Reflections on the decline of American Trotskyism


This is a very long post for which I apologize, but it encompasses a lot of things I've been mulling over for many years and have had precious little chance to discuss with anyone in the decade I've been in Atlanta. So I beg for your indulgence (and that of the other comrades).

What you say about the pressure to conform is mostly right, but I don't think for most people it is as self-conscious a process as what you write tends to imply. The process is more psychological, if you will, the pressure to conform within one of these groups is mostly internalized, I think. [This BTW is true not just of political groups -- I don't know if you've followed Microsoft or Apple, but reading about Bill Gates proposing slogans like "embrace and extend" Java (i.e., "pollute" it with windows-only features and API's) and Steve Jobs's "reality distortion field" gave me a real feel of deja vu all over again.]

But back to the political groups. In addition to one "internalizing" this predisposition to agree with everything, in the SWP, the reports and resolutions had become these meandering, kilometric documents that even after the vote get heavily edited, so God known what you've voted for -- the analysis, the concrete steps the party is to take (this is -- in theory -- is all one voted for in the SWP but it was precisely this that often was left very murky in many documents), the reiteration of programmatic positions implicit or explicit in the document, whether it is true or not that Lenin believed such and such and that X, Y or Z was one of Trotsky's most important contributions to the revolutionary movement, or a blank check to Steve Clark who often did most of the rewriting on major reports after plenums and conventions. Concretely, this means that although you might have doubts about this point or that slogan, you felt okay voting for the "general line" of the report "as a whole" -- whatever that might be.

I don't think I ever felt "externally pressured" so that I voted for something I consciously disagreed with; however, I'm sure on many occasions, when I voted yes it really was more an expression of confidence in the leadership, and not because I had grappled with those particular issues and become fully informed about the subject.

Because of my peculiar trajectory in the SWP I was actually only involved in branch or YSA local life as my major political activity for a few months.

So I can't speak as to how things worked at a local level, but certainly in the mid 70s, at least in the national leadership bodies, there was a great deal of very open discussion where people presented their own take on things. I remember, for example, in discussing the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that people were literally all over the map on the class character of the Cambodian state (I know, I know, a typically useless discussion) and there was hardly agreement from the git go on whether to support Vietnamese move and how "critically."

If I remember right, you might even find in the first IP or Militant or two that came out a great deal of denunciation of the U.S. threats against Vietnam for the invasion, but much more ambiguity on the Vietnamese move itself.

In those days Jack's opinion carried a great deal of moral authority in the leadership committees, but they were not just routinely rubber stamped or considered the last word. While Joe Hansen was still alive his opinions were also given the most careful consideration by most comrades on the PC and the NC, it was palpable in the way people listened to the two of them when they spoke, although Joe mostly weighed in on international questions. After Jack and Joe, Barry Sheppard was clearly the most respected, followed by M-A (Mary Alice Waters). But veteran cadre like Frank Lovell, Fred Halstead, Dick Garza, Ed Shaw, George Breitman, and others were clearly much more influential than Dick Roberts or Tony Thomas or or Cindy Jaquith or dozens of others. And Peter Camejo, of course, always had an impact because he was such an effective speaker.

Even as late as 1978-79, there was another discussion where there was a great deal of meandering all over the place in the leadership bodies, and this over several different sessions and over a period of many months. It was the discussion on Cuba and the character of the Fidelista leadership.

On that one, there were a whole series of political issues on which I was conscious of being alone, especially the stance that we should embrace and identify with the initiatives Fidel was carrying out vis a vis U.S. politics, the "dialogue" with the Cuban community in the U.S., the approach to take towards pro-Cuba formations such as the Antonio Maceo Brigade, Casa de las Americas, trips to Cuba, and so on.

That's because the initial presentation on the issues Jack made had consequences in terms of our political stance only by implication. It was his contention that the Cuban leadership around Fidel was revolutionary, as opposed to counterrevolutionary, narrow nationalist or centrist, I believe that is all it dealt with. It was all looking back, so to speak, not forward. What to DO about it, we simply didn't talk about that, not yet. We talked instead about Angola, the Cubans' relations with the Soviets (the SWP for decades had suffered from almost pathological stalinophobia. It's a miracle that the party never officially ditched Trotsky's positions), the czech invasion, the line political meaning of Che's effort in Bolivia, whether Cuba was in the process of abandoning this sort of internationalist stance, some of the problems that resulted from the FI discussion on G-war, etc. etc. etc.

I said "we" didn't talk about what practical conclusions flowed from this but that isn't accurate. I raised some of the issues, but comrades simply didn't know what I was talking about. No one on the PC even suspected, I think, that in New York there were more revolutionary-minded political activists who looked to Fidel for leadership than who looked to 410 West Street. [A year or two later probably everyone would have given lip-service to the idea, but the reaction to Camejo's proposals for a regroupment local election campaign in the 80 or 81 elections showed that the big majority of the party remained totally clueless about the real world.]

