Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 791, 15 November 2002.

The Prometheus Research Library (PRL), archive and central library of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League, is proud to announce the publication of its third book, Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933. This 752-page volume, available in both paperback and hardcover, includes 118 documents that chronicle a factional polarization which rent the American section of Leon Trotsky’s International Left Opposition (ILO) from 1931 to 1933. This was a period of stagnation that Cannon later aptly called the “dog days of the movement.” Pitting supporters of James P. Cannon against the generally younger followers of Max Shachtman, who were less experienced as workers’ leaders, the fight in the Communist League (CLA) presaged the defining split in American Trotskyism which occurred in 1939-40. Yet the 1931-33 struggle has never before been well documented.

The PRL’s new volume, which includes an exhaustive introduction that situates the CLA fight in the context of the political sorting out that occurred in the early ILO, sheds new light on the history of the Trotskyist movement. It also provides a lively picture of the membership and work of the Trotskyists during this early period, documenting the political and organizational growth of a small, fighting propaganda group which went on to lead one of the decisive American class battles of 1934—the great Minneapolis Teamsters strikes.

In the book’s Editorial Note, the genesis of the volume is explained: “In the political youth of James Robertson, co-editor of this compilation, the subject matter of this book had a somewhat mystical and mythical quality, wherein might be found the origins of the profound 1940 scission in the Trotskyist (i.e., the authentic communist) movement.” In 1939-40, Max Shachtman and his supporters departed decisively from a revolutionary proletarian and internationalist perspective, abandoning the unconditional military defense of the world’s first workers state, the Soviet Union. Cannon and Trotsky led a six-month-long struggle against Shachtman’s petty-bourgeois opposition, which composed some 40 percent of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)—then the U.S. Trotskyist organization—and its youth organization.

The fight coincided with the outbreak of World War II, and many of the European Trotskyist organizations were functioning in conditions of illegality. The fight in the SWP “became in effect a discussion for the entire Fourth International and was followed with passionate interest by the members of all sections” (Fourth International, May 1940). Trotsky’s writings from the struggle were collected in In Defense of Marxism; Cannon’s were published in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party.

Shachtman and some of his supporters went on to establish the Workers Party, developing the view that the USSR was a new form of class society, “bureaucratic collectivist.” For a period, Shachtman’s organization claimed to adhere to the Fourth International (FI) and acted as a rival to the SWP, the FI section in the U.S. But under the impact of the Cold War, the Workers Party moved rapidly to the right and changed its name to the Independent Socialist League (ISL) in 1949. In 1958 the ISL liquidated into the pathetic dregs of American social democracy. By the 1960s, Shachtman was supporting the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and U.S. imperialism’s bloody war against the Vietnamese national and social revolution. His path of renegacy has been well chronicled by the Spartacist tendency, most recently in “The Bankruptcy of ‘New Class’ Theories—Tony Cliff and Max Shachtman: Pro-Imperialist Accomplices of Counterrevolution” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 55, Autumn 1999).

Cannon remained National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party until he retired in 1953. He was then SWP National Chairman until his death in 1974. But by the late 1950s, the party began to succumb to the consequences of the Cold War anti-Communist witchhunt, including lack of recruitment and an aging cadre. By 1960, the party had given up on the struggle for revolutionary proletarian leadership, hailing Fidel Castro as an “unconscious Trotskyist” and tailing the liberal-pacifist leadership of the civil rights movement. The Revolutionary Tendency, forerunner of the Spartacist League, fought the party’s degeneration and was expelled from the SWP in 1963. The SL today stands on the heritage of Cannon’s revolutionary SWP, which has less than nothing to do with the increasingly quirky reformist sect around Jack Barnes that today calls itself the Socialist Workers Party.

The material published in Dog Days documents that there was a deepgoing polarization between supporters of Shachtman and those of Cannon already in the CLA, posing the possibility of a split in early 1933. But unlike in 1939-40, there was no decisive principled or programmatic difference. Trotsky intervened sharply in the spring of 1933, warning that the two sides “anticipate a lot by sharpening the organizational struggle between the groups and the members without any connection with the development of political work and the questions it raises.” He sought to get the two factions to dissolve so that their members could direct their energy into expanding the League’s mass work. Trotsky’s intervention coincided with an upturn in the class struggle in 1933-34, which provided the objective basis for the CLA to break out of the impasse and go forward.

Prelude to 1939-40 Faction Fight

In his History of American Trotskyism (1944), Cannon correctly called the CLA dispute “the premature rehearsal of the great, definitive struggle of 1939-40.” At the same time, he described only a “sea of petty troubles, jealousies, clique formations and internal fights.” The extent of the polarization was later downplayed or dismissed by many of the leading participants interviewed by the PRL in the 1970s and 1990s. Some of the old-timers were embarrassed by their positions in the early fight. (For example, Carl Cowl, later a follower of the ultraleftist Hugo Oehler, supported Shachtman in the CLA, a fact which he never mentioned when the PRL interviewed him.)

