James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

After 1925

Source: Fourth International, Vol.17 No.2, Spring 1956, pp.50-51.
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 14, 1955

Dear Sir:

The three-year period following the 1925 Convention of the Communist Party must present far more difficulties for the inquiring student than all the preceding years put together. The party entered into a uniquely different situation, without parallel in all the previous history of American radicalism, and the seeds of all the future troubles were sown then. It was a time when factionalism without principle in the internal party conflict prepared and conditioned many people for the eventual abandonment and betrayal of all principle in the broader class struggle of the workers, which the party had been organized to express.

The printed record alone obscures more than it explains about the real causes of the party troubles in these bleak years. The important thing, as I see it, is not the specific disputes and squabbles over party policy, as they are recorded in print, but the general situation in which all the factions were caught – and which none of them fully understood – and their blind, or half-blind, attempts to find a way out.

Prior to that time the factional struggles, with all their excesses and occasional absurdities, had revolved around basic issues which remain fully comprehensible; and settlement of the disputes had been followed by the dissolution of the factions. From the 1925 Convention onward, the evolution of party life took a radically different turn. The old differences had become largely outlived or narrowed down to nuances, but the factions remained and became hardened into permanent formations.

After 1925 the factional gang-fights for power predominated over whatever the rival factions wanted – or thought they wanted – the power for. That, and not the differences over party policy, real or ostensible, was the dominating feature of this period. The details of the various skirmishes are important mainly as they relate to that.

The factional struggle became bankrupt for lack of real political justification for the existence of the factions. For that reason nothing could be solved by the victory of one faction, giving it the opportunity to execute its policy, since the policies of the others were basically the same. There were differences of implicit tendency, to be sure, but further experience was required to show where they might lead. The factions lived on exaggerations and distortions of each others’ positions and the anticipation of future differences.

At any rate, the, real differences on questions of national policy, in and of themselves, insofar as they were clearly manifested at the time, were not serious enough to justify hard and fast factions. The factions in that period were simply fighting to keep in trim, holding on and waiting, without knowing it, for their futile struggle to fill itself with a serious political content.

The factions were driving blindly toward the two explosions of 1928-1929, when the latent tendencies of each faction were to find expression and formulation in real political issues of international scope, issues destined to bring about a three-way split beyond the possibility of any further reconciliation. But that outcome was not foreseen by any of the participants in the futile struggles of those days. These struggles, for all their intensity and fury, were merely anticipations of a future conflict over far more serious questions.

* * *

I began to recognize the bankruptcy of factional struggle without a clearly defined principled basis as early as 1925, and began to look for a way out of it. That still did not go to the root of the problem – the basic causes out of which the unprincipled factionalism had flourished – but it was a step forward. It set me somewhat apart from the central leaders of both factions, and was a handicap in the immediate conflict. Blind factionalists have more zeal than those who reflect too much. But the reflections of 1925 eventually helped me to find my way to higher ground.

The experiences of the conflict in the Foster-Cannon caucus at the 1925 Convention had revealed the Fosterites’ basic conception of the faction as that of a permanent gang, claiming prior loyalty of its members in a fight for supremacy and the extermination of the opposing faction. I couldn’t go along with that, and the disagreement brought us to a parting of the ways.

The definitive split of the Foster-Cannon faction took place, not at the 1925 Convention, where the first big conflict over the “Comintern cable” arose, but some weeks later, after numerous attempts to patch up the rift. When Foster and Bittelman insisted on their conception of the faction, and tried to press me into line for the sake of factional loyalty, I, and others of the same mind, had no choice but to break with them.

It was a deep split; the cadres of the faction divided right down the middle along the same lines as the division in the caucus at the Convention. Prominent in support of my position were the following: William F. Dunne, and with him the whole local leadership of the Minnesota movement; Arne Swabeck and Martin Abern in Chicago; the principal leaders of the youth organization – Shachtman, Williamson, Schneiderman and several others who later became prominent in the party: Hathaway, Tom O’Flaherty, Gomez; Fisher and his group in the South Slavic Federation; Bud Reynolds of Detroit; Gebert, the Pole, later to become District Organizer in Detroit before his departure for Poland; and several District Organizers of the party.

