he
tells his comrades, “The first time that Leon Trotsky meant more to me than the name
of a Russian Bolshevik leader, was in 1932. Not until that year did I acquire sufficient
intelligence to begin reading the liter[a]ture of Marxism for myself.” And in an
autobiographical passage in his Spreading Time he notes that “By January [1933] I had
launched a crash program of ‘leftwing’ reading, starting with the Communist Manifesto
and moving further into Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Stalin, with side
28glances into the literature of the new (Canadian) League for Social Reconstruction,”
an account that is chronologically similar to one he gives in a letter to the Canadian
critic Desmond Pacey:
after Xmas that year [1932] I got interested in leftwing politics and travelled
rapidly with several different sets. First, the sort of left CCFers: Cassidy, Lorne
29Morgan, Joe Parkinson. I was in a couple of foundation League for Social
Reconstruction pow-wows at Cassidy’s which was trying to mastermind the
launching of the CCF. But the depression was hitting me harder than it was them—there was no money to renew my fellowship, and I knew I could go back for
only one more year to my U.S. teaching job—after that, the skids—layoffs
everywhere, etc. So I ran around with some of the YCL campus crowd for a week
or two; met them through Daniells—people like Stan Ryerson, now an old
30wheelhorse of the Commies …. But I didnt like the YCLers. The Commies
smelled a mile away. However, I thought at that time that was because they were
31bad Marxists. So I hung around with some dissident Marxists ….
Those dissidents were in fact Kenneth Johnstone—“an active and informed leader of
32the Trotskyist youth of Toronto” —and his sister Sylvia, later Birney’s first wife, who
33introduced Birney to Trotskyism that January in 1933.
At the same time Birney also met Dorothy Livesay, a 23-year-old Canadian who had
already published her first chapbook of poetry, and who had just returned from Paris as
34a convert to Marxism. Dismissing her as “just a Red Barricades bard,” he soon
realized that “she was also a sentimental ‘fellow-traveler’ of the Stalinists”:
Johnstone and I at once locked horns with Livesay over the role of the German
Communist Party in Germany. I had been shocked to learn, from Stanley
Ryerson and other young Communist Leaguers on the campus, that the
Comintern had denounced all German socialists as “social-fascists” and refused
a united front with their leaders against Hitler. I felt this refusal was the chief
reason for Hitler’s success, and was delighted to find at last, in Johnstone and
his beautiful sister, two informed and clear-thinking minds able to expose Stalin’s
policies as not only tactically disastrous, as I thought, but basically unMarxist,
Bonapartist not Leninist. That night began my conscious involvement in “the
class struggle”, and a seven-year loyalty to the cause of reforming the Third
35International or building a new one.
36Later in life Livesay referred to “terrible schisms” between her and Birney , although
the major breach had more to do with her falsely implying that Birney was a murderer
37than to their politics. Writing to Livesay from the Camp Niagara army base in
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, when he was no longer a declared Trotskyist, Birney
explored some of their differences:
man has now reached a stage in his development in which for the first time he
has created the conditions for his own destruction—or at least let us say civilized
man. It seems unlikely that the race will kill itself off but society may easily
reduce itself to the point where the highest level is represented by, say, Franco’s
Spain—to which pe[r]haps the Papuan would be preferable. On the other hand
we may go on to great ant-like achievements such as communism. I agree with
you in some form of it as a necessary expedient, though I suppose you think of it,
as I used to, as more than an expedient—as a summation and final goal, a
predetermined & Platonically ideal state. (I’[m] tryi[n]g to avo[i]d the Marxist terms
which are easier to use but conceal too much). Such a goa[l] will demand, if it is
to be reached, men who will work in common. I don’t see however, that it calls for
men who will work for nature. In fact, most of the Communists seem to envisage
a world in which man, freed from c[la]ss struggle, satisfies the dialectic pattern by
turning his energies, ambitions, emulations, individualisms, against “nature” ….
The point is that socialism, etc., the best political path, may lead faster than ever
38to a mere vulgar triumph of our single limited species in a barren world.Birney’s conversion to Trotskyism coincided with Canada’s Great Depression of 1929–
1939. “People were starving, demoralized,” he said. “[T]here was a general
unhappiness. Repressive acts were common, as the Mounties were used as an arm of
39Government to prevent riots.” 1929 saw the beginning of a decade of drought in
many parts of the Prairies, and within three years the price of wheat that farmers
received fell from $1.23 to 29¢ a bushel. By 1933, nearly a third of Canadians were
40unemployed. The Trotskyist movement in Canada had its origins not in the
deprivations of the Great Depression, however, but in the disillusionment of Maurice
Spector, a young Canadian communist leader, with the increasingly Stalinist Comintern
and its replacing the policy of world revolution with socialism in one country, the USSR.
In 1928 at the Comintern’s Sixth World Congress in Moscow, he read a translated copy
of an incendiary paper by Trotsky attacking the mistakes of the Comintern, The Draft
Program of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals. Finding that he
largely agreed with Trotsky’s points, Spector smuggled his copy out of the USSR; most
of his Canadian comrades, however, were still actively hostile to Trotsky’s writing.
By the end of the year the Communist Party of Canada and the Young Communist
League had expelled some 30 members as Trotskyists, including Spector, who had
been a founding member of the party in 1921. With “a handful” of followers, Spector
organized the Canadian Left Opposition in 1929 as a branch of the Communist League
41of America (Opposition), the US section of the International Left Opposition. Jack
MacDonald, another founder of the Communist Party of Canada—and party chairman
and then national secretary—joined Spector in 1932 after he himself was thrown out of
the party in late 1930. They formed the International Left Opposition (Trotskyist) of
42Canada, and together their public speeches attracted audiences in the hundreds. Yet
actual membership was minuscule, and small cells existed only in Toronto, Hamilton
and Montreal.
