James P. Cannon

The Communists and the Progressives

(April 1931)

Written: April 1931.
First Published: The Militant, Vol. IV No. 7, 1 April 1931, p. 5.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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Two years ago when the Muste movement began to take shape in the Conference for Progressive Labor Action we devoted a number of articles to the question of the “progressives” and the Communists in the Militant. At that time the Lovestone Right wing held the leadership of the party and – strange as it may seem in the light of later developments – they were repudiating any idea of a united front. The Opposition waged a polemical battle against the official position. We analyzed the new “progressive” movement from a different standpoint and drew different tactical conclusions.

In our Platform and in several special articles and editorials we advocated the policy of the united front toward the new movement. In doing so, we emphasized the fact that the movement of “Progressivism” had a two-sided character. On the one side, we said, it reflected “radicalization of the workers growing within the old unions as well as in the ranks of the unorganized masses.” On the other side we defined the rôle of the leaders of the movement as follows: “Their rôle, objectively speaking, is to express this radicalization in words, to harness it in action and to head it off from any real collision with the capitalists and the A.F. of L. machine.” We said: “The new movement is a challenge to the Communists for the leadership of the coming fights;” and we advocated the tactic of the united front as the weapon of the Communists. (Quotations from the Militant, March 1, 1929)

The events of the past two years, and especially the more recent developments, have revived interest in this dispute and, incidentally, have confirmed the opinion we expressed in the above mentioned article that the question would remain a live one and take on even greater importance. In our opinion the policy of the Opposition has stood up and could be restated now as the correct line for the Communists. The emphasis, however, must now be shifted to another phase of the question, because the positions of the factions have radically changed.

The Foster faction is on the verge of a big swing to the Right. The Lovestone faction has already made the swing. It is no longer necessary to explain to the Right wing that Communists must not reject the idea of a united front under certain conditions with reformists, including the so-called progressives. They are shouting so loud now for a united front at any price that they recall the Russian proverb which Lenin quoted to people who contradicted themselves: “Don’t spit in the well – you may want to drink out of it.”

No, it is necessary now to discuss the problem from another angle. Two years ago the weight of argument had to be placed on the tactic of the united front against people who were opposing it in principle. Now we must emphasize the conditions and the limits of the united front. This applies to the Right wing already today, and to the Fosterites – who are swinging to the Right – it will be necessary tomorrow.

There is nothing in the conduct of the pseudo-progressives for the past two year to merit any more confidence than we expressed in our first analysis of their movement. On the contrary, the estimate of them should be written in harsher words of condemnation. And this applies to the entire “progressive” leadership without any exceptions. Every single one of them, from Muste to Howat. has played the contemptible rô1e of decoy for the reactionaries. The latest, and most flagrant instance, is the shameful betrayal of the Illinois miners, a betrayal made possible by the so-called progressives who rallied the insurgent mines and led them back into the reactionary camp.

There is good reason to think that the present crisis is preparing a much wider field for the exploration of the progressives and thereby will magnify the problem of the Communist attitude.

The staggering burdens of the crisis are being loaded onto the shoulders of the workers. Millions have been torn away from their fancied security and hurled into the ranks of the unemployed. Millions of others are suffering drastic reductions of their income, by wage-cuts and part-time employment. A wholesale lowering of the workers’ living standards is being effected. What result can this have on the minds of the workers?

As we see it, the main effect will be to shatter the illusions which have been the greatest barrier against the organization of a militant class movement. The discontent of the masses will increase by leaps and hounds and will seek for radical expression. And this will not be confined to the period of the crisis. It is perhaps more reasonable to calculate that the crisis represents primarily a period of mental preparation of the workers for great struggles which will really get under way as the cycle turns toward economic revival.

If phrase-mongering “Left” demagogues have proved to be a disrupting force and a shielding of reaction in the first tentative manifestations of labor insurgency, then in the coming period they will confront the militant labor movement as the greatest menace. How to cope with this menace, how to defeat the attempt to derail the workers’ revolt with the empty phrases of fake radicalism, how to strengthen the revolutionists as against the reformists – this is the crux of the problem.

One way to insure defeat is to adopt the ostrich policy of ultra-Left adventurism which the official party has pursued over a period of two years. The complete bankruptcy of these tactics has already been demonstrated. But an even more certain guarantee of failure would be the attitude toward the “progressive” reformists recommended and demonstrated by the Lovestone Right wing – that is, of fusion with Muste and Co. The crudest expression of this policy is represented by Bert Miller who has gone over, bag and baggage, to the C.P.L.A. and is advertising it as the rallying center of the Left wing.

