James P. Cannon

Communist Candidates and the Farmer-Labor Party

Written: July 29, 1924
First Published: July 29, 1924, Daily Worker
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 was published in the Daily Worker. In it Cannon justifies the Workers Party’s sudden decision on July 8 to withdraw support from the Farmer-Labor Party candidates nominated at the St. Paul convention and instead run an election campaign in the name of the Workers Party. The Communist candidates were William Z. Foster for president and Benjamin Gitlow for vice president. The National Executive Committee of the Farmer-Labor Party, which was dominated by WP members, withdrew their candidates in favor of the Workers Party slate.

Why should any Communist be surprised or shocked if the Communist Party decides to take part in elections under its own name? This is the natural thing to do, and is being done constantly by Communist parties in all parts of the world. To follow another course there must be a series of special circumstances which offer decided advantages to the party in making a joint campaign with other groups of workers.

The decision of our party to enter its own candidates in the elections this year has met with general approval throughout the party ranks. The judgment of the Central Executive Committee and the special party conference in taking this decisive step has been confirmed by the great majority of the comrades with whom we have had the opportunity to discuss the present situation and explain in detail the reasons for our action.

Some questions, however, are arising in certain sections of the party. A number of comrades have come forward with objections and criticism, and it is necessary to answer them.

Some comrades fear we have abandoned the united front. They consider that our action represents the victory of the two extreme wings in our party, who, strangely enough, have been meeting on common ground in opposition to our participation in the Farmer-Labor Party, although for quite different reasons. Other comrades, who have yet a somewhat unclear conception of the purposes of the united front and who have been unconsciously falling into the habit of regarding the Farmer-Labor Party as an end in itself, have written to the National Office in recent days, requesting further explanation of our action. The bold decision of our party to stand on its own feet in the present campaign and enter its own candidates has taken their breath away.

It is necessary to answer both of these criticisms fully and adequately. In this article we will take up some questions raised by a party branch in the West, from the latter standpoint, leaving a discussion of the tactical significance of our recent decision for a later article.

We have said a thousand times, and we repeat it again, that our labor party policy is based on the united front tactics laid down by the Communist International. In order for us to take part in the labor party instead of conducting an election campaign under our own name, we must be able to see decided advantages in it from the standpoint of Communism and the Communist Party. A first and necessary condition must be the participation in the movement of large bodies of other workers who are willing to make a common fight with us on the basis of the class struggle. In such circumstances, we have the advantage of coming into contact with a workers’ mass movement, and if we have taken care to maintain the autonomy and independence of our party, we can do fruitful work therein for the principles of Communism. We can draw the masses of workers nearer to the Communist position, win them away from the false leadership of opportunist and progressive politicians and toward the leadership of our party. Only when all these conditions are present is it permissible to sacrifice even temporarily the tremendous advantage of putting up our own ticket, as is done in nearly every country in the world.

So much for the general theory underlying the labor party policy we have followed up to now.

Taking this theory as our basis, we were and are obliged to consider the concrete facts confronting us at every stage in the development of events. The statement of our party, printed in the Daily Worker on the day the candidacy of Foster and Gitlow was announced, correctly set forth the actual situation in the present campaign. Despite all our efforts to create a united front political movement under the banner of the Farmer-Labor Party on a national scale, we were not successful. The reasons for this failure are not far to seek. The basic reason, of course, is the almost complete domination of the organized labor movement by reactionary labor leaders and the labor aristocracy, which are opposed to independent political action by labor and to the class struggle in general. But besides this basic reason there were contributing factors which played an important part in killing the labor party in the present campaign. The treachery and cowardice of Fitzpatrick and his group in Chicago dealt the movement a heavy blow. The betrayal of the labor party movement by the Socialist Party played a part. On top of these, the tremendous sweep of the La Follette movement throughout the labor party generally had the effect of so neutralizing its class character as to make it impossible for us to hold any considerable section of it in line for a class fight on a national scale.

After the Cleveland convention of the CPPA we were confronted with the following facts:

1. There was not even one voice raised in the Cleveland convention against La Follette and for the Farmer-Labor Party. R.D. Cramer, who fought valiantly in the first Cleveland convention of the CPPA, sat mute in the convention of July 4th; Fitzpatrick had already gone back to the Gompers policy. William Mahoney, one of the outstanding pioneers in the labor party movement of the Northwest, swore allegiance to La Follette and to the movement that would not admit him as a delegate. Sidney Hillman was on the La Follette bandwagon. Even the Socialist Party, with Eugene V. Debs, surrendered unconditionally to La Follette, the petty-bourgeois politician, and cravenly gave up the fight for a labor party. Our hopes for a left wing at Cleveland which would fight for a labor party and join hands with the St. Paul Convention Committee on that issue did not materialize.

