By James P. Cannon
9. The Question of the Party Regime
In this section, I intend to discuss the question of the party “regime” and to take up the arguments and accusations contained in that fantastic Winchellised document called “The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism”. I should remark at the outset, in justice to Winchell, that he gained his outstanding reputation as a gossip by a more or less careful attitude toward the accuracy of the tidbits he retailed. The gossip column of the opposition lacks this distinction. I picked it up for a critical reading, pencil in hand, with the intention of marking the outstanding points. I soon put the pencil aside, for I found myself marking almost every line of every page.
In the entire document of approximately 25,000 words there is not a single honest paragraph. Those incidents which are reported accurately are only half told. Those which are reported fully and correctly are misunderstood. Suspicions and prejudices are dished up as statements of fact, and spiced by not a few direct falsehoods. Everything that happened over the period they report is tendentiously distorted and misinterpreted. And the most important facts and incidents are passed over in silence. The whole concoction is dishonest from beginning to end—a typical product of that petty-bourgeois politiciandom which counterposes falsifications, petty complaints, personal accusations and morsels of gossip to principled arguments.
Bolshevism has not been the only honest political movement of modern times merely because of the superior moral quality of the Bolsheviks—their moral superiority is incontestable—but because, as the only authentic Marxists of our time, they alone correctly interpret and defend the immediate and historical interests of the workers in their struggle for emancipation. There is no contradiction between the theories and politics of the Bolsheviks and the interests of the workers and of their vanguard party. They can tell the truth—the whole truth. They have no need for the lies and falsifications, the half-truths, distortions and subterfuges which are the stock in trade of petty-bourgeois politicians of all kinds.
Reversing the political method of the Marxists, who always put the political questions first and subordinate the organisation questions to them, our petty-bourgeois opposition, like every other petty-bourgeois group, has devoted the main burden of its arguments to a criticism of the party regime, that is, the leadership and its “method” of leading the party. It was this question and not the Russian question which united the leadership of the bloc, and it is indubitable that the bulk of their supporters—who are predominantly petty-bourgeois elements without much political experience—were recruited for the faction by arguments centering around the questions of the regime.
Such questions, in the best case, are secondary in importance to the theoretical and political issues in dispute and had to be subordinated to them in the discussion. It would have been absurd for us, in the early stages of the discussion, to take time out to answer these trivia. However, now that the fundamental questions have been sufficiently clarified, it is timely to take up the secondary questions for consideration and to give to the oppositionist critics the reply they have so insistently demanded. In this field also, there is something to be learned; first, about the facts as against the fiction; second, about the important points of difference as against the trivial incidents that are piled mountain high; and third, about the intimate connection between the disagreements on these points and our conflict with the opposition bloc on the fundamental questions.
If we sift out the great mass of material in the documents of the opposition devoted to the regime, attempt to classify the various complaints and grievances and criticisms and put each in its appropriate pile, we eventually break down the indictment of the party regime into the following main divisions.
1. The regime (the leadership) is conservative in its politics.
2. It is bureaucratic in its methods.
3. The present leading group (the majority of the National Committee) is in reality dominated by a “clique” which stands above the committee and rules the party in an irregular and unconstitutional manner.
4. The “clique”, however, has a “leader cult” and is itself dominated by a single person, the others being merely “hand raisers”.
5. The single person who stands above the “clique” and above the committee, and who exercises a “one-man leadership” in the party, is Cannon.
They place me in midair on the apex of a nonexistent pyramid. The first necessity is to get down to earth. From that more solid point of vantage it is not difficult to answer all the most important points of the indictment and to explain the situation in the party leadership in terms of reality. If, in doing so, I must undertake the not very pleasant task of speaking a great deal about myself and the part I have played or failed to play in the making of party history, the party comrades must understand that I do so only because the question has been posed in this personal way. I will not evade even the personal accusations or leave them unanswered. We have no reason to evade anything because all the truth and all the right is on our side. Our mistakes and our shortcomings, which are plentiful enough, are barely touched by the criticisms of the opposition. Their attack is directed at our merits, not our faults.
The main criticisms cover the whole period since the Chicago convention, more than two years ago. On the theory or assumption that all was bad they assign responsibility for everything that was done or not done to the present majority of the National Committee, or as they call it, “the Cannon regime”. But nobody has been able to discover any great difference between the methods of the party regime of the past couple of years or so and all the years that preceded them since the beginning of our movement. The oppositionists do not attempt to make any such distinction. It is the record as a whole that is under attack. The question of the regime, says Abern in his letter to Trotsky, “ has never been resolved satisfactorily during all these years ”. And Johnson, the lyrical historian of our movement, who has seen nothing and knows everything, writes: “For 10 years the leadership has been Cannon’s.” (If Johnson, as it may be assumed, is referring to the entire history of the Fourth Internationalist movement in America, it should be pointed out that it began not 10 years ago, but 11 and one-half years ago.)
