James P. Cannon

The History of American Trotskyism

Leaders and Policies of the Pioneer
Communist Movement in United States

Published: The Militant, Vol. IX No. 22, 2 June 1945, p. 6.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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We soon discovered that the organizers and leaders of the Russian revolution were not merely revolutionists of action. They were genuine Marxists in the field of doctrine. Out of Russia, from Lenin, Trotsky and the other leaders, we received for the first time serious expositions of the revolutionary politics of Marxism. We learned that they had been engaged in long years of struggle for the restoration of unfalsified Marxism in the international labor movement. Now, thanks to the great authority and prestige of their victory in Russia, they were finally able to get a hearing in all countries. All the genuine militants rallied around them and began studying their writings with an interest and eagerness we had never known before. The doctrine they expounded had a ten-fold authority because it had been verified in practice. Furthermore, month by month, year by year, despite all the power that world capitalism mobilized against them, they showed a capacity to develop the great revolution, create the Red Army, hold their own, make gains. Naturally, Bolshevism became the authoritative doctrine among revolutionary circles in all the workers political movements of the world, including our own here.

Forming the Left Wing

On that basis was formed the Left Wing of the Socialist Party. It had publications of its own; it had organizers, speakers and writers. In the spring of 1919 – that is, four or five months before the Communist Party was formally organized – we held in New York the first National Conference of the Left Wing faction. I was a delegate to this conference, coming at that time from Kansas City. It was at this conference that the faction virtually took shape as a party within a party in preparation for the later split.

The official organ of the Left Wing was called The Revolutionary Age. This paper brought to the workers of America the first authentic explanation of the doctrines of Lenin and Trotsky. Its editor was the first one in this country to expound and popularize the doctrines of the Bolshevik leaders. Thereby, he must be historically recognized as the founder of American Communism. This editor was a man named Louis C. Fraina. His heart was not as strong as his head. He succumbed in the struggle and became a belated convert to bourgeois “democracy” in the period of its death agony. But that is only his personal misfortune. What he did in those early days retains all its validity, and neither he nor anybody else can undo it.

Another prominent figure of the movement in those days was John Reed. He was no leader, no politician. But his moral influence was very great. John Reed was the American socialist journalist who went to Russia, took part in the revolution, truthfully reported it and wrote a great book about it, Ten Days that Shook the World.

The bulk of the membership in the early Left Wing of the Socialist Party were foreign-born. At that time, more than twenty years ago, a very large section of the basic proletariat in America were foreign-born. Prior to the war the doors of immigration had been wide open, as it served the needs of American capital to accumulate a great labor reserve. Many of these immigrants came to America with socialist sentiments from their home countries. Under the impact of the Russian revolution the foreign-language socialist movement grew by leaps and bounds.

The foreign-born were organized into language federations, practically autonomous bodies affiliated to the Socialist Party. There were as many as eight or nine thousand members in the Russian Federation; five or six thousand among the Poles; three of four thousand Ukrainians; about twelve thousand Finns, etc. – an enormous mass of foreign-born members in the party. The great majority rallied to the slogans of the Russian revolution and after the split from the Socialist Party constituted the bulk of the members of the early Communist Party.

The leaders of these Federations aspired to control the new party and did in fact control it. By virtue of these blocs of foreign-language workers whom they represented, they exercised an inordinate influence in the early days of the Communist movement. This was good in some ways because for the greater part they were earnest Communists and helped inculcate the doctrines of Bolshevism.

The Foreign-Language Blocs

But their domination was very bad in other respects. Their minds were not really in the United States but in Russia. They gave the movement a sort of unnatural formation and inflicted it at the start with an exotic sectarianism. The dominant leaders of the party – dominant, that is, in the sense that they had the real power because of the blocs of members behind them – were people absolutely unfamiliar with the American economic and political scene. They didn’t understand the psychology of the American workers and didn’t pay them too much attention. As a result, the early movement suffered from excesses of unrealism and had even a tinge of romanticism which removed the party in many of its activities and thoughts from the actual class struggle in the United States. Strangely enough, these leaders of the Foreign Language Federations were convinced, many of them, of their messianic mission. They were determined to control the movement in order to keep it in the pure faith.

Struggles in the Early Days

From its very beginning in the Left Wing of the Socialist Party and later in the Communist Party, the American Communist movement was wracked by tremendous factional struggles,. “struggles for control” they were called. The domination of foreign-born leaders created a paradoxical situation. You know, normally in the life of a big imperialist country like this, foreign-language immigrant workers occupy the position of a national minority and have to wage a constant struggle for equality, for their rights, without ever fully getting them. But in the Left Wing of the Socialist Party and in the early Communist Party this relationship was reversed. Each of the Slavic languages was very heavily represented. Russians, Lithuanians, Poles, Letts, Finns, etc., had the majority. They were the overwhelming majority, and we native Americans, who thought we had some ideas about the way the movement ought to be led, were in the minority. From the start we waged the struggle of a persecuted minority. In the early days we had very little success.

I belonged to the faction first in the Left Wing of the Socialist Party and later in the independent Communist movement that wanted an American leadership, an American direction for the movement. We were convinced that it was impossible to build a movement in this country without a leadership in control more intimately acquainted with and related to the native movement of the American workers. They for their part were equally convinced, many of them, that it was impossible for an American to be a real simon-pure Bolshevik. They wanted us and appreciated us – as their “English expression” – but thought they had to remain in control in order to keep the movement from becoming opportunist and centrist. Over the years a great deal of time was spent fighting out that fight which, for the foreign-language leaders, could only be a losing fight. In the long run the movement had to find native leadership, otherwise it could not survive.

