Marxist Bulletin No. 2

The Nature of the Socialist Workers Party—Revolutionary or Centrist




What The Discussion Is Really About

By Laurence Ireland

The recent statement of Comrade Wohlforth, "Towards the Working Class," offers a reply and, although unclearly, a counterposing line to that set forth in the document by Comrades Robertson and Ireland entitled, "The Centrism of the SWP and the Tasks of the Minority." However, less clarification than confusion regarding the issues now before our tendency comes as a result of Comrade Wohlforth’s effort since he has obviously misinterpreted and misunderstood the substance of the Robertson-Ireland document. In the interest of raising this discussion to as high a level as possible, it has become necessary to clarify the matter for Comrade Wohlforth and correct the unwarranted impressions which he has managed to gather.

The over-riding issue before our tendency is that of the reconstruction of the American section of the Fourth International, together with the International itself.

Some comrades may doubt that the question is this serious, that it is really a matter of reconstructing the Leninist party. Yet the basic document of our tendency, "In Defense of a Revolutionary Perspective," is unequivocal in this respect. (One of the signers of this document, incidentally, is Comrade Robertson.) Here is what is correctly termed "the heart of the matter": "Consciously or not, the SWP leadership has accepted the central position of Pabloite revisionism" (p. 9). Or again: "The essential differences in our party and our world movement are brought into focus by one question, the question of the International" (p. 13). Further: "Today again we face a situation where a world revolutionary perspective is being challenged--this time by the party majority itself" (p. 15). And:

In sum, we believe that the failure of the SWP leadership to apply and develop the theory and method of Marxism has resulted in a dangerous drift from a revolutionary world perspective. The adoption in practice of the empiricist and objectivist approach of the Pabloite, the minimization of the critical importance of the creation of a new Marxist proletarian leadership in all countries, the consistent underplaying of the counterrevolutionary role and potential of Stalinism, the powerful tendencies toward accommodation to non-proletarian leaderships particularly in the colonial revolution--these pose, if not countered, a serious threat to the future development of the SWP itself
(p. 15).

Still there is always the possibility that comrades in the tendency may have become infected with some manner of ultra-leftism or left-sectarianism. An important and necessary test of the correctness of any approach taken by a national section or grouping is in the presence or absence of confirmation by other sections of the International.

Thus it is heartening to discover abundant confirmation of the correctness of the tendency’s evaluation of the problem in the SLL document "Trotskyism Betrayed". For instance: "We must point out, however, that this discussion is not at all a question of listing points of agreement and disagreement: we are convinced that a whole difference of theoretical and political method is involved" (p. 1). And further: "The basic differences in method as we shall show are centered upon the basic questions of Leninism, how to proceed to the construction of an international revolutionary party" (p. 1). More:

In the whole theoretical trend of the SWP exemplified by the famous theory of the ‘confirmation’ of the concept Permanent Revolution, there is an acceptance of non-Marxist, petty-bourgeois tutelage over the masses, but in the guise of recognition of the ‘strength’ of the masses in pushing the politicians to the left. Theory has been degraded from a guide to action to a dead commentary on the accomplished fact. Behind this there is a long theoretical stagnation, reflected in the failure of the SWP to go beyond a superficial criticism of the last round of revisionism, Pabloism and in the absence of any theoretical contribution by the SWP since Trotsky’s death. It is in the construction of the revolutionary party in the USA itself that the necessity of defeating the SWP leadership’s revisionism is most urgent
(p. 3, emphasis added).

It would, indeed, have been a fatal defect if the Robertson-Ireland document had attempted a contrary position.

But "The Centrism of the SWP and the Tasks of the Minority" stands firmly with this line as, for example, when it speaks of the SWP as standing today:

a. in opposition to the most essential aims of the Trotskyist Movement for a major part of the globe in the declared dispensability of a revolutionary proletarian party to lead the colonial masses to victory (victory as opposed to the stalemate of the deformed workers’ states or the still more illusory ‘victories’ that do not transcend the entanglements of capitalist imperialism);

b. internationally no longer for a world party, a Fourth International as the self-organized, international vanguard of the working class; instead the SWP seeks limited unity of mutual amnesty with other centrists in order to form both an ‘international publicity agency for assorted "leftward-moving" bureaucracies’ and to retain an organizational fig leaf to cover their break with the essential substance of proletarian internationalism--the struggle to build a world party of the workers
(p. 3, emphasis added).

