James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

Four Ways of Viewing the Early Communist Party

Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.2, Spring 1955, p.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.

July 20, 1954

Dear Sir:

I enclose a manuscript (see Fourth International, Fall 1954Ed.) which attempts to explain the transformation of the Communist Party in the last half of the Twenties and gives my view of the basic causes. You will note that I have left out all reference to the various incidents and turns of events which you inquired about in your letters dealing with this time. I will answer these questions separately, as well as I can from memory. But the more I thought about this period, the more it became clear to me that the factual story can be meaningful only if it is placed within a framework of interpretation.

As I see it, there are at least four ways to approach a history of the Communist Party in this period, leaving out the official CP version, which isn’t worth mentioning:

  1. It can be described as a dark conspiracy of spies and “infiltrators.” (This theme has already been pretty well exploited.)
  2. It can be told as a story of the doings and misdoings of more or less interesting people who fought like hell about nothing and finally knocked themselves out.
  3. It can be written as an item of curiosa about an odd lot of screwballs who operated in a world of their own, outside the main stream of American life and exerted no influence upon it; something like the books about the various utopian colonies, which from time to time occupy the attention of various professors, Ph.D. thesis writers and others who are interested in things remote from the work-a-day world.
  4. Or, one can treat the evolution of the CP in its first decade as a vital part of American history, which was destined to have a strong influence on the course of events in the next two decades.

This last is my point of view. The historian who wants to write a serious work, regardless of his own opinion of communism, will probably have to consider this approach to the subject. Otherwise, why bother with it?

The historical importance of the first ten years of American communism, particularly the latter half of this decade, really comes out when one gets into the New Deal era and attempts to explain the various factors which contributed to Roosevelt’s astounding success in steering American capitalism through the crisis and the Second World War without any substantial opposition on his left.

My own opinion is that Roosevelt was the best political leader crisis-racked American capitalism could possibly have found at the time; and that his best helper – I would go farther and say his indispensable helper – was the Communist Party. The CP did not consist, as the current popular version has it, of the Ware-Chambers groups of spies who infiltrated some Washington offices and filched out a few secret documents. That was a mere detail in a side-show tent.

The CP itself operated during the Roosevelt regime as a first-class force in support of Roosevelt in the broad arena of politics and the labor movement. It played a major role first in promoting the expansion of a new labor movement and then in helping Roosevelt to domesticate it, to blunt its radical-revolutionary edge, and to convert it into his most solid base of support in both domestic and foreign policy.

Furthermore, the Communist Party had to be prepared for this role by the gradual and subtle, but all the more effective and irreversible transformation it went through precisely in the five years preceding the outbreak of the crisis.

Things might very well have happened differently. Let us assume that the CP had developed in the last half of the Twenties as a party of the Leninist type; that it had retained the strongest leaders of that time and they had remained communists and, in the meantime, had learned to work together as a team; that the party had used its monopolistic leadership of the new mass upsurge of labor militancy to impose upon the new union movement a genuine class-struggle policy.

Assume that the CP had contested with Lewis-Hillman-Murray in the struggle for leadership of the new union movement instead of abdicating to them for reasons of foreign policy; that the new union movement under communist influence had launched a radical labor party instead of submerging in the Rooseveltian People’s Front in the Democratic Party; that the CP and the big segment of the labor movement which it influenced had opposed the war instead of becoming its most ardent and most reliable supporters.

All that is just about what a genuine Communist Party would have done. What would American history in the Roosevelt era have looked like in that case? It certainly would have been different. And it is not in the least visionary to imagine that such a different course was possible. The key to the whole situation was the evolution of the CP in the last half of the Twenties.

That, in my opinion, removes the study of early communism from an exercise in speculation about a bizarre cult and places it right where it belongs – in the mainstream of American history.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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