The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Prophet's Suitcase

Tim Wohlforth's memoir The Prophet's Children, which I found in the Oxfam bookshop on Byres Road, Glasgow a couple of weekends ago, is a dismaying and enlightening read for anyone who has ever taken Trotskyism seriously. And I have - it's creepily apt that the photograph facing page 157 almost has me in it.

Kids these days - heck, anyone under thirty - in Britain, France and a handful of other countries, probably think it's a small but normal part of the gaiety of nations to have Trotskyists running for President, sponsoring big talk-fests of leftwing politicians and trade unionists and public intellectuals, performing stand-up comedy, sitting on the executives of major unions, getting elected to the European Parliament, bringing about the fall of an Italian government, and so on and so forth, all the while upholding the charming old Trotskyist customs of selling newspapers, splitting and fusing and underestimating the peasantry.

It wasn't always like this. In the 1950s and 1960s even the largest Trotskyist organizations (apart from the one in Sri Lanka, which quite uniquely was the mass working-class party in the country, and one in Britain, the Socialist Labour League (SLL), which had about a thousand) had memberships in the hundreds, and the rest had tens at most. So the past few decades could be counted a success - 'the resurgence of the political formations associated with [Trotsky's] name', as a New Left Books back cover once pompously put it.

The man most responsible for that success, small as it was, being a lot smaller than it could have been was Gerry Healy, the very man who had built the SLL. Remarking on Healy's death in December 1989, the anarchist Nicolas Walter said to me that Healy was the most evil person ever to come out of the Marxist movement. What about Ceausescu (then in the news), I asked? I don't recall Walter's reply, by I do remember the impatient look and gesture that accompanied it. Britain's best-known anarchist wasn't given to cutting actual Communist tyrants any slack, but my guess is that he thought Ceausescu's character was better than Healy's. If so, he may have had a point. Say what you like about Ceausescu, he railed at his accusers, stood by his Elena, and died like a man.

Wohlforth, it's fair to say, doesn't use his memoir to shine a flattering light on himself. He adds little to the exposure of Healy, of whom enough and more than enough has been said. As early as 1959, one of Healy's biggest catches - Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker journalist who'd covered the Hungarian uprising of 1956, found his reports spiked or distorted, and broken with the Communist Party as a result - gave a disturbing account of Healy's violence, lying and paranoia. Unfortunately it took another quarter of a century before the whole farrago imploded.

No, what's actually disillusioning is seeing the relatively decent characters in this long-running farce - Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, Joseph Hansen, George Novack, even James P. Cannon (once described as 'a Healy who never found his Gadaffi') not to mention Wohlforth and his comrades and rivals, from James Robertson to Lyndon Larouche portrayed as little more than assiduous writers of internal documents that tried and failed to interpret a world being changed by others.

A perennial problem of Trotskyism has been trying to understand the post-WW2 social revolutions within the framework of Trotskyist theory. If you actually look at what actually happened, whether it's Czechoslovakia or Cuba or South Yemen, it's not at all hard to understand what was going on. Understanding it and making your understanding compatible with Trotskyist theory is an exercise in futility, like squaring the circle or getting a dent out of a ping-pong ball. I once made the effort, ploughing through: a whole load of the American SWP's and the Fourth International's internal documents reprinted decades later as 'Education for Socialists' bulletins; one of Wohlforth's tyro attempts; and a later document, 'The Theory of Structural Assimilation', which he authored on realising the first one didn't work. How depressing to see how Wohlforth himself had set about the task:

'That winter I took a suitcase full of old documents to a Miami Beach kosher hotel.' (p113)

It would be churlish to begrudge Wohlforth his second career.

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an exercise in futility, like squaring the circle or getting a dent out of a ping-pong ball

I can't imagine I'll be alone in immediately heading for Google to find advice on the subject, for instance this. I've not tried this myself, of course: my knowledge of the area is entirely theoretical....

At risk of stating the obvious—Europe really is different from the U.S..

A world where Trots hold positions of actual power. . . it is almost like something out of one of the novels by that MacLeod fellow.

Here in the states all we have are the battered and broken remains of the once-mighty SWP. They occasionally show up on college campuses, handing out The Militant, looking very gray and dejected.

I am not up on my Marxian terms of abuse (I can never keep my opportunists and ultra-leftists straight) but I think the correct thing to call many contemporary Trots is “schematic”—they try to jam contemporary events into a static set of categories derived from a situation that is almost a century past now. It is better to keep Lukas' advice in mind. To very roughly paraphrase—think dialectically, let everything else be fluid.