And furthermore: "Given these profound differences with Revolutionary Marxism, it is to belabor the obvious to insist merely upon the centrist character of the SWP" (p. 3).

There can be, therefore, not the least doubt as to what is the basic foundation for the existence of our tendency. It is precisely because the SWP is, today, a centrist party that our tendency has come into being. And the goal of our tendency must be that of constructing "the revolutionary party in the USA itself."

The question is how shall the construction of the Leninist party be undertaken and it is here that the comrades in our tendency must decide between the positions put forth by Comrade Wohlforth on the one hand, and Comrades Robertson and Ireland on the other. It is with this question in mind that the statement of Comrade Wohlforth is approached and his misunderstandings and impressions corrected.

The basic theme of his paper is concerned with the social and political composition of the SWP. Thus the reader discovers phrases like "the working class cadres of the party;" "working class section of the party;" "a proletarian core or kernel in the party" and "a proletarian wing." Unfortunately, Comrade Wohlforth fails to explain his usage of the term "working class cadre" as he has evidently taken it to mean different things in various sections of his statement. Before any clear picture can emerge, it will be necessary to consider briefly the term "working class cadre" in the Marxist sense and then in the various ways in which Comrade Wohlforth uses it.

Objectively considered, the working class is that group of men, women and children who, having no means of production of their own, are obliged to sell their labor power in order to subsist. The working class is not a homogeneous grouping, but is, rather, "the least heterogeneous class of capitalist society" as Trotsky pointed out (Revolution Betrayed, p. 267). For example, it is possible to consider an agricultural proletariat, an urban proletariat, workers in the service industries, workers "at the bench," white-collar workers, workers in the concentrated industries and etc.

A "cadre" in the Leninist sense is one who is theoretically trained and equipped to give leadership and direction to the class struggle. This involves raising the subjective awareness of the working class so that it becomes capable of functioning as a class in struggle.

The preceding gives, admittedly, only the sketchiest guidelines for considering the term "working class cadre," but it will suffice for our purposes here.

The difficulty in Comrade Wohlforth’s effort at once begins to emerge. It turns out that he is speaking of various strata of the working class and, in particular, that stratum in the concentrated industries or industrial workers. This is the only possible interpretation which can be made of Comrade Wohlforth’s phraseology since very few of our comrades in the SWP actually own means of production.

It then becomes necessary to consider the social composition of the party from the standpoint of their actual employment in the concentrated industries (as opposed to the class background of the various comrades). About 25 million or 45% of the U. S. working class are employed in the concentrated industries (i. e., Mining, Contract construction, Manufacturing, Transportation and public utilities). Yet, out of an SWP population of around four to five hundred members, it is doubtful if even as many as 10% can be said to be now employed in the concentrated industries. In any event, the comrades so employed fail to constitute any trade-union fractions and, for the most part, occupy the more comfortable jobs available in these industries. As a matter of fact, the last sizeable component of comrades working in the concentrated industries split from the SWP in 1953 with Cochran!

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that Negroes and other "non-whites" constitute only about 4% of the population of the SWP. Yet this same grouping accounts for something like 20% of the total population of the United States. And it is well known that probably about 98% of this group are workers.

At this point, the reader is obliged to consider the cadres in the SWP, that is, the political composition or level of theoretical preparation of our comrades, as opposed to the number of comrades who simply pay dues and "belong" to an organization. The conclusion in this respect must be that the political caliber is quite low, else why would revisionism have been able to make such headway in our party?

