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Trade Unionists And Revolutionists



by James P. Cannon


Delivered: May 11, 1953 in New York. First printed in Fourth International, Vol.15 No.2, Spring 1954. Copied from


For several months we have been discussing the contrasting proposals of the two sides in our internal party conflict. It is time now, I think, to go a step further; to advance the discussion to an examination of the basic causes of the fight. You will recall that Trotsky did this in the 1939-40 fight with Burnham and Shachtman. At a certain stage of that struggle, after the positions of both sides were made clear – not only what they had to say but what they didn’t say, how they acted, the atmosphere of the fight, and everything else – when it was fairly clear what was really involved Trotsky wrote his article “A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party”.


That article summed up his judgment of the Burnham-Shachtman faction as it had revealed itself in the fire of the struggle – when it had become clear that we were not dealing, as sometimes happens, with a mere difference of opinion among cothinkers on a given point or two that might be settled by fraternal discussion and debate. Burnham and his supporters – and his dupes – were moved by a profound inner compulsion to break with the doctrine and tradition of the party. They carried their revolt against the party to the point of frenzy, as petty-bourgeois factionalists always do. They became impervious to any argument, and Trotsky undertook to explain the social basis of their faction and their factional frenzy. We must do the same now once again.


The social groupings in the present opposition are not quite the same as in 1940. In that fight it was a case of a few demoralised intellectuals based on a genuine petty-bourgeois social composition of a section of the party, especially in New York, but also in Chicago and some other parts of the country – a petty-bourgeois concentration revolting against the proletarian line of the party.


The social composition of the party today is far better and provides a much narrower base of support for an opportunist faction. As a result of the split with the Burnhamites and our deliberate concentration on trade union work, the party today is far more proletarian in its composition, especially outside New York. Despite all that, the real social composition of the party is by no means uniform; it reflects some of the changes which have taken place in the American working class. This has been strikingly demonstrated by the line-up of the party trade unionists in our factional struggle. The revolutionists among them – the big majority – on the one side, and the conservatised elements – a small minority – on the other, have chosen different sides instinctively and almost automatically.


Since the consolidation of the CIO unions and the 13-year period of war and postwar boom, a new stratification has taken place within the American working class, and particularly and conspicuously in the CIO unions. Our party, which is rooted in the unions, reflects that stratification too. The worker who has soaked up the general atmosphere of the long prosperity and begun to live and think like a petty bourgeois is a familiar figure in the country at large. He has even made his appearance in the Socialist Workers Party as a ready-made recruit for an opportunist faction.


In our 1952 convention resolution, we explained the situation in the American working class as a whole in the two sections “The Causes of Labour Conservatism and the Premises for a New Radicalisation” and “Perspectives of a New Radicalisation”. In my report at the national convention, I called those two sections “the heart of the resolution” and centred my report around them.


It appears to me now, in the light of the conflict in the party and its real causes, which are now manifest, that those sections of the convention resolution dealing with the class as a whole require further elaboration and amplification. We need a more precise examination of the stratifications within the working class, which are barely touched there, and of the projection of these stratifications in the composition of the unions, in the various inner-union tendencies, and even in our own party. This, I believe, is the key to the otherwise inexplicable riddle of why one proletarian section of the party, even though it is a small minority, supports a capitulatory opportunist faction against the proletarian-revolutionary line and leadership of the party.


Examples from history


This apparent contradiction – this division of working class forces – in party factional struggle is not new. In the classical faction struggles of our international movement since the time of Marx and Engels, there has always been a division, in the party itself, between the different strata of workers. The proletarian left wing by no means ever had all the workers, and the opportunist petty-bourgeois wing was never without some working-class support, that is, working class in the technical sense of wage workers. The revisionist intellectuals and the trade union opportunists always nestled together in the right wing of the party. In the SWP at the present time, we have a repetition of the classical line-up that characterised the struggle of left and right in the Second International before the First World War.


