[Marxism] The Stalinists and the United Front By James Cannon

Bonnie Weinstein giobon at sbcglobal.net
Sun Jan 22 19:16:30 MST 2006

The Stalinists and the United Front
By James Cannon
December 2002 € Vol 2, No. 11 €

The following is the stenographic record of
a speech by James P. Cannon delivered at the
plenum-conference of the Socialist Workers
Party in Chicago, September 27-29, 1940.
This speech was a supplement to his main
report, ³The Military Policy of the Proletariat.²

It seems, comrades, that the discussion on
the military policy is pretty well exhausted.
The small points of difference which have
been brought out can be answered in the
summary speech. We can now discuss the
secondary question of the Stalinists and
our trade union tactics.

For some time we have been compelled to
realize that the Communist Party remains
the greatest obstacle to the development
of the revolutionary movement in the United
States. The Stalinists retain a powerful position
in many trade unions and by their new turn
have still further confused things to our
detriment. The calculations that the Hitler-
Stalin pact would result in the annihilation of
the Communist Party were not quite realized.
This new line gave its bureaucratic leadership
the opportunity to put on the mask of pseudo-
radicalism once again. That appealed more to
the worker militants in the ranks than the old
policy. To be sure, the cynical deal with Hitler
repelled quite a large number of Stalinist workers.
But the great bulk of the losses, both members
and sympathizers, came from the petty-bourgeois
elements whom the Communist Party had catered
to in recent years. When the showdown came,
they were more devoted to the bourgeois-
democratic regime of Roosevelt than to the regime
of Stalin. The Stalinist workers, on the other hand,
by and large stayed with the party and stood up
under a great deal of repression and persecution.
These established facts must be taken as the point
of departure in determining our tactical approach
to this question.

We were aware for many months that we had not
made sufficient inroads among the Stalinist workers.
The Communist Party is an obstacle which the
revolutionary workers must remove from their path.
This cannot be done by frontal attacks alone. It is
necessary to devise methods of flank attack to
supplement our uncompromising and unceasing
direct offensive against perfidious Stalinism. These
thoughts were in our minds when we placed the
question of the Communist Party on the agenda for
a discussion with Comrade Trotsky on our last visit.
He was also of the opinion that our policy toward the
Communist Party for a long time has been too negative,
that we haven¹t devised sufficiently flexible tactics for
flank movements in order to win over to our side
a number of Stalinist workers.

Trotsky posed the question on the issue of the election
campaign and put forward a shocking proposal. He said
the CP leadership is talking very loudly in opposition
to imperialist war, etc. We know they are liars and fakers
simply carrying out current instructions in Stalin¹s
diplomatic game. Tomorrow they will betray the fight
against war. We know that, said Trotsky, but thousands
of misguided workers are not yet convinced of it. ³We must
find a way to reach these workers as they are, with their
present mentality. Let us take the leaders at their word
and state: If the Communist Party will maintain the position
of real opposition to imperialist war we will propose to them
a united front, and even give critical support to their
candidates in the election.²

Nobody in the delegation agreed with the Old Man on this
drastic proposal. We had a long and at times heated
discussion with him on it We took the position that such
a drastic change in the middle of the election campaign
would require too much explanation, and would encounter
the danger of great misunderstanding and confusion which
we would not be able to dissipate. While we might conceivably
win over a couple of hundred Stalinist workers in the course
of a drawn-out tactic of this kind, we felt that we would
run the danger of losing more than we gained.

We argued back and forth on this ground for several days.
Then Trotsky made a compromise proposal. He said that
after all the main thing is the new military policy‹the long-
term strategical line‹and not the short-term minor problem
of our tactics in relation to the CP in the current election
campaign. He said, if we would take his proposal as one
possible maneuver, and would devise some method of united
front approach which would really enable us to penetrate the
Stalinist ranks, he would accept it as a compromise. We mulled
over this a couple of days. I had a personal conversation
with him before we left Coyoacan and restated my fears
of misunderstanding and confusion from such a drastic
policy as critical support to the CP in the coming election.
He said he did not consider it of sufficient importance
to make an issue;

He did not want to provoke a party discussion which might
divert attention from the paramount question of the new
military policy. But we should think over the thing seriously
and devise an effective united front attack against the
Stalinist bureaucracy.

