International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 20 (1994): Capital, Labor and the Nation-State

The Death of George Novack (1905-1992)

George Novack, a founding member of the US Socialist Workers Party, died July 30, 1992, at the age of eighty-six. He was among the last of the generation who joined the American Trotskyist movement in the 1930s and participated in its early struggles to build a new, revolutionary leadership.

If Novack had died forty years ago, he would have been remembered as having devoted his modest talents to the defense of Leon Trotsky against the monstrous frame-up charges of the Moscow Trials and as the author of some useful educational material popularizing and defending the dialectical materialist method.

The fact is, however, Novack lived a long life, and he devoted nearly half of it, and two-thirds of his political career, to spitting on everything that Trotsky fought for. Novack ended his days as a supporter and adviser of the anti-Trotskyist leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, an organization which broke from Trotskyism three decades ago and ten years ago openly denounced Trotsky’s struggle for revolutionary leadership.

George Novack was born in Boston in 1905, the son of Jewish immigrants. The young Novack attended Harvard University in the late 1920s and then began a brief career in the publishing industry before he became radicalized by the Great Depression and the struggle against fascism in Germany.

Novack drew close to a group of Jewish intellectuals in New York, including Elliot Cohen, Herbert Solow, Felix Morrow and Lionel and Diana Trilling. In the early years of the Depression these intellectuals gravitated toward the American Communist Party. Later they attacked Stalinism from the right, but in the early 1930s they came into conflict with the CP from a principled standpoint on a number of crucial issues, including the Stalinist “Third Period” line, which was responsible for allowing the victory of Hitler without a struggle.

Novack joined the Trotskyists, then organized as the Communist League of America, in the fall of 1933. Over the next several years he played an active role both in writing for the party press and in labor defense work.

From his earliest days of party membership, however, Novack evinced a political softness, a pronounced tendency to adapt to the prevailing ideological winds and to the petty-bourgeois milieu. Trotsky had occasion to sharply criticize this political trait in early 1937, when Novack was working as the secretary of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky.

In the work to establish an International Commission of Inquiry into the Stalinists’ frameup charges against Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov, Novack adapted to social democrats, liberals and Stalinist fellow-travelers. The American Trotskyists had to establish a principled alliance with political opponents on the question of conducting an impartial inquiry to expose the Stalinist frame-ups. But Novack confused this with political conciliation.

When Fenner Brockway, the notoriously pro-Stalinist British centrist, suggested the establishment of a commission to pass judgment on the “role of Trotskyism in the working class movement,” Novack called the names he proposed for such a commission “excellent.”

Trotsky wrote Novack an angry letter on March 9, 1937, explaining, “It is a question of the systematic campaign of Stalinist-inspired maneuvers with the sole purpose of sabotaging the inquiry by forcing it into other channels.... Can there be any doubt that this is a more subtle maneuver of the Stalinist campaign to strangle every move toward an impartial attempt to discover the truth?”

Trotsky said the Brockway incident was only one example and called “the course upon which the committee is now embarked ... absolutely intolerable,” warning that “if it remains unaltered, it will lead to complete disaster.” A week later, he wrote another, longer letter stressing that “the general line of our comrades in the committee is not correct,” and spelling out the need for a firm political reorientation.

Despite his serious weaknesses, Novack made some political contributions as long as he was under the influence of Trotsky. It was Novack, along with Max Shachtman, who went to meet Trotsky at the dock in Veracruz when the embattled leader arrived in Mexico in early January 1937 to begin his final exile. In his first conversation with his American supporters after his arrival in the Western Hemisphere, Trotsky warned them of the need to educate the cadre in the dialectical materialist method and raise the theoretical level of the party membership.

Novack later recalled that during this conversation Trotsky “became tense, agitated. ‘Upon going back to the States,’ he urged, ‘you comrades must at once take up the struggle against (Max) Eastman’s distortion and repudiation of dialectical materialism. There is nothing more important than this. Pragmatism, empiricism is the greatest curse of American thought. You must inoculate younger comrades against its infection.’”

This admonition was completely vindicated only a few years later. Shachtman became one of the leaders of a petty-bourgeois opposition faction inside the American party which rejected the dialectical method and the fundamental programmatic conquests of the Trotskyist movement with which it was inseparably connected. This included the Fourth International’s analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state and the political conclusions which it drew from this analysis—that the international working class had to defend the Soviet Union against imperialism; this defense being inseparably bound up with the struggle for a political revolution to overthrow the counterrevolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy and restore Soviet democracy.

Following the split with the Burnham-Shachtman opposition, Novack prepared a series of lectures which were published as An Introduction to the Logic of Marxism. He also produced other works on Marxism and American history which are of educational value.

With Trotsky gone, however, and the Trotskyist movement facing the difficult isolation of the postwar period, all of Novack’s weaknesses quickly came to the fore. Sent to do political work in Europe, he rapidly came under the influence of Michel Pablo, the young secretary of the Paris-based Secretariat of the Fourth International. Pablo and Ernest Mandel were the leaders of the opportunist faction which responded to the postwar settlement between imperialism and Stalinism by writing off the revolutionary role of the working class. Pablo sought to liquidate the world Trotskyist movement by transforming it, in the name of “mass work,” into loyal “left” appendages of the Stalinist and social democratic bureaucracies.

The 1952-1953 struggle which led to the split of the American, British and French Trotskyists from the Pabloite forces and the founding of the International Committee of the Fourth International plunged Novack into an enormous political and psychological crisis. He returned to the United States to find himself at odds politically with the party leadership under James P. Cannon. The prospect of conducting a bitter struggle against revisionism inside the movement so demoralized Novack that he suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew from party activity for a period.

