Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995
Save Mumia Abu-Jamal
— The Editors
The Right's New Dynamism
— Christopher Phelps
The Pseudo-Science: Creationism
— Christopher Phelps
The Gulf War Syndrome Mystery
— Pauline Furth, M.D.
Britain: Conservatives Collapse & Labor Lurches Right
— Harry Brighouse
Can Bosnia Resist?
— Attila Hoare
Radical Rhythms: "Dancing on John Wayne's Head"
— John Greenbaum
Rebel Girl: Murder, the Double Standard
— Catherine Sameh
Random Shots: Kampfer, Eat Like Him
— R.F. Kampfer
- Labor in the War Zone
June 25th in Decatur
— Steve Ashby
Staley Workers Vote to Fight On
— Steve Ashby
Why the Industrial Working Class Still Matters
— Kim Moody
The New American Workplace
— Jane Slaughter
Review: Working Smart
— Laura McClure
Review: The CIO 1935-1955
— Dan La Botz
- Post Apartheid South Africa
A Note of Introduction
— The Editors
Year One of the Transition
— John Pape
What's Left of the Grassroots Left?
— Dan Connell
Serbia's Flawed Liberal Opposition
— Attila Hoare
- Dialogue on American Trotskyism
A Reply to Alan Wald
— Steve Bloom
Our Legacy: A Reply to Critics
— Alan Wald
- Letters to Against the Current
On "Closing the Courthouse Doors"
— Barbara Zeluck
ALAN WALD HAS contributed a great deal to our knowledge of the American Trotskyist movement over the years. It was particularly disappointing, then, to read The End of “American Trotskyism” (ATC 53-55).
Wald asserts: American Trotskyism’s “achievements, though insufficient as a foundation condemning any movement to continuing isolation if made its centerpiece, can be powerful contributions to some larger project.” “Trotskyism in the United States has been proven too often to be an insufficient worldview.” And “despite the extraordinary talents and contributions at various times of Cannon, Shachtman, Dobbs, (Hal) Draper and C.L.R. James, no Trotskyist leaders can credibly be seen as `the’ guiding lights of organizational strategy, political theory and philosophy.”
This approach is completely superficial. What serious person in the mainstream of American Trotskyism ever suggested that its specific ideological contributions should be the “foundation” or “centerpiece” of anything? Could Trotskyists have played the role they did in Minneapolis or embraced Malcolm X had they not conceived of themselves as “a powerful contribution to some larger project”?
What political outlook has ever constituted “a sufficient worldview”? Does Wald think that Cannon, or Shachtman, or Dobbs, or Draper, or C.L.R. James considered themselves “`the’ guiding lights of organizational strategy, political theory and philosophy”?
Now consider the following: “The balance sheet of the political accomplishments of Trotskyism after six-and-a-half decades tends toward the negative.” “No significant current within the USSR or anywhere else took up Trotskyism as a viable alternative.” “All Trotskyist groups ended [the 1970s] with exploding splits.”
Substitute “socialism” or “Marxism” for “Trotskyism” in these and similar sentences. They remain valid. Yet Wald would not write about the end of socialism or of Marxism. What’s really key, then, is his contention that there is some sectarian kernel, inherent within the American Trotskyist tradition, which is to blame for its failure.
Trotskyism has suffered from its sectarian excesses, to be sure. But so has every other current. Sectarian tendencies arise when any group is forced to spend an extended period in isolation from mass struggles — the condition Trotskyism has faced for most of its existence, especially in the U.S.A.
Contrary to Wald, I would argue that the main reasons for this isolation were objective. There has been no significant working-class upsurge here since the 1940s. (In the 1960s radical sentiment did not spread to the U.S. working class.) The radicalization of the 1930s fell far short of even a pre-evolutionary crisis. Stalinism overwhelmed other currents in the 1930s and ’40s.
It is factors like these that created the condition Wald describes. To see that condition, rather than its causes, as the essence of the problem is to confuse form with substance and miss something profound about what Trotskyism represents.
A Positive Assessment
Wald recognizes that sometimes there are “real differentiations in strategy, tactics, and even morality that cannot be overcome simply by good will.” Those he enumerates revolve around two fundamental divides in the workers’ movement: between class collaboration and workers’ self-reliance (or reform vs. revolution), and between elitist or spontaneist theories of organization vs. democratic workers self-organization.
Following the degeneration of the Russian revolution, Trotskyism was the only current which consistently stood for revolutionary self-reliance and workers’ democracy. That is why its history deserves special attention when we talk about rebuilding a revolutionary tradition today.
Personally, I do not care whether we continue to use the label “Trotskyist.” I would even tend to agree with those who say that this term will have less and less meaning for young people radicalizing in the 1990s and 21st century. But I do care deeply what our assessment of Trotskyism’s historical contribution is, what lessons are passed on to new generations.
Wald correctly castigates those who elevate “Trotskyism” to the status of unchallengeable dogma. But we cannot overcompensate to such a degree that its vital historical role is relativized out of existence.
“Autarky,” and Leadership
Wald asserts that “Trotskyism must be rejected as an autarkic revolutionary movement, projecting its own hegemonic leadership.” This is typical of the way he poses questions in terms that already prejudice the reply. On what does he base his use of the word “autarkic”? Who, in fact, advocates this?
And yet, after making the necessary protest I would tend to agree that no “Trotskyist” group should project its own “hegemonic leadership” today. That would constitute a sectarian self-caricature.
Wald, however, then commits a fundamental error of logic. Since this is true for today, he suggests, any past efforts to win hegemony and provide leadership for the class struggle must be equally sectarian. But the outlook of previous generations has to be judged in their own historical contexts.
