Write us!

June 2004 • Vol 4, No. 6 •

The Arsenal of Marxism

Class Struggle Strategy in the Trade Unions

By James P. Cannon

This month’s selection from the Arsenal of Marxism is a speech delivered by James P. Cannon to a conference of members of the Workers Party—the name adopted by the Communist Party of the United States after it had been stripped of its legality and driven underground by the federal government. The speech to coal miner members of the Workers Party was delivered to the conference on July 27, 1924 in St. Louis.

Cannon’s report reflects the principled revolutionary proletarian politics of the American section of the Third (Communist) International that prevailed before Joseph Stalin gained the dominant position in the Soviet Communist Party, shortly after the death of V. I. Lenin on January 21, 1924.

Cannon was assigned by the Workers Party Central Committee to give the following report to the conference of the party’s coal miners. We think that it will serve as an excellent guide for today’s trade union militants who are beginning to see the urgent necessity of constructing a class struggle left wing in the American labor movement to combat the class collaborationist policies of the AFL-CIO bureaucratic hierarchy and to begin the construction of a class-struggle left wing inside the American labor movement.

The speech was first published as a supplement to the Daily Worker in its August 2, 1924 edition.

—The Editors

• • •

These conferences of party members in the important trade unions in which representatives of the Central Executive Committee take part are becoming frequent occurrences. We must regard this as a healthy sign. It indicates that we are maturing as a party of theoretical and practical revolutionists, and getting a firm grip on our basic tasks. The close collaboration between the active comrades in the field and the leading organ of the party has a beneficial result all the way around.

The close and intimate contact with the practical problems of the daily struggle, and with the comrades who directly face them, serves as an unerring corrective to any tendency there might be in the party to deal with these problems in an abstract or purely doctrinaire fashion. On the other hand, the participation of the party representatives insures that the fundamental political aspect of the trade union struggle will be brought to the front in these trade union conferences. The importance of this cannot be overestimated. Otherwise there is constant danger of the work of our trade union comrades being influenced too much by expediency and so-called practicality. One-sided conceptions, purely trade union points of view, take the upper hand and the general class issues of the struggle are pushed into the background. Such a state of affairs must be guarded against. We know too well that it leads to reformism and futility.

We are meeting here today to consider the problems of the particular trade union you belong to, from the standpoint of the party, which is the standpoint of all communists. And I think I will be proceeding in the proper order if I put forward as a premise the revolutionary aims of our party and propose that we weigh and judge every trade union question that comes before us, no matter how small or practical it may appear to be, in the light of our final aims.

A revolutionary party

Our party is a party of the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletarian revolution is the only solution of the labor problem and all our work must lead to this goal. This is our starting point in the trade unions, as in every field of activity in the class struggle. It is this fundamental conception that distinguishes us from all other parties and groups in the labor movement. It is the band of steel that binds us together into one party.

Our revolutionary goal shapes our policy in the daily struggle. The revolutionary aspirations of our party comrades generate the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice that give the party its driving power. Woe to us if we become so “practical” as to forget this for one moment. All our work must lead toward the proletarian revolution. If we keep this always in mind and measure all our daily work by this standard we will keep on the right road. The revolutionary principles to which we are committed put upon us responsibilities and duties which cannot be shifted or evaded if we are to live up to our conception of the party as the vanguard of the workers. We have to stand up and fight for the true interests of the working class as a whole, at every turn of the road.

With the masses, but leading them

We want to be with the masses, but we must also be ahead of the masses, and not be afraid to take an unpopular stand, when it is necessary in order to combat their prejudices. Take for example the Ku Klux Klan. Here is an organization that is antilabor in its very character—yet large numbers of coal miners are misled into supporting it. To fight the Ku Klux Klan, to expose its reactionary nature and win the workers away from it, is a difficult and somewhat hazardous task in certain sections of the country, but it is our duty to the working class to make such a fight. We would not be worthy of the proud name our party bears if we evaded such a fight on any pretext.

Our work in the trade unions is developing. Evidence of this can be seen on every side. Such conferences as this are proof of the rapid strides we are making. We have already accumulated rich experience, and this experience is bringing to light both positive and negative sides in our work. One of our main duties is to review the whole activity from time to time, to strengthen and improve what is good, and discover what is bad in order to reject it.

