National Sections of the L5I:

The SWP(US) in the ‘American Century’: A Case Study of ‘Orthodoxy’

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

In 1953 the Fourth International split in two. One of the main protagonists in the split was the Socialist Workers Party of the United States (SWP(US)). In the name of Trotskyist ‘orthodoxy’ it launched the International Committee (IC) as a rival to the ‘revisionist’ International Secretariat (IS) led by Michel Pablo.1 The SWP had been the largest national section when the FI was founded in 1938. Its decision to publicly split the FI had profound repercussions throughout world Trotskyism.

The period covered in this article was probably decisive in the history of the SWP. It spans the first ten years after the Second World War. It therefore embraces the difficult period of re-orientation after the war, the Third Congress of the FI (1951), the split and the early years of the IC. It closes before the SWP(US) led the process of reconciliation with the IS in the late 1950s.

Three key challenges faced the SWP during these years: the development of the long boom, the McCarthyite witch-hunt and the Korean war. Fragments of the FI today claim that in 1953 the SWP represented a revolutionary opposition to Pablo. They invoke the ‘IC tradition’ as proof of the revolutionary continuity between themselves and Trotsky’s International. It is necessary to examine whether or not the SWP’s claim to ‘orthodoxy’ in these years justifies regarding it as a revolutionary organisation whose example we should attempt to follow.

The immediate post-war period

The SWP’s activity and propaganda in the 1950s can only be understood in the light of their view of the tasks of revolutionaries as the USA emerged from the Second World War. The party’s position was codified in the October 1946 ‘Theses on the American Revolution’. The fifteen points in these Theses summarised the ‘orthodox’ perspectives of the FI in the post-war period: the post-war ‘peace’ would not last, war and economic crisis were imminent and the Trotskyists would rapidly find themselves in the leadership of the mass struggles to come. A few quotes give the flavour of the document:

‘The major factors that once served to foster and fortify American capitalism either no longer exist or are turning into their opposites.’

‘World War Two did not remove or even mitigate a single one of the basic causes for the crisis of 1929’.

‘Every single factor underlying the current “peacetime” prosperity is ephemeral.’

‘US imperialism . . . is heading for an even more catastrophic explosion in the current post-war era . . . In the wake of the boom must come another crisis and depression which will make 1929-32 conditions look prosperous by comparison.’

‘The workers’ struggle for power in the USA is not a perspective of a distant and hazy future but the realistic programme of our epoch.’

‘In the USA all the conditions are in the process of unfolding for the rapid transformation of the organised vanguard from a propaganda group to a mass party strong enough to lead the revolutionary struggle for power.’2

These theses share all the errors of confusion of epoch and period, of one-sidedness and of a dogmatic acceptance of Trotsky’s pre-war perspectives, that were embodied in the 1946 FI International Congress document ‘The New Imperialist Peace and the Building of Parties of the FI’. The ‘American Theses’ are laden with timeless, epochal truths. In the theses generalities are presented as immediate perspectives for the crisis.

From 1944 onward, Felix Morrow, critical of the SWP and the FI’s perspectives, organised a faction aimed at introducing a more sober estimate of the international situation. He argued against the adoption of the 1946 Theses on the basis of both their catastrophist economic perspectives and of the ‘nine month theory’, whereby an analogy was made between the nine months between February and October 1917 and the gap between the SWP in 1946 and the seizure of power.

Morrow, who was questioning (at least in the early stages of the debate) only the immediacy of the crisis perspective was branded as a ‘defeatist’. He was attacked for being too preoccupied with the events outside the USA, too preoccupied with Europe. In the end, however, Morrow's opposition developed in an even more one-sided direction than the SWP; namely, that the stabilisation of Europe demanded the return to a purely bourgeois democratic programme, and the abandonment of the transitional method in total.

In the end Cannon’s Theses prevailed. The documents of the time were based on the idea that after a brief period of speculative prosperity due to the end of war time controls, a release of pent-up demand and war-time savings, the US economy would experience severe contractions. Consumer-led peace-time industrial growth would involve a sharp curtailment of output. The obvious analogy was with the end of the First World War and the recession of 1920/21 in Japan, Europe and the USA.

Indeed the problem of adjustment was not smooth after 1945. Conversion to internally directed growth based on capital goods was accompanied by attacks on the wage levels of US workers which had increased during the war due to full employment and overtime.

After the end of the war there was a massive increase in the number of strikes. In 1941, 23 million days were ‘lost’ in strikes. In 1946 the figure was 116 million; even in 1949 the figure was still high, at 50.5 million. This increase was not primarily due to an increase in the number of strikes per se (4,288 in 1941, 4,985 in 1946), but in the number of strikers (236,000 in 1941, 4,600,000 in 1946), and in the duration of the strikes that took place3, clearly showing a growth in working class confidence.

The SWP benefited from this strike wave and this certainly influenced the SWP’s 1946 perspectives. After years of being tens or at best hundreds, the end of the war saw a massive increase in their numbers. Between November 1944 and November 1946, the SWP recruited 1,013 new members, many of them workers and blacks, taking total membership to over the 1500 mark.4

Nevertheless, even in these heady days the 1946 Theses did not have an alternate character; they did not even consider the theoretical possibility that events would turn out rather differently to 1919-21. It was clear during the course of 1948 that on the economic and political front a certain stability had set in which had consolidated bourgeois rule.

In the first instance the formulation of Marshal aid in the spring of 1947 avoided the worst aspects of the disequilibrium between USA and Europe which threatened to plunge the world into another recession. The dollar shortage in Europe was made good by the US and the market for its industrial output sustained. A complete about turn by the USA on the fate of Germany and Japan involved their rapid reconstruction and industrialisation. The institutional framework of US imperialism’s enforced hegemony on the world (the IMF, the World Bank, GATT) were up and running by 1948.5

The signs of this stability (if not yet prosperity) were there for those with eyes to see. All major European and Japanese currencies were stabilised by 1949 and fixed against the dollar. Apart from Japan and Germany output everywhere was at or above pre-war levels by the end of the 1940’s. In the USA in particular a significant element of the recovery was consumer-durable led by the early 1950’s.

At the political level the post-war wave of strikes had been contained by a growing bureaucracy and repressed by the state during 1947-48. The state repression was legitimised by the infamous Taft-Hartley Act (1947) which substantially restricted working class rights. In a move to counter the post-war strike wave and the growth in unionisation, the US ruling class viciously attacked the labour movement. Closed shops were outlawed, and secondary strikes to support recognition disputes and strikes by federal employees were made illegal. In addition, a series of ‘cooling off’ periods could be invoked, including a Presidential 80 day period. The cold war inspired witch-hunt began to get into its stride, too, as union officials were forbidden to be in the CP or to be in favour of ‘unconstitutional’ means of struggle. Things were far from easy for an isolated propaganda group, even a propaganda group of hundreds, like the SWP. The ruling class rapidly armed itself with the legal paraphernalia it needed to restrict working class activity. And throughout this period, the bosses found loyal allies in the leading sections of the trade union bureaucracy, only too willing to use the period of reaction to mount an offensive against their left critics.

Confonted with the relative stability that characterised the US economy and class struggle from 1948 onwards, however, the SWP did nothing to review its 1946 perspectives. As late as October 1952 Cannon wrote a letter to Farrell Dobbs stating ‘The Theses are a fundamental document. It is all true and needs no revision or reconsideration.’6

A 1952 NC resolution on ‘Labour and war drive’ was very catastrophist. It pointed out that after world war one, the imperialist nations:

‘...found their temporary basis for capitalist stability in foreign trade and investment. This possibility is closed to United States capitalism. Both foreign trade and investment have formed a constantly declining portion of the total US economy since the twenties. At the present time, chances of the exploitation of foreign lands are being closed off to capitalism at an unprecedented rate and in an unprecedented manner: by the sweep of the colonial and proletarian revolutionary movements.

Thus we have the picture of a single capitalist nation equipped with a productive machine greater than that possessed by the entire capitalist machine in its prosperous heyday, largely excluded from the colonial world by a wall of revolutionary fire. This is a picture of doom for United States capitalism.’7

If US investment was limited in North Korea, China, Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe, it was nonetheless quite free in Africa, Latin America, Central America, the Middle East, Western Europe, India and South East Asia. Some ‘small capitalist world’!

