David North
The Heritage We Defend

The SWP and American Stalinism

Banda’s attempt to portray the 1940 controversy as an early symptom of the virus of “Stalinophobic” anticommunism amounts to an impudent libel. At no time in the discussion was there even the vaguest suggestion that the Socialist Workers Party did not understand its class duty to defend the Stalinists against the capitalist state.

The SWP had just concluded a protracted faction fight in which Cannon had collaborated with Trotsky in a bitter struggle against the Shachtman-Burnham petty-bourgeois minority, which rejected the defense of the Soviet Union on the grounds that it was led by a Stalinist totalitarian bureaucracy. At the September 1940 party conference, Cannon reviewed the central lessons of the struggle against Burnham and Shachtman:

It is important to remember in this connection that our fight with the petty-bourgeois ideologist Burnham began over the question of the characterization of the Stalinists.

It will be recalled that almost two years ago, at the time of the auto crisis, the first real clash with Burnham and his satellites was precipitated by their attitude toward the split in the auto union. Despite the fact that the great mass of the auto workers were going with the CIO—and thereby at that time with the Stalinists—Burnham wanted to divert our support to Martin, even in the direction of the AFL, on the theory that the Stalinists were not really a part of the labor movement.

The thing came to a head again over the invasion of Poland when Burnham wanted the party to take an outright stand against the Red Army on the theory that the Soviet Union is “imperialist.” The issue grew sharper with the Finnish invasion.

Then, when Browder was indicted by the government on an obviously trumped-up passport charge, Burnham opposed any defense of Browder on the ground that he did not represent any legitimate labor tendency. He overlooked the fact that as an agent of the Soviet bureaucracy, Browder indirectly represented the biggest labor organization in the world, that of the Soviet state.

Burnham in this case was fundamentally motivated by the pressure of democratic imperialism in the United States. The Stalinists were for the moment at loggerheads with the Roosevelt administration, and the “intransigence” of the Burnham faction against the Stalinists simply represented a cheap and easy form of adaptation to the clamor of the bourgeois democrats. Their opinions were shaped against any kind of recognition of the CP as a tendency in the labor movement. We haven’t heard such an expression here today from anybody.[1]

As this quotation proves, Banda deceitfully attributes to Cannon and the SWP the very position, refusal to recognize Stalinism as a legitimate tendency in the workers’ movement, that was held by Burnham and against which the SWP fought to the point of split.

But perhaps the stand taken by the SWP in 1939–40 and the statement made by Cannon in 1940 represented only a temporary change in the “Stalinophobic” attitude of Cannon, to which the SWP soon reverted?

In August 1946, in the midst of the struggle against the right-wing Morrow-Goldman faction—about which we will have more to say later—the SWP Political Committee produced a major theoretical analysis of the Shachtmanites entitled “Revolutionary Marxism or Petty-Bourgeois Revisionism.” This document was a systematic elaboration of the programmatic differences which separated the Socialist Workers Party from the Workers Party of Shachtman, with which Morrow and Goldman were proposing reunification. In the section called “Our Divergent Evaluations of the Stalinist Parties,” the SWP Political Committee stated:

The break on the part of the Workers Party with our program on the Russian question has produced the sharpest differences between us in evaluating the Stalinist parties and determining our tactical approach to them. Here, as in other spheres, Burnham pioneered when in 1937, in the Political Committee of the SWP, he proposed that we read the Stalinist parties out of the working class movement and treat them as we would the Nazi or Fascist parties. The Workers Party, cautiously nibbling away at our evaluation of the Stalinist parties, has finally arrived at Burnham’s 1939 position, or at any rate one that resembles it very closely. …

We evaluate the Stalinist parties in capitalist countries as working class parties led by treacherous leaders, similar to the Social-Democratic traitors. We understand, of course, that the Social-Democratic bureaucrats are agents of their respective native capitalisms, whereas the Stalinist bureaucrats are agents of the Kremlin oligarchy. But they have this in common: they cannot fight for workers’ power, nor do they wish to take power except as agencies of capitalism and usually in coalition with its direct representatives.[2]

In April-May 1947, Cannon wrote a series of articles in The Militant that appeared under the title, “American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism,” which was later published in pamphlet form. It was written in the aftermath of a polemic with Ruth Fischer, a former leader of the German Communist Party who agreed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Cannon defined the attitude of the SWP toward the struggle against Stalinism:

It is known that we are and have been for a long time opposed to Stalinism, or to any conciliation with it whatever. We started on this theme more than 18 years ago and have been hammering away at it ever since. We welcome cooperation with other opponents of Stalinism, but we believe that such cooperation can be fruitful only if there is some basic agreement as to the nature of Stalinism, and agreement also that the fight against Stalinism is part of the general anticapitalist struggle, not separate from it nor in contradiction to it.

