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The ‘American Approach’

A.J. Muste

The ‘American Approach’

Adapting Marxism to the American Class Struggle

(11 May 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 21, 11 May 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


The term “American Approach” has been often used but seldom carefully analyzed. When a phrase is thus used, the inevitable result is that different people attach different meanings to it. In raising a discussion as to the real meaning of the term in ,a recent article (Modern Monthly, March 1935, For An American Revolutionary Approach), Comrade Budenz has rendered a service. He states that his thoughts are set down “for the consideration of honest-thinking radicals.” A further discussion of them here is consequently in order.

Tile Workers Party of the U.S. has recognized in the most authoritative way open to it the importance of a realistic approach to the revolutionary task of overthrowing capitalism in the U. S. – namely, by setting it down in the Declaration of Principles adopted by the Party at its founding convention. According to that Declaration the primary task of the Party and of the American working class is “the defeat of the enemy at home – the overthrow of the capitalist government of the U.S.” In carrying out that task the Party is pledged to “use the revolutionary potentialities of American tradition and history” and to adapt its strategy and tac tics to the concrete situation and the line-up of class forces in the U.S.

Theory and Practice

Some of those who have advocated the “American approach” have counterposed it, either openly or by inference, to the Marxian and Leninist approach. According to them you have to take one or the- other; you can’t have both. This is not the viewpoint of the W.P. The very same section of the Declaration of Principles to which I have just referred states- that “The W.P. of the U.S. is founded on the great principles of revolutionary theory and practice stated by Marx and Lenin and tested by the experience of the class struggle on an international scale, above all in the Russian Revolution of 1917.’’ It is precisely these principles that we propose to apply in a fearless, realistic fashion to the American scene.

In proposing to do that we are certainly not going counter to Marx and Lenin. Quite the contrary. Neither one of them regarded their theory as a “dogma to be learned by heart and repeated mechanical ly.” Both emphasize/! the importance of taking into account the special historical, cultural, political, economic, technological factors in different countries.

The “American approach’’ does not in and of itself give us a set of basic revolutionary principles. The term itself suggests that we approach the American scene with certain principles which we want to make effective there. We must make it clear, then, what these principles are. Are they the principles of Marx and Lenin. – the conceptions of the class struggle, of the state as the executive committee of the ruling class, of the nature of capitalist exploitation of the workers, of the role of the working class in modern society, of the revolutionary method, the character of the workers’ state, etc. set forth in our Declaration of Principles – or is another set of principles being advanced? If the latter, then we must have a clear statement of what the principles are, before any talk of applying them in the U.S. can mean anything.

Lenin’s Realistic Approach

If we are speaking of a realistic application of Marxist-Leninist fundamentals to American conditions, then it is correct to speak not only of an American, but of a French, British, Chinese, etc, approach, i.e., of taking into account the special conditions with which the revolutionary movement is con fronted In each country. And it is then important at this point to observe that it was,. Lenin who gave the world the supreme example to date of this fearless, realistic, yes experimental, reckoning with theoretical conditions in a given country at a given historical moment – which is not to imply, as we shall have occasion to point out later, that Lenin had a nationalistic outlook or philosophy.

There runs through the article of Comrade Budenz a “contempt for theory” expressed in vigorous and picturesque language. “Radical parrot-talk” of the “other-worldly brethren,” “the futile pyrotechnics of other-worldly theoretics,” and “pontifical theorology which is paralyzing effective radical action,” are excoriated. Precisely because some very vigorous head-thumping needs to be done, it is to be regretted that by the manner in which these things’ are said and by what is left unsaid in the article in question, the way is left open for very serious misunderstanding.

How Advise the Youth?

