Party time? – a review of two political classics
by Barry Weisleder
Is it time to build an international revolutionary workers’ party? James P. Cannon consistently said yes. Isaac Deutscher, for most of his adult life, said no. Both were highly esteemed Marxists, selflessly dedicated to workers’ self-emancipation. But their difference on this crucial point amplified important political divergences. Some 45 years after their publication, here are two books still worthy of attention.
“The History of American Trotskyism” by James P. Cannon, (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1972, 268 pages), is not just a ‘what happened back-then’ book; it is a ‘how to do it now’ book. Cannon (1890-1974), former Wobblie organizer, Socialist Party left winger, and a preeminent founder of American communism, wrote the way he spoke – as a smart, sophisticated, yet down-to-earth, unpretentious, popular agitator for workers’ power. Twelve lectures to a Socialist Workers’ Party audience in 1942 constitute this informal history.
In it, Cannon recounts the rough and tumble early life of the faction-dominated Communist Party USA and its predecessors. CP members contended with internal ethnic language power blocs, state repression that drove the party underground, comrades who fetishized its illegal status, who took refuge in ultra-left sloganeering, and those who successfully united the party as it fought for legality and an orientation to mass political action.
The rise of the Joseph Stalin regime in the Soviet Union, and its bureaucratic mutilation of the strategy of the Communist International, led to a radical written critique by Leon Trotsky. His document accidentally fell into the hands of Cannon, and Canadian communist leader Maurice Spector. Once they publicized it, they and a handful of co-thinkers, defenders of workers’ democracy and permanent revolution, in opposition to Stalin’s revival of the reformist ‘stages’ concept of revolution, were summarily expelled. They faced severe social isolation, and physical intimidation.
Trotskyism, as a movement, formed to preserve a Marxist political course. It explained the zig-zags of CP policy, shifting from popular front reformism to ultra-leftism and back again, and it argued for consistent class struggle politics. In the face of vilification by a big CP apparatus, backed by thousands of members and several daily newspapers, the Trotskyists under Cannon knew their priority was to launch a press, The Militant, which they quickly did. But it took a year to find an affordable office, a ramshackle affair, and another year to obtain a simple mimeograph machine.
Up against CP slander and gangsterism (the Trotskyists had to defend their public meetings from physical attack by Stalinist thugs), the next task was to appeal to the CP ranks. The way to the working class is through its vanguard. Without a correct programme it would have been hopeless. In addition to a reliable policy guide, knowing what to do next was equally indispensable. Still, the times were very tough. The onset of the Great Depression weighed heavily on the working class. The radical dissidents were not spared. Those were the ‘dog days’ of the Left Opposition, characterized by grinding poverty, a low level of class struggle, and agonizingly slow, one by one recruitment to the movement.
The right wing opportunist faction led by Jay Lovestone carried through the expulsion of Cannon and his co-thinkers from the CP. Then the Lovestone forces were themselves expelled, just as the Nikolai Bukharin-led group in Russia got the boot, when world Stalinism zigged to the left. Lacking a revolutionary programme, the Lovestone party disintegrated within a decade (most of its leaders joining the bandwagon of the next imperialist war), while Cannon’s Communist League of America grew and survived. The CLA opposed the “insane policy of building ‘Red Unions’”. It also resisted pressure from folks who had broken from, or been expelled by the CP, who wanted to abandon the world’s first workers’ state. Cannon argued that “we should continue to support the Soviet state, the Soviet Union, despite the fact that direction of it had fallen into the hands of a conservative, bureaucratic caste.” The Russian Question remained a corner stone for the left (much like the Cuban Question today); those who renounced it ended up in the embrace of imperialism before long.
As the CLA turned to mass work, it re-engaged with agitation. It plunged into active solidarity with struggles of Patterson silk workers and New York hotel workers, and it caught the huge strike wave of 1934. But exemplary team work, which earned the CLA a leading role in the Minneapolis general strike, required severing from its cadres one B.J. Field in Manhattan. He thought he was too big and important to work under the direction of his own party – and he ended up short-selling the hotel workers.
