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Chris Bambery

The Politics of James P. Cannon

(Autumn 1987)

First published in International Socialism 2 : 36, Autumn 1987, pp. 49–89.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In 1928 James P. Cannon attended the Sixth Congress of the Communist International as a delegate from the faction-ridden US Communist Party. The American delegation was given tasks according to the factional line-up. The controlling faction around Jay Lovestone were happy to put Cannon out of harm’s way as they saw it, on the commission to draw up the Comintern’s programme.

Far off in Alma Ata, from internal exile Leon Trotsky submitted his Criticism of the Draft Programme (now published as the Third International After Lenin). This critique slipped through the net, found its way into the hands of the translators at the Comintern Congress and a copy fell into Cannon’s lap.

Despite desperate urgings from key leaders in the faction Cannon headed in the American party, he had refused to mouth the obligatory anti-Trotsky statements – despite the ammunition handed to factional opponents who competed to prove their adherence to the Moscow line.

Now Cannon found many of the answers he’d been looking for in Trotsky’s document. Thirty-three years later he recalled:

When I read Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Programme at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, I was convinced at once – and for good – that the theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’ was basically counter-revolutionary and that Trotsky and the Russian Opposition represented the true programme of the revolution – the original Marxist programme. What else could I do but support them? And what difference did it make that they were a small minority, defeated, expelled and exiled? It was a question of principle. This may be Greek to the philistine, but it is not an ‘accident’ for a communist to act on principle, once it becomes clear to him. It is a matter of course. (James P Cannon, First 10 Years of American Communism, p. 27)

The personal break involved was considerable. In Moscow it was clear Cannon was an approved candidate for the leadership of the American party. A new shift to the ultra-leftism of the Third Period was in the offing. Cannon was a worker, cast in the same mould as the likes of Maurice Thorez in France, Ernst Thaelmann in Germany, Harry Pollitt in Britain and other ‘proletarian’ figures Moscow were keen to promote.

In 1959 Cannon wrote:

And I knew something else that I never told anybody about, but which I had to tell myself for the first time in Moscow in the summer of 1928. The foot-loose Wobbly rebel that I used to be had imperceptibly begun to fit comfortably into a swivel chair, protecting himself in his seat by small manoeuvres and evasions, and even permitting himself a certain conceit about his adroit accommodation to this shabby game. I saw myself for the first time as another person, as a revolutionist who was on the road to becoming a bureaucrat. The image was hideous, and I turned away from it in disgust ... I never deceived myself for a moment about the most probable consequence of my decision to support Trotsky in the summer of 1928.1 knew it was going to cost me my head and also my swivel chair, but thought: What the hell – better men than I have risked their heads and their swivel chairs for truth and justice. (Op. cit., p. 225)

Cannon managed to smuggle out a copy of Trotsky’s document – hidden in a teddy bear belonging to the child of a returning British visitor. The GPU had already reported Cannon’s interest in Trotskyism to leaders of the American party.

Back in New York he began recruiting supporters by inviting them around to his apartment to read, in one sitting, a copy of this book-length, typed document. His first supporter was his companion, Rose Karsner – an ex-secretary of The Masses, a powerful radical magazine edited by Max Eastman, and at that date secretary of the International Labour Defence, the body Cannon founded and which spearheaded the defence of Sacco and Vanzetti.

The next two recruits were Max Shachtman, editor of the magazine Labour Defender which circulated to the defence fund’s 95,000 supporters, and Martin Abern, leader of the CP’s Young Workers League and a delegate to the Comintern’s fourth congress.

These three, Cannon, Max Shachtman, a talented journalist and immensely humorous speaker, and the able functionary Martin Abern were the central leadership of the American Trotskyists for 12 years. At the time they were ridiculed as ‘generals without an army’.

The process of individual recruitment continued but word got out to supporters of the faction around the talented trade union leader, William Z. Foster, with whom Cannon’s grouping were blocking against the leadership. Cannon refused to confirm or deny his views in an effort to play for time and win more support. Eventually the Lovestone leadership found out and Cannon, Shachtman and Abem were put on trial, a procedure chosen in order to embarrass their factional allies.

