This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP)founded by James P. Cannon and his cohorts following the Communist left-oppositionist principles laid down by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Although this party long ago gave up the revolutionary ghost those who claim allegiance to the heritage of Leon Trotsky must learn the history of that organization in order to learn from their mistakes (and successes). Here, as my guest commentator, is James P. Cannon in a 1944 article detailing the struggle to build that party. The title of his article could serve as a working one for us today, as well.
The Dog Days of the Left Opposition
James P. Cannon
Source: Fourth International, March 1944. Original bound volumes of Fourth International and microfilm provided by the NYU Tamiment Labor Libraries.
Transcription\HTML Markup:Andrew Pollack
Editor’s Note: We reprint herewith another chapter of "The History of American Trotskyism," by James P. Cannon scheduled for publication this Spring.
Our last lecture brought us up to the first National Conference of the Left Opposition in May 1929. We had survived the difficult first six months of our struggle, kept our forces intact and gained some new recruits. At the first conference we consolidated our forces into a national organization, set up an elected leadership and defined our program more precisely. Our ranks were firm, determined. We were poor in resources and very few in numbers, but we were sure that we had laid hold of the truth and that with the truth we would conquer in the end. We came back to New York to begin the second stage of the struggle for the regeneration of American Communism.
The fate of every political group—whether it is to live and grow or degenerate and die—is decided in its first experiences by the way in which it answers two decisive questions.
The first is the adoption of a correct political program. But that alone does not guarantee victory. The second is that the group decide correctly what shall be the nature of its activities, and what tasks it shall set itself, given the size and capacity of the group, the period of the development of the class struggle, the relation of forces in the political movement, and so on.
If the program of a political group, especially a small political group, is false, nothing can save it in the end. It is just as impossible to bluff in the political movement as in war. The only difference is that in wartime things are brought to such a pitch that every weakness becomes exposed almost immediately, as is shown in one stage after another in the current imperialist war. The law operates just as ruthlessly in the political struggle. Bluffs do not work. At most they deceive people for a time, but the main victims of the deception, in the end, are the bluffers themselves. You must have the goods. That is, you must have a correct program in order to survive and serve the cause of the workers.
An example of the fatal result of a light-minded bluffing attitude toward program is the notorious Lovestone group. Some of you who are new to the revolutionary movement may never have heard of this faction which once played such a prominent role, inasmuch as it has disappeared completely from the scene. But in those days the people who constituted the Lovestone group were the leaders of the American Communist Party. It was they who carried through our expulsion, and when about six months later, they themselves were expelled, they began with far more numerous forces and resources than we did. They made a much more imposing appearance in the first days. But they didn’t have a correct program and didn’t try to develop one. They thought they could cheat history a little bit; that they could cut corners with principle and keep larger forces together by compromises on the program question. And they did for a time. But in the end this group, rich in energies and abilities, and containing some very talented people, was utterly destroyed in the political fight, ignominiously dissolved. Today, most of its leaders, all of them as far as I know, are on the bandwagon of the imperialist war, serving ends absolutely opposite to those which they set out to serve at the beginning of their political work. The program is decisive.
On the other hand, if the group misunderstands the tasks set for it by the conditions of the day, if it does not know how to answer the most important of all questions in politics—that is, the question of what to do next—then the group, no matter what its merits may otherwise be, can wear itself out in misdirected efforts and futile activities and come to grief.
So, as I said in my opening remarks, our fate was determined in those early days by the answer we gave to the question of the program and by the way we analyzed the tasks of the day. Our merit, as a newly created political force in the American labor movement—the merit which assured the progress, stability and further development of our group—consisted in this, that we gave correct answers to both those questions.
The conference didn’t take up every question posed by the political conditions of the time. It took up only the most important questions, that is, those which had to be answered first. And the first of these was the Russian question, the question of the revolution in existence. As I remarked in the previous lecture, ever since 1917 it has been demonstrated over and over again that the Russian question is the touchstone for every political current in the labor movement. Those who take an incorrect position on the Russian question leave the revolutionary path sooner or later.
