Marxist Bulletin No. 2
The Nature of the Socialist Workers Party—Revolutionary or Centrist
Letter to Ed by Jim Robertson
New York City
Oct. 18, 1961
I’m taking a couple days off work in order to formulate my notes and incorporate them into this letter to you. The intersection of events in the past couple of weeks both within the American, particularly the youth movement, and of IC-SWP developments have forced a stock taking, reevaluation and affirmation of our working perspectives. And I mean taking a hard look at a more fundamental level than the merely tactical 180 degree turns which have been executed every few weeks in the period since the party convention.
Within the American movement: In the post-party convention period we have in part sinned against our intended underlying perspective. At the very first gatherings of comrades of our tendency in NYC brought together because of the needs of factional struggle for the pre-convention period, I recall explaining that we were embarking on a long, hard road and one which the party would react to with all the considerable means at its disposal and in particular, that our majority in the YSA-NEC was rendered highly transitory thereby. This was then and since even put forth as a sort of a slogan: “To Transform Ourselves from the Youth Leadership Into a Tendency in the Movement as a Whole.” I.e., the party majority would itself aid us in bringing about the first half, but it was up to us to bring about the second by rooting ourselves, and seeking to become local majorities, in the party branches and youth units. And to do this not merely as an organizational defense measure, but as a process of the political delineation of our minority as that of the consistent Trotskyists within the party.
You were at the national gathering just after the party convention when we recognized without dissent that the period of working as a faction was over with the close of the convention and that we would seek to consolidate and extend ourselves in the next period in the more general form of a political tendency within the movement. At that point prospects along these lines were pretty good, if modest: we had with the excellent pre-convention and convention arguments won a general recognition for ourselves as ‘the American minority.’ But since then we have not gone forward.
It has been our activity in the youth field which has compromised our intended line and which in the balance has been an error. For we continued with a series of factional maneuvers in the youth organization. There was to be sure plenty of justification, even compulsion, for our actions which were in addition utterly principled in nature. The particular whys and wherefores have been gone into in earlier letters; e.g., my letter to Roger of 9-14-61. Our post-convention course arose out of the contradiction in the YSA of our grouping (except for my removal) continuing as the one nominally in the majority on the NEC and responsible to and for the YSA which we had founded and largely built. But at the same time we were entirely a lame duck leadership visibly, but not formally, repudiated by the party leadership which had swung a majority of the party-youth activists behind it. In the attempt to discharge our responsibilities to the YSA our comrades were drawn into a series of organizational wrangles which, with the party in a fundamentally powerful position, was a situation which the party could and did degrade and muddy, using every turn to pose an image of ‘Wohlforth a party disloyal-bureaucrat-cliquist’ thus making mileage in a campaign to reduce our political tendency to a matter of bringing a disrupter to heel.
Additionally there has been another underlying obstacle to our ability to carry out the requisite turn. Our central grouping in NYC was largely formed as a political and especially organizational youth leadership habituated to disciplined administrative practice and of reducing questions to a matter of taking assignments in a division of labor. These are fine and necessary habits for a majority, but over-reliance on them for a minority is to display its least significant and weakest side.
To put our error in general form: we continued to work as a faction rather than as a tendency. A faction is a grouping organized for struggle, emphasizing internal discipline, mobilizing for and executing uniform tactics, etc. A tendency is a grouping of comrades who hold essentially the same viewpoint on more-or-less fundamental questions and who may be, but are not necessarily organized for power struggles, i.e., a faction. (For a brief refresher I recommend rereading Cannon’s ‘Faction Struggle and Party Leadership’ in the Nov.-Dec. 1953 FI.) Additionally, preoccupation with more organizational questions places us most fully at the mercy of the party leadership’s mastery of organizational judo. I.e., puts the plane of struggle within the sphere of the party’s greatest competence–handling org. questions.
