Conference on American Trotskyism: some reflections
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Oct 2 13:39:37 MDT 2000
The Conference on American Trotskyism was the brainchild of Paul LeBlanc,
who is an important figure in the academic and activist left. Paul was
expelled from the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1980s along with
over a hundred members, including such prominent old-timers as Frank Lovell
and George Breitman. The expellees objected to the turn away from
Trotskyism and also to the first manifestations of sectarianism connected
with the "turn toward industry". Breaking with Trotskyism was supposedly
meant to help the SWP unite with more popular revolutionary movements like
the New Jewel Movement in Grenada. However, the openness that characterized
figures like the martyred Maurice Bishop could not be found in the SWP's
bureaucratic regime, which had begun conducting itself more and more like
Some of the expellees formed a new group called Socialist Action that
attempted to re-create the SWP as if following a recipe: "One, start a
newspaper. Two, start a youth group. Three, begin 'intervening' in the mass
movement, etc." A minority that included Paul, Breitman and Lovell launched
a journal called Bulletin in Defense of Marxism that sought mainly to
clarify the issues facing the Trotskyist left. This journal has evolved
into something called "Labor Standard".
Some of the other expellees decided that it was an exercise in futility to
reconstruct American Trotskyism and concentrated on building Solidarity,
Committees of Correspondence or mass movement organizations. Alan Wald, who
serves on the editorial board of Solidarity's magazine Against the Current,
is in this camp. I should mention that the Labor Standard comrades
generally belong to Solidarity as well.
Since Trotsky had considered the SWP to be a model group, its demise was a
blow to the prestige of the movement he founded. For somebody like George
Breitman, who had spent a half-century building the SWP, this disaster had
to be explained in political terms. As part of this investigation, Breitman
urged Paul to write a book about Lenin in order to have a basis of
comparison between the SWP and the original Bolshevik Party. I have used
Paul's "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party" in my own research to great
advantage, although I part company with him on his assessment that James P.
Cannon represented some kind of continuity with Lenin. My own research has
convinced me that Cannon was consistent with Zinoviev, a lesser figure
whose party-building notions had a built-in sectarian logic.
Despite Paul's commitment to the Cannonite tradition, he has edited
collections of articles by a wide variety of socialist thinkers, including
those who obviously have little connection to the kind of super-orthodoxy
the SWP represented in its pre-1980 "Castroite" turn. This includes his
"CLR James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings" and "From Marx to
Gramsci: a Reader in Revolutionary Marxist politics." (When I was in the
SWP, the name Gramsci hardly ever came up and when it did, it always had
Paul also has an analysis of how a new Trotskyist group, minus the SWP's
warts, might come into existence. He predicates this on the emergence of a
new working class subculture, which disappeared in the 1950s. The problems
of the SWP are somehow equated with the middle-class arrogance of the
current team around Carleton College graduate Jack Barnes. In discussions
I've had with Paul, I have always had the impression that the thinking of
Marxist social historians like George Lipsitz (author of "Rainbow at
Midnight", a book with a chapter "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens: The
Class Origins of Rock and Roll") loomed large. I can go along with that, as
should be obvious. Where I part company is over the whole James P. Cannon
Not surprisingly, the conference reflected Paul's divergent interests. It
was simultaneously an attempt to breathe life into the Trotskyist project
and one that looked at the movement in more detached, scholarly terms. The
latter approach was in line with recent scholarly attempts to do for
American Trotskyism what people like Mark Naison did for the CPUSA or
Maurice Isserman has done for the Social Democrats. Speaking as somebody
who has broken with Trotskyism altogether, I believe that this is an urgent
task since some of the scholars associated with rehabilitating the CPUSA
have lent themselves to what can only be described as calumny against the
I refer comrades to Alan Wald's excellent review of one such book--Ellen
Schrecker's "Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America"--that he is a bit
too kind to, in my opinion. Since Alan has to peacefully co-exist with
these people in academic left circles, he refrained from describing this
kind of Trot-baiting as exactly what it is: utter bullshit. Schrecker
writes, for example, that the Trotskyists taught the "American liberals how
to think about Communism" as if characters like Max Shachtman were to blame
for the witch-hunt. In one of the more disgusting aspects of a disgusting
book, Schrecker urges the American left to reconstruct something like the
old trade union-Communist-Democratic Party alliance. If I had to choose one
or the other, I'd prefer to rebuild the old SWP rather than that unholy mess.
The conference was extremely interesting and I offer here some very
subjective impressions of the proceedings. I've offered to create a website
for the conference papers and would also invite Paul to look into the
possibility of starting a scholarly Trotskyism mailing list on Egroups in
line with this venture.
