Fourth International, March 1949


James P. Cannon

New Problems of American Socialism

(27 December 1948)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.3, March 1949, pp.72-75.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

(The following is part of a speech by Comrade Cannon at the 20th Anniversary Plenum of the Socialist Workers Party, December 27, 1948.)

A number of new developments, which have been in process for about ten years in the American labor and radical movement, have reached a point of culmination. The struggle for socialism has entered a new stage and is encountering new complications. Problems which were implicit in the earlier period of the labor and socialist movement have ripened and become actual. The main points of the new situation require analysis and the adoption of appropriate tactics and methods of work.

During the election campaign we invoked the tradition of Debs – pioneer socialist presidential candidate in the United States. We claimed to be his real continuators, and we were justified in this contention. Debs was not some sort of bloodless, neutral liberal or harmless critic of the existing order, as he is represented nowadays by so many social democrats and other charlatans. Debs was a revolutionist.

One has only to pick up his collected writings and speeches, which were recently published, to see how all of Debs’ utterances were permeated with the sentiment of struggle against capitalism and capitalist war. Our candidates, and only our candidates, spoke the same language in the 1948 campaign. In addition, Debs was the most distinguished of all class-war prisoners. Our candidates were also class-war prisoners. The comparison of our candidates with Debs was appropriate, especially in the contrast with Thomas and Wallace who, each in his own way, claimed a certain radicalism, but are far removed from the spirit and the tradition of Debs.

Our campaign argument was basically correct, but it was somewhat over-simplified. If we content ourselves with the reiteration of this simple comparison, the education of our new recruits will remain defective and inadequate. The comparison must now be made more precise together with a certain differentiation, especially for the education of cur youth and that great draft of a new generation which will awaken to political radicalism in the next period. Continuation of the Debs tradition cannot mean a mere repetition. Much has changed since his time. We have to take up where Debs left off. Debs symbolized and represented prewar American socialism. By that I mean pre-World War I. That was the heyday of Debsian socialism, and many things have happened since then.

The Decades Between

To mention a few details: There have been two world wars; the Russian Revolution and its degeneration; the rise of Stalinism; the great, unprecedented crisis of the Thirties which was never overcome by the normal operation of capitalist economic laws; the accelerated breakdown of capitalism as a world system; the uprising of the colonial world; the emergence of the United States as the first capitalist power in the world – you might almost say, the only real capitalist power in the world; and the rise of industrial unionism in the shape of the CIO in the United States, the organization of a trade union movement of 15,000,000. Now we can add: the growing consolidation of a new conservative labor bureaucracy which operates as an agency of capitalism inside the labor movement.

Two generations of communists and socialists have been devoured by these mighty events; only a small minority have stood against their weight and terror. The complexities of the times have wrought a great confusion. The events which have prepared the conditions for a great revival and expansion of the revolutionary socialist movement have temporarily demoralized it. Renegacy is no longer an individual, but a mass phenomenon. The program of Marxism – the whole idea of the socialist emancipation of the workers – has been subjected to new attacks, on a wider scale and with more variety, and with more effectiveness in many ways than ever before.

Revolutionary strategy must be adapted to the new circumstances. In prewar Debsian times, simple anti-capitalist argument was the main burden of socialist agitation. Read through the whole book of Debs. It is as simple as ABC – organize the workers, do away with capitalism, replace it with socialism. All that remains correct. But such propaganda alone will not suffice today We must deal with new developments and new complications which were not foreseen by the movement of Debs’ time.

