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James P. Cannon

Conference on Moderating Factionalism

7 February 1927

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The following is an unpublished and unsigned summary by someone in the Ruthenberg camp of a conversation between Cannon, C.E. Ruthenberg and Ruthenberg’s key factional lieutenants, Max Bedacht and Jay Lovestone. Since his return from Moscow in the spring of 1926 Cannon had been operating separately from both the Ruthenberg CEC majority and the minority led by William Z. Foster. Cannon was campaigning for an end to factionalism in the party and he had won William Weinstone, New York district secretary and a former Ruthenberg supporter, over to his group on that basis.

Ruthenberg did not have the chance to act on the desire to moderate factionalism which he expressed in this conversation. He died suddenly on 2 March 1927. Ruthenberg’s death triggered an explosion of factional maneuvering for control of the leading party committees, with Lovestone assuming leadership of the Ruthenberg faction.

Ruthenberg: “The Political Committee meeting of Friday shows a drift and a marked tendency toward a sharp factional situation in the party. If such meetings continue we will have a sharp fight. If this goes further it means an open fight. In our opinion an open fight will endanger very seriously the party and all its work. For instance:

1. It will hurt us in our ability to meet the offensive launched against us by the reactionary trade union leaders.

2. It will weaken our connection with progressives.

3. It would undermine our work with the progressives.

4. It would destroy our campaign in the mining union and other organizations.

We must find a way of avoiding a fight. We want to know what is your attitude and what steps you think are necessary to avoid this fight.”

Cannon: “I feel the same way about it as you do. My opinion is nothing new. My position has not changed since I have come back from the Sixth Plenum. I stand on the same platform—genuine unity. The section elections in Chicago (five out of the six largest sections elected majorities on the executive committees giving full support to the CEC) are a contributing immediate cause for the sharpening of the factional situation.[1] At least this is so for the Fosterites but not for us.” Says he has been disturbed about the proceedings of the Committee in recent weeks particularly as to the question of the control of the party apparatus. The present majority is factional. In the last Polcom meeting he may have spoken a little too sharply about this matter but his speech was substantially an attack on this factional control only. Personally not in favor of a fight now.

Ruthenberg: Recites a number of facts indicating that we are not following a policy of elimination of Fosterites or Cannonites and mentions Baker, Johnstone, Dunne, Abern and others as being given and offered responsible party work. He says he is getting a feeling that some are developing an attitude of pure opposition to the appointment of any party member who was associated with the former Ruthenberg group. The question before us is what can be done.

Cannon: Emphasizes that he feels that the Committee is working on the basis of a definite hard bloc within it limiting the work of others. The situation in the Polcom must be corrected—that is the basic thing. Says we made an error in the procedure of electing Gitlow while Foster was absent and not waiting for Foster.[2] He supports in principle the policy that the Trade Union Committee should handle trade union appointments. We made an error in working otherwise since this gives Foster similar ground of complaint.

Ruthenberg: “In retrospect,” he said, “we can concede that we made an error as to procedure in handling the Gitlow case. It would have been better had we worked otherwise.” He recites the fact that Zack sent a letter insisting on immediate action before a certain date.

Cannon: “It was a big mistake to give Foster such grounds for a fight. It was bad for us, speaking for myself and those working with me, that we have to be put in the position where we must support Foster in such a fight. He might interpret our support as meaning something else. We have heard that the New York District Executive Committee is against Gitlow.” He doesn’t know the reasons for the change of Zack to Gitlow. He is surprised to see a fight develop over this.

Lovestone: Recites the facts as to the developments at the plenum and the conduct of the Fosterites being extremely factional. The chief aim of the opposition at the plenum was to discredit the American CEC. “The elections in Chicago are not a cause of the factional attitude of the Fosterites but an answer of the members to the factional practices against the CEC. Foster’s real reason for opposition to Gitlow was given to me by himself in Indianapolis when he said `Do you think I am going to surrender a hundred thousand workers to Gitlow’.” Examines facts of campaign launched against Pepper by the Fosterite opposition. Declares that he is hopeful of a party settlement. Examines Foster’s analysis of the objective conditions showing the danger in the points he emphasizes as leading him either to hopeless pessimism for the existence of a party or to a conclusion which would afford a theoretical basis for narrow sectarianism. Insists that we have frank discussions in these meetings.

