James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

The Year 1923

Overthrow of the Pepper Regime

Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.3, Summer 1955, pp.100-103.
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 28, 1954

Dear Sir:

QUESTION 3B (conclusion) – The overthrow of the Pepper regime

With the formal liquidation of the underground Communist Party, and the transfer of all functions and powers to the National Committee of the Workers Party early in 1923, the old factional alignments fell apart. Outwardly the party was united. The National Committee, in which the former liquidators’ faction heavily predominated, led the party as a united body. There was no formal falling out and break-up of the collaboration between the various elements who had composed the liquidators’ faction as a whole. It was quite evident, however, that a shake-up and reshuffle in the central nucleus of the leadership was taking place, without anything being openly said about it or the reasons for it.

Under the facade of overall unity a new regime was shaping up, with Ruthenberg and Foster as the two outstanding public representatives of the movement and Pepper as the real boss of the party behind the scenes, and Lovestone as his first lieutenant. I agreed with the first part of the new arrangement but didn’t care for the second part, and did not see exactly how I could fit into the new scheme of things. I wasn’t very much worried about it at first, however, as my plans did not call for activity in the Center for the time being. I wanted to see the party and the country before settling down in one spot again.

* * *

I had returned to this country only about the first of February, 1923, after an absence of eight months. A few weeks after my return, I left New York on an extended speaking tour which covered the entire country and kept me on the road for nearly five months. The subject of my public lectures was The Fifth Year of the Russian Revolution. I also spoke at party membership meetings on the Fourth Congress and on the trade-union question.

I was fully absorbed by the tour, revelling in the work which I have always loved most of all and which has always given me the greatest personal satisfaction-the work of propaganda. New York was out of my mind as I traveled the great country, giving out all I had in my speeches, and receiving in return the warm inspiration of new crowds and new acquaintances. Some friendships which began on that tour stuck for good.

I had little or nothing to do with the fateful decisions on party policy which were made and carried out in the first half of the year 1923, and recall them now as an observer rather than as a participant. This is not to say that I opposed the general line of the decisions. I was certainly in favor of the labor-party policy and considered that the practical alliance with the labor progressives, for the promotion of this movement, was correct and most advantageous to us. If I had no part in the decisions made in New York from week to week, I raised no objection to them and did not even suspect that they were driving inexorably to the catastrophic blow-up at the Chicago Convention of the Federated Farmer Labor Party in July.

I did not attend this Convention. I was speaking in the Pacific Northwest at the time; and if I remember correctly, I was in Portland, Oregon, when I read the news reports of the split with Fitzpatrick and the formal launching of the ill-fated Federated Farmer Labor Party. My first reaction, which never changed, was decidedly unfavorable. I could not agree with the optimistic assurances in our press to the effect that a great success had been scored at Chicago. The big “victory” looked like a big mistake to me.

I had been covering the country from one end to the other for months, and I knew very well that we were a small minority, with no more than a toehold in the labor movement; I knew how unrealistic it was to imagine that we could lead a mass labor party by ourselves, without the collaboration of a substantial wing of the trade union bureaucracy. I can’t speak for others, but my own attitude of abstention and watchful waiting in the internal party situation began to change to active opposition to the Pepper regime, specifically and definitely, right after the Chicago Convention, and over that issue.

* * *

What puzzled me, however, was Foster’s support of the adventure. I could understand how the others, who had never had any connection with the labor movement and had no real knowledge of its tendency, could indulge in flights of fancy. But I respected Foster as a realist, and as a man who knew the labor movement through and through. I could not understand how he could deceive himself about the certain consequences of a break with the Fitzpatrick forces, and a decision of the Workers Party to create a labor party all by itself, with a few uninfluential non-party individuals as decorations.

A short time later I stopped at Duluth for a lecture on the last lap of my tour and met Foster, who was there for a trade-union conference and picnic at the same time. We spent the afternoon discussing party affairs under a shade tree in a corner of the picnic grounds. That conversation was the genesis of the Foster-Cannon Opposition. There were no formal commitments, but that’s where the faction began.

Foster opened the conversation by giving me the official party line, and predicting that the trade-union delegates at the Chicago Convention, representing some hundreds of thousands of members, would affiliate their locals to the new party. I told him rather bluntly, right at the start, that I knew better; and that he, who knew the realities of the labor movement better than anybody, couldn’t really deceive himself by such fantasies. He soon admitted that he was troubled by second thoughts and doubts about the prospects. I got the impression that he was glad to find someone to whom he could express his real sentiments and get some encouragement to resist the fatal course of the official policy.