The conception of the central leaders of the Ruthenberg-Lovestone faction was basically the same as Foster’s, as was soon demonstrated in a brief and futile experiment in cooperation with them. I didn’t agree with the claim of either group to party domination and could see no solution of the party conflict along that line. This left no room for me in either faction as a full-time, all-out participant, which is the only way I can function anywhere.

The simple fact of the matter, as we came to see it in 1925, was that the party crisis could not be solved by the victory of one faction over the other. Each was weak where the other was strong. The two groups supplemented each other and were necessary to each other and to the party.

While I considered that the Foster group as a whole was more proletarian, nearer to the workers and for that reason the “better” group, I had begun to recognize all too clearly its trade union one-sideness. In this respect I was nearer to the Ruthenberg-Lovestone group. But the latter, although more “political” than the Fosterite trade unionists, was too intellectualistic to suit me. I thought that the Ruthenberg-Lovestone group by itself could not lead the party and build it as a genuine workers’ organization, and nothing ever happened in the ensuing years to change that opinion.

The cadres of both groups were too strong numerically, and had too many talented people, to be eliminated from the party leadership. The two groups, united and working together, would have been many times stronger and more effective than either one alone. We thought the time had come to move toward the liquidation of the factions and the unification of the party under a collective leadership.

In relating this I do not mean to intimate that I had suddenly become a pacifist in internal party affairs. I was as much a factionalist as the others, when factional struggle was the order of the day, and I have never seen any reason to deny it or apologize for it. Those pious souls who were not factionalists didn’t count in the days when the party life was dominated by internal struggle, and have nothing to report. It is true that factionalism can be carried to extremes and become a disease – as was the case in the CP after 1925. But professional abstainers, as is always the case, only made the game easier for the others who were not restrained by qualms and scruples.

I was not against factions when there was something serious to fight about. But I was already then dead set against the idea of permanent factions, after the issues which had brought them about had been decided or outlived. I never got so deeply involved in any factional struggle as to permit it to become an end in itself. In this I was perhaps different from most of the other factional leaders, and it eventually led me on a far different path.

This was a deliberate policy on my part; the result of much reflection on the whole problem of the party and the revolution. I was determined above all not to forget what I had started out to fight for, and this basic motivation sustained me in that dark, unhappy time. I felt that I had not committed myself in early youth to the struggle for the socialist reorganization of society in order to settle for membership in a permanent faction, to say nothing of a factional gang. I tried always to keep an over-all party point of view and to see the party always as a part of the working class.

And by and large I succeeded, although it was not easy in the atmosphere of that time. Many good militants succumbed to factionalism and lost their bearings altogether. It is only a short step from cynicism to renegacy. Betrayal of principle in little things easily leads to betrayal in bigger things. I have lived to see many who were first-class revolutionists in the early days turn into traitors to the working class. Some even became professional informers against former comrades. Cynical factionalism was the starting point of this moral and political degeneration.

We could see that the factional struggle was degenerating into a gang fight, and we set out to resist it. Being serious about it, we did not disperse our forces and hope for luck. On the contrary, we promptly organized a “third group” to fight for unity and the liquidation of all factions. This may appear as a quixotic enterprise – and so it turned out to be – but it took a long struggle for us to prove it to ourselves.

The international factor, which had frustrated all our efforts, eventually came to our aid and showed us a new road. When I got access to the enlightening documents of Trotsky in 1928, I began to fit the American troubles into their international framework. But that came only after three years of fighting in the dark, on purely national grounds.

