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Ten Giant Steps in the
History of American Trotskyism

by Frank Lovell

Comrades and friends, fellow speakers: my assignment tonight is to list some decisive junctures in the history of American Trotskyism over the past sixty years. I’ll try to do this in thirteen minutes, in ten giant steps, nine forward and one backward.

The first, of course, was the clear and decisive break with Stalinism, with Stalinist ideology, the denunciation of the anti-Marxist theory of socialism in one country, and the consequent bureaucratic expulsion of the Trotskyists from the Communist Party in this country in 1928. That’s how it all began sixty years ago.

Secondly, the Minneapolis strikes in 1934, five years later, put Trotskyism on the map (the radical political map, that is) the map that charted the course of the emerging CIO unions of the time.

Number three: the Moscow Trials. All the well-known leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution were put on trial at that time, 1936-38. Those trials came as a surprise and a shock to the radical labor movement, and they were intended as a blow to the Trotskyist movement throughout the world, not only in the Soviet Union. Trotsky alone exposed the frame-ups and the Trotskyist movement throughout the world helped organize an international campaign against those frame-ups. The Trotskyists in the United States were in the forefront of this campaign, and we benefited from it organizationally and ideologically.

Number four: in 1937 — this is part of the same political development at that time—the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky was organized. This committee, consisting of a small band of Trotskyists and their close sympathizers, succeeded in organizing the prestigious and impartial John Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the charges made against Leon Trotsky. This redounded to the benefit and the everlasting credit of the Trotskyist movement in this country and most certainly is one of the decisive junctures in our development.

Number five: the founding of the Fourth International, September 1938. The founding conference of the Fourth International could not have occurred without the Trotskyists in this country. They helped prepare the programmatic document adopted at that conference, the Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, and they helped in all the details of practical organization of the conference itself. Just as Trotsky considered the Fourth International his crowning achievement, so the Socialist Workers Party at that time considered this its greatest asset.

Number six: Trotskyists here and throughout the world were soon to face their most severe test — the second imperialist war, World War II. The unswerving opposition to the war and the trial and conviction of the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and Teamster Local 544 in 1941, demonstrated the character of Trotskyism in the United States. I’m proud to be here tonight with Jake Cooper, who was the youngest of those defendants and who went to jail with the others. He spent a year there learning more about Trotskyism and I’m sure a great deal more about capitalism than he ever knew before. This trial and our opposition to the war certainly did not improve the popularity of the party at that time, but neither did it provoke popular resentment against us. To the contrary, we gained respect in the unions where our members were most active, in auto and in maritime, and we won some more recruits among the militants precisely because of the heroic action of comrades like Jake. This was a very important test for all of us, a crucial juncture in the history of our movement.

Number seven: after the war the Socialist Workers Party for the first time entered the national parliamentary arena in the 1948 presidential election campaign. This was a significant milestone because it established the Socialist Workers Party as a serious contender for leadership of the working class movement and effectively closed the door on defeatist tendencies of both the sectarian and opportunist varieties within the party at the time.

Number eight: with the deepening of the witch-hunt under the Truman administration in the early 1950s the James Kutcher Defense Committee again demonstrated the determination and ability of Trotskyists in this country to stand up against government bigotry and repression. James Kutcher was the legless veteran whom they tried to cut off from all of his benefits, simply because he was a member of the Socialist Workers Party. They said, “oh, you can have all your benefits; all you have to do is renounce your party.” He refused to do it, and the Trotskyists as an organization supported him. None others were able to come out of the witch-hunt with this kind of record. No other tendency in the radical movement at that time or since. Kutcher won his case in 1959, after a ten-year battle. The Socialist Workers Party survived the witch-hunt in better shape than any other radical tendency, largely because of this case, I believe.

Number nine: I believe the policy put forward and successfully carried through to victory in the anti-Vietnam War movement by the Socialist Workers Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s was another demonstration of the viability and popularity of Trotskyism in the United States. The essence of Trotskyism was embodied in the slogan, “Out Now!” The working-class character of this slogan was explained in detail in the great book of that title, Out Now! by the late Fred Halstead.

