A Decade of Independent Socialism: The IS Story 1940-1950

Submitted by AWL on 14 October, 2013 - 6:45 Author: Albert Glotzer (Secretary of the Independent Socialist League)

The Independent Socialist League (originally formed as the Workers Party) is now celebrating its tenth anniversary, having been formed in April of 1940, following its split with the Socialist Workers Party.

At that time, it ww difficult to foretell what future course our movement would take, for it was born in the midst of the Second World War, a circumstance in which the conditions for life and growth of a new political organization did not seem promising. The forecasts made about our future, both by friends and opponents, were not optimistic; few believed we could survive the world war and the political and moral disintegration of society that had already appeared during the first years of the conflict.

But we did not merely survive the war, if one measures by ideological factors rather than the often illusory yardstick of numbers alone. We grew politically and ideologically stronger as we applied our Marxist theory to the extremely difficult problems of our time.

It was not only that we were born during: the war. It was that we came into independent existence during the most critical period in the history of international socialism, a period of its decline, of the consolidation and strengthening of totalitarian Stalinism, this new form of state power and social rule - bureaucratic collectivism in Russia.

The 1940 split in the Socialist Workers Party was the culmination of a long struggle inside that organization which had deeper roots than appeared in the dispute over the "defense of the Soviet Union." For no sooner had the differences over Russia made themselves felt during the SWP's public proclamations on the invasion of Finland and Poland, and the partition of the latter between Hitler Germany and Stalinist Russia, than the "organizational question" necessarily intruded itself into the discussion.

As a matter of history, the factional struggle had broken out earlier over the "organizational question" at a time when no serious dispute on Russia had yet started.

"Defense of Soviet Union" the Issue

At the regular convention held in July of 1939, the dispute between the bureaucratically entrenched Cannonite leadership and the then assembling, inchoate and confused opposition, while foreshadowing the future, was serious enough to paralyze the convention repeatedly when there was as yet no formal, conscious or deep political differences. Then, an enormous section of the party membership was seriously disturbed, dissatisfied with and disaffected by the bureaucratic Cannonite majority which stymied the movement ideologically and organizationally. If that fight ended in defeat for the opposition bloc, composed of a variety of forces in the SWP, the struggle over the Russian question which ensued shortly afterward was destined to take the most serious proportions, and in its worldwide importance transcended anything before experienced by the Trotskyist movement anywhere.

The new Minority, for the first time since the birth of Trotsky's Russian Opposition In 1924, questioned the theoretical basis of the movement, namely, the view that Russia is a "degenerated workers' state" and that the world strategy of the Marxist movement had to be to defend that state under conditions where it was threatened by. war or intervention. This theory, the Minority held, was untenable. Stalinist Russia, it asserted, had demonstrated by its politics, policies and activities, by US internal structure and its world strategy, that it was not a workers' state, degenerated or any other kind, bat that It was the mortal enemy of socialism and the working class.

The party was electrified by the rise of this opposition, for it acted as a unifying center in the SWP against the deadening influence of the bureaucratically conservative leadership of James P. Cannon and his group, an influence which was felt in the fields of theory, politics and organization. Utterly helpless in this situation, the majority could do little else but call upon Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Fourth International, to assist them in the fight. Had it not been for his immense authority and influence, the Cannonite leadership would have been dealt a mortal blow.

It was no easy matter for the Minority to break with Trotsky on the Russian question, for it understood that a deepening of the differences with him on the nature of the Stalinist state and on Stalinism must lead to a parting of the ways with him who taught us so much in the years gone by. But we went into that struggle with confidence in the rightness of our views and in the certainty that time would compel the great revolutionary leader to discard his catastrophic theory of the "degenerated workers' state" - as indeed appeared to be the case at the time when he was suddenly struck down by an agent of the GPU.

Theoretical Basis of Anti-Stalinism

The Minority did not have a complete program during this struggle nor a fully-developed theory of Russia and Stalinism. These were to come only after the split and as the clarification process asserted itself with the unfolding of the war. No sooner was our Workers Party formed than the responsible leadership and membership proceeded to deal with the Russian question in a new way under conditions which permitted the maximum of experimental thought, free discussion and the solution of ideological difficulties without the menacing shadow of bureaucratic ultimatism hanging over its head.

Out of the discussion in the WP come the theory that Russia was a bureaucratic-collectivistic state, characterized by a new ruling class and a new economic exploitation and slavery for the masses. The rise of this new nationalist ruling cless produced a new type of international movement and a new type of party. Stalinism entered the world scene - so the developed views of the Workers Party said - as an anti-capitalist, anti-socialist force, operating inside the ranks of the working masses with the slogans, language, trappings and the venerable traditions of the decades-old world socialist movement, betraying the working class of the world at the same time that it sought the destruction of world capitalism in its own bureaucratic-colleetivist interests.