Trotsky told us on one of our visits with him – I think he also wrote it somewhere – that there was a real social division between the two factions of the original Social Democratic Party of Russia, which later became separate parties. The Mensheviks, he said, had nearly all the intellectuals. With a few exceptions, the only intellectuals Lenin had were those whom the party had trained, a good deal like our own worker-intellectuals for the greater part. The intellectual – I mean the professional intellectual of the Burnham type, the man from the professor’s chair, from the universities – was a rarity on Lenin’s side, whereas the Mensheviks had shoals of them.


In addition, the Mensheviks had most of the skilled workers, who are always the privileged workers. The printers union was Menshevik even through the revolution. The railroad workers’ bureaucracy tried to paralyse the revolution; it was only by military force and the aid of a minority that the Bolsheviks were able to prevent the Menshevik railroad workers’ officialdom from employing their strategic position against the revolution.


Trotsky said that the Mensheviks also had most of the older workers. Age, as you know, is associated with conservatism. (In general, that is, but not always; there are exceptions to the rule. There are two different ways of measuring age. In ordinary life you measure it by the calendar, but in revolutionary politics you measure it by the mind and the will and the spirit – and you don’t always get the same result.)


On the other hand, while the older workers, the skilled and the privileged, were with the Mensheviks, the unskilled workers and the youth were with the Bolsheviks; that is, those of them who were politicalised. That was the line of division between the factions. It was not merely a question of the arguments and the program; it was the social impulses, petty-bourgeois on one side, proletarian on the other, which determined their allegiance.


The same line-up took place in Germany. The prewar German Social Democracy in its heyday had a powerful bloc of opportunist parliamentarians, Marxologists who utilised their scholastic training and their ability to quote Marx by the yard to justify an opportunist policy. They were supported not merely by the petty shopkeepers, of whom there were many, and the trade union bureaucrats. They also had a solid base of support in the privileged stratum of the aristocracy of labour in Germany. The trade union opportunists in the German Social Democratic Party supported Bernstein’s revisionism without bothering to read his articles. They didn’t need to read them; they just felt that way. The most interesting facts on this point are cited by Peter Gay in his book on Bernstein and his revisionist movement, entitled The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism.


All through the prewar fight over revisionism, then through the war and postwar days, through 1923 and 1933, the skilled, privileged trade unionists were the solid base of support of the opportunist Social Democratic leaders – while the communist revolutionaries, from the time of Liebknecht and Luxemburg all the way down to the fascist catastrophe in 1933, were the youth, the unemployed, and the unskilled, less privileged workers.


If you will go back and read Lenin again, in case you’ve forgotten it, you will see how Lenin explained the degeneration of the Second International, and its eventual betrayal in the First World War, precisely by its opportunism based upon the adaptation of the party to the conservative impulses and demands of the bureaucracy and aristocracy of labour.


We had the same thing in the US, although we never had a Social Democracy in the European sense and the working class was never politically organised here as it was there. The organised labour movement, up to the ’30s, was largely restricted to a privileged aristocracy of labour – as Debs and De Leon used to call it – of skilled craftsmen, who got better wages and had preferred positions, “job trusts”, and so on. The chief representative of this conservative, privileged craft union stratum was Gompers.


On the other side, there was the great mass of the basic proletariat, the unskilled and semiskilled, the mass production workers, the foreign born, and the jobless youth. They were without benefit of organisation, without privileges, the outcasts of society. It was not without reason that they were more radical than the others. Nobody paid any attention to them except the revolutionists and radicals. Only the IWW of Haywood and St. John, Debs, and the left Socialists voiced their bitter grievances, did the organising work, and led the strikes of the mass production workers in those days. If the official labour bureaucracy intervened in the spontaneous strikes of the unorganised it was usually to break them up and sell them out.


