The Trotskyist Experience

by Wayne Collins on December 13, 2012

Peter Camejo’s reprise of history and theory is a major document. What it expresses has often been said before, seldom so well, and seldom so perfectly interwoven with examples and personal anecdote that it is hard to match. Most importantly, it reflects not only the period in which it was written but our own period even more. Camejo was able to transcend the boundaries not of experience – which no one can – but the bounds of “Trotskyist” experience.

I use the phrase “Trotskyist experience” because experience is always something mediated through ideology, not only one’s own, but the ideology of opponents to whom one responds. There used to be another commonly used phrase – “exile politics” – revolutionaries exiled from their own countries banded on a foreign shore speaking in terms they understood and no one else did, experiencing frustration and isolation, turning on each other with quarreling and backbiting, having their own “cabinet crises” from time to time. And, in a way, sectarian politics is just that – “exile politics.” Only in this case, the sectarian is an exile in his own land – isolated, frustrated, fearful of dilution, loss of identity, lack of certainty, aware internally that he does not have a clear path to follow or even where to find a path. The sect’s habits, traditions, folk stories, customs become a suit of armor for the sectarian. This is exactly what Camejo was able to slough off once out of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

The problem is not just that sect membership – at least in that era, or as Camejo experienced it – precluded successful involvement in mass arenas (note that I say “involvement” not “intervention,” another sign of sectarian world view) but it precluded the ability to think. With the sect as nucleus of the vanguard party, reality could only be interpreted insofar as it furthered, impeded, or contradicted the world view of the sect.

The world view or ideology of the sect was worn like a suit of armor, and it afforded the same protection. Thus shielded, you did not have to fear the slings and arrows of your opponents, could go into battle against capitalism without hesitation, didn’t have to get liquored up first. More than that, it gave you an “identity,” self-assuredness, stability.

You literally thought that it was the sect that brought you maturity or adulthood.

In the decade of the 1930s, with tumultuous events raging abroad and at home, with prospects opening up and suddenly shutting down, outgunned by capitalism, and out-manned by Stalinism – which was something real, something that existed, that mattered, that could attract masses when you could not, which had a presence in popular culture and its own daily press on both coasts (and for a time in Chicago, The Mid Western Record), the sect was the only tool you had to orient yourself, think, or act.

Within the sect itself, the same attitude would be adopted in debates. An opponent of the majority was a Menshevik, petty-bourgeois, liquidator, was yielding to “petty bourgeois public opinion,” “taking on the coloration of their material surroundings” (a sub-category of petty bourgeois or petty bourgeois public opinion). Slogans replaced the need for analysis and fact. In looking at the 1940 split, the split with Field, with Oehler, the debate with Weisbord, it is all so painfully obvious. A leading issue in the 1940 split was Leninism – democratic centralism. Shachtman’s spokesman on that aspect of the debate was CLR James.

Nothing is new. Cannon, Shachtman, Abern, Glotzer all came out of the Communist Party, and in fact out of one particular aspect of it – International Labor Defense. Like much of the communist party at that point, it was a fiefdom at war with other fiefdoms of Browder, Lovestone, Foster, etc. In Cannon’s fiefdom, Shachtman was the publicist, Cannon was the chief, and Abern was the hatchet man. The past of none of these men was pristine and none of them should be held sacred in memory – any more than myths about their past roles or positions should be accepted or perpetuated, although that is a part of the Trotskyist tradition.

Not only had they been active in the party during Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” campaign, they were active in “Bolshevization” of the party.

Every sect or party has its historical heroes and marytrs, but American Trotskyism in particular continues this tradition today. There was a recent posting or re-publication of an article of Zinoviev’s – it could have been his speech at the Hallle Conference of the Independent Social-Democratic Party (USPD) – with a comment of Cannon as introduction to the effect that he always thought criticism of Zinoviev was excessive, or words to that effect. Of course he didn’t. A recent biography of Cannon by a professor from Canada is so hagiographic that Cannon appears as the second coming. The Cannon Cult was notorious.

