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Fourth International, June 1949


George Clarke

Epitaph to the Workers Party


From Fourth International, Vol.10 No.6, June 1949, pp.185-188.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On the eve of the Second World War, an opposition, group led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham rebelled against the political and organizational program of Trotskyism and split from the Socialist Workers Party. The seceding group, consisting in the main of nervous intellectuals and student youth, followed Burnham and Shachtman into an organization called the Workers Party.

The new party, they announced, while still adhering to Marxist doctrine in general, but not to Trotsky’s interpretations in particular, would free itself of the dead hand of “bureaucratic conservatism” which it was claimed had stunted the growth of the SWP. “In place of conservative politics,” their basic programmatic document declared, “we must put bold flexible, experimental politics – in a word scientific politics. In place of bureaucracy ... democracy to the utmost possible limit.”

Now nine years later, under a banner headline announcing the formation of-the Independent Socialist League, Labor Action (April 29, 1949) informs us that “the most striking decision made by the Fifth National Convention of the Workers Party was to change the name of the organization.” The most striking decision, therefore, is a notice of bankruptcy of the nine-year undertaking to supplant the SWP as the revolutionary party of the American working class.

Yet the decision, judging by the official document setting forth its main reasons, was made without serious critical reference to the past. Did experience confirm the correctness of the split? How did the program of “scientific politics” and “democracy to the utmost possible limit” stand up under the test of time and struggle? Where are the hundreds of Yipsels who joined Shachtman in his flight from Bolshevism in 1940? What has happened to Burnham, Macdonald, Erber, Trimble, Sam Myers, Demby and others who made up at least half the general staff of the WP? Why did so many – not just an occasional individual, not just a few, but so many! – of the warriors against “bureaucratic conservatism” end up as time-servers of American imperialism? One searches in vain through thousands of words for answers to these questions. The bankruptcy proceedings are carried out without a balance sheet of assets and debits.

The Blind Lead the Blind

It is a case of the blind leading the blind. The WP was founded in opposition to the “conservatism” of the SWP which .consisted of refusing to change principles every time Stalin committed some new atrocity. Its successor, the Independent Socialist League, makes its debut as the living embodiment of a genuine conservatism which rejects the task and perspective of building a revolutionary party in the US or in the entire world for that matter.

The WP lebelled against the “bureaucracy” of the “Cannon regime’” in the SWP – a “bureaucracy” without a social base, without money, privileges or jobs at its disposal. The main crime of this “bureaucracy” was its insistence that the minority submit to the majority after art unfettered’ and exhaustive discussion. The ISL, successor to the WP, is begging for a chance to serve the real bureaucracy in the labor movement, the rich and powerful social imperialist gang which aims to stifle all discussion, criticism and minorities in “their” unions, the real bureaucracy which controls tens of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs and has the support of the government besides.

That the Shachtmanites have decided to discard the pretense of being a party and frankly avow themselves a propaganda group is understandable enough. This was Goldman’s proposal as he resigned from the WP to support Norman Thomas. Shachtman, who had welcomed Goldman’s desertion from the SWP, first denounced him for “irresponsibility” and “political demoralization” and then ... accepted his proposal which is a belated recognition of a long-established fact. They never were a workers’ party in any sense of the term – either in numbers, intervention in the class struggle, leadership of strikes, effective participation in the building of a left wing in the unions or in any other way. Nobody ever considered them a serious force or rival – not the government, the labor fakers, the Stalinists or anyone else.

From the outset they were little more than a parasitic formation borrowing helter-skelter from the methods of the SWP only to make a hodge-podge of their application. After a furious struggle against the worker cadres of the SWP, they undertook to “proletarianize” the very middle class elements who were nourished in that struggle. But when the war came to an end it developed that most of those who had entered the factories had done so as a temporary expedient and began returning to the colleges and the offices.

Failing to establish any serious base in the trade unions, they attempted to lift themselves by their bootstraps through a series of “political” maneuvers. First came an abortive attempt at fusion with the anti-Bolshevik Yipsels. Next followed a raid on the SWP which took the form of a “unity” maneuver. The net gain of this foray was the acquisition of a few soul-sick intellectuals like Goldman and Morrow who stopped only momentarily at the WP en route to the support of Norman Thomas and the Marshall Plan. On the other side of the ledger was the loss of almost a hundred of the best and most active revolutionists in their ranks organized in the Johnson-Forest group who joined the SWP. The final move consisted in an attempt to capture or split the Fourth International but this turned into a fiasco ending with Shachtman’s complete isolation from the world Trotskyist movement.

