Reclaiming Our Traditions

Against the Current No. 19, March/April 1989

Tim Wohlforth

IT PLEASES ME that my reminiscences of the Shachtman movement (ATC 14 & 15) have produced responses of the caliber of Samuel Farber’s and Stan Weir’s (ATC 17). It was my hope in writing the auto­ biography, which included this material, to stimulate others to think about the entire Trotskyist experience. Stan Weir has added to my account his own memories of earlier and healthier periods of Shachtmanite history, while Sam Farber recalls a later period in Chicago which had some vitality.

These experiences, as well as those of other readers of ATC, should certainly be viewed as Weir suggests “as part of a large panoramic experiment” in building a truly radical, socialist, democratic and moral political movement.

Yes, we generally failed in our specific organizational ventures, but we had our moments of accomplishment, Perhaps we  will never succeed totally, yet a critical view of the past can help us and future generations build a better movement The Trotskyist tradition is, while flawed, the best we have.

Sam Farber feels my piece “is weak on analysis” and he could be right. My only defense is that the purpose of the article was to portray a period and a circle of people, to extend a past experience into the present, not to sort out old theoretical disputes.

Of course, I discuss political matters and have a point of view. Yet I have attempted to view the old movement as something more than the old disputes. This is what makes my writing a bit imprecise for Sam’s taste. There may be, however, a bit more at issue: a difference in vision of the overall process at work in the postwar world. We will see.

Our main difference, if we have one, centers around my assessment that “humanity is better off” because the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions were successful. I hold this view despite acknowledging the criminal conduct of their leaderships particularly after victory. In the future the modern history of those nations will begin with that victory. Only at that point did these people break from foreign subjugation and begin the process of development as independent peoples.

It does not necessarily follow from this assessment that: (a) the Stalinist undemocratic process was the only historical possibility open to people in lesser developed nations; (b) we should hold back from active political criticism and struggle against the tendencies which led these revolutions.

My record is extremely clear on both points. I have always advocated and continue to advocate a democratic revolutionary alternative to Stalinist revolution. I have never held back my criticisms of the Chinese,(1) the Vietnamese and, I might add, the Cuban and Nicaraguan regimes.

In the period when I was part of the Shachtmanite movement we argued for such a perspective within the framework of orthodox Shachtmanite theory, drawin g an analogy with national revolutions led by bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces. At the time of my split with Shachtman, Jim Robertson adhered to bureaucratic collectivism, Shane Mage to state capitalism, while I had been won over to the degenerated workers’ state theory. Yet all three of us shared a common view of the world-wide revolutionary process.

Why The Rightward Drift?

I do not feel that the explanation put forth by both Farber and Weir for the rightward evolution of the Shachtman tendency is sufficient. It is true that the postwar world was a disappointment for all Trotskyists, orthodox and dissident. It is also clear that a view of the world that recognizes only the consolidation of capitalism in one camp and the expansion of Stalinism in the other camp would tend to demoralize its believers.

No doubt such a view was held by many — I believe most — in the Shachtman group and it encouraged the group’s rightward drift. The question remains as to whether that view was correct. I hold that it was not, for it left out of the picture the massive progressive social transformations that did take place, though these transformations produced results far from what we democratic revolutionaries had envisioned.

I tried in my article to get across three basic notions about the Shachtmanite experience — notions that we can call political feelings for they involve more than what can be squeezed into the theoretical box: 1) The movement was lively, thinking, relatively democratic and extremely political. It was a remarkably creative movement considering the deadening nature of the period and its isolation; 2) The movement was uncompromising in its commitment to the identity of democracy and socialism. This was refreshing then and remains vital today; 3) The movement had a distorted vision of the postwar period that poisoned its atmosphere.

How well I remember the world “Stalinoid” used to describe not only those who deserved the term but also the Socialist Workers Party and many liberals whose anti-imperialist feelings were considered insufficiently tempered by a rigorous critique of the SovietUnion. Jim Cannon wrote somewhere about Stalinophobia as a disease and he was absolutely correct. In the Shachtmanite movement in the 1950s that disease was rampant and almost totally unchecked, infecting left as well as right.