United front tactics, as devised and perfected by Lenin,
are in no sense the expression of a conciliatory attitude
toward opponent organizations in the labor movement
The united front is designed to mobilize the masses‹
as they are‹for common action against the class enemy
on specific issues of the day. At the same time it is
a method of struggle against alien currents and
treacherous leaders. The tactic is not to be applied
all the time, every day of the week, but only on suitable
 occasions. The main tactic of the Comintern [the
Communist (or Third) International] under Lenin was
the tactic of the united front. But Lenin knew when to
employ it and when to put it aside. In the first years
of the split of the Second International and the formation
of the Comintern, nothing was said about the united
front. The Russians have a saying: ³Every vegetable has
its season.² And the season of the war and the postwar
period, following the Russian Revolution and the
formation of the Comintern, was the season for
head-on offensive against the international Social
Democracy. The strategy was to complete the split
in merciless warfare, and replace the reformist parties
by revolutionary Communist Parties.

That direct frontal attack was carried on from 1917,
after the founding of the Comintern in 1919, and up
until the fall of 1921. Then the leaders of the Comintern
‹Lenin and Trotsky‹drew a balance. Lenin pointed
out that we had succeeded in our strategy to this extent,
that we had constructed independent Communist Parties
in all countries of considerable strength. But the Social
Democrats still had big organizations of workers under
their control; these workers were not as yet convinced
of Communism. For the next period we must confront
the reformist leaders with united front proposals as
an approach to the rank and file under their influence.

You can observe the same general pattern in the work
of constructing the Fourth International in the fight
against Stalinism. We have been conducting a long
drawn-out frontal attack. In the course of that attack
we have selected and drawn to our side hardened
cadres of the Fourth International. But we must
recognize that the CP still remains a powerful
organization, many times more powerful than ourselves.
It contains in its ranks a great many misguided but class
conscious workers. We are now obliged to resort to united
front tactics as a means of approach to them.

Nobody in our Political Committee wanted to sponsor
the policy of critical support to the Stalinists in the
election campaign. I think this is one time we disagreed
with Trotsky correctly. Nevertheless we have all realized
that we must devise a more flexible tactic towards the CP
and look for suitable occasions, as long as they espouse
this semi-radical line, to penetrate their ranks, by means
of united front proposals. And here also we don¹t want
to jump over to the other extreme, from leaving the CP
alone to united front proposals every day in the week.
We should carefully discriminate, select occasions and
incidents for approaches to the CP rank and file, through
their organizations, for a limited, specific, united front.
That we have agreed upon, and I think the conference
should endorse it as a general policy.

It should be carried out, I repeat, in a most careful and
discriminating manner. We had already experimented,
rather gingerly, with this tactic in New York at the time
we were carrying out our struggle against the Bundists
and Coughlinite1 organizations. We addressed a letter
to the district organization of the CP proposing to them
a united front against the Coughlin-Bund bands. This
was not followed up. We merely sent a letter and
published it. But just the simple facts that we were out
fighting the fascists in New York City, and that we appealed
to the rank and file of the CP to join us, had good results.
 We were informed by our contacts in the CP that we created
quite a ripple in their ranks. It caused the bureaucrats quite
a little ³trouble.² A good many rank and file Stalinists wanted
to accept our united front offer and join us in the fight
against the fascists. Out of that single experience we won
over quite a number of rank and file Stalinists to our party.

At the present time you have a situation out in California
where, if I understand the facts, Governor Olson has
proposed to the state legislature the passage of
a constitutional amendment to remove the CP from
the ballot. Our Los Angeles Local organization jumped
on this right away. They proposed to send an appeal
to the CP and other organizations for a united front
action to fight this attempt to outlaw the CP. The
Political Committee unanimously approved the initiative
of the Los Angeles comrades. As I understand it, they will
push this action in the next few weeks.