It was this nucleus that Birney joined in 1933. He met Spector at the Johnstones’
house in the town of Weston, northwest of Toronto, and when he left Toronto for
Vancouver to teach summer school at the University of British Columbia, he was
determined to start up a West Coast cell of Trotskyists. Sylvia Johnstone joined him,
and on 24 September he reported their success to the “Toronto Branch of the
International Left Opposition”—the first item in this volume. It was a modest success, to
be sure; he listed only eight potential converts by name, but he gave the impression of
energetic and sustained activities in behalf of Trotskyism. The fact that he had
established the first Canadian branch west of Toronto marked him as a man to be
noticed, and trusted.
Birney’s second foray into branch organization began later that year, this time in the
United States. His finances were strained, and he needed to earn enough money to
continue his PhD work in Toronto. Once again, as he had for two years from 1930 to
1932, he was able to secure a year’s instructorship in English at the University of Utah
in Salt Lake City. The university was small, with less than half the enrolment of the
University of Toronto; the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
was strong (the university had been instituted by Mormons in 1850), and the prevailing
43atmosphere was conservative. Nonetheless he decided that political activism would
be useful here as well, if he could avoid being fired as the only Trotskyist on faculty.
“With nothing to lose but my gowns,” he recalled, he “founded a Marxist student club
on the Mormon campus, and led an investigating committee of faculty and students into
a martial law area where striking coal miners were suffering mass arrest and
44beatings.” Here he was being modest, or rather selective, as his letter to an Americanfriend from their University of California days amply demonstrates (item 2). “Can you
see … why I left both the CCF in Canada and the official C[ommunist] P[arty] and am
under Trotsky? I am with a party that is carrying on the essential daily propaganda work
for communism and yet engaging realistically in united front activity and in individual
penetration of members into all mass organizations with a scrap of socialist-tendency in
them.” He then gave ten separate examples of his political undertakings over four
months in Utah. Items 3 to 6 here present more detailed instances of his activities in
early 1934: a pseudonymous article on the Utah miners’ strike, two formal statements
opposing decisions of the local section bureau of the Communist Party of the US
(section bureaux are one level up from individual party units), and an unpublished letter
to the editor of a Salt Lake City daily newspaper.
Among Birney’s extensive political activities in Utah, one accomplishment would
prove to be particularly fruitful: his recruitment of Joe Hansen to Trotskyism. Somewhat
older than the average undergraduate, Hansen co-edited the student magazine The
Pen while he was studying English literature part time. Under Birney’s influence he
embraced Trotsky’s views on communism, and by 1936 he was a union worker and
activist in California. Already a member of the Trotskyist Communist League of America
(Opposition), the US section of the International Left Opposition, he became a staff
writer for The Voice of the Federation (1935–1941), the newspaper of the Maritime
Federation of the Pacific, a consortium of unions, and wrote for James Cannon’s Labor
Action (1936–1937). His talents were quickly spotted by the party’s leadership, and he
was engaged—remarkably enough for a man not yet in his thirties—as Trotsky’s
secretary in Coyoacán, Mexico from 1 October 1937 to 15 January 1939, October 1939
to January 1940, and June to August 1940. He was one of the staff who apprehended
Trotsky’s assassin Ramón Mercader. Trotsky dictated to Hansen what would be his last
message as he lay grievously wounded on 20 August 1940, shortly before he died.
Thereafter Hansen devoted his life to Trotskyist politics in the US and Europe, as a
close associate of Cannon, a prolific author and editor of books, pamphlets, articles
and papers, an important participant and leader in major policy and organizational
discussions, and a New York candidate in the 1950 US Senate election under the
banner of the Socialist Workers’ Party. By the time of his death in 1979, Hansen would
be described as one “of the two or three most important figures in what might be called
45the second generation of leaders of American Trotskyism and the SWP.”
Back in British Columbia for the summer of 1934, Birney reviewed his earlier work in
the province for a friend, highlighting the precariousness of being a Trotskyist organizer
in the face of Stalinist tactics:
I have renewed contacts with my Vancouver comrades and at last seem to be
constructing a solid unit here. Bad luck dogged my efforts here both last summer
and at Christmas. A year ago … I got a branch going here but after we left the
key comrade got sick, two others had to leave town for relief camps, and another
proved to have been a Stalinite borer. Then at Christmas I got things going again,
but again one of the key men had to go to camp and another got hit by a
mountie’s quirt and is now in the asylum. I managed to ensure regular distribution
of the Militant, and other periodicals, and to get a university nucleus going ….
Moreover the Socialist Party of Canada is much more respectful of my position
now and actually made me guest speaker at their open forum last week. I spoke,
of course, under a new name—the Stalinites would have got wise if I had used
my old pseudonym and would have organized hoodlums to break up a
“Trotskyite” speech …. Another ubiquitous problem is the agent provocateur.He’s getting smarter, has stopped hanging around doorways like a private
detective, and is joining workers’ organizations and penetrating into all
46revolutionary circles.
In October 1934 Birney was introduced to quite a different level of political activity, in
England. He had taken up a Royal Society of Canada fellowship to finish his PhD thesis
at the University of London, and shortly after his arrival contacted a small group of
Trotskyists in London. One of the central issues for British Trotskyists was the attitude
they should take to the Labour Party and its factions. Labour was last in power in 1929–
31, until it formed a National Government with other parties; then in 1932 the party
underwent a split. The Independent Labour Party (ILP)—one with a long history based
on socialism and pacifism and affiliated with Labour since 1922—broke away, and
attracted the attention of Trotsky and some Trotskyists.
