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The Cataclysm: World War II and the History of American Trotskyism

by Frank Lovell

The history of the twentieth century is divided between the pre-World War II world and that which followed. It is true that the First World War wrought many changes, including the collapse of most of old Europe’s dynasties and the accompanying loss of several crowned heads. Also the successful Russian revolution and its world-wide political repercussions were direct consequences of that war. But this only foreshadowed the second great conflagration which was many times more destructive and qualitatively different. It transformed the world in almost every respect. Regardless of what aspect of twentieth century life historians may choose to examine, they will soon discover that World War II was the great divide, like a chasm caused by an earthquake of unimaginable force. Today’s desolate political scene can be understood and explained only in light of the causes and consequences of World War II.

The Great Depression

Those still alive who lived in the U.S. and can remember the Great Depression sometimes recall those years (1929-1939) as “happy times” but only because those were the days of their youth. That decade was a time of severe unemployment, terrible suffering, mass migration, and hopelessness in the early years.

When the depression hit it seemed to many of its victims like a natural catastrophe, something about which little could be done and over which mere mortals could have no control. Preachers of the gospel were among the few beneficiaries. They and other peddlers of superstition and ignorance were quick to attribute the economic collapse to “divine retribution.” Some said it was caused by “sunspots.”

A more plausibly real natural catastrophe, caused largely by poor agricultural methods and ecological indifference, occurred simultaneously during part of the Great Depression: drought and wind storms on the North American plains devastated parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and other areas in the region which soon became known as “the dust bowl.” This, combined with what some called the “economic dry spell,” propelled large numbers of poor farmers westward. Entire families could be seen riding slow freight trains bound for the Pacific Coast states. California authorities established a “border patrol” to try and keep the penniless “Okies” (the derogatory name attached to dust bowl victims) out of that state. This was only one aspect of the dislocation, human suffering, and despair that gripped the nation.

Millions of people in 1931 (two years into the depression) were jobless, homeless, and knew not where to turn for help. The destructive consequences were incalculable. Livestock perished, crops went unharvested for want of markets, machinery and warehouse inventories deteriorated. The markets for all commodities had dried up. Capitalism did not work. The system had failed to satisfy the basic needs of vast sectors of the population. The ruling class, the capitalists who owned all the means of production, began to realize that something had to be done to alleviate the suffering, otherwise social dislocation and restiveness would turn to revolution.

American Trotskyism in the Depression

At that juncture the most politically conscious revolutionary group in the U.S. was the Communist League of America (CLA), expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 for “Trotskyism.” The leader of this group was James P. Cannon, who later in his History of American Trotskyism described decisions and actions taken by the CLA in those crucial years. He explained that during the first five years of the CLA’s existence (1928-1933) “our small numbers, the general stagnation in the labor movement, and the complete domination of all radical movements by the Communist Party, imposed upon us the position of a faction of the Communist Party” (p. 118).

But by 1933 the political situation was different in this country and internationally, as Cannon noted.

The Comintern had been shattered by the debacle in Germany (Hitler’s rise to power with no effective resistance by the Stalinized German CP and Communist International), and at the fringes of the Communist movement it [Stalin’s Comintern] was losing its authority. Many people, previously deaf to anything we said, were awakening to an interest in our ideas and criticisms. On the other hand the masses who had remained dormant and stagnant during the first four years of the cataclysmic economic crisis, began to stir again.

Cannon also noted changes in the composition of the AFL unions.

Despite the great conservatism, the craft-mindedness and the corruption of the AFL leadership, we insisted at all times that the militants must not separate themselves from this main current of American unionism and must not set up artificial and ideal unions of their own which would be isolated from the mass. The task of the revolutionary militants, as we defined it, was to plunge into the labor movement as it existed and try to influence it from within.

The American Federation of Labor held a convention in October 1933. This convention, for the first time in many years, recorded a sweeping increase in membership as a result of the awakening of the workers, the strikes and organization campaigns which, nine times out of ten, were initiated from below. The workers were streaming into the various AFL unions without much encouragement or direction from the ossified bureaucracy (p. 121).

Trotskyist Policy in the Trade Unions

This union policy of the CLA was not shared by most other radicals of the day. The Communist Party, then in its “Third Period,” was trying to build “revolutionary unions” because the AFL was, as they said, a “social fascist” organization consisting of “company unions.” What remained of the IWW was a few “revolutionary industrial unions” trying to win members away from the AFL craft unions and organize the unorganized industrial workers. It was the trade union policy of the CLA (later adopted by the CP) that guided the radical workers in AFL unions to victory in 1934 in the historic strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco.

The CIO movement arose from the struggle within the old AFL to establish industrial unions, a struggle organized by a narrow segment of the union bureaucracy headed by John L. Lewis. This segment of the bureaucracy was impelled by and responding to the upsurge in the ranks exemplified by the three great strikes of 1934 mentioned above. The formative years of the CIO (roughly 1935-38) marked an exciting period for radicals in the unions, best described in Art Preis’s history of the CIO, Labor’s Giant Step.

But with the advent of World War II, whose first phase began in the late summer of 1939, just 4-5 years after the CIO was founded, a big change occurred in the composition of these new unions, in the social consciousness of the union leadership, and in the degree of government intervention in and regulation of the unions.

Turn to War, Not Public Works, Ended Depression

The economic relief measures of the Roosevelt administration, the “New Deal,” revived commodity production and helped restore stability in the monetary system (beginning with Roosevelt’s declaration of a “bank holiday,” which salvaged many shaky banks caught in the 1932 banking crisis), but the unemployment crisis was not solved. Young people were taken off city streets and out of some rural areas for training and rehabilitation in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps. And tens of thousands of manual workers, artists, and intellectuals were given work (most of it essential to the industrial infra structure) in the myriad works projects under the federal Public Works Administration, later the Works Progress Administration (PWA and WPA).

But all these government relief programs were continuously changing, insecure, and uncertain. Industrial jobs were scarce and usually temporary or seasonal. The best jobs were those under union contract, often not well protected. The economy never recovered under the “pump priming” of the first two Roosevelt administrations in the years 1932-1938. In 1938 there were still 10 million unemployed, down from 13 million in 1933.

In the second Roosevelt Administration serious preparation for war began. In 1936 federal war spending was $929 million, a paltry sum by today’s standard. By 1938 it exceeded $1 billion, never again to dip below that figure (Preis, p. 74). Preparation for the rapid development of a huge war industry was under way. But this did not result immediately in new jobs for the unemployed. There was no appreciable change in the daily lives of working people. In 1938 jobs seemed to be getting harder to find, due mainly to WPA cutbacks.

Trotsky’s Observations of 1938-40

No one in those days understood the political tenor of the time as well as Leon Trotsky, who wrote daily from his refuge in Mexico on the most pressing social issues, especially the imminence of war. In 1938 he completed the draft of the Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, the programmatic document upon which the Fourth International was founded later that year. (It bore the title The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.)

