James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

Notes and Sidelights on the Year 1927

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.17 No.4, Fall 1956, pp.127-130.
Original bound volumes of International Socialist Review and microfilm provided by the NYU Tamiment Labor Libraries.
Transcription & Mark-up: Andrew Pollack/Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

July 26, 1955

Dear Sir:

In his sorry memoir called I Confess, Gitlow reports that my original discussions with Weinstone in 1926-1927 concerned a division of party offices – with me as Chairman, Weinstone as General Secretary and Foster as head of the trade-union department (page 405). This is merely a sample of Gitlow’s method of reporting his own suspicions for facts. Weinstone and I never discussed party offices at all before the death of Ruthenberg, and then only the post of General Secretary, which had become suddenly vacant. Our dealings with Foster then concerned only the single question of the secretaryship, which we assumed had to be decided right away. The office of Chairman, had been abolished, if I remember correctly, when the Ruthenberg faction was installed as a majority by the Comintern cable and the vote of P. Green (Gusev), Comintern representative, after the 1925 Convention.

Gitlow was conditioned by his association with Lovestone to assume, as a matter of course, that whenever two or more people got their heads together something was being cooked up for their personal advantage. His whole account is studded with such reports of his suppositions as facts.

* * *

Gitlow’s report that, after Ruthenberg’s death, Weinstone wobbled over to Lovestone’s side, on the promise of the secretaryship, does not correspond to my recollection. I was in close communication with Weinstone during all that period. He reported to me all his discussions with the Lovestoneites. As far as I know, he never wavered at all on the basic position we had agreed upon – to oppose the domination of the party by either of the other factions – until after the 1927 Convention. I do not believe that he was primarily interested in office at that time; or that it was ever his principal motivation, as Gitlow surmises.

Weinstone’s importance in the situation in that period derived from his personal popularity in New York, his strategic position as Secretary of the New York District, and the unquestionable sincerity of the non-factional position he had arrived at. The fact that Stachel also went along with Weinstone at first, was particularly disturbing to the Lovestoneites. Weinstone also had some support among the youth; Sam Don, who later became an editor of the Daily Worker, was with him all the way in that period. Weinstone also had the support of a group in the South Slavic Federation.

I suppose this is the only place in the whole printed record you have examined, where you will find a good word by anybody, however qualified, for Stachel. But the truth is that in 1926-1927, Stachel, who was Organizational Secretary of the New York District in Weinstone’s administration, was actually won over to Weinstone’s nonfactional policy and carried it out in practice until some time after the death of Ruthenberg. I recall Krumbein, New York leader of the Fosterites, telling me that he had “never seen such a change come over a man,” and that his changed demeanor had greatly moderated the factional situation in the New York District.

Stachel participated in many of the early discussions that I had with Weinstone and expressed full agreement with our program. At one time he proposed that I come to New York as District Secretary, to carry through the program in New York if Weinstone went into the National Office. After several months of persistent effort Lovestone finally got Stachel back into line. But there was one brief period in the life of this man, which seemed to be otherwise devoted exclusively to vicious factionalism, when he responded to higher considerations of party interests.

As for Wolfe, neither Weinstone nor I had any confidence in him nor in his professions of sympathy for Weinstone’s program. I remember Weinstone telling me that Wolfe was Lovestone’s agent all the time; that he had come along in pretended sympathy for a short time only to keep hold of Stachel and hold him back and to use Stachel to hold Weinstone back. Such a complicated Machiavellian maneuver would be right in character for Lovestone. But I still do not believe that Stachel was a conscious party to it, although Wolfe almost certainly was.

* * *

Ballam came along with Weinstone at that time and remained with us in the opposition bloc all the way through the 1927 Convention. That was a twist in the situation that I will admit I never understood. Ballam was one of a number of people in the party at that time who just lacked something of the qualities of leadership, and who made a political living, so to speak, by factionalism – not as leaders, but rather as henchmen of one faction or another. Since away back I had regarded him as a cynic, and I think everybody else did too.