The British Trotskyist movement had begun in an organized way in late 1931,
composed largely of disgruntled members of the ILP and of the Communist Party of
Great Britain. But Trotsky was concerned, as he had said about Germany, that if “the
few hundred Left Oppositionists remain on the side, they will become transformed into
a powerless lamentable sect. If, however, they participate in the inner ideological
struggles of the party, of which they remain an integral part despite all expulsions, they
will win an enormous influence among the proletarian kernel of the party.” This classic
strategy of “entrism” is often associated with Trotskyist approaches, in the sense of “the
infiltration of a mass organization by a small revolutionary group that hopes thereby to
47grow at the expense of the larger party.” In 1932 Trotskyists within the Communist
Party of Great Britain were expelled, although “significant numbers” remained within the
48ILP. By the time of the ILP’s January 1934 conference at York, 10 branches
supported Trotskyism and nearly two-thirds of the delegates refused to condemn the
49ILP’s affiliation with Trotsky’s Fourth International.
Birney arrived during this period of left-wing political ferment, and joined the ILP’s
Holborn branch in central London, close to the University of London and the vast library
50holdings of the British Museum. As a Trotskyist and part of the small Marxist Group
working within the ILP, he actively opposed Stalinism and attempted to influence ILP
51members—too actively, as it turned out. On 23 January 1935 he attended a meeting
of the pro-Stalinist Friends of the Soviet Union (a Communist Party front organization);
a “handful of I.L.P. comrades” interjected from the floor, and within 72 hours three of
them, including Birney, were arbitrarily suspended from the ILP. The protest that he
wrote and circulated “in defence of party democracy” appears as item 7.
In his protest Birney referred to a pamphlet by Trotsky “available to I.L.P. members”:
undoubtedly Trotsky’s 16-page The I.L.P. and the Fourth International: In the Middle of
52the Road (1934). There Trotsky criticized the ILP for its failure to develop as a
revolutionary organization, among other flaws, in effect (a later critic wrote) “becoming
53an appendage of the Stalinised Communist International.” In one of his most mature
Marxist analyses—“The Struggle against British Imperialism” (item 8)—Birney
highlights this weakness, and others. His paper is nothing less than “a revolutionary
policy for the ILP,” a subtitle that he added to one original copy. Trotsky himself
became aware of Birney’s theorizing shortly after it was written in October 1935, for in a1935 edition of The I.L.P. and the Fourth International he included a postscript written
on 20 October 1935 as “a necessary addition”:
In my article I approved the attitude of this party on the question of sanctions.
Later, friends sent me a copy of an important letter of Comrade Robertson [i.e.,
Earle Birney] to the members of the ILP. Comrade Robertson accuses the
leadership of the party of maintaining pacifist illusions, particularly in the matter
of “refusal” of military service. I can only associate myself wholly with what is said
in Comrade Robertson’s letter. The ILP’s misfortune is that it doesn’t have a truly
Marxist programme. That too is why its best activities, such as sanctions against
54British imperialism, are always influenced by pacifist and centrist mixtures.
With this heady recognition by the Old Man himself—“a great politician, a great artist”—
55Birney was ready to ask Trotsky for a personal meeting.
In his first letter to Trotsky on 5 November 1935 (item 9), Birney was careful in the
way that he introduced himself and Ken Johnstone: citing their past Left Opposition
experience, referring to a letter of reference from Maurice Spector and some
information on Canada that Birney had arranged to have forwarded to Trotsky earlier,
mentioning Harold Isaac’s recent visit as a precedent, and outlining possible topics for
discussion. At the time Trotsky was in exile in Norway, where he and Natalia had
arrived on 18 June 1935, after periods in Turkey and in Saint-Palais, Barbizon and
Domène in France. Most governments were hesitant about granting him residential
visas because of the pressure brought to bear by the USSR, and in any case Trotsky
was officially stateless after Stalin revoked his Soviet citizenship in February 1932.
Having to move about relatively frequently posed obvious difficulties for him, his family
and his secretaries, such as transporting his voluminous personal archives with him.
Another concern was his physical safety, as agents of Stalin’s secret police—the NKVD
—were constantly attempting to hunt him down. He was forced to live under several
aliases, to keep his housing arrangements and locations secret, and often to be
56accompanied by an armed bodyguard. His sole source of income was his writing.
Birney wrote two narrative accounts of the interviews that Trotsky granted him and
Ken Johnstone in the Norwegian village of Weksal from 19 to 23 November 1935: in an
affidavit of 10 March 1937 (item 10), and in a eulogy just after Trotsky died on 21
57August 1940 (item 63). Birney’s transcript of the extensive interviews, which became
the basis for a mimeographed booklet Conversations with Trotsky, is notable for the
force and clarity of Trotsky’s views on the ILP and more general Left Opposition
matters, and for the immediacy of the events it touches on. The version of the booklet
included in this collection (item 11) is one that Trotsky saw and approved, and so is
58authoritative as a fascinating historical document. With that record Birney also sent
Trotsky the first part of “Further Conversations” (item 12) in his letter of 8 December
591935 (item 14). Trotsky saw this section as well, as he did its second section. Finally,
Birney published an additional portion of the interview nearly a year later as a
“condensation of some of Trotsky’s comments” on Canadian farmers and the
international proletariat (item 13).
On their way back to England from Norway, Birney and Johnstone stopped off to
experience Nazi Germany first hand. Before Hitler consolidated his power in the
Reichstag in 1933, Trotsky had been warning in pamphlets and articles about the
dangers of Naziism. As early as 1930 he highlighted the threat that “Fascism in
Germany has become a real danger, as an acute expression of the helpless position of
the bourgeois regime, the conservative role of the social democracy in this regime, and60the accumulated powerlessness of the Communist Party to abolish it.” The following
year he was more explicit:
The coming to power of the National Socialists would mean first of all the
extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the destruction of its
organizations, the eradication of its belief in itself and in its future. Considering
the far greater maturity and acuteness of the social contradictions in Germany,
the hellish work of Italian fascism would probably appear as a pale and almost
humane experiment in comparison with the work of the German National
61Socialists …. [T]he key to the world situation lies in Germany.