Ruthenberg: Answers the hinted united front differences as indicated by Cannon in his previous remarks. Cites the danger of an anti-party attitude as indicated in the refusal of some comrades in Minneapolis to permit the party to issue a statement to the workers on the farmer-labor development.[3]

Cannon: Feels isolation for the party on the basis of some of the errors made in executing united front policy. Cites such errors as the selection of Weisbord for the tour, the insistence on the party being in the Foreign Born Council, the question of the All American Anti-Imperialist League, etc. Says a whole wrong tendency in these united front policies.[4]

Bedacht: Admits the existence of groupings in the party but he says there is no fundamental or basic differences. He is convinced that we may have potential differences but these potential differences should not be confused with immediate existing real differences. “Why do we have groupings in the party? As Jay said, very often it is due to a tendency to go into a struggle for power over every difference of opinion. As long as you have such groupings as we have today existing there will also be the other effect of making a power question out of every difference. There is a tendency to exaggerate differences under such conditions. Cannon speaks of right and left dangers. He cannot cite typical examples of such dangers. Today we do not have in the American party a crystallized right or left tendency. There is no outstanding individual leader for such tendencies. It is true, there may be individual inclinations. Some of us tend to make errors of a right character, others of a left character. (Interruption by Lovestone: “As Bittelman would say, I tend to make errors of a right character.”) But we have no definite conscious forces driving the party to the right or the left. The use of such expressions as ultraleftists in so careless a manner is only a result of existence of groupings which have no basis for existence. If Gitlow is ultraleft then it is a sin of our whole Central Executive Committee. Every one of us. What is the picture of the party today? A number of groups fighting for leadership. In analyzing the real significance of the 14-point document presented by Bittelman—Bittelman may now try to deny but the central point is—was the letter proposed by Bittelman sent to the party or not?[5] All right, it was not sent, that is the answer. When we discuss leadership we must discuss the question of the hegemony in any collective leadership. Who will have the hegemony in any collective leadership in the party? Will it be those comrades whose line is generally symbolized by Foster or will it be those generally symbolized by Ruthenberg? We ought to have an agreement as to this question. We should have a frank discussion in the CEC and Polcom. This is the question.”

Cannon: “These questions we have been having are all right. They have their value. But we should not think that unanimity is necessary for having unity. I do not like to see the same majority all the time in the Polcom. We cannot continue a closed group and at the same time dissolve other groups.” He had the same problem when he was a member of the old majority. It isn’t so easy to deal with Foster on the question of groupings. Says if we had dealt with the group problem in the way he suggested it would have been possible for us to dissolve the Foster group. We being the majority must take certain advances. We must depend more on certain agreements as to the main line in order to maintain our leadership. Believes that factionalism is played out and the party will not stand for anyone starting a factional fight.

Ruthenberg: Weisbord reported the same reaction of the party to factionalism as you mention.

Cannon: Generally these are true but it depends who will start the factional fight. Categorically declares he rejects the theory of hereditary leadership in the party. Claims that Foster and we have this conception of leadership.

Ruthenberg: Declares he was the only one to be against this group method of working but today he has changed his mind as a matter of self-defense.

Cannon: Declares that if we had dropped our closed organization then Foster would not have been able to maintain his opposition. Foster himself is a practical fellow and would then have to come along since he would lose support and would see that he has no possibility of getting anything out of maintaining an opposition.

Ruthenberg: Such a hope is the basis of Foster’s present attack.

Cannon: Declares that the dominating viewpoint in the Ruthenberg group is the factional control of the party. Emphasizes that he has been very peaceful.

Ruthenberg: Tells Cannon that we are planning a conference with Foster to discuss the same problems. “Foster’s fight or anybody else’s fight today would not be a fight to correct the errors of the CEC but to replace the CEC on the basis of factional issues. We will face such methods frankly and use our power if necessary.”