Either in the middle of the discussion about adopting that position -- that the Cuban leadership was revolutionary -- or once it had been adopted, I remember sitting down with Larry Seigle to go over a Militant article about a big meeting between Fidel and a couple of hundred Cubans from abroad. In editing the article, Larry took out the word "dialogue" -- "el diálogo" was how the meetings between the people from the community abroad with Fidel and other government leaders were referred to in Cuba and therefore elsewhere -- saying to me very pointedly "That's THEIR word for it." The sectarian reaction and stance was instinctive.

I should explain that a few months before the SWP discussion started, I had strayed across the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a group of (initially) about 60 Cuban emigres who were pro-revolution and had organized around a visit to the island. It was part of an operation by Cuba to take advantaged of the softened U.S. hostility of the Carter years, and of the weakened state of U.S. imperialism following the defeat in Vietnam, Watergate and the oil shocks.

I was very much attracted by the Brigade, and came around film showings, and other events they held, and through those experiences discovered this broad layer of political people who more or less viewed themselves as fidelistas. They had a book distribution operation which imported books from Cuba, records and magazines; they had set up travel agencies to take people to Cuba (the origin of Militant/PM tours is that we copied the idea from the Fidelistas, and actually, they were the ones who did the travel agent part of the work on our tours), they had dances, concerts, July 26 celebrations.

The beginning of the SWP's discussion in the fall of 1978 coincided with the beginning of the organization of a second contingent of the Brigade to visit Cuba in the summer of 1979, and I got comrades to agree that I should apply to go on this contingent. Luckily, because I was editor of Perspectiva Mundial by then and for that reason involved in PC discussions on "line" questions, this didn't go through a local branch (which would certainly have turned it down and if not turned it into one more sectarian "intervention"). It was, if I remember right, just me reporting to Larry Seigle. That was why when "the dialogue" took place, I was the on in the best position to write a story about it.

Now, I don't believe this was typical of the SWP by 1978-1979, it was, in fact, quite exceptional by then on most of the party's practical work, which was centered on the turn. Once adopted, "The Turn" wasn't subject to what had previously been normal discussion, since it was, essentially, an article of faith. It was, as initially projected, a maneuver (i.e., a redeployment of forces) based on things that had not (yet) happened. There's really nothing to discuss except details unless you challenge the underlying analysis or the schematic method which drew practical conclusions from that analysis. No one did.

What went on in the Cuba discussion was, however, much more common if not typical of the SWP leadership several years earlier, which I got a unique "window" on first as part of the YSA leadership and soon afterwards as de facto chief interpreter to comrades from Latin America and Spain. Although not elected to the NC until the 1979 convention, I took part in every plenum and convention closed session, from the beginning of 1972, and was involved in I think all of the international tendency and faction meetings held around those events, as well as in many PC discussions. Once I became editor of Perspectiva Mundial in 77 or 78, I was a permanent "guest" at PC meetings until elected to the committee in 80 or 81 (This is all from memory. Any records I might have kept are still in the boxes I packed in 1985, undisturbed since).

This more or less pragmatic approach of probing, trying new things, and eventually a consensus developing in the leadership on the approach, is how the post-Vietnam War orientation to the communities, struggles and organizations of the working class developed. Moreover, it represented to a certain degree an accommodation to, or a vector sum of, where various individual leaders or sectors of the party wanted to go. It was, I think, an approach that Marx would have approved of, having noted from the beginning of his political career that communism was not a theory but a movement; and that it proceeded, not from principles, but from facts. And it is totally the opposite of the turn schema that was adopted two or three years later.

It was as I'm sure you'll recognize is basically an extension of the Dobbs/Kerry/Shaw student orientation of the early 60s, and of the "sectoralism" of the first few years of Jack Barnes holding the central national leadership post.

Now, it certainly was no secret to people who went to expanded PC's or plenums that comrades like Tom Kerry, Frank Lovell, Nat Weinstein, and others placed great stress on getting into unions within this overall approach, whereas comrades involved in the New York local leadership placed their emphasis on community struggles (based on their experiences in the Lower East Side); Breitman and I think George Novack, Dick Roberts and perhaps some others were for greatly expanding our educational and publishing efforts, and so on. So it was a process of give and take, with priorities and allocation of resources evolving over time as opportunities developed. At least once I saw Jack very much take the role of ward healer, putting out a small brushfire over some proposal that would have shifted the balance of resources away from Pathfinder and towards the periodical press. The initial proposal clearly left several members of the PC very unhappy, and it was sent back for reworking. It was Jack who brought the reworked proposal again before the group (whether hours or days later, I don't remember), and he just said that on these sorts of issues, given where things are at in the country, there's no "right" answer, just a compromise that will put the greatest number of comrades in the best frame of mind to contribute as much as they could to the party. And if something came up that required a shift, that would be done.

When you think about it, it would have been extremely unlikely that a party with the kind of internal regime the SWP had by the early 80s could have played the sort of role the SWP did play not only in the antiwar movement, but in the campaign against racism in Boston, in the various fights on New York's Lower East Side, and so on. Because it would have been unable to gather together the experiences its people had, and make sound judgements about the next steps to take on that basis.

