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.