New York Trotskyism in the 1930s

The Trotskyists

Geoffrey Hellman
The New Yorker
December 16, 1939
.

The political group familiarly known either as the Trotskyists of the Trotskyites is officially called the Socialist Workers Party. A lot of its members feel this name is confusing, since the Party has just about as little patience with the Socialists as it has with the Stalinists, the Lovestonites, President Roosevelt, and Father Coughlin, all of whom the Trotskyists would like to blow up. It regards itself as the orthodox Marxist Party and it looks upon the regular Communist Party as at best a rather contemptible reformist group. During the eleven years of its existence it has consistently maintained direct contact with Trotsky and an uncompromising policy of world revolution against all existing forms of government, every one of which it considers too far to the right. Despite the amount of noise which its members make and the frequency with which they come up in conversation, there are only some two thousand Trotskyists in the country, of whom around six hundred are in New York.

The Trotskyists, who prefer this term to “Trotskyites,” came into being on October 27, 1928, when three members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in New York — James P. Cannon, Martin Abern, and Max Shachtman — were expelled for spreading Trotsky’s doctrines instead of Stalin’s. Trotsky was advocating worldwide revolution while Stalin was insisting on confining the revolution to Russia for the time being. Trotsky had been banished to Turkestan the year before for holding the views he did and was subsequently expelled from the Party. In July, 1928, when the Sixth World Congress of the Communist Party was held in Moscow, Trotsky, still in Turkestan, prepared a detailed criticism of Stalin’s national political program. Translated into the various languages of the delegates attending the Congress, copies of this were distributed by the Party to the twenty-odd members of the Congress’s Program Commission, one of whom was Cannon. Although his copy was plainly marked “confidential” and was to be returned to the convention officials, Cannon was so impressed by it that he not only failed to give it back, a gross breach of Party etiquette, but smuggled it into this country and showed it to his friends, including Abern and Shachtman. These men also concluded that Trotsky’s plumping for universal revolution was a sounder idea than Stalin’s plan of concentrating on Russia itself, and they sought to bring other American Party members around to their point of view. Expelled, after a trial, by Jay Lovestone, then head of the Communist Party in America, the three rebels formed a Trotskyist group, known first as the Communist League of America. Lovestone himself was expelled from the Party six months later, for objecting to Russia’s domination of Communist policies in other countries, and founded the Independent Labor League of America, which opposes both Trotsky and Stalin. As the Cannon-Abern-Shachtman offshoot grew in size and began to win over many Stalinists, the hostility of the mother Communist Party toward it became increasingly bitter. In 1934, the League, by then an affair of several hundred members, changed its name to the Workers Party of the US. In 1936 and 1937 it enjoyed an extended flirtation with the left wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialists. It joined the Socialist Party, took over the left-wing Socialist magazine, the Appeal, and called itself the Appeal Group of the Socialist Party. At the end of 1937 the Socialists kicked out the group because they considered it too radical. With it went a good many regular Socialists. The group then adopted its present name, the Socialist Workers Party [SWP].

The Trotskyists and the Stalinists have been calling each other reptiles, jackals, and general no-goods for so many years in their papers, magazines, and speeches that when the Soviet-Nazi [Molotov-Ribbentrop] pact was signed a couple of months ago I supposed the Socialist Workers, pleased at the discomfiture of the American communists, would be going around with broad grins and a great I-told-you-so air. To check up on this and find out about the party in general, I got in touch with a college classmate of mine who is now a leading Socialist Worker intellectual and a regular contributor to the Socialist Appeal and the New International, respectively the Socialist Workers’ semi-weekly newspaper and monthly magazine. To help me gain the proper perspective, he took me to the party’s headquarters at Thirteenth Street and University Place, the street entrance to which is marked by a discreet sign reading, “Labor bookshop. Books of all publishers. Second floor.” We walked up a rickety flight of wooden stairs and entered a room containing a couple of bare wooden tables, two or three chairs, and seven or eight young men, one of them a Negro, who were arguing violently whether Russia should be regarded as a communist or a fascist country.

