From Fourth International, vol.6 No.1, January 1945, pp.23-26.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.
The History Of American Trotskyism
(Report of a Participant)
By James P. Cannon.
268. xvi pages. Cloth $2.75, paper $2.00.
Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1944.
The publication of The History of American Trotskyism by James P. Cannon is a proud achievement for the revolutionary Marxist movement. The story of how a tiny and hounded group, stubbornly fighting for principles, battled through isolation, persecution and a hostile environment to build the first Bolshevik party on the American continent will remain a constant source of inspiration and instruction for the veteran member and the newcomer alike. The reader who seriously undertakes to assimilate the political essence of this book will find himself equipped with a key to the understanding of the complex development of events and the confusion that characterized the labor movement in the decade from 1928 to 1938. Knowledge of the problems of that period, and of how the Trotskyists analyzed and solved them, is a prerequisite for successful leadership in the great struggles ahead. Cannon’s book is more than a chronicle of the events of yesterday. It was deliberately designed as a sharp weapon for present and future combat.
The History of American Trotskyism is a vindication of the aims and principles of the founding group. If Trotskyism stands unchallenged today in the workers movement as the sole representative of revolutionary socialism, it enjoyed no such advantage at its inception and for many ensuing years. The Stalinist bureaucracy – in the first stages of its degeneration still covering itself with the mantle of Lenin’s International – employed different methods of political warfare at that time than they do at present. Although slander, frame-up and lies were already a part of their arsenal, they attacked the young Trotskyist movement from the ‘left.” A “Right deviation” from Leninism, a descent to “Menshevism,” a “counter-revolutionary tendency” – these were the daily epithets flung at the young Trotskyist group.
Lovestone, Stalin’s American purveyor of these slanderous accusations and also executor of the first expulsions while he was in the leadership of the American Communist Party, did not cease his opposition to the Trotskyists after his own expulsion from the CP. He only changed his tune. If yesterday principled adherence to the internationalist program of the Russian Opposition was designated as “counter-revolutionary,” this suddenly became politically inexpedient when Lovestone was forced into an independent existence. Trotskyism became a “sectarian” doctrine and its insistence on discussing Stalin’s revisionist theory of “socialism in one country” and the world-important lessons of the debacle of the Chinese revolution was dubbed a hair-splitting preoccupation with dead issues. Others like Weisbord and Field made haughty references to the ineptness of the Trotskyists in “mass work.” The centrists of the SP sneered at the “splinter” group and its small following. All the wiseacres and sideline critics found it easy to agree that the Trotskyists were lacking in “realism”; and prophesied for it a dismal and temporary sojourn on the political stage.
History has treated these transient figures with the contempt they so richly deserved. The names of Lovestone, Gitlow, Wolfe, Weisbord, Field, Tyler, Zam et al. are virtually unknown today to a new recruit to revolutionary socialism. Their pompous, boastful parties and groups have disappeared without leaving a trace. It remained for Cannon, sixteen years after Trotskyism made its debut on the American political scene, amidst a chorus of derision and calumny, to conjure these ghosts from their political purgatory in order to submit their past to critical examination. In the doubtful event that posterity accords them any recognition at all, it will be found only in the case-history treatment they are given in the pages of Cannon’s book.
By and large, these gentlemen – once so articulate and prolific – have been loath to utter a syllable or write a word in evaluation of the past, when they assayed no less a role than leadership of the proletarian revolution in America. The less said the better – that seems to be the motto of these renegades. In fact their present activities as flunkeys of the imperialist war machine, apologists for capitalism, scribblers in the hire of the labor bureaucracy, are a far more eloquent commentary on their evaluation of the past than any words they might set down on paper. Where any of them are prodded by uneasy conscience, as in the case of Gitlow, to review their own role in history, it is only to repudiate the past and to confess the most abject repentance for ever having been associated with the communist movement.
Unprincipled politics and a cavalier attitude to the programmatic questions of Marxism doomed all the groups and parties outside the Trotskyist movement to impotence and eventual extinction. By the same token, the rigorous concern for principles and the intransigent refusal to compromise its program has permanently established the Trotskyist party as the sole representative of revolutionary socialism in the United States. It is no accident therefore that James P. Cannon, the outstanding leader of this movement, should have written the only authentic account of American Communism. He explains where the others apologized. He defends where the others repudiated and confessed. He demonstrates how the Trotskyists inherited the best traditions from the old Communist Party and how they evolved into the vanguard of the most class conscious workers in the United States.
