Struggle for a Proletarian Party: The Rise and Decline of the SWP, 1940 – 1965

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I am reporting as a participant here in Seattle, where I spent all but eight months of those years. I survived in the SWP during these years only because I lived in Seattle, a relatively isolated branch 700 miles from San Francisco.

In any of the other branches of the SWP I would have drifted away long ago, as many others did, only knowing something had gone wrong. However, Seattle was fortunate in having a leadership that analyzed the degeneration of the party.

Trotsky wrote in his first letter to Cannon in 1929, “All the problems of socialism and capitalism will be settled on American soil, so those building the party in the U.S. are building the most important party in the world.”1 Most important for the survival of a revolutionary Marxist party in Seattle was and is a long period of intellectual, class conscious professional revolutionary leadership by Dan Roberts and Clara Fraser.

My subjective feelings of injustice were always around the special oppression of women, which Clara put into words and into theoretical concepts. None of our male comrades would have done this. Without this there would have been no place for me in the party for the last years. As it was, my anger and frustration were channeled into constructive activity rather than despair.

I want to start my report today by quoting from the former Seattle branch’s resignation statement from the SWP, April 9, 1966:

“It is a tribute to the genius of Leon Trotsky that the movement he founded could survive in the U.S. so long after his death, during two long decades of prosperity, world domination and relative quiescence in the working class.”

When Cannon left Moscow with the documents of the Left Opposition, Trotsky’s Draft Criticism of the 1928 conference of the world communist movement, Cannon was alone in support of Trotsky and the Russian Left Opposition. Cannon realized the seriousness and the magnitude of the job before him — the necessity of reasserting Marxist theory and program in the Communist Party. This proved impossible so Cannon and Trotsky and a handful of supporters organized the Fourth International and the SWP in the U.S. That the SWP was built and grew to be such a significant influence in the life of the U.S. working class is a tribute to the ideology, daring and courage of Cannon and Trotsky. Trotsky’s respect for Jim Cannon has been referred to time and again in various comrades’ reminiscences of Trotsky.

Cannon came from the American working class. He had long years of experience in the labor movement, IWW, Debs’ Socialist Party and the early United States Communist Party. Cannon worked for many years in the U.S. Labor Defense Committee organizing support for radical, political and labor leaders persecuted and jailed by the capitalist courts. He had fought through many faction struggles and splits in the American movement before coming into contact with Trotsky and the ideology of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union.

Both Cannon and Trotsky recognized the primacy of principles and were always willing to discuss, debate and even split the party on basic programmatic issues. They demonstrated in life how a small but correct Bolshevik party could grow and prosper. They were devoted to theory, programmatic clarity, careful conjunctural analysis, intervention, fusions and splits, principled politics and organizational flexibility. Until his death Trotsky was a close collaborator of the American party. Comrades visited him with every important difference in the party and he entered into all its struggles with his prestige, experience and knowledge. The party in return did all it could to protect Trotsky. There were many debates and differences but Trotsky always deferred to the judgment of the comrades in the field.

Trotsky always emphasized the importance of theory, and many years before the SWP degenerated he had written that “a deficiency in theory would eventually corrode the entire political organism. Without correct theory the basic guarantee for correctly orienting policy in sharp turns and resisting alien pressures would be lost. Even if the leadership succeeded in arriving at the correct position it would constantly face the danger of defections in the ranks and in the leadership among those left politically unprepared, or falsely prepared, and who do not find the empirical motivations a strong enough shield to resist alien pressure.”2

This is essentially what happened to the SWP on the Black Question. The SWP failed theoretically and programmatically on the most crucial, peculiarly U.S. social problem—American Blacks.

Basically, the SWP failed theoretically and programmatically on two crucial issues in U.S. society, the race question and the Woman Question. While the SWP accepted the Marxist position on women, it never fully implemented it and eventually put the women into a second-class political position. With a Bolshevik leadership both could have been corrected in time in open internal discussion and debate, instead the party tightened up organizationally, repressed debate in subtle and not such subtle ways, and at an accelerated rate compounded its mistakes.

The SWP always had an ambivalent position on the Black Question. It had really never done a Marxist study of Black people in U.S. economy. There were several attempts by concerned comrades to probe and analyze the special oppression of Black people in the U.S, but it never did get the attention from the party that it deserved. Richard Kirk and Clara Kaye made the most consistent and persistent attempt to get the party to give this theoretical problem the importance that it deserved.