My companion disappeared into an adjoining office to arrange for me to meet Mr. Shachtman, and I studied various printed slogans hanging on the walls of the room, among them “The time to apply our action program is now!”, “Every class struggle fighter a two-a-week subscriber!”, “Open the doors to Nazi victims,” and “There is work to be done!” In one corner of the room hung an oil painting showing Trotsky, Lenin, and several other people, with the phrase “Workers of the world, unite!” lettered on the top. While I was looking around, the loud conversation in the room ceased and everyone began to stare at me. A clean-cut young man in a brown tweed suit came up and asked me whom I was looking for, but before I could reply, my guide came out with Shachtman, a shortish, snub-nosed man of thirty-five with a tiny mustache and an air of great jollity. I was struck by his resemblance to one of the figures in the painting, and he informed me that it did indeed represent him and that the picture was the work of Diego Rivera, who had given it to the Party in 1933, when he came here to do the Rockefeller Center mural that was subsequently destroyed. In addition to Trotsky, Lenin, and himself, Shachtman pointed out likenesses of Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, James P. Cannon, and two or three other people whose names I didn’t catch. I gathered that these persons hadn’t posed together and that the picture was a symbolic one.

We went into another room, which was decorated with a second sign saying “There is work to be done!” and a painting by Rivera, depicting Lenin, Trotsky, and six or seven other people. Shachtman pointed to one of them and said, “That’s the man who took the Winter Palace in 1917.” I found out later that Rivera had, in 1933, been considerably more generous to the Lovestonites than to the Trotskyists, having presented them with twenty-one large murals, most of which portray the history of the United States in a way that would never help anyone pass an examination at Groton. These are located at the Lovestonite headquarters on West Fourteenth Street. Rivera must have been above small Leftist differences, for one of his paintings there shows, among others, Stalin, Trotsky, Lovestone, Cannon, and William Z. Foster. Foster, with Earl Browder, assumed the leadership of the American Communist Party after Lovestone was expelled.

Shachtman explained to me that the Socialist Workers Party holds a convention at least every two years and often annually, generally either in New York or Chicago. On these occasions delegates adopt resolutions and elect a National Committee of twenty-five people. The National Committee in turn elects four party officers: the national secretary, the national labor secretary, the editor of the official party organ, the Appeal, and the editor of the New International, which deals more abstractly with theory and the like. Cannon is the national secretary and Shachtman is editor of the Appeal as well as co-editor of the New International, which is headed by James Burnham, a Princeton graduate in his early thirties who teaches at NYU. The Appeal, I was told, goes to seven or eight thousand homes and the New International normally has a circulation of over five thousand, but this has been cut drastically by the war, since nearly a third of the magazine’s readers live in belligerent countries, from which it is now banned.

6_stavenitz_unemployed_1930-p19daoqa861a22otlabu3fc1hft

The party also publishes a third paper, the semi-monthly Challenge of Youth, which is the organ of Trotskyists between sixteen and twenty-one. This group, which accounts for more than half of the Party’s New York membership, is known officially as the Young Peoples Socialist League (Fourth International) and unofficially as the Yipsils. The Yipsils, I was told, are trained to master dialectical materialism and are a wonderfully fanatical group. They hold street meetings all over Greater New York, usually operating in squads of ten or fifteen equipped with a collapsible speaker’s stand, an American flag, and a persuasive vocabulary. They distribute party propaganda and bring party papers and magazines to those newsstands which sell them. In addition they indulge in a rigorous intra-party social life. They organize a great many picnics, dances, and informal parties among themselves, and there is a fair amount of Yipsil intermarriage. Last summer they rented a farmhouse near Peekskill, which they called Camp 3 Ls, a name which the Yipsils never explained to curious natives. It stands for Lenin, Liebknecht, and Luxemburg, three of the major Marxists of the past, and three intertwined letter Ls appear on pins which they wear. Camp 3 Ls was thrown into momentary confusion one day when three or four hitchhiking members were driven into camp by a gentleman who politely insisted on taking them right up to the door. They had asked him just to let them off near the entrance. He also insisted on walking inside and sat patiently through a meeting, already under way, at which preparations for going underground in case this country entered a war were being discussed. His new friends looked at him uneasily and when the meeting was over asked him who he was. “I’m a policeman and those were very interesting speeches,” he said, and drove off.

