Fourth International, March-April 1950


James P. Cannon

American Radicalism Today

(February 1950)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.11 No.2, March-April 1950, pp.35-40.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

(Ed. Note: This is the stenographic report of a speech by James P. Cannon at the Plenum of the National Committee of the SWP, Feb. 13, 1950.)

These remarks should be regarded as a supplement to my report to the Plenum a year ago on the development of social-reformist tendencies in the American labor movement. (Published in the March 1949 Fourth International under the title of New Problems of American Socialism). At that time we noted the great growth of social-reformist ideology in the American labor movement and also in intellectual circles, along with the apparently contradictory weakening of independent social-reformist organizations. We took note of the gathering force of the anti-Marxist offensive in recent years and the integration of the Social-Democratic intellectuals with the labor bureaucracy, which in turn had become further integrated with the capitalist state.

The Plenum a year ago drew the conclusion that it was necessary to sharpen and systematize our ideological fight for the leadership of the working-class vanguard, to establish the position of the Socialist Workers Party as the rightful leader of the Socialist-minded workers and as the organizing center of revolutionary opposition to American imperialism. We correctly saw this as the real condition of future success.

The developments over the past year in this field are of great importance and significance. On the one hand, there has been an accelerated development of all the processes previously noted. On the other hand, the objective conditions prevailing in 1949, and the reactionary atmosphere in particular, prevented any organizational expansion of our forces. Despite all our efforts – and we put forth considerable and determined efforts – we were barely able to hold our own organizationally; we even lost a little, although very little, ground.

But that bare statement of our “statistical stagnation,” so to speak, isn’t the whole picure of what happened with js during the past year – and it’s not really the true picture. If our most important fight is the fight for leadership of the vanguard, of the more-or-less radical and class-conscious elements, then the correct criterion for estimating the past year, and our part in it, is contained in the following question: How did we fare as an independent party in relation to the others, our opponents and rivals? An examination of developments in this respect will show that the hard year of 1949, which seemed to be one of stagnation and frustration, was really a year of progress on the most important front, maybe even the most important year in our preparation for the future. In this one respect at least, in the fight for the leadership of the vanguard we are in better shape now, in relation to our opponents and rivals, than we were a year ago.

There is little, if anything, Marxists can do to create a mass movement of discontent with the existing social order. That is produced by the elementary forces and circumstances themselves. A new turn in the objective situation in this country, an economic convulsion, which will have political and social repercussions, will generate a tumultuous growth of diverse tendencies and organizations of political dissent. The real fight for the socialist revolution is, as it always has been, the fight to give the instinctive and spontaneous movement of the masses a revolutionary ideology, direction and leadership. That means unceasing war against reformist and centrist tendencies in the labor movement. This can be traced over the past hundred years, starting with the fight of Marx and Engels against anarchist and reformist tendencies in the First International and moving on to the long fight of Lenin against Menshevism for the hegemony of a Russian revolutionary movement that hardly yet existed, that was more of an anticipation than a reality, and continuing with Trotsky’s battles against the Stalinist and Social-Democratic perversions of the revolutionary labor movement.

In the light of this fact the question of primary importance we should ask ourselves today is this: Which organization, as a result of events during the past year, faces a new rise in the class struggle in the best shape and best-equipped to take advantage of the new opportunities, which are certain to make their appearance sooner or later, – and most likely sooner? Seen in this light, if the year 1949 was a tough year for us – and it’s always tough to work and struggle and yet make no tangible and demonstrable headway – if it was tough for us, and a test for us, it was truly a year of devastation for the others.

That’s clearly seen by reviewing what happened in the space of one year to the other organizations which have been contending with us for the allegiance of those more or less conscious and radicalized elements who are destined to be the cadres of a great future movement. Let’s review the year’s experience of these organizations one by one, in the order of their importance, without going into great detail because the main facts are well known.

Stalinist Morale at Low Ebb

The Stalinists have been under terrific fire during the past year. Something happened to them that I doubt ever happened before in the hundred year history of the modern labor movement. We have seen the Stalinists subjected to governmental hounding and persecution, followed up by the assaults of the bureaucratic labor lackeys of American imperialism, who have harried and pounded the Stalinists on every side. And yet, this test of fire has not strengthened their morale. We couldn’t criticize the CP for having lost some organizational ground and some membership under this furious assault. That always happens in the face of severe persecution.

