James P. Cannon

Ten Years of the Fight to Build
a Revolutionary Party in the US

(October 1938)

Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 46, 22 October 1938, pp. 1 & 4.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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The foundation congress of the Fourth International coincided, within the span of a few weeks, with the tenth anniversary of our struggle for bolshevism in the United States. On October 27, 1928, we raised the banner of the Russian Opposition (the Bolshevik-Leninists) in the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Therewith we broke all ties with Stalinism and we never once looked back. These events – the formation of the American “Left Opposition” and the World Congress – mark two steps in one and the same uninterrupted struggle on an international as well as on a national scale. Their joint celebration in this issue of our paper is appropriate.

Our participation in the world congress which signalized the formal organization of the Fourth International was the logical outcome of our consistent adherence to the program we adopted as our own ten years ago. We have contributed something to the organization of the world movement. The Fourth International, in turn, now gives us a mighty impulse for further advances toward the American revolution.

Ten Years Strong

We are profoundly convinced that our ten years’ struggle has prepared us for great things in the future and we face it with confidence. We have gained steadily, if all too slowly, from year to year. The basic program of ten years ago remains unchanged. The leadership, with important individual accretions and no significant defections, has maintained a ten-year continuity. We never suffered a single serious split; disruptive and unassimilable elements, who periodically threatened our unity, were isolated and crushed every time. Beginning as the tiniest and poorest and most derided of all the radical labor groupings outside the camp of Stalinism, we have outstripped them all. By timely and successful fusions with all the genuinely revolutionary groupings and by shouldering the pretenders aside, we have gained the central position in the radical labor field.

Outside the Stalinist Party, which has been completely transformed into a cynical agency of imperialism in the labor movement, there are no cadres, no press, that can be compared to ours. This is not boasting – we have never been braggarts, never pretended to be more than we are – but a plain statement of fact, which we can permit ourselves on this glorious tenth anniversary. Our party, at the end of the ten years’ fight, has come to represent the revolutionary political movement in the United States and to be synonymous with it. We are not yet a mass party but we will become such. The foundations have been laid deep and strong.

Revolutionary Realities

In looking back through the ten-year period, which has been so rich in experience, we can easily distinguish three distinct stages in the development of our movement as the authentic successor of the once-revolutionary American section of the Third International. Aided by our international organization, with which we always maintained close ties, we went through these stages of development with a conscious understanding, of the objective circumstances which made them unavoidable.

Our record is by no means free from mistakes and omissions in carrying out our tasks. But, by and large, we knew what the tasks of the moment were and allowed no one to swerve us from them. Most of the internal struggles, in which our cadres were unified and tempered, occured around questions of this type. The individuals and cliques who left our ranks for oblivion came to grief in almost every case because of their refusal to recognize the political realities which dictated the tactics they opposed. Hermits may forsake the world of reality, revolutionary politicians never.

A Tough Start

It would be hard to find anywhere in the history of the labor movement a struggle that began under more unfavorable auspices for immediate practical success than ours. The Communist International, representing and symbolizing the great Russian revolution in the public mind, dominated all radical labor thought and activity; and Stalinism, its real face not yet exposed in practice, reigned triumphant in the Comintern and all its sections. Moreover, the Comintern was then swinging into the frenzied radicalism of the “third period” and beating the drums for the first five-year plan and its dazzling records of industrial progress in the Soviet Union,

In these circumstances we had to begin our agitation about the theory of “socialism in one country” and the problem of the Chinese revolution. A more “impractical” venture could hardly be imagined. Nobody wanted to listen to the “hair-splitters.” We appeared to be waging a Quixotic war about theoretical refinements and far-away places while the Stalinists were “doing things.” We were cruelly isolated and appeared to be hermetically sealed in our isolation. Our ostracism was complete. Even social affairs, such as are common now for virtually every branch of our party, were impossible for us in those days. We had very few friends.

The Power of Program

But we knew the truth and were never daunted. We had read Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program of the Comintern, and we knew that the program decides everything. We are often asked if we were taken by surprise by our expulsion from the party and the gangster campaign against us; and if we had not counted on a quick victory. No, we understood the situation pretty well and were prepared for a long struggle. This long view was instilled into the minds of all our comrades from the start. It was a decisive factor in their stubborn endurance which astounded all our enemies.

We never had a single capitulator in our leading cadre, and extremely few in the ranks when the enormous pressure put upon them is considered. Malkin turned rat after awhile and Gerry Allard, who is a professional capitulator, went back to the Stalinists after they had squeezed him a bit. That’s about all; there may have been four or five others, but I cannot remember their names. Our ranks were never once shaken or disturbed by desertions. From this an important lesson may be derived: in order to hold out in a hard fight it is best to weigh everything and count the cost before you start.

