Monday, August 31, 2009

History turned into a dead letter

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.[1] 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.” [2]

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] [3]

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.[4]

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.


[1] “75th anniversary of the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strike”, WSWS, Aug. 26-29, 2009:

[2] North’s statement is from his Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness, (Mehring Books, 2007), pp. 44-45.
An online version can be found at
For our reply, see Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, chapt. 5:, 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.

[3] James P. Cannon, “The History of American Trotskyism”, p. 156.

[4] See “The PSG and the EU elections”,


Mark said...

You probably saw this, but there is a letter published that is, what I assume to be, a response to your blog entry:

This letter is typical of how your criticisms are dealt with internally, some grumblings about "middle class radicals" combined with a dismissal of the actual content of your criticisms. The way this individual dismisses organizational issues with a quote from Rosa Luxemburg is also revealing of the thinking within the SEP. In other parts of that quotation, not included, Rosa writes: "They cannot and dare not wait, in a fatalist fashion, with folded arms for the advent of the “revolutionary situation,” to wait for that which in every spontaneous peoples’ movement, falls from the clouds. On the contrary, they must now, as always, hasten the development of things and endeavour to accelerate events." But this is the very approach of the SEP, who have become, for the most part, passive commentators waiting for the "revolutionary situation" to "fall from the clouds". In what sense today can they be considered "class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat"?

The full quote from Rosa can be found near the end of Chapter 6:

"In this way we arrive at the same conclusions in Germany in relation to the peculiar tasks of direction in relation to the role of social democracy in mass strikes, as in our analysis of events in Russia. If we now leave the pedantic scheme of demonstrative mass strikes artificially brought about by order of parties and trade unions, and turn to the living picture of a peoples’ movement arising with elementary energy, from the culmination of class antagonisms and the political situation – a movement which passes, politically as well as economically, into mass struggles and mass strikes – it becomes obvious that the task of social democracy does not consist in the technical preparation and direction of mass strikes, but, first and foremost, in the political leadership of the whole movement.

The social democrats are the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat. They cannot and dare not wait, in a fatalist fashion, with folded arms for the advent of the “revolutionary situation,” to wait for that which in every spontaneous peoples’ movement, falls from the clouds. On the contrary, they must now, as always, hasten the development of things and endeavour to accelerate events. This they cannot do, however, by suddenly issuing the “slogan” for a mass strike at random at any odd moment, but first and foremost, by making clear to the widest layers of the proletariat the inevitable advent of this revolutionary period, the inner social factors making for it and the political consequences of it. If the widest proletarian layer should be won for a political mass action of the social democrats, and if, vice versa, the social democrats should seize and maintain the real leadership of a mass movement – should they become, in a political sense, the rulers of the whole movement, then they must, with the utmost clearness, consistency and resoluteness, inform the German proletariat of their tactics and aims in the period of coming struggle."

Alex Steiner said...

The letters posted to the WSWS illustrate a technique often employed by WSWS writers - polemicizing by proxy. The advantage of this method is that you need not take any responsibility for anything you write since the target of your polemic can never reply and no one can check whether the words you put into their mouths are really theirs. This method of polemicizing is by its nature thoroughly dishonest. The letters to the WSWS commenting on the series on the Minneapolis strike of 1934 are a perfect example.

It should be obvious to any reader who has read our comment on this series that the letters are a response to us. An honest response to our comment would let the reader know that. But in the land of shadow polemics by proxy, no such citation is required. Instead we are told that,

"the lesson [of the series]... for the developing struggles in today’s crisis of capitalism is not just one of technical organizing, as middle class radicals would have it." But where did we write that the lesson for today is "just one of technical organizing"? What we did write was that it was part of the tradition of Trotskyism to become involved in the struggles of the working class, and not disdain them or dismiss the production of strike committee manuals as David North did. We pointed out that James Cannon was proud of the organizing work the Trotskyists did in the Minneapolis strike while explaining that such organization could not have been undertaken separate from a political struggle. The rigid dichotomy between the political struggle and strike organization is that of the letter writer's, not ours.