Since I am far from repudiating the record of these past 11 and one-half years; since I consider it on the whole good, not bad; since, to speak frankly, I believe that our party, modelled on the Russian Bolshevik Party, has been built more firmly and stands nearer than any other to the pattern of its great prototype—“it is the second party in history which has built itself on Bolshevik lines”, says the ineffable Johnson—since I hold these opinions of our 11 and one-half years’ work and achievements, I have no reason whatever to disclaim any part of the responsibility that can rightfully be assigned to me. But it is historically inaccurate, and prejudicial to a real understanding of the present fight in the party leadership, which has its roots in the past, to assign all the credit, or, if you please, all the blame, to me. Many people contributed to the building of the party. No party in history was ever more democratic, more exempt from apparatus compulsion or restrictions of any kind, than ours. In this free democratic atmosphere our movement developed as a social organism in which many different forces, tendencies and individuals had the fullest opportunity to reveal their real qualities, and to make their contributions to the development of the party and the shaping of its leading cadre.
But our party, no more than any other, could escape the influence and pressure of its hostile class environment. From the beginning of our movement this pressure has been expressed to one degree or another in the struggle of tendencies within the party. Our party has not been a homogeneous Bolshevik party, as the superficial Johnson implies, but an organisation struggling to attain to the standard of Bolshevism, and beset all the time by internal contradictions. The present internal struggle is simply the climactic paroxysm of this long internal struggle of antipathetic tendencies.
The leadership of the party (the regime) has never, since the beginning, been monopolised by a single person or even by a single tendency. In times of open factional struggle the majority has always depended upon the minority to one degree or another and been compelled to share responsibilities with it. In times of party peace the central leadership rested not upon a single person but upon a grouping of individuals of different types with points both of agreement and of conflict among them. An equilibrium in this leading group, never too stable, was continuously propped up by the device of mutual compromises and concessions.
The party “regime” since the Chicago convention—more correctly, since 1935—has not been represented by a single harmonious and homogeneous group, but rather by an unstable coalition. This coalition held together, despite considerable internal friction, in the absence of fully matured political differences. It fell apart only when the inherent tendencies of its different component parts were compelled to reveal themselves under the pressure of the approaching war crisis. The friction, the instability, and the disagreements and conflicts only occasionally broke out into open struggle, and were far more often adjusted by mutual compromises and concessions. This situation the opposition leaders now try to explain retroactively as the result of the machinations of a secret “clique”. In reality, all this simply testifies, on the one hand to the lack of homogeneity in the leading committee; and on the other hand, to the fact that the fundamental differences in general orientation had not yet been definitively established. It required the pressure of the crisis engendered by the approaching war to reveal with full clarity the political physiognomy of the groups and the individuals in the coalition leadership. This is shown in the gradual, long-drawn-out development of the conflict before it exploded in the open in the present faction fight.
It is precisely in times of crisis that the real character of a leader shows itself most clearly. But these inner qualities of the individual are often adumbrated beforehand, and are usually observed by those who are in a position to see things in a close view as they develop from day to day over a long period of time. This has been the case with the representatives of the two camps involved in the present struggle, and it has not taken us by surprise. The leaders of the two camps did not come to their present positions by accident. Neither did the two antagonistic tendencies in the party ranks—the proletarian and the petty-bourgeois—rally around the contending factions in the party leadership without a deep instinctive feeling that this was for them in each case the necessary alignment. The polarisation in the leadership produced almost immediately a similar polarisation in the party ranks. Each faction in the now divided leadership attracted to itself those elements whose inner tendencies they most truly represent.
The leadership which has now fallen apart into factions can properly be said to have been consolidated in the struggle against the Muste-Abern combination and the sectarian Oehlerites. It took over the direction of the party at the convention in the spring of 1936. During the entire period of our work in the Socialist Party, that is, for a whole year, I was, as is known, absent from the centre, in California. The administration and political direction of our faction in the SP was in the hands of the present minority, primarily of Burnham and Shachtman. True, I attempted to participate in this direction by correspondence, but without much success. It was during this period that the leaders of the present opposition first showed to me their abominable and intolerable bureaucratic conception of leadership as a function that belongs exclusively to the people in the office at the centre. My criticisms and proposals “from the field” got scant consideration.
My stay in California, my personal relations with the comrades there, and my collaboration with them in fruitful political and propagandistic work and in trade union activity, will always remain a happy memory. At the same time, I must say, my futile attempts to participate by correspondence in the work of the New York centre; my inability to get from them the slightest sign of understanding, or consideration or comradely aid for the heavy tasks we were undertaking in California; their callous and stupid bureaucratic disregard of our local opportunities, problems and difficulties; their narrow-minded, suspicious, office-leaders’ hostility to the launching of Labor Action; their mean-spirited sabotage of this enterprise, and their attempt even to construe it as a “manoeuvre” against them—all that stands out as perhaps the most infuriating experience of all my activity in the revolutionary movement. I cannot think of it even to this day without bitter resentment.
“Go fight City Hall!”—says the New York push-cart peddler with ironic despair when he means to say: “It is hopeless; you can’t get justice or even a hearing from the office-proud officials there.” The people who were running things in the New York centre in those days taught me an unforgettable lesson in how not to lead the activities of field workers from the office. I understand how the comrades of our auto fraction felt when they encountered the same attitude from “the office”. I know their white-hot anger, because I, myself, have lived it. Down with office leadership! To hell with office leadership! You can never build a proletarian movement from an office!
