James P. Cannon

Summary Speech on Military Policy

(29 September 1940)

Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 43, 26 October 1940, pp. 2 & 3.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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The following is an excerpt from the speech by Comrade James P. Cannon, National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, summarizing the discussion on Military Policy at the Sept. 27–29 Plenum-Conference of the Party at Chicago.


In summary, I will take up the questions in reverse order of their importance. The Stalinist question is a question of tactics and is by far secondary to the main problem of our military policy. Nevertheless, it has considerable importance. The discussion has shown one thing clearly, that there is in our ranks today very little misunderstanding of the fundamental aspects of the question of Stalinism. That is far different from the situation a year ago.

It is important to remember in this connection that our fight with the petty bourgeois ideologist, Burnham, began over the question of the characterization of the Stalinists. It will be recalled that almost two years ago, at the time of the auto crisis, the first real clash with Burnham and his satellites was precipitated by their attitude toward the split in the auto union. Despite the fact that the great mass of the auto workers were going with the CIO – and thereby at that time with the Stalinists – Burnham wanted to divert our support to Martin, even in the direction of the AFL, on the theory that the Stalinists were not really a part of the labor movement.

The thing came to a head again over the invasion of Poland when Burnham wanted the party to take an outright stand against the Red Army on the theory that the Soviet Union is “imperialist.” The issue grew sharper with the Finnish invasion. Then, when Browder was indicted by the government on an obviously trumped-up passport charge, Burnham opposed any defense of Browder on the ground that he did not represent any legitimate labor tendency. He overlooked the fact that as an agent of the Soviet bureaucracy, Browder indirectly represented the biggest labor organization in the world, that of the Soviet State.

Burnham in this case was fundamentally motivated by the pressure of democratic imperialism in the United States. The Stalinists were for the moment at loggerheads with the Roosevelt administration, and the “intransigence” of the Burnham faction against the Stalinists simply represented a cheap and easy form of adaptation to the clamor of the bourgeois democrats. Their opinions were shaped against any kind of recognition ~of the C.P. as a tendency in the labor movement. We haven’t heard such an expression here today from anybody.

United Fronts with the C.P.

Comrade Morton gave us a speech here today which was very informative about his experiences in the CIO union of Electrical and Radio Workers. He said something that we must heed – that the Stalinist rank and file in this union do not distinguish between us and the red baiters, that they tend to regard us as a part of the general reaction. If that is true, we must take heed and correct such an impression.

First of all in the press. Our press must have a more precise line, a line that cannot be misunderstood. On each and every important occasion it must be made clear to the readers of our press that, while we are irreconcilably hostile to Stalinism – more now than ever before – we recognize that it does represent a current in the international labor movement, and as such we defend it against the attacks of the red baiters. Our press is our most important medium of clarification. But the press campaign must be reinforced by united front proposals to the Stalinists on suitable. occasions which provide us the possibility of approaching the Stalinist workers and advancing the revolutionary cause.

Of course we must not forget that the present line of the Stalinists is only a year old. I will be very much surprised if it has another year to last. It was the opinion of Comrade Trotsky that Moscow is already turning in the direction of the Allies, and particularly in the direction of the U.S. The Soviet Union is caught in a vise between Japan on the one hand and Nazi Germany on the other. If the Axis powers suffer military reverses, if American imperialism moves more aggressively against them, Stalin is very apt to shift over into the orbit of democratic imperialism led by the U.S. You can be sure, in this event, that the line of the Stalinists in this country will very soon change accordingly.

Such a prospect does not speak against approaching the Stalinists with united front proposals on the basis of their present line. The more deeply we penetrate their ranks on a united front basis in connection with their pseudo-radical policy, the better possibility we will have to influence the workers against the swing back to bourgeois democracy and the Popular Front ballyhoo when the bureaucrats make the switch. Such an over-night reversal of policy will inevitably provoke a crisis in the C.P. We should strive to be in a good position to influence the revolting elements – and this time they will be the best, not the worst – in a revolutionary direction. Everything speaks in favor of a serious, carefully worked out, realistic and practical united front policy. It is obligatory that we devote a properly proportioned amount of our time and energy to the Stalinists.

