James P. Cannon

The Stalinists and the United Front

Speech at Chicago SWP Conference

(29 September 1940)

Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 42, 19 October 1940, p. 2.
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 the stenographic record of a speech by Comrade James P. Cannon, National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, delivered at the Plenum-Conference of the party at Chicago, Sept. 27–29. This speech was a supplement to his main report, The Military Policy of the Proletariat, which we published last week.


It seems, comrades, that the discussion on the military policy is pretty well exhausted. The small points of difference which have been brought out can be answered in the summary speech.

We can now discuss the secondary question of the Stalinists and our trade union tactics.

For some time we have been compelled to realize that the Communist Party remains the greatest obstacle to .the development of the revolutionary movement in the United States. The Stalinists retain a powerful position in many trade unions and by their new turn have still further confused things to our detriment. The calculations that the Hitler-Stalin pact would result in the annihilation of the Communist Party were not quite realized. This new line gave its bureaucratic leadership the opportunity to put on the mask of pseudo-radicalism once again. That appealed more to the worker militants in the ranks than the old policy. To be sure, the cynical deal with Hitler repelled quite a large number of Stalinist workers. But the great bulk of the losses, both members and sympathizers, came from the petty-bourgeois elements whom the Communist Party had catered to in recent years. When the showdown came they were more devoted to the bourgeois-democratic regime of Roosevelt than to the regime of Stalin. The Stalinist workers, on the other hand, by and large, stayed with the party and stood up under a great deal of repression and persecution. These established facts must be taken as the point of departure in determining our tactical approach to this question.

Trotsky’s Views on This Question

We were aware for many months that we had not made sufficient inroads among the Stalinist workers. The Communist Party is an obstacle which the revolutionary workers must remove from their path. This cannot be done by frontal attacks alone. It is necessary to devise methods of flank attack to supplement our uncompromising and unceasing direct offensive against perfidious Stalinism. These thoughts were in our minds when We placed the question of the Communist Party on the agenda for a discussion with Comrade Trotsky on our last visit. He was also of the opinion that our policy toward the Communist Party for a long time has been too negative, that we haven’t devised sufficiently flexible tactics for flank movements in order to win over to our side a number of Stalinist workers.

Trotsky posed the question on the issue of the election campaign and put forward a shocking proposal. He said the C.P. leadership is talking very loudly in opposition to imperialist war, etc. We know they are liars and fakers simply carrying out current instructions in Stalin’s diplomatic game. Tomorrow they will betray the fight against war. We know that, said Trotsky, but thousands of misguided workers are not yet convinced of it. “We must find a way to reach these workers as they are, With their present mentality. Let us take up the leaders at their Word and state: if the Communist Party will maintain the position of •real opposition to imperialist war we will propose to them a ‘ united front, and even give critical support to their candidates in the election.”

Nobody in the delegation agreed with the Old Man on this drastic proposal. We had a long and at times heated discussion with him on it. We took the position that such a drastic change in the middle of the election campaign would require too much explanation, and would encounter the danger of great misunderstanding and confusion which we would not be able to dissipate. While we might conceivably win over a couple of hundred Stalinist workers in the course of a drawn-out tactic of this kind, we felt that we would run the danger of losing more than we gained.

The United Front Tactic

We argued back and forth on this ground for several days. Then Trotsky made a compromise proposal. He said that, after all, the main thing is the new military policy – the long-term strategical line – and not the short term minor problem of our tactics in relation to the C.P. in the current election campaign.

He said, if we would take his proposal as one possible maneuver, and would devise some method of united front approach which would really enable us to penetrate the Stalinist ranks, he would accept it as a compromise. We mulled over this a couple of days. I had a personal conversation with him before we left Coyoacan and restated my fears of misunderstanding and confusion from such a drastic policy as critical support to the C.P. in the coming election. He said he did not consider it of sufficient importance to make an issue; he did not want to provoke a party discussion Which might divert attention from the paramount question of the new military policy, But we should think over the thing seriously and devise an effective united front attack against the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The united front tactics, as devised and perfected by Lenin, are in no sense the expression of a conciliatory attitude toward Opponent organizations in the labor movement. The United front is designed to mobilize the masses – as they are – for common action against the class enemy oh specific issues of the day. At the same time it is a method of struggle against alien currents and treacherous leaders. The tactic is not to be applied all the time, every day of the week, but only on suitable occasions. The main tactic of the Comintern under Lenin was the tactic of the united front. But Lenin knew when to employ it and when to put it aside. In the first years of the split of the Second International and the formation of the Comintern nothing was said about-the united front. The Russians have a saying: “Every vegetable has its season.” And the season of the war and the post-war period, following the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Comintern, was the season for head-on offensive against the international social democracy. The strategy was to complete the split in merciless warfare, and replace the reformist parties by revolutionary Communist parties.

