International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 20 (1994): Capital, Labor and the Nation-State

Bill Brust—Fighter for Trotskyism

Bill Brust, a founding member of the Workers League and a fifty-three-year veteran of the Trotskyist movement, died September 15, 1991, in Minneapolis of inoperable cancer. Along with his wife Jean, also a founding member of the Workers League, he carried out a lifelong struggle for the principles of international socialism.

This speech was given at a meeting held in Frankfurt by the Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter on March 15, 1992, to honor the memory of Bill Brust.

Comrade Chairman and Comrades,

It is a privilege to address this meeting which is being held six months to the day after the death of Comrade Bill in Minneapolis. I welcome the opportunity to speak here because those of us who worked with Bill know how deeply he felt about the struggle of the Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter to build a section of the Fourth International in Germany. Comrade Bill belonged to that generation whose political awakening took place against the background of the victory of fascism in Germany. Even more than the Depression and the mass strikes in the United States, Bill’s political convictions were profoundly affected by the horrifying consequences of the destruction of the German workers movement. At an early age he came to understand that Hitlerism was the price paid by the working class for the cowardice and treachery of its own leadership. Bill, therefore, drew satisfaction from the fact that the principles and program of Trotskyism were finding a response among the generation of German workers and youth that were born and grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. And that is why Bill followed the work of the BSA and sought to assist in its political development.

It was a year ago this month that we learned that Comrade Bill was suffering from cancer of the pancreas. In May 1991 I traveled to Minneapolis to see Bill for what proved to be the last time. What I will never forget is the courage with which he confronted the fact that he had only a short time to live.

Until his illness, Bill had enjoyed the vigor and health of a man decades younger. After he had passed his seventieth birthday, he was proud of his physical strength and endurance. Bill would on occasion joke that he intended to celebrate his hundredth birthday. But when he realized that he only had a few months left to live, he accepted this with the calm and objectivity of a classical stoic. This was not because he was weary of life. Of all the words which might be used to describe Bill, “weary” is not one of them. But despite the joy he derived from his work, his family and his innumerable interests, Bill knew how to face death because he felt that he had lived his life with a purpose. Death arouses terror among so many petty bourgeois because they fear that, when their end approaches, they will have achieved nothing of any enduring value or meaning. Having lived only for themselves and the satisfaction of their immediate needs, they contemplate their end with a sense of futility and hopelessness. All they leave behind is, perhaps, some money and the wreckage of personal relations ruined by self-interest and hypocrisy.

But that was not the situation with Bill. At the end of his life, he was surrounded by a family and comrades who loved and admired him. His life was an open book. He could account for every decade and every year of his life. He knew why he had become and remained a revolutionary Marxist. He was proud that at the end of his life he still believed firmly in the convictions for which he had fought since his youth.

Moreover, though Bill knew that his own life was coming to an end, he was confident that the principles for which he had fought would continue to live and develop in the years after his own death. The events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—the collapse of the Stalinist regimes—were for Bill a vindication of the stand he had taken a half-century earlier when he joined the Trotskyist movement before his twentieth birthday.

Indeed, in the light of the events through which we are now passing, the significance of Bill’s contribution becomes increasingly clear.

Comrade Bill joined the Trotskyist movement in the late 1930s. Those were the years when the Stalinist bureaucracy was completing its destruction of whatever still remained of the Bolshevik Party. Between 1936 and 1938, three public trials were held in Moscow of the surviving leaders of the October Revolution—the closest collaborators of Lenin and Trotsky—on charges of murder, sabotage and high treason. These Old Bolsheviks, convicted on the basis of fraudulent confessions that were extracted through torture and threats against their families, were then executed with a bullet in the back of the head. So died men like Zinoviev, Kamenev, Pyatakov and Bukharin.

But these trials, as terrible as they were, were only a part of a campaign of mass terror that was aimed at destroying the very roots of the socialist political culture that had developed in Russia over several generations. Hundreds of thousands of socialist workers and intellectuals were systematically exterminated by the Stalinist regime. Documents are now coming to light which prove that in Moscow in 1937, 1,000 Old Bolsheviks were executed each day in the Lyubianka and other prisons. Every night the bodies of men and women who had devoted their lives to the cause of socialism were dumped in mass graves. Among the dead were not only the great political leaders of the October Revolution but also artists, writers, musicians, poets, scientists, doctors, engineers—creative and noble idealists who had in one way or another contributed mightily to the establishment and early development of the Soviet Union.

The aim of Stalin and the bureaucracy he led was the extermination of every living representative of Marxism and of the socialist tradition that had prepared the October Revolution and had inspired the European and world proletariat. The crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy can be defined as political genocide. We say this not for the sake of effect. In both its aim and results, there is a profound relation between the crimes carried out by the Stalinist regime and those carried out by Hitler.

