Socialist Equality Party (United States)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (United States)

The Petty-Bourgeois Opposition and Party Organization

At an early stage of the factional struggle inside the SWP, Trotsky defined the Shachtman-Burnham-Abern minority as “a typical petty-bourgeois tendency.” This was not a gratuitous insult. Rather, on the basis of political experience spanning more than 40 years, and which included leading two revolutions (in 1905 and 1917) and creating and commanding the Red Army, Trotsky detected in the minority features characteristic of “any petty-bourgeois group inside the socialist movement.” The list included: “a disdainful attitude toward theory and an inclination toward eclecticism; disrespect for the tradition of their own organization; anxiety for personal ‘independence’ at the expense of anxiety for objective truth; nervousness instead of consistency; readiness to jump from one position to another; lack of understanding of revolutionary centralism and hostility towards it; and finally, inclination to substitute clique ties and personal relationships for party discipline.”[1]

The minority relentlessly denounced the organizational practices of the SWP, all-but-depicting Cannon as an emerging Stalin, the boss of a ruthless party bureaucracy dedicated to stamping out all expressions of individuality. Cannon, not one to mince words, remarked that

The petty-bourgeois intellectuals are introspective by nature. They mistake their own emotions, their uncertainties, their fears and their own egoistic concern about their personal fate for the sentiments and movements of the great masses. They measure the world’s agony by their own inconsequential aches and pains.[2]

Cannon pointed out that the petty-bourgeois minority’s denunciation of the party’s organizational practices followed a familiar pattern:

...The history of the revolutionary labor movement since the days of the First International is an uninterrupted chronicle of the attempts of petty-bourgeois groupings and tendencies of all kinds to recompense themselves for their theoretical and political weakness by furious attacks against the “organizational methods” of the Marxists. And under the heading of organizational methods, they include everything from the concept of revolutionary centralism up to routine matters of administration; and beyond that to the personal manners and methods of their principled opponents, which they invariably describe as “bad,” “harsh,” “tyrannical,” and—of course, of course, of course—“bureaucratic.” To this day any little group of anarchists will explain to you how the “authoritarian” Marx mistreated Bakunin.

The eleven year history of the Trotskyist movement in the United States is extremely rich in such experiences. The internal struggles and faction fights, in which the basic cadres of our movement were consolidated and educated, were, in part, always struggles against attempts to replace principled issues by organizational quarrels. The politically weak opponents resorted to this subterfuge every time.[3]

Trotsky warmly endorsed Cannon’s analysis of the “organization question” and his struggle for a “proletarian orientation” by the SWP. He wrote: “Jim’s pamphlet is excellent: It is the writing of a genuine workers’ leader. If the discussion had not produced more than this document, it would be justified.”[4]


Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism (London: New Park, 1971), p. 56.


James P. Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), p. 6.


Ibid., pp. 10-11.


In Defense of Marxism, p. 206.