James P. Cannon

The American Question

Written: ca. November 1922
Source: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 © Spartacist Publishing Company, 1992. ISBN 0-9633828-1-0; Published by Spartacist Publishing Company, Box 1377 G.P.O. New York, NY 10116. Introductory material and notes by the Prometheus Research Library.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Prometheus Research Library
Copyright: Permission for on-line publication provided by Spartacist Publishing Company for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.

[Note by Prometheus Research Library:]

The following unpublished and undated document was written at the behest of Leon Trotsky during the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (held in Moscow, 5 November-5 December 1922) by Cannon and other American Communists who were struggling against the maintenance of the dual structure of a clandestine Communist party alongside the legal Workers Party. It played a crucial role in winning Comintern support for the liquidation of the underground party. Among the document's signers were delegates Cannon, Max Bedacht and Arne Swabeck, under the names Cook, Lansing and Marshall. The other signatories have not been identified, though one of the Young Communist League delegates is probably Martin Abern who was in Moscow at this time. This is a translation of a German-language copy in the Theodore Draper Papers, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University. A slightly different English translation was published in Spartacist No. 40 (Summer 1987).

[MIA Editor’s Note: Cannon refers to this document at the end of an account of their appeal to Trotsky in his letter to Draper, “The ‘American Question’ at the Fourth Congress”: “At the end of the discussion, which probably didn’t last more than an hour as he had specified, Trotsky stated unambiguously that he would support us, and that he was sure Lenin and the other Russian leaders would do the same. He said that if Lenin didn’t agree, he would try to arrange for us to see him directly. He said he would report the interview to the Russian Central Committee and that the American Commission would soon hear their opinion. At the end of the discussion he asked us to write our position concisely, on ‘one sheet of paper—no more,’ and send it to him for transmission to the Russian leadership.”]

            In the United States the objective preconditions for revolution are not yet fully developed. In addition, the class consciousness of the American workers is still undeveloped; they have not even risen to the point of undertaking independent political action.

            However, there is developing within the trade union movement a rapidly increasing rebelliousness against the official union bureaucracy and, linked to this, a steadily growing tendency in favor of a labor party. Our main task at present is to develop these tendencies, to crystallize and organize them; tactics must be oriented toward making us an integral component of the labor party when it is founded.

            The illegality of the Communist Party of America is a major obstacle in its work. In addition, American workers are still dominated by democratic illusions, so that they grasp neither the aim nor the reasons for conspiratorial, clandestine organizations. We must therefore wage a determined struggle for a legal Communist party. A large part of the organized workers movement will support us in such a struggle. If we win, the party will enjoy the enormous advantages of legal party organization, at least for a time. But if we lose, the fact of our defeat will greatly contribute to destroying the democratic illusions of the masses; at the same time they would come to grasp the necessity of illegal organization.

            This struggle must be carried out with the legal party that already exists. Every function which can be carried out openly and legally must be transferred to it; its program must gradually be strengthened and clarified; the duties of members must be increased and their discipline must be tightened; all with a view toward the goal of making it a real Communist party.

            We are hindered in carrying out these tasks by the fact that the great majority of members are comrades born abroad, mainly of Russian origin, who judge things not from the standpoint of the objective conditions prevailing in America, but on the basis of their subjective conceptions, which are based on events in Europe. This is why they oppose every attempt to realistically apply the Comintern's tactical guidelines to American conditions.

            The simultaneous existence of these two irreconcilable elements in the party is the real cause of the ineffectiveness and sterility of the American movement. The bitter disputes and splits which develop in the American party over every fleeting question are merely symptoms of the more deep-seated sickness in the party. The unity imposed by the Comintern has not resolved the problem in America, but only aggravated it.

            We ask the Comintern for a clear presentation of its guidelines concerning the questions mentioned above and request, in the event that a new split occurs in the course of realistically implementing these guidelines in America, that the Comintern not again insist on a mechanical formula for unity.

Signatures follow:

Marshall, Cook and Lansing
Minority of the delegation to the Comintern

By signing, the following comrades declare that they are in complete agreement with the above:

Starr and Marlow
Delegates of the Young Communist League of America to the Congress of the Youth International

Godfrey, Brooks and Knowles
Delegates of the Trade Union Educational League to the Congress of the Profintern

Communist Party of America regional organizer