The mass murder organized by the Nazis was directed against the Jewish people. But this Holocaust, without precedent in history, cannot be explained as simply the manifestation of the insane racial theories of the Third Reich. The Nazis constructed their mass murder industry, with the enthusiastic collaboration of the German bourgeoisie, to realize a very definite political purpose: that is, the destruction of the socialist traditions of the working class with which European Jewry was so prominently identified. Hitler’s hatred of the Jews was rooted in his hatred of the working class and socialism. As Conrad Heiden, an early anti-Nazi biographer of Hitler, wrote long ago: “Hitler did not hate the labor movement because it was led by Jews; he hated the Jews because they were active in the labor movement.”

To destroy the socialist tradition the Nazis set out to exterminate an entire race of people. Stalin’s genocide was organized on the basis of a stricter political selection: he set out to kill all those whose thoughts and activities—in the sphere of politics, science and art—contributed to the development of the socialist class consciousness of the proletariat.

Today, many different answers are given to the question, “What was Stalinism?” Most of the answers are wrong, especially those which attempt to identify Stalinism with socialism. But to know what Stalinism was, look at what Stalinism sought to destroy. The lie that the Stalinist regime represented socialism is exposed by the fact that all the resources of the totalitarian bureaucracy were devoted to the destruction of the socialist culture and traditions of the working class. To achieve this purpose Stalinism and fascism developed a division of labor. Indeed, it was entirely logical that the mass murder of socialists in the Soviet Union between 1936 and 1939 set the stage for the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact between Hitler and Stalin on the eve of World War II.

In recalling the nightmarish events that formed the background of the early political activity of Bill Brust, we are able to more fully appreciate the significance of his life as a Trotskyist.

Marxism is a scientific doctrine; but it lives and develops through the activity of human beings. For an entire historical period, the survival of Marxism depended on the devoted activity of a small number of people in different parts of the world. In the face of staggering difficulties, they sought to defend the theoretical and political conquests of Marxism against the ferocious assault of counterrevolutionary forces. They were imbued with the conviction that only on the basis of a Marxist program could the working class defend its past conquests and prevent capitalism from dragging mankind back to barbarism. Events have proven that this conviction was fully justified.

It may appear staggering to many that the working class of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has so far not been able to mount effective resistance to the restoration of capitalism. How is it possible, it is asked, that millions have not been able to develop effective resistance to policies which mean the destruction of even the most elementary living standards?

But it is not only in the ex-USSR and Eastern Europe that the working class is being thrown back. What is now happening there finds a parallel manifestation in the tremendous deterioration in the social position of the working class in the centers of world capitalism. Nowhere does the working class appear able to defend even the most modest achievements of the past. To understand why this situation exists it is necessary to recognize the long-lasting consequences of the systematic physical destruction of the human bearers of Marxist thought. In short, the collapse of the USSR and the worldwide crisis of the workers movement are not the “product of Marxism,” but, rather, of the massive onslaught against the Marxist culture of the workers movement, undertaken by the imperialists and their Stalinist as well as social democratic agents.

But while the position of Marxism in the workers movement was weakened, it was not destroyed. And we owe its survival to the courage of those like Comrade Bill who devoted their lives to defending the principles and program of the Fourth International. Bill was a critical link between the generation of October and our own. Here in this room all of us in one way or another are politically active because of the contribution of Comrade Bill and Comrade Jean Brust to the defense of Marxism, under conditions in which Stalinism and fascism sought to destroy the political traditions established by Marxism in the workers movement.

Bill was still able to witness the collapse of the Stalinist regimes. Despite the great difficulties which confront the working class, we have come to an end of a long era in which the vast resources of the Stalinist bureaucracy could be employed to disorient and mislead the working class.

The deep-going crisis of imperialism will inevitably create conditions for a massive eruption of the class struggle internationally. We anticipate a renaissance of Marxism, whose progressive and revolutionary character is, when measured against the decay of bourgeois society, even more profound today than it was in 1917. Indeed, the legitimacy of Marxism’s claim to represent the outcome of centuries of progressive thought is frankly acknowledged by the bourgeoisie itself.

Allow me to read from a speech which was given by Vaclav Havel in February 1992 at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He declared: “The end of Communism has brought a major era in human history to an end. It has brought an end not just to the nineteenth and twentieth century, but to the modem age as a whole.”

According to Havel, the modem age, which began approximately 500 years ago with the opening of the Renaissance, was dominated by the unfortunate belief that man could, with the aid of science, arrive at objective truth. Havel bemoans the fact that man has for the last few centuries held stubbornly to a belief in reason, in the power of science, in progress, and in the possibility of equality and justice. Now, at long last, Havel is relieved to report that mankind is abandoning such dangerous notions. The time has come to call a halt to the search for objective truth. Instead, Havel tells us, “Man’s attitude to the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved.”

