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Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Oct 4 07:24:30 MDT 2000


Dear Louis,

I appreciate your sending out a report so quickly on impressions of the
Tamiment conference.  Some of your characterizations of what went on strike
me as shrewd assessments, though I also disagree with some of what you say.
For example, I think there was more to Broue's presentation than you got from
it, although I'll certainly agree that it was hard to follow some of it given
his accent.

Also, I'm not comfortable with some of the tone in parts of your report --
for instance, I don't think it's right to refer to anyone at the conference
as a "bum."  Maybe there are aspects of our Trotskyist background (a
sometimes dismissively polemical stance) that we need to work harder at
transcending.

My hope is that we will be able to make many of the presentations available.
I especially appreciate your generous offer to develop a website to
facilitate that.  I'll be in touch about this, but I think it would be good
if such a thing could be done.  Also I am hoping that some of the
presentations can be published in various places, and perhaps a sampling
could also become part of a book.

I am attaching my own report of the conference.  I think it will be published
in Labor Standard shortly, but you and others should feel free to circulate
it where ever and however you wish.  Thanks for your participation in this
effort.

Comradely,
Paul  Le Blanc

===

THE TAMIMENT CONFERENCE ON
"EXPLORATIONS IN THE HISTORY OF U.S. TROTSKYISM"
Paul  Le Blanc

About 200 people attended a conference on "Explorations in the History of
U.S. Trotskyism" sponsored by Tamiment Library at New York University from
Friday evening September 29 through late Sunday afternoon October 1.  The
conference organizers were Peter Filardo, Tamiment's Archivist, as well as
Alan Wald, Bryan Palmer and myself -- three scholars who have had some
association with the Trotskyist movement.  A sense of the structure and
character of the conference is suggested in the opening remarks that I
delivered on Friday evening:

Those of us who are gathered here for this conference come from a variety
of perspectives.  A very large number of us consider ourselves to be
socialists -- that is, we oppose the tyranny of the big business
corporations over our society and their brutalization of our world, and we
are in favor of replacing that with the social ownership and democratic
control of our economy in order to guarantee freedom and dignity for each
and every human being.  But some here may not be sure about all of that --
and that's okay, we are very pleased to have you here.

Some of us belong to one or another organization that we feel offers the
best path forward to socialism -- although some of us are independent of
any such affiliations.  Some of us may consider ourselves primarily as
activists, some are here primarily as scholars, and others of us may choose
to identify ourselves in yet a different way.  Some of us are militant
Trotskyists of one or another variety, some of us are ex-Trotskyists, and
some are simply interested in learning something more about the history of
U.S. Trotskyism.

By attending this conference, we are agreeing to gather as such a diverse
range of people in order to explore that history.  A number of us will
disagree strongly with each other on certain issues, and we will feel free
to express those disagreements.  But we will -- I would hope -- also treat
each other as people rather than as abstractions, approaching these
explorations and the related debates in a manner that, as Trotsky once
urged, involves not mutual ostracism but mutual comradely influence.  And I
would hope that we will approach these discussions not only in a critical
and self-critical spirit, but also in a manner that does no dishonor to the
justifiably proud traditions of American Trotskyism.

The political current sometimes referred to as "American Trotskyism" has
enjoyed an influence far beyond the relatively small membership of its
various organizations.  Rooted in the revolutionary democratic socialism of
Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, in the uncompromising working-class
militancy of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW), and in the
passionate idealism of the early Communist movement, the U.S. Trotskyists
were part of the international current led by Leon Trotsky known as the
Fourth International.

The early U.S. Trotskyists were expelled from the Communist Party (as
Trotsky had been expelled in Russia's Soviet republic) for resisting the
erosion of the original principles associated with Russia's working-class
revolution of 1917 that had been led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.  The
radical working-class democracy that defined the goals and spirit of
revolutionary Russia and the newly-formed Communist International (or Third
International), had been betrayed by a deadening and ultimately murderous
bureaucratic dictatorship that was consolidating under the leadership of
Joseph Stalin.  The moderate socialists organized in various mass parties
affiliated with the Second International had also become known for their
bureaucratic stifling of working-class initiative and creativity in the
labor movement, and for their far-reaching compromises with the existing
capitalist order and imperialism.  The American Trotskyist movement sought
to maintain a revolutionary integrity in the face of the bureaucratic
degeneration that afflicted much of the working-class movement.  It sought
to offer "a spotless banner," as the Transitional Program emphasized,
guided by "a program based on international experience in the struggle of
the working class and of all the oppressed of the world for liberation."

