Jim Higgins

Trotskyism in the United States


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3, Summer 1996, pp. 265-69.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

George Breitman, Paul LeBlanc and Alan Wald
Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations
Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1996, pp. 318

I FIRST came across the Trotskyist movement, and that in its Healyite manifestation, in the aftermath of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU. That speech, such a well-kept secret that the full text was in the next issue of the Observer, showed beyond dispute that Stalin was not only fallible, but also a mass murderer in the tradition of, and easily surpassing, Ivan the Terrible. The shock of all these revelations was rather like the one you might experience on hearing the Virgin Mary ask the procurator to take her first born into care. In that splintered aftermath of Khrushchev’s speech, I, together with thousands of others, came to realise that yesterday’s political certainty was but the prelude to today’s disillusion.

During that hand-wringing interregnum, where the most oft-heard phrase was ‘Oh God, where did it all go wrong?’, a few hundred of us were introduced to Trotskyism. The negative aspect was Gerry Healy, who on first, and all subsequent, sight looked as if he had recently been fulfilling an active rôle in the murkier recesses of an apocalyptic work by Hieronymus Bosch. The Healy factor was, however, heavily outweighed by the Trotsky effect, as expressed in his published works. The simple, not to say simple-minded, certainties of Stalinism were no match for the high tensile, armoured certainties of Trotskyism. This was not just any old suit of armour, it came fully equipped with hand-stitched lapels, waistcoat and two pairs of trousers. Not only could this theory answer all your questions, even those you had not the wit to ask, but it was also a complete defence against all the slings and arrows of any outrageous fortune that happened to be lurking about the place.

Ill-favoured Healy might have been, but he had the tremendous advantage of possessing a number of key texts by Leon Trotsky, such as The Revolution Betrayed. There are better books by Trotsky, but there are none that could have been more appropriate to the times than The Revolution Betrayed in the years 1956–57. These gems from the pen of the master came to us via the good offices of the US Socialist Workers Party. Whatever my subsequent criticism of the SWP, I shall always be grateful for that introduction into a world of grown-up Marxist politics.

Nowadays, I am told, the SWP not only eschews all generosity with Trotsky’s texts, they have also eschewed Trotskyism. Under their maximum leader Jack Barnes, the SWP declares itself to be a sister party of the Cuban Communist Party. Whether the Cubans’ own maximum leader entertains similar feelings of sisterhood toward Jack Barnes and his comrades is open to doubt. Holding such views, it is only proper that they should abandon Trotskyism, for even the most egregiously opportunist Trotskyist could not pretend that the working class had moved south, and was surreptitiously carrying through its revolutionary purposes in the disguise of an overweight, bearded Cuban petit-bourgeois. Whilst this is noted in the book here under review, it does not seem to excite much interest in the authors. This may be because Breitman is dead, and was in any case part of the leadership that first endorsed the assumption of Cuba into the pantheon of ‘workers’ states’, whilst LeBlanc and Wald joined the SWP after this great theoretical breakthrough had been made.

Right at the beginning of this book Paul LeBlanc writes: ‘Neither my collaborator Alan Wald and I are satisfied with the modest cross section provided here ...’ Well, they can add my name to the list as well. For them, Trotskyism in the United States is the Socialist Workers Party, the 18 years of the Workers Party-Independent Socialist League merit only passing reference, and the International Socialists no mention at all. Wald and LeBlanc are American academics, and both of them write in that clotted style which was pioneered by Erlichman and Haldeman, and was not the least of their crimes against humanity. Wald, who has the more interesting thesis, was clearly pulling ahead of LeBlanc in the race for my approval, when he introduced that abomination the verb ‘to critique’ as in ‘he critiqued ...’ I subjected him to a great deal of ‘critiquing’ for that, I can tell you. Breitman, who was self-educated, produces an altogether nicer class of prose.

What the authors do have in common is that they were all expelled from the SWP by Jack Barnes and his camarilla. For Breitman this must have been a particularly bitter experience, because he had been part of the Farrell Dobbs-Tom Kerry leadership that had selected Barnes in the first place. As LeBlanc explains: ‘The most serious errors by the SWP “old guard” were made after Cannon’s retirement from the central leadership. These were associated, in part, with the selection and grooming of Jack Barnes as the new central leader of the SWP. He was allowed to assemble his own leadership team, and the kind of authority that Cannon, Dobbs and Kerry enjoyed was conferred upon him.’ It is LeBlanc’s general thesis that, with one or two reservations, the SWP was essentially a sound organisation until Barnes was handed the franchise. Having acquired the job through a pose of ultra-Cannonism, it was not too long before he ‘undermined the party democracy that is essential to Leninism’.

