David North
The Heritage We Defend

The SWP in Retreat

The SWP’s incorrect assessment of McCarthy in 1954 was a symptom of a deep-rooted political crisis which assumed a more dangerous form the following year. The reaction of the SWP to the upsurge of the oppressed black workers and farmers against Jim Crowism in the South amounted to a rejection of Marxist principles in relation to the struggle against the capitalist state. Its repeated calls from October 1955 on for the use of federal troops to “enforce” the US Constitution and “protect” the black population in the South marked a qualitative development in the political degeneration of the SWP.

However, Banda ignores this crucial episode precisely because it sheds light on the inner connection between the political degeneration of the SWP—expressed in its opportunist adaptation to the black petty bourgeoisie and capitulation to bourgeois democracy and the capitalist state—and its turn toward reunification with the Pabloites.

The SWP’s call for the use of federal troops in the South was made following the brutal murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till and the acquittal of his killers by a lily-white jury. In a front-page editorial which appeared in the October 17, 1955 Militant, the SWP declared, “Labor must fight with all its organized might to force the federal government to intervene in Mississippi and enforce 100% the constitutional rights of the Negro people there.”

The same issue carried excerpts from a speech given by George Breitman in Detroit October 7 at a public SWP Friday night forum. Breitman’s speech marked the public unveiling of a new class line for the SWP: a clear shift away from the program of revolutionary class struggle to that of social reform. An entirely new conception of the tasks of the SWP and its historic perspectives were advanced.

What then should be done? What should we be fighting for today? I can tell you in two words: Federal intervention. Federal intervention, with troops if necessary. That’s what should be demanded and done. The federal government should step into Mississippi and put a stop to the reign of terror, punish the lynchers and protect the rights of the Negro people.

That’s what the Negro people of Mississippi—and of Michigan too—are waiting to hear and to see, a demand that the government of the United States quit hiding behind legal technicalities. It must quit dodging its responsibilities and step in with all the power at its command to uphold and protect the civil rights of the Negro people. Mississippi and its courts have already proved to the whole world they have no intention of recognizing or protecting these rights. That’s what has to be done in this situation—and nothing less will do the job.

This position was theoretically and politically indefensible. To suggest that the defense of the black people in the South should be in any way entrusted to the bourgeoisie of the most reactionary imperialist country in the world was a shameful betrayal of the working class and the entire programmatic heritage of the Fourth International.

Fifteen years earlier, the SWP had refused to support the US government in World War II on the grounds that there existed no fundamental class antagonism between American democracy and German fascism, and therefore the Trotskyists did not believe in the capacity of American imperialism to wage a war against Nazism. They saw nothing progressive in the struggle of Roosevelt against Hitler, and insisted that the precondition for a genuine struggle against German imperialism was the overthrow of capitalism in the United States.

Moreover, during the war, when confronted with the eruption of anti-black rioting by racist mobs in Detroit, the SWP emphatically rejected any appeal to the Roosevelt administration: “What must be done to stop this lynch violence? Certainly no trust or reliance can be placed in the federal authorities, the army, state or municipal police, the good-will of the capitalist rulers, the action of Congress or the President. They have shown that they will not take the steps needed to protect Negro lives and rights.”[1]

But twelve years later, the SWP was advocating a policy which was not directed at the independent political mobilization of the working class against the capitalist state, but rather at pressuring the capitalist state to bring a section of the bourgeoisie and its most vicious racist hirelings to heel. The SWP did not raise the demand for the formation of defense guards among the black population to fight back against the racist thugs functioning under the protection of the state government. Nor did it call upon the labor movement in the North to initiate a political general strike against segregation and to organize armed fighting detachments to assist in the defense of the black population.

