Years for the Locust? Part Two: Leninism Deformed

If the “micro-sect” isn’t the problem, why do so many socialist organizations suffer from a lack of democracy? And why haven’t we built a mass revolutionary party yet? As Firebrand’s E. Reed argues, charting the history of the socialist movement shows how inheritances from the past continue to weigh us down.

by | Jul 30, 2023

Continued from Part One

After my first experiences with the International Socialist Organization (ISO), what convinced me to join was the sincere belief that my views and actions mattered. After meeting up with some comrades from the organization in early 2011, we hopped into one of their cars and drove out to Madison, Wisconsin for spring break, and to witness the labor rebellion that had gripped the city that year. We reached the small city as a sea of 300,000 people flooded the streets outside the capitol building — newly cleared out from the weeks-long occupation by tens of thousands of workers and students. As a massive march formed, we joined comrades from Madison ISO as they put together placards, readied their bullhorns, and raised their banners.

The march was electric, but what came after was even more significant for me; dozens of us, grouped in a bar in Madison, went around the table and did what I would soon realize was something organized socialists were constantly doing: we assessed the day of struggle. I wasn’t even an ISO member yet, and I was strategizing with national leaders whose articles on the capitol occupation I had read just weeks before. No matter their number of years in the movement, the comrades there took me and my viewsseriously, as they did with the rest of us

Flash forward to the last years of the ISO. By then, I had been labeled a nuisance by my branch’s leadership. Whenever I raised points of disagreement or discussion in meetings, I would get mini-panic attacks, a tightness in my chest, as I prepared for my branch coordinator to strike out at me with the ax of recriminations and strawman arguments.

What kind of organization do we want to build? Certainly one where the ideas and contributions of every comrade are valued (within the bounds of communist politics, that is). We need an organization that can welcome new members, train them, and debate out how to best intervene in the class struggle together. But why have the latter methods — of pushing out, of recriminations — popped up time and time again? Why have we repeatedly failed to build truly mass, democratic organizations?

It is too easy, too simplistic to label this or that bad leader. For too long, our movement has suffered from two ailments: both an intense isolation from the working class and oppressed, those whose liberation is at the root of our politics, and a set of traditions unconsciously passed down from one generation of socialist to the next. Together, they have deformed revolutionary socialist politics and practice — but not irreparably so.

If we are to build a genuine mass revolutionary socialist party in this country — a project I see Firebrand and many other revolutionaries as part of — we must neither reject the task of building a revolutionary vanguard party nor unconsciously carry forward the harmful inheritances of the past.

Gasping for oxygen amid isolation

“Mass actions tend as a rule to wash away secondary and episodic disagreements and to aid the fusion of friendly and close tendencies. Conversely, ideological groupings in a period of stagnation or ebb tide disclose a great tendency toward differentiation, splits, and internal struggles. We cannot leap out of the period in which we live. We must pass through it. A clear, precise ideological differentiation is unconditionally necessary. It prepares future successes.”
— Leon Trotsky, “Groupings in the Communist Opposition,” 1929

“[T]he whole situation is against us. There must be a turn in the class realization, in the sentiments, in the feelings of the masses; a turn which will give us the opportunity for a large political success.
We cannot withdraw from the general historic current — from the general constellation of the forces. The current is against us, that is clear. I remember the period between 1908 and 1913 in Russia. There was also a reaction. In 1905 we had the workers with us — in 1908 and even in 1907 began the great reaction. Everybody invented slogans and methods to win the masses and nobody won them — they were desperate. In this time the only thing we could do was to educate the cadres and they were melting away. There was a series of splits to the right or to the left or to syndicalism and so on. Lenin remained with a small group, a sect, in Paris, but with confidence that there would be new possibilities of a rise…
Our situation now is incomparably more difficult than that of any other organization in any other time, because we have the terrible betrayal of the Communist International, which arose from the betrayal of the Second International. The degeneration of the Third International developed so quickly and so unexpectedly that the same generation which heard its formation now hears us, and they say, ‘But we have already heard this once!’”
— Leon Trotsky, “Fighting Against the Stream,” 1939

Throughout the history of our movement, isolation from the working class has been our albatross, and our project has been slowly deformed because of it. The last 90 years of American socialism from below has been marked by small bright spots amidst marginalization, moments of excitement standing out against a backdrop of general isolation. Yet we have endured, despite three major tears from the working-class movement.1

After the Communist Party USA expelled those committed to proletarian democracy in 1928, we built our movement from fragments. While the CP grew from 7,000, in its hyper-sectarian Third Period from 1928 to 1934, to roughly 85,000 members over the course of the ’30s and ’40s, American Trotskyism started with 100 and never grew larger than 3,000 (with 1,470 official members of the Socialist Workers Party in 1946).2 The CP, even in spite of its Stalinist twists and turns, dominated the audience for radical politics throughout the era. The example of the Russian revolution still animated people’s hopes, and the CP was able to leverage its roots and resources across the class to pose as its standard bearer.

We weren’t just expelled, though. Starting in 1929 and the early 1930s, Stalinists physically enforced our isolation by storming our meetings and assaulting our ancestors with clubs and lead pipes.

Trotskyism’s expulsion from the official Communist movement was our first separation from the masses. The ten-year gap between Trotsky’s articles “Groupings in the Communist Opposition” and “Fighting Against the Stream,” quoted above, gives a flavor for the period. We weren’t just expelled, though. Starting in 1929 and the early 1930s, Stalinists physically enforced our isolation by storming our meetings and assaulting our ancestors with clubs and lead pipes.3 In the face of extremely adverse conditions, revolutionary socialists built modestly.

Our second separation occurred with the rest of the movement. The Workers’ Party (the ISO’s direct grandparent) and the SWP (our great-uncle) shrank as the postwar labor upsurge turned to Cold War reaction. From 1,500 members in 1946, only 430 members remained in the SWP by 1957. Meanwhile, the Workers Party changed its name to the Independent Socialist League (ISL), solemnly admitting that it was not anything close to a party. With humble honesty it reverted to a propaganda group. As James P. Cannon, a founder and longtime central leader of the SWP, reflected: “We lost a lot of members in the fifties…. the persecution, the lack of response, the inactivity of the workers. People began falling away. Our biggest struggle in the whole Cold War period was to hold our nucleus together.”4

We held onto examples of the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934 and the Berkeley Free Speech Movements of the 1960s as promising moments of working-class potential, but these were peppered amid false starts and very shallow roots. Even as we stretched into mass movement work, whether we called ourselves a “party”, “league” or “organization”, we remained stuck in propaganda-group adolescence. We went through years of arrested development, with sordid results.

Desperate for oxygen, we clawed for any potential recruit. Dave McReynolds, later a leader of the Young People’s Socialist League chapter in Los Angeles, describes his first encounter with the International Socialist League in the 1950s. It reads equally funny and sad:

“I went to a garden party they were having, because I wanted to know more about them. They had everything set up in the backyard, pitch pennies and darts and other games. There were about twenty people there. So I went in the backyard and pitched pennies and threw darts at balloons for about ten minutes, and then someone said, ‘Well, why don’t we go inside and talk?’ I soon discovered I was the only person there who wasn’t in their group. We had a drawing for the door prize. Who do you think won? The whole party was going on for my benefit. What would have happened if I hadn’t come along, I don’t know.”5

We suffered even further splits and disagreements over the years. Being separated from a mass audience, we accommodated to our milieu in different ways. Some succumbed to sectarian squabbles or personalistic cliques. Others accommodated to the political swamp — Stalinism, reformism, or even CIA conservatism, in James Burnham’s case. A quick look at the history of the Communist League of America/Socialist Workers Party is revealing. Major splits occurred in 1935 with Hugo Oehler and those opposed to entering the Socialist Party, in 1939–40 with Max Shactman and the third campists who opposed defense of the USSR, in 1944–1946 with Goldman and those proposing unity with the Workers Party, in 1951 with C.L.R. James’s Johnson–Forest group, and in 1953 with Bert Cochran and those proposing entry into the CPUSA. These are just a few examples, during just a 20-year slice of the SWP.

