The following was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 81 (Spring 2008). It has been slightly edited for the website.
Sy Landy, National Secretary of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) since its founding in 1976, died of cancer at the age of 76 on November 28, 2007. In the past decade Sy had undergone two major heart operations and continuously battled the physical effects of heart disease.
Born into a Jewish working-class family in Brooklyn, New York on May 7, 1931, Sy (Seymour) Landy was a champion of his class’s struggles to the end. He fought passionately for his revolutionary views and lived modestly, resisting the many pressures to accommodate to this imperialist world when so many of his contemporaries on the left did not. He left his comrades an example of incorruptible leadership on both a personal and political level. Sy left a note attached to his will: “Viva Socialist Revolution! That made my life worthwhile and is the only hope for our species.”
Sy was a socialist for over fifty years. He first joined the movement when its core belief in the self-emancipation of the working class had been trampled upon. “The tradition of all dead generations,” Marx wrote, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Likewise, the accumulated falsifications of Marxism, and the organizations built to defend them, frustrated Sy’s efforts to be a revolutionary socialist for years. But the great working-class revolts of the late 1960’s drove him to break through their confusion and rediscover the key principles of authentic revolutionary Marxism.
He spent the following decades fighting tirelessly to further develop those ideas and give them organizational form. His contributions toward the resurrection of Marxist theory, strategy, tactics and organization are unmatched by any other individual in the post-World War II era. The story of Sy’s political life is both highly educational and, we think, downright inspiring. In this article we review Sy’s formative years and go on to describe the political breakthrough he made halfway through his life.
The early 1950’s were a difficult and even dangerous time to become a socialist or communist. The Cold War divided the world between Stalinist dictatorships ruling over the working class in the name of socialism, and supposedly liberty-loving American imperialism enjoying its domination of a vast and bloody unofficial empire enforced by local anti- Communist dictators. The novelist George Orwell summed up the ruling spirit of the time in his novel 1984, in which the tyrant Big Brother ruled with the slogans “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” In the U.S., McCarthyism was on the rise, and leftists of all stripes, not just Communist Party members, were being viciously persecuted.
Sy started his political life as a Democrat. In 1950 at Brooklyn College, he was head of the Students for Democratic Action (SDA), the youth affiliate of the Americans for Democratic Action. ADA was the most prominent liberal organization of the time, and despite its pro-U.S. attitude in the Cold War, it came under continual attack by the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Sy’s SDA chapter drew the wrath of the college’s authoritarian president, Harry Gideonse, by fighting for students’ right to distribute unauthorized publications – including ones, as the administration charged, “espousing liberal causes such as the rights of the Negro in the South.” Gideonse declared Sy and another student “bad campus citizens” – a designation meant to permanently stain their reputations and ruin their career opportunities. But Sy was embarking on a “career” of struggle and considered the title a badge of honor which he remained proud of years afterward.
It was not long before Sy saw through Democratic Party liberalism’s hypocrisy, and in 1952 he embraced the socialist cause. The Communist Party in this country had long before become promoters of capitalist politics and apologists for Stalinist rule. But to its left, Sy could find no clear revolutionary alternative – only organizations whose proclamations of socialism masked practical and theoretical adaptations to reformism and nationalism.
Trotsky once remarked that reformists, along with “centrists” who vacillate between revolutionary rhetoric and reformist capitulation to capitalist power, transform the road to revolution into an “ideological maze.” Like so many other would-be revolutionaries, Sy found himself trapped in that maze for years. To appreciate his extraordinary achievement in eventually fighting his way out, it is necessary first to understand the organizations and views Sy encountered and the dead weight they represented.
The Fourth International (FI) had been founded under the leadership of the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in 1938 as a world-wide vanguard party to champion the revolutionary program abandoned by the Stalinist-led Communist (Third) International. The Trotskyists heroically fought for an independent working-class struggle for power in key revolutionary upheavals, from the Chinese and Spanish revolutions to the fight against fascism in Germany. But the counterrevolutionary force of Stalinism proved strong enough to betray those revolutions and finally overthrow the Soviet workers’ state from within by the late 1930’s. These defeats paved the way to World War II.
The FI lost many outstanding leaders to the counter - revolutionary violence and imperialist bloodletting. Trotsky himself fell to a Stalinist assassin on the eve of the war. Others perished in concentration camps and on battlefields. Those who inherited the FI’s leadership in the post-war years failed miserably to maintain its revolutionary traditions.
As capitalism stabilized in the war’s aftermath, cynicism about the working class’s revolutionary potential grew. The postwar economic boom in the imperial centers saw a rapid expansion of the middle classes and labor aristocracy. This in turn fueled a range of illusions in capitalism’s possibilities. Some on the left decided that socialism could be achieved peacefully through reforms. Others turned to different forces: Stalinist armies, middle- class guerillas, intellectuals. The FI’s leadership increasingly adapted to such illusions.
A huge step in the FI’s abandoning the cause of working class revolutionary leadership came in response to the spread of Stalinist rule across Eastern Europe and Asia. On their road to power the Stalinist armies had crushed working-class uprisings and established regimes modeled on the USSR. These events severely challenged the FI’s understanding of the world.
The workers’ state created by the 1917 revolution in Russia was the international working class’s greatest achievement. In the face of its degeneration under the rising Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky had led the FI to defend the workers’ state while at the same time attempting to rally the working class to overthrow their counterrevolutionary Stalinist rulers. But the Stalinists whom Trotsky thought too weak to retain power for very long had in fact entrenched their rule in the Soviet Union.
The Great Purges of the late 1930’s saw the Stalinists destroy every last living connection to the workers’ state of 1917. Until his death, Trotsky maintained his view that the USSR was a “degenerated workers’ state” moving back towards capitalism. In our view, by the eve of World War II the counterrevolution had been completed: the workers’ state had been smashed and turned into a statified version of capitalism. (Our book, The Life and Death of Stalinism, provides a full analysis.)
The Stalinist rulers pursued their own imperialist aims, first in a doomed alliance with Hitler’s Germany and later in alliance with Anglo-American imperialism. Stalin realized his aims when he divided Europe in friendly negotiations with the U.S. and British imperialists Roosevelt and Churchill. “Defense of the Soviet Union” thus meant endorsing Stalin’s imperial conquests. In the war, the Soviet working class had to defend itself against the Nazi invaders, but it also had to defend itself from the Stalinist state and oppose its rulers’ own imperialist aggression.
After the war, Stalinism’s expansion sharply raised the question: what was the class nature of the new Stalinist states? At first the leaders of the FI mocked as “absurd” the idea that the Stalinists were creating workers’ states by crushing the working class. But when the Yugoslav Stalinist Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, the FI did an about-face: it labeled Yugoslavia proletarian, hailed Tito’s alleged democracy and even invited him to join the FI. Soon the FI’s Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel extended their new theory and concluded that a dozen new “workers’ states,” though “deformed,” had been created.
Marx and Engels had taught that the emancipation of the working class could only be achieved by the working class itself.
Trotsky understood that Stalinism was a thoroughly counter - revolutionary force. Now, in the names of Marx and Trotsky, these ideas were overturned by the proponents of “deformed workers’ states” who absurdly styled themselves “orthodox Trotskyists.” New walls of the maze were constructed.
Trotsky did not live to see the expansion of Stalinist rule. We share the opinion of Trotsky’s comrade and wife, Natalia Sedova, that the only way to remain loyal to his revolutionary method was to recognize that contrary to his expectations, Stalinism had established itself as a new capitalist and imperialist ruling class. In an open letter announcing her split from the FI, she explained the “great bitterness” she felt in reading arguments in Trotsky’s name that Stalinism could play a progressive role in supposedly creating new workers’ states. (See Natalia Trotsky's Break with the Soviet Defensists.)
The death knell of the Fourth International as a revolutionary organization was finally sounded when it betrayed a working- class revolution itself, and didn’t look back. This took place in Bolivia, where the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) played a leading role in the revolutionary upheavals of the working class. But the FI and the POR supported a bourgeois nationalist government, in violation of the bedrock principle of working-class independence. No significant section of the FI objected, and the nationalist government paved the way for counter revolution. (See our pamphlet Bolivia: The Revolution the Fourth International Betrayed.)
In the U.S., the FI was represented by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Its leader, James Cannon, at first denounced the idea that the counterrevolutionary Stalinists could create workers’ states, warning that it would “open the door to all kinds of revisions of basic theory.” But he soon embraced the Pabloite formula of “deformed workers’ states” and proved his own warning true. Once a fierce opponent of class collaboration, he approved the FI’s disastrous class betrayal in Bolivia. In the FI in general and the SWP in particular, the essence of the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky had been eviscerated.
