The Struggle for a Proletarian Party

By James P. Cannon

Part I

1. What the Discussion Has Revealed

Political struggles in general, including serious factional struggles in a party, do not take place in a vacuum. They are carried on under the pressure of social forces and reflect the class struggle to one degree or another. This law is demonstrated in the most striking manner in the development of the present discussion within our party.

At the present time the pressure of alien class forces upon the proletarian vanguard is exceptionally heavy. We must understand this first of all. Only then can we approach an understanding of the present crisis in the party. It is the most severe and profound crisis our movement has ever known on an international scale. The unprecedented tension in the ranks signalises a conflict of principled positions which is obviously irreconcilable. Two camps in the party fight for different programs, different methods and different traditions.

What has brought the party to this situation in such a short space of time? Obviously it is not a suddenly discovered personal incompatibility of the individual leaders involved; such trifles are symptoms of the conflict, not causes. Nor can a conflict of this depth and scope be plausibly explained by the flaring up of old differences of opinion on the organisation question. In order to understand the real significance of the crisis it is necessary to look for profounder causes.

For those who understand politics as an expression of the class struggle—and that is the way we Marxists understand it—the basic cause of the crisis in the party is not hard to find. The crisis signifies the reaction in our ranks to external social pressure. That is the way we have defined it from the outset of the crisis last September, immediately following the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact and the beginning of the German invasion of Poland. More precisely, we say the crisis is the result of the pressure of bourgeois-democratic public opinion upon a section of the party leadership. That is our class analysis of the unrestrained struggle between the proletarian and the petty-bourgeois tendencies in our party.

We define the contending factions not by such abstract general terms as “conservative” and “progressive”. We judge the factions not by the psychologic traits of individuals, but by the program they defend. The discussion has revealed not a difference of opinion about the application of the program—such differences frequently occur and usually have a transitory significance—but an attempt to counterpose one program to another. This is what has divided the party into two camps. Naturally, these terms, which we have used from the beginning of the discussion to characterise the two tendencies in the party, are meant as definitions and not epithets. It is necessary to repeat this in every debate between Marxists and petty-bourgeois politicians of all types; the one thing they cannot tolerate is to be called by their right name.

The leaders of the opposition consider it outrageous, a malicious faction invention, for us to place this class signboard above their faction, when their only offence consists in the simple fact that they turn their backs on the Soviet Union and deny it defence in the struggle against world imperialism. But our definition and description of such an attitude is not new. Back in the days when Shachtman was paraphrasing Trotsky and not Burnham, he himself wrote:

At bottom, the ultraleftists’ position on the Soviet Union, which denies it any claim whatsoever to being a workers’ state, reflects the vacillations of the petty bourgeois, their inability to make a firm choice between the camps of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, of revolution and imperialism.

This quotation, from an article written in the New International by Shachtman two years ago, can be accepted as a scientific definition of the opposition combination and its present position, with only one small amendment. It is hardly correct to describe their position as “ultraleftist”.

The leaders of the opposition in the past have written and spoken a great deal along the lines of the above quotation. Year in and year out in innumerable articles, documents, theses and speeches the leaders of the opposition have been promising and even threatening to defend the Soviet Union—“In the hour of danger we will be at our posts!”—but when the hour drew near, when the Soviet Union almost began to need this defence, they welched on their promise.

So with the program in general, with the doctrine, the methods and the tradition of Marxism. When all this ceased to be the subject for literary exercises in times of tranquillity and had to be taken as a guide to action in time of war, they forgot everything that had been said and written and started a frantic search for “new and fresh ideas”. In the first half-serious test they revealed themselves as “peacetime Trotskyists”.

And this shameful performance, this betrayal of Marxism, has taken place in the American section of the Fourth International even before the formal entry of American imperialism into the war. In the bible of the opposition, their document on “The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism”, [4] we are assured that the party crisis “was provoked by the war”. That is not precisely accurate. America has not yet formally entered into the war, and thus far we have only a faint intimation of the moral and material pressure which will be brought to bear against the proletarian vanguard under war conditions. Not the war, but merely the shadow of the approaching war was enough to send Burnham, Shachtman and Abern on their mad stampede.

Gratuitously attributing to the party their own panic, these philosophers of retreat and capitulation express the opinion that comrades who read their document on the party regime “will draw from it cynical or discouraged or defeatist conclusions”. They add: “The future is dark.” And Burnham, who bared his petty-bourgeois soul in a special document entitled, “Science and Style”, [5] proclaims with malicious satisfaction—the wish is father to the thought—the downfall of the Fourth International. The reality is diametrically opposite to these lugubrious observations.

In the proletarian majority of the party there is not a trace of pessimism. On the contrary, there is universal satisfaction that the defection of a section of the party leadership revealed itself in time, before the war, and under conditions where it could be combated openly and in free discussion and beaten down. The virtual unanimity with which the proletarian cadres have rallied to the defence of the party and the Fourth International, the militancy and irreconcilability with which they have met the attack of Burnham, Abern and Shachtman is living proof of the vitality and indestructibility of our movement. That is a good omen for the future. It gives us confidence that it will stand up against the real test of war when it comes. It gives grounds for the most optimistic calculation that the Fourth International will not only “survive”, but conquer in struggle.

