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history of the american trotskyist movement
The roots of Socialist Action and Youth for Socialist Action go all the way back to the very beginning of radical politics in the United States, It is this historical continuity, and the rich legacy that it contains, that provides the basis of our politics, and our guide to action.
James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, once pointed out that there were two essential components to the forming of a revolutionary movement in the United States: (1) the radical tradition of the American working class and (2) the theory of Marxism as demonstrated by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. The result of this convergence was the formation of a movement that was both international in its outlook, and to an extent, experience, and that had deep roots in the American working class, having absorbed the lessons of its victories and defeats.
The revolutionary working class movement began in this country in the mid-1800s. Fueled dramatically by the infusion of Marxist and other socialist refugees from Germany and other European countries after the crushing of the 1848 European revolution, a number of socialist and anarchist organizations and parties were founded (including a section of the short lived Workers’ International founded by Karl Marx). The most significant was the Socialist Labor Party, founded in 1876. Made up of mostly German speaking immigrants, it was however never able to completely break out of the immigrant community and become a mass party.
Following 1891, when the Socialist Labor Party was taken over by Daniel DeLeon, it evolved in a sectarian direction. DeLeon developed a theory that socialism would be achieved by the winning of a majority of elected offices, along side the recruiting of a majority of workers into one big industrial union. The SLP termed any struggle other than those two goals as reformist, and counter-revolutionary, including struggles for such things as women’s emancipation and the fight for the eight hour day.
This, combined with an undemocratic internal regime, led to both the stagnation of the SLP, and the disaffection of many who had been attracted to its ranks. In 1901, a group or socialists outside of the SLP who were known as the Social-Democratic Party, and a significant wing that split from the SLP, held a congress that announced the formation of a new party, the Socialist Party.
The new Socialist Party became the U.S. section of the Socialist, or Second International, which was an international party founded to succeed the unsuccessful First International.
It’s most famous leader of the SP was Eugene Victor Debs, a working class hero that had organized the American Railway Union and led the Pullman Strike. Unlike the SLP, the Socialist Party was a very broad based party, both in terms of its ethnic composition, and in the wide range of political tendencies within it. At its height just before World War I it had 1000 members in elected office, controlled the city governments of several working class cities (such as Milwaukee, WI) and even was able to elect members to Congress. Debs won 1 million votes in a run for president, and the SP’s leading publication, the Appeal to Reason, had a national readership that grew to over 1 million.
From the beginning though, the Socialist Party was torn by conflict between the different tendencies which held radically different visions of what the SP was and should do, and what socialism itself was. The right wing of the SP was led by figures such as Victor Burger, and contained more than a few racists and electoral opportunists. They believed in an evolutionary socialism, in which socialism would slowly be voted into being through legislation. They shunned notions of class struggled, and often sided with the conservative wing of the labor movement.
The original left wing of the SP was led by such figures as Big Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World, and it stood for militant working class direct action, and an uncompromising belief in the class struggle. The IWW, while never officially affiliated to the SP, as a revolutionary union movement that was founded in the early 1900s as an alternative to the conservative craft unions. Following a bitter faction fight in 1912 however, a number of leading left wingers in the SP were either expelled or pressed into resigning, including Bill Haywood. The loss of these militants set back the fight against the right wing of the party for a number of years, and resulted in the IWW and others evolving into an anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist direction.
Throughout all of this fighting, Debs, despite being in general political agreement with the left wing of the party, refused to get involved in the disputes, denying the left the benefit of his immense prestige. This aversion to political debate was to prove Debs greatest weakness.
What finally led to a decisive split in the Socialist Party was World War I and the Russian Revolution. Though the SP came out officially against the war, many in the right wing were very lukewarm in their opposition, and some even came out in support of the war. The intense government and vigilante repression the left suffered during the war, further intimidated the right, and convinced them of the need for a “respectable” party free of revolutionary “rhetoric” or “posturing”.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 proved to be the spark that blew the SP apart. The right wing of the party refused any association with the Bolsheviks, or the idea of revolution, while the left wing eagerly took up the banner of Bolshevism. Each faction began publishing their own newspapers and journals (there were numerous publications put out by factions of the SP throughout its history).
By 1918 the left wing had won the majority of the party, but through bureaucratic maneuvering the right wing was able to begin expelling whole branches and state parties that were led by the left wing. This undemocratic assault led to a split, with the left wing leaving to form a new party.
