James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

The Year 1923

The Pepper Regime

Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.3, Summer 1955, pp.97-100.
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 27, 1954

Dear Sir:

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

If, to borrow the terminology of the economic cycle, the years 1920-21 can be called American communism’s period of depression, and 1922 the beginning of the upturn, then the year 1923 can be described as the year of the boom. This boom was partly real and largely speculative, short-lived and fatally headed for a bust. It was the Pepper era.

The party’s ill-starred adventures of that period are a matter of published record, easily available to the interested student. So also are the policies which inspired the adventures. The fantastic view of American realities, as well as the fantastic theories of what to do about it, are permanently embalmed in the voluminous writings of Pepper published at that time. And let nobody make the mistake of thinking that Pepper’s writings of that time can be passed off as the eccentric contributions of an individual not binding on the party.

Pepper ran the party with an iron hand in those hectic days, and what he wrote was party policy; what he said went. He “politicalized” the party to beat hell, and influenced his opponents almost as much as his supporters. Pepper was the chief fabricator of the policy which led to the resounding fiasco of the “Federated Farmer-Labor Party” – but the others went along.

This newcomer, who established himself as a combination czar and commissar over a somewhat bewildered party while he was still learning the language, in the brief span of a few months, did not confine himself to journalism and the formulation of the party’s external policies. He operated on two fronts. His domination of the internal affairs of the party was no less total, and his policy in this field no less fantastic, than in the field of external policy.

However, Pepper’s internal “regime,” like his external politics, lacked a solid foundation in the realities of the situation, and was likewise destined for explosive disaster. His personal dictatorship – that’s what it was, and it wasn’t a benevolent dictatorship either – was bound to be a short-lived affair. But this nightmarish transition period of 1923, between the time when Pepper took over and “coordinated” everything and everybody (almost) under his bizarre regime, and the emergence of the Foster-Cannon opposition, was a humdinger while it lasted.

This period was another real turning point in the party’s development. And, as far I know, the real story has never been told, precisely because the role of Pepper has been slurred over. That is not true history. Pepper was the central and decisive influence in 1923.

The truth in this case is stranger than fiction. When one stops to consider his handicaps as a newly-arrived foreigner with a false passport, obliged to work under cover and to learn the language as he went along, Pepper’s performance stands out as truly remarkable. In the limited space I can devote to my recollections, I at least feel obliged to give the devil his due. I use this figure of speech advisedly, for I think his work, on the whole, was evil. He was a phony, but by far the most brilliant phony I ever knew. He sparkled like an Arkansas diamond.

Beginning with 1923, party history began to enact itself in a different form, which cannot be adequately understood by a study of the records and documents alone. It was the real beginning of the “crisis of the leadership” which was never solved, and which was destined to culminate, after a long-drawn-out struggle, in a three-way split.

If, from the inception of the left-wing movement until the formation of the Workers Party at the end of 1921 and the legalization of the party a year later, the conflict of issues overshadowed the conflicts of personalities and subordinated them to its uses, the same hardly applies, at least not to the same extent, from 1923 to 1929.

By 1923, the transitory figures in the leadership, who had fared badly in the rough-and-tumble struggles of the earlier years, had been thrust aside or reduced to secondary rank. A definite, limited number of people had emerged and gained universal recognition as the authentic leaders of the movement of that time. There was no single leader among them recognized by the others, and able, by his personal authority, to act as coordinator. The official version, which later assigned this role to Ruthenberg, as the “founder” and “outstanding leader,” is official claptrap. Ruthenberg was one of several.

They were all one-sided products of a primitive movement; they needed each other and complemented each other in various ways; but unfortunately they didn’t fit together in a team very well. There was probably more conflict than cooperation between them. They would have had trouble getting along in any case, and Pepper’s intervention aggravated and complicated the problem.

This was the line-up in the year 1923: Ruthenberg, returned from prison and widely recognized as the outstanding public figure of the party, was firmly established as National Secretary. Foster, with his glittering prestige as the leader of the great steel strike, had come into the party with both feet, beginning as the unquestioned leader of the trade-union work. Both men had turned forty. They were fully formed and at the height of their powers.

Pepper was in the situation; in fact, he was on top of it. He also was about forty, fully matured, and equipped with a rich European experience and political sophistication, plus a European culture – which distinguished him among the American shoemakers. Lovestone, who had graduated from City College into party leadership without any detours, was no longer a boy and was developing his malevolent talents with an amazing precocity. I, myself, had turned thirty and had assimilated a considerable experience in the mass movement as well as in the party. I didn’t know much, but I was not in the least overawed by the others. The relationship between those named people put its stamp on everything that happened in the party in the next six years. This relationship – of mutual dependence and antagonism, of cooperation and conflict – propelled the party forward and pulled it back, held it together and ripped it apart, like an incongruous mechanism working for both good and evil.

