James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

The “American Question” at the Fourth Congress

Source: Fourth International, Vol.15 No.3, Winter 1955, pp.15-18.
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 10, 1954

Dear Sir:

I arrived in Moscow on June 1, 1922 as the official delegate of the American Communist Party to the Plenum of the ECCI and to the pending Fourth Congress of the Comintern. I remained there until the following January. Besides attending to my duties in the ECCI and in the Congress, I had a good chance to look around and form some impressions of the country in the fifth year of the revolution.

After my return to the US, I covered the country on a five-month tour, speaking on The Fifth Year of the Russian Revolution. This lecture was published in pamphlet form at the time and has since been reprinted by Pioneer Publishers, together with another lecture, under the title The Russian Revolution.

I was seated as the American representative on the ECCI and was also made a member of its presidium, the smaller working body, which met frequently and handled all current political work of the Comintern in the same manner as the smaller political bureau of the national committee of a national organization.

This was my first view of the functioning of the Comintern, and my first chance to see the great political leaders at work in discussion and decision on questions of the world movement. I was well satisfied to sit quietly, to listen and try to learn. I really think I learned a lot in this priceless experience.

The problems of the various national parties, one after another, came up for review in the sessions of the presidium. The big questions of the time, as I recall, were the continuing crisis in the French party and the application of the tactics of the united front generally. All the important parties had permanent delegates in Moscow. They presented periodic reports on new developments in their respective Countries and joined in the discussion.

The decisive lead was taken by the Russian delegation assigned to permanent work in the Comintern. These were Zinoviev as chairman, Radek and Bukharin. As a member of the presidium, I saw these leaders at work and heard them speak on an average of about once a week during the entire period of my stay in Moscow. There was no question whatever of the leading role played by the Russian representatives. This was taken as a matter of course and was never questioned. But the reasons for it were entirely just and natural. They were the veterans who were schooled in the doctrine and knew the world movement, especially the European section of it, from study and first-hand experience in their years of exile. In addition, they had the commanding moral authority which accrues by right to the leaders of a victorious revolution. The delegates of the other parties, like myself, were mainly apprentices of a younger generation. I think all of us, or nearly all, felt that we were privileged to attend an incomparable school, and we tried to profit by the opportunity.

* * *

I also worked in the Executive Body of the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern). There I became well acquainted with the leading figures in the trade-union work of different countries. I particularly remember Losovsky, Nin and Brandler. The Profintern Committee enjoyed a wide autonomy at that time in all the practical affairs of the international trade-union movement. Questions involving political policy, however, were coordinated with the presidium of the Comintern and eventually decided there.

* * *

In pursuit of my special objective – to gain Comintern support for our policy in the US – I talked personally to Zinoviev, Radek, Bukharin and Kuusinen (the secretary of the ECCI). Bittelman came along to Moscow in the summer of 1922 on a special mission – to report on the Jewish movement in the US, I think. Bittelman and I worked closely together in Moscow. We cooperated in preparing written reports on the situation in the US and attended the conversations with the various leaders together.

I noted that all the leaders, as though by a prior decision on their part, remained noncommittal in all these discussions of American policy at that time. They were extremely friendly and patient. They gave us freely of their time, which must indeed have been strictly limited, and asked numerous pointed questions which showed an intense interest in the question. None of them, however, expressed any opinion. The net result of the first round of conversations, which extended over a considerable period of time, was an informal decision to wait for the arrival of the delegates from the other faction, who would be coming to the World Congress, and to defer any decision until that time.

Nothing was said directly to indicate a definite position; but I did get the impression at that time that the Russian leaders were inclined to regard me as a “liquidator” of the type they had confronted in the Russian party in the period of reaction following the defeat of the 1905 revolution. These Russian “liquidators” had wanted to abandon the illegal party organization and to adapt Social Democratic activity to Czarist legality. The Bolsheviks had been traditionally opposed to such capitulatory liquidationism; and I felt that the reserved attitude of the Russian leaders in 1922 was at least partly conditioned by the memory of that old battle.

I noticed that one of the technical functionaries in the Comintern apparatus, a woman comrade who spoke English, told me that she had been assigned to help me study the experiences of the old Bolshevik struggle against the liquidators. She took me to a library and translated for me a number of Lenin’s polemical articles of that time. I agreed with the articles, but I thought there was a difference between Czarist Russia and Harding’s America. I had the uneasy feeling, throughout the summer of 1922, that I wasn’t making a bit of headway in my effort to gain support for our policy.

Possibly the reserve of the Russian leaders was due to the fact that previously the ECCI had sent a representative to America – Valetski, a Pole – and that they awaited his report.

* * *

Those were the good days of the Communist International, when its moral authority was the highest and the wisdom of its advice to the young parties from the various countries was recognized and appreciated by all. We knew nothing of any conflict or rivalry among the Russian leaders. We thought of the Russian leadership as a unit, with Lenin and Trotsky standing above and somewhat apart from all the rest.