Perspectives that need no reconsideration are not Marxist perspectives. Marxism takes, as its point of departure, concrete developments in the real world. The SWP’s brand of orthodoxy, on the other hand, regarded perspectives as eternal truths and tests of faith.

The SWP were forced to recognise as the 1950s wore on that World War Two had initiated a boom which had been given a new lease of life by the Korean war. Indeed, this wasn’t any slight upturn, but in Cannon’s words, it was a boom ‘unprecedented in the history of capitalism in its scope and duration’.8 But the SWP felt it was an unstable and artificial affair. Even as late as 1958 Cannon spoke of ‘the long, artificially propped up prosperity’.9 For the SWP , as for the IC as a whole, the post-war boom was simply a capitalist conjuring trick on a grand scale. The sleight of hand merely needed to be exposed. Orthodoxy became a refuge from reality.

The problem was that the starting point of the SWP—and the FI—was false. World War Two had alleviated the contradictions that gave rise to it. It had also, of course, sown the seeds of new, higher contradictions, but the inter-imperialist rivalry between Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and the USA had been effectively resolved for the time being, to the benefit of the US imperialists. The massive destruction of capital in the war had removed the immediate causes of the crisis that led to the war. Further, it tended to both temporarily neuter the economic power of the losing imperialist powers (and, to a lesser extent, that of Britain), and to open up the world to a new round of exploitation and investment—and hence relative economic stability—through US aid and investment in the rival imperialist powers themselves.

In 1952 Cannon’s estimate—entirely in accord with that of the SWP and the whole of the FI—was that ‘the present period is a period of preparation for a global war which is implicit in the total situation’.10 Coupled with the ‘nine months theory’ of the 1946 theses, this perspective was closely linked with Pablo’s ‘theory’ of ‘war-revolution’ which was being proposed at around the same time.

The apparent prospect of a third world war was not perhaps quite as far fetched as it might seem now. In June 1950 the USA invaded Korea. This event, which threatened to draw in the USSR, followed Truman’s announcement at the beginning of the year that the USA had developed the H-bomb. However, despite these factors, the SWP (and the whole of the FI) were wrong, and this could have been determined at the time. The reasons for the ‘coming war’ perspective were essentially those summarised in the ‘American Theses’. According to the SWP, World War Two had done nothing to alleviate the conditions of capitalist crisis, and therefore every aspect of the world economy could be considered as being part of a preparation for war. Although the major inter-state contradiction on a world scale became that between the USA and the USSR and its satellites, the imperialist countries were in no fit state—economic or political—to sustain a nuclear war with the USSR, which also had the A-bomb and was soon to develop the H-bomb. In this situation the clinging on to a perspective premised on an imminent revolutionary crisis and war could only lead to the pollution of the SWP’s Marxism.

McCarthyism and the attack on democratic rights

By 1950 the effects of the Cold War were being felt. In the labour movement the witch-hunt was well under way. ‘Loyalty oaths’ were already being proposed and left wingers were being hounded out of state employment.11 Following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, a series of bills were proposed by Democratic and Republican senators12 who tried to outdo each other in restricting voting rights, imprisoning dissenters in the case of a national emergency, etc. As the Kilgore Bill put it, ‘When a national emergency requires it’, the government could jail anyone whom the Attorney General had ‘reasonable grounds’ to ‘suspect might’ be engaged in ‘espionage or sabotage’. To meet the tide of internees that such loose formulations would open the way to, a series of prison camps were prepared throughout the USA. Even the New York Times, not known for its radical views, felt anxious and said in an editorial ‘This language is so vague that it seems to us it could be used to impose restraints on freedom such as the American people have not known in 150 years.’13

During 1950, in Michigan, both the SWP and the CP were banned from standing candidates; in August, Truman seized the railways and used troops to break the mass railway strike on the Rock Island Line; on 5 December 1950, Truman, the ‘friend of labor’, declared a National Emergency, precisely the conditions which enabled the state, under the terms of the now-enacted Kilgore Bill, to throw militants into internment camps. It is in this context that we need to judge the rash of Militant front page headlines during September and October 1950:

‘Senate “fair dealers” push concentration-camp measure. Nazi-like bill would nullify trial by jury.’
‘Senate votes to turn US into police state. “Fair dealers” back merged Gestapo bills.’
‘We accuse Congress of high crimes. Police state bill is conspiracy to subvert Bill of Rights and destroy civil liberties.’
‘SWP candidates pledge to fight Nazi-like law. Call on people not to submit to Police State.’14

The seriousness of the US state’s attacks should not be underestimated. However, the SWP were wrong in suggesting that the police state had been ushered in, without a fight from anyone, through the legislature. Had this actually occurred it would have meant the workers had suffered a historic defeat—something the SWP’s perspectives denied. It would have necessitated the SWP going underground—something that was never seriously considered by the party. Indeed if the USA had been turned into a ‘police state’ with ‘Nazi-like laws’—how come the SWP were able to use their candidates in the 7 November 1950 elections to protest (including in Michigan, where they and the CP and been reinstated on the ballot)? The irony of this situation appears to have escaped them.

The attacks did not mark a break with a bourgeois democratic form of rule anymore than the use of the Smith Act to imprison Cannon and many other leading SWP members during the war did. The US state has always given itself lots of leeway for legally persecuting the working class within a bourgeois democratic framework. The real reason why the SWP failed to recognise that this was the case was because the ‘police state’ thesis fitted in with their still catastrophist perspectives.

The SWP’s error of assessment is this period appears to have been recognised and the police state characterisation was dropped from Militant. However, they remained wrong in their programme for countering the attack on democratic rights. They displayed a pronounced tendency to limit their fight to a defence of a somewhat idealised notion of bourgeois democracy. Despite a correct attempt to refer to episodes in the revolutionary past of the USA 15 the actual steps to be taken were not spelt out. The ‘campaign pledge’ of the SWP candidates finishes:

‘We will hold up these glorious traditions before the American people in this election campaign. We will call on them to fight the new would-be slaveocrats by building a mighty crusading party, a labor party of the workers, negro people, working farmers, youth.

Our answer to the police-state law is: No comromise! No surrender! Drive the scoundrels out! Give the Bill if Rights back to the America people!’16

The emphasis of their propaganda was for the defence of the Bill of Rights, but went no further. We are left with the distinct impression that the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the bourgeois revolutionary means of Paine, Jefferson et al are sufficient.

This is not a cheap jibe, and the SWP’s position is not an isolated mistake: it represented a tendency on their part to adapt to the North American bourgeois revolutionary tradition and to the reformist consciousness of the advanced workers.This was an important element of the SWP’s political method and propaganda emphasis from the outbreak of World War Two onwards.

We shouldn’t underestimate the courage and audacity of the founders of the USA, and the important historical examples that revolutionaries should use—with explanations of their limitations—in making propaganda in the USA. Take just one example of the limitations of bourgeois democracy, the question of the freedom of the press. This right was enshrined in Article 1 of the Bill of Rights17. It goes as follows: ‘Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’

Revolutionaries obviously defend this Article against all reactionary threats to remove it, such as were proposed in the Kilgore-McCarran Bill. We would participate in, indeed initiate, campaigns in its defence, based around working class action. But the SWP suffered from a centrist tendency to bend the revolutionary stick—indeed to break it—in the direction of an accommodation to reformist consciousness in the working class. Completely absent is Trotsky’s dictum that ‘the first step of revolutionary politics is the exposure of bourgeois fictions which poison the consciousness of the masses.’18

The SWP’s line is clear from their slogan ‘Give the Bill of Rights back to the American people!’. But it never did belong to the American ‘people’ (a classless category in itself which was used far too often by the SWP, and especially by Cannon). It was always part of the US bourgeois Constitution. ‘Shall freedom perish in the United States?’ asked a Militant headline in September 1950. Certain specific freedoms exist in the USA and should be defended, but ‘freedom’ in the sense of real liberation from exploitation, oppression and legal persecution never existed for the Haymarket Martyrs, for Haywood and the IWW, for Sacco and Vanzetti, nor for the overwhelming mass of the American people—the working class and the small farmers.