For joining the Muste organization he and his group have been expelled from the Lovestone faction, but at bottom their positions are identical. The conflict between them is more formal than real. The Revolutionary Age advocates a bloc with the C.P.L.A. “for the development of a progressive, a Leftward movement in the trade unions.” And in doing so it puts no conditions to the progressives, it does not criticize and expose their actual role and warn the workers not to trust them. On the contrary it deliberately misleads the workers into the belief that the division of labor between “Right and “Left” in the C.P.L.A. is a conflict in principle, and it holds out the illusion of “a union of the Left forces in the C.P.L.A. with the Communists in the building up of a Left wing movement in the trade unions”. (See Gitlow’s article in the Feb. 14th issue.)

Such a policy would deceive and disarm the Left wing workers. If Muste and other so-called “Lefts” can be expected to make “a union” with the Communists, why have they organized the C.P.L.A. as “a union” with the reactionaries against the Communists? Why did they support Fishwick and through him Lewis against the Left wing? Why did they support McMahon in the Textile field against the National Textile Workers’ Union? Why did they expel Calhoun, the lone Communist or Communist sympathizer, from the faculty of Brookwood College? Was all of this – and much more of the same which could be menitioned – a preparation for “a union” with the Communists – an evidence of “good faith”, so to speak. What is the difference between joining the C.P.L.A. while keeping silent about these damning facts and making a bloc with it while keeping just as silent? There is no serious difference.

At the very best it is the most naive conception of politics to represent, as Gitlow does in his article, that a united front between the Communists and the C.P.L.A. of itself “will hasten the schism between the reactionaries and progressives, the Left and the Right, in the C.P.L.A.” Why should it? It is much more apt to hasten the “schism” between those who make such a united front and the standpoint of Communism. For this inference we already have the fate of Miller and his group to show. For the other inference there is nothing to show. And there can be nothing.

The united front, as Lenin taught it, is a means of mobilizing the masses and leading them in the direction of the revolution. It is not a “partnership” with reformists but a form of struggle against them. It does not mean to rely on them but to distrust them. Its value arises from the form in which it is proposed more than in actual agreements, and it is more frequently realized in that way, although agreements can and should be made at times. On this last point the “third period” strategy – which rejects all agreements with reformists is profoundly false and reduces the whole conception of the united front to a meaningless caricature.

From this point of view we think the Communists should attack the “progressive” menace to the awakening labor movement with the proposal of a united front on the concrete questions of the day. This proposal should be made openly and should contain certain stipulations and demands to be complied with before the agreement and as a condition for the agreement. One of these conditions – since we don t take anything on credit – should be the immediate “schism” with all elements tied to the reactionary bureaucracy of the A.F. of L. and the Black Hundreds in the needle trades, the Jewish Daily Forward, etc.

In making such a proposal for a united front the Communists should tell the workers plainly that the “progressives” are not to be trusted and that a revolutionary program is the only program from which a real fighting policy in the daily struggle can flow. If the pressure of the workers for radical action is strong enough to compel the pseudo-progressive leaders, or a section on them, to meet our conditions, we will make the agreement and go with them into a common struggle.

In the course of the struggle we, of course, will maintain our separate organization, drive them forward at every step and criticize every vacillation and weakness they manifest. We will conceive of it all the time as a temporary agreement which we are ready to break at any moment they betray their promises.

We know – as world-wide experience has demonstrated to the hilt – that most of them will betray. But if we have conducted ourselves properly from the start, allowed ourselves no illusions and created no illusions among the workers, the betrayal will weaken them and strengthen the party. Some of the leaders, and the majority of the workers, who started as progressives, will be swept along with us into the stream of Communism. Most of the present leaders of the Communist parties came through this door and they should be the last to deny that others can do the same.

The Lovestone opportunists regard the united front tactic as something that cannot be applied without an actual agreement of some kind with the reformists. That is why their principal activity consists in sniffing around the back door of some faker or other offering “blocs” which cost the fakers nothing. Witness the deal with Levy (read: Sigman) in the I.L.G.W.U. To mention little things with big ones, Weisbord also offered to “educate” us along this line.

That conception is wrong. It derives from Brandler, not from Lenin. The validity of the united front tactic does not at all depend upon formal agreements with reformists. It depends only on such a formulation of the demands and conditions that they are comprehensible to the workers as the necessary basis of struggle for their burning demands. The question whether the reformists accept the conditions does not depend on their wishes. They are weather-cocks. The decisive factor is the pressure of the masses. From this it follows that the most important aspect of the united front tactic is not “negotiations” but widespread and intelligently-conducted agitation.

Under such circumstances the refusal of the reformists to agree to our proposals only serves to unmask them and to rob their demagogy of its power to influence the workers. On the other hand it provides the basis to extend and give point to our work among the masses for the practical program embodied in our united front proposals. We still appear before the workers as the advocates of the united front and the result, no less than in the case of a formal agreement, is to widen the mass movement and strengthen the influence of the Communists within it. And that is the real purpose, and the justification, of the policy of the united front.

Last updated on: 16.12.2012