The Struggle for a Proletarian Party

By James P. Cannon

Part V

8. A Letter to All Majority Groups

New York, November 20, 1939

Dear Comrades,

In a previous letter I informed you about the dispute between us and the minority over the meaning of the new turn of Stalinism.

Their theory of an imperialistic Stalin, launching on a Napoleonic path of conquest throughout the world, stems directly from Burnham’s thesis that the Soviet bureaucracy has, to all intents and purposes, emerged as a new victorious class.

It is remarkable how the other people in the combination, Shachtman, Abern, etc., more and more adapt themselves in the political conclusions they draw to this basic theoretical premise of Burnham which has been ostensibly “withdrawn”.

Anyone with half an eye can see that Burnham has simply made a shrewd bargain. In return for the formal withdrawal of his document, he succeeds in smuggling it in piecemeal into the practical political conclusions of the whole minority.

Joe Hansen sent me the enclosed copy of a prospectus the Old Man drew up for an article for Liberty magazine. You should study it very attentively in the light of our new dispute over the role of Stalin. It seems to us to confirm entirely our analysis as communicated to you in a previous letter.

All comrades should acknowledge the receipt of each letter as it arrives, and also give us information about the local party situation.


J.P. Cannon

9. A Letter to C. Charles

New York, December 1, 1939

C. Charles
Los Angeles, Cal.

Dear Comrade,

I received your letter today. Also received letters from David Stevens and Mark Knight. Please take this as an acknowledgment of all three and show it to the others.

Naturally we are all gratified to hear that all three of you take a firm position on the Russian question. I can state, however, that I personally never expected anything different. I could not assume that comrades who have participated most actively in the theoretical and political disputes and discussions out of which our program has been crystallised really learned nothing from the experience. In general, I can state that your reactions are similar to those of the basic cadres of the party throughout the country.

We are in for a thoroughgoing programmatic fight. It is incorrect to delay organisation of our forces. On the contrary you should proceed immediately with the organisation of a firm political caucus strictly confined in membership to those who take a clear and unambiguous position in support of the program of the Fourth International. We want no blocs or combinations with halfway people, but a straight-out fight for the program, the whole program and nothing but the program. This caucus should map out a campaign of struggle to win a firm majority for the forthcoming convention. You should also designate some comrade as secretary to receive communications from us and to send us information and reports.

We are having the regular semi-annual city convention in New York tomorrow. According to the results of the branch elections the opposition will have a majority of approximately two to one. This is to be explained in part by the unfavourable social composition of the party in New York and the frightful demoralisation of petty-bourgeois elements in general before the assault of bourgeois democratic public opinion. We have not a few people who react to every headline and editorial against the Soviet Union in the bourgeois press as a seismograph reacts to tremors in the earth.

In part, the momentary victory of the minority here is to be attributed to the fact that we are confronted with a combination of people of all kinds of differing and contradictory views on political questions, who are united in their opposition to the “regime,” i.e., a firm political line and a corresponding organisational system.

In part, the immediate advantage of the combination in New York can be attributed to the fact that they began the factional struggle secretly long in advance. We had the preliminary rumblings of this at the national convention, when a two-thirds majority of the New York delegates suddenly turned up as opponents of the national leadership without any advance notice to anybody.

Of interest to you will be the fact that Abern is being put forward as the candidate of the combination to replace Frank as city organiser. This – so to speak – is to be Abern’s organisational reward for capitulation to Burnham on the Russian question.

The line-up of well known leading people presents no surprises. The attempts at revisionism (Burnham), the pitiful vacillations (Shachtman), and the crass subordination of political and even programmatic questions to “organisational” considerations (Abern) – all this is confined pretty much to individuals who have exhibited these tendencies time after time in the past. In the present circumstances, under the pressure of the war crisis, they are only running true to form.

Their supporters at the beginning – and as has always been the case, such oppositions are far stronger at the beginning than at the end of a discussion – consist mainly of the inexperienced comrades who have not had the advantage of the previous educational discussions, plus the incurable cliquists who lie in wait from year to year for somebody else to lead a political struggle, in the course of which they hope to present their “organisational” claims.

The line-up of the party on a national scale (including New York) from the point of view of personnel is simply devastating for the combination. All the outstanding proletarian and trade union leaders of the party, with perhaps an incidental exception here and there which is not yet known to us, firmly support the party program. The same is true of the experienced party activists whom we have relied upon at every decisive turn in the past.

We suffer at the moment, once again, from an ironic twist of the dialectic contradiction involved in fusions with centrists and entries into reformist organisations. You recall that we had to force through the fusion of the Trotskyists with the centrists of the Muste organisation against the opposition of the Oehlerites; and in part, also, against the Abernites. Nevertheless, at the next stage after the fusion had been consolidated in a formal sense, both Oehler and Abern found new points of support for a new struggle against us precisely among the unassimilated centrists. It required a new internal struggle to complete the fusion in a political and ideological sense and isolate the sectarians on the one hand and the sterile cliquists on the other. Nevertheless, the political dregs of the old Musteite organisation remained with the Abern clique and helped to nourish its subterranean existence throughout these years.

We are having an analogous experience now as a deferred payment on the overhead charges of the entry into the SP. The left social-democratic elements who were not made over in the process of fusing with us, who didn’t succeed in assimilating the ideas and methods of Bolshevism into their blood – and not few of whom haven’t yet got them straight in their heads – these comrades are today the chief base of support for the opposition combination. We “entrists” of 1935 have to take upon ourselves now the task of completing our work of re-educating and assimilating the ex-Socialists in the course of a very sharp and concentrated ideological and political fight.

