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The New International, August 1945


The Party and the Intellectuals
The Debate in the SWP Continues


Cannon’s Letters

From New International, Vol. XI, No. 5, August 1945.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I forced myself to read again the letter of James T. Farrell. You don’t know what an effort of self-discipline it takes to restrain me from answering that letter the way it deserves to be answered and letting our press publish both. However, a politician must write always to serve political ends and may not permit himself the indulgence of mere self-expression.

James T. Farrell didn’t realize how hard he was trying to confirm the assertion that he “strongly objects to” – about the superiority of Trotskyist morality. In addition to its other faults – and everything in it is wrong – his letter is dishonest. When we read Frankel’s article again we were astounded to see how grossly Farrell misrepresented it. And the tone of the letter! It is rude and brutal. He would never dream of permitting himself to write that way in a critical letter addressed to the Nation, Politics or the Saturday Review of Literature. But Frankel and Hansen are only young and not very prominent writers for a small outcast party. Why bother to be polite or fair to them? Nothing is more contemptible in my eyes than to reserve one’s good manners for equals and superiors and speak to “little people” like a boor. That, by my standards, is immoral.

Farrell is greatly mistaken if he imagines that he can maintain relations with us on that basis. And he is still more greatly mistaken if he thinks his collaboration with us in the defense due entails any political obligations on our part. Our party is too dignified, too sure of itself, to take any guff from anybody. I look forward to the day when I will be free and it will be politically expedient for me to speak for the party on this theme.

August 29, 1944

An Insult to the Party

The leaders of the opposition showed a great deal of disregard for the opinions and sentiment of the party membership. Perhaps the worst manifestation was the demand that James T. Farrell’s letter be published; the attempt to impose his pompous strictures on the party as some kind of authority which the party was bound to recognize. That was a coarse and brutal insult to the party. The party would not be a party if it had not learned to rely on itself and to reject out of hand every suggestion of guidance from outside sources.

We learn and correct our mistakes through mutual discussion and criticism among ourselves. We Leninists have studied the art of revolutionary politics and organization and our decisions receive the constant corrective of the workers’ mass movement. We work at it every day. Such individuals as James T. Farrell, whose main interest and occupation lie in other fields, haven’t yet started even to think about it seriously. His banal letter alone is sufficient proof of that. Before he, or anyone like him, can presume to teach us he must himself first go to school. We take our ideas and our work far too seriously to welcome instruction from people who haven’t the slightest idea of what they are talking about; who mistake vague impressions and philistine prejudices for professional competence.

It is remarkable how politics lures the amateur. Every other art and science, every profession and occupation, has its own recognized body of knowledge and its own rules and standards which amateurs and laymen respect from a distance and take for granted. People who don’t know the business do not presume to lay down the law to those who do. Neither James T. Farrell, nor anyone else who didn’t wish to make himself ridiculous, would ever dream of intruding – with a ponderous air of authority, at that – on a discussion among practitioners of another art or profession outside the field of his own special study and experience.

But in the art of revolutionary politics and organization – which is not the least difficult nor the least important of the arts, since its aim is to change the world – any dabbler feels free to pontificate without the slightest sign of serious preparation. Dwight Macdonald is the arch-type of these political Alices in Wonderland. But Farrell, as the most cursory reading of his childish letter shows, is not much closer to the real world. There is nothing we can do about it. We can’t prevent such people from committing their half-baked notions to paper as soon as they pop into their heads and then waiting for the earth to quake.

But we have people in our ranks – worse yet in our leadership – who excitedly demand that we set aside our rules and suspend our business to listen to these preposterous oracles and even to heed their revelations. We should in all conscience object to that. That is downright offensive. We now learn that James T. Farrell’s letter has finally found its place in Schachtman’s magazine. That is where it belonged in the first place.

January 16, 1945

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