Marxist Bulletin No 3 Part IV
Conversations With Wohlforth
Spartacist-ACFI Unity Negotiations
9 July 1965
- Spartacist: Robertson, Turner, Stoute; (Harper,
- ACFI: Wohlforth, Mazelis, Michael (alternate for van
Meeting convened at 8:10 p.m.
- 3. Election statements
- 4. Social. Topic and time of next meeting
1. SWP Discussion:
Wohlforth: The essential feature of the
American Marxist movement has been its failure to really develop theory, and
while certain progress has been made in some periods toward coming to basic
working-class consciousness, and even going beyond that in adherence to the
world movement and later the Trotskyist movement, through its entire history it
has never mastered the Marxist method. Rather it sought to build a movement
with theory inherited from past leaders like Marx or worked out elsewhere and
imported. Americans learned lessons rather than the method leading to
those lessons. Cannon came out of the midwest fusion of the Populist-Wobbly
movement, and the Cannon-Foster faction within the CP (while the healthiest of
the factions) was representative of that empiricism. Cannon learned from
Zinoviev, etc., a way of treating political questions in an organizational way.
Trotsky warned him against this, but this tradition has remained to this day.
SWP was a bloc between Cannon and Trotsky in which Cannon took the political
line of Trotsky but developed the SWP in his own way organizationally. The
struggle of the SWP with Shachtman showed the failure of the SWP to develop
theoretically. It was Trotsky that insisted the struggle center around
questions of dialectics and method. Discussions between Trotsky and the SWP
leadership revealed that Trotsky was anything but an uncritical supporter of
Cannon, was worried about Cannons adaptation to the liberal-trade-union
sections and the incapacity and unwillingness of the Cannon people to break
from that sort of collaboration. Cannons conduct during the Minneapolis
trials has been used as a precedent for today. In the post-war period Cannon
failed to understand the international conjunctural situation and came up with
the theory of inverted American exceptionalism. But world capitalism was
restabilizing itself and the American struggle would thus retreat. The
International never understood this fundamental turning point in world history
(1946-47), but instead the line of Pablo was that this was a period of
ascending socialist revolution. Cannon never confronted the problem of
Stalinism in the post-war period, but felt that the SWP would be thrown
into leadership. Degeneration of the SWP during the 50s was then not
merely a simple reflection of negative conditions, though these accentuated the
sickness of the party. Internal problems forced Cannon into an international
bloc he never wanted, explained this on the basis of orthodoxy.
This was short-lived and prepared ground for growth of revision. The crisis of
the SWP has been brewing for 20-25 years. The central cadre of the party was
fashioned in this sick situation. Understanding the history of the SWP is
related to our tasks of building the movement today. Are we simply to be a more
orthodox copy of the SWP or recognize the necessity of theoretical development,
of applying the Marxist method, of going beyond orthodoxy? Our
tasks are essentially Iskra tasks, bring theory and consciousness to an
economist movement. Study of the history of the SWP is essential to our own
development and tasks.
Robertson: Your document was a good and serious effort to
understand the SWP, but was best in its particular analyses. However, it
would seem that you have loaded too much on American empiricism.
Actually it is American exceptionalism to single out what happened in the U.S.
alone as reason for the decline of the Marxist movement (though it is
undeniably true that the American movement had a theoretical incapacity). To
counterpose the sickness of the U.S. to the world movement would be good if
objective development confirms, but it doesnt. In the U.S., the most
significant failure was that of the American working class to develop any
political movement of its own. You often talk about theory and
method but are weak in definition. In order to deal with Marxist
method it is necessary to understand it not merely to refer to
it--theory by itself is an empty word. Theory is a sufficient
simplification of reality that it can be shoved into our heads and give us an
active understanding as participants of what is going on--that is, what we hold
in our heads is also a factor. Program generates theory. What are decisive are
programmatic questions. The SWP in post-war years had a theory that was
inadequate on Yugoslavia, China, etc. Pabloism was a revisionist attempt to
fill that gap in a way that turned the movement toward programmatic shift and
opened up the whole world movement for degeneration. Largely for
objective reasons the SWP moved into the post-war period deproletarianized,
isolated and with an aging cadre; a qualitative transformation took place. It
is important to appreciate what the main driving forces were in the
degeneration of the SWP for no party has ever performed anywhere in the world
longer better than the SWP has and that includes the Bolshevik Party--no party
has ever outlived the aging of its cadre.
