Khrushchev (was: Re: [Marxism] Petty Bourgeois--the consciousness yardstick

Lou Paulsen loupaulsen at
Fri Aug 13 11:06:11 MDT 2004

Louis Proyect <lnp3 at> wrote:

"Another key element of Trotskyist sectarianism is its tendency to turn 
every serious political fight into a conflict between worker and 
petty-bourgeoisie. [....]"


Proyect then goes on to make more or less the following assertions, supposedly illustrating an omnipresent pattern of behavior over the decades among Trotskyist sectarians:

(1) The Schachtman/Burnham/Abern opposition in the SWP, which split in 1940, was unfairly labeled as a petty-bourgeois opposition by Trotsky and Cannon

(2) The Trotsky-Cannon assertion (in 1939) that the petty-bourgeoisie would welcome war was contradicted by the petty-bourgeois-led antiwar movement in the 1960's [btw I don't know of anyone who ever asserted that the petty bourgeoisie was always for war - LPa]

(3) In the 1950's, the "Stalinist" parties, led by Khrushchev in the USSR, moved to the left under the impact of world events; the European Trotskyists were "completely correct" to recognize this, as was the Cochrane opposition in the SWP-US, and the Cannon leadership was completely incorrect and sectarian in refusing to recognize this.

(4) Cannon also unfairly labeled the Cochrane opposition as "petty-bourgeois" despite the fact that they were solidly working-class.  Proyect ridicules Cannon's assertion that relatively privileged unionized workers can develop a petty-bourgeois outlook.


On point (1) I have always thought that "In Defense of Marxism" was a rather convincing piece of work, but I don't have anything to add to what Trotsky and Cannon wrote on the subject; people will have to make up their own minds, I guess.  On point (2) I don't have anything to add to my comment above.  On point (4), it's entirely possible that Cannon got it wrong.... although I WILL say, on the basis of five years of experience as a railroad worker in the 1970's, that it is entirely true that a stratum of mostly white, male, highly-paid union workers not only did develop petty-bourgeois attitudes but did their best to join the petty-bourgeoisie.  We had a whole group of locomotive engineers, for example, with small businesses on the side.  Whether this was true of auto workers in the 1950's I don't know.

Now as to point (3).  Proyect throws this in as part of the supporting structure of his argument as to how bad Trotskyist sectarians are.  First they reject, out of pure sectarianism and concern for "purity", obvious world developments, such as the Moscow-oriented communist parties "moving to the left" under the pressure of events.  How stupid and blind of them!  Then they go on and unfairly label their opponents as petty-bourgeois and that just completes the picture.  

If it weren't for the sectarianism of Cannon, Proyect argues, SWP members would have joined the CP-USA, where, after Khrushchev's revelations of 1956, they would have gotten "a real hearing".  About what, by the way?  Trotsky's role in history?  I have a hard time believing that the CP-USA would have passively allowed the SWP-US to pursue an "entry" strategy with them, or that their own commitment to internal democracy was so great (greater than Cannon's, I guess) that, having done so, they would then have allowed a free internal debate over the whole Trotsky-Stalin business.

Anyway, the rhetorical force of this argument fails if you don't first accept the notion that Khrushchev represented a move to the left of Stalin.  I don't.  The Marcy-Copeland tendency in the SWP didn't accept this at the time.  In fact, after 1956, the Cannon leadership did tend to treat Khrushchev's "secret speech" as a positive development, without attempting an entry strategy, whereas Marcy saw it as a move to the right, and this was an important part of the background to our own split from the SWP in 1959. 

Proyect writes,

"The Europeans appeared totally vindicated in 1956, when the Krushchev 
revelations caused the CP's to go into a total crisis. Krushchev, the 
leader of the Communist Parties internationally, seemed to share the 
critique of Stalin that the Trotskyists had been advancing for decades. 
(The European Trotskyists have always been much more in touch with 
political reality and the mass movement than the Americans. In the 
global regroupment process that is taking place today, the European 
Trotskyists can conceivably play a vanguard role in fighting 

This idea that Khrushchev was advancing the Trotskyist analysis of Stalin did indeed have a brief appeal, but it was very shallow: both Khrushchev and the Trotskyists asserted that Stalin had committed crimes.  However, in his speech to the Central Committee, Khrushchev was primarily concerned with rehabilitating the Bukharinists, not the Trotskyists.  In his ascendancy, Khrushchev then went on to advance the doctrine of peaceful coexistence, not that of permanent revolution, and indeed was largely responsible for the historically catastrophic Sino-Soviet split.  During the early sixties, the Chinese critique of "Soviet revisionism" was pretty much the freshest and most exciting ideological current in the world communist movement.  Meanwhile in the USSR the party continued to decay ideologically.  Khrushchev represents one stage in the development of the disease which ultimately undermined and destroyed the inheritance of 1917, to the great detriment of human history.  

Of course the CCP and its followers later went overboard in declaring that Khrushchev represented counterrevolution and capitalist restoration in his own person, but it has been a long time since I have heard anyone on the revolutionary left assert that "Khrushchevite revisionism" was a leftward advance.

Now, the important thing about this is not who was right about Khrushchev 40 years ago (in and of itself).  The important thing is that Proyect thinks that the supposed wisdom of Cochrane and the European Trotskyists, in being in touch with the mass movement, seeing the positive openings afforded by Khrushchev's supposed left turn, etc., are models for the struggle against "vanguardism" which Proyect wants to wage today.  However, if the "mass movement" is taking a wrong turn (if they are all carried away by "defeat Bush" sentiments, say), then those who are "in touch" with it have to work to avoid being carried away as well.  Over and over these last several years, the groups with the "mass touch" have frustrated Louis by getting carried away in the bourgeois current, as on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Kerry, and so on.  They end up making us "vanguardists" look good by comparison, which, I suppose, must be equally frustrating.  


Lou Paulsen

member, WWP, Chicago

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