Max Shachtman


Working Class Policy in War and Peace

Once More on the New Policy Towards Militarism and War of the Socialist Workers Party

(January 1941)

From New International, Vol.VII No.1 (Whole No.50), January 1941 pp. 3-10;
Transcribed by Damon Maxwell.
Marked up by Damon Maxwell & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE SECOND WORLD WAR is here, and it is only a matter of time before the United States is an open belligerent in words as well as in deeds. Of all the havoc caused by the war, none is so tragic as that produced in the working-class movement. Suppressed, atomized, corrupted, demoralized or misled, labor has missed its second great opportunity in the twentieth century to lift society out of the dreadful morass in which it is floundering and to reorganize it socialistically, on the foundations of orderliness, brotherhood, abundance, security and peace for the peoples.

The weight of the old parties, the old leaderships, the old theories and programs, has again proved so heavy a burden on the working class as to prevent it from rising to its feet and acting as the revolutionary savior of society threatened by barbarism. The fate of mankind is being fought out on the battlefields of the Old World. The American working class, still comparatively fresh and free, can play a decisive if not the decisive role in determining the outcome of the war in favor of world revolution and world socialism. But only on one condition, the all-importance of which is emphasized by labor's defeats in Europe: that it develops as speedily as possible a revolutionary Marxist party capable of leading the oppressed to victory. An in-dispensable prerequisite and concomitant of this task is the maximum of clarity and preciseness – hence, of effectiveness -of such a party’s theory and program. Especially now, in the midst of war, ambiguity and carelessness in this domain can become crimes for which punishment will not be lacking. Errors and worse which had only white paper as their background in yesterday’s peace times, have a far greater importance today with the flames of war as their background, and a still greater one tomorrow when the irresistible revolution rises to throw its light upon them.

With these thoughts in mind, I began a few weeks ago to write a series of articles in Labor Action on proletarian policy towards war and fascism, the subjects uppermost in everyone’s mind. In the articles, I reviewed briefly the representative views on these subjects held by some of the radical publicists and organizations in this country – Dwight Macdonald, the Socialist Workers Party, Sidney Hook, the Lovestone group. I submitted them to a criticism from the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism, and ended with an exposition of our own views, those of the Workers Party. On these two most vital of all current problems, war and fascism, the articles aimed at eliminating some of the prevailing confusion, opportunism and even treachery, and at reaffirming and fortifying the revolutionary internationalist position by means of arguments related to present-day realities.

The article criticizing the Cannonite position on the war and war policy (Labor Action, Nov. 4, 1940) elicited a reply in the form not of one but of three articles in the Socialist Appeal (Nos. 47, 48, 49), written by Cannon himself. If it were merely a question of a debate with Cannon, the matter could be safely allowed to rest with the last of his articles, for the sufficient reason that there has seldom been any point or profit in a debate on fundamental theoretical or political questions with one who lacks most of the elementary equipment for it. He usually enters such a discussion, to use his own words, with “a pair of hip boots and a shovel,” noble proletarian tools in their field, handy for spraying a debate with such compliments as “unscrupulous twister,” “perverter of historical incidents,” “political underworld,” but yet not quite enough for a political debate. But much more than Cannon’s touching plight is involved in this discussion. It is a matter of clarity in the policy of a section of the Fourth International on vital questions of our period. This alone warrants a return to the discussion of Cannon’s position.

Let us first recall this position, as formulated by Cannon in two speeches delivered at the S.W.P. Plenum in Chicago last September. “These are new times,” he said. “The characteristic feature of our epoch is unceasing war and universal militarism.” The workers must be armed, and trained in the use of arms, for every important problem of our epoch will be settled with arms in hand. Even before the first world war, socialists said capitalism was outlived and ripe for socialism. But when the war broke out “none of the parties had the idea that on the agenda stood the struggle for power. The stand of the best of them was essentially a protest against the war. It did not occur even to the best Marxists that the time had come when the power must be seized by the workers in order to save civilization from degeneration. Even Lenin did not visualize the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the war.” The present war is not our war, but as long as the mass of the proletariat goes with it, we will go too, raising our own independent program in the army, in the same way as we raise it in the factories. The workers do not want the country overrun by Hitler’s hordes; neither do we. Because workers must be armed and trained, and because we have no confidence in the ruling class and its officers, we are for compulsory military training but under trade-union control.

“The workers themselves must take charge of this fight against Hitler and anybody else who tries to invade their rights. That is the whole principle of the new policy that has been elaborated for us by comrade Trotsky.” (See Socialist Appeal, Oct. 12, 1940.)

Except for the utterly false estimation of Lenin in the last war, and the more than ambiguous slogan of trade-union control of military training, there was little to be quarreled with in the above exposition. But what, we asked in our criticism, was the “new policy” that it marked? To this, we concluded, Cannon gave sufficient answer in his summarizing speech at the Plenum:

The gist of the problem, said Cannon, is that the workers “require a program of military struggle against foreign invaders which assures their class independence.” If Hitler attacks us, the social-democrats used to ask, what will you do about it? “Well, we answered in a general way, the workers will first overthrow the bourgeoisie at home and then they will take care of invaders. That was a good program, but the workers did not make the revolution in time. Now the two tasks must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously.” (See Socialist Appeal, Oct. 26, 1940.)

