David North
The Heritage We Defend

Cannon’s Struggle Against the Cochranites

With his explanation of the political roots of the 1953 split, the renegade Banda descends to the lowest point of his frenzied campaign to discredit the Fourth International:

I would therefore submit that the split of 1953 was inherent in the perspectives and policy adopted in 1951. It intensified the division between those who in Britain and the USA (eg Cannon and Healy) were orienting rapidly towards the labour and reformist bureaucracies and the state and those in Western Europe who were adapting to the pressure of the dominant Stalinist bureaucracies as in Italy and France. …

Pablo, by necessity, was forced to scheme and intrigue against those leaderships tied organically to the pro-Western bureaucracies such as Cannon, Healy and Lambert. Conversely Cannon and Healy were forced to protect their own base of operations—naturally while still claiming adherence to the same fraudulent 1951 decisions—from the pro-Stalinist orientation of Pablo. (Banda’s emphasis.)

Thus, Banda now claims that the origins of the International Committee lie in a right-wing faction of the Fourth International that was tied to the pro-imperialist labor bureaucracies in the United States and Britain. Banda does not even bother to clarify a number of crucial issues that arise from his new interpretation.

If Cannon, Healy and Lambert were, in fact, “tied organically to the pro-Western bureaucracies” and “orienting rapidly” to the imperialist state, it follows that the formation of the International Committee in 1953 was not merely “an undignified maneuver” but a reactionary attack from the right against the Trotskyist movement. If one accepts Banda’s new explanation of 1953, one must then conclude that the rebellion against the Third Congress resolutions and the repudiation of Pablo’s leadership represented, regardless of Pablo’s errors, a mutiny by right-wingers. If Pablo was forced—Banda uses the phrase, “by necessity”—to “scheme and intrigue” against these “pro-imperialist” elements within the Fourth International, it would follow that the International Secretariat should have been critically supported against Cannon, Healy and Lambert. Banda should explain why he aligned himself with these “right-wingers” in 1953. While he now tells us that an article he wrote criticizing the FLN in Algeria several years later “was one of the most shameful episodes in my political career,” what could have been worse than supporting those within the Fourth International who supposedly were acting as stooges for the right-wing Labourite bureaucracy in Britain and the CIA-dominated trade union bureaucracy in the United States?

However, Banda’s interpretation collapses beneath the weight of the historical record. In 1953 Pablo found support within the SWP among those elements who were in the process of abandoning the struggle for Marxism in the United States and preparing to completely capitulate to the trade union bureaucracy. From 1951 on, Bert Cochran, the leader of the American Pabloite faction, was a shameless advocate of liquidationism within the SWP. He found support principally among a section of trade unionists inside the SWP who, in the face of the rabid McCarthyite witch-hunt, had lost all confidence in a revolutionary perspective. Cochran’s faction was adapting to the growing conservatism of the older trade unionists who had once participated in the great CIO battles of the 1930s, but who were now enjoying the fruits of the seniority clause that guaranteed them steady employment and, at least compared to the conditions they had known in their youth, good pay.

Twelve years ago, in his obituary of Cannon, Banda fully solidarized himself with the struggle against the Cochranites: “Cannon’s instinct in relation to the minority was infallible. He recognized them as a conservative group of the labour aristocracy.”[1]

The Trotskyists who formed the International Committee fought an alliance of those who were adapting simultaneously to the pressures of imperialism and Stalinism. The fact that Pablo, despite his pro-Stalinist orientation in Europe, allied himself with forces inside the SWP who were rapidly moving toward a political accommodation with the pro-imperialist Reutherite bureaucracy inside the United Auto Workers demonstrates that the essence of Pabloite revisionism was liquidationism, which inevitably assumed different forms depending upon national conditions. The social pressures bearing down upon the Fourth International generated a mood of skepticism and pessimism, which found its political articulation in the liquidationist formulations of Pablo. Behind the endless talk of “integrating” the national sections into the mass movement “as it is to be found in each country,” and breaking with sectarianism and dogmatism, was the assumption that Trotskyist principles were out of date, and doomed the organizations which upheld them to perennial isolation.

