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These notes relate only indirectly to the two posts below, though the one
by Tom Smith is a good example of the problem. I'm sending this to some of
you who share with me a long history in the movement. Younger radicals can
give it thought if they want. The Socialist Party currently has somehow
inherited a small group of neo-Trotskyists and this discussion may have
some current value.
The other night I realized that, given a choice between Trotskyists and
Stalinists, I much prefer the latter. Of course I'm an old radical, and
when I say Stalinists I am not referring to the Communist Parties of today
but to that period when there was a wonderfully monolithic Communist
movement, close in its ideological and spiritual power over its adherents
to the Catholic Church in the days of Pope Pius.
The Communist Party was marked by two things. One was the willingness to
suspend belief. No facts, no evidence, could shake their faith in the
Soviet Union. Arguments were deflected by attacking the critics as
Trotskyists or Fascists. (One runs into much the same thing with
contemporary Zionists in the US, who, safely distant from the realities of
the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, are more likely to attack you as an
anti-Semite than to listen to a reasoned critique of Israel).
The second thing the Communist Party did was mass work. They did terrific
work in trade unions, the civil rights movement, in anything they touched.
If they were let down it was because the Party line caused them trouble (as
with the US trade unions, when, during World War II, in deference tothe
CP's support for the Soviet Union, they too swiftly signed no-strike
pledges, which left a bad taste in the minds of many unionists). The "old
Socialist Party" was also very good at mass work, and need make no
apologies for its record in the civil rights and labor movement.
The first Trotskyists were remarkable people. I knew some of them, and, of
course, was deeply influenced by A. J. Muste who was, for a brief period,
more or less a Trotskyist and most certainly a Marxist before returning to
his Christian and pacifist roots. The first Trotskyists were genuine
Communists, absolutely committed revolutionists - the only thing that
separated them from the Communist Party was the fact they had been
expelled. I knew Max Shachtman very well but he was, by the time I met him,
already on his way out of the radical movement (though I don't think any of
us - either his co-workers or those, such as myself who were pacifists,
There was an historic problem with the Trotskyists (not my central point
tonight but worth touching on). It was an intensely psychological problem.
They had been expelled, on October 25, 1928, but had not left willingly.
They still fully supported the Soviet Union. To be "thrown out of the
church" was bad enough, but to be labeled as "enemies" of the Soviet
Revolution was intolerable. The first (and logical) move by the early
Trotskyists was . . . . . to apply for readmission to the CP, to denounce
their denouncers. Far from saying "Fine, we were fed up anyway, we are
happy to be outside", they said "We are good Communists, we want back in".
They talked to family members (families were often split by this). They
talked, or tried to talk, to former friends still in the Party. They did
not accept their expulsion. They did not set up formal "Trotskyist"
organizations for some time after their expulsion.
And when they did set up their group - the Communist League of America,
which changed its name to the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 - their
immediate concern was to prove they had more right to be considered the
true inheritors of the Russian Revolution than the Communist Party. I
remember when, as a student at UCLA in the 1950's, I would read the
Trotskyist press, it was almost as filled with attacks on the Communist
Party as it was with attacks on capitalism. This particular problem of the
Trotskyist movement led to an extreme anti-Communism, so great that even
when the late American socialist, Michael Harrington, broke with orthodox
Trotskyist thinking, he was still so bitterly anti-Communist that he gave
critical support to the US war in Vietnam until as late as 1972 (more than
seven years after the war had started), and of course this anti-Communism
was pathological in the case of Max Shachtman, who moved eventually to find
his home in the CIA wing of US politics.
In talking with Trotskyists, you were always subjected to two quite
different discussions. First, why you should become a Marxist/Leninist and
oppose capitalism, and second, why you had to be just about as bitterly
opposed to the Communist Party as to US capitalism. The Stalinists had it
much simpler - it may be very hard to believe, but when I was at UCLA in
the early 1950's, the Communist Party would not share a public platform
with a Trotskyist, nor work in any "front" group with Trotskyists. They not
only didn't talk to Trotskyists, they didn't talk about them. So at least
the Stalinists were focused on what I would consider the main problem - US
capitalism. (This was also the period when the Communist Party at UCLA told
other students that I worked for the FBI - I think, in fairness to them,
they may have believed this - it was impossible for them to believe there
were people to the "left" of the Communists who weren't in some way either
Trotskyist or "agents of the State").