So that there may be no misunderstanding, let us make our position clear at the outset. We believe that the greatest and most menacing enemy of the human race is the bipartisan imperialist cabal at Washington. We consider the fight against war and reaction in the United States to be the first and main duty of American revolutionists. This is the necessary premise for cooperation in the fight against Stalinism. Those who disagree with us on this point do not understand the reality of the present day, and do not talk our language.

An understanding of the perfidious character of Stalinism is the beginning of wisdom for every serious, class-conscious worker; and all anti-Stalinists who are also anticapitalist should try to work together. But anti-Stalinism, by itself, is no program for common struggle. It is too broad a term, and it means different things to different people. There are more anti-Stalinists now than there were when we started our struggle 18 years ago, especially in this country where Stalinism is weak and Trumanism is strong, and they are especially numerous in New York and not all of them are phonies. But very few of the current crop of vociferous anti-Stalinists have anything to do with us, or we with them. That is not because of exclusiveness or quarrelsomeness, either on their part or ours, but because we start out from different premises, conduct the struggle by different methods, and aim at different goals. …

Stalinism is, first of all, a political influence in the labor movement in the capitalist countries. And it exerts this influence, primarily, not as a police force or a terrorist gang, but as a political party. The fight against Stalinism is first of all, and above all, a political fight. This political fight will never make any serious headway with the radicalized workers—and they are the ones who are decisive—unless it is clearly and unambiguously anticapitalist from beginning to end. No propaganda that bears, or even appears to bear, the slightest taint of Trumanism will get a hearing from the anticapitalist workers of Europe. That kind of “anti-Stalinism” which is currently popular in the United States is absolutely no good for export.[3]

In the sixth article of the series, entitled “Is the Communist Party a Working Class Organization,” Cannon wrote:

Stalinism is a new phenomenon of the last quarter of a century, and is unique in many ways. But this does not change the essential fact that it is a tendency in the labor movement. It is rooted in the trade unions and wields influence over a section of the progressive workers. That is precisely the reason that it is such a great problem and such a great obstacle to the emancipation struggle of the workers. In our opinion, it is impossible to wage an effective struggle against Stalinism without proceeding from this premise. Stalinism is an internal problem of the labor movement which, like every other internal problem, only the workers can solve.[4]

In 1953, the American Pabloites inside the SWP denounced “the outlived ‘anti-Stalinist’ line of Cannon’s pamphlet” and charged, “It became part of the vulgar ‘anti-Stalinism’ which was to plague us repeatedly in one field after another.”

We have now reviewed the line of the SWP in 1940, 1946 and 1947 on the question of Stalinism, and have proven on the basis of the documentary record that the allegation that the SWP never considered the Communist Party to be a legitimate part of the working class is a fabrication. Cannon insisted that the fight against Stalinism requires recognition of the fact that it is part of the workers’ movement, and that its representatives must be defended unconditionally against attacks by the capitalists and their state.

We could rest our case at this point, confident that any impartial jury would find, on the basis of the evidence presented so far, that Banda is either a bad historian or a rotten liar. But we have promised to be as thorough as possible in our exposure of Banda’s falsifications. So, begging the reader’s patience, allow us to plow on.

Banda’s allegation that Cannon maintained a “shameless and inscrutable silence on the Rosenberg executions” and reacted with “appalling political indifference to the persecution of the US Communist Party” is a smear. But Banda does not stop there. He even invents a fictional motive to explain the behavior he attributes to Cannon. The SWP leader, he claims, was adapting to the “left Democrats.” Unfortunately, Banda does not explain what he means by “left Democrats.” In general, these are rare birds, but during the early 1950s, the period of the McCarthyite witch-hunt, they were a nonexistent species. The charge that Cannon adapted to such “left Democrats”—assuming for a moment that he was able to find them—has been made up by Banda out of the whole cloth.

Throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the SWP consistently defended the Communist Party against the witch-hunts and frame-ups which began with the launching of the Cold War, a position which the CP refused to adopt in relation to the SWP. Even as its leaders were being framed up by the US government, the Communist Party continued to support the use of the witch-hunt against members of the SWP, such as the “legless veteran,” James Kutcher.

