Source: Socialist Workers Party Discussion Bulletin, June 1961.
Published in Building the Revolutionary Party, © Resistance Books 1997 Published by Resistance Books 23 Abercrombie St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Permission for on-line publication provided by Resistance Books for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.
The background to Cannon's letter is the split in the Fourth International during the height of the Cold War. In the early 1950s the Fourth International split into two factions, the International Committee—to which the SWP and the British group led by Gerry Healey adhered—and the International Secretariat—among whose prominent leaders were Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel. The political positions of the two wings grew closer together from the 1956 Hungarian uprising on and they reunified in 1963 (minus Healey and Pablo). [note by Resistance Books.]
Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack
May 22, 1961
To the Political Committee
New York, NY
I have carefully studied the PC minutes of May 3. The remarks of Morris Stein, Murry [Weiss] and Bob Chester on the world movement are very much along the line of my own thinking. I also agree with the remarks of Dobbs to the effect that our international resolution now being drafted, giving a positive statement of our own views at the present time, is the best way to begin our contribution to the international discussion.
I think it should be frankly presented as such-as our contribution to the international discussion-and, consequently, as Farrell indicates in his remarks, that it will be subject to possible modification later on in the light of that discussion. That is simply another way of saying that we are willing to learn as well as to teach; that we do not begin a discussion with ultimatums.
I am not entirely sure right now, but I incline more and more to the idea that this international resolution, as it eventually may be adopted by the Convention, should be published in our magazine. We want to reach the widest possible audience in all sectors of the international movement. This will not be possible if we simply pass it back and forth among a few people in mimeographed form.
The "fragmentation" of the international movement, which Murry spoke about in his remarks, is in my opinion, not entirely, nor even mainly, a negative manifestation. It appears to me that the whole international movement, in all its branches and affiliations and independent sectors, is in a process of fermentation and re-examination of the problems of party building. That puts a serious discussion on the agenda. And that, in turn, can lead to a broader eventual unification of the international Trotskyist forces, and others who do not yet recognize themselves as Trotskyists.
Unification is definitely not on the agenda now, and it would be unrealistic to talk about it in concrete terms. But the perspective of a broader unification than we have ever known before has to be kept in mind all the time as the goal toward which the discussion is aimed. The unification we foresee and aim at must not be simply the unification of those organizations or groups formally affiliated to the International Committee and the International Secretariat, and those other Trotskyist groups which at present remain independent.
New revolutionary forces are emerging, notably at present in Cuba, and probably throughout Latin America, which have never had previous international affiliation or even formal organization on national grounds. We also know of several split-offs from the Stalinist party in Mexico. There are deep divisions in other Stalinist parties in Latin America. The Indian independent Trotskyists have recently made a fusion with a group of former Stalinists. There is a group of former members of the CP in Japan. etc.
If our movement should fail to foresee and consciously aim at collaboration and eventual unification with new people who are actually engaged in carrying through a socialist revolution, or striving toward it, it would brand itself as a futile sect and not a living, expanding revolutionary movement, as Trotsky envisaged it.
The aim of the discussion is not to produce new splits and splinters until there is nothing left but a sterile little church of self-satisfied scholastics. To be sure, the discussion of obvious differences will, in its first stage, draw clear lines of differentiation. But the aim of this method of procedure is not simply to freeze old splits and to manufacture new ones. The object, rather, is to get all points of view on the table for consideration and discussion, with the expectation that some, if not all, of the participants in the discussion will change and learn from the arguments and the unfolding events and come closer together in a broader unification.
In working out our tactical approach to this complex problem, we should draw on all the experiences of the past, not simply the experiences of yesterday or the day before. The history of our own movement since 1928 is very rich in these experiences. But the principal guiding lines go back much further than that. The struggles of Bolshevism, from its beginning in 1903 up to the October Revolution, and through the first years of the Comintern until the death of Lenin, are an important part of our heritage.
The idea of a monolithic international and monolithic national parties cannot draw any support from these experiences. The history of Bolshevism, from its beginning up until the October Revolution, was a history not only of splits but also of unifications and attempted unifications with the Mensheviks. It was not until 1912 that the Bolsheviks formally constituted themselves as an independent party and no longer as a faction of the Russian Social-Democracy. And after that, it shouldn't be forgotten-because the fate of the revolution depended on it-the Bolsheviks made a unification with Trotsky and his group after the March Revolution, and also kept the door open for any signs of a revolutionary turn on the part of the left Mensheviks.
The Communist International was not built into a mass movement in its early days by simply proclaiming the need for new parties in each country. There was a rather prolonged process of unifications and splits in the different countries before the national sections of the Comintern were firmly established.
The Communist Party of Germany originated with the Spartacus group of Liebknecht and Luxembourg. But this was followed two years later by a unification with the left wing of the Independent Socialist Party which gave the Communist Party of Germany for the first time a mass base. In England, the Communist Party was established through a fusion of a number of sectarian groups, none of which had been Bolsheviks originally. In France and Italy the syndicalists were invited. In the United States, the Comintern invited the Socialist Labour Party, the IWW and the left wing of the Socialist Party to participate in the Second Congress of the Comintern.
