The SWP: history of a workerist sect

Maoist Internationalist Movement mim3 at
Fri Sep 22 08:57:44 MDT 1995

On Wed, 20 Sep 1995, Louis N Proyect wrote:

> Cannon set the sectarian tone of American Trotskyism at its infancy.
> In a speech to the New York branch of his movement, on December
> 23, 1930, Cannon defined the relation of the opposition to "class" and
> "vanguard".
> 1. The Communist Party was still the vanguard, but the Trotskyist
> opposition was the "vanguard of this vanguard."
> 2. The task of the opposition was to make the "opposition line the line
> of the proletarian vanguard."
> Cannon invoked Trotsky's words to support his approach. "The
> revolutionary Marxists are now again reduced (not for the first time
> and probably not for the last) to being an international propaganda
> society....It seems that the fact that we are very few frightens you. Of
> course, it is unpleasant. Naturally, it would be better to have behind us
> organizations numbering millions. But how are we, the vanguard of
> the vanguard, to have such organizations the day after the world
> revolution has suffered catastrophic defeats brought on by the
> Menshevik leadership hiding under the false mask of Bolshevism?
> Yes, how?" ("The Militant", 1929)
> Has there ever been an "ideological" vanguard, Trotskyist or
> otherwise? The answer is no. This is an idealistic conception of
> politics that has been disastrous for Trotskyism throughout its entire
> existence. A vanguard is a goal, not a set of ideas. The goal of the

MIM replies: Trotskyism has been by definition since about 1924 or
so, idealism. For you to generalize beyond the splintering processes
of Trotskyism to the tradition of Stalin would require much more
work, and we are confident it can't be done without a complete
rewriting of history.

> vanguard is to coordinate the revolutionary conquest of power by the
> workers and their allies. Building a true vanguard will require correct
> ideas but these ideas can only emerge out of dialectical relationship
> with mass struggles. To artificially separate a revolutionary program

MIM replies: Whoever said that the "great revolutionary science
can only be established in laboratories by people with
PhDs in Marxology?" Well maybe Althusser, but not any of the kind
of "sectarians" you are talking about.

> from the mass movement is a guarantee that you will turn into a
> sectarian.

MIM replies: We would define a "sectarian" as someone who put
the interests of a particular organization above that of the
proletariat and its allies. If we throw about the word "sectarian"
lightly, we encourage an anti-commitment and anti-struggle line.

> However, a vanguard in Lenin's view is not something that a cadre
> declares at the outset on the basis of correct ideas. This notion was
> alien to Lenin's approach. It did, however, become the orthodoxy of
> world Communism. Both Stalinists and Trotskyists shared this
> interpretation. For the Stalinists, the American Communist Party
> represented the vanguard because it came closest to representing the
> ideas of Stalin on American soil. Since Stalin prevailed over actually-
> existing socialism, how could anybody question this definition? The

MIM replies: What the Norwegian Trotskyists said a while back
made more sense than this. You need to expand. Right now you are
cavalierly throwing out the history of China, Korea, Albania,
the Black Panthers, the PCP, the Filipinos etc.--in another words,
independent but successful revolutionary movements in the tradition of
Marx, Lenin and Stalin that had little to do with the simple
power struggle between two or three people--Trotsky vs. Stalin for

> Trotskyists, of course, challenged Stalin as a fountainhead of correct,
> revolutionary ideas. They saw Leon Trotsky as the ultimate authority.
> They traced his legacy through Lenin, who after all proposed that
> Trotsky become CP general secretary instead of Stalin, and then back
> to Engels and Marx. This concept of revolutionary continuity based on
> ideology is a mistake in either Stalinist or Trotskyist packaging.

MIM replies: True, one line of continuity for one country is a mistake.
To refute the tradition of Marx, Lenin and Mao, however, requires
either historical amnesia or a multi-nation approach. Proyect doesn't
explain why separate movements in the tradition of Stalin and Mao
have made revolution in more than one country. And I'm not talking
about places where the Soviet Army simply rolled in. I'm not
even talking about Czechoslavakia where the post-WWII communists
won a general election. I'm not counting Nepal last year either where
mushy-minded "communists" supposedly in our tradition won the
national elections. No I'm just talking about revolutionary movements
that have arisen on their own and in the tradition of Stalin and Mao.