Cannon describes his book as the Report of a Participant An amendment should be added: The Report of Its Most Conscious Participant. The main lines in the building of a Bolshevik party in the United States were clearly defined in Cannon’s mind from the first, after the expulsion from the Communist Party in 1928. The primary task of the Trotskyist group was the struggle for principles, i.e. the principles of Lenin and Trotsky, against their deformation and corruption by the Stalinist leaders of the Comintem. Everything else must be subordinated to principles – in the end only the correct program will prevail. Pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp of large mass following on the basis of opportunist adaptations and the watering down of program would ultimately lead to disaster. The form of organization – although the organization itself operates at all times through the mechanism of democratic centralism – must be subordinated to the requirements of the struggle for program.
Year in, year out, Cannon hammered these fundamentals into the very fabric of the Trotskyist movement. If he appears today as the historian of a movement that has swept the field of revolutionary politics clear of all rivals, it is a tribute to the viability of his teachings and their adoption and application in life by the group itself. In the history of the building of a Bolshevik party in the United States, Cannon brings the same element of conscious Marxism that Trotsky brought into the History of the Russian Revolution. The road was surveyed long in advance, the methods were clearly defined – it remains only for the historian who is also a participant to report the trends of development.
Cannon makes no pretense of giving the same comprehensive all-sided treatment to his subject matter that Trotsky gave to his exhaustive study of the Russian Revolution. He clearly informs his auditors of the limitations – and also the possibilities – of his lectures.
“Some of you”, he says, “may perhaps have the ambition to become historians of the movement, or at least students of the history of the movement. If so, these informal lectures of mine can serve as guideposts for a further study of the most important questions and turning points.”
These self-imposed limitations in no way deprive The History of American Trotskyism of its exceptional significance.
What are the “guideposts”?
- The genesis of American Trotskyism – an appraisal of the Communist Party from the split in the Socialist Party in 1919 up to the expulsion of the first Trotskyist group in 1928.
- The relationship between faction and party.
- How a small group survives isolation and cuts a path into the mass movement.
- The struggle against sectarianism.
- The question of trade union tactics.
- The question of unity and fusion with other groups.
- Strategy and tactics towards centrism.
Cannon’s “guideposts” are no less indispensable for the building of a Bolshevik party than are Trotsky’s in the making of a proletarian revolution. And in his book Cannon acknowledges many times his great debt to Leon Trotsky whose advice and assistance contributed immeasurably to the accuracy of these “guideposts” in the road travelled by the American party.
Like a red thread through all Trotsky’s writings runs his constant iteration that the problem of our epoch is the problem of leadership. There has been no lack of revolutionary situations, the proletariat has not been wanting in fighting qualities but unlike the Russian situation in 1917 there have been no Bolshevik parties armed with a correct program and capable, courageous leadership. The building of such a party, indispensable for victory, is the first task of Marxist politics. This aim distinguishes the American Trotskyists from all movements in the United States which preceded it and from all movements contemporary with it. A discussion of the progress of this aim constitutes the central thesis of Cannon’s work. Trotskyism has raised the factor of consciousness to a higher plane than ever before in the past of American socialism.
The old Socialist Party had no clear conception of the transformation of capitalism into socialism. It lacked Marxist theory. Electoral activity assumed far more importance than the revolutionary struggle or the moulding of the party to serve that struggle. As a consequence, the party was converted into a parliamentary machine and its spurious internal democracy was only a screen to hide the real controls, which rested firmly in the hands of self-seeking petty-bourgeois politicians of the stripe of Morris Hillquit and Victor Berger.
The IWW, born in revolt against the reformism of the Socialist Party and the class collaboration of the AFL, bent the stick far back in the other direction, thus diverting the heroic actions and revolutionary energy of its militants into a syndicalist opposition to politics. The courageous leadership of such men as Haywood was not in itself sufficient to overcome the deep structural faults that resulted from the anti-political line of the IWW. The epoch of wars and revolutions blew the reformist Socialist Party to bits. The Russian Revolution like an X-ray machine exposed all the internal weaknesses of syndicalism and in the ensuing year the IWW developed a case of reactionary senility from which it has never recovered.
If the Communist Party saw the need for a party modelled on the Bolshevik pattern but nevertheless failed to realize the high hopes of thousands of revolutionary workers and was ultimately distorted into a reactionary caricature of its early aims, it was not at all the result of Lenin’s methods or the great influence and authority of the Communist International in the American party. The author says:
“The influence of Moscow was a perfectly natural thing. The confidence and expectations which the young party of America put in the Russian leadership were completely justified, because the Russians had made a revolution. Naturally the influence and authority of the Russian party was greater in the international movement than any other. The wiser and more experienced lead the neophytes. So it will be and so it must be in any international organization.”
