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The “End of American Trotskyism?”

Some Comments in Response to Alan Wald

by Frank Lovell

Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, publication of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, May-June 1995

A version of these comments has been submitted to Against the Current.

Alan Wald's article in the March-April 1995 issue of the magazine Against the Current contains a number of innuendos and distortions that relate to James P Cannon's leadership of the American Trotskyist movement. The title of Wald's article is “The End of 'American Trotskyism'? - Problems in History and Theory (Part 3).” [Parts 1 and 2 may be found, respectively, in the issues of Against the Current for November-December 1994 and January-February 1995.]

Wald starts off with a seemingly unassailable assertion: “There are methodological aspects of Trotskyism that the twenty-five years since the height of 'The Sixties' have shown to be still necessary and valid.” It may seem little more than a quibble to those who agree with the main point (Trotskyism is “still necessary and valid”), but it is wrong to leave the impression that “the height” of American Trotskyism was achieved in the 1960s, presumably as the decisive influence in the antiwar movement of that time.

Numerically and in terms of ideological and organizational influence in the mass movement the “height” of American Trotskyism was reached in 1938 with the founding of the Socialist Workers Party. The party never again had as many members as at the time of its founding. It subsequently fought many battles and won some important victories, but its ideological influence in the union movement and in the embattled radical movement never exceeded the 1938 high point.


In discussing the charge of “Trotskyist sectarianism” Wald rightly observes: “From my experience, liberals and social democrats are quite capable of sectarian behavior equal to that of revolutionary Marxists.” He identifies liberals and social democrats: “Dissent magazine being a good example.” He fails to give an example of “revolutionary Marxists” who, he says, are equally capable of sectarian behavior. This obscures the meaning of both sectarianism and Marxism. Sectarianism is anathema to Trotskyism, which is synonymous with Marxism. Nowhere is there a better explanation of classical sectarianism, and how to fight it, than in the History of American Trotskyism by James P. Cannon (chapters on the 1934-35 ideological struggle with Hugo Oehler in the Communist League of America, first over fusion with the A. J. Muste group and then over the decision of the Trotskyists to join the Socialist Party).

There are many other examples of Trotskyist struggles against sectarians in the post-World War II history of radicalism in this country and elsewhere. To my knowledge there are no examples of Trotskyist “sectarian behavior,” unless this refers to actions of irresponsible individuals or groups who mistakenly call themselves Trotskyists. Certainly there is nothing in the 46-yearhistory of the mainstream of American Trotskyism -that is, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) from its founding in 1938 to its abandonment of Trotskyism in 1984—that in any way resembles sectarianism. In fact, much of this history has been an almost continuous ideological struggle against sectarian tendencies. As for the term “revolutionary Marxist,” this is a rather recent distinction that has crept into radical termmology. It implies thatthere are “non-revolutionary Marxists.” (They of course wouldn't really be Marxists if they weren't revolutionary) The term is used mostly by radicals who would like to be known as revolutionists but not as Trotskyists.

Wald grapples with such questions as revolutionary leadership, party building, and the role of the individual by referring vaguely to little known incidents in SWP history. He says, “The goal of socialist political cadres must be the development of team leadership,” but adds that both experience and study teach that “all leaders are contradictory including Lenin and Trotsky.” It follows, therefore, that “one of the most tragic features of the history of U.S. Trotskyism is the inability of individuals, who were once comfortable in an organization and then 'on the outs,' to recognize problems in theory, practice, and organization until 'one's own ox is gored.'” These generalizations have little meaning without reference to the specific incidents in question, nowhere mentioned in Wald's selective review of SWP history.

Wald's “Appreciation” of Cannon

He gets to the nexus of his grievances against American Trotskyism and the SWP by asking, rhetorically, “whether one should continue the Trotskyist tradition of lining up on historical factional sides, as if someone boon in 1940 or 1950 or after was actually present as an engaged participant at the time of the 'French Turn' or 'Auto Crisis.'” This surely is a gratuitous addition to “Trotskyist tradition,” heretofore unknown to serious students of the Marxist movement in the U.S.

But Wald hastens to explain: “This relates to some of the controversies about the so-called 'Cannon' tradition.” He asks, “Is the proper appreciation of Cannon, who certainly represents a good deal of what is most recuperable in U.S. Trotskyist history, to be achieved by retrospectively reinscribing oneself as his right-hand man or woman in all the faction fights he ever waged? Is this the most effective way to combat vulgar and prejudiced anti-Caononism?” Wald raises these questions in order to introduce his own “proper appreciation of Cannon.” He explains his motives: “As a new generation of revolutionary socialist activists emerges, they will have to go back and reconsider these issues in order to develop a theory and perspective on the course of world history that is genuinely produced [?] and not a mechanical hand-me-down. If those from the Trotskyist tradition stand aside from such reconsideration, or, even worse, participate only as 'seasoned experts,' it will only heighten their irrelevance. They must, of course, bring their experiences to bear, but also genuinely listen to people from other traditions and keep an open mind about the possibility ofgenuinely new issues arising.”

