Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Decline of American Trotskyism

Where were you on April 30th, 1975?

That was the day Saigon fell. For reasons I no longer recall, I was by myself in some fleabag motel in rural Utah. As I watched the TV news, including the now iconic footage of the last American helicopter leaving the embassy, I stood up and cheered. Hooray for the end of the war. Hooray for the Vietcong and the heroic Vietnamese people. Hooray for the victory of world socialism.

That was the day I started my trajectory towards the Republican Party. And, I believe that day represented the high water mark for global Trotskyism.

Another red letter day in my life was April 24th, 1971. Along with 300,000 other people, I demonstrated against the war in San Francisco. Add the 500,000 who marched in Washington, it was the largest antiwar demonstration ever in US history. The effort was organized in large part by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), albeit with many allies. April 24th represents the short-lived apogee of Trotskyist influence in the US, a fact noted by none other than J. Edgar Hoover.

After the April 24th demonstration, the YSA may have had 2,000 members or more. Most of them, like me, were to leave the Movement in a few years. Why?

Now Trotskyist dogma has it that success breeds more success. The Party took significant credit for forcing the US out of Vietnam, and further, if the American defeat was an anti-imperialist victory, then this should lead to a bigger Movement and a greater radicalization. On this theory, the Party initiated "The Turn," that is an all-out effort to engage the American working class. Beginning in 1975, we were all pressed to get jobs organized by industrial trade unions. Also at this time the Party physically relocated to "working class" areas--thus was founded the Hyde Park branch on Chicago's South Side, where I was assigned.

The Turn was an abysmal failure, and the SWP gradually became the politically irrelevant organization it is today. Conventional wisdom has it that The Turn was based on a prediction--the "inevitable" radicalization of the working class--rather than any reality. On the basis of this prediction the Party suddenly abandoned the campus movement. By the time reality intervened, the Party had lost whatever momentum it had obtained.

After the fall of Saigon, the campus movement just died. Before that date I was part of world history--a movement much bigger than just my comrades and me. After that date, I felt like I was a member of a tiny sect, rather like the Hare Krishnas. Far from being inspired by the victory of the Vietcong, instead it was very demoralizing. We learned that, while we may have tapped into antiwar sentiment, our sympathies for the Khmer Rouge were well out of the mainstream. The news from Indochina didn't help--reports of mass murder in Cambodia and the boat people exodus from Vietnam rather dampened enthusiasm. Even The Militant issued a halfhearted retraction of its long-time support for the Khmer Rouge, blaming US bombing for the setback.

So the Party was faced with 2,000 YSA members with nothing to do. Further, we were no longer recruiting from campuses, which means comrades were getting older. I turned 24 in 1975; my days as a campus radical were surely numbered. One can fake it at 25, but by age 30 it becomes harder to imitate a student. All those people would fade away. Something had to be done, and quickly. And hence the fast and very deliberate turn to the "working class." It didn't work, but then doing nothing wouldn't have worked, either.

The Turn was very controversial within the Party. Many thought that simply abandoning the campus movement (after all that hard work) was a big mistake. At this point I am no longer an eyewitness, but I gather that Socialist Action (SA) split from the SWP around this issue in 1983. (They say that it's because the SWP "abandoned" Trotskyism, but I think that's a rationalization.) The nice thing is we have something that historians have always dreamed of--a controlled experiment. One Party (SWP) turned toward the unions, and the other Party (SA) kept a foot on campus. How have their fates differed?

The SWP has certainly gotten the worst of it. Despite enormous efforts the Turn simply didn't work. There was no radicalization among the working class, at least as represented by industrial unions. Ronald Reagan defeated the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Eastern Airlines Machinist's strike ended in a major defeat. Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union went on strike against Hormel in Austin, MN. That led to some exciting times, but ultimately the strike was defeated.

I can't think of a single successful strike in which the SWP participated. Needless to say, they got demoralized, which led to their de facto withdrawal from active union work. No wonder the Party started just "talking socialism." They have not recruited new members. Today comrades have aged out of union activism, with most of them being in their 60s. Unsurprisingly union work has largely disappeared from The Militant. 

Socialist Action appears to have done better. With the end of the war, they had to find a new connection to campus radicals--and hence their turn to radical environmentalism. Indeed, there isn’t an environmentalist wheeze that they haven't bought in to, from genetically modified foods, to global warming, to anti-fracking. This is the primary political difference between SA and the SWP. The SA embraces environmentalism, while the SWP views it as a petty bourgeois movement. The former is appealing to students (who didn't used to care about jobs); the latter tries to win workers, who very much care about the jobs that radical environmentalism kills.

It is very difficult to estimate the demographics of Socialist Action. They no longer publish a list of chapters or branches, and they are very coy about their membership. But searching their web page for "ysa" (here standing for "Youth for Socialist Action") yields only a few hits from the recent past. It appears that SA's YSA is nearly as moribund as that from the SWP. So long term, they suffer from the same demographic problems as the SWP.

Nevertheless, it is clear that SA is younger than the SWP. They have an impressive list of 30-somethings in their movement, which the SWP lacks. So it will be awhile before they age out of activity in the way the SWP has. That said, I think their long term future is bleak. It certainly is not obvious that socialism is a cure for environmental problems, and postponing such a cure until after the World Revolution won't appeal to student radicals who want a more immediate solution. And further, environmentalism does compete with economic growth, and students today are much more interested in jobs than they used to be. I don't think it's a winning cause.

There are other things that work against world Trotskyism, like the collapse of Soviet and Chinese communism. In the early 70s, in an effort to talk me out of my folly, my dad said that Trotsky was an historical figure, rather like Robbespierre, and not a relevant model for a modern political movement. That may not have been true in 1970, but it is certainly true today. So if I had to bet on one of these Parties being successful, I'd put my money on the SWP, if only because they've "abandoned Trotskyism,"

But I don't think any of these organizations will have any impact on America's future.

Further Reading:


  1. The die was cast for the SWP's decline when their version of "leadership" consisted of embracing every group making a loud noise, whether indicated by their fundamental analysis or not. It turned out that they could recruit lots of activists that way, but not in a way that would make inroads in the American political landscape. The problem with their Marxist McGovernism* approach (while opposing McGovern on principle) was at least as much due to the shrill McGovernist identity politics component as the Marxist component. The SWP and the McGovern campaign competed to co-opt the New Left hodgepodge of ideas. The McGovern campaign did so more successfully, but in the end it didn't matter. The 1972 election demonstrated how little traction those ideas had gained, and the degree to which they were alienating to the mainstream. The emphasis on such fragmentary, parochial concerns du jour made the SWP look incoherent and flakey. Organizing the largest demonstrations of the antiwar movement may have been SWP's greatest accomplishment, (organizing the Minneapolis teamsters is another candidate), but within a couple of years the rot was evident to anyone with the blinkers off.

    I don't think the SWP was as sanguine about the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge as you make them out to be. They regarded them as untrustworthy Stalinists but opposed US intervention on principle.

    *"Marxist McGovernism" - remember, you heard it here first!

    1. Not sure I know what you mean by 'Marxist McGovernism." I don't think the SWP kowtowed to the New Left very much. They never bought into the counterculture, and even to this day they're skeptical of enviromentalism.

      You're correct about the understanding of the Vietcong, etc. as Stalinists. I ignored that in my post. But frankly, that skepticism was hardly visible at all at the time. They gung ho supported the Khmer Rouge. At some point critical support fades into just pure support, and I think that's what happened in practice.