James P. Cannon

Letter from James P Cannon to George Breitman

From Toward A History of the Fourth International

Written: 1 March, 1953
Source: Struggle in the Fourth International, International Committee Documents 1951-1954, Volume 4 of 4, pages 218-220, 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). March 1974.
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, Calif.

George Breitman
Newark, NJ.
March 1, 1954

Dear George:

I received your two letters of February 11 and February 14 on Germain’s latest effusion. I think we should stop the correspondence with him for the time being and concentrate on direct communication with the national organizations which are already close to us politically. The text of my letter to Goonewardene which has already been forwarded to New York, is intended in part as a sort of answer in advance to any Germainistic proposals inspired from Paris, which might come from one or another of these organizations.

I don’t agree with your statement that it would be wrong “to mix up what we should do now with the tactics that, maybe, should be employed at a different and later stage.” On the contrary, I think we should have a clear picture in our own minds, of what we are going to do in the next stage, and even in the next stage after the next, and prepare the way for those later decisions in the answers we give today.

My letter to Ceylon was written with this in mind. We have to dispel the illusion that everything can be settled by an unprepared common Congress; or that the Trotskyist faction can be induced by any maneuver to participate in such a Congress rigged against them in advance and thus give it a cover of legality. In our minds we must resolutely rule out all ideas of a common Congress at the present time. I have tried to make the reason’s for this clear in my letter to Comrade Goonewardene. The position of the Trotskyist faction would be weaker if they should go to such a Congress and then repudiate its decisions afterward; and still worse if they should legitimatize a trumped-up Pabloite majority and accept a position as a minority tendency, with its struggle muffled by Pabloite rules and regulations.

Our objective is fundamentally different from Germain’s. In the last resort, it traces back to a different theory of the role of the revolutionary vanguard, and its relation to other tendencies in the labor movement. Germain thinks he is orthodox on this question—he even wrote an article about it in Quatrieme Internationale—but in practice he compromises the theory. We alone are unconditional adherents of the Lenin-Trotsky theory of the party of the conscious vanguard and its role as leader of the revolutionary struggle. This theory acquires burning actuality and dominates all others in the present epoch.

The problem of leadership now is not limited to spontaneous manifestations of the class struggle in a long drawn out process, nor even to the conquest of power in this or that country where capitalism is especially weak. It is a question of the development of the international revolution and the socialist transformation of society. To admit that this can happen automatically is, in effect, to abandon Marxism altogether. No, it can only be a conscious operation, and it imperatively requires the leadership of the Marxist party which represents the conscious element in the historic process. No other party will do. No other tendency in the labor movement can be recognized as a satisfactory substitute. For that reason, our attitude towards all other parties and tendencies is irreconcilably hostile.

If the relation of forces requires the adaptation of the cadres of the vanguard to organizations dominated at the moment by such hostile tendencies—Stalinist, Social Democratic, centrist—then such adaptation must be regarded at all times a tactical adaption, to facilitate the struggle against them; never to effect a reconciliation with them; never to ascribe to them the decisive historical role, with the Marxists assigned to the minor chore of giving friendly advice and “loyal” criticism, in the manner of the Pabloite comments on the French General Strike.

Germain doesn’t know it, but at bottom our differences with him are the same as our differences with Shachtman and Pablo in this domain. Germain offers us an “entrist” policy; he wants us to content ourselves with the position of a critical opposition in a Pabloite International, just as Pablo, implicitly, would reduce the Fourth International to the role of a critical wing of Stalinism, and as Shachtman explicitly advises the revolutionary vanguard to be satisfied with the ignoble destiny of a “loyal opposition”—the formulation is Shachtman’s—to the Social Democracy.

The main difference between the conceptions is that those of Shachtman and Pablo have a certain superficial plausibility, because of the disproportionate relation of forces at the present time between the Marxists on the one side and the Stalinists and Social Democrats on the other. This unfavorable relation of forces does indeed impose a large measure of tactical adaptation upon the Marxists in order to connect themselves with the mass movement. But the relation of forces between us and the Pabloites in the Fourth International is entirely different. It would be simply stupid for us to throw away those advantages for the sake of organizational formality. The “entrist” policy sometimes has its uses for a minority in its struggle to become a majority. But it is of no use to a majority, unless it is an idiotic majority determined at all costs to maneuver itself into the position of a minority.

