Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 29, 2014

Comments on “Strategy and Tactics in a Revolutionary Period: U. S. Trotskyism and the European Revolution, 1943–1946”

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Albert Goldman

James P. Cannon and Felix Morrow

I looked forward to Daniel Gaido and Velia Luparello’s article “Strategy and Tactics in a Revolutionary Period: U. S. Trotskyism and the European Revolution, 1943–1946” in the latest “Science and Society” for a couple of reasons. To start with, I thoroughly relished Gaido’s dismantling of Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism” in the April 2013 “Science and Society”, so much so that I read Gaido’s “The Formative Period of American Capitalism” as a follow-up. (Despite being Argentinian, Gaido has an excellent grasp of the complexities of American history.) I was also very interested in any discussion of the Goldman-Morrow tendency in the SWP since I had written an article about 15 years ago defending their analysis of how European politics would evolve following the collapse of fascism. Gaido and Luparello’s article is also sympathetic to Goldman and Morrow but from a somewhat different perspective than mine.

I was interested in holding up James P. Cannon’s catastrophism to scrutiny in my article. I wrote:

In 1943 and 1944 the world Trotskyist movement expected the end of WWII to usher in the same types of revolutionary cataclysms as WWI. The International Resolution under consideration by the FI stated categorically that the allies would impose military dictatorships. It considered American capitalism to have begun an “absolute decline” in 1929. This decadent system said the resolution “has no programme for Europe other than its further dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets”.

The choice for the worker’s movement was stark. Unless they made socialist revolutions, they would face “savage dictatorship of the capitalists consequent upon the victory of the counter-revolution.” The workers would rise to the task since it was “in a revolutionary mood” continent-wide.

This analysis of the world situation was strongly influenced by Trotsky’s conceptions from the start of the second world war which were of a “catastrophist nature”. He could not anticipate any new upturn in the world capitalist economy based on Keynesianism and arms spending. Trotsky’s catastrophism can be traced back to the early days of the Comintern. I recommend Nicos Poulantzas’s “Fascism and the Third International” as a critique of this tendency in the early Communist movement. No Bolshevik leader was immune from this tendency to see capitalism as being in its death throes. Stalin and Zinoviev incorporated this thinking into their “third period” strategy. Stalin eventually lurched back and adopted a right-opportunist policy. What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early 1920s Comintern.

This ultraleftism stared Felix Morrow in the face, who like a small boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes, ventured to state that American imperialism might not have been on its last legs in 1945. He argued forcefully that the most likely outcome of allied victory was an extended period of bourgeois democracy and not capitalist dictatorship. Therefore it is necessary for revolutionists, Morrow advised, to be sensitive to democratic demands:

…if one recognizes the probability of a slower tempo for the development of the European revolution, and in it a period of bourgeois-democratic regimes — unstable, short-lived, but existing nevertheless for a period — then the importance of the role of democratic and transitional demands becomes obvious. For the revolutionary answer to bourgeois democracy is the first instance more democracy — the demand for real democracy as against the pseudo-democracy of the bourgeoisie. For bourgeois-democracy can exist only thanks to the democratic illusions of the masses; and those can be dispelled first of all only by mobilizing the masses for the democracy they want and need.

My interest was more in the economics than the politics. As someone who went through the painful consequences of being in the SWP in the late 70s when the party leaders had adopted a similar kind of catastrophism (we had to be in basic industry in order to lead the workers in a fight against a new Great Depression), I was gratified to discover that I was not the only Marxist who could conceive of capitalism restabilizing itself.

It is the importance of fighting for bourgeois democracy that Gaido and Luparello want to emphasize. They write:

