James P. Cannon

Socialist Appeal

November 23, 1940

First Results of our Military Policy

Written: 1940
Source: Socialist Appeal
Transcription\HTML Markup:Andrew Pollack
First of three articles on the SWP’s military policy.

The military transitional program, unanimously accepted our recent Chicago conference after two months of discussion in the party branches, has provided our comrades with a most effective approach and means of agitation among the workers. Numerous reports and letters from active comrades in all parts of the country testify to the value of our program in this respect. It arouses interest and discussion precisely because it deals most concretely with the one big subject which dominates the minds of the workers, the subject of war and militarism. All reports testify that the overwhelming majority of the workers expect direct Participation of America in the war. This feeling of the workers is profoundly correct, and it is the duty of an honest revolutionary party to tell them so. Short of a revolution, for which the American workers are not yet ready, it. is impossible to prevent or even halt the deliberate movement of American imperialism into the military struggle for world domination.

In the essence of the matter, America is already at war with the Axis powers at least three-fourths of the way. The policy of selling goods and war materials only to those countries who are able to carry them away in their own ships is simply a clever device to supply Britain and Participate in the blockade of the others. The political and moral preparation of public opinion; against the Axis powers is completed. The entire Western Hemisphere has already been marked off as the exclusive domain of Wall Street. To top things off, on the practical side, fifteen billion dollars have been appropriated for armaments while conscription has become a law and is being put into effect without any serious opposition whatever.

In the face of all these staggering facts it is a positive crime to lull the workers with a prospect of peace or to whine against universal military service which is already in operation. American imperialism has already entered with both feet on the path of war and militarism. This is the new reality, and abstract opposition cannot affect the course of events in any way whatever. It is the task of the proletarian vanguard to accept the new reality, to meet the imperialists on their own ground, the ground of militarism, and counterpose to their program the military program of the proletariat.

That is the task which our party, aided by the genius of Trotsky, has aimed to accomplish by the adoption of the Chicago resolution and the development of our agitation in accordance with it.

It is precisely because this resolution goes to the very heart of the problem of the day that it has aroused such widespread interest and discussion from the beginning. Our policy is realistic and profoundly revolutionary, but it strikes a new note and breaks sharply with the tradition of American radicalism which has been negative and essentially pacifist on the question of war. For that reason we devoted two months to internal discussion before publicly proclaiming our resolution. The unanimity and enthusiasm with which our party adopted the resolution is evidence that its years of Marxist education under the direct instruction of Comrade Trotsky were not wasted.

We are now only at the beginning of our attempt to popularize the policy in the general labor movement. There is a long road ahead, but the first results give reassuring proof that we are on the right road. We seek, first of all, an approach to the militant workers, whose patriotism—at least 99 percent of them are patriotic—is in large measure a confused expression of their hatred for fascism. These sentiments are now exploited by the imperialists. Our policy is designed to turn these sentiments in the direction of a struggle for their own class interests and liberation.

The first reactions of our resolution have been widely diversified. Our reports from the field show that some workers are sympathetic, some skeptical. Many workers want to know how the policy will work out in practice. They raise acute and penetrating questions of application which have not yet been adequately answered in our press. In this series of articles I shall comment on these questions and objections and undertake to answer at the same time the criticisms of the various radical political groups who, as was to be expected, neither understand nor agree with our policy. In some aspects of the question, their criticisms of our opponents provide an opportunity for the restatement and elucidation of our policy in a way to meet the objections of the workers and make our policy clearer to them. This aim, I hope, will justify taking space for an answer to factional polemics which would otherwise be stale and profitless and out of place in our agitational paper. Our military resolution, it goes without saying, does not repeat the basic program of the party and the Fourth International, but is designed as a tactical supplement to it. It is not in itself a program of proletarian revolution, but a bridge toward it. It is designed to protect and develop the class independence of the workers who are dragooned into the imperialist military machine. It is, in effect, a proposal for a united front with the workers as they are today, patriotic and antifascist, not ready for the socialist revolution, but concerned to protect themselves and their class interests. We offer them a program of joint struggle for practical and reasonable demands which will protect the interests of the workers, preserve their class independence, and prepare the way, by the objective logic of their development, for the revolutionary showdown. That is why we call our military program a transitional program of agitation as distinct from our fundamental program of socialist revolution which we advance by propaganda. Once this distinction is understood—and no one who reads our resolution intelligently and conscientiously can misunderstand it—the criticisms of our political opponents, who accuse us of opportunism, fall of their own weight.

