Albert Gates [Albert Glotzer], James P. Cannon as Historian, The New International, Vol. XI, No. 7, October 1945, pp. 207–212.
This article can also be found here.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
This work will not rely in any degree upon personal recollection. The circumstance that the author was a participant in the events does not free him from the obligation to base his exposition upon strictly verified documents. The author speaks of himself, in so far as that is demanded by the course of events, in the third person. And that is not mere literary form; the subjective tone, inevitable in autobiographies or memoirs, is not permissible in a work of history.
Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution.
In the light of the above what is one to say about James P. Cannon’s, The History of American Trotskyism?  It violates Trotsky’s whole method of historical writing, i.e., the Marxist method. The book would be bad enough if it were presented as memoirs or autobiography. But as history it is almost worthless. Had the head of the Socialist Workers Party written his memoirs, a review of his book would have to take that into account in surveying critically a series of anecdotes which are highly personalized and subjective. One could show where they were factually or interpretatively wrong and dismiss the rest as opinions of the author and the book as the product of particular views which the author held.
Since the book is presented as a history such a conclusion is out of place. The author has a totally different responsibility for his work. As a history, Cannon’s book is shallow, totally devoid of ideas, of theory and the politics which flow from it. The only politics which concern Cannon are inner-party, factional politics.
There is hardly a page in the book which does not contain a false reference, a partial fact, an incomplete tale, a conspicuous omission or direct misrepresentation. Coupled with these is a complete lack of objectivity and historical grasp.
The most important objections to the book relate to its omissions. These are of such magnitude as to condemn the author for the butchery he committed to a theme which is so rich and instructive. Cannon replaces ideas and theory with platitudes, clichés and homilies which make wearisome reading. He replaces analysis and history with disconnected but selected events in which the author plays the role of hero against opponents who are all villains.
A reading of the book will make it immediately obvious why it is impossible to review it in the ordinary sense of a book review. A whole book is required to reply to this misrepresentation of the history of Trotskyism in America. But it is necessary to indicate more precisely what is wrong with Cannon’s work. And we shall do this in several ways. It is important first, however, to understand something about the author in order to understand why he wrote this kind of history.
Cannon entered the workers’ movement when he was quite young. He was a member of the pre-war Socialist Party; the IWW, a founder of the Communist Party and one of its early leaders. He immediately revealed a distinctly revolutionary temper and desire. His interest and understanding of theory aside, Cannon was one of the pioneers of the revolutionary Communist movement in this country. Cannon exhibited an easy talent for leadership and a deftness at inner-party politics. This he joined with good native instinct and experience. In the infant days of the Communist movement, these qualities enabled him to rise to the top leadership of a growing party.
Cannon’s knowledge of revolutionary theory and history is primitive and cursory. Of and by itself, this is fatal in one so anxious to be acknowledged as the leader of the Fourth International, the inheritor of the role of Trotsky. When it appears in combination with a deep-rooted antipathy to theoretical study, a “know-nothing” attitude toward history and politics, it is extremely dangerous. Inside the movement, it takes the form of open and covert attacks on people who are interested in theory and who realize that without proper theoretical training and understanding, it is impossible to build a revolutionary party.
Cannon covers up his attacks on theory and study with slashing indictments of “intellectualism,” that paralyzing form of dilettantism which very often makes its appearance in the movement. The movement sometimes attracts intellectuals who have no solid interests in the program of the Party but who find membership in the revolutionary party a form of intellectual exercise. When Cannon attacks such elements it is, of course, impossible to disagree with him. But behind these attacks against intellectualism, he always wages a campaign against serious intellectuals capable of giving inestimable service to the movement.
Even more important than this, his attacks on “intellectualism” often cover up his attacks on ideas and theory and those who champion them inside the party. In so doing, Cannon, by his role and place in the movement, raises ignorance to a high plane and feeds the most backward prejudices against theory and theoretical pursuits. No wonder that at the 1939 convention of the Socialist Workers Party, one of Cannon’s most trusted aides made a speech in which he demanded that the theoretical organ of the party, The New International, be abandoned because it was of no interest or value to the workers in the party and the working class in general. That this speech went unrebuked by the leader of the party is not accidental. It was widely known by many party members that Cannon had little or no interest in the theoretical press.
