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From "Discussions with Trotsky"

June 14, 1940


Trotsky:  Toledano’s speech, reported today in the press, is important for our policy in America.  The Mexican people, says Toledano, “love” the United States and will fight the Nazis arms in hand.  Toledano indicates complete fraternization with the democracies.  This is the first announcement of a new turn by Moscow.  I have a concrete suggestion, that we publish a letter to the Stalinist workers:  during five years your leaders were protagonists of the democracies, then they changed and were against all the imperialisms.  If you make a firm decision not to permit a change in line then we are ready to convoke a convention to support your presidential candidate.  You must give a pledge.  It would be a letter of propaganda and agitation to the Stalinist workers.  We will see.  It is probable that the line will change in some weeks.  This letter would give you free possibilities without having to vote for their candidate.

Cannon:  They will probably change before we return.

Trotsky:  Yes, it is quite likely.

Cannon:  We must exercise great caution in dealing with the Stalinists in order not to compromise ourselves. Yesterday’s discussion took a one-sided channel regarding our relation in the unions, that we act only as attorneys for the progressive labor fakers.  This is very false.  Our objective is to create our own forces.  The problem is how to begin.  All sectarians are independent forces—in their imagination.  Your impression that the anti-Stalinists are rival labor fakers is not quite correct.  It has that aspect, but it has other aspects too.  Without opposition to the Stalinists we have no reason for existing in the unions.  We start as oppositionists and become irreconcilable.  Where small groups break their necks is that they scorn maneuvers and combinations and never consolidate anything.  At the opposite extreme is the Lovestone group.

In the SUP [Sailors Union of the Pacific] we began without any members, the way we usually begin.  Up to the time of the war it was hard to find a more fruitful ground that the anti-Stalinist elements.  We began with this idea, that it is impossible to play a role in the unions unless you have people in the unions.  With a small party, the possibility to enter is the first essential.  In the SUP we made a combination with syndicalist elements.  It was an exceptional situation, a small weak bureaucracy, most of whose policies were correct and which was against the Stalinists.  It was incomprehensible that we could play any role except as opposition to the Stalinists who were the most treacherous elements in the situation.

We formed a tacit bloc with the one possibility to enter the union freely.  We were weak numerically, strong politically.  The progressives grew, defeated the Stalinists.  We grew too.  We have fifty members and may possess soon fifty more.  We followed a very careful policy—not to have sharp clashes which were not necessary anyway so far, so as not to bring about a premature split—not to let the main fight against the Stalinists be obscured.  The maritime unions are an important section in the field.  Our first enemy there is the Stalinists.  They are the big problem.  In new unions such as the maritime, which in reality surged forward in 1934, shattering the old bureaucracy, the Stalinists came to the fore.  The old-fashioned craft unionists cannot prevail against the Stalinists.  The struggle for control is between us and the Stalinists.  We have to be careful not to compromise this fight.  We must be the classical intransigent force.

The Stalinists gained powerful positions in these unions, especially in the auto union.  The Lovestoneites followed the policy outlined by Trotsky yesterday—attorneys for the labor fakers, especially in auto.  They disappeared from the scene.  We followed a more careful policy.  We tried to exploit the differences between the Martin gang and the Stalinists. For a while we were the left wing of the Martin outfit, but we extricated ourselves in the proper time.  Auto is ostensibly CIO but in reality the Stalinists are in control.  Now we are coming forward as the leading and inspiring circle in the rank and file that has no top leaders, that is anti-Stalinist, anti-patriotic, anti-Lewis. We have every chance for success.  We must not overlook the possibility that these chances developed from experiments in the past period to exploit differences between the union tops.  If we had taken a sectarian attitude we would still be there.

In the food unions there was an inchoate opposition to the Stalinists.  There were office-seekers, progressives, former CPers.  We have only a few people.  We must link ourselves with one or the other to come forward.  Later we will be able to come forward.  Two things can compromise us: One, confusion with the Stalinists.  Two, a purist attitude.  If we imagine ourselves a power, ignoring the differences between reactionary wings, we will remain sterile.