This to me is very important, for whereas many comrades here stress this or that aspect of the SWP's ideology was what foredoomed it to becoming a workerist sect, I believe the SWP got to where it is today because it made a wrong turn, one it was predisposed to make given its ideological outlook, and unlikely to correct given that outlook, its organizational traditions, and how things played out in the U.S. over the next decade or so. But it was the actual turn, carrying it out blindly, on faith, despite all the evidence that it was a mistake, that doomed the SWP. [Clever people will also realize that this is an implicit rejection of the "great man" theory of the SWP's history, as well as various attempts to phsychoanalyze him to explain what happened. Even if it is true, so to speak, that Jack was undergoing a midlife crisis in political form (and, yes, the turn coincided -- roughly -- with his taking up with a woman in her 20s), you'd still need to explain why the rest of us drank the cool-aid, so to speak.]

Obviously, In writing about the early and mid 70s I'm one-sidedly stressing the most positive aspects of the SWP then, not its negative side. It's participation in the FI and international debates was terribly factional, terribly negative, sectarian, doctrinaire and opportunist to boot. Despite making a positive contribution overall, I think, our "intervention" in the later stages of the antiwar movement still had a factional tinge to it that reflected stalinophobia and sectarianism towards the CP's milieu (though this was small, I think, compared to the CP's sectarianism, motivated by the CP leadership's panic, I think, over the growth of the SWP/YSA and their influence).

Nevertheless, it is necessary to ask, what allowed the SWP to develop a whole series of generally positive activities and campaigns then? Obviously, a lot of it comes from its Marxist and revolutionary traditions, with whatever distortions, misunderstandings, contradictions and limitations. Some of it from its participation in the mass struggles of the 30s. These sorts of factors "allowed" it to "go with the flow" of the burgeoning antiwar movement instead of standing on the sidewalk shouting correct slogans at the demonstrators as they went by.

That also helped the party to take a supportive, non-sectarian stance towards the struggles of women, minorities and so on. And so by the early 70s, the party had been changed so radically that it was even up to its neck in local schoolboard elections in New York's Lower East Side, something unimaginable for the SWP before or since. If the SWP had made different decisions then, I think it had the potential to continue evolving further towards becoming the kind of broad-based socialist party that I think is appropriate for the United States now.

Since we know how things went for the rest of the 70s, 80s and 90s, we can probably pretty safely bet that this transformation would not have happened, because it would have had precious little help from the "objective situation" of the class struggle, but who knows? The SWP had advanced enough in this direction by 1973-1975 period that there were many informal discussions in various branches, and I half remember even some formal ones, about relaxing they hyper-activist norms of the student movement and YSA that by then had become the expected norm for party cadre. And of course there was Peter Camejo's "infamous" suggestion that we should take the name "Socialist Party" when the social-democratic sect that had hung onto it for decades finally let go of it. I remember the 1976 election campaign was absolutely on pitch in terms of what was happening in the country and it got a very good response, qualitatively superior to those that came before, despite it being a period of relatively little mass movement activity. And the SWP's Watergate suit showed a lot of tactical imagination -- something American Trotskyism had never been suspected of.

Instead, of course, the SWP adopted the turn to industry. On the face of it, the decision seemed pretty logical in 1975 or 1977 or whenever it was. Everything pointed to a period of prolonged economic problems for the capitalists, not just a particularly severe "bust" of the normal boom-bust cycle. The ruling class would have to take it out of the workers' hide, and especially the industrial workers. The workers would resist, and the logic of the class struggle would lead them to radicalize, transforming the union movement. You could already see in the mid 70s precursors of the big class battles to come and the transformation of the union movement, developments in the steelworkers and mineworkers unions. All we comrades had to do was pre-position ourselves.

Well, everything the SWP projected about the economic situation and the ruling class offensive turned out to be true, but none of the projected political consequences materialized. What happened? Lenin said it: theory is gray, but life is green.

The SWP's turn was based on a schema, on faith about what would happen, not on a sober analysis of what was happening. Worse, implicit in the turn to industrial unions was turning away from today's struggles. It was a get-rich-quick scheme, like the capitalist executives who "bet the company" that a certain product will be a big hit.

The SWP leadership has since sought to obfuscate and rewrite history on this, but I can tell you the turn wasn't adopted as a strategic orientation but as a short-term redeployment of forces, and short-term should be in italics.

In the discussion at the plenum where the turn was first laid out and adopted, Jack Barnes said among other things (in response to questions about why dismantle our teachers union fraction now, given what was coming) that the true test of the correctness of the turn would be whether in 5 years time we'd have ten times as many teachers recruited to he party thanks to the role it had played in the big class battles in the industrial working class.

Of course, no specific timetables were given for these battles, timetables were specifically disclaimed. But the whole motivation for that drastic and sharp a reorientation of forces was that there wasn't a second to lose, the shit could hit the fan tomorrow morning. And as for the turn being a permanent orientation -- as it later became explicitly -- that was rejected. In one, two or three years time, the SWP would be overwhelmingly proletarian in composition from its recruitment in these battles, not from hot-housing ersatz proles out of student cadre.