How did our ancestors respond to our movement’s frustrations — gasping for oxygen while political winds blew us around like leaves? They did so using the toolbox they had available: a twisted faux-Leninism that twisted even more with each passing decade.

The pressures of the period weighed on everyone, from the rank and file to the very tops of our movement. When the Fourth International was formed in 1938, 15 revolutionaries made up the International Executive Committee. Within seven years, only two still stood with the Fourth International. Three, including Trotsky, were murdered, while ten “defected” (or, like the Workers’ Party and its international allies, were expelled) by the end of the war. Similarly, what happened to the eight loyalists to James P. Cannon’s faction newly elected to the Political Committee of the American Socialist Workers Party during the 1940 faction fight? Four of the eight had left the SWP-US by 1953 in political splits. Three more individually dropped out of the movement. Of these only Cannon survived to old age in the Socialist Workers Party.

How did our ancestors respond to our movement’s frustrations — gasping for oxygen while political winds blew us around like leaves? They did so using the toolbox they had available: a twisted faux-Leninism that twisted even more with each passing decade. Political battles raged; parties sought to guarantee the continuity of their program and of their organization, to guarantee a chance to grow and breathe. Organizational methods, inherited with uncritical acceptance  though developed with honest intentions — ossified.

The weight around our necks: Authentic Bolshevism vs. “Bolshevization”

“The American communist movement did not live in an atmosphere which encouraged Marxian thought beyond the assimilation of some of the basic ideas put forward by Lenin or popularized by Zinoviev. It encouraged instead the kind of fraudulent, unprincipled factional polemics that helped to destroy it eventually…
What Cannon learned about Lenin’s conceptions of the role of the party, of the party cadre, of the party leadership, of party democracy, he learned not from Lenin but, like virtually all the Communist Party leaders of his time, from Zinoviev, that is, from the ridiculous caricature of Lenin’s ideas and traditions that flowered in the disastrous days of Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” campaign…
In the course of the very first factional struggle which Cannon precipitated, in the Trotskyist organization here, Trotsky found himself impelled to write to us that he could not fail to see in it the methods and traditions of Zinovievism. It was a gentle and restrained rebuke to Cannon, but its meaning was unequivocal.”
— Max Shachtman, “25 Years of American Trotskyism,” 1954

“The German Opposition is not developing in a vacuum. Not only in the [Hugo Urbahns] Leninbund but in the organization of the Bolshevik–Leninists as well I have within the last two years observed methods which have absolutely nothing in common with the regime of a proletarian revolutionary organization. More than once I have asked myself in astonishment: do these people think such methods are methods of Bolshevik education? How can intelligent German workers tolerate disloyalty and absolutism in their organization?…
Whoever is acquainted with the history of the Bolshevik Party knows what a broad autonomy the local organizations always enjoyed; they issued their own papers, in which they openly and sharply, whenever they found it necessary, criticized the actions of the Central Committee. Had the Central Committee, in case of principled differences, attempted to disperse the local organizations or to deprive them of literature (their bread and water) before the party had an opportunity to express itself — such a central committee would have made itself impossible. Naturally, as soon as it became necessary, the Bolshevik Central Committee could give orders. But subordination to the committee was possible only because the absolute loyalty of the Central Committee toward every member of the party was well known, as well as the constant readiness of the leadership to hand over every serious dispute for consideration by the party. And, finally, what is most important, the Central Committee possessed extraordinary theoretical and political authority, gained gradually in the course of years, not by commands, not by beating down, but by correct leadership, proved by deeds in great events and struggles.”
— Leon Trotsky, “The Crisis in the German Opposition,” February 1931

“An atmosphere of aimless, endless internal conflict is generated that could tear the party to pieces.
It is precisely to safeguard itself from such harmful consequences of factional anarchy that the party exercises its right to regulate its internal affairs… Comrades holding minority opinions are not disqualified from serving the party in any capacity; nor are they asked to give up their dissident views. They must simply await a new opportunity to present their views when internal discussion is again formally authorized.”
— “Organizational Character of the SWP,” September 1965

“He [M. Morrison] is implying that in our organizational practices we have departed from Bolshevism and that what he is fighting for is a return to Bolshevism… Does Comrade Morrison propose to take a leap back over the rich history of Bolshevism which is embodied in our own movement? Since 1923 our world movement has written the richest chapters in the history of Bolshevism… Throughout the years of the rich history of our movement we have adhered to the same Bolshevik program. We have been led by essentially the same leadership. The question then, is, when did the germs slip in?6
— M. Stein, Speech to New York City Membership of the Socialist Workers Party, October 1944 [emphasis added]

Isolation alone is not to blame. After all, Stalinism was the main progenitor of authoritarian “follow the leader” socialism from above. A quick look at Maoism in the 1960s and ’70s shows that it has its share of sectarianism, too — despite having the political wind in its sails and Mao’s Little Red Book in the hands of nearly every college radical at the time. How many Maoist sects popped up like mushrooms declaring themselves the true “vanguard of the proletariat”? Max Elbaum, in his Revolution in the Air, counts at least 16.

No, there’s something more to it than just isolation. The Bolshevik Party has been held up as the model for revolutionary socialist organization for the last 100 years. The ISO, Socialist Action, and many others have looked to that model for guidance. But did we truly understand the lessons of the Russian Revolution? Here is one tendril in the root of our problem.

Looseness in the Bolshevik Party

There is simply no space in this article to do an adequate examination of the full breadth of Bolshevism. But as for all the military-like centralism we allegedly draw from the Bolsheviks, only a few concrete examples are necessary to challenge this myth.

The local Bolshevik Petersburg Committee called for a one-day strike on February 23, 1917 (Gregorian calendar — just two weeks before the February Revolution), to commemorate the second anniversary of the trial of Bolshevik deputies to the Duma, Russia’s semi-parliament. These Bolsheviks had been sent to Siberia for speaking out against the war. The national Russian Bureau of the Bolshevik Central Committee urged the Petersburg Committee to move the date of its strike away from a holiday. Did the Petersburg Committee, amid wartime repression, accede to the Central Committee? No. The Petersburg Committee continued with its original plan, issuing its own proclamation, while the Russian Bureau issued a separate strike call for February 26. Workers didn’t respond to either call, but the Petersburg Committee also wasn’t reprimanded.7

No, there’s something more to it than just isolation. The Bolshevik Party has been held up as the model for revolutionary socialist organization for the last 100 years. The ISO, Socialist Action, and many others have looked to that model for guidance. But did we truly understand the lessons of the Russian Revolution? Here is one tendril in the root of our problem.