This policy was an unprincipled adaptation to the petty-bourgeois leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was also demanding federal intervention. Insofar as the SWP indicated differences with the NAACP, it was only to chastise the reformists for not being sufficiently vigorous in their call for federal action and for failing to specify the need for the use of troops. In a section of the same October 7 speech which was reported in a later issue of The Militant, Breitman declared:

We say federal intervention with troops will be necessary, just as they were needed in the days of Reconstruction. The NAACP leaves its demand vague and unspecified. The advantage of what we propose is that it is clear, it is plain, it is unmistakable, and therefore it has the ability to arouse and encourage and inspire a fighting mass movement; and the disadvantage of the NAACP proposal is that it is vague, it is ambiguous, it is subject to different interpretations and therefore runs the risk of not making a real impact on the thinking of the millions of people in this country who have been asking what they can do about the Till case. …

The trouble with the NAACP, obviously, is that it is not asking enough. It is asking the government to intervene on the basis of the so-called federal civil rights laws, which the government practically never invokes or enforces. That plays into the hands of the ones who are giving us a runaround. Instead of confining the demand to these civil rights laws, which are so limited that the most anyone punished by them could get is a year in prison anyhow, the NAACP should sweep aside the legal technicalities and go to the heart of the matter, intervention with U.S. troops. The raising of this demand will produce a tide of enthusiasm and militancy among the American people, inspire them and give them a goal worth fighting for. It could clarify things and bring them to a head. That’s why we say the demand for federal intervention should be clarified, expanded and concretized.[2]

The SWP opposed the petty-bourgeois leaders of the NAACP not as revolutionary proletarian class fighters for socialism, but as more consistent and radical petty-bourgeois democrats. Implicit in this approach was a programmatic redefinition of the political tasks of the SWP. The central emphasis of the party’s work was directed toward the defense and extension of democratic rights within the framework of the capitalist state, rather than toward the overthrow of that state and the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship. The program of Breitman proceeded from the middle-class opportunist attitude of implicitly accepting the premises of bourgeois rule and looking for “practical” solutions to the immediate problem within that given framework, not from principled considerations related to the development of the revolutionary consciousness of the working class. Such an approach invariably amounts to an abandonment of the strategic revolutionary line.

Moreover, the references to the Reconstruction period—the most radical phase of the American bourgeois democratic revolution of the mid-nineteenth century—was an indication of the depth of the change taking place in the whole perspective of the SWP. Disoriented by the reactionary political climate within the United States, the SWP began toying with the idea that the Civil War and the Reconstruction period had not completed the bourgeois democratic revolution in the United States. This interpretation conceded to the bourgeois state residual progressive tendencies. It implicitly tended to sanction alliances with sections of the bourgeoisie and justified the granting of political support to the capitalist state insofar as its actions were directed toward the completion of supposedly unresolved democratic tasks.

The SWP leadership defended its call for the use of federal troops with the claim that this demand would “expose” the government by showing that it refused to enforce its own laws. Furthermore, the SWP leaders argued, this demand would provide an easy way to expose the Democratic Party: candidates for elective office, such as Adlai Stevenson, would shrink from endorsing the demand because they feared the loss of Southern support.

The advocacy of the federal troops slogan sparked internal division within the SWP. Among those who correctly argued against the slogan was Sam Marcy, then the leader of the party’s branch in Buffalo. Objecting to Breitman’s speech and the theory that the demand for troops “exposes” the government, Marcy wrote in a letter to the National Committee January 21, 1956:

In Marxism, the word “expose” means to show or demonstrate the class essence of a given phenomenon. Asking for federal (capitalist) troops to Mississippi does not expose, but on the contrary, conceals the class essence of the terrorist apparatus of the bourgeoisie, its capitalist army. Rather than illuminate its class essence, it obscures the real significance and meaning of the capitalist class against the working class and oppressed minorities. The slogan’s effect is to stifle the creative initiative of the masses toward independent struggle and to increase their reliance on the capitalist state.[3]

In another pointed criticism of the SWP’s line, Marcy wrote:

The slogan for federal troops to Mississippi is alleged to have originated from the depths of the Negro people. In reality it represents the ideas of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois Negro reformists, who look to the Wall Street government, rather than to the Negro masses and the labor movement for support against the white supremacists’ terror. These leaders either overlook, or seek to cover up the class character of the capitalist attacks against the Negro people. Instead they foster the illusion that the capitalist government will bring liberation to the South from above. They believe that the Washington government is a supra-class government. Hence it is perfectly logical for them, from the point of view of their ideology, to ask the government to send its troops to defend the rights of the Negro people.[4]

Marcy also warned, “To counterpose the government of the US to the government of Mississippi—to draw a distinction between the federal army and its various state appendages, is to gloss over their identical class character.”[5]

Later, Marcy capitulated to Stalinism and broke with Trotskyism, one of many leaders disoriented by the political crisis inside the Socialist Workers Party. His inability to find his bearings on the central problems of the world socialist revolution, as his position on the Hungarian Revolution revealed, made it impossible for Marcy to develop any consistent and principled struggle against the SWP’s growing opportunism. His attempt to maintain a revolutionary proletarian orientation without the struggle for the Fourth International ended in a fiasco, as the present political role of the Marcyites as semi-official advisers of the trade union bureaucracy proves. Nevertheless, Marcy’s 1956 criticisms of the SWP on the federal troops issue were correct, and the debate which it sparked within the SWP Political Committee on February 9, 1956 exposed the awful political and theoretical decline of the central leadership.