It is, therefore, important to understand that the situation is qualitatively different from that faced by Trotsky when, in 1928, he wrote to Borodai:

To conquer this (proletarian) kernel, however, is to conquer the party. This kernel does not consider itself--and quite rightly--either dead or degenerated. It is upon it, upon its tomorrow, that we base our political line. We will patiently explain our tasks to it, basing ourselves upon experience and facts. In every cell and at every worker’s meeting, we will denounce as a falsehood the calumny of the apparatus which says that we are plotting to create a second party; we shall state that a second party is being built up by the Ustrialov-people in the apparatus, hiding behind the Centrists; as for us, we want to cleanse Lenin’s party of the Ustrialovist and semi-Ustrialovist elements; we want to do this hand in hand with the proletarian kernel which, aided by the active elements of the proletariat as a whole, can still become master of the party and save the Revolution from death, by means of a profound proletarian reform in every field.

To misunderstand this point, is to basically misunderstand the tasks before our tendency today.

Does it "follow" then, as Comrade Wohlforth puts it, "that it is our duty to split from this petty bourgeois centrist party (p. 5)?" "On the contrary," as the Robertson-Ireland document points out, "it is critically important in accepting the characterization of the SWP (as a centrist party), not to be swept away into a split perspective as though centrism equaled some kind of political leprosy (p. 3)." Precisely because the SWP is a centrist party, it is necessary to "prepare and implement the most determined, resolute and conscious opposition" to its revisionist and suicidal course (p. 5).

It is, thus, quite unfortunate that Comrade Wohlforth has seriously misunderstood the Robertson-Ireland document to the extent that he has been able to write of it as having "a split perspective" and one "which rejects party discipline (even if only partially) and party building, which seeks to sneak (?) people into the party, which functions in part as an independent entity, which carries on an organizational faction war within the party, which, in violation of party statutes includes non-party members (!), (and) which is so deeply alienated and isolated from the party ranks that it has in fact already split in content if not yet in form" (p. 10). Comrade Wohlforth must be reminded that not one member of the tendency has violated party discipline or party statutes. Indeed, this sort of misunderstanding is the more serious as it comes from a comrade in our own tendency and mouths the sort of thing one might expect from the party majority!

How is it possible to "sneak" people into the party? And a tendency, even a faction (not prohibited by party statutes), can never become an "independent entity" except by becoming a separate party, and this is clearly not our present perspective. There are no non-party members in our tendency. And as the Robertson-Ireland document points out, "our primary battle is a political one and we must not allow ourselves to succumb to the majority disease of organizational manipulation in lieu of political struggle" (p. 8).

In fact, one of the basic themes of the Robertson-Ireland document is the need to prepare ourselves politically--as cadres. Comrade Wohlforth drew heavy criticism when he began to propound an idea of "party building" as the basic task of the tendency, as opposed to the notion of theoretical struggle and tendency building stressed by Comrades Robertson and Ireland. "What we need," writes Comrade Wohlforth, "is less talk of the importance of theoretical work and more serious work by all the comrades on the real problems we face" (p. 11).

Yet our comrades in the SLL write: "Only theoretical clarification of the new stage in the class struggle, a clear perspective of the working class as the only revolutionary class and of the advanced countries as the core of the world revolution, can form the basis for the revolutionary parties necessary in the coming struggle for power" ("Trotskyism Betrayed," p. 2).

Comrade Wohlforth sought to buttress his position by quoting with approval the phrase of an eminent comrade urging our approach to be one of inculcating "party patriotism" into the tendency. But even Trotsky in 1933 could write:

We never promised anybody that we would cure the Comintern. We only refused, until the decisive test, to pronounce the sick as dead, or hopelessly ill. In any case, we did not waste a single day "curing." We formed revolutionary cadres, and what is no less important, we prepared the fundamental theoretical and programmatic positions of the new International
("The Class Nature of the Soviet State," p. 5, some emphases added).

Hence the following from the Robertson-Ireland document:

The essential prerequisite for developing and implementing the minority program and tasks is a high caliber of political and theoretical training. Without this preparation and continued development of cadres, we can have no other option than to function on the basis of personalities and "facts" rather than on the basis of Marxist theory and dialectical processes
(p. 9).

