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Socialism on Trial – VI

Posted by devildog6771 on August 9, 2011

Cover of "Socialism on Trial"

Cover of Socialism on Trial

Political Principles and
Propaganda Methods

Defence Policy in the Minneapolis Trial:

Socialism on Trial

Part VI

[Continued from Part V]

By James P. Cannon

6. Marxism and war

Our insistence at the trial that we undertake revolutionary action only with the support of the majority and not over their heads has brought a criticism also in connection with our attitude toward war, but this criticism is no more valid than the others and has no more right to appeal to the authority of Lenin.

Comrade Munis quotes with sharp disapproval the following answer to a hypothetical question concerning what our attitude would be in the event of the United States entering the war (this was before the declaration of war):

A decision has been made, and is accepted by the majority of the people, to go to war. Our comrades have to comply with that.

Munis widens the gap between his understanding of revolutionary policy and ours by strongly objecting to this, as it appears to us, obviously correct and necessary statement. He says:

In the first place, the decision to go to war has not “been made and accepted by a majority of the people”. This statement can be criticised very strongly, a statement that we would censure very energetically if it were made by a centrist. In place of accusing the government of leading the American people to the slaughter against the will of the majority, instead of accusing it emphatically before the masses and of demonstrating to them how the parliamentarian majority acts against the majority of the people, Cannon endorses Roosevelt’s decision as if it really corresponded to the majority of the people.

This impassioned rhetoric contains neither logic, nor Leninism, nor understanding of my statement nor an answer to it. “In the first place”, I didn’t “endorse Roosevelt’s decision, as if it really corresponded to the majority of the people”. I said, “the decision (hypothetically) is accepted by a majority of the people”, the decision which has been “made” by others, for obviously one does not “accept” a decision which he has made himself. But that is only a small point which illustrates that the testimony was carelessly read before it was even more carelessly criticised.*

In the essence of the matter, the majority do in fact accept and support either actively or passively, the “decision to go to war”. This is an incontestable fact, as shown by the complete absence of mass opposition. It is this attitude of the majority which we have to contend with. The fact that the decision was made by others does not help us. It is the attitude of the masses toward the decision that we must contend with.

What can and what should we, as Leninists, do while the masses maintain their present attitude?-that is the question. To make our position clear it is necessary to complete the answer given in the testimony which Munis broke off in the middle. He stops with our statement that “our comrades have to comply” without adding the sentences which explain what is meant by “compliance”. Here are the explanatory sentences:

Insofar as they are eligible for the draft, they must accept that, along with the rest of their generation, and go and perform the duty imposed on them, until such time as they convince the majority for a different policy.

When the quotation is restored in full text it begins to look somewhat different than Munis hastily pictured it. It is nothing more or less than a warning to individual workers of the vanguard, who may be drafted, to “go with the rest of their generation” and not waste their energy and militancy on individual resistance, refusal of military service, etc. Was this warning correct? And was it necessary? As to the correctness of the warning, from the standpoint of Leninism, it will suffice to give two authoritative quotations. The first is a representative extract from Lenin’s writings during the First World War:

Refusal to serve with the forces, anti-war strikes, etc., are sheer nonsense, the miserable and cowardly dream of an unarmed struggle against the armed bourgeoisie, vain yearning for the destruction of capitalism without a desperate civil war or a series of wars.[37]

The second quotation is from the fundamental theses, “War and the Fourth International”:

If the proletariat should find it beyond its power to prevent war by means of revolution-and this is the only means of preventing war-the workers, together with the whole people, will be forced to participate in the army and in war.[38]

This truth is presumably known to all revolutionists. But it was not always known. During the First World War many of the best proletarian militants in the United States knew no other way to express their principled opposition to the imperialist war than by individual resistance to conscription, objection to and refusal of military service, etc. Much precious energy and courage were wasted that way. In testifying before the court, with a view to the publication of the testimony, we assumed that rank-and-file worker militants, to whom Lenin’s tactics are as yet unknown, might read and be influenced by this warning to “accept” with the masses-“until such time as they convince the majority for a different policy”. Our words were primarily directed to them.

We were not even dreaming either of “endorsing Roosevelt’s decision” or of having to defend this ABC formulation within our own movement. We simply intended to say, in words and tone which we thought most efficacious from a propagandistic standpoint in the situation, what Lenin said in February 1915:

What ought the Belgian Socialists to have done? Since they were unable to accomplish a social revolution together with the French, etc., they had to submit to the majority of the nation at the time and go to war … “Citizens of Belgium! … We are in the minority; so I must submit to you and go to war, but even then I shall call and prepare for civil war by the proletariat of all countries, because there is no other salvation for the peasants and workers of Belgium and other countries!” (Our emphasis.)[39]

Lenin, you see, “submits to the majority”. While he is in the minority, what does he do? He “preaches and “prepares”. If this policy “can be criticised very strongly”, then let the criticism be directed against Lenin. He is the author of the policy. We learned from him.

Munis quotes a sentence in the testimony: “We would not support the war in a political sense.” Now, this single sentence, even standing by itself, is perfectly correct. But Munis is greatly dissatisfied with it.

“Why, then, equivocate so dangerously?” he asks. “I see no other reason but that our comrades have committed the very grave error of talking for a petty-bourgeois jury for the more immediate present not foreseeing the future struggles. Would it not have been better to state: ‘We submit to your war, American bourgeois, because the violence of your society imposes it on us, the material violence of your arms. But the masses will turn against you. From today on, our party is with the masses in an irreconcilable struggle against your regime of oppression, misery and butchery. Therefore we will fight against your war with all means.'” (Our emphasis.)

