James P. Cannon

Labor Action

San Francisco—November 28, 1934

In the Spirit of the Pioneers

[Below is an article written by SWP leader James P. Cannon for the West Coast socialist newspaper Labor Action.—Editor]

AT the Thomas meeting in Los Angeles during the campaign, William Velarde, leader of the agricultural workers’ union in southern California, out on bail furnished by the Non-Partisan Labor Defense, made a speech in which he frankly stated: “The Socialist Party and the Young People’s Socialist League were the backbone of our strike.” In San Francisco, two months before the waterfront tie-up, the Socialist Local held a public mass meeting under its own auspices, with prominent leaders of the maritime unions on the platform, to popularize the labor side of the controversy with the shipowners and state the position of the party; and newly recruited young socialist activists were in the forefront of the Salinas battle and won a secure place for themselves and their party in the hearts of the militants there.

Throughout this period the party in California found time to conduct a fairly active general agitation-the writer alone spoke at 19 meetings through the state; Glen Trimble and other party leaders were on the firing line -- and the YPSL conducted a successful summer school at which the weighty problems of revolutionary theory and practice were elucidated by young Marxists who know what they are talking about. On top of this the Workers Defense League has been firmly established as a bona fide non-partisan defense organization mainly through the initiative and participation of socialists.

These variegated activities, this combination of energetic agitation, theoretical inquiry and resolute, courageous participation in the mass struggles of the workers was organized and conducted under the general head of what the revitalized party in California understands as an election campaign. Net results: It didn’t succeed in stemming the Roosevelt landslide when it came to votes-the socialist campaign lacked the forces and resources, and the Roosevelt movement was too strong and too deep, for such a result-but the party and the YPSL increased their membership, strengthened and tempered their organizations and telescoped the closing of the election campaign into a drive to launch a weekly socialist paper.

And that’s what counts. Short-sighted people, snivellers and vote-catchers can talk all they want to about socialist “defeat and disintegration” in the elections. We haven’t noticed it here. We don’t know yet how matters stand in other parts of the country, but here in California the party is not groggy, but up and on its toes and fighting. Our election campaign was only a training school of all-round socialist activity and a prelude to deeper and broader struggles. That’s primarily what election campaigns are for anyway.

I’ve been around and seen a lot since I first joined the I.W.W. in 1911 and, soon afterward, became one of the “voluntary organizers” who got their training in Vincent St. John’s school of learning by doing; but it seems to me that the California socialists, especially the YPSL, have as much of the militant crusading spirit of the old movement as any group I have worked with throughout that fairly long stretch of years.

“The Saint”, of affectionate memory, was a wonderful man to learn from. He was short on palaver and had some gaps in his theory, but he was long on action and he was firmly convinced that the water is the only place where a plan can learn to swim. His way of testing, and also developing, the young militants who grew up under his tutelage was to give them responsibility and shove them into action and see what happened. Those who acquired self-confidence and the capacity to make decisions under fire on the spot, which are about 90 percent of the distinctive quality of leaders and organizers, eventually received credentials as voluntary organizers. Thereafter they enjoyed a semi-official status in the strikes and other actions which marked the career of the I.W.W. in its glorious heyday. The shock troops of the movement were the foot-loose militants who moved around the country as the scene of action shifted.

As is more or less chronically the case in revolutionary organizations, which are historically fated to be poor until they win the final victory and have no need of money, there was very little cash in the treasury in those days. That’s why the organizers’ credentials as a rule were marked “voluntary” -- so that they would not get ridiculous ideas into their heads about the responsibility of the organization for their food and shelter from wind and rain. True, St. John’s first thought was always for the man in the field, and he had a marvelous and unfailing ability to dig up a couple of dollars in a pinch. But for the most part, the voluntary organizers foraged, producing activity wherever they went and finding sustenance one way or another, preaching the gospel in the manner of the early Christians and, like them, living by the gospel. By and large this was the story also of the pioneer socialist agitators of the time.

I think to this day that the spirit, method and technique of the pre-war socialist and I.W.W. movements belong naturally and of necessity to a genuine proletarian movement growing indigenously in the soil of America. This tradition is a rich heritage which the new generation of revolutionary militants must make their own.

It is imperative, of course, that our youth deeply ponder the great lessons to be derived from the world experience of the working class since 1914. Then they will be able to see clearer, and work with a better sense of direction, than the pioneers of an earlier day upon whose shoulders they stand. But the makers of the new movement, if they really want to make it move, must be fired with the spirit of the pioneers, with the courage, self-sacrifice and purposeful activism for which the names of Bill Haywood and Gene Debs and Ben Hanford and Vincent St. John are unforgettable and inspiring symbols.

The socialist movement, if it is really socialist, is a poor man’s movement, which operates every day in defiance of the rules of bookkeeping and the bankruptcy laws and cannot hire high-priced experts to bring about the socialist society. Those who have gone before us have shown how to make out in spite of all that. Debs campaigned for the presidency for the party wage of $3 a day, and in 1917 they had to take up a collection in New York to send Trotsky to Russia to organize a revolution.

We have no subsidy to draw on, and that is very probably a good thing. Subsidy is all to easily converted into a corrupting influence, as the sorry degeneration of Stalin’s jumping-jack parties so eloquently testifies. Better for the movement to stand on its own feet and pay its own way as best it can. Better to draw on the hidden and financially intangible resources of enthusiasm, conviction and self-sacrifice of party militants who dare to “storm the heavens”.

These are the main resources which have sustained the party in California during the recent months and finally nerved it to undertake such a heroic enterprise as the launching of a weekly paper on the heels of an election campaign. If the party, a numerically small organization, weakened by the mass exodus of Epic utopians, and still further attenuated by new desertions since the Old Guard split, could develop a healthier and more rounded activity during the election campaign than ever before, and grow stronger and more cohesive in the process, then we have a right to conclude that we are on the right track and to calculate that the coming months will bring new successes and increased strength.