The centre of this fight naturally is in New York. We have every reason to be confident that we will succeed even here. But we require the overwhelming support of the rest of the country, and particularly of the proletarian sections, in order to discourage any further attempts to tamper with the program of the Fourth International after the forthcoming national convention.

In the course of the political fight which has been going on here for some time now, we are having the most gratifying successes in the ranks of the youth. The young comrades who were stampeded in the beginning on all kinds of extraneous and inconsequential issues and gossip are beginning now to review the question in the light of fundamental considerations. The “solid block” of the youth, with which the opposition combination expected to intimidate the National Committee, is falling apart. A considerable number of the most able comrades among the youth in New York have completely changed their position and are now leading a struggle for the program and for principled methods of struggle. We gain in this field not only from week to week but even from day to day. After this struggle is concluded and its experiences are fully assimilated I think we can be confident that never again will anyone be able to count on “lining up” the youth as a body to support an assault on the program of the party.

The discussion preceding the New York District Convention has taken place ostensibly around organisation questions of a local character without reference to any of the national political resolutions. In reality, however, the combination mobilised solidly to take revenge on the local Executive Committee and the local organiser, Comrade E.R. Frank, for their support of the party program on the Russian question. By their announcements in the discussion they have given a clear indication of what they mean by a change in the “regime”. The present local leadership is to be thrown out of office, and the organiser removed from his post in favour of a new committee standing on the political platform of the combination, with Abern as the organiser.

This also foreshadows their national plans in the event of victory. I doubt very much whether this kind of a regime will prove very attractive to the serious and experienced and informed cadres of the party throughout the country, including those (like myself) who can point out more than one flaw in the “regime” we have at present.

I hope you will not take these references to the prospect of an Abern “regime” as “scare propaganda” designed to terrorise everybody into line for the present “regime”. I simply give you the facts of the New York plans of the combination and their projection nationally and leave you to draw your own conclusions, with only one pertinent quotation from the cautious Hamlet of Shakespeare: “Rather bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”

As a matter of fact, the campaign against the New York local leadership, and against Frank as the organiser, is a positive outrage. On the merits of their work during the past six months they deserve not censure but congratulation and approval. The one place where we made a real stir in the struggle against the Coughlinites and in general activity since the party convention was precisely here in New York under this leadership. All the records and facts show, not simply a modest improvement in the work in New York during the past six months; in comparison with the preceding six months, or with the same period a year ago, but a multiplication of activity in practically all fields.

Since I am somewhat familiar with the activity of the party in other parts of the country, I can testify that the same comparison to the advantage of the New York organisation during the recent period holds good there also. When we come to discuss the organisation question at the national convention, I am quite sure that on the basis of the record the report of Frank as the leader of the New York work during the past six months will stand out above all others.

The attempt to remove and disgrace Frank and to replace him by Abern should have an interest for all comrades in the party who take seriously the orientation towards trade union work and proletarianisation in general. In the person of Frank we have a comrade who, despite his youth, distinguished himself in the trade union field and became one of the outstanding party trade union leaders. He brought to his work as party organiser a rich experience in the movement and a proven capacity to deal with workers, to organise them and to understand their language. Such comrades are rare enough in our ranks.

But if we mean seriously to change the character and the composition of the party by turning its face towards the workers, shouldn’t we deliberately aim to strengthen the composition of our professional party staff by the inclusion of more organisers of this type? Moreover, although he always talks and acts like a man, from the point of view of age Frank is still a youth – 26 years old. In years he is younger than several of these professional and eternal Yipsels who are almost old enough to have children in the Yipsels but who are nevertheless everlastingly whining that a sharp word addressed to them is unfair to the “youth” – the youth, who, it is maintained, are as yet too fragile to be exposed to the realities and brutalities of our manners, which, God forgive me, I must confess are not always the manners of the salon or the college class room.

Abern, on the other hand, with his merits and defects which are known to each and every one of the experienced people in our party, is and always has been a strictly internal party man. His experience been confined exclusively to inner party work and activity, with the exception of the brief period when he assisted me in the work of the International Labor Defense years ago. To be sure, this does not disqualify him from holding one or another party post where his administrative talent can have free play. But as the organiser of the most important political district of the party, at a time when we are constrained to make heroic efforts to turn the activities of the party outward towards the workers and not inward upon ourselves, he can only be the symbol of a step backward. The replacement of Frank by Abern will be a miscarriage of the line of our last convention dictated by shortsighted factional considerations.

One more point – and not a small one either. You have seen the resolution unanimously adopted by the PC in favour of party unity and the settlement of the dispute within the framework of the party and the Fourth International, without expulsions on the one hand or splits and withdrawals on the other. The whole party was waiting for this reassurance and welcomed it. But how does the violent campaign for the replacement of Frank by Abern reinforce this assurance? In the past we have known of two attempts by Abern to organise a split in the party. If he did not succeed it was perhaps, on the one hand, because he is not as good an “organiser” as he is cracked up to be and, on the other hand, because we placed a few obstacles in his path. To be more precise, we pounded his program so mercilessly that his splitting caucus fell apart and was reduced to such a small circle of diehard personal adherents as to be incapable of making a split that anybody would notice.

