The movement for workers' power and socialist democracy advances through struggles against capitalist and bureaucratic tyranny—but also through debates among socialists over tactics, strategies, and programmatic principles.
From 1938 until 1990, the Socialist Workers Party in the United States was seen by many as representing the revolutionary Marxist program of the Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky. But in the early 1980s the SWP leadership began a process of breaking from that program. That culminated in a complete organizational split from the Fourth International in 1990. This book describes and analyzes that process, from the standpoint of those who maintained the traditions of American Trotskyism.
Readers will find here serious discussions of how Lenin and Trotsky developed revolutionary Marxist theory, and how the 20th century has been transformed by a series of revolutions—in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Central America, Iran, and Eastern Europe. The contributions to this volume discuss the relationship of socialism and democracy, the changes in world capitalism, the crisis of Stalinism, the relevance of revolutionary strategy to all sectors of the world, the necessity of working-class internationalism, and the problems facing those committed to building a revolutionary party.
The book concludes with an argument in favor of revolutionary Marxist unity in the United States.
This book is dedicated to the memory of three pioneers of American Trotskyism, founding members of the Socialist Workers Party who never gave up:
They were later members, respectively, of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, Socialist Action, and Solidarity.
This book is also dedicated to Morris Stein (Lewit), a youthful participant in the Russian Revolution, one of the earliest members of the Trotskyist movement, and one of its leaders. He first agitated for a book like this, and he is also among the foremost proponents of Fourth Internationalist unity in the United States.
This book deals with a broad range of revolutionary Marxist ideas and also with an important chapter of American Trotskyism. Specifically, it focuses on the struggle which lasted from the early 1980s up to 1990 against the Socialist Workers Party's break from the program and organizational framework of the world Trotskyist movement. It is one of three projected volumes to be produced by the Fourth Internationalist Tendency to document this struggle.
Why Give Attention to Squabbles Among Socialists?
Many sympathetic observers of the socialist movement in the United States have time and again complained: “You socialists have good ideas, but you spend too much time squabbling with each other! Why can't you all just get together to implement your ideas?”
Once it is explained clearly to people, socialism does prove to be one of the most reasonable ideas in the world. “I believe, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries,” explained the great U.S. socialist leader Eugene V. Debs in 1918. “I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of the few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all.”
Debs, the inspiring leader in the first two decades of the 20th century of the most massive socialist movement ever seen in the United States, agreed with the view of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels that this must be a movement of the working class: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.” It is difficult to argue with this, or with the notion that, since capitalism is a global system, to be successful, socialism must replace capitalism on a world scale. “Peace based upon social justice,” Debs noted as he viewed the carnage of the First World War, “will never prevail until national industrial despotism has been supplanted by international industrial democracy.”
The consequences of such a transformation would be not only global but profoundly personal. As Marx and Engels put it in 1848, in place of our present capitalist society, “with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” It is difficult to deny the desirablity of such a society.
But it has been difficult for all currents in the socialist movement to agree on how to achieve this socialist goal. The moderate Social-Democratic current has been inclined to settle for gradual social reforms along with far-reaching accommodation with the powerful capitalists. When the Communist movement bureaucratically degenerated under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, it became associated with an often murderous authoritarianism—while also favoring a far-reaching “peaceful coexistence” with world capitalism. Those seeking to maintain and advance the orientation expressed by Debs, Marx and Engels have often been under immense pressure to compromise their revolutionary socialist program. Sometimes such pressures have generated disorientation—with would-be revolutionaries either “opportunistically” giving way to the pressures, or resisting them to the extent that they fall into dogmatic rigidity.
No organization, even the strongest and most experienced, is immune from such pressures. Marx and Engels once described capitalist society as being so dynamic that “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air...” As reality continues to change so dramatically, revolutionary socialists must attempt to adjust their analyses, strategies and tactics—and it is hardly surprising that there are differences on how best to do this. While democratic discussion, combined with the test of experience (achieved when the organization carries out a democratically-established strategic policy or tactical decision), can help to prevent disorientation, politics in the real world offers no iron-clad guarantees. And sometimes the pressure of events can be so intense that things appearing to be the most obvious and agreed-upon truths “melt into air.” Sharp conflicts are inevitable even among revolutionary socialists who agree on many essentials.
