Max Shachtman

Workers Party-Socialist Workers Party Letters on Unity

On Basis For Unity

(15 September 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 40, 1 October 1945, p. 4.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Labor Action has already published the resolution of the minority of the Socialist Workers Party calling for unity, with the favorable response of the Workers Party. We print herewith the reply of Cannon and Shachtman’s letter. – Ed.


September 15, 1945

James P. Cannon, Nat’l Sec.,
Socialist Workers Party,
New York, N.Y.

Dear Comrade:

Our Political Committee has discussed your letter of August 28 on the question of the unification of the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party, and wishes to place before you its views on the matters dealt with in your communication.

We have taken note, first of all, of your statement that you are in favor of a discussion on the question of unification of the two parties and will so recommend to the next Plenum of your National Committee. We have no doubt that such a discussion, carried on with the candor and seriousness to which you refer, and animated by a mutual desire to reach speedily the solid basis for unity which we believe exists, can result in the consolidation of a strong and healthy party of the Fourth International in the United States, with stimulating effects upon the movement in every other country. The reasons for this conviction have already been stated in a general way in the Resolution on Unity adopted by our National Committee and sent to you on August 22.

Agreement on Formula

To us, the central question to settle is the basis for unification, which, in the concrete case, is the question of the basis for the revolutionary Marxian party. You state in your letter that the Socialist Workers Party has “always proceeded from the point of view that programmatic agreement on the most important and decisive questions is the only sound basis for unification.” As we have understood this conception, which applies not only to the basis for unification between two revolutionary organizations but. in general to the basis for existence and functioning of a revolutionary party, we are able to subscribe to your formula. In the present case, however, the concrete meaning of the formula is not sufficiently clear to us. The ambiguity to which it lends itself is heightened in our minds precisely because of what you call “the split between us and the formation of your own organization five years ago, and ... the deep differences which have separated us since.”

If, by “programmatic agreement on the most important and decisive questions,” you refer to agreement with the fundamental principles of Marxism and the basic program of the Fourth International as worked out in the whole period, that is one matter. In that case, any preliminary discussion between us could only establish the fact that on this plane, the plane of basic program and principle, the two parties are close enough in their positions to require and justify immediate unification, on grounds similar to those which made their membership in one party possible and desirable in the period prior to the split. We are quite prepared to engage in such a discussion, but our knowledge of the similarity of position of the two parties on this plane, as revealed in their public documents, causes us to regard such a discussion as a formality.

Sufficient Agreement Exists

In other words, we feel, for our part, that an extensive discussion for the purpose of establishing “that we are approaching agreement” on such basic questions is not essential. On these basic questions, sufficient agreement already, exists to warrant unification, and a discussion could only record that fact.

If, however, “programmatic agreement” refers to agreement on those theoretical, political and even organizational questions that have divided us in the past, that seems to us to be ,a different matter. The differences between the two parties on these questions are not less well-known than the points of agreement. They relate to such questions as the class character of the Russian state; the slogan of “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union,” the application of the Leninist theory on the national question to the world today, in particular to Europe; aspects of the military policy of the revolutionary party; application of the principle of democratic centralism and the question of party regime; and a number of questions of lesser prominence and significance.

In some instances, these are differences between our party and yours; in others, it has not always been clear whether our differences are with positions taken by the Socialist Workers Party or only by individual party representatives. But even if in every instance the specific differences were between the two parties officially, that would not, in our view, rule out unification. Our position on this point has already been set forth with sufficient clarity in the resolution of our National Committee. We reiterate it here.

The differences that do exist between the two parties are not, singly or severally, of a nature that is impermissible within the framework of one revolutionary Marxist party. It is possible for the two parties to unite now into one, despite these differences, because, as our resolution states, first, there is a sufficient fundamental agreement in principle between them, and second, the main political difference which engendered the original separation ‘into two parties, namely, the question of “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union,” does not now have the same acuteness or prominence that it had at the beginning of the war, according to the declarations of the Socialist Workers Party.

These facts, too, we believe, could only be recorded by a more detailed discussion between representatives of the two parties. From that standpoint, such a discussion would be profitable. By means of a discussion, to be sure, the character, scope and means of regulating (eventually disposing of) these differences could be established more precisely. But in view of the lengthy period over which these differences have developed, and the vast documentary material presented on them by both sides, it is, of course, most unlikely that they could be eliminated in one, or even two or three such preliminary meetings, and a completely common point of view worked out.

The fact cannot be ignored that we have the same firmness and depth of conviction about the views we hold on a number of theoretical and political questions as comrades of the SWP have of their views. It is not to be denied, either, that these views relate to significant and important questions. Furthermore, we are the last to minimize the importance of political and theoretical questions and of taking a correct position on them.

We do not regard this as a hindrance to early unification, however. As all of us in the movement have held, a “monolithic” party is neither possible nor desirable. In the history of the Fourth International, there have been, and still are, sections in which he differences on certain theoretical and political questions were greater than those which today divide the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party. It might be added that within the Workers Party itself, we regard as entirely permissible the existence of differences in some controversial questions, which are not less important than those which on other questions separate us from the SWP. We not only believe that our differences with the SWP today are of such a nature as are quite permissible within the limits of a united revolutionary party, but that they can ba fruitfully debated and best settled by means of comradely discussion, organized and conducted in the best traditions of democratic centralism, within the ranks of one party.

