James P. Cannon

Under the Banner of Lenin

(18 January 1936)

Published: New Militant, Vol. 1 No. 3, 18 January 1936, pp. 1 & 4.
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Lenin, who died eleven years, ago this month, gave us the fundamental analysis of the social conditions of our time from which all revolutionary thought and action proceed. Our epoch, he said, is the epoch of wars and revolutions. In his own struggle and victory he demonstrated the correctness of this formula and the underlying unity of these two forms of social upheaval. Lenin and a numerically insignificant group of internationalists – a “sect” in the terminology of the opportunist wiseacres – raised the banner of revolutionary struggle against the imperialist war and made it, within three years, the banner of the first victorious workers’ revolution. Lenin’s banner was the banner of internationalism. His struggle against the war was a struggle for the Third International. None but internationalists honor the memory of the real Lenin today.

In the blackest days of the war when the united parties of the Second International became the direct instruments of the imperialist war makers, when the faithless leaders of the social democracy invoked the name of Marx to bless the imperialist slaughter – as the traitors of today invoke the name of Lenin – he called for a revival of unfalsified Marxism, the doctrine of proletarian internationalism. So we today, on the eve of another world war for which the leaders of the Second and Third Internationals have already offered their services as lackeys of the imperialist masters, must fight for a revival of true Leninism, study his teachings and example, and fight under his banner. That means to counterpose the workers’ revolution to the capitalist war and to work unceasingly and under all conditions for the realization of an international organization of the Leninists. That is the only way to fight war, because the only answer to war is revolution.

Lenin fought the betrayers who lured the socialist masses to the slaughter with the treacherous slogan of national defense. He proclaimed irreconcilable war against the social-patriots of all hues, the agents of imperialism in the labor movement. Against them he called for the regrouping of the proletarian vanguard and its unification in a new international organization on the program of revolutionary internationalism. It is well to remember that Lenin fought for this idea without compromise even when he stood in a very small minority. He taught that the split with the social-patriots was the prerequisite for the revolutionary unity of the workers. The development of events brilliantly vindicated his thesis. The Russian Revolution confirmed it in practice. On the foundation of the theory and the practice – the word and the deed – the Comintern arose as a great world movement, heralding the proletarian revolution in all countries.

All that Lenin taught us about the reformist social-democracy and the Second International remains true arid applies with double force today. Only one amendment is needed to his analysis of the international movement: The Third International stands in the same dock with the Second, indicted for the same crimes. The frightful defeats suffered by the proletariat in Germany and Austria testify to the unregenerate treachery of the social democracy and the complicity of Stalinism. At this moment the two traitor internationals stand at the service of the capitalist League of Nations, backing “sanctions” and paralyzing the resistance of the workers to the impending war. Corrupt and treacherous to the core, the Second and Third Internationals are today the main bulwarks of the capitalist world system.

Reacting against the policies which led to disaster in Germany and Austria, an increasing number of the advanced workers are seeking a new path. The imminence of war is arousing a still wider circle. A revolutionary impulse to oppose the war and the treacherous policy of supporting “sanctions” is particularly noticeable in the ranks of the Socialist workers and the Socialist youth. But a revolutionary policy cannot be confined to national grounds. The fight against war is inconceivable except as an international struggle. And this struggle in turn requires an international organization.

Will a revolutionary struggle against war be conducted by the Second International? Or Stalin’s Comintern? Or the two “organically united”? Whoever preaches any of these ideas deceives and misleads the workers. A serious and consistent attitude toward the question of war is possible only for those who visualize an international struggle and an organization capable of conducting it. The question of the international is not something superfluous to be taken up later at leisure; it is the heart of revolutionary policy. In 1914, after the betrayal of the social democracy, Lenin began his struggle against the war with the call for a new international! The revolutionists of the present time must do likewise.

The reaction against Leninism, which has been synonymous with the reaction against the October revolution and the idea of an international revolution, has brought great defeats to the working class of the whole world and a frightful disintegration of the workers’ organizations, including the organizations of the vanguard. The struggle for a revival of the Leninist, that is the revolutionary, movement is a struggle against confusion and demoralization. Made-to-order substitutes for the revolutionary strategy of Lenin appear on every side. The renunciation of Leninism has become a fashion. Stalinism not only confuses and demoralizes those who remain under its direct sway, but also many of those whom it repels. Herbert Zam, like numerous others, who long mistook Stalinism for Leninism, in reacting against certain aspects of the former has discarded the cardinal teachings of the latter. The formula for this backsliding in the most fundamental question of our epoch – the question of the international organization of the vanguard – is the spurious, soul-saving formula of “unity.”

