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James P. Cannon on Defensive Formulations and the Organization of Action

July 10, 2019

Introductory Note by John Riddell:

My article, “On The Democratic Character of Socialist Revolution” contested the view that revolutionary Marxists (“Leninists”) favour a strategy for insurrection against parliamentary institutions, quoting from court testimony given in 1942  by James P. Cannon, a founding leader of the U.S. Communist Party and later of the Socialist Workers Party.

Cannon’s testimony, available on Marxists Internet Archive, stands as an authoritative exposition of how Revolutionary Marxists explain the road to workers’ power.

Some revolutionary socialists objected to Cannon’s presentation of socialist revolution as a democratic process employing, to the extent possible, peaceful means. One critic, Grandizo Munis, argued that Cannon should have displayed “proud valor” in boldly declaring his party’s insurrectional intentions.

In reply, Cannon explained that his courtroom conduct was an application of a principle generally understood among working people, that it is best to frame demands for social change as an exercise of democratic and human rights, while laying the blame for illegality and violence where it belongs – on the capitalist ruling class.

In the text below, Cannon explains this approach, which Marxists refer to as the use of “defensive formulations.”

Defensive Formulations and the Organization of Action

by James P. Cannon:[1] In general, it may be said that the source of all the criticism of our expositions at the Minneapolis trial is to be found in the apparent rejection of defensive formulations, and in counterposing “offensive action” to them. But the essence of the whole question consists in this, that defensive formulations prepare and help to create genuine mass actions, while “calls to action,” not so prepared, usually echo in the void.


James P. Cannon

It is not by accident that those revolutionists who understand this are precisely the ones who have shown the capacity to organise actions when the conditions for them are present. The ultraleft sectarians, meantime, who do not understand the best mechanism for the organisation of actions – that is, precisely, defensive formulations – always remain alone and isolated with their impatient slogans and their self-imagined intransigence.

Our critics explain our resort to defensive formulations by the theory that our strategy in court was determined above all by concern to obtain light sentences. “Our comrades … try to make an honourable impression on the jury without taking into consideration that they should talk for the masses.” We seem to “have one policy for the masses and another for appearances before a bourgeois judge.”

However, this appraisal of the motives of the defendants, which falls short of flattery, is somewhat contradicted by the fact that we immediately published the testimony in our press and then republished it in thousands of copies in pamphlet form, “for the masses.”

We do not deny anyone the right to his opinion as to the moral content of our conduct at the trial, and we do not intend even to debate the question on that ground. In this domain “actions speak louder than words.” But we shall attempt a political exposition, basing ourselves on Marxist authority, of the role of defensive formulations in the organisation of proletarian mass action.

Also, defensive formulations are an indispensable medium for teaching the masses, who will not be convinced by theory but only by their own experience and propaganda related thereto. This experience of the masses proceeds in the main along the line of defensive actions. That is why defensive formulations are most easily comprehensible and represent the best approach of the revolutionary Marxists to the masses.

Finally, it is a tactical and legal consideration of no small importance in a bourgeois-democratic country that defensive formulas partially disarm the class enemy; or in any case, make their attacks more difficult and costly. Why should such advantages be thrown away?

Defensive formulations retain their efficiency in all actions involving masses, from the most elementary economic strikes to the open struggle for power. Those who aspire to organise action ought to know this.

American economic strikes have been explosively violent and the violence has not all been on one side. The instinctive militancy of the workers, as revealed in these strikes, would indicate that when the time comes for grandiose revolutionary actions, these same workers will remain true to their tradition and not be paralysed by Quakerism.

Every strike leader worth his salt knows, however, that strikers are not mobilised and sent into action against strikebreakers, thugs and lawbreaking cops by lecturing them on the virtues of violence and “calling” them to take the “offensive.” The workers, militant and courageous as they may be, prefer victory by peaceful means; and in this they only show good sense. In addition, strikers, at the beginning, almost invariably entertain illusions about the impartiality of the public authorities and tend to assume that they, as well as the bosses and their hirelings, will respect the rights of the strikers and the justice of their cause.

They need experience, which as a rule is soon forthcoming, to change their attitude and move them to militant action. They need also some assurance that legal right is on their side. Strike leaders who seek not self-expression but victory in the strike, who understand that it can be won only by means of mass solidarity and mass action, must take these illusions and sentiments of the workers into account as the point of departure. Strike leaders can in no case begin with loose-mouthed “calls” for violent offensive action by the strikers.

The first task is to explain the implacable nature of the struggle in which the self-interest of the bosses excludes fair play, and the role of the public authorities as political servants of the bosses; the second task is to warn the workers to expect violent attacks; and the third task is to prepare and organise the workers to defend themselves and their rights. Along these lines, and as a rule only along these lines, the struggle can be consciously developed in tempo and scope. The most effective mass action of the strikers, as every experienced organiser of mass actions knows, is organised and carried out under defensive slogans.

Matters are no different when the workers’ mass action ascends from the elementary field of the economic strike to the topmost peak of the class struggle – the open fight for political power. Here also the action proceeds under defensive slogans and, to a very large extent also under cover of legality.

Trotsky has demonstrated this so convincingly in his monumental History of the Russian Revolution that there remains no ground for serious debate in our ranks on the subject. To the student it should be sufficient to say: There is the book; go and read it. To the critic who imagines, without having thought the matter out, that defensive formulations signify squeamishness or hedging on principle, we say and we shall prove: That is the way the great Russian Revolution was organised and carried through to victory.

Related article on this website


[1]. The text has been reposted with thanks from Part 6 of Socialism on Trial on Marxists Internet Archive.

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