Shachtman, who was born in Warsaw and brought here by his family at the age of eight months, started out as a sort of Yipsil, although in the Communist Party. He joined when he was sixteen and he has been a professional revolutionist ever since, never having held an outside job of any sort. Although his salary from the party,which fluctuates according to the condition of the treasury, has never been more than twenty-five dollars a week, he has managed to acquire one of the best private libraries of left-wing literature in the world. The salaries of party functionaries come from initiation fees, dues, and voluntary contributions from members and sympathizers. The initiation fee is a dollar and dues are fifty cents a month for employed members and ten cents a month for unemployed members. “Members have to make voluntary contributions,” Shachtman told me. I asked what walks of life the New York members came from, and there seemed to be a difference of opinion on this point, Shachtman said they were chiefly workers from the clothing, marine-transportation, and building trades and young unemployed — “part of the locked-out generation.” Another Party member whom I talked to later estimated that eighty per cent of them were white-collar, middle-class people, including a lot of N.Y.U. and CCNY graduates and undergraduates. He said there were three or four Trotskyists at Harvard now, but none at Yale. I was told that about one-fourth of the Yipsils are girls and that this is an extremely high female percentage in a radical group. Among the adult members of the Party, only one in ten is a woman.

Shachtman explained to me that in addition to the Trotskyists, the Stalinists, the Lovestonites, and the Norman Thomas Socialists, the major left-wing parties around town include the Social Democratic Federation, which is strong in the garment unions and friendly to the New Deal, and the Socialist Labor, or Daniel De Leon, group, another comparatively moderate organization, which the Trotskyists consider stodgy. “Ninety per cent of its members are octogenarians,” said Shachtman scornfully. Moreover, there are a number of minor, or “splinter,” left-wing parties, all of which have splintered off from the Trotskyists. Among these are the Oehler, Stamm, Mienov, Marlen, Joerger, Prometeo, and Field groups, which have anywhere from two or three to fifty members apiece. Shachtman tried to straighten out these factions for me, but I am not sure that he succeeded, since they are in a constant and bewildering state of flux.

Hoeckner_1995.50.29 5_Dwight_DanseMacabre_c1934

For example, as far as I can make out, Oehler and Stamm splintered off from the Trotskyists in 1935 and formed the Revolutionary Workers League, which refused, unlike the Trotskyists at that time, to have any truck with the Norman Thomas Socialists. A year later the Mienovites splintered off from the RWL splinter and formed a sub-splinter known as the Marxist Workers League. In 1937 the Oehlerites also splintered off from the Revolutionary Workers League, leaving Stamm the leader of this veteran splinter. Later on one George Marlen and several followers left the Oehlerites to form the Marlen group, or Limnist League, which regards Trotsky as an agent of Stalinism and lumps the Oehler, Stamm, and Mienov groups together as “left Trotskyists.” The Joerger group splintered off from the Trotskyists in 1937 and formed the Revolutionary Marxist League. The Prometeo group, which is named after Prometheus, consists of three or four Italian Communists who are officially known as the Italian Left Fraction of Communism. “They are extremely rigid and doctrinaire,” explained Shachtman with a certain amount of admiration. He told me that the Field group, or League for a Revolutionary Workers Party of the US, was founded by B.J. Field, a former Trotskyist who was expelled from the Trotskyist Party for gross violation of discipline during the New York hotel strike of 1934. “Both Mr. and Mrs. Field have recently been expelled from the Field group,” Shachtman told me. He also informed me that at least one splinter group, the Weisbordites, is now defunct. It was founded in 1931 by Albert Weisbord, a former Trotskyist who felt that the Trotskyists were not being sufficiently active in promoting and leading strikes. He called his party the Communist League of Struggle and later changed the name to Friends of the Class Struggle, following a recent left-wing tendency to drop the word “Communist” from the titles of their organizations. Weisbord is now inactive politically, Shachtman said. He also told me that the various splinter groups differed from each other and from the Socialist Workers Party in subtle doctrinal ways that would in most cases be too complicated for me or almost anyone else to understand. They frequently engage in negotiations to unite with each other, but nothing ever comes of this. According to Shachtman, the existence of these splinters is a tribute, rather than a reproof, to the Trotskyists, since it results from a freedom of discussion that would never be countenanced by the Stalinists.

