By Steve Cohen
The revolution is not just about storming the barricades – though that’s one of the best bits. It is also about art and the imagination and living the politics of daily life – with its responsibilities, its eroticism, its building of the socialist project and the obligation to make sense of the relationship between all these.
This is why Holding Fast by Harvey Swados is such an important book. First published in 1970 it covers the quarter of a century preceding the Kennedy assassination in 1963. It charts in this period the attempt by a group of worker and intellectual socialist revolutionaries to build a branch of their organisation in Buffalo — followed by their disillusionment to a greater or lesser extent with the whole socialist project. This disillusionment is first prompted by the post-war prosperity that arose in contradiction to the revolutionary forecast (shared by all tendencies) of a Third World war and the collapse of capitalism.
The organisation in question is quite obviously that of the Workers Party of Max Shachtman (here portrayed as Marty Dworkin). Harvey Swados was himself a member of the organisation in the early 1940s. This was the period reflected in the book, when the Workers Party — denounced as “petit bourgeois” by Trotsky and Cannon (compared to the “proletarian” Socialist Workers Party from which it split) — made a serious implantation in industry and the trade union movement (quite unlike the SWP which in the war time years seems to have considered all trade union militancy as adventurist ).
If wanting to turn to the last page to discover the denouement is a sign of a good book — then this is a good book. If development of character is the sign of a good book — then this is a good book. If alluding to historical facts within a distinct political perspective — without having a political line crudely rammed down your throat — then this is a good book. Thirty years of global politics — Stalinism, Nazism, war, the post-war Bring The Troops Home movement lead by the enlisted, Zionism, McCarthyism, civil rights are imaginatively interspersed with personal relations
The creative art produced by a revolutionary movement is in many ways indicative of the movement itself and of the period in which it operates. So in the 1930s through to the 1950s the Stalinists in the USA produced a not insubstantial amount of fiction — usually in the socialist realist style determined by Stalin.
In my view this was often stultifying, boring and predictable – for instance see Howard Fast’s book on The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. Trotskyism (and it sub-category Shachtmanism) understandably attracted the better dreamers and therefore the better writers — Swados himself, Mary McCarthy, John Dos Passos and Saul Bellow being four of several. Bellow was later to provide a loving obituary for Yetta Barshevsky — Max Shachtman’s partner — after her death in 1996. By these standards the revolutionary movement of our own period, that of the start of the twenty first century, is indeed weak.
Standing Fast from any Stalinist, socialist realist, perspective would be denounced as “negative” in that most of its main characters end up disenchanted — whilst one of their children, a committed anti-racist, is portrayed as an idealist who gets mugged and murdered by a group of black youth. In fact the book is an honest and imaginative portrayal of the huge difficulties in wining over masses of people to the socialist project — whether during periods of barbarism (the Second World War) or prosperity (the post-war boom).
Of course we — us socialists — all have our own view of the way to achieve this mass conversion. Leninist vanguard organisations stake their reputation on this. In fact I have the image of all the different left sects as race-horse tipsters selling spectators the name of the winner. The immediate response of spectators is I assume that if the tipsters already know the winner why don’t they back it themselves. Of course the truth is that none of us are prophets. We can’t predict the winner. The conclusion I draw from this is the need to escape from vanguardism. To stop selling the miraculous, cure all, snake oil. Instead it is to help build a workers party which can encompass widely and wildly differing views. The alternative is continual fragmentation and disillusionment — as seen in the latest madness of Workers Power disintegrating on the question of the likely hegemonic position of China in the next twenty years. What emotional energy will this latest divorce have exhausted? What loss to socialism of its cadre and future cadre?
Standing Fast is not entirely negative. The most positive portrayal is that of the black activist Ham who becomes an organiser for the Civil Rights movement. However ultimately the book is pessimistic. As another character says at the end; “ One way or another we tried to keep an idea alive. There weren’t enough of us. There never are. We were ridiculously wrong about a lot of things but who wasn’t? And what ideas did they keep alive, the others?”
The novel is a saga going over three generations – looking at the politics of both the parents and then the children of the main characters. It is the Gone With The Wind of Shachtmanism. Hopefully unlike the most remembered line from Gone With The Wind (thanks to Clark Gable in the movie version) the socialist movement won’t end up with everyone in disarray and crying out “My dear, I don’t give a damn”. There is no reason for such an ending. But it would help if on every demonstration there was a huge banner proclaiming “Avoid the racing tipsters. Keep clear of the snake oil merchants”. And, after all, the next most famous line in Gone With the Wind is Vivienne Leigh’s “Tomorrow is another day”.
By Steve Cohen