Spartacist English edition No. 60
Bryan Palmer’s James P. Cannon and the Origins
of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890–1928
A Biography of James P. Cannon
The publication of a major biography of James P. Cannon, a founding American Communist and the foremost leader of American Trotskyism for its first 40-plus years, is a significant event for Marxist revolutionaries. Cannon was the finest communist leader yet produced in the United States. The International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist)—which has its origins in the Revolutionary Tendency, a faction expelled from Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1963-64—claims Cannon as a central revolutionary forebear. At his death in 1974, Cannon was the National Chairman emeritus of the SWP, which had de facto abandoned the Trotskyist program more than ten years earlier. But in his prime Cannon had the evident capacity to lead the proletarian revolution in America to victory.
James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 by Bryan Palmer, a well-known social historian who is currently a professor at Canada’s Trent University, is quite good—far better than one would expect from a sympathetic, but nonetheless academic, source. The Prometheus Research Library, library and archive of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League/U.S., section of the ICL, was among the many institutions and individuals that provided Palmer with assistance in preparing this volume, as he notes in the book’s “Acknowledgements.”
Palmer’s 542-page volume, which covers Cannon’s early years through his 1928 expulsion from the Communist Party, is a substantial addition to the existing published material on Cannon’s political evolution and his leadership role in the first decade of American Communism, when it attracted the best American working-class fighters and before it was homogenized into a rigid, non-revolutionary Stalinist dogmatism. The Communist Party had been formed with the intent of following the model of Russia’s Bolsheviks, who led the world’s first successful workers revolution, the October Revolution of 1917. Those who flocked to the Bolshevik cause in the U.S. included Cannon, a former member of the Socialist Party (SP) and the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
The study of this period of Cannon’s history as a communist is critical for revolutionaries not only in the U.S. but internationally. As Cannon noted:
“Out of the Communist Party in the United States came the nucleus of the Fourth International in this country. Therefore, we should say that the early period of the Communist movement in this country belongs to us; that we are tied to it by indissoluble bonds; that there is an uninterrupted continuity from the early days of the Communist movement, its brave struggles against persecution, its sacrifices, mistakes, faction fights and degeneration to the eventual resurgence of the movement under the banner of Trotskyism.”
—Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism (1944)
And Cannon stayed the course, becoming a leader of the Fourth International when it was founded in 1938. For various historical reasons, the American Trotskyists became a mainstay of the Fourth International. They had the advantage of operating in conditions of relative stability, unlike a number of other Opposition groups, which were crushed by state repression before or during World War II. Moreover, Cannon, unlike other prominent figures in Trotsky’s International Left Opposition (ILO), brought with him a factional following that had worked together for years in the Communist Party.
Palmer’s solidly researched volume helps round out the picture drawn in the late Theodore Draper’s essential two-volume history of the early American Communist movement, The Roots of American Communism (New York: Viking Press, 1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (New York: Viking Press, 1960). One of the many ex-Communists who became anti-Communists, Draper nonetheless maintained a feel for the concerns and struggles of Communist cadre. He was aided in his research by Cannon, many of whose substantial letters to Draper were subsequently selected for publication as The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962). These letters fleshed out Cannon’s earlier recollections of the period in the first chapters of The History of American Trotskyism.
Palmer reports that Draper consciously downplayed Cannon’s contributions to his second volume. Nonetheless, Draper paid tribute to Cannon, writing a preface to First Ten Years. Explaining why Cannon’s memory of events in the 1920s was significantly better than that of his contemporaries, Draper concluded, “Unlike other communist leaders of his generation, Jim Cannon wanted to remember. This portion of his life still lives for him because he has not killed it within himself.”
Palmer’s biography supplements Cannon’s own published speeches and writings from the period under study, including those compiled in Notebook of an Agitator (1958) and the more internally oriented party material published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism, Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 (1992). The latter volume was published by the Prometheus Research Library, which acquired a substantial collection of Cannon material from the 1920s in preparing the book.
The PRL introduction to James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism noted that the archives of the Communist International (CI) in Moscow were likely to contain additional documents by Cannon from the 1920s. Shortly after the capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991-92, PRL researchers were given access to the archives and were able to make copies of previously unavailable papers by and about Cannon from the archives of the Comintern, the American party, the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU)—also known as the Profintern—and the International Red Aid. Palmer received permission from the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) to use the PRL’s copies of their material in researching his book. Palmer’s frequent references to Communist Party Political Committee minutes contrast favorably to the biographies of William Z. Foster by Edward P. Johanningsmeier (Forging American Communism, the Life of William Z. Foster [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994]) and James R. Barrett (William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism [Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999]). Johanningsmeier and Barrett write as if the factional battles of the period were incidental to the party’s trade-union work, with which they are overwhelmingly concerned.
Palmer was also able to use the James P. Cannon Papers, which were deposited by the SWP at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, as well as substantial documentary material on early American Communism from other libraries. Palmer collected an impressive amount of material documenting Cannon’s little-known early years and his activities in the IWW. His portrayal of Cannon’s leadership of the International Labor Defense, including the years-long campaign in defense of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti until their execution in 1927, is second to none. Palmer paints a picture of James P. Cannon that is not fundamentally new, but it is significantly enhanced.
An “Age of Innocence”?
We take exception, however, to Palmer’s conclusion that Cannon represented the “revolutionary Left in its age of innocence up to 1928,” free of the “worldly-wise knowledges that have calloused the politics of our time, undermining belief in the possibility of thoroughgoing transformation, dismissing the broad capacity of working-class people to effect material change, containing the expansiveness of radicalism in various liberal accommodations to ‘the art of the possible’.” Palmer attributes this supposed loss of innocence to the corrupting and corrosive effects of Stalinism.
Corruption and rejection of revolutionary purpose in the American workers movement preceded the Russian Revolution and its Stalinist degeneration; the Communist movement was founded in rebellion against the reformist Socialists and trade-union bureaucrats who insisted on the politics of the “possible.” The rise of American imperialism and its huge superprofits had led to the development of a labor aristocracy that gave rise to a particularly venal trade-union bureaucracy at the head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). American Marxist Daniel De Leon popularized the description of the AFL tops as “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class,” a term later picked up by Lenin. Revulsion at the open racism and reformist municipal “sewer socialism” of Victor Berger and his ilk in the heterogeneous Socialist Party propelled Cannon out of its ranks and into the IWW in 1911, on the road that would eventually lead him to communism.
The idea of Cannon as an innocent stands in contrast to the description written by West Indian poet Claude McKay of Cannon’s demeanor in fighting for the liquidation of the underground Communist Party in favor of the legal Workers Party at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. McKay wrote that Cannon “had all the magnetism, the shrewdness, the punch, the bag of tricks of the typical American politician, but here he used them in a radical way” (A Long Way From Home [New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969]).
Cannon was an authentic American communist leader. As noted in the PRL introduction to Early Years of American Communism, “If Cannon, feeling at a dead end in the internal factional wars, was able to make the leap in 1928 to Trotsky’s programmatic and international understanding of Stalinism, it was in large part because he had tried, in the preceding period, to chart a path for the party based on revolutionary communism.” Only with the help of Trotsky’s seminal 1928 Critique of the draft program of the Comintern (subsequently published in The Third International After Lenin) did Cannon extricate himself from the Stalinizing party to continue the struggle that he had taken up early in his youth—the fight to lead the American working people to socialist revolution. The Third International After Lenin was the de facto founding document of the International Left Opposition. Cannon’s recruitment to the ILO—along with a good part of the faction he had led—was a tremendous validation of Trotsky’s struggle against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.
Draper vs. New Left Historians
Palmer astutely realized that a biography of Cannon, who had largely been ignored by historians since Draper wrote his two volumes, would be a way to cut through the schism that has dominated the academic study of American Communism. This debate pits anti-Communist historians like Draper and, more actively, Draper’s epigones such as John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, against New Left-derived historians like Maurice Isserman. (Klehr is the author of a major study of the CP in the 1930s, The Heyday of American Communism [New York: Basic Books, 1984], while Isserman’s major work in the New Left mode is Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War [Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1982].) Klehr, Haynes and their ilk, in whose hands Draper’s thorough research has degenerated into shallow anti-Communist muckraking, paint a picture of American Communism as little more than a Soviet espionage network that slavishly followed the foreign policy dictates of the Kremlin from its inception. In contrast, the New Left historians, many of whom were influenced by parents or other mentors who were activists in the Stalinized CP after 1928, argue that the political line coming from Moscow played at most a secondary role in what was mainly an indigenous movement of the American left.
Palmer’s Introduction, based on an earlier article by him (“Rethinking the Historiography of United States Communism,” American Communist History, Vol. 2, No. 2, December 2003), motivates his biography of Cannon as a way to transcend the sterility of that academic debate by injecting the question of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, i.e., of Stalinism. The breadth and depth with which Palmer surveys the existing works on American Communist history—both secondary histories and firsthand memoirs—is very impressive, as is the sheer weight of documentary material he marshals. More casual readers will find the 155 pages of footnotes more than they can handle, but Palmer’s detailed list of sources and comments on them will be an important resource for historians of American Communism for some time to come.
Palmer writes from the point of view of one who is sympathetic not to some kind of ersatz academic “Marxism,” but to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution itself. Such sympathy has been nonexistent among academic historians of American Communism, as Palmer himself noted in an earlier reply to his critics:
“Almost nobody in academic circles in the year 2003 is willing to stand the ground of the original Bolshevik tradition. The study of US Communism is no exception to this. Recognition of the colossal and overwhelmingly positive accomplishments of the Russian Revolution of 1917 is side-stepped
. The immense resources and programmatic guidance of this Bolshevism, willingly given to the cause of the only force which could sustain the gains of October, the world revolution and its armies of proletarian internationalism, are quibbled about, as if the early Communist International’s motivation was nothing more than ‘domination’ and ‘foreign control’.”
