Max Shachtman


Celebrating the Twentieth Anniversary of U.S. Trotskyism

1928 – Twenty Years After – 1948

(November 1948)

from Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 44, November 1948, p. 4.
Abridged version with the title Twenty Years of American Trotskyism copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty book The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, vol. 1.
Additional transcription by Einde O’Callaghan.
Marked up by A. Forse & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It does not seem to be so long! Yet we are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Trotskyist movement in the United States.

We date back to October 27, 1928. On that day, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, sitting in special inquisitorial session, pronounced three of its leading members guilty of the crime of holding and disseminating Trotskyist views and forthwith expelled them from the party. The expelled were Martin Abern, James P. Cannon and myself.

To James P. Cannon belongs the great distinction of founding our movement in this country. He was the representative of our group in the Communist Party’s delegation to the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in the middle of 1928. We had a small group of our own in the American party. It was held together by loose bonds, mainly by the unclear desire to find some way out of the unprincipled struggle for power between the two dominant factions, Fosterites and Lovestoneites, which was devitalizing the party. While we, like many other American Communists, were uneasy about the fight against Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the Russian party, we knew very little about it and took even less pains to learn about it. We were overwhelmingly preoccupied with the problem of the American party and we did not begin to understand its relationship to the crisis of the Russian Revolution and the Communist movement as a whole.

Smuggle Trotsky Document Out of Russia

At the Congress in Moscow, the essential meaninglessness and futility of our fight in the American party – its superficial character, at least – became clear to Cannon. The bulk of the American delegation, partisans of Foster or Lovestone, was concerned with only one thing: which faction would get the party turned over to it by the Russian leaders. Probably more as a gesture of contempt than anything else, the delegation assigned Cannon as one of its members on the Program Commission. That was our good fortune. In that capacity, Cannon received one of the highly secret and confidential copies of the criticism of the draft program which, Trotsky had addressed to the Congress from his exile in Alma-Ata.

It was a revolutionary document in more than one sense. Its tocsin ring was all the more resonant in the hollowness of the official Congress. The annihilation of the new Stalinist dogma – “socialism in a single country” – was shattering, and it had a profound effect upon Cannon. Together with Maurice Spector, the delegate from the Canadian party, who was later to falter and quit, Cannon decided to open up a fight for the revolutionary ideas of Trotsky upon his return home. Trotsky’s document had to be brought back to the States as an indispensable weapon in the fight. An idea of what the Communist International was as far back as 1928 may be gained from the fact that a delegate to its Congress found himself forced to purloin a Congress document and to smuggle it out of the country. That is what Cannon and Spector did and, if it may be said without offending highly moral people, their “theft” proved ta be a boon.

The atmosphere in the Communist Party at that time was such that upon his return Cannon could not venture at first beyond showing Trotsky’s famous criticism to a very few comrades – his closest political and personal friends. It had the same revolutionizing effect upon them, and I can still testify to that personally. This tiny circle of comrades – Martin Abern, Rose Karsner, the late Tom O’Flaherty and I – were not long in rallying to Trotsky’s position. We had a few illusions about the consequences of our decision, but not many. That it would not take long for us to be caught by the party’s thought-control police and expelled, we knew; but we were firmly resolved to take up the defense of the hounded and defamed men and women whose historic struggle to preserve the Russian Revolution and the ideas of socialist international we had for so long and so inexcusably neglected.

It is always hard to wrench yourself away from a movement to which you are tied by so many threads in order to launch an- other, and it was not easy for any of us. Of the thousands with whom we had worked and fought to build the communist movement in this country, very few comrades rallied to our side after the expulsion. But they were precious, and what they selflessly contributed to holding together our isolated little movement was irreplaceable and unforgettable.

