Marxist Bulletin No. 2

The Nature of the Socialist Workers Party—Revolutionary or Centrist





"It is necessary that every member of the Party should study calmly and with the greatest objectivity, first the substance of the differences of opinion, and then the development of the struggles within the Party. Neither the one nor the other can be done unless the documents of both sides are published. He who takes somebody’s word for it is a hopeless idiot, who can be disposed of with a simple gesture of the hand."
--Lenin (as printed over the masthead of the first issue of The Militant, 15 November 1928)

The present collection of discussion material documents the origin and development of differences which led to the still persisting split among those forces which comprised the left wing of the Socialist Workers Party. Much of this material has never previously been circulated beyond the discussion participants themselves. All of it now appears publicly for the first time.

Struggle Against Wohlforth’s Impressionism

The division in the tendency began simply enough as an effort by James Robertson to stabilize the tendency in its work by countering the zig-zag course that the principal tendency spokesman, Tim Wohlforth, was pursuing. In the months following the June 1961 SWP Convention, Wohlforth first made a wild attempt to wage a power fight against the Party Majority for control of the Young Socialist Alliance. He then went over to a fanciful discovery that the party was still solidly revolutionary though confused by the present revisionist leadership (which had merely been around for 35 years) and would be set right by exemplary hack work for the Majority’s revisionist line by the Minority which would then become the new majority. In intention and effect Wohlforth was to spend the next year offering the Dobbs regime in the SWP a bloc--to police the Revolutionary Tendency on the left and against the Swabeck and Weiss pro-Maoists and liquidators on the right. But with the discrepancy in forces involved on each side, the proffered bloc was rejected by the Majority as the over-ambitious effort of a mouse to make love to an elephant. In response to this tactical line based on wishful thinking others sought to link the tactics of the Revolutionary Tendency to an estimation of the SWP in a more long term historical perspective. Faced with this slowly mounting opposition to his leadership, Wohlforth switched back and forth throughout the summer of 1962 on the emerging issue of the nature of the SWP--now insisting on the continued soundly revolutionary working-class character of the party, then agreeing that it had become politically centrist, then again denying that the issue had any validity except as a factional red herring.

Finally, following the writing of "The Centrism of the SWP and the Tasks of the Minority" by Robertson and Ireland, Wohlforth felt his control of the tendency slipping away and launched a campaign to split rather than face the possibility of ending up in the minority if the discussion were permitted to go to a conclusion by establishing clear-cut majority and minority positions. To justify such a split and to frighten Minority supporters outside New York City, Wohlforth raised a hue and cry over a split, but not his own. He announced that the R-I document was the preparation for a split from the SWP. The logic behind this accusation seemed to rest on the simple assumption by Wohlforth that since he would certainly leave the SWP if he thought it was degenerated, therefore that’s what Robertson was planning. (As evidence of this logic operating in Wohlforth’s head, it should be noted that by the fall of 1963 Wohlforth, when he was ready to leave the SWP, went from thinking the party had always remained revolutionary to the position that it had never been really revolutionary!) To give plausibility to the split accusation, Wohlforth in his "Towards the Working Class" was obliged to create such a fictional and deliberately vicious caricature of the R-I position that however good an excuse it proved two years later for the expulsions from the party, it was simply not believed then by sufficient forces within the tendency. Instead it produced such a reaction that when Wohlforth and Philips broke away, despite the fact that they were the only SWP National Committee members in the group, hence the principal spokesmen, they took less than a third of the Minority supporters with them.

The SWP’s Rightward-Moving Centrism

Massive vindication for the "centrist" position was not long in coming, Even as Philips and Wohlforth, backed by Healy, were consummating the split (the unprincipled particulars of which is the subject of Marxist Bulletin #3, Part I), the Cuban missile crisis had broken and the SWP leadership embraced J. P. Cannon’s revealing justification of Khrushchev’s role: "What else could he have done under the given circumstances?" This statement implicitly identifies a revolutionary-proletarian policy with that of a Stalinist bureaucracy trapped within the narrow confines of sabre-rattling alternating with capitulation--the latter invariably intended at the expense of others.

The SWP Majority’s profound break with Trotskyism, i.e., revolutionary Marxism, in embracing the Castro leadership as the colonial world’s road to Socialism had ripped the guts out of the party’s domestic line as well. The SWP’s answer for the Southern Negro struggle in the period following the missile crisis was an ever shriller call for Federal deputies or troops to do the job. This finally culminated in the grotesque demand upon the imperialist butchers: "Withdraw the Troops from Viet Nam and Send them to Mississippi" (In November 1963 the SWP central leadership in panic following the Kennedy assassination groveled before the American Bourgeoisie directly. Dobbs can never live down his cowardly telegram printed in The Militant, of condolences to the widow of the political chief of American imperialism.

Internationally the SWP has performed comparably. Following its unification with the Pabloites to form the "United Secretariat" of the Fourth International, events in Ceylon and in Algeria have been shattering blows. A gang of social-democrats, thinly disguised as Trotskyists in order to retain favor in the eyes of the Ceylonese working class, openly broke from Marxism in 1964 to join the capitalist government. Until the Ceylonese betrayal could no longer be hidden, the United Secretariat had kept this group as its official section, the largest they had, and had sheltered it against all criticism in exchange for Ceylonese support to international revisionism.

