Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 14, 2005

Reply to Carl Davidson on WWII

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:01 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on March 14, 2005

(Carl Davidson was a leader of the new left in the 1960s and early 1970s. Along with other SDS’ers and Guardian newspaper figures–he was associated with both–Davidson discovered “Marxism-Leninism” in the mid 1970s, which meant Maoist ultraleftist party-building experiments of the sort described by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air.” For the Maoists, a large part of the CPUSA traditions remained valid, especially those that figured heavily during the period when Stalin was dictating policies. This meant accepting the party line on WWII, which tended to blur class distinctions between trade unions and the black community on one side and the American ruling class on the other. Supposedly the war was being fought to defend democracy rather than Anglo-American imperialist interests. Davidson defends this perspective in a comment on “Unrepentant Marxist,” a blog I maintain that consists exclusively of longer posts made originally on Marxmail. He also defends backing John Kerry in the last election. Davidson nowadays is affiliated with the Committees of Correspondence, a group that I belonged to briefly until I discovered how committed they were to working in the DP. My reply to Davidson follows his comments, which appear under my original blog entry titled “Left in form, right in essence,” a reference to a pamphlet written by Davidson in his Maoist phase. It can be read at: http://unrepentant.blogspot.com/2004_09_01_unrepentant_archive.html.)

Carl Davidson:
I just now came across these comments you made a while back. While there are surely a number of things in that old pamphlet I would put differently today, Louis, I’m curious about what you find so offensive as to call that particular quote a ‘disgusting smear.’

Didn’t the Trotskyists take a ‘revolutionary defeatist’ line toward the US government in WW2?

Didn’t they oppose the Allied offensive against Hitler, when it finally came, by calling for the revolutionary defeat of both sides, which had no basis in any real revolutionary leadership on the ground, especially in fascist Germany?

Didn’t they also call for the political overthrow of the CPSU in the Soviet Union during WW2?

Didn’t they also oppose Mao’s effort to work with those elements of the Chinese bourgeoisie, mainly in the KMT, who were also willing to fight Japan in WW2?

If any of this isn’t true historically, I’m willing to be corrected. I wouldn’t call WW2 a ‘peoples war.’ To a certain extent it was, but it was much more complex than that. It was at least four wars at once: an anti-colonial war by China and others against fascist Japan, Italy and Germany; a war of self-defense by the USSR against fascist Germany; an inter-imperialist war between the bourgeois democratic bloc and the fascist bloc of great powers; and a popular resistance to the fascists in the countries occupied by them.

But I’m very clear on which side was basically a just cause and which was unjust, which I would have wanted to see defeated and which side do the the defeating, which army I would have joined and which I would have opposed.

All these forces together made up the ‘united and popular front against fascism,’ with all its strengths and weaknesses that, when all is said and done, brought about the demise of the Third Reich and it allies. And the fact remains that the Trotskyists of the time opposes this particular united front with another supposedly more revolutionary version that existed only in their revolutionary imagination and pamphlets.

Would you have tried to mount mass antiwar protests against the D-Day Invasion of Normandy at the time? That’s what ‘revolutionary defeatism’ would mean in practice in WW2, wouldn’t it?

I know these are uncomfortable questions for those who want to defend every major policy of Trotskyism, since the idea that it was right for all countries to be ‘defencist’ against fascism and to join together to crush Hitler is now nearly hegemonic across the board.

But just because a situation is uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean you call and apparant statement of the facts a ‘digusting smear’ and just leave it at that, does it?

I should also say that I wouldn’t use any of this to attack Nader-Camejo. I supported their right to run and told those clamoring for them to get off the ballot to lighten up, because whatever differences we had in this election, the Nader-Camejo forces and other Greens are our longer term allies.

But I also read Camejo’s ‘Avocado Statement.’ It basically calls for aiming the main blow at the Democratic Party these days, since the Dems are the main ‘social prop’ of the Republicans, and if that means the GOP and the right get stronger, so be it. We’ll deal with them later, after we clean up the debris. I think that piece of it is a bit ultraleft, don’t you?

Perhaps you think it’s just fine. But my diagreement with Camejo is over tactics, not objectives. I don’t think the Dems can be reformed. I want a breakup of the Dems too, and replaced with a people’s party. But I want to find a way to do it that strengthens the progressive forces and not the far right. But that’s another discussion…

Carl Davidson, Chicago


Just to recapitulate, this is the quote from Davidson that I found disgusting:

“The Trotskyists believe they are the only authentic practitioners of the policy of the united front. Yet in practice, they have opposed full implementation, either from rightist or ‘leftist’ positions. The most apparent example of this role was the Trotskyist attitude toward World War 2, in which they took a ‘defeatist’ position towards the capitalist governments fighting the fascists, called for the ‘revolutionary’ overthrow of the Soviet government and opposed the united front with the national bourgeoisie in the colonial countries invaded by the fascists. The fact that the Trotskyist line led them inevitably to these positions substantiated the charge that they objectively served the interests of the fascists.”

Carl, this is just a bald-faced lie. The Trotskyists *supported* the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. They argued–quite rightly–that the imperialists would not fight resolutely and that it would require a revolutionary mobilization to do the job. Their position was analogous to Radical Republicans during the Civil War who were sharply critical of any temporizing by Lincoln and big business interests, but fought in the union army to crush the confederacy.

SWP members served in the military or in the merchant marines. One of them, Sol Dollinger, was a friend of mine and a subscriber to Marxmail until his death. His wife Genora Johnson Dollinger was a leader of the Flint auto workers woman’s auxiliary during the sit-down strikes. Sol was on a boat that was torpedoed on the way to Murmansk. He spent 6 months in a Soviet hospital recovering from his wounds.