Birney’s vivid account of being assaulted in Berlin by Nazi thugs, and his description of
social conditions under the Nazis, received press coverage in the London Sunday
Chronicle, the anti-Stalinist and anti-fascist New Leader of New York (item 16) and
The Birney–Trotsky correspondence and Trotsky’s replies that grew out of their
meetings convey the impression of a mutually useful acquaintanceship. Their
exchanges were not particularly frequent: two letters in 1935 (items 14 and 15), three in
1936 (items 17, 18 and 19), two in 1937 (items 20 and 25), one in 1938 (item 26) and
two in 1939 (items 30 and 31). Birney also wrote to Joe Hansen in Coyoacán, asking
Hansen to follow up on his request for an article from Trotsky (item 24). For the most
part Birney offered details and reports on issues that Trotsky was following: the Marxist
Group within the ILP; the visit to England of Peter Schmidt, a prominent Dutch comrade
(whose views, Birney notes, differ from Trotsky’s); the decline of the ILP; the ILP and
the Fourth International; political and economic conditions in Canada; and the fate of
the Ukraine. The range of topics suggests that Birney continued to keep himself very
well informed about the Left Opposition before the Second World War.
The significance of Birney’s visit and his subsequent correspondence have not yet
been fully examined by Trotskyists or scholars of Trotsky. Yet Trotsky himself attributed
to them a major shift in his attitude to Trotskyism in Britain—a realization that the ILP
was a dead end, and with it his hopes for entrism by Trotskyists into the ILP as a
successful tactic for influencing a renewed ILP (in the 1935 UK general election it had
won just four seats and received only 136,208 votes nationally). “Let us take the ILP
question,” he wrote on 15 July 1936:
I really cannot reproach myself with any precipitateness on this question. For
years I followed the evolution of this party, quite calmly and objectively …. I wrote
a series of articles and letters of an entirely friendly kind to the ILP people,
sought to enter into personal contact with them and counselled our English
friends to join the ILP in order, from within, to go through the experience
systematically and to the very end.
“Since the last visit of Comrades R. [Robertson = Birney] and A. [Alexander =
Johnstone],” however, “I formulated my observations in this sense, that there isn’t much
to be done with the ILP. The three of us worked out a definite proposal for our British
62comrades (a manifesto to the party, collection of signatures, etc.).” He had asked
Birney to keep an eye on Peter Schmidt during his trip to England, noting that “Il serait
peut-être plus-tôt incliné d’insister sur la nécessité pour nos camarades de continuer
63 64leur travail dans l’ILP,” and Birney had replied at length. Schmidt, Trotsky saw, was
indeed far too optimistic about the ILP:Well, it is now already behind us. To continue now with an effort to revive the
illusion which has been shattered to bits, would be nothing less than to inflict a
bad service on the cause. In times of calm, one can live on illusions for a long
period; in a period of crisis, if one does not take into account the hard facts, that
is, the actual policy of centrism and pacifism, and consequently their deeds, but
considers one’s own wishes and sentiments, one courts the danger of becoming
the shadow of the centrists and pacifists and of compromising and destroying
one’s own organization. That is why I deem it absolutely necessary for our
65comrades to break openly with the ILP and to transfer to the Labour Party.
After this contribution to Trotsky’s change in policy, Birney returned to Canada in March
1936 with Esther Bull (who would become his second wife), received his PhD from the
University of Toronto, and began teaching in the Department of English there in the
66fall. Appointed the literary editor of the mildly left-wing Canadian Forum, he began
writing his pseudonymous column “Another Month,” comprising snippets of anti-fascist
and anti-capitalist commentary on contemporary events (items 21, 22, 23). The
following year he wrote his three most sustained analyses of political events from a
Marxist and Trotskyist perspective. The first was a lengthy and very significant briefing
paper on Canada for Trotsky, dated 26 May 1938 and adopted by the executive
committee of the Canadian Bolshevik-Leninists (item 27). He prepared it for possible
use at the founding congress of the Fourth International (World Party of the Socialist
Revolution), held in Paris on 3 September 1938. The “Resolution on the Work of the
Canadian Section” of the All-American and Pacific Preconference, particularly its
suggested plan of action for Canadian Trotskyists, nearly completely follows the lines
67of the information in Birney’s analysis. Because of the personal danger they faced—
Trotsky’s son Leon Lvovich Sedov (Lev, the little boy with the fists in Halifax Harbour)
had been assassinated by Stalin’s agents in Paris on 16 February 1938—the 22
delegates from 11 national sections met secretly in a private home; Canada was not
separately represented, nor was Trotsky able to attend.
Birney’s two other long analyses—“The Land of the Maple Leaf is the Land of
Monopoly” (item 28) and “Is French Canada Going Fascist?” (item 29)—both appeared
in the US Socialist Workers Party’s theoretical magazine The New International (its
name a reference to Trotsky’s Fourth International), at a time when Maurice Spector
was one of its triumvirate of editors, with Max Schachtman and James Burnham. “The
Land of the Maple Leaf” presents an overview of Canada’s economy and political
makeup for an American audience; it concludes, not unexpectedly, that the “Canadian
working-class will cease being puppets of both [British and American] imperialisms only
through a proletarian revolution whose victory, also, will depend greatly upon the
revolutionary solidarity of their proletarian brothers in the states below the forty-ninth
parallel.” Similarly directed to American Trotskyists, “Is French Canada Going Fascist?”
describes extreme right-wing and fascist elements of Quebec society in the 1930s, and
the failure of the CCF party and the Communist Party to challenge fascism
Two days after Germany and the USSR signed their non-aggression pact on 23
August 1939 (and 18 days before Canada declared war on Nazi Germany on 10
September), Birney wrote what would be his final overtly political article as a Trotskyist
69(item 32): “War is Here—What Now?” The Nazi–Soviet pact produced an immediate
crisis in national Stalinist communist parties, who were ordered by Stalin to stop their
anti-fascist activities: that is, to accept a total reversal of Soviet foreign policy. For the
Stalinist Dorothy Livesay, the volte-face was “a shattering psychological blow”; her70“solution was to withdraw” from political involvement completely. Henceforth for
communists it would be “an imperialist war, one in which there was no distinction
71between those capitalist nations that were democratic and those that were fascist.”