I asked for a statement on the Socialist Workers’ position in the contemporary American political scene and was referred to the September issue of the Appeal, which contains a photograph of Cordell Hull, captioned “Bankers’ Hatchet Man,” and the following platform:

  1. A job and a decent wage for every worker.
  2. Open the idle factories—operate them under workers’ control.
  3. A twenty-billion-dollar federal public works and housing program.
  4. Thirty-thirty! $30-weekly minimum wage — 30-hour weekly maximum for all workers on all jobs.
  5. Thirty-dollar weekly old-age and disability pension.
  6. Expropriate the sixty families.
  7. All war funds to the unemployed.
  8. A people’s referendum on any and all wars.
  9. No secret diplomacy.
  10. An independent labor party.
  11. Workers’ defense guards against vigilante and fascist attacks.

During the past few weeks a twelfth plank has been added to this platform: “Full social, political, and economic equality for the Negro people.” There are only a handful of Negro Trotskyists as yet, but the Party is making a drive to get more. In the recent municipal election, Shachtman ran for councilman in the Bronx, where he lives, on the Socialist Labor ticket and was defeated after a whirlwind campaign, in the course of which he made several extremely long speeches. “I attribute my defeat to the base tactics of my opponents and the general corruptness of the capitalist system,” he told me, smiling. “I am thinking of demanding a recount.” Considering that Shachtman, with 2,269 votes, was only 56,594 behind the low man among the successful Bronx candidates, his faith in the capitalist system was probably not too shaken.