This is the case with the Oehlerites who have attacked our resolution in their official paper. These people are in favor of the proletarian revolution but they are really incapable of understanding transitional measures and demands which can take the workers as they are, not yet revolutionary, and advance them toward the revolutionary goal; a. program which can form a bridge between the present consciousness of the workers and the ultimate logic of their struggle; in other words, a transitional program. That is why they cannot understand or agree with us today any more than they could understand or agree with the general transitional program of the Fourth International adopted at its world congress.26 It is this sectarian mentality in general that dooms them to complete isolation from the current struggle of the workers and condemns them to utter futility despite all their intentions.

The SLP [Socialist Labor Party] will surely reject our military program if they have not already done so. (God forgive me, I don’t read the Weekly People as attentively as I should and don’t know whether they have yet expressed themselves.) The SLP will have nothing less than the “unconditional surrender of the capitalist class”—no immediate demand, no transitional program. But since the capitalist class, up to the present at any rate, has shown no disposition to surrender, the SLP remains aloof, unterrified and uncontaminated and, consequently, without the slightest influence on the course of development in the labor movement. Abstract propaganda for socialism is good and necessary. But such propaganda alone can never produce a revolutionary victory of the workers. It is necessary to supplement it by a practical program of agitation adapted to the needs of the day and the present stage of working-class development, in order to lift the movement higher and turn it in a revolutionary direction. That is why the revolutionary party needs a transitional program in general. That is why in the present world conditions it needs a military transition program in particular. The Lovestoneites have not yet commented on our military resolution, as far as I know. But if they find it possible to take time off from their frenzied defense of Great Britain, they will surely attack our resolution “from the left,” as they attacked the general transitional program of the Fourth International last year. We shall wait and see. Meantime we have a first-class substitute for a Herbergian27 outburst of phony radicalism and pseudo-Marxism, embellished with irrelevant historical references and misapplied quotations, in a recent number of Labor Action, the official organ of the “Workers Party.” This is the political group which the well-known Professor Burnham, with callous disregard of his parental obligations, abandoned, with a cruel remark that it “begins with foundations none too firm” and the parting salute: “I cannot wish success to the Workers Party.” The author of this burlesque is Max Shachtman. And it marks his first utterance on controversial questions for a long time.

After the double disaster of his polemic with Trotsky and the desertion of Burnham, Shachtman retired into silence and contemplation for many months. And that was the best thing for him to do. Total abstinence is the best prescription for a man sick from talking too much. But that couldn’t last forever. Now he is at it again and, of course, as he himself says, his remarks are “sharply polemical.”

When the announcement was made, with much fanfare, that Shachtman was returning to the political wars one might have thought that conscience and common sense would require him, first of all, to deal with the question of Burnham. Doesn’t he owe his anxiously waiting public at least a few words of explanation on this score? How did it happen that Shachtman’s mentor and “friend and colleague,” with whom he fought shoulder to shoulder against Trotsky and the Trotskyists, suddenly—only two months later!—openly repudiated socialism and passed over into the camp of the class enemy? An explanation of this circumstance is what you might have expected from Shachtman—if you don’t know Shachtman. But his “sharply polemical” article, full of sound and fury, is not directed at Burnham; it is intended to drown out the question of Burnham by shouting loud and long against others. It is not directed at the man who deserted socialism, but at those who in their stupid, ignorant way still remain faithful to it.

Only a few months ago, Burnham, with Shachtman at his heels, denounced Trotsky and the Trotskyites as capitulators with Stalin and as “the left cover for Hitler.” So spoke Burnham, the spokesman of the minority, at our Party convention a few months ago. Now, without so much as an explanation of our transformation, Shachtman describes us as capitulators to American imperialism, as almost-if-not-quite social patriots, as class collaborationists, as falsifiers of the “views and traditions of the Bolsheviks in the last war” which he, of course, defends.

An unsuspecting casual reader might easily imagine that the man is on s revolutionary rampage. But in reality he is only kibitzing. His entire article from beginning to end is a mixture of confusion and bad faith—a Shachtman “polemic.” Not a single one of his “points” can stand inspection. In my next article I shall undertake to prove this, point by point. In doing so, I hope, as I said in the beginning, to contribute something to the clarification of the many and serious questions concerning our policy raised by workers in discussions with our comrades in the field. If I succeed in this the time spent on an otherwise distasteful task will not be wasted.