As for the “hard future”—the Bolshevik-Marxists never expected that the period of the death agony of capitalism could produce anything but crises and war with their inevitable repercussions in workers’ organisations, including the party of the workers’ vanguard. From these “hard” circumstances, the Fourth Internationalists only drew the conclusion that the grandiose social convulsions, which we foresaw and analysed in advance, create the conditions out of which the oppressed masses, impelled by iron necessity, must carry through the social revolution and the reorganisation of the world on a socialist basis. Only one thing is needed: a genuine Bolshevik party of the vanguard. Only Marxism can be the program of such a party. Burnham, and his sorry disciples, the ex-Marxists, ex-Trotskyists, offer a program that has nothing in common with Marxism or the proletarian revolution. From this arises the fundamental conflict between the majority and the opposition, a conflict which is manifestly irreconcilable and to which all other questions, however important, are nevertheless subordinate.

In the course of a few months’ discussion the differences between the majority and the opposition have reached such depth and scope as to completely overshadow all questions of party regime. If all the alleged faults of the regime were true, and then multiplied 10 times over, the whole question would pale into insignificance beside the principled differences which now clearly separate the two contending factions. The struggle of the opposition ostensibly began as a struggle against the “Cannon regime”, and as a defence, or at any rate as an anticipation, of the “changing” position of Trotsky. But in a short time it unfolded as a fundamental conflict with the Fourth International over all the questions of our program, our method and our tradition.

Abern, who voted at the plenum [of October 1939] for the principled resolution of the majority on the Russian question and accuses us of inventing and exaggerating differences, ended up, by the logic of his unprincipled combination, in the revisionist camp of Burnham. Shachtman, who at the plenum could only be accused of building a bridge to Burnham, became his attorney, writing “open letters” to Comrade Trotsky in his behalf, and directing the most venomous attacks against the proletarian majority of the party who remind him of his yesterday. Burnham, in his latest document on “Science and Style”, speaks the language of a hate-inspired enemy of the proletarian revolutionary movement and of all those who remain faithful to it.

This is what has been revealed in a few months of political discussion.

2. A New Stage in the Development of American Trotskyism

The body of doctrine and methods known as “Trotskyism” is indubitably the genuine Marxism of our time, the heir and continuator of the Bolshevism of Lenin and the Russian revolution and the early Comintern. It is the movement known as Trotskyism and no other that has developed Bolshevism in analysing and interpreting all the great events of the post-Lenin period and in formulating the program for the proletarian struggle and victory. There is no other movement, there is no other school that has answered anything. There is no school that is worthy of a moment’s consideration by the proletarian revolutionists. Trotskyism, embodied in the Fourth International, is the only revolutionary movement.

But the road from the elaboration of the program to the organisation of firm cadres, and from that to the building of mass parties of the Fourth International, is difficult and complicated. It proceeds through various stages of evolution and development as a continuous process of selection, attracting new forces and discarding others who fail to keep step. The American section of the Fourth International is right now in the midst of a crisis in this evolutionary process. If, as all signs indicate, we are moving toward a radical solution of the crisis, it is to be accounted for by the speed at which world events are marching and the immensity of their scope and the sensitivity of our party to their impact.

The Second World War, no less than the First, strikes all organisations and tendencies in the labour movement with cataclysmic force. Our own organisation is no exception. Like all others, it is being shaken to its foundations and compelled to reveal its real nature. Weaknesses which remained undisclosed in time of peace are rapidly laid bare with the approach of war. Numerous individuals and whole groupings, whether formally members of the Fourth International or sympathisers, are being submitted to the same tests. There will be casualties, which may seem to indicate a weakening of the movement. But that is rather the appearance of things than the reality. Trotskyism is the veritable doctrine and method of proletarian revolution; it reveals its true substance most unfailingly in times of crisis, war and revolutionary struggle. Those who have assimilated the program, the doctrine, the method and the tradition into their flesh and blood, as the guiding line of struggle, cling all the more firmly to the movement under the pressure of the crisis.

It is only those who took Bolshevism as a set of literary formulas, espousal of which gave one a certain distinction in radical circles without incurring any serious responsibilities; those who adopted Trotskyism as a form of “extreme radicalism” which never went beyond the bounds of sophisticated debate—it is such people who are most inclined to falter and to lose their heads under the pressure of the crisis, and even to blame their panic on that same “Trotskyism” which simply remains true to itself.

Everybody knows the crisis has dealt heavy blows to the imposing movement of Stalinism. With the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact the flight of the Stalinist fellow-travellers began. They could stomach the Moscow trials but not the prospect of coming into collision with the democratic government of US imperialism. After the Soviet invasion of Poland and then of Finland, the flight of the fellow-travellers became a rout. This wild migration attracted wide attention and comment. We ourselves contributed our observations and witticisms on this ludicrous spectacle. Up to now, however, we have remained silent on an analogous phenomenon in our own “periphery”. The flight of the more sophisticated, but hardly more courageous, intellectual fellow-travellers of American Trotskyism has been scarcely less precipitate and catastrophic.