—Palmer, “Communist History: Seeing It Whole. A Reply to Critics,” American Communist History, Vol. 2, No. 2, December 2003
It is unfortunate, then, that Palmer situates Cannon as a leader of something called the “revolutionary Left,” presenting communism as part of a continuum of “Left” organizations. Even prefaced by the word “revolutionary,” “Left” has only an amorphous, relative political meaning (Left vs. Right), with no class content. In current as well as historical usage, “Left” includes not only working-class political formations, but bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties as well. It is thus a notion that encompasses reformist class collaboration—the working class is seen simply as a constituent part of all “progressive” forces.
The formation of the Socialist Party in 1901 represented a more widespread recognition that the working class needed its own political party as distinct from the bourgeois parties; it was formed through a merger of the Social Democratic Party—which included a split led by Eugene Debs from the bourgeois Populists—with Morris Hillquit’s split from Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party. The formation of the American Communist movement represented a giant step forward from the SP because it recognized the need for a clear political break not just with the bourgeois parties but also with reformist currents within the working class. Cannon wrote:
“The launching of the Communist Party in 1919 represented, not simply a break with the old Socialist Party, but even more important a break with the whole conception of a common party of revolutionists and opportunists. That signified a new beginning for American socialism, far more important historically than everything that had happened before, including the organization of the Socialist Party in 1901. There can be no return to the outlived and discredited experiment of the past.”
—Cannon, “Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Movement of His Time,” reprinted in The First Ten Years of American Communism
Palmer’s use of “revolutionary Left” reflects a failure to make a qualitative distinction between communism and the radical-populist, social-democratic, anarchist and syndicalist movements that were often intertwined in the left internationally before the Bolshevik Revolution. Palmer’s dissolution of communism—the program of the revolutionary international working class for the overthrow of capitalism—into the amorphous “Left” is a bow in the direction of the pervasive retrogression of political consciousness that followed the destruction of the world’s first workers state in 1991-92. This retrogression is evident not only in academic circles but, especially, in the ostensibly Marxist movement itself. A prime example is Alan Wald’s review of Palmer’s book (“The Story of James P. Cannon, A Revolutionary Life,” Against the Current, July/August 2007), which questions the applicability in the 21st century of the program stemming from the Russian Revolution.
The Significance of the Russian Revolution
The Bolshevik Revolution, in the words of a 1939 “Speech on the Russian Question” by Cannon, “took the question of the workers’ revolution out of the realm of abstraction and gave it flesh and blood reality” (Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party ). It vindicated the Marxist understanding, reasserted in Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917), that the bourgeois state could not be reformed to serve the interests of the workers but had to be smashed and replaced by a workers state, the dictatorship of the proletariat. It demonstrated, as Cannon makes clear above, that the proletariat needed a disciplined vanguard party based on a clear revolutionary program if it was to conquer state power. Cannon and the other co-founders of the American Communist movement, many of whom had long histories in the American Socialist and syndicalist movements, made a political leap—at least in intent—when they decided that the experience of the October Revolution was decisive. This involved not simply recognizing that the revolution in Russia had won, but grasping that working-class revolutionaries had to apply the lessons of that victory to the American terrain.
This was easier said than done, and the misunderstandings that ran through the early American Communist movement—the insistence on an “underground” party, the advocacy of “revolutionary” unions counterposed to the reformist-led trade unions, the refusal to run candidates for bourgeois parliamentary office—were enormous. These misconceptions were not limited to the American party. In his seminal work written for the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, addressing ultraleft tendencies in Holland, Britain, Germany and elsewhere, Lenin stressed the singular experience that led to the crystallization of a Bolshevik vanguard party in tsarist Russia:
“Would it not be better if the salutations addressed to the Soviets and the Bolsheviks were more frequently accompanied by a profound analysis of the reasons why the Bolsheviks have been able to build up the discipline needed by the revolutionary proletariat?
“For about half a century—approximately from the forties to the nineties of the last century—progressive thought in Russia, oppressed by a most brutal and reactionary tsarism, sought eagerly for a correct revolutionary theory, and followed with the utmost diligence and thoroughness each and every ‘last word’ in this sphere in Europe and America. Russia achieved Marxism—the only correct revolutionary theory—through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment, verification, and comparison with European experience. Thanks to the political emigration caused by tsarism, revolutionary Russia, in the second half of the nineteenth century, acquired a wealth of international links and excellent information on the forms and theories of the world revolutionary movement, such as no other country possessed.
“On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903-17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience. During those fifteen years, no other country knew anything even approximating to that revolutionary experience, that rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement—legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms. In no other country has there been concentrated, in so brief a period, such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society, a struggle which, owing to the backwardness of the country and the severity of the tsarist yoke, matured with exceptional rapidity, and assimilated most eagerly and successfully the appropriate ‘last word’ of American and European political experience.”
—V.I. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder (1920)
During the latter half of the 19th century, two generations of Russian intellectuals underwent intense political ferment in search of means to throw off the stultifying tsarist yoke. Out of this ferment the most able gravitated to revolutionary Marxism. These intellectuals, in turn, led the nascent proletariat of the tsarist empire in the same direction. The 1903 split in the Russian Social Democracy between Lenin’s “hard” Bolsheviks and the “soft” Mensheviks, originally over the narrow question of how to define party membership, anticipated the subsequent definitive split carried through by Lenin between Bolshevism and Menshevik labor reformism in 1912. The key importance of a political and organizational break from reformism was only generalized by Lenin in 1914, when—after the ignominious collapse of the Second International into social chauvinism in the face of World War I—he called for a Third International. The new International was founded in early 1919, 18 months after the Bolshevik victory in Russia.
The necessity of a break with reformism was not the only lesson the Bolsheviks had to impart. The revolutionary Russian Social Democrats (the Bolsheviks adopted the title “Communist” only in 1918) had had to find a way to mobilize the peasantry—the vast majority of the tsarist empire—behind the proletariat. This was key to the Russian victory. They also had to come up with a revolutionary proletarian approach to the national question—only some 50 percent of the population of the tsarist empire was ethnic Russian. If the Bolsheviks had not successfully grappled with these issues, it would have shipwrecked the Russian Revolution. The Polish Communist Party, for example, was sterilized in the postwar period by its failure to develop a revolutionary approach to the peasantry, and paid a price for its earlier inability to deal with the Polish national question.
Lenin speaks of the quick succession of political conditions in Russia that compelled the Bolsheviks to develop a variety of tactics. There were other places in East Europe where conditions of material backwardness and severe repression meant that Marxist-inclined workers were not offered the luxury of parliamentary reformism. Many of the Social Democratic parties of the Balkans also had merit (e.g., Dimitar Blagoev’s Bulgarian Narrow Socialist Party and the Serbian Social Democrats, which were the only other parties in belligerent countries besides the Bolsheviks to vote against war credits from the beginning of World War I). In contrast, the relative bourgeois-democratic stability that had prevailed before the war in the English-speaking world worked against the possibility of revolutionaries transcending the divisions among radical populism, anarcho-syndicalism and parliamentary socialism as the Bolsheviks did.
Palmer understands that the overwhelming authority the Bolsheviks enjoyed in the early Communist International stemmed from the fact that they had much to teach, but he gives short shrift to the substance of those lessons. He does not, for example, include any discussion of the collapse of the Second International into social chauvinism as the war began. This is where Palmer’s use of “revolutionary Left” does more to obscure than to illuminate the political evolution of those who came to found American Communism, feeding into his insistence that the 1920s was an “age of innocence.”
The Corruption Didn’t All Come from Moscow
Palmer sympathizes not simply with the October Revolution, but with Trotsky’s fight against the Stalinist degeneration of that revolution. This degeneration grew out of the utter devastation to which an already economically backward Russia had been subjected as a result of World War I and the bloody Civil War that erupted a few months after the Bolsheviks took power. The proletariat that had made the revolution was decimated, with the better elements being drawn into the Red Army and party and state administration. Conditions of great material scarcity produced strong objective pressures toward bureaucratism, which had an impact on both the party and state. These were compounded by the isolation of the young workers state, felt especially after the defeat of a revolutionary opportunity in Germany in 1923. Amid the profound demoralization that swept through the Soviet proletariat, a growing bureaucratic caste seized political power from the working class, ostentatiously rigging the delegate elections to the January 1924 Thirteenth Conference of the Soviet party and thus stifling the voice of the Bolshevik Opposition led by Trotsky. While an account of this process is outside the scope of his book, Palmer correctly points to the adoption of the dogma of “socialism in one country,” first promulgated by Stalin in late 1924, as key to the CI’s abandonment of its revolutionary purpose.
The degeneration of the Russian Revolution was a process that began in 1924 but did not end there. Palmer correctly distinguishes the revolutionary program and principles that characterized the decisions of the Communist International in 1919-22 from the zigzags of the degenerating CI in 1924-28, first under Zinoviev and then Bukharin. As Palmer wrote in his earlier essay in American Communist History, “The Comintern was invested with a powerful and justified authority, but it was not, before 1923, regarded as some ‘sacrosanct deity’” (“Communist History: Seeing It Whole. A Reply to Critics”).
Palmer understands that the ouster of Bukharin in 1929 and Stalin’s domestic turn to forced collectivization of the peasantry—in the face of an imminent counterrevolutionary threat by the kulaks (the wealthier peasants), who had grown emboldened by Stalin/Bukharin’s conciliationist policies—dictated the sterile, sectarian adventurism of the Comintern’s 1928-34 “Third Period.” During the Third Period, all parties (not just the American) abandoned reformist-led trade unions in favor of building “revolutionary” ones. A useful documentary record of the CI’s degeneration can be found in the two volumes by Helmut Gruber, a history professor (now emeritus) at the Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, New York: International Communism in the Era of Lenin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1967) and Soviet Russia Masters the Comintern (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1974).
