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Irving Howe

On Comrade Johnson’s American Resolution
– Or Soviets in the Sky

(March 1946)

From Bulletin of the Workers Party, Vol. I No. 9 (Convention Bulletin #3), 28 March 1946, pp. 25–32.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Task of Building the American Bolshevik Party, by J.R. Johnson (C.L.R. James).

The purpose of this article is to begin an examination of the errors in Comrade Johnson’s resolution; it will merely note a few in brief, with the hope that other comrades will develop the points in detail. The issues involved are important enough to warrant such further discussion.

I – The Objective situation in America Today

The preliminary weakness in Johnson’s resolution is his failure to adequately or correctly describe the objective situation in America today. Unlike the resolution of the National Committee, he makes no effort to describe the position of American imperialism in relation to the rest of the world, nor of its probable internal developments during the next period of years. The NC resolution, after analyzing the basic situation (the impossibility of imperialist stabilization, the continued antagonisms between the two major powers in the world today, the tremendous expansion of American productive forces with its resultantly sharpened crisis) proceeds in Paragraph 25 to a specific prediction about the period ahead. It predicts a “temporary economic boom” as the most likely variant. And this for a variety of reasons: the accumulation of capital reserves, the hunger for consumer goods, etc., etc. – all of which are made possible by the favored position of American imperialism in the world today. That is the basic fact. American imperialism, unlike any other in the world, can forestall for a time (and for a time only!) the deep crisis which has already attacked and will attack in the coming few years even more murderously every other country. American imperialism in a privileged position can thereby temporarily “ease” its internal problems; it may even temporarily throw a few crumbs to the workers, somewhat analogously to the way British imperialism threw a few crumbs to its workers when it was at the height of its exploitive period. Do not misunderstand! This does nit mean that American imperialism is exempt from the basic crisis; we pose no theory of “exceptionalism.” But it is in a sense the rest of the world, the very desperation of Europe and Asis which gives American imperialism its momentary and partial threatening spell.

Now we make this analysis because it is of first importance for our behaviour and attitudes in the coming few years. (And that is the main purpose of a resolution; to guide us for the coming few years.) There will be “sharp class battles” in the next period; these will be part of a “period ... of great preparation for the future.” But unless there occurs a series of cataclysmic events on a world scale such as none of us (not even comrade Johnson!) is in a position to foresee, it is very unlikely that the social crisis in America will within the next two or three years, so sharpen and the political level of the American workers so heighten that a direct struggle for power will take place.

Here is one estimate. Johnson poses no real alternative. He engages in ecstatic flights of rhetoric – but he couches them loosely enough to avoid being pinned down. At the membership meeting in New York, he pooh-poohed any discussion about “booms” or economic predictions; he would not allow himself to be drawn into discussion of such matters when he was busy creating Soviets in the sky. But we insist that he must discuss these questions. He must tell the party what he expects to happen in America – not in general descriptions of the crisis of capitalism to which no one can take much objection but which are not analyses of the immediate period. He must tell us: what developments does he expect in the American economy during the next two years or so? What effect will the relationship of America to Europe and Asia have upon those internal developments? What effect, in short, does America’s dominant position in the world economy have upon domestic economic developments and then upon the position of the working class? These questions must be answered concretely; not in rhetorical flights about the coming revolution. Without such an analysis Johnson’s position is merely a subjectivist wish-thought.

II – The Position of the American Workers Today

It is on this question that Johnson makes his most errors. There are a variety of formulations, all of them and sloppy in his resolution. Let’s compare them:

On Page 14 of the bulletin in which his resolution appears, he writes: “No revolutionary can deny the possibility that two years from today the American proletariat could cover the nation with Soviets (or their equivalent)...” Now this is either grievously wrong; or grievously irresponsible journalism. One does not write (or at least one shouldn’t!) resolutions based on mathematical possibilities. Of course it is possible that there will be Soviets in America two years hence; it is even possible that there will be Soviets two weeks hence. If that is all Johnson means, then he is merely indulging in misleading speculation. But the purpose of a resolution is to analyze the past and present and as much as possible to predict the future, or at least possible variants of the future. Now the real question is; How much likelihood is there that the American workers will have reached the stage of creating Soviets within two years? Not very much, is there? If you are talking about likelihoods, real living probabilities upon which to base our behaviour, then Johnson’s estimation is wrong. If you’re just fooling around, then his estimation is irresponsible. And if you’re trying to suggest likelihoods without committing yourself too irrevocably, then you use loose formulations such as “No revolutionist can deny the possibility ...”

