James P. Cannon and the US socialist movement

by

Tim Wohlforth


Introduction

Bob Gould and Ed Lewis

Green Left Weekly discussion list, March 11, 2004

Tim Wolhforth’s book, The Struggle for Marxism in the United States: A History of American Trotskyism, contains an extensive and well-documented assessment of the role of James P. Cannon in the development of the US Socialist Workers Party.

This book, published in 1971, was a piece of energetic, independent work by Wohlforth when he was the main leader of the Workers League, the US section of Gerry Healy’s International Committee of the Fourth International.

The fact that Wohlforth flexed his theoretical muscles in this way seems to have irritated Gerry Healy, and many participants in the Healy current at that time had the view that a certain animosity towards Wohlforth’s book was part of the motivation for an attack by Healy on Wohlforth and his overthrow as leader of the Workers League in the mid-1970s. After that, the book certainly fell into disuse in the Healy movement, and it is now quite rare.

Wohlforth’s experience in the Trotskyist movement is colourfully and interestingly described in his autobiographical work, The Prophet’s Children: Travels on the American Left (Humanity Books, New Jersey, 1995).

In The Struggle for Marxism in the United States, Wohlforth repeatedly acknowledges Cannon’s vital role in the development of the SWP, and his considerable contributions as an agitator and organiser, but he also explores Cannon’s theoretical weaknesses. He goes so far as to say that “anti-intellectual prejudices” “had long been deeply ingrained in the Cannon section of the party”, and he brings forward evidence from Trotsky and others to support this proposition.

Wohlforth’s book is weakened by his constant harping on an ill- defined “Marxist method”, but it nevertheless assembles strong documentary evidence of some weaknesses of the Cannon current, and Trotsky’s reservations about the more authoritarian organisational practices of this current.

Wohlforth’s book also includes the important exchange between Trotsky and leaders of the Cannon faction of the US SWP about the strategic attitude of that party towards the Stalinist movement in the US in the late 1930s.

The history of the Cannon current is of some interest in Australia because the Democratic Socialist Perspective/Party drew a lot of its organisational and political conceptions from the US SWP and still prints Cannon’s works and educates its members in these works.


The early Communist Party in the USA: 1924-1928

[From The Struggle for Marxism in the United States, Labor Publications, New York, 1971]

By 1924 the American Communist Party was still very far from being a Marxist party. It had made substantial progress with the aid of the Communist International. It had broken out of underground existence; it had dispensed with much of the ultraleft baggage inherited from the old left wing; the foreign language federations were no longer the power they once were. But lacking real maturity and devoid of any serious theoretical development, the party was torn asunder by a deep factional division between Ruthenberg-Lovestone on one side and Foster-Cannon on the other. This factional battle was an all-consuming project and the factiomnalists were concerned above all else with the progress of the faction. Meetings of the International became places primarily devoted to manoeuvres to get international support for one’s faction.

Of course there was a certain political basis for the factions. Basically the Ruthenberg-Lovestone group were the “politicals” in part supported by the remnants of the foreign-language groups while the Foster-Cannon group were the “trade unionists”, having the support of the bulk of the native workers in the party. Thus in a distorted way the old dichotomies of American radicalism were perpetuated. On concrete American issues the Foster-Cannon formation generally had a better feel of things — especially when Pepper, a footloose international meddler, called the tune in the Ruthenberg camp.

The 1925 convention of the party put the Foster-Cannon faction in control of the party. But this victory was to be shortlived, for Stalin, through a personal agent, Gusev, rearranged the leadership in such a way as to give a majority to Ruthenberg-Lovestone. This development was the beginning of a new chapter in the American Communist Party — the Stalinization of the party.

The Stalinization of the American Communist Party was to be a much easier task than the Stalinization of the European parties. These parties by and large, had certain Marxist traditions going back before 1919. This was certainly true of the German, Polish, and Bulgarian parties. Furthermore the leaderships of these parties had played more decisive roles in the internal life of the CI before 1924. They were thus much more developed theoretically, had a much deeper understanding of Marxism, than the small American party. E.H. Carr notes this difference when he comments on the American party: “in the years between 1923 and 1926 it reflected with unusual precision the shifts and variations of the Comintern line”, this he attributes to “its remoteness from American political realities”.[1]

Considering that men like Foster and Cannon had a pretty good grasp of American reality in this period, it would be more proper to view this weakness of the CP in relationship to a changing CI as a reflection of the failure of the early American CP to develop theoretically.

Needless to say hardly anyone in the CP understood in the least[2] what was going on in Russia. Lovestone, who was to succeed Ruthenberg as head of that faction when Ruthenberg died, simply latched on to the current head of the CI, Bukharin, hoping in this way to maintain his control over the American CP. Foster twice sought to oppose the interference of the CI into American party affairs but his opposition was an empirically based one. Cannon broke with Foster primarily because Foster wished to oppose Comintern policy.

From 1925 on, the factional strife within the CP was aggravated by the Comintern, which was seeking to wear down the two opposing factions, not trusting either of them. Whatever political differences had existed between the factions prior to 1925 quickly disappeared and the overriding issue was power — and power depended on getting the nod from the Kremlin. In time Stalin was able to either break or expel the prominent leaders of the party and create a new Stalinist leadership out of the remnants of the former factions around Browder. This leadership survived solely by supporting every twist and turn of international Kremlin policy.

The Stalinization of the American Communist Party was not a matter simply of the degeneration of a healthy Marxist party. It was rather a process of deformation of a party at a very early stage of developing into a Marxist party. The challenge facing the few Marxists who emerged from the CP in 1928 was not to go back to the healthy days of the early CP. It was rather to begin again, on the basis of the CP’s early work, the task of creating a Marxist party, a task not yet completed in even an elementary form in the United States.

James P. Cannon

It is very important for the purposes of this study that we pay special attention to one particular figure in the early CP, James P. Cannon. While the other leaders disappeared from American radical politics or played the despicable role of tools of the Kremlin, Cannon was to play an important part in the continuing struggle to create a Marxist party after the Stalinization of the CI.

Jim Cannon was an American-born radical from that great homeland of agrarian radicalism, Kansas. His father had been successively a supporter of the Knights of Labor, the Populists, the Bryanites, and then the Socialist Party. Cannon joined the IWW and received within the IWW his basic training in the class struggle. The IWW experience taught him two basic things. First and foremost was his deep confidence in the revolutionary potentiality of the American working class. Second was an understanding of the necessity to organise the class into an effective revolutionary instrument to battle the capitalists. This he felt at the time could be done simply with the IWW’s One Big Union.

It is easy to understand the tremendous attraction the Russian Revolution had for Cannon and why he thus became a part of the left wing in the SP, which soon emerged as a Communist Party. What is more critical, however, is exactly what concretely Cannon learned from the Russian Revolution.

Interestingly Cannon’s own writings in the 1950s, in which he reminisces over his own past and the past history of American radicalism, reveal the essential lessons which Cannon, as well as others drew from the Russian experience. Cannon’s long essay on Debs shows this very clearly.[3] In a section entitled “Debs and Lenin” he contrasts the two leaders to show what he feels was the greatest weakness in pre-war American radicalism, expressing itself even in the greatest leader of the pre-war period — Debs. Lenin, by contrast, illustrates for Cannon that essential new element which he and others learned from the Russian experience — that essential new ingredient which he added to his outlook when joining the Communist Party. Lenin’s great contribution was the disciplined combat vanguard party, what Cannon called “Lenin’s theory of the party”.[4] The same essential point is made in his companion essay on the IWW.[5]

There is, of course, no question of the extreme importance of this lesson if it is really understood. The victory of October was made possible by the kind of party Lenin struggled to create for fifteen years. But this involves far more than a “theory of the party”. To Lenin the organisational form of the party was at every moment directly related to the theoretical development of that party. It was precisely Lenin’s great struggle for Marxist method and theory which made possible the creation of a party capable of overthrowing capitalism. Lenin’s specific theory of party organisation was but one part of his whole theoretical outlook.