James P. Cannon, along with Max Shachtman, will be discussed tomorrow in a
session on the two leading personalities in the founding of American
Trotskyism.  Cannon always emphasized that the primary responsibility of
revolutionary internationalists in the United States is to root themselves
in the struggles of the workers and the oppressed in their own country in
order to advance the struggle for socialist revolution there.  True to this
spirit, we have sessions over the next two days that focus on the role of
U.S. Trotskyists in our country's unions and working-class, among
African-Americans and anti-racist struggles, and among those struggling
against gender and sexual oppression.

There will be sessions exploring Trotskyist intellectuals and also sessions
on creative contributions made by such dissident currents as those led by
C.L.R. James and Bert Cochran.  We will give attention to how the
Trotskyists were viewed by others on the Left. We are concerned with the
preservation of the history of this amazing movement and therefore have a
session dealing with that.

We are also alert to the fact that the tradition is still very much alive
both intellectually and politically, continuing to make contributions to
the struggles for social justice, working-class emancipation, and a
socialist future.  We have three sessions based on that recognition -- one
involving reflections of some older veterans of the Trotskyist movement,
another involving reflections of innovative scholars, and yet another
involving reflections of young activists.

But while one can agree with the validity of Jim Cannon's emphasis on the
central importance of a U.S. focus for American Trotskyists, it is also
true that revolutionary internationalism is at the very heart of the
American Trotskyist tradition.  So tonight's opening session of this
conference is designed as "an internationalist introduction."

Tonight's impressive array of speakers will be introduced to you in a
moment.  But first I want to say a few words about the person chairing
tonight's session.

Marilyn Vogt-Downey had been scheduled to chair.  Marilyn is a friend of
many years, an outstanding militant of the Trotskyist movement who has
distinguished herself in defending political dissidents and victims of
Stalinist repression in the Soviet Union, and more recently in defending
the legacy of Leon Trotsky and the efforts of left-wing oppositionists in
the Russia of gangster-capitalism.

The bad news is that -- dues to unforeseen family responsibilities --
Marilyn is unable to be here this evening.  The good news is that a new
friend, a Marxist scholar and feminist activist visiting us from India, has
agreed to chair this session.

Soma Marik teaches history at Jadavpur University in Calcutta.  Her
scholarship has ranged from studies of "women's oppression, communalism and
the state" in India, to exploring historical issues of feminism. democracy,
and revolutionary organization in the international socialist and communist
movements.  I am very pleased to turn tonight's meeting over to Soma Marik.

As this indicates, there were a number of international guests -- not only
from India, but also from Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Germany, Britain,
France, South Africa, and elsewhere.  And there were members from a variety
of Trotskyist and other left-wing socialist groups, all co-existing and (in
some cases) listening to each other.  While some critics dismissed the
conference as intending to give Trotskyism an academic burial, the sessions
were in fact characterized by a mixture of scholarly and present-day
activist concerns which, at least for many, conveyed a sense of the
vibrancy and continuing relevance of this political current.

The bias of the organizers was toward the strand of the U.S. Trotskyist
tradition associated with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) -- but there
was a serious effort to draw in  representatives of other currents, as well
as to include dissident strands within the SWP tradition.  At one point in
the conference I noted that my own orientation -- without reservations or
apologies -- is with the Leninist-Trotskyist orientation associated with
James P. Cannon, and that I think this orientation does not have to be
dogmatically closed off from considering the ideas and experiences of those
from other orientations.  I also expressed the hope that those from
different orientations would not be dismissive of the ideas and experiences
associated with the so-called "orthodox" Trotsky-Cannon perspective.  While
there were tendencies to be dismissive among some conference participants,
there were very positive counter-tendencies which allowed for the
enrichment of perspectives among many who were there.

Perhaps the most serious weakness of the conference was the fact that there
was insufficient time for discussion -- in many sessions late starts and
one or another speaker going overtime resulted in the already inadequate
time for discussion evaporating altogether.  Yet this was at least partly
compensated for by the diverse range of speakers, often with quite
divergent viewpoints, plus the animated discussions which took place around
various literature tables in the hall -- and which continued outside of the
conference area between and after sessions.

The opening "international" session included moving remarks by Trotsky's
grandson Esteban Volkov, reflections and impressions regarding the
historical role U.S. Trotskyists by Trotsky's biographer Pierre Broue, an
entertaining personal reminiscence by Michael Smith on the Trotskyist role
in the movement against the Vietnam war, a thoughtful discussion of the
intersection of Trotskyist analysis and Puerto Rican history by Rafael
Bernabe, and a stimulating challenge by Simmi Gandhi around issues raised
for activists by "globalization" developments today.