But, normally, time after time in the past, a revolutionary organization subjected to these pressures and persecutions, gained in quality what it lost in quantity, and even more than that. This was the case in the postwar reaction of 1919-21. The Palmer “Red Hunt” decimated the left-wing of the revolutionary movement organizationally, but at the same time pounded together a hard core of cadres capable of resisting and becoming the new leaders of the future movement of American Communism. The persecution of our party during World War II yielded the same result. Our cadres were tempered in the fire and the morale of our movement was strengthened.

Contrary to these examples, the Stalinists have obviously suffered in morale, in quality as well as in quantity. Under fire of their trial and persecution they evaded all the real issues. Instead of making a bold revolutionary defense which could have awakened the new generation to fervor in the fight for defense of their party, they presented a miserable, capitulatory, evasive defense, which has resulted in demoralizing rather than strengthening their ranks.

The testimony of comrades who have come into contact with Stalinists up and down the country is that they are a rather bedraggled, hunted and harried outfit, who have lost not only organizationally, both in the trade unions and in the numerical strength of their party, but above all in their morale.

Disintegration of Wallaceites

Let us pass now from the Communist Party to the Progressive Party. Here we have seen a really catastrophic development. Two years ago, one might have thought – as some did – that the Progressive Party had the potentiality of swallowing up all the elements of discontent in this country into one great pseudo-radical organization. This would have been a great obstacle to us because newly awakening workers greatly prefer a large organization to a small one. Very few people are content to remain in a small organization if they can find a bigger one which appears to be almost as good.

But the Progressive Party which began with such fanfare, with the prestige of a former Vice President of the United States and many outstanding figures in American political life at its head, with all the support of the powerful apparatus of the Stalinist Party, began to decline almost from the moment of its formal constitution at the Philadelphia convention in July 1948. Since the first heavy blow of defeat and a disappointing showing in the national elections, the party has been narrowing down. It has been suffering from wholesale desertions, abstentions, inactivity, losing its character as a mass movement. It has even lost its character as a “Progressive” movement which included Stalinists, becoming more and more a mere front for the Communist Party. Its membership and its influence has been declining at a terrific pace.

It has suffered heavily from the defections created by the Kremlin assault against Yugoslavia. One after another of the prominent non-Stalinist intellectuals and progressives have taken the question of Yugoslavia as a point of departure, for separating themselves in the public mind from the Stalinist elements in the Progressive Party as preparation for withdrawal from the party. Although I haven’t read the minds of these gentlemen attentively, from what little I have learned of psychology, psychoanalysis and so forth, I have concluded that many of these people are actuated by a double set of considerations. Some of them, of course, are really sympathetic to the Yugoslav struggle for independence. Others think that’s as good an excuse as any to demonstrate their independence of Stalinist domination and prepare their get-away.

Whether or not I am correct on their dual motivation, that process of dissociation is taking place and, in my opinion, will continue. The Convention of the Progressive Party this February in Chicago doesn’t promise much. It appears that Wallace is becoming more and more inactive and restless in the isolated prison which the Stalinists have maneuvered him into. Such an outstanding figure as O. John Rogge, the well-known attorney, seeks to delimit the Progressive Party from Stalinism and claims the right to criticize the Soviet Union. Numerous non-Stalinist intellectuals, and even prominent candidates like Isaacson, are rallying around that program.

Despite the deals and compromises which may be patched up between the Wallaceites and the Stalinist leaders to suppress their differences, these are clear signs, not merely of disintegration, but of break-up of the Progressive Party. The whole sad experiment, the attempt to create by fire-cracker methods an American progressive, half-socialist, half-Radical party, on a mass basis, with the participation but not domination of the Stalinists, has ended in a fiasco. That is a very good thing because it helps to clear the ground.

The ferment inside the Progressive Party has created favorable conditions for us. In New York our comrades have succeeded in influencing several youth groups of the Progressive Party. Our fight for a principled position on civil liberties at the Civil Rights Congress has had tremendous repercussions; it helped to separate young, earnest progressives, who really want to be radicals and even revolutionists, from the Stalinists. Awakened by the struggle over civil rights, they entered upon an investigation of all the differences between us and the Stalinists. We’ve recruited a number of such people from the Progressive Party in New York.

