James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

At the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.2, Spring 1957, pp.61-65.
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.

February 1, 1956

Dear Sir:

There is very little I can add to what I have already written about the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern (1928) in the History of American Trotskyism. That report on the Congress as a whole is meager enough, and the reason for it is frankly explained there. The simple truth is that in the first period after our arrival in Moscow, I, like all the other American delegates, was far more concerned about the fight over the American question than the work of the Congress in general. Then, after I got hold of a copy of Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program, my interest and attention was concentrated on that and what I would do about it after I got back home.

Maurice Spector, a top leader of the Canadian party, read the Criticism at the same time and his reaction to it was the same as mine. Thereafter we lost interest in the official proceedings. We made a compact to fight for Trotsky’s cause, but we knew that it would be futile and tactically unwise to begin our fight in Moscow. We held a continuous “Congress” of our own about Trotsky’s great document and its implications. As I said in the History, “We let the caucus meetings and the Congress sessions go to the devil while we studied this document.”

I realize that this puts me down as a poor reporter and convicts me of one-sidedness. This quality, however, is sometimes useful in a political worker. It certainly was so in this case; the “one side” represented by Trotsky’s criticism of the draft program was far more important than all the rest of the Congress put together.

* * *

My History of American Trotskyism will have to stand as my recollection of that time. Everything was fresher in my mind when it was written 14 years ago, and I can’t think of anything important to add to it. This book had a curious history. Like practically all my writing, it happened more or less by chance, incident to other work in the movement. It was not planned at all. In the winter of 1942 the comrades in charge of the party school in New York asked me to give a couple of lectures on party history to fill out some open dates on their forum schedule. I thought that would be a small chore and I agreed rather light-mindedly, having nothing more in mind than to relate a few reminiscences about the main points.

Then, when I sat down to make the notes for the first lecture, it occurred to me that I should explain how our movement originated in the Communist Party. But the story of this experience in the CP also required some explanatory background. Before I fully realized what I was undertaking to do I was back in the beginning, making notes about the early days of American communism. I got so bogged down in notes about that period that it took me three lectures to get out of the Communist Party, before I could start on the subject of our independent activities after our expulsion. The interest of the attending audience stimulated me to keep going along that line until the course was strung out to l2 lectures. The lectures were not written, but spoken free-style, from notes usually made on the day of the lecture. The only research I did was to leaf through the bound volumes of The Militant to fix the various events in their proper order of continuity. All the rest came from my memory at the time.

The eventual publication of the lectures also happened without prior design on my part. Sylvia Caldwell, who was my secretary at that time, took the lectures down in shorthand on her own initiative, and later transcribed her notes. There was some casual talk among us of publishing the lectures some time, but I did nothing about it and left the typescripts sleeping in the file for another year and a half. They would still be there, probably, except for another incident over which I had no control. In November, 1943, we got notice that our appeal from our conviction in the 1941 trial at Minneapolis had been denied by the Supreme Court, and that we would have about a month to get ready to go to Sandstone Prison. Then, under pressure of time, I hastily corrected some of the grammatical mistakes in the typescripts of the lectures and handed them over to Pioneer Publishers just under the deadline. The accidental book was finally published the following spring. Others have to judge what the book is worth. All I know for sure is that it is all true.

* * *

My comment on Stalin’s policy at the time of the Sixth World Congress must be qualified by the observation that I know more now about what was going on in the Russian party and the Comintern, than I did then. Consequently I have to be on guard against coloring my recollections of various incidents by interpretations I arrived at later.

It is safe to say that all of us in the American opposition were aware of the muted struggle going on against the right wing in the Russian party; and that we drew the conclusion that in one way or another this would be advantageous to us in the factional struggle at home. I don’t think we realized at that time how deep the cleavage had become between Stalin and Bukharin. This was obscured by the fact that Bukharin was put forward as the leader of the Congress to make the chief political report.

There was a great deal of speculation as to what was really going on in the Russian party, but no one seemed to know. I personally got a good deal of information from Hathaway, a member of our faction, who had just finished a three-year term in Moscow as a student in the Lenin School. Hathaway, like all the other students of this misnamed institution, had been trained to scent the wind in the Russian party, and he was a fully indoctrinated Stalinist. He parroted the official line against Rykov, Tomsky and a number of others whom he designated as right-wingers in the Russian party, but I can’t recall that he was very definite about Bukharin.

Stalin evidently wanted to utilize the Congress as a final mopping-up operation against the Left Opposition before bringing the fight against Bukharin into the open. The American opposition delegates were cagey about getting out on a limb in connection with the internal affairs of the Russian party. They denounced the Lovestoneites as representatives of the right-wing tendency in the International without specifying who were the Russian leaders in this right wing. I cannot recall that Bittelman or any other member of the American opposition attacked Bukharin openly. I am pretty sure it didn’t happen.

