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The Socialist Purpose: To Educate the Working Class

by Frank Lovell

A version of this article was read by the author at a March 29 reception at the Tamiment Labor Library at New York University on the book Trotskyism in the United States, held in connection with the Socialist Scholars Conference.

The publication of a serious book dealing with what is commonly called “Trotskyism” and with some relevant aspects of Leon Trotsky’s legacy is certainly a most welcome and timely event. This latest book, Trotskyism in the United States, should be welcomed and carefully read by all who are involved with or interested in current developments in the AFL-CIO unions and the shifting moods of the working class in the United States. It is especially timely because one section of it, “The Liberating Influence of the Transitional Program” by George Breitman, relates to the historic task of building a labor party based on the unions in this country, a long delayed undertaking that is just now getting under way through the efforts of a segment of organized labor.

When I learned that I was expected to speak about this book it occurred to me that the authors — George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc, and Alan Wald — were all three influenced and their lives changed in more ways than any of them could fully understand by their association with and studies in the rich mines of Trotsky’s voluminous writings on history, philosophy, the art of revolution, scientific social ism, military science, literary criticism, and other subjects that relate to the social transformation from capitalism to socialism.

So I thought it would be of some interest to this audience to talk about Trotsky, his place in the history of our century, and the meaning of his revolutionary legacy for the 21st century. All this is implicit in the remarks, observations, and succinct reviews of the history of American Trotskyism that make up this volume. But I quickly concluded that to attempt that would be too much for this occasion.

Those who have not yet had a chance to dig around in the 14 volumes of the Writings of Leon Trotsky from his last exile (1929-1940), the series edited by George Breitman, can find them here at Tamiment as part of the Breitman collection. These volumes do not include Trotsky’s writings on Germany and the rise of fascism, the Spanish civil war, or the Chinese revolutionary struggle of 1925-27. Nor do they include other material collected in book form, such as The Third International After Lenin and The Stalin School of Falsification. Nor does that 14-volume set include Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (published 1930-31), his study of the degeneration of that revolution in the book Revolution Betrayed (1936), or his expose’ of the Moscow Trials in testimony before the John Dewey Commission in 1937. The books I mention are also available here at Tamiment in the Breitman collection.

In addition there are several anthologies: The Basic Writings of Trotsky, edited by Irving Howe; The Essential Trotsky, published in this country by Barnes and Noble in 1963; and The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology, selected by C. Wright Mills shortly before his untimely death. This last book was produced in collaboration with George Novack, with an introduction by Isaac Deutscher, and was published in 1964.

Instead of trying to relate Trotsky’s life work — the crowning achievement of which he considered the founding of the Fourth International (in 1938) and its adoption of the Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution — to the history of Trotskyism in the United States, I have opted to talk about the purpose of Trotskyism in the United States and give some examples of how what was known as “the Trotskyist movement” attempted to fulfill that purpose.

What Is Trotskyism?

But first, what is Trotskyism? Both Alan and Paul have tried to define and describe what Trotskyism means. Paul relates the attitude, certain decisions taken, and what actually happened about this question. It is on page 51 of this book, a rather interesting episode in the post-World War II history of the Socialist Workers Party, which discusses James P. Cannon’s proposal to drop the label “Trotskyist.”

I can tell you that those of us who identified with what was called the Trotskyist movement were not unhappy to be called Trotskyists. It made us rather proud to be identified with such a great historic figure as Leon Trotsky. Of course we knew more about Trotsky and the Russian revolution and Trotsky’s contributions to a better understanding of world events than most other people. We shared the general attitude of Mary McCarthy, who came in contact with some Trotskyists at the time of the Moscow Trials and was glad to be identified with them because they knew more and seemed to be brighter than the Stalinist detractors of Trotsky.

The truth is, however, that the term “Trotskyism” was coined by the enemies of Trotsky, the opponents of the Marxist method of economic and political analysis. It never occurred to Trotsky to call himself a “Trotskyist,” just as Lenin in his time could not conceive of him self as a “Leninist.” He was a Bolshevik, as was Trotsky, because that was the name of the party they led at the time of the 1917 October revolution in Russia.

Marx remarked once, after hearing that some of his German socialist comrades in America were described as “Marxists” or had taken to calling themselves Marxists, that he was glad not to be a Marxist. He did not want to be part of that company of doctrinaire exiles and poorly educated socialists.

Marx and Engels described themselves as scientific socialists. Commentators and enemies of the socialist concept like to personalize this whole body of economic and political theory in order to make it appear as if it is the property of an individual, the “revealed word” of a sect. Much of Trotsky’s political life was spent in ideological struggle against sectarianism. All of his work — theoretical, organizational, military, economic — was the application and extension of scientific socialism. I don’t suppose we will soon escape the term “Trotskyism,” but we ought to try and make it synonymous with scientific socialism.

