A Book Party for Wald-LeBlanc's "Trotskyism in the United States"
"Writing the History of American Trotskyism" featured Alan Wald and Paul LeBlanc, the co-authors of the new book "Trotskyism in the United States". The chair was Frank Lovell, a Trotskyist since the 1930s who was expelled from the SWP in the early 1980s when he refused to go along with the turn toward Castro-worship. Paul had a medical emergency in his family and couldn't attend. A fellow named Andrew Lee from NYU's Tamiment library read Paul's paper
Paul's paper stressed the need for understanding why the SWP degenerated into a cult around Jack Barnes, who was hand-picked by members of Frank Lovell's generation. This had to do with the failure of the American working-class to radicalize after WWII. The founders of American Trotskyism came out of the pre-WWI workers movement and was rooted in the mass movements which had their various expressions in the IWW, Debs SP or the populist movement. James P. Cannon who has a mantle of infallibility for LeBlanc was the archtypical figure. He had years of experience organizing trade union fights before starting the Trotskyist movement. Frank Lovell's generation was trained during the working-class radicalization of the 1930s and formed a close collaboration with the older party leadership.
The problem was that the 60s radicalization did not have a workers radicalization to link up. No left group was able to transcend this objective difficulty. In the absence of such a radicalization, the new leaders of the SWP started to lurch one way or another in a rudderless pursuit of a winning strategy. It finally went into a deep crisis in the 1980s and lost most of its members. LeBlanc's hope seems to be for the reemergence of a radicalized working-class. The assumption is that new Trotskyist forces will emerge from this ferment. He and others are devoted to keeping alive the historical memory of the SWP in order to provide inspiration and leadership for the new revolutionary movement.
Alan Wald presented a much broader and philosophical approach to the question of Trotskyism. Unlike LeBlanc, Wald is interested in understanding how Trotskyism's contribution to the overall shaping of the left in the 20th century, but rejects the idea that the SWP had a monopoly on truth. He also rejects the idea that there is nothing to be learned from a study of the SWP.
In keeping with this idea, he stressed the need for historians to begin to bring out the real accomplishments of the SWP. As long as this history is not made available, there will be misrepresentations of the history of this party. He cited two examples. One was Eric Foner's comment in the book "History and Race." where he tries to explain what drew his family toward the CP in the 1930s. This was because the CP was the only group on the left that fought against racism. Alan suggested that the SWP had a solid record of antiracism as well, but that no account of this was currently available. Another historian made the false claim that the SWP was so preoccupied with the Spanish Civil War that it neglected trade union struggles. This is belied by the record of Trotskyists work in the Teamsters Union, but more work was necessary to get the word out.
During the discussion period, a rather sweet old guy made some interesting comments about what his experiences in the SWP were like during and after WWII. He thought that the antiwar position of the SWP, while formally correct, was impossible to defend in public. He also thought that the SWP had a knee-jerk opposition to the Wallace campaign of 1948 that isolated it from leftward moving workers. He was at the Wallace rally at Yankee Stadium trying to sell the Militant and felt like a fool as the tens of thousands of trade unionists streamed past him. It turned out that he was a "Cochranite", a faction that split from the party in the 1950s. This faction was made up of blue-blooded proletarians who saw some sense in Pablo's orientation to the Communist Parties. Pablo, the leader of the European Trotskyists, remains a figure of the purest evil for all of the Trotskyite sectarians who are trying to launch a Fourth International out of the bowels of the Spoons lists.
Frank had an interesting response to the question of working-class support for WWII. He said that when he shipped out with the Merchant Marines during WWII, he always set up a display of antiwar literature on the forecastle and that sailors bought the literature eagerly. Everybody was for war, but when the shells started flying men started to think a little harder about what "principles" they were risking their lives for. This, for many of them, did not include capitalist profits.
At 5:30 I went to a book reception at the Tamiment Library at NYU. Tamiment, by the way, is devoted to literature of the trade union, socialist and popular movements. Anybody who makes a trip to NYC should drop in for a visit after looking me up.
The featured speakers at the reception were Frank Lovell and Scott McLemee. Frank spoke much too long. The majority of his remarks were the sort of thing you would expect to hear directed to an audience with very little knowledge of Trotskyism. They were devoted to the importance of the Transitional Program, etc.
It was only in the final 5 minutes when he strayed from his written remarks and started speaking from the heart that he began to communicate. He addressed the question of the collapse of the SWP. It was obvious that he agreed with Paul's analysis, that "objective" causes were behind the collapse, but what came through was the genuine hurt that he felt over the betrayal of the "new guard".
When I raised the question of Albert Morrow's pessimism about the revolutionary possibilities of the European and American working-class following WWII, Frank also continued in the same unguarded and sympathetic vein. He said that nobody could have appreciated what a difference WWII made back in 1945. WWII had changed everything. Before the war, the workers were receptive to socialist ideas. After the war, they wanted nothing more except a job and the chance to get back to normal. The prosperity enabled them to do that and the SWP declined.
Scott presented some fascinating remarks on CLR James call for the SWP to ground its politics in the living reality of American society. It was up to American Trotskyists to create the equivalent of the 18th Brumaire, etc. based on their understanding of the class dynamics of this country. What was interesting in Scott's eyes was that it took a Trinidadian who had spent most of his adult life in England to stress the need to "Americanize" Marxism. CLR James also thought that there were aspects of the Popular Front that were worth studying. Even though the CP leadership saw the strategy as a way to back Roosevelt, at the grass-roots level it showed a real understanding of how to link up with the masses.
Later at a Vietnamese restaurant, Alan, his companion, Scott, the curator of the Tamiment Library and I continued the discussion. I have pretty much of the same take on how a socialist movement should be built as Alan, but mostly what we talked about was "what ever happened to so and so." Later I mentioned to Scott that is amazing how important to both Alan and I are the names and events of the SWP from 25 years ago. He thought that this reflected the power of the original experience.
I suppose this is what keeps me going in this most difficult of tasks, the creation of an authentic revolutionary party. The memory of what it meant to be part of a powerful mass antiwar movement stays alive in my consciousness in the same way that the fight to build the CIO stays alive in Frank Lovell's. Out of memories such as these, and the political lessons that go along with them, a movement of the future will be built. Wald and LeBlanc's book is a treasure-house of these kinds of valuable memories and I urge list members to track down this Humanities Press publication.