It was the total contradiction between that projection and reality that destroyed the SWP as it had existed coming into the turn. Within a year or so we began to hemorrhage cadre, especially among those who had made the turn. There was disorientation and demoralization but also, many of the jobs that comrades were getting paid much more that the jobs party activists often had, and that was a conservatizing influence that tended to distance people from the movement.

But since the goal was to get the majority of the membership into industry, once the bleeding began, the turn had to become permanent, and people who for whatever reason did not want to get into industry were made to understand that save for the infirm or retirees, or party full timers, EVERYONE was expected to make the turn. So then we started bleeding people at both ends of the party, and we got a blossoming of that coercive, nasty atmosphere in the party later codified in the reinterpretation of the 1965 organizational resolution and the purge of dissidents, miscreants and misfits of the early 80s.

The root of all this comes from what I think I called "ultimatism" in my post about the long boom. The SWP was marked with it at birth, with the stuff in the transitional program about the conditions for proletarian revolution not only having become ripe, they have become somewhat rotten. But it is not a specifically Trotskyist problem, but rather a generically communist one.

At its founding, the Communist International projected that capitalism was in its death agony. This is more than saying that at that point in time, the working class could have taken power in several other countries. The idea is that capitalism is on the ropes, any stabilization will be temporary, an ever-worsening succession of crisis and catastrophes will drive the workers to revolution.

This may well be true in a historic framework of many decades or centuries, but in political time of years and human lifetimes, it is false. History has shown both that it is possible for the proletariat to take power absent such an ultimate world-historic crisis, and even after a virtual apocalypse that razes much of capitalist civilization to the ground (e.g., postwar Europe and Japan), capitalism can re-stabilize, rebuild and even do quite nicely for many years, if it is allowed to do so.

And in economic terms, there is no capitalist crisis so severe that capitalism cannot recover from it, given time. No matter how severe, complete and utter the crash, capitalism will regenerate unless it is consciously suppressed. It emerges organically and spontaneously out of generalized commodity production, production for the market.

This doesn't mean that capitalism "still has a progressive role to play" in the world-historic sense Marx wrote about. The current boom in the U.S. --based, I think on the digital transformation of the economy-- is not an anomaly. Capitalism as a system is ALWAYS revolutionizing production, it is in its nature to do so, but that doesn't make it "progressive." There's nothing capitalism is doing with computers today that a socialist America and a socialist world wouldn't have done better. The "progressive" role that capitalism had to play on a world scale was simply to break down feudalism, to create the conditions for socialism by making production social rather than individual. That's done, and it has been done, in a world-historic sense, probably for a century or more. If the American, British, French, and German workers had gotten it together 100 years ago and established socialism that would have been the end of it, there wouldn't have been a thing anyone could have done about it.

That's why Lenin calls imperialism the highest stage of capitalism, and not just the newest. Modern imperialism arises because capitalism has filled every pore of the national economy, and thus to continue expanding, looks outside its own borders. It's the "highest" stage of capitalism because it's completed the transformation of the relations of production in the leading countries. That was all that was required of it.

[There's a possible "revision" to this more-or-less traditional Marxist view, which is that the "world historic" role of capitalism is to complete this sort of transformation, not just within the leading countries, but on a world scale as a whole. I do not agree with this, and haven't followed the writings of modern Marxist economists, so I'm not even sure anyone at all supports this. But it's the essential ideological underpinning for arguing that there needs to be a distinct, capitalist revolution in some countries, or that backward countries need some sort of "hybrid" socio-economic formation (in reality, capitalism with a human face).]

To get back to the point about the Comintern and "ultimatism," I believe that at the root of the world-renowned sectarianism and backwardness of the American left is the split in the SP following world war one. It was uncalled for politically. And it led to the creation of a communist movement that was deformed by sectarianism at its birth. It's not just a question that the comrades were a little leftist, everyone is a little leftist when they're young. Setting up a separate party is, fundamentally, a class question. The maintenance today of all these separate sectlets and grouplets, is a violation of the most basic organizational precepts of communism as laid out in the Communist manifesto, that the communists do not set themselves up as a separate party counterposed to other working class parties.

In this sense, I guess I would also be something of a "Pabloite" except that Pablo's political orientation was a mistake of exactly the same nature as the SWP's turn to industry. It was a schema. Based on an implicit assumption of the channels through which working class resistance would express itself (primarily the mass Communist parties), he wanted to orient to those. As it turned out, the CP's did not become the primary vehicle for a new radicalization, which, when it came, found its main expression outside the traditional working class organizations. The correct, non-schematic orientation was towards the radicalizing youth, I believe, with the strategic aim of taking their partial or sectoral struggles to an explicitly class-based expression through the creation of a socialist party that would broadly encompass the leading fighters of those movements. The SWP's defacto strategic orientation in the late 60's and early 70's went in that direction,

Given that, I do not draw nearly as negative a balance sheet on the SWP of the late 60s and early 70s. Should a new radicalization emerge in the next few years, I think that you will see hundreds of these comrades playing a very positive role, not just despite of all the "bad" things they learned and did in the SWP, but also because of some of the "good" things the SWP embodied, and which were what had attracted us to it in the first place so many years ago.

