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George Breitman

Renegades Peddle Old Poison

(24 May 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 21, 24 May 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In previous articles we have demonstrated the spuriousness and shallowness of the arguments presented by Jean Vannier in the March Partisan Review to justify his flight from Marxism. To complete the account it is necessary only to add a few remarks about the history of the small group associated with Vannier which left the Socialist Workers Party.

Vannier’s evolution into an open enemy of Marxism is a culmination of the revisionist fight which his friends, Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman, launched in the SWP five years ago. It is worth recalling that this evolution was predicted, from the very beginning of the fight, by the defenders of Marxism in the party, long before the revisionists themselves understood what they were doing and where they were going and while they were still protesting indignantly that they had no fundamental differences with the Trotskyist program.

Revisionist Path

Vannier and his friends began – as all petty-bourgeois revisionists do; as their most immediate predecessors, the faction led by James Burnham and Max Shachtman, did in 1939 – by succumbing to the powerful pressure of capitalist ideology, which is always most quickly and deeply felt by intellectuals isolated from the life and struggles of the working class. They had become infected with a disease – one might call it the occupational disease – of intellectuals in the labor movement: A tendency to overestimate the power of decaying capitalism and to despair over the ability of the working class to fulfill its socialist mission.

This defeatist mood was accompanied by a violent barrage of charges against the SWP leadership’s “dogmatism,” “bureaucratism,” “bad morals,” etc., by which was meant the leadership’s determination not to yield an inch to the revisionist onslaughts. Then the revisionists began to denounce the “sheep-like” docility and lack of “independent thought” among the membership of the party, who had been steeled by their experience with the Burnham-Shachtman school of revisionism to give a cool reception to all other varieties.

Consequently, long before the Revisionist program had fully unfolded, the Vannier-Morrow-Goldman faction was confined to a small handful of skeptics, who realized their views had no future in the SWP. One section therefore split away before the 1946 SWP convention even had a chance to pass judgment on them. Headed by Goldman, they entered the halfway house of despair, apprehension and “honest pessimism,” the Shachtmanite Workers Party, from which some of them have already departed for the purpose of supporting American imperialism. The other section, influenced by Vannier and Morrow, drew back at the last minute from the futile prospect of wasting their time in the WP and, still avowing their allegiance to Marxism, decided to go it on their own.

Fundamental Conflict

Now, Vannier’s Partisan Review article dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. The real dispute, it shows, was not over isolated formulations or even the nature of party organization, but over fundamental concepts of Marxism. His spiteful reference to “the degeneration of the Trotskyite Fourth International” is merely an admission of the-revisionists’ failure to substitute their program of prostration before capitalism for the Marxist program of the Trotskyists. Like most renegades, Vannier departs behind a shower of pretentious phrases about his devotion to – socialism! But we can see what they are worth when we examine the “positive” proposal he advances after rejecting Marxism:

“Only by a rational and methodical scrutiny of the lessons of the past and of the present possibilities will we be enabled to work effectively toward preparing a future. Whoever is content at this late date to go on repeating the basic hypothesis [of Marxism] without advancing some new and decisive argument in its favor scarcely merits a hearing. Proposed solutions may well be widely divergent; only mutual criticism will make possible an intelligent choice. But in such an endeavor nothing can be held sacred – everything is called into question. Only after having been put through such a crucible could socialism conceivably re-emerge as a viable doctrine and plan of action.”

Now there’s a real program of action for you, and one that’s bound to strike a sympathetic note among a considerable body of tired radicals and disillusioned intellectuals – a perpetual discussion society. A discussion society, where everybody can get together and chew the fat interminably; where nobody will have to do anything more difficult than talk to his heart’s content and maybe listen to some other fellow’s foolish ideas; in fact, where nobody will have to do anything at all – while the world goes to bell on wheels. Meanwhile, what about the struggle against war and militarization and capitalist barbarism? It is too much to expect that the capitalists will call a truce in their offensive against labor while the discussion continues. But that doesn’t bother Vannier because according to his view what goes on in the class struggle doesn’t matter anyhow; the only thing that really counts in “preparing for a future” is to have a debate.

Ultimate Logic

The ultimate logic of the Vanniers is this: If the workers cannot take and hold power, obviously it is foolish for them to try. Not only is it foolish, but it is harmful; in general, nothing is more harmful than to attempt some great task, involving many sacrifices and the risk of many casualties, if it is certain to fail. Renegades sharing Vannier’s concepts therefore can be expected to advise the workers not to make such a foolhardy attempt as to aim at power; and in essence that is what Vannier is doing now. But that is only a part of the picture.

History has shown that the class struggle continues, and that under modern conditions it inevitably moves in the direction of a working class attempt to take power, no matter how many intellectuals desert the struggle and no matter what kind of advice they give the workers. At that point, the next step of the Vanniers develops into an attempt to persuade the workers not to revolt by means other than words. In short, the logical outcome of the belief that the workers cannot take power is the attempt to stop them from trying – that is, support of the counter-revolution.

Let no one say this is factional exaggeration. History proves that every group in the labor movement that started out with skepticism about the political capacity of the working class, ended by becoming the mortal enemy of the socialist revolution. Take the Social Democrats. – what is the basis of their policy of class collaboration with the capitalists? The very same concept being spread by the Vanniers, that the workers don’t have what it takes to achieve progress through their own forces. Or examine the treachery of the Stalinists. What was the root of the beginning of the Stalinist degeneration in Russia if not the idea that the workers outside of Russia could not be depended on to overthrow their oppressors, and therefore “socialism in one country” and international class collaboration were necessary in order to defend the workers’ state?

Neither the Stalinist nor Social Democratic disbelievers in the workers’ capacities started out with full-fledged counter-revolutionary practices. No, they worked their way up to them gradually. First they abandoned the Marxist method of analyzing capitalism and the development of the struggle between the workers and capitalists; then they succumbed to skepticism; and finally they tried to fortify this skepticism by counter-revolutionary violence against the workers who had not become infected with this disease. And the Vanniers are travelling the same road.

Nothing New

Thus there is nothing new in Vannier’s “fundamental hypothesis” about the workers’ incapacity to establish socialism. It is a by-product of capitalist propaganda and pressure, reeking of ancient betrayals. Its infiltration, through weaklings and traitors, into the workers’ ranks serves only to demoralize the workers and strengthen the position of their exploiters. Marx and Engels had to contend with it in their day, and Lenin and Trotsky had to overcome its influence before they could lead the workers to the first successful proletarian revolution. We too must be on the alert to recognize and combat its deadly effects, wherever and whenever it arises.

The science of Marxism furnishes us with the only realistic appreciation of class struggles, forces and developments – the basis of our unshakable confidence in the ability of the workers to rescue the world from the abyss to which capitalism is driving it. Let us use the weapons placed at our disposal by Marxism not only to expose the reactionary and capitalist-inspired concepts of the renegades but to prepare the conditions for the socialist revolution which, in passing, will definitively settle iii action all questions about the political capacity of the working class.

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