David North
The Heritage We Defend

Hansen’s Debasement of Marxist Theory

On January 14, 1961, Hansen delivered a report to the SWP Political Committee in support of his Draft Theses. If nothing else, his report, and the remarks in support of it by other members of the Political Committee, exposed the depths to which the SWP’s theoretical level had fallen. Despite the resolution of the Eighteenth Convention, the Cuba policy of the SWP meant the restoration, in a somewhat different form, of the right-wing orientation that had prevailed during the original regroupment campaign. Hansen’s explanation of the reasons why the SWP had to immediately declare whether or not it believed Cuba to be a workers’ state made very clear that the party leadership was reacting to the pressures being exerted by middle-class and radical public opinion:

There are figures like Sartre, very important intellectual figures that have a position. Is he right or is he wrong? And C. Wright Mills. I am sure all of you have read Listen, Yankee. At least all those in this room have read Listen, Yankee. All right, is he wrong, or is he right? A big, important figure in the academic world in the United States has made an estimate of the Cuban revolution. We are now faced with a political need to answer where we stand on this. Huberman and Sweezy have taken a stand on it. Do we agree or disagree? The Communist Party has a stand on the character of the revolution. Where do we stand—do we agree or do we disagree with them?

In other words, we feel a political pressure now to reach a definite decision as to the main characteristics of this revolution. It finally boils down to this question: Should we intervene in the dispute that’s going on among all these currents, all these figures, or should we abstain from this dispute and wait still longer before we take a position? If we do, we suffer political damage. Political necessity forces us to turn to the theoretical side of the revolution.[1]

Without the slightest embarrassment, Hansen was admitting that the SWP’s overriding preoccupation with the Cuban events—which were to serve as the justification for its split from the ICFI—was principally motivated by practical considerations stemming from the desire to strengthen its ties with the American radical (and not so radical) middle-class intelligentsia, described by Hansen as “big, important” people!

The vulgar character of Hansen’s thinking was exemplified in the manner he set about convincing the SWP Political Committee of the proletarian character of the Cuban state. His exposition reads almost like a satire on the pragmatic method, which constructs generalizations out of facts drawn from casual observation:

Now the conclusions that we have reached are not speculations, they’re not projections, are not based on any political confidence in what the regime down there is going to do. Our characterizations simply reflect the facts. The fact that the capitalists have been expropriated in Cuba. The fact that a planned economy has been started there. The fact that a qualitatively different kind of state exists there. No matter what you call these things, they are the facts that everyone has to start with. That’s the situation.[2]

These “facts,” as presented by Hansen, were devoid of critical analysis. As the International Committee was later to explain, Hansen’s treatment of “facts” as some sort of independent arbiter of truth was that of an unabashed pragmatist. He did not bother to examine the nature of the analytical concepts which he employed, consciously and unconsciously, in the very process of abstracting his “facts.” To say that capitalists have been expropriated did not in itself explain the class nature of the expropriations. The reference to the starting of a planned economy was no less abstract, inasmuch as it did not analyze the basis and perspective of Castro’s “planning.” And history has since demonstrated that in the absence of systematic industrialization, and without the liberation of Cuba from the domination of a monoculture economy based on sugar cane, scientific planning has been impossible.

But the most abstract of all Hansen’s claims was his reference to “a qualitatively different kind of state.” Different from what? Hansen did not say. His statement was simply to be taken at face value. Of course, the majority of the SWP Political Committee had some idea of what Hansen was referring to. The pictorial image of armed guerrillas probably flashed through their minds as they listened to Hansen. That was, no doubt, very different from the appearance of the New York Police Department. But armed guerrillas and popular militias do not, by themselves, determine the class nature of the state power and prove the existence of a nonbourgeois type state. The emergence of such bodies in the course of popular democratic revolutions is by no means uncommon. What made the state which arose from the Bolshevik revolution “qualitatively different” was not armed militias, but the Soviet form through which the proletariat exercised its power.