Until the fall of Ben Bella the United Secretariat and the SWP acclaimed the Algerian government as leading a revolutionary transition from capitalism. Only after the sharp right turn of the Boumedienne coup did Joseph Hansen and the other Pabloite ideologues coolly admit that the Ben Bella regime had been a bonapartist one, tied to French imperialism and resting upon a fundamentally capitalist society.

Meanwhile the former international secretary of the revisionists, Michel Pablo himself, has become a personification of the consequences of the line associated with his name. He had become a high official in the Ben Bella government; had broken away from even the United Secretariat as too sectarian and narrow for revisionist tasks (besides the association could embarrass "his" Algerian government’s close ties with the Russian state). At last report his whereabouts are still unknown following the Boumedienne coup,

Where We Stand

As long ago as October 1961, Robertson wrote in a letter found in the present collection that what was needed is "a revolutionary Marxist International, not an international publicity agency for assorted ‘leftward-moving’ bureaucracies."

The Spartacist, as the continuation of the Revolutionary Tendency in the Socialist Workers Party, seeks consistently and uncompromisingly to march under the revolutionary banner of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. The Spartacist knows the working class is the only class which can effect a genuinely progressive reordering of society, which can only fully come about on an international scale. History has shown that the working class requires the leadership of a Leninist party for the conquest of power in every country. The main task before revolutionists is therefore the construction of the world party built of national sections which can successfully lead the workers in their struggles against the capitalists and their agents, including the Stalinist bureaucracies. The struggle against revisionism, to be viable, is inseparably linked to the struggles to maintain the continuity of the Marxist movement. The movement does not need "new beginnings"; rather it needs to carry forward into new situations the understanding gained by our predecessors--of the Communist International of Lenin’s day and the Fourth International and Socialist Workers Party of Trotsky’s.

An Uncompleted Discussion

If the split by Philips and Wohlforth had not cut the process short, the likelihood is that among the three main documents introduced by what was evolving as the incipient majority within the old tendency, Geoffrey White’s "The Tendency and the Party", written from the vantage point of an already developed discussion, would have become--with some amending--the official tendency majority position. Shane Mage’s brilliant "Theses..." suffered from a lack of necessary comprehensiveness because of their extreme brevity.

Never having completed the arrival at a formal position proved in the sequel to have been poor practice. In the first place the several documents sharing a common basic position were not identical among themselves. Thus a certain ambiguity was left, especially in tactical implementation in party work. This was not immediately apparent as the impact of the split was severe enough for the tendency forces remaining to be preoccupied for some time in a struggle either to heal the breach or in any event to consolidate the tendency as it was.

In addition we were later placed in an awkward position when the Philips-Wohlforth group revealed to the party Majority some of the Robertson-Ireland document’s more flamboyant and extreme phrases and formulations which had been written in the successful effort to cut away any middle ground from Wohlforth, to compel him either to accept or oppose the characterization of the SWP as centrist and the resulting orientation. When the Control Commission demanded to know the position of the Revolutionary Tendency toward the Harper and Robertson-Ireland drafts, those undergoing interrogation could not honestly give a clear-cut answer as to where they stood in a formal sense on the documents in question (and the Control Commission brushed aside fuller political explanation as evasive). And it was to us absolutely out of the question to buttress our case by turning over White’s and Mage’s drafts thus directly involving them in the party witch hunt--a bitter joke since White and Mage were about to be thrown out also for the crime of political association.

Finally, the absence of an adopted position has made possible a certain continuing formal weakness in the definition of the tendency, e.g., as explicitly democratic-centralist, which will be with the group until the adoption of documents at the projected founding conference of the Spartacist League.

"A Simple Gesture of the Hand"

Several well-meaning friends have asked why the Spartacist bothers to publish this material, arguing that it either deals with outlived disputes or that the questions dealt with are so specialized ("sectarian") as to be of interest only to a narrow circle of sophisticates (in which category such well-wishers invariably place themselves). The reply must be in accord with the spirit of Lenin’s quotation printed at the head of this preface.

The issue of the Socialist Workers Party necessarily continues to hold great importance for a group struggling against revisionism within the Trotskyist movement. The Spartacist group remains convinced that many cadres for the revolutionary movement in the United States can yet come from the SWP. But this will only come to pass through the patient effort to understand and intervene at each point against the SWP’s degeneration. The internal tendency discussion in 1961-62 is a valuable contribution toward such understanding.

Moreover, this tendency discussion throws a glaring light upon the participants themselves. Moments of crisis--including sharp internal struggle--reveal far more of the real character of individuals and groupings than any other test, above all the mere uttering of words after the fact. Today any serious person drawn to the Spartacist group also wants to know: "What about the split with Wohlforth?" And that question, which has every right to be asked, can only be answered by recourse to the concrete history of the dispute.

In any event, this is the way it was.

SPARTACIST Resident Editorial Board
September 1965




Posted: 16 July 2005