Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Fourth International, August 1949


William Warde
(George Novack)


60 Years of Anti-Imperialist Struggle

Program of the Opposition


Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.7, August 1949, pp.219-223.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The history of anti-imperialist struggles in the United States over the past sixty years cannot be viewed as a simple record of direct opposition to the predatory foreign policy of Big Business and its government. On the one hand, American imperialism has experienced a peculiar course of development. On the other hand, a number of different social elements, political groupings and ideological trends have contended for influence within the anti-imperialist movements. All this has given the struggle an extremely complex and contradictory character.

Capitalist United States entered the path of world mastery much later than its European rivals. But it has more than made up for that tardiness by the exceptional speed and scope of its expansion since World War I. American capitalism ascended to the top of the imperialist hierarchy not by slow and measured steps but in giant leaps. At the close of the nineteenth century the United States was little more than a makeweight in the balance of world politics dominated by Western European countries. By the First World War America proved strong enough to tip the balance of power through its intervention. Imperial America was the decisive force in the Second World War and is today the keystone of the entire imperialist structure.

This spectacular rise of the capitalist rulers has not thus far been matched either by the American labor movement or its revolutionary socialist vanguard. For good and sufficient reasons they have up till now lagged behind.

As a result, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois tendencies have predominated within the anti-imperialist camp, weakening and undermining the struggle. To organize the forces for such a formidable task, to give them maximum cohesion and guide them to victory over the imperialists, it has been necessary to combat and uproot these vitiating influences.

The most vital aspect of past anti-imperialist struggles has been this process of demarcating the disguised agents of capitalist interests from the genuine fighters against the monopolists within the working class which alone can give consistent leadership to the anti-imperialist forces. The separation of these tendencies has already taken many years of intense ideological and political conflict between diverse parties and programs active in the anti-imperialist struggle and has now entered a new and critical phase.

The major division between the opposing tendencies, today as in the past, proceeds along class lines. On one side are ranged those parties and programs which in one manner or another express the interests and outlook of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements. Among them must be included those parading in bogus “socialist” or “communist” apparel. Historically, these tendencies fall under the four headings of isolationism, pacifism, social-patriotism and, more recently, Stalinism.

Counterposed to all these groupings, which seek either to preserve the capitalist foundations of imperialism or to compromise with its rulers, is the genuine Marxist movement and its program which aims to organize the power of the workers in uncompromising struggle against the entire capitalist system and for socialism.

In reviewing the anti-imperialist movements of the six decades, three salient features can be noted. First is the inherent inability of any of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces to conduct an irreconcilable fight against the imperialists. Because of their underlying devotion to the capitalist regime, their opposition has invariably faltered at some crucial point, usually with the approach or outbreak of war.

Second, these betrayals have torpedoed a series of promising and powerful anti-imperialist movements and enhanced the confidence of the pirate captains in Washington and Wall Street. This is one reason why the American monopolists are today the most firmly entrenched sector of the world capitalist class.

However, these negative experiences have been counterbalanced by one important positive result. While the various bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaderships have disclosed their incapacities for sustained struggle, while the differences between them and the outright imperialist gang have diminished, the Marxist movement has clarified and strengthened its ideological positions and more sharply counterpoised its revolutionary perspective to all rival tendencies. The voice of authentic socialism was barely raised in the first stage of anti-imperialist struggle. As late a the First World War the socialist program remained indefinite and its outlook, vague and restricted, while the labor movement for which it spoke was poorly organized.

These extremely primitive conditions have been removed since then. American labor has been building mighty unions and acquiring a heightened sense of class power. The banner-bearers of Trotskyism have been gathering together around a solid system of ideas tested in the battlegrounds of colossal international events. Although as yet no more than a small fraction of advanced workers adhere to these revolutionary doctrines, they contain the seed from which the unbreakable mass movements against the American plutocracy will grow.

