The Second World War is here, and it is only a matter of time before the United States is an open belligerent in words as well as in deeds. Of all the havoc caused by the war, none is so tragic as that produced in the working-class movement. Suppressed, atomized, corrupted, demoralized or misled, labor has missed its second great opportunity in the twentieth century to lift society out of the dreadful morass in which it is floundering and to reorganize it socialistically, on the foundations of orderliness, brotherhood, abundance, security and peace for the peoples.
The weight of the old parties, the old leaderships, the old theories and programs, has again proved so heavy a burden on the working class as to prevent it from rising to its feet and acting as the revolutionary savior of society threatened by barbarism. The fate of mankind is being fought out on the battlefields of the Old World. The American working class, still comparatively fresh and free, can play a decisive if not the decisive role in determining the outcome of the war in favor of world revolution and world socialism. But only on one condition, the all-importance of which is emphasized by labor’s defeats in Europe: that it develops as speedily as possible a revolutionary Marxist party capable of leading the oppressed to victory. An indispensable prerequisite and concomitant of this task is the maximum of clarity and preciseness—hence, of effectiveness—of such a party’s theory and program. Especially now, in the midst of war, ambiguity and carelessness in this domain can become crimes for which punishment will not be lacking. Errors and worse which had only white paper as their background in yesterday’s peace times, have a far greater importance today with the flames of war as their background, and a still greater one tomorrow when the irresistible revolution rises to throw its light upon them.
With these thoughts in mind, I began a few weeks ago to write a series of articles in Labor Action on proletarian policy towards war and fascism, the subjects uppermost in everyone’s mind. In the articles, I reviewed briefly the representative views on these subjects held by some of the radical publicists and organizations in this country—Dwight Macdonald, the Socialist Workers Party, Sidney Hook, the Lovestone group. I submitted them to a criticism from the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism, and ended with an exposition of our own views, those of the Workers Party. On these two most vital of all current problems, war and fascism, the articles aimed at eliminating some of the prevailing confusion, opportunism and even treachery, and at reaffirming and fortifying the revolutionary internationalist position by means of arguments related to present-day realities.
The article criticizing the Cannonite position on the war and war policy (Labor Action, Nov. 4, 1940) elicited a reply in the form not of one but of three articles in the Socialist Appeal (Nos. 47, 48, 49), written by Cannon himself. If it were merely a question of a debate with Cannon, the matter could be safely allowed to rest with the last of his articles, for the sufficient reason that there has seldom been any point or profit in a debate on fundamental theoretical or political questions with one who lacks most of the elementary equipment for it. He usually enters such a discussion, to use his own words, with “a pair of hip boots and a shovel,” noble proletarian tools in their field, handy for spraying a debate with such compliments as “unscrupulous twister,” “perverter of historical incidents,” “political underworld,” but yet not quite enough for a political debate. But much more than Cannon’s touching plight is involved in this discussion. It is a matter of clarity in the policy of a section of the Fourth International on vital questions of our period. This alone warrants a return to the discussion of Cannon’s position.
Let us first recall this position, as formulated by Cannon in two speeches delivered at the S.W.P. Plenum in Chicago last September. “These are new times,” he said. “The characteristic feature of our epoch is unceasing war and universal militarism.” The workers must be armed, and trained in the use of arms, for every important problem of our epoch will be settled with arms in hand. Even before the first world war, socialists said capitalism was outlived and ripe for socialism. But when the war broke out “none of the parties had the idea that on the agenda stood the struggle for power. The stand of the best of them was essentially a protest against the war. It did not occur even to the best Marxists that the time had come when the power must be seized by the workers in order to save civilization from degeneration. Even Lenin did not visualize the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the war.” The present war is not our war, but as long as the mass of the proletariat goes with it, we will go too, raising our own independent program in the army, in the same way as we raise it in the factories. The workers do not want the country overrun by Hitler’s hordes; neither do we. Because workers must be armed and trained, and because we have no confidence in the ruling class and its officers, we are for compulsory military training but under trade-union control. “The workers themselves must take charge of this fight against Hitler and anybody else who tries to invade their rights. That is the whole principle of the new policy that has been elaborated for us by comrade Trotsky.” (See Socialist Appeal, Oct. 12, 1940.)
