Mary Scully

Tribute to James P. Cannon

At the 50th Anniversary of the Founding of the Fourth Anniversary 1988

Delivered: At the 50th Anniversary of the Founding of the Fourth Anniversary 1988
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line in 2006

I don’t think we can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fourth International in this country without tipping our hats to the very special contributions of James P. Cannon. The part he played in the development of American Trotskyism and the FI was pivotal. Most of that history is unpublished, however and so, for most revolutionists he will be respected and known best for what he liked doing the most: being an agitator and soap-boxer for socialism.

I’m in the company of people like George Weissman, George Breitman, and Frank Lovell so I’m not shy when I say that Cannon ranks as one of the few great American Marxists. It’s true he’s not among the best known (Debs, DeLeon) but he is certainly the one that revolutionists, young and old, veterans and new recruits, can learn the most from.

From my own reading of Cannon, I am convinced that when the American socialist revolution is finally made, the revolutionary workers leading it will be schooled in Marxism through his writings, as well as Marx, Lenin, Engels, and Trotsky. They’ll have him in their back pockets. It is to workers that Cannon is speaking. That’s why he is often unappreciated. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone with flashy talk. He was trying to make Marxist ideas available to workers—and in the process he created the finest Marxist literature written in this country. And I might add, also a lot of good laughs!

I think my experience with Cannon is pretty typical. As a young woman 20 years ago, I was fed up with all the violence of capitalist society and decided I was a socialist. But I wanted no part of this revolutionary stuff. I was against violence. When I tried to get some satisfactory answers out of the super-revolutionary hot shots that were all over the place in those days, all I got was the “pick-up-the-gun” bravado. I’m a sensible woman and that kind of empty talk only confirmed my opposition to revolution. A young Arab I worked with in Palestinian defense work gave me a copy of Socialism on Trial by Cannon. Does anyone remember the answer Cannon gave to the question on violence and revolution? I was stunned. It simply knocked me off my feet. It was the answer I was looking for and it changed my life.

It’s from further reading and rereading of Cannon that I learned what internationalism means, and why it’s so important, why the Russian Revolution is so central, why Leninism and party building are necessary, how a party learns from the past and from it’s own mistakes, and on and on.

But there’s something else about Cannon’s writings—and you know, it’s what I like best about him: that is, the pugnacious and revolutionary spirit of this man which gives his writings such force. He never lost his boyhood zeal for socialism or his conviction the American working class was someday going to make a revolution. Cynicism was not his cup of tea! On his 60th birthday he said: “In my youth I saw the vision of a new world and I have never lost it. I came out of Rosedale, Kansas 40 years ago looking for truth and justice. I’m still looking, and I won’t give one-percent discount.”

Cannon was not a kid when he was thrown out of the Communist Party (CP) for embracing the opposition led by Leon Trotsky. He was 40 years old. He was in the top echelons of the CP leadership and by siding with Trotsky he destroyed his career. If he had been able to turn his back and play “Mickey the Dunce” with politics he could have “gone places”, as they say. He could have been somebody: gone to parties in the Kremlin, even ended up like Gus Hall!

But Cannon was better than that; he was made of better stuff. He was not a careerist. He didn’t want a swivel chair in a big office; he didn’t want to walk around like a big shot, smoking Cuban cigars and giving windy speeches. Cannon wanted socialism.

The Left Opposition wasn’t thrown out on their ear because they had a new program. They wanted to fight for, and with, the old program of revolutionary socialism that had been abandoned by the Stalinist CP.

The first things they did when they got bounced from the CP were the first things every revolutionary current does: they started putting out a newspaper and they started looking for international allies they could collaborate with. This was the Depression Era, remember, and some people in this tiny little group didn’t even have jobs.

The only way for this tiny group to carry out their big ideas was to get brassy and confidently appeal to the highest motives and ideals in others. We don’t know the full scoop but in Cannon and others writings we get a little picture of how that early movement financed itself.

In Max Eastman’s memoirs, he relates how soon after the Left Opposition was bounced, he got a phone call from Cannon. “Hi Max, this is your old friend Jim Cannon!” They had a friendly chat, Cannon was a pretty persuasive guy, and by the end of it Cannon had talked Eastman out of the royalties from the Trotsky books in order to finance The Militant newspaper. Even when Eastman became anti-communist, his contribution to the revolutionary movement endured!

Cannon describes the story I get the biggest kick out of. International collaboration and consultation was a priority and when Trotsky was finally exiled to Turkey, the Left Opposition wanted to send Arne Swabeck over to talk with him. Cannon spent several weeks trying to raise the dough. They needed $150. The Minneapolis people here today will be glad to know that your branch came through with a good share of the money. Anyway they got Swabeck over there, and the collaboration and discussions with Trotsky turned out to be quite significant for the development of the group here. But now it was time to bring Swabeck back. Cannon was in a real pickle because after he raised $75 of the fare, he had to spend it on something else—so Swabeck was left foraging for food somewhere in Europe while Cannon and Rose Karsner beat their brains out trying to get the return fare.

I don’t want the international guests here tonight to worry. We’ll get you back. We have every intention. We’re just not sure when. What cost $150 sixty years ago cost almost $6000 today. We’re still a small group with big ideas and we still think get-togethers like this between American and international Trotskyists are a revolutionary priority.

One very revealing things about Cannon’s fund raising appeals is his confidence that comrades would come through with the contributions they could not afford. Sarah Lovell told me I shouldn’t tell you this stuff, that it was too heavy and depressing. Okay so I won’t tell you that some mortgaged their homes, or how Cannon ate potato soup every night.

I think that along with tipping our hats to James P. Cannon we ought to tip our hats to those comrades here tonight who came up with that money. They gave 60 years ago and they’re still giving. Many of them donated the seed money we needed to carry off this event to celebrate the anniversary of the Fourth International. We need to ask the rest of you to help in getting our international comrades back home.