Felix Morrow

The Role of Burnham and
the Apology of Shachtman

(May & November 1942)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 3 No. 5, May 1942, pp. 158–159. Afterwards there is a postscript from Vol. 3 No. 11, November 1942, pp. 345–46.
Transcribed: Ted Crawford.
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The Role of Burnham

A Statement of Facts

In our March and April issues we published sections of documents just received from the Ceylon Socialist Party and the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India. In introducing them to our readers we noted that the documents “make unambiguously clear their agreement on the Russian and all other questions with the Fourth International against the Burnham-Shachtman petty-bourgeois opposition. “ We noted also that the Shachtmanites had been “spreading false stories about the position of our Indian and Ceylonese comrades.”

Shachtman could not deny that, with the receipt of these documents all the ranks of the Fourth International are accounted for, and all stand with us against the petty-bourgeois opposition. Seeking to evade these facts, which are so devastating to Shachtman and others, who tried to split the Fourth International, Shachtman tries to shift the issue. He complains: we have slandered him. On two counts especially:

1. “The editor (of Fourth International) charges that the Workers Party ‘has been spreading false stories about the position of the Indian and Ceylonese comrades.’ We stare at this almost in disbelief of what our eyes reveal. Where did this mean acquire such cool effrontery. What ‘false stories’ have we spread about the Indian and Ceylonese comrades? Perhaps the editor will condescend to name one – not many, just one.”

Thus Shachtman.

We shall name not one but two. The “Workers Party” issued a bulletin written by Sherman Stanley, dated October 1940. Here is what it said.

In India: “On the question of Russia’s participation in the world war, all of them were and remain in absolute agreement with our position. They had come to these conclusions long before my arrival and – although acquainted with Trotsky’s attitude from the public press – could not understand or approve it for a moment. Their political statements are in accordance with our policy.”

On Ceylon: “On the political issues of the American factional dispute, namely, the question of Russia’s participation in the war, the entire leadership was and remains in accord with our views on the matter. Specifically, as between the Minority and Majority resolutions on the Soviet-Finnish war – both of which they have studied – they openly support ours. Because of circumstances no formal declaration has been made, but I am authorized to state that they do not support the position advocated by Trotsky and the SWP.”

I called the Shachtmanite statements false stories spread by them. What else are they?

2. We learned from these documents that the Indian and Ceylonese parties stood with us against the Burnham-Shachtman splitters. In answer, Shachtman asks: “What honorable or ‘educational’ purpose is served by linking Burnham and Shachtman today ... The former is an avowed enemy of socialism and has been for two years; the latter remains a revolutionary socialist.”

We can well understand that Shachtman wants to forget that his closest associate in the fight against Trotsky was Burnham. It is not a very honorable memory. He complains that we refer to Burnham-Shachtmen a year and nine months after Burnham resigned from the Workers Party the two had set up; whereas Shachtman the other day achieved the signal feat of writing a historical article entitled Two Years of the Workers Party, much of it complaining about how ruthlessly they had been expelled from the Socialist Workers Party – but with not a single reference to Burnham who had co-led that split and the founding of the “Workers” Party! What kind of history is this?

What was Burnham’s role in the split? The record is clear. Burnham was the ideological leader of the petty-bourgeois opposition, the one who had firm views on the basic questions in dispute, and wrote or co-authored the principal documents of the Burnham-Shachtman group in the fight. Burnham, more energetic than Dwight Macdonald (who followed him out at a slower pace) and more logical than Shachtman, two months later drew the final conclusions from the ideology which he had employed in the split. On May 21, 1940, he stated those conclusions in a letter resigning from the Workers Party. We published that letter in the August 1940 Fourth International and analyzed its ideas and implications. Shachtman never published it, much less analyzed it. No wonder, for that letter is a deadly commentary on the anti-Trotsky fight which Burnham-Shachtman led.

We said at the beginning of that fight that Burnham’s ideas were alien to the workers’ movement and predicted that he was on the way out. In the letter, expressing his repudiation of socialism, Burnham admitted that he had held his anti-Marxist views for a long while:

“I disagree flatly and entirely, as Cannon has understood for a long while, with the Leninist conception of a party ... The ‘transition program’ document seems to me – as it pretty much did when first presented – more or less arrant nonsense ... These beliefs, insofar as they involve disagreement with Marxism, are not at all ‘sudden’ or episodic, nor are they products merely of the recent faction struggle. Several I have always held. Many others I have held for some years. Others have, during the past year or two, changed from doubt and uncertainty into conviction. The faction fight has only served to compel me to make them explicit and to consider them more or less in their entirety ... I should properly have left the party some while ago. On the grounds of beliefs and interests I have for several years had no real place in a Marxist party.

With this outlook Burnham became the ideological leader of the Burnham-Shachtman group, wrote its documents, was its reporter on the Russian question at the party convention, assured its split from the Trotskyist movement, founded the Workers Party. He left it two months later. Why? Because he had drawn the consequences of his ideology further than had Shachtman. The pre-fascist but thoroughly anti-Marxist stage of Burnham’s ideology remains indelibly impressed upon the group he founded with Shachtman. This is not a slander; it is an elementary political truth.



* * *

A Letter from India

A Postscript to a “Slander”

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 3 No. 11, November 1942, pp. 345–46.

A letter just received from the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India adds the final postscript to a controversy over a question of fact which has been dealt with in previous issues of Fourth International.

Our readers may recall that in our March 1942 issue, in publishing the first section of the program of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, we noted that the document irrefutably demonstrated the complete agreement of our Indian comrades with the Fourth International, and we charged that the Shachtman “Workers Party” has been spreading false stories about the position of our Indian and Ceylonese comrades.”

In answer, Shachtman characterized our charge as a “slander,” and demanded proof that he had spread such stories. We provided the proof in our May issue, by quoting a bulletin issued by Shachtman containing an “eyewitness” report of S. Stanley that our Indian and Ceylonese comrades agreed with Shachtman in opposing defense of the Soviet Union.

Ordinary mortals would thereupon have subsided into discreet silence. But not Shachtman. He returned to the field, characterizing the editor of Fourth International as a “common slanderer.” Shachtman declared that, although the Indian and Ceylonese comrades now support us, previously they stood with Shachtman. He wrote:

“We reiterate the truth here: When Stanley’s report was printed here, the Ceylonese and Indian comrades supported the Shachtman position on the role of Russia in the war as against the position of Trotsky and the Cannonites. Moreover, so far as we know and unless we hear otherwise, the comrades still hold that their position of that period was correct. Does Morrow deny this? ... We doubt if even Morrow will dare say this in public print. He and his friends know – and have known for some two years – that Stanley merely reported the fact.” (New International, June 1942)

We knew nothing of the kind, but in the face of Shachtman’s brass, continued refutations in our own name were fruitless. The final word had now to be said by the Indian and Ceylonese comrades. Their answer to Shachtman has now arrived, and it should definitively close this subject even for a Shachtman. The letter says:

“As to the attitude of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party on the ‘Russian Question,’ we have read a copy of S. Stanley’s report on Ceylon. Stanley has been mistaken in supposing that the LSSP or the leadership of the LSSP took any definite position regarding this question on the occasion of his visit. The minority position that S. Stanley espoused was received with an open mind and was given sympathetic consideration, but the question of taking any stand in the matter was deferred, firstly till party leaders who were in jail, and secondly, the Calcutta group could be consulted. In any event the position of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (of which the LSSP is a part) is fundamentally in agreement with the position taken by the majority of the Socialist Workers Party.”




Last updated on: 21 August 2015