New York Trotskyism in the 1930s

The Trotskyists

Geoffrey Hellman
The New Yorker
December 16, 1939
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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.

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An unmet challenge: Race and the Left in America

Benjamin Blumberg
Platypus Review 19
January 1, 2010

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In his 1932 novel Banjo, the radical black intellectual Claude McKay portrays the vibrancy of black cosmopolitanism in the French port city of Marseilles in the decade following the end of World War I. McKay’s characters — boys of the docks, mendicants, and drifters — grapple with the racism of the wider society, while in their relations to one another live beyond race’s narrowness. One in particular, the novel’s protagonist, an itinerant intellectual named Ray, is driven by French police brutality to reflect on the reality of his race. In a powerful passage, McKay describes Ray as refusing

to accept the idea of the Negro simply, as a “problem.” All of life was a problem…To Ray the Negro was one significant and challenging aspect of the human life of the world as a whole…If the Negro had to be defined, there was every reason to define him as a challenge rather than a “problem” to Western civilization.[1]

To this day, Ray’s challenge remains unmet, not only in France, but in the United States and the rest of the world.

Following Ray, the term “challenge” is used here to signify a refusal of the traditional labeling of anti-black racism and racially justified segregation as a “problem.” Naming racism and segregation as a problem merely acknowledges and passively describes a fact. However, the challenge is to elevate the problem’s mere existence to the level of reality, to shape it through thought and action into a material that, because consciously formed, can be transformed and overcome.

Photograph of Grigorii Zinoviev, Claude McKay, and Nikolai Bukharin in Moscow 1923 Photograph of Arthur Holitscher, Clara Zetkin, and Claude McKay in Moscow 1923 Claude McKay addressing the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, 1923

For the American Left in the first half the 20 century — commonly referred to as the “Old Left” — the task of advancing freedom entailed a thoroughgoing critique of the racist institutions in American society, a socioeconomic and historical analysis of their origins and contemporary function, as well as practical efforts to eradicate these structures. In other words, racism was the challenge faced by the American Old Left. However, to a large extent it evaded the very challenge it set for itself by accepting the characterization of the black population’s political situation as “the Negro problem.” Only the best of the Old Left pushed against this characterization. The New Left, seeking to overcome the Old Left’s shortcomings and receiving a great impulse from the demands of the Civil Rights movement to do so, would nevertheless come to reenact the previous generation’s failings. This brings forth an uncomfortable question: if Marxists in the United States were unable to meet the challenge of raising racism to the level of a transformable reality, then to what extent can we speak of an American tradition of Marxism — a Marxism adequate to the situation of American capitalism — at all?

Marxism was at first a transplant to the United States, brought with the arrival of radicals who were compelled to leave Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848. However, as an organized political movement, it was forged with the great inspiration and impetus given by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, and the subsequent revolutions that swept through Europe and the world. These profoundly radicalizing events led to the formation of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CP), first in 1919 as two separate and competing tendencies, and then as a unified Workers Party in 1921. According to James P. Cannon, one of the Communist Party’s leaders in the 1920s, and one of the leaders of the Trotskyist fight against Stalinism from 1928 onward, the first years of the Communist Party were dominated by foreign émigrés with direct experience in Europe’s mass Marxist parties. Their experience within Marxism led them to believe that it was their duty to preserve the integrity of Marxism against any misinterpretations by its new, less experienced American practitioners. However, this inadvertently led to a neglect of specific aspects of the historical development of the United States, most crucially the struggle against slavery, segregation, and racism. This theoretical deficiency remained even after the growth enjoyed by the CP in the 1920s and 1930s.

Thus limited by its theoretical outlook, the American Communist Party neglected the critical question: How should Marxists account for the specificity of national historical development, while, at the same time, attempting to overcome the nation-state as a political framework? In the case of anti-black racism and segregation, this requires us to critically reevaluate the dialectic of separatism and integration/assimilation in the race politics of the United States. Continue reading