Thus, the “facts” which Hansen declared to be the starting point of his analysis were based on unstated conceptual premises (of a petty-bourgeois, non-Marxist character), unwarranted assumptions and undigested impressions.

Hansen’s presentation went from bad to worse. Arguing like a cynical lawyer trying to work out a deal—a mode of exposition that was Hansen’s specialty—he reviewed the “facts” upon which all reasonable men and women in the SWP leadership could agree:

I don’t want to repeat what’s in the theses you have before you because I expect everybody will have read and studied them. But what I would like to place before you are some considerations, some of which I am sure you will agree with, others which you may or may not agree with, and some considerations that I present as personal opinions. So first of all, let me indicate where I think you will all agree on the question of Cuba before I come to the speculative side, if it is speculative. It is very important in beginning a discussion to understand what we agree on. It makes the discussion a lot easier. This is true whatever the nuances may be in all the various positions that are taken.

The first fact I think we can all agree on is this: That the revolution began under a petty-bourgeois leadership, whose program was largely bourgeois democratic. That’s one of the things I think everyone will agree with, one reason being that the leadership itself recognizes that. The Castro leadership says that. Now there are two special things about this leadership. One is that it was extremely radical. It believed in armed revolution. They practiced it, they advocated it. And let me add that it’s completely legal in Cuba. I don’t say it’s legal here, but in Cuba it’s legal to advocate the armed overthrow of the government.

This leadership had one more characteristic that I think everyone will agree with. Its first appeals were directed to the population at large—workers, peasants, everybody—in the expectation that there would be a spontaneous uprising in response, some actions that would dramatize the appeals. Then after they found that this did not work, they set about organizing an armed force consisting largely of the peasantry and of agricultural workers. I think those are facts that are so clear that no one would deny them. Certainly in our movement everyone will agree with them. I think we also have agreement among all of us that this is an extremely profound revolution, one that has gone to far-reaching economic and social measures. Everybody will agree on that, even though they won’t agree on what to call them. I think everyone will agree that the revolution began with the support of the peasantry and of the agricultural workers, that it had the sympathy or quickly won the sympathy of the urban workers and finally their active support. That’s the present stage of the revolution, and I think everybody else who has been there and studied there will agree on that point.

Finally, I think everybody will agree that the Cuban revolution has displayed strong democratic and socialist tendencies. It’s much more democratic than anything we’ve seen in a long time.

That’s where we have agreement so far as the main facts are concerned.

I think we will also have agreement on what our main tasks are in respect to the Cuban revolution, and that’s of key importance for our party. Also for the discussion we want to have, an agreement on that score is of key importance.

The first main task is to defend this revolution against imperialism. That’s our main preoccupation as a party in relationship to the Cuban revolution.

I think we have agreement that we should defend all institutions that have been created in Cuba, like the planned economy, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie—that we defend these revolutionary institutions against the counterrevolution. That’s a big area of agreement.

I think we all agree that we should do our utmost to rally the American labor movement to the Cuban revolution and rally the students and intellectuals, whoever we can get together to defend that revolution. And I think we agree on certain tasks inside Cuba no matter how we name these various things that occurred there. First, that we follow a policy aimed at expanding and developing the proletarian democracy. That’s our Number One. Second, that we follow a policy aimed at building a revolutionary socialist party. In other words, that we follow a policy of deepening, extending the socialist consciousness which has already begun in Cuba. And that we follow a policy aimed at extending the Cuban revolution throughout Latin America. We all agree on that no matter what we call these different things. And thus we have a very wide area of agreement.