The lengths to which the SWP was prepared to go to at this time in adapting to the prevailing consciousness are revealing. Until late 1950, the Militant carried, above the Editorial, two small pictures of Lenin and Trotsky, coupled with a brief quote and the SWP was regularly described as a ‘Trotskyist’ organisation. The photos, the quotes and the description disappeared in early 1951. This was not simply a stylistic change: it was part of a deliberate strategy developed by the SWP PC. As Pabloite E R Frank (Bert Cochran) put it in August 1951:

‘Several months ago our committee decided to drop the designation of ’Trotskyist’ from our general literature and to discontinue the pictures of Lenin and Trotsky in every issue of the paper. This decision, long overdue, is to be heartily applauded as part of the process of the Americanisation of our party, of the elimination of all externals which are unnecessary roadblocks in our path.’19

The slogan of ‘Americanisation’ was launched by Cannon after the war, and was at one with his desire in 1934 to make the paper ‘distinctively American’.20 Taken carefully, this position was correct, reflecting the necessity of orienting the paper and the group towards all advanced layers in the US working class, and not (as had been the case pre-1934) concentrating exclusively on CP workers, and therefore tending to concentrate on international issues.

But the SWP were claiming more than this. The 1946 Theses assigned ‘to the American proletariat the leading place in the world upsurge of the socialist revolution’.21 Thus the Theses, which were intended to combat all bourgeois theories of ‘American exceptionalism’—the suggestion that the USA was immune from the growth of working class strength, and so from the possibility of revolution—in fact became their opposite, a recipe for ‘America exceptionalism’ in the form of a privileged place for the American working class in ‘the world upsurge’. Cannon began to talk in terms of the United States being the country in which all of humankind’s fate would be settled. The rest of the world, he hinted was a sideshow:

‘He who doubts the socialist revolution in America does not believe in the survival of human civilization, for there is no other way to save it. And there is no other power that can save it but this almighty working class of the United States.’22

McCarthy and the witch-hunt

The attack on democratic rights in the 1950s took on a particular (and highly insidious) form. It became known as McCarthyism. Now regarded by liberals as an ‘accident’ in US history, the McCarthy witch-hunt was simply a new episode in the fairly continuous history of red-baiting in that country. Joseph McCarthy was elected as Republican Senator for Wisconsin in 1947. He quickly made a name for himself as an anti-communist demagogue, becoming Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which he used as the basis of a nationwide witch-hunt launched in February 1950. From the outset, the SWP was clear in its estimation of the consequences of McCarthy’s activities:

‘Depths of black reaction are being stirred all over the country by the super witch-hunt . . . it is made to order for the rise of a fascist movement that can quickly overtake traditional capitalist parties in the US.’23

During 1953 and 1954, the SWP continued to over-estimate the nature of the McCarthyite threat. At the beginning of December 1953 the SWP PC let rip: ‘Fascist menace grave, SWP warns America’ ran the headline. The article finished:

‘The world position of US capitalism today is much worse than in 1939. Consequently to meet these foreign difficulties, Big Business is readier than in 1939 to resort to fascist rule . . . It is necessary right now to recognise the danger for what it is: McCarthyism is American fascism on the march . . . Smash McCarthyism before McCarthyism smashes us!’24

Certainly, McCarthy harped on in a semi-pathological manner about a communist conspiracy, laced with a strong dose of populism against ‘traitors’, ‘dupes’ and ‘eggheads’. Despite forays into the labour movement, however, he was mainly concerned to purge the state machine and the media. His programme for the labour movement was restricted to getting rid of the ‘commies’. He did not organise his supporters into a mass movement to physically harass and smash the labour movement. There is little evidence that this was McCarthy’s programme, or on his ‘hidden agenda’, and the SWP, despite many attempts, found it difficult to do anything other than assert that this was part of McCarthy’s programme.

Despite their best attempts, the SWP were never able to clearly show that McCarthy was a fascist. In two long articles in the Militant25 George Breitman grappled with Trotsky’s conception of fascism in Germany in the 1930s, and was forced to conclude that, contrary to the analysis put forward by Trotsky for the rapid growth of a fascist movement, capitalist society was not in its final crisis, that the working class was not greatly radicalised, and that the McCarthyite movement was only the beginning of the the fascist mobilisation.

McCarthy’s movement was primarily one within the state machine and did not have a mass base. To be sure, the neo-fascist rednecks of the south used McCarthyism as added weight to their vile campaign of racist harassment and lynchings, but, tragically, this excresence on US society existed before McCarthy and still exists today.

1954, the year that the SWP seemed to expect to see the launch of a massive fascist offensive, in fact saw the eclipse of McCarthy from spring onwards. In April—four months before the above cited PC resolution was written—McCarthy tried to extend his witch-hunt into the army. The army refused to go along with this, and he was severely criticised in the Senate. The writing was on the wall, but the SWP refused to read it (as they later admitted26). In the November elections, McCarthyite candidates were defeated, and there was a turn to the Democrats. In the next weeks, McCarthy was severely censured by the Senate. Even the SWP had to take note of this.

Waking up to the cold light of day after such a binge had a somewhat sobering effect. In the second draft of the perspectives resolution, passed at the Convention, the SWP meekly note that:

‘The decisive sections of the capitalist class are not ready to entrust their destiny to a fascist dictator. In the current policy of the ruling class, which seeks a modus vivendi with the Soviet bloc instead of a headlong course toward an early showdown, there is no place for McCarthy—except in the corner into which he has now been thrust.’27

The main consequence of this more realistic perspective was that rather than the mad ‘preparing for power’ tone of the first draft, the Convention adopted the ‘modest’ proposals of selling Party publications, supporting union or minority struggles and campaigning in elections.28 The SWP began therefore to tailor itself to the real post-war reality, but with a conservative, routinist streak that coincided with their near-total retreat from the international arena.

In a summary speech at the Convention, Cannon described the drastic lurch in the SWP’s perspectives as follows: ‘The mistake was not one of principle, but merely a mistake in the estimation of tempo and of urgency in the situation. But even such errors, which are limited in their scope and by no means comparable to principled or strategical errors—even such errors could be dangerous if not corrected in time.’29 But the real ‘mistake in the estimation of tempo’ wasn’t that of McCarthyism, it was the whole of the SWP’s (and the FI’s) post-war perspectives, from Cannon’s beloved 1946 ‘American Theses’ onwards. This profoundly mistaken perspective had been politically fatal for the SWP and the FI when coupled with the post-war development of Stalinism. Although the SWP were prepared to admit their mistake with regard to McCarthy, they clung to their overall perspective. The pill of routinism was sugared by a coating of catastrophism:

‘It would be false to conclude, from the lull on the international scene, marked by the slowing down of the imperialist war drive, or from the present economic upturn and the continuing political passivity of the American working class, that the party is condemned to a long period of relative isolation in which it will be confined mainly to tasks of propaganda and internal education. The era of the mortal crisis of capitalism is essentially one of abrupt changes and sharp turns.This is true internationally and on the national scene as well. The relative calm of today can easily be disrupted by the most stormy events tomorrow.The possibility of a sharp break in the economic conjuncture in one or another sector of the capitalist world, with its tremendous political consequences, is inherent in the very structure of the sick capitalist system.

The unfolding developments, acting as a stimulant to the class struggle, will give the party its long-awaited opportunity to forge ahead and achieve its role as the revolutionary spokesman and leader of the American working class. All our work in the next immediate period is a work of preparation for this future.’30

The SWP, like latter-day Bourbons, had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Electoral work

Despite these revolutionary perspectives, the practice of the SWP in the early 1950s was increasingly routinist and propagandist. The party’s union base was all but gone by the time of the Cochran-Clarke faction fight. There were few mass struggles into which they could hurl themselves and thereby refresh their ranks with worker recruits, as they had done in 1934. This passivity led to opportunism in the SWP’s electoral work.

