Letter from James P. Cannon to George Novack, September 2, 1953

Documents 3 to 17 and 19 to 24 originally published in Internal Bulletins of the SWP and the International Bulletins of the International Committee

Letter from James P. Cannon to George Novack

Los Angeles, Calif. September 2, 1953

New York

Dear Warde:

I received yours of Aug. 31 with enclosure of the Paris letter of August 10. This letter is in essence a threat designed to intimidate the leadership of the SWP with the hope of splitting it up. It is obviously designed, at the same time, to prepare the “record” for an open attack later on. The form of the letter, a compound of misrepresentation, duplicity and doubletalk, is apparently an expression of the political method of the author.

1. “We have just received documents coming from leaders of your tendency, indicating, among other things, that you believe that the IS or members of the IS have fomented or encouraged the struggle of tendencies in your party, and that they are capable of making it start up again.

“We have been extremely surprised and shocked by such an accusation which has no basis whatsoever.”

This is sent to the wrong address. It was not we, but the Cochranites, who originated the “accusation” by claiming to speak for and represent the author of this letter. They were informed of this in my letter of May 22, 1953, and answered with dissimulation which only tended to confirm the claim of the Cochranites. The accusation will be withdrawn and the surprise and shock can be alleviated if and when this claim is clearly and openly repudiated. If there is a “misunderstanding” on our part, that is the way—and the only way—to clear it up. The author of the Paris letter knows this very well. But this clear, open repudiation is precisely what is lacking. That is what makes all the protestations worthless as far as we are concerned.

There is no possible ground for misunderstanding our position, for we are in the habit of saying exactly what we mean, in private letters as well as in public statements. The “documents” referred to in the Paris letter of Aug. 10, in which the position of the SWP leadership is stated, show clearly that we were not seeking a conflict with the Paris leaders, and did not intend to take the initiative in such a conflict. But it shows no less clearly that we are “ready to react to the first openly hostile move against us.” That’s the way it stands also today. We will not take the initiative to publish these documents, but if they are published by others, we are fully prepared to defend them.

2. “You appear to have wanted to make contacts for the constitution of an international tendency in the absence of any formulated political divergence with the leadership of the International.”

This method of accusing others of the very things which one is doing or planning to do himself, has a tradition, but it is not the Trotskyist tradition. The “constitution of an international tendency in the absence of any formulated political divergence” sounds like a political crime, and that is what it is. And that is precisely what the international combination against the leadership of the SWP, “in the absence of any formulated political divergence” with this leadership, has been.

The policy of the SWP is no secret; it has been expounded every week in our press. Since the Third Congress the authors of this letter have never once indicated any disagreement with this policy. On the other hand, a revisionist faction in our party attacks this policy and the whole tradition of our party on almost every point. Being internationalists and not since yesterday we certainly have “wanted contacts” with orthodox Trotskyists on the international field to ask their fraternal help to repel this revisionist attack, and we do not think any orthodox Trotskyist will refuse it.

This procedure is not new for us. We always “wanted contacts” and collaboration on the international field to defend the orthodox Trotskyist line. We never asked anybody’s permission to establish such contacts and collaboration in the past, and don’t intend to do so in the future. Far from considering such procedure an offense, the “exposure’ of which is to be feared, we consider it a virtue the essence of true internationalism as Trotsky taught it to us. We began this kind of international collaboration while we were still in the Comintern, and have continued it ever since. We always supported the progressive and revolutionary elements in the Fourth International, and in its prior formative period, and sought their support in return. The habit is firmly fixed and will not be changed. We never made any alliances with anybody anywhere on any other basis than agreement on the most important questions of principle, clearly stated. We never made any combinations against anybody anywhere “in the absence of any formulated political divergences.”

3. The patronizing “appeal to our sense of responsibility,” and the hypocritical injunction against factional struggles whose political content cannot at all be seen,” might be profitably studied by its author. We have no need of it. For a whole year we had to contend with a faction which refused to disclose its aims. When they were finally smoked out, they proclaimed themselves “Pablists” and claimed his support. No such faction, in this country or in any other country, ever claimed our support without being promptly repudiated. That’s why possible misunderstandings about our position never lasted very long. We have always dispelled suspicions by stating clearly and openly where we stood. The example is worth following by those who complain in private letters that they are misunderstood.