In this document Trotsky sought to explain how the working class and the poor in all sectors of the world could protect against and eventually halt the war machine. “War,” he wrote, “is a gigantic commercial enterprise, especially for the [arms] industry.” (See the Transitional Program, 2nd edition, New York: Pathfinder, 1974, p. 91.) He inserted in the text of the Transitional Program a parenthetical reminder of his earlier anti-war declaration, War and the Fourth International (1934), which, he said, “preserves all its force today” (ibid., p. 88-9).

On the eve of World War II (July 23, 1939) Trotsky was interviewed by a group of American scholars (The Committee on Cultural Relations with Latin America, headed by Professor Hubert Herring). They asked penetrating questions, among them: “What vitality has the stop-Hitler bloc? What course will Soviet Russia take in making an alliance with Britain and France? Do you consider it likely that Stalin may come to an understanding with Hitler?“

Trotsky’s response was prophetic.

It depends not on Stalin, but on Hitler. Stalin has proclaimed that he is ready to conclude an agreement with Hitler. Hitler until now rejected his proposition. Possibly he will accept it. Hitler wishes to create for Germany a world-dominating position. The [fascist?] rationale is only a mask, as for the French, British, and American empires democracy is only a mask. The real interest for Britain is India; for Germany, to seize India; for France it is to not lose the colonies; for Italy, to seize new colonies. The colonies do not have democracy. If Great Britain, for example, fights for democracy it would do well to start by giving India democracy. The very democratic English people do not give them democracy because they can exploit India only by dictatorial means. Germany wishes to crush France and Great Britain. Moscow is absolutely ready to give Hitler a free hand, because they know very well that if he is engaged in this destruction Russia will be free for years from attack from Germany. I am sure they would furnish raw materials to Germany during the war under the condition that Russia stand aside. Stalin does not wish a military alliance with Hitler, but an agreement to remain neutral in the war. But Hitler is afraid the Soviet Union can become powerful enough to conquer, in one way or another, Rumania, Poland, and the Balkan states, during the time Germany would be engaged in a world war, and so approach directly the German frontier. That is why Hitler wished to have a preventive war with the Soviet Union, to crush the Soviet Union, and after that begin his war for world domination. Between these two possibilities, two variants, the Germans vacillate. What will be the final decision, I cannot foretell. I am not sure if Hitler himself knows today. Stalin does not know, because he hesitates and continues the discussions with Britain, and at the same time concludes economic and commercial agreements with Germany. He has, as the Germans say, two irons in the fire. (Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 304-5.)

Thus Trotsky anticipated and predicted the Stalin-Hitler pact, which was signed one month later, August 22,1939. On September 1 Hitler’s troops invaded Poland and World War II began.

Trotsky Foresees the “American Century”

One other prediction by Trotsky on the eve of war should be noted. He was asked a final question by the American scholars who interviewed him: “What would be your advice to the United States as to its course in international affairs?“

Trotsky responded at length to this provocative question, making clear his opposition to U.S. imperialism, which he was sure would be embroiled in the coming war. But beyond this he ventured to predict the war’s outcome. The text of his response follows:

I must say that I do not feel competent to give advice to the Washington government because of the same political reason for which the Washington government finds it is not necessary to give me a visa. We are in a different social position from the Washington government. I could give advice to a government which had the same objectives as my own, not to a capitalistic government, and the government of the United States, in spite of the New Deal, is, in my opinion, an imperialistic and capitalistic government.

I can only say what a revolutionary government should do — a genuine workers’ government in the United States. I believe the first thing would be to expropriate the Sixty Families. It would be a very good measure, not only from the national point of view, but from the point of view of settling world affairs—it would be a good example to the other nations. To nationalize the banks; to give, by radical social measures, work to the ten or twelve millions unemployed; to give material aid to the farmers to facilitate free cultivation. I believe that it would signify the rise of the national income of the United States from $67 billions to $200 or $300 billions a year in the next years, because the following years we cannot foresee the tremendous rise of the material power of this powerful nation, and of course such a nation could be the genuine dictator of the world, but a very good one, and I am sure that in this case the fascist countries of Hitler and Mussolini, and all their poor and miserable people, would, in the last analysis, disappear from the historical scene if the United States, as the economic power, would find the political power to reorganize their very sick economic structure.

I do not see any other outcome, any other solution. We have during the last six or seven years, observed the New Deal politics. The New Deal provoked great hopes. I didn’t share their hopes. I had, here in Mexico, a visit from some conservative senators, two years ago, and they asked me if we were still in favor of surgical revolutionary measures. I answered, I don’t see any others, but if the New Deal succeeds, I am ready to abandon my revolutionary conception in favor of the New Deal conceptions. It did not succeed, and I dare to affirm that if Mr. Roosevelt were elected for the third term, the New Deal would not succeed in the third term.

But this powerful economic body of the United States, the most powerful in the world, is in a state of decomposition. Nobody has indicated means how to stop this decomposition. A whole new structure must be made, and it cannot be realized as long as you have the Sixty Families. This is why I began with the advice to expropriate them.

Two years ago, when your Congress passed the neutrality laws, I had a discussion with some American politicians, and I expressed my astonishment about the fact that the most powerful nation in the world, with such creative power and technical genius, does not understand the world situation — that it is their wish to separate themselves from the world by a scrap of paper of the law of neutrality. If American capitalism survives, and it will survive for some time, we will have in the United States the most powerful imperialism and militarism in the world. We already see the beginning now.

Of course, this armament is, as a fact, creating a new situation. Armaments are also an enterprise. To stop the armaments now without a war would cause the greatest social crisis in the world — ten millions of unemployed. The crisis would be enough to provoke a revolution, and the fear of this revolution is also a reason to continue the armaments, and the armaments become an independent factor in history. It is necessary to utilize them. Your ruling class had the slogan “Open Door to China,” but what signifies it [i.e., what does that mean?] — only by battleships, in hope of preserving the “freedom” [from Japanese domination] of the Pacific Ocean by a tremendous fleet. I don’t see any other means of defeating capitalistic Japan. Who is capable of doing this but the most powerful nation in the world? America will say we don’t wish a German peace. Japan is supported by German arms. We do not wish an Italian, German, Japanese peace. We will impose our American peace because we are stronger. It signifies an explosion of American militarism and imperialism.

This is the dilemma, socialism or imperialism. Democracy does not answer this question. This is the advice I would give to the American government. (Leon Trotsky Speaks, pp. 308-310.)

This statement is quoted in its entirety because it summarizes Trotsky’s appreciation of the world political situation on the eve of World War II, far more perceptive than any other political figure of the time. Trotsky spoke in English [which he had not fully mastered, making his speech sometimes hard to follow], for which he apologized. The interview was taken in shorthand by one of his secretaries who transcribed it and made a copy for the group of American scholars who participated. It was first published in Intercontinental Press, September 8,1969.

