A Brief Historical Background

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Stan Weir

TROTSKYISM CAME INTO being in countries around the world eleven years after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Communist Party leaders ordered the expulsion of James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern in 1928, for reading a banned document, written by Leon Trotsky, which Cannon had recently obtained while in Russia.

Cannon, Shachtman and Abern had all been party officials. These “three generals without an army,” as they were humorously called, were given public forum especially by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Italian anarchists then led by Carlo Tresca. A series of public meetings were held in New York under their protection. The Communist Party members sent to break up the meetings were made to sit and listen. From among their number were recruited the members of the first Trotskyist party, or CLA (Communist League of America, Left Opposition), from which a Fourth International organization was built in twenty-three other countries.

In 1936 the Trotskyists went into the Socialist Party and came out of it as the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) in 1938. The SWP’s theoretical assessment of the nature of the Soviet Union’s society was that it was a “degenerated workers’ state,” but because it was nevertheless a workers’ state, it should be supported, critically, in its conflicts with capitalist nations.

By 1939, there was growing criticism in the party of this assessment authored by Trotsky. When the Soviet Union invaded Finland and Poland on an imperialist basis in 1940, a minority within the SWP who believed in the necessity of the formation of a third socialist alternative to Communism and social democratism split away to form the Workers’ Party (WP). The move was led by Shachtman, Abern and James Johnson (C.L.R. James).

A majority of the WP led by Shachtman held that the Soviet Union had become bureaucratic collectivist, a new form of system. James, Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs headed a minority who believed it to be state capitalist. The two evaluations had many similarities and both groupings believed in the necessity of a third camp. Like the CP and the SWP from which they had come, the WP general membership structured their new organization on the basis of democratic centralism.

It is this concept and its companion beliefs which are the main focus of this work in progress. I will here mention only two of them, one based in the idea that there is but one scientific road to socialism; and the other, denies political and cultural autonomy to member parties of the CP’s Third and the Trotskyists’ Fourth International. It has been called “franchise socialism.”*

These concepts have been discussed at great length in terms of the Russian revolutionary and counter-revolutionary experience and culture, but seldom on the basis of the experience of the people in Leninist vanguard parties in societies world round, hence the attempt which begins here.

*Members of the Communist Party expelled during its convention last December, and members of the Northern California section, who seceded from the national party, are to be credited with bringing this clarifying term into public discussion. My first exposure to the term comes from Ringo Halinan: “I’m opposed to democratic centralism. I’m opposed to the idea that we’ve got … the scienfitic answer…the CP’s franchise approach to evolution….” See The Express, an East San Francisco Bay Area weekly, March 30, 1992
cover story.

September-October 1992, ATC 40