Max Shachtman


Footnote for Historians

(December 1938)

From The New International, Vol. IV No. 12, December 1938, pp. 377–379.
Transcribed by Lance Murdoch.
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We do not envy the future historian of the American revolutionary movement when he faces the problem of tracing the course of the ephemeral sects. Out of consideration for him, we give here a brief factual outline of at least those sects that broke away from our movement. We preface it with the fact that in virtually every case, those who split away proclaimed themselves the only “genuine Trotskyists” and unlike us, whom they doomed to disintegration, the possessors of sure-fire recipes for “mass activity.”

Not falling into the above-described category, but first to separate from us were three Italian followers of Bordiga, since constituted as the New York group of the “Italian Left Fraction of Communism.” Like their separation from us, their subsequent existence has been quiet, dignified, passive, fruitless and unruffled either by the departure of an old adherent or the acquisition of a new one. Score: no hits, no runs, no errors.

Next, chronologically, was Albert Weisbord, upon the size of whose hats the Passaic strike of 1926 had a most distressing effect. Although he never carried out his threat actually to join our organization, he broke conclusively all relations with it on March 15, 1931 – the historic date of the formation of his Communist League of Struggle. In the heraldic announcement of its birth, he wrote: “Not an isolated sect, but a two-fisted hard group of communists is what we are forming.” Its seven years of existence were all lean; each one ended with the loss of another member, the last to go joining the Marxist Workers League (q.v.), leaving Weisbord in unchallenged charge of what he now calls the “Friends of the Class Struggle.” The plural of “Friends” has the same numerical significance as the imperial “We.” Rewards offered by relative for information leading to the whereabouts of the Weisbord group having gone unclaimed for years, the money has recently been placed in escrow.

Of the 8 original founders of the Field group, only 3 are left. It would be an exaggeration to say that B.J. Field has been strikingly successful in his favorite activity: uniting with other groups. In May 1933, the Workers Communist League was formed by Ben Gitlow and Lazar Becker, two Lovestoneite dissidents. Immediately after the New York hotel strike in 1934, the Fieldites had their first unity – with Gitlow et al. (et al. = Lazar Becker), under the name of “Organization Committee for a Revolutionary Workers Party.” The two ex-Lovestoneites did not tarry long in the OCFARWP, but sped to the greener pastures of the Socialist Party, where Becker became a henchman of Altman and from which Gitlow retired later to voice his unique theory that “Lenin was the first fascist.” A sadder but not wiser Field thereupon reduced the length of his group’s name to “League for Revolutionary Workers Party” and proceeded to “unity negotiations” with Weisbord. These broke with Field concluding indignantly that “it is imnpossible to see how such a group with such policies and leadership can contribute anything toward building a revolutionary International.” Weisbord reciprocated with a description which only further reduced the latter’s faith in the sweetness of the former’s lacteal glands. Whereupon Field tried his luck again, this time with the patient Bordigist trinity, themselves worn out by just finished luckless unity negotiations with Weisbord. In January 1936, Field titteringly announced that he had “held a series of joint discussions with the Italian Left Fraction of Communism during the month of November. Eight fundamental questions of the revolutionary movement were discussed and complete political agreement has been arrived at.” It goes without saying that just because the two groups were in “complete political agreement” does not mean that there was the slightest reason for uniting. Nor did they. Two months later, that man was at it again, announcing that “negotiations have been proceeding between the Oehler group (RWL) and the LRWP of the US and promise to result in the fusion of the two organizations.” Naturally the promise was not kept and the fusion died in the egg. But as the old adage says, unlucky at fusions, lucky at splits. The last fusion attempt broke down right after the May 1936 split of the Field group in New York, when a majority of the membership outvoted the leader and joined with us. Since then, Field’s first lieutenant succeeded in effecting a fusion of a more personal kind, the fruits of which he has been enjoying in a Greek villa overlooking the restful, jewelled Mediterranean. Sadder than ever, considerably aged, but not yet wiser, Field sends periodic letters to us for more “unity negotiations,” which we are deterred from entering into by his none-too-alluring experiences. Ditto for his counsel on how to win friends and influence masses.