In 1948, the SWP presented Farrell Dobbs and Grace Carlson as their presidential ticket, as a new focus for mass intervention as the unions effectively became closed to them.31 This move was followed by similar campaigns in every Presidential campaign since, and by interventions into innumerable local and national elections. The goal of these interventions was the widespread publicity and radio and TV time that the Party got as a consequence; no small advantage for a group as small as the SWP in a country as vast as the USA, and with a working class so politically under-developed.

At one level it had the effect of turning the SWP into a small scale election machine. Not only was there foot-slogging during elections but in many states a minimum of signatures were required from every county in the state, including all upper-class counties where ‘the commies’ got short shrift. As an SWP rank-and-filer put it thirty years later ‘A memorable slice of my life was spent in those upstate communities’.32 As this memory implies, electoral work was the focus for the SWP during these years.33 What was the content of the propaganda the SWP put out? It is worth quoting at length from the end of one of their free broadcasts, given by Joe Hansen on a New York radio station in July 1950:

‘America is dangerously close to the police state. The people were not consulted about plunging into the civil war in Korea. Not even Congress was consulted. Truman usurped the power of taking America into war.

Isn’t it high time to take the war-making powers away from a Congress that abdicates its duties and a President who apes the dictators of Europe?

Let’s restore those powers to the people where they belong and vote whether we want war or peace with the Koreans. That’s the democratic way.

We ask you to protest armed intervention in Korea. Let’s get out of this undeclared, unapproved, unjust, unpopular war with Korea. Let the Korean people decide their own fate without pressure or influence from either Moscow or Washington.

Demand the withdrawal of all American troops from abroad. Let’s give the hungry and needy of this world bread and clothing and machines, not bayonets and bombs. Let’s show them friendship and solidarity instead of hatred and destruction. You can help do this by voting for socialism and peace. Vote for the Socialist Workers Party in the coming elections.’34

All the opportunist errors masquerading as pedagogical adaptations pointed out before are expressed here. The exaggeration of the reactionary threat; the apolitical presentation of the demand for the ‘people’ to decide on war (as though such a reform could be gained without massive working class action!); the presentation of revolutionaries as simply consistent democrats. The speech strikes a false note by only talking about voting ‘for socialism and peace’. Nowhere in his talk did Hansen refer to the need for working class action. As with the material on the Constitution, such an approach can only reinforce the reformist consciousness of advanced workers. It might have helped convince them that socialism was ‘a good thing’, but it wouldn’t have given the slightest idea of how to get there, apart from voting for the SWP.

The propaganda opportunity presented by electoral work was wasted insofar as the SWP failed to make clear propaganda for revolutionary change, class struggle methods of fighting the witch-hunt, opposing the Korean war, reversing anti-union legislation. The propaganda was passive and general. As the 1950s wore on it ceased even to be distinctively Trotskyist. The cost of fielding candidates propelled the SWP, in 1958, into searching out other socialists to help them form socialist electoral coalitions—propaganda blocs. Cannon in 1948 hailed the standing of a Trotskyist presidential candidate. Ten years later he was appealing to other socialists to bury their differences and re-live the days of unity when all socialists strived to get Eugene Debs elected president. He argued:

‘In the year 1900, Debs was a candidate for president, not of a single party, but of a coalition—exactly what we are proposing today.’35

The price of maintaining electoral work was a preparedness to substitute a ‘socialist’ candidate for a revolutionary one.

The labor party

Inextricably related to the SWP’s electoral work was their use of the labor party tactic. The SWP had adopted this tactic, on Trotsky’s promptings, at the end of the 1930s. It was a tactic aimed at breaking the workers’ organisations, the AFL and CIO, from the dominant bourgeois parties in the US. It was both a united front tactic—offering unity with reformist led workers to form a working class political party—and a means of winning workers to the revolutionary programme. To do this the Trotskyists went beyond the call simply for the formation of a party. They argued for that party, in its formative days, to adopt the revolutionary, transitional programme. In no sense did Trotsky argue for the formation of a reformist party. Its programme would be decided in struggle.

To separate the organisational side of the tactic from the fight for a revolutionary programme is to turn it into an opportunist strategy. A workers’ party, in itself, is not the answer to the crisis of leadership in the United States—a workers’ party, based on the unions, but won to revolutionary politics is. Yet, the SWP showed a repeated tendency from the 1940s on, to pose the mere formation of the labor party, as the vital need of the working class.

Cannon himself was quite alert to the dangers of opportunism with this tactic, having seen what the then right centrist CPUSA did with it in the 1920s. In the name of this tactic this party attempted to form a cross class party, a farmer-labor party, and ended up tailing populist bourgeois politicians. In 1948 he saw the same danger facing the SWP when sections of it tried to paint another bourgeois politician who had broken from the two big capitalist parties, Wallace, and the movement that supported his campaign for presidency, as a potential basis for the labor party. Cannon warned:

‘I have felt that our rather one sided emphasis on the necessity of forming a labor party, without at the moment stressing too much the programme and our fight against the bureaucracy, may have given rise to some illusion and conciliationism in the ranks of the party, particularly among the newer members, as to labor partyism and labor reformism.’36

It had indeed, and this conciliationism was to deepen in the 1950s.37 For example, in spring 1952, the Seventh Annual Convention of the New England district of the CIO United Packinghouse Workers voted, with only one abstention, to endorse the formation of a labor party at the earliest possible date. The Militant editorial said:

‘The actual process through which a labor party can be built is seen in the case of Packinghouse Local 245 of the New England District. Local labor candidates, sponsored by city labor movements, can prove that there is an alternative to capitalist politics, and can fire the ranks with enthusiasm for independent labor politics.

The British Labour Party, today the most powerful force in Britain, was only a tiny minority party before world war one. Even in 1918, it elected only 57 members to Parliament, running a very poor third after the Tory and Liberal parties. But only five years later, in 1923, the British Labour Party got almost 4.5 million votes, elected 191 members of Parliament, and by the January of the next year had formed the first Labour government. Rapid as this development was, it is nevertheless low compared to the possibilities of an American labor party. The US labor movement is far more powerful now than the British was then. In addition, all events developed at a slower pace in those years than today.’38

This is not simply a pedagogical device to show American workers how rapidly things can change. It contains the clear implication that the labor party the US workers need will be like the British Labour Party, and it will gain power through elections! There is not one word about a revolutionary programme anywhere in the editorial. The stock phrase ‘an alternative to capitalist politics’ was used by all and sundry at the time to denote a third party, based on the unions and hence independent of Republicans and Democrats, and no way meant to the average Militant reader that a revolutionary party was needed. The SWP’s opportunist appetites turned a principled position into a centrist one. This slogan, which is undoubtedly central to intervention in the US working class, was denuded of its revolutionary element by the SWP’s concern to adapt to the ‘great and good American people’. By presenting ostensibly revolutionary politics in this light, the SWP certainly achieved their avowed aim of ‘eliminating all externals which are unnecessary roadblocks in our path’. Unfortunately, the key ‘roadblock’ for the SWP appears to been the revolutionary programme!

This adaptation afforded them little and the SWP was ‘stagnating’, as Cannon put it. Given the witch-hunt, the consequences of long-term prosperity and the SWP’s apparent difficulty in differentiating themselves from other radical tendencies in the US labour movement, this is not surprising. Unlike the CP, they were for a clear break with the Democratic Party, but were evasive about the nature of any future labor party. And in evading the revolutionary answer, they left the field wide open for the reformist illusions already present in the advance workers who were their target.

Cannon was once again obliged to warn against opportunism on this front. In the witch-hunt—which, let us remember, the SWP viewed as a struggle against fascism—the party posed the labor party as the means for securing victory. Cannon urged caution:

‘The assertion that the labor party “will stop McCarthyism”, which makes its way into our agitation now and then, is an oversimplification that ought to be guarded against.’39

Far from being guarded against, this oversimplification, became ingrained into the agitation of the SWP as its slide into opportunism gathered speed. The weaker it became in the unions the more the labor party appeared as a panacea, removing at a stroke the SWP’s isolation from the masses.

