Trotskyism: Wheat and Chaff

Peter Drucker

Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations, by George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc, and Alan Wald (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996) $60 cloth.

WHY DO PEOPLE still write books about Trotskyism? For good reasons, actually.

Neoliberalism may be ideologically triumphant, but compared with thirty or forty years ago, capitalism today looks like a much worse system for reducing poverty, promoting peace, or even ensuring human survival. Communism as it existed in the USSR and social democracy as it once flourished in Western Europe are no longer credible alternatives.

This leaves us with other anti-capitalist traditions, such as anarchism, council communism, radical ecology, radical feminism and Trotskyism. Judging by theoretical sophistication, richness of tradition or organizing capacity, Trotskyism looks no worse than the others and in many ways better.

Yet no radical alternative is poised to transform the world at the moment. Partly this is a question of time, the time needed to rethink, regroup and recover much-shaken confidence and for a new political generation to emerge.

Trotskyism also has to contend with its own particular difficulties: major changes like globalization and capitalist restoration that Trotskyists did not anticipate, an unattractive reputation for small-group infighting, and even a lack of consensus about what Trotskyism is.

Trotskyism in the United States can be useful to people who are looking for clarity about what “Trotskyism”meant for U.S. radicals in the past and what it can mean today.

Paul Le Blanc and Alan Wald do not argue that Trotskyism has all the answers, or that it is the basis for rebuilding the U.S. left. But they do highlight ideas that are still important and achievements of which Trotskyists could rightfully be proud.

They make clear the need for more historical research to uncover the full reality of this movement. They publish some previously unpublished photos that give us a fresh glimpse of what the oldtimers looked like.

Most important, they begin a debate about what Trotskyism does or does not have to contribute to the “next left,”a debate that the rest of us need to carry on in order to salvage what can and should be salvaged.

The SWP at Its Best . . .

Both Le Blanc and Wald were members for over a decade of the Socialist Workers Party, which for over forty years was the largest Trotskyist group in the United States (at times the largest in the world, though it never reached 2000 members).

Not surprisingly, they focus on the SWP (though Wald casts his net wider than Le Blanc). The Workers Party of the 1940s and the many other Trotskyist groups that have emerged since the 1950s are by comparison neglected. In any case, given the role the SWP played in the 1940s and again in the 1960s and `70s, its story is well worth telling.

Le Blanc does a good job of laying out the SWP’s claims to our respect and attention. In the late 1930s and 1940s the SWP built up the largest trade union current to the left of the CP, and rooted its own internal life and culture in the working class. After McCarthyism decimated its trade union base, the party recruited widely on campus and played a key role in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

In its publications and schools the SWP taught thousands of radicals to understand and use (still-)important ideas, inherited from Trotsky, like “transitional demands,”“united fronts”and “permanent revolution.”Leaders like C.L.R. James (whose tendency went from the SWP to the WP and back in the 1940s before founding their own group) and George Breitman made a major contribution of their own through their writings on African-American nationalism.

Trotskyism in the United States gives us a feel for the SWP at its best, for instance through Wald’s essay on philosopher George Novack. Even better, it lets us sample the best of the SWP’s thinking and educational work by reprinting George Breitman’s 1974 talks on “The Liberating Influence of the Transitional Program.”

These talks are a model of revolutionary pedagogy: clear without oversimplifying, engaged but critical-minded. Breitman’s account of the SWP’s 1938 labor party debate is historically significant as well, and enlivened by his recollections of his own role. It gives a sense of the extraordinary freedom and democracy of discussion in the party in 1938-39, when forty percent of the membership fought and voted against the position Trotsky advocated.

Breitman manifests that same spirit thirty-six years later by forthrightly rejecting “official versions of history”and expressing his distaste for the notion of “orthodoxy”(88, 93)

. . . and Its Worst

Le Blanc’s account of what became of the SWP by the 1980s is as depressing as Breitman’s talks are exhilarating. Much of it seems to be written as a response to latter-day SWP Supreme Leader Jack Barnes.

Probably not many people need convincing these days that it is a bad idea to require a group’s leaders to lie to its members about their opinions, or expel members for talking or writing about politics without permission.

More people, unfortunately, probably need convincing that this is not how the Bolshevik Party functioned in 1917 or the SWP in 1938.

In fact neither Lenin nor SWP leader James P. Cannon on their worst days dreamed of an organization as regimented and shackled as Barnes’—as Le Blanc convincingly shows. How the SWP got from the kind of organization it was in 1938 to the kind of organization it is today is another question.

Le Blanc rightly stresses the loss of the group’s self-confident, working-class cadre as a crucial factor. He also shows how changes beginning in the 1960s set bad precedents (like the 1965 prohibition against “double recruitment,”i.e. explaining minority standpoints to potential new members).

Yet Cannon is in Le Blanc’s eyes virtually beyond reproach. Even Wald, who is more critical of the Trotskyist tradition in general, only ventures in the book’s last pages that Cannon’s 1946 assertion that the SWP was already “destined”to lead the U.S. revolution “must be rejected as a model for today,”and that the Trotskyist tradition is lost unless it “breaks radically”with the idea (voiced by Cannon ally Morris Stein) that Trotskyists “can tolerate no rivals.”(279-80)

This is going too far for Le Blanc, who expresses “quite sharp”disagreement with Wald’s picture of the SWP’s past. (x-xi) In fact Wald could have gone further. Cannon’s claim that the SWP was the party that would lead the revolution was implausible even in 1946.

