US: James P Cannon and the early days of the US left

Book Review: ’James P Cannon and the origins of the American revolutionary left, 1890-1928’ by Bryan D Palmer

THIS RECENT publication is an important addition to the historical literature of a crucial period in the US workers’ movement. It deals with Cannon’s early days as a ‘Wobbly’ agitator, his emergence as a young leader of the new American Communist Party, and up to the point of his expulsion from the increasingly Stalinist party due to his adherence to the ideas of Leon Trotsky and the International Left Opposition.

Unlike many other academic studies dealing with the history of the left, Palmer’s prize-winning, in-depth scholarly analysis (with over 150 pages of notes alone) – despite its tendency to be sometimes overwhelmed by details and requiring more background information to major national and international class struggles – is sympathetic and insightful about its subject, while not uncritical.

James Patrick Cannon was born on 11 February 1890 in the “working class hamlet” of Rosedale, Kansas. His parents were English-born children of Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s before they emigrated to the US in the 1880s. James Patrick’s father, John Cannon, was a “convinced Irish Republican” who became involved in the developing US workers’ movement.

Palmer fleshes out Cannon’s youth by drawing on unpublished autobiographical fictionalised accounts that Cannon wrote in the 1950s. Forced by economic circumstances, he left school at 12 years old and worked in the local meat processing industry. Cannon used public libraries to read eagerly, including the novels of Upton Sinclair and Jack London. He also followed his father into the American Socialist Party (SP), which according to Palmer consisted of “a wide-ranging amalgam of immigrant Marxists, native-born radicals, and reform-minded farmers and workers”. Indicating the potential for the development of a mass socialist alternative prior to the first world war, Palmer comments “a revered figure such as Eugene Debs could rally hundreds of thousands to the electoral standard of the Socialist Party of America”. Debs polled an “unprecedented” 6% in the 1912 presidential election.

In 1911, Cannon made the transformation from “sympathiser” of the “all-inclusive” Socialist Party to dedicate himself to the “resolute revolutionary” wing of the movement after he came across the International Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies. The IWW seemed to have all the answers Cannon was looking for: “get all the workers into one big union and put an end to this whole damn capitalist claptrap. Make a society run by the workers and fit to live in”.

Through the IWW, Cannon was introduced to socialist education meetings that discussed Marx’s ideas and he also came into contact with the US Socialist Labour Party (SLP), led by Daniel DeLeon. Although Cannon would later describe the SLP leader as “rigidly formalistic” and “sectarian in his tactics”, Palmer comments that “many militants, Cannon among them, had been pushed and pulled toward revolutionary theory by DeLeon’s much castigated dogmatism”.

Cannon was soon developing his skills as a Wobbly agitator and speaker. He attended the 1912 IWW convention in Chicago – the “high water mark of the accomplishments of the early IWW”. Taken under the wing of the IWW general secretary, Vincent ‘The Saint’ St John, the 22-year old was sent to intervene in his first strike, an auto workers’ dispute in Jackson, Michigan. From 1911 to 1913, Cannon participated in several workers’ struggles, including the 1913 Akron rubber workers’ strike. This baptism of fire for the ‘Hobo radical’ often saw brutal violence from bosses’ thugs and police against strikers.

WW1 and Russian Revolution

The outbreak of the first world war “exposed the limitations of the IWW’s brand of industrial unionism”. “The Wobblies”, Palmer continues, “had an instinctual aversion to fighting what they knew was a war in which the working class had no interest, but they never quite developed an appropriate internationalist stance”.

Cannon would always commend the courage and self-sacrifice of the Wobblies and argue that they played a key role in the formative development of the revolutionary movement in the US. Nevertheless he also criticised the IWW for its failure to engage adequately in politics. This, Palmer comments, isolated “the struggle of American workers in the narrowest understanding of workplace battle and street confrontation”.

Indeed, the IWW, founded in 1905 as a revolutionary industrial union, had developed syndicalist ideas that were opposed to political struggle. Coupled with severe repression from the state during and after the war, the IWW declined in the 1920s.

The IWW’s political confusion during the war and the impoverished conditions facing his young family, led Cannon to keep “a foot in the revolutionary movement” while studying law at night classes. But by 1917 his “salvation” came with the Russian revolution and the implications it had for the US working class and the left.

The Bolshevik socialist revolution was greeted as a “momentous historical transformation” by Cannon and many others on the American left. Cannon saw that it was not an “all-inclusive union” but “a party of selected revolutionaries united by program and bound by discipline” that led the working class to take power in Russia. He and the left grappled with creating new political organisations of the working class. At the same time, “tumultuous working class upheavals” developed, with strikers as a percentage of all workers soaring from 3.7% in 1915 to 22.5% in 1919. In the same year, Seattle was brought to a halt by a general strike.

The US ruling class reacted to new working class militancy by unleashing ‘red scare’ terror. Many communist activists were imprisoned, including Cannon, for his part in the Kansas miners’ dispute in 1920.

Struggle to create a new party

The process of creating a new revolutionary socialist party in the USA proved very complicated and protracted. Palmer goes into great detail, charting the movement’s various tendencies, leading personalities and factional differences, which at times is quite bewildering. He considers the main problem facing the US left was its very varied character, with foreign language federations made up of immigrants from Europe and Russia and “native radicals” from very different backgrounds.