The following section of Morrow’s amendments drove home this point by reference to the recent Italian events: “Tomorrow, if necessary, the Badoglio regime [post-Mussolini but authoritarian] will concede general elections just as it had to con- cede factory committees.” It was of course the masses who had wrested these democratic rights from their oppressors. “but the oppressors understand also the necessity of sanctioning these democratic rights when they have no alternative” (Morrow, 1944b, 15). Morrow concluded: “The Italian events indicate that after the collapse of fascism the bourgeoisie is prepared to evolve in the direction of a bourgeois– democratic government.” In all likelihood, the collapse of Nazism would likewise result in “an attempt by the German bourgeoisie to save its rule by hiding behind bourgeois–democratic forms” (Morrow, 1943d, 15). This stratagem of the European bourgeoisie, in collusion with American imperialism, would be aided at the beginning by the inevitable revival of democratic illusions among considerable sections of the masses, due to the “intensification of national feeling in Europe as the result of the struggle against Nazi occupation,” the lack of direct experience with bourgeois democracy by the younger generation, and the willingness of both Social Democracy and Stalinism — which the Italian experience indicated would emerge as “the principal parties of the first period after the collapse of the Nazis and their collaborators” — to divert the revolutionary energy of the mass in that direction through the application of the policy of class collaboration known as Popular Front, in which the workers’ parties renounced the application of the socialist program (Morrow, 1944b, 15).

I am not sure whether the authors had any intention of relating this to differences on the left today but Cannon’s fight with the minority has a remarkable similarity to debates over Ukraine. For Cannon, the primary agency of change in Europe would be the Red Army rather than workers’ struggles for democracy and the basic freedoms they associated with the United States, even if based on illusions of the kind EuroMaidan manifested.

If you want to see how extreme Cannon’s position was, it is best to look at what a party leader associated with Cannonite orthodoxy said. This was reflected in a letter from Farrell Dobbs protesting an editorial in the Militant. Dobbs found himself in agreement with Natalia Sedova who was upset with the Militant’s concessions to Stalinism:

By November 1944 it was obvious that the resolution of the October 1943 Plenum had failed to foresee the course of events in Europe and to orient the Trotskyist cadres in the tactics required by the political moment. Yet despite the insistence of the Minority report to the Convention on “the importance of a democratic interlude,”16 the resolution adopted by the Sixth Convention of the SwP in November 1944 started by stating that “the events of the past nine months have served to underline the validity of our previous analysis of the world situation” (Sixth Convention of the SWP, 1944, 361).17

Nevertheless, the majority was forced to make one concession in the resolution adopted by the November 1944 Convention of the SWP, under pressure from Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova. One of Cannon’s collaborators, Farrell Dobbs, then serving time with him at Sandstone penitentiary, had sent a letter sharply criticizing the August 19, 1944 Militant editorial “Warsaw Betrayed,” arguing that it had not taken up the question of

the duty of guerrilla forces — and in the circumstances that is what the Warsaw detachments are — to subordinate themselves to the high command of the main army, the Red Army, in timing of such an important battle as the siege of Warsaw. On the contrary, the editorial appears to take as its point of departure the assumption that a full-scale proletarian uprising occurred in Warsaw and that Stalin deliberately maneuvered to permit Hitler to crush the revolt. . . . we are deeply concerned about this carelessness in writing about such a crucial question. (Letter from Dobbs dated August 23, 1944, quoted in Jacobs, 1944, 34.)

This apology for Stalin’s delivery of the Warsaw Commune into Hitler’s hands, and the call for Polish guerrillas “to subordinate themselves” to Stalin’s generals, drew an immediate response from Trotsky’s widow. In a letter dated September 23, 1944, she argued: “I do not propose that we take off the slogan ‘defense of the USSr’ but I find that it must be pushed back to the second or third rank.” The slogan of the military defense of the USSR “withdraws to the background in the face of new events” — namely the victories of the red Army and the heightened prestige of Stalinism. The only alternatives for the USSR, Natalia Sedova insisted, were “socialism or the restoration of capitalism”:

A mortal danger is threatening the Soviet land, and the source of this danger is the Soviet bureaucracy (the internal enemy). The war is not ended; the external enemy still exists. But at the beginning of the war we viewed it as the most dangerous one and the struggle against the bureaucratic regime ceded its place to the military struggle; at the present time matters must be put just the other way. (Sedova, 1944a, 24–25; cf. the emphasis on this idea in Sedova, 1944b.)

Cannon hastened to agree with her analysis, in a letter published in the same issue of the SWP Internal Bulletin of October 1944 (Cannon, 1944, 29). The part of the resolution adopted by the November 1944 Convention of the SWP dealing with the Soviet Union therefore reads:

Throughout the period when the Nazi military machine threatened the destruction of the Soviet Union, we pushed to the fore the slogan: Uncondi- tional defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack. Today the fight for the defense of the Soviet Union against the military forces of Nazi Germany has essentially been won. Hitler’s “New Order in Europe” has already collapsed.

