James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

Before the Sixth Congress

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.1, Winter 1957, pp.24-25, 34-35.
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.

January 27, 1956

Dear Sir:

The period from the victory of the Lovestone faction in 1927 until the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in the summer of 1928 has been overshadowed in my mind by the new struggle I started after the Congress. Many of the details of the earlier 1928 period are blurred in my memory. I was away from the party center nearly all the time between the February and May Plenums of the party. I went on a big national tour for the International Labor Defense right after the February 1928 Plenum and returned to New York only shortly before the May Plenum. On the tour I tried to put the factional squabbles out of mind and didn’t keep track of internal party developments very closely. Your questions show a much greater familiarity with the events of that time.

* * *

We were aware in 1928 that the Comintern was making a left turn and that this was producing a more favorable climate for the Opposition in the American party. Just how much this influenced me at the time is hard to say now in retrospect. We were all predominantly concerned with the American struggle. I didn’t begin to get a real international orientation until after the Sixth Congress of the Comintern.

It is clear now that all Stalin’s moves were strongly influenced by Trotsky. Stalin’s method was to smash the Opposition organizationally and then to expropriate its ideas and apply them in his own way. It was Trotsky who first saw the coming of the new period of capitalist stabilization after the big post-war revolutionary upsurge had subsided. This was shown already in his polemics against the leftists in 1921. Somewhat later the official policy of the Comintern caught up with the new reality and overdid the emphasis on the new capitalist “stabilization.” This was the period of the Comintern’s swing to the right – 1924-1928 – which helped the Lovestoneites so much in the American party.

Just about the time the Comintern was going overboard on this theme, Trotsky saw the contradictions in the new stabilization and the opening up of new revolutionary perspectives. His fight against the official policy on the Anglo-Russian Committee and the British General Strike reflected his thinking in that time. So also did his book Whither England? and his speech of February 15, 1926, on Europe and America (republished in Fourth International in the April and May issues, 1943).

Simultaneously with the expulsion of the Left Opposition, in December 1927, Stalin began to appropriate a large part of Trotsky’s program on the international field as well as in Russia. This is what brought him into the conflict with Bukharin.

* * *

As I have said before, this was all a mystery to me at the time. Then we only noted the indications of a left turn. It began at a time when Lovestone and Wolfe were divesting themselves of the leftist baggage they had inherited from Ruthenberg to give free play to their own political instincts, which were always decidedly conservative. The “left turn” of the Comintern caught them off guard.

The formal record could give the impression that the factional conflict in the American party in the year 1928 centered mainly around the trade-union question, with Foster and Lovestone lining up on one side and Bittelman-Cannon on the other. The documentary material may support this view, but it is not really correct. The main feature of Foster-Cannon-Bittelman relations at that time was their agreement on irreconcilable opposition to the Lovestone regime in the party and its conservative perspectives in general. The trade-union question was only one of the items in the struggle.

And even though Foster, at the May 1928 Plenum, was closer to the Lovestoneites on this one point, he was definitely with us on an overall factional basis in the fight against the Lovestone regime. It was Foster who first approached me when I returned to New York, shortly before the May Plenum, with a proposal that we get together for a more aggressive fight against the Lovestoneites. Pepper, it appeared, had returned to this country in the spring of 1928 with a special mission to promote “unity” of the Lovestone-Foster groups. The Lovestoneites were trying hard, at the instigation of Pepper, to win over or neutralize Foster, but he was not receptive.

At the May Plenum the Lovestoneites centered their attacks on me and Bittelman and made a big play for “unity” with Foster. I remember ridiculing their sudden discovery of Foster’s virtues by asking if they meant to kill him with kindness, and quoting the Latin adage: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum.” The aptness of the remark was pretty well understood in the whole assembly, and Foster joined in the general laughter. The Lovestoneites wanted to make a captive of Foster, but their maneuver was fruitless. Foster was dead set against their control of the party and rejected all their overtures.

* * *

Foster’s approach to the trade-union question was not the same as that of Lovestone and Wolfe. The position of the latter on that, as on other national questions, was determined by their basically conservative view of American perspectives. They were sure that American capitalism was entering its “Victorian” period, and they seemed to be downright happy about it. These people simply did not believe any more in the perspective of revolution in this booming country.

Foster’s trade-union position was differently motivated. He was the prisoner of his own fetish of “boring from within” the AFL, which had dominated his thinking since his break with the IWW in 1911. His whole career seemed to be bound up with that specific tactic, and he was tied to it by the possibly unconscious need of self-justification.

I had never fully agreed with Foster on the trade-union question. I had started out in the IWW and I never disavowed my work in that field. I had come to recognize the error in the IWW attempt to build brand-new revolutionary unions all up and down the line. But in my own thinking I never went to the extreme AFL-ism that Foster did.

At the 1920 Convention of the United Communist Party, where an anti-AFL position was adopted, I had spoken for a more flexible policy of working within the existing AFL unions and of supporting independent unions in fields neglected by the AFL.

The Convention report of the speech of “Dawson” refers to me. (The Communist, official organ of the United Communist Party, Vol.I, No.1, June 12, 1920, page 4.)

