Revolutionary Continuity & Historical Memory

The Cannon Biography & Its Critics

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928, Bryan D. Palmer, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007, 542 pages, $50 hardcover.

The first volume of Bryan D. Palmer’s biography of James P. Cannon, the historic leader of American Trotskyism, is an important contribution to the documentation of the red thread of revolutionary continuity in North America. Palmer’s extensive and painstaking research brings Cannon alive as an individual and provides a valuable account of the momentous events in which he participated.

Palmer’s book traces Cannon’s political evolution from a footloose cadre of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) through his pivotal role in the creation of the American Communist Party (CP) in the early 1920s, and concludes with his crucial decision in 1928 to align with Leon Trotsky and the International Left Opposition. In a projected second volume, Palmer intends to cover Cannon’s years as the central leader of American Trotskyism from 1928 through to the 1950s.

James Cannon was the most important revolutionary leader who has yet emerged in the North American left. An able propagandist with an ability to make complex ideas easily accessible to working people, Cannon did not pretend to be an innovative theorist. He was, however, a committed partisan of proletarian liberation who devoted his very considerable talents to the struggle to build an organization with the political capacity to lead a socialist revolution in the United States.

Palmer, a prominent labor historian, is a worthy biographer of Cannon because, unlike most leftist academics, he openly identifies with Marxist class-struggle politics. He celebrates Cannon as someone who, like Marx, recognized that, as important as it is to understand the world, “the point, however, is to change it.”

Histories of the Communist Party

In 1962, Cannon published The First Ten Years of American Communism, a compilation composed chiefly of letters he wrote in reply to inquiries from historian Theodore Draper, who was working on a two-volume history of the early years of American communism. Draper’s books, The Roots of American Communism (1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960), are still essential for anyone studying the first decade of the American CP. (Cannon’s incisive comments on both volumes, originally published in International Socialist Review, are reprinted in his book.)

Draper wrote a preface to Cannon’s book in which he commented:

“For a long time, I wondered why Jim Cannon’s memory of events in the Nineteen-Twenties was so superior to that of all the others. Was it simply some inherent trait of mind? Rereading some of these letters, I came to the conclusion that it was something more. Unlike other communist leaders of his generation, Jim Cannon wanted to remember. This portion of his life still lives for him because he has not killed it within himself….”

When Cannon made his critical decision to join with Leon Trotsky in resisting the bureaucratic strangulation of the Russian Revolution by the parasitic caste headed by J.V. Stalin, he was well aware of the difficulties that lay ahead:

“In the summer of 1928 in Moscow, in addition to the theoretical and political revelation that came to me when I read Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program of the Comintern, there was another consideration that hit me where I live. That was the fact that Trotsky had been expelled and deported to far-away Alma Ata; that his friends and supporters had been slandered and expelled and imprisoned; and that the whole damned thing was a frame-up!

“I had been gradually settling down into an assured position as a party official with an office and staff, a position that I could easily maintain—as long as I kept within definite limits and rules which I knew all about, and conducted myself with the facility and skill which had become almost second nature to me in the long drawn-out factional fights.

“I knew that. And I knew something else that I never told anybody about, but which I had to tell myself for the first time in Moscow in the summer of 1928. The foot-loose Wobbly rebel that I used to be had imperceptibly begun to fit comfortably into a swivel chair, protecting himself in his seat by small maneuvers 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. Trotsky and his associates were doing it at that very moment in the exile camps and prisons of the Soviet Union. It was no more than right that one man, however limited his qualifications, should remember what he started out in his youth to fight for, and speak out for their cause and try to make the world hear, or at least to let the exiled and imprisoned Russian Oppositionists know that they had found a new friend and supporter.”
The First Ten Years of American Communism

Cannon understood that Stalinism was not inevitable, but at bottom a by-product of the series of political defeats that ensured the isolation of the Soviet workers’ state. Draper was a meticulous researcher whose years in the Stalinist movement in the 1930s allowed him to distinguish between the significant and the trivial, and navigate the primary sources in ways that would have been almost impossible for anyone who had never been a participant. While he relied a great deal on Cannon’s recollections, Draper was convinced that the heavy-handed bureaucratism he had witnessed as a functionary in the American CP in the 1930s was both natural and unavoidable in a Leninist organization.

In his book, Palmer discusses how historians of American communism since Draper have fallen into two camps. One is composed of crude anti-communists like Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, who follow Draper in viewing American communism as simply “Made in Russia” but whose work is vastly inferior to that of their mentor. Lacking any sense of proportion, they miss all the shades and nuances and are only interested in spy-baiting and hunting for traces of Moscow gold.

