The publication of the “Open Letter” by James P. Cannon, the founder and leader of the Socialist Workers Party, and the formation of the International Committee in November 1953, mark the great historical watershed in the development of the Fourth International after the death of Leon Trotsky in 1940.
Notwithstanding the inevitable limitations of all analogies, it can be safely written that the split with the Pabloites occupies in relation to the development of Trotskyism the same position as the 1903 split does in relation to the history of Bolshevism. In 1953, the Fourth International was confronted with a life-threatening opportunist tendency, which called into question the essential theoretical, political, and organizational principles of Trotskyism. All the ensuing divisions among the tendencies that claim to be Trotskyist stem from the issues which were first fought out in 1953.
Just as the split at the Second Congress in 1903 did not resolve for all time and fully clarify the political issues which divided Bolshevism and Menshevism, the split within the Fourth International left many questions unresolved. The deeper implications of the division would continue to emerge over the years. However, all the subsequent developments confirm that the conflict in 1953 was between two irreconcilably opposed political tendencies representing different social forces. The proletarian wing of the Fourth International, that is, the “orthodox Trotskyists” led by James P. Cannon, established the International Committee. The International Secretariat, led by Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel, represented a petty-bourgeois revisionist tendency.
The positions advanced by Pablo were a direct challenge to the fundamental programmatic conceptions upon which the founding of the Fourth International in 1938 had been based. With his opportunist proposals for the “integration” of the sections of the Fourth International “into the real mass movement,” “the real fusion of the revolutionary vanguard with the natural movement of the class however it is formed and expressed in each country,” and the elimination of “all doctrinal schematic barriers separating formalist thought from revolutionary action,” Pablo was working, whether fully conscious of it or not, for the destruction of the Fourth International as an independent revolutionary tendency in the workers’ movement. His program repudiated not only Trotsky’s characterization of Stalinism as an agency of imperialism, but also called into question the revolutionary role of the working class and rejected the Lenin-Trotsky theory of the revolutionary party. In place of the conscious struggle for Marxism against the prevailing and spontaneously-evolving forms of bourgeois consciousness as the basis for the building of the revolutionary party of the proletariat, Pabloism proceeded from a crude objectivism which assigned to the existing leaderships of the mass workers’ movement—first and foremost, the Stalinist bureaucracies—a decisive historical role in the victory of socialism.
Between 1949 and 1953, Pablo developed the position that under mass pressure, the Soviet bureaucracy would be compelled to lead revolutionary struggles against imperialism and that the world revolution would be completed under the aegis of Stalinism. Also, Pabloism extended the false claims made on behalf of the Stalinist bureaucracy to include bourgeois nationalist movements in the semi-colonial and underdeveloped countries. The essence of these revisions was the rejection of the struggle for the unconditional political independence of the working class from all petty-bourgeois tendencies. From this flowed the denial of the role of the Fourth International in the resolution of the crisis of revolutionary leadership.
The objective source of Pabloite revisionism was the capitulation of petty-bourgeois elements and, in the United States, sections of more conservative workers, to the immense pressure of imperialism, partially refracted through the Stalinist bureaucracy, upon the Fourth International in the aftermath of World War II. In spite of their subsequent degeneration, it is to the everlasting historical credit of Cannon, as well as Gerry Healy in Britain and Pierre Lambert in France, that they opposed Pabloite revisionism and preserved the historical continuity of Trotskyism. Contrary to the opinion of Mr. Banda, it is not just the evil men do that lives after them. The objective significance of the 1953 struggle against Pabloism remains a decisive historical link in the development of Trotskyism. Banda has repudiated precisely this historical link. He maintains, “The IC was a grandiose illusion, a contemptible maneuver and a disgusting charade,” that the publication of the “Open Letter” was an act of “political skullduggery” planned by Cannon and Healy, who were “tied organically to the pro-Western bureaucracies,” in order “to protect their own base of operations.”