This “new” position – that the workers should be for “national defense” while the bourgeoisie is still in power, and “simultaneously”1 fight against the bourgeoisie – I characterized with restraint as a concession to social-patriotism and a corresponding abandonment of the revolutionary internationalist position.

I hope the reader will forgive me and not interpret what I say as cheap boasting or as anything but a simple statement of fact if I write that I regarded my criticism of Cannon’s views as so elementary, conclusive and unassailable that I freely predicted Cannon would not reply to it. Frankly, I expected that he would strike a posture and reply to those of his members who are perturbed by the “new line” with one of two statements: “Trotsky himself was for our line; he even originated it; and that’s good enough for us” – or, “We are too busy doing mass work to bother with the criticisms of a sect.” I was wrong, at least in part. He said both these things, to be sure, but he did write a series of three articles for his public press, commenting on the criticism in Labor Action. He even said in the first of his series: “His entire article from beginning to end is a mixture of confusion and bad faith – a Shachtman ‘polemic’. Not a single one of his ‘points’ can stand inspection. In my next article I shall undertake to prove this, point by point.” But while I was wrong, as indicated, yet I was right. Cannon’s reply is no reply. What he undertook to do, he did not do, either in the next article or in the third and last article. And, as will be shown below, he not only failed to take up my criticism “point by point” but deliberately omitted any reference whatsoever to the principal point I made.

In contrast, I intend to deal with all of the very few points Cannon does make, both the relevant and the irrelevant. Let us take them one by one, beginning with the latter.

Military Policy? What About Burnham?

I write a criticism of Cannon’s “military policy” which is either good, bad, or indifferent. Cannon’s first retort is: What about Burnham? Shachtman’s article, you see, “is not directed at Burnham; it is intended to drown out the question of Burnham by shouting loud and long against others.” The reader here gets his first example of what Cannon means by replying to a criticism “point by point”!

Yes, Burnham deserted the socialist movement and socialism. He is not the first deserter and probably not the last. But just what is that supposed to prove against our party and its political position? Does Cannon want to say that Burnham’s desertion is a logical outcome of his previous adherence to that party and its position? That will take a bit of proving.

Maria Reese was received and hailed by us when she quit the German Stalinists. When she deserted to the Nazis, the Stalinists argued that her desertion was the “logical outcome” of her adherence to Trotskyism. The proof that they were disloyal and unscrupulous liars lay in the fact that the condition for Reese’s flight to the Nazis was her renunciation of everything the Trotskyist movement stood for.

Diego Rivera was “protected” by us – by Trotsky, Cannon and me – for years from the criticisms of the other Mexican Fourth Internationalists. Suddenly, he turned up in the camp of the reactionary wing of the Mexican bourgeoisie, even arguing that this was the only way effectively to fight Stalinism. What the Stalinists said about Rivera and Trotskyism is known, or can also be easily imagined.

Similarly with Chen Tu-hsiu, whom we elected a leader of the Fourth International despite the criticisms of the Chinese comrades. He has now passed into the camp of the imperialist democracies. Suppose I were to say about Cannon’s article: “It is not directed at Rivera and Chen; it is intended to drown out the question of these deserters by shouting loud and long against Shachtman.”

Similarly with virtually the whole leadership of the Russian Opposition, who, with the renowned exception of Trotsky and a few others, deserted the fight and went over to Stalinist counter-revolution. In reply to those, who like Souvarine, concluded from these desertions that the distinction between Trotskyism and Stalinism is insignificant and that the one leads easily to the other, we always pointed out that for the capitulators to go to Stalinism they had to break with the Opposition, its platform and traditions, and that there was not “development” from one to the other.

With due respect to the difference in proportions, the same holds true in the case of Burnham. A scrupulous and loyal commentator would say: “I have read the Workers Party statement expelling Burnham and I have read Burnham’s statement. I must take note that he broke with the Workers Party, in his own words, precisely because it was a Marxist party, precisely because it rejected (as Burnham truthfully points out) every attempt to revise or undermine its Marxian position. I must take note, likewise, of the fact that Burnham did not take a single member of the Workers Party along with him in his desertion, that he did not find a single supporter in the party’s ranks, that his departure did not create the slightest disturbance in its midst – all of which would indicate that, so far as the character of the Workers Party is concerned, his desertion had a purely individual and not a broader political or symptomatic significance.” That is what a scrupulous and loyal commentator would say. A demagogue, of course, would speak differently. But our cruel times, and long years of them, have inured us against demagogues.

Lenin Has a Defender

One of the motivations for the “new policy” (which really isn’t a new policy at all, we are assured, but only “an extension of the old policy, and adaptation of old principles to new conditions”), is that in the first world war, not even Lenin – much less others – had the perspective of revolution breaking out in direct connection with the war, that “even Lenin did not visualize the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the war.” Cannon seeks to justify his present policy (otherwise, why the reference to Lenin?) by contrasting to Lenin’s perspective of 1914-1916, the “immediacy of the revolutionary perspective in connection with the present war.”

