Scott McLemee sent me a impressive article by Peter Jenkins called "Where Trotskyism Got Lost: World War Two and the Prospects for Revolution in Europe". It is an analysis of the political fight between Felix Morrow on one side and the leaders of the Fourth International on the other. I will present Jenkins' account, which I am in complete agreement with, and add some thoughts of my own.
Felix Morrow was one of the top intellectuals of American Trotskyism. He is the author of the superlative "The Civil War in Spain". During the 1940s, he and other of the leaders of the SWP were imprisoned under the terms of the Smith Act for their vocal opposition to World War 2 as an imperialist war. Morrow eventually became a journalist for Fortune magazine after his release from prison.
In 1943 and 1944 the world Trotskyist movement expected the end of WWII to usher in the same types of revolutionary cataclysms as WWI. The International Resolution under consideration by the FI stated categorically that the allies would impose military dictatorships. It considered American capitalism to have begun an "absolute decline" in 1929. This decadent system said the resolution "has no programme for Europe other than its further dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets".
The choice for the worker's movement was stark. Unless they made socialist revolutions, they would face "savage dictatorship of the capitalists consequent upon the victory of the counter-revolution." The workers would rise to the task since it was "in a revolutionary mood" continent-wide.
This analysis of the world situation was strongly influenced by Trotsky's conceptions from the start of the second world war which were of a "catastrophist nature". He could not anticipate any new upturn in the world capitalist economy based on Keynesianism and arms spending. Trotsky's catastrophism can be traced back to the early days of the Comintern. I recommend Nicos Poulantzas's "Fascism and the Third International" as a critique of this tendency in the early Communist movement. No Bolshevik leader was immune from this tendency to see capitalism as being in its death throes. Stalin and Zinoviev incorporated this thinking into their "third period" strategy. Stalin eventually lurched back and adopted a right-opportunist policy. What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early 1920s Comintern.
This ultraleftism stared Felix Morrow in the face, who like a small boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes, ventured to state that American imperialism might not have been on its last legs in 1945. He argued forcefully that the most likely outcome of allied victory was an extended period of bourgeois democracy and not capitalist dictatorship. Therefore it is necessary for revolutionists, Morrow advised, to be sensitive to democratic demands:
"...if one recognizes the probability of a slower tempo for the development of the European revolution, and in it a period of bourgeois-democratic regimes -- unstable, short-lived, but existing nevertheless for a period -- then the importance of the role of democratic and transitional demands becomes obvious. For the revolutionary answer to bourgeois democracy is the first instance more democracy -- the demand for real democracy as against the pseudo-democracy of the bourgeoisie. For bourgeois-democracy can exist only thanks to the democratic illusions of the masses; and those can be dispelled first of all only by mobilizing the masses for the democracy they want and need."
One of the main areas of contention between Morrow and the leaders of the FI was how these differences in policy would play out against the background of German politics. The SWP was convinced that the German working-class would lead the rest of Europe in the fight for socialism. A document states that "the German revolution constitutes the essential base of the European revolution, that it alone can provide the indispensable, genuinely harmonious political and economic organization for the Socialist United States of Europe."
Morrow disagreed completely with these projections. He stated that the document contains not "a single reference to the fact that the German proletariat would begin its life after Nazi defeat under military occupation and without a revolutionary party."
What was the source of these false projections? "To put it bluntly: all the phrases in its prediction about the German revolution -- that the proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers' committees, workers' and peasants' soviets, etc. -- were copied down once again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority." Evidently dogmatism is not a recent trend in the Trotskyist movement.
Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One of the charges against him made by Pierre Frank contained an interesting thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he said:
"The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe, then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation, for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead. From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage. If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its work to these new conditions -- conditions for a while of slow painful growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc."
Frank's fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it returned to its "catastrophist" roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly every year or so for the last 20.
The "catastrophism" of the Trotskyist movement is built into the manifesto that created it, the Transitional Program. This is the political legacy of Trotsky's uncritical acceptance of the perfect wisdom of the early Comintern. How could it be otherwise, since at that time Trotsky itself was one of the key leaders. He made it his business to straighten out any wayward Communists, like the French, who stepped out of line. The organizational legacy of the Trotskyist movement is in Zinoviev's schematic "Marxist-Leninist" model. The ultraleftism of the political roots and the sectarianism of the organizational roots make for a powerful inhibition to growth. As we struggle to create new political and organizational paradigms, it will be important to shed ourselves of such counterproductive models.