James P. Cannon

A Reply to the Discussion

(September 1931)

Written: September 1931.
First Published: The Militant, New York, Volume 4, No. 23, 12 September 1931, p. 3.
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California. Additional bound volumes from Earl Gilman’s collection, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: D. Walters.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (January 2013).
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It must be admitted that the conference discussion material has yielded very little either in the way of positive supplement to the draft thesis of the National Committee or criticism of it. The absence of any serious attacks on its main conclusions – although some of them represent a distinct and original contribution of the Left Opposition and are presented in the American movement for the first time – may be taken as an indication of the general support of the organization for the propositions of the National Committee and a forecast of the action of the conference in regard to them.

Our draft has been submitted to an international discussion, and a beneficial criticism from that source is not yet excluded. But in the ranks of our own national section the estimation of the problems and the tasks formulated by the National Committee have not yet been successfully assailed. Critics of the National Committee are not lacking, but their contributions do not go to the roots of the new issues. They attempt either to revive questions long settled in our ranks, or to obscure the main questions with superficial quibbles over minor points.

A Discredited Idea

Comrades Rose and Carter are the rightful representatives of these tendencies. In their discussion articles they only recapitulate the attitude and point of view they have constantly maintained against the National Committee. Since the conflicting positions cannot be reconciled – and they cannot because they have nothing in common – nothing remains but for the national conference to pronounce a judgment on them and end the disputes. Here I wish only to make a few remarks on the critical articles of the comrades mentioned and to explain once more why we still hold to the views we have maintained against them.

Comrade Rose renews his long-standing feud with us on three very important questions: on the evaluation of the history of the party; on the present status and the perspectives of the party; and on the attitude of the Left Opposition toward the party. With us as well as with Comrade Rose, all three of these questions are intertwined, and, also in each case, the conclusions have a systematic character. They are mutually exclusive and cannot be joined together. Our first conference more than two years ago spoke very decisively on these points. In our opinion the second conference should reaffirm the judgment and put a period to contentions over them.

Comrade Rose’s first fault, from which the others flow, is his grossly distorted view of the history of the party. This is not without valid reasons. During all the years of the party’s formative period and its emergence as a dynamic factor in the class struggle at the head of the conscious workers’ movement, he stood aside from the party and took no part in the making of its history. He learned about the party from the scandal sheets and kitchen gossip of its enemies. On that basis he serves up an account and interpretation of the party’s past that bears very little relation to actual fact. And in part, by the concessions he continually makes to the standpoint of the antiparty sects who still hold him as a captive, his exposition of party history is somewhat provocative.

If it was a mistake in the first place to organize the party, if it was wrong to belong to the party since its foundation, if the circles of word-radicalism which conducted a venomous fight against the party since its inception were correct – if all this were so, Comrade Rose’s approach to the question would have a certain justification. Needless to say we do not share such a view nor the conclusions deriving from it.

Distorted History

Take a few examples of Comrade Rose’s history at random; in each instance we find them to be distorted, one-sided, and false: “The native proletarian elements ... round the I.W.W. were at first neglected by this rising movement” (the party). But this is presented as solely the fault of the as yet groping and inexperienced party. The reactionary course of the I.W.W. leaders in fomenting antagonism to the Communist movement – and this was the really decisive element in the situation – is left out of account. Finally, he says, there came an appeal to the MW from the Communist International “over the heads of the American Communist leadership.” Not so. It was the delegation of the party to the Comintern that drafted the appeal, and the whole party supported it.

Comrade Rose speaks of party members “sent in ‘to capture or destroy the I.W.W.’” Who were they and when was such an instruction ever given out by the party? We read about it in the I.W.W. papers in their campaign to poison their members against communism, and nowhere else. By such criticisms of the party, Comrade Rose succeeds only in giving away his sources of information about it.

We have always been under the impression that the Passaic strike was a landmark in party development, that it was handled on a national scale with considerable skill, and that it signalized the party’s supremacy in the radical labor movement. But what does Comrade Rose see in this event? He sees “the slowness of the party leadership to accept the gage of battle” – some of Weisbord’s absurd gossip retailed five years later to glorify himself. Again: “The collective party wisdom could find no better road than to hand over these workers bag and baggage to the A.F. of L. fakers, to dissipate and demoralize.”

