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The New International, May 1940


SWP Minority

Where Is the Petty Bourgeois Opposition?

A Repeated Challenge Remains Unanswered


From New International, Vol. 6 No. 4, May 1940, pp. 93–96.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


EDITORS’ NOTE: We present below the first instalment of a document issued by the Minority members of the Political Committee of the Socialist Workers Party during the internal discussions of last winter. This article, dated March 9, 1940, was written in partial reply to Leon Trotsky’s article, From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene. The concluding instalment will be published in the next issue.

In his open letter to Comrade Trotsky, Comrade Shachtman, repeating the challenge issued by the Minority since the moment it was accused of representing a petty-bourgeois tendency in the party, declared:

“... it is first necessary to prove (a) that the Minority represents a deviation from the proletarian Marxian line, (b) that this deviation is typically petty-bourgeois, and (c) that it is more than an isolated deviation-it is a tendency. That is precisely what has not been proved.”

Comrade Trotsky has been the only one thus far to take up this challenge and to attempt to answer it. Before we deal with his answer, a preliminary observation is necessary.

Our challenge was addressed in the first place to the Cannonites. If there were a petty-bourgeois tendency which had been developing gradually but unmistakably in the party for the past year or two or three (time enough for any tendency to manifest itself), the ones who would be in an excellent, if not the best, position to discern and describe it would be the Cannonites. They know the records of the party directly and intimately. They know, in particular, the political records of the representative spokesmen of the Minority. Shachtman wrote of the record of these comrades:

“They have one and, as said above, it is easily available. There are the records of the Political Committee, containing the views of all the comrades on every question; there are our articles in the press, there are our programs and manifestoes; there are our brochures and speeches. Let them be cited! There has been no lack of bourgeois-patriotic, anti-Soviet, reformist pressure upon our party in the past. Show us from the record when and where any of our leading comrades yielded to this pressure! I say confidently: It cannot be done.”

Indeed, it was not done. What is more, Cannon, Goldman and the other Majorityites replied that it need not be done – because they knew it could not be done. Hundreds of comrades who heard him at membership meeting debates recall Cannon’s statement that he did not charge the Minority with having or representing a petty-bourgeois tendency prior to the outbreak of the present dispute. In fact, Cannon gave the following “analogy” with the present fight: Zinoviev and Kamenev had been flawless Bolsheviks, the closest collaborators of Lenin, up to April 1917, and suddenly, overnight, so to speak, they broke from Leninism and became “strike-breakers.” We leave aside here the question of Cannon’s ignorance of the historic basis for the petty-bourgeois tendency represented in 1917 by Zinoviev and Kamenev (Trotsky devoted most of his Lessons of October to explaining the political roots of what Cannon thinks had no roots in the past), and emphasize merely the fact that in Cannon’s view the “petty-bourgeois tendency” had no roots in the past, that it was a sudden, so to speak, an accidental (or episodic) phenomenon – as sudden and accidental (in his presentation of the analogy) as the 1917 action of Zinoviev and Kamenev. In other words, it was not a tendency at all. In other words, again, Cannon met our challenge up to recently by denying its validity, by declaring in effect that until the present Minority adopted its position on the Russian question there was no petty-bourgeois tendency in the party. He was compelled to put forth this view because he KNOWS that the records of the party and of the Minority spokesmen cannot possibly substantiate any other view.

The merit of Trotsky’s reply lies, first in his recognition of the validity of our challenge, and, second, in his attempt to substantiate the political characterization of the Minority in the only possible and permissible way, namely, by producing documentary material dealing with political questions of the past period and the political position taken by various comrades on these questions. In doing so, he adduces eleven pieces of evidence aimed to prove his point. Before we take up the evidence, it is well to bear in mind what it is that has to be proved:

To establish that, as against the Majority, the political tendency of the Minority is petty-bourgeois, it is necessary to show, concretely and not by mere assertion, that in a whole series of political questions in the past period the representative spokesmen of the Minority tended to take or did take a petty-bourgeois position, while the representative spokesmen of the Cannon faction tended to take or did take the contrary position, that of revolutionary Marxism.

With this important point in mind, it will be easier to judge the value of the evidence Trotsky adduces against the Minority. We will take it all up, point by point, in the order in which it is presented.

1. The Policy in The Socialist Party

Trotsky quotes a letter to our faction center in the Socialist Party criticizing the estimate of the situation represented by “(a) the private letter of ‘Max’ about the convention, and (b) Shachtman’s article Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party.” At best, this is calculated to prove that Shachtman made an opportunist mistake in 1937. But let us see what this has to do with the political position of the present Minority and that of the Majority.