This agitational substitute for the position we elucidated at the trial is false from beginning to end, as we shall demonstrate. The testimony explains what we mean by “political opposition”:

A: By that we mean that we do not give any support to any imperialist war. We do not vote for it; we do not vote for any person that promotes it; we do not speak for it; we do not write for it. We are in opposition to it.[40]

A declaration of war by the United States government would not change our position:

Q: If the United States should enter into the European conflict what form would the opposition of the party take to the war?

A: We would maintain our position.

Q: And that is what?

A: That is, we would not become supporters of the war, even after the war was declared. That is, we would remain an opposition political party on the war question, as on others.

Q: You would not support the war?

A: That is what I mean, we would not support the war, in a political sense.[41]

Under cross-examination by the prosecuting attorney the position was made more emphatic and precise:

Q: And you will seek to utilise war, during the war, to destroy the present form of government, will you not?

A: Well, that is no secret, that we want to change this form of government.

Q: And you look forward, do you not to the forthcoming war as the time when you may be able to accomplish that?

A: Yes, I think the forthcoming war will unquestionably weaken the imperialist governments in all countries.

Q: You said, I believe, that you will not support the war? You do not believe in national defence at all, do you?

A: Not in imperialist countries, no.

Q: 1 am speaking of this country.

A: I believe 100 per cent in defending this country by our own means, but I do not believe in defending the imperialist governments of the world –

Q: I am speaking about the government of the United States as it is now constitutionally constituted. You do not believe in defending that, do you?

A: Not in a political sense, no.

Q: You do not believe in defending it in any sense, do you?

A: I explained the other day, that if the majority of the people decide on war, and participate in the war, our people and the people under our influence will also participate in the war. We do not sabotage the war, we do not obstruct it but we continue to propagate our ideas, calling for a cessation of the war and calling for a change in government.[42]

When Mr. Schweinhaut pursuing the question to the very end, introduced the summary paragraph of the “War Manifesto of the Fourth International”, he was answered by an affirmation of that document which was completely devoid of any “ambiguity” or “inexactness”:

Q: Now, on June 29, 1940, the Socialist Appeal published this from the report of the “Manifesto of the Fourth International”: “Independently of the course of the war, we fulfil our basic task: We explain to the workers the irreconcilability between their interests and the interest of bloodthirsty capitalism; we mobilise the toilers against imperialism; we propagate the unity of the workers in all warring and neutral countries; we call for the fraternisation of workers and soldiers within each country, and of soldiers with soldiers on the opposite side of the battlefront; we mobilise the women and youth against the war; we carry on constant persistent, tireless preparation of the revolution-in the factories, in the mills, in the villages, in the barracks, at the front and in the fleet.” You want the soldiers to do that, don’t you?

A: Yes, I think that is a summation of the idea, for the soldiers and everybody to do that. That is the way to put an end to this slaughter.[43]

In the face of these quotations from the court record one is reasonably entitled to ask: What does Comrade Munis want of us? What more needs to be said before the capitalist court or in a popular propagandistic exposition anywhere? Neither Lenin nor Trotsky, to judge from their own writings, would demand more of our party.

Trotsky, who was an internationalist to his heart’s core, explained that a socialist party, which was in the minority at the outbreak of the First World War, was required to and could only, take up a position of political opposition until such time as “the change in the feeling of the working masses came about”. That is the way he expounded the problem in War and the International. This book, written during the First World War and published in the United States under the publisher’s title, The Bolsheviki and World Peace, is one of the classics upon which our movement has been raised and educated. Trotsky wrote:

The advance guard of the Social Democracy feels it is in the minority; its organisations, in order to complete the organisation of the army, are wrecked. Under such conditions there can be no thought of a revolutionary move on the part of the Party. And all this is quite independent of whether the people look upon a particular war with favour or disfavour. In spite of the colonial character of the Russo-Japanese war and its unpopularity in Russia, the first half year of it nearly smothered the revolutionary movement. Consequently it is quite clear that, with the best intentions in the world, the Socialist parties cannot pledge themselves to obstructionist action at the time of mobilisation, at a time, that is, when Socialism is more than ever politically isolated.

“And therefore there is nothing particularly unexpected or discouraging in the fact that the working-class parties did not oppose military mobilisation with their own revolutionary mobilisation. Had the Socialists limited themselves to expressing condemnation of the present War, had they declined all responsibility for it and refused the vote of confidence in their governments as well as the vote for the war credits, they would have done their duty at the time. They would have taken up a position of waiting, the oppositional character of which would have been perfectly clear to the government as well as to the people. Further action would have been determined by the march of events and by those changes which the events of a war must produce on the people’s consciousness. The ties binding the International together would have been preserved, the banner of Socialism would have been unstained. Although weakened for the moment the Social Democracy would have preserved a free hand for a decisive interference in affairs as soon as the change in the feelings of the working masses came about.[44]

The same idea was explained over again by Trotsky twenty-two years later in his testimony before the Dewey Commission in 1937. He still prescribes “political opposition” as a revolutionary method. At that time France had a military alliance with the Soviet Union and he was asked the hypothetical question by Stolberg:

You are a responsible revolutionary figure. Russia and France already have a military alliance. Suppose an international war breaks out … What would you say to the French working class in reference to the defence of the Soviet Union? “Change the French bourgeois government” would you say?