* * *

We were told that rumors of the fight in the Russian party had been taken up in the Senioren Konvent, but I do not recall any report that Lovestone had raised the question. (This Senioren Konvent was a sort of advisory body made up of the heads of delegations. I think it also included some other especially prominent delegates. If I am not mistaken Foster was also a member of the Senioren Konvent. It was translated as “Council of Elders.”)

What sticks in my mind is the report that Stalin, at a special session of the Senioren Konvent, had denied any conflict in the Russian leadership, and that this had a restraining influence on any delegates in the Congress who might have been inclined to press the question.

The Congress was buzzing all the time with rumors about the differences in the Russian party; but I heard nothing about any organized or semi-organized movement that could be considered a “Corridor Congress.” I am inclined to think this expression was manufactured by the Lovestoneites after their expulsion, when they no longer had anything to lose. My personal testimony, of course, is not conclusive; my standing in Moscow was such that I could not have been invited into such a cabal.

But Foster would have been considered eligible; and I never heard anything from Foster to indicate that he was part of any “Corridor Congress.” If he had been so connected, it seems almost certain that he would have reported it. He reported the even more confidential matter of his personal talk with Stalin, on the latter’s invitation, in which Stalin told him that he did not trust Lovestone, as I related in a previous letter.

* * *

As far as I know, Stalin’s devious method of political manipulation was absolutely unique. There was no criterion by which to estimate what he was driving at at any particular moment. In one of his comments about the early days of the struggle of the Left Opposition in the Russian party – perhaps it was in his autobiography – Trotsky said the party functionaries were kept in the dark as to what the majority faction intended by this or that action. They were required to “guess” what it meant and to adapt themselves in time. Selections of people and promotions were made by the accuracy of their guesses at each stage of development in the factional struggle. Those who guessed wrong or didn’t guess at all were discarded. This guessing game was played to perfection in the period of Stalin’s preparation to dump Bukharin. I don’t think many people knew what was really going on and what was already planned at the time of the Sixth Congress. Everybody was guessing, and it is quite evident that the Lovestoneites guessed wrong.

Here an interesting speculation arises. If Lovestone and Wolfe had known about the so-called “Corridor Congress,” and had also known that Stalin was behind it – would they still have clung to Bukharin as the representative of an obviously losing cause? Permit me to doubt it – or rather, permit me to say categorically, No.

The main concern of Lovestone and Wolfe was not the general direction of policy in the Russian party and the Comintern, but their own stake in the leadership of the American party. When the showdown came at the party convention the following year, their attempt to propitiate Stalin by proposing the expulsion of Bukharin, was a revealing gesture. Their failure to cut loose from Bukharin at the time of the Sixth Congress really doesn’t deserve to be considered as a sign of their quixotic devotion to Bukharin’s cause. It was just a bad guess.

* * *

As I have previously reported, I do remember the meeting during the Sixth Congress referred to in Lovestone’s cable to his factional supporters in America, submitted by Gitlow to one of the hearings of the Un-American Activities Committee. I recall it rather as a meeting of the American Commission than as a joint meeting of the American and Russian delegations. However that may be, I definitely do not remember Stalin being present and speaking. It is highly doubtful that I could have forgotten that, because Stalin’s personal appearances at such gatherings were rare events, and were apt to be remembered. What fixes the memory of this meeting in my mind was Lovestone’s unprecedented action in making a rude and angry attack on Losovsky, and his remark in obvious reference to Losovsky’s differences with Lenin in the October days: “Nobody in our party ever fought Lenin.”

It could be that the Lovestone faction had private meetings with Stalin and Bukharin and that Stalin at such a meeting gave them some grounds to think they could count on his support. That could have been part of his devious game of putting Bukharin off guard until he was ready to cut his throat. But that, of course, is speculation. Nothing was clear to anybody then. And all that’s clear now is that Stalin at the time of the Sixth Congress, was planning to open fire on Bukharin and to finish off his supporters in the International in the process, but that he wasn’t ready to disclose his whole plan at that time.

* * *

The opposition platform entitled The Right Danger in the American Party was submitted to the American Commission by the official Congress delegates of the opposition bloc. The signatures – J.J. Johnstone, M. Gomez, W.F. Dunne, J.P. Cannon, Wm.Z. Foster, Alex Bittelman and G. Siskind – were apparently the signatures of the regularly designated delegates. (A number of other oppositionists such as Browder, Hathaway and others, present at the Congress, were evidently not regular delegates.) The document was presented in the name of the opposition delegation as a whole. As far as I know there were no dissenters. The chief author of the document was Bittelman. The order of the signatures had no significance.

