REASONS FOR THE SURVIVAL OF THE SWP AND FOR ITS NEW VITALITY IN THE 1960s

By James P. Cannon

[September 6, 1966]

The party that we represent here had its origin 38 years ago next month when I and Martin Abern and Max Shachtman, all members of the National Committee of the Communist Party, were expelled because we insisted upon supporting Trotsky and the Russian Opposition in the international discussion. It seems remarkable, in view of the death rate of organizations that we have noted over the years, that this party still shows signs of youth. That is the hallmark of a living movement:, its capacity to attract the young. Many attempts at creating different kinds of radical organizations have foundered, withered away, over that problem. The old-timers stuck around but new blood didn’t come in. The organizations, one by one, either died or just withered away on the vine (which is probably a worse fate than death).

In my opinion, there are certain reasons for the survival of our movement and for the indications of a new surge of vitality in it. I’ll enumerate some of the more important reasons which account for this.

INTERNATIONALISM AND THE SWP

First of all, and above all, we recognized 38 years ago that in the modern world it is impossible to organize a revolutionary party in one country. All the problems of the different nations of the world are so intertwined today that they cannot be solved with a national policy alonc. The latest to experience the truth of that dictum is Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s trying to solve the problems of American foreign policy with Texas-style arm-twisting politics. It does not work. We decided we would be internationalists first, last, and all the time, and that we would not try to build a purely American party with American ideas—because American ideas are very scarce in the realm of creative politics. By becoming part of an international movement, and thereby participating in international collaboration, and getting the benefit of the ideas and experiences of others in other countries—as well as contributing our ideas to them—that we would have a better chance to create a viable revolutionary movement in this country.

I think that holds true today more than ever. A party that is not internationalist is out of date very sadly and is doomed utterly. I don’t know if our younger comrades have fully assimilated that basic, fundamental first idea or not. I have the impression at times that they understand it rather perfunctorily, take it for granted, rather than understand it in its essence: that internationalism means, above all, international collaboration. The affairs, the difficulties, the disputes of every party in the Fourth International must be our concern—as our problems must be their concern. It’s not only our right but our duty to participate in all the discussions that arise throughout the International, as well as it is their right and their duty to take part in our discussions and disputes.

OUR REVOLUTIONARY CONTINUITY

The second reason that I would give for the durability of this party of ours is the fact that we did not pretend to have a new revelation. We were not these “men from nowhere” whom you see, running around the campuses and other places today saying, “We’ve got to start from scratch. Everything that happened in the past is out the window.” On the contrary, we solemnly based ourselves on the continuity of the revolutionary movement. On being expelled from the Communist Party, we did not become anticommunist. On the contrary, we said we are the true representatives of the best traditions of the Communist Party. If you read current literature, you’ll see that we are the only ones who defend the first ten years of American communism. The official leaders of the Communist Party don’t want to talk about it at all. Yet those were ten rich and fruitful years which we had behind us when we started the Trotskyist movement in this country. Before that, some of us had about ten years of experience in the IWW and Socialist Party, and in various class struggle activities around the country. We said that we were the heirs of the IWW and the Socialist Party—all that was good and valid and revolutionary in them. We honor the Knights of Labor and the Haymarket martyrs. We’re not Johnny-come-latelys at all. We’re continuators.

We even go back further than that. We go back to the “Communist Manifesto” of 1848, and to Marx and Engels, the authors of that document, and their other writings. We go back to the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. We go back to Lenin and Trotsky, and to the struggle of the Left Opposition in the Russian Soviet party and in the Comintern.

We said, “We are the continuators.” And we really were. We were in dead earnest about it and we were very active from the very beginning. This is one of the marks of a group, however small, that has confidence in itself. We engaged in polemics against all other pretenders to leadership of the American working class: first of all the Stalinists, and the reformist Social Democrats, and the labor skates, and anybody else who had some quack medicine to cure the troubles of working people. Polemics are the mark of a revolutionary party. A party that is “too nice” to engage in what some call “bickering,” “criticizing,” is too damn nice to live very long in the whirlpool of politics.

