Max Shachtman

Five years of the Workers Party

The Drawing of a Balance sheet

(April 1945)

From New International, Vol. XI No. 3, April 1945, pp. 73–81.
Extract republished as What is the role of a revolutionary organisation? on the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Additional transcription by Einde O’Callaghan.
Marked 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 Twentieth Century] have been due not to the vigour and stability of the existing social order, but to the absence or immaturity of the conscious revolutionary vanguard. A score of times since 1917, the people have either been ready to rise or have actually risen against the ruling classes. Each time they have sought to remove the decomposing barrier to social progress. 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 old social order cannot simply be removed. Its removal is dependent upon its replacement by socialism. 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. Capitalism could emerge triumphantly out of feudalism without the conscious revolution of the bourgeois class. 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.

It 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 bourgeois consciousness. The struggle against capitalism and social decay is at the same time necessarily a struggle of socialist against bourgeois conscioussness. Victory in the one case is impossible without victory in the other. Two generations have lived to see this demonstrated.

Consciousness of any kind cannot exist without a mind for its repository, any more than a mind can exist without a body. 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 is superior to – the revolutionary socialist party, the political vanguard organization of the working class. "Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practice” – 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.” And, no socialism means the continuation of the decay and disintegration of society.

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, even nullified. The dilletante in or near the labour movement does not feel that he needs to grasp this. He acts like a political crane – now standing on his left foot, his right tucked comfortably under his wing, like a critical reservation he makes against planting himself firmly in the water; and now with his right foot down and his left in the air, where it can be daintily dried of the few drops that managed to adhere to it. Meanwhile, he writes articles with his bill, deploring the chaos in the world, the chaos in the radical movement, the choas in his own mind, which, he suggests to the reader, he will one day get around to clearing up.

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 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. WIth these ideas in mind, we are better able to pass in review the first five years of the Workers’ Party.

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. Difference of opinion and even factional struggle were not new in the Trotskyist movement. But never before had the leadership of any section of the International shown such poverty of ideas, such bewilderment and downright helplessness when confronted by a new situation, a new problem and a critical opposition.

In face of the joint partition of Poland by Germany and Russia, followed 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 majority had no other 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 pplitical 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. In effect, it took its political courage into its hands and retired from the debate. Its task was taken over by Trotsky and by him alone.

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. One document by him followed another, sometimes in almost daily succession. He found it necessary to write at length on the tiniest questions, or aspects of a question, in dispute, and even questions that were very doubtfully related to the disagreement. One of his principal documents he even sent directly to the branches of the party, without the normal intermediary of the central party committee. The least that can be said about him is that he more than discharged his obligations as a political leader.

The American party leadership could not have been more heavily indicted for political helplessness than it was by the very thoroughness with which Trotsky was compelled to assume the burden that properly belonged to it. The majority confined itself to acting as Trotsky’s phonograph. In the days between the arrival of records, it was astutely and firmly silent. To be sure, a phonograph that does no more than reproduce an eloquent voice performs a much more valuable service than a man from whose throat emerges only unharmonious gibberish. Still, if it continues to play the records a thousand times over, it will never develop a voice itself. It will always remain a phonograph that needs a record in order to articulate. The man with the throat has the advantage after all. He cannot only listen to the recorded voice but can, by persistent application, develop a clear voice of his own.

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. When the debate ended, they had held not only to their views, but to their forces. 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 not intervened (he had, of course, both the right and duty to intervene), the Cannonites would simply have been inundated in the fight.

In the second place, 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! [1]

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, providing 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 what and whom we were dealing with. We knew, 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 [2] 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.

Thirdly, we had won to our side the overwhelming majority of the youth. In itself, this may not be “proof” of anything, but in such situations it is almost invariably an excellent sign. The history of the revolutionary movement shows exceedingly few, if any, exceptions to the rule that in such disputes the youth takes the side of the left-wing against the right or conservative wing. How reconcile this fact with the accusation that we were a “petty-bourgeois opposition”? The majority simply never made a serious attempt to reconcile the two, except, perhaps, by repeating some of the “explanations” made by the Socialist Party right-wingers when the socialist youth joined with the Trotskyists in 1936, or else by repeating the accusation in a louder voice.