First Trotskyist Conference
The Russian question has been elucidated innumerable times in articles, pamphlets and books. But at every important turn of events it arises again. As late as 1939 and 1940 we had to fight the Russian question over again with a petty-bourgeois current in our own movement. Those who want to study the Russian question in all its profundity, all its acuteness and all its urgency can find abundant material in the literature of the Fourth International. Therefore I do not need to elucidate it in detail tonight. I simply reduce it to its barest essentials and say that the question confronting us at our first convention was whether we should continue to support the Soviet state, the Soviet Union, despite the fact that the direction of it had fallen into the hands of a conservative, bureaucratic caste. There were people in those days, calling themselves and considering themselves revolutionary, who had broken with the Communist Party, or had been expelled from it, and who wanted to turn their backs entirely on the Soviet Union and what remained of the Russian revolution and start over, with a “clean slate” as an anti-Soviet party. We rejected that program and all those who urged it on us. We could have had many members in those days if we compromised on that issue. We took a firm stand in favor of supporting the Soviet Union; of not overturning it, but of trying to reform it through the instrumentality of the party and the Comintern.
In the course of development it was proved that all those who, whether from impatience, ignorance or subjectivity—whatever the cause might be—prematurely announced the death of the Russian revolution, were in reality announcing their own demise as revolutionists. Each and every one of these groups and tendencies degenerated, fell apart at the very base, withdrew to the side lines, and in many cases went over into the camp of the bourgeoisie. Our political health, our revolutionary vitality, were safeguarded, first of all, by the correct attitude we took toward the Soviet Union despite the crimes that had been committed, including those against us, by the individuals in control of the administration of the Soviet Union.
The trade union question had an extraordinary importance then as always. At that time it was particularly acute. The Communist International, and the Communist parties under its direction and control, after a long experiment with rightwing opportunist politics, had taken a big swing to the left, to ultra-leftism—a characteristic manifestation of the bureaucratic centrism of the faction of Stalin. Having lost the Marxist compass, they were distinguished by a tendency to jump from the extreme right to the left, and vice versa. They had gone through a long experience with right-wing politics in the Soviet Union, conciliating the kulaks and Nepmen, until the Soviet Union, and the bureaucracy with it, came to the brink of disaster. On the international arena, similar policies brought similar results. In reacting to this, and under the relentless criticisms of the Left Opposition, they introduced an ultra-leftist over-correction in all fields. On the trade union question they swung around to the position of leaving the established unions, including the American Federation of Labor, and starting a new made-to-order trade union movement under the control of the Communist Party. The insane policy of building “Red Unions” became the order of the day.
Our first National Conference took a firm stand against that policy, and declared in favor of operating within the existing labor movement, confining independent unionism to the unorganized field. We mercilessly attacked the revived sectarianism contained in this theory of a new “Communist” trade union movement created by artificial means. By that stand, by the correctness of our trade union policy, we assured that when the time arrived for us to have some access to the mass movement we would know the shortest route to it. Later events confirmed the correctness of the trade union policy adopted at our first conference and consistently maintained thereafter.
Faction or Party?
The third big important question we had to answer was whether we should create a new independent party, or still consider ourselves a faction of the existing Communist Party and the Comintern. Here again we were besieged by people who thought they were radicals: ex-members of the Communist Party who had become completely soured and wanted to throw out the baby with the dirty bath water; syndicalists and ultra-leftist elements who, in their antagonism to the Communist Party, were willing to combine with anybody ready to create a party in opposition to it. Moreover, in our own ranks there were a few people who reacted subjectively to the bureaucratic expulsions, the slander and violence and ostracism employed against us. They also wanted to renounce the Communist Party and start a new party. This approach had a superficial attraction. But we resisted, we rejected that idea. People who over-simplified the question used to say to us: “How can you be a faction of a party when you are expelled from it?”
We explained: It is a question of correctly appraising the membership of the Communist Party, and finding the right tactical approach to it. If the Communist Party and its members have degenerated beyond reclamation, and if a more progressive group of workers exists either actually, or potentially by reason of the direction in which such a group is moving and out of which we can create a new and better party-then the argument for a new party is correct. But, we said, we don’t see such a group anywhere. We don’t see any real progressiveness, any militancy, any real political intelligence in all these diverse oppositions, individuals and tendencies. They are nearly all side-line critics and sectarians. The real vanguard of the proletariat consists of those tens of thousands of workers who have been awakened by the Russian revolution. They are still loyal to the Comintern and to the Communist Party. They haven’t attentively followed the process of gradual degeneration. They haven’t unraveled the theoretical questions which are at the bottom of this degeneration. It is impossible even to get a hearing from these people unless you place yourself on the ground of the party, and strive not to destroy but to reform it, demanding readmission to the party with democratic rights.