Novack gradually resumed political work after the Pablo fight, but inside an organization which was moving steadily to the right. After breaking with Pablo, the SWP leadership quickly dropped any continuing theoretical and political struggle against revisionism. By 1957 it had embarked on the policy of “regroupment” with dissident Stalinists and other middle class radicals, and the negotiations which were to lead to reunification with the Pabloite traitors in 1963 had already begun.

Novack, needless to say, eagerly welcomed these shifts. His opportunism now went unchecked. In the ensuing period his main role became that of defending the increasingly rightwing line of the SWP leadership, which found substitutes for the building of a revolutionary proletarian party in Castroism, black nationalism and the middle class antiwar protest movement.

As the SWP’s resident “Marxist intellectual,” Novack specialized in revising Marxism in order to justify the existing grip of Stalinism and the trade union bureaucracy on the working class movement. He provided the pseudo-Marxist gloss for the grossest forms of political opportunism.

Novack helped elaborate the anti-Marxist philosophical and political platform which was used to justify the abandonment of the Trotskyist program—above all, the fight for the political independence of the working class and the construction of the independent revolutionary party in struggle against Stalinism, reformism and revisionism. Novack instead promoted a return to the pro-Stalinist politics of popular frontism, and to the middle class protest politics of the antiwar movement.

In one of his rare polemical forays, Novack attacked the International Committee, after the SWP broke from it and reunited with the Pabloites, for “sectarianism in philosophy.” This reactionary charge was used to deny the necessity for partisanship in philosophy. Instead of a war against pragmatism and other forms of idealism, Novack wanted vacillation and compromise.

During the period of the 1960s and 70s, Novack became the chief collaborator and theoretical right-hand man of Joseph Hansen, the longtime leader of the SWP whose links to Stalinist and imperialist intelligence agencies were exposed by the International Committee’s investigation of Security and the Fourth International. Novack and Hansen worked as a team in leading the SWP’s attack on Trotskyism.

When the IC’s investigation began in 1975, it uncovered documented evidence exposing that Hansen had entered into secret contacts with both the Soviet GPU and the American FBI in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Further investigation showed that Novack had himself covered up the role of Stalinist agents such as Sylvia Franklin, who worked for nine years as the private secretary of James P. Cannon, and Marc Zborowski, the agent who worked next to Leon Sedov and helped to setup the murders of Sedov and other Trotskyists in Europe, as well as the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico.

It was Novack who helped Zborowski enter the United States as a refugee in 1941. There is no evidence that he was aware of Zborowski’s real role at this time, but he remained silent when Zborowski was named as a Stalinist operative and brought to trial for perjury in the 1950s. For these reasons, the International Committee accused Novack, along with Hansen, of acting as an accomplice of the Stalinist GPU.

When an SWP member, Alan Gelfand, brought legal action to force the release of information about the role of Stalinist and imperialist infiltration of the party, Novack was among the SWP leaders who were forced to give legal depositions. Under questioning by Gelfand’s attorneys in 1982, Novack’s answers were a combination of stonewalling, ignorance and outright lies. He said he knew nothing about Hansen’s contact with the GPU and FBI, thus demonstrating that these contacts were unauthorized and secret. He continued to defend Sylvia Franklin in the face of proof of her role as a Stalinist agent.

Later, the release of Franklin’s testimony before federal grand juries in 1954 and 1958 irrefutably established her role. To his dying day, Novack defended this self-confessed Stalinist agent as an “exemplary comrade.”

Novack’s collaboration with Hansen and defense of Franklin and Zborowski were the preparation for the final chapter in the political degradation of the SWP. After Hansen’s death in 1979, Novack became the main supporter among the older generation still in the SWP of the group of twelve Carleton College graduates who had taken over the party leadership. This group, led by Jack Barnes, had been groomed by Hansen in the mid- and late-1960s. Coming from Carleton College, a small liberal arts school in the Midwest, this clique was rapidly elevated to the top leadership of the SWP, bypassing a whole generation of party members.

Shortly after Hansen’s death, the Carleton group openly attacked Trotskyism, denouncing the theory of permanent revolution and repudiating the SWP’s history and traditions. Novack put his limited abilities and experience at the service of these elements. He worked with them at the SWP’s special leadership school in upstate New York to prepare for the formal repudiation of Trotskyism in 1982.

Barnes went on to organize the expulsions of scores of veteran SWP members with decades of membership. Although these party members had long since broken from a revolutionary perspective, their links to the party’s past and their unwillingness to openly denounce Trotsky led Barnes to expel them on the flimsiest of charges. Novack, in the interests of maintaining his pension from the SWP traitors, voted to expel close colleagues and friends with whom he had worked for decades.

George Novack personified the political degeneration and destruction of the SWP as a revolutionary party. He came to symbolize everything which Trotsky fought against politically. In contrast to Trotsky’s willingness to swim against the stream, his unswerving commitment to the revolutionary movement of the working class and his courageous struggle against opportunism, Novack’s chief traits were political cowardice, dishonesty, distance from the working class, indifference to questions of revolutionary perspective, and the open rejection of Marxism in favor of pragmatism and skepticism.

Novack’s betrayal of Trotskyism was part of the destruction of a generation which succumbed to the pressure of Stalinism and imperialism. He contributed decisively to the betrayals of the working class and the continuing crisis of working class leadership. A new revival of genuine Marxism and the building of the Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution will take place in the continuing struggle against his despicable political legacy.