He had been the “English” mouthpiece of the Russian Federation faction, after they split with Ruthenberg in 1920 and lost all their more capable and influential “English-speakers.” He held that position with the Federation leftists all through the fight over party legalization, up until their debacle in 1922-1923. Then he was rehabilitated and legitimatized by Pepper and became his factional henchman, continuing with the Pepper-Ruthenberg-Lovestone line-up for four years until he broke loose and took his stand with Weinstone in 1927. Ballam had a bad reputation in the party, and very little, if any, personal influence. Our people felt a bit uneasy when they heard that he was coming along with Weinstone in the new grouping. But he seemed to accept our whole program and we had no ground to exclude him. I was frankly puzzled by Ballam’s stand at that time. I could easily imagine him in any kind of a faction except a faction to end factionalism. But in intimate discussions at that time he expressed the same sentiments as ours, to the effect that the factional fight had brought us all into a blind alley and that we would have to find a new way for a while.

I remember asking him at one time how he thought things would turn out, and he said: “I have absolute faith in the Communist International.” Nevertheless, he went along with us after the Comintern decision-up to the Convention. After that he seized the first opportunity to slip back into the Lovestone caucus.

* * *

Weinstone did the same thing, but the motivations of the two should by no means be equated. I think Weinstone came to the conclusion that the Comintern decision and the Lovestone victory based on it, had destroyed the possibility of unifying the party along the lines we had projected and that the “hegemony” of the Lovestone group would have to be accepted. But he never became a “Lovestoneite” in the sense that most of the others in the faction did: As soon as Lovestone got into trouble with the Comintern in 1929 Weinstone was one of the first to break with him and support the new line of the Comintern.

* * *

The United Opposition Bloc. As I recall, the bloc was formed when we were in Moscow in 1927, not before. Previously there had been merely a touch-me-not agreement on the support of Weinstone as General Secretary. The new combination was demonstratively called a “bloc” to signify that there was no fusion into a single faction, as Foster would have preferred. Neither Weinstone nor I had any sympathy for the idea of Foster dominating the party, nor of getting into a single faction with him where we might possibly be controlled by a majority vote. Everything that was decided in the course of our relations during that period had to be done by agreement each time, rather than by majority vote.

The essence of the situation, as we saw it, was that none of the factions had a recognizable difference of political position on questions of capital importance at that time. That was the “political basis” for our contention that the old factions should be dissolved. But the other factions demanded of us what they did not demand of themselves. Since we did not bring forward a new political platform we were accused of having “no political program.” When we formed the bloc with Foster, the Lovestoneites raised the same hue and cry against the bloc. This throws an interesting sidelight on the prevailing psychology of the old factions in those days. The two old factions, the Fosterites and the Lovestoneites, were taken for granted, having a right to separate existence as established institutions. But a third group, or a new “bloc,” was required to have a new “political basis.” Factionalism carried out too long after the original “political basis” has been outlived can produce some queer thinking.

The bloc was formed to try to prevent the Lovestoneites from dominating the party with a clear majority. We didn’t doubt that Foster had ideas of dominating the party himself, but also we knew he couldn’t do it without our support. That we never intended to give him. Foster had more rank-and-file backing than we had. But we had the majority of the more capable cadres, and Foster was compelled to agree to a 50-50 basis in all agreements we made regarding representation, up to and including the representation of the bloc as a minority in the new CEC, elected at the 1927 Convention. Of the 13 minority representatives on the new committee, we got 6 and the Foster group got 7, giving them the odd one.

The opposition bloc seemed to grow out of the logic of the situation as it developed in Moscow in 1927. But I believe it would be fair to say that Foster pressed hardest for it and made the most concessions. It did not signify that Weinstone had become a Fosterite in any sense whatever or that our 1925 split with Foster had been healed. It was more of a marriage of convenience.