The officials of the skilled unions did not welcome the great upsurge of the unorganised workers in the ’30s. But they could not prevent it. When the spontaneous strikes and drives for organisation could no longer be ignored, the AFL began to assign “organisers” to the various industries – steel, rubber, auto, etc. They were sent however, not to lead the workers in a struggle but to control them, to prevent the consolidation of self-acting industrial unions. They actually wouldn’t permit the auto workers in convention to elect their own officials, insisting that the AFL appoint them “provisionally”. The same with the rubber workers and other new industrial unions.


These new unions had to split with the conservative labour fakers of the AFL before they could consolidate unions of their own. The drives behind the 1934-37 upsurge were the bitter and irreconcilable grievances of the workers; their protest against mistreatment, speedup, insecurity; the revolt of the pariahs against the pariah status.


This revolt, which no bureaucracy could contain, was spearheaded by new people – the young mass production workers, the new, young militants whom nobody had ever heard of. They were the real creators of the CIO. This revolt of the “men from nowhere” reached its high tide in the sit-down strikes of 1937. The workers’ victory in these battles definitely established the CIO and secured stability of the new unions through the seniority clause.


Conservatising influences


It is now 16 years since the sit-down strikes made the new CIO unions secure by the seniority clause. These 16 years of union security, and 13 years of uninterrupted war and post-war prosperity, have wrought a great transformation in the unprivileged workers who made the CIO.


The seniority clause, like everything else in life, has revealed a contradictory quality. By regulating the right to employment through time of service on the job, it secures the union militant against arbitrary discrimination and layoffs. It is an absolute necessity for union security. That is the positive side of the seniority clause. But, at the same time, it also gradually creates a sort of special interest in the form of steadier employment for those unionists who have been longest in the shop. That is its negative side.


In time, with the stretching out of their seniority rights and their upgrading to better jobs, a process of transformation in the status of the original union militants has taken place. In the course of 16 years, they have secured more or less steady employment, even in times of slack work. They are, under the rules, the last to be laid off and the first to be rehired. And in most cases, they have better jobs than newcomers to the shop. All of this, combined with war and postwar prosperity, has changed their material position and, to a certain extent, their social status.


The pioneer militants of the CIO unions are 16 years older than they were in 1937. They are better off than the ragged and hungry sit-down strikers of 1937; and many of them are 16 times softer and more conservative. This privileged section of the unions, formerly the backbone of the left wing, is today the main social base of the conservative Reuther bureaucracy. They are convinced far less by Reuther’s clever demagogy than by the fact that he really articulates their own conservatised moods and patterns of thought.


But these conservatised ex-militants are only part of the membership of the CIO, and I don’t think that our resolution at the convention deals specifically and adequately with that fact. In these mass production industries, which are real slave pens and hell holes, there are many others. There is a mass of younger workers who have none of these benefits and privileges and no vested interest in the piled-up seniority rights. They are the human material for the new radicalisation. The revolutionary party, looking to the future, must turn its primary attention to them.


If we, counting on a new upsurge in the labour movement, look to those who led it 16 years ago, we could indeed draw a gloomy picture. Not only are they not in a radical mood now; they are not apt to become the spearhead of a new radicalisation. That will take youth, and hunger, and raggedness, and bitter discontent with all the conditions of life. We must look to the new people if, as I take it, we are thinking in terms of the coming American revolution and not limiting our vision to the prospect of a new shake-up in the bureaucracy and of caucus combinations with slick “progressive” fakers for little aims.


This new stratification in the new unions is a feature which the party can no longer ignore. All the more so, since we now see it directly reflected in our party. A number of party members in the auto union belong to this privileged upper stratum. That’s the first thing you have to recognise. Some of the best militants, the best stalwarts of the party in the old times, have been affected by the changed conditions of their own lives and by their new environment. They see the old militants in the unions, who formerly cooperated with them, growing slower, more satisfied, more conservative. They still mix with these ex-militants socially, and are infected by them. They develop a pessimistic outlook from the reactions they get on every side from these old-timers, and, unknown to themselves, acquire an element of that same conservatism.


