Report to the May Plenum
[From James P. Cannon, Speeches to the Party, Pathfinder 1973, pp. 136–163]
This speech was delivered by Cannon at the May 28–31, 1953, plenum of the SWP National Committee in New York.
Comrade chairman, comrades. I’m taking the floor at this moment because questions were asked which the steering committee wanted me to give an answer to. I would prefer at this late hour, since all the political questions have been pretty fully covered by others–I’d prefer just to talk about nothing else but the question of the internal situation in the narrow sense and the perspectives of it. But I’ll have to ask your indulgence for a slight reference to some other questions, some of which I think have to be answered by me.
Now Comrade Bartell complains about the heat and the ferocity in the polemics; a number of others have, too. But I can tell you one of the reasons why there is such heat. And that’s because the real political differences, which are worthy of discussion in a comradely and calm atmosphere, and which should be and would be better discussed that way, are clouded over with some other things. They’ve been clouded over by a power fight for leadership. That, in my opinion, is the essence of the matter; and you can’t have a calm and pedagogical and leisurely discussion until the power fight is settled. That’s not my fault, nor your fault. That’s because that’s the nature of power fights. And it’s only when the power fight is settled–not forever, but for the time being–that you can even consider a new arrangement for the tone and the character of the discussion.
The power fight has been mixed up with attempts at denigration and discreditment of individual comrades who have to serve in the leadership of the party. And that’s taken various forms. One form that I particularly object to is what I called in the debate last Sunday “the falsification of party history.” I answered in this debate what I considered to be three falsifications of history. The first is the tendentious representation of the 1940 discussion between our delegation and Comrade Trotsky in Mexico. The second is the tendentious and false and terribly exaggerated report of the discussion on the auto question, in 1947. And the third is the Korean War. I answered those in the debate last Sunday and will not return to them here.
But I didn’t exhaust the question. There’s another question of party history that has to be answered and that’s the question of the Third Congress of the Comintern and our answer to it. If I made a slip in saying Comintern instead of Fourth International, don’t consider it any denigration because I am a man of the early Comintern and I think we came from that. The Comintern of Lenin and Trotsky–the first four Congresses of the Comintern–is our ancestor.
Now I consider that a demagogic and dishonest campaign has been conducted on this question aimed primarily against me. And I have remained silent on this question for months and months just to let you go, and to see just how far you could get with it. I wanted to see what kind of a party we’ve got. I wanted to see whether a frame-up can really be put over in this party, because unlike those who you say have a mystique of the SWP itself as the party–that it is ordained to live and conquer–I don’t have that at all. I put a question mark over the SWP a year ago. I didn’t know whether it would survive or not. I have more confidence now, but I’m still by no means absolutely sure. And I know that if a couple of frame-ups can be successfully put over in this party; and leaders who have given good service can be discredited and then disqualified, I say this party has gone the way of the CP. I saw that happen in the CP and that was the end of it. That happened in the Comintern.
And I have been asking myself as I saw this campaign proceed, highlighted by a two-hour address by nobody less than Frankel yesterday–and I saw that there are comrades who have been lined up on that representation–I asked myself from time to time, “What would happen to a less experienced and I might say less skillful fighter in the leadership if such a campaign were directed against him?” I know I can take care of myself. I can give you a year’s rope and still prevent you from hanging me. But there are other comrades of the greatest merit and greatest ability, who can give the greatest service in the party, that haven’t had my experience in faction struggles and perhaps could not defend themselves so well and might be discredited. That’s the aspect of it that has appalled me.
Now a lot of comrades in the party that have never even met me–a lot of comrades who are new in the party and haven’t read its history–are convinced already that Cannon is really opposed to the decisions of the Third Congress of the Fourth International. Just as millions of people are convinced that Owen Lattimore is a Soviet agent and was an undercover man for the Stalinist government and the Communist Party for years and years.1 And I feel myself somewhat in the position of a Lattimore or of some other public figure who is accused of secret sympathies for Communism and thereby must be disqualified from participation in American bourgeois political life.
And you know how they work the game there–there’s an article in Fulton Lewis Junior’s column attacking somebody. It passes by awhile and then Walter Winchell has an item referring to some past connection of this guy that puts his present course under suspicion.2 And the atmosphere is created–there’s something cloudy, there’s something fishy about Lattimore or whoever it might be. The third step is then for McCarthy to make a speech under senatorial immunity denouncing Lattimore as a Soviet agent, as he did. And then finally after the buildup and after half of the yokels in the country are convinced that Lattimore is the cause of our losing China, as they say, he’s finally brought before the Senate committee and he’s asked the question, “Are you now or have you ever been an opponent of the Third World Congress?” (Laughter.)
That’s the position I’m in at this plenum of this party that I’ve belonged to for quite awhile. I’m in the position of the one who is asked the question, “Am I now or have I ever been against the Third World Congress?” And you’ll pardon me if I stand on my constitutional right and refuse to give you an answer. I refuse to testify against myself. But I will not let my case go undefended. I lay on the table here for your inspection some actions governing my attitude toward the Third World Congress in the hope that they will interest even those who are most hardened against me on that ground, because I come from the school that believes actions speak louder than words.
I’ll cite my actions.
You know that the New York caucus of the minority is instructed in the idea that the real fight in the party is the fight between Pabloism and Cannonism. That’s true. That’s inferred from several speeches here on the floor of the plenum of our party where the most enlightened and informed people are present. Now the Johnsonites raised that question in 1950, didn’t they, when they opened the fight against the preliminary documents of the Third World Congress. I was out in California, where I always seem to happen to be when things break out. And the Johnsonites said, “The Fourth International is in danger from Pabloism and the one salvation is Cannonism. We have got to rally to the support of Cannonism against Pabloism.” Pablo being the author of these documents.