II. Beginnings of Anti-Imperialist Struggle

The beginnings of anti-imperialist struggle in this country reach back to the war against Spain which heralded America’s entry into the race for world mastery. The instigators of this early imperialist venture promoted it under the now familiar formulas of “defense of democracy” and the “freeing of oppressed peoples.” The imperialists of that generation waged war in the name of liberating Cubans, Filipinos and Porto Ricans from their Spanish butchers and enslavers.

As the results attested, the war was actually undertaken for different motives. The war-makers sought the Spanish possessions not to endow the inhabitants with freedom and independence, but for naval and military bases. They fought to safeguard trade worth 100 millions a year and50 millions of capital investments in Cuba, to help the American merchants and planters who had taken over Hawaii, and to use the Philippines as a stepping stone toward Asia. Moreover, the McKinley-Hanna administration hoped that a short, successful war would stimulate prosperity, forcibly unite a nation torn by the 1893depression and the political conflicts of 1896, and insure the Republicans return to office in 1900.

All these aims were realized – but not without encountering bitter resistance from Populists, radical Democrats, Socialists and even a few unregenerate Republicans.

This anti-imperialist coalition took its stand upon the ground of “isolationism.” Its organizers defended free competition and free trade against the trusts and tariffs; equality of opportunity against hardening class formations; expanding democracy against the tightening tyranny of the plutocracy. They reminded their compatriots of the democratic ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Civil War. They opposed territorial expansion beyond the geographical limits of the continent and held up the picture of a self-sufficient United States as the sanctuary of peace, democracy and endless progress.

This program was derived from the economic and political conditions of an older America which capitalism had outgrown. The markets and resources of a single continent were already far too small for the production and wealth controlled by America’s monopolists and financiers; they needed new countries and continents to conquer.

The principal opponents of the war party did not understand that the American economy and its government had already then become inseparably fused with the interests and aims of the trusts and banks. Their ideas were anti-monopolist but not in the least anti-capitalist. Just as they hoped to curb or break up the trusts, so they sought to bridle the aggressions of the imperialist conspirators. They proved equally incapable of either. While they mustered enough strength to postpone Hawaii’s annexation for five years, they were powerless to prevent the Spanish war and the territorial acquisitions that followed.

We see in this prelude the main traits that were to characterize the far vaster undertakings of the US imperialists in the next century.

The defeat of the opposition during the Spanish-American War was assisted by the abject capitulation of a number of its leaders to the newly hatched imperialist cabal. For example, the territorial acquisitions in the treaty with Spain were pushed through the Senate by a one-vote margin, thanks to William Jennings Bryan’s influence upon wavering Democratic senators. Before the war Bryan had denounced the drive toward annexations in Biblical terms as “the voice of the serpent ... that bids us eat.”

Under the Flag of Democratic Demagogy

The American people have never given voluntary consent to the predatory enterprises of the imperialists. This is shown by the fact that the capitalist governments never dared submit the issue of war and peace to a popular vote. Moreover, wherever the people were given any means of expressing their opinion, they voted against intervention. Both Wilson and Roosevelt had to run for reelection as president on platforms pledged to preserve peace; they entered the war by repudiating their commitments immediately thereafter.

Because of this resistance, the capitalist representatives have resorted to unscrupulous deception, bribery and coercion in order to drag the bulk of the American nation along their course of world conquest. The American people who overthrew the British tyrants and the Southern slavocracy by revolutionary action has always cherished a healthy mistrust of their successors, the “malefactor of great wealth.”

To allay this suspicion and hoodwink the masses, the spokesmen for the monopolists have perverted the democratic traditions of this country for their own ends. They misrepresent their military expeditions for conquest and plunder as a continuation of the genuinely progressive and revolutionary wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They picture the imperialist program as a means of the defending and extending the democracy to which the masses are so firmly attached, rather than as the instrument for strangling the liberties of other nations and curtailing the rights of the people at home.