In June, after the fall of the tsar, the Bolshevik Military Organization (BMO) pushed the Central Committee to call a protest against the Provisional Government’s military offensive. The Central Committee opposed it, but the Military Organization kept lobbying for it within the party. An expanded meeting of Bolshevik party organizations during the All-Russia Congress of Soviets on June 21 voted majority in favor of the BMO’s call for a protest on June 23. Though the Central Committee, supposedly the highest body in the party until a party congress, had already made its decision, the BMO continued to press its case. Ultimately, the Central Committee called off the protest on June 23.8

Just after the aborted July Days uprising and the wave of repression that followed, the Bolshevik Party Central Committee voted on August 4 that the BMO and Petersburg Committees couldn’t publish separate papers. Instead, the Central Committee arranged a combined newspaper, with Rabochii i soldat becoming an organ for the whole party. This was “profoundly distasteful to Military Organization officials, who were accustomed to working on their own.”9 And for good reason. In addition to Pravda (circulation: 40–100,000), the Bolshevik party had Soldatskaia Pravda (circulation: 50–75,000), Okopnaia Pravda (4–10,000), Golos Pravdy, Rabotnitsa, and Social-Democrat (40-55,000).10 Each of these newspapers had their own editorial boards.11 For example, Social-Democrat was the organ of the Moscow city committee and the Moscow regional bureau of the Central Committee. While accountable to the program and leadership of the party as a whole, these newspapers even rejected Lenin’s articles at times.

After the Central Committee (CC) adopted the BMO’s paper as the whole party’s, the BMO went over their heads. Without clearance from the Central Committee, the BMO set up its own paper, Soldat, on August 13, just three days after the government had repressed Rabochii i soldat. When the CC got wind of the BMO’s independent action, it sought to take over Soldat and took funds from the BMO’s treasury initially set aside for Rabochii i soldat. The BMO appealed the actions in letters to the CC on August 16. As Rabinowich describes, “the first appeal insisted on the Military Organization’s right to publish a separate newspaper” and the second focused on “the unprincipled way, violating the most elementary principles of party democracy” that the BMO was stripped of funds and propaganda organ.12

The BMO suffered a party trial for its independence, and a few members of the CC were tasked with acquainting themselves with and overseeing the BMO moving forward. Yet even amid dual power and the intense repression post-July, the BMO’s punishment was lenient. Lenin instructed Yakov Sverdlov, one of the assigned CC members: “It is necessary to help them, but there should be no pressure and no reprimands. To the contrary, they should be supported. Those who don’t take risks never win. Without defeats there can be no victories.”13 On August 16, the CC meeting reaffirmed the BMO’s subordinate status in the party, but let the BMO continue publishing Soldat independently – now with a member of the CC on their editorial board with veto power.

Examples like these are not applicable in every context. Certainly there were moments when the Bolshevik Party was far more centralized. Other times, party discipline was a goal but could not be implemented thanks to the movement’s various periods of fragmentation or mass character. Still other times, though rare under the pall of tsarist despotism and its secret police, democracy was the main priority. But these examples challenge the perceived organizational principle of a monolithic, militaristic party. The question shifts from “is breaking discipline permissible?” to “under what context is breaking discipline permissible?”

“Bolshevization”: A Moscow import to the American CP

This flexibility is fundamentally different from what became the organizational model of the American communist movement. By extension, the Trotskyist movement inherited these principles, starting with the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP-US).

American Trotskyism can trace its roots to 1928, when James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman, and others broke from the American Communist Party upon reading and sharing Trotsky’s writings on the Russian Revolution’s degeneration. Many Trotskyists have rightly celebrated our principled stand against Stalinist distortions. But this stand was four or five years after the world communist movement’s degeneration had already begun — under Grigory Zinoviev.

Before this, American communism’s factional atmosphere had trained the future leaders of the Trotskyist movement, just as much as the Stalinists, in bureaucratic practices for securing leadership. Cannon noted later that “allegiance to communism and to the party gave way, gradually and imperceptibly, to allegiance to the faction-gang.”14 The fights between William Z. Foster, Jay Lovestone, John Pepper, Cannon and others sharpened the skills Trotskyists would later use in their own factional battles.

These examples challenge the perceived organizational principle of a monolithic, militaristic party. The question shifts from “is breaking discipline permissible?” to “under what context is breaking discipline permissible?”

What were the roots of this factionalism? It came from lessons taught in the Socialist Party of America (SP), where many future Communist leaders had first been SP left-wingers. Like the Socialist Labor Party (described in Part One of this series), the SP’s lack of collective leadership, the mass membership’s low political level, and the entrenched divide between reformists, centrists and revolutionaries bred conflict and personalism. The control of the apparatus came to be seen as key for the political direction of the party — and key for fighting factional opponents. The “big tent” led to the same bureaucratic methods many now reject.

Stories abound. In 1908, the right-wing-controlled National Executive Committee rejected the application of Alfred Wagenknecht, a West Coast Left-SP party organizer, for national organizer on openly ideological grounds.15 Charles Ruthenburg, later a leader of his own faction in the CP, tried to introduce an amendment in the 1912 Socialist Party convention only to have the convention chairman, a member of the SP’s right wing, deny its introduction.16 As Ira Kipnis describes:

“The Socialist civil war quickly developed a pattern of expulsions, campaigns for control of key committees, formation of dual state and local organizations, and intervention by the Right-wing national office. In some of the local organizations the controversies were so prolonged, involved, and bitter that it is almost impossible to distinguish between various factions.”17

By the time these SP left-wingers became newly-minted communists, they had developed a taste and skill for factional warfare. First, a political struggle took place between those seeking to organize a public-facing party against those who believed organizing underground and in secret was a point of principle. But in a few short years, as James P. Cannon writes, “the new factional alignments began to take shape, and the struggle for ‘control of the party,’ which was to last for six years… was under way.”18

In 1923, Pepper “ran the party with an iron hand… he ‘politicalized’ the party to beat hell, and influenced his opponents almost as much as his supporters.”19 A sympathizer and friend of Trotsky in New York, Ludwig Lore, came under fire as the leader of a “non-Communist tendency” in the new party.20 In 1925, Ruthenburg and Jay Lovestone charged new leaders Foster and Cannon as carrying on a “relentless policy of suspensions, disciplinary [actions] and expulsion of the opposition,” while Foster and Cannon alleged that the “Minority is encouraging gross violations of discipline and in propagating the idea of a split in the Party.”21 Foster declared that in the faction fight with Ruthenburg’s group his character had “been assassinated in every conceivable form, even to that of my being called a thief.”22 Meanwhile, then-Foster loyalists Shachtman and William F. Dunne had “barricaded themselves in the Daily Worker editorial offices, refusing entry to Ruthenburg supporters, including… the paper’s co-editor.” Such was the schooling our ancestors received — lessons they would carry with them through future struggles.

Factionalism had taught these leaders how to attack opponents and jockey for power. Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” campaign put forward the monolithic party (run by a single set of unified leaders) as the supposed alternative.

Next, the factional atmosphere in the CPUSA created fertile ground for party despotism to take seed as an apparent (but false) solution starting in 1924. Masked as “Bolshevism,” this degenerative bureaucratism consolidated the “monolithic party” idea — banning factions and preventing any dissent (especially public dissent). As part of Russia’s creep towards Stalinism over the 1920s, the international organization of Communist Parties (Comintern, based in Russia) turned advisement into unquestioning acceptance of its Russian leaders’ lines. This, in turn, clamped down on the space to question national leaderships too. At the Fifth Comintern Congress and under pressure from Zinoviev’s leadership, one Communist party after another, from the United States to Japan, testified they “really weren’t Communist” but tainted with social-democratic politics and organizational methods.23 The resulting campaign to “Bolshevize” turned these parties into pliant agents of Stalinist foreign policy, thoroughly hostile to democratic control from below.