The other camp is composed of left-liberals like Maurice Isserman and Sean Wilentz, who were shaped by the 1960s New Left. They tend to concentrate on the CP’s role in particular episodes of the class struggle and the fight for black equality, while avoiding the critically important issue of the relationship between the American party and Moscow. This is a serious flaw, as Palmer observes:

“Only by confronting how Stalinism constrained and ultimately suffocated the indigenous American revolutionary ranks that consciously gravitated to communism can we resurrect something of the meaning of the early twentieth-century working-class radicalism that remains absolutely necessary to the rebirth of the revolutionary Left. Cannon takes us in this direction.”

Alan Wald: The Politics of Social-Democratic Despair

Palmer’s book has been positively reviewed by many of the ostensibly revolutionary groups in the U.S. Several have observed that he is the first historian since Draper to provide significant new insights regarding the early history of American communism. Alan Wald, an erudite left academic and former ostensible Trotskyist who included a sympathetic sketch of Cannon in his 1987 book, The New York Intellectuals, reviewed Palmer’s book in the July-August 2007 issue of Against the Current, a journal published by a mélange of Trotskyoid social democrats. While praising Palmer’s scholarship, Wald takes exception to his “agenda”:

“This aspect of Palmer’s framework—no different from that of Cannon and Trotsky—is the weakest facet of the conceptual viewpoint underpinning the book, at least for this reader.

“One need not adhere to the ‘straight-line thesis’ (the simplistic notion that Leninism led ineluctably to Stalinism) to see the progression from October 1917 to the triumph of Stalinism as disastrously coupled, not merely a transformation into opposites.

“The justification of violent political repression in the name of defending alleged revolutionary ‘advances’ is also a stance that seems untenable today, more than ever when the ‘advances’ turn out to be the early stages of one of the most brutal dictatorships known to humankind.

“Then there is the view that certain vanguard groups and individuals possess the true ‘revolutionary program,’ one that will rescue humanity from economic and political catastrophe; claims of this type have become the hallmark of too many cult-like political sects—Trotskyist, Maoist and otherwise—to be affirmed so categorically. And the rooting of the definition of ‘Stalinism’ in a highly specific economic theory (Trotsky’s pre-WWII analysis) seems more likely to fuel intra-Trotskyist polemics than to clarify matters for the general reader.”

What Wald identifies as a weakness in Palmer’s approach is precisely what makes his book qualitatively superior to most academic treatments of North American communism—i.e., sympathy for Cannon’s political struggle to create a “vanguard group” with a revolutionary program. Wald considers all such attempts to be tragically misguided:

“One can scarcely disagree with Palmer’s call to reclaim pre- and anti-Stalinist communism for the construction of a new revolutionary Left, but the precise significance of Trotskyism for the 21st century is another matter. Surely the U.S. Left would have been better off had Cannon successfully won a majority of the idealistic Communist rank and file to his program, yet there is little point in playing the ‘what if’ game in regard to subsequent developments.

“We know that promising political, social, and religious organizations evolve in all sorts of unexpected ways, especially after carving out a small arena of success. Moreover, the history of the 20th century strongly suggests that a ‘healthy’ socialist revolution was not on the agenda for any advanced industrial society, so it seems doubtful that even a sizable U.S. party with a true ‘revolutionary program’ could have done much to replace Stalinist authority internationally.”

Palmer does not share Wald’s historical pessimism, and saw the publication of his book as an opportunity to promote political debate within that section of the ostensibly Trotskyist left that identifies with the Cannonist tradition. To this end, he invited half a dozen organizations to co-sponsor a meeting to launch his book at New York’s Tamiment Library in October 2007. Every group invited responded positively—and so it was that the Freedom Socialist Party, International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), Socialist Action, Socialist Equality Party and the Spartacist League (SL—in the form of the Prometheus Research Library [PRL]), all signed on as co-sponsors. (The Internationalist Group replied too late to be officially included.)

Spartacist League: Talented Archivists

The Autumn 2007 issue of Spartacist (No. 60) features a 20-page review of Palmer’s “very impressive” book, characterizing it as “far better than one would expect from a sympathetic, but nonetheless academic, source.” In the 1970s, Joseph Hansen, the sophisticated revisionist then leading the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), dismissed SL leader James Robertson as a “talented archivist.” In his prime, Robertson was much more than that, and even today his severely degenerated group is still capable of making valuable contributions to the study of the history of American Trotskyism.

