Learning from both Shachtman and Cannon

Submitted by martin on 22 February, 2016 - 8:40 Author: Duncan Morrison

Steve Bloom’s review of The Two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism is a serious and reasoned article. As such it deserves a response.

Steve’s review concentrates on what he sees as the besmirching of the Orthodox. I think the huge value of the book in question is not that it does down the Orthodox but that it allows us to rediscover the Heterodox and appreciate the clarity of their argument. It must be remembered, that inasmuch as most of the people who are aware of the history of this moment in the Trotskyist movement have a view, it is the factional view of the Cannonite Orthodox. This view has been handed down through, in particular the two books, In Defence of Marxism and The Struggle for a Proletarian Party. As far as I am aware, Steve has never written a piece condemning the lack of objectivity of those two books, nor has he defended the Heterodox around Shachtman from the slurs contained in those documents.

The Two Trotskysims confront Stalinism is divided into three parts and an introduction. The introduction is not intended to be objective. It is a partisan piece. Its case is that by looking at the writing of the two tendencies alongside each other the reader will find that the Heterodox are more adequate in addressing the situation around them than the Orthodox. The book intends to, and to my mind does, address the wrong that has befallen the memory of the Shachtmanites at the hands of their factional opponents.

It is hard to imagine what an objective history of these debates might look like. It is possible just to publish the documents without comment but that would leave the prevalent view of the Heterodox as charlatans, without an explicit challenge. It needs to be challenged and the introduction does that well.

Steve’s next charge is that the context and motivation of the Cannonites are not sufficiently considered. I would argue that, on the contrary, Sean Matgamna in his introduction pays much more attention to the pressures on and motivations of the Cannonites than any of Shachtman’s opponents have done for him. He gives credit for where they rediscover or re-emphasise their anti-Stalinism.

Sean declares that our tendency, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty have our ‘distant origins as ”1953”, that is sharply anti-Stalinist, Cannonites. Sean also is aware the Cannonites are trying to reach out to those influenced by Stalinism but he rightly feels this would have been better done by a clear consistent denunciation of Stalin rather by sowing illusions in him and writing letters to him. He also recognises the motivation to maintain the party and the International in a new situation but, and here we come to the crux of the problem of Apparatus Marxism, where that is done at the cost of clear analysis and telling the truth to the workers it is hugely corrosive. The Heterodox’s analysis of the situation was more adequate and the Orthodox’s analysis was not only less clear but lead to the awful ‘campism’ which is still the general stock of the left.

It is true that the earlier Cannonites could and to some extent did correct, their mistakes, where the 1980s leadership of the American SWP around Jack Barnes as Steve puts it ‘continued to stampede off the cliff’ to become Castroites (Stalinists). But Jack Barnes was the heir to Cannon’s regime, surely some reflection should be made on how the Party moved from one able to hold some sort of anti-Stalinist line to one where that was dropped altogether. Did the earlier SWPers bear any responsibility?

As Steve says the Orthodox and the Heterodox both contained elements of being ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but surely our job is to work out which one correlates most closely to the reality, and adapt that to make it reflect reality in the whole.

As I understand the Shachtman demand for ‘respectful debate’ it is not to remove rhetorical flourishes, such as the ones Steve cites, but to say that you should argue against what your opponent is really saying and the strongest not the weakest variant of their argument, as far as I can see, Shachtman does this. I personally rather like his rhetorical flourishes, but that is a matter of taste.

Steve argues that we should put no special weight on our history and ideas as Trotskyists, but that a new left will be made up of many influences and ideas. I find this sort of weary disregard for our own ideas troubling. We should of course listen attentively to others' arguments and be willing to alter ours where they are wrong, but surely, all of us consider that what we think is right? Also, surely we should fight for our ideas until persuaded or proved to be wrong?

Steve also makes a point about not thinking that one particular stream of Trotskyism holds the totality of ‘truth’. I think he is right on this. This book does not simply invert the traditional Cannon-good, Shachtman–bad history, it pays praise to Cannon’s strengths whilst not whitewashing his shortcomings and the inverse is true about Shachtman.

This is how Sean puts it in the introduction, I will leave it as my conclusion:

“James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation. I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our movment if we are to learn from it.

"After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must reminded himself of the old lines, ‘The times are out of joint / O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right’. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism..... Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon.”


Duncan Morrison is a socialist active in south east London, and a friend of Workers' Liberty.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.