Remembering Sam Gordon, pioneer American Trotskyist

Submitted by dalcassian on 21 June, 2016 - 6:58 Author: Sean Matgamna

Sam Gordon was one of the pioneer American Trotskyists. I knew Sam, who lived in London for 30 years, in the last decade of his life.

Warm, sharp-minded, Sam, who had worked with Trotsky, yet was not too proud in an emergency to use the Palace of Westminster as his pub: the first time I set foot there was one late night in the mid-'70s when, the pubs having closed too early for us, Sam insisted on going down to dig out a hapless - and unhappy - MP he'd known in the Trotskyist movement, who could take us into the ever-open bar there!

Sam Gordon's life, from his early youth to his tired old age, was a part of Trotskyism, at times a central part of it.

He was a secretary of the world Trotskyist movement during World War 2, when its centre had to be located in the USA. Wartime repression during the war was claiming the liberty and the lives of many Trotskyists all over Europe and in both of the warring camps.

He was an important leader of British Trotskyism in the '40s and '5Os. In the '70s he was an important influence on the work Socialist Organiser did, offering moral support, advice and suggestions.

Sam was born in Poland in 1910 and moved to New York as a small child. He joined the American section of the Trotskyist Left Opposition in 1929.

Led by James P Cannon and Max Shachtrnan, a small group of Marxists had broken with the American CP the year before. Trotsky had been decisively beaten in the factional struggle with the bureaucracy within the shell of the CP of the USSR. He spent 1928 in exile in Central Asia, before being expelled beyond the borders of the USSR in 1929.

Those who raised the banner of Trotskyism in the USA then seemed to choose a lost cause, and certainly they chose to be an ostracised, and persecuted minority in the communist movement.

It was to these people that Sam was drawn, for their ideas.

Writing in the mid '70s, Sam described how he came to Trotskyism. In a student club he was drawn towards communism but also became aware of some of the Trotskyist criticisms of Kremlin policy.

"We searched for and got hold of Max Eastman's book 'Since Lenin Died' which first broke the full story of the Russian Left Opposition and what it stood for. Together with some who were already in the YCL, I was discussing the import of this work when we heard... that James P Cannon was about to be expelled from the Communist Party for Trotskyism.

"It was in this atmosphere that several of us from the club went down to the Fourteenth Street Labor Temple, to one of the frst public meetings of the Communist League, to see for ourselves.

"As we came in and took our seats there were several commotions in the hall. A rush for the platform where Cannon and Shachtman were seated and the chairman, Martin Abern, was trying to get some order, had been repulsed by a guard strung out in front.

"Hecklers, and one particular heckler who seemed to be leader of the CP 'commando' assigned to break up the meeting, were being handled by Max with his usual vene. Shachtman eventually won the crowd around after rallies of laughter that reduced the Stalinists to silence.

"Cannon was the next and last speaker. He spoke quietly, in lecture style, in a ringing tenor voice, and his topic was internationalism and communism, how the two were inseparable, how the task that the Left Opposition had set itself was to re-establish this fact here and in the world movement.

"Jim's speech left a powerful impression on me, and I believe I was won over to Trotskyism then and there. But the YCLers in the club were still working hard on us outsiders, and a few of us decided we should have a look at Europe, Germany in particular, and after seeing advanced class struggle in action, we would finally make up our minds.

"The way to do that was, to catch a ship on a pier-head jump for Gerrnany, work our passage, and jump ship at the other end. For all this, contact with the CP was regarded as indispensable. It was not easy with growing maritime unemployment.

"We did just that, each in his own way. I got to Berlin and eventually found a job that allowed me to do a lot of reading and studying and to participate in demonstrations, etc. It was there I made up my mind to join the Left Opposition. I contacted The Militant, and wrote several letters to Martin Abern [the acting secretary] that were treated as articles.

"Naturally I was thrilled to see these published in The Militant, which had in a short time gained an unequalled reputation for journalistic excellence in radical circles".

Back in the USA Sam helped produce The Militant. During a particularly bad period in the life of the young, persecuted, poverty stricken movement, when isolation and personal conflicts led to the temporary withdrawal of Max Shachtman from editorial work, he served as editor of The Militant. He was less than 21 years old.

The spirit in which he undertook that great responsibility is the key to understanding how the organisation could survive such unfavourable conditions and develop despite everything.

"I had not yet turned 21 when I assumed my editorial duties on The Militant. No young man of that age could have undertaken such a responsibility on mere self-confidence. I was not particularly ambitious. If anything, the contrary. But it was the self-confidence inspired by the feeling that I was doing what was politically correct and necessary that kept me going".

In the mid-'30s the American Trotskyist movement broke out of its initial isolation and went from strength to strength. In 1934 the Trotskyists made a major step forward when they fused their organisation with the American Workers' Party, which had essentially adopted their ideas. In 1936 they joined the Socialist Party as a faction, but were expelled in 1937.

Sam Gordon worked closely with James P Cannon. Sam, was an organiser, a writer, whatever was needed.

He was secretary of the emergency conference of the Fourth International held in 1940, and thereafter, in the early part of the war, administrative secretary of the International Executive Committee of the Fl, based in New York.

