Balance SHeet of Trotskyism in the United States, 1940-1947 by C L R James 1947
The Workers Party in 1940 maintained the fiction that it subscribed to the Transitional Program for the United States. Yet the driving force of the split was the conviction that it could build a party with its own methods (then unformulated) against “the bureaucratic conservatism” of Cannon. In its document “War and Bureaucratic Conservatism,” it mobilized its followers around “the justified discontentment of the membership with the sluggishness and apathy of the leadership, with its failure to elaborate or carry out a program of action, in particular the failure to make a living reality out of the Transition Program ... (Struggle for the Proletarian Party, p. 277).
That was the perspective of the Minority – to show how to build the party. They gave their analysis of the Transitional Program. Cannon, they claimed, had forced its immediate endorsement by the Political Committee, They wrote:
“Shachtman, Burnham and others, including Goldman at that time, insisted that it meant nothing merely to ‘accept’ the transition program; that in incorporating it into the life of our own party, distinction would have to be made between those parts of it which were directly applicable to the United States, and those parts which were not, between those slogans which were of a general propagandistic and educational character and those suitable for immediate agitational uses; and they insisted further that the concrete meaning of many of the general concepts of the program, had to be sought in terms of living developments in this country.” (Struggle for the Proletarian Party, p.276)
Not a word about the whole world conception which lay behind the Program.
“It took nearly a year to force through the conception that the movement and slogans arising in the labor movement for ‘Thirty hours, thirty dollars,’ ‘Thirty hours’ work at forty hours’ pay,’ etc., were concretizations of the general transition slogan for ‘A sliding scale of wages and hours!’ It took a year ‘before it was possible to treat the slogan for a workers’ guard as suitable for anything but, the most vague, and general educational propaganda.”
And then came this passage which the Minority would soon illuminate in practice,
“As a consequence of this thoroughly sterile approach, the transition program has as a whole not to this day become a significant living factor in our movement.”
The Minority was going to make the Transitional Program a “living factor” by giving it the interpretation which the opposition to Trotsky had given it in 1938. It should ,be remembered that it was precisely in 1939 that the growth of Fascism and Fascist bands in the United States had made Trotsky’s Slogan of workers’ guards an immediate, practical necessity.
Convinced of the rightness of their conceptions of the Transitional Program, the Minority denied “categorically that the Cannon group has the slightest right to be regarded as the representative of Trotsky’s views in a .genuinely political sense.” It proposed to substitute for Cannon’s “conservative politics ... bold, flexible, critical and experimental politics – in a word scientific politics.” It proposed to cure “the disease” of “Canonism” by “a specific program of action.”
Thus, long before the war, long before the proletariat had failed to make the post-war revolution, long before retrogression, the W. P. began its existence by a revolt against the revolutionary content of the Transitional Program.
Free of Cannon’s “conservatism,” the W. P. leadership immediately showed that it was permeated to the marrow with conservatism and American pragmatism. Characteristic of the leadership in general, and of Shachtman in particular, is the fact that it usually acts empirically and formulates policy as it goes along. But by rapid degrees the political level of the weekly press became such that members of the National Committee could say, without being contradicted, that it was the opinion of the workers that Labor Action was not a very radical paper. The organizational practice corresponded. Thousands upon thousands of papers were distributed in front of factories or to workers in general. What became of them, what was to become of them, how if was possible for the small insignificant membership of the W. P. to take any advantage of this enormous expenditure of time, money and energy, no one raised these questions seriously, far less attempted to answer them. In union work the same principles, or lack of principles prevailed. In Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the party embarked upon ambitious ventures of high union politics. These resulted in the formation and active participation in “progressive groups” and attempts by three or four comrades directly to organize the control of unions of thousands of workers without any serious mass base.
By the fall of 1943 this type of politics, empirically governing the life of the party, was politically embodied in the American resolution for the 1944 convention. The Johnson-Forest tendency, which had accepted the empirical agitational practice, met its theoretical embodiment with restrained but implacable opposition. It threatened the Political Committee to present a resolution of its own unless the resolution was drastically altered. Changes were made and we voted for the resolution under protest. At the convention, however, the party was restless under the strain of mass work, no results and what it expressed as “the need for more socialism in the paper.” The unrest continued, and in the fall of 1944, Erber, in bitter opposition to Shachtman, presented a document of one hundred pages to, the leadership. This is the genuine political theory of the Workers Party. Erber put down what was implicit and not – so implicit in the split of 1940. We print only our summary.
