James P. Cannon

Com. Cannon at Albany

(March 1933)

Published: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 18, 10 March 1933, pp. 1 & 2.
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Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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Comrades and Fellow-Workers:

We meet here in the fourth year of the crisis which has brought the most appalling misery and privation to the masses and which is profoundly affecting the entire working class. The terrible and unprecedented conditions are undermining the workers’ accustomed standards of life. They are destroying all their security of existence, such as it was. and are putting before them, in every more categoric terms, the necessity of seeking a way out by new methods and means. In such a situation this conference of 346 delegates from 248 workers’ organizations can serve as a starting point in a significant movement of working class resistance, or it can remain a mere episode soon passed over and soon forgotten. It is for us to decide which it shall be. It depends in the highest degree on the success we achieve in pointing out the way to the impoverished masses, and in working out the methods and means of uniting with them in the struggle.

In order for us to give the right answer to this question, which is of such crucial importance, we must first see the situation as it really is. And at the very beginning we must discard any illusions about the real nature and composition of our conference. To talk as though the conference represented the unemployed millions of New York State, or even a numerically significant section of them, is a sure way of condemning all the deliberations of the conference to futility The real class movement of the workers against the scourge of unemployment, does not yet exist on any wide scale. The movement which is on its feet and attempting to struggle against the conditions of the crisis remains, in the fourth year of the crisis, primarily and almost exclusively a movement of the class-conscious vanguard. The composition of this conference, called together after the most extensive preparation and agitation, is the most eloquent testimony to this fact. In this there is nothing fatal if we recognize the fact; if we do not deceive ourselves with illusions about a united front movement which does not as yet exist in reality.

The composition of the Conference determines its specific tasks. To me it is quite obvious that general agitation against the evils of unemployment is unnecessary here since everybody is already convinced. There has been enough, if not too much, of this already. There is very little doubt that the conference is ready, now without any further discussion, to endorse the most radical demands, and the social revolution too. If someone should move a resolution for the dictatorship of the proletariat, in order to test the sentiments of the conference, there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority, if not every single delegate here, would vote far it with both hands. In its composition it is a conference of the vanguard. The important and decisive questions for such a conference are the questions of program, perspectives and tactics. From this point of view I shall undertake to analyze the situation as the Left Opposition sees it and from which our proposals flow.

The crisis is preparing the ground for a great resurgence of the American working class. The cynical indifference of the capitalist rulers to the plight of the hungry masses, the paltry relief doled out as charity, the savage wage cuts and other aggressions on the one hand, and the bankruptcy of all the capitalist panaceas for overcoming the crisis on the other – all this is producing in the depths of the working and unemployed masses the most profound resentment and dissatisfaction. The necessary conditions for the transformation of the psychology of the working class, for its political awakening and its emergence as a class on the road of the class struggle, are maturing rapidly; to a certain extent they have already matured.

The furious resentment of the workers is accumulating to the breaking point, preparing the way for a great explosion of working class protest. Of decisive importance to facilitate this are: the program, the tactic and the perspective. The present conference has to be conceived not as the culmination but rather as a point of departure in the struggle to set a real class movement of the working and unemployed masses on foot.

The hesitation of the masses to express their profound resentment at the terrible conditions imposed upon them in the crisis in aggressive struggles on a broad scale, which up to now has been one of the most outstanding characteristics of the situation, has certain causes. The mass unemployment overwhelmed the employed workers with a sense of insecurity and helplessness, and served as a deterrent, to actions on their part. In addition to that, the absence of any organized movement of the unemployed on a sufficiently large scale, and the disunity in such movements as have existed have operated to paralyze the development of a real class movement. All this does not preclude the possibility of a change in the attitude of the workers, and that in a comparatively short time.

The program for the translation of the mass discontent and resentment of the employed and unemployed workers into class actions on a broad scale and for the fusion of their interests and their actions in a common struggle centers around the following main demands:

  1. Immediate relief.
  2. Unemployment insurance, to be paid for by the employers and the government.
  3. The six-hour day and the five-day week without reduction in pay.
  4. Long term, large scale credits to the Soviet Union, as a means of unemployment relief for the American workers and the cementing of fraternal bonds between the American and Russian workers. This implies the demand for the recognition of the Soviet government and the establishment of trade relations with it.

The tactic by moans of which the scattered separate movements can be welded into one, and the still inactive masses can be drawn into the struggle, is the tactic of the united front. The united front tactic aims to bring about common action of various workers’ organizations, trade unions and parties. It proposes their joint action in a common movement for immediate aims. It is addressed to the official organizations as well as to the rank and file members, and puts the leaders to the concrete test of struggle. Without this tactic the reformist leaers who disrupt and sabotage the movement escape unpunished, they continue to deceive large masses of workers with empty phrases and to thwart their desire for united struggle. On the other side, without the tactic of the united front, the actions organized under the leadership of the revolutionary workers remain isolated vanguard actions; they do not succeed in reaching the less awakened workers and drawing them into the tight; and, consequently, they fail to exert the necessary class pressure on the capitalists and their government. The present composition of the Albany Conference (almost exclusively Communist and Left wing delegates), is the most striking illustration and warning on this question. A decisive turn to the genuine tactic of the united front is the most imperative need now for the further development of the movement.

The actions of the impoverished and hunger-driven masses, which can follow with accelerated speed and accumulating force from the program and tactic laid down above, must now primarily take the form of demonstrations which really unite wide masses in struggle. The appearance at the State Legislature must not be conceived as an end in itself, but as a means of popularizing and stimulating these mass demonstrations.

Such demonstrations, in the next stage of the movement – to the extent that they really involve broad masses and bring a class force to bear – can put upon the capitalist rulers a pressure which they have not felt up till now. These demonstrations can force concessions from the capitalists and compel them to pause before further onslaughts on the workers out of fear of giving a further stimulus to the movement. Moreover, such united demonstrations, increasing in size and militancy and gaining visible results in concrete cases, (as, for example, in Chicago), will enormously strengthen the morale of the masses, increase their self-confidence and lead, in turn, to broader, bolder, and stormier demonstrations.

On this road the hesitating mood of the masses and their more or less passive discontent can be rapidly transformed into the impulse for active resistance all along the line. The moment this decisive turn in the situation is clearly recorded, new and vast perspectives will be opened up. The increased self-confidence that will follow from the first successes in the demonstrations of the unemployed can be rapidly reflected among the employed workers in the industries in the impulse to resist further aggressions on their already unbearable standards. This can lead to economic actions of the employed workers, to local strikes on the basis of concrete local grievances and to the combination of these economic actions with the political demonstrations of the unemployed masses, and to the reciprocal influence of these movements upon each other.

In face of continued wage cuts, which raise the workers’ resentment to the explosive point, the multiplication of such strike actions is quite possible. In such an event, and on the basis of a stormily developing strike movement, a demonstrative general strike of short duration is not excluded.

The general strike, however, is not an agitation slogan for the present. An adventurous playing with the slogan of the general strike at the present time can only operate to prevent the development of the elemental workers’ movement on the basis of those demands and actions which are appropriate to the present situation and the present stage. The general strike formula cannot be substituted for the preliminary partial actions necessary to prepare the conditions for it. We must not attempt to compensate for the failure or the inability to organize a broad movement on the most elementary basis with big talk about a general strike.

Last updated on 23 July 2015