We solved that problem correctly by declaring ourselves a faction of the party and the Comintern. We named our organization The Communist League of America (Opposition), in order to indicate that we were not a new party but simply an opposition faction to the old one. Experience has richly demonstrated the correctness of this decision. By remaining partisans of the Communist Party and the Communist International, by opposing the bureaucratic leaders at the top, but appraising correctly the rank and file as they were at that time, and seeking contact with them, we continued to gain new recruits from the ranks of the Communist workers. The overwhelming majority of our members in the first five years of our existence came from the CP. Thus we built the foundations of a regenerated Communist movement. As for the anti-Soviet and anti-party people, they never produced anything but confusion.
The Propaganda Task
Out of this decision to form, at that time, a faction and not a new party, flowed another important and troublesome question which was debated and fought out at great length in our movement for five years—from 1928 until 1933. That question was: What concrete task shall we set for this group of 100 people scattered over the broad expanse of this vast country? If we constitute ourselves as an independent party, then we must appeal directly to the working class, turn our backs on the degenerated Communist Party, and embark on a series of efforts and activities in the mass movement. On the other hand, if we are to be not an independent party but a faction, then it follows that we must direct our main efforts, appeals and activities, not to the mass of 40 million American workers, but to the vanguard of the class organized in and around the Communist Party. You can see how these two questions dovetailed. In politics—and not only in politics—once you say “A” you must say “B.” We had to either turn our face towards the Communist Party, or away from the Communist Party in the direction of the undeveloped, unorganized and uneducated masses. You cannot eat your cake and have it too.
The problem was to understand the actual situation, the stage of development at the moment. Of course, you have to find a road to the masses in order to create a party that can lead a revolution. But the road to the masses leads through the vanguard and not over its head. That was not understood by some people. They thought they could by-pass the Communistic workers, jump right into the midst of the mass movement and find there the best candidates for the most advanced, the most theoretically developed group in the world, that is, the Left Opposition which was the vanguard of the vanguard. This conception was erroneous, the product of impatience and the failure to think things out. Instead of that, we set as our main task propaganda, not agitation.
We said: Our first task is to make the principles of the Left Opposition known to the vanguard. Let us not delude ourselves with the idea we can go to the great unschooled mass now. We must first get what is obtainable from this vanguard group, consisting of some tens of thousands of Communist Party members and sympathizers, and crystalize out of them a sufficient cadre either to reform the party, or, if after a serious effort that fails in the end—and only when the failure is conclusively demonstrated—to build a new one with the forces recruited in the endeavor. Only in this way is it possible for us to reconstitute the party in the real sense of the word.
At that time there appeared on the horizon a figure who is also perhaps strange to many of you, but who in those days made an awful lot of noise. Albert Weisbord had been a member of the CP and got himself expelled along about 1929 for criticism, or for one reason or another—it was never quite clear. After his expulsion Weisbord decided to do some studying. It frequently happens, you know, that after people get a bad blow they begin to wonder about the cause of it. Weisbord soon emerged from his studies to announce himself as a Trotskyist; not 50 per cent Trotskyist as we were, but a real genuine 100 per cent Trotskyist whose mission in life was to set us straight.
A Noisy Interloper
His revelation was: The Trotskyists must not be a propaganda circle, but go directly into “mass work.” That conception had to lead him logically to the proposal of forming a new party, but he couldn’t do that very conveniently because he didn’t have any members. He had to apply the tactic of going first to the vanguard—on us. With a few of his personal friends and others he began an energetic campaign of “boring from within” and hammering from without this little group of 25 or 30 people whom we had by that time organized in New York City. While we were proclaiming the necessity of propagandizing the members and sympathizers of the Communist Party as a link to the mass movement, Weisbord, proclaiming a program of mass activity, directed 99 per cent of his mass activity not at the masses, and not even at the Communist Party, but at our little Trotskyist group. He disagreed with us on everything and denounced us as false representatives of Trotskyism. When we said, yes, he said, yes positively. When we said 75, he raised the bid. When we said, “Communist League of America,” he called his group the “Communist League of Struggle” to make it stronger. The heart and core of the fight with Weisbord was this question of the nature of our activities. He was impatient to jump into mass work over the head of the Communist Party. We rejected his program and he denounced us in one thick mimeographed bulletin after another.