“The greatest danger to the party’s growth and development at the present time is represented by the small mass party conception of Comrade Erber. For over three years Comrade Erber has carried on a persistent and sharp struggle in the National Committee over the method of building the party. In a related series of documents he has accused the party leadership of pessimism, dimmed vision ... lack of sweeping imagination ... satisfaction with crumbs when loaves are available, routinism... conservative traditionalism ... we are lucky to exist at all spirit.’ He accuses the leadership of lagging behind the organization. ‘Nowhere does the lack of boldness and imagination strike one so sharply as in our topmost circles. Routinism and tradition seem to seek their final refuge there.’ He has for three years denounced the party for having no perspective. Comrade Erber’s views are the fruit of a theory built upon his conception of the past of our movement. For Erber, ‘Trotskyism has been synonymous with ‘sectarianism’. For him the conservatism of Cannon was the typical expression of Trotskyism on the organizational side. ‘The sterility of Cannon is the logical result of the ‘sectarianism,’ ‘doctrinairism,’ rigid, ideological shell of Trotsky. Trotsky himself was saved from this logical conclusion of his doctrine only by his ‘idealism and common sense.’ According to Comrade Erber, the first Four Congresses of the Communist International and the history of Bolshevism have not been submitted to critical study but are viewed as ‘sacrosanct.’ ‘The WP is not and should not be a Trotskyist Party in the sense that is usually meant. It is from this conception of the past of our movement, elaborated in lengthy and comprehensive documents, that Erber has consistently supported the present Labor Action. It is on this basis that he wishes the party to. Transform itself into a ‘small mass party’.
“The theories of Erber on party-building are dangerous because the majority of the leadership in actuality has no other perspective to offer to the party as a guide to party building. Defining propaganda as polemic against rival parties, Comrade Shachtman rejects the conception of the party as a revolutionary propaganda organization. This rejection is the essence of Comrade Erber’s conception.
“The party must realize the close connection between the theoretical heresies of Erber, the equivocal position of Shachtman and the confusion on party building which is now rife in the party. The party must unhesitatingly reject these ideas and their manifestations, open or concealed, in all aspects of party life.” (“The Task of Building The American Bolshevik Party.”)
A few weeks after Erber’s document, the Johnson-Forest tendency challenged the whole empirical, agitational conception in a document entitled “Education, Agitation, and Propaganda” and later more concretely in another document “Building the Bolshevik Party,” the title of which was not in the slightest degree rhetorical. The party itself was in ferment. At the Workers’ Conference in the summer of 1945 the party was split three ways. The leadership could not on all occasions command a majority, half the opposition supporting the timid Erber, the other half supporting Johnson-Forest. Challenged from below and on both sides, Shachtman for the first time in the party’s existence presented a rounded analysis and program for ‘party building’.
1. “We are handicapped primarily by the fact that we do not operate within a politically-organized working-class. That is point A.B.C., and all other letters down to Z.” (Bulletin VI, July 80, 1945, P. 10)
By a stroke of the pen the conservatism of the proletariat was substituted for the conservatism of Cannon.
2. The failure to grow was due to “lack of forces.”
Thus the whole conflict with the conservatism of “Canonism” over the building of the party was liquidated. It ended less flamboyantly but as ignominiously as it had begun.
What were the political perspectives behind this thinly disguised confession of total failure? Said Shachtman:
“A brief consideration of the perspectives of the class struggle in this country and the prospects of the party, only emphasize the importance of developing a leading party cadre.”
“The reappearance of mass unemployment, no matter how long or short its duration will bring with it a certain weakening of the trade union movement, especially of the CIO. More important is the fact that it will bring with it a weakening of pure-and-simple trade unionism. ...
