Trotsky’s attitude towards James P. Cannon

by

Bob Gould

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 section of Wohlforth’s book on Cannon’s role from about 1924 to 1940 is now available on Ozleft, along with the transcript of the discussions with Trotsky.

Discussion

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