The Tamiment Conference on “Explorations in the History of U.S. Trotskyism”

by Paul Le Blanc

About 200 people attended a conference on “Explorations in the History of U.S. Trotskyism” sponsored by Tamiment Library at New York University from Friday evening September 29 through late Sunday afternoon October 1. The conference organizers were Peter Filardo, Tamiment’s Archivist, as well as Alan Wald, Bryan Palmer, and myself — three scholars who have had some association with the Trotskyist movement. A sense of the structure and character of the conference is suggested in the opening remarks that I delivered on Friday evening:

Those of us who are gathered here for this conference come from a variety of perspectives. A very large number of us consider ourselves to be socialists — that is, we oppose the tyranny of the big business corporations over our society and their brutalization of our world, and we are in favor of replacing that with the social ownership and democratic control of our economy in order to guarantee freedom and dignity for each and every human being. But some here may not be sure about all of that — and that’s okay, we are very pleased to have you here.

Some of us belong to one or another organization that we feel offers the best path forward to socialism — although some of us are independent of any such affiliations. Some of us may consider ourselves primarily as activists, some are here primarily as scholars, and others of us may choose to identify ourselves in yet a different way. Some of us are militant Trotskyists of one or another variety, some of us are ex-Trotskyists, and some are simply interested in learning something more about the history of U.S. Trotskyism.

By attending this conference, we are agreeing to gather as such a diverse range of people in order to explore that history. A number of us will disagree strongly with each other on certain issues, and we will feel free to express those disagreements. But we will — I would hope — also treat each other as people rather than as abstractions, approaching these explorations and the related debates in a manner that, as Trotsky once urged, involves not mutual ostracism but mutual comradely influence. And I would hope that we will approach these discussions not only in a critical and self-critical spirit but also in a manner that does no dishonor to the justifiably proud traditions of American Trotskyism.

The political current sometimes referred to as “American Trotskyism” has enjoyed an influence far beyond the relatively small membership of its various organizations. Rooted in the revolutionary democratic socialism of Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, in the uncompromising working-class militancy of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW), and in the passionate idealism of the early Communist movement, the U.S. Trotskyists were part of the international current led by Leon Trotsky known as the Fourth International.

The early U.S. Trotskyists were expelled from the Communist Party (as Trotsky had been expelled in Russia’s Soviet republic) for resisting the erosion of the original principles associated with Russia’s working-class revolution of 1917 that had been led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The radical working-class democracy that defined the goals and spirit of revolutionary Russia and the newly-formed Communist International (or Third International) had been betrayed by a deadening, privilege-seeking, and ultimately murderous bureaucratic dictatorship that was consolidating under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. The moderate socialists organized in various mass parties affiliated with the Second International had also become known for their bureaucratic stifling of working-class initiative and creativity in the labor movement, and for their far-reaching compromises with the existing capitalist order and imperialism. The Trotskyist movement sought to maintain a revolutionary integrity in the face of the bureaucratic degeneration that afflicted so many working-class organizations. It sought to offer “a spotless banner,” as the Transitional Program emphasized, guided by “a program based on international experience in the struggle of the working class and of all the oppressed of the world for liberation.”

James P. Cannon, along with Max Shachtman, will be discussed tomorrow in a session on the two leading personalities in the founding of American Trotskyism. Cannon always emphasized that the primary responsibility of revolutionary internationalists in the United States is to root themselves in the struggles of the workers and the oppressed in their own country in order to advance the struggle for socialist revolution there. True to this spirit, we have sessions over the next two days that focus on the role of U.S. Trotskyists in our country’s unions and working class, among African Americans and in anti-racist struggles, and among those struggling against gender and sexual oppression.

There will be sessions exploring Trotskyist intellectuals and also sessions on creative contributions made by such dissident currents as those led by C.L.R. James and Bert Cochran. We will give attention to how the Trotskyists were viewed by others on the Left. We are concerned with the preservation of the history of this amazing movement and therefore have a session dealing with that.

We are also alert to the fact that the tradition is still very much alive both intellectually and politically, continuing to make contributions to the struggles for social justice, working-class emancipation, and a socialist future. We have three sessions based on that recognition — one involving reflections of some older veterans of the Trotskyist movement, another involving reflections of innovative scholars, and yet another involving reflections of young activists.