The adoption of the popular-front policy at the CI’s Seventh World Congress in 1935, which mandated that the Communist parties seek out class-collaborationist alliances with putatively “democratic” and “anti-fascist” wings of the bourgeoisie, signaled the final descent of the Communist International into reformism, though there was a brief period of left rhetoric during the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939-41. In 1943, Stalin ignominiously and formally interred the CI as a hindrance to continuing his World War II alliance with the “democratic” imperialists. Most Communist parties retained their allegiance to Moscow into the 1970s, making them not very desirable governmental partners as far as the imperialist bourgeoisies were concerned. But the participation of the Communist parties in France and Italy in popular-front governments in the immediate postwar period played a critical role in staving off proletarian revolutions in those countries.
An understanding of this process of programmatic degeneration and its link to the fights going on in the Russian party is the beginning of wisdom for any serious study of Communist history. If Palmer’s account of this process in the 1920s has a flaw, it is in its overemphasis on the process of Bolshevization and what he calls “Zinoviev’s appetite for bureaucratic centralism” rather than on the political drift away from a revolutionary program.
Palmer insists that it was the “bureaucratization and triumphant Stalinization of the Comintern” which “lowered a final curtain on the innocence of the revolutionary Left in 1928.” He ignores the very real objective pressures in the United States that were also pushing the party away from a revolutionary purpose. In fact, no party of the Comintern degenerated simply under the influence of Moscow. There was a co-degeneration as the 1920s went on. Though the particulars were very different in the Soviet Union, the same underlying objective pressure affected the cadre of the Western Communist parties—the recession of the post-WWI revolutionary wave and the stabilization of the capitalist world after the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923. It was the relative lack of revolutionary opportunities that underlay both the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the corruption of the Comintern’s national parties, as Cannon recognized:
“The party was influenced from two sides—nationally and internationally—and this time adversely in each case. Its decline and degeneration in this period, no less than its earlier rise, must be accounted for primarily, not by national or international factors alone, but by the two together. These combined influences, at this time working for conservatism, bore down with crushing weight on the still infant Communist Party of the United States.
“It was difficult to be a working revolutionist in America in those days, to sustain the agitation that brought no response, to repeat the slogans which found no echo. The party leaders were not crudely corrupted by personal benefits of the general prosperity; but they were affected indirectly by the sea of indifference around them
“The party became receptive to the ideas of Stalinism, which were saturated with conservatism, because the party cadres themselves were unconsciously yielding to their own conservative environment.”
—Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism
Cannon’s Formative Years
Cannon wrote little about his youth and upbringing in Rosedale, Kansas (now a part of Kansas City), but Palmer uncovered what he could about Cannon’s working-class Irish immigrant parents and family. His mother, Ann, who died when Cannon was 14, was his father’s second wife. Palmer has managed to unravel Jim Cannon’s relations to his five siblings and half-siblings, formerly quite murky. Cannon’s father, John, was only intermittently employed, but the young Jim sometimes went with him to work in the building trades. Cannon’s right thumb was smashed in an accident at his father’s work site, resulting in the amputation of the top of the digit. This minor disfigurement was seldom mentioned by Cannon.
Cannon’s father later left the working class to open an insurance office and real estate business. Palmer insists that in later life Cannon embellished his father’s proletarian credentials. Regardless, Cannon was won to socialist politics by his father, and his upbringing was typical of the Irish immigrant proletariat—Jim left school at 13 to work first at a packing house, then on the railroads and subsequently in the printing trades. He hung out in pool halls and bars with other young Irish workingmen. Palmer uses Cannon’s unpublished semi-autobiographical fiction—written in the 1950s—to throw light on his early youth and social attitudes. Given the paucity of other sources, this is probably merited. But one can imagine the very private Cannon squirming at some of Palmer’s suppositions.
What was unusual in Cannon’s youth was the fact that at age 17, when he was already supporting himself and living on his own, he decided to go back to high school. Cannon had been sympathetic to socialism since participating in the 1906-07 defense campaign for Western Federation of Miners leaders William “Big Bill” Haywood and Charles Moyer, falsely accused of murder. But Cannon joined the Socialist Party only in 1908, shortly after enrolling in high school. Cannon found it difficult to support himself and attend school; he attended for only three years and did not graduate. Palmer acquired the yearbooks of Rosedale High for the relevant years, gleaning details about Cannon’s high school career and obtaining a picture of the young man as part of the Rosedale Society of Debate in 1910.
Cannon made a serious study of oratory in high school, developing himself as a powerful public speaker. Leaving high school, Cannon joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1911, cultivating his speaking ability as a soapbox agitator on the streets of Kansas City, and subsequently as an itinerant Wobbly (as IWW members were known). Later, in the Communist Party, Cannon was much in demand as a speaker. Cannon could explain complicated political concepts in easily understandable language, as the material in Notebook of an Agitator amply demonstrates. He excelled as a communist propagandist.
A young teacher, Lista Makimson, was the mentor of the debate society. She and Cannon developed a romantic relationship while he was still in school; they married in 1913. Palmer debunks the myth that Lista was greatly Cannon’s senior—they were separated by only seven years. Cannon’s relationship with an older woman, as well as his membership in the IWW, where agitation for non-conformist ideas overlapped with labor radicalism, contradicts Palmer’s assertion that Cannon “seemed to embody an odd fusion of traditionalist, Victorian notions of gender relations and sexuality and a bohemian, avant-garde disdain for material acquisitions and the trappings of money.”
Cannon certainly had a disdain for material acquisitions. He was also a private man, especially about sexual matters, as were many of his day and age. But he traveled in bohemian circles, and Palmer himself recounts Cannon’s enthusiastic remembrances of a speech on “free love” by anarchist Emma Goldman. Jim and Lista married only because it looked as though he was going to spend six months in jail for his labor activities; they subsequently had two children. Cannon left Lista in 1923 for fellow Communist Rose Karsner, who became his lifelong companion. He and Rose only married at the end of their lives, when they thought it necessary in order to get full Social Security benefits. This is hardly evidence of “Victorian notions of gender relations.”
Palmer’s complaint that Cannon practiced a “conventional monogamy” and “never really engaged with the potentially transformative gender politics of a militantly feminist approach to the personal realm” says more about the postmodern conceits of academic milieus than it does about Cannon. Ted Morgan’s A Covert Life: Jay Lovestone, Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spymaster (New York: Random House, 1999) is more of an extended gossip column than a serious attempt to examine the life of this unprincipled adventurer who latched on to the Communist movement in his youth only to become a CIA operative later in life. But Lovestone’s private affairs, unearthed by Morgan, show that eschewal of “conventional monogamy” is hardly a ticket to “transformative gender politics,” whatever they may be.
Cannon was elected Kansas City delegate to the Seventh National Convention of the IWW in 1912. Here he caught the eye of legendary Wobbly leader Vincent St. John, who subsequently sent him on the road as an itinerant organizer. Palmer writes, “More than any other single individual, St. John put Cannon on the track of being a professional revolutionary.” Palmer has discovered much that is new here, and his book excels in the account of Cannon’s life as a Wobbly. Cannon went to Newcastle, Pennsylvania, where he helped produce the IWW paper Solidarity. From there, in early 1913, St. John sent Cannon to Akron, where a strike for union organization had erupted among the rubber workers, both native-born and immigrant. According to Palmer, “Cannon became one of the central IWW figures writing for the rebel press, appealing for funds, and taking the struggle of Akron’s workers beyond the boundaries of Ohio.” With the defeat of the Akron strike, Cannon was active in a manufacturing strike in Peoria (where he and Lista married). Palmer reports that by the end of the summer of 1913 “Cannon was one of only sixteen Wobbly agitators who were recognized by the General Executive Board of the IWW as having ‘voluntary credentials’ as itinerant organizers.” From Peoria, Cannon moved on to organizing a strike by immigrant iron-ore dock workers in Duluth. Here Cannon was pretty much in charge of the IWW’s efforts, working with the famous Frank Little.
Palmer writes that Lista’s marriage to Cannon precluded her working any longer at Rosedale High. Cannon was thus forced to return to Kansas City in the fall of 1913. He worked on a local syndicalist paper, The Toiler, and helped to lead a major free speech fight, though because of his domestic responsibilities he kept himself off the front lines in order to avoid arrest. He became, as Palmer puts it, “a member of what some Wobblies rather condescendingly referred to as ‘the homeguard’.” Palmer says that Cannon grew increasingly disillusioned as the Wobblies concentrated more on organizing rural workers than the industrial proletariat; he was even more disillusioned at the lack of a coordinated defense campaign to counter the state raids and arrests that broke upon the Wobblies after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. Palmer concludes that Cannon’s “homeguard years as a disillusioned Wobbly, then, were among the worst of Cannon’s life, whereas his year as a hobo rebel, immersed in the rough-and-tumble class struggles of his time, was a period of his fondest memories and most prideful accomplishments.”
The Founding of American Communism
It was the October Revolution that propelled Cannon back on the road to being a professional revolutionary. Seeing the “anti-political” IWW crushed by the action of the bourgeois state while a disciplined Marxist party committed to political activity led a successful proletarian revolution in Russia, Cannon rejoined the Socialist Party in order to hook up with its developing pro-Bolshevik left wing. Palmer adds only a few new details to the account of Cannon’s role in the founding of the American Communist movement, divided at first into two parties—the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party—both dominated by ultraleftism.
One of the few native-born American radicals who joined the largely immigrant Communist movement, and one of the very few with real experience in workers struggles, Cannon was among the first to assimilate the lessons of Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism. From the outset, Cannon opposed the American Communists’ “dual unionist” insistence on the formation of revolutionary unions, and he quickly rose to prominence in the fight against those who believed the party should be underground in principle. He was appointed editor of the Cleveland-based Toiler, which subsequently became the Daily Worker. Cannon was the chairman of the above-ground Workers Party when it was founded in December 1921. (The party changed its name to Workers [Communist] Party in 1925 and to Communist Party in 1929.)