Factionalism had taught these leaders how to attack opponents and jockey for power. Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” campaign put forward the monolithic party (run by a single set of unified leaders) as the supposed alternative. Though the Trotskyist movement did more to move beyond Stalinism’s simple catechisms and hosannas, the imprint of Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” campaign remained. These assumptions were largely imported into the American Trotskyist movement by its main founder, Cannon, and others like Shachtman who served as lieutenants in his faction in the American Communist Party. After all, Cannon was known in the CP of the 1920s as the “Captain of Bolshevization.” In his view in 1924, a Bolshevik party:

“Must be a centralized party prohibiting factions, tendencies, and groups. It must be a monolithic party… Our party [CPUSA] has been plagued with factions, tendencies and groups. At least one-half of the energy of the party has been expended in factional struggles, one after another. We have grown into the habit of accepting this state of affairs as a normal condition.”24

Twenty years later, the campaign to “Bolshevize” the American CP still served as a reference point. In Cannon’s assessments, absence reveals more than what he mentions explicitly. In his First Ten Years of American Communism, he says:

“In spite of all, Zinoviev deserves restoration as one of the great hero-martyrs of the revolution… The lasting personal memory I have of him is of his patient and friendly efforts in 1925 to convince both factions [of the CPUSA] of the necessity of party peace and cooperation, summed up in his words to [William Z.] Foster which I have mentioned before: ‘Frieden ist besser’ (‘Peace is better’).”25

Only once did he make a critical appraisal of Zinovievism. As he said in a letter in the mid-1960s:

“Probably the hardest lesson I had to learn from Trotsky, after ten years of bad schooling through the Communist Party, was to let organizational questions wait until the political questions at issue were fully clarified, not only in the National Committee but also in the ranks of the party.”26

Until then, he believed the Stalinized Comintern merely “fed the flames of factionalism in order to fish in the troubled waters to create its own Stalinist faction.” By the time of his reevaluation, how much Zinovievism had he unconsciously imparted? When did the germs slip in, indeed?

“Bolshevization” in the American Socialist Workers Party

The American SWP’s organizational despotism was not just rooted in bad ideas or inherited lessons. It wasn’t simply an original sin that bore the same spoiled fruit year after year. With the movement battle-scarred from splits and squabbles, a tightly centralized, even monolithic, Trotskyist party matured through a process. Zinovievist assumptions danced with objective reality; ideas shaped responses to real conditions. In turn those responses became the new normal. Out of this, the American SWP created mechanisms and means for limiting factions, for limiting discussions until periods approved by the national leadership, even for preventing rank-and-file members from communicating among themselves. More and more, these became the normal means of operating. Jack Barnes — the much-maligned current leader of what remains of the SWP — was merely the culmination of, not a sharp break from, that history.

Cannon himself was an expression of this dance between contradictory trends. There can be no doubt he was a skilled organizer and orator. As Ted Selander, then a member of the Oehlerite opposition, recalled from a 1935 Plenum debate: “We fully expected him to shout brutal insults, loud denunciations, etc., but to our complete surprise Jim spoke quietly, calmly, and convincingly in a language that any ordinary worker could understand.”27 After the speech he was friendly in chatting with members of A.J. Muste’s rival faction. 

Yet even Bryan Palmer, in his idolatrous book on Cannon, is forced to admit his vindictiveness to factional opponents:

“This combative instinct was not perhaps his finest trait and Trotsky, more than once, cautioned Cannon not to act precipitously in his recourse to definitive, organizational resolutions of problems that were best settled in patient, if trying, political dialogue, clarification, and, hopefully, reconciliation.”28

This isn’t to say the source of the problem is with one individual, or even that Cannon was all bad. Without a doubt, Cannon provided immense services to the revolutionary movement. But he and his peers also distorted and hindered it thanks to the faction-gang methods they learned, employed, and later passed down.

Charting the trajectory

Besides Cannon himself, we can chart bureaucratism’s maturation on an organizational level, too. By the official formation of the Socialist Workers Party in 1938, organizational norms had already developed to guard against factionalism. As the February 1938 resolution co-authored by Shachtman and Cannon states:

“Party democracy means not only the most scrupulous protection of the rights of a given minority, but also the protection of the rule of the majority. The party is therefore entitled to organize the discussion and determine its forms and limits.”29

As the excerpt above suggests, there was still a stated “scrupulous protection” for minority rights in 1938. Yet by 1965, after several more faction fights and “clarifications” of previous organizational principles, even the overt protection of minority rights had been whittled away. The leadership expelled the early-’60s Robertson minority for circulating secret documents and (in an often-used charge) “planning a split.” Facing protests from rank-and-file members over these expulsions, the leadership responded with their document “The Organizational Character of the Socialist Workers Party”:

“Official party bodies are allegedly without right or power to regulate a minority’s activities in organizing itself and presenting its political views. To grant such demands for special license to organized minorities would strip the party of the right to regulate its internal affairs and would undermine its whole democratic-centralist structure.”30

In reality, it was the party’s leadership, not the party as a whole, which regulated the affairs of the party between national conventions. And whether it is recognized or not, the leadership is itself a faction inside a revolutionary party. It is a disciplined group trying to convince the whole party of a perspective or action. Without checks and balances on it via minority rights, the “bread and water” of local papers (and now, social media), and an independent cadre, the leadership is able to use its power over information channels, its hold over the apparatus, and its outsized influence across the organization to shape the direction of the party.

Cannon knew this. In a letter to Murray Weiss during the faction fight of 1944–1946, he describes his leadership group blocking together and having secret meetings of their own, as they often did in facing factional opponents, to plan their attack on Goldman and Murrow:

“We have had a number of discussions here in an effort to arrive at a precise analysis of the nature of the problem posed by the emergence of the new opposition bloc. You know it is our long-time practice to make sure what we are doing and where we are going before we start any kind of an action.” [emphasis added]31

He likewise shares this view publicly, and his fears of factionalism, in a 1953 article:

“Without a conscious leadership, factionalism can devour and destroy a party. Headless factionalism, sometimes even the smallest squabble, can tear a party to pieces. We have seen this happen more than once. Everything depends on the leaders, on their consciousness. They must know how and when to begin the faction fight; how to conduct it; and how and when to finish it.”

It all “depends on the leaders.” This is a far cry from the vision of self-emancipation that first animated communism, or the critiques that first organized Trotskyism. As Trotsky wrote in 1923 against the development of bureaucratism in the Russian Communist Party, the Bolshevik Party had a much less bureaucratic method in dealing with the Brest–Litovsk Left Communist faction in 1918:

“It is far from enough to declare that groups and factions are an evil for their appearance to be presented… To proceed to a split would not have been difficult and would not have required on the part of the leadership any great intellectual exertion; it would have sufficed to issue an injunction against the Left Communist faction. Nevertheless, the party adopted more complex methods. It preferred to discuss, to explain, to prove by experience, and to resign itself temporarily to that menacing anomaly represented by the existence of a faction in its midst.”32

As Trotsky further wrote in a letter to the National Committee of the Workers Party (US) in 1935:

“It would naturally be a mistake to desire to liquidate organizationally an opposition group before the overwhelming majority of the party has had the chance to understand to the full the inconsistency and sterility of that group. The party can and must correct the precipitateness of the leaders, since it is not only the leaders who educate the party but the party as well educates the leaders.” [emphasis added]33

Methods of bureaucratic leadership

Yet Cannon’s problematic version of leadership — really, the attitude of a ruling faction-gang — informed the practice of the SWP from the 1930s onwards. When Cannon and his group met in secret to plan their attacks on factional opponents, they saw themselves as defending the party. When Robertson, Goldman–Morrow, or other opponents organized similarly, it was seen as disloyalty. What was held as good in the hands of the faction-gang (under justifications of a “life or death” battle for the socialist movement) was often held as bad in the hands of, and used against, the opposition.