The present reality is the beginning of the European revolution, the military occupation of the continent by the Anglo-American and red Army troops, and the conspiracy of the imperialists and the Kremlin bureaucracy to strangle the revolution. we therefore push to the fore and emphasize today that section of our program embodied in the slogan: Defense of the European Revolution against all its enemies. The defense of the European revolution coincides with the genuine revolutionary defense of the USSR. (Sixth Convention of the SWP, 1944, 367.)

I wouldn’t begin to attempt an analysis of the problems that the left faces today based on tendencies that have existed since the 1930s but I have often wondered to what extent Boris Kagarlitsky’s shilling for the Kremlin is simply an extreme version of the “Defend the USSR” orientation that was at the heart of the fight between Cannon and Shachtman. Morrow and Goldman advocated unification of Cannon’s SWP with Shachtman’s Workers Party based on their agreement with the Workers Party’s support for democracy, even if it was undermined by Shachtman’s continued adherence to bureaucratic collectivism. As it turned out, Goldman joined Shachtman’s group after being expelled, while Morrow took his leave from revolutionary politics altogether (he went into publishing, first with Schocken Press and then with Beacon Press).

The Cannon-Shachtman fight revolved around Ukraine to a large degree, just as is the case today. In a letter to Shachtman written on November 6, 1939, Trotsky referred to a period that I have become much more familiar with since exploring Ukrainian history:

You quote the march of the Red Army in 1920 into Poland and into Georgia and you continue: “Now, if there is nothing new in the situation, why does not the majority propose to hail the advance of the Red Army into Poland, into the Baltic countries, into Finland … (Page 20) In this decisive part of your speech you establish that something is “new in the situation” between 1920 and 1939. Of course! This newness in the situation is the bankruptcy of the Third International, the degeneracy of the Soviet state, the development of the Left Opposition, and the creation of the Fourth International. This “concreteness of events” occurred precisely between 1920 and 1939. And these events explain sufficiently why we have radically changed our position toward the politics of the Kremlin, including its military politics.

It seems that you forget somewhat that in 1920 we supported not only the deeds of the Red Army but also the deeds of the GPU.

To start with, I am no longer willing to accept Trotsky or Cannon’s side of the argument uncritically. Shachtman is quoted in the letter but I don’t have the foggiest idea of what he was arguing in its totality. It is the same thing I ran into when I was being indoctrinated against Bert Cochran. In the SWP, you got to read Cannon’s attacks on Cochran but never the rebuttal. This kind of one-sided presentation is inimical to the kind of theoretical exploration that would benefit any serious cadre.

Despite Leon Trotsky, the Red Army screwed up royally in both Poland and Ukraine. We have a much better idea of what happened back then, thanks to the research of Paul Kellogg on the Red Army’s disastrous intervention in Poland in 1920 and the work of people like Chris Ford on Ukraine. It is understandable why Trotsky would subscribe to the “heroic Comintern” narrative given his role in the Bolshevik triumph but why someone would take this approach and apply it to a degraded experiment to reconstitute the Czarist Empire under the banner of the Russian Orthodoxy and the BMW is simply beyond me.

Finally, I would urge Gaido and Luparello to consider writing for open access journals like Ron Cox’s “Class, Race and Corporate Power”.  The issues they are addressing are of deep concern to Marxist activists, among whom “Science and Society” subscribers would number about as many as could fit into a phone booth, if phone booths still existed.


  1. I see two features at play here. First, as you indicate, it appears that 1940s Trotskyites underestimated the manner in which the war unleashed the economic power of the US. The US was capable of reinvigorating capitalism within Europe, South America and East Asia after the war ended. Most importantly, it consciously decided to do so through the Marshall Plan and pragmatic decisions in East Asia that permitted Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to adopt protectionist measures to stimulate economic recovery.