Trotsky’s answer is especially interesting to us, since the United States today stands in the position of France of 1937 in relation to the Soviet Union, and the hypothetical war has become a reality:

This question is more or less answered in the theses, “The War and the Fourth International”, in this sense: In France I would remain in opposition to the Government and would develop systematically this opposition. In Germany I would do anything I could to sabotage the war machinery. They are two different things. In Germany and in Japan, I would apply military methods as far as I am able to fight, oppose, and injure the machinery, the military machinery of Japan, to disorganise it, both in Germany and Japan. In France, it is political opposition against the bourgeoisie, and the preparation of the proletarian revolution. Both are revolutionary methods. But in Germany and Japan I have as my immediate aim the disorganisation of the whole machinery. In France, I have the aim of the proletarian revolution.[45]

In his “April Theses”, which is a sufficiently authoritative document since it was the program for the revolutionary struggle of the Bolsheviks in Russia under conditions of war, Lenin thought it enough, in dealing with the question of war and the government to say: “not the slightest concession must be made to ‘revolutionary defencism'”; “No support must be given to the Provisional Government” because it is “a government of capitalists”; power must be transferred to the Soviet; and then to add:

In view of the undoubted honesty of those broad sections of the mass believers in revolutionary defencism who accept the war only as a necessity, and not as a means of conquest, in view of the fact that they are being deceived by the bourgeoisie, it is necessary with particular thoroughness, persistence and patience to explain their error to them …[46]

Political opposition (“No support to the Provisional Government”) and propaganda (“patiently explain”)-these are the weapons with which Lenin and Trotsky prepared and finally carried through the proletarian revolution. They will suffice for us too. Our propagandistic explanations of our war policy in the Minneapolis courtroom are neither “opportunistic” nor “equivocal”. They contain the essence of the teachings and practice of Lenin and Trotsky.

The alternative formulas of Comrade Munis, however, contain one error after another. According to him, we should have said:

We submit to your war, American bourgeois, because the violence of your society imposes it on us, the material violence of your arms.

That is not correct. If that were so we would have no right to condemn acts of individual resistance. When militant workers are put in fascist prisons and concentration camps because of their socialist opinions and activities they submit, but only through compulsion, to “the material violence of arms”. Consequently, individuals or small groups are encouraged and aided to “desert” to make their escape whenever a favourable opportunity presents itself, without waiting for and without even consulting the majority of the other prisoners in regard to the action. The revolutionary movement gains by such individual “desertions” because they can restore the prisoner to revolutionary effectiveness which is largely shut off in prison. Trotsky, for example, twice “deserted” from Siberia without incurring any criticism from the revolutionists.

Compulsory military service in war is an entirely different matter. In this case we submit primarily to the majority of the workers who accept and support the war either actively or passively. Since we cannot achieve our socialist aims without the majority we must go with them, share their hardships and hazards, and win them over to our side by propaganda on the basis of common experiences. To accept military service under such circumstances is a revolutionary necessity. Individual resistance, objection, desertion, etc. in this case-directly contrary to that of prisoners escaping from “the violence of arms”-constitute desertion of class duty. The party, which applauds and aids the escaping prisoner, condemns draft dodgers and deserters. The escaped prisoner frees himself to resume revolutionary work. The individual deserter from the military service cuts himself off from the mass who have to make the revolution and thereby destroys his value.

“From today on”, Munis would have us say, “our party is with the masses in an irreconcilable struggle against your regime of oppression, misery and butchery. Therefore we will fight against your war with all means”.

The regime of the bourgeoisie is here justly described. The rest of it is incorrect and contradictory; it “skips a stage” in the evolution of the attitude of the masses toward the war, and precisely that stage which must be the point of departure for our propaganda-the present stage. To say to the bourgeoisie, “The masses will turn against you” in the future, means only that they have not yet done so. It cannot logically be followed by the assertion, “from today on, our party is with the masses in an irreconcilable struggle, etc”.

The masses today, thanks to all kinds of compulsions and deceptions, and the perfidious role of the labor bureaucracy and the renegade socialists and Stalinists, are accepting and supporting the war, that is, they are acting with the bourgeoisie and not with us. The problem for our party is, first, to understand this primary fact; second, to take up a position of “political opposition“; and then, on that basis, to seek an approach to the honestly patriotic workers and try to win them away from the bourgeoisie and over to our side by means of propaganda. That is the only “action” that is open to us, as a small minority, at the present time.

It is also incorrect to say “we will fight against your war with all means”. While we are in the minority we fight with the Marxist weapons of political opposition, criticism and propaganda for a workers’ program and a workers’ government. We reject the pacifist “means” of abstention, the anarchist “means” of individual sabotage and the Blanquist “means” of minority insurrection, the putsch.

It would appear that Munis’ erroneous explanation of the primary reason why a minority revolutionary party “submit” to the war, his tendency to skip a stage in the workers’ development and his lack of precision in speaking of the struggle against the war by “all means”-these errors lead him to slide over to equally loose and ill-considered formulations as to those means of struggle which are open, and advantageous, to the minority party of revolutionary socialism.

7. Marxism and sabotage

The everlasting talk about “action”, as if a small minority party has at its disposal, besides its propaganda-its “explanations”-some other weapons vaguely described as “actions” but not explicitly defined, can only confuse and becloud the question and leave the door open for sentiments of an anarchistic and Blanquist nature. We, following all the Marxist teachers, thought it necessary to exclude such conceptions in order to safeguard the party from the danger of condemning itself to futility and destruction before it gets a good start on its real task at this time: to explain to the masses and win over the majority.

That is why we utilised the forum of the trial to speak so explicitly about our rejection of sabotage. That is why we denied all accusations in this respect so emphatically. Not-with Munis’ permission-for lack of “valour”, but because, as Marxists, we do not believe in sabotage, terrorism, or any other device which substitutes the actions of individuals or small groups for the action of the masses.

There can be no two positions on this question. Marxist authorities are universal on one side-against sabotage as an independent means of revolutionary struggle. This “weapon” belongs in the arsenal of anarchism.

Sabotage was once the fashion in this country-in the politically primitive days before the First World War. Imported from France where it was advertised as a miraculous remedy by the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, sabotage was taken up by the IWW, the left socialists, and the radical intellectuals, who in those days had a decidedly anarchistic hue. It seemed for a time to offer a wonderful short cut to victory for a movement which wasn’t doing so well with the humdrum job of educating and organising the workers for mass action.