As one method of rule, the faction-gang would deny the right to public discussion to minorities while pushing their policies through their control of the press. They did this rather than bring debates before the entire class, as the Bolsheviks had done. In 1935, Cannon and Shachtman, as editors of the New Militant, used their power to put forward articles praising the French Turn before the Workers Party had agreed to endorse the Europeans’ strategy.34 In A.J. Muste’s words, “Shachtman has openly stated in the P.C. [Political Committee] that it is his position that no material condemning the French turn could appear in the party press.”35

Yet within a couple years, coming out of the 1939–1940 faction fight, the leadership had tightened (or, as the 1965 document claimed, “reaffirmed and made more explicit”36) limits on public discussion for other minorities:

“The opening of the party press to discussion of a point of view contrary to that of the official leadership of the party or of its programmatic convention decisions must be controlled by the National Committee which is obligated to regulate discussion of this character in such a way as to give decisive emphasis to the party line. It is the right and duty of the National Committee to veto any demand for public discussion if it deems such discussion harmful to the best interests of the party.”37

For Shachtman’s part (also trained as he was in faction-gang tactics), he and Burnham took the New International out from under Cannon’s control during the 1939–1940 split. Like the factional battles in the Communist and Socialist Parties, the fight through — and for control of — the apparatus and press became crucial battlegrounds. They all fought dirty; no one’s hands were clean. But the leadership still set the tone.

Whether it is recognized or not, the leadership is itself a faction inside a revolutionary party. It is a disciplined group trying to convince the whole party of a perspective or action. Without checks and balances on it via minority rights, the “bread and water” of local papers (and now, social media), and an independent cadre, the leadership is able to use its power over information channels, its hold over the apparatus, and its outsized influence across the organization to shape the direction of the party.

When Cochran and others challenged the majority leadership in the 1952–1953 fight, opposition members in full-time jobs at The Militant found themselves unemployed after financial troubles hit the party. “True,” the opposition wrote in an April 1953 Internal Bulletin document, “a number of other comrades were also removed from the full-time staff, but that begs the question because those that remained were exclusively supporters of Comrade Cannon.” If the majority leadership honestly wanted to smooth out differences between the two factions, they could have kept on a relative ratio — at least until a convention. Instead, Cochran’s supporters “were confronted with the last representative of our point of view being removed from the full-time party staff, and an increasing exclusion from possibilities of political leadership.”38

Likewise, when Morrow faced down the Cannon apparatus in 1946, he too was thrown off the party’s payroll. “By what criterion, however, is financial retrenchment achieved by removing from the party payroll the leader of the Minority and the only Minority comrade who is on the party payroll?” asked the minority.39 When the Bayonne branch joined the protest against Morrow’s sacking and threatened to withhold branch funds, the SWP Political Committee responded with acid:

“The record makes it clear that the Bayonne branch is not and has never been one of the financial mainstays of the party. The financial threat implied in the statement is therefore of no great consequence.”40

The Cannon majority did not trust that Morrow’s statement to remain in the party and loyal to it “represented a sincere effort at reintegration in the party or whether it was merely a diplomatic document designed to conceal a maneuver.” So the faction-gang sacked him anyway.

Minorities faced more than just visible, physical limits on dissent. Albert Goldman and Morrow complained of the majority’s slanders and attacks in what they called the “unpublished part of the discussion” inside the party. “It is impossible to convey it to you,” they wrote to the Belgian section of the Fourth International. “One has to live through the pogrom atmosphere aroused in the branches against us by first and second-rank leaders of the majority.”41 Among the attacks, Cannon charged that Goldman, while serving a prison sentence with other Trotskyist leaders convicted under the Smith Act, “preferred to fraternize with labor racketeers rather than with his comrades.”42

Leadership’s use of the apparatus, information channels and influence for factional ends extended to the international scene as well. After the SWP split in 1940, Cannon’s group — with the International Secretariat based in the United States43 — hastily called an Emergency International Conference. In so doing, they excluded the majority of the members of the Bureau of the Fourth International who supported Shachtman.44 Attendance, these members claimed, was conditioned on committing

“themselves in advance to support of decisions taken by the Cannon group. Members of the International Bureau, who were excluded by the Cannon group, had their expulsion ratified by the same Cannon group sitting as an ‘international conference.’ The judges, the prosecutor, and the appellate judges were all the same people!”45

These are just some of the faction-gang methods that have been passed down from generation to generation. They are, of course, not unique to those who call themselves followers of Cannon (again, remember how Stalinists assaulted Trotskyists with lead pipes?). Cannon’s actions merely serve as one set of examples that reflect a whole generation of communist activists.

Break or continuation?

In several of these faction fights (including the Goldman–Morrow fight; the Cochran fight; and the fight of George Breitman, the future Socialist Action and others against Barnes), opposition groups tried to explain what they saw as the sudden emergence of bureaucratic tendencies in the SWP leadership. They consciously sought to differentiate their own opposition from past faction fights. As Morrow and Goldman wrote in 1946:

“If Shachtman today tries to defend his errors of 1940 by pointing to our present criticisms of the Cannon group, he is no more correct than is Cannon when he defends our criticisms by pointing to Trotsky’s rejection of Shachtman’s criticisms of 1940. Profound changes have taken place since 1940. Such a list as the 17 manifestations of a bureaucratic tendency which we have listed above could not have been drawn up in 1940.”46

In 1953, Cochran and his opposition called Cannon and co.’s manipulations “a new theory and method for our party”:

“All oppositions in the past were fought and defeated on a political basis; if they left the party in the end it was because irreconcilable differences made it impossible for them to remain. But now, a leadership disoriented by world events… unable to cope with the political positions of the minority, impelled by considerations of prestige, is borrowing the alien methods our movement has relentlessly fought for a quarter of a century.”47

Likewise, when the Barnes leadership expelled those who fought its abandonment of permanent revolution in the early 1980s, George Breitman, Paul LeBlanc and others condemned the “erosion of the Cannon tradition.” As Breitman said, “We have to say that Barnesism is a negation of ‘Cannonism,’ not its continuation.”48 Elsewhere he wrote:

“When somebody is fighting on behalf of Trotskyism and the Fourth International, and is subjected to disciplinary measures because of that, it is not comparable to those who are fighting against Trotskyism and against the Fourth International who may be subjected to disciplinary measures. It is not the same thing.”49

But who gets to decide who is against or for Trotskyism? The leadership did — Cannon’s, Dobbs–Kerry’s, and finally Barnes’s. Over more than 50 years of faction fights, they had labeled various oppositions as “petty bourgeois,” “Stalinist liquidators,” “capitulators to imperialism,” and more, when many (but certainly not all) of these oppositions emerged out of tactical or political differences still arguably within the bounds of Trotskyism.

