James P. Cannon

The History of American Trotskyism

How Stalinist Degeneration Affected
the Faction Fight in the American C.P.

Published: The Militant, Vol. IX No. 26, 30 June 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.

In the first installments of his book, Comrade Cannon told how the American Communist Party grew out of the left wing of the Socialist Party in 1919; described its period of underground life until in 1923 it was organised as a legal party which began to penetrate the trade union movement. As the composition of the party changed with the influx of workers, a series of factional struggles began between the proletarian wing and the petty-bourgeois tendencies within the party. This section from chapter two is the sixth installment.

* * *

There are certain abnormal types in all movements. We had plenty of them. I could deliver several biographical lectures on the single subject, “professional faction fighters I have known.” Such people can never lead a political movement. After the movement finally catches its breath, gets its road clear, professional faction fighters are out of place in its leadership. In the last analysis, leaders must build. These leaders of our old factions were not angels, that I must admit. Not at all. They were very rough fighters in a political sense. They fought with everything they had. But were they self-seeking scoundrels, as they are represented by dilettantes such as Eugene Lyons and Max Eastman, and all these namby-pamby people who stood aside from the movement and measured it by the standards of abstract morality? Not at all.

Not even Gitlow, who now belatedly supports this thesis, was a scoundrel to begin with. I think some of them were bad eggs from birth, but the great majority of the leading cadres of all the factions were men who came into the movement for idealistic reasons and purposes. That includes even those who later became degenerate Stalinists and chauvinists. Their degeneration was a long process of evolution, pressure, disappointment, deception, disillusionment and so forth. Those who came to the movement in the hard days of 1919, or rather, who rallied around the Russian revolution in the war days, founded the party in 1919, stood the gaff during the persecution and the raids in the underground days – they were far superior from a moral standpoint to the politicians of Tammany Hall or the Republican Party or any other bourgeois or petty-bourgeois political movement you can name.

We could have solved our problem had we been able to get the help we needed. That is, the help of more experienced and authoritative people. The problem was too big for us. It can and does happen in the most advanced political movement that local groups removed from the center fall into squabbles which develop into factional struggles and clique formations, until the situation becomes, because of their inexperience, insoluble by their own forces. If they have a wise national leadership, and honest and mature leadership able to intervene intelligently and fairly, nine times out of ten these local stalemates can eventually be resolved and the comrades can find the basis for unification in joint work.

“All the Factions Had Good in Them”

Now if we, in those years, could have had the help of the Communist International, the help of the Russian leaders, which we counted on, which we looked for, we unquestionably could have solved our problems. All the factions had good in them. All had talented people. Given normal conditions, correct leadership and help from the Comintern, the great majority of the leaders of all these factions could have been brought together eventually and consolidated into a single leadership. The leadership of these three factions, united and working together under the supervision and direction of more experienced, international leaders, would have been a powerful force for Communism. The Communist Party could have taken a great leap forward. We went to the Comintern, seeking help, but the real source of the trouble was there, although we didn’t know it then. The Comintern, unbeknown to us, was beginning to go through its process of degeneration.

The honest and capable help we got from Lenin, Trotsky and the whole Comintern in 1921 and 1922 on the trade union question, and on the underground and legal questions, enabled us to solve the problems and liquidate the old factional fights. Instead of getting such help in later years, we ran into the degeneration of the Comintern, the beginning of its Stalinization. The Comintern leadership looked at our party, as at every other party, not with the aim of clearing up trouble, but of keeping the pot boiling. They were already scheming to get rid of all the independent people, the kickers, the stiff-necks, so that they could create out of the mess a docile Stalinist party. They were already trying to create such a party here and everywhere and didn’t have much use for any of these fighting leaders. We used to go to Moscow every year. The “American Question” was always on the agenda. There was always an “American Commission” in the Comintern. They saw us battling it out before the Commissions and soon convinced themselves that it would be rather hard to harness those lads to the scheme they had in mind. In all likelihood they were already laying, plans to get rid of the most outstanding leaders of all factions and cook up a new faction which would be an instrument of Stalin.

Each time we went to Moscow full of confidence that this time we were going to get some help, some support, because we were on the right line, because our proposals were correct. And each time we were disappointed, cruelly disappointed. The Comintern invariably supported the petty-bourgeois faction against us. At every opportunity they dealt a blow to the proletarian faction which in the early days was in the majority. We first fought it out in the convention of 1923, and we won a two to one majority. It was very clear that the mass of the party membership wanted the leadership of the proletarian faction. Later on, after the formal division in the Foster-Cannon faction we still worked most of the time in a bloc against the Lovestoneites. Each time the party members were given a chance to express themselves, they showed that they wanted this bloc to have the dominant leadership in the party. But the Comintern said, no. They wanted to break up this bloc. And they were especially anxious, for some reason or other, to break up our group – the Cannon group. They must have suspected something. They went far out of their way to take cracks at me. As far back as the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in 1924, out of a clear sky – I was not present at that time – they condemned by resolution some little mistake I had made. Everybody else in the party leadership had made such mistakes or worse, but the Comintern went out of its way to cite my dereliction in order to weaken my prestige.

