By George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc, and Alan Wald

Haymarket Books. 384 pages. $22/£16.99 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-60846-685-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There’s a story, “The Party”, by Isaac Rosenfeld which satirises the members and activities of a small, left-wing political group that is, “the movement to which, when the false directions have been taken and all the mistakes made, the working class will of necessity turn”.  I was reminded of it when I read George Breitman reminiscing about the 1938 founding of the Socialist Workers Party: “I am sure most of the delegates shared my conviction that we had participated in something truly significant: the launching – at last! – of the party that would lead the American workers in their coming socialist revolution”. You have to admire the spirit and tenacity of someone who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, thinks that they have the answer to a major problem, i.e. how to radicalise the masses. I must admit that I was also tempted to reflect on the man (Debs, I think, though my memory may be faulty) who, when asked to lead the workers into a better world, declined because if he could lead them in, someone else could lead them out.

It is, admittedly, sometimes easy to satirise Trotskyists. Their tendency to split into factions – Rosenfeld’s story comments on it – and to often appear as if they’re debating about how many angels cam dance on the head of a pin, was (is?) likely to dissuade anyone, other than those with minds inclined to such things, from joining them. Like any similar party composed largely of middle-class intellectuals, they were (are?) desperate to enrol workers in their ranks. If they did attract someone from the factories they rarely managed to keep them involved. There’s a telling quote from a memoir by Ed Mann, a Youngstown steel worker: “In the 1950s the Socialist Workers Party started splitting. It was like the Protestant Church. When there are splits and you don’t understand why, you become disillusioned”.

But where did the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) emerge from? From a split, inevitably, and it’s necessary to go back further than 1938 to find its origins. The leading lights – James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman, and others – had been members of the American Communist Party, but were expelled in 1928 because of their support for Trotsky, and their opposition to the rising tide of Stalinism. They then formed what was, in Paul Le Blanc’s words, “the Communist League of America, Left Opposition of the Communist Party (CLA)……with about a hundred members in twelve cities”.  According to Shachtman, membership was still below five hundred even after six years. But the Trotskyists did make something of a mark for themselves with their participation in the 1934 Minneapolis general strike. Farrell Dobbs, and some of the other members of the Minneapolis Teamster local, and leading members of the SWP, were some years later charged under the Smith Act, which made it an offence to advocate the overthrow of the American government, and were sent to prison.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing and B.J. Field, who was secretary of the New York hotel workers’ union, was expelled from the CLA because he wouldn’t accept the leadership’s criticisms of the way he was running a strike. Needless to say, Field started his own short-lived group, The League for a Revolutionary Workers Party. The CLA then combined with an equally small party, the American Workers Party, led by A.J Muste, to form the Workers Party of the United States (WPUS). Divisions erupted over policy about whether or not Trotskyists should “seek to join mass social democratic parties,” with the result that a number of people described as “destructively factional” were expelled and started “the Revolutionary Workers League, which soon suffered splits of its own and eventually faded away”.

There was a split in the Socialist Party (SP) in 1935 and its leader, Norman Thomas, then invited other radicals to join it. The Trotskyists did so, and  George Novack, a lifelong Trotskyist, said that their “goal was to win the more militant of its left-wing and youth movement to revolutionary  ideas”. But by 1938 they had been expelled from the SP and it was at this point that the decision was made to form the SWP. It might be encouraging to say that the SWP consequently became a kind of permanent home for Trotskyists, and in some cases it did, but it wasn’t long before rifts developed, and a faction led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham broke away to launch the Workers Party (WP). The oncoming Second World War, preceded by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, had persuaded Shachtman and Burnham that an automatic defence of the Soviet Union was not necessarily the correct policy. And they disagreed with “the Trotskyist analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state”. Needless to say, Shachtman’s new party had its own magazine, as did most of the other splinter groups.

It’s not unfair to think that Paul Le Blanc perhaps points to a factor in the continuous disagreements when he quotes Irving Howe as saying that Trotskyism was “marked by an abundance of intellectual pride”. In some ways this could be a good thing in that the Trotskyists attracted support from a number of writers and intellectuals. If they didn’t actually join the Party, they often offered forms of support, particularly when it came to defending Trotsky’s right to live in safety and be allowed to express his opinions, There’s a memoir of the 1930s by Max Shachtman in which he refers to James T. Farrell, Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, Dwight MacDonald, and others, as whole or partly sympathetic to at least some aspects of Trotskyism. Alan Wald’s James T. Farrell: The Revolutionary Socialist Years is worth looking at in this connection, and some of Farrell’s now unfairly-neglected novels and short-stories are also relevant.