In 1963 the party shut the discussion off, with no serious consideration of the Kirk-Kaye resolution on “Revolutionary Integration,” by accepting as its official position on Blacks in the U.S. the basically incorrect theory it had inherited from the Communist Party. Officially for them the Black Question in the U.S. is only a variation of the National Question in Eastern Europe. This theory holds that Black people are a nation, with a common language, history, culture, etc. It determines nationality for Black people by the color of their skin. For the SWP, the Marxist method of analyzing problem areas does not apply to Black people. Black problems can be solved by “racial separation and self-determination.” Whatever the Black leadership does is good enough for Blacks and good enough for the SWP because whatever policy is most prominent at any stage has been self-determined. The SWP with a false appreciation of the Black struggle, alternated between super-nationalism, subordination to trade unionism and an adaptation to reformism.

However, the 1963 resolution that was accepted as party program stated, “The Muslims, headed by Elijah Muhammad, were the most dynamic tendency in the Northern Black community today.” Seattle analyzed this document, saying, “The party was unable to distinguish between a reactionary and a progressive social formation, as the Muslims had all the qualifications enumerated by Trotsky and other Marxist authorities for a fascist movement: middle class leadership grouped around a Messiah, declassed social base, social demagoguery, anti-Semitism, anti-communism, subordination of women, race fetishism, a special armed force directed against the working class and ties with big capital.”

The party’s second fatal flaw was its failure to implement a strong woman’s section or commission although there was frequently pressure exerted for a woman’s commission in the party.

The Marxist position on women was the official party position. However, the party never instituted good theoretical continuing education on the classic Marxist position of women in capitalist society. The majority of the party’s independent women leaders were in the Midwest and the West Coast, the East Coast being the most backward. There were both ex-Catholic and ex-Mormon male leaders in the party who carried in their ideology an unspoken residue of their churches’ backward ideas about women. In addition comrades had conventional wives who were “dedicated home and mother types.” These women were concerned with their marriages and families rather than the theory and program for a revolution in social relations. Most of all they wanted no revolution in their lifestyles and saw independent women leaders as a threat. Many of them were extremely self-sacrificing in working and supporting their husband leaders. This backward group of women were seriously in need of a theoretical education on the Woman Question. Later these women struck out viciously at the independent women in party leadership, where they could have been for the most part the independent women leaders’ greatest support or at worst neutralized and the most backward would at least have understood rather than lining up with the conservative leaders on both the Black and Woman Question. Many times these women were used by the male leaders as a battering ram against the women party leaders. In its earlier period the party was basically equalitarian in its treatment of women. Many of the early male leaders wanted to see women in leadership positions and were proud of their accomplishments.

The party failed on these two fundamentally crucial issues, Blacks and women. They never really analyzed the Black Question or consistently educated party members on the classic Marxist position on women which resulted in the SWP underestimating the importance of these oppressed sections in stimulating, organizing and eventually leading the upsurge in the American labor movement.

How and why the party made the theoretical mistakes has troubled me for many years. I often think, “if only” with a correct program of intervention into the living movement where we could be today.

By the time of the Cold War and the McCarthy witch hunts the party had gone through two fundamental splits on basic theory and program, had fused with two centrist political parties with leftward moving sections of youth, had a solid trade union base in Minneapolis with a fine reputation as a result of the 1934 strike and the Smith Act Trials of Trotskyist trade union leaders during the Second World War, and strong fractions in a number of basic industrial male unions. Marxists in the armed forces had been in the leadership in the demand of G.I.s to come home, ending for the time being the capitalist hopes of opening the devastated Soviet Union for capitalist exploitation.

The party seemed to be holding firm in its revolutionary perspective through the reactionary period of the ’40s with its Taft-Hartley Act and the witch hunt of McCarthyism, until 1952-54 when a number of conflicting programmatic differences emerged together with an intensive criticism of Cannon’s leadership. Particular disagreement developed of Cannon’s theses on the coming American Revolution that had been adopted at the 1946 conference of the SWP.

The party leadership in New York tried to ride out the storm by convincing the dissident elements that by observing party discipline and continuing to discuss the differences all questions at issue could be resolved.

