The Workers' Party USA: “The freest party I ever belonged to”

Submitted by Matthew on 20 June, 2012 - 9:51

In Solidarity 242, we began series of recollections and reflections from activists who had been involved with the “third camp” left in the USA — those “unorthodox” Trotskyists who broke from the SWP USA in 1939/40 to form the Workers Party, and the tradition they built (the Independent Socialist League, and later the Independent Socialists and International Socialists).

Here, we reprint an extract from a speech by Al Glotzer given at the “Oral History of the American Left Conference”, organised by the Tamiment Library in New York from May 6-7, 1983.

The conference brought together many of the surviving leading activists of the third camp left to discuss and reflect on their experiences.

Al Glotzer was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 for demanding an open and fair discussion of Trotsky’s views. Along with others such as Max Shachtman and James Cannon, he helped found the American Trotskyist movement. He was a founding member of the Workers Party when it was formed in 1940, and was at various times editor of its paper Labor Action and its magazine New International. When the Workers Party became the Independent Socialist League in 1949, Glotzer served as its National Secretary.

As Stalinism remained strong and expanding for three decades after 1949, Glotzer’s horror pushed him off track politically. He ultimately concluded that Stalinism was an inevitable outgrowth of the Russian revolution, which he came to see as being proto-dictatorial from the beginning. He died in February 2010, as a social democrat rather than a revolutionary Marxist.

While Workers’ Liberty would not agree with the anti-Leninist emphasis in Glotzer’s speech, it gives a rich flavour of the broadly libertarian culture of the early third camp organisations — a culture they combined with a democratic discipline and serious attitude to both theory and activist practise. Spellings have been changed to UK equivalents, and the speech has been abridged, but it is otherwise unedited.

To read more contributions to our series — from comrades including Dan La Botz, Herman Benson, Gabe Gabrielsky, Marty Oppenheimer, and David McReynolds — see here

Daniel Randall

Maybe if all of you had attended your meetings like tonight we might have carried on the Workers Party.

Van Heijenoort’s diary of his years with Trotsky in exile describes a discussion with Trotsky, before he left for the US [Jean Van Heijenoort was one of Trotsky’s secretaries from 1932 to 1939]. This was at the end of 1939, which should be a very familiar year for most of you sitting here.

The faction fight in the SWP had become very intense over the Russian question. And Trotsky said to Van Heijenoort: You must talk to Cannon and tell Cannon not to try to resolve the dispute in the Party by “organisational means”. That was one of the big complaints in the discussion — that the discussion on the Russian question was hindered by Cannon’s attempt to resolve the problem in his usual customary way of working a few organisational decisions and thus ending the discussion in the Party. But the curious thing about Trotsky’s suggestion to Van Heijenoort was that he himself had so sharpened the struggle with his book on the factional fight — In Defence of Marxism — that even without this caution to Cannon there is grave doubt whether anything could have ensued in the dispute except the split that came.

So the split was inevitable because the difference on the Russian question made the departure of our tendency in the SWP absolutely inevitable.

Now I don’t want to turn this nostalgic gathering into a reconsideration of politics and the program of the party and of the mistakes it made and how it could have maintained itself, because I think that would be absolutely fruitless. If we had a two day conference of the Workers Party itself similar to an old time plenum it would be under discussion for eight, ten, twelve hours, as was our custom, and maybe resolve a question or two. I doubt it very much.

Once the split took place, the discussion on the Russian question, begun originally in the SWP by Joe Carter as you will remember, joined by James Burnham, raised the question of bureaucratic collectivism first but made sure that the Party understood they were still for the defence of the Soviet Union, carried over in the WP where we began to consider what kind of state this was. And a great many people were still for the defence of the Soviet Union. Joe Carter, who took the lead in the WP in the beginning on the subject of collectivism, questioned the matter of defence.

As it turned out the leading person in the discussion became Shachtman. We completed the discussion which began in the SWP. We had a discussion for several years in the WP that was not had in any organisation any of us had every previously ever belong to. With the result that we became known as those who advocated the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, of Stalinism as a counter-revolutionary current, and of Soviet society as a prison of the working class.

None of this is new to you. I cite if only to state that the adoption of the position of bureaucratic collectivism really set us in motion to question the notion of theoretical views that we had over the years and which were not before us at the time and developed and went on and led to positions and views that for all of us to one degree or another were a departure from our origins.

Now when we set up the Workers Party we [...] thought that, rid of Cannon and the incubus of the SWP, we were really going to march ahead without any interference, without any impediments.