The same process of splits and unifications took place in practically every other country in the early days of the consolidation of the parties of the Comintern. In the early congresses of the Comintern deep and serious differences on the most important questions were freely discussed. Lenin and Trotsky didn't try to eliminate them by expulsions and splits. "Monolithism" began with Stalin, not with Lenin.
The Left Opposition of the Russian Communist Party was first organized in 1923. But in 1926, when Zinoviev and Kamenev broke with Stalin and Bukharin, the Trotskyist Left Opposition made a bloc with them and gained a much broader base as a result.
Trotsky's method in creating the first cadres of the international Left Opposition, after his deportation to Turkey in 1929, was to draw clear lines of demarcation for the new movement; and then to build it, not only by splits, but also by unifications with other oppositional groups. And then, after the original cadres of international Trotskyism had been consolidated, Trotsky initiated a new series of discussions and negotiations with left-centrist elements in independent parties and others still remaining within the parties of the Second International.
Trotsky never envisaged the Fourth International as a monolithic, purely Trotskyist organization, but as a broad revolutionary movement in which we, orthodox Trotskyists, might possibly, under certain conditions and for certain periods, be a minority. He stated this explicitly in one of his letters prior to the Founding Congress in 1938. He proposed that Chen Tu-hsiu, who at that time was in sharp conflict with our Chinese section over some important questions, should be invited to be a member of the Intemational Executive Committee.
The internal regime of our international movement during the lifetime of Trotsky never tried to enforce monolithism. That began with Pablo. The Discussion Bulletins of our international movement throughout this period show that differences of opinion on the most important questions arose again and again and were freely discussed. A large part of our education in fact was derived from these discussions.
The recognition of the Soviet Union as a workers state, and of the obligation to defend it against imperialist attack, was a central principle of our international movement at the time. This characterization and this attitude was challenged time and again, year after year, and freely discussed without expulsions or threats of expulsion.
In the classic battle of 1939-40 with the Burnham-Shachtman faction, they were about as wrong as it was possible for a faction to be in America under conditions of that time. Shachtman thought we were engaged in a "polemic" and conducted himself like a high school debater scoring points. He didn't really know that he was dealing with a question of a revolution and that it was dangerous to play with such a question. He didn't know it because he didn't feel it.
It was a red hot question for us at that time, just as the Cuban Revolution is at present, because public opinion was being mobilized every day by all the imperialist agencies against the Soviet Union. It was particularly reprehensible for Shachtman to choose that period to wash his hands of it. But despite this deep and terrible difference on such a burning question as one's attitude toward a revolution in existence, Trotsky did not advocate a split, not even if we should turn out to be a minority in the Convention struggle. The split followed only after the minority refused to accept the Convention decision.
That is still not the end of the story. Seven years later we conducted serious negotiations for unity with the Shachtmanites, despite the fact that they had not changed their position on the Soviet Union in the meantime. Those who may be playing with the idea of a "monolithic" party and a monolithic international will have a hard time finding any support for it in the teachings and practice of the Old Man.
I suppose all the participants in the present discussion know that the American Trotskyists made a fusion with the Musteites in 1934, and then joined the Socialist Party in 1936. But it should not be forgotten that these tactical turns, which contributed so greatly to the expansion of our movement in members and influence during the Thirties, were not smoothly accomplished. We first had to settle accounts with the Oehlerites. They gave us very stern lectures about the principle of the independent revolutionary party and accused us of liquidation, betrayal and other assorted crimes. The Oehlerites diagnosed our position incorrectly, as further developments amply demonstrated. But when a real threat of liquidationism confronted us in 1953, we showed that we knew how to recognize it and how to deal with it.
All this is part of the experience of the past which should be borne in mind, and even studied, in the present period. The real problem, now as then, is not to recognize the necessity of new parties and a new intemational-we have known that for a long time-but rather how to build them and broaden them into a strong revolutionary force.
Fortunately, the problem now under discussion is not academic. It centres, at the moment, on Cuba and the Cuban Revolution and the leaders of this revolution. In exceptional circumstances, these people have changed Cuba and changed themselves. They have carried through a genuine socialist revolution, and armed the working population, and defended the revolution successfully against an imperialist-backed invasion. And now they openly proclaim themselves socialist, and say the 1940 constitution is out of date and that a new constitution is needed.
In my opinion, that's pretty good for a start-and I am talking here about the leaders as well as the masses who support them. If such people are not considered as rightful participants in a discussion, and possible collaborators in a new party and a new international-where will we find better candidates?
Trotsky, in the middle Thirties, initiated extensive discussion and collaboration with left-centrists who only talked about the revolution, and even that not very convincingly. The Cuban revolutionists have done more than talk, and they are not the only ones on trial from now on. We are also on trial. What would our talk about revolution be worth if we couldn't recognize a revolution when we see it?