Engels on the American Question


Source: Socialist Workers Party Discussion Bulletin, June 1955, from letter to Vincent R. Dunne. Cannon did not succeed in writing his projected "Theses on the Party".
Published in Building the Revolutionary Party, © Resistance Books 1997 Published by Resistance Books 23 Abercrombie St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Permission for on-line publication provided by Resistance Books for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack

Los Angeles, Calif.
January 14, 1955

Dear Vincent,

... I have been spending a lot of time with Engels. Previously, some of his letters to Sorge and others in the United States were included in the Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels. They are now all brought together in the new volume, Letters to Americans by Marx and Engels, published last year by International Publishers. During this lull in production I have taken advantage of the opportunity to make a thorough study of them. This volume really should be required reading for all party activists, including especially the students of the Trotsky School.

Engels’s letters are the original and best prescription against sectarianism. They are more than that, however. Engels, in his letters to Sorge, combined his potshots against the sectarian socialists in the United States and Britain with withering blasts against the British Fabians and the petty-bourgeois opportunists in the German party. The innovators and neo-liquidationists—who are all referring to Engels these days—quote only the first part and ignore the second.

I can see a big controversy blowing up around this volume of letters and I intend to take a hand in it. It seems that all the ex-revolutionists, reformed Trotskyists, backsliders and runaways are leaning on Engels. They didn’t get their impulse to capitulate from him; that originated in their own bones, and they are seeking corroboration from Engels after the fact.

They claim his support for their contention—the one thing they all agree on— that it is wrong to try to create a revolutionary party under the present conditions when the number of conscious revolutionists is so limited. This, they all say, is sectarian—not merely the policy and practice of such a party, but a small party’s claim of the right to exist, regardless of its aims and actions.

The Shachtmanites, as well as the Cochranites, refer to Engels on this point. I also noticed an article in the same sense in the new literary-political magazine called Dissent, published by a group of graduate Shachtmanites, professional abstainers, homeless socialists and other political vagabonds who call themselves intellectuals. These birds of passage vary the theme by quoting Marx, having first checked to make sure he is safely dead and unable to take them by the throat.

* * *

Well, as you know, I am on the warpath against any sign or symptom of sectarianism myself. I intend to write about it too, in a “preventative” way, and to appeal to Engels for help. I know that sectarianism—in one form or another—is an ever-present danger to any small organization of revolutionists condemned to isolation by circumstances beyond their control, regardless of their original wishes and intentions. The moment such an organization ceases to think of itself as a part of the working class, which can realize its aims only with and through the working class, and to conduct itself accordingly, it is done for.

The key to Engels’s thought is his striking expression that the conscious socialists should act as a “leaven” in the instinctive and spontaneous movement of the working class. Those are winged words that every party member should memorize. The leaven can help the dough to rise and eventually become a loaf of bread, but can never be a loaf of bread itself.

Every tendency, direct or indirect, of a small revolutionary party to construct a world of its own, outside and apart from the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, is sectarian. Such tendencies can take many forms, and we should not delude ourselves that the well known illustrations exhaust the possibilities.

We have come a long way, I think, from the adventures of the earliest American socialists with separate, self-sufficient colonies of their own outside the prevailing economy, and the experiments of the SLP with pure socialist unions outside the existing labor movement, with all its imperfections. But a self-perfecting “political colony”, attempting to live a life of its own in a world of its own devising, would not be any better.

Engels’s words of wisdom on this subject deserve discussion and application to modern conditions. But when I enter the controversy around Engels’s letters, I am not going to limit myself to the question of sectarianism. The real issue, as it is evolving, is the attempt to use the authority of Engels to liquidate the conception of a party of socialists, based on a definite program—a party which under present conditions can only be a small one—in favor of some prospective “big” party, to be constructed some time in the future by some people whose names and addresses are unknown, as a result of further development of the spontaneous process. That is dead wrong because the very idea of a party—large or small— presupposes a program and therefore consciousness.

Incidentally, this misunderstanding and misuse of Engels is not new. It is a striking commentary on the belatedness of American political thought that Engels’s letters to Sorge, which were published in Germany 49 years ago and translated into Russian a year later—and became the subject of controversy in the Russian movement as far back as 1907—are only now available in full in this country, and are now becoming a factor in the same controversy here!

Lenin’s introduction to the 1907 Russian edition of these letters (reprinted as an appendix to the new American edition) is a sustained polemic against the opportunists who cited the authority of Engels for their proposal to liquidate the Social Democratic Party, based on a strictly defined program, in favor of an amorphous “Labor Congress”. That in essence is what all the assorted ex-es and revolutionists-turned-opportunists are trying to do in the United States today.

My polemics against the present-day liquidators will restore Lenin’s defense of Engels against the Russian liquidators of half a century ago, but will not stop there. Engels did not say the last word on the question of the party, and neither did Lenin in 1907. A great deal happened since, and if one wishes to be true to the spirit and method of Engels, these events of living history must be noticed and appraised; and the appraisal should add something to what was said then.

Sixty years have elapsed since Engels laid down his pen. From what he saw and knew at the time he thought the German party of Bebel was good enough, by and large. On the other side, Lenin, in 1907, was content to take the Bebel party for a model. He said—in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back—that he was “not creating any special variety of Bolshevik tendency” but simply adapting “the viewpoint of the revolutionary Social Democracy”, as represented in the Second International, to Russian conditions.

But the German Social Democratic Party proved inadequate to its historical task and collapsed ignominiously in the test of 1914. Can there be any doubt that Engels would have drawn some radical conclusions from this catastrophe? Lenin, for his part, was compelled later to recognize that his concept of the vanguard party, which he had originally intended as nothing more than a Russian version of the German party, was in fact something new—a development and application of the Marxist theory of the party in the epoch of the actual struggle for power.

This conception was vindicated positively in the Russian Revolution, and negatively by the defeat of the revolution in other countries where the old forms held sway. The leitmotif of Trotsky’s great struggle in the post-Lenin epoch, summed up and restated in his thesis on the crisis of leadership in the Transitional Program of 1938, was precisely this Leninist contribution and extension of Marxism in the theory and practice of the party.

If one merely wants a “big” party, just to have a party, then any kind of a party will do; but nothing less than a Bolshevik party is good enough for war and revolution. That, I think, is the conclusive verdict of historical experience. Moreover, the construction of such a party cannot be postponed until everybody recognizes its necessity. The project has to be started by those who are ready, willing and able. That’s the way it was done in Russia, and nobody has yet discovered a better way.

We have plenty of ammunition for polemical warfare against the liquidators in the controversy around Engels’s letters to Sorge; and the subject should certainly have an absorbing interest for the new generation entering the movement at a time when theory and practice have a good chance of being telescoped. It may be that our projected “Theses on the Party” will gradually evolve first in controversy before they are formally codified. That is certainly the most interesting and perhaps the most effective way to prepare the “Theses”. I wonder if this subject could not be profitably added to the curriculum of the Trotsky school.

As ever,
J.P. Cannon