James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

The Year 1923

The Reshaping of the Leadership

Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.3, Summer 1955, pp.96-97.
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 19, 1954

Dear Sir:

QUESTION 3B – The re-shaping of the leadership after the legalization of the party

The police raid on the Communist Party Convention at Bridgeman in August, 1922, seemed at the moment to justify the contention of the leftist faction (Goose Caucus) that political conditions made a legal Communist Party impossible and that the underground Communist Party would have to be maintained in all its functions. I was told later, although I did not hear it myself, that Ruthenberg’s first reaction to the police raid on the Convention was a declaration that he had changed his position and would abandon the program to legalize the party at that time.

The raid on the Bridgeman Convention, however, turned out to be merely an episode, probably even an accident, or an attempt of Harding’s Attorney General Daugherty to create a diversion. It contradicted the general sentiment in the country away from the fierce persecution of radicals which had marked the second Wilson administration. The elections in the fall of 1922 showed a trend toward liberalism. This was further confirmed by the circumstance that the Workers Party was permitted to expand its communist propaganda activities without any molestation by the authorities; and the Trade Union Educational League, under the leadership of Foster, developed wide-scale public activities.

These two factors – the expansion of the activities of both the Workers Party and the Trade Union Educational League – strengthened the trend of the party toward Americanization and the legalization of all its activities. The Communist Party itself (the underground “illegal” organization) had nothing to do but “control” this legal work, conducted by other organizations. It had no real functions of its own.

At the same time, the decision of the Comintern shortly after the Bridgeman Convention, in favor of the legalization of the party, rejected the “underground in principle” theory and demolished the leftist faction based on this erroneous theory. The leaders of this lost cause – Katterfeld, Wagenknecht, Minor, Amter, Gitlow, etc. – were badly discredited. Their authority as political leaders was shattered by their demonstrated misjudgment of the political situation in the country and by the Comintern’s rejection of their erroneous theory.

On the other hand, the development and expansion of the legal work of the Workers Party and the TUEL, in which the “liquidators” were most prominent, plus the decision of the Comintern in their favor, raised the prestige of the leaders of the liquidators in the eyes of the party membership.

I don’t think the history of the movement records another instance in which one group scored such a complete and unqualified victory in every respect, while its opponents suffered such an annihilating defeat, as happened in the settlement of this conflict. Normally and logically, this outcome of the long struggle should have led to the consolidation of an expanded authoritative leadership, consisting of those who had played the most prominent parts in the victorious struggle and had worked generally together to bring about the victory. The necessary components of this new leadership combination were the following:

  1. The Lovestone-Cannon combination (plus Weinstone and Bittelman), which had played the decisive role in the internal fight to establish the Workers Party and develop it as the principal medium for communist activity and propaganda in the transition period when virtually the whole responsibility fell upon them.
  2. Ruthenberg, who had returned from prison in the spring of 1922 and became the national secretary of the Workers Party, with greatly enhanced prominence and prestige, as a result of his prison term, and his vigorous development of the legal communist activity.
  3. Foster, who had joined the party in 1921 and had begun to develop the party trade-union activity on a broad scale for the first time.

That’s the way it worked out in practice, by and large and in the long run. But those individuals mentioned, who had come into the decisive positions of national leadership in a genuine process of natural selection, were not destined to cooperate as a united body for very long. An artificial factor upset the equilibrium and played a decisive part in disrupting the new leadership combination before it had a good chance to coalesce.

This artificial factor was John Pepper. He first came to this country in the summer of 1922 and soon began to regulate party affairs with the arbitrary authority of a receiver appointed by the Court to take over a bankrupt concern. His only trouble was that this particular concern was by no means bankrupt, and the receiver’s operations met with challenge and opposition which limited his tenure to a rather short term. Rut while it lasted it was a real merry-go-round which left everybody dizzy.

