Tom Kerry: “If Ever You Surrender Your Right To Criticize, You’re Dead!” (1979)

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Comrades, I take the floor despite my vows not to do so. I’ve had it. I’ve had it up to here. The decision I would have to make would be either to stay home, to stay away from the branch meetings, or to begin to speak and express an opinion. I’ve had some experience in the party, for forty-five years. I’ve even been an industrial worker. Would you believe it! And a nonindustrial worker.

Let me divert. I don’t get this about the industrial worker. What is it about being an industrial worker that endows the individual with qualities which require other individuals years of study? I don’t know. You mean you take some zombie off the street and stick him on a machine and he becomes a teacher? I never heard such nonsense in my life, but let that go. I want to speak of more serious things.

The comrade said there’s a class division in the San Francisco branch. And I questioned him on it and he reaffirmed his view, there’s a class division in the San Francisco branch. Well, the comrade knows that I’m in opposition. I voted against the political resolution, and I tried to motivate my motion at the time. And I was prepared to let it go at that.

But when you stand up on the floor of this branch and say, well, there are class divisions in this branch, then that’s a declaration of war, whether you know it or not. Because a class division in this branch means that there’s a petty-bourgeois grouping or tendency in this branch and they’ve got to be driven out! You’re not going to drive me out, brother, without a fight! I can tell you I’ve got at least one more good fight in me, I think. I think so.

We had a petty-bourgeois opposition. We had the Shachtmanite petty-bourgeois opposition and we characterized them as such. Because there was a difference on program. A programmatic difference. And we raised the question then: Is it possible that these two tendencies would be compatible, could they coexist in the same party, having such deep-going differences as was present? Answer that question in your mind please.

Is this petty-bourgeois opposition compatible with coexistence in the party with you Marxists? That is the question you’re going to have to answer. I’m going to ask this question of the plenipotentiary from West Street who is here in San Francisco. And I’m going to demand that he answer it before this branch. And if his answer is the same as yours then comrades we’ve got trouble. Oh boy, have we got trouble. Because I for one have had experience enough to know that in a case of this kind you’ve got to begin to organize in order to protect your right to speak! And I’m already beginning to hear objections, objections! to the comrades making criticism. They consider criticism as a sort of personal assault upon the leadership of the party. It’s not so. It’s not a scandal when comrades criticize the executive committee. What they’re saying is we think you’re wrong. What is scandalous about that? Or don’t you think it is possible for them to be wrong? Or is it intended to intimidate the opposition to the leadership? Is that what you intend by your remark about the class division? That anybody who has a difference with the leadership, by virtue of that fact, is in the enemy class. You see, you better keep your goddamn mouth shut.

No! That is not the way we build the party. And you’ll not find that in any of the statutes of the party. You’ll not find that in the organizational principles of the party. You’ll not find it anywhere!

Our party was based upon the Leninist concept that the only possible party that can successfully lead a revolution is a self-thinking, self-acting membership! We don’t have any popes! And the way you talk about Barnes, he is some kind of pope. Every time there is some question he refers to Barnes as though that settles it. Do you even consider that Barnes may be wrong? I mean does it ever cross your mind that Barnes may be wrong? I think so. Oh boy, has he been wrong. But I still think he is a qualified leader of the party, carries out the program of the party, and I support him critically! Critically!

If ever you surrender your right to criticize, you’re dead! This party couldn’t make a revolution on Mission Avenue, let alone in San Francisco, with that kind of a membership. A membership must be self-thinking and self-acting! That means a critical membership. And critical of every official, from Barnes on down, if you please. If you’ve got a criticism of Barnes — voice it! Don’t let anybody stop you! Don’t let anybody intimidate you! I never heard of such a thing. You look back. Look back at our internal bulletins, if you please. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Full of criticism, some of them very violent criticism of the leadership, from Jim Cannon on down. We never attempted to crucify them because they criticized. We said that they were wrong. We argued with them. We discussed with them. We tried to convince them. Some were convinced, some we didn’t succeed in convincing. But I think our method was the best one. Those who were capable of being assimilated were convinced. And we convinced them. Those who weren’t left the party. Some of them went into business for themselves. You see them in front of your forums occasionally here, part of them. OK, but they had their chance to speak. They weren’t suppressed. They weren’t threatened. And they weren’t intimidated. We had free and open discussion.

Let me tell you something. There is a comrade from the Political Committee out here to submit the information that the Political Committee had reversed the decision of the District Committee and of the branch — on what? on two propositions that are appearing on the San Francisco ballot. Big deal. I’m against it. I’m opposed to it. I think it’s wrong. I think it is absolutely wrong. Even if they are right about their criticism. I haven’t even heard their criticism. I don’t give a damn. Even if they are right about their criticism I think it is an incorrect way of developing a leadership in this party! You don’t come down with a goddamn broadaxe on a section of the leadership and the membership of the party when they’ve made some little error or when you think they’ve made some little error. This is an error on, what do you call it, a proposition. The whole goddamn San Francisco electoral machinery is going to be upset if the Socialist Workers Party of San Francisco votes yes or no on proposition Q and Z.

All right. I’ll conclude. I’m against it because it undermines the confidence of the leadership. It destroys their feeling that they are confident of making a little decision like this, you see. It makes them more dependent upon the center. So that after this they won’t make decisions like this, or decisions of any kind, for that matter, without getting on the telephone first and clearing it with Barnes, or whoever happens to be pope at the time.

So it is not the way to build a critical, self-thinking, self-acting membership! It is not the way to build a leadership. Leaders in this party are not selected. They earn their spurs by their activity, by their thinking, by the development of their views and ideas in the course of their activity.

Too much. There’s been too much of this business of sending in organizers from the outside of the branches. In our branches, for example, like the San Francisco branch, we have very qualified people, we have the most qualified people of any organization in this country, in my opinion. And if we can’t select an organizer out of a branch of this size and this character then we’re in a pretty sad state. What is the use? How do you develop leadership? How do you develop leaders? Beginning with taking industrial workers and making teachers out of them. OK, you’ve got one section of the leaders there. Does that exhaust our capacity?

No, comrades, don’t intimidate me. Don’t try to intimidate me and don’t try to hush me up. You’ll be making the worst mistake in your life if you do. I’m going to find out whether there’s a division in this branch, whether there is a class division in this branch, which means a political, programmatic division in this branch, whether there’s a petty-bourgeois tendency in this branch, whether this tendency is compatible with the coexistence in the same party with the “proletarians,” the teachers from the industrial unions.

There’s going to be a fight so you had better gird yourself.

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