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Discussions with Trotsky in 1940[The following is a rough stenographic draft — uncorrected by the participants — of discussions on the Stalinists in the US, between Trotsky and leading members of the Cannon faction of the US Socialist Workers Party, held on June 12-15, 1940]
Cannon: The general perspective is quite optimistic. The Stalinists are the problem. By their change in line they dealt a heavy blow. We were forging ahead when they made the switch, paralyzing our work. The workers are unable to distinguish the real difference between us, especially with the faction fight compelling us to give undue emphasis to our defence of the Soviet Union. We need a line of agitation to distinguish ourselves from them. The Stalinist party still has a powerful cadre of militants. It has a strong trade union machine which draws the workers. The pact seemed to disintegrate them, but it was losing just the democrats. The old militants are more devoted than ever. They believe that the party now has the "real revolutionary" line. We need a more effective counterattack against the Stalinists.
Trotsky: We don't participate in the presidential elections?
Cannon: There are very rigorous election laws which prevent small parties from getting on the ballot.
Trotsky: And the CP?
Cannon: The CP buys its way on to the ballot. For example in upper New Yor,k where it is extremely reactionary, the CP simply buys signatures from those who make a business of dealing in signatures. For us there is no way to get on the ballot.
Trotsky: Your attitude toward the other parties?
Cannon: We are running local campaigns in some places for minor offices.
Trotsky: What do we tell the workers when they ask which president they should vote for?
Cannon: They shouldn't ask such embarrassing questions. We tried write-in campaigns in previous elections, but it is not serious. Nor can we support either the Stalinists or Thomas.
Trotsky: I see there is no campaign in the Socialist Appeal for a workers' candidate. Why haven't you proposed a congress of trade unions, a convention, to nominate a candidate for the presidency? If he were independent we would support him. We cannot remain completely indifferent. We can very well insist in unions where we have influence that Roosevelt is not our candidate and the workers must have their own candidate. We should demand a nationwide congress connected with the independent Labour Party.
Dobbs: For a while some people thought Lewis would run. But Lewis never seriously intended to run. He attempted to bargain with the Roosevelt administration. Now it appears certain that Roosevelt will run.
Trotsky: With the centrists the situation is clear. For a long time in the United States, the socialist movement was not necessary. Now with changed times when it is necessary, it can't have a reformist nature. That possibility is exhausted. At one time the United States was rich in reformist tendencies, but the New Deal was the last flare-up. Now with the war it is clear that the New Deal exhausted all the reformist and democratic possibilities and created incomparably more favourable possibilities for revolution. I talked with E a few weeks ago. For Roosevelt, but absolutely helpless about further possibilities of democracy. When I questioned him he was absolutely incapable of answering, and I thought he was going to break down in tears like a little boy.
The entrance into the war is the end of the last remnants of the New Deal and Good Neighbour policy. The Roosevelt of the third term will be completely different from the Roosevelt of the first two terms.
Dobbs: In the CIO and the AFL the leaders have been affected by Roosevelt's war drive, becoming more and more outspoken for unity. Tobin has become more expressive, more deeply involved. Behind the scenes he moves in co-ordination with the war moves. Dubinsky, one of the original CIO leaders, voted to reaffiliate with the AFL thus weakening Lewis. Hillman, a CIO leader, negotiated a jurisdiction agreement with Dubinsky and is cool toward Lewis. There is grave danger of capitulation on the part of the bureaucrats, weakening the industrial workers. Lewis may have to reach unity at the expense of industrial unionism. All these leaders are jumping as Roosevelt cracks the whip.
Trotsky: The Stalinists are clearly the most important for us. E says they lost 15 per cent but that the workers remain true to the party. It is a question of attitude. Their dependence on the Kremlin was of great value to the national leaders. Their line was changed from patriotism to antiwar. In the next period their dependence on the Kremlin will create great difficulties for them.
They are antiwar and anti-imperialist, but so are we in general. Do we have a nucleus among them?