Even though our gains have not been very great numerically, it is an important indication that this larger movement, with its greater suction power, has not won anybody over from the ranks of our smaller party. We have been gaining from them. The trend is the important thing to watch. It would be readily dangerous if any one of these rival movements pulled at the weak fringes of our party, instead of our gaining from them.

One of our comrades in a Mid-West city who recently had several meetings with both Stalinists and non-Stalinists in the local Progressive Party, reported they were not only in a state of disintegration, but of deep pessimism. His first task was not to explain the political differences between Stalinism and Bolshevism so much as to try and bolster them up and give them a little hope for the future. If that’s a sign of prevailing sentiment in the ranks of the Progressive Party, as I.believe it is, it is not very favorable for their future prospects. People who have no hope very seldom succeed in waging an aggressive fight. Discouraged people are the poorest soldiers imaginable.

To summarize: the Progressive Party has been virtually eliminated as the potential organizing center of a new radical upsurge. That is a positive gain for the revolutionary party.

Socialist Party Prepares Own Demise

Now, let me pass on to the Socialist Party. It is common knowledge what has been taking place there. Along with a devastating decline in membership and direct influence, it has retreated step by step from every basic element of a Socialist program. Now the Socialist Party has finally voted to give up its one remaining characteristic as an independent political force by voting by a large majority in a referendum to unite with the Social-Democratic Federation. The Social-Democratic Federation, conducting its own referendum at the same time, by a 98 percent majority laid clown as a condition for unity that there must be no nomination of independent candidates against candidates supported by the labor movement. This means no candidates against the Democratic Party.

The forthcoming convention of the SP will undoubtedly ratify the proposal of its National Committee majority to renounce independent electoral activity. That means the final dissolution of a party which remained, in spite of all, in the minds of many workers as the representative of independent Socialist ideas. That is another great gain for the revolutionary party insofar as it further clears the road for us as the only independent opposition to American capitalism on the political field as well as in the trade union movement.

I promised to take the rival organizations in the order of their importance. And so, I first took the Stalinists, next the Progressive Party, and then stepped down a big way to the Socialist Party. Now I must lake a parachute jump down to the Shachtmanites.

“Independent” Shachtmanites Renounce Independence

The Shachtmanites have gone through a peculiar evolution while playing a little game of deceiving themselves and trying to deceive others. The one thing that justifies the existence of a party, a group or a faction, calling itself revolutionary, is its total political independence of opponent class organizations. In preparing to renounce this political independence, the Shachtmanites concocted the remarkable strategy of beginning the great step by changing their name from the Workers Party to “Independent Socialist League.” Under cover of the adjective of independence, they actually prepared to renounce their independence. By the way, this label of Independent Socialist League is really redundant for the very word “Socialist” either signifies independence of capitalist parties and capitalist politics or it has no meaning at all. You can hardly have a bourgeois socialist movement, unless you want to debase the name, “Socialism.” The very designation of an organization as “Socialist” should signify that it is independent. However, there have been organizations in history called “Independent Socialist” with a certain limited justification. That was the case in Germany when the centrist wing of the Social-Democracy broke with the extreme right during the First World War and afterward. When they called themselves the Independent Socialist Party, they meant, and everybody understood, that they were independent of the official Social Democratic Party.

But the Shachtmanites had no sooner announced themselves as “Independent Socialists” than they came out for support of Norman Thomas in the elections of 1948. That was a shameful and disgraceful thing. The very first action they took after they had liberated themselves from the claim that they were a separate and independent party, after they announced themselves “Independent Socialists,” was not to reaffirm their independence from the official Social Democracy but to come out for its support in the election.

That was not a political mistake, not a mere fumble; that was treachery to the principles of Socialism and to the American working class. And this act wasn’t modified but-only made more detestable by the sneaking and hypocritical formula they clothed it with. They “allowed” their members to vote either for Dobbs, the class-war prisoner and opponent of imperialist war, or for Norman Thomas, the contemptible betrayer of his socialist program during the war. That was not an honest impartiality because they were in reality supporters of Norman Thomas; and the great majority of the Shachtmanites preferred Norman Thomas and I presume voted for him against Dobbs and Carlson.