But while one can agree with the validity of Jim Cannon’s emphasis on the central importance of a U.S. focus for American Trotskyists, it is also true that revolutionary internationalism is at the very heart of the American Trotskyist tradition. So tonight’s opening session of this conference is designed as “an internationalist introduction.”

Tonight’s impressive array of speakers will be introduced to you in a moment. But first I want to say a few words about the person chairing tonight’s session.

Marilyn Vogt-Downey had been scheduled to chair. Marilyn is a friend of many years, an outstanding militant of the Trotskyist movement who has distinguished herself in defending political dissidents and victims of Stalinist repression in the Soviet Union, and more recently in defending the legacy of Leon Trotsky and the efforts of left-wing oppositionists in the Russia of gangster-capitalism.

The bad news is that — due to unforeseen family responsibilities — Marilyn is unable to be here this evening. The good news is that a new friend, a Marxist scholar and feminist activist visiting us from India, has agreed to chair this session.

Soma Marik teaches history at Jadavpur University in Calcutta. Her scholarship has ranged from studies of “women’s oppression, communalism, and the state” in India, to exploring historical issues of feminism, democracy, and revolutionary organization in the international socialist and communist movements. I am very pleased to turn tonight’s meeting over to Soma Marik.

As this indicates, there were a number of international guests — not only from India but also from Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Germany, Britain, France, South Africa, and elsewhere. And there were members from a variety of Trotskyist and other left-wing socialist groups, all coexisting and (in some cases) listening to each other. While some critics dismissed the conference as intending to give Trotskyism an academic burial, the sessions were in fact characterized by a mixture of scholarly and present-day activist concerns which, at least for many, conveyed a sense of the vibrancy and continuing relevance of this political current.

The bias of the organizers was toward the strand of the U.S. Trotskyist tradition associated with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) — but there was a serious effort to draw in representatives of other currents, as well as to include dissident strands within the SWP tradition. At one point in the conference I noted that my own orientation — without reservations or apologies — is with the Leninist-Trotskyist orientation associated with James P. Cannon, and that I think this orientation does not have to be dogmatically closed off from considering the ideas and experiences of those from other orientations. I also expressed the hope that those from different orientations would not be dismissive of the ideas and experiences associated with the so-called “orthodox” Trotsky-Cannon perspective. While there were tendencies to be dismissive among some conference participants, there were very positive counter-tendencies which allowed for the enrichment of perspectives among many who were there.

Perhaps the most serious weakness of the conference was the fact that there was insufficient time for discussion — in many sessions late starts and one or another speaker going overtime resulted in the already inadequate time for discussion evaporating altogether. Yet this was at least partly compensated for by the diverse range of speakers, often with quite divergent viewpoints, plus the animated discussions which took place around various literature tables in the hall — and which continued outside of the conference area between and after sessions.

The opening “international” session included moving remarks by Trotsky’s grandson Esteban Volkov; reflections and impressions regarding the historical role U.S. Trotskyists by French historian Pierre Broué, editor of Cahiers Leon Trotsky and author of a biography of Trotsky, among many other works; an entertaining personal reminiscence by Michael Smith on the Trotskyist role in the movement against the Vietnam war; a thoughtful discussion of the intersection of Trotskyist analysis and Puerto Rican history by Rafael Bernabé; and a stimulating challenge by Simmi Gandhi around issues raised for activists by “globalization” developments today.

A session on U.S. Trotskyism’s founding leaders, James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman, offered solid presentations by their two biographers, Bryan Palmer and Peter Drucker. One of the highpoints of the conference was the session on Trotskyism and African Americans, in which a stimulating presentation was made by Kwame Somburu (formerly 1968 SWP vice-presidential candidate Paul Boutelle), a fine paper on George Breitman by Paul Lee (incapacitated due to a car accident) was read by chairperson Cynthia Young, Christopher Phelps presented an excellent initial piece of scholarship on Black Trotskyists, and the artist and veteran Trotskyist Gladys Grauer offered warm and fascinating reminiscences of her own experiences in the 1940s and 1950s. A session on Trotskyism, workers, and unions was ably chaired by present-day dissident trade union leader Ray Markey, with an outstanding historical presentation by Kim Moody, substantial scholarship on Trotskyists in auto by Victor Devinatz, a critique of sexism among Minneapolis Trotskyist workers in the 1930s by Kathleen Brown, and reflections from her own experience by veteran Trotskyist trade unionist Jean Tussey.