Except for the utterly false estimation of Lenin in the last war, and the more than ambiguous slogan of trade-union control of military training, there was little to be quarreled with in the above exposition. But what, we asked in our criticism, was the “new policy” that it marked? To this, we concluded, Cannon gave sufficient answer in his summarizing speech at the Plenum:
The gist of the problem, said Cannon, is that the workers “require a program of military struggle against foreign invaders which assures their class independence.” If Hitler attacks us, the social-democrats used to ask, what will you do about it? “Well, we answered in a general way, the workers will first overthrow the bourgeoisie at home and then they will take care of invaders. That was a good program, but the workers did not make the revolution in time. Now the two tasks must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously.” (See Socialist Appeal, Oct. 26, 1940.)
This “new” position—that the workers should be for “national defense” while the bourgeoisie is still in power, and “simultaneously” fight against the bourgeoisie—I characterized with restraint as a concession to social-patriotism and a corresponding abandonment of the revolutionary internationalist position.
I hope the reader will forgive me and not interpret what I say as cheap boasting or as anything but a simple statement of fact if I write that I regarded my criticism of Cannon’s views as so elementary, conclusive and unassailable that I freely predicted Cannon would not reply to it. Frankly, I expected that he would strike a posture and reply to those of his members who are perturbed by the “new line” with one of two statements: “Trotsky himself was for our line; he even originated it; and that’s good enough for us”—or, “We are too busy doing mass work to bother with the criticisms of a sect.” I was wrong, at least in part. He said both these things, to be sure, but he did write a series of three articles for his public press, commenting on the criticism in Labor Action. He even said in the first of his series: “His entire article from beginning to end is a mixture of confusion and bad faith—a Shachtman ‘polemic’. Not a single one of his ‘points’ can stand inspection. In my next article I shall undertake to prove this, point by point.” But while I was wrong, as indicated, yet I was right. Cannon’s reply is no reply. What he undertook to do, he did not do, either in the next article or in the third and last article. And, as will be shown below, he not only failed to take up my criticism “point by point” but deliberately omitted any reference whatsoever to the principal point I made.
In contrast, I intend to deal with all of the very few points Cannon does make, both the relevant and the irrelevant. Let us take them one by one, beginning with the latter.
Military Policy? What About Burnham?
I write a criticism of Cannon’s “military policy” which is either good, bad, or indifferent. Cannon’s first retort is: What about Burnham? Shachtman’s article, you see, “is not directed at Burnham; it is intended to drown out the question of Burnham by shouting loud and long against others.” The reader here gets his first example of what Cannon means by replying to a criticism “point by point”!
Yes, Burnham deserted the socialist movement and socialism. He is not the first deserter and probably not the last. But just what is that supposed to prove against our party and its political position? Does Cannon want to say that Burnham’s desertion is a logical outcome of his previous adherence to that party and its position? That will take a bit of proving.
Maria Reese was received and hailed by us when she quit the German Stalinists. When she deserted to the Nazis, the Stalinists argued that her desertion was the “logical outcome” of her adherence to Trotskyism. The proof that they were disloyal and unscrupulous liars lay in the fact that the condition for Reese’s flight to the Nazis was her renunciation of everything the Trotskyist movement stood for.
Diego Rivera was “protected” by us—by Trotsky, Cannon and me—for years from the criticisms of the other Mexican Fourth Internationalists. Suddenly, he turned up in the camp of the reactionary wing of the Mexican bourgeoisie, even arguing that this was the only way effectively to fight Stalinism. What the Stalinists said about Rivera and Trotskyism is known, or can also be easily imagined.
Similarly with Chen Tu-hsiu, whom we elected a leader of the Fourth International despite the criticisms of the Chinese comrades. He has now passed into the camp of the imperialist democracies. Suppose I were to say about Cannon’s article: “It is not directed at Rivera and Chen; it is intended to drown out the question of these deserters by shouting loud and long against Shachtman.”
