Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4


Dog Days

James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman, Leon Trotsky and Others
Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931–1933
Prometheus Research Library, New York 2002, pp. 715, $19.95

THIS collection reprints a hefty chunk of the internal documentation of the American Trotskyist movement from the early 1930s, and this alone demands the attention of those interested in the history of the revolutionary movement. However, the accompanying introductory and explanatory material attempts to frame it in the context of a theory of the apostolic succession of American Trotskyism, intended to justify the Spartacists’ posture of dictating Permanent Revolution to the rest of the world. It derives its inspiration from the idea that ‘the ICL, like the ILO, is a fighting communist propaganda group’ (p. 9), by which they mean attempting to create revolutionary parties by purely polemical means, as opposed to real intervention in the labour movement. They even take this notion to the extent of criticising the Socialist Workers Party, and by implication Trotsky (and indeed Marx himself), for maintaining the formulation ‘“labor party” instead of using workers’ party to distinguish itself from British Labour Party reformism’ (p. 616). So what we have here is an illustration of the transformation of politics into religion, for the documents that went to make up the New Testament canon of the early church were edited and selected in exactly the same way, and for aims that were not greatly dissimilar.

For example, in spite of the fact that Cannon’s supporters included Oehler, Stamm and Blackwell, shortly to break away, the dubious claim is made that the differences among the leadership of the American Trotskyists were along the same lines as those of the split of 1939–40 (p. 4). Fragments of Trotsky’s letters talking about Shachtman are introduced under such tendentious titles as You Were Never on Our Side (p. 133). Indeed, little that redounds to the opposition’s credit is included, and to adjust the picture we must refer to Verso’s publication of Shachtman’s Race and Revolution written at the same time, a far more impressive and rewarding piece of socialist analysis than anything included here. For much of what this book has is what delights the Spartacists today – politics with the politics taken out, the small change of factional hair-splitting and the small beer of personal innuendo. Fortunately, most of Cannon’s speeches and articles intended for the public during this time have been freely available for nearly 20 years in the Monad collections, The Left Opposition in the US, 1928–31 and The Communist League of America, 1931–34, which do him far more credit than anything printed here.

If we make the simple historical substitution of New York for Rome, we can see that the orthodoxy that is being constructed here is as economical with the truth as that of the early church, and it appears on the very first page. The examples of France, Vietnam, Ceylon and so many other places are brushed aside in the claim that ‘the US Trotskyists were the only national group of the FI to have augmented their forces through regroupment with a centrist formation … and through short-term entry’. In spite of the fact that Cannon was still expressing his admiration for Zinoviev over 20 years later (The First Ten Years of American Communism, pp. 186–7), Shachtman’s charge that Cannon was ‘an unrepentant Zinovievist’ is dismissed as having ‘little basis’ (p. 7). Cannon’s previous support for Stalin and Zinoviev is excused on the grounds that ‘previous Opposition documents available in English were only partial, and Cannon may not have even read them’ (p. 51), though the editors were unwise enough to print Shachtman’s remarks later on that ‘the principal material was available in the US and in Moscow for those of the group’s representatives who visited it periodically’ (p. 253). Are we really expected to believe that a leading member of the American Communist Party had not been reading Inprecorr for the previous four years? Cannon had certainly been reading enough of it to have been an ardent supporter of ‘Bolshevisation’ under Zinoviev (p. 357), and of the Third Period when that came along as well. For as Shachtman points out, the Cannon group did not have ‘the slightest relationship with the views of the Left Opposition’, and supported ultra-leftist politics in the American party ‘against which the Russian Opposition had been contending since 1925’ (p. 253; see p. 129). The plain fact of the matter is, of course, that far from Cannon’s group being the first to reveal the struggle of the Left Opposition to the rest of the world, that honour falls to Max Eastman and to members of the French Communist Party (see parts 1 and 2 of Alfred Rosmer et al., Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism, and Boris Souvarine, What Became of the Revolution?, pp. 78–90), and Cannon had consistently opposed those who tried to do the same in the United States. And although it is well known that it was George Weston who smuggled out Trotsky’s critique of the Draft Programme of the Comintern, the long-discredited lie is repeated that this was done by Cannon and Maurice Spector (p. 10).

Maintaining the mythology that the credit for spreading the ideas of the Left Opposition outside the USSR belongs almost exclusively to Cannon’s group also involves some unpleasant smears over the memory of Trotsky’s early collaborators. Alfred Rosmer, who struggled so manfully against the stream during the First World War, is described as ‘unable to function as a leader of a small propaganda group’, ‘expelled from the French party in December 1924 before the issues in dispute in the Russian party were clear internationally’ (p. 13), and, in spite of his incessant travels around Europe organising the Opposition, as doing ‘nothing to make the international center a reality’ (p. 23). Kurt Landau, who was tortured to death for his support for the Spanish revolution, appears as ‘an unprincipled cliquist and adventurer’ (p. 20), and is even criticised for wanting to expel the Sobolevicius brothers ‘unjustly’ for the Stalinist agents that they were (p. 21). And we might add that Trotsky (Writings, 1938–39, p. 255) was very much of the opinion that Naville’s long service to the movement deserves a fairer verdict than ‘personalism’ (p. 55).

As Trotsky’s grandson observed about the sect that publishes this book, ‘these methods and procedures must be banished from the workers’ movement’. And Trotsky himself more than once expressed the opinion that spite generally plays the basest rôle in politics, for it is not at all coincidental that Harpal Brar’s ludicrous 600-odd page book defending the Moscow Trials (Trotskyism or Leninism?) borrows massive chunks from the arsenal of the Spartacists to attack the rest of the Trotskyist movement.

For if we are to accept the principle of the cult of personality in politics, how are we to judge between one personality cult and another? It is high time the Trotskyist movement took a sledgehammer to its own personality cults. Infallibility and purity of descent are repugnant to atheists and materialists, and cannot be reconciled with socialism or the movement of the working class. And while it is true that Trotsky later used the SWP to initiate policy in the Fourth International, the attempts by Cannon, Pablo and Healy to carry on in the same way have proved disastrous since. Especially destructive has been the theory promoted by the American SWP, as Ernie Tate once expressed it to me, that a revolutionary organisation must first ‘hegemonise’ the left by an endless succession of factional warfare, intrigue, stunts and desperate adaptations and then, and only then, would it be ready to point itself like a revolver at the head of the working class. While ever this idea of ‘party building’ persists, we will all remain in what this book’s title describes as the ‘dog days’. For real socialist ideas take shape, not through the mere exchange of factional insults, but in cross-fertilisation with the activity of the working class.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011