Trotsky, by contrast, outlined his program three months before his assassination in the
“Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World
we do not forget for a moment that this war is not our war …. [T]he Fourth
International builds its policy not on the military fortunes of the capitalist states
but on the transformation of the imperialist war into a war of the workers against
the capitalists, on the overthrow of the ruling classes of all countries, on the world
Socialist revolution …. Independently of the course of the war, we fulfill our basic
task: we explain to the workers the irreconcilability between their interests and
the interests of bloodthirsty capitalism; we mobilize the toilers against
imperialism; we propagate the unity of the workers in all warring and neutral
countries; we call for the fraternization of workers and soldiers within each
country, and of soldiers with soldiers on the opposite side of the battle front; we
mobilize the women and youth against the war; we carry on constant, persistent,
tireless preparation for the revolution—in the factories, in the mills, in the villages,
72in the barracks, at the front, and in the fleet.
Although he wrote the manifesto some eight months after the war began, throughout
the late 1930s Trotsky had been quite consistent in his views on the war that he knew
was coming. This was the line that Birney continued to follow in “War is Here––What
Canada’s entry into the war became a watershed for Birney, not least because the
Trotskyist movement in Canada was nearly moribund by late 1939. Members of the
Workers’ Party of Canada, the Canadian section of the International Left Opposition
since 1934, had been reluctant to adopt Trotsky’s strategy of entrism, but by 1937 their
entry into the CCF party was complete. There—with a few CCFers—they operated as
the Socialist Policy Group until most were expelled from the CCF in 1939. Some
members remained within the CCF, while the balance formed the Socialist Workers
League as the Canadian section of the Fourth International. The high point of Canadian
Trotskyism, one observer has suggested, was in 1935; membership plunged to 75 by
73September 1938, then rose slightly to “fewer than 100” in 1939.
Anticipating a formal declaration of war, the Governor General proclaimed into force
the Defence of Canada Regulations under the War Measures Act on 3 September
741939. On 11 September the first person arrested under the regulations was Frank
Watson, a Trotskyist and member of the Socialist Workers League in Toronto. His case
was brought to the attention of the secret Emergency Conference of the Fourth
International, held “somewhere in the Western Hemisphere” (actually in New York) in
May 1940; a defence committee was formed, and eight months later Watson was
75released. At the emergency conference, the Socialist Workers league’s
organizational report adopted there observed somewhat proudly that “[s]uddenly we
found ourselves as the only political grouping opposed to the war. The various degrees
76of opposition expressed by other groups does not change this fact.” Meetings of the
League had been banned for the duration of the war, as had its publications, and both
had gone underground.
For Birney, the first nine months of the war crystallized several aspects of his
political and personal life:By mid-1940 … I decided that this war of capitalist powers had become also a
necessary struggle to prevent the world becoming totally fascist. Another
Armageddon, but one in which I was willynilly involved. My wife was Jewish, and
pregnant with what would be my Jewish child; I had a stake in Hitler’s defeat.
With the U.S. still holding aloof, and France in collapse, Britain and its
Commonwealth provided the only military counter. Stalin’s Russia, which had
made a pact with Hitler and had invaded Finland on the pretext of self-defense,
was plainly no longer the workers’ state Trotsky still believed it to be. It could not
be relied on to defend Jews or to preserve any of the liberties that made life for
me worth living. I dropped from the Marxist-Leninists and prepared to join the
77“war effort” in whatever way I could.
Despite that later recollection, Birney had actually moved away from Trotskyism nearly
six months earlier and for slightly different reasons. As he wrote an American friend on
29 January 1940,
I’ve broken with POLITICS …. For a while I carried on a fight against the Old
Man’s Finnish policy—he wants the Reds to win, at the same time piously
“condemning” the invasion. But I finally came to face a lot of ugly facts I had been
forced to admit for [a] long time: that the Old Man’s organisation is growing as
bureaucratic as the next one, that up here the whole organizational approach is
quixotic and suicidal. The result is I’m now sadly convinced that the Bol[shevik]
method carries bureaucratism in itself, that on this continent at least […]
socialism must organize in a different way—what way I dont know …. I certainly
prefer capitalism to Sovietism as it has worked in practise—but I still think the
ultimate choice is socialism or barbarism. But as for me, I’ve spent most of eight
year’s leisure time, and sacrificed more than I care to think of, for something that
78seems to be pretty futile now.
Eight days later he explained his decision to Dr. Garnett Sedgewick of the University of
British Columbia, who had been his academic mentor since 1923:
I have REFORMED. You probably wont believe it but, after eight years, I’m no
longer a laborer in the vineyard of Marx. I think L.T.’s attitude to the Finnish
invasion is as bad almost as Stalin’s, and I have broken with the boys over it.
Also I have come reluctantly to believe that bureaucracy is inherent in the
Bolshevik method. It is already a rooted plant in the Fourth International as in the
Third (and for that matter the Second and perhaps, though I’m […] not enough a
scholar to say, in the First). I’m still a socialist, and I like wars and capitalism
79none the more for liking Trotsky less.