Cannon: We have a small nucleus in New York and in one or two other places.
Trotsky: Sent in?
Dobbs: No. They came to us and we advised them to stay and work within.
Cannon: We got some with our campaign against the fascists.
Trotsky: Theoretically it is possible to support the Stalinist candidate. It is a way of approaching the Stalinist workers. We can say, yes we know this candidate. But we will give critical support. We can repeat on a small scale what we would do if Lewis were nominated.
Theoretically it is not impossible. It would be very difficult, it is true — but then it is only an analysis. They, of course, would say, we don't want your support. We would answer, we don't support you, but the workers who support you. We warn them but go through the experience with them. These leaders will betray you. It is necessary to find an approach to the Stalinist party. Theoretically it is not impossible to support their candidates with very sharp warnings. It would guide them. What? How?
Kay: But in Boston the Stalinists wouldn't even permit us to enter their hall. They even threw our comrade outside.
Trotsky: I know. They have even shot at us. But some tens of thousands of workers are with them. I don't know exactly how many. It is very difficult to determine. Of course, we would suffer the indignation of Burnham. Shachtman would say, "See, I predicted it — capitulation to Stalinism." There would even be considerable aversion in our ranks. But the question is the Stalinist workers. The working class is decisive. With guarantees, warnings, why not consider it? Is Browder a worse rascal than Lewis? I doubt it. Both are rascals.
Cannon: The Stalinist movement is peculiar. In France we could approach the Socialists and join them. The Stalinists are large compared to us but small compared with the CIO. The Stalinists are hated by the militants. It is not the psychological attitude of our members but the broad anti-Stalinist movement. If we started to play this kind of politics we would run into this indignation of these militants. For example, the food workers in New York. Our comrades succeeded in creating a strong progressive faction. They may possibly be elected to posts. We built our strength on opposition to Stalinist control of the union. Such a line would disrupt our work. The same is true in the maritime unions and in the auto union. The Stalinists are the main obstacle. A policy of manoeuvre would be disastrous. What we gained from the Stalinists we would lose otherwise.
Trotsky: Before entrance into the Socialist Party we tried to analyse the situation in the same way. Before entrance into the Socialist Party we had the perspective of exhausting all the possibilities. We were not closer to Thomas than we are to Browder. Those advocating entry predicted that we would finish with the SP and then turn to the CP. Imagine the CP without holding a specific hatred toward it. Could we enter it as we did the SP? I see no reason why not — theoretically. Physically it would be impossible but not in principle. After entrance into the SP there is nothing that would prevent our entrance into the CP. But that is excluded. We can't enter. They won't let us.
Can we make this manoeuvre from the outside? The progressive elements oppose the Stalinists but we don't win many progressive elements. Everywhere we meet Stalinists. How to break the Stalinist party? The support of the progressives is not stable. It is found at the top of the union rather than as a rank-and-file current. Now with the war we will have these progressives against us. We need a stronger base in the ranks. There are small Tobins on whom we depend. They depend on the big Tobins. They on Roosevelt. This phase is inevitable. It opened the door for us in the trade unions. But it can become dangerous. We can't depend on these elements or their sentiments. We will lose them and isolate ourselves from the Stalinist workers. Now we have no attitude toward them. Burnham and Shachtman opposed an active attitude toward the Stalinists. They represent a whole period from 1917 up to date. We can't move without them. The coincidence between their slogans and ours is transitory, but it can give us a bridge to these workers. The question must be examined. If persecutions should begin tomorrow, it would be first against them, second against us. The honest, hard members will remain true. The progressives are a type in the leadership. The rank and file are disquieted, unconsciously revolutionary.
Dobbs: It is not quite correct to say that the "progressives" include only the tops of the unions. The progressives include the rank and file, especially is this true in the big unions.
Cannon: They are not cohesive, but in revolt against the Stalinists. Where the Stalinists control the union that is where a real anti-Stalinist movement is strongest. The Stalinists control the maritime unions by and large and we have a powerful experience in development of a progressive revolt against them.