Number ten: the latest test of Trotskyism in this country, of course, was the abandonment of the program of the Fourth International by the Socialist Workers Party leadership of the 1960s generation, which surreptitiously seized the organizational apparatus and bureaucratically expelled all those who were suspected of being Trotskyists. This is a step back. Wholesale expulsions began in 1983. This was a crucial turn of events, a rupture in our long and honorable history. It is another turning point, a new test of our program and our viability. We were dealt a serious blow which we are confident will be over come through the study and explanation of its causes and by the struggle in defense of Marxist ideology in the class battles ahead. We have the rich heritage of our Fourth International, which we celebrate here tonight and tomorrow to draw upon.

What I have just reported here is not oral history, not some events remembered from the past by an old fellow; on the contrary, every event that I have reported is documented in detail in books that are available here for everybody to buy and study. All of these books are in print; each and every one of these ten successive stages in the history of Trotskyism in this country is recorded in these carefully documented books dealing with the sociological and political development at each stage. This library of books constitutes the rich arsenal of Trotskyism in the United States for the past sixty years. Now, where did these books come from? Alan [Wald] gave you a clue, I think. Books are written by intellectuals, as a rule. But not all people who write books are considered to be intellectuals. These books, which constitute the history of American Trotskyism, were written by political activists who not only had an interest and an identity with the working class, as Jake [Cooper] has described here, but had acquired the knowledge and ability that is usually attributed to intellectuals. None held chairs in universities or received recognition in academia.

One of the most responsible of these political writers, and the author of most of the books that record our history, was James P. Cannon, who for twenty-five years was the leader of Trotskyism in this country. Cannon by some is considered a kind of anti- intellectual, but in my opinion just the reverse is true, and I think Cannon would dispute the charges that are often made against him. So, what I want to do now, in the remaining minute or two, is to try and set the record straight on this issue. Comrade Cannon was a worker-intellectual without formal education. He was educated in the Marxist movement. That was the source and inspiration for all that he knew and did.

One of the things he did was explain the role of intellectuals in our society, and underline the need of the working class for their honest services. And he did this at a time in our history when the intellectuals in this country had disgraced themselves.

Cannon wrote in the May 24,1947, issue of The Militant an article called “The Treason of the Intellectuals.” Now remember, this was 1947, the very beginning of the witch-hunt in this country, and he had hoped that there would be some intellectuals who would identify with the working class that was coming under severe attack at that time. Here’s part of what he wrote. It’s just two paragraphs, so it won’t take much longer to put this on the record. He said:

The terrified rout of the New York professors, writers, journalists and serious thinkers, who didn’t stop to think, would be comical — were it not for the sadly disappointed and betrayed hopes of the new generation of students who have been led into a blind alley of pessimism and resignation by these educated Judas goats. It is really too bad that the young generation in the universities, including the veterans [of World War II] who have returned to their studies bitter and disillusioned, have been temporarily disoriented by the circumstance that those-ideologists, whom they had a right to look to for enlightenment and guidance, turned rotten before they became ripe, like apples blighted by an untimely frost.

Well, he’s not talking about intellectuals in general; he is talking about those particular intellectuals, some of whom developed their intellectual capacities in the 1930s, it’s true, as Alan has mentioned, but all of whom betrayed during World War II the working class interests they had earlier sought to identify themselves with; and subsequently in the postwar period when the employing class of this country launched its witch-hunt accompanying the Cold War foreign policy, they continued this betrayal of the working class.

So Cannon continues, now looking to the future:

The workers also need the forces of enlightenment and progress which a section of the educated classes, as individuals, can supply, and did supply so notably in Europe and old Russia. It will happen here, too. There can be no doubt that the future disintegration of capitalist society in the United States will impel a section of the intelligentsia to revolt. This revolt will acquire great significance when it leads them, as it must, to join forces with the labor movement in the revolutionary struggle for the socialist transformation of society, which alone can save humanity from the abyss.

So, it’s the working class and the intellectuals combined that can make revolution succeed, and have in the past and will in this country in the future. Now, one sentence in conclusion, since my thirteen minutes have expired — for us at this juncture it is essential that we keep sight of the goal: the transformation of society from capitalism to socialism, and bend all our efforts to hasten this process of transformation.

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