Similarly with virtually the whole leadership of the Russian Opposition, who, with the renowned exception of Trotsky and a few others, deserted the fight and went over to Stalinist counter-revolution. In reply to those, who like Souvarine, concluded from these desertions that the distinction between Trotskyism and Stalinism is insignificant and that the one leads easily to the other, we always pointed out that for the capitulators to go to Stalinism they had to break with the Opposition, its platform and traditions, and that there was not “development” from one to the other.
With due respect to the difference in proportions, the same holds true in the case of Burnham. A scrupulous and loyal commentator would say: “I have read the Workers Party statement expelling Burnham and I have read Burnham’s statement. I must take note that he broke with the Workers Party, in his own words, precisely because it was a Marxist party, precisely because it rejected (as Burnham truthfully points out) every attempt to revise or undermine its Marxian position. I must take note, likewise, of the fact that Burnham did not take a single member of the Workers Party along with him in his desertion, that he did not find a single supporter in the party’s ranks, that his departure did not create the slightest disturbance in its midst—all of which would indicate that, so far as the character of the Workers Party is concerned, his desertion had a purely individual and not a broader political or symptomatic significance.” That is what a scrupulous and loyal commentator would say. A demagogue, of course, would speak differently. But our cruel times, and long years of them, have inured us against demagogues.
Lenin Has a Defender
One of the motivations for the “new policy” (which really isn’t a new policy at all, we are assured, but only “an extension of the old policy, and adaptation of old principles to new conditions”), is that in the first world war, not even Lenin—much less others—had the perspective of revolution breaking out in direct connection with the war, that “even Lenin did not visualize the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the war.” Cannon seeks to justify his present policy (otherwise, why the reference to Lenin?) by contrasting to Lenin’s perspective of 1914-1916, the “immediacy of the revolutionary perspective in connection with the present war.”
In my Labor Action article, I quoted from Lenin to show that his whole course in the last war was based on the conception of a socialist revolution in Europe (in Russia, a “democratic revolution”) in direct connection with the war, a fact which we thought was generally known in the Marxist movement. But this is too much for a patient and tolerant Cannon, who will stand for a lot, but not for anybody tampering with Leninism. Choking with indignation, he accuses me of literary charlatanry, quotation-twisting, distortion, mutilation and common forgery. “It is a matter of simple respect to his [Lenin’s] memory to protect him from the hypocritical support of an advocate who is known among Leninists only as a betrayer of Leninism.” As a betrayer, and what’s more, only as a betrayer of Leninism. The steam behind these blows is terrific and they are delivered with all the weight and effectiveness of a Tony Galento boxing with his own shadow for the benefit of the customers assembled at his bar. But not even a graceful fighter ever hurt anybody shadow-boxing.
It seems, you see, that I left a sentence out of the middle of my quotation from Lenin, and ended when I should have continued. And what did I omit? Nothing less than Lenin’s reference to the need of revolutionary propaganda “independent of whether the revolution will be strong enough and whether it will come in connection with the first or second imperialist war, etc.” The italics are triumphantly supplied by Cannon. This triumph is buttressed by two other quotations from Lenin in 1916 and early 1917, straight from the original Russian edition: (1) “It is possible, however, that five, ten and even more years will pass before the beginning of the socialist revolution,” and (2) “We, the older men, will perhaps not live long enough to see the decisive battles of the impending revolution.” Cannon is so carried away by his researches into the original Russian, that where Lenin said “it is possible” and “perhaps”, he sums it up by saying: “Lenin wrote in Switzerland that his generation would most probably not see the socialist revolution.” (My italics—M.S.)
Now, what is the point of this otherwise absurd counter-posing of quotations? We shall soon see that it has more of a practical than an academic aim. Let us begin by examining what Cannon set out to prove by his reference to Lenin in the last war.
In the first place, he declared that “when the World War started in 1914 none of the parties had the idea that on the agenda stood the struggle for power. The stand of the best of them was essentially a protest against the war. It did not occur even to the best Marxists that the time had come when the power must be seized by the workers in order to save civilization from degeneration.”
