Don Basilio Replies

(June 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 5, June 1942, pp. 151–153.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan (December 2012).

“Calumny, Doctor, calumny! We must use it again and again.”
                                        – Don Basilio, in the Barber of Seville

In our April 1942 issue, we pilloried Felix Morrow, editor of the monthly magazine of the Cannonites, as a common slanderer. Too unwise to retreat into shamefaced silence, Morrow decided to play “double or nothing,” that is, to come forward in the May 1942 Fourth International with a still more monstrous slander against us. In his March introduction to the thesis of the Indian Trotskyists, Morrow charged that we had been “spreading false stories about the position of the Indian and Ceylonese comrades.” We confidently challenged him to cite a single false story. His reply is: “We shall name not one but two.” And he quotes two passages of a report by Sherman Stanley of his visit to Asia, issued in a bulletin dated October 1940. The first quotation deals with the Indian Trotskyists:

On the question of Russia’s participation in the World War, all of them were and remain in absolute agreement with our position. They had come to these conclusions long before my arrival – and although unacquainted with Trotsky’s attitude from the public press – could not understand or approve it for a moment. Their political statements are in accordance with our policy.

By “our policy” Stanley of course referred to the policy of the Workers Party. The second quotation deals with Trotskyists in Ceylon:

On the political issue of the American factional dispute, namely, the question of Russia’s participation in the war, the entire leadership was and remains in accord with our views on the matter. Specifically, as between the minority and majority resolutions on the Soviet-Finnish war – both of which they have studied – they openly support ours. Because of circumstances no formal declaration has been made, but I am authorized to state that they do not support the position advocated by Trotsky and the SWP.

Whereupon Morrow comments: “I called the Shachtmanite statements false stories spread by them. What else are they?”

That question is easily answered: The “Shachtmanite statements” (that is, the quotations from our comrade Stanley’s report), are the simple truth! We reiterate the truth here: When Stanley’s report was printed here, the Ceylonese and Indian comrades supported our position on the role of Russia in the war as against the position of Trotsky and the Cannonites. Moreover, so far as we know and unless we hear otherwise the comrades still hold that their position of that period was correct. Does Morrow deny this? Then let him say, simply and directly and without cunning journalistic locutions, that the two passages he quoted from Stanley’s report of October, 1940, were lies ... and prove it.

We doubt if even Morrow will dare say this in public print. He and his friends know – and have known for some two years – that Stanley merely reported the fact. The Cannonites knew it so well that they “revenged” themselves upon the Indian and Ceylonese comrades for their opposition to the SWP standpoint by printing in their own international bulletin a denunciation of the former as “the stockbrokers of Calcutta” and of the latter as “the aristocratic planters of Ceylon.” In April we made public this quotation from the Cannonite bulletin. We asked then: Who spread “false stories” about the Indian and the Ceylonese comrades – those who told the simple truth about their stand at the time, or those who calumniated them as Calcutta stockbrokers and aristocratic planters? On this understandably delicate question the bold calumniator is silent. Don Basilio takes a hot potato in his mouth and has not a word to say about how his bulletin characterized the comrades in Asia in the very period of the Stanley report.

But don’t these comrades now support the Cannonite position? At any rate, they are now for the defense of Russia in the war. But this fact we never thought of denying. Indeed, the possibility of the Ceylonese comrades taking such a position at one stage or another of the World War was indicated in the Stanley report. In the sentence following right after the last passage quoted by Morrow, Stanley wrote:

It should be made clear, however, that the [Ceylonese] party consider! Russia to still be a workers’ state and that it would advocate unconditional defense in a progressive war, regardless of who leads it.

Morrow does not quote this sentence. The hot potato is still in his mouth. He finds it a convenient vegetable to have there when his lies are hurled back into his teeth.

We pilloried Morrow as a slanderer, in the second place, for trying to identify a capitulator to fascism, Burnham, with a revolutionary opponent of fascism, Shachtman. We pointed out that this was just as much a slander as it would be to link Trotsky or Cannon with Rous, Zeller and Dauge, once the leaders of the French and Belgian Trotskyist movements, former co-thinkers of Trotsky and Cannon, but who recently went over to fascism. But Morrow keeps a firm grip on the hot potato for a while longer: he has not a word to say about Rous or Zeller or Dauge; he does not even mention them in his reply.

Instead he rehashes Burnham’s two-year-old letter of resignation from the Workers Party. He repeats the “clever” factional fable that Burnham was “the leader” of the opposition in the SWP and that he led the “split” of the comrades of the Workers Party. He quotes scraps from the letter – not from the Rous letter, you understand, but from Burnham – in which Burnham declares again and again that he is not a Marxist and does not belong in a Marxian organization. Toward what clarifying and educational end? In order to argue that Burnham’s evolution in the direction of fascism was only a logical (that is, an internally consistent) outcome of the struggle and the program of the Workers Party! Monstrously unbelievable – but only to those who do not know the man we are dealing with.