Cannon, and most others in the early CP as well, did not understand this. They responded empirically to the Russian experience and sought to abstract from this experience a useful implement with which to overturn capitalism in the US. To Cannon this implement was the disciplined combat party. So now he was equipped with three essentials — his deep understanding of the revolutionary potential of American workers, his conviction of the need to organise these workers into a fighting class organisation on the economic front, and his recognition of the additional need of a disciplined party to lead the workers in the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

Essentially Cannon’s role in the Communist Party flowed from this outlook. He was from the very beginning in battle for the interests of the native American section of the party as against the foreign-born federations. He played an important role in the fight to bring the party out of its self-imposed underground existence and to begin to develop serious work in the class. He joined in a common faction with Foster in a battle for a line of work in the United States which reflected existing American realities and to gain control of the party apparatus for the “trade unionist” elements within the party.

The primary concern of Cannon from the moment he joined the party until the moment he was expelled in 1928 was the American question. His task, as he saw it, was to keep the party in touch with American realities and to struggle to build the party as an organisation. Cannon never evinced any interest in the great questions of Marxist theory and politics which occupied the major attention of the Communist International in this period. The basic political positions of the movement and its international line and analysis was something to be produced for the party by the CI. The task of the Americans was to accept this as given and to proceed with the practical work of building an organisation in this country. Thus the only questions upon which Cannon was to form definite opinions and fight for were the tactical questions which came out of the American situation. On these questions he had strong opinions — and by and large he was right.

In 1923, at a time when the fight with Ruthenberg-Pepper-Lovestone was just beginning, Cannon made a characteristic statement of his attitude towards Marxist theory.

The American movement has no counterpart anywhere else in the world, and any attempt to meet its problems by the simple process of finding a European analogy will not succeed. The key to the American problem can only be found in a thorough examination of the peculiar American situation. Our Marxian outlook, confirmed by the history of the movement in Europe, provides us with some general principles to go by, but there is no pattern, made to order from European experience, that fits America today.[6]

Of course Cannon was absolutely right in criticising those, like Pepper, who sought to impose in a mechanical fashion a European experience on the United States. But he was dead wrong when he saw Marxism as only “some general principles to go by”. Marxism is essentially a scientific method of understanding reality so as to enable us to change reality — American reality as much as European reality. Marxism is neither the imposition of mechanistic formulas on an unknown reality nor is it an unconscious and empirical absorption of that reality unguided by a real understanding of theory.

Virtually no one in the American party, least of all Cannon. either understood or was really interested in the great struggles going on within the CI and the Bolshevik party — struggles affecting all the most important issues of revolutionary politics of the day and in fact of all time. Cannon, like the rest of them, was concerned only to the extent that these struggles affected the American party and most specifically the struggles of his own faction within the party. In fact William Z. Foster was to show greater resistance to the Stalinization of the CI than Cannon — though, of course, only in an empirical way. In 1925 the Foster-Cannon faction split into two factions precisely over this issue. When Stalin had manoeuvred to remove the Foster-Cannon faction from control of the CP, Foster wished to protest this. Cannon insisted that the faction accept and support the CI decision without protest, hoping to get CI endorsement at a later date. On this issue the faction split and Cannon formed his separate faction.

In 1927 when Stalin was preparing his “left” turn and struggle against Bukharin, the Red Trade Union International sought to impose on the Americans a sectarian “dual” trade union line. Foster once again rebelled and Cannon once again supported the International and flailed at Foster.

There was, however, a certain difference in the nature of the Foster and Cannon groups, in addition to this question of loyalty to Stalin, which it is important to note. Basically Foster and those who supported him were trade unionists first and foremost and Communists in the second place. The party, to them, was simply a vehicle to advance their trade union work. Cannon, on the other hand, had developed beyond this level in becoming a Communist. This lesson of the importance of the party organisation, if not understood theoretically, had been assimilated practically deep into his outlook. His supporters within the CP tended to include more organisers and party apparatus men than was the case with Foster. This, of course, explains in part his greater concern as against Foster for the decisions of the CI.

All commentators, including Cannon himself, testify to the fact that Cannon’s support to Trotsky came as a deep shock to all in the CP. In no way had the party been prepared for it. In this sense Cannon’s evolution contrasted even with that of Maurice Spector[7] in the Canadian party. Spector had had doubts over the evolution of the situation in the Bolshevik party since 1923-24 and these doubts were well known within the Canadian organisation. This was not the case with Cannon, who had shown neither interest in this great dispute nor independence from the Kremlin.

Shachtman, certainly not an unprejudiced judge of Cannon, claims that Cannon’s adherence to Trotskyism was purely “accidental”.[8] This, of course, leads us nowhere — for instance, we could only conclude that Shachtman’s own adherence to Trotskyism was an accidental response to Cannon’s accident for he had no pre-history on this question either. Cannon’s own explanation of his conversion also is not totally satisfactory. Interestingly, Theodore Draper, the painstaking historian of the early CP, was not overly satisfied with Cannon’s account as he probed Cannon once again on the question several years after his first discussions with him on it.[9]

Cannon claimed a certain dissatisfaction with the whole trend of the International before 1928, a certain unexnressed doubt. Then, when he accidentally saw a copy of Trotsky’s critique of the program of the CI,[10] he suddenly saw the light and agreed with every word of it and remained a convinced Trotskyist thereafter.[11]

There can be no doubt that by 1927 Cannon was very much in a blind alley inside the Communist Party. Against the will of the majority of the party he and Foster had twice been denied their rightful place in the leadership of the party. His personal experience with Foster since 1925 had not been overly friendly and he had almost as much to fear from a party run by Foster as he had from one run by Lovestone. By 1927 it was becoming increasingly clear that whoever was to finally end up in control of the CP it was not to be Cannon and his group. In many ways his whole life work had come to a dead end. Instinctively he turned away from preoccupation with the factional struggle and devoted himself to mass work. Only the persistent pressure of his co-factionalists got him to attend the Sixth Congress of the CI in 1928 in the first place.

So he came to Moscow a disillusioned man in many respects. His struggle to create an American revolutionary movement seemed constantly to be thwarted — and it was in Moscow that the major problem always was. Cannon reports that Trotsky’s document “hit us like a thunderbolt”.[12]

But Cannon never explains exactly what in the document hit home with him. This is why his own account of his conversion raises so many questions in one’s mind. The document is a very fundamental critique of Communist strategy and tactics since the death of Lenin. A large section is devoted to the Chinese Revolution, a question Cannon is not known to have shown the slightest interest in previous to this moment. No, we can see no reason why the discovery of Stalin’s errors on China should strike Cannon, the American radical personified, in such a way.

We feel it was that essential thesis of Trotsky’s whole analysis — the conflict between Stalin’s doctrine of socialism in one country and the struggles of Communists in other lands to overthrow capitalism — which went right to the heart of Cannon’s whole being, which touched all that was fine and healthy in Cannon and in American radicalism as a whole.[13] Now he could finally understand why his own efforts to create an American revolutionary party always went aground in international seas. Why Lovestone was forced upon the American party, why policies which hindered rather than helped the party’s work in this country were supported by the Cl — this all was now clear to him. Having no future within the party but having a deep conviction of the need to create a revolutionary party in the United States, his siding with Trotsky is understandable.

Cannon’s break with the Stalinized CP was no more prepared for by Cannon’s own theoretical development prior to 1928 than the formation of the CP in 1919 was prepared for by the prior theoretical development of the American revolutionists who initiated that venture. Having only four or five years of collaboration with a healthy international force the early communists were unable to create a real Marxist party in the United States. They learned much from the Russians but they did not learn that essential thing — the need to break from American empiricism and to develop a movement with a vital theoretical life and a real understanding of Marxist method. Cannon’s break was to give the American communists another chance to go to school with the Russians — this time Trotsky — and to learn what they did not learn in the earlier period. It was not a matter of maintaining a lost orthodoxy from an earlier period. This time the American communists needed to make a qualitative advance over the whole past history of American radicalism by definitively breaking with empiricism — the method of thought of their own ruling class. They could have found no better teacher and guide in this project than Trotsky. That, fundamentally, was the real challenge facing the American Trotskyists in 1928.

