From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.8, August 1943, pp.250-252.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Struggle for a Proletarian Party
by James P. Cannon
Pioneer Publishers, 116 University Place, New York. xiii plus 302 pages, including Index.
Paper covers $1.50. Cloth bound $2.
Lenin is considered by all Marxists as the great master of the organization of the revolutionary party. For Lenin, the organization question embraced all the problems involved in the building of the revolutionary workers’ party. What was the secret of Lenin’s success? What formulas did he employ to build the Russian Bolshevik party, a party that proved capable at the decisive moment of rallying the masses of the people behind its leadership and seizing power?
The formula which is most often used to express the most complete synthesis of Lenin’s organizational conception is Democratic Centralism. And yet in one form or another, references to the idea of Democratic Centralism can be found in the writings of Marx, Engels as indeed in the writings of all the leading Marxist publicists. Lenin’s genius, therefore, is not to be found in the invention of any single organizational formula. Lenin is the foremost revolutionary architect because he pioneered the creation of a new type of revolutionary Marxist party, never before seen in history. Lenin’s party was completely unlike the loose, sprawling, easy-going parties of the pre-war Social-Democracy, with their accommodating attitude toward every perversion of the Marxist program; parties that were built primarily for the winning of electoral successes and conducting of loyal oppositions in the various parliaments and legislative assemblies.
Lenin’s party was built along different lines. It was tight-knit, compact, bound by an iron discipline, based upon unyielding adherence to the program of Marxism – the science of the proletarian revolution. Lenin’s party was a combat organization
poised for action, a party whose purpose was to win power and clear the road for the socialist society.
“Bolshevism, as a trend of political thought,” wrote Lenin in 1920, “and as a political party, has existed since 1903. Only the history of Bolshevism during the whole period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it was able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline necessary for the victory of the proletariat.
“On the one hand, Bolshevism arose in 1903 on the very firm foundation of Marxian theory. On the other hand, having arisen on this granite theoretical foundation, Bolshevism passed through fifteen years of practical history which, in wealth of experience, has had no equal anywhere else in the world. For no other country during these fifteen years had anything even approximating this revolutionary experience, this rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement – legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, open and underground, small circles and mass movements, parliamentary and terrorist.”
Lenin demonstrated the correctness of his ideas by the most effective and eloquent argument of all. He built a party in life that took power and established the workers’ state. He established for all time that the Marxist idea of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was no Utopia but the next necessary step in the present evolution of society. Lenin’s party stood the test of experience. (A discussion of the Stalinist degeneration of the workers’ state and the present corrupted and reactionary Stalinist parties throughout the world would take us too far afield.)
The true stature of Lenin and his work can be more fully appreciated, the tremendous difficulties involved in the building of a revolutionary party can be more thoroughly grasped, when we review the failure of all other Marxist groups in Europe to build a party comparable to the Russian Bolshevik organization, despite the favorable objective conditions that prevailed in Germany and numerous other countries in the years after the first world war and despite the fact that all these parties had the advantage of Lenin’s example and could draw upon the experiences of the great Russian revolution.
What was lacking? The cadres were insufficiently experienced, insufficiently firm. The leadership had not yet mastered the science and the art of revolutionary politics. They were not able to take the general formulas of Marxism, the organizational ideas of Leninism and apply them correctly to the concrete situation.
Obviously it is no easy task to build a Bolshevik party. As a matter of fact, the experience of the twenty years that have elapsed since Lenin’s death proves that it is one of the most difficult of all tasks.
James P. Cannon writes in his book, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, that you can’t learn how to lead the revolutionary party or a workers’ organization by reading a book. Of course, that is true. But from a good book it is possible to learn much, to absorb many of the experiences of other revolutionary fighters and thus by analysis and study to deepen one’s own experience and knowledge. Besides, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party is more than just a good book on the organization question. It is the record of a historic fight. And it is more than that. It is a summation of over twenty years’ effort and experience in building the Marxist revolutionary party in the United States. The fight that it deals with – between the Marxist wing of the Socialist Workers Party and the petty-bourgeois opposition – will undoubtedly be recorded as one of the classic struggles in the annals of Marxist faction fights.
The American Trotskyist movement had gone through 11½ years of struggle at the time that this faction fight took place. Cannon had the additional experience of participating in the founding and building of the Communist Party in this country as well as the struggles of the pre-war socialist and IWW movements. Leon Trotsky, who personally participated in this faction battle in the closest possible fashion and was the author of most of the major political documents, contributed to the fight his great political wisdom, his well-nigh inexhaustible knowledge, his unequalled revolutionary experience.
