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

The Korean War

Next to the Chinese Revolution, the postwar anti-colonial upheavals found their most explosive expression in the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, in which the armed forces of North Korea, under Stalinist leadership, rapidly overwhelmed the army of the US-backed dictatorship of Syngman Rhee in South Korea. US President Truman ordered in the US military, under cover of a United Nations resolution, and reconquered most of the peninsula. As the US forces were approaching the Chinese border, Chinese troops entered the conflict, driving back the Americans; eventually the fighting stabilized along a line roughly corresponding to the prewar division. The American SWP placed the struggle in the context of the unfolding colonial revolution, rejecting claims that the Korean people were nothing more than puppets of Moscow. In an open letter to the US government, Cannon declared, “The American intervention in Korea is a brutal imperialist invasion, no different from the French war on Indo-China or the Dutch assault on Indonesia. American boys are being sent 10,000 miles away to kill or be killed, not in order to liberate the Korean people, but to conquer and subjugate them. It is outrageous. It is monstrous.” The Korean struggle “is part of the mighty uprising of the hundreds of millions of colonial people throughout Asia against western imperialism. This is the real truth, the real issue. The colonial slaves don’t want to be slaves any longer.”[1]

The Korean conflict clearly demonstrated the reactionary implications of the theories that the Soviet Union had become a new form of class society, either “bureaucratic collectivist” or “state capitalist.” The theoretician of “bureaucratic collectivism,” Max Shachtman, had broken with the Fourth International ten years earlier, promising to maintain an independent “third camp” position. But in 1950, he went over openly to the camp of American imperialism. Leaflets prepared by Shachtman’s organization, by then called the Workers Party, were airdropped to Chinese and North Korean soldiers, giving them “socialist” arguments for surrendering to the American invaders. The leading proponent of the “state capitalist” view, Tony Cliff, broke with the Revolutionary Communist Party, then the British section of the Fourth International, which adhered to Cannon’s uncompromising opposition to the imperialist war. Cliff adopted instead a position of strict neutrality, condemning what he called “Russian imperialism” equally with that of the United States.


James P. Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1958), p. 186.