The great bulk, though not all, of the concrete criticisms of the opposition are directed at the “regime” which was formally constituted at the Chicago convention [December 1937-January 1938] and which continued in office up till the second convention last July. Very well, whose regime was it?
This not unimportant question must have occurred to the opposition leaders when they finished writing their indictment. After painting in endless pages of denigration a horrific picture of party weakness, sickness and failure, and assigning all the responsibility to the “party regime”, and thereby to “Cannon”, they suddenly and unexpectedly reminded themselves that the picture must be a bit one-sided. They tacked on a parenthetical remark: “In closing: We do not blame Cannon for all the ills of the party.” Naturally, I appreciate this generous gesture “in closing”. But the real picture will be still clearer, it will be a more accurate representation of reality, if a few concrete details are added.
The Political Committee which was responsible for the direction of the party during that entire period consisted of six members of the present opposition—plus Cannon. The other members were Burnham, Shachtman, Abern, Widick, McKinney, Gould. Does the history of the international labour movement offer anywhere a more bizarre performance than six out of seven members of a decisive committee—all of them “leaders” by their own admission—complaining about the committee’s methods of operation and blaming the seventh member? What were the noble six doing when the seventh member was leading the party astray? Did Cannon have more than one vote? Was anything ever decided, or could anything be decided without their agreement? Were any decisions made, any statements issued, any political directives given, anybody expelled, without their vote? Was anybody, anywhere, at any time, appointed or removed from the terrible “apparatus” without their sanction? Let them wriggle all they will, they can’t get away from the fact that the PC, the “regime” about which they are complaining, was their PC—plus Cannon.
Moreover, at least a good one-third of the time I was absent from New York, on trips to the field or abroad. Perhaps during those intervals, the six Trilbies, free from the influence of any Svengali, introduced radical improvements in the functioning of the committee, substituted “progressive” politics for “conservatism” and eliminated bureaucratic practices? No, those were just the times when things really went to hell on a bicycle.
On one of these occasions the emancipated PC interpreted our labour party policy in New York to mean that we could support candidates of the American Labor Party regardless of their endorsement by capitalist parties. The PC minutes of September 23, 1938 read: “We give specific critical support to all independent candidates of the ALP, irrespective of whether such candidates have also received endorsement by any other parties or groups. Carried.” This policy, fathered by Burnham, would have obligated us to support LaGuardia, an enrolled member of the American Labor Party, justified the Thomas-Altman socialists in our big fight and split with them over precisely this issue, and deflected the party from the class line of supporting the Labor Party only as an expression of independent class politics. This absolutely untenable position was changed on my initiative, with the support of Shachtman, after our return from the World Congress.
On another occasion, during my absence in Europe, they produced the monstrosity of the auto crisis, an incident unique in the entire history of our movement, insofar as it combined political ineptitude with bureaucratic procedure, each in the highest degree imaginable.
The debacle of the auto crisis sealed the doom of the committee. Burnham and Shachtman attempted to compensate themselves for the wounds inflicted upon their vanity by the auto fraction by working up an intrigue against me; they began to mutter for the first time about a “Cannon clique” whose members had no “respect” for the PC. The committee as a whole fell into a state of permanent paralysis, lost its authority, and no longer had a justification or a right to existence. The coup de grace administered to it by the post-convention plenum was indeed a “stroke of mercy”.
The record shows that the present majority of the National Committee was not solely, nor even primarily, responsible for the party regime from the Chicago convention to the July convention in New York. That is true also of the interim Political Committee which existed between the July convention and the October plenum. The majority of the members of this committee also belonged to the present minority. It was only at the October plenum, when the fundamental dispute over the Russian question was brought to the fore, that the Political Committee was reorganised and the present majority of the National Committee took full responsibility for its composition.
It is established that during the whole period from the Chicago convention to the plenum last October the present minority constituted a majority in the directing body of the party. Surely this little detail must be taken into account in evaluating the criticisms which have been directed against the party regime. To be sure, the members of the majority, and I personally, bear part of the responsibility. To the extent that the present minority, or a part of them, supported our propositions and our methods, or we theirs, we bear the full responsibility and do not in any way disavow it. Nobody led us astray. The individual members of the present minority may disclaim responsibility for their actions and repudiate themselves as much as they please. As for us, we repudiate nothing that was done with our participation and approval.
The attempt of Burnham, the exponent of “experimental politics” to define the party regime as conservative, and to elevate the question of conservatism to a political principle, contributes only confusion to the party discussion. Different meanings can be given to this word, not all of them derogatory in certain situations. The substitution of such general terms, devoid of class content and class political meaning, for the precise terminology of Marxism in describing groups and tendencies, and their class basis and characteristics, cannot help to clarify the disputes and educate the party. To be conservative, that is, to stand still when there are good opportunities to go forward, is undoubtedly a fault. On the other hand, to stand one’s ground when others are retreating is a virtue not to be despised. This kind of “conservatism”, which we show in standing firmly on the basic principles of Marxism and the program of the Fourth International, while others are running away from them, has been very aptly characterised as necessary for the preservation of the party.