Burnham is indeed worth quoting on the character of the Workers Party. In his letter he has this to say:

The newly formed Workers Party is a Marxist party, and more particularly a Bolshevik, a Leninist party. This is not a mere matter of definition. It is guaranteed alike by its programmatic documents (especially the key document on The Aims, the Tasks, and the Structure of the Workers Party), by the statements and convictions of the overwhelming majority of its leadership and of a substantial majority of its membership, and by the habits of action of this majority. It is strikingly symbolized by the statement on the masthead of Labor Action that the party is a section of the Fourth International, by the definition of its theoretical magazine as “an organ of revolutionary Marxism,” by the reiterated appeal in the key document above mentioned to “the revolutionary traditions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky” and to the “principles of Marxism,” and by the convention episode of the cable to Trotsky. Nothing whatever in the faction fight indicated a decisive tendency away from this orientation; on the contrary, every sharp suggestion in such a direction was at once blocked. In reality, the split from the Socialist Workers Party was not based upon anything fundamental, and the Workers Party exists now as a faction of the Trotskyist movement. This was the actual cause of the extreme difficulty which the faction found in drawing up its position on “the nature of the party” and in differentiating that position from Cannon’s. This was hard to do, was in fact not done, because the two positions, except in details and emphases, did not really differ. (My emphasis. – M.S.)

Not one word of this is quoted by Morrow. (Long ago he learned in a very special school what and when to quote and what and when not to quote.) He omits any reference to this revealing paragraph from Burnham because it does not suit his boot. He is out to prove nothing less than that the Workers Party is on the road to fascism! For Morrow that’s a job to be knocked off in a few lines. Burnham, says he, was the “ideological leader” of our group; and wrote its documents; and reported for it at the SWP convention; and founded the Workers Party; and left it two months later. Why? asks Morrow.

Because he had drawn the consequences of his ideology further than had Shachtman.

But surely Morrow doesn’t mean that the Workers Party is an inconsistent fascist organization; in other words, that the Workers Party has not yet taken Burnham’s quasi-fascist position only because it is less logical and consequent than he was? That is exactly what Morrow does mean. He says it in so many words, so that even dull people can catch on:

The pre-fascist hut thoroughly anti-Marxist stage of Burnham’s ideology remains indelibly impressed upon the group he founded with Shachtman. This is not a slander it is an elementary political truth.

To remove any doubts from the reader’s mind, we declare most emphatically that this did not appear in Stalin’s Pravda or in Browder’s Daily Worker, but was written by the editor of a magazine called the Fourth International.

“Calumny, Doctor, calumny! We must use it again and again.”

Only, this time Don Basilio is so zealous in his task that he does not notice what a gift he has presented the GPU. Following right on the heels of Morrow, this is what the Daily Worker can now say:

“Burnham’s evolution toward fascism did not start only two years ago! nor did Shachtman’s. These two were the majority of the political leadership of the American Trotskyists for years before the split in the SWP. Burnham wrote all the important ideological and political attacks upon Comrade Stalin and the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. He wrote the official Trotskyist pamphlet against the great People’s Front. He was the Trotskyist spokesman and writer against us on the war question. He even wrote virtually the entire program, the Declaration of Principles, of the Socialist Workers Party. He helped found it together with Cannon and Shachtman. Shortly afterward, he left it. He went to fascism openly, after a logical and organic evolution. Morrow now admits it. Shachtman, the other Trotskyist spokesman, is moving in the same direction. Morrow admits that, too. Soon, Cannon will move more openly in the same direction. We say more openly, because, as we have always argued, Trotskyism is only an agent of Hitlerism,” etc., etc.

How does it happen that Morrow’s arguments would fit so easily into the traditional pattern of a Daily Worker slander? Simple: Morrow received his basic education in politics and above all his polemical method and journalistic style in the exclusively Stalinist period of the Communist Party. His re-education in the Trotskyist movement only covered him with a very thin veneer. This is evident whenever you hit him – the maggoty wood underneath shows right through.

That is what is basically responsible for Morrow’s abominable attack upon us – his Stalinist training. For this reason, we hinted, in our first comment on him, at the advisability of self-restraint on his part. His reply makes it necessary to be less obscure:

For his journalistic irresponsibility, Morrow was unceremoniously kicked out of the editorship of a working class paper a few years ago – not by political enemies, but by his closest political friends.

Does he now think he can be even more irresponsible in his new editorial post and try the tolerance of his own party membership with impunity, just because he happens to be a victim of class justice? If he does, we think we can guarantee that he will find himself mistaken.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 23 December 2014