Campaign Against Trotskyism Develops

Then, as the years went by, the campaign against Trotskyism developed. The qualification for leadership in all the parties, the criterion by which leaders were judged in Moscow, was: who shouted loudest against Trotskyism and Trotsky. We weren’t given any real information about the issues of the struggle in the Russian Party. We were overwhelmed with official documents and all kinds of accusations and slanders; nothing, or next to nothing, on the other side of the question. They abused the confidence of the rank and file of the party. Likewise the leaders of the party, who trusted the Comintern, had that confidence abused time and time again. Every time we went to Moscow, instead of returning with a solution, we came back with a resolution, ostensibly designed for “peace” in the party, but rigged up in such a way as to make the faction fight hotter than ever.

There was no such thing as a settlement of the fight. The moment any kind of unity declaration was signed, factional war broke out afresh. Cynicism began to pervade the ranks. It became a maxim that the signing of a “peace agreement” signified that “now the faction fight is going to get really hot.” Things came to such a pass that you had to be reserved, you had to watch every step, because you were working in a hostile atmosphere. It became necessary to make reservations every time you agreed to anything A very bad moral atmosphere began to envelop the party like a fog.

The fact that the degeneration of the Comintern exerted a determining influence in our party is cited by many superficial people as proof of the unrealism of the American movement, of its inability to solve its own problems, etc. Such snivelers only show that they don’t have the slightest idea of what an international revolutionary organization is and must be. The influence of Moscow was a perfectly natural thing. The confidence and expectations which the young party of America put in the Russian leadership were completely justified because the Russians had made a revolution. Naturally, the influence and authority of the Russian party was greater in the international movement than any other. The wiser, the more experienced lead the neophytes. So it will be and so it must be in any international organization.

No “Even Development” in the International

There is no such thing as an even development of all the parties in an International. We have seen this in the Fourth Interna tional during the lifetime of Comrade Trotsky, who embodied all the experience of the Russian revolution and the fight against Stalin. Trotsky’s authority and prestige were absolutely outstanding in the Fourth International. His word did not have the force of bureaucratic command, but it had a tremendous moral power. And not only that. As was demonstrated time after time in every difficulty and dispute, his patience, his wisdom and his knowledge were brought to bear constructively and honestly, and always aided every party and every group that asked for his intervention.

Our experience in the Communist Party has been of priceless value in all our daily work; and in all our communications and relations with the less experienced groups of the Fourth International. It is natural that our party, precisely because it has assimilated a wider political experience, wields perhaps a greater influence in the international movement than any other party, now that Comrade Trotsky is not with us any more. If a section of the Fourth International confronts a revolutionary situation in the approximate future and demonstrates that it has a leadership of sufficient caliber to carry through a successful revolution, then the predominant authority and influence would naturally shift to that party. By common consent it would become the leading party of the Fourth International. Those are simply natural and inevitable consequences of the uneven development of the international political movement.

Our misfortune, our tragedy throughout the Comintern, was that the great leaders of the Russian revolution, who really embodied the doctrine of Marxism and who really carried through the revolution, were thrust aside in the course of the reaction against the October revolution and the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Communist Party. The Communist Party in the United States, like the parties in other countries, failed to understand the complicated issues of the great struggle. We fought in the dark, thinking only of our national troubles. That is what poisoned the faction struggles here. That is what caused them to degenerate in the end to unprincipled squabbles and contests for control. Only an international program, comprehended in time, could have saved the young Communist Party of America from degeneration. We did not grasp this until 1928. Then it was too late to save more than a small fragment of the party for its original revolutionary aims.

Evolution of the Three Factions

Each of the three factions which existed in the party from 1923 to 1928 went through its own evolution. The foundation cadres of the American Trotskyist movement came entirely from the Cannon faction. The whole leadership and practically all the original members of the Left Opposition came from our faction. The Lovestone faction was thrown out, as you know, by a brutal ukase of Stalin in 1929. The Lovestoneites developed independently from 1929 to 1939 and then disbanded, going over to the bourgeoisie as supporters of the “democratic” war. The Foster faction and the secondary leaders of some of the other factions were gathered together in a hodgepodge on the basis of unquestioned loyalty to Stalin and the complete surrender of all independence., They were second and third line men. They had to wait in the shadows until the real fighters were thrown out and the time came for errand boys to take their place. They became the official leaders, the manufactured leaders, of the American Communist Party. Then they too went through their natural evolution, until today they have become the vanguard of the social-chauvinist movement,

The important thing to remember is that our modern Trotskyist movement originated in the Communist Party – and nowhere else. Despite all the negative aspects of the party in those early years, and I have recounted them unsparingly; despite its weaknesses, its crudities, its infantile sicknesses, its mistakes; whatever may be said in retrospect about the faction struggles and their eventual degeneration; whatever may be said about the degeneration of the Communist Party in this country – it must be recognized that out of the Communist Party came the forces for the regeneration of the revolutionary movement. Out of the Communist Party in the United States came the nucleus of the Fourth International in this country. Therefore, we should say that the early period of the Communist movement in this country belongs to us; that we are tied to it by indissoluble bonds; that there is an uninterrupted continuity from the early days of the Communist movement, its brave struggles against persecution, its sacrifices, mistakes, faction fights and degeneration to the eventual resurgence of the movement under the banner of Trotskyism.

We must not surrender, we cannot in justice and truth surrender, the tradition of the first years of American Communism. That belongs to us and upon that we have built.

(To be continued next week)

Last updated on 8 November 2018