What Will Produce a New Generation of Radicals?

Here it is necessary to ask the relevant questions that Wald does not address. What social contradictions and political struggles will produce a new generation of socialist activists? Will this new generation resemble and relate to Wald's generation of socialist activists of the 1960s and '70s? What are the “genuinely new issues arising”? Are these new issues not here now demanding attention?

In case Wald hasn't noticed, the “new issues” can be reduced to the crisis of capitalism and the economic exploitation and political repression of the working class and other poor people. These, of course, are not new to students of Marxism. But the social context in which they now appear is new, and the new generation of revolutionists will most likely arise from the developing social consciousness and mass radicalization of the working class. How will the vanguard educate itself to organize and lend the coming class battles that can emancipate the working class and transform society? These are the questions that radical-minded workers today are beginning to think about, most of whom do not yet consider themselves “revolutionists” in any sense.

What Troubles Wald Most

Wald finally comes to what troubles him most The concluding paragraphs of his essay include two rather lengthy quotations, one from Cannon and one from Morris Stein, “one of Cannon's most trusted supporters.” Cannon stated, in his talk on the SWP's Theses on the American Revolution at the party's 1946 convention, that the SWP “is the sole legitimate heir and continuator of pioneer American Communism” and that in the SWP “the fundamental core of a professional leadership has been assembled.” Cannon added that the party's political task, as he saw it at that time, was “to remain true to its program and banner, to reader it more precise with each new development and apply it correctly to the class struggle; and to expand and grow with the growth of the revolutionary mass movement, always aspiring to lead it to victory in the struggle for political power.”

The Stein quotation comes from a talk by him at an SWP gathering during World War II when there were some signs of defection in the party leadership and unfounded hopes of merger with the Shachtman group that had left the SWP on the eve of World War II. Stein said that in the field of revolutionary politics Trotskyists “are monopolists,” because the working class, “to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program.” [The relevant passages from Stein's remarks were reprinted in a recent issue of BIDOM.]

This is obviously a very bad attitude, according to Wald, and even if harbored, it shouldn't be expressed quite so openly and boldly. He says, “there are those who can sugar coat and speciously 'interpret in the appropriate context' such statements, or even try to minimise them in the light of the fact that both writers [Cannon and Stein] modified their views as time went on.” But this won't do. Wald says that “the Trotskyist tradition has no hope of accomplishing anything more than the generation of small, sectarian groupuscules unless it breaks radically with the key features of this outlook [as expressed by Cannon and Stein].”

The Revolutionary Perspective

It is hard to reconcile Wald's demand with the revolutionary perspective of Marxism. Those who aspire to organize and lead a working class revolution must surely state their goal as clearly as possible and explain under all circumstances how they hope to achieve it. Cannon was called upon to do this when the Trotskyists were on trial for sedition in Minneapolis in the fall of 1941. Under these circumstances, when war was imminent, he expressed the same outlook, but in language the jury could understand and perhaps sympathize with. In the wake of World War II, with its terrible devastation worldwide, we in the SWP had reason to believe that working class revolution would break out in several countries, including the United States. At the 1946 convention Cannon was preparing the party for this development It is true that history developed differently. But no one has yet blamed Cannon for this.

With the stabilization of capitalism in Europe (largely the result of the Marshall Plan, military suppression of working class resurgence, and the Stalinist policy of peaceful coexistence [collaboration between the imperialist powers and the Soviet bureaucracy]) the long period of prosperity and class collaboration (1948-1976) began here in the U.S. During this time many things changed, including the labor movement and expressions of racialism. But through it all Cannon never modified his views on the need to work continuously, under all changing circumstances, to try to build a revolutionary working class party trained to lead the coming struggle for power. Part of the problem, as he understood it, was that most radicals abandoned the prospect of revolution in the U.S. anytime in the foreseeable future.

For a Party Like Lenin's—and Cannon's

With the decline and disintegration of the radical movement some who now hope to revive the mass protest actions of the 1960s and '70s are looking for ways to unite the remnants of the radicalism of that period. They share Wald's hope that the new, revived radical movement can be united in a single organization that is more ecumenical than any that ever before existed; and to make clear what kind of organization they hope to help create, they are adamant that it must not be a Leninist type party, and certainly nothing like the Trotskyist party that Cannon built—although they are not opposed to “appropriating the best of U.S. Trotskyism.”