Democratic demagogy as a camouflage for imperialist designs has become standard equipment for the capitalist politicians and propagandists. It was brought into play they under the Republicans in the Spanish-American War; carried forward by Wilson in 1917 through the slogan of “the war to make the world safe for democracy”; and perfected by Roosevelt’s inscription of the “Four Freedoms” on the banner of Big Business in the Second World War. Today it has reached new heights in Truman’s propaganda preparations for a new world conflict.

But the practice of democratic demagogy has not been confined to the executives of the imperialists. They have had competition along this line from the most prominent bourgeois and petty-bourgeois figures in the anti-imperialist camp. After exposing the plans of the war-makers, after pledging an all-out fight, after summoning the people to battle, these cardboard leaders crumpled up and changed fronts, Their repeated desertions derailed the anti-war movements and left their followers stranded and discouraged. This happened with William Jennings Bryan in the Spanish-American War; Rabbi Stephen S. Wise who led the pacifist parade in New York City in 1916 and blessed the war in 1917; and most of the isolationist, pacifist and Thomas-Socialist leaders in 1940-41. Henry Wallace is the most conspicuous candidate for a future performance of this role.

III. The Opposition to the First World War

In the fight, against American intervention in the First World War headed by Senator LaFollette of Wisconsin, the current of isolationism still flowed strongly. He pointed out that the lives of American boys were worth more than the dollars of American capitalists, that the world could not be saved for democracy in alliance with British, Russian and Japanese monarchies and imperialisms, and that the American people would vote against war in any referendum. True as his contentions were, they were no match for the pressures exerted by the profiteers who wheeled President Wilson and his party into line with their war program.

While isolationism had its nest in Middle West provincialism, social-patriotism had its prime source in the top union circles. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, proclaimed in 1917 that “this is labor’s war.” He thereby not only followed in the footsteps of West European labor leaders but shaped the pattern of wartime submission to the capitalist regime that the union bureaucracy duplicated throughout the Second World War and is preparing for the Third. The participation of the union officialdom and many better-paid workers in the proceeds of imperialist enterprise has provided a wide material foundation for this policy of collaboration with imperialism. The labor leaders exchanged the independence of their organizations, the right to strike, etc., and forfeited the interests of their members and the mission of the working class for a piddling share of the privileges derived from exploiting the rest of the world.

The speculative booms of two world wars and the years of prosperity flowing from American victories have undoubtedly corrupted numerous workers, held back the development of their consciousness, and facilitated the sellouts of their leaders. By and large this union bureaucracy has become so servile and corrupt that in prosperity or depression, peacetime or war, it humbly trots behind Big Business in the field of foreign policy in return for their positions of influence and sources of revenue.

Pacifism was another influential factor in the mass opposition to the First World War. Anti-militarist traditions were ingrained among the American people, especially in the immigrants who had come here to escape the conscription; wars and other evils of the Old World. Pacifism thrived in a nation which had expanded rapidly across a broad continent guarded by oceans and held by weak forces like the Mexicans and Indians.

The strength of pacifist sentiments and ideas can be gauged by their penetration into the Socialist and radical labor movements of that time. This was reflected in the fact that Allen Benson, Socialist candidate for president in 1916, advised his followers that Wilson, running for reelection under the pacifist slogan, “He kept us out of the war,” would make an acceptable second choice. A few months later, after Wilson showed what capitalist neutrality amounted to by taking the country into war, the Socialist Party split into patriotic and anti-war factions. But the opposition to the war was predominantly pacifist and in some sections of the party, as in Wisconsin with a strong German-speaking membership, it was anti-Allied.

Debs and the IWW

The blistering anti-war speeches which earned Eugene Debs his jail sentence and the love of millions were animated by revolutionary spirit and working-class principles. He and his co-thinkers were convinced that the war of the dollar-diplomats was reactionary and had to be opposed.

