The Struggle for a Proletarian Party

By James P. Cannon

Part IV

12. The ‘Clique’ and the ‘Leader Cult’

The opposition has made no effort to establish the existence of a party bureaucracy as a privileged group whose interests are antagonistic to the interests of the rank and file, and whose policy, designed to serve these interests, must be imposed upon the party by bureaucratic means. Neither have they attempted to find any social basis for a ruling “clique” with its “leader cult”. Yet, the Marxists analyse every labour bureaucracy or clique and explain its methods by first uncovering its social basis. It was by this method that Trotsky and the Bolshevik-Leninists disclosed the real nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the first instance, not as an accidental formation created by the arbitrary will or personal traits of an individual, but as a social phenomenon, which did not begin with a “leader cult” but came to it from necessity.

The Stalinist bureaucracy represents privileged social groupings which have appeared for the first time in history on the basis of a workers’ state. The Marxists alone—that is, the Trotskyists—found the key to the real mystery of Stalinism. They first revealed its social base. Then they demonstrated that its privileges and special interests collide irreconcilably with the interests of the masses in their march toward socialism. In order to serve their special interests the Stalinist bureaucracy was compelled to introduce a line of policy which contradicted the program and tradition of the party. In order to impose such policy upon the party and upon the country, they were compelled to suppress party democracy, to force their line through by means of bureaucratic violence, and to concentrate all power in the party apparatus.

But the conflicts of class interests in the country, and the numerous rivalries and conflicts of interest between the various privileged groups, found a distorted expression in factional struggles within the apparatus itself. This unsettled the regime and created possibilities for the intervention of the party rank and file, and of the working mass in general. The Left Opposition for a time made its way through just such fissures in the apparatus and threatened its overthrow. This demonstrated to the bureaucracy the iron necessity of a still narrower concentration of power. The conflicting privileged groups required a means for the arbitration and regulation of their conflicts without the intervention of the masses, and in such a way as to unite them all against the masses. Out of this necessity, after the revolutionary wing of the party had been annihilated, emerged the single, all-powerful leader, the arbitrator, the Soviet Bonaparte, Stalin.

Stalin thus appears as a “leader” of an entirely different type from Lenin, who also enjoyed exceptional authority, and one who arrived at his position by an entirely different practice. Lenin, the Marxist, the revolutionist, truly expressed the interests of the masses and maintained his position by the consent and even the love of the most conscious section of the proletariat. Lenin consequently leaned upon the masses and required party democracy to mobilise their support against the privileged elements within the country and in the party. Stalin, the revisionist, the betrayer of the revolution, came to his position not by the voluntary will of the masses but in a struggle of the privileged groups against them. Stalin is not the “leader” because the people “love” him; it is obligatory to “love” him because he is the dictatorial power, the Soviet Bonaparte, whose prestige must be artificially inflated and promoted in order to strengthen his position as the arbitrator, defender and best representative of the privileged elements in the population. If anyone disagrees, there is the GPU to convince him.

All the “methods” of Stalinism grew from the necessities of an unstable and highly privileged bureaucracy which cannot maintain itself by other methods, and dares not permit democratic procedures that would permit the masses to intervene. As for the Stalinist bureaucracies in the parties of the Comintern, they are simply the extensions of the Russian social phenomenon, its foreign agents. The main social base of the bureaucratic gang in the American Communist Party is in the Soviet Union. That explains the peculiarities which distinguish it from the bureaucracies of the trade union movement, the reformist political parties, etc.

When the lightminded oppositionist leaders attempt to establish an identity, or even an analogy, between our party staff and the Stalinist bureaucracy, they are constructing a house of cards which falls to pieces at the first touch. Turning their backs on the sociological analysis from which Marxism construes its politics, these self-styled “independent thinkers” reveal themselves, on this question also, as nothing but slavish imitators of the philistine journalists and petty-bourgeois moralists who have judged Stalinism by its methods and techniques, without understanding the social basis and role of Stalinism which dictate the employment of these techniques.

Many superficial anti-Stalinist journalists, noticing the political similarities of Stalinism and fascism—bureaucratic violence, one man dictatorship, “totalitarian” suppression of all opposition—easily arrive at the conclusion that Stalinism and fascism are identical. The same people, mostly social democrats and radicals disillusioned in the proletarian revolution, observing that the Fourth International also has a leader of outstanding influence and authority, and without bothering to inquire whether this personal authority has a different source and significance, hasten to equate the defenders and betrayers of the Russian revolution and to announce: “Stalinism and Trotskyism—the same thing.”

The theory that the distinguishing feature of Stalinism is its “leader cult” was the brilliant contribution of Brandler-Lovestone at the time when they were defending the domestic policies of the Stalinist party in the Soviet Union, denouncing the Fourth International’s advocacy of a political revolution there as counterrevolutionary, and explaining that all the trouble was simply the result of a “bad regime” in the Stalinist party. It was their contention that if a reasonable amount of democracy was introduced into the Stalinist party, and the “cult of the leader” replaced by a situation in which Stalin could be “first among equals”, everything would be all right, including the mass-murder of the Trotskyists.

It was these same profound and original thinkers—Brandler-Lovestone and the leaders of the Brandlerist offshoot, the German SAP (Walcher and Co.) [8]—who first put in circulation the theory that the movement of the Fourth International is afflicted with the “cult of the leader”. The fact that Trotsky had at his disposal neither an army nor a GPU nor control of employment to terrorise, nor money to corrupt people into “loving” him and acknowledging him as the supreme leader—these trifling details of difference were left entirely out of consideration. When one leaves the ground of Marxism he invariably overlooks precisely those details which are primary and fundamental and decisive. The centrists who had broken with Stalinism only after Stalinism had rejected their advances for the thousand and first time, were determined at all costs not to fall under the control of another “leader”. They were hellbent for “independence”—from Trotsky, that is, from Trotsky’s ideas which they could not successfully combat or refute. And they demonstrated their independence by uniting with the Norwegian Labor Party and the London Bureau on the road to the People’s Front and the social-patriotic betrayal in the “war of democracy against fascism”.

The petty-bourgeois opposition in our party did not invent the theory that we have a “leader cult” and a “one-man regime” in the American party and in the Fourth International; they borrowed that, as they borrowed everything else, from alien sources. In the first days of the present discussion in our party the Lovestoneites, searching for kindred spirits, issued “An Appeal to Members and Followers of the Socialist Workers Party”. The “Appeal” invited any waifs and strays we might have to join the Lovestoneite organisation. The inducement? “There you will find an organisation that works out its own policies, independently and democratically, to meet the needs and interest of the workers and not to follow a ‘party line’ laid down by the ‘leader’ in Moscow or in Mexico City.” ( Workers’ Age, Oct. 21, 1939.) I reprint this quotation here as a free advertisement, so that those who are really interested in the commodity of “independence” from the “leader cult” will know where they can get the original article.

