Party time? A review of two classics


Is it time to build an international revolutionary workers’ party? James P. Cannon consistently said yes. Isaac Deutscher, for most of his adult life, said no. Both were highly esteemed Marxists, selflessly dedicated to workers’ self-emancipation. But their difference on this crucial point amplified important political divergences. Some 45 years after their publication, here are two books still worthy of attention.

“The History of American Trotskyism,” by James P. Cannon, (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1972, 268 pages), is not just a “what happened back then” book; it is a “how to do it now” book. Cannon (1890-1974), former Wobblie organizer, Socialist Party left winger, and a preeminent founder of American communism, wrote the way he spoke—as a smart and sophisticated, yet down-to-earth, unpretentious, popular agitator for workers’ power. Twelve lectures to a Socialist Workers Party audience in 1942 constitute this informal history.

In it, Cannon recounts the rough and tumble early life of the faction-dominated U.S. Communist Party and its predecessors. CP members contended with internal ethnic and foreign-language power blocs, state repression that drove the party underground, comrades who fetishized its illegal status and took refuge in ultra-left sloganeering, and those who successfully united the party as it fought for legality and an orientation to mass political action.

The rise of the Joseph Stalin regime in the Soviet Union, and its bureaucratic mutilation of the strategy of the Communist International, led to a radical written critique by Leon Trotsky. His document accidentally fell into the hands of Cannon, and Canadian communist leader Maurice Spector. Once they publicized it, they and a handful of co-thinkers, defenders of workers’ democracy and permanent revolution, in opposition to Stalin’s revival of the reformist “stages” concept of revolution, were summarily expelled. They faced severe social isolation, and physical intimidation.

Trotskyism, as a movement, formed to preserve a Marxist political course. It explained the zig-zags of CP policy, shifting from popular-front reformism to ultra-leftism and back again, and it argued for consistent class-struggle politics. In the face of vilification by a big CP apparatus, backed by thousands of members and several daily newspapers, the Trotskyists under Cannon knew their priority was to launch a newspaper, The Militant, which they quickly did. But it took a year to find an affordable office, a ramshackle affair, and another year to obtain a simple mimeograph machine.

Up against CP slander and gangsterism (the Trotskyists had to defend their public meetings from physical attack by Stalinist thugs), the next task was to appeal to the CP ranks. The way to the working class is through its vanguard. Without a correct programme it would have been hopeless. In addition to a reliable policy guide, knowing what to do next was equally indispensable.

Still, the times were very tough. The onset of the Great Depression weighed heavily on the working class. The radical dissidents were not spared. Those were the “dog days” of the Left Opposition, characterized by grinding poverty, a low level of class struggle, and agonizingly slow, one-by-one recruitment to the movement.

The right-wing opportunist faction led by Jay Lovestone carried through the expulsion of Cannon and his co-thinkers from the CP. Then the Lovestone forces were themselves expelled, just as the Nikolai Bukharin-led group in Russia got the boot, when world Stalinism zigged to the left. Lacking a revolutionary programme, the Lovestone party disintegrated within a decade (most of its leaders joining the bandwagon of the next imperialist war), while Cannon’s Communist League of America grew and survived.

The CLA opposed the “insane policy of building ‘Red Unions.’” It also resisted pressure from folks who had broken from, or been expelled by the CP, who wanted to abandon the world’s first workers’ state. Cannon argued that “we should continue to support the Soviet state, the Soviet Union, despite the fact that direction of it had fallen into the hands of a conservative, bureaucratic caste.” The Russian Question remained a cornerstone for the left (much like the Cuban Question today); those who renounced it ended up in the embrace of imperialism before long.

As the CLA turned to mass work, it re-engaged with agitation. It plunged into active solidarity with struggles of Patterson silk workers and New York hotel workers, and it caught the huge strike wave of 1934. But exemplary teamwork, which earned the CLA a leading role in the Minneapolis general strike, required severing from its cadres one B.J. Field in Manhattan. He thought he was too big and important to work under the direction of his own party—and he ended up short-selling the hotel workers.