And lastly, the development of the war confirmed our position on Russia’s role in it, and not that of the majority, which found itself compelled with each new event an,d turn to explain away the arguments it had given for its position the day before.

The “Russian Question” After a Five Years’ Test

The political question around which the dispute revolved was the question of Russia. Far from a “foreign question,” for the whole world and the whole labor movement finds itself forced, more and more each day, to discuss and decide it! In politics, nobody has the right to rest on an adopted position without constantly submitting and re-submitting it to the test of events, to the test of honest self-criticism and the criticism of opponents. Only lead-bottomed and brass-headed smugness can speak in the revolutionary movement of “our finished program” (finished: exsanguinated and embalmed, waxed and polished, shrouded, crated and consecrated, entombed and headstoned). This phrase is now the favorite shibboleth of the SWP. If Marx and Engels had so much as thought in such terms, even after writing the program of the communists which we know as the Communist Manifesto, we would not have the Marxian theory of the state today, to say nothing of a few other trifles in our arsenal, like the theory of the permanent revolution.

How have the positions taken in 1939–1940 stood up under the test of the years that followed? In a word, we have strengthened ours; they have had to abandon theirs and they will have to abandon more before long.

Our opposition to the defense of Stalinist Russia in the war was explained by the Cannonites as due to “bourgeois-democratic pressure.” How? It appears that we had left Russia to fight single-handed against Poland and Finland. The bourgeoisie of the democratic countries had launched a big campaign against Russia for the alliance with Fascist imperialism; and to this campaign, we succumbed.

However, nowhere, in any of our writings of the time or since, did we motivate our position on the grounds that Russia had made an alliance with wicked Fascist imperialism instead of with benevolent democratic imperialism. The Cannonites, completely off the track, worked themselves into the belief that this was our motivation, and nothing else. Predictions were freely made that if and when Russia switched to the camp of Anglo-American imperialism, and the “bourgeois-democratic pressure” would be exerted in the other direction, we would make a turn in our course.

Naturally, nothing of the sort occurred. More exactly, it did occur in the case of about a dozen party members who had taken our position in 1939 but who proposed to reverse it in favor of support of Russia in the war once Hitler attacked in the East and Russia joined the camp of the democratic imperialists. It is interesting to note that it was this group of comrades, who failed to win any support for their position in our party, that thereupon returned to the SWP where it was welcomed with enthusiastic cheers! The accusation against us on the score of “bourgeois-democratic pressure” obviously made no sense.

It makes even less sense, and stands out as the factional invention that it was from the outset, when the record of the Workers Party on the imperialist war in general is examined. If, as “petty-bourgeois,” we had succumbed to the pressure of bourgeois democracy even before this country was in the war, and in connection, after all, with another country, it stands to reason that we would certainly succumb to this pressure when it was exerted in the direct interests of American imperialism, namely, when the United States itself entered the war. And as Trotsky once remarked, there must be some reason even in slander. Yet, to put it with restraint, there was not and is not the slightest evidence of our “succumbing.” On the contrary. 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. In this, we did our elementary duty. 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, as stated, 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. Our theory has been put forward in great detail elsewhere. Here it is necessary to point out only two things. One is that our theory not only made possible a more harmonious relationship to our practical policy than before, but enabled us to eliminate the weaknesses contained not so much in the policy (i.e., refusal to defend Russia in the war), as in some of the motivations for it. Two is that the Cannonites, once so insistent on discussing the “class character of the Soviet Union,” have shrewdly avoided dealing with this question from the moment that we presented our own systematic position on it.

The question itself 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.

To be sure, “abandoned” is a strong, simple and forthright word, and above all, in the present case, a most embarrassing word. A substitute, of the requisite delicacy, equivocalness and face-saving quality had to be found, and it was. The slogan is not really “abandoned.” No. It merely “recedes to the background” (like a coffin “receding” to the grave); it is merely that we “are shifting our emphasis” to another slogan. Priceless formulas! Classics of their type! Their author should somehow be rescued from modest anonymity. He may not be worth a damn as a revolutionary party leader, but what a diplomat he would make in Monaco!