But along what lines and for what strategic aims were the Socialist militants to conduct their fight against the war-makers? Debs did not present a consistent program f revolutionary propaganda and mass action against the capitalist regime which clearly pointed to the conquest of power by the organized workers as the logical culmination of the anti-war and anti-capitalist struggles. Such far reaching aims and perspectives lay beyond the horizon of American Socialism before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Insofar as the left-wing Socialists envisaged an outcome to their opposition, it meant a reversion to peace, disarmament and the continuation of the movement on the pre-war basis.

The anti-political Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and its syndicalist leadership had an equally undefined position and inadequate program in the face of the war. The working-class rebels among them simply refused to go along with the war, resisted the pressures of chauvinism, and sought, despite persecutions, to proceed with economic organization of the workers.

The question of revolutionary policy was sharply posed in practice by the draft. Many devoted anti-war fighters became conscientious objectors, refusing to register. This attitude of individual resistance flowed from the absence of a precisely formulated program for the struggle of the workers under wartime conditions. It was a far cry from Lenin’s condemnation of bourgeois pacifism and his advice to the workers to learn the military arts as a means for their own defense and emancipation. These and similar questions were clarified and settled only later by the regeneration and advancement of American Marxism following the victory of the Russian Revolution anti by the assimilation of Lenin’s ideas in the early years of the American Communist Party and the Communist International.

IV. Isolationism and Stalinism in World War II

Although perceptibly waning as imperialism grew, both the isolationist and pacifist tendencies retained some vigor in the political disputes preceding American participation in the Second World War. The principal spokesmen for the isolationists, among them historian Charles A. Beard, argued against the interventionists in numerous books and articles, that the United States was ordained for a different destiny than the European imperialisms. America’s mission was to build “a civilization within the confines of the continental domain,” not to dominate the world for the sake of a few monopolists.

In this controversy with the interventionists, Beard was flanked on the right by certain ultra-reactionary Republican and Big Business elements who sought to appease the Nazis while safeguarding their imperialist interests in Latin America and the Pacific. He was flanked on the left by pacifists of the Norman Thomas type organized in the Keep-America-Out-Of-War Committee. The real nature of this combination was exposed after Pearl Harbor when, with some grumbling and reservations, its Republican, Democratic and Socialist components alike went over to support the war.

However, in the years preceding America’s plunge into the Second World War, it was not the isolationists or pacifists but the Stalinists who played the principal role in demoralizing the anti-imperialist forces, especially among the more class-conscious workers. The Stalinists deluded many by their claim to follow the traditions and program of Lenin. Actually their policies and actions increasingly diverged from Bolshevism until they became its antithesis. Instead of opposing American imperialism’s drive toward war, by 1941 the Stalinists were its loudest advocates. The Stalinist turncoats represented not the interests of the working class in the anti-imperialist camp but a new and special formation of petty-bourgeois renegacy from Marxism, stemming from the Soviet bureaucracy which had cast aside Lenin’s internationalist program of struggle for socialism.

Between 1931 and 1941 the American Communist Party gyrated through four different phases of political activity on the war question, each dictated by the shifting demands of Kremlin diplomacy. From 1931 to 1934 the Stalinists gave an ultra-left twist to the Leninist policy of anti-war struggle. From 1934 on they began to push the line of “collective security,” a projected alliance with the “peace loving capitalists” to halt the menace of fascist aggression. After the Stalin-Hitler pact in 1939 they reverted to anti-imperialist phrases and played again at opposition to Roosevelt’s warlike course. Finally, in 1941 they came forth as flag-wavers and rabid war-mongers. During the war they were the most subservient cogs in the imperialist war machine.

V. An Appraisal of Contending Forces

The history of the last six decades shows that the industrial and financial magnates of the United States have not been automatically conveyed to the top of the imperialist hierarchy by a historical escalator. At every step in the expansion of their power abroad they have had to contend, not only with strong foreign rivals and with resistance from their intended victims, but also with stubborn opposition at home.