United Front Is No Panacea

But let us not go crazy over this issue. One could notice a slight tendency in the discussion to overemphasize this secondary tactical question at the expense of our main business, that of orienting the Party for a military policy which has nothing in common with the policy of the C.P. We must not begin to dance around this question like jitterbugs. We must not paint up the C.P. and make it appear to be something different than it is. We should correct our one-sided policy of the past, but not overcorrect it. There is a danger of our making a sort of panacea of united fronts with the C.P.

I got a little bit scared today when I heard some of the speeches. I had a horrific vision of the Party pacing back and forth and around in circles and so preoccupied with C.P. united fronts that we would not have anything else to do. Whiskey looks like tea but cannot be consumed so freely without bad effects. This business of united fronting with the C.P. is also a strong medicine. We must condition ourselves to the self-control of the man who can “take it or leave it alone.” Don’t forget that Stalinism is an agency of imperialism no less than the bureaucracy of Green and Lewis. It is only another variety. Like the traitors of traditional reformism, the Stalinist bureaucracy also tries to defend its own interests against the imperialists. It is this contradiction in each case which opens the way for the united front tactic. But never forget that the main blows of Stalinism are directed against the international working class.

Some comrades raised the question a little falsely, I think, today. They asked: “Who represents the main danger right now? What is the main danger? Is it represented by the out and out patriots of the Green and Hillman type? or is it the C.P.?” And they came to the conclusion that it is the jingoes, not the C.P. That only shows that the C.P. is an even greater danger than we realize; its duplicity creates a little confusion even in outranks. Stalinism is the greatest danger to the international revolutionary movement precisely because the Stalinists discredit the great Russian Revolution and sow confusion and demoralization in the ranks of the proletarian vanguard which had rejected traditional reformism. A momentary diplomatic maneuver of Stalin – itself inspired by treachery – must not create the impression in our ranks that perhaps the C.P. is not as great a danger today as it was yesterday. Stalinism is treacherous to the core. It is the main obstacle in the path of the proletarian revolution. Our attitude towards Stalinism is that of irreconcilable war. We can conceive of the united front only in the sense of a flank attack against our most perfidious enemy.

Five Points on the C.P.

The crux of the Stalinism question can be summarized under these five points:

FIRST, where is the main reservoir of future recruiting for the revolutionary party in this country? Is it in the ranks of the C.P.? Or, is it in the ranks of the half awakened working class in this country that has not been defeated and that has not been corrupted? We consider it self-evident that the main reservoir for recruiting is in the ranks of these non-Stalinist workers. It is only incidental recruiting that can be expected out of the Stalinist party. This is also an important source, but it is not the most important. Every move we make in regard to Stalinism has to be weighed by the criterion whether it will help or harm our possibility of recruiting in the ranks of the young, uneducated but militant proletariat.

SECOND, we have to be more careful, more precise and more militant in distinguishing our criticism of Stalinism from the attacks of the red-baiting jingoes. We must begin in earnest to emphasize this difference in our press. We have to clarify the whole problem for our membership, for our readers, for the Stalinist workers who sometimes read our press. We must make it clear on every occasion, sharply and categorically, that we have nothing in common with red-baiting attacks on the Stalinists by the capitalist newspapers, the old style labor skates and the social democrats.

The THIRD POINT: Our chief problem in the political field is neither blocs with the Stalinists against the progressive jingoists nor blocs with the progressive jingoists against the Stalinists on incidental day to day problems in the unions. Our main problem is to bring forward and develop more clearly and precisely the independent line of the revolutionary party.

