James P. Cannon

The History of American Trotskyism

The Great Positive Contributions of
the Pioneer Communist Movement

Published: The Militant, Vol. IX No. 24, 16 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 the first chapter of his book, Comrade Cannon told how the American Communist Party emerged out of the left wing if the Socialist Party in 1919. He described the “ultra-left” period when the party, forced underground by the anti-red terror of the post-war period, scorned all legal work. At the 1922 World Congress of the Communist International, Lenin intervened to aid a faction in the American party which wanted to come “above ground.” The underground organisation finally gave way to a legal party which could begin to work in the American tabor movement. This is the fourth installment of Cannon's book.

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Lecture II
Factional Struggles in the Old Communist Party

Last week I sketched the early pioneer days of American Communism. Even though I omitted much, touched only a few high spots, we weren’t able to pass the year 1922, the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, the legalization of the underground Communist movement and the beginning of open work. I spoke about the negative aspects of the early movement and the infantile sicknesses that plagued it, as is almost always the case with young movements, particularly the virulent infantile sickness of ultra-leftism.

But these negative aspects, the unrealism of much of the work, were far overshadowed by the positive side – the creation for the first time in America of a revolutionary political party founded on Bolshevik doctrines. That was the great contribution of pioneer Communism. A body of people organized a new political party. They assimilated some of the basic teachings of Communism. They habituated themselves to disciplined procedure, which is one of the prerequisites for the building of a serious workers’ political party. This had never happened before in the United States. They created the instrument of a professional leadership, likewise one of the most elementary requirements of a serious revolutionary party.

The Supremacy of Theory

The early movement of Communism demonstrated very powerfully the predominant influence of ideas over everything else. This was strikingly shown in the struggle for supremacy between the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the young Communist Party. In the pre-war days the IWW was a rather large militant labor movement. It entered the war as unquestionably the organization embracing within its ranks the largest group of proletarian militants. Yet the nucleus of the Communist Party came out of the Socialist Party. A considerable number of them were petty-bourgeois in origin, a large percentage young people without any experience in the class struggle. Thousands of them were foreign-born workers who had never been really assimilated in the class struggle in America.

Insofar as the human material was concerned, the advantages were all on the side of the IWW. Their militants had been tested in many fights. They had hundreds and hundreds of members in jail, and they used to look with something like contempt on this upstart movement talking so confidently in revolutionary terms. The IWW’s imagined that their actions and their sacrifices so far outweighed the mere doctrinal pretensions of this new revolutionary movement that they had nothing to fear from it in the way of rivalry. They were badly mistaken.

Within a few years – by 1922 – it became pretty clear that the Communist Party had displaced the IWW as the leading organization of the vanguard. The IWW, with its wonderful composition of proletarian militants, with all their heroic struggles behind them, could not keep pace. They had not adjusted their ideology to the lessons of the war and the Russian revolution. They had not acquired a sufficient respect for doctrine, for theory. That is why their organization degenerated, while this new organization with its poorer material, its inexperienced youth who had seized hold of the living ideas of Bolshevism, completely surpassed the IWW and left it far behind in the space of a few years. The great lesson of this experience is the folly of taking lightly the power of ideas or imagining that some substitute can be found for correct ideas in the building of a revolutionary movement.

The Party Attracts Trade Unionists

After we settled the basic fight with the ultra-leftists about legalization, the party came out into the open. It had already acquired complete hegemony, as I said, over the vanguard of the proletariat in this country. It was regarded on all sides, and properly, as the most advanced and revolutionary grouping in this country. The party began to attract some native trade unionists into its ranks. William Z. Foster, wearing then the glory of his work in the steel strike, and other trade unionists, a fairly large group, came into this foreign-born, somewhat exotic but dynamic Communist Party. The whole orientation of the party began to change. From underground squabbling, unrealistic disputes and over-refinements of doctrine, the party turned to mass work. The Communists began to occupy themselves with practical problems of the class struggle. The party gradually became “trade unionized” and took its first faltering steps in the American Federation of Labor, the dominant, practically the sole, labor organization at that time.

While we were fighting out the battle for the legalization of the party, we also fought to correct the party’s trade union policy. This struggle, too, was successful; the original sectarian position was rejected. The pioneer Communists revised their earlier sectarian pronouncements which had favored independent unionism. They now directed the whole dynamic force of the Communist Party into the reactionary trade unions. The chief credit for this transformation also belongs to Moscow, to Lenin, to the Comintern. Lenin’s great pamphlet, The Infantile Sickness of Left Communism, cleared up this question quite decisively. By 1922–23 the party was well on the road towards penetrating the trade union movement and began rapidly to acquire a serious influence in some unions in some parts of the country. This was particularly the case in the coal miners union and in the needle trades unions, and elsewhere, too, the party made its influence felt.

But simultaneously with this practical and wholly progressive work, the party plunged into some opportunist adventures. Apparently no party can ever correct a deviation, it must overcorrect it. The stick is bent backward. Thus the young party which a short time before had been concerned with the refinement of doctrine in underground isolation, having nothing to do with the trade union movement – let alone the political movement, the petty-bourgeoisie and the labor fakers – this same party now plunged into a number of wild adventures in the field of labor and farmer politics. The attempt of the party leadership through a series of maneuvers and combinations to form a large farmer-labor party overnight without sufficient backing in the mass movement of the workers, without sufficient strength of the Communists themselves, threw the party into turmoil. A new internal struggle was precipitated.