With the approach of the war Trotskyism as a doctrine and as a movement began to lose its “respectability”. Many of the intellectuals, sniffing danger, arranged a somewhat hasty and undignified departure. In truth, there is not much left of that considerable army of drawing room heroes who used to admire Trotsky’s literary style and confound the less intelligent periphery of Stalinism with nuggets of wisdom mined from Trotsky’s writings. The collapse of the Trotskyist “cultural front” was taken by some people, especially the ex-fronters themselves, to signify a collapse of our movement. In the journals of the class enemy to which they promptly attached themselves some of them have already worked up courage to write about Trotskyism as an “outmoded sectarian tendency”. However, it is they who are “outmoded”, not the movement of the proletarian vanguard, Trotskyism.

The petty-bourgeois intellectuals are introspective by nature. They mistake their own emotions, their uncertainties, their fears and their own egoistic concern about their personal fate for the sentiments and movements of the great masses. They measure the world’s agony by their own inconsequential aches and pains. Insofar as our party membership consists in part of petty-bourgeois elements completely disconnected from the proletarian class struggle, the crisis which overtook the periphery of our movement is transferred, or rather, extended, into the party.

It is noteworthy that the crisis struck the New York organisation of the party, thanks to its unfavourable social composition, with exceptional force and virulence, while the proletarian centres of the party remained virtually unaffected. The tendency of the petty-bourgeois elements to flee from our program and to repudiate our tradition is counterposed to a remarkable demonstration of loyalty to the program and to the party on the part of the proletarian membership. One must indeed be blind not to understand the meaning of this differentiation. The more our party revealed itself as a genuine proletarian party, the more it stood firmly by principle and penetrated into the workers’ mass movement, the better it has withstood the shock of the crisis. To the extent that our party has sunk its roots in proletarian soil it has gained, not lost, during this recent period. The noise we hear around and about our movement is simply the rustling of the leaves at the top of the tree. The roots are not shaking.

The evolution and development of American Trotskyism did not proceed according to a preconceived plan. It was conditioned by a number of exceptional historical circumstances beyond our control. After the initial cadres had accustomed themselves to withstand the attacks and pressure of the Stalinists, the movement began to take shape as an isolated propaganda society. Of necessity it devoted an inordinate amount of its energy to the literary struggle against Stalinism. World events, one after another, confirmed our criticisms and prognoses. After the collapse of the Comintern in Germany, the failure of the successive five-year plans to bring “socialism” in Russia, the monstrous excesses of the forced collectivisation and the man-made famine, the murderous purges and the trials—after all this, which Trotsky alone had explained and analysed in advance, Trotskyism became more popular in petty-bourgeois intellectual and half-intellectual circles. For a time it even became the fashion. Party membership conferred a certain distinction and imposed no serious hardships. Internal democracy was exaggerated to the point of looseness. Centralism and discipline existed only in the program, not in practice. The party in New York was more like a sophisticated discussion club than a combat party of the proletariat.

The fusion with the Muste organisation, and later the entry into the Socialist Party, were carried out with the deliberate aim of breaking out of propagandistic isolation and stagnation and finding a road to wider circles. These actions brought hundreds of new recruits to the party, and gave us the possibility of expanding our activities. But the successes also brought their own contradictions. The membership of the Socialist Party in New York, including its left wing and its youth organisation, was primarily petty-bourgeois in composition, and, despite their goodwill, were not easy to assimilate. If our party organisation in New York had been much larger, and predominantly proletarian in composition, the task would have been much easier. As it was, some of the new forces from the SP complicated the problem of proletarianising the party and contributed fresh recruits to the petty-bourgeois clique of Abern.

At the same time, thanks to our deliberate orientation toward trade union work, the party in other centres of the country was developing in a proletarian direction. Penetration into the trade unions was bringing into the party fresh elements of proletarian fighters; and the contrast between the proletarian centres and the New York organisation flared up in numerous skirmishes before it finally exploded in the present party crisis.

The approach of the war, with its forewarning of heavy difficulties and sacrifices for members of the party, brought with it a restlessness and dissatisfaction among many of the petty-bourgeois elements. These sentiments found authentic expression in a section of the leadership. They began to translate their own nervousness into exaggerated criticism of the party and demands upon it which could not be fulfilled in the circumstances. After the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact, the opposition became more articulate. It began to express itself in the form of a fight against our program and, eventually, in a revolt against the whole doctrine, tradition and method of Marxism and Bolshevism.

It would be utterly absurd, however, to characterise the party crisis as the result merely of political differences of opinion. We would not touch the core of the problem if we confined ourselves to a “political” characterisation of the fantastic proposals and flipflops of the opposition. Serious political struggles, such as these, are an expression of the struggle of classes; that is the only way to understand them. The leaders of the opposition, and a very large percentage of their followers, have shown that they are capable of changing their opinions on all fundamental questions of theory and politics overnight. This only demonstrates quite forcibly that their opinions in general are not to be taken too seriously.

The driving impulses behind the opposition as a whole are petty-bourgeois nervousness at the prospect of impending struggles, difficulties and sacrifices, and the unconscious desire to avoid them at all costs. For some, no doubt, the frenzied struggle against our program and our tradition is simply a device to mask a capitulatory desertion of the revolutionary movement in a cloud of dust and controversy. For others, their newly discovered “political position”, and their endless talk about it and around it are an unconscious rationalisation of the same inner compulsion. In such cases it is not sufficient to stop at a political characterisation of the outlandish propositions of the oppositionists. It is necessary to expose their class basis.

