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Permanent Revolution and Black Liberation in the U.S.

By Larry Stewart

Larry Stewart was still working on this article when he died in November1984. His notes were edited by George Breitman, with whom he collaborated throughout his 45 years of activity in the Marxist, Black and labor movements.

Jack Barnes and his group in the SWP leadership decided, before the party’s August 1981 convention, that the SWP should junk the theory of permanent revolution and other aspects of the traditional Trotskyist program that are repugnant to Fidel Castro and the current he represents. But instead of saying this openly at the convention and letting the delegates decide what to do about it, the Barnes group denied that they had any intention of changing the party’s position on permanent revolution, and waited until two days after the convention before taking the first open steps to disassociate themselves from Trotskyism and principal parts of the SWP program.

This was done in a one-step-at-a-time fashion during the next 17 months, partly in the party’s public press and partly through an internal re-education program centered around carefully selected writings of Lenin. When some party members asked for an internal literary discussion to discuss changes of such magnitude before they were made publicly, they were assailed as disrupters, factionalists, and petty-bourgeois capitulators to the pressures of capitalism, and they were warned they would be expelled if they tried to organize any unauthorized discussion.

But finally, on December 31, 1982, in a speech at a Young Socialist Alliance convention in Chicago, Jack Barnes dropped the other shoe with a public declaration that the theory of permanent revolution must be “discarded.”

When opponents of this position protested such a public change without approval by any SWP convention, or even any discussion by the membership, they were told they would be able to discuss the Barnes speech during the next pre-convention discussion period (then slated for the summer of 1983) and that they were prohibited from discussing it before then. But the Barnes group postponed the convention until August 1984, and in the meantime used phony charges to expel each and every member who they thought might object in the pre-convention discussion to the rejection of permanent revolution.

In this way the members of the SWP were deprived of their democratic right to hear a two-sided discussion of the correctness or incorrectness of the program and policies that have guided the SWP and FI since they were founded in 1938. And that is why I and other advocates of permanent revolution never had a chance inside the SWP to explain what we thought was wrong and dangerous in the Barnes position (printed in the Fall 1983 New International under the title “Their Trotsky and Ours: Communist Continuity Today”).

Other expelled members and some members of the FI outside of the U.S. have written effective replies to Barnes. It is not my intention here to repeat their arguments, which the Barnes group has never bothered to answer. All I want to raise are some questions about a single aspect of the new position which I haven’t seen discussed by others and which would have raised inside the SWP if I hadn’t been expelled

What Barnes Claims

To buttress his position that our movement must “discard” the theory or strategy of permanent revolution, Barnes painted a very negative picture of the effects it has had on our movement since 1928

“Especially m relation to the class struggle m the oppressed nations,” and “especially in this hemisphere since 1959,” he said in the NI article, the weaknesses in Trotsky’s theory have opened the door to “leftist biases and sectarian political errors” He doesn’t prove that such errors result from adherence to permanent revolution, he only asserts that they do For more than a century all kinds of stupid and criminal things have been done by people who call themselves and consider themselves to be Marxists. Barnes wouldn’t propose discarding Marxism on that basis, so how can he pretend it is valid to discard

permanent revolution merely because errors or sins are committed by people who think or say they stand for that strategy

Permanent revolution, Barnes continued, has nothing to offer us and in fact can only be an “obstacle” It “does not contribute today to arming either ourselves or other revolutionists to lead the working class and its allies to take power and use that power to advance the world socialist revolution.” It is an obstacle to “reknitting our political continuity with Marx, Engels, Lenin, and the first four congresses of the Communist International” It has been an obstacle in our movement to “an objective reading of the masters of Marxism, in particular the writings of Lenin” It will be an obstacle to “our own progress toward a deeper integration into the organizations and struggles of the working class and its oppressed and exploited allies”

If these claims are true, or even only half-true, why did it take Barnes and his group more than 20 years to discover them? Can it be that he is distorting not only the real meaning of permanent revolution but also its effects on our movement?