After all, Cochran’s strategy to orient on, and even enter, the Communist Party was ultimately carried out by French Trotskyists in the ’50s. Through their work, they entered the PCF; some set up the journal La Voie communiste, and later helped create the Trotskyist split-away Jeunesse communiste revolutionaire (JCR), an important group during the French May 1968 uprising.50 The Third Camp, the much-maligned “Shachtmanites,” had a sibling in the British state-capitalist Socialist Review Group (later the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party in Britain). These British International Socialists, despite their alleged “petty-bourgeois” attitude to the Soviet Union, got the closest to building a Trotskyist party with a serious mass working-class base out of any major English-speaking country in the last 50 years.

But it is not just a matter of democratic discussion. For democracy to truly function inside a revolutionary organization, democratic control is necessary: the ability for the ranks to shift party policy, even in opposition to a majority of the top leadership. Lenin’s 1917 April Theses — and the chord they struck in the majority of the party against a majority of the top leadership — would not have been possible otherwise.

In reality, faction-gang tactics and bureaucratic tendencies — imported from Zinoviev and the CPUSA — developed, existed, and crystallized over the whole existence of the American SWP. Various oppositions “discovered” these bureaucratic methods only once they were used against them. They simply did not encounter, or they excused, these methods until they moved to oppose the leadership.

Some defenders of the SWP’s record may point to the breadth of debate that existed within the pages of its Internal Bulletin or party conventions. The old ISO leadership’s few remaining defenders — really, themselves — have offered similar statements.51 But it is not just a matter of democratic discussion. For democracy to truly function inside a revolutionary organization, democratic control is necessary: the ability for the ranks to shift party policy, even in opposition to a majority of the top leadership. Lenin’s 1917 April Theses — and the chord they struck in the majority of the party against a majority of the top leadership — would not have been possible otherwise.

There is no evidence (though I’d be happy to be proven wrong!) to suggest that such a regime existed inside the American SWP. Far from coming from a three-way push-pull between the leadership (with theoretical and political experience), the ranks (with direct contact with the masses), and the cadre (with its mix of both and its potential to act as an alternative leadership), all political and organizational shifts came from the top. This focus on top leadership is damaging to a party. It prevents the party from assimilating its experiences interacting with the masses and from educating its cadres as independent politicos. It makes the party brittle to change, unable to assimilate the consciousness and experience of the masses in struggle, or apply revolutionary politics to the real world. It can lead to comrades leaving in frustration or silencing their viewpoints. In short, it can further entrench unnecessary splits, brutal isolation, and just plain bad actors.

Bureaucratism and isolation breeds brittle politics

A hardening organization coincides with hardening politics. Following Zinovievism’s lead, the leadership became the arbiters of the revolutionary program. Like their organizational turns, leaders and tradition dictated the party’s politics. Rank-and-file divergence from these was seen as a threat, even when reality itself contradicted the program or leadership.

Consider the faction fight with Shachtman, Burnham and Martin Abern starting in 1939. After concluding a pact with Hitler, Stalin sent Soviet troops to invade Poland and Finland.52 By the end of the year, the two dictators had carved up Poland — with fascism taking the west and Stalinism taking the east.

So long as the Red Army was defending the USSR from imperialist aggression, it was easy to “unconditionally defend” Russia while still opposing the Stalinist bureaucracy. When the Soviet Union blocked with Western capitalism, backing the People’s Front in Spain to crush the revolution, one could criticize Stalin for his disastrous “centrist” policies and still see the Soviet system as somehow progressive. But the Soviet Union’s alliance with Nazi Germany to expand its (and likewise Germany’s) sphere of influence made this position untenable. Either you had to defend the USSR’s invasion and alliance with Hitler, who was exterminating racial minorities and had exterminated the entire German Left, or you had to defend anti-imperialism and condemn the USSR. But for Cannon and the majority, looking to Trotsky for guidance, nothing had fundamentally changed. They saw Shachtman and others as sliding towards petty-bourgeois social patriotism, rather than honest revolutionaries trying to grapple with questions posed by reality itself.

Not only can political differences bleed out into organizational disputes, but how a party operates can shape its relative willingness to re-evaluate theories, strategies, and tactics. Without a party regime that can make room for these differences, to seek patient argument and reconciliation first before a hothouse of recriminations and splits, an organization can stunt its theoretical development and numerical growth.

Similarly, when Felix Morrow challenged the perspective of a revolutionary end to World War II (something he was later proven right about), he was denounced as a renegade and a centrist with no faith in the capacity of the working class. Rather than grapple with the realities of European reformism and Communist Popular Frontism’s reemergence amid the US Marshall Plan, the Cannon majority viewed reality through the “fractured prism” of the 1938 Transitional Program.53 This became yet another strike against Morrow in the faction fight of 1944–46.

And later, following the war and the Stalinist carve-up of Eastern Europe, the SWP still refused to countenance a need to reevaluate its fundamental theories around the USSR. In 1933, Cannon did not believe the Red Army alone could invade Germany and make a revolution:

“The Red Army is not only the arm of the Soviet Union… [I]t is in the fullest sense of the word, the arm of the international proletariat… Theoretical considerations, and the Polish experience of 1920, show that the Red Army cannot make the revolution in an important capitalist country. For it to intervene successfully there must be conjuncture of the rising proletariat and such a relation of the class forces locked in mortal combat that the Red Army appears on the scene as the reinforcement of the rising proletariat, its ally against the murderous violence of the armed class enemy at home and its protector against the armed intervention of foreign imperialist forces.”54

But faced with the option of reevaluating Soviet imperialism, mainstream Trotskyism resorted to the confused formulation of “deformed workers’ states” — not created by the masses and then degenerating, but imposed from the beginning by Soviet imperialism. As Trotskyism attempted to make sense of the new situation, it drove a series of irreparable splits in the movement (the Johnson–Forest tendency and the Cochranites to name just two in three years).

Cannon and his descendants often saw factional challenges to the organizational character or “party regime” as rooted in political differences. But there is a much messier relationship between the two. Not only can political differences bleed out into organizational disputes, but how a party operates can shape its relative willingness to reevaluate theories, strategies, and tactics. Without a party regime that can make room for these differences, to seek patient argument and reconciliation first before a hothouse of recriminations and splits, an organization can stunt its theoretical development and numerical growth.

This stunted growth runs from Cannon’s party through to the statement Farrell Dobbs made to Peter Camejo that “the program has been developed. Our job is to implement it.”55 This stunting continued into Barnes’s regime, when he told Les Evans, “all serious theoretical work had been completed by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and there was nothing for future generations to do but apply the existing theory to specific political situations.”56

We can’t reduce these issues to bureaucratism. Isolation, and the need to conserve resources and membership, promoted a certain warped logic. As Ernest Lund wrote:

“The barriers we threw up against the poison of degeneration also became barriers that separated us from the mass of the workers, who drifted with the tide. For many years now ‘Trotskyism’ has been synonymous with ‘sectarianism’ in the view of our political opponents.”57

And as Carl Oglesby, former president of Students for a Democratic Society, reflected on the SWP:

“Their terrific caution, their insistence on institutional tightness, these characteristics made it difficult for them to respond spontaneously in the 1960s — when spontaneity was crucial. But they also enabled them to endure the 1960s, whereas others of us got knocked off.”58

Unfortunately, as the SWP sought to maintain their politics amid this isolation, the toolbox of the bureaucratic faction-gang not only led to brittle politics. It also consistently turned former comrades — those who might have become comrades again once struggle picked up and “wash[ed] away secondary and episodic disagreements” — into bitter and permanent enemies.

