David North
The Heritage We Defend

The SWP and McCarthyism

Despite the expulsion of the Cochranite faction in the autumn of 1953, the political crisis inside the Socialist Workers Party had not been resolved. After the split, the SWP had still to contend with the unfavorable objective conditions. The rising living standards of millions of trade unionists, to which Cannon had pointed as a material source of the opportunism and liquidationism, reinforced the political conservatism of the labor movement. It strengthened the grip of the right-wing AFL and CIO bureaucracies which in 1955 merged on the basis of their procapitalist program.

During the Cochran fight, Cannon had stated that the worst effect of the decline in labor radicalism and the isolation of the party was that the SWP had been deprived of a fresh generation to replenish the ranks of the older leadership. The impact of this “lost generation” on the party was particularly noticeable by the mid-1950s. Lenin had once jested that revolutionaries should be shot once they reach the age of fifty! Applying this standard, a large section of the SWP would have qualified for the firing squad in 1954. The veteran leaders of the party—Cannon, Skoglund, Dunne, Swabeck, Coover—were already in their sixties and (in the case of Skogland) seventies. Even Dobbs was in his late forties and seemed much older.

However correct the struggle against Cochran in the United States and against Pabloism internationally, it could not provide an automatic guarantee against political degeneration in the face of the immense class pressures bearing down upon the movement in the center of world imperialism. Cannon’s great difficulty in obtaining majority support on the National Committee for a struggle against Cochranism was a political indication that Cochran and Clarke were only the most articulate spokesmen of a political outlook that was shared to some extent by a broader section of leaders in the SWP, despite their endorsement of the “Open Letter.”

The clearest indication of the political disorientation of the SWP was its reaction to the growth of McCarthyism in 1953–54. It concluded that the witch-hunting Republican senator from Wisconsin was the leader of an emerging mass fascist movement that was preparing for the seizure of power in the United States. This was an entirely impressionistic and incorrect assessment that expressed the demoralization and pessimism that gripped the SWP leadership.

In March-April 1954, Cannon wrote a series of articles that introduced a conception of fascism entirely different from that which Trotsky had developed in the 1920s and 1930s. In both his writings on Pilsudski in Poland and especially on Nazism in Germany, Trotsky had stressed that fascism differs from other forms of bourgeois reaction in that it is based on the mass mobilization of the petty-bourgeoisie, ruined by capitalism, against the workers’ movement and has as its goal the complete atomization of the working class. Under conditions of social crisis so great that the bourgeoisie has exhausted all its options within the framework of constitutional democracy, when not even the most far-ranging concessions of the labor bureaucracy can satisfy the objective requirements of capitalism, when nothing less than the complete smashing of all organized forms of working class resistance to capitalist rule is required, the bourgeoisie calls into existence a mass fascist movement. As Trotsky explained:

Fascism is not merely a system of reprisals, of brutal force, and of police terror. Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society. The task of Fascism lies not only in destroying the Communist advance guard but in holding the entire class in a state of forced disunity. To this end the physical annihilation of the most revolutionary section of the workers does not suffice. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organizations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by Social Democracy and the trade unions. For, in the last analysis, the Communist Party also bases itself on these achievements.[1]

Always stressing the mass petty-bourgeois character of such a movement, Trotsky drew a distinction between fascism and even the most brutal military-police dictatorships. Moreover, Trotsky insisted that fascism cannot come to power until the working class, as a result of the betrayals of its leadership, has demonstrated its incapacity to resolve the social crisis on a revolutionary basis, thus driving the desperate petty bourgeoisie into the arms of the counterrevolution.

Again we quote Trotsky:

At the moment when the “normal” police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium—the turn of the Fascist regime arrives. Through the Fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralized lumpen proletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. From Fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job; once it has resorted to methods of civil war, it insists on having peace for a period of years. … When a state turns Fascist, it doesn’t only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini—the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role—but it means, first and above all, that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the essence of Fascism.[2]