American Trotskyism with Trotsky

The division of labor emerges

The first five years of the American Trotskyist movement was a very difficult period, especially for the kind of people who made up the leadership and leading cadre of the movement. Cannon was a trained mass worker who was also very adept at organisational building work. Many of Cannon’s followers and collaborators were like him in training. But the first period of the movement was not a period where much mass work could be done and it was not even a period where much of an organisation could be built. It was a period which required intensive study of theory and a propagandistic struggle for program in and around the Communist Party. Cannon’s two major collaborators, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, were a little better equipped for this kind of work. Shachtman’s abilities lay in the literary field. He could do a presentable job of putting forth even complex theoretical and political questions in a journalistic fashion — a very useful thing in a propagandistic period. Abern was an administrator like Cannon, but lacking Cannon’s background in mass work. He was always a small-time administrator, particularly adept at working in the small circle-type existence forced upon the early movement.

While Shachtman and Abern, both quite young men at the time, fared quite well under these adverse circumstances, it was all very demoralising for Cannon. He was very much like a fish out of water, and this feeling comes through very clearly in his History of American Trotskyism.[14] What a tremendous relief it must have been for him when a new kind of activity began to open up for the movement in 1933! In 1929 and 1930, however, Cannon played less and less of a role in the movement. In fact he simply disappeared from the organisation for close to a year during this time. Shachtman and Abern began to fashion their own regime without Cannon.

But Cannon soon revived in spirits and came back into the organisation actively. This led to a big factional battle between Cannon, supported by the Minneapolis comrades and others, against Shachtman and Abern, who were not inclined to hand the regime back to Cannon voluntarily. It was necessary for Trotsky to intervene in this early dispute — which lacked completely any political or theoretical basis — in order to achieve a new working relationship between Cannon, Shachtman and Abern. Shachtman and Cannon in particular were able to arrive at a working relationship which was to dominate the central leadership of the party until 1939 and which contributed a good deal to the stability and growth of the party. Abern on the other hand soon retreated into his oppositional clique politics, forming unprincipled blocs with every major opposition group for the next eight years or so.

Trotsky’s role in this early but important factional struggle is of some interest. He adamantly refused to support any organisational struggle against Cannon based simply upon complaints about his “regime”. Shachtman himself testifies to this lack of support.[15] This is not to say that Trotsky was uncritical of Cannon in those days nor that his goal was to defend Cannon against every adversary. Rather he sought to bring about as much as possible a collective leadership fusing the various forces which made up the early American Trotskyist movement.

In particular Trotsky was critical of Cannon’s tendency to utilise organisational methods in dealing with political problems. Trotsky felt Cannon tended to respond too quickly in a factional way to oppositional formations rather than in a patient political way, seeking to educate the cadres. In a letter to Farrell Dobbs in 1940 he refers back to this old difference with Cannon and others in the movement: “our own sections inherited some Comintern venom in the sense that many comrades are inclined to the abuse of such measures as expulsion, splits or threat of expulsions and splits. In the case of Molinier and in the case of some American comrades (Field, Weisbord and some others) I was for a more patient attitude”.[16]

Trotsky was also well aware of Cannon’s weaknesses in the field of theoretical development. Shachtman reports in the following manner on Trotsky’s assessment of Cannon in this regard:

As he indicated to some of the critics, it was necessary to understand that Cannon was a product of the American labour and revolutionary movements as they have developed in their own social and historical environment; that if he had some of the shortcomings of these movements he also had their virtues; and that he would be superseded by a superior leadership not as a result of a factional fight in which opponents would win a numerical majority, but only when the class struggle in the United States would lift the proletariat to a higher level and lift out of itself leaders who in turn stood on a higher level. These views, carefully reflected in some of his writings on the factional struggles in the American movement, were rather objective but somewhat philosophical.[17]

Shachtman is, of course, anything but an unbiased observer as far as Cannon is concerned. That Trotsky took a critical approach toward Cannon in this period, especially on his organisational operations, is generally known throughout the SWP today and no one denies this. Furthermore, as we shall see, this assessment of Cannon in the early period is completely consistent with the kind of approach Trotsky was to take towards Cannon in later years. Above all it was a correct assessment of Cannon and not at all the kind of approach Shachtman was to take towards Cannon at a later period.

By 1932 a clear national and international division of labour had been worked out by the American Trotskyists. This division of labour was to have a deep impact on the whole future evolution of the movement and shows very clearly the approach of the American Trotskyists to theory and method. First and foremost was the division of labour between the American party and Trotsky. Trotsky supplied the basic theoretical and strategic outlook for the organisation. It was Trotsky who assessed the developments within the USSR and within the Communist International. It was Trotsky who analysed the German events and other important international developments in the period. It was Trotsky who initiated the turn away from the Communist International and towards the formation of a Fourth International in 1933. But, even more striking, it was Trotsky who initiated the major tactical turns within the United States — such as a merger with the American Workers Party and the entry into the Socialist Party.

The 1928-1933 period was a period where political and theoretical training was most important. No matter how hard the comrades may have tried to break out of isolation they could not have succeeded. But they could and should have developed themselves theoretically so as to prepare for future openings. In a sense they did do this. That is, they went to school with Trotsky and learned from Trotsky many things that were useful to them in the next period. In this sense this international division of labour was extremely useful to the American Trotskyists. They learned from Trotsky much as the early American Communists had learned from the Comintern and the Russians. But the relationship never went beyond a teacher-pupil form. While the American Trotskyists learned from Trotsky they did not participate in the international theoretical development of the Trotskyist movement as contributors in their own right. But without this kind of relationship there is a very severe limit upon how much one can learn. This is because the inability to contribute to the teaching process itself is a sign that one has not really absorbed the method of Marxism itself — one has not internalised this method.

Within the American organisation there was another division of labour paralleling in miniature the international division of labour. Cannon himself describes it this way:

Shachtman and Burnham were by no means mere ornaments in the Political Committee. They were the editors of the magazine and of the paper, and they did practically all of the literary work. There was a division of labour between them and me, whereby I took care of the organizational and trade union direction, administration and finances — and all the rest of the chores that intellectuals don’t like to bother with as a rule — and they did the writing, most of it. And when they were on the right line they wrote very well, as you know.[18]

Cannon contributed nothing to the development of theory in this whole long period of essentially theoretical and propagandistic work, and in fact he contributed very little to putting theory forward in a propagandistic way. Just as in the Communist Party he left theory to others. In the late 1920s it was Bittleman who wrote the basic political programmatic statements of the opposition bloc; in the early thirties it was Shachtman and those close to him who wrote them for the American Trotskyists.

As far as writing was concerned Cannon viewed himself as an “agitator”. In the field of popularising socialist ideas in a way that they are readily understandable to workers Cannon had no equal. His book, Notebook of an Agitator[19], is a testimony to this ability and deserves to be studied as a guide in this kind of writing, always needed in a movement which really seeks to reach workers. But there is almost nothing in this book, which covers the whole span of Cannon’s career from the CP until recent times, of a deeper, even propagandistic nature. Also absent from the book are any writings at all for this 1928-1933 period. This was not a period conducive to agitational writing and activity and therefore Cannon had little or nothing to say.

But Shachtman and other intellectuals in the party did not develop beyond Cannon theoretically. While they utilised their literary gifts to popularise Trotsky’s ideas in the United States, they too, simply took their ideas from Trotsky. They were never able to go beyond this task and eventually abandoned Marxism. Furthermore, they lacked Cannon’s deep working-class orientation and perspective, based on his many years of experience and struggle in the American working class.

It was this strength of Cannon’s which lay behind his actual break from Stalinism and the very birth of the Trotskyist movement in the United States. It was because of this strength that the working-class cadres of the movement always supported him. The history of the American Trotskyist movement was to be a test of whether this conviction in the revolutionary potentialities of the American working class by itself was enough.

