John Dewey’s Encounter with Leon Trotsky


Richard J. Bernstein in Public Seminar (Book cover of The Later Works of John Dewey by John Dewey, edited by Jo Ann Boydston © Southern Illinois University Press |

[A]lready in 1934, Dewey saw the parallels between what was happening in the U.S.S.R. and the growth of fascism in Italy and Germany. “As an unalterable opponent of Fascism in every form, I cannot be a Communist” (LW 9: 93).

What is distinctive and admirable about Dewey in the early 1930s is the combination of a sharp critique of the excesses of American capitalism and Soviet Communism combined with a passionate commitment to a vision of a radical democracy. Dewey practiced what he firmly believed. This became evident when Dewey agreed to be chair of Commission of Inquiry into the charges made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow trials. Popular front liberals tended to down play the significance of these purges, but not Dewey. Dewey was not only severely attacked for agreeing to chair the Commission — there were even threats on his life. Dewey made it clear he was defending “Trotsky’s right to a public trial, although I have no sympathy with what seems to me abstract ideological fanaticism.” So Dewey, at the age of 78, set aside his work on his Logic, and made the arduous trip to Mexico City where he chaired the hearings in Coyocan, Mexico that consisted of thirteen sessions held between April 10 and 17. Strictly speaking, the inquiry was not a trial. The Commission sought to ascertain the veracity of the charges that had been made against Trotsky and his son in Stalin’s trumped up Moscow trials. As Dewey stated in the opening session, the Commission “is here in Mexico neither as a court nor as a jury. … Our sole function is to ascertain the truth as far as is humanly possible” (LW 11: 306). The transcript shows just how active Dewey was in carrying out its task. Ironically, for the all the criticism of the pragmatist conception of truth, Dewey before, during, and after the inquiry defended the importance of ascertaining the truth.

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