The supposed bankruptcy of Cannon and Healy was, according to Banda, proof of the underlying sickness of the Fourth International, an organization which was congenitally incapable of providing revolutionary leadership. Far from representing the continuity of Marxism, Banda declares that “by 1951 the FI was completely emasculated,” nothing more than “a surrogate international, a historical accident and the misbegotten product of an unprincipled alliance shot through with opportunism and political double-talk.” (Banda’s emphasis.) The aim of all this hyperbole is to wipe out the political and historical significance of 1953, and to justify his own desertion. In order to cover up his capitulation to the method and outlook of Pabloite revisionism, Banda summons every adverb and adjective in his arsenal of invective to denounce those who fought it.
There is a direct connection between this grotesque revision of the history of the Fourth International and Banda’s activity in Sri Lanka in late 1985, where he entered into discussions with the LSSP during his extended “leave of absence” from his post as general secretary of the WRP. In1953 the LSSP, while claiming to disagree with Pablo’s political conclusions, opposed the issuing of the “Open Letter” and the founding of the International Committee. As events were soon to demonstrate, the struggle against revisionism within the Fourth International cut across the LSSP’s adaptation to Stalinism and bourgeois nationalism, which culminated in 1964 with its entrance into a coalition government. Retracing the steps of the LSSP, Banda attempts a belated defense of its opportunism by denigrating and slandering those who formed the International Committee. He will stop at nothing to discredit the Fourth International and prove that Pabloism cannot be blamed for liquidating the Fourth International. Banda insists that there was nothing left to liquidate by 1953, that its political collapse occurred before the founding of the International Committee.
His “27 Reasons” is characterized by a polemical recklessness that is derived from this “anything goes” attitude. Banda even makes the incredible statement, “The murder of Trotsky and the war, far from solving the unfinished problems and accelerating the development of the FI, in fact had the opposite effect”—suggesting that Trotsky’s assassination should have had a positive effect. One might dismiss this sentence as a misprint were it not entirely in keeping with the essential thrust of Banda’s arguments: that in founding the Fourth International, Trotsky committed a disastrous blunder and bequeathed to the workers’ movement a political monstrosity. Banda’s “reexamination” of the Fourth International’s history amounts to a systematic vilification of its leaders, whom he describes as “petty bourgeois dilettantes, charlatans and fantasists masquerading as a ‘world party’,” “a self-perpetuating bureaucratic clique,” “fleas,” “reformist humbugs,” and even “Jesuit missionaries.” The principal devil figure in Banda’s repulsive depiction of the Fourth International is not Healy, but rather James P. Cannon, whose unforgivable crimes, aside from being born in the United States, are almost too numerous to detail. Banda’s indictment accuses Cannon of:
(1) a “disgusting accommodation to Norman Thomas and the US Socialist Party in 1934–35”; (2) a “criminal betrayal”—indeed, the “greatest betrayal of Trotskyism”—in the Minneapolis sedition trial of 1941, where the “strategy and tactics of revolutionary defeatism were shamelessly abandoned”; (3) “political cowardice and capitulation to the backward sections of the US working class”; (4) the transformation of Trotskyism into “a fetishistic dogma”; (5) a “national-defensist orientation covered up in seemingly revolutionary terms”; (6) having “apotheosized American exceptionalism”; (7) “adapting to the left Democrats in the US and keeping a shameless and inscrutable silence on the Rosenberg executions”; (8) “an appalling indifference to the persecution of the US Communist Party”; (9) having “never considered the CP a legitimate part of the working class”; (10) “a pacifist-moral outrage” to the Korean War; (11) the deliberate creation of “a Frankenstein Monster in the form of Pablo”; and (12) knowing “little about fascism and even less about class relations in the US.”
As we will later prove, Banda’s attack on the SWP and Cannon is specifically aimed at discrediting the struggle waged in 1953 against Pabloism. His vilification of Cannon is essentially a repeat of the slanders of the American Pabloites, the most right-wing of all the revisionists. According to Banda, Cannon was not the only demon. The entire Fourth International, he tells us, was “bereft of Trotsky’s dialectical ability and vision” and “did not even have the gift of hindsight.” It “abstained from participating in the Resistance and played little or no part in the struggle to project a revolutionary defeatist line.” Its “impressionistic eclecticism reached abnormal proportions” at the end of World War II. It was guilty of “shameless toadying to bourgeois democracy,” bowed to “Mandel’s Zionist proclivities,” and its internal struggle against the right-wing Morrow-Goldman tendency was merely “an alibi and convenient diversion which did nothing to stop the descent into pragmatism of the worst kind.”
