David North
The Heritage We Defend

The SWP and the 1940 Elections

The assertion that the SWP capitulated to “Left-Rooseveltianism,” and refused to recognize the Stalinist movement as part of the working class, forms a prime component of Banda’s indictment of the American Trotskyists. He goes so far as to claim that Cannon, in the course of adapting to the “left Democrats,” maintained “a shameless and inscrutable silence on the Rosenberg executions.” Moreover, according to Banda, “Cannon’s articles on Stalinism reveal an appalling political indifference to the persecution of the US Communist Party and confirm the charge that he never considered the CP a legitimate part of the working class.”

To understand the political significance of this allegation against Cannon and the SWP, which is a combination of distortion and fabrication, it is necessary to trace the historical origins of this charge. The leaders of the Pabloite faction in the SWP, Bert Cochran and George Clarke, first raised it in 1953 in “The Roots of the Party Crisis.” Supporting Pablo, and fighting for the liquidation of the Socialist Workers Party, the Cochranites—as if anticipating Banda and his renegade associates in the Workers Revolutionary Party—sought to pour as much scorn and ridicule upon the Trotskyist movement as possible. They mocked the “Old Guard” of the SWP as “museum pieces,” and derided the Fourth International’s claim to represent the revolutionary vanguard of the working class.

Pointing to the strength of the Stalinist-led parties in Europe, the overturn of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the victory of the Chinese revolution under Mao, the Cochranites denounced the “barren sectarianism” of the SWP “that makes a doctrinaire panacea of ‘independence’ and attempts to meet all problems of the movement and perspectives by the mysticism of faith and hope and making a mystique of the party.”

The source of the SWP’s refusal to break with “outlived formulas” and acknowledge the progressive and even revolutionary role of the Communist parties was the terrible disease of “Stalinophobia” and, the Cochranites declared, the sickest of the sick was Cannon. To prove their case, the Cochranites attempted to demonstrate that pathological anti-Stalinism—i.e., a form of anticommunism—had existed within the SWP for years, and that the presence of the disease had been detected by Trotsky as far back as 1940. They made a huge ballyhoo about the discussion—to which Banda now makes reference—between Trotsky, Cannon and other SWP leaders on the question of the party’s presidential election policy, shamelessly exaggerating and distorting its significance. From there, they proceeded to concoct the outrageous charge, which Banda now parrots, that the SWP all but endorsed the persecution of the American Stalinists by the US government. The Cochranites wrote:

Most of the time our propaganda about Stalinism is practically incoherent, lacking in the most elementary pedagogical qualities so necessary in these days of unabated witch-hunt and threatening war when the entire press and all organs of bourgeois public opinion are screaming about Stalinism at the top of their lungs. Our only concern seems to be to attack the Stalinists wherever possible without second thought as to the new circumstances under which this attack has to be made and to the consequent methods to be employed. Our purpose seems to be to distinguish ourselves from the Stalinists—period. The trouble with this method is that very often either the distinction cannot be understood, or the distinction between us and the bourgeois anti-Stalinists gets lost in a flood of invective, epithet, and incomprehensible characterizations.[1]

Cannon’s pamphlet The Road to Peace, a devastating exposure of the Stalinist line of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism, was denounced by Cochran and Clarke:

The attitude is so fierce and unfriendly to people who mistakenly consider their movement to be genuinely fighting imperialism, and being persecuted by it, as to cause them to drop the pamphlet before reading the second paragraph. The only conclusion one can come to is that it was written for the party membership—another case of excessive preoccupation with mythical Stalinist “dangers” in our ranks.[2]

Within just six months, those who were baiting Cannon for his preoccupation with “mythical Stalinist dangers” split from the Socialist Workers Party as part of an international pro-Stalinist and liquidationist tendency. In England, the leader of the Pabloite faction, John Lawrence, had secretly joined the Communist Party while working to disrupt the Trotskyist movement from within. The fact that Banda revives the old Cochranite lie that Cannon and the SWP were guilty of “Stalinophobia”—a term used by Trotskyists to connote a politically-uncontrolled and theoretically-uneducated hatred of Stalinism that becomes transformed into crude anticommunism—exposes his own capitulation to Pabloism. Banda’s political skepticism and complete loss of confidence in Trotskyism is expressed in his claim that the Fourth International was unable to appreciate “the world-historical significance” of either the Chinese, Yugoslav and Indochinese revolutions or the defeat of fascism by the Red Army. From this political standpoint, which concedes to Stalinism a revolutionary role, Banda is easily attracted to the old slanders of the Pabloites. Even if he did not set out to falsify history, his political conceptions condition him for that role. Banda’s degeneration has proceeded so far that he does, indeed, identify Trotskyism as a variety of Stalinophobic anticommunism, or, as the Stalinists themselves might say, “Left in form, right in essence!”