Cochran was drawn to Pablo because the revisionist line being developed in Paris opened the door for an adaptation to the trade union bureaucracy in the United States, where the pressures to give up the struggle for Marxism were especially great. For a brief period at the end of World War II, the massive strike wave of 1945–46 enabled the SWP to grow rapidly. However, the restabilization of capitalism in Europe, and the outbreak of the Cold War, suddenly stopped this development dead in its tracks. A wave of political reaction, unprecedented even by American standards, swept over the Socialist Workers Party and the entire left in the United States. The crimes of Stalinism, which had discredited the Communist Party in the eyes of the most militant workers, facilitated the anticommunist purge that was launched inside the trade unions in 1947.

Long before McCarthy made his debut with the infamous Wheeling speech of February 1950 (“I have in my hands the names of 205 known communists. …”) the witch-hunt had assumed the dimensions of a nationwide hysteria. The broad audience of “socialist-minded” workers and intellectuals that had existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and up to the mid-1940s disappeared. The “treason of the intellectuals,” whose servile toadying to the perspectives of Henry Luce was as disgusting as it was widespread, provided American imperialism with a swarm of apologists and propagandists, retailing what little they knew or remembered of Marxism to make a fast buck in the vast commercial enterprise known as professional anticommunism.

In his own inimitable style, Cannon had described the social process through which the radical intelligentsia of the 1930s abandoned the cause of social revolution:

One and all, these fugitives from the revolution think the late Thomas Wolfe was off base when he said, “You Can’t Go Home Again”, and refute him with pragmatic proof: “We can and we did”, to anyone who values and respects human dignity they present a most unattractive spectacle. Their performance borders on obscenity when they take time out from ballyhooing the “Truman Doctrine” to deliver little homilies about “independence” and to expatiate, like any hypocritical crook, mammon-serving sky pilot or confidence man, on the well-known virtues of “morality”. They are just about as independent—and just about as moral—as advertising copy-writers or the authors of radio commercials, including the singing variety.[2]

The SWP quickly lost most of the recruits it had made in the 1945–46 period and the older sections of trade union militants began to waver. The growth of liquidationism inside the SWP was the direct expression of the immense social pressures exerted by imperialism upon the workers’ movement. Within the leadership of the SWP, Cochran pressured incessantly for an “Americanization” of the party that would broaden its appeal. There is no doubt that Cannon, who sensed the pessimism within the leading cadre and perhaps, at times, was affected by it himself, retreated beneath this pressure and made concessions to Cochran. In April 1951, Cannon reported to the Political Committee that a discussion within the secretariat had led to the proposal that the SWP should cease to publicly designate itself as Trotskyist:

I have the feeling that this designation impresses the average unpolitical American—the very person we are most interested in—as a sectarian movement, as followers of some individual, and a Russian at that. It is not a suitable characterization for a broad American movement. Our enemies will refer to us as Trotskyists, and we will, of course, not deny it; but we should say: “We are Trotskyists because Trotsky was a true socialist. …”

What we are presenting against American capitalism and the labor bureaucracy is the principle of the class struggle of modern socialism. I think we ought to consider this seriously from the point of view of propaganda technique, and more and more refer to ourselves as Socialists, revolutionary Socialist, Socialist Workers, or something like that. …

Let our enemies within the movement, that is in the narrow framework of the more political movement, call us Trotskyist. We will not protest. But then we will say we are Trotskyist because he represented genuine socialism and we, like him, are the real Socialists. This has importance because more and more in elections we have the only candidates against the bourgeois candidates.[3]

Not only did the Political Committee agree to stop identifying itself publicly as Trotskyist, but it also decided to remove from the masthead of the editorial page the photographs of Lenin and Trotsky. These shameful decisions, which expressed Cannon’s retreat before the growing strength of the right wing within the leadership of the SWP, were enthusiastically applauded by Cochran, who saw them as only the first small steps that had to be taken in order to make the SWP respectable within the United States.

Shortly before the Third Congress, Cochran submitted a document in which he made clear that the thrust of the political line being advanced inside the Fourth International by Pablo and himself was toward a repudiation of Trotskyism as a distinct tendency within the workers’ movement organized as the world party of socialist revolution.