I do not remember the American oppositionists’ protest against Paragraph 49 of the Congress Theses on the ground that it failed to emphasize sufficiently the “growing contradictions confronting American imperialism, etc.” In any case, it could not be considered as a serious conflict but rather as an attempt to put a little pressure to have the American resolution brought into line more precisely with the new orientation of the Comintern and, to help the opposition in its fight in the American party. It was a custom in these faction fights in the Comintern for every faction to demand a little more than it expected to get in the hope that it would get something by way of compromise.

* * *

At the time we submitted the platform of the opposition on The Right Danger everything was still more or less normal in the opposition bloc. There was not the slightest sign of objection by the Fosterites to my participation, since there could be no hope of winning a majority in the party unless the bloc held together. The objection to me, rather, was that I was not sufficiently active and aggressive in the struggle before the American Commission. This discontent with my conduct became accentuated after I read Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program. Then I began to slow down and lose interest in the faction fight altogether. The others may have known, or suspected the reasons, but I am sure they could not bring themselves to believe that I would do anything foolishly impractical about it. They didn’t care what anyone’s secret thoughts might be as long as they were not compromised by some overt action.

The delegates of the “Cannon group” were especially discontented with my increasing indifference to the factional struggle in Moscow and what it might portend; their own positions in the party stood to be affected adversely by my default. They started a pressure campaign to induce me to snap out of it and get back into the fight in earnest. The repudiation of Foster by his own faction had created a sort of vacuum in the leadership of the combined opposition and they felt, not without some justification, as things were at that time, that I was far better qualified to fill it than any of the other members of the Foster group. All this led to an incident which is perhaps worth reporting, since it compelled me to make the decision which was to have far-reaching consequences.

A meeting was called of all the members and sympathizers of our faction in Moscow. About a dozen, all told, were there, including our Congress delegates, the students in the Lenin School and a number of others. Spector was also present. There the proposition was flatly put to me – that if I would quit dragging my feet and go all-out in the factional struggle, they would pledge me their support all the way to the end as the logical candidate for the central position of leadership in the party when the Lovestone regime was overthrown.

I did not give a definite answer at the meeting. Spector and I held our own caucus on the question for a couple of days. We discussed it solely from the point of view of how best to serve the cause of Trotsky, to which we were by then fully committed. The proposal had an attractive glitter. In the first place, even though we were less optimistic than the others, we recognized that the objective outlined in the meeting was not unrealistic. If the indications of a Comintern swing to the left were fully developed there was good ground to think that the opposition’s chances for gaining the majority in the party would steadily improve.

Secondly, with Foster discredited and repudiated by his own former supporters, it was obvious that my claim to a more important role as the central leader of the opposition, and eventually of the party, was far stronger than that of Bittelman or any of the others in the Foster faction. Bittelman suffered from a number of disqualifications, which he himself was well aware of. He was distinctively an internal party man, not a mass worker and orator suited to the role of public leader. Browder had no standing as a political leader and was not even thought of in that connection. The other people of the Foster group were of even lesser caliber. We speculated that if I could secure the central position in the official apparatus of the party, I would be in a position to swing far more substantial support for the International Left Opposition when the time came to make a decisive open break. The fly in the ointment was that in order to carry out such a maneuver I would have to adapt myself to the official Comintern line against Trotskyism, and even make up for previous derelictions by excessive zeal in this respect. I would, in effect, be winning the party for the program of Stalinism.

Could I then, at some indefinite future time, reveal my own secret program and overcome the effect of the miseducation which I had helped to disseminate? Was there not a danger that I myself would become compromised and corrupted in the process and find it impossible to extricate myself at some future time?

I must state frankly that Spector and I discussed the proposition between ourselves very seriously before deciding against it. Only after thorough consideration of the maneuver from all sides, did we finally decide to reject the proposition. We came to the conclusion that the cause of Trotskyism would be served better in the long run if we frankly proclaimed his program and started the education of a new cadre on that basis, even though it was certain to mean our own expulsion and virtual isolation at the start of the new fight.

The choice of alternatives would present no difficulties to people who have been raised and educated in the Trotskyist school of principled politics, which our movement has consistently represented since 1928. The decision we made at that time would seem to be an easy one, to be made out of hand. It was not so easy for us in those days. Since the death of Lenin, the politics of the Comintern had become a school of maneuverism, and we ourselves had been affected by it. Trotsky’s document on the Draft Program was a great revelation of the meaning of principled politics. But for us at that time it was a new revelation. We were profoundly influenced by it, but we were only beginning to assimilate its full significance.

