Conference on American Trotskyism


The September/October 2000 Conference on American Trotskyism was the brainchild of Paul LeBlanc, who is an important figure in the academic and activist left. Paul was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1980s along with over a hundred members, including such prominent old-timers as Frank Lovell and George Breitman. The expellees objected to the turn away from Trotskyism and also to the first manifestations of sectarianism connected with the "turn toward industry". Breaking with Trotskyism was supposedly meant to help the SWP unite with more popular revolutionary movements like the New Jewel Movement in Grenada. However, the openness that characterized figures like the martyred Maurice Bishop could not be found in the SWP's bureaucratic regime, which had begun conducting itself more and more like Bernard Coard's.


Some of the expellees formed a new group called Socialist Action that attempted to re-create the SWP as if following a recipe: "One, start a newspaper. Two, start a youth group. Three, begin 'intervening' in the mass movement, etc." A minority that included Paul, Breitman and Lovell launched a journal called Bulletin in Defense of Marxism that sought mainly to clarify the issues facing the Trotskyist left. This journal has evolved into something called "Labor Standard". (


Some of the other expellees decided that it was an exercise in futility to reconstruct American Trotskyism and concentrated on building Solidarity, Committees of Correspondence or mass movement organizations. Alan Wald, who serves on the editorial board of Solidarity's magazine Against the Current, is in this camp. I should mention that the Labor Standard comrades generally belong to Solidarity as well.


Since Trotsky had considered the SWP to be a model group, its demise was a blow to the prestige of the movement he founded. For somebody like George Breitman, who had spent a half-century building the SWP, this disaster had to be explained in political terms. As part of this investigation, Breitman urged Paul to write a book about Lenin in order to have a basis of comparison between the SWP and the original Bolshevik Party. I have used Paul's "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party" in my own research to great advantage, although I part company with him on his assessment that James P. Cannon represented some kind of continuity with Lenin. My own research has convinced me that Cannon was consistent with Zinoviev, a lesser figure whose party-building notions had a built-in sectarian logic.


Despite Paul's commitment to the Cannonite tradition, he has edited collections of articles by a wide variety of socialist thinkers, including those who obviously have little connection to the kind of super-orthodoxy the SWP represented in its pre-1980 "Castroite" turn. This includes his "CLR James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings" and "From Marx to Gramsci: a Reader in Revolutionary Marxist politics." (When I was in the SWP, the name Gramsci hardly ever came up and when it did, it always had negative connotations.)


Paul also has an analysis of how a new Trotskyist group, minus the SWP's warts, might come into existence. He predicates this on the emergence of a new working class subculture, which disappeared in the 1950s. The problems of the SWP are somehow equated with the middle-class arrogance of the current team around Carleton College graduate Jack Barnes. In discussions I've had with Paul, I have always had the impression that the thinking of Marxist social historians like George Lipsitz (author of "Rainbow at Midnight", a book with a chapter "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens: The Class Origins of Rock and Roll") loomed large. I can go along with that, as should be obvious. Where I part company is over the whole James P. Cannon thing.


Not surprisingly, the conference reflected Paul's divergent interests. It was simultaneously an attempt to breathe life into the Trotskyist project and one that looked at the movement in more detached, scholarly terms. The latter approach was in line with recent scholarly attempts to do for American Trotskyism what people like Mark Naison did for the CPUSA or Maurice Isserman has done for the Social Democrats. Speaking as somebody who has broken with Trotskyism altogether, I believe that this is an urgent task since some of the scholars associated with rehabilitating the CPUSA have lent themselves to what can only be described as calumny against the Trotskyist movement.


I refer comrades to Alan Wald's excellent review of one such book--Ellen Schrecker's "Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America"--that he is a bit too kind to, in my opinion. Since Alan has to peacefully co-exist with these people in academic left circles, he refrained from describing this kind of Trot-baiting as exactly what it is: utter bullshit. Schrecker writes, for example, that the Trotskyists taught the "American liberals how to think about Communism" as if characters like Max Shachtman were to blame for the witch-hunt. In one of the more disgusting aspects of a disgusting book, Schrecker urges the American left to reconstruct something like the old trade union-Communist-Democratic Party alliance. If I had to choose one or the other, I'd prefer to rebuild the old SWP rather than that unholy mess.


