Work in Progress
New York Trotskyism History Conference
THE following is a report on the conference on the history of US Trotskyism which was held at the New York University on 29 September to 1 October, and which was sponsored by the Tamiment Library, a section of the university which specialises in labour history, and has massive holdings of original material, which can be accessed at <www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/research/tam/>, and which I and Barry Buitekant attended on behalf of Revolutionary History.
We missed the reception, but heard the first session on Friday evening on the relevance of American Trotskyism. Much of this was disappointing, but Pierre Broué raised three interesting questions, without attempting to answer them:
- Was the rôle of Stalinism in Europe in the postwar period revolutionary or counter-revolutionary?
- Was the expectation one of social peace and fake democracy?
- What was the rôle of the American leaders in the Fourth International at that time?
My guess is that after closely examining the evidence from the European end, Broué is rather less impressed by James P Cannon than many others at the conference. There were also contributions from Esteban Volkov and Simmi Gandhi, who was a young Asian woman from California who said little on Trotskyism, but was an activist and clearly a very good type.
Saturday started with a session entitled ‘New Perspectives on James P Cannon and Max Shachtman’ by Bryan Palmer and Peter Drucker. Palmer — who is said at one time to have been close to the Spartacists — is an academic who has become a Cannon hero-worshipper. But he has dug up some very interesting documents in the biography he is writing, which should be informative. Drucker was interesting on Shachtman.
This was followed in the morning by ‘Trotskyism and African Americans’. We were told that there was a most useful contribution by Christopher Phelps on black Trotskyists, and many thought Gladys Grauer talking of her experiences was interesting.
After lunch, we went to ‘Trotskyism, Workers and Unions’, where Kim Moody spoke on the trade unionism of Communist Party and the Trotskyists. He dealt with Shachtman’s rank-and-file orientation, and what it meant in practice. He mentioned the problem of bureaucracy, noting the enormous increase in the bureaucratic weight on US unions today. He pointed out that the aim of the leaders of the strikes in the 1930s was not merely to gain wage demands, and to become more effective ‘business union’ leaders, but to raise consciousness and build a broad layer of working-class leaders. He noted how history has often been forgotten. For instance, in the great Flint strike there was one Afro-American who got a lot of hostility from the white workers. The Trotskyists defended him, and there were a few fights and much shouting. This has been forgotten in the left’s story of the time. The talk was very good, and I would like to have it on paper.
This was followed by Kathleen Brown’s ‘Women in the Minneapolis Strike’, which was a long whine that the attitudes of the American Trotskyists in 1934 were not as feminist as standard attitudes in US academe in 2000. Interesting questions like ‘Were the Trotskyists better, worse or the same as everybody else? Were they changing, and if so how did they compare with others?’, were not considered. In other words, there was no context, and it was totally ahistorical. She had, however, done her homework on her sources, and I am sure that what she said was true. There was a paper by Victor Devinatz entitled ‘Trotskyists in Auto’, which compared the rôle of the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party during and after the Second World War. It was very interesting, but read at such supersonic speed that I failed to record it. It will be published. He promised me that he would tell me where and when, so that Revolutionary History can publicise it. Jean Tussey, who is 82, tried in ‘Trotskyist Labor Perspectives’ to talk about how the SWP implemented the Transitional Programme, but in my opinion did not really succeed.
The second afternoon session was entitled ‘Trotskyism and Intellectuals’. Suzi Weissman did a quick synopsis of her book Victor Serge and US Intellectuals. Get it when it appears next spring! Alan Johnson spoke interestingly on Hal Draper and ‘Third Camp’ Socialism. Maurice Isserman followed him, speaking on Mike Harrington and Irving Howe. Isserman pointed out that Harrington did not oppose the Vietnam War until 1972, while Howe, in a grudging kind of way, had opposed it before. Both preferred the beaten Trotsky to the successful one. Both expected to be beaten all the time and to lose on progressive issues. In 1965, they denounced the ‘New Left’ as Stalinist without understanding its complexities as a movement. Kevin Anderson, a leading member of News and Letters, gave a talk entitled ‘Theoretical Contrasts: Burnham, Novack, James, Dunayevskaya’. The last session before the supper break was entitled ‘The Living Heritage of US Trotskyism’.