The Fourth International, in the present stage of its evolution and development, is not a mass organization in which different and even antagonistic tendencies could accommodate themselves to each other for a long time, while the struggle continues for the allegiance of the masses in its ranks. The Fourth International today is a cadre organization. Its striking power and historical justification derive from its program and its ideological homogeneity. Pabloism is not a mass movement to be penetrated and influenced, but a revisionist tendency which discredits the Fourth International and disrupt its cadres. The revolutionary task is not to “live with” this tendency which, moreover, is a minority tendency, but to blow it up.

As I visualize the next stage of our strategy, it should proceed from the uncompromising determination to annihilate Pabloism politically and organizationally. This will take time, and we should adjust our thinking to a drawnout struggle along three lines, in the following order of importance.

First: to consolidate and re educate the cadres already supporting the International Committee.

Second: to secure the organizational alignment with the International Committee of those sections already in substantial political agreement with us, or still undecided.

Third: to consolidate minorities in those sections whose top leadership is already corrupted by Pabloism, and arm them for an irreconcilable struggle.

I attach the greatest importance to the first point: The consolidation and ideological hardening of the ranks of the orthodox cadres. As I see it, the polemical material we are turning out is intended mainly for their benefit, to involve them in the discussion and assist them to move forward with us consciously at every step. We should look back to the early days of our movement and recall that our voluminous polemics against the Stalinists were not merely a debate with them; they were the means whereby our own basic cadres were educated and consolidated.

We should deliberately aim to accomplish the same results again this time on a higher level. This is very important for us in the SWP, for it is obvious that our party is being rebuilt from the bottom up in the course of this discussion. It is ten times more important for such organizations as the Canadian and British, and others who are obliged by circumstances to follow a policy of “deep entry.”

This “deep entry,” which absorbs the energies of the comrades in all kinds of small maneuvers and tactical adaptations, carries with it the danger of de facto liquidation by a creeping process. This process can become. irresistible if it is not consciously recognized and arrested, either by an undisguised Trotskyist publication of our own, or—the next best thing—by the constant involvement of the rank and file of our organizations in a discussion of the big questions of principle which demarcate us from the Stalinists and the reformists.

The most striking part of Murry’s report on his Toronto visit, which should be an alarm signal to us, is his impression that an imperceptible “creeping liquidationism” has already reached an advanced stage in the Canadian organization. The same thing was probably true in England when this fight began. The outbreak of the fight, pulling up short all the rank and file activists and compelling them to reexamine the question of what their activity is for, has undoubtedly been a blessing in disguise. The burning task now in England, as well as in Canada, is not merely to get a formal majority for the International Committee, but to see to it that this majority is developed into a homogeneous body of conscious Trotskyists.

The best means to serve this end right now consists of our merciless polemics against the Pabloites on every point. But this means will be partly wasted if the polemical material is confined only to the leading circles and is not widely distributed in the ranks, and studied and discussed by them. Otherwise Pabloism, the end result of which can only be a liquidation of the Trotskyist cadres, could eventually gain the victory by default, even though the cadres formally renounce the Pabloite faction.

The process of liquidationism is implicit in a policy of tactical adaptation to the Stalinists or reformists, if it is not counteracted either by an independent Trotskyist organ or by lively internal discussion of principled questions. We must be aware of this danger and consciously aim to overcome it. This cannot be done by slackening or neglecting our practical work in the mass movement, and certainly not by a policy of withdrawal into isolation from the mass movement. The effective combination of practical activity in the mass movement, which requires a certain formal adaptation, with deliberate work of ideological demarcation, is the problem our “entrist’ sections would have to solve, even if there were no liquidationist tendency of Pabloism to deal with.