The threesome dragged the trial out until there were over 100 party members attending and it was receiving wide attention in the party. Then they broke cover and declared their adherence to Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Within 24 hours copies of their statements were circulating in the party. Within a week they had issued a new paper, The Militant, headlined ‘For The Russian Opposition’. [1] The money was borrowed from Cannon’s acquaintances and from Max Eastman, who had already helped Trotsky publicise his views.

All three were expelled along with their supporters. The Lovestone leadership helped by expelling even those querying the expulsions – including a key group of workers in Minneapolis which included the three Dunne brothers and Carl Skoglund.

Today the significance of all this may not seem obvious. But in 1928 for a leader of a Communist Party with Cannon’s experience to declare openly for Trotsky and to win a section of the party cadre was unparalleled.

Pravda reported the expulsions and word reached Trotsky isolated in Alma Ata at a time when many of his supporters were making their peace with Stalin. The effect of Cannon’s actions on Trotsky cannot be underestimated. American events also revitalised the tiny groups who had rallied to the Left Opposition.

James P. Cannon was the most important figure in the Communist movement to take this course. That alone speaks volumes for the man.

Cannon and the ‘Americanisation’ of Communism

Cannon’s life is virtually a record of the American left and the international Communist movement in the years following the Russian revolution. He knew personally Eugene V Debs, the great leader of the Socialist Party, worked with leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World, the revolutionary ‘one big union’, like Vincent St John, Big Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, together with the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly and the founder of the Irish Transport Workers Union, Jim Larkin.

Within the American Communist Party he knew and worked with all the key personalities from John Reed, author of the eye-witness account of the October revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, so highly recommended by Lenin, and Louis Fraina (later known as Lewis Corey), an Italian American whose Revolutionary Age popularised Lenin’s ideas during 1917 and 1918 with great effect.

From its inception to his expulsion Cannon was on the Central Committee of the American party. It was a party permanently split along factional lines from birth, a party which by the time it was founded faced a resurgent American capitalism coupled with a savage wave of repression which broke the IWW, saw the great steel strike of 1919 defeated, thousands of radicals arrested in the Palmer Raids, many of foreign origin being deported and others like the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti framed and hanged.

But despite that Cannon always stressed the crucial role the Communist Party played in establishing a revolutionary Marxist tradition, a tradition he claimed later for the American Trotskyists.

Throughout all of this Cannon understood that the task was to carry those ideas to American workers. During the early years of the party the crucial divide was between those like Cannon who saw the audience for Communism among American-born workers rather than the more seemingly radical immigrant communities from Europe. By the end of the 1920s the key task was combatting ‘American Exceptionalism’, the idea imported from Moscow that American capitalism would continue to grow and grow, that America was an exception in the capitalist world and more crucially, that ideologically the American working class had been bribed off and had become subject to ‘material bourgeoisification’.

These ideas would surface again and again. Today they act as justification for looking to the Democratic Party or some ‘rainbow Coalition’ as being the way forward. To all those who reject the capacity of the largest working class in the world to change their ideas Cannon again and again pointed to the inspiring history of the American working class. From the great wave of labour struggles which followed the completion of the bourgeois revolution in the American Civil War, culminating in the radical union federation the Knights of Labour, the great rail and steel strikes of the 1890s, the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World and then later the glorious years from 1934 till 1937 when rank-and-file workers led a strike wave which in its militancy probably remains unparalleled in the history of the world working class today.

Cannon was part of that history. Born in Rosedale, Kansas, of Irish parentage, his father had been in the Knights of Labour and distributed Appeal to Reason, the socialist paper whose main contributor was Eugene V. Debs. At the age of 12 Cannon was working in a meat packing plant. Two years later he was active in the campaign to defend Big Bill Haywood who was framed on a murder charge for his role in a miners’ strike. By the age of 18 Cannon was in Debs’ Socialist Party, then at its zenith – in 1912 Debs would poll a million votes for the presidency (mainly in Cannon’s mid-West); it had 100,000 members and its press a circulation of 600,000. But whilst Debs’ instincts were revolutionary – he backed the IWW and was jailed for opposing the First World War – the party apparatus was controlled by the right. Debs himself refused to attend congresses because he refused to take part in internal disputes.