Even today, mighty as they appear from the commanding heights of New York and Washington, the monopolists are far from secure in their seats of supremacy. They rule over a system undermined by crises and conflict. They themselves comprise no more than a tiny group of exploiters. In the United States the rich rulers have been reduced to about 60 families headed by such dynasties as the Morgan, Rockefeller, Du Pont and Mellon interests. These parasites who hide behind the façade of a dollar-democracy, dare not rule in their own name or divulge their real aims.

Their rapacity constantly repels the masses and arouses deep currents of resentment. The plutocracy is confronted on all sides by the resistance it provokes among the wage workers, Negroes, poor farmers and other oppressed parts of the population. These provide ample sources for the mobilization of strong forces against the imperialist policies of Big Business.

As we previously pointed out, the American labor movement has far from caught up with its European counterparts or kept step with the gigantic progress registered by the capitalist rulers. History advances in an extremely uneven manner since the diverse factors in the social process develop and mature at unequal rates. This is strikingly evidenced in the reciprocal relations between the growth of US imperialism, the labor movement and its revolutionary leadership over the past sixty years.

The labor movement has by no means stood still. After a long interval of stagnation, the working class took a tremendous forward leap in the Thirties with the formation of the industrial unions and has built steadily on that basis until union membership now embraces around 16 millions.

The American workers have yet to attain the political level and consciousness of their class aims corresponding to their economic organization and their historical tasks. But, as the 1948 election results indicate, they are striving to reduce their backwardness in these domains as well.

Similar disparities mark the development of revolutionary socialism and its connections with the broad masses of American workers. The ranks of the revolutionary socialists assembled in the Socialist Workers Party are today smaller in number and in mass influence than in the days of Debs and Haywood. If these were the only criteria, it would, have to be admitted that the movement toward socialism seems to have rather dim immediate prospects in this country.

But other and no less significant aspects of the situation must be taken into account. The two simultaneous processes – the reinforcement of American imperialism and the rise of American labor-which up to now have appeared to be harmonious are actually extremely antagonistic. Their underlying opposition is bound to be disclosed and accentuated in the new chapter of anti-imperialist struggles now opening up. The inevitable sharpening of class conflicts will drive home to the minds of many American workers the profound incompatibility of their interests and lives with the aims of the monopolists. As this divergence deepens, they will tend to discard outworn and fake ideas and turn toward the truths of revolutionary Marxism.

The Rise of Genuine Anti-Imperialism

In the years between the two world wars something new was brought into the political life of the United States through the formation of the Socialist Workers Party – an authentic Marxist opposition to monopoly capitalism. The Socialist Workers Party has grown out of the entire past search of the working-class vanguard for the best ways and means of conquering capitalism. It arose directly out of the split between the defenders of Marx and Lenin’s teachings and their Stalinist falsifiers in the Communist Party. It incorporated within itself the finest traditions of American labor radicalism associated with such figures as Parsons, DeLeon, Debs, and Haywood.

At the same time the American Trotskyists advanced beyond these earlier proletarian anti-imperialist movements and corrected their defects by adopting as their guide the more rounded program developed by the Third International and later deepened and amplified by Trotsky and the Fourth International. The Russian Bolsheviks were the first to show in action how the, workers could be led to victory over the capitalist oppressors. Although Lenin’s party formulated its ideas with direct reference to the conditions of the class struggle in Russia, his analysis of imperialism and the program of struggle against it have a universal application.

In the first place, the methods of action and the forces engaged in the anti-imperialist movements must necessarily be international in character since capitalism operates on the foundations of a world economy and in a world network of state relations. In the second place, the Bolsheviks were internationalists who approached the solution of the tasks facing the workers in their own country through the united struggle of the world working class against the capitalist system.

