Workers Vanguard No. 903
23 November 2007
Spartacists at NYC Bryan Palmer Presentation
Defending the Legacy of James P. Cannon
On October 12, social historian Bryan Palmer spoke about his recently published James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 at a meeting sponsored by New York University’s Tamiment Library. The event was co-sponsored by the Prometheus Research Library, the central reference archive of the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League. The PRL had made available to Palmer material on the Communist Party of the U.S. and the Communist International in their early Leninist phase, and more generally aided in research for the book. Also co-sponsoring Palmer’s talk were the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), Socialist Action, the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and the International Bolshevik Tendency (BT), most of whom (falsely) claim to stand in Cannon’s tradition. Other left groups, including the Internationalist Group (IG), Solidarity and the League for the Revolutionary Party, were among the overflow audience of some 120.
As we noted in “A Biography of James P. Cannon” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 60, Autumn 2007), the publication of this book is a major event for us. A founding leader of the American Communist movement and later of American Trotskyism, Cannon was the finest revolutionary yet produced in the United States. Cannon’s status at the time of his death in 1974 as National Chairman emeritus of the reformist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which had abandoned a revolutionary program more than ten years earlier, does not negate his many years as the foremost Leninist leader in this country. As SL National Chairman James Robertson noted in a 1974 memorial meeting for Cannon: “All that comrade Cannon could do—and it was not a personal capacity but was evolved out of his times and out of his battles—was to be the successful strategist and leader of a proletarian revolution in North America!” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 38-39, Summer 1986).
Palmer’s book 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. The study of this period of his life is critical for revolutionaries not only in the U.S. but internationally because of the unique continuity of Leninism-Trotskyism in the U.S., a continuity that was broken in, for example, France and China. In addition to Cannon’s writings on the history of American Communism and Trotskyism, the new biography supplements the PRL’s own books on Cannon: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 (1992) and Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933 (2002).
The Tamiment event was democratically run, with each co-sponsoring organization getting a literature table. After Palmer’s 45-minute speech, which recapped the highlights of his book and stressed that Cannon “was the red thread of continuity in the American revolutionary tradition,” each co-sponsoring organization had three minutes’ presentation time. The floor was then opened for wider discussion. Our comrades relished the all-too-rare opportunity to polemically engage political opponents whose responses usually range from evasion to exclusion or violence.
We stand on the program and legacy of the revolutionary James P. Cannon. The same cannot be said for any of the other co-sponsoring organizations, whose occasional hosannas to Cannon stand in contrast to their anti-revolutionary practices. Against the “unity of the left” swamp, our comrades distinguished themselves as those who stand in the tradition of Cannon, i.e., Bolshevism. We exposed the emptiness of our political opponents’ pretenses to stand in the Cannon tradition on two fundamental principles of Leninism-Trotskyism: the need for a complete organizational and political split from reformism and centrism as a precondition for building a revolutionary vanguard workers party, and the unconditional military defense of the Soviet workers state that issued out of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Out of Defeat?
We took issue with Palmer’s call at the end of his presentation for “revolutionary regroupment” among leftists, a sentiment echoed by the BT and Solidarity. Regroupment generally results from big changes in the objective situation, usually victories, and involves a process of splits and fusions. The Bolshevik Revolution (October 1917), toward the end of the terrible world war, impelled hundreds of thousands of former left social democrats, anarchists and syndicalists (Cannon among them) to re-examine their political programs, laying the basis for the founding of the Third (Communist) International and the construction of Communist parties around the world.
Calls for regroupment are hollow in this period of deep reaction, shaped above all by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, a world-historic defeat for the working class. While the bulk of the left internationally either hailed or abetted this defeat, we Spartacists fought to the end against the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet degenerated workers state and the deformed workers states of East and Central Europe. As Leon Trotsky pointed out to supporters who thought that the Left Opposition’s trenchant analysis of the Stalinist betrayal of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution would bring significant recruitment, “our predictions can win some few intellectuals who take an interest in such things, but not the masses” (“Fighting Against the Stream,” April 1939).
Talk of regroupment from the mouths of such opponents of the revolutionary working-class movement as those at the Tamiment event can mean only one thing: huddling together as the “left” (or not so left) wing of class collaborationism in whatever liberal, pro-Democratic Party “movement” happens to be popular. In contrast, the SL continues Cannon’s fight for the political independence of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie, its parties and the capitalist state.
Our comrades went into the Tamiment meeting politically armed with the extensive Spartacist review. It was telling that seriously addressing Palmer’s work, including forthrightly criticizing its weaknesses, was left to the speakers from the PRL, SL and Partisan Defense Committee. The entire event had an odd quality. There was some genuine debate between us and Palmer, while the other groups engaged in abstract and hypocritical praise of Cannon, turning him into a harmless icon.