The conditions which existed in the United States in 1953–54 bore absolutely no resemblance to those which prevailed either in Germany in 1930–33 or, for that matter, in Italy in 1920–22. The absence of an economic crisis in any way comparable to the Depression precluded the mass mobilization of the American middle class in a genuine fascist movement. Both Hitler and Mussolini led mass movements, which controlled their own shock troops, whose very existence testified to the impotence of the crumbing semiconstitutional regimes and the approach of civil war. Regardless of McCarthy’s personal characteristics, private ambitions and individual popularity, he was not the leader of a mass movement such as that which was represented by Hitler’s party, with its three million-strong private army. While McCarthy and McCarthyism exhibited tendencies that could be part of the political physiognomy of an American fascist movement, the social conditions through which such demagogues are transformed into fascist leaders did not exist in 1953–54. The absence of such objective preconditions for the development of a mass fascist movement was indicated, moreover, in the fact that McCarthy, aside from his anticommunist ravings, did not offer a social program for the middle class upon which a mass movement could be based. In this, he was not only different from Hitler—who claimed to be the leader of an “anticapitalist,” “people’s,” “national” revolution—but from such potential leaders of incipient American fascist movements such as Huey Long and Father Coughlin.

The SWP attributed to the Wisconsin senator powers that he did not have. While American fascism will have its own peculiar traits, very different from those of the German and Italian models, it must have in common with its European forebears a mass base in the middle class.

But this is precisely what it lacked. McCarthyism was a witch-hunting excrescence which was vomited up by the American ruling class in response to the extreme crisis of American imperialism in the postwar period. Seeking to stifle domestic opposition to the militaristic policies of anti-Soviet containment, the perennial witch-hunts of the 1947–54 period functioned as an auxiliary tool of US foreign policy. Above all, under conditions in which the bourgeoisie could not move directly against the mass trade union organizations built by the working class during the previous two decades, McCarthyism served to bolster the position of the anticommunist AFL and CIO bureaucracies and thus maintain the political subordination of the labor movement to capitalism.

Thus, for all the virulence of McCarthy’s wild red-baiting, he generally steered clear of the labor movement and did not attempt to transform his witch-hunt into an open attack on the essential conquests of the CIO. This was not simply because large sections of the AFL and CIO leaderships supported his witch-hunt and sought to stoke the flames of anticommunism to drive socialists and radicals out of the labor movement. Any attempt to convert McCarthyism into an instrument of violent attacks upon the trade union movement would have signified a direct turn by the American ruling class toward civil war and would have sparked the very radicalization of the labor movement that the bourgeoisie sought to avoid. As the response of San Francisco longshoremen to the organization of local anticommunist hearings in that city demonstrated, the bosses were playing with fire when they attempted to utilize the crazed McCarthyite atmosphere of political witch-hunting for the purpose of union-busting.

Like all demagogues, McCarthy at times went further than his big-business paymasters intended. But in mid-1954, when he threw caution to the wind and began to attack the army, the bourgeoisie moved decisively to clip his wings. The Army-McCarthy hearings marked the end of the Wisconsin senator as a serious political force.

Nevertheless, the Socialist Workers Party persisted in wildly exaggerating the strength of the McCarthy movement. Its draft resolution for the sixteenth national convention in the autumn of 1954 was devoted entirely to McCarthyism. Its very first paragraph showed the extent to which the unfavorable conditions had politically unhinged the SWP:

Since the defeat of McArthur’s armies at the Yalu river, the most important development in world politics has been the rise in the United States of the fascist movement headed by McCarthy. If this movement succeeds in taking power and smashing the American labor movement, it will signify the eclipse of civilization, for the outbreak of World War III—an inter-continental war waged with atomic weapons—would not then be long delayed. In such a war even humanity itself might suffer annihilation. If on the other hand the working class mobilizes to put a halt to McCarthyism, the momentum of their effort would place on the order of the day the victory of a Workers and Farmers Government in America. That would signify the end of McCarthyism and along with it international capitalism and all its horrors. It would mean the opening of the planned economy of socialism on a world-wide scale. The struggle against McCarthyism thus is of decisive significance for the entire world.[3] (Emphasis added.)

Disregarding the outcome of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which was soon followed by his formal censure in the Senate, the SWP insisted that McCarthyism “will not be subdued or contained by the old capitalist parties. …”

All attempts of the Democrats and Republicans to curb, crush, outflank or brush aside McCarthy have ended in fiasco. The Army-McCarthy hearings, for instance, which resulted from the need of the Eisenhower administration to draw a line on the encroachments of McCarthy’s independent power, cost nothing more to the fascist demagogue than the sacrifice of his Jewish Democratic attorney as a scapegoat.