No one can fight in the dark without stumbling now and then. We did our share of that, and I am far from contending that every move we made was correct. No political course can be correct when its basic premise is wrong. Our premise was that our party troubles were a purely American affair and that they could somehow be straightened out with the help of the Comintern, particularly of the Russian leaders, as had been done in earlier difficulties.

That was wrong on both counts. The objective situation in the country was against us, and we all contributed our own faults of ignorance and inadequacy to the bedevilment of the party situation. But the chief source of our difficulties this time was the degeneration of the Russian Communist Party and the Comintern; and the chief mischief-makers in our party, as in every other party of the Comintern, were these same people whom we trustingly looked to for help and guidance.

It took me a long time to get that straight in my head. In the meantime I fumbled and stumbled in the dark like all the others. My basic approach to the problem was different, however, and it eventually led me to an understanding of the puzzle and a drastic new orientation.

* * *

In the objective circumstances of the time, with the booming prosperity of the late Twenties sapping the foundations of radicalism, with the trade-union movement stagnating and declining, feverish activity in the factional struggle in the party became for many a substitute for participation in the class struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie. This sickness particularly infected those who were most isolated from the daily life of the workers. They did not take kindly to our formula for party peace and party unity through the liquidation of the factions. They didn’t understand it, and above all they didn’t believe in it.

In the underworld of present-day society, with which I have had contact at various times in jail and prison, there is a widespread sentiment that there is no such thing as an honest man who is also intelligent. The human race is made up of honest suckers and smart crooks, and that’s all there is to it; the smartest crooks are those who pretend to be honest, the confidence men. Professional factionalism, unrelated to the living issues of the class struggle of the workers, is also a sort of underworld, and the psychology of its practitioners approaches that of the other underworld.

In the eyes of such people, for whom the internal struggle of the Communist Party had become the breath of life, an end in itself, anyone who proposed peace and unity was either a well. meaning fool or a hypocrite with an axe to grind. In our case the first possibility was rejected out of hand by the esteemed colleagues with whom we had been associated in numerous struggles, and that left only the second. A third possible reason or motivation for our position was excluded.

Our formula for party unity and party peace was not taken at face value by the leaders of the Foster-Bittelman and Ruthenberg-Lovestone groups. We were regarded as trouble-making anarchists, violating the rules of the game by forming a “third group” when the rules called for two and only two.

The Fosterites waged an especially vicious campaign against me as a “traitor,” as if I had been born into this world as a member of a family and clan and was required by blood relationship to have no truck with the feuding opponents on the other side of the mountain. That was a complete misunderstanding on their part; they had my birth certificate all mixed up.

As for the Lovestoneites, they even introduced motions in the party branches specifically condemning the formation of a “third group.” For them two groups belonged to the accepted order of things; a third group was unnatural. This dictum, however, was not binding on us for the simple reason that we did not accept it.

It was evident from the start that our program could not be achieved by persuasion. Some force and pressure would be required, and this could be effectively asserted only by an organized independent group. We set out to build such a group as a balance of power, and thus to prevent either of the major factions from monopolizing party control.

Despite the all-consuming factionalism of the top and secondary leaders, our stand for unity undoubtedly reflected a wide sentiment in the ranks of both factions. Many of the rank and file comrades were sick of the senseless internal struggle and eager for unity and all-around cooperation in constructive party work. This was strikingly demonstrated when Weinstone, secretary of the New York District, and a group around him, came out for the same position in 1926.

That broke up the Ruthenberg “majority,” as our earlier revolt had broken up Foster’s. Weinstone soon came to an agreement with us, and the new combination constituted a balance of power grouping in the leadership. It didn’t stop the factional struggle-far from it-but it did prevent the monopolistic domination of the party by one faction and the exclusion of the other, and created conditions in the party for the leading activists in all factions to function freely in party work.

* * *

I had been closely associated with Weinstone in the old struggle for the legalization of the party – 1921-1923 – and knew him fairly well. We always got along well together and had remained friendly to each other, even though we were in opposing camps in the new factional line-up and struggle which began in 1923. He had gone along with the Ruthenberg-Pepper-Lovestone faction and was its outstanding representative in New York while the national center was located in Chicago.