At the same time that we were drawn into extending ourselves in organizational struggles we entirely failed to move in other directions. I.e., until just two nights ago and then on the basis of this present perspective, the NYC tendency comrades never have had a political discussion as such! Even for example Mage’s Cuba resolution was presented to the party for convention vote with neither discussion nor vote on it by its proponents (many of whom accepted it only in a general way). And the needs of a factional center in NYC have determined our geographic allocation of forces up until the present time.
The widening breach in the International Committee: The present situation in the IC, opened by the SLL letter to the SWP of Jan. 2, ’61, has gone rapidly through several stages. (l) The SLL began by finally moving to put some life in the 1C for the first time and toward the aim of reconstructing a Trotskyist International. It sought to win the concurrence of the SWP and at the same time very gently warned the SWP that political weaknesses had been noticed of late within the American Party (e.g., unity sentiments toward the Pablo grouping). What was essentially new was that the SLL would no longer be held off from these aims by the private demurs of the passive and obscuring SWP. From now on things were to be out in the open within the IC, The SWP refused to visibly react in any direction in the ensuing correspondence series, almost entirely one sided, from SLL to SWP leading bodies. (2) Then the SLL brought out its draft world resolution (about which you will recall my enthusiasm when I talked with you when on tour, because, as I put it, the draft contained points which I had thought were even personal prejudices on my part and shared by no one else). The draft contained a section which said among other things: “The revolutionaries in the SWP need periodically to take a hard look at themselves and check over their political work constantly.” The party response was to bring out its own draft international resolution which by its objectivist methodology and gaping evasions served to sharpen the concern of the SLL leadership. (3) In June the party printed in the internal bulletin the Cannon letters of the previous month which said: “The breach between us and Gerry is obviously widening.” and “… I get the definite impression that the SLL is off on an Oehlerite binge.” In July at the IC session in which the SLL won a clear majority, C. Slaughter, main reporter to the meeting, concluded his summary with the no longer implied or gentle: “The question that follows from the SWP resolution today is: why not liquidate the Trotskyist parties? We must stop this trend before it is too late.” The SWP has ignored the invitation to defend its views at the next IC meeting and has never replied directly to these or earlier SLL criticisms. It was the reading of the Slaughter report two weeks ago which pushed me to look at our situation, since open rupture is plainly a near thing.
I believe that the SLL is doubly correct vis-à-vis the SWP. First that the SLL-IC position on the central task of the Trotskyists is incontestable–the need for a revolutionary Marxist International, not an international publicity agency for assorted “leftward-moving” bureaucracies. Further, that the resulting critique of SWP views and motion is true. Second, and given the first part, it is then incumbent upon the SLL to force clarification within the IC by moving through all the stages necessary to achieve a real political discussion and consolidation within a world body which can then become an international instrument instead of the passive, semi-fiction of the past 8 years. The internal deadlock must be broken, even though it places us within the SWP in an extremely precarious, but also important, position.
What the main elements in our perspective must be: With the foregoing as a preliminary let me move into the question of what is indicated for us to do. To recapitulate–the growing dissatisfaction with mere tactical zigzags in the YSA together with the recognition of the implications for us of the trend of SLL-SWP relations are together what has led to the determination for a real assessment.
If the present course of IC developments are followed out along their current path, there will be a collision and an organizational rupture. The SWP will not long endure the present level of pressure on it to discuss, rather viewing this pressure as sectarian name calling and insults. But it will not acquiesce to an intra-IC discussion either, since that would contradict the course actively being followed: e.g., right now Hansen is in Latin America seeking to get next to the kinds of forces which the IC would like to debate how rotten they are.
The SWP tops have an easy and natural rationale to cover a split from the IC and one which the SWP is already largely prepared for; “we choose to openly discuss with all Trotskyist and leftward-moving forces in the world on an equal basis and seeking common actions and fraternal solidarity. We have tried to deal with the unfortunately disoriented IC comrades in the same spirit, only they won’t have it, so we choose to continue on the broader road of general fraternal relations, not into an ingrown isolation.” I can hear Dobbs saying it at a plenum in which a split is passed off as really a move toward unity in “the big picture”.