Their policy in the election, which I characterize not as a mistake, but as treachery, corresponded symmetrically to their tactics in the unions.

Here again they cut straight across the actual line of development. In the first 10 years of the CIO, while the masses were still in action and before a homogeneous, privileged bureaucracy had been able to consolidate itself on top of the CIO, we followed the tactic of maneuvering between different groups of bureaucrats, in order to keep democracy alive and gain elbow room for a progressive program in the unions. But this loose situation came to a close with the consolidation of the Reuther bureaucracy as a homogeneous unit in the UAW. Just at that moment, the Shachtmanites, proclaiming their “independent” Socialism, began to ally themselves with this treacherous, imperialist bureaucracy against us and against all militant opposition in the union.

Abandon Independent Class Politics

Now they have climaxed this terror-stricken retreat from the basic position of independent opposition to American capitalism and its agents by their contemptible role in the work of the PAC. They follow in the path of the Socialist Party, with one important difference: They travel faster. It took the Socialist Party 50 years to come to the point where they renounced independent candidates in the elections against the capitalist parties.

The Shachtmanites are coming to that position far more rapidly in a short period of time.

In several cities they already permit their members to participate in the CIO-PAC, not as we do, up to a certain point, in order to keep contact with the union’s political life and further the idea of independent labor politics, but drawing a straight line of opposition when it comes to elections on the Democratic ticket. These Shachtmanites are participating in the primaries within Truman’s Democratic Party. No doubt they will proceed from that to becoming hustlers and supporters of candidates in the general elections on the Democratic ticket who have the endorsement of the PAC. [1]

That is a sure sign of the end of the Shachtmanites. An ignoble end, because they are not engaging in capitalist politics even as openly as the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party is officially adopting such a policy and authorizing its members to carry it out. The Shachtmanites, with their left hand, write in their press pious declarations about independent class politics and then, with their right hand, permit their members to become nothing but errand boys for Democratic politicians, masquerading as representatives of labor in the CIO-PAC set-up.

That won’t work. Their calculations that they can have their cake and eat it too will be disappointed. They may cherish the illusion that they can preserve in their public press a reputation as representatives of independent political action, while their rank and file members keep contact and, as they say, get in “on the ground floor” of Democratic politics. But this policy will hit them in the face as all previous experiences along that line have done to others who have tried it.

Those Shachtmanites, who cater to the bureaucracy, who support PAC candidates in the Democratic Party primaries and then hustle votes for them on the Democratic ticket may make little careers for themselves. But after they get in on the “ground floor” and get some contacts and positions, the first thing that will occur to them is: What do we need this disreputable “Independent Socialist League” lor when our future career lies elsewhere? As happened with scores and thousands of members of the Socialist Party who were allowed to take the same course, they will begin dropping their membership in the Independent Socialist League, remaining platonic sympathizers, and maybe contributing a dollar or two now and then for conscience sake.

An Immutable Law for Socialists

But the “contacts” the Independent Socialist Leaguers are establishing by participation in the Democratic primaries and elections means death for the Shachtmanite organization as any future rival of ours for the allegiance of revolutionary workers. It is the law, laid down by theory and confirmed by a hundred years of experience, that the essential condition for the growth and development, and ultimately for the survival of an independent socialist organization, is the inflexible and unvarying paintenance of its class independence. That’s the meaning of principle, it has a class meaning.

Tactical flexibility within the labor movement – on one side of the class barricades – is necessary, as we all know. But crossing the class barricades is fatal. When Marxists have said, “No class collaboration,” that’s what they meant. All maneuvering has to be done on the workers’ side of the barricades, not in the camp of the class enemy – and the camp of the class enemy, par excellence, is the political parties of the bourgeoisie. “Socialist” maneuvering cannot be done there at any time or under any circumstances.

A comrade remarked to me, apropos of participation in the CIO-PAC: “There’s danger in this whole work in the PAC, particularly if comrades want to carry it to the point of participation in the Democratic primaries and elections.” I told him: “Danger is not the right word; the right word is death.” Any proposals of this kind would be death proposals for our party as an independent revolutionary force. And if not as an independent revolutionary force, what Bright have we to exist?

Of course, there are always attractive circumstances surrounding these proposals. If I may revert to my early training, the sin of class collaboration is often tempting. But “the wages of sin is death.”

