Cannon Versus Pablo:

a review of James P. Cannon’s Speeches to the Party, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1973

published in Workers Vanguard, No. 28, 14 September 1973

The publication of James Cannon’s speeches and letters from the 1952-1953 SWP faction fight, documents previously available only in old SWP internal bulletins, is an important political event for two reasons. First, these writings highlight Cannon’s enormous strengths as a principled defender of the Trotskyist program during trying times, such as the demoralizing McCarthy period. (They also reveal considerable weaknesses evident in his failure to launch in good time an international faction fight against Pabloist liquidationism--which also eased the way for the qualitative degeneration of the SWP ten years later.) Second, the SWP’s publication of Cannon’s 1952-53 documents (along with its pamphlet on the history of the split with Pablo, the Militant’s reprinting of Trotsky articles on terrorism, etc.) at this time, as differences over guerrilla warfare threaten to blow apart the fake-Trotskyist "United Secretariat," is clear preparation for a split between supporters of the centrist European-led majority and the reformist SWP-led minority.

Without attempting a comprehensive assessment of Cannon’s role as a leader of world Trotskyism since 1928, we should note that his writings in this collection are a model of evaluating the central issues in a dispute. He accurately diagnosed the existence of a rotten bloc between Clarke’s followers in New York who were capitulating to Stalinism, and Cochran’s group of trade unionists in Detroit who, reflecting the conservatization and demoralization among older and now comfortably-ensconced veterans of the CIO struggles, simply wanted to get out of revolutionary politics. For today’s workerists, who see "roots in the working class" as a guarantee against degeneration, Cannon’s speech on "Trade Unionists and Revolutionists" is must reading.

For over a year, Cannon struggled for programmatic clarity. His struggle was waged both against the minority--to force it openly to declare its real political positions--and with the abstentionist, "non-factional" elements of the majority (such as Farrell Dobbs) to bring them to see the real political issues at stake. The non-political response of sections of the party cadre is in hindsight a danger sign, but the conservative impulse did not find programmatic generalization until 1963, when the SWP codified its revisionist degeneration and "reunified" with Pabloism. But simply to write off the SWP as at this time already hopelessly degenerated, led by the "Zinovievist" Cannon, (as do the Class Struggle League, Spartacus-BL, the Revolutionary Socialist League and other groups who are united solely in their respective claims to be the first Trotskyists since Trotsky or, in the case of the RSL, the first Trotskyists ever) means closing one’s eyes to a few "minor" achievements. These include the party’s internationalist defense of North Korea against the U.S. in the Korean War and the SWP’s "Open Letter" of 1953 which led to the formation of the International Committee and prevented Pablo’s complete destruction of the world Trotskyist movement.

At the beginning of the Cochran-Clarke fight Cannon’s strong sense of party loyalty became a travesty of itself when applied on an international scale. He used the notion of "party loyalty" to the International leadership of Pablo-Germain [Mandel] to paper over and actually conceal from the SWP membership serious political differences, in particular over Pablo’s "centuries of deformed workers states." Similarly, Cannon covered for Pablo’s organizational abuses by not solidarizing with the French majority against its bureaucratic expulsion by the International Secretariat, which he later admitted had made him profoundly uneasy at the time.

This shortcoming led directly to the major weakness revealed during the struggle--Cannon’s failure to carry out an international faction fight against Pabloism. To avoid having to implement Pabloist policies, Cannon posited a federated International. (This deviation came home to roost in the later formation of the "United Secretariat" in which differences over the 1953 split, China and other questions were papered over as each national organization went its merry way.) Cannon’s federalist concept of internationalism was reflected in a polemic against (of all things) "Cominternism"! The early communist International, he wrote, was highly centralized because of the tremendous authority of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, as well as the financial possibility of frequent consultations (since the Soviet party held state power). Under Stalin, this centralism became an instrument for suppressing independent thought. And today "it would be better for the center there to limit itself primarily to the role of ideological leader, and to leave aside organizational interference as much as possible..." (p. 74). Later in the same speech he rejected the idea of taking orders from anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances and referred to the International Secretariat as mere "collaborators." Cannon here fails to distinguish between Lenin’s democratic centralism and the bureaucratic centralism of Stalin. Pablo certainly had appetites to be a petty dictator and tactical autonomy for national sections is desirable, but to reply to the devious intrigues of the "Pope of Paris" by rejecting a centralized International is a qualitative overreaction.

The problem was not that Cannon was unaware of the issues in dispute internationally—his criticisms of Pablo’s "centuries of deformed workers states," the "war-revolution thesis" and the organizational atrocities of the International leadership make that clear. Rather, he did not feel it necessary to wage an international factional struggle for a common line in a democratic-centralist International. He did not react energetically when the revisionist theories were first expressed (1949), nor even when Pablo began to draw the organizational conclusions by expelling the Bleibtreu-Lambert leadership of the French section (1952). Only when it became clear that Pabloism meant liquidationism for the SWP did Cannon see the need for an international fight. This is in sharp contrast with his approach to the Cochran-Clarke fight within the American party, where he aggressively tried to force the "fence-sitters" to take sides. Internationally he was a fence-sitter almost until his own party was directly threatened, and then had little recourse left but a public open letter, which was soon followed by Pablo’s expulsion of the SWP and its friends.

When Cannon finally did break with Pablo, he declared war, giving the lie to the SWP’s current fairy-tale version of the split. In a recent SWP educational pamphlet, Les Evans writes that the SWP "never said that this [Pabloism] was a theoretical revision of Trotskyism or that his [Pablo’s] projection was totally impossible. What we argued was that this schema was not the most likely one" ("Toward a History of the Fourth International, Part I," p. 11). Or again: "The party…did not read the ‘Pabloites’ out of the Trotskyist movement" (p. 16)! What the SWP had to say at the time was quite different:

"We thought the differences between Pablo and the French section were tactical and this led us to side with Pablo....

"But at bottom the differences were programmatical in character. The fact is that the French comrades of the majority saw what was happening more clearly than we did. The Eighth Congress of their party declared that ‘a grave danger menaces the future and even the existence of the Fourth International.... Revisionist conceptions, born of cowardice and petty-bourgeois impressionism have appeared within the leadership.... the installation of a system of personal rule, basing itself and its anti-democratic methods on revisionism of the Trotskyist program and abandonment of the Marxist method.’ (La Vérité, September 18, 1952.)"
—"A Letter to Trotskyists Throughout the World," November 1953

In the present collection, Cannon takes an equally sharp tack:

"We are finished and done with Pablo and Pabloism forever, not only here but on the international field… We are at war with this new revisionism.

"The essence of Pabloist revisionism is the overthrow of that part of Trotskyism which is today its most vital part--the conception of the crisis of mankind as the crisis of the leadership of the labor movement summed up in the question of the party" (p. 181).

As the recent SWP convention reveals, Hansen and company are gearing up for a replay of the 1952-53 scenario. This book, the comparisons of the Internationalist Tendency with Cochran-Clarke, the discovery of a secret faction ("Barzman letter"), etc., strike a familiar refrain. Would-be Trotskyists in the USec who are seriously interested in drawing a scientific balance of the 1951-53 struggle against Pabloism and discovering the lessons for today would do well to make serious study of Cannon’s Speeches to the Party along with "Genesis of Pabloism" (Spartacist No. 21, Fall 1972).

Posted: 05 May 2005