James Patrick “Jim” Cannon (1890—1974) was an American Trotskyist Communist leader. Cannon was the founding leader of the Socialist Workers Party. James P. Cannon was born on February 11, 1890 in Rosedale, Kansas, the son of a foundry worker. He joined the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1908 and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1911. He was personally trained by “Big Bill” Haywood, a top IWW leader, and was an IWW organizer throughout the Midwest from 1912 through 1914. 
Cannon in the early Communist movement
Cannon opposed World War I from an internationalist position and rallied to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Bolshevik victory in Russia served to radicalize the Socialist Party of America and brought Cannon back to the organization. He was an active participant in the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party, an organized faction which sought to transform the SPA into a revolutionary socialist organization. In 1919, he was a founding member of the Communist Labor Party of America (CLP), forerunner of the Communist Party of America (CPA), although he did not personally attend the Chicago convention of the CLP due to insufficient party tenure in the SPA. He was, however, a part of the CLP’s leadership from its earliest days, serving as District Secretary of the CLP for the states of Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska from the time of founding. He was also the editor of the left wing Kansas City weekly, Worker’s World, from 1919 to 1920, assuming the position when fellow Kansas syndicalist Earl Browder was sent to prison for his previous anti-war activities.
In May 1920, the CLP merged with a section of the CPA headed by C.E. Ruthenberg and Cannon was elected as a member of the Central Executive Committee of the new organization by the founding convention. He worked variously as the St. Louis District Organizer of the UCP in the summer of 1920 and as editor of the organization’s labor newspaper, The Toiler, in October of that same year. This brought Cannon to New York City, where he was able to regularly sit on the meetings of the Central Executive Committee. After merger of the UCP with the remaining CPA organization, headed by Charles Dirba, Canon was named the first Subdistrict Organizer of the unified organization for Duluth, Minnesota.
Cannon was on the Executive Board of the American Labor Alliance, one of the underground CPA’s most important legal organizations, intended to bring mainstream trade unionists into common cause with the persecuted underground communist movement. In December 1921, Cannon delivered the keynote speech to the founding convention of the “legal political party” formed in parallel to the underground CPA, the Workers Party of America (WPA) and was elected National Chairman by that convention.
Cannon was elected by the CEC of the unified CPA as delegate of that organization to the Enlarged Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) and as formal party representative to the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU), leaving the USA in mid-May of 1922 and arriving finally in Moscow on June 1. He stayed on there as a delegate of the American party to the 4th World Congress of the Comintern, where he was elected to the ECCI Presidium, serving from August through November, 1922. Back in America, Cannon was a member of the Executive Committee of the Friends of Soviet Russia from 1922. He was also a candidate of the WPA for the United States Congress from the New York 10th District in 1922. Cannon remained on the CEC of the WPA throughout this period.
On January 19, 1924, Cannon was named Assistant Executive Secretary of the Workers Party of America, working under his faction rival, Ruthenberg. He was the WPA’s candidate for Governor of New York in 1924 and again returned to Moscow as a delegate of the party to the 5th Enlarged Plenum of ECCI, held in March and April 1925.
Cannon was an important factional leader in the American communist movement of the 1920s, sitting on the governing Central Executive Committee of the party in alliance with William Z. Foster, a Chicago-based group which looked to native-born American workers in the unions. Later in the decade, Cannon broke to an extent with Foster, heading up instead the party’s legal defense arm, International Labor Defense (ILD). This organization served as a power base for Cannon and his associates.
Cannon was the Workers (Communist) Party’s candidate for Congress in the New York 20th District in 1928.
Cannon’s turn to Trotskyism
While in Russia in 1928, Cannon read a critique of the direction of the Communist International written by Trotsky which the Comintern had mistakenly circulated. He was convinced of the arguments, and attempted to form a Left Opposition within the Workers (Communist) Party. This resulted in his expulsion. He then founded the Communist League of America with Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, and started publishing The Militant. It declared itself to be an external faction of the W(C)P. Cannon and Felix Morrow, with a bust of Trotsky.
Following the collapse of the Comintern in the face of Nazism in Germany they concluded with Trotsky that the Comintern could not be reformed and embarked on a struggle to build a new International and new parties. Concretely this meant that they no longer considered the Communist League to be a faction of the Communist Party but rather considered it the nucleus of a future revolutionary party. It also meant that they were far more inclined to look at working with other sections of the reviving socialist and workers movements from this point forth.