If conservatism is to be defined as meaning a tendency to routine, sluggishness, slowness in perceiving opportunities to move forward and hesitation in grasping these opportunities—in this sense it cannot be denied that our movement as a whole, and the “regime” along with it, has been by no means free from sin. Such tendencies are immanent in every group which has a “sectarian” origin and is compelled by circumstances to live a long time in isolation. Many sections of the Fourth International fell victim to this sickness to such a degree as to bring about their disintegration.
The tendency is very strong in all isolated groups to console themselves with the monotonous repetition of adherence to great principles without seeking ways and means and new opportunities to apply them. It expressed itself in full flower in our international movement as a whole, and also in the American section, in the resistance of the sectarian groupings to the famous “French turn” and the general orientation from a propaganda circle to mass work.
Conservatism, of a sort, expressed itself in the tendency, to which we all more or less succumbed in the hard years of isolation, to routine, lackadaisical procedure, over-caution, and an inclination to be satisfied with extremely modest accomplishments. There is no doubt that the present majority also is subject to justified criticism on this score. I personally do not believe that we could have changed anything fundamentally in the position of our party, and in the relation of forces between it and its rivals, by any amount of hustling and bustling in this past 11 and one-half years. I do believe that if we had displayed more energy, more initiative, more daring, we could be perhaps twice as strong numerically as we are today and in a better position for further advancement. We must frankly acknowledge these defects and strive to overcome them. I doubt, however, that our minority can help us. What we need is not so much the wisdom of precept as the inspiration of example. That is always their weak point. They are far better talkers than doers. Unlike Lenin’s Bolsheviks, they do not match the word with the deed.
I have said that all of us, including the majority, have shown insufficient energy, initiative, etc. By that we acknowledge that we are not Bolsheviks in our habits and practice, but only striving to become such; slovenliness and slackness are Menshevik traits. But our theory, Marxism, is the only revolutionary theory in the world; there is nothing conservative about it. Can we be justly indicted for conservatism in our politics, that is, in the application of our theoretical principles? I do not believe our record justifies such an indictment. The essence of politics is to understand the realities of a given situation, to know what is possible and what is excluded; above all, to know what to do next—and to do it.
In the first period of the Trotskyist movement of America, when we were an isolated handful against the world, we deliberately restricted ourselves to propaganda work and avoided any kind of pretentious manoeuvres or activities beyond our capacity. Our first task, as we saw it, and correctly, was to build a cadre; only then could we go to the masses. The old-timers can well recall how we were pestered in those early days by the bustling windbags of the Weisbord type, who promised us a shortcut to the mass movement if we would only abandon our “conservative” propagandistic routine, substitute a grandiose program of activities for the modest tasks we had set for ourselves, and in general take up “mass work”—as though it were a simple matter for our decision. Some of the hysterical agitation of our present minority is strangely reminiscent of the blather of this revolutionary jitterbug. By sticking to our modest propagandistic tasks we recruited a cadre on the basis of fundamental principles. In the next period, when new opportunities opened up, we were prepared for a decisive turn toward more expansive activity in the mass movement. As for Weisbord, who had worn himself out with his own agitation in the meantime, he fell by the wayside.
Did we overlook some opportunities for the application of the new orientation toward mass work? Undoubtedly we did. Except in a few localities, we let the great movement of the CIO pass over our heads. But we did grasp some of the main opportunities. The moment the Muste movement began to take shape as a political organisation, we approached it for fusion and successfully carried it out. In one operation we cleared a centrist obstacle from the path and enlarged our own forces. When the ferment in the Socialist Party offered favourable opportunities for our intervention, we steered a course directly toward it, smashed the resistance of the sectarians in our own ranks, entered the Socialist Party and effected a fusion with the left wing. We seized opportunities to penetrate the trade union movement in several localities and industries and today have the firmest proletarian bases of the party there.
The main core of the present majority was in the forefront of all these progressive enterprises. This record cannot properly be described as conservative. Just the contrary. We must admit that by far not enough was done with the most basic task of all, the penetration of the trade union movement. But what was done in this field was done almost entirely by us. That speaks not only for our dynamically progressive political line but for what is still more important, our proletarian orientation. It is precisely the petty-bourgeois elements in the party, above all the clique of Abern, now shouting at the top of their voices against our “conservatism”, who have displayed from beginning to end the most conservative tendencies and the greatest aversion to any real participation in the turbulent mass movement of the workers.
The opposition, following Burnham, began to designate us as conservative only when we refused to accept a revision of the program of the Fourth International on the Russian question after the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact, and instead, reaffirmed our fundamental position. Their whole case rests on this. From it they construe a conservative tendency in our whole past record. They also rail at our stick-in-the-mud attitude toward the fundamental concepts of Marxism—the class theory of the state, the class criterion in the appraisal of all political questions, the conception of politics, including war, as the expression of class interests, and so forth and so on. From all of this they conclude that we are “conservative” by nature, and extend that epithet to cover everything we have done in the past.
