Pablo etc

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Sun Jan 30 19:38:05 MST 2000

> There and elsewhere Fraser also notes the absurdity of the SWP leadership
> position, derived from Cannon's comments after the SWP was founded in
> that they were now THE party in the USA and no further regroupments were
> needed.  As a result the SWP largely lost out on the opportunities of the
> late 50s/early 60s, and of the opportunity of intersecting with the best
> elements of SDS in the mid-60s.

    Actually, it wasn't just Jim Cannon's comments but his (in)famous
"American Theses" adopted at the 1946 convention, held under a banner that
read something like, "Forward to the party of 10,000." In fairness to Cannon
it should be noted that the SWP had more than doubled in size in a year or
two, and had more than 2,000 members at the time that convention was held,
shortly after the peak of the post-WWII labor upsurge. Hundreds of the new
recruits were Blacks, attracted by the SWP's refusal to suspend the fight
against racism during WWII. The strike wave in 1945-46 didn't just seem to
pick up where the thirties had left off; it was far, far broader than
anything ever seen in this country before (or since). It was accompanied by
a movement among GI's who did not want to be sent or stay overseas now that
the war was over.

    It was also based on an analysis of the vying currents within the
American labor movement, an evaluation of the "breakout" of the SWP from its
isolation given the wear and tear on the Stalinist machine especially during
the war.

    In retrospect, the resolution seems so far off the mark as to be
ridiculous. What was to come was an unprecedented period of prosperity and
the complete domestication of the industrial union social movement of the
30s, the CIO.

    But it isn't surprising that the SWP did not see it, for that convention
came at a time when the American Capitalists themselves were just beginning
to realize how filthy rich the war had left them. How filthy rich? Well,
rich enough to a) prop up all of Western Europe to stave of economic
collapse and b) Maintain the military occupation of just about every place
in the planet the U.S. ruling class was concerned about except the Soviet
Union and Eastern Europe and c) launch a new, mad-dog arms and technology
race against the Soviets and d) Buy off the bulk of the American workers
with significant AND sustained increases in REAL wages for the next quarter
century or so AND e) rack up all-time record profits.

    It is striking how bitterly the capitalists resisted labor demands at
first, and then as the economic recovery gained momentum and the true
bonanza became evident, how they switched gears adopting a policy of
economic concessions, and then shortly thereafter, launching a  political
and ideological offensive. The U.S. capitalist class came through World War
II not just with its productive machinery intact, but completely rebuilt and
immensely expanded entirely at the expense of working people. This, and the
complete domination of the capitalist world by the United States, were the
foundation for a boom that lasted about a quarter century.

    Obviously, such a deep and long-lasting change in the economy had a
disorienting effect on the party. The witch hunt and its repercussion in the
working class also had an impact. The witch hunt was built in part taking
advantage of the revulsion of union militants to the Stalinist's
strike-breaking line during World War II. There never was any major
adaptation to this in terms of the party's political positions, but if you
read the party's propaganda and press from that period, you'll see a
tendency for a significant amount of stuff formulated in terms of, "Yes, the
Stalinist leaders are a pack of scoundrels, but . . .". I think in some
cases this represented an adaptation to the anti-Communism of the
"militants." And many of these workers remained friendly to SWPers on an
individual level.

    Your version of U.S. radical history with Fraser/Cochran as the heroes
and Cannon as the devil is quite one sided. Given what I believe are the
fundamentally mistaken organizational approaches the SWP inherited from the
Comintern and Trotsky, I think in most ways Cannon's SWP was an
extraordinary formation.

    As I've explained at other times on this list, I think the split with
Cochran was not justified politically on the basis of the stated platforms.
But it should be noted, that in terms of practical work, the SWP
("Cannonite") majority did correct its course following that split in the
direction the Cochranites had wanted. Also, the failure of the
Cochran-Bartell wing to build a stable, lasting organization ought not to
blind us to their contributions collectively and then later individually or
in sub groups.

    I don't believe that the regroupment at the end of the 1950s was a
washout for the Cannon wing. On the contrary, that's what the YSA came out
of. It represented a very major advance. One might argue that much more was
possible, but this would be more convincing IF someone else had actually
done it.

    As to extraordinary gains having been available from an entry into SDS,
I think a good case can be made that, given the SWP's forces and resources,
it was correct, both from a narrow party-development point of view as well
as from the point of view of the interests of the revolutionary movement as
a whole, to maintain as the central focus the building of the antiwar
movement and the orientation to the student movement. Given the concrete
situation at the time, you weren't likely to "miss the boat" if you followed
this course.

    One reason is that SDS at its peak wasn't as much an organization as a
fad largely created by the bourgeois press, the next big thing after the
Beatles and the Summer of Love and before Woodstock. It became synonymous
with the student movement, and for a year or so "everyone" was an SDS'er. It
was in no sense a coherent or democratic organization and as soon as it
tried to become one, it shattered into a million pieces.