Why this assessment matters

It would be grossly unfair to pick on Cannon and his party alone. He was simply one among many who, while honestly committed to revolution, failed to consciously reevaluate the political inheritances he carried for years and passed down to subsequent generations. As the years went on, Cannon’s descendants in leadership took their education and built upon it. A final plea to “don’t strangle the party” can only go so far if you’ve been teaching younger communists how to clasp that party’s neck for years.

The ascension of Jack Barnes to the leadership of the SWP, like the breakdown of democracy in the ISO, was not an aberration but the logical conclusion of a process of development. Even as he shifted the party’s politics irreparably, Barnes maintained the bureaucratic faction-gang model. His was even more contorted than before, but neither version was authentic Leninism.

This assessment matters. Without it, certain reevaluations solely focus on analyses of individuals like Jack Barnes or, in the ISO’s case, Sharon Smith. Sure, they bear particular responsibility for the awful things they did. But replicating the same model will lead to new Jacks and new Sharons. Some, refusing to reject the Zinovievism that ran through the history of the SWP, blamed “political centrism” for the party’s degeneration — just as some do with the ISO today.59 Meanwhile, others’ assessments, like Leslie Evans’s and Peter Camejo’s, led them out of Leninism and Marxism entirely. They, and some former ISOers today, fail to untangle the Gordian knot. They reject Zinovievism (held up as Cannonism in Evans’s and Camejo’s case, or the ISO’s “democratic centralism”) while also rejecting the Marxism and Leninism falsely bound up in it.

Same toolbox, similar result

Let us entertain no illusions or misrepresentations: though the American SWP is the focus of this piece, Zinovievism and “the leadership faction-gang” pervaded nearly all of our other organizational ancestors — whether we call ourselves Trotskyists, Marxist-Leninists, or Maoists. Big-tent parties taught our ancestors to fight (even violently) for control of the party apparatus. Zinovievism taught them the notion of a monolithic party — only one faction-gang, in leadership, was allowed. Isolation from the class taught them to uphold their ideas above all.

These political assumptions formed the toolbox of many would-be leaders of the class struggle. And in moments of desperation, even those who broke from Stalinism or orthodox Trotskysim turned to that toolbox all the same. 

Our revolutionary forebears first learned to fight over the apparatus, first learned faction-gang methods, under the big tent. Far from being an alternative to “toy Bolshevism,” broad social-democratic parties and their attempts to fuse reformists and revolutionaries helped to create it.

The British International Socialists (later the SWP-UK) had experienced major success in the ’60s and early ’70s. From a tiny propaganda group of 33 in 1951 (and after six years of stagnation), it had grown to 100 by 1960. It jumped from there to 200 by 1966 and 1,000 by 1968.60 Careful theoretical work and an orientation on student, tenant, and sporadic worker struggles had paid off. Thinkers like Tony Cliff, Michael Kidron, and Chris Harman had developed answers — not only for phenomena like the Stalinist states and Third World revolutions, but also the challenge of reformism and the seeming stability of capitalism via the arms economy in Britain. Providing answers and willing to explore questions in the real world allowed the group to grow.

Within five years, amid growing strikes, their work bore more results: 2,667 members in 1973, 3,310 in 1974. This growth wasn’t just quantitative. The organization was making substantial inroads into the industrial working class. From a mostly student base, 35 percent of its membership were manual workers by 1974.61 Its propaganda was reaching that audience too: its newspaper’s circulation had grown from a few thousand readers in 1968 to 30,000 in 1974 (with a peak of 50,000 during a miner’s strike). The rank-and-file newspapers the IS helped set up had similarly thousands of readers inside the unions. The supporters group for Rank and File, their teacher paper, had hundreds of members, mostly outside the IS.

But when successive bouts of factionalism broke out against ultra-left Workers Fight entryists and a “Right” faction, Cliff and the like turned to bureaucratic measures — not simply to get rid of organizational wreckers but as permanent features of the organization.

“The 1975 Conference was undoubtedly a turning point for IS [UK]. Faced with a strong political challenge, the leadership had changed the rules and made itself into a self-perpetuating, exclusive and virtually monolithic body, whose discussions were not even reported in any detail to the membership. From now on major decisions, such as the launching of the Right to Work Campaign later in 1975 or the move to the ‘SWP’ in 1976, were received by the membership as faits accomplis. Discussion took place in the Council, and later in the branches, on implementation of policy, but not generally on policies themselves before they were decided. After 1975 the leadership was, as one long-standing member described it, ‘unassailable.’ It was simply not conceivable that the membership could change it in any way, and any alterations would have to come from the top.”62

Here the leadership introduced the dreaded slate system. The pressure to grow, to finally break out of isolation and become an honest-to-God mass revolutionary party, tested the leadership. The opportunity was there, but they were found wanting. Even if the immediate causes were different, our immediate parents fared no better than the American SWP. Why? Because the toolbox was the same.

Conclusion

To paraphrase an old film, there are no bad students, only bad teachers. Without understanding what we were taught, and the trajectory of our organizational education, we cannot break out of the cul-de-sac of bitter factionalism and sectarian bureaucratism that has plagued us for 90 years.

In attempting to break out of our forced isolation, we used a distorted faux-Leninism — a monolithic leadership organized as a faction-gang. But for all those who favor the big tent of social-democratic parties as somehow an alternative, we must remind them: Our revolutionary forebears first learned to fight over the apparatus, first learned faction-gang methods, under the big tent. Far from being an alternative to “toy Bolshevism,” broad social-democratic parties and their attempts to fuse reformists and revolutionaries helped to create it.

The alternative, then, is not building a big-tent party. It’s building a revolutionary party with a collective leadership. This revolutionary party must have a clearly defined political program. It can’t allow for people to dither and, say, support imperialists like the Democrats (especially “progressive” or “socialist” ones). But this party also must allow for full discussion and democratic control by its members. It can’t see factions and sometimes explosive debates as threats to the very existence of the party — or more aptly, threats to the leadership’s control of the apparatus. Lastly, it must be grounded in a militant section of the class and communities, the millions of workers of various identities and nationalities, who will be the true liberators of humanity.

Let us return, finally, to the ISO and our present day. Its leadership, too, operated with faction-gang methods. It too suffered from a lack of internal democracy. But what about its other problems — namely, its failure to live up to its name as an organization dedicated to fighting oppression? In the next installment of this series, I will explore why and how revolutionary organizations like the ISO failed the test of liberation, and how we can do better.

