Max Shachtman


Twenty Five Years
of American Trotskyism

(November 1953)

From New International, Vol. XX No. 1, January‐February 1954.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is now twenty-five years since the Trotskyist movement was launched in the United States under circumstances which had already ceased to be unusual for that movement. The date was 27 October 1928.

On that day, an enlarged session of the Political Committee of the Communist Party, upon hearing a statement by three members of the party’s Central Committee in which they aligned themselves with the then Russian (or Trotskyist) Opposition, voted to expel the three from the party: James P. Cannon, Martin Abern, and Max Shachtman (an alternate member).

This action, as the expelled knew before they made their avowal, was a foregone conclusion. The Sixth Congress of the Communist International held only a few months earlier had made the espousal of “Trotskyism” incompatible with membership in the International or any of its affiliates. But if the three clearly expected expulsion the minute after they read their statement to the rest of the Central Committee members, it might almost be said that everything else related to the founding of the Trotskyist movement in this country was unexpected. Indeed. looking backward, it offers an excellent example of how the inevitable often asserts itself in politics through the accidental and in spite of it.

Unexpected, in the first place, was the extraordinary stupidity and criminality of the Communist Party leadership in its proceedings against the expelled. The party leadership was then in the hands of the Lovestone faction. To embarrass their rivals of the Foster faction, out of whose leading group the expelled Trotskyists had come, and to show Stalin how reliable they were in hunting Trotskyism, the Lovestoneites promptly launched a reign of terror in the party ranks.

Every branch and every member of the party and the youth organization was compelled on the spot to declare his loyalty to the Central Committee in the fight against the Trotskyists, to condemn the three Trotskyists themselves as well as everything they stood for or were said to stand for, and to disavow any “conciliatory” attitude toward them.

Conciliationists were designated as those who asked to withhold their vote on the resolution of condemnation until they could see and read the statements of the three expelled members. In this way, dozens of communists were expelled overnight throughout the country without having anything but a vague idea of the opposition’s views. Most of them were recruited to the side of the expelled who now called themselves, after their Russian comrades, the Left Opposition and, afterward took the name of Communist League of America.

To this service the Lovestoneites added another, most often with the active aid of the Fosterites as well, who did not want to be outbidded in the Kremlin. For the first time in the history of any radical or socialist movement, we saw not only an expulsion which resulted in the formation of another movement but also an attempt made by the older organization to smash the new group in the egg by the open, direct, conscious and organized use of force and violence.

This was not a spontaneous outburst of indignant or exasperated individuals, but the result of deliberate planning by the leadership and mobilization of the organs at its disposal. The three of us were physically assaulted by party toughs armed with clubs and knives when we first appeared round the party centre to distribute our paper, the Militant, and for a long time afterward. Our very first meeting in New York – probably the first Trotskyist public meeting in the Western hemisphere! – was never really held. The police had to intervene to prevent even greater bloodshed than had already been caused, when literally scores of party hoodlums, mobilized that very evening at party headquarters and equipped with blackjacks, knives, lead pipes, brass knuckles and other subtle political arguments, broke into the hall to terrorize the audience and the speakers

At our next meeting in the same New York Labor Temple, we were better prepared for the same mob that came to visit us, as is evidenced by the emergency treatment records of neighbouring hospitals and by the fact that after some initial incidents the meeting – a magnificent one – went on peaceably to its end. But for two or three years thereafter, literally from one end of the country to the other, our comrades and our public meetings were subjected to the same kind of organized Stalinist gangsterism, which subsided only when groups of sturdy, valiant and resolute militants – female as well as male! – drummed some wholesome homilies in workers’ democracy into the skulls of the hooligans and, in general, helped bring a sense of shame into the hearts of the better elements in the CP ranks.

The Trotskyist movement was certainly not weaned on meek milk. The campaign of violence against it helped it win more supporters from outraged members and sympathizers of the official party. But it must be admitted that, as with all the madness of Stalinism, there was method in it – cunning, base, sinister method. It not only aimed at intimidating actual and prospective Trotskyists; but it also aimed, probabIy primarily, to draw between the followers of the official party and the then “unofficial opposition” of Trotskyism the most difficult of all lines to cross in politics; the line of blood.

Probably because it was so unexpected, despite what was being done to the oppositionists inside Russia, this virulent violence of the Stalinists made a deep impression upon us. Eight years after the Trotskyists were expelled from the Communist Party in this country, they were expelled on grounds just as flimsy and by means just as brusque and bureaucratic – from the Socialist Party which they had joined earlier. Yet the bloody violence that followed our expulsion from the Stalinist party was totally unknown after the split in the Socialist party.

The impression which the violence made upon us caused some supercilious souls and empty bonnets to chide the Trotskyists in the following years for their “Stalinophobia.” It was as if they regarded us, with condescending comprehension, as obsessed victims of traumatic personal experiences. To us, however, it never was a psychological problem; it became with increasing clarity a social and political phenomenon of specific significance.