I envy you your find Ken: I've read about Wohlforth on the net before and would be interested to read his fuller account of the topic. And yes: Trotskyist history is most definitely opaque to Trotskyites, whose notion of 'theory' is a stick with which to beat your allies and supporters into line. ;)

Actually, JR, I think the biggest Trotskyist group in the US now may be the International Socialist Organization, which is the former US affiliate of Tony Cliff's International Socialist Tendency. They probably have around 1000 members, mostly found around DC, Chicago, Austin, and San Diego (I think), as opposed to the SWP remnants, who probably number in the hundreds and have a much greater average age.

Thanks for the correction Edward. I'll admit I was exaggerating for tragiocomic effect. It is good to know that there is a relatively healthy Marxist left in the States still.

I don't see much of them where I am (in Florida) I only ever seem to run into CPUSA, SWP, and RCP types. . .

Anyway, my main point is that it would be downright surreal to see a Trotskyist elected to anything here, no matter which group they were from.

John, if you're intending to go to Satellite 2, drop me a line and I'll bring the book along. (Or we can sort out some other arrangement for you to have a lend of it.)

J.R>. and Edward: a positive (if slightly bewildered - socialists are against racism and sexism! Who knew?) article on a recent ISO conference in a mainstream local US paper is here.

Dear goodness, and I didn't even know Satellite existed! I'm definitely interested, but must consider funds before committing. Thanks for the tip Ken. ;)

Ken, I'm planning to go to Satellite on the Saturday? Does that work for you? ;)

John, I have every intention of being there on Saturday, and will take the Wohlforth book along. I'll be at a signing table 12 -12.30, but I'm sure I'll be easy to find anyway.

Ken, it turns out that I'm too skint to come to Satellite even for the day, so we'll have to make other arrangements. I'll be keeping an eye out for your upcoming appearances. Also you can email me via my own google profile if you'd like. In meantime, have a nice con. ;)

My guess is that most "Trotskyists" know only that he had a beard, opposed Stalin, was murdered & believed in working with the "environmental" movement to end progress.

I remember an idiot from the SSP (their EU candidate) saying that the party "exists to destroy all technological progrees over the last 200 years because it was done by capitalism".

Neil, your guess is completely wrong. And if an SSP candidate actually said that he was indeed an idiot. I've never heard anyone from the SSP (or any Trotskyist party) say anything of the kind.

Part 1

I'll try to get over my slight nervous giggling fan boy mindset in writing a comment here since I am a fan of your books Ken; I've not only brought and read them but have got them as presents for other people too. However as an actual living 'Trot' of the Socialist Party, thats the England and Wales section of the CWI (Committee for a Workers International) for those not in the know I am going to raise an objection to some of your statements in this post Ken, if not because I think I'll be able to convince you, or maybe even convince anyone else who reads this, but I guess I feel a sense of moral obligation to historical truth and also, the above mentioned 'fanboy' this was a great opportunity for me to also say,

"Hi Ken! I love your books and you seem like a respectable person with a lot of integrity!" *Waves nervously.*

Naturally, belonging to a tendency in which Ted Grant's political direction was a founding component and consistently opposing Healy for over 40-decades, form Grant and the majority leadership of the WIL expelling him from the organisation in the early 40's for his disruptive behaviour, the opposition of Grant and the RCP majority to his mistaken perspectives following WWII, supported by the leadership of the international, Healy's support for all manor Stalinist and bourgeois–nationalist leaders. He claimed for example that the 'Cultural Revolution' in China represented a struggle by Mao against the bureaucracy to bring about a genuine democratic communist society coming out with hyperbole that Mao was transforming Beijing into a modern day Paris commune while us in Militant at that time had a sober and balanced analysis, that this was a factional struggle within the bureaucracy and that neither side was striving to establish workres-democracy.

Healy may well have built up a sizable organisation for it's time, his dynamic force of character, the support he got for a period from the international centre and the courting of celebrities for cash, but the real test of his contribution to the labour movement and to Trotskyism is that, following the parties implosion is how much of his influence existis today?

