James P. Cannon

Two Articles on the Slogan
“Rank-and-File Leadership”

(April/June 1932)

Written: April & June 1931.
First Published: The Militant, New York, Vol. V No. 18 (Whole No. 114), 30 April 1932, p. 4 for article No. 1 and Vol. V No. 24 (Whole No. 120), 11 June 1932, p. 4 for article No. 2.
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.
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I. “Under Rank-and-File Leadership”

April 30, 1932

One of the demands in the program of the lefts who were elected to the convention of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was for “a real strike under rank-and-file leadership.” This slogan does not appear here for the first time. It did not originate with the workers who stood as the candidates of the left in the International elections, and they should not be blamed for it. There is no doubt that this antileadership slogan was imposed upon them by their own leaders, the Stalinists, whose “rank and file” ballyhoo is intended for the deception of others and by no means for their own guidance in relation to their own rank and file.

In their steadily losing battle of recent times with the traitorous leaders of the right-wing unions, the demoralized officials of Stalinism have been trying to outwit their opponents and to sneak into the leadership of the workers without their knowledge. This is the grand “strategy” which motivates the demagogic appeal for the leadership of the rank and file. The sad results which these unworthy maneuvers have brought, not the least of which has been the disorientation of the communist workers in the simplest and most elementary questions, justify a discussion of this ridiculous slogan from the standpoint of the ABC of Marxism.

The first thing which must strike the observant workers, and which in part accounts for the miserable failure of the slogan about rank-and-file leadership, is the howling inconsistency of its authors. On the one side they stand at the head of the party by virtue of appointment, and rule it with the most bureaucratic arbitrariness. If one is looking for an example of the leadership of the rank and file he will never find the merest trace of it in the Stalinized party.

The rank-and-file Communist who would venture to assert the modest right to say what he thinks in criticism of the leadership, to say nothing of the advocacy of the slogan which he propagates in the unions under party instructions, would soon be handed his passport. This is what has happened to many, and the workers in the unions know it. Integrity, common sense, and a decent respect for ordinary human intelligence all argue against this sordid attempt to fool the workers with an idea that is flatly contradicted in the practices of the Amters and all the other Fosters.

But hypocrisy and dishonesty are prime ingredients of Stalinism; and, in addition, contempt for the workers. Abusing the faith of the conscious proletariat in the Russian revolution and the Comintern, they imagine they can sanctify anything by mere command. This is what misleads them into such self-contradictory policies in relation to the general labor movement.

Ruling within the limited sphere of the party by decree, they forget that in order to influence the noncommunist masses it is necessary to convince them. And since the masses take nothing on faith, but test everything out in life and learn from their experience, the slogans of the party which do not correspond to reality are unavailing. Thus it happens that such manifest absurdities as the “leadership of the rank and file” leave the masses untouched, and succeed only in deceiving and disorienting the communist workers.

Lenin on Leaders and Masses

Twelve years ago Lenin wrote a pamphlet for the purpose of clearing up some misconceptions in the newly formed Communist parties. One of these misconceptions was the prejudice, derived from syndicalism, regarding leaders and masses. Replying to the arguments of those “leftists” in the German party who contrasted the one to the other, he remarked: “What old and well-known rubbish! What ‘left’ childishness!” The simple explanations and ironical comments of the great teacher, regarding the masses and the leaders and the interrelations between them, apply so pertinently to the present aberration of the American Stalinists on the subject of “rank-and-file leadership” that a few quotations will be in order.

“One notices the superficial and incoherent use of the now ‘fashionable’ terms, ‘masses’ and ‘leaders.’ People have heard much and have conned by rote all the frivolous attacks on ‘leaders’ – contrasting them with the ‘masses’ – but failed to grasp the application and the inner meaning of these words.”

“To a Russian Bolshevik ... all talk of ‘from above’ or ‘from below,’ the ‘dictatorship of leaders’ or ‘the dictatorship of the masses’ cannot but appear as childish nonsense. It is something like discussing whether the left leg or the right arm is more useful to a man.”

“People bend every effort to elaborate something extraordinary, and in their zeal to be intellectual they become ridiculous. It is common knowledge ... that the classes are usually and in most cases led by political parties, at least in modern civilized countries; that political parties, as a general rule, are led by more or less stable groups of the more influential, authoritative, experienced members, elected to the most responsible positions, and called leaders. All this is elementary. It is simple and plain. Why then all this rigamarole, this new Volapük.”

These citations are taken from The Infantile Sickness of “Left” Communism. Have the new members of the party ever seen this pamphlet, and have the old members forgotten it? These teachings, like all the fundamental doctrines elaborated by the Comintern under Lenin, have been declared out of date; they are buried under the filth and confusion of the Stalin regime. The Communist worker who wants to find his way back to the Lenin path might well begin with a study, or a re-examination of the Infantile Sickness.

