Our Legacy: A Reply to Critics

— Alan Wald

THE TITLE OF my essay, "The End of ’American Trotskyism’?", is in the form of a question that might be posed by a young activist of the 1990s who is justifiably skeptical of Trotskyism’s future, in light of its present organizational state.

The body of the essay answers that question in the negative; that is, we are NOT at the end of "American Trotskyism," although the legacy must be carefully rethought. The last pages conclude with an affirmation of the core ideas of Trotskyist theory, and an admiring perspective on much of Trotskyism’s legacy. For the United States, however, I reject the traditional strategy of linear "party-building" around "THE revolutionary program," in favor of the regroupment ethos promoted by ATC and the revolutionary socialist organization Solidarity.

Thus a major emphasis of the essay is given to the significance that the near-demise of Stalinist states holds for a creative rethinking of Trotskyism; the centrality of pluralism in the revolutionary project; the problem of defining what constitutes "revolutionary" policy today; and the importance of rendering Trotskyism relevant to issues of gender, "race," ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Whatever the essay’s errors and defects, this was merely a good faith effort to apply and develop in the U.S. context the kind of thinking exemplified by the 14th World Congress United Secretariat resolution on "Building the Fourth International Today" (available from the Solidarity National Office), as well as recent books on revolutionary socialism by Ernest Mandel, Michael Löwy, Jeannette Habel, Ralph Miliband, Sam Farber, and others from a classical Marxist perspective.

As someone who has devoted most of his life to trying to recover the lost and slandered tradition of anti-Stalinist revolutionary Marxism, I give special importance to an appeal to others to help in the recovery and preservation of this legacy. I especially recommend adapting certain elements of the approach of the "New Historians of American Communism," who have revitalized their field by looking at extra-institutional activities, oral histories, regional variations, and so forth.

The basic character of the responses to my efforts on the part of comrades Frank Lovell, Archie Lieberman and Steve Bloom is the inverse of what I hoped to elicit. Of course, I anticipated, probably tried to provoke, and still welcome, criticisms and corrections. But these three polemics required of their authors no rethinking of classic problems, no reading of fresh materials, and no consideration of how the legacy of Trotskyism might capture the imagination of the present-day fighters for social liberation.

The three critics of my piece repeat many of the very same simplistic arguments that I challenged in the essay, acting as if I were unaware of them, or neglected to take them into account. This approach stands in dramatic contrast to a fresh and thought-provoking study by Charles Post on the Popular Front in the United States which just arrived, and which will be featured in a future issue of ATC. Basically, all three respondents share hard and soft versions of the "fatalist" perspective that "objective conditions" (namely, the failure of a major working-class radicalization since the 1940s) are responsible for the impotence of Trotskyism today, and that the advent of such a radicalization of the proletariat will vindicate those who remain faithful to the banner. Of course, all three are holding different banners (which each imagines to be readily distinguishable from the high-held banners of hundreds of other mutually hostile and squabbling "true Trotskyists" around the world). And each is quite certain that he is the "mainstream" of Troyskyism while most competitors are mountebanks and sectarians who shouldn’t be counted in any review of Trotskyism’s record.

Preconceptions and Misreadings

Regrettably, too much of Frank’s and Steve’s argumentation consists of depressingly obtuse misreadings of my essay. A comprehensive answer would require a refutation wherein each of a large number of inaccuracies is counterposed to the actual statement I made. Having engaged in too many such dead-end exchanges in the past, I believe yet another would be too tedious and lengthy for this journal and will try to focus on a few pivotal points.

For example, Frank starts off with several paragraphs refuting my alleged claim that "’the height’ of American Trotskyism was achieved in the 1960s." Unfortunately, even though it may not fit Frank’s preconceptions, my essay clearly devotes the first several pages to arguing precisely the opposite.

Indeed, it was the inability of U.S. Trotskyism to make significant headway during and after the 1960s radicalization (when U.S. Stalinism was qualitatively weaker than ever before), and its lack of real impact in comparison to what occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, that leads me to question the rote application in the future of those aspects of traditional Trotskyist strategy that were largely deployed in both earlier radicalizations.

Sadly, Frank also insists that I fail to give a single example of "revolutionary Marxists" who are sectarians, even though my essay lists numerous groups and policies that I so characterize. Frank can make such a far-fetched claim because, as he reveals in the longer version of his polemic (published in Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, May-June 1995), he believes that the only True Revolutionary Marxists in the U.S. were the majority of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) from 1938 until 1984 (BIDOM, 42), and this majority, of which Frank was always a part, never once exhibited sectarianism.

At the same time, in an act of monumental blindness, Frank dismisses as fraudulent my claim that many U.S. Trotskyists define true revolutionary practice by lining themselves up as the supporters of James P. Cannon in all past faction fights. He also says that he has no idea as to what I am talking about when I refer to the unfortunate tradition of Trotskyists insisting that everything was great in his or her party until the moment of his or her own expulsion.

The best examples I can give of these regrettable practices are Frank’s own statements in his polemic, especially if one keeps in mind that Frank’s appeal of his 1983 expulsion from the SWP was rejected in 1984 – the very date he gives for what he believes to be the SWP’s precipitous abandonment of Trotskyism.