Best regards,

Jose G. Perez

I have to pretty much agree with Jose on the dynamics of the SWP's crisis and Jack Barnes not being the agent of it. I am learning many of the details of the history of the party only now in reading Jose's posts and find them interesting but not disturbing. Rather, they seem fairly typical of the history of the formations which co-existed with, and came out of, the SDS period. Sure the SWP may have been somewhat stodgy compared to looser formations, but so was the PLP and it came to dominate SDS.

If we compare the relative stability of the SWP and its great success in keeping Pathfinder Press afloat all these years --and not even the most cynical among us can deny that Pathfinder's titles have been an important contribution-- with that of other parties we see that the SWP has actually done fairly well.

It, like others, has suffered and prospered with ebbs and flows of the popular movement, such as it existed, in the US in the past three decades: it gained from radicalization brought by Cuba, it gained again from the radicalization brought by Vietnam, it lost membership as the anti-war radicalization ebbed, and regained some momentum with the Central American crises of the '80s, and again lost membership in the '90s. Other groups such as the RCP have steadily declined, the San Francisco-based Democratic Workers Party imploded, DSA is not much heard of these days, the CPUSA has never recovered from the end of the USSR, the CWP disappeared, and the PLP is a shadow of its former self. In many cases the political line failed or the leadership did, but in all cases, the political situation at large played a great, and even decisive part.

Like Jose points out, the problems with the SWP stem from before Barnes became leader in its history as the first party of the left opposition --"the oldest communist party in the world"-- and seeing itself and its affiliated parties as an end rather than a step forward. This is not surprising however, since for so many years keeping the party going and its members physically alive was indeed an end in itself, what with Trotskyists being kept out of union jobs, getting physically attacked, Trotsky himself assassinated, etc. Personally, though I was never in the party, as a member of the YSA I never saw any personalism toward Jack Barnes, in general people seemed to regard him as a peer who moved up because of his talents and dedication, and not more than that. I recall one instance when a representative of the South African Communist Party's youth section led the crowd at a party conference in Oberlin, in the state of Ohio, in a series of cheers, starting with "Viva Mandela! Viva ANC!" and "Viva Comrade Fidel Castro!" and thence to "Viva Socialist Workers Party!" all of which met with great enthusiasm, but when he got to "Viva Comrade Jack Barnes!", there was a moment of awkward silence, followed by shrugging of shoulders and bemused glances, and the response of "Viva Jack!".

Jack's mistake was the Turn to Industry but only because it did not work. Other parties tried other things to confront the crisis of membership that the left was encountering. The RCP, for example, turned toward disenfranchised black youth and the homeless. That did not work either. Eventually, what the SWP found out was that it was attracting people from where it always had --the universities-- but, with its emphasis on the Turn, it was not able to keep them. By 1991, it was no longer requiring new members to enter basic industries, but at the same time it decided it could no longer afford to float the YSA, which voted to dissolve against the strenuous dissent of myself and my colleague Mac Kinzel who were YSA organizers in Santa Cruz, California. Perhaps because we were only two and thus at-large members not tied to any chapter nor in daily contact with an SWP branch, we were the only two voices who protested the YSA's executive committee's decision to disband.

Anyway, I started with a statement of agreement with Jose as opposed to Phil's views, and ended up by filling in a bit of the history of the SWP in the period since Jose left.


Juan Fajardos

While Trotsky was alive the worst organizational measures that James P. Cannon learned in the faction-ridden Communist Party of the 1920's were kept under control. During the 1939-40 factional struggle with Shachtman and Burnham the impulse to end the discussion was repulsed by Trotsky who thought time would solve the problems created by political differences over the nature of the Soviet state and our definitions of it. During this seven-month intense factional battle, Cannon told the audience that "a revolutionist should be taken out and shot at the age of fifty." This had shock value for the party members who knew that Cannon was near the magical age of fifty. We inferred that after the age of fifty there is a tendency to grow more conservative with age. Who can deny the validity of Cannon's observation.

If Cannon agreed, for a time. for a discussion with the Cochran, Clarke, Braverman faction in the period before their expulsion in 1953, his delay came from an inability to consolidate the leadership of his group in the national committee. Cannon couldn't get the Minneapolis group of Dunne, Skoglund and Schlutz to accept his demand to have us expelled. They dreaded the loss of the most proletarian section of the party. Our group had been on the ground floor of the rise of the CIO in auto. Cochran was the leader of our powerful auto union faction that for the first time gave up our independent union stance between the Addes and Reuther caucuses to support Reuther in 1946 convention in Atlantic City. We thought Reuther's militant support of the 1945-6 strike warranted our vote. Our delegate union votes elected Reuther in a very close election tally and the next day after Reuther's attack on the left, in a huge caucus meeting, we knew we had erred. We turned against Reuther and Cannon packed his bags and returned to New York pouting over our action taken on the floor of the convention. This was our first demonstration of Cannon's Stalinophobia. He could not see us participating in a caucus that included the CP members.