The Socialist Workers Party has taken the ideas forged in the colossal class battles of our epoch by the Third and Fourth Internationals and wielded them as effective weapons against all those pernicious influences which weaken the anti-imperialist struggle.

The Socialist Workers Party rejects both isolationism and pacifism. Events since 1914 have conclusively proved that in this epoch of world economy and world wars where international developments dominate the internal life of each individual country, any form of national exclusiveness is as outmoded as the log cabin. Isolationism is nowadays impossible for the United States which upholds the entire imperialist system. Where isolationist ideas do not reflect the unrealizable yearning for an irrecoverable national past, they mask the designs of one or another of the imperialist factions.

Pacifism spreads the illusion that peace can be secured without changing the class possessors of power and abolishing the capitalist system which needs and breeds wars; it is positively harmful to the anti-war movement. The mobilization of the working masses against the capitalist rulers leading to the establishment of a Workers and Farmers Government is the only way to remove the source of the antagonisms which disrupt present-clay society. The pacifist teachings of individual salvation and abstention from struggle simply serve to cripple mass resistance to the imperialist war-makers.

The Socialist Workers Party opposes and unsparingly exposes the social-patriotic treachery of the union officialdom and the social democrats as well as the duplicity of the Stalinists. Through their participation in the Marshall Plan and their support of the Atlantic Pact the labor bureaucrats have become open assistants of the monopolist offensive for world domination.

False Ideologies Are Crumbling

The ideologies of isolationism and pacifism have withered because they were rooted in bygone provincial conditions and bound up with the political predominance of petty-bourgeois movements of the past. Despite its present power, the grip of social-patriotism will also become loosened as the material foundations of class-collaboration crumble when the monopolists seek to pile the costs of empire upon the American workers.

While the future of the Communist party in this country is totally dependent upon the fortunes of its masters in the Kremlin, its record has already caused many militants to distrust Stalinism. The Stalinists, who vied with the union bureaucrats and social democrats in patriotism during the Second World War, have today assumed an oppositional attitude toward the government of US imperialism because its foreign policies are aimed against their master in the Kremlin. Nevertheless they continue their line of class-collaboration. Even if in a somewhat different form, the essence of their “People’s Front” policy remains in force under Foster just as in the days of Browder. Instead of educating the workers in the spirit of independent struggle against the rule of Big Business, the Stalinists put forward Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party as the center of resistance to US imperialism.

Wallace is a bourgeois politician of similar stripe to William Jennings Bryan who wrote in February 1917:

“We shall support the government in the event of war, but as friends of peace we are in duty bound to do all in our power to safe our country from war’s horrors.”

When war was declared two months later, Bryan telegraphed President Wilson to enroll him as a private so that he could do his patriotic duty. Wallace has already expressed similar views in respect to the next war.

New Times Demand New Leadership

The leaders of the Socialist Workers Party have proved their fidelity to the principles of revolutionary socialism and to the cause of labor in a dramatic duel with the capitalist prosecutors in the famous Minneapolis trial of 1941. The exposition of Trotskyist ideas given by J.P. Cannon in his testimony, recently reprinted in Socialism on Trial, is the same program our party presents to the American workers today in their fight against the evils of war, unemployment and repression.

The new times demand bold new leadership for the solution of new tasks. The Socialist Workers Party has been preparing itself to fulfill these demands. The lessons learned from the 1917 victory in Russia and the setbacks of the past three decades have considerably enriched the program of the revolutionary vanguard. The cadres of American Trotskyism have shown ability to withstand the material pressures and ideological snares of the bourgeoisie; they are equipped with superior ideas and methods to direct the efforts of the workers along the right paths; they are more firmly knit together in ideas, outlook and common experiences.

These qualitative gains are bound to make their impact upon coming events. When, in the course of further-developments, the Trotskyist program is conjoined with the militant impulses and practical savvy of the advanced American workers, the world will see an unbeatable combination in action.

Top of page

Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 5.7.2005