A rich diversity: Underground channels and stream of US Trotskyism, 1928-1965

By Paul Le Blanc

November 17, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Perry Anderson once offered, in his Considerations on Western Marxism, a brief judgment regarding Trotskyism that certainly charmed a young (twenty-something) Trotskyist of 1976 like me. He wrote: “One day this … tradition – persecuted, reviled, isolated, divided – will have to be studied in all the diversity of its underground channels and streams. It may surprise future historians with its resources.”

Over the past four decades I have made my way down an increasing number of such channels and streams. And I have found much polemical garbage. Not all polemics are garbage, but some are: designed to emphasize one’s superiority while trashing others with whom one disagrees, even though the disagreements could be discussed in ways that usefully clarify complex realities. But this clarifying approach all-too-often is not the mode of functioning, or even the underlying purpose, in so many proliferating polemics on the Trotskyist left. Such stuff clogs certain internet sites and other venues down to the present day.

Not comfortable with indulging in such garbage (for all the mesmerizing certainties and fireworks and sly chuckles one can find there), I have been inclined to push forward in search of the riches to which Anderson alluded. Interested in contributions that might have relevance for evolving actualities and struggles of our time, I have found much of value. 

The fruits of some such explorations, gathered by myself and my co-editors, can be found in the new documentary trilogy entitled US Trotskyism, 1928-1965: Emergence, Endurance, Resurgence, which consists of 2,258 pages of mostly primary sources (contributions from more than sixty different revolutionary activists – always passionate, often incredibly insightful, many relatively unknown, representing a collectivity of thousands more comrades over four decades). These three volumes also include commentary, contextualization, bibliographies, and detailed indexes. 

This trilogy is part of a six-volume set entitled “Dissident Marxism in the United States,” being published by Brill, with paperback editions published by Haymarket Books, all under the banner of the Historical Materialism series. Before providing the overview of the new trilogy, I want to indicate how I see the term “Dissident Marxism.”

The Marxist tradition has exerted, from the late nineteenth century down through the late twentieth century, a powerful influence among those seeking to build working-class movements, struggling for a world better than that divided between powerful minorities enriched by the exploited and oppressed laboring majorities. Within this Marxist tradition, however, significant differences arose over how to properly understand and change the world. By the second decade of the twentieth century, an irreconcilable divergence had opened up between a reformist Social-Democratic wing and a revolutionary Communist wing of the Marxist movement (although this revolutionary wing was to become fatally compromised). 

As time passed, both major currents were overwhelmed internally by a bureaucratization process that undermined creative, critical-minded thinking and democratic politics. Both Social Democracy and mainstream Communism were largely discredited by the time the twenty-first century arrived. In the eyes of many, Communism – as it crystallized during the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin – was discredited because it became a repressive (often murderous) bureaucratic tyranny which nonetheless proved incapable of surviving. Social-Democracy was discredited not only because it proved incapable of replacing capitalism, but even incapable of maintaining its own modest social reforms in the face of pro-business assaults and austerity programs.

“Dissident Marxism” refers to those breaking off from and independent of these two dominant forces. It is such dissident currents that are the focus of the six-volume set, “Dissident Marxism in the United States.” The first volume co-edited by Tim Davenport and myself, was entitled The “American Exceptionalism” of Jay Lovestone and His Comrades, 1929-1940. That has been followed by the US Trotskyist trilogy we are discussing here. (In addition to myself, Bryan Palmer labored on all three volumes in this project, the late Tom Bias worked on the first two, and Andy Pollack helped with the first). Two final volumes, to be edited by Howard Brick and myself, will focus on what we are calling “independent Marxism.”

In the United States of fifty years ago, the scholarly consensus – which enjoys residual influence down to our own time – was that Marxism has been a marginal and either malignant or ridiculous force in the history of our country. Increasingly, however, new research and reflection have been generating a different understanding: that Marxist currents in the United States, both “mainstream” and dissident, have actually had a significant impact upon labor and social movements, and our cultural life, and consequently have been of some importance in the shaping of that country’s history. This being the case, it strikes some of us as a reasonable and useful project to produce such volumes as these. 

A challenge for scholars, but also for activists, is to understand what happened – to comprehend the weaknesses and failures, to be sure, but also to locate strengths, positive lessons, and durable insights. In order to do this, it is necessary to push past sweeping generalizations and consult primary sources to see what those who lived “back then” actually had to say. And that brings us to this trilogy. Those who are its focus are people who initiated and built what came to be known as the Trotskyist movement in the United States, in the form of a succession of organizations: the Communist League of America from 1928 to 1935, the Workers Party of the United States from 1935 to 1936, the Appeal Caucus inside the Socialist Party of America from 1936 to 1937, and finally the Socialist Workers Party beginning in 1938. The material in the trilogy follows this chronological and organizational evolution. 