What is this but I.W.W. chatter, later repeated by Browder and similars to justify the “turn” of the “third period”? So far from repudiating the course of the party in the Passaic strike – taking it as a whole, we mean, not denying or justifying certain errors – the Left Opposition has always maintained that the party must go back and appropriate some of its fruitful experiences. If you will stop for a moment to compare Passaic with the present strategy in Paterson you ought to see the force of this opinion.

One more example: In our platform adopted at the first conference we gave a review of the mine strike of 1927–28 and the subsequent developments. We did not spare criticism of the party errors in the whole campaign, for we had waged a heated struggle over them in the party. But Comrade Rose sees only the husk of the nut; the kernel escapes him altogether. He laments the “Save the Union” movement as “the famous movement of unpleasant memories.” But, my dear friend, the “Save the Union” movement was the instrument through which the party came to head a huge mass movement of miners for the first time. It is true enough that the party leadership of the present day is turning its back on all that rich experience and on the methods which, in spite of all the errors, yielded such great results. But why should we emulate them? On the contrary, we are hammering them nearly every week in The Militant, [calling] for a policy which borrows much from the example of the “Save the Union” movement, making allowance of course for the altered conditions.

Repeating Slander

Here again Comrade Rose gives a prominence to the IWW out of all proportion to their actual merits while he belittles the achievements of the party. According to him the national miners’ relief campaign led by the party “grew out” of the I.W.W. strike in Colorado. Nothing of the sort. The relief campaign was organized months before and was based on the Pennsylvania-Ohio strike.

The later entrance of the I.W.W. into the relief situation as a result of the Colorado strike only served to muddle the situation and poison the atmosphere with reactionary slander about misappropriation of funds.

Such an account of the affair as Comrade Rose offers is false to the core, and provocative as well. You will never get the Left Opposition to accept the I.W.W. version of party history. Just consider such an expression as this: “The party pounced upon this movement [the relief campaign, ‘brought to a head’ by the I.W.W.] as a godsend.” Why not add that the party stole all the money and thus round out the story that all its enemies have told?

With such a view of party history as Comrade Rose has expounded in his articles it is only logical that he should see nothing good in it today and no hope for its future. According to his opinion, the American Communist Party – which never was any good – “cannot any longer be classified as even possessing the potentialities of a ‘mass party’ in the face of its miserable failures in all fields.” Can the Left Opposition trifle for a moment with such an estimation? Here is a sweeping statement indeed, which forbids the party to grow regardless of external events.

The Communist Party of Germany has no better policy and no better leadership – if we allow for proportions – and yet it influences millions and continues to grow. We should not take the responsibility of prohibiting the American party to grow stronger. The facts of life will most likely veto the order and discredit us entirely. As a matter of fact the recent advances of the National Miners Union under party leadership occurred since Comrade Rose made the first draft of his document. That fact, and many others which can easily be cited, show how false and dangerous it would be to accept his view.

False Viewpoints

The theory that the party was worthless in the past and hopeless for the future brings our critic inevitably to a collision with the policy toward the party which the Left Opposition has pursued since its inception. Only one conclusion can follow from this premise – to form another party. But this idea has been so hopelessly discredited in the Left Opposition, in America as well as on an international scale, that Comrade Rose stops short of the logic of his own position and exhausts himself with negative criticism of the tactics of the National Committee, which proceed from a different premise. The content in all of his criticisms, accordingly, is indefiniteness, contradiction, and half-formed conclusions.

We cannot determine the line of the Communist League in this manner. First we must clearly define the premises upon which our work as a faction of the party is founded. Tactical conclusions follow from this. It is of course possible even then to disagree on the tactical application of the basic policy. But in that case the disputes are narrowed down; they can be put concretely and definitely. The attempt to work out a common tactic when the premise is contradictory is doomed to failure from the start. This, in our opinion, is the source of the vague and confusing proposals which Comrade Rose outlines in his articles.

(The second article by comrade Cannon in reply to discussion will appear next week.)

Last updated on: 26.1.2013