On the same page we read: “awareness of the contradictions of American capitalism have been to a large degree the property of Marxists alone. Today they are increasingly the property of great masses of the people.” If Johnson is using language in a responsible way, then he doesn’t know what he is talking about. The usual trend of Johnsonism is to, say that the “instinctive movements of the workers” (of which more later) are forcing them into revolutionary action. But here Johnson speaks of “awareness” which means – in English at least – consciousness. Does anyone with the faintest acquaintance with the thoughts and attitudes of the American workers believe that they are in any way aware of the contradictions of capitalism? Would that it were so in real life – and not merely in Johnson’s mind!

The same kind of vague and irresponsible “revolutionism” is found on Page 18 in which Johnson speaks of the “revolutionary pressure of the American proletariat.” What does “revolutionary pressure” mean? Does it mean pressure to overthrow society, to change the system? That’s all it can mean, again, unless English be abused even more than is our wont. And so on Page 26 we learn that “The American proletariat ... will welcome the most drastic revolutionary changes in American society, carried out at the expense of private property.” If Johnson is serious, he means that the American workers are not merely receptive to Socialist ideas, not merely that they vaguely desire some kind of change (or more accurately, amelioration) but that they will welcome the Socialist Revolution. Is there one serious and mature comrade working in a factory who will testify that the workers today, will welcome a Socialist revolution? They are militant; of course! They fight hard; of course! They sometimes violate aspects of private property “rights”; of course! But do they, in any considerable number, yet think of themselves as a revolutionary class whose mission it is to achieve the Socialist revolution? Alas, no! The fact may be unpleasant; but the price of not facing it will be even more unpleasant.

If we accept Johnson’s estimate, and we are serious about it, then a whole new perspective is on the order of the day: the seizure of power; or at the very least preparations for its seizure, not eventually but within a short in time. Workers, who, in Johnson’s words, “will welcome the most drastic changes in American society, carried out at the expense of private property” AND who are not, as a whole, prey to the illusions of either Social Democracy or Stalinism, are surely on the threshold of power. No other conclusion is possible. Is that the fact in America today?

(In passing: just how seriously Johnson is – I use the word “serious” not as a subjective personal description but as an objective political category – is indicated when we read in the very resolution containing the above statements that “this is not a matter of an actual revolutionary situation but a matter of years of preparation.” But if the workers will “welcome the most drastic changes in American society” and if Soviets are a real possibility within two years; and if these workers, to repeat, are fresh and undefeated and untainted, by either Social-Democracy or Stalinism then why is it a matter of “years of preparation?” How may years incidentally? I ask this last question not because I want Johnson to answer or believe him or anyone else capable of answering the question, but because it will clarify the area of disagreement. If it is really a matter of years of preparation, then where is his disagreement with the NC which would undoubtedly subscribe to that formulation? In a word, are we entering a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary period? Johnson must answer these questions specifically and without equivocation. Is Johnson talking about the next two or three years – for which we are preparing resolutions – or is he indulging in grand historical sweeps which by their very breadth do not offer guidance for the coming period and if confused with the specific perspectives for that period are positively dangerous?)

What is the real situation with regard to the American workers? The truth is that the basic contradiction between their behaviour and consciousness remains: the contradiction between their fresh and increasingly bold economic struggle and their comparative political backwardness. As the NC resolution states, “The masses continue to follow bourgeois reformism.” This is a matter of neither wish nor analysis; it is a simple fact. America is the only country of any consequence in the world today where the masses still retain their essential faith in the workability of the capitalist system, though they desire reforms and amelioration. America is the only country in the world of any consequence where the workers do not function in the political arena as a separate class, not matter how misled; but where instead the overwhelming bulk of the workers still retain their essential faith in the capitalist parties, in no other country do the workers think in terms of “good men”; in no other country is the doctrine of “reward your friends and punish your enemies” (of which even the CIO-PAC is a variety;) so universal. The American workers have recently made significant advances, (e.g. the General Motors strike) but they still function within the limits described above. We may not like this; we try to change it; but we shall meet with grief if we deny it. Johnson doesn’t analyze this; he doesn’t even deny it; he does worse, he ignores it. He substitutes what he considers – and rightly – the “logical consequences” of the present strike action of the workers for their present state of consciousness. But the two are not the same and it is not, in fact, until the very peak of a revolution that they even touch each other.