The pioneers of U.S. Communism were inspired by the 1917 workers’ and peasants’ revolution in Russia, led by Lenin, Trotsky and other outstanding revolutionary Marxists who went on to establish a Communist International in 1919. But many of these US pioneers were also rooted in deep traditions of American radicalism and labor activism associated, for example, with the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and the Industrial Workers of the World. It was out of this milieu that US Trotskyism arose.

These revolutionaries were in basic agreement with ideas associated with Trotsky, yet they did not see themselves as being in orbit around a particular personality. They were revolutionary socialists who had been engaged in the struggles of U.S. labor, and had been centrally involved in creating what they hoped would be an effective Communist Party that would be capable of leading a transition from capitalist oppression. 

It is worth noting that in 1951 the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, the major force (small as it was) representing Trotskyism in the United States, proposed that the label of “Trotskyism” be set aside, that instead the party designate itself “in broad public political agitation as ‘Socialist’ or ‘Socialist Workers’ or ‘Revolutionary Socialist’, alternatively, as the occasion may demand.” Party leader James P. Cannon explained that the label could cause thoughtful workers to view the Socialist Workers Party “as a sectarian movement, as followers of some individual, and a Russian one at that.” He continued: 

It is not a suitable characterization for a broad American movement. Our enemies will refer to us as Trotskyists, and we will, of course, not deny it; but we should say: “We are Trotskyists because Trotsky was a true socialist.” What we are presenting against American capitalism and the labor bureaucracy is the principle of the class struggle of modern socialism... Let our enemies within the movement, that is in the narrow framework of the more political movement, call us Trotskyists. We will not protest. But then we will say we are Trotskyist because he represented genuine socialism and we, like him, are the real Socialists... We have to think of ourselves more and more as representing the Socialist opposition to the American bourgeoisie. I don’t think we should do it under the handicap of what appears to the workers as a sectarian or cultist name. That is what the term “Trotskyist” signifies to them.

For various reasons, however, the name “Trotskyist” stuck. A set of essays by George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc, and Alan Wald, Trotskyism in the United States, Historical Essays and Reconsiderations, republished in 2016 by Haymarket Books, provides in broad outline the story of the predominant current of U.S. Trotskyists, and it stands as a useful companion to the primary sources provided in this trilogy. Bryan Palmer has also initiated a rich and invaluable biographical exploration of the central founding figure of U.S. Trotskyism, James P. Cannon. The first highly-acclaimed volume takes the story from Cannon’s early beginnings in US labor-radicalism through his role in the founding and development of the Communist Party up to the end of the 1920s. The second volume, which will soon appear, covers the founding and development of US Trotskyism from 1928 to 1940. A future third volume is planned to finish the story.

More succinct is Peter Drucker’s quite substantial biography of Max Shachtman, followed by massive reprints from various corners of the break-away group led by Shachtman from 1940 to 1958. An avalanche of works by and about C.L.R. James has also been pouring forth quite abundantly over the decades. 

More work obviously needs to be done, however, and it is hoped that what is offered in this trilogy will help to stimulate such efforts. For example, as just suggested, a limitation of these three large volumes is that they do not cover the subsequent history of those groupings that broke from the Trotskyist mainstream – such as those associated with Hugo Oehler, Max Shachtman, C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, Bert Cochran, Sam Marcy, Clara Fraser and Richard Fraser, Tim Wohlforth, James Robertson, and others. The writings of all these individuals, and many others, can be found in these volumes, and the disputes which resulted in those splits are recorded here. As already noted, work by others provides much useful material on what happened to (and what was offered by) some of the groups issuing from the splits. But obviously there is much room for more work on such matters.

I should add that there are in these volumes several interventions by comrades outside of the United States: most naturally, Leon Trotsky, but also Grandizo Munis, Michel Pablo, and Ernest Mandel.

But let’s look at the actual contents of the trilogy. 

Of course, serious attention to Stalinism and the Soviet Union was a defining focus for these comrades. Classic interventions from such central leaders as James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman are joined here with other contributions by Antoinette Konikow, Maurice Spector, Arne Swabeck, John G. Wright, and Albert Goldman. In these pages we can find innovative analyses by Bert Cochran and Joseph Hansen, exploring the meaning and nature of developments in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They are sharply challenged by C.L.R. James and his co-thinkers adhering to a “state-capitalist” analysis, with Sam Marcy and Vincent Copeland advancing a no less sharp challenge – reflecting an almost pro-Stalinist orientation – with their “Global Class War” perspective. Carrying the dominant perspectives of the Socialist Workers Party through the 1950s and into the 1960s are searching analyses by George Breitman, Murry Weiss, and Joe Hansen. 

Considerable attention in these pages is given to the momentous, murderous conflicts and transformations of the Second World War. For the newly forged Socialist Workers Party this posed an immediate challenge as fourteen of their leading militants were put on trial, and then imprisoned, for violating the Smith Act. This was due to their revolutionary opposition to the imperialist dynamics that drove U.S. foreign policy as the Roosevelt administration led the country into the war. 