Now what did I do in that circumstance? Did I say, “The Johnsonites are right?” Did I remain silent and refuse to answer? Not me, I never do that when the question of where I stand is involved. I talked to Murry out in L.A. He was having a debate with the Johnsonites in the very first stages of that discussion of the preliminary line of the Third World Congress. And the Johnsonites were raging up and down: “It’s Cannonism against Pabloism.” We discussed how he would answer that. They raised it in the debate and Murry answered them. They said, “You’re rushing right into Pablo’s arms if you accept this line”–as if that would scare the daylights out of Murry. And Murry answered, “You don’t need to fear about us rushing into PabIo’s arms; we’re already in his arms. We already agree with the main line of the documents that he has presented with the others of the International Secretariat.”
I think some of you recall a second incident at the 1950 convention of the party where Johnson and others spoke and dragged out that “Pabloism against Cannonism” argument. I went out of my way suppressing a difference that I had with Pablo–which I considered then and now a serious one–on his thesis about centuries of degenerated workers states. In order not to cut across the main discussion, I took the floor and I said you have no right to use my name against Pablo, because I agree with the line that he is elaborating and I think he has given great contributions. That was action number two.
Third, a year–when was the Third Congress? it was in ’51 in the summer, wasn’t it?–when the Third Congress was under discussion in our Political Committee we had a transcript of a discussion on the matter. I hadn’t been back in the center very long. Well, I was trying, as I’ve been trying for years to get away from not only the administrative work but even from the direct political activity of the party to do some writing which I considered important. And I came into the discussion–which, as I recall it, was an enlarged meeting where some of these people came in, I think, from the school, these comrades who are now running up and down the country saying I’m an enemy of the Third Congress.
I made a speech and a stenogram was taken by Comrade Reba [Hansen] and here’s the way I began–this was February 24, 1951. I said, “The resolution as I understand it is an attempt to recognize and face the new reality in the world and to draw the necessary conclusions for our strategy and tactics. I agree with the conclusions which are drawn. The clarification of our orientation and line in this respect is our current problem.” That’s one statement.
Scattered through it are a number of similar statements in which I express my agreement with the line of the resolution. I even spoke about the Marshall Plan, and the buffer countries. I said that if the buffer countries wanted to improve production and survive they had no choice but to get rid of the inefficient and parasitic capitalism there, a capitalism so weak that the Stalinists could liquidate it by bureaucratic means. That was in February 1951, two years ago, showing that I recognized the fact that capitalism had been eliminated in the East European countries.
Now I went further–I beg your pardon for taking time–I went further and I said, “That is the new reality we have to deal with, that whole complex which is well known. Plus tremendous colonial uprisings which in lack of any other force capable of taking leadership have fallen into the hands of the Stalinists. Everywhere in the world you find movements, either of proletarians or of colonial masses in conflict with imperialism and taking the form of revolutionary movements under the influence of the Stalinists. That is the reality we are confronted with.”
Now I went further and said–and this was an off-the-cuff speech, not a carefully written thesis–“If we don’t adapt ourselves to this new reality and try to penetrate these movements, then we’re on the sideline. That seems to me to be the relentless logic of the actual situation and that’s why I agree with the tactical conclusions of the resolution. That applies to most of Europe, not necessarily in England where the Stalinists are weak; not in the Scandinavian countries; not necessarily in India; and not in the United States at all. We don’t anticipate that Stalinism can stage a comeback in America unless we fail completely in our tactics and our strategy,” and so on. “But for the places they indicate”–I’m speaking of the resolution–“the Orient and Europe, with the exceptions noted, the tactical line indicated by the resolution must be carried out very aggressively.”
I was speaking in the Political Committee when there was by no means unanimity yet. There were discussions, there were questions, there were reservations. But as Comrade Bert said, I threw the weight of whatever influence I would have for the line of the resolution. Then I went on to say that I’d like to see a few paragraphs in the resolution emphasizing that the tactic does not imply any conciliationism with Stalinism. That it has nothing in common with the policy of the French right wing in the immediate postwar period which attempted to influence the mass movement by bowing before Stalinism, and so on and so forth.
I cite that as action number three, not a confession. No son of a bitch is ever going to get me to make any confessions about anything. That was an action without pressure, without compulsion, when it was not known in the world whether the Third Congress was going to be supported here–whether the resolutions were going to be supported here or anywhere. I made this speech in favor of the line months before the congress was held.
Now then, last year a test of real support of the Third Congress line was raised in France with the fight in the French party and a refusal of the majority of the French party to carry out the directives and suggestions of the International Secretariat deemed by them to be an implementation of the line. It’s true that the French comrades appealed to the name of Cannon. That’s true. That they said they were against Pabloism but they were in favor of Cannonism which is the real Trotskyism. And one of them, Daniel Renard, wrote a letter to me asking my intervention–not in an organizational way; I don’t care much for that kind of interventionism–asking my opinion. To express an opinion is the real serious, Trotskyist, internationalist way of intervening in our little International. Appealing to me and asking, inviting me to give my opinion. And in his letter he stated that the question of Pabloism was at the bottom of it and that this is revisionism.
Now what did I say to Daniel Renard? Not in the form of trying to answer an accusation against me or to confess to any sins, not at all. Here’s what I wrote to Renard–you can read the whole letter in the French bulletin, but here’s a part of it: “We judge the policy of the international leadership by the line it elaborates in official documents; in the recent period by the documents of the Third World Congress and the Tenth Plenum. We do not see any revisionism there. We consider these documents to be completely Trotskyist.” That’s what I wrote to Comrade Renard about the Third World Congress, not to answer a demagogue in a factional fight here, but to intervene to help the international leadership in a fight in the French party. I went on to say that it is the unanimous opinion of the leading people of the SWP that the authors of these documents have rendered a great service to the movement, for which they deserve appreciation and comradely support, not distrust and denigration. That’s an action.