III – The Role of the Transitional Demands

Though the transitional demands were originally formulated on a world scale, the scope and manner of their application in America has always been and remains vastly different from that in Europe. The reason is obvious: the main task in America is to break the workers away from bourgeois politics, to prod them into functioning as an independent and separate class. That I repeat, is the main task; and were it achieved even partially, would represent a tremendous victory for the socialist movement. Now the transitional program as applied to America has always had as its main purpose precisely, this need. We asked ourselves the question; What slogans and perspectives can we raise before the American workers which will enable us to move this class so militant and aggressive in the economic struggle and so backward and tied to the bourgeoisie in the political arena – what slogans can we raise that will move this class into action so that this chasm will be bridged? And that’s where the transitional demands came in. That is why in America – and in America alone – the central point of the transitional program is the demand for a labor party. If not to bridge that gap between economic militancy and political primitiveness, then what purpose is there in raising the labor party slogan?

Now then if we accept Johnson’s analysis, then the gap no longer exists or it is at the very least much narrower than we believe. In that case, we can ask, why raise the preset transitional demands at all? Now if the masses are on the threshold of a direct struggle for power, if they will welcome a drastic change in society and in property relations, then why raise slogans whose major purpose is to make them aware of the need for such a change and to begin to move them into action for it? In that case the need is to raise a whole new set of slogans, slogans of a pre-revolutionary nature, directed towards a rapid struggle for power. In that case, why raise the slogan of a labor party? If the workers are ready for socialism, if they welcome it, why the devil bother about a mere labor party? It is in order to overcome this contradiction that Johnson is forced to utter his mumbo-jumbo about giving the labor party slogan a “revolutionary content.” What that means he does not explain, because he cannot explain it in terms of his analysis.

Let me anticipate a Johnsonite rebuttal: “It isn’t a matter of an immediate revolutionary struggle but of propagandistic preparation for that.” But how does one prepare propagandistically? By raising slogans – in addition to general education and propaganda about the desirability of socialism – which correspond to the needs and consciousness of the day; slogans which make possible a real connection between what exists today and what we want to exist tomorrow, rather than slogans based merely on our wishes. Therein is the whole purpose of the Transitional program, which Johnson does not understand at all.

IV – The Slogan of Factory Committees

The new cure-all proposed by Johnson is the slogan of factory committees. He does not attempt to give this slogan any concrete significance or orientation. Are these factory committees to be embryo or miniature Soviets? Are they to replace the trade unions, or to displace some of their functions? Again I ask these questions not in search of blueprints, but in search of direction. And here is why:

As Johnson quotes Trotsky, the latter proposed the slogan of factory committees. But Trotsky proposed it under conditions in which the trade unions had exhausted their function, conditions in which the workers were turning from the unions because they could not satisfy their needs. Thus, for instance, during the war, the slogan of factory committees had a certain limited but important application. In may cases, where the union leadership was particularly strongly tied to the war machine and unwilling to fight for shop demands, factory committees (concretely the assumption of de facto leadership by the shop stewards) sprang up spontaneously; that is, the workers turned from the unions to their own improvised and provisional organs of action. Under such conditions it was legitimate and useful to urge the slogan of factory committees; it met with a real need of the workers. But today that situation no longer exists. The unions are fighting – inadequately, poorly, hesitantly no doubt – but they are fighting. And the slogan of factory committees is therefore largely, in general, an abstraction. It is not the king-pin of our demands, as Johnson would have it, because it does not correspond to any real situation.

V – “Instictualism” and the Role of the Party

The basic error underlying Johnson’s approach to every political question is his constant underestimation of the role of the party in our epoch. He constantly speaks of the “self-activity” of the working class as if that were some magical panacea. But let us try once again and however briefly to restate what should by now be commonplace in our movement:

The working class is capable of great and heroic actions even on the basis of the limited consciousness which capitalism develops in it. It is capable on that basis of struggles of great ferocity and vigor. But such struggles must remain limited, sporadic and essentially unfulfilled. The working class cannot conquer power by “self-activity” or “self-mobilization” it can conquer power only under the leadership of a consciously revolutionary and democratic socialist party. And a great deal of that revolutionary and democratic socialist consciousness must be implanted into and seep into the minds and hearts of the masses. We must not succumb to any aristocratic theory, as Johnson does in part, in which the consciousness of the vanguard is mated with the “instincts” of the mass – unless we desire the abortion of bureaucratism! The socialist revolution is different from all its predecessors, it gains its very uniqueness and world-liberating character in that it demands and requires a high degree of social and political consciousness from the masses. Of course, one doesn’t expect each worker to become a theoretician ... and – just a minute! – one does too. What is it that the socialist movement does to the worker? In a sense, it makes an intellectual out of him; that is to say, it teaches him to think in theoretical terms, to generalize his experience. And this is a mighty, an unheard of advance in consciousness. Did the Bolshevik revolution, do that? To a tremendous extent! And to the degree that objective conditions made that increase in consciousness impossible, to that degree was the basis of the future degeneration laid.

