Marxist Bulletin No. 2

The Nature of the Socialist Workers Party—Revolutionary or Centrist




Towards the Working Class

By Tim Wohlforth

Our Evolution

Many of the problems our tendency faces today stem from the weaknesses which go back to the peculiar origins of our grouping. We began essentially as a section of the leadership of the youth organization, the YSA. Our strength then flowed from the fact that we represented the first new wave of revolutionary forces which has come to the party in the recent period. But there was a negative side to our origins. Essentially the original core of our minority had little or no roots in the party and little experience at anything other than student work. This was partly due to the fact that our energies were tied up with the construction of a youth organization so that we had little time for party work per se. It was also caused by our newness to the party--some of us coming from the Shachtmanite organization while others were recent recruits directly out of youth work.

When we began our oppositional struggle in the party, in many ways we were not really a part of the party--we were almost functioning as if we were an outside force. This certainly had a weakening effect on our work and helped the majority isolate us within the party. While we were conscious of this problem from the very beginning, it must be truthfully admitted that it was not easy for us to reorient our work. In fact it was really only after we made a series of tactical errors in the youth struggle immediately after the last convention that it can be said that we really began in earnest to develop our roots in the party.

To our credit it must be said that once we began on this course about a year ago we have pursued it consistently and with some very solid results. It is this tactical course which made it possible for us to consolidate our forces in the East Bay, to fuse with the working class cadres in San Francisco, Detroit and Philadelphia, and to make a serious impact on the New Haven group. These developments have changed the basic nature of our tendency and for the first time open up a serious opportunity for us to build an opposition deeply rooted in the working class cadres of the party itself. Only such a tendency can ensure the continuity of Trotskyism in the United States. An isolated circle of students and intellectuals is incapable of performing this historically essential task.

This does not mean that we have actually fully completed this turn or that there has been no resistance to it. On the contrary, 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. This resistance has come from a section of the tendency which finds itself completely isolated from the party ranks, is generally inactive in the party and isolated from mass work in any form. Considering the origins of our tendency as well as the isolation and sickness of the party itself, which cannot fail but have some impact on us as well, this development is certainly quite natural. As long as we were faced with the resistance of a section of the tendency to a positive building attitude towards the party, we felt the best thing to do was to seek to encourage these comrades to be active through the example of the active comrades of the tendency. Only when this section of the tendency sought to impose its orientation upon the tendency as a whole did we face a serious situation within our tendency. This is the situation we now face with the presentation of the Robertson-Ireland document with the aim of having it adopted as the line of our tendency. It has now become clear that a section of our tendency is seeking to turn the tendency as a whole away from the proletarian elements in the SWP and turn us into essentially a little circle of revolutionary critics.

For our part we favor the continuation and deepening of the political and tactical line that our tendency has been following over the past year. The essentials of both our political and tactical orientation were spelled out in our basic tendency platform "In Defense of a Revolutionary Perspective." This document was the collective product of the work of the tendency as a whole and received the unanimous endorsement of the tendency. In particular the section entitled "Theses on the American Revolution" and point 10 of the concluding section state clearly and correctly our attitude towards the party and towards the American working class. My statement "On Orientation," issued last spring, was simply a further elaboration of the attitude towards the party expressed in our basic platform. The amendment to the Political Report, submitted by Comrade Philips to the last Plenum, is a further concrete amplification of the line of the platform on the American working class. The approach of this amendment will become of central importance to the orientation of our tendency in the coming period. For this reason I am appending it to this article to ensure that all comrades have a chance to carefully study it.

The basic line of our tendency is in summary: the conducting of a principled political struggle against the centrist politics presently dominating the SWP combined with an all out effort to develop deep roots for our tendency among the working class cadres of the party and with these cadres to develop roots in the class itself. Our work among student youth is a necessary and important supporting adjunct to this main task.

A Class Analysis

The central weakness of the Robertson-Ireland document lies in the attempt of these comrades to analyze the party and develop a tactical line towards work in the party without relating the party to the working class and the work of our tendency to the working class section of the party. It is precisely a class analysis and a class perspective that is missing.

This shows up in many, many ways throughout the document. 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 post war years in Trotsky’s absence. 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.

This may seem like a small historical point but it is symptomatic of the thinking of Robertson-Ireland. Our task is not to flood the party with sharp intellectuals who will take over where Shachtman left off in 1940. It is our task to contribute to the political and theoretical re-arming of the party as part of the very process of struggling to develop the party’s roots in the working class. Along these same lines the highly significant role our party played in the American class struggle during the war and in the period just after the war is treated in an off-hand manner with only a sentence. The result is to project the present crisis of the SWP too far back in its history and thus slight those positive features of the party’s history which allowed it to play such an important and positive role for many years. It was never a perfect party but those who fail to see the strengths it once had will never be able to positively contribute to its reorientation and rebuilding today.

