The Struggle for a Proletarian Party

By James P. Cannon

Part VI

20. A Letter to a New Haven Comrade

New York, January 4, 1940

Dear Frank,

I received your letter of January 3. In the meantime you should have received some additional material.

It is very gratifying to hear that the majority of the branch has already declared for the majority. The thing to do is to keep hammering away to make it as close to unanimous as possible.

It is not sufficient for us to get a majority at the convention. We’ve got to get such a strong majority that no adventurer will dare to tamper with the idea of a split.

We are sending a copy of the Old Man’s article to—as you suggest. It is very important for you to keep in contact with him and try in every way to get his agreement with our position ...

We’ve had an almost similar situation in Boston. The famous leader Donlon, according to a letter from Larry, has resigned from the party because he doesn’t want to support red fascism in Russia. That’s one of the troubles with the opposition in the party. People who really assimilate their teachings in all their implications can’t see any longer the necessity of a revolutionary party.

With best wishes,


J.P. Cannon

21. A Graduate Burnhamite

(An internal circular)

By J.P. Cannon

Burnham’s theory that the Soviet bureaucracy is a new exploiting class, and “imperialist” to boot, has been taken seriously to heart by one of his Boston converts. D. Lawrence, who was an ardent member of Burnham’s opposition bloc, doesn’t belong to it any more. He graduated. Burnham convinced him too well; and as a practical man, after he became convinced that the Soviet Union is a new “imperialist” state, he naturally put to himself the question: Why the devil should I bother to argue or quibble about defending such a state in any way or under any circumstances?

Thereupon, he sent a letter of resignation to the Boston branch. The secretary in his official report says: “The branch after hearing the letter and giving it serious consideration and also considering what possible harm he could do our members in the trade unions had a somewhat different idea on the matter of resigning. The EC brought in a unanimous recommendation for his expulsion. The branch also unanimously approved the recommendation. The charge which the EC presented was on the 'grounds of renegacy from the Fourth International’.”

Bravo, Boston! Three cheers for the Bolshevik guard of Boston!

22. A Letter to Leon Trotsky

New York, January 11, 1940

Dear Comrade Trotsky,

Your open letter to Burnham was received by Comrade Wright yesterday. He is now at work translating it. As soon as he is finished a copy will be supplied to Comrade Burnham and the document will be promptly published in our internal bulletin.

Your aggressive thrust of the question of the dialectic into the party discussion is producing some quite “dialectical” reactions—in the two camps. The supporters of the minority apparently have been instructed to meet the attack along the following lines:

1. Joke about the question and taunt the supporters of the majority: Since when did you become an expert on philosophy, etc.

2. Dialectical materialism of course is an interesting subject but it should be discussed some other time.

3. It is a bad method to introduce this question during a faction fight. (Did opportunists ever in any case to your knowledge fail to object to the “methods” of the Marxists?)

4 . It is obviously a factional trick to split the minority by injecting extraneous issues, but since we all agree on our “conclusions” the manoeuvre will not succeed.

On the other hand, the ranks of the majority have responded with great interest and enthusiasm to your militant intervention on the subject of dialectical materialism precisely because it is done in connection with a thoroughgoing political and theoretical struggle. Many of them are turning to the books to study. Spontaneous popular demand called forth a decision to start a class on the subject in the party school under the direction of Comrade Wright who has studied the question seriously. There is general satisfaction and great appreciation of your initiative. Most of our comrades want not only to win but to learn and they are soaking up the lessons of this struggle like a sponge. Apropos a suggestion in the caucus meeting the other night that the convention might be postponed, one of the best and most promising of our young comrades remarked to those sitting beside him: “I hope the discussion is prolonged; I am learning every day.”

Reports from the country are increasingly favourable. What is most gratifying is the virtual unanimity with which the proletarian activists, as well as the older basic cadres of the party, are rallying to the support of the majority. Outside New York and Chicago the party is basically proletarian. I am now receiving the returns from a questionnaire sent to our supporters throughout the country, asking questions as to the membership, social composition and attitude of the branch members on the disputes. These figures are extremely revealing. As soon as the returns are completed I intend to draw up a circular letter analysing the figures and quoting some of the pertinent comments.

It is extremely interesting—and reassuring—to see the experienced worker Bolsheviks sensed the real trouble in the party. They knew what was the matter, and the various documents and arguments on the majority side only appear to them as rounded-out formulations of their own views. For example, one writes: “Our branch here is 100% for Bolshevik-Leninist methods which is not surprising when you know that the social composition of the branch is proletarian and completely so. The article by the Old Man was excellent. It expressed my thoughts on the minority tendency. Our Chicago organisation has been stymied by this petty-bourgeois group too long.”

Another: “I have not yet seen the article on the 'Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party’ and consequently cannot express myself except to say that if a title means anything it should hit the nail on the head.”


J.P. Cannon

23. A Letter to Leon Trotsky

New York, January 18, 1940

Dear Comrade Trotsky,

I am enclosing herewith Comrade Burnham’s comments on your recent article on the petty-bourgeois opposition. Note the self-revealing first sentence. He shows that he thinks first of all about the reactions of the intellectual camp followers of democratic imperialism. It is unnecessary to point out also that he turns the original dispute with Eastman upside down. Eastman originally claimed to support the whole practical program of Lenin (the “engineering”); at that time, he announced, he simply wanted to make a “revolutionary” revision of Marxism by amputating its “religion” (dialectical materialism). It is amazing how the oppositionists mix up so many simple facts as well as ideas.

Resolutions are coming in from practically all the proletarian branches requesting a postponement of the convention in order, among other things, to have a more extended discussion on the questions raised in the first part of your article and Burnham’s answer to it. Sneers and wisecracks on the subject of dialectical materialism hold sway among the declassed kibitzers of the Bronx branch (the Shachtman branch) but the proletarians in the party seriously want to know about this “religion”, what it is, who is for it, and who is against it, and why.

I think you received a copy of the notice about a “Burnham graduate”. Yesterday we received information of another. Robertson, the leader of the minority in Canada—the large majority there is firmly on our side—sent a letter of resignation to the party. The reasons are priceless. First, he does not want to defend the Soviet Union any longer; second, he feels the “despair” of an isolated petty-bourgeois intellectual (he is also by some strange chance a professor); and third, he is very much afraid that an American Soviet government with Cannon at the head of it would be just as ruthless as Stalin. By the way, that is exactly the fear that Burnham expressed almost word for word in a personal conversation with me and Shachtman about the time I wrote you my disturbed letter concerning him two years ago. In that conversation he also told us frankly that he wasn’t sure whether the contradictions between his personal life and the responsibilities of a revolutionary leader were subconsciously at the bottom of his differences with us. A few months later Shachtman began to move over in Burnham’s orbit ...

I am writing to Comrade Dobbs simultaneously. Since he has finally realised his long-deferred visit to you it would be shortsighted to cut the visit short. The length of his stay should be determined by your mutual convenience and desires. We will jog along here in the meantime. I suffer, of course, a great disadvantage and personal annoyance in this situation by the responsibility for administrative details which have to be taken care of somehow. It is like trying to run through a field cluttered with tough vines.

On top of that is the endless speaking. Last night I had to debate once more with Shachtman (on the organisation question). I go through such labour with a feeling of physical revulsion; at least two-thirds or three-fourths of the time must be taken up in resetting Shachtman’s “quotations” into their proper context and in explaining how his historical references are falsely and disloyally resented in an opposite sense to their real import. I console myself with the thought that in doing this work I am at least acting part of a good soldier. In debating with Shachtman I crawl on my belly through the mud for the sake of the Fourth International.

With warmest greetings,

J.P. Cannon

24. A Letter to Farrell Dobbs

New York, January 18, 1940

Dear Comrade Dobbs,

I just wrote the Old Man that it would be pointless for you to cut your visit short now that it has been realised after so many delays. We will jog along here until you finish everything you have to talk over with him. However, I wish you would let me know what your schedule is and approximately when we can expect you. The convention will undoubtedly be postponed.

If you have time I would also like to get reports from you in rough outline at least of the subjects you are discussing with him and any suggestions or propositions you may have to make on the basis of these discussions. I would advise you to make comprehensive notes after each discussion when the subjects are fresh in your mind for your future consideration and also to refresh your mind when you report to us at more length.

One thing more. Be sure to talk over with the Old Man all questions of an administrative, personal and confidential nature which have concerned his dealings with me and Rose [Karsner]. I have already told him that I expect you will fully participate with us in this aspect of future work; consequently you should take advantage of the conversations face to face to have a thorough understanding about everything ...