In other writings I have seen various references to Pepper as a “representative of the Comintern.” Was this really the case? What was Pepper’s real status in the American movement and what, if any, authority did he have as a representative of the Comintern? Strange as it may seem, that was never completely clear. I, at least, never knew for sure; and up till the present no one has ever explained it to me. I don’t think anyone in the American party ever really knew. The officially accredited representative of the Comintern to the American party in the summer and fall of 1922 was the Pole, Valetski. Pepper came along at about the same time.

We were told in Moscow that he had been shipped to America in one of the moves to break up the raging faction fight in the emigré leadership of the defeated Hungarian Communist Party, and that his assignment was to work with the Bureau of the Hungarian Federation of the party in the US.

As far as I know, that’s all the official authorization he ever had. But Pepper, a manipulator deluxe, was never one to be stopped by the formal rules and regulations which act as restraints on ordinary mortals. That man worked fast. He was a European to his finger tips, dripping with the sophistication and facility of continental political journalism. But when it came to getting things done in a hurry and making his way around natural obstacles, he was more American than any hustler or corner-cutter I ever knew or heard about, and that covers a lot of territory.

I was absent from the country, as delegate to the Comintern, during the first six or seven months of Pepper’s activities in the American party. He began his operations first in the Bureau and editorial board of the Hungarian Federation of the party and soon took over the whole works there. I was also told that he acted as some kind of assistant for Valetski, along with Boris Reinstein, without claiming any authority of his own. In these two positions he rapidly familiarized himself with the factional struggle and with all the leading people engaged in it. From that small toe-hold, he moved rapidly into the center of things; got himself elected or co-opted into the Central Committee of the Communist Party; and by the time I arrived back home, along about the first of February in 1923, he seemed to be in full charge of everything, deciding everything, including the positions and the fate of individuals who pleased or displeased him.

He was quick as a flash. His first stunt was to latch on to the Comintern decision and become its most energetic and vociferous interpreter – before the delegates, who had fought for the decision before the Comintern, had a chance to return and make their report. He proceeded to lead the fight for the liquidation of the underground party, and got it all over with in jig time. He became the reporter for the Central Committee before innumerable membership meetings and delegate bodies of the underground party, speaking at first, I was told, in German, with Ruthenberg as translator. (It wasn’t long before he was making speeches in English, talking faster and more furiously in the newly acquired language than any of those who knew no other.)

I never heard that he claimed to be the official representative of the Comintern at those meetings where the bewildered and demoralized leftists were getting the bad news. But I don’t doubt for a minute that he allowed that impression to be given out. It was not concealed that he was “from Moscow,” and that was enough to clothe him with a counterfeit authority.

He was an orator of dazzling facility and effectiveness, and he used his remarkable talents in this field to the maximum. His method and design was to single out the more stubborn, more independent-minded leaders of the leftists for political annihilation, while offering rehabilitation and favor to the weaker capitulators. Katterfeld, for example, sectarian in his thinking, but a sincere communist of firm character and incorruptible integrity who had given a lot to the movement, was virtually destroyed by Pepper. There were other victims of his onslaughts too. The factional fights before that had been rough enough, but the game of “killing” opponents, or people who just seemed to be in the way, really began with Pepper.

Most of the leaders of the liquidators went along with this savage game of Pepper’s as it seemed to clear the field of all opposition to their monopoly of the leadership. But Pepper had other designs in his strategy. The most prominent liquidators were ensconced in the formal positions of leadership - with a string attached. The string was Pepper as an independent personal influence with a fanatical following of his own, and this string could more properly be called a rope.

Pepper rehabilitated all the defeated undergrounders who had capitulated, along with the seceding leftists who had returned to the party, and welded them together into a band of servitors who owed their political existence to him. In a very short time Pepper had an unavowed faction of his own. This gave him a power which all had to recognize.

With his faction of personal followers and dependents as a lever, he operated as an independent force in dealing with the stronger, independent leaders such as Ruthenberg, Foster and Lovestone.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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