By now the national N.Y. leadership of the party was primarily in the hands of the old trade unionists who had come from the great strike waves of the ’30s. The opposition was mainly led by old trade unionists and there was a basic sort of affinity between them. They all had a certain contempt for the intellectual revolutionist. Their sympathies were with the “doers” (themselves), not the “thinkers.” All of them believed the future American revolution would be led by their kind, white male trade unionists in the basic industries, auto, steel, etc. The national leadership tried to conciliate the opposition rather than smoke out what was really very basic disagreements on perspectives. Cannon had retired to L.A. in 1951 to set an example for older comrades of making way for new younger leaders.

Cannon and the Weiss group in California saw what was happening to basic party doctrine and were in the forefront of the struggle against Cochran after he declared war on the fundamentals of Trotskyism. The essential difference in the party revolved around Bert Cochran, a CIO leader, and Clarke and Bartell who had recently returned from Europe and were caught up in an orientation toward the big Stalinist parties in those countries. All of them despaired of a Bolshevik revolution in the U.S. They were all saying it was hopeless to try to build a revolutionary party that carried out rounded political activity and urged turning the party into a propaganda group that limited itself to commentary only. It was an unprincipled combination as there was no basic political agreement between the Cochran and Clarke-Bartell comrades. Comrade Dobbs and Kerry, national party leaders, were in close organizational alliance with Cochran, even though they were in basic political agreement with Weiss and rejected Cochran’s revisionism. However, they refused to defend the Weiss group who Cochran was fiercely attacking.

Instead Comrades Dobbs and Kerry helped organize the Cochran faction in at least one branch, the Seattle branch, where Dobbs in person and on the scene conferred official approval upon the factional organization of an absolutely unprincipled combination of Cochranites, Bartellities, and Marcyites and then proceeded to encourage them to undertake a struggle for power against the branch leadership on straight organizational issues. This proved to be a characteristic of the Dobbs-Kerry leadership as they did the same thing in the YSA at a later period. Dobbs then reported back to the majority faction this blessing on an anti-party group, justifying it on the grounds that his national post demanded that he be fair, impartial and democratic. The opposition here in Seattle won the election with all leadership posts and promptly left the party, part of them to join the C.P. for a short time, others to go with Marcy. In a very short time most of them were out of politics, that being the direction they were headed for all the time.

Only after nationwide resistance to Cochran-Clarke was generated by the secondary leadership and party membership did the central leadership reluctantly break its unprincipled bloc and help repel Cochran’s struggle for power.

The party membership suffered many blows from the Cold War and McCarthy witch hunt. The capitalist government, the trade union bureaucrats and the right-wing all attacked in a political climate friendly to them. The capitalists wanted to contain communism, the trade union bureaucrats saw their opportunity to eliminate their opposition — the leadership of any future labor upsurge, and the right wingers swept into power all through the government and union apparatus where many still are today.

Our comrades were blacklisted from their jobs and their unions. It was difficult to do any trade union work. The SWP’s most famous victim of the witch hunt was James Kutcher, a legless veteran of the Second World War. Kutcher and the SWP fought back, winning much union support, and eventually Kutcher won his job, his pension, back pay and his right to live in public housing.

Cannon says this witch hunt was not as bad as the Palmer Raids but it still had a devastating effect on many comrades.

Some things were a little different in Seattle. In Seattle, Frank Krasnowsky, who had always been active in the left wing of the steel workers union, survived in the union and in the plant. An active local unionist, a former CP member who had become friendly with us,3 agreed to testify before the Velde Committee, a committee going around the country hunting communists, saying he could out-smart them. Despite our advice urging against this action he did appear before the committee and as a result was eliminated from the union and from left wing political life in Seattle. The company kept him on without union membership until he retired.

However, the party nationally and locally found it virtually impossible to function in the union movement on the same level as it had in the past and pulled back on union work, turning to increased propaganda and election work. This was the period the party initiated its most important work, the Trotsky schools where active comrades took six months leave from the branches and spent the time at a camp in N.J. studying Capital and Marxist theory. Myra and Murry Weiss had always supported women leaders in the party. Dan Roberts, a professional revolutionist and an intellectual from L.A., our branch organizer, did the same in Seattle. Dan had the utmost confidence in Clara as a strong revolutionary leader and insisted she have the opportunity to go to Trotsky school before any of the local men comrades. To facilitate her going to school he moved in with Frank to help Frank with his babysitting problems. While Clara was in the east, Dan encouraged me to do my first writing for the party. He edited my articles and also encouraged me to take on other responsibilities.