These characteristics of the author are not recently acquired. They were present from the days when he was a leader in the Communist movement. There too, Cannon became known as an “expert” in factional conflict, inner-party politics. The “organization question” always held a fascination for him. It was so much like politics in America in general and it offered him a field of activity to compensate for his disqualification from more important fields of revolutionary thought. In the long run, Cannon’s adeptness at organization politics has always proved his undoing. He was trained in the wrong school, the Zinovievist-Stalinist school of organization.
Time alone has served to smother the fact that Cannon was one of the exponents of “Bolshevization” in the American movement – that corroding and degenerating influence on the Communist International. The “Bolshevization” of the Comintern was the means by which the whole International was bureaucratized. The parties lost their independence of thought and action; they became dominated by the ruling group in the Russian party. It was the product of Zinoviev’s fertile imagination, cunningly assisted by Stalin. It later served to hasten the downfall of Zinoviev as party after party was drawn into the net of an organizational system which bureaucratically subordinated them to the Stalin regime in Russia.
Cannon became known as the “captain of Bolshevization” in this country, just as in other countries the reporters and advocates of this theory and practice were to become known. The “Bolshevization” theory merely paid lip-service to Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism. The essential idea of the “Bolshevization” program was the creation of “monolithic parties,” without factions and disputes – that is, without life. Bolshevism as a great theory and practice was reduced to a simple system. The young Communist parties came to learn now that Bolshevism did not mean essentially correct theory and practice, but “toughness,” rigidity, inflexibility – in a word, bureaucratism.
In October, 1924, Cannon made a report to the New York Workers’ School on The Bolshevization of the Party. He was then heralding the decisions of the 5th Congress of the Comintern, sometimes called “Zinoviev’s congress.” Referring to the question of Bolshevization, Cannon said:
A particularly dangerous form of confusion and irresponsibility, which we must conquer by frontal attack without delay, is the formal and even frivolous attitude which is sometimes manifested in regard to the relations of our party and our party members to the Communist International. We hear the Bolshevization of the party spoken of here and there as though it were a joke, not to be taken seriously. The very utterance of such a sentiment is in itself an evidence of theoretical weakness ... The very fact that any party members are able to regard the slogan of the Fifth Congress as a joke is a great proof of the need for this slogan in our party.
And what is this most important decision of the Fifth Congress? It relates to the Bolshevization of the party in this respect, which Cannon quotes approvingly:
It [a Bolshevik party] must be a centralized party, prohibiting factions, tendencies and groups. It must be a monolithic party hewn of one piece.
It would, of course, be unfair to say that Cannon subscribes openly to this theory and practice today. But it remains true that he was educated in this school, became saturated with its ideas and its practices and has never fully thrown off their detrimental influence. In one form or another, the Trotskyist movement, from its founding days, has had to struggle against Cannon’s bureaucratic organizational practices which resemble so strongly those of the Zinovievist-Stalinist school. It is, for example, one of the strongest factors in the present struggle now taking place in the Socialist Workers Party.
With these preliminary observations, it is easier to understand how Cannon came to write this kind of history. But one other element is missing: it is Cannon’s concept of his own role in the movement and his evolution toward Trotskyism and in the Trotskyist movement. We refer to the not-so-celebrated “gestation” theory Cannon propounded during the early factional struggles in the Communist League in which he developed the theme that, since “there are no accidents in history,” his emergence as a Trotskyist and as founder of the Trotskyist movement was logically necessary and inevitable. Needless to say, this theory was rejected by the Communist League in 1930, ’31 and ’32, but Cannon has never given it up nor his determination to dominate bureaucratically the affairs of his party.
We have no doubt that in the SWP of today, the “gestation” theory is accepted in fact as one of the great contributions to Marxism, when as a matter of fact, it is merely the theoretical justification for Cannon’s leadership under any and all or circumstances.
Cannon’s chapter devoted to the great historical period after the First World War, when Communist parties emerged all over the world, is shallow. Here his lack of accumulated knowledge and an inability to carry out indispensable research has resulted in a completely jammed-up picture of those days, just as every other important stage of development in the history of American Marxism is jammed-up. What is now “telescoped” in the book, and which takes many pages, is the anecdotes, the platitudes and the clichés.