    Interesting that Trotsky and his supporters did not emphasize the extent to which warfare provides an opportunity for capitalist rebirth through the destruction of antiquated production and financial processes. It appears that they suffered from a Eurocentrism that prevented them from recognizing the explosive synergy associated with unleashed US economic power and the destruction of European and Asian economic systems. With Cannon, Dobbs and Shachtman, the problem is especially acute, as they lived in the US, were well aware of US productivity and financial influence, and yet, they disregarded these things that were in plain sight.

    Second, while I see the connection between the 1940s and current exhortations by people like Kagalitsky in support of Putin, I think that the analogy should be examined a little more. As I have before, leftists who support Putin have a pessimistic view of the transformative capacity of class conflict. In this, they substitute crony capitalist autocrats like Putin for the USSR and the US for global capitalism. Perhaps, this pessimism was already an implied feature of Stalinism and Trotskyism in the wake of the fascist catastrophe in the 1930s and 1940s. It is, however, important to note that the catastrophe was not an American economic one, but a global political one with economic consequences that could create future capitalist opportunities, as it in fact did.

    Such a vision is currently too dark to publicly acknowledge, and it therefore becomes necessary to create a political fantasia to render it more palatable. Hence, the “Donetsk Republic”, replete with nostalgic imagery. It is also worth pondering whether people like Kagalitsky fall from the same tree as neoliberal, Zionist militarists like Henri-Levy. Each has decided that the working class no longer exists as a historical force, and each has embraced fantastical visions as as a flight from a reality that is impossible for them to accept.


    Comment by Richard Estes — September 30, 2014 @ 12:00 am

  2. Someone on this blog or a related one referred to the ultra left catastrophism that Louis traces to the early Comintern as “cargo cult socialism” It’s a very widespread tendency to expect the end of days as imminent, and a magical transformation to occur, and an exaggeration of the revolutionary sentiment of the working class. It’s like the flip side of the “paranoid style in American politics”, a la Hofstader and a zillion other books. I have not been able to decide if it is a reductionist and overly optimistic cultural (in this case subcultural) trend or a true cognitive distortion, or something in between. Of course one can point to religious millennialism as a common cultural phenomenon in religion, so why not political millennialism ?

    Comment by Peter Myers — September 30, 2014 @ 1:10 am

  3. Trotsky said two things about the war: it would unleash a global wave of revolutionary struggles which would either come to fruition with the correct leadership or would eventually be contained by an alliance of American imperialism at the head of a new boom and Stalinism. America banged imperialist heads together and a new boom plus, in Europe at least, some serious reforms took hold whilst Stalinism squashed through incorporation the more radical revolutionary movements but not until it had covered nearly half the earth. He also said that a proloned capitalist boom would result in the eventual collapse of Stalinism more surely than a global depression. I’d say anybody with a modicum of honesty and eyes to see would say that Trotsky’s perspectives have been vindicated even if in the most negative possible of ways. However it is not surprising that a correct Marxist perspective is being trashed. It would be strange if it was not. Unfortunately the Fourth International did not long survive the death of Trotsky, the incredible prestige enjoyed by Stalinism after WW2 or the post-War boom quickly degenerating into sects. It must be rebuilt from the bottom up.

    As for today, US-sponsored globalisation is unravelling quickly as capitalism buckles under stagnation and bankruptcy. It has no future. There is no America waiting in the wings to save it this time. Unlike Trotsky, today we can definitively say that it is now, as it was long ago predicted it would be, a choice between socialism or barbarism. World socialist revolution or a New Dark Ages from which there will be no escape socially, politically, economically or environmentally. Everything must die.

    Comment by davidellis987 — September 30, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

  4. Yes, no, maybe. In many ways, looking at the Goldman-Morrow but not having read Daniel Gaido’s piece yet, I think that while much of Louis’ essay is accurate, it is also not the full picture. One of the features of the Goldman-Morrow group was how the current saw, more accurately, IMO, the course of the European post-developments than did the Trotsky-Cannon-Dobbs leadership. But they were not the only ones. One of the features of this post-War (and post-Trotsky) period was that there were others in the Fourth International (Shachtman’s grouping while outside the FI still supported it and saw themselves are part of until around 1949) that had arrived at the same conclusion, most notably, Ted Grant in the UK who, like others there, were struggling to rebuild a section of the FI. His analysis is almost congruent with Morrow and Goldman. The three of them came to similar conclusions but with Morrow, specifically, adding to the issue of “democracy” in the post war period as a key feature in what workers would be struggling for, as opposed to the end-game of workers revolution alone. That in this period of uneven revolutionary upsurges and labor strikes the issue of basic democracy was not going to be subordinated to the general march toward workers power (where, if at all, that was even poised).