Such “conservatism,” which they consider a fault, we hold to be a virtue. We aim to “hold on” firmly to these principles which have been verified in the test of the greatest historic events, and which in our view constitute the only program of proletarian liberation. We have carefully examined the substitutes offered to us by Burnham. They are not the products of his own manufacture. He is not the inventor or originator of anything. The offerings of Burnham are shoddy stuff, and if you inspect them closely you will see on every item the trade mark of another class. Burnham is merely the broker of shopworn merchandise that has been palmed off on the workers time and again by bourgeois ideologists and always to the detriment of their struggle. We will have none of it. We stick to our own program. We accept no substitutes. If this be conservatism, make the most of it.
In all the documents and speeches of the opposition, the party leadership is represented as bureaucratic in the most invidious sense of the term. More precisely, the party regime is depicted, sometimes by insinuation, sometimes openly and directly, as Stalinist in character. Burnham, who denies the inevitability of socialism, is nevertheless convinced that Stalinism develops “inevitably” out of Bolshevism. From that viewpoint he indicts us in the name of supra-class morality as “a cynical group of small-time bureaucrats” who constitute “the rotten clique of Cannon” (“Science and Style”). And Johnson, who learned all about Bolshevism and Stalinism from Souvarine, assures the party that: “He [Cannon] is showing more nakedly the Stalinist conceptions of party struggle and party discipline which he brought with him from the Third International into the Fourth.” The lengthy document on “The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism” was written to sustain this fundamental thesis of the opposition: The party regime is Stalinist in character.
The argument is not a new one. Every opposition in our movement, since its inception more than a decade ago, has sung the same song and has always attracted supporters on that basis, as the present opposition attracts them. Why? The explanation is simple.
Stalinism has not only disoriented its own supporters, but, to a considerable degree, also its opponents. Many of them see in Stalinism only bad methods. They overlook the privileged social grouping and the anti-proletarian policy which these bad methods are designed to serve. Victims of this superficial view of Stalinism never lack, at least up till now they have never lacked, unscrupulous demagogues to exploit their prejudices and to cry “Stalinism” when they run out of political or theoretical arguments. Shachtman, together with Abern, played this demagogue’s role in the early years of the Left Opposition in this country, before our tiny movement had yet attained an “apparatus”, to say nothing of a privileged stratum controlling the apparatus. By 1935, however, Shachtman found himself on the side of “Stalin-Cannon” in the struggle for entry into the Socialist Party; and the “anti-Stalinist” folderol was being directed against him, as a leading representative of the party “regime”. Thereupon in self-defence, Shachtman—always acutely sensitive to anything that touches him personally—thought better of the matter and submitted the charge of “Stalinism” to an analysis. This analysis is worth quoting here. Neither the regime nor the old arguments launched against it have changed in any fundamental respect since he argued on the other side of the question.
In an article entitled “The Question of ‘Organisational Methods’”, signed by Shachtman under the date of July 30, 1935, and published in the Workers Party Internal Bulletin, No. 1, he answers the argument about “Stalinism” as follows:
But then (it is now argued by some), didn’t Lenin launch a struggle against Stalin purely because of the latter’s organisational methods, his rudeness and disloyalty, and propose on those grounds to remove him from his post? To this reference is added the broad insinuation that we here constitute a similar bureaucracy, with similar methods, who must be fought as mercilessly as Lenin and Trotsky fought Stalin.
The analogy does not even limp because it hasn’t a leg to stand on. It is of the most superficial nature and betrays a failure to understand the problem of the Stalinist bureaucracy and Lenin’s attitude towards its central figure. 1. It is not true that Lenin opposed Stalin solely on organisational grounds. The famous testament is prefaced by the significant observation that the rule of the proletariat is based upon a collaboration of two classes. This creates the whole environment for the growth of a Soviet bureaucracy. This bureaucracy, in the period of its degeneration, in the midst of a constantly self-reproducing capitalism, represents the pressure of alien classes. Because of this fact, the bureaucracy tends more and more to bear down upon the proletarian kernel of the country; it shows an increasing contempt for it and a growing inclination to lean upon enemy classes. Stalin was the personification of this bureaucratic tendency. If the testament is read in connection with the noted articles and letters Lenin wrote shortly before his death, the political and class connection will become apparent. If nothing is learned from the testament except that “Stalin is rude—remove him!”—then, indeed, nothing has been learned. 2. The bureaucracy in the Soviet Union is a social phenomenon. It has deep roots in Russia’s past and present historical development. It has close class connections. It has tremendous material and intellectual power at its disposal—power to corrupt, to degenerate, to undermine the proletarian base of the Union. To speak of our pitiful little “bureaucracy” in the Workers’ Party—or any section of it—in the same breath with the Stalinist bureaucracy, can be excused only on the grounds of political infantilism.
That quotation deserves study by the comrades in the party who want to probe to the bottom of this lightminded talk about “Stalinism” in connection with the regime in our party. The whole paragraph deserves study line by line and word by word. I have underlined a couple of especially important sentences. “The bureaucracy tends more and more to bear down upon the proletarian kernel of the country.” That is the universal characteristic of every privileged bureaucracy. It is precisely in order to serve their own special privileged interests, as against the interests of the proletarian mass, that every labour bureaucracy ties itself up in one way or another with “enemy classes”. As Shachtman aptly says, it “leans upon” enemy classes and “bears down” upon the proletariat. It is in order to carry through this policy, against the interests and against the will of the proletarian mass, that bureaucratic formations of the privileged groups and bureaucratic methods become necessary. That is true not only of the Stalinist bureaucracy; it is true also of the trade union bureaucracy, the bureaucracy of the parties of the Second International and of all reformist labour organisations.