The consequences of this anarchistic folly were disastrous for the IWW. The advocacy of sabotage only repelled the masses and left the IWW members in a legally indefensible position. To avoid complete alienation from the workers, and for sheer self-preservation of the organisation in the face of prosecutions during the war, the IWW was compelled to drop the “weapon” of sabotage overboard with the most unseemly haste.

Those who have memories of this unhappy experience, especially those who, as participants in the American syndicalist movement burned their fingers on this hot poker, will be least of all inclined to play with the idea of sabotage again. Sabotage is not the slogan of proletarian power and confidence but of petty-bourgeois futility and despair.

The fundamental theses, “War and the Fourth International” state categorically:

Individualistic and anarchistic slogans of refusal to undergo military service, passive resistance, desertion, sabotage are in basic contradiction to the methods of the proletarian revolution. (Our emphasis.)[47]

Lenin wrote:

Not sabotage of the war, not separate, individual actions in that spirit, but mass propaganda (not only among “civilians”) leading to the transformation of the war into a civil war … Not sabotage of the war, but the struggle against chauvinism … (Our emphasis.)[48]

Munis is especially indignant at our rejection of sabotage in the testimony, but he is wrong in his criticism and wrong even, it would appear, in his understanding of the question:

“The defendants”, he says, “saw themselves forced to condemn sabotage in general, as though it dealt with something criminal”.


For moments there is evidence that the defendants really consider sabotage a crime. If I am not mistaken-and I hope I am-this is a dangerous moral predisposition.

To that we can only answer with the French expression: “It is worse than a crime-it is a blunder”. As to the “moral” aspect of the question-that does not exist for us. Our considerations in this respect are exclusively political.

Of course, if one wants to discard precision of definitions and dump everything into one pot loosely described as “actions”, disregarding proportion, circumstance, and the relation between actions which are primary and fundamental and those which are subordinate and auxiliary-in that case we can argue endlessly in a closed circle But Marxism abhors vagueness of expression; it calls things by their right names-precisely.

Sabotage, to us, means individual acts of obstruction and destruction, substituted for mass action. That is the way Marxism defines it and, thereby, condemns it. Similarly, individual terrorism. But it is necessary to understand that such actions have one quality when employed as substitutes for mass action and another quality when subordinated to and absorbed by mass action. Marxism is opposed to terrorist assassinations, for example, but not to wars of liberation waged by the oppressed masses, even though wars entail some killing of obnoxious individuals. So, also, with acts of obstruction and destruction as part of and subordinate to wars waged by the masses, not as substitutes for them. “Terrorism” and “sabotage” are then no longer the same things. Everything changes, including the attitude of Marxists, according to what is dominant and what is subordinate in the circumstances.

Thus, if it is argued that Trotsky, in his answer to Stolberg, asked for sabotage of the military machinery in Germany and Japan, it must be pointed out that his proposal was made only in the event of war against the Soviet Union. Then sabotage in Germany and Japan would be not an independent revolutionary action but a secondary military measure of support to the mass action of the Red Army. Trotsky never asked for sabotage as a means of overthrowing a fascist or any other type of bourgeois regime from within.

Comrade Munis seems to invest sabotage with a virtue in its own right. We, on the other hand, admit “sabotage” only as a minor auxiliary factor in mass actions; that is, when it is no longer sabotage in the proper sense of the term. The difference is quite fundamental.

Munis writes: “I believe that sabotage is a method for tactical use whose application at certain moments can be productive of contrary effects to what is intended.” (Our emphasis.)

This is putting the question upside down. Sabotage produces “contrary effects”, not once in a while but always, when it is employed by itself as a substitute for mass action; like all anarchistic methods it tends to disorganise and demoralise the mass movement which alone can bring us to socialism through the proletarian revolution. Munis’ formulation, contrasted to that of Trotsky in his article, “Learn to Think”, shows a great difference of conception. Trotsky wrote:

The proletarian party does not resort to artificial methods, such as burning warehouses, setting off bombs, wrecking trains, etc., in order to bring about the defeat of its own government Even if it were successful on this road, the military defeat would not at all lead to revolutionary success, a success which can be assured only by the independent movement of the proletariat …

The methods of struggle change, of course, when the struggle enters the openly revolutionary phase. Civil war is a war, and in this aspect has its particular laws. In civil war, bombing of warehouses, wrecking of trains and all other forms of military “sabotage” are inevitable. Their appropriateness is decided by purely military considerations-civil war continues revolutionary politics but by other-precisely military-means.[49]

Sabotage is admissible as a weapon of the proletarian movement only “in quotation marks” as elucidated by Trotsky. That is, when, strictly speaking, it is no longer sabotage, but a minor military measure supplementing mass action. Whoever speaks of sabotage in any other framework does not speak the language of Marxism.

8. Defensive formulations and the organisation of action

In general, it may be said that the source of all the criticism of our expositions at the Minneapolis trial is to be found in the apparent rejection of defensive formulations, and in counterposing “offensive action” to them. But the essence of the whole question consists in this, that defensive formulations prepare and help to create genuine mass actions, while “calls to action”, not so prepared, usually echo in the void. It is not by accident that those revolutionists who understand this are precisely the ones who have shown the capacity to organise actions when the conditions for them are present. The ultraleft sectarians, meantime, who do not understand the best mechanism for the organisation of actions-that is, precisely, defensive formulations-always remain alone and isolated with their impatient slogans and their self-imagined intransigence.

Our critics explain our resort to defensive formulations by the theory that our strategy in court was determined above all by concern to obtain light sentences. “Our comrades … try to make an honourable impression on the jury without taking into consideration that they should talk for the masses.” We seem to “have one policy for the masses and another for appearances before a bourgeois judge”.

