It’s been a long time since the Communist Party has been a strong force within the American labor movement, so it seems worthwhile to review a few things that have been largely forgotten. As the influence of Stalin grew within the international movement (the Third International, or Comintern) beginning in 1924, the changes, though gradual, were profound: the interest of the working class began, more and more, to be subordinate to the interests of Stalin and the bureaucratic clique of which he stood at the head.
The prestige of the Communist Party came from its role in 1917 in leading the Russian working class to power, a tremendous inspiration to workers in, literally, every country in the world. Working against that tradition, while simultaneously attempting to keep the loyalty of millions upon millions of workers who were inspired by the party of Lenin, produced some remarkable pathologies.
The Left Opposition (later the Fourth International) worked to expose this contradiction, and to show where the activities and program and methods of the Stalinists worked against the interests of the working class. Over time, the best, the most intellectually honest members (I say with pride that this includes my father) were won over to the Left Opposition.
The arguments of the Trotskyists were necessarily reflected within the Communist Party itself, requiring that the arguments be answered. These “answers” took the form of rote recitals (which changed quite drastically as the interests of the Kremlin changed: Trotskyism was officially denounced as “ultra-left” which changed to “fascist” literally overnight, then went through other changes). These rote recitals were followed by a system of suppressing dissent within the party. In the Soviet Union itself, this suppression took the form of midnight visits from the Cheka followed by exile, prison, or murder. Lacking state power, the other sections of the Comintern had to find other methods of keep party members in line, of using their commitment to equality, to the rights of the working class, to prevent any examination of how best to carry out those goals.
That is the origin of the Stalin School of Party debate, and, though the Communist Party in the US is, at this moment, isolated and largely ineffective, and though no longer directed specifically against Trotskyism, the method of “debate” of international Stalinism, still lingers. That makes it worth a moment to review. It was present in the CP press, and in large conferences, but most often found expression in the meeting of local Party branches. It worked like this:
1) Someone is accused of the grievous crime of Trotskyism or being soft on Trotskyism, or perhaps saying something that indicates that there is something worse than Trotskyism or bringing up a point that sounds too much like one of the points Trotskyists bring up.
2) The accused is then permitted to speak and apologize for this crime.
3) Those in charge (usually whoever is the leader of that Party branch) then decide if this apology is acceptable, that is, if the individual is sufficiently contrite, and has apologized enough, and put his apology in the proper form. There were various pieces of that, including praise for Stalin, denunciation of one’s self, often going further than the original accusations in speaking of one’s own depravity, followed by the promise to do better. If this apology and ritual self-humiliation is accepted, the accused receives some level of forgiveness, though, of course, he can never be fully trusted again.
4) If the apology is deemed insufficient, everyone present must dutifully attack the offender, speaking from a position of deep moral outrage. Any defense made by the accused is cause for still further, deeper, and more profound attacks, because your unwillingness to recognize the “Trotskyite” influence in yourself means you are deliberately attempting to “sabotage the Party” with these influences. Should anyone be so rash as to defend the accused, or attempt to soften the attacks on the accused, go to step 1 with this person as the accused.
5) Eventually, the accused is either sufficiently humiliated, or makes a sufficiently abject apology, to be forgiven, at least provisionally; or else, if not, is expelled from the Party and shunned by all loyal Party members, after which the remaining Party members congratulate themselves on a job well done. Those who have doubts about what just happened keep these doubts to themselves, either because they still believe in the ultimate goal and accept that such methods are “necessary,” or simply out of fear of immense social pressure to conform.
Some discussion of this method can be found in the work of James P. Cannon, one of the founders of American Trotskyism (a quick google search of Cannon’s work didn’t bring up anything on line, but I’ve read about it in his work).
This method, to be clear, was neither invented by nor is it confined to the Stalinists: they simply brought it to new heights of formality and rigor. But any movement defined by political bankruptcy on the one hand, and the sacrificing of the search for truth at the altar of social acceptance on the other, is likely to find itself using these methods, until what remains are quasi-political automatons repeating formulas and attempting to outdo each other in their protestations of loyalty to the Accepted Ideology. It is a good thing to be aware of.