Dorothea Breitman, who was in the SWP’s Detroit Branch during the 1950s and 1960s, gave some nice interesting anecdotes, which was very pleasant. After her was Theodore Edwards/Kovacs, speaking on the Weiss Current. This was very enjoyable. Kovacs took the chance to pay off a few old sectarian scores, and told us the origins of the great Cosmetic Controversy. When this started, it was apparently used by Dobbs to undermine Weiss. So there was more to it than met the amazed eye of posterity looking at the documents about lipstick. (When I first heard about this I recognised the eccentricity, but simply thought that they must have had nothing better to do.) Eventually Weiss lost out, Barnes became the heir apparent, and he in due course replaced Dobbs. Kovacs enjoyed putting the boot in to those who were eventually ejected by Barnes, but who had previously helped purge everyone else. Many elderly faces did not move a muscle as he told the story, since they must have found it deeply unfunny. This was followed by Bernard Goodman with an enthusiastic account entitled ‘Struggles in Maritime’ about the seafarers’ union. He joined in 1933, but I am not clear which union it was — however, he found that the men on board ship were Wobblies, not Stalinists, and very friendly. Next was Nat Weinstein, who had been asked to talk about Tom and Karolyn Kerry. In a disgraceful performance, Weinstein, who had had his fare paid so that he could speak, announced he was not speaking on the subject, as the Kerrys would have preferred him to emphasise the general thrust of Trotskyist politics. He thereupon made a standard speech which he had made — and which we had heard — countless times before.
The final session was entitled ‘New Directions’, and was addressed firstly by Alan Wald with his ‘Trotskyism and the Angel of History’, followed by Grant Farred and Robin Kelley with ‘CLR James and US Trotskyism’. Wald started well with a hilarious account of a demonstration by the YSA in Bloomington, Indiana in 1962 against the Cuban blockade. He then went on, like the other two speakers, to be full of self-congratulatory academic nonsense and new lefty jargon all about ‘new ideas’ and ‘developments of Marxism’ that were never specified with any precision. He did note that the Trotskyists expected a rerun of 1917-19 after 1945, but did not add that so did Stalin and much of the bourgeoisie, which of course was one reason why it did not happen. Farred was disappointing, though he did note that there was a certain disjuncture between James in the USA and previously as a revolutionary tribune of the old British Empire. James was, of course, ordered to the USA by Cannon for factional reasons, in order to weaken his influence in the UK, but those who worship at the Cannon shrine prefer not to know this. To be fair, Farred and Kelley do not claim to be Trotskyists, but I was disappointed with Wald, whom I know from his books to be capable of much better than that.
This was followed by a session on Sunday on the theme of ‘Preserving the Past’, in which I felt Revolutionary History should intervene as we should tell the conference about our work and plans. Esteban Volkov started on the history of the Leon Trotsky Museum, but sadly spent half of his time telling all of us what we already knew. When he moved on to what had happened since 1940 it was very interesting, but the contribution could have been cut by half. Peter Filardo of the Tamiment Library followed, and was informative about its immense and most useful collection. It is also, by British standards, very well funded. See its web site for some of the details. The nadir was reached by Emily Turnbull of the Prometheus Library, who, though giving us useful information about their collections, insisted on wasting our time by putting the usual triumphalist Spartacist line. Since everyone present had heard this countless times before, and were the least likely of any audience on the surface of the globe to be moved by it, this was pointless, as well as bad manners. And this is a pity since, though Jim Robertson will never be remembered as a political being, he might be honoured as a competent archivist who did the class some small service. As a result, there was no time for me to tell the conference about our work in Revolutionary History. The next session in the morning was entitled ‘Trotskyism and Others on the Left’. Dan Georgakas led off with ‘The Detroiters and Others’, talking about his memories and reactions to Dunayevskaya, James (in the person of Marty Glaberman), the Workers Party and the SWP. It was very informative, and carried conviction. Both Glaberman and the SWP had considerable influence on the individuals who later created the Black Union Caucus, RAM, etc. His tone was affectionate, though not uncritical, and he gave a feel for the times. The James-Forrest tendency was far more dogmatic and authoritarian than Glaberman, who was thus much more effective in influencing independently-minded people. Afterwards came the 90-year-old Annette Rubenstein talking on the Independent Socialist Party, an alliance of the SWP and the Communist Party. Rubenstein was a cultivated old Stalinist lady, clearly an ex-headmistress, who no doubt genuinely said that she liked the Trotskyist rank-and-filers in the ISP, after being previously put off by Sidney Hook. I would guess that he was very arrogant and unpleasant with political opponents. But she is still an old Stalinist, even if a very charming one, whose habit of quoting Byron and Shelley is to be commended. Then came David McReynolds with a disappointing talk on the Socialist Party and the Vietnam War. He was then roasted from the floor by Lenni Brenner, who pointed out that Norman Thomas got money straight from the hand of Allen Dulles. McReynold’s reply was very feeble.
