The End of an Experience (Johnson-Forest in 1950)

Submitted by martin on 10 May, 2007 - 12:10

By Max Shachtman, from Labor Action, 6 November 1950

One of the most important measuring rods in politics is: What did we expect and what did we get? Trotsky often applied it to the politics of the old Communist Party, and he was right. It is likewise applicable to the politics of all classes and of all organisations that take themselves seriously.

It is valid in two senses. First: how far did events refute or confirm an analysis that was made? Second: How much did results justify or condemn a policy that was followed? Unless this key question is asked and answered periodically, it is impossible to check on an analysis or a policy, let alone make the necessary corrections.

More than three years ago, a group of members led by J R Johnson [C L R James] left our organisation - the then Workers Party, now the Independent Socialist League - and joined the Socialist Workers Party. It was at the end of a period in which the two parties had engaged in discussions aimed at uniting them into one. The discussions proved abortive, unity proved impossible. What the SWP leaders were really interested in was to split the Johnsonites away from the Workers Party.

This was confirmed by the Johnsonites, who wrote on July 5, 1947, that they "refused to split from the WP because the suggestion was accompanied by a clear indication that such a split would be but a preliminary to a definitive declaration of the unfitness of the WP for membership in the SWP".

Why, then, did these same Johnsonites, in the same document, under the same date, nevertheless announce their split from the WP and affiliation with the SWP? Because, in weighing the two organisations, they found the SWP to be the party that all genuine Marxists and genuine revolutionists must support with all their strength. For the Workers Party, in which they had abundantly used the unrestrained licence to voice their particular views, their statement had only the harshest characterisations.

For themselves, they condemned their participation in the work of founding the Workers Party in 1940. In contrast, they lavished the highest praise they could find in their vocabulary for the SWP which they were joining. Since the politics of one day makes sense (or, os often, nonsense) only in the light of the day before, it will help to recollect what they said about the SWP in July 1947:

"The SWP by 1947 has been able to demonstrate far more clearly than in 1940 that it represents a proletarian as opposed to a petty-bourgeois tendency. It has justified its claim in 1940 that it is the inheritor and continuator of the traditions, principles and policies of Leninism-Trotskyism as against the petty-bourgeois opportunism and unprincipled revisionism of the WP. Far more than in 1940, it is possible to say, and easy for informed persons to demonstrate, that in 1940 the historical and political right of the split was on the side of the SWP. There can be no greater misconception of the American movement than to equivocate in the slightest degree as to the contrast between the determined struggle of the SWP to maintain the principles of Bolshevism in contrast to the political and organisational degeneration of the WP".

Any criticism that might follow this lyrical laudation could not but be trivial and that is all it was. So, having spurned the appeal to split from the WP only in order to end by splitting from it, the Johnsonites entered the SWP.

But they were not entering the new party as captives, or mere hard workers. "Good intentions and adjurations to hard work are not sufficient", they wrote in the same document, under the same date. "Political differentiation is a Bolshevik necessity. Thus, political differences will not be hidden behind silence or futile discussions about 'bureaucratic collectivism' and 'bureaucratic jungle' and 'deceptions' and 'misunderstandings'. What is required are clearcut political issues, the discussion of which could only result in benefit to all concerned, education of the International, and, if necessary, a definitive separation of American Bolshevism from all other tendencies".

What followed? Just as the spurned appeal for split was followed by a split, so the spurned idea that poltiical differences can be hidden by silence was followed by silence. For three impressive years there was not a peep out of the Johnson group. Not because there was a lack of "clear-cut political issues" during these last three years. Something else was lacking, which courtesy prevents us from naming.

In any case, the long silence has now been broken. "Good intentions and adjurations to hard work" have indeed proved, again, to be insufficient, and "political differentiation" has proved, again, to be a "Bolshevik necessity" for the Johnsonites, at least for a few audacious weeks. They have at last spoken up, in a long document submitted for the discussion now going on in the SWP, which they did not, of course, initiate. [Excerpts from the document online here; whole text republished 1986 and still in print.]

The discussion is, formally, concerned with the "Yugoslav question". As is known, the world congress of the Fourth International, which concluded its sessions right on the eve of the sensational Stalin-Tito break, solmenly designated the Tito regime as a reactionary, capitalist, totalitarian police state. The outbreak of the conflict between Tito and Stalin threw the Fourth International, and with it the SWP, into hopeless and ludicrous confusion.

Both are trying to emerge from it with a straight face, by announcing the belated discovery that the Titoists years ago carried out a socialist revolution - not less! - and that the designation of Yugoslavia as a totalitarian capitalist police state really ought to be amended somewhat to read "progressive, democratic workers' state" - not less!