The exception was Albert Glotzer, a key leader of the Shachtman group, whose memory was fueled by anti-Cannon passions which burned as hot in later decades as they had in the early 1930s. By the time the PRL interviewed him in the early 1990s, Glotzer was a confirmed “State Department socialist” with ties to the imperialist secret services. (Richard Valcourt, editor of the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, spoke at his 1999 memorial meeting.) Yet Glotzer obscenely continued to insist that Cannon had never been a true Bolshevik! The PRL introduction to Dog Days makes use of the PRL’s interviews with former CLAers, as well as of interviews with Cannon and Shachtman conducted by others in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1939-40, the factional lineup among SWP National Committee members who had been part of the early CLA was almost identical to that of 1931-33. Shachtman, Martin Abern and Glotzer were pitted against Cannon, Vincent Dunne and Carl Skoglund. (The one exception was Morris Lewit—later known as Morris Stein—who supported Shachtman in the early fight but became a key collaborator of Cannon’s in 1934 and a stalwart of the Soviet defensists in 1939-40.) The magnum opus of the Shachtman side, the lengthy June 1932 “The Situation in the American Opposition: Prospect and Retrospect” (referred to hereafter as “Prospect and Retrospect”), harps on the same organizational themes of Cannon’s so-called “bureaucratic conservatism” that dominated the petty-bourgeois opposition in 1939-40. When Cannon sent his Struggle for a Proletarian Party to Trotsky in 1940, he noted, “Its length must be excused on the ground that the dam of ten years patience has been broken down.”

“Prospect and Retrospect,” signed by Shachtman, Abern and Glotzer, is the source of all subsequent accounts of Cannon as an unreformed Zinovievist and bureaucrat with little interest in Marxist theory or international questions. Submitted just before a June 1932 plenum of the CLA’s National Committee (NC), “Prospect and Retrospect” was withdrawn by its authors at the plenum and then resubmitted a month later. Carbon copies of the document circulated extensively in the CLA through private factional channels, but “Prospect and Retrospect” never appeared in the CLA Internal Bulletin because Cannon never completed the reply he was mandated to write by the National Committee majority. In Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933, “Prospect and Retrospect” is published for the first time.

The new volume draws together representative documents, motions and correspondence from both sides of the factional divide, as well as all of Trotsky’s correspondence and interventions into the CLA fight. But it does not reproduce Cannon’s major documents and factional correspondence, most of which were published by Pathfinder Press in 1985 as part of Cannon’s Writings and Speeches: The Communist League of America 1932-34. That volume includes Cannon’s partial, draft reply to “Prospect and Retrospect” as well as “Internal Problems of the CLA,” which Cannon co-authored with Arne Swabeck in March 1932. Cannon’s 1932-34 Writings and Speeches is an essential companion to the PRL’s new book; Pathfinder’s earlier volume, Cannon’s Writings and Speeches: The Left Opposition in the U.S. 1928-31, also provides important background information and context. Dog Days includes eight Cannon pieces not in the Pathfinder collection, all of which circulated in the minutes of the CLA’s leading committee resident in New York and in Internal Bulletins.

Most of Trotsky’s written interventions into the CLA fight were published in English as part of Pathfinder’s Writings of Leon Trotsky series. But they are spread over several volumes, and the bulk of them appears only in the Writings Supplement 1929-33. Dog Days gathers them together in one book for the first time, putting them in the context of the CLA’s internal disputes so that their full import is clear. The new volume also includes seven never-before-published letters by Trotsky, most of them from the section of the Trotsky papers at Harvard University covering his period in exile. This section was opened to the public only in 1980, after Pathfinder’s Trotsky Writings series was compiled. Trotsky had no English-speaking secretary at the time of the CLA dispute, so most of his letters were written in German, and a few in French and Russian. The PRL prepared new translations for Dog Days.

Dog Days includes letters and documents by many other CLA cadres, including Arne Swabeck, Carl Skoglund, Albert Glotzer, Martin Abern and Maurice Spector. PRL researchers searched the papers of leading CLAers in archives around the United States, unearthing in all some 600 items relating to the CLA dispute and the preceding organizational tensions and disputes on international questions. The 118 documents selected for the book give a representative picture of the faction fight as it unfolded. Short introductions by the editors give necessary background material. Extensive footnotes provide additional information and a 40-page glossary identifies people, institutions and publications that might be unfamiliar to the reader. There are 16 pages of photos—many never before published—of leading CLAers and the class-struggle events in which the Trotskyists participated, as well as reproductions of the organization’s publications. The volume contains an extensive index, and the paperback as well as the hardcover have durable smyth-sewn bindings.