I wrote a letter to Dan Roberts3 in the course of my stay in Los Angeles. It didn’t have anything to do with the factional accusations against me. It had to do with the question of clarification of a point he raised in a letter to me where he had misunderstood my first letter, as he wrote, as meaning that the Third World Congress resolution supplemented the American Theses, and he said he didn’t agree with that. I answered him, and if you want to know what he wrote it’s printed. . . the quotation is printed here of what he said. And I said, “I have reread my letters to Vincent and Farrell several times in an attempt to find out what gave you that impression. It does not represent my thought. All I can find is the following statement in the letter of December 14 to Farrell,” and then I quoted that. And then I went on to say, “I think”–this was in a personal letter to Dan–“I think the 1946 Theses and the resolutions of the world congress fit together in a completely rounded world orientation.” That was another–what you might call action–taken without compulsion.
Last winter I gave six lectures on “America’s Road to Socialism.” The second lecture, which gave the international framework for all that was to follow, after I discussed the Eisenhower victory, was entitled “The World Prospects of Socialism and Capitalism.” Now it’s true I didn’t say that this is the thesis of the Third World Congress, but I gave what I considered an evaluation of the world situation and the now irreversible revolutionary process in the international field in line with the analysis of the Third World Congress with which I agree. Six months have gone by. I don’t doubt that these lectures could be criticized from a literary point of view, from a point of view of effectiveness. But I have not heard a word of criticism of the political line of those lectures.
Now mark you, I was dealing in that lecture with what the title indicates: “The World Prospects of Capitalism and Socialism,” which is a variation of the title of Pablo’s pamphlet “The Coming World Showdown.” When I was preparing the lecture, I heard about Pablo’s pamphlet and I was wishing I could get a copy of it to check before I finished my final manuscript. I wanted to see how Pablo handled the situation. But I didn’t have a chance. I read Pablo’s pamphlet only after I had given that lecture, and I said to comrades there, “I find myself in complete agreement with Pablo’s pamphlet and the only difference I can see between his appreciation and my lecture–his lectures and mine–is the difference in style and whatever the differences in presentation there are between one political person and another.”
(Voice interrupts from the floor.)
Well, I thought . . . The point is that I thought these lectures . . . These lectures gave the line before an audience of Los Angeles people, which included workers, and Stalinists, and students, and contacts from the shop. And Stalinists who attended my lectures and took issue with me–I argued with them in the question and discussion period. It didn’t occur to me that it was my duty to say “I am a hundred percent in favor of the Third World Congress.” I thought it was my duty as an agitator and propagandist to explain the ideas and let it go at that.
Now that’s six actions I’ve cited that were all taken without compulsion. If there had been any compulsion in a single one of them I wouldn’t have budged an inch, because I don’t do things that way. It’s been the motto of my life since I was a boy. The motto, I think it’s in Shakespeare somewhere: “If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries I would not give thee one under compulsion.” Whenever I say something or do something, it’s of my own free will unless I’m in jail and have no choice. But as long as I’m free or halfway free nobody’s gonna tell me when and where and how I’ve got to confess my agreement to this or that.
Now two years have gone by since the Third World Congress. In those two years I have not heard a word of criticism from any source outside this country of the line our party has followed in regard to the problems dealt with in the congress. Not one line. I have not seen in the correspondence of our secretariat one single line, even in a private communication, saying that you were not carrying out in real life–which is the only way the thing has any meaning–the line of the Third World Congress. And they couldn’t criticize, because if the Third World Congress resolutions mean what they say, we not only have agreed with them but we have been operating the party for two years, as best we can, in accordance with them.
But I’ll state this: if there’s something in the Third World Congress resolutions or any other resolutions in fine print that we didn’t see, if there’s anything written between the lines that’s known only to special interpreters and priests, we didn’t vote for that. And we’re not going to accept that from anybody because we don’t believe in interpreters and priests. Before the Reformation, laymen were not allowed to read the Bible. The priests told them about the Bible and what it meant, quoting from it. One of the great battles of the Reformation, one of the glories of Luther was that he fought for what he called an open Bible which every layman has a right to read and judge for himself. And by God I claim I’m going to be the Luther of this movement that fights for open resolutions that everybody can read and that mean what they say and need no special interpreters.
(Voice interrupts from floor.)
There’s a man [pointing at George Clarke] who was representing our Political Committee in Paris. The Political Committee sent him some documents and said, “Bring them to the attention of the leadership.” He on his own took the responsibility of keeping them, as he says, from the light of day. He says the committee should have backed him up; he was in the field. In the field in what capacity? In the capacity as our representative. And he did not carry out the mission.
Now I wanted to speak about the “Theses on the American Revolution,” why I raised it in my letters before I ever heard a peep out of the minority here. All I had was just a glimmer of a rumor of some rank and file comrades in Frisco and other places stating this, and I wrote to Dan about it and I put it in this document with Farrell because I somehow had a premonition that if this fight developed along the line it appeared to be developing it would begin to pose fundamental questions. And we should begin posing our fundamental problem in advance. But I’ll have to skip over that and I’ll skip over also my intention to explain at some length my conception of the role of the trade unionists in the party, and the causes, the basic causes outside their control–and to a large extent outside their consciousness and their will–influencing them in a conservative direction and making them receptive to a revisionist conception as to the perspectives of this country and of the labor movement and the party. I’m not dodging the discussion–it’s to shorten it and I will undertake to write, with the permission of the committee, a long article for the Internal Bulletin on the history of this question.
You don’t know, comrades, how it strikes a student and participant in the long history of our movement to come to the plenum and hear it said, “We’ve got the trade unionists behind us.” As if that settles anything. Do you think that the struggle between the revolutionary left wing and the opportunist petty-bourgeois right wing in the international movement was divided along the lines of the proletarian and the petty-bourgeois sections of the party? It was to a large extent in 1940 in this country, but that was because a large section of the party was petty bourgeois, and because almost all our proletarians, with the exception of our Minneapolis cadre and a few people like Swabeck and others, were young proletarians most of whom had been colonized in the industries. And even then Trotsky was apprehensive: “What about these Minneapolis trade unionists?” Didn’t he raise in this discussion you mentioned, the danger of our Minneapolis trade unionists becoming a right wing? And telling us that historically the trade unionists had always supported the right wing?
