The American Revolution and Trotskyism

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This speech was published in Permanent Revolution in the U.S. Today, a compilation of writings by Robert Crisman, Stephen Durham, Monica Hill and Merle Woo, published by Red Letter Press.

Given the theme of my talk, I’d like to assert three things at the outset:

1. Revolution in this country is decisive to the success of the world socialist upheaval. The U.S. remains the capital of world capitalism, the epicenter of economic crisis, thief of labor and resources worldwide, noteholder to the debtor nations. It is the military life support for bourgeois dictators, armorer and financier of rightwing death squads, nuclear blackmailer of the world, breeder of fascism here and abroad, subverter of democracy and socialism on five continents. All those who aspire to be free must reckon with the capitalist dictators on Wall Street.

2. Revolution in the U.S. is coming sooner rather than later. The era of capitalist reforms, buyoffs, collaboration, and pacification of the working class is over. The economic, social, and political crisis of the profit system mandates austerity and repression and cannot but prepare the ground for mass certitude that revolution is the only way out, cannot but engender the desperate willingness of the broad working masses to take the revolutionary road—provided that revolutionary leadership is present at the head of the struggle.

3. U.S. Trotskyists are decisive to the success of the American revolution. Those who want freedom must win it. Only Marxism—the science of class struggle—lays the basis for common understanding of the revolutionary tasks at hand. Only Leninism—the method of welding a Marxist vanguard into a united striking arm against capital—can draw behind it the mass of workers and oppressed in a conscious and therefore implacable struggle for socialism. Only Trotskyism—rooted in Marxism and Leninism and standing on the theory of Permanent Revolution—can delineate the contours, dynamics, vicissitudes, and complexities of revolution in our time, organize the oppressed, and lead them to victory.

The American Question

Thirty-nine years ago, James P. Cannon, the first genius of American Bolshevism, wrote in his Theses on the American Revolution:

“The role of America is decisive. Should the European and colonial revolutions, now on the agenda of the day, precede in point of time the culmination of the struggle of the U.S., they would immediately be confronted with the necessity of defending their conquests against the economic and military assaults of the American imperialist monster. The issue of socialism or capitalism will not finally be decided until it is decided in the U.S.”

The Theses were ridiculed when they were first presented at the SWP’s 12th National Convention in 1946. U.S. imperialism, after 17 years of depression and world war, nevertheless appeared invincible on the world arena—at least to the superficial, anti-Cannonist fainthearts and doubters, who soon left the SWP to join the Shachtmanites.

The Theses are ridiculed and ignored by many who call themselves Trotskyists today for the same reason—and on the pretext that recognition of the centrality of the U.S. to world revolution is nothing but American chauvinism—a national messianism completely at loggerheads with Bolshevik internationalism.

Cannon’s “Americanism,” however, was internationalist to the core, unlike the anti-American chauvinism of his past and present critics, who refuse to recognize the relative weight of the different nations, sectors, and class forces that confront one another in the matrix of international relations.

Cannon’s assessment flows inexorably from Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution.
A key tenet of the theory is this: The revolution is international in character and scope. It is international precisely in that national liberation and democratic struggles in all countries—in the Third World, the West, and the workers states—are indissolubly bound up with the success of proletarian revolution in the advanced industrial countries.

This internationalism is dictated by the character of the world capitalist economy, transcending all national limits, which has created a worldwide network of productive forces, a world division of labor which subordinates on a world scale the countryside to the metropolis, worldwide financial interests, a worldwide repressive apparatus, and class struggle on a world scale.

All revolutions are bound up with the success of proletarian struggles in the advanced industrial countries. In Cannon’s time and our own, this means that the question of socialism will be decided in the U.S.—still the economic, political, and military center of gravity in the capitalist world.

Consider the reality: capitalist Europe and Japan operate as thieves under the American nuclear umbrella; the Soviet Union and China jockey for position in their competitive quest for “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism;* Nicaragua, because of imperialism, dares not wage a thoroughgoing political offensive against its bankers and bishops, nor recognize the Atlantic Indians’ right as nations to self-determination; South Africa, Israel, Zaire, Pakistan, El Salvador, the Philippines, and other police states on all continents are the client “democracies” of Uncle Sam; U.S. labor bureaucrats give back, sell out, and surrender to the bosses in hopes of labor “peace”; U.S. and world Stalinists and ex-Trotskyists scurry to accommodate the American imperialist offensive, and thus escape its heat.

We are nevertheless admonished that American power has declined since Cannon’s time, that the U.S. is less important in the world scheme of things, that we needn’t worry quite so much about making a revolution here at home. It is interesting that many who parrot this nonsense are also the first to bemoan the “inability” of the U.S. working class to get its revolutionary act together.

We say that U.S. weakness, relative to its unchallenged world pre-eminence in 1946, is just that—relative, and signifies nothing but the disintegration of the world capitalist system. It certainly doesn’t mean the accession of some other power to world supremacy.

