It would be redundant to independent radicals to observe that the movement is dispersed. Nevertheless, I must say it, because that is the starting place of this memo. This condition is brought about by the degeneration of its major parties, the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, the disintegration of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], and the ebb tide of the class struggle. At the same time, the radicalization of the ’60s, principally in the ghetto and on the campus, has left a residue of high social consciousness. Dozens and perhaps hundreds of revolutionary-minded groups, grouplets, leagues, and thousands of unorganized individual radicals, are seriously debating what to do next. This condition objectively demands a massive regroupment of revolutionary forces and the formation of a new party. This memorandum is designed to be a contribution to the discussion of how this may be accomplished.
The evolution of an aspiring revolutionary party is determined by the reciprocal relations of four basic elements:
THEORY. The understanding and ability to use creatively Marxist political economy and historical/dialectical materialism.
STRATEGY. The foresight and ability to put the organization in a position to struggle effectively for political hegemony over the proletariat in a constantly changing situation. From strategic concepts flow most of the decisive tactical elements: fusions and splits, the United Front, opponents work; support and critical support, entries or partial entries, etc.; mass organization orientation.
PROGRAM. The political program. The evaluation of current political problems facing the working class and proposed solutions, designed to heighten political consciousness. This applies not only to the formally adopted resolutions, but to the daily life and work of the organization, its leadership and organizational principles.
SOCIAL BASE. That social sector from which the organization derives its basic support and to which it has its main sensitivity. The extent to which it successfully seeks that social base in non-privileged sectors of the proletariat will be decisive to its development.
Any one of these categories can become decisive in determining the direction of motion and the final product, because all are interacting.
The CP Degenerates to Reformism
For instance, the Communist Party after 1929: Despite its developing mass influence and militancy, it had come under the complete domination of the Soviet secret police (GPU), and found its social base in the Soviet bureaucracy. The first consequence of its change of social base was the erosion of theoretical concepts, and wild strategic gyrations. The strategic failures on an international scale led to defeats (Germany, Spain) which strengthened the reactionary character of the social base—the Soviet bureaucracy. The outcome of this process led finally to programmatic degeneracy, eventually to reformism; in no way qualitatively different from Social Democratic reformism.
The interrelationship between these categories is elaborately demonstrated and developed in the founding documents of the Trotskyist movement: “Criticism of the Draft Program,” “The Strategy of World Revolution,” etc. (contained in The Third International After Lenin).
The Socialist Workers Party
More pertinent to those seeking to profit from the problems of the past is to examine the history of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) from the criteria outlined above. More pertinent, because the SWP was a native movement, and because it was the best of the Marxist-oriented formations to emerge from the turbulent class struggles of the ’30s. It had, however, basic defects at the time of its formation in 1938, which it is necessary to examine. For this, I will have to rely on my recollections. I entered the Trotskyist movement shortly after the fusion of the (Trotskyist) Communist League of America and the (Musteite) American Workers Party (AWP), forming the Workers Party of the U.S. in 1934.
At the time of its formation the SWP had a dual social base: 1. Middle-class intellectuals. 2. Two white craft unions: the Sailors Union of the Pacific (SUP) and the Minneapolis Teamsters (eventually designated Local 544). In this discussion I shall ignore the question of the intellectuals’ influence, because this was solved in the 1940 split when the Shachtmanites left: solved only for the period under consideration, however, as the SWP has lost its working-class orientation and become essentially petty-bourgeois in both composition and social base.
The 1934 Teamsters’ strikes in Minneapolis were, in terms of elementary class struggle, classics. The General Strike, masterminded by V.R. Dunne and J.P. Cannon, combined a well planned and brilliantly executed civil war with a phenomenal rise in social consciousness. This strike put the CLA on the political map and created the magnetism which drew the Musteites and the Socialist Party militants toward it, developing new strategic possibilities.
The 1936-37 Maritime strike (its West Coast segment) gave us the opportunity for decisive intervention in support of the militant struggle of the SUP against the conservative policies of the Stalinist-led unions.
Regardless of the militance and even historical significance of these episodes, the narrow social base which they supplied the SWP at the time of the emergence and turbulent development of the CIO was to produce devastating consequences in other categories—Theory, Strategy, Program—as I shall demonstrate.