It is true that we did not initiate anti-Stalinism, but we gave the struggle against Stalinism a theoretically unassailable basis and a political program that rested on international socialism, and we remain the only force of this kind in the world: an internationalist, socialist, Marxist, anti-Stalinist movement. It is this which enables us to hold aloft the banner of socialism in a world divided into two camps of imperialism, Stalinist and capitalist, to which all other movements with few exceptions subordinate themselves to one degree or another.

As the Workers Party established itself, it did many things for which it can be justly proud. Despite the war and its social-patriotic pressures, the party maintained its loyalty to the working class of the United States to the utmost of its abilities and resources. The war took from it its best cadres. Literally half of our experienced and devoted comrades were lost to us for years. Yet the organization continued to function at a high level. The decimated leadership was strengthened by the unexpected (though it should have been expected) source of power which came from the women comrades, who filled the breach admirably and many times in superior fashion.

The party maintained its theoretical magazine, The New International, on a high level. It appeared regularly and this - under conditions of war - was an achievement in itself. But even more, The New International is a veritable repository of discussion and information material on the most important theoretical and political questions which arose in the movement during the war years, and is therefore an indispensable record for that period.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of the party was its weekly paper, LABOR ACTION. The paper was frankly experimental and an investment for the future. Appearing for the first time during the war, it tested the party's idea that what was needed was a powerful agitational newspaper reflecting not merely the organization's political and theoretical views on the war and other social questions of the day, but a paper that would fight for the essential interests of the working class precisely during the war when the ruling class would seek to wipe out the considerable gains of decades of struggle.

Spoke Labor's Language in Wartime .

With this perspective, LABOR ACTION was an innovation in revolutionary socialist journalism ond enjoyed an enormous success among the workers during the war. Space does not permit the citation of many examples of this statement. Suffice to say, it appeared in tens of thousands of copies weekly, was distributed widely from coast to coast, appeared on shop bulletin boards, was the subject of discussion of many workers, and many of its ideas and slogans spoke the feelings and language of the best militants and progressives in the labor movement. Coupled with the industrialization and unionization of the party's war membership, the press gave the Workers Party, properly understood, a considerable public standing.

The party regarded its activities as a preparation for any possibilities that might he produced by the war to advance the interests of socialism and it counted upon a revival of the world movement for socialism. Aware as it was that no rebirth of world socialism was possible without the leadership of conscious socialists acting as the catalytic agent for this socialist revival, the party expected, and not without reason, that these cadres were present in unknown numbers throughout the country. What it did underestimate was the power of Stalinism on the one hand, and the sustaining power of capitalist imperialism on the other. ....

The post-war period did not produce what the Workers Party had hoped for and looked for: the revival of international socialism. Instead, the end of the war brought with it a more distinct division between the former Allies in the war, a division between capitalism and its remnant democracy, and Stalinism. The rebirth of the socialist movement was either aborted by this division or has yet to germinate. In any case, there is today no world socialist organization in existence and not a single powerful, determined, cohesive socialist party which rests upon the international socialist principles of Marxism.

This single fact was bound to have and did have its influence upon the socialist prospects in the United States. The working class here, highly organized and militant on a trade-union level, remains ideologically backward, still for the most part bourgeois-minded, content to follow their backward labor officialdom. An independent political party of the American working class, a labor party, has yet to be built. And it is essentially this kind of development which can provide the arena for the growth of a revolutionary socialist party in a country which has no deep socialist or Marxist tradition. Obviously, a revolutionary upsurge in Europe might have created the premises for a swifter development of the American working class. But it did not come, and the American working class continues its slow development based upon its own national experiences and traditions, not yet rocked by a cataclysmic internal social crisis.

The ISL Is Formed

For this reason, the Workers Party, certain of its course, decided at its last convention to cease calling itself a party, and to alter its organizational character as well as its national perspectives. In assuming the name of Independent Socialist League, it endeavored to have its name and organizational character conform to its real activities and perspectives: to act as a socialist ideological force in the labor movement, to assist in the development of a militant and progressive union movement, and to continue indefatigably in the struggle for a labor party, or independent political action of the American working class. Thus, the ISL, by its action, recognizes the great pioneer work that still remains ahead of us.

The task is at once simple and complex. It is to build up a new socialist cadre of people, educated in the theories of Marxism, convinced that no social good can come of the continued existence of capitalism or Stalinism, and ready to dedicate their lives to the emancipation of all humanity from exploitation and the fetters of modern exploitive society and its tendencies toward totalitarianism; ready to fight against the destruction of mankind by atomic or hydrogen bomb warfare and to wage the endless battle for peace and genuine democracy. If the Independent Socialist League is small today and enjoys far less influence than it should like or deserves, it is a commentary on our times. But to believe that the socialist future is hopeless is to believe that modern society and its inhabitants can go on endlessly on a crisis level of existence, threatened permanently by economic chaos and war. We do not believe this for a moment. We believe firmly in the capacity and will of all those who suffer the ravages of a decadent society, whether capitalist or Stalinist, who must in their infinite suffering reach the day when they will say: We have had enough! Away with the old social rubbish! Give us the new day of socialist freedom, peace and security! It is to this future that the ISL dedicates itself.