Like a number of other American Trotskyist, he travelled as a seaman to make contact with the Trotskyist groups wherever American ships could go.

In this capacity he came to Britain in 1943 and helped set up the collaboration between groupings within the two rnain Trotskyist organisations that eventually resulted in the fusion of the two organisations into the Revolutionary Communist Party in the summer of 1944.

He was also a key influence against sectarianism by that organisation vis-a-vis the broad labour movement. He urged that organisation to integrate itself into the mass political labour movement. This was a central theme of Sam's politics, as it was of Cannon's and Trotsky's. Trotskyists are not and cannot be a self-contained and self-sufficient group of people who preserve themselves for eventual exhibition in a historical showcase in frigid purity from contamination by imperfect labour movements around them.

If we are to be of any use to the working class, we must know how to grapple with it, how to struggle within it constructively for our ideas, how to learn from it - and, above all, learn how not to be afraid of it. Sam and others fought for such an approach in the '40s and '50s.

Sam's British wife, Mildred, was refused entry into the United States, so he settled in Britain in 1952.

This was a period of great crisis for Trotskyism.

The isolation of the US Trotskyist movement lifted in the mid-'30s, and in the early '40s big progress was made. There was progress in other places too, in Britain, and in France after 1944. Then came great but perplexing historical events like the Chinese Revolution - led by Stalinists, who set up a totalitarian Stalinist state.

To many - accepting the claim of the Stalinists to be communists - Trotskyism seemed consigned to the footnotes of history by the successes of Stalinism.

Whole layers of the hitherto Trotskyist movement were thrown into crisis by these developments. A mood of conciliation to Stalinism developed. Their overturnings of capitalism were seen as being far more important than the fact that they had simultaneously imposed totalitarian anti-working class systems where they ruled. But, though the Stalinists had shown themselves capable of being "anti--capitalist", they had not ceased to be simultaneously anti-working class .

Sections of the Trotskyist movement began to talk and act as if they had, and to abandon the Trotskyist programme of political revolution to overthrow the bureaucratic Stalinist rulers.

Major political disorientation set in. World War 3 seemed a looming certainty and not only to the Trotskyists. Some Trotskyists developed a black and white view of the world as consisting of two blocks, with no meaningful alternative but to choose between them. They chose the Stalinist blocks.

There was no role for independent working class politics in a world where the expectation of the leaders of the world Trotskyist movement (Pablo Mandel etc.) was that in World War 3 the Russian Army would rule over Europe and make a socialist revolution there as part of an 'international class war'. At best independent working class politics would have a role at a later period of history.

Those who held to these views gave critical support to the Mao regime in China, not advocating a working-class revolution there. They refused to side unequivocally with the Berlin workers' uprising against the Russian and German Stalinist bureaucrats in June 1953. Even though the 'Red' Arrny was slaughtering the Berlin workers, to call for its withdrawal, they argued, would have been to risk letting the US Army in. Even to such an extent had international power block commitments replaced class-struggle and working class considerations in their minds!

Sam Gordon was one of the earliest "mainstream" Trotskyists to sound the alarm against this drift of the Trotskyist movement, led by secretary Michel Pablo, towards politically disarrning itself in the deference to the Stalinists. He did that from within the false theoretical framework that saw the Stalinist states as "deformed and degenerated workers' states". But he did it.

He criticised the documents of the Third World Congress of the Trotskyist movement, held in 1951. Eventually, after the East Berlin workers' uprising, Cannon and others launched a full-scale drive to purge the Trotskyist movement of what they called 'Pabloism'. (They failed!)

Sam Gordon later used to describe himself, with some justified pride, as 'the first anti-Pabloite'.

(The documents and letters of the period, Sam Gordon's included, have been published by the American SWP).

In semi-retirement from the '60s, Sam Gordon was bitterly hostile to the recrudescence of sectarianism in the '60s and '70s. He broke his decades-old links with the leadership of the Socialist Labour League (which mutated into the W8P).

He was to the end of his days a loyalist for the American Socialist Workers Party. He tried to view their political development in as sympathetic a light as possible and to explain it to those of us who were harshly critical.

All the more significant, therefore, was his readiness to admit that when in the first six months of 1980 the SWP USA welcomed the Russian invasion of Afghanistan - who were, they said "going to the aid of the revolution" - they had departed from Trotskyism.

He encouraged at least one critic of those politics to write against this pernicious and reactiona;y nonsense. The 'first anti-Pabloite' had not entirely ceased to live in the 70 year old Sam Gordon.

Sam Gordon rejected - though, as far as I know, he never spoke out against it publicly - the post-1967 June War demonisation of Israel by the "Trotskyist" left. He supported Israel's right to exist.

It is thanks to the courage and dedication of those like Sam Gordon that there now exists a Marxist movement at all, su~viving Stalinism, building on their work, able to renew itself politically in the class struggle.

What has to be said of the great pioneers of Trotskyism who survived Trotsky, like James P Cannon, has also to be said of Sam Gordon: they left many unresolved problems, some of them fundamental, to the succeeding generation of revolutionary Marxists. But it is thanks to the courage and dedication of comrades like Sam Gordon that there now exists a Marxist movement at all, surviving Stalinism, building on their work, able to renew itself politically

Against the Tide column

Socialist Organiser, 1982