Milton Fisk

Socialism From Below in the United States


Chapter II
The Trotskyist Movement in the Thirties


1. Origins of American Trotskyism

Cannon did not go to the 6th Congress a Trotskyist, but he returned one. He had been largely absorbed in the US scene. He had, though, helped the Comintern draft its denunciation of Trotsky in 1925.

At the 6th Congress he read, as part of the program material, Trotsky’s criticism of the draft program of the Comintern, which was stamped “read and return.” [1] Cannon did not return the critique, but brought it home to show to Max Shachtman and Martin Abern. By his critique of socialism-in-one-country as it applied to Europe and China, Trotsky, who was in exile in far off Asia, made clear to Cannon how the Comintern could have fostered, rather than prevented, factionalism in the CP-USA. It wanted to insure a leadership in the US that would willingly take any turn required by the interests of the USSR.

Cannon’s views were not secret for long. He was expelled shortly after his return to the US. His apartment was burglarized and his correspondence published in the CP organ, The Daily Worker. The Communist League of America (Left Opposition) was founded by Trotsky’s supporters in May 1929 in Chicago with 156 members. Stalinist hoodlums attacked numerous early Trotskyist meetings, but in most cases they were repulsed. [2]


2. Propaganda Circle: 1929-33

At first the aim of the Trotskyists was to reform the CP. The CLA did not regard itself as outside the CP. The Militant, which began in November 1928, was directed to the rank and file in the CP. The principles of the Left Opposition were to be disseminated. Propaganda was carried out in the narrowest sense of the publication and distribution of literature. [3] The vanguard of the working class was in the CP; outside it there were no vanguard elements; so the task was not to build a new party but to reach the ranks in the CP. It was difficult to recruit since the Stalinist “left turn” of the so-called third period and the expulsion of the Lovestonite opposition to the left turn made the CP look militant to workers. The Five-Year Plan of economic development in the USSR captured the imagination of many of the CP ranks By contrast the Trotskyists seemed like hair splitters.

According to Trotsky, the Bolshevik Party was still in power in the USSR. It had substituted itself for the working class only in order to save the revolution. Without a reform of the Party, the right-wing Bukharinist forces [1*] would take power and capitalism would be restored in the USSR. Direct workers’ democracy must be restored with a reform of the Party.


3. Turn to Mass Work: 1933-34

Hitler came to power without any opposition from the German Communist Party. This was a decisive turning point for Trotsky and for the CLA. Trotsky no longer saw the CPs as reformable. The “national-mindedness of the CLA turned to internationalism. The CLA, beginning in early 1933, could push for the forming of a united front of Communist and Socialist workers in Germany against Hitler and also point to the treachery of the German Communist Party and the Comintern in relation to German workers. Instead of talking to small forums and study groups the CLA now drew large crowds on the burning issue of Hitler’s accession to power.

The CLA interpreted its “Turn from a propaganda circle to mass work” as applying to both political and economic mass work. On the one hand, it called for all groups to join it in forming a new party, since the CP was unreformable. This appeal was directed to the Left Wing of the SP and to A.J. Muste’s Conference for Progressive Labor Action, which was on its way to becoming a new party: the American Workers’ Party. On the other hand, the CLA was taking advantage of the big strike wave of 1934. Early in the year it intervened in the New York hotel workers’ strike.

One of the comrades, B.J. Field, became secretary of the hotel workers local union. Cannon was one of the speakers at the hotel workers strike meeting of 10,000 in Madison Square Garden. Field was expelled from the CLA in the middle of the strike for listening more to the National Labor Board than to the EC of the CLA. The CLA was clear that its leaders were to take responsibility for its actions in strikes; union fractions in the CLA were not on their own. The whole intervention was run on a shoestring: during the strike the CLA didn’t even have a telephone in its impoverished office. [4]

The CLA had no national industrial priorities: it went where opportunity knocked. In 1934 there were many opportunities, but the three strikes of most political import were in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. The CPLA intervened successfully through its National Unemployed League in the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, and the CLA intervened successfully in the Minneapolis trucker strike, even though the truckers were not seen then as a decisive sector of the proletariat. [2*] At the time of this intervention the CLA still pushed the political side of its mass work with the slogan: A New Party – A New International. Negotiations with the CPLA for a new party opened in the Spring of 1934.

The Trotskyist Teamsters ran the strike in Minneapolis with an ad hoc Organizing Committee, which contained only one union officer. The strike was for union recognition. The National Committee took responsibility for the strike. Cannon and Shachtman spent time in Minneapolis. Shachtman published the Daily Organizer, at a profit, during the strike in order to counteract the distortions of the bourgeois press. [5] From the success of the strike, the Minneapolis Trotskyists went on to organize the Northwest Conference of truckers.

Negotiations with Muste, which also involved Sidney Hook and James Burnham, both philosophers from NYU and both from the AWP, were supported in the AWP by the rank and file labor militants. They were opposed by those who did not want to commit themselves to revolutionary politics. The idea of fusion was opposed in the CLA by those who wanted no integration with any group that, like the AWP, was associated with the 2nd International. Oehler was in the lead of this opposition. However, the fusion was consummated in December 1934. The new party was called the Workers’ Party of the United States. The Trotskyists saw this fusion as part of the French Turn, the policy that led the French Trotskyists into the French Socialist Party. The fusion contrasts favorably with the ill-fated alliance of the CP with the Farmer-Labor Party in 1923-24.