Ironically, the Comintern’s campaign against the ultraleftism that infected the young Communist parties led to the reversal of a correct position that had been adopted by sections of the American Communist movement: opposition to running candidates for executive office. The program adopted by the United Communist Party (UCP) at its founding in May 1920, reasserting a position in the September 1919 manifesto of the Communist Party of America, declared:
“The United Communist Party participates in election campaigns and parliamentary action only for the purpose of revolutionary propaganda. Nominations for public office and participation in elections are limited to legislative bodies, such as the national congress, state legislatures and city councils.”
—UCP Program, reprinted in Revolutionary Radicalism, Lusk Commission Report to
New York State Senate, submitted 24 April 1920
This position indicated a healthy, and correct, revulsion with the arch-reformist practice of the Socialist Party, whose ranks included 56 mayors and 22 police officials in 1912. The UCP program, however, wrongly declared that Communist representatives elected to legislative bodies “will not introduce nor support reform measures.”
As we point out elsewhere in this issue (see “Down With Executive Offices!”, page 20), in combatting the ultraleftists at the Second Congress, the distinction between executive and legislative positions was lost. In the wake of the contradictory Second Congress theses on parliamentarism, the plank against running for executive office—evidently a position pushed in particular by C.E. Ruthenberg—became a subject of debate in the American party. The following year, in the lead-up to the December 1921 founding of the Workers Party, the Communists in New York City ran Ben Gitlow for mayor. Cannon had a big hand in advocating and orchestrating this campaign. A Comintern document written for the August 1922 underground party convention declared, “The communists must participate as revolutionists in all general election campaigns, municipal, state and congressional, as well as presidential” (“Next Tasks of the Communist Party in America,” printed in Reds in America [New York City: Beckwith Press, 1924]).
Five months after the Workers Party was founded, Cannon left for Moscow to serve as American representative to the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI). Cannon’s seven-month stay in Soviet Russia was a critical experience in deepening his understanding of Bolshevism and the importance of the Communist International. It also provided him with a yardstick by which to later measure the degeneration of the Comintern. In a 1955 letter to Draper quoted by Palmer, Cannon recalled:
“I never was worth a damn on a mission to Moscow after my first trip in 1922. Then everything was open and aboveboard. A clear-cut political issue was presented by both sides in open debate and it was settled straightforwardly, on a political basis, without discrimination or favoritism to the factions involved, and without undisclosed reasons, arising from internal Russian questions, motivating the decision and determining the attitude toward the leaders of the contending factions. That was the Lenin-Trotsky Comintern, and I did all right there. But after 1924 everything was different.”
—Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism
Palmer adds new and sometimes fascinating detail in his account of Cannon’s Moscow activities. Cannon’s November 1922 speech to the American Commission (see “We Want the Comintern to Give Us Assistance,” page 44) was but the culmination of a long and trying battle against those who insisted on maintaining an illegal Communist Party parallel to the legal Workers Party. The victory by the so-called “Liquidators” in Moscow laid the basis for the American Communists to finally really engage in the American class struggle.
The Comintern and the Black Question
The American Communist movement—like that in most other industrial countries—had been formed on the crest of the wave of labor radicalism that swept much of the globe at the end of World War I. Trade-union membership doubled in the U.S. between 1916 and 1920, and the end of the war saw a massive strike wave involving large numbers of unskilled immigrant workers for the first time. The war years had seen an 80 percent fall in immigration and a mass influx of blacks from the American South to the North, beginning the transformation of the black population from rural sharecroppers into an integral part of the industrial working class. The mass migration of black people had interacted with the pre-existing division between the largely Protestant, native-born white workers and the overwhelmingly Catholic workers from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe, leading over the next two decades to the displacement of religious and ethnic hostilities by anti-black racism as the central divide in the proletariat.
The significance of the black question was little understood by revolutionaries in the U.S. It was the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky that brought to the American workers movement the crucial understanding that the struggle for black emancipation is a central, strategic question for the American workers revolution. In his essay “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” Cannon writes:
“The earlier socialist movement, out of which the Communist Party was formed, never recognized any need for a special program on the Negro question. It was considered purely and simply as an economic problem, part of the struggle between the workers and the capitalists; nothing could be done about the special problems of discrimination and inequality this side of socialism....
“The American communists in the early days, under the influence and pressure of the Russians in the Comintern, were slowly and painfully learning to change their attitude; to assimilate the new theory of the Negro question as a special question of doubly-exploited second-class citizens, requiring a program of special demands as part of the over-all program—and to start doing something about it....
“Everything new and progressive on the Negro question came from Moscow, after the revolution of 1917, and as a result of the revolution—not only for the American communists who responded directly, but for all others concerned with the question.”
—Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism
By 1917, almost one-quarter of the 45,000 workers who labored in the Chicago stockyards were black. Black workers were a significant section of the workforce in steel as well, making up some 12-14 percent of the workers at the key Homestead mill. Yet most AFL unions refused to admit black workers or else organized them in separate Jim Crow locals. The first major efforts to bring unskilled laborers into the AFL—in the Chicago stockyards and in the steel industry nationally—were led at the end of the war years by William Z. Foster, a longtime syndicalist activist. Foster had broken with the IWW in 1911, opposing its strategy of building revolutionary unions in favor of “boring from within” (i.e., working to undermine the AFL bureaucracy from within the craft unions). But Foster also bowed to the reactionary Gompers bureaucracy on the question of support to the imperialist world war, going so far as to sell war bonds.
The stockyard organizing drive, concentrated at first among the Slavic immigrant workers, made some initial headway in organizing black workers—some 4,000-5,000 were union members by 1919. An integrated union march through Chicago’s South Side in July 1919 gave promise of success; but the brutal race riots that swept the city three weeks later destroyed the interracial organizing efforts. A disastrous strike against a wage cut in 1921, in which black workers largely scabbed, wiped out the gains that had been won in the earlier struggles. The organizing drive among steel workers led to 250,000 workers, almost half the total workforce in steel, walking off the job in September 1919. Within ten days, 14 workers had been killed. Troops were brought in to occupy Gary, Indiana. While the strike was initially solid among the unskilled immigrant workers, few black workers joined and many native-born skilled workers scabbed. The strike had collapsed in the Midwest by November and was broken nationally by the middle of December, though it was not officially called off until the following month.
The 1919 defeats, the result of state repression and racist reaction, occurred as the American Communists were first breaking from the Socialist Party. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. government began a wave of repression aimed at the Communists. Beginning in November 1919 and lasting over four months, the “Palmer Raids” (named for then Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer) involved raids of Communist offices, closing of newspapers and mass arrests of Communists, anarchists and other leftist workers (over 6,000 in the first week of January 1920 alone). Foreign-born Communists and other radicals were deported en masse. Many leading Communists were jailed on “criminal syndicalism” charges. The repression quickly abated, though many leading Communists remained under indictment well into the decade. But the Palmer Raids gave credence to the ultraleftists’ undergroundism, leading to the prolonged debate on whether or not the fledgling Communist movement could function openly.
The Early TUEL
By the time the Workers Party was founded in December 1921, it was clear that American Communists could publicly propagate their views. The American bourgeoisie was largely satisfied that the smashing of the organizing drives and the repression in 1919-20 had had the desired effect. Republican Warren G. Harding was elected president in November 1920 on a program of returning the country to “normalcy.” A national strike by railway shop workers in 1922 was the last gasp of postwar labor militancy. The strike centrally involved 256,000 machinists (members of the International Association of Machinists [IAM] and maintenance workers); Workers Party supporters played a role in helping to lead it. The strike was defeated by the scabbing by some of the AFL craft brotherhoods, and by a sweeping government injunction, issued at the request of U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty, that basically forbade the striking unions to take any action to further the strike (known as the Daugherty injunction). This set the tone for repeated use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against the unions in the ’20s. The union-busting offensive combined with a resurgence of racist terror (the Ku Klux Klan had several million members in the 1920s) and anti-immigrant legislation to make the 1920s a decade of racist, juridical and anti-labor reaction.
The American Communists paid a high price for this period of reaction—higher than they did for the intense repression of 1919-20—which led to great pressures toward abandoning the revolutionary purpose on which the Communist movement had been founded. Objective conditions in the 1920s dictated that the Communist Party would encompass only a small minority of the working class. The American Communists, including Cannon, were themselves slow to recognize this, and the twists and turns dictated by the Stalinizing Comintern in the latter half of the ’20s didn’t help.
It looked at first as if the Workers Party was destined for great success in the labor movement. Having been recruited by former fellow syndicalist Earl Browder to be part of a labor delegation to the Soviet Union in 1921, William Z. Foster was won to Bolshevism by all he saw and experienced in his three-and-a-half months there. After attending the founding conference of the Profintern in Moscow, Foster returned to Chicago in the late summer and joined the Communist Party, at the time still an underground organization.
Under the influence of Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism, the American Communists had abandoned their dual-unionist perspective; their policy now dovetailed with Foster’s long-held strategy, though not without some differences over his rigid opposition to any trade-union organizing outside the AFL framework. The Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), which Foster had founded in late 1920, was placed at the service of the Workers Party and functioned as its trade-union arm from early 1922. Foster’s own party membership was to remain a secret until 1923, and the TUEL was headquartered in Chicago, separate from the party headquarters in New York. Foster retained the close ties he had cultivated with John Fitzpatrick’s Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), under whose aegis he had begun his organizing campaigns. An ardent Irish nationalist and trade-union “progressive,” Fitzpatrick had for a while been advocating the formation of a labor party. He was a thorn in the side of the AFL bureaucracy under Samuel Gompers. The TUEL received substantial protection from Gompers’ virulent anti-Communism because of Foster’s work for the CFL.