Some of you may perhaps have the ambition to become historians of the movement, or at least students of the history of the movement. If so, these informal lectures of mine can serve as guide posts for a further study of the most important questions and turning points. There is no lack of literature. If you dig for it, you will find literally bales of mimeographed bulletins devoted to criticism and denunciation of our movement—and especially of me, for some reason. That sort of thing has happened so often that I long ago learned to accept it as matter of course. Whenever anybody goes crazy in our movement he begins to denounce me at the top of his voice, entirely aside from provocation of any sort on my part. So Weisbord denounced us, particularly me, but we fought it out. We stuck to our course.
There were impatient people in our ranks who thought that Weisbord’s prescription might be worth trying, a way for a poor little group to get rich quick. It is very easy for isolated people, gathered together in a small room, to talk themselves into the most radical proposals unless they retain a sense of proportion, of sanity and realism. Some of our comrades, disappointed at our slow growth, were lured by this idea that we needed only a program of mass work in order to go out and get the masses. This sentiment grew to such an extent that Weisbord created a little faction inside our organization. We were obliged to declare an open meeting for discussion. We admitted Weisbord, who wasn’t a formal member, and gave him the right to the floor. We debated the question hammer and tongs. Eventually we isolated Weisbord. He never enrolled more than 13 members in his group in New York. This little group went through a series of expulsions and splits and eventually disappeared from the scene.
We consumed an enormous amount of time and energy debating and fighting out this question. And not only with Weisbord. In those days we were continually pestered by impatient people in our ranks. The difficulties of the time pressed heavily upon us. Week after week and month after month we appeared to be gaining hardly an inch. Discouragement set in, and with it the demand for some scheme to grow faster, some magic formula. We fought it down, talked it down, and held our group on the right line, kept its face turned to the one possible source of healthy growth: the ranks of the Communist workers who still remained under the influence of the Communist Party.
“Third Period” Policies
The Stalinist “left turn” piled up new difficulties for us. This turn was in part designed by Stalin to cut the ground from under the feet of the Left Opposition; it made the Stalinists appear more radical even than the Left Opposition of Trotsky. They threw the Lovestoneites out of the party as “right wingers,” turned the party leadership over to Foster and Company and proclaimed a left policy. By this maneuver they dealt us a devastating blow. The disgruntled elements in the party, who had been inclined toward us and who had opposed the opportunism of the Lovestone group, became reconciled to the party. They used to say to us: “You see, you were wrong. Stalin is correcting everything. He is taking a radical position all along the line in Russia, America and everywhere else.” In Russia the Stalin bureaucracy declared war on the kulaks. All over the world the ground was being cut from under the feet of the Left Opposition. A whole series of capitulations took place in Russia. Radek and others gave up the fight on the excuse that Stalin had adopted the policy of the Opposition. There were, I would say, perhaps hundreds of Communist Party members, who had been leaning towards us, who gained the same impression and returned to Stalinism in the period of the ultra-left swing.
Those were the real dog days of the Left Opposition. We had gone through the first six months with rather steady progress and formed our national organization at the conference with high hopes. Then recruitment from the party membership suddenly stopped. After the expulsion of the Lovestoneites, a wave of illusion swept through the Communist Party. Reconciliation with Stalinism became the order of the day. We were stymied. And then began the big noise of the first Five Year Plan. The Communist Party members were fired with enthusiasm by the Five Year Plan which the Left Opposition had originated and demanded. The panic in the United States, the “depression,” caused a great wave of disillusionment with capitalism. The Communist Party in that situation appeared to be the most radical and revolutionary force in the country. The party began to grow and swell its ranks and to attract sympathizers in droves.
