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Our Orientation

The following article was first published in the May 1954 issue of The Educator, an internal organ of the Socialist Union of America, headed by Bert Cochran.

(Draft Resolution Adopted by National Board, April 27, 1954)

The discussion in the SWP ended abruptly with our expulsion in November 1953 before a number of important political questions had been clarified. Lacking confidence in his own ideas, and in the outcome of the debate, Cannon's method was one of solving a political problem by organizational means.

We, on our part, had made a good start in explaining the meaning and the consequences of the new world reality as embodied in the whole complex of contributions of the Third World Congress. We provided a scientific analysis for the first time in many years of the political reality in the United States. We began setting down with precision the place of the SWP within that reality. We elaborated a realistic approach to the Stalinists. We ripped apart the make-believe world in which the Cannonites were dwelling; we challenged the fruitless round of "campaign activities" with which they kept themselves and their supporters stupefied, and we began to devise a tactical platform of work suitable to our position within the general political framework in the country.

But two main contributions—the interpretation of the international reality, and the analysis and practical platform of national activity—still left a gap. It was still necessary to reevaluate the whole broad perspective, both national and international, of our movement This was not an arbitrary or artificial problem capriciously posed, or sucked out of some individual's thumb. It derived logically and necessarily both from the situation of our cadres in relation to the world reality and the progress of the discussion up to that point.

It was futile at first to become embroiled in a discussion with the Cannonites on our role in the world when there was no agreement on the analysis of what the world was like today or what it would become in the ensuing years. Obviously it would be one thing if a major deal between the Kremlin and imperialism was in the offing, another if we faced a showdown on the broad basis of the present alignment of forces. It would be one thing if we recognized the consequences of the sweeping changes of post-war development (Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia, China, the developments in British Labor, etc.), another if we considered them temporary stages on the road back to the prewar situation. We had no common ground from which to begin the most important side of the discussion that had been projected but not developed by the Third World Congress.

It will help place the problem in its proper setting if we recapitulate a few of the high points of the previous discussion; a discussion, let it be noted, brought on by the crisis of world Trotskyism after the second world war.

The international discussion began, properly speaking, with our debate in the SWP in 1949 over Eastern Europe. Cannon understood at once, far more clearly than others, that the debate raised the question point blank of the role of the Fourth International. "If you say," Cannon declared, "that capitalism can be destroyed by an agency other than world Trotskyism, then what remains of our role? We would at best be reduced to democratic critics of the Stalinists." And since Cannon could see neither profit nor future in that kind of a movement, he solved the problem by denying reality, shutting his eyes to what was actually going on, and contriving a make-believe world for himself and his supporters. In this world everything remained as Trotsky had left it at his death. In Eastern Europe they had capitalism. The Stalinists were betraying right and left precisely as they had done in Spain. We were the only revolutionary opposition. And when the workers got more radical, they would lift us on their shoulders. It was a pretty picture, and a formally logical one, too. The only thing wrong with it was that it did not correspond to the facts, either in the United States, or any other major country of the world.

As the ensuing discussion and the further objective developments blew this construction out of the water, Cannon and his supporters took refuge in an eclectic patch quilt kind of perspective. They admitted that capitalism had, been shattered in Eastern Europe by the Stalinists from the top. They admitted that quasi-Stalinist parties successfully led revolutions in China and Yugoslavia. But in the rest of the world, above all in the United States, everything remained as before, and we could continue along the old accustomed lines.

Sensing that their whole perspective was in danger of being blown to bits, they instinctively felt the necessity of building around themselves a "Chinese Wall" to insulate themselves against the disturbing thoughts and embarrassing developments seeping in from the outside world. This explains the rise of the Messianic ideology in the SWP, the theory that the leadership has been ordained to lead the revolution if it only sticks together come what may, if it never questions the faith, if it never turns right or left to gaze at other Gods, lest this lead to destruction. Because, surely it cannot be, they reasoned, that all this sacrifice and virtue will go unrewarded by History. The Cannonites thus "solved" the question of the perspective of world Trotskyism by semi-religious invocation and dedication, and the mysticism and cult of an ordained leadership. That is one answer to the problem, for whatever it is worth.

How have we on our part solved this burning question? It is unnecessary here to repeat the world analysis that has been written down in many documents. Let us simply sum up some of the conclusions of the present reality: We see a world where our perspective of Stalinism being destroyed in the course of World War II has been proven wrong. We see a world where Stalinism is dominant over the eastern half of Europe, where the Communist parties are the leadership of the colonial revolution in Asia, where they constitute the strongest organizations of the working class in Italy and France. In the rest of the Western world, Social Democracy has been resuscitated, and in the United States, where labor has not yet advanced to an independent political existence, the reformist labor bureaucracy remains dominant One of the recent International documents states that the Fourth International enters the next stage of upsurge in a far superior position to that of 1939, but that is just rhetoric. The truth of the matter is that the Trotskyist organizations are not stronger today at all than at the Founding Conference in 1938, even if we disregard the matter of the present split. The Trotskyist movements in their twenty-five years of existence have been unable to grow into mass organizations for a variety of reasons which have been exhaustively analyzed and explained. The two lone exceptions to this, by their specialized character, even further underline this fact.

