THE SOCIALIST WORKERS PARTY IN WORLD WAR II- JAMES P. CANNON'S WRITINGS AND SPEECHES, 1940-43- Pathfinder Press, New York, 1975
If you are interested in the history of the American Left or are a militant trying to understand some of the past lessons of our history concerning the socialist response to imperialist war this book is for you. This book is part of a continuing series of the writings of James P. Cannon that was published by the organization he founded, the Socialist Workers Party, in the 1970’s, many after his death in 1974. Look in this space for other related reviews of this series on this important American Communist.
In the introduction the editors motivate the purpose for the publication of the book by stating the Cannon was the finest Communist leader that America had ever produced. This an intriguing question. The editors trace their political lineage back to Cannon’s leadership of the early Communist Party and later after his expulsion to the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party so their perspective is obvious. What does the documentation provided here show? This certainly is the period of Cannon’s political maturation after a long journeymanship working with Trotsky. The period under discussion started with his leadership of the fight against those who no longer wanted to defend the gains of the Russian Revolution despite the Stalinist degeneration of that revolution. He won his spurs in that fight and in his struggle to orient the party toward World War II. One thing is sure- in his prime which includes this period Cannon had the instincts to want to lead a revolution and had the evident capacity to do so.
As I write this review we are in the midst of commemorating the 3rd Anniversary of the start of the American invasion of Iraq. As I have argued elsewhere in this space militants must support the call for immediate United States and Allied forces withdrawal from that war-torn country. More drastic action is needed, much more, over the long haul including a change in the form of government but that demand is the minimum basis for action today. If you want to find a more profound response initiated by revolutionary socialists to World War II the Cannon’s writing here will assist you. I draw your attention to three aspects of policy which highlight this book; the historic socialist anti-war policy; the ambiguous Proletarian Military Policy of the Socialist Workers Party; and, revolutionary socialist defense policy against governmental persecution and suppression.
Historically, at least in peace time, most socialist tendencies before World War I had a formal policy against the war policies and military buildup. At the start of World War I most European socialist parties capitulated to their respective imperialist state’s war aims that are rightly understood as a betrayal of that policy. The Russian Bolshevik Party led by Lenin and preciously few other European parties and individuals upheld the Marxist policy against war and militarism. Moreover, one of the most enduring lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 was that the only way to successfully fight against imperialist war aims and stop war is to overthrow the capitalist system of your own country.
As developed during World War I that understanding of socialist policy had two prongs. First, socialists must not vote for or otherwise support the war aims of their own imperialist state. Second, in order to end war and bring in the prospect of a socialist organization of society dedicated to ending war one must actively seek to turn the imperialist war into a civil war. This is the perspective the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, led by James P. Cannon, operated from prior to and during World War II. Thus, they operated within an orthodox Leninist revolutionary perspective. They did this forthrightly and paid the price for it with the imprisonment of its leaders, including Cannon, and virtual suppression of its newspaper. These were severe blows to that small party.
Although the Socialist Workers Party honorably upheld the revolutionary socialist position on imperialist war during this period that party pursued what can only be considered an ambiguous policy that has come down in history as the Proletarian Military Policy. In this perspective the organization was influenced by Trotsky’s theses on permanent war and total militarism. That policy had two parts when it was elaborated just prior to American participation in World War II. One was trade union control of worker military training in case of conscription and the other was control of worker-officer training. The fundamental flaw in this policy is that it contradicts the Marxist understanding of the state which is that in the final analysis the state is an armed body of men (and women) in the service of the ruling class. To call for such controls is either utopian or opportunism and blunted the other orthodox actions that proved the worth of the party. Yes, oppose conscription. Yes, oppose the war budget. Yes, sent your youthful cadre into the army when drafted to influence working class and minority youth. No to this scheme.
As a result of their open and defiant opposition to Roosevelt’s war aims the leadership of the Socialist Workers was indicted before the opening of United States involvement in World War II. Ultimately most of those indicted were convicted and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. This is the price revolutionary must know in their bones they will have to pay for such fundamental opposition. All honor to those courageous individuals. The Socialist Workers Party in response to this governmental persecution created a broad based defense organization to both raise funds and call attention to the plight of their comrades. This was both appropriate and useful. Moreover, the organization properly used the trial as a forum on socialism. This is also a proper response to such persecutions by the government. Cannon has some interesting things his experiences in the legal vs. illegal party debate and the proper tone to take during wartime to protect your legal status when you oppose the government. If you oppose the United States occupation in Iraq read this book. Before we are done you and I may need to use some of the lessons drawn from this source.
James P. Cannon
A Statement on the War
December 21, 1941
Source: Fourth International, New York, Volume III, No. 1, January 1942, pages 3-4.
Transcription\HTML Markup: David Walters
Copyleft: James P. Cannon (www.marx.org) 2005. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
December 22, 1941
The considerations which determined our attitude toward the war up to the out break of hostilities between the United States and the Axis powers retain their validity in the new situation.
We considered the war upon the part of all the capitalist powers involved—Germany and France, Italy and Great Britain — as an imperialist war.
This characterization of the war was determined for us by the character of the state powers involved in it. They were all capitalist states in the epoch of imperialism; themselves imperialist—oppressing other nations or peoples—or satellites of imperialist powers. The extension of the war to the Pacific and the formal entry of the United States and Japan change nothing in this basic analysis.
