What Happened to the SWP

by Paul Le Blanc

Paul Le Blanc

[Presentation to the Trotsky Legacy Conference, July 25–27, 2008, held at the Bronx campus of Fordham University, New York, NY.]

We are wrestling here with the fate of a small but influential current that arose within the left wing of the U. S. working class, a current which embraced the revolutionary socialist perspectives of Karl Marx, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Leon Trotsky. It crystallized in the 1920s as part of a Left Opposition to the growth of bureaucratic and authoritarian elements that were destroying the Communist movement as a revolutionary force. They became known as “Trotskyists.” In a way, this is appropriate—for Trotsky was one of the most brilliant and effective and consistent of revolutionary Marxists. But Trotsky’s greatness was rooted, in large measure, in his connection with, his embrace of, and his principled leadership within the revolutionary working-class movement that arose in Russia in the first decades of the 20th century—and in his refusal to compromise away the revolutionary integrity that had animated that movement. 

Similarly, American Trotskyists were part of a rich left-wing labor tradition that had existed in the United States for more than a hundred years. The key founding figure of Trotskyism in this country, James P. Cannon, represents nothing if not that reality. Many have been dismissive of the Cannon tradition. Some have scoffed (with James T. Farrell) that Cannon would have been “the Lenin of America if he hadn’t drunk whiskey.” Some comrades—identifying with certain European leaders of the Fourth International in factional struggles of long ago—have assumed the stance of super-internationalists and dismissed the very notion of American Trotskyism as “a national conceit.”

But from a Marxist standpoint, this makes no sense. Over and over and over again we find such impeccable internationalists as Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky insisting that revolutionary theory is not something that can be mechanistically applied (as Trotsky put it) “from Paris to Honolulu,” regardless of the economic, political, social, and cultural specifics. Marxism must be translated into multiple languages, multiple cultures, connecting to national peculiarities and to the specific experiences and consciousness of the working class in each and every country. Only in this way can revolutionary socialist theory come alive in each country, play a role in the actual on-the-ground class struggle in each country, and draw from the experiences in each country to make vital contributions to a global Marxism and to the world struggle for socialism.  

If we are serious about understanding the Trotskyist movement in the United States, and about learning from it to help advance the struggles of our own time, it makes sense to take Cannon seriously. We need to look closely at his experience, and at the experience of those who worked with him, those who taught him, those who preceded him, his mentors and comrades from boyhood in the 1890s to middle age in the 1930s. Cannon’s life and ideas had meaning not only for their connection with the revolution that Lenin and Trotsky led in 1917, but also because he was the product of, and was immersed in, the vibrant radical subculture and militant struggles of the U.S. working class. Harry Braverman captured this beautifully when he explained that Cannon “spoke to us in the accents of the Russian revolution and of the Leninism which had gone forth from the Soviet Union in the twenties and the thirties. But there was in his voice something more which attracted us. And that was the echoes of the radicalism of the pre–World War I years, the popular radicalism of Debs, Haywood, and John Reed.”

Cannon did not create the Trotskyist movement by himself. There were others who were an essential part of the chemistry of our early movement. Diego Rivera’s 1933 mural places Cannon with Max Shachtman and Arne Swabeck, and one could add Rose Karsner, Morris Lewit, Sylvia Bleecker, Martin Abern, Antoinette Konikow, Karl Skoglund and the Dunne brothers, Ernest Rice McKinney, C.L.R. James, and many others—in fact, several generations of men and women whose often inspiring collective story has so much to teach us.

It is possible to string together idealized anecdotes and morality tales that glorify the story of American Trotskyism, but that won’t explain why the U.S. Trotskyists never enjoyed a membership of much more than 2,000 people. Nor will it explain the actual reasons for their impressive successes—from the defense of revolutionary Marxist perspectives against the perversion of Stalinism, to leading the powerful 1934 Minneapolis general strike and other labor battles, to developing a penetrating understanding of the Black liberation struggle, to demonstrating (among some comrades) an early engagement with the rise of feminism, to helping mobilize a massive and effective opposition to the Vietnam war.

