By James P. Cannon
6. The Case of Burnham
In the manner of all unreconstructed petty bourgeois, for whom personal considerations, and especially personal grievances, real or imaginary, weigh heavier than the problems of the party and the class, our oppositionists industriously circulate the accusation that we have been “persecuting” Burnham. It is told around that Cannon especially, who is the “embodiment” of all things evil in the party, cannot tolerate any smart people in the leadership and wanted to “drive Burnham out of the party”. There is no doubt that this cry gained some sympathy from the humanitarians in the party and netted some votes for the opposition. Others, unappreciated aspirants for leadership, saw in the “persecuted” Burnham a symbol of their own heartbreaking tragedy. All the insulted and injured rallied to his defence with instinctive solidarity.
Nevertheless, this grievance is entirely imaginary. Burnham never encountered any personal hostility from the proletarian wing of the party. On the contrary, as the record amply demonstrates, he has always been handled with silk gloves and given all kinds of liberties that were denied to others. His qualities and abilities were appreciated in the highest degree and every step that he made in our direction, that is, toward Bolshevism and complete integration into the party, was welcomed and encouraged. Far from trying to “drive Burnham out”, extraordinary efforts were made to draw him more completely into the party life. At the same time, the more experienced and discerning comrades understood very well that he was standing in an untenable position; that sooner or later he would have to make up his mind to come all the way with us or go back to the bourgeois world. The unavoidable decision, when it finally came, was of his own making.
In looking through my personal files the other day I ran across a letter from Comrade Dunne, addressed to me in California, November 21, 1936. This letter is convincing evidence of good will toward Burnham. Vincent wrote: “I have received from Comrade Burnham quite a long letter of very good criticism about The Organizer and the election campaign. I think that Jim does a very good job and it is especially gratifying to know that he follows so closely and is able to speak in terms that indicate he is developing very swiftly. I will send you a copy of his remarks, most of which I believe are quite valid. I think that his estimation of the effects of my candidacy and its relation to the tasks of the union in the election is not very well thought out, but one could not expect this of him, having had little or no experience in the mass movement.”
This letter strikingly illustrates the friendly attitude of the proletarian elements toward Burnham and the hopes entertained for his future development. At the same time it puts the finger very deftly on his weak spot—“no experience in the mass movement”—which, unfortunately, Burnham made no effort to remedy and which undoubtedly contributed very heavily toward his failure to assimilate himself into our movement. This letter shows that Dunne was willing to learn from the intellectual. Too bad it never occurred to Burnham that he might learn something from the leader of workers. Had he but known it, there was much he might have learned.
Comrade Dunne might have added another and even equally serious weakness in Burnham’s position: his lack of experience in the party. One cannot learn all that needs to be known about a party and its inner life and functioning on weekly visits to the meetings of the Political Committee; and one cannot be a serious leader of the party in his spare time. The pre-war social-democracy was a sprawling, slow-moving reformist organisation which proceeded on the theory that it had unlimited time to advance to socialism at a snail’s pace in a completely normal evolutionary process, uninterrupted by wars and revolutions. The leadership in the main corresponded to the character of the party. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, preachers, writers, professors—people of this kind who lived their real lives in another world and gave an evening, or at most two evenings, a week of their time to the socialist movement for the good of their souls—they were the outstanding leaders of the prewar Socialist Party.
They decided things. They laid down the law. They were the speakers on ceremonial occasions; they posed for their photographs and gave interviews to the newspapers. Between them and the proletarian Jimmy Higginses in the ranks there was an enormous gulf. As for the party functionaries, the people who devoted all their time to the daily work and routine of the party, they were simply regarded as flunkeys to be loaded with the disagreeable tasks, poorly paid and blamed if anything went wrong. A prejudice was cultivated against the professional party workers. The real honours and the decisive influence went to the leaders who had professional occupations outside the party and who, for the most part, lived typical petty-bourgeois lives which were far removed from the lives of the workers they were presumably “leading”.
When we organised the Communist Party in this country in 1919, under the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, we put a stop to all this nonsense. We had the opinion that leadership of the revolutionary movement was a serious matter, a profession in itself, and the highest and most honourable of all professions. We deemed it unworthy of the dignity of a revolutionary leader to waste his time on some piddling occupation in the bourgeois world and wrong for the party to permit it. We decreed that no one could be a member of the central committee of the party unless he was a full time party worker or willing to become such at the call of the party. I think we had the right idea in 1919. It is all the more right at the present hour of the historic clock when the organisation of the proletarian party on the highest possible basis of efficiency is the supreme problem of the revolution.
By and large there is no excuse for any exception to this rule unless the party itself, for reasons of its own, finds it advisable to have a prominent leader in this or that position outside the party to serve party ends. Naturally there are and have been and will be cases where the personal responsibilities of the individual cannot be provided for by the party, and he may have to seek an external occupation for economic reasons. That is the case right now with a great many party comrades who ought by right to be devoting their entire time to the party. But such situations have to be regarded as temporary expedients, to be cut short when the financial resources of the party improve.
It is only natural that a man of the outstanding talents and equipment of Burnham should play a leading role in the party. This was universally recognised. At the same time, it seems to me, it placed upon Burnham the obligation to put himself completely at the service of the party and make party work his profession. In the early days of our acquaintance with him I took it for granted that he had this end in view. Far from barring this road to him, I personally made numerous attempts to open it. I first broached the question to him in the summer of 1935. Even then he was highly critical of the administrative inefficiency of the Trotskyists; he even propounded the theory that this was an inherent weakness of Trotskyism. He was inclined to the opinion that our “regime”—which was then “embodied” by Shachtman and Cannon—was so preoccupied with political ideas and with the conviction that they would prevail in spite of everything, that the organisational and administrative machinery for realising the ideas was not given sufficient attention. (That was before Burnham discovered that Cannon has no political ideas and no interest in them.)
I proposed to him at that time, in the most friendly spirit, that he help us remedy the undoubted weakness. I proposed concretely that he make an end of the two-for-a-nickel business of instructing college students who have no intention of connecting themselves with the labour movement, and devote his energies and talents entirely to the party. After “thinking it over” for a day or so he rejected the proposal. The reason he gave was somewhat astounding: he said he was not fully convinced of the wisdom of devoting his life entirely to a cause which might not be victorious in his lifetime! Naturally, I could not give him any guarantees ...
After my return from California in the summer of 1937, when we were proceeding to form our party again after our expulsion from the SP, I again raised with Burnham the question of his taking the post of national secretary. Again I received a negative reply. In the preconvention discussion which preceded our foundation convention in Chicago a little more than two years ago, Burnham began to develop his revisionist theory on the Russian question. In addition he began to raise the “organisation question” in a manner that suggested a difference with us that was something far more profound than disagreement over this or that detail of our current work. In reality, his criticisms were directed not so much at the party regime as at the organisation conceptions and traditions of Bolshevism.
