Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America

By John George; Laird Wilcox | Go to book overview

6 Socialist Workers Party

For decades the Socialist Workers party (SWP) was the official Trotskyist party in the United States and a part of the international movement started by followers of Leon Trotsky after he was expelled from the Soviet Communist party near the end of 1927. Early American Trotskyist leaders included James P. Cannon, Karl Skoglund, Martin Abern, Rose Karsner, V. R. Dunne, and Max Shachtman, and others who took Trotsky's side in his power struggle with Stalin and were expelled from the Communist Party USA for their trouble. They founded the Communist League of America in 1928. CLA publications included The Militant (weekly) newspaper and a theoretical journal, International Socialist Review --titles used by current SWP periodicals. 1

In 1934 the CLA merged with A. J. Muste's American Workers party to form the Workers Party of the United States, which in 1936 merged with Norman Thomas's Socialist Party of America. However, when the Trotskyists tried to take over the Socialist party--at Trotsky's direction--they were tossed out in 1937, taking many young Socialist party members with them, who together formed the Socialist Workers party the next year. They had 1,200 supporters at the time. 2

Following their exclusion from the SP, the Trotskyists complained of the "reformist" nature of the organization. The SP, in turn, complained of the "disruptive" nature of the Trotskyists. After establishing as the SWP the Trotskyists appropriately joined Leon Trotsky's newly created Fourth International, which in turn had emerged from Trotsky's International Left Opposition organization.

A significant Trotskyist split also occurred in 1935, when Hugo Ohler and some two hundred of his followers were expelled from the CLA for opposing the entry of Trotskyists into social democratic parties. Ohler went on to form the Chicago-based Revolutionary Workers League, whose official publication was the Fighting Worker. In 1941 the leadership of the RWL was assumed by Sidney Lens; that group folded in the early 1950s. 3

James Cannon remained a lifelong Trotskyist, while Max Shachtman, a former editor of The Militant, founder of Pioneer Press, and Trotsky's "commissar of foreign affairs," became a strongly anticommunist social democrat. 4 A well-known conservative writer who left the SWP in 1940 with Shachtman was James Burnham, who became an editor of National Review for many years. His book, The Managerial Revolution, has been compared to George Orwell 1984 in its depiction of a totalitarian collectivist society. 5

Each of the many splits and schisms in the SWP drained it of its most creative members. Shachtman took some five hundred members with him in 1940, and

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