What follows is how I remember a very small but important revolutionary group to which I was deeply committed, and the sense that I have made of the experience, looking back from the vantage point of the summer of 1995, and the spring of 2000. In the interval, I’ve made a few revisions. These reflections are hardly definitive. There are undoubtedly gaps and errors, and some participants may have different interpretations. Others who lived through this experience are urged to fill in gaps, make corrections, and offer their own views. (This has already been done by Steve Bloom, whose account, written partly in response to the 1995 version of this one, has enjoyed some circulation over the past few years).
Many would dismiss it as a classic left-wing sect. I don’t see it that way, and I’ll try to explain why in the concluding section of this account. In some ways, I would say that the best organization I ever belonged to was the Fourth Internationalist Tendency. Some outside of its ranks called it “the fit” (as if we pretentiously considered ourselves the only political current that was not “unfit,” or as if we were engaged in one unending tantrum or convulsion). Loyal members modestly said each letter in the acronym: F-I-T. And in some ways the FIT was quite modest in its self-conception. Related to this modesty, however, was something profound and fine. In this reflection I want to try to capture some of the very positive qualities, and also certain limitations, that characterized it. I believe there are lessons to be learned from this experience, and perhaps some hints for the future that revolutionary activists can profitably consider.
I write this as a member of Solidarity and of Committees of Correspondence, both of which contain excellent comrades fighting for a socialist future, but neither of which pretends to be the organization that is capable of bringing about such a future. The FIT also had no such pretensions —it recognized that such an organization has yet to be forged, and that it cannot simply be proclaimed but can come into being only through a process in which significant layers of activists from the working class accumulate sufficient experience and consciousness to create the organization they need. But there are important things that can be done to help further the process, and the FIT had certain qualities contributing to that.
It is not the case, however, that good qualities, serious work, and a correct program determine the fortunes of an organization. We help make history, but not just as we wish—the actual social, economic, cultural, political realities that have evolved over previous years (and which have shaped us), and how these convergence at specific conjunctures, define limitations as well as possibilities.
The FIT existed in a broader context. There were deep and powerful processes in the decades following the Second World War which decomposed and recomposed key aspects of the working class reality, culminating in a global economic restructuring of the capitalist system—interwoven within an extended upswing and later (including the present moment) a long-term downturn in the capitalist economy—which expanded and then fatally eroded bases of industrial trade union power and what had once been seen as “permanent” gains of the Social-Democratic/social-liberal welfare state. Connected to these developments, there was the deepening rot and crisis and collapse of Stalinist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. All of this was creating the basis for an eventual and incredibly powerful working-class resurgence and the revitalization of left-wing and revolutionary possibilities among many millions of people. But in the short-term, it created confusion and disorientation among the entire Left: especially among organizations and movements associated with Social Democracy and Stalinism, which were—however—so important to the self-definition of the “far left” that its own smaller groups also went into decline. History proves itself a cruel dialectician as masses begin to shift to the left while traditional left-wing organizations are in a process of disintegration!
Bourgeois “politics-as-usual” proves incapable of delivering enough of the goods to enough of the people to maintain its traditional authority, and “mainstream” politics shifts to the right amid dramatically growing voter alienation. A radicalization of consciousness begins to develop among massive layers of the population as inequality, injustice and instability visibly deepen. Even sophisticated “pundits” discuss the political realities of class polarization, and possibilities emerge for creating a left-wing politics that is far more radical than before, shifting away from all varieties of mere rhetoric, going to the root: the needs and aspirations of millions of the workers and oppressed. And as this reality unfolds over the coming period. it may be especially useful to draw from the best of what the FIT was, while learning from its limitations.
The FIT came into being in the wake of a tragic development in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). A new leadership had been developed—presumably under the tutelage of such veterans of the revolutionary workers’ movement as Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry, Joseph Hansen, George Novack, George Breitman—which was supposed to guarantee the future of the SWP as a force representing what was best in the tradition of American Trotskyism. Instead, the new leadership soon lost confidence in that tradition and—dishonestly, undemocratically—engineered a reconstruction of the SWP as a self-styled “sister party” of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Communist Party. Combined with this, the party underwent a so-called “proletarianization” which eliminated it as a serious force in the trade unions and in a variety of social movements. There was also a tightening of organizational norms (under the pretense of making the SWP more “Leninist”) which heightened leadership control at the expense of the internal democracy that had long characterized the U.S. Trotskyist movement under its founder James P. Cannon.
The beginnings, impact and after-effects of this development have been extensively documented and analyzed in the three-volume series “In Defense of American Trotskyism” (The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party 1979-1983, edited by Sarah Lovell; Revolutionary Principles and Working-Class Democracy, edited by Paul Le Blanc; Rebuilding the Revolutionary Party, edited by Paul Le Blanc). It ultimately resulted in the disintegration of the SWP as a revolutionary force, and it drove several hundred people out of the organization. Some drifted away from revolutionary politics, but many sought to stay true to their commitments. Among these, three distinct currents emerged which continued to identify, at least to some extent, with Trotskyism. Two of these currents were determined to build an alternative and competitor to the SWP. The third current opposed this course.
At first, all three currents were represented in a single organization, Socialist Action (SA). Two of the currents constituted an unstable majority—the other (what would become the FIT) represented a very distinctive (to many a rather odd) approach. The majority of SA felt that the SWP was “finished” and that the time had come for a new beginning, that the SWP had to be superseded by a better organization. The dissident minority insisted that the fight in the SWP was far from over. The fight was not simply over organizational norms, tactics, and personalities, but over the revolutionary Marxist program of the Fourth International and the tradition of American Trotskyism—what these things meant, how they could have undergone such a process of distortion in the SWP, and in what ways they continued to be relevant in the final decades of the 20th century. The minority insisted that the orientation of those who had been expelled should be to address these questions in the most serious way possible, and to do that in the framework of reaching out to SWP members. The goal should be to get back into the SWP in order to finish the political struggle, a struggle that would clarify the substantive issues which had been the cause of the crisis in the SWP but which had barely been discussed before the new SWP leadership choked off debate and initiated expulsions.
