Max Shachtman


From the Bureaucratic Jungle

The Discussion in the S.W.P.

(November 1944)

from The New International, Vol. X No. 11, November 1944, pp. 380–383.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Socialist Workers Party has just held its national convention. It was preceded by a “discussion.” This discussion is worth while dwelling upon here if only because it has no equal in the annals of the Trotskyist movement. For us to expose it is a revolutionary duty.

The war has lasted more than five years. In that time, we have seen the most spectacular changes in the working class, in the labor movement, in capitalist society itself. We have seen the remarkable phenomenon of Stalinist Russia in the war, and seen it as it was never predicted. We have seen the fall of Fascist regimes. We have seen the rise of the powerful and unprecedented “underground national revolutionary” movements all over Europe. All these things and many others have thrown up problems by the score, including old ones in new form, and some of first-rate importance. To give old answers to some of these problems is like talking Aramaic to an Icelander.

Throughout all this turbulence, the SWP – we refer primarily to its leadership – has sat serenely in its groove and repeated antiphonically, “Unconditional defense of the Soviet Union,” “Socialist United States of Europe,” “Our program is complete and confirmed.” While every radical organization in the world was avidly examining and debating the situation and the problems, the SWP went without a single discussion of importance in its ranks, perhaps with the exception of an abortive and not very enlightening dispute over dialectics! What five years of events! For the SWP, what five years of sterility, utter, unrelieved sterility! And this in a movement which, whatever else the world might think of it, had a teacher who was characterized by fertile, audacious, alert revolutionary thought. The death of this teacher left the SWP leadership with nothing more to do than to repeat in season and out, what he had already said, and to cover up this theoretical and political impotence with heroic posturings, like “We stick by our fundamental principles! We have no cause to abandon our principles! Everything we said has been confirmed by events! Nothing need be added, nothing subtracted!”

The only “new” activity engaged in by the leadership in this period, which began, let us note, with the expulsion of the present Workers Party, was a systematic consolidation of the positions of a bureaucratic clique and an artificial “building-up” of a sacrosanct Leader, from whose prudent silence on all political questions of the day all party wisdom emanates.

An Opposition Develops

Such a situation could not endure forever, especially not under the rule of such a pitiable bureaucracy. Opposition to the policy of the party – or lack of policy – developed in some of the most important sections of the Fourth International. Opposition developed also in the party itself and in its leadership. Within the party, this opposition was voiced by such prominent leaders as Morrison and Morrow. Reference has already been made in these pages to the document in which Morrow, a year ago, proposed a rectification in the SWP’s position on the European revolution (with reference to the importance of the struggle for democratic rights), and in its blind semi-Stalinist position on “unconditional defense” of the counter-revolutionary Russian state. Morrow’s document was suppressed and the membership was not even allowed to know that it ever existed – it was we who had to call it to its attention.

Toward the end of the current year, the leadership discovered that the party constitution provides that a national convention be held right away. A dozen times before in the history of the American Trotskyist movement conventions have been postponed, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes not. How did the provisions of the constitution suddenly become so sacred and rigidly-to-be-maintained that the convention had to be held on the very day written in the bond and not a very few months later? Simply. Neither of the two opposition spokesmen is physically in a position to attend a convention held in November 1944. Hence, hold it in November 1944. Both of them, however, could very easily participate personally in a convention held, say, a few months later. Hence, by all means, hold it in November 1944! In the absence of qualified spokesmen, the opposition was cut to bits in the most disloyal manner ever seen outside the Stalinist movement. Morrison and Morrow were compelled to confine their interventions to bits of writing from afar with necessarily restricted effect. Suppose anything like this had taken place in a Stalinist party. Can you imagine the streams of indignant ink the editors would pour all over The Militant?