The documents in Dog Days reveal just how profoundly Cannon was shaped by the CLA’s early factional struggle and especially Trotsky’s intervention, which completed Cannon’s education as a Leninist. Destroying the Shachtmanite myth that Cannon was simply a “hand-raiser for Trotsky,” this volume illustrates that the relationship between Trotsky and Cannon was forged over time—not least in fights against Shachtman. Dog Days is a kind of manual of the dos and don’ts of Leninist internal party struggle. As the PRL introduction notes:

“The documents reveal the myriad tensions that can tear apart a small communist propaganda nucleus. How the CLA overcame the ‘dog days’ to become one of the strongest sections of the Fourth International is an important lesson in the struggle to forge a revolutionary party and its cadre. The Prometheus Research Library, central reference archive of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, is unique in understanding the importance of the CLA fight and making its history accessible to our own and future generations. The ICL, like the ILO, is a fighting communist propaganda group with the goal of forging parties of the proletarian vanguard to lead to victory new October Revolutions internationally.”

It is not a propitious time to bring out a specialized and detailed volume of communist history such as this. Interest in the history of revolutionary Marxism is currently at a low ebb as bourgeois ideologues continue to peddle “death of communism” triumphalism born out of the demise of the Soviet Union. But it was Stalinism that died when Stalin’s epigones gave the USSR back to the capitalist world economy in 1991-92, not communism. A crystallizing bureaucratic caste under Stalin usurped political power from the Soviet working class in early 1924. In the aftermath, the Stalinist propaganda machine at the top of the world’s first workers state perverted Marxism. To justify its policies, which oscillated between abject conciliation of imperialism and stupid adventurism, the Stalinist caste insisted that it was possible to build “socialism in one country” and to peacefully “co-exist” with imperialism. These dogmas belong on the garbage heap of history; they have nothing to do with genuine Marxism, i.e., Trotskyism.

Whatever the fads and fancies of bourgeois social sciences, the dynamic of the class struggle is built into the nature of the capitalist economy. The working class has the power and the interest to overthrow this decaying social order and to replace it with an internationally planned economy. The leap in development that comes with a planned economy—even a bureaucratically deformed and nationally limited one—has been made patently obvious by the devastation of infrastructure, industry, education and health that have accompanied capitalist counterrevolution in the old Soviet Union and East Europe. Future generations of proletarian revolutionaries will need to assimilate the indispensable legacy of the Russian Revolution. They will find much to instruct them in the pages of the PRL’s new volume. It is unfortunate that this book presently appears only in English.

The Impasse of the CLA

The American Trotskyist movement was founded in October 1928 when Cannon, Abern and Shachtman were expelled from the Communist Party (CP) for attempting to organize support for Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Born in struggle against the Stalinist bureaucratic caste, the Left Opposition fought, in both the Soviet party and the Communist International (CI) as a whole, to continue Lenin’s fight for international working-class revolution, against Stalin’s revisionist insistence on building “socialism in one country.” Cannon was won to the Left Opposition in 1928 while attending the Communist International’s Sixth Congress in Moscow, where he read the two parts of Trotsky’s Critique of the Comintern’s draft program that were distributed to members of the Program Commission. (The whole of the Critique, which consists of three parts, was later published as The Third International After Lenin.) Cannon and Canadian Communist Party leader Maurice Spector, also a member of the Program Commission, smuggled a copy of Trotsky’s manuscript out of the Soviet Union and began organizing support for the Left Opposition in their respective parties.

Working of necessity in great secrecy, Cannon managed to win over only a very few of his compatriots —centrally his companion, Rose Karsner, as well as Shachtman and Abern—before being expelled from the CP. However, the fledgling Trotskyist group immediately began publishing a newspaper, the Militant, to propagate its views. The group quickly won adherents. Cannon had been the co-leader, along with William F. (Bill) Dunne, of the smallest of the three major groups that vied for leadership in the factional wars that dominated the Communist Party in the 1920s. Cannon had a great deal of authority as a founding Communist with a history in the pre-communist workers movement, going back to his days as an itinerant organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s. He was elected chairman of the Workers Party when it was founded in December 1921 as a legal organization parallel to the underground Communist Party. While many members of the CP’s Cannon faction—including Bill Dunne—went along with Cannon’s expulsion, many others opposed or at least questioned it. These questioners, too, were unceremoniously expelled by the CP leadership, which was at the time in the hands of an opportunist faction led by the unprincipled, ambition-crazed adventurer Jay Lovestone (who later evolved into an imperialist secret service operative). After reading Trotsky’s Critique, the majority of the expellees declared for the Left Opposition and began distributing the Militant. The ILO considered itself an expelled faction of the Communist Party, fighting to return the Communist International to the program embodied in its first four congresses.