Given the profound difference in orientation, the currents favoring a total break from the SWP were unable to yield sufficient ground to the current opposing such a break. Very quickly, Frank Lovell perceived the impasse and walked out of the new group to begin publishing Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, which sought to influence those in and around the SWP. Within a few months, most other members of this dissident current—reinforced by a new wave of expelled SWPers, including George Breitman—broke from SA to form the Fourth Internationalist Tendency
The FIT began with about 30 members, while SA had about 200. But the two remaining currents that predominated in SA soon found themselves at loggerheads. One current was determined to replicate the SWP before it had abandoned Trotskyism. The other current essentially rejected the tradition of American Trotskyism (characterizing this as “a national conceit”) and sought a regroupment with the semi-Trotskyist formations International Socialists and Workers Power. This was envisioned as the beginning of an even broader revolutionary socialist regroupment. The diverging perspectives generated another split, with the regroupment advocates going on to form Solidarity, whose members—fluctuating around 300 (with perhaps a third identifying with the Fourth International)—include many who openly question the value of Leninism and Trotskyism. On the other hand, SA’s membership has never been able to stabilize itself above 100, due to a succession of splits over the interpretation of “Leninist-Trotskyist” orthodoxy and the very specific interpretation of the SWP tradition, imposed by SA’s central leadership.
In contrast to these, the FIT was able, despite some individual losses, to end up with a membership of about 70, supporting a fairly substantial monthly magazine and some other publications, a modest amount of political work in several cities (and in certain unions and certain social movements), as well as some serious educational activity and theoretical work—all of which were designed to advance the process of political clarification regarding the relevance and meaning of the revolutionary Marxist program and the American Trotskyist tradition.
The FIT had a number of strong-willed personalities and seasoned political people within it, which helped to ensure a vibrant internal democracy, making it impossible for anyone to play the role of unquestioned Leader, even had anyone aspired to such a position. The fact remains that George Breitman was, to a very large extent, the group’s guiding spirit. It is hardly the case that everyone agreed with him on everything, but everyone—even those who couldn’t stand one another—deeply respected him and had some confidence in his political integrity and overall vision.
Breitman helped to initiate (by urging and encouraging others to take on various projects) a substantial amount of work on Lenin, Trotsky, Cannon, the relationship of black liberation and feminism to the class struggle, lessons of new experiences in Nicaragua, the workers and farmers government concept, the history of American Trotskyism, and more. He also stood as an example of honesty, principled politics, thoughtfulness, critical-mindedness. Unyielding in his defense of the tradition of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Cannon, he was at the same time insistent that this tradition—revolutionary Marxism—must be open to new developments and new insights. When he died in 1986, no one could possibly have replaced him. But much of what he had been and done would help make it possible for the FIT to continue as a vital force for several more years.
Other veterans of American Trotskyism (that is, those active beginning in the 1930s and ’40s) were also an important part of the FIT. Dorothea Breitman, who labored to help George survive a number of almost unendurable illnesses, was very much a political person in her own right, an active participant throughout the small group’s existence, giving special attention to the circulation of FIT and Fourth International publications. One of George’s closest co-thinkers and friends was George Weissman, Trotsky’s literary executor in the U.S. and—like Breitman—a meticulous editor and particularly creative political intelligence. Weissman and another comrade who worked closely with George—Larry Stewart, an African-American worker who joined our movement in the 1940s, and who had a reputation for being especially thoughtful, honest, and tough-minded—died before I rejoined the FIT, and I was not able to get to know them. Jim Kutcher, the famous “legless veteran” who successfully challenged McCarthyism, was a stalwart rank-and-filer whose quiet manner obscured the depth of his commitment. Far more gregarious was the film-maker David Weiss, an early member of the Communist League of America, who could always be counted on to articulate—with humor, warmth and expansiveness—strongly held opinions, and whose wife Victoria was also involved, although prevented by illness from being active. Another “old-timer” was Ben Stone, who years before had come to the Trotskyist movement from an off-shoot of Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party: he had authored the book Memoirs of a Rank-and-Filer.
Frank and Sarah Lovell were—in more ways than one—a “dynamic duo.” Frank, formerly the trade union director of the SWP, was long immersed in the political cultures of American Trotskyism and of the American labor movement, and this experience and knowledge permeated his thinking and all that he said, which meant that a seemingly modest comment would often contain considerable insight and meaning. Frank often reached for a simple thought, simply put, as being best able to get at the truth of something. Some of his most profound thoughts were expressed in a tone of understatement, although he was as capable as anyone else of one-sided overstatements in the heat of the moment. More often than not, such overstatements (actual or perceived) would be sharply challenged by Sarah, whose own insights often inclined towards complexity and nuance. A successful blending of the two approaches (which on more than one occasion would be achieved in their discussions and practical work) could result in a political penetration and balance akin to that which George Breitman—to whom they were both devoted friends and close comrades—had achieved within himself.
While in some ways Sarah seemed the more outgoing of the two, it was Frank who was continually reaching out to various comrades with letters, phone calls, face-to-face conversations: to get a sense of what they thought, to plant some seeds of his own into their thinking, and in some cases to draw them into the work of the Trotskyist movement. More than one comrade has been profoundly affected by a meaningful communication from or discussion with Frank. Not one to suffer fools lightly (and sometimes being too quick, in my opinion, to react with impatience toward certain people), Frank tended to function as a maverick as he went about his party-building efforts. Sarah—appreciating positive qualities in those toward whom Frank was inclined to be less patient—was better able to sustain an involvement in ongoing collective and committee efforts. Thus, while it was Frank who blazed the trail that initiated the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism it was Sarah who remained centrally involved in the editorial work and production of the magazine (and its circulation too) when the FIT decided that it should be put out by an editorial committee. Throughout its existence—far more than many of its members were inclined to acknowledge—these two comrades were an essential element in the organization’s chemistry.
All of the veteran Trotskyists mentioned so far lived in New York City, with the exception of Larry Stewart who lived in nearby New Jersey. In Philadelphia there were Haskell and Naomi Berman, and in the nearby Allentown area there was Regina Shoemaker (who became part of the Trotskyist movement when the American Workers Party of A.J. Muste merged with the Communist League of America). Haskell and Naomi—recruited away from the Zionist-Socialist movement in the 1940s—also represented two parts of a political balance, although illness prevented Naomi from fully playing the vital role which would naturally have been hers to play; after her death, Haskell was consequently unable to function as well as be otherwise might have—and yet he was able, nonetheless, to have an important impact within the Philadelphia Left and to recruit several people to the FIT. In Cleveland, Jean Tussey—who came over to the SWP from the Socialist Party in the early 1940s—was the most prominent veteran: thoughtful, outspoken, widely-respected in the labor, “peace and justice,” and socialist movements. But there were also Cleo Ferguson (widow of the noted Trotskyist artist and sculptor, Duncan Ferguson), as well as peppery George Chamalou, an articulate political person and born entertainer (a former nightclub singer!) whose wife Sophie, not a “veteran” in the sense discussed here, also became part of the FIT.