The party has not yet made proper acknowledgment of the party-loyal action of Comrade Weber in separating from Abern and paralysing the split program at the decisive moment, just before the convention preceding our entry into the SP. (Needless to say, the Abern clique has neither forgotten nor forgiven the “treachery” of Weber. They ostracise him socially up to this day and even at the last convention they made a surreptitious attempt to remove him from the National Committee. The sentiment of revenge, apparently, has a longer memory than the sentiment of gratitude.)

It is time now to recall also that in the old Cannon-Shachtman struggle in the CLA,[19] which, as we all remember, brought us to the very brink of a split which was only prevented by international intervention – it was precisely Abern who resisted the peace agreement and the dissolution of the contending factional organisations. Shachtman has testified to this in a party document. It was only the revolt of Shachtman, Lewit and others which paralysed a split at that time.

It should be noted, also, that Abern, who took the post of local organiser in New York at the time when split was on the order of the day and in that capacity sharpened and accentuated the struggle with the National Office in every possible way, immediately resigned his post as local organiser when the peace agreement was made.

I would be the last one to rake up past errors of anyone in a new situation if there is reason to believe there is no connection between the past and the present. But we have now a very grave crisis in the party over the most fundamental questions that have ever created divisions in our ranks. The atmosphere in New York is extremely sharp. Our experience teaches us to see in every factional dispute the possibility and the danger of a split. In my own personal experience of 20 years of American communism, to leave aside the previous experience of the war and prewar movement, I have observed that faction struggles have led more often to splits than to reunifications on a higher basis.

From this experience we must all conclude that it is necessary to take every possible measure at the outset of a dispute to safeguard the party unity. This attitude dictated our proposals for the joint adoption of the unity statement; for the setting up of the parity commission to examine grievances; for the joint editorship of the internal bulletin to guarantee the minority against discrimination; the removal of organisation complaints to the point where there is not a single grievance at the present time before the parity commission and has not been since it was constituted.

But I think we can also testify from experience that unity is safeguarded not merely by pacifistic gestures and concessions toward elements of a minority who want in good faith to preserve party unity. There must also be the dialectic complement of militant struggle and exposure of all elements who venture even to play with the idea of a split, in order to separate the conscientious comrades from them, to isolate them, and thereby paralyse any split adventure.

Abern was never interested in the post of city organiser in New York at any time during the past two years of more or less normal party peace. At every city convention – in New York they take place every six months – there has been a suggestion from someone or other of Abern’s personal clique that Abern take the post of organiser. Each time he refused entirely to consider the proposition. Now, at the height of a faction fight, the sharpest and bitterest we have ever known, Abern proposes to take the post of New York organiser and, in the process, to remove and disgrace a young comrade who has done a good job.

It is proposed, in addition, to set up a New York local committee which would aim in effect to be a rival political centre to the National Committee which alone has authority in political matters under our constitution. Whatever the design of the minority combination may be in this procedure, the whole proposition, especially the designation of Abern as organiser in the present situation, has for us a sinister implication.

You can depend upon it that we will be on guard, for we have set for ourselves as revolutionary task – or more precisely, double task – number 1 the realisation of the following two slogans: Maintain the program of the Fourth International, and maintain the unity of the party on the basis of the program.

J.P. Cannon

10. A Letter to Joseph Hansen

New York, December 14, 1939

Dear Joe,

Wright told me that you inquired about the article on the workers’ guard. He translated that for us but we have only one copy. From the content of the article it is unclear to us whether it is designed for publication in the press, the internal bulletin or in a circular to branches. Will you please check this right away and let us know what disposition is desired? Then we will take care of it right away.

I am now having some concrete figures compiled on the social composition of the party in New York City. As you perhaps remember, a registration was taken sometime recently. According to the statement of Sam Gordon, who checked the registration in connection with his trade union work, only about one-sixth of the membership of the party and YPSL in New York is composed of industrial workers. This figure seemed to me so astounding that I have asked the City Office to give me an exact report. I will forward a copy to you as soon as I get it.

The big preponderance of the minority in New York gives us quite a handicap in the national contest. I had been proceeding on the theory that the strong majority in the more proletarian districts would easily overbalance the New York handicap. However, a rather careful check which I made yesterday on the basis of the last convention figures of representation doesn’t present too optimistic a picture. On the face of things now we appear to be assured of a small majority at the convention. A few shifts or surprises could change the situation in the other direction.

You mustn’t forget for a moment that we are up against a general combination of all elements opposed to us on every conceivable ground. The opposition as represented by its political leader (Burnham) is indubitably a right-wing opposition, not simply on the Russian question, but also on the organisation question. This does not prevent the remnants of ultraleft opposition who remained in the party from rallying around the combination. And, needless to say, the combination leaders in no way repel support from this direction also. In addition, they count on the votes of all the insulted and injured, regardless of who insulted or injured them. Many of our New York youth, for example, who were justifiably offended by McKinney’s rudeness and brusqueness, are lined up against the “regime” – along with McKinney.

On the other hand, we have the overwhelming majority of the proletarian activists on our side. This applies in New York as elsewhere. Among the statistical data being compiled by Comrade Edwards some figures on this are also to be included.

We are making steady headway in the youth. But here we had to begin from nothing. The youth had all been lined up before the fight started on the basis of gossip or small grievances of one kind and another. A great many of them were so poisoned and disoriented that a serious political discussion has had difficulty in making its way among them.

Together with our leading youth comrades I am arranging to devote from now on one night a week for political discussions with the youth. A long series of lectures has been mapped out, beginning with explanations of what principled politics really means. This has to be explained to our youth who have been cruelly miseducated and disoriented by the clique politicians of the Abern school on the one side, and the ex-Socialists in the youth leadership who haven’t yet completely shed their skins. The latter are better material than the former. There is reason to hope that in time most of them can learn. The others, however, don’t want to learn.