The major left-wing rival to the SWP was the Independent Socialist League (ISL) led by Max Shachtman. The Shachtman group (initially named the Workers Party) had originated in a political fight inside the SWP in 1939-40. The dispute emerged over the nature of the Stalinist Soviet Union, after the Stalin- Hitler pact led to the joint invasion of Poland by Germany and Russia and the start of World War II.
The majority stuck with Trotsky’s mistaken belief that the USSR was still a workers’ state. The minority opposed Soviet defensism and eventually decided that the Stalinist system was “bureaucratic collectivist,” based on ideas proposed by James Burnham and others. But this was not a serious theory. It posed the birth of a new social system that had somehow escaped the underlying laws of capitalism which the isolated Soviet workers’ state had not been able to overcome. It could not explain what laws of motion drove the class struggle within the new system, and its proponents differed over fundamental questions: whether or not “bureaucratic collectivism” was progressive compared to capitalism, and whether the producers it exploited were proletarians or industrial slaves.
The Burnham-Shachtman bloc’s call for a “third camp” was another anti-Marxist concept. It was meant to declare opposition to both warring imperialist blocs. But the world was still fundamentally divided between two camps, the ruling classes with all their disputes in peace as well as war, and the international working class.
In the faction fight, the Shachtmanites were more united over their complaints about the party’s functioning than over the political issues, where they had their own disagreements. Trotsky challenged them to put politics first, and they were given every democratic right to try to convince the party and the FI of their perspective. He championed “party patriotism,” teaching his followers to prize the revolutionary party as a great gain of the working class. But the minority quickly split from the SWP over second-rate organizational complaints, depriving it of almost half the members – and losing most of those. Abandoning the revolutionary party and dividing its ranks on the eve of war, the Burnham-Shachtman split was one of our movement’s most treacherous betrayals.
Despite their sordid origins, the Shachtmanites maintained a rhetorical commitment to socialist revolution. The Workers Party claimed to stand for working-class independence from all capitalist parties by advocating a union-based labor party. And during the war, the WP led several militant rank-and-file trade union caucuses, in aircraft manufacture and other heavy industries, which fought against the no-strike pledge endorsed by most labor bureaucrats and the dominant left organization, the Communist Party. (Sy recounted how for years afterward many workers remembered these caucuses as the highlight of their lives.) It campaigned vigorously for civil rights against anti-left witch hunts, defending not only itself but also the Stalinists.
For all its militancy, the foundation of the WP/ISL’s politics was rotten and opportunist. Defining socialism as essentially the extension of bourgeois democracy, the Shachtmanites increasingly accommodated to the reformist union bureaucracy and to the “democratic” imperialism that labor supported in the Cold War. The “third camp” orientation failed to see that U.S. imperialism was far stronger than its Stalinist rival – it was displacing British and French imperialism as the main exploiter of ex-colonial nations – and that Stalinist imperialism played the role of propping up the imperialist system as a whole.
In keeping with this rightward orientation, when the post-war Labour government in Britain nationalized some key industries, Shachtman drew the conclusion that Labour could open the way to a peaceful transition to socialism. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the ISL officially backed no side but came to see the main danger as the victory of Stalinism, not U.S. imperialism – even though it was the U.S. military that had crushed Korean movements for national independence and unification since the end of the world war.
On the home front, in 1954 after much vacillation, the ISL breached the principle of working-class independence from the capitalist Democratic Party by supporting union activists running in Democratic primaries. Looking back years later, Sy would joke about the tortured Shachtmanite logic that approved of supporting Democrats against one another but not against Republicans.
Over the years there were frequent rightward splits from the WP/ISL, and several ex-members found niches in the expanding U.S. labor bureaucracy. The only left split was the Johnson-Forrest group (led by C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya) in 1947, and they too refused to draw the lesson of the need for the revolutionary party – in fact they drew the opposite conclusion, that a vanguard party would only get in the way of mass militancy.
In sum, by the early 1950’s the ISL and the SWP were both centrist organizations, combining revolutionary rhetoric with reformist practice. Nevertheless, the ISL’s nominal opposition to all capitalist parties and ruling classes could be mistaken for a revolutionary alternative to both Western imperialism and Stalinism and its apologists.
For the young Sy Landy breaking from liberalism at Brooklyn College, the choice of what socialist group to join seemed easy. To the left of the CP, the SWP had no campus presence. Moreover, their insistence that the working class held state power in the Stalinist states, albeit in a deformed way, could have little appeal to Sy. The driving force behind his radicalization was a search for answers to the real oppression of real people. He had already seen how liberalism’s celebration of the abstractions of liberty and democracy hypocritically covered an indifference to the real suffering of the working class and oppressed. Embracing socialism, Sy took it for granted that the aim of a workers’ state meant just that: the working class holding state power. He was not about to share in a more radical version of liberal hypocrisy by labeling countries workers’ states where the working class was clearly not in power.
Unlike the SWP, the Shachtmanite ISL’s youth group had a stimulating political life along with a high degree of activism during a conservative time. It had made a big effort at building groups on campuses, especially at Brooklyn College. The ISL recruiter there offered Sy a copy of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. It offered a clear explanation of the Marxist method on which socialists base their confident vision of the future.
In spite of Trotsky’s condemnation of the Shachtmanite split from the Fourth International, the ISL claimed to represent the revolutionary traditions of Marx and Engels, the Russian revolution and Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism. For him, the ISL’s “Third Camp” of “independent socialism” was the only political force fighting to overthrow both Western capitalism and the Stalinist dictatorships of the East. Sy was attracted to the most revolutionary-sounding aspects of ISL politics, but he accepted for years some of the Shachtmanites’ accommodations to democratic liberalism.
Sy joined the ISL’s youth group in the early 1950’s and was elected to its leading committee after it became the Young Socialist League (YSL) in 1954, when it absorbed a good part of the Socialist Party youth. Sy flourished in this milieu. Tim Wohlforth, then a YSL leader, caught some of the flavor of Sy’s role when he wrote in his political memoir:
Sy Landy was our leftist. While adhering quite rigidly to a Shachtmanite view of the world, he favored a more radical tactical course. Sy was the consummate New York radical. He ate and breathed politics, speaking authoritatively and endlessly on any matter. (The Prophet’s Children, p. 34.)
During the 1950’s the ISL’s numbers dwindled. In 1957 Shachtman and his protégé Michael Harrington, the head of the YSL, called for the dissolution of the group into the larger but openly reformist Socialist Party (SP). The reasons given were the new opportunities opening up with the rise of the civil rights movement in the South, along with the political shattering of the Communist Party after the Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s crimes in 1956 and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution the same year. Shachtman and Harrington claimed that their aim was to break out of sectarian existence and create a broad multi-tendency party like the early 20th-century Socialist Party of Eugene Debs.
But Shachtman wouldn’t stop there. He had given up on the idea of working-class revolution and was heading toward an alliance with the liberal left-wing of the Democratic Party. Dissolution into the SP offered the opportunity to break the last remnants of the ISL’s tradition of class independence.
Hal Draper was the most prominent ISL leader to argue against the move. A founding member of the group when it split from the SWP, Draper enjoyed particular stature as the editor of the ISL’s press, having single-handedly authored many of its newspaper articles for years. Draper was attempting to remain loyal to the “third camp” perspective. Sy looked to Draper to lead a struggle against Shachtman’s turn, but when Draper failed to go beyond words and organize opposition to the rightward course, Sy deferred to Draper’s age and greater experience – a decision he subsequently regretted. Years later, particularly in discussions with younger comrades, Sy would use the experience to draw important lessons about the necessity of decisive leadership. He would add that revolutionaries should never defer to age or authority, including his.
A “Left-Wing Caucus” in the YSL, led by Tim Wohlforth along with Shane Mage and James Robertson, opposed the merger, pointing to the SP’s support for labor bureaucrats allied with the Democratic Party. The Caucus refused to join the SP and affiliated instead with the nearly moribund SWP (Wohlforth’s description). In the process they adopted the “deformed workers’ state” analysis, which ironically meant adhering to a theory that labeled Stalinism progressive – right after it had again proved in blood its anti-working class nature in Hungary. The Caucus leaders subsequently formed a left faction in the SWP, were expelled and then diverged into rival “orthodox” groups: Robertson and Mage founded the Spartacist League, and Wohlforth became the head of the Workers League and years later a reformist social-democrat.