On the other hand, the hearings counted as combat experience for McCarthy’s mass following. All evidence shows that the basic core became hardened and drew more closely around the banner of the fascist demagogue. It is true that some marginal supporters were repelled by the crudity of McCarthy’s conduct. But the idea that this constituted a major setback for the fascist movement is nothing short of insane. The rise of Hitler likewise had its passionate division of the middle class for and against, with innumerable shifts and upsets. As a matter of fact, the very posing in the hearings of the question “for or against McCarthy?” constituted a major advance for American fascism. Moreover, the hearings brought into focus for millions the indispensable personal symbolism of the leader in the national political arena. There it will stay until the working class settles the issue definitively.

The struggle that broke into the open at the Army-McCarthy hearings showed most clearly that McCarthy’s movement is not just another political clique that can be disposed of by the capitalist machine politicians once it transcends the limits of what is permissible in the code of bourgeois democratic politics. It is a new type of machine with independent power resting on a mass base of its own.[4]

This “mass base” was an invention of the SWP. It did not exist and could not exist for reasons which were actually alluded to by the SWP in the resolution:

The fact is that a big section of the population is still riding the unprecedented economic boom that began with the entrance of America into World War II.

This is particularly true of the wide petty-bourgeois level, including layers of the working class, that has been enjoying a hitherto unknown standard of living. Millions of families that were on relief rolls in the depression, now own farms, homes, automobiles, TV sets, etc.[5]

Trying to bridge the gap between the relative prosperity of the middle class and the ruination which is a prerequisite for a mass fascist movement, the SWP resorted to a wildly idealist theory: “The fear of another economic catastrophe like that of 1929–39 has already proved sufficient to convert them [the middle class] into a vast recruiting ground for fascism.”[6]

Behind these heavy-handed constructions was an outlook which combined desperation and frustration. Not knowing how to reach the working class, the SWP leaders hoped to frighten it into action with the specter of imminent fascism. But in the process, they merely frightened themselves and paved the way for further and even more serious departures from Marxism. For example, in order to justify the portrayal of McCarthy as the leader of a mass fascist movement challenging the traditional bourgeois-democratic politicians, the SWP wound up distorting the actual character of the Eisenhower administration, as well as its relation to the McCarthyites: “The cleavage between what has been most recently called ‘Brownellism,’ after Eisenhower’s attorney general, and McCarthyism, is a cleavage between the Bonapartist and fascist tendencies that have appeared on the American political scene.”[7]

While still proclaiming its opposition to any form of political adaptation to the traditional bourgeois parties in the name of the struggle against McCarthyism, the SWP was treading on thin ice with its effort to draw such sharp distinctions between the different factions within the bourgeoisie: “To think that Brownellism is a graver menace than McCarthyism is to grossly underestimate what would happen in America with McCarthy in the White House.”[8]

There is an unseen logic at work within every political line. Implicit in the exaggerated and artificial distinctions being drawn by the SWP between different factions within the bourgeoisie, between “Brownellian Bonapartism” and “McCarthyite fascism,” was a drift toward a perspective which placed central emphasis on the defense of democracy, rather than the struggle for socialism and the proletarian dictatorship. The section of the resolution on “The Struggle for Workers Power” suggested precisely such a shift:

The struggle against McCarthyism must be conceived as a nation-wide struggle in which the working class represents the interests of the people and of the country as a whole. At the end of their historic road, the capitalist class revive the most bestial forms of government. The traditional banner bearers of democratic slogans, the liberals, after perspiring over the inroads on democratic rights, deploring the trend and offering endless warnings about how McCarthyism hurts American prestige abroad, end up by jumping on the witch-hunt wagon themselves and trying to seize the driver’s reins. …

Such traditional slogans as freedom of thought, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to a place on the ballot, equal rights before the law and in the courts, thus become central slogans in the struggle against the American form of fascism.[9] (Emphasis added.)

Proceeding from an incorrect assessment of McCarthyism, the SWP arrived at a position in which it tended to place central emphasis on democratic slogans rather than transitional demands. In other words, a danger implicit in its false analysis of McCarthy was that it would lead to a redefinition of the SWP’s role: from that of leader of the workers’ socialist revolution to that of the most resolute defender of bourgeois democracy. This danger was heightened by the fact that the SWP saw McCarthy as the leader of a powerful fascist movement under conditions in which it openly admitted that there existed no countervailing mass revolutionary movement of the working class.