Sales of Spartacist and PRL literature were brisk. It was noteworthy that many people bought the ICL’s new two-volume bulletin, “The Logan Dossier.” Bill Logan was expelled from our tendency in 1979 for crimes against communist morality and elementary human decency. Among his crimes, Logan used his organizational position as chairman of our Australian section to break up couples and to try to force a young woman to get an abortion and, failing that, to give up her baby. We published these bulletins to emphasize that a pathological monster like Bill Logan has no place in the workers movement. Yet the BT long ago embraced Logan as its leader. That in itself says everything one needs to know about what this dubious organization means by “regroupment.”
On October 20, one week after the Tamiment event, we observed an example of such “regroupment” at a Bay Area Labor Conference to Stop the War, at which Logan masqueraded as a bona fide “workers’ leader” from New Zealand and Australia. At that conference, the IG’s Jan Norden engaged in an oh-so-polite political exchange with Logan, legitimizing him as part of the workers movement. Long before departing our organization in 1996, Norden had condemned Logan as a “criminally sociopathic individual.” But no longer. As we wrote in “Labor Opportunists, Renegades Embrace Bill Logan” (WV No. 901, 26 October), “For the IG, embracing Logan, the revolting antithesis of the liberating goals of Marxism, was the admission price, happily paid, into the pro-Democratic Party ‘antiwar’ swamp in the Bay Area.”
Political Bandits and Cannon Bashers
Many of the co-sponsoring organizations had written their own reviews of Palmer’s book. The award for the most outrageous dishonesty in a review goes to David North’s SEP and its “World Socialist Web Site.” The previous incarnation of the SEP, the Workers League, and its parent group, Gerry Healy’s International Committee, slandered Cannon as a “prisoner of the reactionary pragmatic and empiricist method” who failed to “master the algebra of revolution” and as an “anti-dialectical” bureaucrat shaped in the school of the degenerating Communist International under Gregory Zinoviev (Michael Banda, James P Cannon: A Critical Assessment ). In their sinister “Security and the Fourth International,” the Healyites peddled the Stalinist lie that Joseph Hansen and other leaders of Cannon’s SWP were complicit in Trotsky’s 1940 assassination by a Stalinist agent. (For more on the Healy outfit, see “Healyism Implodes” and other material in Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 36-37, Winter 1985-86.) None of these slanders made their way into the SEP’s review of Palmer’s book by Fred Mazelis titled, “A Fighter for Marxism in America.”
While Mazelis waxed lyrical at the Tamiment event about Cannon’s fusion of “the strengths of revolutionary syndicalism with the lessons of Bolshevism,” the SEP had written an article that joined the bosses in calling to keep the United Auto Workers out of non-union plants (see “Northites’ Scab Line on UAW,” WV No. 901, 26 October)! As the SL speaker at the event stated, “There’s a [four-letter] word for that, and it begins with ‘s’ and it ends with ‘b’.”
In his remarks, Mazelis had the gall to denounce Stalinist gangsterism. This from a group that is infamous for its thuggery against leftist political opponents and whose international organization received nearly £1,000,000 in blood money from bourgeois Arab regimes over a seven-year period in the 1970s, hailed the execution of 21 Iraqi Communists by the Iraqi Ba’athist regime in 1979 and criminally photographed protest demonstrations of Iraqi militants in Britain at the time and turned the photos over to the Iraqi embassy! True to form, Mazelis threatened one of our female comrades with violence at the end of the Tamiment event.
“There Is No Family of Cannonism”
As the Prometheus Research Library brochure states, “The purpose of the PRL is to collect, preserve and make available the historical record of the international workers movement and to assist Marxist scholarship. It is both a strength and weakness of the PRL that it is necessarily centered upon the work and interests of the American Communist and Trotskyist movement.” The PRL’s collection grew out of the 40-year accumulated holdings of James Robertson.
The revolutionary party must act as the memory of the working class. Elaborating on one of the themes of the Spartacist review, the PRL speaker remarked that in his talk Palmer continued to pursue the methodology of “seeing Cannon as a representative of something called the revolutionary left in its age of innocence, before Stalinism brought corruption and abandonment of revolutionary purpose of the workers movement. But to say that there was some kind of mythical age of innocence denies, for example, the important watershed of 4 August 1914.” It was from that time that most of the parties of the Second International—with such notable exceptions as the Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian parties—“betrayed Marxist internationalism by supporting their own bourgeoisies in World War I.”
She pointed out that in Palmer’s book “there is no real feel for the international context in which the Communist Party of the United States was founded, of the irreconcilable struggle against social-chauvinism and reformism that was required.” Palmer did not mention social democracy in his remarks, an omission that benefited the other co-sponsoring organizations, whose politics are at bottom or overtly social-democratic, or worse. The PRL speaker concluded: “Cannon became a Leninist because he saw the need for a hard split—not unity, split—both organizationally and politically with reformism. That’s the program that the International Communist League continues to stand on. There is no family of Cannonism.”