In my Labor Action article, I quoted from Lenin to show that his whole course in the last war was based on the conception of a socialist revolution in Europe (in Russia, a “democratic revolution”) in direct connection with the war, a fact which we thought was generally known in the Marxist movement. But this is too much for a patient and tolerant Cannon, who will stand for a lot, but not for any-body tampering with Leninism. Choking with indignation, he accuses me of literary charlatanry, quotation-twisting, distortion, mutilation and common forgery. “It is a matter of simple respect to his [Lenin’s] memory to protect him from the hypocritical support of an advocate who is known among Leninists only as a betrayer of Leninism.” As a betrayer, and what’s more, only as a betrayer of Leninism. The steam behind these blows is terrific and they are delivered with all the weight and effectiveness of a Tony Galento boxing with his own shadow for the benefit of the customers assembled at his bar. But not even a graceful fighter ever hurt anybody shadow-boxing.

It seems, you see, that I left a sentence out of the middle of my quotation from Lenin, and ended when I should have continued. And what did I omit? Nothing less than Lenin’s reference to the need of revolutionary propaganda “independent of whether the revolution will be strong enough and whether it will come in connection with the first or second imperialist war, etc.” The italics are triumphantly supplied by Cannon. This triumph is buttressed by two other quotations from Lenin in 1916 and early 1917, straight from the original Russian edition: (1) “It is possible, however, that five, ten and even more years will pass before the beginning of the socialist revolution,” and (2) “We, the older men, will perhaps not live long enough to see the decisive battles of the impending revolution.” Cannon is so carried away by his researches into the original Russian, that where Lenin said “it is possible” and “perhaps,” he sums it up by saying: “Lenin wrote in Switzerland that his generation would “most probably not see the socialist revolution.” (My italics – M.S.)

Now, what is the point of this otherwise absurd counter-posing of quotations? We shall soon see that it has more of a practical than an academic aim. Let us begin by examining what Cannon set out to prove by his reference to Lenin in the last war.

In the first place, he declared that “when the World War started in 1914 none of the parties had the idea that on the agenda stood the struggle for power. The stand of the best of them was essentially a protest against the war. It did not occur even to the best Marxists that the time had come when the power must be seized by the workers in order to save civilization from degeneration.”

In reply I quoted several statement made during the war by Lenin and the Bolsheviks which sound as though they were uttered in anticipatory refutation of the assertion by Cannon. According to the latter, none of the parties, not even Lenin’s, had the idea that the struggle for power, the socialist revolution, was on the order of the day. In October, 1914, the Bolsheviks wrote: “The war has placed on the order of the day the slogan of a socialist revolution” in western Europe. At the end of 1916, Lenin wrote: “In the years 1914 to 1916 the revolution stood on the order of the day.”

Cannon wisely ignores this and takes refuge in his second assertion: “Even Lenin did not visualize the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the war.” To make even plainer what he meant by this statement made at the September Plenum, he points out to me in his Appeal articles that Lenin of course had a revolutionary program during the war – but, he had been preaching revolution since 1901, as Marx had since 1847; more to the point, he was not dead certain that “we, the older men” would live to see the victorious revolution, that it was possible for the revolution to be postponed to a period long after the first world war. “Shachtman twisted it [i.e., what Cannon said] and distorted it into a denial that Lenin had a ‘program of revolution,’ during the war. But I think it is thoroughly clear to a disinterested reader that I was speaking of something else, namely, Lenin’s expectations as to the immediate outcome of the war, and not at all of what he wanted and what he advocated.”

But Cannon is no better off with his second assertion than with his first. He either does not understand or does not want to understand what is involved, either in Lenin’s time or now, by the conception of “revolutionary perspective.” In the first world war, Lenin did have a revolutionary perspective. He did believe and he said that the socialist revolution is on the agenda. But he did not and could not divorce this belief from the state of the living revolutionary forces at hand for realizing this perspective. He knew then, as he put it years later, that there is no “absolutely hopeless” situation for the bourgeoisie – either in the last war or in the present one. That, and that alone, is why he could say, not only in January, 1917, a few weeks before the uprising in Russia, but from the beginning of the war, that it was “possible” that years and even decades would pass be-fore the socialist victory, that his generation would “perhaps” not see it. In October, 1914, he wrote to Shliapnikov about the slogan of converting the imperialist war into a civil war: “No one would venture to vouch when and to what extent this preaching will be justified in practise: that is not the point (only low sophists renounce revolutionary agitation on the grounds that it is uncertain when a revolution would take place). The point lies in such a line of work. Only such work is socialistic and not chauvinistic and it alone will yield socialistic fruit, revolutionary fruit.” All his writings and doings in the period of the war were equally animated by this conception and spirit.