The early American Trotskyist movement was thus a composite of Trotsky, the creator of its theoretical and political outlook; Cannon, the continuator of American revolutionary traditions and the administrator; and Shachtman, the skilled propagandist of Trotsky’s ideas. It was not simply Cannon’s party — it was also Trotsky’s party and to some extent Shachtman’s party. Most important of all there was no real fusion of these separate forces. Trotsky did his best to bring about such a fusion. He collaborated extensively with all the leaders of the party and learned much from them about American conditions. He intervened to bring about a collaboration between the two sections of the organisation represented by Cannon and Shachtman. But Cannon was content to take his basic political line as something given to him from abroad, and devoted his energies to building an organization around that political line. Shachtman translated Trotsky from the Russian and propagated his ideas. Within the party Cannon left literary tasks to Shachtman, and Shachtman was content with this, involving himself little in the work of the party in the class and learning little from this work. Collaboration is one thing and fusion is another. The early American party was essentially a series of blocs internally and externally.

The great opportunity

While the first five years of the Trotskyist movement were extremely difficult ones, with severe limits set by the objective situation, the next seven years were to be marked by continual and growing opportunities for the growth and development of the movement. Thus the objective conditions for the solution of the very deep problems of the movement were certainly present. It is one thing to struggle for Marxist clarity under conditions of deep isolation from the masses and quite another to struggle for Marxist clarity under conditions of serious involvement in the mass movement. The openings for the organisation began with the debacle of the Comintern’s policies in Germany in 1933 and with the rise of Hitler to power. Soon after this negative vindication of Trotsky’s line came a number of openings to our comrades in the mass movement. Combined with the growing involvement of the party in the mass movement were the serious leftward-moving trends in centrist circles in the United States. Thus the party had the opportunity to simultaneously deepen its work in the class and win over already radicalised forces. The winning over of these radical forces would both strengthen its trade union work and add new intellectual forces to the party.

The most important development of all in the class struggle was the leadership given by Trotskyists to the great Minneapolis teamsters’ strike in 1934. This important class action played an important role in preparing the American working class for its next great step — the organisation of the industrial working class in the United States in the CIO. Just as importantly, it showed in the concrete the kind of leadership revolutionaries could give to the class struggle and raised the prestige of the Trotskyist movement in the eyes of the American workers and radicals. The ability of the American organisation to carry out this great action can be attributed to its heritage of American radicalism and what it learned from Trotsky in the preceding five years. It was a tribute to all that was healthy in American Trotskyism and in the Cannon section of the party in particular.

The fusion with the Musteites (the American Workers Party) was of no less importance in the development of the organisation. The Musteites had led that other great class action in the period just prior to the birth of the CIO %#151; the Toledo Autolite strike. This fusion brought additional working-class cadres into the organisation. It also brought intellectuals into the party, not the least talented being James Burnham. Thus in the case of the Musteite fusion a political move towards another radical organisation strengthened rather than detracted from the work of the party in the mass movement. In this case, regroupment was not a substitute for mass work but rather a way to deepen it.

At the same time the work of the party among the youth was also developing. The youth organisation, called the Spartacist Youth League, had begun on a modest scale in 1932 and by 1934 was showing real signs of growth. In the beginning its orientation was almost totally towards the members of the Young Communist League. By 1934 it was devoting more attention to student work and to centrist and social-democratic youth. Flushed with the success of the merger with the Musteites, and urged on by Trotsky, the American Trotskyists prepared their entry into the Socialist Party. However, in certain important respects the SP entry was carried out in a more confused way than the Musteite merger. In the first place, little time had elapsed in order to assimilate the forces which had just entered the organisation through the Musteite fusion. Thus a section of these forces, joined with Oehler in opposing the entry and finally broke with the movement over this question. Others who stayed with the organisation undoubtedly had a rahter vague concept of exactly what revolutionary politics were. There is no doubt that this struggle against the Oehlerites assisted the development of the cadres, however, both those coming from the Trotskyist and those from the Musteite organisation. Essentially, the Oehlerite struggle was a rebellion of the propaganda circle “revolutionaries” against the whole new dynamic politics of the Trotskyist movement. While it reflected itself in a sectarian opposition to entry, it was in reality a fight against the turn of the Trotskyists towards real political intervention and growth in the class itself. But it was not a clean sweep — many “propagandists” remained in the party. Most notable were the Abernites, who first supported Oehler and then backed away as the split was carried through. But there were many others and there can be no doubt of the rahter diffuse and immature nature of the Trotskyist forces at the time of the SP entry. In the second place, while the Musteite unity took place almost simultaneously with important work in the class and greatly strengthened that work, the SP entry became such a dominant aspect of the organisation’s work that the most important development in the American working class was virtually ignored in the American party. This is how Cannon himself later assessed it: “Except in a few localities, we let the great movement of the CIO pass over our heads.”[20] This was no minor error, for the CIO was the most fundamental step taken by the American working class in its modern history. It is true that the Trotskyist movement was later to develop considerable influence inside CIO unions. True, many workers were recruited out of the SP, with facilitated this. Buter there is still no getting around the fact that failure to be in on the ground floor of the creation of the CIO seriously hindered our work for many, many years to come and greatly facilitated the Stalinists’ gaining their stranglehold over such a large part of the CIO. The CIO, this not unimportant aspect of the American question, was simply not fully understood by the American Trotskyists at the time.

In the third place, the entry was carried on in a manner which greatly facilitated adaptation to centrist currents within the SP. So much emphasis was put on reaching centrists within the SP that during the initial period of entry no factional organisation of Trotskyists was maintained at all. After a while many comrades began to settle down to a more or less permanent existence as an oppositional current within the SP. Trotsky documents this in his important article, From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene in In Defence of Marxism. On May 25, 1937, he wrote: “I must cite two recent documents: (a) the private letter of ‘Max’ about the convention, and (b) Shachtman’s article, ‘Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party’. The title of this article alone characterises a false perspective. It seems to me established by the developments, including the last convention, that the party is evolving, not into a ‘revolutionary’ party, but into a kind of ILP, that is, a miserable centrist political abortion without any perspective.”[21]

While this attack is directed specifically against Shachtman, there is no evidence that Cannon objected to Shachtman’s political position at the time. Cannon himself admits this in his History when he states: “There is no doubt at all that the leaders of our movement adapted themselves a little too much to the centrist officialdom of the Socialist Party.”[22] In fact there is every indication that it was Trotsky’s initiative which hardened up the faction inside the SP to the point where it was able to resist disintegration and to split from the SP in one piece. Cannon reports that Trotsky rejected their suggestions that they bow before the right wing to gain time so as not to jeopardise the Dewey Commission work. He goes on to state: “Trotsky encouraged us and even incited us to go forward to meet their challenge and not permit them to push us any further for fear it might lead to disintegration of our own ranks, demoralisation of the people whom we had led that far along the road.”[23]
Without this kind of intervention by Trotsky it is doubtful just how much of the American Trotskyist forces would have survived this entry tactic. The need for such intervention was a sign that the development of the American Trotskyist movement was far, far from complete in this period, that a tremendous educational task lay ahead of it.

The American Trotskyist movement, when it emerged from the SP as the Socialist Workers Party, was in appearance a very impressive organisation. It had gained a sizeable trade union cadre and had important fractions in major unions. It had a number of qualified intellectuals and a very large intellectual periphery, particularly around the publication Partisan Review. It had a sizeable youth organisation, in fact the majority of the former Socialist Party youth. It had all the human elements needed for the creation of a real Marxist movement in the United States for the first time in history.

Yet in less than two years from its emergence from the Socialist Party it was to enter into a deep crisis, a crisis which almost destroyed the organisation. While there is no doubt that the objective situation contributed to this crisis it is completely wrong to blame the objective situation for the depth of the crisis. The Socialist Workers Party of 1938 could not have been all it seemed.

In actual fact there had been little qualitative development in the period since 1933. Each component of the party had expanded quantitatively, but no component had developed qualitatively, and they still bore the same relationship to each other and to Trotsky. Cannon was joined by hundreds of working-class cadres, and his faith in the potential of the American workers was reinforced by constant day-to-day contact with the class. Shachtman was joined by intellectuals of the calibre of Burnham, people like Dwight McDonald, and many, many lesser-known younger intellectuals. The youth organisation had expanded tremendously and was now an important factor in the party, though it remained largely a student youth.