Sometimes what appears to be even the most solid of revolutionary organizations will split amid a flurry of polemics, charges and counter-charges. Such things cannot be shrugged off, laughed away or otherwise avoided by those who are serious about socialism. They must be understood, because it is in part on the basis of such understanding that it will be possible to build a more effective struggle for socialism.
From its founding in 1938 until 1990, the Socialist Workers Party had generally been considered the foremost representative of what has been known as “Trotskyism” in the United States. For many of us on the Left, especially those of us in the SWP, this seemed to be one of the most “solid” of all realities. Much was made of the revolutionary continuity of American Trotskyism, established in 1928 but with roots going directly back to the First, Second and Third Internationals in the left-wing of the workers' movement. Collaborating closely with the great revolutionary exile Leon Trotsky, the first generation of SWP leaders had helped to found and build the revolutionary Marxist world organization which still exists today, the Fourth International.
In 1981, however, the SWP's central leadership—by now the third generation—implemented new perspectives. After the conclusion of a party convention, without discussing the matter with the membership as a whole, the leaders around SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes embarked on a course of systematically altering the organization's historic program. This program had been based on the perspectives of Marx and Engels, on the orientation of the Russian Bolsheviks and the early Communist movement led by Lenin and Trotsky, on the insights of such revolutionary-internationalists as Rosa Luxemburg, and also on more than 150 years of revolutionary and class-struggle experience in the United States. The undemocratic revision of the SWP's revolutionary program naturally generated opposition in the organization, but the dissenters were eliminated through several waves of expulsions. This process culminated in 1990 with the SWP's formal break from the Fourth International.
Because socialism does make sense, and the need for it remains more pressing than ever for the working people and oppressed of the world, revolutionary socialists do not despair when something so solid melts into air, or when sharp internal struggles flare up in the socialist movement in a way that appears to be incredibly destructive. The most thoughtful working-class activists and revolutionary militants attempt to use even the most severe crises and setbacks in order to learn more about realities in the world, in our own country, in our own movement. The lessons that can be learned, even painful lessons, will help us build a stronger socialist workers' movement that—through crises and splits as well as advances, fusions and growth—can eventually bring about the realization of our socialist goal.
The history, ideas and activities of the Fourth International, and the specific history of American Trotskyism, are important as a rich accumulation of experience in the working-class and revolutionary struggles. It can be argued that American Trotskyism is not the only ingredient necessary for the future triumph of socialist revolution, but a necessary ingredient it surely is. The fate of this movement in the United States is therefore not without interest for revolutionary-minded activists.
Those of us who lived through the experience of the Socialist Workers Party's disorientation and decline, fighting against the degeneration while we sought to understand it, have a special responsibility to gather the materials that wall help revolutionaries learn the necessary lessons. The most serious crisis of American Trotskyism before the 1980s involved the struggle of the Shachtman-Burnham faction against the Trotsky-Cannon majority in the SWP in 1939-40. This yielded two volumes of valuable materials, gathered in Leon Trotsky's In Defense of Marxism and James P. Cannon's The Struggle for a Proletarian Party. The crisis which devastated the SWP for the entire decade of the 1980s has also generated three volumes of materials.
The present volume contains materials published after the 1983-84 expulsions from the SWP.
The first item, “In Defense of Revolutionary Continuity,” was written by Dianne Feeley and Paul Le Blanc (members of the SWP from the late 1960s and early 1970s respectively). They began writing it before their expulsion from the SWP in 1983, at the request of George Breitman. Breitman, active in the Trotskyist movement since the 1930s, and a leading cadre for several decades before his expulsion in 1984, was the editor of the 14-volume edition of Trotsky's writings in exile and was an authority on the history of the Trotskyist movement. A central opponent of the anti-Trotskyist course pursued by the new SWP leadership, he would soon become a leading member of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency. Breitman was convinced that an in-depth response was needed to deal with the substantial attack on Trotskyism by SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes in “Their Trotsky and Ours: Communist Continuity Today.”
The Feeley-Le Blanc polemic goes beyond a simple refutation of Barnes' ideas, offering a major exposition of the Trotskyist perspective, the historical realities from which it arose, and its continuing relevance. It was originally published as a pamphlet in 1984 by Socialist Action, the first organization to be organized in the midst of the mass expulsions from the SWP. Le Blanc later became a member of the FIT, while Feeley was to become a member of the Fourth International Caucus of another group called Solidarity. The three groups—SA, the FIT, and the FI Caucus—were to be recognized as fraternal sympathizing groups by the Fourth International.
