James P. Cannon

Before the Nat’l Party Convention

(13 June 1939)

Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 41, 13 June 1939, p. 3.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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All attention of the revolutionary militants in the United States is now turned toward the anti-war convention of the Socialist Workers Party, which is to convene in New York City on July 1. Without doubt this assembly will mark an important stage in the development of the only serious, the only genuine opposition to the impending war.

It is not to be expected, however, that the convention will produce any new prescription or panacea. Those who look for miracles will be disappointed. We do not conceive of the struggle against war as some sort of special task separated from the struggle against the capitalism which breeds it. Anti-war sentiments, as such and in themselves, mean nothing; everybody, more or less, is against war. Opposition to war that aims at social revolution – that alone is significant. And that, in turn, is totally merged with the struggle to build a revolutionary party which points the way and to connect it with the masses of workers who have the power.

A convention – any convention – is not an all-saving instrument; its potentialities are strictly limited. It can sum up the past but it cannot assure the future. It cannot change anything in the status of the party which exists on the day it convenes. It can at best only estimate what is valuable in the work of the past, what has been achieved and must be firmly retained as well as what must be rejected. The future tasks can be indicated by the convention, but their accomplishment – or their default – will rest with the party after the convention adjourns its sessions. Even so, conventions are large and irreplaceable experiences in the life of every democratic, that is every real, party.

Estimating Our Past

The forthcoming anti-war convention of the American section of the Fourth International will enable us to pause and look collectively in two directions – at the past and at the future. Our survey of the past can only assure us that our preliminary work is done, and for the most part, not badly. We have built firmly, our achievements have a mighty historic significance. This we know and nobody can tell us differently. Our program has withstood all the tests of theory and experience and stands unassailable. We have assembled the forces of the vanguard in a single organization. We no longer have any rivals in this field and no problems of “unity” require a second thought. The ten-years’ task of clearing the air of confusion and programmatic disorientation, of regrouping the scattered forces of the revolutionary fighters under a new, clean banner; the same work which occupied so many of the years of the time of Marx, and after him of Lenin, is already behind us. Indeed, the hour for our full concentration on broader tasks struck some time ago.

The Root of All Our Evil

Our sluggishness in making the abrupt turn to mass work with all force and energy; the persistence of old habits of our days of isolation as a propaganda circle; our failure to reach new, fresh strata of workers; our hesitation, half-hearted, at the brink of the great stream represented by the workers’ mass movement – herein is the root of all our evil. The convention must take sober account of these facts and say something decisive about them. With the tasks of yesterday accomplished and those of today only half understood and approached in a gingerly way, we are marking time while the forces of reaction, which already outline the features of an authentic American fascism, grow by leaps and bounds. The position is becoming dangerous. The convention, true enough, cannot rectify matters, but it can and must sound the alarm and summon the party to rigorous measures for a speedy rectification in the coming months. Time, as the legal maxim has it, is of the essence of the contract. There is not too much time, even in America.

We can make up for lost time and begin to forge ahead if we turn our faces in the right direction. That means, first of all, to turn our backs on the pessimists and calamity-howlers, the soul-sick intellectuals and tired radicals who whine and dawdle around the fringes of the movement and even, to a certain extent, infest its ranks. These gentry, whose gaze is concentrated on their own navels, do not see what is going on about them. It is a simple fact that American capitalism, the most powerful of all, is already seized by paralyzing senility. It writhes in an ever-deepening social crisis which its most perspicacious politicians no longer hope to cure but only to alleviate, and that only by the desperate gamble of war. It is a fact that the furious onslaughts against the workers, employed and unemployed, signalize in essence the acknowledgement that over-rich American capitalism can no longer pretend to assure a living to the slave within his slavery. It is a fact that the sum total of all these circumstances – Is rapidly preparing all the pre-conditions of a social revolution. And confronting it is a working class that has not known defeat, that has invincible numbers and boundless power.

All this is a sealed book to these skeptics who, in general, have thought very little about the scientific analysis of capitalism upon which revolutionary calculations are predicted, and still less about the laboring masses as the all-powerful makers of the revolution. Their melancholy sentiments have no relation to the actual situation in this country. They attempt to record the status and the prospects of the revolutionary movement by the fluctuating fever chart of their own unstable moods. They are mistaken; and doubly mistaken are those militants who even for a moment heed these counsels of petty bourgeois impotence and despair.

The pessimistic brotherhood comprises several categories, loosely united by a common bond of despair, who carry on like keeners at a wake. Some of them, the well-known tired radicals, are like “gymnasium fighters” who exhaust all their strength in training and enter the real battle in the ring beaten and ready to quit before they start. Others have looked so often for the revolution before it was due and were so often disappointed that they can’t recognize it when it finally approaches. Others, and they are not numerically the least, are simply afraid of the shadow of war and fascism and flee the battle before it really begins.

Most contemptible of all are those who seek to cover their desertion and retreat by hurling newly-invented “ideological” disagreements with Marxism over their shoulders. Taken all together they are an unattractive and uninspiring aggregation. It is nothing less than a monstrous travesty to consider them as in any way reflecting the movement of workers’ emancipation which, by its very nature, is alien to all pessimism and defeatist sentiments. It is criminal folly to waste time or even to argue the question with these runaway-boys and heralds of defeat before the battle.

Turn to the Source of Power

Our convention must let the dead bury the dead and turn the face of the party to the workers who are the real source of power and of inspiration and well-grounded optimism. We had said this before. More than once we have incorporated it in resolutions. But we have not made the turn in forthright fashion. That is why we are lagging behind. That is the main reason we are suffering a certain stagnation. That is why we are even flirting with the danger of a degeneration of the party along the lines of conservative passivity, introspection and futility.

The proletariat of the United States is the source of unlimited power, it can raise the whole world on its shoulders – that is the unshakeable premise of all our calculations and all our work. “But what,” say the croakers – pointing to the heavy defeats in Europe – “what if France and all Europe goes down before fascism?” We answer: The issue in France is not decided yet, but even in the worst case, the workers of America have power enough to topple over the structure of capitalism at home and to lift the whole world with them when they rise!

The foundation convention of the party a year and a half ago gave us pretty clear directives regarding orientation to the workers’ mass movement. The revolutionary transition program has equipped us with the necessary slogans and proposals for effective agitation on the realities of the day. We made some progress, but all too little when we consider the breath-taking speed at which the social crisis is developing. The fault for that is not in the objective circumstances – they are favorable enough – nor in our stars, but in ourselves. We have not yet grown up to the level of our gigantic tasks.

We made some headway while other parties making pretensions to radicalism were slipping backward. We held our cadres intact while others suffered disintegration. We sloughed on quite a few crack-pots, and that is an advantage not to be discounted. By dint of considerable effort and sacrifice we established the twice-a-week Appeal. But all this weighs too little in the scale against the mushroom emergence of fascist movements and the sweeping growth in influence of fascist demagogy. There are our rivals in the struggle for power. Comparison with them is the real criterion by which we must estimate our own achievements. And that criterion tells us warningly: Slow, modest, steady growth will not avail; we must leap ahead.

For us there is no way but forward at an accelerated pace. Can we solve the financial crisis of our twice-a-week Appeal by means of expansion? Can we strengthen and improve our responsibility, our discipline and our morale? Can we blast a path to fresh circles of undefeated and undiscouraged workers, and make our party in truth a party of the proletariat in its composition and in all of its activity?

Affirmative answers to these questions and concrete, practical plans to implement them, are what the party needs from the convention.

Last updated on 17 January 2016