However, a qualitative fusion was far from occurring. The workers lacked any real theoretical development and, further, their native American hostility to theory was strengthened by the anti-intellectual prejudices which had long been deeply ingrained in the Cannon section of the party. They were all fine, class-conscious trade union militants, but they were far from being real Bolsheviks. The intellectuals in the party kept their distance from the workers and by and large travelled in their own circles. They felt themselves a part of the general intellectual stratum — the most radical part thereof — rather than an integral part of a working-class party. The youth were largely young intellectuals recruited from the campuses or out of the SP, which in turn had recruited them from the campuses. These young people, no doubt very sincere in their revolutionary convictions, had a political life separate from the workers in the party and made no real attempt to integrate themselves in a working-class party.

As the party continued to be made up a series of blocs internally, so externally the basic bloc with Trotsky was maintained by all the constituents. The intellectuals promulgated his ideas in a literary fashion and Cannon built an organisation around them. But independent theoretical development was as absent in this period as it had been in the previous period. No one can point to a single theoretical contribution made by any member of the SWP in this period.

There was also one important difference. Trotsky was now in Mexico. He was able to meet with a good cross-section of the party’s leading cadre and to devote a good deal of thought to the development of the party. From 1937 on Trotsky was to watch the party much, much more closely and to develop a critical attitude towards all sections of it. This struggle on Trotsky’s part to educate the SWP, to prepare it for serious qualitative development, was to continue right up to the time of his death.

The great crisis

The 1940 struggle with the Shachtman-Burnham-Abern minority was the most important internal struggle in which Trotsky participated in his battle to create the Fourth International. At stake was the very survival of the SWP. Considering the SWP’s prominent place in the Fourth International at that time, its survival was closely linked to the survival of the Fourth International itself.

The 1940 struggle had been prepared by the previous twelve-year history of the American Trotskyist movement. The old internal blocs broke down and the groups turned on each other. Trotsky had to bloc with the healthiest force in the party and struggle against a bloc which could, and almost did, destroy the movement itself. The failures of the past 12 years created conditions in which such a crisis could occur. The strengths of the movement over the past 12 years allowed for the beginnings of a progressive solution to that crisis. It is important that we evaluate both the strengths and the failures.

In late 1939 the Shachtman-Cannon bloc broke down. Shachtman was impressionistically caught up in a petty-bourgeois reaction to the Soviet invasion of Finland. Abandoning all pretence of Marxist method he united in a faction with Burnham and Abern. This faction rallied the bulk of the petty-bourgeois elements in the party and was in fact a reaction to the panic of the petty-bourgeoisie as a whole as the war approached. This was no small force in the party. As the convention approached, Cannon was not at all sure if he could carry the majority. As it was he carried only 60 per cent of the organisation, and if one counts the non-party youth the organisation was split right down the middle. The Shachtman-Burnham-Abern faction was the result of the failure of the party as a whole to absorb its petty-bourgeois elements organically into the party.

In opposition to Shachtman-Burnham-Abern, Cannon mobilised the overwhelming bulk of the party’s working-class cadres. But these cadres by themselves were incapable of waging an effective battle against the petty-bourgeois opposition. It was necessary for that other critical factor of the bloc that formed the SWP to intervene — Trotsky. This time Trotsky intervened as he had never intervened in an internal dispute before. The entire polemic on the majority side was waged by Trotsky himself. It was Trotsky who worked out the analysis of the Finnish and Polish events. It was Trotsky who analysed the very nature of the opposition and showed its class roots. And above all it was Trotsky who turned the discussion around the most fundamental of all axes — the question of method.

Cannon delivered a speech on the Russian question but this was no more than a restatement of Trotsky’s position. Cannon wrote a lengthy piece on the organisation question but this did not add anything new that could not be found in Trotsky’s own comments on that question during the polemics.[24] No, the political, theoretical and methodological struggle was conducted by Trotsky and by Trotsky alone. Cannon and his supporters simply advocated the positions initiated by Trotsky.

Many have pictured the struggle in 1940 as essentially a struggle over the Russian question. Certainly the Shachtmanites always liked to look at it that way. Many in the Trotskyist movement also see it in that light. However, even a cursory reading of In Defence of Marxism puts a different light on it. The struggle went far, far deeper than the Russian question. It was essentially a struggle in defence of the Marxist method itself. The defence of the Marxist method fell on the shoulders of Trotsky and Trotsky alone. No one else in the party saw this as the critical question in the beginning and no one else was in the least prepared to defend Marxist method.

Viewed within this framework the real significance of the 1940 struggle can be seen. Essentially the 1940 struggle was produced by the failure of the SWP as a whole to develop Marxist theory through an understanding of the Marxist method itself. This failure in method reflected itself in different ways through the different constituents which made up the party. One section of the party developed this failure of method into a factional program pitted against the program of the Fourth International. That was the petty-bourgeois section. Another section, the working-class section of the party, was instinctively repelled by the political course of the petty-bourgeois faction but was incapable itself of countering this course theoretically or really understanding it methodologically. This task fell to Trotsky.

Trotsky made clear this distinction between the weaknesses and errors of the majority and the systematic revisionism of the minority. He wrote in a letter to Joseph Hansen: “In my article I admitted that on different questions the Majority comrades could have shared the errors of Shachtman but they never made a system of them, they never transformed them into a factional platform. And that is the whole question.”[25]

Trotsky’s deep shock at the extent of the basic educational work he had to carry out on the ABC of Marxism comes through in much of his writings of this period. He wrote in From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene, explaining his raising of the question of method:

The character of the differences which have risen to the surface has only confirmed my former fears both in regard to the social composition of the party and in regard to the theoretical education of the cadres. There was nothing that required a change of mind or ‘artificial’ introduction. This is how matters stand in actuality. Let me also add that I feel somewhat abashed over the fact that it is almost necessary to justify coming out in defence of Marxism within one of the sections of the Fourth International.[26]

In a letter to Cannon, the leader of the majority, he goes even further:

Yesterday I sent the Russian text of my new article written in the form of a letter to Burnham. Not all comrades possibly are content with the fact that I give such a prominent place in the discussion to the matter of dialectics. But I am sure it is now the only way to begin the theoretical education of the party, especially of the youth, and to inject a reversion (sic) to empiricism and eclectics.[27]

Note that Trotsky anticipates resistance to a discussion on dialectics from, the majority comrades (this is a private letter to the majority leader) and also note that he speaks of beginning the theoretical education of the party — after 12 years of existence as a movement Trotsky must speak of beginning its theoretical education.

In order to understand exactly how the SWP reached such a point as this we must go back and trace the relationship of the various constituents of the SWP with Trotsky during that critical period of Trotsky’s close collaboration with the SWP, starting with his coming to Mexico in 1937. We will try to learn both how Trotsky assessed these constituents and what he proposed should have been done to prevent the kind of situation which evolved in 1940. Trotsky’s analysis of his relationship with the petty-bourgeois section of the party is well documented in his article From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene, and we will therefore only sketch this briefly here. Trotsky’s relationship with the Cannon group in the party is not as well known or as clearly put forward, and to this aspect we therefore devote more space.

It will become clear that while one section of the party had developed “gangrene” the rest of the party was far from unscratched. The sickness which necessitated the 1940 amputation was a sickness of the party’s body as a whole. However, it had developed by 1940 to a point in one part of the party where surgery was necessary so that one could continue to struggle to cure the body as a whole.

Trotsky and the intellectuals

The great crisis of 1940 was prepared by the previous history of the party — was the natural outgrowth of its weaknesses. Trotsky’s assessment of the petty-bourgeois elements in the party comes out clearly in In Defence of Marxism. Trotsky details his patient efforts over a span of three years to properly orient the intellectual elements in the party.

This process began appropriately enough with his arrival in Mexico in 1937, He reports: “It would not be amiss, therefore, to refer to the fact that my first serious conversation with Comrades Shachtman and Warde, in the train immediately after my arrival in Mexico in January 1937, was devoted to the necessity of persistently propagating dialectical materialism.”[28] Seventeen years earlier Lenin had raised the same question with another revolutionary intellectual, Louis C. Fraina, with unfortunately similar results. Following this discussion there is no sign that either Warde, who ended up supporting Cannon, or Shachtman, did anything to educate the party on questions of method.