Beneficial Effects

It certainly can. As most SWP members in the 1960s could testify, permanent revolution has had highly beneficial effects on the SWP and was a major source of its strength and attractiveness in the 1960s, when Barnes was recruited The two issues that won most of the new members to the SWP at that time – the Cuban revolution and the Black struggle in this country—were both linked inextricably to the strategy of permanent revolution, in reality and in the minds of SWP members, new and old.

Contrary to Barnes’ implications (about “this hemisphere” and “since 1959”), the SWP played a thoroughly revolutionary role in relation to the Cuban revolution, in its practice as well as in its theory. In fact, it was this combination of the SWP’s correct practice and correct theory regarding the Cuban revolution that drew Barnes and others like him to Marxism in the first place.

Until a few years ago nobody in the SWP questioned the link between permanent revolution and the SWP’s position on Cuba. As recently as 1978, Barnes took the initiative in collecting Joseph Hansen’s writings on Cuba in book form as Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution. From start to finish that book is an exposition and defense of Trotsky’s theory, which Hansen held had been fully confirmed by the Cuban experience. It is a book that cries out against the new positions of the Barnes group since 1979, when Hansen died. Whatever “weaknesses” they now profess to see in permanent revolution, the SWP’s record on Cuba is evidence of the healthy and fruitful effects it had for decades in “arming take power.”

Place in Our Movement

Barnes pretends to review the ways in which permanent revolution “has actually been used by us” since 1928; he even specifies the number of ways (three). One of these ways he pronounces harmless, but unnecessary, and the other two he condemns as harmful. Despite his attempt to seem objective, what the uninformed reader will “actually” get from this is a misleading concept of the place and centrality of permanent revolution in the life and thought of our movement. I will try to demonstrate this through the SWP’s relation to the Black struggle in the U.S. I am compelled to do this because Barnes completely ignores the connection between the SWP’s position on Black liberation and permanent revolution—a connection that happens to be a major hallmark of the SWP since its foundation.

The Black struggle presents a challenge and test for every organization seeking to play a revolutionary role in this country. The way in which the SWP responded was always a source of pride and inspiration to its members, white as well as Black. Barnes and most of his generation in the SWP acknowledged and reflected these feelings hundreds of times in the 1960s and 70s. A thick book could be filled with their statements and writings on the SWP’s special and unique understanding of the Black struggle and its dynamics.

As a matter of fact, the SWP’s position was so exceptional that it was given a special name: “combined revolution” (or “combined character” of the coming American revolution). This name was coined in 1969, in preparation for the SWP’s 23rd national convention, where Barnes and members of his generation first assumed political leader ship status in our party.“Combined revolution” was not a new concept in the SWP in the 1960s. It referred to the combination of the Black struggle against racist oppression and for self-determination with the workers’ struggle against capitalist exploitation and for socialism, and said that this combination was indispensable for the victory of both these struggles. This idea was adopted at the SWP’s 1963 convention (in the resolution called “Freedom Now”). What it got at the 1969 convention was a new and more effective expression, thanks to the development of Black nationalism and the rich experience of the entire decade.

But the lineage or continuity of the combined revolution idea goes back further than 1963. It goes back to the 1930s and Leon Trotsky, who introduced it to our movement at a time when we had a correct understanding of the class character of the Black struggle but an incorrect understanding of its national character. And the name used then for the idea of combining the democratic struggles of the Blacks with the anticapitalist struggles of the workers was—permanent revolution.