The FOURTH POINT: In the course of development, we will look for and take advantage of suitable and practical opportunities for united front actions directed toward the C.P. workers. But this must not become the dominant side of our activity with regard to them. We will write 99 attacks against the perfidies of the C.P. to one move that we will make in the direction of the united front with them. And even at the moment of approaching them for a united front, we will never relax for a moment, nor allow any worker to get an idea for a moment, that this tactic signifies any kind of reconciliation, or any softening of our attitude towards the treacherous murder machine of Stalinism.

The FIFTH POINT: I ant not as optimistic as some comrades about the number and quality of the recruits we will get from the C.P. There are some members in our organization – quite a few – who came to us from the Stalinists in recent times and who have developed into good revolutionists. We’ve also had the experience of recruiting Stalinists more than once, more than ten times, who tried to become revolutionists, but who had become so demoralized, and to some extent so corrupted, by the C.P. that they were not assimilable. One of the greatest curses of Stalinism is the enormous demoralization, disorientation, and corruption of the minds of the advanced militant workers it has brought about.

The Main Question: Military Policy

Now I come to the decisive and basic question with which our party occupies itself, the question of military policy. During the discussion some comrades have asked: Was our old line wrong? Does the resolution represent a completely new departure and a reversal of the policy of the past? It is not quite correct to say that the old line was wrong. It was a program devised for the fight against war in time of peace. Our fight against war under conditions of peace was correct as far as it went. But it was not adequate. It must be extended. The old principles, which remain unchanged, must be applied concretely to the new conditions of permanent war and universal militarism. We didn’t visualize, nobody visualized, a world situation in which whole countries would be conquered by fascist armies. The workers don’t want to be conquered by foreign invaders, above all by fascists. They require a program of military struggle against foreign invaders which assures their class independence. That is the gist of the problem.

Many times in the past we were put at a certain disadvantage; the demagogy of the Social Democrats against us was effective to a certain extent. They said, “You have no answer to the question of how to fight against Hitler, how to prevent ‘Hitler from conquering France, Belgium, etc.” (Of course their program was very simple – the suspension of the class struggle and complete subordination of the workers to the bourgeoisie. We have seen the results of this treacherous policy.) Well, we answered in a general way, the workers will first overthrow the bourgeoisie at home and then they will take care of invaders. That was a good program, but the workers did not make the revolution in time. Now the two tasks must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously.

The main thing is that we must operate not under the old conditions of peace, but under the new conditions of universal militarism and war. We cannot avoid the new circumstances, we must adapt our tactics to them. In times of strike, we urge the workers to stay out of a plant. But when the majority decides to go back, we have to go back with them and accept with them, for the time being, the exploitation of the bosses. Sometimes the defeat of a strike goes so far as not only to smash a legitimate union but to drive the workers into the bosses’ company union. We are against company unions; but if the workers are driven into them we go along and try to work there in the interests of the proletariat. Analogous tactics must be applied also in questions of war and militarism.

We had a great Marxist for a teacher, and a part of his genius was his never failing application of Marxist tactics. He always took the existing situation, in its totality, as the point of departure. The Bolsheviks set out in 1917 to overthrow the whole capitalist world. They did overthrow the Russian bourgeoisie, but the other countries remained under the domination of the international capitalist class. So, at a certain point, the Bolsheviks drew the balance and said; “Here is the situation as it exists in reality. We cannot overthrow the other imperialist bandits at present. The workers are not yet ready. Therefore, let us open trade relations with the imperialist countries, gain a little breathing space and overthrow them tomorrow.” Comrade Trotsky was prompted to elaborate and extend our tactics by the new situation in the world. A party which fails to adapt itself to this situation, to existing war, can play no role whatsoever.