We are still pounding away in the party fight. A close checkup of the national situation shows that on the basis of the present line-up we can expect a majority of about five to three. They’ve still got the bulk of the petty-bourgeois elements and we’ve still got the bulk of the workers, but in spite of everything this is still a workers’ party and the workers are the mostest and the toughest.


J.P. Cannon

25. A Letter to All Majority Groups

New York, January 19, 1940

Dear Comrades,

The opposition leaders threaten split

It has become very clear in recent days that the leaders of the opposition bloc are deliberately undertaking to manoeuvre their supporters into a split from the party and the Fourth International. This tendency has been manifest for some time, but in the most recent period their agitational preparation has taken more concrete forms. It appears that the article of Trotsky on the “Petty-Bourgeois Opposition” impelled them more deliberately on this course. The rather barren results of Shachtman’s tour to the Middle West evidently convinced them finally that it is impossible to get a majority at the convention. The following are the most important facts which have come to our attention:

1. The other night, some comrades have informed us, they held a membership caucus meeting in New York with Shachtman as reporter. There the idea of a split was projected in a half-open, half-diplomatic manner. Shachtman explained that by characterising them as petty-bourgeois, the majority means to put them in a category of second class citizens in the party. We, he announced, will never submit to this. We have principled differences. There will be no living in the party under Cannon after the convention. They will begin to expel Burnham, Abern, etc., and to remove all our people from posts. Since we are fighting for principles, we must keep our faction together and continue the struggle after the convention. That means we must have an organ of our own. (It was left unclear—perhaps deliberately—whether this means a public or an internal organ.) Cannon will not allow this; thereby he will provoke a split. Such was the gist of his long report.

2. This speech called forth violent reactions and considerable disturbances in the rank and file of the meeting. Three comrades took the floor and protested most vehemently against a split program on the ground that this will disrupt the whole movement of the Fourth International. They especially protested against the ultimative demand for the right to publish an organ after the convention. One comrade in particular (a former Socialist) argued that we have always explained democratic centralism differently. We have always boasted of the tradition of our movement according to which there is the freest discussion before conventions and strictest discipline afterwards on the basis of the decisions of the majority. How can we go against this without doing violence to our tradition ?

On the other hand, Gould, Carter and Garrett took the floor to support the position of Shachtman. Shachtman in his summary replied to the argument of the critics who had opposed an ultimatistic demand for a minority organ after the convention by saying: If Cannon sees that we don’t mean it seriously he will not pay any attention to our demand. We can only convince him that we mean it if we actually do mean it. (Psychology!)

3. Along the same line has been the attitude of the opposition leaders towards party duties and even towards Political Committee meetings. Shachtman departed for his tour without authorisation or notice to the Political Committee. Letters sent to him by order of the Political Committee, requesting at least that he furnish us with his itinerary, were ignored. One special and one regular meeting of the Political Committee found Shachtman, Abern and Burnham absent without notification. An official request for an explanation from them brought no reply. Shachtman makes no pretence of assuming any responsibility whatever for the production of the Appeal, of which he is co-editor. Even more symptomatic is the attitude of Burnham—in the past always very punctilious in the performance of accepted duties. He submits his weekly column or not as he sees fit without informing the managing editor, and usually omits it.

We have information that they have established a separate headquarters for the conduct of their local and national factional work. Burnham and Shachtman never appear at the National Office of the party, and consultation with them on day to day party matters is completely excluded. In addition, it should be mentioned that the national apparatus of the YPSL is to all intents and purposes a faction apparatus of the opposition. It routes organisers for faction work, etc., without any consultation whatever with the National Office of the party.

All in all, we must face the fact that the leaders of the opposition bloc, in their present mood, are moving deliberately towards a split.

How to combat the split program

Already here in New York we have discussed this question several times and have begun our struggle against the split adventure. We give you here an outline from the main points of our approach to the question. It must be borne in mind at the outset that an incipient split is the most dangerous of all things to play with. It is folly to imagine that mere good will and good nature can prevent it. Only well-calculated and ruthless struggle can break up this split as we have broken up others in the past. This premise is incontestable. The methods and the forms of combating the split, however, are extremely important.

1. First of all, it is necessary to educate and harden our own cadres and to inspire them with a fanatical patriotism for the party and the Fourth International and a determination to defend it under all circumstances. Split adventurers must be shown up in their true light as criminals and traitors to our International. How can one imagine a more perfidious crime than the disruption of the strongest legal section of the Fourth International on the eve of the war?

2. We must make a real campaign to win the rank and file supporters of the minority away from the split program. First of all, this means to convince them that we on our part have no intention whatever to initiate or provoke a split. In all speeches and in private conversations we must remind the comrades that it was the majority which introduced the unity resolution in the Political Committee, with the pledge to the membership that there should be no expulsions on the one side or withdrawals on the other at the party convention. It was we who brought forward the motion to set up a parity commission to examine and regulate grievances. It was we who proposed and provided a joint editorship of the internal bulletin to insure the minority against discrimination or fear of discrimination. On all occasions we state that, for our part, we still stand unconditionally on this resolution and are determined to maintain party unity. Even as a minority at the convention we will remain disciplined and wait for the further development of events to confirm our views and re-establish our majority in the leadership with the support of the vast majority of the party rank and file.

3. On all occasions refer the comrades to the letters of Trotsky and Cannon in Bulletin No. 6 wherein we each speak for unity and against a split even though the convention goes against us.

4. Ask the comrades: What is your complaint? Do you not get a fair hearing in the party discussion? Do you not have free access to the internal bulletin? Are you not given equal consideration with the majority in all respects in the party debates? Do you think the discussion should be prolonged in order to give you a greater opportunity to win over the majority? In that case you have only to make a proposal to postpone the convention; the majority will undoubtedly agree to any reasonable proposition along this line.

5. Ask the minority comrades: How can you possibly advance your cause by a split? Surely the workers belonging to the party are the most intelligent and advanced radical workers that can be found at the present time. If you cannot convince them in a prolonged and absolutely free and fair discussion, where, as an independent group, will you find the workers with whom to build a party? Can you visualise a revolutionary party without workers? Are there more advanced, more receptive and more militant workers to be found outside the party? Split leaders in the past who overlooked this point and rushed headlong into an appeal to the 130 million people in the country soon found themselves shouting in a void. The road to the masses is through the vanguard, not over its head.

6. Say to the minority comrades: If, in spite of everything, you really mean to split you should consider carefully the following questions:

a. The first question for every revolutionist is the question of international affiliation. Without a close union of co-thinkers on an international scale a revolutionary movement in our epoch is unthinkable. The split can only be a split away from the Fourth International, for the majority has stated that it will in no case initiate a split even though it remains for the time being in a minority; in no case will the majority leave the Fourth International.

b. Do you think there is political “living space” between the Fourth International and the London Bureau (which means, in the USA, the Lovestoneites) ? Do you know any important political group on an international scale that found such a space? As a matter of fact doesn’t the evolution of the Lovestone group—the American section of the London Bureau—towards fusion with the Thomas Socialists, who in turn approach the Socialist old guard, show that there is not enough political living space between the Fourth International and the Second?

c. Bear seriously in mind the political fate of others who tried to split the American section of the Fourth International. Weisbord, Field, Oehler, Stamm, etc., were all talented people—collectively, not less so than the leaders of the opposition bloc. In addition, most of them were more serious and more capable of determined struggle and sacrifice for their ideas. Yet all of these people came to the most miserable ends. Field lost his little group of a dozen or so and returned to private life a completely isolated figure. Ditto Weisbord. As for Oehler and Stamm, their original group has split into eight parts and the process goes on uninterruptedly. What do these catastrophic experiences prove? That the leaders of our party were much abler than the split leaders mentioned? Perhaps, but that is not by any means the most important side of the question. The degeneration and decay of each and every group which broke from the Fourth International on an international scale, as well as in the United States, in the course of the past 10 years demonstrates conclusively: Outside the Fourth International there is no historic road.

d. A lightminded attitude towards party organisation, towards splits and unifications—one of the most characteristic expressions of intellectualism and dilettantism—is a fatal thing. Socialism is inevitable but the struggle for socialism by means of the proletarian revolution must be organised. The sole means of organising the proletarian revolution is the revolutionary party. A petty-bourgeois intellectual or dilettante, who has not assimilated the ideas of Marxism into his blood, is capable of rushing into unifications one day when there is only a seeming agreement and of splits the next day at the first sign of serious disagreement. Not so the workers. The worker joins a party for struggle. He puts his life into it. He takes his time before joining in order to see what a party is doing as well as what it is saying. When such a worker joins a party he takes it very seriously. He gives it his full devotion and recoils fiercely against anyone who takes the party lightly and disregards its discipline.

An intellectual dilettante is capable of joining a party without attaching any great significance to such an action, and of leaving it at the first disagreement, or—more often—the first time someone steps on his toes. The worker, on the other hand, who as a rule will not join a party unless he means business, will not leave it at the first disappointment or when the first doubt enters his mind. No, the worker clings to his party and supports it until all his confidence and hopes in it are exhausted. This is the great factor which underlies the extraordinary tenacity with which thousands of militant workers stick to the Communist Party. Superficial intellectuals are inclined to regard these workers as incurable idiots. Not so. The workers cling to the CP in spite of disappointments and doubts and misgivings only because they do not see any other party. This sentiment of seriousness, devotion, sacrifice, tenacity—horribly abused and betrayed by the Stalinist fakers—is a sentiment that in its essence is profoundly revolutionary. Don’t be hasty to leave your party. That is a sign of petty-bourgeois impatience and instability, not of proletarian revolutionary responsibility.


Threats are useless

7. All the above arguments and others of a similar nature are always supplemented in our discussions, both at meetings and in private conversations, with the following: If the talk about a split is meant as a threat to scare us, then it would be better to lay aside the threats. We are not afraid of threats. We shall continue to characterise the minority politically as we see it, and call it by its right name. We shall continue a merciless political struggle against their revisionist ideas under all circumstances. The dispute must be fought out within the framework of the party and the Fourth International, according to the method of democratic centralism. That means the fullest freedom and discussion, without organisation discrimination on the one side or threats on the other. The party membership must decide the dispute at the convention. The minority must be subordinated to the majority. The unity of the party must be secured on that basis.

Fraternally yours,

J.P. Cannon

26. A Letter to a Rochester Comrade

New York, January 22, 1940

Dear Comrade,

I am writing you this additional note as a personal letter.

Aside from the general considerations of the official letter I am enclosing—to which I am sure no one can object—I may say we of the majority consider that every extension of party activity outside the narrow circle, which results in the recruitment of new workers, is bound to strengthen our tendency.

We base ourselves squarely on the conception of a proletarian party, in composition as well as in program. In our opinion it is precisely the unfavourable social composition of the party in New York—a state of affairs derived from many causes peculiar to the metropolis—that gives the present faction dispute its intense atmosphere and strengthens revisionist tendencies.

The present sickness of the party cannot be cured without an improvement in the social composition of the party. A few hundred more workers who take the class struggle more seriously and who discuss, not for the sake of discussion, but in order to decide and act will very soon restore a normal internal atmosphere in the party and call the undisciplined and unrestrained intellectuals to order.

I personally thought the Boston branch acted correctly in not giving Lawrence the “honour” of resigning. His letter of resignation was a slanderous insult to the party and made it clear that he leaves us as an enemy to work against us in the trade unions. Of course the personal character of Lawrence was an additional reason to prompt the action of the Boston comrades. The Russian question for him was not simply a point of disagreement, but also a pretext for getting out of the line of fire. I, of course, do not attribute this motivation to all the comrades of the minority. But such people naturally gravitate towards them and they do nothing to repel them.

Yes, I personally think the teachings of Burnham, which are anti-Marxist and anti-Bolshevik, are a preparatory school for desertion of the revolutionary movement. You will see from the enclosed circular that there is a second “graduate” already. There will be others, mark my words.

From this it does not follow that there is any ground to expel Burnham from the party. The thing is to combat and refute his anti-Marxist teachings. This we are doing to the best of our ability and not without success. As far as the proletarian militants of the party are concerned, an overwhelming majority supports the program of the Fourth International against Burnham’s attempt to revise it.

Our party is democratic not only in the formal but in the real sense of the word. If anybody thinks he can improve the program or propose a better one he has a full right to bring his propositions forward in the course of the preconvention discussion. Any proposal to expel him for this would be absurd. That would be the negation of democracy. That would be equivalent to passing a definitive judgment in advance of the convention, which alone has the right to decide. Up to the convention there is only a struggle of opinions and all opinions must have free play.

However, if it is shown that one disciple of Burnham after another draws the conclusion that he can no longer function as a member of the revolutionary party we have a right to cite these facts as an argument against his teachings. What kind of a program is it that leads people to desert the fight?

I assume you know that the joint declaration on party unity sent to the branches some weeks ago was introduced on the initiative of the majority. According to this resolution, we stand against any expulsions of comrades at the convention for the opinions they have defended in the discussion, and also against any withdrawals of a minority. After the convention there remains only the obligation on the part of the minority, whichever side it may be, to respect the decisions of the convention and to observe discipline in public action.

We repeat on every occasion that we intend fully to abide by this declaration if we find ourselves in a minority at the convention. Only if both sides take such a serious and responsible attitude toward party unity can we demonstrate our capacity to build a serious revolutionary party in spite of the inevitable differences of opinion which arise from time to time.

I hope that all the Rochester comrades are following the discussion bulletins with the greatest attentiveness. Two more articles by Comrade Trotsky will appear in new bulletins soon together with an article by Comrade Burnham. These documents will still further clarify the principle questions in dispute.

I know very well that politically inexperienced comrades have a tendency to get impatient with the prolonged discussion and to consider it a waste of time and energy. But this is a shortsighted view. The questions in dispute at the present time go to the very heart of our principled program. How can the dispute be resolved by the collective decision of the party members without the most thoroughgoing discussion? If this takes time and energy away from practical work we have to charge it off as an unavoidable part of the overhead costs of the democratic self-education of the party membership.

Nobody can give the proletarian vanguard a party able to lead the struggle for power. They must create it themselves. The present discussion is in my judgment one of the most important events in the creation of the American section of the Fourth International. We will all know more when it is finished and we will know it more firmly because of the discussion.

The important thing is to keep up the constructive work of the party while the discussion is in progress. I would be very glad to bear your personal appreciation of the internal struggle as it has unfolded so far and also the opinions of the other individual comrades of the Rochester branch.


J.P. Cannon

27. A Letter to Oscar Coover

New York, January 22, 1940

Oscar Coover

Minneapolis, Minn.

Dear Oscar,

I notice in your minutes of January 11 a reference to a letter from Shachtman and an answer from you. I would appreciate very much if you would send me copies of these documents.

You must know that the opposition is circulating a lot of slanderous agitation and cheap school boy sneers against the Twin Cities organisation. They represent it as a conglomeration of provincial scissorbills that is cut off from the life of the party by a Chinese wall. They say Shachtman wanted to go to Minneapolis but couldn’t get a passport, etc.

There are two more articles by the Old Man on the fire. One, an open letter to Burnham and two, an answer to Shachtman’s document.


J.P. Cannon

28. A Letter to C. Thomas

New York, January 22, 1940

C. Thomas

Francisco, Cal.

Dear Thomas,

I received the copy of Bill’s letter of January 20.

The most important thing in the Bay Section is to moderate the atmosphere a bit so that the important political disputes can break through. I think it is very important for you to return to the Bay Section for a while even if you have to cut your trade union mission short.

You should even try to talk to Sam Meyers and show him that he is on the road to hell. Burnham comes out openly more and more as a shrewd opponent of the doctrine and traditions of our movement. Meyers, who used to take pride in his Marxist education, should take a week or two out to think things over and pull himself up short.

As you will see from the enclosed circular, we already have a Burnham graduate number two. The leader of the minority in Canada has just walked out of the Fourth International and—purely incidentally of course—out of the line of fire for the duration of the war.

Please tell the comrades not to get nervous about rumours. The proletarian majority caucus is as solid as a rock from coast to coast. The only sailor we know who supports the revisionists is --. We expected that. We also expect that the minority leaders are perfectly capable of supporting any kind of a screwball trade union policy in exchange for a few votes. The seaman comrades should give a thought to this when they consider the question of “regime”. They had a good sample of our regime in the handling of the maritime dispute. In the auto dispute there was a sample of the regime of the opposition. For any serious comrade these two examples alone are decisive. They epitomise the whole question.

Two more blasts from the Old Man are coming out soon. One is an open letter to Burnham; the other is a reply to Shachtman. In the latter document, which he informs us is already written and is now being revised, he indicates that he will put Shachtman’s pseudo-learning and cheap juggling of quotations and historic incidents out of their context under the Marxist microscope.

Many comrades who are taken in by this phony document of Shachtman’s will be surprised to see what kind of a bug it turns out to be under the glass.

Let me know if you will return to Frisco as soon as possible and when.


J.P. Cannon

29. A Letter to All Majority Groups


New York, January 24, 1940

Dear Comrades,

Measures to combat a split

Enclosed herewith is a letter we received from Cornell [Trotsky] [23] about the ways and means of combating the split program of Burnham and Co.

There can be no doubt that they are working along this line. How shall we combat it? In a previous letter, Trotsky remarked that it is difficult to hinder adult individuals who want to commit suicide. I might add that, as experience shows, it is equally difficult to stop a man who has an inner compulsion to get out of the line of fire. However, our problem is the problem of conducting our struggle in such a way as to hamper an organised split and reduce its size while keeping our own forces intact and militant.

This requires a combination of measures. On the one hand, the struggle on the political front must take on an even more aggressive and merciless character. We cannot admit even a suggestion of any conciliation or compromise in this respect. But we can and should supplement the ruthless political fight with all the necessary organisational flexibility.

The general sentiment of the leading comrades here is in favour of the proposals indicated in Cornell’s letter. However, we do not want to move on these points until we hear your opinions.

One of the great factors we must take into account now is the impatience of the worker elements with a prolongation of the discussion and their impulses—soundly proletarian revolutionary—to clamp down on the petty-bourgeois windbags rather than to make concessions to them. If we decide on the course of organisational concessions, as we feel sure the majority of you will agree, we must be doubly careful to explain the thing fully to the rank and file of our supporters as soon as the announcement is made officially.

We all know that the worker who is busy in the class struggle, to say nothing of the shop—two fields of activity which occupy very little of the time of the professional discussion mongers—are as a rule very impatient with too much palaver. This will be our salvation when we get a few hundred more workers in the party.

But right now, when the task is to draw the lessons of the present dispute out to the end, and to isolate the would-be splitters, this impatience can operate against us.

The worker comrades have to see the faction fight as an unavoidable part of the revolutionary struggle for the consolidation of cadres. We didn’t balk at more than a year’s factional struggle in the SP in order to win over a few hundred people. We needed them in order to turn more effectively to mass work. The present struggle must be seen in that same light fundamentally. In addition, one of the most important positive results of the factional fight inside the SP—perhaps the most important—was that in the process of winning over and partly educating a few hundred new people we also demolished the opportunist party of Thomas and Co. This is also an extremely important element of the tactic of combating the split.

If some people are bent on breaking with the Fourth International we can hardly prevent it. But we must take off our coats and roll up our sleeves and do a thorough, workman-like job of smashing the attempt to set up a serious organisational rival to the SWP. This requires patience as well as militancy, and organisation concessions as well as political intransigence. If we do a bad and hasty job and permit Burnham and Co. to make a deep split, we will then have the problem of continuing the struggle between two organisations for a time. That would seriously interfere with all practical mass work. It is better to be patient and try to finish the job inside the party.

Please keep this letter confidential and let us know right away your opinion.


J.P. Cannon

30. A Letter to Bill Morgan

New York, January 25, 1940

Bill Morgan

San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Bill,

You did right to retreat on the organisation question of the Bay Area committee. It would be foolish for us to concentrate the fight around such a question when we have such advantages on the political and theoretical side.

I am going to take up the question of the membership status of seamen and other comrades who fall far behind in their dues for one reason or another. I think it is best to get some kind of a general ruling from the PC. In any case, however, do not make factional discriminations or distinctions on these questions. We proceed always by rules and let the chips fall where they may. I personally favour the idea of a special rule which would allow all comrades who have not been stricken from the rolls to pay up their back dues and regain full status, within a definite time limit.

... Above all, don’t let the fight reach the boiling point over incidental and organisational questions. That is the only kind of politics Trimble knows apparently. Ours is a different brand.


J.P. Cannon

PS. I have heard several reports about some agitation against the Minneapolis comrades. I wish you would send me details of anything you hear along this line. I think the petty-bourgeois faction is taking hold of the hot end of a poker when they start a fight against our leading proletarian centre.

31. A Letter to C. Thomas

New York, January 25, 1940

C. Thomas,

San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Thomas,

I wrote you the other day about returning to the Bay Area to concentrate on party work for a while.

I get the impression from letters of Morgan that things are not in a good way there. There is too much tension and struggle over secondary and incidental questions.

Our aim must be to break through all this to the political and theoretical questions and educate the comrades in the process. Above all, we must not carry our concentration on practical work to the point of leaving the maritime fraction open to factional demoralisation.

If the petty-bourgeois opposition gets a foothold in the maritime fraction it will cancel out all your work in the canneries and every place else. You must make up your mind to devote the necessary time and attention to preventing this.


J.P. Cannon

32. A Letter to All Majority Groups

New York, January 25, 1940

Dear Comrades,

Convention postponement

At last night’s Political Committee meeting it was decided to postpone the convention till April 5. Numerous branches had requested such a postponement. Shachtman voted for the motion. The other members of the minority abstained. The postponement does not become officially effective, however, until the non-resident members of the National Committee have cast their votes. However, there is no doubt that a majority of the National Committee will concur in the decision.

This postponement will give you time to open up a new stage of the discussion and to organise our forces more systematically and thoroughly. Trotsky’s open letter to Burnham, together with an article by Burnham against Trotsky, comes out in a printed bulletin in two or three days. These two documents should be the basis for a new development of the discussion. Following that, we have word from Comrade Trotsky that another long article in reply to Shachtman is already written and will be here soon.

In addition, we are mimeographing now an excellent document by Comrades Wright and Hansen, entitled “The Shachtman School of Quotations”. In this document the whole fraudulent, pseudo-learned manipulation of quotations and historic incidents and quotations out of context, which distinguishes the political method of Shachtman, and which has confused some inexperienced comrades, is treated to a thorough examination and exposure. We also have a substantial document by Comrades Clarke and Gordon which dissects the lengthy bulletin of the opposition bloc on the Russian question. There is also a Marxist analysis of the Russian question and the political method of the opposition by Comrade Murry Weiss.

You will have no lack of material for the systematic education of our own people and for beginning a new Marxist offensive against the revisionists and their contemptible attorneys.

The best method in our opinion is to have regular educational meetings of our own caucus where the various documents are analysed and discussed. On the basis of this procedure the individual comrades can be equipped with the necessary arguments for individual propaganda among the minority comrades.

The publishing facilities of the National Office bogged down a bit under the sheer weight of material that had to be published. If you bear in mind that we have already published eight internal bulletins; that number nine is on the press; and that we already have material for three or four more; you will realise what a strain the National Office has been put to on the technical side alone.

However, we are in a discussion now that is really determining the future of the Fourth International in this country, and not only in this country. Weeping and wailing will not help. The only thing to do is to settle down for a thorough job that will put an end definitely to any attempt to revise Marxism in our movement.


J.P. Cannon

33. A Letter to Murry Weiss

New York, January 25, 1940

Dear Murry,

I am very glad to hear that you have possibilities of influencing the Akron comrades. For our part it is OK for you to devote all the necessary time to this if the Youngstown comrades are in agreement.

The conquest of the Abernite fortress in Akron would be a major victory for the party. There are not many left, you know. Lynn long ago passed over to the side of the majority almost unanimously, and now it appears Chicago is also definitely lost to the opposition. Out of the six delegates from the four branches, we appear to be assured of four.

The opposition has created some confusion and is apparently making a little headway in California. If we get any word of a move by Shachtman to go to California we intend to ship you out there to combat him. Hold yourself in readiness for a quick summons in this respect. And keep me informed all the time where we can reach you in short order.

Otherwise, there is no contemplated interference from here with the concentration on the Ohio District.

Please let me know every nuance of development.


J.P. Cannon

34. A Letter to C. Charles

New York, February 1, 1940

C. Charles, Organiser

Los Angeles, California

Dear Comrade,

I received your letter of January 29, reporting the motion passed by the city-wide Red Card meeting at Los Angeles on January 28.

The motion as you report it reads: “Motion to inquire of the National Secretary the reason for the removal of Shachtman from the Appeal on the grounds of retrenchment only to add two weeks later Clarke and Goldman to the payroll.”

It is obvious that the Los Angeles comrades have been misinformed. The minutes of the Political Committee on the Socialist Appeal, at its meeting November 28, read as follows:

“Motion by Cannon: That during the period of the financial emergency the staff of the Appeal be reduced to one paid editor and one business manager and that all other labour be organised on a voluntary basis.— Carried.

“Motion by Cannon: That Comrade Shachtman continue as the sole paid editor.

“Motion by Shachtman: That Comrade Morrow be retained as the sole paid editor during the emergency.— Carried.

“Motion by Shachtman: That Morrow and Shachtman be designated as editors of the paper.— Carried.

From this official record it will be clear to you that Comrade Shachtman was not “removed” from the Appeal but retired as a paid worker on his own motion and at his own request, and that he retains the status of co-editor of the paper.

Comrade Clarke was appointed to the post of general press manager to replace Comrade Abern who resigned this position to take up the post of city organiser in New York. There was no removal and no addition to the payroll. On the contrary, the overhead payroll of the publications has been substantially reduced since then by the substitution of voluntary workers in technical capacities for others previously paid small amounts. There have been no removals and no increasing of payrolls.

As for Comrade Goldman, this question must be separated from the press question since his duties are connected with the administration of the National Office.

At the meeting of December 12 Comrade Goldman was appointed assistant secretary to work in the National Office at a salary of $15.00 per week. Nobody objected and nobody could object to this modest proposal. The total administrative and technical staff of the National Office of the party consists of Comrades Cannon, Goldman and one stenographer.

Yours fraternally,

J.P. Cannon

35. A Letter to All Majority Groups

New York, February 2, 1940

Dear Comrades,

Comrade Goldman is going to assist in the work of the National Office for the next period. I am going to take a little time out to catch up with some of the organisational falsifications by which the opposition bloc is trying to divert attention from the principled issues.

I enclose herewith a copy of a letter sent today to Comrade Charles. As I understand, this same misrepresentation is being broadcasted generally and is being taken seriously by some inexperienced comrades. Any questions of this kind which are used as arguments by the supporters of the opposition should be promptly brought before the branch in the form of a motion to ask official information from the National Office.

Up to now we have steadfastly refused to follow the trail of the opposition on minor issues of organisation. The reason for this policy was that we considered it necessary to break through with the principled questions first. We suffered somewhat from this procedure insofar as inexperienced comrades allowed themselves to become disoriented over the secondary questions, rumours, gossip, etc. Nevertheless, the main objective was achieved.

In the next phase of the discussion we can take up the organisation question in its proper subordinate place. Our aim here also will be first of all to show that the dispute over the organisation question springs not at all from abuses and grievances, but from fundamentally different conceptions of party organisation. In this setting we will also clear aside a great deal of the rubbish, half truths, and downright misrepresentations over little “incidents”.

The facts about the “removal” of Shachtman as revealed by the official records of the Political Committee should be an eye-opener as a beginning.

Yours fraternally,

J.P. Cannon

36. A Letter to the Party Membership

New York, February 3, 1940

To All Locals and Branches:

Dear Comrades,

New International

The January-February number of the New International, delayed because of financial difficulties, is just coming off the press and is devoted to an exposition of the Russian question from the point of view of the program of the Fourth International.

Originally the Political Committee provided that documents of the two points of view represented in the National Committee be published. The minority submitted their statement, entitled, “What Is at Issue in the Dispute on the Russian Question”, and also the “Open Letter to Comrade Trotsky” by Max Shachtman. On the majority side the article of Comrade Trotsky, entitled “A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party”; the resolution of the National Committee and other relevant documents were submitted.

The comrade in charge of technical preparation of the issue informed the Political Committee that the publication of all these documents would require a magazine almost triple the usual 32 pages. This was manifestly out of the question from the financial standpoint—the two preceding issues of the magazine had been reduced to 16 pages for these reasons.

In addition, the Political Committee considered it necessary to reconsider the decision from the point of view of the general interest of the party. That is, while allowing an objective presentation of the position on each side, factional polemics must be eliminated from the public organ.

At the Political Committee meeting of January 9 the Political Committee adopted the following motion:

“That the discussion in the New International be confined to an objective presentation of the two points of view on the Russian question without internal factional polemics. That the documents of the majority be edited from this point of view and the article of Trotsky, entitled “A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party” be eliminated from this point of view. That the minority be requested to make an objective presentation of their position in not more than 5000 words to fit space requirements. That all documents submitted by both sides which do not conform to these regulations be printed at once in the internal bulletins without any changes or editing.”

The minority comrades refused to accept this proposition and submitted no material for publication under the provisions of the motion.

Yours fraternally,

J.P. Cannon

National Secretary

37. A Letter to All Majority Groups

New York, February 3, 1940

Dear Comrades,

Forthcoming New International

Enclosed herewith is a copy of a circular sent today to all locals and branches on the forthcoming issue of the New International.

Our decision to eliminate factional polemics from the New International was motivated by the following considerations:

1. It became obvious that the publication of the violent factional polemics on each side would work an injury to the party and accelerate the tendencies of the minority towards a split. By committing themselves to such fantastic positions and violent attacks before the public, they would be cutting off their own retreat—and retreat is their only salvation from an impossible position.

2. The great majority of the resolutions and letters from the proletarian branches—and the proletarian branches, not the petty-bourgeois student youth, are for us the barometer—protested most strenuously against carrying the factional dispute into either the New International or the Appeal.

3. The two articles submitted by the minority, together with articles of corresponding length on the majority side, would have required a publication of such size and consequently such a staggering expense as to be out of the question for an institution already bankrupt. (Of course such earthly considerations do not trouble the petty-bourgeois politicians of the opposition in the least. They float in the air far above the battle—especially the vulgar battle with creditors threatening suit, landlords threatening eviction, etc.)

It is indicated that the opposition is going to make a fight in the branches over the “injustice” of offering them a mere 5000 words to present their point of view in an objective manner.

It is above all necessary for our comrades everywhere to take an aggressive and militant stand on this question as in the case when the issue of the Socialist Appeal was before the branches. This same fundamental issue is involved and it would be entirely false to take a defensive position. It is advisable to read over again the statement of the Political Committee on the question concerning the Appeal. The same reasons hold good now with double force.

The opposition is in frantic haste to make their appeal to the democratic public before the verdict of the party convention. We, on the other hand, are doubly determined to bind them to the rules of democratic centralism and compel them to submit to the judgment of the party first.


J.P. Cannon

38. A Letter to a St. Louis Comrade

New York, February 6, 1940

Dear Comrade,

I got your letter of February 2. By this time you will have had the answer to the momentous question of the penny pamphlet. I think I sent you a copy of my answer to the Los Angeles local on a point of similar character, concerning removals, etc.

You are right in your statement that these are not political questions. They are dragged in and inflated in order to divert discussion from the principled questions and to catch inexperienced people. Moreover, every one of their accusations along this line is false. There is no merit in a single one of them. I am beginning to work now on a comprehensive document on the question of party organisation. In the course of this work, and putting things in their proper proportion, I will answer these accusations.

I was very much interested to note your reference to the conflict between the Spokane local and the General Executive Board of the IWW in 1913. I was an organiser of the IWW at that time and remember the incident very well. Even at that time, 27 years ago, I was a firm believer in centralised organisation and a member of St. John’s faction of centralisers against the decentralisers.

In the summer of 1913 I was leading, together with Frank Little, a rather important strike on the ore docks in Duluth and Superior. I remember that Fred Heselwood gave our strike a big play in the Industrial Worker. I was also well acquainted with Leheney who was sent out to Spokane to take over the editing of the paper by the General Executive Board ...

There is another very big document by Trotsky, in answer to Shachtman, which has just been translated. It is simply devastating.

I hope we gain the majority in St. Louis and I am glad to note that you have formed a majority caucus. This is absolutely necessary. I would like to get from you a report as to how things stand insofar as the line-up of the comrades is clearly established by this time.

As I understand it, your organisation is divided into two branches and will have a delegate from each branch. Therefore, I would like to get a report of the status of each branch.


J.P. Cannon

39. A Letter to a Fresno Comrade

New York, February 6, 1940

Dear Comrade,

I would like to know your impressions of the party struggle. I have a special personal interest in the attitude of the California comrades. Since I spent a whole year there I shouldn’t like to think that young comrades who were influenced in any way by me at that time should turn out to be Menshevik revisionists, as the crisis approaches.

Comrade Charles wrote me that you agree with the majority. Please let me know your opinion precisely and that of other comrades with whom you are in contact.