The Communist League of America, which initially included the Canadian comrades in a Toronto branch, had some 100 members at its founding convention in May 1929. The former Cannon faction members were joined by a handful of former adherents of the third CP faction, which was led by William Z. Foster. At the time the Trotskyists were expelled, the Cannon and Foster factions were in a bloc against the opportunist Lovestone leadership. Disgusted by the continued and sharpening rightward course of the CP under Lovestone, disaffected Fosterites gave the fledgling Trotskyists a hearing and some were recruited. But this source of new members was soon cut off, as the Dog Days introduction recounts. Lovestone, failing to accurately judge the winds blowing from Moscow, did not break early enough with his main Moscow sponsor, Nikolai Bukharin. He was expelled from the CP the same month the CLA was founded. Lovestone took his closest supporters with him, but Stalin had managed to isolate him from the vast majority of his faction, which remained in the party.

The expulsion of Lovestone was part of a wholesale left turn in the policies of CI parties decreed by Moscow in 1927-28. Stalin moved against the Soviet party right wing, led by Bukharin, which had advocated a series of economic concessions that were made to the well-off peasants who could hire labor (the kulaks) from 1925-28. Stalin and Bukharin had stood together in the fight against the Left Opposition, but the concessions made to the peasantry proved a horrible disaster (as the Left Opposition had predicted). By 1927 the kulaks were hoarding grain, threatening to starve the Soviet cities. In an abrupt about-face, Stalin moved to brutally and forcibly collectivize the peasantry and implement a planned, but adventurous, rate of industrialization. At the same time, the Comintern declared that a new “Third Period” of post-World War I political life had opened up in which revolution was just around the corner. Bukharin and most of the leaders of the right in the Soviet party soon capitulated to Stalin, but internationally Bukharin’s supporters were expelled from most communist parties. The Bukharinites congealed into an international Right Opposition which included the Lovestone group in the U.S.

The international turn toward “Third Period” ultraleft rhetoric—which was often combined with adventurist actions—assuaged many communists previously disaffected with the Comintern’s growing opportunism. The new policy further undercut the LO’s appeal by seeming to co-opt its call for a more rapid pace of Soviet industrialization. In Cannon’s words, the Third Period was “a devastating blow.” In the early ’60s, Shachtman recounted:

“We could no longer speak of the Party going further and further to the right. We could no longer speak of the Lovestoneites ruining the Party. We could no longer speak of the Fosterites having illusions that they would get the leadership of the Party. If anything resulted from that, it was a counteroffensive by the Fosterites—in the ranks, to be sure, unofficially, to be sure—to get us to return to the Party. They didn’t succeed in convincing a single one of our people, but not even the possibility of success existed any longer for us in recruiting dissident Fosterites.”

Just a few months after Lovestone’s expulsion, the stock market crash inaugurated the Great Depression. The CLA sank into the dog days. Not only were the Trotskyists cut off from the vast majority of class-conscious American workers organized in the Communist Party, but the CLA’s already meager financial resources all but disappeared as its members were laid off or forced to work for reduced wages. Class struggle in the country was at a low ebb. Moreover Cannon, whose first wife died just before the CLA was founded, leaving him responsible for their two children, had to get a job outside the organization. He underwent a period of evident demoralization, absenting himself from the CLA office for weeks at a time. The personal frictions and organizational grievances born in this period fueled the later faction fight and dominate Shachtman, Abern and Glotzer’s “Prospect and Retrospect.”

The Cannon Faction in the CP

The PRL introduction to Dog Days deals extensively with the 1929-30 frictions. Some of the tension grew out of the fact that Cannon recognized early on that the Third Period had shut off the CLA’s possibilities for immediate substantial growth. Shachtman and Abern resisted this conclusion, insisting on taking the Militant weekly in late 1929. Other tensions arose as the American Trotskyists avidly assimilated Trotsky’s writings, realizing the depth of the political deficiencies of the old Cannon faction in the Communist Party. Cannon explained in a 1974 interview referenced in Dog Days:

“As we began to get the writings of Trotsky, it opened up a whole new world for us. And they [Abern and Shachtman] discovered, this is my assumption, that while they had always taken what I said for gospel, they discovered there were a lot of things I didn’t know. That I was just beginning to learn from Trotsky. What they didn’t know was that I was learning as well as they were. Shachtman at least, I think, had the idea that he had outgrown me.”

Shachtman, Abern and Glotzer took great exception to Cannon’s 1930 statement that the CLA’s cadre had been “‘prepared by the past’ for our place under the banner of the International Left Opposition” (Militant, 10 May 1930). Labeling Cannon’s assertion a “theory of gestation,” they disparaged the record of the Cannon faction in the CP, insisting that their being won over to the Left Opposition was some kind of historical accident.

