James P. Cannon

Conference of the Opposition Communists

Written: 1929
First Published: The Militant, New York, Volume 2, Nos. 10, June 1, 1929
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: D. Walters
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The national conference of the Opposition Communists was held in Chicago on May 17, 18, and 19, and culminated in the formation of the Opposition forces into a national organization. The name of the organization is the Communist League of America (Opposition). The conference adopted the platform printed in the February 15 issue of The Militant; proclaimed its full solidarity with the Russian and International Opposition under the leadership of Trotsky; and undertook the task of organizing American communists, inside and outside the Communist Party of the United States, on the platform of the Opposition.

A constitution for the Communist League was adopted, embodying the principle of democratic centralization as laid down in the theses of the Second Congress of the Communist International. A National Committee of seven members was elected to direct the work of the organization. The following constitute the National Committee: James P. Cannon, Maurice Spector, Martin Abern, Max Shachtman, Arne Swabeck, Carl Skoglund, and Albert Glotzer. Membership cards are to be issued and the monthly dues rate was fixed at fifty cents with an initiation fee of the same amount. The chartering of local branches will begin at once. For the time being Canadian branches will be directly affiliated and will function as a part of the single organization.

The Communist League will carry on a program of independent activities in the class struggle and will also continue to work as a faction within the party.

The conference consisted of thirty-one delegates with voting rights and seventeen alternate delegates with voice but no vote. Twelve cities were represented, as follows:

Delegates Alternates
New York 54
Philadelphia 2 2
Cleveland 10
Detroit 20
Youngstown 1 0
Chicago 54
St. Louis 31
Kansas City 1 0
Springfield, Ill. 2 0
Minneapolis 55
St. Paul 20
Toronto, Canada 21
Total 3117/td>

Groups in a number of other cities which were unable for financial reasons to send delegates sent greetings and pledges of support. A letter from Comrade Trotsky was read to the conference amid great enthusiasm. Letters were also read from Comrade Malkin in Comstock Prison, and from the Opposition groups in France, Czechoslovakia, and other countries.

The conference was permeated through and through with the pioneer spirit of self-sacrifice and determination in the struggle for principle. The delegates were almost entirely workers who came direct from their jobs. A large percentage of them beat their way to the conference; others came crowded together in battered automobiles borrowed for the occasion; only three or four paid bus fare, and one delegate rode a train—on a railroad worker’s pass. Lodgings for the out-of-town delegates were provided at the homes of Chicago comrades and sympathizers. Many of the delegates paid their own expenses for meals and incidentals. None of them received wages or per diem.

The entire conference was thus carried through with an unrivaled maximum of economy. This revolutionary capacity for hardship triumphed over the handicap of the meager financial resources of the Opposition, which works without subsidies of any kind, and made our national conference possible. For a movement less vital and less confident of its future, the circumstances would have completely prohibited such a national gathering.

The sessions of the conference were conducted throughout with a businesslike efficiency and precision, in sharp contrast to the desultory, dragged-out, and time-wasting affairs which have become the rule in recent years under the regime of pettybourgeois politiciandom. Being firmly united on main lines of principle, and free from the factional intrigue which arises from the lack of it, there was no need for the conference sessions to be held up and delayed for the deliberations of rival caucuses. It began promptly on time the first day and conducted all the following sessions precisely according to schedule.

The conference was marked by a freedom of discussion on all questions which enabled all points of view to be brought fully and fairly before the body. Collective judgment, not caucus manipulation, was the aim sought and achieved. Conflicting opinions which arose over secondary questions were brought out into the open. Earnestness without diplomacy characterized the discussions and put upon the decisions finally arrived at, the stamp of real conviction. The final results of the discussion showed a complete unanimity and solidarity of the entire conference on all the main questions, and the Opposition Communists face the heavy tasks before them as a firmly united body.

