James P. Cannon

What Happened at Portland?

Written:November 24, 1923
First Published: 1923
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.

The following article by Cannon concerns the refusal of the American Federation of Labor convention in Portland to seat Montana delegate and Workers Party leader William F. Dunne. It was published in The Worker.

Only six delegates, representing a voting strength of 130, voted against the expulsion of “Bill” Dunne, the Communist, at Portland, while 27,888 votes were cast for it. On the face of this showing, two conclusions are being drawn from the convention. The labor officialdom sees the labor movement again made safe for capitalism by this holy war against the Communists; while some elements in the radical labor movement, like the IWW and the OBU,[1] claim it proves their contention that the Communist policy of working within the conservative trade unions is a failure. They point to the shamelessly reactionary character of the entire convention, its open and cynical declaration of partnership with the masters against the revolutionary workers, its expulsion of the lone Communist, and say: “There is no hope here, no sign of progress.” Both of these conclusions are false.

The triumph of reaction at Portland appears only on the surface. The real victor was the Communist movement.

Communism was the victor because it was raised there into a living issue of the labor movement. It was the victor because it has penetrated in so short a time into the very citadel of the reactionary officialdom and made them recognize it as their most deadly enemy. It was the victor because the message of Communism was called to the attention of millions of workers by the tremendous amount of publicity given to the expulsion of Dunne. The Portland convention did not prove the falsity of the Communist tactics in the trade union movement. On the contrary, it proved that they are already beginning to register decided results.

Anyone who paid attention to the convention could see that these labor leaders are hand in glove with the bosses. Never before was the complete identity of their interest and viewpoint with those of the capitalists so clearly and dramatically revealed as it was at Portland. Major George Berry comes there directly after breaking the strike of the members of his own union in New York City. He is given a warm reception and Gompers calls on him for a speech. He boasts of his dastardly work in siding with the employers, and the convention votes approval of his actions. John L. Lewis gets up and tells how many district organizations of mine workers he has disrupted in his war against the militant rank and file, and the convention agrees that it was a good thing. The convention adopts a set of “principles” enunciated by strikebreaker Berry, the central point of which is the “recognition of the right of property in industry.” Amalgamation, the labor party, the recognition of Soviet Russia and every other proposal calculated to strengthen and regenerate the pitifully weak labor movement are defeated. Finally, Wm. F. Dunne, the Communist, the most hated enemy of the Anaconda Mining Company, the well-tried, intelligent and courageous fighter for the cause of labor, is expelled from the convention amid the plaudits of the open shop press. Many thousands of workers will look at this record and say that there is no difference between the men who made it and the employers. Many of them will look a little further and see that Communism, personified by comrade Dunne, stood there as the champion of everything these men were against.

Some workers are able to see only one side of the Portland convention. They say: “It is easy to see that these men are not workers at all and have nothing in common with the workers. What is the use to bother with them? You can’t expect to convert them to Communism, and as soon as you begin to carry on your work they will expel you from the unions. Why not leave them now and start new unions without them?” That looks like a simple and easy way out of the difficulty, but it does not solve the problem. These men dominate and control the official machinery of the trade unions which embrace the overwhelming mass of the organized workers in America. The problem is how to free the great mass of the rank and file from their influence. This cannot be done by leaving the old unions, because the rank and file workers do not follow. It can only be done by working amongst them in the old unions, and winning them over, by degrees, to a revolutionary position. Intelligent and systematic work, combined with the historical developments, which are all in our favor, will eventually do it. It is a process, and the events at Portland are a part of that process.

We have to expect that the reactionaries will go to extreme lengths before they will give up the control of the labor movement. The history of the world movement shows that they will not hesitate to split and disrupt the unions when their treacherous leadership is challenged. But these tactics avail nothing in the end. They can expel Communists but they cannot expel Communism. The Communists are destined to win because their platform corresponds to the actual needs of the working class. Splits and expulsions did not save the yellow leaders of the Russian unions and it is not saving the yellow leaders of the German unions. It will not save them in America if the revolutionary workers keep their heads and follow the right tactics.

Comrade Dunne’s service to our cause at Portland was a double one. He not only raised the issue of Communism there and forced it to be discussed, but he gave a splendid example to the whole working class of America of how a Communist conducts himself in the fight. He stood there in that den of business men and told the truth about them to their teeth. Even the capitalist reporters had to pay tribute to his brave and manly attitude. They said he was “bold and audacious”; that is to say, he was a Communist. He indicted the traitor leaders in burning words, pouring out the scorn that honest workers feel for them. He made the issue clean and sharp, standing proudly by his own good record and the principles of his party. One labor writer said about his speech: “It was a splendid, fearless answer, retracting nothing, apologizing for nothing.”

Is anyone so foolish as to think they killed comrade Dunne by expelling him from the convention? Even the capitalist press has some uneasiness on that score. The New York Times said: “The Federation action makes a new hero among the Communists and may give that propaganda a new impetus among the workers.” We can say that comrade Dunne is no new hero to us, but an old fighter in the ranks. The stupid reactionaries have now made him known to a much wider circle. By expelling him they have only given more life to the party they sought to kill. They have centered attention of thousands of workers on him, and the Workers Party, which he personified there, in such a way that the Workers Party in their minds will be identified with the picture of a working man standing there in that vast gang of agents of the capitalist class, fighting for the rank and file of labor and denouncing the traitors to their faces, putting forward all constructive proposals to better the trade unions and yielding not an inch in the camp of the enemy. There can be no doubt that the event will give the Communist propaganda a “new impetus among the workers.” Communism, after Portland, will have a stronger propaganda. It will not be eliminated from the trade union movement but will penetrate deeper into it. And comrade Dunne will play a bigger part in this work than ever before. The expulsion at Portland did not signify the end of Communism in the trade unions but the real beginning of it.


1. Evidently a reference to the syndicalist organization, One Big Union, formed in Western Canada in early 1919. OBU members were active in the May-June 1919 Winnipeg general strike, and the organization claimed over 41,000 members by the end of 1919. A small American offshoot was formed in June 1920. But by 1923 the entire North American organization was probably down to a few thousand members. In contrast to the IWW, the OBU eschewed all talk of direct action and violence; it organized its membership on a territorial, rather than industrial, basis.