carlhenrysimon_industrialfrankensteins-1932 carlhoeckner_coldsteel-1935

Shachtman showed a greater inclination to discuss splinter groups and his campaign in the Bronx than the Soviet-Nazi pact, but he intimated that the Trotskyists were not as joyful over this as I had expected, because many of them, for all their hatred of Stalin, had until recently still thought of Russia as a workers’ state and now no longer could do so. ” We consider the Nazi pact a calamitous blow for the international labor situation,” he said. I found out later, by hanging around Party headquarters and listening to people wrangle in the corridors, that the pact has caused a terrific rift among the Trotskyists and that many of them disagree profoundly with the position which Trotsky, who is living in Mexico, has taken toward it. For the first couple of weeks after the pact was signed, Trotsky, who is known to his disciples as “the old man,” said nothing about it, although he is generally in constant correspondence with his New York adherents. Finally he came through with a long essay in which he stated that the Soviet-Nazi pact, while constituting additional proof of the degeneration of Soviet leadership, “does not provide any basis whatsoever for a reevaluation of the sociological appraisal of the USSR.” Trotsky went on to condemn the methods by which Russia had acquired part of Poland but announced that the resultant socializing of this territory was, by and large, a good thing and should be approved by the comrades. “Our general appraisal of the Kremlin and Comintern,” he wrote, using his own italics, “does not alter the particular fact that the statification of property in the occupied territories is in itself a progressive measure.” Trotsky has similarly condoned Russia’s invasion of Finland. Since many of his followers feel that this attempted conquest is even less defensible than the Polish affair, his latest position has intensified the rift in the Socialist Workers Party. Trotsky’s stand on the pact seemed to be opposed by most of the Trotskyists I heard discussing it. It has been the subject of interminable debates at Party meetings, where Shachtman and Burnham are the most articulate protagonists of the theory that the pact makes it impossible to regard Russia any longer as a socialist state, and where Cannon is Trotsky’s chief spokesman. The extreme section of the anti-Trotsky bloc thinks the whole Russian experiment should be written off as a bad job. The recent reversal of Stalinist policy in this country is also a topic of earnest discussion among the Trotskyists. Superficially, Browder’s present advocacy of a “rapid transition” in the United States would seem to place the Stalinists in the same camp as the Trotskyists, but the Socialist Workers with whom I talked explained that the current Communist stand had caused them to oppose the Stalinists more violently than ever, since they consider the new Communist Party line hypocritical and merely a sop to Hitler. They are now busy relaying this information to their rank and file. ” I wish you could attend one of the meetings where we thrash things out,” Shachtman said to me. I expressed a desire to do this, and he told me that only Party members could be present. I asked Shachtman what he could tell me about Cannon. “Cannon is the oldest revolutionary in the United States. He’s forty-eight or forty-nine,” Shachtman said.

Leaving Shachtman, I called on Mr. Cannon, a genial, red-faced, gray-haired man, whom I found in an office down the corridor. There were several maps on his wall and a small red pennant with “4th International” on it in white. Cannon was sitting at a desk, smoking a pipe and sipping milk from a cardboard container. “I was a coworker with Earl Browder in the Kansas City labor movement from 1914,” he said to me in a gentle, patient voice. “Our paths diverged in 1928. Now there’s a line of blood between us.” Cannon was born in Kansas City, where his father, a foundry worker, was a conscientious Socialist agitator. Cannon regards himself as a professional revolutionist, just like Shachtman, but confessed that he had occasionally taken a job as baker, railroad worker, newspaper reporter, etc., when he was hard up, and then with considerable regret. “These were just stopgaps,” he explained. “I worked simply as the average man is laid off.” Cannon told me that Stalin’s ideas of economic and social reform had developed along regrettable lines and that the Trotskyists were the orthodox Marxists and not, as many people supposed, a divergent sect. “Our specific weight is much more than twenty-five hundred,” he said, raising by five hundred the estimate of Party membership which other Trotskyists had given me. “We have the most militant, sacrificing, and confident youth movement of any radical group. The movement is a devourer. We aim to absorb the whole life of our members.” Cannon seemed delighted over the fact that the Party contained so many Yipsils, and he informed me with satisfaction that the average age of Socialist Workers’ delegates to Party conventions is only twenty-six or twenty-seven. He asked me to draw my own conclusions from the circumstance that whereas the Communist constitution forbids Stalinists to say as much as hello to a Trotskyist on pain of expulsion, the Trotskyist leaders advise their followers to fraternize with rank-and-file Stalinists as often as possible. I thought this might be an underhanded method of decimating the opposition Party, but he said it really wasn’t. “We educate our people to an irreconcilable hatred of Stalinism but encourage them to associate with the rank-and-filers in order to convert them,” he said. According to Cannon, this has worked out very nicely. “One of our girls married a Stalinist only the other day,” he told me. “The groom has since become a Communist fellow-traveler and it is only a question of time before he will become a Trotskyist.” Cannon said that in marriages of this sort the Stalinist is always the one who is converted. He also told me that the Party had no rich angels. (Another member whom I buttonholed later said the Party did have some rich angels, but he wouldn’t tell me who they were.)

diego_rivera_proletarian_unity_canvas_print_9a DSC02543

I asked Cannon for an official view of the Russian-German pact, and he replied that it hadn’t changed the Socialist Workers’ belief that the Soviet is fundamentally on the right track. “We consider the Russian government a workers’ state fallen in control of traitors,” he said. “But we won’t change the state, just the personnel, whereas in this country we have to change the entire system.” He told me that if Russia were attacked by the United States, the party would be for Russia — an attitude which struck me as not being exactly cricket in view of the fact that a good many Trotskyists are on relief, and at the same time admirably high-minded in view of the fact that if Cannon were to go to Russia he would undoubtedly be shot.