Gains achieved by the Trotskyists through the momentous union victory in the Twin Cities paved the way to fusion with the American Workers’ Party, led by former preacher A.J. Muste. The left-moving AWP played a leading role in the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio. But it lacked international connections, and was less homogenous politically than the CLA. The AWP had a right wing that did not want to clash with the labour bureaucracy, and feared fusion with the Trotskyists (who were not adverse to a clash with anything that stood in the way of working class aspirations).
With firmness and clarity the Trotskyists prevailed. They soon faced another test. Newly radicalized workers flowed into the larger organizations — the old Socialist Party, as well as the CP. The Workers’ Party, led by Cannon and Muste, voted to link up with those radical workers in the SP – similar to what the section of the Fourth International did in France, hence called the “French Turn” — but it wasn’t easy. It required dissolving the public face of the WP. It also necessitated an internal battle against sectarianism, in this case a struggle against those who had difficulty distinguishing between tactics and strategy. Muste himself opposed the decision to enter the SP, “not on principled grounds, but on grounds of organizational fetishism, perhaps personal pride. Such sentiments are fatal in politics. Pride, anger, spite – any kind of subjectivity which influences a political course leads only to the defeat and destruction of those who give way to it”, said Cannon. The sectarians, led by Hugo Oehler, were defeated politically. When they violated party rules, they were expelled.
The Trotskyists belonged to the SP for barely a year, during which they formed a militant Left Wing and vigorously educated the ranks on the nature of fascism, the Spanish civil war, the Moscow trials, and the need for democracy in the party. Before they were gagged and expelled, they gained scores of worker activists, especially among maritime and auto workers, and won a majority of the Socialist youth organization.
Optimism and pride marked the launch of the Socialist Workers’ Party on New Year’s Day 1938. In the battle of ideas it was vindicated. More battles loomed. The biggest one centred on the Russian Question, the defence of the first workers’ state against imperialism, combined with opposition to the treacherous, despotic Stalinist ruling caste.
The History of American Trotskyism is full of faction fights waged out of necessity. That is what faces any serious revolutionary party.
Cannon put it this way, “It is hard fighting all the time, there is never any assurance of smooth sailing. How can that be expected? The whole weight of bourgeois society presses down upon a few hundred or a few thousand people…. The influence of bourgeois society finds an expression at times even in sections of a revolutionary workers’ party. Therein is the real source of serious factional fights.”
The same is true for the socialist movement on an international level. It is all about meeting the test of ‘what is to be done next’. The only alternative to the principled battle of ideas is submission to prevailing ideologies, capitulation to the powers that hold the world hostage, or to flail away at injustice as an individual, perhaps in a loose association with disparate others.
Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967) was a Jewish-Polish writer, journalist and political activist who moved to the United Kingdom at the outbreak of World War 2. Best known as a biographer of Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, he was a commentator on Soviet affairs. His three-volume biography of Trotsky, in particular, was highly influential.
Around 1927, he joined the illegal Communist Party of Poland (KPP) and became the editor of the party’s underground press. In 1931, he toured the Soviet Union during the first Five Year Plan, and then returned to his underground work in Poland. Deutscher co-founded the first anti-Stalinist group in the Polish Communist Party, protesting the party line that Nazism and Social Democracy were twin evils. Like Trotsky, he urged the formation of a united front against Nazism. Deutscher was expelled from the party for “exaggerat[ing] the danger of Nazism and … spreading panic in the Communist ranks.”
In London in 1939 he taught himself English and wrote for The Economist and The Observer. After 1946 he left journalism to write books.