What slogan do the Cannonites “push to the fore”? To which one do they shift the emphasis? To the “defense of the European revolution ... against the Kremlin bureaucracy, against all its agents and agencies,” presumably including the “Red Army” which has suddenly become “an instrument of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy.” Good. Very good. But just why is it necessary to push and to shift right now? Because ... because ... because the slogan of the past five years was too good – it suffered from an over-abundance of success! How did it come about that the European revolution is so perilously threatened by the Russian army? Because ... because ... because the Russian army has been so victorious, as a result (in microscopic part, to be sure) of the slogan that was just “receded.” We read in the SWP press today that “the attitude of the revolutionary vanguard toward the Red Army occupation troops in eastern Europe is thus essentially no different than its attitude toward Anglo-American troops in western Europe.” But the very reason why it is necessary today to adopt this “attitude,” is that for five years the SWP has urged everyone to be the “best soldier in the Red Army” in order that it might be victorious, i.e., so that it might become the “occupation troops in Eastern Europe.”

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 precondition 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. Honest self-criticism would show that virtually every point on which Trotsky assailed the

Chinese policy of Stalin in 1925–1927 applies to the Cannonite policy on Russia in the war. Like Stalin in China, they embellished their “ally”; they confused the banners; they urged capitulation to Stalin by those who were rising independently. Proof? Here it is:

The Fundamental Sophism

They disseminated glibly what Trotsky called the fundamental sophism of Stalinism, namely, that the Russian workers own the factories and the land. This sophism is contained not only in numerous articles in the SWP press but in a unanimously-adopted convention resolution. It has yet to be repudiated. They disseminated glibly the declaration that the army they now call counter-revolutionary was “Trotsky’s Red Army.” They proclaimed that this army of counter-revolution, which is now to be treated like the other imperialist armies, is bringing socialism to Europe. (Now, the revolution in Europe must be defended from the army that was ... bringing socialism to Europe. A real “shift in emphasis” if we ever saw one!) They advised the rebellious peasants of Iran not to impede the progress or damage the interests of the “Red” Army (by the way, they still call “the instrument of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy” a Red army; the shift has not yet been made in full, it seems). And only yesterday, their leader, who still thought the background was the foreground, advised the Warsaw revolutionists to put themselves voluntarily at the disposal of the Stalinist hangmen.

This is no shift in emphasis, it is a rout. It is the collapse of a policy. They are not even trying to save the fragments, but only their faces. Here too the comparison with Stalin in 1927 is striking. Old, previously obscured and never-used quotations are dug up to show that they really “foresaw everything” and were not caught unawares. They even have the coolness to say that they made the “shift” a long time ago, when every child in the party now has the documents that prove how they resisted a change in line and adopted it at the very last minute under the pressure of the “outside” comrade who has been called an Eminent Interventionist. The new tactic, says the loudest of the party’s empty barrels, was made “some nine months ago [by] our committee.” And “the discerning reader will have noticed that we conducted our propaganda in this spirit for a good many months.” But since hellishly few readers are discerning, and since those that are would have needed a microscope; and since, after all, a turn in policy ought to be made for the information and guidance of every reader including those with less “discernment”; and since the empty barrel has discerned that it requires little discernment to see through his dodges – he adds, “We propose now to incorporate this tactical prescription in our resolution, in order to make unambiguously clear to all the nature of our tactical adjustment and the reasons for it.” (Fourth International, Feb. 1945, p. 60) Push? Shift? Adjustment? No, a first-class rout.

The rout is not yet complete. What we are also witnessing in the SWP after five years is the collapse of its basic theory on Russia. Unable to speak any longer with enthusiasm or conviction for the theory that Russia is still a workers’ state, and dogmatically refusing to examine objectively the theory we have put forward, they have nothing left to do but hunt feverishly for signs that Stalin is restoring capitalism in the form of private property. In the hunt, Wright, with the inevitable aid of Pravda, has already turned up the usual kulak with the usual extra cow in the usual mountain village. Of more significant signs in Russia, there are none. The huntsmen have a long search in store for them. Outside of Russia, in the occupied countries, they have noticed that Stalin has yet not nationalized property everywhere. They have not reflected that for the time being, the Russian bureaucracy can very well exploit these countries as semi-colonies without in the least changing the social and economic structure of its own regime. It will not be the Rumanian economy that will determine the Russian, but the other way around. The hunt for “capitalism” in Russia is, so far as the Cannonites are concerned, a desperate search for a way of abandoning their untenable theory without losing their dearest possession, face. He who lives, will see.

