James P. Cannon

The New Party Turn

(January 1933)

Written: January 1933.
First Published: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 3, 21 January 1933, pp. 1 & 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.
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The new turn, or half turn, of the party in the unemployment movement opens up the possibility for a broad development of the unemployment struggle, which hitherto has owed its stagnation and ineffectiveness, in no small degree, to the absurdly narrow and sectarian policy of the Stalinists.

To the extent that it creates the conditions for the free participation of all workers’ organizations, whose members have a good cause and a genuine will to react against the fearful pressure of unemployment, the new policy of the party creates the primary conditions for the transformation of the isolated vanguard actions of the Communist militants into a united movement embracing masses of workers. Such a movement, driven forward by the appalling mass misery and discontent and putting all parties and leaders to the test of action, can lead to a stormy development of working-class struggle and a rapid expansion of Communist influence. From this point of view the Left Opposition is bound to greet the new turn, to support it with full strength, and to penetrate into the very heart of the unfolding movement.

At the same time, the new turn puts the Left Opposition before new opportunities and tasks. By releasing their monopolistic stranglehold on the emaciated movement and inviting all workers’ organizations “irrespective of political opinions or affiliations,” the Stalinists are perforce required to leave a crack open for the feared and hated “Trotskyists.” We must and we will make our way through that crack, spread it wider, and establish direct contact with the workers, including the Communists who are assembling for struggle under the banner of the united front.

Up to now the strength of the Marxist wing of the movement has been chiefly in its criticism. The opportunity to participate in a movement of struggle against the plague of unemployment places us also before the test of action. The Left Opposition will grow in numbers and influence to the extent that it makes good in this test – to the extent that it demonstrates its qualities as a fighting political organization, not a mere propaganda circle.

But this direct participation in actions can be really effective for the unemployment movement and for communism only if it supplements and reinforces the criticism of all harmful and retarding currents and tendencies, including the tendency of bureaucratic centrism. In no case and under no circumstances can this criticism be submerged in a general sentiment of “unity.”

First of all, we have to see things as they really are and to talk out loud about them. Not a few party members, discouraged and demoralized by the devastation of the “third period,” will hail the new turn uncritically, as a way of salvation. Is it possible that a Left Oppositionist here and there, chafing for action and wearied of the drawn-out struggle of our small faction for the principled foundations, can fall into the same error? Hardly. But such things have happened before. Every zigzag of Stalinism, the whole course of which is a series of zigzags to the left and to the right, has claimed its credulous victims. For this reason also a critical appraisal of the new united front policy at the beginning, and at every turn, must go along with and condition our support.

In initiating the new tactic, the Stalinists have been true to themselves – to the vacillating, cowardly, half-measure character of centrism. In the first place, the turn from the “social fascist” theory is not a complete one: The branches of the Socialist Party and the local AFL unions are invited to the united front. But what of the central bodies of these organizations? What of the leaders? Can you convince any Socialist worker or AFL unionist that these leaders are unwilling to participate in a real struggle for the unemployed if they are not even invited to do so?

Secondly, the turn of policy is carried out not in the direct, straightforward manner of Bolsheviks, but in the indirect and shamefaced manner of Stalinists. The party does not proclaim the policy, issue the call, and take the lead. That is all left to the “Trade Union Committee” controlled by the party.

Thirdly, there is no frank acknowledgment of the ruinous errors of the “third period,” and no explanation of the reasons for the change. Thus the door is left open for a retreat – also without explanation.

Yet another – and the most dangerous – of all the weaknesses of the new step of the Stalinists has already been pointed out in last week’s Militant. That is the parliamentary reformist trend of the proposals. The time to warn against such a trend is now. Having concocted their policy of ultraleft adventurism in an artificial atmosphere of revolutionary upsurge, the Stalinists can now be expected to swing to the other extreme and transform the party militants into petitioners for picayune reforms.

The Amsterdam Congress Against War heralded this swing to the right on an international scale.` The watering down of policy in every field is on the order of the day. The overemphasis on purely parliamentary action in the call for the unemployment conference becomes all the more menacing in the light of this general shift of policy to the right.

Having failed to conquer American capitalism in frontal attack, the Stalinist generals have now given the signal to go after a little at a time; to tone down the talk about the final goal of the struggle. A highly amusing but nonetheless significant incident is reported from Des Moines. A functionary responding to a critical speech by Comrade Lewit explained that he had been instructed “not to talk about revolution in the West.” In this crude remark of the naive field worker is embodied the essence of the new Stalinist strategy: “We couldn’t get the workers by command; now let us fool them in.” By this maneuver they can fool the workers and themselves into a swamp of reformism, but never into a revolutionary struggle.

The Left Opposition, and only the Left Opposition, can sound the alarm against this element of the new turn in united front policy and lead the struggle against it. But this cannot be done effectively by a negative or standing-aside attitude toward the united front movement. On the contrary. Such an attitude can only alienate the Left Opposition from the Communist workers and doom its criticism to futility. An active participation in the movement, in the work and in the fight, is the only way to make the revolutionary influence of the Left Opposition count in the new turn of events.

Last updated on 29 January 2022