That, in my opinion, is the reason why they support a crudely conservative, pessimistic, capitulatory tendency in our internal faction fight. This, I am afraid, is not a misunderstanding on their part. I wish it were, for in that case our task would be easy. The miserable arguments of the Cochranites cannot stand up against Marxist criticism – provided one accepts the criteria of revolutionary Marxism.


But that’s the rub. Our conservatised trade unionists no longer accept these criteria. Like many others, who “used to be radicals themselves”, they are beginning to talk about our “Theses on the American Revolution” as a “crackpot” idea. They don’t “feel” that way, and nobody can talk them out of the way they do feel.


That – and perhaps a guilty conscience – is the true explanation of their subjectivity, their rudeness and factional frenzy when one tries to argue with them from the principled standpoint of the “old Trotskyism”. They do not follow Cochran out of exceptional regard for him personally, because they know Cochran. They simply recognise in Cochran, with his capitulatory defeatism and his program of retreat from the fighting arena to a propaganda circle, the authentic spokesman of their own mood of retreat and withdrawal.


Just as the older, more skilled and privileged German trade unionists supported the right against the left, and as their Russian counterparts supported the Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks, the “professional trade unionists” in our party support Cochranism in our fight. And for the same basic reasons.


I, for my part, must frankly admit that I did not see this whole picture at the beginning of the fight. I anticipated that some tired and pessimistic people, who were looking for some sort of rationalisation to slow down or get out of the struggle, would support any kind of an opposition faction that would arise. That happens in every faction fight. But I didn’t anticipate the emergence of a conservatised workers’ stratum serving as an organised grouping and a social basis for an opportunist faction in the party.


Still less did I expect to see such a grouping strutting around in the party demanding special consideration because they are “trade unionists”. What’s exceptional about that? There are 15 million trade unionists in this country, but not quite so many revolutionists. But the revolutionists are the ones who count with us.


Losing faith in the party


The revolutionary movement, under the best conditions, is a hard fight, and it wears out a lot of human material. Not for nothing has it been said a thousand times in the past: “The revolution is a devourer of men.” The movement in this, the richest and most conservative country in the world, is perhaps the most voracious of all.


It is not easy to persist in the struggle, to hold on, to stay tough and fight it out year after year without victory; and even, in times such as the present, without tangible progress. That requires theoretical conviction and historical perspective as well as character. And, in addition to that, it requires association with others in a common party.


The surest way to lose one’s fighting faith is to succumb to one’s immediate environment; to see things only as they are and not as they are changing and must change; to see only what is before one’s eyes and imagine that it is permanent. That is the cursed fate of the trade unionist who separates himself from the revolutionary party. In normal times, the trade union, by its very nature, is a culture-broth of opportunism. No trade unionist, overwhelmed by the petty concerns and limited aims of the day, can retain his vision of the larger issues and the will to fight for them without the party.


The revolutionary party can make mistakes, and has made them, but it is never wrong in the fight against grievance-mongers who try to blame the party for their own weaknesses, for their tiredness, their lack of vision, their impulse to quit and to capitulate. The party is not wrong now when it calls this tendency by its right name.


People often act differently as individuals, and give different explanations for their actions, than when they act and speak as groups. When an individual gets tired and wants to quit, he usually says he is tired and he quits; or he just drops out without saying anything at all, and that’s all there is to it. That has been happening in our international movement for 100 years.


But when the same kind of people decide as a group to get out of the line of fire by getting out of the party, they need the cover of a faction and a “political” rationalisation. Any “political” explanation will do, and in any case it is pretty certain to be a phony explanation. That also has been going on for about 100 years.