My purpose in including this lengthy quotation here is to give a sample of the advanced political understanding with which the Trotskyist movement was armed in those days. This was a great advantage for the Socialist Workers Party in the education of its members and for the ideological and tactical preparation of its leadership to meet the wartime challenges soon to be faced. The demonstrable validity of Trotsky’s historical insight was insufficient to prevent a near 40 percent split from the SWP led by defectors from Marxism (Burnham, Shachtman, and Abern), all three of them top leaders of the SWP prior to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. Nor could Trotsky’s warnings of the war danger have any effect on the popular consciousness of the U.S. working masses. Their political thinking was conditioned almost entirely by their harsh life and valiant struggles in the depression years and by the pro-war propaganda of the Roosevelt administration and the mass media.

American Trotkysism on the Eve of World War II

The daily activity of the SWP on the eve of World War II was mostly centered on the struggles of the working class, strike actions, unemployed demonstrations, defense of union gains, participation in union politics and union caucus formations, organizing new unions, recruiting new members to the party, and distributing party literature. The gathering war clouds cast their shadow over all our activity, but the impending war was not an obsession with us. We knew it was coming and we thought we were prepared to meet whatever challenges it might bring.

After the outbreak of war in Europe an Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, held in New York May 19-26, 1940, adopted a manifesto (written by Trotsky), “Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution.” This lengthy manifesto stated “openly and clearly how it (the FI) views this war and its participants, how it evaluates the war policies of various labor organizations, and, most important, what is the way out to peace, freedom and plenty.”

Its concluding sections succinctly outlined what to do: “The task which is posed by history is not to support one part of the imperialist system against another but to make an end of the system as a whole.” It argued that workers must learn military arts: “All the great questions will be decided in the next epoch arms in hand.” And it called for world revolution to end the slaughter and destruction and reorganize a peaceful world: “[We] carry on constant, persistent, tireless preparation of the revolution — in the factories, in the mills, in the villages, in the barracks, at the front and in the fleet.”

June 1940 Discussions with Trotsky: Military Policy

A small delegation of SWP leaders, headed by Cannon and Farrell Dobbs, met with Trotsky in Coyoacan, June 12-15,1940. Other participants were Antoinette Konikow, Sam Gordon, Joseph Hansen, Charles Cornell [Charlie Curtiss], and Harold Robbins. The purpose was to begin to develop a wartime anti-war strategy for the SWP. Trotsky outlined his proposals. The following excerpts from exchanges between Cannon and Trotsky essentially express Trotsky’s position:

T. The state is now organizing tremendous military machines with millions of men. No longer do we have just the small possibilities of defense guards but the wide possibilities given by the bourgeois state itself.

C. Can this take the form of resolutions to the trade unions? Do we demand military equipment, training, etc.? What about the possibility of confusing us with the patriots?

T. Partial confusion is inevitable, especially at the beginning. But we place our whole agitation on a class basis. We are against the bourgeois officers who treat you like cattle, who use you for cannon-fodder. We are concerned about the deaths of workers, unlike the bourgeois officers. We want workers’ officers.

We can say to the workers: We are ready for revolution. But you aren’t ready. But both of us want our own workers’ officers in this situation. We want special workers’ schools which will train us to be officers.

C. The New York Times just printed an editorial advocating universal military training. Do we agree with that?

T. Yes. That is correct — but under control of our own organizations.

C. Doesn’t this line make a very sharp break with the pacifists such as Norman Thomas and the Keep America Out of War outfits? For a long time our agitation has been abstract. It was against war in general. Only revolution can stop war. Hence we favor universal training. The difficulty is to make clear that we are really against war. We need very clear and precise formulations.

It signifies too a re-education of our own movement. The youth has been impregnated with an anti-militarist and escapist attitude toward war. Already many have asked about going to Mexico in order to hide out. Our propaganda is not sufficiently separated from that of the pacifists. We say there must be no war! At the same time we say we can’t avoid war! There is a link missing somewhere. All questions will be solved with war. Mere opposition can’t signify anything. But the problem which requires formulation is making ourselves distinct from the patriots.

Konikow: What about our slogans such as “not a cent for war”?

T. Suppose we had a senator. He would introduce a bill in favor of training camps for workers. He might ask 500 millions for it. At the same time he would vote against the military budget because it is controlled by class enemies. We can’t expropriate the bourgeoisie at present, so we allow them to exploit the workers. But we try to protect the workers with trade unions. The courts are bourgeois but we don’t boycott them as do the anarchists. We try to use them and fight within them. Likewise with parliaments. We are enemies of the bourgeoisie and its institutions, but we utilize them. War is a bourgeois institution, a thousand times more powerful than all the other bourgeois institutions. We accept it as a fact, like the bourgeois schools, and try to utilize it. Pacifists accept everything bourgeois but militarism. They accept the schools, the parliament, the courts, without question. Everything is good in peacetime. But militarism, which is just as much bourgeois as the rest? No, they draw back and say we don’t want any of that. The Marxists try to utilize war like any other bourgeois institution. It is clear now that in the next period our opposition to militarism will constitute the base for our propaganda; our agitation will be for the training of the masses.

Our military transitional program is an agitational program. Our socialist revolutionary program is propaganda.

June 1940 Discussions with Trotsky: Union Policy and Policy Toward CP

The other question discussed at these meetings was SWP fractions in the union movement, the party’s trade union policy. In general the SWP had blocked with so-called progressives and militant activists against the Stalinists in all situations where the Stalinists sought influence or controlled the union apparatus, as in the Minneapolis Teamsters and in the auto and maritime industries. Trotsky argued that the war situation and the Stalinist opposition to war after the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact required a tactical change in the SWP’s trade union policy. He argued for an aggressive appeal to Stalinist union members for united action against the war plans of the Roosevelt administration, and for endorsement of Browder (the CP candidate) for president in the 1940 general election against Roosevelt. The following excerpts from the discussion are typical of the differences that developed between Trotsky and the others, articulated most decisively by Cannon.

T. Theoretically it is possible to support the Stalinist candidate. It is a way of approaching the Stalinist workers. We can say, yes, we know this candidate. But we will give critical support. We can repeat on a small scale what we would do if Lewis were nominated.

Theoretically it is not impossible. It would be very difficult it is true—but then it is only an analysis. They of course would say, we don’t need your support. We would answer, we don’t support you but the workers who support you. We warn them but go through the experience with them. These leaders will betray you. It is necessary to find an approach to the Stalinist party. Theoretically it is not impossible to support their candidate with very sharp warnings. It would seize them. What? How?...

