James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

Origins of The Foster-Cannon Group

Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.4, Fall 1955, pp.131-133, 143.
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.

March 17, 1955

Dear Sir:

The Foster-Cannon group, as a definite faction in the party, originated as a direct result of the labor party convention in Chicago, on July 3, 1923, which culminated in the split with the Fitzpatrick group and the formation of the still-born “Federated Farmer-Labor Party” under CP leadership and control. It would be a big mistake, however, to isolate this single “political issue” from its context and to judge the ensuing struggle purely in terms of differences on the labor party question. The sources of conflict were far deeper and more complicated than that. The launching of the ill-fated “Federated Farmer-Labor Party” simply triggered the explosion, which had been building up out of the general situation in the party.

Behind the unfortunate action at Chicago stood Pepper, and “Pepperism” was the real issue in the first stages of the long fight. The author of the policy which produced the Chicago fiasco was Pepper, and the fire of the new opposition was at first directed against his adventuristic policy, and his dictatorial domination of the party. The new opposition came into conflict with Ruthenberg only after he definitely aligned himself with Pepper, and after efforts, repeatedly made by Foster, to come to an agreement with him had failed. There were profound reasons for Ruthenberg’s alignment, as well as for ours, and these reasons transcended the political dispute of the moment.

The labor party question-more specifically, the question of the “Federated Farmer-Labor Party” – was the immediate and central question of policy at issue in the first stages of the faction fight. But at the bottom of the conflict there were other causes. Each of the contending factions had deep roots in different past experiences and traditions, and the alignments on each side in the “power struggle” took place very quickly, and all the more “naturally,” because of that.

It should be recalled that prior to the Russian Revolution the revolutionary movement in this country, as in some other countries, notably France, had been split into a party-political wing, conceiving “political action” in the narrow sense of electoral and parliamentary action, and a syndicalist wing, rejecting “politics” altogether. For the greater part, the two tendencies had been separated from each other organizationally. Therewith there had been a rather sharp division in their activities and fields of work. The “politicals” devoted themselves primarily to socialist propaganda and election campaigns, while the syndicalists concentrated on “direct action” in the economic struggle-union organization campaigns and strikes.

* * *

The attempt of the Comintern to fuse these two tendencies together in the new communist parties had more success in the United States than elsewhere. Prominent activists from both sides of the old movement came into the CP, and they brought a part of their old baggage with them. The “politicals” had come to recognize the importance of trade-union work, but – at that time – it was still a strange field for them; they had no real understanding of it, no “feel” for it. The ex-syndicalists and practicing trade unionists had come to recognize the necessity of a party and the importance of “political action,” but – again at that time – their first interest was trade-union work.

There were exceptions, of course, but by and large, the old predilections determined the tendency of the party activists to align themselves with one faction or another; they felt more at home with people of their own kind. These differences of background and temperament, which were also reflected in different social habits and associations and different ways of working, made for an uneasiness in personal relations among the leaders. This was evident even in the period prior to the blow-up in July 1923, when they were collaborating most effectively on the main projects of the time – to legalize the party and to expand its public activities, and to swing the party support behind the Trade Union Educational League.

We were all beginning – learners in the field of Marxist theory and politics; and, in the best case, further study, time and experience in working together would have been required to fuse the two tendencies together into a harmonious working combination. I believe there was a general will to effect such a fusion, and things might have worked out this way in a normal course of development. But the high-powered intervention of Pepper, with policies, methods and designs of his own, cut the process short, disrupted the collaboration and deepened the division.

* * *

I was quite well aware of Pepper’s general operations and machinations in the party – far more perceptively, I venture to say, than Foster and the other Chicagoans – and I didn’t like the way things were going. I thought at first that my objections were restricted to internal party affairs. It took the shock of the July 3 Convention to convince me that Pepper’s politics was all of one piece; that the fantastic unrealism of his internal party policy had its counterpart in external adventurism.

For that reason, perhaps, when the conflict over the catastrophic policy at the July 3 Convention broke into the open, I was not content to rest on that single issue. From the beginning of the fight I conceived of it as a general struggle to overthrow the Pepper regime. It didn’t take Foster long to come to the same conclusion, and that’s the way the issue was posed. The alignments, on both sides, in the ensuing struggle took place on that basis. Pepper’s labor policy was only one item in the catalogue.

* * *

Within this context, it would be completely correct to say that the formation of the Foster-Cannon faction took place as a reaction to the July 3 Convention at Chicago. The unavowed faction of Pepper, however, existed long before that. The presentation of the Ruthenberg-Pepper “thesis,” attempting to justify the “Federated Farmer-Labor Party,” and the vote of Foster, Bittelman and Cannon against it, at the Political Committee meeting of August 24, 1923, could perhaps be taken as the formal starting point of the internal struggle.

