Felix Morrow

A Critical Analysis
of the A.W.P.

2. The Political Meaning of “Adaption to the American Scene”

(May 1934)

From The Militant, Vol. VII No. 21, 26 May 1934, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The trouble with the C.P.U.S.A.. according to the A.W.P. Program is that “Throughout its history it has thought and felt in terms of Russian and European rather than American working class experience”. This line is similar to the Lovestoneite “Stalin right in Moscow – wrong in America”, but goes even further in elaborating the myth that “sectarianism’’ is the root-cause of Stalinist failure. The fallacy of the approach is given away in the fact that the Program treats the fifteen years of the C.P.U.S.A. as of a piece, merely referring in passing to the party’s gains up to 1925, and explaining them as due to the party’s “basking in the glory” of the Soviet Union. The entire significance of the date of the dividing line between the period of success and ensuing failure, which is the date of the rise to dominance of Stalinism in the Communist International, is lost on the A.W.P. The international scope and causes of the failure of Stalinism are obscured behind the phrase “sectarianism and partisan exclusiveness”.

What exactly does this term sectarianism mean, which has been so loosely bandied about by Socialists and Lovestoneites, and now by the A.W.P.?

What Sectarianism Means

For Marxists, who gave the term its currency, the word had definite meaning. It was used to denote the first phase of the proletariat’s struggle against the bourgeoisie, when the proletariat is not yet sufficiently developed to act as a class. In this period, said Marx, “Individual thinkers, subjecting social antagonisms to criticism, give imaginary solutions to the question, which the working masses have only to accept, popularize and apply in a practical way. By their very nature the sects formed by such priests hold hack from the political struggle) ; they are aloof from all real activity, aloof from politics, strikes, coalitions – in a word, from all activity of any kind ... To sum up: sectarianism is only the outcome of the infancy of the proletarian movement, just as astrology and alchemy represent the infancy of science”. An isolated example of sectarianism in a later period is the Socialist Labor Party which, despite its Marxist terminology, was an infantile reaction to the puzzling problem of a rapidly changing American working class, and developed a theory which effectively left it outside every form of the day to day struggle.

Only to the foregoing political phenomena can the term sectarianism be applied with any precision. Sectarianism as a generic form cannot be said to characterise any part of the labor movement today without doing violence to the meaning of the term. We do, however, term sectarian certain specific incorrect policies, by which we mean that the specific policy prevents us from drawing the workers into struggle.

False Characterization of C.P.

To characterize as sectarianism the whole course of the C.P.U.S.A. is, therefore, essentially false. Such a characterization makes an incomprehensible mystery of the powerful vitality shown by the party from 1919 to 1924, when, according to the A.W.P. theory “sectarianism” and “thinking in terms of Russian and European experience” were just as much as later inbred in the party. Why should sectarianism not have prevented the swift growth of the party from 1919 to 1924 – and then suddenly become operative after 1924? The C.I. and C.P.U.S.A. course from 1924 to 1929 cannot be characterized as sectarianism. As a matter of fact, that period was one of the most unprincipled opportunism, of hanging on to the tail of the reformists, here and everywhere. It is the period of the Anglo-Russian Committee, unity with Chiang Kai-Shek, support of LaFollette, loyalty to the A.F. of L., etc. What can it possibly mean to attribute the failures of this period to “sectarianism and partisan exclusiveness.”

The C.P.L.A. came on the scene in 1929, the same year that the C.I. zigzagged from unprincipled blocs with reformists to the theory of social fascism. It is probable, therefore, that the C.P.L.A.-A.W.P. is reading the whole history of the Comintern and its fifteen years in America in terms of these last five years. If this surmise is correct, the process is unintelligent, but at least understandable.

Origin of False Analysis

What has happened is that trade union progressives, reformists in politics, found themselves confronted by a Communist Party practicing dual unionism, refusing united fronts, and working only in organizations controlled by it. The reformists saw that these policies led to defeat after defeat, and yet were continued. Why? Instead of analyzing the structure of the party and discovering that its membership was powerless to change or even discuss policies; instead of tracing this absence of party democracy to the time when democracy was destroyed in the fight against Trotsky; instead of asking why the Stalinist bureaucracy does not permit party discussion; instead of asking why the C.I. and C.P.U.S.A. line is a melange of sectarianism and opportunism, of adventurism and cowardice, of everything, in fact, but a revolutionary analysis; instead of tracing the degeneration of the C.I. to the theory of socialism in one country – but the foregoing analysis is one that would only occur to Communists, to revolutionaries. Reformists naturally tended to a shorter analysis: “Dual unionism, social fascism, bureaucratic control, etc. – all this must flow from the doctrines of Communism.” Even the clue to the real source of the malady, the absence of party democracy, whose absence could only mean that the bureaucracy rested, not on the membership, but on the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union; even party dictatorship was taken by some reformists to be part of the Communist doctrine. (Dictatorship of the proletariat, no democracy in the party – it was all one and the same thing.) We have no desire to rake up from the past the forms by which different C.P.L.A. spokesmen linked up Stalinist errors and distortions with fundamentals of Communism. The point of this reference to the past is merely to show the origins of their notion that the cause of Stalinist errors is “sectarianism.” This term would be correct if the failure to set masses in motion flowed from Communist doctrine, as such failure flows from S.L.P. Doctrine.