The merger of the ISL into the SP took place in 1957-58, with their youth groups merging to become the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL). While the reformists had the upper hand in the enlarged SP, the YPSL was a different story. Larger, more actively engaged in struggles and enjoying a great deal of autonomy from its parent organization, the YPSL had a more dominant left wing, including a “Labor Party Caucus” in which Sy was a leading figure.
The YPSL’s National Executive Committee, on which Sy served, was the scene of hopeless debates over whether to support Democratic “peace” and “pro-labor” candidates as Harrington advocated, or independent reformist and/or pacifist socialist candidates, as left wingers proposed. The “labor party” caucus title was purely nominal, since there was no movement for such a party. Rather, it was a signboard signifying opposition to the Democratic Party – and also implicit opposition to building a revolutionary party.
A rising level of mass struggle in the U.S., particularly the growing militancy of the Black masses in the face of intractable racism, strengthened the YPSL but pushed the SP further to the right. By 1960, Shachtman and Harrington were heading a move to “realign” the SP into open support for the Democratic Party.
They argued that the U.S. labor bureaucracy was firmly attached to the Democrats – but if the Party would ditch its Southern reactionary wing, it itself would become a labor party standing for genuinely liberal politics.
Adhering to the capitalist Democratic Party meant a decisive crossing of the class line that surrendered the organizational and political independence of the working class. The “independent socialism” tradition had previously vacillated between revolutionary rhetoric and a capitulation to reformism in practice. Shachtman and Harrington’s realignment strategy represented the final step from vacillating centrism into outright pro-capitalist reformism.
Sy was regarded in YPSL as an expert on international matters. He celebrated the blow U.S. imperialism received with the Cuban revolution and traveled there soon after, before Castro had turned to Stalinism and was still proclaiming himself simply a nationalist revolutionary. He was struck by the corruption that was already obvious at the top of the new government and later recalled meeting young officials who enthusiastically defended the idea of a future top-down introduction of socialism. Given Sy’s hostility to Stalinism, he knew this “socialism” would mean a dictatorship over the working class.
A resolution he wrote in 1959, “A Democratic Foreign Policy,” illuminates the contradictory nature of his views at the time. It demanded the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Europe and supported the right to national self-determination – specifically, it denounced the reactionary coup the U.S. perpetrated in Guatemala in 1954 and the British, French and Israeli imperialist invasion of Suez in Egypt in 1956, and supported the Hungarian Revolution (“that heroic struggle that pointed the way to the working-class and anti-imperialist forces of the world”). But it also called on the U.S. to take steps toward disarmament, as if the world’s leading imperialist power could ever do such a thing.
One excerpt from the document illustrates the left Shachtmanites’ orientation to liberals and their reliance on bourgeois democracy as the universal solvent.
Many liberals, certainly, accept most or at least a goodly number of the democratic foreign policy steps that we have outlined. While we do not believe that a democratic foreign policy can be carried out through the national party [that] the majority of liberals and American trade unionists pay allegiance to, the Democratic Party, nevertheless we think it urgent that they, within this political entity, attempt to fight for these democratic demands. If they do make such a fight, we feel that they will soon become convinced that they must help create a labor party, which would be more consistent with their political purposes.
Calling on the U.S. ruling class to carry out a democratic foreign policy without explaining up front that such a thing cannot happen creates major illusions. Further, the labor party that Sy advocated here was clearly a reformist party akin to Labour in Britain, which promotes imperialism even more treacherously – in the name of the working class. It took a series of struggles over this question before Sy understood that reformist working-class leaders are counter revolutionary, and that for revolutionaries the labor party demand must be used as a tactic for creating a revolutionary working-class party, not a reformist one.
The issue of supporting U.S. imperialism finally boiled over in 1961, when Shachtman welcomed the CIA-backed “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba. When they heard of his position, the YPSL group in Berkeley disinvited him from speaking at a scheduled public meeting and replaced him with Draper. Sy of course solidarized with his California allies and regarded this incident as his political break with Shachtman.
Shachtman continued his rightward trend, becoming a stalwart of the imperialist interventionist wing of the Democratic Party and in the end a progenitor of the neo-conservative trend now prominent in the Republican Party. As Sy put it, only Shachtman’s death halted his rightward course.
Sy was especially influenced by the monumental struggles of Black people against racism. The civil rights movement had begun to win important gains against Jim Crow in the South, but was frustrated at every step by its leadership’s strategy of using passive protests to beg liberal Democrats to support reforms. Martin Luther King Jr.’s insistence on pacifism in the face of murderous racist violence aimed to avoid threatening the ruling class or alienating white liberal allies.
But a large and growing number of Blacks rightly saw that a more uncompromising struggle was needed. In the South, a movement for armed self-defense against racist attacks was led by Robert F. Williams of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP and spread like wildfire. In the North, the masses of Black workers and poor had few illusions that an end to legal segregation would solve racism: leaders like Malcolm X were gaining in popularity as a result of their condemnations of King’s accommodations to the ruling class and for their stress on independent Black struggle.
Sy actively supported the struggle of Black people against oppression. He was an organizer for the Youth March for Integrated Schools in 1959 that drew 25,000 people to the White House. He visited several cities in the South to study and support the movement. He organized the Civil Rights Discussion Group, a loose group of Black and white activists seeking to better understand racism and the struggle against it, and took part in tenant organizing with the Congress of Racial Equality, then the most radical of the civil rights groups.
The realignment debate became decisive in relation to civil rights. The SP and YPSL were very involved in the struggle, and the Shachtmanites, with their recent convert Bayard Rustin, were close to the movement leadership around King and played a role in crafting its strategy. The realignment strategy was particularly aimed at ensnaring civil rights activists and confining the political struggle to the Democratic Party.
The left wing of YPSL and the SP understood that the Black movement needed to turn away from appealing to the benevolence of the ruling class and move toward organizing outside the Democratic Party. They envisaged a “Negro-labor alliance” and an independent labor party in which Black people would have equal rights. But this was only a more militant version of the King strategy: insisting on a labor alliance meant holding back the struggle while trying to push the pro-capitalist and often racist leadership of the unions to lend their support.
Sy and his comrade Dave Melamed looked at the struggle differently. With an insight that would foresee the impulse behind the future growth of the Black Power movement, they recognized that Black people’s oppression, as well as white liberals’ betrayals of the struggle, had created great distrust among Blacks of the idea of unity with whites and also undermined Black people’s sense of their own power and abilities. So they advocated independent organization by Black people as a road to a future united class struggle. In a 1965 draft document that Sy preserved, Dave wrote:
Should the socialist – the kind of socialist whose side is always that of the oppressed, whose heart always beats with the oppressed and their struggle, and who sees the struggle from below as the motive force for a new humane society – urge the Negro masses to wait until the labor movement, until the white worker, is ready? This would run counter to everything taught to us in the past about the struggles of classes and peoples impelled by their condition into motion, who cannot complete the revolution alone but whose struggle is vital for putting into motion the ultimately revolutionary class.
As Sy wrote in his memorial tribute to Dave, he and Dave saw this development in the light of the history of the Jewish Socialist Bund in Tsarist-ruled Poland early in the century, which in spite of its separatist politics had organized self-defense against pogroms, fought on the barricades in the 1905 revolution and thus laid the basis for the great role Jewish workers would play in the revolution of 1917.
The idea that mass action is the seedbed for revolutionary consciousness is one that Sy would develop further, as the movements of the 1960’s erupted in the U.S. and abroad, and their lessons became clarified in conflicts among the would-be socialist revolutionaries themselves.
The real meaning of “realignment” became clear in the 1964 election, when Shachtman and Harrington led the SP into endorsing the re-election of President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s victory was followed by his escalation of the imperialist war in Vietnam, which Shachtman endorsed on the grounds that U.S.domination was a lesser evil than a Communist victory.
And the Black struggle brought to a head one of the Shachtmanites’ greatest political crimes, which they committed in practice, not just theory. At the 1964 Democratic national convention, the Mississippi Freedom Democrats had challenged the racially exclusive selection of their state’s delegates. The Shachtmanites, through Rustin, played a leading role in convincing them to accept a token “compromise” of two delegates alongside the sixty-eight officially chosen whites. In effect, once the Shachtmanites were committed to the Democratic Party, they rejected the idea of splitting what was now their party. The strategy they conceived to drive the racists out of the Democratic Party had led straight to an all-out effort to keep them in. Black people once again were told to sit in the “back of the bus.”