The PRL’s first book, James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928, which was published in 1992, covered Cannon’s years as CP leader, documenting the political evolution of the Cannon faction. The Cannon faction was motivated largely by national concerns and did not break fundamentally with the Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country.” At the same time, the faction’s record proves that there was much in their worldview that led them to the ILO’s door. As the PRL noted in the introduction to James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism:

“When, in 1932, Shachtman and Abern led a rebellion against Cannon’s leadership of the Communist League of America, they were only interested in telling one side of the story. The material presented here also tells another, one that predisposed a deliberate and considered workers’ leader like Cannon to turn away from high office within the American party in favor of remaining true to the revolutionism that had animated his youth and continued to animate the program of the Left Opposition.”

The introduction to Dog Days notes that in particular Shachtman et al. underplayed the importance of Cannon’s history of hard opposition to the opportunism of Lovestone, the American version of the Right Opposition. Trotsky fought many battles in the early ILO against those, like Spanish Opposition leader Andrés Nin, who sought to merge banners with the Right Opposition. It was a particular strength of the American League that its members, in general, were not disposed to make common cause with the Right Opposition.

The CLA’s extensive publishing program was key to the assimilation of its cadre into the international Trotskyist movement. Besides the weekly Militant, which often included articles by Trotsky, the CLA published an array of Trotsky pamphlets, including his major articles on the rise of fascism in Germany and on the unfolding revolutionary situation in Spain. They also published in book form a selection of Trotsky’s writings on the lost opportunity for proletarian revolution in China from 1925 to 1927, Problems of the Chinese Revolution. In letters included in Dog Days, Trotsky praised the quality of the CLA’s translations and publishing efforts, and he sought to get the North American Trotskyists to produce a theoretical journal (which they began only in 1934).

In late 1930, leading CLA member Arne Swabeck moved from Chicago to New York to help overcome the tensions in the CLA national office. Cannon was again fully politically engaged by this point, and he and Swabeck began an axis of collaboration which was key to the stabilization of the CLA and the expansion of its publishing program throughout 1931. In late 1931, the CLA began publishing a monthly youth press, Young Spartacus, as well as an episodic publication in Greek and a somewhat more regular publication in Yiddish. As the Dog Days introduction notes, Shachtman, Abern and Glotzer objected far more to Cannon’s revival than they had to his absence. Shachtman in particular had grown used to treating the CLA’s relations with Trotsky and other ILO parties as his personal fiefdom. He bridled at Cannon’s attempts to get the National Committee as a whole to take responsibility for international work. This was the issue that precipitated the factional polarization. In documenting the key role that international questions played in the CLA fight, Dog Days breaks new ground.

The International Questions

Shachtman was the first CLA leader to go to Prinkipo, Turkey, to meet with Trotsky in exile, after which he went to Europe and took part in the first ILO international gathering in April 1930. He was subsequently co-opted onto the ILO’s leading body, the International Bureau. In Europe he developed close relations with Kurt Landau, a leader of the ILO’s German section, and with Pierre Naville of the French Ligue Communiste. Trotsky subsequently waged sharp political fights against both men.

Shachtman treated his correspondence with Trotsky about the political struggles in Europe as “personal.” Moreover, he did not seek to get the CLA to take positions on the questions at issue. After a series of skirmishes in 1931, this issue finally broke out into the open in early 1932, when Cannon sought—over Shachtman’s opposition—to put the CLA on record in support of Trotsky’s positions in the internal ILO struggles involving Landau, Naville and others. The PRL introduction explains the basis for the ILO’s many political disputes:

“Many dissident Communist elements who sought to regroup under the ILO’s banner did not fully grasp the significance of the struggle in the Russian party. All were attracted to the Left Opposition’s struggle against bureaucratism in the Soviet party and state. But many saw this as a simple ‘democratic’ issue, misunderstanding or disagreeing with the underlying programmatic basis—the fight to forge the politically homogenous revolutionary proletarian vanguard in opposition to all varieties of centrism and reformism. Political softness toward the Right Opposition was common.... Trotsky’s primary task was the systematic education of the ILO cadre and the weeding out of opportunist, sectarian, accidental, and dilettantish elements. This entailed almost constant internal political struggle.”

The PRL introduction sketches out Trotsky’s arguments with Alfred Rosmer and Pierre Naville on the trade-union question in the French section, his fight against the cliquism of Kurt Landau, and his struggle against Andrés Nin’s centrist orientation toward unity with Joaquín Maurín’s Workers and Peasants Bloc in Spain. All these issues figure in the documents published in the volume.

Dog Days is divided into three sections—“Shachtman in the International,” “The Fight” and “The International Intervenes”—with documents presented chronologically within each section. The first section consists mostly of Trotsky and Shachtman’s correspondence on problems in the European ILO sections from 1930 to ’31. Those who know the ICL and its work will be struck by the familiarity of Trotsky’s concerns, especially his struggle to create a centralized political and administrative apparatus for the ILO. Trotsky’s aim was to forge a politically homogenous democratic-centralist tendency, even if it consisted at first of small propaganda groups. This aim, carried forward today by the ICL, separates us from all manner of fakers who (used to/sort of) pretend to be the continuators of the Left Opposition.