Trotsky led the debate on the French question at the June Plenum of the ECCI of that year, and also at the Fourth Congress which followed some months later. Trotsky also appeared a few times at the meetings of the presidium, but only for a special purpose each time. I saw and heard Lenin only once, when he spoke for an hour at the Fourth Congress. We knew, of course, that he was ill; but there was confident optimism on every side that he would recover. As I said, all the daily work of the presidium of the ECCI was led by the special Russia delegation assigned to that function – Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin. I can’t recall that I either saw or heard of Stalin that time.

* * *

Meantime, at home the factional fight between the liquidators and the leftists was raging. Additional delegates to the Fourth Congress began to arrive from America. It was a big delegation, nearly a score all told, and all tendencies were represented. Max Bedacht and Arne Swabeck came for the liquidators; L.E. Katterfeld, Rose Pastor Stokes and others for the undergrounders. There was a youth delegation headed by Martin Abern. A number came as trade-union delegates; I remember Jack Johnstone, Rose Wortis and others. The youth and trade-union delegates both supported the liquidators. There was also a Negro delegate whose name has escaped me, who seemed to support the leftist faction. Trachtenberg represented the Workers Council group, which had not joined the CP. The seceding group of leftists (United Toilers) had two delegates who had been invited to come and present their appeal.

In addition, a number of individuals had come to Moscow on their own account. Among them were Max Eastman; the Negro poet, Claude McKay; and Albert Rhys Williams. In Claude McKay’s autobiographical book, A Long Way from Home, he devotes a section to his Russian visit and the Congress. Zinoviev and the other Russian leaders made a great fuss over him. They included him in group pictures with them and other Congress leaders for propaganda purposes in the colonial world. In Chapter 16 of his book, McKay speaks about the Congress and the American Commission, which he attended. You might find this interesting, as the independent impression of an artist.

After the full delegation had arrived and the Fourth Congress began to drag out its month-long course, the preliminary fight over the American question began in earnest. The first skirmishes took place in the special department of the Comintern for English speaking countries. Rakosi, the recently deposed Stalinist boss of Hungary, was in charge of this department. He spoke English fluently and I got to know him quite well. He was one of the younger members of the Hungarian leadership who had made their way to Moscow after the defeat of the Hungarian revolution.

Rakosi impressed me then as a rather rigid formalist and sectarian and he did not conceal his suspicion of us as “liquidators.” We didn’t mind that so much because we didn’t take him too seriously. But the possibility that he might be reflecting the point of view of the official leaders made us rather uncomfortable. I must say that this was the general impression at that time, and it was reflected in the attitude of other technical functionaries in the Comintern apparatus.

They began to give me a bad time. On the eve of the Congress they shifted me from my privileged room in the Hotel Lux to a roughly improvised dormitory for overflow delegates. I really didn’t mind that very much, being an old hobo, but political significance was attached to it, and my friends joked about my banishment from the Lux. This is what I meant when I referred in my “History” to my status during that period as a sort of “pariah.” These “apparachniks” were real weather vanes. I never liked this breed, then or ever.

* * *

Toward the end of the Congress we final1y secured an interview with Trotsky. That changed everything overnight. We don’t deserve a bit of credit for this decisive interview because, as far as I can remember, we never even thought of asking for it. The interview was arranged by Max Eastman on his own initiative.

Trotsky, the most businesslike of men, set the interview for a definite time. His fearsome insistence on punctuality, in contrast to the typical Russian nonchalance in matters of time, was a legend, and nobody dared to keep him waiting. Eastman only had about one hour to arrange it, and came within an inch of failing to round us up. He got hold of us at the last minute, as we were blithely returning from a visit to the Russian steam baths – my first and only experience with this formidable institution – and hustled us to Trotsky’s office by auto just in the nick of time to keep the appointment.

Those who attended the interview, as I recall, were Max Bedacht, Max Eastman and myself. If any other American delegates were present, I don’t remember them. Trotsky, bristling with businesslike precision, wasted no time on formalities. He asked us right away to state our case, and reminded us that we had only one hour. I was struck by the difference between his manner and method and Zinoviev’s. The latter had impressed me as informal and easygoing, even somewhat lackadaisical. He always seemed to have plenty of time, and could always be counted on to open a meeting two or three hours late. In spite of that he obviously did an enormous amount of work. It was just a difference in his way of working.

The greatness of Lenin and Trotsky was the greatness of genius. Zinoviev receded before them, but on a lesser scale he was a great man too. I had a soft spot for Zinoviev, and my affectionate regard for him never changed. I still hope, someday, to write something in justice to his memory.

The main exposition at the interview with Trotsky was made by me, supplemented by some remarks from Bedacht. My thesis, as I recall, had four points:

  1. The lack of class consciousness of the American workers, and as a result, the elementary tasks of propaganda imposed on the Communist Party.
  2. The actual political climate in the country which made possible and necessitated a legal party.
  3. Our proposal to support the formation of a labor party based on the trade unions.
  4. The necessity of Americanizing the party, of breaking the control of the foreign-language federations and assuring an indigenous national leadership.