The SWP managed to hold a revolutionary line for some decades--the
50s was the worst period any movement faced anywhere. The entire world
Trotskyist movement had developed an estimation of Stalinism which was
developed on the basis of a single kind of experience--the pre-war role or the
Stalinist parties in the face of working class mobilization in struggle.
In the post-war years the SWP line had a ritual character. Program is decisive.
Wohlforths analysis is fine, but has an idealist streak. His
theory and method have a categorical quality. Though I
have come down hardest on the critical side, I thought Marxism in the
U.S. was a good statement.
Turner: Wohlforths document will be helpful for those
who have not gone through the struggle in the SWP, though there is a tendency
to oversimplify in the document. The subjective aspect of Cannon has been
elevated and made into a factor beyond the normal weight that should be
assigned. After all, the entire international movement failed to deal
with the new situation that had arisen--the failure was not merely
Cannons but that of the whole movement. In raising questions about the
application of Marxist method, it would have been useful to concretely show
method in application in terms of dialectics rather than just repeating the
Wohlforth: The points raised on the need for more concrete
material on theory and method are quite welcome. As far as Rs questioning
my placing too much emphasis on American empiricism, failures of the whole
international working class were obviously involved. I mentioned empiricism
because this was the way the theoretical failure developed in the U.S., while
in Europe, especially France, the failure was in the direction of formalism. As
to the criticism that the document was weak in definition of theory and method,
I wanted to show what they were through concrete analysis. The
Assimilation document goes into it theoretically, and I consider it
to be a complementary document, was how Marxist method should have been applied
to the major problems of post-war period. Theory and method are not simple
reflections of reality, but have an independent existence precisely because
they are an abstraction from reality of the underlying process which may not be
apparent through simple reflection. Theory seeks to reflect independent reality
from beginning to end, not just present reality. The Pabloites had a theory
that reflected a period of the expansion of Stalinism. Program does not
generate theory; rather one comes to programmatic conclusions on the basis of
theoretical understanding. There is an interaction between program and theory.
Program in the concrete becomes part of the process and leads to theory; your
mind is part of the reality. The weakness of the SWP would have failed in a
good period in another way. It was headed for failure in 1946 by its false
combination of sectarianism and opportunism, and would have led to the
destruction of the SWP as a revolutionary party barring theoretical
development. Cant say no party performed better than the SWP. It is to
the Bolshevik party we must return today, not to the SWP. Trotsky was the
continuator of the Bolshevik party, but he was incapable given his time of
creating a new formation that would be able to withstand his death. The
Trotskyist movement was a failure but the Bolshevik movement was not.
Bolshevism had within it greater revolutionary forces, more cadre who
understood Marxist method, than any movement since. We will be playing only a
transitional role. We dont come out of the old tradition; the SWP did not
create a cadre capable of doing what Trotsky did in the world movement. It is
not that the analysis of Stalinism developed in the 1930s is inadequate
to explain current reality, but that they didnt understand the
method by which that theory was arrived at. Stalinism is degenerative,
not progressive. Cannon is a key person in the history of the SWP, and in
essence Cannon is the SWP. The degeneration of the SWP is related to the
degeneration of Cannon. We are not Cannonites. We do not want to return to
Cannonism. We want the destruction of Cannonism. Cannon subordinated politics
to organization. Organizational questions should not have a life in and of
themselves. Our role is not simply to gather together workers where we can find
them but to take to the working class the theoretical understanding without
which the working class is incapable of organizing itself into a force to
overthrow the bourgeoisie. Must have a conjunctural analysis of the
development of capitalism as a world system in order to supplant the
Robertson: On theory being a reflection of reality--you
have defined this as current reality. But that is impressionism. The greatest
reality is during crises when superficial reality is stripped away. 1923 was
such a turning point--that is how I used the word reality. I
dont like the word process because it has an objectivist
tone. Slaughter is the most outstanding Marxist theorist today because of his
denial of the autonomy of facts and his insistence that what we
think is part of the process and part of the social outcome. We differ on
program generating theory. If you sought to adhere to program at the time of
failure of theory, you would either have to freeze or else seek a stronger
guide to action, examining full reality, not just present nor just past. Only
Cuba allowed one to finally make sense of the entire post-war problem; the
problem was not solved historically until the Cuban developments. But
anticipations were possible. Regarding Cannons worth as a Trotskyist
political leader, as late as 1948 his writings on the Wallace campaign were a
model. Trotsky was not part of the old Bolshevik cadre but issued out of
Bolshevism partly in opposition to the Bolshevik Party which fell apart. The
SWP has produced us. We are a link, for better or worse, from the Bolsheviks to
Trotsky to SWP to us. Cannon was the best Communist politician produced in this
country. It is not a question of copying the SWP but of going beyond. Future
Trotskyists will have to meet the measure of Cannons strengths as well as
his weaknesses. This is a real challenge. We have to learn from him positively
as well as negatively. On Philipss criticisms of your history project,
some were correct, but basically he was making a Philistine response.