We Are Proletarian Militarists

One comrade here tried to justify a policy of anti-militarism. His remarks were, to my opinion, a reminiscence of departed days. Anti-militarism was all right when we were fighting against war in times of peace. But here you have a new situation of universal militarism. It is obvious that all over the world, everything is going to be settled not by mass meetings, not by petitions, not by strikes, not even by mass demonstrations in the streets. Everything is going to be settled by military means, with arms in hand. So, can we now be anti-militarists? By no means! Just the contrary. We must say: “All right, the situation, not of our making, is that military force decides. There is only one thing left for the workers to do. That is to learn how to be good fighters with modern weapons.” So we antimilitarists of yesterday become positive militarists today. The comrade who tries to represent our position today as still antimilitarist is, in my opinion, decidedly wrong.

I raised this question in our conversations with comrade Trotsky. After h’e had elaborated his ideas, I put the question to him and asked him to make his answer as sharp and categoric as possible. I asked: “Can we call ourselves militarists?” And he said, “Yes. It might not be tactically advisable to begin with such a proclamation, but if the pacifists accuse you of it, if you are accused of being a militarist, you take the platform and say, ‘Yes, I am a proletarian revolutionary militarist.’” This doesn’t contradict the somewhat different attitude we took in somewhat different times – when the possibility of preventing war by revolution could not be excluded.

Was the fight of the social-pacifist elements against conscription right in this last period? No, it was not right. It overlooked realities and sowed illusions. The workers were for conscription. The conscription bill was carried without any serious opposition whatsoever. The fight as we conducted it, for workers’ control, was 100% correct. We are positively for conscription, but we do not want conscription of the workers by the bosses. We want conscription of the workers by a workers’ organization. If some horrified muddle-head of a pacifist asks: “Do you really mean it? Do you want to compel every worker to take up arms and learn how to use arms?” We answer, “Yes, that is exactly what we mean.” How do we justify such compulsion? By the necessities of the class struggle which justify everything. There is nothing new in such an attitude. A certain amount of compulsion has always been invoked by the labor movement against the backward, the slackers.

For example, trade unions always strive to make membership compulsory. The intelligent, loyal, and serious workers join the union voluntarily. Then they say to the backward, to the ignorant and to the scab-hearted: Join if you will, peacefully, but join this union or else stay out of that factory. That’s compulsion for you, my boy. We cannot allow your ignorance or mistaken conception of individual interest to interfere with the class interests as a whole. What is a picket line? Well, some that I have seen at least, had aspects of extraordinary persuasion. I have seen picket lines of such a nature that if anyone wanted to argue about it, he didn’t even get a chance to argue. He either stayed out or got knocked out. Compulsion in the class war is a class necessity. We didn’t invent it. It must be applied also to military training.

The Dynamics of This Struggle

An interesting question, asked by some workers, was reported here: “How can you tell the workers to put themselves under the control of the unions for military training when the unions are controlled by people like Lewis and Green and Hillman?” Well, if we wait until the unions are led by the Fourth International, we lose all sense Of the dynamics of their development. Green and Lewis and their similars – the whole upper bureaucracy of the labor movement at present – are agents of the capitalists in the labor movement, but they are not the same thing as the bosses. Their sole base of existence is the labor movement; and in spite of all the bureaucratism of the unions, they are subject to certain pressures, certain controls from below. When the worsening of conditions, supplemented by our agitation, raises a wave of radicalization in the masses, the workers will solve the problem of leadership in the workers’ regiments as well as in the unions.

We always take the workers’ organizations as they are. We join them as they are, support them as they are, try to remodel them from within. Of course, the very idea of a Lewis or a Green heading the military instruction of workers is far-fetched. Correctly understood, our fight for military training under trade union control is a mortal struggle against the reformist, nonfighting bureaucracy. The adoption of our policy, or even a strong movement in favor of it, would spell the doom of the present leaders. Nobody would believe these scoundrels are fit for such a serious enterprise as the instruction of workers for military action.

In 1917, following February, the Soviets of Petrograd and Moscow were in control of the Social Democrats and the Social Revolutionaries, that is, men of the stripe of Lewis and Green, Hillman and Dubinsky; no better and no worse. In spite of that, because the Soviets embraced the workers, Lenin raised the slogan: “All power to the Soviets.” In the course of that fight for all power to the Soviets, the Bolsheviks won to their side the majority of the workers. And almost coincidentally with the uprising, the workers threw out the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries and. placed the Bolsheviks at their head. That’s the way things have to be conceived in this question also.

