The SWP: history of a workerist sect

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Sep 20 19:10:55 MDT 1995


Let us review the aftermath of the 1928 world congress of the=20
Comintern. Bukharin had lost power to Stalin. Stalin then unseated=20
Jay Lovestone, Bukharin's supporter and leader of the American=20
Communist Party, and turned over party leadership to William Z.=20
Foster, a Stalin loyalist.

There was another American Communist leader by the name of James=20
P. Cannon who went his own way and aligned himself with the=20
Trotskyist Left Opposition.

Cannon was born in Rosedale, Kansas in 1890 and joined the Socialist=20
Party in 1908. He then also joined the anarcho-syndicalist IWW three=20
years later. In the IWW Cannon worked with Vincent St. John, "Big=20
Bill" Haywood and Frank Little as a strike organizer and journalist.=20
He switched allegiance to the newly formed Communist Party in=20
September 1919 and won an election to the Central Committee in=20
1920. He served on the Communist International Presidium in from=20
1922 to 23. Next he headed the International Labor Defense from 1925=20
to 1928.

After he declared for Trotskyism, the CP expelled him. Along with=20
Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, he went on to form the=20
Communist League of America, the first American Trotskyist group.=20
This group eventually developed into the contemporary Socialist=20
Workers Party, a tiny group that has disavowed any connection with=20

Cannon set the sectarian tone of American Trotskyism at its infancy.=20
In a speech to the New York branch of his movement, on December=20
23, 1930, Cannon defined the relation of the opposition to "class" and=20

1. The Communist Party was still the vanguard, but the Trotskyist=20
opposition was the "vanguard of this vanguard."

2. The task of the opposition was to make the "opposition line the line=20
of the proletarian vanguard."

Cannon invoked Trotsky's words to support his approach. "The=20
revolutionary Marxists are now again reduced (not for the first time=20
and probably not for the last) to being an international propaganda=20
society....It seems that the fact that we are very few frightens you. Of=20
course, it is unpleasant. Naturally, it would be better to have behind us=
organizations numbering millions. But how are we, the vanguard of=20
the vanguard, to have such organizations the day after the world=20
revolution has suffered catastrophic defeats brought on by the=20
Menshevik leadership hiding under the false mask of Bolshevism?=20
Yes, how?" ("The Militant", 1929)

Has there ever been an "ideological" vanguard, Trotskyist or=20
otherwise? The answer is no. This is an idealistic conception of=20
politics that has been disastrous for Trotskyism throughout its entire=20
existence. A vanguard is a goal, not a set of ideas. The goal of the=20
vanguard is to coordinate the revolutionary conquest of power by the=20
workers and their allies. Building a true vanguard will require correct=20
ideas but these ideas can only emerge out of dialectical relationship=20
with mass struggles. To artificially separate a revolutionary program=20
from the mass movement is a guarantee that you will turn into a=20

Lenin had a totally different concept of a vanguard, but his idea was=20
nothing new. It merely represented mainstream thinking in Russian=20
and European Social Democracy. George Plekhanov, eighteen years=20
before the publication of "What is to be Done?" stated that "the=20
socialist intelligentsia...must become the leader of the working class in=
the impending emancipation movement, explain to it its political and=20
economic interests and also the interdependence of those interests and=20
must prepare them to play an independent role in the social life of=20
Russia." In 1898, Pavel Axelrod wrote that "the proletariat, according=20
to the consciousness of the Social Democrats, does not possess a ready-
made, historically elaborated social ideal," and "it goes without saying=20
that these conditions, without the energetic participation of the Social=20
Democrats, may cause our proletariat to remain in its condition as a=20
listless and somnolent force in respect of its political development."=20
The Austrian Hainfeld program of the Social Democrats said that=20
"Socialist consciousness is something that is brought into the=20
proletarian class struggle from the outside, not something that=20
organically develops out of the class struggle." Kautsky, the world's=20
leading Marxist during this period, stated that "socialism and the class=20
struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises=20
under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise=20
only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge."