The Stalinophobia of Cannon, ten years later, lent credence to his observation that with age a revolutionist grows more conservative. The leader of the SWP repeated slogans and ideas in the fifties that no longer made sense with world reality. Under the patient prodding of Cochran-Clarke Braverman the Cannon group made up of people like Lovell, Breitman, Novack and Hansen had to concede to the minority that their views on Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe and Mao's China no longer fit the old shibboliths enunciated by Trotsky a decade earlier. The discussion of these issues lasted over a seven year period much of it in the national committee but as the Cannon group retreated, the cry for our expulsion rose. Cannon anticipated that the Cochran, Clarke, Braverman, a much younger, more dynamic and with the quality to think and speak exceptionally well and clearly on difficult political problems might become the majority and this he couldn't tolerate happening.

Every attempt to force our expulsion was rebuffed by the Minneapolis comrades led by Vincent Dunne , Carl Skoglund, and Henry Schultz. Dobbs came west on a speaking tour and took me aside in Detroit to tell me that the problem in the party was Cannon and he had to go. I agreed with him. Much to my astonishment this great truckdriver's union leader made a crass deal that would make sense in the union movement but was completely out of bounds, unprincipled politically, in a revolutionary socialist organization. Dobb's deal with Cannon provided for Cannon to retire and Dobbs to replace him as national secretary. In return for the horse trade, Minneapolis had to agree to support Cannon on our expulsion.

The icons that have been held up as great leaders on the marxist list like Breitman, Lovell, Novak, retreated before the Cochran, Clarke , Braverman group on all the great political questions that were of moment and supported our expulsion. Their unprincipled action paved the way for other irrational splits. (See for The Roots of the Party Crisis.

Without the creation of strong union contingents where our ideas can be tested with broad masses of workers and until the lessons of the Cannon unprincipled expulsion of the Cochran, Clarke, Braverman are learned we will continue to see the splintering of the Marxist-Trotskyist- Deutscher ideological followers.

Sol Dollinger

Dear Lou:

Your essay on the Cochranites is a breathe of fresh air. You are the first person to make a re-evaluation of the Cochran, Clarke and Braverman group in the 1953 expulsion by James P. Cannon. It has taken a long time to get to this point. History has a way of crawling at a snail's pace. With your help it will go a little faster.

What would have happened in 1953 if Cannon asked his national committee to install Bert Cochran rather than Farrell Dobbs in the top post? All of the sectarian baggage the SWP had been carrying since the death of Trotsky, would have been discarded. You may ask --as I am sure other Cannon adherents would question-- whether the national committee would have supported such a motion by Cannon. I contend that the basic differences had been resolved over the seven year discussion. The majority voted with us on Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe and China. They had grudgingly agreed to our break with Reuther. With a recommendation by Cannon, that included his retirement to California, where he passed many years--his supporters would have accepted Cochran with open arms.

Cochran was a greater Marxist theorist than Dobbs. He had as much trade union experience as Dobbs in their respective industries. Cochran was a far better speaker than Dobbs and a far better writer. This could have been done without our expulsion and a healthier SWP would have resulted without all of the sectarian baggage accumulated after the death of Trotsky (Compare Bert Cochran's articles on my web page with some of Dobbs books on the Teamsters strikes. See---

Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other auto worker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora's father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35. Enough about the asinine explanations of a Cannon supporter.

There is a tiny element of truth to Lovell's explanation but again he tells only part of the story. In 1948 the Trotskyists in Flint, with the support of the five Flint UAW presidents, launched a campaign for the sliding scale of wages. Reuther attacked us by redbaiting and falsification of our position. Before the year was out GM pulled the rug out from under Reuther and accepted our proposal with slight modifications. In 1976 Victor Reuther, in Brothers Reuther, boasted that the cost of living clause, as it became known, added $20,000 in wages to the auto worker. This of course, reflected the yearly increase of the cost of living. Yet even Lovell wouldn't be accused by me of being bourgeoisified when you add his skilled wages to the cost of living increases but he was better off because Trotskyists in Flint and in the country had fought for the auto workers pay packet in 1948.

Reuther's red baiting joined with McCarthyism put a severe crimp in our union activities. About that time the state legislature tried to remove us from the ballot under the Trucks Act. We organized a broad committee to fight for our democratic rights. In Flint we signed up almost every officer of the five UAW locals and the shop committeemen representing the 40,000 GM auto workers. We then sent out crews to the University of Michigan and Michigan State university. Scores of prominent professors joined the committee without regard to possible political repercussions. The same work was under way with similar success in Detroit. This opened our eyes. We had found our union work severely restricted and concluded we could get a better hearing from students and teachers accustomed to contesting ideas and open discussion. The Cochran group suggested a turn to the colleges long before the SDS and Tom Hayden.