That direct frontal attack was carried on from 1917, after the founding of the Comintern in 1919 and up until the Fall of 1921. Then the leaders of the Comintern – Lenin and Trotsky – drew a balance. Lenin pointed out that we had succeeded in our strategy to this extent, that we had constructed independent Communist Parties in all countries of considerable strength. But the Social Democrats still had big organizations of workers under their control; these workers Were not as yet convinced of Communism. For the next period We must confront the reformist leaders with united front proposals as an approach to the rank and file under their influence.

We Must Repeat Lenin’s Tactic

You can observe the same general pattern in the work of constructing the Fourth International in the fight against Stalinism. We have been conducting a long drawn-out frontal attack. In the course of that attack we have selected and drawn to our side hardened cadres of the Fourth International. But we must recognize that the C.P. still remains a powerful organization, many times more powerful than ourselves. It contains in its ranks a great many misguided but class conscious Workers. We are now obliged to resort to united front tactics as a means of approach to them.

Nobody in our Political Committee wanted to sponsor the policy of critical support to the Stalinists in the election campaign. I think this is one time we disagreed with Trotsky correctly. Nevertheless, we have all realized that we must devise a more flexible tactic towards the C.P. and look for suitable occasions, as long as they espouse this semi-radical line, to penetrate their ranks by means of united front proposals. And here also we don’t want to jump over to the other extreme, from leaving the C.P. alone to united front proposals every day in the Week. We should carefully discriminate, select occasions and incidents for approaches to the C.P. rank and file, through their organizations, for a limited, specific united front. That we have agreed upon, and I think the Conference should endorse it as a general policy.

It should be carried out, I repeat, in a most careful and discriminating mamjer. We already experimented, rather gingerly, with this tactic in New York at the time We Were carrying out our struggle against the Bundists and Cotighlinite organizations. We addressed a letter to the district organization of the C.P. proposing to them a united front against the Coughlin-Bund bands. This Was not followed up. We merely sent a letter and published it. But just the simple facts that we were out fighting the fascists in New York City, and that we appealed to the rank and file of the C.P. to join us, had good results. We were informed by our contacts in the C.P. that we created quite a ripple in their ranks. It caused the bureaucrats quite a little “trouble”. A good many rank and file Stalinists wanted to accept our united front offer and join us in the fight against the fascists. Out of that single experience we won over quite a number of rank and file Stalinists to our party.

At the present time you have a situation out in California where, if I understand the facts, Governor Olson has proposed to the State Legislature the passage of a constitutional amendment to remove the C.P. from the ballot. Our Los Angeles local organization jumped on this right away. They proposed to send an appeal to the C.P. and other organizations for a united front action to fight this attempt to outlaw the C.P. The Political Committee unanimously approved the initiative’ Of the Los Angeles comrades. As I understand it, they will push this action in the next few weeks.

Problems of the United Front

It must be repeated all the time that the united front is a method of struggle. It does not mean friendship or conciliation. It simply means an approach to the rank and file of an opponent organization in the labor movement, through their official leadership, for a joint struggle for common immediate aims. Properly utilized, the united front creates the possibility to penetrate the ranks of organizations hitherto sealed against us. It is in this sense, and in this sense only, that we propose united fronts to the Stalinists in the next period. We are, and we shall remain, the most consistent and most implacable enemies of Stalinism.

The Old Man was quite optimistic about the possibilities. He said, suppose you go into this and repeat these experiments time and time again on suitable occasions; in the end if you win over 200 Stalinist workers to Our party you have gained a lot. We raised the question of the enormous hatred of many honest workers in the labor movement against the Stalinists. There is a great grain of justice and sincerity in this- hatred, although it is often confused with reactionary prejudices! We have to be very careful that we don’t offend the sensibilities of these anti-Stalinist workers who are militant and partly class conscious in their attitude, but we must not let their feelings determine Our political line. The moment we began to Speak of a united front approach to the Stalinists, we heard from all of OUY fractions in the trade unions a cry to go slow! Those in the trade unions know how bitterly the Stalinists are hated. We must be very careful. If We allow ourselves to become confused and mixed tip’ With the Stalinists, we will cut off our road of approach to the rank and file of the trade union movement, the anti-Stalinist rank and file, which, in my opinion, is a more important reservoir of the revolution than the Stalinist rank and file.

Here we had a little difference with Comrade Trotsky. He was inclined to dismiss the whole “progressive” movement as composed entirely of patriots and fakers. In fact he gave Us quite an argument on Lewis and Browder. “What is the difference between Lewis and Browder? Is Browder a bigger scoundrel than Lewis? I don’t think so. They are both scoundrels – of different types.” One comrade there remarked, the Stalinists are very hostile to us. Trotsky said, “Yes, I know, sometimes they shoot at us.” (This was shortly after the May 24 machine gun attack.) He said, “Do you think Lewis or Green wouldn’t shoot at you? It is only a difference of circumstances, that is all.”

