James P. Cannon

Labor Action

San Francisco—January 16, 1937

The Champion from Far Away


[Below is an article written by SWP leader James P. Cannon for the West Coast socialist newspaper Labor Action.—Editor]

SINCE coming to San Francisco I have been watching at close range the “build-up” of a new Stalinite labor leader -- a transparent mediocrity who was unknown yesterday and will be forgotten tomorrow-and I keep thinking of a fine story Ben Hecht once wrote about the wrestling racket and the way its phony “champions” are made. The story, if I remember correctly, was called, “The Champion From Far Away”, and it had to do with a palooka who became a champion for a while without ceasing to be a palooka at heart.

The champion from far away, a muscle-bound lout, was originally a gravedigger in a metropolitan cemetery. There, equipped with the tools of his trade-a “sharp-shooter” and a pick and a No. 2 shovel-he performed his not-too-complicated tasks and, in his own sub-human way, was happy in his work and satisfied with his lot in life. Day in and day out he went through his practiced one-two-three motions like a natural-born muck-stick artist, with never a thought in his thick, hard head of any possible change in the routine until, in the normal course of events, surviving fellow-craftsmen would one day dig a grave for him and plant him underneath the daisies.

But God proposes -- and the promoters of the wrestling racket fix things to suit themselves. One day of destiny a couple of these weisenheimers happened in on the cemetery where our hero worked. It seems that one of the outstanding figures in the racket had stopped a score or so machine-gun slugs in a private dispute among the boys, and the two promoters had turned out to the funeral to pay their last respects to the fallen comrade, and to make sure at the same time that he was put away for keeps.

They spotted the big gravedigger swinging his shovel in the cemetery and, needing a new champion, decided then and there that he was it. He appeared to meet all the specifications they required. He came from a distant land-that gave him novelty, mystery and color. He was big and powerful looking-what the public expects in a champion. And he was dumb-which would make him easy to handle. All in all, he looked like a “natural” to the promoters. They signed him up on the spot while his loose mouth was still open in wonderment, and led him away like a captive ox to a new short life of manufactured glory as the greatest wrestler the world had ever seen.

It was all very simple and easy. The promoters gave the gravedigger the “build up”. His non-existent merits were ballyhooed far and wide. Sports writers, secretly on the payroll of the promoters, wrote learnedly and objectively about his new and strange technique, his “color” and his mysterious origin in a far-off land. Fixed matches were arranged and the erstwhile shovel stiff marched triumphantly across the country, sports commentators fell for the general ballyhoo and the clodhopper’s impressive string of arranged victories, and they also began to beat the drums for the Champion From Far Away. The wrestling public was worked up into a lather of admiration for the unbeaten and unbeatable phenomenon.

Even the gravedigger himself-and that’s the saddest part of the story-began to believe the phony build-up. He began to think he was really out-wrestling the trained setups who rolled over on their backs and played dead at the appointed moments. The poor sap took the counterfeit publicity of the promoters for real coin.

That was too bad, for it wasn’t long afterward that the house of cards collapsed. Through some slip-up in the arrangements, the Champion From Far Away got into the ring one night with an opponent who knew how to wrestle and hadn’t been fixed to fall down, and he was mean and tough besides. He put the manufactured champion through an agony of real hammer locks, half nelsons and toe holds which made him long for the old simple life in the graveyard and to wonder why his own highly tooted “technique” didn’t seem to work any more. The tough mug kept after him, scowling viciously, gouging and biting when he got a chance and squeezing the made-to-order champion until he began to have a real fear that he was coming apart. He became utterly convinced that the wrestling racket had aspects which were not so good.

Finally, when the referee was looking the other way, the rough wrestler who hadn’t been fixed, shoved his elbow with a vicious, trip-hammer thrust into the belly of the Champion From Far Away. Then it was his turn to roll over and play dead, like so many of the set-ups had done for him -- only he was sincere about it. The referee slapped “the winner and new champion” on the back and our hero was done, finished, his trail of glory ended. It had taken a long time to build him up, but one mean elbow-jab in the belly brought him down. In a single night the champ became a chump.

The promoters who had built him up surveyed the human wreckage of their hand-made champion sadly, but philosophically. And then they calmly went about the business of hunting for another palooka who might be made to look like a champion. They weren’t discouraged by the catastrophic result of their failure to fix the match securely, and they never thought for a minute of changing their ways and going straight in the future. For the entrepreneurs of the wrestling racket disagree with Lincoln, and will bet even money any time on the proposition that you can fool all the people all the time.

That is likewise the basic assumption of the cynical gentry who comprise the general staff of the Communist Party, whose operations in the labor movement are far more on the order of a racket than a principled struggle. From old habits, or by way of camouflage, they still occasionally mention Marx and Lenin as their sources of inspiration, but you will never find a clue to their methods and psychology in the books of these great-hearted rebels and honest men. The real model of the Stalinites is the American advertising game which has been developed to its fullest flower by the racketeering promoters of the world of commercial sports.

The rules of this game are few and simple, and are considered sure-fire by the people who think the world is divided into two classes -wise guys and suckers. Rule No. 1 says you can make people believe anything if you repeat it often enough; and Rule No. 2 says Mark Twain was right when he remarked that “a lie can travel half way around the earth while truth is putting its shoes on”. That in a nutshell, is the credo of the Stalinites and the essence of their technique in advertising and “building up” labor leaders.

