From New International, Vol.13, No.4, April 1947, pp.106-109.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The sudden decision on the part of the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party in favor of unity obligates us to attempt answering the question: will it work? Before the SWP leadership changed its position on unity, the answer to that question, although important, was not pressing., There was no use spending much time on it so long as we got no statement from the leaders of the SWP as to whether or not the theoretical and political differences between the two parties prevent fusion.
Ever since the question of unity was raised we have been basing our position in favor of unity on the proposition that the differences on political and organizational questions should not prevent unity. We contended that unity is demanded by the fact that the existence of two revolutionary parties with anti-capitalist programs that are almost identical and with immediate demands for the American scene that are practically the same is very confusing to the advanced workers of this country; it is demanded by the fact that unity would eliminate wasteful duplication, greatly strengthen our forces and create the possibility of growth which two parties fighting each other do not possess. It is, perhaps; this latter factor which is all-important. For if we were to concede that two separate parties could grow as fast as one united party, the advisability of unity, in view of the important political differences that exist, would be somewhat problematical.
If we assume, as we should, that the leaders of the SWP accept, at present, the same general propositions in favor of unity, it would appear that no obstacle to fusion exists and, hence, we should immediately proceed to unification. Unfortunately there are factors the existence of which prevent the problem from being as simple as all that.
It was only in November of last year that a convention of the SWP was presented with a document prepared by the Political Committee of that party, enumerating at least ten good and sufficient reasons which, in the opinion of the highest body of the party, demanded firm opposition to unity. If we were not the revolutionary scum of the earth, according to that document, we were certainly close to it.
The convention almost unanimously adopted a resolution against unity. It is true that the resolution, in addition to mentioning the political differences, also referred to the alleged lack of good faith on our part in proposing unity. But it is nevertheless also true that the overwhelming emphasis was placed on the question of political differences, real and imaginary.
One should not ignore the fact that the personal animosities aroused by the factional fight of 1940 and the consequent split, still exist; one should not ignore the fact that the very question of unity led to factionalism in the SWP and to an intensification of the strained relationship between the parties. We had previously proposed a period of collaboration as a means to get the membership accustomed to working together and thus help eliminate the prevailing animosities. There is nothing like a common picket line or a joint meeting or demonstration to show that the ideas which unite us are at least just as powerful as those which divide us. The acceptance of the idea of a period of collaboration prior to unity is under the circumstances absolutely essential and we consider it a good omen that the SWP leaders have agreed to this idea.
Collaboration, although it can prepare the ground for unity, cannot assure a fruitful unity after fusion is accomplished. It would indeed be tragic if, immediately after unity a factional fight breaks out with the possibility of another split. A very frank discussion of all the main obstacles – political and organizational – to a fruitful unity is one way to prepare the ground for such a unity.
That, to a certain extent, the political differences between us and the SWP are more serious now than they were at the time unity was first broached must be frankly recognized. We thought that for the SWP the question of the defense of Russia had receded into the background. But now the leaders of the SWP have shoved it way into the foreground. The question whether to support the Stalinist camp or the Mikolaczyk camp in Poland had not arisen when unity was first proposed. Once more we must examine and see whether any of the political questions is likely to give rise to a bitter factional dispute.
Only insofar as the question of the nature of the Russian state has a bearing on the question of the defense of Russia can it cause any heated controversies. Within the Workers Party, there are three viewpoints on this question and there is not heated controversy about it because we all are opposed to the defense of Russia.
From the point of view of a possible factional struggle the question of the defense of Stalinist Russia, is far more serious than the question of the nature of the Russian state. As I said before, one of the premises of the resolution on unity was the conclusion of the SWP, after the Stalinist army was on German soil, that the slogan of defense had receded into the background. The SWP leaders, have pushed that slogan into the foreground and are of the opinion that a war of the capitalist nations against Russia is imminent.