In reply I quoted several statements made during the war by Lenin and the Bolsheviks which sound as though they were uttered in anticipatory refutation of the assertion by Cannon. According to the latter, none of the parties, not even Lenin’s, had the idea that the struggle for power, the socialist revolution, was on the order of the day. In October, 1914, the Bolsheviks wrote: “The war has placed on the order of the day the slogan of a socialist revolution” in western Europe. At the end of 1916, Lenin wrote: “In the years 1914 to 1916 the revolution stood on the order of the day.”
Cannon wisely ignores this and takes refuge in his second assertion: “Even Lenin did not visualize the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the war.” To make even plainer what he meant by this statement made at the September Plenum, he points out to me in his Appeal articles that Lenin of course had a revolutionary program during the war—but, he had been preaching revolution since 1901, as Marx had since 1847; more to the point, he was not dead certain that “we, the older men” would live to see the victorious revolution, that it was possible for the revolution to be postponed to a period long after the first world war. “Shachtman twisted it [i.e., what Cannon said] and distorted it into a denial that Lenin had a ‘program of revolution,’ during the war. But I think it is thoroughly clear to a disinterested reader that I was speaking of something else, namely, Lenin’s expectations as to the immediate outcome of the war, and not at all of what he wanted and what he advocated.”
But Cannon is no better off with his second assertion than with his first. He either does not understand or does not want to understand what is involved, either in Lenin’s time or now, by the conception of “revolutionary perspective.” In the first world war, Lenin did have a revolutionary perspective. He did believe and he said that the socialist revolution is on the agenda. But he did not and could not divorce this belief from the state of the living revolutionary forces at hand for realizing this perspective. He knew then, as he put it years later, that there is no “absolutely hopeless” situation for the bourgeoisie—either in the last war or in the present one. That, and that alone, is why he could say, not only in January, 1917, a few weeks before the uprising in Russia, but from the beginning of the war, that it was “possible” that years and even decades would pass before the socialist victory, that his generation would “perhaps” not see it. In October, 1914, he wrote to Shliapnikov about the slogan of converting the imperialist war into a civil war: “No one would venture to vouch when and to what extent this preaching will be justified in practice: that is not the point (only low sophists renounce revolutionary agitation on the grounds that it is uncertain when a revolution would take place). The point lies in such a line of work. Only such work is socialistic and not chauvinistic and it alone will yield socialistic fruit, revolutionary fruit.” All his writings and doings in the period of the war were equally animated by this conception and spirit.
In other words, while Lenin had a revolutionary perspective, and repeated that the struggle for power was on the order of the day, he did not guarantee that the actual proletarian rising would occur on this or that day, and he did not guarantee either that the first rising would lead to victory. He would not and could not say whether the revolution “will come in connection with the first or second imperialist war”. Not only Lenin, but Trotsky as well. Dealing in his War and the International in 1915 with the alternatives of revolution or capitalist peace and temporary stabilization, Trotsky wrote: “Which of the two prospects is the more probable? This cannot possibly be theoretically determined in advance. The issue depends entirely upon the activity of the vital forces of society—above all upon the revolutionary social democracy.” (My emphasis—M.S.) And so it does today also.
“Lenin,” writes Cannon, “obviously was not arguing about the immediacy of the revolution as we visualize it in connection with the present war, but about the necessity of advocating it and preparing for it.” Cannon’s persistency in arguing this point is noteworthy. Lenin didn’t see revolution as the immediate outcome of the war. Presumably, Cannon’s repetition of this statement means that he, on the contrary, does have the perspective of an immediate revolution in connection with the war. Lenin wasn’t entirely sure of “the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the first world war”, whereas Cannon is sure of the victory this time. And it is this difference that apparently warrants the “new policy” which, remember, is only an “extension,” an “adaptation” of the old.