Aiming to aid the process of bringing these different sections of the left together towards building a united communist party, Cannon rejoined the American Socialist Party, which had grown during the rise of class militancy. In particular, Cannon played a key role developing its left wing. This led, in June 1919, to Cannon attending the ‘National Left-Wing Conference’. He also joined the new Communist Labor Party in 1919. Reflecting the complications on the left, the CLP was just one of three competing communist parties founded at this time.

While state terror meant aspects of communist work needed to be organised in an ‘underground’ manner, Cannon and others resisted those sectarian and ultra-left forces, mainly from the foreign language federations, which insisted on ‘illegality’ no matter the real objective conditions. Alongside a certain dismissive attitude towards the revolutionary potential of US workers, this incorrect approach cut off the young communist movement from big parts of the working class.

The efforts of Cannon and others to found an open and ‘Americanised’ party led to the creation of the Workers Party, a “legal communist party”, in December 1921. But those communists advocating methods of ‘illegality’ still called upon the Workers Party to play a secondary role. The debate went to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, in Moscow in 1922, where Leon Trotsky agreed with the position of Cannon and his co-thinkers.

Palmer commends Cannon’s pioneering work in establishing the Workers’ Party and “propogandising and recruiting and sustaining newspapers and organizational stability”. But the US communist movement continued to be beset with factional rows after 1922. A Hungarian communist, John Pepper (Joseph Pogany), noted by Trotsky for his “infinite adaptability”, arrived in the US to play a wrecking role, employing unprincipled methods and a mix of ultra-leftism, wild adventurism and opportunism. Pepper was the “archetype of the machinations” beginning to characterise the Comintern, Palmer writes. He was instrumental in the creation of the ill-fated Farmer Labor Party, in 1923, whose promised mass base never materialized.

Palmer notes that for most historians of the US revolutionary left, the 1920s was a landscape of endless and seemingly pointless factionalism. Palmer credits Cannon with understanding that the factionalism had “socioeconomic roots”: the receding of class struggle, a booming US economy and the temporary stablisation of European capitalism, were all “hardly conducive” to building the revolutionary left. This situation also had a negative impact on Russia, which was already isolated following defeated revolutions in Germany and elsewhere. During this period, particularly after Lenin’s death in 1924, Comintern leader, Gregory Zinoviev, “led the Communist International along an increasingly opportunistic course, plunging the forces of world revolution into organizational bureaucratism and adventurist twists and turns”.

Not surprisingly, all this caused confusion and disillusionment among the ranks of the young US communist movement and fed the intense factionalism. Cannon later admitted: “When I came out of the nine years of the CP, I was a first-class factional hoodlum”.

Cannon threw himself into the work of the high profile International Labor Defence (ILD), which was initiated by communists in 1925. Palmer surmises that this was also a way for Cannon to escape the factional hothouse and to engage with the wider working class. This campaigning “brought out the best in Cannon”. He played a central role taking up infamous cases of state repression against workers and the left, such as that of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant worker-activists who were framed by the state and eventually executed.

Comintern’s bureaucratic degeneration

During this period Palmer notes that Cannon, a “Comintern loyalist”, too readily and easily followed “Moscow directives”. Ironically, while Cannon “fought the tendency toward bureaucratic opportunism” in his struggles against Pepper on the Workers’ Party’s Central Executive Committee, he was also an “ardent advocate” of Zinoviev’s campaign to “Bolshevise” the Communist Parties – which, in reality, led to more bureaucratic control from Moscow. Cannon and others even agreed to suppress articles by Trotsky in the US party press.

Palmer charts Cannon’s growing “doubts and discontents” about the treatment of Trotsky and the Left Opposition, but he formally remained a loyal supporter of the Communist International until he attended the Sixth Congress of the Comintern. To his great credit, Cannon quickly changed direction after he was given (in error, it seems) a copy of Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Programme of the Communist International. For Cannon and the Canadian delegate Maurice Spector this “bolt out of the blue” served to “explain their doubts” and to re-engage them with “Marxist truth”. They then organised for the Opposition document – a condemnation of Stalin’s ‘theory’ of “socialism in one country” and an appeal for the Comintern’s policy to be based on international socialist revolution rather than bureaucratic manoeuvres – to be smuggled out to the USA.

From then on, Cannon set about organising the Left Opposition in the US party, working with young comrades like Martin Abern, Max Shachtman and Rose Karsner, who was also Cannon’s partner. By doing so, he repudiated a ‘career’ as a Communist Party leader.

The US Stalinists soon expelled Cannon and his supporters in October 1928 and Stalinist thugs attacked their public meetings and street paper sales. Nevertheless with just 100 or so supporters, Cannon’s Communist League of America developed and in the 1930s (when it became the Socialist Workers’ Party) played a key role in the huge industrial struggles that erupted in the US.

We await to see how Palmer deals in his second volume with the rest of Cannon’s political life, as a Trotskyist leader in the US and internationally (not least given the controversy surrounding Cannon’s dealings with British Trotskyists, when he was accused of using bureaucratic Zinovievist methods).

[This article was first published in the October 2010 issue of Socialism Today, monthly journal of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales)]

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January 2011