Now that we have established the source of Banda’s allegation, let us examine its content.

In June 1940, approximately three weeks after the May 24 attempt on Trotsky’s life by a Stalinist GPU assassination squad led by painter David Siqueiros, Cannon and several other leaders of the SWP traveled to Coyoacan in Mexico to consider what measures should be taken to strengthen the security arrangements. From June 12 to 15, discussions also took place on questions of political perspective, specifically, the military policy of the SWP and the party’s position in the 1940 presidential election. The discussion on June 13 revealed that the SWP, having failed to nominate its own candidate for president, had not worked out an effective means of intervening in the elections. The only alternative within the workers’ movement to Roosevelt’s campaign for a third term was the Stalinist candidate, Earl Browder, the general secretary of the Communist Party. Trotsky proposed that the SWP critically endorse Browder as a means of making a tactical approach to the sincere rank and file workers inside the CP. He pointed out that the momentary opposition of the Communist Party to the war plans of Roosevelt, based solely on the fact that Stalin had signed the “nonaggression” pact with Hitler, provided the SWP with an opportunity to make inroads among the Stalinist workers.

Trotsky’s proposal was opposed by Cannon and others, who argued that such a drastic shift in tactics, after years of unrelenting opposition to the Stalinists, would not be understood within their ranks nor among their progressive allies within the trade unions. Trotsky made a subtle and telling critique of the trade union work of the Socialist Workers Party, which went to the heart of the objective problems confronting the Trotskyist movement in the United States. Since the great Minneapolis General Strike of 1934 which they had led, the Trotskyists had fought to establish a foothold in the labor movement in the face of violent opposition from the Stalinists, whose gangster methods in the trade unions rivaled those of the most corrupt bureaucrats of the right-wing American Federation of Labor. Of necessity, the Trotskyists had been obliged to form tactical alliances with non-Stalinist forces within the unions who were somewhat casually defined as “progressives.” Generally, this meant that these forces were prepared to conduct trade union struggles on a militant basis. The best representative of this element was the Teamster leader Patrick Corcoran, who broke with the reactionary craft-unionism of Tobin and collaborated with the Minneapolis Trotskyists in the building of Local 544, until his assassination in 1937. Within the limited sphere of trade union struggles, there was a principled basis for the alliance of the SWP and the “progressives” against the Stalinists, who would not hesitate to sabotage the struggles of the rank and file on the basis of sudden shifts in the Kremlin line. However, this alliance was fraught with political dangers. As Trotsky caustically observed, once election year rolled around, these progressives functioned as political agents of Roosevelt.

Trotsky expressed the correct and perceptive concern that the SWP’s reluctance to make a sharp tactical turn toward the Stalinists in the 1940 elections stemmed at least in part from a fear that this would lead to a break with the progressive “left-Rooseveltians” within the trade unions. Stressing the importance of a political orientation toward the Stalinist workers, Trotsky warned the SWP not to make the mistake of placing too much value on its alliance with the progressives. Thus, Trotsky translated his analysis of the contradictions within the American labor movement into a concrete proposal for practical action, understanding the very real difficulties confronting the cadre:

If the results of our conversation were nothing more than more precise investigation in relation to the Stalinists it would be very fruitful.

Our party is not bound to the Stalinist maneuver any more than it was to the SP maneuver. Nevertheless we undertook such a maneuver. We must add up the pluses and the minuses. The Stalinists gained their influence during the past ten years. There was the Depression and then the tremendous trade union movement culminating in the CIO. Only the craft unionists could remain indifferent.

The Stalinists tried to exploit this movement, to build up their own bureaucracy. The progressives are afraid of this. The politics of these so-called progressives is determined by their need to meet the needs of the workers in this movement, on the other hand it comes from fear of the Stalinists. They can’t have the same policy as Green because otherwise the Stalinists would occupy their posts. Their existence is a reflex of this new movement, but it is not a direct reflection of the rank and file. It is an adaptation of the conservative bureaucrats to this situation. There are two competitors, the progressive bureaucrats and the Stalinists. We are a third competitor trying to capture this sentiment. These progressive bureaucrats can lean on us for advisors in the fight against the Stalinists. But the role of an advisor to a progressive bureaucrat doesn’t promise much in the long run. Our real role is that of third competitor.