The assaults upon us were, it should certainly be obvious now, not a passing incident produced by factional excitations, but manifestations of an essential and distinguishing characteristic of Stalinism. Stalinism is by its social nature a totalitarian movement. It can triumph, it can maintain itself only by the physical extirpation of its adversaries in the popular movements, and therewith extirpation of any and all forms democracy that impede its rule. The Trotskyists were the adversary with the most perspicacious insight into Stalinism. The violence against us was all the more ruthless and cynical. It was not an “excess” but authentic and durable, and in its most brutal flaring in this country it was nothing but an anticipation and preparation of what Stalinism aspires to achieve.

The early hooliganism against us was a disgrace and discredit to the revolutionary movement as a whole. But it not only helped win us additional recruits; it sealed in us a conviction that any group in the labour movement that resorts to violence against any other group in it – except in self defence – has no place or right in the organized working-class movement and must be driven out of it without mercy. And it also helped our minds reach into the heart of darkness of Stalinism itself.

Unexpected, in the second place, was the development of the Stalinist movement and, with it, of our own perspectives. We assumed that the CP was going to remain ever more firmly under the Lovestone leadership, that the Comintern endorsement which it seemed to get at the Sixth Congress would be reiterated and strengthened, that it would be given an ever freer hand in demolishing the Foster faction or driving it into unhappy but silent subservience. This triumph of the Lovestoneite right wing would, as we saw it, speedily bring a large section of unrepentant Fosterites to our side. So we concentrated our fire on the Lovestoneite leadership as the authentic representatives of the Moscow revisionism and on the Fosterite leadership as centrists and capitulators without a future in the/our party.

The deep antagonism that the best militants in the Foster faction felt toward the Lovestoneites as petty-bourgeois intellectuals, snobs, cynics, low grade manipulators and manoeuverists, encouraged us to expect decisive support in the very near future from these militants with whom, after all, we had been so closely tied factionally and even personally up to yesterday.

In this entire analysis we were only following the essentials of Trotsky’s views on the unrolling of the Russian Thermidor. He looked upon all the victories of the Russian Stalinists over the Russian Bukharinists – inside the Russian party or in the Comintern – as only apparent, trivial and momentary. The right wing would unquestionably and very soon show its real and overwhelming strength in Russia.

The centre – the Stalinist bureaucracy – would unquestionably and very soon show its real and disastrous weakness. At worst, it would capitulate completely to the right wing; at best, it would try to wage a faltering, apologetic, defensive, ever-eager-for-compromise fight against it. But such a fight it was foredoomed to lose, unless the Left Opposition snatched the banner from its palsied hands and took command of the fight to save the revolution from the capitalist-restorationist classes represented by the right.

As we know, nothing of the kind happened. The Stalinist centre not only took up the fight with the Bukharinists but wiped them out root and branch, wiped out all-important traces of the possessing classes, wiped out the last remnants of the Bolshevik party, its leaders, traditions and principles, wiped out every shred of democracy, wiped out all possibility of simply restoring the old Trotskyist Opposition, and forced Trotsky himself to the subsequent conclusion that from the standpoint of the centrist bureaucracy – the Stalinists, that is – the right wing represented a threat from the left. He never explained this enigmatic assertion.

It goes without saying that not a single self-styled “orthodox Trotskyist” today would grasp the meaning of this assertion, let alone try to explain it. In any case, Trotsky’s perspective was radically wrong and he never succeeded in ridding himself of the basic ambiguity it contained.

Our perspective in the USA was likewise wrong, although the consequences were far less serious here than in Russia. A bewilderingly few months after our own expulsion by the Lovestoneites, the entire Lovestoneite leadership and the bulk of its national cadre – except for such dregs as Stachel, Minor and their kind – were unceremoniously booted out of the party and the Comintern. A faster case of biters bit is not on recent record.

After a few years of stertorous breathing, the Lovestone group performed the most outstandingly honest act of its existence – it voted to dissolve for want of any contribution it could make to the working class as an organization. Of it too, then, could be said that nothing became it so well in life as its way of taking farewell of it. (It is strange how other futilitarians, so numerous today, spurn the encouragement offered by this example of decent self-interment. It would seem that in politics, at least, some refuse burial services as stubbornly as if they were alive.)

Unexpected, in the last place, was the source from which the American Trotskyist movement sprang. A veritable mythology has been created on this score, modest when compared with the mythology of Stalinism but patterned after it nevertheless. If its sole result were to feed the vanity that requires such a diet, it could be overIooked with the compassion felt by any Marxist to whom nothing human is alien. But it cannot be ignored when it serves questionable political ends and distorts historical events which demand clear understanding in the interests of today’s needs.