Dobbs:  The general situation leads me to believe that we would lose more than we would gain from giving the impression that we are locking arms with the Stalinists.  We have made connection with reactionary people but at the same time we have gained some very good trade union elements, bringing them  closer to true Bolshevism.  We have gained additional footholds.  In steel we have twenty-two comrades in the rank and file movement.  Some playing a very important role.  At the last convention one comrade especially got the biggest ovation at the convention when he made his speech.  Prior to the convention we had only a small nucleus.  Since then we have grown among the rank and file.

Trotsky:  Can we get them to go against Roosevelt?

Dobbs:  Yes.

Trotsky:  For whom will they vote?

Dobbs:  I don’t know.  Maybe Roosevelt.  For us to turn to the Stalinists will sow real confusion in their minds.  It should not be rushed in any case.

Trotsky:  I believe we have the critical point very clear.  We are in a bloc with so-called progressives—not only fakers but honest rank and file. Yes, they are honest and progressive but from time to time they vote for Roosevelt—once in four years.  This is decisive.  You propose a trade union policy, not a Bolshevik policy.  Bolshevik policies begin outside the trade unions.  The worker is an honest trade unionist but far from Bolshevik politics.  The honest militant can develop but it is not identical with being a Bolshevik.  You are afraid to become compromised in the eyes of the Rooseveltian trade unionists.  They on the other hand are not worried in the slightest about being compromised by voting for Roosevelt against you.  We are afraid of being compromised.  If you are afraid, you lose your independence and become half-Rooseveltian.  In peacetimes this is not catastrophic.  In wartimes it will compromise us.  They can smash us.  Our policy is too much for pro-Rooseveltian trade unionists.  I notice that in the Northwest Organizer this is true.  We discussed this before, but not a word was changed; not a single word.  The danger—a terrible danger—is adaptation to the pro-Rooseveltian trade unionists.  You don’t give any answer to the elections, not even the beginning of an answer.  But we must have a policy.

It is not necessary to vote for Browder.  We are against Roosevelt.  As for Norman Thomas, he is just a political misunderstanding.  Browder however is a tremendous handicap because he has a “revolutionary” attitude towards the imperialist war, etc.  And our attitude?  We turn our backs and give no answer.  I understand that the situation is difficult.

What I propose is a manifesto to the Stalinist workers, to say that for five years you were for Roosevelt, then you changed.  This turn is in the right direction.  Will you develop and continue this policy or not?  Will you let the leaders change it or not?  Will you continue and develop it or not?  If you are firm we will support you.  In this manifesto we can say that if you fix a sharp program for your candidate, then we will vote for him. I see no reason why we can’t say this with these ifs.  Does this signify that we have changed our trade union policy?   Not at all.  We continue to oppose them as before.  We say,  if  you seriously consider your attitude to Roosevelt you would have such and such a policy in the trade unions.  But you don’t have such a policy there.  We can’t go along with you in the trade unions.

I would be very glad to hear even one single word from you on this policy in regard to the presidential election.

Cannon:  It is not entirely correct to pose the problem in that way.  We are not with the pro-Roosevelt militants.  We developed when the Stalinists were pro-Rooseveltian.  Their present attitude is conjunctural.  It is not correct that we lean toward Roosevelt.  Comrade Trotsky’s polemic is a polemic for an independent candidate.  If we were opposed to that then his account would be correct.  For technical reasons we can’t have an independent candidate.  The real answer is independent politics.

It is a false issue: Roosevelt vs. the Stalinists.  It is not a bona fide class opposition to Roosevelt.  Possibly we could support Browder against Roosevelt, but Browder would not only repudiate our votes, but would withdraw in favor of Roosevelt.

Trotsky:  That would be the very best occurrence for us.  After laying down our conditions for support, this capitulation would win us a section of the Stalinists.  It is not a strategic policy but a policy for the presidential campaign only.

The fact is that they have developed this antiwar propaganda.  We must consider this important fact in the life of the American workers.  We begin with nothing being done about the Stalinists.

The “progressive” rank and  file are a kind of semifabrication.  They have class struggle tendencies but they vote for Roosevelt.  They are not formed politically.  The rank and file Stalinists are not worse.  They are caught in a machine.  They are disciplined, political.  Our aim is to oppose the Stalinist worker to the machine.  How accomplish this? By leaving them alone?  We will never do it.  By postponing?  That is not a policy.

We are for an independent labor ticket.  But we don’t even have this expressed in our press.  Why?  Because our party is embarrassed.  It has no line on the elections.

