David North
The Heritage We Defend

Cannon’s “American Theses”

Let us move on to the next major point made by Banda in his indictment of the International Committee of the Fourth International:

The most significant revision in the immediate post-war period was Cannon’s 1946 American Theses which was a continuation of his national-defencist orientation covered up in seemingly revolutionary terms. It apotheosized American exceptionalism and under the guise of projecting a unique American road to socialism wrote off the European socialist revolution and with it the collective theoretical collaboration in continuing Trotsky’s work and concretizing his historical prognosis.

This attack exposes yet again how woefully ignorant Banda is about the history of the Trotskyist movement. Although he cites the “American Theses”—the popular name of the famous perspectives document adopted by the SWP at its 1946 convention—as a major step in the political disintegration of the SWP and the Fourth International, anyone who studies the text of this document will see that its content bears no resemblance to the description given by Banda. Indeed, it is probable that Banda has never even read the “American Theses.”

The “American Theses” developed out of the struggle against the right-wing Morrow-Goldman minority which, with the support of Max Shachtman, had written off the socialist revolution in Europe and scoffed at the very suggestion that the American working class could overthrow capitalism in the United States.

Their demand that the Trotskyist movement concentrate its political work on agitation in support of bourgeois-democratic and reformist demands was complemented by an increasingly hysterical anti-Sovietism that was summed up in the 1946 document of Jean Van Heijenoort, “The Eruption of Bureaucratic Imperialism.”

Every inner-party struggle is a reflection of the class struggle, and the 1944–46 struggle against the Morrow-Goldman tendency was no exception. As in 1939–40, but under different and even more politically-developed conditions, it reflected a clash between the proletarian forces within the SWP, led by Cannon, and a right-wing petty-bourgeois clique. Indeed, the struggle revealed the substantial political gains that had been made by the SWP since 1940 in carrying through the proletarianization for which Trotsky had fought, and deepening its roots within the American working class.

Unlike 1940, when Shachtman had the support of nearly half the party, the Goldman-Morrow tendency was virtually isolated, at a time when the SWP was far larger than it had been during the fight against Shachtman. Between the imprisonment of the SWP 18 in January 1944 and the party’s Twelfth National Convention in November 1946, it had recruited more than 1,000 new members and had developed factions in trade unions throughout basic industry.

The fight against Morrow and Goldman has sometimes been described as the tail end of the Shachtman split. But the political issues dividing Shachtmanism from Trotskyism and the petty-bourgeois radicals from the Marxist proletarian vanguard had become more clearly defined. This reflected the development of the class struggle in the United States and the qualitative growth in the world role of American imperialism in the postwar period. The Goldman-Morrow tendency reflected the desertion of large sections of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia from the workers’ movement into the camp of US imperialism.

The SWP waged an irreconcilable struggle against this tendency, and this in itself demonstrated the class forces upon which its leadership rested. This is one question that Banda never cares to answer: what class interests were defended by Cannon and the SWP in their fight against Morrow-Goldman? The answer to this question becomes clear enough if one considers the evolution of the leaders of this tendency.

By 1948, as the Cold War was heating up and with the anticommunist purge of the labor movement well under way, Morrow abandoned revolutionary politics altogether. He went into the publishing business and purportedly became a millionaire. Upon the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, he supported American imperialism. Goldman, after a brief sojourn in the Workers Party, also broke entirely with the socialist movement. He endorsed the intervention of US imperialism against Korea and later provided information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Van Heijenoort deserted the socialist movement as well and became an ardent anticommunist. For reasons which he never chose to make clear, he maintained an extensive file of addresses of his old contacts within the Trotskyist movement. In 1982, he was deposed by attorneys representing Alan Gelfand in a lawsuit aimed at exposing agents in the leadership of the SWP. When asked if he had worked as a government informer, Van Heijenoort refused to answer.

The drafting of the “American Theses” was the culmination of the struggle against this right-wing and retrograde tendency, which shared the arrogant conviction of Henry Luce and the Truman administration that the end of World War II had opened up the beginning of the “American Century”—a prediction which prompted Cannon to observe, “Well, some centuries are shorter than others.”