In other words, while Lenin had a revolutionary perspective, and repeated that the struggle for power was on the order of the day, he did not guarantee that the actual proletarian rising would occur on this or that day, and he did not guarantee either that the first rising would lead to victory. He would not and could not say whether the revolution “will come in connection with the first or second imperialist war”. Not only Lenin, but Trotsky as well. Dealing in his War and the International in 1915 with the alternatives of revolution or capitalist peace and temporary stabilization, Trotsky wrote: “Which of the two prospects is the more probable? This cannot possibly be theoretically determined in advance. The issue depends entirely upon the activity of the vital forces of society – above all upon the revolutionary social democracy.” (My emphasis – M.S.) And so it does today also.

“Lenin,” writes Cannon, “obviously was not arguing about the immediacy of the revolution as we visualize it in connection with the present war, but about the necessity of advocating it and preparing for it.” Cannon’s persistency in arguing this point is noteworthy. Lenin didn’t see revolution as the immediate outcome of the war. Presumably, Cannon’s repetition of this statement means that he, on the contrary, does have the perspective of an immediate revolution in connection with the war. Lenin wasn’t entirely sure of “the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the first world war,” whereas Cannon is sure of the victory this time. And it is this difference that apparently warrants the “new policy” which, remember, is only an “extension,” an “adaptation” of the old.

But is it not obvious that the only “difference” that Cannon could establish with Lenin’s perspective in the last war is if Cannon did guarantee that “victory of the proletarian revolution” which Lenin did not visualize? “I was speaking of something else, namely, Lenin’s expectations as to the immediate outcome of the war,” Cannon repeats. But it is clear that he hasn’t read his own program, or else doesn’t remember it. Trotsky’s last important political document was the Manifesto on the war written for the Fourth International less than a year ago. There we find

  1. on Lenin’s perspective in the last war: “Only the Russian party of the Bolsheviks represented a revolutionary force at that time [the outbreak of the first world war]. But even the latter, in its overwhelming majority tailed, except for a small émigré group around Lenin, to shed its national narrowness and to rise to the perspective of the world revolution.” (Remember Cannon on Lenin? that the position of even the best Marxists in 1914 “was essentially a protest against the war”?!) And
  2. on the Fourth International’s perspective in the present war: “The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars and new uprisings.” Long years, if not decades – that is entirely correct, not because we believe the revolution’s triumph will be postponed for decades, but because we cannot guarantee that the victory will come six months from now or a year.

If Cannon had wanted to say that world capitalism has less right to expect long life in connection with the second world war than the first, that its objective possibilities of stabilization are fewer in our time than in Lenin’s, he could have done it without all his revealing juggling with words and quotations about Lenin’s “expectations” and “perspectives”. If he were concerned in reality with the objective question of perspectives and tasks in Lenin’s time and in our own, he would simply have said: “Like Lenin, we of the Fourth International today have the same revolutionary perspective. The socialist revolution is here, on the order of the day. Only, the working class is not prepared for it. The revolutionists are few in number, and isolated. The task, now as then, is the preparation of the revolutionists and the mobilization of the working class, for the realization of this perspective which is, always was and always will be indivisible from our own policies and activities.”

But that is not the point with which Cannon is concerned. He pursues much more practical aims than the somewhat academic dispute over what Lenin’s expectations were and what his perspectives were. His aims relate precisely to “policies and activities.” The reference to Lenin is only calculated to “prove” that “we” must have a different policy in the second world war because Lenin had a different perspective in the last one. The fact that Cannon had to distort Lenin’s views in the last war already speaks badly for the “new policy” he is currently advocating.

Before proceeding to it, let us deal with one other little matter, in accordance with the promise that no point made by Cannon will be left unanswered.

Trotsky, Too, Has a Defender

“Against whom is Shachtman really defending Lenin?” asks Cannon. “To be sure, he mentions only ‘Cannon’ but it is perfectly obvious that Cannon in this case is only serving Shachtman as a pseudonym for the real target of his attack. My remarks about Lenin’s perspective during the first world war were no more and no less than a simple repetition of what Trotsky said on the subject.”

And further:

“Shachtman’s attack on ‘Cannon’ in behalf of Lenin is in reality aimed against Trotsky in a cowardly and indirect manner. He wants to set Lenin against Trotsky, to make a division in the minds of the radical workers between Lenin and Trotsky, to set himself up as a ‘Leninist’ with the sly intimation that Leninism is not the same thing as Trotskyism. There is a monstrous criminality in this procedure. The names of Lenin and Trotsky are inseparably united in the Russian Revolution, its achievements, its doctrines and traditions, and in the great struggle for Bolshevism waged by Trotsky since the death of Lenin. ‘Lenin-Trotsky’ – those two immortal names are one. Nobody yet has tried to separate them; that is, nobody but scoundrels and traitors.”

There it is, both barrels, but the reader can sit quietly in his chair. The noise is nothing but stage thunder, the brandished sword is only a lath, and the theatrical posturing is nothing but theatrical posturing.