This same weakness of a lack of a class analysis can be found in the document’s treatment of the party today. The reasons for the opportunism and political centrism of the party in regroupment and more recently in relation to Cuba and the Pabloites is never explained in this document (unless we are to go back to the loss of the Shachtmanites). We are told that this is an "auto-catalytic" process, which we gather means these comrades feel it just sort of spontaneously happened. Likewise with the analysis of the resistance to centrism in the party. This is simply described in non-class terms as "restorative forces" and in one place it is suggested that Jim Cannon, personally, was one such force. In actuality, the isolation of the party from the working class, the erosion of its working class base, has led to the development of a petty bourgeois tendency inside the SWP which today has the reins of the party in its hands. The resistance to this tendency over the years has come from the more healthy working class cadres of the party--for which Jim Cannon was many times a spokesman. An understanding of these class forces in the party is the beginning of any analysis of the party, or any tactical line within it.

A Working Class Perspective

The bulk of the Robertson-Ireland document is devoted to our tactics. Needless to say, since these tactics flow from the analysis made at the beginning of the document, these tactics are as devoid of a class approach as is the analysis. Trade union work, for instance, gets only a part of one sentence. There is no attempt to relate the construction of our tendency to the relationship of the SWP to the American working class. For instance, we are told that "the role of the revolutionary Marxists within the party must be that of an aggressive, political polarizing force." But we are not told what we are to polarize and around what kind of issues.

The preliminary discussion on this document, held recently in New York, has helped to clarify further this aspect of the Robertson-Ireland document. It seems that the working class was omitted from the document because the authors question the existence of the working class as a force in our own party. Both Comrades Robertson and Ireland denied that there was a proletarian core or kernel in the party. Comrade Robertson said that to maintain that such a core existed was in actuality to perpetrate "a myth" for the workers in the party have become bourgeoisified, are in fact a conservative grouping.

This is a very, very serious claim. If the party does not have such a working class core, and if we seek to maintain an orientation towards the working class, then it follows that it is our duty to split from this petty bourgeois centrist party. If we remain within it the limitations placed on our functioning by party discipline necessarily limit our functioning to a petty bourgeois milieu--which is death to real revolutionaries.

But this is simply not the case. These comrades are in reality subjectively justifying their own isolation from the working class section of the party by claiming this section does not exist, much as liberals justify their isolation from the American working class by denying that there is a working class. Not only does the party have a proletarian core but a section of that core has become part of our own tendency. The bulk of the growth of our tendency over the last year has come precisely from this layer of the party. Despite our weaknesses in functioning in the party, itself due to the type of attitude expressed in the Robertson-Ireland document, we continue to have an impact on this section of the party as witness our collaboration with the New Haven comrades.

Of course, some of the workers in the party live quite comfortably these days and many more are tired and worn out from years of difficult struggle in an extremely difficult environment. But is this the case with all the working class members of the party? And further, is the present condition of some workers in the party unchangeable, uninfluenced by changes in the class struggle? If the comrades hold the latter to be the case then what hope do we have for the American working class as a whole which is certainly as bourgeoisified, if not more so, than that small vanguard section in the party?

It is not simply a matter of the workers presently in the party. We must consider the workers who will be coming into the party in increasing numbers in the period to come. Unless Robertson-Ireland maintain that a small circle of students and intellectuals will have more success winning over newly radicalized workers than the admittedly sick, but still proletarian SWP, then their perspective makes no sense. We feel, that despite its sickness, there are enough healthy working class elements in the party, that with our support and encouragement, these comrades can begin work that will in time bring important layers of fresh, young workers and Negroes into our movement. We have complete confidence that within the party we will win over the bulk of these class conscious forces. Does Robertson-Ireland have this confidence in our ideas?

These comrades, as they have no class analysis of the party, begin with a feeling of deep alienation from the party as a whole. This is expressed in a thousand little ways throughout the document. "We have no intention of building centrism," Robertson-Ireland state, and they caution us on having "any mistaken concepts of loyalty to a diseased shell." Along the same lines 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. But since our tendency has no national organizational structure and has never invoked discipline against anyone or anything, all this adds up to is a light-headed attitude towards discipline of the party. This mood in the tendency leads to such actions as that taken by Judy, actions which have done great harm to our tendency.