However the main thrust of the short essay tonight is that for Trotskyists,
the battle is never over. There is still the belief that if only the vote
had gone a different way at some meeting in Moscow, if only Trotsky had
attended Lenin's funeral, if only Lenin's last will and testament had
reached the Soviet party members, if only, if only, if only . . . . then
all history would be different. There is never a re-examination of anything
fundamental. I read some of the material put out by those in the "left" of
the Socialist Party today and I could have read it (and did read it) forty
years ago. There are times when I know how out of touch I am with the
contemporary world, and worry about it, but I'm an old radical and people
expect us to be out of touch. It is very sad when young radicals are still
constrained by such ancient debates. The whole "Stalinist / Trotskyist"
debate was effectively ended with the death of Stalin. To a much greater
extent than Trotskyists ever realized, the debate was a personal one
between the two men, and the 20th Congress of the Soviet Party effectively
put stop to that long history. (The issues between them were real enough -
the irony was that in many ways both men were quite right. Stalin was right
that a world revolution wasn't about to occur. Trotsky was right that
without it, the Soviet state would become "deformed").
Shortly after Stalin's death and the word about Khrushchev's secret speech
on Stalin to the 20th Congress I went to hear James Cannon at a meeting in
Los Angeles. I had expected he would have some profound analysis to make
about where his movement would go next. Instead he said "Where do we
Trotskyists stand today? We stand where we have stood for the last thirty
years, on the words of Leon Trotsky" and I thought what a pity - his whole
world has changed, Lenin's famous last will and testament has been made
public, and he still stands where he stood for thirty years! And I thought
how different a thinker Cannon was from A. J. Muste.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated - and, in fact, before that, when
Gorbachev was deposed by the coup (which was illegal under the Soviet
Constitution) - the American Communists I knew had to grapple with very
deep questions. It wasn't a matter of whether Trotsky or Stalin was right -
it was that something had been wrong from the beginning, and that wasn't
the deadly political and personal conflict between Stalin and Trotsky, it
was the origins of the Bolshevik Revolution, the theories of Lenin, the
issues of democracy, the matters of ends and means.
When the late Sam Coleman left the CP at the time of the Hungarian events,
he didn't leave it for the Trotskyists - he joined the War Resisters League
and became vice-Chair. (And had he not died of a heart attack he almost
certainly would have become the Chair). When my friend, the late Gil Green,
left the Communist Party at the time of internal struggle that resulted in
setting up the Committees of Correspondence, he didn't join the Trotskyists
- he came to the conclusion that democracy was the central issue and was
urging his co-workers to read Michael Harrington. (And when my other old
friend from the CP, Dorothy Healey, was expelled - I think about the time
of the Hungarian events, she also didn't join the Trotskyists but
eventually joined DSA).
In short, the Stalinists, when faced with "ultimate questions" (whether
those questions were posed to them by the East Berlin uprising in June of
1953, by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, by the invasion of
Czechoslovakia in 1968, or by the coup against Gorbachev), they did not
join the Trotskyist movement. No, they had more important fish to fry. They
needed to rethink basic assumptions.
To their enormous credit, with few exceptions they did not join the right
wing. They have remained active in the "broad left". But what they shared
in common - and what set them apart from the Trotskyists - was a
willingness to engage in a profound probing of basic issues, including
rethinking Lenin. I remember that at the time when Glasnost hit the USSR I
was reading the monthly magazine of the Soviet Peace Committee which was
suddenly pushing back the date of "when things went wrong" to the concepts
of Leninism itself. The concern - the dangerous concern - with means and
ends, with what Gorbachev dared to call the "spiritual issues" that
socialism should not evade.
We have a couple of former Communists in the SP today - and unlike those
who have drifted in from the Trotskyists, they are engaged, or try to
engage, in mass work. Ironically the Trotskyists who, in their early days
represented some of the best minds in the United States intellectual
community (think, for example, of Dwight MacDonald), have become trapped in
a "Ground Hog Day" of the political world, each day starting once more the
debate about the Russian Revolution, what went wrong and when. They are now
an absolutely irrelevent force in the real political world.
I don't think any of us really know where to go or what to do today. I know
that I don't. I believe capitalism is a monstrous system on ethical,
ecological, and economic grounds, that it will chew up the world and spit
it out, that it is the cause of monstrous human misery. It is such an
apalling system that I even understand why people wind up in groups like
Workers World Party. But I don't see a serious Left in the US - I don't see
one, for that matter, in Europe. And the former Soviet Union - God help
those who thought Gorbachev wasn't good enough, that the whole system had
to come down at once - the result is that Russia today is increasingly a
third world country, a peripheral power in Europe, where the average male
has a life expectancy no greater than in Bangladesh. This is the freedom
and democracy the neo-conservatives wanted? An internal desolation that
makes the old system look good - run by Bush's dear friend, Putin.
None of what I've written is meant to discourage joint work with anyone,
including Trotskyists. I do understand and respect the committment to the
broader movement of those active in Trotskyist or "neo-Trotskyist"
movements. But I think the issue of Trotsky, of "the transitional program",
etc., really reflects the historic failure of Trotskyists to risk the
deeper kind of thinking which - to the surpise of many of us - came from
what we once wrote off as "Stalinists".