The Struggle for
A Proletarian Party

By James P. Cannon

Written: 1939-1940
Source: The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (c) Resistance Books 2001 (c) Resistance Books 2001 ISBN 1876646217; Published by Resistance Books 23 Abercrombie St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Permission for on-line publication provided by Resistance Books for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2003.
Transcription\HTML Markup: David Walters
Introduction: Special thinks to David Holmes for writing the introduction and facilitating the acquisition of the text of the book.


Introduction by Dave Holmes

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII


Part IX


By Dave Holmes

The August 22, 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact sent shock waves around the world. The Moscow-aligned Communist movement was thrown into crisis by the sudden and unheralded agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Subsequent events intensified the impact. On September 1, Germany invaded Poland; two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany; and on September 17, the Red Army occupied eastern Poland. Then, on November 30, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. These events led to a huge wave of anti-Soviet propaganda in the West. It made support for the Soviet Union—on any basis—extremely unpopular.

The Trotskyist movement was also affected by the enormous pressure of the bourgeois propaganda campaign. In the wake of the Nazi-Soviet pact, a sharp struggle broke out in the Socialist Workers Party, the US section of the Fourth International. Central party leaders Max Shachtman, James Burnham and Martin Abern led a substantial minority of the party which wanted to drop the SWP’s long-held position of unconditional defence of the Soviet Union in any struggle with imperialism, i.e., notwithstanding the Stalinist bureaucratic regime.

The SWP majority, led by national secretary James P. Cannon—in close collaboration with Leon Trotsky, in exile in Mexico—fought to preserve the party’s traditional positions. The dispute lasted until April 1940 when the Shachtman-Burnham group split from the party. This fight is documented in two books, Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party and Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism.[1]

Trotsky’s work deals with the political and even philosophical issues raised in the struggle; the central focus of Cannon’s book is the organisation of the revolutionary party, which was fundamentally challenged by the minority. However, Cannon’s “Speech on the Russian Question”, which is reproduced here, discusses the main political issues involved.

The various sections of this book give a clear picture of the struggle. Cannon’s article “The Struggle for a Proletarian Party” was written near the end of the dispute. It was intended for the education of the party membership. It is put at the start of this volume so that the reader can gain a clear picture of the whole episode and understand the other materials more easily.

The section “Letters to Comrades” shows how the struggle unfolded. They show also that it was consciously led by Cannon and Trotsky. “A factional struggle is a test of leadership”, observed Cannon in a 1953 speech. “Factional struggle is a part of the process of building the revolutionary party of the masses; not the whole of the struggle, but a part of it.”

Some comrades [he continued], especially mass workers, who want to be all the time busy with their constructive work, who are upset and irritated by arguments, squabbles, and faction fights, have to learn that they can’t have peace in the party unless they fight for it. Factional struggle is one way of getting peace.

The party, as you know, enjoyed internal peace and solidarity over that entire period from 1940 to 1951 ... 11 years of peace and normal internal life ... That internal peace and solidarity didn’t fall from the sky. It was not “given” to us. We fought for it and secured it by the factional battle with the petty-bourgeois opposition in the eight months from September 1939 to April 1940.

Every serious factional struggle, properly directed by a conscious leadership, develops in progressive stages; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; and at every stage of the struggle the leadership is put to a test. Without a conscious leadership, factionalism can devour and destroy a party. Headless factionalism, sometimes even the smallest squabble, can tear a party to pieces. We have seen this happen more than once. Everything depends on the leaders, on their consciousness. They must know how and when to begin the faction fight, how to conduct it, and how and when to finish it. [2]

Cannon’s letters demonstrate precisely this conscious leadership of the struggle with the minority. It was also extremely democratic with a tremendous amount of written and oral discussion and abundant opportunity for the minority to put its viewpoint before the membership.

The party resolutions in the third section of this volume, “Documents of the Struggle”, show how the party responded to the challenge of the minority, especially at the end when it was clear that Shachtman and Burnham were intent on disregarding the April 1940 convention decisions and splitting from the party.

The Struggle for a Proletarian Party is a manual of Leninist organisation. It shows how Lenin’s ideas are relevant to the organisation of a revolutionary workers’ party in an advanced capitalist country.

Trotsky had a high opinion of Cannon’s contribution to the movement. Of the pamphlet which makes up the first section of this book, Trotsky remarked that: “It is the writing of a genuine workers’ leader. If the discussion had not produced more than this document, it would be justified.” [3]

* * *

The subsequent evolution of the three split leaders is instructive.

Following their April 1940 departure from the SWP, Shachtman and his followers set up the Workers Party. It established a newspaper, Labor Action, and put out the journal New International, which it had purloined from the SWP.

After the war, the WP and the SWP had a number of unity discussions but these produced no concrete result. During the Cold War Shachtman moved further right; from his “bureaucratic collectivist”, “third camp” view of the Soviet Union, he moved towards direct support of imperialism.

In 1949 the WP changed its name to the International Socialist League. In 1958 the ISL joined the Socialist Party. There the Shachtman group developed the perspective of working in the Democratic Party. (A current led by Hal Draper opposing this direction broke away, eventually forming the International Socialists.) In the SP, Shachtman was part of the right; his anti-communism led him to support the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the US intervention in Vietnam.

After leaving the SWP, Burnham stayed in the fledgling WP only a few weeks, continuing his rapid evolution to fanatic anti-Sovietism. He wrote the well-known Managerial Revolution (1941), the central thesis of which is that a new class of “managers” had taken over in the Soviet Union and was doing so worldwide, including in the Germany and the US. The titles of some of his other books indicate his political outlook: The Struggle for the World (1947), The Coming Defeat of Communism (1950), The Web of Subversion (1954) and The Suicide of the West (1964). In the early 1950s he was a consultant to the CIA; he gave anti-communist lectures at the US War College; and at a Department of Justice hearing in the late 1950s testified that Shachtman’s group was “subversive”. From 1955 to 1977 he was on the editorial board of the ultraright National Review; in it he accused US President Richard Nixon of appeasing Moscow and Peking; he also called for a positive reassessment of fascism.

Of the trio of opposition leaders, only Martin Abern remained faithful to his radical past. He stayed in the Workers Party but became rather inactive in the later 1940s. Prior to his untimely death in 1949 he was considering rejoining the SWP, as a number of his former followers had done.


[1] Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism

[2] Cannon, "Factional Struggle and Party Leadership", The Struggle for Socialism in the "American Century" (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2000), pp. 205-206.

[3] Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, Marxists Internet Archive edition.