Pioneer Socialism

Pioneer socialism, whose tradition we rightly claim, was addressed to a working class not yet conscious of itself, and not organized. The call of pioneer socialism was a call to the workers to organize and struggle against a still-ascending capitalist class, which was still able to rule in its own name. The atomized working class was weaker then, and the ruling class was stronger, than either will ever be again. The capitalist parties in those days didn’t even bother to pay any attention to the demands of the labor movement. Gompers used to go from one convention to another like a beggar, petitioning the platform committees of the Republican and Democratic parties to insert some verbal concession to the trade union movement. And almost invariably he was given the brush-off. The unions had no real mass power. The capitalist parties operated in disregard of them and felt no need of a coalition with the working-class movement:

The pioneer socialist agitators considered the industrial organization of the wage slaves of the great monopolies as the first task; this, they thought, was half and even more than half of the battle. It was no accident that Debs, Haywood and DeLeon, the best pioneer leaders of American socialism, were founders of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), heralds of industrial unionism.

Debs and Haywood were not “labor statesmen” but strike leaders of the unorganized masses – the most exploited and deprived, who had no means of organization except by strikes under conditions prevailing then – the blacklist and spy systems. Most of the great strikes took place as spontaneous revolts of the workers; organization was effected only during the strikes, and most often was lost afterward. The great concentrated effort of such men as Debs and Haywood was to organize the workers, especially the unskilled in the mass-production industries. They thought that a labor movement organized in struggle against the capitalists could easily do away with capitalism.

Much of what was set by the pioneers as a goal, which they conceived would bring them to the very threshold of the social revolution – the industrial organization of the American working class – has been achieved even beyond their dreams. The organization of 15 million workers, especially the CIO section, which is the great potentially revolutionary section, undoubtedly represents an enormous step forward. I don’t know whether other comrades agree with me, but I have always considered the semi-uprising of the American workers, which culminated in the sit-down strikes and the building of the CIO, as a world event equal in historic significance to anything that happened in Europe, except the Russian Revolution.

The great upsurge of industrial unionism is a mighty advance toward the socialist culmination of the class struggle in the United States. But it alone doesn’t solve the problem, as many of the pioneers expected; for the trade unions, depending on their policy and leadership, can be either revolutionary instruments for the abolition of capitalism or props for its support. The vast expansion of this great trade union movement is raising new problems with burning actuality, in particular the problem of bourgeois ideology and influence within the unions. In the main, that is the problem of the capitalist-minded bureaucracy in the trade union movement and the traitor intellectuals allied with them in the service of American imperialism. The struggle against this perfidious gang appears more and more as the central problem of the American revolution.

The Foresight of Lenin and DeLeon

It is remarkable how Lenin and DeLeon, our own DeLeon, foresaw this problem of the role of reformism in the labor movement at the dawn of the modern labor movement itself, in both Russia and America. Lenin’s main blows, by far the greatest volume of his polemics, were directed against the Mensheviks for influence over a mass labor movement which did not yet exist in Russia. And similarly, DeLeon fought the reformists and labor fakers – the American counterparts of the Russian Mensheviks – here in the United States when the trade union movement was much more of an anticipation and a hope than an actuality.

The new mass trade union movement in the United States now reveals in life the very same problem which Lenin and DeLeon solved theoretically in advance of the actual organization of the masses. It is clear that the strategy of the revolution in the United States cannot consist simply of the head-on fight of the workers against the capitalist class. That would be a rather easy task. The workers, due to their strategic position in production and their overwhelming numbers, can easily overthrow capitalism – providing they act as a class for themselves. The issue hangs on that proviso. The influence of the capitalists and their ideology inside the working class is the main factor impeding the socialist emancipation of the workers. The grand strategy of the revolution, the key to the overthrow of United States capitalism, is the elimination of this bourgeois influence from the unions.

The agents of this alien class influence are the top union officialdom and their allies, the anti-Marxist intellectuals and ideologists who help to formulate their ideas and arguments. Serving their own privileges and self-interests, these two groupings, the trade union bureaucracy and this great assortment of anti-Marxist intellectuals – publicists, journalists, philosophers and professors – work harmoniously together against the rank and file of the exploited, against the aspiring youth, against the socialist revolution. The separation between these two groupings should be regarded as a division of labor and not as a real division of forces. They have numerous points of contact and cooperation and act together more and more. And at the moment they are very strong.