These generalizations that Proyect make are glued together and find
their attractive power in the implicit assumptions of Anglo-Saxon
pragmatism. It is just another expression like that of bourgeois
democracy in which a superstructure matches the part of the
economic structure where there is intra-capitalist rivalry. In
the Democratic and Republican parties they worry about
numbers and not principles. They bring no proletarian change
despite being aimed at the "masses," and there is a long history
of mushy organizations like DSA internationally that bring no change.

This is counter-intuitive for us in the imperialist countries,
because we have been brainwashed in electoral politics from age 1.
However, history shows that it is a disciplined organization
that took the most unpopular position on World War I (intentionally)
that carried out the Russian Revolution. It was a few circles of
students reading Marxist books who formed a party of 20 that
carried out the revolution in China. It was Marxist-Leninist Enver Hoxha
who carried out the revolution in Albania independent from the
Soviet Red Army and so on. Numbers in an organization does not
equal success. Mensheviks outnumbered Lenin's group almost immediately
after the split. Anarchists vastly outnumbered Mao's group
and had extensive resources. It didn't matter because it's the
quality, not the quantity that matters.

On the other hand, we will concede that Trotskyists seem to have
taken one specific idea from Leninism and blown it up out of context,
the idea that every question of principle is a cardinal question
worthy of dividing over. So the Trots split from Stalin and then
from each other. Recently I saw a Trotskyist split from a group
over the wording of an anti-Gulf War slogan.

We at MIM only have four cardinal questions which we would divide
our party over. We tried to pick the biggest ones having to
do with the practice of socialism.

> were quite successful. They did wreck American Social Democracy

MIM replies: Good for the Trotskyists; though I think Humphrey-Mondale
might disagree.
> Another key element of Trotskyist sectarianism is its tendency to turn
> every serious political fight into a conflict between worker and petty-
> bourgeoisie. Every challenge to party orthodoxy, unless the party
> leader himself mounts it, represents the influence of alien class
> influences into the proletarian vanguard. Every Trotskyist party in
> history has suffered from this crude sociological reductionism, but the
> American Trotskyists were the unchallenged masters of it.

MIM replies: Your posts are riddled with reductionism going so far
as to follow the social composition of small groups at every step.
Get over it; Mao was a peasant. Engels was the son of a capitalist.
Lenin was a lawyer. You should only start to worry when you are in
the position as
Trotskyism is that it has not mobilized working peoples in any
countries over a long period of time. Evidence on that scale should
not be ignored. The fact that the Marx-Engels partnership was
half capitalist should be ignored. To be able to ignore its world
history, Trotskyism focusses people narrowly on their countries
without informing them of successful movements in the world.
In the imperialist countries, this is easiest to do, because
the original theory of Trotskyism placed so much stress on the
"advanced" industrial workers of the imperialist countries.

> However, it is simply wrong to set up a dichotomy between some kind
> of intrinsically proletarian opposition to imperialist war and petty-

MIM replies: Change the word "proletarian" to worker and we would
agree. Lenin and Zinoviev said that they oppose the world war
in the interests of the proletariat, while the majority of workers
supported it. They let the social-chauvinists claim the workers,
but claimed they were the ones who defended the proletariat.

> bourgeois acceptance of it. The workers have shown themselves just as
> capable of bending to imperialist war propaganda as events
> surrounding the Gulf War show. The primarily petty-bourgeois based

MIM replies: Did you notice how workers from Third World countries
did not support the Gulf War as much?