In the discussion round, the speaker for the SL counterposed Cannon’s legacy of unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union to our opponents’ open support for capitalist counterrevolution in the homeland of October. She noted that in 1993 the PRL published Trotsky’s The Third International After Lenin in Russian, adding, “We returned to Russia the very material that won Cannon to Trotskyism in 1928 and we used it as a living document to fight against the current of counterrevolution that had swept East Europe and the Soviet Union
. There is a lot of anti-Stalinism in this room and not much of a defense of the Soviet Union against counterrevolution. Today, the expression of this is in defense of China, and if you search the Web you will not see very much about China among our opponents.”
She continued, “It is hard to have revolutionary unity when you are on opposite sides of the barricades.” Socialist Action, she pointed out, adopted its newspaper masthead from Polish Solidarność, a counterrevolutionary movement backed by the CIA, imperialist bankers and the Vatican that was in the forefront of the drive for capitalist restoration in East Europe. Those who would go on to form the BT in the early 1980s quit our organization, turning tail as U.S. imperialism’s anti-Soviet Cold War II drive was heating up. For its part, our comrade noted, the SEP “supported every imperialist-inspired force aimed at destroying the gains of the 1917 Revolution.”
The BT’s Toronto leader, Tom Riley, provided inadvertent confirmation of the importance of the Russian question as a litmus test for proletarian revolutionaries, declaiming: “One of the differences we’d have with the Spartacist League, just for example, is we don’t think it’s a good idea to build a Trotskyist organization by marching around holding high the name of Yuri Andropov, who happened to be the Stalinist butcher of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.”
The “Yuri Andropov Brigade” was what we dubbed one of the buses going to Washington, D.C., for the 27 November 1982 SL-initiated labor/black mobilization that stopped the KKK from marching. Naming a brigade after the then Soviet leader was a jibe at the large number of ex-members who joined the mobilization and a semi-jocular way to thumb our noses at Ronald Reagan’s anti-Soviet “Evil Empire” hysterics. And it threw the founders of the BT into paroxysms of Stalinophobia.
Riley neglected to note the BT’s belated and programmatically more substantial denunciation of our call “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” We prominently raised this slogan when the Soviet Union intervened into Afghanistan in 1979 against CIA-backed mujahedin Islamic reactionaries. The purpose of the Soviet intervention was to defend its southern border and to aid a left-nationalist government that was instituting social reforms particularly beneficial to Afghanistan’s hideously oppressed women. While initially claiming to agree with this slogan, the BT subsequently rejected it for the same reason it griped about the Andropov brigade: to get in good with the reformist swamp defined by capitulation to bourgeois anti-Sovietism.
The BT’s position on Boris Yeltsin’s counterrevolutionary coup in the Soviet Union in 1991 was born of the same impulse. While the ICL distributed tens of thousands of copies of our Russian-language call, “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!” the BT rushed to write off the USSR as lost before the Soviet working class could show whether it would fight to defend its workers state (see our Hate Trotskyism, Hate the Spartacist League bulletins, the 1995 ICL pamphlet The International Bolshevik Tendency—What Is It? and numerous articles on the BT in our indexed bound volumes of Workers Vanguard).
Class-Struggle Defense Work, Then and Now
The founders of the BT steered clear of the 1982 D.C. anti-Klan mobilization, dismissing our struggle against racial oppression. Howard Keylor, a supporter of what would become the BT, denounced our supporters in his union newsletter Militant Longshoreman (4 February 1983) for turning “away from the unions and towards the unemployed, particularly in the ghettos.”
At the Tamiment meeting, a spokesman for the PDC, a legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League, addressed the importance of the fight for black liberation as a motor force for proletarian revolution in the U.S.:
“As Cannon explained in his essay, ‘The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement’: ‘Everything new and progressive on the Negro question came from Moscow, after the revolution of 1917...not only for the American communists who responded directly, but for all others concerned with the question.’ The Bolsheviks hammered at the American Party that this was the crucial question for the American revolution. This has infused our work from the beginning.”
The PDC speaker underlined that “this is not the perspective of the Bolshevik Tendency,” pointing out that the BT resembles the early American socialist movement in its indifference to the fight for black liberation.