Barnes, according to the convincing testimony of our authors, behaved in an undemocratic manner. What seems to have escaped their notice is that there is something amiss in a leadership approaching its sell-by date hand-picking its successor. James P. Cannon chose Farrell Dobbs to be his successor, as the man most likely to continue the traditions of Cannonism. To ensure that Dobbs kept to that tradition, Cannon set up a sort of parallel centre in California where he could, with no little embarrassment to Dobbs, correct any deviations from Cannonite rectitude. This is a style of selection that was popular in the Tory party, until it conferred leadership on Alec Douglas Home, which effectively discredited the whole procedure. Unfortunately, when Barnes, through a stunning display of devotion to the living thought of Cannon, acquired the franchise and then proceeded to divest himself of this heritage, there was no way of effectively calling him to order. It was now Jack Barnes’ party, and he could give it to Castro, or to anyone else his mean little heart desired.

I have little doubt that Jack Barnes is not the man you would want in charge of your favourite revolutionary party. Frankly, I would advise against having him in for baby-sitting, but it has to be conceded that the constitutional niceties were observed when he got rid of troublesome opponents. He just utilised the draconian rules enacted by the Kerry-Dobbs leadership to rid themselves of Tim Wohlforth and James Robertson. Later, given a little practice, Barnes began to get a bit inventive with his expulsion technique. The Internationalist Tendency were declared to be a separate organisation, and were not allowed to re-register. This cunning ploy ensured that they were not allowed to utilise the appeals procedure.

Lowering over the history of the SWP is the dominating presence of James P. Cannon. Of the three authors of the essays in this book, George Breitman is the most dedicated Cannonite. His view is encapsulated in the quote: ‘I am very satisfied with Marxism and Leninism and with the American version of that, which came to get the name of “Cannonism” in our movement.’

Alan Wald represents the opposite pole in the volume. He takes the view that Cannon, despite his manifest talents, inculcated a notion in the party that it represented the acme of revolutionary purity, an immaculate organisation, with muscles twangingly poised to lead the workers to power at a moment’s notice. This, which we might call self-deluding sectarianism, is beautifully summed up in Cannon’s Theses on the American Revolution of 1946: ‘The revolutionary vanguard party, destined to lead this tumultuous revolutionary movement in the US, does not have to be created. It already exists, and its name is the Socialist Workers Party... The fundamental core of the professional leadership has been assembled ... The task of the SWP consists simply in this: to remain true to its program and banner ...’ This was put even more sharply by Morris Stein (who was National Secretary whilst Cannon was in prison during the war) with the words:

‘We are monopolists in the field of politics. We cannot stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution, can do it only through one party and one program ... This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretence of being a working class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to the revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery.’

If, on reading this, you do not experience something of the cold chill of the Lubyanka cellars, you almost certainly have your central heating turned up expensively high.

The middle ground in all this is occupied by Paul LeBlanc. His view is that the formative years of the SWP were the time when the opposing contenders for leadership in the working class were either Stalinism or Social Democracy. In the 1930s neither of these forces would accept work or discussion with Trotskyists, who were thus alone and must shout very loud to be heard.

Really though, the explicit sectarian vainglory in Stein is implicit in Cannon, because for good or ill he set his stamp on the SWP. Cannon was a native American revolutionary, experienced in working class politics before the founding of the CPUSA, and an influential figure within that party. He learned well and participated freely in the faction fights that enlivened the early years of American Communism, but he was always the junior partner in the combinations he joined. Early in the proceedings he became aware that advancement in the sections of the Communist International depended on choosing the right patron in its leadership. He was less concerned at the fact that Zinoviev and Stalin could impose a minority leadership on the majority of the US party, than that it was not his minority that was chosen. When it came to the much smaller world of Trotskyism, Cannon made sure that he was 110 per cent on the right side of L.D.T., and, whenever given the chance, operated in the Fourth International like a cut-price Zinoviev.

