James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

The Beginning of the Degeneration

Source: Fourth International, Vol.17 No.1, Winter 1956, pp.27-29, 35.
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 31, 1955

Dear Sir:

Fourth Plenum of the Comintern

I did not attend the Fourth Plenum of the Comintern in 1924. We had no report of it except that given by Foster. This was not so much a report on the Plenum as on the decisions on the “American Question.” At least, that’s what we were primarily interested in and that’s all I remember. We had been prepared for the decision against the “Third Party Alliance” by previous letters from Foster as well as by a telegram directly from the Executive Committee of the Communist International.

I don’t recall that anybody in either faction raised any objections to the decision. We were pronounced “Cominternists” at that time and Comintern decisions, especially those on political questions, were accepted as coming from the highest authority and as binding on all. Both sides were far more interested in the question of party control, and what bearing the Moscow decisions might have on that, than in the LaFollette question.

I don’t recall that anybody in the top caucus of our faction got excited about the Comintern’s criticisms of Lore. He had been with us, so to speak, but not of us; we did not feel responsible for him as an all-out member of our faction. It is true that he had supported us in the Convention, but in his daily practice he acted pretty much as a free lance. He had his own little principality in the Volkzeitung, and his own ideas, and he expounded them freely from day to day without consulting us.

We tcok the Comintern’s political criticisms of Lore, like all its other political pronouncements, for good coin and thought it was up to Lore, to straighten himself out with the Comintern. At the same time, it can be safely said that we would have paid no attention to Lore’s “deviations,” and most probably would not have noticed them, if they had not been pounced on in Moscow. I am sure that it did not occur to any of us at the time that the strictures against Lore ware in reality motivated by factional considerations in the struggle against Trotsky in the Russian party and in the Comintern.

* * *

I believe it would be risky to say flatly that “the beginnings of anti-Trotskyism coincide with the beginnings of pro-Stalinism” in the American party – or for that matter, in the Russian party and in the Comintern. That’s the way it worked out, but the process by which Stalin came to complete domination was gradual and insidious, and all the more effective because of that.

I do not recall that we identified Stalin as the leader of the Russian majority in 1924 as much as Zinoviev, who was the Chairman of the Comintern with whom the party had had the most direct dealings.

The opposition of Trotsky had been represented to us as the revolt of a single individual against the “Old Guard” of Lenin who constituted the Central Committee of the Russian party, the official leadership. We knew nothing of any differences within the ruling group at that time. Stalin came fully into prominence in our understanding only after the split between him and Zinoviev, and even then Stalin appeared in alliance with Bukharin, with the latter as Chairman of the Comintern.

It may be that the conflict between Zinoviev and Stalin within the camp of the Russian majority was already being prepared in 1924 and that the Ruthenberg faction, which had Pepper in Moscow as a representative and source of information, knew what was pending better than we did, and were better prepared to jump on the new bandwagon before it started rolling. But even at that, they were not sharp enough to break with Bukharin in time, and this hesitancy cost Lovestone his head in 1929.

Fifth Plenum of the Comintern

I attended the Fifth Plenum of the CI in 1925 together with Foster. Both factions had their delegates in Moscow weeks in advance of the Plenum. Our work there before the Plenum consisted chiefly of an endless round of interviews with various leading people in the Comintern, particularly the Russian leaders, in an attempt to gain their support.

The eventual decision was pretty clearly intimated beforehand. I soon got the chilling impression, and I think Foster did too, that the position of our faction was far weaker in Moscow than at home, and that we couldn’t do anything about it. The other faction had the advantage there. With Pepper as an active representative, busy in the apparatus of the Comintern, the Ruthenberg faction seemed to have the inside track.

Bukharin was particularly outspoken in favor of the Ruthenberg faction and acted like a factional partisan. So also did the leftists then representing the German party, particularly Heinz Neumann. Zinoviev appeared to be more friendly and impartial.

I had the definite impression that he wanted to correct our position on the labor party question without upsetting our majority, to restrain the majority from any suppression of the minority, and in general to slow down the factional struggle. I remember him saying to Foster at the end of one of our talks, in a friendly, persuading tone: “Frieden ist besser.” If I remember correctly, we did not see Stalin and did not know that he was becoming the real power behind the scenes.

* * *

My memory is not too sharp about the details of the negotiations and proceedings that led up to Zinoviev’s original proposal that “the new Central Committee [of the American party] is to be so elected at the Party Conference that the Foster group obtains a majority and the Ruthenberg group is represented proportionally at least by one-third.”