The Cannonites still retain the outlived perspective, however, that the small nuclei will tomorrow become the mass revolutionary parties challenging all contenders and destroying them in battle. But a more realistic perspective based on the actual world trends is sketched out in the recent International resolution on "Our Integration in the Real Mass Movement." (We reprint elsewhere certain concrete amendments and criticisms of the document. Here we confine ourselves to the main purpose of this document.)

Basing itself on our previous analysis of the world situation, the resolution finds that we are living in a profoundly revolutionary period where the relationship of forces is developing favorably for the revolution, and that consequently the existing mass Communist and Social Democratic parties are subjected to unprecedented pressure. This situation, as experience has demonstrated in England, France and Italy, does not lead to splits and new formations, but remains locked within the confines of the organizations, undoubtedly because the masses feel the hot breath of the approaching world conflict, and do not believe anything can be achieved by trying to build new organizations at this juncture of history. Hence, our resolve to orient towards and to integrate ourselves within these existing mass movements for a long period of time, to act as the Marxist catalyst, to comprise the conscious left wing within the mass movement. For only with such an approach can Marxists play a role in the historic unfoldment of the struggle, for only in such integration is there a genuine perspective for our small revolutionary cadre. Outside of such integration one can only declaim and posture in a vacuum for a brief space of time until events finally disperse the cadre.

This leads us to the next question: How do we envisage the development of the next revolutionary struggle, and who will lead them? Naturally, the question can only be answered in very general terms. But even a general answer is required because it determines in large measure our course. If we take our analysis seriously, we must have the conviction that the mass struggles of the coming decade will rise to supreme revolutionary heights, and that in the course of those fierce clashes, there is bound to develop a higher political consciousness, and a consequent regroupment of forces within the working classes. All experiences attest that in such periods the left wing grows at the expense of the right, and that at certain climactic points, the mass forces will be available for the creation of new revolutionary parties, either by a process of splits and fusions, or by the Marxist wings conquering the old organizations. If at such times the Marxist cadre is well organized and clearly understands the historical tasks at hand, if it has established itself over a period of time as an integral part of the existing movements having intimate relations with different layers of militants, if it has gained their respect in a series of struggles, the cadre can rise to the necessities of the historic moment, and with masses behind it, shape the course of events.

We are well aware that this is an algebraic projection, and that it cuts through such gargantuan problems as the third world war, the possible occupation of the heart of Europe by the Red Army and its allied troops, the possible bureaucratic-military transformation of several West European countries on the East European pattern, revolts against Stalinism on the order of the June 17 rising of East Germany, attacks of imperialism to impose a counterrevolutionary order, all taking place in the midst of unprecedented devastation and ruin of war. But nevertheless, the formula is an entirely valid one, especially in Europe, and at a later stage in the United States, because the aspiration of the masses, and the attainment of the next historic advance toward Socialism cannot be realized by the old parties and leaderships, even if one or two Communist parties in the West take a revolutionary path under the impact of mass pressure. The next historic advance will profoundly revolutionize not only all existing institutions, but the organizations and masses carrying through these transformations. Differentiations of considerable scope will alter the relationship of forces in favor of the Marxists. The experiences of China and Yugoslavia only presage more far-reaching developments to come. But the course of history is already revealing that if capitalism was first destroyed at its weakest points, in Russia, then in China, and is crumbling in the colonial world, it will have to be from the West that the revolution will rise to a superior level of consciousness, mass participation, democratic control and operation. The weakness and the backwardness of capitalism in the East pushed the revolutionary forces there to the fore for several decades. It will be the higher culture, tradition and the greater specific gravity of the working classes in the Western countries which will provide the conditions for the rise of higher type Marxist mass parties, and will lift the revolution to a higher level.

We are obviously discussing a very tortuous, complicated, and involved process which will take place very unevenly over a period of time, and with great variations from one country to the next In what sense then can we speak of the future of the Fourth International, since the resolution declares, "Naturally, the world victory of the revolution will not be the exclusive work of the present national nuclei of the Fourth International but of their dose fusion with broader revolutionary forces. From this fusion there will arise new revolutionary mass parties of tomorrow, as well as a new form of the world party of the International." The answer that the resolution supplies to the above question is as follows: "To the degree that the world revolutionary upsurge continues to spread and moves toward the world victory of the proletarian revolution and of Socialism, the program and organization of the International will be validated. The world victory of the proletarian revolution and of Socialism cannot be conceived as the arithmetical sum of partial victories obtained through centrist programs and formations. It will be the victory of full revolutionary Marxism."