Gains achieved by the Trotskyists through the momentous union victory in the Twin Cities paved the way to fusion with the American Workers Party, led by former preacher A.J. Muste. The left-moving AWP played a leading role in the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio. But it lacked international connections, and was less homogenous politically than the CLA. The AWP had a right-wing that did not want to clash with the labour bureaucracy, and feared fusion with the Trotskyists (who were not adverse to a clash with anything that stood in the way of working-class aspirations).

With firmness and clarity the Trotskyists prevailed. They soon faced another test. Newly radicalized workers flowed into the larger organizations—the old Socialist Party, as well as the CP. The Workers’ Party (WP), led by Cannon and Muste, voted to link up with those radical workers in the SP—similar to what the section of the Fourth International did in France, hence called the “French Turn”—but it wasn’t easy.

It required dissolving the public face of the WP. It also necessitated an internal battle against sectarianism, in this case a struggle against those who had difficulty distinguishing between tactics and strategy. Muste himself opposed the decision to enter the SP, “not on principled grounds, but on grounds of organizational fetishism, perhaps personal pride. Such sentiments are fatal in politics. Pride, anger, spite—any kind of subjectivity which influences a political course leads only to the defeat—and destruction of those who give way to it,” said Cannon. The sectarians, led by Hugo Oehler, were defeated politically. When they violated party rules, they were expelled.

The Trotskyists belonged to the SP for barely a year, during which they formed a militant Left Wing and vigorously educated the ranks on the nature of fascism, the Spanish civil war, the Moscow trials, and the need for democracy in the party. Before they were gagged and expelled, they gained scores of worker activists, especially among maritime and automobile workers, and won a majority of the Socialist youth organization.

Optimism and pride marked the launch of the Socialist Workers’ Party on New Year’s Day 1938. In the battle of ideas it was vindicated. More battles loomed. The biggest one centred on the Russian Question, the defence of the first workers’ state against imperialism, combined with opposition to the treacherous, despotic Stalinist ruling caste.

“The History of American Trotskyism” is full of faction fights waged out of necessity. That is what faces any serious revolutionary party. Cannon put it this way, “It is hard fighting all the time, there is never any assurance of smooth sailing. How can that be expected? The whole weight of bourgeois society presses down upon a few hundred or a few thousand people. … The influence of bourgeois society finds an expression at times even in sections of a revolutionary workers’ party. Therein is the real source of serious factional fights.”

The same is true for the socialist movement on an international level. It is all about meeting the test of “what is to be done next.” The only alternative to the principled battle of ideas is submission to prevailing ideologies, capitulation to the powers that hold the world hostage, or to flail away at injustice as an individual, perhaps in a loose association with disparate others.


    Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967) was a Jewish-Polish writer, journalist, and political activist who moved to the United Kingdom at the outbreak of World War II. Best known as a biographer of Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, he was also a commentator on Soviet affairs. His three-volume biography of Trotsky, in particular, was highly influential.

Around 1927, he joined the illegal Communist Party of Poland (KPP) and became the editor of the party’s underground press. In 1931, he toured the Soviet Union during the first Five Year Plan, and then returned to his underground work in Poland. Deutscher co-founded the first anti-Stalinist group in the Polish Communist Party, protesting the party line that Nazism and Social Democracy were twin evils. Like Trotsky, he urged the formation of a united front against Nazism. Deutscher was expelled from the party for “exaggerat[ing] the danger of Nazism and … spreading panic in the Communist ranks.”

In London in 1939 he taught himself English and wrote for The Economist and The Observer. After 1946 he left journalism to write books.

“Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism” (Ramparts Press, Berkeley, Calif., 1971, 278 pages) is a collection of articles from the 1950s and early 1960s, including speeches he made to American teach-ins on the war in Vietnam. The writings invariably demonstrate the elegant prose and erudition of Deutscher. Sensitive character studies, lively metaphors, and sweeping analysis attracted a huge readership to his rigorous application of historical materialism. In the repressive, Cold War atmosphere that then permeated academia, he upheld the scientific method against the ideologies of the “great man” and the “greed is human nature” theories of history.

Still, Isaac Deutscher embodied a big contradiction: he was a Leninist-Trotskyist without a party. Not only did he refrain from joining a revolutionary organization after 1939, he advised others against it, and declared as counterproductive the construction of the Fourth International, to which Trotsky devoted his life in exile. This contradiction, his separation from collective political practice and debate, disconnected from class-struggle comrades in arms, cut Deutscher off from potential antidotes to errors that crept into his analysis.