I want to stress that again and again—the wide area of agreement that we have. I do that because in a discussion, there’s a natural tendency to emphasize differences, emphasize even nuances that appear much larger than they really are. The fact is that our areas of agreement are so wide, so solid that we can afford to take things fairly easy on the other side.[3]

As we noted before, Hansen’s assertions were heavily freighted with unstated theoretical premises in which were concealed his own petty-bourgeois outlook. For example, he cited as a “big area of agreement” the defense of “all institutions that have been created in Cuba,” without analyzing the class relations within Cuba upon which these institutions rested. Without first establishing that these institutions represented the proletariat in power, Hansen provided them with open-ended support. At the same time, the defense of these institutions was simply equated with the defense of Cuba against American imperialism, as if a critical attitude toward the Castro regime was incompatible with the defense of the Cuban revolution against the United States. Hansen’s statement that the defense of the Cuban revolution was “our main preoccupation as a party in relation to the Cuban revolution” was a claim that Trotskyists would not even make in relation to the USSR. The defense of any revolution, even that which places the proletariat in power, is a tactic of the Marxist party, subordinated to its strategy of world socialist revolution. Moreover, Hansen’s assertion did not settle a whole host of associated political questions: Upon what perspective and program did the SWP undertake to organize the defense of the Cuban revolution? Upon what class forces did the SWP intend to base that defense?

It should, of course, be stressed that the unconditional defense of the Cuban revolution against the threat of US intervention did not require the definition of Cuba as a workers’ state. For Trotskyists, the anti-imperialist and democratic national character of the Cuban people’s struggle, under the leadership of Castro, was sufficient to require tireless activity in defense of the Cuban revolution. But from the unconditional defense of Cuba it did not at all follow that Marxists were compelled to proclaim the existence of a workers’ state on the island. Hansen sought continuously to blur the distinction between these two separate questions.

As for Hansen’s claim that the SWP was devoted to the building of a revolutionary socialist party in Cuba, this goal was already being trimmed to suit the needs of adapting to Castroism. Echoing the Pabloites, Hansen advanced the position that Trotskyism was nothing more than a tendency which would play a role in the creation of a future world party. The Fourth International, he suggested, could not claim to be the world party of socialist revolution:

Now let me say right now that such a party has never been built yet. Marx didn’t build one. Lenin didn’t build one. They started the core of it. Their aim was absolutely clear—where they were headed. But they never conceived this party as simply a narrow, national party. They conceived it as an international one, one that is capable of the greatest task that has faced humanity, taking us from capitalism to socialism.

When we say that capitalism is rotten-ripe for revolution, we also say that the conditions on an international scale are rotten-ripe for the construction of such a party, a tremendous international party that has all the knowledge and capacity, both political and theoretical, for accomplishing these great tasks. How are we going to build such a party? Will it be built in advance of the revolution? It would be very good if it could be—at least that’s what the Cubans themselves say now—it would be good to have such a party in advance. The fact is that such a party has got to be built in the very process of revolution as revolutions occur with varying degrees of success. That’s the fact that faces us. In some countries I think we will be able to build national sections of the party before the revolution occurs, and in some countries, like ours, I think that is an absolute condition for success. In other countries the revolution forges forward faster than the party. That’s an evident fact of politics now.[4]

Hansen specialized in twisting historical truth in order to create ludicrous premises that he could then knock down like straw men. Neither Marx nor Lenin were builders of “narrow, national” parties. Their political energies were centered precisely on the construction of international working-class parties. To claim, as Hansen did, that they did not build such parties is to deny the historical fact of the First, Second and Third Internationals.

The purpose of Hansen’s “twist” was to argue a case for an entirely different type of international party than that built by Lenin and Trotsky. For Marxists, an international party is based on a common world program. The cadre of an international party are recruited and trained on the basis of this program, which is the expression of the objective interests of the world proletariat. The building of this programmatically unified world party is the fundamental and urgent task that confronts Marxists in all countries, regardless of the political conjuncture that exists in any one country. To the extent that this task is postponed in any country until the eruption of revolutionary struggles, the development of the revolution along a conscious proletarian course directed toward the conquest of state power is seriously endangered.

Hansen was really talking about the creation of a multi-class, politically heterogeneous “world” organization, in which Trotskyists would adapt themselves to non-Marxist and nonproletarian forces: a farcical parody of Stalin’s “workers’ and peasants’” international. The claim that it is necessary to build revolutionary parties in some countries prior to the outbreak of revolution as an “absolute condition” for their success, but perhaps not necessary in other countries, is to break completely with Marxism. Hansen was repeating virtually word for word the arguments of Pablo, who had justified capitulation to Stalinism and bourgeois nationalism on the ground that there was not time to build an independent Trotskyist organization. The logical outcome of this perspective, conjunctural liquidationism, had to be, and was, the abandonment of the struggle to build Trotskyist parties anywhere in the world, especially in the United States!

