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Monday, November 19, 2007

Initial Reflections on Richard Fraser's Article "A Letter to American Trotskyists: Too Little, Too Late"

The full title of that article, which wouldn't fit above, is "A Letter to American Trotskyists: Too Little, Too Late (Memorandum on the Problems of Building a Revolutionary Party)," and it can be read at the Marxists Internet Archive.

While there is some interesting material in here, I think the author errs in describing the factors responsible for the US Socialist Workers Party's degeneration as "[t]he substitution of Doctrine for Theory, Organization for Strategy, Tactics for Program, and the continued narrowness of social base," while downplaying the "organizational question" as "basically derivative."

He states earlier that at the SWP's founding, leader James Cannon proclaimed that it was "the one and only party" (not a direct quote, of which unfortunately Fraser provides none on this point). That was certainly a bad move, but it begs the question: why would Cannon's proclaiming it as such settle the matter? Where were the critical-minded revolutionaries in the ranks who should have questioned such an approach?

In fact, a cultic hypothesis about the character of the SWP at its founding would perfectly account for the first two substitutions Fraser mentions; it's typical of high-control groups that static doctrine replaces critical thinking (a prerequisite of scientific theory), and in turn doctrine is deployed in a way that serves to justify putting organization over all else. Narrowness of social base is also typical; most cults seek people with relatively secure incomes, since they basically exist by financially exploiting their members.

Other internal evidence from the article also supports this view. Fraser writes about one discussion at the party's Trotsky School, at which the leadership laid down the line on strategy for the black movement, "I was very uncomfortable during this discussion...and determined to get to the root of the problem, which I found could be done if you just try a little. The fallacy of the majority opinion -- although it should be obvious -- I will summarize here," and then proceeds to do so. A few paragraphs later he writes, "Later that year, when I had had time to think the thing out a bit, I made a protest of the policy to the School. I was greeted with silence."

The first question this brings to mind is, why would it take some months to "think out" something that "should be obvious"? One answer would be that organizational life was arranged so as to minimize people's time and energy to think for themselves, as described in Dennis Tourish's paper "Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism, and Cultism: A Case Study from the Political Left" (published by the International Cultic Studies Association), which describes a period in the history of another Trotskyist group, the Committee for a Workers International.

My next thought was how familiar was the part about being greeted with silence. I had this experience more than once with the SWP. While attending a convention of its youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance, I heard someone tell approvingly of a member who'd been one semester short of a graduate degree but had dropped out so he could join immediately in the "turn to industry." I commented that this seemed silly; even if he chose not to go further with school, surely it was sensible to finish what he'd started when he was already so close. No one responded to my comment.

A couple years later, after I'd been pressured to resign but while I still considered myself a sympathizer, I attended an SWP convention where someone mentioned that in a certain branch, some members had been expelled for violating the "security" policy against using illegal drugs. As it so happened, I'd heard about this from one of those former members, who'd told me that others had violated the same policy, but were still in the group because they supported the leadership's positions. I mentioned this and was met by dead silence. I repeated myself, with the same result.

This pattern is easily understood when you realize that a high-control group maintains people's loyalty by making them very dependent on approval by the group for their self-esteem, while cutting them off from other social supports. Shunning is a tactic employed by many such groups; indeed, I experienced it myself a few years after leaving the YSA, when they "disassociated" me without explanation. Short of formal shunning, silence in response to dissent serves a similar purpose, suggesting that disassociation may follow if one continues on one's course, while immediately depriving one of the social feedback one normally depends on to know how one stands in a group.

Something I was told a few years ago by another former member, Herb Lewin, also fits this pattern. He said that he and some other members of his branch had asked someone reporting on a National Committee meeting to repeat what someone else had said or asked there (can't remember exactly since I was told this a few years ago), and that in response other members, including my parents, had started shouting, "Blackmail! Blackmail!" Herb didn't want to dwell further on this account -- this conversation was shortly after my mother's death, possibly at her memorial -- but it is hard to see how asking for such information could constitute blackmail. Of course what Herb said made me uncomfortable, and this was before I'd come to realize that the party was already a cult at the time I was in it (1978-79), let alone suspect it may have been when my parents were members and before I was even born. Because of the circumstances in which I heard this, it was easy to put out of my mind. But now it's clear how well this fits with a cultic hypothesis about the SWP from the time of its founding.

Returning to Fraser's article, he concludes it thus: "There is one thing for sure, however. Nearly every Marxist-oriented organization claims to operate on the basis of Leninism: democratic centralism. But in all cases every principle of Leninism has been turned upside-down and wrongside-out, until its basic tenets have been buried. Leninism must be re-discovered and -- if found adaptable to our problems and conditions -- adapted and used." While some may claim that there are exceptions to this statement -- and those who would do so should remember the insidious character of cultic groups, which tend to show their nasty side only to those who find reason to disagree with the leadership -- even if it's only mostly true, shouldn't this raise questions about whether Leninism is ever the optimal approach to organization?

Eric Hamell


Tom said...

The beginning of the problem with the SWP was not the split with the Shachmanites, but earlier--when intellectuals like Dwight MacDonald and Sidney Hook started taking issue, as had Rosa Luxemburg and anarchists like Goldman and Berkman, with the one-party state policies of the Bolshevik Revolution. Trotsky, the leader, was brusquely dismissive, saying that while everyone can be stupid sometimes, MacDonald was abusing the privilege. This set the tone against those who questioned the doctrine.
Democratic centralism as practiced by an offshoot of the SWP, the FIT, when I was a member, is too restrictive. Before one can submit anything for publication, one has to clear it with the central committee of the local branch. This is not the policy the Bolsheviks themselves instituted--but then again, when Paul Levi published Rosa Luxemburg's critique of the Russian Revolution, he was summarily expelled.
Lewis Mumford had an unpublished piece called a Preface to Action in 1931, where he laid out the idea of forming a Scipian vanguard, creative, more initiative on the part of individuals and local groups. It is in the Van Pelt Library of U. Penn--you can purchase a copy from the Special collections dept.

stripey7 said...

What you say about the FIT is curious; I didn't see that kind of censorship myself. Perhaps it varied from LOC to LOC (officially they were called local organizing committees rather than branches).

In any case Tourish makes a good case that democratic centralism is inherently unstable, with one aspect or the other tending to prevail. And I see no historical evidence that such a party is necessary or useful for confronting the capitalist state, the rationale typically offered for it. On the contrary, it seems more naturally to promote sectarianism and cultism which inhibit revolutionary unity, while modeling and seeding an authoritarian rather than radically democratic post-revolutionary society.