    Whatever else one might say about Cochran-Bartell, I think it must be
admitted that their subsequent history and evolution confirms that they were
a liquidationist current. (This is a judgment about the group as a whole,
NOT about all the different people in it, many of whom remained, and some of
whom remain to this day, committed communist militants!) I think it was
Engels who once said --in reference if I remember right about the SLP-- that
even sects have their positive side, for they keep alive the ideas of
socialism during periods of reaction. The SWP did that but also it was far
from the abstentionist group we know today. It played an active role in the
civil rights movement, in free speech fights, in defense of Cuba. It was the
only group on the left that understood, even when it was still mostly
manifesting itself within the cocoon of the nation of Islam, the progressive
nature of Black nationalism and the revolutionary content of Malcolm's
message. Try to find a positive article about Malcolm from anyone ELSE
claiming to represent Marxism while he was still alive. And after his death,
it was the SWP, and especially George Breitman, who kept alive his undiluted
message, compensating for the political weaknesses of the "autobiography"
(which was in fact an "as-told-to" book completed without Malcolm's input
after his death by co-author Alex Haley, who went on to well-deserved fame
and fortune as the author of "Roots.") And I remain convinced that, on the
whole, the SWP's strategic approach to the antiwar movement was correct.

    As to an entry or an orientation to SDS, the proof of the pudding is in
the eating. EVERYONE ELSE on the left tried this. By the time the dust had
settled on SDS's implosion, the YSA was numerically and organizationally
stronger than all its rivals on American campuses, and growing at a very
rapid pace even though hundreds of its most experienced members were being
pulled out of the YSA to focus on building the SWP.

    This was due not only to the positive side of the SWP's
Cominternist/Trotskyist inheritance (a Marxist approach to the national
question, insistence on political independence from the bourgeois parties,
etc.) but also to the cadre, the human beings that stuck with the SWP. These
were leaders experienced in the actual workers movement, going back to the
pre-WWI Debsian socialist party and the revolutionary trade unionism of the
IWW. The quality of the cadre, the strength of their collective practical
experience, is what prevented the SWP from going totally off the deep end in
a sectarian direction, and what maintained for many years a fairly "loose"
internal regime in the organization (in contradiction, as Jack Barnes said
more-or-less openly on occasion in the late 1970s and early 80s, at least in
the leadership, to the organizational principles handed down from the time
of the Comintern and codified in the SWP's organizational resolutions). Jack
and other party leaders viewed Cannon's lackadaisical and wobbly-inspired
"rules are made to be broken" way of holding informal discussions outside
party bodies, his "onion skin" circulars to the center and selected NCers
from Los Angeles, etc., as reflecting a weakness they were determined to
overcome. I believe now, despite the obvious dangers of factionalism and
cliquism, that they were a positive "escape valve" and corrective to what
was formally an overly rigid, top-down structure. I suspect but cannot show
that its negative side contributed to the Cochran split, and perhaps others.

    The weaknesses of the "old" SWP are frequently commented on this list.
About Jim's mistakes in this or that union situation, or the initial
confusion in the party center in New York about how to respond when the
Korean War broke out. But on the Korea thing, there's a story --I don't know
if I read it somewhere or heard it from one of the older comrades-- that
when the war broke out, Jim wasn't in New York but --I think-- in L.A. And
that Cannon's intervention in the discussion was decisive in projecting and
getting the party to adopt a clear, communist position. If I remember right,
Jim got together the L.A. NCers, held a discussion, and in their name sent a
letter to New York responding to some waffling in the first issue or two of
the Militant. Of course the party structure had no such body as the L.A.
group of NCers and Jim as the party's chief national officer should have
gone through the PC instead of around it in addressing the question. But I
think Cannon understood that political considerations overrode
organizational niceties, and the need of the moment was to raise an
independent class position against the imperialist onslaught.

    I'm writing all this from memory, so perhaps the L.A. thing was in
reference to some other issue. But one thing is for sure, however. It was
Jim Cannon who led the SWP's political fight against the Korean War. And it
was, in part, his intransigent INSISTENCE that the party CAMPAIGN against
the war that blinded him to the element of truth in what the Cochran wing
was saying about the changed situation in the labor movement and the need
for the SWP to stop acting as if we were on the verge of or in the midst of
a huge upsurge in the mass movement. There was a strong, truly Leninist --in
the truest sense of the word-- side to Jim Cannon's bull headedness in the
early 50s. Try to find a more combative, revolutionary stance than that
adopted by the SWP on the Korean War in the summer of 1950 in Cannon's Open
"Letter top the President and Members of Congress."

    "I disagree with your actions in Korea and in my capacity as a private
citizen I petition you to change your policy fundamentally as follows:
    "Withdraw the American troops and let the Korean people alone.
    "I am setting forth the reasons for this demand in detail in the
following paragraphs. But before opening the argument, I beg your
permission, gentlemen, to tell you what I think of you. You are a pack of
scoundrels. I hate your rudeness and your brutality. You make me ashamed of
my country, which I have always loved, and ashamed of my race, which I used
to think was as good as any.
    "The American intervention in Korea is a brutal imperialist

    Publishing such an open letter within a couple of weeks of the outbreak
of the war took tremendous courage. No one knew whether the ruling class
would seek to break up groups that opposed the war and imprison its leaders,
as had been done in WWI and WWII, but if anything, the witch hunt had made
this MORE likely. In  this context, Cannon took upon himself the
responsibility for voicing the SWP's revolutionary attitude in his own name,
as if to say, if you're going to send anyone to prison, send me first.