The present crisis in the party is no mere episode. It is not to be explained by simple differences of opinion such as have occurred at times in the past, and will always occur in a free and democratic party. The crisis is the direct reflection of alien class pressure upon the party. Under this pressure the bulk of the petty-bourgeois elements, and the petty-bourgeois leaders, lost their heads completely, while the proletarian sections of the party stand firm and rally around the program with a virtual unanimity.

From this we can and must draw certain conclusions:

1. It is not sufficient for the party to have a proletarian program; it also requires a proletarian composition. Otherwise the program can be turned into a scrap of paper overnight.

2. This crisis cannot be resolved simply by taking a vote at the convention and reaffirming the program by majority vote. The party must proceed from there to a real proletarianisation of its ranks. It must become obligatory for the petty-bourgeois members of the party to connect themselves in one way or another with the workers’ movement, and to reshape their activities and even their lives accordingly. Those who are incapable of doing this in a definite and limited period of time must be transferred to the rank of sympathisers.

We stand at a decisive stage in the evolution of American Trotskyism from a loosely organised propaganda circle and discussion club to a centralised and disciplined proletarian party rooted in the workers’ mass movement. This transformation is being forced rapidly under pressure of the approaching war. This is the real meaning of the present party struggle.

3. Their Method and Ours

In the light of these facts, which show the contending factions already drawn up into two camps defending antagonistic and irreconcilable programs and methods, what possible interest can a supporter of the program of the Fourth International and of Marxism in general have in a “regime” of the petty-bourgeois opposition, or vice versa? The whole approach to the question of the “regime” must be fundamentally different in each case, depending on the position taken on the question of the program. The aim of those who stand by our program can be only to correct the shortcomings of the regime, and to improve its functioning, in order to make it a more effective instrument of the program. The critics from the camp of the opposition, on the other hand, insofar as there is any sense or logic in their position, cannot have any real interest in our regime as such. Their fundamental aim is to substitute the present program by another program. For that they require not an improvement of the present regime, but its removal and replacement by another which will realise the revisionist program.

Thus it is clear that the question stands not organisationally in the first place, but politically. The political line is and must be the determining factor. It is and must be placed in the centre of discussion. We held to this method in spite of everything, even at the cost of losing the votes of comrades who are interested primarily in secondary questions, because only in that way is it possible to educate the party and consolidate a reliable base of support for the program.

What is the significance of the organisation question as such in a political party? Does it have an independent significance of its own on the same plane with political differences, or even standing above them? Very rarely. And then only transiently, for the political line breaks through and dominates the organisation question every time. This is one of the first ABC lessons of party politics, confirmed by all experience.

In his notorious document entitled “Science and Style”, Burnham writes: “The second central issue is the question of the regime in the Socialist Workers Party.” In reality the opposition tried from the beginning of the dispute to make the question of the “regime” the first issue; the basic cadres of the opposition were recruited precisely on this issue before the fundamental theoretical and political differences were fully revealed and developed.

This method of struggle is not new. The history of the revolutionary labour movement since the days of the First International is an uninterrupted chronicle of the attempts of petty-bourgeois groupings and tendencies of all kinds to recompense themselves for their theoretical and political weakness by furious attacks against the “organisational methods” of the Marxists. And under the heading of organisational methods, they included everything from the concept of revolutionary centralism up to routine matters of administration; and beyond that to the personal manners and methods of their principled opponents, which they invariably describe as “bad”, “harsh”, “tyrannical”, and—of course, of course, of course—“bureaucratic”. To this day any little group of anarchists will explain to you how the “authoritarian” Marx mistreated Bakunin.

The 11 year history of the Trotskyist movement in the United States is extremely rich in such experiences. The internal struggles and faction fights, in which the basic cadres of our movement were consolidated and educated, were, in part, always struggles against attempts to replace principled issues by organisational quarrels. The politically weak opponents resorted to this subterfuge every time.

This was the case from the first days. In the early years of our movement, from 1929 almost uninterruptedly up until 1933, Abern-Shachtman conducted a furious war of words against the “bureaucratic apparatus” of Cannon-Swabeck, which consisted at the time of one typewriter and no stenographer and no regularly paid functionary. The same hue and cry was raised by the faction of Abern-Muste against the Cannon-Shachtman “regime”. Then Shachtman, who writes with equal facility on either side of any question, defended the “regime”—the same regime—in an eloquently written and needless to say lengthy document.

In our battle with the centrist faction of Symes-Clement in the Socialist Party of California, the latter controlled the state committee and cheated and persecuted us by every possible bureaucratic trick, resorting finally to our expulsion; this did not stop them from protesting all the time against the “organisational methods” of Cannon. In the dispute over the Russian question, after our expulsion from the Socialist Party and preceding the formal constitution of the SWP, Burnham and Carter raised the organisation question against us in a special resolution inspired by the conception of Menshevism. Shachtman, who was on the Bolshevik side that season, collaborated with me in the drafting of a counterresolution on the organisation question and defended the “regime”.

In the present party conflict, the most fundamental of all, the question of the regime is again represented as a “central issue”. This time Shachtman is on the side of Burnham, attacking the regime which he defended yesterday and attacked the day before. The times changed, the attorney changed clients, but the war against “bureaucratism” in the most democratic party in the world is conducted in the same way and for the same ends as before. These “internal problems,” says Abern in his letter to Trotsky of February 16 [1940], “have never been resolved satisfactorily”. He should know. He has been conducting the war without cessation for 10 years—in the open when he could find prominent allies, by secret intrigues and sniping from ambush when he and his group stood alone. But he never yet got “satisfaction”. His numerous organisational combinations, for the sake of which he was always ready to sacrifice any principle, always collapsed at the critical moment. In each case, a new stratum of party members who had mistakenly followed him, learned an instructive if painful lesson in the superiority of principled Marxist politics over organisational combinationism.