A session on Trotskyism and intellectuals was chaired by veteran Trotskyist intellectual Paul Siegel, who offered some thoughtful remarks of his own. Suzi Weissman discussed the influence in the U.S. of Victor Serge, Alan Johnson discussed the life and thought of Hal Draper, Maurice Isserman explored the Trotskyist roots of Irving Howe and Michael Harrington, and Kevin Anderson broke new ground with a critical discussion of how dialectics was treated by James Burnham, George Novack, C.L.R. James, and Raya Dunayevskaya. Michael Denning offered a stimulating commentary — but unfortunately, there was no discussion time.

A panel on the living heritage of U.S. Trotskyism by veterans of the movement included a lengthy exposition on Marxism by Nat Weinstein, a stirring and informative reminiscence on Trotskyists in maritime by Bernie Goodman, a warm and informative memoir focused on the SWP in Detroit by Dorothea Breitman, an illuminating discussion of the SWP current associated with Murry and Myra Tanner Weiss by Edmond Kovacs, and reminiscences by Leo Seidlitz (filling in for Morris Slavin, who was unable to attend) on the Workers Party and Independent Socialist League led by Max Shachtman. Another highpoint was the Saturday evening session, under Arlene Keizer’s chairmanship, on “new directions” providing stimulating presentations — Alan Wald on the relevance of the Trotskyist tradition in illuminating resistance to oppressive aspects of capitalist society, South African scholar Grant Farred on the thought of C.L.R. James, with commentary by well-known African American cultural historian Robin Kelley.

The session on “Preserving the Past” included remarks by Northwestern University archivist Patrick Quinn, Peter Filardo of Tamiment Library, Emily Turnbull of the Prometheus Research Library (who with Sparatacist League humor delivered one of the conference’s best lines: “What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?”), and with extensive remarks from the floor by Ted Crawford on archives associated with the British journal Revolutionary History.

One of the most fascinating sessions turned out to be “Trotskyism and Others on the Left,” in which Dan Georgakas described his early 1960s Detroit impressions of and experiences with the SWP and the groups associated with C.L.R. James (Correspondence) and Raya Dunayevskaya (News and Letters); this was matched by Annette Rubenstein’s warm, and remarkably lucid and detailed recollections of working with Trotskyists in the 1950s and early 1960s; the session was rounded out by David McReynolds’s critique of Max Shachtman’s role in the Socialist Party and the SWP’s role in the anti-war movement, and capped by very thoughtful commentary by Mark Solomon.

A session on Trotskyism and sexual politics included Susan Williams’s comments on Clara Fraser, Dianne Feeley’s outstanding discussion of SWP work in the feminist movement, Gary Kinsman’s probing examination of SWP policies and debates around gay and lesbian issues, around gay and lesbian issues, and a thoughtful theoretical reflection by Nancy Holmstrom. In the session on the Johnson-Forest and Cochran tendencies chaired by Scott McLemee, Martin Glaberman discussed contributions of C.L.R. James, Louis Proyect offered a glowing tribute to the Cochran tendency, and Michael Livingston presented an excellent paper on the life and contributions of Harry Braverman.

For about fifty of us who stayed for the final session, another highpoint of the conference was provided by a session “Making Sense of the Trotskyist Tradition in Today’s and Tomorrow’s Struggles” — a “youth” panel. Thoughtful, stimulating, and in some cases eloquent presentations were made by Brad Duncan (a member of Solidarity), Jennifer Ponce (a member of Socialist Action), Alejandro Reuss (on staff of the journal Dollars and Sense), and Matt Siegfried (a member of the Trotskyist League). Each one of these young activists (as well as another young activist in the opening session, Solidarity member Simmi Gandhi) demonstrated a political commitment and seriousness that bodes well for the continuing relevance of the Trotskyist tradition for today and tomorrow.