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Jack Weber

Burnham’s Letter of Resignation

(August 1940)

From Fourth International, Vol.1 No.3, August 1940, pp.105-108.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

JAMES BURNHAM, the author of the following letter, was the chief theoretician of the group which, after a seven-months’ discussion in the Socialist Workers Party, refused to abide by the decisions of the Third National Convention of the party, held in April of this year. The group was suspended until it would signify its intention no longer to violate the convention decisions. Now its chief theoretician has drawn the final conclusions from the position around which the group was organized. The letter is published here for the first time. The “Workers Party” group to which it is addressed, our readers will recall, insisted during our pre-convention discussion that all party discussion shall be held publicly before the workers. No sooner had they left us than they had a good opportunity to do so, by publishing Burnham’s letter to them. Strange to say, they did not.


Text of Burnham’s letter


BURNHAM’S letter of resignation from the self-styled “Workers Party” adds the expected period to his break with Marxism and his desertion of the working class movement. What better commentary could there be on the nature of that group which followed Burnham out of the Socialist Workers Party than the fact that they did not dare to print his letter of resignation from their group! Burnham’s letter is overwhelming confirmation of our previous characterization of the splitters.

Burnham was the only one of the group who had any real views in the factional struggle that preceded their defection. Shachtman refused to take any stand on the basic questions in dispute. So clear was the course followed by Burnham to the “theoreticians” of the “Workers Party” that they were willing to follow him out of the movement and to embrace him in a new party. Burnham felt embarrassed, nay distressed, by their devotion, but nevertheless he has wrenched his coat-tails violently from their grasp. He has said finally and at long last what he really had in mind (and what the Socialist Workers Party had deduced correctly), and now has said it in such unmistakable terms that the light at last dawned on his associates and it became at long last to Shachtman “crystal clear that he has abandoned the struggle against war and for socialism”—when Burnham told him so and not before. One might suppose that Shachtman would offer some sort of apology or explanation to his misguided followers for his defense of Burnham against the now-proven predictions which we made, that Burnham was on his way out of the movement. But no! It turns out that Shachtman was quite open-minded in his association with Burnham and was merely waiting for “time alone to tell what (Burnham’s) future role in the movement would be.” Time obliged. It obliged at breath-taking tempo.

The record speed with which Burnham jettisoned the whole cargo of Marxism is in its way an index of the heightened tension of the class struggle as the United States rushes headlong towards entry into the war. The capitalist ruling class, facing a mortal struggle, has set in motion every single agency at its command to suppress resistance to its aims. Already the work of provocateurs is added to the barrage of Fifth Column propaganda and the usages of the FBI. Open violence has thus far occurred on a small scale—but that is a harbinger of the future. Burnham’s course stands revealed now as the process of giving way to this class pressure and then yielding completely to it.

In vain the failure of the “Workers Party” to print Burnham’s letter of resignation! Can they hide from themselves the patent fact that they were led by an element who, under the test by crisis, turned tail and fled the movement? The statement of the Workers Party can be characterized only as a cynical attempt to suppress the plain lesson to be learned from the Burnham defection. Not even the simple sentence: “We made a mistake.” That means an unprincipled persistence on the same false course.

The ideological line of retreat from the movement pursued by Burnham has its dialectic significance. The pressure of alien classes is almost invariably reflected in a Marxist party by attempts at revision of Marxist theory followed by proposals to change practical policies. Burnham’s first break with Marxism occurred when he attempted to characterize the Soviet Union as a “bureaucratic” state that was neither working class nor capitalist. At first he insisted that he still accepted the Marxist class theory of the state, but that Russia was an exception. Soon this theory reflected itself in politics. Under the furious outcry of petty-bourgeois democrats against the Stalin-Hitler pact and the invasion of Finland, Burnham refused to lend support to unconditional defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack. The Socialist Workers Party rejected this reflection of petty-bourgeois ideology inside its ranks. In short order Burnham found himself forced by his own logic to generalize his attitude—to reject the Marxist theory of the state, then to abandon the materialist conception of history and the theory of class struggle. Relentlessly the dialectics of the class struggle forced Burnham out of the camp of the working class.

Burnham half-heartedly acknowledges in his document, in what he hopes will be accepted as an engaging manner, that his action is based on the desire to quit politics. When a class-conscious worker becomes disheartened, he generally does retire from politics and becomes apathetic. In the very letter of resignation that takes Burnham out of the ranks of the workers, however, he speaks of an article for the press. Assuredly, as an intellectual, the professor will continue to write and express opinions publicly. And he is perfectly free to do so. But we insist on precise evaluations. Burnham has quit, not politics in general, but proletarian politics. His Third Camp proved to be only a brief resting place for his trek back to the camp of the bourgeoisie, more accurately the camp of the petty-bourgeoisie. In company with them he already holds that reformism, Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism are merely “variants” of Marxism. Furthermore (the next stage in his logic!) Stalinism and Fascism are but twins, manifestations of the same “general historical forces.” He is at present in the mood of “doubt” as to whether Leninism and Trotskyism belong to the same category—but since “time alone” resolves these questions, give him a little time!

His reference to a “managerial” society can be characterized at once as complete capitulation to totalitarianism, exactly as the Stalinists capitulated in Germany to make Hitler’s victory inevitable. Burnham says now that he never accepted the philosophy of Marxism. In actuality what he means is that he never had any real faith in the workers and in their agility to carry civilization forward to the next stage, that of socialism. Since he never had this faith we cannot accuse him of losing it. Fundamentally it is this mistrust of the masses that drives Burnham into acceptance of the “probability” of a “managerial” society as the next step in history. Burnham confuses the pressures inside his own cranium with the forces of history. He thinks “Marxism must be rejected” because of all the Burnhams past and present who have abandoned it. To an entirely different world belongs the faith of the working masses: they cannot permit civilization to slide back into barbarism but must carry humanity forward, despite temporary setbacks, to socialism.

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