Steve, too, evades most of the key issues in the discussion with his spurious characterizations of my views about the real problem of sectarianism and other matters. However, what is most remarkable to me is the way in which Steve’s expostulations of his own views repeatedly contradict his claim that "no serious person in the mainstream of Trotskyism" (which includes Steve) has ever suggested that Trotskyism should be "the ’foundation’ or ’centerpiece’ of anything." Steve then goes on to claim that "following the degeneration of the Russian revolution, Trotskyism was the only current which consistently stood for revolutionary self-reliance and workers’ democracy."

Well, on the one hand, Steve’s statement is of the kind that gives great spiritual comfort to members of a self-righteous church, and it is also -he rhetorical mainstay of ad men who plump their goods as "the only product which..." But I certainly don’t see such pure "consistency" in the policies of a huge number of groups and individuals marching under the banner of Trotskyism. The followers of Barnes, Healey, Robertson, Posadas, the early LaRouche and Marcey, constitute only the most authoritarian, undemocratic, and dangerous examples.

On the other hand, I DO see many positive contributions to workers democracy on the part of non-Trotskyists such as Spanish anarchists, Alabama Black sharecroppers under Communist Party leadership, Mexican Zapatistas of several generations, Noam Chomsky in his writings, and so forth. Steve’s approach is only possible here, once again, by identifying (and idealizing) one strand within Trotskyism as its true essence – mainly the Cannon tradition, with a few adjuncts – and by retrospectively lining up on Cannon’s side in all past major faction fights. The horrific records of Robertson et al are simply "no problem" for Steve since he has excommunicated them all from the church.

The tragic fruits of this approach are evidenced in Steve’s defense of Cannon’s and Morris Stein’s wrongheaded statements in the 1940s that the SWP was the already-existing revolutionary party, which had only to recruit to its existing program and destroy all alternative parties claiming to express the interests of the working class. Like other dogmatic apologists, Steve begins with an undeniable truism – that statements must be assessed in their context. Steve then makes a leap of faith to the false claim that Cannon and Stein intended this formula at the time to be a temporary, conjunctural assessment (when clearly they thought their party w vanguard, whether conditions of the moment were revolutionary or not), and that it is one that was justified in the 1940s.

Archie’s remarks are to be differentiated from Frank’s and Steve’s because they contain some valuable new historical information about Trotskyist experiences in the shipyards of northern New Jersey and in the IUE. The episodes to which Archie refers are precisely the kinds of struggles that need to be recorded and studied for the authentic legacy of U.S. Trotskyism to be appreciated.

Nevertheless, Archie’s one-point program for revolutionary salvation – proletarianize! – is inadequate. Any student of the Progressive Labor party, Barnes’s SWP, and many other groups knows only too well that revolutionary politics cannot be reduced to class composition (although class composition is certainly crucial), especially a composition achieved through a hot-house strategy of massive implantation.

In addition, Archie’s statements about CP membership in 1938 (which was probably closer to the 70,000 usually cited by historians than his 10,000), his depiction of the allegedly "bureaucratic sectarian" policies of the "Cannon regime," and his low-level swipes at intellectuals are equally unconvincing. Finally, Archie’s decision to characterize my essay as saying that "Trotskyism was always a failure," is merely a way to evade discussing the harder issues.

In sum, these particular responses strike me as prefabricated polemics. Frank, Steve and Archie are worked up against various threats to dearly held core beliefs, and seem to have been mentally preparing a set of responses over the years. My essay provided an opportunity for them to unleash these polemics, even though they would be more appropriately addressed to vulgar anti-Leninists, anti-Cannonists, pro-Stalinists, and outright liquidationists. Various parts of their standing arguments seem to have been triggered by phrases in my essay that they conveniently misread.

(Steve’s inability to acknowledge the question mark at the end of my title, "The End of ’American Trotskyism’?", is a classic example; this is not an accidental slip-up, since he has also deleted the question mark in references to my essay that he has circulated in other forums than ATC, in order to depict my query as a flat declaration.)

None of the above is intended to minimize the existence of real disagreements. But I want to register my strong skepticism about recycled arguments and false polemics ("false" not because of dishonesty, but because a subtle argument on the part of a "questioner" is translated into some grievous form of "revisionism" by the "old hands") as the mode of discourse to advance the revolutionary socialist movement and redeem what still remains crucial in the Trotskyist tradition.

Fortunately, even though Trotskyim most certainly HAS produced many examples of cultism, dogmatism, and sectarianism, there is no need for young activists to conclude that is all it has to offer. Thus I conclude this reply by repeating my call for new critical research, seasoned by perspectives open to other Left traditions, into the history of revolutionary Marxism that is non-Stalinist.

Furthermore, we must create a climate within the socialist movement that not only permits such inquiries but encourages them. This will help us establish that Trotskyism has additionally produced an inspiring legacy of creative and self-critical theory and practice. It will also enable us to come up with more convincing explanations than the "fatalist" one as to why a tradition with such merit and promise has come to so little in practical terms in the United States by 1995.

ATC 58, September-October 1995