James P. Cannon

Letter from James P. Cannon to Farrell Dobbs

9 March, 1953

From Toward A History of the Fourth International

Written: 9 March, 1953
Source: Struggle in the Fourth International, International Committee Documents 1951-1954, Volume 1 of 4, pages 47-48, from the collection “Toward A History of the Fourth International”, Part 3. Education for Socialists bulletin; issued by the National Education Department of the Socialist Workers Party (US).
Transcription\HTML Markup: David Walters
Pubic Domain: This work in the Public Domain. Please cite the James P. Cannon Internet Archive, a sub-Archive of the Marxists Internet Archive for credit.

Los Angeles 27, Calif.
March 9, 1953

Dear Farrell,

I received the copy of the letter you sent to our friends and also a copy of their answer and Jerry’s comment. I wrote Joe briefly on this general subject a couple of weeks ago. I laid aside the material you sent with the idea of writing more fully on the subject when I got my hands free from the cursed task of working up the last two lectures into printable form. Then I got bogged down in two solid weeks of reading—searching through the classics for all possible references to the problems of the transitional period and the references to the future socialist society and some of the works of the Utopians, etc.

We have been quite disturbed here, both by your joint letter and the reply to it as well as Jerry’s remarks. We feel that there is a danger, that without any such intention on either side, you both may be stumbling into an unnecessary, or at any rate premature, conflict. This could cut across the task of settling accounts with the distinctively American revisionism which is urgent and unpostponable; and which, moreover, must be done and can only be done here in the United States by the leaders of the SWP.

You know I am super sensitive about any manifestation of “Cominternism.” I have had experience with this business in my life time and the burnt child fears the fire. Any one can be as “internationalist” as he wants to be, but he can’t make the different national parties uniform and subject to handling by a uniform method. The weakness and inexperience of the different European parties and of all of them together, due to the failures of past leading cadres in each of the parties, imposed upon the IEC the task of virtually leading each one of the national parties directly. The IEC is in effect the leading body of a European Trotskyist party, and this has been the case ever since the first European conference which was held toward the end of the war.

In my opinion, this is not the best system. No national party will amount to much till it throws up a qualified, indigenous leadership of its own selection. The more or less direct leadership of the IEC in the meantime was the best that could be done in the circumstances. I think we have all recognized this and made due allowances for the exceptional circumstances. But I have never agreed with those who saw in this set up the model for all time. The IEC, in my view, will not accomplish its real work until the various national parties, with the help and guidance of the IEC, finally develop a national leadership in each case.

I agree still less with those who regard the direct leadership of the IEC over all the European parties as a model system and want to extend it across the oceans. Insofar as I was able to make any sense out of Clarke’s attitude after he returned from Europe, he caught a bad case of “Cominternism” in much the same way that one can catch the measles or the seven year itch by unguarded exposure, and transmitted the infection in turn to such people as Bartell and Frankel who are very susceptible and very apt to catch anything that is going around. They would like—again as far as I’ve been able to make head or tail of their symptoms—to transfer the leadership of the American party to Paris and cancel out, in passing, everything that has been accomplished by the homegrown American leadership, including its programmatic documents, its organizational tradition, and its authority based on those achievements.

A typical expression of this tendency is Bartell’s “Report and Tasks.” He says on Page 4 that “the Third World Congress armed us . . . with clear answers to all the big questions of our time,” and leaves unmentioned the Theses on the American Revolution which deals with one fairly “big question of our time,” which the Third World Congress didn’t deal with. (It had previously endorsed the American Theses and apparently considered this endorsement sufficient, which from my point of view, it was.) The answer to the “big question” given by the American Theses happens to be the one which has to govern our work and our perspectives in this country unless we are to condemn ourselves to the role of analytic bystanders “cheering for revolutions in other lands,” as Dan Roberts aptly put it in a letter. This is a sure prescription to kill the party; not merely to weaken and disorient it, but to kill it, for a revolutionary party cannot live without perspectives.

I am not in the least worried about the possibility of the International leadership giving any support to this fantastic “internationalism.” But I am worried about the possibility that they may consider it their duty to “intervene” and try to compromise the struggle now unfolding. That would not work; no compromise can be accepted. In view of the fact that not only the policy and the perspective but also the leadership has been challenged, this fight cannot be settled in any other way than by a showdown.

I suppose I am just about as “internationalist” a person as there is, and have been since 1928, at least; and when the chips are down, just about as loyal partisan of the Fourth International as you could find on a world tour. But I try to see the Fourth International as it is, in the given stage of its development; with all the limitations imposed upon it by historical circumstances; with the great disparity in the experience, tradition, development of cadres, etc., between the Trotskyist movement in the United States and that of Europe. I think I am stating a fact and not expressing a baseless national conceit when I say that we know more about this problem pressing for solution in the SWP, and know better what to do about it, than our friends abroad. And I sincerely believe that the best thing they can do is to watch the development of the struggle attentively, expressing their opinions on the political issues when they finally become clear to them, and—for the rest—to let the American party deal with it in its own way.

This course appears to me to be so obviously indicated that I would not think it worth mentioning if it were not for the unfortunate experiences of past “interventions,” which are still fresh in our recollection. Agreeing with us on our political position in the Morrow affair, and also in the Shachtman affair, they nevertheless stepped in and tried to “do things differently” over our heads. They were totally wrong in each case. And by the same token our own procedure was 100 percent correct and got the maximum results for the benefit of our party out of each situation.

As it was, the unfortunate intervention from Paris didn’t do much harm because neither Morrow nor Shachtman knew how to exploit it, and because we didn’t pay much attention to it. We were lucky enough to get out of the unfortunate situations precipitated by unwise and untimely intervention on their part, but we can’t hope to be lucky every time. For that reason I would much rather take chances with our own handling of the affair now coming up without any unnecessary complications.

What made us uneasy about your letter to Manuel was that it might be taken as an invitation for the IS to intervene, even though the letter specifically stated that you were not asking that. Our apprehension was increased somewhat by the reply sent to you, which seemed to indicate an intention on their part to “do something” about the American situation, and the implication that it is up to them to straighten it out. In any case we would be very sorry to see the emphasis of the struggle shifted in this direction.

The line of action which you have already mapped out—to confront the opposition with an open political discussion of all the questions, stated or implicit, in their position, and your decision to permit no infringement on the authority of the leading body or any paralysis of its functions in the meantime, seems to us to be the right way to proceed from now on. We are very pleased with Joe’s opening barrage in the Internal Bulletin; and the reports of the active intervention by Tom and other leading people in Local New York; and the firm positions taken by Arne, Ted, Larry, Vincent, and the leading people in San Francisco Oakland and Seattle, to say nothing of Los Angeles—which include the points we have heard from up to date.

I do not share Jerry’s apprehensions that a real thoroughgoing struggle in the SWP, on clearly defined political issues, will have a disrupting effect on the international movement. The international movement has profited and learned from every struggle we have conducted in the SWP in the past. And if we conduct this one along the lines already indicated, there is no reason why it should not have the same general International result as the others.