Bolder souls go further and announce the additional discovery that all the Stalinist states in Europe and Asia are likewise "workers' states", the product of a socialist revolution which was evidently carried out so cleverly and subtly by the Stalinists that the official Trotskyists, who freely admit that they are the vanguard of the world revolution, never even noticed it at the time.

You would think that the kind of discussion that would follow upon such noteworthy discoveries is clearly established. How does it happen that Stalinism, hitherto characterised as counter-revolutionary and a sturdy prop of capitalism, nevertheless carried out a socialist revolution in a dozen different countries, including such important ones as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and such a decisive one as China?

And even more to the point. If Stalinism does, and therefore can, carry out the socialist revolution at least to the point of establishing workers' states - somewhat imperfect ones, to be sure - for about one-third of the population of the globe, what basis remains for the existence of an independent anti-Stalinist socialist party or International?

That is not the kind of discussion that is going on in the Fourth International or the SWP. It is hard to believe, but true. The Cannonites are debating, instead, only two questions which would normally excite only the most elaborate yawns.

While it is ABC that Yugoslavia is a workers' state, can the same thing be said about Poland and the other Stalinist satellites even though the social regimes are identical in every respect? And secondly, while it is ABC that this, that or the other Stalinist country is a workers' state, can we say exactly when the revolution occurred in that country - Monday at noon, or Wednesday at dusk, or Saturday at midnight?

This sort of discussion is too much for the Johnsonites. Hence, their own document.

We can leave aside, here, any consideration of Johnson's theory that Stalinism is state-capitalism. We have dealt with it before and will deal with it again. Much more interesting is the result obtained from Johnson's document when it applies the measuring rod of "what did we expect and what did we get?"

His document is a criticism of the official position of the Fourth International and the SWP on Russia and Stalinism, and the criticism is positively annihilating, not because Johnson's own position is so right but because the other is so utterly and irretrievably wrong. Of overwhelming political importance is the essential question he raises:

Since it is now the official Trotskyists position that the new Stalinist states in Europe and Asia are, like Russia, workers' states (of one sort or another) which cannot have been established except by proletarian revolution (of one sort or another), and since these revolutions and workers' states are headed by Stalinism, what remains of the basic Trotskyist theory that Stalinism is counter-revolutionary, and what remains as the political justification for the existence of an independent Trotskyist movement?

This question he hammers home in a dozen ways, as we ourselves have hammered it home in our press for a long time. It is safe to predict that his success in getting an answer will be no greater than ours: the "official" Trotskyists will never answer the question; they cannot answer it. It is safer to discuss whether the Stalinist-"proletarian" revolution in Poland took place on Tuesday at dawn or Friday at twilight.

Does Johnson himself answer the qeustion? In part; in large part; in any case, sufficiently to refute shatteringly what he wrote about the SWP three years ago. What he said then, we have already seen, and it shows what he expected. Now let us see what he got.

He is speaking now about the same SWP which he once praised for its "determined struggle... to maintain the principles of Bolshevism", for having "justified its claim in 1940 that it is the inheritor and continuator of the traditions, principles, and policies of Leninism-Trotskyism". And here is what he says today about the inheritor, the continuator, and its determined struggle.

After describing and denouncing the position of the head of the Fourth International, he writes: "To this pro-Stalinists, liquidationist tendency, now months old, there is no resistance. Under the impact of the events of 1940-50 the theory of the Fourth International is in chaos". And further: "The chief spokesman for the Fourth International has called into question the validity of Marxism for our epoch".

The language is a little strong, but not bad. In 1947, the principles, traditions, and policies of Leninism-Trotskyist-Bolshevism are like granite in the Fourth International, and so they have been since 1940. In 1950, Marxism is called into question by the head of the International, who advocates nothing less than a pro-Stalinist, liquidationist course that meets with no resistance, and the result is chaos!

But this chaos is not due to the "chief spokesman" alone. Johnson digs deeper. "Our position is that the chaos in the International is due to the fact that Trotsky's method of analysis and system of ideas are wrong, and that the chaos in the International will continue to grow until a new system is substituted for the present one". The disagreement does not appear to be trivial.

"The first, the basic, the indispensable task of a revolutionary International is to define correctly the working-class organisation it proposes to overthrow". (Johnson is referring to Stalinism, of course). "In this task the failure of orthodox Trotskyism is complete". The "determined struggle of the SWP to maintain the principles of Bolshevism", as Johnson wrote three years ago, does not appear to have been very fruitful if it produced a failure - a complete failure - to discharge the first, the basic, the indispensable task. Call it what you will, this is not a very high recommendation for a determined struggle for the principles of Bolshevism carried on by the inheritors and continuators.

At least, we are entitled to know when the inheritors stopped continuing the struggle - Tuesday at daybreak or Sunday at nightfall?