PAC Class Collaboration Old Story

This PAC business of “capturing” a capitalist political party is an old story in a new guise. It has been tried many times before. The fact that political and organizational death does not occur immediately is sometimes deceptive. The full consequence of errors like this are not always apparent right away. In politics people seem to get away with one mistake after another, with one crime after another, but that appearance is only deceptive.

Very seldom is a boxer in the ring knocked out with a single blow. Following a prize fight when one of the contestants is knocked out, there is sometimes discussions among spectators: “Which blow knocked him out? Was it a left hook or a right cross?” But all students of the profession, and particularly those who dealt and felt the blows can testify: “No, it wasn’t the last blow but the accumulated effect of a hundred blows that so weakened the organism of the fighter that, although the last blow might have been much weaker than the first blow, in the end he’s knocked out.” That’s what always happens in the end to “socialists” who play with class collaboration.

Back when the Socialist Party had its peak influence, during the First World War and immediately before, some Socialists in the Northwest got tired of running for office every year and never getting elected. Like an individual here and there in our party who distributes The Militant, makes speeches, fights the trade union bureaucrats, runs errands and organizes affairs, they began to ask: “When are we going to win something? Isn’t it possible to get there quicker? Maybe somebody else can get it for us cheaper, wholesale, so to speak.”

These impatient Socialists, of 30-odd years ago, headed by C.T. Townley, a Northwestern stem-winder had the idea – not even original with them – that Socialist “principles” were all right but the tactics were all wrong. It was wrong to run against the big parties because too many people voted for them out of habit and you could never get a majority. Why not take advantage of the primary law; enter the primaries of the capitalist parties; nominate progressive and socialist candidates on their tickets, and thus beat them at their own game?

So the Townleyites organized among the farmers and workers in the Northwest a movement that cut quite a swath in those days called the Non-Partisan League. Looking over the two major parties, the one that appeared most promising to be captured for Socialism and Progress was the Republican Party. They built a great organization in North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska and other grain-producing states and nominated a lot of their people on the Republican party ticket. Some even got into office. Then they discovered that they didn’t have any need for the Socialist Party which was a hindrance to their personal careers. This get-rich-quick experiment devastated the Socialist organization in that area; it never recovered from it.

The LaFollette and Epic Illusions

The Socialist Party nationally tried the same thing in 1924 when for the first time they renounced their independent presidential candidates by hooking themselves onto the train of the La Follette petty-bourgeois party. They’ve been staggering from that self-inflicted blow ever since until they fell down in a coma this year.

These people in the PAC – these bright young labor skates who imagine that history began with them – may think they’ve discovered something new. But it’s really very old stuff. The same thing was tried again in California during the Thirties with Upton Sinclair’s EPIC movement. Sinclair, who had several times been the Socialist Party candidate for governor, suddenly decided to “End Poverty In California” through the medium of the Democratic Party. The inspirers of this “EPIC” movement forsook the Socialist Party and put on a whirlwind campaign to capture the Democratic Party for Socialism.

During those depression years there was such a sweep of radicalism that the Socialist Party had a rare opportunity to rebuild itself by fighting for a program which would really express the needs and desires of the great mass of discontented in California. But the whole movement was channeled into the Democratic Party. Sinclair was nominated for governor and defeated. The next time, Olson, an EPIC man, was elected. A few renegades made careers for themselves. Finally the whole thing piddled out into a reconstituted Democratic Party. The California organization of the Socialist Party itself was so emaciated that when we joined the SP out there in 1936, our first task was to round up the stragglers one by one, prop them up, and tell them, “The future has hopes, don’t doubt it.”

The net result of Sinclair’s “Epic” experiment was to make careers for a few individuals and to debilitate the Socialist Party. The Social-Democratic Federation has played the same game in New York until it is nothing but a miserable appendage of the Democratic political machine and the Liberal Party. Many Socialist Party members have been doing the same thing in PAC over the last ten years. One reason why the SP is finally officially endorsing the program of supporting Democratic candidates is because 90 percent of their former members have already gone over one by one to that field. The SP’s independence has long been very much of a fiction and it is ending now in disillusion and ignominious death.