The Trotskyist group in this country was founded by some of the leaders of the Cannon faction in the Communist Party, most prominently by Cannon himself. But the idea that this faction had been, as he likes to say, “prepared by its past” for this distinguished action and role, that it had been moving inside the Communist Party straight or even more or less in the direction of Trotsky’s ideas, that its appearance as a Trotskyist group was only the logical and natural culmination of its preceding fight inside the party, is absurd where it is not pernicious.

It is accepted only by uninformed people whose credulity has been cooly imposed upon in the hope that facts will not rudely intrude upon rhetoric and say-so. The reality is quite different from the tales of the myth makers.

The entire Communist Party was astounded, not to say stupefied and even incredulous, at hearing that Cannon had come forward as a supporter of the Russian Opposition. The announcement came as a bombshell, not only to the opponents of his party faction but also to its supporters. There was nothing in the past position or conduct of the faction that offered the slightest advance indication of the announcement that its leader and two of his associates were to make on October 27, 1928. Indeed the indications were of a distinctly different kind. The very way in which the group was born is an example.

The Cannon faction came into existence in the CP as an independent group as a result of a split which it organized in 1925 in the Foster-Cannon group, which was by far the more healthy and proletarian of the two contending party factions. When Zinoviev, by an unprecedented cablegram from Moscow, robbed the Foster-Cannon faction of its legally-won majority at the party convention in order to turn the leadership over to the Lovestoneite minority, the rightly embittered Fosterites threatened a passive strike against Zinoviev’s outrage. Cannon thereupon split from the Fosterites, condemned them for “disloyalty to the Comintern” and even charged them with planning a “right-wing split” from the party. Those days and the three years of the party struggle that followed, including the part played in it by the Cannon faction, are like an unbelievable nightmare which a participant cannot recall with pride.

From its birth, the Cannon faction never had a distinguishing programme of its own, never played an independent role, never had a meaningful solution for the factionalism that incessantly corroded the party but whose roots it did not even begin to understand. If, as a small minority, it nevertheless had the support of a number of excellent militants, it won them not because of any of its virtues in principle or programme – in general it had none that anyone, its spokesmen included, could ever define – but because of the out-and-out vices that marked the leadership and program of the Foster and Lovestone factions. Its sole attractive power lay in the repulsive power of the others.

Having nothing or virtually nothing to offer the party in its own name, it was doomed to recommend itself to the party in the name of the others. Soon after its birth, it was completely federated with the Lovestoneites, and jointly with then sought to smash the Foster group on the grounds that it represented a low grade of “trade-union communists distinctly inferior to the “party communists” or “political communists” of the Lovestone faction. But before very long it created a new group out of a sordid alliance with disgruntled Lovestoneites like Weinstone, Ballam and for a moment Stachel – respectively a careerist, a cynic and plain scum.

The alliance began to place distance between itself and its confederates of yesterday, the Lovestone faction, when rumours came from Moscow that new winds were blowing, that Lovestone’s patron, Zinoviev, was finished, that a new star was looming who favoured decency, native leadership, worker-communists and simplicity in the Comintern parties and against “intellectuals” and “cablegram leaderships” (this star was Stalin!).

The more emphatically this grotesque rumour was repeated, the more energetic became the Cannon and Foster faction in “developing differences” with the Lovestoneites of a kind that they felt would place them in the most favourable position before the new star rising in Moscow. On the eve of the Sixth World Congress, the two factions were reunited against the Lovestoneites on a trumped-up “programme” of which around nine-tenths was political and economic rubbish.* But this re-unification meant far less than appeared. Emissaries of the American factions in Moscow and emissaries of the Moscow factions in the United States made it clear that whether Lovestone of Foster was recognized as the official Governor-general for the American party* the Cannon faction would carry no weight and would receive no recognition. No wonder Cannon refused to go to the Sixth Congress and consented to attend only when driven to it by his own faction.

It was obvious or it should have been that the Cannon faction had reached the end of its road in the party. It goes without saying that the prospect of supporting Trotsky was never so much as mentioned at formal or informal gatherings of the faction. Indeed it is not too much to say that of the three American factions, the Cannonites were generally marked out as those least interested or concerned with what was going on in the Russian party.

The best that can be said for us in those days is that while we automatically voted to “endorse the Old Guard” and “condemn Trotskyism” the dubious honours for the outstanding work of denouncing Trotskyism throughout the party ranks and in the party press went to Lovestoneites like Wolfe, Stachel and Olgin and Fosterites like Bittelman and Browder.

