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Vol. 74/No. 4      February 1, 2010

Lessons on building a
revolutionary workers party
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below are two excerpts from The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for January. In this handbook on how to build a Leninist party, James P. Cannon outlines the proletarian politics that guide a revolutionary communist party. It records a struggle against a petty-bourgeois opposition that erupted in the Socialist Workers Party following the outbreak of World War II in 1939-40. While the political conflict broke out over a debate on the nature of the Soviet Union and the obligation of revolutionists to defend the first workers state from imperialist attack, it soon revealed diverging class perspectives. Cannon describes here the perspective to build a proletarian party in the United States modeled on the Bolshevik Party that led the Russian Revolution. Copyright © 1972 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

For us the party must be a combat organization which leads a determined struggle for power. The Bolshevik party which leads the struggle for power needs not only internal democracy. It also requires an imperious centralism and an iron discipline in action. It requires a proletarian composition conforming to its proletarian program. The Bolshevik party cannot be led by dilettantes whose real interests and real lives are in another and alien world. It requires an active professional leadership, composed of individuals democratically selected and democratically controlled, who devote their entire lives to the party, and who find in the party and in its multiform activities in a proletarian environment, complete personal satisfaction.

For the proletarian revolutionist the party is the concentrated expression of his life purpose, and he is bound to it for life and death. He preaches and practices party patriotism, because he knows that his socialist ideal cannot be realized without the party. In his eyes the crime of crimes is disloyalty or irresponsibility toward the party. The proletarian revolutionist is proud of his party. He defends it before the world on all occasions. The proletarian revolutionist is a disciplined man, since the party cannot exist as a combat organization without discipline. When he finds himself in the minority, he loyally submits to the decision of the party and carries out its decisions, while he awaits new events to verify the disputes or new opportunities to discuss them again….

The petty-bourgeois intellectual, who wants to teach and guide the labor movement without participating in it, feels only loose ties to the party and is always full of “grievances” against it. The moment his toes are stepped on, or he is rebuffed, he forgets all about the interests of the movement and remembers only that his feelings have been hurt; the revolution may be important, but the wounded vanity of a petty-bourgeois intellectual is more important.


I wrote before the last party convention: “Our convention must let the dead bury the dead and turn the face of the party to the workers who are the real source of power and inspiration and well-grounded optimism. We have said this before. More than once we have incorporated it in resolutions. But we have not made the turn in forthright fashion. That is why we are lagging behind. That is the main reason we are suffering a certain stagnation. That is why we are even flirting with the danger of a degeneration of the party along the lines of conservative passivity, introspection, and futility.”

I wrote: “The proletariat of the United States is the source of unlimited power, it can lift the whole world on its shoulders—that is the unshakable premise of all our calculations and all our work … the workers of America have power enough to topple over the structure of capitalism at home and to lift the whole world with them when they rise!”

Those words—the theme of all my preconvention articles last year—hold good today. In retrospect, they read more prophetically than I knew at that time. I did not know how deep, how great, was the “danger of degeneration” implicit in the bad composition of the party in New York and its inadequate contact with the mass movement of the workers.

I said in that article: “Our program has withstood all the tests of theory and experience and stands unassailable.” I must admit that I wrote these words on the assumption that I was stating a truism to which we all subscribed, and that the differences between us concerned only matters of orientation, emphasis, and application. I could not know that within a few months the ambitious plan of expansion adopted by the convention on my motion would be disrupted and crowded off the agenda by a factional civil war in the party.

I, along with other comrades, expected future trouble from the intellectualist wing of our leadership. But we did not foresee that they would undertake to lead an insurrection against our fundamental program, our doctrine, our tradition, and our organizational methods. This demonstration compelled us to put aside—to postpone—the execution of our ambitious plans for external work until the hegemony of Marxism in the party had again been established by struggle. That struggle is now drawing to a close. The victory of Marxism, and thereby of the proletarian tendency, is already assured. On that basis the party convention can and will again decide to implement the proletarian orientation by measures no different in basic content than those adopted at the convention last July.

The convention will meet and conduct its work under the sign of the proletarian orientation. That is the way to meet the coming war. Preparation for war means, for us, not some esoteric special task. It means turning the face of the party to the workers, penetrating deeper into the trade unions. It means taking drastic measures to proletarianize the composition of the party membership. And, in the light of the experience of the faction struggle, the proletarian orientation means above all—and in order to make all possible—a firm decision to continue on all fronts the implacable war against any and all opposition to the doctrine and program of proletarian revolution.  
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