Balance SHeet of Trotskyism in the United States, 1940-1947 by C L R James 1947

VII. Lessons of the American Experience for the International

The American parties, we must repeat, are no longer affiliated to the Fourth international. But the reactionary laws of the U.S. government cannot prevent the flow of ideas and mutual influencing of parties and groups which have the same ideas. We influence each other because we are interested in what we have to say, in the endorsement, refutation, development of ideas and the organizational development of tendencies. No bourgeois law can prevent that. And it is because the American experience is so valuable for all who believe in our ideas that we make the most direct connection here.

Let us briefly summarize our analysis so far:

1. The split in 1940 was motivated substantially by the conviction that the party was stagnating and that the Minority would be able to build the party by dynamic instead of conservative methods.

2. the political conceptions of the Minority as exemplified by Shachtman were of an extreme conservatism which did not begin with the split but reflected an undialectical approach to the American environment. Time and lack of success only developed what was already present, before 1940. Trotsky’s summing up of the differences between the two tendencies as revolving around the revolutionary perspectives for the proletariat has been convincingly demonstrated to be correct.

3. It is. upon its false political perspectives, and its organizational failures that the W.P. has developed its utterly degrading organizational conceptions and campaigns.

4. The manifestations of degeneration in the W.P. have taken an extreme form because of the special conditions of the United States – the absence of a Social-Democratic Party. These have developed what are world-wide tendencies in a specially concentrated and therefore exceptionally instructive form.

5. Trotsky’s method of meeting the crisis in 1940 was to combine the most profound political analysis and theoretical intransigence and practical program with the greatest organizational flexibility.

6. The great need today in the United States is to do the same on the basis of the programmatic perspectives of the American revolution introduced by Cannon in the speech “The Coming American Revolution.”

De te fabula narratur. The almost identical pattern is being repeated all over the International today, except for the type of struggle that Trotsky embodied in his articles of 1940.

It might appear that there is a wide gulf between the W.P. defeatists and the defensist French Majority, between the W.P. terror before Stalinism and the French Majority political capitulation to Stalinism. Nothing of the kind. These are twin brothers who. have grown up in different milieus.

Not so crassly as the W.P., the, French Majority, with less excuse, has been overwhelmed by the delay of the revolution and the growth of Stalinism. It is convinced that the masses are full of “democratic illusions.” Why then isn’t it as fanatically anti-Stalinist as the W.P.? The answer lies on the whole past and present situation of France.

The history of modern France is the history of revolution and counter-revolution. The French proletariat has been out in 1789, in 1792, in 1793, twice in 1795, in 1830, in 1848, in 1871, and m 1944. Its history is the diametrical opposite of the history of the proletariat in the United States. France, has had constitutions, innumerable, revolutionary dictatorships, two Bonpartist empires, republican bourgeois-democracy, a bourgeois-democratic monarchy. In the last dozen years France has experienced the fascist-proletarian clash in the streets in 1934, invasion of the factories in 1935, the general strike in 1938, the counter-revolutionary coup d’etat of Retain in 1940, complete occupation in 1942, armed insurrection in 1944. (This is the country of which not only Shachtman, but the French Majority can say that the proletariat is still ridden with “democratic illusions.”) But because their historical origin is the revolutionary history of France and the recent violent crisis, the French believers in “democratic illusions” cannot comfort themselves with Shachtman’s illusions about “democratic interlude” and the parliamentary democratic machinery. The situation is intolerable. It must change. They therefore capitulate to the strongest force – Stalinism The paper shows this and the writings of ex-Trotskyists like Naville and the circle around him show the specific pressure to which the French comrades are subjected. In the United States they would be Shachtmanites and in France a Shachtman would be a member of the French Majority.

The same forces are expressing themselves in Britain in a specifically British way. The British Majority has promulgated a monstrous series ‘of illusions about “recovery” and “stabilization” in Europe. It has elaborated theses about “the democratic illusions” of the British workers, and in 1946 it produced a resolution in which it warned against revolutionary expectations and put as a strategic landmark in the British perspective the elections of 1950. This was just before the fuel crisis opened up the abyss before the eyes of the British workers. This was bad enough. But the Fourth International has never had such an experience within all the years of its existence as has recently been given it by the British Party in 1947. In the same week that it was passing Conference resolutions about the illusions of the British proletariat in regard to the Labor Government and the lulling benefits it had received from this government, the Labor Prime Minister (and the leader of the opposition) were informing the British public of the details of an economic crisis which threatened the existence of the nation and would impose years of privation greater than those of the war. It is Shachtmanism over again, bowing before the British parliamentary – democratic tradition, the strongest tradition in the British society as the French Majority bows before Stalinism and the W.P. Majority before American petty-bourgeois radicalism.