It goes without saying that we communists esteem each other very highly, but when we meet together in conferences such as this, it is not for the purpose of extending bouquets and empty compliments, but to speak out openly and frankly; to subject all our work to thoroughgoing examination and criticism in order that errors may be discovered and overcome. You have the right to expect plain speaking from the Central Executive Committee. I feel quite confident that if some errors in your work are mentioned here in this discussion, if some of the mistakes that individual comrades made are pointed out in a friendly and brotherly, but nevertheless frank manner, as is the custom among communists, that none of you will feel offended. The discussion is only for the purpose of improving our effectiveness and strengthening the party for the fight.

Our valuable experiences

The power of a disciplined party, founded on revolutionary principles, and concerning itself in a businesslike fashion with all aspects of the trade union struggle, has already begun to manifest itself. At the last convention of the Illinois miners, for example, everybody could see that the party is beginning to grow up, to stretch its shoulders, and take its place on the stage of events. Our party appeared there as the leader of the fight for the interests of the men in the mines. It was in the forefront, dealing the heaviest blows against the agents of the bourgeoisie, who have usurped the official positions in the miners’ union. The work of our comrades in this convention added greatly toward making the miners’ union a better union for the class struggle, thereby increasing the prestige of our party. That must be acknowledged at the very beginning.

In a whole series of trade union conventions held in recent months the same phenomenon was to be observed. Our small party, which only yesterday emerged from underground and began to collect the scattered forces of the revolutionary workers, was the storm center of the fight against reaction in the labor movement. We have not yet become the leader of the masses in the trade unions, but we have become the leader in the fight for their interests. The rest will follow in good time. Of this we can be confident.

It is no accident that our party is pushing forward everywhere and putting itself at the head of the struggle. The reason for this is that ours is the only party willing to fight for the immediate interests of the workers, and the only party standing for the solution of the labor problem by means of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. All of the interests of the working class, immediately and ultimately, are indissolubly bound up with the revolution. And if we make mistakes here and there, if we fail to take the fullest advantage of opportunities which arise in the course of the struggle, it is because our comrades in the unions, due mainly to inexperience, have not fully mastered the art of taking a practical stand on every question that arises, and relating it skillfully to the final aims of the movement.

Correcting our mistakes

To do practical work, and at the same time to deepen and extend the class-consciousness of the workers, and lead them toward the struggle for power—this is the heart of our task in the trade unions. From this point of view an examination of events that transpired at the last convention of the Illinois miners will bring forth fruitful results. Our power will be multiplied at the next convention, if we frankly recognize the negative as well as the positive sides of our activity at the last one.

One of the main errors made by our comrades there was the failure to realize fully that the brazen scheme of class collaboration, presented to the convention in the report of Frank Farrington, revealed the political and ideological basis of all the corruption and betrayal of the whole bureaucracy of the United Mine Workers of America, from Lewis to Farrington. Our comrades should have attacked this report in the most militant fashion. They should have shot it to shreds on the ground that it represented the theory of the mutual interests of the coal diggers and the parasites who exploit them and fatten on their toil and misery. Against it they should have set up the principle of the class struggle, the theory of the salvation of the workers through uncompromising struggle against their exploiters.

Such a fight would have been a dagger aimed at the very heart of the corrupt and treacherous trade union bureaucracy, because it would have been aimed at the false system of ideas with which they poison the labor movement. Such a fight should have been seized upon as the best means of opening the eyes of the miners, and making them see their real problem. All the other fights in the convention, the fight over the appointive power, the fight for better legislation in union affairs, for the reinstatement of Howat, etc., should have been regarded by our comrades, and explained to the delegates, as related to the basic fight for the principle of the class struggle, and subordinate to it. This would have been the best means of awakening the honest rank and file delegates, and of binding them more closely to us.

Another error at the convention occurred in the handling of the resolution on the recognition of Soviet Russia. Here again the principle of the class struggle was involved. The Farrington machine played a clever game with the delegates on this resolution, by calling for the recognition of Soviet Russia in one paragraph, and then nullifying the whole effect of the resolution by adding the qualification that Soviet Russia should recognize certain obligations—the very obligations which the capitalist governments of the world have been vainly trying for six years to impose upon her. Our comrades made the mistake of thinking that the question of formal recognition of Soviet Russia was the real issue, and of considering such a resolution a victory for us.