Far, then, from being “prepared by our past” for Trotskyism, we were no less startled by Cannon’s first (and of course exceedingly confidential) announcement of his support of the Russian Opposition than was the party as a whole when the three of us proclaimed that support to the Political Committee meeting at which we were expelled. I will never want, or be able, to forget the absolutely shattering effect upon my inexcusable indifference to the fight in the Russian party, upon my smug ignorance about the issues involved, upon my sense of shame, that was produced by the first reading of Trotsky’s classic Critique of the Draft Program of the Comintern. But to Cannon’s eternal credit he smuggled out of Moscow and illicitly circulated here among two or three of his personal and political friends the numbered copy, wretchedly translated and brutally excised critique which the Congress Secretariat had loaned to selected delegates with “read-and-return” instructions imperiously stamped on the top page. (What a regime, where Trotsky’s writings had to be smuggled out of the country the way revolutionists used to have to smuggle writings into the. Russia of the Tsars! What a party, where Trotsky’s writing had to be shown, furtively and only in the assured secrecy of a private dwelling by one Central Committee member to another!)

But neither can I forget the equally explosive effect the Critique had in lighting new horizons, in clarifying the problems of the revolutionary movement and pointing out new roads to tread in resolving them – horizons and roads, thoughts and perspectives, which the endless, pointless, unprincipled jungle-fighting of the American party factions had so completely obscured that one first-rate militant after another was poisoned by the lack of clean light and air of Marxist principles and Marxist thought, and rotted away to a Stalinist leprosy.

So long as there are classes, the class struggle is irrepressible. The formation of a scientific socialist movement – a complex process – is an inevitable product of the modern class struggle and so is its re-formation. The fight begun by Trotsky against the undermining of the Russian Revolution was unquestionably the most important step in the re-formation of the socialist movement since a handful of Marxists set about reconstituting the international socialist movement after its collapse in 1914.

The rise of the new, authentically socialist international was inevitable. When it began to take on flesh and blood in the form of the Communist International and the Communist Parties throughout the world, the inevitable very often asserted itself, then too, through the accidental. Many were the unexpected situations and the unexpected individuals who made the new movements growth possible. So it was a quarter of a century ago with us.

That Cannon should have decided in 1928, out of the clear blue, to support the Russian Opposition, was an accident, and the motives that prompted him have been the subject of all sorts of speculation in the past (some interesting; others preposterous), which it would be out of place to consider here. But it was a lucky accident for us. The Cannon faction in the CP was tiny but close-knit. Yet the majority of its leading militants and its supporters in the ranks did not follow Cannon in his adoption of the Trotskyist position, and most of them soon became the most delirious anti-Trotskyists. If a few of us (myself, Marty Abern, Rose Karsner, Tom O’Flaherty and then Arne Swabeck, Abert Gates, V.R. Dunne and Karl Skoglund) did become Trotskyists, it was thanks primarily to the fact that Trotsky’s views were sponsored by a party leader who enjoyed the prestige and authority that Cannon had in our eyes.

And if the Trotskyist movement in this country showed greater substance, stability, seriousness and tenacity than in many other lands, that, in turn, was thanks primarily to the fact that Trotsky’s views were popularized and defended by a basic cadre of communists experienced and known in many fields of activity and habituated to effective collaboration by years of common practice.

History would be mystical in nature, wrote Marx in 1871 if “accidents played no part in it.” That holds true in particular for the history of the revolutionary movement. Anyone in it with eyes in his head has seen Marx corroborated a hundred times over for any given period, “accidents” can play a decisive role in advancing or retarding it, “including the ‘accident’ of the character of the people who first stand at the head of the movement.” This sort of “accident” makes it possible to speak not only of the “Trotskyist movement in the United States” but also of an “American Trotskyism.” And without grasping what is signified by that, a good deal of the life of the Trotskyist movement in this country is bound to be incomprehensible and a very great deal that is instructive in it is bound to be lost.

The American Trotskyist movement was born with two distinct advantages. Trotsky’s views, at the end of five intensive years of struggle in the party, had had a chance to develop far more fully and clearly than they appeared to be in 1923 or even in 1926. Many who solidarized themselves with Trotsky in the earlier years were really under misapprehension about what he stood for in reality and in the long run; and as his views unfolded more extensively, they took their leave with the adequate excuse that they had not realized where they were going. Those who solidarized themselves with Trotsky in 1928 and afterward, had no such excuse and they never dreamed of invoking it – they knew where Trotsky stood and where they themselves stood and they joined him without political reservations. That was one advantage we had over every other Trotskyist group in the world, with the exception of the French. With them we shared another advantage, one that was derived from the acknowledged leader of the organization (at least for the time when Alfred Rosmer was its spokesman in France), in our case from Cannon. We have listened to many attempts to ignore or deny this fact but we never heard one of any merit.

Cannon gave the American Trotskyist movement a personal link with the preceding revolutionary movements and therewith helped to preserve the continuity of the movement, a factor disdained by the dilettante and inordinately worshipped by the bureaucrat but nevertheless regarded as highly important and precious by any responsible militant. Cannon was among the first in this country to become a firm champion of the Bolshevik Revolution; as one of the leaders of the left wing in the old Socialist Party he became a leading founder of the Communist Labor Party in 1919; he helped defeat the faction of professional illegalists who insisted on keeping the communist movement of this country in a sub-cellar; and became first national chairman of the party when it re-emerged as an open, legal organization in 1923. Even before the First World War, Cannon had already attained prominence among the younger militants of the International Workers of the World (IWW), being one of the adherents of Vincent St. John whom he almost succeeded in later years in winning to the communist ranks.

