July 13, 2024

    James Burnham

    Letter of resignation from the Workers Party

    (21 May 1940)

    From Fourth International, Vol. 1 No. 4, August 1940, pp. 106–107.

    New York, May 21, 1940

    To the National Committee of the Workers Party:

    I am compelled to place before the committee the question of my status in relation to the newly formed Workers Party.

    The faction fight in the Socialist Workers Party, its conclusion, and the recent formation of the Workers Party have been in my own case, the unavoidable occasion for the review of my own theoretical and political beliefs. This review has shown me that by no stretching of terminology can I any longer regard myself, or permit others to regard me, as a Marxist.

    Of the most important beliefs, which have been associated with the Marxist movement, whether in its reformist, Leninist, Stalinist or Trotskyist variants, there is virtually none which I accept in its traditional form. I regard these beliefs as either false or obsolete or meaningless; or in a few cases, as at best true only in a form so restricted and modified as no longer properly to be called Marxist.

    This communication is not meant to be an elaborate analysis or a lengthy personal credo. Nevertheless, I wish to illustrate my opinions with a few specific examples:

    I reject, as you know, the “philosophy of Marxism,” dialectical materialism. I have never, it is true, accepted this philosophy. In the past I excused this discrepancy and compromised this belief with the idea that the philosophy was “unimportant” and “did not matter” so far as practise and politics were concerned. Experience, and further study and reflection, have convinced me that I have been wrong and Trotsky – with so many others – right on this score; that dialectical materialism, though scientifically meaningless, is psychologically and historically an integral part of Marxism, and does have its many and adverse effects upon practice and politics.

    The general Marxian theory of “universal history,” to the extent that it has any empirical content, seems to me disproved by modern historical and anthropological investigation.

    Marxian economics seems to me for the most part either false or obsolete or meaningless in application to contemporary economic phenomena. Those aspects of Marxian economics which retain validity do not seem to me to justify the theoretical structure of the economics.

    Not only do I believe it meaningless to say that “socialism is inevitable” and false that socialism is “the only alternative to capitalism”; I consider that on the basis of the evidence now available to us a new form of exploitive society (what I call “managerial society”) is not only possible as an alternative to capitalism but is a more probable outcome of the present period than socialism.

    As you know, I do not believe that Russia can be considered a “workers state” in any intelligible sense of the term. This opinion, however, is related to far more basic conclusions: for example, that Stalinism must be understood as one manifestation of the same general historical forces of which fascism is another manifestation. There is still doubt in my mind as to whether this conclusion applies also to Leninism and Trotskyism.

    I disagree flatly and entirely, as Cannon has understood for a long while, with the Leninist conception of a party – not merely with Stalin’s or Cannon’s modifications of that conception, but with Lenin’s and Trotsky’s. I disagree with the theory of the party, but even more, and more important, with the established pattern of behavior which displays the character of the party as a living reality. The Leninist type of party seems to me incompatible with genuine scientific method and genuine democracy.

    In the light of such beliefs, and others similar to them, it goes without saying that I must reject a considerable part of the programmatic documents of the Fourth Internationalist movement (accepted by the Workers Party). The “transition program” document seems to me – as it pretty much did when first presented – more or less arrant nonsense, and a key example of the inability of Marxism, even in the hands of its most brilliant intellectual representative, to handle contemporary history.

    These beliefs, especially in their negative aspect – that is, insofar as they involve disagreement with Marxism – are not at all “sudden” or episodic, nor are they products merely of the recent faction struggle. Several I have always held. Many others I have held for some years. Others have, during the past year or two, changed from doubt and uncertainty into conviction. The faction fight has only served to compel me to make them explicit and to consider them more or less in their entirety. I understand, naturally, that many of them are not “new” or “original,” and that in holding some of them I find myself in very bad company. However, I have never been able to judge the truth of beliefs by the moral character of those who hold them.

