Shachtman's mistakes are not our model

Submitted by AWL on 16 March, 2021 - 4:50 Author: Paul Hampton
Socialist Party election poster, 1904

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Martin Thomas (Solidarity 569, 28 October 2020) states that in 1954 “the heterodox Trotskyist Independent Socialist League [ISL] decided to back trade-union candidates… in Democratic primaries; and in the general elections if they won the primaries”. He denies that this turn contributed to their political drift to the right. Instead, it was “‘Sanders campaigning’ on a small scale 60-odd years before the fact”.

Similarly, Thomas Carolan, (Solidarity 566, 7 October 2020) wrote: “The experience of Max Shachtman moving to the right once in the Democratic Party inhibits some American socialists still. But while his political evolution may have had special scope to develop in the Democratic Party, it surely was not caused by it.” Both misconstrue the logic behind Shachtman’s trajectory.

Turn to the Democrats

First, the ISL did not rationalise their turn to the Democrats as a response to fascism, despite the McCarthyite witch-hunt at the time. In 1954 the ISL convention agreed:

“McCarthyism is not a fascist tendency or movement. Still, it is not an ‘ordinary’ conservative or even reactionary bourgeois current. Its course is away from bourgeois democracy. It presents not the traditional fascist danger of mobilisation of the discontented petty bourgeois masses as a mass force to smash labour, but rather the danger of the imposition of a dictatorial, labour-curbing regime from above by authoritarian state measures of repression.” (ISL Resolution on Political Situation in the US, New International, July-August 1954)

Second, the ISL’s turn was premised on breaking the unions from their political endorsement of Democrats, in order to form a labour party.

“Moreover, in those instances where the participation of the trade unions in the Democratic Party has reached the point where their political activity dominates or controls the local functioning of that party, it is incumbent on us to urge that labour run its own — labour controlled — slate of candidates in primary and general elections for both public and inner party office against, or in disregard of the wishes of the regular party machine. By this means labour’s active commitment to the Democratic Party can be turned into a progressive channel by projecting a struggle within that party, a struggle which will highlight the present contradictions between labour’s domination of local party functions and the utilisation of that party machinery for anti-labour ends. Such an independent stand, even while within the Democratic Party, will tend to split labour from its conservative, bourgeois and imperialist allies, and under favourable circumstances can represent a sparking of labour into an Independent Labour Party course.” (ISL Resolution on Political Situation, 1954)

Third, the ISL’s turn to Democratic primaries did not immediately mean endorsing the Democrat presidential candidates. In 1956, they chastised the Democrats for Dixiecrat segregationism and their role in undermining democratic rights. The ISL concluded:

“The Democratic Party has nothing real to offer the workers, to the little people of the country… It is no meaningful ‘lesser evil’ compared with the Republicans… The present policy of labour in supporting the Democrats is self-defeating… we recommend a vote for the candidates of the Socialist Party, especially for its presidential and vice-presidential candidates…” (Vote Socialist in ‘56! Labor Action, 8 October 1956: 4)

Finally, Carolan and Thomas underestimate the importance of the 1954 turn in the degeneration of the ISL as a force for socialism. Shachtman’s turn to the Democrats was integral to the ISL’s self-destruction.

Cannon balls

In 1954, “orthodox” Trotskyist SWP leader James Cannon put the turn in context:

“In the socialist and radical movement of the twentieth century, from the first presidential candidacy of Debs in 1900 up until more recent times, all factions in the socialist movement — right, left and centre — all of them, were committed to the principle of independent political action. The support of a capitalist political party was anathema…

“It was not until 1936 that even the right-wing socialists dared to support a capitalist party candidate in a presidential election. Even after the communist split of 1919, the Socialist Party continued to run its own independent candidates; it never entered their heads that it was permissible to vote for Democrats or Republicans. It was not until 1936 that the right-wing socialists in New York and the officials in the needle-trades unions, which had traditionally supported the Socialist Party, finally decided to support Roosevelt.