In 1919 the left constituted itself the Communist Party. It was made up of the left wing of the SP (which originally was divided into two parties, the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party of America), a significant layer of people from the IWW (including Big Bill Haywood), and militant workers who were politicized by the Russian Revolution. All told, 40,000 people joined the new party.
Immediately from its founding though, the new U.S. Communist Party was beset by intense government repression. The Palmer raids conducted by the Attorney General resulted in the arrests of thousands of militants, many of whom were deported. 900 foreign born communists and other radicals were placed on boats and shipped to Russia (among them was Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist and feminist). The newly formed American Legion organized mobs to attack communists offices and homes, and publicly tarred and feathered many party members. Some were even beaten to death.
As a result the party went underground, and membership in it became a very secretive thing. As the government inspired “Red Scare” subsided, the party set up an above ground party, that wasn’t officially communist. It’s name was the Workers Party of American, and its chairman was James P. Cannon, a former SP and IWW militant from Rosedale, Kansas, and a leader of the underground Communist Party.
Acting under the advice of the newly founded Communist International (also known as the Third International), founded by the leaders of the Russian Revolution, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the CP eventually ended its underground existence and sought to integrate itself into the American working class and the labor movement. It’s trade union arm, the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) was particularly successful in helping to organize a class struggle left wing in many labor unions, and in informing American workers about the gains Russian workers were making as a result of the revolution.
The young CP though was soon to become the victim of a dramatic political struggle being waged in Russia between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. Following the premature death of Lenin in 1924, a group of bureaucrats in the Bolshevik party led by Stalin made a bid to seize power. They succeeded in bureaucratically isolating, and eventually exiling many of the original Bolsheviks, including Trotsky. In fact, except for Lenin, of the original Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, Stalin would succeed in executing all of them except two, one killed himself before Stalin could, and the other was Stalin himself. The Stalinist bureaucracy succeeded in violently usurping political power from the Russian workers. They also succeeded in transforming the Communist International into a pawn of Stalin’s foreign policy.
Without the benefit of seeing both sides of the debate raging inside the Bolshevik party, the sections of the Communist International were forced to denounce Trotsky and “Trotskyism” as counter-revolutionary. Anyone who protested was expelled and hounded from the movement. The Communist International was transformed into an undemocratic formation controlled by Stalin.
It was by chance then that at a 1928 meeting of the Communist International, James Cannon of the U.S Communist Party and Maurice Spector of the Canadian party, came across a translation of Trotsky’s critique of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution. They both became instant converts to Trotskyism, and vowed to return to their parties and form a faction against Stalinism.
Due to the witch hunt being waged against Trotskyists though the two were forced to work in secret. They managed to smuggle out Trotsky’s document, and introduced it to people one by one by inviting them to Cannon’s apartment and having read it while there.
Before long though they were discovered and promptly expelled. Initially the Trotskyists consisted of three people in the U.S., James Cannon, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern. Soon though others were expelled, often for nothing more than wishing to hear Cannon’s side of the story. The newly expelled immediately began publishing a newspaper, the Militant, and formed a new organization, the Communist League of America (CLA). The new group described itself as a public faction of the Communist Party, and directed most of its activities to trying to reach and convince the militants still in the CP and the Communist International with their politics. Some of the best militants in the CP were won to the new group, and in an attempt to prevent the Trotskyists from having any contact with their members, the CP organized gangs of thugs to attack Trotskyist meetings and newspaper sales-people hawking the Militant on the street. Together with the IWW and other radicals, the Trotskyists organized Workers Defense Guards to defend their meetings and successfully repelled many of the CP’s attacks.
The years that followed though were hard ones for the CLA. The Communist Party began an ultra-left period where all CPers were pulled out of the labor movement and constituted in new “revolutionary unions”. The project was a complete failure, and set the communist movement back several years. In addition the CP adopted a line characterizing the Trotskyists as “social-fascists”, describing us as more dangerous than the Nazis because by “posing” as communists were duping the workers. In1933 in Germany this line led to the German CP (which was the largest Communist Party outside the USSR) failing to oppose the rise of the Nazis, since they saw the Social Democratic Party and the Trotskyists as their main enemy.
As a result of this, the international Trotskyist movement decided to give up on trying to win a majority of the Communist International back to real Marxism, and to instead build a new international party, the Fourth International. As a result of this the Communist League of America turned its attention from the CP to the thousands of workers who were radicalizing as a result of the Great Depression.
