James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

After Ruthenberg

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.17 No.3, Summer 1956, pp.89-92, 107.
Original bound volumes of International Socialist Review and microfilm provided by the NYU Tamiment Labor Libraries.
Transcription & Mark-up: Andrew Pollack/Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

July 22, 1955

Dear Sir:

The sudden death of Ruthenberg in March 1927 upset the shaky equilibrium in the party, and called forth the second direct intervention of the Comintern to thwart the will of the party majority and to determine the composition of the party leadership over its head.

Ruthenberg had always played a big role in the party, and he had seemed to be perennially established in the office of General Secretary. His death in the prime of his life really shook things up.

The two “big names” in the party at that time were those of Foster and Ruthenberg, and the prestige of both had been well earned by their previous record of constructive activity. Foster was renowned for his work as organizer and leader of the great steel strike of 1919 and his subsequent achievements as organizer of the TUEL; Ruthenberg for his heroic fight against the war and his outstanding activity as a pioneer communist, and also for his prison terms, bravely borne. The party members were well aware of the value of their public reputations and, by common consent, the two men held positions of special eminence as party leaders and public spokesmen for that reason. Factional activity had added nothing to the prestige of the two most popular leaders; if anything, it had somewhat tarnished it.

Of all the leading people in his faction, Ruthenberg had by far the greatest respect and personal influence in the party ranks. The faction was demonstratively called the “Ruthenberg Group” in order to capitalize on his prestige. But the Ruthenberg group, with Ruthenberg, was a minority in the party, as the hard-fought elections to the 1925 Convention had clearly demonstrated.

At the time of the 1925 Convention the “cable from Moscow,” as interpreted by the Comintern representative on the ground, had abruptly turned this minority into a majority and left the party members, who had innocently voted for their choice of delegates to the party convention, looking like fools who had mistakenly thought they had some rights and prerogatives in the matter of electing the party leadership.

Another “cable from Moscow” worked the same miracle of turning a minority into a majority in 1927. Supplementary decisions along the same line gradually bludgeoned the party members into acquiescence and reduced their democratic powers to a fiction. The role of the Comintern in the affairs of the American Communist Party was transformed from that of a friendly influence in matters of policy into that of a direct, brutal arbiter in organizational questions, including the most important question, the selection of the leadership.

Thereafter, the party retained only the dubious right to go through the motions; the decisions were made in Moscow. The process of transforming the party from a self-governing, democratic organization into a puppet of the Kremlin, which had been started in 1925, was advanced another big stage toward completion in 1927. That is the essential meaning of this year in party history. Everything else is secondary and incidental.

* * *

The shaky formal “majority” of the Ruthenberg group had been upset even before Ruthenberg died by the defection of committee members Weinstone and Ballam. Then came the sudden death of Ruthenberg, to deprive the faction of its most influential personality and its strongest claim to the confidence of the party ranks. How then could such an attenuated minority faction, without Ruthenberg, hope to “control” the party and avoid coming to agreement for cooperation with the other groups who constituted the majority in the Central Executive Committee?

We took it for granted that it couldn’t be done, and proceeded on the assumption that a rearrangement of the leading staff had to follow as a matter of course. But it didn’t work out that way. The cards were stacked for a different outcome; and we were defeated before we started. All we had on our side were the rules of arithmetic, the constitutional rights of the majority of the Central Executive Committee, the logic of the situation, and the undoubted support of the majority of the party at the time. All that was not enough.

On his side, Lovestone had his own driving frenzy to seize control of the party, regardless of the will of the majority, and the support of Moscow. These proved to be the ace cards in the game that was drawn out over a period of six months to its foreordained conclusion. Lovestone came out of the skirmish of 1927 with the “majority“ – given to him by the Comintern – and held it until the same supreme authority decided to take it away from him two years later.

* * *

Lovestone took the first trick by having himself appointed by the Political Committee to the post of General Secretary, vacated by Ruthenberg’s death. Constitutionally, this was out of order. The right to appoint party officers belonged to the full Plenum of the Central Executive Committee, the Political Committee being merely a subcommittee of that body.

We demanded the immediate calling of a full Plenum to deal with all the problems arising from Ruthenberg’s death, including the appointment of his successor in the post of party secretary. Weinstone and I had come to agreement with Foster that Weinstone should become the new party secretary; and since we represented a majority of the Plenum, we expected to execute the decision.

Then came trick number two for Lovestone. The Comintern cabled its decision that the Plenum could meet all right, but it could not make any binding decisions on organizational questions pending a consideration of the whole matter in Moscow. All the leading representatives of the factions were to come to Moscow for that purpose. Since the chief “organizational questions” were the reorganization of the Political Committee along the lines of the Plenum majority, and the appointment of a new party secretary, this cable of the Comintern, ostensibly withholding judgment, actually left Lovestone in control at both points – de facto if not de jure.

