Paul Hampton reviews Frank Glass: the Restless Revolutionary by Baruch Hirson (Porcupine Press)
Frank Glass was a pioneer Trotskyist of the 1920s and 30s. But his life and work has been largely forgotten, written out of history by the Stalinists and ignored even by genuine Marxists.
Baruch Hirson (who died earlir this year) provides a critical and inspiring account of Glass’s politics. But also tragic, because while Glass helped bring Trotskyism into being he also presided over its metamorphosis into “orthodox Trotskyism” after Trotsky’s death.
Frank Glass was born in Britain on 25 March 1901 and emigrated to South Africa as a child. He became a socialist at the end of the First World War and was inspired by the Russian revolution in 1917.
Glass was a member of the Industrial Socialist League, representing it at the founding of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1921, where he was its youngest delegate. He was secretary of the Cape Town branch of the CPSA and a party organiser for four years, until he resigned.
Glass joined the South African Labour Party in 1925, though he seems to have rejoined the CPSA in 1927. From late 1928 he began to receive The Militant, the paper produced by Trotskyists in the United States. In 1930 he wrote to the paper declaring himself in sympathy with Trotsky’s Left Opposition.
However it was in the decade he spent in China between 1931 and 1941 as a supporter of the Left Opposition that Glass really made his name. To be a Trotskyist in China during that time was to face three powerful enemies: the imperial powers, especially Japan and Britain; the nationalist Guomindang; and the Stalinists in the shape of Mao’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Despite the dangers, Glass used his job as a journalist to act as the main contact point and courier for the international Trotskyist movement. He helped reconstitute an organised group in China — the Communist League in 1935.
He was also responsible for convincing Harold Isaacs to become a Trotskyist and was instrumental, along with Liu Renjing, in helping with Isaacs’ book, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938). The first edition, with its preface by Trotsky, is still the seminal account of the way Stalin’s policy led the Chinese Communist Party to defeat and decimation as a serious working class force between 1925 and 1927. (For an account of this period see Workers’ Liberty 2/1).
After leaving China in 1941 he emigrated to the United States, where he was a leading member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), led by James P. Cannon. He sat on the National Committee of the SWP from 1944 until 1963. He was one of the first to recognise the importance of the civil rights movement, and advocated an “Abolitionist Party” as part of the struggle for a Labor Party in the 1950s. Glass died in Los Angeles on 21 April 1988, still a Trotskyist; but he no longer considered himself a member of the SWP.
On Stalinism in the USSR and the split in international Trotskyism in 1940, Glass agreed with the majority in the SWP that the USSR was a degenerated workers’ state and that therefore it should be defended unconditionally — even when it divided up Poland with Hitler and attacked Finland in 1939-40. Hirson says without further elaboration that in 1940 Glass “did agree with the minority that the leaders of the SWP were bureaucrats”. If so, he drew no practical conclusions.
Glass was also unable to grapple with the new situation in the world after 1945. As Hirson puts it: “Even when it became obvious that, in the post–war world, the Western imperialist powers would be forced to grant political independence to the Asia colonies, Glass and his comrades still maintained that colonial ‘liberation’ would only come through working class revolution and that socialism was on the order of the day.”
Hirson adds: “This error, so understandable because of its centrality to the theory of permanent revolution, was never confronted by members of the Fourth International and was to lead to serious problems with their political strategy”.
In Glass’ case, perhaps the most shocking manifestation of this tendency was what Hirson calls his “surprising deviation” over Mao’s Communes from the late 1950s.
In the 1930 and 1940s Glass was a sharp critic of Mao. On the Guomindang-Communist Party alliance, Glass argued that it “was a crime, not only against the Chinese masses and the Chinese revolution, but against the world proletariat and the world socialist revolution”.
However during the 1950s Glass and another SWP old-timer, Arne Swabeck, began to hail the peasant communes established by Mao in China as a model for socialist development. Hirson pulls no punches in his criticism of Glass on this question. He says: “The article ‘Ten Years of the Chinese Revolution’, dated 8 August 1959, was a panegyric to the achievements of a decade that outdid the paeans of praise that had once appeared in Soviet-backed journals in the late 1920s and the 1930s”. He says Glass and Swabeck “erred again and again, using a collage of quotations that have all since been found to be either over-optimistic, mistaken or false”.
Glass maintained he was right in the face of the facts about Mao’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward”, even going so far as to denounce the Trotskyists in Mao’s prisons — some of them old comrades from his days in China.
However he was persuaded by one of those old comrades, Wang Fanxi, that his stance was wrong. Correspondence with Wang, coupled with criticisms inside the SWP by another old Trotskyist, Peng Shuzhi sobered Glass up, as did the experience of the Cultural Revolution. Glass redeemed himself somewhat from the late 1960s, promoting a campaign for the freedom of the Chinese Trotskyists inside the “orthodox” Fourth International, which remained soft on Maoism.
Frank Glass lived a very full life, devoting himself for seven decades to the struggle for socialism. We stand on the shoulders of comrades like Glass, who provided a living thread with the great ideals of the Russian revolution. For this we should honour him, without losing sight of the fact that the socialism he fought for had become distorted and bent out of shape during his lifetime.