Last January we discussed a campaign in the unions to have our own trade union presidential candidate.  We were to start in Minneapolis.  We were to address Tobin.  We were to propose to him that we would vote for him if he were nominated.  Even Lewis.  We were to begin the campaign for a labor president.  But not a thing was done.  Nothing appeared.  Nothing in the Northwest Organizer.

Dobbs:  Perhaps it was my fault—

Trotsky:  No.  That is the bad Hitler theory of history—

I can’t explain it by negligence.  Not just because it is a trade union paper with just a trade union policy.  The members of the party could write letters to the editor.  What do their trade union leaders believe?  Why can’t our comrades write to the Northwest Organizer?  We discussed in detail the technical details.  But nothing was done.  Why?  It signifies an immediate clash with the Rooseveltians—not the rank and file—but a clash with our allies, the machine, the conscious Rooseveltians, who would immediately attack, a clash with our own class enemies such as Tobin.

Cannon:  It is necessary to counterpose trade union candidates in the field.  That would retain our following.  But what I can’t accept is Browder as a symbol of the class struggle.

Trotsky:  That is a bit of false polemics.  In January I didn’t propose Browder.  But you are reduced to Browder or Roosevelt.  Why this lack of initiative?  Why were these six months not utilized?  Why?  It is not reduced to an individual fight, it has general reasons.  I discussed with O’Shea two years ago on this same problem and this same necessity.  With Dunne too.  But the Northwest Organizer remains unchanged.  It is a photograph of our adaptations to the Rooseveltians.

Understand, I don’t believe that it would be advisable for important comrades to start such a campaign.  But even totally unknown comrades could write such letters.  He could write the executive board of the union, asking them what will be the fate of the workers. What kind of a president do we need?  At least five months were not utilized.  Completely lost.  So we should lose two or three months more?

And Browder suddenly becomes an ideal political figure for me!  A little false polemics!

How reach a compromise?  I ask two or three hundred Stalinist workers.  That is the minimum requirement.  We can get them by holding their leaders to a class struggle policy.  Are you ready to impose this class struggle line on you leader, we ask.  Then we will find common ground.

It is not just to write a manifesto, but to turn our political face to the Stalinist workers.  What is bad about that?  We begin an action against the Stalinists; what is wrong with that?

I propose a compromise.  I will evaluate Browder 50 percent lower than I estimate him now in return for 50 percent more interest from you in the Stalinist party.

Cannon:  It has many complications.

Gordon:  On the question of adaptation to Roosevelt’s program by our trade union comrades.  Is it true?  If so, it was necessary for our trade union work.  The trade unionists are for Roosevelt.  If we want to make headway we have to adapt—by not unfolding our full program—in order to get a foothold for the next stage.  We are still at the beginning despite all the work done.   That is one thing, but to make it a permanent policy is another thing.  We are against that.  What is the right time to make the break?  Have we exhausted the period of adaptation?

Cannon:  The failure of the campaign to develop an independent ticket is due to inertia at the center, the faction fight, the tendency to wait in place of energetic application of policies, a feeling of smallness of the party—psychological faults rather than conscious or unconscious adaptation to the Rooseveltians.  The bloc in the trade unions is not a political bloc but a bloc over trade union policy.  It is possible to have an active policy in opposition.  In 1936 we supported the Socialist Party, not Roosevelt, despite the trade unionists giving open support to Roosevelt.  The ideal situation would be for Comrade Trotsky to use his influence with the government to change the laws.

Trotsky:  That is the job of the SWP.

Cannon:  We should have started a campaign six months ago.  During the faction fight there was a congressional campaign.  Browder was running.  Our policy was that it would be best to have our own candidate.  We proposed this, but it was sabotaged by Abern.

But to go out and campaign for Browder, just at the time of war, when we are trying to explain our policy—

Trotsky:  It is precisely one of the elements of explaining that theirs is a false policy.

Cannon:  Support for a labor candidate can be justified, but the CP is entirely different.  The CP is not a genuine workers’ party.

Dobbs:  We are caught short.  The criticisms are very pertinent.  They will be productive of better results, you may be certain.  But we feel that this policy would be completely disastrous.  We would prefer to sacrifice the maneuver for Jimmy Higgins work and put our own candidate on the ballot.  It is not a question of Roosevelt.  We will do anything short of supporting the Stalinists in order to go against Roosevelt.