He agreed that, without the support of the Chicago Federation of Labor, the trade-union delegates to the Chicago Convention would not be able to affiliate their locals and central bodies to the new “Farmer-Labor Party,” and in most cases would not even try. I pressed him for an explanation of how he, of all people, could have sanctioned the precipitate break with Fitzpatrick over such a disadvantageous issue; and, if the break couldn’t be avoided, why he agreed to plunge ahead anyway with the launching of the new so-called labor party.

His answer has always stuck in my memory as a bit of wisdom worth repeating, and I have often had occasion to repeat it. He said substantially as follows:

“You know, it’s a funny thing. When people, who all want the same thing, get together in a closed room they tend to see what they want to see and they can talk themselves into almost anything. In the party caucus at the convention so many of our people, carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment, spoke so emphatically about our strength here, there and everywhere, including the Chicago Federation of Labor, that I got carried away myself and was convinced against my will and better judgment.”

Then he added:

“The trouble is, we’ve got the hangover, but the others in New York are still living in a fool’s paradise. Something has to be done to change this course, or we will soon fritter away all the gains of our trade-union workup to now.”

* * *

A short time later I was back in New York, making no secret of my disgruntlement. I wrote a few articles for the weekly Worker at that time (summer of 1923), in which I tried to give a different impression of the present realities in the American labor movement, the weakness of our forces and the tactical inadvisability of a definite split with the “progressives.” I concluded one of the articles by stating that we should work in the direction of “a new rapprochement with the progressives.” These articles were understood by everybody as an indirect criticism of the prevailing party policy, and they encouraged a lot of other people to express themselves along the same lines. I heard many declarations of approval and support for my stand in the party ranks.

At a meeting of the Political Committee shortly afterward, with Foster present, Pepper singled me out for the brass-knuckles treatment. He sought, by a combination of denunciation and ridicule, to put an end to my critical opposition forthwith. I didn’t care for that treatment and said so. (We native American revolutionists had always been strongly individualistic and accustomed to free speech.) Ruthenberg, Lovestone and the others kept quiet during this skirmish. Foster, however, mildly indicated that he was beginning to re-evaluate the Chicago experience and the whole course of policy following from it.

* * *

Foster told me, after the meeting, that he was quite apprehensive about the whole situation, especially about Pepper’s evident intention to bluff things through and make a bad situation worse. He saw the danger of all our trade-union positions crumbling. It was then that he began to relate the new turn of events to his own position in the party. I don’t recall him saying so specifically, but I think it was at that time that Foster made his basic decision to throw his full energy into the party and to fight it out with Pepper for the leadership.

Prior to that time, he had devoted himself exclusively to the work of the Trade Union Educational League and was not publicly an avowed member of the party; he had taken no part in the internal fight for the legalization of the party, although he had let it be known where his sympathies lay; and the people most closely associated with him in the work of the TUEL, Browder in the first place, had taken an active part in the party fight.

Foster’s original design, I think, had been to play the part of the outstanding mass leader, not publicly identified with the party, operating with a wide area of independence and getting the full support of the party on his own terms. He had once remarked to me: “Debs never wasted any time on caucuses. He built up his prestige among the masses. Then, after the party politicians had made their decisions in caucus, they first had to inquire what Debs thought about them before they could carry them out.”

Things weren’t working out that way in our party in 1923. Foster saw that when the showdown came, the party controlled everything; and that if he really wanted to control the trade-union work and keep it within the bounds of realism, he would have to have a big hand in the control of the party itself. I don’t know whether he had already made up his mind, then, to shift the main axis of his activity from the TUEL work to the party; but that’s what it came to in a very short time.

* * *

Before long the new factional alignments began to take shape, and the struggle for “control of the party,” which was to last for six years, with many consequences unforeseen and undreamed of by the original initiators, was under way. I, for my part, was quite definite in my opinion that a real factional struggle was in the offing; and I went to work, seeking points of support in the party, without delay. I considered then, and still consider, that my course was completely consistent with that which I had taken at the National Left Wing Conference in 1919 and had persisted in ever since.

