James P. Cannon

May Day—Our Conference and The Trade Unions

Written: 1929
First Published: The Militant, New York, Volume 2, Nos. 9-10, May 1-15, 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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On May 17 the most active militants of the Communist Opposition from all parts of the country will meet in national conference in Chicago, the proletarian center of the real America, rich in glorious traditions of working-class struggle and aspiration. Many a noble enterprise of the labor vanguard had its inception there; many a stirring battle, many a defeat, and many a brave start again. It is not unlikely that our modest conference will find a place of honor among them in the history of the American revolutionary movement. This will surely be the case if our conference approximates the accomplishment of the tasks which crowd upon it, if it does not shrink before their magnitude and gives a clear answer to the questions now on the agenda of the American revolutionary movement. We shall endeavor to do this to the best of our ability.

The importance of our gathering for the future of the Opposition is fully understood, we believe, by all the comrades who have stood with us in the struggle up till now. And many who have not yet identified themselves directly with us await the result of our deliberations with the greatest interest. There is wisdom in collective counsel. The fact that we are finally forcing a way, despite our great poverty, to bring our foremost comrades in the various districts together for the comparison of experiences, the exchange of views, and the collective settlement of our problems is testimony to the vitality of our movement. We must make the most of the opportunity, which has not been given to us, but which we have wrested from adversity.

In the first place we ought to give a thought to the general character of the conference. We meet to face things as they are and to deal with them soberly and confidently. Exaggeration, bombast, false claims, and self-deception will be out of place; it will be for us now to put all the questions concretely, and quietly discuss the ways and means of answering them. There should be nothing to prevent our meeting having a businesslike character from start to finish. The sterile factionalism and intrigue which corrodes the party and renders its conventions futile should not trouble us at all. We have a common principled line. That is the foundation, and the only foundation, for united and harmonious and collective work. Differences of opinion on secondary questions which may exist can be discussed honestly and openly.

Those who are united on fundamental lines do not fear discussion.

The conference can bring fruitful results for the movement only on the condition that we do not deceive ourselves as to the state of affairs. What we think of the position of the labor and revolutionary movement in America and its perspectives has been clearly stated in the draft of our platform. The opinions we have written there about the class immaturity of the workers’ movement in America and the elementary nature of the fundamental tasks of the revolutionary elements are not new; they arise inexorably from the facts of the situation.

The evils we fight against within the Communist movement are not a new phenomenon, and they will not be done away with in a day. Our struggle, as a detachment of the International Leninist Opposition, is a revolt against the revisionist and bureaucratic corruption which has been seeping into the Comintern since Lenin left its leadership six years ago. During that time, gradually and almost imperceptibly, great changes have been brought about in Lenin’s International—and all in his name. This is true of the main ideas, of the course, and of the leadership. All this is buttressed by a bureaucratized apparatus and a monopoly of the material resources and press which has attracted a veritable horde of parasites and mercenaries into its service, thrusting out the tried and reliable revolutionary fighters.

It would be foolish to think that these monstrous perversions, which have been accumulating over a period of six years, could be changed in a day. We had no such illusions and have none now. To fight for the fundamental line of Marx and Lenin within the Communist ranks today means to swim against the stream. Only those who are able to do this can remain with us. We never promised a quick victory and do not promise it now. We hold out only the prospect of a long, stubborn struggle for principle against difficulties, persecution, and slander. It is quite true that the revisionist-bureaucratic regime has profound and irreconcilable internal contradictions and is bound to collapse under the impact of the class struggle, which cannot be regulated by apparatus manipulation. But an indispensable factor for the hastening of this collapse, and for saving the revolutionary movement from collapse with it, is the firm consolidation of the Opposition Communists for a drawn-out struggle. It will be the task of the national conference to harden our forces for a siege.