Offering grist to the mill of these shysters, Shachtman published a venomously falsified account of our October plenum for the purpose of showing that the majority of our party leaders, who have been sifted out and selected by the democratic action of the membership after more than 10 years of common political work, are nothing but a collection of religious holy-rollers who take things on faith. In Internal Bulletin No. 3, Shachtman wrote:

At the plenum the majority presented for a vote the document of Comrade Trotsky which had arrived only a few hours earlier. There could not have been an opportunity for any comrade to reflect on this document. Some of them had not even had a chance to read it. Moreover, it was physically impossible for anybody to have read it in full for the simple reason that one page of the manuscript was accidentally lost in transit. Nevertheless, read or unread, studied or unstudied, complete or incomplete, the document was presented for a vote and finally adopted by the majority on the grounds, as one comrade expressed it, of faith in the correctness of Comrade Trotsky’s position.

Shachtman’s account is false both in fact and in interpretation.

1. A synopsis of Comrade Trotsky’s document, “The USSR in War”, was known to all members of the National Committee plenum not “a few hours earlier” but two weeks earlier. The plenum voting took place October 1. Under date of September 12 Trotsky wrote us: “I am writing now a study of the social character of the USSR in connection with the war question ... The fundamental ideas are as follows: ...” [9] He then stated his ideas in outline form—nobody could misunderstand them. This outline was mimeographed and sent to all members of the NC on September 14, more than two weeks before the plenum, under the heading: “Plenum Material”. Thus, all concerned knew, well in advance of the plenum, the main line of the thesis elaborated in the finished document.

2. The document was not “presented for a vote and finally adopted by the majority”, as Shachtman says. The adopted motion reads as follows: “The Plenum endorses the political conclusions of the document of Trotsky on ‘The USSR in War’ and instructs the Political Committee to publish it as an evaluation and elucidation of the new events on the basis of our fundamental position.” An earlier motion “to endorse the document” as a whole was changed, and restricted to an endorsement of “the political conclusions”, precisely because some comrades, who fully agreed with the conclusions, wanted to study the document more thoroughly before voting to endorse it in its entirety. The procedure of the plenum majority in this matter was directly opposite to Shachtman’s slanderous report.

3. “A page was missing”—and therefore the line of the document could not be accepted without a resort to “faith”. This contemptible piece of petty fakery is designed for those who think one inspects a political document like a proof reader and accepts it only if every word and every comma is in place. The line of the document was clear to all, the political conclusions, which were endorsed, were succinctly stated. That is enough for a serious revolutionist to determine his attitude toward any political document. Shachtman knows this as well as we do. He quibbles about a “missing page” only to support the alien thesis that the leaders of the party are not thinking revolutionists but weak-minded addicts of religious “faith”.

I have taken the space to cite the record in this instance and to expose Shachtman’s falsifications at some length because it is out of such flimsy material that our enemies, the Lovestoneites and their like, construct their thesis of a “leader cult”’ in the Fourth International. They did not fail to seize upon Shachtman’s tidbit. It was gleefully reprinted by the same Workers’ Age —it was written for their benefit—with the sarcastic remark that they were doing so “merely for the purpose of illustrating how widely the atmosphere in that party [the SWP] differs from the uncritical, totalitarian, leader worshipping spirit of Stalinism”.

But, it may be objected, the opposition complains of a leader only in the Socialist Workers Party, not in the Fourth International. No, no, no, that is not what they mean. It is the Fourth International, and its “leader cult”, and its “leader”, that Burnham is shooting at. “Cannon”, after all, is only a faith-stricken “leader cultist” himself, who “upon all occasions without exception, accepts the politics of Trotsky, accepts them immediately and without question”. Cannon at best, you see, qualifies only as a “gauleiter”, not as the one and only “führer”.

Burnham brought this conception of the Fourth International from the American Workers Party. Here is what he wrote in the days when the fusion negotiations with the Muste organisation were in progress in 1934:

The AWP also distrusts the dependence of the Communist League and the Fourth International on a single individual. No organisation except perhaps a fascist organisation should have a single individual occupying the position that Trotsky does in fact occupy in the Communist League. And it is worth noting from history that Trotsky, though an incomparably brilliant political analyst, has never been a person able to function effectively in a party. After all, Trotsky has failed. [Memorandum of James Burnham issued by the National Office of the American Workers Party.]


Burnham, according to his highly moral custom, “withdrew” this thesis, that is, he kept it in reserve until such time as he would find the courage to proclaim it openly in our ranks. Shachtman and Abern, by their support, have given him this courage. But they have not added any merit to the thesis, nor cleansed it of its dirty trademark as the invention of the enemies of the Fourth International.

As for the “clique” and the “leader cult” in our party, the theory is just as shallow as the Brandler-Lovestone theory applied to our international organisation, and the evidence just as flimsy. When we speak about a real clique in our movement—the Abern clique—we give a detailed and documented account of its operations over a long period of time and prove that it left a trail as wide as a cross-country highway. Our accusers are much more sparing in their evidence. “Do you doubt the existence of the Cannon clique?” they ask—“It can be confirmed by a single incident.” Let us take this “single incident” apart and see what it really proves.

As we came to the end of the concluding session of the July convention and reached the last point on the agenda, the election of the new National Committee, Shachtman arose to present a slate. It was very late, the delegates were tired and restless, and many of them wanted to get a few hours’ sleep in preparation for their departure the following day. Naturally, this could not deter Shachtman from making a speech. Naturally, also, the speech was detailed and lengthy and full of pious homilies, pronounced on the assumption that the delegates didn’t know what they wanted with regard to the composition of the new NC and had to be told. Stripped of pretentious and hypocritical verbiage, Shachtman’s slate amounted to a proposal to shift the centre of gravity in the National Committee by the addition of a number of New York professional “youth” whose experience has been confined pretty largely to the class room and the office of the YPSL.

Without making a speech—the delegates had openly manifested their impatience by frequently interrupting Shachtman—Comrade Dunne then presented another slate weighted on the other side. Dunne’s slate corresponded in its general tendency more to the desires of the majority of the delegates. They knew the leading people, they had listened to endless hours of debate on the organisation report, and it is sheer impudence to assume that they had given no thought to the composition of the new National Committee in the light of the debate. An adjournment for consultation was requested, and then—horror of horrors!—“As at a signal, 30 or 35 delegates then proceeded like a man to the back of the hall, where they held a caucus meeting.” What is wrong or abnormal about that procedure? The “30 or 35 delegates”, that is, a majority of the convention, obviously wanted to make some amendments to the Dunne slate. How else could they do it except by an open consultation?

