James P. Cannon: The New York Unemployed Conference (1933)

James Cannon

Introduction by Workers Action

The following short essay is a transcript of a speech by James Cannon, a leader of the Communist League of America, at a March 1933 conference on unemployment, organized by the Communist Party. The conference represented a rare opportunity for Cannon, since the Communist Party generally excluded Trotskyists from such gatherings. Taking advantage of the occasion, Cannon extolled the virtues of different working class parties and organizations coming together in a united front to fight for common goals.

The speech is a classic example of Cannon’s gift of delivery. It is clear, concise, and the politics strike at the essence of the issue. In fact, Trotsky returned again and again to the indispensable role of the united front in the struggle of the working class for liberation. (See “The Strategic Role of the United Front Approachhttp://workerscompass.org/wp-admin/post-new.php” on this website

Comrades and fellow-workers:

In the limited time allotted for speeches from the floor it is naturally impossible to deal adequately with the whole problem which has brought us into conference here today. I will therefore confine myself to some of the most salient points which must be considered in connection with our next steps on the road to a a broader movement and a more effective struggle. Permit me to refer you to the mimeographed copies of the statement and resolutions of the Communist Left Opposition (1) which have been distributed to the delegates. In this material you will find a more thorough elaboration of the program and tactics which the Bolshevik-Leninists (2) advocate than I will be able to present orally in my limited time.

The conference here today represents a step forward in the direction of a united struggle of the workers against the unbearable burdens of the crisis. The tendency toward such a union of forces in the fight constitutes, from our point of view, the progressive feature of this conference. For it is only when the workers of various organizations and political trends are welded together in a common front that real blows can be directed against the class enemy on the great class issue of unemployment. When this union of forces is lacking, when the comparatively small groups of the workers’ vanguard take the field alone and fight as isolated detachments, the blows fall heaviest on them, the class enemy remains unshaken, and the masses of the workers gain no advantages.

To the extent that the present conference signifies a progressive step toward the united front struggles of the workers, we of the Left Opposition declare our readiness to give hearty support to the movement and to work loyally for its advancement. The invitation which the committee extended to the branches of the Socialist Party (3), to the trade union locals of the AFL, and similar conservative organizations, means in itself and can only mean a recognition of the fact that the unemployed issue is not an issue of any party, tendency, or group, but rather an issue of the class. This is the only way to present the question and to lay the groundwork for a real struggle. But this step in itself remains uncompleted. The roll call of the delegation bears eloquent testimony to this fact.
‘Between the aspirations of the committee which called the conference and the workers’ organizations actually represented, there is an enormous gap. From this we do not conclude that the calculations of the committee were wrong, or that the aspirations to draw the reformist and even the reactionary organizations into the joint struggle are without foundation. No. We only have to conclude that the step taken toward this end must be followed by others.

The tactics of the united front, as Lenin laid them down and as they have been verified by experience on an international scale, must be unfolded in their full scope. It is not sufficient to invite the branches of the Socialist Party and the local unions of the AFL (4) to join us in a common fight. To be sure, that is something. By such an invitation we recognize the fact that the workers in these organizations also suffer from the plague of unemployment and that it is quite possible for them to join in a fight for a program of immediate demands even while they remain reformist and conservative in their political views—even while they retain membership in organizations representing these political currents. That is the beginning of wisdom on the question of the united front (5).

But it is by no means the whole of it. The fact remains that these workers in the reformist and reactionary organizations, who have good cause and very probably feel a real will to fight against the scourge of unemployment, are not ready to break with their organizations and are not convinced that their leaders, who talk against the evils of unemployment no less than we do, do not mean what they say. They are not ready to break with their leaders at the present moment and to respond to appeals over the heads of their official leadership and their respective central organizations. This is the situation as it exists in reality, and not in somebody’s imagination. The problem is to base ourselves on this reality, and to find the way to draw these workers into the common struggle with us in spite of that. For this we must have recourse to the genuine tactics of the united front..

The appeal to the Socialist Party branches of Greater New York brought a response from one single branch, which is represented here alone — and even that branch is located outside the metropolitan territory. The appeal to the AFL locals brought a mere handful of delegates; and even these, in almost every case, come from locals already under the influence of the left wing. Do not shut your eyes to these facts, comrades. Let us not delude ourselves with the idea that we have a united working-class front. For that, we must have a large section of the workers who are absent here today.

If we proceed from the point of view of the committee, that the workers generally, regardless of their political views and their affiliations, want to struggle against unemployment — and I think this is the correct point of view — then we ought to ask ourselves why they have not responded to the call. And if we face the problem clearly, we will have to say that the fault lies not with the workers but rather with the manner in which they were approached. By ignoring the central organizations, by ignoring the official leadership of the reformist and conservative organizations, the committee unfortunately gave these treacherous leaders all the ground they needed to excuse themselves before their own membership for their own failure to participate.

Moreover, it put the locals and branches of these organizations before the problem of acting over the heads of their official leadership and their official central bodies. If you understand something of the mechanics of organization you will recognize that this is an untimely demand. The workers take their organizations seriously, no less perhaps than we do. They do not act over the head of their official institutions and leadership until they are ready to break with the central organization. Do we act otherwise? And cannot we find our way to the reformist workers more effectively if we attribute to them something of the same sense of organizational loyalty that we ourselves manifest?