The Sailors Union and the Teamsters
Both of the unions of our social base were pitted against the CP. In Minneapolis, the Stalinists weren’t a real danger, as we were powerfully situated. They were mainly a political nuisance. But in the SUP there was a struggle—“to the death”—with the Longshoremen (ILWU), the Marine Cooks and Stewards (MC&S) and finally the National Maritime Union (NMU).
The Lundberg machine which effectively ran the SUP was based on three semi-privileged groups of coastal seamen. 1. The Matson Shore gang: seamen who stayed in San Francisco and did maintenance work on the large Matson fleet. 2. Steam schooner sailors: working the coastal trade bringing lumber from the Pacific Northwest to California (steam schooners were being rapidly replaced by modern ships, however the trade retained its designation). 3. The Alaska run, largely based in Seattle. After the 1936-37 strike these sailors, working a short season (approximately May to October) made fabulous wages loading cargo from the Alaska canneries—overtime, double-time and triple-time, etc. They could usually make much more in five to six months than an off-shore sailor could make in a year. Most of them were in home port half the year and frequently during the season.
The relative stability of these groups gave them a preponderant influence on the affairs of the union, at the expense of the off-shore sailors, who represented the majority of the union. These conditions also applied to the Marine Firemen (MFOW).
In many of the issues of the struggle of the SUP against the CP, the former demonstrated a superior militancy on the elementary level of union issues. However, its fanatical anti-Stalinism sounded more like anti-communism, and had distinctly reactionary connotations. The SWP was a political spokesman for the SUP, and our comrades became experts in the struggle against Stalinism in the unions.
Expertise at Anti-Stalinism
Most prominent in this field of expertise was Tom Kerry. In support of SUP policy, he led the fight against Walter Stack and the CP group in the MFOW, finally driving them from the offices they held. He accomplished this largely in the capacity of editor of the West Coast Fireman. He was also associated with the West Coast Sailor and the Seafarers’ Log. After coming to New York he guided a “progressive” opposition to the Stalinist leadership of the Painters Union, which was successful in dislodging them.
By pursuing our specialty we came to the edge of disaster twice in the Auto union.
Both of the unions of our main social base were strongly committed to the AFL—partly because the CP was the dominant political force in the CIO. In this circumstance we drifted rather unconsciously, I think, into a kind of pro-AFL attitude which obscured to the party the fundamentally dynamic quality of the CIO. This prejudice was sustained until 1940-41 when the Minneapolis Teamsters, under fire from the high bureaucracy, went over to the CIO. It must have been partially this prejudice, plus a growing Stalinophobia, which was responsible for our first crisis.
When we got our first foot-hold in the UAW, we offered our services to Homer Martin, President, in his struggle against the Stalinists. But Martin was headed straight for the AFL, where he soon went, attempting to set up a dual union. Cannon tells (in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party) how V.R. Dunne and other men in the field extricated our Auto group from this disgraceful policy in 1938, by challenging the central leadership in New York.
But we were in for yet another “bloc” crisis. For most of World War II, Walter Reuther, as head of the General Motors division of the UAW, had played a better role than most others, particularly the CP; and after the war we sometimes joined forces with him.
However, after the strike wave of 1945-46 Reuther took a right turn, and we found ourselves in his caucus as he was carrying a reactionary war against the controlling Thomas-Addes caucus which was energized by the CP. This struggle pointed toward the campaign by the CIO hierarchy to wipe out all CIO unions which were under the influence of radical elements: Farm Equipment Workers, Mine Mill and Smelter, United Electrical Workers, etc.
It is to the credit of Clarke and Cochran that we were able to reverse this policy and pull out of the Reuther caucus. A continuation of this policy would have hopelessly compromised us. I recall that during the National Committee debate in the summer of 1947 which broke the bloc with Reuther, Clarke remarked (in comment upon eulogies about our successful struggles against the Stalinists in past years), “Yes, we fought the Stalinists well in the MFOW and elsewhere, but I have a feeling that perhaps we fought them too well.” (Among all the progressive and militant bureaucrats for whom we did our sanitizing jobs against the CP, I don’t recall one who didn’t turn against us once the Stalinists were whipped. They were to wind up more often than not in the camp of reaction.)