The FIT was weaker on the West Coast. but two outstanding representatives of the 1940s generation of American Trotskyism were Rita Shaw in Seattle and Evelyn Sell in Los Angeles, who were the most youthful of the “veterans.” While energetic and articulate, Rita did not have the benefit of living near other FIT members, so her role was largely restricted to being active in labor and social movement work in Seattle plus making what contributions that she could at national gatherings of the FIT. Evelyn Sell, on the other hand, was able to work with other FIT members and supporters in Los Angeles as well as playing a vital role in the organization’s central leadership. Evelyn had been well-trained (in part by George Breitman in the Detroit branch of the SWP) in meticulousness regarding organizational details, but she was also graced with a sense of political vision and a certain confidence in self-expression (written as well as oral), sometimes a creative flair, and an invaluable “revolutionary patience,” which combined to make her adept in a range of fields of endeavor vital for a political group: as an activist and spokesperson in broad coalitions and trade union situations, as a socialist educator, as a political writer, as a financial director, as an organizer. Sometimes a fussiness over details could frustrate comrades, but details are not unimportant, and her overall political sense of direction tended to be quite good. Although confinement to a wheelchair (due to an accident years before) limited her mobility, Evelyn was among the most active militants in the FIT.
In addition to having such veterans in its ranks, the FIT and the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism were fortunate to have a number of veteran militants of the Trotskyist movement in a milieu of sympathizers and supporters. Among the most impressive were Morris Lewit and Sylvia Bleecker. As teenagers they participated in the Russian Revolution, but when their hometown was overrun by counterrevolutionary forces during the Russian Civil War, they emigrated to the United States—where they immediately became immersed in the labor movement (Morris was a plumber, Sylvia a garment worker) and in the early Communist Party. In the 1920s, Sylvia—a leader of the largest female local in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and in the country—was able to attend the summer school for working-class women at Bryn Mawr College, and was subsequently recruited to attend A.J. Muste’s Brookwood Labor College, which Morris also attended. While at Brookwood, they read, in the International Press Correspondence (Inprecorr) of the Communist International, the debates between the United Left Opposition (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev) and the Stalin-Bukharin majority, and they admitted to each other that they found the texts of speeches by the opposition leaders to be persuasive. Although Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone attacked Morris by name, in a public pamphlet, for “kowtowing to the American Federation of Labor bureaucracy,” because Morris was associated with the rival caucus of William Z. Foster, both Morris and Sylvia remained in the CP (Sylvia running for Congress as a Communist in 1930) until their adherence to Trotsky’s outlook resulted in their being driven out. Early members of the CLA, they oversaw the production of the Yiddish-language Trotskyist paper Unser Kampf (Our Struggle). Morris was to become a central leader of U.S. Trotskyism taking over as National Secretary while Cannon and seventeen others were imprisoned for violation of the Smith Act during World War II.
While not participating directly in the work of the FIT, such comrades as these (and there were a number of others) offered what moral and material support they could to the struggle to defend and advance the revolutionary perspectives to which they had committed their lives.
The political orientation of the FIT was in large measure defined by that of the pre-1979 Socialist Workers Party, although a considerable amount of critical thinking was encouraged. There were certain aspects of the multi-faceted orientation which may not have been fully grasped or accepted by all members. But the general perspectives developed by Cannon on the revolutionary party—its nature, its purpose, its structure and dynamics, its relationship to the Marxist program, to the American radical tradition, and to the needs and struggles of the U.S. working class—were at the core of what the FIT was.
The perspectives on the American labor movement developed by Cannon, V.R. Dunne, Carl Skoglund, Art Preis, Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry, Frank Lovell (for us especially Lovell) were also a guiding influence: the notion of patiently building a class-struggle left wing in the trade unions as being one of the preconditions for an American socialist revolution; the tactic of not focusing on fighting trade union bureaucrats, but instead on fighting the bosses (with the bureaucrats consequently being swept to the left or swept aside as the struggle gains momentum); championing democratic, socially-conscious unionism, and the eventual formation of a powerful labor party based on such unions, with a class-struggle program.
No less essential was the perspective on black liberation first developed by Trotsky and C.L.R. James but subsequently elaborated with considerable insight by George Breitman, including the independent dynamic of the black liberation struggle, sometimes taking the form of black nationalism, and the conception of combined revolution which saw the triumph of the black struggle and the advancing struggle of the working class as being inseparably linked.
Related to this was a broader, deeper generalization articulated by Breitman and others in the late 1960s and early ’70s: that the black struggle, the women’s liberation struggle, the anti-war struggle, struggles of students and youth around a variety of issues, were all interconnected to the struggle of the working class. This was so because the bulk of those involved in these struggles happened to be part of the working class (regardless of how these participants were inclined to identify themselves), because the advance of such struggles was objectively in the interest of the working class as a whole, because the advance of such struggles is an organic part of the working class’s radicalization, and because only the working class as a whole has the power, ultimately, to bring these struggles to victory.
Related to all of this, there was a general acceptance of the immense value in the contributions made by the SWP in helping to bring an end to the Vietnam war by building a broad united-front coalition focused on the single issue of opposition to the war, with the uncompromising demand of “U.S. Out Now!” This was seen as contributing mightily to the involvement of masses of people—including sections of the labor movement—in oppositional politics and the radicalization process. Also related to this was the SWP effort to link consciousness and struggle around women’s oppression to consciousness and struggle against racism and class oppression in the women’s movement, and in the labor movement to link struggles against racism and sexism to struggles against class oppression.
In regard to international questions, the FIT was very much influenced by a primary commitment to the actually-existing Fourth International, and inclined toward a favorable consideration of contributions by such international comrades as Ernest Mandel. But it was also deeply influenced by the perspectives of Cannon, who emphasized that our greatest contribution to revolutionary internationalism will be to build a revolutionary party and militant working-class movement in the U.S. capable of taking power. For the Fourth International to work as a serious collaborative body (as opposed to a super-centralist global sect), Cannon had insisted, it must encourage the organic development of self-confident revolutionary organizations in various countries that will remain true to the revolutionary Marxist program and develop specific ways of applying this to national conditions and traditions. Along with this, there was a belief that the Fourth International had a role to play that could not be played by any other force on earth—the preservation and development of the revolutionary Marxist program, summarized in such documents as the Transitional Program formulated by Trotsky in close collaboration with Cannon and others from the SWP—which should culminate in the building of Leninist-Trotskyist parties rooted among the workers and oppressed of all countries.
More than this, the FIT was strongly influenced by perspectives developed by the late Joseph Hansen, whose international experience began when he served as Trotsky’s secretary in Mexico and who had established and edited the global weekly news magazine Intercontinental Press.