The Workers Party never had the need for such gyrations. From the beginning of the war, we repeated that the victory of the armies of the Stalinist counter-revolution did not coincide with the interests of the working class. Whatever errors we may have made in detail, our basic policy was clear and correct, and is now fully confirmed. We warned the workers that Russia was playing a reactionary and imperialist role in the war, that it was participating in the imperialist division of the spoils – now on the side of Germany, now on the side of England-America. We urged that the workers and colonial peoples declare their independence of both imperialist camps, and form their own movement: and that organization of this “Third Camp” was the first step toward real peace and freedom.

Now, the Cannonites who derided the idea of the “Third Camp,” 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. Now, in their shamefaced “shift,” they make their involuntary retractions. 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 business-like manner arrange with him a division of spoil.” (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.

Five years have sufficed for the test on the “Russian question.” There is incontrovertible evidence to show who survived the test.

The Workers Party and the 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. All in all, not the easiest conditions for the activities of militants.

Yet, apart from considerations of socialist duty to the working class, there were also favorable conditions. The measure of our activity in the labor movement was not determined, as some would like to put it, by arbitrary considerations. Before the war, we had all declared in our analyses that once the war got under way, the political differences between the totalitarian and the democratic countries would dwindle rapidly. We also foresaw a working class swept by a mighty chauvinistic wave with the beginning of the war in this country. Neither prediction proved correct. In the United States, the working class soon showed that while it supported the war, above all in the sense of not wanting to see the country defeated by Germany or Japan, its support was reluctant, mingled with healthy suspicion of imperialism and the class intentions of the capitalists. Without the opportunity to express itself in organized form, it nevertheless showed growing hostility to all attempts to lower its living standards or deprive it of political rights. The labor movement was bent to its knees by the union leaders, but they could not prostrate it; they could not even prevent it from rising repeatedly to its feet and fighting for its interests. The existence of a powerful labor movement, plus its barely suppressed mood of militancy, undoubtedly slowed down enormously the tendency toward totalitarianism in the United States during the war. Refusing to be guided by disproved assertions of yesterday, we established these facts early in the war and proceeded to orient our activities accordingly. In this respect, too, our analysis was justified by the results.

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 the 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. If our party was distinguished from them, it was not necessarily in degree of aggressiveness, but primarily in the fact that we sought to harmonize the fight for all the progressive measures, to explain their fundamental significance in the class struggle, to show their connection with the imperialist war, and to relate them to the need for independent political action and socialism. It could be summed up saying that 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 to be adopted as the fighting platform for the American working class. 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.

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. Above all, it was to be an active participant and guide of the militant workers in the labor movement.

The Influence of Labor Action

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. Indirectly, through the agitation and activity of its readers, its ideas reach additional tens of thousands. 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 influence exerted by the ideas of the Workers Party has not been limited for its source to the written word. In plant and in union, the members of our party have not been missing from the fight for progressive and militant policies. Our paper has not called upon the workers in general to do what our members have refrained from doing.

From the beginning, the activities of our party members has been directed toward the formation of broad progressive groups of all the militants in the trade unions who agree on a minimum program of action to restore the fighting capacity of the labor movement. Where such, groups already exist, we have worked to unite them on a national scale in order to increase their effectiveness. Our activities have yielded fruit. The rabid concentrated iury of the Stalinists, in particular, against what they call Trotskyism in the labor movement, is a notable tribute to these activities.