Turner: On the subjective factor of Cannon vs. the whole
objective situation in which Trotskyism found itself--even in its most positive
periods, Trotskyism existed in a context in which Stalinism as a world system
looked and was large. The Trotskyist movement, even while Trotsky was
alive, was not able to make a dent in the European Stalinist movement. The
failure was not basically that of the individual, Cannon. While the individual
can play an important role in all the processes of history, you cannot
eliminate the objective forces. For example, in the degeneration of the
Bolsheviks, Trotsky never considered the subjective to be the main factor.
Mazelis: It is wrong to say Trotsky did not come out of the
Bolshevik party. He joined in 1917. This was qualitatively different from us
coming over to the SWP. We came over to Trotskyism, not Cannonism. Our
development must be viewed separately from the SWP. Trotsky came over to
Leninism. What we learned in the SWP was not of the order of what Trotsky
learned from Leninism. The British movement is already on a higher level than
the SWP ever was here. We feel Cannonism was unable to develop Marxism but this
is not saying we and the British have developed it, but we have
scratched the surface. The Assimilation document was an extremely
important contribution, and the international conference will make other
Michael: Robertson gives the impression that program yields
theory, that you have a program that draws you into contact with events taking
place and then cast about for theory. This view doesnt take into account
the things one uses to construct a theory.
Robertson: The best way to look at these questions is in
situ--truth is always concrete. In the first workers movement in Russia a
new problem was broached. The Bolsheviks and Lenin had an incorrect theory, a
sufficient but not a correct theory, but up to the supreme moment they had the
correct political conclusion of not making alliances with the liberals. In 1917
Lenin became a Trotskyist. In the alliance of the proletariat and the peasants,
the proletariat must take the lead--there was something new in the Russian
situation which cleared this up; the old experience was not enough. Trotsky
made these predictions in 1904 without there yet being a party to carry out the
programs content. The Bolsheviks remained steadfast to their program.
None of the individuals or groups at the time had the whole truth.
Turner: The basis of Marxism is materialism. In the
beginning was the deed. History, life, pose certain tasks which men must solve,
so they project a construction. To the extent the construction is related to
the reality, men solve the tasks. This is fundamental to Marxism. There can be
no disagreement on this.
Wohlforth: You are mistaken. Theory is more than a
reflection of reality, it is an active part of reality. We must get out of a
mechanism which has almost destroyed the Marxist movement. Theory is an
interacting part of reality itself. Cannon was not a communist politician
because he was never a communist in that he never mastered the fundamental of
communism which was necessary to combine theory with the building of the party.
Cannon was the worlds best factionalist. He kept control over the party
but he destroyed the party--a criminal act. The best communist politician in
the history of the SWP was Wright--he almost understood. There is a
basic difference between us: The Spartacist group has yet to complete the
theoretical break with the SWP and Cannonism while we have taken this step and
have done it in large part under the urging of the SLL. It was
they who urged us take on the history project. They had already come to the
understanding of the need to break with Cannon. On program begetting
theory--this is completely wrong. We are fundamentally counterposed to
that position. That is not Marxism. You must begin with reality not with
program. Lenin was in no sense an empiricist. He sought to implement a theory
which wasnt totally wrong. His program was an adequate reflection of his
theory. Trotsky didnt develop the theory of the Permanent Revolution out
of program. He started with the reality of the 1905 revolution which led to
theoretical understanding which led to program. Working out theory to
explain program... In the beginning was the deed
Im not interested in this, this is nothing. In this discussion we are
concretizing what we mean by theory and method. Read Lenins
Notebooks -- he uses the word process 500 times. Process is
essential to dialectics. If Robertson rejects the concept of process, he
rejects the dialectic. To ignore or refuse to accept process loses that which
is central to the dialectic, the internal process of life and matter.