Although the Communist League had been a small organization — opponents dubbing Cannon, Abern and Shachtman “Three generals without an army” — it had won a majority of the Communist Party branch in Minneapolis and St Paul. Therefore when the labor movement revived in the early 1930s the Communist league was well placed to put its ideas into action in the Twin Cities and through their influence in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters the union rapidly grew after an historic dispute in 1934. Cannon played a major role in this dispute directing the work of the Communist League on a daily basis, along with Shachtman.
In December of 1934 the Communist League of America merged with pacifist A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party to form the Workers Party of the United States.
Throughout 1935 and into 1936, the Workers Party was deeply divided over the so-called “French Turn.” The Trotskyist organization in France had entered the social democratic party of that country — the Section Française de l’International Ouvrière (SFIO) — and while maintaining themselves as an organized faction in the broader organization had made what were felt to be significant gains in advancing their programmatic goals and in winning adherents to their cause among young party members. This tactic had been subsequently endorsed by Trotsky himself, but the American party was deeply divided over the advisability of the maneuver. Jim Cannon was a forceful advocate of this tactic and was embroiled an inner-party fight to dissolve the Workers Party in favor of entry into the Socialist Party of America. Early in 1936, a convention of the Workers Party finally decided that the organization should enter the SP. This decision came at a cost, however, with a left wing faction led by Hugo Oehler refusing to join the Socialists and exiting to form the Revolutionary Workers League. A.J. Muste became disgusted as well and left the radical political movement to return to his roots in the church.
The Trotskyists’ stay inside the Socialist Party lasted only about a year from mid-1936 until mid-1937. Admissions were made on an individual basis, rather than en masse. Chicago attorney and devoted Trotskyist Albert Goldman, who entered the SP about a year earlier than his comrades, launched a factionally-oriented newspaper called The Socialist Appeal, while Cannon headed west to Tugunga, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, to launch a western paper oriented to the trade union movement called Labor Action. Day-to-day operations of the organized Trotskyist faction in the Socialist Party during 1936-37 were handled by Shachtman and James Burnham in New York, while Cannon made what he later deemed as “futile attempts to participate in correspondence in the work of the New York center.” As the factional situation in the Socialist Party intensified early in 1937, the decision was made by the hostile New York party organization to expel the Trotskyists, which took place late in the spring of 1937. A large percentage of the SPA’s youth organization, the Young People’s Socialist League left with the expelled “Left Wing.”
In the summer of 1937, Cannon returned to New York from California, where he conducted organizational activities which led to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party at a convention held from December 31, 1937 to January 3, 1938. Jim Cannon was elected as the group’s first National Secretary.
Cannon in the SWP
In addition to his activity in the Socialist Workers Party, Cannon was a leading figure in the Fourth International, the international Trotskyist movement, and visited Britain in 1938 with the intention of aiding the unification of the competing British groups. The result was a patched together unification, the Revolutionary Socialist League, which rapidly disintegrated.
In 1940, one of Cannon’s co-leaders in the SWP, Max Shachtman, left with a large part of the membership to form the Workers Party. One of the key questions in this controversy was Cannon’s belief that the Trotskyists should continue to defend the Soviet Union “unconditionally,” and that the minority in the SWP should submit to the authority of the majority. The dispute is recorded in Cannon’s book The Struggle for the Proletarian Party and in Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism. Another blow was suffered during World War II when Cannon was jailed under the Smith Act, along with other SWP members that opposed the war drive of the US government. Even in jail, however, his influence on the SWP was strong and he wrote to party leaders regularly; for example, recommending it change the party line on the Warsaw Rising. Cannon’s book ’Letters from Prison’ contains many of these missives. Graffiti in the Basque Country: James P. Cannon, american trotskyist
Following the war Cannon resumed leadership of the SWP, but this role declined after he left the post of national secretary in 1953 to Farrell Dobbs. Cannon retired to California in the mid-1950s. However he remained an active member of the party’s Political Committee. Cannon was very much involved in the splits which developed in both the SWP and the FI in 1952. He took a leading role in guiding the public faction supported by the SWP, the International Committee of the Fourth International, and supported the eventual reunification of the two sides in 1963 which led to the formation of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. He took no part in the various tendency disputes that developed between 1963 and 1967, except to decry firmer organisational norms developed by his erstwhile supporters. These letters are collected in Don’t Strangle The Party. He died in Los Angeles on August 21, 1974.