To another friend he expanded on his resignation, referring more accurately to his
seven years as a Trotskyist rather than eight, and likening Trotskyism to belonging to a
I resigned because (1) I have no longer confidence in the leadership here, or the
80US or in Mexico (2) I have no confidence in the kind of leadership that is trying
to replace the tops here—things may turn out better in the US, (3) experiences of
the last 20 years in world events, & my own in the Church for the last 7 years,
lead me to suspect the seeds of bureaucratism are in the fundamental principles
of the Church, and have already uprooted enough weeds to make the ReformedChurch itself incapable of reform, from within at least (4) I have a defeatist
position on Finland and Russia & was prevented, by burocracy, from putting that
position forward here (5) the Canadian Church, because of the above reasons &
others, has failed & will fail to become the urgently necessary focus for
resistance to the “thing” all of us “Christians[”] are trying to resist here.
In resigning, I declared myself still a sympathizer, for want of a better Church
to go to, promised to continue financial support (still greater than that of any
actual member of the Church in Canada), to work in three different mass groups
81for the official doctrine in so far as I could do so in conscience ….
Canada’s mobilization for war had started in August 1939, before the formal
declaration, and members of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division began arriving in
Aldershot, England in December. As a professor Birney voluntarily enrolled in the
University of Toronto Contingent of the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps—part of the
Canadian Army (Reserve)—that autumn, and in May 1942 he was sworn to the full-time
Canadian Army (Active), serving with the Canadian Army (Overseas) in England,
Belgium and Holland.
Yet at the same time as he joined the army, tellingly, Birney offered a final tribute to
Trotsky (item 63), a 20-minute eulogy “delivered to the Toronto comrades” after the
82assassination of the Old Man. Part autobiography, part personal recollection of a
great man, it is above all a moving reflection on genius:
Trotsky was a man who instantly impressed one with the authenticity of his
genius. It wasnt his fine soldier’s carriage, his powerful square shoulders and
great chest and head, nor even his flashing deepset eyes. All that one may find
in lesser men. It was the feeling of a mind that was equipped with twice the
cylinders a man’s mind possesses, and the engine of the mind running silently
and smoothly and with p[e]rfect efficiency. Whatever the sub[j]ect—and Trotsky
never dodged a subject—he would speak about it with information, judgment, and
humor. And he would, without ever harping on Marxism, manage often to make
one see that whatever the human phen[om]enon discussed, embedded in it were
problems for the present and the future, problems for which a socialist society
alone offered answers.
When he first began reading Trotsky’s works, Birney “realized that Trotsky was, in
addition to being a great politician, a great artist. He thought as concretely as a poet;
images were real things to him, and he could never tolerate a cliché or a blurred
metaphor. Nothing delighted him more than when he found an incautious attempt at a
figure of speech by a political opponent. He would seize on it with glee and transform it
to his own ends.” Trotsky’s My Life, he also said, “stimulated not merely to thought &
talk, but to action, to the struggle for social justice. No one in our time, I think, so
perfectly blended the gifts of the artist and of the man of action into a memorable
83whole.” That Trotsky inspired Birney not just to activism but to engaged action is
plain. Yet Birney had yet to demonstrate that he was an artist of any kind, while Trotsky
had established himself as a serious literary critic and theorist at least a dozen years
TROTSKY AS LITERARY CRITICThe extent of Trotsky’s writing is quite astonishing: 15 volumes of his Sochineniya
(Selected Works) were printed in Moscow from 1924 to 1927 alone, and it has been
estimated that if all his published work were collected in one edition, they would fill 60
84to 70 volumes. As he confided in his 1935 diary, “politics and literature constitute in
85essence the content of my personal life” —perhaps a surprising acknowledgement by
one of the twentieth century’s most influential revolutionaries. But we should be careful
to understand that “literature” for Trotsky often (but not always) meant political writing—
as it always did for Lenin. For example, in describing his 1897 revolutionary activities in
Odessa, at the age of 17, he noted in chapter seven of his autobiography My Life that
in school the “only shortage was in the matter of instructors and in literature. The
teachers had to snatch from each other in turn the single soiled copy of the Communist
Manifesto by Marx and Engels that had been transcribed by many hands in Odessa,
86with many gaps and mutilations of the text.” Throughout the first six chapters of My
Life, however, “literature” unambiguously meant novels, plays and poetry.
The distinction between political and imaginative literature is crucial, for one of
Lenin’s few statements on literature has been used to claim his support for “proletarian
literature” (detested by both Trotsky and Birney):
What is this principle of party literature? It is not simply that, for the socialist
proletariat, literature cannot be a means of enriching individuals or groups: it
cannot, in fact, be an individual undertaking, independent of the common cause
of the proletariat. Down with non-partisan writers! Literature must become part of
the common cause of the proletariat, “a cog and a screw” of one single great
Social–Democratic mechanism set in motion by the entire politically conscious
87vanguard of the entire working class.
Terry Eagleton has sensibly observed that “Lenin’s remarks, interpreted by
unsympathetic critics as applying to imaginative literature as a whole, were in fact
intended to apply to party literature …. Lenin had in mind not novels but party
theoretical writing; he was thinking of men like Trotsky, Plekhanov and Parvus, of the
88need for intellectuals to adhere to a party line.”