Cannon said that while the Trotskyists frowned on the Soviet occupation of Poland because it violated principles of self-determination, which they believed in, as a fait accomfli they were for it. “We’re not in favor of the way it’s done, but once it’s socialized we’d defend it,” he said. “The political rascalities of Stalin don’t change our attitude. The determining thing is the economy of the state.” I asked Cannon whether it wasn’t true that many Party members now considered the Russian economy imperialistic rather than socialistic, and he replied that they were in the minority.

“Suppose a majority opposed Trotsky?” I asked. “It would be too bad for the old man,” said Cannon. He said that questions of this sort were put to a vote at Party conventions, one of which will probably be held next spring in Chicago, and that while one delegate’s vote was as good as another’s, the weight of Trotsky’s influence was enormous. Incidentally, from people who had visited him recently, I learned that Trotsky is now living in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City, in a house guarded on the outside by four unreliable-looking Mexican policemen and inside by four young American Trotskyists. Most of the time he sits at his desk reading, writing, and dictating into a dictaphone. He writes with a pen in Russian on pieces of paper which he pastes together until each sheet is two or three feet long. He generally wears loose blue pants, a sweater, and Russian slippers with ankle-high cuffs, and he uses a revolver as a paperweight. His hair and beard are almost white. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and eats sparingly, not being especially fond of Mexican food. He and his wife used to go on picnics a good deal and on these occasions Trotsky would instruct his guards to dig up cactuses for a cactus garden he has planted, but since the death of a son in Paris a couple of years ago, they rarely leave the house. Diego Rivera’s house, where Trotsky used to live, is only two blocks away, but the two men have had a row and don’t see each other any more.

After I had talked for some time with Cannon, people started poking their heads into the national secretary’s office, telling him he was late for a meeting, so presently I left. In the corridor I came across three Yipsils, a girl of about sixteen and two boys around the same age, arguing excitedly about what their attitude toward Russia ought to be. “Maybe Cannon will just accede to the majority at the convention,” the girl was saying. “The real issue is what you should call the Polish invasion.” “When you judge an act, you judge it according to its main features affecting the world revolution,” one of the boys said. ” The invasion of Poland is merely an incident in the war.” “Don’t mix up an incident with a geopolitical grab. There’s a difference, you’ll admit,” the girl answered sharply. “Stalin didn’t merely invade Poland as an incident in a progressive war, but as a policy of Stalinist imperialism.” Both boys objected to this, and one of them said, “I don’t think Shachtman and Burnham acted very well at the meeting.” It was around five in the afternoon by this time, and as I went down the stairs I passed six or seven Yipsils on the landing, all bawling each other out with a militancy and confidence that made me wish they would ask me to one of their picnics.

— Geoffrey T. Hellman

5 thoughts on “New York Trotskyism in the 1930s

  1. Excellent report on the American SWP which in the 30’s was a Revolutionary Trotskyist Organisation unfortunately it is now a Reformist sect The Interviews with Cannon and Shachtman were very good as well as the Murals from Riveria , a great Mexican Muralist who Trotsky always liked.

  2. Pingback: The Marxism of Roland Barthes | The Charnel-House

  3. Pingback: International Psychoanalysis » Blog Archive » The Trotskyists

  4. Pingback: They’ll be Calling You a Radical | An Honest Con

Leave a Reply