Politics is even worse than baseball, in that respect. Leo Durocher, who had a bad reputation but who carried the New York Giants to a championship of the National League and then to the world championship over the Cleveland Indians, explained this fact in the title of an article he wrote, “Nice Guys Finish Last.” That’s true in politics as well as in baseball.

If we disagree with other people, we have to say so! We have to make it clear why we disagree so that inquiring young people, looking for an organization to represent their aspirations and ideals, will know the difference between one party and another. Nothing is worse than muddying up differences when they concern fundamental questions.

WORKING CLASS ORIENTATION

Another reason for the survival of our movement through the early hard period was our orientation. Being Marxists, our orientation was always toward the working class and to the working class organizations. It never entered our minds in those days to think you could overthrow capitalism over the head of the working class. Marxism had taught us that the great service capitalism has rendered to humanity has been to increase the productivity of society and, at the same time, to create a working class which would have the interest and the power to overthrow capitalism. In creating this million-headed wage-working class, Marx said: capitalism has created its own gravediggers. We saw it as the task of revolutionists to orient our activity, our agitation, and our propaganda to the working class of this country.

PUTTING THEORY INTO ACTION

Another reason for our exceptional durability was that we did not merely study the books and learn the formulas. Many people have done that—and that’s all they’ve done, and they might as well have stayed home. Trotsky remarked more than once, in the early days, about some people who play with ideas in our international movement.

He said: they have understood all the formulas and they can repeat them by rote, but they haven’t got them in their flesh and blood, so it doesn’t count. When you get the formulas of Marxism in your flesh and blood that means you have an irresistible impulse and drive to put theory into aciion.

As Engels said to the sectarian socialists in the United States in the nineteenth century: our theory is not a dogma but a guide to action. One who studies the theory of Marxism and doesn’t do anything to try to put it into action among the working class might as well have stayed in bed. We were not that type. We came out of the experiences of the past, but we were activists as well as students of Marxism.

THE CAPACITY TO LEARN

One more reason for our survival: one factor working in our favor was our modesty. Modesty is the precondition for learning. If you know it all to start with, you can’t learn any more. We were brought to the painful realization in 1928 that there were a lot of things we didn’t know—after all of our experiences and study. New problems and new complications which had arisen in the Soviet Union and in the international movement required that we go to school again. And to go to school with the best teachers: the leaders of the Russian Revolution. After twenty years of experience in the American movement and in the Comintern, we put ourselves to school and tried to learn from the great leaders who had made the only successful revolution in the history of the working class.

We had to learn, also, how to think—and to take time to think. We believed in a party of disciplined action but disciplined activity alone does not characterize only the revolutionist. Other groups, such as the fascists, have that quality. The Stalinists have disciplined action. Disciplined action directed by clear thinking distinguishes the revolutionary Marxist party. Thinking is a form of action. In the early days of our movement we had a great deal of discussion—not all of it pleasant to hear, but out of which came some clarification. We had to learn to be patient and listen and, out of the discussion, to formulate our policy and our program.

Those were the qualities of our movement in the first years of our almost total isolation that enabled us to survive. We had confidence in the American working class and we oriented toward it. When the American working class began to move in the mid-thirties, we had formulated our program of action, and we were in the midst of the class, and we began to grow—in some years, we grew rather rapidly.

INTERNAL DEMOCRACY WITHIN THE SWP

Not the least of our reasons for remaining alive for 38 years, and growing a little, and now being in a position to capitalize on new opportunities, was the flexible democracy of our party. We never tried to settle differences of opinion by suppression. Free discussion—not every day in the week but at stated regular times, with full guarantees for the minority—is a necessary condition for the health and strength of an organization such as ours.

There’s no guarantee that factionalism won’t get out of hand. I don’t want to be an advocate of factionalism—unless anybody picks on me and runs the party the wrong way and doesn’t want to give me a chance to protest about it! The general experience of the international movement has shown that excesses of factionalism can be very dangerous and destructive to a party. In my book, The First Ten Years of American Communism, I put all the necessary emphasis on the negative side of the factional struggles which became unprincipled. But on the other hand, if a party can live year after year without any factional disturbances, it may not be a sign of health—it may be a sign that the party’s asleep; that it’s not a real live party. In a live party, you have differences, differences of appraisal, and so on. But that’s a sign of life.

