James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

Birth of the Communist Party

Source: Fourth International, Vol.15 No.3, Summer 1954, pp.92-94.
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.

April 21, 1954

Dear Sir:

I am very sorry that I delayed so long in answering your letter of March 5. This has not been due to lack of interest in your project or unwillingness to help you in any way I can. The trouble is that I am working on a rather full schedule which I have not been able to interrupt long enough to answer your questions adequately. I take them far too seriously to give offhand answers. Some of the questions require considerable time for thought and recollection of matters which have been long buried in memory.

I will undertake to answer all your questions as fully as I can, although I will not be able to do this all at once. Here I will make a beginning and will undertake to send you other comments later.

I attended the National Conference of the Socialist Party Left Wing in New York in May 1919 as a delegate from Kansas City. I did not attend the Party Convention in September of that year, which resulted in the split and the formation of the two Communist Parties. The reasons which motivated my non-attendance at this Convention were soon flooded out by events, but they seemed important to me at the time and still do. Perhaps they are worth stating.

The Left Wing Conference was my first introduction to the New York atmosphere and my first view of the dominating role of the foreign-language groups. I was in agreement with the Left Wing program, but I was appalled by the tactical unrealism of the language-federation leaders, represented there in the first place by Hourwich. Their manifest determination to speed up the split of the Socialist Party convinced me that they weren’t really living in this country and didn’t know or care about the state of mind of the Socialist Party membership outside New York at that time.

I was afraid that a premature split would run far ahead of the readiness of the rank and file in many sections of the country. For that reason, I was strongly opposed to any procedure which might precipitate it. Reed, Gitlow, etc., whom I first met at this Conference, impressed me as far more realistic. They were also more informed and concerned about the industrial labor movement, which was my major interest. I identified myself with their group, which later emerged as the Communist Labor Party.

My failure to be a delegate to the Chicago Convention in September followed from my opposition to a premature split and, because of that, my insistence on respecting party legality in the factional struggle. The party constitution at that time, as I recall, required that delegates to a National Convention be party members for a certain number of years. I did not strictly qualify under this provision, and did not wish to appear at the Convention as a contested delegate. My previous activity had been in the IWW; I only joined the Socialist Party in 1918, after the Russian Revolution and the rise of the left wing. For that reason, I declined the nomination as delegate and the election went to another comrade who was legally qualified under the party constitution.

In the light of later events this exaggerated “legalism” may appear as a quixotic reason for failing to attend the historic Convention. But that’s the way it was, and I still think I was right. The precipitate split cut the left wing off from thousands of radical socialists who were revolutionary in their sentiments but not yet ready to follow the left wing in a split. They didn’t stay with the right wing either. They just dropped out in discouragement over the split, and nearly all of them were lost to the movement.

Of course, the right wing leaders were bent on a split too, and it probably could not have been prevented in any case. But it might have been delayed if the left wing leadership hid followed a more careful tactic, had shown more respect for party legalism and more patience and respect for those thousands of party members who were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution but had yet to be convinced of the necessity for a new party. The Communist Party was born in Chicago as a result of an unnecessary, or at any rate a premature, Caesarian operation, which weakened and nearly killed the child at birth. There is an important lesson in this experience which I have not seen mentioned elsewhere. Splits are sometimes unavoidable, but unprepared splits can do more harm than good.

Faced with the accomplished fact of the split, indeed of the double split, which brought two Communist Parties into existence – despite our wishes to the contrary – the Kansas City Local of the Socialist Party followed political lines and promptly aligned itself with the Communist Labor Party. This was the direct continuation of the informal alliance I had made with the Reed-Gitlow group at the National Left Wing Conference in New York four months previously.

I attended the underground Convention in Bridgeman, Michigan, in the spring of 1920, where the Communist Labor Party united with the Ruthenberg faction of the Communist Party to form the United Communist Party.

At that Convention I was elected to the Central Committee, and was assigned as organizer of the St. Louis-Southern Illinois district of the party. After a number of months in this post, working mainly among the coal miners of Southern Illinois, I was appointed editor of the Toiler and moved to Cleveland to take up the new post. A few months later I was called to New York and remained there as a resident member of the Central Committee.