Secondly, we have here a thoroughly false polemic against "middle class radicals" thrown in to muddy the waters. The writer throws in this blast as if there is a grave danger of middle class radicals organizing workers. Just which middle class radicals are today trying to organize workers? Perhaps the letter writer didn't notice it, but the era when middle class university students gave up their graduate studies and obtained a factory job in an attempt to "colonize" the unions died about thirty years ago. The contemporary version of middle class radicalism is most often identified with political movements that deny the very existence of the working class, let alone have any perspective for working among them.

Finally, we have the quote from Rosa Luxembourg which is supposed to warn us about the danger of focusing on strikes and organizational routinism. Mark’s comment correctly noted that there was more than that quote in the essay. Yet even aside from that, the quote is presented without any historical context. But if you consider the historical context for a moment, it reveals that Rosa's words were not uttered in a vacuum. She was battling against the conservative influence of a large and powerful trade union bureaucracy that was intertwined within the German Social Democratic Party. The modus operandi of this retrogressive influence on the socialist movement was to reduce the political struggle to one of purely economic demands that can be accommodated within the framework of capitalism. What is the possible analogy to this situation today? Is the SEP trying to fight the pernicious influence of a significant layer of conservative trade unionists within its ranks? And who in the official labor movement today is even fighting for economic demands?

The disdain for engaging with workers in their economic struggles shows that the SEP is reacting to the same forces that have turned middle class radicals away from the working class. They use the degeneration of the unions as an excuse for avoiding any and all work in the unions and the working class as a whole. Not in words perhaps, but in deeds. And that in the end is what turns this history into a dead letter.

Alex Steiner

Mark said...

Well said.

I think you have mentioned this before, but I believe the present abstentionism/sectarianism of the SEP was prepared for theoretically going back to at least 1998. David North gave a speech entitled "Marxism and the Trade Unions" that fundamentally revised the Marxist attitude toward trade unions.

The trade unions, it should be remembered, are combinations of workers formed to negotiate the best price on behalf of the workers. Marx and Engels have commented several times about the conservative nature of the trade unions, but they never went so far as to say that trade unions were inherently reactionary organizations, and that this was caused by the trade union form itself. This is the position that North has taken up in his 1998 lecture.

Marx thought that trade unions were, at minimum, necessary given the absence of mass scale political organizations of the working class. Otherwise the working class becomes a "plaything" in hands of the ruling class.[1] Also for Marx, the development of the economic struggles of the working class were an important step that presupposed the development of the more general political struggles of the working class.

What is the situation today? The big "unions" are not really unions in the original sense. Instead of fighting on the behalf of workers, they are a tool of the big corporations to extract concessions from workers. With rare exceptions, the working class is not organized either economically in defense of wages of politically toward more general aims. The working class is very much the "plaything" of the ruling class.

The WSWS is showing not only dishonesty with both its readers and with themselves, but they are also showing real political blindness to the actual problems of the working class by dismissing the need for the organization and direction of the economic struggles of the working class by socialists.


"On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game Messrs. Gladstone & Co. are bringing off in England even up to the present time."

Mark said...

The WSWS has made another attempt at a strike article that you have probably seen.

The last paragraph is interesting, they say that the central lesson is the "necessity to articulate the independent political interests of the working class," but before this can be done, "the building of an international mass socialist party with deep roots in the working class" is required. Obviously this is putting the cart before the horse. It is the complete opposite of Marx's conception, in which the economic struggles of the working class presuppose the development of more general political struggles. I think that the concept of sectarianism does seem to register for them. Socialists need to intervene in the "real movement" of the working class, as Marx calls it, correct? Which means working in conditions which might not always be ideal, such as, for example, not having an "international mass socialist party with deep roots in the working class" at your disposal.

Haugco said...

In other news....

the WSWS ran several articles over the month declaring the true intent of the CDU and SDP was to form another "grand coalition", but today's WSWS notes the "historic" defeat of the SDP and Merkel's intent to ally with FDP without mentioning the previous period's worth of articles declaring the reverse! This is the kind of underinformation that gave the Workers Revolutionary Party a bad name.

Oh, and the PSG's result confirms your perspective in "The PSG and the European Union elections" completely correct, sadly to say.