James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

Fraina – The Founder

Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.2, Spring 1955, pp.58-60.
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.

June 15, 1954

Dear Sir:

Fraina: (Re. your letter of May 10.)

It is certainly correct to list Fraina as one of the most important personalities in the formative period of American communism. In my History of American Trotskyism, I stated my opinion that he should be recognized as the founder of the movement.

I believe that John Reed and the Liberator did most to popularize the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks in the broad public of the American left wing. Fraina’s influence was somewhat narrower; his Revolutionary Age was essentially an internal party paper. In that field he did more than anyone to shape the ideology of the young movement of American communism. At the same time he put the stamp of his own romanticism and sectarian rigidity upon it.

The official propaganda of later years, assigning the role of “founder” to Ruthenberg, always offended my sense of historical justice. Ruthenberg was a big man – in his way – and a strong man among the pioneers, but he was by no means the originator, the “founder.”

* * *

I did not know Fraina personally. I first met him only casually at the National Left Wing Conference in New York in June, 1919. I met him a second time when he returned to this country as a member of the “Pan American Agency” of the Comintern with the mission to unify the two parties. This must have been late in 1920 or early in 1921. The other two members of this “Pan American Agency” were Charley Johnson (“Scott”) and Katayama, the old Japanese socialist then living in New York, who later went to Moscow and remained there. I think this was a joint meeting of the negotiating committees of the two parties.

The only memory I have of the meeting is that Fraina spoke there impartially, on behalf of the Comintern, for unity and conciliation. As in all the joint meetings to negotiate “unity” in these days, the discussion must have been somewhat heated. I remember Charley Scott telling me afterward that Fraina had referred to my conduct at the joint meeting as “factional.” This was probably not inaccurate, as I was decidedly hostile to the manifest ambition of the “Federationists” to “control” a united party. Scott’s remark about Fraina’s impression of me remained in my memory and enables me to peg the meeting.

Fraina left soon afterward on a mission for the Comintern in Latin America. Later we heard about his defection and the report that he had failed to account for some Comintern funds.

I recall a statement by Charley Scott in New York (it must have been late in 1921) to the effect that Fraina had misappropriated Comintern funds and that the matter was therefore out of the party’s hands. Scott said: “For that he will have to account to the Comintern,” or words to that effect. Somehow or other I remember that definitely. After that Fraina seemed to drop entirely out of the consciousness of the party leadership.

* * *

I cannot recall anything coming up about Fraina in Moscow in 1922. I have no recollection of any kind of official consideration of his case during my long stay there.

But here I can report an incident which may be of interest in piecing the Fraina story together. During one of my trips to New York (it must have been in 1924 or possibly in 1925) I was handed a letter from Fraina. I cannot remember who handed me the letter, but I am pretty sure it was addressed to me personally. In this letter Fraina stated that he was working and saving all he could from his wages; that he wanted to make arrangements to pay his debt in installments and to work his way back into the party, and asked me to help him. My recollection of this letter is sharp and clear.

On my return to Chicago I took the letter before the Political Committee and it was discussed there. The decision was made that since his affair concerned Comintern funds, it was outside the jurisdiction of the American party; and that Fraina would have to address himself to the Comintern and straighten out his relations there before the party could do anything about it. I conveyed this decision to Fraina through the comrade who had acted as intermediary – again for the life of me I can’t recollect who it was – and that’s the last report I had of Fraina until, years later, he began to write again under the name of Corey.

* * *

I never met him personally in those later days. But strangely enough, we came close to meeting. He appeared to be breaking with the political line of the official Communist Party, while remaining a communist, and there were some indications that he was becoming sympathetic to the Trotskyist position. It was soon after the Hitler victory, when a new party of anti-Stalinist communists was in the air. In a discussion I had with V.F. Calverton, Sidney Hook, and a few others associated with Calverton’s magazine at that time, we discussed the question of a new party. They asked what our attitude would be toward such people as Fraina, with whom they evidently had some contact and association.