What Is the Purpose?

Whatever name we use — whether Trotskyism, or scientific socialism, or simply Marxism (Trotsky conducted a struggle against the revisionism of James Burnham in 1939 under the banner “In Defense of Marxism”) — it is natural to ask, What is the purpose of this method and body of ideas? This question appears in Paul’s essay on the first 50 years of American Trotskyism (p. 45). He is quoting from an article by Walter and Miriam Schneir that appeared in the Nation magazine in the 1970s:

The SWP is clearly a way of life, and those who enter it believe profoundly in its mission, which is stated succinctly in the SWP constitution: “the purpose of the Party shall be to educate and organize the working class for the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a Workers Government to achieve socialism.”

This was not an amendment. It was there from the beginning. The founders of the SWP understood, as did their teachers Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, that the basic task of scientific socialism is education. Education and organization.

Cannon often explained, in many different ways, that the essence of Marxist philosophy is that the modern industrial working class is destined to destroy class-divided society and to usher in a new egalitarian social order; that only the working class can accomplish this historic mission; and that in order to fulfill its task, the working class must create its own vanguard party out of its own most advanced elements, together with enlightened intellectuals and other elements of the old society.

This means that those who wish to help create the vanguard revolutionary working class party must begin by educating themselves in order to help educate others.

This is easy to say, but of course it remains meaningless unless some guidance is given as to how the educational process is to be conducted. So what I want to do is give a few examples from the history of American Trotskyism.

Choosing an Audience

When Cannon and others were expelled from the American Communist Party (CP) in 1928 they had no choice as to whom they must address their appeal. It was the active membership of the CP at that time, and they concentrated on the facts about the struggle within the Soviet Communist Party and in the Communist International and the issues at stake. In this way they recruited a few new supporters and advanced their own education.

At the same time, none of this was kept secret. They began right away publishing a weekly newspaper, The Militant. Within the broader radical movement and in organized labor (in what was then called the progressive sector) there was interest and curiosity. But the main target of the campaign to get out the truth about the wrong policies being pursued by the Soviet bureaucracy, led by Stalin, was the CP membership.

The Matter of Timing

The Communist League of America (CLA), the organization of pro-Trotsky expellees from the CP, continued to target the CP membership (despite lack of any sensational success) for about four years. Meantime the Great Depression was deepening and millions of people were losing faith in capitalism here in the United States. In Europe the capitalist crisis was even more severe than here. Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. This was recognized as a terrible blow to the working class movement, and the Stalinist bureaucracy, through its control of the Communist International, was largely responsible for Hitler’s success.

At this point the International Left Opposition, the Trotskyist movement worldwide, recognized the bankruptcy of the Communist International and called for the formation of a new international. Here in the United States the combination of changes in the economic and political situation throughout the world prompted the CLA leadership to turn its attention outward, to the unions and to the unemployed organizations.

It happened that the strongest CLA branch, consisting of union veterans with experience in the CP and in earlier formations, was in Minneapolis. The conditions were ripe, and an experienced and recognized leadership was present. So the Minneapolis Teamster strikes of 1934, highly publicized by the local and national bourgeois press ac being led by dangerous men connected to the co-leader of the Russian revolution, ended finally in victory for the strikers.

This was a profound educational experience for the strikers and for many in the radical movement who were paying close attention to the strategy of the strike leaders. The leadership of the CLA utilized this experience to further educate their own ranks and to reach out to other sectors of the radical movement. As a result, Trotskyism was on the political map in the U.S. labor and radical movement. This could not have happened without the sense of timing that comes only with working class experience and training in the revolutionary movement.

Content and Subject Matter

It is all well and good to talk about the need for education. But political education depends upon accurate knowledge of the constantly shifting political situation and command of accumulated historical experience of the class struggle. In the Minneapolis situation the strike leaders were in tune with the strikers and their allies, and knew the mood of the strikers and the attitudes of the unemployed workers to the strike at every phase of the struggle. One aspect of the successful strike strategy was the ability of the Trotskyist leadership to explain that the struggle in that situation had to be conducted within the confines of the established union movement of the day, a firm conviction then shared by few other radical groups or organizations, including the Stalinists. The debate over this issue was part of the educational experience.

The growth of the Trotskyist movement in the pre-World War II period, the 1930s, was conditioned in large part by the success of the Minneapolis Teamster strikes, which gave the Trotskyist some measure of prestige, authority, and respect. It led to the merger with other labor radicals of the American Workers Party, led by A J. Muste, and soon thereafter to entry into the Socialist Party, where the human material that in 1938 founded the Socialist Workers Party was gathered and molded. This all came about through a process of intensive debate which educated the class-struggle activists, the socialist cadres. People who hope to make a revolution — or to lead any kind of social movement — must be confident that they know what they are doing and capable of testing continuously the validity of their ideas.