From the beginning of the movement, he was outstanding and steady in his insistence that the organization would never amount to much unless it oriented itself primarily and mainly toward the proletariat, unless it rooted itself strong and deep in the organized labour movement, unless it became itself an overwhelmingly proletarian movement. These ideas may be regarded as the most obvious commonplaces of the Marxist movement, and of little importance. But it must be remembered that as late as the 30s in this country, the commnunist movement never had more than scanty, isolated or haphazard contact with the broad labour movement and was to a large extent alien to it; and that the Trotskyist movement, except for estimable but incidental connections with parts of the labour movement, was completely isolated from it for many years. It should be borne in mind, further, that because we were so intensely concerned with profound theoretical problems and so preoccupied with “Russian” or “international” questions to the exclusion (whether real or apparent, is beside the point here) of “American” questions, we tended in the early days to attract mainly the younger people, students, intellectuals good and bad, very few workers, even fewer active trade unionists, still fewer trade unionists active in the basic and most important unions, but more than a few dilettantes, well-meaning blunderers, biological chatterboxes, ultra-radical oat-sowers, unattachable wanderers, and many other kinds of sociological curiosa.

Most of them made bivouac with us for a while, but not for too long. Of the movement, the best were those who completely assimilated the meaning of the proletarian character that the living and genuine socialist movement must have. If he sometimes injected an unjustified polemical or factional warp into his emphasis, it was nonetheless Cannon who was most persistent throughout the early, difficult years of isolation in imbuing all the serious people with an alertness to the need of a proletarianmovement; and on the whole he was likewise the most effective of us all.

These two advantages that the American Trotskyist movement drew out of its own midst, particularly from the leadership which founded it, were much more considerable than might appear to the passing observer. Yet, if it were not for the ideas and leadership of Trotsky himself, which were obviously the really decisive factors in maintaining the integrity and cohesiveness of the American movement, these advantages would long before now have been cancelled out by the disadvantages that stemmed from the same source.

Cannon received his first training in the revolutionary movement as an IWWer and in the better half of it, at that. But, as the final development of the IWW underscored with such tragic finality, its great and even glorious contributions to the advancement of the revolution in this country were undermined and finally destroyed by its negative aspects. Of these, no matter how understandable they are in the light of conditions of the times, there were not few. The most disastrous in the long run was its attitude toward revolutionary theory, ranging from indifference to derision to contemptuous hostility.

French syndicalist theory was skinny enough in its best day, but it was positively robust compared to what came out of the IWW. On the battlefields of the class war, the IWW was an exemplar of brotherhood, combativity, incorruptibility and uncompromising hatred of exploitation and injustice. But theoretically and politically, the IWW was simply a desert with only occasional and seldom-used oases which were not enough to sustain its life in the ripping crises of the World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. Like many European syndicalists and anarchists, some notable Wobblies found the basic dilemma of their movement resolved by the ideas that triumphed in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Comintern and many of them remained better revolutionists than scores of incorrigible social-democratic parliamentarians who hastily jumped on the new bandwagon.

Among the Wobblies who came over to the communist movement, men like Bill Haywood and George Andreychine were better known, but Cannon was nevertheless outstanding as a party man. So were the contributions he made to a movement which, above all in this country, was cursed at the outset by a predominance of elements alien to a proletarian movement, to a socialist movement, to an internationalist movement and even to an American movement. But while he left far behind him the prejudices which most Wobblies carried as their distinguishing badge, he did not (or could not) free himself in reality from the worst of them—that corroding contempt for theory.

The communist movement was not the IWW, and no leader could live long in it who expressed the same attitude toward scientific thinking and generalization which was so popular among Wobblies (including Wobbly demagogues, of whom there was a countable number). Everyone learned to repeat Lenin’s phrase “Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practice,” and Cannon learned it and repeated it as often and as devoutly as the next man. Unfortunately, that changed very little and most of the change was on the surface.

The American communist movement did not live in an atmosphere which encouraged Marxian thought beyond the assimilation of some of the basic ideas put forward by Lenin or popularized by Zinoviev. It encouraged instead the kind of fraudulent, unprincipled factional polemics that helped to destroy it eventually.

The Trotsky movement which succeeded it was radically different in this respect. It was compelled to start and for a long time to remain almost exclusively a movement passionately and earnestly devoted to a theoretical reconsideration of many basic suppositions, theoretical re-evaluations, theoretical criticism, clarity and preciseness, as the prerequisites of revolutionary political practice.