In this period we must teach our young cadres these lessons. Especially our trade unionists, for that’s where the great danger comes from. Trade unions are hot-houses for the accelerated development of opportunism. Trade unionists are under constant pressure to adapt themselves to the practicalities of their situations. It is precisely because they, as individuals, are submitted to such pressures from evsry side that they cannot maintain a revolutionary position without a party.

The party must not ask these party trade unionists what it is necessary for them to do for the sake of expediency; the party has to advise them what they can’t do in the name of expediency if they want to remain revolutionary socialists. One thing they can’t do is cross the line of class collaboration in politics.

Trotsky’s Conditions for Collaboration

In the next stages of our ideological campaign, we should explain to our members why Trotsky set down, as basic principles of the Fourth International and as conditions for collaboration with him alter he got out of Russia, uncompromising opposition to the Stalinist politics of the Anglo-Russian committee and to the Stalinist politics in China of joining the Kuomintang, the party of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Why did he do that? Because, in the Anglo-Russian committee, which was a block between the Stalinist trade union leaders of Russia and the reformist leaders of the Trade Union Council in Great Britain, was involved the idea that there could be a substitute for the independent Communist Party of Britain.

This combination of trade union leaders of the two countries was supposed to carry out a fight against imperialist war and conduct the class struggle over the head of an independent revolutionary party organization. By throwing all their weight in support of the Anglo-Russian committee, the Soviet government and the Stalinist Third International shut off the Communist Party of Great Britain from any chance of independent growth in the very period of the 1926 Genera! Strike. Just when the situation was wide open for a revolutionary voice, the Communist Party was put to one side and the Anglo-Russian Committee was permitted to strangle the developing movement at leisure.

Similarly in China. The renunciation of the independence of the Communist Party of China and its attempt to function as a fraction of the bourgeois Kuomintang, sealed off its revolutionary possibilities, and helped to strangle the Chinese revolution of 1925-27.

Our comrades have to be indoctrinated with the idea that nowhere and never can we depart from the line of independent class politics. There’s a field for operation in political work in the unions today, but it requires a combination of flexibility and firmness that the comrades can’t easily acquire without constant aid and counsel from the party.

One comrade gave an admirable formula for this combination in reporting on work in his union. He participates in PAC, helps push it along the road of independent political action, and maintains close contact with the workers active in it. But when they came to the crucial point and the proposal to support one set of candidates against the other in the Democratic Party primaries, he correctly said: “This is the time, brothers, that I have to withdraw because I don’t believe in Democratic Party politics.” Some comrades think that might hurt and isolate us. It does, to a certain extent and for a certain time. On the other hand, it serves as a warning which these workers will remember when their disillusionment comes.

Such conduct establishes respect in their minds for the fact that Trotskyists have definite principles. We are willing to participate in union political activities, but won’t cross over the class barricades and collaborate with any party of the bourgeois class. In the long run, we will gain arid not lose from that kind of firmness.

We must participate in these formative movements, but not at the expense of forgetting or transgressing our basic positions. We have to educate our people so that they can carry through any kind of complicated tactic on the working-class side of the barricades and still be firm enough to stop at the danger-sign of crossing class lines. We must firmly reject all temptation to buy participation in any movement at the expense of principle.

To sum up. Our great victory of 1949, in my opinion, was that we alone of all the radical movements in this country maintained our class independence and stood our ground. That is a great achievement, and we don’t need to claim any more. Recruiting slowed down in the unfavorable climate of reaction.

A few members fell aside from activity, or even withdrew from the party. But the cadres have all remained firm and strong.

We came out of the experiences of this past year stronger than our opponents precisely because we remained tough and inflexible on principled lines. That’s the co.ndition for future advances and for eventual victory in our fight for the leadership of the vanguard, just as leadership of the vanguard is the condition for the victory of the working class over United States capitalism.



1. After this speech was delivered the January 1950 Information Bulletin of the Independent Socialist League published motions on political action submitted to its recent National Committee Plenum. Shachtman proposed that ISL members participate, under certain conditions, in primaries of the capitalist parties and support “labor” candidates seeking nomination of those parties. His motion was not accepted. However, a counter-motion by Ben Hall to maintain the traditional position of refusing support to capitalist candidates under any conditions was also rejected. Further details can be found in the March 20 Militant.

Last updated on: 17.6.2006