In my elucidation of the principled method of politics I intend to sketch out for our young comrades a history of the American communist movement in the light of its internal struggles. I will also draw heavily on the experience of our international organisation for the past 10 years. Together with Wright, I have been compiling all the necessary material from the old internal and international bulletins. If you want to spend a few profitable hours you should dig this material out of the files and read it over. The things that were written by the Old Man years ago in the conflicts with Landau, Naville, Nin, etc., appear startling in their freshness and timeliness and their pertinence to the struggle that has broken out in our party under pressure of the war crisis. We have remarked about several of these articles that, with a very slight editing and change of names, they could be printed in our internal bulletin today as contributions to the present discussion.

I am very glad indeed to hear that Crux is writing another article on the most fundamental aspects of the present dispute. A really positive intervention on his part, which will present things as they really are, is perhaps the one thing now that can save for the Fourth International those who are worth saving.


by J.P. Cannon

11. A Letter to Bill Morgan

New York, December 15, 1939

Bill Morgan
San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Bill,

The results of the New York City convention must put all comrades throughout the country on guard and convince them of the necessity of making the most thorough preparations for the forthcoming national convention of the party on the organisational as well as on the political field.

As I wrote in a previous letter, the opposition combination won the elections by approximately two to one. Their representation in the city convention was somewhat even better than this as a result of certain maladjustments in the proportional representation and the addition of the YPSL delegation. This relation of forces, in view of the large number of New York delegates, means that we will come to the national convention under a very heavy handicap. Unless we make a real effort to see that the majority sentiment in the branches throughout the country is fully represented, the results of the convention can represent a catastrophe for the Fourth International.

I am enclosing herewith a blank form which you are requested to fill out without delay in order that we may have the necessary statistical information to get a fairly clear picture of the convention prospects. In addition, exceptional efforts must be concentrated now on seeing to it that all membership lists are carefully checked, that dues of members are paid up, and that each branch is represented at the convention by the exact number of delegates to which it is legitimately entitled under the convention rules – no more and no less.

I write on this subject for the first time in the 11 years’ history of our movement because we have reasons, as a result of the experience in New York, to be apprehensive of attempts at manipulation. We have already uncovered one case of an outright election fraud and we are conducting a rigorous investigation into some other suspicious incidents. You will be given concrete information about this a little later. In the meantime, begin now to devote serious and concentrated attention to the organisation side of the convention preparations. Study the convention rules and see to it that they are strictly adhered to.

The right-wing combination gave us a real dose of Tammany politics in the campaign preceding the New York City convention. They mobilised all their political supporters without presenting any political resolutions. On the other hand, they appealed for the support of those in political agreement with the majority who had organisational grievances or criticisms of one kind or another. They were as busy on the technical side of convention preparations – figuring the proportional percentages, wangling a vote here and there, shifting people from one branch to another in such a way as to exploit the most favourable factional percentages, paying back dues of supporters, etc. – as any set of precinct captains. In addition, they hit us over the head with a considerable bloc of “graveyard votes” – people who hadn’t been seen or heard from for a long time, and from some carelessness remained on the books of the branches, suddenly turned up to pay back dues and vote on election night. Some of these “election workers” didn’t learn much from us in the Socialist Party, but they learned plenty from Jack Altman. We can expect a transference of these methods to other parts of the country.

The bourgeois political method manifested itself in another characteristic way. Every bourgeois politician always promises to reduce taxes and increase efficiency at the same time. This campaign demagogy and bombast, hitherto absent from our discussions, came out in full bloom in the New York preconvention period without the slightest relation to reality and without discrimination between the different departments of city work. Everything done during the past six months was condemned as wrong and inefficient, and unfulfillable promises were made that everything would he done better under the new administration. They promised everything but socialism; that naturally has to wait until the main enemy – which apparently is not “in our own country” but in the National Committee of our own party – is overthrown. One can easily admit that one result of this bourgeois campaign – the replacement of one set of local officials by another – can eventually be rectified. But the other and more important result – the miseducation of the party, the promotion of cynicism, the spirit of electioneering, etc. – that will not be so easily overcome.

The new city committee, which was installed at the convention, consists of 21 members including the alternates, who attend all meetings without vote. You will perhaps say that a committee of such fantastic size is not properly adapted to the efficient organisation of local work even in normal times, and that a serious preparation for war conditions in any case must dictate the construction of smaller committees all along the line, for greater safety and mobility. But such objections leave out of account the necessity of the combination to provide representation for each of its various tendencies, as well as to “take care” of various individuals who were against the old committee precisely because they were not members of it.

The first session of the new committee gave us a dose of spoils politics and at the same time gave those comrades throughout the country, who are worried about the “regime”, an advance picture of a different one. Frank was replaced by Abern as city organiser. The director of unemployed work was replaced by one of theirs. Then the director of the party educational department, Comrade Wright, was also summarily removed and replaced by Carter. This removal has aroused a particular antagonism and resentment. Everybody knows the conscientiousness with which Comrade Wright undertakes and carries out every task assigned to him. And nobody could have reason to doubt that a party school under his direction would teach Marxism. From all reports I have heard, the work of Comrade Wright as educational director was highly regarded by the party generally. No serious attempt was made to justify his removal, except to maintain that the majority had a right to remove and appoint whomever it saw fit to any post. This “right” is unassailable. But if we take the New York performance as precedent for general application, the party will undoubtedly experience something new in the way of an internal “regime”.