Cannon rejected the Debs-style all-inclusive party uniting revolutionaries and reformists. Instead he was drawn to ideas which stressed the independent struggles of the working class, the syndicalist ideas of building one big union, the IWW, which could use its strength to gain control of the economy and therefore create socialism. In 1911 at the age of 21 Cannon was a ‘footloose’ organiser for the IWW, the ‘Wobblies’. Like other Wobblies he hitched rides on the bottom of railway carriages and was regularly jailed and beaten. Cannon led strikes of rubber workers in Akron, metal workers in Peoria and dockers on Lake Superior. But for all its heroism the IWW was unable to maintain lasting organisation even when it won recognition. Syndicalism denied the need to overthrow the state seeing this as happening automatically once the economic power of the workers was established. But the state did not ignore the Wobblies – during the war it was effectively broken by repression.

Now settled in Kansas City with a wife and two children. Cannon joined the Left Wing of the Socialist Party following the Russian revolution. This was an organised faction which had been radicalised by the Bolsheviks’ success. Cannon edited a paper in Kansas City popularising Communist ideas, helped by Earl Browder, another former Wobbly who would become leader of the American CP after Cannon’s expulsion.

Cannon had broken with syndicalism after reading John Reed’s The Liberator and Louis Fraina’s Revolutionary Age.

Until 1917 the Socialist Party Left Wing saw itself as an auxiliary to the revolutionary union, the IWW; politics should be kept out of the unions with a socialist party which limited itself to making general propaganda and contesting elections (ideas best expressed by James Connolly, the clearest exponent of syndicalism).

Reed and Fraina were arguing for a new-style party organised around clear revolutionary principles, organising a revolutionary minority of workers but intervening in the daily struggles of the class.

In June 1919 Cannon travelled to New York as delegate for Kansas City at the congress of the SP Left Wing. There he was appalled by the behaviour of the foreign language federation (groupings composed of immigrants largely from Russia and Eastern Europe which were affiliated to the SP but remained separate from the American movement). Claiming to represent the Bolsheviks through the accident of their birth the Russian federation leaders demanded an immediate split from the SP. Cannon backed John Reed who understood the need to win native American workers in the SP, and that communism could not be transplanted into America through the language federations. Reed’s grouping carried the fight to convention where they were expelled and formed the Communist Labour Party. Meanwhile the language federation leaders had set up their Communist Party. On paper it had a larger membership but few American workers.

Cannon was Kansas district organiser for the Communist Labour Party. The defeat of the 1919 steel strike and the Palmer Raids had forced the new party underground. Despite that Cannon organised among the miners of Kansas and South Illinois.

From 1920 until 1923 Cannon’s energies were devoted to achieving Communist unity but also to utilising growing opportunities for legal work to appeal to American-born workers. The foreign language federation, leaders now held that it was a Bolshevik principle to remain underground, whatever the conditions.

In 1920 Cannon negotiated a fusion between the Communist Labour Party and a grouping favouring legal work from the rival party led by Charles Ruthenberg. Cannon was editor of the new Communist Party’s first legal paper, moving first to Cleveland then to New York City. In 1921 he presided over the setting up with some Socialist Party dissidents of an open, legal party, the Workers Party. Ruthenberg was in prison and the leadership of the party centred on Cannon and Jay Lovestone.

But disputes about legal work continued; so too did the attitude to elections with the Communists boycotting the 1920 presidential election, refusing support for Debs. In addition large-scale recruitment from the IWW meant the majority view on trade union work favoured setting up breakaway unions in counter-position to the American Federation of Labour. In 1921 the party recruited William Z. Foster, leader of the 1919 steel strike. He had broken with the IWW and was advocating a policy of working from within the AFL, where the vast majority of trade unionists were. With him he brought the Trade Union Education League, a grouping linking militant workers within the AFL.

Like a generation of Communists, Cannon read Lenin’s Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder and began campaigning against radical-sounding abstentionism within the American party, arguing for new tactics to start the process of winning influence among the working class.

In 1922 Cannon was a delegate to the Fourth and last Leninist Congress of the Communist International. It was in Moscow that the outstanding questions were settled. The American journalist, Max Eastman, fixed an interview between Cannon and Trotsky. Trotsky was convinced of the need for a Russian leadership to back those favouring a legal party.