In Banda’s approach to the history of the Fourth International, one little thing is forgotten: the class struggle and its material foundations in the conflict between the development of the productive forces and the prevailing social relations. The historical development of the Fourth International is reduced to the petty conflicts between bad and generally stupid people—of course, all the events referred to above occurred before Banda appeared on the scene—whose actions are to be explained from their personal and, as a rule, self-seeking motives.
Except for the unexplained “miracle” of Trotsky’s genius, there has been absolutely no reason, except for the personal ambitions of a few individuals, representing nobody but themselves, for the existence of the Fourth International. Its history, according to Banda, is a “sorry and lugubrious tale,” which culminated in “bureaucratic slander, political chicanery and moral depravity of the most sordid kind.” Not since the days of the Moscow Trials, when Stalin’s Vyshinsky delivered his final summations in the Hall of Columns and appealed for prearranged death sentences (“Shoot the dogs gone mad”), has the Trotskyist movement been described in such terms.
Banda leaps from one isolated episode to another, and the transitions which he arbitrarily constructs between different events lack any internal logical connection. On the basis of his method, one can “demonstrate” not only the bankruptcy of the Fourth International, but also the entire development of the workers’ movement and the history of mankind in general. Banda has taken us back to the historical subjectivism of the old vulgar materialism which was analyzed long ago by Engels: “Its conception of history, in so far as it has one at all, is therefore essentially pragmatic; it judges everything according to the motives of the action; it divides men in their historical activity into noble and ignoble and then finds that as a rule the noble are defrauded and the ignoble are victorious. Hence it follows for the old materialism that nothing very edifying is to be got from the study of history. …” This old materialism, Engels explained, never asked itself, “What driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical causes which transform themselves into these motives in the brains of the actors?”
The foundation of all political parties and their respective programs is the class struggle, through which the opposed and irreconcilable material interests of different social strata associated with definite historically-formed relations of production are fought out. To disregard the mighty historical processes out of which parties of different classes are formed, or to refer to the leaderships of different tendencies within the workers’ movement as “self-perpetuating cliques” and “fantasists masquerading as a ‘world party’,” is to descend to the level of the capitalist police, who habitually attribute every articulation of the distinct class interests of the proletariat to the manipulations and intrigues of “self-proclaimed leaders.” Banda is incapable of even attempting to establish the connection between the historical development of the international class struggle and the necessary forms of its reflection in the political and ideological struggles within the Fourth International. Rather, proceeding from his theoretically-bankrupt subjective method, his account of the work of the Fourth International is built upon malicious distortions, outright fabrications and cynical half-truths. In virtually every reference he makes to the history of the FI between 1940 and 1953, Banda exposes an almost unbelievable ignorance of the actual facts.
The lies and internal contradictions in Banda’s document express the absence of an integrated historical perspective, which is the consequence of his abandonment of the materialist conception of history. Banda employs the subjective yardstick of a rationalist in his judgment of men and their actions. The historical necessity underlying the creation of the Fourth International is conveniently forgotten or explicitly denied: the transformation of both the Second and Third Internationals into the agencies of imperialism within the workers’ movement and the organic inability of the national bourgeoisie of the backward countries to carry through the tasks of the democratic revolution and initiate the socialist reconstruction of society. Merciless in his criticisms of the various failings and foibles of the Trotskyists, Banda, like all renegades, passes over in silence the gigantic betrayals of social democracy and Stalinism that have resulted in the deaths of millions.
That the Fourth International, in the course of its long history—and especially in the aftermath of the assassination of Trotsky—has made mistakes, passed through periods of political confusion, contended with unworthy leaders, cannot be denied. There is no royal road to truth, let alone to the liberation of man from capitalist exploitation. The Fourth International is not diminished because it may at certain times have made false or incomplete evaluations of the complex and original social phenomena that emerged after the conclusion of World War II. After all, it concerned itself with questions which simply could not arise within the Stalinist parties. While the latter were proclaiming Tito a fascist, the Trotskyists were striving to understand the class nature of Yugoslavia.