Sam Farber is also critical of my course in that period in “leaving the third-camp current and joining the Socialist Workers Party.” This question is linked with the question of political perspective I have already discussed. I believe today, with more than thirty years of hindsight, as fervently as I did in those days that Shachtman’s entry into the Socialist Party was a mistake.

Shachtman was quite correct to recognize the need to break out of sect existence and find some new arena, some new form to affect political life in the United States. He grasped that side of reality far better than our small young opposition, since our heads were rather stuffed with Leninist and vanguardist notions.

The Socialist Party, however, was a right-wing social-democratic sect. Shachtman’s proposal represented nothing more than a desire to jettison his former politics and organization and to embrace a virulently anti-Communist vision of social democracy.

I believe that those in his tendency who wished to preserve the revolutionary character of the Shachtmanite tradition paid a huge price for following Shachtman into the SP. While the SP’s youth organization, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) went through a period of growth particularly from 1959 to 1961, it became paralyzed by the internal factional struggle and had little impact during the critical formative first half of the 1960s.

As far as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) leaders were concerned, Shachtmanism was represented by Mike Harrington, and his supporters in YPSL, Tom Kahn and Rachelle Horowitz, who were maneuvering against them along with the leadership of their parent organization, the League of Industrial Democracy (LID), and Irving Howe who was denouncing them as Stalinist dupes.(2) The “third camp current” got a late start in the 1960s and did not begin to have much effect until 1967-68.

The next chapter in my book deals with my experience as leader of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). I still feel quite good about that work. It was healthy outward-oriented building activity and the internal life of our group was relatively open and lively. I do believe we did a good job of seeing to it that Trotskyism was an opinion open to the new radicals of the 1960s.

While I continue to have strong criticism of aspects of the political views and conduct of the SWP and my successors in the leadership of the YSA during thesecond half of the 1960s, I now feel quite strongly they did a bang-up job of helping to build a mass movement against United States involvement in the Vietnam War.

The Roads Not Taken

I do not reject Sam’s thoughts on the possibility of maintaining a “third-camp” tendency, which took on a broader character including pacifists like Dave Dellinger, A.J. Muste and Bayard Rustin.(3) This concept was first proposed in a conference in 1953 just prior to my joining the YSL but was never followed up. I suspect the reason was that Shachtman found these folks a bit too radical for him.

However, I would consider it a mistake to believe it was possible to simply ignore the existence of the Socialist Workers Party. I do not believe its politics or theories were such as to exclude it from being part of a healthy revolutionary socialist political current any more than I would exclude the “third-camp” current.

Let me end on a somewhat provocative point: we are all, on the American Trotskyist left, the children of the 1940 split. In the days I describe in my article “Cannonite” was as much of a curse word as Stalinist and this prejudice kept people who were quite close to our tendency from seriously considering its ideas. I then spent a decade as a part of the “Cannonites,” every minute suspect for possibly holding “Shachtmanite deviations.”

I believe that split was a mistake and the result of the kind of sectarian outlook that contributed to a host of unnecessary splits in most countries of the world during Trotsky’s leadership as well as after his death.That split separated workers from intellectuals and organizationally ended a discussion that, in my opinion, has yet to be resolved.

I had a rather stormy time inside the SWP from 1961 until 1964, and I did not fare much better when I returned to spend 1975 to 1980 in that organization. I suppose that what I gained the second time around was to get to know as friends some very fine people. This has proved to be more beneficial for me than the faction I built in 1964.

I do not believe I can be accused of having illusions about that organization. I believe the central problem with the SWP all along has been its concept of party and organization, not its theoretical deviations and wrong political positions. I am therefore not particularly interested in preserving “currents,” Shachtmanite or Cannonite, but rather creating the conditions under which we all can develop socialist theory and advance socialist politics.


  1. I do admit a totally wrong-headed enthusiasm for the Red Guards during my too-long period as an acolyte of Healy’s.
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  2. James Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets (New York: Simon&. Schuster, 1987), 74-75, 126-35, Z72; Tod Gitlin, The Sixties: of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 112- 26, 171-77; Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1982), 291-94, 314-15.
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  3. I found the section of Maurice lsserman’s book, If I Had a Hammer … The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (New York Basic Books, 1987), on these radical pacifists fascinating.
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March-April 1989, ATC 19

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