The PRL has published two important books: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism (1992), a collection of his 1920-1928 speeches and writings, and Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933 (2002), documenting the internecine struggle that nearly destroyed the fledgling American Trotskyist movement. James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism is frequently cited by Palmer, who acknowledged that his “greatest debt in the archival realm…is to the Prometheus Research Library.”

While paying homage to Palmer’s book as “an important resource for historians of American Communism for some time to come,” the Spartacist reviewers raise various criticisms. Their skeptical dig at Palmer’s passing observation that Cannon “never really engaged with the potentially transformative gender politics of a militantly feminist approach to the personal realm,” identifies a real, though minor, weakness in the text, i.e., an occasional accommodation to prevalent fads among left academics. It is true, however, that while the Trotskyist movement in Cannon’s time did not dismiss questions of women’s oppression, relatively little attention was paid to these issues until the resurgence of the women’s movement in the 1960s. The Spartacist reviewers also make some useful observations on the book’s treatment of the CP’s disastrous “farmer-labor” turn, but their other criticisms are substantially without merit.

An example is their complaint that “Palmer’s use of [the term] ‘revolutionary Left’ reflects a failure to make a qualitative distinction between communism and the radical-populist, social-democratic, anarchist and syndicalist movements that were often intertwined in the left internationally before the Bolshevik Revolution.” Palmer responded to this criticism at the Tamiment meeting:

“Again on the question of the ‘revolutionary Left’: I also have to say that I followed Cannon. Cannon said he became a revolutionary in 1911. Before that, he said, he was a sympathizer. But when he actually joined the Wobblies, for him, he made a choice to be a revolutionary. And so I’ve taken him in some senses at his word…. I don’t think you can read the book and not see that I view the founding of the Workers Party, the establishment of a Bolshevik organization and Cannon’s role in it as a fundamental—a revolutionary—step forward. On the other hand, there were antecedents that must be considered part of the American revolutionary tradition. And you don’t really see them in any serious sense prior to Cannon’s birth in 1890.”

The Russian Revolution qualitatively transformed the political landscape in the U.S. and everywhere else. Palmer makes it abundantly clear that Cannon’s identification with Bolshevism after 1917 was not a case of a personal evolution, but rather a response to a world-historic event that entirely redefined what it meant to be a revolutionary. Cannon certainly recognized his debt to his teachers and in The First Ten Years of American Communism paid tribute to Eugene Debs and the revolutionaries of the IWW. The “Declaration of Principles” adopted at the 1966 founding conference of the then-Trotskyist SL noted: “We also look for inspiration to the example of such revolutionists in the United States as F. A. Sorge, Vincent St. John, [and] Daniel De Leon…” (all of whom were active prior to 1917).

The Spartacist reviewers “take exception” to Palmer’s reference to the “revolutionary Left in its age of innocence up to 1928,” i.e., before the CP was completely Stalinized and the revolutionary impulses of its cadres stamped out. The review cites the sewer socialism of Victor Berger as evidence that much of the American left was pretty rotten long before Stalinism. That is indisputable. But no one reading Palmer’s book would get the impression that by the “revolutionary Left” he was referring to people like Victor Berger or Morris Hillquit.

In attacking “[t]he idea of Cannon as an innocent,” the SL cites Claude McKay’s description of him as an effective political fighter who used “tricks of the typical American politician…in a radical way.” Yet it is clear that Palmer was not using the term “innocent” in the sense of callow or naive, but rather uncorrupted, pure in revolutionary intent. James Robertson used the same term in precisely the same way in 1972 when he addressed the SL’s Boston branch after a bruising internal struggle: “In a real sense the SL has lost its innocence. But we must resist this—we want to educate the comrades out of this clique experience, we do not want to and will not institutionalize bureaucratic forms…” (Spartacist League, Internal Discussion Bulletin No. 18).

For all its problems, and there were many, the American Communist Party of the 1920s was a very different sort of organization from that of the 1930s. The expulsion of Cannon and his supporters in 1928 marked a turning point for the CP, with the introduction of loyalty oaths, demands that members condemn political documents they had never seen, and the use of physical violence as a substitute for political debate.