The present case of the Cochranite trade unionists is no exception to this rule. Out of the clear sky we hear that some “professional trade unionists” are suddenly against us because we are “Stalinophobes”, and they are hell-bent for an orientation toward Stalinism. Why, that’s the damnedest nonsense I ever heard! They never had that idea in their heads until this fight started. And how could they? The Stalinists have gotten themselves isolated in the labour movement, and it’s poison to touch them. To go looking for the Stalinists is to cut yourself off from the labour movement, and these party “trade unionists” don’t want to do that.


The people in Michigan who are hollering for us to make an orientation toward the Stalinists have no such orientation on their own home grounds. And they’re perfectly right about that. I don’t deny that people like Clarke, Bartell, and Frankel have heard voices and seen visions of a gold mine hidden in the Stalinist hills – I will discuss this hallucination at another time – but the Cochranite trade unionists haven’t the slightest intention of going prospecting there. They are not even looking in that direction. What’s amazing is the insincerity of their support of the orientation toward the Stalinists. That’s completely artificial, for factional purposes. No, you have to say the orientation toward Stalinism, as far as the Michigan trade unionists are concerned, is a phony.


What is the next thing we hear? That they are full of “grievances” against the party “regime”. I always get suspicious when I hear of grievances, especially from people whom you didn’t hear it from before. When I see people revolting against the party on the ground that they’ve been badly treated by this terrible regime in our party – which is actually the fairest, most democratic and easy-going regime in the history of the human race – I always remind myself of the words of J. Pierpont Morgan. He said: “Everybody has at least two reasons for what he does – a good reason and the real reason.” They’ve given a good reason for their opposition. Now I want to know what the hell is the real reason.


It can’t be the party’s hostility to Stalinism, as they say – because the Cochranite trade unionists wouldn’t touch the Stalinists with a 10-foot pole, not even if you stood behind them with bayonets and lighted firecrackers under their coat-tails.


It can’t be the Third World Congress,35 concerning which they are suddenly working up a lather. These comrades in Michigan have many admirable qualities, as has been shown in the past, but they’re by no means the most internationalist-minded section of the party; not by far. They’re not that section of the party most interested in theoretical questions. The Detroit branch, sad to say, has been most remiss in the teaching and study of Marxist theory, and is now paying a terrible price for it. This branch hasn’t got a single class going; no class in Marxism, no class in party history, no class on the Third World Congress or anything else. So when they suddenly erupt with the demand that the Third World Congress be nailed to the party’s masthead, I say that’s another good reason, but it’s a phony too.


The real reason is that they are in revolt against the party without fully knowing why. For the young militant, the party is a necessity valued above everything else. The party was the very life of these militants when they were young and really militant. They didn’t care for jobs; they feared no hazards. Like any other first-class revolutionists, they would quit a job at the drop of a hat if the party wanted them to go to another town, wanted them to do this or that. It was always the party first.


The party is the highest prize to the young trade unionist who becomes a revolutionist, the apple of his eye. But to the revolutionist who becomes transformed into a trade unionist – we have all seen this happen more than once – the party is no prize at all. The mere trade unionist, who thinks in terms of “union politics” and “power blocs” and little caucuses with little fakers to run for some little office, pushing one’s personal interest here and there – why should he belong to a revolutionary party? For such a person the party is a millstone around his neck, interfering with his success as a “practical” trade union politician. And in the present political situation in the country, it’s a danger – in the union, in the shop, and in life in general.


The great majority of the party trade unionists understand all this as well as we do. The vulgar “trade unionist” appeal of the Cochranites only repels them, for they consider themselves to be revolutionists first and trade unionists second. In other words, they are party people, as all revolutionists are.


I think it’s a great tribute to our tradition, to our cadres, to the leadership of our party, that we have succeeded in isolating Cochranism to a narrow section of the party membership. It’s a great satisfaction, in these troubled and heavy times, to see the great majority of the party standing firm against all pressures. In the further course of the discussion, we will strike still heavier blows and chip off a few more here and there. We don’t want to see anybody leave the party if we can help it.