There was Hansen’s analysis of Eastern European countries and China—thanks to the Stalinism inherent in the Communist parties which took power—as being bureaucratically deformed by Stalinism at their inception as workers’ states (not to be confused with what happened in the Soviet Union, where an initially healthy workers’ state became bureaucratically degenerated). There was his analysis of the Castroist revolution in Cuba as representing the first socialist revolution under a non-Stalinist revolutionary leadership since the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and representing a profound breakthrough especially for other revolutionary elements in Latin America, but also having serious (and, if not overcome, fatal) limitations, especially the lack of institutionalized forms of workers’ democracy.
Hansen also developed the conception of “workers and farmers government,” a transitional regime established by a popular revolution which would either move forward to a nationalized planned economy (creating a workers’ state) or would instead allow the consolidation of a capitalist economy (resulting in some variant of a bourgeois state).
And in counterposition to the strategy of guerrilla warfare in Latin America and elsewhere in the 1960s and ’70s, Hansen argued for what he termed “the Leninist strategy of party-building,” which involved the patient but relentless effort to build up democratic yet disciplined organizations developing experience and authority in the class struggle which would help them lead the working class and its allies to power (with revolutionary violence and military action strictly subordinated to the needs of educating, organizing and mobilizing a proletarian majority to fight for its own liberation).
Within this general framework, the FIT did its own work, although there could be, and sometimes was, dissent on one or another perspective. For example, I respected but turned away from Hansen’s “workers and farmers government” concept, preferring the way that Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Cannon had originally conceived of a workers’ state (the working class taking political power, which necessarily happens before the gradual socialization of the economy). Later on, a few others questioned Breitman’s views on black nationalism. There were also a few who questioned the importance given to the actually-existing Fourth International. And, of course, there were always different ways of interpreting the rich and multi-faceted perspectives that made up the FIT’s general political orientation.
The FIT was constructed along Leninist lines. It was the most democratic organization to which I have ever belonged. In part, thus, heightened democratic quality might be related to the fact that it was so small (about 40 when I joined) that all members were able to be more directly involved in deliberations and decision-making than would be the case in a significantly larger organization. On the other hand, it is possible for tiny groups to be stifling and authoritarian rather than open and democratic. Structure and norms are important.
One adaptation which contributed to the democratic quality of the group was the existence of an open discussion bulletin, usually produced monthly, although more frequently before national decision-making conferences. Another was an FIT Information Letter sent out weekly, later about twice a month, to every FIT member. This, supplemented by frequent telephone conversations and a lively correspondence among some comrades, ensured an uninterrupted flow of information and ideas. While this was contrary to the much more restrictive SWP norms that developed in the 1970s and especially the 1980s, it is entirely consistent (indeed, more consistent) with the Leninist principle of democratic centralism, and it was a positive feature contributing to the health of the FIT.
According to Leninist organizational principles, the highest authority in the organization is a membership unambiguously committed to the revolutionary political program of Marxism, contributing financially to the organization, and organized to carry out political work in common. In the FIT these members were organized, for the most part, in what were called Local Organizing Committees (LOCs, called “locks” by a few comrades’), consisting of two or more FIT members in a particular city.
The most authoritative body in the organization was the National Conference, a delegated gathering (which all members could attend, and at which all could genuinely have a chance to speak) held at least every two years. to be preceded by a three-month written and oral discussion period. The National Conference delegates would elect a politically and geographically representative National Organizing Committee (NOC), which was to ensure the carrying out of Conference decisions and oversee the general functioning of the organization between Conferences. (Although the NOC should meet at least three times a year, in the opinion of some comrades, its members were sometimes only able to meet once a year, plus voting in NOC polls conducted by mail or telephone.) The NOC, in turn, elected three (later five) National Coordinators who would meet weekly by telephone conference call for the purpose of coordinating the ongoing functioning of the FIT. In Leninist fashion, the National Coordinators were answerable to the NOC, the NOC was subordinate to the National Conference, and the National Conference delegates were answerable to their comrades in the LOCs.
The FIT developed a modest organizational apparatus, with a small national office in New York where there was a large LOC and where the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism was produced. There was a full-time national organizer for a time, and at certain points part-time staff positions.
The LOCs had a significant amount of autonomy in deciding what work to carry out and how to do it, just as individual activists had a significant amount of autonomy in their workplaces, trade unions, social movement coalitions, etc. At the same time, it was expected that all comrades would function within the framework of the program and national decisions of the FIT, with significant consultation and collaboration among comrades. Sometimes national commissions, fractions, or committees were created to facilitate such consultation and collaboration— for example, in regard to some women’s liberation activities, in regard to building opposition to the Persian Gulf war, etc.
The functioning of the LOCs, it should be added, was uneven. The largest LOCs at first existed in New York, Cleveland, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Los Angeles; the first two grew, and the latter two shrank over time. During the mid-to-late 1980s Pittsburgh became one of the larger LOCs, and Philadelphia also experienced dramatic growth. A significant LOC came into being in Milwaukee following a break of supporters from the SWP after the SWP broke from the Fourth International. There were also modest LOCs in Baltimore, Boston, Kansas City, Cincinnati, northern New Jersey, Dallas/Fort Worth, and individual comrades were also in San Francisco, Seattle, and for a short while in Washington, DC and New Orleans.
Some LOCs met in a highly organized manner on a weekly basis, with well-structured activities, while others met once or twice a month—and some met rarely, with comrades “touching base” with each other by telephone. Among the more structured LOCs, one might function like a serious collective of activists, another might be dominated by a well-meaning leader and a weak collective process, and yet another might be more or less providing a forum for the expression of the diverse views and irritations of various opinionated comrades. Some held forums and educationals, circulated BIDOM and other FIT literature, reached out to “new” people, recruited, intervened in or participated in or helped initiate various local political activities. Others did not. Nonetheless, the FIT had a dynamic quality in which the whole added up to more than the sum of its parts.
Some of the accomplishments of the FIT have already been alluded to. The organization grew, became outward-reaching, and produced an increasingly high quality monthly magazine of political analysis and Marxist theory. For a period of eight years it preserved and developed a particularly fruitful variant of the revolutionary Marxist orientation of U.S. Trotskyism.
