James P. Cannon

The Militant

March 18, 1933

Albany: Three Years of Party Policy


Written: 1933
Source: The Militant. Original bound volumes of The Militant and microfilm provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup:Andrew Pollack


The Albany State Conference for Labor Legislation represented a culminating point in the endeavors of the party, over a period of nearly three and a half years off the crisis, to organize and develop a movement of the workers on the issue of unemployment. In all that time the heavy burdens of unemployment have been accumulating and growing more and more intolerable, and the situation has therefore become increasingly favorable for the work of the revolutionary party. There has been no lack of effort; agitation, slogans, conferences, demonstrations and marches, organized and directed by the party in these past years, have centered chiefly around the burning question of unemployment.

The Albany conference itself was conceived and prepared as a major demonstration. It was preceded by months of preparatory work, including two conferences in New York City. On top of that, it should be added, the Albany conference came after the recent half turn in the policy of the party and provided a means of measuring its value. Socialist Party branches and local unions of the AFL were invited to participate the well-known “united front from below.”

And what was the net result of three and a half years of the “third period” frenzy, capped with the latest half turn? Out of 348 delegates, seven local unions of the AFL—and all left-wing locals—and one branch of the Socialist Party were represented from the entire state of New York! Crushing and irrefutable testimony to the utter falsity of the policy of the party leadership!

The shadow of the catastrophic failure to create even the semblance of a united front movement outside the sphere of direct party influence hung over the conference on the first day. The attempt of the leadership of the conference—Hathaway, Winter, and lesser bureaucrats of the Stalinist apparatus—to compensate for the failure to attract the nonparty workers—who, according to their own thesis, are eager to struggle against unemployment—with windy soap-box agitation, could not banish from the minds of the delegates the haunting question: why are these workers not represented here?

A delegate from the bakers’ local union gave a truer expression to the unspoken sentiment of the great majority than all the official speeches when he said: “I read in the Daily Worker that only seven AFL unions are represented here. As a trade union man I would like to see this hall packed with union delegates.” But such delegates were not there. The question of why they were absent and how to attract them in the future—to these questions, which were uppermost in the minds of those who want to see a broad class movement on the class issue of unemployment, the Hathaways have no answer. They could only put a cross over the bankruptcy of all their previous maneuvers and leave the future blank.

To all that has gone before, to the great detriment of the movement, the official leaders added new blunders and stupidities at Albany. The conference was obviously not a united front affair in the real sense of the word. It was a gathering of the vanguard—of the Communist Party and its auxiliaries and sympathetic organizations. Besides that, it had very little of a statewide complexion. The roster of delegates could have served, with a few alterations, for a roll call of the second- and third-line functionaries of the party and left-wing organizations in New York City.

Even such a representation, after a united front conference of workers’ organizations in the whole of New York State has been aimed at, might have been turned to advantage. If the conference had been led by halfway competent politicians, they would have sized up the situation, charged off the expenses of transportation to profit and loss, and devoted themselves to a discussion of ways and means of transforming the Albany conference of the vanguard into a conference of the class another time.

Instead of that, they tried to solve the contradictions by a characteristic exhibition of Stalinist self-deception. The thing that was, became transformed—in their minds—into the thing that had been desired. The conference of the party members and sympathizers was declared to be a united front conference of workers’ organizations, political parties, and trade unions. Their speeches to the conference were predicated on this fictitious assumption.

The conference needed the concise, businesslike elaboration of a program for changing the situation and uniting the vanguard with the masses—a single bullet aimed at a real target. It got, from the official leaders, the thunder of agitation in the name of the masses who were not represented in the conference—blank cartridges fired in the air. Worse, they not only talked; the actions of the conference under their control were the same caricature. Comedy, in the speeches of the leaders, alternated with tragedy in the misguided “legislative” deliberations of the delegates.

As sad and pitiful a spectacle as one could expect to see in the revolutionary movement was the session of the conference devoted to the report of the “Bills Committee.” (This was the committee that had been charged with the task of drawing up legislative bills for presentation to the state legislature.) As if transported to another world, the delegates—Communists almost to a man—who had expressed their real sentiments shortly before in cheers for the overthrow of capitalism, were put through the ridiculous and futile business, for many wearisome hours, of discussing and debating line by line the legal phraseology of proposed legislative measures.