The conference was extremely interesting and I offer here some very subjective impressions of the proceedings. I've offered to create a website for the conference papers and would also invite Paul to look into the possibility of starting a scholarly Trotskyism mailing list on Egroups in line with this venture.


So here goes:




Two of the speakers were well-known figures in the Trotsky hagiography business. One was Esteban Volkov, Trotsky's grandson; the other was Pierre Broue, who publishes a Trotsky studies type journal in France. Volkov runs the Trotsky library at the Coyoacan residence, a must-see apparently for leftwing tourists. His talk was heavy on the martyrdom of Leon Trotsky with melodramatic references to machine gun bullets flying through his bedroom window, etc. What his talk lacked completely was any kind of engagement with the current class struggle. Instead it seemed to evoke the kind of psychology that produced the Lenin mausoleum. If Trotsky is to have any kind of relevance to the radicalizing youth of today, this kind of shrine-building has to be dispensed with immediately.


Broue was much worse. This Grenoble professor, who was connected to Pierre Lambert's sect for many years, used his 20 minutes to present a sensationalistic but diffuse series of characterizations of well-known Trotskyist figures. Apparently this included a charge that Pablo was some kind of secret agent, according to one of my companions who remained alert during the whole time. Since his presentation was so incoherent, this escaped my attention. As I do have the tape, I will pay closer attention when I review his talk. If he did make this charge, I would strongly urge Paul LeBlanc never to invite this bum to anything again. Meanwhile Volkov and Broue sat in the audience chatting in a loud voice during presentations by young Trotskyists on the final day of the conference until someone shushed them. That should show you where their heads are at.







Canadian professor Brian Palmer is working on a biography of James P. Cannon. Good luck to him. He made a point that Cannon's father spent a year as a police magistrate, as if that has anything to with anything. Apparently Palmer was around the Spartacist League at one point--maybe that explains his interest in that factoid. Drucker is the author of a biography of Shachtman that my old friend Nelson Blackstock from SWP days recommends highly. I might get around to it one of these days. In any case, I am leery of putting any figure on a pedestal nowadays unless it is a jazz musician and a damned good one at that.





This was the first opportunity I had to hear about the research being done by Christopher Phelps, who had been the head of Monthly Review books before going back into academia. Phelps is writing a history about Blacks and the Trotskyist movement. While there is a rich literature about Blacks in the CPUSA, nothing has been written about the Trotskyist movement except studies on CLR James which are mostly about his personal achievements rather than his role in the movement. One important element in this research is the breakthroughs that took place in the Detroit branch during WWII, which at one point included 100 Black members--mostly auto workers. The SWP'ers responsible for transforming the party were all Cochranites, I might add. When I interviewed Erwin Baur out in the Bay Area this year, I discovered how important it was for the party to make Black workers feel at home. This included making socials and dances a key part of branch life, as well as fighting for Black representation in the auto industry and unions. If Phelps can make this history available to the general left public, he will be performing an important service.





Not to sound like a broken record, but this panel also revolved around the work of the comrades who would leave with the Cochran-Braverman group. As I mentioned yesterday, Kim Moody's well-received presentation focused mainly on Sol Dollinger's "Not Automatic". Joining him on the panel was young scholar Victor Devinatz who is working on a book on Trotskyists and the UAW. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the SWP's demonization of the Cochranites has been a diminished account of their importance in the UAW. For example, Kim Moody mentioned that Art Preis's "Labor's Giant Step", an 'official' SWP labor history, does not provide much detail about the work of the SWP in the auto union. This is because the people who led this work, like Bert Cochran and the late Genora Dollinger, became 'unpersons'. Hopefully, Devinatz will fill in this gap. Along with Sol's "Not Automatic", such works will be of great use to young labor activists trying to build a class struggle left wing in the trade unions today.





Presentations by Suzi Weissman of Solidarity on Victor Serge and Alan Johnson of Great Britain's Workers Liberty on Hal Draper sounded the anti-Stalin alarum. When I hear this kind of stuff, it makes me want to go listen to Paul Robeson.





Three *very* interesting presentations.