In the course of the new developments I came to know Weinstone better and to form a more definitive judgment of him. He was one of that outstanding trio – Lovestone, Weinstone and Wolfe – who were known among us as the “City College boys.” They were still in school when they were attracted to the left-wing movement in the upsurge following the Russian Revolution, but they were thrust forward in the movement by their exceptional qualities and their educational advantages.

They came into prominent positions of leadership without having had any previous experience with the workers in the daily class struggle. All three of them bore the mark of this gap in their education, and Lovestone and Wolfe never showed any disposition to overcome it. They always impressed me as aliens, with a purely intellectualistic interest in the workers’ movement. Weinstone had at least a feeling for the workers, although in the time that I knew him, he never seemed to be really at home with them.

All three were articulate, Wolfe being the best and most prolific writer and Weinstone the most gifted speaker among them. Lovestone, who had indifferent talents both as writer and speaker, was the strongest personality of the three, the one who made by far the deepest impression on the movement at all times, arid most times to its detriment.

It was everybody’s opinion that Lovestone was unscrupulous in his ceaseless machinations and intrigues; and in my opinion everybody was right on that point, although the word “unscrupulous” somehow or other seems to be too mild a word to describe his operations. Lovestone was downright crooked, like Foster-but in a different way. Foster was in and of the workers’ movement and had a sense of responsibility to it; and he could be moderately honest when there was no need to cheat or lie. Foster’s crookedness was purposeful and utilitarian, nonchalantly resorted to in a pinch to serve an end. Lovestone, the sinister stranger in our midst, seemed to practice skulduggery maliciously, for its own sake.

It was a queer twist of fate that brought such a perverse character into a movement dedicated to the service of the noblest ideal of human relationships. Never was a man more destructively alien to the cause in which he sought a career; he was like an anarchistic cancer cell running wild in the party organism. The party has meaning and justification only as the conscious expression of the austere process of history in which the working class strives for emancipation, with all the strict moral obligations such a mission imposes on its members. But Lovestone seemed to see the party as an object of manipulation in a personal game he was playing, with an unnatural instinct to foul things up.

In this game, which he played with an almost pathological frenzy, he was not restrained by any recognized norms of conduct in human relations, to say nothing of the effects his methods might have on the morale and solidarity of the workers’ movement. For him the class struggle of the workers, with its awesome significance for the future of the human race, was at best an intellectual concept; the factional struggle for “control” of the party was the real thing, the real stuff of life. His chief enemy was always the factional opponent in the party rather than the capitalist class and the system of exploitation they represent.

Lovestone’s factional method and practice were systematic miseducation of the party; whispered gossip to set comrades against each other; misrepresentation and distortion of opponents’ positions; unrestrained demagogy and incitement of factional supporters until they didn’t know whether they were coming or going. He had other tricks, but they were all on the same order.

The party leaders’ opinions of each other in those days varied widely and were not always complimentary; but at bottom, despite the bitterness of the conflicts, I think they respected each other as comrades in a common cause, in spite of all. Lovestone, however, was distrusted and his devotion to the cause was widely doubted. In intimate circles Foster remarked more than once that if Lovestone were not a Jew, he would be the most likely candidate for leadership of a fascist movement. That was a fairly common opinion.

Wolfe, better educated and probably more intelligent than Lovestone, but weaker, was Lovestone’s first assistant and supporter in all his devious maneuvers. He was different from Lovestone mainly in his less passionate concentration on the intrigues of the moment and less desperate concern about the outcome.

