Against Trotskyism: The Socialist Workers Party and the decline of Trotskyism in the United States
As we wrap up our series on Trotskyism, let’s turn to the sad and shameful record of Trotskyism in the United States. This article will look at the Socialist Workers Party.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is the oldest Trotskyite group in the United States, tracing its origins back to the expulsion of the Trotskyites, who were led by James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman, from the Communist Party in 1928. They formed a group called the Communist League of America, which shortly thereafter merged with the American Workers Party to form the Workers Party of the United States. That organization dissolved itself and entered the Socialist Party of America (SP) in its entirety, attempting to try to take it over or pull activists away from it.
It didn’t take long before the Trotskyists were expelled from the SP and formed the Socialist Workers Party in 1938. By 1940, the SWP would split, with Max Shachtman taking a sizable minority with him to form a new Trotskyite organization called the Workers Party.
The great U.S. communist leader, William Z. Foster, wrote about the origins of the Socialist Workers Party in his important 1952 book, The History of the Communist Party of the United States. He explains that the formation of the SWP was rooted in the expulsion of the Trotskyites from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the Comintern in 1928. It will be worthwhile to quote Foster on this at length.
“At the time of the sixth congress of the Comintern in 1928 Trotsky was in exile, as a criminal against the Revolution. He made an appeal to the congress to try to get it to repudiate the decision of the Communist Party and the government of the Soviet Union. The congress, however, overwhelmingly rejected this insolent proposal. Nevertheless the scheme found a secret supporter in James Cannon, one of the Communist Party delegates from the United States. Upon Cannon’s return to this country he began at once to spread clandestine Trotskyite propaganda with his friends. They advocated withdrawal from the existing unions, abandonment of the united front, and carried on a bitter factional struggle. The Bittelman-Foster leaders, learning what was going on, preferred charges against Cannon, Max Shachtman, and M. Abern, and all were promptly expelled by the Party as splitters, disrupters, and political degenerates. About 100 of Cannon’s followers were also finally ousted from the Party.
“Upon their expulsion the Trotskyites formed themselves into an opposition league, which, after several internal splits and two slippery amalgamations–first with the Musteites in 1934, and the second with the Socialist Party in 1936–finally emerged, in January 1938, as the Socialist Workers Party … The reason-for-being for this party, which is the American section of the so-called Fourth International, with its pathological antagonism toward the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, is to serve as a tool of reaction. It carries on its counter-revolutionary work against the Party and the U.S.S.R. under cover of a cloud of super-revolutionary phrases.”
The Socialist Workers Party today is similar, except to say that it is even smaller, more sectarian, and more irrelevant than ever. It still opposes Marxism-Leninism and socialism under the cover of an attack on “Stalinism,” and it still opposes national liberation struggles in the name of “permanent revolution.”
As a result of its role in the 1934 Teamster strike in Minneapolis, the SWP managed to stay afloat throughout the 1930s. It also grew as a result of its entry into and then expulsion from the Socialist Party, by taking part of their membership with them in the split. After that, the SWP was the largest Trotskyite grouping in the world, and the most prominent force in Trotsky’s “Fourth International.”
The SWP began to decline in strength when Max Shachtman led a large split in 1940. He argued that the mainstream Trotskyite view of the USSR as a “degenerated workers state” was wrong, and that the Soviet bureaucracy formed a new ruling class. Shachtman called this “bureaucratic collectivism.” While the SWP gave lip-service to defense of the Soviet Union as they attacked and denounced in the same breath, Shachtman and his followers abandoned the pretense, instead arguing for a Trotskyite “third camp” opposed to both capitalism and the USSR.
Today, the SWP tails behind the most backward section of the U.S. working class. Take for example, the article in the SWP newspaper, The Militant, entitled “Biden brags about ‘State of the Union’ as boss attacks on workers grind on,” from February 27, 2023. There, they decry “Democrats’ ‘woke’ anti-woman policies on gender and promotion of ‘critical race theory’ — policies that are detested by millions of workers.” These and their many statements like them are bare-faced repetitions of transphobic, right-wing talking points that shamelessly attempt to pit LGBTQ people against women, alongside far-right attacks on education and the Black Liberation movement.
In another article from June 12, 2023, ironically entitled “A genuine revolution means leading masses in their millions,” SWP leader Mary-Alice Waters repeats again the right-wing talking point that schools “teach those whose skins are white that they are racists by birth,” raising once more the boogeyman of the Republican far right, Critical Race Theory, to unite with the reactionaries. She goes on to bemoan being called a transphobe for “defending the biological fact that there are two sexes.” She doesn’t stop there, however. She digs in even deeper, saying, “Whether under the flag of ‘cancel culture,’ ‘critical race theory,’ the anti-Jewish ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ movement or something else, these are reactionary forces alien to the working class and its allies,” repeating the Zionist lie that support for the liberation of Palestine is antisemitic.
This should all come as no surprise from Trotskyites, but it is still appalling to see people who call themselves socialists and who claim to speak for the working class carry water for the most reactionary elements within the U.S. ruling class, and to try and help them spread their poisonous ideology amongst the workers movement.
The Socialist Workers Party was always a sad shadow of the genuine communist movement in the United States, and it has only fallen farther and farther as it tries to desperately find its footing in a world where it has lost any scrap of relevance. In 2019, a U.S. Trotskyite group, the International Socialist Organization, dissolved itself. Hopefully the SWP isn’t far behind.