Max Shachtman

5 Years of the Workers Party

(April 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 18, 30 April 1945, p. 3.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is an axiom, by now that the defeats and setbacks suffered by the working class throughout the world in the last quarter of a century have been due not to the vigor and stability of, the existing social order, but to the absence or immaturity of the conscious revolutionary vanguard party. A score of times since 1917, the people have either been ready to rise or have actually risen against the ruling classes. In every case, there was enough will to struggle, aggressiveness, sacrifice. Defeat was due to the lack of a revolutionary leadership measuring up to its tasks.

The victorious struggle to substitute socialism for capitalism is unique in all history, as we have repeatedly emphasized, above all because it is and cannot but be a conscious struggle. Slavery not only could but did take the place of primitive communism without the conscious and planned efforts of the slave-owners. Feudalism was murdered by the modern machine and the modern market. To the extent that the bourgeoisie participated as a class, it had an essentially FALSE consciousness.

t is entirely different with socialism. The first social order in history to be based on conscious planning can be brought into existence only by conscious planning. The process of capitalist production creates directly the possibility and the necessity of socialism in the form of a vast, socially-operated machine. It creates directly a class, the working class, capable of introducing socialism. The indispensable elements of a socialist consciousness, however, it creates only indirectly and in a much more remote sense; and even these must contend with a systematically-fostered capitalist consciousness. Two generations have lived to see this demonstrated.

Socialist consciousness requires a repository where it can be accumulated and ordered, from which it can be instilled in others, and by which it can be constantly revised, checked, renewed, and defended. The ingenuity of man has invented no repository which even begins to equal – much less one that s superior to – the revolutionary socialist party, the political, vanguard organization of the working class. “Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practise” – that is only another way of saying, “Without a revolutionary party imbuing the working class with socialist consciousness and organizing its action on that basis, no proletarian victory, no socialism.”

Once all this, and what follows from it, is fully grasped, the task of our time is clear. The worker who knows that capitalism is his enemy, but who cannot find time for the revolutionary party because he is “too busy” in the trade-union movement, has not yet grasped these fundamentals. The result is that his activity among the working class is vitiated and even nullified.

Fortunately, there are those who have grasped these fundamentals. The fight for liberty, for socialism, is the moral content of their lives. They are therefore able to devote themselves singlemindedly to the building of the revolutionary party. Their success in performing this most important of all tasks must be measured not only by what is necessary in any given period for the attainment of the main goal – but also by what is possible and by what is accomplished by those whose course is different.

The Founding of the Workers Party

The Workers Party was organized as a result of the factional struggle that broke out in the American Trotskyist movement (the Socialist Workers Party and its youth organization) when the second world war began, and ended in a split. Those who founded the new party had reason to be confident. First, they had better than held their own in the debate. Differences of opinion and even factional struggle were not new in the Trotskyist movement. But never before had the leadership of any section of the Inter national shown such poverty of ideas, such bewilderment and downright helplessness when confronted by a new situation, a new problem and a critical opposition as in the SWP in 1940.

In the face of the joint partition of Poland by Germany and Russia, fallowed by the invasion of Finland and the annexation of the Baltic countries by Stalin, we proposed the abandonment of the traditional position of “unconditional defense of the U.S.S.R.” in war. We argued that Russia was playing a reactionary role in the war, having joined one of the imperialist camps in order to share in the booty; and that to support Russia meant supporting the imperialist war in violation of the interests of the international working class and socialism.

The SWP majority had no reply save the repetition of the formula, “Russia is a degenerated workers’ state; therefore, we are for its unconditional defense in the war.” Its attempts to give more specific answers to the political situation were sorry models of confusion: witness the fact that it produced three mutually contradictory documents on the war in Finland in less than that number of weeks.

Never in the history of the movement did we have what followed. Trotsky found himself obliged to lead and carry on the fight for the paralyzed majority all by himself.

Trotsky enjoyed a tremendous authoritative (authoritative, not authoritarian) standing among the members of the minority. Only the greater strength of their arguments enabled them to continue the debate with him. In the final vote, the minority had more than forty percent of the votes; if the Trotskyist movement is taken as a whole in this country (party and youth organizations together), the minority had well over fifty percent of the votes. It was a distinct victory for us. As for the Cannonites, it was an utterly crushing defeat from every standpoint. There is no doubt that if Trotsky had hot intervened (he had, of course, both the right and duty to intervene), the Cannonites would simply have been inundated in the fight.