In this field Cannon was, to put it bluntly, helpless, much more so than had been so notoriously the case with him in the Communist Party. As his equipment in this field, he had a considerable quantity of commonplaces and truisms which he accumulated from his extensive experience and sparse studies in the revolutionary movement. They were not merely valuable, but indispensable, especially in a movement whose recruits included people with little or no experience or well-assimilated knowledge of many of its basic principles. To the untutored mind, a truism is a revelation indeed and one, moreover, that he needs more than he thinks.

But as the critical thinker – including the man of action, who has learned how greatly preliminary thought adds to the effectiveness and lasting value of his action – passes beyond the ABCs and the simple formulae for simple situations, and confronts more complex political problems, more intricate social relations and conflicts, he feels more acutely the importance and power of Marxian theory.

These are situations and problems for which “common sense” (as Marx used to call it derisively) and “sound intuition” are inadequate at best and unreliable as a rule. In the Trotskyist movement in particular, very few people could be impressed by a solemniferous repetition of Lenin’s famous phrase. From their leaders they expected more than the sonorous phrase, and even more than an ability to repeat the theoretical propositions so brilliantly put forward by Trotsky. They expected their leaders to show a respect for Marxian theory that would be manifested in a knowledge of its historical development and an ability to employ that knowledge in dealing with problems of the day. Cannon had neither the knowledge nor the ability, as was known to all his old friends and critics, but above all to himself; and it did not take a new recruit many years in the movement to become painfully aware of this grave, if not fatal, defect in the leader of a Marxian revolutionary movement.

As the movement grew, so grew also the number of comrades who realized that the most prominent leader of their organization could go from year to year (to date, the record covers twenty-five unbroken years) without writing a single article on any question of Marxism, on any vital theoretical problem of the movement, historical or contemporary, on any question of international politics or even, for that matter, on any vital question of American politics.

There are some articles in which some of these questions are dealt with and disposed of by quoting or paraphrasing what Trotsky wrote; there are some agitational articles against capitalism, Stalinism, or reformism; there are many, many articles or speeches on factional fighting – and that is all. If some of it rises above the trivial, none of it bursts out of the commonplace by design.

The ideas that Cannon accumulated in the movement were not only enough but more than enough to enable him to explode the position of any defender of capitalist exploitation or politics, any apologist for Stalinism, any spokesman for class collaboration. But in any debate in the party over questions that directly involved Marxian theory and politics, his performance, where it was not banal, could only create the embarrassment that it did, not only among older comrades, but, alas, among many younger ones as well.

Extremely conscious of this shortcoming, and just as sensitive to the awareness of it in others, Cannon choked off the potential for political development in literally dozens of comrades who came under his influence by instilling in them a disdainful attitude toward “theory” and “theorizers” and “intellectuals” in general. His insistence on a proletarian orientation for the movement – so incontestably right in and of itself, now as much as at the beginning – was subverted to the denigration of “theorizers” and people “abnormally” concerned with analysing political and theoretical problems.

As a result he raised up, by and large, factional adherents to a cult of pseudo-proletarian ignorance, instead of earnest revolutionists anxious to suck as much scientific knowledge and understanding as they can out of the riches available in the movement in order to make themselves increasingly free from enforced reliance upon authority. The kind of leadership that he produced in this image and the kind of education it gave to the organization is practically without precedent in the Marxian movement and, in one harsh word, is a disgrace to its traditions.

While Trotsky was alive, the vast esteem in which he was held by the movement made it possible for him to exert a counteracting influence so great that it heavily mitigated the baleful effects of Cannon’s leadership. lt was thanks to Trotsky’s efforts that a small but precious generation of militants was trained in an understanding and respect for the achievements of socialist thought, a knowledge of its history and traditions, a realization of the innate shortcomings of that unique American brand of vulgar practicalism which, however it is explained in the light of the historical development of the country, is nevertheless the curse of the radical and labour movements.

With very few exceptions, the intimate followers of Cannon never played more than a passive role in sustaining Trotsky’s efforts in this respect. Cannon himself played as good as no role at all. It is hard to believe that of the leader of the American Trotskyist movement – now the officially crowned leader of something called “orthodox Trotskyism” – but it is true.

Cannon liked to repeat again and again to his cronies and to young comrades who came under his fleeting influence that “In politics I am a Trotskyist; but in organizational questions I am a Leninist.” It was his way of saying that he left all the big political and theoretical questions to Trotsky, provided he remained in control of the organization (Lenin’s “organizational principles” he understood solely in the form in which they were transcribed and taught to him in the Communist Party by Zinoviev, who had infinitely more in common in this field with Stalin than with the real Lenin; and to this day Cannon does not clearly know the difference between Zinoviev and Lenin).

So it was, on the whole, Cannon never showed more than the most nominal interest in the tremendous work done in this country, by myself in particular, to select, translate, edit and publish the theoretical, polemical and political works of Trotsky.

