James P. Cannon

Toward the Party Convention

On Mass Work and Its Relation
to the Struggle Against Stalinism

(23 June 1939)

Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 44, 23 June 1939, p. 3.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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Since the death of Lenin and the beginning of the decline and degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the most important and decisive factor in the defeats of the working class has been the Stalinized Comintern. An understanding of this central problem has been and remains the key to fruitful revolutionary work. At all stages of the struggle to reassemble the scattered and disoriented elements of the proletarian vanguard, the analysis of Stalinism occupied first place. Those who misunderstood this misunderstood everything and condemned themselves to futility and defeat. Only those who gave the right answer to this question – and the Fourth Internationalists alone did this – were able to move forward and gain strength.

This holds true also for the present and the near future. The center of gravity in all revolutionary work shifts from ideological battles in the isolated circles of the vanguard to mass agitation and the penetration of the workers’ mass movement. Here also Stalinism is the most formidable obstacle. Those who ignore this obstacle or deny its existence soon bump their heads against reality. The struggle against Stalinism can in no way be moderated. The forms and methods of the struggle, however, must be adapted to changed circumstance and new environments. We have yet to do this effectively.

Mass work is a simple enough prescription, but those who try to over-simplify its application have very painful experiences. It is a big error to think good will and hard work alone are enough to gain a leading influence in the mass movement. Parties and groups which operate on such a simple formula usually work for the benefit of others less addicted to Christian ideas.

“Ignoring” the Stalinists

In the past we have heard many lectures on the art of simplified mass work in the Socialist Party, especially from its most stupid wing, the “Clarityites.” With a self-assurance born of ignorance and inexperience, they explained how they would win over the masses, including the Stalinist workers, simply by setting a good example of “constructive work” and “ignoring” the Stalinist Party. We know what happened to them, and to others like them. To the extent that they built or helped to build organizations, the disciplined machine of Stalinism took the control away from them and put them to work as errand boys and stooges (Workers Alliance, Auto Union, etc.).

No, you cannot ignore the Stalinists. More than that, you cannot gain a single inch of ground and hold it in the trade unions without an intelligent and unrelenting fight against Stalinism. This, to borrow an expression from Grover Cleveland, is a condition, not a theory. Stalinism in the United States has taken on the proportions of a mass movement and has become an evil power of tremendous scope in the trade unions, especially in the more progressive and militant sections. How can any comrade active in the trade union movement conceal this fact from himself? It stares him in the face at every turn. And why should we wish to conceal it? It is necessary to face reality and deal with it. Otherwise we are fumbling in the dark.

Our comrades, with perhaps a few exceptions, understand this very well. Pacifist sentiments toward the Stalinist turncoats and finger-men do not infect our movement very seriously. But what we do not yet understand – and we are all more or less culpable on this score, I think – is how to fight Stalinism most effectively in the light of the new developments and under new conditions. Great changes have taken place in recent years, in our own position and in the position and the composition of the Stalinist Party. It is now generally recognized that the degeneration of the Stalinist Party along the lines of social patriotism has become definitive. There is no longer any attempt to conceal it. The pretended revolutionists of yesterday are down on all fours before the imperialist masters. Browder’s taste for shoe leather is like a perverted lust. The main concern of the assorted Browders is to convince the masters of the sincerity of their renegacy.

Fighting Stalinism Today

All this has brought about a change in the position of Stalinism and our relation to it. In days past we had to fight Stalinism for influence over the proletarian vanguard. In the main that chapter is closed. The class conscious revolutionists (naturally, ex-revolutionists do not belong to this category) have turned away from Stalinism. The new recruits who constitute the overwhelming majority of the present membership and sympathizing circles of the Communist Party are utter strangers to Marxist doctrine. This transformation imposes not a slackening of our fight but different methods of conducting it.