We cannot win serious influence in the party if we feel so alien from it as to view its growth as the growth of an opponent formation (for certainly all centrist parties are our opponents). We must identify with the party as our party, work to help it grow and expand having full confidence in our own ideas and thus in our ability to win to a correct Marxist program the new forces that come into the party. Discipline is not a tactical matter. If one wishes to seriously build the party (which these comrades do not) then one must loyally and fully accept the discipline of the party. There is nothing that more alienates the best elements in our party than a light attitude towards the discipline of the party. They correctly interpret this to mean a hostility to the party itself, a party they consider to be theirs. It was some of the best people in the New York branch that criticized Judy the most for her undisciplined functioning. I sympathized with these comrades, and not Judy, on this point.

Rejecting party building and rejecting party discipline because the party is dominated by centrist elements leads logically to only one conclusion--splitting from the party. But these comrades do not openly advocate such a course. This, however, puts them in a difficult spot. On the one hand they feel they cannot (and by and large these comrades have not) do much fruitful work through the party. They cannot openly do work independently of the party without risking expulsion from the party. The result: the comrades generally do not do work of any variety which brings them in contact with the masses. And thus of necessity they become a little ingrown critical circle isolated from the masses whose only excuse for existence is "study" and factionalism. It is within this framework that the underlined assertion of Robertson-Ireland that "one of our major tasks at this moment is to become study circle" takes on its real meaning.

Their activity, to the extent that it occurs at all, takes on a "circle building" character. This is expressed in their concept of "‘double’ recruitment." They urge our tendency to take young fresh elements, indoctrinate them with our views (in a careful manner of course so as not to get "caught") and then sneak them into the party and into the tendency. Essentially these comrades are once again expressing their very real lack of confidence in their own ability to win over fresh new elements who come into direct contact with the party majority. If we are in fact correct in our ideas we need not fear the impact of the majority comrades on young revolutionaries. Of course if we are completely isolated from party work we will not come into contact with these new forces and they may very well become majorityites.

Also this method of recruitment has a very direct influence on the type of new recruits our tendency gets. Since the tendency is prohibited from independently carrying on class struggle actions by its existence as a part of the party, these new recruits are not brought into our tendency through joint participation in struggle. It is the rare individual, who after being so recruited, is not so turned inward and embittered as to be next to useless in influencing other party members or in carrying on serious mass work.

There are other indications in the document of this "circle building" approach. While the comrades recognize that we cannot operate independent of the party they urge us to operate through the form of the party as if we were in fact a separate organization. This is the meaning of their urgings that we "act as united blocs within the party when approaching some outside activity as a strike, campus activity or the like." Comrade Harper similarly urges us in the youth to function where the majority isn’t. We reject this kind of circle building functioning for we wish to function exactly where the majority is. We have confidence in our ability to win over the best of the active working class majority comrades. We reject any concept of playing games with party discipline, sneaking people into the party, functioning in an undisciplined way when the majority isn’t looking or not present (why else the concern to be active where they are not?).

All this talk of pressing "the struggle within the party on an organizational plane" is cut out of the same cloth. We do not want an organizational factional war with the majority. Such an approach will only deepen our isolation within the party--force us deeper and deeper into our little circle. Our task is not to subjectively oppose everything the majority proposes but rather to seek close organizational collaboration with majority comrades, despite the efforts of the centrists in the party to prevent organizational collaboration through provocative actions. Having established these working relations we must pursue all the more vigorously the political struggle.

For us to consider opening up our tendency to non-party members is simply to invite disciplinary action from the majority. This is clearly an action in violation of the statutes in our party. Furthermore it is completely unjustified. Not one single person has been refused membership in the party solely because of suspected sympathy with the minority. I personally would have opposed on the floor of the New York branch the application for membership of the comrade referred to in the Robertson-Ireland document. I have never met this person. More important he has never attended a single party function and was completely unknown to the party local. He is not an American citizen and he planned forthwith to go to an isolated area where we have no branch. This is an absurd business and gives one a feel of the kind of question which these comrades tend to blow out of all proportion. I have no intention of participating in any meeting at which internal party matters are discussed in front of nonparty members. Even in the non-Leninist YSL we did not invite non-members into our tendency until we had a conscious split perspective.

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. Admittedly, the majority comrades had the weight of the party leadership on their side and this was an important factor. But we had maintained control of the local despite this for a couple of years now. In any event the size of the defeat is a clear indication that at least some of the blame lies with our own comrades. That is unless one claims that our ideas cannot stand up in open conflict with the majority’s in a struggle for the allegiance of young people who wish to be revolutionaries.