First was Edmond Kovacs, known in the party as Theodore Edwards, who spoke on Murray and Myra Tanner Weiss, two well-known leaders from the 1940s and 50s who ran afoul of Farrell Dobbs. Kovacs was one of the more brilliant thinkers in the SWP, who had his own style. I recall his wry and very cerebral remarks at conventions in the 1970s vividly. He was a ski-trooper during WWII who ran a jewelry store in Los Angeles after his return from intense fighting, sometimes hand-to-hand. As an expert marksman, he successfully defended himself during a robbery in the late 1970s. Told by the SWP leaders that his self-defense compromised the party's image in the black community, he was asked to resign. His real offense, of course, was independent thinking--much in evidence during his presentation on the Weisses.


As it turns out, the Weisses were highly charismatic and capable figures in the LA area who had made the branch one of the strongest in the country. After Cannon had retired to the LA area in the early 1960s, he became increasingly alarmed--according to Kovacs--over the routinist character of party work under Farrell Dobbs, the new chairman. Apparently, little interested Dobbs other than selling newspapers, organizing Friday night forums and running propagandistic election campaigns. Cannon persuaded the Weisses to move to NYC, where they would shake up the Dobbs machine. As it turned out, they were the ones who got shaken up.


Still determined to re-orient the party, Cannon called upon Carl Feingold to try to do the same job. Kovacs describes Feingold as being as talented as the Weisses, but completely lacking in scruples. After he got to NYC, Dobbs made short work of him as well. From NYC, Feingold moved to Minneapolis where he recruited the future leaders of the SWP at Carleton College. According to Kovacs, Feingold must have recruited the kind of people that shared his foibles. As he said in his talk, laughing mordantly to himself, "That's how we ended up with Jack Barnes."


Bernard Goodman spoke about his experiences on merchant ships in the 1930s. Apparently one of the maritime unions was led by a William Lundberg, who as something of an unreconstructed anarcho-syndicalist hated the CP. Thus he kept an open door policy for anti-Stalinists like Bernie Goodman who shipped out in 1934 without ever having been on a boat before in his life. He discovered that his ship-mates were not only happy to show him how to do his job, but preferred to hang out and talk about radical politics more than anything.


I remember Goodman vividly from my days in the NYC branch back in 1967 to 1969. He was a house-painter back then and seemed like he had stepped out of a Clifford Odets play. He was never comfortable with all the students and kept trying to find ways to return the party back to its 1930s roots. One time, before a big demonstration, he got up out of chair all red-faced and demanded that we go leaflet "the Negro churches".


He ended his talk with a brief excerpt from a tape of a James P. Cannon speech that had been aired on NYC's WBAI radio station during the 1950s. It was very impressive, like nothing I'd ever heard before. Cannon used the stentorian, almost incantatory speaking style of the Debs era, including a verse from a Shelly poem. When I heard this stirring few minutes of Cannon's oratory, I could well understand why so many Trotskyists felt such a strong personal loyalty.


Nat Weinstein, a leader of the ultra-orthodox Socialist Action group, rounded out the panel. He really embarrassed himself and his sect. Invited to speak about Tom and Carolyn Kerry, a couple of crusty old-timers--now deceased--who had broken with Barnes, Weinstein announced to the gathering that he would instead talk about the need for socialist revolution and revolutionary parties. His twenty minute peroration was filled with observations that society is divided into two major opposing classes, etc. Very arrogant and very sad, all in all.



7:30-9:30pm: "NEW DIRECTIONS"


Alan Wald gave a talk that used Walter Benjamin to illuminate a YSA 1962 pro-Cuba demonstration in Bloomington, Indiana that was in its way as "reckless" as the recent Seattle protests were. Alan's talk was too complex to go into any further here, but it reminded me how fortunate American Marxism is to have somebody with his impressive intellect at its disposal. Alan is the modern day equivalent of Kenneth Burke or the young James T. Farrell. I want to urge all you young scholars on the Marxism mailing list to study Alan's various writings and to take careful notes.





9:30-10:30am: "PRESERVING THE PAST"


More remembrances of the Trotsky martyrdom from his grandson. Plus an idiotic rant from the Spartacist League/Prometheus Library's Emily Turnbull. They are archiving all of Cannon's Zinovievist party-building letters and articles, to use as a cudgel against all their "middle class" opponents on the left. With friends like the Spartacist League, poor James P. Cannon must be rolling over in his grave.





