The making of an agitator

Issue: 115

Chris Bambery

Bryan D Palmer, James P Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left 18901928 (University of Illinois, 2007), £29

For me the decisive moment in James P Cannon’s life was when he gave up his swivel chair.

In 1928 Cannon turned his back on a career as a Communist Party leader in the United States, facing inevitable expulsion by coming out in support of Leon Trotsky and the left opposition to Stalinism. As Joseph Stalin began to exert complete control over both Russia and the Communist International, Cannon must have been a prime candidate to be installed as leader of the US party. Stalin liked his general secretaries to be staunchly proletarian and devotedly loyal. Maurice Thorez in France, Ernest Thalmann in Germany and, on a smaller stage, Harry Pollitt in Britain all fitted that mould.

Cannon was a “native” radical, born and brought up in harsh industrial conditions in Kansas and with a track record as a frontline organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (known as the Wobblies) and a key figure in the creation of the US Communist Party. By 1928 Stalin was moving to axe Jay Lovestone as general secretary because he was aligned with the Russian leader’s rival Nikolai Bukharin. Stalin was also distrustful of another contender for the post, the trade union leader William Z Foster.

Looking back Cannon explained why he chose to surrender the relative comfort of party office—a decision made all the more honourable because he knew he was heading into obscurity (though he could not possibly be aware just how isolated he would be over the following six years):

“The footloose Wobbly rebel that I used to be had imperceptibly begun to fit comfortably into a swivel chair, protecting himself in his seat by small manoeuvres and evasions, and even permitting himself a certain conceit about his adroit accommodation to this shabby game. I saw myself for the first time then as another person, as a revolutionist who was on the road to becoming a bureaucrat. The image was hideous, and I turned away from it in disgust.

“I never deceived myself for a moment about the most probable consequences of my decision to support Trotsky in the summer of 1928. I knew it was going to cost me my head and also my swivel chair, but I thought: What the hell—better men than I have risked their heads and their swivel chairs for truth and justice.”

This does not quite do justice to his growing unease with the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International. That probably dates from Moscow’s directive to British Communists to uncritically tail the trade union leaders during the 1926 general strike.

At the sixth congress of the Communist International, held in 1928, Cannon went to Moscow representing the faction he led within the US party. As the lesser force to Lovestone and Foster’s groupings he was sidelined by being sent to the commission considering a new programme to be adopted by the International.

Cannon was unexpectedly handed an English translation of The Draft Programme of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals (now available as The Third International After Lenin), by the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, who had been expelled from the Soviet Communist Party and was in exile in Alma Ata. The document was a searing attack on Stalin’s notion of “socialism in one country” and an appeal for the International’s policy to be based on the primacy of international revolution over Soviet diplomatic interests. Trotsky’s document was smuggled out, apparently stuffed into a teddy bear belonging to an offspring of one of Cannon’s pals.

On his return to the US Cannon won over his partner, Rose Krasner, his young factional supporters, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern in New York City, Albert Glotzer and Arne Swabeck in Chicago, and then a group of worker militants in Minneapolis. They formed the nucleus of the most stable international grouping that rallied to Trotsky.

Cannon and his allies spun out the disciplinary proceedings against them, increasing their audience, before dramatically declaring their support for Trotsky. Within 24 hours of their expulsion, copies of their declaration were circulating in the party. Within a week they had launched a new paper, The Militant, its first edition headlined: “For The Russian Revolution”.

Bryan D Palmer’s book pays tribute to Cannon’s courage, but it does much more than that. It is a serious study of the US left in the decade before and after the First World War.

James Patrick Cannon was born in 1890 to parents of Irish origin who had immigrated to the US and pitched up in Rosedale, Kansas, just as the town’s good times ended. By the age of 12 he was working in a meat packing plant, having been denied a secondary education. When a high school was opened in Rosedale he went back to secure an education.

Cannon’s political involvement began at the age of 14 when he got involved in the defence of Big Bill Haywood, who was being framed on murder charges for his role in a miners’ strike. At 18 Cannon joined the Socialist Party, attracted by its presidential candidate, Eugene Debs. The party had 100,000 members and Debs polled just short of a million votes in 1912. But Debs refused to get involved in inner party matters, allowing cautious reformists to dominate the party. Cannon reacted to this by joining the Industrial Workers of the World in 1910. Palmer’s account of this period is the most gripping part of the book.

Starting in Kansas City, Cannon and his comrades would go into working class areas, particularly where itinerant workers, “hoboes”, teemed. Competing against Christians, the sellers of fake medicinal cures and so on, the Wobblies had to draw a crowd and hold them. Cannon was a great soapbox agitator. Later he recalled, “You are either a soapboxer or you are not. You are tested by whether you hold the crowd, by the literature sold, and the money given to the collection.”

At the 1912 congress of the Wobblies, Cannon caught the eye of the union’s general secretary, Vincent St John. In February 1913 “The Saint” pitched Cannon into a labour uprising in Akron, Ohio, where 23,000 workers were employed in the tyre industry.

A strike at the Firestone plant sparked a walkout across the city’s plants. The Wobblies threw every organiser and agitator at the uprising. Eclipsed by the silk weavers’ uprising in Paterson, New Jersey—which attracted the help of John Reed, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood—Akron was a dispute uniting American and foreign born workers, men and women. In a sense it was more representative of the US proletariat at the time.