Nor will an idealized story explain the decline and fragmentation of the major organization which once identified itself as Trotskyist—the Socialist Workers Party—and ended up openly abandoning Trotskyism and, for all practical purposes, self-destructing in the 1980s. To make sense of this development, I think serious historians (and historical materialists) would need to consider how the experiences and ideas of the Trotskyists of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s connected with the larger political, economic, social, and cultural realities that made up the history of their time. What was the interplay, the mutual influence, between the Trotskyists and others on the left and in the labor movement, and with the multi-cultural and multi-racial and multi-occupational working class, various social movements, the intellectuals, the government, the bourgeoisie, as well as the economic and cultural transformations of the 20th century?

Inseparable from our consideration of such questions are the qualities that we can find in many of these people. The qualities of American Trotskyist cadres blended a deep idealism with a determination to put the ideals into action and to struggle against oppression. There was an organizational and strategic sophistication, combined with a deep practical-mindedness and flexibility. There was a rootedness in the working class as it actually existed, integrated with a vision of what it could actually become. In addition to this, there was the kind of Marxism that provided an analytical framework capable of orienting them in a complex world:

·         a sense of history as a long and contradictory process;

·         a firm grasp of the struggle between the classes and of the immense creativity and revolutionary potential of working people;

·         a comprehension of the structure and dynamics of capitalism, both as a world system and as an American reality;

·         a practical political orientation in which the immediate struggles of workers and the oppressed are taken seriously in their own right but also related to and combined with the longer-term goal of socialist revolution;

·         an understanding that the working class of any country must attain political independence from its own ruling class but must also make common cause with the workers’ struggles of other countries.

All of this implies a programmatic perspective and, flowing from that, a particular organizational form and mode of operating within such an organization: principles take priority over personalities; comradeship includes critical-minded honesty; fundamental decisions must be made, carried out, evaluated, and—if necessary—altered collectively; individual initiative, within the agreed-upon programmatic framework, should be encouraged; whatever the party does (whether organizing a picnic, an educational class series, a forum, a demonstration, a strike), it should strive to do seriously and well.

Such an appreciation of American Trotskyism poses a problem. The SWP, founded and shaped by men and women to whom I have attributed this glowing perspective, came to be led by a new leadership team from the post–World War II generation—cultivated by some of the old Trotskyists. The new team distinguished itself by some impressive initial contributions. But ultimately it distinguished itself by discarding the basic political perspectives of historic Trotskyism, largely through a process of dishonesty and manipulation that, for all practical purposes, destroyed the organization. How could something so good turn out so wrong?

There are two ways of answering this question that, for me, are not persuasive. One is to attribute to the new SWP leader who oversaw this transformation—a clever, charming, and ruthless person named Jack Barnes—almost magical powers, making him an evil genius, a trickster who can somehow transcend historical materialism and spin revolutionary gold into sectarian straw. It is more plausible to argue, on the contrary, that the destructive triumph of Barnes demonstrates that American Trotskyism was not as good as it was cracked up to be, that it contained some kind of fatal flaw: a fundamental deficiency in Cannon, in Trotsky, in Lenin, in Marx, or perhaps in all of these.

I reject both of these explanations, which attribute immense power to flawed personalities or faulty ideas. The explanation, I think, lies in the profound economic and cultural developments of the 1940s and 1950s that resulted in a major historical shift obliterating the labor-radical subculture of which American Trotskyism had been an organic part. As Frank Lovell (writing in 1997) put it, World War II (lasting from 1939 to 1945) “transformed the world in almost every respect…World War II was the great divide, like a chasm caused by an earthquake of unimaginable force. Today’s desolate political scene can be understood and explained only in light of the causes and consequences of World War II.” The postwar realties were fundamentally different, in many ways, from the global revolutionary upsurge (in Europe, perhaps the U.S., certainly the USSR, as well as the “underdeveloped” countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America), which was what had been anticipated by the Trotskyists. The consolidation and spread of Stalinism and the stabilization and unprecedented prosperity in the developed capitalist countries—freezing into a Cold War confrontation that largely marginalized the Trotskyists—was not offset even by exciting revolutionary developments in the “third world.” In the United States technological transformations in the workplaces, suburban migration and fragmentation of working-class communities, the “social compact” of a bureaucratized labor movement with big industry and big government, plus rising living standards and a sprawling consumer culture, combined with anti-Communist repression and enforced conformism—all converged to block, fragment, and erode the working-class radicalism that had evolved from the 1860s through the 1930s.