The “private letter” signed “Max” was a circular letter sent out to all the Trotskyist groups in the Socialist Party under instructions and with the approval of the entire Political Committee of our tendency at that time. The same is true of the article by Shachtman in the SP monthly magazine. Let us grant for the moment that the line of these two documents was erroneous and opportunistic. But this line represented the unanimous opinion of the entire faction leadership, with the exception of Burnham. More important, it was the line initiated by Cannon. Here are the facts:

On the eve of the Chicago convention of the SP, a violent campaign was launched by the right wing to expel us from the party. Cannon was then in California. He hastened to New York to confer with the Political Committee. He advanced the policy that it was necessary to retreat before the right wing offensive in order to avoid expulsion, to moderate our tempo and our line. Rightly or wrongly, our Political Committee agreed with this line, except, we repeat, Burnham, who advocated what may be described as a more aggressive policy. In the PC, and on the basis of of PC discipline, Burnham was not granted his request to present his own view to the New York membership meeting of the faction. Cannon’s main slogan, reporting for the PC at that meet-meeting, was: “We must make a ‘second entry’ into the SP.” Every New York comrade who belonged to our group at that time will remember the meeting and the slogan very vividly. Shachtman and the others bore the same responsibility as Cannon for this line, not less, but not more. It was Cannon who initiated the conversations with Norman Thomas at that time, with the aim of establishing a sort of “truce” which would prevent the right wing from carrying through its drive against us. At the Chicago convention itself, our delegates’ fraction was directed mainly by Cannon and Shachtman, for the Political Committee. Still following the line initiated by Cannon, our delegates were constantly held in check. This was true especially of some of the “natives,” who wanted to make a stiff political fight against the right wing and the Clarityites. The PC line was to evade the political fight. Our delegates were even instructed to vote for the Clarityite war resolution if our own failed of adoption, as it did. Our delegates were instructed not even to raise the question of the Moscow Trials or the endorsement of the American Committee’s work. Our delegates were instructed not to make a serious fight for representation on the National Committee of the SP. And so on.

Wherein did the spokesman of the “proletarian Marxist wing” differ from the spokesman of the “petty-bourgeois tendency”? Only in that the former initiated the policy pursued, was its principal and most vigorous protagonist, while the latter supported the policy. Using Trotsky’s method of proof and criterion, a much better case could be made out to “prove” that Burnham represented the intransigent Marxist line while Cannon and Shachtman “revealed excessive adaptability towards the left wing of the petty-bourgeois democrats.”

The letter and article of Shachtman were only a continuation of the official policy of the Political Committee. Trotsky, who opposed it, sought to have it changed, as indicated by the letter of May, 1937, which he quotes. Although he does not quote them, his letters to Cannon, who returned to California after the Chicago convention, also pursued this aim. Cannon subsequently proposed a change in the policy – his own policy! – and a new line was finally adopted by the whole Political Committee, which finally led to the split in the SP.

These are the facts. If Trotsky was unaware of them, it was his duty to acquaint himself with them. Cannon, who was aware of them, has taken good care to make no reference in the present dispute to the question of our SP policy in 1937. The same is true of Goldman, who also knows the facts cited above, as well as a number of other facts. Like every other informed comrade, they know that Point 1 in Trotsky’s evidence does not even begin to prove his contention about the Minority. For, remember, Trotsky’s task is to prove the existence of a certain tendency in the Minority which distinguishes it from the “Marxist” wing of Cannon.

2. The Question of Workers in The Leadership

Trotsky’s second point deals with the question of introducing workers into the local and national leadership. “To believe Comrade Shachtman, I dragged the question of the class composition of the factions into the dispute by the hair.” To prove that he did not, he quotes a letter to New York dated October 3, 1937. Read the letter: by what single word does it deal with the “class composition of the factions?” It does speak of the need of electing more workers to leadership and points out that “in every organization there are traditional committee members” and that “different secondary, factional and personal considerations play a too great role in the composition of the list of candidates.” Quite correct. Conclusion: “I have never met either attention or interest from Comrade Shachtman in questions of this kind.”

From whom has Comrade Trotsky met with attention and interest in questions of this kind? If not from Shachtman or the Minority, then perhaps from Cannon? Let us see.

At the Chicago founding convention of the SWP, the list of candidates for the National Committee was prepared mainly by Shachtman, with the knowledge and approval of most of the other leading comrades. At the July 1939 convention, two lists were presented, Shachtman’s for one group of comrades, and Dunne’s for the Cannon faction. Which one was oriented towards the conception of “traditional committee members”? In which one did “secondary, factional and personal considerations play a too great role”? An examination of the list can give only one answer: Dunne’s slate. Shachtman’s slate proposed to introduce new and fresh elements into the National Committee – worker-militants like Breitman and qualified youth comrades like Gould and Erber. There being no important or visible political differences in the party, the slate did not aim at any faction majority. Dunne’s slate aimed first and foremost at a majority for the Cannon clique, and, towards that end, of retaining some of the “traditional committee members.” Dunne and Lewit were the two spokesmen of the Cannon group for their slate. Who were the only four individuals on their slate for whom they spoke by name? Clarke, Cochran, Morrow and Stevens – not a single one of them a proletarian, and one of them, in particular, distinguished by his petty-bourgeois intellectualism, rudeness and snobbery which repelled any workers’ milieu into which he was placed.