The SWP’s attitude toward the defense of the Communist Party was spelled out publicly following the 1948 indictment of twelve Stalinist leaders under the provisions of the Smith Act, whose use against Cannon and other SWP leaders seven years earlier had been enthusiastically supported by the CP. In a letter dated July 28, 1948, Farrell Dobbs, writing on behalf of the SWP Political Committee, proposed to the Communist Party’s Central Committee the formation of a united front to fight the prosecutions.

The indictment of 12 leaders of your party under the Smith Act is another sharp reminder that in this gag law the rulers in Washington have a diabolical weapon whose barb is aimed at the working class political and trade union movement. …

Now that you are under attack, we, the first victims of the Smith Act offer you our aid. We are convinced that only a united struggle by the whole labor movement—by all the tendencies within it—can defeat this conspiracy to deprive you of your democratic rights. …

We ask you not to permit the profound political differences between your party and ours to stand in the way of a broad united front of the working class in defense of Civil Rights. While you did not come to the defense of the Trotskyists when we were persecuted under the Smith Act, we have already made public our opposition to your indictment and are fully prepared to further assist in your defense.[5]

This appeal, which the Stalinists never answered, was in line with the SWP’s policy of defending all working class organizations against state attack. Banda then refers to the Rosenbergs, whose executions were supposedly ignored while Cannon was “adapting” to the “left Democrats.” Let us again check the record.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on June 19, 1953. In the issue of The Militant dated June 1, 1953, the front-page headline read, “Witch Hunters Push Doomed Couple Toward Death Chair.” Denouncing the “cowardly silence of the labor officials,” the SWP called upon “trade unionists throughout the nation to demand action from their union organizations and officials.”

“It is not too late to save the Rosenbergs,” The Militant declared, “Everything must be done to stop the hand of the executioner.”

In the next issue, dated June 8, 1953, the headline of The Militant read “Demand Witch-Burners Halt Legal Murder of Rosenbergs.” The front page also carried an editorial entitled, “Labor Must Fight This Injustice.”

One week later, in the issue of June 15, 1953, the front-page headline read, “Last Ditch Clemency Fight in Rosenberg Case—World Protest Rises In Effort To Save Couple.” The front page also carried an official appeal from the SWP for clemency, signed by its national secretary, Farrell Dobbs.

In its next issue, dated June 22, 1953 and printed hours before the execution, The Militant front-page headline read, “Government Demands Blood, Court Dooms the Rosenbergs.” The front page also carried an article reporting an SWP rally in defense of the Rosenbergs.

Finally, in its issue of June 29, 1953, the front-page article is headlined, “Revulsion Sweeps World At Murder of Rosenbergs.”

Clearly, the SWP defended the Stalinists against state persecution. What, then, is to be made of Banda’s claim, “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”?

Political indifference to the persecution of the Stalinists can mean nothing else except a refusal to defend the Communist Party, which is precisely what Banda claims when he refers in the next paragraph to Cannon’s “cowardly abstention.” This, we have already shown, is a lie. As for the attack on Cannon’s writings on Stalinism, Banda is only parroting the old Pabloite line of Cochran and Clarke, who opposed Cannon’s refusal to equate political defense of the Communist Party against the capitalist witch-hunt with the granting of a political amnesty to the Stalinists.

The Pabloites sought to exploit sympathy generated by the persecution of the Stalinists to foment a mood of political conciliationism toward these traitors. Cannon rejected this deceitful attempt to use the witch-hunt as a means of injecting revisionism, in the form of pro-Stalinist conciliationism, into the SWP. For this reason, the Pabloites branded him as a “Stalinophobe.”

The final “proof” presented by Banda of the “Stalinophobia” of Cannon and the SWP relates to the party’s reaction to the US intervention in Korea. “It wasn’t accidental either that in the early stage of the Korean war the Militant carried a third camp position and that Cannon’s intervention in this episode was more in the nature of a pacifist-moral outrage against the war than a revolutionary-defeatist opposition—not unlike North’s opposition to the Grenada invasion.”