The arguments employed by Morris Stein amounted to a vulgar apology for class collaboration. Arguing like an unabashed pragmatist, he stated:

We are discussing here not merely whether it is permissible for us to call for federal troops to enforce the Bill of Rights in the South; we are discussing a slogan already widely used by others and we must know what to say about it. This slogan has become the property of the Negro people. The Negro press has been advocating it and Negro leaders have been using this slogan as a test of politicians in the election campaign. This is how Stevenson was smoked out on the question of Negro equality. The federal troop slogan has already become a campaign issue and I dare say that not only the capitalist politicians but our own candidates will be confronted with it as well. In the course of the campaign somebody is bound to ask, “Where do you stand on this question of sending the federal troops to Mississippi to protect Negro lives?”[6]

For a Marxist, such a question would have posed no problem at all. He would first have pointed out that in the very formulation of the question there was a major fallacy: it assumed that federal troops, if they were sent to the South, would be there to “protect Negro lives.” Throughout World War II, the SWP continuously answered the question, “Where do you stand on fighting Hitler and defeating fascism?” by exposing the reactionary lie that American troops were sent to Europe and Asia to defend democracy. But by 1955, the SWP leadership was no longer prepared to mount a struggle against the illusions of the masses in the role of the federal government and to expose the reactionary essence of bourgeois democracy in the United States. Indeed, its loss of a revolutionary perspective was revealed in its use of such abstract phrases as “Negro people,” “Negro press,” and “Negro leaders” without defining the real class content of these non-Marxist abstractions.

The SWP was now revising its conceptions on the nature of bourgeois democracy. To justify its appeal to the capitalist state, the SWP developed the theory that two qualitatively different forms of bourgeois rule existed in the North and South:

Marxists have never been neutral on the question of method of bourgeois rule. Since the day of Marx, Marxists have been siding with the more progressive methods of exploitation and oppression against the more reactionary and more brutal. We had this argument out in connection with the Spanish Civil War. We had comrades who were against supporting the Loyalists in their struggle against Franco because they were “fundamentally” the same. Fundamentally they were all capitalists. Fundamentally it was the opening of the Second World War and where do pure revolutionists come butting in? We opposed this sharply and we would do it again today because we are interested in defending bourgeois democracy against all the methods of totalitarianism and that is what you have basically in the South insofar as the Negro is concerned. They are under totalitarian rule.[7] (Emphasis added.)

Not only was the analogy poorly constructed and entirely out of place, it was employed by Stein to advance political conceptions hostile to Marxism and which distorted the real positions held in the past by the Fourth International. In no way could the existence of Jim Crow in the South express the existence of fundamentally antagonistic internal divisions within the American bourgeoisie, justifying the identification of the federal government as the political representative of a more progressive section of the ruling class. Such a line could only serve to justify a policy of class collaboration. Moreover, in his reference to Spain, Stein “forgot” one little thing: during the civil war the Trotskyist “defense” of bourgeois democracy against fascism was based on an unrelenting struggle for the overthrow of the capitalist state. It rejected the bogus claims that there existed fundamental differences between the liberal politician Azana and the fascist Franco, and continually insisted that the defeat of Franco required the smashing of Azana and the popular front. At no time did the Trotskyists suggest that the Azana regime, backed by the social democrats, Stalinists and anarchists, was capable of carrying through any progressive tasks. When Shachtman, in 1937, expressed surprise at Trotsky’s opposition to voting in favor of the military budget of the popular front government, Trotsky confessed that Shachtman’s criticism “astounded me” and labeled his position petty-bourgeois opportunism.