Certain events in the early history are accurately portrayed and the general problem of the young Communist Party are, correctly stated. They give an inkling of deadening effect of the protracted factional struggles which paralyzed the party. But an objective analysis of the great issues of the time is missing. As in all other chapters, the theoretical and political questions are not even referred to. Obviously, Cannon ht never made a full estimate of the period which so heavily influenced his own thinking and practices.
He speaks of the early struggles against the right wing group of Ruthenberg and Lovestone. It was, without doubt, progressive struggle on the whole. Until the end of 1923 this struggle was decided on the basis of the respective strengths of the Foster-Cannon faction and that Ruthenberg-Lovestone. Relations with the Communist International were then still primarily political. The struggle against Trotskyism had only begun and the transformation of the Comintern into an instrument of the Zinovievist-Stalinist bloc was still incomplete.
In 1924, however, a great change had taken place. From then on the lives of the parties in the Comintern were completely controlled by the Kremlin bureaucracy. Leaderships and policies were determined in Moscow and very often by the mere transmission of a cablegram. The American party was no exception, and one of the leaders of party expressed it accurately when he said that the party was “suspended by cables from Moscow.” The Foster-Cannon leadership was itself removed by a cabal at a convention where it had the support of the overwhelming majority of the delegates and the party membership. This did not end the factional struggles in the American party. They continued to be fought more sharply. But henceforth, no matter what the relationship of strength was between the factions, the leadership of the party was determined by the Kremlin. Except that where there had been two groups contending for the leadership of the party, after the transference of this leadership to Ruthenberg, there were now three.
Cannon makes note of this change in the factional line-up but he deliberately avoids the explanation of how it came to pass that the Foster-Cannon group split immediately after the Comintern decision which handed over the leadership of the CP to the right wing. He must evade this question because it conflicts with other things he writes about his role in the CP, and his theory of gestation.
How does Cannon explain his split with Foster? Well, the Foster group was made up primarily of trade unionists, people unschooled in Marxism and Bolshevik politics. The Cannon group was more a pioneer Communist group with a stronger Communist tradition. In a way, this is true. But during those stormy days Cannon justified the faction because in the party it represented the fusion of the Communist elements with native American revolutionary trade unionists. The fusion of these two basic elements which made up the Communist movement was necessary to the future development of the party.
By purely objective reasons, Cannon’s explanation of the split is a mystery. He cites the difference in character between the two elements of the faction and then abruptly says that this “implicit division became a formal one.” And that is all. Cannon passes on to other matters.
But the split in the Foster-Cannon group occurred over the attitude to be taken to the bureaucratic action of the Comintern (Zinoviev-Stalin bloc) in turning the leadership of the party over to the right wing and doing so in defiance of the will of the party membership and a convention of the party. For all its primitiveness and backwardness, the Foster group’s reaction was healthy. It said: We will not accept the decision, but fight it.
Cannon thereupon split, not the party, but the faction. Cannon personally played the leading role in the fight to have the decision accepted. “You cannot fight the Comintern,” he thundered at the Foster group. His fight was so determined that he finally broke down the resistance of the Fosterites who, in turn, gave in to the persistent pounding of one of their ex-leaders.
Is Cannon to be condemned for having played a role which, when reviewed in the light of history, was wrong, but which at that time he could not have fully understood for a number of good reasons? No. But then he owes it to the movement to tell the truth about that period now when all the facts are known not only to him but an entire new generation of revolutionaries who did not live through the old days. This marked the beginning of the great degeneration of the Comintern and the American movement. Yet Cannon, in the role of myth-creator, cannot tell the whole truth about it lest it reflect upon past, present or future glory.
The story of the CP from that point until the expulsion of the Left Opposition is hastily sketched. Some of it is accurate, other parts are suspect. The factional struggle continued unabated. The split in the Foster-Cannon group was repaired by the final establishment of a new bloc against Lovestone who had taken over the leadership of the party following Ruthenberg’s death. Prior to the reestablishment of the bloc, the Cannon group had made a short-lived but intimate bloc with Lovestone, and then another with dissident elements of the Lovestone group. The great problem in the party always remained: how to get rid of the deadening leadership of the right wing. It could never be effected even with a majority because the “Comintern would not permit it.”