This is Havel’s banner: Back to the muck of ignorance and superstition! Back to the Dark Ages! The “ideals” of Havel are those of the Inquisition, which was itself a reaction to the first revolutionary stirrings of the emerging bourgeois world within the rotting framework of feudalism. Havel forgets, or perhaps he doesn’t really care, that among the early representatives of the “Modem Age” was the great leader of the Czech reformation, Jan Hus, who was consigned to the flames by the ideological forbears of Havel.

Havel represents a view that is steadily gaining ground among the leading lights of the bourgeois “intelligentsia,” if that is what you care to call them. Let me read, for example, from an interview with Robert Rorty, who is presented as one of the greatest of contemporary philosophers. Some of the statements he makes are really worth considering. He is first asked: “What role should philosophers play in our society?” He answers: “I do not think that philosophers have a role to play as such in contemporary public life.” And the reason he gives is that the questions tackled in the old philosophical books are no longer relevant. Echoing Havel, Rorty criticizes the conceptions of classical philosophy which “long thought that human knowledge constituted a representation of reality.” In other words, Rorty dismisses as useless the longstanding concern of philosophy with the relation between thought and objective reality.

This pragmatic contempt for the problem of objective truth is hardly new. But now we find it openly and shamelessly deployed in the most crass defense of the bourgeois status quo. After a few sentences of pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo, Rorty comes to the main point. He says: “Complex societies cannot reproduce themselves unless they retain the logic of a market economy. Left-wing intellectuals need time to readjust psychologically and terminologically to enable them to realize that there is no alternative to capitalism. The Left needs to know how to become more modest.”

And then he says finally: “Intellectuals must stop adopting a radically critical attitude towards society’s institutions. They must stop rejecting the realities.”

What a confession of intellectual and moral bankruptcy! There is, certainly, a crisis of leadership in the workers movement. But the “intellectual” representatives of the bourgeoisie are brain-dead. In the past, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the representatives of emerging bourgeois society believed deeply in progress. Marxism incorporated the rational elements of Enlightenment thought, including its belief in progress, into the foundations of scientific socialism. But look at the bourgeoisie today. It is not even claiming that the collapse of the regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe open up a great new period of freedom and progress. Rather, as the disastrous consequences of capitalist restoration become obvious, the capitalists declare that poverty is an expression of the natural order of God’s universe.

And all their pathetic hangers-on rush to adapt themselves to the new order. There is an old saying: force not only conquers, it also convinces—especially those whose convictions were never all that powerful. But the point is this: What did all these celebrated “talkshow” thinkers represent? The notable absence of serious thinkers in the last half-century was itself a product of the blows dealt by Stalinism to the Marxist culture which had played such a powerful role in the development of all aspects of social thought in the first decades of this century.

While systematically killing Marxists and falsifying Marxism, the resources of the Stalinist bureaucracy provided a degree of security for timid intellectuals who could spout insincere and harmless radical phrases without really committing themselves to anything that might prove dangerous. Their opinions were not based upon science or convictions, but upon the apparent strength of a big bureaucratic apparatus. But now that the bureaucratic apparatus has collapsed, they seek to make their peace with capitalism. This prostration of these second- and third-rate figures of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia is not a phenomenon which we should mourn. Let the dead bury their dead. The great crisis that confronts mankind creates conditions for those who truly represent the historic interests of the progressive classes to come forward.

The power of Bill Brust’s convictions was far greater than that of countless celebrities who have occupied the limelight over the last thirty or forty years, including that well-known son of Frankfurt, Juergen Habermas, who, I am informed, has recently repented his past socialist sins. He, too, has discovered that capitalism must last forever.

The work that Bill carried out under the most difficult conditions will find in the rising struggles of the working class a deep and powerful resonance. The development of the class struggle will break up the present climate of intellectual and political stagnation.

Bill left behind comrades to whose education he had greatly contributed. His life is an example to all of us. He was steeped in the great traditions of the Marxist movement. His life was dedicated to the struggle for the traditions of this movement. It has been commented in other meetings honoring the life of Bill Brust that he was a student of the German Enlightenment, which played no small role in the development of Marxism itself. Bill studied the writings of Goethe and Heine, drawing strength and inspiration from their own faith in the power of truth.

Let me read a very short passage from the writings of Heine with which Bill was certainly familiar: “We do not seize an idea; rather, an idea seizes us and drives us into the arena, like gladiators, to fight for it.” He was, in fact, such a gladiator. He was seized by ideas, by the power of their truth, and he fought for them. He was not like these second-rate and third-rate pathetic figures who believe in nothing except whatever is required to earn them peace and quiet.

He was not a political weather vane. And that is precisely why we honor the life of Bill Brust. He was a comrade who taught us the significance of the traditions of Marxism. We are certain that every comrade here today will learn from his example and fight for the ideas he represented. We are entering a period of great struggles; and to the extent that we base our work upon the traditions of Marxism we shall find a powerful response in the international working class.