James P. Cannon

The History of American Trotskyism

The Deadly Virus of Ultra-Leftism
in American Communism’s Early Days

Published: The Militant, Vol. IX No. 23, 9 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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In previous installments Comrade Cannon described the emergence of the early American Communist Party out of the left wing of the Socialist Party in 1919. Forced underground by the post-war anti-red terror, the Communist Party was separated from the mass movement. It became ultra-radical, “ultra-left,” scorning parliamentary action and even regarding underground work as a “revolutionary principle.” This is the third installment, from Chapter 1.

* * *

After a person experiences both underground and open political organization, he can easily convince himself that the most economical, the most advantageous is the open one. It is the easiest way of coming in contact with workers, the easiest way of making converts. Consequently, a genuine Bolshevik, even in times of sharpest persecution, tries always to grasp and utilize every possibility to function in the open. If he can’t say everything he wants to say openly, he will say as much as he can – and supplement legal propaganda by other methods.

In the early Communist movement, before we had properly assimilated the writings and teachings of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, a tendency grew up to regard the underground party as a principle. As time went on and the wave of reaction receded, possibilities for legal activities opened up. But tremendous factional struggles were necessary before the party took the slightest step in the direction of legalizing itself. The absolutely incredible idea that the party can’t be revolutionary unless it is illegal was actually accepted by the majority in the Communist movement in 1921 and early 1922.

Virus of Ultra-Leftism

On the trade union question “radicalism” held sway, too. It is a terrible virus, this ultra-leftism. It thrives best in an isolated movement. That’s always where you find it at its worst – in a movement that is isolated from the masses, gets no corrective from the masses. You see it in these split-offs from the Trotskyist movement – our own “lunatic fringe.” The less people listen to them, the less effect their words have on the course of human events, the more extreme and unreasonable and hysterical they become in their formulations.

The trade union question was on the agenda of the first underground convention of the Communist movement. This convention celebrated a split and a unification too. A faction headed by Ruthenberg had split away from the Communist Party, dominated by the foreign-language groups. The Ruthenberg faction met in joint convention with the Communist Labor Party to form a new organization called the United Communist Party in May 1920 at Bridgeman, Michigan. (This, is not to be confused with another convention at Bridgeman in August 1922 which was raided by the police.) The United Communist Party gained the upper hand and merged with the remaining half of the original Communist Party a year later.

The 1920 Convention, I remember very distinctly, adopted a resolution on the trade union question. In the light of what has been learned in the Trotskyist movement, it would make your hair stand on end. This resolution called for “boycott” of the American Federation of Labor. It stated that a party member who “is compelled by job necessity” to belong to the AFL should work there in the same way that a Communist works in a bourgeois Congress – not to build it up but to blow it up from within. That nonsense was later corrected along with many other things. Many people who committed these stupidities later learned and did better in the political movement.

Following the Russian revolution the young generation, revolting against opportunist betrayals of the Social Democrats, took radicalism in too big doses. Lenin and Trotsky led the “Right Wing” – that is what they demonstratively called their tendency – at the Third World Congress of the Communist International in 1921. Lenin wrote his pamphlet, The Infantile Sickness of Left Communism, directed against the German leftists, taking up questions of parliamentarianism, trade unionism, etc. This pamphlet, together with the Congress decisions, did a great deal in the course of time to liquidate the leftist tendency in the early Comintern.

I don’t at all want to picture the founding of American Communism as a circus, as the side-line philistines do. It wasn’t, by any means. There were positive sides to the movement, and the positive sides predominated. It was composed of thousands of courageous and devoted revolutionists willing to make sacrifices and take risks for the movement. In spite of all their mistakes, they built a party the like of which had never been seen in this country before; that is, a party founded on a Marxist program, with a professional leadership and disciplined ranks. Those who went through the period of the underground party acquired habits of discipline and learned methods of work which were to play a great role in the subsequent history of the movement. We are building on those foundations.