The way in which the split took place enhanced our confidence. The split, to our knowledge, simply has no precedent in the working-class movement. To this day, the Cannonites have carefully guarded against making public even to their membership the full text of the resolution that split the SWP!

The first part of the resolution provided for acceptance of the decisions; of the convention that had just taken place (April 1940) and a commitment “to carry them out in a disciplined manner.” This “clever” motion, characteristic of the little mind that conceived it, merely meant that the minority should vote to gag itself in the working-class public on the most vital question of the day, the war, and approve of handing over its inner-party rights to the mercies of a majority that had gone out of its way to prove that it was entitled to no such confidence. We therefore abstained in the vote on this motion. The second part of the resolution provided that those not voting for the first part shall, for that reason alone, be deprived of all party positions, responsibilities and rights! A unique contribution to revolutionary party procedure! We had not violated a single disciplinary provision. We were not even charged with any such, violation. We were expelled, in effect merely for abstaining from the vote on the majority's motion, which provided that we “accept” convention decisions which among other things branded us as “petty-bourgeois.” The whole procedure lasted, as the party boss gleefully noted to a crony at the meeting, exactly four and three-quarter minutes. We knew well in advance, in so far as it is possible to be certain in politics, that the leading clique was determined to get rid of the opposition, especially because it was not prepared to proclaim the omniscience and omnipotence of ignorance and impotence. So we were well prepared. The Workers Party was publicly proclaimed and our Labor Action and New International were issued shortly after the expulsion ukase.

Fear of our views, and of our ability and determination to defend them, prompted our expulsion, and nothing else. The consciousness of this only fortified us in our actions.

The Famous “Russian Question”

The Workers Party was the ONLY working-class organization, with NO exception, which took a forthright, unambiguous position in public in opposition to American imperialism in the war. Our manifesto in Labor Action on this score was the only one to appear in the labor movement immediately after the Pearl Harbor events. It was our political demonstration against American imperialism, and under the circumstances, the best that could have been (certainly the least that should have been) made. The SWP did not follow suit. This fact cannot be talked away, although efforts have not been lacking. And since Pearl Harbor, as before it, our position has been equally forthright and unambiguous. It has formed part of our work of awakening the consciousness of the American working class, of arousing it to its class interests, of imbuing it with the spirit of socialist internationalism.

We did not change our position on Russia but we did strengthen it. Unlike the Cannonites, we sought to learn from the 1939–1940 discussion. If Trotsky was the only one we could learn from, that was neither his fault nor ours. He was, the only one who contributed to his side of the debate.

Trotsky never succeeded in freeing himself from the basic contradictions of his position. He could not (nor did he attempt to) explain how the counter-revolutionary, anti-socialist, anti-Soviet, Bonapartist bureaucracy, as he rightly called it, could nevertheless establish in the capitalist countries (Poland, the Baltic lands) what he called the foundations of a workers’ state, i.e., carry out a social revolution “via bureaucratic military means.” He could not explain why, if Stalinist Russia is like a big trade union in power whose army is to be supported, he is nevertheless opposed to this “union” gaining in membership and strength, so to speak, by extending its frontiers (“We were and remain against seizures of new territories by the Kremlin,” he wrote). But he did succeed in pointing out many of the contradictions in our position as it was developed and defended at that time. At least, that is the opinion of the present writer.

The untenability of Trotsky’s basic position, and the defects and contradictions he revealed in our original position, only stimulated us to further and deeper analysis of the question. The result, a product of genuinely collective thought and elaboration by the leading comrades of our party, was worked out and presented (not, thank God, as a “finished program”) in our theory of Stalinist Russia as a. bureaucratic-collectivist state.

The question of Russia is so momentous, however, that it will not tolerate silence. One way or another, the silence had to be broken, and it has been. Stalin’s spectacular successes in the defense of the “degenerated workers’ state,” have now imposed a “turn” in policy upon the SWP. It is one of the most remarkable “turns” in the history of the movement. The slogan of “unconditional defense” of Russia in the war was what distinguished the SWP from the rest of the world. So it said repeatedly during the war, and in just those words. Whoever did not work for the victory of the Russian army in the war thereby placed himself on the other side of the barricades. That too was said in those words; and more than once. It would seem now that this slogan has been favored by truly rich success. The Russian armies are victorious on every front. Now, if ever, is the time for the bearers of the slogan to cheer their victory, and to express a justified pride in themselves and in the modest contribution they made to the victory.