Organized around the journal Labor Herald, the TUEL had no dues or membership structure so as to avoid any charge of dual unionism (its public income came from literature sales and donations, and it also received Comintern subsidies). It fought “to develop trade unions from their present antiquated and stagnant condition into modern, powerful labor organizations capable of waging successful warfare against Capital” (William Z. Foster, “The Principles and Program of the Trade Union Educational League,” Labor Herald, March 1922). Advocating the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a workers republic, the TUEL sought the affiliation of American trade unions to the Red International of Labor Unions. The TUEL program did not mention the Jim Crow restrictions that kept blacks out of the AFL craft unions; nor did it oppose the draconian restrictions the government had just imposed on immigration. This failure to confront the anti-black and anti-immigrant prejudices common in the working class was a real weakness. The fight against anti-black racism was a question that the American Communists, under prodding from the Comintern, were only beginning to address.
The TUEL saw as its immediate task an aggressive campaign for the amalgamation of AFL craft unions into unions organized on an industry-wide basis, raising the slogan, “amalgamation or annihilation.” Beginning with a motion for amalgamation in the CFL in March 1922, the TUEL managed in the succeeding 18 months to get amalgamation motions passed in 16 international unions, 17 state federations, many city labor councils and thousands of union locals.
Grappling with the Labor Party Question
As they came up from the underground, the American Communists began to grapple with the issue of whether or not to call for a labor party. In a chapter appropriately titled “Pepper Spray,” Palmer details the ways in which the Workers Party under the tutelage of a Hungarian-born Communist named Jószef Pogány (known in the U.S. as John Pepper) made a mess of it.
In “Left-Wing” Communism Lenin advocated that the British Communists affiliate to the British Labour Party (BLP) and give it critical support in the coming elections. Though its program and leadership were reformist, the BLP was based on affiliated trade unions; it had been formed as an expressly working-class party. Lenin termed it a “bourgeois workers party.” In order to maintain their hold on the working class in the face of the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and postwar radicalization, the BLP tops were talking left and had in 1918 adopted a provision in the party constitution (Clause Four) calling for wholesale nationalization of industry. Lenin advocated that the Communists vote for the BLP—while retaining their complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity—to help prove to the masses that once elected to government the BLP tops would in fact betray the interests of the working class. This exposure would facilitate the Communists winning the working-class base of the Labour Party.
Lenin had brought up in his discussions with American delegates at both the Second and Third CI Congresses the question of whether or not an equivalent party to the BLP could be formed in the United States. The Workers Party finally adopted the call for a labor party in May 1922. In his November 1922 speech Cannon endorses the idea of a labor party “something after the nature of the English Labour Party.”
The formation of a labor party can be a big step forward on the road to a mass communist party, but it can also easily become a giant obstacle. The problem with the slogan is objective; as Trotsky later explained, everything depends on the context in which it is raised:
“One can say that under the American conditions a labor party in the British sense would be a ‘progressive step,’ and by recognizing this and stating so, we ourselves, even though indirectly, help to establish such a party. But that is precisely the reason I will never assume the responsibility to affirm abstractly and dogmatically that the creation of a labor party would be a ‘progressive step’ even in the United States, because I do not know under what circumstances, under what guidance, and for what purpose that party would be created. It seems to me more probable that especially in America, which does not possess any important traditions of independent political action by the working class (like Chartism in England, for example) and where the trade-union bureaucracy is more reactionary and corrupted than it was at the height of the British empire, the creation of a labor party could be provoked only by mighty revolutionary pressure from the working masses and by the growing threat of communism. It is absolutely clear that under these conditions the labor party would signify not a progressive step but a hindrance to the progressive evolution of the working class.”
—Trotsky, “The Labor Party Question in the United States,” 19 May 1932
Elements in the trade-union bureaucracy in the United States had begun to raise the idea of a labor party during the post-WWI strike wave. John Fitzpatrick had run for mayor of Chicago in 1919 on a Labor Party ticket, garnering 56,000 votes. Fitzpatrick sought to unite into a national party the local labor parties that had sprung up in several cities, including Seattle and Minneapolis. But by the time the American Communists, having emerged from the underground, began to pay attention to these efforts, Fitzpatrick’s party was no longer an unambiguous attempt to create a working-class party organizationally independent of the bourgeoisie. At a convention in 1920, the Labor Party had merged forces with the bourgeois Committee of 48, the remnants of the “Progressive” movement that had dominated both bourgeois parties earlier in the century but was distinctly on the outs in President Harding’s America.
The Progressives wanted to run the old Republican warhorse Robert La Follette for president. Fitzpatrick would not go along with support to such an openly bourgeois candidate. But his divergence from a proletarian orientation was indicated by his party’s change of name to Farmer-Labor Party (FLP). The FLP ran its own candidate for president, Parley Parker Christensen, who received a quarter of a million votes. His vote was not centered in urban working-class centers: it was overwhelmingly in the Western agrarian states where American family farmers were facing ruin and where the bourgeois populist tradition remained strong.
The American Communists could not at first agree on what attitude to take toward Fitzpatrick’s FLP. This was a source of dispute right up to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. The ECCI advised the American Communists to enter the labor party movement:
“The idea now prevailing of the establishment of a labor party in America has enormous political importance. The basis of our activity must be the Left Wing of the Trade Union Movement. All attention and energy must be devoted to our activity among the masses of the Left Wing in the Trade Union movement. If we succeed in building a large Labor Party—at first only with a moderate political program—it will be an event of historical importance, not only for the American Labor movement, but for the Labor movement of the whole world.”
—“To the Communist Party of America from the Executive Committee of the Communist International,” undated but written shortly after the Fourth CI Congress, reprinted in Spartacist No. 40, Summer 1987
This CI decision was based on reports at the Fourth Congress that there was a growing movement for an “independent labor party” in the left wing of the trade-union movement in the United States (see “We Want the Comintern to Give Us Assistance,” page 44). The FLP per se was not mentioned in the CI decision.
The American Communists began to campaign for a labor party even before the ink was dry on the ECCI letter. They did so while in an implicit bloc with Fitzpatrick’s CFL and without explicitly criticizing Fitzpatrick’s Farmer-Labor orientation. The Labor Herald declared:
“The pioneer work in this movement, as in many other things, came from the Chicago Federation of Labor. This organization was the initiator of the Farmer-Labor Party, the first attempt to give expression to the trade unions on the political field.”
—National Committee of the Trade Union Educational League, “A Political Party for Labor,” Labor Herald, December 1922
The article did not mention Fitzpatrick’s merger with the bourgeois Committee of 48, nor the fact that the FLP’s support was overwhelmingly from small capitalist farmers. It insisted, “In order to mobilize all the potential strength of the Labor Party, it is necessary that it make provision for including the exploited small-farming class along with the industrial workers. But the actual workers, being the only class whose interests give them a clear-cut line of action at all times, must dominate the party
. It must be a Labor Party in fact as well as name.” In the absence of any concrete criticism of Fitzpatrick’s FLP, this insistence on a “labor” party was meaningless.
The only principled basis for participation in a labor party movement at this time would have been an attempt to polarize and split the FLP by insisting on a break with the bourgeois Progressives and an unambiguously working-class orientation. The Workers Party had embarked on an opportunist and class-collaborationist course.
The party agreed to participate in a national conference called by Fitzpatrick’s FLP for July 3 to found a party of workers and farmers. In this case, the Workers Party’s own opportunist impulse to cash in on Fitzpatrick’s popularity dovetailed with the emphasis on a “workers and peasants” united front, then coming from Zinoviev’s Comintern. A Peasant International was formed in the autumn of 1923; the CI would soon begin pushing for the establishment of two-class worker and peasant parties. John Pepper had arrived in the U.S. with an ECCI delegation in 1922 and appointed himself permanent CI representative. Pepper made it his business to keep up on the shifts in policy as the CI degenerated and he soon made himself indispensable to the New York WP leadership around C.E. Ruthenberg. Pepper, whom Palmer aptly terms “a living articulation of the nascent degeneration of the Russian Revolution,” was in the forefront of the U.S. party’s wholesale adoption of farmer-laborism.
In joining in with Fitzpatrick’s call for a farmer-labor party, the American Communists were submerging the crucial call for political independence of the working class from the bourgeoisie into the “progressive” petty-bourgeois radical morass they had set out to combat. Two-class parties, supposedly uniting the working class with the peasantry or small farmers, are inevitably and invariably bourgeois parties, as Trotsky exhaustively demonstrates in The Third International After Lenin. Trotsky derisively wrote of the American variant:
“According to Pepper’s conception, a party of a few thousand members, consisting chiefly of immigrants, had to fuse with the farmers through the medium of a bourgeois party and by thus founding a ‘two-class’ party, insure the socialist revolution in the face of the passivity or neutrality of the proletariat corrupted by super-profits.”
—Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin
Pepper, a consummate opportunist maneuverer, indicated no knowledge of the history of bourgeois agrarian Populism in the United States. He had grandiose illusions and thought that if the Workers Party could capture the farmer-labor movement, the party would catapult itself into national influence. Under his direction, the Communists rode roughshod over the concerns of Fitzpatrick, packing the July 3 Farmer-Labor convention with Communist delegates and provoking a walkout by the vengeful CFL leader. The Federated Farmer-Labor Party (FFLP) that was created on July 3 consisted largely of the Communists and no one else.