"The Fourth International", we now read from the pen which wrote otherwise three years ago, "cannot escape this decision: if the destruction of private property and the repudiation of national defence are revolutionary, then Stalinism is revolutionary and there is no historical need for a Fourth International". Which is quite right, but not only today; it was just as right when we said it three years ago while Johnson was saying rather different things.

Johnson regrets it, regrets it very much, "but we shall have to show that the theories of the Fourth International have fortified the theories of Stalinism. The true significance of Pablo is that he has brought this that was implicit in the theories of the Fourth International out into the open". This is new, it appears, and regrettable news, for in 1947, we persist in recalling, the only thing that was explicit or implicit was "the determined struggle" by the inheritors who are now "fortifying the theories" of - of what? of Bolshevism? no - "the theories of Stalinism".

And to make it simpler and clearer, these Stalinist theories were implicit in the position of the SWP as early as 1947, and earlier, when Johnson was impelled to join it because "there can be no greater misconception of the American movement than to equivocate in the slightest degree" about the Cannonite struggle for the principles of Bolshevism, Leninism, and Trotskyism. One thing is dead certain: there was indeed a misconception, and it was great enough.

What about the party itself? "The history of Trotskyist theory of the party, however, reinforces Stalinism in spite of all its criticism".

What about the party's methodology?

"What is the methodology of orthodox Trotskyism? It is to be judged by its results. It has never recognised the necessity for an analysis of the present stage of world economy... The subjectivity of the Trotskyist analysis of Stalinism is rooted in the unrejected premise that the Stalinists are social-patriotic collaborators of their own bourgeoisie... The Fourth International is unable in objective materialist terms to find the reasons for its own existence... The inability to analyse Stalinism in the light of Leninist analysis of the present stage of capitalism cripples orthodox Trotskyism at every turn... Orthodox Trotskyism is unable because of its conception of state-property and its subjective analysis of the coming war to make the simplest distinctions between the counter-revolutionary Third International and the revolutionary Fourth International... Orthodox Trotskyism can merely call for a revolution in Russia. Its theory affords no objective basis for it, none... Orthodox Trotskyism, on this fundamental question [the whole colonial question] of its own past, here as elsewhere, is unable to solve one of the problems raised".

It requires no small effort to remember than Johnson is apllying these thick-soled, iron-shod, needle-spiked remarks to the very same party which - how long ago was it? - he could not stay out of because not the slightest degree of equivocation could be permitted about its determined struggle to uphold the principles, traditions, and policies which today are sunk without having left so much as a visible oil-slick. But it is worthwhile making the effort.

Of the chief spokesman of the Fourth International, Johnson writes that he repudiates Lenin's State and Revolution - "proposing instead that proletarian politics be guided for centuries by the barbarous degradation in Russia and in the buffer states of Eastern Europe. It is the end of any philosophic method and the most serious of all theories of retrogression. In this mentality can be seen the germs which in maturity make the complete Stalinist - absolute hostility to capitalism as we have known it, but a resigned acceptance that Marx's and Lenin's ideas of proletarian power are Utopian. No more deadly deviation has ever appeared in our movement". That's at the end of J?ohnson's 79-page document. On the first page, we note, is the charge that "to this pro-Stalinist, liquidationist tendency, now months old, there is no resistance", either in the Fourth International or in the SWP.

Therefore? Therefore, concludes Johnson, now that he has broken his silence by a document, he promises to retire into silence again, presumably to continue heading the "adjurations to hard work".

Jacob toiled in the fields in silence for fourteen years, but at the end of the first seven he at least got Leah and after another seven, Rachel. After three years, Johnson got the right to a document. How much longer he will toil in silence, he knows better than others. But this one document marks the end of an experience.

It is the end of an experience regardless of Johnson's perspectives.

Three years ago he said to his public: This is the SWP, the party of Marxism, of proletarian revolution, of internationalism, of principle, of Bolshevism, unequivocal, justified and confirmed.

Three years later he says to his public: This is the SWP, a complete failure in discharging its first, basic, indispensable task; a movement in a state of growing chaos; the fortifier of the theories of Stalinism; pro-Stalinist and liquidationist; incapable of the simplest distinctions between revolution and counter-revolution; incapable of analysing Stalinism; incapable of solving a single problem of importance; with leaders who challenge Marxism and Leninism as a Utopia, advance the most serious of all theories of retrogression and propose to be guided by the most barbarous degradation of modern times, and yet meet with no resistance in the movement; with a method of analysis and a system of ideas that is wrong from start to finish; and without the ability so much as to find the need for its own existence.

We were told by the Johnsonites three years ago what they expected, and, if we may say so, we knew more or less what they would get. Now they know it too and the source is authentic. If you learn late, it is better than not learning at all, provided you have really learned.