Review of Alan Wald and Paul LeBlanc's "Trotskyism in the United States"

"Trotskyism in the United States--Historical Essays and Reconsiderations" has just been published by Humanities Press in New Jersey. It is essential reading for anybody interested in the recent collapse of Trotskyism in the United States. It will also be useful to people of other political backgrounds who are trying to figure out how to reconstruct the left.

The authors are George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc and Allan Wald and all of the essays have appeared elsewhere. It is a major achievement since each of these essays is very closely related to each other thematically.

George Breitman was a veteran of the Socialist Workers Party who joined in the 1930s. He is best known to the broader public as an early champion of Malcom X's black nationalism. In the 1980s he was expelled from the SWP along with a number of other party members who were unhappy with National Chairman Jack Barnes rejection of the theory of permanent revolution. The expulsions were based on trumped-up charges.

Paul Le Blanc was a member of this grouping. He is also author of the essential "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party" which I discovered was basically commissioned by Breitman in an effort to understand the collapse of the SWP. Allen Wald was also a member of this grouping as well as being a well-known literary scholar of depression-era radical fiction.

Le Blanc hews to a position that the SWP of James P. Cannon, who founded and led the party until the 1950s, was basically a healthy revolutionary formation that was hijacked and trashed by Jack Barnes. Wald maintains a position closer to my own, that the party degenerated because it was based on unsound principles at its birth. Barnes was an exceptionally malevolent individual, but the seeds of the degeneration were in the genes.

The book is grouped into two parts, the first dealing with outlines and essentials and the second with "reconsiderations".

In the essay "Trotskyism in the United States: The First Fifty Years", Le Blanc provides an overview of the history of the SWP until the early 1980s, its heroic period according to him. James P. Cannon emerges from this history as a practically flawless leader.

"The Liberating Influence of the Transitional Program: Three Talks" by George Breitman and "George Novack, 1905-92: Meaning a Life" by Alan Wald are the two remaining essays in the first part. They are basically hagiography about the splendors of the SWP and are of little interest to people outside the Trotskyist milieu.

The second part is much more interesting. It consists of clashing accounts by Le Blanc and Wald to make sense of the collapse of the SWP. People who lived through the collapse of Maoism in the 1980s will no doubt be struck by the similarities of the two movements in succumbing to sectarianism and dogmatism.

"Leninism in the United States and the Decline of American Trotskyism" by Paul Le Blanc defends the position that the noble "Cannon Tradition" was eroded by Jack Barnes. According to Le Blanc, "the maintenance of a democratic atmosphere when there were sharply disputed questions was essential, Cannon felt, for the party to educate its cadres in rich lessons of the past as well as in complex new realities."

Probably the most interesting insight Le Blanc has about the Barnes regime involves some Freudian psychology. He says:

"The impact of Barnes in the SWP is a reflection not of Leninist principles or the tradition of Cannon, but of basic human psychological dynamics. The functioning of some SWP members, responding to the powerful personality and tremendous authority that Barnes assumed, brings to mind Freud's insights on group psychology: 'the individual gives up his ego-ideal [i.e., individual sense of right and wrong, duty, and guilt] and substitutes for it the group-ideal as embodied in the leader.' The authority of the leader (in the minds of at least many members) becomes essential for the cohesion of the group, and the approval of the leader, or a sense of oneness with the leader, becomes a deep-felt need that is bound up with one's own sense of self- worth. The member of the group enjoys 'a feeling of triumph' when his or her thinking coincide with this leader's judgments, and is vulnerable to 'delusions of inferiority and self-deprecation' whenever inner doubts arise about the leader's authority. Indeed, 'opposition' is perceived to be 'as good as separation' from the group and is 'therefore anxiously avoided.' The compelling 'group ideal' that Barnes symbolized for such members involved a powerful mix of strongly held values, accumulated theoretical wisdom, and hopes for the future triumph of socialism. His authority flowed from the continuity that he seemed to represent with previous revolutionary generations."

This is an absolutely brilliant observation. I happen to think that most of Freud is utter nonsense, especially that canard about infant sexuality, but his understanding of group dynamics in a group like the SWP seems right on the mark.

What was of more substantial value to me in this essay was some brief observations on the role of Zinoviev in the creation of the "Marxist- Leninist" model that everybody --Cannon, Barnes, Avakian, Cliff et al-- adheres to. This is a theme that I have been researching recently and one that I plan to write extensively about. According to Le Blanc, "the conception of a monolithic party was advanced in the Comintern under the leadership of Gregory Zinoviev, who influenced Cannon's own formulations in the early 1920s." There is much more to said about this.

The final two essays are by Alan Wald: "From the Old Left to the New Left and Beyond: The Legacy and Prospects for Socialism in the United States" and "The End of 'American Trotskyism'? Problems in History and Theory".

I want to quote several paragraphs from the final essay to give you a sense of Wald's diagnosis of the problem. It should be familiar by now to list members who have been reading my posts on "Marxism- Leninism":

"In truth, although the more sectarian Trotskyists get attention (including, sometimes, greater media notice due to their propensity to differentiate themselves from the rest of the Left), there are many other Trotskyists who work wholeheartedly for reform as a way of raising political consciousness and strengthening the positions of subaltern groups. But even this nonsectarian approach seems insincere to many independent radicals, because most Trotskyists regard only a tiny number of people --usually their group and affiliated organizations, and certain select movements from the past-- as genuinely 'revolutionary.'"

"Surely one of the most tragic features of the history of U.S. Trotskyism is the inability of individuals, who were once comfortable in an organization and then on the 'outs' to recognize problems in theory, practice, and organization until 'one's own ox is gored.' Like those former Communists who believe that anyone who left the Communist Party by a certain date (usually when they themselves left) is all right, but those who remained afterwards are total dupes, many Trotskyists also put a 'date' on the degeneration of the group from which they have broken. In most cases, this date roughly approximates the time that they were deposed, although some go too far the other way and write off the entire movement from start to finish. These responses reflect all-too-human traits that recur so frequently that they must be acknowledged and addressed; efforts to ignore, deny, or simply denounce them have proved inadequate."

I generally agree with Wald's approach, but my prescriptions are more radical. He is still something of a Trotskyist and identifies with the Fourth International. While I include these forces and Militant Labor as having made the strongest break with sectarianism, my own concept of what is needed has much more in common with A.J. Muste's American Workers Party (AWP), a formation that fused with Cannon's Trotskyist forces in the 1930s to become the Socialist Workers Party.

Le Blanc discusses Muste in his essay in the first part. "A.J. Muste had come from a religious and radical pacifist background, opposing World War 1 and at the same time gravitating to socialist ideas and the labor movement. A leader of the 1919 Lawrence textile strike, he soon headed up the left-of-center Brookwood Labor College, which played an important role in training many of the radical organizers who would help lead the 1930s labor upsurge. In the Conference for Progressive Labor Action, which evolved into the AWP, Muste had favored sidestepping sectarianism and blending radical ideas with practical organizing."

That should be our motto, shouldn't it? Sidestep sectarianism and blend radical ideas with practical organizing.