We have a primary duty to our political views and goals to the future of Trotskyism in this country, i.e., the American revolution. This duty entails (l) to uphold the views which we share with the IC majority, and (2) therefore to urge and stand for the maintenance of SWP unity with the IC and, if that unity is broken, to advocate its reestablishment. It is also necessary to take this course with great circumspection and with a clear and real affirmation that we are an indigenous wing of the SWP and organizationally loyal and disciplined. Otherwise a break with the IC can well automatically lead to our own exclusion.
At bottom, the reason I hold a perspective of struggle against split from the SWP is because the party is far from one in which all the revolutionary juices have been drained. Factionalism now is linked with and only has use in a split perspective. In the past few years the party has begun to react to opportunities by turning each one into a cycle of opportunism until the given opening is exhausted. Each time a selection takes place, some–notably the Weiss grouping–get worse and move toward liquidationism, but others react and are impelled in a leftward direction. This process has just begun, if one stops to view the SWP historically. There are two roads open.
Either each wave of oppositionals will let themselves get washed out of the party, making it ever harder for succeeding left-wingers, or each opportunist venture into fresh fields will augment the revolutionary Marxists with additional forces.
There is one and only one reason for which the SWP should be able to find grounds for our expulsion: the advocacy within the movement and within those circumstances as expressly laid down by the SWP leadership of our Trotskyists views.
Not only would failure to follow this course be a sectarian gift per se to the SWP tops, but in the next period it could well mean our extinction. To take a clear look at ourselves: we are a nominal 35 or so comrades. About 15 in NYC where there is a certain spread of opinion and orientation among the leading comrades; in addition, a similar number in the Bay Area, but of generally less commitment so that there is as well a spread between the two areas as well as a lack of common orientation within the Bay Area. Then there are a couple of valuable but isolated comrades who are rather passive toward their views, elsewhere.
This nascent grouping is not one which, even if part of it could maneuver the other part into a split against its will, would hold strong promise for the demanding life of an organizationally independent existence. (Correct programme is not by itself enough; the development of cadres counts, too. Trotskyist groupings of our size keep turning up and disappearing in half the countries on earth.) We hold in our hands a body of comrades with great demonstrated qualities of work and seriousness. The chemistry of transforming this into a cadre is not an easy thing. Abortion Is.
It is necessary to orient for the best, the optimistic variant before us (what Trotsky called revolutionary optimism). An example along this line would be for the upsurge in the union movement (so long deferred–but note what is happening now in the auto workers) to produce a cleavage in which our party opportunists seek to become the agents for the inevitable “more progressive wing” of the T.U. bureaucracy, while every other element in the party and possessing an essential militancy orients toward the rank-and-file movement. Then we’ll have the reckoning for which the pressures are building and in the most favorable, fullest, clear-cut circumstances.
Immediate tasks: To put ourselves on the correct track we have to open up and act like what we aim to be–a tendency that is a part of the party. One never gets something for nothing. Switching over the mechanism that holds our grouping together from that of an organizational disciplinary sense Imposed upon a minimal political agreement to that of a developing political cohesiveness offers threats of losing some comrades along the way. The danger is that we may do it raggedly or fail to fill the new modes of functioning with a real, live, content. But should we go in the other direction and simply quiet down on practically all issues through the means of seeking a vastly intensified discipline, even if the turn aimed at were the one sketched here it would fail because the majority would clearly see and trumpet it about that we were approaching the party in a military fashion. J. P. Cannon is not at all stupid and we would not deceive him by one more tactical product of what he has so frequently stated his hatred–a permanent faction.