Trotsky fought against the Bordigists and others who wanted the ILO center to be simply a political clearing house for nationally delimited (and therefore necessarily centrist) parties. He fought for an early delegated international conference to establish an elected leadership, and he condemned the leadership of the Spanish section in particular for not paying enough attention to international questions and for not translating the ILO discussion bulletins for its membership. The CLA, it should be noted, took the responsibility early on for publishing the ILO discussion bulletin in English. Thus the North American membership was able to follow the disputes in the international movement.

The Trotsky-Shachtman correspondence illustrates Trotsky’s growing impatience with Shachtman’s refusal to make programmatic considerations primary, starting with Shachtman’s first foray into Europe in the spring of 1930, when (despite explicit instructions from Trotsky) he failed to ensure that the ILO’s first conference issue a political manifesto. Shachtman attempted to blunt the fight against Landau’s disastrous leadership of the German section, and he encouraged Nin in Spain and Naville in France. After Shachtman made a second trip to Europe in the fall of 1931, Trotsky was so alarmed that he wrote to the CLA National Committee to inquire if Shachtman represented the views of the CLA leadership as a whole. These documents expose Shachtman’s lying assertion, made later in the CLA fight, that he had never had significant differences with Trotsky. They also (in the words of the PRL introduction) “explode the image of Shachtman as Trotsky’s happy international commissar, a myth spread by Shachtman and his supporters in later years and more recently purveyed by Peter Drucker in his biography of Shachtman [Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century,” Humanities Press, 1994]. In fact, Trotsky’s opponents in Europe invoked Shachtman’s name in defense of their own actions.”

The Fight

After returning from his second trip to Europe, Shachtman refused to vote for Cannon’s 1931 draft NC statement supporting Trotsky’s positions in Europe. He resigned his post as Militant editor and attempted to deflect the discussion from the international questions by making an issue of Swabeck and Cannon’s supposed harshness toward a supercilious and scholastic group of petty-bourgeois youth in the New York local (the “Carter group”). Abern and Glotzer, who claimed to disagree with Shachtman on the debates in Europe, aided and abetted Shachtman in deflecting the discussion, co-signing “Prospect and Retrospect” and submitting it on the eve of the June 1932 NC plenum. The documents reveal that Spector and Glotzer privately prevailed on Shachtman to capitulate on the international question, which he did at the plenum. The two sides also managed to work out a joint motion on the New York local and the “Carter group.” Under pressure from Cannon and his supporters, who promised a reply if “Prospect and Retrospect” remained in the record, Shachtman et al. withdrew their document.

Yet the “unity” thus achieved exploded just a few weeks after the plenum. Over the next year, the two groups fought over a myriad of organizational issues, from the co-optations to the National Committee proposed by Cannon, to Cannon’s proposal to accept only working-class activists for membership in the New York local, to the date for the CLA’s third national conference. Documents from both sides of these disputes are published in the section of the volume titled “The Fight,” as well as representative internal factional correspondence from the Shachtman side. (Cannon’s letters to his supporters were published in the Pathfinder volume of Cannon’s writings from 1932-34.) As the PRL introduction notes, there is a sharp contrast between the correspondence from both sides: “Where Shachtman, Glotzer, and Abern are politically vague and gossipy, Cannon is programmatic and forward-looking. The same contrast can be drawn between Shachtman and Glotzer’s lengthy letters to Trotsky and Swabeck’s terse, informative correspondence.”

Organizational tensions were exacerbated by the League’s utter financial poverty as well as by some non-Leninist organizational practices. When Trotsky received a visa to visit Copenhagen in the fall of 1932, Shachtman and his supporters refused to send Swabeck—who was born and raised in Denmark—to Copenhagen immediately to take part in ILO deliberations. Although he missed the ILO gathering in Copenhagen, Swabeck was able to go to Europe in early 1933 to attend an important ILO meeting. He traveled on to Prinkipo, where his discussions with Trotsky played a great role in resolving the CLA’s polarization. The trip was possible only because funds were raised privately by the Cannon faction.

Cannon rightly saw the root of the problem as the petty-bourgeois basis of the Shachtman faction, concentrated in the New York local. As the Dog Days introduction notes, Cannon “was desperate to find an entry point into a mass proletarian movement and thus recruit a way out of the factional impasse caused by the political weight of the League’s literary recruits.” Cannon’s younger supporters like George Clarke and Sam Gordon went out into the field as itinerant party organizers. When Skoglund and Dunne began their work organizing the coal drivers in Minneapolis, Shachtman’s supporter there, Carl Cowl, branded them as “opportunists.”