He began to express a great deal of concern over “democracy” after the revolution, somewhat in the manner of those democrats who identify Stalinism with Bolshevism. We were greatly disturbed by these manifestations. They seemed to indicate quite clearly that Burnham was moving not toward us, but in an opposite direction. Comrade Shachtman and I, who were working very closely together at that time, had jointly elaborated the organisational resolution against the resolution of Burnham. He and I had several personal conversations about these alarming symptoms of Burnham’s defection from the line of our movement. We had followed a deliberate course of minimising personal friction. This was not so easy in view of the haughty and provocative attitude of Burnham, but we did succeed in keeping personal antagonisms down to a minimum. In one conversation which we had with Burnham during this period, he made it quite clear that his apprehensions were directed at our orthodox Bolshevism on the organisation question, or at any rate at our interpretation of it. He expressed the opinion that we, as leaders of a future soviet, would be too ruthless in our suppression of opposition.
However, he was by no means sure of himself on these points. He was obviously going through a difficult period of scepticism and internal conflict which was undoubtedly aggravated, if not inspired, by a hopeless contradiction between his personal life and his position as a party leader. However, it appeared to us that his Souvarinist views about Bolshevism and Stalinism were not by any means fully formed. His revisionist views on the Russian question had not yet led to counterrevolutionary conclusions with regard to defencism or defeatism. We hoped that he would survive his personal crisis and find his way to Bolshevism. To facilitate that, as I said before, we did everything to maintain friendly personal relations, without making any concessions whatever in principle, either on the Russian question or the organisation question.
Shachtman and I worked hand in hand in this period, jointly defending the program of the Fourth International on the Russian question and jointly defending the “regime”. At that time, with the knowledge and participation of Shachtman, I wrote a letter about the question of Burnham to Comrade Crux [Trotsky]. I consider it necessary now to publish this letter. I think it will convince any objective comrade of at least two points: 1. That the conflict with Burnham, which has reached the present state of irreconcilability, was clearly foreshadowed more than two years ago; 2. That I personally wanted to do everything possible to maintain good relations with him and to preserve him for the revolutionary movement. Here I quote my letter to Comrade Crux in full:
100 Fifth Avenue
New York City
December 16, 1937
Dear Comrade Crux [Trotsky],
The trip to Minneapolis took two weeks out of my schedule at a very awkward time—the eve of the convention. Nevertheless, I think it was worthwhile. From all indications we succeeded, not only in frustrating the frame-up game of the Stalinists, but in dealing them a very heavy blow in the trade union movement, especially. In this case they counterposed themselves, not merely to the “Trotskyites” as a group, but to the organised labour movement of Minneapolis. The results were devastating for them. And I must admit we helped the natural process along.
Our comrades in Minneapolis were on the offensive all along the line. And it appears to me their position in the trade union movement is stronger than ever. Nationally, also, I think we came out of this skirmish victorious. The fact that Professor Dewey, in his radio speech, referred to the Minneapolis frame-up, is somewhat of an indication that our campaign recorded itself in the minds of a fairly wide circle of people who follow the developments in the labour movement.
I now hope to be able to concentrate all my time and attention on the preparations for the convention. I am completely optimistic about it. I know that the active membership throughout the country, especially those engaged in mass work, and they are by no means few in number, are looking to the convention with great expectations and enthusiasm.
We plan to orient the convention along the lines of our general perspectives and tasks, and our concrete work in the trade unions, putting the dispute over the Russian question in its proper proportions. The comrades in the field are up in arms at the perspective, indicated by the internal discussion bulletins, that the convention might resolve itself merely into a discussion of the Russian question.
It has been decided that I should make the trade union report with the objective of raising this question to first place in the convention deliberations. Our comrades engaged in trade union work are securing modest successes in an unexpected number of places. And it is in precisely these places where the party is going forward, drawing in new members, and where the spirit of revolutionary optimism prevails.
The general pessimism and spirit of defeatism, so strong now in the circles of intellectualistic and declassed radicals, affects our organisation primarily in New York. Here, it must be admitted, the social composition is not of the best, and that explains many things. As for the real workers, the harsh exigencies of the daily struggle do not permit them to speculate too much on the sad state of the world, and they have no place whither to retire.
I feel reasonably sure that the convention will be a success from the point of view of organising and stimulating our mass work, and pointing the whole activity of the party in this direction. At the same time, of course, we will not slur over the principled disputes. I have had several talks with Comrade Shachtman on this matter. We are fully agreed, and firmly resolved, to fight for a clear and unambiguous Bolshevik answer to every question. We hope at the same time to conduct this uncompromising fight in such a manner, and in such a tone, as to avoid any serious disruption of personal comradely relations. We can restrain ourselves in this respect to the utmost because we are assured of the firm support of the overwhelming majority of the party, and in particular of the worker Bolsheviks.
Regarding the suggestion that Comrade B. should be invited to visit you, both Max and I are of the opinion that this is totally excluded before the convention. In truth, I am very doubtful whether it will be feasible after the convention. We must wait and see the outcome of the convention.
I feel it my duty to write you in complete frankness about this matter, and I do so with full confidence that my remarks will remain with you and your immediate co-workers.
We do not want to do or say anything that would tend to sharpen personal relations. Both Max and I are going as far as possible to conciliate and smooth over everything, as long as it is not a matter of blurring principled lines. But that is just the nub of the matter. It appears to us that Comrade B. is undertaking to revolt from fundamental principles in general, and not only on the Russian question.
As the convention approaches, we come more and more into conflict over the conception of the party. The questions of democracy, centralism, irreconcilability, stubborn resistance against the infiltration of alien moods and theories, the necessity of a brutal offensive against the intellectualistic calamity howlers, defeatists, and bellyachers in general—on all these questions, which, in the present situation spell the meaning of Bolshevism, we come more and more into profound, if politely conducted dispute. In such a time as this, when we must take arms against the world of enemies and disintegrating factors, Comrade B. is greatly handicapped by his background, his environment, and his training. He has a strong character, and of his ability, I need not speak, but it seems to me, that the disputes arising from the Russian question, and now from other questions, are not primarily—or, better, not fundamentally—intellectual or theoretical.
Now, I must tell you, dear friend, that I think he is suffering from the intellectual soul sickness. Who can cure that? If he were completely identified with a group of worker Bolsheviks, and could be brought under the influence of their spirit in day to day struggle, one could have more hope. But there’s the rub. He does not really feel himself to be one of us. Party work, for him is not a vocation but an avocation. He is not in a position to travel the country, to take part in the action of our comrades in the field, to live with them, and learn from them, and come under their influence in his personal life. His social environment is entirely different. You know very well that the academic world of the real, as well as the pseudo intellectuals, is weighted down now with the heavy pessimism in general, and with a new scepticism about everything.
Without his really comprehending it, Comrade B. himself is affected by this pressure of his daily environment. Combine this with a great tendency on his part to deprecate his party co-workers, and to resist the idea of being influenced or taught anything, even by our international comrades, and you can see the problem doesn’t promise any easy solution.