Comrade Wohlforth has obviously misunderstood the Robertson-Ireland argument concerning the need for theoretical training. He attacks these comrades for urging the development of cadres as he misunderstands them to be urging "a little ingrown critical circle isolated from the masses whose only existence is ‘study’ and factionalism" (p. 8). Yet here is what the document says:

One of our major tasks at this moment is to become a study circle! The ability to reason and develop our program, both individually and collectively, is absolutely necessary if we hope to win new elements while carrying on a sustained struggle. We are the vanguard precisely to the extent that we become capable of carrying out the tasks of a vanguard. The carrying out of these tasks necessarily presupposes study on all problems facing the proletariat as a class engaged in struggle as well as on all problems before its vanguard
(p. 9).

Perhaps Comrade Wohlforth missed the sentences following the one about the study circle. In any event, it is interesting to hear Lenin on this point:

As long as the question was (and in so far as it still is) one of winning over the vanguard of the proletariat to Communism, so long, and to that extent, propaganda was in the forefront; even propaganda circles, with all the defects of the circle spirit, are useful under these conditions and produce fruitful results. But when it is a question of practical action by the masses, of the disposition, if one may so express it, of vast armies, of the alignment of all the class forces of the given society for the final and decisive battle, then propaganda habits alone, the mere repetition of the truths of "pure" Communism, are of no avail. In these circumstances one must not count in thousands, as the propagandist does who belongs to a small group that has not yet given leadership to the masses; in these circumstances one must count in millions and tens of millions
("Left-Wing Communism," pp. 129-130).

It would be a mistake to conclude that Comrades Robertson and Ireland urge the formation of "an isolated circle of students and intellectuals." But it would be a profound mistake to slight the role that students and intellectuals are capable of playing in the class struggle. "Not for nothing," wrote Trotsky, "did Lenin propose to draw largely upon the students in order to combat bureaucratism" ("The New Course," p. 22).

In fact, it was one of the purposes of the Robertson-Ireland document to seek to break down the hurtful barriers between "intellectuals" and workers within our party and our tendency. This division is a clear reflection of the class nature of capitalist society and must be struggled against. Comrade Wohlforth speaks of "the proper fusion of intellectual elements with working class cadres in a party" (p. 3). This is why the Robertson-Ireland document said: "Fundamental to the tasks of our tendency which can only be successfully carried out by means of raising the caliber of the minority as Marxists is the resolute shattering of the petty-bourgeois and reactionary division between Marxist ‘thinkers’ and Marxist ‘doers.’ Any notions along this line in our ranks can only, if encouraged, bring a most pernicious outcome to our struggle" (p. 9).

The question of discipline appears in Comrade Wohlforth’s statement in such a manner as to suggest that he has misunderstood the Robertson-Ireland document on this point as well. "Along the same lines," he writes, "is their distinction between the discipline of the party and the discipline of the tendency. They claim to reject the former and adhere to the latter" (p. 7). But here is what the Robertson-Ireland document said: "Discipline binds us to a program of action and functions through the form of a party. But in this period, when the program has become separated from the majority of the party, our discipline must be with the minority until that time when program and form are again united" (p. 7). In other words, it is not a question of which party or organizational form we must support, it is above all a question of which program we must adhere to. Were the SLL comrades undisciplined when they failed to "build" the Pablo grouping in England? Absolutely not! As Trotsky stressed in 1935:

The International is not at all a "form" as flows from the utterly false formulation of the ILP. The International is first of all a programme, and a system of strategic, tactical and organizational methods that flow from it
("In the Middle of the Road," p. 16, emphasis in original).

If this is the case in the International, it is, a fortiori, all the more so in the case of a national section of the International.

But since our perspective is one of remaining in the SWP, we can hardly afford to violate "party discipline or party statutes." It does mean, however, that we keep party discipline because we are disciplined members of the tendency!