The opposition tries to isolate the elections to the NC from everything that had preceded and led up to it in the convention. These proceedings, especially the debate on the organisation report, clearly intimate a brewing struggle between the proletarian and the petty-bourgeois tendencies, the struggle which broke out with such violence a few months later. These intimations did not pass unnoticed by the delegates from the proletarian centres. They didn’t know everything, but they sensed the direction in which the conflict was moving and began to align themselves accordingly. So also did the minority of the delegates who automatically rallied around the Shachtman slate without the formality of a caucus consultation. Dunne and Shachtman each signify certain things in the party. Any speeches they may make at the 11th hour of a convention change nothing. Shachtman will never know it, but speeches are judged not only by what is said but also by who says it.

I personally took no part in the caucus on the slate, as the opposition’s document testifies, and for definite reasons. I was anxious to avoid a struggle in the party as long as the differences had not been clearly defined in specific resolutions. At the beginning of the convention I proposed that a nominating commission, consisting of representatives from the main delegations, be set up to sift out the nominees and present a slate to the convention on the basis of the qualifications of the individual candidates and their support in the ranks. I consider it best for the central leaders of the party not to interfere too much in the selection of the personnel of the NC. Members of the NC, in order to have real authority, should be pushed up from below, not lifted from the top.

I know that Comrade Dunne would not have presented a slate to the convention if Shachtman had not taken the initiative. Dunne’s original slate, drawn up during Shachtman’s speech, was not entirely satisfactory to some of the delegates as a definitive list. Consequently, they promptly moved for an adjournment in order to permit a consultation between the delegations which supported the general tendency of the Dunne slate. The fact that they openly asked for this consultation, and that they held it in the back of the convention hall in the sight of everybody, only demonstrated that they knew what they wanted in general and that they were not hiding anything from anybody. If there were any secret manoeuvres or clique operations at the convention it was not on the side of the majority. On their part everything was regular, proper, and open and aboveboard. This “single incident”, which was to “prove” the existence of a secret clique, in fact indicated the direct opposite. All the other “incidents” are on the same order.

Cliques and cliquism and permanent factions are abhorrent to proletarian revolutionists who seek the realisation of their socialist aims through a workers’ mass movement led by a mass party. The only permanent formation that can claim our allegiance is the party. Factions are for us only temporary groupings, to be dissolved in the party when the immediate issues in dispute are settled. To speak of cliques, that is, groupings of chums and friends without a principled basis—we did not wage an educational struggle against such abominations since the inception of our movement to wind up with a clique of our own. The accusation is sheer slander without a trace of justification in fact.

13. The Proletarian Orientation

One of the capital crimes charged against the party majority was the famous “New Year’s meeting”, at which the plans for the auto campaign were worked out. Comrade Clarke has dealt with this incident at length in his admirable article on the auto crisis. “Cannon”, says the document of the minority, “never repudiated it [the meeting] or what it symbolised.” That is correct. I go further and say that this meeting, initiated by us and later “repudiated” by Burnham and Shachtman, does indeed “symbolise” the difference between their orientation and their methods and ours. We established new trade union connections; we conceived a plan to utilise these connections for an intensification of our work in the auto union; we invited the two political leaders of the present opposition to an informal discussion of the plan and the assignment of personnel before taking the proposals in finished form before the Political Committee for official action. Their role in the whole affair, including their criticism, was a negative one.

The leaders of the opposition confine their remarks to only one aspect of the meeting, and, in my opinion, to the least important aspect—the procedure. The meeting is cited as one of their big “proofs” of the existence of a secret clique which decides things and substitutes itself for the official leading body of the party. If it was a clique operation, why then were Burnham and Shachtman invited to participate in it? A more reasonable interpretation would be that the informal meeting with them was designed to secure their collaboration in the working out of the plans before they took finished form. That interpretation would be entirely correct, as far as our motivations were concerned. Burnham and Shachtman raised no objection to participation in the meeting; their discovery that it was a bad business was made long after the fact. Such informal meetings, prior to official meetings of the PC, have been held dozens and scores, if not hundreds, of times in the past; it is the normal method of collaboration in a genuinely functioning “collective leadership”. Only long afterward did Burnham and Shachtman discover that there was something wrong in the procedure and ask, with an air of violated virtue: “By what authority did this body sit as the deciding body, usurping the functions of both PC and NC?” The New Year’s meeting committed no usurpations whatever, either “by authority” or otherwise. The plans formulated at the meeting were fully reported to the regular meeting of the PC on January 3 and formally decided by that body and by that body alone. The informal meeting prepared the plans—the official meeting of the PC decided on their adoption. That is the way we have handled important matters hundreds of times in the past; that is the way we will handle them hundreds of times in the future. There was nothing wrong or irregular about the procedure.

But this simple and straightforward explanation of a common method of operation among the members of any serious leading body will not do for our mystery writers. There was something sinister afoot; nobody is going to delude our perspicacious Hawkshaws with the cock and bull story that Dobbs and Dunne had travelled 1300 miles simply to give our trade union work an impetus in the auto field. They remind their readers that Cannon, forgetful about the interests of his “clique”, “was about to leave for Europe”. And here they pluck out the heart of the mystery: “This meeting was designed to sterilise the PC during his absence.” That was undoubtedly a very devilish “design”. But why was the whole meeting confined to the auto situation? The PC and the party as a whole were already pretty well “sterilised” in this field; the plan was to fertilise its work and provide the means for it to expand and grow. The only other question discussed at the meeting was the assignment of Shachtman to full-time editorship of the Socialist Appeal. To be sure, that was a certain imposition upon him, as his stubborn resistance testified, but it did not infringe in the least upon the powers and prerogatives of the PC in all fields where it had been operating with unsterilised “authority” before Cannon “was about to leave for Europe”. The meeting discussed, and the PC later ratified, not questions of policy but plans of organising our trade union work in the auto field and the personnel of the field staff. And since four members of the NC were to be in the field, it placed the direction of the organising campaign in their hands. Is that an abnormal procedure infringing upon the rights of the PC? Not at all. Trade union campaigns, if they are to be lifted from the pages of our press and realised in life, must be directed by those who specialise in trade union work and concentrate their attention and energy upon it.

If our critics are not satisfied with this explanation, and still consider that in some Machiavellian way or other they were hornswoggled, and the PC “sterilised”, when the “clique” dispatched one of its members to France and others to the auto field—if they still feel this way about it, I offer them a simple proposal, to even the score. Let them establish some contacts with workers or trade unionists in some trade or industry; let them work out a plan to utilise these contacts to extend and develop our trade union work in this field; let them come to the PC, with or without prior consultation with us, and propose that the plan be approved and that they be put in charge of the campaign. I will promise in advance to vote with both hands to adopt their plans and place the whole campaign under their direction. They can hold me to this promise regardless of whether their plan contemplates the organisation of steel workers, sailors, hod-carriers or the janitors of City College or New York University.

This fair offer is not likely to be accepted. Their orientation toward trade union work is literary; ours is more real. That is the meaning of the much discussed “New Year’s meeting”. We regarded, and still regard, the New Year’s meeting as a stage in the development of an ambitious plan to expand our trade union work. They see it in retrospect only as a “manoeuvre” against them. They don’t even understand that our manoeuvre was aimed exclusively at the auto bosses and their labour agents.