It became clear to all the factions that the way to change the leadership and policies of the party was by courting the “proper people” in Moscow. That meant continued rivalry and mad dashes to Moscow by the leaders of contending factions. There was obviously something wrong in Moscow. All the groups felt that way. What it was, namely, the struggle against Trotskyism and the rise to power of Stalinism, none of them knew fully and some not all, neither Lovestone, Foster, nor Cannon.
By implication, Cannon would now have us believe that in those years of 1925, 1926 and 1927, he was gradually moving toward an acceptance of Trotskyism. In describing some attack of the Comintern upon him for reasons which he could not understand, Cannon writes: “They must have suspected something.” What? Perhaps Cannon was reading Trotsky’s writings and talking about them in the Party? Perhaps he was developing views approximating those of Trotsky? No, he cannot say these things because too many people know otherwise, knew that he was ignorant about the fight in the Russian party and cared even less. And when he adds that the Comintern: “... went far out of their way to take cracks at me ...”, he is merely “suggesting” a legend.
On another page he describes how he came across the 1926 Left Opposition document on the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee and favored its position. How? Was it publicly manifested? Did he present his views to his faction? Or, is this an afterthought which occurred in the writing of this book? No one in the party knew of this “opinion”; more important, none of his intimates in the faction was aware that Cannon had any thoughts whatever on Trotsky, the Left Opposition, or the International. As far back as in the CP Cannon’s “international” interest was the subject of humor.
By 1928, however, Cannon was completely fed up in the CP. He wanted to get away, he said, to get “a bath in the mass movement.” So he went on a speaking tour for the International Labor Defense. He went, he added, because he wanted to “think out ... the Russian question which troubled me more than anything else.” So far as was known then, the only thing that troubled Cannon and which had anything to do with the Russian question was how to get the Russians to stop supporting Lovestone. If he had any ideas about Trotsky and the Left Opposition, they were kept completely secret from the party, from his faction and from his most intimate collaborators. But, if Cannon did go on the tour to think out the Russian question, nobody was ever informed what it was he had thought out.
As a matter of fact, the leaders of the American party and the party as a whole were completely divorced from the politics of the Kremlin. They were really political neophytes. The struggle against Trotsky was to them quite remote and never to be taken too seriously. Certainly no one then believed that Trotsky would be expelled from the Russian CP and subsequently deported from the country where he had helped to make the revolution. Nor did the American leaders understand the international ramifications of that struggle. They were completely absorbed in their own factional conflict and what troubled them was the solution to this fight rather than the struggle against Trotsky.
The struggle against Trotskyism in this country took the form of “enlightenment campaigns” initiated in Moscow and carried out by the factions in an effort to show the Comintern bosses which was the more loyal faction and worthy of Moscow’s support. The individuals in the Cannon group did less than those of the other factions in these “educational campaigns, as they were also called, but they participated too.
The real truth about Cannon’s role in those days was that he had lost all heart for the struggle. He had no wish to continue it further. He even refused to go to the Sixth Congress and it was only after the most persistent urging by the faction leaders that Cannon agreed to go to Moscow. His position was that the whole business was hopeless and a waste of time. But if he had any thoughts about Trotsky before his departure to the Sixth Congress in 1928, this too was unknown to anyone in the faction.
There has been a great deal of speculation on how or why Cannon became a Trotskyist. To us, this of no fundamental importance. Whether he discovered Trotskyism in Moscow for the first time, or whether he had secret views on it before he left in no way invalidates the fact that he was the first in this country to accept the views of Trotsky and was the individual responsible for the establishment of a Trotskyist movement in America. This much is history already and for that alone, if not for his role in the CP, Cannon has earned his place in the history of the Marxist movement of America. What is objectionable, as objectionable as the speculations of those who wonder why and how he did it, is the attempt to create a legend about something which is really not mysterious, in order to strengthen a theory which is utterly false and contains dangerous implications.
We come now to the actual formation of a Trotskyist organization in America. It was necessary to deal at some length on the antecedent period in the Communist Party because those events led directly to the subsequent emergence of a Trotskyist group in this country and because they shed light on Cannon’s background, his activities and his outlook. These had an important influence on the events of the future.