Harold: The trade union movement grew by the millions. A new bureaucracy was formed, there was a new stream of union conscious members. In there were two currents, the Stalinists and the anti-Stalinists. Both streams included both rank and filers and bureaucrats.
Trotsky: But why the difference?
Harold: The differences began in 1934 when the Stalinists emerged from the red unions and were taken as a revolutionary movement. Many were corrupted. Many thought the New Deal swing a manoeuvre. The Stalinists made a deal with the CIO tops. They led many unions. They had a reputation of militancy. No one policy it is true, but they recruited as revolutionists. Now they are not considered revolutionists. Many of the best have dropped out. Those remaining are bureaucrats or confused.
Cannon: The problem is to get the CP out of the road. There is not a large percentage of revolutionary material in its ranks. They have discounted workers who saw no other force. They attract through the sheer inertia of a big apparatus and a big party. They use corruption where they do not already control the machinery. They use economic terrorism. They do everything the old-time bureaucrats did, but on a conveyor system. Unquestionably there are good workers among them, but only a small percentage. It is a terrible danger to risk the condemnation of non-Stalinist workers for the sake of a manoeuvre that would win little. The progressive movement is composed of anti-Stalinists and legitimate rank-and-file forces organised by us. The Stalinists even buy old-time fakers. They provide a legitimate movement of protest which is our main source of recruitment and which comes during the struggle against the CP. In the Los Angeles auto movement, for example, some ex-CPers organised a counter-movement from which we recruited. The Stalinists have built up a terrible hatred against themselves. Seventy-five per cent is genuine workers' grievances and consists of many former Stalinists animated by a terrible bitterness. A complicated manoeuvre giving the possibility of identifying us with the Stalinists would be wrong. Our main line must be towards the non-Stalinist workers. We must handle the Stalinist question within this framework.
Jeb: I am against the manoeuvre. Perhaps I am not entirely rational about this. Perhaps it is mostly from inertia. Cannon wrote about the Stalinists that they are an alien movement in the workers' movement, irresponsible. Our influence in the progressive groups is a top movement, not a rank-and-file movement, especially in New York. Our position is very precarious. Not something that we can look forward to as a big recruiting ground. The Stalinists' influence in the ranks is quite solid. They make deals with the old-time fakers, but also have a rank-and-file following. In the painters' union they made a deal with the gangsters but also were supported by the anti-gangster following. We built up a movement, kicked out the Stalinists but couldn't consolidate or recruit. Stalinists operate with corruption but different degrees of corruption. A worker in the TWU who quit the CP in 1938 told us that they are disillusioned with the CP but not enough to join us. They use corruption by degrees — the best jobs are given to the Stalinists, lesser jobs to the group surrounding them, lesser jobs to sympathisers. The militants don't regard themselves as corrupt — just members of the CP. "If we don't get the jobs, the reactionaries will." That seems to be their attitude. But we don't have contact with the Stalinist rank and file. Before we could take such a manoeuvre we need to organise a nucleus in the Stalinists.
Trotsky: If the results of our conversation were nothing more than more precise investigation in relation to the Stalinists it would be very fruitful.