So here goes:
FRIDAY 7-9:30pm: "US TROTSKYISM AND INTERNATIONALISM"
Two of the speakers were well-known figures in the Trotsky hagiography
business. One was Esteban Volkov, Trotsky's grandson; the other was Pierre
Broue, who publishes a Trotsky studies type journal in France. Volkov runs
the Trotsky library at the Coyoacan residence, a must-see apparently for
leftwing tourists. His talk was heavy on the martyrdom of Leon Trotsky with
melodramatic references to machine gun bullets flying through his bedroom
window, etc. What his talk lacked completely was any kind of engagement
with the current class struggle. Instead it seemed to evoke the kind of
psychology that produced the Lenin mausoleum. If Trotsky is to have any
kind of relevance to the radicalizing youth of today, this kind of
shrine-building has to be dispensed with immediately.
Broue was much worse. This Grenoble professor, who was connected to Pierre
Lambert's sect for many years, used his 20 minutes to present a
sensationalistic but diffuse series of characterizations of well-known
Trotskyist figures. Apparently this included a charge that Pablo was some
kind of secret agent, according to one of my companions who remained alert
during the whole time. Since his presentation was so incoherent, this
escaped my attention. As I do have the tape, I will pay closer attention
when I review his talk. If he did make this charge, I would strongly urge
Paul LeBlanc never to invite this bum to anything again. Meanwhile Volkov
and Broue sat in the audience chatting in a loud voice during presentations
by young Trotskyists on the final day of the conference until someone
shushed them. That should show you where their heads are at.
9:30-10:40am: "NEW PERSPECTIVES ON CANNON AND SHACHTMAN"
Canadian professor Brian Palmer is working on a biography of James P.
Cannon. Good luck to him. He made a point that Cannon's father spent a year
as a police magistrate, as if that has anything to with anything.
Apparently Palmer was around the Spartacist League at one point--maybe that
explains his interest in that factoid. Drucker is the author of a biography
of Shachtman that my old friend Nelson Blackstock from SWP days recommends
highly. I might get around to it one of these days. In any case, I am leery
of putting any figure on a pedestal nowadays unless it is a jazz musician
and a damned good one at that.
10:45-12:15am: "TROTSKYISM AND AFRICAN-AMERICANS"
This was the first opportunity I had to hear about the research being done
by Christopher Phelps, who had been the head of Monthly Review books before
going back into academia. Phelps is writing a history about Blacks and the
Trotskyist movement. While there is a rich literature about Blacks in the
CPUSA, nothing has been written about the Trotskyist movement except
studies on CLR James which are mostly about his personal achievements
rather than his role in the movement. One important element in this
research is the breakthroughs that took place in the Detroit branch during
WWII, which at one point included 100 Black members--mostly auto workers.
The SWP'ers responsible for transforming the party were all Cochranites, I
might add. When I interviewed Erwin Baur out in the Bay Area this year, I
discovered how important it was for the party to make Black workers feel at
home. This included making socials and dances a key part of branch life, as
well as fighting for Black representation in the auto industry and unions.
If Phelps can make this history available to the general left public, he
will be performing an important service.
1:20-3:05pm: "TROTSKYISM, WORKERS AND UNIONS"
Not to sound like a broken record, but this panel also revolved around the
work of the comrades who would leave with the Cochran-Braverman group. As I
mentioned yesterday, Kim Moody's well-received presentation focused mainly
on Sol Dollinger's "Not Automatic". Joining him on the panel was young
scholar Victor Devinatz who is working on a book on Trotskyists and the
UAW. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the SWP's demonization of the
Cochranites has been a diminished account of their importance in the UAW.
For example, Kim Moody mentioned that Art Preis's "Labor's Giant Step", an
'official' SWP labor history, does not provide much detail about the work
of the SWP in the auto union. This is because the people who led this work,
like Bert Cochran and the late Genora Dollinger, became 'unpersons'.
Hopefully, Devinatz will fill in this gap. Along with Sol's "Not
Automatic", such works will be of great use to young labor activists trying
to build a class struggle left wing in the trade unions today.
3:10-4:55pm "TROTSKYISM AND INTELLECTUALS"
Presentations by Suzi Weissman of Solidarity on Victor Serge and Alan
Johnson of Great Britain's Workers Liberty on Hal Draper sounded the
anti-Stalin alarum. When I hear this kind of stuff, it makes me want to go
listen to Paul Robeson.
5:00-6:15pm "REFLECTIONS OF TROTSKYIST VETERANS"
Three *very* interesting presentations.