Capitalism was generating a process of recomposition of the U.S. working class in a manner which deradicalized the rank-and-file layers that had been the base of labor insurgencies from the time of the Knights of Labor down to the heroic struggles  of the CIO. Within that broad working-class activist milieu, Socialist, IWW, Communist, and Trotskyist organizations had flourished, and within that context the earlier cadres of American Trotskyism had been formed and the political perspectives of American Trotskyism had practical meaning.

One of the impacts of post–World War II realities was that a serious fragmentation occurred in the cadres of the post-1940 Trotskyist mainstream. There were splits of the Goldman-Morrow group, the Johnson-Forest Tendency (C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya), most devastatingly the split in the very core of the SWP’s most stalwart militants (the so-called Cochran fight), followed a few years later by the separation of some comrades around Murry Weiss and Myra Tanner Weiss, the loss of Arne Swabeck and a few others drawn to Maoism, plus the exit of the Fraser group that formed the Freedom Socialist Party and of the elements around Sam Marcy that went on to form the Workers World Party. (The splits involving what became the Spartacist League and the Workers League, the Internationalist Tendency, and others, involved later generations and, while worth considering, were not part of the earlier fragmentation of Trotskyist cadres around Cannon that I am referring to here.) There is no pattern of virtue or villainy in these splits. There were good people and interesting insights (plus the usual foolishness) all around in each fight and dispute, and some (for example, in my opinion, the “Cochranites”) represented a much greater loss than others. It really does seem to me, at the same time, that those grouped around Cannon tended to be more on-target (at least in some important ways) than the others.

But in addition to this extended process of fragmentation, there was another impact of the post–World War II realities that was not at all evident to those of us who joined the Trotskyist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, in the throes of the youth radicalization of that time. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the shrinking number of U.S. Trotskyists—despite their strength of character and ideas—had become relatively threadbare and brittle as a political force. When new recruits began to flood into the ranks of the SWP in the 1960s and 1970s, they mostly came from the campuses, not the factories. They came from a different experience and with a different consciousness. Important political work was done—especially in struggles against war, racism, and sexism—but the revolutionary working-class orientation that had been at the heart of American Trotskyism was understood and practiced in a different, more abstract, less vibrant manner than had been the case earlier.

This was inevitable, if one accepts the Marxist precept that being determines consciousness—how we live, what we actually experience, determines how we think. People from different realities will understand and apply the same ideas differently. In fact, some serious efforts to remain true to the old perspectives necessarily generated sectarian results. In my opinion, this is not because the old perspectives were inherently sectarian (on the whole, they were not), but because the context in which they had made sense no longer existed.

Attempts to directly apply perspectives of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s to the qualitatively different post-1950 situation—in the absence of an insurgent working-class movement and in the absence of what I’ve called a broader labor-radical subculture—could be relevant only to the internal universe of a political sect, not to the actual lives of real workers. It is within this framework that the decline of the Socialist Workers Party (as a Trotskyist organization) can best be understood. The youthful new leadership group, flushed with its successes in the swirl of youth radicalization and antiwar struggle, at first sincerely believed that it represented a Leninist-Trotskyist continuity that was, in fact, experientially beyond its grasp. It soon found—after a much-vaunted “turn to the working class” begun in the late 1970s—that reality was not conforming to expectations. In the face of a succession of failures, it became increasingly rigid, lost confidence in the old orthodoxy. It then decided (in the words of Jack Barnes) to “change continuity” from the old Trotskyism to a hopeful vision of a “new international” that would be led by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party. Democratic organizational norms and political debate—too threatening for the new leadership—gave way to a hyper-centralism, arrogant posturing, increasing political rigidity, and large-scale expulsions.

I don’t believe this decline of the SWP was inevitable. Specific personalities and ideas and policies do make a difference. There are a variety of complexities and specifics related to this process of degeneration that are worth examining, debating, and learning from. But it seems to me that they need to be placed in a larger historical materialist context in order to be adequately understood. Such an analysis also has important implications for efforts to build a revolutionary party and for thinking through where we go from here—which may also be worth taking up in our discussion.