However, a vanguard in Lenin's view is not something that a cadre=20
declares at the outset on the basis of correct ideas. This notion was=20
alien to Lenin's approach. It did, however, become the orthodoxy of=20
world Communism. Both Stalinists and Trotskyists shared this=20
interpretation. For the Stalinists, the American Communist Party=20
represented the vanguard because it came closest to representing the=20
ideas of Stalin on American soil. Since Stalin prevailed over actually-
existing socialism, how could anybody question this definition? The=20
Trotskyists, of course, challenged Stalin as a fountainhead of correct,=20
revolutionary ideas. They saw Leon Trotsky as the ultimate authority.=20
They traced his legacy through Lenin, who after all proposed that=20
Trotsky become CP general secretary instead of Stalin, and then back=20
to Engels and Marx. This concept of revolutionary continuity based on=20
ideology is a mistake in either Stalinist or Trotskyist packaging.

There was an inevitability to American Trotskyists embracing this=20
sectarian approach. Lenin had died and there was nobody left of any=20
stature in the Communist movement who could challenge it. Trotsky=20
had never been a Bolshevik and so was in no position to clarify ideas=20
to his followers that he did not possess. This false notion of a vanguard=
persisted well into the postwar era and it is only breaking down today=20
for reasons related to the collapse of both the Soviet Union and the=20
Fourth International.

American Trotskyism advanced fitfully through the 1930's. Its=20
"entryist" tactic into the Socialist Party was a defining moment for its=20
sectarianism. Trotsky had noticed that the Socialist Parties worldwide=20
were once again becoming a pole of attraction for radicalizing workers=20
because many of these workers could not stomach the brutal,=20
totalitarian Stalin regime. He advised his followers to enter the SP=92s as=
a bloc, capture the left-wing and then engineer a split in order to build=
Trotskyism and smash Social Democracy. The American Trotskyists=20
were quite successful. They did wreck American Social Democracy=20
and did expand their sect. After the success of the "entryist" tactic,=20
American workers had 2 choices: 1) the CP 2)a Trotskyist party that=20
would feature articles in its newspaper advising working-people to=20
"vote Trotskyist." The loss of the SP as a left-wing alternative to the=20
CP partially explains the weakness of American socialism today.

Another key element of Trotskyist sectarianism is its tendency to turn=20
every serious political fight into a conflict between worker and petty-
bourgeoisie. Every challenge to party orthodoxy, unless the party=20
leader himself mounts it, represents the influence of alien class=20
influences into the proletarian vanguard. Every Trotskyist party in=20
history has suffered from this crude sociological reductionism, but the=20
American Trotskyists were the unchallenged masters of it.

Soon after the split from the SP and the formation of the Socialist=20
Workers Party, a fight broke out in the party over the character of the=20
Soviet Union. Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and James Burnham led=20
one faction based primarily in New York. It stated that the Soviet=20
Union was no longer a worker's state and it saw the economic system=20
there as being in no way superior to capitalism. This opposition also=20
seemed to be less willing to oppose US entry into WWII than the=20
Cannon group, which stood on Zimmerwald "defeatist" orthodoxy.

Shachtman and Abern were full-time party workers with backgrounds=20
similar to Cannon's. Burnham was a horse of a different color. He was=20
an NYU philosophy professor who was born with a silver spoon in his=20
mouth. He would show up at party meetings in top hat and tails.=20
Burnham typically had either just returned from the opera or was on=20
his way.

Burnham became the paradigm of the whole opposition, despite the=20
fact that Shachtman and Abern's family backgrounds were identical to=20
Cannon's. Cannon and Trotsky tarred the whole opposition with the=20
petty-bourgeois brush. They stated that the workers would resist war=20
while the petty-bourgeois would welcome it. It was the immense=20
pressure of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia outside the SWP that=20
served as a source for these alien class influences. Burnham was the=20
"Typhoid Mary" of these petty-bourgeois germs.

However, it is simply wrong to set up a dichotomy between some kind=20
of intrinsically proletarian opposition to imperialist war and petty-
bourgeois acceptance of it. The workers have shown themselves just as=20
capable of bending to imperialist war propaganda as events=20
surrounding the Gulf War show. The primarily petty-bourgeois based=20
antiwar movement helped the Vietnamese achieve victory.  It was not=20
coal miners or steel workers who provided the shock-troops for the=20
Central America solidarity movement of the 1980's. It was lawyers,=20
doctors, computer programmers, Maryknoll nuns, and aspiring circus=20
clowns like the martyred Ben Linder who did. Furthermore, it would=20
be interesting to do a rigorous class analysis of the Shachtman-
Burnham-Abern opposition. I suspect that most of its rank-and-file=20
members were Jewish working-class people who more than anybody=20
would be susceptible to pro-war sentiment during this period. When=20
the Nazis were repressing Jews throughout Europe, it's no surprise=20
that American Jews would end up supporting US participation in=20