The influence of George Breitman—from the early 1980s, when many were associated with “the Breitman caucus” inside the SWP, until his death in 1986—can be directly traced to the production of the following works: Les Evans, “Lenin and the Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry”; Dianne Feeley and Paul Le Blanc, In Defense of Revolutionary Continuity (the most substantial refutation ever published of the theoretical underpinnings of the post-1979 SWP’s orientation); Dianne Feeley, Paul Le Blanc, and Tom Twiss, Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party; Dianne Feeley, “James P. Cannon on the Revolutionary Party” (unpublished); Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party; Steve Bloom “The Workers and Farmers Government and the Socialist Revolution”; Paul Le Blanc, Permanent Revolution in Nicaragua; Larry Stewart, Permanent Revolution, Combined Revolution, and Black Liberation in the United States; James P. Cannon. Don’t Strangle the Party (consisting of previously unpublished material from the 1960s).
As time went on, other important contributions were made, not the least of which were the analyses, eyewitness reports, and documentary materials on the USSR and former USSR provided by Marilyn Vogt-Downey, including her translation of the memoir of Mikhail Baitalsky. Also important were the “Materials on the History of American Trotskyism” series, and the three-volume set entitled “In Defense of American Trotskyism,” documenting the fight for Trotskyism waged in the SWP from 1979 to 1983, and the aftermath of that struggle. There were contributions on the Hormel strike and other developments in the labor movement by Dave Riehle and Frank Lovell, the memorial volume George Breitman, Writer, Organizer, Revolutionary edited by Sarah Lovell and Naomi Allen, and Fifty Years of the Fourth International, edited by Tom Barrett. There were substantial FIT pamphlets dealing with the current economic realities (Steve Bloom, Carol McAllister, Ernest Mandel) and political realities (Tom Barrett, Bill Onasch, Paul Le Blanc), a political orientation Revolutionary Internationalism and the Struggle for Socialism in the U.S. , thoughtful essays by Evelyn Sell, Steve Bloom and Frank Lovell in The Transitional Program—Forging, a Revolutionary Agenda, several reprints of essays by Ernest Mandel, Bill Onasch’s excellent popularization Organizing for Socialism, and such pamphlets as Fighting for Women’s Liberation (Claire Cohen, Carol McAllister, Gayle Swann, Evelyn Sell), and Malcolm X: Teacher and Organizer (Claire Cohen, Steve Bloom, Evelyn Sell).
Many of these materials, plus other valuable work by the same authors as well as others, appeared in the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, whose persistence for more than a decade cannot be understood apart from the immense commitment that the FIT made to it in regard to various levels of production and circulation, carried on primarily through an intensive amount of volunteer labor.
Among the other accomplishments of the FIT were two substantial educational conferences held in 1987 (Minneapolis/St. Paul) and 1990 (Pittsburgh)—the first drawing about 60, the second drawing over 100. The FIT also organized a very substantial celebration/rally/educational conference in New York City to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Fourth International, which included participation of prominent Fourth Internationalists of a number of different countries, as well as other guests, including Trotsky’s grandson; the co-sponsorship of Socialist Action and the FI Caucus of Solidarity were also sought and received for this event.
The FIT also helped promote speaking tours of Fourth Internationalists in the U.S., including Ernest Mandel, Catherine Samary, and Michael Lowy. Prominent FI representatives were brought to both FIT educational conferences and to certain FIT National Conferences. Also several FIT members were sent to attend the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam. There was conscientious participation in the work of the Fourth International: helping to promote and circulate International Viewpoint, International Marxist Review, and IIRE Notebooks; helping with defense campaigns; helping secure material assistance; sending representatives to meetings of the United Secretariat, the International Executive Committee, the Women’s Commission, and World Congresses of the Fourth International. Comrades and contacts were also sent to the youth encampments promoted by European sections of the FI.
In the U.S. the FIT was able to have a presence—literature tables, speakers, participants—at a few of the Socialist Scholars Conferences, two “Re-thinking Marxism” conferences, and one of the Midwest Radical Scholars Conferences—seeking to demonstrate the relevance of Trotskyist perspectives in the discussions and debates of the broader Left, and to win others to those perspectives.
There was even more substantial FIT involvement, however, in militant trade union activity in a number of cities, with comrades bringing their energies, skills and perspectives into the rail, transit workers, electrical workers, steel, service employees, teachers and printers unions of which they were part. Vital support work was done during strikes of packinghouse workers, mineworkers, supermarket workers, and others. FITers were early and consistent supporters of Labor Party Advocates. And they were active in other aspects of the class struggle as well.
A major effort involved defense of the Central American revolutionary struggle, in part through local activities and existing solidarity networks, in part seeking to build a more consistent and effective anti-intervention struggle through the Emergency National Conference Against U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean and other efforts. Substantial revolutionary solidarity work around Cuba, the Philippines, South Africa, Poland, the ex-USSR, China, and Mexico also engaged the energies of FIT members. When the U.S. government led a military crusade into the Persian Gulf, FITers played leading roles—in local areas and nationally—to help build a unified and principled opposition to war and imperialism.
When Ron Daniels sought to break left-wing—especially African-American—activists of the Rainbow Coalition away from the Democratic Party and into a process of building an independent political party around a radical working-class program, the FIT supported him. FIT cadres played an active role in the Campaign for a New Tomorrow that Daniels and others created for this purpose. A number of FIT comrades were active in the women’s liberation movement, helping in the struggle against the attack on abortion rights, and also seeking to link up with, strengthen and influence progressive currents in the National Organization for Women that favored a mass action approach for advancing women’s rights, that favored stronger links with labor and anti-racist struggles, and that favored considering political action independent of the capitalist parties.
Despite small numbers and limited resources, the FIT proved to be a very vital, very energetic organization, with a fairly well-defined and self-confident political orientation, whose influence and impact were felt far beyond its own modest membership and milieu.
The FIT recognized that it was not the revolutionary party envisioned by Lenin, Trotsky and Cannon, that it was not the nucleus of such a party, and that its function was not to pretend otherwise. Its function was only in part to enable people expelled from the SWP, plus others whom they could recruit, to carry out theoretical, educational, and activist work within the general programmatic framework described earlier. The goal of the FIT was not to maintain itself as such an organization, but instead to pass out of existence as a distinct organization by bringing about the unity of Fourth Internationalist forces in the United States that had been fragmented by the post-1979 betrayal and destructive course of the SWP’s new leadership. The hoped-for way of achieving such unity was to have the expelled elements brought back into the SWP, within a framework of genuine democratic centralism that would enable all SWP members to go through the process of thorough political discussion and clarification that had been short-circuited by the expulsions. This was the approach formally endorsed by the Fourth International.
In addition to working for such a goal, the FIT existed in order to engage in the process of political clarification—even if unable to do this within the SWP—in a manner that would demonstrate the relevance, of the political orientation of American Trotskyism. In large measure this was done by offering powerful and persuasive alternatives to the perspectives of the current SWP leadership, including: analyses of the Nicaraguan Revolution which validate (utilize) Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution; analyses which demonstrate that inherent in Leninism is the necessity of democratic and nonsectarian politics; analyses of American Trotskyism which show that it is organically rooted in the experiences of the labor and socialist movements of our country and provides lessons to guide us through future struggles; and related analyses of the SWP which explain how and why it became disoriented and fragmented.