This “difference” in the manner in which the problem of Titoism was tackled was not simply one of intellectual approach. It stemmed from the irreconcilable class antagonism between Trotskyism and Stalinism. There exists no other movement that represents the historic interests of the proletariat as the revolutionary class, bases itself consciously on the lessons of October 1917, embodies the historical development of Marxism, has set itself the task of smashing the bureaucratic agents of imperialism, and whose program is the world socialist revolution. This, for us, is the heart of the matter.
We propose to systematically review Banda’s indictment of Cannon and the Socialist Workers Party, which constitutes the core of his attack on the history of the Fourth International prior to the founding of the International Committee. Though this requires that we reproduce lengthy quotations, this is necessary to demonstrate the dishonesty and incompetence with which Banda deals with the historical record. This exposure is a revolutionary duty, for as Cannon once said, “To falsify party history means to poison the well from which the young party members have to drink.”
Our examination will show that Banda, in the formulation of his “27 Reasons,” bases himself consistently upon all the old enemies of the Trotskyist movement. Banda’s brain has become a sort of garbage dump where old revisionist trash is gathered and recycled. He parrots allegations that were made and refuted years and even decades ago. He sides with Hugo Oehler and the ultralefts against Trotsky and Cannon. He accepts as bonafide the slanders peddled by Shachtman, Morrow and, above all, the Pabloite Bert Cochran against Cannon and the Fourth International. A large portion of Banda’s attack on the SWP draws its inspiration from the principal document written in 1953 by the American supporters of Pablo, which was called “The Roots of the Party Crisis.” First, however, we must deal with Banda’s attempt to distort the history of the Trotskyist movement in the United States prior to the founding of the SWP.
Banda alleges that Cannon was guilty of a “disgusting capitulation to Norman Thomas in 1934–35.” He says nothing more about this unsavory episode in the history of American Trotskyism. But his brevity on the subject is understandable, as it is clear that Banda does not know what he is talking about. We suspect that Banda is referring to the entry of the American Trotskyists into the Socialist Party. We say “suspect” because in that case Banda has his dates wrong. In 1934–35 the Trotskyists carried out a fusion with the American Workers Party led by the noted radical, the Rev. A. J. Muste. The formation of the Workers Party of the United States, the product of this fusion, marked an important step forward in the development of a genuine Trotskyist party.
Capitalizing on the radicalization of the working class and the growth of their own prestige following the Minneapolis General Strike of 1934, the fusion enabled the Trotskyists to broaden their base among an important section of militant workers and radicals. This initiative enjoyed the full support of Trotsky.
In 1936, the question of entry into the Socialist Party became a burning issue for the Trotskyists. The real author of this “disgusting accommodation” was not James P. Cannon, but Leon Trotsky. As early as 1934, after the collapse of the Third International and the victory of fascism in Germany, Trotsky had noted the development of a left-wing tendency within a number of social democratic parties, especially in France. The “French turn”—tactical entry by the Trotskyists into the SFIO to influence and exploit this political ferment in order to win new forces—was proposed by Trotsky. It met furious opposition from sectarian elements who had grown thoroughly accustomed to a propagandist existence in small groups.
Among the most embittered opponents of the “French turn” was Hugo Oehler, the leader of a sectarian tendency within the Communist League of America (as the American section of the International Left Opposition was known until the fusion with the Musteites). He insisted, despite the obvious successes of the French Trotskyists, that their entry into a party affiliated with the Second International represented an impermissible betrayal of Marxism. The struggle waged by Trotsky against Oehler constituted an enormously important chapter in the theoretical preparation of the Fourth International. Describing Oehler, Trotsky wrote:
Each sectarian wants to have his own labor movement. By the repetition of magic formulas he thinks to force an entire class to group itself around him. But instead of bewitching the proletariat, he always ends up by demoralizing and dispersing his own little sect. …
Such a man can remain tranquil and friendly so long as the life of the organization continues to revolve in familiar circles. But woe be it if events bring about a radical change! The sectarian no longer recognizes his world. All reality stands marshaled against him and, since the facts flout him, he turns his back on them and comforts himself with rumors, suspicions, and fantasies. He thus becomes a source of slanders without being, by nature, a slanderer. He is not dishonest. He is simply in irreconcilable conflict with reality.