The Robertson-Ireland orientation, taken as a whole, has an internal logic to it that the authors may only be partially aware of, or not aware at all. To state it openly and plainly theirs is a split perspective. A tendency 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, 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--such a tendency is going down a road which must inevitably lead to a split from the party. That is the logic of it regardless of the wishes of the individual comrades who adhere to this orientation. The more we act as if we were an outside force, the greater will be our isolation from the party ranks. As soon as we are real totally isolated we can count on the Hansens, etc. , to toss us out of the party--to the cheers of a relieved membership. With the type of tactics these comrades suggest that we follow the leadership will have little difficulty in finding solid grounds for expulsion.

Whatever else may be said for the Robertson-Ireland "study circle" proposal, I am somewhat sceptical as to the theoretical contributions that will come out of such a group. Worthwhile Marxist research cannot develop in the stultified atmosphere of the type of "study circle" these comrades advocate. Only comrades capable of deeply rooting themselves in the class struggle or working closely with and assisting as best they can comrades w are so rooted can make, or ever will make, serious contributions to Marxist theory. What we need is less talk of the importance of theoretical work an< more serious work by all the comrades on the real problems we face. Talking circles will not help this.

Our Alternative

What is our alternative to the real perspective of Robertson-Ireland to turn our tendency into an isolated circle of critics? We start from our class analysis of the nature of the party itself. We see the party as containing both a centrist wing, which presently dominates the leadership, and a proletarian wing which resists this domination fully and consciously, as in the case of our own cadres, or partially and confusedly, as in the case of many, many of the party’s trade union and Negro cadres. Since we view the party in this fashion we do not feel alienated from it. Rather we feel a complete identity with its proletarian kernel. It is our party and we are going to struggle to return this party to the proletarian elements who actually built it is the Hansens, the Weisses, and the Wardes who are alien elements in our midst. For their politics we have nothing but hatred, nothing but implacable struggle against the corrupters of our party.

Our task is to raise the consciousness of the healthy working class forces within the party. In order to do this we must more and more devote our attention to the developments on the American scene. This is the importance of the treatment of the American scene in our basic platform; this is the importance of the Philips Amendment that we presented at the Plenum. We must relate the drift of the party in the class struggle in this country with their outright betrayals internationally. It has been this approach which has led to our growth among older party cadre in the past period. It has been this approach which has brought the New Haven people close to us. This must continue to be our course.

We cannot reach the working class cadres of the party as long as we remain an outside alien force within the party. We must deepen our roots in the party. We must become the most loyal, the most disciplined, the most dedicated builders of this party as well as the most implacable, most tireless opponents of the petty bourgeois tendency which dominates and strangles the very life of our party. We must work with these comrades in order to help develop the roots of our party among the working class and Negro people. Yes, we must do all kinds of work, even Jimmy Higgins work. We are not privileged characters. The problems of the party are our problems and we must collectively work to correct them.

Of course we expect the centrists to seek to force us out of the party and out of significant positions of influence within the party. They must do this for our success will mean their political death. What does Robertson-Ireland propose in this situation? Clearly to retreat deeper and deeper into our little comfortable circles. We propose to seek to deepen our roots in the party. The more they seek to force us out the deeper, deeper in we sink our roots. Should they expell some of us, the others must remain in the party and dig in deeper and the expelled members must immediately re-apply for membership and orient all their efforts around assisting the development within the party. Our success in these tasks will have a tremendous effect on the overall success of the work in this country.

Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of our building of a proletarian tendency within our party. The building of such a tendency requires the defeat of the tactical line put forward by Robertson-Ireland and the further implementation of the line we have been following this past year.

October 2, 1962

Letter by Albert Phillips appended to "Towards the Working Class"

Dear Tim:

The history of the revolutionary movement is replete with individual and little groups of frustrated and rootless petty-bourgeois, who under cover of revolutionary phraseology prepare a desertion of the revolutionary movement.

I hope I am wrong, but the Robertson-Ireland ‘document,’ taken together with the Harper statement on the YSA to which he refers, appear to be heading in just that direction, and at top speed.

I am in agreement of course with the general line of your statement. You make the central points correctly. Hiding behind the very shallow rhetoric is a complete lack of understanding of precisely the two points on which the Minority stands--the decisive role of the class and of the party.