2. A large section even of the elements which took part in the St. Paul convention were unable to stand up against the tremendous pressure of the La Follette forces and capitulated to them. Even such pronounced Farmer-Laborites as William Mahoney of Minnesota, Kidwell of California, and many others who could be mentioned, found it easier to betray the interests of the working class and the principles of the labor party than to fight against the permeation of the poisonous doctrine of La Folletteism into the class movement. They were afraid to take an unpopular stand, although the interests of the working class clearly demanded it.

We discussed the situation for many days and considered it from all angles. We took up the state of affairs in every single state and discussed them in detail.

Taking the principle of the united front, as briefly outlined above, as our basis, we put the question to ourselves this way: If we can see a substantial united front mass movement that can be organized on a national scale under the banner of the Farmer-Labor Party, we will participate in it and go through the campaign as a part of the united front, maintaining, of course, the right of independent criticism and agitation. On the other hand, if there is no united front and no mass movement, if the Farmer-Labor Party represents in reality nothing but the Communists and a circle of close sympathizers, then the very foundation for our participation in the movement on a united front basis is taken away. Under such circumstances, we are duty bound to raise our own revolutionary standard and fight in our own name in order that we may not be hampered in making the most out of the campaign for the Communist Party and the Communist principles, which, in the final analysis, is the objective of all our work. Our fight is a fight for Communism. All our activity must lead to this.

The conclusion we finally arrived at, on the basis of the facts staring us in the face, was that the Farmer-Labor united front in the present campaign does not exist. With the possible exception of a few states such as Minnesota, Montana and Washington, there is no appearance of a Farmer-Labor mass movement, able to stand up against the La Follette wave. And even in these places the movement is gravely endangered by enemies from within.

This judgment of the Central Executive Committee was confirmed by a special party conference of district organizers, federation secretaries, party editors, and a number of other leading comrades from various sections of the country. Events which have transpired since this decision only pile up the evidence mountain high, to prove the accuracy of our estimate of the situation.

In view of these facts, to have conducted the campaign under the banner of the Farmer-Labor Party would not have been to the best interests of our party, which are one and the same thing as the interests of the working class. It would have meant that the whole burden of the campaign on a national scale would have fallen on the shoulders of our party. We would have been obliged to do practically all the work for the Farmer-Labor Party and pay most of the expenses. With the exception of a circle of close sympathizers, who will support the Communist candidates just as readily as Farmer-Labor candidates in most cases, there would have been no one to help us, no united front, no mass movement.

Moreover, to conduct such a campaign under the name of the Farmer-Labor Party would have meant to moderate the propaganda and tone down the whole campaign. We would not have been able to utilize the campaign meetings to the best advantage to promote our party and its press. We would have been operating under a form of camouflage when the political situation cries aloud for a direct and open fight, for a frontal attack from a revolutionary class standpoint against La Folletteism, and all the traitors to the labor movement who are following in its wake.

In a word, we would have been making all the immediate sacrifices from the standpoint of our party that a united front movement entails, without having a united front in reality, without having a mass movement.

Under these conditions the Workers Party had no alternative but to raise its own revolutionary standard and make the fight alone. All the others go over to La Follette, but the Workers Party stands and fights. It is proven in this campaign, at the very beginning of the workers’ independent political movement in America, as it will be proven in their final struggle, and at each decisive stage between then and now, that the Communist Party alone understands and defends the interests of the working class as a whole.

However, the principle of the united front, and the conditions under which we can and will take part in it, hold good now as before. The Workers Party has not retreated one inch from the ground which it has stood upon up till now in the labor party movement. It still stands for the creation of a broad labor party and will fight for it in the future as in the past. It will be the only party keeping the idea alive in the present campaign. Wherever there is a united front political movement embracing wider masses of the workers than we are able to draw around us for direct support of the Workers Party, we will take part in such a movement. We are ready and willing to do this now on a state scale, even though the conditions for such a movement do not exist on a national scale. In the state of Washington, for example, where we are of the opinion that the Farmer-Labor Party has some of the proportions of a mass movement, our policy will be to support the state ticket of the Farmer-Labor Party in the coming elections, providing it maintains its stand on a class basis and makes no alliances which will bring it under the leadership of petty-bourgeois politicians.