The YPSL dissolved in 1964 into a menagerie of factions.Those like Sy who regarded themselves as the true inheritors of the best of Shachtmanism were organizationally adrift. What was needed was a formation aiming for a revolutionary working-class party, not for a reformist labor party or “independent” politics. Instead, Draper and others founded the Independent Socialist Clubs (ISC) in California; Sy founded and led the club in New York. The ISC was organized as a “non-sectarian” caretaker of the heritage of the ISL, but it made no attempt to come to grips with the roots of the Shachtmanites’ political crimes or to recover the proletarian and internationalist heritage of Trotskyism.
The ISC was active in the burgeoning movement against the Vietnam war, and it played a leadership role in the pace-setting campus struggle, the Free Speech Movement at the University of California in Berkeley in 1964-65 in support of Southern civil rights. Although it grew rapidly, it made only a belated effort to work inside Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which led a sizeable anti-Vietnam war demonstration in 1965 and grew to a membership of 100,000 by 1969.
Instead, at the height of the Black ghetto rebellions (which shook the political establishment far more than the civil rights marches) and the anti-war movement in 1967-68, the ISC was instrumental in founding the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP). The PFP stood for a “minimal radical program” – immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and support for Black liberation (a goal it left undefined) – but it did not stand for working-class independence or socialism, and certainly not revolution. Draper argued in the ISC’s paper that “The ‘revolution’ that is on the agenda for Peace and Freedom today is not yet overthrowing the whole System, but something a little more modest for the day: viz, overthrowing the two-party system ...”.
Moreover, the PFP rested on a base of middle-class and largely white activists. It left the task of winning over Black radicals to its ally, the Black Panther Party, the militant Black Power group that despised the Democratic Party for its racism and bourgeois character. The ISC worked with and defended the Panthers, but it did not build on its close collaboration with Black radicals to try to form the interracial revolutionary organization that it nominally stood for. At a key historical juncture when class and race conflicts were boiling over which only a revolutionary program and leadership could resolve, the ISC abstained.
The PFP shattered in mid-1968, when it lost most of its followers to the liberal Democratic politicians Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy who came out against the Vietnam war. Just as the early Shachtmanites had lost many working-class followers to labor leaders like Reuther who could talk militant and also wield union muscle, the PFP could not compete with anti-war Democrats who promised real political power. In both cases the would be revolutionaries subordinated their subjective revolutionary ideas in the hope of winning masses to a reform program – and ended up building up reformist or liberal forces that were major obstacles to a real revolutionary program.
The political scene was swinging leftward throughout the eventful year of 1968.The events of that year included: the militant radicalization of the student movement symbolized by the building seizures at Columbia University; the student upsurge in Paris that triggered a general strike by French workers: the Tet offensive in Vietnam that inspired the anti-war movement in the U.S. and helped force President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw his candidacy for re-election; and the riots in Chicago as the Democratic Party rejected anti-war candidates and nominated Johnson’s sidekick, Hubert Humphrey. In this season of political turmoil and rapid radicalization, the ISC bet everything on an electoralist strategy, in the hope that disgusted voters would turn away from the Democrats into a revitalized PFP.
Instead, the disgruntled liberals returned to the Democratic fold in order to prevent the election of Richard Nixon, while thousands of Black and Latino activists along with SDS activists declared themselves revolutionaries. Thus the “one step to the left” PFP strategy took the ISC out of the running for the leadership of the liberation and student movements, whose most radical adherents ended up looking to Maoism for revolutionary answers.
Looking back on it, Sy regarded Peace and Freedom as a disastrous venture. What was necessary was raising a clear pole of attraction for those who were ready to see through the limitations of middle-class radicalism and Black nationalism, and to make the leap in consciousness to a revolutionary working-class perspective. Unfortunately, few others learned that lesson; the Peace and Freedom strategy was repeated in recent years by the support for and entry into the pro-capitalist and far less radical Green Party, by the largest descendants of the ISC today, the International Socialist Organization and the Solidarity group.
The ISC changed its name to the International Socialists (I.S.) in 1969, in part to mark its fusion with a group of “new leftists” led by Ron Taber who escaped the imploding SDS, and also to acknowledge its fraternal relation with the British organization of that name led by Tony Cliff. The I.S. also moved its headquarters to Detroit in order to carry out its “orientation to the working class” – sending former college students into blue-collar jobs and trade unions to do political work as well as make a living. In this the I.S. was a step ahead of most other radical groups like the Maoists and the SWP, which turned to the working class after student radicalism had died down.
But the I.S. retained the Shachtmanite and Cliffite “rank-and-filist” approach to union work, in which socialists presented themselves to their fellow workers – and ran for leadership posts – simply as militants and democrats, not revolutionaries. For the ISC/I.S. and many middle-class leftists of the time, the thing to do – in Sy’s words – was not to frighten people with talk of socialism but to “lie in wait for the workers with a program of democratic demands.”
The decisive turning point in Sy’s politics was inspired by the explosion of working-class struggles of the late ’60's – the Black ghetto uprisings that shook major cities of the U.S., along with widespread international upsurge, especially the general strike of the working class in France in 1968. Many on the left saw in these events the potentially revolutionary power of the working class in advanced industrial countries, as well as the vanguard role that could be taken by Black and other racially oppressed workers. But Sy qualitatively changed his world view: he interpreted the upheavals as showing that masses of workers and oppressed people were seeking a new alternative and in effect demanding revolutionary leadership.
The I.S. had organizationally survived Shachtman’s betrayals and was growing. But Sy knew that his decades of schooling in the “Third Camp” tradition had left him politically unprepared. While the working class had confirmed its revolutionary potential, those claiming to offer revolutionary leadership, including himself and the rest of the I.S., were still operating on centrist foundations. Rather than bringing the I.S.’s ideas to the working class, the lessons of the class’s struggle had to be brought into the I.S. to challenge its fundamental method.
Sy had always depended on others like Draper to take the lead in theoretical work, but he now knew he would have to challenge himself to become a theorist. While he had always studied history and theory, he returned to study with a new vigor, in particular re-reading Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, in the light of the struggles that he had lived through. He also studied Hegel, from whom Marxists had drawn their schooling in dialectics, the method of understanding the world in a single, interrelated and constantly changing whole.
Thus Sy, just shy of his fortieth birthday, an age when many people have grown complacent and resistant to change, was questioning everything. To help gain perspective, for the best part of a year in 1970-71 he traveled in Europe in search of a wider outlook. He held discussions with leaders of both the British I.S. and “orthodox” Trotskyist groups in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and beyond. But to one extent or another they were all trapped in the familiar patterns Sy was trying to break from.
Sy did meet one person who had a profound and lasting impact on him: Jim Charleson. From among the poorest of Scotland’s working class, Charleson had joined the Communist Party as a young man and then joined the Trotskyists in their struggle against Stalinism. He shared with Sy his many stories from a life dedicated to revolution and his intimate connection with working-class communism before its Stalinist degeneration and counterrevolution.
As a dockworker in the 1920’s and ’30’s, Charleson had been able to get a taste of the revolutionary movement from Scotland to South Africa and from Russia to New York. Charleson told how he was imprisoned in South Africa and, as a white man, was automatically offered an African servant while in prison. His refusal established a bond of solidarity with the African prisoners. He also spoke of his experiences working with Russian sailors, and described how he knew that the degeneration was under way. Whereas after the 1917 revolution both sailors and officers would speak to one another in the familiar forms of Russian, after the rise of Stalinism class divisions were strictly enforced and the sailors would have to address their officers with formal terms of respect, while the officers would address them in familiar terms as if they were children. Through Jim Charleson, Sy made a living connection to the authentic Trotskyism he was searching for.
Sy’s time away had given him the chance to study, discuss and reflect. Meanwhile, the American SWP – which later openly give up its claim to Trotskyism – was publishing yearbooks of Trotsky’s writings of the 1930’s. Sy and others in the I.S. devoured these books as they came out. Trotsky’s letters of advice to supporters in different countries about building small revolutionary organizations spoke directly to Sy’s concerns.
Trotsky demanded clear revolutionary principles, insisting that revolutionaries always “say what is” rather than water down the revolutionary program in the interests of quick popularity; he called for an open and relentless political struggle against reformist misleaders while fighting for the broadest unity of the working class in action. Trotsky’s cutting descriptions of the centrist groups of his time had the greatest effect. Trotsky was describing the whole IS tradition, as well as the other left groups that littered the political scene.