All the experience of our rich past has shown that no matter what temporary successes an organisational combination may have in the beginning, in recruiting inexperienced comrades by fairy tales about the regime, the political line always breaks through in the end and conquers and subordinates the organisation question to its proper place. It is this absolute law of the political struggle that has frustrated and defeated Abern every time and left him and his clique isolated and discredited at the end of every struggle.

Abern and his intimate circle of petty-bourgeois gossipmongers never learned. But conscientious comrades whose inexperience and ignorance he exploited, who had no axe to grind, and who took his expositions of the organisation question for good coin, have learned. That is the great gain from the past struggles. Those comrades of our younger generation who have had bad experiences with the attempt, under the tutelage of Abern, to substitute the organisation question for the political line, and even to raise it to first place above the political line—it is precisely these comrades who are most immune to this kind of factional trickery in the present dispute. From their unfortunate experiences, and supplementary study, they have learned to brush aside the claptrap about the regime at the beginning of every dispute; they have learned to probe to the bottom of the political differences, and to take their positions accordingly.

The lengthy document of the opposition on the organisation question was not written for the informed and educated cadres of the party. It was written for the inexperienced and uninitiated. It was designed to catch them unawares and disorient them; to poison them with personal and factional animosity, and thus render them incapable of making an objective evaluation of the big political and theoretical disputes that underlie the conflict.

We, from the beginning of the present conflict, steadfastly refused to conduct the battle on this ground. We were determined at all costs to bring out the political and theoretical essence of the dispute. Many comrades objected to this strategy. They complained that inexperienced comrades were being disoriented by this story and that story, by one alleged grievance and another, and lined up in caucus formation before they had begun to seriously consider the political questions. In spite of that, instructed by the experience of the past, we stuck to our method. The subsequent development of the party discussion confirmed its correctness. The issues are pretty clear now. That is a great gain.

There is no doubt that quite a few comrades have been disoriented and won over to the opposition because, in the early stages of the discussion, we refused to be diverted from the fundamental political and theoretical struggle and allowed most of the gossip and chitchat about the “regime” to go unanswered. The opposition is welcome to the supporters gained by these means; this must be said in all seriousness and frankness.

We are living in serious times. We stand on the eve of grave events and great tests for our movement. People who can be disoriented and swept off their feet by rumours and gossip and unsupported accusations will not be very reliable soldiers in the hard days coming. The petty-bourgeoisie, after all, do everything on a small scale. The gossip and slander campaign of our opposition is not a drop in the bucket compared to the torrents of lies, misinformation and slander that will be poured over the heads of the revolutionary fighters in the coming days of the war crisis through the mighty propaganda mediums of the class enemy. And it is to be expected that for long periods of time we will be gagged and bound hand and foot and have no means of communication with each other. Only those who have thought out their principles and know how to hold to them firmly will be able to sustain themselves in such times. It is not difficult to foresee that those who succumbed already at the feeble anticipation of this campaign inside our own party can be engulfed by the first wave of the real campaign. Such comrades need not simply a reassurance about this or that fairy tale. They need a re-education in the principles and methods of Marxist politics. Only then will it be possible to rely upon them for the future battles.

4. The Organisation Question

As long as the real scope of the political and theoretical disputes remained undetermined the talk about the organisation question contributed, and could contribute, nothing but confusion. But, now that the fundamental political issues are fully clarified, now that the two camps have taken their position along fundamental lines, it is possible and perhaps feasible to take up the organisation question for discussion in its proper setting and in its proper place—as an important but subordinate issue; as an expression in organisational terms of the political differences, but not as a substitute for them.

The fundamental conflict between the proletarian and the petty-bourgeois tendencies expresses itself at every turn in questions of the party organisation. But involved in this secondary conflict are not little incidents, grievances, personal friction and similar small change which are a common feature in the life of every organisation. The dispute goes deeper. We are at war with Burnham and the Burnhamites over the fundamental question of the character of the party. Burnham, who is completely alien to the program and traditions of Bolshevism, is no less hostile to its “organisational methods”. He is much nearer in spirit to Souvarine and all the decadents, sceptics and renegades of Bolshevism than to the spirit of Lenin and his terrible “regime”.

Burnham is concerned first of all with “democratic guarantees” against degeneration of the party after the revolution. We are concerned first of all with building a party that will be capable of leading the revolution. Burnham’s conception of party democracy is that of a perpetual talking shop in which discussions go on forever and nothing is ever firmly decided. (See the resolution of the Cleveland Conference! [6]) Consider his “new” invention—a party with two different public organs defending two different and antagonistic programs! Like all the rest of Burnham’s independent ideas, that is simply a plagiarism from alien sources. It is not difficult to recognise in this brilliant scheme of party organisation a rehabilitation of Norman Thomas’ ill-fated “all-inclusive party”.