The SWP and the trade unions

The early 1950s were a difficult period for trade union militants in general, and for revolutionaries in particular.The situation in the unions had changed substantially from that of the mid-1930s. The trade union bureaucracy had grown apace since the days of the CIO upsurge, and had increased its influence over the mass of workers through the growth of the unions and the role of union leaders at the highest levels of government. As the unionisation of the working class grew, and in the absence of a successful fight by revolutionaries, the crystallisation of a trade union bureaucracy was more or less inevitable. However, this was not foreseen by the SWP, and the extent of the already-existing influence of the trade union bureaucracy was not understood by the SWP in the 1946 Theses. Indeed, they proclaim that ‘The American workers have the advantage of being comparatively free, especially among the younger and most militant layers, from reformist prejudices’40, whilst acknowledging in the subsequent thesis that the predominant consciousness of the American working class was trade union consciousness!

The mistaken concentration on reformist consciousness being its overt, party political expression is at least partially due to the absence of any mass reformist workers’ party in the USA. But the Theses misunderstand the impact of the pre and post-war unionisation waves on the working class. These effects can be summarised in two ways: firstly, the advanced layers of the working class had a reformist, trade union consciousness; secondly, the increasingly bureaucratic nature of the unions meant that the kind of breakthrough that the revolutionaries were able to make in Minneapolis in 1934 was going to be a lot more difficult.

Militants were also faced with the penetration of the witch-hunt into the labour movement. ‘Anti-communism’ was used as an extra weapon by the union bureaucracy to attack dissidents, and Taft-Hartley explicitly attacked revolutionaries within the unions. In spring 1953, UAW-CIO boss, Reuther, joined with McCarthy’s ‘House Un-American Activities Committee’ (HUAC) to red-bait the largest union branch in the world (80,000 members!), Ford Local 600 (River Rouge plant). This branch had long been a thorn in Reuther’s side, fighting for a sliding scale of wages during the post-war strike wave, and in 1953 holding out for ‘30 for 40’ (30 hours work for 40 hours pay) and against Reuther’s agreed five-year contract with the Auto companies. Although Local 600 was able to beat off Reuther’s attack (partly by use of Reuther’s own response to a red-baiting attack on him in 1937) the difficulties of revolutionaries in smaller union branches were obviously far greater than for us in Europe today.

The SWP’s overall perspective, as codified in a May 1953 NC resolution was as follows:

‘Participation of the comrades in union activity is almost wholly—and rightly—confined at present to issues which remain within the framework of official policy and do not bring them into direct conflict with local and international officials.

However, it is possible, and advisable, within these restrictions to carry on certain types of work: to circulate the paper, fight shop grievances, oppose the witch-hunters, improve their own political education, contact the best militants and recruit them into the Party.’41

However, despite this ‘heads down’ approach, reflecting the real weakness of the left, never mind the Trotskyists, the SWP’s perspective was, as ever, highly optimistic. As they put it in a PC Draft Resolution, ‘Class struggle policy in the unions’ (1954):

‘In the coming radicalisation the struggle of tendencies will have the double aspect of a fight for leadership of the vanguard and of the broad mass movement. The contest will occur between three forces: the union bureaucracy, the Stalinists and the Socialist Workers Party. Of these tendencies only the SWP will constitute a vital historic force. Neither the union bureaucrats nor the Stalinists have any progressive historical mission, both are transitory obstacles to be overcome on the road to socialism.’42

As in the 1946 Theses, the problem of how to overcome the influence of the reformists today is side-stepped by the inclusion of the epochal and optimistic truth that the Stalinists and the bureaucracy are ‘transitory obstacles’. ‘Transitory’, maybe, but enormous nonetheless! Whilst such stuff may have given the SWP rank-and-file a bit of Dutch courage, it did nothing to orient and guide them in the everyday struggles in which they were engaged. Rather, its consequence was to reinforce the routinist elements already present with the confidence that the revolution would come, in its own time, and that there was no real need to organise a fight against the reformists, because they were only ‘transitory obstacles’.

While Militant’s reportage of the industrial scene was extensive and informative, the paper did not advance a coherent strategy to take struggles forward. It confined itself to echoing demands workers were already raising. A clear example being in the 1950 Chrysler strike. In January, as part of a long-running pay dispute, 89,000 Chrysler workers ‘hit the bricks and brought 25 plants to a standstill’.43 Although Reuther argued for strikers to stay at home, the Militant meekly replied:

‘Workers instinctively are turning out to picket, to maintain soup kitchens and help out the strike . . . mass picketing and mass meetings help build morale, strengthen the hand of union negotiators and ensure membership control of the strike.’44

The only other demands they raised - again in an oblique fashion - were:

‘All out on the picket lines to keep ALL OUT of the plants . . . Militants feel that closing off plants to all help and holding mass meetings would ensure more membership participation and control, and gain victory.’45

This is a far cry from the SWP’s bold and decisive programme for the Minneapolis Teamsters in 1934! By the 1950s there was no attempt to focus militants’ attention on the question of bureaucratic leadership and how to fight it, nor did they bring to the fore the question of flying pickets to shut down all plants and ensure a 100% strike, nor of the necessity for solidarity action form other workers.Even basic trade union demands were dealt with in the most obtuse and delicate fashion. ‘Pedagogic adaptation’ would perhaps be the SWP’s reply. But if they were happy enough to ‘shock’ their readers by declaring the USA to be a ‘police state’, why not openly call for mass meetings to control the strike (not to ‘strengthen the hand of union negotiators’!); for the necessity of strike committees and of rank and file organisation to prevent a bureaucratic sell-out? In this case, as in so many others, the SWP’s ‘pedagogy’ got in the way of a clear presentation of a revolutionary strategy.

Much the same thing happened in the 1952 seven week steel strike, which involved 650,000 workers. This dispute loomed several times during 1952, as management and union bosses failed to agree on the terms of a new contract. The bureaucrats, led by Murray, managed to head off the strike each time including stopping a national strike movement after four days at the beginning of May!

Truman, extremely worried by the possibility of a steel strike in the middle of the Korean War, had seized the steel plants when the prospect of a strike at the end of April became unavoidable. This action was finally ruled illegal by the Supreme Court on 2 June 1952. The steel strike, having been put off for more than six months and postponed six times, began on 3 June.

Three weeks into the strike, John L Lewis, the miners’ leader, organised $10 million of credit for the steel union. Murray, of course, did not use this gesture as the starting point for solidarity with the strike. His main concern was to keep the movement as weak as possible whilst at the same time negotiating a not-too-tough settlement with the bosses. Agreement was reached at the end of July, with a reduced pay offer from management being coupled with attacks on working conditions and the green light from the Truman administration for price increases.

The SWP’s line on the strike was as before: picketing can win, and for an all out strike. This was coupled with a complete lack of understanding of the role of reformist misleadership:

‘The only way the steel workers can win their demands is to keep the mills shut down tight . . . “No contract, no work” is still the best programme for the steel strikers’46; ‘If the workers stay out, and refuse to accede to any tricks or pressure, then victory will be theirs’47

In the last days of the strike they called for a nationwide conference of all unions to ‘prepare a national labor holiday’ of 24 hours as a solidarity demonstration; and to organise ‘a vast solidarity fund’.48 However, as in the demands raised in the election programme, there is no sense of how these things are to be achieved or of what dynamic they will have, The idea of rank and file control of the strike is virtually absent (all the more important given Murray’s manoeuvres), and there is never any clear presentation that would guide militants in their strike.

These are not two isolated examples; they are representative of the SWP’s method at this time and it does not represent a healthy revolutionary tradition.


At the level of world politics the most important challenge to the SWP in the early 1950s was the Korean War. At one level it was a godsend. It appeared to justify the FI’s post-war perspectives which predicted a drift in the short term, to a new world war (what Pablo was to turn into the perspective of ‘war-revolution, revolution-war’—an automatic and, it would seem, autonomous process). It was no such thing. It was an early example of US imperialism’s role as world gendarme against not only the USSR but also any movements for national liberation in the semi-colonial world. The real significance of the war from the point of view of the SWP’s politics, however, was not its perspectival relevance, but the spotlight it shone on the SWP’S tendencies towards a social pacifist form of opposition to imperialist war.