The conflict between the proletarian and petty-bourgeois tendencies in the party was expressed for a long time primarily in this difference of orientation. In the present discussion it has taken programmatic form. We have been compelled to reinforce our fight for a proletarian party, proletarian in composition and rooted in the workers’ mass movement, by an irreconcilable struggle for a proletarian program. It was this revelation of programmatic differences which caused the muffled struggle, already evident at the last convention, to break out in the open on a wider front. At the last convention both sides undoubtedly sensed the coming storm. But we on our side hardly expected it to break out so soon, and with such force and irreconcilability, on what we have always considered the fundamental questions of our program and doctrine. From this point of view, the articles which I wrote in the Socialist Appeal [10] before the last party convention, in behalf of a proletarian orientation, require supplementation and emphasis on the programmatic side.

The document of the opposition refers to these articles as “articles on ‘organisation’”. That is a superficial and incorrect appraisal of their content. They further state that “many of the ideas ... were a collective product even though they were printed as a personal contribution.” That is not correct either. If the ideas I expounded in those articles had really been common ideas, I could have been well content, as in so many other cases, to leave the actual writing to those whose hands were free from administrative and other duties which occupied me quite fully at the time. The contention that the articles “were written essentially for the purpose of warding off the necessary criticism of the party leadership between the two conventions”, is wholly without foundation. I agreed with most of the criticisms and the articles represented my personal opinion of the way to improve the situation.

I still think those articles point the road to the future for our party. Our basic problem still remains, as stated there, to “turn our faces in the right direction. That means, first of all, to turn our backs on the pessimists and calamity howlers, the soul-sick intellectuals and tired radicals who whine and dawdle around the fringes of the movement and even, to a certain extent, infest our ranks.” I still think that “most contemptible of all are those who seek to cover their desertion and retreat by hurling newly invented ‘ideological’ disagreements with Marxism over their shoulders. Taken altogether they are an unattractive and uninspiring aggregation. It is nothing less than a monstrous travesty to consider them as in any way reflecting the movement of workers’ emancipation which, by its very nature, is alien to all pessimism and defeatist tendencies. It is criminal folly to waste time or even to argue the question with these runaway boys and heralds of defeat before the battle.”

I wrote before the last party convention: “Our convention must let the dead bury the dead and turn the face of the party to the workers who are the real source of power and inspiration and well-grounded optimism. We have said this before. More than once we have incorporated it in resolutions. But we have not made the turn in forthright fashion. That is why we are lagging behind. That is the main reason we are suffering a certain stagnation. That is why we are even flirting with the danger of a degeneration of the party along the lines of conservative passivity, introspection and futility.”

I wrote: “The proletariat of the United States is the source of unlimited power, it can lift the whole world on its shoulders—that is the unshakable premise of all our calculations and all our work ... the workers of America have power enough to topple over the structure of capitalism at home and to lift the whole world with them when they rise!”

Those words—the theme of all my preconvention articles last year—hold good today. In retrospect, they read more prophetically than I knew at that time. I did not know how deep, how great, was the “danger of degeneration” implicit in the bad composition of the party in New York and its inadequate contact with the mass movement of the workers.

I said in that article: “Our program has withstood all the tests of theory and experience and stands unassailable.” I must admit that I wrote these words on the assumption that I was stating a truism to which we all subscribed, and that the differences between us concerned only matters of orientation, emphasis and application.

I could not know that within a few months the ambitious plan of expansion adopted by the convention on my motion would be disrupted and crowded off the agenda by a factional civil war in the party.

I, along with other comrades, expected future trouble from the intellectualist wing of our leadership. But we did not foresee that they would undertake to lead an insurrection against our fundamental program, our doctrine, our tradition and our organisational methods. This demonstration compelled us to put aside—to postpone—the execution of our ambitious plans for external work until the hegemony of Marxism in the party had again been established by struggle. That struggle is now drawing to a close. The victory of Marxism, and thereby of the proletarian tendency, is already assured. On that basis the party convention can and will again decide to implement the proletarian orientation by measures no different in basic content than those adopted at the convention last July.

The convention will meet and conduct its work under the sign of the proletarian orientation. That is the way to meet the coming war. Preparation for war means, for us, not some esoteric special task. It means turning the face of the party to the workers, penetrating deeper into the trade unions. It means taking drastic measures to proletarianise the composition of the party membership. And, in the light of the experience of the faction struggle, the proletarian orientation means above all—and in order to make all possible—a firm decision to continue on all fronts the implacable war against any and all opposition to the doctrine and program of proletarian revolution—Marxism, i.e., Trotskyism.

New York, April 1, 1940

James P. Cannon

Letters to Comrades

1. A Letter to All Members of the National Committee

New York, September 8, 1939

Dear Comrade,

In a letter dated September 5 you received the motions made in the last meeting of the Resident Political Committee relating to the preparation of our plenum.

For your information I will state that these are motions made by myself as opposed to other proposals to call an immediate plenum without documentary preparation and without adequate time to supply the non-resident comrades with the necessary material for study and consideration beforehand. The gist of my position as represented by the motions which were received by you was this:

1. That for practical affairs of organisation the Resident Committee can proceed. In any event it will have to execute the plans, which are more or less obviously indicated.

2. The proposal to reopen the Russian question must be considered separately from the organisational question. And the Russian question should not be projected at a hastily summoned plenum until the different positions have been formulated and communicated to the non-resident members for their study and consideration beforehand.


Comrade Burnham has submitted a document which comes to you in the same envelope with this letter. I confine my remarks here to the second section of the document entitled, “The Nature of the Russian State in the Light of the War”.

At the meeting of the Political Committee where these opinions of Comrade Burnham were advanced orally, I took the position that nothing particularly new in the policy of the Stalin bureaucracy has taken place since our party convention two months ago except the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact. Those who propose now to reopen the Russian question in our ranks can logically do so only on the basis of the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact.

This pact, however, is new only in the sense that an old policy of Stalin on the field of foreign policy, of which we have spoken more than once, has reached diplomatic realisation through the agreement of Hitler. The position of the party and of the Fourth International which was taken after such extensive and all-sided discussion, and with almost complete unanimity as far as our party is concerned, did not at all depend on the oscillations of Stalin’s foreign policy between the fascist and democratic imperialist camps. We arrived at our position from the economic structure of the Soviet Union and from the Marxist principle of evaluating each and every state, without exception, from the point of view of its basic class character.

Has the economic structure of the Soviet Union undergone a profound change since our party convention two months ago? As far as my knowledge of the situation goes, it has not changed fundamentally. For my part, I am not willing to revise the well-considered decisions of our party convention unless someone can demonstrate that the considerations which motivated the decisions have undergone a profound change in the meantime.