Originally the most numerous of the sects, the Oehler-Stamm group broke from the then-Trotskyist Workers Party around November 1935 because of chaste opposition to our proposal to enter the Socialist Party and unite with its revolutionary wing. The splitters formed the Revolutionary Workers League whose dire predictions of our impending degeneration and absorption by reformism all but frightened us. Differing only in degree of virulence, the RWL, all its offspring, and all its predecessors have decayed to the level of Trotsky-baiting sects, hurling at us all the imprecations familiar since the days of “Third Period” Stalinism. That so far as their political evolution goes. Organizationally, a no less dismal picture of splits and disintegration must be painted.

Barely split from us, the New York Oehlerite caucus chief, a turncoat named Mendelsohn, left his friends, joined the SP, and in it became the right wing’s anti-Trotskyist finger-man. A few months after his defection, a whole series of leading Oehlerites, typified by Gordon and Gunta, returned to our ranks. In the period following, one Oehlerite after another came back to our movement, was expelled by Oehler for one heresy or another, or retired completely from activity (Kogan in California, Giganti and Garber in Chicago, Pierce in Cleveland, Hirsch in Philadelphia, Gaynor in Newark, Simmons in Kansas City, etc.). In addition to individual defections, the last three years have seen one splitlet after another.

First, early in 1936, came the “Marxist Workers League” in New York which, after a sensational existence of both its members for 19 days, rejoined our movement. Then the RWL recorded the loss of its trade union “specialist,” Joseph Zack, who openly abandoned Marxism to form a new sect, or rather two at a clip: the “One Big Union Club” and the “Equalitarian Society”; in the latter enterprise he is associated with the eminent scholar, S.L. Solon, whose theoretical innovations have thrilled the readers of that political parasite’s paradise, the Modern Monthly. Following this it lost a group around its theoretical Nestor, Paul Eiffel, adventurer in the movement and dubious figure in general, who advocated the sabotage of the Loyalist struggle against Franco.

Then came a dramatic breathing spell in the series of splits. An Oehlerite stooge group was formed in our ranks in Chicago by a young man named Beckett, who discovered that we were capitulating to Norman Thomas just at the time we were being expelled from the SP. He called himself the “Marxist Policy Committee.” After making his bow with an apostolic denunciations of another ultra-leftist in our ranks, led by one Joerger, he announced to a trembling world, in his August 24, 1937 bulletin: “Salemme-Joerger group fuses with MPC on Marxist basis,” adding that “in the course of negotiations the MPC found that the S-J group did not hold the position criticized in MPC Bulletin No. 2.” Hardly had the proletariat finished cheering itself hoarse at the momentous news, than it learned from Beckett, on October 1, 1937, that Salamme-Joerger were knaves after all and their line was “not in essence different from that of Cannon, Shachtman, Abern, Glee, Glotzer, Goldman, Heisler, Most, Curtis, and all the other herdsmen of khvostism.” The tragically disconcerting atmosphere created by this declaration was only partly cleared by the heartening communique that Beckett – after the proper and necessarily exhaustive negotiations – was joining the Oehler group.

The RWL, meanwhile, had not stood breathlessly still while waiting for its first recruit. Alarmed at the prospect of the resultant over-expansion, a furious struggle broke out between Oehler and Stamm, perhaps the greatest dispute since the churchmen gathered for the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to work out what became the Nicean Creed of Catholicism. One faction held that the description of Christ, or God the Son, should read “homo’ousias,” or a being of identical substance with God the Father; the other faction held that the Greek word in question properly had another letter, making it read “homoi’ousias,” or a being of similar substance with God the Father. Result: the split between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) churches. Of no less importance was the fight between Oehler and Stamm, the former holding, at the RWL’s historic 3rd Plenum in October–November 1937, that Trotsky, “after a sojourn of 17 years in the Marxist movement, reverted to Trotskyism” and degenerated in 1934, while the other insisted that Trotskyism degenerated along about 1928 (month not given). It seems that Oehler won, after assailing the rebels for their “false position on democratic centralism [which] has its leader in Stamm, who combines errors of bourgeois democracy with bureaucracy,” to say nothing of “his ultra-left and false evaluation of Marxism.” But when he sought to put a cap marked “Heresiarch” on Stamm’s bloody but unbowed head, Stamm promptly upped and formed his own group, using the old name but with a new little paper which, if it does not differ from Oehler’s organ in committing just as many sins of lèse-sanity, at least is not as guilty of lèse-grammar and lèse-syntax.