THE NEW LEFT OF THE 1960s

You have now a new phenomenon in the American radical movement which I hear is called “The New Left”. This is a broad title given to an assemblage of people who state they don’t like the situation the way it is and something ought to be done about it—but we musn’t take anything from the experiences of the past; nothing from the “Old Left” or any of its ideas or traditions are any good. What’s the future going to be? “Well, that’s not so clear either. Let’s think about that.” What do you do now? “I don’t know. Something ought to be done.” That’s a fair description of this amorphous New Left which is written about so much and with which we have to contend.

We know where we come from. We intend to maintain our continuity. We know that we are part of the world, and that we have to belong to an international movement and get the benefits of association and discussion with cothinkers throughout the world. We have a definite orientation whereas the New Left says the working class is dead. The working class was crossed off by the wiseacres in the twenties. There was a long boom in the 1920s. The workers not only didn’t gain any victories, they lost ground. The trade unions actually declined in number. In all the basic industries, where you now see great flourishing industrial unions—the auto workers, aircraft, steel, rubber, electrical, transportation, maritime—the unions did not exist, just a scattering here and there. There were company unions in all these big basic industries, run by the bosses’ stooges. The workers were entitled to belong to these company unions as long as they did what the stooges told them to do. It took a semi-revolutionary uprising in the mid-thirties to break that up and install real unions.

There were a lot of wiseacres who crossed off the American working class and said, “That’s Marx’s fundamental mistake. He thinks the working class can make a revolution and emancipate itself. And he’s dead wrong! Just look at them!” They didn’t say who would make the revolution if the workers didn’t do it—just like the New Leftists today don’t give us any precise description of what power will transform society.

People who said such things in the 1920s were proved to be wrong, and those who say the same things about the working class today will be proved to be wrong. We will maintain our orientation toward the working class and to its organized section in particular. I hope that our party and our youth movement will not only continue but will intensify and develop its capacity for polemics against all pretenders to leadership of the coming radicalization of the American workers.

Above all, I hope our party and our youth movement will continue to learn and to grow. That’s the condition for survival as a revolutionary party. I don’t merely get impatient with Johnny-come-latelys who just arrived from nowhere and announce that they know it all, I get impatient even with old-timers who think they have nothing more to leam. The world is changing. New problems arise, new complexities, new complications confront the revolutionary movement at every step. The condition for effective political leadership is that the leaders themselves continue to learn and to grow. That means: not to lose their modesty altogether.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INDIVIDUAL

I’d like to add one more point. The question is raised very often, “What can one person do?” The urgency of the situation in the world is pretty widely recognized outside of our ranks. The urgency of the whole social problem has been magnified a million times by the development of nuclear weapons, and by the capacity of these inventions and discoveries to destroy all life on earth. Not merely a single city like Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but capable of destroying all life on earth. And it’s in the hands of reckless and irresponsible people. It’s got to be taken away from them, and it cannot be done otherwise except by revolution.

What can one single person do in this terribly urgent situation? I heard a program on television a short while ago: an interview with Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, former pacifist, fighter against nuclear war. He’s not a revolutionary Marxist but is an absolutely dedicated opponent of nuclear war and a prophet of the calamity such a war will bring. He was asked, “What are the chances, in your opinion, of preventing a nuclear war that might destroy all life on earth?” He said, “The odds are four-to-six against us.” He was then asked, “How would you raise the odds of being able to prevent a nuclear war?” He answered, “I don’t know anything to do except keep on fighting to try to change the odds.”

Now suppose as a result of all the protests and the activity of ourselves and other people, we change the odds to fifty-fifty. Then you have a scale, evenly balanced, where just a feather can tip it one way or another. If a situation such as that exists—which, in my opinion, is just about the state of affairs in the world today—one person’s activity in the revolutionary movement might make the difference.

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