This line of conduct is urgent for another reason; we have failed for so long to engage in political discussion and clarification even within the tendency that some comrades fear that beginning to do so now will cause some of those in the NYC tendency to go over to the majority. This fear that we may be in actuality some kind of clique is not only groundless–our comrades here certainly all agree, for example, with the July ’61 IC minimal position adopted on Cuba–but this view only serves to exacerbate real centrifugal forces of other kinds. Rather than conjure up such fears we should seek as much political discussion as we can, and as much of that as we can before and with the movement as a whole rather than within the tendency. Politics and a political identity should be our hallmark rather than clinging to the habits of a vanished role in the YSA leadership.
The principal threat to a perspective of political struggle with the party is in finding ourselves (1) isolated, (2) discredited, or (3) thrown out through “violating” party decisions and “proving” that we are all the usual stuff–anti-party elements, agents of a foreign power (Healy), etc. About (1) isolation, this is in some ways and with some elements inevitable in any case, simply on the basis of the party tops’ power and authority and our lack of same. But those whose primary respect is for power are not the best elements for us to approach anyhow. None-the-less the feeling of isolation on our people is a constant strain liable to induce hasty and unstable conduct on our part. It is the isolation of discreditment and the danger of being expelled that we must counter as our principal external task at this time.
The question of how to deal with the Cuba discussion in the YSA is both a matter with which we must deal and is a good example of how to proceed as an SWP disciplined tendency. The new youth leadership–i.e., the party leadership–has made Cuba the only political point on the agenda of the coming YSA national conference. What was intended as a trap for us fell through when a surprise majority on the PC voted unambiguously that party members in the youth were free to state their views on the Cuban question within the YSA.
Now the YSA is in general not a matter of struggle for us; the party has made it clear that the YSA is a party property. We therefore must avoid anything that smacks of obstructionism or of organizing non-party youth against the party. Hence we seek to raise and work out our political views in the party primarily. The only question of real import to the YSA is that of youth-party relations. But youth-party relations can’t even be touched on without making at least an implied attack on the social-democratic practices the party is imposing. At a minimum we should leave the question entirely alone in the discussion unless the party expressly permits the expression of views and resolutions on this subject. Best is to present within the party our model of youth-party relations, e.g., the Mage draft resolution, rather than seeking the right to try to implement it within the youth at this juncture. All the youth will know where we stand in any case and the intra-party existence of this position, kept active, will serve as a good measuring rod for the evolution of party conduct toward the youth.
Certainly we must absolutely avoid getting involved in any mutual recriminations about past record, etc., in the YSA. That would open the door wide to exactly what the party majority is looking for–a big, messy, senseless organizational squabble at the coming youth conference. We do not carry a responsible role in the youth leadership any longer and any time we act otherwise we are going to get hurt and do the YSA no good either.
But about the Cuban question we need to and indeed have the opportunity to move differently. We have been virtually ordered to discuss it in the YSA and would politically be discredited and pilloried by our opponents should we fail to offer the differing views from the SWP position which practically all YSA members know exist since they were invited into the party pre-convention discussion as observers. But there is a trap: the party PC rep to the YSA-NEC has “invited” us to request the introduction of our SWP bulletin pre-convention material into the YSA discussion. To do so would center the discussion on a simple continuation of our attacks upon what has in the interim become the SWP position, i.e., make it appear we are warring with the party in the youth. Rather we should request the introduction only of comrade Mage’s draft resolution on Cuba which is entirely objective (i.e., doesn’t mention the SWP) for the information of the YSA.
The next step in dealing with the Cuba-youth business is crucial to our whole perspective. Rather than seek to a priori bind tendency supporters to the particular interpretations contained in the Mage resolution, i.e., to work as a faction facing the rest of the YSA with an internal discipline, rather than this our comrades should present their various views on Cuba and even alternative discussion drafts of resolutions should they feel it necessary–thus treating the YSA to a real, live discussion. We are not in any power fight in the youth and the certain attempts of the surely surprised party majority comrades to exploit intra-IC type differences can in fact have only beneficial effects. We will present a far more attractive appearance to non-party youth as serious about working out the Cuban and colonial questions, not in subordinating them to organizational aims within the YSA as the party majority is doing. At the same time we are placed in the strongest defensive position toward the discussion from the party side. It makes it clear that the rumors circulating in NYC that “we intend to split at the youth conference” are nonsense. Further with this conduct we are most closely following the PC motion as stated: i.e., members presenting their views, not a party faction presenting its views to line up non-party youth against the party.