I must say that I sensed for a long time the coming of this personal crisis—that is what it really is-of Comrade B. I know, as we all do, that the revolutionary party devours men, demands everything and repels flirtations. By all rights, now, Comrade B., having established himself as one of the most prominent leaders of the party, and bearing in mind the party’s indispensable need of a more active professional staff, should be preparing himself, at least, to become a functionary, with all that it implies. When I returned from California last spring, I had the hope that he would be ready for such a drastic decision. Indirectly, I suggested to him that with our break from the SP, he should take over the office of national secretary. His failure to react to this suggestion at that time, although there was then no trace of serious differences, filled me with misgivings for the future.
I have written you this extremely frank opinion because I think it is necessary for you to know the nature of the problem, as I see it. Perhaps on that basis you can make suggestions or proposals which will help both us and Comrade B. in finding a common language and a common path.
(signed) J.P. Cannon
From this letter it is evident that my opinion of the petty-bourgeois attitude of Burnham was not suddenly formulated at the outbreak of the present factional struggle. The “intellectual soul sickness”—that is the petty-bourgeois sickness.
But that is not yet the whole story. Shortly prior to the writing of the above letter I had occasion to be in Minneapolis (at the time of the Corcoran murder) as mentioned in the letter to Crux. There I had a discussion with a group of leading comrades about the disputes in the party and about the situation in the leading committee in New York. These comrades, whom the oppositionists now depict as ignorant intellectual-haters, emphasised very strongly to me in this discussion their desire that the dispute with Burnham be conducted in such a way as not to antagonise him unnecessarily, or to weaken unduly his position in the party. They made it clear that they valued his abilities very highly and wished assurances of comradely treatment for him that would facilitate his continued functioning as a party leader after the convention.
I assured them of my readiness to comply with their wishes in this respect. I expressed the opinion, however, that the real trouble with Burnham was not so much his mistaken political position as the more fundamental conflict between his bourgeois personal life and the increasingly exacting demands the party must make upon a leader. In such cases, I told them, I had frequently observed that people unconsciously seek to rationalise their personal difficulties and contradictions in the form of hastily arrived at “political differences” with the party. I said if we could feel sure that Burnham was really one of us, if he would show some sign of determination on his part to resolve his personal contradictions and come to work in the revolutionary movement in earnest—in that case we could have much more ground to hope that the political differences between us would eventually be overcome in the course of comradely discussion and common work.
Shortly after the convention Burnham requested that Shachtman and I meet him at lunch away from the office to discuss a very important matter. At this meeting he told us that a comrade, who had attended the Minneapolis discussion, had reported my remarks to him. He emphasised, however, that it had been done in good faith and with the best of intentions. I expressed my regret that the question had been put to him in such a point-blank fashion before he might be ready to give an answer. However, the fat was in the fire, and there was nothing to do but face the issue.
Burnham stated frankly that he wasn’t sure but that I might be right in my assumption that in his political disputes with us he was simply rationalising his personal contradictions. He said it was a real contradiction, that he recognised it, and that he was not yet ready to solve it definitively. Instead of plunging deeper into party work, he wanted more time to consider the matter, and wanted to be released for the next period from all party duties except his regular literary work. We discussed the matter in a friendly way; we didn’t give him any bureaucratic orders; we acceded to his demands.
The minutes of the Political Committee meeting for January 20, 1938 record the official disposition of the matter as follows:
Cannon: Reports that Comrade Burnham, in the next period, wants to concentrate his work for the party on writing for the magazine and paper.
Motion by Cannon: For the next period we consider Comrade Burnham’s work to be specifically literary and editorial and that he be exempted from routine subcommittee work. Carried.
If some worker in the party, who is denied exemption from distasteful duties, reads this extract from the minutes of the Political Committee he may indeed draw certain conclusions about the existence of “second class citizens” in the party. But he will not find any evidence that our foremost party intellectual was placed in this category. (Incidentally, it can be learned from this account that the famous “New Year’s meeting” on the auto campaign was not the only occasion when formal decisions of the PC were prepared beforehand in informal discussions. There were many such occasions and there will be many more in the future. It is the normal method of any serious “collective leadership”.
What changed since then? What happened to break off all personal and political collaboration and eventually bring us to the present situation? On my part, nothing changed; my course today is the same as it was then. Burnham moved steadily in an opposite direction. And Shachtman, soon after the conversation recorded above, began to shift over into the orbit of Burnham. We drifted apart and now stand in opposite camps. Burnham, as his article “Science and Style” testifies, has broken completely with Marxism and Bolshevism and the proletarian revolution. Shachtman, who yesterday defended Bolshevism against Burnham, today defends Burnham against Bolshevism. Let them try to explain these developments by references to the “bureaucratism” of Cannon and the machinations of a “clique”. These are simply excuses invented after the fact. All my efforts, as I believe I have demonstrated, were exerted toward a different end.
7. The Evil of Combinationism
The opposition is the worst and most disloyal of all types of factional formations in a revolutionary workers’ party: an unprincipled combination. Combinationism is the worst offence against the party because it cuts across the line of political principle; it aims at an organisational decision which leaves the political and principled disputes unclarified and undecided. Thus, insofar as the struggle is successful, it hampers the education of the party and prevents a solution of the dispute on a principled basis. Unprincipled combinationism is in every case the denotation of petty-bourgeois politics. It is the antithesis to the Marxist method of political struggle.
Marxists always begin with the program. They rally supporters around the program and educate them in its meaning in the process of the struggle. The political victories of the Marxists are always in the first place victories for their program. The organisational phase of the victory in every case, from the election of a definite slate of candidates in a party faction fight up to and including the seizure of power in an armed struggle, always has one and the same significance: to provide the means and the instrument for carrying out the political program. Marxist politics is principled politics. This explains, among other things, the homogeneity of the Marxist formation, regardless of whether it is a faction in a party on a small scale, or a full-fledged and fully developed party directly facing the parties of the class enemy. It is this homogeneity of the Marxist organisation which makes possible its firm discipline, its centralisation and its striking power.
Petty-bourgeois politics is always a hodge-podge. It never attains to a fully developed and consistent program. Every petty-bourgeois formation, whether faction or independent party, has this characteristic feature. It fights at best for partial aims, and slurs over contradictions and differences within its ranks in order to preserve formal unity. Petty-bourgeois groupings struggle, not in the name of great principles but for organisational objectives. To this end, they almost invariably unite people of different views and tendencies, and subordinate the clarification of their differences to success in the organisational struggle. This explains their lack of internal discipline, and their aversion to centralism which is incompatible with a heterogeneous political composition. This determines their tendency to fall apart in the course of a severe struggle, or soon after it, even though they may have gained a momentary organisational victory.
Petty-bourgeois politics is the politics of futility, of the debasement of theory, of the miseducation of the rank and file, of diversion from the primary and decisive questions—the questions of principle—to all sorts of considerations of a secondary order, including the struggle for organisational control. The present struggle between the proletarian and the petty-bourgeois tendencies in our party is a classic illustration of the contrast between principled political methods and unprincipled combinationism.
