James P. Cannon

The Lost Leader

Written: 1929
First Published: The Militant, New York, Volume 2, Nos. 9-10, May 1-15, 1929
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: D. Walters
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In the normal development of a revolutionary movement, its leaders grow in the course of protracted struggles; they are tested and retested in responsibilities; they become widely known to the rank and file and acquire a great moral authority as a unifying and guiding force. This was the case throughout the Comintern in Lenin’s day. He, above all others, understood the great role of leadership and explained, especially in his brochure “The Infantile Sickness of ’Left’ Communism,” its function, its organic connection with the masses, and the importance of its stability and continuity.

The regime of Stalinism, which revises and distorts all the precepts of Lenin, reduces the Leninist conception of leadership to a ghastly caricature. Nowadays, leaders are made to order from above, their authority is artificially conferred upon them, and they rule by decree. The moral and political authority of real leadership is replaced by the simple operation of apparatus mechanics. The party members, who play no real part in selection of leadership, never know from one day to another who their leaders will be; but experiences teach them to expect sudden changes and to be prepared to wake up any morning to confront a new set of leaders without prior consultation about the matter.

They learn also to remain calm at the spectacle of a bureaucrat wielding tsarist power one day and sinking without a trace the next. Sometimes there are interludes when nobody, least of all the party members, knows whether their leaders, politically speaking, are dead or alive, and they stand like ticket holders at a raffle, waiting to see what number will turn up.

We are now witnessing one of these strange interludes, and the leader whose fate is spinning on the wheel is none other than John Pepper, the scoundrel who put Communists in jail in Hungary and who has made a political living in recent years as a mercenary in the war against “Trotskyism.” Pepper is as transparent a charlatan, as characterless a demagogue, as ever strutted across the stage of the workers’ movement. But so much has corruptionist politics superseded the normal relations between leaders and masses, and the natural selection of the former by the latter—these qualities were no handicap to Pepper’s career in our party.

He bobbed up one day and assumed command in military fashion, putting the membership through some paces and forced marches from which they are still leg-weary and foot-sore. He marched them to the Federated Farmer-Labor Party and back again without a single bivouac along the way; and his comicopera crusades for the “Third American Revolution” and the “unarmed Spartacist uprising” in the South will surely receive mention when the history of the movement is written and everything can be told.

His most recent campaign was against American “Trotskyism.” He made the report against us at the December plenum, presented the motion for our expulsion, and wrote all the theses and declarations against us. He spoke there—a brief five months ago—as the leader of the party hurling mud at people who were fighting on the side of the workers when he was toasting the war with Austrian generals. But alas! Life is full of changes and uncertainties. Already the mighty Caesar has fallen and there are none so poor as to do him reverence.

The campaign against “Trotskyism” was his undoing. So much of the varnish was scraped off the party leadership in the fight that the setting up of a new “front” became a matter of urgency to the Stalin regime. Besides that, there was the little matter of the flirtation with Bukharin in the Comintern to look into more closely. The pushing forward of Foster as candidate for party secretary in place of the discredited Lovestone was the first move to change the appearance of the party leadership. The next was the demand that Pepper be taken for a ride to Moscow.

Pepper, who knows the racket, refused at first to take the ride. Insistent cablegrams, one after another, repeated the demand. Still Pepper did not go; America was his land of golden opportunity—why should he leave it? Finally after a peremptory demand threatening drastic disciplinary action, it was decided to give Pepper his ticket of leave. He forthwith disappeared, and many naive comrades actually thought he was on the high seas.

Came the dawn. And a telegram from Moscow asking where was Pepper and why. No answer and no Pepper. It was feared that he was lost, and the funny part of it all was the fact that the American working-class movement went on in blissful unconsciousness of its misfortune. Then suddenly Pepper turned up, and in New York City of all places! It seems that a keen-eyed Fosterite, strolling around the streets of Manhattan in search of the missing Apex Theory, perceived the lost leader slinking in and out of doorways and alleys around Union Square when he should have been slinking from boot to boot in Moscow. A hue and cry was raised immediately, the tocsin was sounded, and, after securing consent by cablegrams from Moscow, Pepper was expelled from the same Communist Party out of which he had expelled us only a short few months before. In expulsion, as in death, princes and paupers meet.

But matters did not end there. It soon transpired that Pepper had been in New York all the time, living not uncomfortably at a decent hotel, and that Lovestone, prior to his own departure for Moscow, had visited him there regularly even after he was supposed to have left the country.

These complications compelled a reconsideration of the decision. It was decided to brazen the whole thing out and to whitewash Lovestone by whitewashing Pepper. The latter helped with one of the most unique and fascinating alibis that has ever been concocted to our knowledge. The story, briefly, as told by Pepper in all seriousness to explain his apparent violation of discipline, was as follows:

He attempted to get to Moscow via Mexico. Disguised as a hot tamale he had crossed the border when the Mexican revolution broke out in full force. There he was seized by the rebels on a foraging expedition, who discovered, when they stripped the supposed tamale of its corn husk, that the inside was all Pepper and no corn meal. This made them suspicious, and they wrapped the corn husk around him again, loaded him into a big cannon, and shot him back across the border. He lit on his feet running north and kept going till he reached New York City to tell the Polcom about it. He was on his way to report when he was seen on the street.

Before the Foster-ites could think up an answer to this story, Pepper’s faction confederates rushed through a motion modifying the expulsion so as to allow him to proceed to Moscow and to refer the case there for final disposition. Thereupon, we are informed, Pepper left for Moscow immediately and was last sighted rolling eastward through Germany disguised as a keg of beer.

Meanwhile, the question of the party leadership hangs in the balance. How it will be settled the party membership have no way of knowing, since they are not consulted in the matter. But one thing is certain: There will be other Peppers; they grow plentifully on the tree of Stalinism. This one, who became a leader of the American party without election, who wielded authority without accountability, and who departs from leadership without even the knowledge of the party members or the leftwing workers who follow the party, is a symbol of the degeneration which has taken place in questions of policy. The situation in the Russian party is reflected in all the parties of the Comintern.