Our party is not bound to the Stalinist manoeuvre any more than it was to the SP manoeuvre. Nevertheless we undertook such a manoeuvre. We must add up the pluses and minuses. The Stalinists gained their influence during the past ten years. There was the depression and then the tremendous trade union movement culminating in the CIO. Only the craft unionists could remain indifferent. The Stalinists tried to exploit this movement, to build up their own bureaucracy. The progressives are afraid of this. The politics of these so-called progressives is determined by their need to meet the needs of the workers in this movement, on the other hand it comes from fear of the Stalinists. They can't have the same policy as Green because otherwise the Stalinists would occupy their posts. Their existence is a reflex of this new movement, but it is not a direct reflection of the rank and file. It is an adaptation of the conservative bureaucrats to this situation. There are two competitors, the progressive bureaucrats and the Stalinists. We are a third competitor trying to capture this sentiment. These progressive bureaucrats can lean on us for advisors in the fight against the Stalinists. But the role of an advisor to a progressive bureaucrat doesn't promise much in the long run. Our real role is that of third competitor. Then the question of our attitude toward these bureaucrats — do we have an absolutely clear position toward these competitors? These bureaucrats are Rooseveltians, militarists. We tried to penetrate the trade unions with their help. This was a correct manoeuvre, I believe. We can say that the question of the Stalinists would be resolved in passing insofar as we succeed in our main manoeuvre. But before the presidential campaign and the war question we have time for a small manoeuvre. We can say, your leaders betray you, but we support you without any confidence in your leaders in order to show that we can go with you and to show that your leaders will betray you. It is a short manoeuvre, not hinging on the main question of the war. But it is necessary to know incomparably better the Stalinists and their place in the trade unions, their reaction to our party. It would be fatal to pay too much attention to the impression that we can make on the pacifists and on our "progressive" bureaucrat friends. In this case we become the squeezed lemon of the bureaucrats. They use us against the Stalinists but as the war nears call us unpatriotic and expel us. These Stalinist workers can become revolutionary, especially if Moscow changes its line and becomes patriotic. At the time of Finland, Moscow made a difficult turn, a new turn is still more painful. But we must have contact and information. I don't insist on this plan, understand, but we must have a plan. What plan do you propose? The progressive bureaucrats and dishonest centrists of the trade union movement reflect important changes in the base, but the question is how to approach the base? We encounter between us and the base, the Stalinists.
Kay: To support the Stalinists in the presidential campaign would kill us. They shift their line.
Trotsky: Nothing can kill us, Comrade Kay.
Kay: Our sympathisers would be driven away. The Stalinists cannot even talk with us. They are expelled for talking with us.
Trotsky: That is a blow against the party. They say that we are agents of this and that power. We say, if your leaders are serious against the war then we are with you, but your leaders will betray you. It is the politics of critical support. Tobin, for example, is a faker combined with a reactionary stupid petty-bourgeois, but would we vote for him if he were running on an independent ticket for president? Yes.
Kay: But Tobin or Lewis wouldn't kill us.
Trotsky: I am not so sure. Lewis would kill us very efficiently if he were elected and war came. It is not a sentimental question. It is how to break this hypnosis. They say the Trotskyites are agents — but we say if you are seriously against the war we are with you. Even the problem of making them listen to us — we meet that by explaining. It is a very daring undertaking. But the cohesion of our party is such that we could succeed. But if we reject this plan, then we must find another policy. I repeat then we must find another policy. What is it?
Carl: We must keep aware of the main task, to present ourselves to the American workers. I think that we would be swallowed up in this manoeuvre because of the size of the party. Now we are becoming able to separate ourselves from them — but this manoeuvre would swallow us up. We must be careful to make an independent stand, not as an opposition movement to the Stalinists.
Trotsky: It is not a question of entry. And such a manoeuvre would be very short and very critical. The manoeuvre itself presupposes that we are an independent party. The manoeuvre is a measure of our independence. The workers of the Stalinist party are in a closed milieu, hypnotised by lies for a long time. Now the persecution from the war begins. Our criticisms seem part of the persecution and suddenly we appear to support them — because of the bourgeois persecution. I don't say even that we will actually vote for them — by November the situation can change. The leaders can carry out their betrayal.
Hansen: The manoeuvre seems to me to bear some resemblance to our united front proposal to the CP at the time of the anti-fascist demonstrations. At the first demonstration, we made no such proposals. Many of the rank and file of our party criticised us. At the second demonstration we made such a proposal. It brought immediate response from the Stalinists. The rank and file were favourably impressed and questioned their leaders. The leaders were forced to launch a new campaign against us. We gained some members as a result.
Trotsky: The analogy holds except that then we had the initiative. Now they have the initiative. Good, we support this initiative. An investigation is needed, a small conference. I don't wish to exaggerate this manoeuvre. It is not our strategic line, but a tactical question. It is one possibility.