It was clearly established early in the discussion that the opposition represented a combination of at least three different political tendencies on the Russian question, with only one thing in common upon which they had agreement, namely, opposition to the “party regime”. The present factional struggle formally began at the party plenum last October over the Russian question; more precisely, over two aspects of one and the same question: the nature of the Soviet state and its defence. The “defencist”, Abern, voted for our motion, characterising the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state, and declaring for its unconditional defence against imperialism. The “defeatist”, Burnham, had already introduced a document into the Political Committee declaring: “It is impossible to regard the Soviet Union as a workers’ state in any sense whatsoever”, and denying it any defence whatever “in the present war”. As for the “doubtist”, Shachtman, he “abstained” from “raising at this time the problem of the class nature of the Soviet State”, and left the question of its defence to future developments.
To the basic theoretical question of the class nature of the Soviet Union, the criterion by which all Marxists determine their attitude toward a given state, and to the basic political question of its defence, the three leaders of the opposition each gave a different answer. That did not prevent them from forming a faction. Their inability to give a common answer as to the character of the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union did not prevent them from forming a common faction to fight against the “regime” in our party. In their eyes all questions are subordinate to this.
Combinationism violates the Marxist tradition so crudely that its practitioners always feel obliged to cover their operations by deceptions and denials. Our present combinationists follow this familiar routine. They quote the “statement” made by Abern at the plenum to explain his vote both for our precise motion and the ambiguous resolution of Shachtman:
With this basic evaluation I find no contradiction in the resolution of Shachtman which I accept in its essentials as an interpretation or analysis of specific current issues therein cited, not invalidating the basic party position. I am ready to leave to the next period the unfoldment or otherwise of the interpretations or implications asserted by some comrades here as to the “bridge” character of the Shachtman resolution, or whether it stands episodically by itself; and to make my judgments accordingly on the merits of any issue.
Thus they say, they “dispose in passing of the Cannonite contention that the minority is an 'unprincipled bloc’”. “In passing”, the statement proves the opposite. The sections of the statement which I have underlined make this clear. Shachtman’s ambiguous resolution was under fire from the majority at the plenum as a “ bridge ” to the defeatist position of Burnham. Abern’s statement was a reply to this criticism, an explanation that he understood Shachtman’s resolution as “ not invalidating the basic party position ” of “unconditional defence” for which he had voted, and a declaration that he would “leave to the next period” the “unfoldment or otherwise”—of what? The majority’s assertions “ as to the 'bridge’ character of the Shachtman resolution ”! It so “unfolded”, and not otherwise. Shachtman soon turned up, bag and baggage, in the defeatist camp of Burnham. And Abern—who was going to wait and see if Shachtman’s position was a “bridge”? He, the “unconditional defencist” of the October plenum, nonchalantly crossed the “bridge” to “unconditional defeatism”. And then he blandly asks, in his open letter to Trotsky: “What is wrong with that?”
To hold one political position and unite organisationally with people who hold a diametrically opposite position against others with whom one has declared fundamental agreement; and then, in a few months’ time, to reverse one’s original position; and then to maintain that nothing has happened—of course, there is nothing “wrong with that”. Nothing wrong, that is, if one is a cynical combinationist who has no respect for the party, and its Marxist tradition, and the intelligence of its members. But in the eyes of a Marxist it is a betrayal of principle—an unpardonable crime against the party.
There was a time when Shachtman knew how to characterise such conduct and to set forth, as he explained, “The established Marxian view on this question”. In the Internal Bulletin of the Workers Party, No. 3, Feb. 1936, in an article entitled “Marxist Politics or Unprincipled Combinationism” Shachtman wrote:
Finally, writing about the case of Mill, who had also made a “little organisational bloc”—just a temporary one!—with a group in the French Left Opposition which he had defined as non-Marxist, against another group which, although he called it Marxist, was charged by him with having bad “organisational methods”; Mill, who logically concluded this political practice by passing over to the Stalinists—Trotsky summarised the situation in a letter written October 13, 1932: “For Mill, principles are in general clearly of no importance; personal considerations, sympathies and antipathies determine his political conduct to a greater degree than principles and ideas. The fact that Mill could propose a bloc with a man whom he had defined as non-Marxist against comrades whom he had held to be Marxists, showed clearly that Mill was politically and morally unreliable and that he was incapable of keeping his loyalty to the flag. If he betrayed on that day on a small scale, he was capable of betraying tomorrow on a larger scale. That was the conclusion which every revolutionist should have drawn then ...”
Nothing need be added to that devastating paragraph. The lawyer’s arguments Shachtman is now employing to defend the methods he condemned in 1936 do not change the quality of the methods, or the Marxist appraisal of them, in any respect whatever. We will teach the party members to despise such methods and raise a political and moral barricade against them.
8. Abernism: the Case History of a Disease
Almost since the beginning of the Trotskyist movement in this country, more than 11 years ago, its normal development and functioning has been impeded by an internal disease which poisoned the bloodstream of the party organism. The name of this disease is Abernism. The characteristics of Abernism, as they have been consistently and uninterruptedly manifested for more than 10 years are: clique politics; ceaseless dissemination of gossip and complaints about the party regime; subordination of principled questions to organisational and personal considerations; unprincipled combinationism in every faction fight; and ideological treachery.
This internal malady has been always present and always harmful. In “normal” times when there were no open factional struggles, it lay dormant, sapping the vitality of the party. At every sharp turn, whenever serious political differences flared up in faction fights, the malady always immediately assumed an extremely virulent form, complicating the ideological struggles in the highest degree and pushing them to the brink of split.
The Abern group is a permanent family clique whose uninterrupted existence and perfidious practices are known to all the older members of the party. For more than 10 years it has waged a now open, now concealed, but never interrupted factional struggle against the party leadership. At one time or another in the past, most of the leading comrades have differed and formed temporary factional groupings in the struggle for conflicting political views. Upon the settlement of the disputes, peace was made and good collaboration resumed; the opponents quite often became the best of friends, bearing no grudges. But Abern, without a platform, without once bringing forward any independent political position, never became reconciled, never ceased his inexplicably consistent factional struggle.
In the present dispute Abern is only repeating his time-worn practices. He enters into an organisational combination; he trades off his position on the Russian question for a bloc against the regime; he poisons the atmosphere of the discussion; and now, as always before at every critical stage, he works deliberately in the direction of a split. In his letter to Comrade Trotsky, dated January 29, he announces his intention to “carry on this fight to the end”.
And by the end, he obviously means now what he has always meant in similar situations in the past, not a democratic decision by a majority of the party at a convention but a destructive split of the party ranks.