In the 1937 and 1938 period Trotsky wrote to Shachtman repeatedly concerning the growing attention given by the SWP to petty-bourgeois intellectuals who were obviously not serious revolutionists. He urged the SWP to develop some kind of working-class defence work in connection with the Dewey Commission investigation of the Moscow trials but this was not done. He warned against devoting so much space in the New International to people like Eastman, Hook, and Lyons, and the friendly tone taken towards such people in the magazine. In 1939 he wrote his famous letter to Shachtman protesting against the Shachtman-Burnham article “Intellectuals in Retreat”, in which Burnham declared his opposition to dialectics and Shachtman declared his indifference to Burnham’s opposition.

On all these points Trotsky was hitting at the essential weakness of the intellectual section of the SWP. This section saw itself as a part of the American intellectual community rather than as an integrated part of the proletarian revolutionary party. The indifference or actual opposition to dialectics was part of the dues these intellectuals needed to pay in order to be part of this community. As long as they used the same basic method as the Hooks, Eastmans and Lyons, then they spoke the same language, were part of the same community. The development of the SWP as a Marxist party required the breaking of these intellectuals methodologically from the basic empiricist method of the American intelligentsia.

It also required a more personal, subjective kind of break. The intellectuals needed to break from the petty-bourgeois circles and life and to integrate themselves personally in a working-class party. They needed to learn how to talk to workers, how to recruit workers, how to be an integral part of a working-class party. Trotsky wrote to Cannon especially on this question time and time again in the period from 1937 to 1940 but to no avail. Trotsky’s appreciation of Cannon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party was undoubtedly based in large part on Cannon’s strong emphasis on this point.[29]

Over the years there has developed a simplified myth of Trotsky’s attitude towards the role of intellectuals in the party. Trotsky is seen as taking a totally negative attitude toward intellectuals because of their petty-bourgeois background and conversely taking a totally uncritical attitude towards party members of proletarian origins. A close reading of Trotsky’s writing shows nothing could be further from the truth. He valued the intellectual elements in the SWP most highly and made great efforts to facilitate their development.

He notes:

After our American section split from the Socialist Party I insisted most strongly on the earliest possible publication of a theoretical organ, having again in mind the need to educate the party, first and foremost its new members, in the spirit of dialectic materialism. In the United States, I wrote at the time, where the bourgeoisie systematically instils vulgar empiricism in the workers, more than anywhere else is it necessary to speed the elevation of the movement to a proper theoretical level.[30]

He viewed it as the task of the intellectuals to facilitate the general theoretical development of the proletarian section of the party. The proletarian section of the party, though prepared for rapid theoretical development by its actual position in capitalist society, would not develop theoretically if simply left alone. Thus he stated: “It is precisely the party’s penetration into the trade unions, and into the workers’ milieu in general that demands heightening the theoretical qualification of our cadres. I do not mean by cadres the ‘apparatus’; but the party as a whole.”[31] And further: “If the proletarian section of our American party is ‘politically backward’, then the first task of those who are ‘advanced’; should have consisted in raising the workers to a higher level. But why has the present opposition failed to find its way to these workers?[32]

So concerned was he about the role which this section of the movement could play in the development of the party that in the middle of the discussion itself he wrote to Shachtman: “I believe that you are on the wrong side of the barricades, my dear friend. … If I had the possibility I would immediately take an airplane to New York City in order to discuss with you for 48 or 72 hours uninterruptedly.”[33]

Thus Trotsky’s approach towards the intellectuals in the party was clear. He wished to instil in these young people the seriousness of the revolutionary struggle and the need to integrate themselves into a proletarian movement. He sought to integrate them into the party by breaking them from the method of the petty bourgeoisie and fusing them in the concrete with the proletarian section of the party. Such a fusion would have facilitated with great rapidity the theoretical development of the party as a whole. Instead these intellectuals deepened their split, both with the method of Marxism and with the proletarian section of the party. Trotsky had no other course but to deepen his break with them and to hope that the struggle would lead to a development of the healthy section of the party which was willing to combat this desertion of Marxism.

Trotsky and the youth

Material on Trotsky’s approach to the youth movement is not as easily documented as his relations with the older intellectual strata in the party. However, its general outlines are clear. Throughout this 1937-1940 period Trotsky actively sought to counter what he saw as an unserious, dilettante spirit in the Trotskyist youth organisation. He wished to instill in these young people the seriousness of the revolutionary struggle and the need to integrate themselves into a proletarian movement. He sought to break these students and young petty-bourgeois from their milieu and transform them from radical students into proletarian revolutionaries.

A turning point in this whole process was the resolution on the youth question at the Founding Convention of the Fourth International in 1938.[34] This resolution, which was in the tradition of the early days of the Young Communist International, [35] sought to orientate Trotskyist youth towards the problems of the young workers and the unemployed workers in particular. Following this convention the YPSL Fourth (as the Trotskyist youth organisation was known in that period) devoted considerably more attention in its publication, Challenge of Youth, to the problems of young workers.[36]
However, this attention was clearly of an artificial journalistic nature, and very little concrete work was done by the young Trotskyists among working-class youth. Thus this whole vital, dynamic section of the American proletariat went largely untouched in this period. This itself had a serious negative effect on the SWP.

Following this Trotsky urged several measures on the YPSL Fourth: the point of these was obviously to break down the intellectual dilletantism of these youth. It was Trotsky who insisted that the YPSL Fourth get themselves a uniform, red flags and other paraphernalia and learn to march in proper style. No pacifist was Trotsky.

Again Trotsky’s approach towards petty-bourgeois youth was not a hostile one. Such young people, he felt, could play a very vital role in the building of the party. But this would happen only if they really broke from their petty-bourgeois background and integrated themselves fully into the revolutionary movement. This did not happen. It is difficult to see how it could have happened in the SWP of the 1930s with its bloc, rather than fusion, of constituents, and with its almost total lack of theoretical development.

Trotsky and the workers

Trotsky always understood the critical importance of the working-class cadres of the party. The workers in the party were always his first concern. All his efforts and urgings on the intelligentsia were aimed at getting this intelligentsia also to recognise the critical importance of this section of the party and to assist him in aiding the proletarian comrades’ development. He understood that critical in the long run were both the growth and the development of the proletarian section of the party.

Trotsky’s approach towards Cannon flowed from this assessment of the working-class cadres of the party. Trotsky was not an uncritical defender of Cannon the man, nor of Cannon’s regime. He had made his position clear in 1932 on many of the organisational weaknesses of Cannon. He could not help but be aware of his theoretical shortcomings. However, he had a high regard for Cannon’s role in developing a proletarian orientation for the American party. It was precisely the solid organisational base of the American party and its constant work in the mass movement that distinguished it from all other Trotskyist parties, which made it the most important Trotskyist formation of the period. Cannon had contributed in no small way to this development.

Precisely because Trotsky valued so highly the proletarian cadres of the party, he did not take an uncritical attitude either towards those cadres or towards the Cannon group within the party, which had the confidence of those cadres. Workers in the trade unions are no more born “natural” Bolsheviks than are intellectuals or students. While they are generally free from the kind of petty-bourgeois pressures which bear upon these other sections of the party, they have their own specific weaknesses and are under other pressures within the trade union movement. Their strength is that these weaknesses are the weaknesses of the class itself, and to the extent that a revolutionary party comes to grips with them it is involved in its most fundamental work of all — the education of the vanguard of the working class.

It is especially in a period when the party is expanding its working-class cadres that the most conscious attention must be paid to the theoretical development of these cadres. This is no automatic process and it requires the greatest of efforts and internal struggle on the part of a conscious leadership. As Trotsky summed it up in the previously quoted statement, which deserves restatement here: “It is precisely the party’s penetration into the trade unions, and into the workers’ milieu in general, that demands the heightening of the theoretical qualification of our cadres.”