Cannon: Doesn’t agree that party is facing the alternative of Ruthenberg group or the Foster group. Believes in collective leadership. All comrades having ability should contribute. Doesn’t agree to the theory of four comrades in the Polcom constituting the leadership in the party. Feels he has ideas but is discouraged by the fact that he feels that he must always convince four or lose.[6] We are operating on a group basis, therefore we have been narrowing the apparatus. Fights the Shklar appointment and bitterly criticizes the method of getting him elected district organizer in Boston.

Ruthenberg: There are two roads before the party. One is the test of power, two is the group working together. The last Polcom meeting was road number one. Such a situation would mean an early convention. It would mean a fight for power. If it becomes a fight for power we would fight. The second road would mean that we work out matters beforehand before coming to a Polcom meeting. Maybe it would be a good idea to have you, Foster and myself get together before a Polcom and lay a basis for agreement. The question is, will we have a convention without a factional fight? A convention is necessary this year, within the next six months say. Can we come to an agreement beforehand? Can we work out in advance the organizational and political questions? Perhaps it would be best if we had a general discussion in the CEC without new motions dealing with the whole situation.

Cannon: Suggests that we first arrive at an agreement on the united front line. Criticizes our inner party line. Complains as to persecution of Fisher in the South Slavic case.[7]

Ruthenberg: This involves difficulties in removing other comrades who now have party work. If there would be an opening I have no objection to Fisher being placed.

Lovestone: Emphasizes that all those opposed to the Central Executive Committee or its policies should not be entrusted with serious responsible party work. Opposition to CEC no qualification for work in our party. Fisher works overtime to destroy CEC. This means to create factionalism in the party. Such comrades should not be given work until they change their behavior.

Cannon: “We have the question of the Finnish secretary. Your tactics in the Finnish Federation will bring about a break between the center and left bloc. This will strengthen the right.”

Ruthenberg: Declares the same Finnish Bureau as elected at last Finnish conference stands. No new majority was created. CEC does not actually have the majority of the Bureau.

Bedacht: Cannot see any difference between what Cannon calls a left and a center in the Finnish Federation. Says Cannon works mechanically on the center idea. Our experiences and the CI’s attitude show that it is a correct policy at the outset in establishing these big workers clubs to have the same secretary handle the work of the fraction and the clubs. We must control through the individual.

Cannon: Criticizes the procedure through which the Finnish Workers Club secretary choice was arrived at. We cannot measure the Finnish Federation with the same standards that we measure other federations of the party. They are not so well developed. We cannot lead the Finnish Federation with Goose Caucus elements. You will not isolate the right wing in that way.

Bedacht: “What do you mean by your collective leadership concept?” Examines the theory of taking chances. Is not correct position. It is not for the leading group to take chances. If they make a mistake no one can rectify it. It means the whole party makes a mistake. That is a mechanical viewpoint. Theoretically the minority has nothing to lose. It should be the one to take chances. (Cannon interrupts: “I disagree with your idea that you have the responsibility of the party.”) “Yes, we have. We have shown that we can avoid factionalism. Let us discuss the whole question of leaders thoroughly. Is your formless collective leadership possible or desirable? This is wrong. It is an anti-Leninist concept. In such a collective leadership there must be an outstanding general line.” Declares he is convinced by objections of Foster’s at the last plenum, also by many of his writings, that he is not a Leninist, that he is not a Marxist. “Do you want his line to be outstanding in the collective leadership?” Declares that he is convinced that a collective leadership with Foster’s hegemony would be bad for the party. It is an undesirable condition for the party leadership, therefore the collective leadership slogan you raise does not meet the case. Agrees that a closed group is not good. Reminds Cannon of conference he held with him in 1922 returning from Moscow for the need of a real group leadership. Group leadership is not necessarily exclusive. That is the kind of group leadership we want.

Cannon: Don’t let us discuss this too abstractly.

Bedacht: No, I am discussing very concretely. The issue is Foster vs. Ruthenberg. The name is not a question. The question is Communism.