I told them that I really didn’t know what to say, because the old financial scandal would put a cloud over Fraina until it was cleared up, in one way or another. Nevertheless, I was very much interested in Fraina, and hoped a way could be found to collaborate with him. When I visited Trotsky in France in the fall of 1934, I took up the question of Fraina and asked his opinion.

Trotsky also was interested and sympathetic and thought that we should by no means reject an overture from Fraina. He finally suggested the following policy: That the new party would be too weak to take upon itself the responsibility of an outstanding personality who had a financial scandal hanging over him. Our defense of him would not be effective enough to do any good, while involvement in the scandal would hurt the party. Fraina should go back to the Communist Party and straighten out his financial entanglements and get an official clearance from them. After that the new party we were forming could accept him as a member without any reservation.

That seemed to me to be the soundest position to take and I agreed to proceed along that line. Upon my return we became deeply involved in the final stage of negotiations with the Muste group, building up to our joint Convention in December. I think I relayed Trotsky’s advice to Fraina through the Calverton group, but I am not absolutely sure of it. At any rate, we never had any direct contact with Fraina; and soon after that he began to move away from the communist movement altogether.

* * *

Fraina was truly a tragic figure. The deportation proceedings brought against him in the last year of his life, after he had fully renounced his youthful communism, added a final stroke of savage irony to a life which was offered to two opposing causes and was rejected by both.

In spite of all, the best part of Fraina – the young part – belongs to us. When one considers how primitive the American left-wing movement had been in matters of theory, and its desolating poverty of literary-political forces, the pioneer work of Fraina in this field stands out by contrast as truly remarkable. I think it no more than just to say that Fraina was the first writer of pioneer American communism. He did more than anybody else to explain and popularize the basic program of the Russian Bolsheviks. American communism, which stems directly from the primitive American left-wing movement, owes its first serious interest in theoretical questions primarily to Fraina.

It is quite useless, however, to demand more from people than they can give. Fraina was too weak to be a leader. He could not stand up against the brutal bulldozing of the Russian Federation leaders who had the power of organizations and finances and wielded their power as a club. Fraina’s capitulation to the Hourwich group, after the National Left Wing Conference in 1919 had decided to continue the legal fight within the SP, certainly did a lot of damage.

The premature split of the SP, and the monstrous absurdity of the split of the communist movement into two parties at the moment of its formal constitution; and then the hasty, ill-considered, and in my opinion, unnecessary plunge into total illegality-were calamitous mistakes, if not crimes, of leadership in which Fraina was more the intimidated accomplice than the author.

Nobody knows how many thousands of American radical socialists – potential communists – were lost and scattered as a result of these insane procedures, imposed upon the movement by the Russian Federation madmen. I have always believed that two people made it possible for this wrecking crew to work such havoc. They could not have done it alone. They needed both Fraina and Ruthenberg, and got them both for different reasons.

In my own mind I have always blamed Ruthenberg more than Fraina. Fraina was weak, and there is not much that can be done about that. Ruthenberg was far stronger, but he was swayed by an overreaching personal ambition. I ascribe more blame to him precisely because of that. The history of American communism would quite possibly have taken a different course, with far greater advantages in the long run, if Fraina in 1919 had been propped up and supported by people who knew what the movement needed and were strong enough to enforce their policy.

Instead of that, Fraina was brutally clubbed down by the strong bosses of the Russian Federation and left without support by Ruthenberg, who then, as always, thought too much of himself, his own position and his own role. Ruthenberg would probably have been greatly surprised if someone had told him, in those critical days, that the most important service he could render to the cause of American communism was to reinforce the position of Fraina; to create conditions for him to do his work as a political writer with a certain amount of latitude.

The sprawling left-wing movement, just emerging from the theoretical wasteland of its pre-history, needed time to study, to learn and to assimilate the great new ideas which had exploded in the Russian Revolution. The self-centered Ruthenberg could not possibly have understood that Fraina’s work of exposition, at that time, was more important than his own, and that he should lend his strength to support it.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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