The Eighth Plenum of the Comintern, Summer of 1927. Weinstone and I traveled to Moscow together and arrived on the last day of the Plenum. We had no part in any of its proceedings or in the voting, as I recall, as this right was reserved to members of the Executive Committee of the Comintern. We were in Moscow, not as delegates to the Plenum but only on a special mission on the American question.

The German Ewart (Braun) was in charge of the American Commission. Ewart impressed me as an honest, straightforward communist, a former worker who was one of the second and third-line men who eventually were brought into the leadership of the German party after the Comintern demolished, first, the traditional leadership of Brandler-Thalheimer, and then that of the leftists – Fischer-Maslow – who succeeded them. I don’t know how he happened to get chosen for the job of heading the American Commission. I think he was close to Bukharin and carried out Bukharin’s wishes in the matter.

I do not remember that Weinstone and I saw any of the top leaders of the Russian party on that occasion. In general Lovestone was far ahead of us in playing the Moscow game in that period. To begin with he had the help of Pepper, who was ensconced in the apparatus of the Comintern, and knew all the angles and prevailing winds and whom to see and whom to keep away from.

Here I might as well frankly state that I never was worth a damn on a Mission to Moscow after my first trip in 1922. Then everything was open and above board. A clearcut political issue was presented by both sides in open debate and it was settled straightforwardly, on a political basis, without discrimination or favoritism to the factions involved, and without undisclosed reasons, arising from internal Russian questions, motivating the decision and determining the attitude toward the leaders of the contending factions. That was the Lenin-Trotsky Comintern, and I did all right there. But after 1924 everything was different in the Comintern, and I never seemed to be able to find my way around.

I detested the business of going around to see one person after another like a petitioner, and sort of groping in the dark without knowing what was going to be decided by others without our participation. The only time I ever felt at ease in Moscow was in the Commission meetings where the representatives of different factions could confront each other in open debate. But by the time the Commission meetings got under way they were mere formalities. Everything had been settled behind the scenes; the word had been passed and all the secondary leaders and functionaries in the Comintern were falling into line.

I felt, with considerable reason, that I was no good in that whole business. I left Moscow each time with a feeling of futility, and my resistance to going again increased steadily until in 1928 I at first flatly refused to go. It was only the insistent urging and pressure of factional associates that finally induced me to give it one more try in 1928. I was then already deeply troubled by the developments in the Russian party, but did not expect that anything would be done to change anything at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern. I had no idea that I would be propelled into the fight and come out of it a convinced Trotskyist, breaking all previous relations and connections on that issue.

* * *

I think the Ruthenberg-Lovestone group gained their initial advantage in Moscow by jumping earlier and more enthusiastically into the fight against Trotskyism, way back in 1924, and that this was always in the minds of the Russian leaders in the subsequent years. Foster and Bittelman did everything they could to make up for the earlier sluggishness of the Foster-Cannon faction on the Trotsky question, but I never did anything but go along silently. This may have been noted in Moscow and may account in part for my disfavor there, but I am not sure about that.

You are right in your “impression that there was literally no one in the American party in 1927 who might be considered a ’Trotskyite’ or even a sympathizer of Trotsky’s position.” I know of no one who openly took such a position in the party prior to my return from the Sixth Congress in 1928. I personally had been deeply disturbed and dissatisfied by the expulsion of Trotsky and Zinoviev, but I could not have been called a “Trotskyite” or even a sympathizer, at that time. And the atmosphere in the party was such that it was not wise to express such sentiments or disgruntlements unless one intended to do something about it. By that time the issue of Trotskyism posed the immediate threat of expulsion in all parties of the Comintern.

After our expulsion we did discover a small group of expelled Hungarian communists, headed by Louis Basky, who had previously adopted the platform of the Russian Opposition on their own account. But they had come to this position after their expulsion, which had taken place on some other grounds, trumped up in the course of the Lovestoneites’ campaign to cinch up their factional control in the Hungarian Federation. The Hungarian comrades were a great comfort and strength to us in the difficult and stormy pioneer days of our movement under the Trotskyist banner.