However, this appraisal of the motives of the defendants, which falls short of flattery, is somewhat contradicted by the fact that we immediately published the testimony in our press and then republished it in thousands of copies in pamphlet form, “for the masses”. We do not deny anyone the right to his opinion as to the moral content of our conduct at the trial, and we do not intend even to debate the question on that ground. In this domain “actions speak louder than words”. But we shall attempt a political exposition, basing ourselves on Marxist authority, of the role of defensive formulations in the organisation of proletarian mass action.

Also, defensive formulations are an indispensable medium for teaching the masses, who will not be convinced by theory but only by their own experience and propaganda related thereto. This experience of the masses proceeds in the main along the line of defensive actions. That is why defensive formulations are most easily comprehensible and represent the best approach of the revolutionary Marxists to the masses. Finally, it is a tactical and legal consideration of no small importance in a bourgeois-democratic country that defensive formulas partially disarm the class enemy; or in any case, make their attacks more difficult and costly. Why should such advantages be thrown away?

Defensive formulations retain their efficiency in all actions involving masses, from the most elementary economic strikes to the open struggle for power. Those who aspire to organise action ought to know this.

American economic strikes have been explosively violent and the violence has not all been on one side. The instinctive militancy of the workers, as revealed in these strikes, would indicate that when the time comes for grandiose revolutionary actions, these same workers will remain true to their tradition and not be paralysed by Quakerism.

Every strike leader worth his salt knows, however, that strikers are not mobilised and sent into action against strikebreakers, thugs and lawbreaking cops by lecturing them on the virtues of violence and “calling” them to take the “offensive”. The workers, militant and courageous as they may be, prefer victory by peaceful means; and in this they only show good sense. In addition strikers, at the beginning, almost invariably entertain illusions about the impartiality of the public authorities and tend to assume that they, as well as the bosses and their hirelings, will respect the rights of the strikers and the justice of their cause.

They need experience, which as a rule is soon forthcoming, to change their attitude and move them to militant action. They need also some assurance that legal right is on their side. Strike leaders who seek not self-expression but victory in the strike, who understand that it can be won only by means of mass solidarity and mass action, must take these illusions and sentiments of the workers into account as the point of departure. Strike leaders can in no case begin with loose-mouthed “calls” for violent offensive action by the strikers. The first task is to explain the implacable nature of the struggle in which the self-interest of the bosses excludes fair play, and the role of the public authorities as political servants of the bosses; the second task is to warn the workers to expect violent attacks; and the third task is to prepare and organise the workers to defend themselves and their rights. Along these lines, and as a rule only along these lines, the struggle can be consciously developed in tempo and scope The most effective mass action of the strikers, as every experienced organiser of mass actions knows, is organised and carried out under defensive slogans.

Matters are no different when the workers’ mass action ascends from the elementary field of the economic strike to the topmost peak of the class struggle-the open fight for political power. Here also the action proceeds under defensive slogans and, to a very large extent also under cover of legality. Trotsky has demonstrated this so convincingly in his monumental History of the Russian Revolution that there remains no ground for serious debate in our ranks on the subject. To the student it should be sufficient to say: There is the book; go and read it. To the critic who imagines, without having thought the matter out that, defensive formulations signify squeamishness or hedging on principle, we say and we shall prove: That is the way the great Russian Revolution was organised and carried through to victory.

Here is the way Trotsky explains the question:

The attacking side is almost always interested in seeming on the defensive. A revolutionary party is interested in legal coverings. The coming Congress of Soviets, although in essence a Soviet of revolution, was nevertheless for the whole popular mass indubitably endowed, if not with the whole sovereignty, at least with a good half of it. It was a question of one of the elements of a dual power making an insurrection against the other. Appealing to the Congress as the source of authority, the Military Revolutionary Committee accused the government in advance of preparing an attempt against the soviets. This accusation flowed logically from the whole situation. Insofar as the government did not intend to capitulate without a fight it could not help getting ready to defend itself. But by this very fact it became liable to the accusation of conspiracy against the highest organ of the workers, soldiers and peasants. In its struggle against the Congress of Soviets which was to overthrow Kerensky, the government lifted its hand against that source of power from which Kerensky had issued.

It would be a serious mistake to regard all this as juridical hairsplitting of no interest to the people. On the contrary, it was in just this form that the fundamental facts of the revolution reflected themselves in the minds of the masses. (Our emphasis.)[50]


Although an insurrection can win only on the offensive, it develops better, the more it looks like self-defence. A piece of official sealing-wax on the door of the Bolshevik editorial rooms-as a military measure that is not much. But what a superb signal for battle!”[51]

On the night of the victorious insurrection the Bolsheviks accused the official government as “conspirators” making an “assault” which had to be forcibly resisted:

Telephonograms to all districts and units of the garrison announced the event: “The enemy of the people took the offensive during the night. The Military Revolutionary Committee is leading the resistance to the assault of the conspirators.” The conspirators-these were the institutions of the official government. From the pen of revolutionary conspirators this term came as a surprise, but it wholly corresponded to the situation and to the feelings of the masses.[52]

This accusation was broadcast to the whole country. The insurrection was justified as a reply to the “offensive” of the enemy:

The sailor Kurkov has remembered: “We got word from Trotsky to broadcast … that the counterrevolution had taken the offensive.” Here too the defensive formulation concealed a summons to insurrection addressed to the whole country.[53]

At every step, as the struggle unfolded and neared its climax, the Bolsheviks clung to their defensive formula, not as a petty deception but because that is the way the issue appeared to the workers and soldiers. Even at a caucus of Bolshevik delegates to the Soviet Congress, held on October 24, that is, the day of the insurrection, they still found it necessary to retain the “defensive envelope of the attack”. Says Trotsky:

