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Leon Trotsky 19350904 Letter to Cannon and Shachtman

Leon Trotsky: Letter to Cannon and Shachtman

September 4, 1935

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 14, New York 1979, p. 601-604, title: “The Cannon Shachtman Group Should Make Concessions”]

Comrades Cannon and Shachtman

Worthy Comrades:

In response to your letter of August 15 to the IS: It is understood that Oehlerism must be politically liquidated. On that we are in complete agreement. Does this inevitably have to mean a split-off of Oehler and of the core of his group? That I am not able to judge. If this could be avoided, then of course we should avoid it.

Oehler is not a political thinker. Such people can only pose as political leaders in periods when the movement is still in swaddling clothes. This does not necessarily mean that they are useless for the movement. Ryazanov, for example, wanted to be a political, and especially a trade union, leader, at any price. But he didn’t have the qualities to be one. After some more experience, he finally concentrated on Marxist scholarship, and in this he secured imperishable gains for the party and the International. It is possible that Oehler will, in the future, also find his place in the movement. We should, if possible, not close the door to him. As an independent political figure, however, he can only compromise himself and harm the movement.

The question would arise, however, in what way and at what tempo should we liquidate Oehlerism? To form an opinion from here is not easy. But I have the impression, from all the facts and the documents, that you gave Oehlerism a free hand for a long time, and then moved so harshly all at once, that the organization was taken by surprise and a division was created in the leadership.

The sharp disagreement with Muste is most lamentable, not only in its international aspects, although Muste is an international figure; from a purely national standpoint also, your break with Muste will signify, for a long time to come, a blow at the authority of the leadership and at the whole organization. We don’t conduct unification negotiations for half a year and longer in order then to come to a split half a year later. Such a result would strengthen the talk about the “impossible methods” of the Bolshevik-Leninists in the highest degree. The SAP is already informing its sections that the WPUS is on the brink of a split.

What do I mean by that? I mean that, even if we can make no principled concessions to Oehlerism — if it doesn’t work otherwise — we can and should make concessions to the Muste and Weber groups, in regard to the forms and methods of the struggle against Oehlerism. You still can’t hide from the fact that even if you win a majority, it will be a very narrow one, and in this case your group will face an organizational combination of the three other groups. You can call this combination unprincipled, “harmful,” etc. This designation will not remove it from the face of the earth. I don’t want to, and I hardly could, go into the question, to what extent much too severe and overly subtle methods (without adequate political and psychological preparation) bear responsibility for the organizational combination of the three groups coming into being. But you are duty-bound to take the hard facts into account.

In any case, in your communication that Muste suddenly, without any prior political difference, broke off relations with you, I can’t help but see an irrefutable proof that you undertook extremely important steps without consulting Muste on them day in and day out and without giving him the necessary time to consult with his close friends. The fact that the position of Muste, the party secretary, appeared to you as something “sudden” and unexpected tells me that not everything in your procedure was all right.

I ask myself: How would Lenin act in an analogous situation? I believe I can say with assurance that he would go before the party with roughly the following explanation: The Oehler tendency endangers the development and the future of the party. To struggle against this tendency is the absolute duty of every Marxist. However, the way in which we have fought it has aroused dissatisfaction in two other groups, of which the Muste group is of great importance. We are therefore completely prepared to make far-reaching concessions to the Muste and Weber groups in regard to the methods of fighting sectarianism. Such an explanation would undoubtedly make the best impression on the wavering elements, would only heighten your authority, and would knock the weapon out of the hands of your opponents.

You can answer me: This would signify a “rotten peace,” would strengthen the Oehler group, cripple the party, etc. I don’t think so, for this perspective can be compared not to some ideal state of affairs, but to the state of affairs of an impending split under an extremely unfavorable relationship of forces. New events will only compromise and weaken Oehlerism. Muste and Weber will have to turn their backs on him more and more; your authority will only grow. This is how Lenin operated, for example, in the struggle against the Ultimatists, and, as the result showed, with success.

The Muste group is, of course, politically more important than the Weber group. Both are, however, more or less bound up with each other, and you have absolutely no stake in keeping the Weber group in permanent opposition. It is extremely likely that certain memories of old conflicts, personal ties, etc., play a significant role in the attitude of this group. Of course, this isn’t correct. Still less correct, however, is to view the group as hopeless. It is in political agreement with us. If, by meeting them halfway — which in this situation will be a sign of strength and not of weakness — you are able to eliminate the old animosity, you will pull the rug out from under the independent existence of this group and you will only strengthen your own position. This is all the more important since the leader of the youth, Gould, who seems to be a capable and active comrade, adheres to this faction.

That is the general impression that I have gained after careful examination of the material available to me.

With the friendliest greetings.


L. Trotsky

P.S. Have you received the materials that I sent you on the struggle in the French section? (A handwritten French and a German report on the demonstration of July 14, an issue of the confiscated Revolution, the leaflet of July 14, excerpts from letters, etc.) In The New Militant I have, unfortunately, seen none of this. Maybe I haven’t got all the issues of your paper. The best means of struggle against Oehlerism is accurate information on what is really happening.