    I have, for many years, felt that Goldman-Morrow in the U.S. and Grant, totally separately, were closer to the truth of what unfolded than the Trotsky-Cannon-Dobbs perspective. I think where Goldman-Morrow and Grant underestimated the SWP majority analysis is that on the ground in places like post-war Italy and France to say nothing of Yugoslavia and Greece. The problem with the SWP is that they were caught up in trying to make reality fit the schema. Associating the post-war continental labor upsurges with a labor *radicalization* and thus fitting into to the schema laid out from 1940 onward. This reflected itself in the “American Thesis” (1946) where the massive post war strikes were considered a harbinger of a massive radicalization leading to a pre-revolutionary situation…when in fact it was a labor upsurge (or massive proportions) but did not reflect an actual move toward a workers revolution the Party (and everyone who was a Marxist) hoped for. I believe the massive decline in SWP membership after 1946 (where the Republicans elected a veto-proof Senate and House) was in no small part the result of the failure of the analysis laid out to the membership in this Thesis.

    The discussions in this period should be read by everyone. They are available in the SWP Discussion Bulletin Library online here: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/idb/swp-1938-45/index.htm and here: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/idb/swp-1946-59/index.htm

    David Walters

    Comment by David — September 30, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

  5. “As for today, US-sponsored globalisation is unravelling quickly as capitalism buckles under stagnation and bankruptcy. It has no future. There is no America waiting in the wings to save it this time.”

    I’d like this to be true, but I believe that we may be underestimating the extent to which people can tolerate severe social conditions. The possibility of, to work with your term, a “humane barbarism” persisting indefinitely is something that we shouldn’t dismiss out of hand.

    A frightening prospect, to be sure, but one that we should acknowledge in order to identify more effective means of resistance.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 30, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

  6. As “capitalism buckles under stagnation and bankruptcy” it will either extinct the human species or return remnant semi-humans to a New Stone Age on a devastated planet. Capitalism is a systemic process (see materialist dialectic) that has reached the end of its “positive” development with globalization and is now in entropic terminal decline. And there is absolutely no effective opposition (nor even a revolutionary theory addressing capitalism’s capture of human and nonhuman life on Earth).

    Marxism has never known how to organize. Failed attempts at communist/socialist/anarchist revolution litter the past and are absent from the present. There are no current attempts to develop a revolutionary organizing theory, nor could there be, for “Marxism” has abandoned the materialist dialectic and the new sciences of organization that reveal how life organizes on Earth. “Marxists” also often oppose Marx to Engels, and for these and other reasons, “Marxism” currently exists as a museum piece.

    As for the new sciences of organization so shunned by “Marxists,” Engels got it right: “We have the advantage over all other creatures in being able to learn [nature’s] laws and apply them correctly.” (From the often ignorantly maligned Dialectics of Nature)

    It sure is a pisser to watch capitalism cash in the human species. There is a play written by an Irish left diplomat (name forgotten, dammit) on Patrice Lumumba, who, after his capture, laments, “I am a Congolese revolutionary, but where is the Congolese revolution?” I rather narcissistically identify with that sentiment.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — September 30, 2014 @ 6:27 pm

  7. Everyone knows that pure speculation from a fart-soaked favorite armchair is superior to actual scientific study using those nasty little deceptions that the Theoretically uninitiated call “facts.”

    Poor Marx never got over his addiction to those things!

    By the way–per Engels: eating potatoes causes scrofula.

    Remember this irrefutable truth!

    Just to demonstrate the superiority of The Dialectic over (braying laughter) “crude English methods” such as were employed by silly old Darwin–and by Mendel, Watson, and Crick, and all the rest of those stupid kindergarteners, not to mention Marx himself.

    Exactly how and when is pure Dialectic going to deliver us from the threat of extinction?

    I know! Give academic tenure to more theorists!

    Comment by Susan Barton — October 2, 2014 @ 4:01 pm

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