“Ironies of History – Essays on Contemporary Communism” (Ramparts Press, Berkeley, California, 1971, 278 pages) is a collection of articles from the 1950s and early 1960s, including speeches he made to American teach-ins on the war in Vietnam. The writings invariably demonstrate the elegant prose and erudition of Deutscher. Sensitive character studies, lively metaphors and sweeping analysis attracted a huge readership to his rigorous application of historical materialism. In the repressive, cold war atmosphere that then permeated academia, he upheld the scientific method against the ideologies of ‘the great man’ and the ‘greed is human nature’ theories of history.
Still, Isaac Deutscher embodied a big contradiction: he was a Leninist-Trotskyist without a party. Not only did he refrain from joining a revolutionary organization after 1939, he advised others against it, and declared as counterproductive the construction of the Fourth International, to which Trotsky devoted his life in exile. This contradiction, his separation from collective political practice and debate, disconnected from class struggle comrades in arms, cut Deutscher off from potential antidotes to errors that crept into his analysis.
While he explained scientifically the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and defended the workers’ state from its capitalist enemies, he ascribed to Stalin’s bureaucratic heirs the capacity to radically reform the state and restore workers’ control. This conflicted with his own vivid and ongoing account of Nikita Khrushchev’s superficial ‘Revelations’, his betrayal of Algeria’s struggle for independence, his undermining of Cuban and Vietnamese freedom aspirations, and more.
“Has Khrushchev not sought to impose a standstill on revolution in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Latin America, backing Nasser, Kassem, and, of course, Nehru, and confounding the Communist Parties on the spot?”
In “Trotsky at his Nadir”, Deutscher castigates the co-leader of the Russian Revolution for “undoubtedly underrat(ing) the vitality of the new Soviet society, its inherent capacity for self-reform and regeneration, its inherent ability to overcome Stalinism eventually, and to go beyond Stalinism.”
Post-Gorbachev, present-day-Putin Russia delivered definitive judgement on that score. Generations of bureaucratic terror and mis-education depoliticized the Soviet working class. Clearly, that was decisive. But fostering political illusions in the bureaucracy certainly didn’t help anyone.
The State of Israel furnished another signal for retreat. As a convinced atheist of Jewish origin, Deutscher was a militant opponent of Zionism – until World War 2. The horrors of the Holocaust, for which the Palestinians and Arabs as a whole bore no responsibility, changed his mind. He later qualified his support for the Zionist state, which initially he saw as a refuge for desperate Jews. He longed for ‘cooperation’ between the occupiers and the occupied. But that is little more than a liberal sentiment marginalized by the demands of western elites for control of Middle East resources. Their Zionist attack dog, thinly disguised as a safe haven, is heavily subsidized by Wall Street to keep Arab anti-imperialism in check.
Despite contradictions, the essays in this collection are a treat aesthetically and politically. “Maoism – its Origins and Outlook”, “Twenty Years of Cold War: Vietnam in Perspective”, plus the piece titled “The Mensheviks” make it worth a search to find this book. In the latter article Deutscher shows what happened to the party that thought a socialist revolution in Russia was premature, and in any case opposed Lenin’s concept of a centralized party with an accountable leadership. The disparate elements of Menshevism aligned themselves with extremely regressive forces. Deutscher summarized the outcome as follows:
“Thus Menshevism has ended its long career, driven into two ideological impasses: in one we saw the conscience-stricken Dan humbling himself before Stalinism; in the other we heard Abramovitch praying fo the world’s salvation by the Pentagon (which he urged to use nuclear arms to destroy the ‘Bolshevik evil once and for all’ – BW). What an epilogue this is to the story of Martov’s party; and how Martov’s ghost must be weeping over it.”
What a searing indictment of reformism. Does that not underscore the objective need, indeed the moral imperative, to fight for a revolutionary alternative, no matter its popularity at any moment in time?
Though he is long gone, the debate with Deutscher over the building of a revolutionary International continues, so the issue should be addressed.
