By Frank Brenner
The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) just finished running a four-part series on the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of 1934, whose 75th anniversary has just passed. Alas, while this is important history and while the series does a competent job in recounting it, this is a case of a tradition being honored more in the breach than in the observance. To anyone familiar with the work of the SEP today, there could hardly be a starker contrast between its abstentionist practice and the inspiring record of James Cannon’s party in providing revolutionary leadership in these strikes.
For this reason, a notable feature of this series is its inability to draw any lessons from this history for today. This is evident at the end, when after four long instalments, the series is concluded in an abrupt and perfunctory way, with two brief paragraphs which do nothing but repeat obvious truths about the need for revolutionary leadership.
The series ends with the following line:
“The lessons of 1934 and those of the entire history of the Trotskyist movement internationally must be assimilated to prepare the leadership of the struggles to come.”
We agree that the lessons of 1934 “must be assimilated”, but the real meaning of that injunction is that this rich history should be more than an occasion for a retrospective essay. It should inform our practice. Yet nothing could be further from the current practice of the SEP than the lessons of 1934. The trouble for the WSWS editorial board is that any attempt to draw concrete lessons from this history becomes implicitly an indictment of the SEP’s abstentionism.
For example, at one point Cannon is quoted as saying that The Organizer, the local strike paper which was edited by Max Shachtman and which Cannon wrote for, was "the crowning achievement" of the party's work in the strike – and yet this is precisely the kind of work that SEP leader David North disparaged in his polemic with us over the NYC transit strike. When we criticized the SEP for the unserious manner in which it intervened in the New York transit strike of 2005, North replied with a sneer that organizing strike committees is not the work of Trotskyists. He wrote,
“No, we did not attempt to write a manual on how to form strike committees. To the extent that workers understood the need for an alternative to the TWU Local 100 leadership and its policies, they would be more than capable of working out the details of creating and running rank-and-file strike committees. But we most certainly did explain what such committees should fight for: the statement outlined the political strategy upon which the fate of the strike depended.” 
But listen to the following assessment of the work of the Trotskyists in the 1934 strike by James Cannon:
“Trotskyism made a number of specific contributions to this strike which made all the difference between the Minneapolis strike and a hundred others of the period, some of which involved more workers in more socially important localities and industries. Trotskyism made the contribution of organization and preparations down to the last detail. That is something new, that is something specifically Trotskyist.” [emphasis added] 
The gulf between Cannon in 1934 and North in 2005 could not be wider. Thus it isn’t surprising that the WSWS series on the Minneapolis strikes, while providing an overview of these events, can say nothing about the fact that the lessons of this history, to which the series alludes on several occasions, have absolutely no impact on the current practice of the SEP.
Another example of the forgotten lessons of the Minneapolis strikes is this analysis of the role of the Stalinists in 1934:
“During the May strike, the CP revealed its inability to advance correct Marxist tactics in relation to the Farmer-Labor Party and Governor Olson. It demanded that Local 574 call a general strike directly against Olson. This was at a time when Olson was verbally—not to mention financially, having personally contributed $500 to Local 574—supporting the strike. The overwhelming majority of workers harbored illusions that he would aid the struggle of Local 574. The Trotskyist leaders judged correctly that his ‘support’ would have to be tested and exposed in the course of the struggle before workers could shed their illusions in the FLP governor.”
Again this is implicitly an indictment of contemporary political practice: Today it is the PSG in Germany that has “revealed its inability to advance correct Marxist tactics” in relation to the Left Party, to say nothing of the wholesale abstentionism of all the SEPs with regard to the unions.
In the history of the Marxist movement, there have often been cases of parties that maintain a formal, ‘orthodox’, adherence to a revolutionary tradition, while deviating from the lessons of that tradition in practice. That is increasingly what characterizes the WSWS and SEP.
 “75th anniversary of the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strike”, WSWS, Aug. 26-29, 2009: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/aug2009/mpls-a26.shtml
 North’s statement is from his Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness, (Mehring Books, 2007), pp. 44-45.
An online version can be found at http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mhsc.pdf
For our reply, see Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, chapt. 5: http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch05.pdf, pp. 120-3. This chapter also contains a discussion of the relevance of the 1934 strikes to a critique of the SEP’s abstentionism, cf. pp. 124-6.
 James P. Cannon, “The History of American Trotskyism”, p. 156. http://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1944/ht03.htm
 See “The PSG and the EU elections”, permanent-revolution.org: http://www.permanent-revolution.org/forum/2009/06/psg-and-eu-elections.html
- Objectivism or Marxism
- Utopia and Revolution
- WSWS launches smear campaign
- Shallow moralizing not Marxism
- Case of the disappearing letter
- Sterile flowers, poisonous weeds
- WSWS 'curious fumble' in Iraq
- PSG and the EU elections
- PSG and Berlin elections
- PSG: A case of magical thinking
- The deadweight of sectarianism
- Distorting history of ICFI
- David North and Soviet History
- North and Service on Trotsky
- A case of abandoning dialectics
- Recent Documents
- Empty place of psychology in Marxism
- From Alienation to Revolution
- Gender and materialism
- Freudianism in Soviet Union: I
- Freudianism in Soviet Union: II
- Freudianism in Soviet Union: Exchange
- Mental illness and American dream: I
- Mental illness and American dream: II
- Heidegger: Philosopher and Nazi
- Heidegger and Nazism: Comment Part I
- Heidegger and Nazism: Comment Part II
- End of Irony or the Irony of Ends
- Turkish economy: illustion and reality
- From the Archives
- Recent Documents
- Marxism Without its Head...
- Downward Spiral of the ICFI
- Dialectical Path of Cognition
- Utopia and socialist consciousness
- Crackpot Philosophy and Double-Speak