We have come a long way in the discussion since we first began debating the class nature of the East-European states, and every one of us has undoubtedly learned something from it. It is not too much to say that the discussion and resultant re-orientation has saved our movement a crisis, has wrenched us out of the ungainly posture of rejecting and denying world-shaking revolutionary developments, because the world was not moving in strict accordance with our programmatic norms and prescriptions. …

This re-orientation of our movement, this concretization of our tasks must be a source of great satisfaction to all of us. Because, by it, we have gotten back into the world of politics, and shut the door on the insulated domain of doctrinaires, where the battle-cry is: “Long live justice, though the world may perish.” For, if the Shachtmanite cadre faces the imminent danger of total disintegration under the hammer blows of bourgeois and Social Democratic public opinion, our cadre faces an opposite danger, (although, as this discussion has demonstrated, an admittedly remote one). Our cadre, in its anxiety to steel itself against the pressures of a hostile world, faces a possible danger of petrifaction, of inuring itself to the play of criticism upon the organization, of people getting closed minds and adopting the attitudes of a shut-in-circle, of converting the writings of the Marxist masters into Scripture, of reducing Marxism to scholasticism.[4]

When Cochran dealt with the perspectives and practical tasks of the SWP, the significance of his enthusiasm for the Paris line became clear:

Several months ago our committee decided to drop the designation of “Trotskyist” from our general literature and to discontinue running the pictures of Lenin and Trotsky in every issue of the paper. This decision, long overdue, is to be heartily applauded as part of the process of the Americanization of our party, of the elimination of all externals which are unnecessary roadblocks in our path. What is now required is that this practical adjustment in our propaganda be generalized into a conscious and planned orientation.

Our movement has not, so far, made the impact on American political life of the revolutionary currents that preceded us. We haven’t left the mark on the American working class that the IWW or the Debs Socialists did. We are still looked upon, more than some realize, as a group of hero-worshipers, personal adherents of Leon Trotsky, as a sect of eccentrics. Even many sophisticated labor militants friendly to us, (and they are all getting pretty sophisticated nowadays) view Trotskyism not just as a political program that is too extreme, or with which they cannot go along, but as something of an oddity, something that is foreign, far-away, alien to America and its problems. …

We emerged as an organization in America out of a split in Russia that the American workers, and even their most advanced elements, knew little about and cared less. …

We cannot afford to live in the past, or in a make-believe world of our own creation. We cannot afford any Quixotism. While our program is based, and will continue to be based upon the international experiences of the working class; and while Trotsky was, in the immediate and most direct sense, the teacher and the leader of our movement, it does not at all follow from these two propositions that we will have much success in rallying workers to our banner by trying to straighten them out on the rights and wrongs of the Stalin-Trotsky fight, which has now receded into history—or that it is our revolutionary duty to try to do so. Paying homage to the memory of a great man is not our main task as a political party. We will vindicate Trotsky’s struggle—and our own—by becoming a force; and in no other way. And we will become a force only when we succeed in implanting ourselves into the consciousness of the working class of this country as an authentic and indigenous band of American revolutionary militants.[5]

The words of Cochran give the lie to Banda’s brazen distortion of the political content of the 1951–53 struggle inside the Fourth International. Pablo’s pro-Stalinism in France was completely compatible with the views of those in the United States who were advocating the renunciation of the SWP’s revolutionary Marxist heritage. The real capitulators to imperialism were Pablo’s American supporters, who, in their zeal to “de-Russify” the organization, seemed to be intent on creating their own version of the House Un-American Activities Committee inside the Socialist Workers Party.

In early 1952 Cochran, a member of the SWP’s Detroit branch, made a bloc with George Clarke who was deeply involved in international work. He worked closely with Pablo, and had been demanding since the Third World Congress that the SWP place central emphasis on an orientation toward the Stalinist forces. Cannon immediately recognized the unprincipled nature of this political bloc—the Detroit branch had previously shown no interest whatsoever in closer contact with the Stalinists—and became convinced that Cochran was building up a faction based on the growing conservatism of sections of the SWP’s trade union cadre.

