James P. Cannon

The Threat Of Illegality

(March 1932)

Written: March 1932.
First Published: The Militant, Vol. V No. 12, 19 March 1932, p. 4.
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: Andrew Pollack.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (May 2013).
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American capitalism is already giving advance notice of the bloody answer it is preparing to the slaves whom it denies a living within their slavery. In the roar of gunfire at Detroit it said to the workers whom it has thrown onto the streets: “We cannot employ you and we will not provide you, and if you protest we will shoot you.” The massacre at Detroit was followed a few days later by the murderous attack on the Chicago demonstration of the Communists before the Japanese Consulate. Here, as in Detroit, the police were clearly the aggressors. The demonstration was designed as a peaceful one; with Communist direction it could not be otherwise under the given conditions, for it is no part of Communist policy to substitute the futile violence of an individual or of a small group for the intervention of the masses, who are not yet active.

We do not credit the story by means of which the police murderers are attempting to cover themselves—that the first shots were fired from the crowd, and by a “Communist agitator” at that. Such individual reactions to the regime of brutal repression are of course possible; one may say inevitable. Even if that had been the case in Chicago, the police who forcibly deprived the manifestants of their rights would bear the whole responsibility. But their attempt to pin the accusation on a “known” Communist discredits their story from the start. It is a transparent subterfuge to justify themselves and to frame up the party.

They are proceeding in the same way in Detroit. The four victims of their gunmen had not been laid away before they began a wild manhunt for Communist leaders and set the legal machinery in motion to grind out wholesale indictments. They are drawing the noose tighter around the workers’ vanguard. They are starting to isolate it from the great mass of discontented workers and to outlaw its activities. The labor passivity that has attended the Kentucky prosecutions and convictions only encourages a similar procedure after every skirmish in other places. The ruling capitalists and their government hirelings, shivering in fear at the coming storm of labor rebellion, would like to cut off and proscribe the conscious and articulate section of the class and deprive the germinating mass movement of legal spokesmen and organizers.

The menace of illegality for the communist movement is undoubtedly growing, and it calls for the most serious and all-sided consideration. There is no prescription by the aid of which the party can be guaranteed a legal existence. With the present weakness and isolation of the party, with the intensification of war danger increasing, and with a powerful ruling class panic-stricken at the prospect of a workers’ mass movement to come, but not yet matured and merged with the vanguard, the revolutionary wing may be driven underground in spite of anything it can do.

There is no prescription that will guarantee legality. But within certain limits it can be safeguarded and strengthened by a correct policy. The experience of 1919–21 must be recalled and its lessons assimilated by those militants who have been drawn into the movement, under legal conditions, since that time. The first of these lessons is to value legality; and, without surrendering a single point of revolutionary doctrine or evading a single duty, to fight for it to the end. A retreat into illegality under the present conditions, or even under much more aggravated ones, would signify a retreat from the coming class battles.

The Situation and Its Tasks

One of the most important problems of American Communist tactics is to maintain an open legal, or at least semi-legal, position until a significant workers’ mass movement has caught up with the conscious vanguard and joined with it in a common struggle on the concrete questions of the day. Then the suppression of the party will be a thousand times more difficult. The numerically weak party, isolated and fighting virtually alone, is only a threat. The party supported by a workers’ mass movement is a power.

If we are going to find our way in the charged social atmosphere of these days, the first obligation laid upon us is to see things as they are. History assigns an enormous role to the conscious revolutionaries, who foresee the line of march theoretically; but it does not allow us to force events by our own wishes. Marxism is no doctrine of social miracles wrought by small minorities. It has nothing in common with putschism. Even if one is convinced—as we are convinced—that we are near the threshold of great events and great changes in the life of the American working class, it is not permissible to forget for a moment that we alone will not and cannot be the authors of these changes and these events. The future of American communism is bright with promise, but we will move toward that great future only insofar as the working masses move with us at every step.

The material conditions are long ripe for a tremendous upsurge of militant labor. This we know and this is the foundation of our perspectives. But the workers do not react automatically to the material pressure upon them, and there is no rule by which to foretell the extent and tempo of their movement in advance. That must be judged and estimated as it actually unfolds or, at least, as it is clearly intimated. A clear-sighted study of the mood and temper of the workers must precede and regulate the daily tactics and working methods of the revolutionary party if it really aims to accelerate and influence the collisions of class forces. Unemployment on the one side and wage reductions on the other are weighing down upon virtually the whole working class of America and ruthlessly changing all the accustomed conditions and standards of life. But in spite of that—and this is the most singular and inescapable fact in the situation—the workers have not yet begun the inevitable movement of revolt. Under pressure of conditions that become more and more intolerable, the workers are undergoing a profound mental change. But the outward signs of this change are not yet manifest to any appreciable extent. It is like the slow accumulation of steam in a sealed boiler that has not yet reached the explosive point. The explosion will come, and it may come unannounced; but it is not the storm—it is but rather the dead calm before the storm—that characterizes the present situation.

The sporadic movements which flare up here and there are organized by the small communist vanguard and, for the most part, carried through by them in almost every case. In these actions the communist workers are distinguishing themselves by their courage and resolution. Thereby they are storing up capital and prestige for the future. But the masses are not moving with the communists. In this disparity there is a great danger that the vanguard will become exhausted and demoralized and unable to handle the real movement when it breaks.

The communist workers are not the working class. They are only its conscious section, and at present in America they are a small and numerically insignificant section. The communist workers alone cannot fight real class battles. Their function is to fight with the workers, and in their front ranks: The task of the communists at the moment is to prepare the workers for the coming struggles. The center of this task is the “patient work of explanation”;of agitation and propaganda to win the workers over to a course of struggle. There is no substitute for this prosaic task and there is no way to leap over it. A renovation of the party’s tactics in this sense is an absolute necessity. Only in this way can it prepare the coming workers’ movement and entrench itself within it.

Last updated on: 19.5.2013