To ensure that arguments over matters of this kind don't disrupt their work and threaten the future of their “unity project,” they agree to forego this discussion except among themselves and with others who might lend a receptive ear without asking too many questions. I don't think “the new generation of revolutionary socialist activists” to which Wald wants to relate will be favorably impressed with his new “theory and perspective on the course of world history,” whatever it turns out to be. Time will tell.

American Stalinism

Before quitting this matter, one more item needs attention. Wald thinks “the Trotskyist criticism of the U.S. Communist or 'Stalinist' movement has been inadequate and off base.” Because, he says, “there is evidence that the struggles and impact of cadres of the CP-USA out-distanced [sic] by far any other organized socialist current.”

As practitioners of “Trotskyist criticism” Wald lists Theodore Draper, Cannon, Shachtman, Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, Phyllis and Julius Jacobson, Bert Cochran, C.L.R. James, and Harvey Klehr, “a neo-conservative.” All those listed, except Cannon, either became opponents of Trotskyism or were accidental figures in the American Trotskyist movement. So in order to identify Trotskyist criticism of the CPUSA or Stalinism it is necessary to consult Cannon.

Cannon wrote more perceptively and more extensively on the Stalinist phenomenon than anyone else except Trotsky. He said it was the most complex question of his time. On the early years of the Communist movement and the rise of Stalinism, Cannon wrote the following summary:

The degeneration of the Communist Party is not to be explained by the summary conclusion that the leaders were a pack of scoundrels to begin with; although a considerable percentage of them—those who became Stalinists as well as those who became renegades—turned out eventually to be scoundrels of championship caliber, but by the circumstance that they fell victim to a false theory and a false perspective.

What happened to the Communist Party would happen without fail to any other party, including our own, if it should abandon its struggle for social revolution in this country, as the realistic perspective of our epoch, and degrade itself to the role of sympathizer of revolutions in other countries.

I firmly believe that American revolutionists should indeed sympathize with revolutions in other lands, and try to help them in every way they can. But the best way to do that is to build a party with a confident perspective of a revolution in this country.

Without that perspective, a Communist or Socialist party belies its name. It ceases to be a help and becomes a hindrance to the revolutionary workers' cause in its own country. And its sympathy for other revolutions isn't worth much either. [First Ten Years of American Communism, p. 30.]

Cannon on the CPUSA

About the further degeneration and final demise of the CPUSA and its “progressive” contributions Cannon wrote:

Of course, as everyone knows, the American Stalinists eventually fouled up the Negro question, as they fouled up every other question. They sold out the struggle for Negro rights during the Second World War, in the service of Stalin's foreign policy—as they sold out striking American workers, and rooted for the persecution in the first Smith Act trial, of the Trotskyists in Minneapolis in 1941, for the same basic reason.

Everyone knows that now. The chickens finally came home to roost, and the Stalinists themselves have felt impelled to make public confessions of some of their treachery and some of their shame. But nothing, neither professed repentance for crimes that can't be concealed, nor boasts of former virtues that others are unwilling to remember, seem to do them any good. The Communist Party, or rather what is left of it, is so discredited and despised that it gets little or no recognition and credit today for its work in the Negro field in those earlier days—when it had far-reaching and, in the main, progressive consequences.

Wald on “the Communist Tradition”

The above “condensed review” of Stalinist political influence and contribution to progressive causes was written in the late 1950s. Since then “left-wing scholars in search of a U.S. radical tradition, especially one that is anti-racist and rooted in the working class,” as Wald tells us, return again and again to the Communist tradition.” They find oral histories of the good people who fought the good fight and lived in rewarding comradely ways inside the CP through many shifts and turns in political policy and activity. This is the way members of the CP generally saw themselves. They were oblivious to the Stalinist essence of the CPUSA (collaboration with the “Democratic” wing of the U.S. ruling class and subservience to the dictates of the Soviet bureaucracy), and unable to understand the consequences of the political policies they embraced. The scholars Wald mentions, “mostly middle-aged professors of history [who] have been in or around the CP-USA,” tend to ignore or discount the Stalinist cloud that hung over the halcyon days of their youth. Party life, in the telling of it, may seem happy and purposeful. But to see life in the American Communist Party at any period in its post-1928 history without seeing Stalinism is to see a mirage.

This is not to say that there were not admirable people in the CP and its periphery, and that along the way many proved capable of discerning the debilitating and corrupting influence of Stalinist policies. Many of these comrades found their way into the ranks of the American Trotskyist movement, because Trotskyism always distinguished between the ill-informed and miseducated CP rank and file and the cynical, corrupt leadership. Of course, there is a large body of Trotskyist literature on this subject, including Cannon's excellent pamphlet American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism, from which Wald might benefit if he were to reread it with a “partisan but objective” attitude.

March 11, 1995

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