They learned to take program seriously. They learned to do away for ever with the idea that a revolutionary movement, aiming at power, can be led by people who practice socialism as an avocation. The leader typical of the old Socialist Party wag a lawyer practising law, or a preacher practising preaching, or a writer, or a professional man of one kind or another, who condescended to come around and make a speech once in a while. The full-time functionaries were merely hacks who did the dirty work and had no real influence in the party. The gap between the rank and file workers, with their revolutionary impulses and desires, and, the petty-bourgeois dabblers at the top was tremendous.

The early Communist Party broke away from all that, and was able to do it easily because not one of the old type leaders came over wholeheartedly to the support of the Russian revolution. The party had to throw up new leaders out of the ranks, and from the very beginning the principle was laid down that these leaders must be professional workers for the party, must put their whole time and their whole lives at the disposal of the party. If one is thinking of a party that aims to lead the workers in a real struggle for power, then no other type of leadership is worth considering.

The Work of Education

In the underground the work of education, of assimilating the writings of the Russian leaders, went on. Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek, Bukharin – these were our teachers. We began to be educated in an entirely different spirit from the old lackadaisical Socialist Party – in the spirit of revolutionists who take ideas and program very seriously. The movement had an intensive internal life, all the more so because it was isolated and driven back upon itself. Faction struggles were fierce and long drawn out.

The movement began to stagnate in the underground blind alley. A few of us in the leadership began to seek a way out, a way to approach the American workers by legal means. These efforts were resisted fiercely. We formed a new faction. Lovestone was closely associated with me in the leadership of this faction. Later we were joined by Ruthenberg upon his release from prison in the spring of 1922.

For a year and a half, two years, this struggle continued unabated, the fight for the legalization of the movement. Resolute positive struggle on our side, equally determined resistance on the other by people convinced in their bones that this signified some kind of betrayal. Finally in December 1921, having a slender majority in the Central Committee, we began to move, taking one careful step at a time, towards legality.

We couldn’t legalize the party as such, the resistance in the ranks was still too strong, but we did organize some legal groups for holding lectures. We next called a convention to federate these groups into a central body called the American Labor Alliance, which we converted into a propaganda organization. Then in December 1921, we resorted to the device of organizing the Workers Party as an open, legal organization in addition to the underground Communist Party. We could not dispense with the latter. It was not possible to get a majority to agree to that, but a compromise was effected whereby while retaining the underground party, we set up the Workers Party as a legal extension. Two or three thousand die-hard undergrounders revolted against even this makeshift move toward legality, split away and formed their own organization.

We continued with two parties – a legal and an illegal one. The Workers Party had a very limited program, but it became the medium through which all our legal public activity was carried on. Control rested in the underground Communist Party. The Workers Party encountered no persecution. The reactionary wave had passed, a liberalistic political mood prevailed in Washington and in the rest of the country. We were able to hold public meetings and lectures, publish newspapers, participate in election campaigns, etc. Then the question arose, did we need this encumbrance of two parties? We wanted to liquidate the underground organization, concentrate all our activity in the legal party, and take a chance on further persecution. We met renewed opposition.

The fight went on uninterruptedly until we finally appealed the matter to the Communist International at the Fourth Congress in 1922. At that Congress I was the representative of the “liquidators” faction, as we were called. This name comes from the history of Bolshevism. At one time following the defeat of the 1905 revolution, a section of the Mensheviks came forward with a proposal to liquidate the underground party in Russia and confine all activity to Czarist “legality.” Lenin fought this proposal and its proponents savagely, because it signified a renunciation of revolutionary work and organization. He denounced them as “liquidators.” So naturally, when we came forward with a proposal to liquidate the underground party in this country, the leftists with their minds in Russia mechanically transferred Lenin’s expression and denounced us as “liquidators.”