The atmosphere for the convention discussion was properly charged from the very beginning. A feeling of shame for the good name of Trotskyism must be overcome just to write about it. Suddenly ,for the first time in many, many months, a general meeting of the New York membership of the SWP was called. To it, the Political Committee brought four heinous culprits, one old party member and three very young girl comrades. They had all been arraigned, indicted, cross-examined and found guilty by no less a body than ... the Control Commission. Crime? They had visited at the house of a Workers Party member where – shudder, Reader! – “the discussion ... revolved primarily around the Russian question.” These black-hearted rogues then came to “the general understanding that there would be more discussion meetings held,” a subversive offense not at all mitigated by the fact that (we still are quoting from the verdict of the Control Commission) “the four members of the SWP subsequent to the first meeting decided that they would no longer participate in further discussions.” This penitential decision undoubtedly saved them from execution. But not from a solemn censure. And not from a mass trial before the New York membership, carried out in the authentic Moscow style. It is the opinion of the Control Commission that the four comrades involved are guilty of a violation of party discipline and party procedure in participating in a political meeting [!] with members of an opponent organization [!!], without the permission [!!!] of the official party committees and without informing the party committees [!!!!] of this fact. For this they most emphatically should be censured. In the case of X, who is a member of the City Committee and an old party member, and who is familiar with party procedure, his conduct was particularly reprehensible.” And more and more of the same, all translated from Pravda.

Protests Against an Abomination

This infamous decision, the New York membership, whipped up by the two-by-four bureaucrats parading around in oversized boots, endorsed by a big majority. But not the entire party. There are enough left in it to revolt against such abominations. Among them were Lydia Bennett and M. Morrison.

I happen in my political experience to have had on several occasions to stand up before a mass assembly of my own comrades to explain a rejected political policy [wrote the former]; I was in the process of being expelled from the Communist Party for Trotskyism. I can only say that no one who has not had to go through such an experience can know the horror of having to stand all alone before an antagonistic body and argue for a cause already hopelessly lost ... To call the entire membership together, to force a young comrade to stand before all those who constitute the real social content of her life and defend herself against them as they are whipped into a fever of denunciation by the party leadership – I cannot accept this as a constructive way of eradicating error in the party.

In another letter, by Morrison, which also appeared in the discussion bulletin of the SWP, we read:

It is difficult for me to convey the feeling of sadness and frustration that came over me as I contemplated the significance of this incident ... This year marks the end of a quarter of a century since I came into the revolutionary movement, and during all this time I have never heard nor read of any case where responsible Bolsheviks have even discussed such a question as was raised at the New York membership meeting. I have always felt free to attend any meeting of any opponent organization or to arrange a discussion with any members of an opponent organization. I still feel free to do the same thing. If it was important enough I informed some member of a higher body; it if wasn’t of sufficient importance I did not mention it.

And elsewhere in the same letter:

You who are young in the movement and have not had a chance to study the history of Bolshevism, do not take for granted that whatever someone in authority claims to be Bolshevik practice, is actually such. Nor should yon be overly impressed if that someone takes pains to emphasize and stress and repeat the word “Bolshevism.”

Acquire the habit of asking everyone who presumes to tell you what Bolshevik procedure is, to show you where a particular procedure has been followed in the history of the Bolshevik movement. Acquire the habit of asking that every strange procedure claimed to be Bolshevik be justified by reason and common sense. Above all, study the history of the Bolshevik movement and see if you will not agree with me when I say that it has a proud and liberating spirit, in addition to requiring discipline in action.

I know how dangerous it is to follow a general rule, but I think you will be quite safe to abide by the following general rule: whenever any organizational procedure has a resemblance to Stalinist procedure, hesitate a thousand times before accepting it as Bolshevik procedure.

... For the sake of the party and the great principles it stand for, I fervently hope that the New York membership meeting is but a passing incident. Let not one single Stalinist germ penetrate into our ranks.