It is almost the very opposite that has happened. Near the very pinnacle of overwhelming victory, it has been discovered that the slogan which aimed to bring about this victory must now be abandoned! Slogans have been abandoned and policies changed before now and so it will be in the future. This is the first case we know of, however, where a slogan has been abandoned because it proved to be too successful! An indispensable addition to this is the fact, that it has been abandoned with an accompanying insistence that the ONLY reason ever given for advancing it in the first place still holds, namely, that Russia is a workers’ state.

There you have the balance-sheet after five years: The old line must “recede” because it was such a success. Honest and open abandonment of the fatal policy, with honest and open self-criticism, is the very pre-condition of educating the party and the workers around it. The SWP leadership is not concerned with education; it is concerned only with face-saving, with bureaucratic prestige.

The Cannonites who derided the idea of the “Third Camp of Labor,” are compelled to advance it themselves, but of course without using the same term! Now they no longer repeat that Russia is part of the camp of the proletariat and the colonial peoples. They laughed themselves wet at the idea that Russia was following an imperialist policy for its. share of the spoils – it was merely defending itself, you see, by bureaucratic methods. We now read that Russian “foreign policy has lost every vestige of its former isolationism and defensiveness and is becoming aggressively expansionist and adventurist.” Imperialist? Good, Lord, no! That term is petty-bourgeois heresy. Russia is merely ... “aggressively expansionist and adventurist.” Apparently a whim on Stalin’s part. We read further that the allies “accept Stalin as a third partner and in businesslike manner arrange with him a division of spoils.” (Fourth International, March 1945, p. 68) Imperialist? My God, no! It is simply a case of “the poor little workers’ state, in sheer self-defense, getting a share of the ... spoils. It is to be regretted that there are people who begrudge it even so modest an award for its efforts to bring socialism to Europe on the bayonets of Trotsky’s Red Army.

The Party and Labor Movement

The dispute on the Russian question was important, and so it will continue to be. But far more important is the question of participation in the class struggle in the United States. In this field, the work of our party has been valuable and fruitful.

We founded the Workers Party with a membership composed for the most part of youth. The preceding years of crisis and depression had deprived many of them of the opportunity of entering industry and taking part in the trade-union movement. The war gave those who were not drafted, the opportunity they sought before long, virtually our entire membership was concentrated in important industries and active in the labor movement, acquiring experience, not only from the older party members but also from the militants in the labor movement with whom they established friendly contact.

The difficulties encountered in carrying on militant activities in the trade unions during the war. need little elaboration. There is the powerful pressure exerted on all sides for “national unity,” so that the ruling class may increase its power and carry out its reactionary policies without interference by the workers acting in defense of their class interests. There are the conservative trade-union leaders, tied to the imperialist machine, and exerting every ounce of their strength against effective independent action by the workers and against the militants who urge it! There are above all the Stalinists, ready and eager to pounce upon every progressive and every genuine socialist, to frame him up, to hound him and drive him out of the labor movement. And there is always the unholy combination of the employers, trade-union bureaucrats and draft boards which does not hesitate to use its power to ferret out militants and get rid of them.

We set ourselves the goal of bringing the militant moods of the workers to the surface, of stimulating them to more conscious action in defense of their class interests, of awakening them to independent political action. We did not retire to a storm cellar for the duration, “until it blows over,” and if we did not, it was not out of intemperate brashness or heroism. We rightly judged both the needs and the possibilities.

Our party during the war constituted the principal and the clearest center of the militant movement in the trade unions. It is absurd to think that the progressive forces revolved, around our small party, and it is far from our mind to say any such thing. Literally thousands, even tens of thousands of workers in the unions did not allow the outbreak of the war to stop their struggle for a progressive labor movement. Many times they would put forward ideas and launch campaigns on their own initiative which our party thereupon decided to champion. This is true not only of many of the nameless rank and file, but of better known rank-and-file union leaders, too. Our party sought to imbue the American workers with class consciousness.

We were among the front-rank fighters, as we still are, against the paralyzing “no-strike pledge,” urging the labor movement to reclaim its power to resist the encroachments of war-swollen capitalism. Toward the same end, we called upon labor to withdraw its representatives from the War Labor Board, which we characterized as the cemetery of labor’s grievances. Our party carried on a persistent propaganda in favor of labor breaking from the capitalist parties and forming a Labor Party of its own, based on the representative mass organizations of the workers.