I thought it was not enough to legalize the party and get it out of its self-imposed underground isolation. The party had to be Americanized and “trade-unionized” at the same time, if it was ever to become a factor in the labor movement and in American life generally. The party had to recognize realities, and adjust itself to them. It had to proletarianize itself, not merely in its membership, but in its leadership, too. A party regime dominated by “intellectuals,” who knew nothing of the labor movement and had no roots in American reality, could only lead the party from one adventure to another until there was nothing left of the movement as a bona fide expression of American radicalism. Above all, the party needed an indigenous native leadership capable of surviving and maintaining its continuity in the harsh process of natural selection.

All that meant, in short: the dictatorial regime of Pepper had to be overthrown.

* * *

We began to fight along those lines, without bothering to formulate our program in theses or resolutions. The theses and resolutions came later – plenty of them, too many of them – but all of them put together never counted half so much as the informal program we started with. That was what the long war was really about.

Our first demand was that the party headquarters be moved from New York, which was an island to itself, to Chicago, the proletarian center of the United States. This demand was no mere eccentricity of residential preference. It symbolized the American-proletarian-trade-union orientation and was so understood in the party.

The Pepper Majority soon yielded to our demand to move the party headquarters to Chicago – why I never knew – and by the early fall of 1923 we were on our way. The national center of the party remained in Chicago for four years. Before leaving New York, however, I did all I could to fix some political fences there.

* * *

Disappointment over the Pyrrhic victory at the July Convention of the Federated Farmer Labor Party, and dissatisfaction with the Pepper regime which was extending its dictatorial operations in all directions, was much more extensive than the party majority knew. Their misjudgment of reality in the labor movement had its counterpart in their complacent assumption that all was well for them in the party ranks.

I knew from the beginning, from extensive conversations with innumerable people who were important in the party in various ways, that we would have substantial support if the fight should break out into the open. I must admit that I helped things along in this direction, for I was an indefatigable propagandist against the drift of party policy in general and the dictatorial internal regime in particular.

* * *

The most important success on this front at that time, and the one that I aimed at first, was the alliance with the leaders of the Jewish Federation. The leadership of this section of the party was itself divided into two factions. One was headed by Bittelman, who represented the original communists; the other by Olgin, who represented the considerable forces which had been brought into the party through the merger with the Workers Council group when the Workers Party was constituted in December, 1921. These two factions were at each other’s throats in almost daily combat over control of the Freiheit, the Jewish daily paper.

I sought to enlist the support of both factions for a new party alignment, and succeeded without any difficulty whatever. In my first extensive talk with Bittelman he expressed full agreement with our aims, and thereafter he remained an influential participant in all the future developments of the struggle.

Olgin and his associates were particularly grateful to me for my fight, first to include their group in the fusion which brought about the formation of the Workers Party, and later, for the liquidation of the underground party, to which they had never belonged and whose secret “control” they had deeply resented.

* * *

There was a sound basis for our alliance with the Jewish leaders. It may seem incongruous that a new fight for “Americanization,” with an outspoken proletarian, trade-union, Midwestern orientation, and a native American leadership, should begin with an alliance with the Jewish leaders who were all New Yorkers and intellectuals to boot. But it was not as contradictory in life as it looks in cold print.

The Jewish communists were, by far, more assimilated in American life than the other foreign language groups; they had a more realistic appreciation of the decisive significance of a party leadership which would appear to be a genuine American product. They wanted to be a part of a larger American movement, and not merely the leaders of a futile sect of New Yorkers and foreign-born communists. I think this was their main motivation in allying themselves with us, and it was a politically sound motivation on their part.

In addition, their speedy agreement on the alliance was probably facilitated, subjectively, by some burning grievances of their own against the regime of Pepper. The furious factional dogfight among themselves had been referred to the Political Committee several times. Pepper, seeking new worlds to conquer, came up with a solution for the factional struggle which infuriated both sides. Pepper sought to “take over” the Jewish Federation and the Freiheit by appointing a Political Committee “commissar” over the paper. His assignment was to create a third Pepper faction, incorporating a few capitulators from the other two warring factions, and thrusting the rest aside.

* * *

The unfortunate individual selected for this formidable task, which no realistic party politician would have touched with a ten-foot pole, was Gitlow. His lot was not a happy one. Besides having antagonized the main leaders of both sides by his ill-fated fight against the liquidation of the underground party, Gitlow was not at home in the Yiddish language and had no qualifications as a writer in this field. This latter circumstance was particularly galling to the Freiheit staff. They were first-class literary men and took a justifiable pride in their special qualifications in this respect.