After that he would never be able to go around shouting such absurdities as “the leadership of the rank and file.” He would not be able even to listen to such an instruction from his own “leaders” without laughing under the table.

The Role of the Conscious Workers

The chatter about “rank-and-file leadership” is a disgrace for communists. Such horseplay can very well be left to the confusionists of syndicalism who object to the idea of a workers’ political party on the ground that the masses need no leaders. This demoralizing nonsense only hampers the organization of the working class and thus serves the bourgeoisie. The mission of the communists is to educate the workers, not to muddle and confuse them; to aspire, frankly, to lead them in their struggle, not to trail behind them and cater to ignorance and prejudice with demagogic slogans.

The working class under capitalism is not and cannot be a homogeneous body. The enormous pressure of the ruling-class ideology presses heavily upon it. Bourgeois ideas, disseminated through the press, the schools, the movies, the political parties, and in other ways, demoralize and corrupt the thoughts of the workers. Besides that, the working class under capitalism is divided into various economic categories, with different standards of living and, to a certain extent, different immediate interests. The upper stratum, the aristocracy of labor, which is the most conservative and at the same time the best organized, becomes a means of strengthening bourgeois influences over the class. The labor bureaucrats, with their high salaries and petty-bourgeois standards of life, act as the agents of capital in the labor movement.

As a result of all this, it is possible under capitalism for only a minority of the working class to free itself from bourgeois influences and ideas and to understand the historical class position of the proletariat. These are the conscious workers, the vanguard of the class. In order to influence the class it is necessary for these conscious workers to organize themselves and to fight unitedly against the domination of the capitalists and their agents in the labor movement. From this arises the Marxist idea of the centralized workers’ party. It is the first letter of the Marxist alphabet on the question of working-class organization.

This principle of leadership by the most conscious and resolute elements applies to strikes and other daily struggles as well as to the class struggle as a whole. The agitation for “the leadership of the rank and file” negates this principle and sows confusion. By this it only makes the leadership of the reactionary agents of the capitalists more secure. This harmful and anti-Marxist slogan should be cast aside. Instead of it, the Communist workers in the unions, as in every other field of the class struggle, should frankly contrast their policy and their leadership to the policy and the leadership of the labor lieutenants of capital. This is the only way to teach the workers and help them in their struggle. There is no roundabout way.

II. More on Slogan of “Rank-and-File Leadership”

June 11, 1932

Some questions have arisen about the remarks in a recent issue of the Militant on the slogan of “rank-and-file leadership,” which deserve a somewhat extended answer. The idea has been expressed that this slogan of the Stalinists really has some merits, that in reality it is only a restatement of the old demand of the left wing for trade union democracy, and that in any case the slogan is not wrong in principle.

In our opinion, such views are entirely erroneous in all respects, and only add to the confusion. And since the matter has a considerable importance – nothing will bring quicker disaster than a false direction in the trade union struggle – another attempt to clarify the issue will be worthwhile. The negative manner in which the slogan was discussed in the previous treatment, without reference to an alternative formulation, also came in for criticism and perhaps gave ground for misunderstanding. The present article, therefore, will undertake to deal with the latest trade union slogan of the Stalinists in a more rounded fashion and suggest a positive alternative.

Anarchist conception of Leadership

Is “rank-and-file leadership” a new demand of the left wing, or is it simply the restatement of an old one? There are two answers to this question. It is an old idea that permeated the needle trades left wing more or less before the emergence of the Communist leadership. But its advocacy by Communists is something new – one of the many Stalinist “innovations” which are in reality borrowed from anti-Marxist schools. Before the rise of the Communist influence in the needle trades, the left wing was heavily tainted with the prejudices of anarchism and syndicalism in their various forms. The IWW, defeated organizationally in the needle trades, succeeded nevertheless in grafting a part of its ideology onto the militant section of the rank and file. The brilliant idea of “no leaders,” of the rank and file leading the rank and file – which is just another way of saying “rank-and-file leadership” – gained a certain sympathy from the workers who were in revolt against the bureaucracy.

The leaders of the “company union” did not begin their treacherous work yesterday. The workers had good reason to learn about it before 1919. The old movement against the bureaucrats, which had not yet thought out its problems and formulated a clear program, had a tendency to identify the idea of leadership with the ruling clique and had to a certain extent fallen victim to nihilistic conceptions on the question of leadership, as preached by the anarchists and the IWW. In this respect, but in no other, it can be said that “rank-and-file leadership” is an old slogan of the needle trades left wing.

But ten years or more ago the Communists came to the front and soon gained the decisive leadership of the left-wing movement by virtue of their superior policy. One of the first positive steps of the Communist left wing was to clear up the muddled ideology of the movement and sweep out the anarchistic rubbish which had paralyzed the struggles and strengthened the position of the reactionary bureaucrats. “Rank and file” demagogy and formlessness in the domain of organization gave place to the conception of democratic centralism.