There could be no talk of expounding before this caucus the whole plan of the insurrection. Whatever is said at a large meeting inevitably gets abroad. It was still impossible even to throw off the defensive envelope of the attack without creating confusion in the minds of certain units of the garrison. But it was necessary to make the delegates understand that a decisive struggle had already begun, and that it would remain only for the Congress to crown it.[54]

On October 23, the day before the insurrection, an all-city conference of the Red Guard was held in Petrograd. The resolution adopted by the conference, says Trotsky:

… defined the Red Guard as “an organisation of the armed forces of the proletariat for the struggle against counterrevolution and the defence of the conquests of the revolution. Observe this: that twenty-four hours before the insurrection the task was still defined in terms of defence and not attack.[55]

Naturally, being Bolsheviks, their “defence” had nothing in common with the policy of folded arms. They were prepared for eventualities but they never gave up the advantage of “seeming on the defensive”. Trotsky spoke at the caucus of Bolshevik delegates on the 24th:

Referring to recent articles of Lenin, Trotsky demonstrated that “a conspiracy does not contradict the principles of Marxism”, if objective relations make an insurrection possible and inevitable. “The physical barrier on the road to power must be overcome by a blow …” However, up till now the policy of the Military Revolutionary Committee has not gone beyond the policy of self-defence. Of course this self-defence must be understood in a sufficiently broad sense. To assure the publication of the Bolshevik press with the help of armed forces, or to retain the Aurora in the waters of the Neva-“Comrades, is that not self-defence?-It is defence!” If the government intends to arrest us, we have machine guns on the roof of Smolny in preparation for such an event. “That also, comrades, is a measure of defence.”[56]

Trotsky painstakingly explains how the October Revolution was developed by defensive formulations from link to link over a period of thirteen or sixteen days during which “hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers took direct action, defensive in form, but aggressive in essence”. At the end of that time, the masses being fully mobilised, there remained “only a rather narrow problem”-the insurrection, the success of which was assured:

The October revolution can be correctly understood only if you do not limit your field of vision to its final link. During the last days of February the chess game of insurrection was played out from the first move to the last-that is to the surrender of the enemy. At the end of October the main part of the game was already in the past. And on the day of insurrection it remained to solve only a rather narrow problem: mate in two moves. The period of revolution, therefore, must be considered to extend from the 9th of October, when the conflict about the garrison began, or from the 12th, when the resolution was passed to create a Military Revolutionary Committee. The enveloping manoeuver extended over more than two weeks. The more decisive part of it lasted five to six days-from the birth of the Military Revolutionary Committee to the capture of the Winter Palace. During this whole period hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers took direct action, defensive in form, but aggressive in essence. The final stage, when the insurrectionaries at last threw off the qualifications of the dual power with its dubious legality and defensive phraseology, occupied exactly twenty-four hours: from 2 o’clock on the night of the 25th to 2 o’clock on the night of the 26th.[57]

Up to the decisive moment the Bolsheviks not only insisted on the defensive form of their actions; they also held onto Soviet legality “of which the masses were extremely jealous”. It must have been a shock to Mr. Schweinhaut, the government prosecutor at the Minneapolis trial, when we defended the “legality” of the October Revolution. He, like many others, imagined that Bolsheviks disdainfully cast aside such trifles as legal justifications even when they are available. The prosecutor must have been still more discomfited when we proved the legality of the revolution under cross-examination. And we were not dissimulating. Trotsky explained this question also in his refutation of Professor Pokrovsky who had attempted to make fun of the “legalistic” contentions of the Bolsheviks. Trotsky would not let such arguments pass even in the guise of jesting remarks. He answered:

Professor Pokrovsky denies the very importance of the alternative: Soviet or party. Soldiers are no formalists, he laughs: they did not need a Congress of Soviets in order to overthrow Kerensky. With all its wit such a formulation leaves unexplained the problem: Why create soviets at all if the party is enough? “It is interesting”, continues the professor, “that nothing at all came of this aspiration to do everything almost legally, with soviet legality, and the power at the last moment was taken not by the Soviet, but by an obviously ‘illegal’ organisation created ad hoc“. Pokrovsky here cites the fact that Trotsky was compelled “in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee”, and not the Soviet, to declare the government of Kerensky non-existent. A most unexpected conclusion! The Military Revolutionary Committee was an elected organ of the Soviet. The leading role in the Committee in the overturn did not in any sense violate that soviet legality which the professor makes fun of but of which the masses were extremely jealous.[58]

After these explanations of Trotsky about the defensive slogans whereby the Bolsheviks organised their victorious struggle for power it should not be necessary to say anything more on the subject. The method here acquires unimpeachable authority by virtue of the fact that it was not only expounded, but also successfully applied to the greatest revolution in history. In this light the defensive formulations employed by us in the Minneapolis trial, far from being repudiated, must be underscored more decisively. They are the right formulations for a propagandistic approach to the American workers. And they are the best methods for the mobilisation of the workers for mass action throughout all stages of the development of the proletarian revolution in the United States.

New York, May 1942

Speech on the Way to Prison

By James P. Cannon

This last opportunity to speak to you for a period, comrades, is also the first opportunity I have had to thank you all for the gifts that were presented to me and Rose on the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of our movement. We were both given gold watches by the comrades of Local New York. While I will not be able to take the watch with me to Sandstone penitentiary, I will nevertheless be able to take something even more valuable than the watch or any other material gift. That is the memory of your kindness and your friendship.

It is always the most important thing in a new situation to understand what it is, to know exactly what has happened and why. Trotsky taught us that, among so many other things. He frequently repeated his favorite motto, from Spinoza: “Neither to weep nor to laugh, but to understand”.