The fact that Hansen’s position was overwhelmingly supported in the leadership of the SWP showed the extent to which the party had retreated from the positions it had defended in the struggle against Pabloism a decade earlier. The older generation of party leaders had given up on the American working class and saw no prospects for the SWP. The mood of capitulation which now gripped the old Cannonites was clearly expressed in the arguments of Morris Stein in the National Committee discussion that followed Hansen’s report:

Now as we discuss the facts, I think that fact Number One in the Cuban revolution—if you want to know how was all this possible—fact Number One is the existing world reality. Without it you could have had no Cuban revolution. The facts of the life and death struggle between two social systems, that dominates the whole of life throughout the world. Could you for a moment envisage a Cuban revolution prior to, say, the 1917 Russian Revolution? …

So there’s a new world reality that we are dealing with today. And that world reality is the 1917 Revolution plus the war and what resulted from it. Namely, the revolutions in Yugoslavia, in China, in the Eastern European countries; the growth in power of the Soviet Union—it’s no longer an isolated workers state fighting for its life; it’s a powerful state, the second greatest power in the world. And by the force of circumstance—not the least of which is the Chinese revolution—the Soviet Union is compelled today, instead of playing a counterrevolutionary role—it’s compelled, out of self-defense of interest, say what you may, to place itself on the side of revolution.

This is the new element in the world situation today without which you cannot begin to understand what went on.[5]

Just ten years earlier, Stein had played a prominent role in the fight against Pablo, subjecting his liquidationist views to a merciless critique. He had specifically denounced Pablo’s attempt to endow Stalinism with a revolutionary role in the international class struggle. Stein had rejected the idea that the basic historic tasks of the Fourth International could be resolved simply through the growth of “objective factors” favorable to revolution. Replying to Pablo’s talk of “engulfing revolutionary waves,” Stein had warned that “there isn’t a single capitalist country in which we can truthfully say that the crisis of proletarian leadership has been fully resolved” and went on to point out:

The inflated optimism about the revolutionary wave which is spreading from country to country and continent to continent, is thus a cover for deep pessimism about the capabilities of the working class and the revolutionary vanguard. The sum total of this line can only be liquidationism. Why bother building a party when everything is becoming resolved—or will be resolved eventually—by a mounting revolutionary wave. Why be interested in trade union activity or have patience with backward workers when everything is ablaze with revolution. Why study Marxist classics when they do not apply to the new epoch?[6]

By 1961, Stein had forgotten all that he had once believed. He now argued with a shameless disdain for Marxist theory:

Now to become sidetracked to a discussion which places primary weight on the question of the leadership in Cuba, on the question of its petty-bourgeois nature and its origin, its empiricism, you’re battering down open doors here, because we all accept that.

But I think we should add a little more than that, namely, that you’re dealing with a group of young people, very young, as far as leaders in the world today go, and I don’t mean only young compared to Adenauer. Men in their early thirties. …

They’re all in their early thirties.

Point Number Two: They are very brave men, selfless men, fighters. They’ve proved themselves in that respect. They are sincere. They started out with a sincere desire to rid their country of Batistaism and American imperialism. That’s a big undertaking.