Foster was jubilant about the proposal, but I wasn’t. The idea that the composition of the American party leadership should be arbitrarily fixed in Moscow did not sit well with me, even if we were to be the beneficiaries of the decision at the moment. In arguing with me Foster emphasized the point that it would guarantee our majority control of the party. He was more interested in the bare question of party control than I was at that time, and this difference between us – at first apparently a nuance – grew wider later on.

I was disturbed because I had become convinced in our discussions with the Russians, that we had made a political error in our estimate of the prospects of a labor party in the United States, and I was most concerned that we make a real correction. With inadequate theoretical schooling I was already groping my way to the conception, which later became a governing principle, that a correct political line is more important than any organizational question, including the question of party control.

Looking back on it now, in the light of later developments in the United States, I think the evaluation we had made of labor party prospects in this country, and our proposals for party policy on the question, were far more correct and closer to American reality than those of the Ruthenberg faction. Even the 1925 Comintern decision on the question, which was more restrained and qualified, was away off the beam. But at the time I was convinced by the arguments of the Russians, and perhaps also by the weight of their authority.

There was hardly a trace of a genuine labor party movement in the United States in the ensuing years, and the feverish agitation of the party around the question, based on the Comintern decision came to nothing. This was tacitly recognized in 1928 when the party again nominated its own independent candidates for President and Vice President and relegated the labor party to a mere slogan of propaganda.

The “Parity Commission” of 1924

The decision of the Comintern to set up a Parity Commission to arrange the Fourth Convention of our party, with Gusev, a Russian, as chairman, was manifestly a decision against us, for in effect it robbed us of our rights as an elected majority. I do not think Zinoviev was the author of this decision; it was far different from his original proposal. His acceptance of the parity commission formula manifestly represented a change on his part, and probably a compromise with others who wanted to give open support to the Ruthenberg faction.

After the arrival of Gusev and the setting up of the Parity Commission – Foster, Bittleman and Cannon for our faction, Ruthenberg, Lovestone and Bedacht for the other side – the elected Central Committee and its Political Committee, as such, virtually ceased to exist. All question’s of party policy, organization matters, convention preparations and everything else were decided by the Parity Commission, with Gusev casting the deciding vote in case of any disagreements.

Within that strict framework the struggle for Convention delegates proceeded furiously. Gusev proclaimed a strict neutrality, but he gave us the worst of it whenever he could do so neatly and plausibly. The fact that under such conditions we gained a majority of 40 to 21 at the Convention, is the most convincing evidence, I think, of the real will of the party members to support our majority and to reject the Ruthenberg group, which should more properly be called the Ruthenberg-Lovestone group, with the latter playing an increasingly important role in the struggle.

I think the beginning of the degeneration of the internal life of the party, from conflicts of clearly defined political tendencies, which had characterized all the previous factional fights since the beginning of the movement in 1918, into an increasingly unprincipled struggle of factional gangs, can be traced to the year 1925.

As far as political issues were concerned, the situation in the party, in the period of preparation for the Fourth Convention, could be approximately described as follows: Both sides had accepted the Comintern decision on the labor party, which had favored the Ruthenberg position with some important modifications. The trade union policy of Foster had been accepted by the Ruthenbergites. From a political point of view there really wasn’t much to fight about. This was shown most convincingly by the circumstance that the Parity Commission agreed unanimously on both the political and trade union resolutions, the former written for the greater part by Bittleman and the latter by Foster.

The party members had only one set of resolutions before them, and they accepted them unanimously all up and down the party. Normally, such unanimity should have called for a moderation of the factional atmosphere, a trend toward the unification of the contending groups in the leadership, and toward the liquidation of the factions. But that’s not the way things went. The factional struggle raged more fiercely than ever before in the history of the party – over the issue of party control.

The debate over political issues, insofar as there was such a debate, could deal only with nuances and factional exaggerations. There was not much for the party members to learn in that kind of a fight, and not much satisfaction in at for conscientious communists who hadn’t forgotten the great ideal they had started out to serve. I believe I already began to feel at that time that we were all caught in a trap; and that the only sensible thing to do was to look forward to a liquidation of the factional gangs and an agreement of the leading people to work together in a united leadership.

But the task in hand at the time was to secure a majority for our faction in the Convention, and I worked at that as earnestly as anyone else. We won a two to one majority in the fight for delegates on a strict basis of proportional representation. But it didn’t do us any good.