The effect of the split with Fitzpatrick was exactly the opposite of what Pepper intended. The Workers Party lost the protection of its bloc partners in the AFL. Gompers, with the full backing of Fitzpatrick, launched a witchhunt that drove TUEL supporters out of labor councils and unions around the country. By 1925, the TUEL had been driven virtually underground in the shrinking AFL craft unions. Though forced by Pepper’s idiocies, the break with Fitzpatrick was very likely, given the string of labor defeats and the political climate in the U.S. at the time. Gompers had cut the subsidy to the Chicago Federation of Labor to force it to sever ties with the Workers Party. But a sliding apart based on clear political differences would have been far less damaging than an acrimonious split over organizational grievances.
The debacle of the July 3 convention led Foster and Cannon to make a pact to fight for leadership of the party against Pepper and his American supporters. Foster and Cannon were horrified at the growing isolation of the TUEL in the AFL. But they fully imbibed the opportunist adaptation to farmer-laborism and the unprincipled call for a “two-class party” that had led to the July 3 debacle. Thus they helped lead the Workers Party into deepening its unprincipled course, taking the FFLP far down the road to support for Republican Senator La Follette in the 1924 presidential elections.
Palmer’s account downplays the political problems with the Workers Party’s uncritical adoption of farmer-laborism. He blames the problem on Pepper and Moscow, not the opportunist impulse in the American party itself. Far from being the sole source of opportunism, it was the Comintern—where Trotsky had vehemently opposed the support to La Follette—that pulled the American party back from supporting La Follette. Trotsky wrote:
“For a young and weak Communist Party, lacking in revolutionary temper, to play the role of solicitor and gatherer of ‘progressive voters’ for the Republican Senator La Follette is to head toward the political dissolution of the party in the petty bourgeoisie.”
—Trotsky, Introduction (1924), The First Five Years of the Communist International
Palmer wrongly writes that the sudden pullback from support to La Follette was like the Fitzpatrick split “all over again.” He insists that “the mechanical reversal of communist policy spoke to the ways in which the WP was now subject to a Communist International bureaucratism that had no sensitivity to international realities and little flexibility in its local renegotiation of programmatic error.” There is no room for “flexibility” on the elemental question of drawing the class line in electoral activity. If the Workers Party had persisted in support to a bourgeois candidate, its cadre would have been finished as a revolutionary force.
The conflation of bourgeois third parties with genuine labor parties has been a source of opportunism before and since. Cannon earnestly sought to assimilate the lessons and turn the party around, as Palmer lays out. But the Comintern under Zinoviev only confused the party more by insisting that it maintain the fictitious Federated Farmer-Labor Party front group. Cannon and the American Trotskyists originally drew the wrong lessons from the American Communist experience in the 1920s, dropping the labor party slogan from their arsenal entirely until Trotsky insisted that they adopt it again in the midst of the labor upsurge that built the mass industrial unions in 1938. This will hopefully be a topic in Palmer’s second volume.
Issues in the Factional Wars
Cannon and Foster’s successful fight to win a majority of delegates to the Workers Party’s Third Convention in December 1923, and hence a majority on the incoming Central Executive Committee (CEC, the leading body between party conferences), is well laid out by Palmer. They drew into their faction Ludwig Lore’s supporters in the German federation and the needle trades, and most importantly, the Finnish-language federation, the largest single voting bloc. Cannon was key to establishing and cementing this alliance.
The factional struggle took on the ferocity it did in part because of the role played by Jay Lovestone, an indefatigable Ruthenberg factional operative who learned quickly in the Pepper school. The split between Foster-Cannon and Ruthenberg-Lovestone reflected in part a national bifurcation between the TUEL, based in industrial Chicago, and the central party leadership based in New York. In his It Had to Be Revolution: Memoirs of an American Radical (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), Charles Shipman gives a sense of the social and political tensions in the party at the time. Shipman (known at that time as Manuel Gomez) was a member of the Workers Party in Chicago in 1923-24, later joining the Cannon faction and becoming head of the party’s All-American Anti-Imperialist League.
Ruthenberg viewed the Foster-Cannon bloc as a collection of trade-union opportunists. There was an element of truth in this view. As Cannon himself later wrote, he was “not very sensitive” to the risk of opportunist errors at the time. Though there were certainly differences of approach and nuance between the groups, there were no fundamental programmatic disagreements. After their December 1923 victory, Cannon and Foster managed to get the party headquarters moved to Chicago. But they insisted that Ruthenberg remain party secretary. Cannon was assistant secretary and Foster party chairman. They succeeded in having Pepper recalled to Moscow. However, lines hardened, leading to the factional wars that dominated the party until Lovestone’s expulsion in 1929.
Pepper continued to play a role as a Ruthenberg operative in Moscow. The Cannon-Foster faction’s majority in the party leadership was overthrown by Comintern fiat at the party’s Fourth Convention in 1925. Cannon and Foster parted ways in reaction to the Comintern edict, with Cannon leading those faction members who refused to organize a revolt against the Comintern decision. After 1925, Cannon maintained his own separate faction. Palmer writes particularly well about the Foster-Cannon split and its aftermath.
Palmer uses material from the Comintern archives to shed new light on issues under dispute in the Workers Party. For example, he reports that the formation of the United Council of Working Class Women/Wives and similar local women’s organizations led by party activists was a source of controversy in 1924. Palmer asserts that the Ruthenberg-Lovestone faction tended to support these auxiliary party women’s organizations while Cannon did not. Cannon expressed concern that “the theory of operating under another name is somewhat a survival of the days when our Party was obliged to work illegally” (Cannon Letter to Jeanette Pearl, 22 September 1924). Cannon wrote that “political work among the women must be conducted directly by the Party, in the name of the Party
and not under some other organization—real or camouflage.” However, he also wrote that he had “hesitated a long while over the question,” adding, “Women’s work is very complicated, and I am far from being able to qualify as an ‘expert’ on the question. However, its importance is self-evident.”
Palmer incorrectly takes Cannon to task for insisting that work among women be directly under the political control of the party leadership, seeing this as evidence of a “blind spot” on the need for special work among women. The Workers Party had created an internal Women’s Commission/Bureau in 1922, as mandated by the Third CI Congress resolution on methods and forms of work among women. The task was to make this a real body overseeing real party work. But, as Palmer notes, this body “was largely a figurehead organization.” In fact, the Workers Party appears to have produced very little propaganda about women’s oppression, and to have carried out very little work on the woman question per se, reflecting a tendency to bend to the backward attitudes in the working class. This was true no matter which faction was in power. Neither side pushed women to take leadership roles. Only a few women—largely intellectuals like Juliet Stuart Poyntz and Rose Pastor Stokes—served on the Central Executive Committee. Women were, however, a large part of the party’s base in the heavily Jewish needle trades, where Rose Wortis helped lead the work. The garment workers’ leaders were originally part of the Foster-Cannon group, though they switched to Ruthenberg-Lovestone after 1925.
The trade-union work, and in particular the TUEL, was always a source of controversy in the party’s factional wars. The only AFL unions in which the party retained a base after the early 1920s were in the needle trades and in coal mining. Both of these industries were in decline and their workers suffered job and wage cuts throughout the decade, making them particularly volatile. As Ian Angus details in his excellent history of the early Canadian Communist Party, Canadian Bolsheviks (Montreal: Vanguard Publications, 1981), the Canadian Communists won leadership of the Cape Breton miners, solidly organized in District 26 of the United Mine Workers (UMW). The party led an August 1922 strike against wage cuts to partial victory and subsequently did an exemplary job in maintaining the district union intact against the bosses’ attacks and UMW chief John L. Lewis’s attempts to wrest back control. The UMW collapsed in most of the rest of Canada. The American party did not lead even a substantial region of an AFL union until it won control of some New York needle trades locals in 1925. The party led a successful furriers strike in 1926, but a long and militant needle trades strike the same year failed to win its main demand. In the aftermath, the reformist needle trades tops went after the TUEL supporters and succeeded in purging many from leadership positions. The Communists’ heroic efforts in the 1926-28 “Save the Union” movement in opposition to the Lewis bureaucracy in the UMW, which won significant support from black miners, were also defeated.
The party’s work, both in the trade unions and in particular as regards the black population, was hampered by Foster’s insistence that the only course was to “bore from within” the AFL (though he was forced to abandon this long-held belief to remain a party leader during the Third Period). AFL unions mostly retained their racist color bars throughout the 1920s. Cannon rightly opposed a sole emphasis on the AFL, although his factional co-leader, William F. Dunne, leaned more toward Foster’s position.
With Foster and Cannon both in the USSR attending the Sixth Plenum of the ECCI in 1926, Albert Weisbord and other party supporters propelled themselves into the leadership of an organizing strike among the textile workers of Passaic, New Jersey, outside of the AFL framework. Palmer gives the Passaic strike the attention it deserves. As the strike dragged on, the party moved to hand control over to the AFL, agreeing to the Gompers bureaucracy’s demand to dump Weisbord from the strike leadership. Cannon wrote in later years that this had been a mistake (see The First Ten Years of American Communism). Far better that the party gain the reputation of following through on its commitments to working-class leadership. Defeated strikes, too, if well fought, can pave the way for a party to attain mass influence in subsequent class struggles.
In this period of reaction, the TUEL could and should have played a role as a largely educational vehicle for Communist propaganda in the AFL, and for the episodic organizing of solidarity actions in support of strikes and other labor actions. Simply maintaining the TUEL as a fighting force for militant class struggle would have put party trade unionists in a good position for the future. However, the TUEL became a factional football in late 1925-26, and Palmer’s detailing of the dispute, based on documents from the Moscow archives, is quite useful. Cannon and Ruthenberg wanted to liquidate the TUEL in favor of “broader” trade-union oppositions. Foster vehemently opposed this move. When the Comintern insisted that the TUEL be maintained, Cannon still insisted that it seek to organize on a broader basis than hitherto. But the support the TUEL had won in its 1922-23 campaigns for amalgamation and a labor party was based on the bloc with the Fitzpatrick forces in the CFL. For Communists to insist on organizing “broad” trade-union oppositions without a clear and principled programmatic basis is an opening for opportunist adaptation.