The Bittelman and Olgin factions continued their own struggle for control. But after their alliance with us, they subordinated it to the larger struggle for a change of the party regime.

On the part of Foster and myself there was nothing really incongruous in the alliance either. We didn’t have to make any concessions in regard to our basic aims, because the Jewish leaders fully supported them. On the other hand, our objections to a party leadership dominated by intellectuals did not extend to “anti-intellectualism” and the lunacy of imagining that intellectuals should not be included in the leading staff.

Foster, at that time, was very little acquainted with the various important personalities in the party outside its trade-union section. He left the business of dealing with them, in these preliminary stages of the fight, to me. He was well satisfied with the results; and this assurance of substantial support in the party cadres gave him more courage to take a stronger stand in the Political Committee after we set up shop in Chicago.

* * *

The fight did not break out into the open all at once. As is so often the case in the first stages of a factional struggle, friction and conflict in the Political Committee smoldered for a period of months, flared up and died down over one issue and another; attempts were made to patch things up; compromises were made with retreats on both sides. But every time the dead horse of the “Federated Farmer-Labor Party” was lugged into the room We would have a violent collision. Then, at the next meeting, other business would be dispatched with matter-of-fact objectivity and agreement. I remember Pepper remarking at one meeting: “Isn’t it strange that we always have a peaceful meeting when the ’Federated’ is not on the agenda?”

At the Plenum, held a month or so before the scheduled Convention, the two groups in the Political Committee presented separate resolutions. But after a discussion at the Plenum, which was at times heated, we agreed on a compromise to present a common resolution to the Convention. Precisely what the differences were in the two resolutions, and what we final1y agreed upon for a common resolution, is more than I can remember, and I haven’t the interest to burrow through the old records and verify the point. It didn’t make any real difference anyway.

The real conflict was over control of the party, between two groups who had different ideas about what to do with the party; not merely with respect to one issue or another, at one time or another, but over the whole course, the whole orientation, and the type of leadership that would be required over a long period. Separate resolutions, on some single political issues of the day, could not fully illuminate this basic conflict; nor could unanimous compromise resolutions obliterate it.

* * *

As the 1923 Convention approached, a muffled struggle broke out in the New York and Chicago membership meetings, and it was extended into the district conventions which selected the delegates to the National Convention. In that pre-convention period I saw Pepper give a demonstration of personal power and audacity, under the most adverse circumstances, which always commanded my admiration-even though we were on opposite sides of the party barricades, so to speak.

He was illegally in the country; it was dangerous for him to appear anywhere in public, or even to become personally known and identified by too many people; and he had had only about a year to study the English language. Despite that, at one tense general membership meeting in Chicago, where the fight broke out in real earnest and we were concentrating heavy fire on his regime, he appeared at the meeting, unannounced, to give us a fight. Facing a hostile crowd, which was excited to the brink of a free-for-all, he took the floor to debate with us – in English! – and his speech dominated the debate from his side of the meeting. It was a magnificent performance that failed.

He did the same thing at a closed session of the Convention, after it had been clearly established that the Foster-Cannon Opposition had better than a two-to-one majority. He came to a closed session of the Convention, especially arranged at his request, in a desperate attempt to turn the tide. He spoke powerfully and effectively. I recall Foster remarking to me, with admiration mixed with animosity – Foster really hated Pepper – “This room shakes when that man talks.”

But Pepper’s heroic efforts on this occasion were of no avail. The ranks of a new majority were solidified in the course of the Convention struggle, and a new leadership, giving the predominant majority in the Central Committee to the Foster-Cannon combination, was elected by the Convention.

* * *

That didn’t end the fight, however, and we were not finished with Pepper. The Pepperites did not accept defeat. They seemed to feel that somehow or other they had been cheated out of their rightful control of the party by some kind of a fluke. The majority, on the other hand, were convinced that justice had been done and were resolved that it should not be undone.

The two factions in the leadership, which previously had been held together by informal understandings among key people on both sides, began to harden into solid, definitely organized and disciplined caucuses. These caucuses were gradually extended into the ranks, and eventually included almost every member in every branch, on one side or the other. We were lining up for a six-year war – but we didn’t know it then.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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