But as Morrison is aware, and has been aware for a long time, it is much to late to speak of not allowing “one single Stalinist germ” to penetrate the SWP. Those germs have been there for a long time. They have multiplied and become more virulent. That such an infamy as was perpetrated upon the four comrades might occur to the mind of one leader, is possible, even though that would already be a bad sign. That it was planned, endorsed and executed by the entire leadership, unanimously, shows that real Stalinist rot has set in. One of the comrades, eighteen hardened years old, very young in the movement (she is the one referred to in Bennett’s letter), who went through this little Roman festival, soon thereafter quit the movement entirely, bitter, disillusioned, depressed, convinced that the Trotskyist movement is no different than the Stalinist, with which she had already had gloomy experiences. These young comrades – undoubtedly filled with high idealism as well as an eager interest in the problems of the movement – were compelled to run a gauntlet that could have been organized only by bureaucratic louts, not by Trotskyism, by revolutionary socialists.

The “Episode” of the Hansen Article

A companion piece to this “episode” was the discussion of the notorious article by Hansen in the SWP press on How the Trotskyists Went to Jail. The article has been a muted scandal in the international Trotskyist movement – and outside of it, too, since it first appeared. We, for our part, refrained with the greatest effort from making any comment on it, and we think the reader will understand why. But since the appearance of the article, the question has not only become an open issue inside the SWP but has been made a public question.

The article aroused, it is well to note, considerable protest from the ranks of the party. The Chicago branch even adopted an official motion against it. Such loyal friends of the movement as James T. Farrell reacted similarly, as may be seen elsewhere in this issue. Dwight Macdonald, in his magazine, was afforded the opportunity to make appropriate derisive comment on it and to draw inappropriate conclusions about the “organizational methods” of Bolshevism. The reaction of the leadership was interesting and characteristic. Hansen is a member of the top clique, so the indefensible had to be defended. The article was not only published in The Militant and in the party’s theoretical magazine [!] but reprinted in a special party pamphlet, as if to make damned sure that every possible reader would see this disgrace to the movement.

The reaction of Morrison to Hansen’s prose was the same as ours. Instead of a public justification of Hansen, he proposed a public repudiation which would at the same time facilitate a refutation of such political conclusions about “Bolshevism’s principles” as are drawn by critics like Macdonald. He even wrote a draft of such an article for the party press. The Political Committee rejected it. Whereupon Morrison wrote another letter which appears in the party bulletin. It is distinctly worth quoting from:

Morrison on Hansen

As the matter stands, Hansen wrote an article containing statements which, in my opinion, are not only foolish but a discredit to the Trotskyist movement. (I am informed that our British comrades refused to reprint the article in their press. If that is so, they showed good taste and the finest type of Trotskyism.) This article appeared in the party press and Macdonald utilized it in an attempt to discredit the Bolshevik movement. An answer to Macdonald is called for. Some will say that Macdonald is not important enough to answer. Utter nonsense! Even if Macdonald’s magazine had one-fifth of the circulation he claims to have, his attack on Bolshevism, based on Hansen’s article, demands a reply. It is the kind of an attack which, by a failure to answer, acquires considerable effectiveness, because there is a tendency for that type of an attack to circulate widely by means of conversation. On the other hand, an effective reply strengthens our movement in the eyes of many whose faith would be shaken by Macdonald’s criticism. In fact, a copy of the letter which Morrison wrote for our press should have been forwarded immediately to Macdonald’s magazine. If any attack may possibly do some harm, do not leave it unanswered, is a good rule to follow.

To defend Bolshevism against Macdonald, Morrison finds it necessary to make, what is in fact, a mild criticism of Hansen’s article. In reality the article is every bit as nauseating as Macdonald claims it is. But, says the Political Committee, no criticism of Hansen is permitted in the open press. His article can be criticized only in an internal bulletin. (By the way, I am given to understand that the PC requested someone, who wrote an article for the internal bulletin criticizing Hansen’s article, to withdraw it – an indication to me that the PC was very touchy on the subject.)