One Direction – Backward

Nine years of so-called “scientific politics” – that is, tinkering with the principles of Marxism – resulted in nothing but disaster and crisis. The WP had moved in one direction – backward. To its heir, the ISL, it could bequeath, in addition to the somewhat threadbare “scientific politics,” less than half of the membership that had broken with. Trotskyism in the 1940 split – and at that a membership shot through from top to bottom with pessimism and despair. These were the conditions that produced the latest organizational and political spasm.

”We have failed,” Shachtman says. But it was not our fault – “the principal causes are to be found (on the) outside,” – Stalinism is too strong and the American workers too backward. His sole consolation is that nobody else has succeeded in establishing a “genuine independent Marxist political party.” This is written at the very moment when Stalinism has sunk to its lowest ebb in the United States and is wracked by a mortal crisis internationally, when the first signs, of a cataclysmic depression and a radicalization of the American workers have made their appearance. It is typical of petty-bourgeois politics to view the forces in the class struggle as fixed geological formations, to view the need for a revolutionary party outside of historical and political necessity, to measure its achievements with a shopkeeper’s yardstick – how many members? On this basis there would never have been a Bolshevik Party.

The scientific prognosis of an epoch of wars and revolutions upon which is based the perspectives of the revolutionary party is now considered by Shachtman as the “star gazing” of “political astrologists and panacea-hunters.” The clock has been turned back and he counsels a return, back one hundred years, to the tactics proposed in the Communist Manifesto for the original immature revolutionary cadres of a working class still in its political infancy. For this wisdom Shachtman is indebted to the retrogressionist IKD (a group of demoralized German emigrés), another former ally in the struggle against the SWP and the Fourth International. After a brief flirtation, the IKD parted company with the WP, condemned Shachtman for unprincipled politics, then disappeared without a trace.

After two world wars, the Russian Revolution, the rich experience of the world proletariat with the Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky, and with the bankruptcy of social democracy and Stalinism on a world scale, Shachtman’s advice to “Marxist groups everywhere (is to) enter the broader democratic movements of the working class and constitute themselves as the loyal left wing tendency.” Conservative is not the word to describe such politics – reactionary is more accurate and scientific.

The Sole Remaining Hope

What hope is there then in this melancholy outlook for the remaining battered companies of “independent thinkers” in Shachtman’s “Third Camp”? The “perspective,” their resolution declares, “depends primarily on the rate and strength of the development of a labor-third-party movement in this country ...” But what if the resistance of the labor bureaucracy to the formation of a labor party and the sharpness of class conflicts forces a different line of political developments ? Eleven years ago, before he lost his Marxist axis, Shachtman wrote:

“While the next period does not indicate the likelihood of the revolutionary party directly becoming a mass party, there is no reason at all for lack of confidence. The adoption of the Labor party slogan, as elucidated by us, does not mean giving up the revolutionary party; it means the best way, under the concrete circumstances, of rooting the party in the living mass movement and of building it into a stronger force. Given a correct policy on our part, the very same forces pushing the workers now toward a Labor party will, as they deepen and as experience is accumulated, push the workers even more firmly towards the revolutionary party.”

Today this confidence in the perspectives for the revolutionary party has completely evaporated. Outside of “the development of a labor-third-party movement” there appears nothing but darkness.

A shrill note of panic dominates all the pronouncements of the renamed Shachtman group. The same kind of hysteria led them to discard their Marxist baggage nine years ago in fear of Stalinist “world domination.” Today, harassed by the nightmare of missing the Labor Party boat, they have undertaken to book passage in advance with the Murrays and Reuthers and Dubinskys who they fully expect will have unchallenged control of the new political ship of labor. Their entire document is an attempt to prove to these flunkeys of American capitalism that the Shachtmanites will be docile and accommodating passengers – “the loyal left wing tendency.”

The Shachtmanites are the image of sweet reasonableness. They are ready to embrace the “labor party” even in its most bastardized form which they say may not be different “in any important respect from the Wallace Party minus its Stalinist perversion ... or different from a national version of the New York State Liberal Party.” Within this new party they promise again and again that they will be “loyal,” a “left wing” which wants nothing more than to propagate “democratic socialism.”

Their harshest words are reserved not for the labor fakers who will attempt to use such a party, if formed, as an instrument to save capitalism and betray the interests and aspirations of the workers, but for the revolutionists who declare uncompromising war against ths bureauccracy. The May Day manifesto of the Shachtmanites is bitter against those organizations which, by continuing to pretend that they are parties, “stand in the way of the formation of the real party of the American workers and impede the progress of the ideas of socialism in such a party.” Warfare against the left – i.e., against the Trotskyists – that is the “special” but not very “original” contribution the Shachtmanites have decided to make in the coming struggles in the workers movement.