Even in Russia, where the working class was a small minority, the Bolsheviks had a quarter of a million members by November 1917. To imagine that the SWP of 1946, with fewer than 2000 members, would itself become the organization of millions that could lead a U.S. revolution was far-fetched.

Although the SWP made some efforts after 1956 to reach out to people leaving the CP and other non-Trotskyists, this de facto regroupment orientation was never adequately theorized. On the contrary: In 1965, when the SWP’s working-class base was gone and its membership was down to 420, it reaffirmed its 1946 self-proclamation as part of its basic “doctrines.”(53)

Cannon was still alive and active at the time, but there is no evidence that he dissented. This was at the least a serious failure to educate his membership in realistic strategic thinking. It facilitated an unthinking sectarianism.

Le Blanc also fails to see the kernel of truth in charges of bureaucratization raised by many SWP minorities. The issue of the role of fulltime staff in a revolutionary group is a tricky one.

To be sure, groups with only a handful of fulltimers (like Solidarity today) are no more democratic for it: On the contrary, the most free-ranging, democratic discussions seem pointless if votes are not translated into collective action for sheer lack of labor power. The SWP’s 120 fulltimers in the mid-1970s, paid by high membership contributions, gave it an enviable capacity to act.

Yet as Breitman noted, those 120 fulltimers, roughly one for every ten members, were six or seven times as many as the SWP had in 1939 with about the same number of members.(132) Neither Breitman nor Cannon admitted there was any risk that all these fulltimers might unduly influence decisions.

On the contrary, Cannon indignantly rejected any “denigration of the professional party workers.”Concerned about “permanent discussion, driving out the workers,”he allowed political debates to be crowded off branch and leadership agendas by deadly administrative routine,* which left the fulltimers free to shape the group’s politics.

This ensured that once most of the older, independent-minded cadre were gone and Barnes had the fulltimers in hand, his regime was secure against challenge.

Revolutionaries need to do better than Cannon did in guarding against this danger. Debate has to be continually encouraged so the rank and file can keep the initiative, through what Wald calls an effectively democratic “organizational culture.”(237)

What Now?

In the last two of the book’s six essays, Alan Wald tackles the question of what all this means for the U.S. left now and in the future. In general he carries out this task admirably.

On the one hand, Wald warns against repeating the 1960s New Left’s mistake of reenacting the Old Left’s tragedies by failing to study its history, expressing dismay at how little contemporary “rethinking”is informed by all the rethinking done in the past.

Trotskyism itself is the fruit of such rethinking, he points out: learning from the Russian revolution’s bureaucratization in the 1920s, learning from the disastrous consequences in 1973 of relying on Chilean bourgeois democracy, and so on. We forget these lessons at our peril.

At the same time, Wald shows a healthy sense of proportion about how little Trotskyism has really accomplished. He points out some of the many ways in which the politics of a new left must be genuinely new: on ecology, lesbian/gay liberation, Eurocentrism, new forms of imperialism, etc. His discussion of the day-to-day dynamics that lead to factions and splits reveal how much we have to learn from the feminist realization that the personal is political.

All this leads Wald to the conclusion that “activists emerging from Trotskyist experiences”should neither try to build a new Trotskyist vanguard nor renounce their past, but instead try to act as “a well-integrated current (not tendency or faction) within a broader organization of the far left.”(262)

This makes excellent sense. Even Cannon said fifty years ago that the word “Trotskyism”sounds too “sectarian or cultist”in the United States. (51) A tradition narrowly defined as “Trotskyist”does not adequately include key non-Trotskyist Marxists like Luxemburg, Gramsci or Marxist-feminists, still less make enough room for discoveries made by CPers, social democrats and outright non-socialists.

Even in the longest term, the revolutionary Marxist tradition has to be rebuilt as broadly as possible, without letting old labels get in the way.

None of this should blur the lines between reform and revolution or between socialism from below and from above. The reality that Wald points out, that the CP’s struggles “outdistanced by far those of any other socialist current”in the United States (278), has to prompt a sense of tragedy as well as admiration—precisely because so much of this dedicated work is not recuperable for even a broadly defined revolutionary Marxism.

So many struggles the CP led foundered on its maneuvers inside the Democratic Party, for example; Wald’s comments on the Popular Front do not even touch on this crucial point. Wald also sometimes seems to make too sharp a counterposition between “constructing a revolutionary organization around a set of principles”and insisting on a “full `program.’”(239)

Principles alone could not tell an organization what attitude to take to the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns or the Gulf War, but an organization that failed to act collectively in response to those events would not have had much to say for itself.

Of course no small revolutionary group can have a “full program;”and as Wald says it can benefit from “a range of `programs’ on many issues (although, clearly, not on all) . . . in a restrained, tensive interaction.”(238) But even a small group does need a collective, core “partial program,”one that sums up the tentative conclusions it draws from its own limited experience and gives it a basis to act.

Developing a renewed Marxism has to go hand in hand with building revolutionary organizations on the basis of steadily more adequate programs. With luck and humility, this can lead us towards the goal Wald as well as Le Blanc put forward: “the redemption of the revolutionary socialist tradition.”(253)

ATC 76, September-October 1998