Max Shachtman


Three Years of the Workers Party
and Labor Action

Join Us in the Fight for Socialism!

(April 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. VII No. 17, 16 April 1943, p. 4.
An abridged version copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty book The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, vol. 1.
Additional Transcription Einde O’Callaghan – [indicated by square brackets].
Marked up by A.Forse & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

[Three years ago, on May Day, the first issue of Labor Action appeared. It was a special two-page and two-color edition. Several weeks later Labor Action began regular appearance. Readers of our paper are acquainted with the completely phenomenal growth of Labor Action – unequalled by any labor periodical at any time. Beginning with an initial circulation of some 3,000 copies each week, Labor Action’s circulation has risen steadily as new THOUSANDS of workers have joined its reading ranks, to the point where today its regular weekly circulation lies between 32,000 and 35,000. On special occasions we have gone as high as 50,000; on this issue, for example, 46,000 copies are being published. And, along with the general increase in circulation, our subscription lists have gone up so that now over 2,000 workers subscribe to Labor Action, and many more hundreds will subscribe before our current subscription campaign is over.

Throughout, Labor Action has been closely associated with the Workers Party. Beginning as the official organ of the Workers Party, Labor Action a year and a half ago severed its formal relations with the Workers Party. However, the closest link continues between the two. The members and friends of the Workers Party are the most consistent champions of Labor Action, and we of Labor Action are champions of the Worker Party, and its socialist clarity of program. Below, for those of our readers who are not acquainted with the history of the Workers Party, we present a survey of its origins and development, written by Max Shachtman, national secretary of the Workers Party. – Editor]

[The Workers Party is three years old this month. But in its origin it is much older.

The militants who founded the Workers Party in April 1940, shortly after the outbreak of the war, were among the founders of the Trotskyist movement in this country, as far back as October 1928. Even further back, for they included founders and pioneer builders of the Communist Party in this country, as well as left wingers who had carried the brunt of the fight for revolutionary principles in the Socialist Party.

The causes for the founding of a new party are connected with the outbreak of the Second Imperialist World War in 1939 and with the history of the Trotskyist movement in the United States.

True to Our Convictions

The Trotskyist movement in this country, as in every other, was born in a struggle against the poison of bureaucratism and nationalistic degeneration in the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. In one country after another, once the full truth about the fight in Russia became known, the best communist elements rallied under the banner raised by Trotsky and his comrades against the virus of Stalinism. At bottom, their fight was and remains a fight to reconstitute the revolutionary socialist movement on a world scale.

It has not been an easy fight, and it is still far from triumphant. A steady stream of blows has rained down upon the head of the international working class; and Leon Trotsky was right in speaking of the period from 1923 onward as a period of reaction and defeat for labor and socialism. In this period, not everyone who began the struggle for revolutionary internationalism proved capable of continuing it to the end. Many lost heart. Deceived by what seemed to be the durable strength of world capitalism, they dropped away from the revolutionary movement entirely. Others returned to the ranks of Stalinism, which consolidated itself – also temporarily – and even became respectable. A few found pitiful refuge from the class struggle in the ranks of one or another branch of the bankrupt social democracy. But enough militants remained true to their flag and their convictions, in every country, to keep alive the firm core of the world movement, that is, the only hope of a free, socialist future – the Fourth International. It is of such militants that the Workers Party is composed today.]

Split with Cannonites

Our party is the direct product of the split that took place in the Socialist Workers Party in 1940. Almost from the day of its birth, the Trotskyist movement in this country experienced recurring internal discussions and struggles not only over political and theoretical questions, but also over the question of bureaucratism. Underlying and clarifying these struggles was, at almost all times, a healthy reaction against the tendencies toward bureaucratism displayed with increasing obviousness by a section of the American Trotskyist leadership represented by Cannon and a little clique of permanent supporters and apologists.

It is not surprising that militants, young and old, who were attracted to the Trotskyist movement by its unrelenting struggle against Stalinist bureaucratism, or the old-style bureaucratism of the American trade union hierarchy, reacted vigorously against a diluted, or dressed-up, variety of bureaucratism in their own party. This reaction only gained in vigor, and in determination to fight, as it became clear that the clique in the leadership did not have sufficiently imposing political virtues to compensate for its bureaucratic rule. On the contrary, it was characterized – this is more so the case now – by its conservatism, political timidity or opportunism, adoration of internal maneuvers (both in the party and in the trade union movement), backwardness and in some cases outright indifference to Marxian theory, especially so far as its leader was concerned.

The outbreak of the Second World War took this leadership completely off guard and revealed its inability to deal with big and new events. It was at this point that its bureaucratic tendency showed positively disastrous results. The only party in the country committed to a program of consistent struggle against imperialist war found itself tongue-tied, because when the war finally broke out it did not take precisely the form that had been envisaged. The imperialist world did not launch an attack on Russia; Russia and Germany joined, instead, in an imperialist assault for the division of booty named Poland, and later on, of other countries of Eastern Europe.