Lore was never a Trotskyist in the political sense and never cooperated with our group after we were expelled. The first American Trotskyist was undoubtedly Max Eastman, but he had never been formally a member of the party. On his own responsibility as an individual he published a book called The Real Situation in Russia, by Leon Trotsky, in 1928. But this came out about the time we were in Moscow at the Sixth Congress and I did not see it until our return. It contained the Platform of the Left Opposition in the Russian party and a number of other documents of the Left Opposition. Eastman cooperated with us and gave us quite a bit of help in the first days of our existence as an expelled group publishing The Militant.

* * *

The Comintern decision in 1927 did not specifically provide that the Lovestoneites should have a majority in the next CEC. All the successive decisions and cables were slanted to aid that result but did not specifically provide for it. What Lovestone got from the Comintern on this occasion was the help he needed to secure a majority but not enough to enable him to exterminate or exclude the minority. Moreover, the slanted support he got was accompanied by a provision that the party must be united and peace established.

That’s the sense in which Ewart, the Comintern representative, acted during his stay in this country at that time. After the Convention – and of course within the framework of its decisions – he seemed to work always for peace and moderation, and we never found any reason to complain that he was unfair. It may be assumed that he was working according to instructions but such conduct would have been natural for him. He was undoubtedly a sincere communist; my memory of him is not unfriendly.

I believe it would be correct to say that Lovestone was given conditional support from Moscow in 1927; that he was put on trial, so to speak; and that provisions were made to conserve the minority, in case the experiment did not work out to the satisfaction of Moscow. As previously stated, the American question was not decided at the Comintern Plenum at that time at all. Everything was done afterward – formally through the American Commission, but actually in behind-the-scene arrangements among the Russian leaders.

* * *

A Note on Zinoviev

I have long been thinking and promising to write an appreciation of Zinoviev in the form of a condensed political biography. A comrade who is thoroughly familiar with the Russian language and the history of the Russian movement has promised to collaborate with me in preparing the material. [This refers to John G. Wright, who had begun work on this project before his recent untimely death. – ISR editor.] But I don’t know when, if ever, we will get around to it. It is too big and serious an undertaking to sandwich in between other tasks.

I was greatly influenced by Zinoviev in the early days of the Comintern, as were all communists throughout the world. I have never forgotten that he was Lenin’s closest collaborator in the years of reaction and during the First World War; that he was the foremost orator of the revolution, according to the testimony of Trotsky; and that he was the Chairman of the Comintern in the Lenin-Trotsky time.

It was Zinoviev’s bloc with Trotsky and his expulsion, along with Trotsky, that first really shook me up and started the doubts and discontents which eventually led me to Trotskyism. I have always been outraged by the impudent pretensions of so many little people to deprecate Zinoviev, and I feel that he deserves justification before history.

I have no doubt whatever that in all his big actions, including his most terrible errors, he was motivated fundamentally by devotion to the higher interests of the working class of the whole world – to the communist future of humanity. I believe that his greatest fault as a politician was his reliance on maneuverism when principled issues were joined in such a way as to exclude the efficacy of maneuver.

I do not think Zinoviev capitulated to Stalin either out of conviction or for personal reasons, but primarily because he thought he could serve the cause by such a stratagem. He wanted himself and the other opposition leaders to live and be on hand when a change in the situation would create a new opportunity for the overthrow of Stalin and the restoration of a revolutionary leadership of the Russian party and the Comintern.

In the exigencies of the political struggle it has not been convenient for the Trotskyist movement to make a full and objective evaluation of this man’s life; and others have shown no interest in it. But historical justice cries out for it and it will be done sometime by somebody. In spite of all, Zinoviev deserves restoration as one of the great hero-martyrs of the revolution.

As far as I know, Zinoviev did not have any special favorites in the American party. The lasting personal memory I have of him is of his patient and friendly efforts in 1925 to convince both factions of the necessity of party peace and cooperation, summed up in his words to Foster which I have mentioned before: “Frieden ist besser.” (“Peace is better.”)

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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