James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

Origin of the Policy on the Labor Party

Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.2, Spring 1955, pp.56-58.
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.

May 18, 1954

Dear Sir:

This replies to your inquiry of May 15 on the origins of the labor party policy.

I think this whole question of the party’s activity in farmer-labor party politics in the first half of the Twenties ought to be separated into two parts. First, the original policy and how it came to be adopted by the party; second, the perversions of this policy in the experiments, more correctly the fantastic adventures in this field, under the tutelage of Pepper. Here I will confine myself entirely to the first part of the subject – the origins of the labor party policy – reserving the second part for a separate report.

There is not much documentation on this question and I find that my memory is not so sharp as to details as it is on the fight over legalization. That is probably because the real fight was over legalization. The labor party policy, the development of the trade-union work, and the whole process of Americanizing the movement, were subsumed under that overall issue of legalizing the party. Insofar as they took a position on the related questions, the factions divided along the same lines.

With considerable effort I have to reconstruct my memory of the evolution of the labor party question in the American movement. I may err on some details or miss some. My general recollection however is quite clear and is not far wrong. The approach to the question zigzagged along a number of high points in about this order:

(1) To start with, the left wing of American socialism had been traditionally rigid and doctrinaire on all questions – revolution versus reform, direct action versus parliamentary action, new unions versus the old craft unions, etc. The publication of Lenin’s pamphlet on left communism marked the beginning of their comprehension that realistic tactics could flexibly combine activities in these fields without departing from basic revolutionary principle. We needed the Russians to teach us that.

(2) The first approach of the left wing to the question of the labor party was inflexibly sectarian and hostile. I recall an editorial by Fraina in the Revolutionary Age or in the Communist in 1919 or early 1920 against “laborism,” i.e., the policy and practice of the British Labor Party and the advocates of a similar party in this country, who were fairly numerous and vocal at that time. In that period Fraina, who was the most authoritative and influential spokesman of the left wing, was an ultra-leftist. He seemed to be allied with this tendency in the Comintern, which was centered around the Dutch communists and some German leftists. This tendency, as you know, was vigorously combatted and defeated by Lenin and Trotsky at the Third Congress of the Comintern (1921). (Incidentally, you will find Trotsky’s two volumes on The First Five Years of the Communist International, published by Pioneer Publishers, informative reading on this period. It impinges on America at least to this extent: that Trotsky polemicized against Pepper (Pogany), who had been in Germany with a Comintern delegation, and at that time was himself an ultra-leftist.)

This article or editorial by Fraina expressed the general attitude of the party, which was ultra-leftist all along the line in those days. Perhaps I recall this particular article or editorial because I was a quite pronounced “right winger” in the early Communist Party, and I thought that people who were advocating a labor party were a hell of a long way out in front of the labor movement as I knew it in the Midwest. However, I must say that it never occurred to me at that time that we could be a part of the larger movement for a labor party and remain communists. Engels’ perspicacious letters on this very theme were unknown to us in those days.

(3) The theoretical justification for such a complicated tactic – conditional support of a reformist labor party by revolutionists – came originally from Lenin. I think it is indisputable that Lenin’s proposal to the British communists that they should “urge the electors to vote for the labor candidate against the bourgeois candidate,” in his pamphlet on Left-Wing Communism, and his later recommendation that the British Communist Party should seek affiliation to the British Labor Party, gave the first encouragement to the sponsors of a similar policy in this country, and marks the real origin of the policy.

I don’t think this contradicts the statement you quote, from the Foster-Cannon document of November 26, 1924 – which was probably written by me and which I had long since forgotten – that the Comintern’s approval of a labor party policy in 1922 was obtained “mainly on the strength of the information supplied by our delegates, that there was in existence a strong mass movement towards a farmer-labor party.”

Lenin’s intervention in England provided the original justification for revolutionists to support a labor party based on the unions. Our contention in Moscow in 1922 was simply that a realistic basis existed for the adaptation of this policy to America. There was considerable sentiment in the country for a farmer-labor party at that time. The Chicago Federation of Labor was for it. The Farmer-Labor Party had had a presidential candidate in 1920, who polled about half a million votes.

It seemed to us – after we had assimilated Lenin’s advice to the British – that this issue would make an excellent basis for a bloc with the more progressive wing of the trade-union movement, and open up new possibilities for the legitimization of the communists as a part of the American labor movement, the expansion of its contacts, etc. But 1 don’t think we would have argued the point if we had not been previously encouraged by Lenin’s explanation that revolutionists could critically support a reformist labor party, and even belong to it, without becoming reformists.

(4) I do not recall that the question of a labor party was concretely posed in the factional struggle between the liquidators and the undergrounders-in-principle. The real issue which divided the party into right and left wings, was the legalization of the movement. On all subsidiary questions – labor party, realistic trade-union program, predominance of native leadership, Americanization in general – the right wing naturally tended to be for and the left wing against.

As far as I can recall, all the liquidators readily accepted the labor party policy. After the leftists had been completely defeated on the central question of party legalization, any resistance they might have had to the labor party policy collapsed. I do not recall any specific factional struggle over the labor party by itself.

(5) Furthermore, it was the Comintern that picked up our information and our advocacy of a labor party policy at the time of the Fourth Congress, and formulated it most clearly and decisively. I am quite certain in my recollection that the Comintern letter to the Communist Party of the US, announcing its decision in favor of the legalization of the movement, referred also to the labor party policy. The letter stated that the formation of a labor party in the US, based on the trade unions, would be “an event of world historical importance.”

If you will check this letter, which it seems to me was printed either in the Worker or the Communist early in 1923, I think you will find the definitive answer to the question of the origin of the labor party policy.

(6) Pepper certainly had no part in initiating the policy in Moscow “before and during the Fourth Congress.” He was in America at that time. In answer to your-question: “Or did he pick up that ball and run with it after. he came to the US?” – I would simply say, Yes, but fast; in fact he ran away with it.

(7) Valetski, the Comintern representative to the American party in 1922, was one of the leaders of the Polish Communist Party. I met him when he returned to Moscow after the Bridgeman Convention, and heard him speak in the American Commission several times. He did not fully support the liquidators and I had a number of clashes with him. His position after he returned to Moscow would indicate quite clearly that he had not been sent to America with a predetermined decision of the Comintern to support legalization. Rather the contrary.

The change of position and the eventual decision was made in Moscow as a result of our fight there and not on the recommendation of Valetski. He began to shift his position in the course of the debates, but he didn’t go all the way. He tried to get us to agree to a compromise to blunt the edge of the decision, but we refused. I recall Zinoviev saying privately to us, when we complained to him about Valetski’s position: “He is changing. but he is not fully on our line yet.”

Valetski was obviously a learned and quite able man. I think he had originally been a professor, but he apparently had a long record in the Polish movement. They had had all kinds of faction fights in the Polish party. His experience would have qualified him to be sent as representative of the Comintern to a young and comparatively inexperienced party torn to pieces by factional struggle.

Factionalism and faction fights are frequently derided by side-line critics as aberrations of one kind or another, a disease peculiar to the radical movement. But I never knew a political leader of any consequence who had not gone through the school of factional struggles. To be sure, I have also known factional fighters – quite a few of them – who were no good for anything else: who became so consumed by factionalism that they forgot what they started out to fight for. But that’s part of the overhead, I guess.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

P.S. I had never heard that Lenin raised the labor party question with Fraina in Moscow already in 1920. That is very interesting. I think it also supplies corroboration to my own conception, set forth above, that Lenin was the real originator of this policy. He must have turned over in his mausoleum, however, when he saw what was later done with his idea. – JPC

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