“Two: in all likelihood, we shall see the reappearance of an unemployed movement. In all likelihood this movement, or a large section of it will be connected with the existing trade unions, especially in the case of the CIO ...
“We must from the very outset be in the new unemployed movement working in it, seeking to influence and lead it, and seeking to recruit the best militants from its ranks.”
This was Shachtman’s perspective of the class struggle in 1945. The tremendous social crisis of the post-war, the fate of humanity posed in every civilized country, the signs of the coming social upheaval in the United States, which the Johnson-Forest tendency had been hammering at for the past two years, all this was as remote from the leadership of the W. P. as the stratosphere.
From this complete bankruptcy sprang a new orientation. Johnson had proposed that the party recognize its function as a group making propaganda for revolutionary action to the masses. Erber’s grievance against Shachtman was that the paper did not take seriously its mass agitational function. Shachtman declared the party to be “still in a propagandist stage, that is, in the ‘intermediate’ stage between it and that of an agitational group.” Agitational because Shachtman, though more careful than Erber in safeguarding himself with formulae, in reality shared Erber’s views for all practical purposes. But the party was propagandist too.
“. . . intensive propagandist activity, that is ... the systematic presentation and defense of the theoretical and political position of our party as against those of the rival party, by polemic and criticism. In other words . . . an emphasis on the particular position of our own party, on those points where it differs with (and is, in our view, superior to’ or correct as against) the S.W.P. This is demanded for two connected reasons. First, to justify the independent existence of our party in the eyes of the radical workers and thereby to facilitate their recruitment by us instead , of by our rival. Second, to educate and train our party members, especially new recruits, not only; in what we have in common with other radical organizations, but, in what we counterpose to the others.”
What was unique here was this sectarian conception of propaganda. It served a definite practical purpose. If oriented the party towards factional conflict with the S.W.P. Since 1941 the membership, men and women in. industry, had worked and contributed as no membership in the United States has ever worked and contributed. As Shachtman himself .confessed, it was apathetic to all the “unique contributions” of Shachtman on international politics and on the defensive before the small Johnson-Forest Minority. From 1941 to 1945 the party, engrossed in work and hopes among the proletariat, had had singularly little interest in “Cannonism.” It was only with the frank admission of no perspectives (until the Labor Party or the unemployed movement) that the struggle for “the unique contributions” and against “Cannonism” became the main concern of the party leadership. From this source came the genuinely “unique” theory of the cadre. “Bureaucratic Conservatism” could no longer endure. The democratic dynamists had signally failed. The “bureaucratic jungle” was substituted.
As the factional campaign increased, so the political level declined. By the Convention of 1946, the political resolution on America, as finally decided upon after weeks of discussion in the Political Committee and during and after a plenum, was the most conservative and poverty-stricken resolution on the, United States ever advanced in the Trotskyist movement. This more than anything else enabled us to understand the full significance of Shachtman’s “unique contributions” on the international scene. This enabled us to grasp concretely and clearly the distinction between the W.P. and the S.W.P. By this time factional lines had been drawn. But it was here that the membership as a whole was able to comprehend all the divergences which, had previously appeared on other questions. It was here that we began to be able to see what was impeding the clarification of the unity negotiations. And, as we shall show, it is precisely here that we have been able immediately to understand what is now taking place in the International.
If is precisely our concrete experiences on the national scene, illuminated by the international theories of Bolshevism, that have enabled us to understand the concrete developments in international Trotskyism. Only political idiots can fail to see that Shachtman is now seeking to cover up the national bankruptcy of his party by looking for .allies to right and to left on the international scene.
What is politically and organizationally characteristic of the international politics of the W.P. is not so much what it has said but what it has not said and has preferred to allow others to say for it. It is Characteristic that for two years beginning with October, 1944, nearly 100,000 words oh all aspects of international politics written by the authors of the theory of historical retrogression, appeared in The New International. They expounded their doctrine with the utmost freedom. Not a line by Shachtman or any of his colleagues has ever appeared in opposition. An article of 12,000 words by J. R. Johnson discussing the theory appeared in The New International for December, 1946 and January 1947. The retrogressionists themselves do not answer. Not a word comes from Shachtman.