Our conception of the party is radically different. For us the party must be a combat organisation which leads a determined struggle for power. The Bolshevik party which leads the struggle for power needs not only internal democracy. It also requires an imperious centralism and an iron discipline in action. It requires a proletarian composition conforming to its proletarian program. The Bolshevik party cannot be led by dilettantes whose real interests and real lives are in another and alien world. It requires an active professional leadership, composed of individuals democratically selected and democratically controlled, who devote their entire lives to the party, and who find in the party and in its multiform activities in a proletarian environment, complete personal satisfaction.

For the proletarian revolutionist the party is the concentrated expression of his life purpose, and he is bound to it for life and death. He preaches and practices party patriotism, because he knows that his socialist ideal cannot be realised without the party. In his eyes the crime of crimes is disloyalty or irresponsibility toward the party. The proletarian revolutionist is proud of his party. He defends it before the world on all occasions. The proletarian revolutionist is a disciplined man, since the party cannot exist as a combat organisation without discipline. When he finds himself in the minority, he loyally submits to the decision of the party and carries out its decisions, while he awaits new events to verify the disputes or new opportunities to discuss them again.

The petty-bourgeois attitude toward the party, which Burnham represents, is the opposite of all this. The petty-bourgeois character of the opposition is shown in their attitude toward the party, their conception of the party, even in their method of complaining and whining about the “grievances”, as unfailingly as in their lightminded attitude toward our program, our doctrine and our tradition.

The petty-bourgeois intellectual, who wants to teach and guide the labour movement without participating in it, feels only loose ties to it and is always full of “grievances” against it. The moment his toes are stepped on, or he is rebuffed, he forgets all about the interests of the movement and remembers only that his feelings have been hurt; the revolution may be important, but the wounded vanity of a petty-bourgeois intellectual is more important. He is all for discipline when he is laying down the law to others, but as soon as he finds himself in a minority, he begins to deliver ultimatums and threats of split to the party majority.

The leaders of the opposition are running true to type. Having recited the whole dolorous catalogue of their petty and inconsequential and mostly imaginary grievances; having been repulsed by the proletarian majority in their attempt to revise the program; having been called in sociological and political terms by their right names—having “suffered” all these indignities—the leaders of the opposition are now attempting to revenge themselves upon the party majority by threats of split. That will not help them. It will not prevent us from characterising their revisionist improvisations, and showing that their attitude on the organisation question is not disconnected from their petty-bourgeois conceptions in general, but simply a secondary expression of them.

Organisation questions and organisational methods are not independent of political lines, but subordinate to them. As a rule, the organisational methods flow from the political line. Indeed, the whole significance of organisation is to realise a political program. In the final analysis there are no exceptions to this rule. It is not the organisation—the party or group—which creates the program; rather it is the program that creates the organisation, or conquers and utilises an existing one. Even those unprincipled groups and cliques which have no program or banner of their own, cannot fail to have a political program imposed upon them in the course of a struggle. We are now witnessing an illustration of the operation of this law in the case of those people in our party who entered into a combination to fight against the “regime” without having any clearly defined political program of differences with it.

In this they are only reproducing the invariable experience of their predecessors who put the cart before the horse, and formed factions to struggle for “power”, before they had any clear idea of what they would do with the power after they got it.

In the terminology of the Marxist movement, unprincipled cliques or groups which begin a struggle without a definite program have been characterised as political bandits. A classic example of such a group, from its beginning to its miserable end in the backwaters of American radicalism, is the group known as “Lovestoneites”. This group, which took its name from the characterless adventurer who has been its leader, poisoned and corrupted the American Communist movement for many years by its unprincipled and unscrupulous factional struggles, which were carried on to serve personal aims and personal ambitions, or to satisfy personal grievances. The Lovestoneites were able and talented people, but they had no definite principles. They knew only that they wanted to control the party “regime”. As with Abern, this question always occupied first place in their calculations; the “political” program of the moment was always adapted to their primary aim of “solving the organisation question satisfactorily”—that is, in their favour.

They were wild-eyed radicals and ultraleftists when Zinoviev was at the head of the Comintern. With the downfall of Zinoviev and the violent right swing of the Comintern under Bukharin, they became ardent Bukharinites as quickly and calmly as one changes his shirt. Due to an error in calculation, or a delay in information, they were behindhand in making the switch from Bukharin to Stalin and the frenzied leftism of the Third Period. To be sure, they tried to make up for their oversight by proposing the expulsion of Bukharin at the party convention they controlled in 1929. But this last demonstration of political flexibility in the service of rigid organisational aims came too late. Their tardiness cost them their heads.

Their politics was always determined for them by external pressure. At the time of their membership in the Communist Party it was the pressure of Moscow. With their formal expulsion from the Comintern a still weightier pressure began to bear down upon them, and they gradually adapted themselves to it. Today this miserable and isolated clique, petty-bourgeois to the core, is tossed about by bourgeois-democratic public opinion like a feather in the breeze. The Lovestoneites never had any independent program of their own. They were never able to develop one in the years since their separation from the official Communist Party. Today their paper, the Workers’ Age, is hardly distinguishable from a journal of left liberalism. A horrible example of the end result of unprincipled “organisational” politics. [7]

The most horrible case of all, with the most immeasurably tragic final consequences, is that of the “anti-Trotskyist” faction of the Russian Communist Party. It is unquestionable that the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev combination began its factional struggle against Trotsky without any clearly defined programmatic aim. And precisely because it had no program, it became the expression of alien class influences. The ultimate degeneration of the Stalinist faction into a helpless tool of imperialism and a murderous opponent of the true representatives of the Russian revolution is not, as our enemies say, the logical development of Bolshevism. It is rather the ultimate outcome of a departure from the Bolshevik-Marxist method of principled politics.