The Fourth International began, and continues today, as a relatively small political movement. Doubts within its leadership may cloud its policy. Self-described Trotskyist parties around the world, with a few exceptions (France, Argentina, Pakistan and Philippines come to mind) count their members in the dozens or hundreds, not thousands. But the power of revolutionary ideas and collective organization continue. They are what enable revolutionary Marxists to play a disproportionate, even a leading role in major class and social struggles. When Stalinist and social democratic forces refused, Trotskyist parties led massive unionization battles. They furnished material support for Algerian independence fighters, defended the Cuban revolution, mobilized millions against the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam, won choice for women on abortion, and today resist military intervention aimed at Arab and Muslim peoples while contesting the capitalist austerity agenda that aims to dismantle a century of working class gains.
Without a party, each of us is but a grain of sand on the grand beach of life. But as Trotsky famously said, “The party is a lever, and with this lever we can move the world.”
Even a very small, but principled revolutionary party, can have a greater positive p
olitical impact on the world than any one person can, no matter how brilliant she or he may be.
No Reconciliation without Justice
What will come of the massive report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the cultural genocide inflicted by the Canadian federal government on indigenous peoples? Will its 94 specific recommendations bear any fruit?
The TRC deserves praise for raising awareness of the horrendous suffering of the 150,000 indigenous children who were torn from their communities between 1883 and 1996 and placed in residential schools. As many as 6,000 of them died of malnutrition, tuberculosis, influenza and other diseases. Thousands were buried, forgotten, in unmarked graves. The survivors had to live with the painful memories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse that was rampant in the federally-funded, church-run schools.
In 2008 then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the “great harm” caused by Ottawa’s racist campaign “to take the Indian out of the child”, suppressing native languages, culture and identity.
The TRC justly demands much more than an official apology. Its call for “mutual respect” is embodied in the idea of a nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and 1.4 million indigenous peoples. That means honouring native land rights, and providing funding for health, housing and education. Fulfilment of those goals, not as an act of charity, but on a foundation of indigenous self-government, faces sharp resistance from the Canadian establishment. Not only from pipeline companies, energy resource industries and mining firms, staunch resistance will come from the ruling rich as a class, and from the state that guards their interests.
Mass protest actions of the kind initiated by Idle No More put the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women onto the political agenda. Many more such actions, in partnership with labour unions, social justice and environmental movements, will be required. In fact, the re-distribution of wealth and power necessary to end the present colonial arrangement entails nothing less than a revolution to abolish monopoly business control of the economy. — B.W.
Big Banks’ profits Soar
Despite a weak jobs economy and record personal debt, Canada’s biggest banks achieved a profit of $35 billion in 2015, a 5 per cent rise from a year earlier.
Income for the country’s largest lenders, the Royal Bank, TD Bank, Scotiabank, the Bank of Montreal, CIBC and National Bank, amount to about $96 million for every day of the fiscal year ended October 31.
They took in a combined revenue of $129.79 billion in 2015, a four per cent annual increase. The banks reserved $12.5 billion for bonuses.
Meanwhile, the financial giants eliminated 4,664 jobs in the fourth quarter, the biggest quarterly cut in six years. Perhaps that peculiar idea of bank prosperity should be called the trickle-out theory.
The RCMP Spied On My Father
by Robbie Mahood
On October 30, 2015, revelations of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) spying on my father, Ed Mahood, almost sixty years ago, recently came to light courtesy of a phone call from an Ottawa journalist to my sister. A small group of journalists in Ottawa are reviewing the heavily edited RCMP intelligence reports from that era that are being released as the statute of limitations runs out on these hitherto secret files.
My father’s name crops up in connection with the campaign of extensive surveillance and disruption that Canada’s secret police waged against ‘communists’ in the years after World War II. He is described as a ‘chronic troublemaker’ who was one of an estimated 27,000 ‘communist subversives’ in Canada.
His attendance at a supper organized for the Rev. James Endicott in Saskatoon in 1957, and in organizing meetings is mentioned. Endicott was indeed a member of the Communist Party (later expelled for his Maoist sympathies at the time of the Sino-Soviet split). My father was never a CP member, remaining in the much larger and more militant left wing of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), and later in the New Democratic Party (NDP) until well into the sixties. But he did lend his name and organizing energies to CP activities from time to time.