Now I want to put two questions to the leaders of the opposition:
1. Where and when did the regime in our party “bear down” on the proletarian kernel? Name me one branch, or one trade union fraction, that has complained in the discussion of bureaucratic mistreatment by the party leadership. The whole discussion, with its voluminous documentation, and its innumerable speeches, has not brought to light a single such case insofar as the present majority of National Committee is concerned!
The air has been shattered with the shrieks of the individual leaders of the petty-bourgeois faction—God, how they suffered! But not a word of complaint has come in from “the proletarian kernel” of the party. From all parts of the country, during the discussion, I received letters from rank and file comrades asking “information” about the bureaucratism in the party, but nobody among them volunteered to give any information. A very strange animal, this bureaucratism, like the purple cow; everybody hears about it, but nobody knows about it. Nobody, that is, except a coterie of thin-skinned petty-bourgeois intellectuals, half-intellectuals and would-be intellectuals who magnify a few pinpricks suffered by their individual persons into a murderous bayonet charge against the rank and file of the party.
I say that bureaucratism in the real sense of the word is not known in our party. Some of our best friends, hearing this stupid and venomous charge repeated over and over again, and reasoning that “where there is so much smoke there must be some fire”, may be thinking: “Perhaps a little self-criticism would be in order here.” Not on this point! The proletarian majority of the National Committee has plenty of political faults and sins to account for; it has to admit a great deal of inefficiency, neglected opportunities, slackness in discipline, etc. But bureaucratic mishandling of the party units or the trade union fractions— none whatsoever!
Practically every proletarian branch of the party supports the majority! Every trade union fraction in the party from coast to coast, with the sole exception of a couple of white collar fractions in New York City, supports the majority unanimously, or almost unanimously! This is not by accident. Bureaucratism strikes, first and last, at the proletarian sections of every organisation; bureaucratism “bears down upon the proletarian kernel”. If the proletarian sections of the party were instinctively drawn to the majority and repelled by the opposition from the first day of the discussion, it is because, among other reasons, they are most sensitive to every concrete manifestation of bureaucratism. It is because they judge the “organisation question” not by what they read in ponderous documents, and still less by what somebody buzzes in their ear, but by what they see and know from their own experiences with the party leadership and its different sections.
2. You call the apparatus of the party a bureaucracy. Messrs. Abern, Burnham and Shachtman? You go further and describe it as “Stalinist” in character? Very well, gentlemen. Tell us, please, what is the social basis of this “Stalinist” bureaucracy in the American section of the Fourth International? What are its privileges? Where is manifested its “inclination to lean upon enemy classes”—what classes? What special interests does it have to serve which compel it to “bear down upon the proletarian kernel”? Shachtman, in 1935, in the document cited above, informed Oehler-Abern-Muste that “the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union is a social phenomenon”. What kind of a “social phenomenon” is our “pitiful little bureaucracy”?
After all, what is the “apparatus” of our party? What is this selection of people whom the self-sacrificing Burnham disdainfully calls “a cynical group of small-time bureaucrats” and a “rotten clique”? Let’s take up this question, once and for all, and have it out. The “apparatus”, that is, the National Committee and the functioning full-time staff of party workers, is not an economically privileged group and has no special interests of its own that are different from the interests of the party members as a whole. The reality is quite different. The fulltime functionaries of the party are those comrades who are distinguished either by exceptional ability, which propels them into professional party work by the universal consent and approval of the party membership, or by the capacity for self-sacrifice, or both—those comrades who are willing to undertake functions as party workers for less compensation than even the most poorly paid worker as a rule can secure in private employment.
The rank and file of the party knows this very well and doesn’t want to hear any more denigration of the professional party workers, especially from people who shrink from the sacrifices and duties of professional party work. Our party is not a party like the social democracy. We will not permit our movement to be led by spare-time heroes while the coolie work is done by the professional functionaries, who in addition have to stand the abuse of the “lords” who come around to visit the party once a week. The party honours and respects its professional staff. It considers the occupation of a professional revolutionist to be the most honourable of all occupations. The highest aspiration and ambition of every young party member should be to qualify himself for such a profession in life.
Our party “apparatus” is neither a bureaucracy, nor a faction, nor a clique. It is a selection of people who fulfil different functions according to their merits and capacities and experience and their readiness to serve the party at the cost of severe economic penalties. There has been no element of “patronage” in their selection; the very suggestion of such a thing is an intolerable insult, especially when it comes, as it usually does, from well-situated dilettantes who never missed a dinner appointment for the revolution. Neither can it be justly maintained that there has been any factional discrimination or favouritism in the selection of party functionaries. The opposition has been represented, and well represented, especially in the editorial and office positions in the centre.