I believe this will also be the opinion of the majority of the plenum. How can it be otherwise? The position of the party and of the International was not the result of snap judgment. The question was discussed amply—and more than amply—beforehand. Voluminous documents on all sides of the question were written and studied and debated. I do not consider it necessary to repeat all that was said before; it is sufficient to mention and refer to the existing documents.

Comrade Burnham proposes to write off the Soviet Union. As far as I can judge his reasoning, it is approximately the same as that employed in arriving at his old position. Only now he proposes to add one new detail: to abandon the defence of the Soviet Union. I cannot follow him there and I cannot offer that advice to the Russian workers. If the idea of the defence of the Soviet Union had meaning in practical application precisely in the event of war, I do not propose to drop the idea just at the moment the war knocks on the door.


The question raised by Comrade Burnham, however, has another aspect, namely, the attitude towards party decisions taken by convention after adequate discussion. To me this is no less important than the other side of the question. I say this because I firmly believe that the right conception of the party, the proper functioning of the party, and the subordination of every individual to the collective will of the party are the conditions for the successful leadership of the revolutionary proletarian struggle.

Naturally, everybody has a right to his opinion. But the party, as a party, also has the right to its opinion. And the collective opinion of the party, especially at moments of crisis, must have the right of way.

Consider for a moment the fact that we concluded our second convention only two months ago. This followed by a year and a half the previous convention which took a position on the Russian question by a vote which closely approached unanimity. At the convention of last July—after all that had intervened—not a single comrade could be found to make a motion or demand a reconsideration of the party position on the Russian question. Now, two months later, simply because Stalin has signed the pact which he sought for more than five years, a pact, moreover, which was contemplated and even predicted long ago in our ranks, we are abruptly confronted with the demand to change our policy on the Russian question fundamentally.

Permit me to ask you a small question. Isn’t this just a little bit like making fun of the party? Isn’t this something like assuming that the party has no sense and didn’t know what it was doing when it took its Russian position so firmly and so categorically, and after such thoroughgoing and all-sided discussion?

Add to this the scandalous fact that the editors of the New International went so far as to set forth, by oblique writing, a new position on the Russian question, in contradiction to the established party position, in the editorial on the Stalin-Hitler pact in the September issue.

The party position, with the most extreme meticulousness in the choice of words, has described the Soviet bureaucracy as a parasitic caste, and not a class. The September New International, not in a signed discussion article but in an editorial which presumably sets forth party policy, suddenly announces that the bureaucrats are exploiters, i.e., a ruling class. Isn’t this something like an insult to the party? That is the way it appears to me.

There is one more point. It is needless, I hope, to point out that decisions taken by party convention cannot be changed by the plenum, to say nothing of being changed by individual editors at their whim. The party membership, which is sufficiently patient and long-suffering, will rise up against any such pretensions. Of that we can be sure.

The positions cannot be changed without a discussion and a new convention. Can we afford ourselves the luxury of a new discussion at this time, in the face of the difficult practical tasks, and so soon after a party convention? I doubt it.

Of course circumstances can arise which compel abrupt changes at any cost. It would be foolish to bar ourselves off from the possibility of correcting an error in policy or of adapting an old policy to new circumstances. But in the present case, it seems to me that those who propose now a change which they did not propose in the convention and preconvention discussion so recently concluded, are obliged to motivate their demand for a new discussion on new conditions of a fundamental character which were not known to us at the time of the party convention, and which, up to the present, have not been revealed to us.

J.P. Cannon

2. A Letter to Joseph Hansen[11]

New York, October 24, 1939

Dear Joe,

I received the second article on the nature of the Soviet state[12] and am turning it over to the committee for publication. It answers many of the concrete questions which have been troubling comrades and will aid materially in the clarification of the whole problem, insofar as clarity is really sought.

Since your departure the internal situation has taken a very sharp turn. Two membership meetings on the disputed questions here in New York have been very heated. It is obvious now that a good deal of factional work has been going on in the party. It is now coming out into the open in a quite violent form.

We have a rainbow-coloured bloc against us which includes those who want to revise the Marxian theory of the state and those who maintain an orthodox line on this not unimportant point; it includes frank defeatists on the question of the Soviet Union and unconditional defencists; those who deny the identity of Bolshevism and Stalinism and those who imagine that Stalinism somehow or other is the logical outcome of Bolshevism in the sphere of organisation. The latter question has already asserted itself as a great motor force generating the factional antagonisms to the party “regime”. With only half an eye one can easily discern a considerable volume of disguised and not so well disguised Souvarinism in the New York section of the party.

Moreover, it is an actual fact that a good 50% of the supporters of the rainbow bloc are completely defeatist on the question of the USSR in their sentiments. The speeches from the floor in the membership meetings have clearly indicated this. However, that does not deter our friends Shachtman and Abern from proclaiming a firm solidarity of the combined opposition and directing all fire against the “conservative” majority. In New York, as I have said, the dispute has taken an extremely violent turn from the outset. As to the situation in the rest of the country, I have not yet heard anything.

Above I give you only an outline of the situation in New York, with my customary moderation and restraint. Perhaps it is not surprising that the devastating impact of the world crisis on the intellectuals should call forth some Souvarinistic reactions in a section of the party with the social composition of New York. It is a bit awkward, however, not to be able to combat this pitiful sickness by means of a united leadership.

I must admit that we have taken too superficial and complacent a view of the dangers that can arise in a moment of crisis from the social composition of the New York section of the party. It comes now like a sharp fillip on the nose, if not a blow over the head. It is a payment, so to speak, for our failure to put the O’Brien[13] letter on the social composition of the party before the convention for forthright consideration. The Old Man can say now with full justification: “I told you so.”

Can we again buy ourselves off from a sharp struggle in the party by conciliation and compromise at the top, at the cost of obscuring deep and basic conflicts which lurk in the whole situation like unexploded mines—the course we have followed more or less consistently for a long time now—or is it necessary to bring some clarity into the situation by means of a frank and unambiguous political struggle and draw sharp lines of demarcation?

I would like to have your opinion and your advice in this respect. In this situation it seems to me that a lazy and pacifistic approach could at best only buy for us a short term ticket to a fool’s paradise. What do you think?

Fraternally yours,

J.P. Cannon

3. A Letter to Vincent R. Dunne

New York, October 25, 1939

Dear Vincent,

I judge that you have received a copy of a letter addressed to Joe Hansen, which was mailed to you yesterday. Since dictating it we received a copy of Crux’s [Trotsky’s] reply to a letter from Comrade Stanley on the internal party situation. [14] This reply of Crux was enclosed with the copy of my letter to Comrade Hansen.

You are perfectly at liberty to show my letter to interested comrades so they will know my point of view. The same applies to the letter of Crux, as it will very likely be published in the internal bulletin.

From all indications we are in for a serious struggle. The struggle for the Fourth International is concentrated right now in the struggle for programmatic intransigence within the American section. Only in this way will we be able to preserve a firm unity and really prepare our ranks to meet the war and go through the war without encountering explosive crises at every difficult moment.