In any event, discipline is not something to be donned like a hat. Here is how Lenin viewed the question:

First of all the question arises: how is the discipline of the revolutionary party of the proletariat maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its perseverance, self-sacrifice and heroism. Secondly, by its ability to link itself with, to keep in close touch with, and to a certain extent, if you like, to merge with the broadest masses of the toilers--primarily with the proletariat, but also with the nonproletarian toiling masses. Thirdly, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided that the broadest masses have been convinced by their own experience that they are correct. "Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party that is really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end in phrasemongering and grimacing
("Left-Wing Communism," p. 13).

Let there be no more misunderstandings on this question.

Comrade Wohlforth also raises the question of a class analysis: "It is precisely a class analysis and a class perspective that is missing" (p. 3). Surely he cannot mean this statement! Perhaps he has missed the title of the Robertson-Ireland document. For the term "centrism" means nothing at all if it does not refer to a position taken in regard to the class struggle. And "the centrism of the SWP" is the foundation for the tactical conclusions in the Robertson-Ireland document.

It is unfortunately necessary to jog Comrade Wohlforth’s memory somewhat. He writes: "This may seem like a small historical point but it is symptomatic of the thinking of Robertson-Ireland" (p. 4). Of course, small historical points are important, but it seems to be Comrade Wohlforth who has forgotten some things.

Thus he writes:

For instance on the very first page Robertson-Ireland attribute the theoretical sterility of the present-day SWP to the loss of the Shachtmanites in 1940. But this is simply not true. Certainly the Shachtmanites took with them many gifted writers and talented intellectual technicians. But theoretical vitality is not the simple product of the ability to handle skillfully ideas and concepts or to write about them fluently. Its essential roots are in the proper fusion of intellectual elements with working class cadres in a party which is deeply rooted in the class itself. From this standpoint it can be stated that the split with the petty bourgeois minority in 1940 actually strengthened the party theoretically. The difficulty was that it did not strengthen it to the point where the party was able to withstand the isolation and stagnation of the postwar years in Trotsky’s absence [sic],
(pp. 3-4).

Obviously, it would have been sheer folly to "attribute the theoretical sterility of the present-day SWP to the loss of the Shachtmanites in 1940." Here is what the Robertson-Ireland document actually said:

The American Trotskyists took a stunning double blow in 1940. Over half of the movement broke away and a few months later Leon Trotsky was murdered. Among those breaking away from the movement (40% of the party and 80% of the youth) were most of the party’s writers, theorists, as well as a whole political generation who had made up the youth leadership. The party lost nothing in the way of intransigence and solidity through these blows as was shown by its resolute role in the Smith Act trial and the upsurge in the working class trade-union struggles during 1943-47 out of which issued Cannon’s affirmation, "The Coming American Revolution." However, a theoretical sterility and blunting of political alertness took place and was never made good. All these circumstances underlie the recent statement of the British SLL that the SWP had made no political contribution to the world movement since 1940 (in "Trotskyism Betrayed" by SLL-NC, July 21, 1962)
(p. 1).

This point is simply a misunderstanding on the part of Comrade Wohlforth as to what the Robertson-Ireland document actually said. Of course, the split can hardly be said to have "strengthened the party theoretically" as the SLL document notes.

But Comrade Wohlforth continues:

Of the same character is the section later on in the document which compares favorably the petty-bourgeois WP, acceding to the pressures of the bourgeoisie, with the SWP of today
(p. 4, emphasis added).

Here is what the Robertson-Ireland document said:

The SWP falls short of being a left-centrist party, that is, one of those organizations or groupings (often moving left from the social democrats or out of the CP) which genuinely desires and seeks to work for the socialist revolution but suffers some internal limitation in the form of ideological or organizational baggage which it is unable to transcend in practice. (E.g., the Workers Party-USA, 1941-46; the Austrian Revolutionary Socialists, 1934-38; the left-wing of the POUM at various times.)
(p. 4).