The old and outworn reformist method of workers’ organization makes an artificial division between the masses of the membership on the one side and the ruling bureaucrats on the other. This state of affairs created the conditions for the antileadership prejudices to gain a foothold. The Leninist idea of democratic centralism fuses the leaders with the masses and removes any ground for contrasting the one to the other. This idea gained hegemony in the left wing and was one of the most important reasons why its fighting capacities grew by leaps and bounds. From a chaos revolving around one spot, the left wing became a real contender for power in the unions, and in some cases achieved it.

In its struggle to break the backbone of the bureaucracy which was throttling the unions, the Communist left wing advanced along the line of principle in all questions, including the organization question. This was its strength. The Communists formulated their fighting slogans precisely and accurately, and in consonance with a general theory of organization. Confronted then as now with the sabotaging role of the bureaucrats in strikes, they did not attempt to leap over the difficulty by denying the necessity of an official leadership. On the contrary, they formulated a general demand applicable to the union as a whole, and a subordinate one, consistent with it, applicable to the management of strikes.

History of the Slogan

On the one hand, the Communist left wing raised the demand for honest, militant leaders in the union in place of the corrupt, reactionary fakers. In harmony with that, and consistent with the organization program which the left wing would apply when it gained control of the union, it demanded the democratization of the union, and particularly of the strike machinery. (At that time, you see, the left wing was not conducting a temporary excursion into the reactionary unions; it was aiming to conquer them, step by step, and it formulated its slogans accordingly.) The left wing did not bluster about rank-and-fi1e “leadership,” it demanded rank-and-file control. Moreover, it formulated this demand precisely, so that everyone could understand just what was meant.

In the program adopted at the Third Conference of the Needle Trades Left Wing, September 12–14, 1925, the idea is expressed as follows:

It is only through a strike machinery thoroughly representative of the workers in the shops that the membership can effectively be mobilized for strike activity ... Therefore, foremost of our immediate aims during strikes is the democratization of the strike machinery. We therefore demand, pending the democratization of the whole union machinery, as provided in this program: (1) that the general strike committees and heads of the strike be elected by the delegates and chairmen from the shops and responsible to them; (2) that all strike assessments be collected as legally due to this strike committee, to be expended only for strike purposes; (3) that secret diplomacy be done away with and negotiations with the employers be conducted on an open basis. [1]

Have these demands – so clear, so precise, and so consistent with the whole general program of the left wing for the renovation of the union on the basis of democratic centralism – anything in common with the latter-day mumbling about “rank-and-file leadership” of strikes? Are the Stalinists perhaps now saying, or trying to say, the same thing in a different way?

Control of Leadership?

In reply to this question it is only necessary to ask: if they mean the same thing that the left wing meant in 1925, then why did they change the precise and correct formulation of that time for the present self-contradictory mishmash? The reason for the change is clear enough: the aims are different now and the slogan has a different meaning. In 1925 the left wing was fighting inside the union with the aim of wresting it out of the strangling grasp of the reactionaries. In 1932 the left wing, under the influence of the proconsuls of Stalin, are still monkeying around with the theory of “company unionism” and are searching for some kind of strike organization outside the existing union.

The fact that they hit upon a slogan that has no real sense or meaning, and that flatly contradicts Marxist conceptions of organization in favor of Wobblyism, is nothing to be surprised at. They always do something like this when they experiment with “theory.” A short while ago it was “independent leadership of strike’ struggles.” After they had cracked their heads on the rocks with this formula, they quietly dropped it. Now, with a “new” slogan, which is quite different in appearance, they are attempting to accomplish the same design that failed before, namely, to find a substitute for the existing union in the midst of a strike regardless of the attitude of the majority of workers.

Under pressure of the criticism we have brought against the slogan of “rank-and-file leadership,” and no doubt also stimulated by the poor reception it has received from the rank and file, attempts are being made to interpret the slogan in a different way than was originally intended. Rose Wortis, for example, who strives to avoid obvious absurdities when the party bosses are not watching, speaks in the Daily Worker of May 31 about “a real strike for union conditions under rank-and-file control” (our emphasis).

Thus it would appear, according to the Wortis version, that rank-and-file leadership and rank-and-file control are synonymous expressions.

But this is by no means the case, either in the field of organization or in the dictionary. In every democratic organization the ultimate control of the rank and file is presupposed; but the selection of the leadership and its functions remain a separate question. Only those who deny the role of leadership can solve the problem for themselves by a reference to “control.” Wortis, for example, was a leader, but three-fourths of her leadership consisted in maneuvers to escape this “rank-and-file control” she talks about.