In such a moment each man must stand at the post where he can best serve the cause. In the opinion of comrades here this signifies that for the next period I must be relieved to the greatest extent possible of administrative routine and freed for political work, externally as well as internally. For my part I am ready to accept such a rearrangement of duties and to carry my full share of the responsibility in the struggle.

This raises in the sharpest form the future work of Comrade Dobbs. In a recent letter he states that the big work which occupied his attention in the recent months is completed through the signing of the union contract with the employers. He adds: “I am in the midst of the mopping up operations. I expect to be able to discuss with you soon the question of future work.” It would greatly facilitate matters if we could now carry through our original program of bringing him to the centre for party administrative and organisational work.

I know that the new difficulties of the Minneapolis comrades in connection with the prosecutions makes this a somewhat risky shift. As I see it, the difficult situation in Minneapolis precludes for the time being the demonstrative transfer of Comrade Dobbs from trade union to party work. That might bring unfavourable repercussions for you. At the same time, the party in its present struggle—which if we want to call it by its right name is nothing less than a struggle to vindicate 11 solid years of programmatic preparation to stand up under a crisis—has the right and the duty to summon every individual to the post where he can be most useful.

I think we can reach a transitional solution of the question of Dobbs’ work without infringing too deeply on the requirements of the Minneapolis sector, in the following way: Dobbs should arrange, in the shortest time possible, for a leave of absence from his trade union post without any announcement of his intentions with regard to the party and without cutting himself off from the possibility of re-entering the trade union situation, insofar as Minneapolis is concerned, at a critical moment. The party purposes can be very well served in the transition period by his activity under a suitable party name without any public fanfare.

Naturally, we cannot very easily carry through such a decisive step without the agreement of the Minneapolis comrades. But we have reason to believe that when the party necessities are placed before us in such categoric form as at present, you will be ready on your part to make the necessary local sacrifices.

Aside from the immediate requirements of the party there is another aspect to this question which deserves consideration. I refer to the preparation of Comrade Dobbs for all-sided political work in the future, as distinct from the limited field of trade unionism. By entering the direct service of the party now, at a difficult moment of internal crisis, in an unobtrusive and even anonymous manner, he will be put sharply before a salutary experience in the vicissitudes of revolutionary political activity. He will face a point-blank test of his ability to adjust himself promptly to a radical transformation in the nature of his activity and the conditions under which it is conducted.

To be the leader of a workers’ mass movement and show an ability to meet and solve the comparatively simple and broadly-outlined problems of an ascending trade union—that is one thing. I don’t need to tell you that I fully appreciate the personal qualities of a militant who is capable of distinguishing himself in this field. But to be able to lead the organisation work of a small political party which is still further restricted in its activities by a paralysing internal crisis, and at the same time to take a resolute part in the struggle for a programmatic solution of that crisis—that is another thing.

A leader of the proletarian revolution must be able to shift his activity from one field to the other as the circumstances require it.

It should be added that experience is indispensable for the efficient execution of each of these assignments. We have often had occasion to say that one can’t learn how to lead a trade union out of a book. From books he can learn the history and theory of the trade union movement, but its actual leadership he must learn in practice. The same thing holds true in regard to the party. One cannot learn how to lead a party out of a book either. If that were so there would not be such a poverty of political-party leadership everywhere.

The test of experience is decisive in this field above all others. By coming to the party service now, at a moment of acute crisis in a chauvinistic encirclement, the experience of Comrade Dobbs will be 100 times more concentrated and will advance his political education 100 times faster than if he came in normal times. His merits or demerits as a political-party leader will be established far more precisely and in an incomparably shorter time by this test.

Needless to say we all share the same optimistic opinions in regard to Comrade Dobbs’ potentialities as a party leader. But six months after he begins party work under these conditions, we, as well as he, will know more about it and know more definitely.


The internal crisis of the party, which at bottom reflects the pressure of its encirclement, is already beginning to have a crippling effect on the working out of the ambitious program of expansion elaborated at the party convention. The financial difficulties which are besetting us are a barometer.

We must strive by all means to see that the internal struggle does not drive the party in upon itself to the neglect of its external agitation and organisation work. That would only prolong the crisis which can find a real solution only on the road of an expansive public activity and a recruitment of new proletarian elements of stabilisation.

We will most likely have to call on the Minnesota comrades for unexampled financial support to sustain our program of public activity during the internal struggle. I think the party is entitled to turn to the Twin Cities comrades once again with this demand.

To no small extent our trade unionist wing in Minnesota has floated in recent years on the stream of success made possible by the heroic struggles of 1934, which were in turn inspired—it should not be forgotten—by the patient and stubborn theoretical and political work carried out in isolation by the leading cadre in the six years which preceded the 1934 strikes. This fairly comfortable situation could exert negative influences on the mentality of our trade unionist comrades if they do not keep in mind the instability of their present situation; if they begin to imagine that their improved circumstances and standards of living are permanently assured and begin, unknown to themselves, to develop petty-bourgeois habits of life and illusions of security in a world situation which is exploding at every seam.

It will not be bad for them to begin even now to shake themselves loose from these possible illusions. The whole trade union upper stratum of the Second International could remain secure and grow fat and complacent and satisfied with things as they were only in the period of the stabilisation and ascending progress of the capitalist world order. Such possibilities do not exist in these days. The sooner all our comrades face this question to the end and adjust themselves to the prospect of new and violent shocks and displacements the better.

A modest beginning in preparation to swim once more against the stream can be made by the voluntary agreement of the affected comrades to double their assessments for the material support of the party in its present critical test. The same holds good for all serious comrades in the party.

Fraternally yours,

J.P. Cannon

4. A Letter to Joseph Hansen

New York, October 26, 1939

Dear Joe,

The answer of Crux to Stanley was received. It will not add to the popularity of Crux in some circles. But I long ago came to the sad conclusion that it is impossible to take a firm stand on political questions and please everybody at the same time.

We intend to utilise the intervention of Crux with the greatest discretion and responsibility. This is doubly necessary now because there are some ugly nuances in some of the sentiments of sections of the opposition.

There is a good deal of talk here against the “one man party”, but trailing closely behind it like an afternoon shadow behind a Kansas jackrabbit is the objection to a “one man international”. This is most outspoken on the part of Burnham who really sets the course for the rainbow combination, precisely because he has definite conceptions not only on the Russian question, but on the question of Bolshevism in general and particularly the Bolshevik system of party organisation.

I remember very well the objections raised in their time by the heroes of the SAP against the preponderant influence of Trotsky in the Fourth International. For my part I have always been ready to agree that a predominant influence of two men with good ideas is better than the predominance of one. In fact, I am ready even now to go further and to say that 10 leaders who lead by means of ideas and not with a club of corruption and persecution are better than two; but that, I think, is the maximum concession one could make to this SAPist theory which does not improve with age.