The party after the Congress experienced a period of unity. In 1922 it had 8,000 members. By 1923 it had 11,000. The deportations of radicals had largely removed the foreign language federations. The largest federation, with some 15,000 members, were the Russians who dominated the original Communist Party formed in opposition to the Communist Labour Party. In the now united party the Russians accounted for just seven per cent.

Yet 45 per cent of the party membership were Finnish, many of them farmers. Just 10 per cent of the membership spoke English as their first language with another 45 per cent capable of using English as a second language.

Industrial penetration was poor except in certain areas like Minnesota. The one exception was the predominantly Jewish needle trades of New York. Some 15 per cent of the party’s membership was Jewish, concentrated heavily in New York. But proportionately they provided a high number of key cadres. The party’s Yiddish daily, Freiheit, sold 22,000 copies to the official Daily Worker’s 17,000.

The American party, however, was proud of its achievements in overcoming factional squabbles and the creation of a united party, following the patient tactical advice they had learned from the Communist International. But from 1923 onwards the Comintern was not what it was, passing under the control of first Zinoviev, then Bukharin in tandem with Stalin and then after 1928 complete Stalinist control. Those years were ones of sharp zig-zags from left to right, dictated not by the pace of the international struggle but the dictats of the internal struggle within the ruling layer in Russia.

In his History of American Trotskyism, Cannon later wrote that from 1923 on, ‘We went to the Comintern, seeking help, but the real source of the trouble was there’.

Cannon returned from a year in Russia at the beginning of 1923 to discover a new situation in the American party. Effective leadership was in the hands of one John Pepper, the pseudonym for a Hungarian exile, who had played a disastrous role as Commissar for war in the failed Hungarian revolution of 1919 and then was involved in organising the disastrous ‘March Action’ of 1921, when the German Communists initiated an ultra-left putsch.

A talented adventurer, Pepper had been attacked by Lenin and Trotsky for his policy in Germany and had managed to arrange to go to New York. His only task from the Comintern was to function in the American party’s Hungarian group. It was effectively a second exile.

But posing as Moscow’s representative, and citing familiarity with Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, Pepper managed to gain control of the American party – no mean feat when he at first could not speak English.

Pepper’s key allies were the party’s secretary, Charles Ruthenberg, and Jay Lovestone.

Pepper now held up the creation of a US Labour Party as the means for capturing a mass audience for Communism. The arguments for the creation of a Labour Party originated with Lenin. For him it would represent a step towards greater working-class independence if workers looked to a labour party rather than backing either of the two openly pro-imperialist parties, the Republicans or Democrats. It was first raised to counter the abstentionism and ultra-leftism in the American party. But the creation of a Labour Party by the Communist Party was not envisaged.

At the beginning of 1923 the radical Chicago Federation of Labour called a conference to create a nationwide Farmers-Labour Party (state-wide parties existed in several places). The labour party idea was finding a wide audience among trade unionists.

But in the event the conference was a fiasco. Pepper orchestrated a takeover by the Communist Party which led to a split with the Chicago trade unionists – and which also effectively destroyed the Trade Union Education League as an effective force. The party under Pepper then declared a nationwide Farmers-Labour Party which was no more than a CP front.

Cannon was uneasy with the Pepper regime. On his return from Russia he had taken himself off on a coast-to-coast tour (a regular event if he was troubled about internal matters), concentrating on mass work. On tour he encountered William Z. Foster. Both agreed on a need to combat Pepper’s line round the Chicago conference. Both were concerned at the wrecking of the party’s trade union work.

Foster was the party’s chief trade union figure. But it was Cannon who took the lead in facing up to Pepper and organising an open faction.

Three permanent factions now emerged which would last till 1928. Two around Cannon and Foster blocked against the Pepper-Ruthenberg-Lovestone grouping.

Having spirited up a phantom Farmer-Labour Party, Pepper now turned his attention to the presidential campaign announced by Senator LaFollette of Wisconsin as third party candidate. LaFollette was somewhat radical; but Pepper declared America now faced a ‘third revolution’, neither led by the Communist or the Farmer- Labour Party, but instead one spearheaded by the middle class. Only after its success could the working class strike out on an independent path! LaFollette was the American ‘Kerensky’ and through backing him the CP could find the way to the masses.