Role of Leadership in Strikes and Unions

“Leadership is a necessary condition for any common action,” says the resolution of the Third World Congress of the Comintern. This principle, which does not at all exclude rank-and-file control of the leadership, implies however a selection of persons for leading functions. And it has the same force whether the persons selected are professional leaders or rank-and-file workers elevated to leading positions or committees. In every organization and in every action the question arises at once, and inescapably: Who is going to lead? You can answer: this group or that group; this committee or another. But if you wish to be taken seriously, do not say the rank and file is going to lead the rank and file. And do not try to pass the problem off with a statement that the rank and file will control. That is not the same thing.

In every organization certain persons are selected for leading functions or committees. By that fact they become “leaders,” regardless of whether they have had previous experience or not. Such leaders, under the principle of democratic centralism, are inseparably fused with the rank and file, they are accountable to and controlled by the rank and file. This is understandable to anyone. But to confuse the leadership with the mass, or to contrast one to the other, as the slogan of rank-and-file leadership does, presents a muddle which no one can understand and for which everyone can have his own interpretation.

Democratic Centralism in Unions

Leadership is one thing, control of the leadership is another. Democratic organization means, in the last analysis, rank-and-file control. But the communists who think things out and formulate their ideas clearly do not speak merely of democracy. The organizational form they advocate is democratic centralism. And what does that mean? On the one hand it means democracy in the organization. On the other hand – as against the anarchistic and IWW idea of “no leaders” – it means a recognition of the function of leadership. This leadership in the communist conception is not some kind of a clerical staff or informal bureau. It is invested with real functions and powers, that is, it is given the possibility to lead.

But – and herein lies the distinction from bureaucratism – the leadership is selected by the rank and file, is responsible to and, in the final analysis, is controlled by the rank and file. Democratic centralism, the communist organizational principle, therefore presupposes rank-and-file control, but excludes confusionist and demagogic demands for rank-and-file leadership. The 1925 program of the needle trades left wing was permeated through and through with this rounded conception. The slogan of today contradicts it in principle. The Wortis improvisation tries to smooth over the fundamental contradiction. She has had a lot of practice at that sort of business.

It has been said that our previous article on this question confused matters by contrasting the “rank and file” agitation of the Stalinists in the trade unions to their bureaucratic regime in the party. The party, it is urged, is not the same as the trade union, and therefore the comparison is inappropriate. True enough, a distinction must be made between the political organization of the vanguard and the economic organization of the broad mass. They differ fundamentally in many ways, including organizational forms, but according to the Lenin doctrine the organizational principle of each is the same. Rank-and-file leadership is an absurdity in either case; rank-and-file control is ultimately necessary in both.

Trotsky on Rank and File Control

Note the remarks of Comrade Trotsky on this point in the June 4 issue of the Militant: “As the first condition of the party control over the government Lenin put the control of party mass over the apparatus.” These will bear a careful reading several times. To shout for rank-and-file leadership in the union and soft-pedal about rank-and-file control in the party is a double mistake, a howling inconsistency all the way around. Some of the right-wing union fakers, it seems, snatched up our criticism of the inconsistency of the party bureaucrats and made use of it for their own purposes. But this by no means invalidates the criticism. The corrective for such parasitic exploitation of our exposure of party errors by the right wing is not to keep silent about the errors, but to compel the party to correct them. Let the party members exert some rank-and-file control in this respect in their own party. The same task in the trade unions will then be greatly simplified and facilitated.

In order to wage an effective fight in the trade unions today, and to fortify the victory of tomorrow, the left wing must have consistent slogans all along the line. As a minority it must defend those principles of organization which will govern the union when it comes under the control of the left wing. It must practice in the left-wing unions under its leadership that same method which it demands in the reactionary unions where it constitutes an opposition. If the left wing fails to do this, if it shuttles back and forth with a policy of expediency on every occasion, it will lose its principal guiding line, and with it the power to shape and lead a victorious movement of the masses.

This is what has been happening in recent years under the direction of full-blown Stalinism. The results speak for themselves; and in the catastrophic situation of the left wing in the needle trades they speak with an exceptional force and clarity. The most pressing task of the party and the left wing is to throw off this incubus that weights it down and halts its progress at every step. The general fight to liberate the movement from this paralyzing influence has to be supported by a concrete struggle on every point, against every error which contributes to the defeat of the left-wing workers. The slogan of rank-and-file leadership is one of these errors, the harmfulness of which is clearly demonstrable.

There can be no ground for compromise with such a policy. The Left Opposition, by its criticism, has driven the Stalinists from more than one false position. It must not halt for a moment the effort to do the same in this case. A correction of this error requires no new wisdom. With the aid of the Lenin teaching the left wing solved the problem in question in its program of 1925. What is needed now is a return to the 1925 formulation.

Editor’s Note

1. The document Cannon refers to here is A Fighting Union For The Needle Workers!

Last updated on: 2.6.2013