The new situation is very clear to us, and I think our understanding is accurate. As the United States began to gear all its machinery for entry into the new imperialist war, it became necessary again to fool the people. Here, as throughout the world, a tremendous, worldwide mechanism of deception, falsification, and misrepresentation was turned loose on the people. It was once said that in every war the first casualty is the truth, and surely the truth was the first casualty of this war. The world is flooded, inundated by lies. We are living, you might say, in the epoch of the lie. Natalia Trotsky, in a letter she wrote to us not long ago, said that the lie has entered like a geologic layer into the spiritual life of the people of the world: but even geologic layers are not indestructible. The coming social revolution will blow the stratum of lies to bits, as a volcano blows up a geologic stratum.

In this time, when the people of the world, and the people of America among them, needed one thing more than anything else-to know the truth-they were fed on lies. All those in public life, all the political parties; all the preachers, priests, and rabbis; all the intellectuals who had promised to instruct and educate and inform the youth-they all betrayed the people of America; they sold them out and went over to the camp of the liars and deceivers. Our party alone did not betray, did not sell out. We Trotskyists told the truth. That is the reason, and the only reason, we are on our way to prison. We obeyed the first commandment in the decalogue of Trotskyism, which reads: “Thou shalt not lie”.

We are not criminals, as you know, and as all of the others know. We are not going to prison for any fault or injury committed against unoffending people. We didn’t kill, we didn’t steal, and we didn’t lie. On the contrary, we have been just and truthful. All the criminals are on the other side. And all the liars are on the other side, beginning with the judge and prosecutor in Minneapolis and ending with the highest court in the land. That is where the criminals are. I say that those nine black-gowned justices of the Supreme Court in Washington are just as criminal as any of them. They are on a level with Roosevelt and Biddle, who started the prosecution, and the lesser figures who carried it through. The august court did not pass judgment upon us. They played the ignominious role of Pontius Pilate, who washed his hands.

The Supreme Court of the United States, many of whom were once members of the American Civil Liberties Union-democrats, if you please, and liberals who frowned upon the morality of the Bolsheviks and the Marxists-showed us what their morality consists of. They were not concerned if honest people had been condemned. They were not concerned if the treasured Bill of Rights had been trampled into the mire. They didn’t see the act. They turned away. They washed their hands.

I say they are all liars and conspirators. They are all on the side of the rich and the privileged, and their actions, from beginning to end, have been entirely consistent with this position. Everything, from the time when Roosevelt gave Biddle instructions to start the prosecutions against us, up to the trial, up to the verdict and the condemnation, up to the sentencing in the federal court of Judge Joyce, up to the Pontius Pilate action of the Supreme Court of the United States-everything is consistent, everything is in order in the camp of the liars, the friends of the rich and privileged.

But how do matters stand with us? Are we consistent too? Yes, indeed. Everything is in order on our side. We neither laugh nor weep; we understand. We have understood from the beginning what might be the consequences of our undertaking. All people pay for their ideas what they think the ideas are worth. If some men are not prepared to pay with the sacrifice of one day’s liberty or the missing of one meal or a little inconvenience for the sake of their ideas, they are only saying thereby that they set no serious value upon them. But we think our ideas are the most important thing in this world, that they represent the whole future of mankind. That is why, if we have to pay even a high price for the sake of those ideas, we pay it without whimpering. We are Trotskyists, you remember, and that means we are political people of a different breed.

The Trotskyist party is not like the other parties. It is a different kind of a party, different not in degree, but in kind, in quality. Other parties and other politicians set limits to what they will do. But the Trotskyists set no limit on what they will do for their ideas and, in the last analysis, they set no limits on the price they are prepared to pay for them. The others play for pennies, but the Trotskyist stakes his head. Therein is the difference. Therein is the chasm that separates the vanguard of the coming proletarian revolution from all politicians and parties who merely dabble with the idea.

I am not one of those who take lightly the iniquity that has been perpetrated against us. It is a severe and cruel punishment. We who love freedom and live for the idea of freedom are condemned to lose it for ourselves. We will not be free to come and go as we please. Our days and nights, through the long months leading up to the end of our sentence, will be regulated, and all our movements will be circumscribed by others. That will not be easy for rebels to bear. We will be forced into inactivity. What can be more cruel to a revolutionary activist than to be deprived of the opportunity to take part in the movement which means life to him-the very breath of life?

And then, also, it is no light matter that we have to be separated from our families, and they from us. True, we don’t cry, and, as Rose said so magnificently in her speech here tonight, our women don’t mope. But, nevertheless, we are human too. If we are struck a blow, we hurt; and if we are stabbed, we bleed. Separation from those whose lives are bound to us in an intimate personal way is no less cruel a punishment for us than it would be for others. Perhaps it is even more cruel because our personal intimate associations are bound up with a complete community of ideas and activity in every element of life. Such associations are perhaps a little closer, even a little dearer, if you will, than those of people who don’t value ideas very much and who, consequently, don’t attract to themselves personal associations such as ours.

But even if it hurts a little more, we can stand it better than the others because we are doing it on behalf of a cause that is more important than our personal lives. It is the cause that lifts us up and gives us strength. Socialism is greater than a mother and dearer than a wife. Knowing that, and knowing that our separation is forced upon us because of our devotion to the higher cause, is what makes it possible to bear and to withstand.

We haven’t been taken by surprise. We have not been suddenly pulled up short and required to make a decision whether we are prepared to pay this price. Our decision was made in advance. We knew to begin with that to tell the truth, to take up the cause of the poor and the persecuted against the rich and the mighty, to tell the truth in the face of all the liars in the world-we knew that course entailed risks. I knew that more than thirty years ago when I entered the socialist movement as a youth.

Socialism lifted me out of the drab surroundings and meager life of the poor town of Rosedale, Kansas, and showed me the vision of a new world. I thought it was good. I thought it worth fighting for. I was ready, more than thirty years ago, to fight for it at all hazards.