While Socialist Action and the FI Caucus of Solidarity wanted, each in their own way, simply to get on with the business of building an alternative to the SWP, the FIT was convinced of the need to give more sustained attention to the SWP. There were four reasons for this. (1) The programmatic challenge to American Trotskyism and to the revolutionary Marxist program of the Fourth International posed by the SWP leadership had to be faced seriously, opposed systematically, and defeated politically. (2) The disorientation of the SWP leadership was a reflection of a more widespread phenomenon within the Left as a whole (including outside of the U.S.), brought about by new objective realities—and there was an imperative need by serious revolutionaries to genuinely understand and analyze the specific disorientation, the more widespread phenomenon, and the new objective realities in order to help overcome a larger crisis on the Left. (3) The leadership of the SWP must not be equated with the members as a whole, who had been denied an opportunity to fully and democratically consider the far-reaching programmatic changes that were being imposed from above by the leadership. (4) All Fourth Internationalist groups in the U.S. should be in a common organization, and instead of building rival parties to the SWP (which remained as the oldest, largest and most substantial of the groups in the U.S. recognized as a sympathizing organization of the Fourth International), it would be best for the three groups generated by the undemocratic expulsions to be accepted back into the ranks of the SWP in order to discuss and debate the disputed issues within a genuinely democratic centralist framework.
The initial perspectives of the FIT, and the organization's analysis of the SWP as of 1984, can be found in the second item in this collection, “The Platform of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency,” first published in Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, April 1984.
The third item, “The Socialist Workers Party Today,” consists of an interim evaluation by two leading FIT members, Frank Lovell and Paul Le Blanc, which first appeared in Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, June 1988. Lovell, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement since the mid-1930s, had been trade union director of the SWP for some years and was a founder of the FIT.
The fourth item, a major statement by the FIT, “The SWP Formalizes Its Break From the Fourth International,” first appeared in Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, September 1990. This and the fifth item, “Balance Sheet on the Socialist Workers Party” (approved by the 1990 national conference of the FIT and published here for the first time), provide a summation and detailed analysis of the SWP's trajectory away from the revolutionary Marxist program and organizational framework of the Fourth International.
Finally, there is material reflecting some of the thinking in the Fourth Internationalist Tendency on the process which should take place to unite what remains of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, as of the time of its 1990 national conference. The sixth and seventh items, “Fourth Internationalist Unity in the United States” by the FIT National Coordinators and “Building the Fourth Internationalist Movement” by Paul Le Blanc, are a resolution and a report which were overwhelmingly approved at that conference and published here for the first time. The eighth and final item is a public statement calling for a process leading to unification into a single organization of all Fourth Internationalists currently in the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, Socialist Action, and Solidarity. This was first published in the October 1990 issue of Bulletin in Defense of Marxism.
The present volume bears the title Rebuilding the Revolutionary Party. This may seem odd to some readers, since the materials it contains largely focus on the degeneration of an organization which sought to become an effective revolutionary party.
The fact is, however, that the struggles by revolutionaries against this degeneration, and the efforts to understand its meaning also constitute an indispensable part of a positive party-building process. The decade-long struggle in defense of American Trotskyism recorded here has yielded a considerable body of experience, insights and deepened political understanding. This contributes not only to the renewal of American Trotskyism, but also to its capacity to attract new revolutionary activists and to help advance the struggle for socialism.
Those familiar with the dialectical logic of the Marxist method will not be startled by the idea that what is destructive also involves that which is constructive, that degeneration and regeneration can be intimately interrelated, that sharp internal conflicts and organizational splits are sometimes a necessary prelude to organizational growth and the rebuilding of the revolutionary party.
At the same time, the coming together of different revolutionary socialist groups and currents is sometimes the essential ingredient for the forward movement of the party-building process. Many thoughtful socialist activists believe, at the beginning of the 1990s, that such unity is now on the order of the day. Yet, if this is to be fruitful and durable, leading to genuine advances in building a mass socialist working-class movement and an effective struggle for socialism, it must be based on a certain degree of political clarity. Hopefully, the present volume, and the others in this series In Defense of American Trotskyism, will contribute to the clarity which is vital for renewal and growth.