The application of the “French turn” in the United States came somewhat later and, of course, under different circumstances. Unlike the European sections of the Second International, the party of Norman Thomas did not have a mass base in the American working class. However, the peculiarities of the political development of the workers’ movement in the United States did not invalidate the importance of a tactical orientation toward the Socialist Party. The development of a political crisis inside the Socialist Party in late 1935, involving a split by the right-wing faction, suddenly opened up enormous possibilities for the Trotskyists.
Concerned that the Stalinists would exploit the split to their advantage, Trotsky instructed Cannon and Shachtman to enter the Socialist Party as quickly as possible. To underscore his anxiety, he cabled his instructions. On the same day, January 24, 1936, he amplified his instructions in a letter to Cannon and Shachtman, the principal leaders of the Trotskyist movement in the United States at that time:
When a tested and stable organization enters a centrist party, it may be a correct or an incorrect tactical step, i.e., it can bring great gains or it can bring none. (The latter is, in any case, under the present circumstances, unlikely.) But it is not a capitulation. The split in the Socialist Party is of the greatest importance as an objective symptom for the tendencies of its development. I am also in agreement with you that one should not give the centrist leadership any time to allow for the possibility of consolidation; this means: act quickly.
On February 6, 1936 Trotsky wrote again:
It can be said: What do we care about the development in the SP? We go our own way. But this is precisely the way of the Oehlerites, which leads from nothing to nothing. But if we are of the opinion that the situation in the SP offers significant possibilities, we should promptly make a courageous turn, without losing time, enter the party, constitute ourselves as a faction, prevent the destructive work of the Stalinists, and thus take an important step forward.
Emphasizing the danger posed by the Stalinists, Trotsky warned:
In the American milieu, the unhampered rapprochement of the Socialist and Communist parties would signify the greatest impediment to us for a whole period, to refuse to see this would really be blindness. …
A political radicalization in America will, in the next months and perhaps also in the next few years, benefit primarily the Communists and the Socialists, especially if they form a firmly cohesive united front. The Workers Party in such a case would remain on the side, almost entirely as a purely propagandistic organization, with all the consequences of the internal quarrel over missed opportunities. A speedy entry would prevent the demoralization of the Socialist left wing by the Stalinists, expose the incorrigible centrist leaders, promote clarification in the workers’ vanguard, and precisely thereby strengthen our positions for the future.
If Banda wishes to denounce the “disgusting accommodation” to Norman Thomas, then he should at least have the honesty to name the real target of his attack: Leon Trotsky. All the discussions on the “French turn” revealed Trotsky’s mastery of the dialectical method and his capacity for abrupt turns. Sterile opposition to this tactical initiative on the basis of formal references to the historic crimes of the Second International evaded a concrete analysis of the contradictions in the old parties of the working class. Trotsky was not unmindful of the dangers which were associated with the “French turn”: entryism, even under the most favorable circumstances, is always a double-edged sword. The precondition for the application of the entry tactic is always the political firmness of the Trotskyist cadre and its capacity to resist the class pressures that are intensified when working within a hostile milieu.
During the year in which the American Trotskyists worked within the Socialist Party, Trotsky carefully looked for traces of accommodation to the centrist milieu, which he found and subjected to sharp criticism. In his History of American Trotskyism, Cannon admitted:
There is no doubt at all that the leaders of our movement adapted themselves a little too much to the centrist officialdom of the Socialist Party. A certain amount of formal adaptation was absolutely necessary in order to gain the possibilities of normal work in the organization. But this adaptation undoubtedly was carried too far in some cases and led to illusions and fostered deviations on the part of some members of our movement.