The indefensible record of Abern is written in the history of our party. The young comrades must know this history and not permit it to be slurred over. This knowledge will help them to avoid the treacherous pitfalls of clique politics and combinationism. Shachtman is very busy these days with the attempt to pass off the rich history of our past as a series of quarrels from which no lessons are to be derived. That is not true. We did not fight over trifles. Shachtman objects to references to the record of the past only because it speaks so damningly against his present course. He invents for the present factional struggle the myth of a “Cannon clique” as a super-clever ruse to ward off an examination of the record of a real clique whose indictment he himself wrote in documents which today retain their validity. If some comrades have been shocked and astounded by the nonchalance with which Abern, the “orthodox Marxist”, entered into a combination with the revisionist, Burnham, a review of the history of the party will show them that such actions on the part of Abern are nothing new. In his past struggles against the party leadership, Abern did not hesitate to combine with the sectarian, Oehler; with the non-Marxist, Muste; and even with Stalinist agents in the party. Abern in the present fight is only continuing a singularly consistent course.
The attempt of the opposition penmen to revise our history as well as our program is, so to speak, a “concession” to Abern, whose record as a clique-fighter and combinationist taints any faction he supports. But Shachtman and Burnham write too much and forget too soon what they have written. They themselves have characterised the Abern group as an unprincipled and disloyal clique; they have exposed and condemned its unprincipled combinationism; they have recorded its history. They want now to rule out all references to this history, especially to the documents which they themselves wrote, as of no pertinence to the present discussion. That is because they have not yet found anything in the “history” of Abern in our movement which is worthy of their defence.
We say, and we prove, that Abern is resorting in the present critical situation to the same practices and methods that he has always employed in previous party crises. They try to switch the issue by accusing us of raking up outlived political differences which have no bearing on the present dispute. No, that is not the case. We are not talking about the past political errors of Abern, although every time he ventured to give his “organisational struggle” against the party regime a political expression he committed nothing but errors. We are not talking about his opposition to the entry into the Socialist Party; or, further back, his attempt to obstruct the fusion with the Musteites; or, still further back, his ill-fated and hastily-ended ventures on the trade union question. We are not trying to connect these outlived struggles with the present life-and-death struggle on the Russian question.
Our specific references are to those features of Abern’s past conduct which have a direct relation to the present—his methods; his clique politics; his unprincipled combinationism; his betrayals of principle to serve factional ends. These are the practices he resorts to in the present struggle; these have been his invariable practices in the past. Consequently a review of the past in this respect is absolutely pertinent to the present struggle. That section of party membership which has gone through the past experiences knows this record very well. That is why Abernism is abhorred by the basic cadres of the party. The newer party members and the youth need to know this record, they need to understand its indissoluble connection with the present, in order that they may settle accounts definitively with this corrupting tendency at the forthcoming convention.
Since the very beginning of the present factional struggle Shachtman and Burnham have suffered from the most embarrassing contradiction, as a result of their combination with Abern. They could not defend the past record of the Abern group. On the other hand, they could not dispense with Abern since his group is the organisational backbone of the combination. They tried to solve the problem by denying the existence of the Abern clique altogether. The “Abern question”, says Shachtman, waving his wand—that is “spurious”—“that does not exist”. “Cannon knows what every informed party leader, and many members, know, namely, that for the past several years at least there has been no such thing as an 'Abern group’.”
That is good news, only it isn’t true, and nobody “knows” it better than Shachtman and Burnham. We shall prove it out of their own mouths. The existence of this clique, its nature and method of functioning, were established and recorded with deadly accuracy by none other than Burnham, not “several years” ago, but a bare three months before the beginning of the present faction fight. In a document submitted to the Political Committee of the party on June 13, 1939, Burnham wrote:
Some years ago Abern built up a following on primarily personal rather than political grounds. This has been kept alive and still lives, nourished by extensive personal and correspondence contact, mutual aid and protection in matters of party tasks and posts, by joint distribution of gossip and information including confidential information, and by enmity to Cannon. Whatever party posts Abern fills are always ably administered, but at the same time administered in such a way as to help the maintenance of his clique. [“Toward Brass Tacks.” My emphasis.]
What prompted Burnham to put in writing in an official document this devastating characterisation? What prompted him to establish with such precision the origin, methods, motivations and present existence of the Abern clique? He was simply recording as a matter of course a circumstance which “every informed party leader”, including Shachtman, “knows”. The fact that he did not look ahead a few months to the time when the opposition bloc would need the collaboration of Abern and find it necessary to deny the existence of his clique, and to denounce the very mention of it as “spurious”—that only testifies to the short-sightedness of Burnham. It does not in any way alter the facts he recorded.
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Shachtman practices deliberate fraud on the party when he tries now to deny these facts which none of us have ever been able to forget. They were always a constant source of irritation and disturbance in the party leadership, even in “normal” times, and a threat to its unity in every serious faction fight. The non-existent clique of Abern was the subject of repeated conversations in the leadership, particularly between this same Shachtman and Burnham—and Cannon. Burnham, more than once, characterised Abern as an incipient “American Stalin”, referring thereby to his unceasing intrigues, his disloyalty, his factionalism devoid of principled considerations, and his petty motivations, alien to the spirit of communism, of spite and “revenge”.
None of us who really knew Abern placed a very high estimation on his contributions to the leadership of the party. If we agreed to accept him as a member of the Political Committee, it was not for his political contributions; he never made a single one. Assuredly it was not because there was “no such thing” as an Abern group. On the contrary, it was precisely because we knew he represented a group that we accepted him into the Political Committee as a concession to this group, in an attempt to satisfy it and at the same time to disarm it by showing that we did not discriminate against defeated opponents. We accepted him in the Political Committee for another reason, not because we trusted him but because we wanted to have him in a place where we could watch him most carefully. Such are the facts of the matter, and nobody knows them better than Shachtman.
When we had matters of an extremely confidential nature to consider, not once and not twice, but repeatedly, we disposed of these matters informally without taking them before the official PC. We did not rely on Abern to respect the confidences of the PC. On more than one occasion when we slipped up on this precaution we had reason to regret our carelessness. Time and again confidential information was transmitted by Abern to the members of his clique—that is one of the privileges enjoyed by these persecuted “second class citizens” and then passed on to wider circles, sometimes into the hands of our enemies.
Equally fraudulent is Shachtman’s attempt to prove the non-existence of the Abern group by reference to the fact that the Political Committee elected after the Chicago convention “had on it four 'ex-Abernites’ out of a total of seven members, i.e., a majority!” The four “ex-Abernites” were Abern, Widick, McKinney and Gould. In the first place, there was no design to give them a majority; Widick was elected not as a member of the PC but as a candidate, nominated by Shachtman, as the minutes state, “for the reason that he would he able to serve as labour secretary until Farrell Dobbs could take up his duties”. Dobbs was elected as the regular member of the PC but was not able to serve for other reasons which prevented his coming to the centre. Goldman, proposed as first candidate, was likewise unable to come to New York at that time. In the second place, the selections for this PC were made on a functional rather than on a political basis. McKinney, at that time district organiser of New York, was considered necessary on the PC because of his functions. As for Gould, his selection was made by the National Committee of the YPSL. These facts from the record, omitted by Shachtman, are sufficient to show that there was no design to put a majority of ex-Abernites on the committee.
