By Max Shachtman. Labor Action, 27 August 1951
"Never in the whole history of the Trotskyist movement has there been a minority like ours".
This claim strikes the keynote of the document from which we quote it, a statement called "The Balance Sheet Completed", which the leaders of the Johnson-Forest group have just dropped into the lap of the Socialist Workers Party in announcement that they have left that organisation. It isn't the first time they have left it, to be sure: but this time, they take their oath, it's for keeps.
Their above-quoted claim is a pretty small mortgage on fame. But if it isn't much, at least it is true.
The Johnsonites? Quit the SWP? But isn't that impossible?
The question itself shows an ignorance of political trivia. For this group nothing is impossible. Long ago and by pure rhetorical effort, they reached those remote outer spaces which mere bourgeois scientists can only dream of attaining by still inadequate rockets. Now safely removed from our wretched earth by many light-years, they spin around it at a dizzying speed and by keeping their eyes closely focused on each other they shut out the problem of impossibility. An ever so imperceptible jerk of the head, and they see before them, as big and pulsating as life itself, things which remain invisible to the eye of the earthbound.
In 1940, when the Trotskyist movement split over the Cannonite majority's support to Stalinist Russia in the war, the minority forming the Workers' Party, the present leaders of the Johnsonites were with the latter. To the accompaniment of much head-jerking their faction crystallised. After the head-jerking came hallucinations.
For the next seven years - during which Hitlerism held Europe under the swastika, the war drowned Europe in blood, and Stalinism celebrated monstrous triumphs - the Johnsonites proclaimed the good tidings that never before was socialism so close. With the post-war advance of Stalinist over Eastern Europe, they proclaimed that capitalism was reaching a new apex in the form of Stalinism. For the United States they proclaimed that we should look forward to soviets in America, if not just around the corner then no more than a couple of blocks down the road.
Whereupon they quit the Workers Party to return to the bosom of the SWP, which they had denounced as hopelessly in the camp of imperialism, hopelessly strangled by bureaucracy, and on the other side of the barricades.
They discovered simultaneously that they had been wrong to split in 1940 and that, as a matter of fact, it was wrong to split parties anyway. In other words, they had been disastrously wrong for the whole past seven years of their existence and unable to make the simplest distinction between the "petty-bourgeois opportunism" of the WP and the sterling "Bolshevism" of the Cannonites.
This no doubt adequately prepared them to complete their balance sheet by the present announcement that they have been equally at sea for the past four years of phantasmagorical existence in the SWP.
Jacob may have toiled longer in the vineyard than the Johnsonites did in the SWP, but it is far from historically established that he toiled as silently. For four years they laboured in the party of Bolshevism which they had rediscovered, but nobody could squeeze more than a couple of syllables out of them. The head may have jerked and the shoulders twitched, but the tongue was firmly anchored at both ends.
Their party still called the Stalinist barbarism a "workers' state", called for its defence, supported Stalinist parties everywhere in practice, found a new Trotsky in Tito, remained ruled by the dead hand of bureaucracy - but their tongues remained anchored.
A couple of weeks ago, the head jerked again, this time with the tongue unanchored at eithe end. With watches synchronised all over the country, the Johnsonites rose at their branch meetings, promptly at 8.30pm, and announced to an utterly stupefied membership: "We are leaving the SWP. This statement will explain".
With a few exceptions, the Johnsonites marched out in orderly fashion, not whispering, or laughing, or weeping, of flatering in their march through and into the void, which is no mean feat for people who had not used their legs for four long years.
The statement itself has no political value or importance, none. But it is an authentic item for collectors, and not only for those who confine their researches to the science of politics. Indeed, the case history it presents deserves inclusion in a book, not at all necessarily a political one.
Two temptations must be resisted in quoting from the document. One is to appear critical of the authors. We not only resist the temptation but shrink in terror from it, for one of the declarations in the statement reads - word for word, honour bright! - "To attack Johnson-Forest means inevitably an attack on the proletariat". And that is something we will not do.