The most important period in the history of American Trotskyism is the worst part of Cannon’s book. The period between the wave of expulsions in the CP and the formation of the Communist League of America at its May 1929 conference in Chicago is dealt with adequately for a book of this type. But the actual formation of the Communist League, which was indeed a historic day, since it marked the organization of the Trotskyists in this country, is dealt with in less than two and half pages! The conference was of enormous significance. It gathered the scattered elements throughout the country, welded them into an organization, adopted a program which was based on a Marxist estimate of the world situation, elected a National Committee, made a decision to issue a weekly Militant and to initiate a campaign for it. Most important of all about this gathering is that it presented the platform of Trotskyism to the American labor movement.
And of this conference, Cannon has little or nothing to say. The great ideas which inspired our small movement are hardly even referred to, or where reference is made, there is no intelligent discussion of these ideas. Those questions which Cannon does discuss briefly relate to the trade union issue, or the question of whether or not the Left Opposition should have become a party or remained a faction of the Communist Party.
The period between the conference in May, 1929, and the issuance of the weekly Militant in November of 1929 is omitted in Cannon’s book. These were “dog days” too. But it was a period when Cannon’s interests and activities had flagged. It transpired that shortly after the founding conference, he had little faith in the future of the organization. At that time he wanted to retire and leave the job to the “younger elements.” Only the strongest pressure of his collaborators prevented “America’s No.1 Socialist” from leaving the organization in the hands of these “younger elements,” and retiring to the Middle West. Thereafter, he opposed the establishment of the weekly Militant and expressed his opposition by taking leave completely for a period of time. He was not even present at the affair which greeted the weekly in those dog days.
Yet with the same suddenness that he departed, he reappeared. He returned to carry on a fight against the “youthful leadership” which had not heeded his counsel that the organization ought to “retrench.” He organized his group of “older and maturer comrades” to fight against every bold step made by the Communist League. He won over to his side Dunne of Minneapolis and Webster, who were ready at one time to go ahead without Cannon, the latter even proposing that organizational measures be taken against Cannon.
Cannon was against the issuance of a youth paper; he opposed the publication of Jewish and Greek papers. All three of these were issued. He fought against Shachtman’s trip to Europe to establish our first contact with Trotsky and to seek aid of the European movement for the weekly Militant which he insisted should become a bi-monthly or monthly. Every step of progress made in the CLA had to be fought out against Cannon. Is it any wonder that all of these important stages in the development of the CLA find no place in Cannon’s book?
Every successive period in the development of the Trotskyist movement is similarly treated. The great ideas of the movement, the great struggles of international Trotskyism are replaced by anecdotes and platitudes and by patronizing references to his “boys.” For example, Cannon has no place in the book to mention the editor of the Militant or the real secretary of the League. But he wastes space to tell an old tale about the linotype operator! He makes no reference to the first contact made with Trotsky by Shachtman and his first tour in this country which had such a profound effect on our movement and an important influence on its followers. He says nothing about Glotzer’s visit to Trotsky and his national tour in 1932 which covered Canada and the United States as far as Kansas City. But he does mention Webster’s tour in 1934! Why? A slight omission? No, Webster is one of his “loyal” supporters. Webster is one of the comrades who, together with the men of Minneapolis, “always supported me, they never failed me, they held up my hands.” There is the finished bureaucratic outlook!
Now you can understand more fully the absence of objectivity and history in the Cannon book. His observation of events is subjective, based solely on his participation in them, and whether his participation looks good in print. Everything else goes out. His treatment of individuals follows the same pattern. Those who are his supporters are fine comrades. Everyone else is a scoundrel.
Throughout the book there is a running attack on the successive New York organizations of the CLA, WP and SWP. The impression created is that the New York organizations were a haven for Greenwich Villagers, intellectual snobs, careerists, etc. It goes without saying that this was untrue. It is true that the Trotskyist movement attracted a number of alien elements who either had to leave the movement when they found it to be a serious revolutionary organization and not merely a stamping ground for “anti-Stalinists”, or were expelled from it. But the New York movement was always the political, organizational and financial backbone of the Trotskyist movement in America.