The agenda of the conference was as follows:

1. The Situation in Russia—reporter, Comrade Shachtman.

2. The Crisis in the Communist International—reporter, Comrade Spector.

3. The American Situation and the Tasks of the Opposition Communists—reporter, Comrade Cannon.

4. Trade Union Questions—reporter, Comrade Swabeck.

5. The Organization of the Communist Opposition—reporter, Comrade Abern.

6. Youth Questions—reporter, Comrade Glotzer.

7. Press and Literature Publication Program—reporter, Comrade Shachtman.

All the reports were expositions and elaborations of the various sections of the platform which represents the settled view of the Oppositionists on all the important questions confronting the American movement. The nature of these tasks has not changed since the platform was drafted for submission to the convention of the party a few months ago, and, consequently, the conference saw no necessity for the writing of a new one. After the discussion on all the main reports had been concluded, the platform was adopted by unanimous vote. Editorial revision and reformulation of some sections were made in order to express the decision of the conference to pass over from the stage of a purely internal faction of the party to a national organization also conducting independent activities and recruiting nonparty communists, without altering the line of the document. The youth section of the platform was also rewritten to deal more comprehensively and concretely with the problems of the Communist youth.

The conference adopted resolutions on the class-war prisoners of America, on the imprisoned and exiled Bolshevik-Leninists of the Soviet Union, and messages of greetings to Comrade Trotsky and to Comrade Malkin.

The report and discussion on the trade union question were a prominent feature of the conference. A constructive line of communist policy on this question, restating fundamental conceptions derived from American and world experience and sharply opposing the present false line of the party, was unanimously demanded. The policy outlined in our platform on the trade union question, as concretely elaborated in a number of articles in The Militant and in the report of Comrade Swabeck, was supported by all the delegates.

The discussion on this point was enriched by the speeches of comrades from all parts of the country and from Canada who have years of experience in the trade union struggle behind them. The new line of the party, outlined in the preparation for the TUEL conference and in its recent activity, was refuted and condemned on theoretical and practical grounds.

It was clear to all that the future activity of the Opposition is indissolubly bound up with its organizational form; consequently, great interest was manifested in the report on this question, and an earnest discussion followed it. Here, great progress was reflected. The tendencies toward organizational fetishism in regard to the Stalinist apparatus, the “legalistic” attitude toward the rules of the usurping bureaucrats, which affected our ranks in the beginning, had been completely overcome. Not a single voice was raised in favor of holding back our necessary organizational development on this score. On the other hand, there were signs of a reaction to the other extreme. The unbounded provocations of the subsidized corruptionists had led some comrades, who incorrectly identified them with the party, to think of a complete break with the latter.

The discussion clarified this question and resulted in the unanimous decision to organize our forces for independent activity while maintaining our position as a faction of the party and strengthening our bonds with its proletarian elements. This latter is necessary in order to assist their inevitable development toward the path of the Opposition, which is the only possible outcome of the present factional impasse in the party. The Oppositionists must have confidence in such a development and work for it. That means to keep contact with the party ranks. We were the first to grasp the significance of the world issues shaking the Comintern and to raise the banner of the International Opposition, but we will not be the last. The struggle for the consolidation of a new grouping in the party on our platform must go hand in hand with the development of our organization and the recruitment of new revolutionary workers outside the party ranks. The conference decided unanimously for this policy.

A large percentage of the delegates were representatives of the communist youth. This was a proper reflection of the composition of the ranks of the Opposition movement as a whole. The youth are the most free from bureaucratic cynicism and corruption, and the most responsive to revolutionary ideas. A large number of the foremost young Communists of the United States and Canada have already rallied to our banner—far more, proportionally, than the adult party members—and this process is only beginning. The letter from Comrade Trotsky, which placed the greatest emphasis on the struggle for the proletarian youth, met with the warmest approval of the conference.

Conflicting opinions were revealed in the discussions mainly on the labor party and on the slogan of the right of selfdetermination for the Negroes. The delegates who opposed the formulation of the platform on the labor party showed a number of differences and shadings ranging from a virtual opposition in principle to the position that it would be correct for us to participate in a mass labor party if it should be formed, but wrong to work for its formation. The gross errors of the party and the Comintern on this question, which have never been properly corrected or explained, have undoubtedly produced a vast confusion and skepticism about the labor party throughout the ranks of the American Communists. There is less of it in the Opposition than in the party as a whole. Such as exists among us was brought out more clearly and fully only because the discussion was open and free at our conference and there was no reason for anyone to conceal his opinions or doubts.