Relics of Reformism

Were the C.P.L.A. group sufficiently self-critical in their break with their reformist past, one of the most obvious elements for them to drop would be this talk of “Communist sectarianism”. This phrase, and such phrases as “factional jargon” are relics of a time when not only were the C.P.L.A. group not revolutionaries, but thought that the international struggle of the two major tendencies in the Communist movement was just a cat and dog fight.

But if the Program’s analysis of Stalinism reveals reformist hangovers, the references to the C.P. in the speeches at the February 2 dinner formally launching the A.W.P. were reformist pure and simple. Stalinism and its oppositions were lumped together; Muste declared he was “tired of the factional jargon in the labor movement represented by Union Square. The wrangling in obscure terminology alien to America has to go.” “Jabberwocky” was the term applied by Budenz to the issues in the Communist movement.

At the recent lecture-conferences, the level of analysis of Stalinism was a little higher, but the A.W.P. leadership was still far from a correct view. One heard no more talk of “factional jargon” or “Jabberwocky”; Muste and, of course, Hook and Burnham (whose roots are very different from those of the C.P.L.A.) spoke of the decisive role in the C.I. of socialism in one country. But there was present as ever the tendency to talk of “Marxists” in one lump, and the familiar refrain of “sectarianism”. Characteristic was Louis Budenz’ “Marxians have a tendency to be Martians. Not the workers will be responsible for Fascism, but leaders who see the correct path, but refuse to show the path to workers in such terms as will rouse them to action.” “The chief indictment of the revolutionary movement is that it has shut itself out from the mass thought of America.”

Who Are the “Marxists”

Who are these “Marxists” that Budenz speaks of? Would he maintain that the Stalinists are “leaders who see the correct path”? Is the correct path (which “they refuse to show the workers”) the united front from below and social fascism? What is the revolutionary movement that has “shut itself out from the mass thought of America”? Certainly not the movement which from 1919 to 1924 made a place for itself which the A.W.P. will be fortunate to approximate in a shorter length of time. And not even the Stalinist movement! For, despite everything, despite progressive degeneration, hundreds of thousands of American workers found their way to the apparent representative of Communism during these last ten years. That they did not stay, that does not mean that the movement had “shut itself out from the mass thought of America”. That tells a story which the Communist League of America was the first to underline; but the story is not a story of “sectarianism”, but a story of the death of party democracy, the death of internationalism, the triumph and degeneration of Stalinism.

Behind all this talk of “sectarianism” and the exaggerated Americanism of the A.W.P. lies a healthy motive. They would like to cut through the “factional period” and out into the high road of American working-class struggle. So would the Communist League, but it has the lessons of the “factional period”, while the A.W.P. group were not in the revolutionary movement during these last ten years and have yet to assimilate its lessons. Its search for a “short-cut” is futile. It does seem simple to say of the C.P. that “it has thought and felt in terms of Russian and European rather than American working-class experience”. It does seem simple, to declare for a new party on the ground that the Stalinists are in “organizational subordination to the Communist International, which has tended in recent years to become a branch of the foreign office of the Soviet Union instead of the leader of the world revolution”. But this ever so “simple” formulation ignores the whole question, why a “branch of the foreign office” is no longer revolutionary.

No “Simple” Analysis

By all means, let us come before the masses with a clear and simple program, understandable to all workers. Let not the A.W.P. forget, however, the distinction between a clear and simple program, and the by no means clear and simple mass of events and theoretical knowledge on which such a program must be based. Marxism in all its ramifications is not simple, but without it as a foundation no program can lead anywhere. Leninism, with its analysis of imperialism and nationalism, its development of the Marxist theory of the state, its contributions to the strategy and tactics of revolution, its enunciation of the role of the party and the non-proletarian masses, its conception of the place of democratic centralism and the Soviets – all this is not easily learned, but it must be learned by a revolutionary party. The ten year struggle of the Internationalist Communists, involving a further clarification and refinement of every fundamental question of revolutionary theory and strategy is certainly not a simple story to read, but without understanding and acceptance of its lessons, any new party gravitating toward a revolutionary outlook will find itself drifting between Stalinist centrism and reformist centrism.

There are no easy short-cuts. And the reasons given by a new party for its existence logically determine it policy. If “sectarianism” “failure to adapt itself to the American scene” is taken as the cause of the degeneration of the C.P., then the A.W.P. policy will be a frenzied adaptation, an exaggerated Americanism, which, if it does not degenerate into outright chauvinism, will certainly be a policy of gross empiricism, susceptible to all the errors of all previous working-class activity, in America and elsewhere.

What strange fruit may be born from the Americanist approach? Consider the implications of the following statement by Hardman at the conferences:

“The revolution in America will be the American revolutionary movement, not the revolutionary movement in America. It was not by accident that we called the party the American Workers Party instead of the Workers Party of the U.S.A.”


Last updated on: 13 May 2016