In the Transitional Program, Trotsky had written that “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” Sy now understood that this was no mere rhetorical exhortation but a statement of scientific fact. He regarded the great upheavals of the late 1960’s as fundamentally expressions by the working class of the need for revolutionary political leadership. The task therefore was to do everything possible to make sure that the next time the working class rose up in revolutionary struggle, it would find a leadership prepared to show it the way to victory.
On his return to the U.S., Sy spearheaded an effort to create a revolutionary Trotskyist organization, first by trying to convert the IS politically and organizationally. The goal could not be accomplished without major political advances that would inevitably provoke internal disputes. Some of these became factional battles, which helped concretize the necessary turn.
The first major advance was over the question of the Black struggle for liberation. What was the character of the Black population in the U.S. – a nation? a race? a class? – and with what strategy would Black people win equality and freedom?
Sy wrote a document, “Black Liberation,” for the 1972 I.S. convention that embodied his search for revolutionary Trotskyism. It was counterposed to the I.S.’s existing position, an amalgam of the most prominent views on the left: integrationism and nationalism. The integrationism perspective rejected the Jim Crow lie of “separate but equal” treatment of Blacks, but it embraced liberal illusions. “Integration” into the dominant capitalist economy and culture could only end up being another way of accepting the status quo. Black nationalism, on the other hand, recognized that racist oppression had formed Blacks into a distinct people, but proposed the way forward to be a struggle of Blacks of all classes.
Against both these perspectives, Sy argued that Blacks formed an oppressed race-caste, containing people of all classes but based on the super exploitation of the Black working class. He advanced a simple but bold thesis: that Black oppression was characterized by the denial of bourgeois-democratic rights, and that because racist oppression was a fundamental part of capitalism only the workers’ revolution could win these rights in the process of achieving socialism.
The American working class now included a large component of Black workers, and much of its militancy was spearheaded by their struggles. Thus the democratic and class struggles were already interrelated in reality. Not only was the fight for socialism necessary for Black people to secure genuine equality, but the working class as a whole could not fulfill its material interests without championing the anti-racist struggle. Sy wrote:
Blacks differ from most other minorities in that they have never been permitted to achieve most of the gains and rights of bourgeois democracy. ... By law, custom and force the chasm between blacks and others has been maintained. ... The bourgeois democratic revolutionary gains for blacks cannot “evolve” as they did for others, but must be achieved through revolution and the fusing with class-wide or socialist demands. There is little more room at the top, or the middle, in capitalism – only the bottom. ...
The coupling of the Black bourgeois democratic revolution with class socialist demands can be the flame that ignites the American Revolution. The confluence of the bourgeois democratic revolution for the Russian peasant and the socialist revolution for the Russian worker ignited the Bolshevik Revolution. The even more entwined and fused revolutions of black and white workers on the American scene will be an even greater historical step.
This was in effect a deepening and updating of the strategy of permanent revolution that had originally been fashioned by Trotsky to advance the struggle for proletarian power in Tsarist Russia, counterposing it to the “orthodox Marxist” notion that the fight for socialism should be postponed until a stage of liberal bourgeois democracy was reached. Trotsky later applied that strategy to broader situations internationally, including the Black struggle in the U.S. Sy’s advocacy of the Trotskyist method on this vital question had wider implications. For example, Puerto Ricans in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, and Mexicans mainly in the Southwest, also faced extreme racism. Largely inspired by the Black struggle, they were engaged in a similar radicalization. The permanent revolution perspective was also vital to a solution to the deeply entrenched oppression of women and gays. If socialism was the only real answer to all types of oppression under capitalism, then promoting revolutionary class consciousness was the primary task. (The most thorough presentation of Sy’s analysis as it developed is his pamphlet, Marxism, Interracialism and the Black Struggle.)
At the 1972 convention a majority bloc was formed that included Sy and his co-thinkers, the Taber-led group of ex-SDSers based in Chicago, plus groupings around Kim Moody and Steve Zeluck in New York. The bloc was vaguely united around the goals of cohering the I.S. politically and tightening it organizationally, in opposition to the more politically conservative leadership headed by Joel Geier and the group’s habitual sloppiness.
Sy and Moody had previously written a joint article which, among other things, argued for the use of transitional demands (class-wide political demands on the state), not just calls for economistic, day-to-day reforms, in the trade unions. (“The Unions under Monopoly Capitalism,” International Socialist, May 1970.) At that time Sy taught that the Transitional Program drafted by Trotsky was a handy tool for presenting the content of socialism without actually using the word. This was not a pedagogical adaptation to mass consciousness but a political adaptation to reformism. Unlike Moody and Zeluck, however, Sy was moving away from that perspective. The differences then were barely visible, and as the leader of the new majority bloc, Sy was elected National Secretary of the I.S., replacing Geier, and moved to Detroit to work in the group’s national headquarters.
Determined to try to fit the I.S. to meet the working class’s need for revolutionary leadership, in the months following the 1972 convention Sy formed an active collaboration with Ron Taber and others to continue to rediscover revolutionary Trotskyism and campaign for it within the organization. The strategy he advocated for Black liberation demanded not just a fight for the immediate demands of the Black masses but also open advocacy of socialism. But this method was missing from the rest of the I.S.’s work.
The I.S. Convention had also adopted a document on the economic crisis that forecast continued stagnation with rising unemployment and inflation. Already under these conditions it was proving increasingly difficult for the working class to defend and improve its living standards through the methods of protests and strikes. The I.S. approach, typical on the left to this day, held that socialists can best lead the working class by raising demands that are no more than a “step to the left” of where workers’ consciousness is at a given time. There are many problems with this approach. The working class does not all think in one way – there are radical and conservative workers and many gradations between – and the “next step” method inevitably tails the consciousness of the more backward layers of the class. Moreover, as was seen in the explosive struggles of the 1960’s, working-class consciousness does not develop by steps; at times of struggle it can advance in leaps. And the “next step” method is totally subjective: it bases itself on a guess of what workers are ready to support, and not on what they need based on the objective conditions of capitalism.
An opportunity to overcome this approach was presented when Joel Geier wrote a document defending it following the I.S. convention. Geier maintained that the period would be dominated by struggles for “‘minimal’ or ‘immediate’ demands ... that can be won under capitalism,” and in that situation:
The job of revolutionaries is to take part in such struggles and relate them, in whatever small or large way we can, to [advance] revolutionary politics through propaganda ... We try to be the best fighters, those that don’t have to bow to any capitalist pressure (Democratic Party, union bureaucracy, bourgeois legality, etc.), in order to be able to gain the confidence of the masses, to convince them that it is the revolutionaries and not the reformist leaders who struggle most for their interests, and in order to be able to introduce into the reform struggle revolutionary methods and ideas.
That is, Geier was advocating that revolutionaries only prove themselves the best fighters for reforms. In response, Sy collaborated with Taber in writing a document, “On the Transitional Program,” which elegantly exposed Geier’s contradictions. First, it pointed out that Geier had voted for the I.S. perspectives’ forecast of deepening economic stagnation, but he still proposed an approach that saw workers’ struggles for reforms having the same sort of success as during boom times. On the contrary, they argued, under such conditions the working class would find it increasingly difficult to win if its struggles remained limited to minimal reform demands. For example, workers might win wage raises only to see their gains lost to rising inflation. Worse still, widespread crises like bankruptcies, factory closures and rising unemployment could not be addressed by the specific reform demands of this or that group of workers, but only by class-wide political demands on the state. By limiting the role of revolutionaries to fighting for minimal reforms, revolutionaries would not be leading the working class to adopt demands that really addressed the crisis. Instead, they would be raising illusions in the possibility of reforming an increasingly unreformable system, and helping to demoralize workers by encouraging limited struggles that could not win.
Sy and Taber pointed out that Geier had revived quite explicitly the old division of a minimal program of reforms and the maximum program of socialism that characterized the reformist social democracy – which Trotsky had sought to overcome with the demands in his Transitional Program. The answer, they argued, was Trotsky’s approach: supplementing support for minimal reform demands with arguments for broadening the struggle by making class-wide political demands that could answer the workers’ needs. For example, in the face of rising inflation, workers should be encouraged to demand not just wage raises but also cost of living increases in step with rising prices. In response to bankruptcies and rising unemployment, workers should call for the nationalization of failing industries and for public works programs and reduced working hours to create jobs and eliminate unemployment.
