A Trend in the Wrong Direction(The case for defending an independently elected Party Control Commission was made by US revolutionary James P Cannon at a time when the Trotskyist party in the US, The Socialist Workers Party, was experiencing a growth of members as a result of the student radicalisation of the 1960's.
Posted for those interested in past discussions relating to organisation and cadre development in a Leninist Party.-Martyn Ahmet)
November 12, 1966
Ed Shaw, New York
Jean Simon, Cleveland
Reba HansenNew York, N.Y
This answers your letter of November 2 with which you enclosed a copy of Jean Simon’s letter of October 12. I was surprised and concerned by Jean’s proposals to change the constitutional provisions providing for an independent Control Commission elected by the convention, and making it a mere subcommittee of the NC, which would mean in effect a subcommittee of the PC. This would be the de facto liquidation of the Control Commission as it was originally conceived.
As far as I can see all the new moves and proposals to monkey with the Constitution which has served the party so well in the past, with the aim of “tightening” centralization, represent a trend in the wrong direction at the present time. The party (and the YSA) is too “tight” already, and if we go much further along this line we can run the risk of strangling the party to death.
As I recall it, the proposal to establish a Control Commission, separately elected by the convention, originated at the Plenum and Active Workers’ Conference in the fall of 1940, following the assassination of the Old Man. The assassin, as you will recall, gained access to the household in Coyoacan through his relations with a party member. The Political Committee was then, as it always will be if it functions properly, too busy with political and organizational problems to take time for investigations and security checks on individuals.
It was agreed that we need a special body to take care of this work, to investigate rumors and charges and present its findings and recommendations to the National Committee.
If party security was one side of the functions of the Control Commission, the other side - no less important - was to provide the maximum assurance that any individual party member, accused or rumored to be unworthy of party membership, could be assured of the fullest investigation and a fair hearing or trial. It was thought that this double purpose could best be served by a body separately elected by the convention, and composed of members of long standing, especially respected by the party for their fairness as well as their devotion.
I can recall instances where the Control Commission served the party well in both aspects of this dual function. In one case a member of the seamen’s fraction was expelled by the Los Angeles Branch after charges were brought against him by two members of the National Committee of that time. The expelled member appealed to the National Committee and the case was turned over to the Control Commission for investigation. The Control Commission, on which as I recall Dobbs was then the PC representative, investigated the whole case, found that the charges lacked substantial proof and recommended the reinstatement of the expelled member. This was done.
In another case, a rumor circulated by the Shachtmanites and others outside the party against the integrity of a National Office secretarial worker was thoroughly investigated by the Control Commission which, after taking stenographic testimony from all available sources, declared the rumors unfounded and cleared the accused party member to continue her work. There were other cases in which charges were found after investigation to be substantiated and appropriate action recommended.
All these experiences speak convincingly of the need for a separate Control Commission of highly respected comrades to make thorough investigations of every case, without being influenced by personal or partisan prejudice, or pressure from any source, and whose sole function is to examine each case from all sides fairly and justly and report its findings and recommendations. This is the best way, not only to protect the security of the party, but also to respect the rights of the accused in every case.
As far as I know, the only criticism that can properly be made of the Control Commission in recent times is that it has not always functioned in this way with all its members participating, either by presence or correspondence, in all proceedings - and convincing the party that its investigation was thorough and that its findings and recommendations were fair and just.
* * *It should be pointed out also that the idea of a Control Commission separately constituted by the convention didn’t really originate with us. Like almost everything else we know about the party organizational principles and functions, it came from the Russian Bolsheviks. The Russian party had a separate Control Commission. It might also be pointed out that after the revolution the new government established courts. It provided also for independent trade unions which, as Lenin pointed out in one of the controversies, had the duty even to defend the rights of its members against the government. Of course, all that was changed later when all power was concentrated in the party secretariat, and all the presumably independent institutions were converted into rubber stamps. But we don’t want to move in that direction. The forms and methods of the Lenin-Trotsky time are a better guide for us.
* * *I am particularly concerned about any possible proposal to weaken the constitutional provision about the absolute right of suspended or expelled members to appeal to the convention. That is clearly and plainly a provision to protect every party member against possible abuse of authority by the National Committee. It should not be abrogated or diluted just to show that we are so damn revolutionary that we make no concessions to “bourgeois concepts of checks and balances.” The well-known Bill of Rights is a check and balance which I hope will be incorporated, in large part at least, in the Constitution of the Workers Republic in this country. Our constitutional provision for the right of appeal is also a “check and balance.” It can help to recommend our party to revolutionary workers as a genuinely democratic organization which guarantees rights as well as imposing responsibilities, and thus make it more appealing to them.
I believe that these considerations have more weight now than ever before in the thirty-eight-year history of our party. In the present political climate and with the present changing composition of the party, democratic centralism must be applied flexibly. At least ninety percent of the emphasis should be placed on the democratic side and not on any crackpot schemes to “streamline” the party to the point where questions are unwelcomed and criticism and discussion stifled. That is a prescription to kill the party before it gets a chance to show how it can handle and assimilate an expanding membership of new young people, who don’t know it all to start with, but have to learn and grow in the course of explication and discussion in a free, democratic atmosphere.
Trotsky once remarked in a polemic against Stalinism that even in the period of the Civil War discussion in the party was “boiling like a spring.” Those words and others like it written by Trotsky, in his first attack against Stalinism in The New Course, ought to be explained now once again to the new young recruits in our party. And the best way to explain such decisive things is to practice what we preach.
James P. Cannon