The progressive elements oppose the Stalinists but we don’t win many progressive elements. Everywhere we meet Stalinists. How to break the Stalinist party? The support of the progressives is not stable. It is found at the top of the union rather than as a rank and file current. Now with the war we will have these progressives against us. We need a stronger base in the ranks. There are small Tobins on whom we depend. They depend on the big Tobins. They on Roosevelt. This phase is inevitable. It opened the door for us in the trade unions. But it can become dangerous. We can’t depend on those elements or their sentiments. We will lose them and isolate ourselves from the Stalinist workers. Now we have no attitude toward them. Burnham and Shachtman opposed an active attitude toward the Stalinists. They are not an accident but a crystallization of American workers abuse by Moscow. They represent a whole period from 1917 up to date. We can’t move without them. The coincidence between their slogans and ours is transitory, but it can give us a bridge to these workers. The question must be examined. If persecutions should begin tomorrow, it would begin first against them, second against us. The honest, hard members will remain true. The progressives are a type in the leadership. The rank and file are disquieted, unconsciously revolutionary. (Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-40, p. 263.)

C. They [the CP] will probably make a change before we return. We must exercise great caution in dealing with the Stalinists in order not to compromise ourselves. Yesterday’s discussion took a one-sided channel regarding our relations in the unions, that we act only as attorneys for the progressive labor fakers. This is very false. Our objective is to create our own forces. The problem is how to begin. All sectarians are independent forces—in their own imagination. Your impression that the anti-Stalinists are rival labor fakers is not quite correct. It has that aspect, but it has other aspects too. Without opposition to the Stalinists we have no reason for existing in the unions. We start as oppositionists and become irreconcilable. Where small groups break their necks is that they scorn maneuvers and combinations and never consolidate anything. At the opposite extreme is the Lovestone group.

In the SUP (Sailors Union of the Pacific) we began without any members, the way we usually begin. Up to the time of the war it was hard to find more fruitful ground than the anti-Stalinist elements. We began with this idea, that it is impossible to play a role in the unions unless you have people in the unions. With a small party, the possibility to enter is the first essential. In the SUP we made combination with syndicalist elements. It was an exceptional situation, a small weak bureaucracy, most of whose policies were correct and which was against the Stalinists. It was incomprehensible that we could play any role except as an opposition to the Stalinists who were the most treacherous elements in the situation.

We formed a tactical bloc with the one possibility to enter the union freely. We were weak numerically, strong politically. The progressives grew, defeated the Stalinists. We grew too. We have fifty members and may possess soon fifty more. We followed a very careful policy — not to have sharp clashes which were not necessary anyway so far, so as not to bring about a premature split — not to let the main fight against the Stalinists be obscured.

The maritime unions are an important section in the field. Our first enemy there is the Stalinists. They are the big problem. In new unions such as the maritime, which in reality surged forward in 1934, shattering the old bureaucracy, the Stalinists came to the fore. The old-fashioned craft unionists cannot prevail against the Stalinists. The struggle for control is between us and the Stalinists. We have to be careful not to compromise this fight. We must be the classical intransigent force.

The Stalinists gained powerful positions in these unions, especially in the auto union. The Lovestoneites followed the policy outlined by Trotsky yesterday — attorneys for the labor fakers, especially in auto. They disappeared from the scene. We followed a more careful policy. We tried to exploit the differences between the Martin gang and the Stalinists. For a while we were the left wing of the Martin outfit, but we extricated ourselves in the proper time. Auto is ostensibly CIO but in reality the Stalinists are in control. Now we are coming forward as the leading and inspiring circle in the rank and file that has no top leaders, that is anti-Stalinist, anti-patriotic, anti-Lewis. We have every chance for success. We must not overlook the possibility that these chances developed from experiments in the past period to exploit differences between the union tops. If we had taken a sectarian attitude we would still be there.

In the food unions there was an inchoate opposition to the Stalinists. There were office-seekers, progressives, former CPers. We have only a few people. We must link ourselves with one or the other to come forward. Later we will be able to come forward. Two things can compromise us: One, confusion with the Stalinists. Two, a purist attitude. If we imagine ourselves a power, ignoring the differences between the reactionary wings, we will remain sterile. (Writings of Leon Trotsky, p. 269-71)

T. I would be very glad to hear even one single word from you on policy in regard to the presidential election.

C. It is not entirely correct to pose the problem in that way. We are not with the pro-Roosevelt militants. We developed when the Stalinists were pro-Rooseveltian. Their present attitude is conjunctural. It is not correct that we lean toward Roosevelt. Comrade Trotsky’s polemic is a polemic for an independent candidate. If we were opposed to that then his account would be correct. For technical reasons we can’t have an independent candidate. The real answer is independent politics.

It is a false issue: Roosevelt vs. the Stalinists. It is not a bona fide class opposition to Roosevelt. Possibly we could support Browder against Roosevelt, but Browder would not only repudiate our votes, but would withdraw in favor of Roosevelt.

T. I propose a compromise. I will evaluate Browder 50 percent lower than I estimate him now in return for 50 percent more interest from you in the Stalinist party.

C. It has many complications. (Writings, p. 275)

World War II Deepens

Within a few months following these discussions far-reaching events would cast them in a new light. At the beginning of June 1940, Hitler seemed on the verge of victory. The German attack on the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk killed 70,000 British troops. Later that month France capitulated to Germany. And in July the German air bombardment of Britain began.

Trotsky was assassinated by an agent of Stalin, August 20,1940.

Less than a year later Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941.

The impact of these world-shattering events was much different in Europe than in the United States. The Roosevelt administration was impelled to step up its war preparations. But it was restrained by popular anti-war sentiment and by an isolationist bloc in the U.S. Congress headed by Senator Taft. Not until early 1941 (after the presidential election) was Roosevelt in a position to take decisive measures. He then signed the controversial Lend-Lease Agreement with the beleaguered Allies to produce and deliver war materials. The second measure taken by Roosevelt came in June 1941 when FBI agents raided the branch offices of the Socialist Workers Party in St. Paul and Minneapolis. An indictment drawn up by the Justice Department was soon handed down by a federal grand jury against 29 men and women, all members of the Minneapolis Teamster movement and/or the Socialist Workers Party.

These moves were clear signals that the government was preparing on all fronts to enter the war. U.S. industry began shifting to war production and the machinery of thought control went hand in glove with this. Political activists, both in the camp of the ruling class and in the unions and other working class organizations, were beginning to realize that a great change in the economic and social structure of the country was under way, causing extensive debate and dissension in ruling class circles. For the vast majority of working people it meant that new jobs were opening up. Many who never before had a regular job now found work in some shipyards that were being built and in airplane plants and some other new industrial sites. But the mass consciousness condition[ed] by the Depression era remained.