The American Communist Party was strangled to death by Stalinism before it had a chance to grow out of its swaddling clothes. Cannon has once and for all set at rest those specious theories which saw the germs of ultimate degeneration in the interminable factional struggles which ravaged the CP from the time it was born.
It is worthwhile repeating the two basic factors Cannon cites in analyzing the causes of the internal schisms. First: “the predominantly foreign-language membership” with no ties to or understanding of the native labor movement was attempting to artificially transpose the methods and tactics of the Russian Bolsheviks to the American scene. Ultra-leftism and sectarianism were the issues that kindled this factional conflict. Second: “the lack of experienced, authoritative leaders.” This poverty was the legacy of the antecedents of the CP and it could only be surmounted by a process of struggle and selection natural to any virile political organization.
“An authoritative body of leaders”, Cannon writes, “able to maintain their continuity with the firm support of the party – I don’t know how or where any such leadership was ever consolidated except through internal struggles.”
That this process of selection was abruptly cut short by expulsions and the appointment of the leadership by fiat from Moscow does not negate Cannon’s analysis but only confirms the reasons for the degeneration of the American Communist Party and its domination by cynical men without principles, integrity or backbone.
Trotskyism began its existence from higher summits than any previous movements because it stood on their historical shoulders. It did not begin with any anarchistic denial of the past – it traced its own genesis to the work and program of its predecessors. Cannon writes:
“We are rooted in the past. Our movement which we call Trotskyism, now crystallized in the Socialist Workers Party, did not spring full-blown from nowhere. It arose directly from the Communist Party of the United States. The Communist Party itself grew out of the preceding movement, the Socialist Party, and, in part, the Industrial Workers of the World.”
The Trotskyists learned from the mistakes, failures and betrayals of those who came before them. And again:
“Trotskyism is not a new movement, a new doctrine, but the restoration, the revival, of genuine Marxism as it was expounded and practised in the Russian Revolution and in the early days of the Communist International.”
Without this great political capital the pioneer Trotskyists could never have survived the terrible test that faced them from the beginning. Isolation, slander, poverty, persecution – this was the only world the Left Oppositionists knew for almost five years. Cannon’s description of this period will leave an unforgettable impression on the mind of the reader. Never before in history had revolutionary Marxists faced a more hostile environment. Official state persecution has often been more severe. General disillusionment and reaction such as in the period following the defeated 1905 revolution in Russia was more widespread. The isolation that hemmed in the European anti-war socialists after 1914 was probably far more constricting. But the political lines were clearly drawn. Marxists were persecuted because they were Marxists, isolated because reaction had cast their ideas in disfavor and in the general disillusionment fair-weather friends had deserted for more popular nostrums. It took fortitude to hold out, but there was this in their favor that no one undertook to dispute the rights of the Marxist minority to its despised position – no one else wanted any part of it.
The Trotskyists enjoyed no such advantage. They were challenged – challenged by an opponent with state power – for every inch of the political ground on which they stood. Stalinism had usurped the great banner of the October Revolution. In a daily press and in hundreds of books and pamphlets Trotskyism was described as a doctrine hostile to Leninism, From a formal official point of view the Stalinist bureaucracy spoke in the name of internationalism and the struggle for Soviet power. To the superficial observer, it appeared that the Communist Party was translating this program into action during its adventurist “Third Period.” The great majority of communist-minded workers either accepted the charge that the Trotskyist opposition was a counter-revolutionary tendency or dismissed it as a tiny group with obscure theoretical differences with the official party.
Here is the incomparable record of the heroism of those who struggled against the stream. How did the Trotskyists survive? The reader will be richly rewarded to study again and again the story of this period in the words of Comrade Cannon who more than any other single individual was responsible for holding the group together. How to overcome the discouragement and pessimism that was creeping, into the group? There was no magic formula. Cannon writes:
“One defeat after another descended upon the heads of the vanguard of the vanguard. Many began to question. What to do? Is it possible to do anything? Isn’t it better to let things slide a little? Trotsky wrote an article, Tenacity! Tenacity! Tenacity! That was his answer to the wave of discouragement that followed the capitulation of Radek and others. Hold on and fight it out – that is what the revolutionists must learn, no matter how small their numbers, no matter how isolated they may be. Hold on and fight it out until the break comes, then take advantage of every opportunity.”
Simple words. But without that advice and the iron determination behind it there would be no Trotskyist movement today.
Subsequent events proved this formula entirely correct and realistic. The opportunities did present themselves and the Trotskyists were prepared to utilize them to the full to smash the wall of isolation that so long separated them from the revolutionary militants and from the great masses of awakening workers. But here again the road was devious and the problems complicated. It was not a simple matter of going to the workers and appealing to them to join the only revolutionary party and, by virtue of persistent agitation and hard work, establishing it as a force in the working class movement. Without a correct policy – above all a correct estimation of the relationship of forces – and without correct tactics, i.e. knowing when and how to act, Trotskyism would still be an unknown sect crying in the wilderness.