Nowhere has this technique been more crudely employed than in the present campaign to build up the new champion Labor Leader From Far Away, the Great Whoosis who is touted and advertised as though he were a combination of Christ and Buddha and the Sacred Cow. As for Debs and Haywood and Vincent St. John and Albert Parsons-such real men and real leaders of the great tradition, whose memory might truly inspire the new generation of labor militants if they but knew the simple truth about their rich abilities, so nobly and generously devoted to the workers’ cause-as for them, the Stalinite School of Ballyhoo can find no place at all beside the new divinity, the Johnnie-come-lately who just arrived from nowhere. Indeed, in this part of the country, at least, you would think, if you took the ballyhoo seriously, that the history of the labor movement only began with the discovery of the Great Whoosis a short time ago.

One of the tricks-and not exactly a new one-for putting this four-flushing false alarm across is to represent him as super-human, beyond comparison with ordinary mortals, above criticism, not to be touched or pinched to see whether he is real or a motion picture, and, above all, not to have the elbows of inconsiderate opponents shoved into his belly.

As remarked above, this trick is not new. They used it to bamboozle the ignorant long before the Great Whoosis came down to survey the situation on our planet, like God on a vacation. “The King can do no wrong”, was the original formula for the trick. In the prize-fighting and wrestling rackets they translate the same principle: “Don’t knock the champ-because he’s the champ.” Out here they hang a tin halo around the ears of a two-spot and say in effect:

“Don’t throw tomatoes at the Great Whoosis, you might smear his halo. ”

Everybody is supposed to rise to his feet when the Great Whoosis enters the room and when he starts to speak. I had heard about this crude stunt, but being from Missouri, had to see it myself at a public meeting before I would believe that even Stalinites would attempt to introduce such a degrading slave-minded practice, and in the West of all places!

I saw the Great Whoosis finally get his “rising ovation”, but the whole thing was too transparent a fake to impress me. There was an organized claque down front, rising in unison as though in response to a signal, and waving and motioning to others to get up. Then one could see individuals milling around at strategic points in the crowd, like cowboys around a herd of cattle, motioning for everybody to get up. Finally, as though anxious to get the thing over with, about half of the crowd slowly stood up and quickly sat down again.

It was all organized, perfunctory, like taking off your hat in a court room when his honor, the judge, comes in. There was nothing spontaneous about it-and what is a demonstration worth to a self-respecting man, if it isn’t spontaneous? The very fact that a “leader” will stand for such a shoddy tribute earmarks him as a base pretender.

In my time I have heard Debs speak; and I can remember yet the hearty, joyous shouts of affection and comradeship with which the great agitator was greeted as he entered the hall. But there was no formal rising when he began to speak. For one thing, Debs was too eager to plunge into his speech and always deprecated unnecessary demonstrations.

I have heard Haywood speak in the heat of bitter struggle to strikers who adored him, but there was none of this formal, organized rising, like serfs greeting the feudal lord. Big Bill would have been mortally offended by such cut-and-dried horseplay. When Haywood was on the platform he made the workers feel that here was a comrade and fellow-worker, one of their very own. That was one of the secrets of the real power of real leaders of the workers like Debs and Haywood.

I have even heard Lenin speak-at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. I must confess that I really wanted to rise to my feet on that memorable occasion. The whole Congress rose as one man, in spontaneous, heart-felt acclaim for the leader of the Russian Revolution, and we didn’t need any claque down front to set the example, nor any cowboys running through the aisles to whip us into line. There were ushers and “inside people” in the aisles, but they served another purpose. They asked us to please sit down because the “Old Man” was not feeling very well, and he didn’t like formal demonstrations anyway!

The real leaders of the working class could dispense with all the empty fakery of capitalist advertising, ballyhoo and “build-up” because their merits were genuine and they honestly and truly represented the cause of the workers. They were tried and tested over a long period of time. Their deeds spoke for them and they had no need of press agents, lackeys, sycophants and organized hand-clappers. They grew, with deep roots in the workers’ movement, and did not require artificial props.

It is precisely because they lack these qualities, because they play a game of deception and fraud under a hypocritical pretense of radicalism, that the Stalinites require entirely different methods borrowed from the shadiest fringes of the capitalist world. The system of Stalinism has no use or place for honest militants of tested character and ability and independent opinions. It needs pliable nonentities, parvenus and careerists on the make. Against the former it employs the frame-up; for the latter it provides the build-up. This is the whole sum and substance of the attitude of Stalinism to leaders of the labor movement, the real and the counterfeit.

But the whole strategy of the Stalinites, like that of their prototypes in the wrestling racket, is founded on an illusion and is doomed to explode. Lincoln was right: You can’t fool all the people all the time. And the truth, slow-moving at the start, will eventually catch up with the lie. And built-up Champions From Far Away, in the labor movement as well as in the ring, eventually encounter opponents who don’t believe the ballyhoo. This is bad news for the Great Whoosis, who like the ill-starred hero of Ben Hecht’s story, is beginning to take his own phony build-up seriously and is beginning to strut and pose like a real. champion. But it’s the truth just the same, and the truth never hurt anybody that was on the level.