While he explained scientifically the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and defended the workers’ state from its capitalist enemies, he ascribed to Stalin’s bureaucratic heirs the capacity to radically reform the state and restore workers’ control. This conflicted with his own vivid and ongoing account of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s superficial “Revelations,” his betrayal of Algeria’s struggle for independence, his undermining of Cuban and Vietnamese freedom aspirations, and more. “Has Khrushchev not sought to impose a standstill on revolution in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Latin America, backing Nasser, Kassem, and, of course, Nehru, and confounding the Communist Parties on the spot?” Deutscher asked.

In “Trotsky at his Nadir,” Deutscher castigates the co-leader of the Russian Revolution for “undoubtedly underrat(ing) the vitality of the new Soviet society, its inherent capacity for self-reform and regeneration, its inherent ability to overcome Stalinism eventually, and to go beyond Stalinism.

Post-Gorbachev, present-day-Putin Russia delivered definitive judgement on that score. Generations of bureaucratic terror and mis-education depoliticized the Soviet working class. Clearly, that was decisive. But fostering political illusions in the bureaucracy certainly didn’t help anyone.

The state of Israel furnished another signal for retreat. As a convinced atheist of Jewish origin, Deutscher was a militant opponent of Zionism—until World War II. The horrors of the Holocaust, for which the Palestinians and Arabs as a whole bore no responsibility, changed his mind.

He later qualified his support for the Zionist state, which initially he saw as a refuge for desperate Jews. He longed for “cooperation” between the occupiers and the occupied. But that is little more than a liberal sentiment marginalized by the demands of Western elites for control of Middle East resources. Their Zionist attack dog, thinly disguised as a safe haven, is heavily subsidized by Wall Street to keep Arab anti-imperialism in check.

Despite contradictions, the essays in this collection are a treat aesthetically and politically. “Maoism: its Origins and Outlook,” “Twenty Years of Cold War: Vietnam in Perspective,” plus the piece titled “The Mensheviks” make it worth a search to find this book. In the latter article Deutscher shows what happened to the party that thought a socialist revolution in Russia was premature, and in any case opposed Lenin’s concept of a centralized party with an accountable leadership. The disparate elements of Menshevism aligned themselves with extremely regressive forces.

Deutscher summarized the outcome as follows: “Thus Menshevism has ended its long career, driven into two ideological impasses: in one we saw the conscience-stricken Dan humbling himself before Stalinism; in the other we heard Abramovitch praying for the world’s salvation by the Pentagon [which he urged to use nuclear arms to destroy the “Bolshevik evil once and for all”]. What an epilogue this is to the story of Martov’s party; and how Martov’s ghost must be weeping over it.”

What a searing indictment of reformism! Does that not underscore the objective need, indeed the moral imperative, to fight for a revolutionary alternative, no matter its popularity at any moment in time?

Though he is long gone, the debate with Deutscher over the building of a revolutionary International continues, so the issue should be addressed.

The Fourth International began, and continues today, as a relatively small political movement. Doubts within its leadership may cloud its policy. Self-described Trotskyist parties around the world, with a few exceptions (France, Argentina, Pakistan and Philippines come to mind) count their members in the dozens or hundreds, not thousands. But the power of revolutionary ideas and collective organization continue. They are what enable revolutionary Marxists to play a disproportionate, even a leading role in major class and social struggles. When Stalinist and social democratic forces refused, Trotskyist parties led massive unionization battles. They furnished material support for Algerian independence fighters, defended the Cuban revolution, mobilized millions against the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam, won choice for women on abortion, and today resist military intervention aimed at Arab and Muslim peoples while contesting the capitalist austerity agenda that aims to dismantle a century of working class gains.

Without a party, each of us is but a grain of sand on the grand beach of life. But as Trotsky famously said, “The party is a lever, and with this lever we can move the world.” Even a very small, but principled revolutionary party, can have a greater positive political impact on the world than any one person can, no matter how brilliant she or he may be.

Photo: In this mural by Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky holds the banner: “Workers of the World Unite!”



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