However, you can be sure in any case that we will take all the exceptional circumstances of the personal situation of Crux into consideration and take upon our shoulders the responsibility of the struggle which is from start to finish a struggle over ideas, and not of personalities.

There is one little favour I wish you would do for me, Joe. About two years ago, more or less—I think it was in January 1938 after our first convention—I had occasion to write a letter to the Old Man in regard to Burnham. In my shifting about from one house to another and packing and unpacking my stuff I have not been able to find the copy of this letter in my files. I wish you would see if it can be located in the files at Coyoacan and send me a copy along with a copy of the Old Man’s answer.

This matter has a certain importance for me in connection with attempts which are being made to interpret my objections to Burnham’s sorties and sallies on the programmatic front as a personal opposition and a refusal to recognise his positive qualities. I want to refresh my memory of the development of the antagonism between us.

I reported to the last meeting of the PC the indications that the services of yourself and Chris might be necessary there for a few weeks in preparation for the Austin affair. [15] It was unanimously agreed that there is no objection here to your accepting this assignment.

All things considered, everything is going along OK. Isn’t it a real piece of American luck to have the opportunity at this hour of the clock to thrash out the question of the program of the Fourth International under conditions of free democratic discussion. The time between the outbreak of the war in Europe and the entry of the United States is indeed a precious interlude in this respect.

I take a completely optimistic view of the ultimate results ...

As ever,

J.P. Cannon

5. A Letter to Leon Trotsky

New York, November 2, 1939

Dear Comrade Hansen [Trotsky], [16]

I received your letter of October 28. [17]

Several comrades to whom I have shown the letter express no objections to the suggestions and proposals you made. I personally will support them.

The situation is very sharp and it is possible that action on our part along the lines of your proposals can add in moderating the atmosphere or, failing that, in clarifying the issue.

Even if I didn’t agree with the steps you propose I wouldn’t hesitate at all to make such a concession to a co-fighter for programmatic intransigence.

I send you this brief note to reassure you that we will do everything we can along the lines of your suggestions to keep the main political issues in the foreground and to eliminate or compromise the secondary organisational questions.


J.P. Cannon

6. A Letter to Leon Trotsky

New York, November 4, 1939

Dear Comrade Hansen [Trotsky],

I received the copies of the old letters of December 1937, regarding Comrade B[urnham] and thank you very much for sending them to me. They are very useful to me personally as a self-assurance that the present difficulties in this respect were foreseen, along with their basic causes, and have not been provoked by obtuseness and tactlessness on my part.

The situation here is developing very rapidly. I hope you will follow the course of developments very attentively from week to week, and even, insofar as information at your disposal permits, from day to day, and participate further in the discussion.

I could very well be satisfied with an attitude of aloofness or a very restrained and limited intervention on your part in an ordinary dispute. But it is becoming clearer every day that we are concerned now with a fundamental struggle for the program and the general ideology of our movement; not simply for the victory of the Bolshevik doctrine on this or that point, but for the supremacy of the system and method of Bolshevik politics and organisation.

In your letter to Stanley of October 22, you castigate the attempts to muddle up the discussion of the Russian question with arguments about the “regime”. You touched only in passing—reserving for later comment, I hope—on the positively infuriating nonchalance with which comrades holding different positions on the political question in dispute (the Russian question) have combined in a bloc for the purpose of changing the “regime”.

We have subjected this downright unprincipledness to a pretty militant attack in the New York membership meetings. In my speech last Sunday I quoted from the records of the plenum the three different positions of Abern, Burnham and Shachtman on the nature of the Soviet state. Abern voted for our resolution, which characterises it as a degenerated workers’ state. Burnham denies that it is a workers’ state “in any sense whatever”. Shachtman declares he does not raise the question at the present time.

Without questioning the right of each comrade to his separate opinion, I simply put to the audience and to the leaders of the minority this question: What will be the position of the party on this question if the minority becomes the majority at the convention? Similarly, I showed from the documentary record that the three named comrades each give a different answer to the question of the defence of the Soviet Union. I repeated then the same question: What will the party say about the defence of the Soviet Union if the bloc gains the majority?

You can imagine the devastating effect on the minority bloc of such questions. A political observer might say very confidently that such a political attack, conducted with the necessary persistence and militancy, is bound to break the bloc. To a certain extent this impression is already being realised. We are witnessing now a very noticeable shift of rank and file comrades from the untenable position of the bloc over to the support of the majority.

But what about the leaders? From numerous indications, they are attempting to extricate themselves from their impossible position, not by each defending his own standpoint and letting the bloc go to the Devil, but by readjusting their principles to the exigencies of bloc politics. That is, they appear from all signs to be working out a common position by making mutual concessions, in order to arrive at uniform answers to the questions in dispute.

I understand that the ambiguous resolution of Shachtman, which served up to now as the platform of the bloc, interpreted by each of its three divisions as it saw fit, is to be replaced by a new resolution to which all will subscribe.

By this, they evidently hope to escape the accusation of combinationism and to present themselves as a single group with one platform. To us this will only signify another demonstration of the game of playing with ideas, which can only promote political cynicism among the youth. It can never educate them in the spirit expressed so cogently by De Leon: “Be serious about principles and be honest about them.”


We have decided to make a general codification of the various arguments and answers on the Russian question in the form of a resolution which will be submitted as our platform for the convention. Along with this, we plan also a resolution on the character of the party and the question of the internal regime. It is somewhat ironic to recall that contrasting resolutions on these two questions defined the issues between the majority and the Carter-Burnham minority before and at the convention two years ago. Nothing has since changed in the essence of the disputes except that Burnham has taken further steps away from us while Shachtman and Abern, who stood at that time on our side, have simply crossed over to the other side.

In view of the fact that under the conditions of the war our discussion on the Russian question becomes in essence the discussion of the Fourth International, we think international participation in the drafting of the Russian resolution is decidedly in order. The question for us is not the authorship of the resolution but of having the most precise and instructive formulation on each and every point as a guiding line for the whole International.

We are working on a resolution here, but we would also be very glad if time permits you to submit a draft. At the same time it is our plan to forward to you the draft of our resolution for criticism and amendment.


As I remarked in the early part of this letter, I consider your intervention not only on the Russian question but also on the other problems of ideology and political method as absolutely in order and imperative. It would be simply absurd to run the risk of leaving one question unclarified or a single serious comrade in doubt, for party tactical or diplomatic reasons.

From all indications, the proletarian centres of the party are standing absolutely firm on all the basic questions ...


J.P. Cannon

7. A Letter to Leon Trotsky

New York, November 8, 1939

Dear Comrade Hansen [Trotsky],

1. At last night’s meeting of the Political Committee, I introduced the enclosed statement on the regulation of the discussion. [18] It was accepted by the minority and adopted unanimously. It was decided also to send this statement to all party branches. I think it will help somewhat to provide a more favourable atmosphere for political discussion, and consequently for clarification of the great questions. At the same time, it will put a serious obstacle in the road of any who may want to play with the adventure of split.