“Up till then the Communist Party had always run its own candidates. In 1936, they went over to class collaboration in politics in a characteristically double-talking manner. They did not yet dare to come out openly in support of Roosevelt on the Democratic ticket. They nominated Browder for president… Then they put out the slogan, which was the main slogan of their campaign: ‘Defeat Landon [the Republican] at all costs’.” (Cannon, Speech to 16th SWP Convention, November 1954)

Cannon criticised the ISL and others who had embraced work within the Democrats. Cannon was undoubtedly wrong about the character of the Stalinist states at the time. But he was right about the evolution of these socialists: almost all dissolved before the decade was out.

A “discreditable and foul” road

Peter Drucker’s biography, Max Shachtman and His Left, describes Shachtman’s descent from revolutionary socialism to Cold War Democrat. This evolution began in the late 1940s and the turn to the Democrats was integral to the process of abandoning the third camp. In 1949:

• Shachtman rejected the necessity for a workers’ revolution to overthrow the state in capitalist democracies like the United States

• Shachtman concluded that the existing British Labour government was “a workers’ government which permits a peaceful development toward socialism”

• The ISL ended independent rank-and-file organising in the United Auto Workers (UAW) and joined Walter Reuther’s faction

• When the CIO banned Communists from its leadership, Shachtman opposed persecuting trade unionists on the basis of their politics, but nonetheless said: “We stand with the CIO”

• Shachtman argued the “road to [a] labour party” might run through the Democratic Party.

Shachtman’s substitution of the trade union bureaucracy for socialist leadership and working class agency powered his turn towards the Democrats. In 1952, he discussed the intervention of union representatives into the Democratic convention — Reuther’s “new political alignment”. Shachtman speculated that there might be “another road — an indirect, tortuous, discreditable and foul one” to a labour party, through activity within the Democrats. (Why labor supports Democrats, New International, July-August 1952)

This was wishful thinking. Reuther told the CIO convention in December 1954:

“America is a place where social groups are in flux, without a rigid class structure… A labour party, here, would commit the American political system to the same narrow class structure upon which the political parties of Europe are built… Basically what we are trying to do is work within the two-party system of America and bring about within that two-party system a fundamental realignment of basic political forces.” (Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step, 1964)

ISL members Don Slaiman and Sammy Fishman played key roles in the Shachtmanites’ accommodation to the UAW and AFL-CIO union bureaucracies. According to Michael Harrington, by the mid-1950s there was “a joke going around… that the best way to become a union bureaucrat was to join the Shachtmanites… With a couple of articles to your credit in Labor Action you were a likely candidate to be appointed to the UAW staff”.

Abandoning revolutionary socialism

By 1957 Shachtman had renounced organising Marxists independently of the broader socialist movement. Retrospectively, he criticised the Communist split from the Socialist Party in 1919, the Trotskyist intervention in the Socialist Party in 1936-37 and the creation of the Workers’ Party/ISL. (American Communism: A Re-Examination of the Past, New International, Fall 1957)

In 1958 Shachtman’s associates dissolved into the Socialist Party. He told Norman Thomas, “The ISL does not subscribe to any doctrine called Leninism”. From 1961 Shachtman began advocating participation in Democratic Party organisations. In 1962 Socialist Party members agreed to join Democrat clubs. “Realignment” now promised labour and civil rights activists would oust the Democrat machine politicians and the Dixiecrats. Soon it meant preserving Democratic Party unity, supporting “lesser evil” Johnson in 1964, the Vietnam war and Humphrey in 1968.

Shachtman’s orientation to the Democratic primaries was a pivotal step away from working-class political representation. The logic of campaigning and voting Democrat pushed him towards deeper integration and then capitulation. Shachtman’s evolution should inhibit today’s socialists from the road of backing the Democratic Party.

The ISL’s orientation to Democrats was a mistake. It was opposed at the time by Hal Draper and other revolutionary socialists. Whatever Shachtman might have meant by this turn in the 1950s, it is not a model to follow in today’s conditions in the United States.

Bernie Sanders and the DSA are not even mimicking Shachtman’s turn. The so-called “dirty break” in current US politics is not based on a trade union upsurge for a labour party. Their “break” is put off for the future. Mired in the Democrats, it may never happen.

• Part of an ongoing debate. More, including a reply to this article, online here

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