(Voice from floor: “Functionaries!”)
Not just functionaries, if you please. Not by a long shot. Functionaries of course in the first line, in the first line. But the solid social base of the German Social Democracy was not merely shopkeepers. The German Social Democratic Party was a workers’ party and its solid block of support against Liebknecht and Luxemburg was not merely the trade union bureaucracy but the whole stratum of the trade unionists before the war, during the war, and during the revolution, and all the way up to the catastrophe in ’33. The social composition of the revolutionary Communist group was the youth and the unemployed and the unprivileged. That’s the history, not only of Germany, that’s the history of this country too and of Russia. I have a big article to write about that and if I skip over it here I’ll just tell you that.
I’d just like to state in reference to our comrades in Michigan that I personally don’t see in the development there any wholesale degeneration based on privileged positions, not at all. I don’t believe the Flint comrades, for example, are in any way affected by the external pressures. I think they are disoriented by propaganda and miseducated. But I do believe that you have some people in Detroit who have taken on the coloration and the content of the conservatism of the old cadres, the old militants whose conditions of life have changed, and whose mentality has changed. I do believe that. I hope it hasn’t gone to the final extreme–I don’t believe it has. And I don’t attribute it to personal lack of courage or anything of that sort. I take it as the operation of the social law that the conditions of life, not for the individual but for the larger grouping, determine a great deal of their consciousness. And it will be good if this discussion impels the Michigan comrades to stop this absurd game of throwing their weight around as trade unionists and begin to reconsider their political position and to remember that in our eyes trade unionists are important but they’re not all located in Detroit.
In our eyes the youngest trade unionist who just went into the shop and just got his first month’s dues paid up is just as important in this party as you are, and maybe more important. What’s important for us is his revolutionary spirit and understanding. I personally would say to Al Adler and Ernie Mazey4 that you were more important to this party ten or twelve years ago when you were young–and trade unionists only because you just went to work–when the party was your real life. You were more important in this party then than now because you were more revolutionary. I don’t say that there’s not the possibility for you to reconsider this argument that we are making or to bear in mind that it’s not meant as a personal insult or a slander but that it’s a very important political question. And I hope that if we can have a calm discussion, a real pedagogical discussion, if we can discuss it this way without any personal denigration, I have the hope that in Detroit we’ll have a number of comrades begin to realize the necessity of generally reorienting their political line in the party in the light of the discussion on this particular point.
Now I’ll go over to the political question. There never was a greater artificiality than the attempt to pose the political question for discussion in this plenum before we discussed the point now on the agenda. There I think Comrade Sam [Marcy]5 made a political error. He’s right and the other comrades are right who say it is Marxist and Leninist practice to discuss the political line first and then the organizational question. So what do you do when the organization question, all wrapped up in the struggle for power in the leadership, is on everybody’s mind and has all other questions subsumed into it? Then would you take two days of the plenum to discuss the political resolution on current tasks? That would be an artificiality. The real essence of the political problem of this party has been discussed for three days here and is pretty well defined. So I think Comrade Sam made a great mistake if he was influenced in his factional alignment by this procedural question. In the essence of the matter, in the Leninist essence of the matter, we’ve been discussing the political question for three days.
Now if you’ll permit me, I’ll give you my opinion about the internal situation. And here I speak as I spoke a year ago, not entirely as a factionalist. If you permit me to say it, I’ll repeat here what I told you in that first meeting where we had the first blowup, where I proceeded in a way that shocked and alarmed a lot of people.
I consider that I have a special role in this party. I accept that as the reality, not because I demand it, not because it’s a special place reserved for me, but because I think that’s the actual situation in the sense that I am older, more experienced and getting ready to turn the thing over to younger people to see what they can do with it. I’ve asked myself many times, “What is the best thing I can do for the party from now on?” And my conclusion is that the best thing I can do is to give the leadership the benefit of my opinion whether it’s palatable or not. What I know and what I’ve learned and what I think–that’s about the only value I’ve got for you. I can’t do any more work. I can’t make any more speeches or write any more articles, at least not many. But as far as I know, my mind’s still functioning and I have some ideas and I’d like you to have the benefit of them. I gave you the benefit of them in a meeting a year ago and if you had listened we’d be better off, I believe.
Anyhow, in that first period here’s the way I saw the situation evolving. You saw me take a very drastic action at an enlarged Political Committee meeting in March a year ago, in which I told you that I thought the situation in the party was heading into a split. I didn’t say that three months before, did I? Or four months. Ever since Clarke came back from his world mission, the PC had had running arguments over the question of our approach to Stalinism. Every staff meeting was tied up with it. It was a terrible irritation. I was out at the camp a half a dozen times discussing with the students there about it. They were coming into town and having personal visits with Clarke and discussing the question.
It was of very great interest and I must say a big irritation, especially the pretensions of Clarke and his what did we call it?–his messianic complex that he and he alone understood the plain, written words of the Third Congress. But there was no talk on my part of factionalism or split, not one word. Not one word! Why I even took the initiative to make a motion that Clarke should be sent out on a national tour in order that he could have the opportunity to reach the whole party. I thought that it would be good for him and good for the party. No talk of factionalism at all.
At the meeting where I said what I did, you say it came like a sudden explosion from me and you say it was irrational. There never was a more deliberate action taken in my life–never. Because that special meeting was the aftermath of a PC meeting that Cochran attended when he came to New York to participate in the discussion of the first draft of the political resolution. I welcomed his participation as the others did; it was a unanimous invitation of the Political Committee. I didn’t expect to get along with Cochran, but I thought on this point, which was becoming so irritating, we’d have Cochran’s support against Clarke and Bartell. Because I knew that Cochran comes out of the Michigan labor movement and he knows the realities of the labor movement so well that he couldn’t have anything to do with a predominant orientation toward Stalinism, which I thought they represented.