First was Edmond Kovacs, known in the party as Theodore Edwards, who spoke
on Murray and Myra Tanner Weiss, two well-known leaders from the 1940s and
50s who ran afoul of Farrell Dobbs. Kovacs was one of the more brilliant
thinkers in the SWP, who had his own style. I recall his wry and very
cerebral remarks at conventions in the 1970s vividly. He was a ski-trooper
during WWII who ran a jewelry store in Los Angeles after his return from
intense fighting, sometimes hand-to-hand. As an expert marksman, he
successfully defended himself during a robbery in the late 1970s. Told by
the SWP leaders that his self-defense compromised the party's image in the
black community, he was asked to resign. His real offense, of course, was
independent thinking--much in evidence during his presentation on the Weisses.
As it turns out, the Weisses were highly charismatic and capable figures in
the LA area who had made the branch one of the strongest in the country.
After Cannon had retired to the LA area in the early 1960s, he became
increasingly alarmed--according to Kovacs--over the routinist character of
party work under Farrell Dobbs, the new chairman. Apparently, little
interested Dobbs other than selling newspapers, organizing Friday night
forums and running propagandistic election campaigns. Cannon persuaded the
Weisses to move to NYC, where they would shake up the Dobbs machine. As it
turned out, they were the ones who got shaken up.
Still determined to re-orient the party, Cannon called upon Carl Feingold
to try to do the same job. Kovacs describes Feingold as being as talented
as the Weisses, but completely lacking in scruples. After he got to NYC,
Dobbs made short work of him as well. From NYC, Feingold moved to
Minneapolis where he recruited the future leaders of the SWP at Carleton
College. According to Kovacs, Feingold must have recruited the kind of
people that shared his foibles. As he said in his talk, laughing mordantly
to himself, "That's how we ended up with Jack Barnes."
Bernard Goodman spoke about his experiences on merchant ships in the 1930s.
Apparently one of the maritime unions was led by a William Lundberg, who as
something of an unreconstructed anarcho-syndicalist hated the CP. Thus he
kept an open door policy for anti-Stalinists like Bernie Goodman who
shipped out in 1934 without ever having been on a boat before in his life.
He discovered that his ship-mates were not only happy to show him how to do
his job, but preferred to hang out and talk about radical politics more
I remember Goodman vividly from my days in the NYC branch back in 1967 to
1969. He was a house-painter back then and seemed like he had stepped out
of a Clifford Odets play. He was never comfortable with all the students
and kept trying to find ways to return the party back to its 1930s roots.
One time, before a big demonstration, he got up out of chair all red-faced
and demanded that we go leaflet "the Negro churches".
He ended his talk with a brief excerpt from a tape of a James P. Cannon
speech that had been aired on NYC's WBAI radio station during the 1950s. It
was very impressive, like nothing I'd ever heard before. Cannon used the
stentorian, almost incantatory speaking style of the Debs era, including a
verse from a Shelly poem. When I heard this stirring few minutes of
Cannon's oratory, I could well understand why so many Trotskyists felt such
a strong personal loyalty.
Nat Weinstein, a leader of the ultra-orthodox Socialist Action group,
rounded out the panel. He really embarrassed himself and his sect. Invited
to speak about Tom and Carolyn Kerry, a couple of crusty old-timers--now
deceased--who had broken with Barnes, Weinstein announced to the gathering
that he would instead talk about the need for socialist revolution and
revolutionary parties. His twenty minute peroration was filled with
observations that society is divided into two major opposing classes, etc.
Very arrogant and very sad, all in all.
7:30-9:30pm: "NEW DIRECTIONS"
Alan Wald gave a talk that used Walter Benjamin to illuminate a YSA 1962
pro-Cuba demonstration in Bloomington, Indiana that was in its way as
"reckless" as the recent Seattle protests were. Alan's talk was too complex
to go into any further here, but it reminded me how fortunate American
Marxism is to have somebody with his impressive intellect at its disposal.
Alan is the modern day equivalent of Kenneth Burke or the young James T.
Farrell. I want to urge all you young scholars on the Marxism mailing list
to study Alan's various writings and to take careful notes.