The First Persecution

It was a hard fight, especially in the first days. We had no money, no connections and very few members. At our first convention, about six months after the expulsions, about 100 comrades throughout the country were represented. We were also subjected to persecution by the Stalinists. The campaign of slander depicting us as “counter revolutionists,” familiar to all now, was something rather new then and more effective. Organized bands of hoodlums were sent to break up our public meetings by force. Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they got the worst of the fight. Comrades selling the Militant were attacked; individual comrades were waylaid and beaten up. Our homes were burglarised and, a few days later, stolen letters and “documents” were published in the Daily Worker. All this availed nothing.

We stood our ground and fought. We were armed with confidence in our program and its future; that is the best prescription for sustained courage in a political fight. The movement of unfalsified bolshevism grew, slowly arid painfully, but it grew The cadres became hardened in the struggle. The whole campaign against us – the slander, the hood violence and the burglaries – was all organized and directed in the first six months by Lovestone & Co., who controlled the C.P. at that time. Then they were also expelled and given a dose of their own medicine. That converted them to “democracy”; at least, so they said.

Firm Line of Principle

During the first years of our struggle the reaction in the Comintern coincided with a general reaction and passivity in the American labor movement. The left wing of the workers’ movement was completely dominated by Stalinism basking in the light of the first five-year plan. Under these conditions there was nothing to do but direct our message to the Stalinist workers, to maintain our position as a faction of the Comintern fighting for its reformation and to concentrate our extremely limited forces on fundamental critical and propagandistic work.

This was the task in hand, imposed upon us by all the circumstances. We tenaciously adhered to this line and repulsed every attempt to divert it in favor of rainbow-chasing expeditions. Super-radical people demanded “independence” from the Comintern and concentration on “mass work.” That would simply have meant a futile exercise in trying to jump over our own heads. The tactics of a political grouping, its methods of work and the tasks it sets for itself at the moment, and even the form and conditions of its existence, must all be determined by time and circumstance. The fear of isolation and the attempt to circumvent it in periods of reaction by artificial means only brings a disintegration of the Marxist forces where it does not lead to their opportunistic diffusion. Such pundits as Wels-bord and Field, who attempted these miracles on their own account after we finished the debate with them, achieved a unique combination of these unhappy consequences.

It was necessary to carry out the struggle in the Comintern to the end, until the fallacy of its dogmas would be confirmed in great actions before the eyes of the masses. In the period of the greatest ideological confusion and demoralization it was necessary to concentrate on fundamental theoretical criticism, to reassemble the forces of the vanguard man by man, to rearm them with a correct program and thus prepare the future work among the masses. If we had not stuck resolutely to this conception at that time, if we had listened to the demagogues and “mass work” quacks, we would not be celebrating our tenth anniversary today. There would be nothing to celebrate.

The German Events

The German catastrophe of 1933 – the capitulation to fascism without a battle – signalized the downfall of the Comintern as a revolutionary factor and simultaneously induced a shake-up in all other workers’ organizations. The left wing in the Socialist Party, especially in the youth movement, began to take shape. The Conference for Progressive Labor Action (C.P.L.A.), a heterogenous body of trade unionists, began to crystallize out a militant political tendency. Within a year the upturn of the economic cycle in the United States and the introduction of the N.R.A. unleashed the first great wave of strikes. New times; new conditions. It became a life and death necessity for the Bolsheviks to reorient themselves, to seize upon the new possibilities to break out of their isolation and find the road to the masses.

Our organization reacted to the German events with magnificent energy like a tightly-coiled spring in release. The Militant, published three times a week during the acute crisis following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, electrified the movement. Our influence began to grow visibly day by day. In common with our international movement we made a sharp and definitive break with the bankrupt Comintern and began to steer a course toward a new party and a new international. Contacts were established and negotiations initiated with various forces in other organizations looking toward unification in a new party on a revolutionary basis.

Into the Mass Movement

The first stage of the development of our movement had prepared us for the second and began to give way to it. The energy of our cadres was turned outward, toward a bigger movement and a wider influence. Our representatives began to appear at conferences of trade unions and unemployed organizations. In the great Minneapolis strikes “Trotskyism” revealed itself, in the most dramatic fashion, as no bookman’s dogma but a guide to the most militant and most effective action. On the field of political organization the “sectarian” Trotskyites displayed an initiative and flexibility which soon placed them in the very center of all political developments of a revolutionary trend.