Cannon pieced together a powerful opposition which held a majority. But Pepper still maintained control of the party apparatus. The dispute above all had to be settled in Moscow.

Events now took the form of farce. Trotsky had denounced the right-wing policies of the Zinoviev leadership of the Comintern. The American question was to be settled at an extended plenum discussion in Moscow. There the Comintern leadership executed a sharp left turn to undercut Trotsky. The whole Farmer-Labour Party project was denounced in principle, backing for LaFollette was thrown out. Instead the party had to stand its own candidate, Foster.

The instructions were carried out. Foster polled just 33,000 votes. The party was thoroughly isolated. Pepper remained in Moscow to ensure its support for his allies.

At the CP’s fourth convention in 1925 Foster and Cannon won a majority. But once again the Comintern line had changed. Bukharin was now heading things. The line had moved right, back to one of alliances – with the trade union leaders enshrined in the Anglo-Russian TUC committee and with Chiang Kai Shek and the bourgeois nationalists in China. Socialism in one country was now official doctrine, and the task of Communist Parties was to win allies for Russia. Pepper sensed the way the wind was blowing and switched allegiances. The Pepper-Ruthenberg-Lovestone tendency had Moscow’s seal of approval.

Foster and Cannon won control at the fourth congress. Having won the votes the Comintern representative revealed a telegram from Moscow which insisted control must go to the Pepper faction. Cannon and Foster loyally followed their instructions.

A policy of ‘Bolshevisation’ was also undertaken. In reality it meant ensuring support for the current Comintern line and weakening any independent discussion.

But the American party was too faction-ridden to become a monolith. Despite the outcome Foster’s group retained control of trade union work, and had its own allies in Moscow. Cannon’s faction secured control of one of American Communism’s success stories – International Labour Defence.

The ILD was born in Moscow in discussions between Big Bill Haywood, who had been forced into exile and whose idea it was, and Cannon. Over 100 assorted Wobblies, anarchists and union activists were languishing in jail, some on death row, their cases forgotten by the labour movement.

Haywood wanted to create a non-sectarian defence organisation for these victims of state repression. Cannon set the organisation rolling, helped by Rose Karsner as secretary, Max Shachtman as editor of the journal and Martin Abern supplying administrative skill. It was Cannon who ensured that the venture was genuinely non-sectarian, though politically dominated by Communists.

It was launched in June 1925. By the end of 1926 it claimed 156 branches, with 20,000 individual and 75,000 collective members. The ILD was a genuine united front.

Its first national committee contained among others Eugene V. Debs, ex-Wobblies, nine union leaders and pro-women suffragists. The ILD sent five dollars a month to 106 class war prisoners, mostly ex-Wobblies. It helped publicise these cases and rescue figures like the framed union organiser Tom Mooney.

But its most effective work was in campaigning against the execution of the Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti. This became a world-wide campaign promoted by the Communist movement. Some of Cannon’s best journalism can be found written around this case, in Notebook of an Agitator, a collection of articles which is a model for socialist journalists.

In 1927 Jay Lovestone clambered over his opponents to take control of the party on Ruthenberg’s death. With Comintern support he build up tighter control of the party. ‘American Exceptionalism’ was the official line, a right-wing line which dovetailed the policy of ‘socialism at a snail’s pace’ and an end to international ‘adventurism’ shared by Stalin and Bukharin. Lovestone became increasingly identified with the latter.

The factional antics of the American Communist Party in the 1920s are easily mocked. Naturally many criticisms can be drawn – notably the failure to orientate towards the black working class and sharecroppers. But for all the faults the American Communist Party achieved real gains. Not least the popularisation of Leninist ideas, the early Trade Union Education League and the activities of International Labour Defence.

Above all the idea of ‘Americanisation’ – of centring activity around the American working class with its fine record of struggle – as championed by Cannon, remains the model.

The Cannon faction sensed ‘American Exceptionalism’ was wrong, they had fought however unclearly against the wild swings induced by Moscow and had looked towards patiently winning workers’ support. It was a continuation of that fight in many ways which led them to accept Trotsky’s views.