4. The statement that “the entire international is not witnessing any struggle at the present time,” must have been written from the point of view that the SWP is a colony whose statistics are not registered. The fact of the matter is, as the whole international movement knows by this time, that the internal life of the SWP has been disturbed for nearly two years by a revisionist faction which has proclaimed as its slogan, “Junk the old Trotskyism” ; which has rallied in one combination all the disgruntled, weak and capitulatory elements who express their personal demoralization in a revolt against the Party, its principles and its traditions; which signed a peace agreement at the Plenum to abandon the factional struggle in favor of an orderly discussion, only to violate the agreement by renewing the factional struggle in intensified form almost immediately afterwards; a faction which has openly discarded the basic Trotskyist analysis of the character and role of Stalinism, proclaimed the theory of its self reform, and announced their determination to fight on this line under the banner of “Pablism” ; a faction which in recent weeks has gone to the point of organized sabotage of party work and party finances.

Such are the facts about the situation in the SWP, which up till now has been considered, in one way or another, as a part of the International movement, even though not affiliated that same international movement which allegedly is “not witnessing any struggle at the present time” . Being orthodox Trotskyists, we have no alternative but to defend the party against this new eruption of destructive and unprincipled factionalism.

The question of whether the struggle in the SWP can be isolated and localized in one party depends not on suspicions, misunderstandings, “exposures of documents” , etc., but on a far more important and fundamental question: Does this American brand of revisionist factionalism have any supporters in other parties, or in other sections of the international movement?

If so, they will be obliged to make their position known in the next stage of the forthcoming international discussion, and we will recognize them as political opponents, just as we have recognized similar tendencies in the past. On the other hand, if the claims of the Cochranite faction in this respect are unfounded, and the liquidationist tendency finds no support in other sections of the movement, that also will soon be made clear. In that case any misunderstandings or suspicions on our part, which may prove in fact and not in mere words to have been unfounded, will be promptly corrected. We haven’t the slightest desire to pick quarrels with anybody over trifles.

All obscurities will have to be cleared up in the next period. The question will stand politically, so that nobody can misunderstand it and so that there can be no possibility of barren “factional struggle whose political content cannot at all be seen” . We have had more than enough of that already, and we are more than anxious to clear the air and get down to the real issue.

5. The precondition for clearing the atmosphere in the international movement, and eliminating all possible misunderstandings, suspicions and obscure maneuvers, is to formulate the documents for the Fourth World Congress in such a way that there can be no possible misunderstanding as to what they really mean. The movement needs documents which leave no room for special interpretations or conflicting interpretations. This is the way it was in the movement of the Fourth International in Trotsky’s lifetime, and we think it is the only correct system.

The leadership of the SWP, for its part, will study all material presented in the international discussion and formulate its own point of view on every question, either in special documents or in amendments to documents presented by others, and will insist this time that its point of view be published and considered before any decisions are taken. We expect all other leading people in the international movement to do the same. This may or may not result in the eventual consolidation of firm agreement on basic documents which mean what they say and say what they mean. But in any case, it is the only way to clear away the poisonous fog of misunderstanding and suspicions generated by special interpretations and allegedly secret meanings.

7. It is precisely this state of affairs—entirely new in the history of international Trotskyism—which has disrupted the ’relations of confidence and cooperation” between the leadership of the SWP and some others. The Paris letter of Aug. 10, says not without a certain justification that these relations “since 1945 have been at the basis of the reconstruction and reinforcement of the international Trotskyist movement.” It is worth recalling that in 1945 the eruption of all kinds of revisionist tendencies had brought us into conflict with numerous people with whom we had previously collaborated—Natalia, Logan, Munis, Morrow Goldman, the IKD retrogressionists, the French majority, the British majority, etc., etc.

We took a stand then for orthodox Trotskyism, and sought to “make contact” and establish collaboration with others on that basis. It was on that basis that we eventually got together to reconstruct the international Trotskyist movement and make possible the Second World Congress and all subsequent fruitful work. We have not changed our position on this basic question of principle and do not intend to change.

We recognize that post war developments necessitate broad scale tactical, and even to a certain extent strategical, adjustments. But we are firmly convinced that basic Trotskyist principles, particularly on the nature and role of Stalinism and the role of the Trotskyist parties and the Fourth International, retain their validity. They must be maintained if the Fourth International is to survive and accomplish its historic mission. The proposal to “Junk the Old Trotskyism” and to envisage the self reform of criminal Stalinism must be categorically rejected.

In the forthcoming discussion we will strive for agreement with international comrades on that basis. Meantime we will do all in our power to keep the SWP what it has always been -a fortress of orthodox Trotskyism.

Fraternally, J.P. Cannon

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Last updated 17.10.2003