Underlying Stein’s position was the unjustifiable claim that the existence of Jim Crow laws in the South was the expression of historically-unresolved divisions within the capitalist class arising from the failure to complete the democratic revolution:

There is a difference in methods of oppression. This is a difference which has been plaguing American capitalist society. This is one of the contradictions of American life over which the sharpest conflicts have occurred. It is a crying contradiction dogging American imperialism all over the world. The most advanced capitalist country has a residue of an unresolved bourgeois democratic problem—the Jim Crow system. And they haven’t been able to resolve it.[8]

This interpretation marked a fundamental revision of the SWP’s past conception of the relation between Jim Crow and the development of industrial and finance capitalism in the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War. Previously, the SWP had continually stressed the organic political and economic connections between the Northern industrialists and financiers and the monstrous institutionalization of racism in the South. It insisted that the oppression of the black population in the South was an essential component element of bourgeois rule in the United States.

Under the influence of Trotsky, the SWP undertook, from the standpoint of developing the strategy of the socialist revolution, a serious study of the problems of the black people. Among the important products of this work was the resolution, “Negro Liberation Through Revolutionary Socialism,” which was originally adopted at the SWP National Convention in 1948 and published in a revised form in February 1950. The resolution declared, “Next to the emancipation of the working class from capitalism, the liberation of the Negro people from their degradation is the paramount problem of American society. These two social problems are integrally united. The only road to freedom for the workers, and to equality for the Negroes, is through their common struggle for the abolition of capitalism.”[9]

The resolution insisted that “not the slightest concession must be made to any ideas which do not place upon capitalism the complete responsibility, deliberate and conscious, for the existing situation of Negroes, the spread of racial prejudices in all areas of the United States today, and the example and encouragement given by American ‘democracy’ to race-haters and race-baiters all over the world.”[10]

The SWP carefully traced the origins of the symbiotic relation between Jim Crowism and capitalist rule:

Before the Civil War and afterwards, to maintain their privileged position, they [the Southern bourbons] have systematically propagated and injected racial discrimination, segregation, super-exploitation and prejudice into this country’s life. In this they have been aided and abetted by Northern industrial capitalists. In 1876, after establishing its political domination over the defeated slave-owners, Northern capital cemented a new alliance with Southern propertied interests for the maintenance of white supremacy. Since then Northern capital has steadily extended its financial control until today the South is entirely in its grip. Thus today it is the interests of capitalism which demand the maintenance and perpetuation of the Southern system. …

To contend that bourgeois democracy is capable of regenerating and reforming the South for the benefit of the Negro is to whitewash and embellish the present promoters and beneficiaries of Negro persecution. Only the proletarian revolution can free the Negroes, cleanse the social sewer of the South, and reorganize its economy.[11]

To underscore this revolutionary truth, the SWP resolution pointed to the appalling social conditions which confronted blacks living in the North:

Capitalism confines most workers to slum-dwellings and miserable neighborhoods. This is itself a form of segregation, despite attempts to obscure this by fictitious democratic propaganda. This segregation of the proletariat as a whole assumes an exceptionally aggravated form in the case of the Negroes.

The system of plantation slavery dictated rigid social segregation of the slave. Driven by the needs of the Southern system and its own needs, capitalism, while integrating the Negroes into Northern industry, maintained and extended Jim Crow segregation. Everywhere the Negroes have been herded into ghettos.[12]

In defining the “special contribution of the Negro struggle to the proletarian movement in the United States,” the SWP resolution stated:

Under the banner of Negro rights, the movement of the Negro people is rendered most sensitive and responsive to social tensions. It acts as a spur in precipitating struggles for elementary democratic rights; it unmasks the class nature of the capitalist state; it helps educate the working class to the reactionary role of bourgeois democracy and the need to wage a merciless struggle against it; and propels into action the major political forces of the nation and the organized labor movement.[13]

Neither the historical analysis nor the programmatic conceptions advanced in the 1948–50 resolution were to be found in the position advanced by the SWP between 1955–57 in relation to the black struggle for civil rights. By the time of the Little Rock crisis, the reactionary content of the demand for federal troops was exposed when Eisenhower obliged the SWP and dispatched troops to Arkansas. During the decade that followed, the role played by the capitalist state in the repression of the black struggle was shown with brutal clarity again and again. From the FBI-organized assassinations of black leaders and civil rights activists to the landing of the 82nd Airborne Division in Detroit, the capitalist state functioned as the central coordinator of all conspiracies against the democratic rights of the black masses in the United States.