In 1959, Ed applied for an overseas job with the United Nations, as was customary then among left social democrats with professional skills. The posting was to be to Sierra Leone. RCMP intelligence conspired with the then-Conservative MP for Saskatoon, Henry Jones, and the federal Conservative External Affairs Minister, Howard Green, to veto my father’s appointment. Although we were children then, my sister and I remember well that our father was turned down for the job without realizing, at the time, the secret conspiracy of police and politicians that underlay the refusal.
Ed subsequently applied for a UN post in the Palestinian West Bank (then part of Jordan) which involved organizing teacher training for Palestinian refugees under the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) mandate. And he was accepted for this post in 1960. Why this second application was approved is unclear. Among UNWRA’s personnel were a large number of ex-patriate European social democrats. It is possible that then-Tory Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, nixed a second attempt at sabotage. Diefenbaker was known for his renegade views on the terms of Canadian participation in NATO and NORAD, which eventually cost him the confidence of the Canadian bourgeoisie and his job.
The news that the RCMP spied on my father, and together with politicians conspired to deny him a job is not surprising. But it is disturbing nonetheless.
A few points should be noted:
1) My father was lucky. Many others had their careers destroyed after being fingered by the RCMP, or the attempts to disrupt their lives were more serious. I am thinking of the RCMP campaign to disrupt the League for Socialist Action, and in particular police efforts to destroy the credibility of some its talented leadership such as the young John Riddell.
2) An extensive secret police apparatus, with licence to conduct immoral and illegal acts, is a permanent feature of capitalist states. Of course the technical apparatus to conduct spying and wreak mayhem in the left is much more developed today, but it is no different in kind than in previous periods. My parents’ generation lived through the McCarthyite years in which my father, along with thousands of others were targeted. But heavy repression using spying and disruption was also directed at the labour and socialist movements after the First World War and during the 1930’s. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the RCMP directed its attention to a new generation of radicals.
3) The Quebec nationalist movement was to suffer disproportionate disruption and persecution as federalist ruling circles became obsessed with the threat of Quebec independence. The so-called FLQ Crisis of October 1970 gave Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau the opening to impose the War Measures Act — justified by the Big Lie of an “apprehended insurrection”. Four hundred and fifty pro-independence and socialist activists were arrested overnight and imprisoned. Those taken in pre-dawn raids were culled from RCMP intelligence lists. Later the RCMP engaged in theft and arson to disrupt the activities of the Parti Quebecois. A top PQ Cabinet Minister was revealed to be an RCMP “mole”.
4) So, be forewarned. Obviously we should not allow an atmosphere of paranoia and hyper-vigilance to impair the functioning of socialist organizations. But we need to be aware of the interest and capacity of the capitalist state to spy on, and if possible disrupt the life of left wing militants and their organizations. When these secret state operations come to light, and when we face repressive legislation like the Anti-Terrorism Law C-51, we should challenge them openly through a vigorous defence of our hard-won political rights and civil liberties.
Gender Wage Parity – more than a century away
It will take 118 years to close the wage gap between women and men if present trends in pay inequity persist, the World Economic Forum predicts.
The global pay gap between the sexes narrowed by a mere 3 per cent over the past decade, visibly stalling after 2009-10, according to the forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report.
The slow progress means women are only now earning what men earned nearly a decade ago: $11,000 on average, while men’s average pay has nearly doubled to $21,000 worldwide.
The report, which also looks at women’s progress in education, health and political empowerment, found Canada ranked 30th, and the United States was 28th out of the 145 countries surveyed. Syria, Pakistan and Yemen occupied the bottom of the list.
Women now outnumber men in universities in 100 of the countries surveyed, yet few of them hold the kind of skilled or leadership roles that come with bigger pay cheques.
Why inequality? Just ask yourself this: where does the money go that corporations save by not paying equal wages to women?