For the last week I have been re-reading James P. Cannon's 1943 book The Struggle for a Proletarian Party.
A 2008 issue of The Militant described the book this way:
"The collection of speeches and correspondence of James P. Cannon records the struggle to build a proletarian party, in program and composition, under the impact of World War II and the Stalin-Hitler pact."
The book includes documents and letters from 1939-1940 in defense of democratic centralism. It is a companion to Trotsky's In Defense of Marxism, which defended scientific socialism against middle class radical revisers within the ranks of the Socialist Workers Party.
The letter below explains democratic centralism succinctly by comparing it to what Cannon referred to as "all-inclusive" parties.
A Circular Letter to the Party Membership
New York, March 5, 1940
An answer to the splitters
Under separate cover you have already received a copy of the "Resolution on Party Unity" adopted by the Cleveland conference of the opposition. This "resolution" was handed to us by the representatives of the opposition at the PC meeting the other day. Evidently they want our answer. We shall not keep them waiting. Here is our answer:
1. Formal declaration of split
This resolution is in fact a political declaration of the split which the conference itself was designed to prepare in an organisational sense. The resolution declares: "The nature of the differences is such that it does not permit a solution merely by the procedure normal in the movement, of having the convention minority submit to the decision of the convention majority." By that declaration they reject in advance the only possible solution of a party dispute by the democratic method of majority rule. They say in effect that for them the decisions of a democratically organised party convention have no meaning and they declare in advance their refusal to accept the decisions of the convention. As far as they are concerned, the convention might as well not be held unless they can have their way.
Unless we are prepared to throw overboard the Leninist principle of democratic centralism; unless we are ready to turn the principle upside down and compel the majority to submit to the minority—we have to recognise the declaration of the opposition for what it really is: the formal declaration of a split. Nothing remains but to recognise reality and take all the necessary measures to protect the integrity of the party and declare a merciless and uncompromising war on the splitters.
2. Peculiar kind of "unity"
The resolution demands for the minority "the right to publish a political journal of its own". And to leave no room for doubt that they mean a completely independent publication, they add: "Such a journal can only be published upon the responsibility and under the control of the tendency itself." And then, to make their position crystal clear, they state that this "solution" of the difficulty "is the only concrete one that can be made". Under these conditions, and only under these conditions, they assure us the "unity of the party" can be preserved. That is to say, if the majority will authorise and "legalise" a split, the party can have the fiction of formal unity by way of compensation. We do not believe a single member of the majority will entertain such a proposition for a moment.
3. Democratic centralism annihilated
At the very best, the resolution of the opposition can be described as an attempt to annihilate the democratic centralism of a revolutionary party in favour of the notorious and ill-fated "all inclusive party" of Norman Thomas. But history has already passed a cruel judgment on this conception of party organisation. It would be insane folly to repeat the experiment. If the convention should sanction such a scheme of organisation it would simply mean that the "united" party would be paralysed internally by a permanent faction fight and deprived of all external striking power.
For the opposition to have its own press, "published upon the responsibility and under the control" of the opposition, could mean only that it must have its own treasury, its own staff, and its own apparatus of distribution. But things could not possibly stop even there. If the opposition is granted the right to attack the party program and defend another in print, there is no plausible reason why they should be denied the right to do the same thing orally. There is no logical ground to prevent them from holding public meetings "upon the responsibility and under the control" of the autonomous faction. There would be no means of enforcing discipline in the execution of the party program upon the members of a faction which has been granted the right to attack the program in public. In short, the minority would have all the rights of a party of their own, plus the privilege of paralysing the official party from within and discrediting it before the working class public.
This is precisely what is intended by the hypocritical "unity" resolution of the minority. It is a scheme to carry out their split and achieve complete freedom of action for themselves in such a way as to do the most damage and bring the greatest possible discredit to the party. This is fully in line with the conscious design of Burnham, who has already proclaimed the downfall of the Fourth International in his infamous document on "Science and Style", to bring about the maximum possible disruption of our movement before taking his formal departure.
4. Another of "Shachtman's precedents"
It is to be assumed that Shachtman's contribution to the resolution is the paragraph on "precedents" from the history of the Bolshevik party of Lenin and of the Fourth International. We know from the article of Comrades Wright and Hansen on the "Shachtman School of Quotations", and from Trotsky's answer to Shachtman's "Open Letter", how Shachtman perverts and falsifies historical incidents to serve factional ends. The historical references in the resolution under discussion are worth just as much and just as little as the others. It is precisely from Lenin's Bolshevik party that we learned the theory and practice of democratic centralism. Lenin's party had a single program and subordinated the party press to the service of the program. It is from Bolshevism that we learned to conduct free discussions, not for the sake of discussing in permanence, but in order to decide and to act unitedly on the basis of the decision of the majority.
We are approaching the end of a six-months' discussion, and none was ever freer or more democratic. We are on the eve of the convention which will conclude the discussion with a decision. From that we shall proceed to discipline in action on the basis of the decision. That is in the real tradition of Bolshevism. The "tradition" which the opposition invokes are those of Menshevism, of pre-war social democracy, of the "all inclusive party". To attempt to pass this off in the name of Lenin and his party of democratic centralism is to practice fraud on the inexperienced and uninformed members of the party and the youth.