In the exigencies of the faction fight that began in 1923 there was no special occasion, and it was not appropriate, for this difference of emphasis to show itself openly in the party. But as early as the December, 1925 Plenum, both Dunne and I differed with the Fosterites on the Passaic campaign. Dunne’s support of Losovsky at the Fourth Congress of the RILU was the natural expression of our real sentiment about the necessity of building independent unions in fields neglected or sabotaged by the AFL. That could be considered a real difference between us and Foster; but we considered it then as a difference of emphasis, and it was overshadowed all the time, even at the May 1928 Plenum, by our general agreement in opposition to the Lovestone regime and its conservative outlook in general.

* * *

Bittelman’s role in these new developments was a special one. Bittelman was never a “Fosterite” any more than I was. He was first, last and all the time a Moscow man, and the line from Moscow was law for him. He had the advantage of reading Russian and that put him one jump ahead of the others whenever new winds began to blow in Moscow. Moreover, inside the party Bittelman always had his own personal sub-faction in the Jewish Federation. It was always necessary to deal with him not merely as an individual but as the representative of a factional following.

The final decision made by the party – after our expulsion in October 1928 – to go all out for a policy of independent unionism, and to transform the TUEL into a new trade-union center under the name of the Trade Union Unity League, was swallowed by Foster, but it must have been a bitter pill for him. It constituted, in effect, a repudiation of his whole course since his break with the IWW.

When Zack was expelled from the CP and came over to us for a while, in the fall of 1934, he told me that he had been to see Foster shortly before that. He found him very ill, helpless and discouraged. Zack said that Foster had enjoined him not to take any steps that would give Browder the pretext to expel him from the party. In connection with that, he told Zack that he had never believed in the program of the TUUL but felt that he had to go along with it to prevent his own expulsion.

* * *

I doubt that Foster’s failure to attend the Fourth Congress of the Profintern in the winter of 1928 had any special significance. He was deeply preoccupied with the miners’ campaign at that time and was in the field constantly. I don’t recall any special discussion between me and Dunne before his departure for this Profintern Congress. My memory about the whole thing is rather hazy – perhaps because I was on tour all that time. I think there is no doubt, however, that the initiative for the sharp turn came from Losovsky and not from us. But it was very easy for us to go along with it, because it was becoming more and more obvious to us that the organization of the unorganized required more emphasis on independent unions in certain fields.

My trade-union article in the July 1928 Communist was published at my own insistence. I felt rather strongly about the question and wanted to make my position clear. It was considered somewhat “irregular” already then to have conflicting views appear in the press. The Lovestoneites objected, but they probably thought it was better to print it than to have a fuss with me on that kind of an issue at that particular time. I do not recall any discussion with Foster about it. To be sure, the Lovestoneites thought they were playing a clever game by putting Foster forward to defend the official policy. But Foster was playing his own game in coming to the defense of his fetish.

* * *

The difference between me and Foster on the trade-union question at the May Plenum did not seriously disturb relations in the bloc of the two factions. It remained, as before, a touch-me-not alliance of convenience. I recall that we had a joint social gathering of the two groups shortly before our departure for Moscow for the Sixth Congress. The general understanding was that we were going to make common cause there.

I do not recall the division among the Fosterites becoming manifest at the May Plenum. They kept it bottled up in the family for a while. The furious internal fight of the Fosterites, in which Foster was isolated, was revealed to us only when the fight broke out into the open at a joint meeting of the delegates of the two opposition groups in Moscow.

Our group, which was strongly represented at the Congress – Dunne, Cannon, Hathaway, Gomez and several others attending the Lenin School in Moscow – did not intervene on the side of Bittelman-Browder-Johnstone. We kept hands off and let the Fosterites fight it out among themselves.

* * *

Lovestone’s reaction to the Losovsky line in 1928 was not determined primarily by any fanatical conviction about trade-union policy. The trade-union question was not his main interest – not by a long shot. Lovestone was far more concerned to justify the policy of the majority of the party in the past, and thus to protect its prestige, than about any line he would have to take in the future. His main concern was to keep control of the party.

For that he was willing to adapt himself to almost any kind of a new directive from Moscow. I feel quite sure he had the illusion that Losovsky himself was out on a limb and that, with the support of Bukharin, he could get around him in Moscow. Losovsky was the one who forced the fight and left Lovestone no alternative but to fight back.

* * *

It is difficult to describe my feeling and expectations in this period before the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, without coloring the recollections by what I learned and did afterward – after I read Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program during the Congress. The new signs from Moscow in the early months of 1928 were undoubtedly more favorable for the Opposition, but I think the Fosterites took more courage from it than I did. We had had so many disappointments in Moscow that I couldn’t get up any real enthusiasm about better luck the next time.

Also, as I have explained in my History of American Trotskyism, I was deeply oppressed by the developments in the Russian party and the expulsion of the Opposition. But with the limited understanding of the disputed questions I had at that time, I didn’t know what I could do about it, and had no definite idea of trying to do anything. In that mood I really did not want to go to the Congress at all, and would not have gone if my factional associates had not insisted on it.

I did not communicate my inner thoughts and doubts to them at that time, since I had no definite proposals to make. Their mood, contrary to mine, was rather optimistic about the prospects of support for our factional struggle in Moscow. That, I suppose, is why they wouldn’t hear of my withdrawal from the Congress delegation.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

Letters Index |Main Document Index | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on: 8 April 2009