The reality is, there is little evidence of any real lingering of 'Healyism' today, the 2-main far-left parties in Brittan at the moment the SP and SWP having grown and developed outside of and in opposition to Healy's party, both the extreme thuggish and even cult like organisational structure and it's theoretical concepts, the SP. In my opinion maintaining and developing orthodox Trotskyism, never capitulating to Stalinist or bourgeois nationalist forces and ladders unlike the deranged support Healy's party gave not just to Mao who I've already mentioned but the reference Ken made fleetingly to Gadaffi for example, while the SWP on the other hand, with their theory 'State Capitalism' developed by Cliff in the late 40's represented a qualitative break from Marxism altogether.

Part 2

This brings me on to the 1 other point I wanted to make, your contention Ken that,

"A perennial problem of Trotskyism has been trying to understand the post-WW2 social revolutions within the framework of Trotskyist theory. If you actually look at what actually happened, whether it's Czechoslovakia or Cuba or South Yemen, it's not at all hard to understand what was going on. Understanding it and making your understanding compatible with Trotskyist theory is an exercise in futility, like squaring the circle or getting a dent out of a ping-pong ball."

I will willingly raise my hands in frank admission that yes; the international leadership of the fourth internal fucked up BIG TIME after the war. Events had not developed as the old man had predicted, what was required was fresh dynamic Marxist analysis and unfortunately the degenerated leadership of the international well hell bent on forcing a strict dogmatic repetition of Trotsky's predictions on it's various parties. It is a historical fact that it was Grant and the majority leadership of the RCP in the mid to late 40's who struggled against this and I will maintain that Grant and Haston's writings on the developments in Eastern Europe, with the setting up of deformed workers states by the occupying Red Army or in Asia with, again, deformed workers states being established, this time by the victories of peasants army's, not only explain these developments as they unfolded and were fully compatible with so-called 'Trotskyist theory' but Grant, upon analyzing the unfolding events in China and predicted that a deformed workers state would be set up BEFORE Mao had achieved military victory!

It is a tragic missed opportunity that, far from the innovative Marxist analyses by Grant and other majority British RCP members being circulated throughout the international for discussion and the theoretical rearming of the movement, they were met with censorship, slanders, bulling, and the conscious distortion of their positions that resulted in the eventual theoretical disorientation of the entire Trotskyist movement.

Part 3

For just a few examples among many,

For the definitive Marxist analyses of the spread of Stalinism into Eastern Europe see Grant's 'Against the Theory of State Capitalism – Reply to Comrade Cliff' that was origanlly published as 'The Marxist theory of the State,'

The aforementioned article by Grant on the development of Stalinism in China,

The innovative Marxist analysis made by Grant and others, recognising the changed world balance of class forces and the complications arising in the developing revolutionary movement in the colonial world, including Cuba, were developed and rounded out in a discussion document that was submitted to the World Congress of the Fourth International by the British section.

Along with refusing to circulate it, we were given only a few minutes to hastily summarise what were very complex developments and unsurprisingly we were defeated and afterwards we were effectively expelled, forcing us to painfully start all over again. Although I guess you could say we had the last laugh, while the CWI continues to go from strength to strength, with groups and parties around the world continuing to approach us to join and our recent merger in Brazil between ours and another Marxist organisation for example, the remains of the official forth intentional are in rapid disintegration with many of their parties dissolving themselves into the broad 'anti-capitalist' formations, such as the LCR in France.

For a fuller history of our international and our attempts to maintain dynamic, combative Marxism see our book 'A Socialist World is Possible: A History of the CWI' which you can buy online here,

Or read for free here,

Anyway, sorry for the long post...I hope I was not too boring!

Dominic, thanks for the kind words and the interesting post. About ten years ago I thought that Grant had cracked the theoretical problem, but I don't think so any more. Without going into all that, isn't it obvious that the perspective outlined in the colonial revo document just didn't happen? Capitalism in the former colonial world has been much more viable than Grant thought, and almost all of the 'proletarian Bonapartist' regimes have turned to it or been overthrown.

I also suspect that part of Grant's problem in getting listened to in the FI was that his documents went on and on and on at great length.

Part 1

The way I see it Ken, the 'viability' of capitalism in the former colonial world really confirms Grants basic analysis rather that contradicts it, in that it took 'proletarian bonapartist' regimes to liquidate federalism, overcome the domination by imperialism and develop internally, laying the basis for the development of capitalism at a later stage, China being the most clear example of this. True enough you have countries like South Korea that seem to contradict this, but in my opinion it was the validly of the general trends analysed by Grant that compelled the advanced capitalist countries to consciously refrain form totally dominating and exploiting them given the social weight exercised by the Stalinist block an instead artificially create an indigenous capitalist class.