Prior to that, and leading up to it, were my conversation with Foster at Duluth, related in my letter of May 28, 1954, and my articles in the Worker in the summer of 1923, which indirectly criticized the official party policy. Other background material, and my account of the struggle up to and at the December 1923 Convention of the party, are contained in my letters of May 19, 27 and 28, 1954. I have checked these letters again and find nothing to change. That’s the way it was; at least that’s the way it looked to me.

* * *

You ask how I look at my own role in the formation of the Foster-Cannon group. I think that is indicated in the account I have written in those letters. I had the highest regard for Foster’s ability in general, and for his feel and skill as a mass worker in particular – a most essential quality which the leaders of the other faction seemed to lack – but I never belonged to Foster’s staff of personal assistants and was never in any sense a personal follower. Relations between me and Foster, from start to finish, always had the same basis. Cooperation in internal party affairs depended on agreement on policy, arrived at beforehand. That was no trouble in 1923; our thinking (ran along the same lines.

Foster was the party’s outstanding mass leader and most popular figure, and he carried himself well in that role. But he was not a political infant as he has often been represented; he knew what he was driving at. He symbolized the proletarian-American orientation, which the party needed and wanted, and I thought he was justly entitled to first place as party leader and public spokesman.

He was rather new to the party at that time, however, and was still feeling his way carefully. As one of the original communists, I knew the party better. I had closer connections with many of the decisive cadres and probably had more influence with some of them. Our combination – while it lasted – was an effective division of labor, without rivalry, at least as far as I was concerned. Each made independent contributions to the combination and each carried his own weight.

* * *

Browder’s belated claim that it was he, not Foster, who conducted the labor party negotiations with the Fitzpatrick leadership in Chicago could be true only in a technical sense. Behind Browder stood Foster; Browder was the agent and, as always, an intelligent and capable agent, but in no case the “principal.” Foster’s influence in the Chicago Federation of Labor, and his authority, solidly established by his great work in the campaigns to organize the packinghouse workers and steel workers, in which he had secured the effective collaboration of Fitzpatrick and won his confidence, determined and governed Fitzpatrick’s relations with the Workers Party forces, from the first liaison to the break at the July 3 Convention.

Further, Browder’s report of his activities in the internal party situation of that time may be factually correct, but they certainly did not have the significance which he attributes to them. His attempt to depict himself as playing an independent role in the internal struggle of 1923-1924 strikes me as historical “back-writing” – as an adjustment of the facts of that period to fit the role he later came to play in the party, by grace of Stalin, after Foster had lost his original influence, and after such inconvenient obstacles as Pepper, Ruthenberg, Lovestone and Cannon were out of the way. If Browder played any independent part whatever in 1923 I didn’t know anything about it; and I surely should have known it because I was in the center of things where the decisions were made and was in a position to know how and by whom they were made. There is no doubt that he, like many others, was bitterly dissatisfied with the Pepper policy and its results. This widespread sentiment, which could probably be classified under the head of disgruntlement, provided the material, ready-made, for an effective, and eventually victorious, opposition. But this opposition first had to be organized by people with the necessary influence and authority to carry the party; and they had to know where to begin and whom to begin with.

As I have previously related, the opposition of 1923, as a definite movement in the party aiming at party control, began with the agreement between Foster and me. That was decisive step number one. The next was the agreement with Bittelman. The leading people of the Chicago District-Browder, Johnstone, Swabeck and Krumbein-and the better half of the leadership of the youth organization-Abern, Shachtman and Williamson-along with numerous other influential party militants such as William F. Dunne, were important supporters of the new opposition from the start. But the initiative came from the three people mentioned above, and the main influence in the leadership, from the beginning until the break-up of the faction in 1925, was exerted by them. This was so well established, and so widely recognized, that Browder’s present report is the first I have heard to give a different interpretation.

* * *

I don’t know what went on in Browder’s head at the time, or what he imagined he was doing, but I do know that his latter-day recollections of furious activity as an independent force have very little relation to reality. Browder’s report and interpretation of his conversation and agreement with Ruthenberg in August 1923 impress me as an unwitting revelation of his own naivete. He may very well have had such a conversation with Ruthenberg, but his impression that Ruthenberg agreed to a combination with him, regardless of Pepper and Foster, not to speak of Lovestone and Cannon, was most certainly a misunderstanding on Browder’s part. Ruthenberg knew the relation of forces in the party too well for that. Ruthenberg was pretty cagey, he knew What he wanted, he had a high opinion of himself and was concerned with problems of self, and I don’t think he rated Browder very highly as a party leader. Moreover, Ruthenberg had shown no disposition to oppose Pepper’s policy. Just the contrary – witness the Ruthenberg-Pepper “thesis,” presented at the very time Browder imagined he had secured Ruthenberg’s agreement to separate himself from Pepper – August 24, 1923!