We with our experience in the United States, are not surprised that exactly among these elements there are the greatest hostility to “methods,” “lack of self-criticism” and “bureaucracy” and all the organizational counterparts to loss of revolutionary perspective, and the incapacity of understanding in 1947 what Trotsky was insisting on in 1938. These tendencies, functioning in countries where proletarian parties and traditions exist, have been held in check from the more ridiculous blunders of the W.P. But it is the extreme example that best illuminates the trend. As Trotsky said in his first article on the 1940 crisis, “It is necessary to call things by their right names.” The French .Majority and the British Majority show too many signs of beginning in 1947 where the W.P. began in 1939. It is not suggested that they must inevitably follow the same course. But the Johnson-Forest tendency can speak with assurance of this. If they do not call a halt, but pursue the line to the end, their degeneration and bankruptcy will be more swift and complete than the degeneration and bankruptcy of the W.P.


It remains to outline very briefly what is needed to check these tendencies, precisely because this is needed not only to check these tendencies but to build the leadership of the social revolution.

For the Johnson-Forest Minority the proletariat today is not in any sense of the word “backward” and is devoid of democratic or pacifist illusions. There can be no compromise whatever on this. The proletariat has illusions but they are revolutionary illusions. It is ready for revolution today as never before. This is its response to the stage of development of society. The believers in “democratic illusions” will react violently. Let them. By the time they have found the arguments to meet this direct challenge, they will have nothing under their feet.

In 1921 Trotsky had to deal with another type of those who believed that the masses “were not ready.” He met them not with petty arguments but with the full Bolshevik armory.

“For if the masses, who have gone through the long preparatory school of political and trade union struggle and who then passed through the four years school of slaughter, have not matured for revolution, then when and how will they ever mature? Do Merrheim and the others think perhaps that victorious Clemenceau will create within the walls of the capitalist state a network of academies for the socialist education of the masses? If capitalism reproduces from one generation to the next the chains of wage slavery, then the proletariat in its deepest layers carries over darkness and ignorance from generation to generation. If the proletarian masses could attain a high mental and spiritual development under capitalism, then capitalism wouldn’t be so bad after all and there would be no need of social revolution. The proletariat must have a revolution precisely because capitalism keeps it in mental and spiritual bondage. Under the leadership of the advanced layer the immature masses will reach maturity during the revolution. Without the revolution they will fall into prostration and society as a whole will decay.” (The First Five Years of the Communist International, p. 72)

The argument today is not about Bonapartism, or little discussions about the Leninist use of “democratic demands” or the politics of the democratic-political revolution, or about statistics of the boom or partial boom. Today the fundamental movement of the proletariat is social, its reaction to the stage of development of society. Trotsky in 1940 foresaw the full scope of the crisis for which bourgeois society was heading. He said that if the proletariat could not seize power in the crisis, then it was impossible to conceive circumstances in which it could. He said further that if the revolution did not come during or immediately after the war, then we would have to admit that the Stalinist bureaucracy was the precursor of a new ruling class and we would have to admit that the fundamental premises of .Marxism were Utopian. By “immediately,” Trotsky could not possibly have meant a point in time, one month, six months two years, as the metaphysical petty-bourgeois idiots believe. .He meant a stage in the development of the class struggle, a point at which one could say that some sort of social stability had been restored, some acceptance by the masses of the social order as still viable. No such point has been reached. There is no sign of it. If the “democratic illusionists” believe that Europe and the world are not trembling on the edge of an abyss, let them say so. If they believe that the world is trembling on the edge of an abyss, and the masses still believe in private property, bourgeois parliamentary democracy and the United Nations as a means of stopping war, let them say so. We will draw the conclusions for them. But further evasion on these fundamental issues has now become intolerable.


Trotsky said further that if there were no revolutionary developments after the war, all parties would degenerate. Today two years after the end of the war, all over the International movement, those who had regarded Trotsky’s analysis as a promissory note of successful revolution on a given day are beginning the process of degeneration. They are expressing the same defeatism, historic pessimism, petty-bourgeois impatience and empiricism which the W.P., overwhelmed by the defeats culminating in the Stalin-Hitler pact, expressed in the split of 1940.

Trotsky’s prognosis was absolutely correct. We live in the reality of it. And it demands from us the same firmness in revolutionary perspective and the same profound concept of the self-mobilization of the masses with which Trotsky anticipated the reality in 1938-1940. Where has the International faced the sceptics and the doubters and the “democratic illusionists” with the philosophical, economic and social analysis on the same level as the sceptics and the doubters? Boom? No, no boom. Democratic illusions? No, no democratic illusions. If in 1940 Trotsky had met the Minority on that basis, the results, would have been catastrophic. The whole theoretical need has been lifted to a far higher level than was possible in 1940 because .of the objective concreteness of the relations. If, as the bourgeois world says, humanity faces destruction, if man has reached an ultimate stage in his development, if the ultimate truths of Marxism are in course of being tested once and for all, then to fail to relate these ultimate truths to objective reality, to fail to tell the workers about them in the most direct and concrete manner, to fail to face the doubters and the sceptics with fundamental questions posed in the most ruthless manner, is to renounce the, only means of calling doubters and sceptics to their senses or of routing them completely. Despite the very serious mistakes of Munis, his concrete program shows that he recognizes this revolutionary mobilization as the need of the hour.

The central question of the British ‘Conference was the question of entry or non-entry into the Labor Party. The central question, prepared for a year in advance, should have been the final blows at the unbelievably false approach of the whole British party to the world crisis and the bankruptcy of the British economy. This is the road to the solution of the entry question. .Without this entry or no entry solves nothing.