Once again, Banda relies entirely on allegations which appeared in the Pabloite document, “The Roots of the Party Crisis.” Cochran and Clarke were trying to prove, in order to support their liquidationist line, that the SWP’s position on Stalinism was leading them into the camp of US imperialism. The SWP’s reaction to Korea supposedly proved this. According to Cochran and Clarke:

The first reaction of the weekly paper, operating under the immediate direction of the PC, to the Korean War was a Third Camp position calling down a plague on both houses, the Kremlin and American imperialism. Our position was not dissimilar from that of the POUM and the Yugoslav CP, and not too far from that of the Shachtmanites. Now, the Korean War was the first big postwar crisis, testing all prior conceptions. It proved forthwith the complete fallacy of Cannon’s basic contention that the main danger came from tendencies toward “conciliation with Stalinism.” On the contrary, under the great pressures of the moment, the first inclination of the PC was a position that yielded in the opposite direction, toward Third Campism. It is true that the PC corrected its position in a relatively brief time under pressure of protests from leading comrades. But the fact remains that a semi-Shachtmanite position was taken.[6]

There were weaknesses in the political line of The Militant in the first three issues after the war erupted in late June 1950, but they were not of a “Third Camp” Shachtmanite character. Shachtman supported US imperialism. As for the Yugoslav CP, the inability of Tito to break politically with and conduct a principled struggle against Stalinism was exposed in the support which he gave to the United Nations’ “police action” in Korea. (We cannot comment on the position of the POUM because we lack documents on this matter.)

From the first issue, the SWP opposed the US intervention, denouncing both the Truman administration and the United Nations. The headline of the July 3, 1950 issue read, “Hands Off Korean People’s Right To Decide Own Fate.”

The major weakness in the initial position of the SWP was that it failed to recognize in the struggle of the masses of North Korea a great revolutionary movement of the oppressed against imperialism. Rather, the outbreak of the war was seen through the narrow prism of the political conflict between US imperialism and the Soviet Stalinists.

The decisive intervention in changing this position came from Cannon, who was in California when the war broke out and expressed dissatisfaction with the political line of the SWP. He flew to New York for a special enlarged meeting of the Political Committee on July 22, 1950 and made the following remarks:

The Korean affair is a part of the colonial struggle against American imperialism. We ought to have the same attitude as to China. Even more sharply in this case because the US intervened directly.

It seems to us this is one of the most important factors in the development of the world situation. Tremendous strength is demonstrated by this movement of the Asian people. They are by no means pulled on a string back and forth from Moscow. It is a real peoples’ movement and, at present, the most revolutionary factor in the world. We have to have an unambiguous attitude toward it. As things are shaping up now, it will manifest itself more and more, as a movement of the Asians against American military force.

The correct demands are all stated in the paper here and there. But it is diffused too much and buried beneath balancing of blame. These demands must stand out as the main center of our campaign: Get out of Korea; Get out of the Orient; Withdraw the troops; Let the Koreans settle their own affairs.

One thing is becoming clearer by the facts and we are gradually learning and assimilating it—after the Chinese experience. These are genuine revolutionary movements of great masses, of millions of people. The one misfortune is that they begin under Stalinist leadership everywhere. But if we make that a condition for withdrawing our support or blunting it with reservations, we will be doing in effect what the Shachtmanites do formally and in an extreme sense. They always find reasons to abstain from real struggles.

Not only are these genuinely revolutionary movements, which offer the greatest revolutionary potentialities in the whole world; they are developing a tendency toward independence. We learned something from the Yugoslavia development. I doubt very much whether the Kremlin, by remote control, can manipulate these vast movements in Asia in a puppet sense.

As American imperialism shapes up its blundering military program for the domination of the Orient, we will have to get away entirely from anything remotely suggesting the policy of “a plague on both your houses.” There are tens and hundreds of millions of people involved in the colonial revolt. They may well be the decisive force which will upset the whole balance. We have to support all these movements regardless of the fact that they are led by Stalinism at the present stage—insurrectionary movements in the Philippines, Indonesia, Indochina, China itself, Korea.

We think it is necessary now, in the concrete case of Korea to adopt a policy, not merely as an incidental one for a day, but as a pattern of our reaction to any further American adventures. Just how we will do that, with what specific slogans in each case—we can discuss separately. But we ought to be clear on the main point. That should be the axis of our line in the paper. A sharper anti-imperialist line. And sharper defense of the colonial movement.[7]

This intervention placed the SWP at the center of the struggle to defend the Korean revolution against US imperialism. Based on the discussion at the enlarged Political Committee, Cannon drafted a public statement condemning the US intervention. This well-known article, written in the form of a public letter to the president and Congress, is crudely denigrated by Banda as simply an expression of “pacifist-moral outrage … not unlike North’s opposition to the Grenada invasion.”

