James P. Cannon

The History of American Trotskyism

How a New Militant Leadership Arose
in the Pioneer Communist Movement

Published: The Militant, Vol. IX No. 25, 23 June 1945, p. 5.
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 American Communist Party from the left wing of the Socialist Party in 1919. He told of its “ultra left” period of underground work, and the organisation of a legal party which in 1923 could begin to influence the American labor movement. As the Communist Party began to attract trade unionists, problems of the class struggle came to the foreground. With the changing composition of the party a series of factional struggles began. The fundamental reasons for those struggles is told in this issue. This section from chapter two is the fifth installment.

* * *

In my first lecture I explained the tremendous contradiction implicit in the composition of the party. On one side stood the predominantly foreign-language membership with their unrealistic approach to the problem of building a movement in, a country where they were not yet assimilated; with their fanatical conception that they had to control the movement, not for personal gain, but in order to preserve the doctrine which they thought they alone understood. On the other side stood the numerically smaller group of Americans who, even if they did not understand the doctrine of Communism as well as the foreigners – and that was also the case – were convinced that the movement must have an American orientation and an indigenous leadership. This very contradiction fed the factional struggle.

Then there was another factor: the lack of experienced, authoritative leaders. The movement mushroomed almost overnight after the 1917 victory in Russia. All the old authoritative leaders of the Socialist Party rejected Bolshevism and stuck to the safe channels of reformism. Hillquit and Berger, all the big names of the party, turned their backs on the Russian revolution and the aspirations of the young revolutionists in the movement. Even Debs, who expressed sympathy, remained with the party of Hillquit and Berger when the showdown came. The new movement had to find new leaders; those who came to the fore were mostly unknown men, without great experience and without personal authority.

It required a whole series of prolonged faction; fights for the party to be able to see who were the more qualified leaders and who the accidental figures. Administrations changed rapidly from one convention to another. Temporary, casual people were thrust aside, shouldered aside in these fierce factional fights where if you couldn’t stand up and take it, you were shoved aside and knocked down. Many who appeared to have leadership ability one year, and were elected accordingly, would be swept aside the second year and replaced by previously unknown men. All this was a process of selecting leaders in the course of struggle. Is there some other way to do it? I don’t know where it has ever been done. An authoritative body of leaders, able to maintain their continuity with the firm support of the party – I don’t know how or where any such leadership was ever consolidated except through internal struggles. Engels once wrote that internal conflict is the law of development of every political party. It certainly was the law of development of the early American Communist movement. And not only the early Communist Party; but also the early days of its authentic successor, the Trotskyist movement.

The Movement Evolves Through Experience

Once a movement has evolved through experience and through struggle and internal conflict to the point where it consolidates a body of leaders who enjoy wide authority, who are capable of working together and who are more or less homogeneous in their political conceptions, then faction struggles tend to diminish. They become rarer and are less destructive. They take different forms, have more clearly evident ideological content and are more instructive to the membership. The consolidation of such a leadership becomes a powerful factor in mitigating and sometimes preventing further faction fights. We in the early Communist movement did eventually consolidate a fairly stable leadership, but of a peculiar structure which again reflected the contradiction in the composition of the party. After four or five years of this knocking, around, it became quite clear to everybody just who the leaders of the American Communist movement were. And they weren’t the people who had been the leaders in 1919–20. Very few of the early leading staff of the movement survived these fights.

The leadership which finally came to the fore in the early Communist movement – and this is a very interesting aspect of its history – didn’t consolidate as a single homogeneous group. That was because the party itself was not homogeneous. Instead of a unified leadership with authority and influence over the party as a whole, the outstanding leaders were leaders of factions which reflected the contradictions in the party. The new faction fight that began in 1923, primarily over the question of adventurism in the farmer-labor political movement, and then extended to all the problems of our practical work, our approach to the American workers, methods of trade union work – this protracted struggle was clearly a reflection of the contradictions in! the social composition of the party and the different origins and background of the groups.

The fight was organized by Foster and me against what was then the majority, Ruthenberg, Lovestone, Pepper, etc. It soon became apparent that the composition of our grouping was that of a trade union, proletarian faction. Supporting us was the great bulk – practically all – of the trade unionists, experienced American workers, militants and the more Americanized foreigners.

Pepper-Ruthenberg-Lovestone had most of the intellectuals and the less-assimilated foreign-born workers. The typical leaders of their faction, including the typical second-line leaders, were City College boys, young intellectuals without experience in the class struggle. Lovestone was the outstanding example. They were very clever fellows. On the whole they undoubtedly had more book knowledge than the leaders of the other faction and they knew how to make full use of their advantages. They were tough customers to deal with. But we also knew a thing or two, including things never learned in books, and we gave them plenty of trouble.