Cannon: What is the difference but your practice always works out factional. The Ruthenberg group in my opinion is not a finished product. It has contradictory elements within it. It has some indispensable elements in it. I cannot conceive a party leadership without you three comrades. Some are useful only negatively. You have negative elements in your group. The useful tendency should be towards a fusion of all those qualified for leadership in the party. Only in such a situation can we avoid factionalism. He does not consider Puro, Minor or Engdahl seriously for leadership. As long as we maintain a rigid line such amalgamation is impossible. Believes the Committee has gone backwards since the Sixth Plenum. Does not believe in factional fight as a solution. Dynastic struggles for power of the kind we have had is no road for the party to travel. Suppose Foster gets a majority—this is no solution. In New York we have had progress towards real unity. New forces are developing in the party for leadership. The real task for the party leadership is consciously to foster this process of merger and fusion of the best elements. Until recently we have had no differences except as to inner line but recently we have been developing differences with you on the united front policy. This is due to the fact that you yield to pressure from your negative elements. Believes that our strength in the party is based on many language blocs that have a leftist outlook such as the South Slavic fraction. One of the great weaknesses of the Ruthenberg group is that it is based too much on these elements. It is true that the leftists have no leadership. You comrades are no ultraleftists but the leftists tend to throw their support to you. Your unity with us was a forward step because it tended to counterbalance these elements in your lines. Your disunity with us was bad, that is why the federation blocs could not stand for your unity with us. The ultraleftists may have no leadership, but by attaching themselves to other groups they can exercise pressure on these groups and question their policies.

Lovestone: We will continue this discussion later.

Meeting adjourned.


1. The party had been reorganized under the Bolshevization campaign. Party cells (nuclei) in each city were grouped into sub-sections and sections for the purposes of membership meetings and elections.

2. On January 20 the Ruthenberg majority on the Polcom had pushed through the appointment of Benjamin Gitlow as head of the New York Needle Trades Committee of the TUEL, replacing Joseph Zack. Foster was not present at the meeting, but his lieutenant, Johnstone, had proposed that a secretariat of Gitlow, Zack and Aronberg be appointed instead. Cannon supported Johnstone’s proposal.

The leadership of the party’s needle trades work was a particularly sensitive issue since the TUEL fraction had been leading the New York local International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. A bitter, militant six-month strike had just gone down in defeat. In December the national union leadership under Morris Sigman had stepped in, suspended the New York union leadership, and settled the strike on unfavorable terms.

3. A conference of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association on January 17 had approved a Workers Party-initiated motion calling for a national conference to found a labor party to run in the 1928 U.S. elections. At a Political Committee meeting on January 20 Ruthenberg had been particularly concerned to push this development as a big gain for the Communists.

4. The controversial Passaic strike leader Albert Weisbord was sent on national tour for the Workers Party in 1927. Foster had wanted him to tour under the auspices of a “National Committee for Organizing Textile Workers,” according to the minutes of the Political Committee meeting of 21 September 1926. Early in 1926 the party had been active in creating a national Council for the Protection of the Foreign Born, while in 1925 it had formed the All American Anti-Imperialist League. The AAAIL had headquarters in Chicago and was led by Cannon faction supporter Manuel Gomez. Max Shachtman was acting secretary of the AAAIL in Gomez’s absence. It claimed sections in 11 countries and published a monthly Spanish organ, El Libertador, in Mexico.

5. While in Moscow attending the Seventh Plenum of the ECCI in November-December 1926, Bittelman had written a document entitled “Points to Be Dealt with in Letter by Presidium to American Party.” The document detailed 14 points, including a critique of the party’s handling of the Passaic strike. Evidently Earl Browder, who was resident in Moscow at the time, helped to draft the document. There was no American Commission convened in connection with the Seventh Plenum, and the ECCI apparently rejected Bittelman’s critique.

6. The Political Committee at the time consisted of seven members: Ruthenberg, Lovestone, Bedacht, Gitlow, Foster, Bittelman and Cannon.

7. According to a report by the 1925 Parity Commission there were two warring groups in the South Slavic Federation, the Fisher group and the Novak group. The Fisher group supported the Foster-Cannon faction while the Novak group, which had a majority on the Federation Bureau, supported the Ruthenberg faction. The Bureau majority removed Fisher as editor of the Federation paper, Radnik, and tried to drum him out of the organization. For more details see the Cannon-Weinstone “Theses on the Party Factional Situation.”

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