Just as with the intellectuals and students, Trotsky’s concern about this section of the party dates back at least to his arrival in Mexico in 1937 — that is, to the beginning of the period in which Trotsky was able to observe the American Trotskyist movement from close at hand. Trotsky’s essential concern was that the party was adapting to the “progressive” anti-Stalinist elements inside the trade union movement and that this adaptation was paralysing the party as far as: (1) a concrete political struggle against Roosevelt whom these progressives supported and (2) an orientation towards the healthy forces within the Stalinist movement. This adaptation also meant that the trade union cadres of the SWP, while functioning as class-conscious trade union militants, were not being developed into revolutionary communists.

In particular Trotsky was highly critical of the party-dominated teamster paper, put out under the supervision of Farrell Dobbs, the North-west Organiser, which he felt was apolitical and which made no attempt to implement the line of favouring independent class political action worked out in connection with the Transitional Program. In fact Trotsky pressed the party hard on this score precisely during the discussions around the Transitional Program in early 1938. In 1939, as is testified in In Defence of Marxism, Trotsky urged a special orientation towards the Stalinist rank and file. He urged this on both Cannon and Shachtman but nothing was done about it. In 1940, when the question came up again for discussion with Trotsky after the split with Shachtman, Hansen summarised the past period as follows:

Yesterday Comrade Trotsky made some remarks about our adaptation to the so-called progressives in the trade union, he mentioned the line of the North-west Organiser and also our attitude in connection with the elections and the Stalinists. I wish to point out that this is not something completely new on Comrade Trotsky’s part. More than two years ago, druing the discussions over the Transitional Program, he discussed exactly these same points and had exactly the same position, with due regard for the differences in time and that then it was not the elections but the farmer-labour party that was to the fore. Comrade Trotsky also has written some letters regarding the Stalinists and the need for a more positive line towards them.[37]

In April of 1939, just a few months before the outbreak of the factional struggle, Trotsky held a series of very important discussions with Johnson and other Negro comrades on the party’s Negro work. It is important that it was Trotsky who forced upon the SWP the importance of the American Negro, a question almost totally neglected in the past period. In fact, in 1933, Arne Swabeck, in discussions with Trotsky on the same question, was not even aware as to whether American Negroes in the South spoke a different language![38] In the course of this discussion Trotsky was deeply concerned as to why the SWP so far had neglected work in this field. As he sought to discover the reasons for this it was precisely the proletarian section of teh party and its leadership that came under his criticism:

I believe that the first question is the attitude of the Socialist Workers Party towards the Negroes. It is very disquieting to find that until now the party has done almost nothing in this field. It has not published a book, a pamphlet, leaflets, nor even any articles in the New International. Two comrades who compiled a book on the question, a serious work, remained isolated. That book is not published, nor are even quotations from it published. It is not a good sign. It is a bad sign. The characteristic thing about American workers’ parties, trade union organisations, and so on, was their aristocratic character. It is the basis of opportunism. The skilled workers who feel set in the capitalist society help the bourgeois class to hold the Negroes and unskilled workers down to a very low scale. Our party is not safe from degeneration if it remains a place for intellectuals, semi-intellectuals, skilled workers and Jewish workers who build a very close milieu which is almost isolated from the genuine masses. Under this condition our party cannot develop — it will degenerate. We must have this great danger before our eyes. Many times I have said that every member of the party, especially the intellectuals and the semi-intellectuals, who, during a period of say six months, cannot each win a worker-member for the party, should be demoted to the position of sympathiser. We can say the same on the Negro question. The old organisations, beginning with the AFL, are the organisations of the workers’ aristocracy. Our party is a part of the same milieu, not of the basic most exploited masses, of whom the Negroes are the most exploited. The fact that our party until now has not turned to the Negro question is a very disquieting symptom. If the workers’ aristocracy is the basis of opportunism, one of the sources of adaptation to capitalist society, then the most oppressed and discriminated are the most dynamic milieu of the working class.[39]

Over half a century earlier Engels used almost the same language to characterise the native-born workers of that period! The problem was still with the Marxist movement.

Once again during the actual factional struggle with Shachtman Trotsky was to raise this issue. This is particularly important because it meant criticising that section of the party which supported him, and thus running the risk of aiding his opponents. But he felt it was important enough to risk that, so important in fact that he put the critical section in italics in his From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene:

It would be asinine to think that the workers’ section of the party is perfect. The workers are only gradually reaching clear class consciousness. The trade unions always create a culture medium for opportunist deviations. Inevitably we will run up against this question in one of the next stages. More than once the party will have to remind its own trade unionists that a pedagogical adaptation to the more backward layers of the proletariat must not become transformed into a political adaptation to the conservative bureaucracy of the trade unions. Every new stage of development, every increase in the party ranks and the complication of the methods of work open up not only new possibilities but new dangers. Workers in the trade unions, even those trained in the most revolutionary school, often display a tendency to free themselves from party control. At the present time, however, this is not the question.[40]

While this was not the pressing question at the time of this fundamental struggle Trotsky makes it clear that this could be a pressing question in the future unless the cadre was educated now. This idea guided to a great extent his whole approach to the discussion with Shachtman and Co. It was aimed, not only at reaching those who could be reached in the Shachtman camp but educating his own supporters. He went into detail on the ABC of dialectics in such a way that the average worker in the party could understand it.

Trotsky intervened in particular to prevent a premature split and to prolong the discussion as long as possible. It is clear from even the published exchange between Cannon and Trotsky on this point that Cannon as early as October 1939 was impatient with the struggle and wanted to bring it to an organisational conclusion while Trotsky sought to extend it as long as possible. Trotsky wrote a very sharp and clear letter to Cannon on October 28, 1939[41] in response to a letter of Cannon’s of October 24, 1939.[42]

Trotsky’s letter was “inadvertently” left out of In Defence of Marxism but was published in a footnote in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party. He warns, after reading Cannon’s letter:

It would be extremely prejudicial if not fatal to connect this ideological fight with the perspective of a split, of a purge, or expulsions, and so on and so forth. You have many new members and uneducated youth. They need a serious educational discussion in the light of great events. If their thoughts at the beginning are obsessed by the perspective of personal degradation, ie, demotions, loss of prestige, disqualifications, eliminations from Central Committee, etc, and so on, the whole discussion would become envenomed and the authority of the leadership would be compromised. If the leadership on the contrary opens a ruthless fight against petty-bourgeois idealistic conceptions and organisational prejudices but at the same time assures all the necessary guarantees for the discussion itself and for the minority, the result would be not only an ideological victory but an important growth in the authority of the leadership.

Trotsky continued to press this point over and over again throughout the discussion right to the very eve of the split with the minority.[42] In fact every peaceful gesture aimed at extending the discussion and preventing a split came from Trotsky, not Cannon. Trotsky was especially disconcerted over the tendency of the rank-and-file majority supporters to grow impatient with the political struggle and to wish to get on with their concrete work unimpeded by such a struggle. In response to letters from Cannon expressing the impatience of many of the trade unionists in the party with the length of the discussion, Trotsky writes back, “I understand the impatience of many Majority comrades (I suppose that this impatience is not infrequently connected with theoretical indifference).”[43]
This educational need was also the reason for his proposal in a letter to Warde that he, Wright, and Gerland form “the first nucleus” of a theoretical association within the party to promote dialectical materialism.[44]

Fundamental to an understanding of this question was a discussion held with the leaders of this section, Cannon, Dobbs, and others, in June, 1940, after the split with Shachtman and less than two months before Trotsky’s death. Luckily the stenogram of this discussion was published at the insistence of George Clarke in 1953 — otherwise it would have never seen the light of day. We append it to this article in its entirety so that the reader can see the actual give-and-take between Trotsky and the leadership of the SWP — to judge Trotsky’s assessment of this leadership and his approach to it.

While the concrete issue in discussion was a proposal for a tactical orientation towards the Stalinists, in reality the discussion centred on the adaptation of the basic trade union cadres of the SWP to the progressives within the trade union movement and the SWP leadership’s failure to do anything about this situation. Most important of all then is the documentation of the fear of the SWP leadership of being forced to break with its collaborators in the trade union movement in order to reach out to the Stalinist workers, then in crisis.