What, for example, is the precise legal residence of a seaman under the terms of the bill for unemployment insurance? And how shall the different rates of wages for various categories of labor employed on proposed public works at some future time be decided in the meticulous details? With just such questions the conference of the workers’ vanguard was occupied, solemnly and seriously, for hours on end. Pitiful!

Here was a picture of the double face of bureaucratic centrism. Poised on a half turn in policy under the pressure of events, and of our criticism, the futile bureaucrats at the Albany conference stood with one foot in the mud of ultraleft sectarianism and the other foot in the mire of parliamentary cretinism. The conference was dedicated to a melange of both, and thus it was confused and muddled and demoralized.

Among all the “leaders” there was not one to explain to the worker delegates that the fight for a legislative program does not require, and is in no way advanced by, trying to transform a conference of several hundred worker delegates into so many amateur lawyers. The task of the vanguard workers is to formulate a program of demands clearly and concisely, and then to mobilize the power of a mass movement behind the program. The task of the leaders is to show the vanguard how to do this. As for the drafting of the bills for presentation to the legislature, a small committee with the aid of a jack-leg lawyer is sufficient. It is a shame to let conscientious worker militants go through the rigamarole of solemn debate about the wording of legislative bills.

More than that, it is a crime, for it sows illusions as to the real nature of the struggle for labor legislation. This was to be noted already in the session of the conference devoted to this tragicomedy. The bold note of militancy in the remarks from the floor in the earlier sessions was muted down, became more “practical” and restrained. And, even more significant, a different type of delegate became conspicuous in the discussion. The militants, imbued with the spirit of the class struggle, gave place to the legal-minded elements, who took the wording of bills very seriously and read them carefully, lest a comma be out of place and the law fail on that account.

In both sides of their policy the Stalinist miseducators worked against a fruitful outcome of the conference. With their sectarian “left” tactic they shunted the conference off the broad highway of the united front which could lead to a broader movement; with the vulgar opportunist comedy of the bills they put brakes on the future development of the narrow vanguard movement.

The hope for the emergence of a broad workers’ front of struggle against unemployment was in Albany, in spite of all its limitations, just because the pick of the vanguard militants, the indispensable dynamic force for the creation of a broad class movement, were there. But the leaders, not all of whom are as stupid as the policy they expounded under orders, did all they could to frustrate this hope.

They gave no review and summary of the experiences of the movement in these years of the terrible crisis—for this would require the examination of missed opportunities and multiplied mistakes which have left the movement weaker than it began three years ago, despite all the powerful social forces propelling the movement forward. They laid out no perspectives and offered no real measures to get the vanguard out of the straitjacket of isolation—because this would require a sharp turn in policy which they are not permitted to make.

It remained for the delegates of the Left Opposition, a small minority in the conference, to analyze the situation realistically and to point out the way to improve it radically. We did this to the best of our ability within the short time allotted to speeches from the floor. In the formal sense of the word, our views did not prevail. The Stalinists entrenched in the apparatus scored another victory which, like their old victories over the Marxist wing, was a defeat for the party and for the whole movement.

For this victory had a certain Pyrrhic quality, filled with ominous forebodings for the victors. One fact stood out above all others at the Albany conference: the delegates wanted to hear the Left Opposition. Our speeches were heard in a tense silence, without a single interruption from the floor, and received closer attention than any others. Our statement was distributed to all the delegates without interference, and was read attentively by them. The closest fraternization between the Left Oppositionists and other delegates, comradely discussion with large groups of party members and sympathizers, went on continuously throughout the conference.

While still remaining within the framework of the bureaucratic discipline and voting as they were required to vote, the conference delegates, nevertheless, expressed in all these actions a different attitude. In substance, after four and a half years of falsification, slander, incitement, and violence against the Left Opposition, the rank-and-file delegates, by their attitude, said to the bureaucrats: We don’t believe it; we want to find out for ourselves!

Armed with the invincible ideas of Marxism, that is all the Left Opposition needs. Given such a hearing, as was the case at Albany to a far greater extent than ever before, our eventual victory is assured.