The party majority seems sure to make the Cuban question the voting issue of division at the youth conference. If so, the left wing delegates can at that time decide how to formulate our common position as it has evolved in the light of the discussion. At a minimum something like the July IC statement is quite sufficient should no draft resolution introduced into the discussion prove satisfactory. But to seek a common plank at the beginning–either an elaborate or a minimal one–then go into the discussion bound to such a stand and refusing to be drawn out would open us up to the various difficulties and charges as indicated above.
I think that to work along these lines by our tendency comrades in the youth will not only avoid many pitfalls, but cause us to emerge a politically strengthened and defined tendency and with our nature better understood and strengthened in the eyes of the movement as a whole. This provided that we don’t get carried away into investing the discussion with the importance of a party convention and lose sight of more primary aims within the party. Likewise comrades must not begin to attack the party or party leaders no matter what the provocation–and there may be deliberate provocation. Should such a situation start to develop in any form responsible comrades should on the spot call any offender to order in an educational way and as a loyal party member should. So much for the question of Cuba in the YSA.
As has been mentioned before, we must deal with the matter of the disposition of our comrades geographically. Our concentration in NYC has weaknesses which will soon be even more sharply apparent when larger numbers of older party youth are taken out of the YSA after the coming conference. The NYC party branch is, from the standpoint of rooting our tendency in the party, one of the least likely in the country. In addition to the common NYC political disease of ingrownness and isolation, the branch is very heavily and directly administered from the National Office and is policed by numerous comrades eager to prove their zeal to the party tops. —
We will have to make some decisions after the youth conference and perhaps move rapidly to carry out a redistribution at that time. Hence in the meantime we must weigh various alternatives.
Summary: All our proposals for the next months must revolve around strengthening ourselves within the party so that we make it as difficult as possible to be dumped out as “Healyite agents” as the fight in the IC sharpens. This means bringing to the fore the political character of our tendency (and working to clarify and extend it by so doing) and emphasizing our organizational loyalty and discipline to the SWP. This cannot be accomplished by some tactical maneuver, but by a real, if delayed, going over in our functioning to what it should have become earlier.
Should we be squeezed out of the SWP none the less we will still be in the strongest position–our comrades and not only those in our tendency vividly aware that we did everything in our power short of surrender of our Bolshevist convictions to remain in our party. But if we approach the situation in this spirit we diminish to the minimum the likelihood of this more pessimistic variant. The party tops will then be in the least advantageous position to move against us organizationally; and we seek political confrontation within the party.
I know this is a long letter, but it’s been four months since we’ve been able to discuss personally, and a great deal has piled up and become urgent in the meantime. I know you don’t write much but you should make some response upon due consideration. In addition I’m sending copies of this letter to other comrades to the extent I can get out carbons in a single typing. I hope these proposals elicit a strong response from all who read it, both of consideration and reply and of implementation to the extent feasible in particular circumstances.
There is a whole separate area worthy of another long letter just in going into the polities of our tendency at this juncture and the related tasks. Citing and relating the most pressing questions, sketching a line content and suggesting the ways and levels of dealing with them. I’ll try to crank something out next weekend.
Certainly much of what I’ve covered is not as directly applicable to the Bay Area as it is to New York. For example because your branch is at a great distance from the center and our comrades are a force in it, you are necessarily plunged into struggles in the branch from time to time since many practical decisions are made by the branch itself. But the general tenor is, I believe, applicable to the Bay Area and the other parts of the country. And much of it is Intended precisely for strengthening the processes for pulling our tendency more closely together on a nationwide basis. For this job programmatic agreement is the strongest bond and the one which we must heighten.
With Leninist greetings,