A Marxist movement cannot be built without a free and open discussion of ideas. I reject Lenin's and Cannon's aphorism that a party grows stronger through splits. Sometimes the differences are irreconcilable and in those few instances a split is unavoidable but in 1953 Cannon never presented us with a bill of particulars that demonstrated our differences were irreconcilable. Cannon never submitted the charge because none existed. The split was unprincipled and made possible further splits in the future that the participants have a hard time justifying.

Sol Dollinger

Louis Proyect wrote:

"Look at the Cochranites, I argued. Nobody was more blue-collar than them, but they too had sold out. Mind you, this without having ever read a single article written by Bert Cochran or any of his co-thinkers."

Is that literally true, Lou? Cochran's book American Labor in Midpassage originally appeared as a special issue of The American Socialist, and simultaneously of Monthly Review. On the broad left it was one of the most successful books of its day, and for the following decade.

That said, however, MR's 50th anniversary celebration has elided the magazine's embarrassing moments. Lou wrote, "The most tangible results were the weekly newspaper The National Guardian and the Monthly Review. Both of these publications were attempts to develop a Marxism that embodied American traditions and which would avoid the sterile sectarianism that had marked both the Stalinist and Trotskyist left."

Eventually, but not in the beginning. The truly nonsectarian National Guardian began as the organ of the Progressive Party for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign, the last hurrah of the 1930s-1940s Popular Front. By 1952, Wallace had embraced the U.S./U.N. war in Korea, and the Vincent Hallinan campaign was the last gasp of PopFront Progressivism on its deathbed.

Monthly Review started up the year after the Wallace campaign. Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy surely aspired to inherit that mantle and its nonsectarian aura (exemplified by Albert Einstein's "Why Socialism?" article in the inaugural issue, endlessly recycled ever since), but were hobbled by their own ultrasectarian Stalinism. One of their early articles stoutly justified Stalin's purges and show trials, explaining that the Trotskyite wreckers and saboteurs had confessed in deference to their consciences, which retained flickering embers of their formerly Stalinist revolutionary selves. That article was reprinted as a pamphlet and widely distributed during the 1950s, to shore up the wavering commitments of CPers and friends who were not so certain that Earl Browder, John Gates, and their respective adherents ought to be consigned to outer darkness.

This was about the time that I began to take notice as a teen-age socialist. In my opinion, the lubricant that moved Huberman and Sweezy away from that course was A.J. Muste's American Forum for Socialist Education, which drew together Sidney Lens (nonsectarian in the 1937 Oehlerite tradition); CP dissidents; the followers of Isaac Deutscher; much of the old Popular Front left; and most of the grouplets and independents who had been through the SWP. (The SWP had been born two decades earlier when the Trotskyist CLA merged with Muste's nonsectarian American Workers Party.) The American Forum failed in its aim of nonsectarian socialist regroupment, but its legacy included MR's absorption of the Cochranite remnant.

Lou again, "I would argue that the so-called Cochranites were not only the very first to recognize the new realities of American politics in conditions of post-WWII affluence, but also the first to put forward an alternative to the kind of sectarianism that had not only characterized the American Trotskyist movement, but all such parties that had been forged in the loony crucible of Zinoviev's 1924 'Bolshevization' Comintern."

Besides the earlier arguments of Hugo Oehler, I would suggest that Lou read the group of documents that the Johnsonites (J.R. Johnson [C.L.R. James], not Kermit and Genora) published in 1947, after leaving the Workers Party and before rejoining the SWP (which they knew would not have permitted their publication) -- The American Worker and The Balance Sheet of American Trotskyism. Martin Harvey (Glaberman) called for a united front with the CP in the agitational pamphlet Punching Out. Also, if he can find them, the internal documents by Vince Copeland of the Marcy faction.

From polar opposite points of view, both groups sought to break from the sectarian straitjacket. I do not challenge Sol Dollinger's "what if?" musing over all, but Cochran actually pressed this aspect of his line later than others, and the ASU's subsequent trajectory does not fully justify such a sanguine picture of a 1950s and later SWP headed by Cochran.

As I wrote several months ago, Pablo's politics were rooted in pessimism. He predicted of "centuries of degenerated workers states." But Pablo wasn't the only Trotskyist leader who longed for the Left Opposition days, and postured accordingly. Sam Marcy was the other (from whose paper the Trotsky silhouette did disappear very quickly, for reasons my earlier post explained). The Marcyite view was Pablo's opposite, reflecting optimism driven by the revolutionary triumphs in Yugoslavia and China, which Marcy and Copeland regarded as validation of Trotsky's view that the aftermath of World War II would be the global spread and ultimate triumph of socialism. Whatever your criticisms may be, Marcy succeeded where Cochran failed, and his followers still are a central force in the mass movement.

Both Johnsonites and Marcyites maintained and expanded their industrial bases while Cochran's grew withdrew from the factories. The final issue of The American Socialist confessed failure, albeit cheerfully, and with a prediction that U.S. socialism eventually would be reborn. That was ironically an important contributing factor to Monthly Review's subsequent success. Doubly ironic is MR's latest recall of Harry Frankel (Braverman) and Bert Cochran having modeled the ASU's first organ on the 1930s publication of the Mechanics Educational Society of America.