The Spartacist review criticizes Palmer’s supposed failure to emphasize the import of the lessons the Communist International taught its American adherents. Palmer, the SL asserts, “gives short shrift to the substance of those lessons. He does not, for example, include any discussion of the collapse of the Second International into social chauvinism as the war began [in August 1914].” When Emily Turnbull of the PRL repeated this accusation at the Tamiment meeting, Palmer replied that, while he was well aware of the significance of the betrayal of 4 August 1914, he had to make decisions about what to include. He said that the publisher had pressed him into cutting some 60,000 words to get the book down to 542 pages.

The Spartacist reviewers also object to Palmer’s observation that the mid-1920s activities of Cannon’s International Labor Defense (ILD) constituted “something of an interlude of peaceful coexistence in the factional gang warfare” convulsing the CP at the time. The SL does admit that Palmer cites various instances “in which the Ruthenberg-Lovestone forces tried to undercut the ILD’s work.” It hardly seems improbable that on occasion the ILD’s successful mass actions might have attenuated some of the bitter, dead-end factionalism that was absorbing most of the energy of the party cadres. While, to our knowledge, Palmer’s treatment of the ILD is the most extensive and detailed account yet published, there is certainly much more that could be written.

Northite Flip-Flops on Cannonism

Like the other sponsors of the Tamiment meeting, the Socialist Equality Party (SEP—flagship of David North’s “International Committee” [IC]) claims Cannon’s mantle. Fred Mazelis and Tom Mackaman, who reviewed Palmer’s book for the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) on 18 September 2007, praised Cannon as “an internationalist who recognized that genuine internationalism required the fight to unite Marxist theory and practice, to make socialist principles and perspective live in the actual struggles of the American working class.”

In the 1960s, when it was headquartered in England and run by Gerry Healy, the IC held a dramatically different view. At a July 1965 meeting attended by Fred Mazelis and a few others, Tim Wohforth, then leader of the IC’s American section, stated bluntly: “We are not Cannonites. We do not want to return to Cannonism. We want the destruction of Cannonism” (“Conversations with Wohlforth,” Marxist Bulletin No. 3, part iv). Between 1964 and 1966, Wohlforth produced a series of articles on the history of American Trotskyism for the IC’s journal, Fourth International. These were subsequently published in book form as The Struggle for Marxism in the United States: A History of American Trotskysim.

Wohlforth’s thesis was that Cannon’s political limitations made the degeneration of the American movement inevitable after Trotsky was assassinated in 1940 (shortly after Max Shachtman led a factional split over the “Russian Question” that claimed almost half the membership):

“While [Trotsky’s] role in the 1940 factional struggle was essential in order to save the movement, his role after the split was becoming critical to the process of developing that which was saved. But this learning process was terminated by Stalin’s axe and the party was forced to carry on as best it could on its own resources—not the least of these being what it had learned from Trotsky in the preceding period.”

Trotsky had indeed provided crucial political leadership for Cannon’s followers in the 1939-40 faction fight. It is also true that in the aftermath of World War II Cannon and other leaders of the SWP, the leading section of the Fourth International at the time, clung too tightly to Trotsky’s pre-war predictions, and proved unable to successfully account for the post-war peasant-based social revolutions in China and Yugoslavia and the creation of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe. The Cannon leadership’s inability to explain these major events with its wooden “orthodoxy” seriously disoriented the American Trotskyist cadres. But until the early 1960s, when it embraced Fidel Castro’s petty-bourgeois July 26th Movement as “unconscious Trotskyists,” the SWP played a critical role in defending key elements of the Trotskyist program and upholding its traditions.

When Cannon died in August 1974, Gerry Healy’s long-time lieutenant and the all-purpose IC hatchetman, Michael Banda, produced an obituary dismissing him as a pragmatist who had never really been a Trotskyist. A month later, Healy deposed Wohlforth as the IC’s American leader. Before long Wohlforth was on his way back to the SWP. As a first step, he penned a reply to Banda’s obituary of Cannon. This was sharply denounced by Alex Steiner and David North in a lengthy 1976 polemic entitled, “The Fourth International and the Renegade Wohlforth”:

“We draw the attention of our readers to an article recently published in the newspaper of the revisionist Thornett group in England. It is Wohlforth’s assessment of James P. Cannon and it was written in opposition to the obituary of Cannon written by Cde. Michael Banda of the Workers Revolutionary Party.

“The central aim of Wohlforth’s assessment is to argue that Cannon represented the ideal of an ‘American Trotskyist,’ which must be resurrected as a very special national phenomenon. Cannon is presented first and foremost as an American leader, nourished on the soil of America, who must be applauded for his attempts to build a national revolutionary movement.”