The first session in the afternoon was on Trotskyism and sexual politics, but we missed this, if only because sexual politics did not become of interest to Trotskyists until the mid-1970s, which is after the period with which Revolutionary History is concerned. Most of us at the conference, if not too old for politics, were certainly too old for sex anyway. The only contribution that might have been relevant to us was that by Diane Feeley, who talked about the SWP and its attitude to women in the 1960s and 1970s.
The last session we attended was entitled ‘The Creative Legacy of the Johnson-Forrest and Cochran Tendencies’. (Scott McLemee, who chaired it, assured me earlier that his researches had shown that the Johnson-Forrest split was not really to do with Hegel, and he was hated because he had found out.) Martin Glaberman’s talk on CLR James and the Johnson-Forrest Tendency was perceptive and amusing, though he skated over CLR’s later evolution, while Louis Proyect presented his ‘Reflections on the Cochran Tendency’, and Michael Livingston spoke on Harry Braverman. They were both most informative, and said a good deal about the American Socialist, which was published from 1954 to 1959 by Braverman and Cochran. They felt that it contained many valuable articles, and Proyect had OCRed them all for their website at <home.Inreach.com/ soldoll/>. They said that they did not seek to develop Marxism, but to apply it fruitfully to present situations. In my opinion, Braverman’s Labour Under Monopoly Capitalism is one of the very few places where this has ever been done. Livingstone’s account of Braverman’s life showed me that a part of the reason Braverman applied theory so fruitfully was because of his experience of working-class life.
We missed the last session by the Young Activists Panel entitled ‘Making Sense of the Trotskyist Tradition in Light of Today’s and Tomorrow’s Struggles’ in order to get our plane.
I will add a few comments on the conference. Like all such events, it was a bit of a curate’s egg. Some of the contributions (and some of the best) are due to be published, either in extended form as a book, or as articles in labour history journals. It would be most useful if Tamiment could put a synopsis of these contributions on its website fairly quickly. If Revolutionary History ever attends a similar conference in future, we should have a leaflet of up to 1000 words (two sides of A4) which details our work, plans, hopes and resources for the movement. To devotees of academic tedium-speak, I would emphasise that to be serious is not necessarily to be solemn. Folly and stupidity were not confined to today’s left, and today’s movement. That there never was a totally golden age is important to recognise. We at least should always ‘call things by their right names’. We might then, though my pessimism of the intellect suggests otherwise, learn something from our history.
The conference was worthwhile, since we sold all the copies of Revolutionary History that we brought, it gave us a whole number of contacts and at least one possible outlet, and we are very grateful to Tamiment for sponsoring it, and to the organisers for getting it on the road.
It also gave both myself and Barry a first look at Noo York, which has whetted our appetite for more in quite unpolitical ways.
INCE our last issue, the Revolutionary History web page <www.revolutionary-history.co.uk> has had a vast amount of extra material put up on it. As far as past issues go, the first eight numbers of the journal, of which we had sold out, are practically complete, as are the tenth and eleventh issues, while the ninth, where we still have printed copies, has got all the reviews, letters, obituaries and so forth available, in fact everything that is not in the main articles. We have also added a whole range of articles which are hitherto unpublished, and have started a separate section entitled ‘Materials for the Study of the History of British Trotskyism’. This includes the entire text of Martin Upham’s splendid thesis on the history of the British movement, which has never been published before, and has lain on the dusty shelves of Hull University Library. (There have been three histories of the histories of British Trotskyism written respectively by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, by Upham, and by John Archer, of which only the first has been published. We have Bornstein and Richardson’s Against the Stream OCRed and corrected, but have yet to take a decision as to whether a second printed edition of it is possible.) John Archer has given his permission for us to put his thesis on our site. We hope to get yet more material up, but need to expand the amount of web space that we have.
