A misleading manual

Submitted by martin on 8 November, 2016 - 7:16 Author: Ed Maltby

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”

Matthew Arnold, On Dover Beach

Steve Bloom, in his long review of The Two Trotksyisms Confront Stalinism and subsequent discussion, has produced a thoughtful and historically knowledgeable response to Sean Matgamna’s re-appraisal of the Trotskyist tradition. Given that Bloom is a veteran activist in the Cannonite-Trotskyist tradition, that is to be expected. Also to be expected is the fact that Bloom’s aim is to defend the Orthodox Trotskyist tradition, and James Cannon’s organisation in particular, from the criticisms that Matgamna’s book raises: that the Cannon organisation developed an undemocratic culture, and a political attitude to Stalinism, which would prove fatal. He also opens an interesting discussion on the question of revolutionary “arrogance”. But I think that, firstly, Bloom’s defences of Cannon don’t hold up; and that secondly, they are based in a loss of political coherence and confidence – a loss that’s bound up with the confounded expectations and perspectives of Orthodox Trotskyism.

Bloom objects that Matgamna’s judgement is too harsh: that it paints a picture of a totally politically lost and inadequate tendency from whom nothing can be learned: he takes issue, for example, with Matgamna’s summary of the story of the Cannon tendency:

“The story of the Orthodox Trotskyists told in this introduction and in the documents in this book is one of political confusion, bewilderment, inadequacy, and defeat. Of a small political tendency being overwhelmed by events and, despite its revolutionary, working-class, anti-Stalinist best intentions, magnetised by the Stalinist USSR as it conquered and consolidated a great European empire. Of a small political tribe that got lost trying, half-blind, to work its way through the murderous maze of mid 20th century history.”

Bloom responds by saying that the Cannon organisation – the Socialist Workers’ Party – which he joined in 1968 was “an organization filled with dynamic and critical thinkers… How did such a party grow from the roots of Cannonism, if the roots of Cannonism were as decayed as this book suggests to us?”

But the purpose of the Two Trotskyisms is not to anathematise the Cannon tendency, to paint it as degenerate in root and branch, and to dismiss it as holding no positive lessons or having made no positive achievements. It is an attempt to permit the world Marxist movement to learn from its own history, and in particular to trace the development of two specific problems, of analysis of world Stalinism, and organisational culture. It isn’t Matgamna’s intention, and nor is it necessary to his argument, to deny that the SWP contained talented or critical-minded rebels; or that, for example, its role in the movement against the Vietnam War was worthy of serious respect.

Neither of those facts have any bearing on the fact that Cannon’s organisation promoted an analysis of Stalinism, and incubated a political methodology, which would prove corrosive to revolutionary politics in the long term: the useful service to the revolutionary movement which the book aims to do is to diagnose and tell the story of those errors – which is an urgent task, as the “Cannonite” world-view and organisational culture have for generations of post-War socialists defined Trotskyism.

They became definitive, in part, through the publication by the SWP of a series of books telling their “side” of the split and political polemics with the Shachtman tendency of 1939, Struggle for the Proletarian Party and the collection In Defence of Marxism. In their selective and tendentious re-telling of the political dispute, in which the Shachtman tendency could say and do nothing of value because it straightforwardly represented a desire to capitulate to world imperialism and bourgeois public opinion, the Orthodox current had produced a "manual" for building a Trotskyist party of a particular type. These works were full of selective quotations from Trotsky’s writings on the 1939-40 split in the American SWP, which identified any "heterodox" attitude to the ruling bureaucracy of the USSR as evidence of petit-bourgeois depravity. The "manual" produced by the Cannon faction effectively cauterised further re-evaluation of the issues in that split. The Two Trotskyisms aims to undo that cauterisation, to open up the key questions of Stalinism and democracy for re-evaluation – but not, as Bloom asserts, to simply invert that conventional demonology. As Matgamna writes, “James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation. I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our movment if we are to learn from it.”