The Fourth International has merely passed a resolution condemning the theory of historical retrogression, and one or two comrades have written polemical articles dealing mainly with the democratic-revolution nonsense. Only the Johnson-Forest tendency hat attempted to answer the theory in the manner it needed to be answered. It is clear by now, we hope, that retrogressionism is the real dividing line in the International. Those who say that the theory of retrog[r]ession is false but that the proletariat, today, 1947, is full of “democratic illusions,” etc. are practising a shamefaced ill-concealed retrogressionism. Any discussion of the international politics of the W.P. that does not deal with the theory in fundamental terms is a waste of time. It will be ultimately necessary to do the same in the International. In 1940 as soon as the opposition seriously entered upon ‘the struggle, Trotsky posed all questions in the most fundamental terms. Today the roles are almost reversed.’ The most fundamental presentation of a political view now before the International is the thesis of the IKD. We alone have met them on their own ground and have gone far beyond. It is an astonishing failure on the part of the International. It will have to be corrected. Because it is here that all the retrogressionists and semi-retrogressionists can be dragged into the open and beaten to pieces.
The theory of retrogression can be summed up in a sentence: the decline of capitalist society has been such that it has unfitted the proletariat for the socialist revolution. In any and all of its forms this theory is the greatest enemy of our movement today – the Menshevism of our time.
The contemporary development of the theory will teach us much. If appeared first in the writings of Bruno R., an Italian Marxist who had seen the complete defeat of the Italian proletariat. After the defeat of June 1940i and the domination of German. Fascism, certain French Trotskyist leaders capitulated to the idea of some sort of Fascism as the next stage of modern society. The German comrades began to develop their theory a year or two after the destruction of the German labor movement. In the United States, where the proletariat has for so many generations failed to express itself decisively as an independent social and political force, the theory of retrogression has taken a special form. Its most vigorous exponent is also an ex-Trotskyist – Burnham. He has advocated his brand as “managerial society.”
Small as is the number of our cadres in every country, yet a valuable conclusion emerges from this. The most vigorous the most active proponents of the theory of retrogression are those who have seen the proletarian movement in their own country destroyed, or as in the United States, have never known an active political movement of the proletariat.
In the case of the United States, the key figure for the understanding of the W.P. is Burnham. Let us trace his political evolution so that certain American and European comrades may grasp the inner evolution of the American experience.
1) Burnham, before 1940, had agitated inside the S.W.P. for what he called “the campaign party,” i.e., the “small mass party,” essentially what the W.P. became as soon as it split.
2) Burnham in 1937 opposed the conception of Russia as a workers’ state but agreed to defend it as still “progressive.”
3) With the Hitler-Stalin pact he blames Cannon’s “bureaucratic conservatism” for the failure in the United States.
4) He at the same time declares Russia “a managerial society,” not to be defended.
5) He develops the thesis that the whole world is headed for “managerial society.”
Shachtman is a revolutionary and; Burnham is not. Shachtman has mercilessly condemned, Burnham since Burnham left the party in 1940 and genuinely despises him. But Shachtman’s evolution has followed Burnham’s stage by stage, from the campaign party to the days when he called Russia bureaucratic state-socialism, still progressive, to the period when he declared (New International, November, 1943) that from the time of the appearance of the “Three Theses,” (the first statement of the theory and practice of retrogression) he had agreed with them. If Shachtman is “following” any consistent pattern it is the pattern of Carter, the real theorist of the W.P. Burnham is the adventurous American petty-bourgeois, unable to embrace Bolshevism but, until a few months ago, unable to reconcile himself to American capitalism. Burnham, Carter and Shachtman follow the same line of evolution, Shachtman and Carter, however, always stopping short to try to reconcile these ideas with struggle against the bourgeoisie.