His appraisal of Cochran to some extent colored his attitude toward Pablo and the Third Congress. Knowing that Cochran had no interest whatsoever in turning to the crisis-stricken and demoralized Stalinist milieu in the United States, Cannon tended to discount Cochran’s invocation of the Third Congress resolutions as a hypocritical attempt to conceal the latter’s orientation to the labor bureaucracy. In an ill-conceived and pragmatic attempt to deny Cochran’s liquidationist views any international legitimacy, Cannon repeatedly denied that the Third Congress documents sanctioned the capitulatory line being pushed by the Cochranites. In these efforts Cannon was wrong, and this led him to make serious political errors, such as his refusal to intervene against Pablo’s bureaucratic expulsion of the leadership of the French section, despite the desperate appeal from Daniel Renard in February 1952. Not until mid-1953 did Cannon finally recognize that Cochranism was part of an international right-wing liquidationist tendency whose ideological center was Pablo’s Secretariat.

However—and this is not to justify Cannon’s errors—he came to understand the nature, extent and implications of Pablo’s revisionism as a result of the desperate struggle he had to wage over a protracted period against an extremely powerful opposition within the SWP. At an enlarged meeting of the SWP Political Committee in March 1952 and then at a Central Committee plenum two months later, Cannon challenged Cochran to come out openly and state his real perspectives. However, so sharp was the political change within the SWP under the impact of the immense class pressures that Cannon found little support for a fight against the Cochranites. He had lost his majority within the National Committee and was faced with accusations that his attitude toward Cochran was unreasonably factional. Among those who turned against him was Farrell Dobbs. This episode shattered Cannon’s political confidence in the man whom he had looked upon as his successor in the party leadership.

At the party convention in July 1952, Cannon began to prepare the membership for the upcoming fight. Countering those who were suggesting that the difficulties facing the party stemmed from the failure of Trotskyism, Cannon insisted that the main cause of the SWP’s isolation lay in the unfavorable political situation:

Big changes have taken place since the stormy days of the early CIO—and even since the years 1944–1946. In the past five or six years of the armaments boom, the class struggle has been muffled, mainly as a result of full employment and comparatively high wages. The upsurge of the late thirties, which flared up again in the late forties, has been followed by a workers’ attitude of wait and see. The workers have settled down into relative passivity, and a monolithic conservative bureaucracy has been consolidated with a firm control over the unions.

This new consolidated, conservative bureaucracy is closely tied in with the government and is, in effect, a government agency in the unions. It fully and consciously supports the whole foreign program of American imperialism and hopes to share in the crumbs of the prospective spoils at the expense of the rest of the people of the whole world.

That is, roughly, the new and changed situation which we have been up against for the past six years. It is radically different from the situation in the earlier period of the CIO. It is also radically different from the situation before the rise of the CIO when the great mass of the workers were still unorganized.

In some respects, the new situation is temporarily more unfavorable for recruitment into the revolutionary vanguard than the situation before the rise of the CIO. We were isolated then too, but it was not an organized isolation. …

The American working class has changed profoundly in the past twenty years. In fact, it has undergone two profound changes. First, it changed from the atomized and helpless class of the twenties to the insurgent, semi-revolutionary mass movements of the middle and late thirties, which rose up on the yeast of the Great Depression. Second, this insurgent, broadly democratic mass movement of the thirties has changed into the organized and bureaucratized labor movement of the present day, has grown passive and conservative under the influence of prosperity, and is now dominated from top to bottom by a conservative bureaucracy of imperialist agents. …

This boom—as far as I know—is unprecedented in the history of capitalism, in its scope and duration. We have economic prosperity combined with political reaction. …

We, the Marxist party of the revolutionary vanguard, have not thrived and grown in the atmosphere of prosperity and reaction, and could not do so. The resolution acknowledges this: “We have undergone losses,” says the resolution, the party has “experienced victimizations, and found itself forced to make retreats.” And then the resolution adds: “These are by no means ended.” It will greatly aid our deliberations if instead of slurring over these harsh acknowledgments of inescapable facts we weigh them seriously as the basic cause of whatever troubles we may be having or may anticipate in the period before us.[6]