Clarke and Cochran came into that NC meeting a minority, but finally Jim [Cannon] supported them and the day was saved.
Generally speaking, our criterion for political advancement among the militant and progressive workers was anti-Stalinism. The idea was that progressive unionism combined with anti-Stalinism was by itself an almost automatic transition to socialist consciousness.
The conception found its theoretical expression in the erroneous perspectives of our labor party propaganda during the entire period from 1938 to 1948. It was postulated by Dobbs that the labor party, based on the trade unions, beginning as a reformist party, would become so jolted by crises and the radicalization of the workers that it would take power, nationalize the means of production and, in effect, establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Theory and Strategy
The strategy of the Trotskyists before 1938 may justifiably be characterized as flexible. The fusion with the Musteites (1934) and the entry into the SP (1936), whatever the ultimate consequences of the latter, represented a serious evaluation of political trends and efforts to face them realistically.
We Are the Party!
However, at the time of the formation of the SWP (1938) Cannon proclaimed new doctrines. As we left the SP Cannon said: This is our last maneuver, barring the possibility of a labor party development. We shall have no further orientations toward other political tendencies. We are the one and only party. The Stalinists are finished. We don’t have to worry about them—just fight ’em.
At this time the CP still exercised a clear political hegemony over the radical working class in both the mass production industries and Marine Transportation!
We had registered important trade unionistic successes in the SUP, the MFOW, and the Midwest Teamsters, and in these areas we had politically discredited the CP. However, the contradiction between union militancy and political conservatism, and the great successes on a narrow social base, seemed to warp Jim’s judgement, and induced him to negative strategic conclusions. He thereby elevated tactics to a pre-eminence over strategy, and congealed the party in a rigid mold of “we are the one and only,” which denied us the flexibility necessary to take advantage of opportunities in the CP milieu: the temporary left turn of the CP in 1940, the development of the New York Labor Party and the Progressive Party, and the crisis created by the Twentieth Congress and Khrushchev’s revelations.
Organizing the Revolution
The second of Cannon’s proclamations stated that ours was only the task of organizing the revolution, Theory and Program had been all worked out and laid down by the Masters. It was finished. It was not our responsibility to make new analyses of the changing reality, but to follow the blueprint and organize the revolution. We all understood that this meant that the problems of meeting new realities theoretically was not so much a matter of concrete analysis, but of applying formulae. Thus we began to replace Theory with Doctrine, and took a further step in destroying Strategy by elevating the Organization question along with Tactics to this exalted level. Although we worshipped at the shrine of Theory, it was the theory created by others— principally Trotsky—and which provided us with a Doctrine.
A Cult of the Organizer arose (of which I must admit I was a charter member), which had the sad consequence of creating the super formula-organizers among the young Shachtmanites who had come with us from the SP.
I might say parenthetically that the ultimate product of this school of formula-theorizing and formula-organizing was Jim Robertson. Having a strong personal liking for him and a high regard for his ability, I must nevertheless say that Robertson and his organization (Spartacist League) have only appropriated these worst aspects of Cannonism and Shachtmanism and drawn them to their final, ultimate and logical but utterly ludicrous conclusion.
Origins of Racism and Male Chauvinism
in SWP Support to the Sailors Union
In the struggle against Stalinist influence among seamen, the SUP and finally the MFOW pitted themselves most viciously against the MC&S, a predominately black union. There is no denying that most of the Syndicalists, with whom we were allied and whom we supported uncritically, were racists, including Lundberg, the unquestioned leader.
Lundberg was—at least in these early days—a militant and a consistent one in the framework of craft unionism. He would probably have laid down his life for the SUP. He fiercely hated the shipowners, the government and the “Commies.” He never hesitated to tie up a ship on a half-way reasonable beef. He was fearless on the picket line and a tough negotiator—and he had a sense of humor.*
*In a negotiation session, after the shipowners had laid down proposals for tightening up working rules, penalties for violations, etc., Lundberg arose and quickly took down his pants, revealing his penis. The opposing negotiators were taken aback and he explained: “If ve going to work like horses, ve gonna look like horses,” fracturing the session.