Contrary to Banda’s claim that the “American Theses” “apotheosized American exceptionalism,” it was directed precisely against all those who invoked this supposed exceptionalism to argue that socialist revolution was impossible. In a report to the Political Committee of the SWP prior to the publication of the “Theses,” Cannon emphasized that genuine internationalism was incompatible with skepticism about the prospects for socialist revolution in the United States. Reviewing the development of the American radical movement, he explained that internationalism had been understood in the past mainly from the standpoint of international solidarity with struggles in other countries, not as a world perspective which grasped the development of the class struggle in the United States as part of the world revolution. The prime advocates of this nationalistic outlook were, he explained, the followers of Jay Lovestone, whose theory of “ ‘American exceptionalism’ … in essence amounted to the idea that America was outside of revolutionary developments for a whole epoch.”[1]

Cannon noted that the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression produced an awareness of revolutionary possibilities within the United States, not only among workers, but also middle-class intellectuals. However, the end of the war and the economic revival produced a reversion to the old views, which found their consummate expression in the perspectives of the Shachtmanites and the SWP minority.

During the summer, while we were discussing these ideas and formulating some of them out in California … I took occasion to study very attentively the bulletins of the Shachtmanites to see to what extent they have occupied themselves with this question of the perspectives of the American Revolution. And it is really astonishing to see that they haven’t given it a thought. …

We have always believed in the American revolution, and it is from that concept—even though we did not generalize it—that we derived our conception of the party: for example, of a revolutionary combat party, of a professional leadership, of an optimistic morale, of harsh demands upon the membership. Goldman, and later Morrow, and others attack us on these derivative conceptions. They are against the homogeneous party. They are against this combat nonsense. They are against discipline. Morrow, at the last plenum, called our revolutionary exhortations “dope.” We dope up the party with fantasies, etc. Now, if you stop to think about it, this debate about the conception of the party is a rather sterile debate if you isolate it from your milieu and your perspective. If socialism is only a remote aspiration, a moral ideal, or an ultimate goal that you hope for as men of goodwill hope for the moral regeneration of the world, what in the hell do you want a tightly disciplined combat party with a professional leadership for? It becomes a caricature.[2]

Responding directly to the skeptics of the Shachtman-Morrow school, he made an observation that is no less relevant today:

I think nothing condemns a party more than a lack of faith in its own future. I don’t believe it is possible for any party to lead a revolution if it doesn’t even have the ambition to do so. That is the case with the Shachtmanites and the case with Goldman and Morrow. The Shachtmanites assert that neither their party nor ours is the party of the future revolution. Somewhere, somehow, out of something or other, it will arise, they hope.

We must assert as a matter of course that our party is going to lead the revolution.[3]

The best answer to Banda’s attack on the “American Theses” is to reproduce substantial sections of the document, so that the reader can judge for himself how Cannon “apotheosized American exceptionalism” and “wrote off the European socialist revolution.”

The document begins as follows:

I. The United States, the most powerful capitalist country in history, is a component part of the world capitalist system and is subject to the same general laws. It suffers from the same incurable diseases and is destined to share the same fate. The overwhelming preponderance of American imperialism does not exempt it from the decay of world capitalism, but on the contrary acts to involve it ever more deeply, inextricably, and hopelessly. U.S. capitalism can no more escape from the revolutionary consequences of world capitalist decay than the older European capitalist powers. The blind alley in which world capitalism has arrived, and the U.S. with it, excludes a new organic era of capitalist stabilization. The dominant world position of American imperialism now accentuates and aggravates the death agony of capitalism as a whole.

II. American imperialism emerged victorious from the Second World War, not merely over its German and Japanese rivals, but also over its “democratic” allies, especially Great Britain. … Wall Street hopes to inaugurate the so-called American Century.

In reality, the American ruling class faces more insurmountable obstacles in “organizing the world” than confronted the German bourgeoisie in its repeated and abortive attempts to attain a much more modest goal, namely: “organizing Europe.”