The July convention dispute was not without significance. The Cannonites talk a good deal about “proletarians in the leadership,” especially on ceremonial occasions or for what they consider are good factional ends. The reality is quite different. The actual, functioning leadership of the Cannon faction, even though it does not live in the Bronx but in Greenwich Village, does not show any special “interest or attention” in introducing proletarians into its ranks – unless (we except such comrades as Lewit and Breitman) Gordon, Cochran, Clarke, Morrow, Wright, Hansen, Goldman, etc., are to be written down as workers.

3. The Social Composition of the Party

In Point 3, Trotsky quotes a letter in 1937 to Cannon concerning the poor social composition of the party. He stresses the need of orienting the party membership towards the factories, having each branch, or groups in each branch, concentrate all its forces on one, two or three factories in its area. In this way, it would be possible to alter the composition of the party in favor of the proletarian instead of the non-proletarian elements. Good.

This letter was addressed to Cannon. Why does not Trotsky conclude on this point, as he did on point 2, that “I have never met either attention or interest from Comrade Cannon in questions of this kind”? What single proposal did Cannon make in the past two-and-a-half years with reference to orienting the party and its membership towards the factories? Wherein was the leader of the “proletarian Marxist wing” distinguished in this respect from other comrades? When Trotsky wrote to the Political Committee, some time back, that a rule should be adopted providing that any non-worker who does not bring a proletarian into the party within six months shall himself be reduced to the rank of probationer, McKinney supported the proposal, but no one else, not even Cannon. The latter proposed to send a copy of the letter to the branches without a word of comment, and that is all that was ever heard of the letter, of the proposal, or of Cannon’s position on it.

Where does the letter quoted by Trotsky indicate that there was in the party, in his opinion, a petty-bourgeois tendency peculiar to the present Minority That is what he has set out to prove, but the letter does it in no wise. The social composition of the party as a whole is very poor from the standpoint of a proletarian organization. That is incontestable. But both factions in the present dispute represent, to a somewhat greater or lesser extent, cross-sections of the party as a whole. The contention that the Cannon faction rep resents all the proletarian elements in the party, or the bulk of them, and the Minority all or most of the non-proletarian elements, will not stand the test of investigation for a single minute. An objective examination of the social composition of the two factions will not show any class preponderance in the ranks or the leadership of either one of them – especially if the party is taken not in an isolated city but as a whole, nationally. A similar examination of the social compositions of the New York organization, which is indeed far from what it should be, would help to dispel many of the consciously and unconsciously fostered exaggerations and even myths, many of which are so “cleverly” disseminated by the Cannonites in order to arouse unhealthy prejudices especially among the newer comrades in the outlying branches.

It is true that the Cannonites now show both “attention and interest” in the question of the social composition of the party. But only because they believe that by falsifying the relative composition of the two groups and by demogogical speeches this “issue” can be utilized for their factional advantage, especially since they, who show an interest in theoretical questions about once every two years, have been qualified, so unexpectedly to themselves, as the “Marxist” wing of the party. Their “attention and interest” have been displayed before in this question, and in the same way. If it seems to suit them as a factional football, they make very solemn speeches about it. As soon as it no longer has a value as a factional issue, it is forgotten by them ... until the next time.

4. The Dewey Commission

Shachtman’s failure to “surround the (Dewey) Committee by delegates of workers’ groups” is cited as another piece of “evidence” that the Minority represents a petty-bourgeois tendency. This proposal by Trotsky two years ago was supported in the Political Committee by one comrade, McKinney. No other member did, neither Shachtman, nor Burnham, nor Cannon, nor Lewit. Under the circumstances, the Committee considered it from the standpoint of practical possibilities and effectiveness, and decided that it was not feasible to undertake the formation of such workers’ groups. Wherein was the Minority distinguished in this question from the Majority, or from Cannon in particular? Trotsky does not say, and that for the good reason that he cannot say. The letter from which he quotes was addressed to Cannon, Shachtman and Novack. What was Cannon’s answer to the proposal?