Lundberg had built the SUP in a split and a war with the AFL International Seamen’s Union (ISU). When he was refused a national charter by the CIO, who gave it to the CP-controlled NMU, he negotiated an agreement with the Executive Committee of the AFL to take over the remains of the moribund ISU and re-charter it as the Seafarers’ International Union (SIU). As he was signing the Charter, William Green said something to the effect that “we are taking a chance with you, Harry, you know, you’ve been no angel”; to which Lundberg replied, “I did not know that the Executive Committee of the American Federation of Labor vass composed of angels.”
But his racism was most pronounced. At one time Revels Cayton, Secretary of the MC&S, came to the Sailors Hall, apparently on a conciliatory mission. He was met at the door by Lundberg, who threw him bodily down the stairs with the following (approximate) salutation: “Get out and stay out—nigger black son of a bitch!”
The hostility between the two unions, which lived together in isolation aboard ship, brought on racial tensions in which the racism of the Sailors and Firemen was usually present.
In the whole history of our West Coast Maritime group, I never heard of anyone in the group having a friend or “contact” among the black MC&S. Various speculations were expressed as to why the CP had all the influence there. The most peculiar of these views, apparently generally accepted, was that this circumstance was of no consequence because inevitably the Cooks and Stewards, mostly black, were historically bound (as a kind of peasantry) eventually to follow the “proletariat” represented by the deck-hands and black gang (firemen).
Transportation workers in general and particularly seamen have always been among the most outspoken and habitual male chauvinists in the working class. This is probably made inevitable because of the segregated male character of the industry, combined with political backwardness. Among seamen this was aggravated by the long periods of segregation and the semi-itinerant nature of their employment. Their characteristic term for woman was “bag”; their principal female contacts, prostitutes.
Given the uncritical support which we gave to the SUP and its Syndicalist leading core, plus the overwhelming pressure not to appear “different” from the working class in spite of being political, it is understandable how, in the absence of brutally clear theoretical training and understanding, some of even the worst characteristics of seamen would mold themselves into our members. And by virtue of the importance of this milieu as one of our main points of social support, many of these characteristics began to rub off on the party membership generally.
One of the consequences of this negative evolution was the eager acceptance of the 1939 Resolution on the Negro Question proposed to the National Convention by Johnson. It was an intensely nationalistic document, advocating the most extreme forms of self-determination and racial separation. Although it was not adopted by the Convention but referred to the National Committee, where it was somewhat modified, the party was substantially indoctrinated by this resolution.
There was, from the beginning, a tendency to ignore the problem of the emancipation of women. One of the products of our maritime policy was to exacerbate and crystallize this tendency, whereby the party completely turned its back on this question and virtually adopted the theory and practice of male supremacy.
At a later time, their dedication to women’s liberation was probably the principal reason that the Weiss group was driven out of the party.
Of course, when the movement for women’s liberation burst forth, the party was willing to jump on the bandwagon; but it brought with it an opposite tradition and inadequate theory.
By the time the women’s movement got underway, every theoretically capable woman leader in the party who had not already submerged herself to purely organizational and/or family duties had been driven out of the party or quit.
The party had effectively avoided any discussions of the woman question, and those women who had been concerned with the subject were—one way or the other—kept silent. Evelyn Reed, an amateur anthropologist who dabbled in politics, and who had consistently supported the male chauvinism of the SWP leadership against women concerned with the development of revolutionary theory on the “woman question,” was suddenly projected into a position of political leadership.
The SWP therefore could approach the women’s liberation movement only from a purely opportunistic standpoint. It consistently placed itself at the service of the liberal wing of the women’s movement in opposition to every attempt to give it a revolutionary, proletarian or socialist orientation. Its cadres thus served as the socialist cover for the reformists. This corresponded to the SWP’s conviction that the woman question was only a liberal reformist issue and that the main task was to recruit a few women from the movement to socialism, rather than to advance the movement toward socialist and class consciousness.
It must not be imagined that J.P. Cannon did not become aware of the sad state of affairs in the party created by the anti-theoretical doctrine which he had advanced. In a conversation with him dealing with problems of our maritime work, I mentioned the resistance we were encountering in moving West Coast seamen to the East Coast where they were desperately needed. His only remark was “We didn’t make communists out of them.”