Max Shachtman

The Early Days

The “Document”

(October 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 46, 22 October 1938, pp. 4 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There are very few examples of, the power and influence that can be exerted on the movement by forceful ideas than the “document,” as we called it ten years ago. I refer to comrade Trotsky’s criticism of the draft program of the Communist International written by Stalin and Bukharin for the Sixth Congress in Moscow in the summer of 1928.

In this country we had only a very faint idea of the fundamental issues involved in the struggle of the Trotskyist Opposition against the ruling clique in the Russian party and the Comintern – and that idea was a very carefully distorted and misrepresented one. Overwhelmingly preoccupied by what we thought were the all-important issues in the factional fight that raged incessantly in the American Communist Party, the comrades of what was then generally called the Cannon group paid very little attention to the truly world-shaking problems that were being debated in the Soviet Union.

Our one consolation was that we were always somewhat uneasy about the savage fury with which the organizer of the October Revolution and his comrades were assailed and the extreme measures that were taken againsl them; as a result, we allowed the Lovestoneites and Fosterites, especially the former, to distinguish themselves in the notorious campaign of Trotsky-baiting, and we confined ourselves to a passive acceptance of what was being done without joining in, either in writing or in speeches, with the attacks upon our Russian comrades.

How It Came to America

Our general dissatisfaction with the “American decisions” of the Comintern, which were, to us, so utterly and perversely wrong and “incomprehensible,” formed the background for the attendance of our delegate, comrade Cannon, at the Sixth Congress. It was there that Trotsky’s masterful criticism of the Stalin-Bukharin program, written in his Alma-Ata exile, was carefully circulated among picked delegates – members of the program commission and heads of the delegations There is no doubt of the tremendous effect which the “document had on all the delegates. But only Cannon, and Maurice Spector who was delegated from the Canadian party, decided to make the convictions which the unassailable logic of the criticism aroused in them, the basis for their future revolutionary activity. They decided to bring the “document” back to America and use it as the basis for organizing the struggle at home in solidarity with the Russian Bolshevik Opposition.

More easily said than done. For not only was each copy numbered, but the strictest instructions had been issued for the return of all copies to the Comintern Secretariat. What an eloquent commentary on the state of affairs in the Comintern as early as 1928 that responsible delegates to its Congress decided to steal and smuggle out of the country one of the most precious documents of Marxian thought. They found it necessary to purloin a document which, from any point of view, was rightfully theirs, and which they had a duty to communicate to those revolutionists in their own party (not to say all parties) who had delegated them to Moscow.

It was through these two comrades, aided by an old Bolshevik militant then resident in Moscow that the first copy of Trotsky’s magnificent critique was brought out of Russia and made available to the vanguard revolutionists who laid the first solid stones in this country of the movement now united in the Fourth International.

Apart from our general background in the principles of communism, and our repugnance for bureaucratism, chicanery and opportunism which we had up to then considered to be mainly a phenomenon of the American party, we had nothing to start with save the “document.” But it proved to be more than enough.

The First Reaction

I was the first or second comrade in this country to have it presented to me to read – out of a hidden corner in one of Cannon’s cupboards at home! – and I shall always remember the excitement with which I read it through for the first time, and then a second and third time, and the stunning effect with which all my preconceptions and prejudices were exploded out of my mind. And the shame I felt to think that in the five years of the dispute this was the only important writing of Trotsky that I had read. How rightfully provincial we had been all this time; how cruelly we had been victimized into ignorance, into going with the officialine, by the Kremlin machine which was to accentuate its course in the years to come to the point of unprecedented monstrosity – a point which we simply could not conceive of ten years ago.

I cannot think of any single document that served its purpose better. Marty Abern, Jim Cannon and I – members or alternates of the party Central Committee – and our first associates, Rose Karsner and the late Tom O’Flaherty, did not need many discussions among ourselves to decide, after a thorough reading of the “document” to carry on the fight for our newly-acquired convictions regardless of the immediate outcome. Of the final outcome we have never had any doubts.

The Trial

It was a serious enough affair, all things considered, but at the same time, if ever there was a funnier one, I have not heard of it. The Comintern delegation had hardly returned to the U.S., and we had scarcely begun our prudent agitation – we wanted to gain as much time as possible in order to reach our friends inside the party – than we were confronted with charges of conducting “Trotskyist agitation” in the party, with expulsion awaiting if we were found guilty. Our trial lasted for several days before an enlarged meeting of the Political Committee of the party.

The prosecutor-in-chief was none other than John Pepper, one of the hangmen of the Hungarian revolution, aided by the then secretary of the party, Jay Lovestone. As nowadays, Earl Browder was the principal party nobody, with only this difference, that ten years ago he had not yet been appointed party Führer. Which doesn’t mean that the Fosterites were in the least friendly. On the contrary, led by Bittelman they vied with the Lovestoneites in driving for our expulsion. It was at once amusing and revolting to watch them, like hounds on a leash, waiting to jump in ahead of Pepper and Lovestone with a motion for our expulsion, so as to be able to cable Stalin the news of their zeal in servility.

The Real Accusers

The stenographic record of the trial makes good reading even now, and some day it ought to be printed in full as a murderously telling portrait of our prosecutors and judges. We defendants, who perversely acted more like accusers, did not yet know too much about the great disputes; ,t all events, we did not know as much as we might or should have known. But we already knew a thousand times as much as our opponents in the Political Committee, who knew nothing but a few catch-phrases from the official filth in the Inprecorr. We already knew enough and more than enough to answer the standardized slanders and falsehoods which served as arguments against the Opposition and its views.