It is true that in later years the Minneapolis organization rivaled it in numbers and financially, but by no stretch of the imagination could Minneapolis be said to be the political and organizational center of the movement. On the contrary, under Cannon’s direction and his policy of sheltering it from “Eastern intellectuals and ideas,” Minneapolis was always one of the most backward sections, theoretically and politically, in the party. The main reason for this was Cannon’s leadership in that city.
The policy Cannon pursued there was consciously predicated on keeping Minneapolis uninformed about the great ideas and inner struggles in the movement; the aim was to prevent the “workers’ branch” from becoming infested with ideas, to keep it politically backward. Instead of raising the Minneapolis movement on par with the most advanced sections of the party, Cannon actually sought to reduce the party to the political level of Minneapolis.
Cannon’s repeated sneers at the New York movement are based on one fact and one fact only: The New York movement usually opposed Cannon. Cannon could not cope with the most politically advanced section of the Party and that is why he spends so much time and effort in the book in tearing it down.
It is true that the years between 1929 and 1932 were dog days, but no small reason for it was the sharp internal struggle waged by Cannon against the aggressive policy pursued by the CLA in opposition to his conservative program of “retrenchment.” His only explanation of how our small band issued the weekly Militant is that “somehow the paper came out.” But there was more than “somehow” to it. The paper came out because of the great sacrifices of all the members of the organization and those who directed the work of the League in those days.
One could write at great length on every chapter of the book to show how Cannon has not represented the history of the Trotskyist movement. Page after page can be read without finding out, for example, where the Trotskyist movement stood on a series of world-shaking problems. There is not even a single statement of what Trotskyism stands for, what its main ideas are. All we get from Cannon is that “Trotskyism means business.” This is, of course, hardly an enlightening description of the theory and politics of Trotsky; it is “revolutionary” rotarianism.
Just as the early history of the CLA is represented as a great struggle between Cannon and men who wear corduroy trousers, who talk a great deal, and argue even more, the later history of Trotskyism in this country, represented by the turn in policy with the coming of Hitler to power, the fusion with the AWP, the entry into the SP is also personalized. Always it is Cannon versus villains.
The struggle over entry in the Socialist Party was an extremely important struggle. For my own part, it is difficult to determine who was right or wrong. It is obvious too, that one cannot argue at this day: would we have gained more by entry or by the independent road. Entry for this writer was not then, nor is it today, a principled question, but rather a tactical one. But we find in Cannon’s book a new reason to justify the entry, a reason obviously developed as an afterthought. Following a gratuitous admission that perhaps a number of errors (opportunist) were committed in the Socialist Party, Cannon makes the utterly monstrous statement that:
It was required of us historically, at that crucial moment, to be members of the Socialist Party and by that to have closer access to elements – liberals, intellectuals and half-practical people – who were necessary for the great political task of the Trotsky Defense Committee.
This is, of course, a political libel against Trotsky who opposed many of the policies pursued inside the SP which he thought might be developed on the grounds of expediency relating to his case. So far as was known in the Party, the Trotsky case had nothing whatever to do with the entry!
We have said that the book lacks theory, politics and ideas in general. This criticism is validated by Cannon himself. Let in take a few examples, from the many which fill his history.
On page 81, the great man writes: “It is just as impossible to bluff in the political movement as in war.” Why Cannon’s own book is a refutation of this platitude. And politics and war are filled with bluffs, a countless number of them. But it sounds good to Cannon to write this. Makes a great impression on young people who are in the process of being miseducated by the kind of training given them by Cannon.
In reference to the hotel strike in New York and the role of the CLA Cannon writes: “That is one of the characteristics of Trotskyism. Trotskyism has never done anything half-way. Trotskyism acts according to the old motto: Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” Never does anything half-way! Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well!
On page 146 we learn again: “These Trotskyists mean business. When they undertake anything, they go through with it.”
Again on page 179: “Trotskyists mean business.”
And on page 198: “They always do things right in Minneapolis.” Always!
This is Trotskyism, according to the history written by Cannon, whom George Collins in the Fourth International described “as the historian of a movement that has swept the field of revolutionary politics of all rivals [!], it is a tribute the viability of his teachings and their adoption and application in life by the group itself.”
One member of the Cannon party said of the history “There was never a history like this!” We heartily concur. We cannot recall another like it.
1. The History of American Trotskyism by James P. Cannon, Pioneer Publishers, 256 pages.
Last updated on 4.4.2013