My article did not aim at polemizing against Trotsky. It did not even aim with monstrous criminality to intimate slyly that the names of Lenin and Trotsky should be separated. I know fairly well where and on what points and in what struggles the two names are inseparable; I know also on what points the names represent differences of opinion, even sharp ones. If Cannon wants to set up a privately-owned two-headed deity exempt from profane criticism, he may be allowed to imitate the Stalinists in this procedure as he has in others. But that is not my concern here any more than it was in my original article.

I did not criticize Trotsky explicitly in my article, although I stated that Cannon’s policy apparently originated (but was not necessarily identical) with Trotsky. Why didn’t I? What Trotsky’s views were on the questions covered in Cannon’s new policy, I know only from a couple of brief letters reprinted in the Fourth International, and from a few paragraphs in the disjointed notes drafted for an article which Trotsky’s death prevented him from elaborating and completing. From these fragments I have not the possibility nor the right to formulate a rounded opinion of what Trotsky’s views on the subject really were, nor to what extent they jibed with the views developed by Cannon at his Plenum after Trotsky’s death. Assassination prevented Trotsky from developing his point of view, from motivating it fully, from defending it critically or polemically, and from revising it in one or another direction in the light of further reflection or of criticism. I feel perfectly free in polemizing against Trotsky’s views on the class nature of the Soviet state, for example, because they are views that he had the opportunity to state elaborately and over a period of years. The same does not hold for views which, so far as I am aware, are presented in the course of a few paragraphs or pages, and no more; views which, moreover, it is no longer possible for their author to elaborate upon or to defend from criticism. Hence, I refrain from criticizing Trotsky on the question at issue, and direct my remarks instead at Cannon.

And Cannon? He makes no serious effort to answer the criticism. He weaves and bobs around a bit, but in the end he starts whining and running to hide behind Trotsky’s skirts. “It wasn’t I who said it, it was Trotsky.” Let us suppose that Trotsky did say what Cannon writes, although that is not quite the case. That would be beside the point. Our dispute is not over what Trotsky said, but over what Lenin said, what his views were. And in this particular instance, I consider it preferable to conduct the discussion by referring to Lenin’s own words than to have Cannon cut off the discussion by referring to what Trotsky is supposed to have said and meant about Lenin.

Finally, I have never considered it a mark of distinction or a special virtue to go around “disagreeing” with Trotsky, or Lenin, or Marx. At the same time, in my twelve years in the Trotskyist movement, I always voiced my opinion when I believed that I had grounds for a serious disagreement with Trotsky, and I argued for my views until one or another of us was convinced otherwise. The organizational separation that occurred last year was not of our choosing and was not consummated without regret. But whatever views we held we stated openly, and whatever steps we took we prepared and took openly. I never went about secretly, among a few close chums, laying the basis for an organizational split with Trotsky over some difference or grievance, real or alleged. As Cannon knows, he cannot say the same.

Trade-Union Control – Of What Army?

In Trotsky’s fragmentary notes referred to above, he points out that Lenin’s concept of “Turn the imperialist War into a civil war” was “the basis for propaganda and for training the cadres but it could not win the masses who did not want a foreign conqueror.” The Russian masses were won to the revolution by such simple slogans as “Land, Bread, Peace, All Power to the Soviets.” We tried in vain to explain this to Cannon during the last discussion in the SWP.

The transitional program of the Fourth International adopted three years ago, while animated through and through With revolutionary internationalism, at the same time took into account the progressive, or potentially progressive, anti-fascist patriotism of the masses. At present, this sentiment is hideously exploited by the ruling classes for the most reactionary objectives. It is necessary, we said, to utilize this sentiment of the masses, their hatred and fear of fascism, for working-class objectives. Given the world social crisis and the imminence of the second world war, knowing from old times the futility and worse of pacifist opposition to militarism and war, we raised the slogan of Workers’ Defense Guards and a People’s Army. In effect, we said to the workers: You want to fight fascism, to preserve your rights and labor institutions? Good, so do we. We even want to go further, and extend those rights, make them more genuine and durable. Only, we warn you that under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, and in the course of the war that it will carry on in the democracies against Germany, we will merely end up under a totalitarian regime in our own country. Organize armed and trained forces of your own, under your own leadership and control, and then you will not only be able to meet the threat of fascism at home and abroad, but you will be assured that in the course of the fight imperialist interests will not be served and all democratic rights destroyed.

These ideas, and the slogans represented by them, were and remain entirely correct and we, for our part, continue to put forward and defend them.

The new policy of the Cannonites, however, is something else again. First, with the adoption of the new policy they dropped entirely the fight against bourgeois militarism represented concretely by the drive to impose conscription upon the American people. Not only dropped the fight but by their repeated nonsense in the Socialist Appeal about how the workers were overwhelmingly in favor of conscription, by their ridicule of any opposition to conscription as “poisonous” and “sinister” and “petty-bourgeois pacifism,” they sabotaged any fight against it, introducing, al best, only confusion among the radical workers. On the score of this indictment I made of the Cannonite policy Cannon, who is to answer “point by point,” is utterly silent.