In 1934, the Trotskyists led the Minneapolis Teamsters to victory in a dramatic and bloody truckers strike that led to Minneapolis becoming a union town, and that transformed the Teamsters union. Also in that year there was a general strike in San Francisco, and a huge strike in Toledo, led by a group around A.J. Muste. These three strikes ushered in the working class upsurge that resulted in the formation of a new trade union federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, that went on to organize millions of industrial workers in the mid and late 1930s.
Following the 1933 Toledo Auto-Lite strike, led by the Musteites, the Communist League of America fused with the Muste group to form the U.S. Workers Party. A youth group was also formed, the Spartacus Youth League.
Shortly after this the Socialist Party, which was recently taken over by a new left wing, declared that they wanted the SP to become an “all-inclusive” party open to everyone on the left. The Workers Party responded to this call by dissolving and joining the SP, where they formed a tendency around Labor Action newspaper and the Socialist Appeal newspaper.
It was also at this time that Stalin began the Great Purges, in which thousands were killed and forced to testify in an attempt to prove that Trotsky was an agent of fascism. The U.S. Trotskyists were instrumental in forming an international commission of inquiry, led by the famous American philosopher John Dewey, to hold it’s own trial in Mexico to determine whether or not these charges were true. They commission exposed the Great Purges as a huge farce, and declared Trotsky guilty as charged. This, and the general disillusion, led many intellectuals and radicals to leave the CP, and to at least for a while, gather around the Trotskyist movement. In the U.S., many of the ex-CP intellectuals who became attracted to Trotskyism gathered around the journal Partisan Review. An international revolutionary organization of artists, founded by Trotsky and Diego Rivera, was also launched at this time.
The coming of World War II, and the increase pressure on radicals to support the war, led many of these intellectuals to abandon Trotskyism, some of them evolving into outright conservatives (James Burnham for example). Similarly, the SP also began to move to the right under the pressure, and as a result of the Trotskyists winning many workers and young people in the SP over to revolutionary politics. In an attempt to destroy the influence of the Trotskyists, all publications were banned by the SP leadership, and branches were denied to right to discuss or pass resolutions on international questions. When this failed to stop the growing influence of the Trotskyists, a number of branches around the country that were either led by Trotskyists, or who refused to endorse the undemocratic methods of the SP leadership, were expelled. The entire Socialist Party youth group, the Young Peoples Socialist League, broke to join the expelled Trotskyists.
On New Years Day, 1938, the expelled branches declared themselves a new party, the Socialist Workers Party. A couple months later, in an underground meeting in France, the Fourth International was founded, and the SWP became the U.S. section.
1939 though was to prove a trying year for the new party. In that year Stalin signed a pack with Hitler, and invades Finland. This led to faction fight breaking out about the nature of the USSR. The minority insisted it was acting like an imperialist nation, and was either some form of state capitalism, or a new type of society, bureaucratic collectivism. The majority insisted however that despite the Stalinist misleadership which need to be overthrown, it was still a workers’ state, and should be defended against capitalism. The minority split from the party, and eventually disappeared. What was left of the SWP came under intense government attack, with the leadership of the party and the Trotskyists in the Teamsters union being put on trial for subversion. They were found guilty under the Smith Act which outlawed calling for the replacement of the government, and sent to the federal prison in Sandstone, MN.
The SWP persevered though, and despite coming under intense pressure for opposing World War II as a war between different factions of the capitalist class, was able to keep its program alive and reach out to new workers, especially Blacks, who were alienated by the Communist Party’s patriotic opposition to any strikes or fights to end segregation while the war was going on. Immediately following World War II there was a huge strike wave that swept the country, as workers returned home to dismal jobs while the capitalists were making record profits. Thousands of these workers joined the SWP and the party reached its peach in terms of size.
The ruling class reacted to this strike wave and radicalism with McCarthyism. A huge offensive was mounted to drive all radicals out of the labor movement. Much of the labor bureaucracy went along with this, and as a result the SWP’s influence in the labor movement was all but eliminated. Members were barred from the merchant marine, factories that produced products for the military or any government job. In other industries they were blacklisted, and hounded out of numerous organizations.