In the early years of the Left Opposition, if Cannon was the best known figure, he was, at least, associated with some other formidable personalities, the most outstanding being Max Shachtman. These two complemented each other very effectively in those formative years. Shachtman was the brilliant Socialist intellectual; witty, stylish, a ruthless polemicist and debater, and at the same time very funny and highly approachable, especially for the young. Cannon, an altogether more dour character, was given to dark depression when things were not going well, and in those moods was liable to withdraw from the struggle to commune with vast quantities of the hard stuff. Nevertheless, he was an exceptionally talented propagandist, both in print and on the platform. If Cannon was not in the same street as Shachtman intellectually, neither was Shachtman a patch on Cannon in the popular agitation stakes. Later on, others of considerable calibre joined the movement: James Burnham, A.J. Muste, Hal Draper, Felix Morrow, C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, to name just a few.

The movement has always been plagued by the proliferation of tiny groups, each with its founding guru, whose raison d’être is difficult to fathom, the quality of their cadre not discernible to the naked eye, and whose inevitable passing is unaccompanied by expressions of regret. The SWP, however, was not such an organisation. The people mentioned above would all have had some significant rôle to play in a movement that was infinitely more successful and with many more members than the SWP ever enjoyed. It was their tragedy, as it was for the rest of the Trotskyist movement, that they never connected with the working class in any but the most transitory and peripheral way. Perhaps, in general, it is true that the upper and nether millstones of Stalinism and Social Democracy ground the revolutionaries to dust, but in America Stalinism was never a mass party, and Social Democracy was even smaller. With the exception of the Teamsters, the SWP was hardly involved at all in the great upsurge of the CIO, and during the height of that union organising drive, the Trotskyists were engaged in two years of deep entry in the American Socialist Party.

None of this is to suggest that if they had had an orientation to the CIO it would have been a runaway success, but it is to say that in any set of circumstances where the revolutionary movement has a chance to connect with the workers, it should take it. You will not find the proletarian vanguard in Norman Thomas’ back pocket, any more than you will find it in Fidel’s beard, although there is at least one large petit-bourgeois behind that. The irony of the Trotskyists’ entry into the American Socialist Party is that they came out with more than double their original membership, having taken the Socialist Party’s youth movement almost lock, stock and barrel. This splendid young cadre formed the majority of Shachtman’s faction – and accompanied him out of the SWP in 1940.

The orientation to the working class is not just some fuddy-duddy old foible, it is the essence of revolutionary Marxism, but it is one of the easiest to forget in the over-heated enthusiasm for a new get-rich-quick theory. You can substitute the peasantry for the revolutionary class. You can witter on about ‘centuries of deformed workers’ states’, or Fabian-Stalinism, like Pablo; you might even see the revolution springing unchained from the junior common room; or you could hymn the praises of youth, and good luck to you mate; but none of that will have anything to do with Marxism. One of the besetting sins of our movement is what might be called ‘the Socialism of the peroration’. This is where we affirm our ‘undying faith in the working class’, and promise to ‘storm both heaven and earth’ in the very near future. Then we go home and try and think up some short cut that will save us from all the hard work, and frequent failure, of organising in the working class.

It is this sort of thing that Trotsky called substitutionism, that is, a besetting sin. In 1973 the SWP had around 1,000 members, and LeBlanc quotes someone called Sheir who reported that at that time it had 120 persons, most of them paid, working at the party HQ, with room for many more. George Novack boasted that the SWP had ‘an infrastructure for a party of about 100,000’. During the period in question, SWP branches had local branch offices and full-time organisers, and paid for their own leaflets and propaganda. The subs range was from $5 to $50 per week (with the average much closer to $5 than $50, I should think), and the balance after paying local costs was sent to the party. How the party financed its 120 full-time head office staff and all the associated expenses on this income is difficult to understand. It is even more difficult to understand why the party members kept sending the money when it is recalled that this vast army of party functionaries managed in just 12 months to increase the membership by a pathetic 140. A year later still, Barnes’ imaginative expulsion tactics had reduced the membership once more to 1,000. You pays your money, and Jack Barnes makes his choice.

