J.P. Cannon

The Cleveland Fiasco

(September 1933)

Published: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 42, 9 September 1933, p. 1.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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The Cleveland Conference was another Stalinist “united front” masquerade which adds nothing positive to strengthen and unify the Left wing for the struggle. That was to be expected. A service to the working class would have been possible there only if the conference had been convened under the sign of a change of trade union policy and a renunciation of the monstrous system of mistakes and crimes which have demoralized and decimated the Left wing forces in the labor movement, robbing them of the possibility of playing their natural role in the present beginning of a new rise in working class activity. Instead of that the whole affair was consecrated to the task of covering up the past and perpetuating the policies, methods and practices which have brought such tragic results.

From the point of view of trade union tactics, the class conscious workers have to reject the findings of the Cleveland Conference in toto. Faced with the overwhelming evidence on every side of a revival of the conservative labor organizations and a sweeping movement of the workers into them, a trade union conference at this moment can serve a progressive purpose only if it draws the inescapable conclusion. That is, to recognize that this new impulse of the workers for organization, even in the most conservative unions, is in itself a progressive development which the revolutionaries must assist and encourage and take part in. Regardless of variations in the process, due to the exceptional conditions in certain instances, it is absolutely clear to anyone who has eyes to see that this drift toward the A.F. of L. unions is the main line of trade union development in the new situation arising from the collapse of the Stalinist paper unions, the economic upturn and the inauguration of the NRA. A national trade union conference, called together in such a situation, must deal with main lines if it does not want to leave the track entirely.

The Stalinist engineers of the Cleveland Conference could not do this without revealing and admitting the falsity of all they have said and done and tried to do on the trade union field in the past period. They would have had to admit that life itself is refuting the contentions which they set up as rigid principles. They would have been obliged to recognize that the sectarianism and bureaucratic mismanagement of the paper unions under their control have brought results which operate as an objective factor to discredit and paralyze the independent union movement, to rob it for the time of its great vitality and by that to push the main stream of the awakening workers back into the conservative organizations, even into those against which they have previously revolted.

From the point of view of the proletarian united front the Cleveland conference was a comedy, unique and perhaps a little more ridiculous than the previous exhibitions. As every vegetable has its season, so every change of the moon brings a new type of “united front”. “The united front from below”, which condemned all non-Communist leaders as Fascists and excluded any cooperation with them, gave place to the approach to all reformist organizations for a united front with a non-aggression pact excluding criticism. This attempt to include everybody at any price is already out of date. The dealings with the Fascists and Social Fascists in general are given up, in favor of the exclusive unity – and a touchingly affectionate one – with the Musteites, that is, with the “Left social Fascists”, the “most dangerous” of the whole conglomeration of black shirts and brown shirts who lurked behind every bush.

This bloc in reality is a crude horse trade which Muste conducts on the principle of give and take, with the express proviso that the CPLA does not do any of the giving. Muste and Budenz sign their names to joint manifestos (which cost nothing), sit on the platform, and gain a certain rehabilitation before the Communist workers. This is a real gain for them. They are hot foot for this kind of “unity”, and naturally so. But when it comes to the question of concrete agreements in any sector of the trade union field, they invariably balk. The “united conference” at Cleveland showed the Musteites dissenting and keeping their hands free in every case.

All this is funny enough. But the sum total results of the Stalinist adventures in the trade union field are no joke. Just at the moment when the workers are beginning to stir again, to move in masses in sharp collisions against, the employers – in a word, in a situation made to order for an advance of revolutionary organization and influence the reactionary labor bureaucrats re-establish their organizations and secure their positions and prestige on the support of new hundreds and thousands of workers while the Left wing suffers catastrophic defeats. The most out standing illustration of this anomaly is to be seen in the needle trades.

But this superficial appearance of things is in reality a contradictory process which is not without positive aspects which promise much for the future. If thousands of the class conscious workers caught in the overwhelming pressure of external forces, are turning their backs on the cut and dried trade union schemes of the Stalinists and re-entering the conservative unions, this movement does not necessarily imply a retrogrission on their part. Any movement, towards trade union organization is progressive. And when this is accompanied by a profound disillusionment with the Stalinist dogmas and the Stalinist leadership its progressive nature is by no means impaired. On the contrary, the decisive break of the advanced workers out of the straight jacket of Stalinism is the first and most necessary condition for the re-emergence and flowering of a genuine Left, wing in the labor movement. And that also is the necessary basis for a reconstruction of American Communism.

Last updated on 21 October 2015