Sol, like all other SWP members, talked politics with their fellow soldiers or sailors. They stressed the imperialist nature of the war, especially in the Pacific, but never sought to undermine the war effort. In other words, they behaved in exactly the opposite manner as SWP members who were drafted in the 1960s and 70s. Those SWP members sought to emulate the spirit of *resistance* that manifested itself in the “Bring Us Home” movement immediately after WWII, when troops stationed in the far east protested moves to involve them in the war against Mao’s Red Army.

With respect to the ostensible examples you offer of SWP “defeatism”, they are both unduly hypothetical and ridiculous. You write, “Would you have tried to mount mass antiwar protests against the D-Day Invasion of Normandy at the time? That’s what ‘revolutionary defeatism’ would mean in practice in WW2, wouldn’t it?”

Actually, the SWP would never have organized such a protest but it surely did support A. Philip Randolph’s proposed March on Washington, which demanded equal rights for African-Americans. It also opposed the No Strike Pledge forced upon the trade union movement by the CPUSA. The SWP believed that a war against fascism abroad should not encourage the “democratic” ruling class at home to exploit working people above and beyond what takes place normally.

Finally, on the question of the Democratic Party. You assert that you are in favor of a “people’s party.” Carl, you should realize that Gus Hall always favored the construction of a “people’s party,” even when the CPUSA backed LBJ to the hilt. This kind of lip service is essential to maintaining some kind of credibility in the radical movement. It is understandable that somebody who had spent a lifetime taking marching orders from the Kremlin would develop a finely honed ability to speak out of both sides of his mouth. It is singularly depressing, however, to see a 1960s fire-breathing radical like yourself end up in the same position today as the Gus Hall of the 1960s. When you use Marxist jargon to back a slug like John Kerry, you deserve to get nailed on the Internet along with Ted Glick and other opponents of independent political action.

You and other apologists for John Kerry led the radical movement into a *defeat*. It would be better for you to come to terms with your own failure rather than to scold people like Peter Camejo or myself. If the 1960s was about anything, it was about the need to build a radical movement from the bottom up. In order to do so, we need honesty and principles of the kind that marked the left before it became tainted with Stalinism. Our exemplar should be Eugene V. Debs rather than Gus Hall. Remember what Debs said: “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.”


  1. As a former young SWP member I never agreed with-or took seriously-their line on World War 2 since I’m not someone who is a red diaper baby, but from a family of World War 2 veterans from the mainstream of society, but paid it little mind as I saw that the critical role the SWP was playing in leading the anti-Vietnam war movement outweighed that largely-at that point-academic issue. Having said that, my Dad always used to say that while 99% of the American people supported the war, there was a tiny minority who opposed it, people who had a right to do and were courageous for doing so, but who were also wrong. Unsurprisingly, I agree with my late father on that one.

    Instead of being willing to admit that he doesn’t agree with the trotskyist view of this, Proyect, wittingly or unwittingly, blurs the political character of the Trotskyist line on World War 2 to make it more palatable to our liberal and anti-fascist sensibilities, as any diehard Trotskyist would point out. They opposed the war and went to prison for it. they only fought in the war because they were drafted and their political views-similar to, not distinct from, what they were during Vietnam, eschewed draft resistance as futile and an evasion from ostensible political intervention among the masses of troops (Dave Dellinger in contrast also went to prison in WW2, for 60s style draft resistance). They didn’t sign up unless they were drafted because they didn’t want to support the “imperialist war” effort which they opposed; to say that their conduct was analagous to the radical republicans in the civil war is simply factually incorrect, as a group that emanated in large measure out of the milieu around America First, the trots had little empathy for the War, beyond a pro forma defense of the USSR.

    Rather, while the trots did, to their credit, (leaving aside the dubious history of Max Schactman’s “Workers Party” that had little solicitude for the USSR, or of their former leader James Burnham who viewed the Nazis as the “lesser evil”), support the military resistance of the USSR to fascist aggression, on balance they viewed World War 2 as a rerun of the imperialist 1914-18 “Great War” which it was in some measure, but in the altered context- particularly after May 1940 and later June of 41-of the rise of fascism on the one hand and Bolshevism and colonial revolution on the other. Thus in that context to in a sterile way counterpose calling for “socialist revolution” in opposition to the war as a way to mobilize people to defeat fascism was pure utopian fantasy in that particular context, as was Cannon’s testimony in that vein in “Socialism on Trial”, although obviously he had his basic 1st amendment rights to those views, which was a complete defense to the charges.

    World War 2 was a dirty, nasty, brutal, terrible struggle in which the failings of the Allies (American racism, British colonialism, Soviet state terror) were significant; nonetheless, like during the US Civil War, there was a fundamental difference between the two sides that any reasonable person could grasp very quickly and that the fate of human progress hinged on the defeat of the Axis in this desperate fight. Only from those naive ideologues who think history is some clean or perfect process could a different conclusion emanate. it never is, unfortunately.

    Having said all that, the “Stalinists” of the Communist Party have their own baggage in this regard related to their support of the despicable Stalin-Hitler pact that paved the way for Hitler’s aggression including against the USSR.

    Thank you for haven given me the opportunity to address this issue.

    Comment by Tom Cod — November 22, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

  2. the Stalliinist do not have baggage requarding the Stalin HItler pact. Hitler had made it no secret that the Nazis were going to exterminate the Slavs. Stalin needed time to prepare for this war of extermination. The pact was unaviodable from a Russian perspective.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 13, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

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