In order to present an absolutely fair and complete picture I must admit that one post was left to the defenders of the Soviet Union, that of trade union director. Frank, removed from his post as party organiser on the ostensible ground that he is no good for organising, was entrusted with the task of organising and directing the trade union work. Was this a concession to the minority of the city committee even at the cost of a little contradiction? No, that is not the reason. Among all the supporters of the combination in New York City they could not find a single man with the experience and authority required for the office of trade union director. That fact says much about the real line-up here. It says almost everything.


by J.P. Cannon

12. A Letter to Farrell Dobbs

New York, December 15, 1939

Dear Comrade Dobbs,

Last Sunday we had an internal party debate on the Soviet invasion of Finland. This followed by one week the New York City convention about which I have written in another letter. These two events have revealed the profound differences more clearly and have enormously sharpened the factional situation in New York.

As becomes clearer every day, what is involved is not simply an ordinary discussion in which different opinions are presented, but an irreconcilable struggle in which sides are being taken. You will recall that at the plenum a mere two months ago we characterised the ambiguous resolution of Shachtman as a bridge to the anti-Bolshevik position of Burnham. With the Finnish events this bridge has already been crossed. The author of the minority resolution on Finland was Burnham and, corresponding to the new stage in the development of the struggle, Burnham appeared at the New York membership meeting as the debater for the minority, in place of Shachtman who appeared in this capacity at the beginning of the discussion on the Russian question. This change of pitchers, so to speak, signifies that the ball game is entering the crucial seventh inning. Or, to change the figure, as I remarked in the debate, the attorney is replaced by the principal and the real issues will be clearer now.

The debate had all the tension of a battle. We didn’t discuss with each other, we fought each other. We couldn’t “discuss” because we didn’t proceed from the same premise and couldn’t talk on the same plane. I constructed my whole argument around the idea that Roosevelt and Hoover are mobilising the American and world bourgeoisie for a political and ideological war against the Soviet Union on the pretext of the Finnish events; that this campaign in fact has already advanced to the stage of providing material aid, which can have all the significance of a direct military intervention (Hoover’s fund-raising committee, remission of Finnish debt, war materials from Italy, England, etc.); and that in these circumstances we must reassert and stand by the two basic points of our thesis on “War and the Fourth International”:

  1. The main enemy is in our own country – expose and fight the Roosevelt-Hoover combination.
  2. Defend the Soviet Union in spite of Stalin against Stalin. Burnham constructed his whole speech around an attack on the National Committee of the party as capitulators to Stalinism. He denied that the Soviet Union is a workers’ state – since he was speaking in his own name and not through an attorney I provoked and demanded of him that he state his position. He declared himself in favour of the defeat of the Red Army.

It was a hard and bitter debate. Two sides. Two camps. Burnham laid aside the professorial urbanity which he never entirely loses in polemics against the class enemy and attacked the National Committee with truculence and even impudence, as though it were indeed the main enemy. He challenged me, with the brutal arrogance of a man who has his opponent in a corner, to go out and face the popular clamour at a public mass meeting on the Soviet invasion of Finland. To all of us he seemed to speak with an unwonted self-assurance and self-confidence, like a man who feels powerful forces behind him.

I, in answer, said that I would be very glad to defend the Soviet Union at a public meeting and hoped one would be arranged in the near future, but that unfortunately my first task was to defend the Soviet Union in our own party. I characterised the whole popular clamour around the question of Finland as primarily an expression of the powerful pressure of the united bourgeoisie on public opinion, mobilised through newspapers, pulpits, radio stations, and other means of communication and information. I said that Stalin to be sure, in this case as always, had done everything possible to alienate the sentiment of the masses and to serve the game of the democratic imperialist masters, but that we shouldn’t be thrown off the track and lose sight of the essence of the question on this account.

I characterised – and, by God, I was right! – the offensive against the Soviet Union inside our party as nothing but a craven capitulation to the pressure of bourgeois public opinion. I said that a party which yields to this pressure already before the actual war begins would never be able to stand up when the real heat is turned on. You see, we didn’t get along very well together at all.

Burnham wants to undermine the Marxist program of the party and to replace the Marxist political method by an empirical approach to every new incident as an independent question. I personally never had any sympathy with Burnham’s ideas and conceptions in this respect. But, along with others, as long as Burnham remained an isolated factor unable to assert any decisive influence on the course of the party, I saw no reason to draw our differences with him out to the end. But now, since Burnham speaks as the representative of a numerically strong combination in the party, the situation stands somewhat differently. It would be criminal folly and disloyalty to the Fourth International to yield an inch to this anti-Marxist offensive or to relent for a single moment in the struggle until the program and the methods of Marxism in all fields have re-established an unquestionable hegemony.

In order to leave absolutely nothing unsaid, now that the fight is out in the open in all respects, I intend to write in another letter political and personal characterisations of the three main leaders of the right-wing combination – Burnham, Abern and Shachtman[20] – and to show that speculation on possible shifts or retreats of one or another of these three people is a false approach to the problem posed by the party crisis. The party membership must be educated to reconquer the positions of Bolshevism in an uncompromising struggle against these people. That is the only way to prepare the party for the war. What any of these individuals, or all of them, may do after the party ranks have consciously asserted themselves – that question, with all its importance, is nevertheless a question of second order.


by J.P. Cannon

13. A Letter to Leon Trotsky

New York, Dec. 21, 1939

Dear Comrade Hansen [Trotsky],

Here is one very important question about which we would like to have your opinion by return mail. For some time, Burnham and Shachtman have been pressing to carry the discussion into the public press of the party. Our original decision to publish your second article on the nature of the Soviet State was later reconsidered because the minority demanded the right to answer it also in the Appeal.[21]

Next they demanded the right to publish the minority statement on Stalin’s invasion of Finland in the Appeal with the official statement of the PC.