And when I saw Cochran lining up in faction formation in that meeting with the other three I said, “Oh-oh, here it is.” Not merely a faction–I wouldn’t get so excited about that–but a combination. An unprincipled combination.
You ask, what was unprincipled about it? Why, it stuck out like a lighthouse, as far as I was concerned. Here was a group in the Political Committee who had an orientation toward the Stalinist milieu–I didn’t call it Stalinist conciliationism, but an exaggerated orientation toward the Stalinist milieu–and here was Comrade Cochran, who didn’t even believe there was such a milieu. Even in his speech last Sunday at the debate he practically said that.
In the Political Committee in one of the discussions he said, “There is no such milieu.”
(Voice from floor.)
We were having a general discussion and Comrade Cochran was explaining that he was dissatisfied with a lot of things that we had been doing, our thinking and so on. This was not a factional discussion. He had written an article–what was it called?
(Voice from floor.)
“Comments on Our Discussion.” He outlined his thinking along the line of our needing to find a new orientation. All of which was summarized in his saying, “I wasn’t looking for a Stalinist milieu, there is no such milieu. I was looking for a way to orient the party into the whole new complex of realities.” Now that was probably an extreme statement, more extreme than the position we took. I’m not going to hold him to the exact quotation if he wants to modify it, but that’s what he said at that time.
The issue before us was precisely this question of the perspectives of American Stalinism and the proposed orientation toward it, which I considered absolutely fatal for this party. But I wasn’t worried about it because I didn’t think Clarke and Bartell and Frankel could get anywhere with it. That’s one reason I wasn’t worried–I figured let ’em talk. I thought they were quarantined, if you’ll permit me to say that. They were a small minority–let ’em talk about it but don’t let the party policy be affected that way.
But then when Cochran intervened that night against the first draft, we left the meeting; and a peculiar thing happened. It was the first time I had seen it happen since the days of the 1940 fight. We left the Political Committee meeting and didn’t all go to the same restaurant or saloon for a glass of beer or a cup of coffee. Not that we always went out together, but there was never any question of a division. Morris Stein, and Sam Gordon, and I found ourselves walking towards one place and these four comrades were walking to another. I don’t say that was designed. It was just the way it worked out, as if the division in the Political Committee was reflected in this accidental separation of the groups.
And we sat down there and Stein said, “Well, what is it? What is it? A faction fight?”
“Yeah, it looks like it,” I said.
“Do you think you can prevent it?”
I said, “I don’t know; I don’t know. It’s only the beginning; it’s only incipient. Have to think it over–I don’t know.”
I thought about it overnight and I came to the conclusion that if there was one way to prevent it [rapping on table] it was to let those comrades know–at that special meeting two days later–let them know how deadly serious that first step they were embarking on was. I’m not referring to the difference of opinion. Not at all. Not ten differences of opinion, but a faction formation in which there was no agreement on the main question that had been under discussion up till then–the combination–that was the serious step.
Then the convention episode after we had a blowup at the plenum, and then a reconciliation. The plenum episode–and this is where Farrell Dobbs and I fell out. I saw that after an agreement on the national resolution which you’ve so kindly said you wrote and furnished all the ideas for and we said all right if they’re all your ideas and you agree with them we surely won’t have any fight over the political resolution. But in spite of that I saw things which to me were of decisive importance and which Dobbs didn’t see or notice because his experience hasn’t been in that field like mine has.
I saw the New York Local elections being rigged for the delegation. What in the hell was going on? I saw Harry Ring,6 who had been the New York delegation’s nominee for the National Committee at the ’50 convention, kept off the delegation for the convention in ’52. I saw that. And then I saw at the convention–only I didn’t see it right away; I eventually got on to it–a factional operation in the selection of the National Committee in the Nominating Commission. Now don’t tell me I didn’t see it because it was so well concealed–I saw it because I looked for those things. Dobbs didn’t see it. And I thought, by God if there’s one way to wreck this party with factionalism, it’s to have common documents at a convention and an external appearance of unity, and organization factionalism on delegates and candidates to the NC and so on. So I gave up the idea there of any durability of the truce. It doesn’t do you any good to say, well, you had good intentions. I’m telling you how I reacted to it.
And when Dobbs came in with his nonfactional position,7 I couldn’t go along with it. And I left the center and went to California to see how things would work out, and I didn’t expect much good. I had no confidence whatever in a solution of this problem by the intervention of nonfactionalists like Dobbs, although I knew that he was really nonfactional in his motivation. I didn’t have any confidence in the people he would recruit around that slogan because in my experience the professional nonfactionalist is the worst factionalist of all.
And by God I wasn’t disappointed this time. These people whom Comrade Dobbs–with all his good will and all his mistaken opinion that the party situation could be eased by nonfactionalism–confided in, turned out to be not merely nonfactional but the most rabid Cochranites. They were ready to sign a 54-page document testifying on every question of Cochranism, in so far as the document did it, and even giving evidence on meetings and what happened there–meetings that they never attended and couldn’t possibly know about.
I just ask myself what in the name of God was Ernie Mazey thinking of, signing his name to an interpretation of that special meeting in March where I discussed the question of a split? How did you know? Breitman has written an account of it that’s different from theirs.8 How do you know Breitman’s right? He may be wrong too. Do you know what Lenin said? You took somebody’s word–that’s the only way, Ernie–that’s the only possible basis upon which you could sign that document.
(Voice from floor. Mazey: “I spoke to you about it, Jim.”)
But I never told you what that interpretation. . .
(Voice from floor.)
Well I hope you’re right about that. . .
(Voice from floor.)
I hope. . .
(Voice from delegation. )
Lenin said, “Anybody [Voice interrupts.] . . . anybody who takes somebody’s word for it is a hopeless idiot.” You know where it is written? On the masthead of the first issue of The Militant published November 15, 1928. We printed that quotation of Lenin on the masthead as an appeal to the Communist Party members, “Don’t take anybody’s word for what Trotsky said, read the documents for yourself.”