The development of Burnham shows concretely that although the theory of retrogressionism was given a finished consistent form by the Germans, it found fertile soil in the revolutionary movement in the United States. But the W.P. has never been able to take position on it. Its European followers, with living political proletarian movements around them, condemn the theory out of hand and then adapt themselves to its ideas. The W.P. for three years has been unable to condemn the theory. Shachtman, in 1944, actually proposed to the Political Committee of the W.P. a motion endorsing the thesis (except for its views on Russia as state-capitalist). The Political Committee balked. Shachtman declared that in his writings in The New International, he had been merely developing these same ideas. He could understand the opposition of the S.WP. and of Johnson but not that of. the W.P. Majority! The Political committee objected to this. Shachtman pressed the point. Briber silenced him by the statement that it .Was impossible for Shachtman to convince them that they had thought what they denied thinking. The doubts of the Political Committee, aided most certainly by the already expressed determination of the Johnson-Forest tendency to oppose the theory without reserve, helped to defeat Shachtman’s motion. He then called a special meeting of the New York membership to announce his. individual adherence to the theory (with the exception only of Russia). For two years, under constant attack by the Johnson-Forest tendency, the leadership could say nothing to the party either in public or internally. Only when the German comrades announced formally to the W.P. that they would, if necessary, form a new organization outside of the Fourth International, then and only then, Shachtman wrote in the Internal Bulletin some cautious notes disassociating the party and himself from them. But as the recent struggle in the International has developed and the W.P. begins to feel that it has allies against “Cannonism,” it becomes bolder. The latest issue of The New International contains the following by Erber:
“Trotsky’s views on the eve of the war were of this general character. Trotsky not only recognized the retrogressive process and the key role of Stalinism within it, but made this recognition an important consideration in his calculations. As a result he was acutely aware of the growing contradiction between his views on the working class nature of the Russian state and the implications of his analysis of retrogression. He resolved this dilemma by postponing any further theoretical conclusions until the second world war would be concluded and its political repercussions were known. His brilliant article, ‘U.S.S.R. and the War,’ written a few weeks, after the war began, was his final rounded presentation of the subject of retrogression and the nature of the Russian state. In this article he poses the entire question from the point of view that either the war will conclude with a revolution, in which case both the problems of the class character of the Stalinist state and the problem of retrogression will be automatically resolved, or the proletariat will fail to take power and require a complete re-analysis of Marxist fundamentals, including the possibility of a world of bureaucratic slave states. The actual results of World War II are somewhere between the two alternatives which Trotsky posed. The failure of the proletariat to make a revolution in post-war Europe does not demonstrate its historic incapacity to play the role which Marx assigned to it. Yet the continued and accelerated retrogressive process places a question mark over the ability of ħhe proletariat to reassemble a revolutionary leadership and take power before it is overtaken and destroyed by the disintegrative tendency of capitalist civilization., of which the threatening atomic war is the most potent force (The Class Nature of the Polish state – II August l947 p.178n)
That Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were all believers in the theory of retrogression has long been a theme of Shachtman seeking to cover up his badly broken fences. That Trotsky, “the brilliant” Trotsky, was a proponent of it in 1940, we can for the moment ignore. What is important here, is the most outspoken, the most brazen statement so far of the “great question mark over the ability of the proletariat to reassemble a revolutionary leadership.” The proletariat faces “destruction.” The coming War is a factor in that “destruction” of the proletariat, Only those who know the long history of the theory of retrogression in the W.P. can understand what such a declaration by the W.P means at this time. They now feel at last strong enough. It is because they have discovered or think they have discovered it allies. Let these allies, actual or prospective, recognize in all its nakedness what they are encouraging.
The W.P. leaders are not following Burnham, they are impelled in the same direction by the same social forces. But they are opposed to bourgeois society, they cannot go all the way, so that they half half-way and raise their big question mark. They propose that the revolutionaries of the world prepare to build the revolutionary party by informing the world proletariat that events are more and more demonstrating that the proletariat is incapable of building the party.
De te fabula narratur. It is not inevitable that all or the majority of “the centrifugal elements” in the International follow this course. We would not for one moment say that.
But this much is now history, the course that has been followed by the W.P. Its most vocal and representative spokesmen from 1938 to the present day, with remarkable consistency, have gravitated toward the most conservative, the most reactionary, the most defeatist currents in our movement. The signs that similar currents are now at various stages of development in Europe are clear. Those who do not know where they are headed now have the opportunity to learn. And those who have the responsibility of resisting these currents must recognize that their method so far has been totally inadequate.