The circumstance that four Abernites eventually found their onto the committee, because of a selection by function and because of the inability of Dobbs or Goldman to come to the centre, and the fact that we raised no objection to this result, does not in any way prove the “non-existence” of the Abern clique. It only proves that they were not deprived of functions because of their past offences. Moreover, this somewhat accidental composition of the PC was deliberately accepted as a test of the individuals concerned; as an effort to break them away from their clique formations and associations by integrating them into the directing body of the party. For example, in the case of Widick, we felt by assigning him to trade union work, a field completely alien to the petty-bourgeois gossip circles of the Abern clique, the activity in this broader field could operate to cure him of his clique sickness and make a party man out of him.
Gould, as stated, came to the committee as a representative of the National Committee of the YPSL. But when Gould, during the Chicago convention, inquired as to our attitude toward him as national secretary of the YPSL, we gave him certain explicit conditions, laid down by Shachtman. At a meeting between the three of us Shachtman told Gould bluntly: “We are willing to support you if you are going to be a party man in the YPSL, but not if you are going to be an Abernite. We don’t want the YPSL to become a plaything of Abernite clique politics. We don’t want your work as leader of the YPSL to be regulated by the moods and subjective politics of Abern.” That is how much Shachtman really believed at the time of the Chicago convention that “there has been no such thing as an 'Abern group’”. Shachtman’s attempt to give a contrary impression in his “Open Letter to Trotsky” represents simply a deliberate perversion of the facts in order to deceive the party. Shachtman declared the Abern clique “dissolved” only when he needed it in its undissolved reality for purposes of a combination against the party regime.
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Shachtman writes on many subjects he doesn’t fully understand, but on the question of the Abern clique, its origin, its methods, its disloyalty and its standing threat to the unity of the party—on this subject he long ago qualified as an authority. And what he wrote yesterday on this subject, when he had no factional necessity to conceal the truth, is fully applicable today, for the Abern group has not changed in any respect whatever.
In February 1936, near the end of the protracted factional struggle over entry into the Socialist Party, when the opposition combination of Muste-Abern was threatening us with a split, Shachtman summed up the history of the struggle, and the history of the Trotskyist movement in America, in a mimeographed document of 70 single-spaced pages which occupied the space of two whole internal bulletins of the party. The burden of its contents is indicated by the title: “Marxist Politics or Unprincipled Combinationism?” From beginning to end it is a sustained polemic against the Abern clique. The purpose of the document, as stated in the introduction, was to educate the youth in the struggle against clique politics and unprincipled combinationism.
It is meant [wrote Shachtman] above all for the militant knowledge-hungry youth of our movement. In a sense it is dedicated to them ... The youth must be trained in the spirit of revolutionary Marxism, of principled politics. Through its blood stream must run a powerful resistance to the poison of clique politics, or subjectivism, of personal combinationism, of intrigue, of gossip. It must learn to cut through all the superficialities and reach down to the essence of every problem. It must learn to think politically, to be guided exclusively by political considerations, to argue out problems with themselves and with others on the basis of principles and to act always from motives of principle. [ Internal Bulletin of the Workers Party, No. 3, Feb. 1936, page 2.]
And when Shachtman wrote about clique politics then he was not referring to an imaginary clique of Cannon. He was fighting shoulder to shoulder with Cannon against a clique that existed in reality then as it exists now. Shachtman has never enlightened us as the precise origin of the so-called “Cannon clique”. On the origin of the Abern clique he gave much more definite information. He promised to prove and did prove that “it was formed in the dark of night without a political platform and without ever, in the two whole years of its existence, having drawn up a clear political platform; that its basis of existence is that of an unprincipled personal combination, of a clique that refuses to live down ancient and completely outlived personal and factional animosities; that its principle aim is to 'smash Cannon’ (and Shachtman, because of his association with the latter”. ( Idem, page 22.)
In reality, the clique he is speaking of was “formed in the dark of night” in the first days of the Left Opposition, not “two years,” but seven years before the above-quoted article of Shachtman was written. Shachtman postdates the origin of the Abern group to the time of his break with it. The Abern group is always being “broken up” by the defections of people who learn something from an unfortunate experience, and then immediately reconstituted with the basic core intact. Then it begins to draw in new recruits from the ranks of the inexperienced and the uninformed, who mistake gossip, personal grievances, and “organisation questions” for revolutionary politics.
What, according to Shachtman, were the recruiting methods of the clique? Then as now: “... It has not gained a single partisan by the methods of open honest ideological confrontation of its opponents. Its methods are different: It says one thing in letters, poisonous 'information notes’ sent out secretly by Abern but which they never dare put before the party publicly, and says another thing openly ...” (Page 61.)
What did the clique represent politically? The ever-dynamic Shachtman, who keeps a straight face while he signs with Abern joint indictments of the “conservatism” of Cannon, had this to say about the politics of the up-and-coming Abern and his group: “It represents political sterility, passivity, negativeness, timidity, fear of bold innovations—a species of conservative [Hear! Hear!] sectarianism.” (Page 61.)
Again: “If we were commanded to give a summary characterisation of the Abern-Weber faction, our formula would confine itself to two words that describe its political predisposition and its organisational methods: a conservative clique.” (Page 62.)
What does it represent? “It represents an unhealthy and sinister current in our blood stream—the stream of revolutionary Marxism, which bases itself on principled methods, which detests clique politics and personal combinationism. Its morals, its manners, its customs, its methods, make it an alien system in our movement.” (Page 63.)
In the above-cited document and in others issued in the faction fight at the time, Shachtman proved to the hilt that the unprincipled clique of Abern, blind to all goals except to “smash Cannon”, combined with the ultraleft Oehlerites, with Muste, and even with thinly disguised Stalinist agents in the party! Each of these combinations had a terrible aftermath. The Oehlerites broke with the party and the Fourth International and became bitter enemies. Undeterred by that, Abern, in combination with Muste, deliberately prepared to torpedo the party with another split. Faced, then as now, with the certain prospect of being in a minority at the convention, Abern steadfastly refused, then as now, to give the party any assurance that he would accept the decisions of the convention under the principle of democratic centralism. On the contrary, he moved forward with a deliberate plan to split our ranks at a most crucial turning point in our history, when we were gathering our forces for a complicated manoeuvre to break out of our isolation by entering the Socialist Party.
What was the motive of this perfidious program? What was the motive of his drive for split in the old fight of 1933, in the days of our isolation and stagnation, when a split of our meagre forces might very well have sounded the death knell of our young movement—a split that was only averted by the intervention of our international organisation and the break of Shachtman, Lewit and others away from Abern? What is the motive of the threat of a split in the American section of the Fourth International on the eve of the war and the historic opportunity and test of our movement?
These are the questions which began as unspoken thoughts in the minds of the experienced comrades of our party in the course of this discussion. As the struggle developed, and the perfidious program of Abern became more clearly revealed, the thought became a whisper, and the whisper is today becoming a shout! On guard for the unity of the party! On guard against sinister designs to disrupt our ranks at the most critical moment of our history!
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Why did not Abern carry out his plans for a split in 1936? For two very good reasons—both outside his control: 1. The faction was reduced to a small minority; 2. An anti-split tendency paralysed it from within.