Bloom was part of an opposition within the SWP, which fought against the eventually-successful efforts of Jack Barnes, the leader who succeeded Cannon, to close off critical discussion within the SWP to an extreme degree, and to politically transform the SWP into a flatly pro-Castro satellite of the Stalinist Cuban regime. He is at pains, then, to emphasise the wide gulf that separates the party under Barnes from its politics and culture under Cannon. He underlines the difference with reference to two different political “binges” of the SWP leadership: the “Leningrad delirium” of the 1940s, where the SWP’s newspaper Militant hailed the Russian defence of Leningrad as the harbinger of a renewed socialist revolution (rather than marking the consolidation of the Stalin regime); and the lurch, led by Jack Barnes, into enthusiasm for Castro’s regime in the 1980s. Bloom points out (rightly) that the Cannon-led SWP corrected its “binges” of the 1940s, but that the Barnes-led SWP did not: so it is unfair of Matgamna to paint the party of James Cannon as being hidebound, incapable of self-criticism, and so on.

As far as it goes, Bloom is right: when Natalia Sedova Trotsky criticised the SWP for its uncritical cheerleading for the Red Army, the SWP newspaper The Militant changed tack, in mid-September 1941, with headlines which once again put the accent on the need to fight Stalin’s rule. Another correction took place shortly after the Second World War: the SWP insisted that fighting for democratic measures in liberated Europe was pointless as a revolution, instigated in part by the advance of the Red Army, would shortly sweep the continent. When this did not materialise, the thesis was quietly dropped from the publications and statements of the SWP.

This was a correction, to be sure: but it was an "office correction": there was never any open admission of an error, much less an accounting for the change made clearly in the course of open debate. The correction involved, the pulling-back from a frankly mystical and pro-Stalinist position, was a matter of members of a restricted circle coming to their political senses.

To be sure, Cannon retained the anti-Stalinist instinct to pull back from the political excesses of the 1940s, and, for example, fought against a more conciliatory line towards Stalinism which was proposed by supporters of Michel Pablo and Bert Cochran in the 1950s. But the political method in use here was to store up problems later on: within a party regime for which the maintenance of the prestige of the leadership was of primary importance, political correction became a matter of deft adjustments by licensed experts, rather than political struggle and clear public accounting within the organisation at large. Matgamna diagnoses the issue: Cannon’s “governing notion”, he says, was

“of a fixed 'prestige' for certain leaders, and a common leadership duty to maintain it, [and this] could not but play a deadly role. Inevitably a leader’s prestige fluctuates. Everyone, even a Trotsky, sometimes makes mistakes, is slow to understand or too hasty or one-sided in response. To try to stop the natural fluctuation of prestige involves putting the judgement, and the freedom to think and express themselves, of the organisation’s members in a bureaucratic straitjacket. It comes to involve falsification of the political records, covering-up, and the stifling of anyone who might politically undermine the leaders’ prestige.”

Bloom is right to note that the political situation of the middle 20th Century was disorienting, and that the “Cannon leadership was struggling with a substantial contradiction”.

Ultimately, a custom and culture in which the "economy of prestige" within the organisation conditioned and limited the opportunities for political debate and collective self-correction paved the way for further degeneration. Bloom himself supports this view when, in reply to discussion from Duncan Morrison, he writes, “by building a party that failed to train its membership adequately in Marxist theory, and that actively discouraged critical thinking about the actions of the leadership among the rank and file, the earlier cadre of the SWP paved the way for the Barnesite disaster.”

The issue is that this was not a matter of an incidental error, like issuing an off-the-mark headline in this or that issue of the Militant. It was a fundamental part of Cannon’s method – a method that was encoded in the “manual of Trotskyism” that the SWP-USA produced and transmitted like genetic code to a generation of post-Trotsky Trotskyist organisations.

Whatever the virtues of the Cannon organisation and its history may be – and there are a lot of virtues – this part of its legacy is surely fatal. It is ironic that Bloom writes that, “[t]his book represents a continuation of the time-honored Trotskyist practice of attempting to defend some particular current of Trotskyist thought, whatever that current happens to be, as the 'true' continuation of Trotskyist thought by demonstrating that a different current is or was an imposter — or worse, a betrayer.”

It is certainly true that this "time honoured practice", which Workers’ Liberty has called “Apparatus Marxism”, and which in fact owes much to the Cannon tradition, ought to be junked. But in order to junk it, it is necessary to identify where the practice arose and what ends it has served. It is not good to shout down such attempts as “divisive”. To say, as Bloom does, that it is “unfair” to pursue this line of enquiry because there were a lot of good activists in the SWP is beside the point: it is apolitical, and obfuscates the issue.