We began our struggle primarily with programmatic criticism addressed to vanguard workers who knew something about the doctrines and traditions of the revolutionary movement. They were capable of interesting themselves in such questions as “the theory of

socialism in one country” and the whole train of theoretical and practical consequences flowing from it. Those who responded to our critical work have constituted the basic cadres of our movement. This was work well done. It was an unavoidable stage in our development. the prerequisite for all that is to follow. It was in essence a factional struggle within the restricted circle of the vanguard.

Our error consists, not in continuing the fight against Stalinism with unabated vigor – that is necessary, more than ever – but in clinging to outmoded methods and types of argument. The average Stalinist worker of the present day finds most of this over his head. What does “socialism in one country” mean to a worker who lacks elementary instruction in the meaning and principles of socialism? What does a deviation from Leninism mean to one who vaguely associates Lenin in his mind with historical figures of bourgeois democracy like Jefferson and Paine? We must find a different, simpler approach to the present day Stalinist worker. We have to take note of the great differences between him and the Stalinist militant of ten and fifteen years ago and address him accordingly. Above all, we must distinguish between deceived workers in the ranks and the conscious scoundrels of the C.P. Bureaucracy.

A Basic Distinction for Us

This latter point is all-important for our future success. Without realizing it we have been slipping into the same error we once criticized in the Comintern during the frenzy of the “third period”, when Social Democratic leaders and workers were all lumped together indiscriminately.

The composition of the Stalinist movement has been profoundly changed. Much of it is worthless, that is sure. The complete adaptation of Stalinism to bourgeois democracy and patriotism has had the effect of attracting toward it a good-sized horde of petty-bourgeois dilettantes and pseudo-intellectuals who are nothing more than liberals of an especially unattractive variety. But in addition to this trash the C.P. has acquired a strong following of a different kidney in the trade unions. Discount all the careerists who are bribed by the C.P. to serve it, and all the stupid ones and weaklings who are terrorized, and there still remains a veritable army of militant but unschooled and misguided workers who support the Stalinist party and constitute the backbone of its power in the unions. We will begin to make real advances in the mass movement when we learn how to approach these workers and win them over.

They have not come to the C.P., either as members or sympathizers, as the result of a deliberate study of its present program, but in the course of struggle. They have been attracted to Stalinism by a combination of factors – its aggressive methods, its demagogy, the memory of past militancy, the lack of another strong force articulating their sentiments of discontent, etc. They have not in their hearts joined the C.P. to fight for “democracy”. It is not their ambition to maintain the status quo which spells privation and misery for the great bulk of them; but rather; in some way, by collective action to change it. Between these deceived workers and the cynical bureaucracy of Stalinism there is an enormous chasm.

A Deep Contradiction

The contradiction between the leadership and the proletarian sections of the ranks is perhaps deeper in the Stalinist Party than in any workers’ organization in history. The more openly the bureaucrats announce their apostasy and confirm it in deeds, the deeper must this contradiction grow. The ranks of the C.P. continually seethe with discontent which is smothered by repressions and expulsions, only to break out afresh. Browder’s announcement of a new purge of “spies and wreckers” is eloquent testimony to the internal crisis of the party. This crisis is in its whole essence a reflection of the irreconcilable conflict between the aspirations and desires of the shamefully deceived workers in the ranks and the bureaucrats’ cold-blooded and deliberate betrayal of the movement to the imperialist war machine.

Expulsions take place continually. But due, I think, in large part to the ineptness of our work and our lack of a proper approach to the, Stalinist workers, too many of them simply fall by the wayside in disillusionment and despair.

We must re-examine this question. We must learn how to appeal to and reason with the former in a friendly and comradely manner and denounce the latter in the tone they deserve as betrayers of their own membership.

We must take thought once again of the tactic of the united front. Did it not serve in its day as the best means of separating workers who aspired to struggle for better things from leaders who sabotaged and betrayed that struggle? Why can it not serve again as a revolutionary weapon against the most corrupt and consciously treacherous clique of leaders the history of the labor movement has ever known, the foul bureaucracy of Stalinism?

Last updated on 17 January 2016