Everything is always in process. We continue to have important theoretical and
methodological differences. This rather than barring unification and
discussion, necessitates discussion, makes this dialogue and process between us
Robertson: The question has been raised as to what is the
program of a party. This is a class question, anticipation of the limits
of what that class or section of the class can hope to achieve for itself, the
codification of the possibilities of a class, for the workers a question of the
victory of the socialist revolution--that is what program is. What is it that
shapes theory? The appetites of men shape out their intervention. The SWP was
not a bloc with Cannon--that implies they had different programs which
they did not. The SWP was the American branch of the world Trotskyist
movement, it was not the SWP vs. the Trotskyist movement. Theory does not
always grow and develop. We know less about the world now than was known at the
time of the Bolshevik revolution. We know less of the world at present because
we have less means to change the world. I did not say Lenin was an empiricist,
but that there was a certain theoretical weakness in the program of the
Bolsheviks which was shared by Lenin, a slight empiricism. Trotsky did not
start with the Revolution of 1905 for the theory of the Permanent Revolution,
but had seen the need 18 months before that for a labor dictatorship. Because
of this Trotsky seized on the Soviets more quickly than the Bolsheviks.
Internal contradiction is the heart of dialectics. The word process
grates on me, invoking an image of process industries such as the
automated American oil refineries; hence I object ... because we (or our
absence!) are part of the process.
Turner: Wohlforth should avoid trying to score debating
points, but consider what is being said, not take words out of context and try
to give it some implied meaning. That is not a dialectical approach. Generally
we have very unimportant and minor differences, as far as the discussion here
Robertson: We dont propose to take a vote on your
document, on views on these historical questions and on methodology. We
ourselves have a running internal discussion on method.
Mazelis: I disagree strongly with Comrade Turner, with his
entire approach. We have very serious differences, as the discussion shows. But
we shouldnt be afraid of differences, they should be thoroughly explored,
and not avoided. As W. said, they are anything but a bar to unity.
Its perfectly understandable that you wouldnt have a position on a
particular document. Its another thing that it should be stated the way
you stated it--you dont anticipate taking a position. There are
important differences between us.
Wohlforth: You will take a position on method at your
coming conference whether you want to or not. Marxist method will or will not
be reflected in your documents. Spartacist will not be able to avoid taking a
position on method.
Robertson: We are bringing out a series of Marxist
Bulletins going into the history of our quarrels, so we will not bring it
up now. We must have clarification on our own split, but will wait till the
documents are fully at hand. A rotten bloc is in the making in the SWP. We are
in favor of a bloc for party democracy, nothing else. Party democracy should be
foremost the leaderships responsibility, not that of various minorities.
Most of the present SWP minorities are to the right of the SWP leadership.
Some, under pressure of events, have been hopping around. Miller has denied
democratic centralism for a decade. To develop a bloc with a right-wing
minority against the center is unprincipled. Unification must be on the basis
of political program. We above all cannot cross class lines on domestic
politics. The opposition to Black Nationalism on the West Coast is from the
right--the jobs or income now approach is to the right of a program
of Black Nationalism which is a fantasy of the SWP. There has been a
recrudescence of Weissism, pro-Maoism. However, we want to encourage all
tendencies to defend the readmission of the expelled, and would repudiate that
support only if it were put forward in a context that was a repudiation of
Wohlforth: Our views are not the same. As we gather from
SWP internal bulletins that have come into our possession, within the various
tendencies there is at least a small, conscious Trotskyist force which is
around Lynn Marcus. We have 99% political and theoretical agreement with Marcus
on all questions. He has submitted to the SWP convention a document that is a
complete break with Cannonism--a more complete break than Spartacist has yet
made. He and a group of some half-dozen represent a clear Trotskyist position.
Within the mess of the SWP there are elements moving to the left and right.