Unquestionably, thousands of progressives developed these ideas on their own. Our contribution was to provide the best reasons for these demands, an unceasing agitation for them, an organized center from which the movement for these demands could be systematically maintained, stimulated and clarified. We sought, furthermore, to connect up these demands with a far broader, more significant Program of Action. The central aim of this program still is: the mobilization of the American working class as a unified, conscious political force, the struggle against [the] capitalist class and its government, the defense of labor’s interests at every step of the road and at the expense of capitalist profit and capitalist power, and the establishment of a party of labor and a workers’ government.

Role of Labor Action

In this campaign, we had from the outset an invaluable instrument, Labor Action. Our party is exceptionally proud of this paper. To publish it, we had to break with a long tradition. But the break did not prove to be difficult, and the results more than justified it. We decided to issue, for the first time in the history of the revolutionary movement in this country, a popular socialist agitational weekly addressing itself primarily to the progressive trade-unionist. It was to be written in simple language, with an absolute minimum of the special jargon familiar in the radical movement and only in it. It was not to be written on the assumption that its readers already agree with every political and theoretical idea of the editors, but rather on the assumption that the readers agree only with a very few of the more elementary ideas of the editors. It was to appeal to the readers on the basis of his daily experiences, of his immediate problems, of those views which the editors, the party and most if not all the readers already had in common. Only by having this as its point of departure, as its main emphasis, could the paper then bring the attention of the reader to the fundamental principles of socialism, to the more advanced political conceptions, for which the paper stood, and develop his understanding and sympathy.

If Labor Action has not always succeeded in achieving every detail of its original purpose, it has nevertheless come so much closer to it that no other radical paper even merits serious comparison with it. The type of paper Labor Action aimed to be dictated a mass distribution among workers. The popularity and influence of the paper among tens of thousands of workers exceeded our most ambitious hopes. It is no exaggeration to say that in some of the largest working-class concentrations of the country, the weekly arrival of Labor Action is eagerly awaited. Lunch-time in many plants finds thousands of workers with their copies of the paper opened before them. Factory walls are decorated with articles, editorials and cartoons clipped from its pages. Time after time, and in city after city, unaffiliated militants have collected subscriptions to Labor Action from fellow-workers, and done it completely on their own initiative.

The policy of the Cannonites in the trade unions during these five years is worth comment, if only to contrast it with the policy we pursued. They did not follow a policy cautiously; caution was their policy.. And by “caution,” they meant abstention from any notable, activity in the unions. The policy their leadership imposed upon the members was argued as follows: This is war-time; the workers are not in motion; we must lie quiet until they do get into motion; then we will offer them our leadership; meanwhile, we must confine ourselves to “preserving the cadres.” A more specious opportunism is hard to find. It became disgusting when it was coupled with sneers at the “adventurism” of those who did their revolutionary duty.

Our Losses and Our Progress

It is impossible to deal here with every aspect of the work and life of our party in these five years. But a balance-sheet of losses and gains should be cast up.

Our losses have been of different kinds, and not easy to bear. Our first loss was Burnham. He betrayed everything he had stood for, including the movement that nurtured him intellectually. Ever since he turned coat, he has cut a sorry figure.

The defection of Burnham and others was not one-hundredth as serious as our real loss. Our party was composed overwhelmingly of people of draft age. It is doubtful if there is another political organization in the country which has had such a high percentage of its membership taken into the armed forces as our party. Being a militant working-class organization, and not a group of pacifists, our people claimed no exemptions on grounds of conscience. They did not simply talk about taking on the responsibilities and tasks of their generation; they took them on, even if it meant severing relations with party activity. Among those who went off were some of our ablest and most experienced men, our indispensables; and we know that not all of them will be returned to us. Our corps of organizers, speakers, writers was cut into heavily, and that from top to bottom. It was an oppressive blow, and we suffer from it yet.

There are also gains to record. We have won to our party some of the best militants in the labor movement. They have learned from studying our program and observing how our deeds conform to our words, that the best trade-union activity in the world is incomplete and, in the long run, ineffectual, unless it is coupled with political organization, rendered coherent and consistent by a fundamental political program and political direction.