But is it not obvious that the only “difference” that Cannon could establish with Lenin’s perspective in the last war is if Cannon did guarantee that “victory of the proletarian revolution” which Lenin did not visualize? “I was speaking of something else, namely, Lenin’s expectations as to the immediate outcome of the war,” Cannon repeats. But it is clear that he hasn’t read his own program, or else doesn’t remember it. Trotsky’s last important political document was the Manifesto on the war written for the Fourth International less than a year ago. There we find (1) on Lenin’s perspective in the last war: “Only the Russian party of the Bolsheviks represented a revolutionary force at that time [the outbreak of the first world war]. But even the latter, in its overwhelming majority failed, except for a small émigré group around Lenin, to shed its national narrowness and to rise to the perspective of the world revolution.” (Remember Cannon on Lenin? that the position of even the best Marxists in 1914 “was essentially a protest against the war”?!) And (2) on the Fourth International’s perspective in the present war: “The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars and new uprisings.” Long years, if not decades—that is entirely correct, not because we believe the revolution’s triumph will be postponed for decades, but because we cannot guarantee that the victory will come six months from now or a year.
If Cannon had wanted to say that world capitalism has less right to expect long life in connection with the second world war than the first, that its objective possibilities of stabilization are fewer in our time than in Lenin’s, he could have done it without all his revealing juggling with words and quotations about Lenin’s “expectations” and “perspectives”. If he were concerned in reality with the objective question of perspectives and tasks in Lenin’s time and in our own, he would simply have said: “Like Lenin, we of the Fourth International today have the same revolutionary perspective. The socialist revolution is here, on the order of the day. Only, the working class is not prepared for it. The revolutionists are few in number, and isolated. The task, now as then, is the preparation of the revolutionists and the mobilization of the working class, for the realization of this perspective which is, always was and always will be indivisible from our own policies and activities.”
But that is not the point with which Cannon is concerned. He pursues much more practical aims than the somewhat academic dispute over what Lenin’s expectations were and what his perspectives were. His aims relate precisely to “policies and activities.” The reference to Lenin is only calculated to “prove” that “we” must have a different policy in the second world war because Lenin had a different perspective in the last one. The fact that Cannon had to distort Lenin’s views in the last war already speaks badly for the “new policy” he is currently advocating.
Before proceeding to it, let us deal with one other little matter, in accordance with the promise that no point made by Cannon will be left unanswered.
Trotsky, Too, Has a Defender
“Against whom is Shachtman really defending Lenin?” asks Cannon. “To be sure, he mentions only ‘Cannon’ but it is perfectly obvious that Cannon in this case is only serving Shachtman as a pseudonym for the real target of his attack. My remarks about Lenin’s perspective during the first world war were no more and no less than a simple repetition of what Trotsky said on the subject.” And further: “Shachtman’s attack on ‘Cannon’ in behalf of Lenin is in reality aimed against Trotsky in a cowardly and indirect manner. He wants to set Lenin against Trotsky, to make a division in the minds of the radical workers between Lenin and Trotsky, to set himself up as a ‘Leninist’ with the sly intimation that Leninism is not the same thing as Trotskyism. There is a monstrous criminality in this procedure. The names of Lenin and Trotsky are inseparably united in the Russian Revolution, its achievements, its doctrines and traditions, and in the great struggle for Bolshevism waged by Trotsky since the death of Lenin. ‘Lenin-Trotsky’—those two immortal names are one. Nobody yet has tried to separate them; that is, nobody but scoundrels and traitors.”
There it is, both barrels, but the reader can sit quietly in his chair. The noise is nothing but stage thunder, the brandished sword is only a lath, and the theatrical posturing is nothing but theatrical posturing.
My article did not aim at polemizing against Trotsky. It did not even aim with monstrous criminality to intimate slyly that the names of Lenin and Trotsky should be separated. I know fairly well where and on what points and in what struggles the two names are inseparable; I know also on what points the names represent differences of opinion, even sharp ones. If Cannon wants to set up a privately-owned two-headed deity exempt from profane criticism, he may be allowed to imitate the Stalinists in this procedure as he has in others. But that is not my concern here any more than it was in my original article.