Through several years of intensive labor, these and related analyses were developed. The central goal of FI unity in the United States, however, was not so easily achieved. Many FIT comrades were initially optimistic that unity within the SWP could be realized eventually. As time passed, such optimism faded for an increasing number of comrades—a fact which introduced new tensions and divisions in the FIT. Some of the differences involved how much energy and attention should be devoted to the SWP (which was absolutely hostile to the FIT). Related to this were debates over whether the SWP had passed the point of no return for serious consideration by Fourth Internationalists. Other differences involved how much energy and attention should be devoted to SA and the FI Caucus of Solidarity (both of which had semi-tolerant contempt for the FIT and were absolutely hostile toward each other). There were also differences that developed within the FIT over how to analyze developments in Poland, in Nicaragua, in the USSR. There were differences on whether or not to participate in Ron Daniels’s Campaign for a New Tomorrow. And there was the inevitable clash of personalities, sometimes parading as political differences, and exacerbated by frustrations over the failure to achieve the primary FIT goal: unity of U.S. Fourth Internationalists, hopefully by all being drawn back into the SWP.
Some tensions existed over the extent to which the FIT should attempt to grow, reach out, and recruit. There was an inclination by certain comrades to see such efforts as a distraction from the task of political clarification and seeking FI unity. But a consensus developed in the FIT that we could be more effective in advancing our perspectives with other FI forces in the U.S. if we became a more substantial political force in U.S. political and social struggles, and a stronger organizational presence on the Left. This would also help us make a greater contribution to the unified organization that we hoped would come into being.
In 1991 the SWP leadership openly broke from the Fourth International and formally renounced all ties to Trotskyism with barely a murmur from the remaining SWP membership. The FIT quickly concluded that the SWP could no longer be considered a central component in the reunification of U.S. Fourth Internationalists. It called for the unity of the remaining FI currents—the FIT, SA, and the FI Caucus of Solidarity. It stepped up efforts at joint work with both, and also sought discussions with each to explore the possibilities of unity. This shift in the axis of the FIT’s self-definition, however, opened up new divisions, Some comrades leaned strongly toward unity with SA. Others leaned strongly toward unity with the FI Caucus within Solidarity. Yet others were hostile to both of these options and favored something else: the FIT simply building itself as a revolutionary socialist organization; or the FIT exploring unity with elements outside of the Fourth International; or the FIT maintaining itself as a loose group of co-thinkers around BIDOM.
A substantial grouping—including comrades who in my own mind represented the “core leadership” at that time (myself, Evelyn Sell, Steve Bloom, Bill Onasch Tom Bias, Carol McAllister)—favored what seemed to me to be a balanced approach. First of all, we quickly recognized that the FI Caucus of Solidarity would not be prepared to leave Solidarity, and that unity with it would necessarily mean unity with Solidarity. Second, we realized that, at least at this point, neither Solidarity nor SA would agree to unity with each other, so that we would only be able to unify with one or the other—although we could, of course, argue for further unity after merging with one or the other.
We believed it might be easier to achieve unity with SA, but understood that the SA leadership was interested in absorbing as much of the FIT membership as it could while ensuring that the unified organization would be guided only by the “correct” perspectives (which we considered to be too narrow and sectarian) of the old SA leadership. On the other hand, although it seemed that Solidarity was much more open, it seemed to be considerably further from our Leninist-Trotskyist politics and rather contemptuous of all that the FIT stood for; it seemed to us that it would not be a simple thing to win a majority of Solidarity to the perspectives of the Fourth International, let alone to the idea of FI unity in the United States. Both groups had strengths: each in their own way having serious involvement in trade union work, taking black liberation and women’s liberation work seriously, opposing war and imperialism, favoring political independence of workers and the oppressed from the two capitalist parties, etc. More than this, the FIT had always stood for FI unity in the U.S. It seemed unthinkable—certainly to me—that we would turn away from that at this juncture.
Tensions continued to deepen within the FIT. There were some comrades who accused those of us in the leadership of not really being in favor of unity, of being more concerned to maintain our “comfortable” niche, etc., etc. This was hardly the case. We were able to hold unity meetings with leading SA representatives which went well enough for us to believe that unity with SA might be in sight. Our proposal: there should be a few months of joint work between the FIT and SA, plus a discussion bulletin open to all members of both groups; at the end of that period, the memberships of both organizations—based on this practical experience and the discussion— should vote on whether or not there should be unity. This deeply upset those in the FIT who opposed unity with SA—but the SA leadership, when we refused to guarantee in advance that a majority of our comrades would vote for unity, slammed the door on the process.
At the next National Conference of the FIT (February 1992), there was a highly confused and fragmented array of positions. Some elements around what I have labeled the “core leadership” advanced an overly complex position that boiled down to favoring FI unity while essentially treading water. A number of young, relatively recent recruits from the New York area, led by Roy Rollin (a witty and creative former member of the Spartacist League), were being courted by Solidarity. They favored immediate merger with Solidarity and engaged in disappointingly shallow, and in some cases almost Spartacist-like, polemics tending to denigrate all that the FIT had stood for. Comrades from the Cleveland LOC called for the FIT to go it alone. Ben Stone advanced a position calling for merger with SA. Frank and Sarah Lovell joined with Dave Weiss to argue for simply calling a founding conference for a new U.S. sympathizing section of the Fl, to which SA, the FI Caucus of Solidarity, and other potentially interested elements would be invited. Comrades from Boston, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis/St. Paul advanced other positions that had nuances of difference from each other and from those just stated. Marilyn Vogt-Downey and George Saunders differentiated themselves from all other positions while honestly trying to push through to something that made sense to them. All of the major proposals were voted down.
It was within this context that a representative at the conference from Solidarity made the following unity offer: the FIT was invited to join Solidarity, with the agreement that it could form a tendency within Solidarity and that Bulletin in Defense of Marxism could continue to be published as an independent journal. It was expected by some in Solidarity that the FIT would reject this, at which point the FIT youth—learning that our unity position was a fraud—would leave the FIT and join Solidarity. Instead, a majority of the FIT voted to take the proposal seriously and to explore the possibility of merging into Solidarity on the terms offered.