A clearly opportunist defense of the SWP’s assessment of McCarthyism which, indeed, paved the way for a capitulation to liberalism, was made by Joseph Hansen. Taking time out from his bizarre and disruptive polemics, written under the name of Jack Bustelo, on the question of cosmetics and female beauty (“It is perfectly evident that Gloria Swanson’s approach on this point parallels that of a Marxist. …”), Hansen undertook to answer the criticisms of the Vern-Ryan tendency, which rejected the definition of McCarthy as a fascist leader. What was most significant in Hansen’s reply was his suggestion that between liberalism and fascism there existed an irreconcilable opposition. Objecting to the Vern-Ryan reference to a number of liberal senators as “potential fascists,” Hansen placed great emphasis on the conflict between the Senate liberals and McCarthy, and asked:

In this contest between the liberals and the fascists should the working class abstain with a curse on both their houses? Should we follow the method of Vern and Ryan and refuse to separate McCarthy “in any way from all the other supporters of capitalism” and call him, as they do, nothing but another “bourgeois democrat”? To do so would be to follow the politics of abstention and actually facilitate McCarthy’s work.

The correct course is based on the major differentiation between the liberals and fascists. We defend the democratic forms against the fascist threat. We do so by attacking the liberals for capitulating to the fascists, for performing their own historic function of paving the way for the fascists, for betraying the people to McCarthyism. From the concessions the liberals make to the fascists—concessions of deep injury to the labor movement—we demonstrate the necessity of removing the liberals from power.[10]

Aside from the incorrect appraisal of McCarthyism, the reference to “the major differentiation between the liberals and fascists” is a distortion of Marxism. Hansen treated liberalism as if it were somehow analogous to the social democratic organizations of the working class. As direct representatives of the bourgeoisie, the liberals cannot be accused of “betraying the people” to fascism in the same way that Marxists accused the social democrats, Stalinists and trade union bureaucrats of betraying the working class. The antagonism between fascism and social democracy (regardless of the reactionary views of its representatives) is of an entirely different order than the antagonism between fascism and liberalism. In the case of the former, there is, in their social bases, an irreconcilable class antagonism that is not present in the dispute between fascism and liberalism. For the workers, fascism means mass starvation, their reduction to a state of atomized peonage, the obliteration of their existence as an organized social force. For the liberals, as Felix Morrow once wrote, fascism simply threatens “minor inconveniences” that do not threaten a single vital interest of the class they represent.

When liberals like Hubert Humphrey called for the outlawing of the Communist Party and helped generate the anticommunist hysteria in which McCarthyism could flourish, they were not “betraying the people” any more than today’s liberals who cut social programs and support union-busting. Rather, they are serving the class of capitalists whom they represent.

Thus, when Hansen accused the liberals of “betraying the people to McCarthyism,” he was speaking the language of Stalinism and class collaborationism, not Marxism, and was abandoning the revolutionary standpoint of the proletariat. Moreover, he was implicitly suggesting that their betrayal could be halted if only these bourgeois-democratic custodians of the capitalist state would come to their senses and take decisive action against McCarthy. But this is the very position of relying upon the state to fight fascism which Trotsky emphatically denounced in his withering critique of the policy of German Social Democracy during Hitler’s rise to power: “Faced with the impending clash between the proletariat and the Fascist petty bourgeoisie—two camps which together comprise the crushing majority of the German nation—these Marxists from the Vorwarts yelp for the night watchman to come to their aid, ‘Help! State, exert pressure!’ (Staat, greif zu!)[11]

On the basis of Hansen’s position, Marxists should have welcomed the Senate censure of McCarthy as a positive step which deserved at least critical support.

Even if this conclusion was not explicitly drawn, the assessment of McCarthyism—derived initially from extreme pessimism and discouragement in the face of the political quiescence of the American working class—became the opening for opportunism in relation to the capitalist state and the defense of bourgeois democracy. Although the SWP changed its line on McCarthyism at the sixteenth national convention in December 1954, only a perfunctory explanation of the correction was made by Morris Stein when the delegates assembled. The underlying problems in the political perspective of the SWP and its opportunist drift on the question of bourgeois democracy were not examined. Thus, the stage was set for far more serious political errors in the future.

Before continuing, let us return for a moment to Banda. He makes reference to Cannon’s incorrect assessment of McCarthyism in his usual bombastic style (“a diagnosis which revealed that he knew little about Fascism and even less about class relations in the US.”) But Banda makes no analysis of the political content and theoretical nature of that error and its real relation to the process of the SWP’s degeneration. Instead, his “method” of work is so shoddy and devoid of conscientious research that he refers to the McCarthy episode entirely out of its proper historical sequence—after Banda’s attack on the 1948 Second World Congress! Even more serious, Banda claims that once the SWP had identified McCarthyism as fascism, “no one ever again heard about the 1946 Theses or for that matter about Trotsky’s insistence that the SWP fight for the creation of a Labor Party based on the unions.”