2. Politically, the minority draws further away from us and the political hegemony of Burnham in the combination is becoming more manifest. At last night’s meeting of the Political Committee we discussed the new manifesto of the Comintern and our line in regard to it. On this point, also, it appears we are no longer able to find a common language, because we no longer agree on the role of Stalinism.

It appears that revisionism in our ranks is becoming somewhat “imperialistic”; it wants to conquer in all fields, one by one. Perhaps another way of explaining the new divergence would be to say at the Russian question, because of its fundamental nature, dominates a political orientation in general, now as in the past.

We began the discussion in the PC without motions, as an exchange of views and information about the new Stalinist turn, particularly from the point of view as to how we should combat it in the American labour movement. In the course of the discussion, however, it became evident that Burnham’s estimate of the aims of the Soviet bureaucracy is somewhat different from ours.

We explain the “peace” offensive of Stalin and the threats of revolution as simply a repetition of the whole Stalinist game of using the Comintern and its parties in the capitalist countries to serve the current needs of Soviet foreign policy. The left turn is designed, as was the People’s Front ballyhoo, not for fundamental struggle against the imperialist powers, but as a means of pressure upon one camp or the other. Fundamentally, Stalin doesn’t want to fight any of the big powers; he wants them to let him alone.

This view of the role and tactics of Stalinism on the world arena used to be taken for granted amongst us, and didn’t need to be repeated in every discussion. In fact, during the discussion I began to formulate some practical motions in regard to the tactics of our comrades in the trade unions, without bothering to put this accepted analysis as a preface to the motions. Thereupon, Burnham introduced a motion from a decidedly different standpoint. The gist of his theory is contained in point “b” of his motion which I am sending along in this letter, together with the other motions presented by me.

The discussion then took a new turn and we spent quite a long time on the question of the aims of the new line of Stalinism. We explained at some length, as has so often been explained in the past, that the Stalinist bureaucracy is an excrescence on the Soviet state and is in radical conflict with its own economy. Hence, its extraordinary instability and its fears of any social shocks or disturbances such as wars and revolutions. Its subsidised parties in the capitalist countries create activities in support of the current zig-zag of the Soviet foreign policy. These activities are designed, not to overthrow or conquer this or that group of imperialists, but as blackmail to buy them off or scare them off.

Burnham, and Shachtman following him, elucidated more frankly and fully than before their new theory that everything is changed, and that the Stalin gang is stepping out on a sort of Napoleonic path of world aggression. Burnham’s point “b” says “the Soviet bureaucracy aims to capture control of potential popular uprisings against the war in order to serve and expand its own power and privilege”. In the discussion that followed this was explained in the most fantastic manner, especially by Shachtman. He drew a picture of Stalin spending millions of dollars to buy up the nationalist leaders in India and of setting on foot a great uprising against Britain, which would be controlled bureaucratically from Moscow.

We explained that in our opinion Stalin could take the path of Napoleonic conquest not merely against small border states, but against the greatest imperialist powers, only on one condition: that the Soviet bureaucracy in reality represents a new triumphant class which is in harmony with its economic system and secure in its position at home, etc. That if such is really the case, we certainly must revise everything we have said on the subject of the bureaucracy up to now, and admit at the same time that the regenerating revolution in the Soviet Union, along with the proletarian revolution in the West, must be crossed off for a long time to come.

The debate ended by the decision to draft resolutions for consideration at the next meeting. My motions are taken as the basis for the resolution of the majority and Burnham’s for the resolution of the minority.

It must be borne in mind that both motions were formulated on the spot and, therefore, lack a finished and rounded-out shape. Nevertheless, they give the gist of the two conflicting opinions.

I should mention that Abern sat silent throughout the discussion, as he almost invariably does when important questions are on the agenda. He almost always sits silent and waits and adjusts his position to the exigencies of the internal faction struggle, not vice versa.

On the vote, all four members of the minority voted for Burnham’s formulation. The eight members of the majority voted for mine.

I will forward to you the copies of the conflicting resolutions as soon as they are prepared. I am sure that you will want to comment at length on this new attempt to throw overboard all that has been thought and said and done on the subject of the role of Stalinsm, and start all over again on the eve of the war.

It is clearer than ever that we are in for a fundamental struggle over the programmatic basis of our movement. But I, for my part, face it without a trace of pessimism or discouragement. That also is the attitude of all my closest co-workers here. We are only profoundly gratified that this hidden weakness is brought out into the open before the entry of the United States into the war, and under conditions which permit a solution and a reeducation of the cadres of the Fourth International in free discussion.


J.P. Cannon


[8] SAP-The Socialist Labour Party of Germany, a centrist organisation; among its leaders were Jacob Walcher and Paul Frölich.

[9] Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p. 1.

[10] These articles appeared in six consecutive issues of the Socialist Appeal, June 13, 16. 20, 23, 27 and 30, 1939.

[11] In October 1939, Joseph Hansen went to work in Trotsky’s secretariat in Mexico City. This and other letters addressed to him during his stay there were also written for the information of Trotsky.

[12] Trotsky, “Again and Once More Again on the Nature of the USSR”, In Defence of Marxism.

[13] On the eve of the July 1939 convention of the SWP, Trotsky sent a personal letter to Cannon. In this letter of May 27, 1939, Trotsky—in connection with discussions in the Political Committee over the Socialist Appeal —sounded a warning concerning the danger latent in the then existing social composition of the party, with a preponderance of petty-bourgeois elements in the large cities, especially New York.

The concluding section of this letter follows:

“A radical and courageous change is necessary as a condition of success. The paper is too wise, too scholarly, too aristocratic for the American workers and tends to reflect the party more as it is than to prepare it for its future.

“Of course it is not only a question of the paper, but of the whole course of policy. I continue to be of the opinion that you have too many petty-bourgeois boys and girls who are very good and devoted to the party, but who do not fully realise that their duty is not to discuss among themselves, but to penetrate into the fresh milieu of workers. I repeat my proposition: Every petty-bourgeois member of the party who during a certain time, let us say three or six months, does not win a worker for the party should be demoted to the rank of candidate and after another three months expelled from the party. In some cases it might be unjust, but the party as a whole would receive a salutary shock which it needs very much. A very radical change is necessary.

“ V. T. O’Brien [Leon Trotsky]”

As Cannon stresses in his letter, neither Trotsky’s warning nor his proposal was given proper heed or consideration at the time.

[14] Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 34-36.

[15] The reference is to the Dies Committee which had scheduled a special session at Austin, Texas, inviting Leon Trotsky to appear as a witness. Trotsky accepted and then Dies reneged. See In Defence of Marxism, pp. 85-86, 91ff.

[16] Because of the conditions of Trotsky’s residence in the various countries in which he lived during his exile, letters were frequently sent to him in the name of his secretaries.

[17] Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p. 212.

[18] See “Resolution on Party Unity” in this volume, p. 211.