With Trotsky's help, Cannon defeated the opposition. Burnham=20
shifted to the right almost immediately and eventually became a=20
columnist with William F. Buckley's "National Review". Shachtman=20
remained a socialist until his final years, but like Lovestone who=20
preceded him, eventually embraced a right-wing version of socialism=20
that was largely indistinguishable from cold-war liberalism.=20
Unreconstructed Trotskyists might point to the trajectory of=20
Shachtman and Burnham and crow triumphantly, "See it was destined=20
to happen! The middle-class will always betray socialism."

History often moves in wayward directions, however. The next big=20
fight in American Trotskyism began in the early 1950's around the=20
question of whether Stalinist parties were moving to the left under the=20
impact of world events. The European Trotskyists said they were and=20
urged their co-thinkers everywhere to join the CP's. The American=20
Trotskyist leadership saw this as an attack on the purity of Marxism-
Leninism-Trotskyism and opened up ideological warfare on the=20

Of course, the Europeans were completely correct on this question.=20
Their main leader was an individual named Pablo. SWP leaders never=20
mentioned his name without attaching the epithet "revisionist" to it.=20
The CP did the same thing with Franco, except in that case the epithet=20
was "butcher", and it was accurate.

The fight had culminated in a split in the world Trotskyist movement.=20
The Europeans appeared totally vindicated in 1956, when the=20
Krushchev revelations caused the CP's to go into a total crisis.=20
Krushchev, the leader of the Communist Parties internationally,=20
seemed to share the critique of Stalin that the Trotskyists had been=20
advancing for decades. (The European Trotskyists have always been=20
much more in touch with political reality and the mass movement than=20
the Americans. In the global regroupment process that is taking place=20
today, the European Trotskyists can conceivably play a vanguard role=20
in fighting "vanguardism".)

CP'ers would have given Marxists a real hearing, if they were=20
comrades instead of sideline critics. Cannon, however, would have=20
nothing to do with the CP's. He preferred to remain pure in his little=20
Trotskyist cathedral wagging his finger at the evil Stalinists. His=20
sectarianism was palpable. The SWP did manage to recruit a few=20
disillusioned CP'ers in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Nobody was=20
able to forge a new left wing movement out of these important=20
openings unfortunately.

A minority faction in the SWP supported the European perspectives.=20
Did a new group of middle-class wastrels in top-hats and tails mount=20
such an attack on the working-class vanguard perspective of=20
revolutionary Marxism? No, this time the opposition was working-
class to the bone. The leader was UAW veteran Bert Cochran, who=20
had participated in some of the biggest organizing fights in the late=20
1930's. He was in Detroit and his supporters were industrial workers=20
like himself. How did Cannon explain this anomaly?

This was simple. The Cochranites were simply "petty-bourgeoisified"=20
workers. Here was Cannon's verdict:

"Since the consolidation of the CIO unions and the 13-year period of=20
war and postwar boom, a new stratification has taken place within the=20
American working class, and particularly and conspicuously in the=20
CIO unions. Our party, which is rooted in the unions, reflects that=20
stratification too. The worker who has soaked up the general=20
atmosphere of the long prosperity and begun to live and think like a=20
petty bourgeois is a familiar figure in the country at large. He has even=
made his appearance in the Socialist Workers Party as a ready-made=20
recruit for an opportunist faction."

There you have it. Whether you are on an assembly-line or own a=20
bagel shop, you can succumb to the dreaded "petty bourgeois" illness.=20
It seems that the only prophylactic is to be a party full-timer. When=20
Burnham refused Cannon's invitation to work for the party full-time,=20
Cannon commented, "We deemed it unworthy of the dignity of a=20
revolutionary leader to waste his [sic] time on some piddling=20
occupation in the bourgeois world and wrong for the party to permit it.=20
We decreed that no one could be a member of the Central Committee=20
of the party unless he [sic] was a full time professional party worker,=20
or willing to become such at the call of the party." There is little doubt=
in my mind that Burnham would have remained Burnham had he=20
remained at NYU or had gone to work in the SWP apparatus. This=20
mechanical conception of consciousness has nothing to do with=20
Marxism. It is the crudest sort of economic determinism.