The struggle was classical, therefore, not only because it involved a fight over all the basic tenets of Marxism, its doctrine, its philosophy, its tradition, its methods, but also because it was conducted in so educational a fashion. The lessons of the fight were clearly brought out, the methods of Marxism fully explained, the ideas of Marxism concretely illumined as they relate to the current problems and tasks that face the revolutionary Marxist party and the working class. For a long time to come, all who aspire to become revolutionary Marxist fighters will return to a study of this struggle and the way in, which it was conducted.
The American Trotskyist movement was founded in 1928 when Cannon and a small group of adherents were expelled from the Communist Party for their support of Trotsky’s program. For a number of years the Trotskyist movement in America developed in a restricted circle. Cannon describes these early days in his pamphlet, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, which makes up the first section of the book:
“In the first period of the Trotskyist movement of America, when we were an isolated handful against the world, we deliberately restricted ourselves to propaganda work and avoided any kind of pretentious maneuvers or activities beyond our capacity.
“Our first task, as we saw It, and correctly, was to build a cadre; only then could we go to the masses. The old-timers can well recall how we were pestered in those early days by the bustling windbags of the Weisbord type, who promised us a short cut to the mass movement if we would only abandon our ‘conservative’ propagandistic routine ... By sticking to our modest propagandistic tasks we recruited a cadre on the basis of fundamental principles. In the next period, when new opportunities opened up, we were prepared for a decisive turn toward more expansive activity In the mass movement. As for Weisbord, who had worn himself out with his own agitation in the meantime, he fell by the wayside ... The moment the Muste movement began to take shape as a political organization, we approached it for fusion and successfully carried it out. In one operation we cleared a centrist obstacle from the path and enlarged our own forces. When the ferment in the Socialist Party offered favorable opportunities for our intervention, we steered a course directly toward it, smashed the resistance of the sectarians in our own ranks, entered the Socialist Party and effected a fusion with the left wing.”
With the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact and the outbreak of the Second World War, a petty-bourgeois faction was organized in the Socialist Workers’ Party under the leadership of Burnham and Shachtman. Obviously unnerved by the capitalist campaign against the Soviet Union, this faction began demanding a revision of the party program on the Russian question, especially in relation to the traditional Trotskyist position of “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack.” Before many weeks had elapsed, however, this faction developed an assault against Marxism all along the line.
The principal debates on the programmatic points at issue are discussed at length in Leon Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism. James P. Cannon’s The Struggle For A Proletarian Party is a companion volume to Trotsky’s book.
The Cannon book rounds out the picture of the whole struggle. It makes it more concrete. It fills in and develops more fully the important organizational features of this classic fight.
The book provides a brilliant sketch of the history of the American Trotskyist movement, how the party overcame the many obstacles with which it was confronted, how the party broke out of its initial isolation, how the sectarians were defeated, how new strata of workers were won to the party, how a cadre was built which is hard, experienced, united, disciplined and thoroughly imbued with the program, the methods and the tradition of Bolshevism.
The substance of the book relates, of course, to the fight with the petty-bourgeois opposition. This faction really consisted of an unprincipled bloc of three component groups. Burn-ham, leader of one group, was breaking with Marxism all along the line and was advocating a substitute petty-bourgeois program. Abern and his group had no program, but were interested in achieving organizational victory. Shachtman, confused, bewildered and disoriented by the shock of the Second World War and the pressure of bourgeois public opinion, took it upon himself to become the defense attorney for Burnham and his anti-Marxian program for lack of any views of his own to defend.
How this anti-Marxian combination was fought and crushed, the meaning of principled politics, the idea of Bolshevik discipline and organization, the Bolshevik method of fighting unprincipled political blocs are described concisely and authoritatively in the pages of Cannon’s book.
“Organization questions and organizational methods,” Cannon writes, “are not independent of political lines, but subordinate to them. As a rule, the organizational methods flow from the political line. Indeed the whole significance of organization is to realize a political program. In the final analysis there are no exceptions to this rule.”
Cannon took up the discussion of the organization question only at the latter part of the faction fight.
“Now that the fundamental political issues are fully clarified, now that the two camps have taken their position along fundamental lines, it is possible and perhaps feasible to take up the organization question for discussion in its proper setting and in its proper place – as an important but subordinate issue; as an expression in organizational terms of the political differences, but not as a substitute for them.”
Cannon defends the Leninist conception of the party:
“For us the party must be a combat organization which leads a determined struggle for power. The Bolshevik party which leads the struggle for power needs not only internal democracy. It also requires an imperious centralism and an iron discipline in action. It requires a proletarian composition conforming to its proletarian program. The Bolshevik party cannot he led by dilettantes whose real interests and real lives are in another and alien world. It requires an active professional leadership, composed of individuals democratically selected and democratically controlled, who devote their entire lives to the party ...”