> antiwar movement helped the Vietnamese achieve victory.  It was not
> coal miners or steel workers who provided the shock-troops for the
> Central America solidarity movement of the 1980's. It was lawyers,
> doctors, computer programmers, Maryknoll nuns, and aspiring circus
> clowns like the martyred Ben Linder who did. Furthermore, it would

MIM replies: "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Fanonist" George Jackson
agreed with you that ironically the upper-middle-class was more
farseeing and hence more revolutionary in the short-run than the
labor aristocracy benefitting so narrowly from imperialism. We would stress
that people  generally go into these movements as youth or oppressed

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

MIM replies: It seems SWP has brainwashed you into sociological reductionism.

To even mention the Maoists and Trotskyists in the 1960s
in the same breath like this shows a vastly distorted sense of history.
The Maoists were hugely more influential, not just in private institutions.
The DSA home page geneology of the left is interesting, but you get
no sense of relative importance in the 1960s from DSA because they
are so busy making out like Port Huron was the summit of the '60s,
by which reckoning 1965 to 1972 matters not a whit. It also shows
no sense of the importance of the Black Panthers, so lacking in
internationalism is this Anglo-Saxon pragmatism.
> >
> 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
> industrial unions would be the place where all major political struggles
> took place was an act of faith bordering on madness. He presented this
> analysis without even subjecting the Breitman view to a thorough-
> going critique. As we know, the 1980's were not a time when the
> unions moved to center-stage in American politics. It was, on the other

MIM replies: The funny thing about ultraleft political economy like
this which sees the labor aristocracy as about to leap up for
revolution is that once it was accepted as a given since 1929,
it justified an oscillation of rightist and ultraleftist tactics.
Everyone assumed the workers were about to rise up, so if they
didn't, everyone assumed that a) we should yell at the workers
"awake!" b) we should tone down our stuff and let the workers take
their natural road to revolution. When no tactics worked,
finally some people from the 1960s in the Revolutionary Youth Movement I
started coming to conclusions.

> Thousands of people left the SWP during this period. Many of them
> went on to become activists in the Central America solidarity
> movement or other grass-roots movements. They worked closely with
> many ex-Maoists who had gone through identical experiences. You
> might even say that this unorganized movement of ex-Trotskyists and
> Maoists is the largest group on the left today. What is interesting is

MIM replies: Again that obsession with size. If these people have
anything in common it is relative lack of commitment and a sense of
powerlessness assuaged by belonging to single-issue groups where they
feel they can make a small difference.

> that a regroupment process has brought this milieu into contact with
> ex-CP'ers who have launched the Committees of Correspondence. This
> organization and Solidarity, another loosely structured group that
> rejects "vanguardism" are promising new formations on the American
> left. I will have much more to say about them in my next article.

MIM replies: Why not mention DSA? They openly count people on paper
and make it their goal.

You label these groups "promising" only based on an absorption of
crude electoral politics assumptions. No where in this post do
you point to the success of a CoC approach anywhere in the world
now or in the past. This is the history we need to know,
not the biographical details of Jack Barnes and other aristocrats.
Such details you inform us of help us to be sociological reductionists,
but matter little to the science of revolution.

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

MIM replies: By which reasoning militant anarchism is thriving.
However it is not. Discomfort with discipline is common
to the settler/labor aristocracy and petty-bourgeoisie.
They shun any form of proletarian politics because they are not
proletarian. It's not that they leap up for
any chance to support their international class brothers and sisters
whenever they can apart from organizations.
If so we would see a huge internationalist anarchist movement or the
like and we do not.

> Workers understand that they must be the authors of their own
> liberation. They do not need a genius who is the latter-day
> embodiment of Lenin to lead them to victory. They will rely on their
> own numbers and their own collective strength to transform American
> society. They can not do this without a socialist party, however. They

MIM replies: Numbers again. A true communist spirit is not to
begrudge the work a Lenin does. Nor does it pit professional cadres against
the masses as you and the bourgeoisie have both done, Proyect.

Your favorite example of mushiness leading to success is the FMLN/FDR.
How does that compare with other agrarian struggles? Not very well,
except that the FMLN got much more favorable publicity from
powerful pro-Soviet allies. In terms of its accomplishments, it does
not fare well compared with another small agrarian society--Albania.
In Albania they collectivized the land. The FMLN did not get that far.

Pat for MIM

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