Contrary to Bloom’s suggestion that Matgamna’s aim in the book (or Workers’ Liberty’s view) is to laud the Shachtman current (and by extension ourselves) as the “true continuation” of Trotskyist thought and to anathematise the Cannon current, The Two Trotskyisms makes clear that the two main trends of the Trotskyist movement, by 1945, had both departed from Trotsky’s positions of 1940, albeit in different directions.

By the end of the 1930s, Trotsky’s view of the USSR as constituting, in spite of substantial degeneration, a proletarian state which had to be defended, was subject to a major tension. In an earlier article replying to Paul LeBlanc’s review of The Two Trotskyisms, I summarised that tension as follows:

“In an April 1939 article Trotsky urgently raised the slogan of an independent Ukraine. He pointed to, but refused to draw, the logical conclusion: that the USSR’s behaviour in Ukraine should be called imperialist. In his September 1939 article The USSR in War, Trotsky remarked that to give the USSR bureaucracy the label of a new ruling class would be a 'purely verbal' change. The distance between Trotsky’s view and the view of the Soviet bureaucracy as a new class, was narrowing. Trotsky resisted taking the final step. Why?

"It seems that foremost in Trotsky’s mind was this: when the expected crisis of the Soviet regime came, the Trotskyists in Russia must be ready to lead the fight against capitalist restoration, and turn this into a struggle for workers’ power. They must not say, 'a plague on both your houses — bureaucrat and capitalist alike'. He resisted any theoretical expression that might lull the Trotskyists into sectarian abstention from an expected struggle. Calling the USSR a new class society might be reasonable in theory, but it might be premature and it might encourage dangerous conclusions.”

This position, whose internal tensions were based on the dynamic situation of the late 1930s, was not tenable for long. The conclusion eventually drawn by the Shachtman current was that the only possible explanation of developments in Russian society was that there had developed a new exploiting class, that a counter-revolution had in fact triumphed, and that a new social revolution was required to restore the workers’ republic of 1917. They did away with the qualifications with which Trotsky hedged his assessments which pointed in this direction, and followed those assessments to the conclusion which Trotsky had resisted.

For the Cannon tradition, the meaning Trotsky’s slogan for the “defence of the USSR” in the context of an expected capitalist-restoration crisis (which did not materialise) was altered in more or less the opposite direction: it became a timeless obligation to laud the fact of nationalised industry as inherently socialist or proletarian. The Stalinist system, as it expanded across the globe, was re-cast as the bearer of the still-living October Revolution, which was now incarnated not in working-class rebellion and self-rule, but in the fact of state ownership of the economy.

Trotsky had written, in 1939, that it would be “a piece of monstrous nonsense to split with comrades who on the question of the sociological nature of the USSR have an opinion different from ours, insofar as they solidarise with us in regard to the political tasks.” But for the Orthodox, this question of the “sociological nature” of the USSR was elevated precisely to an article of faith, a splitting question. From 1941 to the 1980s the SWP (and its ideological satellites in the world socialist movement) would move back and forth along an axis, being more or less "critical", putting the accent now on the necessity of political struggle against the rule of the bureaucracy, now on the socialist character of nationalised property in the USSR, Eastern Europe or various post-colonial states around the world. But the fundamental world-view (which in fact is perfectly consonant with the uncritical Castroism of the SWP’s later leader Jack Barnes) was shaped by the idea that the spread of nationalised property represented the advance of the proletarian revolution, albeit in a new guise.

In a period of expansion of Russian influence around the globe, this view served an important purpose to the beleaguered Orthodox Trotskyists – it served as a consoling illusion, and permitted an embattled and witch-hunted Trotskyist movement to feel that, no matter how bad things were at home, its ideas and project were vindicated by the march of “nationalised property” and “workers’ states” around the globe. There can be little wonder that, whatever the anti-Stalinist record and instincts of the Cannon group, that this consoling and sustaining identification of Stalinist advance with socialist advance became an article of faith – or that Cannon would so often repeat that deviation on “the Russian question” was the error which would inevitably lead a socialist to damnation.