While Clara was in the east we ran a candidate locally for the school board, Dan Roberts. Black workers and women were not as apathetic as it appeared on the surface. The woman editor of the Queen Anne News, a neighborhood shopping paper, published Dan’s entire election statement and was immediately visited by the local American Legion and other rightwing organizations. She called Dan the day it came out and reported her experience. It was the only paper in the city to publish our complete program. We got amazing support from the Black community. Black foundry workers, laundry workers and others organized house meetings where Dan talked to as many as 20 to 25 workers in an individual home. We came within a very few votes of winning that election.

Seattle and the N.W. have a long history of radical activity. However, I believe the Seattle branch’s Bolshevik leadership with a consistent program of Trotskyist intervention into the political life of the city contributed to any success we had during 1954 and the McCarthy era.

In Krupskaya’s “Reminiscences of Lenin” she frequently refers to Lenin sending her or other women comrades to represent the Bolsheviks at national and international conferences. I do not remember this ever happening in the SWP. Although the party had a significant number of women leaders. Lenin also collaborated with many women in developing his ideas.

In 1954 there were many women organizers in the middle west and west, and many of the active women were writing for the Militant. Joyce Cowley and Jean Blake had columns every week, Joyce generally writing on the problems of women and Jean on the Black struggle.

In August 1954 Joe Hansen under an assumed name launched an attack on women for being such fools as to fall victim to the high-powered advertisements of the cosmetic industry. A number of women including me, with Clara’s help, jumped into the argument defending women as special victims of the system. We were especially exploited as women because we had to use cosmetics to keep our jobs in this dog-eat-dog capitalist system of competition.

Evelyn Reed wrote an article in support of Joe Hansen and also referred to this incident in her first pamphlet on “Problems of Women’s Liberation.” To quote from this pamphlet in which she is writing about that debate she says, “The ‘Woman Question’ can only be resolved through the alignment of working men and women against the ruling men and women. This means that the common interest of women as a class overrides the special interest of women as a sex.” The SWP considered the Woman Question as an important question but not a first class political question.

A sensitive party leadership would have recognized this upsurge of women’s protest as demonstrating the very real need for a comprehensive party discussion on the Woman Question. Rather it became the beginning of an accelerated attack on women party leaders.

The SWP came out of the Cochran fight with a leadership divided, the radical-laborites of Dobbs-Kerry who viewed the SWP as a holding operation until the next upsurge of the white trade unionist, Cannon in the middle trying to hold it all together, and the younger revolutionaries in support of the Weiss group.

Francis James brought a resolution into the next national conference of the SWP on the Woman Question. However, she did not introduce it for discussion. She was persuaded by Cannon not to bring it to the floor as it would tear the decimated party still further apart. It was not fully developed and she had not really organized women’s support.

During the Cochran fight there was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism as well as an attack on intellectuals and professional revolutionists. Dobbs-Kerry, while not agreeing politically with the Cochran faction, had an affinity for these backward ideas. They were convinced of the necessity of building an SWP where the prejudiced white male trade unionist would feel at home. This did not include a party with an active, aggressive woman and Black leadership. Thus they built a party prejudiced against women and Blacks.

From 1954 on, with the launching of the attack on intellectuals and women, there was a systematic underground kind of personal slander campaign that took the form of unpleasant stories and gossip. Myra and Clara were two of the party’s best speakers, men or women, and they were always referred to as “orators” not as speakers, in a derogatory fashion.

When the Cochran-Bartell people left, the party was hard hit for staff so local organizers were called to N.Y. for the National Office: Dan Roberts to edit the Militant and Francis James, an active woman organizer and leader from S.F. After teaching one session of Trotsky school she went into N.Y. City and was given only routine tasks such as stuffing envelopes. Finally giving up on getting anything meaningful to do she went to work for the N.Y. Times. All this time there was an underground attack on her as a male castrator, as Nick worked and supported her while she did full time party work, the same thing many loyal wives did for their full time male party workers.