Substantial material related to this trial conveys much of the Trotskyists’ understanding of the World War II, but one can also find here the remarkably penetrating and fact-packed reportage on the war’s early development by Joseph Hansen, as well as Sherry Mangan’s on-the-spot account of the fall of France to Nazi Germany, and Jean van Heijenoort’s early survey of underground anti-Nazi resistance throughout Europe. While Europe-wide socialist revolutions were expected to be the outcome of the war, the dissident analyses of Felix Morrow are also represented here – part of an ill-fated factional struggle in which he was joined by Albert Goldman and van Heijenoort. Also presented in these pages are analyses by Art Preis on ties that sectors of the U.S. elite had with the Hitler regime, and George Breitman on the breath-taking extent of war profiteering. There is also, from 1945, an analytical report from George Novack on the early beginnings of the Cold War, as the victorious world powers (the most powerful being the United States and the Soviet Union), found themselves at loggerheads at a so-called peace conference in London. 

There is much in the trilogy about the dynamics and dimensions of the Cold War – but also the momentous overturns represented by the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions. The South African revolutionary who spent much time in China before ending up in the United States, Frank Glass (writing under the pen-name Li Fu-jen) provides a powerful description of the revolutionary triumph and early years of the People’s Republic of China. We find him joining later with Arne Swabeck to push for a positive embrace of Communist China, a position sharply opposed by an uncompromising critique of Maoism advanced by SWP leader Tom Kerry. On the Cuban Revolution, the Socialist Workers Party majority is well-served by Joseph Hansen – sharply challenged by younger dissidents Tim Wohlforth and James Robertson. 

One of the most interesting developments traced in this trilogy is the evolution of the Trotskyists’ understanding of the so-called “Negro Question.” It begins with relatively impoverished efforts to come to grips with what is perceived as an important issue, with serious analyses – “from the outside” – by such white comrades as Hugo Oehler and John G. Wright, opposing racism with a traditional approach calling for “black and white unite and fight” for workers’ rights and socialism. Also presented is the transcript of the 1932 discussion in which Leon Trotsky challenged Arne Swabeck and his American comrades to develop a more penetrating approach. Such a new approach begins to develop with the entry into the SWP of C.L.R. James, well-represented here with a sampling of splendid articles and reports – including his “Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem,” a condensed version of which has been widely anthologized, but which is reprinted here for the first time in its original, richly-detailed form. Contributions by associates of James can also be found here – Raya Dunayevskaya’s informative analysis on the proletarianization of African Americans, and William Gorman’s path-breaking analysis on W.E.B. DuBois. In addition, there are an early and detailed analysis of race and racism by Grace Carlson, and a series of informative articles in the 1940s by black veteran and physician Edgar Keemer (using the pen-name Carl Jackson). Contributions of George Breitman are well-represented, particularly his bold embrace of black nationalism, which is challenged by Richard Fraser who advocated for what he called “revolutionary integrationism.” We can also find valuable reportage on the rising civil rights struggles of the 1950s and early 1960s from Jean Blake, Lois Saunders, and Fred Halstead. Especially compelling is the eyebrow-raising, sharp, fascinating contribution by Robert Des Verney entitled “Why White Radicals Are Incapable of Understanding Black Nationalism.” 

Trotskyists’ essential role in innumerable labor struggles in the United States – among maritime and longshore workers on both coasts, and in-between among steelworkers and auto workers and teamsters, as well as others (including unemployed workers) – resulted in valuable experience and lessons. This is reflected in substantial contributions from James P. Cannon, A.J. Muste, Arne Swabeck, B. J. Widick, Farrell Dobbs, Art Preis, Bert Cochran, and Tom Kerry. There are also the cutting-edge and informative analyses by Raya Dunayevskaya and Melba Windoffer dealing with the growing importance of blacks and women in the U.S. working class. 

In addition, we can find fertile and innovative Marxist explorations of history and theory that still retain relevance in our own time – but also searching investigations of new developments and pathways opening up in the 1950s and 1960s: socialist-feminist contributions by Joyce Cowley, Hedda Garza, Evelyn Reed and others; as well as searching descriptions of the cultural rebellion of the so-called “beat generation” by Evelyn Sell, and of the early youth radicalization by James Robertson and Tim Wohlforth. Examinations of the changing face of U.S. capitalism are presented by Myra Tanner Weiss and Theodore Edwards (expressing early opposition to the Vietnam war), with Harold Robins on automation, and Jim Cannon on what he saw as the game-changing “triple revolution” in human rights, automation and weaponry.

The fruits of the US Trotskyist tradition gathered in this trilogy are a gift to those who seek to deepen their understanding of the past developments shaping our present reality, and to those seeking pathways out of the multiple crises afflicting our world. Needless to say, we will have to do our own critical thinking as we make use of such resources as these and develop analyses, strategies and tactics for today and tomorrow.