Anyhow that’s a small point . . . [Voice interrupts.] . . . It’s a small point but I . . . It does not affect anything except the carelessness of people and I hope I’ll never see that repeated in the party–that comrades will sign their names to something they don’t know about and haven’t verified themselves.
I am not . . .
I am not ques . . .
I am not. . .
It’s all right. Don’t protect me from hecklers please.
I am not questioning his veracity in this particular incident. I’m just questioning his seriousness–that he doesn’t put a high enough value on his signature so that he signs something that he doesn’t know about with his own knowledge.
Now I want to go over to the question of unity–leadership, unity and splits. Now it’s not braggadocio, as has been intimated, when we say we know a great deal about this question. How could we fail to? We know about this question in the only way anyone can know about it–by experience.
In the period since the end of the Second World War–you think we are professional factionalists and splitters–it has happened that the French party, the French section of the Fourth International, has had two major splits. And in each one of these has lost the majority of its leading cadre and the majority of its membership. One I think in ’47 or ’48 and another in ’52. Twice the French party has been decimated by splits, losing the majority of the leadership in both cases. The same thing happened in England. A split in which we saved only a small minority and had to rebuild anew. We had the same thing in a different form in England.
We haven’t had any splits since the end of the war. You wouldn’t call the Goldman-Morrow business–that wasn’t even a faction fight–it was just a little split. It was serious, but such a small percentage of the membership that we never had to organize a faction formation against them. This is one of the arguments that Comrade Dobbs gave me why we didn’t need a faction this time. The only time we ever held a faction meeting in New York, that I know of, in the fight with Morrow was to gather together the big majority of the party and try to restrain those comrades who were impatient and wanted to kick them out. We tried to explain to them why we didn’t want to do that because we didn’t want to set precedents that might have intimidated future critics.
Now we had a falling out, Farrell and I did, over that question that involved a different appreciation of the political questions, how to handle the internal situation, and involved personal matters. Now I don’t think the party is called upon to take a position on the merits of our personal falling out. I don’t see how they could or I don’t see how any individual member could because I personally don’t talk about those things and don’t appeal to others to settle personal differences to prevent a collision. I’ve seen it tried many times in the past but never saw it work.
Nonfactionalism is not in itself a sufficient program. And that experiment was continued by him right up until the December 30 meeting of the Political Committee when you had the blowup over the Los Angeles elections and the accusation of financial manipulation. Up till then, not before. I report–you see you can easily check up on me because I have been recording my positions all the way in letters which I print. You ask me why I didn’t print the famous letter they talk about so much. Because you asked me not to send it. And then the next day Clarke came over to my house to talk to me and I wanted to reassure him that I wasn’t holding the letter in reserve–I gave my word, “I won’t send it”–I said, “I’ve torn it up and it doesn’t exist anymore.” That’s the truth about the letter. Otherwise I don’t see why I couldn’t print it. I’m not in the habit of writing political letters that are not fit to print. I’ve sort of set an example in printing plenty of my letters which I’m waiting for some of the other comrades to emulate.
Maybe not. Anyhow … (Voice from floor.)
Anyhow, when Farrell came to L.A. in the election campaign, I reported we had a talk. We had a talk about the internal situation and about the political perspectives. And concessions were made. Who made them? Not Dobbs–he didn’t make a single concession. We discussed the points I outlined in the letter to Vincent [Dunne] that this is what we’ve got to stand for in the coming discussion. He said he agreed with all that right off–there was no argument and no pressure. What he disagreed with was our opinion that the thing could be … was going into a faction fight and he thought it could be resolved in an objective discussion. So we said all right– we weren’t so sure, but we agreed, we compromised and we carried out our agreement, too. We said, “All right you go back to New York, try to establish as much collaboration as you can; we’ll support your work and when the discussion opens we’ll bring forward our theses.” And if you in my absence, from the convention in July up until the end of December, couldn’t establish collaboration with Dobbs, it’s up to you to give the explanation–the record doesn’t prove that he was at fault–not in any way whatever. And it was rather symbolic that the thing broke out over the Los Angeles election.
But the minutes … here was the thing now–every set of minutes that we received showed a sharper situation in the Political Committee after I left the center than before. Mazey said I had a talk with him at the convention and I did, and Mazey was of the opinion that I was the cause of the factional friction. That I was pushing things too hard and too aggressively and irritatingly. You recall the conversation, Mazey, I…
(Voice interrupts from floor.)
Pardon me, you didn’t tell me to leave town. (General laughter. )
(Voice from floor.)
No, that ain’t the way it happened.
(Voice from floor.)
Now you’re getting closer to it. I said, “Do you think it would help matters if I went to California and stayed a year?”
You said, “Well if it doesn’t help the atmosphere in the committee, it’ll show that you’re personally not responsible for it.”
That’s the way it was word for word, Ernie. But anyhow, that doesn’t matter, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there and in my absence the faction situation got aggravated every meeting.
(Voices from floor.)
The record doesn’t show it. Of course, you know, if you’re on the theory that I live 3,000 miles away and that’s not enough–what else can I do? I wanted to go further but the … but Father Neptune says this is as far as you can go, unless you’ve got a boat.
(Voice from floor.)
Anyhow, it got worse. It got worse and it’s been getting worse ever since.
Now my statement about the split or the possibility of a split. My opinion that we could be heading into a split was a statement of what I thought was the truth a year ago. It was not a threat–you do wrong, you do wrong to twist that around and say, “Cannon threatens a split.” You’re not educating the party properly when you interpret a prediction as a threat. It was neither a threat nor was it an accusation against the minority. It was a statement of the truth as I saw it. That’s the way I understood it–an opinion. It could be wrong and I hope I will be proved to be wrong. But that was what I meant it for. To try to get you and all the others to understand the terrible danger of a faction fight.