Nothing has ever changed my sense of proportion and of values in that respect. Neither persecution, nor poverty, nor hardship, nor the long days of internal struggles and factional quarrels that sear the souls of men in the political movement-none of that was able to change me or break me, because I never forgot what I started out to fight for. I kept undimmed my vision of the socialist future of mankind. Having that attitude, as all of the eighteen do, we can put so-called sacrifices in their proper setting and attribute to them their right place with a due sense of proportion.

Ben Hanford, one of the best loved of all the early socialist agitators in this country, once objected to a comrade’s statement that he had made great sacrifices for the movement. He said he had received from the socialist movement something far greater and far better than he had ever been able to contribute to it. He had only been able to give time, effort and material means, but the socialist movement had given him a cause that was bigger than self. Therefore, he had a warrant for living in a world of poverty, hardship, discrimination, and injustice. “So please don’t speak of my sacrifices”, said Ben Hanford. “Socialism made a man of me, and I can never repay the movement for that.”

We have not been idle in our time of comparative freedom. We have labored and we have created something that we can leave behind, very sure that it will not fall apart. A movement that is built upon ideas is a power that is hard to destroy. Indeed, it cannot be destroyed.

You remember the tragic time three years ago last August, when Trotsky fell victim to the assassin. Many people speculated that now, with the great genius-leader dead, the movement he had created would be scattered to the four winds and soon disappear. We knew it was not so, because the ideas Trotsky left behind were a mighty cement to keep the ranks together. The party didn’t fall into disintegration. Far from it, the party continued to live and to grow. That will be the case now, too.

We go to prison confident that we are leaving behind us capable men and women who are qualified to take our places in the leadership of the party. They have not been selected in a hurry. When the decision of the Supreme Court was announced, we did not need an emergency meeting and a hurried search for comrades to take our places in the leading positions. That had already been decided by the Fifteenth Anniversary Plenum of our party. But even the plenum decision was only a formality. In reality, the substitute leadership had been decided by the fifteen years of work and struggle in which certain individual comrades had been sifted out. They had shown their caliber. They had come forward, and by common consent they were designated to step into the places vacated by the eighteen.

Our party is built on correct ideas and therefore is indestructible. But, in addition to that, I believe there is in this party of ours an intangible power which reinforces the power of its ideas. That is the spirit of the party-its comradeship, its solidarity. You know the word comrade has been so long abused and so badly defiled by self-seekers and pretenders that honest people sometimes shrink from using the word any more. But in the movement that has been created under the inspiration of Trotsky, with his example always before us, the word comrade has acquired a new, fresh meaning that animates the members of.our movement not only in their political work in the class struggle, but also in all their daily lives and associations with each other. It is not anymore, not with us, a formal and conventional word, but a bond of unity and solidarity. Our comrades are devoted to each other and trust each other. That is an intangible source of power that will yield great results in the days to come.

The grandest figure in the whole history of America was John Brown. In John Brown of Osawatomie, the word and the deed were always in harmony with each other, never in contradiction, never in conflict. When the old warrior went to Harpers Ferry to “interfere”, as he said, against the abomination of chattel slavery, he took a small group of young men with him, among them some of his own sons. They went to Harpers Ferry where they perished because, like Luther, they could do no other. They felt required to do it. When Watson Brown, the son of the old man, lay dying in the firehouse, bleeding from his wounds, with his head resting on an old pair of overalls, the great governor of the slave state of Virginia came in to see him. He said to Watson Brown, “Young man, what brought you here?” Watson Brown answered him in two words: “Duty, Sir!”

I believe that is the case with us. I believe that we have been under the same compulsion as John Brown’s young men were. We were obliged to tell the truth. We saw the abomination of the imperialist war and we were under compulsion to tell the people the truth about it. We saw the vision of a socialist society and were under compulsion to fight for it at all costs and despite all hazards. We have done our duty. And that, to me, on the eve of departure for Sandstone, is the important thing. That is why we go to the next stage of the struggle with a sure self-confidence and self-assurance.

We are historically minded. We know that in the great scale of history our personal fate is a trifle, our lives are a trifle. But the socialist goal of our struggle-that is no trifle. To serve that goal, as we have served it, that is enough. Let the consequences be what they may. Whether we participate in the final victory of the struggle of mankind for its socialist future, or whether it has to be built on a foundation of our bones, it will still be good for us that we took part in it, and we will have our justification and our reward.

No liars and conspirators, no Supreme Court and no prison, can take that satisfaction away from us. We were obliged to do what we did. As a consequence of our truth-telling and our struggle, we are now obliged to go to prison. We go there, however, not as criminals, but because duty takes us there.

[37] Lenin, “The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International”, Collected Works, Vol. 21 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1964), p. 40

[38] Trotsky, “War and the Fourth International”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1933-34) (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1972), p. 327

[39] Lenin, “The Russian Brand of Südekum”,Collected Works, Vol. 21, p. 122

[40] Cannon, “Socialism on Trial”, p. 39

[41] ibid., p.40

[42] ibid., pp. 92-93

[43] ibid., pp. 97-98

[44] Trotsky, The War and the International (Young Socialist Publishers: Colombo, 1971), p. 52

[45] The Case of Leon Trotsky (Merit Publishers: New York, 1968), pp. 289-290

[46] Lenin, “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”, Collected Works, Vol. 24, pp. 21-22

[47] Trotsky, “War and the Fourth International”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1933-34), p. 327

[48] Lenin, Letter to A.G. Shlyapnikov, Collected Works, Vol. 35 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1966), pp. 162-163

[49] Trotsky, “Learn to Think”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937-38), pp. 333-334

[50] Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. III, pp. 278-279

[51] ibid., pp. 207-208

[52] ibid., p. 208

[53] ibid., p. 208

[54] ibid., p. 211

[55] ibid., p. 188

[56] ibid., pp. 211-212

[57] ibid., p. 294

[58] ibid., p. 288

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