A fusion was quickly effected with the American Workers Party (formerly C.P.L.A.). Within a year and one-half the Workers Party, which resulted from this fruitful fusion, joined the Socialist Party en bloc in order to establish closer contact with the developing left wing, especially the youth, and provide the most favorable organizational conditions for fusion. This fusion of the revolutionary forces within the S. P. and the Y.P.S.L. was also quickly realized. When the expulsion campaign of the terrified party bureaucrats brought things to a split, the union of the revolutionary forces in the new Socialist Workers Party followed as a matter of course.

The American section of the Fourth International emerged from this series of flexible and daring “maneuvers” on the field of organization with a multiplied numerical strength and superb morale. In addition, by gaining the overwhelming majority in the Young People’s Socialist League it had established for the first time the basis for a broad youth movement.

Turns and Sectarians

Such sharp and drastic turns never before seen or even heard of in the history of the American movement, brought good result every time as we have seen. But they could be carried through only by Bolsheviks who are sure of themselves and their program, who disregarded organizational fetishism, and who recognized the necessity, in a fermenting situation wherein the revolutionary forces were not yet fully crystallized, to subordinate organizational forms to political aims. Without these turns in the sphere of organization we would have been left on the sidelines. The unification of the revolutionary forces of different origins – the prerequisite for the great advances which lie just ahead of us – would have been impossible. The Stalinists were right in protesting every time we gave up our formal “independence” in order to increase our real strength and influence.

These turns were not effected without internal disturbances and conflicts. We had not chosen isolation. It had been imposed upon us as the price of holding firmly to principle in a time of reaction. As is always the case with small and apparently “new” movements, we also had attracted a “lunatic fringe” which, when the time came for sharp turns and expanded action, had to be shaken off. The fight with the sectarians had to be fought out to the end. Sectarianism, no matter how “radical” its formulas and its phraseology is at bottom nothing more than a substitution of disordered petty-bourgeois emotions for the tactics imposed upon revolutionists by the real conditions of the class struggle. We can record the progress of the past few years only because we overcame sectarianism in a ruthless struggle and expelled the incorrigible sectarians from our ranks. Without that not one step forward would have been possible.

Our “Rivals”

With the fusion of the old “Trotskyists” and the left-wing Socialists and the launching of the Socialist Workers Party we have manifestly entered into a new stage in the progressive, development of American Bolshevism. Rival organizations making an appeal to anti-Stalinist workers have more or less cleared from the road. Thus one great element of confusion has been eliminated.

The Socialist Party, which stood as an insuperable barrier three years ago is a pitiful heap of ruins, disregarded and despised. By the mass expulsion of the left wing the two-by-four bureaucrats of Norman Thomas’ private family only prepared their own political demise. The Lovestoneite organization, which makes big pretensions, is in reality nothing more than an unfortunate hybrid: a sect without the saving merit of serious principles and a “mass movement” sadly weak in membership, national scope and press. As for the sectarians who challenge us from the “left,” they only succeed in combining an increase in the number of their organizations with a decrease in their total membership.

The Socialist Workers Party, having become the single rallying center of the revolutionary workers, can regard the preliminary task of reassembling the scattered forces of the vanguard as completed. It has no need of negotiations or maneuvers with the various pseudo-radical groups which offer no real competition. Our approach to the American Workers party and the left wing of the S.P. was a necessity. A similar approach to any or all of the sterile cliques mentioned above would be an absurdity. The American section of the Fourth International is the only revolutionary party. As a complete independent and self-sufficient organization of the vanguard, it can and must now concentrate its full energy on a direct approach to the workers’ mass movement.

The Party Re-Arms

The recent months have been devoted – along with daily work – to international adjustment for this gigantic enterprise. In the light of the rapidly advancing social crisis the party has successfully carried through a great work of reorientation and rearmament in preparation for revolutionary tasks which the social crisis poses before us. In the course of the party discussion seven thick internal bulletins have been published and a score of membership meetings have weighed and considered the new situation and the new proposals. Our party has a real workers democracy, the like of which has never been seen before. Its membership collectively goes deeply into every new question, considers and discusses it over an ample period of time, and comes to a free decision. Just because of that the party can be firm in its discipline and ruthlessly intolerant of anything less than 100 percent loyalty on the part of each and every individual member.

On the tenth anniversary we can look back, not without pride, on the consistent struggle which will indubitably be recorded in history as the rebirth, the real new beginning, of American Bolshevism. It enabled us, in collaboration with our international movement, to forge the program of victory and to assemble the first basic cadres of the proletarian army which will achieve it.

Last updated on 11 September 2015