In Europe, where Trotskyist organizations had central figures whose background pre-dated the Russian Revolution, this cult of Leninism, Leninist Party, “vanguardism” did not fare so well – at first. Alfred Rosmer, Pierre Monatte, Andrés Nin, and Henricus Sneevliet were all in the “left” opposition, not the “Trotskyist” opposition, and all left in quarrels with Trotsky generated by the latter’s seeming dogmatism, sectarianism and in essence bureaucratic attitude. In origin, we have to remember that Trotsky was never a Bolshevik – not before July 1917. He had never experienced the structure, debate, or democratic attitudes of that organization. He had no idea how to go about building a party and his followers in America had none either, except through the Communist Party in its degeneration. What Trotskyists built was a caricature of Lenin’s work – and America was the pre-eminent Trotskyism in the world throughout the thirties and the model for others.

In short, there a assorted factors favoring the sectarian evolution of the SWP – Stalinism as a hostile force to contend with, Stalinism as a school of practice for the founders of the SWP who emerged from the Communist Party, Trotsky’s own inexperience in party-building, the acceptance of the cult of Leninism, isolation from a healthy proletarian socialist movement, the urgency of forming a revolutionary party in the thirties, the relative lack of experience of the Trotskyists with revolutionary socialism before the Russian Revolution. (Remember, Cannon’s traditions are as much Industrial Workers of the World as socialist).

It probably could not have been any other way.

Camejo’s article reflects not only new (for him, or for orthodox Trotskyists generally) reflections on the past and an important corrective, but also reflects a new world.

The generations whose political immune systems, so to speak, were straight-jacketed by the Trotskyist “experience” are gone. The world has changed. The problems are different. Stalinism as a state power in Russia and Eastern Europe has ceased to exist, the Cold War is over, the Communist Party is neither a competitor nor competitive with any group on the left. The past as present is over. We still have much to learn from an objective and independent assessment of it, but not through the lens of sectarian ideology.

There is a magnitude of open discussion of Marxism, its meaning and method, as well as of socialism on the net is discussion groups, Web magazines and publications. Relatively non-sectarian socialist groups have arisen on the Marxist left in the U.S.: Solidarity, ISO, discussion clubs, others; the developments in Australia are inspirational to someone who has spent years in relative sectarian sterility in America. The Occupy movement is not dead. The North Star itself, Marxmail, other blogs propagate socialist discussion in non-academic jargon on the net, and address real issues and needs. There is a critical mass coming together – if not of numbers, then of thought. And that is the most heartening development in years. We are already in a new era for socialist growth, intellectually speaking.

Where do we go from here?

  • Louis Proyect

    I have a review of the Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick tv series/book titled “The Untold History of American History” forthcoming in Counterpunch that points out how Cockburn’s spirit lives on there. The same thing can be said about Peter and this website.

  • Anthony Abdo

    So just who is this guy, ‘Wayne Collins’ who supposedly is the author of this commentary? Did he just fall out of the sky because I can’t seem to find any background info about him online?

    ‘The generations whose political immune systems, so to speak, were straight-jacketed by the Trotskyist “experience” are gone.’

    Really? Unlike all the folk here that stayed loyal to the Supreme Leader of the SWP Barnes way way too long, until he put the knife in their backs, I don’t now feel that the SWP’s history was just one huge negative and that the ne0-Trots of Australia are now so ‘inspirational’ at all, as this ‘Wayne’ describes them to be. In fact, I think that this new cheerleading effort that ‘Wayne’ and Louis want us to get into for the ‘Australians’ is the real ‘straightjacket’ now for the ex-Trot moving towards being Left Social Democrats crowd of marxists, and that the SWP of old was no ‘straightjacket’ at all compared to where the Australian Green Left Weekly mindset leads one off towards.

    Further, I am not so sure that Peter Camejo himself would ever ever have endorsed all this let’s get on the bandwagon for imperialist war making that rides so high here on North Star and the heavily censored ‘marxism list’ run by Proyect? I rather think that he would have been repelled by this Right Wing leaning politics masquerading as an updated marxism. It’s hardly the least bit of any renaissance in any working class strategy. No, not at all.

  • Limbo

    Where do we go from here? Well, it seems you’re already preparing yourself for opportunist betrayals. So, a starting point for answering your question would be a study of the degeneration of the Second International.

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