What does this attitude of the PC really mean? Actually it has this terrible significance: that every party member is bound, as far as the public is concerned, not only by policies adopted by official bodies of the party, but by all possible nonsense that a party member may write and an editorial board publish! And regardless of whether the foolishness has anything to do with party policy or not. Carry it a step further and it means that when asked, in conversation with some non-party member, what I think of Hansen’s article, I must defend it, I can only say that this is not Bolshevism; it is a travesty on Bolshevism. I can only say that if any non-party persons asks me, in any conversation, what I think about Hansen’s article, I shall not hesitate to give him my real opinion. I advise every other party member to do the same – unless the highest body of the party specifically forbids any party member from doing so. And woe to our party if such a monstrous decision is ever made.

All that Bolshevik practice demands is not to oppose, in public, a policy adopted by the party or not to defend, in public, a policy rejected by the party. To broaden this sound principle to a point where it includes a prohibition to disagree publicly with what another member writes in the press on a matter not pertaining to party policy is characteristic not of Bolshevism but of its antithesis, Stalinism.

The answer of the small-time bureaucrats to this blistering but perfectly just criticism only added validation to Morrison’s conclusion: they are infested with Stalinist characteristics. Hansen wrote a reply to Morrison and it is most regrettable that it cannot be reproduced in full. If the reader were to lay it side by side with, say, one of Stalin’s 1924 attacks on Trotsky, he would be startled to see the almost verbatim similarity, in tone, style and content. Yes, even the style!

Stalin’s Style

Stalin’s style is familiar, and it runs something like this: “Comrade Trotsky accuses the Party and its Central Committee of being afflicted with the germs of a social-democratic degeneration. But our Party and its Central Committee are Bolshevik-Leninist. Does Comrade Trotsky mean that there is no difference between Bolshevism and social-democratism? But this would be a monstrous insinuation. Our Bolshevik-Leninist Party does not prefer monstrous insinuations. Lenin taught us all to oppose monstrous insinuations. If therefore Comrade Trotsky denounces our Bolshevik-Leninist Party and its Central Committee as being social-democratically degenerated, what has happened to the whole history of our struggle aganist social-democratic deviations? It would appear that there was no such history. [Laughter] But the Bolshevik-Leninist Party believes there was such history. Therefore Comrade Trotsky is in grievous error. [Applause] In addition, is not Comrade Trotsky making an assault not only upon our Bolshevik-Leninist Central Committee and Comrade Stalin, who is only an humble and disciplined member of it, but also upon Comrade Lenin, inasmuch as we are only his faithful disciples? Yes, Comrade Trotsky is making such an attack. Therefore, the Bolshevik-Leninist Party must protect itself from such an attack. In addition, is it not Comrade Trotsky who is furnishing juicy tidbits to the scribblers of the miserable Mensheviks and White Guard press abroad? And is not this press the enemy of the workers and peasants? Yes, it is the enemy of the workers and peasants. It is also the enemy of our Bolshevik-Leninist Party, which stands at the head of the workers and peasants. Therefore, Comrade Trotsky is doing the workers and peasants an ill-service. It is not seemly for an authoritative leader of our Bolshevik-Leninist Party to do an ill-service. Therefore, the Party must point out to Comrade Trotsky that he must not do an ill-service. Comrade Lenin taught us to be firm. Therefore the Party must be firm. Unfortunately, Comrade Trotsky is not firm.” Etc., etc., till your stomach turns like a pinwheel.

Now let us take a deep breath and read Hansen:

Still more important, aren’t new recruits going to wonder why certain leaders like Morrison are so concerned about the appearance of anything resembling Stalinism in our party? Is Stalinism perhaps inherent in Bolshevism?

... we must conclude, despite the monstrous character of the insinuation, that Morrison has thought this question through. He is a party leader who advocates choosing words carefully, not only with an eye to “style,” but also with due regard for their scientific meaning. We are justified, therefore, in my opinion, to conclude from these excerpts that after long and thorough pondering, Morrison believes that Stalinist methods – none other but Stalinist methods – are indeed growing in our party and that the main task of the coming period is to fight to eliminate them ...