In the first instance, no new capitalist power will arise to challenge U.S. pre-eminence, politically or militarily. The relative economic health of Japan, for example, is entirely dependent both upon American military protection and the fact that protection costs are borne by the U.S. working class. Japan and Europe will swim—and sink—with U.S. imperialism.

Nor does the disintegration of world capitalism mean the automatic success of the socialist revolution. The workers states—saddled by bureaucracy, backwardness, internecine national rivalries, lack of access to world resources and technology, low productivity of labor—cannot and will not break the imperialist stranglehold. Already politically and economically deformed by world imperialist pressure, they will be caught up and destroyed in the death throes of the profit system if those death throes are not first cut short by workers’ revolution in the West.

We are told that the accumulative power of Third World revolutions can somehow topple the U.S. colossus, that the revolutionary capture of the countryside will lead of itself to the fall of the metropolis. This was the revolutionary “theory” of Maoism, whose armies wrested the ruined and defenseless cities of China from Chiang Kai-shek. It is the hope of Stalinists and the SWP, which cheerleads Cuba and Nicaragua while disavowing revolutionary potential and necessity at home.

It is indeed true that revolutions elsewhere shake the foundations of the metropolis, which rests on neocolonial subjugation and the containment of the deformed and degenerated workers states. But the cities of imperialism are bristling fortresses, launching pads of holocaust, and breeders of fascism and imperialist war—the capitalist reaction to revolutionary crisis—which will engulf the world if they are not eradicated at home by the workers.

In defense of the American Theses

The roots of fascism and war will be dug up and tossed out here by American workers. We are optimistic about U.S. revolutionary prospects, the more so because we understand fully why revolution at home has not yet come to pass.

I want to speak here in defense of the American Theses. This landmark theoretical/political document of American and world Trotskyism, the highest application of the theory of Permanent Revolution to the American Question, laid the basis for our understanding of the dynamics of U.S. class struggle, and for our firm belief in the revolutionary power of the working class in this country. Much has been attempted to be made by Trotskyists of the failure of the Theses to predict correctly the tempo of post-war revolutionary developments in the U.S. However, we think that a Marxist examination of this failure—rather than empirical sniping after the fact, as is invariably the case—is necessary to disclose what lies behind the delay of the revolution and thus show all the more clearly why we are American revolutionary optimists. We insist first of all that in point of Marxist methodology, the Theses were correct in their assessment of U.S. revolutionary prospects.

Cannon had every good Marxist reason to believe that workers’ revolution was around the corner in 1946—because of the worldwide economic and political crisis of capitalism, rooted in the developing colonial upheaval and in the decimation of world capitalist markets during World War II. No colonies, no wealth. No markets, no sale. No sale, no profits, no capitalism.

Cannon’s assessment of U.S. workers and their revolutionary potential was just as methodologically correct. He cited as the basis for his assessment: their overwhelming numerical and social weight in U.S. society; their immense technical skill; their growing social and economic homogeneity at the time; their already demonstrated willingness to defend their living standards against capitalist attack; the entry of Blacks as staunch militants into the unions during the war; workers’ relative freedom from reformist prejudices.

All this was true-as-Trotskyism in 1946—the greatest strike year in U.S. labor history—and Cannon was certainly a realist in believing that U.S. workers would make short work of the capitalists. It didn’t work out that way. Obviously Cannon, like Trotsky, did not foresee that capitalism would be able to restabilize itself after World War II, just as Lenin had not foreseen the defeat of revolution in Europe after World War I. Cannon ruled out the possibility of an organic revitalization of the profit system, and he was right. It took Keynesian pump-priming and permanent war spending, in conjunction with a worldwide political offensive, for the U.S. to be able to restore and develop a large part of the world market, and forestall, repress, distort, co-opt, and contain the world revolution for an entire historical epoch.

Only thus was the U.S. able to open up a prolonged period of prosperity after the war. The American bourgeoisie in turn was able to grant reforms and concessions, primarily in the form of economic benefits to the upper strata of U.S. workers, and thereby foster development of a largely straight white male labor aristocracy based in the trade unions. On this basis, the capitalists were able to fan the racist, sexist, homophobic, and national chauvinist bigotries that have historically separated the privileged from super-oppressed workers. And they were able to cement the growing identification of the privileged workers with the “American Way of Life” via the jingoist, redbaiting, brainwashing onslaught of McCarthyism.

McCarthyism decapitated the U.S. labor movement in the 1950s: radicals, women, people of color, lesbians and gay men, and immigrants were excluded wholesale from the labor movement, and in conjunction with this, a labor bureaucracy, culled from among the privileged workers, consolidated itself in the unions to serve as the watchdog of privilege, transmitter of ruling class bigotries, and stifler of organized workers’ resistance. The bureaucracy was instrumental in eradicating class consciousness from an entire generation of U.S. workers and in clamping a reformist equilibrium on the class struggle that is only in this decade beginning to disintegrate.