In the given conjuncture of world circumstances, and being empiricists, they adapt themselves. And there’s very little room for adaptation. Either you are on the side of American imperialism or you accept the aid of the Soviet Union and the Soviet-bloc countries.[7]

Stein no longer believed that the alternative was a conscious strategy based on the perspective of world socialist revolution. The Fourth International, as far as Stein was concerned, had no independent program to offer the masses of Cuba. The underlying loss of confidence in the viability of Trotskyism and its long-term perspectives was revealed by Stein when he blurted out, “So what you have is a most peculiar phenomenon for us. We spend the best part of our lives polemicizing against people who talked like revolutionists and acted like reformists. We have spent our life on it. I think we should welcome a change.”[8]

This speech was Stein’s swan song. Though still in his fifties, Stein was politically exhausted after thirty years in the revolutionary movement. His capitulation to Castroism was both a political and psychological preparation for a demoralized retirement. Abandoning all practical activity, Stein and his wife, Sylvia Bleeker, drifted into the shadows, never formally quitting the party but severing all active connections with its daily work. Stein’s own prediction was fulfilled: what need was there for old Trotskyists when young men like Castro were enjoying success without all the theoretical baggage of the Fourth International?

The adulation of Castroism was a political expression of the SWP’s rejection of a revolutionary perspective for the American working class. That is why the SWP’s position on Cuba went hand in hand with its complete liquidation into the middle-class protest politics in the United States. A key to understanding the collapse of the SWP as a revolutionary party is to be found in an analysis made by Cannon himself of the decay of the American Communist Party.

He had written in 1954:

The degeneration of the Communist Party began when it abandoned the perspective of revolution in this country, and converted itself into a pressure group and cheering squad for the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia—which it mistakenly took to be the custodian of a revolution “in another country”. …

What happened to the Communist Party would happen without fail to any other party, including our own, if it should abandon its struggle for a social revolution in this country, as the realistic perspective of our epoch, and degrade itself to the role of sympathizer of revolutions in other countries.

I firmly believe that American revolutionists should indeed sympathize with revolutions in other lands, and try to help them in every way they can. But the best way to do that is to build a party with a confident perspective of a revolution in this country.

Without that perspective, a Communist or Socialist party belies its name. It ceases to be a help and becomes a hindrance to the revolutionary workers’ cause in its own country. And its sympathy for other revolutions isn’t worth much either.[9]

In 1939–40, during the battle inside the SWP over the class nature of the Soviet state, Trotsky taunted the Burnham-Shachtman minority to explicitly state what strategic and programmatic conclusions were to be drawn from their proposed finding that the Soviet Union was no longer to be considered a workers’ state. In this way, he made clear that the struggle was not simply a dispute over terminology. The minority’s rejection of the Fourth International’s designation of the USSR as a workers’ state was inextricably connected to profound differences with Trotskyism on all fundamental questions.

Similarly, the question of Cuba was not merely a difference over terminology. Hansen sought to evade the formulation of a principled explanation of the implications, both for Marxist theory and the program of the Fourth International, of the definition of Cuba as a workers’ state. He refused to state precisely what conclusions the Trotskyist movement ought to draw from the alleged formation of a workers’ state under the petty-bourgeois non-Marxist leadership of Castro. Hansen attempted to cover the liquidationist essence of the SWP’s position with fatuous claims that Castro’s victory “has given fresh confirmation to the correctness of the theory of permanent revolution”—a position which has since been repudiated by his Carleton College protégés in the present-day leadership of the SWP, who now admit quite openly that the American party’s line on Castro was, in fact, a repudiation of the theory of permanent revolution.

The struggle taken up by the International Committee, at the initiative of its British section, the Socialist Labour League, against the SWP’s decision to reunify with the Pabloite International Secretariat on the basis of a common platform of capitulation to Castroism represented a crucial milestone in the development of the Fourth International. In opposing the SWP’s betrayal of its past stand against Pabloism, the SLL assumed responsibility for the defense of the whole political and theoretical heritage of Trotskyism and through this fight reforged the foundation for the building of the Fourth International.


Joseph Hansen, Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution: The Trotskyist View (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), p. 83.


Ibid., pp. 86–87.


Ibid., pp. 87–89.


Ibid., p. 91.


SWP Discussion Bulletin, vol. 22, no. 2, February 1961, pp. 20–21.


National Education Department Socialist Workers Party, Towards a History of the Fourth International, June 1973, part 3, vol. 2, pp. 77–79.


SWP Discussion Bulletin, February 1961, p. 21.




James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1962), pp. 37–38.