Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Revolutionary Labor Socialist

Paul Le Blanc & Thomas Barrett
Revolutionary Labor Socialist: The Life, Ideas and Comrades of Frank Lovell
Smyrna Press, Union City 2000, pp. 352, $25.00

THIS is a well-deserved tribute brought together to mark the passing of a remarkably courageous man (for example, p. 75). Shortly after gaining a degree in philosophy at Berkeley, Lovell joined the American Workers Party of A.J. Muste and James P. Cannon, and became a seaman in the aftermath of the San Francisco General Strike (p. 12). In between trips, he found time to collaborate with Sherry Mangan in writing the excellent book Maritime, which Pioneer published under the pseudonym of ‘Frederick J. Lang’ (p. 100). It was at this time that the Socialist Workers Party used its comrades in the merchant marine to keep contact with the Trotskyists abroad caught up in the Second World War, and they even slipped propaganda into Russia. On a return voyage from the Murmansk run, Frank’s ship hit a German mine, and he was one of the few to survive, receiving a congratulatory address from the Russian government (p. 13). Witch-hunted out of the Sailors Union of the Pacific in 1949, he got a job in General Motors, and ran a brave electoral campaign for Mayor of Detroit at the height of McCarthyism. In 1969, he moved to New York to direct the SWP’s work among the trade unions, and wrote a regular column on labour affairs for The Militant. Like so many of what remained of Cannon’s working-class base, he was expelled from the SWP in 1983 when the Jack Barnes leadership decided to junk the old Trotskyism and go in for unrestrained Castro worship. He attempted to keep a group going in solidarity with the Mandel Fourth International, and he supported the recent attempts to form an American Labour Party.

The book is divided into three sections, the first collecting together the tributes made at his death (pp. 12–96), the second the articles written by him over the years (pp. 99–242), and the third pen portraits by himself and others of some of his contemporaries in the Trotskyist movement (pp. 247–352). If we disregard such nonsense as The Struggle for Revolutionary Continuity (pp. 20–2, 69–71) and The Cannon Tradition of American Trotskyism (pp. 27–32), it all goes to make up a treasure house of materials for assessing the political history of the Trotskyists in the USA, and even though any selection is bound to be uneven in quality, there are some very interesting essays, by Lovell on Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge (pp. 107–26) and on ‘Cecil’ (Frank) Glass (pp. 303–4), by George Shriver on Lovell himself (pp. 60–8), and by Paul Le Blanc and Michael Steven Smith on Morris Lewit (pp. 272–94).

However, it cannot be said that Lovell’s political judgement was always faultless. It took him 20 years to realise where all the SWP’s adulation of Castro was leading (pp. 177, 292), and he was in complete agreement with George Breitman’s uncritical views on black nationalism (pp. 264, 270–1). And although he saw that the Second World War was ‘the dividing line’ in the history of the Trotskyist movement (p. 133), ‘a great divide, like a chasm caused by an earthquake of unimaginable force’ (p. 135), he failed to see the Cochran split as a crucial stage in the SWP’s loss of its class direction that followed logically from it, and he led the struggle against Cochran in the Detroit branch (p. 25). Although he was the party’s Industrial Organiser at the time the Proletarian Orientation Tendency and Dave Fender began their thankless task of trying to point it back in the direction of the working class, he dismissed their struggle as ‘silly stuff’ (p. 63). We can therefore question if ‘he never gave up on the workers’ (p. 40), even if he finally came round to admit that it was the influx of middle-class youth ‘that lay [sic] the social basis on which Barnes was able to carry through his abandonment of the historic Trotskyist program’ (p. 63, cf. p. 339). Yet curiously, the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, which was heavily influenced by the American SWP, to this day locates the degeneration of that organisation in its belated turn towards the working class, and not in its previous turn away from it.

Unfortunately, whilst Lovell admitted his mistakes in the long run, the same cannot be said for one of this book’s editors, who still sees fit to criticise him for ‘thinking unconsciously of “the working class” as essentially meaning white male union members’ (p. 38), an inadmissible concession to the politically correct white terror now rampaging through the American universities.

Be that as it may, whilst we still look forward eagerly to a definitive history of the American Trotskyist movement, our thanks must go to the editors of this book for laying down some of the necessary foundations for it.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011