North and Steiner took particular exception to Wohlforth’s assertion that it would be an error “to attribute to Trotsky’s intervention everything that was healthy in the American movement and to Cannon’s contribution only a negative pragmatism.” They also specifically rejected the following statement by Wohlforth on Cannon’s role in building the Trotskyist movement in the U.S.:

“The American party was built through a relationship between a serious proletarian leadership around Cannon, with some history behind it, and Trotsky….This leadership emerged from that section of the old Communist movement closest to the working class which, at the same time, was determined to build a Leninist party.”

In their 1976 polemic, Steiner and North denounced this as “anti-Marxist, nationalistic, impressionistic drivel.”

Eight years later, the North/Steiner polemic was reprinted in a book published by the IC entitled, The Fourth International and the Renegade Wohlforth. In a foreword to the book, North commented: “the lessons of the struggle against Wohlforth, despite the passage of ten years, have lost none of their political urgency.” A few years later, however, after breaking with Banda and Healy and establishing himself as the lider maximo of his own rump IC (this one based in Detroit rather than London), North produced another book, with a rather more generous appreciation of Cannon:

“The principal devil figure in Banda’s repulsive depiction of the Fourth International is not Healy, but rather James P. Cannon, whose unforgiveable crimes, aside from being born in the United States, are almost too numerous to detail.”
The Heritage We Defend (1988)

A few pages later North praised Cannon’s capacity for “straightforward self-criticism, which was never practiced by Healy or Banda,” and continued:

“Cannon, to his credit, never claimed infallibility….If to be criticized, it must be for becoming somewhat too immersed in his trade union activity. However, that tendency, which was part of his political makeup as a ‘genuine workers’ leader’ (as Trotsky described him), was not without its redeeming features!”

Like Wohlforth, North’s view of Cannon was shaped by what seemed politically expedient at the moment—initially to demonstrate his loyalty to Banda/Healy, later to distance himself from them.

The WSWS review of Palmer’s book noted, apparently without deliberate irony, that “Cannon has been consistently underappreciated.” The reviewers also observed:

“Cannon made his share of mistakes during the years of permanent factionalism inside the CP. ‘When I came out of the nine years of the CP, I was a first-class factional hoodlum,’ he was later to explain. Yet Cannon did emerge, and he did survive as a revolutionary. This can be explained by the fact that, despite the mistakes, Cannon never wavered on the fundamental programmatic issues that had brought him into the revolutionary movement.”

Cannon’s frank self-criticism is something that North, Mazelis and other IC old-timers would do well to emulate, as in the 1960s, 70s and 80s their organization had a well-deserved reputation for cop-baiting and thuggish behavior toward other leftists. While fulsomely denouncing Healy, Banda and Wohlforth, the IC leaders are clearly incapable of making an honest assessment of their own role in this shameful political history.

The Spartacist leadership is similarly appreciative of Cannon’s capacity to recognize and struggle to transcend his flaws:

“In overcoming the CLA’s [Communist League of America] unmerited factional polarization Cannon completed his education as a Leninist, learning to put program and principle qualitatively above organizational considerations. In later years Cannon recognized that it took Trotsky’s guidance to break him from the bureaucratic factional practices of the degenerating Comintern.”
Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933

Under Trotsky’s influence, Cannon was able to overcome the impatience, rudeness and other attributes he developed as a “factional hoodlum” in the CP. James Robertson, on the other hand, came to enjoy life as a big frog in the little pond of the Spartacist League in the 1970s, and evolved in the opposite direction. After a promising beginning, his regime gradually came to approximate Gerry Healy’s political-bandit operation of the mid-1960s. Today, the paramount concern of the central leaders of both the SEP and SL are organizational advantage and personal prestige. This is why, despite the ability of each to project a Trotskyist facade, both outfits are obstacles on the road to reforging the Fourth International.

While most groups claiming to be Trotskyist in the U.S. have found little to complain about and much to praise in Palmer’s account of Cannon’s early years, the second volume promises to be considerably more controversial. It will deal with Cannon’s participation in the various factional struggles, splits and fusions that shaped American Trotskyism. It will also address Cannon’s role in the fight against the revisionism that ultimately politically destroyed the Fourth International in the 1950s. Unlike the struggle against Stalinism in the 1920s, these issues are all hotly contested among ostensible Trotskyists today. We look forward to the second volume of this work with great anticipation. If it is as thoroughly researched as the first volume, it will be an exceptionally valuable contribution to the history of the Trotskyist movement in North America and beyond.

Published: 1917 No.30 (April 2008)