In this situation, all the official leadership of the party could say, when it finally summoned up the ability to speak at all, was to repeat what was at best an utterly meaningless formula: “We are for the unconditional defense of the Soviet Union,” and what was at worst a position of objective support to one of the two imperialist camps in the war.

Taken together, a majority of the membership of the party and the youth organization attached to it rebelled against this position, demanding first of all a broad, well organized and thoroughgoing discussion. To extract permission for such a discussion from the leadership was no small task in itself. Cannon even wrote that a discussion of the burning questions connected with the war was a “luxury." The leadership pretended to act as if it directed a mass party of hundreds of thousands of members up to its hips in the trenches of a civil war, with little or no time for a democratic discussion – this in 1939, in the United States! In fact, the only three branches of the party which, to the very end, remained unanimously in favor of the official position (they were the only three that were unanimous, on either side of the dispute), never did have a debate on the contested questions throughout the internal fight.

Our group, then called the Minority, rejected the slogan of “unconditional defense” of Stalinist Russia in this war and raised instead the slogan of the victory of the Third Camp – not the camp of the imperialist Axis or the camp of the imperialist democracies (plus their more than one totalitarian ally!), but the independent camp of the working class of the world and the oppressed colonial peoples. We pointed out, and it has yet to be refuted, that it was impossible to do anything in the “defense of the Soviet Union” that did not mean aid and support of the imperialist camp of which it was an integral and subordinate part. It is not surprising that to this day, be it during the period of Stalin's alliance with German imperialism or of the alliance with Anglo-American imperialism, the Cannonites have found it impossible to advocate doing anything – anything! – for the “defense of the Soviet Union.”

In one sense, the struggle in the party, insofar as it was a political and theoretical dispute, took place between us and Comrade Trotsky. Trotsky, as is known, was no small opponent, and he never shrank from a discussion. He did not refrain from this one! Virtually every single document that appeared in behalf of the leadership, on the Russian question, on the organizational question, and a number of other questions that were raised, rightly or wrongly, by both sides, was written by Trotsky. The majority leaders confined themselves to underlining their own sterility by trying to repeat Trotsky’s arguments; but the imitation was not one-tenth as good as the original, which was not very adequate to begin with. Left to themselves, without Trotsky’s counsel (regardless of whether or not it was good), the majority leaders proved to be a pretty helpless lot. The party membership could not help observing this fact.

The official leadership won a majority of the delegates to the special convention of the party early in 1940. That is not surprising. What is surprising is that its majority was so slim – a bare 55 per cent – in view of the tremendous, irreplaceable aid given it by Trotsky’s long and well-earned prestige and authority in our movement. What their convention delegation would have amounted to without that aid is not even worth talking about. As it is, if the support we had in the party is joined with our support in the youth (which was overwhelmingly on our side), we had a clear majority of the united Fourth Internationalist movement in this country.

New Twist for Bureaucratism

Recognizing, however, that we were formally in the minority in the party, we demanded, in view of the enormous importance of the differences, that we be permitted to publish a special periodical of our own, free from the control of the majority, in whom we had no confidence and could not have any. In this periodical, we would of course support the fundamental principles we held in common, the general party program, but present our own standpoint on Russia in a responsible manner.

There was nothing new or outrageous in such a proposal; on the contrary, it was the best method, under the circumstances, of preserving the unity of a party whose leadership had shifted away from a revolutionary internationalist position. It was a right we had all fought for when we were the Left Wing of the Socialist Party, and what we said about the Thomas bureaucracy when it denied us this right was a little too vigorous for public prints. It was a right long enjoyed by groups in the Russian Social-Democratic and Bolshevik movements before the war, under Lenin's leadership; and even during the most critical period of the revolution itself, the exercise of this right was not a basis for expulsion or other organizational sanctions. It was Stalin who abolished it, as early as 1925, when he hammered the Leningrad Opposition for attempting to exercise this right. The Cannonites, again acting as if they were right in the midst of a civil war, would not hear of it. Trotsky, unfortunately, with a complete misunderstanding of the situation in the party, and above all a misunderstanding of the character and composition of our group, supported the Cannonites in this matter.

For the bureaucratic clique in control of the party, our demand was of course only a pretext for action to get rid of a group of militants whose criticism they could not endure. They did not act as men confident of their position, and of the early verification that events would bring; and they did not act in panic. Quite coolly and deliberately, they split the Fourth International in half and thus relieved themselves of our embarrassing presence – to them, the one was worth the other.