Agreement on Every Question Unnecessary

These views, if we may repeat, make up our conception of the basis for unification and the basis for the revolutionary party in general. If your views are the same as ours on this score, or similar to ours, we would consider that very little remains for the achievement of unity beyond the discussion and settlement of practical organizational steps. Moreover, agreement on this would dispel any impression that the indispensable pre-condition for unification of two revolutionary Marxist groups is an agreement on every theoretical, political and organizational question. However, if your conception differs in any important respect from ours, we are prepared to discuss it with the necessary objectivity. A precise formulation by you would make it possible for us to express a precise opinion.

There remain three points which are dealt with in your letter.

To the statement quoted above, you add: “... when divergences of opinion occur, unity can be maintained only by the scrupulous observance of the democratic principle of the subordination of the minority to the majority and strict discipline in public activity and action.” To this point of view, too, we subscribe. We have maintained this view throughout the existence of the Workers Party. We would of course continue to maintain it within the united party. To this view, we join the view, likewise well-established in the revolutionary Marxian movement, that a minority has the right and even the duty to disseminate and defend its special point of view in the party, and that the majority – precisely because it is the majority and therefore mainly responsible for the leadership and integrity of the organization – has the special obligation to protect the rights of a minority as a function of its obligation to preserve the rights and interests of the party as a whole.

Unity Possible

Having these conceptions, we believe that a “genuine unification on a firm and long lasting basis” is possible. It goes without saying that we share the view that a “unification followed by a sharp faction fight and another split would be highly injurious to the party.” No serious comrade could contemplate a unification of this kind. A faction fight of any sort, much less a split, following the unification, would compromise both the party and those responsible for such lamentable consequences of the unity. In any case, it seems to us, the unification would have to be followed by a period of intensive common activity in the class struggle, during which – while the opinions and rights of any minority would be respected and protected – factionalism, mutual recrimination, and judgments of the old division would be abjured.

On the basis of the foregoing, we have no difficulty in meeting your request that we indicate more precisely and more concretely our view of how the unification is to be brought about and what form it should take.

Once it is agreed that there is sufficient accord in our positions on the fundamental principles of Marxism as to make possible and justify unity; once it is agreed that the differences we do have (which we do not wish to conceal) are of a nature that may exist within the ranks of a single revolutionary party – the only important point left is the discussion of the practical organizational steps for fusing the two parties into one.

If the comrades of the Socialist Workers Party feel that a preliminary exchange of opinions, especially on controversial questions, would make for a better and more fruitful understanding of the respective views among the membership of the two parties and would contribute to a smoother passage to a healthy unity, we are ready to consider the publication under the joint auspices of the two committees of a discussion bulletin open to both organizations. If this measure is considered superfluous, and the Socialist Workers Party is of the opinion that discussion of controversial questions is, under the circumstances, better held after the unity, the decision is in its hands. In that case, representative committees of the two parties could, as is customary, arrange the details of the fusion. A National Committee could be set up subject to review by the first convention of the united party; similarly in the case of officers of the party. The question of merging the two theoretical and popular organs could also be settled by the two negotiating committees.

In our case, as, we suppose, in the case of the Socialist Workers Party, all these proposals, if agreed upon by the committees of the two parties, would be subject to the preliminary approval of a national convention.

One further point, in conclusion. We find that we do not agree with your statement on the possibility or expediency of practical collaboration in a number of fields, to be carried on between now and the eventual union of the two parties.

You say that “to attempt to begin with such practical cooperation, prior to a definite approach to unification, would seem to us to put things upside down and lead to a sharpening of conflicts over secondary questions rather than to their moderation.”

Practical Collaboration

We call your attention, first, to the fact that it is not practical collaboration that we are beginning with. Both organizations have already begun with the question of unification, the Workers Party by its resolution in favor of unification and the Socialist Workers Party by its decision in favor of discussing unification. The fact that both parties envisage unification as a practical possibility – and unless they did, further discussion would be superfluous or deceptive – creates, in our view, the basis for considering, now, agreements for practical collaboration in specific, concrete fields of work. Second, it is difficult for us to see why such collaboration would necessarily, or at all, lead to a sharpening of conflicts.

On some questions there are, it is true, differences in theory. But we have always held that it is precisely in those cases where there is a difference in theory or program between two proletarian organizations, and not contrariwise, that practical collaboration is necessary and possible – provided, of course, that the two organizations have a similar standpoint or aim in the practical step. Such collaboration is not less indicated between organizations with a similar program. It is certainly ten times more warranted in the case of two organizations which have already commenced to discuss the question of unity between themselves.

Naturally, when there are specific political disagreements on actual tasks, tasks of the day, practical collaboration. is not possible between the organizations involved. For example, we cannot today have practical collaboration between the parties on the question of the election in Detroit. But the two parties can, even now, we are convinced, reach a high measure of fruitful collaboration in such matters as a joint fight, or joint consultation in the fight, for those slogans and aims which we put forward in much the same way in the trade unions. Similar practical collaboration is possible and desirable in the case of the New York municipal elections; in the case of united action against fascists like Smith and Winrod; in the case of joint efforts on behalf of our comrades of the Fourth International abroad, etc., etc.

For these reasons, we request that you reconsider your position.


We have set forth our views on a number of questions as plainly as we can, with the aim of clearing all obstacles off the road to unity and without concealing our differences in general or our differences, to the extent that they exist, on the question of unity itself. It is quite possible that we have failed to express ourselves in all questions with the necessary clarity, or have failed to deal with all the questions of importance. If that proves to be so, in your view, we are prepared upon Request to elaborate our views on any point germane to the question of unification. We are ready to deal With any such points in further correspondence, or orally in a meeting with the sub-committee appointed by your Political Committee. Meanwhile, we await your reply to the present communication.


Yours fraternally,
Max Shachtman,
National Secretary,
Workers Party

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 29 January 2018