On the U.S. Trotskyist History

On the U.S. Trotskyist History

[Extract first printed in Marxist Bulletin No 3 Part IV  “Conversations With Wohlforth: Minutes of the Spartacist-ACFI (American Committee for the Fourth International) Unity Negotiating Sessions June-October 1965” Originally posted at http://www.bolshevik.org/history/MarxistBulletin/CWW3.html ]

Spartacist-ACFI Unity Negotiations

Third Session

9 July 1965


    Spartacist: Robertson, Turner, Stoute; (Harper, Secretary).

    ACFI: Wohlforth, Mazelis, Michael (alternate for van Ronk).

Meeting convened at 8:10 p.m.

Chairman: Stoute




    b. current


    3. Election statements

    4. Social. Topic and time of next meeting

1. SWP Discussion:

Wohlforth: The essential feature of the American Marxist movement has been its failure to really develop theory, and while certain progress has been made in some periods toward coming to basic working-class consciousness, and even going beyond that in adherence to the world movement and later the Trotskyist movement, through its entire history it has never mastered the Marxist method. Rather it sought to build a movement with theory inherited from past leaders like Marx or worked out elsewhere and imported. Americans learned lessons rather than the method leading to those lessons. Cannon came out of the midwest fusion of the Populist-Wobbly movement, and the Cannon-Foster faction within the CP (while the healthiest of the factions) was representative of that empiricism. Cannon learned from Zinoviev, etc., a way of treating political questions in an organizational way. Trotsky warned him against this, but this tradition has remained to this day. SWP was a bloc between Cannon and Trotsky in which Cannon took the political line of Trotsky but developed the SWP in his own way organizationally. The struggle of the SWP with Shachtman showed the failure of the SWP to develop theoretically. It was Trotsky that insisted the struggle center around questions of dialectics and method. Discussions between Trotsky and the SWP leadership revealed that Trotsky was anything but an uncritical supporter of Cannon, was worried about Cannon’s adaptation to the liberal-trade-union sections and the incapacity and unwillingness of the Cannon people to break from that sort of collaboration. Cannon’s conduct during the Minneapolis trials has been used as a precedent for today. In the post-war period Cannon failed to understand the international conjunctural situation and came up with the theory of inverted American exceptionalism. But world capitalism was restabilizing itself and the American struggle would thus retreat. The International never understood this fundamental turning point in world history (1946-47), but instead the line of Pablo was that this was a period of ascending socialist revolution. Cannon never confronted the problem of Stalinism in the post-war period, but felt that the SWP would be thrown into leadership. Degeneration of the SWP during the ‘50s was then not merely a simple reflection of negative conditions, though these accentuated the sickness of the party. Internal problems forced Cannon into an international bloc he never wanted, explained this on the basis of “orthodoxy”. This was short-lived and prepared ground for growth of revision. The crisis of the SWP has been brewing for 20-25 years. The central cadre of the party was fashioned in this sick situation. Understanding the history of the SWP is related to our tasks of building the movement today. Are we simply to be a more orthodox copy of the SWP or recognize the necessity of theoretical development, of applying the Marxist method, of going beyond “orthodoxy”? Our tasks are essentially Iskra tasks, bring theory and consciousness to an economist movement. Study of the history of the SWP is essential to our own development and tasks.

Robertson: Your document was a good and serious effort to understand the SWP, but was best in its particular analyses. However, it would seem that you have loaded too much on American empiricism. Actually it is American exceptionalism to single out what happened in the U.S. alone as reason for the decline of the Marxist movement (though it is undeniably true that the American movement had a theoretical incapacity). To counterpose the sickness of the U.S. to the world movement would be good if objective development confirms, but it doesn’t. In the U.S., the most significant failure was that of the American working class to develop any political movement of its own. You often talk about “theory” and “method” but are weak in definition. In order to deal with Marxist method it is necessary to understand it not merely to refer to it–“theory” by itself is an empty word. Theory is a sufficient simplification of reality that it can be shoved into our heads and give us an active understanding as participants of what is going on–that is, what we hold in our heads is also a factor. Program generates theory. What are decisive are programmatic questions. The SWP in post-war years had a theory that was inadequate on Yugoslavia, China, etc. Pabloism was a revisionist attempt to fill that gap in a way that turned the movement toward programmatic shift and opened up the whole world movement for degeneration. Largely for objective reasons the SWP moved into the post-war period deproletarianized, isolated and with an aging cadre; a qualitative transformation took place. It is important to appreciate what the main driving forces were in the degeneration of the SWP for no party has ever performed anywhere in the world longer better than the SWP has and that includes the Bolshevik Party–no party has ever outlived the aging of its cadre.

The SWP managed to hold a revolutionary line for some decades–the ’50s was the worst period any movement faced anywhere. The entire world Trotskyist movement had developed an estimation of Stalinism which was developed on the basis of a single kind of experience–the pre-war role or the Stalinist parties in the face of working class mobilization in struggle. In the post-war years the SWP line had a ritual character. Program is decisive. Wohlforth’s analysis is fine, but has an idealist streak. His “theory” and “method” have a categorical quality. Though I have come down hardest on the critical side, I thought “Marxism in the U.S.” was a good statement.