The longer one ponders over the meaning of this quotation, the more convinced he becomes that this is more irrelevancy than answer, as the question that needs illumination first of all, and above all, is the next historic period rather than the period of the world victory of the revolution and of Socialism. And the discussion has reached the point—and even more decisive the position of our cadres is at the point—where more has to be said about the next historic period and our role in it

From the rise of Hitler to the World War, there did not exist a strong enough current upon which a new revolutionary formation, competing and supplanting the old workers organizations, could be based. The Trotskyist groups found neither the open field that favored the rise of the Second International nor a development equivalent to the October Revolution which started the mass trend toward communism. After World War II, contrary to our prewar prognoses, Stalinism was not eliminated, but rose to new heights of influence. Because the situation was, and remains, revolutionary in the world—and because therefore, the workers no longer clung to the old parties merely for protection against reaction—there has been a clear test of the ability of Trotskyism to create an independent movement on a program broadly confirmed by the new revolutionary developments. The fact that no one can realistically envisage a breakup in the old workers movements prior to the next revolutionary developments is the clear sign that the old Trotskyist perspective has become outmoded. As before the war, the vanguard seeks to realize its revolutionary aspirations within the old parties, leaving no room for a new revolutionary mass organization. Thus the Trotskyist movement, despite the brilliance of its leader, the considerable abilities and energies of its national cadres, and the many experiments with entries and fusions, was doomed to remain isolated. The test was made for a whole historic era, both in periods of reaction and revolution, and is therefore a decisive one.

But while Trotskyism, due to historic circumstances, remained outside the main currents of the labor movement, it built up in a quarter-century of its existence a truly formidable literature, doctrine and tradition. This tradition, we have said, gives Trotskyism the status of Twentieth Century Marxism. However true this claim maybe from an abstract theoretical point of view, it has not entered the consciousness of broad masses as did similar claims made by the Social Democracy prior to World War I, or by Lenin and the Comintern afterward. The tradition of Stalinism led to the mass revival of the Communist Party in France after the war, and the tradition of Social Democracy to its revival in Germany, but the tradition of Trotskyism could do no more than maintain it as an ideological tendency.

Every important movement has its own specific tradition, and every important leader places his indelible stamp upon an organization, not only through the formal resolutions and theses, but by his methods of work, his approach to big questions, his hundred and one evaluations, and in ways even more elusive and difficult to describe. Marx projected himself upon the First International. Lenin put his stamp on Bolshevism. And without any per adventure of a doubt, Trotsky did the same in fulsome measure in the case of the Fourth International. Now it is a fact that our whole tradition—so magnificent in many ways—is of no interest to the existing labor movements. Because the tradition has been created largely outside of the labor movements, it is foreign to them. They do not see or believe that any of it is pertinent to the solution of their problems. We therefore have to face up to this aspect of the reality just as we did to other parts of it, and have to draw the necessary lessons.

The very formulations of the International Resolution must lead us to the conclusion that the revolutionary parties of tomorrow will not be Trotskyist, in the sense of necessarily accepting the tradition of our movement, our estimation of Trotsky's place in the revolutionary hierarchy, or all of Trotsky's specific evaluations and slogans. We in the United States had precisely this experience where Trotskyists fused with the small Muste organization to form the Workers Party in 1935. The fusion occurred only after we had overcome considerable resistance in the Musteite ranks to accepting the special characteristics of Trotskyism by assuring them that we had no special sectarian axes to grind. How much more operative will this be when the left wing develops through its own specific experiences and the merging of different currents and groups inside the big centrist or reformist mass movements.

Our analysis and our tactical orientation would remain like a knife without a blade if we do not follow through with the necessary conclusion. And this conclusion is that in the present historical conditions, our cadres have to take the whole body of Marxist theory and struggle, including Trotsky's contributions to it and translate them into the language of our lifetime, and into the language of the existing movements of the various countries in which we are situated.

The worst error is to think this mainly a job of clearer language, or for our cadres to start masquerading as simple homespun mechanics who have none too secure a mastery of grammar or syntax. What is involved if we are to integrate ourselves in the mass movement and to begin functioning effectively as its Marxist wing, is that we have to rid ourselves of all faction spirit and too narrow understanding of the Marxist's role in the centrist and reformist milieus of our time.