The Johnson-Forest tendency has used other methods, and has repeatedly silenced the W.P. speakers, set them eating their own words, contradicting each other and maintaining an embittered silence over reiterated challenges, written and spoken.
As a result, today, in 1947, after nearly three years, it is utterly impossible to get a spoken, far less a written, answer from any leading representative of the W.P. on the statement by which Trotsky drew the dividing line in 1940. Does the proletariat have an instinctive elemental drive to, reconstruct society on Communist beginnings? No answer. Is this an organic part of the psychology of workers? No answer. Is this an epoch of crises and wars? Was Trotsky correct when he said that in this epoch the instinct of the workers to reconstruct society can explode with great violence and rapidity? They twist and squirm and before their own membership they cannot answer. The agile Shachtman has developed a technique whereby he says whatever is most suitable at the moment. But when pushed to the wall he has one last resort all this may be true but there is no party! We shall demonstrate to the hilt that it is only by carrying the attack, on the one hand, to the most fundamental principles of Marxism as manifested, today, and on the other, by the most ruthless exposure of the national roots and national bankruptcy of the disrupters that they will be corrected, disciplined, or utterly disgraced. It is important to bear that combination in mind. The international tendencies express themselves in a strictly national form. What are the international perspectives of the W.P.? The latest stage in the evolution of Burnham supplies us with an invaluable guide.
Stalinist Russia and the’ Stalinist parties threaten to dominate Europe. American capitalism during the war still further astonished the world by its economic power. Burnham, a typical example of American individualism, and absolutely incapable of seeing the proletarian solution, is frantic with terror at the prospect of a Stalinist Europe today which might extend God knows where tomorrow. (He therefore turns back to the now amply demonstrated economic power of American capital and calls upon it to mobilize the world against the Stalinist danger.
Shachtman and the W.P., so far as their class alignments allow them to turn to the same source for solution. Their international policy absolutely refuses to foresee and to recognize that the European economy is shattered beyond repair, and that in countries like France and Italy the class antagonisms are such that ultimate solutions have been concretely posed for years. They do not propose American economic intervention. But they base themselves on “a recovery” financed by American capitalism. The “recovery” is to be the foundation for a strengthening .of the labor movement. The misery of the masses thus alleviated, the Stalinist domination will decline. The workers will flow back to the Social-Democracy and the Social-Democracy will give some stability to the bourgeois-democratic regime. The Stalinists are to be supported to the Power only in case the Social-Democracy is included in the government for the Social-Democracy will have the backing of the all-powerful United States. The European comrades must enter the Social-Democracy and use the precious time gained by the American-financed “recovery” to educate the workers. Furthermore this export of capital will enable the American bourgeoisie to stave off the economic crisis.
The backwardness of the American proletariat is an integral part of the whole conception. Unless it were backward it might precipitate a struggle in which without a revolutionary party it would certainly be defeated. This would bring the whole structure tumbling to the ground. So that the correct step for the American proletariat, according to this schematism is to build a Labor Party. Then here too, presumably, there can be entry and a long, (perhaps twenty years?) perspective of patient building. Burnham has turned to American economic power to smash Stalinism. The W.P. expects that this same economic power will maintain democracy all over the world and give the revolutionary movement a chance to build the cadres. No wonder that over this structure of monstrous non-sense the empirical authors themselves place the big question mark. This is the basis of the international politics of the W.P, and in various forms will turn out to be the basis of the politics of most of its allies. Discussions about boom and stabilization, about entry or non-entry in Britain, even about Poland, the national question, these are important and sometimes vital. But these by themselves, like the futile discussion on democratic demands, merely obscure the fundamental issues and play into the hands, of the disrupters. The mortal crisis of bourgeois society has posed all questions in fundamental terms today ^he most abstract theory and the most concrete practice are so closely allied that they cannot be separated The Johnson-Forest tendency has learnt this because of the method by which it has approached politics from the very beginning, its close study of Trotsky’s method in 1940, and from its own hard experiences with the W.P. For our movement at this stage there can be no other way.