Lack of revolutionary theory in the swiftly changing, complex modern world Is exactly the same as want of a compass in mid-ocean. Shall we advise our young workers and students not to study the history of class struggles and the theory which Is based upon an analysis of that history? Tell them that this Is only a waste of time? Fortunately, they would not take the advice if we did give it. The alive and intelligent ones among them are eager to learn more of revolutionary theory. I am told that one of the ablest of the young workers in the former C.P.L.A. who would not and could not join the Communist Party, nevertheless for months secretly took every leaflet and statement that he drafted to a C.P. acquaintance to make sure that it was “correct from a Marxian viewpoint.” That was not an unsound instinct by any means! Lenin who has the most colossal practical achievements in working-class history to his credit was constantly and profoundly occupied with theory. Pragmatically and to say the least, it did not seem to affect adversely his practical efficiency as a revolutionist!

There is even place for a certain division of labor in the revolutionary movement. The man who makes a contribution to theory or history, who can teach young workers, Who writes a revolutionary drama or battle-song, is not necessarily to be read out of the Party because he never organized any steel workers or “educated” a scab on a picket line, any more than a picket captain who carries out the tasks assigned him by the Party – is disqualified for membership because he cannot carry on a disputation about Bonapartism or the permanent revolution with one of the Party intellectuals.

The “Lunatic” Fringe

There are pests, various brands of pseudo-theoreticians, who merit the severest condemnation of responsible revolutionists. One consists of those who participate in the endless gab-fests in corridors and cafeterias which are supposed to be profound theoretical discussions; only they are carried on by comrades who do not know theories, only words and phrases – discussions which will never contribute anything to revolutionary theory, any more than church sewing-circle talk-sprees ever contributed to theology or certain Greenwich Village gatherings ever added anything to the science of biology or to literary criticism. Theory is no substitute for action and hum-drum practical work; much less is talk such a substitute. We agree with comrades in the Party, and with Marx, Engels and Lenin in condemnation of those who use Marxian writings as a ritual or incantation, those who hav^ a pat, abstract, mechanical formula from the books to apply to every situation, and who led Marx to exclaim that he was not a Marxist. We can share also the contempt of some of our comrades for those who regard themselves as fully qualified to pontificate on the most complex and fundamental problems of the working class movement on the other side of the globe though they have never shown any capacity to contribute anything’ to the solution of the simplest problem under their own noses. Most eagerly do we join in putting in his place the upstart who has read a few books and taken a few courses and who regards it as his prerogative to look down from Olympian heights upon workers who have performed colossal tasks in the actual class struggle. “Activists” who encounter this species should not jump to the conclusion, however, that “theory is dangerous.” It is a case of youth or glands or something like that. Responsible “theoreticians” and responsible “activists” are not enemies, not thin-skinned individuals who cannot stand criticism; they are comrades who have much to tench each other.

The American Pragmatism

One other point may be touched in this connection. Americans, we are told, are not interested in theory. They are pragmatists, experimental ; they want action. Remembering that there are exceptions to all rules, and a good many to some, it seems to me that in the main this point is a valid one. We have already pointed out that this does not at all mean that the Party can dispense with theory or afford to despise it. Precisely because we are dealing with a working class which certainly to date has not acquired a working class philosophy or “world-view,” which is disposed to work by rule of thumb, try first this and then that way out, hail Roosevelt today, Long or Coughlin tomorrow – in a period when the pace of development is exceedingly swift and the choice between Fascism and the working class revolution may have to be faced very soon – the Party must have a clear conception of the forces at work and the basic trends, must not dissipate its energies and lose the confidence of the masses by falling prey to nostrums which will cure no ills and from which the masses will presently turn away in disgust, must not get bottled up in a blind alley. The Party must be sure of itself, able to endure opposition, even apparent isolation from the masses, not bargaining away for an easy and brief popularity, its chance to lead in the crisis that is certain to come. Lenin’s party too seemed hopelessly weak, poor, isolated from the stream of events as the year 1917 opened. It would actually have been worthless but for its discipline, its grounding in theory, its militant use of theory in action. Because it did not try to win the masses by any cheap device, it actually won the masses as the objective situation developed to the crisis point.

