Back to Chapter Headings Back to home page Contact Gene Lantz

What I Learned about “Left” Groups

By 1978, I was beginning to think of myself as ideologically equipped. I had, after all, been a candidate for Congress. I had participated in umpteen political events and educational classes. I'd read dozens if not hundreds of books, and I never missed any of the Socialist Workers Party's 3 regular publications.

“Left” and “right” are not very useful political concepts, but most people use them as a way of ideological nomenclature.  In 1978, I listed six categories of “leftism:” Unaffiliated liberals, New Leftists, Social Democrats, nationalists, Maoists, Stalinists, and at the top of the pyre, Trotskyists like me.

All of them, in my view, not necessarily the SWP’s view, were the good guys, the white hats in the western movies. They all wanted a better future and were usually useful, in one way or another, in moving toward it. Liberals were the least useful in struggles, because they were so completely unreliable. New Leftists generated by the success of Students for a Democratic Society in opposing the war in Vietnam, were mostly just uncommitted talkers. They could go on and on about what ought to happen but never had a good plan and never really put their united efforts into any plan, good or bad. I usually call them "armchair socialists."

Nationalists could be counted on to stand up, sometimes very aggressively, against the status quo, but they alienated everybody not in their particular ethnic group or persuasion, so they didn’t help much with the idea of a united fight against what ails us. Maoists were super-nationalists and even kind of comical about it. Their ideology wasn’t learned as much as it was memorized, and their tactics were so inflexible as to be completely predictable.

The Stalinists, to us in the SWP, were the biggest problem. Trotsky had opposed Stalin in his lifetime, and groups like the SWP had not only grown out of that division but sanctified it and made it their main reason for existence. Everything Stalin ever did was wrong, and everything Trotsky ever did was right. The first half of that was easy, and made SWP membership easy, because everybody in America was pretty much united by rampant anti-communism in condemning Stalin. One would like to think that the Trotskyites saw their main task as organizing opposition to capitalism and uniting all progressive forces, and, in an abstract sense, that was their stated goal. But not really. Opposing the CPUSA and all forms of leadership was pretty much the main job of the SWP.

I never blamed Trotsky for the shortcomings of the Trotsky movement in America. As far as I’m concerned, he was a brilliant and admirable man. His mistakes don’t erase his accomplishments. But the movement he inspired and that took his name tended toward the middle class instead of the working class. It became isolated and arrogant, and it tended toward cultism and fetischism.

The central idea of the founding of the American Trotskyite movement was opposition to Stalin and the leaders who succeeded him. Using the same unchanging routine, the Trotskyites began to condemn the leaders of the American unions. It probably started in the nascent days of the 1930s when many union leaders were, in fact, CPUSA supporters.

By the 1960s, however, when trotskyism received a second revival caused by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and the sheer size of the baby boomer population, trotskyism was synonymous with opposing, not just Soviet leadership, not just trade union leadership, but with all leadership anywhere everywhere!

That, I finally figured out, is why all their articles had the “unfortunate” bitter criticisms. They literally did not like anything that anybody did anything unless it was under their own direct control! Every kind of political movement that “the Trots” joined braced itself for a split. Even something as simple and obviously progressive as trying to help workers win a labor struggle was likely to suffer from the anti-leadership activities of the Trotskyites within it. No leadership, anywhere, was good enough for them. The only people they could unite with, even temporarily, were dissidents. If the dissidents later took power, then the Trotskyites were sure to oppose them!

I Learned a Lot of Politically Useful Skills

I was already something of a publicist, writer, speaker, organizer, and fund raiser before joining the SWP, but I sharpened all those skills during 8 ½ years of doing literally nothing but earning a bare living and dedicating myself to political work in the SWP.

Back to Chapter Headings Back to home page Contact Gene Lantz