It goes without saying that we do not deserve one-tenth of the compliments paid us by the Stalinists. The activities they denounce as Trotskyist are due only in small part to the work of our party. But the significance of their denunciations cannot be overrated. There is a good deal of truth even in their frenzied falsehoods and calumny. Under Trotskyism, they include every policy, every act, calculated to strengthen the working class, to retrieve its independence and freedom of movement, to advance its economic and political interests. If by this they mean to convey the idea that Trotskyism is the most consistent, most clear-headed, and most aggressive advocate of such policies, they are involuntarily telling the truth. The falsehoods consist in their declarations that everyone who takes a progressive position on any question confronting the labor movement – be it John L. Lewis or Norman Thomas Thomas de Lorenzo or Jesse Ferrazza, Samuel Wolchok or David Dubinsky – it thereby a Trotskyist or in a “conspiracy” with the Trotskyists. The falsehoods become calumny when they associate every progressive or militant or revolutionist with Fascists like Coughlin, or with their own blood-ally of yesterday, Hitler.

We readily accept another involuntary tribute the Stalinists pay us. Wherever they attack the work not of those they try to label as Trotskyists, but of real Trotskyists, in four cases out of five it is the activities of the Workers Party they have in mind. We of the “petty-bourgeois opposition” are proud of the fact that we are a thorn in the side of the totalitarian gangsters in the labor movement. We are proud of the fact that

in the past year, for example, the brunt of the fight for progressive and class-struggle policies in some of the most important unions of the CIO, in so far as it was borne by organized and conscious revolutionists, was borne by militants of the Workers Party and their close friends, and by no other party. We do not hesitate to say that it was our comrades and other trade-union militants working with them who led, or helped to lead, the fight for a regenerated labor movement in the conventions of the shipbuilding workers, the rubber workers, the auto workers, the electrical workers, the steel workers, and in such movements as the Michigan Commonwealth Federation. The Socialist Party played no part in these movements, lined up with the conservatives, or else its members acted in an individual manner as each saw fit. The Cannonites were conspicuous by their absence, or by their silence, or, in some cases, by their factional sabotage of progressive movements which they could not dominate.

The policy of the Cannonites in the trade unions during these five years is worth an added 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 wartime; 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.

This policy was not swallowed by all the SWP members. In Detroit, at first, and elsewhere later, protests were made against it; but in vain. One of the protests of recent date correctly attacked the policy as follows:

“We cannot lay low and abstain from any substantial leadership now while awaiting the upsurge itself and expect the workers to follow us once it comes ... when the workers do begin to move on a mass scale, why should they follow anyone who did not previously supply some type of leadership? How would they know that we are even capable of this leadership? How would a young comrade ever gain his leadership experience and confidence white sitting it out?” (SWP Bulletin, October 1944)

It is interesting to note in passing that Trotsky warned us all against such an interpretation of the formula, “preserve the cadres.” The question was raised by the SWP boss in our discussion with Trotsky early in 1938 about the party in the coming war. Trotsky answered in effect: Naturally, if we do nothing but “preserve the cadres” during the war, the workers will treat us like preserves and put us on the shelf! That last phrase of his I remember word for word: “They will treat us like preserves and put us on the shelf.” The warning was not heeded by Cannon. A contrary course was imposed and the SWP kept itself on the shelf.

For our part, we operated in the trade union movement on the basis not only of what was possible but what was necessary. We understood that the class-consciousness and cohesion of the revolutionists cannot be “preserved” without continuous activity to awaken the class-consciousness, and strengthen the cohesion of the working class as a whole. To break this link can only have pernicious consequences.

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. People wonder how can such transparent drivel flow from such an intelligent mind? ... The explanation is easier than is generally assumed. He feels driven to attribute his own betrayal to the betrayal of others. It was Trotsky that betrayed him; Marxism betrayed him; socialism betrayed him; the proletariat betrayed him. It is all false, but it is comprehensible. Incomprehensible is the fact that he continues to speak authoritatively (and in the very pools into which he used to spit so eloquently!) on politics. Surely a man who insists that he was so easily, so systematically and so thoroughly fooled on the most important political questions of our time, disqualifies himself as a political thinker by that very admission. If a lady kept moaning that for ten years running she was unable to walk along a lighted street without surrendering enthusiastically to every gay blade she met, she might be entitled to sympathy, or to a guardian, or to seclusion in a convent. She might pose as a martyr and do penance far from the sight of men. But if, instead, she remained at large, posed as an authority on how to resist temptation, and blamed her eager fall on the blandishments of the blades, even though there were always enough wiser ones at hand to warn her against them – people might very well say: Lament and repent in silence, teach aesthetics if you wish, but in heaven’s name do not speak about virtue!

