Some responses on the USA

Submitted by martin on 23 March, 2021 - 11:04 Author: Martin Thomas
Bernie AOC

Part of an ongoing debate: click here for other contributions

Thanks to Paul Hampton for his contributions. I think another comrade will reply on the question of fascism. I'll offer a few comments on the question of the Democrats, following on my previous article on Marxists and Democrats.

1. On principle?

In 1954 James P Cannon argued that the Independent Socialist League's (ISL's) decision to back selected left trade-unionist candidates within the Democrats, and in general elections if selected, was wrong on principle, not just tactically.

If Cannon was right, and Paul seems to argue so, then also we were wrong, and wrong on principle, to back Sanders in the Democratic presidential primaries of 2016 and 2020, and to talk about backing him if he won the primary. I don't think we were wrong.

2. The class line?

In arguing against the ISL, Cannon felt a need to reassure his comrades they were not choosing sectarian self-isolation. How, in the difficult conditions of 1954? By telling them that "In the Second World War you have had the proof that this new economy… gave the Soviet Union the strength to prevail in the war… And now you have China and the ever-expanding colonial revolution on your side".

Illusions in the "working-class" character of Stalinism did help to sustain the morale of the Cannonite SWP, and saw it through until recruitment recovered in the "Fair Play for Cuba" movement in the early 1960s. We can conclude simply that Cannon was right only by looking at an artificially short time-scale.

Since 1979 the SWP, under a new leadership of people recruited and trained as young activists in the SWP's pro-Cuba growth in the early 1960s, has shrivelled into a Stalinistic sect.

The ISL dispersed and bio-degraded in the 1960s. Even so, remnants from the ISL tradition - Solidarity, the remnants from the ISO, the DSA - are more live today than the SWP.

3. Fabian-type politicking

From the mid-1950s Max Shachtman slid away from direct revolutionary-socialist advocacy and from building a distinct revolutionary-socialist organisation, towards Fabian-type, string-pulling politics.

In the 1960s he did some of that Fabian-type politicking in Democratic Party circles. As I read the evidence, and Paul's account confirms rather than refutes, Shachtman's main focus was on politicking with leftish, or more accessible, union officials, rather than Democrat politicians. (At the end, in 1972, Shachtman would follow the AFL-CIO union federation in refusing to vote for the Democrat presidential candidate that year).

The trouble was the shift to Fabian-type politicking, not that a shift to Fabian-type politicking would have been ok if developed in another sphere, or that the shift could only have happened by involvement with the Democrats.

4. The 1956 presidential election

As I noted previously, Labor Action and the ISL didn't call Joe McCarthy a fascist. They did, however, describe his movement at its height as an imminent risk to the very life of the labour movement in the USA.

That had no bearing on their 1954 decision about the Democrats, nor on their line in the 1956 presidential election.

From mid-1954 Eisenhower and the leading Republicans turned openly against McCarthy. Soon McCarthy was marginalised and ill. He would die in May 1957.

Eisenhower had been asked by Truman to be the Democrat candidate in 1952, but decided instead to be the Republican. In 1956 Eisenhower was backing federal action for school desegregation in the South. His Democrat opponent, Adlai Stevenson, though in general terms a liberal, opposed federal action for desegregation (I guess in deference to the Southern Democrats, then the bulwarks of US racism).

The anti-union Landrum-Griffin Act would be adopted as a bipartisan measure in 1959, going through a Democrat majority Senate where Lyndon B Johnson was majority leader.

That the Democrats were no lesser evil than the Republicans in 1956 was everyday fact. I can understand an argument for voting Hawkins on 3 November 2020 even though a Biden victory was a lesser evil than a Trump victory, but not that Biden or Trump made no difference.

The problem for the ISL with the 1956 presidential election was that the Socialist Party candidacy they backed, Darlington Hoopes, got only 2,128 votes across the whole USA, and was obviously not even an effective propaganda candidacy. (The SWP ran their own candidate, with 7,797 votes).

5. The road and the mire

You could make an argument that if the ISL had retained more energy and morale in 1954, then it could have got ahead by its own direct activity, and done without tricky tactics in Democrat primaries.

Whatever else about the Sanders movement and the DSA, they are not forces which were going ahead by direct socialist organising and rank-and-file workplace activity until sadly diverted into the "mire" of the Sanders primary campaigns. They are regroupments of fresh young socialists drawn into politics by those campaigns, many of them now as a result turning to rank-and-file workplace and neighbourhood activity.

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