The birth of American Trotskyism

The newly emergent Trotskyists hoped to win a large layer of the CP’s cadre from a position of criticising the Comintern and the American party’s leadership from the left. Rejection of ‘American Exceptionalism’ plus demands for a turn to the class centring on the need for consistent trade union work were expected to influence wide layers in the party.

But the Stalinist leadership still seemed to maintain the mantle of October for millions of the best workers internationally. In addition, while the American party had shrunk to just 7,277 members by 1928, that was substantially bigger than anything the Trotskyists could boast.

A fortnightly paper, Militant, was appearing. Cannon and his few supporters would sell it in Union Square, where the CP headquarters were located. Soon Stalinist goons were physically assaulting sellers. Cannon organised former Wobblies and other radicals to provide a guard. The first meetings were broken up. Again a guard was organised. Then Stalinists burgled Cannon’s apartment to discover how far Trotskyist roots went in the party. The correspondence stolen was later published by them.

Finally, in May 1929 a conference was held in Chicago to launch the Communist League of America, Left Opposition of the Communist Party. It was seen not as a rival party to the CP but as a faction fighting for its reform, in line with Trotsky’s view that the Comintern could still be won to revolutionary politics.

There were 48 delegates and alternates from 12 cities representing some 100 members. Financial worries harassed the new organisation, but worse was to follow. Within months of Cannon’s expulsion there was a sea-change in the Comintern. Stalin declared the Third Period had begun. Revolution was imminent. The main props of imperialism were the reformists and existing unions who were on a par with if not worse than the fascists and to be treated accordingly. The shift reflected the power struggle.

In Russia, Stalin and the bureaucratic machine had embarked on a ruthless drive to industrialise, with Russian workers and peasants paying the price. The fire was now turned on Bukharin and the so-called Right Opposition who favoured appeasing the rich peasants as a way to stimulate the economy. Bukharin was deposed as head of the Comintern. Among his main supporters internationally was Jay Lovestone, head of the American party.

Lovestone was brought to Moscow, stripped of his positions and sent back to New York where he and just a few hundred of his once powerful faction formed an organisation.

Now the party was placed in the hands of Earl Browder and elements of the Foster faction with which Cannon had been aligned (Foster himself being passed over now because he was distrusted in Moscow). ‘American Exceptionalism’ was swept away. The party passed over to the ultra-left, advocating breakaway unions and proclaiming the need for mass work. This new turn also marked the completion of Stalinist control over the parties within the Comintern.

The Trotskyists now found that from attacking Lovestone from the left in continuance of their old factional struggle in the CP, they were now attacking the Comintern line as ultra-left. Quickly they found themselves isolated from the audience they wished to attract. Individual recruitment dried up. American Trotskyism was now entering what Cannon termed its ‘dog days’.

For Cannon himself, giving up his party position (both he and Rose Karsner, Shachtman and Abern were immediately sacked without wages due) meant serious financial difficulties. He and Karsner were forced to move between a series of squalid apartments. Matters worsened when Cannon’s former wife died and his two children came to live with him.

Cannon began drinking (a problem which remained with him for the rest of his life). Tensions began developing internally, particularly in New York.

Shachtman believed Cannon was too orientated on ex-Wobblies and established militants like Bill Dunne. Cannon was now working on the shopfloor of a New York paper, something Shachtman and younger members saw as a sign that he was dropping out.

The tension had another side. In New York Cannon later wrote in The History of American Trotskyism:

‘Many people came to us who had revolted against the Communist Party; that is the discipline of the party, the subordination of the individual to the decisions of the party in current work’.

One recruit from the CP campaigned for ‘mass work’, arguing it was only the inertia of Cannon that prevented the Trotskyists initiating mass campaigns in a situation where the immediate effect of the Wall Street crash was to atomise and demoralise workers through mass unemployment. That provoked a nasty faction fight in New York, with the loss of 25 or so members.

Many of the CLA’s members, particularly in New York, were college graduates with no knowledge of the workers’ movement. They looked not to Cannon, who could be difficult and spoke with a mid-West accent, but instead to the witty and urbane Shachtman. The latter had the finance to visit Trotsky after his expulsion to Turkey, and he seemed to have more knowledge of international matters than Cannon.