He also addressed the way in which Palmer’s book treated Cannon’s work in the International Labor Defense (ILD), the Communist Party’s class-struggle defense organization. Referring to “80th Anniversary of Legal Lynching: Lessons of the Fight to Free Sacco and Vanzetti” (WV Nos. 897 and 898, 31 August and 14 September 2007), the PDC speaker stated that while we appreciate Palmer’s chapter on the ILD, Palmer neglected “the polemical aspect of Cannon’s work: his furious struggles against the obstacles in the way of unleashing the type of labor power needed to win freedom for Sacco and Vanzetti.” Cannon “denounced the labor tops who sabotaged strike action and the reformists who peddled illusions in bourgeois justice. The ILD fought against those who demanded the replacement of the movement of the masses by the movement of the lawyers. He argued to put the center of gravity in the protest movement of the workers as against the policy of respectability, of the soft-pedal.”
The PDC speaker underlined that we apply the lessons of the ILD’s struggles to our work today, including especially the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. In stark contrast, reformist groups like Socialist Action and Solidarity play the same role today as the social democrats did in Cannon’s time, seeking to derail the struggle for Mumia’s freedom into the dead-end strategy of subordinating the call to free this innocent man to appeals for a “new trial.”
Palmer acknowledged, “On the failure of my chapter on the ILD to address the polemical side, I’ll have to go back and read that again and think through that. I think there is something to that critique and I may have softened that unduly.” At the same time, Palmer in his conclusion linked his non-polemical portrayal of united-front defense work to his call for revolutionary regroupment. The BT jumped on these remarks to push a “united front” fraud around Mumia’s case (see article, page 5). In an announcement at the end of the meeting, one of our supporters challenged the organizations in attendance to put their money where their mouths are and “bring your people out” to the emergency protests called by the PDC if the Third Circuit Court of Appeals hands down a negative decision against Mumia.
Program Is Primary
The BT’s Tom Riley spoke in support of Palmer’s call for regroupment: “When the left can work together on things we agree with, then it should be possible for us to discuss intelligently, seriously, and in a way that James P. Cannon would—inside his organization as well as with other organizations—what are the real substantial differences that stand between us. And on that basis, it may well be possible that many of the people in the room tonight who are in different opponent organizations may one day be in common organizations.”
Riley was appealing for “unity” to an audience that consisted largely of groups that share the BT’s crass Stalinophobic appetites. For our part, we find such smarmy appeals for “unity” grotesque coming from a group whose history consists of one provocation after another against us, a group that has dedicated itself to our destruction. Bill Logan’s BT is the antithesis of Cannon’s Leninist legacy.
From its inception, our international tendency has pursued genuine opportunities for revolutionary regroupment—including in the 1970s with such groups as the Buffalo Marxist Collective and Red Flag Union in the U.S. and the organization led by veteran Trotskyist Edmund Samarakkody in Sri Lanka. Our efforts yielded the core cadre that founded sections of our tendency in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and elsewhere, laying the basis for the ICL. While we had some successful regroupments with left factions and tendencies—particularly from the United Secretariat of the late Ernest Mandel—we discovered that no other organization stood on the program and principles of Trotskyism. This was sharply demonstrated by the fact that the ICL stood alone on the left in fighting against the capitalist reunification of Germany in 1989-90 and against the final undoing of the October Revolution in 1991-92.
The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union has led to a profound retrogression in proletarian consciousness, albeit uneven in its impact around the world. Today, even politically conscious workers in capitalist countries by and large no longer identify their struggles with the ultimate aim of achieving a socialist society. Against the prevailing howl of bourgeois ideologues that “communism is dead,” we are committed to the hard task of explicating the basic principles and worldview of Marxism as we intervene into class and other social struggles. As Trotsky noted in “Stalinism and Bolshevism” (1936):
“Great political defeats inevitably provoke a reconsideration of values, generally occurring in two directions. On the one hand the true vanguard, enriched by the experience of defeat, defends with tooth and nail the heritage of revolutionary thought and on this basis attempts to educate new cadres for the mass struggle to come. On the other hand the routinists, centrists, and dilettantes, frightened by defeat, do their best to destroy the authority of revolutionary tradition and go backward in their search for a ‘New Word’.”
Having led the proletariat to the seizure of power, the Bolsheviks saw further from the heights they achieved. In today’s deep trough, it is the responsibility of Marxist revolutionaries to defend the programmatic lessons of the Russian Revolution and the early Communist International. We are guided by Trotsky’s admonition in “Stalinism and Bolshevism”:
“In these conditions the task of the vanguard is above all not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow: it must swim against the current. If an unfavorable relation of forces prevents it from holding the positions that it has won, it must at least retain its ideological positions, because in them is expressed the dearly purchased experience of the past. Fools will consider this policy ‘sectarian.’ Actually it is the only means of preparing for a new tremendous surge forward with the coming historical tide.”
The proletarian, revolutionary and internationalist road charted by Lenin and Trotsky was the cause to which James P. Cannon devoted the bulk of his life. The ICL seeks to maintain and extend that tradition in our fight to reforge the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution. We proclaim, as Cannon once did, “We are the party of the Russian Revolution!”