This is Cannon’s credo of a proletarian revolutionist:
“For a proletarian revolutionist the party is the concentrated expression of his life purpose, and he is bound to it for life and death. He preaches and practices party patriotism, because he knows that his socialist ideal cannot be realized without the .party. In his eyes, the crime of crimes is disloyalty or irresponsibility toward the party. The proletarian revolutionist is proud of his party. He defends it before the world on all occasions. The proletarian revolutionist is a disciplined man, since the party cannot exist as a combat organisation without discipline. When he finds himself in a minority, he loyally submits to the decision of the party and carries out its decisions, while he awaits new events to verify the disputes or new opportunities to discuss them again.”
Returning to this same theme, at the latter part of the faction fight, when the petty-bourgeois opposition, reduced to a minority and facing obvious defeat in the coming party convention, was threatening to split from the party, Cannon wrote to Trotsky in a long letter on February 20, 1940:
“It is impossible to build a combat party with a tolerant attitude toward splits. In the discussion every democratic right must be assured and has been assured. Every reasonable organization concession must be made in the interests of preserving unity and educating the party in a normal atmosphere. But we must not sanctify permanent demoralization. We must not permit anybody to make an endless discussion club out of the party. Those who go beyond these bounds and take the road of split are no longer to be considered as comrades discussing a difference of opinion, but as enemies and traitors. They must be fought without mercy and without compromise on every front. We will never instill a real party patriotism into the ranks unless we establish the conception that violation of the party unity is not only a crime but a crime which brings the most ruthless punishment in the form of a war of political extermination against those who commit it.”
Cannon and the American Trotskyists drew the following conclusions from this fight:
“1) It is not sufficient for the party to have a proletarian program; it also requires a proletarian composition. Otherwise the program can be turned into a scrap of paper overnight.
2) This crisis cannot be resolved simply by taking a vote at the convention and reaffirming the program by majority vote. The party must proceed from there to a real proletarianization of its ranks.
“We stand at a decisive stage in the evolution of American Trotskyism from a loosely organized propaganda circle and discussion club to a centralized and disciplined proletarian party rooted in the workers’ mass movement. This transformation is being forced rapidly under pressure of the approaching war. This is the real meaning of the present party struggle.”
These tasks have since been carried out – at any rate, in part. In this sense, the fight against the petty-bourgeois opposition has been won, not only negatively, by repulsing their pretensions and defeating their proposals, but also positively. The fight clarified the organization in its purposes and tasks and succeeded in making the party proletarian in composition as well as outlook.
Johnson, one of the leaders of the petty-bourgeois opposition wrote that the movement of American Trotskyism, the Socialist Workers Party, “is the second party in history which has been built on Bolshevik lines.”
Cannon’s answer to Johnson’s statement is that “Our party has not been a homogeneous Bolshevik party, as the superficial Johnson implies, but an organization struggling to attain to the standard of Bolshevism, and beset all the time by internal con-traditions. The present internal crisis is simply the climactic paroxysm of this long internal struggle of antipathetic tendencies.”
“I believe,” nevertheless writes Cannon, “that our party, modeled on the Russian Bolshevik party, has been built more firmly and stands nearer than any other to the pattern of its great prototype ...”
Comrade Trotsky wrote on April 16, 1940 in a letter to Dobbs, after reading the pamphlet The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, which forms the first section of the present book:
“Jim’s pamphlet is excellent. It is the writing of a genuine workers’ leader. If the discussion had not produced more than this document, it would be justified.”
There is no simple formula on how to build a revolutionary party. At one point in the book Cannon states that the “essence of politics” is to “know what to do next – and to do it.” This art and science of revolutionary politics cannot, of course, be learned from books alone. Experience is necessary. Knowledge is necessary. Talent is necessary. Every proletarian revolutionist, every Marxist student will learn a great deal, however, on this subject from a study of this book. Reading this book will not be anoverly difficult or a wearisome task. It will be one of pleasure. The book is written in a clear and lucid style.
The book is well edited. It is so put together that the full course of the struggle can be easily followed, understood and relived. The book is divided into several sections. First comes Cannon’s pamphlet The Struggle For a Proletarian Party. The second consists of various letters, which provide a day by day, week by week chronology of the struggle. The third section consists of Documents of the Struggle. The book has an Appendix which contains the principal organizational document of the opposition. It is also provided with an excellent index and an introduction by the editor, John G. Wright.
Last updated: 28.12.2005