The revolutionary party is going to be built according to these sophomoric maneuverers, by forcing the party to accept in membership somebody who lives in Puerto Rico or somewhere. It will be built, according to the Harper thing, by sending our forces where the majority isn’t. Finally, it will be built by "studying." The class struggle, at some undetermined time in the indefinite future will then be the final test. Despite all the phrases, their approach reveals beyond the shadow of a doubt that they have no faith and no understanding in the revolutionary potential of the working class and of the struggle of the Negro people.

If we are to move our limited forces, the movement must be dictated not by petty organizational considerations, but by the rhythm and demands of the mass movement--if the mass movement is really our primary revolutionary interest. If we are to study, then the living laboratory of the class struggle must be the school room in which we open the books. The concept of a study circle means that in reality its proponents believe that mighty class struggles are not on the agenda, that the need for a combat party is still objectively a need of some indefinite future.

By historical accident, the overwhelming majority of the cadre of the American party, in fundamental contradiction with the current political line which it has impressionistically adopted, must nevertheless fight to preserve and build the Party. Contrary to abstract political logic, the cadre in this country must justify its existence by fulfilling a political function left open by the Social-Democrats on the one hand, the Stalinists on the other. Because of its political line it does this poorly. But it must do this nevertheless.

Despite its political line it represents the first line of attraction for revolutionary youth today, and Negroes tomorrow, and the working class a little later. Has its political line yet become an insurmountable and permanent block to this type of growth? Can we do qualitatively better at this juncture in the objective situation in terms of recruitment? Can Robertson demonstrate this? Doesn’t Robertson realize that it was the very growth of the Party in the youth field, the attraction of new and leftward moving youth which opened up the present struggle and is attracting more and more of the older working class cadre? What will be the result when such new growth accelerates, as it will? Who will win the new elements who want to be revolutionists? If we can’t win them, there is something wrong with us.

A closer analysis of Robertson’s arguments portray their shallow and eclectic character. He arbitrarily selects Cuba as the point of no return, the point at which the SWP becomes organically a centrist party moving to the right, which cannot be reformed, but in actuality must be destroyed. Why Cuba? I could select a half-dozen points in the last 15 years to arbitrarily select a closing date for the Marxist accountant to close his books on. The SWP remains impressionistic. But if we really believe that the workers in Russia, and China, in Cuba and America, will demonstrate their revolutionary will, we must also accept the real possibility that we can and will win a majority, if not of the leadership, then of the ranks of the party. Again, any other course demonstrates a lack of the revolutionary perspective which we hold to be the basis for the impressionistic drift of the majority leadership.

On page 4 of the document Robertson again gives evidence of a complete lack of seriousness. We are told that the SWP is not even a left-centrist grouping "which genuinely desires ... the socialist revolution but suffers some internal limitation in the form of ideological or organizational baggage which it is unable to transcend in practice." It has become "opportunist" in intent. This childish babble is made more concrete by the examples he gives us of a genuinely left-centrist outfit, which apparently was not "opportunist in intent." He gives us of all things the Workers Party-USA, 1941-46.

One of the most serious political errors I have made was in leaving the SWP for the WP in 1940, even though almost immediately afterward I joined in the fight of a minority inside the WP for reunification.

The overwhelming majority of the leadership and cadre of the WP split from the Trotskyist movement under the impact of the Stalin-Hitler pact and the pressure of American imperialism. If there could have been any doubt, the subsequent evolution of the WP removes it. Trotsky, by the way, was ready to make all kinds of organizational compromises even with this group to prevent a light-minded and criminal split. But the minority, which did not start off with a split perspective anywhere near as clearly enunciated as that of Robertson, soon was swept away by the political logic of its impressionism, and by a basic rejection, despite its noisy rhetoric, of a revolutionary perspective either in America or in the Soviet Union.

And yet Robertson has the unmitigated gall to present this essentially petty-bourgeois grouping moving under the blows of bourgeois public opinion as an example of a genuine "left-centrist" organization superior to that of the SWP today. What a fantastic and revealing business.

The building of the revolutionary party still remains a slow, hard, tedious task, although the tempo is now beginning to pick up a little. Workers above all do not join such a party lightly. And they do not leave it lightly. They do not carry their organizational convictions packed in an overnight bag ready for instant departure. This may be a handicap in the mass Social-Democratic and Stalinist parties in Europe. It is an advantage in the SWP. Workers judge much by deeds. They are not easily taken in by intellectual adventurers and factionalists.

The sooner we realize this, the smaller will be the cost to the minority and the more quickly will we grow among the real revolutionary elements--those presently in the SWP, and those who are going to join.

Albert Philips




Posted: 16 July 2005