9:30-10:30am: "PRESERVING THE PAST"
More remembrances of the Trotsky martyrdom from his grandson. Plus an
idiotic rant from the Spartacist League/Prometheus Library's Emily
Turnbull. They are archiving all of Cannon's Zinovievist party-building
letters and articles, to use as a cudgel against all their "middle class"
opponents on the left. With friends like the Spartacist League, poor James
P. Cannon must be rolling over in his grave.
10:35-12:00am: "TROTSKYISM AND OTHERS ON THE LEFT"
A real eye-opener. First to speak was Dan Georgakas, who is co-author with
Paul and Mari-Jo Buhle of the Encyclopedia of the American Left that is
indispensable to scholars of our movement. Georgakas was a student at Wayne
State in Detroit during the 1950s at the height of the witch-hunt. He had
wry recollections of interacting with the News and Letters group (a cult
around Raya Dunaskeyava), the CLR James group, and the SWP. Like
Goldilocks, he found the three groups lacking to one extent or another. For
all of their lip-service to free Marxist thinking, the News and Letters
people weren't tolerant of any of Dan's opinions that didn't jibe with
their own. The James group was filled with all sorts of ambitious plans for
studying Capital, etc. but had no ideas about what to do. The SWP came in
first by default, especially its Friday night forums that attracted every
leftist in Detroit who was not part of the CP milieu. Out of these
meetings, many people gained a feeling of connectedness and solidarity that
they wouldn't otherwise. Not surprisingly, Georgakas found all the groups
lacking because they all seemed to rely on gurus handing down precepts from
on high, like the Ten Commandments.
Annette Rubinstein spoke next about her involvement as an ex-CP'er working
with SWP'ers on the Independent Socialist Campaign of Corliss Lamont in the
late 1950s. In a bravura performance, like Bach improvising on a keyboard,
this 90 year old legend spoke within her allotted time, not even relying on
notes. Not only did she have immediate recall of fascinating events of that
era, she spiced that up with literary allusions. She did take exception to
much of the Stalinophobia that dominated the speeches at the conference,
bless her heart.
My friend David McReynolds spoke next. He was a central figure in the
Vietnam antiwar movement and has never forgiven the SWP for what he views
as splitting the antiwar movement. Back then, the pacifists and the CP
tended to favor a multi-issue approach rather than the single issue
approach focused on the war favored by the SWP. Although I tend to support
the single issue approach to this day, I feel that the heavy-handed
"democratic centralist" style favored by the SWP was as much responsible
for the split as anything else.
1:00-2:25pm: "TROTSKYISM AND SEXUAL POLITICS"
Another eye-opener. Diane Feely, who is an editor of Against the Current,
spoke about the SWP's "intervention" in the woman's liberation movement
that left non-SWP women as alienated as David McReynolds and for the same
reason. She said that although the SWP had a good analysis of the woman's
movement, they operated in an arrogant, "militaristic" fashion that went
against the grain of the movement. For example, women were "assigned" to
work in NOW without having any background in the movement. They embarrassed
the party by referring to NOW at meetings as the National Organization *of*
Women when it was really called the National Organization *for* Women. This
would be like sending in somebody to "intervene" in the Black Radical
Congress and calling it the Black Radical Coalition, etc. I of course have
my own analysis of this kind of arrogant behavior, which I feel is rooted
in the whole "democratic centralist" methodology. Someday I hope that the
movement can transcend this unfortunate tradition.
Gary Kinsman spoke about the SWP's "probe" into the gay liberation movement
in 1973, which ended with a directive that it not be followed up with a
full-scale "intervention". (BTW, all you "orthodox" Trotskyists should look
up this word before you use it so casually to describe your relationship to
the mass movement. "Intervention" means "interference". It is right there
in the dictionary.) The SWP backed away because it viewed gay issues as
"life style" in nature. It also thought that gays lacked "social weight"
like women or blacks. In the discussion, Peter Drucker honed in on what the
real problem was. The SWP leaders came to political maturity in the 1930s,
during a time of total reaction on sex and gender issues. Panelist Nancy
Holstrom pointed out that Trotsky himself was not above backward notions.
For example, in "Revolution Betrayed", he describes child-rearing as being
necessarily a woman's role because it is biologically determined. So when
the gay movement erupted in the 1970s, residual backwardness among
old-timers like Farrell Dobbs prevented the party from welcoming the new
2:30-3:45pm: "LEGACY OF THE JOHNSON-FORREST AND COCHRAN TENDENCIES"
You of course have already seen my paper. I would add that my co-panelist,
who works with Paul LeBlanc on Labor Standard, spoke on the importance of
Harry Braverman, whom he regards as one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of
the age. Furthermore, he includes the American Socialist as a prime
repository of Braverman's analysis, and even quoted from the same article
that I quoted from in my talk. The biggest surprise of all is that
Livingston learned about the American Socialist from his comrade Frank
Lovell who told him that it was one of the finest Marxist magazines ever
published--the same words I used in my talk.
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