The meteoric rise of U.S. imperialism to world supremacy comes too late. Moreover, American imperialism rests increasingly on the foundations of world economy, in sharp contrast to the situation prevailing before the First World War, when it rested primarily on the internal market—the source of its previous successes and equilibrium. But the world foundation is today shot through with insoluble contradictions; it suffers from chronic dislocations and is mined with revolutionary powder kegs.

American capitalism, hitherto only partially involved in the death agony of capitalism as a world system, is henceforth subject to the full and direct impact of all the forces and contradictions that have debilitated the old capitalist countries of Europe.

The economic prerequisites for the socialist revolution are fully matured in the U.S. The political premises are likewise far more advanced than might appear on the surface.[4]

As for the claim that Cannon “under the guise of projecting a unique American road to socialism wrote off the European socialist revolution,” this is directly contradicted by the text of the document:

IX. The revolutionary movement of the American workers is an organic part of the world revolutionary process. The revolutionary upheavals of the European proletariat which lie ahead will complement, reinforce, and accelerate the revolutionary developments in the U.S. The liberationist struggles of the colonial peoples against imperialism which are unfolding before our eyes will exert a similar influence. Conversely, each blow dealt by the American proletariat to the imperialists at home will stimulate, supplement, and intensify the revolutionary struggles in Europe and the colonies. Every reversal suffered by imperialism anywhere will in turn produce ever-greater repercussions in this country, generating such speed and power as will tend to reduce all time intervals both at home and abroad.[5]

Cannon placed special emphasis on the central significance of the socialist revolution in the United States, a perspective that was defended by the SWP until the mid-1950s, when it began its political retreat toward Pabloism and eventually wrote off the American working class. But in 1946, the high-water mark of the SWP’s political development as a revolutionary party, Cannon put forward a bold and inspiring perspective:

X. The role of America in the world is decisive. Should the European and colonial revolutions, now on the order of the day, precede in point of time the culmination of the struggle in the U.S., they would immediately be confronted with the necessity of defending their conquests against the economic and military assaults of the American imperialist monster. The ability of the victorious insurgent peoples everywhere to maintain themselves would depend to a high degree on the strength and fighting capacity of the revolutionary labor movement in America. The American workers would then be obliged to come to their aid, just as the Western European working class came to the aid of the Russian revolution and saved it by blocking full-scale imperialist military assaults upon the young workers’ republic.[6]

Among the accusations Banda repeatedly hurls against Cannon is that the SWP leader capitulated to the “backward” workers of the United States. (As a matter of fact, whenever Banda refers to workers in any country, “backward” is his favorite and most frequently-used adjective.) Cannon, in the midst of a ruthless struggle to defend the proletarian orientation of the SWP, dealt with this question:

XIII. Much has been said about the “backwardness” of the American working class as a justification for a pessimistic outlook, the postponement of the socialist revolution to a remote future, and withdrawal from the struggle. This is a very superficial view of the American workers and their prospects.

It is true that this class, in many respects the most advanced and progressive in the world, has not yet taken the road of independent political action on a mass scale. But this weakness can be swiftly overcome. Under the compulsion of objective necessity not only backward peoples but backward classes in advanced countries find themselves driven to clear great distances in single leaps. …

XV. The hopeless contradictions of American capitalism, inextricably tied up with the death agony of world capitalism, are bound to lead to a social crisis of such catastrophic proportions as will place the proletarian revolution on the order of the day. In this crisis, it is realistic to expect that the American workers, who attained trade union consciousness and organization within a single decade, will pass through another great transformation in their mentality, attaining political consciousness and organization. If in the course of this dynamic development a mass labor party based on the trade unions is formed, it will not represent a detour into reformist stagnation and futility, as happened in England and elsewhere in the period of capitalist ascent. From all indications, it will rather represent a preliminary stage in the political radicalization of the American workers, preparing them for the direct leadership of the revolutionary party.[7]

For those who wish to attack the document on something other than the obviously dishonest grounds chosen by Banda, they will inevitably point to the categorical terms in which it predicted a terminal economic crisis of American capitalism. It anticipated, “Once the internal market is again saturated, no adequate outlet can be hoped for in the unbalanced world market. …

The home market, after an initial and artificial revival, must contract. It cannot expand as it did in the twenties.”[8]