This was entirely too “statesmanlike.” We are for the recognition of Soviet Russia, because it is a working-class state, and because we recognize that the interests of the working class all over the world are bound up with it. The recognition of Soviet Russia is for us an issue of the class struggle, and we should have made the fight purely on that basis, and hammered home again to the delegates the idea that the solidarity of labor, the worldwide union of the working class in the fight for the overthrow of capitalism, must be accepted as the guiding principle of the labor movement. We might have failed to get a majority of the convention if we had put the fight on this basis, just as we might have failed to get a majority in a clear-cut class struggle fight against Farrington’s scheme of class collaboration, but that is a secondary matter. We would have brought the principle to the front. We would have clarified the minds of many of the delegates, and tied them more closely to us. It is not the formal victory but the fight that is important.

Inadequate organization

From the same point of view the inadequate development of the left-wing caucus at the convention should be pointed out. Some comrades objected to these caucuses on the ground that Farrington’s spies might be present and learn something in advance about the fights we intended to make in the convention. This attitude is erroneous. It is the result of over-caution and too much concern for immediate legislative and technical victories. Moreover, it represents, to a certain extent, an unconscious yielding to the position of the reactionary officials who naturally resent any attempt to organize the rank and file against them. This question goes much deeper than appears at first glance. The failure to organize the left-wing delegates at the convention into a fighting body, if carried to its logical conclusion, would lead to the failure to organize the left-wing forces throughout the union. It means giving up, under pressure of the officialdom, the right to organize the Trade Union Educational League. “Don’t make a molehill into a mountain,” is a good maxim; but it is just as good if we turn it around and say to the comrades who are willing to concede this small point: “Don’t make a mountain into a molehill.” If we are making a serious fight to break the control of the trade union bureaucracy we must not neglect to organize our troops.

Our fight for the conquest of the union is at bottom a fight to organize the rank and file workers together with us on the basis of the class struggle. Therefore, they must be enlightened as to our aims and plans.

Conventions should be regarded as the best occasions to advance this process. The conventions afford us the opportunity of coming into close contact with rank and file delegates, of combating by discussion and argument their prejudices and misconceptions, and of uniting them with us into an organized body to fight for the regeneration of the labor movement. The left-wing caucus is necessary for this work.

It is far more important to us if we get acquainted with 10 new workers and make them a part of the organized fight, than if we pass a dozen resolutions in the convention by an accidental majority.

The conscious support of the workers is what we want. We are fighting for their minds and hearts. Do not forget that, comrades. The officialdom can turn our best resolutions into scraps of paper. They can retain office by stealing elections, but they cannot take away from us the workers we have won over to our way of thinking and fighting. The officials can maintain themselves in power, for a time, by a thousand tricks and fraudulent practices. But once we have won the masses over to our side, we can snap our fingers at them. The control of the unions means for us the control of the masses. This, and this alone, will insure our final victory.

Communists and union offices

I want to pass over now to another question, which will become more and more important as our strength develops in the trade unions. It has confronted us already a number of times. That is the question of comrades holding office in the unions and becoming candidates for office. This may become one of our greatest dangers, and one of the greatest sources of corruption of party members, if we do not properly estimate this question and take a resolute stand on it at the very beginning.

In the discussions, which took place here today, we heard the remark made by one of the comrades that our struggle in the unions is a struggle for strategic positions. This is a one-sided view and if we allow it to stand alone, we will fall into a serious error. We must adopt the point of view that our struggle is a struggle to develop the class-consciousness of the rank and file workers and to win them over to the principle of the revolutionary struggle against capitalism under the leadership of our party.

If we will connect the fight for strategic positions with this broad political aim and subordinate it to this aim, we will be on safe ground. Otherwise, we will be confronted with the spectacle of party members regarding the fight for office as an end in itself; of evading or putting aside questions of principle with which the masses are not familiar; of scheming and calculating too closely in order to get into office. Of course the comrades will justify all this on the ground that once they get into office they will be able to do big things for the party. But quite often we will be apt to find the very comrades who adopt this method of getting into office falling into the habit of continuing it in order to hold the office. They will thereby degenerate into mere office-holders and office-hunters. They will lose the confidence and respect of the militant rank and file workers, and our party, which stands responsible for them, will have its prestige greatly injured.