The unity negotiations with Solidarity were quite difficult, at certain moments almost poisonous in tone. And yet they went forward. There was a major factor that crept into my own calculations, and also the calculations of others. The FIT seemed to be in the process of breaking up. The quality of disputes at the previous National Conference had been characterized by a depth of hostility, suspicion and contempt among several of the contending currents that was unprecedented in the organization. Related to this were deepening political differences, but the breakdown of mutual comradely trust far exceeded substantive political differences. What’s more, a deep fracture occurred within the “core leadership” over a peripheral issue: the extent to which we should be associated with, or give space in BIDOM to, the views of a former SWPer, maverick independent leftist—and sometime collaborator of Steve Bloom—named Lenni Brenner (who held controversial views on the question of Black-Jewish relations). This dispute ruptured several close working relationships that had been vital to the functioning of the FIT over the previous several years: It became clear that the fragmentation of the FIT was now inevitable. Nor did it seem likely that the FIT, or even a portion of the FIT, would be able to function as a unified tendency within Solidarity if unity was accomplished.
At certain points it was obvious in the unity negotiations that it would—at best—be problematical to harmonize what the FIT had stood for with the reality of what Solidarity actually was. This made me feel that it would be worth foregoing this problematical unity in order to maintain the FIT for a while longer. But given the fragmentation and—on various fronts—the venomous atmosphere developing within the FIT, it seemed clear that we could not maintain the FIT for a while longer.
I concluded that the best we could do was to dissolve the FIT, with those favorably disposed to joining Solidarity (and trying to do their best to advance FIT-type perspectives in that context) moving along that line, while maintaining the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism as an independent magazine which could secure a certain amount of unity among the former FITers plus others agreeing with the magazine’s orientation. The magazine could also give expression to, and seek to engage others with, the general political orientation which had defined the FIT. This could—hopefully—be part of the basis for rebuilding a strong sympathizing U.S. section of the Fourth International in the future. A majority of the FIT voted for this orientation at the organization’s eighth and final National Conference in September 1992.
There was a strong tendency among some former FITers to see the dissolution of the FIT as a terrible mistake. But the poor chances of the FIT staying together as a unified and coherent force are demonstrated by what happened next.
As it turned out, a substantial minority of FITers ended up not joining Solidarity—but differences among them prevented them from cohering into a unified group. Some followed the lead of Cleveland comrades, who established the Workers Unity Network with non-Trotskyist forces (in particular with Black Workers for Justice), focusing on militant trade union activity and efforts to advance toward the creation of a labor party, functioning for a few years as a loyal but radical pressure group within Labor Party Advocates. Others held somewhat apart from that, but focused most attention on trade union work. Some made an initial effort to form a new Fourth Internationalist group—although its semi-secret “founding” meeting revealed destructive dynamics which prevented it from becoming functional.
Those who went into Solidarity were, for the most part, also unable to function as a distinct current, given the suspicions and disagreements which had divided so many of them.
Almost all comrades in the pro-Solidarity youth current of the FIT quickly became bitterly disappointed that Solidarity did not live up to their idealized expectations; they quickly formed an acrimonious oppositional grouping, loosely affiliated with a formation (half inside and half outside of the FI) called the International Trotskyist Opposition (ITO). They were openly hostile to what Solidarity stood for, essentially provoking their own expulsion (although other ex-FITers and a minority of others in Solidarity correctly opposed the expulsions as destructive, undemocratic, and unnecessary). (The flamboyantly factional course charted for the young oppositionists by Roy Rollin was rejected by the ITO, leading to his separation from that current.)
Some FITers who had joined, unable to relate to the more amorphous quality of Solidarity and not in harmony with aspects of its political atmosphere, drifted away. Some attempted to engage seriously in organization building and socialist educational efforts within Solidarity. There was also an unsuccessful effort to help transform the FI Caucus from a formal, paper entity into a vital, functional grouping that would actually discuss and debate issues facing the Fourth International (for the purpose of contributing something distinctive both to the FI and to Solidarity).
Steve Bloom played a major role in seeking to loyally build Solidarity while preparing a basis for nudging it in a more classically Leninist-Trotskyist direction. His individualistic mode of functioning failed to maintain the confidence of his ex-FIT comrades, and various sets of his allies in Solidarity proved to be transitory. Nonetheless, his sincere commitment both to Solidarity and to principled revolutionary politics resulted in his continuing influence in the organization—generating grudging respect even among some of those he alienated.
Some ex-FITers who did not join Solidarity worked with most ex-FITers who did, plus some others (including former members of SA and Solidarity who were never in the FIT, some political independents, and members of a small formation known as the Trotskyist League associated with the ITO) to continue putting out Bulletin in Defense of Marxism. The magazine continued to publish much of value and to maintain a political orientation which reflects the revolutionary Marxist program of the Fourth International and the traditions of American Trotskyism. At the same time, the centrifugal forces which had pulled the FIT apart were also felt among supporters of BIDOM and within its editorial committee. There were several mini-splits: two comrades broke off to start their own magazine, two others broke off to join SA, one or another drifted away for other reasons. When the magazine changed its name at the beginning of 1999 to Labor Standard, in hope of reaching a broader readership among radicalized labor activists, it remained unclear how far into the next century it would be able to continue.
There is an additional element which deserves attention in all of this. A sense of comradely trust was one of the qualities of the FIT that was essential to its internal political culture, its political vitality, and to the quality of its democratic functioning. There was a fundamental political orientation to which all were committed, and sharp differences could be expressed without any sense that the loyalty to the revolutionary Marxist program or integrity of any comrade was being challenged. Frankly-expressed disagreements on a variety of issues, and critical reactions to positions put forward by the (eminently non-sacred) leadership, whose policies and personnel could be and were altered by the membership, were considered to be aspects of organizational health. Personal antagonisms and idiosyncrasies inevitably made themselves felt, but they were rarely paraded in political costumes at center-stage of the FIT as a whole, nor was there an effort to identify who was and who was not the “real” Marxist, revolutionary, proletarian, etc.
This aspect of the FIT was weakened when the FIT began to grow and a grouping of younger activists were drawn in which had only a partial understanding of the organization’s political orientation. In fact, a couple of these comrades were hostile and contemptuous toward aspects of this orientation, having absorbed anti-SWP attitudes from opponent groups that had arisen in the 1960s and ’70s (such as the Spartacist League) and injecting these attitudes into the internal life of the organization, which had an impact especially among other new comrades and on the quality of discourse. A dynamic of irritation and disrespect deepened in relations between some of the older FITers and this “youth” current. But increasingly this dynamic spread more generally in the final frustrating years of the FIT, as well as in its aftermath.