Whilst we are discussing membership figures, it is quite interesting to note that the SWP never had a membership of more than 1,500, and that was the high point in 1938, as they exited from the Socialist Party. That was the time when they were claiming 2,500 at the founding congress of the Fourth International. In 1944 they had just 840 as they set out to arrange the future of the British section and control the Fourth International. The postwar SWP, whose membership was usually in the hundreds and never exceeded 1,250, threw its weight about internationally, and presumed to lecture the world on how to make the revolution. It is difficult to say who was the most deluded, the SWP for believing its own vainglory, or the rest of us for accepting it as good coin.

When Trotsky was murdered, Cannon saw himself as the natural successor to lead the forces of the Fourth International. In 1940, of course, the Fourth International had been put into lukewarm storage for the duration, but in 1944 Cannon sent his man Sam Gordon to the UK to sort out the British Trotskyists. This, Cannon’s second attempt to unify the British section of the Fourth International, involved setting up Gerry Healy as the opposition to the Haston-Grant leadership of the Revolutionary Communist Party. This silly piece of politicking is alone enough to nullify the picture of the wise leader portrayed in LeBlanc’s essays, if the fault had not been further compounded by his selection of Michel Raptis (Pablo) as the man to run the Fourth International when it was returned to Europe.

Neither of these interesting sidelights into Cannon’s legacy are mentioned in the book, although LeBlanc does treat us to examples of praise for Cannon and the SWP from ex-members of the Johnson-Forest Tendency. Now this is odd, because LeBlanc is co-editor, along with Scott McLemee, of C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism, which suggests that he is familiar with the texts of the Johnson-Forest Tendency including, presumably, The Balance Sheet Completed (subtitled Ten Years of American Trotskyism), the tendency’s final farewell to Trotskyism. Here is what Johnson-Forest had to say, amongst other things, about the SWP:

‘Finally there was forced upon us a shocking recognition of the callousness, the brutality, the lack of elementary human decency, far less revolutionary principle and vigilance to which substantial elements of the most highly placed leadership had sunk ... As we understood ourselves and where we were, the cry became unanimous: “Let us get out of here at once. It is a political gas chamber. We do not trust this political leadership to carry out its own political line. None of our comrades who is in any difficulty can trust himself to them. Even those who are not degenerate are ready to support those who are when their crimes are discovered. We do not want to discuss with them. Such a discussion can only besmirch us. Let us get out of here as quickly as we can.” We hesitated for a moment, but the final, the ultimate certainty came with the discovery that the one with the most brains, authority and experience who had come to the rescue of the politically unstable and fortified the turn to Stalinism, was also at the disposal of any degenerate who might need protection.’

Now all of that, which might put you in mind of the last days of the Roman Empire or of the Weimar Republic – or Gerry Healy – is saying that for Johnson-Forest the SWP was a moral swamp, and one would have expected that an admirer of both James P. Cannon and C.L.R. James would, if he must quote Johnson-Forest in this context, have something to say about the tendency’s final considered word on the SWP.

Alan Wald, despite his addiction to the noun-verb, does cast a rather more critical eye on the SWP. He pays due homage to the high talents of some of the Trotskyist leaders, but points out that not only were they unsuccessful in their own terms, but were also failures by almost any comparison you like to make. Dogmatism was and is almost always confused with high principle, and this is nowhere more apparent than on the tortured question of the class nature of the Stalinist states. As Wald says in a footnote on page 285: ‘None of these theories [state capitalist, bureaucratic collectivism or workers’ state – JH] persuasively accounts for all aspects of these societies ... Unfortunately, for most Trotskyists, absolute fidelity to their particular interpretation of a specific theory of Soviet-type societies is their political touchstone.’ Wald, as you will see from this, has a definite grip on reality. He sums up his final essay: ‘Trotskyism!!! is dead. Long live Trotskyism.’ I do not mind seconding that particular proposition.

For the rest, this is an inadequate book that will be all but incomprehensible to young would-be Marxists who do not have any great knowledge of Trotskyism in general, or the SWP in particular. This may be because some of the material was originally written by LeBlanc and Wald as internal bulletins in obscure faction fights in the SWP. Whatever the reason, this is a pity, because there is the beginning of a worthwhile critique that might help us all to greater clarity and effectiveness.


Last updated on 30.9.2011