Following Lenin, it made no difference to us which imperialist bandit fired the first shot; every imperialist power has for a quarter of a century been “attacking” every other imperialist power by economic and political means; the resort to arms is but the culmination of this process, which will continue as long as capitalism endures.
This characterization of the war does not apply to the war of the Soviet Union against German imperialism. We make a fundamental distinction between the Soviet Union and its “democratic” allies. We defend the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is a workers’ state, although degenerated under the totalitarian-political rule of the Kremlin bureaucracy. Only traitors can deny support to the Soviet workers’ state in its war against fascist Germany. To defend the Soviet Union, in spite of Stalin and against Stalin, to defend the nationalized property established by the October revolution. That is a progressive war.
The war of China against Japan we likewise characterize as a progressive war. We support China. China is a colonial country, battling for national independence against an imperialist power. A victory for China would be a tremendous blow against all imperialism, inspiring all colonial peoples to throw off the imperialist yoke. The reactionary regime of Chiang Kai-shek, subservient to the “democracies,” has hampered China’s ability to conduct a bold war for independence; but that does not alter for us the essential fact that China is an oppressed nation fighting against an imperialist oppressor. We are proud of the fact that the Fourth Internationalists of China are fighting in the front ranks against Japanese imperialism.
None of the reasons which oblige us to support the Soviet Union and China against their enemies can be said to apply to France or Britain. These imperialist “democracies” entered the war to maintain their lordship over the hundreds of millions of subject peoples in the British and French empires; to defend these “democracies” means to defend their oppression of the masses of Africa and Asia, Above all it means to defend the decaying capitalist social order. We do not defend that, either in Italy and Germany, or in France and Britain—or in the United States.
The Marxist analysis which determined our attitude toward the war up to December 8, 1941 [i.e. up to the Pearl Harbor raid] continues to determine our attitude now. We were internationalists before December 8; we still are. We believe that the most fundamental bond of loyalty of all the workers of the world is the bond of international solidarity of the workers against their exploiters. We cannot assume the slightest responsibility for this war. No imperialist regime can conduct a just war. We cannot support it for one moment.
We are the most irreconcilable enemies of the fascist dictatorships of Germany and Italy and the military dictatorship of Japan. Our co-thinkers of the Fourth International in the Axis nations and the conquered countries are fighting and dying in the struggle to organize the coming revolutions against Hitler and Mussolini.
We are doing all in our power to speed those revolutions. But those ex-socialists, intellectuals and labor leaders, who in the name of “democracy” support the war of United States imperialism against its imperialist foes and rivals, far from aiding the German and Italian anti-fascists, only hamper their work and betray their struggle. The Allied imperialists, as every German worker knows, aim to impose a second and worse Versailles; the fear of that is Hitler’s greatest asset in keeping the masses of Germany in subjection. The fear of the foreign yoke holds back the development of the German revolution against Hitler.
Our program to aid the German masses to overthrow Hitler demands, first of all, that they be guaranteed against a second Versailles. When the people of Germany can feel assured that military defeat will not be followed by the destruction of Germany’s economic power and the imposition of unbearable burdens by the victors, Hitler will be overthrown from within Germany. But such guarantees against a second Versailles cannot be given by Germany’s imperialist foes; nor, if given, would they be accepted by the German people. Wilson’s 14 points are still remembered in Germany, and his promise that the United States was conducting war against the Kaiser and not against the German people. Yet the victors’ peace, and the way in which the victors “organized” the world from 1918 to 1933, constituted war against the German people. The German people will not accept any new promises from those who made that peace and conducted that war.
In the midst of the war against Hitler, it is necessary to extend the hand of fraternity to the German people. This can be done honestly and convincingly only by a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government. We advocate the Workers’ and Farmers’ Government. Such a government, and only such a government, can conduct a war against Hitler, Mussolini and the Mikado in cooperation with the oppressed peoples of Germany, Italy and Japan. Our program against Hitlerism and for a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government is today the program of only a small minority. The great majority actively or passively supports the war program of the Roosevelt administration. As a minority we must submit to that majority in action. We do not sabotage the war or obstruct the military forces in any way. The Trotskyists go with their generation into the armed forces. We abide by the decisions of the majority. But we retain our opinions and insist on our right to express them.
Our aim is to convince the majority that our program is the only one which can put an end to war, fascism and economic convulsions. In this process of education the terrible facts speak loudly for our contention. Twice in twenty-five years world wars have wrought destruction. The instigators and leaders of those wars do not offer, and cannot offer, a plausible promise that a third, fourth and fifth world war will not follow if they and their social system remain dominant. Capitalism can offer no prospect but the slaughter of millions and the destruction of civilization. Only socialism can save humanity from this abyss. This is the truth. As the terrible war unfolds, this truth will be recognized by tens of millions who will not hear us now. The war-tortured masses will adopt our program and liberate the people of all countries from war and fascism. In this dark hour we clearly see the socialist future and prepare the way for it. Against the mad chorus of national hatreds we advance once more the old slogan of socialist internationalism: Workers of the World Unite!
New York, December 22, 1941