But soul-saving is not our main occupation. We are determined to protect the party from demoralisation, and we will do that. We are concerned with individuals only within that framework. The rescue of political derelicts can be left to the Salvation Army. For us, the party comes first, and nobody will be allowed to disrupt it.


This fight is of the most decisive importance because the prospect before our party is the prospect of war and all that goes with it. We see the dangers and the difficulties – as well as the great opportunities – which lie ahead of us, and just because of that we want to get the party in shape before the worst blows fall upon us.


The party line and perspectives, and the party leadership, will be settled in this fight for a long time to come. When harder times come, and when new opportunities open up, we don’t want to leave any doubt in any comrade’s mind as to what the party line is and who the party leaders are. These questions will be settled in this fight.


The Socialist Workers Party has the right, by its program and its record, to aspire to a great future. That’s my opinion. That was the opinion of Trotsky. There is a line in the document of the Cochranites that sneers at the 1946 SWP convention and at the “Theses on the American Revolution” adopted there. It says: “We were children of destiny, at least in our own minds.” In that derision of the party’s aspiration, the whole pessimistic, capitulatory ideology of Cochranism is contained.


In 1929, when Trotsky was deported to Constantinople, the victory of Stalinism was complete, and he was isolated and almost alone. Outside the Soviet Union, there were only about 200 people supporting him in the whole world, and half of them were the forces we had organised in the US. Trotsky wrote us a letter at that time in which he hailed our movement in the United States. He said our work was of world historical significance because, in the last analysis, all of the problems of the epoch will be settled on American soil. He said that he didn’t know whether a revolution would come here sooner than in other places, but in any case it was necessary to prepare by organising the nucleus of the party of the future revolution.


That’s the line we have been working on. Our cadres have been raised on that doctrine. When I read in the Cochranite document that cynical dismissal of our revolutionary aspirations, I remembered a speech I made to our young comrades 13 years ago in Chicago. The occasion was our Active Workers Conference, held just a month or so after the death of the Old Man,36 when everybody felt bereft; when the question in the minds of all, here and all over the world, was whether the movement could survive without Trotsky.


At the end of the conference, I gave a speech and I said to the young activists there: “You are the real men of destiny, for you alone represent the future.” In the 1946 convention theses we put the same concept.


That has been the position of all our militants who are standing together through this long, hard battle. A young comrade in California, one of the leading party activists, pointed the Cochranite sneer out to me and said: “What about that? If I didn’t think our party has a great future, why should I be willing to devote my life and everything I have to the party?” Anyone who low-rates the party and crosses off its future ought to ask himself what he is doing in the party. Is he here on a visit?


The party demands a lot, and you can’t give a lot and risk everything unless you think the party is worth it. The party is worth it, for it is the party of the future. And this party of the future is now once again getting its share of historical luck. Once again, as in 1939-40, it has the opportunity to settle a fundamental conflict in open discussion before a war, on the eve of a war.


Before World War II the party was confronted with a faction which threatened its program and, thereby, its right to exist. We didn’t have to jump immediately into the war before the question was settled. We were working in the open while the rest of our comrades in Europe were underground or in concentration camps. We here in America were privileged to conduct a debate for the whole International over a period of seven months.


The same thing is happening again now. We ought to recognise this historical luck and take advantage of it. The best way to do this is to extend and amplify the discussion. I will repeat what Comrade Dobbs said, that our aim is not to split the party but to break up the split and save the party. We will try to prevent a split by a political fight which hits the opposition so hard that it can have no perspectives in a split. If we can’t prevent a split, we will reduce it to the smallest possible size.


Meantime, we will develop the party work on all fronts. No party work is going to be sabotaged. If the attempt is made, we will move our forces in everywhere and take over. We will not permit the party to be disrupted by sabotage or derailed by a split, any more than we did in 1940. We have made a good start, and we won’t stop until we have won another complete victory in the struggle for a revolutionary party.