Strategic positions, however, are very important and we must not take a doctrinaire view in regard to them. The opinion expressed here by one comrade that men become petty bourgeois in their interests and outlook as soon as they are elected to office and that, therefore, we should have nothing to do with office, is not correct. It is true that official position, especially in the American trade union movement, has led many men in the past to corruption and betrayal of the workers, but that does not say that communists must be corrupted. We have to hold the conception that a true communist can go anywhere the party sends him and do anything, and still remain a communist—still remain true to the working class. Comrade Lenin was an official. He had more power than Frank Farrington, but he did not become like Frank Farrington. The guarantee against corruption of party members who become officials is that they remain close to the party and that they base their fight for office on the support of the rank and file for the policy of the class struggle, and do not become too expedient and too “clever”—do not try to “sneak” into office by soft-pedaling and pussy-footing on questions of principle which may be unpopular, but which communists, nevertheless, are duty bound to stand for.

A party of struggle

Our party is a party of rank and file revolutionary workers, a party of revolutionary struggle against capitalism and all its works, and we expect comrades who are put into official positions to retain that fundamental conception and carry it out in all their official work. They must not allow themselves to be influenced by their positions into an attitude of over-caution. Above all, they must not acquire an “official” psychology, and fail to do their duty by the party for fear of jeopardizing their positions. We do not put communists into office in order that they may do less for the party, but more.

The atmosphere of American trade union officialdom is a fetid one. It is permeated through and through with customs and traditions of a non-proletarian character. Take care, you comrades who become officials, that you do not sink into this swamp. Remember always that you are communists and hold on to your rebel communist spirit. Do not succumb to the customs and traditions of office developed by the agents of the bourgeoisie, who have fastened themselves upon the labor movement in official positions, but take your own revolutionary ethics and customs with you.

Party discipline

The question of party discipline becomes especially important in connection with comrades in official positions. Comrades so situated must tie themselves closely to the party, make themselves one with it, and regard the party always as their best friend. The close union of a communist official with the party will be the best guarantee that he will be able to retain his revolutionary point of view and do his duty by the working class. The party expects even more discipline to be shown by comrades who become officials and leaders than by other members of the party. It does not fear even the biggest officials who go against the decisions of the party and follow a policy in conflict with it. Comrades who hold offices, no matter how important they may be, cannot act as independent individuals without being called to order by the party.

The test of our work

We can sum up the whole question in a few words. We are not progressives, but revolutionists. Our role in the trade union movement is to organize the masses for the proletarian revolution and to lead them in the struggle for it. All of our daily work must be related to this, and subordinated to it. The test of our work can never be made by formal victories on paper, but by the development of class consciousness in the ranks of the workers, the degree of their organization on that basis and the increasing influence and leadership of our party. Strategic positions in the labor movement are of importance chiefly from the standpoint of enabling the party to advance and develop its work of revolutionizing the masses.

Let us be shrewd and practical by all means. Let us learn how to meet every question that arises in the union, in a realistic and businesslike manner. Let us become experts in the daily work of the unions, and in maneuvering for strategic positions, but let us also remember always the danger of degenerating into mere professional office seekers.

Active unionists, especially those who hold office, are beset by a thousand temptations to turn aside from the road of the class struggle. Only their close union with the party will enable them to overcome these temptations. With the assistance of the party they will learn how to serve the workers in the daily struggle and to connect all their activity with the task of leading the masses toward the final revolution. They will learn how to measure their progress at every step, not by formal victories on paper, but by the development of the class consciousness of the workers and the influence of the party, by the extent to which their activity inspires the workers with that spirit of determined struggle, which is the spirit of communism.

Many difficulties will confront us in the task we have undertaken, but, with the assistance of the party and the International, we will solve them all. We will win over the masses to the side of communism; we will wrest the labor movement from the hands of the agents of the bourgeoisie and convert them into mighty instruments for the proletarian revolution.





Write us