    The newly-formed Workers Party is a Marxist party, and more particularly a Bolshevik, a Leninist party. This is not a mere matter of definition. It is guaranteed alike by its programmatic documents (especially the key document on The Aims, the Tasks, and the Structure of the Workers Party), by the statements and convictions of the overwhelming majority of its leadership and of a substantial majority of its membership, and by the habits of action of this majority. It is strikingly symbolized by the statement on the masthead of Labor Action that the party is a section of the Fourth International, by the definition of its theoretical magazine as “an organ of revolutionary Marxism,” by the reiterated appeal in the key document above mentioned to “the revolutionary traditions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky” and to the “principles of Marxism,” and by the convention episode of the cable to Trotsky. Nothing whatever in the faction fight indicated a decisive tendency away from this orientation; on the contrary, every sharp suggestion in such a direction was at once blocked. In reality, the split from the Socialist Workers Party was not based upon anything fundamental, and the Workers Party exists now as a faction of the Trotskyist movement. This was the actual cause of the extreme difficulty which the faction found in drawing up its position on “the nature of the party,” and in differentiating that position from Cannon’s. This was hard to do, was in fact not done, because the two positions, except in details and emphases, did not really differ.

    I do not, of course, wish to mitigate my own share of responsibility of what happened in the immediate and more distant past. I wish here to record the facts as I see them, among which is the fact that I have not been a full-time political worker and have not accepted a full share of organizational responsibility.

    From the facts about my own present beliefs and the character of the Workers Party, the following conclusion inescapably follows: I cannot be a loyal member of the Workers Party; I cannot accept its program or discipline; I cannot speak or act for it. Naturally I do not disagree with everything for which the Workers Party stands. I believe that socialism would be a good thing if it can be achieved (though “socialism as a moral ideal” is in bad repute among Marxists, we learn). I agree with the Workers Party attitude toward the war, at least insofar as this was involved in the just concluded faction dispute. But I share agreement on those points with many other organizations and tens of thousands of individuals wholly apart from the Workers Party. To the extent that I function politically, I cannot confine what I say and do to rhapsodies on the desirability of socialism and denunciations of both camps in the war. This was brought home to me with particular keenness by the first public mass meeting of the Workers Party. For I tried to figure out what I could say, and I could not find any way of saying what I felt I ought to say and still appear on the platform as a loyal spokesman of the group. I finally compromised once more, spoke “safely” on the third camp, and felt like a liar when I had finished.

    Two alternatives only, therefore, present themselves to me:

    • Continuing as a member of the party, I can immediately launch a faction struggle along the lines suggested by this document.

      This struggle would, of course, be, from a political and theoretical standpoint, far broader and more fundamental than the struggle just concluded with Cannon and would have as its general aim, from my standpoint, to break the group altogether away from Marxism.

    • Or I can simply separate from the Workers Party.

    From the usual conception of “principled” and “responsible” politics, the first course is incumbent upon me. However, I do not believe that it makes sense under the actual circumstances. On the one hand, a sharp faction struggle now in the Workers Party (in which my point of view would be supported by a very small minority) would mean the breakup of the group, at the very least its reduction to impotence – and it begins with foundations none too firm. What could be gained would not be worth while, would simply not mean anything politically. On the other hand, I personally am not willing to undertake leadership in such a struggle. I am not, have not been, and cannot be a “practical politician” and “organization man,” above all not a leader.

    Thus the second course alone remains.

    It will be thought and said by many that my present beliefs and the decision which follows from them are a “rationalization” of, on the one side, the pressure of a soft and bourgeois personal environment, and, on the other, the influence of the terrible defeats of labor, and mankind during the past twenty years, and of the war crisis.

    I should be the last to pretend that any man should be so brash as to imagine that he knows clearly the motives and springs of his own actions. This whole letter may be an over-elaborate way of saying the single sentence: “I feel like quitting politics.” It is certainly the case that I am influenced by the defeats and betrayals of the past twenty and more years. These form part of the evidence for my belief that Marxism must be rejected: at every single one of the many tests provided by history, Marxist movements have either failed socialism or betrayed it. And they influence also my feelings and attitudes, I know that.