Then the question of our attitude toward these bureaucrats—do we have an absolutely clear position toward these competitors? These bureaucrats are Rooseveltians, militarists. We tried to penetrate the trade unions with their help. This was a correct maneuver, I believe. We can say that the question of the Stalinists would be resolved in passing insofar as we succeed in our main maneuver. But before the presidential campaign and the war question we have time for a small maneuver. We can say (to the Stalinist ranks), your leaders betray you, but we support you without any confidence in your leaders in order to show that we can go with you and to show that your leaders will betray you.

It is a short maneuver, not hinging on the main question of the war. But it is necessary to know incomparably better the Stalinists and their place in the trade unions, their reaction to our party. It would be fatal to pay too much attention to the impression that we can make on the pacifists and on our “progressive” bureaucrat friends. In this case we become the squeezed lemon of the bureaucrats. They use us against the Stalinists but as the war nears call us unpatriotic and expel us. These Stalinist workers can become revolutionary, especially if Moscow changes its line and becomes patriotic. At the time of Finland, Moscow made a difficult turn; a new turn is still more painful.

But we must have contact and information. I don’t insist on this plan, understand, but we must have a plan. What plan do you propose? The progressive bureaucrats and dishonest centrists of the trade union movement reflect important changes in the base, but the question is how to approach the base? We encounter between us and the base, the Stalinists.[3]

Anticipating the immense political pressures that would be generated by the outbreak of war, Trotsky hammered away at the danger of an adaptation to conservative layers within the trade unions.

You propose a trade union policy, not a Bolshevik policy. … You are afraid to become compromised in the eyes of the Rooseveltian trade unionists. They on the other hand are not worried in the slightest about being compromised by voting for Roosevelt against you. We are afraid of being compromised. If you are afraid, you lose your independence and become half-Rooseveltian. In peacetimes this is not catastrophic. In wartimes it will compromise us. They can smash us. Our policy is too much for pro-Rooseveltian trade unionists. I notice that in the Northwest Organizer this is true. We discussed it before, but not a word was changed; not a single word. The danger—a terrible danger—is adaptation to the pro-Rooseveltian trade unionists.[4]

Trotsky was asked directly if he sensed that there was an element of adaptation to the bureaucracy in the work of the SWP.

To a certain degree I believe it is so. I cannot observe closely enough to be completely certain. This phase is not reflected in the Socialist Appeal well enough. … It would be very good to have such a bulletin and to publish controversial articles on our trade union work. In observing the Northwest Organizer I have observed not the slightest change during a whole period. It remains apolitical. This is a dangerous symptom. The complete neglect of work in relation to the Stalinist party is another dangerous symptom.

Turning to the Stalinists does not mean that we should turn away from the progressives. It means only that we should tell the truth to the Stalinists, that we should catch the Stalinists beforehand in their new turn.

It seems to me that a kind of passive adaptation to our trade union work can be recognized. There is not an immediate danger, but a serious warning indicating a change in direction is necessary. Many comrades are more interested in trade union work than in party work. More party cohesion is needed, more sharp maneuvering, a more serious systematic theoretical training; otherwise the trade unions can absorb our comrades.

It is a historic law that the trade union functionaries form the right wing of the party. There is no exception to this. It was true of the Social Democracy; it was true of the Bolsheviks too. Tomsky was with the right wing, you know. This is absolutely natural. They deal with the class, the backward elements; they are the party vanguard in the working class. The necessary field of adaptation is among the trade unions. The people who have this adaptation as their job are those in the trade unions. That is why the pressure of the backward elements is always reflected through the trade union comrades. It is a healthy pressure; but it can also break them from the historic class interests—they can become opportunists.

The party has made serious gains. These gains were possible only through a certain degree of adaptation; but on the other hand we must take measures to circumvent dangers that are inevitable.[5]

An attempt to present Trotsky’s intervention as a condemnation of the SWP and Cannon is a travesty of historical objectivity. Through a discussion of the party’s policy for the 1940 elections, Trotsky elucidated the fundamental contradictions which arose inevitably out of the actual development and political gains of the SWP. These gains, as Trotsky explained, could not have been made without an alliance with the “progressives” and a degree of adaptation. But this necessary adaptation, positive in one period, was now, under conditions of approaching war, revealing negative features that required a change in tactics.