And here is how Comrade Wohlforth characterized the WP in 1957:

We can now get an accurate picture of the political development of the Shachtman tendency. It was born in 1940 as a petty bourgeois opposition within the Trotskyist movement. It went through a "second split" with the mass exodus of those who rode the opposition bloc out of the movement altogether. It then launched a party and attempted to compete with the SWP to be the Trotskyist party in this country. It contained at this time divergent tendencies which pushed it in different directions. It had within it tendencies which wished a reconciliation with the SWP by building a united Trotskyist party. It had other tendencies which forced it to the right--to a definitive break with Trotskyism in 1946. We can characterize the WP of this period as a left centrist grouping of unstable composition which could not quite decide exactly where it was going. Then followed the 1946 WP-SWP unity affair and with the opening of the cold-war witch hunt, it began to move to the right at an accelerated pace, transforming itself from a competing tendency within the Trotskyist movement into a centrist "third camp" tendency which felt itself antagonistic to Trotskyism as well as to reformism. It stayed only for a relatively short time in this centrist limbo as it soon struck out in an open reformist direction, seeking today to become the loyal left wing of the social-democracy
("What Makes Shachtman Run?," p. 22, some emphases added).

Of course, Comrade Wohlforth may have changed his mind in the meanwhile.

Again, on the question of history, Comrade Wohlforth writes:

The results of the type of functioning Robertson-Ireland advocate have been clearly indicated by our work here in New York. While a rather large section of our local tendency here has been busy with this kind of circle building activity (or no activity) the majority comrades, who were until recently a minority in the local YSA, have been engaged in open YSA activity. The result was that they decisively defeated us with a landslide 2 to 1 vote in the recent YSA local elections--and they did this because of the support they had won from the bulk of the new recruits in the local. The major responsibility for this important defeat lies with those tendency members in the youth who have utterly divorced themselves from the real life of the YSA local
(pp. 9-10).

Actually, however, the local YSA was taken over by the majority through colonization of YSA’ers from Boston, Philadelphia and other areas. That we should not remain passive to this sort of organizational manipulation was one of the reasons for Comrade Harper’s document as well as that of Comrades Robertson and Ireland. There can be no good result from mistakenly seeking to place "the major responsibility" other than where it belongs: on the SWP and on the defeatist "responsible" line which has been urged in our tendency.

Other questions of history present themselves as well. Thus Comrade Wohlforth writes: "From the moment we began on this course of deepening our roots in the working class section of the party, there has been internal dissention and factional conflict within the tendency" (p. 2). Of course, the real opposition to Comrade Wohlforth’s leadership has resulted from his May document, "Proposed Statement on Orientation." Because he urged a "party building" attitude instead of a tendency building one and because he was prone towards acting without consulting the members of the tendency, a number of discussions arose.

Again, Comrade Wohlforth writes of the person living in Puerto Rico and says "he is not an American citizen" (p. 9). Of course the man is a citizen, although a naturalized one. He was not "completely unknown" to the party as many comrades in our tendency had met him and our comrades are most certainly in the party. In any event, the "isolated area where we have no branch" is Puerto Rico and specific provisions are made in the SWP Constitution for dealing with areas where no branch exists. The real point, however, is that Carl Feingold, the SWP organizer in New York, expressed not the slightest desire to even meet the man until he was confronted with the possibility of having the question raised on the branch floor. If it had not been for the vigorous action on the part of some comrades in the tendency, this first-rate material would have been allowed to drift away from the party and any prospect of becoming a part of the Trotskyist movement.

Since these misunderstandings, some of which have been cleared up, completely vitiate Comrade Wohlforth’s criticisms perhaps it would be best if he simply went back and re-read the Robertson-Ireland document. In any case, the tendency must not be denied the tactics and strategy necessary to defeat revisionism and re-establish the Bolshevik party in the United States as well as internationally. "The words of Liebknecht, veteran of German Social-Democracy, serve as the watchword of our activities: ‘Studieren, propagandieren, organisieren’--[Study], propagandise, organize...." (Lenin, "Our Immediate Task," in Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 220).

13 October 1962




Posted: 16 July 2005