But that sustaining world-view fell apart with the collapse of the USSR and its satellites. The central consolation of that system of beliefs disappeared – and what of the theory that the Orthodox Trotskyists had constructed around it? The oddly apologetic, half-hearted tone of Bloom’s reply to Matgamna’s book gives us a clue, I think: it sounds a lot like Arnold’s “long, withdrawing roar”.

It is odd that in a review of a long book which is dedicated to attacking the Orthodox Trotskyist assessment of the class character of the USSR, Bloom’s defence of that assessment is minimal. Whereas in 1939 Cannon could write: “the Russian revolution has proved for all time the superiority of nationalized property and planned economy over capitalist private property, and planless competition and anarchy in production”, here Bloom asks whether nationalisation of the Eastern European economies after 1945 had a socialist character and answers himself: “To me it’s obvious that the right answer is both 'yes' and 'no'.” When pushed on this in an article by Gemma Short, Bloom replies that the nationalisations led to the development of potentially-revolutionary workers’ movements in those countries. He goes on:

“Gemma identifies a different point as obvious: “that nationalized property is only progressive (and has any socialist content) in so far as the working class has control of the state.” I would like to contrast these two uses of the word “obvious,” however. They are not parallel. My “obvious” is derived from a consideration of events in the world. Gemma’s “obvious” is derived from consideration of the purely theoretical: a definition of “socialism.” The Marxist method must, above all else, place its priority on what the world itself makes “obvious,” not what we “obviously” derive from our own theories and definitions. That is, I believe, what we mean by a “materialist” method.”

I think that this argument of Bloom’s is both wrong and wretched.

Wrong, because revolutionary workers’ movements developed both East and West of the iron curtain in the post-war period. Capitalist Portugal, France, Chile and Turkey to name but a few all saw post-war workers’ movements which shook their ruling classes to the marrow. Nationalised property was not a necessary factor in their development. I think that “what the world makes obvious” about the spread of nationalised property courtesy of Stalinist police-states around the world, rather, is the following: that it played a powerfully counter-revolutionary role by systematically liquidating the labour movement and oppositional movements of the oppressed everywhere it prevailed – with the result that when the rotted-out system collapsed at the end of the 1980s the working class of the Eastern Bloc was too atomised and politically disoriented to resist the neoliberal flood that followed.

Wretched, because this marks a very substantial retreat from the bombastic boasts made by the Orthodox Trotskyist tradition in general and Cannon in particular about the specific virtues of nationalised property. Again, Cannon on the Russian Question, 1939: “Nationalized and planned economy, made possible by a revolution that overthrew the capitalists and landlords, is infinitely superior, more progressive. It shows the way forward.”

But also wretched is the attitude to socialist theory that Bloom betrays. Bloom seems to be suggesting that the long-worked-at body of socialist theory surrounding how we define socialism is simply abstractions picked from the air – rather than a distillation of and extrapolation from the experience of workers’ struggle and capitalist development going back over a century – and should not be allowed to get in the way of his ‘reality-based’ approach of tenuous speculations about Eastern European history. It is dismaying to read a philistine, off-handed dismissal of socialist learning from someone who has so long been a socialist educator by vocation. Worse, that it is so similar to the anti-socialist arguments so often made by hack rightwingers in the labour movement – that anti-capitalist ideas and the serious study of the workers’ movement is abstract, idealistic, pie-in-the-sky. It is however ironic to read such an argument marshalled in defence of a doctrine that centres on a highly abstract notion: that nationalisations of the means of production carried out by militaristic bureaucracies somehow represented the spiritual continuation of the 1917 October Revolution.

Bloom’s next substantial point is about “Trotskyist arrogance”: Bloom objects to what he sees as overblown claims made by Matgamna on behalf of the Trotskyist movement: “There is no other authentic Marxist-communist tradition. . . A revived revolutionary socialist movement will have to learn from the Trotskyist tradition”. He writes that in fact a revived socialist movement will have to learn from a broader range of sources, and that bombastic claims that we are the sole possessors of revealed truth will turn people off the Trotskyists. In this he is surely right. It is worthwhile to turn to the writings of the Bolsheviks to see how they conceived of their ‘method’ of politics as fundamentally discursive. Trotsky advised his French comrades in 1935: “For a party, agitation is also a means of lending an ear to the masses, of sounding out its moods and thoughts, and reaching this or another decision in accordance with the results. Only the Stalinists have transformed agitation into a noisy monologue. For the Marxists, the Leninists, agitation is always a dialogue with the masses.”