Anti-Marxism on the Offensive

Anti-Marxism, which is only another way of saying pro-capitalism, is on the offensive in the United States, as it has been for ten years; and not only in society generally, but in the labor movement, and in what used to be the socialist and radical circles of the intellectuals. The movement, of ideologists and politicals away from communism, from the whole concept of the socialist reorganization of society, has become a rout. We have witnessed a complete reversal of the trend which began in 1917 and continued up until the middle of the Thirties. Then the trend of all politically awakening people, labor activists, intellectuals and student youth, was away from reformism and toward communism, toward the Russian Revolution and what it symbolized. The exceptions were very few.

During the period from 1917 to the middle of the Thirties those who turned from communism back to social democracy numbered scarcely a dozen inconsequential people. But there was a steady recruitment from the ranks of the social democracy and all its various manifestations over to communism, either to the official Communist Party or, later, toward us. The mid-Thirties, the time of the Moscow Trials, represent the great dividing line. Since then the drift has been all the other way, back toward reformism. Social democracy, in its peculiar American form, has been receiving constant reinforcements. In the political essence of the matter there has been a social-democratic revival.

This country produces many things uniquely. For understandable historical reasons we have had only a comparatively small workers’ political movement; but this small movement has nevertheless experienced the phenomenon of mass desertion and renegacy in the recent years. By renegades, I don’t mean merely ex-Trotskyists, although when you count them up, there is an imposing number of them also. I am speaking of two whole generations of communists and socialists of all groups who have been devoured by the events of this past period. Of course, the majority simply fell aside in exhaustion and disillusionment. But many of the turn-coat labor activists and intellectuals, who have made their peace with the ruling class, remain politically active against the cause they once espoused. They have become the spokesmen of a neo-social democratic movement.

Social Democracy in Its New Garb

Some comrades appear to be inclined to separate those whom we call the social democrats, for want of a better name – the, reformist ideologists and politicals – from the trade union bureaucracy. This, in my opinion, is incorrect. These people feed ideological arguments to the labor-skates; and more than that, give them a feeling of theoretical certainty and moral righteousness in serving American imperialism. In the division of labor between the pseudo-progressive labor bureaucrats and the intellectual priests, the role of the latter is not unimportant. They are no longer polemicizing against capitalism and supplying socialist ideas to the proletariat. They are glorifying capitalism and supplying ideas to the trade union bureaucrats to justify their betrayals.

Take note of this contrast. The old social democracy cf Debs was a militant anti-Gompers movement. Debs damned and condemned the AFL policy on the political field and on the economic field. He denounced Gompersism for its craft unionism, its conservatism, its support of capitalist parties, etc. The New Leader, which is a lineal, if somewhat unnatural descendant of the socialist movement of Debs, was invited on the occasion of its 25th anniversary to send a special representative to the AFL convention. They sent Max Eastman, who went to the convention and praised the fat boys of business unionism for the wonderful things they were doing. That meeting was symbolic of the fusion of the social-democratic politicals with the labor-fakers. The true heirs of Gompers and the apostate descendants of Debs met there and recognized each other as kindred spirits.

I believe we have been somewhat deceived by appearances. The resurgence of American social democracy has been taking place in new and peculiar forms, and we have not paid sufficient attention to it. As an independent organization, the Socialist Party, for example, doesn’t amount to much. The Social Democratic Federation, likewise. It is unquestionable that the social democrats are weaker organizationally, in a party sense, than they have ever been in this country But ideologically, and from the standpoint of propagandistic effectiveness, and of organization in new forms, they are far stronger than ever.

This gang of professors, writers, publicists and philosophers, Who make up the staff of the New Leader and its enormous supporting periphery, are integrated with the trade union bureaucracy. Dubinsky’s “Liberal Party” and “Americans for Democratic Action” are in reality part of the social-democratic network. So are the Rand School, the Jewish Daily Forward, and a score or more of other institutions. They share a common ideology and work together quite, consistently along the same lines and with the same aims.