If Grant can be taken to task for anything, it is for failing to continue to develop his analysis as imperialism reacted to the changed balance of class forces, thus unfortunately falling into a kind of dogmatism based on his earlier analyses. Another decisive factor in the undermining of Grants former analysis being his fundamental overestimation of the ability of the Stalinist bureaucratic command economies to develop society, which you must agree was central to the analysis, this being elaborated and examples given with various evidence given in both 'The Rise of Militant' and 'Militants Real History.'

I think Mehring summed it up best in his landmark biography of Marx when he described Marx’s analyses of capitalism as an 'abstraction' based on a chemically pure capitalist state and that it was up to later Marxists to 'round out' these generalisations by taking into account the specific economic, political and historical factors of a given country to allow for a realistic appraisal of the balance of class forces and the general trends in society.

I believe that Grant's analysis assisted by others in the RCP majority and outside (which I'll touch on later) should be seen in a similar light, it involved some profound reassessments of both capitalism and Stalinism, but it should no more have been seen as 'once and for all conclusive' any more than the analysis's made by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky or a number of other important Marxists that were limited by the context of the time although some of them revelling very important incites into capitalism that still retain their importance even today.

Part 2

So, once again, I think the real tragedy was the failure of the FI come to terms with the qualitative changes that had taken place following the war which in my opinion would have involved excepting Grants analysis. However, if this had been the case, that would not have been the end of it, rather, having rearmed the FI theoretically, playing it on a much firmer footing, the whole of the international could have then have been involved in both developing and 'fleshing out' Grants analysis and hopefully having been able to recognise and take account of the factors Grant was unable to that I have already mentioned.

So Ken, I guess I'm both agreeing with you AND disagreeing with you at the same time.

Also, in relation to the FI not listening to him, while I have heard much from comrades that knew him, some with an axe to grind, others more impartial, that confirm your sentiments about him going 'on and on' both in the written word and speeches, I believe the fundamental problem was the sorry state the FI found itself in at the time.

As you well know just a few years previously the American section, in which the international centre was based, had been though a gruelling and bitter factional struggle with the Shachtman-Burnham petty bourgeois grouping. While both looking at the events as they unfounded at the time and looking back objectively at the later extreme political degeneration of the 'Shachtmanites' with Burnham even humiliating the minority by defecting to imperialism barley a few months after the split, I have to say with conviction that I come down firmly on the side of the Trotsky-Cannon majority, yet I believe it's from this principled struggle that the seeds of the majorities future political degenaration were sown.

The factional struggle involved more than the simple mobilisation of party's proletarian base against the minority in defence of fundamental Marxist principles, it required centralisation of the party, a closing of the ranks against 'petty-bourgeois deviation' that resulted in the leadership layer and the caders developing a corresponding mindset psychologically speaking, that of intolerance to new ideas, elitism and yes, even 'conservatism' the greatest of all ironies, the very tendencies that the minority grouping accused the majority of possessing!

Part 3

Was it all hopeless then? Well, in my humble opinion, the problem could have been resolved, allowing the more open dissuasions and debates within the organisation that were so necessary or at least some semblance of an organisation could have been salvaged from the wreckage in a couple of ways.

Firstly, quit simply, what if Trotsky had not been assassinated? Would he have thrown his own authority behind Grant and the RCP majority? Of could one cannot say with total certainty, however I think everyone can agree that there is no way in Hell he would have gone along with the line that came out of the FI that Mao and Tito were 'unconscious Trotskyists' including that obscene 'open letter' they sent to Tito while he was ordering the shooting of suspected Trotskyists in Yugoslavia! An action rightly condemned by the RCP majority, with Haston having written the protest letter to the FI and then the public distancing of themselves from this insane opportunism with the FI official position in no way appearing in the public material.

The other possibility, that of salvaging something far more substantial from the organisation, was really the failure of Grant and the RCP leadership to really attempt to exploit the possibilities open to them both within and outside the FI at that stage.