We have managed to put all the interviews which were done by Bornstein and Richardson with veteran Trotskyists in the 1970s and 1980s on a CD. They were on tapes, which deteriorate after about 20 years or so. The CD will not be available for sale, but will be available for researchers, and we will have duplicates. Contact us for details. If they were needed permanently by a library or a researcher, it might be possible to pay to have another copy burnt on a blank. It would be good if the same thing could be done with Martin Upham’s material on tapes at Hull University Library, but the last time anyone enquired about them they could not be found, and the comrade making the enquiries could only stay for a short time.
We are developing links and deepening our association with both the ETOL (Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On Line) site <www.marxists.org/history/etol/ index.htm> and with the Marxists one <www.marxists.org> which contains so much excellent material — both of course in the USA. Their new CD-rom ($15 including p&p) for 2000 is now out with updated amounts of information, and much of our Revolutionary History material is on it. It is well worth the price, particularly for those without web access, of which there are still a good number, and also for those in countries where too prominent a display of the works by early Marxists on their bookshelves might be incautious.
Another interesting site is <www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/4192/ trotskyi.html> which contains the web addresses of numerous Trotskyist groups around the world. It is updated quite frequently — about every two months or so — and the links seem to work. Again, it is a useful resource, and the groups concerned can generally be contacted by e-mail. Some have historical material on their sites. Another site that is useful is Jay’s Radical History Links at <www. neravt.com/left/history.htm>. This American site has what many of our readers might consider too much of a Third Worldist and Castroist flavour, but is still a very useful resource, and has been kind enough to give us a link.
Tony Cliff’s Works and Baruch Hirson’s Papers
E understand that Bookmarks is discussing whether to publish Tony Cliff’s Collected Works, but as yet it appears that no decision has been taken about whether to put some or all of these on paper, or some of them on the web. Some of his early stuff is extremely rare, and I would beg the publishers, even if they cannot afford to do a print job for everything, to consider the web for the remainder, rather than to let the material ‘waste its sweetness on the desert air’. The best is often the enemy of the good. In particular, Stalin’s Satellites is very, very rare indeed. I have only once seen a copy, and it should be photocopied and OCRed as a matter of urgency. But there are also numerous articles and reviews in early issues of International Socialism which should be made available.
Baruch Hirson’s papers have now been deposited at the library of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (telephone 020-7862-8842), and the librarian, David Ward, tells us that a workable catalogue will probably be available to researchers in about six months’ time.
News from Spain
JOURNAL of history, Ágora, is published by the Grupo de Historia José Berruezo in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a working-class town in greater Barcelona. Apart from the journal, the group has published books dealing with the Civil War and Francoist and post-Francoist repression.
The March 2000 issue has items on the first trade union in the town and on local women in the anti-Franco struggle. A particularly moving article describes the life of Julia Romera Yáñez, a young textile worker who died in prison in 1941, after being tortured for organising resistance to the regime in the immediate aftermath of the counter-revolution. Address: Apartado 105, 08920 Santa Coloma de Gramanet
News from Italy
OR has Paolo Casciola of the Centro Studi Pietro Tresso slackened his output. Apart from an essay on psychology by Victor Serge and a tribute to the veteran French revolutionary Jacques Ramboz, readers of Revolutionary History will be intrigued to dip into his collection of the testimony of the Albanian Trotskyist Sadik Premtaj, which includes our own introduction and notes from Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no 1, along with further texts by Guy Prévan, Pablo and Agim Musta. As the various studies put out by the Centro Pietro Tresso vary in price, those interested should write directly to Paolo Casciola for a list at CP 154-50100 Firenze, Italy.