Dobbs: It seems to me you are considering two aspects of the question. One, you are weighing the question as to whether more is to be gained in numbers and quality than would be lost among the anti-Stalinists. Two, the manoeuvre is possible only while they have an antiwar attitude.
Trotsky: Yes. The Stalinist machine makes different turns and manoeuvres in obedience to Moscow. Now they make a turn corresponding to the most intimate feelings of the rank and file. Now we can approach them or remain indifferent. We can give support to them against their leaders or remain aside. There is a presidential campaign besides this. If you are an independent party you must have politics. a line in relation to this campaign. I have tried to combine the two in a not decisive but important period. It combines the honest feelings of the Stalinist rank and file and also touches the masses at election time. If you had an independent candidate I would be for him, but where is he? It is either complete abstention from the campaign because of technical reasons, or you must choose between Browder and Norman Thomas. We can accept abstention. The bourgeois state deprived us of the possibility of running our candidate. We can proclaim that everyone is a faker. That is one thing, but events confirming our proclamation is another. Shall we follow negative or dynamic politics? I must say that during the conversation I have become still more convinced that we must follow the dynamic course. However, I propose only a serious investigation, a discussion, and then a conference. We must have our own politics. Imagine the effect on the Stalinist rank and file. It would be very good. They expect from such a terrible enemy as us that we will throw very cold water on them. We will surprise them with some terribly hot water.
June 14, 1940
Trotsky: Toledano's speech, reported today in the
important for our policy in America. The Mexican people, says Toledano,
"love" the United States and will fight the Nazis arms in hand.
Toledano indicates complete fraternisation with the democracies. This
is the first announcement of a new turn by Moscow. I have a concrete
suggestion, that we publish a letter to the Stalinist workers: during
five years your leaders were protagonists of the democracies, then they
changed and were against all the imperialisms. If you make a firm
decision not to permit a change in line then we are ready to convoke a
convention to support your presidential candidate. You must give a
pledge. It would be a letter of propaganda and agitation to the
Stalinist workers. We will see. It is probable that the line will
change in some weeks. This letter would give you free possibilities
without having to vote for their candidate.
June 15, 1940Hansen: Yesterday Comrade Trotsky made some remarks about our adaptation to the so-called progressives in the trade unions, he mentioned the line of the North-west Organiser and also our attitude in connection with the elections and the Stalinists. I wish to point out that this is not something completely new on Comrade Trotsky's part. More than two years ago during the discussion over the Transitional Program, he discussed exactly these same points and had exactly the same position, with due regard for the difference in time and that then it was not the elections but the farmer-labour party that was to the fore. Comrade Trotsky has also written some letters regarding the Stalinists and the need for a more positive line toward them. In the past faction fight too, Comrade Trotsky mentioned in his polemic "From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene" the following point, which he underlined: "More than once the party will have to remind its own trade unionists that a pedagogical adaptation to the more backward layers of the proletariat must not become transformed into a political adaptation to the conservative bureaucracy of the trade unions." I am wondering if Comrade Trotsky considers that our party is displaying a conservative tendency in the sense that we are adapting ourselves politically to the trade union bureaucracy.
Trotsky: To a certain degree I believe it is so. I cannot observe closely enough to be completely certain. This phase is not reflected in the Socialist Appeal well enough. There is no internal bulletin for the trade unionists. It would be very good to have such a bulletin and to publish controversial articles on our trade union work. In observing the North-west Organizer I have observed not the slightest change during a whole period. It remains apolitical. This is a dangerous symptom. The complete neglect of work in relation to the Stalinist party is another dangerous symptom.
Turning to the Stalinists does not mean that we should turn away from the progressives. It means only that we should tell the truth to the Stalinists, that we should catch the Stalinists beforehand in their new turn. It seems to me that a kind of passive adaptation to our trade union work can be recognised. There is not an immediate danger, but a serious warning indicating a change in direction is necessary. Many comrades are more interested in trade union work than in party work. More party cohesion is needed, more sharp manoeuvring, a more serious systematic theoretical training; otherwise the trade unions can absorb our comrades.