And when you said in the meeting that I had threatened you with a split you ought to recall that I explained in a very calm discussion later in the meeting that I was not threatening you with a split; that I am older than you are, if you’ll permit me to say so; I’ve had more experience and I’ve learned from the experience; and I know that faction fights more often than not lead to splits regardless of the original intentions on every side. Just study the history of our own party if you want confirmation of it; study the history of the whole international political movement, you can find that.
If you say the prediction of a split is a threat of split, that was precisely the way that Trotsky stopped the faction fight in our party in ’33. He wrote to us not one letter but several to me personally and to the other side. He said, “You’re heading for a split in the United States; the way you’re going there’s no solution but a split.”
The Shachtmanites were asking for a convention on the impression that they had a 51 percent majority–he said, “You can’t have a convention now; if you have a convention it’ll only formalize the split. And if you want to save the unity of the party you’ve got to make some kind of a compromise along the line of my suggestion.”
It was with the prediction that we were actually heading to a split that he brought both sides to serious consideration of his proposals, as I will try to bring you right there.
I wrote to Renard–here’s the letter in the French bulletin. What did I say to Renard? “There is great danger of a split, don’t deceive yourself.” Was I threatening him with a split? At that very time both sides were swearing on a stack of Marxist treasures. Both sides were swearing, “There is not going to be a split–we’re for unity, unity, unity,” and I just looked at the documents and I said, “Unity hell, you’re heading straight smack into a split.” And I wrote to Renard and told him, “You’re in danger of a split and unless you take certain action you can hardly prevent it. And I don’t even know if that can do it.” In fact the one expression I said, “The only way as I see it you can prevent a split, maybe the only way, is this suggestion that I made that you come to an agreement on practical collaboration.”
Now I want to make a statement to you right here and now, comrades of the minority. You’re on the very brink of a split; on the very brink of a split. That’s my opinion, that’s not a threat, that’s my opinion. It’s based on my appreciation of the situation, the experience I’ve had, and the logic of the course that’s been followed up till now. How can this factional struggle that has been rolling up to this plenum end any other way than with a split unless the plenum finds some kind of a temporary solution? I don’t say at all that all of you have sat down and said, “Now, God damn it, we’re gonna solve this by a split.” I don’t say that your caucus in New York has voted for a split, not at all–they probably voted for unity with both hands.
But so did the Burnham-Shachtman caucus in 1940. They voted for unity with both hands. At the Cleveland conference, the national conference, the equivalent of which you have now in the national caucus, adopted a motion with their demand for two organs as a means of settling the problem. And do you know how they entitled that resolution, do you recall? “Resolution on Party Unity.” And the minority of that time, the rank and file, voted for it as a unity resolution and found themselves outside the party a short time later.
Now the question is–if I’ve told you that, and if I’ve explained so that you won’t misunderstand me, that it’s not a threat, that you’re standing on the brink of a split–do you want to take the fatal plunge? And by God it surely would be fatal, because there is absolutely no perspective that I can see in any direction for this minority outside the party. I can see a reasonable perspective inside the party, if you have confidence enough in your ideas; you can have the perspective of eventually becoming the majority. That’s one perspective. But to attempt to create a new movement, a new party, none whatever–no hope. Do you want to take the plunge, or do you want to turn back, if the opportunity is offered to you? That’s the question.
I believe Comrade Breitman in his speech indicated to you how to take the first step. He said, “The first thing that’s required from the minority is to recognize the reality of this plenum–that it’s going to accept the decisions of the plenum and recognize the authority of the plenum.” That’s the precondition for any kind of discussion that will work.
You’ve got to recognize another thing, because it’s the fact–it’s not because I insist upon it–that we’ve had a power fight in the party. We’ve had a fight for leadership between two groups and the power fight has been settled for the time being, not forever, but for the time being the power fight has been settled in the favor of this group here and against you. Now if you will accept that as the reality, as registered here in the plenum–and bear in mind that this plenum is a small convention as the representation from most of the country and that you’re not unfairly represented in that proportion–will you accept that as a settlement of the power struggle for the time being? Or do you want a convention? If you don’t accept the authority of the plenum, if you don’t accept that the power fight has been settled for the time being in the favor of the majority, then your only course that I can see is to demand a convention and a poll of the membership. A convention–and there in my opinion you will not have a bigger representation than here, probably smaller, probably smaller.
(Voice from floor.)
Okay, whatever it is, you will be in the minority, that’s a cinch, and you’ll have to recognize either now or at a coming convention that you’re in a minority and you’ll have to learn to live as a minority, that’s all.
I liked Comrade Marcy’s speech in general. I liked his attitude toward party unity. I liked his point number one that the majority must rule and must not be obstructed–it must run the party. And then he said the minority must be given room to collaborate, or words to that effect.
Well, I don’t think that the majority caucus would reject that. If you get point one, I think you could get point two–but you can’t get point two without point one–it’s a package deal; the things are tied together. If you accept the decisions of the plenum as authoritative, although you disagree; if you are reconciled to the idea that your future is in the party and there’s no perspective out of it, then everything becomes different–there’s a new stage.
And then I will have been refuted on another point. I said in my letter several times, “The National Committee as it is presently constituted cannot solve this fight.”
Why did I say that? I said it because I thought there were too many neutrals in the committee and you couldn’t get a decisive enough majority. But that’s entered a qualitative change now. There are no more neutrals left in the committee and there’s only one independent; and that’s Comrade Sam and he’s a hundred percent for unity, so we can even collaborate with him.
(Voice from the floor.)
What? I’m not speaking of the alternates, I’m speaking of the voting members.
So that to my view the real majority is registered here. It’s the majority in the party and there’s no use challenging it. If you go out and try to fight and discredit and tear down the majority decisions as the verdict of the plenum, you’ll be inviting a still worse power fight and you’ll have to go to a convention and you probably will get less from a convention than you could get from the majority in the present mood with the mediation of the Buffalo comrades.