On 25 June 1950, President Truman sent US troops, aeroplanes and ships to Korea in a ‘police action’ to ‘establish a free, independent and democratic Korea’. This undeclared war lasted three years, involved five million troops and produced 150,000 US battle casualties. Over five million people were killed, 80% of them Korean civilians. The war was the most unpopular in US history to that date. Although there was no mass anti-war movement as in the 1960s and 70s, the feeling of discontent was strong. Opinion polls repeatedly showed a majority of the population against the war and in favour of immediate troop withdrawal. The difference with World War Two is palpable: the number of days ‘lost’ due to strike action was four times higher during the Korean War years than in 1941-45, and was not significantly lower than the level in 1947-49.49

The initial response of the Militant leaned toward the academic. Although the front page article denounced US imperialism, the inside articles were lack-lustre. Breitman,(the editor at the time) said that the paper:

‘. . . made a serious mistake . . . [that] arose primarily out of ignorance about Korea, failure to realise that its basic character was civil war, lack of all information about the mass movement in North Korea etc.’50

Cannon and various Los Angeles NEC members moved to get the position changed, which it duly did at a PC meeting on 22 July 1950. The outcome was the first of Cannon’s ‘Open Letters’ to President Truman. Cannon later described the response to the SWP’s campaign as follows:

‘That letter was reprinted with acclaim in the press of the Fourth International throughout the world, as evidence of the revolutionary struggle of the American Trotskyists in the stronghold of their own imperialism . . . The consistent week-by-week campaign of our paper since that time has been an inspiration to all parties of the Fourth International throughout the world, and has been regarded by them as a model for courageous and effective agitation.’51

Let us examine Cannon’s claim. The main question that needs to be addressed is, did the SWP’s position on Korea amount to a principled defeatist stand? The fundamental position of the SWP is contained in Cannon’s three ‘Open Letters’ to Truman and Congress52:

‘The American intervention in Korea is a brutal imperialist invasion . . . It is outrageous, it is monstrous . . . The right in this struggle is all on the side of the Korean people . . . The American people will remember the War if Independence from British tyranny. In the spirit of this revolutionary and democratic tradition of ours, I call upon you to halt the unjust war in Korea. Withdraw all American armed forces so that the Korean people can have full freedom to work out their own destiny in their own way.’ (31.7.50)

‘This great and good American people abhor militarism and war. They love the ways of peace and freedom. They are trying to tell you their will. Stop the war now!’ (4.12.50)

‘1) Withdraw all American troops.
2) Recognise the government of New China.
3) Let the issue of war and peace be voted on in a national referendum of the entire American people.’ (7.5.51)

This last series of propositions was repeated virtually every week in the Militant during the war. These examples show that the SWP took a clear anti-war position, demanded the withdrawal of troops, and also raised the question of popular approval for any war. Although they occasionally foraged further into the arsenal of Marxism on war (e.g. ‘Hands off Indo-China! Not a cent, not a gun, not a soldier for the criminal war against the Indo-Chinese people!’53), they never ventured as far as defeatism.

In any conflict between the USA and another country, the SWP had a duty to clearly explain to the vanguard of the US working class that the defeat of the US imperialists as a consequence of continuing the class struggle was of far greater benefit to the US working class than ‘victory’ at the expense of social peace. Futhermore, in the case of the Korean war, the ‘enemy’ were clearly in the right. Revolutionaries were for their victory against the USA.

The SWP certainly did not advocate ‘social peace’, that is, an end to the class struggle for the duration, as was the case with much of the Second International during the first and second world wars, and with the Stalinists in the allied imperialist counties after Hitler’s attack on the USSR. Their continued propaganda and agitation around the dozens of major strikes that occurred during the war years are adequate testimony of that.

However, there is a clear tendency, in their presentation of the war towards pacifism, (the pacificism of the masses, it should be added). This was true of the ‘Open Letters’ and of the Militant. While the SWP could not be justifiably criticised for not raising ‘defeat’ in every article, we are justified in castigating them for never doing so! Cannon’s ‘great and good American people’ may have hated war and loved peace, but the SWP gave them no clear defeatist position, never once raised the question of the defence of the USSR in their Korea coverage, and never once made any concrete proposal for workers’ action against the war, not even for a demonstration. Peace remained a pious goal instead of an objective to be secured against the will of the US bourgeoisie and through the methods of implacable revolutionary struggle. Peace, on a just basis, could only be achieved by the defeat of US imperialism in Korea and at home. Yet the SWP failed to chart this revolutionary defeatist course.

This centrist error of the SWP was not new. They made precisely the same adaptation to the consciousness of the US workers in World War Two. And, as was the case then, they were not criticised for it by any section of the FI. Munis’ critique of Cannon’s 1941 Minneapolis trial testimony54 mentions defeatism, but does not centre the argument around it (even more interesting is that this is the one point Cannon ignores in his reply!). With regard to Korea, no one in the SWP ever criticised the line after the 22.7.52 PC meeting.55

The enthusiasm for the SWP’s position, as Cannon pointed out, extended onto the international arena. Mandel said at the Third Congress (August 1951) ‘By a remarkable press campaign, by the three open letters of Comrade Cannon to President Truman and by their electoral campaigns centred around the withdrawal of American troops form Korea, our friends in the USA defended the revolutionary line.’56

Mandel was wrong. The SWP did not defend a revolutionary line. They put forward an anti-war position that clearly evaded the central question of defeatism. Their line was not distinguishable from that of the pacifists. This lack of political clarity, mingled with their taste for populism, led to a position that did not correspond to the needs of the Korean workers and peasants, or to the necessary political education of the vanguard of the US working class. As in World War Two, the SWP made a political error in the name of pedagogical adaptation.

The faction fight: 1951-54

The years of decline inevitably produced internal tensions and, eventually, a bitter faction fight inside the SWP. The Cannon majority’s analysis of the Pablo-sponsored Cochran-Clarke faction in the SWP was partly correct. The minority was an unprincipled bloc between the Cochranites, tired trade unionists, routinised during the years of prosperity, and now wanting to be left alone to plough their furrow, and the Clarkeites—born-again Pabloites who had heard the IS’s Stalinophile gospel and were going for it.

The Clarkeites were Stalinophiles, in that they wanted to orient to the Stalinist milieu, especially around Monthly Review, with the intention of liquidating the party à la Pablo. Although this is basically true, the irony is that the Clarkeites were more correct in their estimate of the potential for numerical gains that could be made in this period, and therefore of the importance of an orientation toward the Stalinist and semi-Stalinist circles in the USA. The truth of this eventually dawned on Cannon, who spent much of his time in 1954-55 trying to convince the SWP leadership of this fact and to encourage work in this milieu.57 Had his Stalinophobia and blind factionalism not deterred the SWP against such an orientation in 1952-53 real gains might have been made.

The two components of the faction had different social origins, different methods, and different orientations. Both, however, had strong liquidationist tendencies, and it was on this point that the majority concentrated presenting themselves as defenders of ‘the party’. Whilst this argument was important, it was not sufficient to guide Cannon, Hansen et al to the roots of the problem on an international level. The majority of the SWP were never able to come to terms with the origins of ‘Pabloism’ in the FI as a whole, or to squarely face their own errors in the post-war years.

The differences over Stalinism and trade union work had existed between the majority and the minority from 1951 onwards. Cannon warned of the probability of a split at a March 1952 PC meeting, and was ready to launch a faction fight if Pablo interfered in SWP internal affairs.58 The factional differences grew over the next year, until a ‘truce’ was declared at the May 1953 Plenum. However, this merely masked the differences and the Cochranites, propelled by Pablo, rapidly broke the truce at the same time as Cannon was planning an international faction fight. In particular, the minority were extremely disloyal to the organisation,for example using Clarke’s position as editor of Fourth International to publish, without the agreement of the leadership, an editorial proposing a reform perspective for the Soviet bureaucracy. Relations deteriorated in early Autumn 1953, as first Pablo, and then the Majority, looked for a split. This was formalised at the 25th Anniversary rally in New York on 30 October 1953, when the Cochranites boycotted the event.