The Wobblies held meetings and issued leaflets in English, Serbian, German, Slovak, Italian and Hungarian, holding mass pickets, parades, street corner meetings and strike rallies. At the beginning the dispute had a carnival atmosphere, but this was not to last. Armed police and specially recruited “deputies”—in reality anti-strike vigilantes—were unleashed on strikers. Street fighting lasted a week but the forces of “order” emerged on top. The official American Federation of Labour (AFL) chipped in, denouncing the strike. The numbers attending strike mobilisations fell away and a drift back to work began before the AFL brokered a return to work. The Wobblies had little permanent organisation on the ground. Their itinerant organisers and agitators were brilliant when a strike was on the up, but found it difficult to hold the line when things went into reverse, and far more so to build anything from defeat.

By the time the First World War broke out in Europe, Cannon was back in Kansas City, married with two children and attempting to earn a living. But in 1917 two events brought him back into the struggle—US entry into the war and the Russian Revolution. Reading John Reed’s The Liberator and other pro-Bolshevik journals, Cannon was won to the idea of a new combat party, firm on principles but rooted in the class.

Like Reed he rallied to the pro-Bolshevik left wing of the Socialist Party, travelling to that party’s 1919 congress in New York City. The events there are portrayed well in Warren Beatty’s film Reds. The leadership used every procedural trick to defeat the left, eventually calling the police to evict them. In the process the left split, with one grouping based on the foreign language sections of the party leaving to proclaim itself the Communist Party, while Reed’s supporters wanted to fight to the last in the Socialist Party to try to secure the largest possible support. Eventually two Communist Parties formed.

A post-war strike wave and the fear of revolution led to a ferocious witch‑hunt with strikes suppressed, mass arrests and deportation of leftists. The revolutionary left was forced underground (and the Wobblies were effectively destroyed).

The largely foreign language Communist Party argued that clandestine organisation was a matter of Bolshevik principle. Cannon, by contrast, realised revolutionaries had to seize any opportunity for open, legal work in order to get mass support.

From 1920-3 Cannon campaigned for Communist unity and for open work. The matter was settled at the Communist International’s fourth congress where the Russians Gregory Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin supported those championing clandestinity. In Moscow Cannon secured an interview with Trotsky who, together with Lenin, ridiculed the “champions of the underground”.

On paper Cannon should have become party leader. He cheered Zinoviev’s campaign to “Bolshevise” the Communist Parties, though this amounted to greater bureaucratic control from Moscow. Then disaster struck when a Comintern emissary Joseph Pepper succeeded in installing himself as effective party leader, promoting Jay Lovestone within the party leadership.

Whatever his doubts about the growing demonisation of Trotsky, Cannon was formally a loyal supporter of the Communist International until his final trip to Moscow, agreeing to suppress references to Trotsky and Zinoviev (after he became an opponent of Stalin) in the party press. This is important because some on the left, echoing Max Shachtman after his break with Cannon, have tried to rubbish him as a bureaucrat, while others have tried to paint him as an immaculate Trotskyist.

The former charge does not stand up to Cannon’s commitment to revolution, which lasted until his death in 1974. The latter charge ignores the fact that Trotsky made tactical mistakes in his fight with Stalin in the 1920s, and few in the international movement were in a position to understand the importance of that fight.

Palmer ends this volume with Cannon’s expulsion and the creation of the grouping that would subsequently become the Communist League of America and then the US Socialist Workers Party. A further volume is planned on Cannon’s subsequent role in the Trotskyist movement. On the basis of this volume’s conclusion I somehow feel this will not be as satisfactory.

For a generation of Trotskyists Cannon’s book detailing the 1939-40 faction fight with Shachtman, Abern, Glotzer and James Burnham, The Struggle for the Proletarian Party, became a sort of manual on how to conduct an internal faction fight. Unfortunately, it was a fairly disastrous manual. The dispute centred on matters of deep substance such as the class nature of Stalin’s Russia and Burnham’s rejection of historical materialism. But factional quarrels had been almost continuous throughout the 1930s, meaning that from start to finish the fight was between two camps rigid in their loyalties.

Trotsky urged Cannon on, but was also critical of his refusal to try to generalise the discussion. By taking the discussion to a higher plane, educating all concerned and creating space for a change of views, Cannon could have avoided the retreat into two armed camps.

The other problem with The Struggle for the Proletarian Party was that it labelled the Shachtman-Abern faction a “petty bourgeois opposition”. Cannon would subsequently portray all faction fights within the party as a clash between a proletarian centre and alien class forces. That implies matters can only be resolved by a split.

Cannon’s problems were compounded after the Second World War. Trotsky had predicted that the Soviet Union, which he still saw as a degenerated workers’ state, would not survive the war, which would end with recession and revolution. Cannon clung to this perspective even as Western capitalism entered its greatest ever economic boom, and Stalinism expanded into Eastern Europe and China. Arguing that the Eastern European regimes were somehow workers’ states led to the notion that capitalism could be overthrown by Russian tanks, rather than the self‑emancipation of the working class

On the domestic front Cannon and his allies tended to retreat into a more propagandist approach following the Second World War, stressing the centrality of “the programme” in an increasingly sterile and lifeless manner. He finally ceased to direct the day to day running of the US Socialist Workers Party in 1953, at the height of the McCarthyite witch‑hunts.

But whatever criticisms are made of Cannon, he remained a link to the glory days of the US left—the days of John Reed, Vincent St John, Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Eugene Debs and the Wobblies. He represented an authentic, “native” leftism—the idea, which goes against the grain of much of the left, that US workers can be won to socialism and revolution. This book is a fitting tribute to Cannon—soapboxer, Wobbly and American Bolshevik.