It is becoming clearer every day that plain speech is necessary on the trade union questions. Without a sound policy in this sphere it is absolutely impossible to build the Communist Party as the guiding influence among the masses. And we have to say openly that our differences with the party regarding trade union tactics are increasing. This becomes all the more serious in view of the forthcoming convention of the Trade Union Educational League, where, from all indications, the false line of the party is to be reinforced by organizational forms which will inevitably develop further implications along the wrong track.

The party is wrong in bringing out a program for a new trade union movement all along the line. It is wrong in undertaking to monopolize the control of the new unions in a narrow party sense. It is wrong in exercising party leadership mechanically and stifling democracy and self-initiative in the new unions. And it is wrong in its attitude toward the new progressive movement.

The total result of these and similar associated errors will be a program and practice of organizing Communist sects rather than mass organizations. Every new experience makes this clearer. Now the consequences of these errors are immeasurable. They spell isolation for the party and the crippling of the new union movement. The policies which are now being enunciated in preparation for the national conference of the TUEL appear to us to have no relation to reality. They sound in many respects like feeble echoes of old SLP and IWW propaganda, which substituted wishes for facts.

Moreover, the present policy bears no relation whatever to the settled practice of the party over a period of years, since the 1921 convention, and which was in the main correct. And the party leaders do not even bother to explain the reasons for this complete reversal. It is like a new revelation which has to be taken for granted. A workers’ political movement can be destroyed but never built by such irresponsible methods and leadership.

Consider, for example, the attitude toward the progressives. “We will have nothing to do with them,” say the modern phrasemongers who see only persons and have no Marxian understanding of movements. Compare this with what Lovestone wrote in the Communist last May, page 277:

“The progressives are of vital importance in the development of a left wing movement of a mass character. They serve under certain conditions as one of the levers for the development of a clear-cut, broad, left-wing movement.”

All of today’s pronunciamentos say the exact opposite, without the slightest explanation of the reasons for the complete change of view and without attempting to show wherein last year’s estimate of the role of the progressives was wrong. This is playing with leadership in the most irresponsible manner.

The statement quoted above, which in our opinion is a correct one, was formulated in a guarded way so as to appear more “left” than the actual opinions of the writer. To learn that, it is only necessary to recall the practices of united front without criticism, under the hegemony of the progressives in so many cases; personal relations at the top instead of the utilization of relations with progressive leaders for the promotion of a common movement of the workers below. But these distortions should not lead us to react to the present policy of rejecting all relations with the new progressive movement. To do so is to turn aside from one of the most important avenues for the development of the class movement of the workers and the building of the Communist influence and organization within it.

Our conference should take a firm and definite stand on this question. In our opinion the conference of the Opposition Communists should support the idea of entering every movement of a progressive character in the trade unions; they should work loyally to advance it; they should favor combinations with all elements willing to cooperate with us in the fight for a concrete program in the interests of the workers and their economic organizations. At the same time, and in order to do this effectively, they should fight and expose the fakers in the movement, criticize all reformist tendencies, and build the independent Communist organization and influence. This policy applies with equal force in the work of organizing new unions and in the work inside the old unions of the American Federation of Labor and the independent unions of a similar character.

We must not for a minute cease our efforts to convince the party of the necessity for this line; for the party is a factor of the greatest dynamic importance, and a false policy on its part will have the gravest consequences in the whole militant workers’ movement, for which such unbounded possibilities are now unfolding. But in any case, our activity cannot be confined to mere criticism. Hand in hand with it must go the development of a systematic activity of the Opposition Communists in the trade-union movement along the lines of our own policy. Practical demonstrations of its correctness will exert a powerful influence on the party ranks and, simultaneously, will be the means of consolidating a revolutionary nucleus within the new progressive movements which will become the center and rallying point for all the militants in the future. The more firmly we insist on this policy and the more energetically we apply it in practice, the less will be the harm done by the present phrase hysteria.

Proceeding along this line, facing all obstacles and fearing none of them, tackling all the concrete questions in a serious and workmanlike manner and giving an answer to them, our conference will render services of historic value to the American working-class movement and will perform a duty to the International.