The work of the party, and especially of the party leadership, in connection with the Moscow Trials and the Dewey Committee, was not, to be sure, flawless. There are many lessons to be learned from our experience in this campaign, especially with respect to the liberal democrats with whom we cooperated. We did not always take advantage of the revolutionary possibilities offered us by the situation. At the same time, let it be borne in mind that the problem of the Dewey Committee was not a simple one, and only special reasons which every comrade will understand prevent us from going into the details of the problem. Yet, with all its defects, the campaign we launched around the Moscow Trials (at a time when we were half-tied and half-gagged in the Socialist Party!) was the most successful we ever undertook – a real triumph for the party and the International. Comrade Trotsky played an invaluable part in working out the campaign, and in its success; that goes without saying. But the daily work – elaborating the not always simple policy, directing the work in general, the writing, speaking and organizing – that had to be done on the spot under the leadership of the Political Committee. We have no hesitation in saying that a good eighty per cent of that work was done by comrades of the present Minority. They feel no reason to be ashamed of or apologetic for that work – quite the contrary – either organizationally or politically. To ignore all that was accomplished, especially the political gains for our movement, and to reduce everything to the comparatively trifling question of whether or not we carried through the organization of the workers’ groups, is to abandon all sense of proportion.

Here, as in all the other cases mentioned in Trotsky’s “evidence,” we are prepared, without exempting ourselves from responsibility for mistakes, to match the main line against the incidental error, the great achievement against the episodic shortcoming, the record of political line and activity of our comrades which is known to the party as a whole, and even to the radical public, against the obscure trifles which constitute most of Comrade Trotsky’s “proofs” of our “tendency.”

5. Eastman in The New International

Point 5 is also supposed to prove that the Minority represents a petty-bourgeois tendency whereas the Majority represents revolutionary Marxism. What is this proof? Not the publication of Eastman’s open letter to Corliss Lamont on the Moscow Trials, for that “is all right, but the prominence given it on the cover, combined with the silence about Eastman’s article in Harper’s.”

The “proofs” for Trotsky’s contention must be scarce indeed to mention this one among them. The size of type used to announce Eastman’s article on the cover of the New International was too large; presumably the Cannonites proposed to use a smaller type, or would have proposed it if they could ever be gotten to display any interest in the theoretical organ of the party. But perhaps the prominence given the article on the cover is not the most important point; it is the “silence about Eastman’s article in Harper’s.” In that case would it not have been better, if only in order to complete the point, to indicate that a reply was written to Eastman’s article? Who wrote the article? Burnham. On whose direct personal request? Trotsky’s. Trotsky knows then, as well as he knows now, Burnham’s position towards Marxian dialectics. He knew then that Eastman’s Harper article on The End of Socialism in Russia had as its point of departure Eastman’s particular criticism of Marxian dialectics. In his article on A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the SWP Trotsky declares that without a Marxian criticism of the opponents of dialectics, it is impossible to expose the essence of the false political position of Eastman, Hook and others. If that is so, why did Trotsky propose to Burnham, in 1938, that he write a polemical reply to Eastman’s Harper article? Why did he not propose that Cannon or Weber or Wright or Gordon or Cochran or Morrow write the reply? And why was there no criticism of the reply (and the counter-reply to Eastman’s rebuttal) after Burnham had written it? If it was a satisfactory reply from the standpoint of the party program, should not Trotsky have mentioned this fact in his Point 5? If it was unsatisfactory, why was nothing heard about it, either from Trotsky or anyone else in the party? And above all, where were the spokesmen of the Majority in all this, of the Cannonites who represent themselves today as the exclusive defenders of Marxism and dialectics?

6. Eugene Lyons and the Banquet

Another point to prove that the Minority represents a petty-bourgeois tendency is made by Trotsky when he refers to the fact that “you are so tolerant even friendly towards Mr. Eugene Lyons. He speaks it seems at your banquets; at the same time he speaks at the banquets of the White Guards.” To whom does the “you” refer? To the Minority perhaps? To Shachtman?

What are the facts in this case? The Pioneer Publishers organized a banquet to which a number of people were invited as speakers in a symposium on the Russian Revolution and Marxism. Lyons, Tresca, Hook and others were among them. The Political Committee knew nothing about the details of the affair. When the advertisment for the banquet appeared in the Socialist Appeal, Cannon and Shachtman discussed the question and took a critical attitude towards the speakers’ list; the other leading comrades did likewise. The main objection was to the fact that the list was “weighted” heavily against representatives of revolutionary Marxism. It was decided that Shachtman be designated to take the floor at the banquet for the party point of view and, after the brief speeches of the critics of the Russian Revolution, to present the views of the Marxists. This is exactly what he did, to the satisfaction, politically, of every one present, except, of course, the Lyonses and the Hooks. The composition of the speakers’ list at the banquet was a mistake, for which no member and no group of members of the Political Committee was responsible.

To adduce this miserable incident, not for its actual worth, but in order to demonstrate that the Minority represents a petty-bourgeois tendency, only shows with striking force the weakness, or more accurately, the baselessness of the case which Trotsky is trying to make against us.

(To be concluded)

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