The history of our period of entry into the American Socialist Party has never been fully told, and its lessons have not yet been fully assimilated even by our own cadres, to say nothing of the cadres of other sections. You probably know that when Trotsky first devised the tactics of entry into the Socialist Party in France in 1934, he laid down as a condition, that our French section must maintain its own independent paper. Otherwise, he said, he would not recommend entry. Later he modified that condition in the case of some other sections, but only with the greatest misgivings. Trotsky was not a fanatic of “entrism” and never prescribed it as a panacea. Entrism, for him, was a tactical means to build our movement in struggle against our ideological opponents who happened to control much larger organizations then ours.

At the time of our negotiations for entry into the SP, we bargained hard for a long time with the SP leaders for the right to maintain our press. In the end we had to surrender this right as the price of entry. I personally hesitated a long time before agreeing to this enormous concession. Our final agreement to give up our press in order to effect the entry, was motivated at the time by two special circumstances peculiar to our situation. One, we had assurances that the “Socialist Appeal,” already being published as a mimeographed bulletin in the SP by Goldman, would be placed at the disposal of our faction. Two: I believed that our cadres were ideologically much stronger, more experienced and more homogeneous than the European cadres of that time, and that they would be able to hold together for a considerable time even without a fully independent organ of their own.

This second consideration, by far the most important one, proved to be correct in the end result. But it was not an automatic guarantee; and in fact we came very close to disaster with our entire strategy. A section of our leading cadre, headed by Burnham and Shachtman at the time, adapted themselves so comfortably to the SP milieu that they nearly wrecked the whole experiment.

When the Emergency Convention of the SP, in the early spring of 1937, adopted the resolution banning all internal party organs, Burnham and Shachtman wanted to take the prohibition in stride and continue as if nothing had happened. Even when the prohibition of tendency organs was supplemented by the prohibition of controversial resolutions, they wanted to swallow that too. The appetite for conciliation grows by what it feeds on. Adaptation can become a “way of life,” until there is nothing left of the original principle which the tactical adaptation was designed in the first place to facilitate and to serve.

It is not generally known, I suppose, that there was constant friction and disagreement, almost from the beginning of our work in the SP, between the NC group in California, where I worked during that time, and the New York leadership. Things came almost to the breaking point in the summer of 1937. In a letter to the center at that time I posed the question of winding up the experiment and starting to publish our own press again in order to consolidate our gains and to prevent the demoralization of our own cadres. Burnham and Shachtman reacted violently against the proposal.

They were bent on struggling endlessly without adequate weapons, and began to make almost a fetish of SP party unity. It just happened that at the same time Trotsky, on his own initiative and without prior consultation with me, wrote to New York along the same lines as my letter and in even sharper terms. Burnham and Shachtman suspected collusion between Trotsky and me, but it was just a coincidence. They still resisted. The correspondence between Trotsky and Burnham on the subject sharply illuminated the difference between a policy of entry in order to build the revolutionary party and entry more or less as an end in itself.

It was not until Shachtman came to California a month or so later that we finally got an agreement with him to wind up the experiment, prepare the split and the publication of our own press again. After the agreement, we hushed up the dispute and very few of our members ever heard about it. I think an article on this hidden chapter of our party history, which I intend to write if I can ever get around to it, could have a considerable importance for our international movement at the present time.

We always speak of our experiment with entry into the SP as a success, which in the main it was, for we more than doubled our membership and knocked the SP out of our road. But even so, there were some heavy overhead costs which we had to pay later. The softening up of Burnham and Shachtman, during the period of the entry, persisted as a hangover. We felt the full force of it when the factional struggle broke out over the Stalin-Hitler pact in the fall of 1939. The backsliding Burnham and Shachtman and the non-fully assimilated left socialists, who had come with us in the split, found themselves in a natural alliance against the orthodox line and the leadership. The petty bourgeois opposition had its main base of support in these unassimilated left socialists, who numbered over half of the party, and took several hundred of them along in the split after the 1940 Convention.

I don’t cite these facts as an argument against the entry, which on the whole brought us more gains than losses, but as a reminder that the policy of entry is no panacea. It entails dangers as well as opportunities for advancement, even in the best case. The question of whether a policy of entry will ultimately lead to a strengthening and expansion of our movement, or to its imperceptible liquidation, depends on the cadres; especially on the consciousness of the leadership and the deliberate measures it takes to combat the dangers while exploiting the opportunities.


J.P. Cannon