The SWP stumbled along throughout the 1950's and early 60's while a=20
new radicalization was in preparation. This time the radicalization did=20
not occur in the factories. It occurred on the university campus and in=20
the civil rights movement.

The SWP had by then shrunk to a small cadre of aging factory-
workers and full-timers, so Cannon's successors eagerly sought to=20
replenish its ranks with some fresh blood. A number of students from=20
Carleton College in Minnesota supplied this fresh blood just in the=20
nick of time. Cannon's followers groomed Jack Barnes, the most=20
promising of these students, for party leadership.  Barnes was a bright,=20
ambitious youth who knew how to articulate Trotskyist orthodoxies in=20
terms acceptable to the older leadership. He had absolutely no roots in=20
the mass movement, however. His detachment from a mass movement=20
has marked his stewardship of the SWP since the 1960's. Except for a=20
brief period during the late 60's and early 70's, this group has=20
remained just as much of a purist church as it ever was under=20
Cannon's leadership.

During this period, the American Trotskyists seemed to be making=20
some kind of connection to the living mass movement. They=20
participated in the Vietnam antiwar movement and began to recruit=20
radicalizing students. Some of the older factory-based cadre grew=20
nervous at the sight of all these young people in purple bell-bottomed=20
jeans. What would a factory worker think if he or she saw such strange=20
people? The only solution to this problem was to send the middle-class=20
students into the factories were they would be "proletarianized". Of=20
course, most of these students came from the primarily working-class=20
based state colleges and universities. The Maoists tended to recruit the=20
elite students from private institutions.

A faction fight broke out once again. On one side you had most of the=20
older party leadership and the new generation under Barnes'=20
leadership. They line up against a small number of older cadre and=20
their young supporters who had just left places like Harvard and MIT=20
to get union jobs. These younger supporters tended to have nothing to=20
do with the "petty-bourgeois" antiwar movement.

In the ensuing struggle, an older party leader named George Breitman=20
who had impeccable proletarian credentials presented some interesting=20
arguments against the workerist opposition. He said, "In the 1930s,=20
some of us thought that the unions would play a central role in the=20
revolution, perhaps even a role like that which the soviets played in=20
the Russian Revolution of 1917. Today it seems less likely, because of=20
the changes that have have occurred in the unions and in their=20
relations with the capitalist state, because of the way they have been=20
incorporated or integrated into the state apparatus."

Breitman saw the unions as part of a broad struggle involving the=20
black and woman's liberation movement. He was very sensitive to the=20
black struggle and was one of the Trotskyists who had noted early on=20
the revolutionary implications of Malcolm X's black nationalism.=20
Breitman was an unusually gifted political analyst who broke with=20
Barnes in a few short years.

Breitman's enthusiasm for the mass movements, while well-
intentioned, seemed short-sighted in retrospect. Most of these non-
union based movements, and most especially the antiwar movement,=20
went into a steep decline in the mid-70's. The Barnes leadership=20
despaired. What would it do with all of the middle-class students who=20
had joined in the recent period and who threatened to unleash alien=20
class influences into the proletarian vanguard? He worried about=20
people exactly like me, a ten year veteran of the party, a computer=20
programmer who had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the=20

Barnes concluded that they were a threat to the party. He urged a "turn=20
toward industry" that would transform these latter-day James=20
Burnhams and Bert Cochrans into solid, loyal proletarian party=20
activists. It was similar to getting an inoculation against a fatal=20
disease. By working inside a steel mill or coal mine, a party activist=20
could fight off alien class influences more effectively.

In order to motivate this turn, Barnes described an American political=20
landscape that was about ready to erupt into major class struggles. He=20
saw the American unions as hotbeds of radicalism. This was during=20
the period so memorably captured by Michael Moore in "Roger and=20
Me", a time when laid-off workers were thinking more about raising=20
rabbits for food rather than proletarian revolution.

Barnes decided that the industrial unions would be the focal point for=20
all political struggles. He said, "Our turn is putting us where we must=20
be to apply our strategy in light of these changing conditions. That's=20
where we are winning influence for our ideas, educating ourselves and=20
our co-workers, taking on our political opponents. The industrial=20
workplaces and unions are our arena to build support for the fight=20
against nuclear power and weapons, for ratification of the Equal=20
Rights Amendment, against racial discrimination, and around the=20
other major political issues confronting our class. This is the central=20
arena for all our party campaigns."

