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James T. Farrell

“Don’t Shoot the Piano Player,
He’s Doing the Best He Can!”

(24 June 1950)

From New International, Vol. XVI No. 4, July–August 1950, pp. 254–255.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The following is the COMPLETE text of an article which appeared in the June 24 New Leader, called Speaking of Trotskyites, by James T. Farrell. James T. Farrell is the author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy and The League of Frightened Philistines. – Ed.


A friend of mine has told me an anecdote concerning a fairly recent discussion with a leader of the Shachtmanite-Trotskyite movement. This leader was close to a state of depression: he almost admitted that his own organization might not know all the correct answers to the questions posed by the current crisis. However, just when this leader was at the point of making his despairing admission, he began to speak positively and dogmatically: he stated that if the masses didn’t agree with the Shachtmanite program, then the masses were wrong.

This anecdote brings to mind a second one. About five years ago in the Midwest, I was with a group of Trotskyites. I remarked to them that they all seemed to me to be generals. One of the group was then in a state of dialectical suspension between Cannonite Trotskyism and Shachtmanite Trotskyism. Taking offense at my remark, this man angrily attacked me on the grounds that I understood neither Arthur Koestler nor literature.

Then I remember the time a Cannonite functionary solemnly told me that the leaders of his party constituted the advance guard of the human race, and that the fate of humanity literally depended on the political decisions which these leaders would make.

And speaking of the American Trotskyites, I recall a Greenwich Villager I knew some years ago. During the worst days of the depression he made a fabulous fortune, millions on millions of dollars, by playing the stock market – solitaire. Every morning, his wife got up and cooked breakfast for both of them. Then she went to work in an office, where she earned something like twenty or twenty-five dollars a week. This lad did his daily work at home. He sharpened pencils. He arranged sheets of paper on the table in an orderly manner. Some of these sheets had numbers and dollar signs on them, some of the sheets were blank. He opened the newspaper to the pages containing the stock market, news and reports. He added up the sums he had won investing, in solitaire, on the previous day. Then he made his daily investments of thousands and even mil lions. He worked at this game all day. At about six o’clock, his wife came home with the groceries and cooked supper. He usually enjoyed his meals, especially because of his success with his investments for the day. He rarely made a bad investment.

All of these anecdotes cause me to wonder about tragedy and comedy. And in his introduction to the second and third volumes of The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote that “A failure of correspondence between subjective and objective is, generally speaking, the fountain-source of the comic, as also the tragic, in both life and art.” because of this failure of correspondence in 1792, the Girondins were, according to Trotsky, “pitiful and ludicrous beside the rank-and-file Jacobins.” Also, declaring that “People and parties are heroic and comic not in themselves but in their relationship to circumstances,” Trotsky compared the Jacobins of 1792 and the Bolsheviks of 1917. In his opinion, both groups “were adequate to the epoch and its tasks: curses in plenty resounded in their direction, but irony would not stick to them – it had nothing to catch hold of.”

Well, I wonder how all of the foregoing relates to the Shachtmanites and the Cannonites? Are they like the men of 1792? Or the Bolsheviks of 1917? Or are they like my Greenwich Village friend who played the stock market, solitaire, with such success?

It is obvious that here, in the American Trotskyites, we have a question in correspondences.

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