The 1940 Split in the SWP (USA) and the Founding of the Workers’ Party

By Max Shachtman

The Workers Party was organised as a result of the factional struggle that broke out in the American Trotskyist movement (the Socialist Workers Party and its youth organisation) when the Second World War began, and ended in a split. Those who founded the new party had reason to be confident.

First they had better than held their own in the debate. Differences of opinion and even factional struggle were not new in the Trotskyist movement. But never before had the leadership of any section of the International shown such poverty of ideas, such bewilderment and downright helplessness when confronted by a new situation, a new problem and a critical opposition.

In the face of the joint partition of Poland by Germany and Russia, followed by the invasion of Finland and the annexation of the Baltic countries by Stalin, we proposed the abandonment of the traditional position of “unconditional defence of the USSR” in war. We argued that Russia was playing a reactionary role in the war, having joined one of the imperialist camps in order to share in the booty; and that to support Russia meant supporting the imperialist war in violation of the interests of the international working class and socialism.

The majority had no other reply save the repetition of the formula, “Russia is a degenerated workers’ state; therefore we are for its unconditional defence in the war.” Its attempts to give more specific answers to the political situation were sorry models of confusion: witness the fact that it produced three mutually contradictory documents on the war in Finland in less than that number of weeks. In effect, it took its political courage into its hands and retired from the debate. Its task was taken over by Trotsky and him alone.

Never in the history of the movement did we have what followed. Trotsky found himself obliged to lead and carry on the fight for the paralysed majority all by himself. One document by him followed another, sometimes in almost daily succession. He found it necessary to write at Iength on the tiniest questions, or aspects of a question, in dispute, and even questions that were very doubtfully related to the disagreement. One of his principal documents he even sent directly to the branches of the party, without the normal intermediary of the central party committee. The least that can be said about him is that he more than discharged his obligations as a political leader.

The American party leadership could not have been more heavily indicted for political helplessness than it was by the very thoroughness with which Trotsky was compelled to assume the burden that properly belonged to it. The majority, confined itself to acting as Trotsky’s phonograph. In the days between the arrival of records, it was astutely and firmly silent. To be sure, a phonograph that does no more than reproduce an eloquent voice performs a much more valuable service than a man from whose throat emerges only unharmonious gibberish. Still, if it continues to play the records a thousand times over, it will never develop a voice itself. It will always remain a phonograph that needs a record in order to articulate The man with the throat has the advantage after all He cannot only listen to the recorded voice but can, by persistent application, develop a clear voice of his own.

Trotsky enjoyed a tremendous authoritative (authoritative, not authoritarian) standing among the members of the minority Only the greater strength of their arguments enabled them to continue the debate with him. When the debate ended, they had held not only to their views, but to their forces. In the final vote, the minority had more than forty percent of the votes; if the Trotskyist movement is taken as a whole in this country (party and youth organisations together. The minority had well over fifty percent of the votes. It was a distinct victory for us. As for the Cannonites, it was an utterly crushing defeat from every standpoint.

There is no doubt that if Trotsky had not intervened (he had, of course, both the right and duty to intervene), the Cannonites would simply have been inundated in the fight.

In the second place the way in which the split took place enhanced our confidence. The split, to our knoeled,ge, simply has no precedent in the working-class movement. To this day, the Cannonites have carefully guarded against making public even to their membership the full text of the resolution that split the SWP!

The first part of the resolution provided for acceptance of the decisions of the convention that had just taken place (April. 1940) and a commitment “to carry them out in a disciplined manner.” This “clever” motion. characteristic of the little mind that conceived it, merely meant that the minority should vote to gag itself in the working-class public on the most vital question of the day, the war, and approve of handling over its inner-party rights to the mercies of a majority that had gone out of its way to prove that it was entitled to no such confidence. We therefore abstained in the vote on this motion The second part of the resolution provided that those not voting for the furst part shall, for that reason alone be deprived of all party positions, responsibilities and rights*.

A unique contribution to revolutionary party procedure!

We had not violated a single disciplinary provision. We were not even charged with any such violation. We were expelled, in effect, merely for abstaining from the vote on the majority’s motion, providing that we “accept” convention decisions which among other things branded us as “petty bourgeois” The whole procedure lasted, as the party boss gleefully noted to a crony at the meeting, exactly four and three-quarter minutes. We knew well in advance what and whom we were dealing with. We knew, in so far as it is possible to be certain in politics, that the leading clique was determined to get rid of the opposition, especially because it was not prepared to proclaim the omniscience and omnipotence of ignorance and impotence. So we were well prepared. The Workers Party was publicly proclaimed and our Labor Action and New International** were issued shortly after the expulsion ukase.

Fear of our views, and of our ability and determination to defend them, prompted our expulsion, and nothing else. The consciousness of this only fortified us in our actions.

Thirdly, we had won to our side the overwhelming majority of the youth. In itself, this may not be ‘proof’ of anything, but in such situations it is almost invariably an excellent sign. The history of the revolutionary movement shows exceedingly few, if any, exceptions to the rule that in such disputes the youth takes the side of the left-wing against the right or conservative wing. How to reconcile this fact with the accusation that we were a “petty-bourgeois opposition”? The majority simply never made a serious attempt to reconcile the two, except, perhaps, by repeating some of the “explanations” made by the Socialist Party right wingers when the socialist youth joined with the Trotskyists in 1936, or else by repeating the accusation in a louder voice.

And lastly, the development of the war confirmed our position on Russia’s role in it, and not that of the majority, which found itself compelled with each new event and turn to explain away the arguments it had given for its position the day before.

Publications: 

Around the world: 

Marxist Theory and History: