James P. Cannon

The Struggle for a Proletarian Party

I. What the Discussion Has Revealed

(20 April 1940)

Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol IV No 16, 20 April 1941, p. 3.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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((The following article is the first chapter of a pamphlet written by comrade Cannon to sum up the seven-months’ discussion in the party on the question of the Soviet Union and the “organization” question. The pamphlet was published in the <>Internal Bulletin. Now that the Third National Convention of the party has settled the disputes by a decisive majority, this article will acquaint our readers with the party’s estimate of the dispute. In the next issues of the Appeal we shall publish other chapters of comrade Cannon’s pamphlet – Editors)


Political struggles in general, including serious factional struggles in a party, do not take place in a vacuum. They are carried on under the pressure of social forces, and reflect the class struggle to one degree or another. This law is demonstrated in the most striking manner in the development of the present discussion within our party.

At the present time the pressure of alien class forces upon the proletarian vanguard is exceptionally heavy. We must understand this first of all. Only then can we approach an understanding of the present crisis in the party. It is the most severe and profound crisis our movement has ever known on an international scale. The unprecedented tension in the ranks signalizes a conflict of principled positions which is obviously irreconcilable. Two camps in the party fight for different programs, different methods and different traditions.

What has brought the party to this situation in such a short space of time? Obviously it is not a suddenly discovered personal incompatibility of thb individual leaders involved; such trifles are symptoms of the conflict, not causes. Nor can a conflict of this depth and scope be plausibly explained by the flaring up of old differences of opinion on the organization question. In order to understand the real significance of the crisis it is necessary to look for profounder causes.

For those who understand politics as an expression of the class struggle – and that is the way we Marxists understand it – the basic cause of the crisis in the party is not hard to find. The crisis signifies the reaction in our ranks to external social pressure. That is the way we have defined it from the outset of the crisis last September, immediately following the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact and the beginning of the German invasion of Poland. More precisely, we say the crisis is the result of the pressure of bourgeois democratic public opinion upon a section of the party leadership. That is our class analysis of the unrestrained struggle between the proletarian and the petty-bourgeois tendencies in our party.

We define the contending factions not by such abstract general terms as “conservative” and “progressive.” We judge the factions not by the psychologic traits of individuals, but by the programs they defend. The discussion has revealed not a difference of opinion about the application of the program – such differences frequently occur and usually have a transitory significance – but an attempt to counterpose one program to another. This is what has divided the party into two camps. Naturally, these terms, which we have used from the beginning of the discussion to characterize the two tendencies in the party, are meant as definitions and not epithets. It is necessary to repeat this in every debate between Marxists and petty-bourgeois politicians of all types; the one thing they cannot tolerate is to be called by their right name.

The leaders of the opposition consider it outrageous, a malicious faction invention, for us to place this class signboard above their faction, when their only offense consists in the simple fact that they turn their backs on the Soviet Union and deny it defense in the struggle against world imperialism. But our definition and description of such an attitude is not new. Back in the days when Shachtman was paraphrasing Trotsky and not Burnham, he himself wrote:

“At bottom, the ultra-leftists’ position on the Soviet Union, which denies it any claim whatsoever to being a workers’ state, reflects the vacillations of the petty-bourgeois, their inability to make a firm choice between the camps of the proletariat and the’ bourgeoisie, of revolution and imperialism.”

This quotation, from an article written in the New International by Shachtman two years ago, can be accepted as a scientific definition of the opposition combination and its present position, with only one small amendment. It is hardly correct to describe their position as “ultra-leftist.”

The leaders of the opposition in the past have written and spoken a great deal along the lines of the above quotation. Year in and year out in innumerable articles, documents, theses and speeches the leaders of the opposition have been promising and even threatening to defend the Soviet Union – “In the hour of danger we will be at our posts!” – but when the hour drew near, when the Soviet Union almost began to need this defense, they welched on their promise.

So with the program in general, with the doctrine, the methods and the tradition of Marxism. When all this ceased to be the subject for literary exercises in times of tranquility and had to be taken as a guide to action in time of war, they forgot everything that had been said and written and started a frantic search for “new and fresh ideas.” In the first half-serious test they revealed themselves as “peace-time Trotskyists.”

And this shameful performance, this betrayal of Marxism, has taken place in the American section of the Fourth International even before the formal entry of American imperialism into the war. In the bible of the opposition, their document on The War and Bureaucratic Conservatism, we are assured that the party crisis “was provoked by the war.” That is not precisely accurate. America has not yet formally entered into the war, and thus far we have only a faint intimation of the moral and material pressure which will be brought to bear against the proletarian vanguard under war conditions. Not the war, but merely the shadow of the approaching war was enough to send Burnham, Shachtman and Abern on their mad stampede.

Gratuitously attributing to the party their own panic, these philosophers of retreat and capitulation express the opinion that comrades who read their document on the party regime “will draw from it cynical or discouraged or defeatist conclusions.” They add: “The future is dark.” And Burnham, who bared his petty-bourgeois soul in a special document entitled, Science and Style, proclaims with malicious satisfaction – the wish is father to the thought – the downfall of the Fourth International. The reality is diametrically opposite to these lugubrious observations.

In the proletarian majority of the party there is not a trace of pessimism. On the contrary, there is universal satisfaction that the defection of a section of the party leadership revealed itself in time, before the war, and under conditions where it could be combatted openly and in free discussion and beaten down. The virtual unanimity with which the proletarian cadres have rallied to the defense of the party and the Fourth International, the militancy and irreconcilability with which they have met the attack of Burnham, Abern and Shachtman is living proof of the vitality and indestructibility of our movement. That is a good omen for the future. It gives us confidence that it will stand up against the real test of war when it comes. It gives grounds for the most optimistic calculation that the Fourth International will not only “survive,” but conquer in struggle.

We Do Not Fear the Future

As for the “hard future” – the Bolshevik-Marxists never expected that the period of the death agony of capitalism could produce anything but crises and war with their inevitable repercussions in workers’ organizations, including the party of the workers’ vanguard. From these “hard” circumstances, the Fourth Internationalists only drew the conclusion that the grandiose social, convulsions, which we foresaw and analyzed in advance, create the conditions out of which the oppressed masses, impelled by iron necessity, must carry through the social revolution and the reorganization of the world on a socialist basis. Only one thing is needed: a genuine Bolshevik party of the vanguard. Only Marxism can be the program of such a party. Burnham and his sorry disciples, the ex-Marxists, ex-Trotskyists, offer a program that has nothing in common with Marxism or the proletarian revolution. From this arises the fundamental conflict between the majority and the opposition, a conflict which is manifestly irreconcilable and to which all other questions, however important, are nevertheless subordinate.

In the course of a few months discussion the differences between the majority and the opposition have reached such depth and scope as to completely overshadow all questions of party regime. If all the alleged faults of the regime were true, and then multiplied ten times over, the whole question would pale into insignificance beside the principled differences which now clearly separate the two contending factions. The struggle of the opposition ostensibly began as a struggle against the “Cannon regime,” and as a defense, or at any rate as an anticipation, of the “changing” position of Trotsky. But in a short time it unfolded as a fundamental conflict with the Fourth International over all the questions of our program, our method and our tradition.

(Continued Next Week)

Last updated on 1 February 2019