Weber, who had been associated with Abern in the factional struggle, and whose personal influence had been a cover for him, drew back from the prospect of a split. He made a demonstrative break with the split program of Abern and Muste, and came out firmly for the unity of the party. An example for others in the present critical situation! An example of party loyalty which has not yet received its due acknowledgment. Weber was denounced by Abern and his circle as a “traitor”. To this day he is “socially ostracised” by the clique, because he demonstrated in the most critical and responsible situation that his highest loyalty was to the party. How shameful and criminal it is to denigrate Weber in order to cover Abern in references to that fight. “Weber did not play the least shabby role in the dispute of those years”, says the document of Burnham, Abern, Shachtman and Bern, entitled “The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism”. Monstrous perversion of history! Weber played the role of a party-loyal man and helped the party to frustrate the designs of those who would have split it. That action alone far outweighed the errors Weber committed in the faction struggle. Shachtman and Burnham so acknowledged it at that time. Their attempt to pronounce a different judgment now discredits them, not Weber.
How far one can travel on the path of betrayal by substituting combinationism for principled politics is not revealed for the first time by Abern’s present bloc with the anti-Marxist, anti-Soviet Burnham against the party and the Fourth International. I have said that in the faction fight of 1935-36 he not only combined with the ultraleftist Oehlerites and the Christian Socialist Muste against the “Cannon-Shachtman regime”, but that he included in his combination some political agents of Stalinism in the ranks of the Workers Party. And these were not hidden provocateurs such as may penetrate into any honest organisation or group without disclosing their political identity; there is no reason to doubt that we have such agents in our own ranks. Abern’s Stalinist allies in the Workers Party showed their political orientation repeatedly and consistently and over a long period of time. They were consistently fought by the loyal comrades in the Allentown branch and by the Cannon-Shachtman faction in the National Committee, and just as consistently covered and protected by the Abern-Muste caucus. They were kept in the caucus and even on its leading body.
The Muste-Abern-Stalinist combination went so far as to combine in the elections to the local Unemployed Leagues in Allentown with official representatives of the Stalinists against the members of their own party! Here is the way the situation was described in Bulletin No. 5 of the Cannon-Shachtman group in the Workers Party, issued under date of January 28, 1936:
The Musteite, Reich, who has been under criticism for the past year for his pro-Stalinist orientation, finally went so far as to boost a Stalinist meeting at which Mother Bloor and Budenz were to speak. This took place at a meeting of delegates of the Unemployed League of Allentown. The PC, upon investigation of the matter, came to the conclusion that the Allentown branch in merely censuring Reich, had taken entirely too mild an attitude toward such a crime. The PC ordered his suspension for three months, with the proviso that he should retain the right to vote on convention resolutions and convention delegates ... They decided to defy the decision of the PC ...
In the elections to the Lehigh County Executive Board of the Unemployed League, [the Muste-Abern] caucus decided to make a clean sweep of their party factional opponents. Three incumbents in office, supporters of our tendency, were taken off the slate for re-election and a slate of six Musteites to fill all six places involved in the election was passed by the Musteite majority of the branch, a majority at the meeting of 22 to 21. On appeal of the minority to the PC, it was decided to correct the slate, to let the three incumbents stand for re-election and to let the Musteite candidates for the other offices stand. This was a fair division corresponding to the actual relation of forces and also to the merits of the individual candidates. This decision was also flatly violated. The Musteites ran in the election against our comrades, and WITH THE AID OF THE STALINIST VOTES, defeated our comrades in the election ...
Reich and Hallet, the Stalinist agents at Allentown, together with Arnold Johnson, a member of the national leading group of the Abern-Muste caucus, were closely connected with Budenz, the ex-Musteite who had joined the Stalinist party. Naturally, they were driving with full force to split the party and destroy the possibility of a successful entry into the SP. The central aim of Stalinist provocateurs in the ranks of the Fourth International in all countries has always been to provoke demoralising splits at critical turning points. As we drew near the convention of the party, the Abern-Muste faction was reduced to a small minority and baulked in its split program by the party-unity stand of Weber and others. Thereupon the Stalinist agents, obviously acting under instructions, decided to show their colours. On the day our party convention opened the Stalinist allies of Abern—Johnson, Reich and Hallet—presented a joint letter of resignation, denouncing us as “counterrevolutionists “ and announcing that they were “joining” the Communist Party. This letter was published in the Daily Worker the next day.
It is impossible to describe the impression this turn of events made on the convention. What a disastrous outcome of combinationist politics! It is safe to say that never in the history of the revolutionary movement was a faction so discredited and disgraced as the combinationist faction of Abern-Muste at that convention. The catastrophic climax made an unforgettable impression on the minds of young comrades who were getting their first serious lessons in revolutionary politics. Not a few young comrades who had been trapped in the combinationist labyrinth began their re-education at that convention. They learned a profound lesson there. When great principles and political positions are involved in a party dispute nobody will ever catch them again with monkey-chatter about the “regime”.
Frustrated and beaten, his faction reduced to a demoralised handful, Abern “submitted” to the decisions of the convention under the principle of democratic centralism, not out of party loyalty but out of helplessness. Even in doing so, he made one final characteristic gesture of venomous spite. Weber, who had been one of the recognised leaders of the opposition, was denied a place on the slate of candidates to represent the minority in the new national committee. That was designed to “punish” him for putting party loyalty above the interests of the faction and coming out strongly for party unity. It goes without saying that the majority of the convention would not tolerate such a contemptible procedure. The majority withdrew one of its own candidates in Weber’s favour. That is the way all of us, Shachtman and Burnham included, appraised the “role” of Weber “in the dispute of those years” when everybody’s “role” was clear beyond any misunderstanding.
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That party convention in the early spring of 1936 settled the question of entry into the SP. The leadership and the great majority the party turned their attention to the new problems and new tasks. Muste forsook the bloc with Abern against Cannon in order to make a bloc with the Lord against another devil. Abern turned to the task of holding his clique together at all costs by his notorious correspondence-school method of “keeping the comrades informed” of all the most confidential matters of the leading committee.
This sordid business of unceasing intrigue and persistent disloyalty, continued after the convention, was known to all the informed comrades in leading circles and was recorded from time to time in correspondence between them. During an absence from the city a few weeks later on account of illness I received a letter from Burnham stating:
A letter received last night from Meyers contains the following: “We learned from -- that you are going to the ICL conference. We learned in the presence of non-members of our tendency that your trip is confidential within the political comm. She gives Abern as her authority for that information and some more besides.” A letter received at the same time from Kerry contains the following: “... Last night in the presence of several comrades and an outsider, Comrade -- stated that we had ceased to work for the Fourth International. I took exception to the statement and challenged her to produce evidence ... She stated that she had received information from a member of the pol. comm., that at a recent meeting of the pol. comm. this very question was discussed and resulted in a confirmation of her amazing contention. I flatly denied the truth of the contention, and said that I couldn’t and wouldn’t believe it. Thereupon she proceeded to produce a letter written by Abern and read the part upon which she based her contention. It was to the effect that there was to be a conference of the IS and that Jim Cannon was to attend this conference but the entire matter was to be kept very secret and confidential. That Comrade Trotsky was to participate in this conference and it was preparatory to a conference to be called by the ICL, etc ... She stated that the fact that our participation in this conference was to be secret, we had ceased to work for the Fourth Intern. Even to the point of affirming allegiance to the Second ...!