The Musteites who had intervened in the Auto-Lite strike intervened again in April 1935 in the Toledo Chevrolet transmission plant strike for union recognition. They were now WP members, and ran a strike paper – Strike Truth. Militants from the two Toledo strikes fought to make the new international auto union, the United Automobile Workers, a democratic union. They wanted elected officials subject to recall by the members. AFL President William Green defeated their plan by appointing Francis Dillon, who broke The Chevrolet strike, to be UAW’s first president.


4. Entering the Socialist Party: 1935-37

After the fusion, The WP entered a faction fight over entry into the SP to capture its Left Wing before it went to the CP, as it had done in Spain when the Trotskyists merely stood on the sidelines. The fight lasted through 1935. Muste, Oehler, and Martin Abern were opposed to entry. Cannon, Shachtman, and Burnham favored it and conducted rentless education within the party. They argued that the advantages of a large gain of membership by pulling away the Left Wing outweighed organizational questions about the integrity of the newly formed WP. They agreed that a true party shouldn’t give up its principles and accept those of the SP, but they countered that to become a true party the WP had to grow, and The SP was an obstacle to that growth. The Left Wing favored the entry since it would counterbalance the right-wing officialdom of the Social Democracy and blow away the Stalinists. Hook arranged a meeting for the WP with SP leader Norman Thomas. The entry occurred after the March 1936 WP convention. The Militant and the New International, the newspaper and theoretical journal of the WP, suspended publication.

The WP reemerged from the SP as the Socialist Workers’ Party in January 1938. What were the gains and losses of entry? Membership nearly doubled. Many Socialist youth joined. A presence was gained in the auto industry. John Anderson, for example, who had led a sit-down strike in Detroit, left the SP to join the SWP. The Trotsky Defense Committee, headed by philosopher John Dewey, to counteract the frame-up trials in Moscow going on at the time was formed with the help of Socialist intellectuals. The Trotskyists had control of the Socialist Appeal and Labor Action, which had been set ups. Socialist publications. But in late 1937, the SP leaders were preparing a mass expulsion of the Trotskyists. The Trotskyists had to exit with what they had won from the Left Wing. They left a mere shell, an SP which was no longer powerful enough to be an obstacle to The Stalinists.

But the 1936-37 period was the hey-day of CIO organizing. By curbing their mass work, the Trotskyist were on the sidelines of the biggest upsurge in 20th century US labor. They adapted themselves to the SP leaders and missed the opportunity of the CIO, which the CP used to become an important influence in labor.


5. The Fourth International: 1938

In January 1938, the SWP was formed and the program of the 4th International adopted. In September, outside Paris, delegates from various groups, with Shachtman presiding, officially founded the 4th International. Trotsky had fewer followers in 1938 than in 1932, when he urged the reform of the CPs. Now he saw the formation of Trotskyist parties under the guidance of the 4th International as essential because of the need for political revolution, not just reform, in the USSR and because of the mass upsurge there would be of working manes at the end of the coming World War II, an upsurge which would overthrow Stalinism in the USSR and capitalism in the West. The 4th International was dedicated to the defense of the USSR – not of its bureaucratic leadership, which had to be overthrown, but of its state property, which was the legacy from the October Revolution.

The Trotskyist groups actually had little possibility of becoming mass parties before or during the coming war. The radicalized workers were following the CPs and accepting the Popular Front strategy of defeating fascism by supporting bourgeois governments. Moreover, the “transitory” character of the Stalinist bureaucracy, on which the defense of the USSR and the overthrow of that bureaucracy was based, was an illusion. The degeneration of the 4th International, or rather its still-birth, followed from these mistakes.


6. The Hitler-Stalin Pact 1939

The Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 led to a major faction fight in The SWP. Stalin had been asking the workers outside the USSR to join with their bourgeoisies against Hitler. Now he joined with Hitler to forestall an attack on the USSR and to share Poland with Hitler. How was it possible to continue to say that the USSR should be defended unconditionally?

Trotsky’s argument was that there were two sides to the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. (1) It would hurt the international workers’ movement by making the USSR look imperialist. (2) It was nonetheless “progressive” since it expanded the October Revolution: Polish landholdings were distributed to the peasants and industries were expropriated by Stalin and nationalized. Trotsky did not see any conflict between the invasion of Poland and the defense of the USSR, since the nationalizations in Poland showed that the USSR was still a workers’ state. [7] A similar analysis was given of the invasion of Finland in late 1939.

In September 1939, Burnham submitted to the SWP’s NC a statement saying that the USSR could not be regarded as a workers’ state. Trotsky saw clearly that the class nature of the USSR was the issue behind the question whether the USSR was to be defended unconditionally. For Trotsky, defense was premised on the need to maintain the gains of 1917. These gains still existed in the form of nationalized property and a state plan. This was sufficient, for him, to make the USSR a workers’ state, albeit a degenerate one.




1*. The leadership of the Comintern had passed from Zinoviev to Bukharin when the former broke with Stalin and joined Trotsky in 1926.

2*. In Minneapolis itself trucking was chosen as a CLA priority, but this had no carryover nationally.



1. Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, 1928.

2. James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism, 1944, Lecture IV; Cannon is the major source used for information in this chapter concerning events through 1938.

3. E.g., there was the publication by Max Shachtman, Genesis of Trotskyism: The First Ten Years of the Left Opposition, 1933.

4. Cannon, History, Lecture VII.

5. Farrell Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion, 1972.

6. Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step, 1964, pp.37-9.

7. Leon Trotsky. The USSR in War, New International, Nov. ’39.

8. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast – Trotsky: 1929-1940, pp.457-477.


Last updated on 9.1.2002