James P. Cannon

History of American Trotskyism

Part I

Published: The Militant, Vol. IX No. 21, 26 May 1945, p. 6.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: This work is in the under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists’ Internet Archive/Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors, translators, proofreaders etc. above.

Lecture I
The First Days of American Communism

It seems rather appropriate, Comrades, to give a course of lectures on the history of American Trotskyism in this Labor Temple. It was right here in this auditorium at the beginning of our historic fight in 1928 that I made the first public speech in defense of Trotsky and the Russian Opposition, The speech was given not without some difficulties, for the Stalinists tried to break up our meeting by physical force. But we managed to get through with it. Our public speaking activity as avowed Trotskyists really began here in this Labor Temple, thirteen, nearly fourteen, years ago.

No doubt, in reading the literature of the Trotskyist movement in this country, you frequently noted the repeated statements that we have no new revelation: Trotskyism is not a new movement, a new doctrine, but the restoration, the revival, of genuine Marxism as it was expounded and practised in the Russian revolution and in the early days of the Communist International.

Bolshevism a Restoration of Marxism

Bolshevism itself was also a revival, a restoration, of genuine Marxism after this doctrine had been corrupted by the opportunists of the Second International, who Culminated their betrayal of the proletariat by supporting the imperialist governments in the World War of 1914–18. When you study the particular period I am going to speak about in this course – the last thirteen years – or any other period since the time of Marx and Engels, one thing is observable. That is, the uninterrupted continuity of the revolutionary Marxist movement.

Marxism has never lacked authentic representatives. Despite all perversions and betrayal which have disoriented the movement from time to time, a new force has always arisen, a new element has come forward to put it back on the right course; that is, on the course of orthodox Marxism. This was so in our case, too.

We are rooted in the past. Our movement which we call Trotskyism, now crystallized in the Socialist Workers Party, did not spring full-blown from nowhere. It arose directly from the Communist Party of the United States. The Communist Party itself grew out of the preceding movement, the Socialist Party, and, in part, the Industrial Workers of the World. It grew out of the movement of the revolutionary workers in America in the pre-war and wartime period.

The Communist Party, which took organizational form in 1919, was originally the Left Wing of the Socialist Party. It was from the Socialist Party that the great body of Communist troops came. As a matter of fact, the formal launching of the Party in September 1919 was simply the organizational culmination of a protracted struggle inside the Socialist Party. There the program had been worked out and there, within the Socialist Party, the original cadres were shaped. This internal struggle eventually led to a split and the formation of a separate organization, the Communist Party.

First Years of American Communism

In the first years of the consolidation of the Communist movement – that is, you may say, from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 until the organization of the Communist Party in this country two years later, and even for a year or two after that – the chief labor was the factional struggle against opportunist socialism, then represented by the Socialist Party. That is almost always the case when a worker’s political organization deteriorates and at the same time gives birth to a revolutionary wing. The struggle for the majority, for the consolidation of forces within the party, almost invariably limits the initial activity of a new movement to a rather narrow, intra-party struggle which dots not end. with the formal split.

The new party continues to seek proselytes in the old. It takes time for the new party to learn how to stand firmly on its own feet. Thus even after the formal split had taken place in 1919, through the force of inertia and habit and also because the fight was not really ended, the factional struggle continued. People remained in the Socialist Party who were undecided and who were the most likely candidates for the new party organization. The Communist Party concentrated its activity in the first year or so to the fight to clarify doctrine and win over additional forces from the Socialist Party. Of course, as is almost invariably the case in such historical developments, this factional phase eventually gave way to direct activity in the class struggle, to recruitment of new forces and the development of the new organization on an entirely independent basis.

Left Wing of Socialist Party

The Socialist Party Left Wing, which later became the Communist Party, was directly inspired by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Prior to that time American militants had very little opportunity to acquire a genuine Marxist education. The leaders of the Socialist Party were not Marxists. The literature of Marxism printed in this country was quite meager and confined almost solely to the economic side of the doctrine. The Socialist Party was a heterogeneous body; its political activity, its agitation and propagandistic teachings were a terrible hodgepodge of all kinds of radical, revolutionary and reformist ideas. In those days before the last war, and even during the war, young militants coming to the party looking for a clear programmatic guide had a hard time finding it. They couldn’t get it from the official leadership of the party which lacked serious knowledge of such things. The prominent heads of the Socialist Party were American counterparts of the opportunist leaders of the Social Democratic parties of Europe, only more ignorant and more contemptuous of theory. Consequently, despite their revolutionary impulses and spirit, the great mass of young militants of the American movement were able to learn little Marxism; and without Marxism it is impossible to have a consistent revolutionary movement.

Bolshevik Revolution Changed Everything

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia changed everything almost overnight. Here was demonstrated in action the conquest of power by the proletariat. As in every other country, the tremendous impact of this proletarian revolutionary victory shook our movement in America to its very foundation. The inspiration alone of the deed enormously strengthened the revolutionary wing of the party, gave the workers new hope and aroused new interest in those theoretical problems of revolution which had not received proper recognition before that time.

(This is the first installment of James P. Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism. The second installment will appear next week.)

Last updated on 8 November 2018