We, with our criticisms and theoretical explanations, appeared in the eyes of all as a group of impossibilists, hairsplitters, naggers. We were going around trying to make people understand that the theory of socialism in one country is fatal for a revolutionary movement in the end; that we must clear up this question of theory at all costs. Enamored with the first successes of the Five Year Plan, they used to look at us and say, “These people are crazy, they don’t live in this world.” At a time when tens and hundreds of thousands of new elements were beginning to look toward the Soviet Union going forward with the Five Year Plan, while capitalism appeared to be going up the spout; here were these Trotskyists, with their documents under their arms, demanding that you read books, study, discuss, and so on. Nobody wanted to listen to us.
In those dog days of the movement we were shut off from all contact. We had no friends, no sympathizers, no periphery around our movement. We had no chance whatever to participate in the mass movement. Whenever we tried to get into a workers organization we would be expelled as counterrevolutionary Trotskyists. We tried to send delegations to the unemployed meetings. Our credentials would be rejected on the ground that we were enemies of the working class. We were utterly isolated, forced in upon ourselves. Our recruitment dropped to almost nothing. The Communist Party and its vast periphery seemed to be hermetically sealed against us.
Then, as is always the case with new political movements, we began to recruit from sources none too healthy. If you are ever reduced again to a small handful, as well the Marxists may be in the mutations of the class struggle; if things go badly once more and you have to begin over again, then I can tell you in advance some of the headaches you are going to have. Every new movement attracts certain elements which might properly be called the lunatic fringe. Freaks always looking for the most extreme expression of radicalism, misfits, windbags, chronic oppositionists who had been thrown out of half a dozen organizations—such people began to come to us in our isolation, shouting, “Hello, Comrades.” I was always against admitting such people, but the tide was too strong. I waged a bitter fight in the New York branch of the Communist League against admitting a man to membership on the sole ground of his appearance and dress.
The Lunatic Fringe
They asked, “What have you against him?”
I said, “He wears a corduroy suit up and down Greenwich Village, with a trick mustache and long hair. There is something wrong with this guy.”
I wasn’t making a joke, either. I said, people of this type are not going to be suitable for approaching the ordinary American worker. They are going to mark our organization as something freakish, abnormal, exotic; something that has nothing to do with the normal life of the American worker. I was dead right in general, and in this mentioned case in particular. Our corduroy-suit lad, after making all kinds of trouble in the organization, eventually became an Oehlerite.
Many people came to us who had revolted against the Communist Party not for its bad sides but for its good sides; that is, the discipline of the party, the subordination of the individual to the decisions of the party in current work. A lot of dilettantish petty-bourgeois minded people who couldn’t stand any kind of discipline, who had either left the CP or been expelled from it, wanted, or rather thought they wanted to become Trotskyists. Some of them joined the New York branch and brought with them that same prejudice against discipline in our organization. Many of the newcomers made a fetish of democracy. They were repelled so much by the bureaucratism of the Communist Party that they desired an organization without any authority or discipline or centralization whatever.
All the people of this type have one common characteristic: they like to discuss things without limit or end. The New York branch of the Trotskyist movement in those days was just one continuous stew of discussion. I have never seen one of these elements who isn’t articulate. I have looked for one but I have never found him. They can all talk; and not only can, but will; and everlastingly, on every question. They were iconoclasts who would accept nothing as authoritative, nothing as decided in the history of the movement. Everything and everybody had to be proved over again from scratch.
Walled off from the vanguard represented by the Communist movement and without contact with the living mass movement of the workers, we were thrown in upon ourselves and subjected to this invasion. There was no way out of it. We had to go through that long drawn-out period of stewing and discussing. I had to listen, and that is one reason my gray hairs are so numerous. I was never a sectarian or screwball. I never had patience with people who mistake mere garrulousness for the qualities of political leadership. But one could not walk away from this sorely beset group. This little fragile nucleus of the future revolutionary party had to be held together. It had to go through this experience. It had to survive somehow. One had to be patient for the sake of the future; that is why we listened to the windbags. It was not easy. I have thought many times that, if despite my unbelief, there is anything in what they say about the hereafter, I am going to be well rewarded—not for what I have done, but for what I have had to listen to.
That was the hardest time. And then, naturally, the movement slid into its inevitable period of internal difficulties, frictions and conflicts. We had fierce quarrels and squabbles, very often over little things. There were reasons for it. No small isolated movement has ever been able to escape it. A small isolated group thrown in upon itself, with the weight of the whole world pressing down upon it, having no contact with the workers mass movement and getting no sobering corrective from it, is bound in the best case to have a hard time. Our difficulties were increased by the fact that many recruits were not first class material. Many of the people who joined the New York branch weren’t really there by justice. They weren’t the type who, in the long run, could build a revolutionary movement—dilettantes, petty-bourgeois undisciplined elements.