The war years did bring some benefits to the SWP in terms of increased membership and a presence in factories and other workplaces. And the immediate post-war years saw a rise in union militancy as workers attempted to restore the imbalances in pay and working conditions that had developed because of no-strike agreements and other restrictions brought in under wartime conditions. The Party was still bedevilled by internal dissension, however, and in 1946 Albert Goldman and Felix Morrow, described by Paul Le Blanc as “among the party’s most capable intellectuals”, were expelled as arguments raged over the policies to adapt in the face of the developing situation in both America and Europe. Stalinism and social-democracy “were able to channel the post-war radical working-class ferment and energy away from revolutionary socialism”, and “Trotskyists were unable to rally the masses to the banner of the Fourth International”. I get a sinking feeling whenever I come across references to “the masses”, and wonder just who they are?  Or, perhaps, just who the person using such a term thinks “the masses” are? 

The 1950s were fallow years for the SWP and, indeed, most radical parties, as a decline in militancy, and a Cold War-influenced rise in patriotism, together with repression (blacklists, etc.), and prosperity, combined to isolate the SWP even further that it may normally have been. It’s probably not unexpected that more splits occurred, reducing the membership and leaving all control in the hands of an old guard anxious to preserve their own positions and what they saw as the purity of their ideas. Paul Le Blanc refers to various criticisms of James P. Cannon, for example, as a “narrow-minded sect leader”, and a “true believer” who constantly sought to purge “heretics” and “traitors”. I should add that Le Blanc doesn’t agree with these assessments.

Matters improved in the 1960s as students protested, there were large anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the Civil Rights movement gathered pace, and there were other signs of increased militancy, though perhaps significantly not among most of the white working-class. By 1973 the SWP had 1,200 members, and its weekly publication, Militant, sold around 31,000 copies. Many of the new members were young and their concerns were often not those of the older generation of activists. They did seem to follow the veterans in some respects, and Le Blanc notes that while the new leadership was left “to make its own decisions, learn from its own mistakes, and develop its own orientation and style…….in some of the factional disputes that arose in the 1970s, however, this style could assume a harsh, at time even brutal, tone”.

Alan Wald refers to the “human factors involved in movement building”, and cites “problems of ego, arrogance and self-righteousness”. He also suggests that “a crucial factor in many splits and disaffections has been the blockage of an individual’s rise to a full-time leadership position”. In other word, ambition. It’s interesting that such factors can be applied to those who aspire to be leaders, but somehow can’t be seen among “the masses” they want to lead. They’re presumably all expected to think the same way and have similar interests and aims. The SWP under its new leadership eventually abandoned Trotskyism as its guiding philosophy.

Mentioning Alan Wald inclines me to say how much I admire his trilogy of books about the American literary left from the 1930s through to the 1950s, and his book on the New York Intellectuals. He’s honest enough to ask some pointed questions about why should “revolutionary socialist political activists in the 1990s be concerned with the history and theory of U.S. Trotskyists?”  He further adds: “Only those with a highly circumscribed reality can fail to see that, in a society where winning the support of the majority means the ability to influence millions, the balance sheet of the political accomplishments of Trotskyism after nearly seven decades tends towards the negative”. Wald’s comments were made in the 1990s, when this book was first published, but I doubt that they could be any different now, when Trotskyism might seem even more irrelevant. Or not, depending on your political views.

However, it’s only fair to point to Wald’s suggestions regarding the intellectual influence of Trotskyism, and he lists numerous noted writers and intellectuals who, at one time or another, and for one reason or another, had links to the Trotskyists. As he stresses, though, they all seem to be from the older generation. Few of those who came into the SWP in the 1960s are of a similar status: “Although a number of 1960s activists went on to become impressive scholars and professionals, none have at this date achieved the intellectual stature of Sidney Hook, Meyer Schapiro, Irving Howe, Leslie Fiedler, the Partisan Review editors, and so forth”.

Another question that Wald asks is, “why are there so many splits, and what can be done about them?” He proposes that it should be possible to “foster a long-term commitment to constructing a serious and democratic organisation though collaboration with diverse individuals who are all pledged to a kind of collective political life, through which individuality is realised with, not against or apart from, one’s co-thinkers”.

It’s an idealistic proposal, in my view, and not one likely to be adopted by many left-wingers as those factors referred to earlier – “ambition, ego, arrogance, and self-righteousness” – come into play. It may be that many left-wingers, like many religious people, are simply attuned to controversy. Years ago, I met Reg Groves, a one-time member of the Balham Group of early British Trotskyists. Reg died a little later, and friends told me that, at his funeral, his surviving old comrades gathered, and-spent much of their time reviving the past and arguing about events and politics without coming to any kind of conclusion, or even an agreement to differ. 

The earlier comment by Ed Mann regarding the 1950s factional fights and splits in the SWP being “like the Protestant Church”, reminded me that where I grew up, in a mill town in the north of England, there was a group called The Strict and Particular Baptists who had a small chapel. They had been established in 1885 when twelve of them split from another group of Baptists in the town. I couldn’t help thinking of them each time I met up with Percy, an old-time member of the Communist Party (no danger of him ever being a Trotskyist) who had been to Russia in the 1920s and was shocked to see women wearing lipstick and smoking in the street. Agreed, he wasn’t a sectarian – the party line was good enough for him – but he struck me as having the capacity to be one, given the right circumstances. The intolerance was there, and the narrow-mindedness.