Trotsky:  Good.  But why not write a manifesto, addressing them?  Give them arguments understandable to them?

But we don’t have a candidate.  It is now too late to have a candidate.  What is your policy?

Good—we will abandon voting for Browder.  We will abandon a manifesto.  We will make a leaflet.  You would agree with a leaflet on the above lines?  We can state our differences with the CP: your party accepts the class struggle only on accidental grounds…

And if your Stalinist worker comes up to you and asks, will you vote for our candidate?  We are a serious political party, where do you stand?  We must give him a serious answer.  We must say, yes, we will vote for him.

No party is homogeneous, not even the Stalinist party.  We cannot change the party but only introduce a wedge to start some of them moving toward us.

Cannon:  In 1920, in the first year of the CP in this country, we had a situation similar to this.  We were in illegality.  A few months before the election and impossible to run our own candidate.  We openly boycotted the elections.  It was completely ineffective.

Lenin wrote us a letter.  He held that we should have voted for Debs.  But at that time there was a strong psychological separation from the SP.  Lenin’s statement produced quite a shock.  And Debs was in prison—not a Browder.

Trotsky:  Yes.  Although Browder is condemned to prison.

Cannon:  There has not been a direct attack or approach to the Stalinists for some years.  Could it be possible?


June 15, 1940

Hansen:  Yesterday Comrade Trotsky made some remarks about our adaptation to the so-called progressives in the trade unions, he mentioned the line of the Northwest Organizer and also our attitude in connection with the elections and the Stalinists.  I wish to point out that this is not something completely new on Comrade Trotsky’s part.  More than two years ago during the discussions over the transitional program, he discussed exactly these same points and had exactly the same position, with due regard for the difference in time and that then it was not the elections but the farmer-labor party that was to the fore.

Comrade Trotsky has also written some letters regarding the Stalinists and the need for a more positive line toward them.  In the past faction fight too, Comrade Trotsky mentioned in his polemic “From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene” the following point, which he underlines: “More than once the party will have to remind its own trade unionists that a pedagogical adaptation to the more backward layers of the proletariat must not become transformed into a political adaptation to the conservative bureaucracy of the trade unions.”  I am wondering if Comrade Trotsky considers that our party is displaying any conservative tendency in the sense that we are adapting ourselves politically to the union bureaucracy.

Trotsky:  To a certain degree I believe it is so.  I cannot observe closely enough to be completely certain.  This phase is not reflected in Socialist Appeal well enough.  There is no internal bulletin for the trade unionists.  It would be very good to have such a bulletin and to publish controversial articles on our trade union work.  In observing the Northwest Organizer I have observed not the slightest change during a whole period.  It remains apolitical.  This is a dangerous symptom.  The complete neglect of work in relation to the Stalinist party is another dangerous symptom.

Turning to the Stalinists does not mean that we should turn away from the progressives.  It means only that we should tell the truth to the Stalinists, that we should catch the Stalinists beforehand in the new turn.

It seems to me that a kind of passive adaptation to our trade union work can be recognized.  There is not an immediate danger, but a serious warning indicating a change in direction is necessary.  Many comrades are more interested in trade union work than in party work.  More party cohesion is needed, more sharp maneuvering, a more serious systematic theoretical training; otherwise the trade unions can absorb our comrades.

It is a historic law that the trade union functionaries form the right wing of the party.  There is no exception to this.  It was true of the Social Democracy; it was true of the Bolsheviks too.  Tomsky was with the right wing, you know.  This is absolutely natural. They deal with the class, the backward elements; they are the party vanguard in the working class.  The necessary field of adaptation is among the trade unions.  The people who have this adaptation as their job are those in the trade unions.  That is why the pressure of the backward elements is always reflected through the trade union comrades.  It is a healthy pressure; but it can also beak them from the historic class interests—they can become opportunists.

The party has made serious gains.  These gains were possible only through a certain degree of adaptation; but on the other hand we must take measures to circumvent dangers that are inevitable.  I have noticed only some serious symptoms which indicate the need for more cohesion, more emphasis on the party.  Our comrades must be in the first line party members, and only in the second line trade union members.  This is especially true for trade union functionaries and editors…