Equally fraudulent is the reference to "many similar instances" in the history of the Fourth International, There are no such instances. The Fourth International and its predecessor, the International Left Opposition, never sanctioned different publications advocating antagonistic programs on fundamental questions. Just the contrary. The International Left Opposition took shape on a world scale in the course of an irreconcilable struggle for a single program and against groupings (with their publications) which, while pretending agreement "in general", advocated antagonistic programs. The International Left Opposition continued to exist and to grow and to expand as the world movement of the Fourth International not only by uniting revolutionary elements around a common program, but also by openly repudiating all groups and all publications advocating a different program. This was the case with Urbahns in Germany; Van Overstraaten in Belgium; Souvarine, Monatte and Paz in France; Weisbord and Field in the United States, etc. They lie about the Fourth International, they pervert its history, when they say the Fourth International gave its blessing to publications which opposed its program.
The temporary experiment sanctioned by the Executive Committee of the Fourth International in the case of the French section a year ago has nothing in common with the proposal of the opposition. The differences in the French section occurred exclusively over tactics; both groups adhered to a common program on the principle questions as laid down by the Congress of the Fourth International. One group of the POI (our French section) wanted to maintain the complete independence of the organisation. The other group wanted to join the PSOP to work as a Bolshevik fraction within it. The Executive Committee of the Fourth International was strongly in favour of the "entrist" position, but did not desire in the beginning to impose this tactic on the opposing comrades by disciplinary measures. Under these conditions, the executive authorised a division of labour whereby one group would continue its independent activity with its own press and the other group would join the PSOP and publish a journal as a fraction of the PSOP in favor of the program of the Fourth International.
There was no question whatever of two different programs. The only difference between the two publications was that the journal of the independent group addressed its propaganda primarily to workers outside the PSOP, while the journal of the entrist faction addressed its propaganda in favour of the same programmatic ideas primarily to the members of the PSOP. But even this experiment was strictly limited in time. It was discontinued a few months later after a test of experience with work in the two fields.
This "analogy" of Shachtman's, like all the others, is false to the core and is criminally distorted and misapplied. Their scheme compares not at all to the relations established between the two groups of Fourth Internationalists in France —the entrists and the majority of the POI—but, by a dishonest twist, to the relations between the entrist faction of Bolshevik-Leninists and the majority of the PSOP. If, like all liberal philistines, the Burnhamites argue that they should have the same "rights" in a Trotskyist party of the Fourth International that the Rous group of Fourth Internationalists enjoyed for a time in the Pivertist party of the London Bureau, we answer: The Pivert party pretended to be an "all inclusive party" and could not conveniently refuse these rights to the Fourth Internationalists, since they were also enjoyed by Freemasons, and all kinds of opportunists and social patriots. We, on the other hand, don't pretend to be an "all inclusive party", and nobody shall make such a madhouse out of our organisation.
On this point we shall ask the convention to reaffirm the section of the organisation resolution drafted by Shachtman and Cannon and adopted at the foundation convention of the SWP in Chicago:
The revolutionary Marxian party rejects not only the arbitrariness and bureaucratism of the CP, but also the spurious and deceptive "all-inclusiveness" of the Thomas-Tyler-Hoan party, which is a sham and a fraud. Experience has proved conclusively that this "all-inclusiveness" paralyses the party in general and the revolutionary left wing in particular, suppressing and bureaucratically hounding the latter while giving free rein to the right wing to commit the greatest crimes in the name of socialism and the party.
5. Split disastrous to splitters
The "unity" resolution of the Burnhamite splitters makes the assertion—the wish is father to the thought—that "a split would prove disastrous to the American section and to the International as a whole". We remain unimpressed by this forecast of calamity. If those who seek to terrorise us in this way would take a backward glance at the history of our party they would discover that threats of split have always been a menace only to those who uttered them. It cannot be otherwise with the present opposition, the most miserable of all those impatient petty-bourgeois groupings which tried to impose their demands upon the majority with threats of split. There has never yet been an opposition in our movement so heterogeneous, so far removed from Marxism and the spirit of the proletarian revolution, so weak in proletarian composition and so lacking in leaders with the necessary political firmness, devotion, singleness of purpose and capacity to sacrifice.
The threat of such an opposition to split from our party and set up an independent organisation presents the prospect of a truly ludicrous spectacle. We have done everything in our power throughout the discussion to save the supporters of the opposition from this sad experience, and to preserve the unity of the party. We shall continue to work in this spirit, to make every reasonable concession, to provide every guarantee for the party rights of the minority after the convention consistent with the principles and methods of Bolshevik organisation, that is, with the requirements of a combat party of the proletarian revolution.
But so far—and no further! Nobody shall transform our party into a perpetual talking shop. Nobody shall make a playhouse out of the party. Nobody shall be allowed to obstruct the proletarianisation of the party. The convention must make it obligatory for all party members to connect themselves in one way or another with a workers' environment and recruit fresh elements from the proletariat in the course of class struggle activities.
That is the only way to save the party and prepare it for its great historic mission. Those who try to block this course will be defeated. Those who try to disrupt our movement by a treacherous split on the eve of the war will be smashed, as enemies and traitors deserve to be smashed.
After six months of discussion, as free and democratic as any party has ever known, the party is approaching the convention and the decision. Let every comrade in the party, regardless of what his opinion has been, face seriously once more and finally the inescapable rules of democratic centralism: The unconditional right of the party majority to decide the disputed questions and the unconditional duty of every party member to accept the decision. Only in this way can the unity of the party be preserved and common political work for the future made possible. There is no other road.
The slogan of split is the slogan of class betrayal. Its purpose is to disrupt the Fourth International on the eve of the war. But it will fail in its purpose. The only "disaster" will be the one that overtakes those criminals who, on the eve of the war, dare to direct such a treacherous blow at the only revolutionary movement in the whole world. The Fourth International will survive it in spite of all the Burnhams and Aberns plus the Shachtmans.
The National Committee Majority