That accounts for our hesitation, for our toying for a day or two with the possibility of a self-deceiving maneuver which might well have gravely injured the cause of genuine communism in this country. And not only in this country, for the expelled and slandered defenders of the banner everywhere were then in their darkest hour. They needed to hear an American voice in their support. Our demonstrative action in publicly unfurling the banner of Trotsky in 1928 – at a time when he was exiled and isolated in Alma Ata – greatly encouraged the scattered forces of the International Left Opposition throughout the world.

* * *

The Fosterites had never talked to us about their own family affairs. Consequently, the big explosion at the joint caucus of the delegates of the two groups in Moscow came as somewhat of a surprise to us. To judge from the intensity of the feelings expressed, the revolt against Foster must have been brewing for a long time; it could hardly have been caused by the difference on trade-union tactics alone. It is more likely that the trade-union dispute, in which Bittelman and Browder could draw courage from being on Losovsky’s side, triggered an explosion built up out of many accumulated grievances.

One of Foster’s traits which I especially detested, after I got to know him well, was his different manner and attitude in dealing with different people. To those whom he thought he needed, such as Bittelman and myself, he was always careful and at times even a bit deferential. To those who needed him, such as Browder and Johnstone, he was brusque and dictatorial. They must have stored up many resentments against that.

I remember one rather dramatic incident during the discussion. Foster stood over Johnstone threateningly, with his fist clenched, and tried his old trick of intimidation with the snarling remark: “You’re getting pretty bold!” Johnstone, almost hysterical, answered: “You have been trampling on me for years, but you’re not going to trample on me any more.” Johnstone and Browder gave the impression at this meeting of people who had broken out of long confinement and were running wild.

Bittelman’s conduct was more difficult for me to understand. During all the time that we had been together in one group, and I had known everything that was going on with respect to personal relations, Foster had never presumed to bulldoze Bittelman. Yet at this meeting Bittelman’s tone and language seemed to be that of a man who was out to settle personal scores long overdue. He was absolutely ruthless in his attack on Foster, and even contemptuous of his arguments.

* * *

It was remarkable that not a single person in the meeting spoke up in defense of Foster. The whole faction was in revolt against him, with Bittelman in the lead and Browder and Johnstone close behind him. The funny thing about the whole business was that this fight, of almost unprecedented violence, which ordinarily would signify a complete break of personal and political relations between the participants, was apparently carried on with no thought of such consequences.

The Fosterites in revolt were still dependent on Foster’s name and prestige whether they liked it or not. At that time they had no prospect of playing a big role in the party without him. Foster, for his part, had nowhere else to go except to become a captive of the Lovestoneites, and that was impossible for him. So the whole stew blew up violently and then receded and continued to simmer and sizzle in the same pot. We, the “Cannonites,” stood aside and let the Fosterites fight it out among themselves. From a personal standpoint I felt a certain sympathy for the slaves in hysterical rebellion. But from a political standpoint I couldn’t see any sense whatever in encouraging a split with a view to realignment in the form of a bloc between our faction and the Fosterites, minus Foster.

Foster’s name and prestige, and his dogged persistence and outstanding ability as a mass worker, were always the bigger half of the assets of the Foster group, and remained so even after he had been defeated and isolated within the group. This was shown quite conclusively a short time later. When Stalin wanted to convey a message – with more than a hint of future support – to the American opposition, he sent for Foster and gave it to him personally.

It is quite possible that Browder and Johnstone could have had illusions of going on without Foster as if nothing had happened, for they were notorious for their political unrealism and ineptitude. But I could not imagine Bittelman entertaining such illusions. He had always been pretty realistic in his estimate of the forces in the party and of his own impediments. He knew that he had to be allied with others who had what he lacked, and he relied on combinations in which he could playa strategic part. The original Foster-Bittelman-Cannon combination was made to order for him to play a role in the party that he never could have played by himself. His importance declined when one-third of the combination broke off. And he cannot have failed to understand that it would decline still more if he came to an open break with Foster. I had known Bittelman as a man of reserve, who kept his personal feelings under control far better than most – a quality which I admired; and to this day I can’t understand what drove him to such violence in the attack on Foster as to risk the danger of an irreparable split. That he had any idea of fighting for the leadership of the party in his own name is in my opinion the one hypothesis that has to be excluded.

* * *

There is one small postscript to my recollections of this family fight among the Fosterites, which was soon swallowed up in my preoccupation with the immeasurably larger subject of Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program, and all that it implied for my own future course.

After the meeting, in a personal conversation with Bill Dunne and me, Foster complained of the treatment he had received and intimated – without saying so directly – that he would like to have better personal relations with us for collaboration in the future. But my own mind was already turning to far bigger things than the old factions and faction squabbles in the American party, and I couldn’t get up any interest in them any more.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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