There seemed some similarities in both Percy’s and the Baptists’ basic attitudes, certainly about “heretics”, and the like, but Percy’s saving grace was that he enjoyed sitting in the pub, drinking beer, though still being dogmatic about party policy. The Baptists were never likely to be seen in a pub, as I know from my Baptist mother, though she wasn’t one of the Strict and Particular variety. She had married my father, a hard-drinking lapsed Catholic. Percy is long-dead, and the Strict and Particular Baptists’ chapel closed down around forty years ago when its last member passed on. They never had been all that successful at recruiting newer and younger members. I doubt that many people now think of Percy’s politics or the Baptist’s beliefs. The consumer society provides different distractions for many, and the less fortunate worry about how to make ends meet.

I’m not attempting to mock Trotskyists by equating them with communists and Baptists, simply wanting to point out that perhaps their tendencies towards doctrinal purity and factional disputes might have deterred a lot of people from joining them. The Isaac Rosenfeld story I referred to at the start of this review is most likely based on his own experiences of Max Shachtman and the Workers Party. In the end the party starts to split apart because a faction among its members are bored with the endless meetings and other activities that never seem to lead to any practical political reality. In Irving Howe’s A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography he reminiscences about his involvements with the Trotskyists in the post-1945 period, and recalls reading “The Party”: “Like a finger pressing secret wounds, Rosenfeld’s story hurt to the point of rage, perhaps because we knew that in its fantastic way it was scraping against the truth. Could we have dismissed him as an enemy it might all have been easy, but we knew he was not an enemy and that made the pain worse”.    

A longer, and less satirical fictional account of life in the Workers Party, can be found in Harvey Swados’ excellent novel, Standing Fast, which traces the lives of a number of followers of Shachtman from the 1940s through to the 1960s. Using Swados’ own experiences as a member of the Buffalo branch of the Workers Party, it does end on a somewhat disenchanted note resulting from the party’s failure to achieve anything of significance.

It might also be worth referring to a review by Mark Shechner of Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals. Shechner is less than enthusiastic about Wald’s book, and at one point, writing about people who were members of the CLA or the SWP or the WP, or had some links to one or other of them, he says: “What the movement lacked in numbers and resources it made up for in words, and it is as a word factory and a school for writers, not a political movement, that American Trotskyism remains spellbinding. It has been said that for every member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought in Spain during the Civil War there would eventually be three books, either by or about. If so, then for American Trotskyism there would eventually be five books, one magazine, and two internal bulletins. They lived, it sometimes seems, in order to leave a record of their passing”.

I must admit that reading the various pieces in Trotskyism in the United States, with their numerous notes and references, I was amazed at how much paperwork had been generated about a party, and its offshoots, that had frankly achieved very little in practical terms. Just about everybody had written a book or a memoir or some sort of record of their involvement in the debates and splits and other events. Or someone else had written an essay or book about them. And then there were all the little magazines, pamphlets, and other ephemera. It’s easy to see why Trotskyism attracts attention from academics. There is a wealth of material to provide for a Ph.D. and essays and perhaps a book or two.

Despite my carpings and criticisms I found Trotskyism in the United States quite fascinating. It should be borne in mind that it was originally published in 1996, and some of its assumptions and conclusions need to be related to the situation twenty years ago. It is useful as a guide to many of the Trotskyist activists, not all of them necessarily well-known. In several ways the lives of the Trotskyists, known or obscure, are more interesting than the now-forgotten policies they endlessly debated and disagreed about. Their experiences, both in and out of “the movement”, say a lot about what was happening in American society generally in the period concerned.

I’ve mentioned several books and it may be useful to provide some details about them:

Isaac Rosenfeld, “The Party”, in Alpha and Omega. (MacGibbon and Kee, London, 1966)

Alan Wald, James T.Farrell: The Revolutionary Socialist Years. (New York University Press, New York, 1978). This is particularly valuable as a guide to Farrell’s novels and stories which have fictional portraits of various left-wing writers and intellectuals.

Harvey Swados, Standing Fast. (Doubleday, New York, 1970)

Alan Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s. (The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1987)

Mark Shechner, “The Last Trotskyist”, in The Conversion of the Jews and Other Essays. (Macmillan, London, 1990)

Alan Wald, Exiles From a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2002)

Alan Wald, Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Anti-Fascist Crusade (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2007)

Alan Wald. American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012)

Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (Secker & Warburg, London, 1983

Max Shachtman, “Radicalism in the Thirties: The Trotskyist View,” in As We Saw the Thirties, edited by Rita James Simon (University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1969)