It must be repeated all the time that the united front is
a method of struggle. It does not mean friendship or
conciliation. It simply means an approach to the rank
and file of an opponent organization in the labor
movement, through their official leadership, for
a joint struggle for common immediate aims. Properly
utilized, the united front creates the possibility to
penetrate the ranks of organizations hitherto sealed
against us. It is in this sense and in this sense only
that we propose united fronts to the Stalinists in the
next period. We are and we shall remain the most
consistent and most implacable enemies of Stalinism.

The Old Man was quite optimistic about the possibilities.
He said: Suppose you go into this and repeat these
experiments time and time again on suitable occasions;
 in the end if you win over 200 Stalinist workers to your
party you have gained a lot. We raised the question of the
enormous hatred of many honest workers in the labor
movement against the Stalinists. There is a great grain
of justice and sincerity in this hatred, although it is often
confused with reactionary prejudices. We have to be very
careful that we don¹t offend the sensibilities of these anti-
Stalinist workers who are militant and partly class conscious
in their attitude, but we must not let their feelings determine
our politics.

The moment we began to speak of a united front approach
to the Stalinists, we heard from all of our fractions in the
trade unions a cry to go slow! Those in the trade unions
know how bitterly the Stalinists are hated. We must be very
careful. If we allow ourselves to become confused and mixed
up with the Stalinists, we will cut off our road of approach
to the rank and file of the trade union movement, and the
anti-Stalinist rank and file, which, in my opinion, is a more
important reservoir of the revolution than the Stalinist rank
and file.

Here we had a little difference with Comrade Trotsky. He
was inclined to dismiss the whole ³progressive² movement
as composed entirely of patriots and fakers. In fact he gave
us quite an argument on [John L.] Lewis [then head of the
miners union] and [Earl] Browder [then the head of the
Communist Party. ³What is the difference between Lewis
and Browder? Is Browder a bigger scoundrel than Lewis?
I don¹t think so. They are both scoundrels‹of different
types.² One comrade there remarked, the Stalinists are
very hostile to us. Trotsky said: ³Yes, I know, sometimes
they shoot us.² (This was shortly after the May 24 machine
gun attack.) He said, ³Do you think Lewis or [William] Green
[then-President of the AFL] wouldn¹t shoot at you? It is only
a difference of circumstances, that is all.²

We must classify the Stalinists and the reactionary and
³progressive² patriotic labor fakers as simply two different
varieties of enemies of the working class, employing
different methods because they have different bases
under their feet. It brings us into a complicated problem
in the trade union movement. It has been our general
practice to combine in day-to-day trade union work with
the progressives and even the conservative labor fakers
against the Stalinists. We have been correct from this
point of view, that while the conservative and traditional
labor skates are no better than the Stalinists, are no less
betrayers in the long run, they have different bases of

The Stalinist base is the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.
They are perfectly willing to disrupt a trade union in
defense of the foreign policy of Stalin. The traditional
labor fakers have no roots in Russia nor any support in
its powerful bureaucracy. Their only base of existence
is the trade union; if the union is not preserved they
have no further existence as trade union leaders. That
tends to make them, from self-interest, a little more
loyal to the unions than the Stalinists. That is why we
have been correct in most cases in combining with them
as against the Stalinists in purely union affairs.

But our work in the trade unions up till now has been
largely a day-to-day affair based upon the daily problems
and has lacked a general political orientation and perspective.
This has tended to blur the distinction between us and pure
and simple trade unionists. In many cases, at times, they
appeared to be one with us. It was fair weather and good
fellows were together. The great issues raised by the war
are rudely disrupting this idyl. Some of our comrades
have already had revealing experiences of how a war
situation puts an end to ambiguity and makes men
show their real colors.

Some people went hand in hand with us on almost every
proposition we made to improve the union, get better
contracts from the bosses, etc. Then all of a sudden,
this whole peaceful routine of the trade union movement
is disrupted by overpowering issues of war, patriotism,
the national elections, etc. And these trade unionists,
who looked so good in ordinary times, are all turning
up as patriots and Rooseveltians. We now have a much
narrower basis of cooperation with them. This new
situation induces some of our comrades to say we should
break off all relations with these patriotic unionists and
progressive fakers. That is a very extreme position which
we cannot endorse.