Now they announce that they have a long document on the Russian question almost ready which they want to publish in the next number of the New International.[22] We have not yet seen this document, but from all indications it is highly polemical against you as well as against the majority.

The majority of our comrades here, including myself, are opposed to taking the discussion into the public press. Goldman, however, is in favour of it. In view of the difference of opinion, we have decided to consult you since very important issues are involved.

  1. Up till now we have felt that if B. and S. carry their struggle into the public press in the present extremely sharp situation, and over such fundamental issues, they will be cutting off their own retreat. It would be much more difficult for them to reconcile themselves in one way or another to the party’s rejection of their revisionist program once they have advertised it to the world.
  2. We come into increasingly sharp conflict with Burnham, and lately also with Shachtman, over some general principles of communist organisation involved in this question. They are pressing all the time to establish as the normal procedure the right of a minority to contradict the party line in the public press. Implicit, and very frequently now explicit, in every move or proposal of Burnham touching organisational questions is the idea that we must take deliberate measures on every possible occasion to arrest the natural development of the Bolshevik party along the lines of Stalinist bureaucratisation. Irrespective of the merits or demerits of the proposals at a given moment, we are entirely opposed to the general assault on the idea of a centralised and disciplined party which regulates its own affairs without the intervention of the general public, and decides for itself when and under what conditions it finds it advisable to make its internal affairs public. In a rather heated argument in the PC the other night, Burnham maintained that the right of a minority to publish its views in the press should be assured at any time in the development of the party’s activities except during insurrection. I asked: “Why not during the insurrection?”
  3. There is no possible question of the democratic party rights of the minority involved in this case. Our internal bulletins publish everything submitted by the minority and reach the entire membership. In addition, there is absolutely no discrimination in the discussion at party branch and membership meetings. The rule everywhere is equal time for the minority. What is really involved in the present demand of the minority is the right to appeal to the public.
  4. Goldman maintains that the discussion in the press will serve our cause; that the force of our arguments in the controversy will mobilise the party sympathisers more firmly around the program of the Fourth International. I also think this would be the case. But I insist that if we take this step we must do it with eyes wide open. We must realise that a public discussion can hardly fail to accelerate the movement of Burnham and his satellite, Shachtman, in a direction opposite to ours.


The situation in New York gets sharper every day. We talk different languages. Nobody, not even the conciliatory Goldman, foresees any possibility of reconciling the conflicting positions. Our decision on the question of opening the discussion in the press must be taken with this state of affairs in mind. We have to make the decision in the next few days, as the magazine is already overdue. We all would appreciate it very highly if you would let us know your opinion immediately.


by J.P. Cannon

14. A Letter to a Seattle Comrade

December 27, 1939

Dear Dick,

I have been sending you regularly copies of caucus correspondence on the internal dispute. Have you been receiving it? ...

I would be glad to hear your opinion of the Old Man’s latest article on the Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party and also on the fight in general.

My opinion in brief is that we now have the fundamental fight with the right-wing tendency that we had a few years ago with the ultralefts and that a decisive victory in this struggle is a prerequisite for further progress of the party.


by J.P. Cannon

15. A Letter to the Party Membership

New York, January 3, 1940

To All Locals and Branches

Dear Comrades,

On the question of discussion in the Socialist Appeal

For some time the minority of the Political Committee has been demanding that the public press of the party, including the Socialist Appeal, be opened to the minority for the presentation of their position on equal terms with the majority. They demand the right to counterpose [their own program to] the program laid down by national conventions of the party and congresses of the Fourth International.

At the meeting of December 5, Comrade Burnham presented the following motion: “That in the same issue of the paper where the official party position on the Finnish conflict appears, there also be published the resolution introduced by the minority.”

Repeatedly in discussions in the Political Committee, and lately also in branch meetings, the leaders of the minority and their supporters have maintained that a free presentation and defence of another program, as against the official program of the party and the international, in the public press is a normal procedure, and that its denial signifies a suppression of democratic party rights in the spirit of Stalinism.

In this conception of organisation, as in their theoretical and political positions, the leaders of the minority demonstrate their antagonism to the principles and traditions of Bolshevism. The demagogic demand for “freedom of the press” represents a petty-bourgeois, anarchistic revolt against revolutionary centralism.

During the preconvention discussion period the Bolshevik organisation system assures full rights and facilities to a minority to present its case, freely and fairly, for the consideration and decision of the party membership. This tradition and unvarying practice of our movement – the best and most honestly democratic tradition and practice the labour movement has ever known – has been fully adhered to in the present discussion. All resolutions and articles submitted by the minority are published without censorship or discrimination in a jointly edited internal bulletin which reaches every party member. At all branch and membership meetings where the disputed questions are under discussion an equal division of time is the uniform rule. No restrictions of any kind are put in the way of the minority getting a fair hearing.

From the point of view of party democracy, from the point of view of getting a fair hearing from the entire party membership, the minority has no possible ground for any kind of complaint, and has placed no such complaints on record. In assuring and safeguarding this free and democratic discussion, the majority of the National Committee is only according to the minority its party rights, as established by the constitution of the party and the traditions of the Bolshevik movement.