In the resolutions of the Communist Left Opposition, which I have introduced here, there is a proposal to call a second conference within two weeks and to invite to this conference not only the locals and branches of the AFL, the Socialist Party, the Workmen’s Circles (6), and similar organizations, but also their respective central bodies. I will be answered to the effect that the leaders of these organizations obstruct and sabotage the movement and do not want to engage in any real struggle with the employers and the state. We are quite convinced that this is true. But the AFL and Socialist Party workers are by no means convinced and will not be convinced merely by our denunciations.

The way to convince them is to put their leaders to the test in action. That is the meaning of our proposal to invite also the leaders to join in the common struggle. It puts the conscientious workers in these organizations, those who really want to fight — in a position to demand of their leaders that they translate their words into deeds without in any way, at the beginning, involving a break with their organization. It puts them in a position to bring pressure on their leaders by normal organizational means, to force some of them, if only for a short time, to participate in the united movement and to convince themselves by this test, by this experience, that their leaders have been deceiving them with phrases.

Only in this way, in this process, can we separate the masses of the conscientious workers in the reformist organizations from their treacherous leaders and draw them into a common struggle without those leaders and against them. This is not a revelation of the Left Opposition. This, comrades and fellow-workers, is the ABC of the united front tactic of Lenin.

This is the way we must move. This is the way the movement is tending under the enormous pressure of conditions on the one side, and the bankruptcy of all other tactics on the other. The united front tactic, as we have laid it down in our resolution, is a means for the mobilization of a genuine workers’ mass movement for the struggle against the class enemy. It is, at the same time, a means for the separation of the reformist workers from the influence of their treacherous, phrasemongering leaders.

The tactic that has been employed up till now, despite all the good intention, has served opposite ends. Here in the fourth year of the crisis, the capitalists remain secure and arrogant. The reformist and reactionary labor bureaucracy, in the political as well as in the trade union field, remains unshaken in its position. The vanguard workers’ movement remains comparatively weak, isolated, and ineffective. All the objective conditions point to a different state of affairs. The fearful mass misery, the appalling hunger, destitution, and discontent of the millions is a powerful force to change the whole situation in a comparatively short time. It is to aid this process that the Left Opposition has come to this conference and submitted its resolutions for your consideration.

Delivered as a Speech to the Conference on: 22 January 1933
First Published: The Militant, New York, Volume VI, No. 4, Saturday, January 28, 1933, New York, NY.
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California. Additional bound volumes from Earl Gilman’s collection, San Francisco, California.
Public Domain: This work is in the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1933/jan/unemployed.htm

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Notes

1. Communist Left Opposition: This was the international organization initiated by Leon Trotsky in 1928 in response to the dictatorial and reactionary policies of Joseph Stalin. James P. Cannon was a leader of the Communist League of America (CLA) whose members had been expelled from the Communist Party as supporters of Trotsky. The CLA eventually evolved into the Socialist Workers Party in 1938.

2. Bolshevik-Leninist: This was the term Trotsky and the Left Oppositionists adopted to describe their political outlook and methods as distinct from those of social reformists and revolutionists of action.

3. Socialist Party: The Socialist Party had a considerable following among trade unionists long after the split with the revolutionary wing in 1919. While never a major party, it had a particularly close relationship with workers in the “needle trades” in New York City, and a significant influence among trade union officials.
For more information see: http/://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Party_of_America

3. American Federation of Labor (AFL): The craft union confederation of skilled and semi-skilled workers. It sought to organize only skilled trades such as cigar makers, printers, painters, mechanics, die-makers, plumbers, etc., as opposed to industrial unions such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations which sought to organize all workers at a workplace into a single union.
For more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Federation_of_Labor

4. United Front: The united front is a primary component of revolutionary strategy. At the time, the Communist Party was undermining the concept, alternating from the “front group” or red union to opportunistic compromises with capitalist politics such as its Peoples Front. It called all these formations “united fronts,” completely altering the content of the term. For more information, see Workers Action’s articles on this subject.

5. Workmen’s Circles/Arbiter Ring: At one time Workmen’s Circles were influential in the labor movement as Jewish worker’s associations. 70 years later they are mainly Jewish/Yiddish cultural fellowship and social service providers.
For more information, see: www.workmenscircle.org/index.htm or www.circle.org

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James Patrick "Jim" Cannon (February 11, 1890 – August 21, 1974) was an American Trotskyist and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. Born on February 11, 1890 in Rosedale, Kansas, he joined the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1908 and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1911. He was personally trained by "Big Bill" Haywood, a top IWW leader, and was an IWW organizer throughout the Midwest from 1912 through 1914.[1] Following his expulsion from the Communist Party USA in 1928, Cannon was national secretary of the Communist League of America, Workers Party of the United States and Socialist Workers Party until his retirement and move to California in 1953. He was national chairman emeritus of the SWP when he died in Los Angeles on August 21, 1974.