Cannon was not without his weaknesses; he made serious mistakes, and in the closing decade of his long career in the revolutionary movement he succumbed to the intense class pressures that had been bearing down upon the SWP. But in his response to the Korean War, Cannon’s strengths came to the fore. Among them were his gifts as an agitator, which he had developed during a half century of struggle in the labor movement. He had a “feel” for the American working class, and that was appreciated by Trotsky, who had described Cannon’s contribution to the struggle against Burnham and Shachtman, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, as the work of a “genuine workers’ leader.”

In his public denunciation of the Korean War, written in the midst of the McCarthyite anticommunist frenzy and prepared as a personal statement for legal reasons (i.e., the protection of the party organization), Cannon sought to cut a path to the consciousness of the American workers by appealing to their sense of class solidarity and distrust of the capitalists, giving voice to their instinctive hatred of militarism and oppression and explaining the central issues raised by the US invasion. Perhaps Banda does not like Cannon’s literary style, but that does not justify the absurd claim that the SWP leader’s intervention was merely “pacifist-moral outrage.” We will quote the most important passages from the public letter of July 31,1950:


I disagree with your actions in Korea, and in my capacity as a private citizen I petition you to change your policy fundamentally, as follows:

Withdraw the American troops and let the Korean people alone.

I am setting forth the reasons for this demand in detail in the following paragraphs. But before opening the argument, I beg your permission, gentlemen, to tell you what I think of you. You are a pack of scoundrels. You are traitors to the human race. I hate your rudeness and your brutality. You make me ashamed of my country, which I have always loved, and ashamed of my race, which I used to think was as good as any.

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 and be killed, not in order to liberate the Korean people, but to conquer and subjugate them. It is outrageous. It is monstrous.

The whole of the Korean people—save for the few bought-and-paid-for agents of the Rhee puppet regime—are fighting the imperialist invaders. That is why the press dispatches from Korea complain more and more about “infiltration” tactics, increasing activities of “guerrillas,” the “fluid” fighting front, the “sullenness” and “unreliability” of the “natives.”

The Korean people have a mortal hatred of the Wall Street “liberator.” They despise unto death the bestial, corrupt, US-sponsored Syngman Rhee dictatorship that made South Korea a prison camp of misery, torture and exploitation. …

The explosion in Korea on June 25, as events have proved, express the profound desire of the Koreans themselves to unify their country, to rid themselves of foreign domination and to win their complete national independence. It is true that the Kremlin seeks to take advantage of this struggle for its own reactionary ends and would sell it tomorrow if it could get another deal with Washington.

But the struggle itself has the overwhelming and whole-hearted support of the Korean people. It 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.[8]

This statement was used by the sections of the Fourth International throughout the world to mobilize the working class against the US invasion of Korea.

As for Banda’s comparison of Cannon’s statement to “North’s opposition to the Grenada invasion,” this author would, under different circumstances, be flattered.

In 1983, the Workers League was denounced by Banda and Slaughter for its response to the US invasion of Grenada in October 1983. They claimed that the Workers League did not adopt a revolutionary defeatist position. The factual basis for this attack was disagreement with a headline in the Bulletin which, hitting the streets the morning after Reagan’s televised statement on the invasion, denounced the president as a liar. This, we were told, was a “propagandist” response!

Slaughter and Banda especially opposed the stress placed by the Workers League statement on the need to politically unite the working class against the capitalists through the formation of a labor party. They strongly objected to this “heavy emphasis” on the political independence of the working class.

Not only was this criticism an attack from the right, it was factionally motivated and false. In the autumn of 1985, following the explosion of the crisis inside the WRP, Slaughter and Banda admitted that they had conspired with Healy to get back at the Workers League for criticisms which it had made of the political and theoretical work of the WRP in 1982. The allegation that the Workers League had failed to oppose the Grenada invasion on the basis of Trotskyist principles was deliberately fabricated to undermine the Workers League within the International Committee. The fact that such measures were employed by Healy, Banda and Slaughter is a measure of the political degeneration of the WRP leadership.

Banda’s criticisms of the SWP’s response to the Korean War is mild compared to what he has to say about its position on World War II. That we will deal with in the next chapter.


James P. Cannon, Socialist Workers Party in World War II: James P. Cannon Writings and Speeches, 1940–43, ed. Les Evans (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975) pp. 93–94.


SWP Internal Bulletin, vol. 8, no. 10, August 1946, p. 10.


James P. Cannon, The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century”: James P. Cannon Writings and Speeches 1945–47, ed. Les Evans (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), pp. 346–48.


Ibid., p. 374.


The Militant, 2 August 1948.


James P. Cannon, Speeches to the Party (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), pp. 358–59.


Ibid., pp. 112–13.


James P. Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), pp. 185–87.