The SWP(US) first raised their differences with the Pablo-Mandel international leadership in June 1951, in the document Contribution to the discussion on international perspectives. This document is in no way a revolutionary critique of the leadership line. It shows rather the essential continuity between IC one-sided ‘orthodoxy’ and centrist FI ‘flexibility’:

‘The possibility and probability that the mass movements in some countries may sweep over the heads of the Stalinist parties opens up two variants of development. If such parties go along with the masses and begin to follow a revolutionary road this will inescapably lead to their break with the Kremlin and to their independent evolution. Such parties can then no longer be considered as Stalinist, but will rather tend to be centrist in character, as has been the case with the Yugoslav CP. Those parties, however, which in conditions of mass upsurge remain totally tied to the Kremlin will unfold their counter-revolutionary role to the full.’59

The first substantial, if flawed, critique of Pablo-Mandel in the FI was raised by Bleibtreu, the political leader of the majority of the French PCI, who circulated Where is Comrade Pablo going? in June 1951. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the SWP(US) leadership should have been fully aware of Bleibtreu’s positions. If they said nothing at the time, it was because they were prepared to ignore such differences as long as they didn’t affect the SWP.

This is shown by Cannon’s reply to the leading PCI member, Renard, in Spring 1952. Renard had written to Cannon on 16.2.52, appealing for help in beating off the bureaucratic manoeuvres of the IS Bureau (Pablo-Mandel-Frank) against the PCI and assistance in launching a political counter-offensive.60 Cannon studiously avoided replying for three months, by which time the expulsion of the French majority was about to be officially sanctioned. When Cannon finally did reply, abiding by the unstated mutual non-aggression pact with Pablo worked out at the March PC meeting, he wrote: ‘I think the Third World Congress made a correct analysis of the new post-war reality in the world and the unforeseen turns this reality has taken’. Of the documents of the Congress he said: ‘We do not see any revisionism there. All we see is an elucidation of the post-war evolution of Stalinism and an outline of new tactics to fight it more effectively. We consider these documents to be completely Trotskyist.’61

However, not only did Cannon express his political solidarity with the Third Congress documents, he also expressed his solidarity with Pablo and the IS against the PCI majority, which was being bureaucratically expelled. Cannon later commented ‘I think that’s the first time I ever answered a political letter and just pretended I hadn’t read certain sections’.62

The problem with the SWP majority’s line on ‘Pabloism’ was that they failed to get the true measure of the beast. They actually held to the fundamental tenets of the Pablo-Mandel method. However, like Bleibtreu, they baulked at the logical conclusion of the third Congress view of Stalinist parties becoming transformed into centrist ones (e.g. Yugoslavia, China), that is, entry into the CPs. They therefore concentrated their fire on the most striking yet superficial aspect of ‘Pabloism’, which for them ‘boils down to one point and its concentrated in one point . . . the question of the party’.63 They argued that the Third Congress documents were fine, but that Pablo had introduced something new since. Whilst it is true that the perspective of widespread deep entry into the Stalinist parties is not spelt out in the Third Congress documents, the political basis of such a tactic is clearly there, and was shared by the SWP and the whole of the FI, as we have explained. Indeed they charged the PCI with sectarianism for not entering the PCF in the 1951-52 period.

Although there were undoubtedly strong liquidationist tendencies in the Pablo-Mandel wing of the FI, and even more so in the Cochran-Clarke faction of the SWP, the ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists of Healy went for over two years without a paper, whilst the ‘liquidationist’ Pabloites produced Fourth International! The praise heaped by both sides on the British section shows that the question of ‘deep entry’—and hence of ‘the Party’—was not, at root, a matter of dispute. It was rather a question of where to liquidate the Party. Neither the British, the French nor the SWP wanted to have anything to do with entry work in the Stalinist parties. Once Pablo made it clear to Clarke that he should organise a faction inside the SWP on pro-Stalinist lines Cannon’s attitude miraculously changed, for the worse.

The French majority had been expelled in the summer of 1952. Healy, once Pablo’s British henchman, had turned against his erstwhile master following the IS’ support for the Lawrence faction inside the British section. Coupled with the SWP faction fight, the basis was laid for the ill-starred ‘International Committee’. A month before the SWP published its ‘Open Letter’ (November 1953), a meeting took place in London between representatives of the French, Swiss and British majorities, to prepare an international faction fight. (The Swiss had long been in opposition to Pablo on the basis of their state capitalist positions. They voted against the Yugoslav resolution at the Third Congress on these grounds.)

At the beginning of November, Dobbs proposed to Healy that a pre-emptive split should take place by simply setting up the IC ‘as the centre of the Fourth International (Trotskyist)’.64 Healy did not agree with this perspective,65 but the SWP bounced the embryonic international faction into a split by the publication of their ‘Open Letter’. ‘By adopting an open manifesto against Pablo at our Plenum’ wrote Dobbs, ‘we will be putting the gun to the head of his Cochranite supporters in our party’.66 In fact, the publication of the ‘Open Letter’ and the adoption of ‘Against Pabloist revisionism’67 were an open declaration of split, clearly outlined beforehand in Dobbs’ correspondence with Healy. The ‘gun’ was as much against Healy’s head as it was against Cochran’s. And the reason for such a pre-emptive action? ‘They will not permit a democratic Congress’ bleated Dobbs.

Using the cover of Pablo’s bureaucratic manoeuvres, the defenders of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ ran away from the fight. Like the French majority before them, the SWP played right into Pablo’s hands. By not fighting inside the International—even in the context of Pablo’s manoeuvres and bureaucratic faction-mongering—the IC cut themselves off from the majority of the International and gave Pablo the opportunity to cry ‘splitters!’. Again, like the French majority, the SWP allowed a split to take place without having prepared the International for it. Although SWP members were aware of the growing international dimension to the internal faction fight, this was not the case of the Militant readership or for the International as a whole, who were suddenly faced with the ‘Open Letter’ and then, in subsequent weeks, with pages of polemic against Pablo.

As stated in The Death Agony of the Fourth International, the 1953 split was both too soon and too late. Too late, because the fundamental political issue—that of the nature of Stalinism—had already been agreed at the 1951 Congress. That had been the moment to launch a fight. Too soon, because the differences between the IS and the IC were not fundamental, and the International had in no way gone through a thorough faction fight. Pleas about bureaucratic manoeuvring count for nothing: the Left Opposition tried repeatedly until 1933 to rejoin the Communist International, despite Stalinist manoeuvres that make the centrist FI look like a kindergarten. At root the SWP and Pablo had the same desire: an international organisation of ‘co-thinkers’ with a minimum of debate, and, in the case of the SWP, the minimum of ‘interference’.

The split therefore served them both. It did not serve the cause of revolutionary communism. The period immediately after the split was the source of much of the ‘anti-Pablo’ demonology with which we are still sadly familiar.In a series of bewildering headlines (‘Pablo’s slander against the SWP’, ‘Pabloism—first vote—then discuss’, ‘Pablo begins to take off his mask’(!), etc, etc68), the SWP concentrated its fire on ‘Pablo’. M. Weiss, a leader of the majority, pointed out the curious effects of this obsessive campaign on a somewhat bemused contact whom the SWP had met through their equally demonological anti-McCarthy campaign: ‘I think I know who McCarthy is, but I can’t figure out who this guy Pablo is’ he said.69

Having run out of anti-Pablo headlines, which as Cannon put it, ‘can impress the average reader as an exotic business’70 the SWP ceased all polemic with ‘the Pabloites’ after Hansen’s article of 19.4.54. And as ‘Pablo’ disappeared (for the SWP) into the dustbin of history, so too did all mention of the FI. The only time the IC was mentioned in the Militant over the next twenty months was when its statement on Algeria was reprinted in November 1955. Some time later the theoretical journal was renamed International Socialist Review. The ‘Americanisation’ of the SWP was complete. The Party as a whole tended to agree with Cannon, who welcomed the break from international questions in order to devote himself to ‘a discussion of our own backyard, which is where I really live and feel most at home.’71


The survey of the SWP presented here is clear in its major implication: the SWP in the 1950s was not immune from the centrist errors of perspective and programme that characterised the whole of the FI. Despite the real desire on the part of its rank and file and the bulk of its leadership to lead the American Revolution, the SWP, like the rest of the FI, was unable to measure up to the problem of re-applying Trotsky’s method to the post-war world. In every aspect of the programme and practice presented here, there are major centrist flaws which must lead us to reject any view which sees the SWP or Cannon as revolutionary communists in the post-war period. This was not the ‘golden age’ of US Trotskyism.