All proportions guarded, the degeneration of the Abern clique, from formal adherents to the program and doctrine of Marxism into factional supporters of revisionism, has followed the same pattern as the other examples cited. The present ideological and political hegemony of Burnham in the opposition bloc is the most striking proof of the political law that groups and cliques which have no program of their own become the instruments of the program of others. Burnham has a program of a sort. It is the program of struggle against the doctrine, the methods and the tradition of our movement. It was only natural, indeed it was inevitable, that those who combined with Burnham to fight against the “regime” should fall under the sway of his program. The speed with which Abern accomplished this transformation can be explained in part by the fact that he has had previous experience in ideological betrayal in the service of picayune organisational ends, and in part by the fact that the social pressure upon our party is much heavier today than ever before. This pressure accelerates all developments.

5. The Intellectuals and the Workers

The outspoken proletarian orientation of the majority is represented by Burnham as an expression of antagonism to “intellectuals” as such, and as an ignorant backwoods prejudice against education in general. In his major document, “The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism”, he writes: “Above all, an ‘anti-intellectual’ and ‘anti-intellectuals’ attitude is drummed into the minds of party members. The faction associates are taught, quite literally, to despise and scorn ‘intellectuals’ and ‘intellectualism’.” For reasons best known to themselves, Shachtman and Abern sign their names to this protest and take sides in a conflict where they have every right to proclaim neutrality.

The Workers’ Age, organ of the Lovestoneites, which is following our internal discussion with unconcealed sympathy for the opposition, enters the scuffle as an interested partisan. Commenting on a remark in my published speech, to the effect that worker elements engaged in the class struggle understand the Russian question better than the more educated scholastics, the Workers’ Age of March 9 says: “This is obviously aimed at Burnham, who has the ‘misfortune’ of being educated. What is this kind of slur but the old Stalinist demagogy contrasting the virtuous, clear-sighted ‘proletarian’ element to the wicked, confused ‘intellectual’? It is the same kind of rotten, unprincipled demagogy, make no mistake about it!”

Let us see. The question at issue is the attitude of proletarian revolutionists to educated members of the petty-bourgeois class who come over to the proletarian movement. This is an important question and deserves clarification. Burnham is indubitably an intellectual, as his academic training, profession and attainments testify. There is nothing wrong in that, as such, and we cannot have the slightest reason to reproach him for it. We are quite well aware, as Marx said, that “ignorance never did anybody any good”, and we have nothing in common with vulgar prejudices against “educated people” which are cultivated by rascally demagogues to serve their own ends. Lenin wrote to Gorky on this point: “Of course I was not dreaming of ‘persecuting the intelligentsia’ as the stupid little syndicalists do, or deny its necessity for the workers’ movement.” It is a slander on the Marxist wing of the party to attribute such sentiments to us. On the other hand, we are not unduly impressed by mere “learning” and still less by pretensions to it. We approach this question, as all questions, critically.

Our movement, the movement of scientific socialism, judges things and people from a class point of view. Our aim is the organisation of a vanguard party to lead the proletarian struggle for power and the reconstitution of society on socialist foundations. That is our “science”. We judge all people coming to us from another class by the extent of their real identification with our class, and the contributions they can make which aid the proletariat in its struggle against the capitalist class. That is the framework within which we objectively consider the problem of the intellectuals in the movement. If at least 99 out of every 100 intellectuals—to speak with the utmost “conservatism”—who approach the revolutionary labour movement turn out to be more of a problem than an asset it is not at all because of our prejudices against them, or because we do not treat them with proper consideration, but because they do not comply with the requirements which alone can make them useful to us in our struggle.

In the Communist Manifesto, in which the theory and program of scientific socialism was first formally promulgated, it was already pointed out that the disintegration of the ruling capitalist class precipitates sections of that class into the proletariat; and that others—a smaller section to be sure, and mainly individuals—cut themselves adrift from the decaying capitalist class and supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress. Marx and Engels themselves, the founders of the movement of scientific socialism, came to the proletariat from another class. The same thing is true of all the other great teachers of our movement, without exception.

Lenin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Luxemburg—none of them were proletarians in their social origin, but they came over to the proletariat and became the greatest of proletarian leaders. In order to do that, however, they had to desert their own class and join “the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands”. They made this transfer of class allegiance unconditionally and without any reservations. Only so could they become genuine representatives of their adopted class, and merge themselves completely with it, and eliminate every shadow of conflict between them and revolutionists of proletarian origin. There was and could be no “problem” in their case.

The conflict between the proletarian revolutionists and the petty-bourgeois intellectuals in our party, as in the labour movement generally in the whole world for generation after generation, does not at all arise from ignorant prejudices of the workers against them. It arises from the fact that they neither “cut themselves adrift” from the alien classes, as the Communist Manifesto specified, nor do they “join the revolutionary class”, in the full sense of the word. Unlike the great leaders mentioned above, who came over to the proletariat unconditionally and all the way, they hesitate halfway between the class alternatives. Their intelligence, and to a certain extent also their knowledge, impels them to revolt against the intellectual and spiritual stagnation of the parasitic ruling class whose system reeks with decay. On the other hand, their petty-bourgeois spirit holds them back from completely identifying themselves with the proletarian class and its vanguard party, and reshaping their entire lives in a new proletarian environment. Herein is the source of the “problem” of the intellectuals.