J.P. Cannon

40. A Letter to Murry Weiss

New York, February 6, 1940

Murry Weiss

Youngstown, Ohio

Dear Murry,

As I wrote you yesterday, we have decided in favour of your going to California and remaining there up to the convention. It is important, however, that you get formal release from the branch. At tonight’s PC meeting we will introduce a motion to relieve you of your responsibilities provided it is agreeable to the branch.

California is by far the most important sector now. The comrades write that—is out there and that the “organisational” question is disturbing many comrades. That is somewhat strange—but inexperienced people are always caught on this hook and some people never learn from experience. Just consider: I spent an entire year in California and in general had far more influence on the “regime” of our faction in the Socialist Party than I could possibly exert on the regime of the last PC, in which I was one member against six of the present minority.

Isn’t it logical to ask the California comrades to give some consideration to their own experience at first hand with the “Cannon regime” and weigh it against the fantastic stories about events alleged to have occurred 3000 miles away which cannot be verified and which never had any influence in the life of the California organisation?

To be sure, the PC, under my instigation, did intervene very energetically in the San Francisco local faction situation. But that was to oppose the bureaucratism of Trimble and others and to protect the party rights of a minority with which—as you know from my letters to you—we had no political sympathy. Doesn’t it seem to you that this case alone has an important bearing on the real nature of the regime from the standpoint of the California comrades?

Another thing: Sam Meyers, I hear, is doing a lot of beefing about the regime of Cannon, the one-man dictatorship and so forth and so on. But how did Meyers judge the Cannon regime when he saw it operating under his nose in 1936-37? Under date of November 23, 1936, Sam Meyers wrote to Larsen, who was at that time National Secretary of our faction:

Comrade Cannon here sees the situation as it is and works like a realist. He does not overestimate people. He feels his way carefully, utilising everyone and does not put a period where a question mark is necessary. He gets results with an amazing rapidity ...

The arrival of Comrade Cannon gave us an opportunity to estimate our strength. His experience and leadership improved the situation manifold. It was like having all the elements of a powerful solution and along with it, a chemist who knows how to mix it. As you know, I changed places with Charles after the WP convention so that I was away from LA. When I visited LA on the day of one of Comrade Cannon’s last lectures of a series of six it was difficult to find a seat in the hall and there was such a spirited jubilation that the cafes around the hall after the lecture resembled nothing so much as Fourteenth St., NY.

This “resurgent socialism” has taken California socialism a long way in a short time. It was at that time that Labor Action [24] began to be born. It is no surprise that some of the comrades cannot accustom themselves to the idea in so short a time.

Our connection with the waterfront also worked in our favour. Here I must acknowledge that my reports on the waterfront were somewhat faulty in giving too negative a picture. I was blinded by scepticism and could not see the real character of the problem. I was blinded by my lack of confidence in Comrade --. Here too, Comrade Cannon saw a little farther. Of course, experience, ability and authority were indispensable in this case. I find myself writing like a Soviet journalist (I mean in my eulogy of Cannon) but of course, with greater sincerity.

As you see, Comrade Sam is somewhat inclined to exaggeration in praise as well as in blame. However, at that time he was writing about what he saw himself; now he is talking about what he heard.

Now that Comrade Goldman is back in the office to give me a hand there, I am assembling material to sit down and write a comprehensive document on the balance sheet of the party discussion and the organisation question. In passing, I will take up each and every one of the half truths, distortions and falsifications of the opposition’s drawn-out Winchellised column on “Bureaucratic Conservatism”. But I will do my best to show that what is really at stake in all this dispute over the organisation question is the conflict over conceptions of Leninist centralism and petty-bourgeois looseness.

I am anxious to know how you have arranged the California trip from a personal point of view. Since you will be back in New York for the convention and our plan is for you to remain in the East for another period, you have to take this into consideration.

I would like to know what was your impression of the latest document of the Old Man which we sent to Preis, and asked him to turn over to you—“From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene”. [25] It seemed to me something like taking a 20-pound sledge hammer to smash a flea.


J.P. Cannon

41. A Letter to Grace Carlson

New York, February 9, 1940

Dear Grace,

I received your letter of January 15 and note that your time is all taken up with the fight with the bosses and the capitalist courts. I suppose this is what qualifies you as “backward elements” in the minds of the Bronx kibitzers.

There is quite a campaign in the party against Minneapolis-St. Paul instigated by Burnham and Shachtman. They claim it is a walled-off medieval city to which they can’t get a passport. But I don’t think they are really worried about getting in. It is the problem of getting out again that really worries them.

I have heard a good many high school boys and girls expressing disapproval of the Twin Cities movement in recent weeks and half started to turn loose on them many times. Then I decided I might as well be real mean and wait till Dobbs gets here and then turn them over to him.

I have made, according to my count, 43 speeches so far in this tussle and I am beginning to get somewhat bored with the sound of my own voice. The worst of it is that with many of these people here, speeches by Cannon and even articles by Trotsky don’t do any good. It is like lecturing on the art of swimming on dry land. We will have to chuck them into the water (the mass movement) and then look around to see what happens. Those who manage somehow or other to stay on top will be OK ...

As ever,

J.P. Cannon

42. A Letter to Leon Trotsky

New York, February 20, 1940

(Copies to All Groups of the Majority)

Dear Comrade Cornell [Trotsky],

It is now the unanimous opinion of the leading comrades here that the split which the opposition leaders have been preparing is no longer to be avoided. Our tactics in the struggle from now on must take this as the point of departure. Last Sunday night’s general membership meeting in New York removed the last doubt that any of us entertained on the question.

The debate occurred between Shachtman and Goldman. The latest article of Trotsky—“From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene”—had been published and we awaited the public reactions of Shachtman and of the opposition comrades generally to this last warning to halt. There was no sign even of an understanding of the political meaning of this solemn document. Shachtman—true to himself—spent his whole time twisting and squirming around those points in the document which dealt with him personally, ignoring the fundamental principle sections, and joking—above all joking—in a manner which even for Shachtman was exceptionally clownish. The opposition followers, especially the high school and college students, enjoyed the jokes immensely. As for the speech of Goldman—they did not even listen. They laughed and joked among themselves and engaged in buzzing conversations most of the time. It is safe to say that every serious comrade left the meeting cursing under his breath and saying to himself: It is really time to call a halt. There is no more profit in this discussion.

In reply to Goldman’s point-blank question as to whether the opposition intends to demand the right to a public organ of its own as a splitting ultimatum, Shachtman, without giving a direct reply, gave an airy and facetious exposition of the “well-known traditions” in which the publication of separate organs by the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the Trotskyists and others was taken as a matter of course. He conveyed the impression with many grimaces and quips that anyone who doubts the necessity of repeating all this experience, and starting all over again as if nothing happened in the meantime, is simply stupid. The college students especially enjoyed this part of the performance. Some of them, it seems, are students of history.

Meanwhile— right during the meeting —Demby sat in a corner collecting money for the caucus treasury and many bills of no small denomination passed across the table. (We were threatened with a strike at the print shop last week because we couldn’t pay the printer’s wages.) The collections were obviously being taken to finance the national conference of the opposition to be held, as I understand, in Cleveland this weekend. This is not a gathering of a few national leaders, but a full-fledged conference, with delegates from all districts, and is manifestly designed to organise and prepare the split. The very fact of the holding of this conference on such a scale, taken together with the attitude expressed at Sunday night’s meeting; the latest document of Burnham, “Science and Style”, which exceeds all others in impudence and disdain and class hatred of the proletarian majority; Abern’s letter to Trotsky which threatens a split in as frank a manner as Abern knows how to speak; the complete abstention of the opposition leaders from all participation in party work; the campaign against Trotsky as a fool, a liar and a crook—any high school student in the opposition will tell you that Trotsky has made all kinds of mistakes in the past and that as far back as the controversy over Max Eastman and Lenin’s testament he showed he had no moral scruples—all this must lead to the inevitable conclusion: Any further attempts to restrain the petty-bourgeois tendency and to assimilate and reeducate them within the framework of a common organisation are utopian. The petty-bourgeois opposition is bent on a break. It is necessary without any further delay to acknowledge the reality and to prepare our lines of battle accordingly.

There is another side of the question too. The discussion has become completely degenerated. It is no longer possible to produce anything more than a laugh or a sneer in the New York branches if one attempts an exposition of the Russian question from the point of view of the Marxist theory of the state. Meeting after meeting in the branches is taken up with disputes initiated by the Abern city committee on practical differences of 10th-rate importance. Along with this there is the complete neglect and even sabotage of daily party work. It was discovered, for example, that Shachtman’s Bronx branch had not distributed a single copy of the Appeal for five weeks.