Assimilating “Activists”

One thing that we might expect from the American emphasis on action and experimentation is a comparatively large number of “activists” in the Party and in the radical movement generally. The Party must welcome them, assimilate them, learn how to utilize their qualities to the utmost, make them feel that the Party is the avenue for the expression of their militant energies, educate them or it will simply be subjecting itself to :i serious, if not fatal, handicap. Thousands of these militants have never been able to accept S.P. parliamentarism. They have tried the C.P. in many cases and given it up. Thousands more who have never been in any working class party or group are coming along in the new unions. From the picket lines we must recruit the most intelligent young. workers into the ranks of the Party. We must win, keep and develop inspiring leaders of mass struggles. They are hard to find and to replace if lost.

As a natural outcome of the country’s pioneer experience and tradition, movements of revolt in the U. S. and their leaders have had a strongly anarchistic tinge. Comrade Budenz correctly calls attention to this fact in his article. It is not without significance that the heroes he mentions are Jefferson, John Brown, Thoreau, Wendell Phillips, and that he writes with elation of being “free from the leading strings of any radical Mother Church.” This impatience of restraint and leaning to direct action is “American.” (Both reactionary American employers and conservative American trade unionists exhibit the tendency in strikes.)

The Fallacy of Individualism

Insofar as this tradition of “freedom” makes for resistance on the part of American workers to bureaucracy in the economic or political movement and to mechanical domination of the Party by a bureaucratic International, it is a useful and precious thing. The trouble with the individualist or anarchist is that his revolt does not express itself in an organized way. It takes the form of individual protest, “conscientious objection,” “civil disobedience,” putting oneself on record, withdrawal from society as in Thoreau’s case, a dramatic demonstration in John Brown’s case, etc. But this is for the most part futile, and side by side with it are found, consequently, the most extreme regimentation and conformity. Witness the autocracy in the trade unions. And nowhere can one find people with greater ability to have their minds changed for them instantly and painlessly, to declare that black is white and vice versa at the behest of the boss, than in the American section of the Third International. Thus it is essential for these mass workers and leaders to whom we have referred as important elements for the Party, to learn in turn the indispensable role of a disciplined, revolutionary party in the struggle of the working class today and in its final emancipation. They must learn to work in an organized way and to express their dissent, which often may be well founded, in an organized way, with in the Party. If they do not learn to work under the discipline or at. least influence of the Party, they are either condemned to futility in the end, or are drawn into the ranks or the service of the trade union bureaucrats (something that has happened with plenty of them in the American movement) or worse still go into the service of capitalists or even Fascists – as happened with a number of prominent Italian syndicalists, e.g.

The Vanguard

Where is there today a mass movement of workers, except the trade union movement which under its present collaborationist leadership is certainly not to be regarded as a model to be copied, or where is there a flourishing progressive movement in the unions themselves, except where there is some political party or group to give continuity, perspective and drive? The Party must express itself in mass organizations and mass work; but equally does the mass work depend for its very life upon the organized, conscious, disciplined, revolutionary vanguard.

It may not be amiss to follow these comments on anarchism through a step further. Anarchism is no solution for the working class today. The job is to overthrow the highly organized capitalist state and to construct a highly organized socialist society. For ei tlier the destructive or the constructive side of the task anarchism is helpless. Organization, not anarchy, is required. Let our comrades ponder deeply the brilliant and devastating comment of Trotsky after pointing out that Prince Kropotkin, anarchist leader, opposed the revolution and became a Russian patriot in 1917:

“The principles of liberalism can have a real existence only in conjunction with a police system. Anarchism is an attempt to cleanse liberalism of the police. But just as pure oxygen is impossible to breathe, so liberalism without the, police-principle means the death of society. Being a shadow caricature of liberalism, anarchism as a whole has shared its fate. – Like every sect which founds its teaching not upon the actual development of human society, but upon the reduction to absurdity of one of its features, anarchism explodes like a soap-bubble at that moment when the social contradictions arrive at the point of war or revolution.”

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