James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

The Pre-War Left Wing

Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.4, Fall 1955, pp.126-127.
Original bound volumes of Fourth International and microfilm provided by the NYU Tamiment Labor Libraries.
Transcription & Mark-up: Andrew Pollack/Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

July 22, 1954

Dear Sir:

RE: Bittelman’s History of the Communist Party of America
(Reprinted in Special Committee on Communist Activities [Fish Committee] 1930, House of Representatives Hearings.)

I have studied this document, to which you called my attention, at the Los Angeles Public Library and found it very interesting indeed. It is obviously the synopsis of a series of lectures prepared by Bittelman for some classes either in New York or Chicago. I judge from internal evidence that it was written in the latter part of 1923 or early in 1924.

This History shows Bittelman at his best as a student and critic, and it explains why, at that time, he was appreciated by those of us who came to the party from syndicalism. Bittelman, as a student, knew a great deal more about the party-political side of the movement, its tradition and the theoretical differences within it, than we did.

* * *

The old pre-war division of the left-wing movement into a narrowly “political” party wing and an “anti-political” syndicalist wing was a very bad thing all the way around. I have never seen this side of left-wing history adequately treated anywhere. Bittelman’s exposition, despite its telescoped conciseness, is probably the best you will find.

I think there is no doubt that in the period before the Russian Revolution, the syndicalist wing of the American movement was the more revolutionary, had the best and most self-sacrificing militants and was most concerned with mass work and real action in the class struggle. But the syndicalist reaction against the futility of parliamentary socialism was a bad over-correction, which produced its own evil. By rejecting “politics” altogether, and the idea of a political party along with it, the syndicalists prepared the destruction of their own movement. The syndicalists made a cult of action, had little or no theoretical schooling or tradition and were rather disdainful of “theory” in general.

The difference between the two wings, as I recall it from that time, was often crudely formulated as “action versus theory.” Being young then, and very fond of action, I was an ardent disciple of the Vincent St. John school of “direct action” – and to hell with the “philosophers” and “theorizers.” I still believe in action, but the sad fate of the IWW in later years ought to convince anybody that action without the necessary theoretical direction is not enough to build an enduring revolutionary movement.

* * *

Bittelman’s History is an instructive, succinct explanation of the defects of the pre-war left-wing movement in the SP, and a good factual account of its progressive evolution under the influence of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. His description and criticism of the left-wing conception of the party as “an auxiliary to the revolutionary union and a propaganda instrument of socialism” (Part IV, Section C) is quite pertinent. He might have added that the right-wing socialists had the same basic theory with a different twist. They simply interpreted the restricted role of the SP to mean in practice that it should not interfere with the affairs of the labor fakers within the unions) criticizing them only for their politics at election time.

* * *

Especially interesting is Bittelman’s report about the role of Trotsky – during his sojourn in New York in 1917 – in making Novy Mir, the Russian socialist daily, “a new ideological center of the left wing”; and his activity in promoting the publication of The Class Struggle as the first ideological spokesman “for the English speaking elements” of the left wing. This corroborates Trotsky’s own references to his work in America in his autobiography, My Life. Trotsky had a lot to do with the development of the communist movement in America from its beginning out of the left wing of the SP in 1917, through its big crisis over legalization in 1922, through the later period which culminated in our expulsion in 1928, and in the activity of our party ever since. Bittelman’s truthful reference to the role of Trotsky in reorienting the left wing in 1917, even before the Bolshevik Revolution, shows me conclusively that his document was not written later than early 1924. After Trotsky was put in the minority in the first stages of the fight in the Russian party, Bittelman, who read the Russian press and took his lead from it automatically, could never have mentioned Trotsky favorably under any circumstances.

* * *

Bittelman’s one-paragraph description of the “Michigan group” (later the Proletarian Party) is correct, to the point and complete. (Section XII.) One paragraph in the history of American communism is just about what those pompous wiseacres, who, as Bittelman says, “completely missed the everyday fighting nature of Leninism and communism,” are worth.

* * *

Bittelman’s account of the National Conference of the Left Wing in June, 1919 (Section XII), is well worth studying as the report of a strictly New York “political,” alongside my own impressions as a provincial stranger in New York for the first time. Especially interesting is this quotation: “There was a third group at the conference, most of them English speaking delegates from the western states, that favored going to the Socialist Party convention because they were totally unprepared for a break with the social reformists.”

As I previously wrote you, we non-New Yorkers knew that the SP was not ready for a split in 1919. But Bittelman’s statement is the first place I have seen it clearly written that the New Yorkers really understood the attitude of the “English speaking delegates from the western states” – the “western states” being the whole country west of Manhattan Island. I may be a little out of focus, in view of everything that happened since June, 1919, but I still get burned up when I think about the ignorant arrogance of the New Yorkers who dragged the left wing into that premature and costly split.

* * *

Bitte1man’s account of the caucus of the Russian Federation at the first convention of the CP, and of how this caucus dominated the convention (Section XII, Subsection B), is the only inside report of this grisly business that I have ever seen. And despite its brevity; I believe it is completely accurate. Bittelman, himself a Russian, was obviously a member of the Hourwich (Russian) caucus and speaks with authority about its proceedings.

Bittelman’s revelation is truly a priceless historical document. Just consider his report of the way the Russian bosses toyed with and chose between those leaders of the “English speaking group” who broke the solidarity of the native movement to play the Russians’ game:

“Leadership of federation caucus knew that it must have the services and support of an English speaking group in order to form and lead the party. Two English speaking groups to choose from. The Michigan group or the group of the Revolutionary Age. Each of the two groups presents its program to the federation caucus.”

And this:

“After long struggle, federation caucus adopts program of the group of Revolutionary Age.”

And finally the conclusion of Bittelman’s summary:

“First meeting of central executive committee shows rift between federation group and English speaking group.”

Just to be reminded today by Bittelman’s document of how this wrecking crew played with the native left-wing movement, at that critical turning point in its development, and the heavy costs of their mad adventure, makes me almost mad enough to want to go back and fight that battle all over again.

* * *

Bittelman’s section on the Role of Foster Group in the Labor Movement of the US (Section XII, Subsection B), is grossly inflated and exaggerated. It shows Bittelman in his more accustomed role as factionalist, making a “case” for his own faction – the new Foster-Cannon-Bittelman combination – and forcing or inventing evidence to make it look good.

The facts are that the Foster group did not amount to a tinker’s dam as a revolutionary factor in the AFL. They actually followed a policy of ingratiating adaptation to the Gompers bureaucracy, not of principled struggle against it. It is quite true that Foster himself, with a few assistants, did a truly great work of organization in the stockyards and later in the steel strike of 1919. But that was done by and with the consent of the Gompers bureaucracy, and at the cost of renouncing all principled criticism, including the principle of principles, the First World War.

(See the testimony of Gompers, Fitzpatrick and Foster himself in the US Senate Committee report entitled: Investigation of Strike in Steel Industries, (1919), Hearings Before the Committee on Education and Labor, United States Senate – Sixty-sixth Congress, first session – quoted in The Militant, August 15, 1929.) [Reprinted on page 129 of this issue of Fourth International. – Ed.]

I do not think it is historically correct to speak of the Foster group in the AFL as a serious current in the revolutionary left wing which was later to become the CP. It was pretty strictly a progressive trade-union group, and I never knew a half dozen of them who ever became communists.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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