The turn from exclusively propaganda activities as a faction of the Communist Party to mass work and the building of a new party coincided with the first strike movement that swept through the country after the proclamation of the National Recovery Act in 1933. And here again was illustrated that a revolutionary group needs more than a correct policy, more than the will to struggle in order to gain influence and leadership in the mass movement. There is no substitute for an organization that is rooted in the mass movement, whose members have earned the right to leadership through common experience with the workers and by correct policies vindicated in the test of events. Those who think that they can establish their influence by a dramatic appearance at the eleventh hour by showering “misguided” workers with leaflets have no knowledge of the mechanism of the struggle and usually find themselves on the outside looking in.
The Trotskyists were unable to influence the most important struggles of the NRA days – the great waterfront strikes on the west coast, the general strike in San Francisco, the nationwide textile strike, the strikes in auto, the insurgent movement in steel. The Communist League was too small, its cadres too inexperienced, and above all it still had to demonstrate that it and not the Communist Party or the numerous other dissident groups had the only rightful claim to the role of the revolutionary vanguard of the class.
The great Trotskyist victory in the Minneapolis strikes of 1934 was the first vindication of this claim in the class struggle. Here were an experienced group of revolutionists with a long record of activity in the local trade union movement. They were loyal and disciplined party members and acted in complete harmony and collaboration with the party leadership. Under these conditions what would otherwise have been an isolated strike was raised to national importance and the contributions of Trotskyism in Minneapolis became a manual of trade union policy and tactics for militant and progressive unionists all over the country. The Minneapolis strike was one of the great landmarks on the road to building the revolutionary party because as the author so correctly says:
“In Minneapolis we saw the native militancy of the workers fused with a politically conscious leadership. Minneapolis showed how great can he the role of such leadership. It gave great promise for the party founded on correct political principles and fused and united with the mass of American workers. In that combination one can see the power that will conquer the whole world.”
Trotskyism had demonstrated “in action” by its participation in the Minneapolis strike that it was not “a movement of good-for-nothing sectarian hair-splitters” but “a dynamic political force capable of participating effectively in the mass movement of the workers.” But the main political task was still before it – the task of building a mass revolutionary party of the American working class. Cannon’s account of the twists and turns, of the splits with unassimilable sectarians, the unification with organizations of leftward moving workers and the penetration and conquest of centrist strongholds – these constitute a demonstration in practice of the art of revolutionary politics in the lifetime of our own generation.
In the process described by Cannon are expressed the laws of the dialectic as applied to politics. Unification with the American Workers Party was preceded by a bitter struggle with the Oehlerite sectarians that eventually led to a split. The struggle and split with the sectarians over the “French Turn” undermined the ideological basis of the Muste-Abern coalition and deprived them of the power to obstruct the entry of the Trotskyist forces into the Socialist Party. The years of struggle in complete isolation as a propaganda group fighting for principles, and the rejection of innumerable appeals and temptations to try easier but unprincipled methods, insured the programmatic integrity of the Trotskyists under the most unfavorable conditions forced upon them by the centrist leaders of the SP.
What were the results of this period of splits, fusion and entry into the SP? Cannon puts it succinctly:
“The problem is not merely one of building a revolutionary party but of clearing obstacles from its path. Every other party is a rival. Every other party is an obstacle.”
A survey of the political field today will show how realistically the Trotskyists faced this problem and how successfully they solved it.
The History of American Trotskyism is in reality a prehistory of the Bolshevik Party of the United States. In the period that is described the main task was primarily internal: hammering out a fundamental program, defending that program against all other tendencies and building a cadre of revolutionists. This work was preparatory but indispensable to the great task that is assigned the revolutionary party: the struggle to influence the majority of the workers and to lead them in the battle for the conquest of political power which, in turn, will inaugurate the socialist society on the American continent.
Only the Philistine can object to the informal style of the book. It was designed for workers not for pedants. Cannon views the past not as material for sedentary contemplation by the old and the tired but as a guide for present-day participants in the struggle, preparing the worker-Bolsheviks for their tasks by an understanding of the methods that were used in answering the problems of the previous period. The History of American Trotskyism is a companion volume to bThe Struggle for a Proletarian Partyb – together they might appropriately be entitled: Bolshevism in Practice. Pioneer Publishers are to be congratulated for adding one more important Marxist book to its already imposing list.
This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
Last updated on 4.9.2008