There were many others who played important parts – the young party was loaded with eager talents and personalities in those days – but, in my opinion, the central figures I have mentioned were by far the most significant and decisive in the whole story. Three of them – Foster, Lovestone and Pepper – are each worth a book. Each of them was remarkable in his own way, and would unfailingly have made a big stir and commotion in any milieu. I, who had plenty to do with them, and have no favors to thank them for, would be the last to deprecate their exceptional qualities.

Despite all the trouble I had with them, I have always been disposed to look at them objectively. For that reason my impressions and opinions of them, my estimate of their strength and weaknesses, and my theory of their basic motivations, are probably different from those of others. I will undertake to formulate my impressions of these people in the shape of sketches as soon as I clear a few other questions out of the way.

In the new factional alignment and the factional struggle which began in the middle of 1923, and lasted for six solid years, the conflict of personalities in the leadership undoubtedly played a big part. That must be admitted. But it is not the whole story, for the quarrels of the leaders occurred under circumstances not of their making and outside their control. The tendentious accounts which represent party history of that time as a gang fight of unprecedented duration, with personal power and aggrandizement as the motivation common to all, and factional skullduggery as the accepted means to the end, contain perhaps a grain of truth. But no more than that.

The people involved did not operate independently of external conditions in the country. They were prisoners of an objective situation which conditioned and limited everything they did or tried to do. Personalities, it is true, played a big role; but only within this framework.

In 1923 American capitalism, fully recovered from the economic crisis of 1921, was striding into the first stage of the long boom of the Twenties. At that time the leaders of this pioneer movement of American communism – all of them without exception – were revolutionists. Their attempt to build a revolutionary party quickly – and that’s what they were all aiming at – ran up against these unfavorable objective circumstances. The conservative influence of the ascending prosperity on the trade-union movement, and on the great mass of the American workers generally, doomed the party to virtual isolation in any case.

The basic thesis of the Comintern, that the First World War had signalized the beginning of the dissolution and collapse of capitalism as a world system, was the commonly accepted thesis of all the party leaders. But the extent to which capitalism could profit in the new world at the expense of the old, and furiously expand while the other was declining, was not fully comprehended at the time.

Later, when this conjunctural advantage of American capitalism was recognized, it was mistaken for permanence by the majority. This led to the conservatism of the leadership and the tacit abandonment of the revolutionary perspective in this country. This, in turn, set the stage for the conquest of the party by Stalinism, with its pie-in-the-sky theory of “Socialism in one country,” in Russia, that is, not in the United States.

But nothing of that kind was foreseen, or even dreamed of, by anybody in 1923.

* * *

The historian who considers the whole subject important, and wants to do a thorough, objective job, has indeed taken upon himself an enormous task. In addition to the mountainous labor of research, which is apparently already behind you, you have the even more difficult task of selection, of separating the important from the incidental; of distinguishing between the formally stated issues and the clash of personalities, and at the same time, relating them to each other – to say nothing of fixing the place of this tiny, but vital political organism in booming self-confident, capitalist America of the Twenties; and of estimating the significance of the party, and what happened inside it, for the future history of this country.

But that’s your problem. I really sympathize with you, even if you did take it upon yourself without anybody forcing you. Your task is formidable, and in my opinion, important. I have no doubt that many historians to come will probe deeply into the records of the pioneer communist movement in this country, and trace many great events to their genesis in these first faltering attempts to construct the revolutionary party of the future.

Most of what has been written on the subject is false and tendentious. Your own researches will have convinced you of that. You, as the first to undertake the task of the historian seriously, have the opportunity and the responsibility, whatever your own point of view may be, to set a pattern of objectivity and truthfulness. The young party whose early history you are exploring deserves that and can stand it.

In spite of everything, it meant well for the workers, for the country and for the world. It can stand the truth, even when the truth hurts. It deserves and can bear the report of a historian who obeys the prescription of Othello: “Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.”

* * *

I note from your numerous questions about Foster that you are reaching for the heart of the mystery in his case. I knew Foster – close up – precisely in that period when he decided to make the transformation from a trade-union leader to a party politician, and to pay whatever price it might entail in formal subservience to Moscow.

I thought I knew Foster in his bones thirty years ago, and still think so. His later evolution, sickening as it became to those who had known and respected him as a rebel, never surprised me at any stage. The basic decision he made at that time conditioned him for his step-by-step degeneration. He could not have made the decision, however, unless the tendency was inherent in his character.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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