Reply to Paul LeBlanc on his interpretation of the SWP

The "Bulletin in Defense of Marxism" is a magazine published by former members of the Socialist Workers Party who were expelled in the early 1980s for their opposition to the party's turn against Trotskyism. One of the best known members of this group is Paul LeBlanc, who co-authored "Trotskyism in the United States" with Alan Wald. Shortly after the book was published, I wrote a review that appeared on this mailing list and on the alt.politics.socialism.trotsky newsgroup. In the current issue of BIDOM, LeBlanc answers my review as well as another critical review by Peter Drucker, author of biography of Max Schachtman.

In my original review, I claimed that the problems of the SWP can be traced to the early days of the Comintern and that "there is much more to be said about this." I am now keeping that promise and recounting this tale of woe in my series "The Invention of Marxism-Leninism."

Most of what LeBlanc writes is an indignant response to my claim that James P. Cannon, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, appears as a "practically flawless leader" in LeBlanc's eyes. This simple observation, which Drucker shares, prompts LeBlanc to offer up a laundry list of Cannon's sins and peccadilloes, among which is a drinking problem.

The problem with Cannon was not his personal failings and I should have probably made this clearer in my review. The problem was that he functioned as a Zinovievist. His understanding of "Marxism-Leninism" was shaped by the misconceptions of the early Comintern. He was at the 5th World Congress of the Comintern, the infamous "Bolshevization" congress. So was Vincent R. Dunne, another leader of the American Trotskyist movement. They were both members of the Communist Party at the time. When they came back to the United States, they helped to organize the CPUSA's own "Bolshevization" convention which resulted in the type of crude witch-hunt against ideological deviations that marked Zinoviev's Comintern and which has characterized American Trotskyism since its infancy. This was Cannon's problem, not his foibles as an individual.

Much more to the point is LeBlanc's apologia for Trotskyist leader and arch-Cannonite Morris Stein's remark at a 1946 convention that Trotskyists "can tolerate no rivals." This sectarian boast was singled out by Alan Wald as evidence of deep-rooted problems in the Socialist Workers Party. Drucker is also troubled by these words, as any sensible Marxist would be. What is LeBlanc's excuse? He tries to put the remark in the context of rivalry between competing "vanguard" formations:

"In a broad sense, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Social Democratic Federation could be seen as 'vanguard' formations within the working class of the 1940s and early 1950s--in the sense of containing experienced cadres and spheres of political influence that were important to the functioning of organizations (especially trade unions) within the labor movement. But can it be claimed that any of these rivals to the SWP could be considered a REVOLUTIONARY vanguard."

This is an enormous amount of confusion from somebody who has written a first-rate study of Lenin. LeBlanc should understand that the word vanguard has a much more precise meaning in Marxist terms. The Social Democracy of Norman Thomas did not consider itself a 'vanguard' and it is preposterous to group such a formation with the Communist Party or the Socialist Workers Party. The CP and the SWP did consider themselves 'vanguards' in the Leninist sense, but this as at the heart of the problem, after all.

In what sense can a group of several hundred people be regarded as a 'vanguard'? In the early 1950s, the Socialist Workers Party had no influence in the labor movement or the civil rights movement. Unlike the Communist Party, it was simply a group of socialists whose life revolved around circulating propaganda. They printed a newspaper, they ran election campaigns, they held forums to promote socialist ideas. There is nothing wrong with this.

What is wrong is to assume that this type of activity qualifies you as a 'vanguard'. Vanguards are political formations that have won the allegiance of the masses. The Bolshevik Party was a vanguard party. So was the July 26th Movement and the FSLN of Nicaragua. The Trotskyist movement has never been able to exercise this type of influence because it has a sectarian approach that it learned in the Comintern. This approach involves making a litmus test out of some doctrines and regarding all who fail the litmus test as "opponents" who deserve to be destroyed. This stance is repellent.

The program for the American socialist revolution can not possibly exist in the bulletins and position papers of self-declared vanguards. It has to emerge out of struggle and it has to reflect the contradictory aspects of the various sectors of the revolutionary movement. The FSLN was the product of various tendencies in the Nicaraguan revolutionary movement whose clashing points of view simply reflected contradictory aspects of the Nicaraguan class struggle.

The Bolshevik Party had much more in common with the FSLN than many people trained in "Marxism-Leninism" understand. Bukharin was the editor of an official Bolshevik newspaper that published harsh attacks on Lenin's views on the national question. These differences were always discussed in the open. Lenin stated that the purpose of Iskra was to allow differences within Russian Marxism to be argued out in public view.

The American Trotskyist movement has never functioned in this manner. It had a core of ideas that new recruits were INDOCTRINATED into. I was indoctrinated. So was Paul LeBlanc and so was Alan Wald. Genuine revolutionary parties do not emerge in this fashion. They represent the coming together of a revolutionary socialist current in society. The terms of agreement are worked out in struggle. No single formation has an inside track to what the program of this revolutionary party will be. BIDOM does not have the inside track. Neither do I, nor does Alan Wald. The sooner we recognize this, the better off we will be.

Louis Proyect