In the midst of the bourgeois conscription campaign the Cannonites came forward with the slogan of “Trade union control of conscription” or “Compulsory military training under trade-union control.” The objective effect of this slogan, in so far as it would have an effect among the workers, could only be to facilitate the drive of the imperialists. The slogan could represent one of two ideas but not both at the same time.

  1. It means that the trade unions and other workers’ organizations should take the initiative in organizing their own training camps, their own armed and trained forces, entirely under their control and management and democratically run by the worker; themselves. But if this is what Cannon means by the slogan wherein, except in words, does it differ from the slogan the SWP had up to yesterday and which we still advocate namely, Organize a People’s Army? In my article, I asked that question specifically of Cannon. There is no reply. Or
  2. the slogan means that the trade unions should demand of the government that they be put in control of the present U.S. army. Such a slogan, however “attractive” and “practical” it may seem, no Marxist could support. As I pointed out, it can only have class-collaborationist significance, it can only help preserve capitalist illusions among the workers.

Cannon tries to explain in a vague sort of way that advocating the socialist revolution is a propagandist task whereas pressing the transitional program and slogans is agitation, calculated to bridge the gap between the present working-class mentality and the revolution and to lead the workers across this bridge. Good. But a transitional slogan must bring them across the bridge and not keep them where they are. It must help break down bourgeois and reformist prejudices among the workers, and not preserve these prejudices. If the Cannon slogan has the second meaning we indicated, then it does the latter.

Why? The basic distinction between reformists and revolutionists, according to Lenin and to all the lessons of modern history, is that the former believe or say that the bourgeois state machine can be taken hold of by the workers and, with some reforms, be used as the instrument for ushering in socialism, whereas the Marxists point out that the bourgeois state machine must be shattered and an entirely new and different one erected in its place before any serious progress to socialism is possible. The army and the police, the armed forces in general, are the principal prop of the bourgeois state machine. To tell the workers that they can reform this machine is to abandon one of the principles of revolutionary Marxism. The latter calls neither for “trade-union control of the government” nor for “trade-union control of the army.” These are essentially slogans of reform.

Whatever may be said about Lenin’s “perspective” before the February, 1917, revolution, it would surely take a bolder historian even than Cannon to deny that Lenin had an immediate and direct revolutionary perspective after that revolution – the struggle for state power which culminated in October of that year. Yet, while Lenin and the Bolsheviks put forward the slogan of “workers’ control of production,” they never advanced the slogan of “workers’ or Soviet control of the army” – not even of the disrupted Czarist army, not even during the period of dual power. Why? We demand workers’ control of the factories because the socialist revolution has no need or desire to replace factories with any substitute. We do not demand workers’ control of the army because we do not want to foster the illusion that the proletariat can reform the imperialist military machine, because it is the instrument of the capitalist state, because that state, in Lenin’s view, has to be shattered and cannot be reformed.

It is interesting to note, that before Lenin’s return to Russia, Stalin and the right wing who controlled the Bolshevik party and its press, did put forward a slogan analogous to Cannon’s: The Soviets should control the Provisional Government. But Lenin, who was a Marxist and who had a revolutionary perspective, made short shrift of the slogan immediately upon his arrival.

Now, in my article, I asked the Cannonites which of the two meanings indicated above is the one they give to their slogan of “Trade-union control of military training”? The question was calculated to open an avenue for explanation. Cannon wrote three articles in reply. One would think that so bold and forthright a politician, who does not, like his critics, stoop to “sly intimation,” would give a categorical answer to the question. But it is clear: whatever Trotsky may have had in mind with regard to the slogan of military training for the workers, Cannon is not sure enough of him-self to say, simply and directly, that it is the one thing or the other. The reader must lumber through a thick mass of verbal undergrowths and tree-stumps, so unusual in Cannon’s style when he has something straightforward to say, before he comes to the inescapable conclusion: The Cannonite slogan means “Workers’” control of the imperialist army, and not the agitation for an independent People’s army. Which was to be expected. As we pointed out weeks ago, that has been the line of the Cannonite press, even if there also with what, we must repeat, can only be deliberate ambiguousness.

Yet the two slogans, the two concepts, are as different as day and night. Each stands on a different class basis, as we have indicated. The social-democrats consider that the present national bourgeois state is, fundamentally, theirs, the people’s. Hence, they demand that the people control it. If that were possible – not just theoretically, but in actual life – then reformism could bring about the socialist society and revolution would be superfluous. What applies to the state as a whole, applies with equal if not more force to the army of that state.