Friedrich Engels, on the other hand, was well-read in German fiction, published
poetry as a young man, and had relatively clear views about fiction. Forty years after he
and Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, he confessed that he had learned from
Honoré de Balzac’s fiction “more than from all the professed historians, economists and
89statisticians of the period together.” Engels was particularly concerned about literary
realism and revolution; as he wrote to Margaret Harkness, the English political activist
and novelist about her A City Girl: A Realistic Story (1887):
If I have anything to criticise, it would be that perhaps after all, the tale is not
quite realistic enough. Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the
truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances. Now your
characters are typical enough, as far as they go; but the circumstances which
surround them and make them act, are not perhaps equally so. In the “City Girl”
the working class figures as a passive mass, unable to help itself and not even
making any attempt at striving to help itself …. The rebellious reaction of the
working class against the oppressive medium which surrounds them, their
attempts—convulsive, half-conscious or conscious—at recovering their status as
human beings, belong to history and must therefore lay claim to a place in the
90domain of realism.Although Trotsky had published a handful of literary essays well before the revolution,
that he should take up serious literary criticism in the early 1920s is scarcely
imaginable, given the scale of the military and political events in which he was
immersed. During a summer break in 1922 he started an overview of post-revolution
Russian literature, which he finished during his next summer holiday in 1923. Some
essays were published first in Pravda, and the whole collection appeared as Literatura i
91revoliutsiia (Literature and Revolution) that autumn. Yet during the same period he
was people’s commissar of military and naval affairs, responsible for the Red Army’s
925,000,000 troops and all their materiel, and as one of five full members of the
Politburo he was at the centre of debate and major decisions affecting all aspects of life
in the newly created Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Moreover, he was deeply
involved with internal Communist Party controversies—attacks and counterattacks both
fissiparous and dangerous, especially given Stalin’s grip on the party’s Central
Committee as general secretary since 1922. And he was subject to bouts of painful
illness, probably chronic colitis, that left him bed-ridden from time to time—incidents
noticeable enough in April 1921, for example, that his Politburo colleagues practically
93ordered him to receive treatment in the countryside.
Nevertheless only six years after the revolution, with the publication of the eight
essays that formed the first part of Literature and Revolution, Trotsky instantly became
“Soviet Russia’s most influential literary critic and … its most effective advocate of
94freedom in all of the arts.” Within two years much of this seminal work had been
translated into Spanish (1923), German (1924) and English (1925). The English edition,
translated by the socialist Rose Strunsky, omits the second section of the Russian
95original: literary essays that appeared between 1908 and 1914. Strunsky’s translation
was the one that so profoundly influenced Birney’s own criticism for many years.
Trotsky’s topics were broad: seven essays on Russian art and literature before the
revolution, literary fellow-travellers (his essay popularized the term), the poet Alexander
Blok, futurism, formalism, communist policy toward art, and revolutionary and socialist
art. The most significant essay in Literature and Revolution, however, is undoubtedly
the eighth, setting out his position on creative literature’s relationship with (true)
socialism and a thorough refutation of the concept of proletarian literature. “Proletarian
Culture and Proletarian Art”—together with his July 1924 introduction to the book—
stand as a broadside indictment of the crushing censorship of individual imagination
and expression that would mark the Soviet state for more than 60 years, from Stalin’s
usurpation of power until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
Debates about the role of literature in depicting common life and using the language
of everyday speech have long been familiar in Western belles lettres. The issue was
much larger in pre-revolutionary Russia. For Marxists, the core of revolutionary action
96would indeed be the common people, but more precisely the proletariat. Before the
1917 revolution, most socialist leaders were not members of the proletariat but rather
intellectuals, who were very aware of the gap between themselves and the masses.
Education of the people was the key to revolution. For example, in 1909 a small group
of Russian socialists in exile—including the author and playwright Maxim Gorky and the
theoretician Aleksandr Bogdanov—set up two schools for workers in Italy, which soon
97foundered. Bogdanov wrote the platform of an equally unsuccessful successor
group, Vpered (Forward), which introduced a radical note in calling for a new proletarian
culture: not just mass education through adult education, trade unions and workers’
organizations such as factory committees, but the critical need to “develop a proletarian
science, strengthen authentic comradely relations in the proletarian milieu, devise aproletarian philosophy, and turn art in the direction of proletarian aspirations and
98experience.” This introduction of a prescriptive path for literature, among other arts,
held vast and complex implications for revolutionary Russia and the post-revolution
USSR. They continue to reappear under various guises in major debates about colonial
and postcolonial literatures throughout the Western world, and are far from settled in
Marxist and non-Marxist literary criticism alike.
With the start of the revolution in March 1917, a plethora of workers’ cultural
organizations sprang up; by October nearly 200 representatives of cultural societies,
trade unions, factory committees, co-operatives and various political parties gathered
to form a national proletarian cultural-enlightenment organization charged with
99spreading kul’turno-prosvetitel’nye—soon shortened to Proletkult. Lenin appointed
the chairman of the founding conference, Anatoly Lunacharsky, as people’s commissar
of enlightenment, through which the Bolshevik state would provide meeting places,
100food and funds to cultural groups. Organizations whose support for the Bolshevik
101revolution was mistrusted could be cut off or shut down.
The Proletkult was a broad and diffuse movement, whose general thrust can be
gathered from a representative and well-respected periodical, Na postu (On Guard): “In
literature we declare war without quarter on calumnious petit-bourgeois deformations of
the revolution; we will denounce untiringly any petit-bourgeois literary deviations in our
midst; we will found and defend a proletarian literature, for this is the only way to
continue our party’s glorious tradition.” Na postu aimed at “a merciless struggle against
literary tendencies which, either openly or under a revolutionary guise, were inspired by
102reactionary ideas.” In the new Russia, in other words, creative literature was
essentially the province of worker writers, whose themes would embody the experience
and revolutionary spirit of the working class.
Not unexpectedly, the dramatic upheaval of the Russian Civil War from 1918
through 1921 prompted many strains of intellectual dissidence, and the substance of
the debates over the meaning and role of proletarian literature spread beyond Russia
very rapidly. By 1918 Lunacharsky’s pamphlet “Self-Education of the Workers: The
Cultural Task of the Struggling Proletariat” was published in London by the Workers’
Socialist Federation, and in the United States Irwin Granich exulted in 1921:
We hear strange and beautiful things from Russia …. The new artists feel the
mass-sufficiency, and suffer no longer that morbid sense of inferiority before the
universe that was the work of the solitaries. It is the resurrection….
