James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

After the 1924 Elections

Source: Fourth International, Vol.17 No.1, Winter 1956, pp.26-27.
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.

March 22, 1955

Dear Sir:

Here are some brief comments on matter-of-fact questions in your letters of December 21 and February 28, not specifically dealt with in my long letter of March 17.

After the 1924 presidential election, as I recall it, the Ruthenberg faction (still master-minded to a considerable extent by Pepper from Moscow) wanted to continue the old labor party policy as if nothing had happened. We considered the labor party a dead issue for the time being and were opposed to any policy that would lead to the creation of a caricature of a labor party under communist control without any mass base in the trade unions.

In one of my articles in the Daily Worker, in the public party discussion after the November 1924 election, I stated that we were not opposed to the labor party in principle but conditioned our support of the labor party slogan on the existence of a mass sentiment for it in the trade unions. There’s no doubt, however, that we did bend the stick backward in the course of the conflict and that we began to show a decided sectarian trend. I think it fair to say that Bittleman’s influence came into play in this situation more than at any other time. Foster himself was the initiator of the proposal to drop the labor party slogan, on the ground that the movement lacked vitality and that it would be a waste of time and effort to try to build a shadow labor party which in essence would be a mere duplicate of the Communist Party. I repeat, Foster was the initiator of this change of policy; but we all readily agreed with him. The change was accomplished without difficulty in all the leading circles of our faction. As I recall it, there were some objections from the Loreites such as Zimmerman (now a vice-president of the ILGWU).

It was also Foster who initiated the proposal to drop the candidates of the “Farmer-Labor Party” nominated at the St. Paul Convention in June 1924 and to nominate our own party candidates instead. On this we also followed Foster’s lead, and the Ruthenberg group went along without opposition.

In general, the main initiative in determining the policy of our faction, from the time of Foster’s return from the Comintern Plenum of April-May 1924 until the conflict within the faction over the Comintern cable at the 1925 Convention, came from him. I went along in general agreement. But I did not share the sectarian twist which Bittleman and Browder tended to give to the policy, and was careful to emphasize in my writings during the discussion that our opposition to the labor party at the given time was based on the lack of mass sentiment for it and was not put as a question of principle.

I believe Foster tended to go overboard a little bit in the direction of Bittleman’s slant, but this was probably due more to overzealousness in the factional struggle than to real conviction. Foster was no sectarian. While Foster and I were in Moscow in the early part of 1925, Bittleman and Browder were running things in the party, and I remember that we were both quite dissatisfied with the sectarian trend they were manifesting.

I probably had less difficulty in accepting the Comintern decision in favor of a continuation of the labor party policy than Foster did. In retrospect it appears to me now that this decision of the Comintern was dead wrong, as were virtually all of its decisions on the American question thereafter. After the internal struggle broke out in the Russian party, the American party, like all other sections of the Comintern, became a pawn in the Moscow game and Comintern decisions on national questions were no longer made objectively. But that is the wisdom of hindsight. I was a thoroughgoing “Cominternist” in those days and it took me three more years to get the picture straight.

I didn’t know what was really going on in the Comintern, and I can’t recall than I even knew of any differences between Trotsky and Zinoviev on the American question. It may be true that Pepper was in reality Zinoviev’s agent, and that Zinoviev yielded to Trotsky on the LaFollette question to avoid a showdown on an inconvenient issue. Trotsky’s polemics against the Zinovievist policy on the so-called “Peasants’ International,” and the whole business of seeking to build a communist party by maneuvers with petty-bourgeois leaders of peasant movements, later revealed a big controversy around this point.

I did not get a grasp of this dispute until I first saw Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program (published later in America under the title The Third International After Lenin) at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928. As I have related in my History of American Trotskyism, I was preoccupied with “our own” American questions at that time and did not know, or even suspect, that the fate of our party was so directly involved in the Russian party struggle.


I didn’t know Lore very well personally and never had close relations with him, but I always thought he was a very likeable fellow. His tradition was that of the pre-war left Social Democracy. I don’t think he ever felt really at home in the Comintern, or that he ever became an all-out communist in the sense that the rest of us did. Ass I recall it, he interpreted the united front policy of the Comintern favorably as a step toward reconciliation and reunification with the Second International and not as, among other things, a means of struggle against the Social Democrats.

I think his opposition to the “Third Party Alliance” was determined, by his left social-democratic orthodoxy on the question of the peasantry. I don’t know whether he was influenced by Trotsky in his position or whether he knew what stand Trotsky was taking in Moscow on this question. I doubt it.

Lore’s political tendency in general was to the right. In the first stages of the fight in the Russian party, Lore, like some others in Europe, supported Trotsky under the mistaken impression that his opposition represented a revolt against the “leftism” of Zinoviev. Lore’s later evolution showed very clearly that he was no “Trotskyist” in a political sense. Looking back now, there is little doubt that the Comintern blasts against Lore were motivated by his original declaration in favor of Trotsky and not, as alleged, by his policies in American affairs.

I don’t think the LaFollette policy was the only or main reason for Lore’s break with the Ruthenberg-Pepper group and his support of the Foster-Cannon group. He was decidedly anti-Pepper and against “maneuverism” in general. He was also anti-Zinoviev, but whether he considered Pepper Zinoviev’s agent or not, I do not know.

Lore was popular in the party ranks in New York but not decisively influential in a factional showdown. He was a supporter of the Foster-Cannon faction but was never a decisive member of its inner councils. The two strong factions between them completely dominated the parity. This state of affairs confronted Lore and his sub-group with the necessity of making a choice; there was no prospect whatever for his group to contest with the others for party control.

I think his determining reasons for supporting us were that he considered us more American, more proletarian trade-unionist, and therefore more capable of establishing the party as a factor in the real life of the country.

Third Party Convention

The Third Convention (1923) took place before the extensive organization of caucuses of the factions in the party ranks. Probably a majority of the delegates came to the Convention uncommitted. As the delegates straggled into town on the eve of the Convention, both factions worked industriously to secure their allegiance. I suppose I was most active and effective on this front for our faction and Lovestone for the Pepperites.

The general disposition of the majority of the delegates in bur favor, and their dissatisfaction with the Pepper regime, became fairly evident before the formal opening of the Convention. The election of Bittleman as Convention Chairman at the first session, by a decisive majority over the candidate of the Pepper faction, indicated a Convention line-up which was never changed during the subsequent debates.

We made no special efforts to win the support of Lore and the Finnish leaders and offered them no special inducements. That would not have been necessary in any case; they indicated their preference in the first discussions with them before the Convention was formally started.

I recall that they were pleased at the prospect of Foster graduating from his position as trade-union specialist and taking his place as a party leader, and that they strongly objected to Bittleman having a prominent position in the new leadership. In fact, they objected to Bittleman altogether. This was in deference to Olgin and his supporters in the Jewish Federation, who were closely associated with Lore, and who had had plenty of trouble with Bittleman.

Foster was impressed and worried by this opposition to Bittleman. Foster was always ready to dump anybody who was under fire, but I learned of his addiction to this annoying peccadillo only later. At the time, I attributed his concern in this matter to his unfamiliarity with party affairs and party people, and he yielded to my insistence on Bittleman. The Loreites finally accepted Bittleman as a “concession” on their part.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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