Regarding the internal possibilities, a minority current did develop in the American SWP in the 40's around Goldman and Morrow with them putting forward many important critiques of the sterile and dogmatic maintenance of previous outdated perspectives in the light of new events and anticipate many of the key issues in Grants later analysis, as Tony Aitman put it in 'Militants Real History,'

"Grant's ideas themselves at the end of the war were influenced by the theories of Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman. As an aside, it is interesting that Sewell admits this in his introduction to Grant's book. In all the time Grant spoke in the old Tendency on the history of the movement, this was never mentioned (see the transcript of Grant's speech on the history held in the Liverpool archives). I myself raised this in the 1980s on first reading Morrow and Goldman's documents. The exact formulations were different, but the analysis and conclusions were basically the same. When I took this up with Ted, I was dismissed. Morrow and Goldman were petit bourgeois at best; their ideas were only superficially similar, only the British section (i.e. Ted Grant) had the correct ideas. Unfortunately for Sewell, the documents are there and the truth of history cannot be dismissed."

Although I think Aitman might have gone a little too far, underestimating the extent to which Grant developed their ideas, which were akin to 'groping forward in the dark' and contained an incoherent mixture of opportunist ideas and concepts too as they had not developed their ideas though to the end as Grant did, none the less they played an impotent role which both later and then Grant was unwilling to acknowledge.

Part 4

Unfortunately rather than establishing firm relations with the Goldman-Morrow minority and assisting them to develop their ideas in a more rounded out way, being them closer to the RCP majority and defending them against the SWP majority who denounced them as 'petty-bourgeois' Grant hedged his bets on the 'orthodox' leadership coming to their senses as he himself admitted in an interview on these issues in 2004 that, while containing the usual self indulgence is worth reading in full,

However for speed I'll quote the relevant part I refer here,

"A: Were there any other oppositional tendencies?

Q: In the American SWP there was the group around Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman. They had a better position than Cannon and Hansen. But they also made some mistakes, so we did not support them. But Cannon accused us of supporting them and of interfering in the internal affairs of the SWP. This was rich coming from Cannon, who had always been interfering in the affairs of the British section!"

Thus we have the admission of guilt, even if perhaps Grant was not aware of it, do not get me wrong, I believe in party politics and democratic-centralism, I'm working my way though the excellent book 'Lenin and the Revolutionary Party' by Paul Le Blanc at the moment, however when it has become clear that the international has politically degenerated, when they are utilising Stalinist tactics to silence you and your comrades, then frankly, I believe you are within your right to break from democratic-centralist practices, to sum it up, you may break from centralism because they have broken with democracy. Heck even the protest letter Haston wrote on the Tito isssue I refered to was only sent to the leadership, granted they were refusing to circulate documents but at that point they should of attempted to reach the rank and file and again, Goldman and Morrow could ahve been an opening for that.

This immediately bring us onto the 'outside forces' and the main focus should have been Shachtman's party, because, with the inglorious retreat of Burnham the party was by no means heading uniformly in the direction of a 'petty-bourgeois liberal party' in fact it was a melting pot of contradictory currents and opinions, including such brilliant Marxists as Hal Drapper Ken refered to who's polemic against the FI open letter to Tito was close in essentials to the opposition from Grant and the RCP.

Had a decisive effort been made to reach the genuine Marxists who for one reason or another had found themselves within Shachtman's party and were to steadily drift away over the next few years, who knows what theirs and the combined efforts of the Goldman-Morrow faction might have been able to build, instead, without support Goldman and Morrow were to become broken and disillusioned, Morrow the author of 'Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain' one of the most important books to have come out of the Trotskyist movement, being the definitive Marxist account of the Spanish civil war, ended up a reactionary Zionist!

Would the RCP been expelled for the FI had they taken such a course? Almost certainly, yet, given the later pressure placed on the organisation to enter the Labour party when conditions were not right that even Grant eventually capitulated too, resulting in the wrecking of the party, when without it a firm, larger one, might have been built though a firm orientation to the unions rather than the Labour party at that stage as Tony Cliff was to prove building a modest presence in the unions while outside the Labour party in spite of the small size of his organisation, would being expelled from the FI in say 1948 have really been a bad thing? There are many variables, however, given the state of the Trotskyist movement in Brittan today, which is world famous for the level of divisions between groups and parties I think it probably would have been better.

Sorry I went on so long...but I had fun! :D

Viva Hugo Blanco!

and have a look at the newspaper he publishes if you read Spanish, something good has come out of this tradition, incidentally the USFI's mag International Viewpoint is excellent, I think the followers of Trotsky have moved on somewhat

Well Derek, I guess it says something that someone not from that background likes IV! I had no idea it was of any interest to anyone from outside, though I've always linked to it.

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