With the public press of the party, however, the situation stands differently. If democracy holds sway in the internal discussion, then centralism predominates in the public expressions and actions of the party. The public party press is not and cannot be an instrument of discussion under the control of a parity committee. It is, rather, an instrument of the party and its National Committee for the presentation and defence of the official position of the party. In the discussion bulletin the opposition can ask for equal rights with the majority, but the official party publications have the duty to defend the point of view of the party and the Fourth International until they are changed by convention or congress. A discussion in the pages of the official party publications – as provided in the forthcoming issue of the New International, for example – can be conducted only within the limits established by the majority of the National Committee. Whoever disputes this rejects the whole conception of a centralised revolutionary party. At the same time he negates party democracy by subjecting the decisions of a majority to the public attack of a minority at whim.

There is a fundamental difference between the honest democratic centralism of a Bolshevik party and the pseudo-democracy of the parties of the reformists and centrists of all shades. The much-advertised public “freedom of discussion” didn’t prevent the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas from gagging its revolutionary left wing. On the other hand, the genuine and honest democracy of a Bolshevik party does not assure “freedom” for anarchistic individuals to disavow and attack the party program before the public.

These considerations are self-evident to those comrades who are familiar with the Bolshevik tradition and practice and who desire to uphold it. Different opinions are possible only on the part of those who seek inspiration from other traditions of organisation. But it is quite obvious that the attempt of the minority to overthrow the Bolshevik tradition, and break down the right of the party to speak through its press without public contradiction, involves something more than a mere difference of opinion. It is obvious that the leaders of the minority are not content to rest their case with the members of the party and let the party members decide. They want to proclaim their program to the public before party has endorsed their program.

In view of the insistence with which they present this demand it is proper to ask: What is the source of this impatience? Why can’t they wait for the verdict of their own party before appealing to the public? The explanation is all too simple. They want to justify themselves before democratic public opinion. Without waiting for the party convention, and not trusting the party membership to accept their position, they want to shout to all the Eastmans, Hooks and others that they, the opposition, are not as bad as we. They also want to make it known that, besides the bad “Trotskyists”, there are also some good ones who take a more reasonable – and more popular – view of things.

In their extreme impatience to make these announcements the leaders of the minority are attempting to stampede the inexperienced members of the party and the youth with the demagogic appeal for “democracy”. The National Committee answers to the leaders of minority: Democracy – party democracy – is precisely what you shall have. Full and equal rights for the minority in the party discussion – but only there! The members of the party aned not the public will decide these disputes! You must wait for the verdict of the party and you cannot appeal to the public until this party verdict is announced.

The demand of the minority for “equal rights” in the public press of the party is an attack on the Bolshevik principle of centralised party organisation. It is a perversion and distortion of its traditions and an unscrupulous attempt to miseducate the party in the spirit of Menshevism. The National Committee declares that it will under no circumstances permit any attacks on the program of the party and the Fourth International to appear in the Socialist Appeal – the political-agitational organ of the party. On the contrary, the Socialist Appeal will be devoted exclusively to a militant defence of the party position on all questions as long as these positions have not been changed by a convention or a congress.

Political Committee
Socialist Workers Party

by J.P. Cannon
National Secretary

16. A Letter to the Party Membership

New York, January 3, 1940

To All Locals and Branches:

Dear Comrades,

On democratic centralism

Supplementing the Political Committee letter of January 3, we are calling your attention here to three pertinent references on the subject of democratic centralism as it has been conceived and practiced by our movement in the past and stated in official documents.

1. “Democratic centralism means the right of discussion inside the party, at times and in ways laid down by the party. Democratic centralism also means discipline; it means the subordination of the minority to the majority; it means the centralisation of authority, between conventions, in one leading committee selected by the convention; it means that the party always confronts the outside world with a single policy, the policy of the majority of its authoritative bodies. Democratic centralism means that the individual party member always and under all circumstances must subordinate himself in his public action and expressions to the policy and decisions of the party.” – From the Statement of the Political Committee on the Expulsion of Joseph Zack, issued by the Workers’ Party under date of June 4, 1935.

2. Replying to and rejecting the demand of the Oehlerites for public discussion, the plenum of the Workers’ Party stated: “There is no principle which requires that material on controversy within the party must be carried within the public press of the party. Even in preconvention discussions this is not the case; much less in other periods. It is the province of the National Committee to order such a discussion if it is to take place.” – From the Resolution on the Internal Situation of the Workers’ Party, adopted by the October 1935 Plenum.

3. “The plenum ... will lay down procedure for the preconvention discussion and arrangements for the convention itself in accordance with the principles of democratic centralism. The rights of the membership will be fully safeguarded. The plenum categorically asserts, however, that it is the prerogative and duty of the Plenum and the Political Committee, in accordance with well-established Bolshevik procedure and the constitution of the WP itself, to determine what is the correct procedure; what in a given situation safeguarding the rights of the membership means, and to carry out the provisions of the constitution of the party. No individual or group can arrogate this so-called ‘right’ to himself itself.” – From the Resolution on the Internal Situation of the Workers’ Party, adopted by the October 1935 Plenum.

Yours fraternally,
Political Committee

by J.P. Cannon
National Secretary

17. A Letter To All Majority Groups

New York, January 3, 1940

Dear Comrades,

We here are of the opinion that the party will benefit in every way if the convention is postponed for at least one month. However, we do not want to take the step here in the committee without resolutions from the branches, requesting such a postponement.