Faction Fights Raged Until 1929

The series of new faction fights which began in the year 1923, six months or so following the liquidation of the old fight over legalization, continued thereafter almost uninterruptedly up to the time that we Trotskyists were thrown out of the party in 1928. The fight raged until the spring of 1929 when the Lovestoneite leadership, who had expelled us, were themselves expelled. Thereafter the Stalinized Comintern stopped the faction fights by expelling everybody of any independence of character; and by selecting a new leadership that jumped whenever the bell rang. They achieved a peaceful monolithism in the party by bureaucratic measures. They achieved the peace of ideological stagnation and decay.

The faction fights which convulsed the party through all this time did not prevent the organization from doing a great deal of work in the class struggle, developing activities in many fields It established for the first time in this country a revolutionary daily paper. That was quite an achievement for a party of no more thar ten or fifteen thousand members. Propagandistic work was developed on a wide scale. Labor defense work was organized on a scope and basis never known before. Many innovations of a progressive nature were introduced into the labor movement by the Communist Party in that period. Virtually every serious strike that broke out came under the leadership of the party. Notably, the great Passaic strike of 1926, which attracted the attention of the entire country, was completely under the leadership of the Communists, who became more and more the unrivaled leaders of every progressive and militant tendency in the American working class movement.

A great many commentators and side-line experts, supplemented every now and then by a few disillusioned renegades, try to picture this early historical period, the early days of American Communism, as nothing but a mess of stupidity and error and fraud and corruption. This is a thoroughly false and utterly absurd appraisal of that period. The explanation of factional struggles in the early Communist Party lies in causes more serious than the bad will of individuals. I think that if one studies the development carefully, with some knowledge of the facts, he can deduce certain laws of factional struggle which will help him understand the outbreaks of factionalism in other workers political organizations especially new ones. And of course it is worthwhile mentioning – although the wiseacres never do – that faction fights were not the monopoly of the Communist Party. Since the beginning of politics every political organization has been wracked with faction fights. The factional troubles of the early Communists have attracted attention; and some of the negative features of them, the skullduggery practised in them, are written and talked about as though such things never happened anywhere else. Perversions of history are the specialty of side-line kibitzers like Eugene Lyons and Max Eastman and other triflers who never had one toe in the real struggle of the working class. Recently they have been joined by repentant renegades like Benjamin Gitlow, who got so thoroughly defeated and disillusioned that he rushed into the arms of the very American democracy which he started out as a young rebel to fight. What a pitiful picture a man makes embracing the doctrines of the masters who have broken his spirit.

They represent these faction fights as something utterly monstrous. They wax especially enthusiastic when they find something not exactly commendable from a moralistic point of view. They do not even stop to consider, let alone mention, the ethics and morals of Tammany Hall, or the Republican Party, or the utterly dishonest, corrupt, hypocritical and disgusting factional clique struggles that we saw in the Socialist Party. Only when they find something off-color in the early record of the Communist Party do they raise their hands in holy horror.

They do not realize that thereby they pay unconscious tribute to the Communist movement, as though to say: One has a right to expect something better from the Communist Party, even in its young days of juvenility and rickets, than from the stable political organizations of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie. And in that there is more than a kernel of truth. Means must serve ends. Anything that violates truth or honorable dealing in the revolutionary proletarian movement contradicts the great aims of Communism; it is out of place; it sticks out like a sore thumb. These qualities in bourgeois and petty-bourgeois political organizations – all their systematic lying, cheating, stealing and double-dealing – are native to these organizations, to the environment as a whole.

Causes of Factional Struggles

The factional struggles which marked the whole course of the Communist movement for its first ten years had numerous causes. It was not as though a gang of bandits combined together and then began to fight over spoils. That was not the case at all. There were no spoils. The overwhelming majority of people came to pioneer Communism with serious purposes and sincere motives to organize a movement for the emancipation of the workers of the whole world. They were prepared to make sacrifices and take risks for their ideal, and they did so. This is true of those who rallied to the banner of the Russian revolution in 1917 and built up the great movement which, by the time of the convention in Chicago in 1919, had between fifty and sixty thousand members. It is especially true of those who, after tremendous persecutions began, stayed with the party in spite of the arrests and deportations, the underground privations and hardships, the financial difficulties.

All those snivelers, who remained on the side lines because they were unable to make such sacrifices or take such risks, try to picture the pioneer Communists as morally corrupt elements. They simply turn the whole picture upside down. The very best elements were attracted to the party in the early days. They were further sifted .out by the persecutions and hardships of the underground time. No, the faction fights had something more behind them than the bad will of some individuals. There were, in my opinion, a few rascals, but that doesn’t prove anything. You are apt to find a rotten apple or two in any barrel. The causes of the prolonged factional struggles were more fundamental.

(Continued next week)

Last updated on 8 November 2018