The first one who seems to have said that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was applicable to the Black struggle in this country was Albert Weisbord, an ex-CP member briefly on the fringes of the Left Opposition. When Trotsky was told about this at a discussion on self-determination in 1933, he said, “Weisbord is correct in a certain sense that the self-determination of the Negroes belongs to the question of the permanent revolution in America.” (Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination Pathfinder Press 1978 p 25)

Trotsky reiterated this thought in 1939 during a discussion with members of the newly founded SWP, and the party itself, in a 1939 convention resolution influenced by Trotsky’s views, said: “The SWP must recognize that its attitude to the Negro question is crucial for its future development. Hitherto the party has been based mainly on privileged workers and groups of isolated intellectuals. Unless it can find its way to the great masses of the underprivileged, of whom the Negroes constitute so important a section, the broad perspectives of the permanent revolution will remain only a fiction and the party is bound to degenerate.” (The Founding of the Socialist Workers Party, Monad Press, 1982, p.357)

If combined revolution is permanent revolution applied to a particular problem, was a new name really needed? Why not continue to call it by its original name? My personal opinion is that the new name was better than the old—it made it easier for us to communicate the idea to people we wanted to introduce it to. Also, every generation has the right to its own terminology and vocabulary. When I was young, we used to speak of “Negroes” and “colored people,” but later generations prefer other names. If young revolutionaries in the 1960s and 70s felt more comfortable with their own name for the revolutionary strategy based on the necessity to combine democratic and socialist tasks and struggles, there was nothing wrong with that. The important thing was the political content behind the names, which was essentially the same in both cases.

This is not just my opinion, it was the opinion of the whole party. The main political resolution adopted by the 1969 convention contained an excellent presentation of the combined revolution concept. I will quote a few passages from it to illustrate how its content and language were mterchangeable with those used in our writings about permanent revolution:

The movement for Black liberation is a complex and contradictory fusion of two explosive trends. One is an irrepressible and powerful democratic thrust for self-determination as a distinctive national minority. This is combined with a proletarian struggle against the capitalist rulers. All those who fail to understand the dual character of the Afro-American movement and combined characteristics of the coming American revolution are bound to go astray in comprehending its development and orienting correctly toward it.

The problem of winning full democratic rights and national emancipation for Black Americans is a task that was unsolved by the American bourgeois revolutionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and has been handed down for solution to the socialist revolution of the twentieth century....

The Afro-American struggle for liberation is the most formidable expression of the logic of permanent revolution in American life today. It has begun on the basis of a fight for national emancipation. But this democratic objective cannot be obtained except through all-out combat against the entire capitalist system, which holds down the Black masses for its own profiteering reasons. Thus, regardless of the prevailing ideas of its participants, the thrust toward national liberation inexorably tends to merge with the broader class struggle against capitalist domination....

The combined character of the mass Afro-American movement to gain power to have control over their own future precludes any separation of stages in the struggle for its nationalist demands and socialist objectives. There cannot first be a successfully concluded struggle for national independence and democratic rights and afterwards a struggle for social liberation. The two must be indissolubly combined and will, in fact, reciprocally reinforce each other. The nationalist demands must be tied in with working-class demands in order to obtain either.

Towards an American Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1970, pp. 164-6. (My emphasis-- LS.)

What Barnes Said in 1969

At that 1969 convention Jack Barnes was the Political Committee reporter in behalf of the political resolution, and he did a good job in presenting its main lines, especially on the Black struggle. Among other things, he said:

The basic characteristic of the Afro-American struggle is the struggle by an oppressed nationality for self-determination: the struggle to accomplish the historically deferred tasks that the American bourgeoisie proved incapable of accomplishing in their second revolution and that they turned away from as the United States became an imperialist power....

The alliance between the struggle by the Afro-Americans and the other oppressed national minorities or nationalities in this country and the struggle of the workers is the key to the success of the American revolution.. . .

It is basically a question not of morality but of necessity. If there is no alliance, the American revolution will be impossible....

The third American revolution will have a combined character. It will be a workers’ struggle for power and a struggle by the oppressed nationalities for liberation and for self-determination. It will be a struggle that only a workers’ government established in the United States will be able to bring to a successful conclusion. And through it, not only will all the democratic rights of the oppressed minorities and nationalities finally be brought into being and guaranteed, but also the proletarian demands of the workers of all sections of the country will be met. The problem that

has bothered, confused and stood somewhat in the way of American radicalism for many, many years (and outside of our movement it still does) is clearly seeing the independent character of the Afro-American struggle for self-determination and the combined character of the coming struggle for power in the United States.

