James P. Cannon

Toward the Party Convention

New Directions Require
New Methods of Party Work

(20 June 1939)

Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 43, 20 June 1939, p. 3.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: This work is in the under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists’ Internet Archive/Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors, translators, proofreaders etc. above.

A revolutionary party begins with an idea, and the idea – that is, the program – becomes an all-conquering power capable of transforming society when it permeates the mass. The work of attracting the masses to the revolutionary program does not proceed along a straight line by the simple repetition of propaganda. If that were so, working class politicians would not be necessary; a good phonograph – or a sectarian, which is the same thing – would suffice. The struggle for the support of the majority of the working class, the prerequisite for the socialist victory, is an extremely complicated struggle, and one which, moreover, is constantly changing and constantly imposing shifts in emphasis and different methods of work. It is necessary to keep a clear view of the goal but that alone is not enough. The art of revolutionary politics consists in recognizing the most favorable immediate objective and of concentrating, according to the military motto, all forces on the point of attack. Only thus is it possible to move forward.

Lenin spoke of the necessity of seizing the right link in the chain. And Trotsky crammed all practical political wisdom into a single sentence when he said the most important of all questions is, what to do next. The tactical orientation of the moment depends on what is necessary and what is possible at the moment.

The Way Is Cleared

Our goal is and has been always the same – the winning over of the masses for the revolutionary struggle for power. It was the same in our formative days when we disregarded the “mass work” windbags, as later when we turned to broader fields of political activity and broke with the sectarians. If we say today, with at least the formal agreement of the whole party, that our work must now be concentrated directly on mass work it is because the road has been cleared for such a turn. The rather sad fact that our practices in this respect have by no means caught up with our resolutions does not signify any intention on our part to deceive ourselves by our unanimous declarations. We mean what we say and will learn how to act accordingly.

Nobody at the convention will argue against the necessity of a full concentration on mass work. Nobody will propose that we go back and chew the fat once again with the sectarian cliques who have theorized themselves into a secluded corner and remain there to everybody’s satisfaction – their own, and ours and that of the world at large. It is unimaginable that anyone should suggest that we go back and fight over again the factional struggle within a common organization with the Thomasite “socialists.” That chapter is finished. What was once alive and revolutionary there belongs now to the American section of the Fourth International.

As for the spurious “unity” campaign of the Lovestoneites – is it possible that any member of our party can be caught on this hook? Hardly. This petty stratagem of the Lovestoneite leadership – as transparently crooked as its authors – is designed only as artificial stimulation for a doomed and dwindling sect without program or prospects or good repute, and a cover-up for the real object of the maneuver – unity with the Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Federation. No, there is nothing there for us. Let the Lovestoneites unite if they wish with the Thomasites and the flag-waving Social-democrats. That is their affair, and we have no objection; they all need a bit of “unity”, God knows. But let us attend to our own work – the penetration of the workers’ mass movement.

I repeat, if we have not been about this business it is not from lack of conviction as to its necessity. It is simply that we hesitate – or don’t know how – to begin in earnest. We have more faith than works and faith without works is dead.

What We Still Lack

The situation within the radical labor movement has been long since ripe for a decisive turn to mass work, and the objective circumstances are becoming increasingly favorable. What is lacking, primarily, is the necessary psychological readjustment and change in methods of work imposed by the new tasks. The expert programmatic critics, propagandists and internal faction fighters of yesterday – that’s what we were and that’s what we needed to be in the conditions of the time – have not yet mastered the art of mass agitation and of simple day to day work in the trade unions and other mass organizations. Too many of our comrades, who can debate any question of the program at the drop of the hat, find difficulty in speaking the language of the unschooled worker who is ready for action and willing to learn.

This is not said to disparage those who have mastered the program and the ability to defend it against all opponents, nor to contrast educational work to mass agitation. Far from it. It is a. question rather of supplementing the one with the other. The problem which presses hard today and will press harder tomorrow is to interpret and expound the program in such a way as to enable wider circles of workers, hitherto unacquainted with Marxist doctrine, to understand it and act upon it. That is an art which we must learn. We must put ourselves to school in the living movement of the workers. To do that we must get into it. In spite of everything the water remains the only place where one can learn to swim.

Learning by Doing

The workers’ mass movement is the source of power, and also of compensating inspiration and enthusiasm for those revolutionary militants who intelligently participate in it. It will see it demonstrated once again at the convention – that those comrades who are learning by doing in the mass movement are the least tainted with pessimism and discouragement, that sickness of isolated, helpless and hopeless people who contemplate life without living it and see the world mirrored by their own weakness.

The convention will do well to listen attentively to those comrades who come fresh from active participation in the recent class battles – the Briggs strike at Detroit, militant actions of the unemployed at Flint, the epic struggle of the seamen on the Pacific coast, the magnificent campaign for the independent labor ticket in Minneapolis. The invincible power of the laboring mass in action communicates its enthusiasm and its confidence to its participants and they, in turn, will help to communicate it to the convention of the party and determine its spirit and orientation.

We have every right to confidence in our future, for we alone, out of a 15-year period of unprecedented defeat and disintegration, have fought a way forward. Beginning with nothing but a revolutionary program and a handful of people, we have become a movement, if as yet but a small one, and have swept all rivals from the field. Our party is the sole organization of the revolutionary vanguard. Our programmatic disputes with the futile sectarians of the right as well as the pseudo-left – unavoidable in the struggle to clarify the doctrine of the movement and sift out the basic cadres, although they cost us precious years of time and effort – are finished and done. They are things of yesterday and we shall not return to them. Nothing is more foolish than to chase a street car after it has been caught.

The Road Is Pointed

Our road now points directly to the mass movement and to the recruiting of hundreds and thousands where once we counted our new adherents in ones and twos. If we have been suffering a certain stagnation, which we do not conceal from ourselves or others, it is primarily because we have not yet made the necessary readjustment of our work to new times and new conditions. From all indications there is every reason to be confident that the convention will survey the situation realistically and give the signal for a speedier readjustment.

I have not mentioned the struggle against the Stalinist Party as one of the tasks that are behind us nor one that can be separated from effective work in the broad workers’ mass movement. Indeed, it is precisely in the trade unions that our militants encounter the Stalinist machine as the greatest obstacle and the greatest enemy. Profoundly wrong are those comrades who, in their commendable zeal to concentrate all activity on trade union work, try to jump over the Stalinist obstacle and “constructive work” to the unrelenting frontal attack against the party directed by degenerate turncoats. The party must be clear on this. Otherwise it will not succeed in the mass movement. I will take up this question in my next article.

Last updated on 17 January 2016