We request you to introduce resolutions in all branches, asking for a postponement of the convention for at least one month. We list below a list of reasons. You can cite any one or all of them as you see fit in the resolutions you draw up. Please inform us immediately of the adoption of any such resolutions and see that official copies are sent to the National Office without delay.


Reasons for postponing the convention

1. A month’s postponement will assure much better weather for travelling by auto from far distant places. February is still pretty cold. We want at all costs to have a complete representation from the Western branches, and a month’s postponement to a time of milder weather should facilitate their travel by car.

2. We want a discussion in the party on resolutions of the two groups. We must demand everywhere that the minority present a resolution stating precisely what the party position will be on the Soviet state and its defence in the event that they receive a majority. Recently they have handed in and also distributed in the party a document of 25,000 words on the Russian question in which they manage to evade these two simple questions. They promise a resolution for the convention, but the membership is entitled to see it and discuss it beforehand. The branch resolution should state that we demand resolutions from the two sides so that members can know what they are voting on. The detailed resolution of the majority is going to be published in the next number of the New International.

3. In view of the fact that Comrade Trotsky in his article on the Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party has raised the question of Marxist philosophy, the branches should ask what the answer of the minority leaders is on this point so that the party membership will be able to judge between the two positions and improve their Marxist education in the process of the discussion.


All branches are receiving a circular letter from the Political Committee, replying to the demand of the minority that the columns of the Appeal be opened for attacks on the program of the party. In this case we have an excellent opportunity to educate some of the younger and more inexperienced comrades in the meaning of Bolshevik organisation.

We propose that resolutions be drawn up on this question in all party branches without exception and that a thoroughgoing discussion take place on the meaning and significance of the two positions. All the necessary arguments are contained in the statement of the Political Committee and in the two letters from Comrade Rork [Trotsky] which you will receive.

We must take the offensive on this point. In no instance have the leaders of the opposition bloc shown their capitulatory attitude towards public opinion more clearly than in their demand of the “right” to tell their troubles to the public before the party membership has decided the disputes.

Incidentally, all comrades who are doing serious work in the mass movement can understand how the agitational value of the Appeal will be destroyed if it is converted into a discussion organ at the moment we are undertaking to defend the Soviet Union against the whole world, including Stalin. It must be pointed out that the campaign of the Appeal in defence of the Soviet Union is an action. It can be compared to a strike situation, multiplied ten thousand times. A member of a strike committee might consider that a given strike is ill-advised and should be called off for one reason or another, and would have a full right to explain his point of view within the closed limits of a strike committee. But it would be a miserable committee indeed which would permit such an individual to carry his fight to the public before the question had been decided in the workers’ ranks. And an individual who would resort to such action would be called something more than miserable.


by J.P. Cannon

18. A Letter to Farrell DobbsA

New York, January 3, 1940

Dear Dobbs,

... I haven’t anything definite that you need to take up with the Old Man that he doesn’t already know except what you can tell him from your own personal impressions, etc. The thing here is getting sharper every day. The first letters and articles of the Old Man were taken by these people as a sign of softness and weakness instead of as a warning. His blast on the petty-bourgeois opposition in the party, instead of inducing them to stop, look and listen for a while, has only aroused them to a greater frenzy.

... At last night’s PC meeting we were informed that Shachtman has written an answer entitled “An Open Letter to Leon Trotsky”. They should quit politics and read poetry for a while. Alexander Pope warned, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. And Shakespeare’s Hamlet remarked that “The Almighty had set his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”.

With so many people in the world being killed off by the wars and all it seems a pity that others out of the danger zone should embark on an orgy of self-destruction.


by J.P. Cannon

19. A Letter to a Seattle Comrade

New York, January 4, 1940

Dear Dick,

I was very glad to get your letter of December 27.

It is necessary to devote the maximum attention to the education of the party comrades on the present internal dispute. The coming convention will be in reality the real foundation convention of the American section of the Fourth International. In a broader sense we can say it will represent the real foundation congress of the Fourth International itself. Here we are meeting in concentrated form, in the only country where free democratic discussion is possible at the present time, a concentrated attempt to overthrow the program. If it is firmly repelled here it will represent a milestone in the development of the Fourth International on a world scale.

From this point of view it is very important that you come to the convention as a delegate. If necessary, we will find some way of helping out with the finances.

According to the constitution, it would be possible for us to have a proxy delegate from the East elected by your branch. But the real purposes of the convention will only be served if the most qualified comrades from every part of the country attend the convention in person.

From this point of view I think you will heartily favour the suggestion that the convention be postponed until the weather breaks a little bit. Therefore, I hope to receive from you by early mail a resolution from the Seattle branch requesting this postponement.

Portland is chartered as a regular branch. It is highly worthwhile and absolutely necessary in fact for you to go down there and see that they get paid up and in shape to send a delegate. I cannot overemphasise the importance of such details as this at the present time. Also, it will be very good for you to contact Vancouver. We have heard that a large majority of the comrades in Toronto support the position of the majority but it is likewise important that Vancouver also take the correct position.


J.P. Cannon


[19] CLA – The Communist League of America, the original name of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, after the expulsions of the American Trotskyists from the Communist Party in 1928.

[20] Instead of writing these characterisations in letter form, Cannon set them out at length in “The Struggle for a Proletarian Party”.

[21] The Socialist Appeal was the name of the weekly organ of the party at that time. It was later changed back to the original name, The Militant.

[22] For Trotsky’s “second article on the nature of the Soviet State”, see In Defence of Marxism, p. 24.

Last updated on: 7.4.2013