The struggle for control assumed the shape of a struggle over organization forms. Should the foreign-language groups be organized in autonomous federations? Or should they be organized into local branches without a national structure or autonomous rights? Should we have a centralized party or a federated party? Naturally the conception of a centralized party was a Bolshevik conception. However, in a centralized party the foreign-language groups couldn’t be mobilized so easily in solid blocs; whereas in a federated party it was possible for the Federation leaders to confront the party with solid blocs of voting supporters in conventions, etc.

This struggle disrupted the Left Wing Conference at New York in 1919. By the time we got to Chicago in September 1919, that is, at the National Convention of the Socialist Party where the split took place, the forces of the Left Wing were already split among themselves. The Communists at the moment of their break with the Socialist Party were incapable of organizing a united party of their own. They announced to the world a few days later that they had organized not one Communist Party, but two. One holding the majority was the Communist Party of the United States, dominated by the Foreign Language Federations; the other was the Communist Labor Party, representing the minority faction, which I have mentioned, with its larger proportion of natives and Americanized foreigners. Naturally there were variations and individual fluctuations, but this was the main line of demarcation.

Two Parties, One Program

Such was the inauspicious beginning of the independent Communist movement – two parties in the field with identical programs, fiercely battling against each other. To make matters worse our divided ranks faced terrific persecution. That year, 1919, was the year of great reaction in this country, the post-war reaction. After the masters finished the war to “make the world safe for democracy,” they decided to write a supplementary chapter to make the U.S. safe for the open shop. They began a furious patriotic drive against all the workers organizations.

Thousands of workers were arrested on a nationwide scale. The new Communist parties bore the brunt of this attack. Almost every local organization from coast to coast was raided; practically every leader of the movement, national or local, put under arrest, indicted for one thing or another. Wholesale deportations of foreign-born militants took place. The movement was persecuted to such an extent that it was driven underground. The leaders of both parties thought it impossible to continue open, legal functioning. So, in the very first year of American Communism we not only had the disgrace and scandal and organizational catastrophe of two separate and rival Communist parties, but we also had both parties, after a few months, functioning in underground groups and branches.

The movement remained underground from 1919 until early 1922. After the first shock of the persecutions passed over, and the groups and branches settled down to their underground existence the elements in the leadership who tended toward unrealism gained strength, inasmuch as the movement was then completely isolated from public life and from the labor organizations of the country.

Factional strife between the two parties continued to consume an enormous amount of time; refinements of doctrine, hair-splitting, became quite a pastime. Then I, for my part, realized for the first time the full malignancy of the sickness of ultra-leftism. It seems to be a peculiar law that the greater a party’s isolation from the living labor movement, the less contact it has with the mass movement and the less correction it can get from the impact of the mass movement, all the more radical it becomes in its formulations, its program, etc.

Whoever wants to study the history of the movement closely should examine some of the party literature issued during those days. You see, it didn’t cost any more to be extra-radical because nobody paid any attention anyhow. We didn’t have public meetings; we didn’t have to talk to workers or see what their reactions were to our slogans. So the loudest shouters at shut-in meetings became more and more dominant in the leadership of the movement. Phrasemongering “radicalism” had a field day. The early years of the Communist movement in this country were pretty much consecrated to ultra-leftism.

The 1920 Elections

During the 1920 presidential elections the movement was underground and couldn’t devise any means of having its own candidate. Eugene V. Debs was the candidate of the Socialist Party, but we were engaged in a fierce factional fight with that party and mistakenly thought we couldn’t support him. So the movement decided on a very radical program. It issued a ringing proclamation calling the workers to boycott the elections! You might think that we could have just said, “We have no candidate; we can’t do anything about it.” That was the case, for example, with the Socialist Workers Party – the Trotskyists in 1940; because of technical, financial and organizational difficulties, we weren’t able to get on the ballot. We didn’t find it possible to support any of the candidates, so we just let the matter pass. The Communist Party in those days, however, never let anything pass without issuing a proclamation.

If I quite often show indifference to proclamations it is because I saw so many of them in the early days of the Communist Party. I lost entirely the idea that every occasion must have a proclamation. It is better to get along with fewer; to issue them on the mere important occasions. They then have more weight. Well, in 1920 a leaflet was issued calling for boycott of the elections, but nothing came of it.

Anti-Parliamentary Tendency

A strong anti-parliamentary tendency grew up in the movement, a lack of interest in elections which took years and years to overcome. In the meantime we read Lenin’s pamphlet, The Infantile Sickness of Left Communism. Everybody recognized – theoretically – the necessity of participating in elections, but there was no disposition to do anything about it, and several years were to elapse before the party developed any serious electoral activity.

Another ultra-radical idea gained predominance in the early underground Communist movement: The conception that it is a revolutionary principle to remain underground. For the past two decades we have enjoyed the advantages of legality. Practically all the comrades of the Socialist Workers Party have known no form of existence other than that of a legal party. It is quite possible that a legalistic bias has grown up among them. Such comrades can get some rude shocks in time of persecution because the party has to be able to carry on its activities regardless of the attitude of the ruling class. It is necessary for a revolutionary party to know how to operate even in underground formations. But this should be done only from necessity, never from choice.

(To be continued next week)

Last updated on 8 November 2018