By November 1952 Cannon—now residing in Los Angeles—was seeking to mobilize forces throughout the party for a fight against what he clearly identified as a right-wing tendency. He spoke scathingly of the passivity of the National Committee, which had “too many people who think a deep-going sickness can be exorcised by ignoring it or diplomatizing with it; who haven’t yet learned the real meaning of principled politics, or have forgotten what they learned.”[7]

In this letter of November 21, 1952 to Dan Roberts, Cannon declared:

The failure of the National Committee, as at present constituted, to quarantine the infection does not at all convince me that I was wrong in my diagnosis and in the measures I employed. Quite the contrary. The results of the experiment only convince me that the infection, in a less developed form, is more widespread in the leading cadre than I had hoped at the time. In my opinion the results of these experiences mean that all hopes—better to say, illusions—about solving the crisis by diplomacy, tongue-in-cheek agreements to confine the dispute within the National Committee, and similar political chicken feed—must be resolutely cast aside. The National Committee is not going to settle this dispute for the simple reason that it is not able to.

Nothing will do now but a thoroughgoing discussion in which the entire party participates, and after which the party consciously decides.[8]

In February 1953 Cannon wrote to Arne Swabeck, a cofounder of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, to complain bitterly about those who were avoiding the fight against Cochran:

These mush-mouth “nonfactionalists” are the worst, the most corrupt factionalists of all. When they say they don’t want to fight, they mean they don’t want to fight in the open. But the party has been built from the beginning by posing all questions openly and fighting them out in the open. That’s the only way the party members can learn anything from the disputes in the leadership. The real test and final justification of every internal struggle is precisely this: What has been learned by the members and assimilated into the traditions of the party? …

We here in California are fully prepared to collaborate openly, in dead earnest, and with all our strength with all comrades who are interested in such a struggle and see the necessity for it; and we don’t give a damn whether they belong to the National Committee or not. We make only one small condition: no compromise with Cochranism, and no derailment from the main highway of principled politics into the side streets, blind alleys, swamps and sumps of secondary questions, personal beefs and gripes, and other inconsequential trifles.[9]

Slowly, Cannon reassembled a shaky majority within the National Committee which was, as subsequent events demonstrated, none too firm in its opposition to Cochran’s views. The struggle was handicapped by Cannon’s efforts to treat the liquidationist views of Cochran as if they were simply a local problem unrelated to the political line of the Third World Congress. But although Cannon had still not taken the measure of Pablo, he knew exactly what social forces were represented by Cochran, as his speech to a caucus of the party majority in New York on May 11, 1953 made clear:

Since the consolidation of the CIO unions and the 13-year period of war and postwar boom, a new stratification has taken place within the American working class, and particularly and conspicuously in the CIO unions. Our party, which is rooted in the unions, reflects that stratification too. The worker who has soaked up the general atmosphere of the long prosperity and begun to live and think like a petty bourgeois is a familiar figure in the country at large. He has even made his appearance in the Socialist Workers Party as a ready-made recruit for an opportunist faction. …

It appears to me now, in the light of the conflict in the party and its real causes, which are now manifest, that those sections of the convention resolution dealing with the class as a whole require further elaboration and amplification. We need a more precise examination of the stratifications within the working class, which are barely touched there, and of the projection of these stratifications in the composition of the unions, in the various inner-union tendencies, and even in our own party. This, I believe, is the key to the otherwise inexplicable riddle of why one proletarian section of the party, even though it is a small minority, supports a capitulatory opportunist faction against the proletarian-revolutionary line and leadership of the party. …

The pioneer militants of the CIO unions are sixteen years older than they were in 1937. They are better off than the ragged and hungry sit-down strikers of 1937; and many of them are sixteen times softer and more conservative. This privileged section of the unions, formerly the backbone of the left wing, is today the main social base of the conservative Reuther bureaucracy. They are convinced far less by Reuther’s clever demagogy than by the fact that he really articulates their own conservatized moods and patterns of thought. …

This new stratification in the new unions is a feature which the party can no longer ignore. All the more so, since we now see it directly reflected in our party. A number of party members in the auto union belong to this privileged upper stratum. That’s the first thing you have to recognize. Some of the best militants, the best stalwarts of the party in the old times, have been affected by the changed conditions of their own lives and by their new environment. They see the old militants in the unions, who formerly cooperated with them, growing slower, more satisfied, more conservative. They still mix with these ex-militants socially, and are infected by them. They develop a pessimistic outlook from the reactions they get on every side from these old-timers, and, unknown to themselves, acquire an element of that same conservatism.

