By Paul Le Blanc
Haymarket Books. 304 pages. $22. ISBN 978-1-60846-682-5
Reviewed by Jim Burns
“Is socialism possible in the
Two questions that resonate throughout Paul Le Blanc’s collection of essays exploring aspects of American radicalism. Aspects, I should add, largely looked at from a Trotskyist point of view, though the question of what is referred to as American “exceptionalism” is one that has bedevilled many left-wing historians and analysts for decades. And I’m not sure that anyone has so far come up with a satisfactory answer. Why were (are) American workers, militant though they may be at times and in specific circumstances, so reluctant to identify with political parties that propose socialist policies as a way of opposing the imperfections of capitalism?
I can’t acknowledge that I found the answer in anything that Le
Blanc says, though he
works hard in the long essay, “Socialism in the United States,” to
at least provide some suggestions as to why American workers prefer,
on the whole, to live with the uncertainties of capitalism rather
than the supposed assurances of socialism. It isn’t just a simple
case of them having seen the limitations of “actual existing
socialism” in operation in
There is an interesting comment by Le Blanc when he says that, “the
To give Le Blanc his due, he does seem to see himself as among the “optimistic” camp in terms of still hoping that some sort of situation will develop where the “working-class” will lead the way to a socialist society. I worry when I see a term like “working-class” and wonder just who is meant by it? There may be working-classes, different grades of occupations which involve workers who can often combine in pursuit of their specific interests, but beyond that they often have different concerns and involvements. They surely cannot be all lumped together to suit the convenience of activists steeped in ideological aims that fail to acknowledge individual ambitions and commitments.
I don’t want to extend this discussion beyond what I’ve said so far. But it seemed to me necessary to comment to some degree on Le Blanc’s opinions, if only to give an idea of where he is, as they say, coming from. He’s worth reading even if you tend to think that it’s not getting very far to keep worrying away at the same old problems. Le Blanc would probably respond by saying that “worrying away” is precisely what is required, and that to abandon a dedication to finding a solution is to lose faith in the possibility of a better future. Patience is very much a required virtue in this field.
Some of Le Blanc’s writings are concerned with the history of the
Those are the basic facts, but Le Blanc goes beyond them to outline
the labour turbulence in
An essay about
Brookwood established a fairly wide programme of lectures and other activities which provided a general liberal education, as well as matters relating to union and political concerns. The fact that it was backed by trade unions did lead to some problems. The American Federation of Labour (AFL), which largely represented craft (and on the whole conservative) unions, said that the college was “Communistic”, because it wouldn’t identify with the interests of the craft unions. On the other hand, the Communist Party also attacked Brookwood, saying it was “class collaborationist” in its general policies, and “a cloak for the reactionary labour fakirs”. Le Blanc says that the Communist attack was the product of a factional struggle then taking place within the Party between Jay Lovestone and his supporters and those, including some at the College, who allied themselves with William Z. Foster. When the College began to lose its relevance it was partly due to factional fighting between Muste and his followers and other members of staff which caused Muste to leave, though it continued for some years after his departure, and it was “lack of funds” that eventually brought about its demise.
Factional fighting seems to have been a hallmark of much left-wing
activity in the
Le Blanc’s long account of the rise and fall of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in two long essays, “Making Sense of Trotskyism in the United States” and “Revolutionary Redemption” might make a reader elated or depressed, depending on his or her interest in the interior workings of what was/is, when all is said and done, a relatively minor group with a tendency to divide into even smaller bands of dissidents from the Party programme. Le Blanc points to the foundation of the SWP in 1938 and reckons that its members had “played a heroic role in US class struggles of the 1930s, and their reputation among many was as unyielding partisans of workers’ democracy, and Trotsky’s revolutionary Marxist orientation”. But he goes on to point out that, by the 1950s, their ranks had “dwindled down to a handful of stalwarts, perhaps four hundred aging members, in a handful of cities”. McCarthyism, among other things, including factionalism, had taken its toll.
The fortunes of the SWP did take a turn for the better in the 1960s, as younger people, inspired by the upsurge of activity in those years, with Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam protests, and other issues, radicalising them, joined its ranks. The SWP had offices and bookshops in various locations and issued regular publications. It had paid staff and “many, many more hardworking volunteer activists”. It should, in theory, have gone from strength to strength.
But, Le Blanc asks, “How could something so good go so wrong?”. And he names Jack Barnes as the main culprit in the decline of the SWP in terms of both membership and influence, though he does add that his rise to power “cannot be understood without reviewing some history about, and tracing some tensions within, the US Trotskyist ‘old guard’ “. I needn’t go into all that to make it obvious that the organisation was descending into yet another bout of factional struggles, in which Barnes appears to have come out on top, and, it seems, in the process expelled just about everyone who didn’t support him. There are suggestions that certain of the Trotskyists displayed the same dictatorial faults that they condemned in Stalinists. And Le Blanc makes a reference to “the inherent sectarianism of the Trotskyist programme”, and “the inherent authoritarianism of Leninist organisational principles”.
Being of the opinion that Trotskyists are usually more interesting than Trotskyism, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Le Blanc’s extensive, “A reluctant memoir of the 1950s and 1960s”, which, in its way, told me more about the period referred to than exhausting accounts of factional fighting and its negative results. Le Blanc was what I think is humorously referred to as a “red diaper baby”, his parents having been active with unions and, for a time, members of the American Communist Party. It wasn’t something he was encouraged to talk about at school, but their radicalism clearly had an influence on him. His memoir is an engaging story of discovering many things for himself which eventually took him to his present position as a loyal, but not uncritical supporter of Trotskyism.
looks at other things, such as Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS) and its brief explosion on the Sixties scene, the rise of
Conservatism in America, the life of C.L.R. James, the New Left, and
similar subjects. It’s clearly written and avoids academic jargon.
I’d recommend it to those interested in how and why the Left in