The other is to quote and quote and qu;ote. But there is a limit to all things, even good ones, and we will give here only a small sampling - always word for word.
We add only this: knowing the Johnsonites for what they are, the Cannonite regime for what it is, we take responsibility for neither of them, neither the accusations of the former nor the defence of the latter.
"We are leaving behind forever the ideas of those who today represent Trotskyism, their unsocialist, anti-proletarian practice and organisational life. For years we loyally stood all this, bearing in mind constantly the interests of the movement as a whole.
"But by now things have reached a stage where we have to fly not only from their dehumanised politics but from their social immorality and the personal degeneration and ruin to which this movement is rapidly reducing members of the organisation, from the most highly-placed and long-experienced leaders and functionaries to rank and filers, old and new".
"We are leaving this school of deceit, of falsification and of calculated dishonesty in this most serious of political policies..."
"We did not actively aim at winning over the ranks of the SWP. Those who came to use came in spite of protests. In Detroit in recent times some of our comrades had to wage a real battle to keep the native Detroit proletarians at arm's length..."
"Our comrades, wherever they were, acted continuously to support the party leadership and solidify its ranks..."
"The party turned on us with bared fangs... The tendency met this assault in exemplary fashion. We could not but note that the hysteria, the red eyes and the shaking fists, the petty bourgeois rage were on their side while was we who remained calm, conciliatory but politically firm and unyielding..."
"Along with the recital of the great efforts and suffering and heroic deeds of the past, ther was often a peculiar maudlin humanitarian note of sacrifice, and of going to bed at night conscious that one had worked not for self but for humanity. This came straight from the nineteenth century.
"Among the Johnson-Forest comrades, one went to bed at night personally conscious, if of anything, that one was doing what one had to do, not for anyone else, but for one's own self. In line with this we noticed also the readiness with which the women cadres, and particularly the wives of the leaders, burst into tears at any moment. From the top to bottom of the party they swam in maudlin self-pity..."
"How is it possible for a revolutionary party, aimed at the overthrow of bourgeois society, to be led by men who openly discuss the past, present and future demoralisation of each other and their comrades? ... What kind of people are these? Finally there was forced upon us a shocking recognition of the callousness, the brutality, the lack of elementary leadership even to carry out its human decency, far less of revolutionary principle and vigilance, to which substantial elements of the most highly-placed leadership had sunk..."
"As we understood ourselves and where we were, the cry became unanimous: Let us get out of here at once. It is a political gas-chamber. We do not trust this leadership even to carry out its own political line. None of our comrades who is in any difficulty can trust himself to them.
"Even those who are not degenerate are ready to support those who are when their crimes are discovered. We do not want to discuss with them. Such a discussion can only besmirch us. Let us get out of here as quickly as we can...
"The temper of the comrades can be judged by the incredible speed and comprehensiveness of the preparations to leave this jungle behind us once and for all..."
The passages above, which do not exhaust the citations of interest to certain scientists with which the document is studded, present the main basis on which this group has now split from the SWP. It is very clear that the decisive reasons given are not political ones. If they smack of scandal-mongering, this impression must be false; for did not these same people denounce scandal-mongering (as well as splits) in no measured terms when they left the WP?
The "balance-sheet" is completed, if not for the Johnsonites, then at least for us. Their statement has a good deal to say about the Cannonites but, as the saying goes, what is true is not new and what is new is not true. Much more does it reveal about the Johnsonite leaders themselves. People capable of such a career in less than a dozen years could get worse advice than to keep silent about politics, for a while, at any rate. There is no lack of evidence that some of them will take such advice to heart, but not for the best reasons and not for the best purposes.
"Never in the whole history of the Trotskyist movement has there been a minority like ours", they boast. They would be dead right if they amended their claim to read: "Never in the history of any movement".