Something New in Expulsions

Characteristically enough, we were not expelled for any violation of discipline! We were not expelled for publishing Labor Action, for example. Our expulsion occurred before Labor Action saw the light of day, before we were even accused of having violated party discipline. Immediately after the convention, our representatives in the Political Committee were confronted at a meeting with a prepared motion. It was in two parts. We have often challenged the Cannonites to make public this infamous improvement on Stalinist procedure. They have not accepted.

Recently, they published, in an introduction to a collection of Trotsky’s articles against us, the FIRST PART of the motion; they are obviously sufficiently shamefaced to keep the second part secret. The first part pledged all members to abide by the convention decisions. The second part – observe this innovation in the revolutionary movement! – declared that anyone who does not vote in favor of the motion is ... kicked out! A magnificent formula for getting unanimity in the leadership. Not even Stalin ever equalled this brilliant product of Cannon’s brain. No wonder he permits his magazine to write of him repeatedly in this wise: “Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Cannon” – an invincible combination if there ever was one.

We are not unaccustomed to bureaucratic measures, expulsions included. Bureaucrats live most uncomfortably in the presence of revolutionary ideas and of people capable of holding them and expounding them, and not being frightened out of them when small-time officials scowl and threaten. But we must say that when we were expelled, along with Cannon, from the Stalinist leadership and party, our “trial” lasted almost a week. When Cannon had us “finished off,” he turned from his watch to his colleagues with the triumphant remark, “Only four and one-half minutes!”

Our Party Has Grown in Strength

Many wishfully gloomy predictions were made about our imminent doom when we founded the Workers Party and launched Labor Action and The New International under our auspices. You’ll last six months, we were told by the most pessimistic of our expellers. Without regrets, we have refused to comply with their hopes. We draw profitable consolation from the fate of others who so prematurely predicted our doom: the leaders of the CP who expelled us and degenerated completely into reactionary, totalitarian bureaucrats: the Lovestonites, who directed our expulsion from the CP and ended at the boot tips of the imperialist war machine; the Socialist Party leaders who expelled their Left Wing and then completed the ruin of a once so promising party; and even the SWP leaders who have to explain constantly to their members that they are not really opportunists on the war question, on the question of their now-buried “military policy,” on the trade union question.

In launching the new party, we merely continued the struggle for the proletarian revolution and socialism to which we have always been devoted and which is the only progressive cause in the world today. We have gained some modest but gratifying successes; under the pressure of the war situation we have suffered our share of setbacks and losses.

Immediately after the founding of the party, one of its most promising leaders, Burnham, quit its ranks, deserting the struggle for socialism. He proved incapable of measuring up to the task, and revealed that lack of character and stamina which is, alas, not uncommon in our time. The working class movement has a history studded with examples of desertion even of some of its most prominent spokesmen, and the Fourth International has not been and could not be immune from this malady in its ranks.

It is here, by the way, that was shown how sadly Trotsky misjudged our group, which he thought was led by Burnham, and was imbued with “Burnhamism.” Nothing of the sort, of course. Burnham’s desertion, as is always so in such cases, was a blow, but not a particularly serious one. The loss was his, not ours. Important was the fact that no one among us, not a soul, followed him into the void. There have been other losses, as we originally counted there would be, and there will undoubtedly be still others before we reach our goal. But all of them together have not been very important, and we have made up for them ten times over in different ways. Every one of us knows this, knows that our Workers Party today is by far and away more solid and more effective than it has ever been.

Fighters for a Socialsit World

Our confidence in the party is strengthened by the fact that it has remained true to the banner of revolutionary internationalism and to the interests of the working man and working woman at a time when it counts – during the war. We have not retreated from our principles, we have not vacillated, we have not given up an inch of them or sought to gloss them over in the hope of gaining a deceptive and momentary popularity, or of winning “mercy” from our enemy. And that is how we shall continue to be.

Our Labor Action – and we call it ours because we are in the forefront of those who have made its existence and growth possible – has reached a point in popularity and distribution unknown to the radical labor press in our generation. Exact figures would show that more workers read Labor Action than read the Socialist Call, the New Leader, the Militant, the Weekly People and the Industrial Worker combined. And of the tens of thousands who read it, those who feel themselves in solidarity with the program it fights for, surely number in the thousands, at the very least.

Our membership is firmly established among the rest of their class – in the factories and mills and on the ships, for we record proudly that our party is made up of at least ninety per cent of proletarian men and women, who stand out from the rest of the working class only in their socialist convictions and in the degree of their determination to fight for working class interests night and day, without exception, on all occasions and in all places. Their activity is the kind that assures the future of a party that rightly calls itself the Workers Party.

[Join with them! Unite with us all, you militants, you workers who are ready for a brighter day, for a new age, for a society free of war and oppression, of exploitation and inequality, for world socialism!]

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