    In retrospect, with a half century of additional experiences, and
knowing how the SWP story came out in the end, we can point to all kinds of
things and weaknesses. But I think as a communist, one could have done a lot
worse in the 1950s than being a follower of Jim Cannon.

    One final point:

    As for the position of the American theses that the SWP was "the" party,
that no further fusions or entries would take place, and that the SWP would
just grow and get bigger until becoming a mass party, no one in the SWP
believed that was correct. If opportunities were lost at the end of the 50s
or vis-a-vis SDS later, this wasn't due to the position outlined in those
theses, which had been based on a whole projection of sharpening class
struggle, more strike waves like 45-46,  etc. That point in the  American
Theses had been largely forgotten in the SWP; it was viewed as a historical
curiosity, not party policy.

    Like so many things in this world, the SWP under Cannon was a
contradictory phenomenon. There are many positive lessons to be drawn from
its example, including Cannon's revolutionary intransigence as well as his
capacity to build a team that collectively was stronger than he was
individually (which is, when you think about it, what these stories about
how this or that "hero" "saved" the SWP from adopting the wrong tactical
stance in some union election between two groups of scoundrels amount to).
These stories ALSO show us something else: "Cannonism" was stronger with the
Cochran-Bartell group than without it; and there is probably a great deal of
truth to saying the same sort of thing about the Schactmanites for, in
addition to the social democratic "third camp," right-wing "neutral" on the
side of imperialism position a bunch of the Schactmanites came to, there was
also a wing that, vis-a-vis the U.S. government, maintained a largely
correct, insofar as it went, "revolutionary defeatist" position. This has to
do with the negative side of the SWP's legacy, which isn't the private
property of the SWP, but amply shared by I'd say all post-Lenin "Leninists,"
which is the idea of the party, which to Marx was just the organized
political expression of a class, as a doctrinally pure Church with positions
on everything from Kronstadt to how many angels can dance on the head of a
pin, and an internal regime where everyone with any nuance or foible soon
finds him or herself asphyxiating against a monolithic orthodoxy.

    This comes from a complete false view of Lenin's party (which, lest we
forget, was NOT, for MOST of his political career, the "Bolshevik party"
but rather the RSDLP) as well as from an idealist mistaken idea that
Communism is a doctrine rather than a *movement.*

    This is not to denigrate the importance of "theory" or "programmatic
clarity"  in the revolutionary movement but to put it in its proper,
subordinate, place. The immediate goal of communists should not be the
building of a "Leninist vanguard" in the sense of one more simon-pure
programmatic nucleus, but as Marx explained in the manifesto, the
constitution of the proletariat into a class, an independent political
force. The essential mistake of post-Lenin "Leninism" in my view resides
there, in making the building of a programmatic nucleus, which in SOME cases
MAY be the right (or more probably, one positive) thing to do, into a
universal formula correct for all times, places and circumstances, or, as
Trotsky put it, the idea that the crisis of the humanity reduces itself to
the crisis of proletarian leadership, and the crisis of the proletarian
leadership reduces itself to the struggle for the correct theory and
program. I think Marx and Engels got it right in 1848 and Cannon and Trotsky
were off (for very understandable reasons) in 1938.



----- Original Message -----
From: "Philip L Ferguson" <PLF13 at>
To: <marxism at>
Sent: Thursday, January 27, 2000 10:48 PM
Subject: Re: Pablo etc

> Louis writes:
> > All the minority leaders were dealing with a similar problem,
> >namely Stalinophobia. Bert and the Detroit/Flint comrades discovered that
> >James P. Cannon, the long-time leader of the SWP, could not accept their
> >tactical support for a UAW candidate in union elections who was seen as
> >having "Stalinist" connections. Cannon preferred Reuther's candidate, who
> >had been a red-baiter for a number of years.
> Richard Fraser made the point, in an Open Letter to US Trotskyists around
> 1974 which I posed on the list a week or two back, that Cochran (and
> Clarke?) saved the SWP from a near-disaster in the UAW/this election.
> Fraser pointed out that one of the specialties of the SWP in union
> was anti-Stalinism and this was quite dangerous as it frequently led them
> to align with people who hated the Stalinists for all kinds of reasons and
> usually went off and became right-wingers.  In the Letter Fraser quoted
> something which Cochran once said, about how sometimes the SWP fought the
> Stalinists just a little too well in the unions.
> He mentioned that Cochran and co. had to argue extremely hard in the
> leadership to get them to withdraw from supporting the Reuther candidate
> and go with the CP-backed one.
> There and elsewhere Fraser also notes the absurdity of the SWP leadership
> position, derived from Cannon's comments after the SWP was founded in
> that they were now THE party in the USA and no further regroupments were
> needed.  As a result the SWP largely lost out on the opportunities of the
> late 50s/early 60s, and of the opportunity of intersecting with the best
> elements of SDS in the mid-60s.
> Philip Ferguson

More information about the Marxism mailing list