Despite this the party fought back, attracting a handful of ex-Communist Party members and supporters disillusioned by the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and a layer of young people with which it formed a new youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance. Starting in 1948 the SWP began running candidates for president and other elected offices to try to keep the socialist message before working people. It threw itself into defense of the 1959 Cuban Revolution through the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and the civil rights movement.
The SWP developed a close relationship with Malcolm X, printing many of his speeches, and organizing several forums where he was the featured speaker. Malcolm encouraged people to buy the Militant and was considering an offer by the Young Socialist Alliance to organize a nation-wide speaking tour on the campuses.
The Socialist Workers Party went on to play a key role in the anti-Vietnam war movement, and was responsible for the movement adopting the “Out Now” slogan as opposed to the ultra-left slogans of drive the GI’s into the sea or the Stalinist and liberal line calling for negotiations. Through groups like the Student Mobilization Committees and the National Peace Action Coalition, the SWP successfully pushed for the movement to focus on mass actions such as street demonstrations, as opposed to campaigning for liberal “peace” candidates from the Democratic Party. The Young Socialist Alliance became a key player on many campuses around the country, recruiting many of the best activists from the anti-war movement and those critical of the SDS and other groups’ evolution towards Maoism. It also distinguished itself by reaching out to young workers drafted into the military, and its presidential candidates even toured army bases in Vietnam. In a period where there was no shortage of far left groups, Maoist or Trotskyist (there were several small splits from the SWP during this time), the SWP and YSA were able to distinguish themselves and have the biggest impact during these dramatic times.
Arguably, it was the SWP’s focus on mass action with slogans and tactics designed to reach out to working Americans that led the anti-war movement to become a truly mass movement, and to play a decisive role in forcing the U.S. ruling class to pull out of Vietnam (along with the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people!).
Following the end of the Vietnam war, the SWP threw itself into the struggles to end segregation in the schools through busing, the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, to shut down the nuclear power industry, and in defense of gay & lesbian rights. It campaigned for a labor party, and supported initiatives to set up independent Black and Chicano parties. It also began to try and get more and more of its members into industry, and became active in several opposition movements in the labor unions, such as the Sadlowski campaign in the United Steelworkers of America union.
In 1979, there were successfully revolutions by the workers and peasants in Grenada and Nicaragua. While these revolutions did not result in the creation of new workers’ states like the Cuban Revolution did, they did represent victories against imperialism, and had the potential to go all the way. Unfortunately, the leadership of the SWP came to see these new revolutions as proof that Trotskyism was no longer relevant, since they had been led not by Trotskyists, but by movements that believed that revolution had to go through stages (Trotskyism counters this in our theory of permanent revolution, which holds that revolutions can not go in stages, but have to go all the way). Also, rather than allow for a healthy debate about this, it began to bureaucratically expel all members who disagreed with this new line. As a result hundreds were expelled, including most of the veterans of the movement. Several years later the SWP finished its evolution by resigning from the Fourth International.
The expelled Trotskyists re-organized and launched a new group, Socialist Action in 1983. SA immediately began publishing a monthly newspaper, Socialist Action, and threw itself into the class struggle. In its first months the new party played an important role in organizing support for the Greyhound strike, and it soon came to play a key role in the Central America solidarity movement. It organized several national tours of militants from South Africa, Poland and Mexico and hosted a huge 50th anniversary meeting of the Fourth International.
In the 1990s Socialist Action organized the coalition that led a demonstration against the Gulf War in San Francisco of 250,000. SA comrades in the railroad unions initiated a important inter-craft association and rail worker newspaper that had a readership in the thousands. We played an important role in the abortion clinic defense mobilization of the early and mid-90s, and organized several local election campaigns.
Today, Socialist Action and its new youth group, Youth for Socialist Action, are among the national leaders of the movement to free Black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In summary, the history of American Trotskyism has been one of ups and downs, and as many setbacks as successes. It is a rich history though, and one that through it’s continuity with the founding of the revolutionary movement in the United States, has absorbed the lessons of the victories and defeats of the working class, and is therefore well poised to play a vanguard role in the coming American Revolution. We have successfully kept alive revolutionary and internationalist politics. Our history is not over, and we will continue to make it until all of the working class and oppressed nationalities are emancipated from the oppression and exploitation of capitalism. Join us!
This essay was written by Adam Ritscher. For an excellent history of the early history of U.S. Trotskyism read James P. Cannon’s “History of American Trotskyism.”
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