And then, the everlasting poverty of the movement. We were trying to publish a newspaper, we were trying to publish a whole list of pamphlets, without the necessary resources. Every penny we obtained was immediately devoured by the expenses of the newspaper. We didn’t have a nickel to turn around with. Those were the days of real pressure, the hard days of isolation, of poverty, of disheartening internal difficulties. This lasted not for weeks or months, but for years. And under those harsh conditions, which persisted for years, everything weak in any individual was squeezed to the surface; everything petty, selfish and disloyal. I had been acquainted with some of the individuals before in the days when the weather was fairer. Now I came to know them in their blood and bones. And then in those terrible days, I learned also to know Ben Webster and the men of Minneapolis. They always supported me, they never failed me, they held up my hands.
The greatest movement, with its magnificent program of the liberation of all humanity, with the most grandiose historic perspectives, was inundated in those days by a sea of petty troubles, jealousies, clique formations and internal fights. Worst of all, these faction fights weren’t fully comprehensible to the membership because the great political issues which were implicit in them had not yet broken through. However, they were not mere personal quarrels, as they so often appeared to be, but, as is now quite clear to all, the premature rehearsal of the great, definitive struggle of 1939-40 between the proletarian and petty-bourgeois tendencies within our movement.
Those were the hardest days of all in the thirty years that I have been active in the movement—those days from the conference of 1929 in Chicago until 1933, the years of the terrible hermetically sealed isolation, with all the attendant difficulties. Isolation is the natural habitat of the sectarian, but for one who has an instinct for the mass movement it is the most cruel punishment.
The Old Print Shop
Those were the hard days, but in spite of everything we carried out our propaganda tasks, and on the whole we did it very well. At the conference in Chicago we had decided that at all costs we were going to publish the whole message of the Russian Opposition. All the accumulated documents, which had been suppressed, and the current writings of Trotsky were then available to us. We decided that the most revolutionary thing we could do was not to go out to proclaim the revolution in Union Square, not try to put ourselves at the head of tens of thousands of workers who did not yet know us, not to jump over our own heads.
Our task, our revolutionary duty, was to print the word, to carry on propaganda in the narrowest and most concentrated sense, that is, the publication and distribution of theoretical literature. To that end we drained our members for money to buy a second-hand linotype machine and set up our own print shop. Of all the business enterprises that have been contrived in the history of capitalism, I think this was the best, considering the means available. If we weren’t interested in the revolution, I think that we could easily qualify, just on the basis of this enterprise, as very good business experts. We certainly did a lot of corner cutting to keep that business going. We assigned a young comrade, who had just finished linotype school, to operate the machine. He wasn’t a first-class mechanic then; now he is not only a good mechanic but also a party leader and a lecturer on the staff of the New York School of Social Science. In those days the whole weight of the propaganda of the party rested on this single comrade who ran the linotype machine. There was a story about him—I don’t know whether it is true or not—that he didn’t know much about the machine. It was an old broken-down, second-hand job that had been palmed off on us. Every once in a while it would stop working, like a tired mule. Charlie would adjust a few gadgets and, if that didn’t help, take a hammer and give the linotype a crack or two and knock some sense into it. Then it would begin to work properly again and another issue of The Militant would come out.
Later on, we had amateur printers. About half of the New York branch used to work in the print shop at one time or another—painters, bricklayers, garment workers, bookkeepers—all of them served a term as amateur typesetters. With a very inefficient and over-staffed shop we ground out certain results through unpaid labor. That was the whole secret of the Trotskyist printing plant. It wasn’t efficient from any other standpoint, but it was kept going by the secret that all slave masters since Pharaoh have known: If you have slaves you don’t need much money. We didn’t have slaves but we did have ardent and devoted comrades who worked night and day for next to nothing on the mechanical as well as the editorial side of the paper. We were short of funds. All bills were always overdue, with the creditors pressing for immediate payment. No sooner would the paper bill be met than we had to pay rent on the building under threat of eviction. The gas bill then had to be paid in a hurry because without the gas the linotype wouldn’t work. The electric bill had to be paid because the shop could not operate without power and light. All the bills had to be paid whether we had the money or not. The most we could ever hope to do was to cover the rent, the paper cost, installment payments and repairs on the linotype and the gas and light bills. There was seldom anything left over for the “hired help”—not only for the comrades who worked in the shop, but also those in the office, the leaders of our movement.
