Trotskyism in the United States
Louis N Proyect
lnp3 at columbia.edu
Mon Sep 23 09:53:18 MDT 1996
"Trotskyism in the United States--Historical Essays and
Reconsiderations" has just been published by Humanities Press in New
Jersey. It is essential reading for anybody interested in the recent
collapse of Trotskyism in the United States. It will also be useful to
people of other political backgrounds who are trying to figure out how
to reconstruct the left.
The authors are George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc and Allan Wald and
all of the essays have appeared elsewhere. It is a major achievement
since each of these essays is very closely related to each other
George Breitman was a veteran of the Socialist Workers Party who
joined in the 1930s. He is best known to the broader public as an early
champion of Malcom X's black nationalism. In the 1980s he was
expelled from the SWP along with a number of other party members
who were unhappy with National Chairman Jack Barnes rejection of
the theory of permanent revolution. The expulsions were based on
Paul Le Blanc was a member of this grouping. He is also author of the
essential "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party" which I discovered was
basically commissioned by Breitman in an effort to understand the
collapse of the SWP. Allen Wald was also a member of this grouping
as well as being a well-known literary scholar of depression-era radical
Le Blanc hews to a position that the SWP of James P. Cannon, who
founded and led the party until the 1950s, was basically a healthy
revolutionary formation that was hijacked and trashed by Jack Barnes.
Wald maintains a position closer to my own, that the party
degenerated because it was based on unsound principles at its birth.
Barnes was an exceptionally malevolent individual, but the seeds of
the degeneration were in the genes.
The book is grouped into two parts, the first dealing with outlines and
essentials and the second with "reconsiderations".
In the essay "Trotskyism in the United States: The First Fifty Years",
Le Blanc provides an overview of the history of the SWP until the
early 1980s, its heroic period according to him. James P. Cannon
emerges from this history as a practically flawless leader.
"The Liberating Influence of the Transitional Program: Three Talks"
by George Breitman and "George Novack, 1905-92: Meaning a Life"
by Alan Wald are the two remaining essays in the first part. They are
basically hagiography about the splendors of the SWP and are of little
interest to people outside the Trotskyist milieu.
The second part is much more interesting. It consists of clashing
accounts by Le Blanc and Wald to make sense of the collapse of the
SWP. People who lived through the collapse of Maoism in the 1980s
will no doubt be struck by the similarities of the two movements in
succumbing to sectarianism and dogmatism.
"Leninism in the United States and the Decline of American
Trotskyism" by Paul Le Blanc defends the position that the noble
"Cannon Tradition" was eroded by Jack Barnes. According to Le
Blanc, "the maintenance of a democratic atmosphere when there were
sharply disputed questions was essential, Cannon felt, for the party to
educate its cadres in rich lessons of the past as well as in complex new
Probably the most interesting insight Le Blanc has about the Barnes
regime involves some Freudian psychology. He says:
"The impact of Barnes in the SWP is a reflection not of Leninist
principles or the tradition of Cannon, but of basic human
psychological dynamics. The functioning of some SWP members,
responding to the powerful personality and tremendous authority that
Barnes assumed, brings to mind Freud's insights on group psychology:
'the individual gives up his ego-ideal [i.e., individual sense of right
and wrong, duty, and guilt] and substitutes for it the group-ideal as
embodied in the leader.' The authority of the leader (in the minds of at
least many members) becomes essential for the cohesion of the group,
and the approval of the leader, or a sense of oneness with the leader,
becomes a deep-felt need that is bound up with one's own sense of self-
worth. The member of the group enjoys 'a feeling of triumph' when his
or her thinking coincide with this leader's judgments, and is
vulnerable to 'delusions of inferiority and self-deprecation' whenever
inner doubts arise about the leader's authority. Indeed, 'opposition' is
perceived to be 'as good as separation' from the group and is 'therefore
anxiously avoided.' The compelling 'group ideal' that Barnes
symbolized for such members involved a powerful mix of strongly held
values, accumulated theoretical wisdom, and hopes for the future
triumph of socialism. His authority flowed from the continuity that he
seemed to represent with previous revolutionary generations."
This is an absolutely brilliant observation. I happen to think that most
of Freud is utter nonsense, especially that canard about infant
sexuality, but his understanding of group dynamics in a group like the
SWP seems right on the mark.
What was of more substantial value to me in this essay was some brief
observations on the role of Zinoviev in the creation of the "Marxist-
Leninist" model that everybody --Cannon, Barnes, Avakian, Cliff et
al-- adheres to. This is a theme that I have been researching recently
and one that I plan to write extensively about. According to Le Blanc,
"the conception of a monolithic party was advanced in the Comintern
under the leadership of Gregory Zinoviev, who influenced Cannon's
own formulations in the early 1920s." There is much more to said
The final two essays are by Alan Wald: "From the Old Left to the New
Left and Beyond: The Legacy and Prospects for Socialism in the
United States" and "The End of 'American Trotskyism'? Problems in
History and Theory".
I want to quote several paragraphs from the final essay to give you a
sense of Wald's diagnosis of the problem. It should be familiar by now
to list members who have been reading my posts on "Marxism-
"In truth, although the more sectarian Trotskyists get attention
(including, sometimes, greater media notice due to their propensity to
differentiate themselves from the rest of the Left), there are many other
Trotskyists who work wholeheartedly for reform as a way of raising
political consciousness and strengthening the positions of subaltern
groups. But even this nonsectarian approach seems insincere to many
independent radicals, because most Trotskyists regard only a tiny
number of people --usually their group and affiliated organizations,
and certain select movements from the past-- as genuinely
"Surely one of the most tragic features of the history of U.S.
Trotskyism is the inability of individuals, who were once comfortable
in an organization and then on the 'outs' to recognize problems in
theory, practice, and organization until 'one's own ox is gored.' Like
those former Communists who believe that anyone who left the
Communist Party by a certain date (usually when they themselves left)
is all right, but those who remained afterwards are total dupes, many
Trotskyists also put a 'date' on the degeneration of the group from
which they have broken. In most cases, this date roughly approximates
the time that they were deposed, although some go too far the other
way and write off the entire movement from start to finish. These
responses reflect all-too-human traits that recur so frequently that they
must be acknowledged and addressed; efforts to ignore, deny, or
simply denounce them have proved inadequate."
I generally agree with Wald's approach, but my prescriptions are more
radical. He is still something of a Trotskyist and identifies with the
Fourth International. While I include these forces and Militant Labor
as having made the strongest break with sectarianism, my own concept
of what is needed has much more in common with A.J. Muste's
American Workers Party (AWP), a formation that fused with Cannon's
Trotskyist forces in the 1930s to become the Socialist Workers Party.
Le Blanc discusses Muste in his essay in the first part. "A.J. Muste had
come from a religious and radical pacifist background, opposing
World War 1 and at the same time gravitating to socialist ideas and
the labor movement. A leader of the 1919 Lawrence textile strike, he
soon headed up the left-of-center Brookwood Labor College, which
played an important role in training many of the radical organizers
who would help lead the 1930s labor upsurge. In the Conference for
Progressive Labor Action, which evolved into the AWP, Muste had
favored sidestepping sectarianism and blending radical ideas with
That should be our motto, shouldn't it? Sidestep sectarianism and
blend radical ideas with practical organizing.
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