The meeting of the sovereign Plenum of the Communist Party of the United States, forbidden in advance to make any binding decisions, was made even more farcical by the failure of Lovestone to show up for the second session. He and Gitlow had abruptly departed for Moscow, where the decisions were to be made, without so much as a by-your-leave or goodbye to the elected leading body of the party to which they, like all other party members, were presumably-or so it said in the constitution-subordinate.

In a moderately healthy, self-governing party, involved in the class struggle in its own country and functioning under its own power, such reckless contempt for its own leading body would no doubt be sufficient to discredit its author and bring prompt condemnation from the party ranks. Nothing like that happened in reaction to the hooligan conduct of Lovestone on this occasion. The majority of the Plenum blew up in anger. Foster fussed and fumed and gave vent to his indignation in unparliamentary language. But there was nothing that we, the duly elected majority, could do about it; we could not make any “binding decisions” on any question – the Comintern cable had forbidden that.

Since 1925 the party had gradually been acquiescing in the blotting out of its normal rights as a self-governing organization until it had already lost sight of these rights. Lovestone’s scandalous action on this occasion only underscored the real status of the party in relation to the Moscow overlords.

* * *

There was nothing to do but head for Moscow once again in order to try to straighten out another supposed “misunderstanding.” Viewed retrospectively, our credulity in those days passeth all understanding, and it gives me a sticky feeling to recall it. I feel a bit shy about admitting it even now, after the lapse of so many years and the occurrence of so many more important things, but Weinstone and I went to Moscow together full of confidence that our program for the rearrangement of the leadership on a collective basis, and the liquidation of the old factions, would receive the support of the Comintern.

Since neither of the other factions claiming the right to control and “hegemony” in the leadership could muster a majority in the Central Executive Committee, while we constituted a definite balance of power, we believed that the other factions would be compelled to acquiesce in our program, at least for the next period.

We ourselves did not aim at organizational control of the party, either as a separate faction or in combination with one of the others. Our aim was to loosen up all the factional alignments and create conditions in the leading committee where each individual would be free to take a position objectively, on the merits of any political question which might come up, without regard to previous factional alignments.

In discussion among ourselves, and in our general propaganda in the party, we were beginning to emphasize the idea that political questions should take precedence over organizational considerations, including even party “control.” There were no irreconcilable political differences between the factions at the moment. That seemed to favor our program for the assimilation of the leading elements of each faction in a collective leading body. We believed that the subordination of political questions to organizational considerations of faction control – a state of affairs already prevailing to a considerable extent – could only miseducate and corrupt the party membership as well as the leadership.

For my part, I was just then beginning to assimilate with full understanding, and to take in dead earnest, the Leninist principle that important political considerations should always come first. That marked the beginning of a reorientation which was eventually to lead me out of the factional jungle of that time onto the high road of principled politics. I did not see how the Comintern, which I still regarded as the embodied representative of the principles of Lenin, could fail to support our stand.

* * *

Sharp practices in many factional struggles have given rise to the skeptical saying: “When one accepts a position ’in principle’ it means that he rejects it in practice.” That is not always true, but that is what we got in Moscow in 1927 – an acceptance of our program “in principle,” with supplementary statements to vitiate it. We found agreement on all sides that the factions should be liquidated and the leadership unified. But this was followed by the intimation in the written decision that the Lovestoneites should have “hegemony” in the unification – -which was the surest way to guarantee that the “unification” would be a farcical cover for factional domination.

The official decision condemned “the sharpening of the factional struggle“ – which the Lovestoneites had caused by their conduct at the party Plenum – but blamed the “National Committee of the Opposition Bloc” for this “sharpening.” The decision incorporated our formula that “the previous political and trade union differences have almost disappeared.” Then it went on to condemn “factionalism without political differences as the worst offense against the party” – which was precisely what the Lovestoneites’ attempt to seize party control consisted of – but blamed this “offense” on the “Opposition Bloc.” The Comintern decision on the “American Question” in 1927 is a real study in casuistry for those who may be interested in that black art.

There was nothing clear-cut and straightforward in the Comintern decision this time, as had been the case in earlier times over disputed political questions. The moderation of factional struggle, party peace, unity and cooperation were emphasized. But the official decision was slanted to imply – without anywhere clearly stating – that the Lovestone faction was favored in the coming election of delegates to the party convention. That made certain that there would be no unity and cooperation, but a factional gangfight for control of the convention, and a factional regime in the party afterward if the Lovestoneites gained a majority.

* * *

We knew that we had won no victory at Moscow in 1927. But the acceptance of our “general principles” encouraged us to continue the fight; we knew that these general principles did not have a dog’s chance in the party if the Lovestone faction established itself in control with a formal majority at the Convention.

It was only then, in the course of the discussion in Moscow and after the formal decision, that the bloc of Weinstone-Cannon with Foster was formally cemented to put up a joint slate in the pre-convention struggle for delegates to the pending party convention.

