James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

The Early Leadership

Source: Fourth International, Vol.15 No.3, Summer 1954, pp.94-96.
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.

May 5, 1954

Dear Sir:

Your questions have aroused fresh recollections of events and incidents of the early days which have long been sleeping soundly in the bottom of my mind. I will go to work in earnest now and will answer all your questions, and any others you may wish to add, as fully and completely as possible.

Some of your questions made me painfully aware that you have been far more deeply immersed in this subject than I have been for many years. You probably know a great many things that I don’t know, or can’t remember at the moment. Nevertheless, my recollections and my slant on things may help you to get a more rounded picture.

In your questions regarding the period from 1922 on, I see no mention of John Pepper. This is a very big omission indeed. Is it possible that you have not run across any information about the extraordinary role played by this extraordinary figure?

The break up of the old factions and the assemblage of new ones destined to become “permanent”; the whole adventure of the “Federated Farmer-Labor Party” and the fantastic politics associated with it; and many other things in 1922-24 – all these revolved mainly around Pepper.

I was his antagonist from first to last, but if his surviving friends of that time have not contributed any information about the decisive role he played in party affairs for quite a while, I would feel bound, in the interests of historical accuracy, to fill up this surprising gap in your information. If you will let me know what, if anything, you have learned about Pepper’s activity, and how you have provisionally evaluated it, I will be in a better position to fill out the picture from my point of view.

In your letter of April 26 you ask two questions supplementary to your question about the leadership at the time of the formation of the Workers Party. You and I have to come to this early period by different paths. You are obviously far more familiar with the documentary record, such as it is, while I have to rely entirely on memory, my personal knowledge of the people and the events of that time, and the. lasting impression they made on me.

The primitive character of our movement in that time is strikingly reflected in its inadequate documentation of the factional struggles. Far more was done and decided in action and personal conversation, committee meetings and unreported speeches, than was ever recorded and motivated in documents. That’s not the best way, but that’s the way it was done. I might say in our extenuation, however, that we were called to leadership and compelled to act before we had served a full apprenticeship and acquired the necessary schooling.

I am afraid that the documentary record of the entire first ten years of American communism – up to the formation of the Trotskyist faction and our expulsion in 1928 – contains so many gaps that it can easily confront the historian with a puzzle or lead him astray if he relies on the documentation alone. I think you are wise to seek the personal recollections of various participants to supplement your reading, even though you will then probably run up against the additional problem of conflicting testimony.

The participants of the time, even those who want to tell the truth as they remember it, probably differ so much in their interpretations, and their recollections may be colored so much by their later evolution, that you will find few points of agreement in their reports. I can only promise, for my part, to adhere strictly to the truth in my report of any facts which I remember, without concealing my own conception of the real meaning of the first decade of American communism, and of how the various developments fit into and serve this larger theme. But then, I suppose you will recognize that the considered interpretations of the various participants, of events recollected in tranquillity long afterward, can also throw light on the period from different sides.

* * *

My statement that the Unity Convention in the spring of 1921 “brought a new leadership (Lovestone-Cannon, plus Weinstone and Bittelman) to the fore” requires a certain qualification. It certainly was “new,” since not a single one of the decisive four had played a central part before; but it should also be described as an interim leadership.

It was decisive for that particular time, and it proved to be roughly adequate for the exigent historical task imposed upon it at the time – the task of breaking the fetish of underground organization and launching the Workers Party as the legal medium for the development of communist political activity.

In my opinion, this accomplishment can hardly be overestimated, for it, along with the adoption of a realistic trade-union program, which this leadership also sponsored and supported, marked the turning point, the beginning of the Americanization of American communism. The “Lovestone-Cannon combination” didn’t last long, but while it lasted the results were positive in the highest degree.

This collaboration was a triumph of political necessity and political agreement over personal antagonisms. It would be hard to find two people with greater differences in background, character and temperament than Lovestone and me. In our relationship there was not a trace of personal congeniality, nor – on my part, at least – of personal regard, confidence and respect. Nevertheless, when confronted with an overriding political necessity, and a reasonable agreement on what had to be done about it, we worked together in an effective combination.

If one asks what part personal antagonisms and rivalries played in all the factional struggles of the first decade of American communism, it would have to be admitted that they played a big part. More than that, I would have to say, on the basis of more than 40 years of observation and experience, that such considerations seem to play a part in every factional struggle. But in this case, in the period of the struggle to break American communism out of its underground isolation and begin the Americanization of the movement, political considerations and political necessities proved to be stronger than personal antagonisms – to the benefit of the party.

As previously noted, Ruthenberg and Gitlow were in prison at that time; Foster, who only joined the party in the fall of 1921, on his return from Moscow, had not yet begun to play a significant role; and Pepper, who was later to play a big part, had not yet arrived or been heard from. With Ruthenberg’s release from prison in the spring of 1922, and the entrance into party activity of Foster and Pepper, those three people began to assume the most prominent positions. The interim leadership, which had carried through the fight for the Workers Party, was thereafter assimilated into the larger leading staff, but they never again worked together as a unit.

There were others, of course, who played a part in the struggle of 1921. Bedacht was one of them, and there were a number of others; but it was my impression – then as now – that they played important supporting, rather than decisive, parts.