The New International was founded against Cannon’s opposition and maintained year in year out against his indifference. He never showed any interest in its work and development and of course practically never wrote for it. If questions of theoretical – or historical importance or of wider political importance and value interest him, he has not allowed himself to be carried off by them. His concern has always been: questions of trade union tactics and manoeuvre, inner-party and factional manipulations, questions of leadership, above all the prestige and control of the leadership.

Trotsky always refused to support the complaints against Cannon that were made repeatedly by comrades who enumerated not only his theoretical and political shortcomings but his bureaucratic regime inside the organization. There is ample reason to believe that Trotsky had few illusions about Cannon on either score.

With regard to the first complaint, he used to repeat to the critical and often embittered comrades that he would not support any struggle against Cannon’s leadership on such grounds. To some of them he would add, as discreetly as possible, that Cannon was not to be attacked but, within certain limits, supported. As he indicated to some of the critics, it was necessary to understand that Cannon was a product of the American labour and revolutionary movements as they have developed in their own social and historical environment; that if he had some of the shortcomings of these movements he also had their virtue; and that he would be superseded by a superior leadership not as a result of a factional fight in which opponents would win a numerical majority, but only when the advancement of the class struggle in the United States would lift the proletariat to a higher level and lift out of itself leaders who in turn stood on a higher level. These views, carefully reflected in some of his writings on the factional struggles in the American movement, were rather objective but somewhat philosophical.

With regard to the other complaint, he was less philosophical, because he had fewer illusions. He understood that Cannon was not only a product of the American working class (and in an even wider sense, of the American type of politics – that is, American bourgeois politics), but also a product of the Comintern of Zinoviev’s days. This eminent and tragic figure was not only a highly successful popularizer of Lenin’s ideas but also a highly successful distorter of them. He taught a whole generation of communists some of the fundamental ideas of modern Marxism whose validity remains essentially intact today. But he also mistaught and ruined most of that generation, some only in part and others completely. More than any other individual, he poisoned the Comintern’s life with methods, procedures, and party conceptions that contributed heavily to the eventual triumph of Stalinism.

What Cannon learned about Lenin’s conceptions of the role of the party, of the party cadre, of the party leadership, of party democracy, he learned not from Lenin but, like virtually all the Communist Party leaders of his time, from Zinoviev, that is, from the ridiculous caricature of Lenin’s ideas and traditions that flowered in the disastrous days of Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” campaign.

In the American Communist Party, Cannon was one of the first and most ardent champions of that ill-begotten, ill-fated, anti-Bolshevik “Bolshevization.” To this day, he acts no better; worst of all is the fact that he does not even know that better exists and that Zinoviev’s campaign was a forgery and a calamity from start to finish, from purpose to consequence. Trotsky did know it, however.

In the course of the very first factional struggle which Cannon precipitated. in the Trotskyist organization here, Trotsky found himself impelled to write to us that he could not fail to see in it the methods and traditions of Zinovievism. It was a gentle and restrained rebuke to Cannon, but its meaning was unequivocal.

It is doubtful if Cannon has grasped its real import to this day. In any case, his conduct in a whole series of factional struggles does not betray any awareness of it on his part. He suffers, as he always did, from that Zinovievist evil which endeavors to solve significant political differences and conflicts primarily by organizational means and preferably by ruthless splits – to say nothing of half a dozen other evils which helped to make up the name of Zinovievism in the history of the movement. In some of Cannon’s own speeches can be found instance after instance of how Trotsky, aware of the Comintern schooI that had produced Cannon, tried as diplomatically and pedagogically as possible to induce Cannon to follow a democratic and reasonable course in a factional situation or in the organization of the internal life of the party, rather than the bureaucratic and surgical methods toward which Cannon turned almost spontaneously.

Fortunately, Trotsky was often successful, even if he was not right in every instance. However that may be, Cannon has not had to suffer from this sort of intervention for many years. The utterly bureaucratic regime that he has succeeded in establishing in his organization – up to and including the idolatrous burning of incense to The Leader in the Party press, to say nothing of party-sponsored public birthday banquets to various leaders (the mere thought of which is like a cathartic to a self-respecting socialist) – is of a piece with the utter theoretical, political and, in general, intellectual aridity which reigns there.

While Trotksy was alive, it was, after all, his ideas which prevailed and they were the ones that fertilized and fructified the movement. But even in the last political conflict inside the movement, he involuntarily gave us an adequate glimpse of his real appraisal of the Cannonite leadership. That was the conflict produced in 1939 by the war crisis. Even though our own position (that of the minority combination) was not clearly thought out or, at any rate, fully developed, we were not only on the right path but were already politically sound enough to shatter the traditional position of the Troskyist movement which the Cannonite leadership tried to defend (namely, Russia is a degenerated workers’ state and must be unconditionally defended in the war). The word “shatter” is used deliberately and without a trace of boastfulness or exaggeration.