Turner: Wohlforth’s document will be helpful for those who have not gone through the struggle in the SWP, though there is a tendency to oversimplify in the document. The subjective aspect of Cannon has been elevated and made into a factor beyond the normal weight that should be assigned. After all, the entire international movement failed to deal with the new situation that had arisen–the failure was not merely Cannon’s but that of the whole movement. In raising questions about the application of Marxist method, it would have been useful to concretely show method in application in terms of dialectics rather than just repeating the word “method”.

Wohlforth: The points raised on the need for more concrete material on theory and method are quite welcome. As far as R’s questioning my placing too much emphasis on American empiricism, failures of the whole international working class were obviously involved. I mentioned empiricism because this was the way the theoretical failure developed in the U.S., while in Europe, especially France, the failure was in the direction of formalism. As to the criticism that the document was weak in definition of theory and method, I wanted to show what they were through concrete analysis. The “Assimilation” document goes into it theoretically, and I consider it to be a complementary document, was how Marxist method should have been applied to the major problems of post-war period. Theory and method are not simple reflections of reality, but have an independent existence precisely because they are an abstraction from reality of the underlying process which may not be apparent through simple reflection. Theory seeks to reflect independent reality from beginning to end, not just present reality. The Pabloites had a theory that reflected a period of the expansion of Stalinism. Program does not generate theory; rather one comes to programmatic conclusions on the basis of theoretical understanding. There is an interaction between program and theory. Program in the concrete becomes part of the process and leads to theory; your mind is part of the reality. The weakness of the SWP would have failed in a good period in another way. It was headed for failure in 1946 by its false combination of sectarianism and opportunism, and would have led to the destruction of the SWP as a revolutionary party barring theoretical development. Can’t say no party performed better than the SWP. It is to the Bolshevik party we must return today, not to the SWP. Trotsky was the continuator of the Bolshevik party, but he was incapable given his time of creating a new formation that would be able to withstand his death. The Trotskyist movement was a failure but the Bolshevik movement was not. Bolshevism had within it greater revolutionary forces, more cadre who understood Marxist method, than any movement since. We will be playing only a transitional role. We don’t come out of the old tradition; the SWP did not create a cadre capable of doing what Trotsky did in the world movement. It is not that the analysis of Stalinism developed in the 1930’s is inadequate to explain current reality, but that they didn’t understand the method by which that theory was arrived at. Stalinism is degenerative, not progressive. Cannon is a key person in the history of the SWP, and in essence Cannon is the SWP. The degeneration of the SWP is related to the degeneration of Cannon. We are not Cannonites. We do not want to return to Cannonism. We want the destruction of Cannonism. Cannon subordinated politics to organization. Organizational questions should not have a life in and of themselves. Our role is not simply to gather together workers where we can find them but to take to the working class the theoretical understanding without which the working class is incapable of organizing itself into a force to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Must have a conjunctural analysis of the development of capitalism as a world system in order to supplant the bourgeoisie.

Robertson: On theory being a reflection of reality–you have defined this as current reality. But that is impressionism. The greatest reality is during crises when superficial reality is stripped away. 1923 was such a turning point–that is how I used the word “reality”. I don’t like the word “process” because it has an objectivist tone. Slaughter is the most outstanding Marxist theorist today because of his denial of the autonomy of “facts” and his insistence that what we think is part of the process and part of the social outcome. We differ on program generating theory. If you sought to adhere to program at the time of failure of theory, you would either have to freeze or else seek a stronger guide to action, examining full reality, not just present nor just past. Only Cuba allowed one to finally make sense of the entire post-war problem; the problem was not solved historically until the Cuban developments. But anticipations were possible. Regarding Cannon’s worth as a Trotskyist political leader, as late as 1948 his writings on the Wallace campaign were a model. Trotsky was not part of the old Bolshevik cadre but issued out of Bolshevism partly in opposition to the Bolshevik Party which fell apart. The SWP has produced us. We are a link, for better or worse, from the Bolsheviks to Trotsky to SWP to us. Cannon was the best Communist politician produced in this country. It is not a question of copying the SWP but of going beyond. Future Trotskyists will have to meet the measure of Cannon’s strengths as well as his weaknesses. This is a real challenge. We have to learn from him positively as well as negatively. On Philips’s criticisms of your history project, some were correct, but basically he was making a Philistine response.

Turner: On the subjective factor of Cannon vs. the whole objective situation in which Trotskyism found itself–even in its most positive periods, Trotskyism existed in a context in which Stalinism as a world system looked and was large. The Trotskyist movement, even while Trotsky was alive, was not able to make a dent in the European Stalinist movement. The failure was not basically that of the individual, Cannon. While the individual can play an important role in all the processes of history, you cannot eliminate the objective forces. For example, in the degeneration of the Bolsheviks, Trotsky never considered the subjective to be the main factor.