Such a method would prove transitional, they explained, because it would be able to help advance the workers’ struggles beyond minimal reforms to a fight for policies that showed the need for socialism. This was an active means to raise socialist consciousness – as opposed to Geier’s approach, which combined raising reformist illusions with abstract propaganda for socialism. They added:
Nowhere ... in the entire document, is there any mention of the need to speak to the illusions of the rank and file participants in these struggles, to convince them that even those gains that are won will be tenuous, since in this period systematic gains for the whole class can only be won by smashing the limits of capitalism. ... Geier’s failure to address himself to this function indicates a general approach ... toward soft-pedaling our criticism of a given strategy or leadership or to put forward in as clear and precise a manner as possible the real road forward, for fear of “isolating ourselves from the movement” or “inhibiting struggle.” Instead of forthright criticism (which can be friendly or unfriendly) there is a tendency to act as cheerleaders, to applaud the fact that workers do indeed struggle.
Whatever gains this method appears to offer are only illusory, for without forthright criticism and open statements about what is, we will be incapable of winning the trust of the most militant, alert, and disciplined workers, who will look to a party that pulls no punches and that demonstrates that it has the backbone to lead the struggle to the very end.
Resistance to the developing authentically revolutionary politics in the I.S. was fierce – not only from the Geier forces but from the Moody wing as well. The dispute spread over a growing series of political questions, but what blew the lid off was the issue of how to approach the upcoming dramatic elections in the United Mine Workers (UMW). Although the I.S. had no direct presence in the mines, the issue was intimately connected to strategies for union work in general, and indeed all arenas of activity.
Arnold Miller was a reformist leader running for UMW president against the murderous thug incumbent, Tony Boyle. Miller headed a mass movement, Miners for Democracy (MFD), that appealed to miners who hated the corrupt Boyle regime. How to orient to this movement? Sy, Taber and others argued that a pro-capitalist reformist like Miller would inevitably betray the miners that supported him. “Saying what is” meant warning the workers of this danger. But they also recognized that the miners viewed the prospect of Miller’s victory as a way to advance their struggles. To support Miller uncritically would help set up the miners for a later betrayal. To refuse to support Miller would mean standing aside from the effort to oust the corrupt bureaucracy that was the miners’ main obstacle to struggle against the bosses.
Sy and Taber advanced the Leninist tactic of critical support. Lenin had advocated that British communists vote for the Labour Party in Britain in the 1920’s in order to prove to the workers the truth of their criticisms of Labour. This, Lenin said, would be support “in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man.” Thus Sy and Taber urged a vote for Miller to align with the miners in struggle and defeat Boyle, and to put the I.S. in position to warn the ranks that the pro-capitalist Miller was also bound to sell them out – as he did big time in the 1974 contract.
Applied to the MFD, this position horrified Geier, Moody & Co., who could not fathom that a militant like Miller and an organization like MFD could be considered obstacles. Moody outlined the approach that he shared with other I.S. centrists:
The MFD program is the opposite of “misleading” because it points toward a struggle against the mine owners. ...Thus it may be necessary to make our own amendments to the MFD program. But we do not pose these as an alternative program. ...
If it is true, as Ron says, that the MFD played a role in keeping the struggle of the miners in “acceptable” channels, that is, in one way or another holding back the struggle, then we should have opposed MFD.
Moody’s approach expressed the “common sense” attitude that sees no distinction between the bureaucrats at the top of MFD and the ranks below. Nor could Moody see the difference between the struggle for reforms that the workers wanted and the reformist perspective of the leaders, who supported reforms so long as they didn’t threaten the bosses or their own privileges. Miller’s betrayals would prove these differences soon enough. The critical support tactic was designed to expose the gap between the leaders and those who followed them. Moody’s attitude flowed from a conception of the class struggle that deemed it essential to complete a separate stage of democratic reforms and militancy before a fight for revolutionary program and leadership could be seriously contemplated.
But limiting the fight to union democracy and militancy means supporting reformist leaders who inevitably prove a barrier to the struggle advancing further. For the many on the far left who share this sort of perspective, the revolutionary stage never comes. The stagists become defenders of the reformist leaders against more radical critics; sometimes they become the actual misleaders themselves. Indeed, a number of I.S. unionists have since become important figures in the secondary labor bureaucracy – if not as high up as the older generation of Shachtmanites. And the strategy of building “rank and file” groups on reformist programs has been tried repeatedly since, and every time it has ended with the same disastrous results: reformist bureaucrats have come to office, betrayed the workers’ struggles and destroyed the “rank and file” groups that put them there. This has been the story in the UAW, the Teamsters and the Transit Workers in New York City.
Looking back at this period in a 1995 document, Sy described the process by which these new positions were fought for in the I.S.:
Very little of what we did was planned more than vaguely. We did not have full-blown positions on most of the questions at the outset of the fight. It was the struggle itself which clarified most of the positions. One thing led to another; the inner connections between different “questions” became apparent to us as the fight developed. We were forced to read and re-read the past history of the movement in a highly concentrated way and with an angle of vision we never had before. We learned new lessons from old texts we had grown up with.
Now that process would accelerate tremendously.
The fight over critical support for the MFD in the miners’ elections proved the trigger for factional struggle inside the I.S. At the April 1973 National Committee meeting, a new majority bloc was formed by Geier and Moody. It removed Sy from his leadership post and affirmed uncritical support of Miller in the miners’ union as IS policy.
In response, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) was organized to continue the work of resurrecting Trotskyism that had been begun. While the RT never formally changed its name to a faction, it quickly began to act like one in the best sense of the word, advancing other important differences with the Geier-Moody leadership that amounted to a counterposed world view. We date the re-emergence of revolutionary Marxism in the U.S. (and, as far as we know, the world) to the creation of the RT.
In a heated factional whirlwind of three short months, the RT brought up a variety of issues, all revolving around the need to fight for the revolutionary program and revolutionary leadership in its arenas of activity – most notably the unions but also in the Black liberation struggle and the women’s movement. Although it did not win a majority of the I.S. to its views in the brief time it was afforded, it won a level of support beyond what it expected. Through the debates inside the IS, the RT was able to sharpen and further develop some of its ideas.
In contrast, Geier, Moody & Co. were anxious to end the political debate. (Some in the RT also showed “revolutionary impatience” and were too eager to leave.) While a politically healthy leadership would have organized a convention to settle the political disputes by democratic discussion and majority vote, the leadership had other ideas. When in the course of the fight the RT labeled the I.S. leadership centrist, Geier and Moody took this as an excuse to hastily convene a National Committee meeting in July and expel the RT.
The expelled I.S.ers of the RT immediately formed a new organization, the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), dedicated to the resurrection of Trotskyism and a revolutionary Fourth International. It had about a hundred members, and Sy’s leading role was recognized by his election as the founding National Secretary. With tremendous enthusiasm, the RSLers set about the tasks of establishing a functioning communist organization. The pride and efficiency with which these tasks were carried out were a striking and welcome change.
But there were enormous problems that the faction fight had not solved. Programmatically, there were still strategic areas with wide gaps in understanding, most prominently in political economy: understanding the growing capitalist crisis as well as overcoming the IS’s inadequate theory of the nature of the Stalinist states. But the split had occurred too fast for new ideas to be adequately developed.
There were also objective hurdles. The RSL’s forces were small and isolated from the working class in general and people of color in particular. Moreover, the long-term lull in the class struggle had begun. To be sure, there were still strong elements of rank-and-file upsurges, including sit-down strikes in Detroit auto plants by rebellious workers. But much of this activity was extinguished by the mid-1970's recession, which hit the workforce in the Midwest particularly hard. No one foresaw that it would begin a decades-long reformist-led retreat before waves of capitalist assaults.
On the international level, there were more inspiring class battles and successful anti-imperialist struggles during this period, as in Vietnam. There were also devastating setbacks, like the crushing of the Chilean workers by the Pinochet coup. No new revolutionary leadership, so far as we could tell, was surfacing. But while the RSL attempted to find such forces and build an international presence, the organization did not give international relations the attention demanded by the overarching need to recreate a revolutionary Fourth International.
Internally the RSL had inherited political weaknesses, reflected above all in its leading group, the Political Committee (PC). Of the original members, all but two would either quit, be expelled or be removed within a year and a half of the RSL’s creation. Those two were the only ones capable of the needed leadership in the organization, Ron Taber and Sy.
