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The New International, February 1946




[On Cannon’s Book]


From New International, Vol. XII No. 5, May 1946, pp. 159–160.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Dear Friends:

Reading Cannon’s book has left me wondering whether I haven’t had a complete misconception of the nature of history and of “a history.” Is a history book properly an attempt to assemble in some coherent pattern the many elements of which any group’s story is composed? Or should it be a kind of gossipy old wives’ tale, with thumbnail portraits of a character here and there, brief sketches of a scene here and there-just as events or people happen to strike the author’s fancy or illuminate his political theses?

Cannon’s history – even when one remembers that it was delivered as a series of lectures – is certainly of the second type. That is surprising, for he had before him a great model of intelligent, coherent and “objective” history in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. It is safe to assume that Cannon knows it well, but he appears to have learned little from it about how to write history. It isn’t only the genius that is lacking, it’s the character. What purports to be history is in reality only ill-documented propaganda for the Cannon faction and in particular for James P. Cannon personally. The book should have been called an autobiography.

Were it not for his deadly humorlessness, I would think that the author of the introduction was indulging in subtle irony when he insists that Cannon is “completely objective” and that he gives fair portraits of leaders with whom he later broke. Cannon is, as a matter of fact, insufferably subjective – all through the book – and everyone of his minute biographies is scored with rancor. Whenever people disagreed with him, they did so either because they were “no good” from the beginning, or because inevitably their “tendencies” came out – petty bourgeois tendencies, bourgeois tendencies, Stalinist tendencies, preacher’s-son tendencies. Ideas never exist in and for themselves; people hold them only because of their tendencies. The only valid ideas, of course, are those Cannon holds at the particular moment of writing.

Perhaps this attitude springs from a basic lack of interest in ideas – in spite of Cannon’s reputation as a “theses shark.” In this book, at least, he is not particularly concerned with them. His account of the endless factional struggles of his party deals largely with the faction leaders and very cavalierly with the principles involved. Issues – even the issues that led to the split with the Comintern – are blurred.

One of the few issues that he discusses in detail is the entrance of the Trotskyists into the Socialist Party. And it is in this discussion that he reveals most brutally his authoritarian attitude toward his own party and his conception of political life as the slippery game it is. He prepared for the convention of his party which was to decide the question of entering the Socialist Party by engaging in a series of negotiations with the Socialist leaders. Although he knew there was strong opposition within the party to this step, he committed the party to joining the Socialists before the party convention. And for the Socialists with whom he had dealings he has nothing but insults.

In fairness it must be said that this kind of thing is wholly consistent with Cannon’s conception of political leadership. The “mass work activist,” he says, wants a little discussion, a few directives, and then he wants to plunge right into work among the masses. The business of the professional leader is to give the “activist” the correct line, to guide him, with a firm, fatherly hand, through the maze of politics and keep him from worrying too much about theses and principles. Again and again in his book Cannon stresses that some crisis was due to lack of trained leaders, or to the betrayals of some leaders – or to the fact that his own advice was not followed. His conviction of his own personal importance and rightness is beautifully unclouded by doubts. “Whenever anybody goes crazy in our movement he begins to denounce me at the top of his voice,” Cannon writes. To disagree with him places one automatically in the category of the “lunatic fringe.”

The book is a revealing record of the shabby inner life of political parties – the dog-eat-dog behavior of the leaders; the implicit contempt for the rank and file, for honest unionists (who are depicted as babes-in-the-wood in contrast to the wily Trotskyist leaders), and for the ordinary worker; the cut-throat attitude toward all other political parties. Cannon’s aim is obviously the totalitarian party system of fascism or Stalinism. He is quite proud that the Trotskyists succeeded in nearly wrecking the Socialist Party. Everything that stands in the way of his aims must be wrecked, swept aside. It would be amusing, if it were not also sickening to see how these politicians without power extol power politics.


The above letter was written from prison by a conscientious objector who had received a copy of the Cannon “history” from a member of SWP. We, of course, disagree with his conclusion that Cannon’s book proves the “shabby inner life of political parties.” The record of the Workers Party for the six years of its existence is proof to the contrary. However, let those who regard the SWP as the example of Bolshevism, ponder over his words. – EDITORS

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