It was the opinion of the majority that, although it certainly is not a pressing question of the moment, the labor party question has a great importance for the future, when the radicalization of the workers will begin to seek political expression. Therefore it is imperative to have a clear and definite stand on it. A misjudgment of the probable line of development of the American workers, or a sectarian doctrine which would prevent us from approaching and influencing new upward movements, might have the most serious consequences later on. The formulation of the platform on the perspective of a labor party was adopted by a majority after a thorough discussion.

Following a discussion of the disputed section of the platform on the slogan of the right of self-determination for the Negroes, it was decided to defer final action until more exhaustive material on the subject can be assembled and made available for discussion in the groups. In view of the profound importance of this question and the manifest insufficiency of informative material and discussion pertaining to it, this decision to defer final action was undoubtedly correct.

The national conference, held under such adverse conditions and with such gratifying results, made a profound impression upon all who took part in it. Quiet and matter-of-fact, in glaring contrast to the bombast and ballyhoo of so many conferences which have made a noise and left no trace, our gathering generated an enthusiasm which was real and genuine. The pledging of quotas for the support of The Militant from the various delegations, which preceded the singing of the “Internationale” at the close of the last session, was a sign of that kind of enthusiasm which expresses itself in deeds. Such enthusiasm and conviction are our capital for the future.

The conference was a picture of the best representatives of American communism. Side by side with the young fighters, many of them at the beginning of their revolutionary activity and attending a national gathering for the first time, were not a few veterans of the movement whose faces have been familiar at all important meetings of the party since its foundation. We saw there the forces of the communist vanguard again assembling and taking shape on a national scale, and it was a heartening sight. The Opposition and its platform are on the march in America. That which was merely an idea advocated by a few individuals in the Central Committee a brief seven months ago has become a national movement taking on organizational form and functions. It has its own momentum. It will go forward in spite of all.

The characterless bureaucrats, who cannot understand how anyone can or should swim against the stream, talked a great deal about the early collapse of the Opposition movement, and, no doubt, really expected a flood of capitulations after the first few engagements. The delegations were the answer to them. They showed our ranks unshaken and more closely united than ever. Our forces have grown, slowly but steadily, since the beginning of the fight.

A significant aspect of the conference was the appearance of a true collective leadership, capable of harmonious collaboration and division of labor and bound together by a common standpoint on all important questions. The close unity of the leadership with the Opposition movement as a whole was illustrated by the conscious and deliberate support given to all its proposals by the conference delegates and by the unanimous election of the National Committee. A nucleus of leadership evolving by these processes in the heat of struggle will have an organic character. It will have a real authority and will be able to exert a unifying influence on the movement. It needs no appointment by cablegram and cannot be removed that way.

The political and organizational tasks of the Opposition are determined basically by the situation of the Russian revolution and the Comintern. Representing the stream of genuine proletarian internationalism, the Communist Opposition equally rejects the bureaucratic caricature of internationalism by the subsidized Stalin consulates, and the reaction to Social Democratic national narrowness of the right-wing Brandler groups. The course of the Russian revolution, which has now reached a turning point, is fateful for the international class struggle. The final victory of socialism in the Soviet Union, in the economic as well as military sense, can be assured only by the international revolution. In the interval only the platform of the Russian Opposition can strengthen the socialist as against the capitalist and restorationist elements in the Soviet Union.

The regime in the Russian party decides the regime in the International, and the present crisis in the Comintern is due to the fact that opportunism and bureaucratism have entered into the leadership of the CPSU and resulted in the general demoralization of the sections and the expulsion of the left wing. The Opposition refuses to identify the International with the Stalin hierarchy. It is the Opposition which in reality represents the historic line of the Third International, for the leadership of which it will struggle both inside and outside the party. The victorious outcome of this struggle depends not only on the sharpening class struggle in the USSR, in the capitalist world, and the Orient, but on the active and organized intervention of the Left Communist Opposition.

The conference turned a corner in the struggle of the American regiment of world Bolshevism and opened up a new stage of its development. It faced its problems, its difficulties, and its prospects realistically and showed a collective will to battle onward to victory. This victory will come all the sooner if the members of the Communist Opposition promptly carry out the decisions of the national conference to organize their forces more cohesively, develop a firmer and more conscious discipline, and work with increased energy to enlist new recruits under our banner, which is the banner of international communism.