When there is singing and music rising in every American street, when in
every American factory there is a drama group of the workers, when mechanics
paint in their leisure, and farmers write sonnets, the greater art will grow and only
Only a creative nation understands creation. Only an artist nation understands
The method must be the revolutionary method—from the deepest depths
Yet for the American journalist Leo Pasvolsky, in the same year, the Proletkult “is built
upon the sands of artificiality”: “In its naïveté, its primitive crudeness, and its oftentimes
arrogant bombast, it can scarcely provide a substitute or even a guiding and active
agent for those cultural achievements which have attended and crowned the spiritual
104endeavors of mankind for so many centuries.”In Russia Trotsky was one of the first to realize the dangers of the Proletkult. While
the movement’s adherents were undoubtedly useful in practical matters concerning
105culture, their basic concepts were antithetical to Bolshevism. His introduction to
Literature and Revolution, written after the first edition of the book appeared, set out his
main thesis baldly and succinctly enough to be accessible to any reader, even one who
did not get past the first few pages. In Trotsky’s straightforward summary of his
It is fundamentally incorrect to contrast bourgeois culture and bourgeois art with
proletarian culture and proletarian art. The latter will never exist, because the
proletarian régime is temporary and transient. The historic significance and the
moral grandeur of the proletarian revolution consist in the fact that it is laying the
foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture
that is truly human.
Our policy in art, during a transitional period, can and must be to help the
various groups and schools of art which have come over to the Revolution to
grasp correctly the historic meaning of the Revolution, and to allow them
complete freedom of self-determination in the field of art, after putting before
106them the categorical standard of being for or against the Revolution.
For him that one “categorical standard” was absolute: the “art of this epoch will be
entirely under the influence of revolution.” Moreover, this “new art is incompatible with
pessimism, with skepticism, and with all the other forms of spiritual collapse. It is
realistic, active, vitally collectivist, and filled with a limitless creative faith in the
107Future.” However much his general synopsis here may appear to reveal an internal
contradiction—is “complete freedom of self-determination” compatible with the qualities
he lists for new art?—he believed that his guidelines were crucial. Literature and
Revolution is more than a collection of literary criticism and theory; it is also a polemic,
striking directly against the main assumptions of the Proletkult.
“Proletarian Culture and Proletarian Art” expands on the theoretical underpinnings of
his opposition to the Proletkult. First, he reminds his readers of what the revolution
really means for the class system: “the proletariat acquires power for the purpose of
doing away forever with class culture and to make way for human culture. We
frequently seem to forget this”: “The formless talk about proletarian culture, in antithesis
to bourgeois culture, feeds on the extremely uncritical identification of the historical
108destinies of the proletariat with those of the bourgeoisie.” With the civil war barely
over, he also acknowledges the “cruel savagery” of the revolution, which cannot be
ignored or hidden: “All the active forces are concentrated in politics and in the
revolutionary struggle, everything else is shoved back into the background and
everything which is a hindrance is cruelly trampled under foot.” After all, “in its essence,
the dictatorship of the proletariat is not an organization for the production of the culture
109of a new society, but a revolutionary and military system struggling for it”.
Given a basic misunderstanding of Marxism and the revolution among some cultural
bureaucrats and writers, Trotsky feels obliged to point out that “Our epoch is not yet an
epoch of new culture, but only the entrance to it. We must, first of all, take possession,
politically, of the most important elements of the old culture, to such an extent, at least,
as to be able to pave the way for a new culture,” and that “before the proletariat will
have passed out of the stage of cultural apprenticeship, it will have ceased to be a
proletariat”:“Proletarian culture”, “proletarian art”, etc., in three cases out of ten is used
uncritically to designate the culture and the art of the coming Communist society,
in two cases out of ten to designate the fact that special groups of the proletariat
are acquiring separate elements of pre-proletarian culture, and finally, in five
cases out of ten, it resembles a jumble of concepts and words out of which one
110can make neither head nor tail.
And then, in a mighty excoriation of “the sincere fools who have taken up this simple
formula of a pseudo-proletarian art”:
This is not Marxism, but reactionary populism, falsified a little to suit a
“proletarian” ideology. Proletarian art should not be second-rate art. One has to
learn regardless of the fact that learning carries within itself certain dangers
because out of necessity one has to learn from one’s enemies. One has to learn
and the importance of such organizations as the Proletkult cannot be measured
by the rapidity with which they create a new literature, but by the extent to which
they help elevate the literary level of the working-class, beginning with its upper
Such terms as “proletarian literature” and “proletarian culture” are dangerous,
because they erroneously compress the culture of the future into the narrow
limits of the present day. They falsify perspectives, they violate proportions, they
distort standards and they cultivate the arrogance of small circles which is most
On the role of the Communist Party in fostering artistic creation, he is equally clear. “Art
must make its own way and by its own means. The Marxian methods are not the same
as the artistic …. The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to
command.” As for writers who are not members of the working class, he maintains, it “is
untrue that revolutionary art can be created only by workers.” The party “stands guard
over the historic interests of the working-class in its entirety. Because it prepares
consciously and step by step the ground for a new culture and therefore for a new art, it
regards the literary fellow travellers not as the competitors of the writers of the
workingclass, but as the real or potential helpers of the working-class in the big work of
Literature and Revolution, then, reveals both the scope and limits of his approach to
literature, as Baruch Knei-Paz has observed. “On the one hand, it was an approach
governed by a liberal attitude in principle to all literature, an openness to the artistic
merits of a creative work without regard for its or the author’s political views.” Yet on the
other, “he could not free himself of the need to ask the utilitarian question: what is the
worth of the work from the point of view of one’s social and political interests and
goals?” Knei-Paz concludes that there was in Trotsky “a tension between the respecter
113of literature and the committed revolutionary.” Tension, however, implies that
opposite forces are at work, whereas for Birney the genius of Trotsky lay in his perfect
blending of “the gifts of the artist and of the man of action into a memorable whole.”
Within a year of his introduction to Trotskyism in 1933 Birney had assimilated much of
114Trotsky’s approach to literature, particularly his views on proletarian literature. As he