This struggle is the dearest manifestation in the United States of the permanent revolution. By this we mean that there will be no division of this struggle into separate stages; there will be no middle solution. There will be no solution to the national democratic demands of the Black masses apart from the solution of the exploitation by capitalism of the workers themselves. The revolution will be combined, or it will not take place....

This key question of the American revolution is one that is hopeless to solve without the tools of Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism and the experience of the last period as revolutionists.

Towards an American Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1970 pp. 143-5. (My emphasis —LS.)

Two Witnesses

If I had room, I could cite dozens of other quotations by members and supporters of the Barnes group showing that until recently they considered combined revolution to be an application or manifestation or expression of the logic of permanent revolution and that they consistently interpreted and explained combined revolution along the lines that Trotsky had done with permanent revolution. But I think it will be adequate to submit the testimony of just two people whom I have not quoted up to now.

One is George Novack, who was interested in the Black struggle ever since he joined our party in the 1930s and who participated in the writing or editing of most of the SWP’s major resolutions on Black liberation. In 1971, he gave lectures on the Transitional Program at Oberlin, in the course of which he traced the development of the SWP’s assessment of the successive stages of Black nationalism from the 1950s to the 1970s and its theoretical analysis of its motive forces, principal features and aims:

They [American Trotskyistsl were greatly aided in this task by the method of Marxism, the positions worked out by Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the national question m our era, and by the acute previsions of Trotsky contained m the pamphlet Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination”

We can claim a certain amount of success m this theoretical-political work It is widely recognized in radical circles, black and white, that the Socialist Workers Party outstnpped all other tendencies in grasping the importance of black nationalism”

All this indicates the capacity of our cadres to recognize what is new in a mass ferment and adjust our views, strategy, and tactics accordingly. That would not have been possible without the aid of the theory of the permanent revolution and the law of uneven and combined development taken from Trotsky’s teachings.

--The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1977, pp. 43-4. (My emphasis --L.S.)

The second witness I will cite is Gus Horowitz, who is no longer a member of the SWP. In the late 1960s and 70s he was a leader of the party’s educational and publishing work, assigned among other things to promoting understanding and literature about the national question.

Between the 1969 and 1974 world congresses of the Fl, sharp factional debates took place in our International over a great many political and theoretical issues. One of these was about the national question and its application in imperialist countries. Ernest Mandel, a leading member of the United Secretariat, said in a criticism of SWP positions in 1973: “The whole notion of applying the formula of permanent revolution to imperialist countries is extremely dubious in the best of cases. It can only be done with the utmost circumspection, and in the form of an analogy.” International Internal Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 10, No.4,4/73, p.34

The SWP leadership assigned Horowitz to rebut Mandel. I don’t know what either Mandel or Horowitz thinks about this question today, but here is what Horowitz said on behalf of the SWP leadership in 1973:

Circumspection is always desirable, of course, but Comrade [Mandel] is simply wrong The permanent revolution can indeed be applied to the advanced capitalist countries, and the Trotskyist movement has been doing so for a long time (particularly in regard to the national question). And a revolutionist in Canada, in Spain, or in Ireland who does not know how to apply it will be in deep trouble....

Trotsky developed the theory of permanent revolution, an extension of the Marxist understanding of the law of uneven and combined development, in relation to the problems of the Russian revolution. The specific features of that situation were quite different than, say, the problems of the revolution in Black Africa today. But using the method of the permanent revolution, we can apply it there . The problems of the revolution in advanced capitalist countries are much more different, but it remains essential for Marxists to tackle the problems there that stem from uneven and combined development — for example, the still-existing uncompleted national tasks in the framework of an advanced capitalist economy. That is why the revolution in Canada, for example, will most likely be a combined revolution—combining the Qubuecois national independence struggle with the proletarian socialist revolution in Quebec and in all of Canada. IIDB. VoL. 10, No. 10, 7/73, p. 7. (My emphasis —L.S.)