 

Endnotes
  1. The first two are described below. The third was the post-1970s neoliberal tear.
  2. “Trotskyism in the United States: The First Fifty Years,” Paul LeBlanc, Trotskyism in the United States, 89-90.
  3. James P. Cannon, History of American Trotskyism, 1944, 63-70.
  4. “Trotskyism in the United States: The First Fifty Years,” 85.
  5. Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer, 64.
  6. M. Stein, “The Organization Methods and Practices of Our Party: Speech at the NY Membership Meeting, Oct. 25, 1944,” Socialist Workers Party Internal Bulletin, vol. 6, no. 9, 15-16.
  7. John Riddell ed. “‘For a provisional revolutionary government of workers and poor peasants,’ 1917: The View from the Streets — leaflets of the Russian revolution — #4,” JohnRiddell.com.
  8. Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, xxx-xxxi; John Riddell ed. “A controversial Bolshevik appeal finds an echo in the streets,” JohnRiddell.com
  9. Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, 74.
  10. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition.; “Press/Journalism (Russian Empire)”, International Encyclopedia of the First World War
  11. For example, the editorial board of Bolshevik women’s journal Rabotnitsa: Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, xxix.
  12. Rabinowitch, 74.
  13. Rabinowitch, 75.
  14. James P. Cannon, “The Degeneration of the Communist Party and the New Beginning: An Analysis of Basic Causes,” Fourth International, Vol. 15 No. 4, Fall 1954, pp. 121–127.
  15. Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912, 372.
  16. Ibid, 218.
  17. Ibid, 372.
  18. James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, 1962, 89.
  19. Ibid, 79.
  20. Jacob A. Zumoff, The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929, 161.
  21. Zumoff, 159.
  22. Zumoff, 163-164.
  23. Joel Geier, “Zinovievism and the Degeneration of the World Communist Movement,” International Socialist Review.
  24. James P. Cannon, “The Bolshevization of the Party,” James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism, Marxist Internet Archive, 1924.
  25. James P. Cannon, “A Note on Zinoviev,” The First Ten Years of American Communism, Pathfinder Press 1962, 187.
  26. James P. Cannon, letter of February 8, 1966, reprinted in James P. Cannon, Don’t Strangle the Party, 9-10.
  27. Quoted in Bryan Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 794
  28. Bryan Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 821.
  29. “On the Internal Situation and the Character of the Party,” Quoted in James P. Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party.
  30. “The Organizational Character of the Socialist Workers Party,” Socialist Workers Party Discussion Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 3, 1965, 15.
  31. Cannon, “Letter to Murray Weiss,” April 4, 1945, 1.
  32. Leon Trotsky, “Bureaucratism and Factional Groups,” December 1923, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1923/12/faction.htm.
  33. Quoted in A.J. Muste, “A Footnote on Organizational Methods,” Workers Party Internal Bulletin: Special,January 10, 1936, 3 (12).
  34. The “French Turn” was the entry of Trotskyists into the reformist Socialist Party in France (SFIO) to grow and break out of isolation. The Workers Party passed a resolution in support of the French Trotskyists in June 1935. As an example of Cannon and Shachtman’s coverage as editors before this resolution passed, see The New Militant, January 19, 1935, vol. 1, no. 6, and Jack Webber, “March of Events,” The New Militant, Vol. I No. 19, 27 April 1935, 5.
  35. A.J. Muste, “How the Cannon-Shachtman Group Builds the Party,” Workers Party Internal Bulletin: Special,January 10, 1936, 8.
  36. “The Organizational Character of the Socialist Workers Party,” Socialist Workers Party Discussion Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 3, 1965, 8.
  37. “The Organizational Conclusions of the Present Discussion,” Quoted in James P. Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party.
  38. J. Andrew, Mike Bartell, Irving Beinin, George Clarke, et al, “The Roots of the Party Crisis: Its Causes and Solution”, Socialist Workers Party Internal Bulletin, vol 15, no. 8, April 1953, 6.
  39. “On the Removal of Comrade Morrow from Full-Time Party Work,” Socialist Workers Party Internal Bulletin, vol 8 no. 11 1946, 10.
  40. Political Committee “An Answer to the Bayonne Branch on Morrow’s Removal from the Payroll,” Socialist Workers Party Internal Bulletin,vol 8 no. 11 1946, 10.
  41. Felix Morrow, “The Answer of the SWP Minority to the Letter from the PCR of Belgium”, Socialist Workers Party Internal Bulletin, vol 8, no 4, March 1946, 6.
  42. Cannon, Letter to Murray Weiss, April 4, 1945, 2.; Felix Morrow, “The Answer of the SWP Minority to the Letter from the PCR of Belgium”, Socialist Workers Party Internal Bulletin, vol 8, no 4, March 1946, 6.
  43. Pierre Frank, “Chapter 5: From the Founding of the Fourth International to the Second World Congress (1938-48),” The Fourth International: The Long March of the Trotskyists, Marxist Internet Archive.
  44. “Declaration On The Status Of The Resident International Executive Committee” Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, May 19-26, 1940.
  45. Brown, Anthony, Alberts and Trent, “Statement by American Committee for the IV International,” International Bulletin,American Committee for the Fourth International, vol. 1 no 1, 1940, 1;
  46. Felix Morrow, “The Answer of the SWP Minority to the Letter from the PCR of Belgium”, Socialist Workers Party Internal Bulletin, vol 8, no 4, March 1946, 9.
  47. J. Andrew, Mike Bartell, Irving Beinin, George Clarke, et al, “The Roots of the Party Crisis: Its Causes and Solution”, Socialist Workers Party Internal Bulletin, vol 15, no. 8, April 1953, 43-44.
  48. Quoted in “Leninism in the United States and the Decline of the Socialist Workers Party,” Paul LeBlanc.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Daniel Bensaïd, An Impatient Life, 32-39.
  51. See Lance Selfa, “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?: A political assessment,” International Socialism Project, October 30, 2019.
  52. The Secret Protocols in the Nazi and USSR Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 make explicit mention of dividing up these countries. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/110994.pdf?v=61e7656de6c925c23144a7f96330517d
  53. Peter Jenkins, “Where Trotskyism Got Lost: World War Two and the Prospect for Revolution in Europe,” Marxist Internet Archive.
  54. James P. Cannon, “Resolution by Cannon on the Red Army and the German Revolution,” Communist League of America (Opposition) Internal Bulletin, no. 10, March 18, 1933, 2-3.
  55. Peter Camejo, North Star, 115.
  56. Leslie Evans, Outsider’s Reverie,227.
  57. “Toward a Party Perspective, Part One,” Ernest Lund, Workers Party: July 1944, 5.
  58. Quoted in Paul LeBlanc, “Trotskyism in the United States: The First Fifty Years,” Trotskyism in the United States, 56.
  59. “SWP — A Strangled Party,” Spartacist, No. 37-38, Summer 1986. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/icl-spartacists/1986/swpstrangled.html; Juan C, “We Need More Leninism, Not Less,” LeftVoice, May 4, 2019. https://www.leftvoice.org/we-need-more-leninism-not-less/
  60. Martin Shaw, “The Making of a Party?: The International Socialists 1965-1976”, Socialist Register, 1978, 103, 107.
  61. Sam Farber and John Rudge, “Sam Farber and IS: The 1973 Visit and Beyond”, Grim and Dim, http://grimanddim.org/tony-cliff-biography/sam-farber-and-is-the-1973-visit-and-beyond/
  62. Martin Shaw, “The Making of a Party?: The International Socialists 1965-1976”, Socialist Register, 1978, 137
E. Reed
(he/him) is a founding member of the Boston Revolutionary Socialists and Firebrand. He has been involved with the revolutionary socialist left since 2011 and is a former member of the International Socialist Organization.

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Why Kautsky Was Wrong (and Why You Should Care)

Why Kautsky Was Wrong (and Why You Should Care)

Karl Kautsky’s grandson John told a very revealing anecdote about attitudes towards his grandfather in the 1960s. He recalled a historian named Georges Haupt, who had many discussions among students about the history of the Second International. During those talks,...