Appeal to Fourth Congress

So we went to Moscow to fight it out before the Communist International. That was the first time I met Comrade Trotsky. In the course of our struggle we tried to get support from individual members of the Russian leadership. In the summer and fall of 1922 I spent many months in Russia. For a long time I was somewhat of a pariah because this campaign about “liquidators” had reached ahead of us, and the Russians didn’t want to have anything to do with liquidators. Unacquainted with the situation in America, they tended to be prejudiced against us. They assumed that the party had really been outlawed; and when the question was put to them they were inclined to say off-hand: “If you cannot do your work legally do it illegally, but you must do your work.”

But that wasn’t really how matters stood. The political situation in the United States made a legal Communist Party possible. That was our contention, and all further experience has proved it. Finally, I and some other comrades met with Comrade Trotsky and expounded our ideas for about an hour. After asking a few questions when we had finished, he said:

“That is enough. I will support the ‘liquidators’ and I will talk to Lenin. I am sure he will support you. All the Russians will support you. It is just a question of understanding the political situation. It is absurd to bind ourselves in an underground straitjacket when it is not necessary. There is no question about that.”

We asked if he would arrange for us to see Lenin. He told us that Lenin was ill but, if necessary, if Lenin did not agree with him, he’d arrange for us to see him. In a few days the knot began to unravel. A Congress Commission was set up on the American question and we went before the Commission to debate. Already the word had passed down that Trotsky and Lenin favored the “liquidators” and the tide was turning in our favor.

In the discussion at the Commission hearing Zinoviev made a brilliant speech on legal and illegal work, drawing on the vast experience of the Russian Bolsheviks. I have never forgotten that speech. The memory of it serves our party in good stead to this day and will do so in the future, I am sure. Radek and Bukharin spoke along the same lines. These three were in those days the representatives of the Russian Communist Party in the Comintern. The delegates of the other parties, after full and thorough debate, gave complete support to the idea of legalizing the American Communist Party.

The Party Becomes Legal

With the authority of the Comintern World Congress behind the decision, the opposition in the United States soon subsided. The Workers Party, which had been formed in 1921 as a legal extension of the Communist Party, held another convention, adopted a clearer program and completely replaced the underground organization. All experience since 1923 has demonstrated the wisdom of that decision. The political situation here justified legal organization. It would have been a terrible calamity and waste and crippling of revolutionary activity to remain underground when it was not necessary. It is very important that revolutionists have the courage to take those risks which can’t be avoided. But it is equally important, I think, that they have enough prudence to avoid unnecessary sacrifices. The main thing is to get the work done in the most economical and expeditious manner possible.

A final remark on this question: One little group remained unreconciled to the legalization of the party. They were going to remain underground in spite of us. They were not going to betray Communism. They had their headquarters in Boston and a branch in Cleveland. Every once in a while through the years we would hear of this underground group issuing a pronouncement of some kind.

Seven years later, after we had been expelled from the Communist Party and were organizing the Trotskyist movement, we heard that this group in Boston was somewhat sympathetic to Trotskyist ideas. This interested us, as we were badly in need of any support we could get.

On one of my visits to Boston the local comrades arranged a conference with them. They were very conspiratorial and took us in the old underground manner to the meeting place. A formal committee met us. After exchanging greetings, the leader said, “Now, Comrade Cook, you tell us what your proposition is.” Comrade “Cook” was the pseudonym he know me by in the underground party. He was not going to trifle with my legal name in an underground meeting. I explained why we had been expelled, our program, etc. They said they were willing to discuss the Trotskyist program as the basis for unity in a new party. But they wanted agreement first on one point: The party we were going to organize would have to be an underground organization. So I passed a few jokes with them and went back to New York. I suppose they are still underground.

Now, Comrades, all this is a sort of background, an introduction to the history of our Trotskyist movement. Next week I will deal with the further development of the Communist Party in the early years prior to our expulsion and the reconstitution of the movement under the banner of Trotskyism.

(To be continued next week)

Last updated on 8 November 2018