Nevertheless the WP is of the opinion that, taking all the circumstances into consideration – and among them are the improbability of an early conflict between Russia and the Anglo-American coalition as well as the advantages of unity, it is better to unite, even though unity may mean the necessity of refraining from voicing our opposition to Russian imperialism in public, during a war.
A serious difference that did not exist at the time when the resolution on unity was first introduced by the SWP minority is the one dealing with the “Polish” question. It is clear that should any civil war break out between a Stalinist government such as exists in Poland and a nationalist movement led by bourgeois democrats, having the support of the majority of the workers and peasants, we would give critical support to the struggle for national independence and bourgeois democracy against Stalinist totalitarianism. The SWP would advocate support of Stalinist totalitarianism. On this question, as on the one involving the defense of Stalinist Russia, the comrades of the WP recognize that they are now in the minority and if they should continue to be in the minority they are willing to take the consequences, that is they are willing to refrain from advocating their position in public.
As convinced as I am that defending Stalinist totalitarianism in any way, shape or form is a crime against the socialist revolution, I am of the opinion that a split is not justified on this issue, primarily because it does not directly concern the American working class. The American workers will not be set into motion by any slogan for or against the defense of Russia or Stalinist Poland. I think a slogan in favor of defense disorients the advanced workers on the question of the nature of socialism but it is far from fatal. The American workers will be mobilized on questions that deal with .the American scene or they will not be mobilized at all. If they should be mobilized on the question of war it will not be on the question of a specific war against Russia.
An exceedingly important tactical difference which stems from a difference in outlook on the Russian state and on Stalinism is the one dealing with the attitude we should assume to the Stalinists in this country – especially in the trade unions. The SWP generally favors support of and united fronts with the Stalinists as against those who might be called social-democrats (Reuther). The WP takes a contrary position.
A united front with the Stalinists, in the generally accepted meaning of a united front, presents no great problem for the simple reason that the Stalinists would not enter into united fronts with Trotskyists. In the unions, however, there are situations where rank and file Stalinists are willing to enter into agreements with us. In such cases there may be a controversy as to the desirability of an agreement in a particular situation but I visualize no great difficulties in dealing with the general problem. Supporting Stalinist candidates in elections is a more serious problem, but here too the WP comrades are willing to assume the burdens of a minority.
The above differences constitute the most important ones. When the Workers Party declares that it is for unity it means that the members have considered the question and are willing to assume the responsibilities of a minority until such time that they will convince the majority of the united party to their ideas of correct theory and political strategy. The differences that have been enumerated are, by themselves, no obstacle to unity, in the opinion of the Workers Party.
It is well known that the differences in organizational theories and practices between the SWP and our party add up to different concepts of the nature of a revolutionary party. Both parties believe in the principle of democratic centralism but so differently do they define this idea and apply it in practice that it offers a particularly good illustration of the meaninglessness of a general principle under certain conditions.
Are the practical or theoretical organizational differences likely to become serious barriers to a fruitful unity?
In recent conversations with the leaders of the SWP with reference to unity we were told that a condition of unity is that we refrain, after unification is achieved, from discussing disputed questions subsequent to a decision on them by an Extraordinary Party Convention. We deem it necessary to point out that in our party there is no such stringent rule and that we consider it the best practice to leave the door open for discussion even after a convention and a decision.
This does not mean that we do not accept the general principle that a convention decision on a disputed question ends the discussion until the next convention. We accept that rule as a general principle and apply it so that anyone who thinks he has anything new to say can continue to discuss the question in an educational manner.
It is necessary to make a distinction between a pre-convention discussion during which questions are discussed as part of the routine of the branch for the purpose of a convention decision and a post-convention discussion where those who think they have something new to add are welcome to do so in the form of articles in a discussion bulletin or even in the theoretical magazine. Nor is there a hard and fast rule that a discussion cannot be held in a branch on any question previously decided upon by a convention. We leave that matter to a decision by the branch. A point of order to rule out a discussion on a question because of a convention decision would be laughed out of court by the vast majority of our members.
