Paul Le Blanc: Moving forward to build a mass socialist movement
By Paul Le Blanc
June 27, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/IS Network -- I very much appreciate Luke Cooper’s excellent response to my “Getting our priorities straight”. It maps out much of the common ground between us, and it offers food for thought for those wanting to move forward to build the mass socialist movement that now appears to be a possibility.
Given that agreement, and the fact that some of this simply needs to be lived through more before we can find additional things to say that are useful, I feel little need to “answer” him. But I do want to offer a few thoughts regarding my defence of Morris Stein, and related matters, in a way that I think addresses some questions posed for us as we seek to move forward together.
The poetry of dialectics
It seems to me that things move forward in part through the interpenetration of contradictory elements, and that sometimes there are different meanings embedded in one and the same thing – which constitutes one of the “laws” of poetry as well as dialectics, and of life itself. What Morris Stein (Lewit) said in 1944 he would not have said twenty years later, when the context within which he lived had radically altered, and it certainly was not the kind of thing he was saying in the 1980s and early 1990s when I knew him. To say such things in the later contexts would have been false, and in important ways to say “we are monopolists in politics” was false in 1944 as well. But to grasp the meaning these words had for Morris and his comrades we must give attention to the experience and context shaping that formulation.
The insights we can get from such contextualisation may help us understand and deal more adequately with the challenges we face as revolutionary activists today and tomorrow. The seeming plausibility of what Morris said (which can only be grasped by daring to reach for its partial truth) highlights the nature of the experience that caused revolutionary socialists (in this case within the Trotskyist tradition) to view – correctly, in my opinion – the bankruptcy of Stalinism and social democracy even back then. It highlights the qualitative difference between the years when, through the tumultuous struggles of the 1930s, there had been a consolidation of a vanguard layer of the working class and our own time when such a layer is still in the process of recomposing. And it highlights the seriousness with which Morris and his comrades took themselves, which I still believe to be one of their exemplary qualities.
To make the kind of projections that Morris articulated in 1944 made sense (reflected elements of truth) given the possibilities and tasks of the moment: fighting hard to win the vanguard layer of the working class to the revolutionary program, which would open the way for socialist revolution.
From the different standpoint, however, of being aware of contradictory qualities among the Stalinists, among the social democrats, and among disparate others on the left, and also from the standpoint of relating to positive elements among those contradictory qualities, the projections and formulations of the SWP in 1944 made less sense. Related to this, in regard to how realities actually turned out, the formulations also made less sense than it seemed to the comrades at that time. Knowing what we know now, we can argue that the 1944 formulations – especially the “we are monopolists in politics” phrases – were quite simply wrong. The proof of this is the demonstrated dead-end sectarianism of groups that have continued to believe in and articulate that standpoint.
On the other hand, in the changed circumstances of the 1950s, Morris and his comrades were inclined toward the very different formulations of SWP leader James P. Cannon, as they explored possibilities of regroupment on the Left. Consider these very non-monopolist remarks of Cannon at a meeting of diverse socialists in 1958:
Socialists of different tendencies have begun to think of each other as comrades. Free discussion and fraternization, and sentiment for united action and regroupment of all the scattered forces, are the order of the day for us now everywhere. I say that’s a good day for us and for our cause – the cause of American socialism.
It doesn’t bother me at all that, in a meeting such as ours, we have some criticism of each other; and that some things are said by one speaker that another can’t fully endorse – that’s not the significant thing about this great meeting tonight. The significant thing is that socialists of different tendencies stand together here on the same platform and urge united action against the capitalist class …
I want to turn the clock back to the good old days of solidarity and cooperation in practical action against the common enemy. Fraternal cooperation and solidarity in practical action do not exclude differences of opinion, do not exclude discussion and debate as we go along. There is no socialist life without free discussion of differences. But while we discuss our differences, we should also remember what we have in common as socialists, and act together in support of it.
These remarks have, in my opinion, even more relevance in our present context than they did in the context that generated them fifty-five years ago.
There is one other point that must be made, however. The belief at the core of the 1944 comments of Morris Stein, and at the core of Cannon’s 1946 remarks on “The American Theses” (which projected the Socialist Workers Party giving leadership to “The Coming American Revolution”) contributed to the survival of the SWP as a revolutionary element into the 1960s and 1970s.
I was not recruited to revolutionary Marxist politics by the followers of Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman, who had abandoned revolutionary politics by the 1960s. I was not recruited by what remained of Max Shachtman’s organisation (although a left-wing split-off from it did influence me positively), nor was I recruited by the group around Bert Cochran that left the SWP in the 1950s but had disappeared by the early 1960s. All of these had important things to say, offered compelling insights, contained admirable people, made genuine contributions. But none of them survived as an organised force, with revolutionary perspectives intact and some credibility, capable of recruiting and helping to political train the person that I was in the 1960s and 1970s. The SWP did survive as such a force, and it was able to grow and play a very positive role before succumbing to the contradictions that I have analysed elsewhere.
What we believe in
The convictions that Morris Stein expressed in 1944, and that Cannon expressed in defence of the “Theses on the American Revolution” in 1946, involved a belief in the need for and the possibility of a revolution in our society and our time, and also a belief in one’s self and one’s organisation as elements that could be essential in bringing such revolution into being.
During a factional dispute in the early 1950s, with a current of incredibly fine, capable and intelligent people led by Bert Cochran, Cannon argued that one of the characteristics of the opposition, nonetheless, was an element of demoralisation, a loss of belief in this rock-hard revolutionary conviction. “They don’t ‘feel’ that way”, he commented, “and nobody can talk them out of the way they do feel”. He went on to make an argument that was perhaps not entirely fair or balanced, but not entirely devoid of truth:
There is a line in the document of the Cochranites that sneers at the 1946 SWP convention and at the “Theses on the American Revolution” adopted there. It says: “We were children of destiny, at least in our own minds”. In that derision of the party’s aspiration, the whole pessimistic, capitulatory ideology of Cochranism is contained.
I do think there is something to this. I have seen it in many who went through the same negative SWP experience in the United States that I did in the 1980s, and who are inclined to move from having a sense of humour about it all (a good thing) to no longer being able to take any of it seriously (a bad thing, in my opinion). Whole organisations can be afflicted with this. There is so much intellectual modesty and humility (and “sophistication”), and lack of actual belief in revolutionary ideas and convictions, that the entire organisation can be in a perpetual mode of brooding and drift, with a great deal of joking about revolutionary ideas and aspirations and little sense that we are capable of really changing the world. And some are incapable of even trying to be part of an organisation, instead using the internet as a substitute for real-world politics.
I think there are a number of instances when traumas of one kind or another shake good people out of organisations to which we were deeply committed, making them susceptible to such dynamics.
Yet ours is an amazing time, in which political and social and economic crises have generated a spreading and deepening radical ferment. The opportunities for revolutionary activism and growth are great. The possibilities of revolutionary socialist unity are very real. We must not be afraid to believe in ourselves as revolutionaries, and in our revolutionary aspirations and ideas. We must draw upon as many resources as we can, negative but also positive lessons from past comrades, as we attempt – in this wondrous new context – to move forward, and forward again, to realise the goal of building a mass socialist movement that can truly create a better world.