This mocking allusion to the SWP’s abandonment of the 1946 Theses makes clear that Banda is utterly confused on the question of chronology; he does not seem to realize that the McCarthy question belonged to an entirely different decade in the history of the SWP. In revolutionary politics, eight years is a very long time. Even if the SWP had dropped the 1946 Theses as the basis of its day-to-day agitation, that would have been no crime. After all, a few new things had happened between 1946 and 1954—such as the postwar restabilization of capitalism. Banda’s confusion on dates is not an unimportant matter; it expresses his lack of an overall historical perspective and his inability to grasp the inner relations between events.

As for his reference to the supposed abandonment of the Labor Party tactic, we must once again inform our readers that Michael Banda does not know what he is talking about. However incorrect the assessment of McCarthy, the SWP still sought to link its agitation against the demagogue to the party’s long-term campaign for the establishment of a Labor Party. Indeed, Cannon devoted the final two installments of his series on McCarthy to this very question. In The Militant of April 19, 1954, in an article entitled “Fascism and the Labor Party,” Cannon wrote:

I believe it is correct to say that a real first step toward a serious struggle against American fascism could hardly be anything less than the formation of a labor party. As long as the trade unions are allied to the Democratic Party and thereby, in effect, dependent on capitalist politicians to protect them against the onslaughts of a fascist party dedicated to a capitalist counter-revolution—they have not even begun to fight. …

For that reason, it is perfectly correct to put the slogan of a labor party in the center of our agitation and to concentrate all agitation around it.[12]

In The Militant of April 26, 1954, Cannon amplified his thoughts on this question in an article entitled “Implications of the Labor Party.” It began:

The formal launching of an Independent Labor Party, the indicated next step in the preliminary mobilization of the American working class against a rising fascist movement, will hit this country like a bomb exploding in all directions. It will not only blow up the traditional two-party system in this country and bring about a basic realignment in the general field of American politics. It will also mark the beginning of a great shake-up in the labor movement itself. The second result will be no less important than the first, and it should be counted on. …

To imagine that the present official leaders can make the great shift from the Democratic Party to independent labor politics, and maintain their leadership smoothly in an entirely new and different situation, requires one to overlook the basic causes which will force them to make this shift. That is, the radicalization of the rank and file and their revolt against the old policy. No matter how it is formally brought about, a labor party will be the product of a radical upsurge in the ranks of the trade unionists. The more the officialdom resists the great change, the stronger will grow the sentiment for a different leadership. Even if the present leaders sponsor the labor party at the start, they will be under strong criticism for their tardiness. The real movement for a labor party, which will come from below, will begin to throw up an alternative leadership in the course of its development. …

It is not permissible for revolutionists to pass themselves off as mere advocates of a labor party, pure and simple, like any labor faker who devotes Sunday sermons to this idea. A labor party headed by the present official labor skates, without a program of class struggle, would be a sitting duck for American fascism. That’s the truth of the matter, and advocacy of a labor party isn’t worth much if it leaves this truth unsaid.[13]

It could be said that Cannon’s exposition of the Labor Party question was inevitably marred by the incorrect appraisal of McCarthyism, and that he did not sufficiently elaborate the relation between the struggle for Marxism in the working class, i.e., the building of the revolutionary party, and the fight for the labor party. Nevertheless, these articles give the lie to Banda’s claim that the SWP had dropped the demand for a labor party. Banda only makes this claim to support his contention that the issuing of the “Open Letter” was part of Cannon’s plan to sell out to the trade union bureaucracy and the Democratic Party—an assertion which reveals that Banda knows nothing about Trotskyist principles and even less about historical truth!


Leon Trotsky, Germany 1931–1932 (London: New Park Publications, 1970), p. 48.


Ibid., pp. 64–65.


SWP Discussion Bulletin, A-20, September 1954, p. 1.


Ibid., pp. 10–11.


Ibid., p. 5.




Ibid., p. 13.


Ibid., p. 12.


Ibid., p. 22.


National Education Department Socialist Workers Party, Education for Socialists: What is American Fascism? July 1976, p. 42.


Trotsky, Germany, p. 55.


James P. Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), pp. 355–356.


Ibid., pp. 357–358.