Hansen asks Trotsky point blank: “I am wondering if Comrade Trotsky considers that our party is displaying a conservative tendency in the sense that we are adapting ourselves politically to the trade union bureaucracy.”[45]

Trotsky answers frankly: “To a certain degree I believe it is so. … In observing the North-west Organiser I have observed not the slightest change during a whole period. It remains apolitical. This is a dangerous symptom. The complete neglect of work in relation to the Stalinist party is another dangerous symptom. It seems to me that a kind of passive adaptation to our trade union work can be recognised. There is not an immediate danger, but a serious warning indicating a change in direction is necessary. Many comrades are more interested in trade union work than in party work. More party cohesion is needed, more sharp manoeuvring, a more serious systematic theoretical training; otherwise the trade unions can absorb our comrades.”[46]

Trotsky’s Assessment of Cannon

We see a consistent thread in Trotsky’s assessment of the Cannon section of the party. It was the most proletarian, and thus the most healthy, section of the party. Its existence is what gave the SWP of the 1930s its importance and was a credit to all that was positive and good in the American Trotskyist movement — and in the American radical tradition. The alliance of Trotsky with Cannon against the petty-bourgeois opposition was natural and necessary. It was an alliance of the party’s strengths against its weaknesses.

However, it was not an uncritical alliance. Trotsky was fully aware that the Cannon section of the party, more than any other section, reflected the empiricism and syndicalism of the trade union rank and file in the United States. It had a disdain for theory and was itself aristocratic and quite distant from the most exploited layers of the proletariat in the United States — especially considering the party’s failures in reaching young workers and Negroes. Lacking theoretical training and having an aristocratic position within the class it could not help but degenerate unless it was educated theoretically. Trotsky devoted his efforts in the last days of his life to seeking to impress upon the Cannon leadership the necessity of such theoretical development. The key to this theoretical development was, in Trotsky’s view, a deeper understanding of the Marxist method itself. It was this, he hoped, that intellectuals like Warde and Wright would impart to the party.

Trotsky was fully aware of Cannon’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. He knew as well as anyone that Cannon had contributed to the crisis of 1940 as much as Shachtman because Cannon was incapable of giving theoretical leadership in the party and in this way bringing about a fusion of the best elements in the intellectual and student sections of the party and raising the theoretical level of the proletarian section of the party. To blame Cannon for this is only to compliment him — it is to say that he was the real leader of the party and thus, more than the literary figure Shachtman, was responsible for the party’s condition.

Trotsky summarises well his assessment of Cannon at the time of the Shachtman fight and thus explains why he supported Cannon so solidly against Shachtman. “Cannon represents the proletarian party in process of formation. The historical right in this struggle — independent of what errors and mistakes might have been made — rests solely on the side of Cannon.”[47] He did not view Cannon as a finished Marxist leader nor his tendency, which emerged as the unchallenged leadership of the SWP which was to reign for the next 24 years, as a finished Marxist tendency. He saw it rather as a revolutionary party in the process of formation — as a force out of which could emerge a Marxist movement in the United States. His remarks of June 1940, just before his death, make it completely clear that the emergence of this tendency as a Marxist party would not be an automatic process, nor was it guaranteed success. The danger of its degeneration was clearly seen even at this time.

In his oft-quoted letter on Cannon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party, Trotsky refers to Cannon as a “genuine workers’ leader”.[48]

This was a correct assessment of Cannon. Cannon showed his ability as a workers’ leader in the days of the IWW. He reasserted it once more in his long battle in the Communist Party for a proletarian orientation. Once again, he rose to the occasion in the American Trotskyist movement to battle to orientate the movement towards the class. Yes, Cannon was a genuine workers’ leader. The challenge that Cannon has faced since his entrance into the CP was the need to be more than a genuine workers’ leader. He needed to go beyond the simply empirical class struggle outlook of a Big Bill Haywood, a Vincent St John, and the many other fine workers’ leaders in United States history. He needed to become a genuine revolutionary communist.

To become a revolutionary communist Cannon needed to master Marxist theory. In the 1920s Cannon sought to get over this by taking his theory as given from the Russians. But the Stalinization of the Comintern caused the Russians to turn on him. Emerging on his own in 1928 he looked to Trotsky to develop theory and Shachtman and his friends to present it propagandistically in this country. This division of labour broke down in the debacle of 1940. Shachtman turned on Cannon and Trotsky had to supplant Cannon for the duration of the battle in order to save the Fourth International itself.

But Trotsky soon was killed. Even if he was able to continue to play the role of leadership for the SWP, Stalin’s axe prevented it. Cannon was now for the first time in his life really on his own. The next 24 years were to tell what Cannon had actually learned in the past period. In 1940, after 20 years of American communism, the challenge before the SWP was whether or not it was to become a revolutionary communist formation.

1. E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-26, Vol 3, Part 1 (Macmillan, London, 1964)

2. There were, however, two minor exceptions — Ludwig Lore and Max Eastman. Lore, the editor of a German paper, was personally friendly with Trotsky and supported him in 1924. Shortly thereafter he was expelled from the party with the support of those with whom he was in a factional bloc at the time — Foster and Cannon. Eastman, a well-known intellectual figure in the United States, was the sole propagotor of Trotsky’s views from 1925 until the Cannon expulsion in 1928. Eastman, however, was never a real party man and played no role at all in the CP.

3. James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism (Lyle Stuart, New York, 1962), p 82.

4. Ibid, p 275.

5. The IWW — The Great Anticipation, pp 277 ff.

6. Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia (Viking Press, New York, 1960), p 82

7. Maurice Spector was a prominent member of the Canadian Communist Party who attended the Sixth World Congress of the CI with Cannon. He adhered to Trotskyism at the same time as Cannon and later came to the United States where he played a role in the intellectual work of the American Trotskyist movement in the 1930s.

8. Max Shachtman, Twenty-five Years of American Trotskyism, New International, Vol XX, No 1, Jan-Feb 1954), p 17

9. Note Cannon’s reply to a fresh request in a letter dated May 27, 1959, (Cannon, op cit, p 224). The bulk of Cannon’s correspondence with Draper is dated 1955. Draper’s book was published in 1960.

10. Published later as The Third International After Lenin, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1954), pp 40-50.

11. Draper, op cit, p 374

12. Cannon himself gets closest to clarifying this point when he writes in 1954: “When I read Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program at the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern in 1928, I was convinced at once, and for good — that the theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’ was basically anti-revolutionary and that Trotsky and the Russian Opposition represented the true program of the revolution — the original Marxist program.” (Cannon, op cit, p 27). This is the only mention he has ever made of the specific content of the book.

13. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1944

14. Shachtman, Twenty-five Years of American Trotskyism, New International, Vol XX, No 1, Jan-Feb 1954, p22

15. Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1942, p 97

16. Shachtman, op cit p 22

17. Cannon, Factional Struggle and Party Leadership, Fourth International, Nov-Dec 1953, p 116

18. Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator, Pioneer, New York, 1958

19. Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, Pioneer, New York, 1943, p 59

20. Trotsky, op cit, p 107

21. Cannon, History of American Trotskyism, p 238

22. Ibid, p 249

23. Cannon, Struggle for a Proletarian Party

24. Trotsky, op cit, p 159

25. Ibid, p 114

26. Ibid, p 95

27. Ibid, p 114

28. Ibid, p 165

29. Ibid, p 114

30. Ibid, p 103

31. Ibid, p 145

32. Ibid, p 64

33. Resolution on the Youth, Founding Conference of the Fourth International, Socialist Workers Party, New York, 1938, p 121

34. Resolutions and Theses Adopted by the Third Congress of the YCL, Berlin, 1923

35. Challenge of Youth, Young People’s Socialist League — Fourth International, New York, July 1938 issue and ff

36. Appendix to Tim Wohlforth, The Struggle for Marxism in the United States, Labor Publications, New York, 1971

37. Documents on the Negro Struggle, Bulletin of Marxist Studies, No 4, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1963, p 12

38. Ibid, p 20

39. Trotsky, op cit, p 146

40. Cannon, Struggle for a Proletarian Party, p 89-90

41. Ibid, p 98-99

43. Trotsky, op cit, pp 63, 70, 101, 151-152

43. Trotsky, op cit, p 158

44. Ibid, p 100

45. Appendix

46. Appendix

47. Trotsky, op cit, p 61

48. Ibid, p 165

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