The oppositionists themselves testify to this: “It is true that the members of the minority occupy many posts ... Cannon has not the least objection to everyone in the party doing as much work, even in prominent posts, as he is capable of handling.” Then what are they complaining about? What kind of a bureaucracy is it that “has not the least objection” to anybody having any function he can “handle” even in “prominent posts”? Try to discover such a situation in a real bureaucracy—the Stalinist or Lewis-Green bureaucracies, for example. Their “posts” are almost invariably assigned to supporters of the “regime”, and by no means to “anybody”. If the party field workers are, almost without exception, supporters of the majority, it is not in repayment for “favours”. It is rather because the petty-bourgeois minded type of secondary leaders, who gravitate naturally to the opposition, tend to shy away from field work, with its arduous duties and economic uncertainties. They prepare for civil war by first preparing for the civil service. A candidate for leadership in the camp of the majority, on the other hand, isn’t taken very seriously until he has done a good stretch of field work, and shown what he can do and what he can learn in direct contact with workers in the class struggle.
As for the prominent trade unionists, they have attained positions of prominence in their field, not by “appointments” from New York, but by their own activities and merits which have been recognised by the workers. If the field workers and the trade unionists of the party tended from the outset of the fight to “take sides” against the office leaders of the opposition, it is not because they are addicts of some preposterous fascistic “leader cult” but, rather, from considerations of an opposite nature. The nature of their work, which is directly and immediately affected from day to day by the actions and decisions of the central party leadership, gives them a more intimate understanding of its real qualities. This determines a more critical attitude on their part than is the case of those party members, remote from the class struggle, who judge the leaders solely by their articles and their speeches. The party trade unionists know all the party leaders too well—they know people too well—to be “slavish idolators” of anybody, or to expect perfection from anybody. If the performance of the leaders of the majority at the centre is by no means satisfactory to them—and that is no doubt the case—they are in no hurry to exchange them for others whose performance has been worse. They are practical people; if they have to choose between evils, they take the lesser evil.
The fact that our party has no socially privileged bureaucracy, that its internal life is dominated by democracy rather than bureaucratism, does not of course obviate the possibility of bureaucratic practices and bureaucratic tendencies on the part of individuals and even of groups. But it is just these very critics of the opposition who have manifested such tendencies most crassly, and more times than once. Indeed, the tendency of the petty-bourgeois leaders is toward bureaucratic practices. From the nature of the faction it could hardly be otherwise. There are glaring instances which show how they manifested this tendency when they had a free hand and were able to act without the counteracting influence of the majority. Their conduct in the auto crisis is a classic example of intolerable bureaucratic procedure from beginning to end. And the end is not yet, for they have not yet acknowledged or corrected their indefensible procedure; they still refer to the auto crisis only in an attempt to explain away their own actions, to justify themselves at the expense of their critics, and to switch the issue and turn the attack against their critics.
In “The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism” they have space in a document of approximately 25,000 words for only one paragraph on the auto crisis. And this single paragraph is devoted, not to a discussion of the crisis and their conduct in it, but to a completely extraneous matter so as to make it appear that “Cannon”, who was 3000 miles away at the time of the auto crisis, was nevertheless responsible for their debacle in this situation, as for everything else. In a remarkable article that belongs now to party history, “The Truth About the Auto Crisis”, Comrade Clarke has written the full account of the auto crisis, an account which is verified and documented at every point. That article will speak for itself, and will be source material for every discussion in the future over the concrete meaning of bureaucratic practices on the part of an office leadership.
Here I wish to make only a few general observations on this unsavoury affair. The present minority were in full charge of the Political Committee; the seventh member, who had been responsible for all of their troubles, was across the wide ocean, and in no position to hamper or restrict their operations in any way. The auto crisis was a real test of the regime—their regime. It was a real test of their capacity to lead the party and to lead workers in a difficult and complicated situation. What did they do? They began by bungling the policy. This policy, cooked up in Burnham’s study, prescribed a course of action for our fraction which was contrary to the movement of the workers in the industry, and which, if it had been followed out, would have swept our comrades out of the auto union in the space of a few weeks’ time. When the whole auto fraction, which included the ablest trade unionists in the party and four members of the NC, rose up against them they “reaffirmed” their former position by a vote of three to two, with one abstaining, called that the decision of the party, and appealed to discipline and formal authority!
When they finally yielded to the pressure of the auto fraction, supplemented by the pressure of all NC members who had opportunity to express themselves, they did it in a contemptible fashion. They washed their hands of the affair, and placed upon the auto fraction the full responsibility for carrying out the new policy. Then they made a spiteful attack on the auto fraction in a statement sent to the branches which also “warned” that the auto comrades would have bad luck with their policy and that the “line of the party”—that is, the line of Burnham, Widick and Abern—would be proved to be correct. Then, in typical Lovestoneite fashion, the typical fashion of any group of arrogant petty-bourgeois intellectuals, they turned the attack against the field workers who had corrected the false policy and shown their independence in protesting against it, announcing the discovery that they were mere “hand raisers” who belonged to a “rotten clique” of “small-time bureaucrats”. It would be hard to find in the history of our movement a comparable example of haughty, ungracious and spiteful bureaucratism in a concrete situation. Bureaucratism indeed “bears down” upon the “proletarian kernel” of the party. But this proletarian kernel proved to be hardy and resistant and capable of asserting itself. That is its real crime in the eyes of the offended petty-bourgeois leaders-from-an-office.