The idea of the schismatics proved contagious and the splits began all over again. First came another “Marxist Workers League,” led by a young soloist named Mienov, who announced in the initial issue of his inevitable bulletin that “to be wrong on the Spanish war means to open the door wide open to social-patriotism in the coming world imperialist war. That is exactly what the Oehler group is doing ... We are proud that we split from such a centrist group.” All is not, however, what it should be in the MWL. Although the majority of the leadership, in its resolution on The Party, writes (Sec. VIII, Part D, Point 1a, §e): “Trotskyism cannot be reformed but must be smashed,” we learn that there is a minority of Stonne and Spencer, which replies, “In 20 years of history, these comrades of the majority have learned nothing,” to which the majority annihilatingly retorts: “We were just informed that Spencer has joined the Trotskyists. Truly, there is no limit to degeneration.”

Second Oehlerite split-off (Series II) is the Leninist League, also formed at the beginning of the year. It is lead by George Marlen and is unique also in other respects. While definitely anti-gynaicocratic, and taking no formal position on exogamy or endogamy, it is based fundamentally on the primitive gens in so far as one must be a blood relation of the immediate family, or at least related to it by marriage, in order to qualify for membership. This has the unfortunate effect of somewhat reducing the arena for recruitment, but it does guarantee against contamination. Marlen is so exhausted by his literary efforts to prove that Trotsky is an agent of Stalinism, that he is able to do nothing else. His cool, balanced judgement is sampled by what he says of Field: “The LRWP is an enemy of the international working class. It is a sabotaging agency in the struggle of exposure and destruction of the Stalinist reaction.” Oehler, Stamm, Mienov, Smith, Jones, and Robinson – all are contemptuously and severely dismissed as “left Trotskyists.” Reminding one irresistibly of the story of the monkey and the elephant is the report current that Marlen is writing a book that will annihilate Trotsky politically. Sic itur ad astra! Or, freely translated, that’s as good a way as any of getting into the headlines.

The last Oehlerite splinter to pierce the surface is composed of the remnants of the RWL in Philadelphia, led by a lad named Fleming who is followed by a membership not exceeding one. After a self-imposed novitiate in a “Social Science Circle,” it climaxed its liberation from what it calls “ululating Oehlerism” by proclaiming the “Revolutionary Communist Vanguard” – not of Philadelphia, not of the United States, not of the Western Hemisphere, but of the World. It statutes insist on it. No new members, unfortunately, can be admitted, for the statutes require a two-thirds approval of applications and there are but two members now; however, a congress of the organization is possible, even now, for it “can be assembled by determination of at least half the membership.” The RCV is the reductio ad absurdum of all the absurd and infantile ultra-leftist sects. The boys are having a fine time playing Revolution. They write in their bulletins (naturally, they have one) under ever so funny pseudonyms: Don Quickshot, Obadiah Fairfax, Robin Redbreast, Jerome Rembrandt, and Esther Paris. Just like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn playing Pirates.

Finally, simple justice requires mention of the latest and most ferocious group, founded, built, and staffed by the somewhere above-mentioned Joerger. His public name is the thumping “Revolutionary Marxist League” and he announces bellicosely in his initial literary production: “We cannot emphasize too much our position that we have nothing in common with the Trotskyite brand of Stalinism or any other inverted form of Stalinism. The various types of Trotskyites (Oehler, Field, Marlen, et al.) ...” Stamm, Mienov, et al., to say nothing of Robin Redbreast, are apparently to be let off with a lighter sentence.

There are undoubtedly others, which have not come to our attention, but these will suffice to focus the ludicrous picture of sterility and futility to which ultra-leftist sectarianism condemns itself. In making the record, moreover, we have the feeling of pious satisfaction with a good deed done in easing the research pains of tomorrow’s biographer of the movement.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 11 September 2015