But what will they do in the meanwhile, the dread meanwhile which will see the “cadres tested ... for resistance, to all the disintegrative and degenerative influences of modern decaying capitalism”? They speak with gravity on this point because they know from sad experience how high a toll these influences have already taken in their group. So again they “emphasize and re-emphasize” that the “most important thing” is the “necessity of rooting of our group in the labor movement, in the trade unions.” Without this, they say, their work and influence in the Labor Party movement will have only “literary significance.”

Peace with Labor Bureaucrats

With what aims and upon what program shall this membership which has so stubbornly resisted “integration into the working class” participate in the unions? “... the main object (of their propaganda group) is not to gain organizational power or influence or to play a leading role in the conduct of affairs, but to bring its ideas to as wide a circle as possible.” This declaration, underlined by the Shachtmanites themselves, is not a tactical but a strategical line – a line of ingratiating and adapting themselves to the social democratic section of the labor bureaucracy. That is the real purpose of the renunciation of their former name as a “party” and their disavowal of any struggle for “organizational power or influence.” This capitulatory declaration must be read in the framework of the entire convention document which contains no serious analysis of the regimentation of the unions by its leadership in the service of the War machine of American imperialism, no alarm signal at the consolidation of control by a monolithic bureaucracy and the steady abrogation of democratic rights, no denunciation of the betrayals of the top brass of the unions.

True, the labor bureaucracy is actually named and some criticism is made of it in a trade union resolution printed in an Internal Bulletin. But more to the point was the rejection by the convention of a resolution proposed by McKinney which he summed up in three main points:

  1. that the Stalinists are not “the active danger” in the labor movement they were formerly;
  2. that the character of the Murray-Green-Reuther-Lewis opposition to the Stalinists is an “integral part of their collaboration with the capitalist ruling class”;
  3. that “it is important to emphasize that in the US particularly it is the capitalist-imperialists who are the main enemy.”

The rejection of the McKinney resolution placed an official seal on accepted practice among Shachtmanites in the unions and on the weekly boosting of their policy in Labor Action. Wherever they are permitted, particularly in the UAW, they play the role of courtiers to the top bureaucracy. Muttering a few whispered criticisms, they join every so-called “anti-Stalinist” caucus they can enter no matter how reactionary and redbaiting its program. While closing their eyes to the ACTU, or apologizing for them where silence is impossible, they eagerly participate in anti-Trotskyist attacks in the unions. The one paper which devoted more space than the Buffalo Evening News to the “exposure” of the Trotskyists in the recent union elections in the Chevrolet, Bell and Westinghouse union elections in Buffalo was the Shachtmanite Labor Action. Straining at the gnat of a fancied “Cannonite bureaucracy” nine years ago the Shachtmanites are now swallowing the camel – the authentic labor bureaucracy of American imperialism.

Lovestone Shows the Way

Only in detail and nuance but not in the essence of the matter is the evolution of the Shachtman group different from that of the Lovestonites who declared official bankruptcy a few months before the WP made its appearance. Like Lovestone, Shachtman tried to find middle ground between revolutionary Marxism – Trotskyism – on the one side and social democracy and Stalinism on the other. On the international field Lovestone kept company with a motley crowd of centrists in various stages of evolution toward social democracy. Shachtman is treading the same path in partnership with similar and even the” same elements (POUM, ILP), now much reduced in size and influence, who were Lovestone’s allies.

After a futile effort to keep a party going, Lovestone changed over to a propaganda group whose main function was to curry favor with “labor statesmen” like Dubinsky and Homer Martin while praying for a labor party or some large social democratic formation in which to liquidate his group. The quest a failure, Lovestone gave up the ghost and, bitterly reproaching the workers for their “backwardness” and Stalinism for its strength, made his peace with the business unionism of the ILGW leaders – and, eventually, with the State Department. Where Lovestone sought to supplant the CP, Shachtman had a more modest rival in the SWP but achieved no greater success, and there is still no large social democratic home or labor party in which to wind up his political peregrinations.

Even the evolution of names is similar: Lovestone – from Communist Party (Majority) to Independent Labor League; Shachtman – from Workers Party to Independent Socialist League. But there is one final difference. Lovestone’s group had a solid core of trade unionists of the opportunist variety with good connections in the top bureaucracy. Shachtman has only pseudo-intellectuals with weak ties to those in high places. Lacking such connections, Shachtman cannot find a solution for his group as a whole. It bleeds to death slowly.

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