From the standpoint of Marxism, the SWP shares political responsibility for crimes inflicted upon the black population in the North and South by the forces of the federal government because it worked to create illusions in the “progressive” nature of the capitalist state.

Among those who staunchly supported the call for the use of federal troops in the South was Hansen, whose arguments were those of a vulgar petty-bourgeois democrat. Defining the demand for the use of federal troops to enforce civil rights laws as a “revolutionary bourgeois” slogan, he argued that such slogans “can be advanced by us in the present stage only because the bourgeoisie themselves have entered the stage of decay and are no longer able to uphold them. They dissipate their gains and throw them away. They actually revert to a position below what they began with in the struggle against feudalism. It falls on us therefore to defend and to advance these bourgeois slogans.”[14]

Hansen latched onto the general truth that the bourgeoisie, in the imperialist epoch, abandons the democratic ideals of its revolutionary past, and twisted it to argue that the Marxist party must therefore become the most ardent champion of bourgeois democracy—to the extent of leading a national campaign to demand that the capitalist state uphold the constitution.

First of all the content is a demand to enforce elementary bourgeois law and safeguard human life in Mississippi. From this viewpoint the slogan is completely justifiable. Next you notice this—the content of the slogan is the feeling among wide sections of the Negro people that the government in Mississippi cannot be trusted. That is a very progressive development. You can’t trust the government in Mississippi to safeguard human life. That is completely revolutionary and I can’t see how we can possibly put ourselves in the political position of not trying to foster that sentiment and if possible trying to lead it.[15]

Hansen’s ludicrous claim that Mississippi blacks, after eighty years of Ku Klux Klan rule, were only beginning to understand that they “can’t trust the government in Mississippi to safeguard human life” was directed toward defending an adaptation to their illusions in the federal government:

The Negro people, of course, have illusions about the federal government. They don’t trust the government in Mississippi and want a new government there, but still think that this can be the federal government. We are confronted with the question, should we go through this experience with them or confine ourselves to good advice from afar? Everything in our revolutionary experience indicates we should go with them.[16]

Hansen’s formulations were arguments in defense of the worst forms of political opportunism. For the SWP to have rejected appeals to the federal government, to have warned Southern blacks to place no confidence in the imperialist tyrants in Washington and their military satraps, to have called for the formation of black defense guards and the nationwide mobilization of the trade union movement to stop the racist terror in the South, would have been, in Hansen’s words, to give “good advice from afar.” According to Hansen’s method, it would have been permissible for the SWP to support US imperialism in World War II on the grounds that while the American working class opposed Hitler and wanted a different government in Germany, they still thought this could be done through Roosevelt.

In the very issue of the Fourth International which published the above-quoted 1948 SWP resolution, there was also an article by George Novack on the lessons of Reconstruction:

Much disillusionment in regard to the current civil rights struggle might have been avoided if the following lesson of Reconstruction had been known and assimilated. If the Northern capitalists feared and failed to give real equality and enduring freedom to the Negroes during their progressive days in the mid-19th century, how then can the present imperialist autocrats at Washington be expected to grant them in the middle of the 20th century when Big Business not only tyrannizes over the South but has become the foremost foe of the liberties of the entire people at home and on a world scale?[17]

Within just five years, the bowing of the SWP before the pressures of political reaction in the United States caused its leaders to forget what they themselves had written. The position adopted by the SWP in 1955 was not merely an episodic mistake. On a fundamental question central to the whole perspective of proletarian revolution in its own country, the SWP abandoned its previous Marxist program and adopted an opportunist line. This represented a shift in its class orientation: away from the proletariat and toward the petty bourgeoisie.


The Militant, 3 July 1943.


The Militant, 19 December 1955.


SWP Discussion Bulletin, vol. 18, no. 12, October 1957, p. 4.


Ibid., p. 10.




Ibid., p. 16.


Ibid., p. 17.


Ibid., pp. 17–18.


SWP Resolution, “Negro Liberation Through Revolutionary Socialism,” Fourth International, vol. 11, no. 3, May-June 1950, p. 90.


Ibid., p. 91.


Ibid., pp. 91–92.


Ibid., p. 92.


Ibid., p. 94.


SWP Discussion Bulletin, October 1957, p. 21.


Ibid., p. 22.




SWP Resolution, Fourth International, May-June 1950, p. 90.