Burnham’s defection lost the party a talented intellect. We have not the slightest interest in denying this. The Cannonites, for unworthy factional reasons, tried to present Burnham as the political leader of the opposition, and the opposition itself as “Burnhamite.” There was no truth in this, as our comrades knew and as was soon proved clearly. What is true is that the leading comrades made every reasonable effort to keep Burnham in the movement, where his talents would have a fertile field and not be sterilized as they are now. The efforts, entirely justified in themselves, proved vain. To say that his defection is part of a much more general political or social phenomenon, is correct. But it does not suffice to explain every individual case. Most of the radical intellectuals collapsed. But some, like James T. Farrell and Dwight Macdonald, did remain loyal to their basic principles. It was Burnham’s character that was inadequate to the task; he could not bring himself to make a thorough break with a bourgeois existence. Everything else was rationalization, and still is.

Other losses were inevitable, and we reckoned with them from the outset. If there are “laws of split,” they include this one: Not all those who vote with you in a dispute go along with you in the final division. Some stay behind. Others use the turmoil of the split to drop away in the hope that they will not be noticed. We had that experience when the Trotskyists were expelled from the Stalinist party, and during the split in the Socialist Party, and again in the split of 1940. Nothing can be done about it, except write them off in advance. Another law is this one: Whenever a political fight is connected with a fight against bureaucratism, the opposition inevitably attracts to its side people who have the most peculiar notions about organizational questions and who have little in common with the opposition politically. In the showdown, they often prove to have been “against bureaucratism” only to the extent that they were against democratically-organized discipline and responsibility in the movement. Or else they think that the “anti-bureaucrats” are fighting for the policies that the bureaucracy maliciously attributes to them. When they learn differently, they too drop away, often very bitter over the fact that they listened not to what the opposition really stood for, but to what the bureaucracy said it stood for. For example, Trotsky’s fight against Stalinism actually attracted some dilettantes and anti-Bolsheviks who thought Stalin was right in charging that Trotsky wanted a party of dilettantes and anti-Bolsheviks. The mistakenly attracted were soon ... disillusioned. Thereafter they denounced not Stalin, but Trotsky! In the SWP split, we had our modest quota of such people – for a while.

Their defection, as well as Burnham’s, 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.

Their departure laid a heavier burden on those who remained. What has been done by those who remained, especially by our magnificent female comrades, is perhaps the most inspiring and encouraging thing in our movement. Comrades have taken on doubled and trebled responsibilities and labors. Distributions of literature before and after a working day that often lasts ten hours; meetings of branches and committees piled on to meetings of their unions and union committees; organization of classes for their own education and classes for sympathizing workers; hours spent every week in personal agitation and propaganda among fellow-workers; systematic and generous financial contributions to the party’s work on a scale higher than that of any other movement – these are the marks of conviction, zeal and devotion that are seldom found elsewhere. They are a guarantee of our future and the future of socialism.

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 popularity of our program is an assurance that we will succeed in recruiting more of these militants in the future.

The Danger of Stalinism

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 or 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 to 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 those 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. Maximum clarity on the problem of Stalinism in the labor movement is possible, however, only as a result of complete clarity about Stalinist Russia. The Cannonites are anything but alone in their confusion on this score. It is shared and multiplied many times over not only by the labor movement in general, but in particular by the leading men in it. Among our tasks is the dissipation of this dangerous confusion.

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. Along with our German comrades, who developed their standpoint independently of ours but in harmony with it, we have made a contribution on the “national question” whose value will not diminish in the period ahead. 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, and a means of arriving at 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. Like the Socialist Labor Party, which answers all problems, big and small, with the mouth-filling demand for the “unconditional surrender of capitalism,” the SWP avoids taking a position on the most urgent problems of the day by repeating, in season and out, its demand for the “Socialist United States of Europe.” The struggle for democracy and for national freedom, which is increasingly the key to the struggle for socialism, is simply not grasped by the Cannonites. They are paralyzed by some obscure fear that, somehow or other, the struggle for democracy, carried on in a working-class way, with a working-class program, makes you a “bourgeois democrat” who has given up the fight for socialism. That means, so far as the SWP is concerned, that at least four men have worked in vain: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

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 of 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 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. And there, after all, lies the secret of the absence of permanent factions, as distinguished from ideological groupings. There are no such 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.