This was one of the great ultraleft mistakes in history, clearly on a par=
with Stalin's third period phase in the early 1930's. To assume that the=20
industrial unions would be the place where all major political struggles=20
took place was an act of faith bordering on madness. He presented this=20
analysis without even subjecting the Breitman view to a thorough-
going critique. As we know, the 1980's were not a time when the=20
unions moved to center-stage in American politics. It was, on the other=20
hand, a time when the capitalist ruling-class moved to center-stage=20
and dealt the union movement powerful blows. Resistance to this=20
onslaught is only first beginning appear today.

I vividly remember these wild-eyed projections and feeling like the boy=20
in the emperor without clothes' tale. I knew I could not stand before=20
the party and express my doubts because would be tagged as a petty-
bourgeois element. I made an attempt to comply with the "turn" in a=20
dilatory fashion and moved out to Kansas City where I got a job in a=20
steel-mill. The consequences were, as you would expect, comical and=20
disastrous. I resembled the little tramp in "Modern Times" and will=20
supply a rich narrative about these misadventures at the appropriate=20

Thousands of people left the SWP during this period. Many of them=20
went on to become activists in the Central America solidarity=20
movement or other grass-roots movements. They worked closely with=20
many ex-Maoists who had gone through identical experiences. You=20
might even say that this unorganized movement of ex-Trotskyists and=20
Maoists is the largest group on the left today. What is interesting is=20
that a regroupment process has brought this milieu into contact with=20
ex-CP'ers who have launched the Committees of Correspondence. This=20
organization and Solidarity, another loosely structured group that=20
rejects "vanguardism" are promising new formations on the American=20
left. I will have much more to say about them in my next article.

There is something meaningful we can observe about the proletarian=20
vanguard and alien class influences that threaten it, but I come at this=20
from a completely direction than the SWP full-time party bosses.

I spend a brief time in the SWP national office in the mid-1970's. I=20
was building a computer system for Pathfinder Press at night and=20
working for a consulting company by day. The one thing that struck=20
me right away was how important it was for people to be close to Jack=20
Barnes. Party workers always would let slip phrases like, "I spoke to=20
Jack yesterday...." How often you met with Jack Barnes determined=20
your place in the hierarchy.

This reminded me of what I used to hear during the day at the=20
consulting firm that employed me. A charismatic, handsome veteran=20
of EST weekend seminars without a brain in his head had started this
company called Automated Concepts Incorporated. This individual=20
who went by the name of Fred Harris was also the object of adulation=20
in his own little fishpond.

There is a facile observation to the effect that Marxist-Leninist sects=20
have the same structures and beliefs as religious cults. I think this is=20
only partially true. These sects also have many of the features of small=20
start-up companies run by powerful and willful entrepreneurs. Jack=20
Barnes falls into this category. He runs the SWP as if it were a small=20
corporation. This company is a very profitable one. He has a staff of=20
hard-working printers in New York who work at much lower than=20
union wages, but they take on a lot of commercial business. This spells=20
big profits. Somebody who sits at the apex of such an institution =20
eventually start thinking like a cockroach capitalist. When you look at=20
small-time sect leaders like Jack Barnes, that's exactly what you are=20
looking at: a deadly combination of religious cult leader and ambitious=20

Workers instinctively shun outfits like this. It reminds them too much=20
of the type of authoritarian nonsense they put up with at work.=20
Workers understand that they must be the authors of their own=20
liberation. They do not need a genius who is the latter-day=20
embodiment of Lenin to lead them to victory. They will rely on their=20
own numbers and their own collective strength to transform American=20
society. They can not do this without a socialist party, however. They=20
need an organization that can coordinate all of their struggles on a=20
national level. This is the type of genuine vanguard we desperately=20
need and in my next article I will describe some ways in which we can=20
build it.


James P. Cannon:
"The Left Opposition in the U.S. 1928-1931"
"The Struggle for a Proletarian Party"
"Speeches to the Party"

Paul LeBlanc: "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party"

Socialist Workers Party:
"Towards an American Socialist Revolution"
"The Changing Face of U.S. Politics"

Leon Trotsky: "In Defense of Marxism"

exact citations available on request

     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list