The course of developments proceeded differently. But is Cannon to be criticized for not having anticipated, on the basis of the betrayals of the European proletariat by the Stalinists and social democrats between 1944 and 1948, the reestablishment of the political equilibrium of capitalist rule that created the conditions for the postwar boom? In 1946 the future course of the crisis was not so clear. The previous seventeen years had been dominated by catastrophic economic crises. Moreover, the SWP's concentration on the limitations of the American home market was not misplaced. As Bretton Woods and a host of other critical economic conferences made clear, American imperialism was preoccupied with the problem of restoring international trade and markets for US goods. Without the Marshall Plan and the vast increase in the volume of capital exported overseas, the United States would have certainly faced a devastating financial crisis in the late 1940s.

Cannon’s economic projections were by no means farfetched. The problem of restoring world trade without a renewal of the ruthless trade warfare and autarchic policies of the previous decade dominated the thinking of the leading representatives of US imperialism. This is how the astute Harry Dexter White, the architect of the IMF and the World Bank, posed the problem confronting world capitalism at the end of the World War:

A breach must be made and widened in the outmoded and disastrous economic policy of each-country-for-itself-and-the-devil-take-the-weakest. Just as the failure to develop an effective League of Nations has made possible two devastating wars within one generation, so the absence of a high degree of economic collaboration among leading nations will, during the coming decade, inevitably result in economic warfare that will be but a prelude and instigator of military warfare on an even vaster scale.[9]

The prospect of economic collapse and war did not appear as outlandish to even the bourgeoisie in 1945–46 as Banda, who is blessed with the proverbial 20-20 hindsight, would have us believe. At any rate, Cannon’s projections did not proceed, as did those of Morrow and Shachtman, from the inevitable and inexorable character of capitalist restabilization. Those who wish to hold against Cannon the fact that he proceeded from the revolutionary potential within the objective situation and that he did not base his calculations on the possibilities for a stabilization which had not yet been achieved must render an even more severe judgment against those two notorious crisismongers, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. What are we to make of their anticipation of immense revolutionary upheavals as a consequence of the world economic crisis of 1857–58? When signs of an upturn were already on the horizon, Engels wrote:

We can only hope that this “improvement” in the crisis from the acute to the chronic stage sets in before a second and really decisive blow falls. …

Physically, the crisis will do me as much good as a bathe in the sea; I can sense it already. In 1848 we were saying: Now our time is coming, and so in a certain sense it was, but this time it is coming properly; now it’s a case of do or die. This will at once give a more practical slant to my military studies.[10]

The fundamental historical conceptions of the “American Theses”—“In sum, the major factors that once served to foster and fortify American capitalism either no longer exist or are turning into their opposites”—were correct; and it is for this reason that the “American Theses” deserves an honored place in the documentary record of the history of the Fourth International.

Banda calls it “the most significant revision in the immediate post war period.” Revision of what, may we ask? It would be impossible to point out a single point in which the “American Theses” refutes or contradicts the historical perspective advanced in the founding document of the Fourth International, the Transitional Program.

As for the nonsensical claim that the “American Theses” repudiated the “collective theoretical collaboration in continuing Trotsky’s work and concretizing his historical prognosis,” Cannon’s report to the SWP Political Committee stressed that the document was based entirely on theoretical conceptions of the development of the class struggle in the United States that Trotsky had elaborated in his writings and in numerous meetings with SWP leaders. This included Trotsky’s hypothetical suggestion that it was possible to foresee conditions in which the socialist revolution in the United States could precede the proletariat’s victory in Europe.

The “American Theses” was the product of the struggle against revisionism which developed inside the Fourth International during and in the immediate aftermath of the war. Banda does not substantiate a single allegation. Insofar as he bothers to cite a document, it turns out that its content is the very opposite of what he says it is.


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), p. 276.


Ibid., pp. 278–79.


Ibid., p. 281.


Ibid., pp. 256–57.


Ibid., p. 264.




Ibid., pp. 268–70.


Ibid., pp. 262–63.


E.A. Brett, The World Economy Since the War: The Politics of Uneven Development (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985), p. 1.


Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 40 (New York: International Publishers, 1983), pp. 203–4.