Communist League of America Is Formed

The Communist League of America, as the first Trotskyist organization was known, passed through many difficult years, and more than one internal upheaval. The problem of defending our meetings and our militants from the most brutal gangster attacks organized by the Stalinists was saddening but not too difficult and we seldom failed to give as good as we got. The problem of giving clear political shape and firmness to the movement was much more difficult, especially for a group like ours. By its very nature, it attracted militants who could not construe Marxian theory and politics except in a dry, dogmatic way, who suffered from a sort of organic leftism at all costs. Others who came to us were dilettantes, self-expressionists by profession, casual radicals of various kinds who looked upon the Trotskyist movement as a refuge from responsibility in the class struggle and an ideal sounding-board for their favorite nostrums. It required more than one long discussion and more than one sharp inner conflict to clarify the program and establish the political course of the movement – not only with regard to international questions (the Russian question before all) by which we always set great store, but also with regard to American political questions.

Painfully and painstakingly, the movement began to make its way. By its seriousness, its dignity, its tenacious devotion to principle, its ability to combat Stalinism without In any way compromising the struggle against capitalism, if gained the respect of every honest opponent in the labor movement and attracted to its ranks scores and then hundreds of the best militants in the labor movement and the finest representatives of the socialist youth. Many fell away, but more and better ones replaced them. Despite the stringent limitations imposed upon such a group, it showed on more than one occasion – some of them very dramatic, too – that It was no less qualified to set the example in the class struggle, in the field of working-class action, than in the field of theoretical and political discussion.

But without minimizing its other achievements, I think the outstanding one was the assembling of the finest group of politically-educated socialist militants this country had seen for a long, long time. Practically every one of them was so schooled and trained that he was able to perform far greater tasks than were actually offered him. For this achievement, far and away the greatest share of the credit goes to the great revolutionary teacher we had, Leon Trotsky, whose death struck us all such a cruel and heavy blow. His contributions to our education and to the shaping of your movement were not equalled and could not be. A new generation of Marxists was brought up on the rich and sturdy food with which his luminous intellect supplied us so lavishly. His articles, his pamphlets and books, on which we spent so much worthwhile energy to make available in English, were our political mainstay and they remain the classics of the Marxian movement today – classics, not Holy Scriptures, but classics. In addition, our press, the old Militant and The New International, set a new standard for socialist and labor publications, and outside our movement they were rarely equalled and never surpassed. This is an appraisal not held by us alone.

Two Basic Tendencies Emerge

Midway in its existence the Trotskyist movement underwent its severest crisis. It did not survive it intact. Every organization, even the most radical, develops its own conservatism – in program, in thought, in mode of existence. Within limits, this is as it should be, for without the element of conservatism (strictly understood as conserving what has been confidently acquired) political continuity is rendered impossible and the organization loses its distinctiveness, integrity and therefore its power of attraction because its views are changed every other Sunday. But if the organization is lacking in the element of resiliency, if its steering gear is frozen fast in the accumulated ice of dogma, then, especially in times of abrupt turns and changes such as ours, it runs the risk of driving off unscheduled curves to disaster.

Faced with the outbreak of the Second World War and the outbreak – this one unforeseen – of Stalinist imperialism in the war, the Trotskyist movement, after its bitterest internal struggle, split in two. To this day the split has not only been healed but has widened, in the United States and almost everywhere else in the world. In the United States it resulted in the formation of our Workers Party. The separation between party comrades of yesterday and especially our break with so deeply respected a teacher as Trotsky was even more painful than is usual in such cases. Evil intentions were not enough to cause the split; good intentions were not enough to prevent it. We had to hold to our revolutionary convictions as our opponents to theirs. It was impossible for us to reconcile the duties of socialist internationalism with the Trotskyist position of defense of Stalinist Russia in the war which the others maintained out of wooden traditionalism. It was likewise impossible for us to remain silent about our views out of purely formal considerations of discipline, especially when it was not always loyally imposed upon us. The issue in the dispute was too great in importance and in the responsibilities we had to discharge.