Does a policy of “boycotting the army” follow from our rejection of the reformist concept? That is an accusation the social democrats have hurled at us with reference to participation in bourgeois parliament. It is groundless, however. We are for participating in elections. We call upon the workers to elect their own class representatives to Congress and Parliament and Reichstag. But we know, alas, that the proletariat cannot capture the bourgeois state; at best, it can remain its captive. Hence, we do not delude the working class with slogans of “workers’ control” of Parliament or Congress. Again, the same with the army. When the proletariat is conscripted, naturally, we go along with the working class. We do not conduct an individual struggle against the bourgeoisie. In the army, we continue to represent the best interests of the working class. We stand for the extension of the democratic rights of the soldiers. We stand for their right to organize and present their demands collectively. We stand for their right to elect their own officers. But we do not delude them or ourselves with slogans of “workers’ control” of the army. Quite the contrary, the slogans we do put forward have a distinctly different objective ... At the same time, we continue to popularize the idea of a People’s Army, an army organized, trained, led and controlled by the workers and their organizations. Utopian? Yes, to those for whom only war in permanence, capitalist domination for another century, working-class servitude forever, barbarism and misery are not Utopian. But the German workers built up their Reichsbanner and Rotfrontkampfer Bund, the Russian workers their Workers Guards and Red Militia. The relationship of these movements to the German Reichswehr and the Czarist Army, respectively, is the way we understand the relationship between the People’s Army and the present imperialist army. They are the organs of different classes.

Cannon, who was so insistent on dealing with the class nature of the Soviet state as a substitute for answering the questions raised by Stalin’s invasion of Poland and Finland, is mum as a sphinx when it comes to the class nature of the army he wants “controlled.” More accurately, he implies that the army is or can become a working-class institution. Indeed, one of his satellites whose ignorance of Marxism and politics has already qualified him for the appointment as editor of Cannon’s theoretical organ, writes a truly venomous polemic against the conscientious objectors in the Socialist Appeal (Nov. 23, 1940) and says:

“These pacifists who oppose military training must be rejected with the utmost contempt by the class-conscious worker, just as he would reject with scorn and hate a scab who said: ‘Unions? No, I will have nothing to do with them. They lead to tear gas! I choose independence!’”

Roosevelt’s army is like – a union! Whoever refuses to go along with the army-union must be treated by the workers like a scab. And what about the Fellow-worker Judge who sentenced the eight pacifist-student-scabs of the Union Theological Seminary to a year and a day in prison – doesn’t he deserve a kind word for the thorough promptness with which he administered justice? And Roosevelt – shall we forget him altogether, after the vigorous way he established the conscript-army-union?

The reader may say: After all, the quotation is only an accidental outburst by an overzealous dunderhead who was mistakenly allowed to write on political questions. The reader may be right, at least with reference to the accidental nature of the outburst. But, as I pointed out in my original article, we have already had from the Cannonites the accidental reference to the war industries as “defense industries.” We have already had the accident of the Appeal stating at first that millions of workers and farmers opposed conscription, only to change its tune to say that “the workers were for conscription” as soon as Cannon changed the line. We have already had the accident of Goldman’s proposing to drop the slogan of a People’s Referendum on War, a proposal rejected by Trotsky. We have already had the accident of Goldman proposing that “once conscription is made into law, we cease to struggle against it,” a proposal also rejected by Trotsky. We have already had the accident of the Cannonites giving up completely, yes, completely, any struggle against social-patriotism. Now we have the accident that the army is like a union. We are ready to call all these things “accidents,” but we refuse to ignore the fact that all the accidents are of one type, that they all lead in one direction. [1]

We Used To, But We Don’t Any Longer

Armed with his favorite weapons, “a pair of hip boots and a shovel,” Cannon assured his readers that he would answer my article “point by point”.

We asked Cannon, who calls us petty-bourgeois pacifists, to specify just what is pacifist in our program or activities – our opposition to imperialist war and to bourgeois conscription, our advocacy of workers’ defense guards and a People’s Army, our economic and political demands for the drafted workers? No answer from Cannon, not a word, unless bluster is an answer.

I asked Cannon why there was not one single, solitary syllable in his two speeches at the Plenum and in the Plenum resolution, and, nowadays, in general in the Socialist Appeal, about social-patriotism, about the need of combating it. The answer he made to this point is satisfactory enough – complete and unrelieved silence.

I asked Cannon if he really believed, and could motivate this belief, that what caused the downfall of reformism in Europe was Blum’s “pacifism” (and not his social-patriotism and class collaboration), and that the main danger in the American working class today, in connection with the war, is pacifism. The answer made by our “point-by-point” answerer was, once more, silence.

Perhaps these are, after all, minor points. But what about the principal point that I indicated in Cannon’s new line? I refer to the section I quoted at length from Cannon’s summarizing speech in Chicago. In it. Cannon says: We used to answer the social-democrats by saying first we would overthrow the bourgeoisie and then we would be for national defense. “That was a good program, but the workers did not make the revolution in time. Now the two tasks must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously.”

I argued that this, and this mainly, was what is new in Cannon’s policy, and I characterized his formula as essentially social-patriotic. And what do we hear in reply from the “point-by-point” man? Not a word, nothing but the swish and slosh of his hip boots and the dull thud of his shovel. He just pretends I never mentioned it. He does not give the slightest hint that he ever said what I quoted or read what I had to say about it. Yet, these sentences are the most important part of his two speeches.