The Farmer-Labor Party of Washington is in no way jeopardized by the actions which we have taken on a national scale. If the leaders of the Farmer-Labor Party of Washington will stand their ground, the Workers Party will stand and fight with them. The same holds true in a few other states where there is a substantial state Farmer-Labor Party which will go through the campaign with its own candidates. The only condition we set up is that the Farmer-Labor Party must have some of the proportions of a mass movement, broader than the Workers Party and its close sympathizers.

We can understand how our decision to put Foster and Gitlow in the field may have taken some of the Labor Party leaders in the West by surprise. We were obliged to move quickly. Events were developing at a very rapid rate, and it was not possible for us to have lengthy and delayed consultations with Farmer-Labor people all over the country, much as we would have liked to do this, in order to come to a complete agreement with them before taking action.

The Workers Party has not betrayed the confidence of any sincere supporters of the Farmer-Labor movement. We stand now, as before, ready to go together with them in a common fight wherever it is possible to make a substantial showing. There is nothing in our recent decision to interfere with this.

There is another aspect to the question which it is necessary to speak about here. Their letter[1] seems to approach the question in all of its phases from the standpoint of the Farmer-Labor Party and from the standpoint of those Farmer-Labor leaders with whom we have been cooperating to a certain extent. We are sure that this attitude is an unconscious one and is the result merely of their far removal from the party center and of incomplete assimilation of the whole content of the united front tactic of the Communist International. But such an attitude puts the whole question on a false basis. Communists have to approach all these problems first of all from the standpoint of the Communist Party because it is the only party standing for the immediate and ultimate interests of the working class. Any activities we engage in that do not result in strengthening and building the Communist Party, in increasing its influence over the laboring masses and winning them away from the influence of all other groups and parties, does not serve the real interests of the working class as a whole. If we fail to do this, we fail to develop the instrument which is indispensable, not only for the final revolutionary victory of the workers, but also for all their immediate struggles which lead towards it—that is, an independent revolutionary party which stands up at all times for the interests of the working class as a whole and which leads the way at every stage of the fight.

If the united front fails in this, the united front is a failure and all our work is a failure.

The comrades of the western branch, lacking the complete information which determined our recent actions, found fault with what they considered a lack of frankness on the part of our party, and apparently have been influenced somewhat by the charges of our enemies that we have played some kind of a clever game with other groups in the Farmer-Labor movement.

There is no foundation for such an opinion. The Communist Party always draws up its policy independently of all other groups and parties, in accordance with what it considers to be for the best interests of the working class and the advancement of the revolutionary struggle. Of course this does not preclude an agreement on a given line of action with other groups willing to make a sincere fight together with us. But we cannot put aside our own judgment when questions arise which so vitally affect the welfare of the working class as the present election campaign. There is no secret about what we have done or why we have done it. It is no breach of faith with any honest elements in the labor movement, but a proof of loyalty towards the movement as a whole.

The comrades seem to be somewhat concerned as to whether we have not done “grave injustice” to some of the leaders in the Farmer-Labor Party who have not completely understood and agreed with our action at first. Communists need not be so sensitive. It is incorrect to come to the conclusion that the subordination of our own party is always the correct thing to do. We have had to ask ourselves quite seriously a number of times if the many concessions and compromises we have been making in order to maintain the unity in the Farmer-Labor movement have not led a number of our own comrades to consider that the Communist Party is in its proper place only when it is sitting in the back seat. The true function of the Communist Party is not to “go along” but to go ahead.

The Communist International never tires of dinning into our ears that our first reaction to all political maneuvers must be this: How does it increase and extend the influence of the Communist Party over the laboring masses?

Comrade Zinoviev told us once at a session of the Enlarged Executive: “Do not forget that we are not merely a workers party; we have to be a shrewd workers party.” Communists must never forget that we are dealing with all kinds of enemies in the labor movement, with all kinds of agents of the bourgeoisie, and with muddle-headed people who will lead the workers into the ditch if we allow their false conceptions to prevail.

We have to see to it that the Communist Party knows how to take advantage of every situation to strengthen the Communist influence over the masses and to strengthen the Communist Party. Only when we are doing this can we say that we are leading towards the real revolutionary struggle.

The proletarian revolution is the only solution of the labor problem and the Communist Party is the only party aiming at this goal. The Farmer-Labor Party, as such, does not do this and it cannot, under any circumstances, be regarded as an end in itself. Our work in the Farmer-Labor Party, in the united front in all its aspects, in fact, must be regarded by Communists as the Communist International regards it: a means of revolutionary agitation and mobilization. The German events and the verdict of the Communist International on them has settled this question for all time.


1. Cannon is answering a letter from a Western Workers Party branch critical of the party’s new policy. No such letter accompanies this article in the Daily Worker.

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