In Left Wing Communism, written in part as a polemic against the Italian Marxist Bordiga’s intolerant notion that Marxism must be an “invariant doctrine”, Lenin stressed how the Bolsheviks had arrived at their ideas over the course of long and broad debate and exchange with the progressive movements of the whole world: “For about half a century—approximately from the forties to the nineties of the last century—progressive thought in Russia, oppressed by a most brutal and reactionary tsarism, sought eagerly for a correct revolutionary theory, and followed with the utmost diligence and thoroughness each and every “last word” in this sphere in Europe and America. Russia achieved Marxism—the only correct revolutionary theory—through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment. verification, and comparison with European experience. Thanks to the political emigration caused by tsarism, revolutionary Russia, in the second half of the nineteenth century, acquired a wealth of international links and excellent information on the forms and theories of the world revolutionary movement, such as no other country possessed"

This is surely a better attitude than that expressed by the leading SWP activist Morris Stein at the party’s 1944 congress: “Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists”. It is right that Bloom would want to correct this.

But the important corollary of listening broadly to a wide range of radical voices is that you do so in the spirit of seeking the truth: that you weed out what’s useful, thought-provoking and true in what you hear from what’s false and conceited. That requires that you take yourself seriously enough to believe that you are capable of discovering the truth, and to believe that this process of reasoning is of some consequence, i.e. that solving the puzzle will bring you closer to being able to make a revolution.

Bloom’s offhanded dismissal of “theory” in his response to Gemma, his remarks that “it’s time for us to relativize the Trotskyist tradition” and “There is an arrogance in the belief that Trotskyism somehow has a privileged place in [reviving the socialist movement]” suggest that he lacks this “arrogant” belief which is necessary for serious socialist debate. His suggestion that we should “give considerable weight” to the insights of such “genuine revolutionaries” as those "rooted in the Maoist movement, national-liberation struggles, guerrilla warfare and the Cuban revolution … [and] indigenous-centric ideologies" (i.e. political tendencies which are in general anti-socialist and in some cases inspired by regimes which make a virtue of having physically liquidated the workers’ movement) supports this impression.

To return to Cannon’s 1939 speech, it seems that his remarks on the subject of arrogance, tolerance and theoretical clarity are more reasonable than Bloom’s self-effacement or derisive treatment of “our own theories and definitions”:

“To be sure, we do not decline cooperation with people who agree with our political conclusions from different premises... As Trotsky remarked in this connection, 'If we wait till everything is right in everybody’s head there will never be any successful revolutions in this world', (or words to that effect.) Just the same, for our part we want everything right in our own heads. We have no reason whatever to slur over theoretical formulae, which are expressed in 'terminology'.”

Again: it seems to me that the collapse of the Stalinist states has paradoxically led Bloom to lose faith in Trotskyism as a whole. This makes sense, given that the Orthodox Trotskyist school of thought reduced Trotskyism to a doctrine which relied substantially on the identification of Stalinist regimes which nationalised the means of production with some form of socialist progress. With that keystone removed, the edifice – which sustained the Orthodox better and longer than did the more-clear assessments of the Heterodox – crumbles.

But rather than junking Trotskyism as a doctrine, it is surely better to re-assess whether that so-called ‘foundational’ doctrine really did represent the crucial political core of the tradition of the Russian Revolution and the world revolutionary movement – and to tease out what really did. That aim, the re-foundation of Trotskyism, the correction of the errors introduced by the Orthodox strain after 1940, inspires Matgamna's book.

One of the closing remarks of Bloom’s original review took issue with Shachtman’s harsh and sarcastic tone in polemics: in particular, in his 1944 response to an article published in the SWP newspaper The Militant by Harry Frankel (Braverman). I’d like to finish by inviting Bloom to be more charitable to Shachtman. Shachtman, a militant of many decades’ standing, and broad and deep Marxist learning, had put considerable effort into writing an excellent essay, The Struggle for the New Course – only to see the SWP respond by getting Braverman, a relatively inexperienced and (surely, in Shachtman’s view) jumped-up, ill-read know-it-all to write a snotty and superficial hack-job about it. I hope that this essay of mine will, on this point if on no other, inspire in Bloom greater sympathy and understanding for Shachtman.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.