U.S. president Harding’s “normalcy” notwithstanding, state repression against radical and labor activists was a fact of life. Defense of those threatened by the state had a real urgency; defense work was the one arena where the party’s work could garner something approaching mass support. Cannon was always proud of the role he played in helping to found and lead the International Labor Defense (ILD), whose work has served as a model for the Partisan Defense Committee in the U.S. and the other fraternal non-sectarian defense organizations set up by ICL sections around the world. Building in large part on the ties Cannon maintained from his days as an IWW agitator and his reputation in the broader labor and Socialist movement, the ILD was a real, ongoing united-front organization (impossible in the current period for the tiny and exemplary defense organizations associated with national sections of the ICL).
The ILD’s founding convention in 1925 was attended by over 100 delegates. By the end of 1926 it had 20,000 individual members (dues were ten cents a month, raised to 15 cents in 1927) and 156 branches. The trade-union and other labor organizations that affiliated to the ILD as bodies claimed some 75,000 members. Palmer’s section on the ILD excels in the detail and care with which he recounts the organization’s activities and its scrupulous methods of financial accountability. He is careful to credit Rose Karsner’s significant role in the organization, which was linked to the CI’s International Red Aid. Palmer reports that Cannon faction lieutenant Martin Abern eventually took over some of Karsner’s duties, exercising his abilities as an excellent administrator; the young Max Shachtman gained further experience as a communist journalist editing the ILD’s Labor Defender.
The most famous campaign of the ILD in that period was the defense of Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Arrested in the aftermath of the Palmer Raids in 1920 and falsely accused of robbing a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts, and killing the paymaster, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted in a 1921 trial saturated with anti-Italian chauvinism and anti-anarchist hysteria. The death sentence was pronounced in April 1927. Cannon’s writings on Sacco and Vanzetti, available in Notebook of an Agitator, are exceptional examples of communist agitation, combining pedagogy with polemics. Cannon combatted illusions in the capitalist courts, insisting that the case was “an issue of the class struggle and not merely one of an exceptional miscarriage of so-called justice.”
Reading James P. Cannon and the Revolutionary Left, it is impossible not to see the parallels between the American capitalist state’s vendetta against the two immigrant anarchists and its current determination to execute MOVE supporter and former Black Panther Party member Mumia Abu-Jamal. Sacco and Vanzetti were seen by the state as symbols of all those who challenge capitalist rule. Mumia, a Philadelphia journalist known as the “voice of the voiceless,” was falsely accused of killing a police officer and sentenced to death in a 1982 trial that was saturated with racism and hatred for his past as an activist in the Black Panther Party. He is seen as a symbol of all those who would challenge the capitalist system of exploitation and racial oppression.
And just as the ILD had to combat the attempts by various bourgeois liberals and trade-union reformists to sabotage a class-struggle policy to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, the PDC has had to expose those who seek to derail the fight for Mumia’s freedom into dead-end reliance on the capitalist courts and politicians. Unfortunately, Palmer spends little time examining the ways and means by which Cannon exposed the treachery of sundry socialists, anarchists and liberals in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. But he does amply illustrate that the ILD built the broadest possible united-front actions against the threatened execution.
As Palmer writes, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti “stirred the soul of America in the 1920s.” Not just America, but the world. Tens of thousands participated in protests in U.S. cities in the spring and summer of 1927; millions hit the streets from Moscow to Paris. As the date of the execution approached, there were a few sporadic strikes and other labor actions. The bourgeois state was determined to execute Sacco and Vanzetti for their political views. Cannon knew from his experience in the campaign to free Big Bill Haywood and Charles Moyer, who were acquitted in 1907, that mass protest could at times compel the forces of bourgeois reaction to back down. But despite a massive protest movement, the state executed Sacco and Vanzetti in August 1927. Their funeral march in Boston drew 100,000 participants.
Palmer correctly sees Cannon at his “organizational and journalistic best” in the ILD work, but he also sees Cannon’s participation in this mass agitation as something separate and apart from his role as a Workers Party leader. He writes, “The ILD had been something of an interlude of peaceful coexistence in the factional gang warfare of Workers (Communist) Party internal struggle in the mid- to late 1920s.” Palmer’s assertion is belied by the many instances, which he himself recounts, in which the Ruthenberg-Lovestone forces tried to undercut the ILD’s work. The ILD was conceived and founded in the midst of one of the most intense periods of factional struggle, which lasted from the Fifth ECCI Plenum in the spring of 1925 through the party’s Fourth Convention that August. As noted in the PRL Introduction to James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism, Ruthenberg tried to scuttle the ILD even before it was founded.
The Sacco-Vanzetti campaign was at its height in the spring and summer of 1927, when the faction fight again exploded in the aftermath of Ruthenberg’s sudden death in March. Lovestone pulled out all the stops to have himself anointed Ruthenberg’s successor as party secretary, rushing off to Moscow in May to attend the CI’s Eighth Plenum. With Cannon, Foster and other party leaders forced to follow Lovestone to Moscow, the ILD’s work in the Sacco-Vanzetti campaign had to continue without Cannon for a period. Throughout that summer, a revived Cannon-Foster bloc devoted its efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, to preventing Lovestone from winning a majority at the party’s Fifth Convention in August. Despite Cannon’s attempt to postpone it, the convention took place in the midst of the ILD’s final burst of agitation against the execution.
The ILD’s accomplishments are the more impressive in light of Cannon’s simultaneous concentration on the internal factional struggle. But the ILD was founded and did its work only because Cannon was a major leader of the Workers Party with a factional base of his own that was able to safeguard the defense work from factional intrigues.
Collective Leadership Is No Panacea
Though occasional faction fights are crucial to maintaining the programmatic integrity of a Leninist party in the face of the relentless pressures of bourgeois society, the permanent factional warfare in the American party indicated that something was deeply wrong. The different approaches that distinguished Foster’s largely trade-union base from the more immigrant, ex-ultraleftists of the Ruthenberg-Lovestone forces would have provided for healthy political debate in a real Leninist party. It was not principally differences over the real work of the party that fueled the factional lineups, nor was it Lovestone’s overweening personal ambition, though this was certainly a factor. The fight in the American party was fueled in part by the fight in the Russian party and the Comintern, which pitted Trotsky’s Left Opposition (blocking in 1926-27 with Kamenev and Zinoviev to form the Joint Opposition) against the rising bureaucracy led by Stalin, for whom the cause of world proletarian revolution was rapidly receding.
Palmer astutely characterizes the situation as the “balkanization of the American leadership,” writing:
“A weakened Central Executive Committee majority, in which Ruthenberg’s political authority was counterposed to the hegemony of Foster in trade union work, with Cannon’s role shunted off as something of an appendage to each (by which his labor defense field was necessarily related to these bifurcated wings, but somewhat subordinate to both), undoubtedly satisfied competing sectors of the Comintern and suited Stalin’s agenda adroitly.”
Stalin’s struggle against Trotsky greatly affected the American party situation: one of the principal reasons for the Comintern’s deposing of the Foster-Cannon majority in 1925 was certainly its alignment with Ludwig Lore, who had publicly defended Trotsky. More of a left social democrat than a Bolshevik, Lore was duly drummed out of the party. The generally rightist political thrust of this putative Trotskyist may well have confused the Workers Party cadre about the true nature of Trotsky’s fight in the Russian party. After 1925, ritual denunciations of Trotsky were de rigueur for Comintern party leaders. As Palmer notes, “Cannon distinguished himself in the general Central Executive Committee factional rush to condemn Trotsky by refusing to jump on the bandwagon of political invective, but he did go along for the ride.”
There are certainly indications that Cannon harbored some doubts about the struggle in the Russian party. But as he later stated:
“My state of mind then was that of doubt and dissatisfaction. Of course, if one had no responsibility to the party, if he were a mere commentator or observer, he could merely speak his doubts and have it over with. You can’t do that in a serious political party. If you don’t know what to say, you don’t have to say anything. The best thing is to remain silent.”
—Cannon, History of American Trotskyism
Cannon was deeply unhappy with the state of permanent factional war in the Workers Party. Palmer points to the fact that Cannon, after his 1925 break with Foster, argued for the primacy of program over faction and insisted that votes should be taken on the “main political line, regardless of who is for or against.” In late 1926, Cannon managed to win over two key Ruthenberg-Lovestone supporters in New York—Jack Stachel and William Weinstone—on a program of fighting to end party factionalism. This was a promising development. Palmer does not, unfortunately, discuss the indications that Cannon’s campaign was making headway with Ruthenberg before the latter’s untimely death in 1927.
Since the party factional pot was kept boiling by the heat supplied by the Comintern, Cannon’s “faction to end factions” was doomed to failure. Palmer describes how the CI leadership simply brushed the Cannon group aside as inconvenient. After Ruthenberg died, Foster joined Cannon and Weinstone in campaigning for Weinstone to be general secretary of the party. But it was Lovestone who won the Comintern’s approval, and Weinstone subsequently slipped back into the Lovestone fold.
Cannon’s energetic efforts to end the factionalism were unique among the party leadership. But collective leadership is, in itself, no panacea. The experience of the Canadian Communist Party demonstrates that neither collective leadership nor refusal to join in the Comintern’s anti-Trotsky chorus were guarantees of resistance to Stalinist degeneration. Ian Angus in Canadian Bolsheviks details the admirable lack of permanent factions—or indeed of any factional struggle at all—at the top of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) through 1928. From the party’s founding in 1921, the Canadian leadership worked collectively in an axis around Maurice Spector, editor of the Worker and national chairman from 1923-28, and Jack MacDonald, who was first national chairman, then party secretary.