    As for my “personal life,” how is one ever to know which is chicken and which egg, whether unwillingness fully to enter Marxist politics confuses beliefs, or whether clear beliefs keep one from entering Marxist politics fully? I am a little tired, I confess, of the habit of settling accounts with opponents and critics, of deciding scientific disputes, by smug references to “rationalizations” and the “pressure of alien classes and influences.” Because this habit is a well established part of the tradition of Marxism is not the least of my objections to Marxism. My beliefs are facts; and the defeats and betrayals, and the mode of my life and my tastes are also facts. There they are, whatever the truth about sources and origins and motives.

    On no ideological, theoretic or political ground, then, can I recognize, or do I feel, any bond or allegiance to the Workers Party (or to any other Marxist party). That is simply the case, and I can no longer pretend about it, either to myself or to others.

    Unfortunately, one factor still remains. This factor is a sense of moral obligation and responsibility to my past self – seven years dominated, however, inadequately but on the whole, by Marxism or any comparable structure, cannot be wiped out by a few minutes at the typewriter – and more especially to other persons, to those with whom I have joined in loyal collaboration on both sides, and to others who have been influenced in their ideas and acts by me. Trotsky and Cannon will exploit my decision as a confirmation of their views – Burnham’s quitting will be, by their remarkable but humanly understandable logic, evidence for the truth of their opinions on the character of the war, the nature of the Russian state, and the role of Russia in the war. To many members of the Workers Party, my separation will appear as a desertion. From a moral and personal point of view, I cannot but agree that there will be a good deal of truth in this latter judgment.

    But this factor, weighed against the others, is no longer sufficient to decide my actions. Indeed, it now seems clear to me that if it had not been for these moral and personal considerations, I should properly have left the party some while ago. On the grounds of beliefs and interests (which are also a fact) I have for several years had no real place in a Marxist party.

    This communication constitutes my definitive resignation from the group. However, because of the obligations which I recognize, I am, within strict limitations, prepared to discuss with the committee, if the committee so wishes, the manner of my separation. There are four alternatives:

    1. The committee can expel me. There would be no difficulty in finding grounds for expulsion: I have already written an article, which, if published in the non-party press (and there is the opportunity for such publication), would be adequate grounds.
    2. I can simply withdraw, without any special notice being taken on either side, from the group and its activities.
    3. I can be, nominally, granted a “leave of absence” for six months. If this alternative were chosen, there should be no misunderstanding. The future is never certain, but the probability of such a leave’s coming to an end would be very slight indeed.
    4. I am, finally, prepared, if the committee feels that it would make any serious difference in this first period of the group’s independent existence, to carry out a form of partial collaboration during the next two months. This would consist primarily of writing signed and unsigned articles for the party press, consistent with the party’s position; and during that time refraining from public acts contrary to the party and its program. At the conclusion of these two months, any of the three other alternatives could be put into effect. I would not like this fourth solution, to be quite honest, but, as I have stated, I am prepared to accept it.

    Writing this letter has been a painful and difficult task for me. It is in no way an impulsive act, but has been preceded by the most careful and lengthy deliberation. I am above all anxious that I avoid giving any impression that I seek to excuse or extenuate myself, my own weaknesses or deficiencies or failures. I do not propose to blame others or history for my faults. When I say that I reject Marxism, I do not at all mean that I am scornful of or consider myself “superior to” Marxists. Not at all. I am humble, believe me before the loyalty, sacrifice and heroism of so many Marxists – qualities found so widely within the ranks of the Workers Party. But I cannot act otherwise than I do.

    Believing as I do, I cannot wish success to the Workers Party; but I can and do wish its members well. To the extent that each of us, in his own way and arena, preserves the values and truth and freedom, I hope that we shall continue to regard ourselves as comrades, whatever names we use and whatever labels may be tied around our necks.

    Fraternally yours,