This type of straightforward self-criticism, which was never practiced by Healy or Banda, was a frank admission that the Trotskyists made mistakes in the course of the new experience. Cannon, to his credit, never claimed infallibility. At any rate, his deviations on this question were far smaller than those of Shachtman and Burnham, who made themselves at home inside the New York branch of the Socialist Party. If Cannon, who spent a good part of that year in California, is to be criticized, it must be for becoming somewhat too immersed in his trade union activity. However, that tendency, which was part of his political makeup as a “genuine workers’ leader” (as Trotsky described him), was not without its redeeming features!
The application of the “French turn” in the United States was a great political success, and it led directly to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party. When the right-centrists in the SP began a crackdown against the Trotskyists, Cannon effectively organized the counterattack, and under the guidance of Trotsky, prepared conscientiously for the necessary split. By the time the break came, the Trotskyists had won the overwhelming majority of the Socialist Party youth, and important forces within the trade unions. This made possible the organization of the founding conference of the SWP in Chicago on the last day of December 1937 and New Year’s Day 1938.
The work within the Socialist Party had enormous international significance for the world Trotskyist movement. The application of the “French turn” in the United States coincided with the organization of the Moscow Trials. As Cannon recalled in his History:
It was required for us historically, at that crucial moment, to be members of the Socialist Party and by that to have closer access to elements—liberals, intellectuals and half-radical political people—who were necessary for the great political task of the Trotsky Defense Committee. I don’t think Stalin could have arranged those trials as well at any other time to insure their complete discreditment as in the summer of 1936. We were then in the most favorable situation as members of the Socialist Party—and, therefore, surrounded to a certain extent with the protective coloration of a half-way respectable party—and we couldn’t be isolated as a small group of Trotskyists, mobbed and lynched, as they planned to do. We conducted a terrific campaign to expose the trials and defend Trotsky. The Stalinists, for all their vast resources of apparatus, press, stooge organizations and money, were put on the defensive from the start. Our comrades in New York, assisted by those throughout the country, were able to initiate the organization of a rather formidable-appearing committee, with John Dewey as chairman and an imposing list of writers, artists, newspapermen and professional people of various kinds who sanctioned and sponsored the movement to organize an inquiry into the Moscow trials.
This inquiry, as you know, was eventually held at Mexico City in the spring of 1937. The case was thoroughly sifted; out of it came two great books which are and will remain forever classics of the world labor movement, The Case of Leon Trotsky, and the second one, the report of the Commission, Not Guilty. … The exposure and discreditment of the Moscow Trials was one of the great achievements which has to be accredited to our political move of joining the Socialist Party in 1936.
In addition to the struggle against the Moscow Trials, which included the publication of Shachtman’s brilliant Behind the Moscow Trial, the period of entryism also strengthened the intervention made by the Trotskyists against the betrayal of the Spanish revolution. The Marxist classic, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, by Felix Morrow, was another achievement of the fight waged by the Trotskyists for political clarification inside the Socialist Party.
Rather than providing a careful and critical analysis of the “French turn,” and examining the application of this tactic in different countries over a period of approximately three years, Banda imposes a label, “disgusting accommodation to Norman Thomas,” over the entire experience. This is characteristic of Banda’s formal method of dealing with the history of the Fourth International. In evaluating the complex development of the Trotskyist movement, his mind operates only with the most elementary and vulgar categories: good or bad, right or wrong, success or failure. But revolutionary practice does not lend itself to such facile definitions. The class struggle is a realm of paradox and contradiction, and those who wish to comprehend it must think dialectically; that is, it is necessary to grasp all phenomena, including the results of human practice, as “a unity of opposed definitions.” That is why Marxists have always placed high value on the maxim of Spinoza, which, by the way, Banda, too, was once fond of quoting: “Not to weep, not to laugh, but to understand.”
Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1941), p. 49.
James P. Cannon, Speeches to the Party (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p. 100.
Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1935–36] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), pp. 72–73.
Ibid., p. 252.
Ibid., p. 258.
Ibid., pp. 259–60.
James P. Cannon, History of American Trotskyism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), p. 238.
Ibid., pp. 241–42.