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Ernest Erber

A Record of Socialist Achievement

Seven Years of the Workers Party

(7 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 14, 7 April 1947, pp. 3 & 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE announcement seven years ago that a split had taken place in the American Trotskyist movement and that a new organization, called the Workers Party, had been formed received scant notice from those readers of the metropolitan press who may have chanced across the item buried on the inside pages. It seemed less important to the average reader than a fight at an Elks convention over the naming of the next convention city. It hardly rated as a footnote of history when compared with the big news of the day, Hitler’s invasion of Norway and the fight between the interventionists and isolationists in this country. Time magazine saw in the schism among the Trotskyists an occasion for one of its displays of political ignorance and gave it a couple of columns of humorous treatment – under the head of “Religion.” Even to that section of the public known as the “radical labor public,” the event seemed somewhat routine; “the Trotskyists had another split.”

The press of the Socialist Workers Party did its best to create among its readers a variant of the latter reception; “another unassimilable group has left to follow Weisbord, Field, Ohler and others into oblivion.” Our early demise was repeatedly and confidently predicted.

As we approach the Seventh Anniversary of the Workers Party, we do not find it possible to record that the public-at-large has been made much more aware of our existence than it was in 1940; however, the radical public and large sections of the progressive labor movement not only know of us but recognize us as a distinctive current on the American labor scene. As for the SWP, few among them still console themselves with expectations of our imminent collapse.

A Distinctive Current

To the politically inexperienced, it seems inexplicable that a political organization should find cause for pride in the mere fact that it survived. Yet a quick look back over the road travelled by the workers’ political movement to date should be sufficient to reveal that our pride is not merely a form of whistling in the dark, for this road is strewn with the remains of dozens of organizations, most of which hardly lasted more than a couple of years. The reference of our opponents to Field, Weisbord, Lovestone, et al., was not without some basis. The basis, however, consisted of a notion that “history repeats itself,” rather than an analysis of what our tendency represented.

How explain the fact that the Workers Party not only survived for seven years, but, far from facing disintegration today, is prepared for sturdy growth in the future now that if has lived through its perilous infancy? The cause is to be found in the same factors that determined the survival of the Trotskyist movement as a whole when all other opposition groups that split off from the Comintern dried up and vanished. Like the Trotskyist movement as a whole in the pre-war period, the WP survived because its ideas met the test of events.

The program, consisting of both the formal, written documents and the actions taken, is the heart of every political movement. A mass party has much more in addition to this vital organ. When the heart begins to miss a few beats in time of critical turns, such a mass party can carry itself along for a considerable time upon its other assets. However, with a tiny ideological grouping, the program is practically everything. If its heart misses, the grouping dies swiftly. It either lives by the strength of its ideas or it ceases to live.

Some Political Zombies

There are, of course, organizations whose heart has failed long ago but which, for the purposes of the census, are still counted among the living. But these are organizations with a great past they continue to live off of. Among such political zombies are the Socialist Party, the Socialist Labor Party and the IWW – spectral shadows that defy burial. Their hearts lie buried with Debs, Haywood and De Leon. If the Socialist Party gives evidence of some viability in contrast to the others, it is indicative of its programmatic adaptability, born of its historically amorphous character. For some years now there has been a quest for a new heart for the SP, i.e., a program related to our times. We do not deny that the latter is possible. “Doctor” Krueger’s efforts, to resurrect the corpse with a heart compounded of the non-Socialist “mixed economy” theory and a frank appeal to the middle class, may restore the SP among the living. Such a movement, of course, would not only not represent -any continuity of the Socialist Party of Debs but hardly any continuity of the Socialist Party of Hillquit.

Compared to parties which live by looking forward to a threat past, our Workers Party made its way through the bleak years of World War II without the benefit of any historic past in the eyes of the public. This is not to say that we had no well-known antecedents. Our WP boasted a pedigree traceable to an honorable ancestry. Our ideological roots were in the international Trotskyist; movement, in the Left Opposition and in the Bolshevik Revolution. But this tradition, as well as the formal program of Trotsky and the person of Trotsky were linked with the SWP in the eyes of radical workers. They chose to speak of the “Trotskyists” when referring to the SWP and of the “Shachtmanites” when referring to us.

We have characterized the theoretical and political blunders of the Fourth International as being extremely serious. Yet the Fourth International also survived and, in some countries, grew despite these blunders and in the face of terrible persecution that robbed it of some of its best cadres. The Fourth International did not have the support of a state power which supplied it with prestige, funds, facilities and personnel as did the Stalinists in the European underground. The Fourth International survived because the traditions of the Trotskyist movement gave the cadres an abiding faith in the imminence of a proletarian revolution that would end the war and conquer power in Europe. As a result, the blunders were not to exercise their consequences until after the war when the balance sheet could be struck and the discrepancy between programmatic orientation and reality would begin to emerge. The ideological crisis of the Fourth International is only now beginning to take hold of its cadres.

The program of the Workers Party met the two great tests of the war – a revolutionary orientation toward the role of Russia and toward the role of the mass resistance movements under the Nazi occupation. Beginning by characterizing Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1939 as an imperialist act on the part of a badly bureaucratised and degenerated workers’ state, We took the initially correct step that permitted us ever more clearly to analyse the nature of the war as a whole and especially Russia’s participation. Our opposition to unconditional defense in 1939 having disembowelled the workers’ state theory of any political significance, the early break of the Workers Party with any form of the theory that Russia was a workers’ state was indicated. The development of our theory of bureaucratic collectivism made It possible, as a result, to clearly orient the revolutionary politics of the working class in regard to the role of the advancing Russian army in the areas it occupied.

A blunder on the Warsaw insurrection was an impossibility for us. It was possible, as a result, to clearly orient the revolutionary politics of the working class in regard to the role of the Stalinist parties, both in the underground and in the post-liberation period. The suicidal slogan of “The Communist Party to power” was impossible for us.

The National Question

Having designated the Russian state as a totalitarian regime resting upon a bureaucratic exploitation of the proletariat, we had a basic criteria with which to measure the distance the proletariat had retrogressed since the revolutionary period of 1917–23. It was, consequently, impossible for us to make the blunder of believing that “the workers were more advanced as a result of their experience under fascism” and that a “democratic interlude” was excluded in the post-war period. It was, therefore, impossible for us to fall into the sectarian error of shouting “class against class” while turning our back upon the millions of European workers who had been drawn into movements for national liberation which offered the Marxists a powerful lever with which to again reconstitute mass revolutionary parties of the proletariat.

Yet our record on the great tests posed by World War II must not become a source of smugness that lulls the party into a false satisfaction with its program. Ours will never be a “finished program,” The problems posed by history in our period are so many and so complex that we can consider ourselves merely to have scratched the surface. The existence of a non-capitalist and non-proletarian power and the impending struggle between it and the bourgeoisie for world mastery, the strategy of the proletariat in the struggle against both of these forces and their agencies, the further decline of capitalism and the increasing intervention of government in economic life, these all pose problems of a depth and range such as no previous generation of Marxists has been called upon to grapple with. Yet we are confident of our ability to master these questions as we have others in the past – confident that we will succeed as long as we keep a firm grip upon the methodology of Marxism and maintain the atmosphere of independent thought and critical inquiry in our party that has proven so conducive to uninhibited and untrammeled discussion and ideological clarification in the past.

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