The cavalier attitude of the Shachtman faction toward the CLA’s fragile roots in the proletariat was amply demonstrated by its periodic obstruction of the CLA’s work in the Southern Illinois breakaway from the United Mine Workers, the Progressive Miners of America (PMA). For most of the period covered by the book, the CLA’s best opportunity to recruit real working-class support appeared to lie with the PMA. A CLA member, Gerry Allard, was the editor of the PMA paper, Progressive Miner. The PRL introduction deals in detail with developments in the PMA, providing essential background for the reader. The volume includes a never-before-published letter by Cannon to Trotsky requesting advice on relations with Allard.

Throughout the period of the greatest organizational tensions, however, the two sides remained united on the League’s fundamental political tasks. When Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the decision to take the Militant from weekly to triweekly to champion the expected resistance of the German working class was not controversial. Neither did the two sides fight about the CLA’s work in the unemployed movement.

The polarization began to take on an embryonic political character only in early 1933, when Shachtman and Abern objected strenuously to Cannon’s raising the possibility of a role for the Soviet Red Army in a proletarian offensive to beat back Hitler’s rise to power. Shachtman and Abern were at the time capitulating to the prevailing “socialism in one country” opinion in the CP milieus to which the CLA oriented. The Shachtman faction’s opposition to posing the use of the Red Army outside the borders of the USSR presaged their 1939 abandonment of the defense of the USSR when the Red Army entered Finland and Poland. But in 1933 they dropped their objections after Trotsky intervened to support the thrust of Cannon’s position. Trotsky’s statement on this dispute, “Germany and the USSR,” has long been available as part of Pathfinder’s Trotsky collection, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. But its import is much clearer when it is read along with the documents from the CLA fight.

At the time of the Red Army dispute, Shachtman and Abern labeled Cannon an opportunist because he delivered a speech to a trade-union conference in Southern Illinois—in which the PMA was heavily involved—as a representative of a group of left-wing workers in New York instead of as a member of the CLA. But political groups had been banned from speaking at the conference, and the alternative would have been to cede the field to reformist and anti-Communist PMA leaders. Trotsky’s comments on the CLA’s work in the PMA—centrally “Trade-Union Problems in America” (previously published in Writings of Leon Trotsky Supplement 1929-33)—have a much bigger impact when read in the context of documents from both sides of the CLA divide. “Trade-Union Problems in America” is published in the new volume’s final section, “The International Intervenes.”

Trotsky’s Role

In many ways, “The International Intervenes” is the most powerful section of the book. Trotsky’s experience in internal party struggle was brought to bear, first in discussions with Swabeck in Prinkipo and later in his letters to CLA leaders on both sides of the factional divide. In addition to Trotsky’s correspondence, the section includes letters written by Swabeck to Cannon reporting on further discussions in Prinkipo. Criticizing both factions for drawing harsh organizational lines in the absence of programmatic differences, Trotsky pointed out that the Cannon group, as the majority of the NC, bore central responsibility for the tenor of internal discussion. As the documents reveal, Cannon immediately took Trotsky’s criticisms to heart, making substantive organizational concessions to the minority.

Under pressure from Trotsky to intervene sharply and prevent a split, the International Secretariat (I.S.) scheduled a plenum in May 1933 where the situation in the CLA would be thoroughly discussed. Swabeck was scheduled to attend on his way home from Prinkipo, and the I.S. requested that a minority representative also attend. Drawing on funds lent by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, then a Trotskyist sympathizer, Shachtman once again went to Europe. On the boat to Europe, Shachtman wrote to Glotzer, insisting that he would not dissolve their faction. However, he quickly changed his tune. In Paris he cosigned a resolution with Swabeck calling for dissolution of the factions and he traveled on to Prinkipo for discussions with Trotsky. His letters home to Abern and Glotzer—mimeographed for distribution to his faction in the League—are included in the book. They amplify and elaborate on Trotsky’s thinking about the situation in the CLA.

The CLA National Committee adopted a resolution in June calling for the cessation of the internal struggle and for turning the League outward to take advantage of new opportunities opening up before it. The campaign for a united-front working-class offensive against Hitler in Germany had a strong impact on the CP cadre and the CLA was again recruiting from the party. It was able to intervene to great effect in conferences called by the CP of the unemployed movement and legal defense organizations.

Yet the documents reveal that tensions continued to run high over Cannon’s proposal to move the CLA headquarters to Chicago. Aiming to take advantage of the proletarian nature of the city (as compared to New York) and the greater openness of CP milieus in Chicago, Cannon’s proposal was eventually supported by Trotsky, who saw it as part of turning the CLA outward toward the working class. While not campaigning against the move, Shachtman and Abern quietly planned to remain in New York and produce a theoretical journal. This was a recipe for a “cold split” in the CLA, and in late 1933 Cannon wisely shelved the idea of moving the organization’s center. This aspect of the fight has never before been dealt with in print.