A session on U.S. Trotskyism's founding leaders, James P. Cannon and Max
Shachtman, offered solid presentations by their two biographers, Bryan
Palmer and Peter Drucker.  One of the highpoints of the conference was the
session of Trotskyism and African Americans, in which a stimulating
presentation was made by Kwame Somburu (formerly 1968 SWP Vice-Presidential
candidate Paul Boutelle), a fine paper on George Breitman by Paul Lee
(incapacitated due to a car accident) was read by chairperson Cynthia
Young, Christopher Phelps presented an excellent initial piece of
scholarship on black Trotskyists, and the artist and veteran Trotskyist
Gladys Grauer offered warm and fascinating reminiscences of her own
experiences in the 1940s and 1950s.  A session on Trotskyism, workers and
unions was ably chaired by present-day dissident trade union leader Ray
Markey, with an outstanding historical presentation by Kim Moody,
substantial scholarship on Trotskyists in auto by Victor Devinatz, a
critique of sexism among Minneapolis Trotskyist workers in the 1930s by
Kathleen Brown, and reflections from her own experience by veteran
Trotskyist trade unionist Jean Tussey.

A session on Trotskyism and intellectuals was chaired by veteran Trotskyist
intellectual Paul Siegel, who offered some thoughtful remarks of his own.
Suzi Weissman discussed the influence in the U.S. of Victor Serge, Alan
Johnson discussed the life and thought of Hal Draper, Maurice Isserman
explored the Trotskyist roots of Irving Howe and Michael Harrington, and
Kevin Anderson broke new ground with a critical discussion of how
dialectics was treated by James Burnham, George Novack, C.L.R. James and
Raya Dunayevskaya.  Michael Denning offered a stimulating commentary -- but
unfortunately, there was no discussion time.  A panel on the living
heritage of U.S. Trotskyism by veterans of the movement included a lengthy
exposition on Marxism by Nat Weinstein, a stirring and informative
reminiscence on Trotskyists in maritime by Bernie Goodman, a warm and
informative memoir focused on the SWP in Detroit by Dorothea Breitman, and
illuminating discussion of the SWP current associated with Murry and Myra
Tanner Weiss, and reminiscences by Leon Seidlitz (filling in for Morris
Slavin, who was unable to attend) on the Workers Party and Independent
Socialist League led by Max Shachtman.  Another highpoint was the Saturday
evening session, under Arlene Keizer's chairmanship, on "new directions"
providing stimulating presentations -- Alan Wald on the relevance of the
Trotskyist tradition in illuminating resistance to oppressive aspects of
capitalist society, South African scholar Grant Farred on the thought of
C.L.R. James, with commentary by well-known African-American cultural
historian Robin Kelley.

The session on "Preserving the Past" included remarks by Northwestern
University archivist Patrick Quinn, Peter Filardo of Tamiment Library,
Emily Turnbull of the Prometheus Research Library (who with Spartacist
League humor delivered one of the conference's best lines: "What a nice
girl like me doing in a place like this?"), and with extensive remarks from
the floor from Ted Crawford on archives associated with the British journal
Revolutionary History.  One of the most fascinating sessions turned out to
be "Trotskyism and Others on the Left," in which Dan Georgakas described
his early 1960s Detroit impressions of and experiences with the SWP and the
groups associated with C.L.R. James (Correspondence) and Raya Dunayevskaya
(News and Letters); this was matched by Annette Rubenstein's warm,
remarkably lucid and detailed recollections of working with Trotskyists in
the 1950s and early 1960s; the session was rounded out by David
McReynolds's critique of Max Shachtman's role in the Socialist Party and
the SWP's role in the anti-war movement, and capped by very thoughtful
commentary by Mark Solomon.  A session on Trotskyism and sexual politics
included Susan Williams's comments on Clara Fraser, Dianne Feeley's
outstanding discussion of SWP work in the feminist movement, Gary Kinsman's
probing examination of SWP policies and debates around gay and lesbian
issues, and a thoughtful theoretical reflection by Nancy Holmstrom.  In the
session on the Johnson-Forest and Cochran tendencies chaired by Scott
McLemee, Martin Glaberman discussed contributions of C.L.R. James, Louis
Proyect offered a glowing tribute to the Cochran tendency, and Michael
Livingston presented an excellent paper on the life and contributions of
Harry Braverman.

For about fifty of us who stayed for the final session, another highpoint
of the conference was provided by a session "Making Sense of the Trotskyist
Tradition in Light of Today's and Tomorrow's Struggle" -- a "youth" panel.
Thoughtful, stimulating, and in some cases eloquent presentations were made
by Brad Duncan (a member of Solidarity), Jennifer Ponce (a member of
Socialist Action), Alejandro Reuss (an editor of the journal Dollars and
Sense), and Matt Siegfried (a member of the Trotskyist League).  Each one
of these young activists (as well as another in the opening session,
Solidarity member Simmi Gandhi) demonstrated a political commitment and
seriousness that bodes well for the continuing relevance of the Trotskyist
tradition.

Louis Proyect
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