Some of the questions put to us were exceeded in pricelessness only by some of the charges and “evidence” presented against us. The manager of the party bookshop was solemnly ushered in to testify that “only recently” I had come in to the shop to ask for some literature on China; and, he added, giving deadly weight to every word, “everybody knows that China is a Trotskyist question”!! To read books was bad enough, but to read books on China – “a Trotskyist question” – was pretty damning ...

The Great Heresy

Characteristic of that trial, and those which followed, was the dialogue between Lovestone and Elis Sulkkanen, head of a group of Finnish party members who were tried for heresy after us:

“LOVESTONE: You are prepared to help the party to fight against Cannon? ...

“SULKKANEN: I have to find out and study what Cannon has to say. What program he has and what information he has.

“LOVESTONE: But you are officially informed that Cannon, Abern and Shachtman were expelled from the party. Do you, as a party member, think that your first duty is to find out or is not the mere fact that they were expelled unanimously by the Polcom sufficient for you as a guarantee to treat him as an enemy of the party today?

“SULKKANEN: You put the question in a very incorrect way. One has to find out things before one can fight anybody.”

Instructive dialogue! A few months later, Lovestone, himself expelled, was compelled to plead in vain with the party members “to find out” what he stood for before they decided to “treat him as an enemy of the party.” In our case, the mere fact of our expulsion was considered enough, and God help any party member who, before condemning us, had the impudence to want to find put what we stood for. In the subsequent “trials,” Lovestone-Foster and Co. did us many a good service by expelling out of hand any party member who wanted “to find out things,” for in every case, once the expelled comrade did “find out,” he entered enthusiastically into our ranks.

“Burglary Bolshevism”

Our present headquarters may not be very sumptuous, but they are certainly less modest than those we started with. For many months after our expulsion, our “office” was one of the rooms in Jim Cannon’s home on East 19th Street, New York; then – progress! – one desk in a room of my home on the next street. On December 23, two months after our expulsion from the party, our “office” was raided in its occupants’ absence, raided not by the police but by Messrs. Lovestone, Stachel ... and the G.P.U. – a job just as thorough, we dare say, as the one recently accomplished on the private residence of the same Jay Lovestone, by the same G.P.U., in connection with the fight in the auto workers union. Times change ...

Everything in sight was taken, once the door was jimmied open by the experts. Four days later, In Lovestone’s Daily Worker, there began a really hair-raising exposure of the “American Trotskyists,” in good Hearst style, based on what had been stolen from our “office.” A subscription to our paper, The Militant, had been sent in for Amos Pinchot, showing, according to the Daily Worker, our connections with “out and out bourgeois individuals.” The Freiheit embellished the story by writing of “a series of documents about the American Trotskyists which demonstrate that they are allied with big capitalists who give them money to carry on their propaganda against the Communist Party.” (Among the Daily Worker’s subscribers at that time were the National Association of Manufacturers, Warner Brothers and the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet!)

No less damning was proof of our illicit relations with Max Eastman who, as Trotsky’s translator, had given us a letter of introduction to the publishers of The Real Situation in Russia asking that we be allowed to see the press clippings. This purloined evidence of our cynical counter-revolutionary activity was duly reproduced in the Daily Worker.

Another reproduced letter revealed the existence of a Mr. Sard who seems to have been interested in the movement. Interested also in music, and director in this country of “Schubert Week,” he had apparently visited President Coolidge in order, with the aid of the Vienna government, to facilitate putting over the commemoration of the great composer. The Daily Worker did its very best to argue that, barely started, we had already joined in a sinister plot with American imperialism and the Austrian government (but why the Austrian, or only the Austrian?) to overthrow the Soviet Union.

In a couple of days, the “sensational exposure” petered put. But we never got back our documents and letters; we never got back the petty cash and money orders that had been stolen; and Marty Abern never got back his five beautifully-bound volumes of the Inprecorr, which probably repose to this day on the shelves of Mr. Jack Stachel, noted contemporary advocate of democracy and law and order.

The Sequel

There is a very interesting sequel to this burglary, which inaugurated a large-scale campaign of meeting-disruption gangsterism and violence against our movement first by Lovestone and the Stalinists, and then by the Stalinists. The sequel occurred some eight months later, shortly after the expulsion of Lovestone from the party. He was charged with having burglarized the National Office of the Party and lifting a lot of documents for his ousted faction. The moral indignation of the remaining party leaders may well be imagined. One of them, William Abrams, wrote a comment on the affair in the Freiheit of September 1, 1929, which merits perpetuation as a document:

”And it is to you, former comrades – again, not to those who ran after a Lore, a Salutsky and other pestilences – that I come with the question: Don’t you think that the same tactic that is applied against Cannon is criminal when applied to the Communist Party? Don’t you think that breaking into the offices of the Central Committee and of Section One, the taking away of documents and lists from there, is an act that must be condemned?”

These two plaintive sentences say everything that is necessary – about Burglary-Bolshevism, about William Abrams, about the man he called his “former; leader,” Jay Lovestone, about the whole poisonous mire of Stalinism.

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Last updated on 11 September 2015