News from France
S always, France continues to give the lead in the study of revolutionary history. No 67 of the Cahiers Léon Trotsky (October 1999) gives French translations of the main documents of the ferment within the American Socialist Workers Party over the situation in Europe towards the end of the Second World War (1943-45). The following issue, no 68 of December 1999, is a mixed collection, with contributions on the Balkans, including on Rakovsky and the Bulgarian Trotskyists, the text of a discussion between Maurín and Trotsky, and a French translation of Dave Renton’s account of the Egyptian Trotskyists originally written for this magazine. The two that have so far appeared this year are perhaps not quite so exciting. But no 69 of March 2000 includes Basil Karlinsky on the image of Trotsky in Russia today, along with documents by Solntsev, Lev Sedov and Sam Gordon. No 70, which came out in June, has a French version of Gary Tennant’s account of Mella from Revolutionary History Volume 7, no 3 (unfortunately without acknowledgement), and a not very honest attempt by Michael Löwy to justify the policy of the Fourth International in Latin America during the 1950s, which, while citing a fair span of other documentation, carefully avoids referring to Liborio Justo’s book, or even to the Bolivian issue of this magazine (Volume 4, no 3). Each copy of the Cahiers can be obtained for 90 francs plus postage from Luc Aujame, 477 chemin des puits, 69210, Fleurieux sur l’Arbresle, France.
The last of the Cahiers du CERMTRI to appear, nos 95, 96 and 97 of December 1999 and March and June 2000, include a French translation of Kautsky’s The Class Struggle in France in 1789, a collection of articles reproduced from Pierre Brizon’s magazine La Vague in opposition to the First World War, and an account of the Hungarian Soviet of 1919 extracted from a thesis by Dominique Gros. The Cahiers du Mouvement Ouvrier also continues to produce an impressive documentation. No 8 of December 1999 includes material on Stalinism (on Lenin’s illness, the clique around Stalin, the Riutin Platform and the Gulag), on Durrutti and Balius in the Spanish Civil War, and on Dreyfus and Malatesta. No 9, which came out in March 2000, continues the theme of Stalinism, with a chronicle of Antonov-Ovseyenko’s activity in Spain, the second parts of the articles about Stalin’s clique and Lenin’s illness, and another on the Leningrad Opposition of 1925-26, together with one on the Bronstein family, and an appreciation of Gramsci written by Blasco in 1937. No 10, dated June 2000, has a feast of materials to interest our readers, including Alexander Pantsov’s ‘The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution’, the appeal of Dimitar Gatchev against his imprisonment in Bulgaria, an account of the trial of the Spanish Trotskyists in 1938, and another by Zygmunt Zaremba, the author of The Warsaw Commune, on the Polish Socialist Party at the beginning of the Second World War. The Cahiers du CERMTRI cost 30 francs each plus postage, and the Cahiers du Mouvement Ouvrier 50 francs. Single copies of both journals can be ordered from CERMTRI at 28 rue des Petites-Ecuries, 75010 Paris, France.
Among the pamphlets special mention should be made of two of Paul Lafargue’s articles included in La Légende de Victor Hugo recently published by Lutte ouvrière and available for 10 francs plus postage from BP 233-75865 Paris Cedex 18.
The most interesting full-length book to appear this year is Fred Zeller’s Témoin de siècle (Grasset, 139 FF), provocatively subtitled De Blum à Trotsky au Grand Orient de France (that is, Freemasonry). But don’t let this put you off. Well over half of it is devoted to the 1930s and 1940s, when he played an important part in French Trotskyist history.
New Books in German
E have been told of the following three books that will shortly appear, or have just appeared; a political biography of Heinrich Brandler, Theodor Bergmann’s autobiography and a collection of 23 essays on Communist ‘heretics’.
- Jens Becker, Heinrich Brandler. Eine Politische biographie, DM58, ISBN 3-87975-767-4.
- Theodor Bergmann, Im Jahrhundert der Katastrophen. Autobiographie Eines kritischen Kommunisten, DM 39.80, ISBN 3-87975-784-4.
- Theodor Bergmann and Mario Kessler, Ketzer in Kommunismus. Linksocialisten und Reformkommunisten im 20 Jahrundert, DM 49.80, ISBN 3-87975-768-2.
We extend out thanks to Alan Wald, who kindly provided the Socialist Platform Library with the very valuable addition of the six bulletins of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, 23 January-3 May 1937.
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