It is a historic law that the trade union functionaries form the right wing of the party. There is no exception to this. It was true of the Social Democracy; it was true of the Bolsheviks too. Tomsky was with the right wing, you know. This is absolutely natural. They deal with the class, the backward elements: they are the party vanguard in the working class. The necessary field of adaptation is among the trade unions. That is why the pressure of the backward elements is always reflected through the trade union comrades. It is a healthy pressure; but it can also break them from the historic class interests — they can become opportunists. The party has made serious gains. These gains were possibly only through a certain degree of adaptation; but on the other hand we must take measures to circumvent dangers that are inevitable. I have noticed only some serious symptoms which indicate the need for more cohesion, more emphasis on the party. Our comrades must be in the first line party members, and only in the second line trade union members. This is especially true for trade union functionaries and editors.
Before we go on, I have just received the latest number of Labor Action. Shachtman is calling for a new slogan, "Let's have a program for peace not war." But it is war, not peace. This is a pacifist tendency. It is no program for war, which is inevitable.
Cannon: Can the Stalinists be regarded in any important sense as different from any other labour party or grouping? Are tactics applicable to the socialists, etc, also applicable to them? There is a strong tendency to regard the Stalinists as different, not as a labour tendency. The crassest expression of this tendency is exhibited in the American Labour Party in New York. They regard the Stalinists not as a working-class party but as an agency of a foreign power. This was the position of Lovestone and Hook on the Browder passport case. It was Burnham's position in the CC. We held for critical defence. If O'Neal, for example, were arrested we would defend him similarly. There is no fundamental difference between O'Neal of the Second International and Browder as representative of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Both are treacherous in the labour movement. Burnham held that the Stalinists are not a labour movement at all, that they are like German Nazis. We should defend neither. This point is important in elaborating our general political tactics. So long as the social democrats represents a force we must not only have direct opposition but a policy of manoeuvre. Can any fundamental distinction be made between them and Lewis, Green, etc? In my opinion we at least subjectively have made a distinction. We have not had a policy of manoeuvre since 1934, neither nationally nor internationally. In general should we not re-examine this again? Your proposal raises this drastically.
Trotsky: Of course, the Stalinists are a legitimate part of the workers' movement. That it is abused by its leaders for specific GPU ends is one thing, for Kremlin ends another. It is not at all different from other opposition labour bureaucracies. The powerful interests of Moscow influence the Third International, but it is not different in principle. Of course, we consider the terror of the GPU control differently; we fight with all means, even bourgeois police, but the political current of Stalinism is a current in the workers' movement. If it differs, it differs advantageously.
In France the Stalinists show courage against the government. They are still inspired by October. They are a selection of revolutionary elements, abused by Moscow, but honest. If they are persecuted in the United States and remain anti-patriotic because Moscow delays its new turn, this would give them considerable political authority. Our revulsion from the Kremlin will not destroy this political authority. We must consider them objectively. We must consider them from the objective Marxist viewpoint. They are a very contradictory phenomenon. They have great courage. We can't let the antipathies of our moral feelings sway us. Even the assailants on Trotsky's house had great courage. I think that we can hope to win these workers who began as a crystallisation of October. We see them negatively: how to break through this obstacle. We must set the base against the top. The Moscow gang we consider gangsters, but the rank-and-file don't feel themselves to be gangsters, but revolutionaries. They have been terribly poisoned. If we show that we understand, that we have a common language, we can turn them against their leaders. If we win 5 per cent, the party will be doomed. They can then lead only a conservative existence. Disintegration will set in, because this 5 per cent connects them with new sources from the masses.
Reprinted from Internal Bulletin, Vol. 15, No. 10, April 1953 (Socialist Workers Party, New York)
Since March 10, 2004