From this standpoint, it might be added in passing, the big obstacle to the union of the two Trotskyist organizations in this country is not so much the political differences that exist. Although some of these differences are greater than they were five years ago, others have become less acute. In any event, people with even greater political differences could live and work side by -side in a single party provided it were a normal party. It is no secret, for example, that in our own party close cooperation is possible between comrades who, on some questions, have greater differences between themselves than our party as a whole has, on other questions, with the SWP. The principal obstacle (as this writer sees it) lies precisely in the sterile, bureaucratic regime which the Cannonites have imposed upon and continue to maintain in the SWP, a regime which the new minority in the SWP rightly describes as Stalinist in its trend. Unity is a precious thing. The kind of party that would result from unity is, however, far more important. Our comrades are not disposed for a minute to trade off what they have built up for any regime that smacks of Cannonism.

Capitalism and Socialism

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 ho 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 conditions 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.

Although the connections between conscious socialism and the working class were broken once by the old social-democracy and again by Stalinism, they have not been destroyed. They exist in the form of our movement and its program, and they will be strengthened. The firmness of our party and the confirmation of its program by events justify the confidence we have in both. They justify also our confidence that the Revolutionary International of the working class – a most important matter that cannot be dealt with briefly because it requires and deserves a chapter for itself – will be restored and solidified.

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 anniversary, to the socialist emancipation.


1. In their Introduction to Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism, Hansen and Warde describe the occurrence (p. xv). They quote the first part of the resolution, and add: “The minority bloc leaders refused to vote for this motion. Instead of expelling them, as would have been wholly justified [!!], the majority still waited.” Two points: 1. The decisive second part of the motion is not quoted. Why? Are our bold men so ashamed of their ... innovation? 2. The majority did not “still wait,” for the simple reason that, as stated above, the second part of the motion provided for our expulsion in every respect except pure form, namely, for removal from all posts and for disfranchisement in the party and deprivation of all rights of party membership. That is how the disciples of the “historian of American Trotskyism” write its history.

2. The moralistic hue-and-cry that was raised when we continued to issue the New International under our own auspices is hard to imagine. It is only deplorable that Trotsky added his own voice to it. We had not only been the responsible editors and manager of the magazine, but generally speaking, it was our comrades who were most active in promoting it and who evaluated it properly. For the most part, the Cannonite leaders either ignored it or sneered at it openly as superfluous to the party and of interest only to a “little gang of petty-bourgeois intellectuals,” as one of the Cannonite spokesman said in our 1939 convention. The contempt these people really had for “theory” was notorious in the party. In the long list of contributors to the magazine’s many rich years, Cannon’s name stands, characteristically, at the very bottom, as the author of two or three journalistic articles. Except for a couple of comrades in his entourage, the names of the others are not even on the list. In his recent History of American Trotskyism, the New International is mentioned a couple of times in the most casual way. Once, with reference to one of the rare articles by Cannon; a second time, with reference to its suspension upon our entry into the SP. In other words, he has nothing whatsoever to say about the magazine which, if we may be permitted, played such a decisive role in the development of the Trotskyist movement both here and abroad. This did not prevent him, in 1940, from threatening us with court action to get back the “stolen” magazine! A precedent for this threat (very wisely not carried out) was the action of the right-wing socialist, Ward Rogers, in sending a sheriff’s notice to the Trotskyists who, in the SP split, had taken with them some of the chairs belonging to a party local in the West. As for ourselves, we felt in perfectly good conscience about the New International, not only for the reason given above, but also because it represented a very modest part of what so large a section of the party as we constituted was entitled to have. We recommend to the attention of the protesters a reading of what Cannon wrote about Ward Rogers in the Socialist Appeal some seven years ago.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 8 June 2016