It is true that Lovestone had been rather prominent in the New York Local before that time; but among other things, he had been under a cloud which barred his participation in the central leadership until after the Unity Convention in the spring of 1921. I suppose you know the story of his testimony for the state in the Winitsky trial. If one is going to bear down very heavily, in a historical account, on the personalities involved, the Lovestone story, including the Winitsky trial episode and its aftermath, is certainly worth a chapter. Bittelman previously had been prominent in the New York movement, and in the Jewish section of the party in particular, but his co-optation into the Central Committee in 1921 properly marked the beginning of his functioning in the national leadership. I personally didn’t know him and had never heard of him until I came to New York in late 1920.

My designation of the 1921-22 leadership as “new” is certainly correct if one is speaking of the central and decisive core of the national leadership at that particular time. I got my first view of the original national leadership of the left wing at the National Left Wing Conference in New York in the spring of 1919. I was seeing them all with fresh eyes for the first time. I recognized four distinct groupings of leaders there, each representing substantial forces, with apparently very little cooperation between them. The conference impressed me, a delegate from the provinces, as a struggle of tendencies mixed up, as is so often the case, with personal rivalries.

First, there was the foreign-language federation group, dominated by Hourwich. They were demanding an immediate split with the Socialist Party and the constitution of the Communist Party right then and there. They were not living in this country, and I was dead set against the idea that they could lead the American movement.

Second, there were such personalities as Fraina, the outstanding “theoretician” and political figure at that time; and Ruthenberg, who represented the strong Cleveland organization and had already achieved national prominence and influence. They were opposed to the immediate split. Fraina was undoubtedly the most effective original popularizer of communist ideas, and I greatly appreciated the work he had done. I respected Ruthenberg for his fight against the war, and for his manifest ability, but his personality had no attraction for me, then or ever.

Third, there was the Michigan group headed by Batt and Keracher, who later formed the Proletarian Party. They seemed to me to be engaged in a hair-splitting debate with Fraina over his draft of the program, insisting that the phrase “mass action” be replaced by “action of the masses.” I couldn’t make head or tail of this argument and was not very sympathetic to these scholastics. Fourth, there were Reed, Larkin, Gitlow, Wagenknecht, Katterfeld and others, who seemed to me to stand for a more American orientation. They were outspokenly opposed to the Hourwich foreign-language group domination and more interested in trade union questions. I became associated with Reed, Larkin and Gitlow in the trade-union commission of the Conference, and felt them to be more my kind of people. I found myself in sympathy with this group which later became the leading nucleus of the Communist Labor Party.

* * *

The above is roughly a picture of what the national leadership of the left wing looked like to me in the spring of 1919 four months before the formal constitution of the two Communist Parties. Of course there were many other people who were active and prominent. Some of them I didn’t know and others I have forgotten but the people I have mentioned were in the center of the stage in those early formative days. The impression they made on me, as a comparative newcomer to “politics” and a provincial stranger in New York for the first time, was definite and lasting.

Two years later, when the struggle for the legalization of the party’s activity was put on the agenda, every single one of the most prominent original leaders was on the sidelines. Ruthenberg, Gitlow and Larkin were in prison. Batt and Keracher had a separate organization of their own, called the Proletarian Party. Reed was in Moscow, Wagenknecht and several others had failed of reelection at the 1921 election. Katterfeld had gone to Moscow.

In this situation, the main responsibility of leadership fell to, or was taken over by, the four people whom I have mentioned: Lovestone-Cannon, plus Weinstone and Bittleman. This team of four carried the party through the struggle for the fusion with the Workers Council group and the constitution of the Workers Party. The decisive role of this quartet lasted for about one year. It was never overthrown, but the individual members Were integrated into larger groupings, as previously explained.

It would be difficult to prove that this new combination actually commanded the support of the majority of the party for any length of time. A number of those who had been eliminated from the Central Committee at the Unity Convention, such as Wagenknecht, Ampter, Lindgren, etc., retained a strong influence in the party ranks. They soon began to put together an opposition faction, which later became known as the “Goose Caucus.” Katterfeid joined them, and became probably the most influential leader. Gitlow, on his release from prison, also joined the “Goose Caucus.” Minor was another member.

They gave a grudging support to the proposal to form the Workers Party: and, to that extent, they supported us against the die-hard leftists who split away on this issue. But they conceived of the new party as a mere shadow organization and were not willing to assign to it the broad political functions which we had in mind for it. Their hearts were in the underground. Thus two new factions came into being – the undergrounders-in-principle (“Goose Caucus“), and the faction driving for the complete legalization of the movement (the “liquidators“). Ruthenberg, on his release from prison in the spring of 1921, identified himself with the liquidators’ faction. So did Foster, Browder, Dunne and the rest of the trade union group who were only then beginning to become active in party affairs for the first time.

* * *

I left for Moscow in May 1922, as an advance delegate of the liquidators’ faction, to seek the support of the Comintern for our policy. I remained in Moscow till January of the following year. What happened in the party at home in the meantime, I know only by hearsay. The factional struggle for control of the underground party raged furiously throughout that period, culminating in the famous Bridgeman Convention in the fall of 1922, which was raided by the police. I was not present at this Convention and never could get a clear account of just what happened there.

It is my impression that the forces were quite evenly divided, with the “Goose Caucus” having a slight advantage. But their prospects of gaining control of the leadership, and imposing their sterile policy on the party, were frustrated by two new factors in the situation. These turned out to be considerable factors indeed – namely, the decision of the Communist International and the personality of John Pepper.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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