What probably happened Was that Browder talked and Ruthenberg simply listened, and Browder came away with the impression of an “understanding” that did not exist. I do remember Browder telling me, along about that time, that Ruthenberg had expressed antagonism to Lovestone on the ground that he exacerbated the factional situation and poisoned the atmosphere generally. This was quite true about Lovestone, and the objection to his ugly quarrelsomeness would have been in character for Ruthenberg, who was himself invariably polite, courteous and “correct“-I used to think he was too “correct“-in all discussions and relations with colleagues in the Committee. Browder may have taken Ruthenberg’s remark about Lovestone for an “understanding” in the internal party situation.

However, as is usually the case, as the internal struggle unfolded, the deep-going political differences cut across and cancelled out minor irritations in both camps. Ruthenberg, as events had shown and were to continue to show, was in essential agreement with Pepper’s political line, and it was foolish to think he could be influenced by Browder to determine his course in the party on secondary issues. I don’t think Ruthenberg “broke faith” with Browder. More likely, Browder’s “understanding” with him was a misunderstanding on Browder’s part.

Ruthenberg was a proud man, with a high-and-mighty haughtiness. Unlike Foster, he appeared to stand above the dirty little vices, such as outright lying, double-dealing, betrayal of confidence. He would have considered such things, if he thought about them at all, as not simply wrong but, more important, beneath his dignity.

* * *

Foster’s knowledge and feel of the trade-union movement surpassed that of all the other party leaders in the early days, but his experience in that field was not all profit. He had learned too much in the school of the labor fakers, who got what they wanted one way or another, without regard to any governing theory or principle, and he mistakenly thought such methods could be efficacious in the communist political movement. Crude American pragmatism, which “gets things done” in simple situations, is a poor tool in the complexities of revolutionary politics.

Foster was somewhat mechanical and eclectic in his thinking, and this frequently led him to summary judgments in complex questions which called for qualified answers. His one-sided, almost fetishistic concentration on “boring from within” the AFL, as the sole means of radicalizing and expanding the labor movement – a concept which had to be thrown overboard in 1928, and which was brutally refuted – in life by the rise of the CIO-is an outstanding example of his limitations as a thinker.

But in the frame of comparison with the other leading figures of the pioneer communist movement in this country, which in my opinion is the proper way to judge him historically, Foster was outstanding in many ways. Attempts to represent him as some kind of babe in the woods, led astray by craftier men, which have been recurrently made throughout the history of the party, beginning with his alliance with me in the formation of the Foster-Cannon group, never had any foundation in fact.

Foster was a shrewd and competent man, far more conscious and deliberate in all his actions than he appeared and pretended to be. Everything that Foster did, from first to last, was done deliberately. In fact, he was too shrewd, too deliberate in his decisions, and too free from the restraint of scruple; and by that he wrought his own catastrophe. The actions which, in a tragic progression, made such a disgraceful shambles of his career, derived not from faulty intelligence or weakness of will but from defects of character.

Foster was a slave to ambition, to his career. That was his infirmity. But this judgment, which in my book is definitive, must be qualified by the recognition that he sought to serve his ambition and to advance his career in the labor movement and not elsewhere. Within that field he worshipped the “Bitch-Goddess of Success” as much as any businessman, careerist on the make, or politician in the bourgeois world.

Foster was a man of such outstanding talent, energy and driving will that – in the conditions of the country in his time – he could easily have made his way in any number of other occupations. But the labor movement was his own milieu, deliberately chosen in his youth and doggedly maintained to the exclusion of virtually all other interests. Within that limit – that he had no life outside the labor movement – Foster subordinated everything to his mad ambition and his almost pathological love of fame, of his career. To that, with a consistency that was truly appalling, he sacrificed his pride and self-respect, and all considerations of loyalty to persons and to principles and, eventually, to the interests of the movement which he had originally set out to serve.

Shakespeare’s Gratiano said they lose the world “that do buy it with much care.” Foster’s too-great consistency in his single-minded pursuit of fame and career at any price became a self-defeating game. His willingness to humiliate himself and surrender his opinions to gain favor with the Stalinist “power” only disarmed him before repeated exactions in this respect, until he was stripped of the last shred of independence. His disloyalty to people robbed him of any claim on the loyalty of others and left him without support at the most critical turning points. His readiness to profess opinions he didn’t hold, for the sake of expediency, to lie and cheat to gain a point, lost him the respect of his colleagues and eventually destroyed his moral authority in the party cadres. He ended up friendless and alone as early as 1928, incapable of contending for leadership in his own name, and fit only for the role of figurehead leader.

But even for that shabby substitute for fame and career Foster has had to grovel in the dust, and to contribute his bit systematically, year after year for more than a quarter of a century, to the gross betrayal of the workers’ cause which he had proclaimed as his own. “Success” in the world of Stalinism is dearly bought indeed – if by some horrible misunderstanding one should call Foster’s pursuit of fame and career successful!

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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