The most striking features of the present political scene is the tremendous social and political mobilization of the masses in France and Italy in the Stalinist parties. Stalinism has not made these movements. These movements have made Stalinism. To approach them as Stalinist phenomena is absolutely false. They are a product of the crisis. Similar movements can take place in the United States under reformist leaderships other than the Stalinists. They represent the proletariat on its road from the depths and burdens of barbarous capitalism to the mastery of society. Where is the social analysis of this, the outstanding social movement of our time?

Said Trotsky in 1921:

“Millions of new workers are streaming into the trade union. In England the great flood tide has doubled the union membership, which at the present has reached the figure of 5,200,000. In France the number of union members has grown from 400,000 on the eve of the war to 2,000,000. What changes does this numerical growth of the organized workers introduce into the policy of syndicalism?

“’the workers join the trade unions solely for the sake of immediate material gains,’ reply the conciliators. This theory is false from beginning to end. The great influx of workers into the trade unions is elicited not by petty, day-to-day questions, but by the colossal fact of the World War. The working masses, not only the top layers but the lowest depths as well, are roused and alarmed by the greatest historical upheaval. Each individual proletarian has sensed to a never equaled degree his helplessness in the face of the mighty imperialist machine. The urge to establish ties, the Urge to unification and consolidation of forces has manifested itself with unprecedented power. Hence flows the surge of millions of workers into the trade unions or into the Soviets of Deputies, i.e., into such organizations as do not demand political preparation but represent the most general and most direct expression of the proletarian class struggle.” (Ibid. P. 73)

There is more to be learnt from this than in the thousands of words Germain uses to refute Shachtman’s nonsensical theories about the Stalinist parties being totalitarian parties.

On the question of Germany can be seen all the weaknesses of the International. The retrogressionists have loudly demanded a “self-criticism” of the International for its “mistakes” on the German revolution. The Johnson-Forest tendency has not yielded and will not give way one millimeter to them on this. After the defeat of Stalingrad, the German nation faced the proletarian revolution or complete ruin. In this great crisis of Germany and of Europe we urged and advocated the revolution. But it failed. The only criticism we have to make is the republication today of every document in which we urged it, coupled with the most unmitigated exposure and denunciation of any revolutionary tendency which showed the slightest hesitation or uncertainty on this question.

This is not only a question of the past. Germany is a touchstone of revolutionary method and perspective. In 1943, in our resolution on the European question, we stated categorically that only the united revolutionary proletariat would be able to rebuild Europe, otherwise Europe would not be rebuilt at all. We are only too ready to discuss with those who wish to argue otherwise. Now, today Europe is a broken continent and the German people are the most broken of the European peoples. Yet, as we pointed out in 1943, whatever its conditions today the German proletariat is the only class in Germany that can lead the nation. And what is its future? That depends upon the European proletariat, at present the proletariat of Italy, France and tomorrow, perhaps Spain. A revolutionary development in any one of these countries would set the whole of Western Europe afire and at a single stroke lift the German proletariat to its feet, and face the occupying powers with a crisis which they could not solve. There is no other force that can do it. That is the only future for Europe. The slogan for the Socialist United States of Europe becomes a concrete slogan, not one for Manifestoes, but one which must be knit into the daily agitational routine. It is not possible to say (except for Munis) that this is understood. The bourgeoisie has taken its “Marshall Plan” more seriously than the International has taken the Socialist United States of Europe.

The opportunists can be recognized by the burning enthusiasm with which they announce that the revolutionary wave has passed. If even this is true, which it most certainly is not, we would like to ask them if the counter-revolutionary wave has also passed. We would ask them also if there is any major country about which they are able to state with confidence that one year from today, an economic strike in a major industry cannot be transformed into a general strike and pose the ultimate-solution. Through any weakness or hesitation the opportunists slip like eels. Faced with the revolutionary evaluation, they fly off and pose sarcastically the problems of the insurrection. Brought down to earth, they protest that while, of course, they agree with the strategic perspective, they are fighting only for realism on concrete practical questions. When the concrete questions are related to the strategic question, they blame the backward proletariat. When the proletariat is absolved, they blame the absence of the party. There is not one of their tricks that the Johnson-Forest tendency does not know. If is these which unite them, not the Russian question on which they have every conceivable variety of positions and which they manipulate to defend their reactionary world conceptions.

The Russian position of the Johnson-Forest tendency is part of our world revolutionary conception. We adopted it clearly and firmly in 1941 and have elaborated it as no position on Russia has been elaborated since Trotsky’s. We have known and shall know how to advocate it, to wait for historical justification and to govern ourselves always by the political and organizational needs of our movement at a given moment. We will use our world revolutionary conceptions to pursue Menshevism in our movement in its national hideouts. Our tactics differ from Trotsky’s in 1940 to this extent, that while we shall make no compromise whatever with Menshevism in our ranks, our main task is the elaboration of a correct analysis, a correct strategy on a world scale for the concrete situation in 1947 which Trotsky of necessity could only anticipate in 1940.


August 26, 1947