Another example of unadulterated bureaucratism of the same type was shown in the proposals of Burnham and Shachtman in regard to the election policy of the Minneapolis branch last spring. Incalculable damage might have been done to the party and to the relations between the central leadership and the Minneapolis branch if these proposals had not been frustrated. The branch had originally nominated its own independent candidate for mayor. When a conference of trade unions nominated a labour candidate, the branch decided to withdraw its candidate and support the labour candidate. I was directed by the PC to investigate the matter while on a visit to the Minneapolis branch at that time. On my visit, I inquired about the conference which had nominated the labour candidate. I was told that it had been a well-attended conference of important unions and that the labour candidate was sponsored by them. I expressed the opinion that the action of the comrades in withdrawing their own candidate in this case, and supporting the labour candidate, was fully in accord with party policy and so reported to the PC at its meeting on May 2. Burnham promptly made a set of motions against the action. I quote the minutes of the Political Committee of May 2, 1939:
Motions by Burnham: 1. That the PC considers the action of the Minneapolis local in withdrawing its own candidate from the mayoralty primaries and going over to support of Eide as (a) an opportunist concession to the conservative trade union bureaucrats, and (b) with respect to the support of Eide, a practice in conflict with the party’s position in favour of genuinely independent working class political action.
2. The secretary is instructed to communicate with the Minneapolis local and present a thorough analysis of the action in the light of the above motion.
3. A carefully worded explanatory article on this situation and the point of view of the PC with reference to it shall be published in the Appeal.
A truly astounding proposal! Without further parley with Minneapolis, Burnham wanted to repudiate their policy publicly in the columns of our official organ in the midst of an election campaign. Shachtman expressed himself as ready to vote right then for Burnham’s motion. (It was obvious that these two people, who are ostensibly opposed to all informal consultations between committee meetings, had discussed the matter between themselves and “convicted” Minneapolis in advance.) In this incident they showed the same traits as in the auto crisis a few months earlier, and demonstrated that they had learned nothing from that experience. The political line of Burnham’s motion was absolutely incorrect; the Minneapolis comrades were right; and the proposed procedure—an out-of-hand repudiation in the public press of the party—was abominably bureaucratic.
Fortunately, on this occasion there were restraining influences in the Political Committee. Goldman, present as an NC member, moved: “That we instruct the secretary to write the Minneapolis local, asking for a full explanation of their action in withdrawing Comrade Hudson as candidate for mayor and in supporting Eide.” His motion was accepted and action deferred until more detailed information could be sent by the Minneapolis comrades. The PC minutes of May 16, two weeks later, record further developments:
Letter received from Minneapolis giving details as to the Minneapolis election situation.
Question raised by Burnham of need for information on several points.
Motion by Burnham: To ask the Minneapolis party for further information and that we lay over the document until that information is received. Carried.
The Minneapolis question was again on the agenda briefly and is recorded in the PC minutes of May 31.
Letter from Minneapolis read, answering the last questions addressed to them on the election policy.
Motion: That the matter be laid over to the next committee meeting when Comrade Burnham will be present, since he made the original motion on this point. Carried.
The matter was finally disposed of at the PC meeting of June 6. The minutes of this date cover the matter as follows:
Summary by Cannon of further information received from Minneapolis regarding the election situation.
Withdrawal by Burnham of his motion presented in the meeting of May 2, 1939, with following statement: “The further information that we have received indicates that the opinion which I formerly held and formulated in motions to the effect that support of Eide in the Minneapolis elections is incompatible with our labour party policy is incorrect and I, therefore, wish to withdraw the motion.”
Motion by Cannon: That the PC considers that the action of the Minneapolis branch in withdrawing their candidate and supporting the candidacy of Eide was politically correct under the circumstances. Carried unanimously.
A truly illuminating chronicle of political irresponsibility and bureaucratism. Let every local organisation of the party that is sensitive to the slightest danger of bureaucratic practices ponder over this incident. If Burnham-Shachtman had prevailed, the action of the Minneapolis comrades would have been repudiated in the Socialist Appeal, and they would have been publicly discredited. They would have had no alternative but to withdraw their support of Eide, the labour candidate, and re-enter their own independent candidate. Then, five weeks later, and about one week before the election, they would have been blandly informed that, after more thorough investigation, the PC motions were “withdrawn” and the Minneapolis branch free to make another flip-flop in public and support the candidacy of Eide after all. Perhaps the PC might even have been generous enough to repudiate its repudiation of the policy of the Minneapolis comrades. However, that is quite a speculative assumption. Even after Burnham had been compelled to withdraw his motion of censure he didn’t have the decency, as the record shows, to make a positive motion of approval.
The leaders of the petty-bourgeois faction complain a good deal about the way their “prestige” has been undermined in the proletarian section of the party. But the most malevolent enemy could not deal heavier blows to their influence and authority than they dealt themselves by such practices and methods as they employed in the auto crisis and in the case of the Minneapolis local elections.