Mazelis: It is wrong to say Trotsky did not come out of the Bolshevik party. He joined in 1917. This was qualitatively different from us coming over to the SWP. We came over to Trotskyism, not Cannonism. Our development must be viewed separately from the SWP. Trotsky came over to Leninism. What we learned in the SWP was not of the order of what Trotsky learned from Leninism. The British movement is already on a higher level than the SWP ever was here. We feel Cannonism was unable to develop Marxism but this is not saying we and the British have developed it, but we have scratched the surface. The “Assimilation” document was an extremely important contribution, and the international conference will make other contributions.

Michael: Robertson gives the impression that program yields theory, that you have a program that draws you into contact with events taking place and then cast about for theory. This view doesn’t take into account the things one uses to construct a theory.

Robertson: The best way to look at these questions is in situ–truth is always concrete. In the first workers movement in Russia a new problem was broached. The Bolsheviks and Lenin had an incorrect theory, a sufficient but not a correct theory, but up to the supreme moment they had the correct political conclusion of not making alliances with the liberals. In 1917 Lenin became a Trotskyist. In the alliance of the proletariat and the peasants, the proletariat must take the lead–there was something new in the Russian situation which cleared this up; the old experience was not enough. Trotsky made these predictions in 1904 without there yet being a party to carry out the program’s content. The Bolsheviks remained steadfast to their program. None of the individuals or groups at the time had the whole truth.

Turner: The basis of Marxism is materialism. In the beginning was the deed. History, life, pose certain tasks which men must solve, so they project a construction. To the extent the construction is related to the reality, men solve the tasks. This is fundamental to Marxism. There can be no disagreement on this.

Wohlforth: You are mistaken. Theory is more than a reflection of reality, it is an active part of reality. We must get out of a mechanism which has almost destroyed the Marxist movement. Theory is an interacting part of reality itself. Cannon was not a communist politician because he was never a communist in that he never mastered the fundamental of communism which was necessary to combine theory with the building of the party. Cannon was the world’s best factionalist. He kept control over the party but he destroyed the party–a criminal act. The best communist politician in the history of the SWP was Wright–he almost understood. There is a basic difference between us: The Spartacist group has yet to complete the theoretical break with the SWP and Cannonism while we have taken this step and have done it in large part under the urging of’ the SLL. It was they who urged us take on the history project. They had already come to the understanding of the need to break with Cannon. On program begetting theory–this is completely wrong. We are fundamentally counterposed to that position. That is not Marxism. You must begin with reality not with program. Lenin was in no sense an empiricist. He sought to implement a theory which wasn’t totally wrong. His program was an adequate reflection of his theory. Trotsky didn’t develop the theory of the Permanent Revolution out of program. He started with the reality of the 1905 revolution which led to theoretical understanding which led to program. “Working out theory to explain program”… “In the beginning was the deed”… I’m not interested in this, this is nothing. In this discussion we are concretizing what we mean by theory and method. Read Lenin’s Notebooks — he uses the word “process” 500 times. Process is essential to dialectics. If Robertson rejects the concept of process, he rejects the dialectic. To ignore or refuse to accept process loses that which is central to the dialectic, the internal process of life and matter. Everything is always in process. We continue to have important theoretical and methodological differences. This rather than barring unification and discussion, necessitates discussion, makes this dialogue and process between us more urgent.

Robertson: The question has been raised as to what is the program of a party. This is a class question, anticipation of the limits of what that class or section of the class can hope to achieve for itself, the codification of the possibilities of a class, for the workers a question of the victory of the socialist revolution–that is what program is. What is it that shapes theory? The appetites of men shape out their intervention. The SWP was not a bloc with Cannon–that implies they had different programs which they did not. The SWP was the American branch of the world Trotskyist movement, it was not the SWP vs. the Trotskyist movement. Theory does not always grow and develop. We know less about the world now than was known at the time of the Bolshevik revolution. We know less of the world at present because we have less means to change the world. I did not say Lenin was an empiricist, but that there was a certain theoretical weakness in the program of the Bolsheviks which was shared by Lenin, a slight empiricism. Trotsky did not start with the Revolution of 1905 for the theory of the Permanent Revolution, but had seen the need 18 months before that for a labor dictatorship. Because of this Trotsky seized on the Soviets more quickly than the Bolsheviks. Internal contradiction is the heart of dialectics. The word “process” grates on me, invoking an image of “process industries” such as the automated American oil refineries; hence I object … because we (or our absence!) are part of the “process”.

Turner: Wohlforth should avoid trying to score debating points, but consider what is being said, not take words out of context and try to give it some implied meaning. That is not a dialectical approach. Generally we have very unimportant and minor differences, as far as the discussion here reveals.

Robertson: We don’t propose to take a vote on your document, on views on these historical questions and on methodology. We ourselves have a running internal discussion on method.

Mazelis: I disagree strongly with Comrade Turner, with his entire approach. We have very serious differences, as the discussion shows. But we shouldn’t be afraid of differences, they should be thoroughly explored, and not avoided. As W. said, they are anything but a bar to unity. It’s perfectly understandable that you wouldn’t have a position on a particular document. It’s another thing that it should be stated the way you stated it–you don’t anticipate taking a position. There are important differences between us.

Wohlforth: You will take a position on method at your coming conference whether you want to or not. Marxist method will or will not be reflected in your documents. Spartacist will not be able to avoid taking a position on method.