And we tried, of course we tried at the outbreak of a war. We set ourselves up as a Leninist party — at least in theory — we never acted like a Leninist party. It was the freest party I ever belonged to then or since. The organisation had a continuous discussion of theoretical and political questions without cease, but we knew not to insult our younger people. Since we had a view that when you are called you should go with your class, our people in an overwhelming number went when they were called up. This occurred simultaneously with our industrializing organisation. “Everybody into the factory”, and we meant everybody — father and child, man and woman. And they went.

First of all it gave people who never had a job a chance to go to work. Just as it did a number of workers who had been out of work for ten years to get jobs. They went into the union movement. And our Workers Party, which was laughed at by the SWP and by Trotsky, suddenly became active in the trade union movement. Workers were making money and it was that that sustained the organisation.

I wasn’t in the shipyards local in San Pedro but I collected money in the office. I know how we put out our Labor Action and the New International. Can you imagine an organisation of our membership — three to four hundred people during the War — putting out a newspaper and a magazine and running as candidates McKinney for mayor, Shachtman for mayor, Garrett for Congress? Without a budget?

We were only able to do these things because of the devotion of the membership. We had comrades coming in every week and handing us thirty-five dollars, thirty dollars, twenty-five dollars as a dues payment [$30 in 1942 is equivalent to around $400, or £250, today].

And we were able to get out 50,000 copies of Labor Action during the War on the theory that we had into the organisational means of expression: the paper and the magazine. The Buffalo branch — are they here? — took 10,000 copies of the paper every week.

If you comrades recall the opinions expressed around the labour movement here, the New International had a very high reputation for integrity in those years.

Women took the place of the men to a great measure. I remember meetings we used to have of the editorial board of Labor Action where people who had never written their names let alone articles became correspondents. We’d have an editorial meeting of ten to fifteen and every one of them was a woman. Not a single man was there and we managed. It was not a bad paper. It was an excellent, agitational paper.

Some of you have forgotten, but we had clubs in factories, Labor Action clubs. The paper was put up on bulletin boards. Our policy was to defend the position of the workers […] and to oppose putting the costs of fighting the war on the backs of the workers.

We fought incentive pay. We denounced the Stalinist finks who ran around like stool pigeons in the factory. We called for wage increases. We supported workers’ strikes. We comported ourselves the way we thought real socialists should.

And every once and a while on occasion when we had a plenum on the birthday of some party leader of the movement we would write an article about Lenin and the Leninist party.

But we were not in fact a Leninist organisation. Moreover, we began to change our points of view, many of us, against the one-party state which was the essence of Lenin’s contribution to the Russian revolution. You could adhere to such a view and call yourself a democratic socialist, which was the direction in which we were moving.

And yet after the War when our people came back, the spurt upward through our membership was no greater. We tried to act on the premises of the war years. We were going to be an active party and act as though we were a party.

One of our thoughtful comrades developed a concept of a “small mass party” to which one our witty fellows on the committee, whose name shall go unmentioned, said, “Oh, yes. That’s like a tall, short first baseman.”

We weren’t a mass party or a small mass party or a tiny mass party. We were simply a small group of active militant socialists trying to do our best to create a movement under conditions which were very adverse.

But our big struggle, overriding everything else, in those years, was a struggle against Stalinism. And it wasn’t the kind of struggle that the SWP waged with their theory of the workers’ state and their back-handed support of the war. Ours was a clear cut opposition to Stalinism in all its forms. And we carried on that struggle in the labour movement, in workers’ organisations, in other socialist groups in an unrelenting manner. And if you think back on those days, you will recall the issue that affected the American working class and particularly the political movement of the American working class, was premised on the fight against Stalinism which was present in every labour activity in the United States. And we continued that, through the Workers Party, through the ISL.

It was so ingrained in our acting that we do it today no matter where. We are not fooled by movements that try to hide their Stalinism and we are able to carry on successfully, thoughtfully, the fight against the world’s worst scourge of the working class.

With all of that, with an eight page paper that we put out, the poorer we got the more we tried to do. We had about as much right putting out an eight page paper as we did putting out fifty thousand papers.

We pushed ourselves. We pushed the comrades. We maintained our income tax after the war was over and on the whole I think that our literary activity with our pamphlets — Plenty For All — described in general the activity of the party in those years.

But I know, being in the office, that despite all that, there was constant decline. A few people leaving here; a few people leaving there. The organisation was getting smaller and smaller.

Our pretensions had to be surrendered and we had to recognise the reality and to act on that openly; namely, to give up the fact that we were a workers party and to transform ourselves into the Independent Socialist League as a propaganda group based on the premise that our work had to be centred in the labour movement where work would be chiefly for a labour party.

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