More on SWP’s Military Policy

The leaders of the Socialist Workers Party did not doubt at that time that the proletarian military policy outlined by Trotsky would become a useful device to mobilize workers and soldiers in their own defense during the war, on the home front and in battle. A Plenum-Conference of the SWP in Chicago on September 27-29,1940, concurred in the military policy and adopted the main report by Cannon on this subject in which he said (among other things),

We are under great pressure and will be under still greater pressure. We know that we are dealing with a murderous machine in Stalin’s GPU. We know that Comrade Trotsky was not the first, and probably will not be the last, victim of this murder machine. Our party must also expect persecutions from the Wall Street government.

This conference began with a moment of silence in memory of Trotsky, “our greatest teacher and comrade and our most glorious martyr.”

On the decisive questions of military service and support of the imperialist war, Cannon’s report stated unambiguously,

We say it is a good thing for the workers now to be trained in the use of arms. We are, in fact, in favor of compulsory military training of the proletariat. We are in favor of every union going on record for this idea. We want the proletariat to be well trained and equipped to play the military game. The only thing we object to is the leadership of a class that we don’t trust.

Cannon also gave a report on Stalinism and the SWP union policy, as discussed with Trotsky. He said,

I think this is one time we disagreed with Trotsky correctly. Nevertheless we have all realized that we must devise a more flexible tactic towards the CP and look for suitable occasions, as long as they espouse this semiradical line (The Yanks Are Not Coming!), to penetrate their ranks, by means of united front proposals. (The Socialist Workers Party in World War II, p. 87.)

Of course this prospect ended when Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union. The CP USA then became America’s leading jingoists. They thought the wartime alliance between American capitalism and the Soviet Union would last forever.

The Minneapolis Trial

In the so-called Sedition Trial, the Minneapolis trial of Trotskyist leaders which began October 27,1941, Cannon answered a series of questions on the SWP’s Proletarian Military Policy. He repeated that the party was in support of conscription, “universal military training.” He also explained that the party opposed all imperialist wars. (Socialism on Trial, pp. 40-50.)

“It is absolutely true that Hitler wants to dominate the world,” he said,

but we think it is equally true that the ruling group of American capitalists has the same idea and we are not in favor of either of them.

We do not think that the Sixty Families who own America want to wage this war for some sacred principle of democracy. We think they are the greatest enemies of democracy here at home. We think they would only use the opportunity of a war to eliminate all civil liberties at home, to get the best imitation of fascism they can possibly get.

The Trotskyists were cleared of the sedition charge, found guilty of violating the Smith Act (of questionable constitutionality), and sentenced on Dec. 8,1941, the day the U.S. Congress declared war, following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. From that day on the condition of life in the United States was destined for changes previously unknown.

After Pearl Harbor

The Roosevelt administration had everything in place to start the war machine rolling. Thousands of new military recruits were quickly inducted and sent off to training camps. Factory gates opened to a flood of new workers, who went on company payrolls under the cost-plus agreement between government and industry: the government paid the cost and industry collected the plus, which was the profit mark-up for capitalist management.

At first this seemed like a minor miracle, a world of unemployment and misery transformed into jobs for everyone and quickly built housing projects near the places of work. Blacks and other minorities began to find work in industries where only whites had previously been employed. And women were given new life, freed from the drudgery and monotony of child care and house work. Auxiliary units of the military were created for women recruits in all branches of the armed forces. Women workers were needed in industry. Everybody seemed happy at first except those draft victims who were rushed off to war and got caught on the killing fields and in the slaughter pens.

In North America, especially in the United States, life was sheltered from the full impact of war. There were no air raids. Cities were not bombed or shelled. But even so there was hardship and discontent. As the war dragged on the casualties mounted. Consumer goods grew scarcer and more expensive. The rationing system imposed by government decree gave rise to corruption and created a black market. Wages were frozen. The government tried to freeze jobs to prevent workers from leaving low-paid jobs for ones that paid more.

All social institutions experienced drastic change during the war, the schools, the rather primitive health care system, the churches, and even the governmental structure at all levels. Much of this was hardly perceptible, or went largely unnoticed and was poorly understood. The underlying assumption was that wartime conditions were temporary, that after the war things would revert to the prewar status quo.

Changes in the Unions

The unions also underwent profound changes, probably more than most other organizations. This was true of the organizational structure, but also (perhaps more so) of the leadership and hired officialdom.

In 1940 the combined membership of all unions — AFL, CIO, Railroad brotherhoods, and independents — was 8,944,000. In 1945, at the end of World War II, total union membership was 14,796,000, an increase of nearly 6 million. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, History of Labor, 1976.)

In exchange for the wartime no-strike pledge and other commitments by top union officials, the Roosevelt administration conceded the union shop and dues check-off in war industries. This is what accounted for the rapid growth of union membership. Millions of workers who had never before belonged to unions suddenly became union members. Their union dues were deducted from their paychecks. Many were hardly aware that they were union members and attended union meetings, if at all, only to be initiated (in the case of some antiquated AFL craft unions and the Railroad brotherhoods). This influx of inexperienced union members changed the character of the union movement without noticeable consequences at first.

Even greater changes took place in the composition and social consciousness of the union bureaucracy. Union treasuries suddenly had more money than the officials knew what to do with. New union headquarters were built or contracted for and new office space was rented. All this was obviously necessary, they said, to accommodate the large numbers of new union officers hired to “service the needs of the growing membership.” Most of these new officers were friends of incumbent officials, appointed (in some cases) to avoid the draft. Under these changing circumstances even old-line, strike-hardened union militants who had won union elections and enjoyed popular support soon came to regard their commitment to the Roosevelt administration as more important than their obligation to the union and its members. And if some of them began to have doubts about this, they were reminded that they could be drafted into the army if they failed to remember that one of their duties as union officials was to help enforce the no-strike pledge.

Wartime Strikes

Quite a lot has been written since the war about unions during the war. Martin Glaberman’s book, Wartime Strikes: The Struggle Against the No-Strike Pledge in the UAW during World War II, received favorable attention when it appeared in 1980 and still serves as a useful source of information. It was reviewed by Nelson Lichtenstein (in the magazine Labor History). He wrote:

Throughout his book, Glaberman leaves the impression that wildcat strikes were a spontaneous upsurge from a leaderless unorganized rank and file. Undoubtedly some strikes of this sort occurred, but for the most part even the numerous departmental “quickie” stoppages took place under the informal leadership of union-conscious militants, who were unwilling to let the UAW’s national commitment to the no-strike pledge stand in the way of what they considered the effective and traditional defense of rank and file interests. And as Glaberman himself records, many of the largest and most politically inspired work stoppages were actually led by elected local officials.

Lichtenstein’s basic criticism was that “Glaberman’s analysis is rooted in the political tradition whose chief spokesman was the Marxist activist and theoretician, C. L. R. James,” certainly a valid criticism in most respects.