We must classify the Stalinists and the reactionary and “progressive” patriotic labor fakers as simply two different varieties of enemies of the working class employing different methods because they have different bases under their feet, it brings us into a complicated problem in the trade union movement. It has been our general practice to combine in day to day trade union work with the progressives and even the conservative labor fakers against the Stalinists. We have been correct from [this point of view, that while the conservative and traditional labor skates are no better than the Stalinists, are no less betrayers in the long run, they have different bases of existence! The Stalinist base is the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. They are perfectly willing to disrupt a trade union in defense of the foreign policy of Stalin. The traditional labor fakers have no foots in Russia not any support in its powerful bureaucracy. Their only base of existence is the trade Union; if the union is not preserved they have no further existence as trade union leaders. That tends to make them, from self-interest, a little more loyal to the unions than the Stalinists. That is why we have been correct in most cases in combining with them as against the Stalinists in purely union affairs.

The New Stage in the Unions

But our work in the trade unions up till now has been largely a day to day affair based upon the daily problems and has lacked a general political orientation and perspective. This has tended to blur the distinction between us and pure and simple trade unionists. In many cases, at times, they appeared to be one with us. It was fair weather and good fellows were together. The great issues raised by the War are rudely disrupting this idyll. Some of our comrades have already had revealing experiences of how a war situation puts an end to ambiguity and makes men show their real colors. Some people went hand in hand with us on almost every proposition we made to improve the union, get better contracts from the bosses; etc. Then all of a sudden, this Whole peaceful routine of the trade union movement is disrupted by overpowering issues of war, patriotism, the national election, etc. And those trade unionists, who looked so good in ordinary times, are all turning up as patriots and Rooseveltians. We now have a much narrower basis of cooperation with them. This new situation induces some of our comrades to say we should break off all relations With these patriotic trade unionists and progressive fakers. That is a very extreme position which we cannot endorse.

What we have got to do with our united front policy, in the unions and in general, is to make it more precise. The united front does not signify political collaboration but joint action on specific issues despite political differences. The united front is based on day to day problems. It is nothing resembling permanent collaboration but simply day to day agreements. Where we agree or half-agree with others, we go along together; where we don’t agree, we go alone. Politically we have no ground for collaboration with the labor “progressives.” We will have less and less as we go along, as the pressure of the war machine grows heavier.

A great number of out comrades in the unions have been working hand in hand, with people who have been simply militant unionists and nothing else. In “normal” times they get along very well together. They will soon encounter the unpleasant experience of having many of these people, these fellows who have been co-workers, drinking companions and pals turn up as direct enemies and informers against our movement. There is only one thing that binds men together in times of great stress. That is agreement on great principles. Good fellowship and chumminess is a very poor substitute. Those who don’t know this, will learn it in bitter experience.

All those comrades who think we have something, ‘big or little, in the trade union movement should get out a magnifying glass in the next period and look at what we really have. You will find that what We have is our party fractions and the circle of sympathizers around them. That is what you can rely on. There may be cases where people who are united with us in principle will falter because of personal weakness. But those are the exceptions to the rule. There will be cases of men without broad political concepts who, because of exceptional personal qualities, will prove loyal to us in a pinch. They will also be the exceptions. The rule will be that the general run of pure and simple trader unionists, the non-political activists, the latent patriots – they will betray us at the most decisive moment. What we will have in the unions in the hour of test will be what we build in the form of firm fractions of convinced Bolsheviks.

We Will Stand on Our Own Feet

This military policy that we are outlining here will be the main line of our activity. We will have today a united front with Smith or Jones, together with Brown. We will agree with one or the other that such and such should be the demands upon the bosses, such and such proposals in the internal situation of the union. But we are bound to none of them and none of them is bound to us. We will fight against the Stalinist disrupters in the union every day in the week. At the same time we will approach the Stalinists on the broad political field for a united front action, as, for example, in California, to fight the removal of minority parties from the ballot. Perhaps our progressive friends will say, “What are you doing? You are supposed to be working with us, and all of a sudden you come out against removing the C.P. from- the ballot.” We have a perfect right to reply: “You are supposed to be working with us 364 days of the year, but on one day you want to make an exception, to vote for Roosevelt, the agent of the bosses. And if you take that little privilege, you must give us one. We must have the same independence that you have.” Maybe this will be a lesson in democracy to the democrats.

One point more on this and I will be finished. Many of our comrades in the unions who have become deeply integrated with this business of the progressive democrats flinch away from the idea of offending them. Our party in this isn’t as courageous as it should be. We are afraid of offending people, that is, their stupid, petty-bourgeois prejudices. That is only another Way of saying that We are hot yet real Marxists. The great Marxists, beginning With Marx and Engels – and ending with the last great exponent of Marxism, Comrade Trotsky – they all had a common characteristic: a complete indifference to public opinion. They did not care what the rest of the world thought about them. They figured out their line of policy in every case according to their scientific ideas. Then they courageously applied it and took the consequences. They made their own the motto of Dante: “Go your way and let the people talk.” Perhaps this problem of the C.P. is a test for us. To the. extent that We can deal with this problem correctly and carefully, but also courageously – disregarding Philistine opinion – we will take a step forward becoming genuine Marxists, genuine Trotskyists, who follow their own line and let the world make the best of it.

Last updated on 13 November 2020