This fight for control of the party was ferocious, with no holds barred on either side, carried on from year to year regardless of who had the majority at the moment. Sometimes the immediate fight became focalized in what appeared to be unimportant issues. For example, where should the national headquarters of the party be located? Our faction said Chicago; the other faction said New York. We fought over that. But not because we were such stupid fellows, as the kibitzers represent. We thought that if we could move the headquarters to Chicago it would tend to give the party a more American orientation, bring it closer to the mine fields, closer to the center of the American labor movement. We wanted to proletarianize and Americanize the party. Their insistence upon New York had political motivation too. New York had a strong petty-bourgeois element in the party; intellectuals played a bigger role here. They were more comfortable here – in a political sense, I mean. So the struggle over the location of the party headquarters is really quite comprehensible if you go to the bottom of it.

A Struggle Between Two Tendencies

This long drawn-out fight can be properly – and I think it will be – described on the whole by the honest and objective historians of the future as a struggle between the petty-bourgeois and proletarian tendencies in the party, with the proletarian tendency lacking clarity of program to develop the fight to its full implications. Now, don’t forget, we were all practically greenhorns. We had just become acquainted – and not too well acquainted – with the doctrines of Bolshevism. We had no background of experience in politics; we had no one to teach us; we had to learn everything in struggle through blows on the head. The stumbling proletarian faction made a lot of mistakes and did many contradictory things in the heat of struggle. But the essence of its drive was, in my opinion, historically correct and progressive.

As this fight unfolded, the two main factions – Foster-Cannon on the one side, Ruthenberg-Lovestone-Pepper on the other – produced further division. Indeed, division was implicit from the very beginning because there likewise were stratifications within the Foster-Cannon faction. The group most closely associated, with me were pioneer Communists, party men from the beginning, who had adopted the principles of Communism earlier than the Foster wing. The Foster wing was more trade unionist in experience, more limited in its conceptions, less attentive to theoretical and political questions. In the course of the ever-continuing factional struggles, this implicit division became a formal one. The party was then confronted with three factions: the Foster faction, the Lovestone faction (Ruthenberg died in 1927) and the Cannon faction. That division continued until they threw us out of the party in 1928.

All these factions fought endlessly for ideas that were not completely clear to them. As I said before, we had intimations, we knew by and large what we wanted, but we lacked the political experience, the doctrinal education, the theoretical knowledge to formulate our program with sufficient precision to bring things to a proper solution. You recall the big battle we had with the petty-bourgeois opposition in the Socialist Workers Party a couple of years ago. If you study that battle to see how it developed, you can gather how we profited from the experience of the more primitive fight between the petty-bourgeois and proletarian factions in the old Communist Party. Since then we had gained more experience, had studied some books and acquired further knowledge of theory and politics. This enabled us to put the issues clearly and to prevent the fight against Burnham, Shachtman and Company from bogging down into an unprincipled scramble with no daylight ahead, as had been the case in the old days.

Early Leaders of the Communist Party

Now, these leaders whom I have mentioned – Ruthenberg, Lovestone, Cannon, Foster – these four people were always in the Political Committee of the party. These four people were always the recognized, authoritative leaders of the party; that is, they were leaders of factions which made them part of the leadership of the party. And each faction was so strong, the weight was so evenly distributed among the factions, that no faction could be crushed or eliminated. Too many people were tied up with each of them, too many of the able functionaries of the party. So that, for example, when the Lovestoneites got the majority of the party with the help and bludgeoning of the Comintern, they were not able to do as they wanted, to brush us aside, particularly since the trade union and mass work was virtually monopolized by the other factions. Many of the party organizers, writers and functionaries were connected intimately with me and could not be replaced. The Foster faction was even stronger, especially in the trade union field. They could not get rid of us; that is, without disrupting the party.

So the party virtually became divided into three provinces, so to speak. Each faction gained enough elbow room to work in certain fields with practically unlimited authority and under a minimum of , control. The Foster faction occupied the whole territory of trade union work. We organized the International Labor Defense and ran it virtually as we pleased. This was when the Lovestoneites had a tenuous majority. The Lovestoneites were in control of the party apparatus but didn’t hold it strongly enough to dispense with us, so that this peculiar balance of power continued for several years. Naturally, it was not a really centralized party in the Bolshevik sense of the word. It was a coalition of three factions. In the essence of the matter, that’s what the party really was.

We couldn’t solve the problem ourselves. No faction could decisively defeat the others; no faction would leave the party; no faction was capable enough of formulating its program so as to win a real majority in the party. We had a stalemate, a drawn-out, demoralizing factional struggle with no end, no daylight ahead. Those were discouraging days. To any normal-minded revolutionist it is extremely distasteful to go through not merely weeks and months, but years and years of factional struggle. There are some people who like faction fights; we had people in all the factions who were really never awake until the factional fight started bubbling. Then they became alive. When it came to doing some constructive work – demonstrations, picket lines, building up a wider circulation for the press, helping class-war prisoners – they had no interest in that prosaic routine. But merely announce the holding of a factional caucus meeting, and they would be there every time – in the front seats.

(To be continued next week)

Last updated on 8 November 2018