Glaberman claimed that those sections of the working class who were relatively new to the factories, such as women and Southern immigrants, were least likely to accept “the discipline of factory work and discipline of the union.” Lichtenstein countered this hypothesis with the following observation of what happened.

The influx of new industrial recruits certainly disrupted the usual pattern of factory life and diluted union influence, but their presence alone hardly explains the intensity or the location of shop floor militancy. Of far greater import was an oppositional infrastructure and a preexisting tradition of struggle into which these new workers could be acculturated. The center of auto worker militancy during the war came not in new factories like Willow Run or the other aircraft plants recently built in Texas and Southern California, but at Dodge Main, Briggs and other Detroit area shops where union traditions had their deepest roots. Here a dense shop steward system, a history of local activism and a radical political milieu gave organizational and social coherence to the inchoate rebelliousness of workers new and old.

One of the best accounts of union activity during World War II is by Art Preis in Labor’s Giant Step, which consists (in dealing with the wartime strikes) mostly of material and impressions gained during the war by Preis as an on-the-scene reporter for the SWP newspaper The Militant. His chapters on how the 1943 Mine Workers strikes were won and the coerced settlement of the threatened rail strike and walkouts in steel are unsurpassed accounts of those momentous wartime events. “The triumph of the miners and the rail labor upsurge, plus an almost continuous rash of unauthorized departmental and plant strikes in the ClO-organized industries, forced Murray and the other CIO leaders to make some gestures in the direction of a fight for the workers’ interests. Late in November and in December (1943), the CIO in steel, aluminum, auto, textiles and even in the electrical equipment industry where Stalinists dominated the union, advanced demands from 10 to 17 cents an hour,” Preis wrote (p. 200).

These demands for wage increases during the war were geared to the rising cost of living, as underscored by the union officials, and were not intended as “a threat to the war effort.”

War Industry and Racial Conflict

The wartime influx of new members into the unions had other consequences far different from the rising militancy caused by growing economic hardships. One was a sharp rise in racial tensions. Bert Cochran described the situation in Detroit.

As Michigan became a major war production center, there was an ingathering of masses of new workers, many from the South. By mid-1941 in Detroit alone there were over 350,000 new workers, 50,000 of them Blacks. No provisions worth talking about had been made to accommodate the newcomers. All facilities were monstrously overcrowded; there was an acute housing shortage; the Blacks, who were forced into decaying, infested ghetto slums and were hemmed in by walls of hatred, turned sullen. Here and there, flurries of wildcat strikes staged by white workers opposing the transference and employment of Blacks on defense work agitated the industrial scene.

Cochran mentions one of the largest, most threatening of the wild cats.

In April 1943, 25,000 whites struck the Packard plant in retaliation for a brief sit-down of Blacks protesting their not being promoted, and R. J. Thomas (UAW International President) was jeered when he tried to get the strikers to return to work. In June the accumulating social dynamite set off the blast of a major race riot that went on for three days, resulting in 34 dead, hundreds injured, millions of dollars lost in property damage, and was only quelled when federal troops were moved in. The conduct of all UAW officials was exemplary in trying to defuse the hostilities. (Labor and Communism, p. 221.)

In a footnote Cochran expanded on the role of the CIO in combating racism. “The CIO changed the face of race relations in American unionism. The affiliated unions opened their doors to all Black workers on an equal basis. Gone were the constitutional bars, segregated locals, secret Jim Crow rituals that disfigured the AFL and Railroad Brotherhoods. It was an achievement of the first order,” he said. Of course there were many racist CIO officials. But the CIO policy was anti-racist. This helped to curb racist practices; and the encouragement and protection it afforded Black workers contributed to the movement that arose later—the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s and the growth of Black Nationalism, all resulting in the demise of Jim Crow in the South. (That was one result of changes in industry during World War II that had positive effects later.)

Less Jingoism During World War II

During World War II there was much less of the jingoism that characterized the first world war. I think this can be attributed mainly to the mass social consciousness generated by the Great Depression. This was the ground that nurtured the CIO movement of the 1930s and it carried over through World War II. But during the war the pre-war hatred and distrust of capitalism as an economic and social system moderated appreciably because of the threat of fascism, a seemingly alien force against which the nation was united. (It was generally not recognized that fascism was just another face of imperialism, a particular manifestation of the worldwide death agony of capitalism in its monopoly-capitalist, imperialist phase, with the rise of finance capital to dominance.)

The class struggle lost some of its edge during the war when the government became the accepted final arbiter. Governmental authority was sustained and enhanced by the policy of the Roosevelt administration to appear to compromise and to make minor concessions to organized labor.

The government’s military training program and its conduct of the war met little or no opposition from the conscript army. Not until the end of the war in Europe was there any serious unrest or signs of revolt in the U.S. armed forces. The “Bring Us Home” demonstrations in 1945 at the end of fighting in Europe were caused by war weariness and a sense among the soldiers of “a job well done — now it’s time for us to go home.” Those in the European theater resented the prospect of being shipped off to the Pacific. And those in the Pacific thought they had been there long enough and were demanding replacements. These sentiments were shared by many commissioned officers.

SWP’s Proletarian Military Policy

The SWP’s proletarian military policy determined the attitude of party members toward the draft, service in the military, and to some extent our relations with other radicals. It also affected indirectly our union activity during the war. In industry our comrades never appeared to be draft dodgers, although I know of no cases where any one of us rushed to volunteer. Our auto fractions and perhaps others must have introduced some resolutions, from time to time, for military training under union control. But I don’t know of any unions that adopted such resolutions.

I don’t think very many union members during the war could understand the need for such a resolution, nor would they believe that it could be implemented if adopted. There was never, to my knowledge, any popular outcry against mistreatment of soldiers by their officers. This never became an agitational issue. It remained a propaganda question and never went far beyond the pages of the Militant. It was seen at the time as an educational matter, something to be taken up later as changing conditions dictated.

At the SWP national convention held in New York in October 1942 the party honored the memory of “five of her best and most devoted sons who served the party and the working class in the most dangerous posts as merchant seamen.” It also noted that party membership was growing, especially the industrial fractions in auto and maritime. And this trend continued during the entire course of the war.

The End of the War and the Question of Revolution

When the war finally ended with the dropping of the atom bombs and the surrender of Japan the result was not what almost every SWP member had confidently expected. We believed that U.S. imperialism would not survive the rigors of war, nor did we expect the Stalinist bureaucracy to endure. But when World War II formally and officially ended both U.S. imperialism and the Soviet bureaucracy appeared to be the sole remaining military powers, and both seemed to be stronger than when the war began.