Cannon’s position on the International goes a long way to explaining how the centrist errors, for example the SWP's adaptation to defencism in World War Two, became systematic in the 1950s. It was a position which was essentially nationalist and federalist. If the international existed, and could offer ‘international collaboration’ all well and good. But, as he repeatedly said, there was no question of ‘Comintern-like’ centralism in the FI:

‘The most important party in the entire world is the Socialist Workers Party. It is the party with the greatest historical mission ever given to a group of people on this planet.’72

This kind of messianic tub-thumping, which was coupled with some of his more unpleasant anti-International demagogy, speaks volumes in terms of Cannon’s limitations as a real revolutionary leader at this time. The message was plain:

‘We believed it would be absolutely wrong to try to imitate a highly centralised international organisation when we were so weak, when the ability to send delegates from different parties for common consultation was so limited, and when we could communicate only by correspondence. Under these conditions, we believed it would be better for the centre there to limit itself primarily to the role of ideological leader, and to leader, and to leave aside organisational interference as much as possible, especially outside Europe...’ 73

Translated, this means ‘“No interference” for the SWP. For the Europeans—fine’. Yet another version of ‘American exceptionalism’. So instead of constructively trying to overcome the real problems posed by trying to operate on a democratic centralist basis in the FI the SWP’s response was ‘You can’t do that’74. The reason for this negative approach was that the SWP didn’t want to be a ‘branch office’ of the FI, as Cannon put it. The ‘most important party in the world’ was, after all, the SWP and not the FI!

When Trotsky was in constant collaboration and contact with Cannon and the SWP he always fought against every sign of 'American exceptionalism' and political rather than pedagogical adaptations to the consciousness of the US working class. Once Cannon progressively 'released' the SWP from its obligations to the International in the late 1940s and early 1950s these adaptations became the defining feature of the SWP's politics and programme.

Every investigation into the history of the FI, and especially into the mythology of the ‘International Committee’, only reinforces the major conclusions of The Death Agony of the Fourth International.75 The FI, and all its sections, had developed an engrained centrist method by the 1951 Third Congress. Despite the 1953 faction fight, despite the partially correct criticisms that the IC and the SWP made of Pablo, the overall balance-sheet we must draw is negative. In making such a judgement we in no way disown all the work they did, but we have a well-founded critique which enables us to show the centrist limits of their political activity.

1 See supplement to Workers Power No 81
2 All quotes from J P Cannon, The struggle for socialism in the ‘American Century’, (New York 1977) p256-71
3 Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step, (New York 1972) p420
4 J P Cannon, The struggle for socialism in the ‘American Century’, op cit, p287
5 See E A Brett, The World Economy Since The War (London 1985)
6 J P Cannon, Speeches to the Party, (New York 1973) p238
7 Militant, 26 May 1952
8 J P Cannon, Speeches to the Party, op cit, p29
9 J P Cannon, Speeches for Socialism, (New York 1971) p335
10 J P Cannon, Speeches to the Party, op cit, p26
11 One of the most famous cases was that of disabled SWP member James Kutcher, who was fired from a minor state clerical post in 1948 because he was in the SWP. His ten year campaign against the witch-hunt is recounted in his highly recommended The Case of the Legless Veteran.
12 McCarran, Kilgore, Mundt and Richard Nixon were the most prominent.
13 New York Times, 22 August 1950
14 Militant, 11, 18, 25 September 1950
15 E.g. the attacks against President Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the election of Jefferson in a move against these measures; the movement against the Fugitive Slave law of the 1850s
16 Militant, 2 October 1950
17 The First Amendment to the Constitution, insisted upon by Jefferson who disagreed with its omission from the Constitution
18 L Trotsky, Preface to 1936 French edition of Terrorism and communism, (London 1975) p13
19 SWP(US) Internal Bulletin Vol 13 No 1 p8. The designation ‘Trotskyist’ came back into use, especially as the faction fight hotted up in 1953. The pictures and quote never returned.
20 J P Cannon, The Communist League of America 1933-34, (New York 1985) p281
21 Mandel in his report to the Third World Congress (August 1951)
22 J P Cannon, The struggle for socialism, op cit, p303
23 Militant, 10 April 1950
24 Ibid, 10 April 1950
25 Ibid, 7 April 1953
26 See Fourth International, Winter 1955, p3
27 SWP Discussion Bulletin A-26, December 1954, p6
28 Ibid, p11
29 J P Cannon, Speeches to the Party, op cit, p199
30 SWP Discussion Bulletin A-26, op cit, p12
31 J P Cannon, Speeches to the Party, op cit, p31
32 Ben Stone, Memoirs of a radical rank and filer, (New York 1986) p69
33 See for example, May 1952 NC resolution on 1952 Presidential elections in Militant 26 May 1952
34 Militant, 24 July 1950
35 J P Cannon, Speeches for Socialism, op cit, p342
36 J P Cannon, ‘Aspects of socialist election policy’, Education for Socialists, p27 (New York 1971)
37 Only on one occasion was the tactic posed in an unambiguously revolutionary manner. See Militant, 7 November 1955
38 Militant, 14 April 1952
39 J P Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator, (New York 1973) p355
40 J P Cannon, The Struggle For Socialism....op cit p267
41 Fourth International, July/August 1953
42 Swp Internal Bulletin, Vol 16 No 2, August 1954, p15
43 Militant, 6 February 1950
44 Ibid
45 Militant, 13 February 1950
46 Militant, 23 June 1952
47 Militant, 30 June 1952
48 Militant, 4 August 1952
49 Art Preis, op cit, p420
50 SWP Internal Bulletin, Vol 15, No 11, May 1953, p15
51 J P Cannon, Speeches to the Party, op cit, p114
52 J P Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator, op cit, p185-912
53 Militant, 21 January 1952
54 Reprinted together with Cannon’s reply in Socialism on Trial, (New York 1973 p117-27)
55 J P Cannon, Speeches to the party, op cit, p114
56 International Information Bulletin, December 1951, p7
57 J P Cannon, Letter to Farrell Dobbs, 19 March 1954, International Committee Archives, CERMTRI, Paris
58 See J P Cannon, Speeches to the Party, op cit, p226-27 for Cannon’s view and p340-41 for the Cochranites estimate
59 Despite this fundamental identity, the alleged ‘anti-Stalinist’ bent of their critique so ‘ashamed’ George Clarke, the SWP(US)’s pro-Pablo delegate to the Third Congress, that instead of presenting the document, he burnt it! It is hard to know which is more staggering: Clarke’s childish behaviour or the fact that the SWP leadership didn’t discipline him for it! Further, they only ‘found out’ when Clarke told them in 1953. No one appears to have asked what happened to the document at the Congress! See International Committee documents 1951-54, Vol 1 (New York 1974)
60 Ibid, p20-23
61 Ibid, p23-24
62 J P Cannon, Speeches to the Party, op cit, p80
63 Ibid, p181
64 International Committee Document,s op cit, Vol 2 p124
65 Ibid, p125
66 Ibid, p123
67 See Trotskyism versus Revisionism, Vol 1, (London 1974) p298-314
68 Militant, 25 January, 22 February, 5 April 1954
69 International Committee documents, op cit, Vol 4, p232
70 Ibid
71 Letter to Farrell Dobbs, 2 February 1954, in the International Committee Archives, CERMTRI, Paris
72 J P Cannon, Speeches to the Party, op cit, p166
73 Ibid, p74
74 Ibid, p73
75 Workers Power and the Irish Workers Group, The Death Agony of the Fourth International and the Tasks of Trotskyists today, (London 1983)