A prime example of Lovestone’s factional method is his 1929 pamphlet, Pages from Party History. He makes an impressive “case” against his factional opponents by quoting, with a liberal admixture of falsification, only that which is compromising to them and leaving out entirely a still more impressive documentation which he could have cited against himself. Wolfe’s factional writing was on the same order, crooked all the way through. His 1929 pamphlet against “Trotskyism” shows Wolfe for what he is worth. These two people in particular had little or nothing to learn from Stalin. In their practices in the factional struggles they were Stalinists before Stalin’s own method was fully disclosed to the Americans.

* * *

Weinstone was different in many ways. He was not as shrewd and cunning, and he lacked Lovestone’s driving will. But he was more honest than Lovestone and Wolfe, more party-minded, and in those days he was undoubtedly devoted to the cause of communism. Also, in my opinion, Weinstone was more broadly intelligent, more flexible and objective in his thinking, than any of the other leaders of the Ruthenberg-Lovestone group.

Weinstone never got completely swamped in the factional struggle. That was the starting point for his independent course in 1926-1927. He recognized the merits of the comrades in the other camp. More clearly than others in his group, he saw the blind alley into which the factional struggle had entered at that time, and was honestly seeking to find a way out in the higher interest of the party.

Weinstone was perhaps dazzled for a time by the phony brilliance of Pepper, but he was never a personal follower of either Ruthenberg or Lovestone. His criticisms of both, in numerous conversations with me, were penetrating and objective; at least so they seemed to me. He was revolted by the Ruthenbergian claim to party “hegemony” – they actually proposed the formula of “unity of the party under the hegemony of the Ruthenberg group“! That sounded something like the unity of colonies in an imperialist empire, and that is really the way it was meant. Weinstone feared, with good reason, that encouragement of such an unrealistic and untenable pretension would lead to a party stalemate which could only culminate in a split.

Already in 1926, before the death of Ruthenberg, Weinstone began to take a stand within the faction for unity, through the dissolution of the factions and the establishment of a “collective leadership” of the most capable and influential people, without factional barriers to their free collaboration. This naturally brought him into consultation and eventually into close collaboration with us, since we had evolved the same position out of our own experiences in the Foster faction.

The Lovestoneites, who proceeded from the a priori judgment that everything that happens is the result of a conspiracy, and that nothing is ever done through good will and the exercise of independent intelligence, were dead sure that I had cooked up Weinstone’s defection and talked him into his factional heresy. That’s the way Gitlow tells it in his sorry memoirs; but that’s not the way I remember it.

When Weinstone became secretary of the New York District, as a result of the overturn manipulated by the Comintern in 1925, the bigger half of the effective militants in the New York District, who only yesterday had been the duly elected majority, became an artificially created minority. Weinstone recognized their value as party workers and deliberately instituted a policy in the New York District, on his own account, of conciliation and cooperation.

Most of the New York Fosterites, after a period of suspicious reservation, responded to Weinstone’s conciliatory policy, and a considerable measure of cooperation with them in party work was effected. This favorable result of local experience induced Weinstone to extend his thoughts to the party problem on a national scale. That soon brought him to virtually the same position that we had worked out in Chicago.

I doubt whether I personally had much to do with shaping his thoughts along this line – at least in the early stage. The fact that he came to substantially the same position that we had already worked out gave us a certain reassurance that we had sized things up correctly; and it naturally followed that we came into closer and closer relations with Weinstone.

We came to a definite agreement to work together already before the sudden and unexpected death of Ruthenberg in March 1927. We often speculated how things might have worked out if Ruthenberg had lived. Ruthenberg was a factionalist like the rest, but he was not so insane about it as Lovestone was. He was far more constructive and responsible, more concerned for the general welfare of the party and for his own position as a leader of a party rather than of a fragmented assembly of factions. Moreover, he was far more popular and influential, more respected in the party ranks, and strong enough to veto Lovestone’s factional excesses if he wanted to.

It is quite possible that an uneasy peace, gradually leading to the dissolution of factions, might have been worked out with him. His sudden death in March 1927 put a stop to all such possibilities. The Ruthenberg faction then became the Lovestone faction, and the internal party situation changed for the worse accordingly.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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