Trotsky asked only a few questions about the actual political situation in the country, with respect to the laws, etc. He expressed astonishment, and even some amusement, over the theory that underground organization is a question of principle. He said the attempt of the foreign-language groups to “control” the American party was unrealistic and untenable. If they persisted, he said facetiously, the Russian party would invite them to return to Russia. (It might be remarked, parenthetically, that the return to Russia of Hourwich, Staklitzky, Ashkenudzie and other strong and fanatical leaders of the Russian Federation, did contribute to the eventual solution of the problem of party “control.”)

I don’t recall what, if anything, Trotsky said about the labor party question.

At the end of the discussion, which probably didn’t last more than an hour as he had specified, Trotsky stated unambiguously that he would support us, and that he was sure Lenin and the other Russian leaders would do the same. He said that if Lenin didn’t agree, he would try to arrange for us to see him directly. He said he would report the interview to the Russian Central Committee and that the American Commission would soon hear their opinion. At the end of the discussion he asked us to write our position concisely, on “one sheet of paper – no more,” and send it to him for transmission to the Russian leadership.

It struck me at the moment, as a formidable task, after a solid year of unlimited debate, to be asked to say everything we had to say on one sheet of paper. Nevertheless, with the help of Eastman we did it that very day and sent it in. I would give a good deal today for the original of that document “on one sheet of paper.”

* * *

That interview with Trotsky was the great turning point in the long struggle for the legalization of the American communist movement, which should never have accepted an illegal status in the first place. Soon afterward, the formal sessions of the American Commission of the Fourth Congress were started. The Russians showed their decided interest in the question by sending a full delegation – Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin – to the Commission.

Nothing was hurried. There was a full and fair debate, in a calm and friendly atmosphere. Nobody got excited but the Americans. Katterfeld and I were given about an hour each to expound the conflicting positions of the contending factions. Rose Pastor Stokes, Bedacht and others were called upon to supplement the remarks of the main reporters on both sides. A representative of the seceding underground leftist group was also given the floor.

Then the big guns began to boom. First Zinoviev, then Radek and then Bukharin. The noncommittal attitude they had previously shown in our personal conversations with them, which had caused us such apprehension, was cast aside. They showed a familiarity with the question which indicated that they had discussed it thoroughly among themselves. They all spoke emphatically and unconditionally in support of the position of the liquidators.

Their speeches were truly brilliant expositions of the whole question of legal and illegal organization, richly illustrated from the experience of the Russian movement. They especially demonstrated that the central thesis of the underground leftists, namely, that the party had to retain its underground organization as a matter of principle, was false. It was, they explained, purely a practical question of facts and possibilities in a given political atmosphere.

They especially castigated the tendency to transplant mechanically the Russian experiences under the Czar, where all forms of political opposition were legally proscribed, to America which still retained its bourgeois democratic system intact and where the Workers Party was already conducting a satisfactory communist propaganda without legal interference. Illegal underground work, said Zinoviev, is a cruel necessity in certain conditions; but one must not make a fetish of it, and resort to costly and cumbersome underground activities, when legal possibilities are open. He told an amusing story of an old Bolshevik underground worker who insisted on carrying her old false passport even after the Bolsheviks had taken over the state power.

The result of the discussion in the American Commission was the unanimous decision: (1) to legalize the party; (2) to recommend that the party advocate and work for the construction of a labor party based on the trade unions; and (3) to appeal to the seceding leftists to return to the party, assuring them a welcome and rightful place in its ranks.

* * *

That was one time when a great problem of American communism, which it had not been able to solve by itself, was settled conclusively and definitely by the Comintern for the good of the movement.

All subsequent experience demonstrated the absolute correctness of this decision. It is appalling to think what would have been the fate of the American communist movement without the help of the Comintern in this instance. The two factions were so evenly matched in strength, and the leftists were so fanatically convinced that they were defending a sacred principle, that a definitive victory for the liquidators within a united movement could not be contemplated.

The main energies of the American communists would have been consumed in the internal struggle, at the expense of public propaganda and the recruitment of new forces. The prospect was one of unending factional struggles and disintegrating splits until the movement exhausted itself, while the great country rolled along and paid no attention to it. The intervention of Trotsky, and then of the Russian party and the Comintern, saved us from that.

This decision showed the Comintern at its best, in its best days, as the wise leader and coordinator of the world movement.

Its role in this crucial struggle of the infant movement of American communism was completely realistic, in accord with the national political conditions and necessities of that time. Moreover, the Russian leaders, to whom American communism owed this great debt, showed themselves to be completely objective, fair and friendly to all, but very definite and positive on important political questions.

I always remembered their friendly help in this affair with the deepest gratitude. Perhaps that was one reason why I could never reconcile myself to the campaign against them and their eventual expulsion a few years later. I could never believe that they had become “enemies of the revolution,” and I believe it even less today, 32 years afterward.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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