It is necessary to acknowledge that the discussion has exhausted itself. We have before us a first-class demonstration of “the petty bourgeoisie gone mad”. All of us now feel sorry that we postponed the convention, since the prolongation of the discussion is obviously producing disintegration and demoralisation. Of course we could not know that beforehand. We all shared the hope that the last document of Trotsky would at least have a sobering effect and prompt the oppositionists to stop and consider their future course. And here I think we all made a common error. It is this: We did not realise how deeply petty-bourgeois panic and petty-bourgeois corruption permeate the ranks of the opposition as well as the leadership.

On the other side, there is a factor of no less importance that we dare not underestimate. The serious worker elements in the party have had enough and more than enough of this horseplay. We have received several ominous warnings of this development.

Just think: 11 thick bulletins have already been published and the material for two more is on hand. For such a brief space of time, this is already the most voluminous party discussion in the history of mankind. In several letters we have been informed that active workers are fed up with this flood of material and beginning to grumble. The workers have made up their minds firmly about the merits of the dispute and about the character of the leaders as revealed in the crisis. They don’t want to talk forever. They want to act.

Even the suggestion of permitting a limited continuation of the discussion after the convention—which was contained in a confidential letter of Cornell and relayed to our most responsible people—brought a storm of opposition from the field. One comrade wrote very cogently: “I am very much afraid that if we continue this business after the convention the workers will simply walk away and leave their address behind so we can look them up if and when we mean business.” The Minneapolis incident can be taken as a danger signal. Shachtman from Chicago wrote to the Minneapolis comrades, asking for an informal meeting to discuss the party disputes. They answered him brusquely that they saw no need of such a meeting. They did not ask my advice on this procedure. If they had done so, it is possible that I would have suggested to them that they hold a meeting in order to thrust aside extraneous arguments about democracy, etc. Such arguments have been made against the Minneapolis comrades by Shachtman in a factional circular, but the Minneapolis comrades remain unmoved.

They have read and studied all the bulletins and discussed them in meeting after meeting; they know Shachtman; and they don’t want to hear anything more from Shachtman. Now, when the most advanced and experienced and responsible proletarian comrades in the party take this attitude and make no bones about it, it is time for us to realise that the proletarian elements in general want to bring this discussion to a conclusion and get down to work.

We are coming right up against the necessity for a decision and a line of action which will put our conception of the “organisation question” to a test in life, not in the pages of the opposition’s fiction serials. My own opinion is very definite and I will state it frankly: It is impossible to build a combat party with a tolerant attitude towards splits. In the discussion every democratic right must be assured and has been assured. Every reasonable organisation concession must be made in the interests of preserving unity and educating the party in a normal atmosphere. But we must not sanctify permanent demoralisation. We must not permit anybody to make an endless discussion club out of the party. Those who go beyond these bounds and take the road of split are no longer to be considered as comrades discussing a difference of opinion, but as enemies and traitors. They must be fought without mercy and without compromise on every front. We will never instil a real party patriotism into the ranks unless we establish the conception that violation of the party unity is not only a crime but a crime which brings the most ruthless punishment in the form of a war of political extermination against those who commit it.

I personally have no use for the French system of organisation. I know very well, especially after my experience there, all the many factors which contributed to the unfortunate results in France. Many of these perhaps were insurmountable. But I have for long been deeply convinced that the lightminded attitude towards unifications on the one side and splits on the other contributed heavily to the failures which occurred so often when good prospects for successes were at hand.

It is possible that the opposition leaders, counting on our fear of a scandal and Trotsky’s well-known and extraordinary patience, really imagine that they will bluff us into permitting the spectacle of two public organs, advocating two different and contradictory policies. If that is so—and if I have my way—they will meet a cruel disillusionment. What do I propose? I propose to call their bluff. I will advise the worker delegates at the convention to say firmly that we want a party not a play house, that we want one program and one press that defends it. If the opposition will not accept this fiat of the party majority—and their present frenzy excludes the possibility of them accepting it—and take the road of split, then war to the knife begins.

Shachtman has been circulating an anecdote that I, in the earliest days of the discussion, proposed to him a “friendly split”. This only shows that this jokesmith does not understand the broadest and most obvious sarcasm. For me the vanguard party of the proletariat is a combat organisation aiming at the conquest of power on the basis of a clearly defined program. Another party with another program—that I can understand only as an enemy. To be sure, there are exceptional cases where comrades having the same fundamental program can divide into separate organisations to facilitate a division of labour—like entrists and non-entrists, for example—and still, at least theoretically, maintain friendly relations and avoid mutual polemical attacks. We know cases of two separate parties of different origin beginning to approach each other and establishing friendly cooperative relations preparatory to fusion. That was the case, as you recall, with the American Trotskyists and the Muste organisation. But even to think of having a friendly attitude towards a group that splits from a party of the Fourth International on programmatic questions, and on the eve of war to boot—that is simply monstrous.


I fully agree that even now, faced with a certain split being organised by the opposition, we must do everything within reason to show that the splitters have no just grievances in the organisational sphere; that the split takes place over principled political questions and not at all over bureaucratic injustices. I fully agree with your remarks that our organisational methods are not fixed and final and applied rigidly in all cases. The fact that we gave up our organisation and even our press for a time in order to penetrate into the Socialist Party should convince all the comrades that we are flexible enough in our “organisation methods”; that we can make even the most sweeping concessions when we have something to gain politically which can later be crystallised organisationally.

I personally do not rule out in principle the idea, in certain cases, of permitting a minority to have its own internal bulletin. I would go even further and say that such a concession could in exceptional cases even be extended to the permission of a separate public organ for a time— if the composition and general nature of the dissident group were such as to give some reasonable hope that it would learn and change under the impact of events. But the present opposition is not that kind of a group—and this is the essence of the whole question. The opposition is petty-bourgeois to the core in its ranks as well as in its leadership. Except for stray individuals who do not decide the course, it is not connected with the labour movement, and does not learn anything from experience in the class struggle. Because it is not proletarian it has not assimilated the discipline and respect for organisation which is more or less natural for a worker. Taken as a whole, the minority, as is so glaringly demonstrated in the discussion, never assimilated the basic principles of Marxism as a guide to action in the class struggle. How else could one account for the fantastic departure from everything that is elementary in such a short time?

Under these conditions, a prolongation of the discussion with this group after the convention or an attempt to maintain the fiction of unity with two separate public organs would only demoralise the proletarian section of the party by compelling it to squander its time and energy in the most barren field. I am profoundly convinced that the present hodge-podge program of the opposition represents only the first stages of its fundamental break with Marxism. It is by no means a finished expression of the real tendencies inherent not only in the leadership, but, again I repeat, in its ranks.

The two groups in the party will begin moving in opposite directions from the first day of the split. The moment the opposition is freed from the formal restraints of membership in a common party with us, the “experimental science” of Burnham will begin to assert in full scope its real anti-proletarian and anti-revolutionary meaning. This would also be manifested, even if not at such an accelerated pace, if our proletarian majority should be so foolhardy at the convention as to permit the experiment with two public organs. It can be said with certainty in advance, that the tendencies in that case would not grow together but apart. The result of the experiment would only be to discredit the party as an organisation that doesn’t know its own program, doesn’t know how to keep its ranks united and lacks the resolution to make a definitive split.


The day after the split should mark a sharp turn in our orientation and in the character of our work in general. As a matter of fact, the split will be more of a scandal than a loss. The basic cadres of the party throughout the country will remain virtually unaffected. The same is true of all our trade union groups. Only individual trade union comrades here and there have wandered into the minority by mistake. The same is even true, of the youth—that is, the real youth. The opposition has the bulk of the petty-bourgeois students; of that there is no doubt. But the young sailors, steel workers and others, are on our side almost to a man. Our ranks will have had enough discussion to last for a while and there will be a general all around impulse to get down to practical work. With the coming of Dobbs to the centre our trade union work in particular can get a big impulse and receive for the first time a systematic direction and development.

One of our first tasks should be to reshape the character of the Appeal from top to bottom as a bona fide workers’ paper that is accessible to the rank and file worker and understandable to him. We will be in a position to turn our backs completely on the soul-sick intellectuals and sophisticated radicals and make an earnest and determined effort to penetrate into new proletarian circles. Even here in New York there are a great many workers.