One might argue from this (as Frank Lovell tended to in conversations with me) that the recruitment of “new” people in the midst of a difficult period inevitably diverted the organization from its primary objectives of maintaining the organization’s distinctive revolutionary perspectives. If there were serious efforts to assimilate these young people to FIT perspectives, and if the results left something to be desired, then perhaps the kind of people attracted to such a small group could not be assimilated.
The alternative to growth, however, is stagnation. I think it is unlikely that many of the organization’s accomplishments could have been realized, or that the membership would have avoided dwindling to almost nothing, without the vitality connected to reaching out to the world as it is and seeking to win new people to our perspectives. The young comrades had much to learn and many contributions to make—and some of them made valuable contributions and perhaps learned some things of value. Nor can it be said that all of the more experienced comrades were entirely free from the dynamics of factional break-down. In fact, the emergence of deepening political differences in the FIT was unavoidable when its primary goals were partially realized (the process of political clarification) and partially blocked (Trotskyist unity within the SWP).
What may not have been inevitable, in my opinion, is the fact that some politically experienced comrades allowed themselves to function in a manner which increasingly poisoned the political atmosphere and perhaps irreparably tore the fabric of comradeship—in a sense denigrating what the FIT was, and in some ways undercutting the positive influence its legacy could have on future developments. Such negative dynamics must be avoided as much as possible.
We are living through an extended period of decomposition and recomposition of the revolutionary socialist movement. Not all of the decomposition is finished, yet the recomposition is already in progress. Some may think they know what the end-product of the recomposition will look like, but they are wrong. We cannot know what the future will bring. I believe, however, that to the extent that the future revolutionary vanguard has not absorbed the positive contributions developed through the FIT, it will be weakened.
For some people a sect is any and every group that favors socialism. For others it is any and every revolutionary group. For many it is any small left-wing group. To be sectarian, therefore, means to insist upon the need for socialism, or to be revolutionary, or to adhere to the perspectives of a left-wing group that is small. According to any of these definitions, the FIT was a sect and its members were sectarians. But this is not the way I understand these terms.
A sect is a group of people organized around a set of beliefs that are treated like dogmas that must never be questioned, and for these people the dynamics and internal life of the group becomes more important than broader aspects of life and actual social struggles outside of the group. To be sectarian means to ignore or subordinate—in what you think and what you do—the interests and integrity of larger social struggles and movements in order to prioritize or promote the interests of your own specific group. It means allowing your own group rituals, sideline criticisms, special jargon, and special projects to separate you from the life and thinking and actual struggles of the working class and the oppressed. Another aspect of sectarianism, in my opinion, is to be focused on validating one’s self and one’s organization by putting down anyone who does not share one’s own specific views.
In this sense, the FIT was not a sect. Of course, any left-wing, revolutionary, socialist group must be—at least for an extended period of time—a relatively small collection of people representing a minority point of view in society, withstanding massive and multiple pressures to conform to or go along with non-revolutionary and non-socialist ideas and behaviors. In order to maintain itself, such a group must give serious attention to the preservation and development of its ideas and to education around those ideas, and to maintaining organizational structures and an internal sub-culture that will attract, retain, and sustain a certain body of members. The potential and danger of this developing into sectarianism is obvious. Even in relatively large and healthy organizations the seeds (or even rampant wildgrass) of sectarianism can be found.
But the FIT was inclined to see itself, and tended to function, in a manner that was inconsistent with the sectarian dynamic. It sought to participate in and contribute to real, effective, broad-based movements against war and imperialism, against racism, for women’s rights, for the dignity of labor, for the unity and independence and empowerment of the working-class majority. It sought to express revolutionary Marxist insights and the socialist vision in terms that could be understood by thoughtful activists unfamiliar with leftist jargon.
It hoped—and actively sought—to end its existence in the foreseeable future through drawing together an internally democratic, multi-tendency organization of Trotskyists who could play a positive role in helping the working class to struggle for a better world. It sought to utilize Marxist theory in a critical-minded and self-critical manner. With this it hoped to shed light on the failure, but also on the continued usefulness, of the American Trotskyist tradition. And it hoped to shed light on the evolving dynamics of capitalist society, and on the complex and contradictory unfolding of the class struggle.
The FIT was inclined to take very seriously the theoretical acquisitions of the revolutionary movement from Marx to Trotsky, and also to hold fast to the political experience associated with James P. Cannon and the Trotskyist movement of the United States reflected in the pre-1979 Socialist Workers Party and its predecessors. A majority of its members tended to orient themselves according to these things. They had little patience for flippant denigration or superficial critiques of the theory and history of their movement. Indeed, the FIT had come into being largely to defend these traditions. But for the most part they didn’t use this pre-existing body of ideas and experience as an excuse for not engaging in serious study, thought and activity in the face of new developments of the 1980s and early ’90s.
More than this, in order to make sense of the crisis and fragmentation of American Trotskyism, certain prominent FITers (such as Frank Lovell, Evelyn Sell, myself) moved forward to critically reassess important aspects of the SWP’s post-World War II history. This involved far more than identifying problems in specific personalities or policies within the SWP (although some useful insights were developed about such things). The underlying development of national and global realities, often unanticipated and inadequately understood by the comrades of earlier times, were seen as a key to understanding the failure of American Trotskyism to become the powerful force that it had aspired to be. Such factors—some concluded—also prevented the hoped-for recomposition of the U.S. Trotskyist movement, making most such efforts exercises in sectarian futility.
The decline of the FIT can be fully understood only within the larger historical, social, economic, and political reality in which we exist, involving a decline in the workers movement and in the Left as a whole. A diverse range of left-wing and even revolutionary groups, in the United States and throughout the world, many with far greater resources and more numerous cadres than the FIT, have fared as badly or worse. Some may wish to jump over the difficult reality in order to create the revolutionary organization that we desire. But it is not clear that such jumping efforts will be fruitful. It may be necessary, instead, to live through, learn from, and build within the context (including within the limitations) of that reality. As the reality changes, in part through what we do, other possibilities will emerge.
The historical period of which we are a part refuses to allow for “an ending to the story,” but instead stubbornly continues to unfold. This unfolding includes new divergences and convergences, terrible disappointments and happy surprises, and above all a remarkable fluidity. The meaning of the FIT will best be clarified as the complex realities we have been living through work themselves out in a manner that illuminates what is what. I had hoped that more of what the FIT was might be in evidence as the 20th century came to a close, but it may be that what the FIT stood for is a vital stream pushed underground—not drying up, but connected in various ways to powerful currents—that will find its way to the surface in the future. That remains to be seen, and it depends to some extent on what actual people do or fail to do. One thing that we must do is to absorb the lessons of the past, a task to which I hope this reflection will contribute.