The revolutionary workers’ movement, conscious that it “holds the future in its hands”, is self-assured, imperious, exacting in the highest degree. It repels all flirtations and half-allegiances. It demands from everyone, especially from leaders, “all or nothing”. Not their “education”, as the Lovestoneite sympathisers of our party opposition maintain, brings the intellectuals into conflict with the proletarian cadres of the party, but their petty-bourgeois spirit, the miserable halfness, their absurd ambition to lead the revolutionary labour movement in their spare time.

It is not true that the advanced militant workers are hostile to education and prejudiced against educated people. Just the contrary. They have an exaggerated respect for every intellectual who approaches the movement and an exaggerated appreciation of every little service he renders. This was never demonstrated more convincingly than in the reception accorded to Burnham when he formally entered our movement, and in the extraordinary consideration that has been given to him all this time. He became a member of the National Committee without having served any apprenticeship in the class struggle. He was appointed one of the editors of our theoretical journal. All the recognition and the “honours” of a prominent leader of the party were freely accorded to him.

His scandalous attitude toward the responsibilities of leadership; his consistent refusal to devote himself to party work as a profession, not as an avocation; his haughty and contemptuous attitude toward his party co-workers; his disrespect for our tradition, and even for our international organisation and its leadership—all this and more was passed over in silence by the worker elements in the party, if by no means with approval. It was not until Burnham came out into the open in an attempt to overthrow our program that the worker elements of the party rose up against him and called him to order. His attempt now to represent this revolutionary action as an expression of ignorant prejudice against him because of his “learning” is only another, and most revealing, exhibition of his own petty-bourgeois spirit and petty-bourgeois contempt for the workers.

A proletarian party that is theoretically schooled in the scientific doctrines of Marxism cannot be intimidated by anybody, nor disoriented by a few unfortunate experiences. The fact that the learned Professor Burnham revealed himself as just another petty bourgeois may possibly engender a little more caution in regard to similar types in the future. But it will not change anything in the fundamental attitude of the workers’ vanguard toward the intellectuals from the bourgeois world who approach the movement in the future. Instructed by this experience it is possible that the next one who comes along will have to meet stiffer conditions. It is hardly likely that in the future anyone will be permitted to make pretensions to leadership unless he makes a clean break with his alien class environment and comes over to live in the labour movement. Mere visiting will not be encouraged.

The American movement has had very bad experience with intellectuals. Those who have appeared on its horizon up to date have been a pretty shabby crew. Adventurers, careerists, self-seekers, dilettantes, quitters-under-fire—that is the wretched picture of the parade of intellectuals through the American labour movement as painted by themselves. Daniel De Leon stands out as the great exception. He was not merely an intellectual. He was a man and a fighter, a partisan incapable of any divided allegiance. Once he had decided to come over to the proletarian class, the stale atmosphere of the bourgeois academic world became intolerable for him. He departed from the university, slamming the door behind him, and never once looked back. Thereafter, to the end of his life, he identified himself completely with the socialist movement and the struggle of the workers. Revolutionary workers of the present generation remember him with gratitude for that, without thereby overlooking his political errors. Other, and we hope, greater De Leons, will come to us in the future, and they will receive a wholehearted welcome from the party of the proletarian vanguard. They will not feel sensitive if we scrutinise their credentials and submit them to a certain apprenticeship. They will not be offended if we insist on an explicit understanding that their task is to interpret and apply the proletarian science of Marxism, not to palm off a bourgeois substitute for it. The new De Leons will readily understand that this preliminary examination is simply a precaution against the infiltration of intellectual phonies and does not signify, in any way whatever, a prejudice against intellectuals who really come to serve the proletarian cause.

The genuine Marxist intellectuals who come to us will understand the cardinal point of our doctrine, that socialism is not simply a “moral ideal”, as Burnham tries to instruct us in the year 1940—92 years after the Communist Manifesto —but the necessary outcome of an irreconcilable class struggle conducted by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. It is the workers who must make the revolution and it is workers who must compose the proletarian vanguard party. The function of the Marxist intellectual is to aid the workers in their struggle. He can do it constructively only by turning his back on the bourgeois world and joining the proletarian revolutionary camp, that is, by ceasing to be a petty bourgeois. On that basis the worker Bolsheviks and the Marxist intellectuals will get along very well together.


[4] Reprinted as an appendix to this volume.

[5] Reprinted as an appendix to Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism.

[6] The minority held a national conference in Cleveland on February 24-25, 1940. This conference declared that two politically irreconcilable tendencies existed in the party and that “the party must extend to whichever group is in the minority at the convention the right to publish a public political journal of its own defending the general program of the Fourth International [and which] would at the same time present in an objective manner the special position of its tendency on the disputed Russian question.” This demand was rejected by the party majority.

[7] Early in 1941, before the entry of the United States into the war, the Lovestoneite group held a meeting and adopted a resolution to the effect that the best thing they could do in the interest of socialism was to dissolve.