Our purpose is to bring our ideas into the mass movement, and to gradually raise the consciousness of the ranks to the historic tasks. But the last thing in the world we should attempt is to inculcate the ranks with the necessity of adopting our specific tradition, and impressing upon them the truth of all the evaluations and proposals broached by Trotsky from 1923 on. The thought that in the coming period of our activity we have to go out of our way to mention the name and work of Leon Trotsky, and the name and the existence of the Fourth International, shows how far all of us have become infused with narrow group thinking, and organizational fetishism, how far we have traveled from the outlook of Frederick Engels, who warned the Socialists in America not to publish the Communist Manifesto, as it was based on old-world experiences, and that the American labor movement, developing under different conditions, would not understand it, and would not know what Marx and Engels were talking about. Why isn't it possible for us to take this simple thought of Engels and apply it to ourselves and our work? If Engels didn't think this was putting a question mark over his revolutionary integrity, why should we?

We said before that only by integrating ourselves within the existing movements could our cadres survive and fulfill their mission. We will now add to that proposition this corollary: Only by dropping all sectarian notions of imposing our specific tradition upon the mass movements which developed in different circumstances and under different influences, can our approach register successes and guarantee the future of our precious cadres. What is involved, it is dear, is not any modification of programmatic essence, but a sharp reversal of organizational concepts and perspectives on the nature of the development of the mass revolutionary parties of tomorrow.

There remains to say a word whether this course does not contain dangers that the cadre will get lost in the mass movement and therefore become liquidated as a specific revolutionary current Of course, the danger exists, just as there is danger every time a revolutionist takes a job as an official in a union, and begins to live in an opportunist environment Some succumb to material blandishments. But if the cadre is cohesive, and firm in its revolutionary convictions and aims, the losses are few and the gains are many. Events will justify the necessity for a Marxist policy and prove its effectiveness in action. The dangers will be counteracted by the struggle Itself. We have an additional guarantee, insofar as there are any guarantees in these things, in the clarity of our views, the devotion of our ranks who have been tested over a long period of time, in our ideological solidarity, and In the unifying element of an international center. If we try to impose additional guarantees by adopting narrow group viewpoints, and sporting narrow group ideologies in the mass movement, we will vitiate the whole concept, and defeat our common purposes.

Although in the United States the situation is unique as the working class is still not organized into its own political party, the orientation here discussed operates with full force. One has to dwell in the never-never land of a Cannon to seriously promulgate the theory that the American working class, which has not yet attained labor party consciousness, will pass, with the next struggle, to the banner of Cannonite revolutionism, or what amounts to approximately the same thing, will in rapid-fire fashion, plunge in and out of a labor party to join up with Cannon and his lieutenants to storm the barricades. We have correctly stated before that the American workers will move massively through their organizations, and not jump over the heads of their organizations. That implies that they will move in deliberate stages, not when the forward columns are ready, but only when sizable phalanxes of the class are prepared to move.

Basing ourselves on this analysis, we have oriented towards the organized labor movement, especially the mass production unions of the CIO, as the battleground of the big future class developments, and the repository of the forces that. will advance the working class to Its next political stage with the formation of a labor party. That does not mean that we are absolutely certain that a labor party will be formed. What the perspective does base itself on with certainty is that the inevitable political regroupment will pass through existing channels of the organized labor movement and have a political character capable of uniting masses at a minimum level. The broad character of this movement will provide room for the various existing political tendencies, Stalinists, Social Democrats, centrists and Marxists to operate within it That is why, whatever the vicissitudes of the struggle may bring, whatever forms it may assume, whatever channels it may take, the strategy of basing ourselves on the organized labor movement, and particularly its mass production sectors, and directing our main attention to it, is the correct one and will provide us with the necessary sustenance to carry on, and in due course, to establish ourselves in conjunction with allies as the left wing of a growing political movement.

Of course, as we tried to explain to the SWP, between the present and the next developments exists a more or less protracted period of time, and a political tendency cannot deduce its day-to-day tactics solely, directly and immediately from the grandiose strategy, but must seek out and find every possibility for advancement of its program and its influence, be It on the most limited basis, and from sources that by themselves will not necessarily be the main forces of the big labor advance. That is why in many localities, where trade union avenues are not open to us for one reason or another, we must seek out other milieus, whether of the Stalinist variety, or student circles, or various liberal or minority groups.

We approach all these strata, however, in the spirit of Marx's Communist Manifesto which proclaimed that the revolutionists had no interests separate and apart from the working class, that we are not a special sect, cult, or church, which seeks to draw people out of the broad currents into its backwater, but rather as American Marxists, we seek to join with others in advancing the existing struggles to a higher stage and on a broader front. We are convinced that out of these struggles and experiences, even before big mass forces take to the field, Left currents will arise with which we shall be able to cooperate and fuse; that the American Marxist tendency, as a stronger formation than at present, will thus be able to discharge its role as a left wing in the big movement—as part and parcel of the struggle to create the mass revolutionary party in the United States. That is our perspective.

Special thanks to the web site of the International Bolshevik Tendency which transcribed this work for the Internet.

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