It is also necessary to make a distinction between a theoretical question a decision upon which does not require a specific action and a question where a decision does require such action. A resolution adopted by a convention on the nature of the Russian state does not mean that a member is not permitted to write or speak on that question before the next convention. As a matter of fact, articles have appeared in our monthly magazine arguing for a position contrary to the one held by the majority of our party. We do not favor the idea that our members should stop thinking and writing about the nature of the Russian state because a majority at a convention voted for a certain concept of that state.
Nor do we see any valid reason far putting a stop to a discussion even on such a question as the defense of Russia. Such a course might be justified when there is a war against Russia but not when the slogan is essentially one for the future.
The general rule that is accepted by the majority in our party is probably the following: that discussions should be permitted on questions that have been decided so long as they do not interfere with some party campaign or action resulting from the decision. Even that rule is only a very general one and should not be applied strictly.
New events are constantly occurring; must one get the permission of the National Committee to discuss them? Only if one wants to raise a discussion for the purpose of having the party call a convention to decide the question. In such a case it is necessary to follow the constitutional provisions for the calling of a special convention. But if one simply wants to discuss the significance of some new event and others want to answer and participate in the discussion they should all be encouraged to do so.
To use the sharpest possible phrase and one which may be utilized against us, we can say that we believe in “permanent discussion,” in the sense that we believe in a party where every member feels obligated to give thought to all the problems confronting us and to express his thoughts in writing or in speech. Does not discussion interfere with practical activity? To a certain extent it probably does. But discussion is part of the work of the party and just as necessary as the “practical” part of party activities. Here and there someone in the party discusses to an excess; here and there someone becomes impatient with any discussion, But these are exceptions and we can say without boasting that in our party there is an exceedingly healthy attitude to the problem of discussion as an essential part of party activity.
And the difference between the parties is not only that we have a far greater freedom of discussion; our discussions are of a far freer nature than those in the SWP. We take seriously the idea that Marxism is not a dogma but a guide to action: that it is a method of analyzing social relations and not a set of beliefs to be repeated over and over again. As a result, tradition does not play as much of a role with us as it does with the SWP. As a result, there is far less reliance on quotations from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. There are no looks of astonishment and disapproval if some comrade questions the correctness of the great teachers of socialism. An independent, critical attitude is respected and not met with sneers and jeers. We firmly believe that the spirit of Marxism is nothing if it is not critical.
On the question of the right of a group of members to organize a faction and to issue a factional organ, our party accepts Trotsky’s position as he propounded it in an article in The New International of October, 1939. We believe that it is best to avoid the creation of fractions but we consider that the best method of preventing the creation of factions is to offer such freedom of discussion that serious comrades will think a long time before organizing a faction.
In the article mentioned above, Trotsky does not specifically state that he believes in the right of a faction to issue its own organ whenever it wants to do so. But that is clearly implied.
It seems as if the leadership of the SWP takes the position that permission must first be obtained before a faction can be organized. Or it believes that a faction can be organized but it cannot issue its own organ without permission. This is clearly reversing the traditional position of Bolshevism on the question of factions. In 1921 the Russian Bolshevik Party prohibited factions. Regardless of the correctness or incorrectness of the policy adopted, it shows that the normal procedure was to permit factions. It was only the exceptional conditions of the time that led Lenin to go to the extent of prohibiting factions. Trotsky constantly stressed the fact that this was an exceptional measure. To make a rule of what everyone considered an exception is to violate the letter and spirit of Bolshevism.
There are a number of differences on the organizational question which may not be so important as the ones already mentioned but which clearly indicate different views of the nature of the party.
In our party I feel free to write a letter criticizing the position taken by an editorial in our press. In one instance I have actually done so. This is out of the question in the SWP, where a leading comrade is not supposed to disagree openly with the line of an editorial or even with the line of another leading comrade.