Meanwhile, the struggles of super-oppressed U.S. workers—in the civil rights, women’s, and lesbian/gay movements of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s—became the motor force of class struggle in this country. The fact that they were forced to develop outside the conservatized unions, however, and in opposition to the labor bureaucrats, heightened disorientation in the working class and among U.S. leftists, many of whom proved theoretically and practically unable to cope with the race and sex
polarization that now shaped the workers’ struggle. Nowhere were the consequences of this failure to come to grips with the living dynamics of U.S. struggle more disastrous than inside the SWP.

The Dobbs-Kerry regime which succeeded Cannon to leadership of the party in the 1950s had come to radicalism from the ranks of the 1930s CIO militants who had since congealed as the labor aristocracy. Tied socially to this strata, the regime retained a laborite fixation on the conservatized unions as the exclusive arena of class struggle and on the backward aristocrats as the torchbearers of revolution. Women and people of color they designated as mere—and secondary—”allies” of the workers.

Seeing as “real” workers only the backward elements led the SWP inevitably to a fatal erosion of belief in workers as a revolutionary power, a corollary reformism and opportunism in the labor and social movements, and finally, degeneration into Stalinism and deserved political death in the 1980s.

It is most telling and significant that Cannon’s closest co-thinker, and co-author of the American Theses, Murry Weiss, despised the SWP’s laborism and fought it. In 1954, using the same Marxist analytical method that

Cannon and he had brought to the writing of the Theses, Murry and Myra Tanner Weiss drafted the Trade Union Resolution which was adopted that year at the SWP’s National Convention. The resolution warned the party above all not to count on vanguard action by the worn-out, conservatized militants who had stormed the open-shop bastions and formed the CIO in the 1930s: The Party must look to new layers of potential militants and to women workers, the Negroes and other minority groups. They are the ones who will spearhead labor’s political revitalization. Dobbs and Kerry scrapped this prophetic resolution and kept the porch light on for the backward aristocrats. A decade later, they had succeeded in driving the Weiss group, democracy, all feminists and revolutionary integrationists, and Marxist politics in general out of the party.

Exit the SWP from the ranks of the American revolution

The general failure of the U.S. Left—above all the SWP—in the 1950s and ’60s to recognize the vital interconnections of race,
sex, and class in the U.S., and to integrate these issues in theory and practice, reinforced and helped exacerbate the crippling divisions within the working class. Laborite reformist leftism bolstered white male chauvinism and the labor bureaucracy on the one hand, and allowed scope for the simultaneous resurgence of unvarnished reformism and pro-capitalist cultural national separatism in the women’s, people of color, and lesbian/gay movements. The resulting mutual polarization of all the various struggles—expressed most tellingly in the continued bureaucratic quiescence of organized labor—facilitated the U.S. government’s decimation of 1960s protests and provided the opening for the rise of the current rightwing reaction.

Economic privilege for straight white male unionists; promulgation of multiple bigotries within the working class; the rise and consolidation of the labor bureaucracy; the failure of much of the Left to fight the chauvinist bureaucrats: these are the factors that have throttled worker radicalization since the war.

The very rise of rightwing reaction, however, along with the burgeoning U.S. war offensive, signal that the reformist equilibrium maintained by the bureaucrats is disintegrating. Capitalism—wracked by world revolution and its own growing inner contradictions—can no longer afford to dole out privileges and reforms. Its only way out of crisis is austerity, increased repression, fascism, and war. Reforms and reformists have had their day. Meanwhile, the workers, especially the most oppressed, are beginning to fight back against the reaction. The working class as a whole will soon move past the political torpor of reformism.

Class warfare is escalating now in the trenches—at abortion clinics, in the affirmative action and comparable worth struggles, the fight for union democracy, the AIDS and gay rights battle, the fight for Native American sovereignty, for community control of education, for immigrant rights, at Phelps-Dodge, at Watsonville, at the Seattle Human Rights Department, and on a thousand other fronts. And in virtually every case, the reactionaries focus their attacks on the super-oppressed working majority—the non-white, non-male, non-straight workers ignored and repudiated for so long by the bureaucrats and leftist laborites.

These struggles, and the hue and gender identification of the opposing forces involved, delineate the present configuration of U.S. class struggle overall, and indicate what we must do to make a revolution in this country.

Fascism, to conquer, must recruit an army—and it is recruiting one now from among the misogynists, redbaiters, racebaiters, homophobes, scabs, and chauvinists of America. Multi-issue bigotry—dividing the privileged workers from the super-oppressed, and the latter from each other—is the “strength” of the fascists. An attack on that bigotry—expressed in defense of the most oppressed on every front—is our strength, and will unite the working class in the overthrow of capital.