World War II

In 1939-40, on the eve of World War II, and in its beginning stages, the Trotskyist movement in the United States debated the class character of the Soviet Union (whether it remained a deformed workers state or had become a new formation, a “bureaucratic collectivist” state) and the character of the war in Europe at the time (whether it was a struggle for redivision of the world among the imperialist powers or a struggle against fascism and bureaucratic collectivism). Related to this was the question of whether the revolutionary working class movement should continue to support the Soviet Union after the Stalin-Hitler pact, which had prepared the way for war.

The principal protagonists in this debate were Trotsky and Cannon, on one side, and Professor James Burnham and SWP leader Max Shachtman, on the other. The debate ranged over the entire field of materialist dialectics and revolutionary theory. I mentioned earlier that Trotsky’s contributions to this debate are found in his book In Defense of Marxism. The debate helped prepare the Trotskyist movement throughout the world for intransigent opposition to the war. This, of course, was a very big part of our education in those years.

I promise not to review the content of this debate here. But there is a point I want to make about the war. I do not believe that Trotsky or any of his political supporters and associates thought that the shaky, outmoded capitalist structure of that day could possibly survive the terrible destructive power of world war. And certainly they did not believe that the Stalinist bureaucracy could pull through. They expected that the suffering masses of the world would rise up against the merchants of war and stop the slaughter, bringing down the heads of state in the major countries.

This actually did begin to happen. In 1943 a mass uprising overthrew Mussolini’s fascist government in Italy, but German intervention maintained the fascist hold in northern Italy for two more years, and Anglo-American intervention stabilized capitalist rule in southern Italy. In India a mass movement grew during the war that ended in that country’s winning independence from Britain, although this movement did not succeed in going beyond capitalism.

In Yugoslavia an armed resistance movement against Nazi occupation, and against the native capitalist collaborators with the Nazis, came to power and carried through a socialist revolution. A similar process under way in Greece was stopped by Anglo-American armed intervention. Eventually anticapitalist revolution came to the rest of Eastern Europe. But capitalism survived in its strongholds of Western Europe, North America, and Japan. And the Stalinist bureaucracy survived. In fact, the bureaucracy seemed to gain strength as social transformations (mostly by military-bureaucratic means) were carried out in Eastern Europe and North Korea in the immediate postwar years, then in China (1949-50), and later in North Vietnam (as a result of victory over the French in the Indochina war of 1946-54).

“Two Phases” of Trotskyism?

Both Alan Wald and Paul Le Blanc, in their essays in this book, speak of “two phases” of Trotskyism: one in the 1930s and ’40s; the other in the 1960s. But I believe that the dividing line was World War II.

The war changed the world. It changed almost everything about the world that we had known. It changed class relations among peoples around the world. And of course it left vast destruction and devastation in its wake.

But this was the very condition needed for the recovery and expansion of the capitalist system. Capitalism as a world system gained renewed strength from the process of rebuilding.

Our entire post-World War II era is colored by this — first, the recovery of capitalism; and then, since the early 1970s, the deepening crisis of the system as it entered a new “long wave” of decline, caused fundamentally by the worldwide falling rate of profit.

Alan Wald, in his essay on the old left and the new left (radicals in the 1930s in contrast to those of the 1960s), lists what he calls some “defining events of our epoch” (p. 236). These include: the defeat of fascism in World War II; the wrenching free from U.S. imperial domination of Cuba in 1959 and South Vietnam in 1975; and the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91.

Of course, a great deal more was going on in the world from 1945 to 1989 or 1991. The class struggle continued everywhere, and often flared into class warfare. But the fact remains that in the power center of world imperialism, in the United States, the class struggle became muted and has only recently begun to flare up again.

The reason class struggle receded was the postwar boom, which lasted for two decades, with a gradual rise in the standard of living for a broad sector of the population, including especially the organized sector of the working class. As we know, this is changing. Real wages have slowly declined for two decades, and organized labor finds itself under attack on almost every front. With this change comes change in the social consciousness of millions of people.

This is what Trotsky taught and what he prepared us for in the Transitional Program so well described and explained by George Breitman in this book.

Let me conclude with a brief quotation from Isaac Deutscher (from his introduction to The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology):

In sociopolitical ideas American conservatism seems unshaken. Yet it is in the field of ideas, Marxist ideas, that Americans have most to learn, if they are not to land themselves in a grim historical impasse. And in the field of ideas, Trotsky, I am sure, is still-a superb teacher.

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