They control thousands of well-paying jobs in the various unions, organizations and institutions, which constitute a firm material basis for an informal organization of people who work together without paying dues and without formal discipline. They are sometimes divided on incidental questions. But as against the proletarian revolution, as against the rank and file of the working class, they have a very effective coordination of thought and action.

The trade union bureaucracy and its allied ideological wing is a petty-bourgeois class formation, with a firm material basis of privileges and jobs. They are conservative to the marrow of their bones. When they talk of “labor,” they are thinking primarily of themselves and the privileged aristocracy. And if they have little thought or concern for the lower strata, the most oppressed and deprived section of the American proletariat, and the homeless and landless peasantry, they think nothing and care nothing for the hundreds of millions of people in Europe and Asia, in Africa.

They are more or less conscious in their allegiance to American imperialism’s program of world conquest; what they ask in return is privileges for themselves. They are pretty timid in everything except the defense of their own privileges. Before the power of American imperialism, they never think of making a real struggle. They bestir themselves only, as in the case of the Taft-Hartley law, against those infringements which undermine the basis of their existence, the trade unions. But they fight with great viciousness and venom any movement from below, from the rank and file. Historical experience has revealed to perfection this veritable trait of the reformist labor bureaucracy – both trade union and political – that they are capable of fighting with unparalleled ferocity against, proletarian revolution and those who represent it, but they are never capable of overthrowing capitalism, or fighting against what they consider a superior power.

The attitude toward the reformist bureaucracy, in all fields of the labor movement, economic and political, is an infallible test of the real quality of any political party or group. Those who support this bureaucracy, recommending it as an agency for the advancement of socialism, or giving the danger of Stalinism or anything else as an excuse, can only succeed in exposing the falsity of their revolutionary pretensions and discrediting themselves. The only possible role for a revolutionary party is that of opposition to the conservative bureaucracy.

The complication introduced into the labor movement by Stalinism is well known to everybody present here. There is a right way arid a wrong way to fight against it. It is very clear to us now, I think, or should be, that our blocs with the reformist bureaucrats in the trade unions against the Stalinists could only be of a temporary and provisional nature. They were useful and necessary to break the apparatus control of the Stalinists. We have enough experience to know that in order to establish even a semblance of democracy in a union you have to smash the Stalinists’ control of the apparatus. But that is about the maximum value there is in an anti-Stalinist combination with reformists.

The Stalinists are on the run now, losing control in one union after another. But organizational defeats do not necessarily mean their elimination, either from the political scene or from the trade union movement. Far from it. A worsening of social conditions will quickly impel a new wave of radicalization; the youth will turn against.the traitor intellectuals; a new opposition to the conservative bureaucracy is bound to arise. Unless genuine revolutionists head this opposition, the Stalinists will get another chance. If we make a mistake in our analysis and in our attitude toward the trade union bureaucracy, which is growing more and more conservative, the Stalinists will again unfailingly get hold of the masses when they begin to move in a radical direction.

The combination of trade union bureaucrats, social-democratic politicians and anti-Marxist intellectuals is very strong at the moment. But their prosperity depends on the prosperity of American capitalism which itself has not a very firm foundation. They are products of a certain conjuncture, of an unhealthy and artificial prosperity, based almost entirely upon the expenditures for the war and the preparations for a new one. With the collapse of this prosperity, or a serious shaking of it, their position will be undermined. The rank and file will begin to stir and assert themselves. The unavoidable crisis will break the grip of the bureaucracy and discredit the anti-Marxist ideologists.

The AFL bureaucracy once seemed to be all-powerful, not only to control the AFL, but also to prevent the masses of the unskilled and most deprived from ever forming unions for themselves. But when the social crisis forced the masses into motion, they found a way to organize. And they found new leaders out of their own ranks. That will be the case the next time too, and on a far greater scale. The struggle against the conservative bureaucracy is the training school for the leadership of the future.

Last updated on: 17.6.2006