Taber was extremely talented, organized and determined. He could elaborate theory even if he was not particularly effective in creating it, and had an activist orientation that won the loyalty of much of the membership. On the other side, he was also extremely defensive and suspicious to the point of paranoia. And though many were unaware of it at the time, he had a penchant for maneuverism, preferring to resolve political problems through administrative means and to use personal ties for advancement in the organization.
Sy was the most politically and theoretically experienced, and he hated cliquish behavior and political intrigues. But not long after the RSL’s founding, he made what he would later acknowledge to be the biggest political mistake of his life. He stated his intention to resign as National Secretary while remaining a member of the leading committee. Among other things, he was frustrated by the long time it took him to write articles and documents, and by other shortcomings. He had a mistaken confidence in other leaders of the RSL to assume the top responsibilities. This serious mistake led to his removal as National Secretary at the end of 1973 and would dog him politically for the rest of his time in the RSL.
In the two and a half years that Sy (and other future founders of the LRP) spent in the RSL, the organization made some key achievements. It advanced the application of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to the Black liberation struggle, as previously discussed. And it developed its understanding of the tasks of a revolutionary propaganda group in prioritizing the training of the most politically advanced workers, a necessary prerequisite before attempting to lead great masses of workers in struggle.
Major steps forward were made in political economy. For example, in the I.S. the dominant explanation of capitalism’s postwar boom was the theory of the “permanent arms economy” that was first advanced by the Shachtmanite T.N. Vance and later by one of Tony Cliff’s co-thinkers and a friend of Sy’s, Mike Kidron. They argued that the boom had been created by the stimulus of massive arms spending following the war. This idea suggested that the capitalists had found a means to spend their way out of crisis and the ravages of the class struggle. The RSL countered that the post-war boom was the result of the international domination of U.S. imperialism, which took advantage of the greater exploitation made possible by the smashing defeats of the working class in the wave of counterrevolution before and after the war, and by the war itself. Not only did this explanation return the class struggle to the center of capitalism’s dynamics, but it pointed to the system’s future stagnation and crisis as well.
But this progress was not achieved easily. Much of it was accomplished in the course of bitter faction fights, which consumed a good portion of the organization’s time and energy. In all of the fights, Sy was concerned not only to promote his own positions but also to use the disputes to further political understanding. As in the I.S. fight, he emphasized that Marxist theory is forged in political combat. Sy wanted to defeat internal opponents through political debate, resorting to organizational measures like expulsion only when absolutely necessary to maintain the unity of the organization against severe disloyalty.
On the nature of Stalinism, the I.S. had inherited Shachtman’s “bureaucratic collectivism” formula, but most of the RSL by this time had rejected it as unserious. The “degenerated workers’ state” theory had been Trotsky’s last view, and this fact carried some weight because of the young RSL’s identification with Trotskyism. But it had never been able to explain Stalinism’s post-war conquests and so it too was rejected by most members. Tony Cliff’s theory of “bureaucratic state capitalism,” which was held by the I.S.’s British allies, conflicted formally with bureaucratic collectivism, but the two were fundamentally alike in denying that the law of value was inherent in the Stalinist system and therefore providing no underlying law of motion. So the RSL tentatively raised the position that the Stalinist societies were state capitalist and aimed to work out a genuinely Marxist theory as opposed to Cliff’s.
The first fight, in early 1974, was against a faction that adhered to the “orthodox Trotskyist” definition of the Stalinist states as degenerated and deformed workers’ states. Their central argument was that nationalized property automatically made a state proletarian, which they justified by misread quotations from Marx and Engels. Refuting this theory forced RSLers to examine more closely both Marxist theoretical works and the reality of Stalinist economies, which made clear that nationalized property did not preclude exploitation. Despite the lessons to be gained, the PC leadership attacked the group solely as a disloyal clique – which it was, having been organized secretly via personal loyalties rather than in open political debate – without seizing the opportunity to gain from political discussion. It resorted to piecemeal expulsions, beginning with the group’s leadership, a method that would later be used with even greater venom against Sy and his cothinkers.
Shortly afterward there began a drawn-out dispute with a sizeable minority of the organization led by Political Committee members Bruce Landau and Shelley Kramer in Detroit. This grouping reacted to the lack of external successes by essentially proposing, under the rubric of building a propaganda organization, that the RSL become a study group, developing political ideas while walling itself off from outside struggles until a future time.
Members of this grouping in Los Angeles, most prominently Eric Olson, began to advocate new ideas concerning the class nature of Soviet society. The rest of the Landau group did not share their views but held back their differences in order to pursue their shared organizational aims. For the majority, it proved a challenge to focus debates on the political questions when the unprincipled factional bloc was interested in subordinating them.
Sy was the first and most vociferous opponent of their study group conception. He collaborated with Taber (with whom he now had terribly strained relations) and Jack Gregory to write a document that defined the RSL as a propaganda group primarily concerned with cohering an advanced cadre of workers. They noted that even at this stage in the development of a revolutionary organization, aspects of the mass work of the future must come into play. Agitation and action are important even in a lull because they open up the opportunities for propaganda.
The positions that Olson advocated on Soviet society contained both gains and weaknesses. His document explained well, for example, that for Marx “private property” did not mean just the property of individual capitalists but primarily referred to the capitalist class as a whole holding property “private” – out of the hands of the working class. But the weaknesses were more significant. Most importantly, it argued that the existence of state capitalism showed that competition between capitals was not an essential attribute of capitalism; thus it concluded that the Stalinist societies were a purer form of capitalism because they limited competition. This understanding not only ignored the very real economic competition that existed under Stalinism, but also the role that competition played in carrying out capitalism’s inherent drive to expand.
In effect, Olson denied that decay was the essence of capitalism’s imperialist epoch, and that Stalinism was an aspect of that decay. The majority responded that Stalinist Russia exhibited in pronounced form the dominant tendencies of capitalism in this epoch; it was not only capitalist in its underlying features (like the law of value), but because it brought monopoly to an extreme and preserved some working-class gains, it was a deformed variety of capitalism. Looking ahead, the LRP’s extension of this understanding enabled us to foresee in the mid-1970's that Stalinism would have to overcome this deformity and devolve in the direction of traditional competitive capitalism.
Further, the majority’s document made a major advance on the “date question”: at what point was the workers’ state decisively destroyed in the Soviet Union? Cliff, Shachtman and others said that the workers’ state had ended when the Stalinists ousted their rival factions in the late 1920’s. In contrast, the RSL majority pointed to the Great Purges in the late 1930’s, which decisively smashed all sections of the Bolshevik leadership that stood for the gains of the 1917 revolution – those who opposed in however muted a form the regime’s growing attacks on working conditions and economic equality, and the separation of the state from the proletariat. In the purges the last elements of proletarian consciousness were eliminated from the state apparatus. This interpretation of events not only offered a coherent explanation for the behavior of the Stalinist state and parties before and after the purges, but also was consistent with Sy’s emphasis on the centrality of working-class consciousness for socialism.
The battle with the Landau minority lasted into early 1975. During that time, the majority put its perspectives into practice, increasing its involvement in working-class struggles, especially in the unions. The fight ended with the minority’s abrupt resignation a month before the convention that was scheduled to settle the issues. It went on to maintain a brief independent existence, and then flipped from its study group perspective to join the SWP, which by then had become a right-centrist organization with few radical pretensions.
Despite the political gains from the Landau fight and its increased interventions, the RSL’s objective situation had not improved. Layoffs were mounting in industry, and the ruling class was gathering forces its sustained class offensive. There would still be some inspiring struggles by the working class as it groped for a defense despite its betraying leadership – notably the mass protest of New York city workers against cutbacks imposed during the fiscal crisis in the summer of 1975.
Under these circumstances the primary danger for working-class revolutionaries was not the abstentionism of the recent minority but a growing trend to search for shortcuts to party building. In fact, the organization had some successes, including a defense campaign for five young Black men accused of murder during a riot in Detroit. In New York, the RSL branch had actively participated in the tumultuous workers’ protests and had found that its propaganda about the need for a general strike against the capitalist attacks had struck a responsive chord.
Yet the overall retreat in the class struggle led Taber to moderate some of the RSL’s positions. Anticipating that Sy would oppose him on this, he built a secret faction, including the majority of the wider leadership body, the Central Committee, and sprung a new “CC Resolution” on the organization in late summer. Its most significant provision seemed innocent enough – a call for “continued emphasis on the Labor Party slogan.” But it was in fact a step backward.