Great sacrifices were made by the rank and file of our comrades all the time, but they were never greater than the sacrifices made by the leaders. That is why the leaders of the movement always had strong moral authority. The leaders of our party were always in a position to demand sacrifices of the rank and file—because they set the example and everybody knew it.
Somehow or other the paper came out. Pamphlets were printed one after another. Different groups of comrades would each sponsor a new pamphlet by Trotsky, putting up the money to pay for the paper. In that antiquated print shop of ours a whole book was printed on the problems of the Chinese revolution. Every comrade who wants to know the problems of the Orient has to read the book which was published under those adverse conditions—at 84 East 10 Street, New York City.
And in spite of everything—I have cited many of the negative sides and difficulties—in spite of everything, we gained a few inches. We instructed the movement in the great principles of Bolshevism on a plane never known in this country before. We educated a cadre that is destined to play a great role in the American labor movement. We sifted out some of the misfits and recruited some good people one by one; we gained a member here and there; we began to establish new contacts.
We tried to hold public meetings. It was very difficult because in those days nobody wanted to listen to us. I remember the grand efforts we made one time to mobilize the whole organization to distribute leaflets, to have a mass meeting in this very room. We got 59 people, including our own members, and the whole organization was uplifted with enthusiasm. We went around saying to each other: “We had 59 people present at the lecture the other night. We are beginning to grow.”
We received help from outside New York. From Minneapolis, for example. Our comrades who later gained great fame as labor leaders weren’t always famous labor leaders. In those days they were coal heavers, working ten and twelve hours a day in the coal yards, heaving coal, the hardest kind of physical labor. Out of their wages they used to dig up as high as five or ten dollars a week and shoot it in to New York to make sure The Militant came out. Many times we had no money for the paper. We would send a wire to Minneapolis and get back a telegraphic money order for $25 or something like that. Comrades in Chicago and other places did the same things. It was by a combination of all these efforts and all those sacrifices throughout the country that we survived and kept the paper going.
There was an occasional windfall. Once or twice a sympathizer would give us $25. Those were real holidays in our office. We had a “revolving rent fund” which was the last resource of our desperate financial finagling. A comrade with rent to pay, say $30 or $40 due on the fifteenth of the month, would lend it to us on the tenth to pay some pressing bill or other. Then in five days we would get another comrade to lend his rent money to enable us to pay the other comrade back in time to satisfy his landlord. The second comrade would then stall off his landlord while we swung another deal, borrowed somebody else’s rent to repay him. That went on all the time. It gave us some floating capital to cut the corner.
Those were cruel and heavy times. We survived them because we had faith in our program and because we had the help of Comrade Trotsky. Comrade Trotsky began his great work in exile for the third time. His writings and his correspondence inspired us and opened up for us a window on a whole new world of theory and political understanding. This gave us the strength to persevere and to survive, to hold the organization together and to be ready when our opportunity came.
In my next lecture I will show you that we were ready when the opportunity did come. When the first crack in this wall of isolation and stagnation appeared, we were able to leap through it, out of our sectarian circle. We began to play a role in the political and labor movement. The condition for that was to keep our program clear and our courage strong in those days when capitulations were taking place in Russia and discouragement was overcoming the workers everywhere. One defeat after another descended upon the heads of the vanguard of the vanguard. Many began to question. What to do? Is it possible to do anything? Isn’t it better to let things slide a little? Trotsky wrote an article, “Tenacity! Tenacity! Tenacity!” That was his answer to the wave of discouragement that followed the capitulation of Radek and others. Hold on and fight it out that is what the revolutionists must learn, no matter how small their numbers, no matter how isolated they may be. Hold on and fight it out until the break comes, then take advantage of every opportunity. We held out until 1933, and then we began to see daylight. Then the Trotskyists started to get on the political map of this country. In the next lecture I shall tell you about that.