That, in my opinion, is the reason why they support a crudely conservative, pessimistic, capitulatory tendency in our internal faction fight. This, I am afraid, is not a misunderstanding on their part. I wish it were, for in that case our task would be easy. The miserable arguments of the Cochranites cannot stand up against Marxist criticism—provided one accepts the criteria of revolutionary Marxism.

But that’s the rub. Our conservatized trade unionists no longer accept these criteria. Like many others, who “used to be radicals themselves,” they are beginning to talk about our “Theses on the American Revolution” as a “crack-pot” idea. They don’t “feel” that way, and nobody can talk them out of the way they do feel.

That—and perhaps a guilty conscience—is the true explanation of their subjectivity, their rudeness and factional frenzy, when one tries to argue with them from the principled standpoint of the “old Trotskyism.” They do not follow Cochran out of exceptional regard for him personally, because they know Cochran. They simply recognize in Cochran, with his capitulatory defeatism and his program of retreat from the fighting arena to a propaganda circle, the authentic spokesman of their own mood of retreat and withdrawal.

Just as the older, more skilled and privileged German trade unionists supported the right against the left, and as their Russian counterparts supported the Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks, the “professional trade unionists” in our party support Cochranism in our fight. And for the same basic reasons.

I, for my part, must frankly admit that I did not see this whole picture at the beginning of the fight. I anticipated that some tired and pessimistic people, who were looking for some sort of rationalization to slow down or get out of the struggle, would support any kind of an opposition faction that would arise. That happens in every faction fight. But I didn’t anticipate the emergence of a conservatized workers’ stratum serving as an organized grouping and a social basis for an opportunist faction in the party.

Still less did I expect to see such a grouping strutting around in the party demanding special consideration because they are “trade unionists.” What’s exceptional about that? There are fifteen million trade unionists in this country, but not quite so many revolutionists. But the revolutionists are the ones who count with us.[10]

As we have already noted, Banda specifically cited with approval this analysis of the American Pabloites in his 1974 obituary of Cannon. And yet without attempting to show that this analysis was wrong, Banda now presents an interpretation of the 1953 split which ignores the indisputable fact that from among those trade unionist sections of the SWP “tied organically to the pro-Western bureaucracies,” Pablo found his most enthusiastic supporters.

In the aftermath of the split in 1953, the Cochranites lost all interest in the pro-Stalinist element in the general liquidationist line worked out by Pablo. As Cannon had correctly stated, the Cochranite trade unionists’ sudden palpitations about the prospects for work among the Stalinists were utterly insincere and contrived. Once outside the SWP, Bert Cochran carried out Pabloite “deep-entryism,” not inside the Communist Party, but inside the Democratic Party. Before his death in 1985, he became an admiring biographer of President Harry Truman and a friend of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the man who served as Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser from 1977 to 1981.[11]


Michael Banda, James P. Cannon: A Critical Assessment (London: New Park Publications, 1975), p. 39.


James P. Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), pp. 160–61.


SWP Political Committee Minutes, April 10, 1951.


SWP Internal Bulletin, vol. 13, no. 1, August 1951, p. 1.


Ibid., pp. 8–10.


James P. Cannon, Speeches to the Party (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), pp. 26–30.


Ibid., p. 242.




Ibid., pp. 246–47.


Ibid., pp. 53–60.


In the preface to Labor and Communism (Princeton University Press, 1977), Cochran wrote: “It is a pleasure to acknowledge the assistance that I received in writing this book. My thanks go to Zbigniew Brzezinski, then director of the Research Institute on International Change at Columbia University for the senior fellowship that he and his colleagues on the administrative board awarded me beginning with the fall semester of 1973, and for his unfailing consideration during the period of my residence.” (p. xi)