But I think that’s the condition–that the leadership, majority leadership, is settled for the time being. And if that’s agreed–I’ve gathered from Comrade Bartell’s speech that this is the case although I don’t know if he was speaking personally or whether he was speaking for the whole minority or not. Anyway he was personally in a mood for such a temporary solution. That is, to agree on the first point, recognize the majority and its right to rule; provide room for the minority to live. Stop the factional dog fight in the branches. Have a literary discussion in the bulletin. If you want discussion in the branches, come to an agreement on limiting it–maybe instead of every meeting or so, maybe once in a while. Have a debate if you feel like it, agreeable to both sides. Concentrate in the next period on party work. Let the minority and the majority compete and see who can do most for the party and win the best reputation as builders of the party. Slow down the faction fight–don’t disarm, keep your faction as we would keep the majority faction. But slow down the fight; allow time for a clarifying ideological discussion; and then see what the future produces. I think that procedure is very simple.
I had a talk with Trotsky once in 1934 in the south of France and I’ll close with that one more point. It was the time they had a fight over the French turn in the French section and in the German section.9 And a decision had been made in favor of the turn, the minority was against it. And they were on the verge of a split–in fact they staged a walkout
And Trotsky wanted to commission me as a mediator for him to try to heal the split. And he emphasized one point: how to deal with the minority. He said, “They are a minority and they must accept the position of a minority but they don’t. . . they must accept the decisions of the plenum,” (or of the conference, I forget which).
“They don’t have to admit they were wrong,” he said. “You know that…” He got a little excited; he gave me a little history of the Bolshevik party. He said, “Do you know that that was not the custom among the Bolsheviks–this invention that minorities have got to admit they were wrong. That was a Stalinist innovation. That was never done in Lenin’s time.” He said, “All you had to do in Lenin’s party was accept the decision and make no further fight and that ended the discussion.”
And that’s what I offered to them there after I had talked with Trotsky. Some of them accepted, some didn’t, but that’s the attitude that’s always prevailed in our party. We require unconditional acceptance of the decisions of authoritative bodies–we never permit anybody to trifle with the discipline of the party. And within that framework many other factions have lived in our party: Shachtman-Abern lived years, and years, and years in the party; Burnham lived in the party; the Johnsonites lived; Goldman and Morrow, they started their fight at the plenum in ’43 and they were three years in the party before they finally left. And I think that can be done here too.
Now one final word about internationalism. Internationalism will be useful for our party if it has a unifying effect and it will not be useful if it promotes a split or if it encourages a split in any way. Internationalism in our book means international collaboration. International collaboration to work out common ideas and to build up the parties and the leadership. But internationalism doesn’t mean–I just want to make this clear as the final point–that leaderships in a national party can be made up or taken apart on order, that they can be removed by mechanical means or that they can be appointed.
I say a party that cannot select its own leaders is not worth a cent. A party that will permit its leadership to be imposed by any other way except the clear will of its own membership can be as internationalist as it wants to but it wouldn’t be worth anything to the International. The real problem of our party, everywhere throughout the world, is to throw up indigenous leaders who have the confidence and support of their own rank and file. I believe we’ve got that now, at least in the majority–in the decisive majority–and I think this majority is strong enough to lead the party and make it possible for people of different opinions to live within the framework of those conditions I have stated.
⇑ 1. Owen Lattimore (1900– ) was an advisor to Chiang Kai-shek in China and then deputy director of Pacific operations in the Office of War Information during the Second World War. In 1950, he was accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of being the Soviet Union’s top espionage agent in the United States. He was subsequently cleared.
⇑ 2. Fulton Lewis Jr. and Walter Winchell were both right-wing newspaper columnists and radio commentators.
⇑ 3. Daniel Roberts (1918–62) was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. At the time of the Cochran fight, he was organizer of the Seattle branch of the SWP. From 1956 to 1961, he was editor of The Militant. See p. 264 [of Speeches to the Party] for Cannon’s letter to Roberts.
⇑ 4. Al Adler and Ernie Mazey were members of the Cochran faction in Detroit.
⇑ 5. Sam Marcy was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in Buffalo at the time of the Cochran fight. A dynamic organizer, Marcy had begun to develop a cult following around himself within the party. In the Cochran fight, he generally supported the majority. But in 1956, he and his followers were led by their highly schematic, two-class-camp conception of the international class struggle to support the crushing of the Hungarian revolution by the Kremlin, a position at complete variance with that of the SWP majority, which supported the revolution. The deep differences around this question led the Marcyites in 1959 to split from the SWP and set up their own organizations, the Workers World Party and Youth Against War and Fascism.
⇑ 6. Harry Ring was then a leader of the New York Local of the Socialist Workers Party. He was subsequently elected to the National Committee.
⇑ 7. Farrell Dobbs submitted a “Memorandum on the Internal Situation,” dated August 11, 1952, to the Political Committee. In it he declared that no political justification for factional formations had yet been demonstrated. “If the time has come to go to the membership with whatever political differences may exist,” he stated, “it should be done openly, in accordance with well-established party procedure. Every comrade should have a full opportunity to hear all points of view before making up his mind.” The memorandum went on to call for concentration of attention on the presidential campaign, and proposed that a statement along these lines be issued to the membership. This was done in a Political Committee letter to the party branches dated August 27, 1952.
⇑ 8. George Breitman’s account of the March 22, 1952, Political Committee meeting was contained in his article “What Are the Issues?” in the Internal Bulletin.
⇑ 9. After 1933, a new left wing of young workers and students, awakened and shaken by the tremendous impact of world events, especially the rise of fascism, began to emerge within the old Social Democratic parties. Trotsky proposed the temporary entry of sections of the International Left Opposition into the Socialist parties to link up with the new youthful revolutionaries. This was known as the French turn because it was first applied in France in 1934. In this country, it took the form of the Workers Party of the U.S. entering the Socialist Party in 1936.