As the party leadership tightened up in its holding operation waiting for the white male trade unionist to move, it became more rigid, almost ossified like the Socialist Labor Party. The leading members held firmly to the strategy that was mapped out in the ’30s and ’40s. They were blind to the unfolding movement around them. When Blacks and women started to move, they were unprepared and unaware of the dynamics of the action. When they finally realized something was happening they were a supporting voice.

Late in the 1950s, at the time of the arrest of two little Black boys aged 5 and 7 for kissing a white female playmate aged 6 in Monroe, North Carolina, two young high school students, YSA members, went south as representatives of their school paper to interview Robert Williams of the Monroe NAACP and the mothers of the children, and brought back an eyewitness account for their school paper and the YSA. That a comrade would allow her daughter and a school friend to go into such a dangerous situation caused an unofficial uproar in the N.Y. branch. Both returned unharmed and with a very exciting educational experience as well as a good article in the N.Y. high school paper. Sometime later this young woman, Nora Roberts, who supported the party position was arbitrarily removed as editor of the YSA paper in favor of Tim Wolforth, a male Columbia University student who did not support the party position. This was another unprincipled combination of party leadership with Wolforth, the same as the unprincipled combination that Dobbs had worked out with the Seattle branch opposition at an earlier period.

Nora Roberts’ life as a child and a young woman in the N.Y. branch is a prime example of the SWP’s attitude toward a young woman who was following in the tradition of Myra, Clara and Francis. A young Rosa Luxemburg who differed with Lenin and developed Marx’s “Accumulation of Capital” could not have existed in the SWP.

The Dobbs-Kerry leadership was blind to the dynamics of Black women leaders and the youth in SNCC. Black women and youth, potentially revolutionary leaders, needed the guidance that could only be provided by revolutionary Marxists with an appreciation of the role of Black women, the most oppressed with the greatest potential as leaders.

From our Seattle document “Crisis and Leadership”: “The Black struggle meets and overlaps with the Woman Question at many points, and once again it can be seen how only Marxism, in all its broad and humanitarian ramifications indicates the course of action. The most oppressed if led by Bolsheviks, will rise to the highest and broadest awareness; to the SWP the Black leaders are leaders of Blacks alone, women are leaders of nothing and youth can play no independent role in the party.”

The Black Question and the Woman Question are the two basic programmatic and theoretical mistakes of the SWP, but they were made possible by a hardened, tightened-up national leadership. A leadership that inoculated the membership against those very traditions of American Trotskyism which demonstrated in life how a small, but correct, Bolshevik party could grow and prosper.

By the time the entire Seattle branch of the SWP and YSA resigned from the national SWP, April 1966, the SWP had consolidated a radical-labor leadership, unresponsive to differences in theory or program of action and concentrating primarily on organizational principles.

Seattle had for years pressed for theoretical clarity on the central question of the coming American revolution, the Black Question. Seattle put political questions first and organizational questions second. So long as the possibility of free exchange existed, Seattle kept the doors open for discussion by minimizing all administrative and secondary assaults. Seattle pushed for proletarian democracy in the party, right of minority representation on leading bodies, and for a comradely exchange of ideas: the old Trotskyist proletarian democracy where a faction could exist in the party, carrying out the decisions of the majority but raising the differences again and again until the majority has convinced the opposition it is wrong or the faction has convinced the majority the faction is right.

From 1950 to 1960 the SWP had shifted from a revolutionary political class conscious leadership, Cannon, to a primarily class conscious trade union leadership with an emphasis on the organized white male workers as the force for transforming U.S. capitalism. They seem to view the revolutionary party as if it were a militant AFL union, the basic strength is a body of white male workers; minorities, women and youth on the fringes, youth the trainees, women and minorities the support workers.

This is a fast, short overview of those years as I witnessed them in Seattle.

–Presented at a Freedom Socialist Party Educational Retreat, December 1, 1974

Cannon refers to this statement by Trotsky in his speech, “Internationalism and the SWP,” May 18, 1953. 
These observations by Trotsky are described in “The Roots of the Party Crisis—Its Causes and Solution,” a document submitted to Political Committee of the Socialist Workers Party, April 1953, by members of the Cochran faction. 
Gene Dennett

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