I soon became convinced that the party could not survive in a completely underground existence where we were cut off from the labor movement and the real life of the country in general. But there were still two Communist Parties in existence and they were exhausting themselves in the underground factional struggle. The final unification of forces at a unity convention in the spring of 1921 brought a new leadership to the fore. Ruthenberg and Gitlow were in prison at that time, and several other previous members of the Central Committee failed of re-election. Lovestone and Weinstone were elected to the Central Committee at this Convention, and Bittleman was coopted soon after.

We began a determined struggle for a step-by-step legalization of the movement. I was perhaps more determined than the others on the eventual complete legalization of the party; but this had to wait for some experimental tests.

We took a series of steps to test our legal possibilities. The first of these was the formation of a number of legal branches under the name of the American Labor Alliance. These groups sponsored the first election campaign of the Communist movement by nominating Gitlow for mayor of New York in that year. We also began to conduct forums and lectures under the name of the Workers Alliance.

Meantime, a belated left wing of the Socialist Party, headed by Salutsky (Hardman), Engdahl, Olgin, etc., had seceded from the Socialist Party and formed the Workers Council. I was one of the Communist Party representatives on the committee named to negotiate with this group for the joint formation of a legal party, which finally came into existence in late December 1921.

It is not true and could not be true, as Melech Epstein says, in his Jewish Labor in the USA, that a promise was made to disband the underground party and that this promise was broken. We were absolutely without authority to make such an agreement at that time. We were supported by a majority of the Communist Party in our proposal to unite with the Workers Council group in the formation of a legal party, with the distinct understanding that the underground party would be maintained. In fact, as I recall, the paper of the Communist Party published at that time contained articles explaining how we conceived the functioning of both a legal and an illegal party and the relations between them.

The Workers Council group knew all about that. It is true that they wanted a single legal party without any underground organization. But they knew very well that we were in no position at that time to promise that. It is quite possible and even probable that they counted, as I did, on the logic of developments to assure the predominance of the legal party and the eventual liquidation of the underground organization as unnecessary in the political circumstances of the time. This proved to be correct, but another year’s experience, plus the friendly help of the Communist International, were necessary to bring this about.

We had several meetings with the Workers Council people in the Joint Negotiating committee. I do not recall any great difficulties, since both sides were eager for the unification. The Workers Council delegates were most concerned about being swallowed up and steam-rollered by the Communist Party majority. This difficulty was overcome by many organizational concessions which we made. They were accorded representation in the Convention and on the new National Committee far beyond their numerical strength. These concessions were easily made on our part, since we wanted to create the impression of a big unification to attract unaffiliated radicals, and the Workers Council group had a number of prominent and capable people whom the new party could use most advantageously.

The Convention which launched the Workers Party was quite successful and harmonious, and it gave a big impulse to the development of the movement. Max Eastman wrote a sympathetic and perspicacious account of the Convention in the Liberator of January or February 1923, which you may check for references. As you note, I was the keynote speaker at the Convention and was elected Chairman of the National Committee by agreement of both sides. Perhaps some special considerations accounted for this agreement. I was a sort of symbol of the “Western-American” orientation which it was deemed necessary to emphasize. Besides that, I have no doubt that the Workers Council people considered me to be more of a “liquidator” than some of the other Communist Party leaders – an impression which was not entirely unfounded.

In answer to. your question, I would say that the political cooperation between me and Lovestone was the main driving force in all these party developments of the year 1921. Bittelman and Weinstone were also very effective in the collaboration. In fact, we worked quite effectively as a team in that period, considering the fact that we all came into the leadership cold, without much previous experience to go by. The overriding political consideration – the imperative need to legalize party activity – proved stronger in this case than differences of background and temperament which played a part in later friction and conflict.

We did not succeed in forming the Workers Party without another split with die-hard undergrounders in the Communist Party. The two members of the Central Committee whom I remember as leaders of the secession were Dirba and Ballam. Wicks belonged to the Proletarian Party. He joined the seceding faction of the Communist Party – which became known as the United Toilers – only after the split, and was appointed editor of their paper.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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