Kirks current document is better than his previous position; has an
understanding that his previous documents never had of the coming conjunctural
crisis of American capitalism. He is making a complete attack on and break with
the party leadership. We see Kirk as evolving to the left, but highly confused.
As far as Miller and Philips are concerned, they are evolving as one would
expect--they are empiricists. A bloc with them would be in principle, however,
on the American Question. The American class struggle is the key for blocs in
the party. We can bloc on a class line in this country against the majority,
while being split on international questions. Swabeck is finished. Seattle
finished. The SWP is going through acute throes. Our task is to bring
theoretical clarity into this despite difficulties.
Turner: From what I saw of Marcus while in the SWP, he
seemed to take a number of positions of the Weiss group and to be to the right
of the SWP leadership.
Wohlforth: The Weissites were Pabloites.
Mazelis: Spartacist is not fully aware of Marcuss
development, but we assure you it is no exaggeration to say we are in 99%
agreement. We feel that his development has taken place under the influence of
the Bulletin at least in part which is directed at people like him. Our
constant hammering has paid off. Marcus seems to be taking a strong stand on
Wohlforth: On the St. Paul and Madison people, here we have
the evolution of a group of old party members, some out of the party and others
not too active. The Brusts who are with ACFI were on leaves of absence from the
party for a year or two and have since resigned. Around them are other party
comrades, some out, some in, and they have connections with some YSAers. There
is the probability of building a Trotskyist group in Minneapolis, largely of
Robertson: There must be a genuine political basis for the
alliance of any two groups, not a left and right bloc against the center.
Almost all minorities in the SWP at present are to the right. We would be
willing to have a bloc with Philips on the basis of your last documents. For
every bloc it is necessary to have documents, written evidence. We have friends
still in the SWP. But they have been sealed off in good part. Some have been
squeezed out. But some have been in the party a long time, are well known
comrades. Our line on the current SWP oppositionists is to pick and choose
allies on the basis of political questions, not well get all
comrades together against the party leadership.
Wohlforth: Spartacist friends in the SWP should consider
supporting Marcuss documents if they find them politically acceptable.
2. Minutes: The minutes of 27 June were accepted as
3. Election statement:
Michael: The revised draft brought in by Henry hasnt
incorporated the changes I suggested.
Discussion: Robertson, Wohlforth, Robertson, Turner, Stoute
Michael will write up amendments and bring them back for approval.
ACFI has not yet prepared the draft for the popular leaflet.
4. Party: People should be appointed by each side to
help clean up afterwards. ACFI is handling liquor, Spartacist is handling food.
5. Time and Topic of Next Meeting: 2 weeks from
tonight, on the IC resolution.
Turner: On your forum on Algeria. The fact that we have
been meeting regularly and frequently makes it inexplicable that we were not
notified you were having this forum. Our members received a mailing, but
Robertson did not receive a copy. Smacks of united front from below tactics, a
Wohlforth: The decision to have a forum was made last
Wednesday, didnt know we mailed to your membership. The mailing went to
the Bulletin mailing list. No one in Spartacist who doesnt receive
the Bulletin would have received a mailing. Spartacist can have their
literature on our lit table should they wish.
Turner: Having been creating a unity atmosphere, this last
minute approach smacks of a desire to by-pass the Spartacist leadership, and I
felt it should be discussed.
Wohlforth: The idea came up at the last minute; we felt we
should have a forum because of the Algerian discussion. We have in no way
communicated with your rank and file.
Robertson: Here is the chronology from our end. I subscribe
to the Bulletin but did not receive a mailing. This is the first public
forum you have had. We were planning a joint activity where our contacts and
periphery are being brought in by our mailing list and invitations. Then
unannounced you set up your very first forum which to us looks as if designed
to pull our ranks to your groups activities.
Mazelis: We are operating independently. It is you who have
been reluctant to proceed jointly. We had hoped a number of Spartacist comrades
would come to the forum and take the floor. I personally organized the mailing,
which included comrade Robertson. I can definitely assure everyone that this
was sent, and any mix-up was not our doing.
Wohlforth: If the Spartacist comrades would like to
announce their class they may do so at the forum.
Turner: That was the way it looked to us. We should try to
make every effort to proceed in a non-provocative manner.
Meeting adjourned at 11:35 p.m.
(Minutes of this session approved at the fifth session, 30 July