In the debate that opened up on the “Russian question,” the position of the Cannonites was so hopeless that their leader, after one or two incredible speeches, withdrew completely from participation in the discussion on that question and settled down instead to the factional task of organizing the mass expulsion of the minority and therewith the split. Trotsky’s intervention in the conflict was, so far as I can recall, absolutely without parallel in the history of the international leadership of the Marxist movement.

World leaders like Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky himself had intervened more than once in the disputes of this or that national section of the movement, for it was their right and duty to express their opinions and to seek to influence the outcome. But never before in such a way and on such a scale as did Trotsky in the SWP in 1939-1940.

Virtually from the first day of the fight to the day of the final break, he took over completely the conduct and direction of the fight against the minority in every respect and in every particular, from the decisive political question itself down to the most trivial detail. He brought to bear every ounce of his knowledge, his experience, his polemical talent, his esteemed authority, to gain support for his views. The official party leadership, the majority, the Cannonites, were simply relieved of all initiative, all enterprise and at bottom all responsibility in the discussion – just as if they simply did not exist. That they were not overcome with a sense of humiliation was itself a sad sign.

Every document we put out was immediately subjected to a counter-document by Trotsky, who rushed in immediately as if he feared what the party leadership would say in reply to us if left to its own resources. This went so far that Trotsky found it necessary to mail one of his documents against us directly to all the party branches throughout the country, without waiting to have it sent out in the normal way, that is, through the national office of the organization. Down to the sorriest organizational minutiae, Trotsky substituted himself completely for the leadership he supported. The Cannonites became a mimeographing machine for Trotsky’s articles and letters. They had nothing whatever of their own to say in the debate except to parrot mechanically what was written in Trotsky’s latest polemic, whether they understood it or not.

In no internal dispute in the Trotskyist movement had Trotsky ever before found himself impelled to go to such incredible extremes in his intervention. He always had enough confidence in the group he supported to allow it independent initiative and responsibility in a fight. In 1939, the detailed and, one might say, the desperately anxious way he intervened could only show he had no confidence at all in the ability of the Cannonites to conduct the political or even the organizational fight.

The role he took upon himself in that struggle (regardless for the moment of who was right or wrong in the issues at stake) constituted an absolutely annihilating judgment against the qualities of the Cannonites as party leaders in a serious crisis. Even worse, if that were possible, were the gratitude and glee that the Cannonite leaders displayed in having thus been released by Trotsky from the responsibilities (to say nothing of the dignity) of leadership. Cannon left the discussion to the Old Man and ourselves, and concentrated his talents upon getting rid of annoying critics by organizing the split, that is, the outcome that Trotsky was at the same time trying his best, by means of exerting pressure on both sides, to avert (“in politics I am a Trotskyist; but in organizational questions I am a Leninist”).

The outcome of that conflict marks the broad dividing line in the development of the Trotskyist movement all over the world. It only emphasized the damning judgement which Trotsky’s very support of the Cannonites pronounced against them. Despite the comparative weakness of our own undeveloped position; despite the power with which long tradition invested the official position; despite the long-standing prestige which Cannon enjoyed, generally speaking, in the party and above and beyond all other considerations, despite the unprecedented authority which Trotsky rightfully had throughout the movement and which he used to the full in the debate – the Cannonites skinned through at the concluding convention with a bare formal majority, that is, a slight majority of the voting party membership, but a minority if the votes of both the party and the youth organizations were counted. (Among the youth, it is significant to note, Cannon had practically no support at all, either then, before or since.) The victory was truly Pyrrhic. Actually it was a resounding repudiation of Cannon. Everyone was aware of this: if Trotsky had not intervened the way he did, or if he had not been in a position to intervene at all, the Cannonites, on their own, would have been routed and overwhelmed beyond recovery. If that was not the case, it is Trotsky and only Trotsky they have to thank. By the same token, it is Trotsky who must bear his share of the responsibility for the subsequent evolution of the movement he inspired and led.

His share, however, should not be exaggerated. Despite some external appearances to the contrary, there was a basic difference between the current in the socialist movement most brilliantly and consistently represented by Trotsky during his lifetime, and the current represented more or less consistently by the present “orthodox Trotskyists.”

Of the latter, Trotsky might well say now, paraphrasing the sardonically bitter words Marx used to describe some French “orthodox Marxists” of his time, “I sowed dragon’s teeth and reaped Cannonites.” For the latter represent a current which, while allied with Trotskyism for some time, was essentially inimical to it and distorted its development.

In this country it can be characterized as a variety of Zinovievism, infused with scattered elements of Trotskyism and with heavy doses of the specifically American contempt for theory and equally American admiration for the concept and practice of the “party boss” or its equivalent in the labour movement, the “trade-union boss.”

If this current – contrary to Trotsky’s wishes and urgings – found it impossible to tolerate us Marxists in the same organization but instead expelled us en masse in a way that would evoke the admiration of any Stalinist; and if it found it impossible years later to consummate re-unification with us – that cannot be explained away as accidental. We represent indeed two different currents.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 20 February 2019