Macdonald refers to Cannon, not Hansen and ultimately not Cannon but Trotsky. Does Morrison then agree or disagree with the declarations of Cannon and Dunne which were taken down, some of them in shorthand, some recorded from memory the same day they were uttered? As Farrell and Macdonald specify, it is a certain orientation, certain ideas which are decisive and not Hansen’s good or bad manner of writing of the trip to prison ...

And this precious passage:

There is only one other premise that I have ever heard advanced and that is the explanation offered by Shachtman in 1939–40. True it is not exactly “Stalinist” procedure that Shachtman referred to, and if we presume that Morrison believes Shachtman was correct, then Morrison used the word “Stalinist” not in a scientific sense, but in an inexcusably lax manner that could only disorient the membership.

A few sentences from The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism, which was signed by Abern, Bern, Burnham and Shachtman, will give the gist of this position: “When we call the Cannon faction ‘bureaucratic conservative’ we are giving a political characterization. But this particular political tendency manifests itself at one and the same time as conservative in its politics and bureaucratic in its regime – these are the two sides of the same coin ... the Cannon group is in a state of development. Its bureaucratic conservatism is not the product of a day or a year. It has become crystallized, become a system, only gradually, over a long period. ... The Cannon faction is a bureaucratic conservative clique, not a group built on a commonly accepted political platform. But what, then, holds it together, if not a political platform? It, like all such groupings, if it is to endure, has only one resort: to group itself around an individual, a leader. The ‘platform’ of the grouping becomes – the leader. It could not be otherwise.”

Rank and file members of Morrison’s tendency who whisper among themselves that the petty bourgeois opposition of 1939–40 was right on the organizational question have probably been advised by their leader not to state openly their views about the source of infection but to confine themselves simply to stamping out Stalinist germs whenever they become manifest. They are supposed to fight typhoid by boiling their drinking water rather than hunting down the carriers and the source of contamination. We ask Morrison directly, since you do not agree with Macdonald’s explanation of how Stalinist procedure can appear in Trotsky’s party, do you then agree with the explanation advanced by Abern, Bern, Burnham and Shachtman? Isn’t it Bolshevik procedure to say what is?

Why not bring out in the open the premise which forces you and your followers and sympathizers to accuse Trotsky’s party of fostering a “fawning” attitude to leaders and sponsoring a “leader-worship complex”; of turning the “membership of the party ... into a prosecuting body whipped up to a frenzy”; or organizing “literary apache work”; of utilizing the party educational system to culture the “germ of Stalinist degeneration.” You call on the party to follow an “intangible” spirit. Isn’t an explanation in order?

Our party is in no mood today to hear monstrous accusations that its leadership employs the methods of Stalinism. We reached a conclusion on that subject some tune ago.

Good Advice

Enough. Enough. Perhaps it should only be added that it would be a lot easier to carry out the last point if conventions and discussions were organized in such a way as to permit the “hardened” and the “factional” to be present so that he may really “develop his full views in the eyes of the membership,” and be able to give the honorable Plagiarists-from-Pravda the kind of reply they merit. Failing that, the membership may content itself with this part of another letter from Morrison which, because it is so completely in the spirit of all Trotsky stood for, is a refreshing change from what Hansen and his bosses stand for:

Let us foster both the knowledge of Marxism and an independent critical spirit. Let us destroy every germ of degeneration that enters our ranks. The spirit of the article on How the Trotskyists Went to Jail is a germ of degeneration. Let us destroy it. The spirit of those who insisted on publishing this article in a pamphlet after a substantial minority obiected to the article is a germ of degeneration. Let us destroy it. The spirit of those who organized the New York membership meeting to make our members feel that they cannot discuss political questions with Workers Party members is, consciously or unconsciously, one that constitutes a germ of Stalinist degeneration. Let us destroy it.

We for our part feel no jubilation at seeing how completely our first main criticism, five years ago, of the SWP régime has been confirmed again – and confirmed with a vengeance. The obvious reason suffices. We shall see in the conclusion of this article why there is another reason besides.

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Last updated on 3 April 2015