James P. Cannon

Toward the Party Convention

On the Relation Between Mass
Agitation and Trade Union Work

(30 June 1930)

Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 46, 30 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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Practically all the serious articles contributed to the party pre-convention discussion by individual comrades, groups or party committees emphasize the same point: Mass work.

Different proposals are made. There are different evaluations of the past activity of the party. Some comrades offer more ambitious plans, and some betray more impatience than others. But all apparently pursue the same aim, the decisive turn of the party to mass work and the more efficient organization of this work. From this we can see that the party is united at least to this extent: It knows what it wants. So far, so good.

But that does not solve the whole problem. It only, poses the problem. The aspiration to direct all attention to the broad masses and to gain a wider influence over them is not new or original with us. There is nothing in this aspiration, of itself, to distinguish us from other parties. Leaving aside the sects and mutual admiration societies, which habituate themselves to isolation as something normal and also desirable, all parties, whether bourgeois or proletarian, strive to win mass support and work out for themselves various techniques of mass appeal.

There Is No Short Cut

An agreement in general on the necessity of a more decisive turn to mass work, such as we appear to have, signifies only that we consider ourselves ready to enter into active and direct competition with all political tendencies for the support of the working masses. Our success in this competition in our time will be determined by how much we understand our own problem and apply that understanding in practice. Here, as our party discussion has disclosed, we run into difficulties and differences of opinion.

Some of these differences are simply matters of emphasis. Others represent conflicting conceptions, and that is far more serious. With others, impatience to reach the agreed-upon objective is giving rise to ideas which are false in conception and which, if adopted by the party, would have fatal consequences.

One of these false ideas born of impatience is the idea that we can find a short cut to a mass movement over the head of the trade unions. I mention this first because it is the most fundamental and the most dangerous. There are numerous other misconceptions, all related however. A considerable section of our movement, in its impatience to get to the masses, is experimenting with ultra-radical nostrums which, ironically enough, are the surest means of assuring a permanent isolation from the masses.

These sentiments are most conspicuous among the youth whose leaders, apparently, consider it fashionable to play a little bit with adventurism and leftist phrase-mongering. If one put his mind to it he couldn’t think out a better way of wasting the energy and courage of our young militants and of guaranteeing the eventual reaction of disillusionment and discouragement.

Mass work has many forms. It is necessary to combine them in such a way that each separate division serves the others. The modern proletariat is accustomed to act through its organizations. Most basic and fundamental of these are the trade unions. A party which aims to lead the working class must acquire a strong base of support and a leading influence in the unions. That is what the founding convention of the party a year and a half ago had in mind when it issued the sweeping slogan, “Ninety percent of party work must be directed to the trade unions.”

Was this slogan incorrect? Or, has something happened in the past eighteen months to change the nature of workers’ organizations and the workers’ habit of acting through them? Not at all. But the impatience of some comrades for action is leading them to flirt with the most grotesque ideas in this respect, ideas which they may consider “new”, but which in reality are as old as the Marxist struggle against anarchist adventurism.

We hear it said nowadays that the unions are too slow in responding and that we must go direct to the masses. The masses, it seems, are something entirely outside the unions with their seven million or so members. The masses are presumably only waiting to hear from us, and are ready to act without the formality of organization. Even the Ohio-Michigan District Committee of the party, whose jurisdiction covers precisely the heart of the field of the great new unions of workers in the mass production industries, take a rather cross-eyed view of this question. They permit themselves to advocate a program of action which, they say, “can be conducted independently of the limitations and uncertainties of the trade union movement.” (Socialist Appeal, June 27)

No doubt, the members of the Ohio-Michigan District Committee, who have seen and taken part in workers’ demonstrations of power through their unions, knew better. Perhaps they just took a Sunday off for a manifesto spree. Or, possibly, they sought by this high-sounding formula, and the ambiguous verbiage which follows it, to make a “concession” to still more radical comrades who are “tired of waiting for the trade unions.” But this sort of concessions and compromises will not do. The party convention must determine the correct approach to mass work and firmly reject the false. Otherwise we will have a smash-up.

Deeper into the Unions!

We cannot yield anything from the “90 trade union” formula of our founding convention, not even one per cent. Mass agitation in general must be conceived, organized and developed, not as a substitute for the systematic penetration of the trade unions but as a supplement to it. Woe to the party that despairs of the trade unions and turns away frpm them! The harder such a party works and the more hysterically it shouts the sooner it will wear itself out.

Trade union work is not easy. Moreover it is restricted in scope, not complete of itself – herein the syndicalists commit one of their greatest errors – and must be supplemented all the time by the general political and agitational work of the party. But even this general work of the party, unrestricted in its scope by any trade union rules or customs, is directed primarily to the workers organized into unions. They alone are capable of sustained action, precisely because they alone are organized.

True enough, we appeal to all workers. In some cases we appeal most directly and immediately to the unorganized who are the most exploited and deprived. But what is the first suggestion we offer to such workers, if they respond to our appeal? We advise them to join a trade union, or if unemployed, a union of the unemployed. We cannot go around the unions, and we have no desire to. Our slogan is, “Deeper into the Unions!” Every campaign of general mass agitation must aim to deepen and strengthen our influence in the unions.

No Room for Two Opinions

Trade union work requires patience, endurance and skill. In very few unions, at present, is it possible to unfold the whole program of the Fourth International. In many unions, dominated by red-baiting bureaucrats, it is necessary for revolutionary militants to refrain from exposing themselves to expulsion by advertising their political affiliations. Revolutionary trade union work, as a rule, in America, is quiet, mole-like, unspectacular. To carry on such work unfalteringly; to work in the unions in piece-meal fashion for parts of the program while holding fast to the party, which in its general agitation expounds and defends the program as a whole; to be attentive to the smallest union issues of the day without succumbing to opportunism; to entrench one’s self and be in a position to influence the whole union when the time for action comes – these are among the sternest and most important revolutionary tests today.

Such tasks require courage, persistence and prudence. It is easy to shirk them, or to fail miserably in their performance. We know such cases, and the super-radicalism of the delinquents is poor consolation to the party which needs influence and support in the unions more than it needs anything else. It is easy to fight one’s way out of a union by ill-considered tactics, and still easier to talk one’s way out. But what the party needs is militants who know how to dig deep into the unions and stay there, gather a circle of sympathizers and supporters about them, and transmute their personal influence into party support in the trade union movement.

The party convention should emphasize this necessity once again. There is no room for two opinions on this question.

Last updated on 17 January 2016