The labor party tactic had been abused for decades since Trotsky urged it upon the SWP in 1938. Ever afterward, most would-be Trotskyist groups favored a labor party, by which they had in mind something like British Labour – a reformist mass party that embodied working-class organizational independence and claimed to stand for workers’ interests within the framework of capitalism. Trotsky, however, had understood that the bureaucracy would organize a reformist labor party only if it feared mass struggles that were pushing the working class further to the left, toward revolutionary conclusions. While the bureaucrats would try to turn the party into a reformist defender of capitalism, revolutionaries would fight to expose any compromise of workers' demands and prove the need for a revolutionary party.
To counter the reformist party interpretation the RSL had initially called instead for a “revolutionary labor party.” But this notion confused a revolutionary working-class party, which might not have a mass base at first, with a mass party led by the union officialdom. It did not allow for the development of a revolutionary wing through the experience of mass struggles that did not originate with a revolutionary program. Trotsky had posed the call for a labor party as a united front slogan with labor leaders pushed into action by their base. He reasoned that a labor party growing out of a mass class struggle would, at least at first, engage in a debate over program without automatically emerging under a pro-capitalist banner. Calling for a “revolutionary labor party” in effect demanded agreement on a revolutionary program in advance.
But now the RSL was returning to the standard reformist version.
Behind this retreat was not only a pessimistic perspective toward the class struggle but an opportunistic adaptation to those low expectations. At the same time the leadership debunked consistent use of the general strike slogan, when the New York City workers’ struggle was still on – and right after the RSL branch had found great enthusiasm among workers for its “general strike” placards and headlines in the RSL’s paper, The Torch.
Elevating the labor party demand and downplaying the general strike served factional purposes as well as a political retreat. Sy had proposed the downplaying the labor party demand and raising the general strike to a position of tactical prominence. He explained that while the League’s strategic principles were socialist revolution and the revolutionary party, it was necessary tactically to “tack and veer” with slogans in order to convince people of the overall strategy; slogans would vary according to the objective situation facing the working class.
Sy noted that when Trotsky had proposed the labor party tactic the working class was strong and strategically organized. But in 1975, unlike the 1930’s, it was divided and misled by a bureaucracy that increasingly counterposed electoralism to mass action; emphasizing the labor party slogan would play into the electoralist strategy. Further, since the bureaucrats were in fact doing a fine job of detouring or snuffing out struggles, Sy argued, echoing Trotsky, that advocating a united front with them then would be disastrous. In place of the leading labor party slogan, Sy proposed to maintain the general strike in propaganda to the more politically advanced workers, to show how the working class could defend itself against the mounting attacks and prove to itself its own strength. Propaganda for the general strike would also serve to raise the need for revolution and the revolutionary party.
While this was being debated, a related dispute had broken out in the New York branch. The RSL was involved in a caucus of public employees, but the local leadership proposed building the caucus on a politically murky basis. They called for neither a united front over practical actions nor a caucus around the RSL based on a revolutionary program – but instead advocated its transformation into a “front group” based on a program that did not go beyond trade union militancy. The Taberites were beginning to promote the reformist stagism that the RSL was born in struggle against.
A portion of the New York branch, led by Bob Wolfe, protested the proposed maneuver and was drawn in Sy’s direction. Bob proposed a real united front to bring pressure on the labor bureaucrats for a genuine fightback in the festering public workers’ situation – by means of mass actions in preparation for a general strike. This was a call for joint action by several left groups and union caucuses, not a fake political agreement that hid important differences. The majority rejected this proposal for factional reasons, but all it could think of to counterpose was research into the unions and their contracts. Thus they painted themselves into the study-group corner they had fought against earlier in the year.
It is worth noting that all the political disputes of this last faction fight revolved around the united front. Sy and his comrades argued that united fronts were practical blocs that allowed revolutionaries to put forward their independent revolutionary program. The point was to show how the working class could unite to take forward its immediate struggles, while putting the revolutionary solution to the test of experience in opposition to the reformist programs. The majority was proposing a necessary reformist stage – even if it meant that they had to act in place of reformist leaders (as with the union front-group proposal) or call for reformist leaders (as with the labor party slogan).
Sharp as these conflicts were, Sy and his supporters held that the RSL’s degeneration to the right could be stopped and the Taberite leadership itself reformed. But the leadership’s reaction called these assessments into question. By the time the fight had broke into the open in the fall, Taber had succeeded in cementing his control of the staff, local leadership and Central Committee. He was particularly effective in raising the false argument that any attack on the political adaptations of the organization meant criticizing the organization’s recent successes. Such demagogic attacks on political debate are typical of bureaucrats looking to turn their groups into unthinking followers rather than organizations of independent-thinking leaders.
The Central Committee meeting in October that took up the Resolution became a forum for vicious slanders, diatribes and threats against Sy and his sole CC supporter, Walter Daum. During a trip Sy made to the Midwest branches shortly thereafter, the venom was even greater. In a branch meeting in Detroit, a recent ex-Stalinist recruit who had evidently not left behind all his baggage spoke of executing Sy – to the laughter and applause of most of the branch.
One lesson stood out. The majority leadership had brought out the worst in its followers by setting a standard of using lies and personal attacks as a substitute for political debate. In contrast, the cohering opposition group that Sy led seized the opportunity to develop its own cadre: practically every one of its dozen or so adherents submitted documents on the struggle as they saw it.
The final stage arrived when Sy and Walter wrote a long document on the labor party question. (See The Labor Party in the United States.) It called for withdrawing the labor party slogan in the present conjuncture and use instead the general strike slogan to concretize the need for a united class fightback. It also revealed the conservatism behind the militant posture of “fighting for a labor party”:
The League majority chose the labor party slogan because they themselves have fallen victim to electoralist illusions – for this stage, they think. Trotsky posed the labor party as a way of breaking illusions in anything but a revolutionary solution. He did not consider it as part of a stage in which a head-on confrontation between workers and the state was to be avoided because he thought the workers would lose. On the contrary, he pointed to the fact that the formation of a labor party would accelerate a confrontation, “immediately, immediately.” The majority comrades chose the labor party as their slogan because they accept the weakness of the class and wish to avoid a confrontation. Above all, they want to avoid posing the revolutionary solution except in the second stage.
The Taber leadership lampooned and distorted the positions of Sy and his supporters (now organized as the Revolutionary Party Tendency), while piling on personal attacks and slanders. Sy was expelled from the organization in November on truly wild charges of disloyalty and disruption, capped by the assertion in The Torch that he remained a Shachtmanite – while in the same breath acknowledging that “Landy undoubtedly made theoretical and programmatic contributions to the League.” Walter was expelled a few weeks later on equally absurd charges.
After beheading the RPT leadership and only days after receiving the labor party document, the RSL banned further discussion and refused to circulate this and other documents by the remaining tendency members. The Taberites assumed that the RPT would quickly quit, but the comrades stayed on to keep up the fight and to demonstrate loyalty to the revolutionary program and organization. However, their refusal to go along with the gag rule became grounds for the expulsion of the whole tendency, which took place in February, 1976.
This entire episode was stress-ridden and heart-breaking, for Sy especially. The revolutionary organization that had held such promise in 1973 had turned against the spirit and dedication that had empowered it to survive in a period of downturn and isolation. Throughout the faction fight, Sy kept his political composure. He put forward his political arguments with precision and consistency. The minutes of the debates and the RPT’s Documents of Struggle show a consistent devotion to political issues in the face of provocation upon provocation.
The expulsion of the RPT accelerated the RSL’s degeneration. It maintained for a few years a formal adherence to Trotskyism while progressively gutting its content. The organization formally dissolved in 1989, a signal for much of its dwindling numbers to disengage from active politics. Taber and some others ended up designating themselves as anarchists, and most of them too have disappeared from radical politics. It is bitterly ironic that people who in their final political incarnation denounced first Leninism and then Marxism as inevitable precursors of Stalinism are the same ones who adopted thuggish and bureaucratic methods of their own to drag through the mud the revolutionary principles they once stood for. Somehow in their lengthy reconsiderations of the history and practice of Marxism they forgot to account for, or even mention, their own destructive role.
Our fight in the RSL was not a glorious moment but a desperate rearguard action to preserve revolutionary cadre and traditions. To that end the expelled comrades formed the League for the Revolutionary Party in February 1976. The nastiness of the final RSL fight did not corrupt or cynicize its survivors. The LRP has had political disputes over the years but has learned well the lesson that these have to be carried out openly and honestly, aiming for the utmost clarification. We are extremely proud of Sy and our theoretical and practical accomplishments. The full importance of writing this history will become even clearer as all the “old” questions become “new” again.