A real eye-opener. First to speak was Dan Georgakas, who is co-author with Paul and Mari-Jo Buhle of the Encyclopedia of the American Left that is indispensable to scholars of our movement. Georgakas was a student at Wayne State in Detroit during the 1950s at the height of the witch-hunt. He had wry recollections of interacting with the News and Letters group (a cult around Raya Dunaskeyava), the CLR James group, and the SWP. Like Goldilocks, he found the three groups lacking to one extent or another. For all of their lip-service to free Marxist thinking, the News and Letters people weren't tolerant of any of Dan's opinions that didn't jibe with their own. The James group was filled with all sorts of ambitious plans for studying Capital, etc. but had no ideas about what to do. The SWP came in first by default, especially its Friday night forums that attracted every leftist in Detroit who was not part of the CP milieu. Out of these meetings, many people gained a feeling of connectedness and solidarity that they wouldn't otherwise. Not surprisingly, Georgakas found all the groups lacking because they all seemed to rely on gurus handing down precepts from on high, like the Ten Commandments.


Annette Rubinstein spoke next about her involvement as an ex-CP'er working with SWP'ers on the Independent Socialist Campaign of Corliss Lamont in the late 1950s. In a bravura performance, like Bach improvising on a keyboard, this 90 year old legend spoke within her allotted time, not even relying on notes. Not only did she have immediate recall of fascinating events of that era, she spiced that up with literary allusions. She did take exception to much of the Stalinophobia that dominated the speeches at the conference, bless her heart.


My friend David McReynolds spoke next. He was a central figure in the Vietnam antiwar movement and has never forgiven the SWP for what he views as splitting the antiwar movement. Back then, the pacifists and the CP tended to favor a multi-issue approach rather than the single issue approach focused on the war favored by the SWP. Although I tend to support the single issue approach to this day, I feel that the heavy-handed "democratic centralist" style favored by the SWP was as much responsible for the split as anything else.





Another eye-opener. Diane Feely, who is an editor of Against the Current, spoke about the SWP's "intervention" in the woman's liberation movement that left non-SWP women as alienated as David McReynolds and for the same reason. She said that although the SWP had a good analysis of the woman's movement, they operated in an arrogant, "militaristic" fashion that went against the grain of the movement. For example, women were "assigned" to work in NOW without having any background in the movement. They embarrassed the party by referring to NOW at meetings as the National Organization *of* Women when it was really called the National Organization *for* Women. This would be like sending in somebody to "intervene" in the Black Radical Congress and calling it the Black Radical Coalition, etc. I of course have my own analysis of this kind of arrogant behavior, which I feel is rooted in the whole "democratic centralist" methodology. Someday I hope that the movement can transcend this unfortunate tradition.


Gary Kinsman spoke about the SWP's "probe" into the gay liberation movement in 1973, which ended with a directive that it not be followed up with a full-scale "intervention". (BTW, all you "orthodox" Trotskyists should look up this word before you use it so casually to describe your relationship to the mass movement. "Intervention" means "interference". It is right there in the dictionary.) The SWP backed away because it viewed gay issues as "life style" in nature. It also thought that gays lacked "social weight" like women or blacks. In the discussion, Peter Drucker honed in on what the real problem was. The SWP leaders came to political maturity in the 1930s, during a time of total reaction on sex and gender issues. Panelist Nancy Holstrom pointed out that Trotsky himself was not above backward notions. For example, in "Revolution Betrayed", he describes child-rearing as being necessarily a woman's role because it is biologically determined. So when the gay movement erupted in the 1970s, residual backwardness among old-timers like Farrell Dobbs prevented the party from welcoming the new movement.





You of course have already seen my paper. I would add that my co-panelist, who works with Paul LeBlanc on Labor Standard, spoke on the importance of Harry Braverman, whom he regards as one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of the age. Furthermore, he includes the American Socialist as a prime repository of Braverman's analysis, and even quoted from the same article that I quoted from in my talk. The biggest surprise of all is that Livingston learned about the American Socialist from his comrade Frank Lovell who told him that it was one of the finest Marxist magazines ever published--the same words I used in my talk.