In my earlier article I already pointed out their meaning. Cannon used to say: We will be defensists when we have a country to defend, that is, when the workers have taken power in the land, for then it will not be an imperialist war we are waging but rather a revolutionary war against imperialist assailants. But that is only what he used to say. Now he says something different, because the revolution did not come in time. Now the two tasks – the task of bringing about the socialist revolution and defending the fatherland – “must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously.” Evidently, not even Cannon’s ability to squirm and twist sufficed to explain away his new formula, and silence became the better part of valor. For if the formula means what it says, and it cannot possibly mean anything else, it signifies: We will continue to fight capitalism and at the same time (“simultaneously”) we will defend the Father-land, that is, support the war.

What part of Lenin’s garments can Cannon hide behind in defense of this formula? What part of Trotsky’s writings, what little fragment of them, can Cannon find now to enable him to say, “Shachtman is attacking Trotsky although he names only Cannon”? It would be interesting to get an answer, if not a “point-by-point” answer, then at least some kind of answer.

In his first article. Cannon “answered” everybody. The Oehlerites, he points out, are against his line. What they say about it, he does not even hint at. But they have a sectarian mentality in general, and so he passes on to his next critic. Who? The SLP What do they say about Cannon’s line? He doesn’t know. “The SLP will surely reject our military program if they have not already done so. (God forgive me, I don’t read the Weekly People as attentively as I should and don’t know whether they have yet expressed themselves).” This disposes of the SLP in that effective manner which marks out Cannon from ordinary men. Then, before proceeding to his annihilating, “point-by-point” answer to Shachtman, he lingers for a fanciful moment with the Lovestoneites. “The Lovestoneites have not yet commented on our military resolution, as far as I know. But if they find it possible to take time off from their frenzied defense of Great Britain, they will surely attack our resolution ‘from the left’ ...”

Ah, Cannon, you spoke too soon, forsooth! The Lovestone paper, Workers’ Age, of the same date as the Appeal carrying Cannon’s above-quoted remarks (Nov. 23, 1940) prints an article which gives Cannon’s new line the salut fraternel on both cheeks. It is written by one Donald Graham, a finished social-patriot who is hell bent for leather to get England all the aid she needs in the war. In his article, he defends Lovestone from his critic, Wolfe. He knows, mind you, that it’s an imperialist war. He is not. God forbid, a mere British patriot. Oh no, he’s as revolutionary as the next man and just as much for socialism now as yester-day. He would have liked to see the workers in power in England and even in this country, but, you know, “the workers did not make the revolution in time,” as Cannon says. Now, the foreign invaders must be driven off. Hitlerism – “counter-revolution on the march” – must be halted. The reader will surely allow the importance of the quotation from Mr. Graham to excuse its length:

“The struggle to defeat fascism is inseparable from and inextricably related to the struggle for socialism. Only the victory of socialism, as the majority resolution states, could solve the problem of the menace of fascism in a ‘fundamental’ sense. Hitlerism cannot be defeated by suspending the class struggle. On the contrary, the taking of socialist measures is required to ensure the defeat of Nazism. As Lovestone points out, the slogan of Laski (which is also that of the ILP), ‘Through Socialism to Victory over Hitlerism’ is a correct one. This does not mean that you do not begin to struggle against a Hitler invasion until the day you have socialism in England. It means that the struggle for socialism and against Hitlerism are inseparable. Therefore, the duty of the socialist is not the simple one of aiding England to defeat Hitler, but also one of aiding the struggle for socialism in England, America and every other country in the world. There is no contradiction.”

Lovestone-Graham also used to say, “the workers will first overthrow the bourgeoisie at home and then they will take care of invaders.” But the war came, and not the revolution. Now, says Lovestone-Graham, “the two tasks must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously.” We must “take care of invaders” (“struggle against a Hitler invasion”) and “simultaneously” we must fight for socialism.

“There is no contradiction,” for it is all done with the aid of mirrors. Here we can just see Cannon striking another posture: “Shachtman, scoundrel and traitor, dares call me a social-patriot,” and so on to the usual point. The indignation will be wasted. I do not call Cannon a social-patriot for the good and simple reason that I do not believe he is one. I do say, however, that Cannon put forward an essentially social-patriotic position in the vitally-important sentences we quoted. He has neither explained, defended nor withdrawn this position. One or the other he will have to do.


We said at the beginning of this article that just because we are in the midst of wars and revolutions, ambiguity, lack of preciseness, theoretical confusion are less permissible than ever. Such vices are paid for heavily. It means nothing for us to have an “immediate revolutionary perspective” unless there is a revolutionary vanguard so trained up in theory and activity as to enable it, at the right moment, to reduce that perspective to reality. One uncorrected error, Trotsky once wrote, leads to many others. Cannon has already imposed more than one error upon his party, the most serious of which are now involved in his “new” military policy. His resistance to correction is notorious, but not always very consequential. In the given case, it can prove to have the most harmful effects on the future of a party which, as another section of the Fourth International, is of direct concern to us.


1. As we go to press, we have the latest accident. The leading article in the Appeal after Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat and Message to Congress has not one word to say in criticism of the President’s latest and longest step to war – not one word.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 14.8.2008