But all this means next to nothing to Johnson. He is constantly seeing self-mobilizations and self-activity; to him it is of little consequence apparently that in America the revolutionary movement and the masses do not yet have any substantial contact whatever. He instead speaks of instincts, of the objective consequences of instinctual action. But that is the task of the revolutionary party: to get the workers to understand the objective consequences of their behaviour and needs. And it is our failure thus far to achieve this in America which is our main problem.

The tendencies to revolt are, in a sense, “organic” (as Johnson puts it) in the position of the masses under capitalism, but that is not the same as a conscious drive to seize power. And without the revolutionary party, the latter will never be consummated and the former will always be frustrated. The ideas of socialism, of socialist revolution, of Marxism do not spring from “organic tendencies in the psychology of workers” living under capitalist production relations. They are implanted – yes, “from the outside” – by the socialists, by our party. This is why it is insufficient to base our perspective merely on the objective situation of the workers today (which Johnson completely misunderstands, as I have tried to show), we must take into account the relationship between the working class as a whole and the revolutionary vanguard. And that, in America today, should give us cause to pause ... and think ... before speaking as does Johnson.

“Instincts” are not enough. The working class can make many moves based on an incomplete or false consciousness; but it cannot seize power on that basis. And if one is serious about that perspective and doesn’t merely talk of it, then we must recognize the virtual lack of contact between the mass and the party and not indulge in revolutionary phrase-mongering.

VI – The WP and the SWP

The rest of his document should be rejected as wrong, this section must be characterized as rotten. I refer especially to the sentence which, after referring to the “inestimable advantage” of the SWP over us, proceeds to say: “Not only in relation to Europe but in relation to the United States the SWP propaganda is in the full Trotskyist tradition ...” Since this comes immediately after a section in which the WP line is characterized as Menshevik but “within the limits of the Fourth International” (whatever Menshevism within the limits of the Fourth international may mean!) we are justified in assuming that it refers to the superiority of the SWP line over ours. I therefore wish to ask comrade Johnson:

When the SWP hailed the advancing Stalinist army as “the liberating Red army”, when the SWP national secretary called upon the workers of Warsaw to subordinate their struggles to the oncoming Stalinist army – was that the SWP’s “inestimable advantage” over us, their means of espousing the “full Trotskyist tradition”?

When the SWP press discovered, that the workers in Russia “owned” the factories and the land and that that was the cause of their determined resistance – was that the SWP’s “inestimable advantage?”

When the SWP the week after the war responded by printing a learned dissertation on criminal syndical laws while we of the “Menshevik” WP responded by printing a bold declaration against the imperialist war – was that the SWP’s “inestimable advantage?”

When the SWP played ostrich in the trade unions and finagled with bureaucrats while our comrades boldly and with some success pursued a class struggle line in the unions – was that their “inestimable advantage” over us?

When the SWP national secretary spoke of “telescoping” the struggle for socialism with defense of country – was that then their “inestimable advantage?”

Your formulation’s on this question are not merely wrong, comrade Johnson; they are simply an insult to the party for which we have worked, these past six years, for the distinctive tradition within the Trotskyist movement we have so laboriously constructed.

One word of warning to some of the newer comrades: The issue in dispute is not who is “more revolutionary” or who is “more optimistic” about the possibility of revolution. The main task of our party is to recognize the facts and to proceed from them to try to make its program accepted by the working class. When we say that the workers are at the moment politically backward, that they are still tied to the bourgeois parties, that doesn’t mean that we have “no faith” in the workers, or that we do not expect them to move in revolutionary directions. Quite the contrary. Our whole approach, the approach of the NC resolution, is predicted on that perspective. But we are too well acquainted with the history of our movement; to allow ourselves to substitute wish for fact, to delude our selves with fantasies of our own manufacture. The recent militancy of the American workers gives us enough cause for confidence in their future, provided we of the revolutionary movement learn to make contact with them and persuade them of our views. But, we must not fool, ourselves into believing that we have already done so. Johnson’s resolution is a product of fantasy churned with half-digested quotations; ours a sober and concrete estimation of the situation we face and the tasks it imposes on us. The party must choose decisively.

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