With the advantage now given us by hindsight, it is perfectly clear that the war-split of the Trotskyist movement marked a decisive turning point in its history. At this point, two basic tendencies emerged from it and have since moved in divergent directions. One of them is represented by the Socialist Workers Party and the groups like it which are part of the Fourth International, a name maintained as if to make up for an unimposing existence with an imposing title.

All they have done to discredit the good name of Trotskyism is part of the gloomy history of our time. Almost all of them are tiny sects, opportunistic to the core, as petrified in their political thinking as the most wooden De Leonist, helplessly bewildered in every new political situation, rigidly ecclesiastical in their worship of a Marx and a Trotsky that never existed, intolerant, vulgarly boastful and bureaucratic, and perfectly sterilized against the possibility of exerting the least political influence upon any movement that seeks a way out of the proletarian dilemma of our time – right-wing socialism or Stalinism.

All of them have this in common: their political course is determined for them, willy-nilly, by the political course of Stalinism. They are tied to it by their theory that reactionary, totalitarian Stalinist Russia is still some kind of workers’ state, by their base-policy that this state must be defended in every struggle with a capitalist state, by their theory-policy that the totalitarian Stalinist parties everywhere are workers’ parties on a par with other workers’ parties. They have been unable to detach themselves from this organic and fatal tie with the new barbarism that Stalinism represents. Once the revolutionary socialist opposition to Stalinism, official Trotskyism is today reduced to a mere democratic critic of Stalinism.

In the Tradition of Marx and Lenin

The other tendency is most clearly represented, I think, by our Workers Party. In the more than eight years of its independent existence, it has assembled and trained a group of socialist militants on the basis of principles, a program and a perspective collectively elaborated and clarified in such a way that it is recognized everywhere in the labor and socialist movements of ALL countries as a distinctive revolutionary socialist current. We do not pretend to a strength which we know must first be conquered in struggle. We know only too well our weakness, and the weakness of the Marxian movement throughout the world. But we do lay claim to a program which, while not “finished,“ has yet to be successfully refuted by any opponent.

Our party, alone among all others, had made a systematic analysis of the social and historical significance of Stalinism – the society of bureaucratic collectivism in Russia, the parties of totalitarian collectivism in the capitalist countries. No other party has pointed out and followed a course of implacable struggle against Stalinism in strict independence of capitalism and capitalist politics. No other party but ours has proved able to combat the capitalist influence of reformism in the labor movement without giving aid and comfort to the Stalinist sappers. The sectarians have divorced socialism from democracy and the reformists have divorced democracy from socialism – with fatal results to both. Our party has distinguished itself, in the great tradition of Marx and Lenin, by the way in which it has restored, for our own times, the inseparable relationship of the struggle for democracy and the struggle for socialism.

Where official Trotskyism still seeks to play the role of a wing of Stalinism, we see the role of the present-day Marxists as that of the loyal left wing of the authentic labor movement, the labor movement as it is, with all its defects and shortcomings. Where the reformist sects and parties see socialism lying beyond the road of defending American imperialism in the monstrous conflagration now being prepared, and the Trotskyist sects see socialism lying beyond the road of defending the totalitarian Stalinist state in the next war as in the last one, our party works unremittingly to build a workers’ movement that is fully independent of Washington and Moscow, of decaying capitalism and Stalinist barbarism, that raises the banner of democracy and socialism, and fights to victory beneath it.

The twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Trotskyist movement in the United States is a day for us to celebrate. We do it not simply by reiterating now what we said twenty years ago. We pay deserved respects to the militants who did not hold back when it was necessary to lay new foundation stones and launch a new movement, and thereby added their names to the host of other exemplars of socialist idealism, conviction and resolution. Where they erred, where they put forward ideas which did not withstand the severe tests of life, we have not followed them and we need not. But much of what we said, much of what we worked for and fought for in the early days of the Trotskyist movement, did prove to be durable or proved to be the necessary basis on which to build what is durable. It is ours today.

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Last updated on 4 April 2015