This, however, did not mean that the working class was exhausted and defeated. Even before the German surrender, Hitler’s partner in Italy had been pulled from power by the Italian workers and hanged by his heels. And there were revolutionary uprisings and signs of revolution in France, in the Balkans, in Algeria, and in Greece as the war machine ground to a halt. When the Militant headline blared “THERE IS NO PEACE!” at the very moment when the Allied powers were proclaiming victory and promising peace, there was plenty of evidence that the imperialist war would yet spawn civil wars and revolutions. And this is what did happen in the remaining years of the 1940s, capped by the Chinese revolution in 1949.

The ruling class in both camps (that of “democracy” and that of “fascism”) were acutely aware of the dangers to them of proletarian revolution, and on both sides they took measures to head off this eventuality. The European Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, in his book The Meaning of the Second World War (published first in 1986), wrote:

It was, however, true that from the autumn of 1943 onward authoritative representatives of German big business and banking consciously prepared for a radical change of economic orientation and foreign economic policy in the direction of integration into a world market dominated by US imperialism. This involved a good deal of medium- and long-term planning, a reconversion of armaments into civilian production, the preparation of an export drive, and a radical currency reform in order to make the German Mark convertible once again (p. 154).

The military solution at war’s end destroyed the early hopes of German capitalists, but the postwar moves of the U.S. rekindled those hopes.

When American imperialism decided against maintaining Germany, Japan and Italy in a state of economic prostration and moved towards the Marshall Plan [1947] and the monetary reforms of 1948, the second stage of the Cold War became unavoidable. Through the operation of the Marshall Plan and the European Payments Union linked to it, participating countries were integrated into a world market ruled by the law of value, with the US dollar as universal means of exchange and payment, and US political and military power the secular arm of that saintly rule (p. 164).

This gave German capitalism a new lease on life.

At War’s End, Back to Depression?

In the U.S. few of the fears that demilitarization would see the return of Depression-era conditions, mass unemployment, and a stagnant economy, materialized. Instead the transition to peacetime seemed relatively easy to most workers and returning soldiers. There were two reasons for this. The first was the worldwide destruction wrought by the war. And the other was the U.S. policy designed to provide a living income at home to discharged soldiers, known as the GI Bill of Rights.

The extensive material and moral destruction of the war was never fully felt or understood in America. The Europeans had experienced it differently. Mandel described what it was:

The legacy of destruction left by World War II is staggering. Eighty million people were killed, if one includes those who died of starvation and illness as a direct result of the war — eight times as many as during World War I. Dozens of cities were virtually totally destroyed, especially in Japan and Germany. Material resources capable of feeding, clothing, housing, equipping all the poor of this world were wasted for purely destructive purposes. Forests were torn down and agricultural land converted into wasteland on a scale not witnessed since the Thirty Years War or the Mongol invasion of the Islamic Empire.

Even worse was the destructive havoc wreaked on human minds and behavior. Violence and barbaric disregard of elementary human rights — starting with the right to life — spread on a larger scale than any thing seen during and after World War I — itself already quite disastrous in this regard. (Meaning of the Second World War, p. 169.)

Postwar Labor Upsurge

Trotskyists in the U.S. were deeply involved in the labor resurgence of 1945-46, described by Preis in Labor’s Giant Step as “American Labor’s Greatest Upsurge.”

The struggles of the American workers and soldiers became interlinked and confronted the American capitalist ruling class with an invincible power. This played an important part in giving the GM workers the will to hold on until the legions of mass industry swelled the nation’s picket lines into the mightiest strike army in this country’s history.

As the GM workers waited for steel, electrical and packinghouse workers to launch their strikes, Truman [who had become U.S. president when Roosevelt died] intervened with his Fact-Finding Board’s proposals. On January 10 [1946], the board recommended an increase of 19.5 cents an hour — a raise of 17.5 percent instead of the 30 percent demanded and needed just to keep the workers even with their take-home pay at the start of the war (p. 275).

On March 15 the GM delegates conference approved a new contract. After 113 days on the picket lines, the 225,000 GM auto workers had forced the corporation to agree to an 18.5-cent across-the-board wage raise, 13.5 cents of it retroactive to November 7, 1945; correction of local plant inequities; no “company security” clauses; and paid vacations. If this was considerably less than what was demanded and needed, it was none the less a proud victory. The GM workers had been made to bear the brunt of corporate resistance; their stand had sparked the whole labor struggle which won the largest and most extensive wage increases that had ever been secured in a single period (p. 281).

In the twelve months following V-J Day more then 5,000,000 workers engaged in strikes. For the number of strikers, their weight in industry and the duration of the struggle, the 1945-46 strike wave in the U.S. surpassed anything of its kind in any capitalist country, including the British General Strike of 1926. Before its ebb it was to include the whole coal, railroad, maritime and communications industries, although not simultaneously (p. 276).

The Cold War and Taft-Hartley

In contrast to this, 1947 was noted at the time by a member of the SWP political committee as “the year of lost strikes.” The employing class devised an effective new strategy for dealing with unions at the economic level within the fabric of the capitalist productive system, and on the political level within the governmental structure. Following the emerging GM-UAW pattern, most basic industries adopted a paternalistic labor-management policy. Also, the U.S. Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley law, which codified and circumscribed labor-management relations.

Under the pressures from corporate capitalist government and society symbolized and expressed in the Taft-Hartley law the union movement became further institutionalized and its official representatives adjusted to their indicated social status. They now acquired official recognition as “labor statesmen.” This was different from before, because Taft-Hartley conferred upon them new responsibilities to ensure that the unions operated within the newly enacted law. It also gave them an additional distinction because under this new law “Communists” (those who refused to sign a non-Communist affidavit) were prohibited from holding union office or were denied recognition by the National Labor Relations Board.

Reactionary Role of AFL

Many strikes were lost in 1947 due to the AFL’s union raiding policy. The AFL bureaucracy sought to take advantage of Taft-Hartley to enhance its political influence and gain control of more unions by branding the CIO a “Commie outfit” and in this way winning NLRB certification in industries organized by the CIO. In strikes called by CIO unions or provoked by employers under CIO contract, AFL unions (the Teamsters and the Sailors Union of the Pacific were especially notorious on the West Coast) supplied strike breakers. The result (in the oil industry in California as an example) was that strikes were broken and the employers refused to negotiate, no longer compelled to deal with any union.

By 1947 the U.S. economy was beginning to adjust to the transition from war production to consumer needs — and getting a new transfusion thanks to the Cold War military budget boondoggle (which has never ended, even today, long after the “Cold War” was over). A new sense was beginning to develop in the popular consciousness that stable economic growth could be expected for the foreseeable future. The old feeling of insecurity and uncertainty engendered by the Great Depression was beginning to recede. The “great American red scare” (also known as “McCarthyism”) did not touch the daily lives of the vast majority of American workers. The organized labor and radical movements, however, were deeply affected, leading eventually to the drastic decline of both. This was conditioned by the ensuing years of relative prosperity with a steady rise in wages and standard of living until 1978 when the U.S. ruling class launched its anti-labor offensive.