What we have got to do with our united front policy,
in the unions and in general, is to make it more precise.
The united front does not signify political collaboration
but joint action on specific issues despite political
differences. The united front is based on day-to-day
problems. It is nothing resembling permanent collaboration,
but simply day-to-day agreements. Where we agree or
half-agree with others we go along together; where we
don¹t agree we go alone. Politically we have no ground
for collaboration with the labor ³progressives.² We will
have less and less as we go along, as the pressure of
the war machine grows heavier.

A great number of our comrades in the unions have
been working hand in hand with people who have been
simply militant unionists and nothing else. In ³normal²
times they get along very well together. They will soon
encounter the unpleasant experience of having many of
these people, these fellows who have been coworkers,
drinking companions, and pals, turn up as direct enemies
and informers against our movement. There is only one
thing that binds men together in times of great stress.
That is agreement on great principles. Good fellowship
and chumminess is a very poor substitute. Those who
don¹t know this will learn it in bitter experience.

All those comrades who think we have something, big
or little, in the trade union movement should get out
a magnifying glass in the next period and look at what
we really have. You will find that what we have is our
party fractions and the circle of sympathizers around
them. That is what you can rely on. There may be
cases where people who are united with us in principle
will falter because of personal weakness. But those
are the exceptions to the rule. There will be cases
of men without broad political concepts who because
of exceptional personal qualities will prove loyal to us
in a pinch. They will also be the exceptions. The rule
will be that the general run of pure and simple trade
unionists, the nonpolitical activists, the latent patriots
‹they will betray us at the most decisive moment.
What we will have in the unions in the hour of test
will be what we build in the form of firm fractions
of convinced Bolsheviks.

This military policy that we are outlining here will
be the main line of our activity. We will have today
a united front with Smith or Jones, together with
Brown. We will agree with one or the other that
such and such should be the demands upon the
bosses, such and such proposals in the internal
situation of the union. But we are bound to none
of them and none of them are bound to us. We
will fight against the Stalinist disrupters in the
union every day in the week. At the same time we
will approach the Stalinists on the broad political
field for a united front action, as for example in
California to fight the removal of minority parties
from the ballot.

Perhaps our progressive friends will say, ³What
are you doing? You are supposed to be working
with us, and all of a sudden you come out against
removing the CP from the ballot.² We have a perfect
right to reply: ³You are supposed to be working with
us 364 days of the year, but on one day you want to
make an exception, to vote for Roosevelt, the agent
of the bosses. And if you take that little privilege, you
must give us one. We must have the same independence
that you have.² Maybe this will be a lesson in democracy
to the Democrats.

One point more on this and I will be finished. Many of
our comrades in the unions who have become deeply
integrated with this business of the progressive Democrats
flinch away from the idea of offending them. Our party in
this respect isn¹t as courageous as it should be. We are
afraid of offending people, that is, their stupid petty-
bourgeois prejudices. That is only another way of saying
that we are not yet real Marxists. The great Marxists‹
beginning with Marx and Engels‹and ending with the last
great exponent of Marxism, Comrade Trotsky‹they all had
a common characteristic: a complete indifference to public
opinion. They did not care what the rest of the world thought
about them. They figured out their line of policy in every
case according to their scientific ideas. Then they courageously
applied it and took the consequences. They made their own
the motto of Dante: ³Go your way and let the people talk.²

Perhaps this problem of the CP is a test for us. To the extent
that we can deal with the problem correctly and carefully but
also courageously‹disregarding Philistine opinion‹we will
take a step toward becoming genuine Marxists, genuine
Trotskyists, who follow their own line and let the world
make the best of it.


1The Bundists; that is, the German-American Bund, and the
Coughlinite organizations were incipient fascist groups in
the United States at the time. The former modeled themselves
‹military-style uniforms and all‹on Adolph Hitler¹s Nazi
Party and the latter were followers of Father Coughlin,
a Catholic priest who advocated an indigenous American
version of German and Italian fascism.

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