swp

James Miller jamiller at igc.apc.org
Fri Feb 23 23:12:32 MST 1996


THE VANGUARD

Louis P. says:

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

   There's no need to quibble over a word. "Vanguard" means
the advanced element. It's a group of people who are in the
leadership of the workers' movement. But Louis gets off to
a rocky start in attempting to define the word "vanguard."
   First he says it's a "goal." Then he says "the goal of the
vanguard is...", implying that the vanguard is a group
of people that has a goal. So I don't see any problem here
other than terminological hairsplitting. Of course, as he
says, artifical separation of the revolutionary program from
the mass movement is sectarian. That's something Louis
might well have learned in the SWP.

   A bit later, Louis says:

>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 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.

   A vanguard is not something a cadre "declares" at the
"outset" on the basis of "correct ideas." What Louis means
here is that a group of people can't declare themselves to
be a vanguard in fact, just because they have "correct ideas."
True enough. But "correct ideas" help. And they're not so
easy to come by.
   What did Marx and Engels start with? They started with
a lot of "incorrect ideas," but through serious study and
debate, they soon developed the germ of a proletarian world
view. Once they had grasped the implications of this ("the
point is to change it"), then they sought to join the
Communist League. The point here is that once you have an
idea of how to proceed, you had better get to work and try
to build an organization of revolutionaries.
   Experience then teaches you to modify your conceptions.
And this is what the U.S. Trotskyists did in the 1930s.
   But Louis thinks of the Trotskyists in the 1930s as a
sect. He never explains why he views them this way. Of
course, if you fail to mention the trade union and political
activity of the organization (first called Communist League
of America, later Workers party, later Socialist Workers
Party), then you can conceive of them as an isolated sect.
This is what Louis does. He fails to mention the party's
record of activity. This record is documented in _The
History of American Trotskyism_, by Cannon, and in
the four _Teamsters_ books by Farrell Dobbs.
   Louis says that the Cannon group regarded Trotsky as
the "ultimate authority." The Trotskyists in the U.S.
during Trotsky's life saw Trotsky as the most reliable
teacher and guide. And didn't he fulfill that role? After
his death they had to do without him, but they traced their
political legacy to him. That's not surprising, since
Trotsky traced his legacy to Lenin, and Lenin, for his part,
traced his own legacy time and again to Marx and Engels.
And why does Louis say that the revolutionary continuity
is based on ideology? It's based both on ideas and on
actions.

   Further on, Louis says:

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

   What was wrong with the Zimmerwald "defeatist" orthodoxy?
Apparently, this orthodoxy is great if Lenin's name is attached
to it. But it's tainted if associated with the Cannon group. The
SWP opposed the war, and its leaders were put in prison for
it. Give credit where credit is due. Had the SWP buckled under
the war pressure, it would not have survived to recruit Louis
Proyect 30 years later and give him a Marxist education.

Louis says (referring to the 1950s):

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

   Cannon remained in his cathedral? Louis could have
mentioned the regroupment maneuver, which was an
organized effort to recruit CP members, and then criticized
it. But since this little detail conflicts with the "cathedral"
metaphor, Louis decided not to mention it. He does say,
however, that the SWP recruited a few disillusioned Cpers.

   Then came the radicalization of the 1960s, and
according to Louis:

>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.

   They only "seemed" to be making "some kind of
connection." Does Louis really believe this? He says
they participated in the antiwar movement. Did they
really participate, or did they only "seem" to?

   Referring to the "turn to industry" by SWP members
in 1978, Louis indicates one SWP argument for it:

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

   But Louis thinks this was a great mistake:

>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 hand, a time when the capitalist
>ruling-class moved to center-stage and dealt the union
>movement powerful blows. Resistance to this onslaught is
>only first beginning appear today.

   How could this orientation to the industrial unions be
considered as such a "great mistake," if, as Louis maintains,
the SWP was thoroughly sectarian? What could you expect
from sectarians but mistakes? Or, more accurately, their
whole existence should be regarded as a "mistake," so you
wouldn't expect any rational behavior from them.
   But was it an act of faith? If so, faith in what and in whom?
The SWP went into industry to become part of the class and
to seek ways to become a vanguard element within it while
at the same time learning how to see the world through the
eyes of industrial workers. Naturally, the SWP members were
optimistic. They hoped to be able to participate in a growth
of working-class struggles, and to a certain extent, they did.
   As we know, the workers movement did not develop in a
revolutionary direction in a short period of time. None of us
are happy about that. Not even Louis. But no one ever
promised that it would.
   What was indicated was that the industrial unions would
move to "center stage" as the blows of the capitalist
offensive rained down on them. And that began to happen,
and is still happening, but slowly, and with advances and
retreats. The point is that the attacks on the unions provoke
defensive battles, and these battles form the basis for the
workers' radicalization.
   Louis says that "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." But this assumption
was not made by Barnes or the SWP. They argued that other
struggles could be linked to the unions, and that the demands
of women's rights, Black rights, Nicaragua solidarity, etc.,
could be raised within the union movement. Unions could
be drawn to support these struggles. And communists would
act politically from a base in the unions.
   No, it didn't develop all at once, but it did develop. And it
will continue to develop in the future. But where is the "act
of faith bordering on madness"? Suppose one were to grant
that the SWP expected too much from the workers in 1978.
Well, who can predict the pace of events in the immediate
future? The SWP saw a crisis developing. They saw the
anti-labor offensive (and so did millions of workers). They
expected resistance; they expected a dynamic of struggles
and radicalization. Is that madness? Or is it Marxism?

Jim Miller
Seattle


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