The question of the referendum on war in connection with compulsory military training was raised by one of the comrades. This question was propounded to the Old Man in a letter from Goldman, and answered by him. The Old Man said: “I don’t see why we should drop the demand for a referendum on war. Before they actually enter the war, an agitation for a people’s referendum is an excellent means of showing up their fake democracy.” It is a means of agitation against them. It is not so simple and automatic; one does not exclude the other.

Comrade Trotsky also answered the question whether our slogan of Workers’ Defense Guards is superseded by our military policy. He said he did not see why. He thought they were interrelated. Of course, at the present time, the emphasis is entirely on the question of penetrating the military organizations. But, as the crisis develops, all kinds of reactionary attacks will be made on the unions. Gangs will be organized to break them up. The union members will be under the constant necessity to protect themselves. The workers must be on guard to protect their unions. The slogan of Workers’ Defense Guards can be raised at an appropriate time, not in contradiction to our military policy, but in correlation with it.

The Role of Women Comrades

On the question of the role of women in the party after conscription. We must not get the idea that all our people will be in the army. Roughly speaking, the same percentage of our party will be in the army as the percentage of their class of the same generation. We have a young party. You will learn from Comrade Dobbs’ comprehensive organization report that the average age of our party is 29 years. This means that perhaps a majority of our men comrades are going to be in the army sooner or later.

Some of our leading people will be taken out and in their places women comrades will come forward. We already have indications that we are not without resources in this field. And don’t forget we have a few old codgers who are beyond the draft age. Maybe the party can make use of them. Lenin once said, and, I always sympathized with him, that when a revolutionist reaches the age of 50 he should be shot. When men get older they usually get tired and conservative. But there are exceptions to all laws, and we come in under the exceptions. If we have the correct policy, and if we have the conception that every member of our party is potentially a leader, potentially a general in the army of the revolution, we will not lack leadership.

Comrade Birchman mentioned the question of the Negro workers in the militarization. Our attitude toward the Negroes in war, like our attitude toward all other questions, is the same as in times of peace. Our line is the class line. We stand for absolutely unconditional equality for every race and nationality. That’s a cardinal principle of Communism. We have to fight for and defend this principle under all conditions, including the conditions of militarism.

Methods of Work in the Army

How do we work in a conscript army? someone asked. We work the same Way as in a shop. Indeed, the main purpose of industry now is supplying the army. Where would you draw the line? There is hardly an industry that won’t be mobilized either for the manufacture or transportation of materials for the army. The masses are in the army, or working to supply the army. The workers are subjected to military exploitation. We go in and defend the interests of the slaves of military exploitation, just as we go into the factory and fight against capitalist exploitation there. Our basic line everywhere is the class line.

The second point is to be careful, cautious. Make no putsches, make no premature moves that expose us and separate us from the masses. Go with the masses. Be with the masses, just as the Bolsheviks were in Kerensky’s army.

Why can’t we do that here? And how otherwise can we do it? How otherwise, in a world dominated by militarism, can we see our way to world salvation except through military means? And how can we get these military means except by penetrating the army as it exists?

We have one great assurance. I repeat what I said at the mass meeting. We have our opportunity before us in this country. Even if war is declared and a military dictatorship is instituted, even if all kinds of repressive measures are decreed – we must always remember that a dictatorship of the police and military forces, instituted by fiat, cannot be the same thing as a fascist dictatorship based on a mass movement mobilized over years of time after the workers have muffed their chance to take power. Before fascism can come in this country on a mass basis, according to the historical law elucidated by Comrade Trotsky, the great mass radicalization of the workers will take place. The workers here, as everywhere, will have the first chance to take power. That is all we need. We will have our chance, and we will not miss it.

Last updated on 14 August 2020