MESA was not "a forerunner of the UAW." MESA was a model auto union, whose president, Matt Smith, was a principled socialist. No official of MESA was permitted to be paid more than the workers it represented, and MESA required its officers to work in the plants, being paid by the union only when off the shop floor on union business, such as pursuing grievances or negotiating contracts. Cochran opposed Smith, arguing that being exemplary was sectarian, and lost when the members overwhelmingly backed Smith.

Cochran split from MESA, and took his followers into the UAW-CIO. But MESA persisted, representing Fisher Body workers well into the 1960s at least, possibly later, before eventually merging with the UAW long after the insurgent movements had gone into decline. Old MESA hands believed that their union's exemplary presence alongside the UAW compelled the UAW to be more responsive to its rank and file than other, more ossified CIO industrial unions had been. They regarded MESA as comparable in its role to the left unions expelled from the CIO, such as UE and Mine-Mill.

In my opinion, Lou's current political outlook has shaded his view of the past, yielding a romanticized history of the tradition with which he identifies today. I do not disrespect the aims and achievements of Bert Cochran and his followers, but they also made mistakes, and failed in their most ambitious project. They certainly held no patent on opposing sectarianism within Trotskyism.

Ken Lawrence


Like you I learned about Cochran fight mostly from older comrades, because the stuff that is in Cannon's books, frankly, doesn't go very far, you can see that 9/10th of this iceberg is beneath the surface.

I had no problem getting a hold of and reading the Cochranite docs -- it may have been Frank himself who lent them to me, maybe someone else.

The weird thing is that in terms of positions and analysis, the minority clearly had been right, there's just no question about it, both about what had happened in eastern europe by 1950 or so ["right" from a more-or-less traditional, Trotskyist framework], and about what had been happening in the United States, although the majority did not adopt a position roughly along the lines of the minority's about the U.S. until the plenum after the split.

The real reason for the split, at least form what I understood from Frank and the older comrades, was NOT the dispute on political issues but "the organizational question," which Frank certainly and most of the others really and sincerely believed was at stake. They believed the Cochranites to be liquidationists. I remember Frank telling me, "you couldn't get these people to hold a forum" --an exaggeration, I assumed.

But the Cochranites believed a lot of high profile party activity directed to the public at large was inappropriate in a period of extreme reaction, unlikely to result in any real gains, and quite likely to lead to victimizations.

The real roots of the party crisis were in the twin apogees of Stalinism and U.S. imperialism in the immediate post-War period. The "Cannonites" reacted by denying reality, or at most conceding this was a momentary aberration and holding tight to the triumphalism of the "American Theses" of the first post-WWII convention. The Cochranites post-split evolution, at least as I have understood it until now, tended to confirm the diagnosis of liquidationism.

Over the next few years the SWP itself became increasingly "cochranite," adjusting the pace of party activity to the period of reaction, and eventually orienting towards a regroupment with existing radical millieus and the student movement. When the Cuban revolution came along the SWP did not spend a year or two insisting that nothing had happened.

It may well be that a political organization built along the lines projected by the 1953 minority would have been much more successful than the post-1953 SWP. But when a new generation of radicals began to rise up, the Cochran group had ceased to function.

Even when Frank Lovell was explaining it to me, I never, ever understood why the majority insisted on the split with the Cochranites. What Sol says -- that it was Jim Cannon's price for agreeing to move out of the center -- makes as much sense as anything else I've heard. And given this, the "Cochranism lite" of the post-split leadership also makes more sense.

* * *

It should be noted that Cochran was not the first to advocate a liquidationist position -- if that is what it was -- in the midst of a period of extreme reaction. That was, explicitly, the policy of Marx and Engels in the 1850s, who studiously abstained from any "activism" until the founding of the first international. In particular, if you read Engels's writings about the Communist League (nee League of the Just), you'll see they were totally against continuing the old organizational form of a tightly-knit nucleus in the new circumstance of extreme reaction, and when a new form arose, it was as a loosely-knit federation of like-minded groups, not at all like the programmatically homogeneous League.

* * *

Thanks you very much for the reference to Doug Henwood's piece in MR. I'll have to make sure to get it. I just want to point out, however, that the period referred to, 1949-1953, is the Korean War. War spending distorts the economic picture because it injects into the economy a big increase in demand. It also tends to restrict the supply of labor. And as I've noted, there's a lot of reasons to suspect the more recent figures understate GDP, GDP growth, increases in wages, increases in efficiency and increases in productivity.

It's going to take a lot of work and very sober analysis to get a real good picture of what is going on. Unfortunately from what I've read in the LBO web site, he summarily rejects the idea that U.S. statistics are out of whack, and thus views the whole issue as simply a devious plot to lower social security payments -- which, needless to say, was obviously one thing that was going on.

Best regards,

Jose Perez