Unfortunately, we didn’t reach very many of them yet. I am afraid we must admit that we have spent too much time and too many years explaining the fine points to sophisticated radicals and have not carried on enough persevering activity in the workers’ neighbourhoods ...


We must not wear our lives out trying to convince intellectuals and petty-bourgeois smart alecks who don’t want to be convinced, or who are not prepared to act seriously even when they agree fundamentally. I am very much afraid that here in New York at least the party activity—including my own—has been too much concentrated on this barren soil ...

We must change all this after the convention and take drastic steps to reshape the whole nature of our activity in New York. That will be far more profitable for the party and far more satisfying than trying to explain to over-wise college boys and girls that the question of the class character of the state is an important point and that Trotsky really didn’t raise the question of dialectical materialism as a factional trick.


If we now recognise that the opposition is determined to carry through the split and that we cannot prevent it, but perhaps at best only prolong the agony a while at the cost of demoralisation and disintegration and get a worse split in the end—if that is the case, as we all here feel, then we should reconsider our previous attitude towards the publication of the most important documents in the controversy in the New International. Previously, as you know, my objection to this was motivated chiefly on the ground that the publication of the sharp polemical documents would compromise the opposition hopelessly before the public and cut off their retreat.

That reason doesn’t hold in the new situation. If we are going to have a split we should make a sharp right-about-face in our tactics on this point and begin to prepare the sympathising public for the split. We had a discussion in our committee yesterday about this matter, but did not come to final conclusions. I personally am of the opinion that we will be at a disadvantage if we have to begin explaining the split the day after it happens. That would take an enormous amount of time and energy and space in our press. It would be better to publish the most important documents before the convention so that the whole case and the basic issues of the split are known to our sympathisers. That will clear the decks, so to speak. Then, following the convention, we can devote a few sharp and not too lengthy summary articles to the splitters, and let them talk among themselves thereafter. We will have more serious things to do.

I would be very glad to know your opinion on the points in this letter.


J.P. Cannon

43. A Letter to Leon Trotsky

New York, February 22, 1940

Dear Comrade Cornell [Trotsky],

I just saw your letter of February 19 to Goldman.

I think by now practically all of the leading comrades here agree that we shall publish the most important documents from both sides in a special number of the New International. Along with this, I think we can draw up a general letter to the party which will be designed to put some more obstacles in the path of the splitters. However, we must be absolutely clear in our own minds as to what is going to happen. The split will not be prevented and we must prepare for it on all fronts.

One extremely important point which I did not touch on in my other letter is the situation in the International ...

The Canadian section supports the majority with practical unanimity. The one supporter of the minority in the leadership, Robertson, resigned from the movement with a shameful capitulatory statement.

I understand the Mexican section also supports the program. A sailor comrade from California who recently returned from a voyage to China where he contacted our people, reports that the Chinese section entirely supports the majority, having fought this issue out some time ago.

From Europe we hear nothing. Held sent us a resolution adopted by himself, Neureth and a third emigre, together with four Scandinavian comrades. It is a very bad statement on the Finnish events. I presume you have received a copy. Of course Held does not accept the fundamental position of the minority on the Russian question, but they exploit the resolution against us. This is somewhat ironic. The polemics of Held in the New International [February 1939] against Shachtman’s article on Luxemburg were extremely interesting. It could even be said that they foreshadowed the struggle which has now broken out in full force on the question of the party organisation.


J.P. Cannon

44. A Letter to Oscar Coover

New York, February 22, 1940

Oscar Coover

Minneapolis, Min.

Dear Oscar,

I received your note of February 19 with the copy of Comrade E--’s letter.

His remarks on the Russian question are very pertinent. It doesn’t bear out the impression that Shachtman and Co. are trying to convey that the Minnesota people are a bunch of illiterate farmers who can’t read and who are not permitted to hear anything from the professorial leaders of the minority.

Instead of Shachtman travelling to Minnesota to teach a comrade who can explain the Russian question in such a concise Marxist manner as E-- did, there would be more sense in them bringing E-- to New York to make a speech to them. But that would be a waste of time and carfare too. People who can’t learn anything even from the last big document of the Old Man don’t offer much hope.


J.P. Cannon

45. A Telegram to the Minority Conference

New York, February 24, 1940

I. Bern c/o Cheslea Hotel

1815 East 9th Street

Cleveland, Ohio

To the Minority Conference:

Dear Comrades,

We address your conference on one point only: party unity. We on our part repeat our previous declaration that if we are in the majority at the convention we will oppose any expulsions. If we are in the minority we will maintain unity and discipline. We ask your conference to make a similar declaration. On that basis, if we are in the majority we are willing to make every reasonable provision or organisational concession consistent with the principles and methods of Bolshevik organisation to guarantee the party rights of the minority after the convention.

The Majority of the PC

By J.P. Cannon

46. A Letter to Leon Trotsky

New York, February 29, 1940

Dear Comrade Rork [Trotsky],

I just received your letter of February 27.

We have not yet received from the minority any report of their conference proceedings. All we have is the informal reports of individual comrades which we have not been able to check against any documents.

I gather, however, from all these reports that their demand is for the right to publish a separate organ of their own after the convention.

I was told that Comrades—and—appeared at their conference and issued a statement—whether “in the name of the International” or not, I do not know—and stated that in their opinion the demand for the separate organ was justified under the circumstances.

We sent a telegram to the conference as follows:

To the Minority Conference:

Dear Comrades:

We address your conference on one point only: party unity. We on our part repeat our previous declaration that if we are in the majority at the convention we will oppose any expulsions. If we are in the minority we will maintain unity and discipline. We ask your conference to make a similar declaration. On that basis, if we are in the majority we are willing to make every reasonable provision or organisational concession consistent with the principles and methods of Bolshevik organisation to guarantee the party rights of the minority after the convention.

The Majority of the PC

By J.P. Cannon

Up till today we have received neither an acknowledgment nor an answer to our telegram.

We also distributed to all the delegates your letter, “Back to the Party”.

Comrade Stuart, secretary of the EC, received the proposals of Crux, Fischer and Munis only after the conference had begun and all delegates had left New York. However, he immediately transmitted copies of the letter to the conference, addressed to Shachtman, Lebrun and Johnson, with the statement that both he and I agreed with the proposals. This was last Saturday. Up to today—Thursday—he has not received any acknowledgment from any of those addressed.

We are proceeding with the publication of the next number of the New International as indicated. We are also proceeding with every necessary step of self-defence and preparation. At the same time, you have no need whatever to fear any precipitous acts on our part or any failure to make an absolutely clear record of efforts to prevent a split by every reasonable means. We now await the resolutions of the minority conference and will determine our answer after we have studied them.

I don’t know whether you fully appreciate the character and tendencies of the present opposition as it is revealed by such incidents as their failure to come to the party office from one end of the week to the other; the failure to give us a formal statement of their conference demands after four days; the neglect of all the party duties and routine and financial obligations. In my experience I have never yet encountered such a thoroughly irresponsible petty-bourgeois tendency.

A half-serious politician, even if he were deliberately planning a split, would be afraid to encourage such irresponsible attitudes for fear that the new organisation would be poisoned with them at the beginning. Even at the time of our split with the Socialist Party we made a better formal record, up to the very end, in responsibility for the routine activities of the party.

Perhaps a part of the impatience of the worker comrades is due to their inexperience with drawn-out theoretical controversy. However, the feeling of impatience with the present opposition is practically universal in our ranks, no less so on the part of the most theoretically qualified comrades. There is a pretty general feeling that even the small percentage of them that are not more or less deliberately breaking with our movement under a cloud of dust and controversy will require a few sharp experiences to wake them up.

If they are permitted to have a public organ after the convention it will simply mean that we have in reality two parties. The opposition would have its own treasury, its own headquarters, its own distributing staff, etc. At the same time our own activities would be paralysed by the continuation of the dispute with them in common branches. I don’t know anyone in our ranks that is willing to consider such a perspective for a movement.

As far as the majority is concerned, the split will represent no serious rupture whatsoever. The separation on the psychological plane is as profound as on theoretical, political and organisational planes.

We will keep you informed of all developments and as always will be glad to have your opinion on every point that you consider important.


J.P. Cannon


[23] The New International was the name of the monthly magazine of the party at that time.

[24] Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 101-102.

[25] This refers to the periodical published in California, with Cannon as editor in 1936-37, during the stay of the Trotskyists in the Socialist Party.