Hard on the heels of the international attempts to mitigate the CLA struggle came Trotsky’s initiative for a bold political turn for the ILO as a whole. Already in May 1933 Trotsky had noted that the German Communist Party’s failure to organize any opposition to Hitler’s consolidation of power meant that it was dead as a revolutionary force. He called for a new party in Germany and in July 1933, after it was clear that no organized opposition had emerged within the Communist International as a whole, he proposed that the ILO reorient itself away from acting as a faction of the CI. Trotsky advocated the call for a new, Fourth International and suggested that the Opposition attempt to regroup with subjectively revolutionary elements who were now organizing outside the CI. The new orientation was endorsed by an I.S. plenum in August 1933 and enthusiastically embraced by the entire CLA National Committee.

The turn toward functioning as the embryo of a new party formation came just as the class struggle began to heat up in the United States. In January 1934, the CLA addressed an open letter suggesting discussions with the leftward-moving centrists of A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party, who advocated the formation of a new workers party in the U.S. Fusion between the CLA and the Musteites took place in December 1934 and was greatly facilitated by the CLA’s leadership of three strikes in the spring and summer which won union recognition for the Minneapolis Teamsters, and by the Muste organization’s leadership in a major class battle at Toledo Auto-Lite in the spring.

It was the new opportunities opening up before the American Trotskyists that laid the basis for the resolution of the CLA’s internal polarization. Shachtman and Morris Lewit went on to collaborate with Cannon in turning the League toward the class struggle, while the majority of the old Shachtman faction, now organized as the Abern-Weber clique, obstructed the work. That story is told in Prometheus Research Series No. 5, which reprints Shachtman’s 1936 document “Marxist Politics or Unprincipled Combinationism?”, a devastating indictment of the unprincipled, personalist methods of Shachtman’s former supporters. In this document Shachtman reveals that—despite the May 1933 agreement to dissolve the factions—the Shachtman/Abern/Glotzer faction in New York went on meeting through January 1934. The Abern clique remained as a fault line in the American Trotskyist movement throughout the 1930s, one that ruptured again in the 1939-40 struggle, when Shachtman rejoined it.

Prescient and Equivocal

Ruminating on the problems of party leadership as he was about to be sent to prison along with 17 other SWP and Minneapolis Teamsters leaders in 1943, Cannon drew a balance sheet of the CLA experience:

“At one time in the early days, the so-called Cannon-Shachtman fight, which was conducted with all the intensity of the final struggle with the petty-bourgeois opposition and even with more acrimony—in that struggle Comrade Trotsky made the comment that the two factions each anticipated too much. They fought each other not on the ground of the political merits and qualities which were fully demonstrated as of that day, but from a point of view of a generalization as to what the ultimate development of the political tendencies on each side would come to.... In such a situation, Comrade Trotsky said, the most progressive tendency is the conciliatory tendency—those who propose to make peace and test out in further common action what is the basis and merit of the accusations on each side. That advice of Comrade Trotsky was accepted in the old fight. Some people accepted it diplomatically and some honestly, but, in general, the prescription was to plunge the party into mass work, stop the faction struggle, disband the faction organizations, and test out in political action what were the tendencies of the two groups.

“And eventually we came to a solution of it in the year 1940—but the fight had begun ten years before, and if we had tried to solve it in 1933 by means of a split—which is the only way you can solve irreconcilable faction fights—there is no way the movement might have profited by it, because we would have had to explain to the workers outside the movement what the fight was about. And if we couldn’t make this clear to comrades inside the party how could we make it clear to the nonparty people we wanted to join? The result would have been the stagnation of the movement as was the case in England.”

— Cannon, “The Situation in the New York Local,” 23 December 1942, printed in The Socialist Workers Party in World War II: Writings and Speeches 1940-43

On questions of party organization and attitude toward workers struggle, the 1931-33 Shachtman faction embodied the same petty-bourgeois approach that Cannon exposed so eloquently in 1939-40 in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party. But the decisive question for a Leninist is political program. The petty-bourgeois orientation of Shachtman, Abern and Glotzer took on decisive programmatic coloration in 1939-40, and it was only at that point that factional struggle was mandated. Cannon learned from Trotsky’s intervention into the early struggle, and he went on to prove himself a superb Leninist leader in the 1939-40 fight and beyond. He won the majority in 1940 because the American Trotskyists, having turned outward, had recruited a layer of serious, proletarian revolutionaries. The PRL introduction ends by drawing the central lesson of this experience:

“While the revolutionary character of a proletarian organization is defined by its program, which represents nothing other than the historic interests of the international working class, there is an interplay between a party’s program and its social composition. Marx insisted that ‘being determines consciousness,’ and this applies as much to aspiring revolutionaries as to other sectors of society. A Marxist vanguard without deep roots in the working class not only lacks the means to implement its program, but is necessarily more susceptible to the social pressures of alien classes.”

Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933 is an essential reference book for any communist.

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