The party has gained tremendously in the clarity of its program. What has been contributed to our political strength by the development of our position on Russia has already been dealt with. On the basis of this position, we have been able to deal more thoroughly with the problem of Stalinism as the greatest menace to the integrity and future of the labor movement. The importance of this question cannot be stressed too heavily. Among revolutionary socialists, it was long argued that the Stalinists and the conservative reformist labor officialdom are equally dangerous to the working class. This point of view is no longer valid; to try to maintain it in practice can only lead to grave blunders and even disaster. Reformism in the labor movement means the weakening of the working class, but even the most reformist bureaucracy is vitally concerned with maintaining the organized labor movement, for it cannot exist without it. Stalinism means the totalitarian strangulation and destruction of the labor movement. Wherever class-conscious militants are unable to challenge both in a directly independent form and are obliged to choose between the two evils, there is no question of which is the lesser evil of the two. A consciousness of this fact has enabled our party to function more effectively and more progressively in more than one fight in the labor movement.

Our party was the only one in this country to analyze and appraise correctly the great significance of the revolutionary “national movements” that sprang up throughout Europe under the rule of German imperialism. In contrast, the futile word-mongering and sterile dogmatism of the Cannonites on this question has been typical of their helplessness when confronted with a new problem or an old problem in new form. They have so thoroughly disaccustomed themselves from critical, independent thought, and gone so far in converting Trotskyism from a guide to action into a body of scriptural revelation, that the most important revolutionary movement in the last ten years could develop and shake all Europe without producing anything more than a stereotyped and utterly false reaction from the SWP.

What Kind of Party?

Perhaps our greatest gain is in the KIND of party we have succeeded in building. In it we have living, proof that a Bolshevik party DOES NOT mean the totalitarian prison so many people have been led to believe it always was and must always be. The democratic character of our organization is not merely our boast. Militants and radicals outside our party know the facts and acknowledge them. Our party is intolerant of any attempts to curb the intellectual freedom and critical independence of its membership. All it demands is rigid discipline IN ACTION and a high degree ot responsibility in building up the party. It is able to make and enforce this demand, not only because its main policies have proved to be correct; but because there is no bureaucratic regime, “benevolent” or otherwise, in the party. Without ever descending to the futility of a “debating society,” our party has repeatedly had the freest discussions of political and theoretical questions. Some of them have been confined to the party ranks, but the more important ones have also been discussed in public in the pages of our New International. Some of them have been extremely ardent, even sharply polemical. Groups, ideological formations, of different kinds have existed in the party and continue to exist; in one form or another, on one question or another, they will probably always exist. But we have no resolutions calling for the “dissolution of factions,” and if good Bolshevik practice continues to prevail we shall never have such resolutions. We have established in our party such a relationship between leaders and members and of all members with each other, and between adopted program and criticism of it, that there is no air in the party for a bureaucratic or clique regime. There are no permanent factions because there is no soil – a bureaucratic regime – for them to grow in.

It might be said that the kind of party we have built up is our richest possession. In itself, it does not guarantee against making political mistakes, including serious ones. But it makes possible a speedy correction of such mistakes if they are made, a correction without the convulsive crises to which bureaucratized parties are doomed whenever a serious difference of opinion forces its way past the lid.


The last thirty years have been rich in events and in lessons for the working class, if not in victories. If we were asked to tell what makes us believe that the final victory will go to socialism, we would^answer:

Capitalism has shown conclusively that it cannot advance society and civilization, but only drive it further along the road of exhausting conflict, human degradation, barbarism and ruin. It no longer has a capacity for stability, order, peace and progress.

The working class, even those sections of it that have been most cruelly oppressed, has shown a power of recuperation from defeat and resources of resistance to capitalist decay that amply justify our confidence in its eventual triumph. It has proved repeatedly that the condition for its existence and progress is the struggle against the conditions of its existence. That is how it has been and that is how it must be.

What makes the struggle for socialism and freedom seem more difficult, also makes it more urgently necessary. It simply makes no sense to us when we are told that encroaching capitalist barbarism is destroying the prospects of socialism and it is better to give up the fight. That is the talk of demoralized and spiritually vanquished serfs. It is precisely the fact that decomposing capitalism is filling the air with its poisonous fumes that imposes upon us the redoubling of our efforts to bury the putrid beast.

Let the cowards flinch and the traitors sneer. Our minds are incapable of absorbing the truly monstrous idea that humanity, which has shown so often an irresistible passion for liberty and an inexhaustible capacity for achieving it progressively, will now, at the historic pinnacle of its intellectual and social development, finally yield to the yoke in permanence, like brute cattle. We reiterate our faith in the people, in the working class, and dedicate ourselves again, on this fifth birthday anniversary to the socialist emancipation.

(Editor’s Note: The foregoing article is excerpted from a more complete history of the Workers Party which appears in the forthcoming issue of the New International.)

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 8 June 2016