In his recent polemics against “Trotskyism” Zam develops his conception of unity as a fetish. From all the vast and rich experiences of the past 21 years, which include the betrayal of the workers in the world war, the consequent split in the international labor movement, the Russian Revolution, the formation and later downfall of the Comintern, the terrible defeats of the later period – from all this vast experience Zam arrives at one basic conclusion: The Second International, splotched with crimes and betrayals and firmly controlled by incorrigible reformists who are “organically” united with their respective national capitalists, is the only possible International. The failure of the “Trotskyites” to appreciate this, their insistence on the necessity of a new international, condemns them to the futile existence of an isolated “sect,” says Zam who has appropriated for himself the masses in the Second International. In the Socialist Call, Jan. 4, he writes:

“The central fallacy of the Trotskyite position (aside from all other considerations) is that it ignores the instinctive desire of the working class for unity, a desire which followed a series of defeats to which disunity was a strong contributing factor. The Trotskyite remedy for the present situation is the formation of new parties and a new International – that is, new splits on a national and international scale. But this formula flies in the face of the desires and the interests of the workers, including the advanced workers in the Socialist and Communist parties.”

If we may be allowed to say so, the central fallacy in Zam’s position is that it ignores historic facts as well as the “interests of the workers.” We cite a few: The labor movement of Europe was united in the Second International on August 4, 1914. The united organizations of the social democracy only served to paralyze the masses and plunge them into the imperialist slaughter. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks who had SPLIT with the social-patriots, stopped Russia’s participation in the war and made a successful revolution! The revolutionary advances of the European workers in the post-war period coincided with deep splits between the revolutionists and reformist agents of the capitalists, the formation of new parties and the rise of the Comintern. One of the few countries – Austria – which retained its “unity” almost 100 percent on a social democratic basis, succumbed to ignominious defeat despite the heroic resistance of the Socialist workers at the last moment.

Zam implies that Lenin was wrong in 1914 when he called for a rupture with the social-patriots of all countries and doubly wrong when he formed the Comintern in 1919. We do not think so. It is false to put the question of “unity” as an abstraction, as a fetish or sentimental ideal. The unity of the proletariat is undoubtedly necessary for the victory over capitalism. But that is not achieved at one step. For the workers to become united FOR THEIR OWN INTERESTS they must break with the bourgeoisie and take the road of the class struggle. That means they must break away from the influence of the capitalist AGENTS in the labor movement, the social-patriots. Only then can the workers be united in the struggle for socialism. This is the way Lenin put the question of unity and split. The experience of the working class has completely confirmed the correctness of his position.

The unification of the working class for the revolutionary struggle on an international scale is a complicated process. The class is not homogeneous. It has different strata in different stages of enlightenment and development. It has an “aristocracy” which has special immediate interests of its own and advances them at the expense of the whole class. The labor movement has a bureaucracy which, for the greater part, is tied to the capitalists and represents their interests in the ranks of the workers. Then there is the section of class conscious workers, the vanguard, who understand and represent the general historic interests of the workers as a class. Unification has to begin with them.

The problem of the hour is the unification of the vanguard on the basis of a revolutionary program. That can only be an international program – no other is or can be revolutionary in this epoch – and the organization can only be an international one. So Lenin posed the problem in 1914 when the collapse of the old International became manifest. So we, following Lenin and faithful to his precept and example, pose the question today.

The Third International in its first four congresses under Lenin compressed the fundamental strategy of the proletariat into a number of documents, theses and resolution which, in all the essential parts, still retain their validity. In the October revolution of the Bolsheviks this strategy was illustrated in practice and fully vindicated. It is the mission of the Fourth International, which as yet is only a program and project of a section of the vanguard, to carry the same revolutionary struggle through to the final victory.

The work for the Fourth International is work in the spirit of Lenin. The unceasing struggle for the regroupment of the vanguard under the banner of the Fourth International, on the way to the unification of the working class for the revolutionary assault against the capitalist order, is the sign that Lenin is alive in the work of his disciples. To take part in that work is the way to commemorate his name.

Last updated on: 21 March 2018