Trotsky did not convince Cannon of the correctness of the proposal on Browder. That was a tactical question of secondary importance and Trotsky never made an issue of it. There is no doubt, however, that the warning on the potential danger of an adaptation to the “progressives” was seriously heeded. In fact, just hours before the fatal attack by the GPU agent Ramon Mercader, Trotsky wrote a letter to an SWP member in Minneapolis welcoming changes in the Northwest Organizer, the party-controlled organ of Local 544. “The Northwest Organizer becomes more precise—more aggressive—more political. We enjoyed it very much.”[6]

One month after Trotsky’s death, at a conference of the SWP, Cannon informed the membership of the differences which had arisen during the June discussions. While reiterating his disagreement with the Browder proposal, Cannon acknowledged the necessity for a more aggressive campaign to penetrate the ranks of the Stalinists. Taking up the main point of Trotsky’s argument, he reviewed the problem of the “progressives.”

While defending the correctness of the bloc with these forces against the Stalinists, Cannon conceded,

Our work in the trade unions up till now has been largely a day-to-day affair based upon the daily problems and has lacked a general political orientation and perspective. This has tended to blur the distinction between us and pure-and-simple trade unionists. In many cases, at times, they appeared to be one with us. It was fair weather and good fellows were together. The great issues raised by the war are rudely disrupting this idyl. Some of our comrades have already had revealing experiences of how a war situation puts an end to ambiguity and makes men show their real colors. Some people went hand in hand with us on almost every proposition we made to improve the union, get better contracts from the bosses, etc. Then all of a sudden, this whole peaceful routine of the trade union movement is disrupted by overpowering issues of war, patriotism, the national elections, etc. And these trade unionists, who looked so good in ordinary times, are all turning up as patriots and Rooseveltians. We now have a much narrower basis of cooperation with them. …

Politically we have no ground for collaboration with the labor “progressives.” We will have less and less as we go along, as the pressure of the war machine grows heavier.[7]

Later developments—the Smith Act prosecution of 1941 and the outbreak of war—demonstrated that the SWP was indeed prepared to fight and break with the “progressives” on matters of political principle. On the other hand, the reversion of the CP to a patriotic position following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 did not produce a serious crisis within the Stalinist ranks. But the fact that the SWP did not evince the weaknesses of which Trotsky had warned, and that the ranks of the American Stalinists demonstrated even less revolutionary consciousness than he had thought possible, did not invalidate, retroactively, the significance of his intervention. Trotsky was a Marxist dialectician, not an astrologer. He was fighting to educate a revolutionary leadership and to provide it with the benefit of his vast and incomparable experience.

It amounts to a farcical caricature of Trotsky’s method for Banda to portray the June 1940 discussion with the SWP as a horrific confrontation, in which the existence of a difference proved irrevocably, unmistakably, for once and for all, the worthlessness of the SWP and, for that matter, all those with whom Trotsky worked. In reality, this discussion was a great pedagogic exercise. It was one illustration of the enormously positive role played by Trotsky as the theoretical leader of the international movement. Had stenographers been present on such occasions, there can be no doubt that the transcripts of similar discussions would be found in the archives of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. On a few occasions, as their correspondence shows, Marx found it necessary to correct the views of his “Dear Fred,” especially on the latter’s evaluation of the North’s prospects in the American Civil War. Banda happens to be familiar with this correspondence. (So far, but who knows for how long, we have been spared a denunciation of Engels’ “infamous capitulation” to Stonewall Jackson.) If Banda cannot comprehend the political context within which these discussions unfolded and conceive of them as anything else but the harbingers of an imminent split, it is because serious discussion of political differences was, for more than a decade, impossible inside the WRP.


James P. Cannon, Speeches to the Party (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p. 361.


Ibid., p. 362.


Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1939–40] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), pp. 266–67.


Ibid., p. 273.


Ibid., pp. 280–81.


Ibid., p. 394.


James P. Cannon, The Socialist Workers Party in World War II: James P. Cannon Writings and Speeches, 1940–43, ed. Les Evans (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), pp. 89–90.