Another Change?

Barnes, as i have noted, alleged that he was reviewing the different ways we have used the concept of permanent revolution since 1928. Why then did he omit all the material showing the numerous links between permanent revolution and the SWP’s position on Black liberation in the U.S.?

It wasn’t because he was unaware of this material. And it wasn’t because he was ignorant about the weight and centrality of combined revolution in the SWP’s total program. So what was the reason?

Thus far, I am unable to offer an answer. But I am very concerned about the Barnes omissions on this point whatever the answer may be. Because it seems to me that they place a question mark over the party’s hard-won and precious analysis and program for the Black struggle. Is the Barnes group preparing to change that too?

I am not saying that they are preparing to do so, I am asking—are they preparing? If raising such a question gives the impression that I am “too suspicious,” I must have got that way as a result of recent party history. If anybody had told me five years ago that the SWP leadership would repudiate permanent revolution, and would do it in such a dishonest and undemocratic way, I would have considered the teller a nut of some kind. The Barnes group committed those offenses against proletarian politics and morality without ever announcing in advance what they were up to. That is why my question is in order now, before it may be too late. At the very least, the Barnes group should be watched closely and pressured to disclose their real aims whenever they are ambiguous or diplomatically silent.

The question I ask is not based only on the omissions by Barnes. Even more it is induced by things the SWP leadership has been saying and doing (or not saying and not doing) in relation to the Black struggle itself during the last three or four years. To discuss this adequately will take another article, but I will mention aspects of the problem because it is part of the background to my question about whether the party’s position on the Black struggle is being changed without discussion.

It is obvious, first of all, that the Black struggle no longer receives the kind or amount of attention—politically, theoretically, practically, educationally – that it used to command in the SWP. It is not the central question it used to be for the party. The level of writing on the subject, which used to be one of our chief assets, is now embarrassingly low. New members get more of agitation than of education in the ideas of combined revolution. They are encouraged to talk to each other rather than trained how to participate effectively in the Black movement.

It has been several years since party resolutions have made any serious analysis of the Black community and the trends in it or provided any guide to action for our Black cadres. The exception is in relation to the National Black Independent Political Party, a very small group that tried to establish a new political pole in the Black community.

It was correct for us to join NBIPP, explore its potential, and aid in its development toward independent politics. But within a year it was absolutely clear that NBIPP was incapable of playing any serious role in the community, that its leaders were leaning toward the Black Democrats, that they were energetic only about expelling Marxists, and that most of the founding members had quit. NBIPP not only never led a single action among Blacks anywhere in the country, but it was incapable of even producing any literature to educate anybody about politics. Some of its leaders found their way to Jesse Jackson in the Democratic Party, and through Jackson to Mondale. After several years it

remains a tiny sect, self-isolated and unknown in the community.

Yet the SWP leadership persists in shutting its eyes to this reality and continues to view this hopeless shell as the center of the Black struggle, devoting more time and attention to it than to all other Black forces and trends. And whenever questions arise about NBIPP’s viability, it defends this obtuseness by pointing to, praising and reprinting the radical-sounding sections of the charter that NBIPP adopted when it was founded. Nobody else in NBIPP ever considered the anticapitalist and anti-imperialist paragraphs in the charter as anything but rhetoric, and NBIPP itself never even printed the charter.* But the

SWP leaders were obsessed by what I can only call “charter fetishism” and invoked it to ward off facing reality.

* This was true at the time Stewart died, in November 1984. Since then, a split in NBIPP, following the witchhunt of SWP members and sympathizers, resulted in the emergence of two factions, each calling itself NBIPP. One of these published the 4-year-old charter

All this is a sign of acute disorientation on the part of the Barnes group. They could not commit such errors if their thinking about the Black struggle was still firmly rooted in combined revolution. This reinforces, for me, the urgency of my question, and the need for the whole SWP membership to seek an unambiguous answer:

Does the repudiation of permanent revolution signify or imply any alteration in the SWP’s theory and practice of combined revolution?

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