Also published in the current issue of Solidarity:
Above: Shachtman (left) and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
Herman Benson was a founding member, along with Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others, of the Workers Party, which broke from the US Socialist Workers Party (no relation to the British group of the same name) in 1940 following a debate about how to understand the Stalinist state in Russia.
While the SWP majority maintained that the USSR remained some kind of “workers’ state”, however “deformed” or “degenerated”, a large minority, which went on to become the Workers Party, argued that it was a deeply oppressive society based on a new form of class exploitation. They developed their ideas into what became known as “third-camp” Trotskyism, arguing that the global working class must constitute itself as an independent force against both the two camps of US-led capitalism and Stalinism.
Herman was a member of the Workers Party National Committee, and labour editor of its paper, Labor Action. Later, he founded the Association for Union Democracy and was its first Executive Director. In 2012, he contributed to a Workers’ Liberty symposium of recollections and reflections from activists involved in the “third camp” tradition, which can be read here.
He spoke to Daniel Randall of Workers’ Liberty about the debates which are examined in The Fate of the Russian Revolution Volume 2: The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism, in which some of his writing from the time is included. At 100 years old, he is – almost certainly – the last surviving member of Shachtman’s Workers Party
What, for you at the time, were the primary motives for siding with the opposition in the 1939-40 battle?
In 1939, I was not an old-time Trotskyist. I had joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party (SP), in 1930, at the age of 15. By the time the Trotskyists joined the SP, the depression, the rise of Hitler, and the destruction of German Social Democratic Party turned me into a kind of Leninist, but one repelled by crazy antics of “Third Period” Stalinists and then by their popular-front turn. When the Trotskyists left the SP in 1937, I, along with many other YPSLers, went with them.
I mention this to explain why I never gave much weight to the complaints against Cannon’s bureaucratism. They [the “old-time Trotskyists”] went through unexplained factional frictions and personal combinations in the Communist League of America (CLA, the first US Trotskyist group, founded by Cannon, Max Shachtman, and Martin Abern in 1929), not me. Even now, I don’t think our disputes of that period shed any light on the question of the party.
Old-timers could vent their grudges against Cannon, but for me, and most in early opposition, the immediate issue was clear: the Russian invasion of Poland and Finland was an oppressive “imperialist” attack, to be condemned.
At that point, everybody would still be for defence of the Soviet Union if it really came under attack. It took a long period of intricate debate over complex ideological issues to free even us from notions of defending one of the most oppressive regimes in history. The “orthodox” majority said, “we’re not defending the regime, only nationalised property”. People like [Albert] Goldman and [Felix] Morrow needed more time.
Do you think The Fate of the Russian Revolution Vol. 2 accurately conveys the substance and the balance of the disputes between the two strands of Trotskyism in the 1940s?
I think the editor does a great job, although I may be prejudiced. For me, reading it at 100, it activates the juices of a 24-year old zealot. One minor quibble, though: what’s the point of the final extract from Trotsky on dialectical materialism?
Looking back, do you see any of those issues in a new light?
Of course. More than half a century has elapsed. The world refused to evolve as we hoped or expected. But that’s the big story.
The Workers Party/Independent Socialist League (WP/ISL) tradition didn’t hold up in a discrete form, but rather diffused, in different ways and in different directions, into other organisations. Do you think that was inevitable? If not, how could it have been avoided?
I do think that the demise was “inevitable”, whatever that word means. Both sides in the 1939/40 dispute counted on worldwide socialist revolutions in the post-war period. When capitalist democracies and Stalinist dictatorships emerged intact, the political-social foundation of that position was undermined. The WP splintered, and the SWP , as the book describes, was transformed into something alien.
A kind of desiccated, academic Marxism found refuge in the universities, without connection to workers’ revolution. In the United States, most nominally “socialist” currents lost any distinguishable socialist quality. Once, socialism meant concentration of industry in the hands of the state (nationalised property) and a planned economy in a democratic society. Now, each group has transmuted socialism into an amorphous dissatisfaction with the status quo plus whatever their hearts desire. The perspective of a traditional socialist society emerging from a workers’ revolution and a workers’ state has vanished and is not likely to be revived here. In that atmosphere, the WP could not survive.
Do you think the debates of 1939/40 have relevance for socialists today? If so, what is it?
I believe there is a lot to learn from the old WP/SWP dispute, not only for socialists, Marxian and others, but for all crusaders for social justice. In the broadest sense, it reminds us that when our ideology appears somehow to justify a horror or an act of oppression, maybe there’s something flawed in our ideology.
More to the point, especially for me, those discussions restore the defence of democracy in society as a central theme not only for socialists but for all who seek social justice. In that sense, reflection on those debates, for those who undertake it, is an antidote for the persisting residue of Stalinist thinking in the labour and socialist movements.