Wald objects in particular to the approach taken by James P. Cannon and the SWP in the 1940s: “In the tradition of `American Trotskyism,’ much of this [sectarianism] flows from the belief…that the Socialist Workers Party was the already constructed vanguard, with its main objective being to win leadership of the masses.”
He quotes Cannon: “The revolutionary vanguard party, destined to lead this tumultuous revolutionary movement in the U.S. does not have to be created. It already exists and its name is the Socialist Workers Party.” Wald tells us: “This kind of thinking was not an aberration of the movement, but flowed directly from the tradition of `American Trotskyism.'”
That last comment is true enough, and with hindsight we can conclude that Cannon was mistaken. But Wald fails to properly measure the significance of and reasons for Cannon’s mistake. This was not some abstract self-proclamation of vanguard status by the SWP. It represented the final thesis in a long document about the situation which confronted the party in 1946.
Cannon’s quoted words flowed from the entire previous analysis. It is no accident that Cannon used the demonstrative pronoun, “this,” in describing the coming “tumultuous upsurge.” It was a particular upsurge, which in Cannon’s view was imminent at the time — based on the state of the U.S. economy and class struggle. The tasks assigned to the SWP flowed from its role in the immediate past, combined with a sober assessment of what other left forces represented.
It is completely ahistorical to wrench Cannon’s conclusion out of this context. Holding him responsible for those who later turned these words into an abstract dogma is like holding Marx responsible for abuse of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Cannon’s prediction of an impending revolutionary upsurge was wrong. Therefore his conclusion about the role of the SWP was wrong. But perhaps Wald will tell us: Had Cannon and the SWP been correct in their historical prognosis, what other force was there on the American left in 1946 which might have provided the necessary leadership? Was Cannon’s statement really so outlandish in that context?
Consider the same question on a world scale: Given the actual realities of the international class struggle from the late 1920s through at least the 1950s, was it sectarian for Trotskyism to try and become the hegemonic leadership of the workers’ movement? What, in Wald’s view, was the alternative?
Leadership and Mass Movement
Central to all of this is Wald’s misunderstanding of the relationship between leadership and mass movement: “Leadership…is not something that should fall into the hands of a single group but should grow organically from the struggle with various kinds of political activists participating side-by-side with (and the veterans learning from) the participants more than `leading’ them.”
We note a rather stubborn problem, however. History doesn’t always unfold as revolutionaries think it “should.” In every actual working-class revolution that we can study, leadership has fallen into the hands of a single group. This was even true when, ideologically, that leading group agreed that this should not be the case — as with the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Can we condemn the Bolsheviks or the Sandinistas because most revolutionary individuals and currents gravitated toward their parties, while others gave active support to the counterrevolution? Can we blame the Trotskyists because, from the 1920s through at least the 1950s, other organized currents were either hopelessly class collaborationist, or completely bureaucratic, or both?
What’s more, in Russia and Nicaragua a single group became the leadership precisely because of the role it played “in the struggle with various kinds of political activists participating side-by-side,” not because this was lacking. A similar democratic process was how the Trotskyists planned to “gain hegemony” and become the leadership of a revolutionary mass movement.
It is also wrong to talk about experienced individuals learning from other participants “more than `leading’ them.” Of course, no revolutionary organization can play the necessary role if it is unable to learn. But learning is worthwhile only if it results in more effective leadership. Neither side of this duality is “more” important than the other.
(The same can be said about Wald’s attempt to elevate “method” over “program.” An essential part of our “method” is the development of program, its application, and drawing appropriate lessons based on experience.)
Finally, let’s look at the historical record from another angle. When other genuinely revolutionary currents did begin to emerge with the Cuban victory in 1959, did the mainstream of U.S. and world Trotskyism deny this fact? Did it reject the Algerian revolution, or the Nicaraguan revolution, or the Grenadian revolution, because “Trotskyists” were not in the leadership?
Where was the insistence on “Trotskyism” as “an autarkic revolutionary movement”?
Is Revolution Possible?
A concluding word needs to be said about one of Wald’s most remarkable comments:
“But, Trotskyist or not, all reasonable people ought to be haunted by the questions: What if revolution were not possible [in the 1930s and ’40s]; what if the famous ‘crisis in leadership’…was overdetermined by factors that simply could not be dislodged?”
I like to think of myself as a reasonable person. I am not, however, “haunted” by such questions. I remain convinced that world socialist revolution was possible during these decades, and that it was derailed by the misleadership of social democracy and the Comintern.
Because Wald is haunted we can understand why he declares the entire history of Trotskyism to be sectarian. If socialist revolution wasn’t really possible (not just in the specific case of the United States during the 1940s, but generally, and on a global scale), then trying to build organizations to lead that revolution, formulating a program to transform workers’ consciousness, was pointless.
I join Wald in rejecting any slavish copying from the past. But no question about how that past relates to our work today can be answered unless we start from the premise that socialist revolution was then, and remains, a reasonable goal, one that we should work for in an active way.
Today, of course, this is not true in the more immediate sense of the 1930s and ’40s. Still, what George Lukacs referred to as “the actuality of the revolution” (the idea that we are, in fact, preparing for that time when the class struggle again places socialist revolution on the immediate agenda) must remain a tangible presence in all of our activity.
Otherwise everything that is published in this or any revolutionary journal is largely a waste of time.
Note: Due to space limitations I have been forced to cut this article substantially. Mostly this means a less extensive development of points; the main line of argument remains. Now absent is a list of additional source material presenting a different understanding of the American Trotskyist tradition.
ATC 58, September-October 1995