Who or what capitalist force can stand against the united, class-conscious super-oppressed majority of American workers, moreover, who have laid their hands on the key levers of capitalist finance and industry; who are the clericals and computer operators in the communications, transport, and banking industries and in government; whose fingers transmit the orders that fill production and determine the flow of capital; who code the payrolls; who run the capitalist system and can shut it down tomorrow?

Can it be any surprise that these workers have begun to transform the labor movement? They fight the bigots and the bureaucrats most intransigently in the unions. They are the connecting link between labor and the great social movements. They raise abortion rights, affirmative action, job and housing integration, community control of police, comparable worth, and so forth as class struggle issues. They connect these issues with the battles against apartheid and the U.S. war drive. And just as they bring to the class struggle its living social content, they raise workplace battles—job safety, wage discrimination, takebacks, job segregation, the right to speak freely and organize on the job—as social issues of the first magnitude, the more so as these issues are shaped by the racist, sexist, homophobic dynamic of society.

The super-oppressed have been pushed into motion, and into the forefront of the class war, precisely by the objective logic of this dynamic. Reaction for them poses, among all else, the question of survival—an excellent spur to the development of revolutionary consciousness and will. Imbued with this requisite consciousness and will, these workers will unite and transform the entire working class into an unstoppable force for socialism.

Enter Trotskyism

Why a leading role for Trotskyists in the American revolution?
Because we—as the inheritors of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Cannon, as theorists and practitioners of revolutionary politics—have come to grips with and understand the complexities and trajectory of workers’ struggles in the post-war era.

We alone on the Left have understood the revolutionary implications of the interconnections of race, sex, and class in the U.S., and applied that understanding as revolutionaries in the movements for social and economic change. We have developed in living interaction with the most oppressed: we have celebrated their victories and suffered the agony of their defeats; we have learned from their struggles, been teachers as well, and contended for leadership among them. We stand with them as one against the common enemy.

We are the most oppressed—and more than that. We are the vanguard, the Bolshevists, the theorists, the organized and organizing core cadre—the ones who will build the party that leads the coming American revolution.

Without a Leninist party, nothing can be done to topple the capitalist state in America—that powerful, sophisticated, organized, centralized, murderous repressive apparatus of the U.S. ruling class.

We need a Leninist party—a democratic centralist party, rooted in Marxist method and doctrine—with a program that speaks to the needs and demands of the working oppressed, consciously, coherently, with the express purpose of uniting them in an intransigent struggle for socialism. We need a party that counterposes itself to the notion of “spontaneous” revolutionism; that recognizes the historically given heterogeneity and consequent limited political understanding of the working class as a whole; that first seeks to attract and train the conscious vanguard minority of workers; that will orient them toward organizing the broad battalions of the class for revolution.

No force or form of organization other than the Bolshevik party has yet been discovered that can work with the masses to overcome backwardness and weaknesses, to resolve antagonisms, and to educate as to the real interests and underlying strength of the working class, transforming it into a force that can overthrow the advanced capitalist state.

We insist on a democratic centralist party—one that speaks to the workers with a single voice—yet which allows the widest freedom of discussion and debate inside the party, so that ideas and proposals can be presented, thrashed out and clarified without fear or favor—and intelligent action arrived at thereby.

Without centralism, no coherent leadership of workers’ struggles is possible. Yet without democracy in the party—up to and including the right to form factions—comrades cannot test themselves and each other in the clash and clarification of ideas. Who then can learn and apply the arts of Bolshevik leadership in the party or the world at large? A Bolshevik party is the present crying need of our revolution. We see this as the necessary aim and purpose of Trotskyist regroupment.

We are well aware of the rush of Trotskyists, in the wake of the degeneration of the SWP, to regroup with other leftists and forces without first having worked out a programmatic agreement, i.e., agreement with regard to understanding and acting on the essential questions of the class war. These precipitous efforts are being undertaken on the premise that “united action” now in the mass movements will somehow lead to broader initiatives, and eventually to a cohesive, “mass” anti-capitalist offensive.

We have no quarrel with united fronts. We in the Committee for a Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Freedom Socialist Party have initiated, led, and participated in many such fronts over the last two decades.

But, by themselves, these fronts can only be limited and transient; they tend to fall apart under the pressure of events as tactical, strategic and inevitably programmatic alternatives—and thus disagreements—present themselves.

The very necessity for united fronts arises out of the political differences and antagonisms that divide the working class. And they come to nothing if the vanguard is not simultaneously making an overriding effort to reach programmatic clarity and unity, to elaborate a common program, commensurate with the scope and depth of the capitalist offensive, that will serve as the basis for a unified workers’ offensive against capital.

Our primary task as Trotskyists is to thrash out such a program, build the Bolshevik party, and make the American revolution.

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