In the SWP, articles from a minority viewpoint can appear in the theoretical organ only on stated occasions (very infrequent ones). In our party such articles can appear at any time. In the SWP, a discussion bulletin is marked “For members only” and the secrecy of the internal discussion bulletin is jealously guarded. We, on the contrary, take the position that we have no political secrets from anyone, especially the masses. Our discussion bulletins are open to everyone interested.
In our party, a member who does not believe in the correctness of the theory accepted by the majority is under no obligation to defend that theory in public. He is only required not to agitate for his own theory in public. I do not accept the theory accepted by the majority of our party that Russia is a bureaucratic collectivist state. I have no hesitation in my public lectures to state that fact. Such an honest attitude to none party people is almost incomprehensible to the large majority of the SWP comrades.
There are tendencies to leader-worship in the SWP which would not be tolerated for one moment in the WP. A recent example of placing the leader in a separate and higher position is to be found in the manner in which a serious mistake made by a Militant editorial was corrected. An editorial appeared in The Militant calling Ruth Fischer an informer because she told the truth about the GPU agent Eisler before a Congressional committee. After almost six weeks of silence an editorial article appeared, written by Cannon, admitting that a mistake was made.
Why was it necessary for Cannon to write and sign the article correcting the mistake? Was not the proper procedure to have an editorial correcting the mistake previously made through an editorial?
Is it not implied, by having Cannon write a special editorial, that the leader of the party is not implicated in the mistake previously made? Is there not the implication that only an unknown editor is capable of making such a mistake?
I am certain that in our party a mistake, if made in an editorial, would be corrected in the same way, or by a statement of the Political Committee.
Are any or all, of the organizational differences so serious that they would threaten unity after it is achieved? The answer is an emphatic negative, provided
The second point needs further explanation. For good or ill, the WP consists largely of a group of revolutionists intensely interested in all of the many serious problems confronting the revolutionary movement. To expect them to retire into the background and to keep silent simply because a convention decided against them is to insult their intelligence and revolutionary integrity.
The WP is willing to abide by the decision of the Extraordinary Party Convention on all of the questions raised above -political and organizational. The members of the WP are assuming the risk that the Extraordinary Party Convention will decide against them on all of the questions upon which there are differences. For the sake of unity and the advantages to be derived from it they are willing to assume that risk, in the hope, of course, that they will succeed ultimately in winning over a majority to their conceptions.
When unity was first broached the WP declared its willingness to abide by the decisions of the majority. In that respect there has been no change whatever in the position of the WP. At that time the WP demanded only the recognition of the right of a minority to issue its own bulletin and was willing to promise not to exercise that right for a period. It does not make that demand now because the SWP has gone on record in favor of unity and the WP is therefore willing to abide by the decisions of the Extraordinary Party Convention.
In order to achieve unity and to retain it afterward they are willing to run the risk of temporarily (they hope) giving up those freedoms which they consider precious in the internal life of a revolutionary party. But this does not mean that they expect to be asked that they should remain silent, even among themselves.
If the majority of a party does not want to discuss, a minority would be foolish to force them to discuss. No one can be compelled to discuss. But a minority that wants to discuss problems should not and cannot be prevented from doing so.
In practice that means that the majority must provide the minority with a medium for discussion. Specifically it means that the majority of the united party must publish an internal bulletin where all articles written by minorityites and rejected for publication in the open press can be published. The majority members are not obligated to read those articles and there is no obligation on the part of any branch to discuss any questions. But all those who want to read and discuss must be afforded an opportunity to do so.
We do not expect any controversy whatever before the Extraordinary Party Convention on this question. We confidently expect that the convention will give us much more than that.
To the question: will unity work? the answer is: it will surely work if the minority has decided to abide by the decisions of the majority, hoping through persuasion to win the majority. It will surely work if the majority will bend backward to provide the minority with all the opportunities to discuss all questions, at least among themselves. We can say for the minority that it has decided to abide by the discipline of the majority. We expect the Extraordinary Party Convention to guarantee the minimum which will make the minority feel free to discuss the important problems confronting the movement.
Last updated: 14.8.2008