That is one incident out of dozens that are known to all the leading comrades. Burnham knew what he was talking about when he stated in the document submitted to the Political Committee last June that the Abern clique “has been kept alive and still lives”, among other things, “by joint distribution of gossip and information including confidential information”. On November 17, 1936, when Burnham was in sharp conflict with me over some questions of policy and procedure in the SP, but long before the idea of a bloc with Abern had yet dawned in his mind, he wrote to me in California: “We all know Abern’s perspective. As usual, he fights for his perspective with his clique methods, stirring up trouble, throwing monkey wrenches when no one is looking, fishing in the stirred up waters. We saw some of it in the first six weeks. The clamping down at our leading committee just before you left, and Muste’s defection slowed him up some. But he continues in his own way; reports come filtering in.”
In that same letter, before the clique of Abern had been miraculously dissolved and the “clique” of Cannon just as miraculously invented, he wrote about my methods of fighting for a position with which he disagreed: “Naturally, you do not fight for it nor carry it out as Abern does. You are no cliquist; you favour in your rough Irish fashion 'the Bolshevik fist’.” Naturally, Burnham’s opinion at that time of my roughness was somewhat exaggerated, as subsequent events showed. Indeed, my methods in those disputes were very mild, even pacifistic. But Burnham was 100% right when he said there was nothing “cliquist” about them. And that evaluation would be 100% correct today, or any other time.
The whole party remembers with gratitude and appreciation the magnificent work that was done by our comrades in the Trotsky Defence Committee in 1936-37. The success of the task required the collaboration not simply of all the members of our tendency, but of the Thomasite Socialists and, also, of a wide circle of unattached liberals and radicals. Tact and discretion and a broad policy were necessary; it would have been fatal to conduct this tremendous enterprise as a narrow “Trotskyist” faction affair. By and large, I think, these dangers were avoided without sacrificing too much in the political content of the committee’s work. But at one stage, during the absence of Novack and the illness of Morrow, Abern was placed temporarily in charge of the office. According to the testimony of all the comrades involved, he immediately converted the office into a factional headquarters, not of the Trotskyist faction as a whole, but of a faction of the Trotskyist faction. Morrow was compelled to return to the office before he had recovered from his illness on the demand of the conscientious office manager, Comrade Pearl Kluger.
Abern has always been completely blind to the interests of the party, and even to the larger interest of the general movement, when the interests of his own petty and contemptible clique were involved. It is such occurrences as the one which transpired in the Trotsky Defence Committee that Burnham had in mind when he said the posts that Abern fills are always “administered in such a way as to help in the maintenance of his clique”.
In the early summer of 1937 it became evident that our faction struggle in the Socialist Party was coming to a head. A highly confidential meeting of the leading committee of our faction was held to discuss our strategy and make our plans for the unavoidable and necessary split. A few days later Jack Altman had a complete report of this meeting, including its confidential aspects, what this one had said, what the other one had said, and what had finally been decided—all our “military” secrets. Altman published this report broadcast in the ranks of the Socialist Party, and it caused us no little embarrassment and damage. The report of our confidential meeting, which Altman published, consisted of a letter written by Abern to a factional associate in another city who was not even a member of the National Committee and who had no right whatever to the information that was withheld from other comrades for the time being, for obvious reasons. According to Abern, the letter went astray in the mails and fell into Altman’s hands.
Needless to say, this betrayal of confidence, on top of all the experience that had gone before, aroused the greatest indignation in the leading circles of our party. Drastic action against Abern was seriously contemplated. Indignation mounted still higher a short time later when it was discovered that a highly confidential letter dealing with our strategy in the split struggle with the SP bureaucrats, a letter meant only for the small directing group of our faction, was made known to individual members of the party and discussed throughout the party ranks in New York. We went so far on that occasion as to appoint a control commission (Cannon and Shachtman!) to investigate the leak. The control commission established by the unimpeachable testimony of comrades that Abern had made the contents of this letter known to them. If we did not take drastic disciplinary action against Abern at that time it was only because we were in the very thick of a desperate struggle with the SP centrists, and, whether wisely or not, deemed it best to pass over an act of disloyalty once again in order to concentrate all energy and attention on the struggle against the centrist enemy. Besides, our terrible “regime” never punished anybody for anything, and for some incomprehensible soft-headed reason did not want to spoil its record.
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In “The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism” we are presented with a touching picture of a reformed and purified cliquist who, “during the past three years”, has not only ceased to make trouble in the party on his own account, but has even played the part of a benevolent policeman settling the disputes instigated by others. “As a matter of fact, Abern, who with Weber led the fight against entry, has during the past three years up to the outbreak of the present dispute, gone to the most extreme lengths to avoid all disputes and to quiet them when they arose.”
The truth is simply that the Abern clique was so discredited by its past performances that it did not dare to conduct any struggles in the open. The Abern clique has never had a political platform and has never in its 10 year history undertaken to conduct an open struggle without influential allies to furnish the political program and the “face”. Originally it had Shachtman, then Muste and Spector, and now Burnham—and Shachtman again. Between times the clique keeps under cover, peddles its gossip, mutters grievances and complaints about the regime, disorients young and inexperienced comrades—and lays in wait for the outbreak of a conflict among the influential leaders. Thereupon it seeks to peddle its support for the political program of the opposition—any program—in return for a combination on the “organisation question”.
When this opportunity is lacking, the Abern group, like a Balkan state, “avoids disputes”, not from good will, but from helplessness and fear to stand on its own feet. The entire history of our movement, not merely “the past three years”, has shown that the Abern clique, the Balkan state of the party, keeps under cover when there is peace in the party, but is always ready for war the moment it can find a powerful ally to “guarantee its borders” and even open up the prospect of a little extension of “territory”.
Clique politics and combinationism and the Abern group which represents and symbolises these odious practices are indeed, as Shachtman wrote in 1936, “a sinister current in the bloodstream of the party”. They contribute not to the education but to the corruption of the party. The party must cure itself of this disease in order for it to live and go forward to the accomplishment of its great tasks. The attempt of the opposition combination to slur over the record of the Abern clique has made necessary this extensive account of its real history, compounded from beginning to end of unassailable and irrefutable facts. The Abern clique, like all cliques, thrives in the dark. It was necessary to drag it out into the light of day and show the party what it is and what it has always been. The threat of split in the present situation, to which the perfidious group of Abern has contributed in the highest degree, is a final warning to the party: clique politics and combinationism cannot be tolerated any longer! In order for the party to live, clique politics and combinationism must be destroyed. The forthcoming convention of the party is confronted by this unpostponable task.