Stalinism and Trotskyism after World War II

The Cold War and “red scare” destroyed the Communist Party in the U.S. By 1955, the year of AFL-CIO merger, the CP was without influence in organized labor and no longer a factor in American politics. It played no appreciable role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, nor in the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In those years the SWP superseded the CP as the dominant organization in the broad radical movement. But the SWP also suffered from the consequences of the post-World War II capitalist prosperity (as did the union movement and all radical organizations. It began to degenerate as early as the 1960s, and — like all other radical groups — to fragment). These processes were ameliorated slightly in the case of the SWP by its superior political training and the acute sensitivity of its leadership to social and political change.

Splits in American Trotskyism

Even before the defeat of German military power in Europe, and shortly before the 18 U.S. Trotskyist leaders were imprisoned, there were signs that Albert Goldman and Felix Morrow (two of the 18) were beginning to question the future prospects of revolution. The soldier revolts and working class revolutions had not occurred during the war as predicted by Trotsky. Goldman and Morrow expressed their feelings of disappointment and disillusionment at a meeting of the SWP national committee in New York, Oct. 29-Nov. 1, 1943, called to choose an interim leadership for the party during the period when the 18 convicted leaders would be in jail. The rather despondent mood of Goldman and Morrow found expression in sharp criticism by them of the party “regime” and the method of training and selecting leaders.

On this occasion Cannon spoke at length on the Leninist concept of organization, reviewing the differences that had developed after the trial in Minneapolis. He concluded on a conciliatory note.

Our strength is our combination; our solidarity on the fundamental program that Trotsky taught us, and our policy of selecting and helping people to emerge from the ranks to strengthen the leadership and our division of labor is a conscious system all up and down the line in organizing and disposing of the abilities of individual people. This is the cadre that you have got to do it with, Comrade Morrison (Goldman). It is not a handpicked group. It is not arbitrarily selected. It is truly the representative of the party. You can’t find another one, not now. The task before us is how to improve and strengthen this one and to work together, and if the plenum, the comrades from out of town, have some criticism either of me or you, we have to heed that criticism... (See Cannon’s talk entitled “The Problem of Party Leadership” in The Socialist Workers Party in World War II.)

This talk was in many ways a kind of self-identification and in others a self-criticism. Cannon spoke of his limitations and faults, and deplored the insinuation that he was or ought to be considered a Marxist theoretician. He identified himself as an organizer and agitator. Much of what he said about himself on this occasion was reminiscent of a resolution on organization adopted at the final national convention of the Communist League of America (November 30, 1934) on the eve of fusion with the American Workers Party. This resolution was entitled “The Record of the CLA Leadership” and was signed by Cannon, Swabeck, and Shachtman. (See The Communist League of America, 1932-34, p. 374.)

The disgruntlement of Goldman and Morrow was a prelude to their break with Trotskyism after the war.

Apparent Stability of U.S. Capitalism

I believe Cannon understood Goldman and Morrow’s malaise better than they did themselves. It was something that not only affected these two individuals but many others (in different ways) in the SWP and far beyond its narrow circle of influence. It was the apparent stability of U.S. capitalism and the arrogance of its rulers (who believed they would dominate the world, ushering in “the American Century”). Goldman and Morrow did not try very hard to convince SWP members of their rather shallow political arguments. Some months before the 1946 National Convention of the SWP, held in Chicago (November 14-18) that year, they drifted into the orbit of the Shachtman group and away from the SWP. Goldman did not bother to attend the convention and Morrow showed up only to make his farewell speech. The main political resolution adopted by the convention was the “Theses on the American Revolution,” drafted by Cannon. (See James P. Cannon, Speeches To The Party, p. 323; and The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century,” p. 256.) In these theses, Cannon set down at the outset (thesis I) the way he saw the world situation in the wake of World War II, what had changed and what remained.

The United States, the most powerful country in history, is a component part of the world capitalist system and is subject to the same general laws. It suffers from the same incurable diseases and is destined to share the same fate. The overwhelming preponderance of American imperialism does not exempt it from the decay of world capitalism, but on the contrary acts to involve it ever more deeply, inextricably, and hopelessly. U.S. capitalism can no more escape from the revolutionary consequences of world capitalist decay than the older European capitalist powers. The blind alley in which world capitalism has arrived, and the U.S. with it, excludes a new organic era of capitalist stabilization. The dominant world position of American imperialism now accentuates and aggravates the death agony of capitalism as a whole.

The other central theme of this document was that the working class in the U.S. would be decisive in the struggle to resolve the contradictions of the capitalist system. This was stated explicitly in thesis X.

The issue of socialism or capitalism will not be finally decided until it is decided in the U.S. Another retardation of the proletarian revolution in one country or another, or even one continent or another, will not save American imperialism from its proletarian nemesis at home. The decisive battles for the communist future of mankind will be fought in the U.S.

In his report at the convention on these theses, Cannon stressed the educational rewards of party discussion and debate, the necessary grounding for the working class reorganization of society.

Just as in the early days of our movement — at least in the first ten years — we rearmed the movement with education and discussion and agitation around the basic principles of the Russian Opposition, the Anglo-Russian Committee, the policy in the Soviet Union, problems of the Chinese revolution, later on the problems of fascism in Europe, so now I believe we should go through that same process again of organizing our educational work, our literary and propagandistic work, in terms of popularizing and expanding on each one of the basic ideas gathered together here in the theses, so the whole party becomes saturated with the concept of the theses and the whole outlook that flows from it—that we are actually building a party to make the revolution in the United States. (The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century”, p. 277-8.)

In retrospect it is clear that the theses and Cannon’s report created the impression that a revolutionary situation could develop in the U.S. “in our epoch,” surely before the close of the 20th century. This has not happened and seems unlikely at this late date. But careful reading also reveals that Cannon sensed (as did Morrow and Goldman at the time and as others would later) the stultifying pressures of mighty U.S. capitalism bearing down on working class culture and institutions. It is also clear that Cannon recognized that World War II had changed the world, that what remained unchanged was the class struggle, which will continue as long as capitalism endures.

We must not concede at any place or any point to that school of thought now very popular among our neorevisionists that revolutionary possibilities are decided by subjective factors — the existence or nonexistence, the strength or weakness of the party, or the reactionary or liberal policies of the ruling class at a given moment, etc... even if we encounter really ferocious persecution — and that seems more likely than not — that will not halt revolutionary developments or succeed in breaking the party.

We must assert as a matter of course that our party is going to lead the revolution (p. 281).

This remained the official credo of the SWP until 1983 when the new generation of party leaders (the 1960s generation) repudiated Trotskyism. It is ironic that it was not government persecution that destroyed the SWP but the party’s success in recruiting a predominantly petty bourgeois membership during the student radicalization of the 1960s and early 1970s.

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