The “Cable from Moscow”

As the drawn-out Fourth Convention in the summer of 1925 was nearing its end, Gusev called us to a meeting of the Parity Commission to hand us the famous “cable from Moscow.” This cable stated that “the Ruthenberg group is more loyal to the Communist International and stands closer to its views,” and prescribed that the Ruthenberg group should be allotted not less than 40 per cent of the representatives in the new Central Committee. That was a sudden blow for which we were in no way prepared, a blow calculated to put one’s confidence in the Comintern to a rather severe test.

My immediate reaction was to wait, to say nothing there at the session of the Parity Commission. As I recall, Bittleman also kept silent. But Foster exploded with a statement that he would not accept the majority under such conditions, that the Ruthenberg group should take over the majority of the new Central Committee, and that he personally would not accept membership. I decided immediately to oppose such an attitude but did not say it there. I think it was on my proposal that we adjourned the meeting to report the cable to the majority caucus of the Convention delegates who were assembled and waiting for us.

This was the one time that Foster, Bittleman and I went straight into a caucus meeting without prior consultation and agreement among ourselves as to what we would recommend. I don’t know why we skipped this customary procedure, but that’s the way it happened. Foster seemed bent on taking his defiance directly to the caucus and I was no less determined to oppose it.

He had no sooner reported the cable to the caucus and announced his decision to let the Ruthenbergites have the majority in the Central Committee, to which he would not belong, than I took the floor with a counter-proposal that we lock up the new Central Committee on a 50-50 basis, with each faction sharing equally in the responsibility in the leadership.

Dunne supported my position, Bittleman and Browder supported Foster. Abern and Schachtman spoke for my proposal. Johnstone and Krumbein spoke for Foster’s. One by one, as the ominous debate proceeded, the leading people from all parts of the country took positions, and the split of our faction right down the middle began.

* * *

It is an effort to describe this stormy conflict in tranquillity thirty years afterward, without the embellishment of hindsight wisdom; to report it as it really happened, what we did with what we knew and didn’t know and with the sentiments which actuated us at the time.

As I have remarked previously, I was then a convinced “Cominternist.” I had faith in the wisdom and also in the fairness of the Russian leaders. I thought they had make a mistake through false information and that the mistake could later be rectified. I did not even suspect that this monstrous violation of the democratic rights of our party was one of the moves in the Moscow chess game, in which our party, like all the other parties in the Comintern, was to be a mere pawn.

I thought Foster’s attitude was disloyal; that his ostensible willingness to hand over the majority to the Ruthenbergites, and to withdraw from the Central Committee himself, was in reality designed to provoke a revolt of our faction against the Comintern. Foster made the dispute between us a question of confidence in himself personally, as the leader of the faction. This hurt him more than it helped him, for the communist militants in those days were not the regimented lackeys of a later day. There was outspoken resentment at Foster’s attempt to invoke the “follow the leader” principle.

I felt that I was fighting for the allegiance of the party to the Comintern, and I think the majority of the delegates who supported my motion were actuated by the same sentiment. The final vote in favor of my motion, after an all-night-and-next-day debate, not only ended Foster’s revolt against the Comintern – and I repeat my conviction that that was the real meaning of his proposal to “step aside.” It also ended all prospects of his ever realizing his aspiration to rule the American party with a group of subordinates who would support him out of personal loyalty and serve in an advisory capacity, something like a presidential “cabinet,” but leave final decisions to him.

* * *

I had thought that the adoption of my motion for a 50-50 Central Committee would stalemate the factional struggle, make each faction equally responsible for the leadership, and compel them to work together until the situation could be worked out with the Comintern. I was not permitted to nurse that childish illusion very long.

When we went to the first meeting of the new 50-50 Central Committee, the Machiavellian Gusev made another contribution to what might be called “The Education of a Young Man” who had a lot to learn about the ways of the Comintern in the post-Lenin era. Gusev blandly announced that while the agreement was for a parity Central Committee he, as Chairman, would feel obliged to follow the spirit of the Comintern decision and support the Ruthenberg group.

That meant, he said, that the Ruthenberg faction should have a majority in the Political Committee and in other party bodies and institutions. So it turned out that Foster’s caucus proposal to hand over the majority to the Ruthenbergites was actually carried out in practice, and my proposal to freeze the committee on a parity basis was deftly frustrated by Gusev.

If I admit that I went along with this treacherous double-play and still refused to have any part in any revolt against the Comintern, it is not to claim any credit for myself. I write down this distasteful recollection now simply to show that devotion to the Comintern, which had originally been one of the greatest merits of the pioneer communists, was being turned into a sickness which called for a radical cure.

That sickness, on my part, hung on for three more years and affected everything I did in the party. It was not until 1928 that I took the cure, but with the help of Trotsky, I took it then for good and all.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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