Previously there had been only an agreement at the Plenum to vote for Weinstone as party secretary. Now we agreed to unite our forces in the pre-convention fight to prevent the Lovestoneites from gaining factional control.

That six-months period, from the death of Ruthenberg to the party convention at the end of August, was an eye-opener to me in two respects. First, clearly apparent changes had taken place in the party which already then aroused in me the gravest misgivings for the future. The party had started out as a body of independent-minded rebels, regulating its internal affairs and selecting its own leaders in an honest, free-and-easy democracy. That had been one of its strongest attractions.

But by 1927 the Communist Party was no longer its original self. Its membership was visibly changing into a passive crowd, subservient to authority and subject to manipulation by the crudest demagogy. This period showed, more clearly than I had realized before, the extent to which the independent influence of the national party leaders, as such, had been whittled down and subordinated to the overriding authority of Moscow. Many party members had begun to look to Moscow, not only for decisions on policy, but even for suggestions as to which national leader or set of leaders they should vote for.

Secondly, in 1927 Lovestone became Lovestone. That, in itself, was an event boding no good for the party. Previously Lovestone had worked under cover of Ruthenberg, adapting himself accordingly and buying the favor, or at least the toleration, of the party on Ruthenberg’s credit. In those days, even the central leaders of the factions, who encountered Lovestone at close quarters and learned to have a healthy awareness of his malign talents, never saw the whole man.

We now saw Lovestone for the first time on his own, with all his demonic energy and capacity for reckless demagogy let loose, without the restraining influence of Ruthenberg. It was a spectacle to make one wonder whether he was living in a workers’ organization, aiming at the rational reorganization of society, or had wandered into a madhouse by mistake.

The death of Ruthenberg was taken by everyone else as a heavy blow to the faction he formally headed. But Lovestone bounded forward from the event as though he had been freed from a straitjacket. Beginning with the announcement, before Ruthenberg’s body was cold, that he had expressed the dying wish for Lovestone to become his successor in office, and a simultaneous appeal to Moscow to prevent the holding of a Plenum to act on the question, Lovestone was off to a running start in the race for control of the party; and he set a pace and a pattern in party factionalism, the like of which the faction-ridden party had never seen before.

* * *

Many critical observers were amazed and depressed by the cynical efficiency with which Eisenhower and Nixon were packaged and sold to a befuddled electorate in the last presidential election. I was perhaps less astonished by this slick and massively effective manipulation because I had seen the same kind of thing done before – in the Communist Party of the United States. Allowing for the necessary differences of scale and resources involved, Lovestone’s job of selling himself as the chosen heir of Ruthenberg and the favorite son of Moscow, in the 1927 party elections, was no less impressive than the professional operation of the Madison Avenue hucksters in 1952.

The sky was the limit this time, and all restraints were thrown aside. The internal party campaign of 1927 was a masterpiece of brazen demagogy calculated to provoke an emotional response in the party ranks. The pitch was to sell the body of Ruthenberg and the decision of the Comintern, with Lovestone wrapped up in the package. Even the funeral of Ruthenberg, and the attendant memorial ceremonies, were obscenely manipulated to start off the factional campaign on the appropriate note.

Lovestone, seconded by Wolfe, campaigned “for the Comintern” and created the atmosphere for a yes or no vote on that question, as though the elections for convention delegates simply posed the question of loyalty or disloyalty to the highest principle of international communism. The Comintern decision was brandished as a club to stampede the rank and file, and fears of possible reprisals for hesitation or doubt were cynically played upon.

These techniques of agitation, which, properly speaking, belong to the arsenal of fascism, paid off in the Communist Party of the United States in 1927. None of the seasoned cadres of the opposition were visibly affected by this unbridled incitement, but all along the fringes the forces of the opposition bloc gave way to the massive campaign. New members and weaker elements played safe by voting “for the Comintern”; furtive careerist elements, with an eye to the main chance, came out of their hiding places and climbed on the bandwagon.

The Lovestone faction, now headed by Lovestone, perhaps the least popular and certainly the most distrusted man in the party leadership, this time accomplished what the same faction, formerly headed by the popular and influential Ruthenberg, had never been able to do. Lovestone won a majority in the elections to the party convention and established the faction for the first time in real, as well as formal, control of the party apparatus.

* * *

Lovestone sold himself to the party as the choice of Moscow. He couldn’t know at that time, and neither could we, that he had really oversold himself. The invocation of the authority of Moscow in the internal party elections, and the conditioning of the party members to “vote for the Comintern,” rebounded against Lovestone himself two years later, when the same supreme authority decided that it was his time to walk the plank. Then it was easily demonstrated that what the Lord had given the Lord could take away.

The “majority” he had gained in the party was not his own. The same party members whom Lovestone had incited and conditioned to “vote for the Comintern” responded with the same reflex when they were commanded by the Comintern to vote against him. By his too-successful campaign “for the Comintern” in 1927, Lovestone had simply helped to create the conditions in the party for his own disaster.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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