Spector went to Germany to cover the unfolding revolution in 1923, in which the Communist Party faltered in the face of the left Social Democrats’ opposition and refused to try to lead an insurrection in a situation where it had the mass of the working class behind it. Spector subsequently attended the 13th Party Conference in Moscow in January 1924, where the Stalinist bureaucracy won its decisive victory. These experiences led him to harbor real doubts about the campaign against Trotsky and to agree with Trotsky’s analysis of the German defeat when he later read The Lessons of October. Under Spector’s editorship, the Worker maintained a conspicuous silence on the anti-Trotsky campaign as it developed throughout 1924. The rest of the Canadian leadership acquiesced to Spector’s policy. The party maintained a studied neutrality on Trotskyism until early 1927, with the sole exception of one November 1926 Worker article written by the one nascent Stalinist in the Canadian leadership, Tim Buck.
No one in the Canadian leadership had a factional ax to grind against Spector; the party was small and in other matters reliably toed the line of the degenerating Comintern. The Canadian leadership was at first able to deflect demands for a statement against the Russian Opposition. Things changed after Tim Buck went to Moscow as delegate to the ECCI’s Seventh Plenum in the fall of 1926. He not only voted for the resolutions against the Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev Joint Opposition but went back determined to force the issue in Canada. At an April 1927 CEC meeting, Buck put forward a motion condemning the Russian Opposition and endorsing the program of socialism in one country. The Canadian leadership knew by this time that to refuse to endorse Buck’s motion would provoke a major confrontation with the Comintern. All voted with Buck except Spector. Yet the CEC refused Spector’s offer to resign his posts and insisted on covering for him (so long as he agreed to be quiet) by presenting their anti-Trotsky resolution as unanimous. This charade was maintained for over a year.
By that time, Spector had a far better idea of what the Left Opposition stood for than did Cannon, but he was by no means a Trotskyist. Under Spector, the Canadian paper fully supported the disastrous liquidation of the Chinese Communist Party into the Guomindang, which led to the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution of 1925-27. Spector sought out Cannon to discuss their doubts and dissatisfaction at a February 1928 plenum of the American CEC. They subsequently both attended the Comintern’s Sixth Congress. Both were on the Program Commission and received copies of two of the three sections of Trotsky’s scathing Critique of the draft Comintern program. Translations of this seminal Trotsky document were, for some reason, distributed to Commission members, though in numbered copies that had to be returned. Spector and Cannon read and studied the document and were thoroughly won over, particularly by Trotsky’s penetrating analysis of the defeat in China. They made a pact in Moscow to smuggle out Trotsky’s Critique and to go back to their respective parties to fight for the Left Opposition’s program. Both succeeded in smuggling out the document. Cannon emerged with some 100 supporters, Spector with only a handful.
Spector had understood enough of the Left Opposition’s fight against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution to vote against “socialism in one country” in the Canadian CEC in April 1927. It was well known in the Canadian party that he had doubts about the anti-Trotsky campaign. His hesitancies in fighting for his views earlier within the CPC likely damaged the prospects of winning a broader layer of cadre to Trotskyism. Many of his prospective cothinkers had been operating on the premise that Spector’s Trotskyist sympathies had very little to do with the real work of the Canadian party. On the other hand, the shock of Cannon’s sudden conversion to Trotsky’s views disposed his co-factionalists to seriously consider them.
More importantly, if paradoxically, the hard factional lines in the American party worked to Cannon’s advantage, collective leadership to Spector’s disadvantage. Factional loyalties allowed Cannon to quickly win over Karsner, Shachtman and Abern and meant that Cannon had time to talk to others who might be sympathetic before he was expelled. Even those who were not able to read the smuggled copy of the Critique were disposed to question Cannon, Shachtman and Abern’s expulsions. Spector had little room to maneuver in the Canadian party, and the small group of youth cadre whom he had drawn around him (according to Angus, largely through personal complaints against MacDonald), far from showing any interest in the Left Opposition, became Buck’s acolytes. Relations with MacDonald, who had been Spector’s central collaborator for seven years, were evidently quite strained by this point. MacDonald did not join the Trotskyists until 1932; before MacDonald decided he had had enough, he went through more than two years of hell in the CPC as it gyrated into the Third Period and as Buck consolidated his control.
The Toronto Trotskyists initially formed a local of the organization Cannon and his supporters founded, the Communist League of America (CLA). The Canadians formed their own national organization only in 1934. Spector’s role in the CLA, where he was a member of the anti-Cannon Abern clique, is detailed in the PRL’s Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933 (New York: Prometheus Research Library, 2002), as well as in an article by Palmer, “Maurice Spector, James P. Cannon, and the Origins of Canadian Trotskyism” (Labour/Le Travail No. 56, Fall 2005). These works provide clues as to the probable weaknesses of Spector’s efforts on behalf of the Left Opposition in 1928. Cannon’s development into a Leninist party leader speaks to his strengths:
“The genesis of the CLA from an established grouping within the Communist Party, with years of political collaboration and agreement behind it, gave it an organizational stability and political cohesion lacking in other International Left Opposition sections outside of the Soviet Union itself. Most other leaders who came over to the Left Opposition from parties of the Communist International did so only after they had been discredited and stripped of all supporters. Cannon stands out as the only one expelled while he was still a credible party leader, able to win others to his political course.”
—PRL Introduction, James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism
The PRL Introduction also addressed the question of why Cannon, uniquely among the top leaders of the American party, was won to Trotskyism. There were factors in the political profile of Cannon’s faction that militated against his leap to the Left Opposition: a parochial concern for American questions, insistence on the strategy of a bloc with the “progressives” in the trade unions, lack of emphasis on the fight against special oppression of blacks and women. At the same time, the PRL Introduction observed:
“The fight of the Cannon-Foster faction against an orientation to La Follette’s bourgeois third party movement after the 1924 elections; Cannon’s insistence on the leading role of the working class in any farmer-labor party; the strong, if skewed, internationalism that made Cannon break with Foster and refuse to lead a rightist revolt against the Communist International in 1925; Cannon’s attempt to reverse the dead-end factional wars which crippled and deformed the party after 1925; his willingness to break with the party’s adaptation to the AFL unions in 1928: all this predisposed Cannon to make the leap to the Left Opposition when that option presented itself. Cannon, unlike the other Workers Party leaders, had not been made cynical by the corrupt maneuvering inside the degenerating Comintern.”
The Revolutionary Comintern: The High Point
The upsurge in revolutionary working-class struggle that threatened to overwhelm much of the capitalist world toward the end of World War I, culminating in the great Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Communist International, represents the high-water mark of revolutionary proletarian struggle. Study of this unique period, and of the program and principles established by the first four Congresses of the Communist International, is essential for Marxist revolutionaries—all the more so today, amid the pervasive, incessant propaganda barrage that “communism is dead.” Also important is the study of the processes by which the sections of the Comintern were destroyed as revolutionary organizations, though this experience is not unique. (Under different circumstances, the First and Second Internationals also underwent a process of degeneration.) Palmer’s biography of the man who pioneered the fight to build a Bolshevik “party of the Russian Revolution” on American soil deserves the attention of every youth seeking a coherent program, theory and organization to change the world.
There are some parallels to be drawn between the 1920s and the current period of reaction, but one overwhelming difference stands out: in the 1920s the Soviet Union existed as an example to the world proletariat. In that period, the European working class was overwhelmingly socialist and communist in its sympathies. The American working class was by far the most politically backward of any in the industrial world, with its social weight and power far outstripping its political consciousness. Still lacking a mass political party independent of the bourgeois parties, this huge proletariat was, however, the key to humanity’s future. American imperialism was on the rise and was to dominate the world. The American Communist Party had an importance in the Comintern far outweighing its numbers.
The disproportion between the social power and the political consciousness of the American working class still bedevils American revolutionaries. The proletariat in the United States remains in thrall to the capitalist Democrats and Republicans. But American imperialism is in decline. The counterrevolution in the Soviet Union has left the United States as the world’s only superpower in the current conjuncture; its military strength is far out of proportion to its current economic weight. This is a situation that cannot last even in the historical middle term, but the transfer of so much productive capacity to China, a very unstable deformed workers state, makes future prognosis difficult. The diminished economic weight of the U.S. proletariat in the global arena does not in itself determine the role it will play in the world socialist revolution, which depends on historic developments. The nuclear-armed American bourgeoisie remains the most dangerous and powerful gendarme of the world imperialist system.
In any case, the legacy of James P. Cannon remains no less important today for revolutionaries in the U.S. and around the world. James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 is a substantial contribution to communist historical study. It stands as refutation of those who bought the self-serving anti-Cannon line propagated by Max Shachtman as he descended from revisionism to renegacy after breaking with Trotsky’s Fourth International in 1940. Shachtman insisted that Cannon was never more than an unreconstructed Zinovievist, shaped irreversibly into a bureaucrat by his experiences in the degenerating Communist International. This view of Cannon has been perpetuated with particular vehemence by ostensible Trotskyists in Britain, especially the late Al Richardson and his cothinkers at the journal Revolutionary History (RH).
The RH crowd cannot appreciate one of the main strengths of the Cannon faction: its antipathy to Lovestone’s opportunism, which flowered when he took over leadership of the Workers Party in 1925. After his expulsion, Lovestone became the leader of the Bukharinite Right Opposition in the U.S. The CLA was thus well inoculated against any attempt to make a “left-right bloc,” an unprincipled maneuver that has been extolled in the pages of RH. Elsewhere, the “left-right bloc” shipwrecked the Spanish section of the Left Opposition under Andrés Nin (paving the way for the defeat of the 1936-38 Spanish Revolution), and also, for example, led to the foundering of Polish Trotskyism and ruined the building of a Danish Trotskyist organization.
We hope that Palmer’s promised second volume, covering Cannon’s years as a Trotskyist, when he developed into a first-class Leninist party leader, also finds a publisher.