Looking back Cannon wrote of Shachtman and his circle:

I think, you see, as we began to get the writings of Trotsky, it opened up a whole new world for us. And they discovered, this is my assumption, that while they had always taken what I said for gospel, they discovered that there was a lot of things I didn’t know. That I was just beginning to learn from Trotsky. What they didn’t know was that I was learning as well as they were. Shachtman, at least, I think, had the idea that he had outgrown me.

Commentating on his personal problems Cannon added:

They took that to be the sign that I was quitting the movement, I guess. And this stirred up a bitter anti-Cannon attitude with the new young people in the League, so that every branch meeting was a great hassle and argument about something or other of no great consequence. That’s what happens when a movement is in decline. Squabbles develop and people begin to look around for somebody to blame for the troubles of the movement.

By 1932 and 1933 personal relations between Cannon and Shachtman had broken down. At one point Shachtman simply walked out from editing The Militant, and a 21-year-old Cannonite had to be drafted in to replace him. Repeatedly Cannon had to appeal to his supporters in Minneapolis for financial support to maintain publication.

On the other side stood Cannon, Arne Swabeck, and an energetic organiser Hugo Oehler, together with the Minneapolis workers. On the other, Shachtman and Abern, the latter increasingly sided politically with those grumbling about the ‘Cannon regime’ whatever political issues were at stake.

On an international level, while in Europe, Shachtman had fallen out with Trotsky after he had backed Andreas Nin’s group and others who wished to break their isolation by uniting with supporters of Bukharin and other centrists. These people rejected Trotsky’s insistence on a Leninist party, were prepared to reject permanent revolution and accept ‘Socialism in One Country’, and looked for alliances with various left reformists.

Arne Swabeck met Trotsky to urge his formal support for a split. Despite Trotsky’s acceptance that essentially Cannon represented the proletarian elements in the League, and Shachtman the petty bourgeois, together with his criticism of Shachtman’s doings in Europe, Trotsky urged against a split. He explained the differences were not clear politically and there could be no organisational solutions.

Trotsky told Swabeck:

... every party is a melting point, but there has to be activity. The present situation in the League corresponds with the beginning of more energetic activity directed outward. The essential question is whether the League will become a melting pot. To a certain extent this is dependent on opportunities and successes. If you score successes, this will weld together the best elements. In case of failures and inch by inch development, the discontents can find its expression in a split. (Writings 1933–34)

He urged the Americans to turn outwards around the opportunities created by the crisis over Hitler’s coming to power in Germany, growing unemployment agitation and the action the League was involved in within the Illinois coalfield.

Cannon accepted Trotsky’s prescription and returned to full-time work, accepting the financial problems.

Previously the Trotskyists had been excluded from any labour movement events. That had already changed. In January 1933 Cannon addressed a New York unemployment conference at which the League had five delegates. Further opportunities arose in the coalfield and in the unemployed movement where the Trotskyists had some success in arguing against the Stalinists’ support for breakaway unions and in favour of united front work with left-wing trade unionists and reformists.

But the greatest opportunity came with Hitler’s taking of power constitutionally in Germany, despite the existence of both the largest Social Democratic and Communist Parties in the world.

At the beginning of 1933 the Communist League began a nation-wide tour with an audience of 500 mainly CP members in the Bronx. A successful tour followed. Membership grew for the first time to 150. The ‘dog days’ were over. Shachtman broke with Cannon’s opponents to construct a united leadership.

Looking back when writing History of American Trotskyism, Cannon wrote:

We had to go through the long drawn out period of stewing and discussing ... This little fragile nucleus of the future revolutionary party had to be held together. It had to go through this experience. It had to survive somehow. One had to be patient for the sake of the future.

The Communist League was now facing a turning point in the fortunes of American labour. In 1933 Roosevelt was elected with the promise of a ‘New Deal’. Part of that was the National Recovery Act which seemed to give legal support for union recognition. It provoked a rash of disputes despite the opposition of the union bureaucrats in the American Federation of Labour who refused to organise unskilled workers. The strikes were largely defeated but they were the first signs of a real shift.

At the beginning of 1934 the CLA was heavily involved in a bitter New York hotel strike, led by one of its members (who they publicly expelled in the middle of the strike for his refusal to accept the League’s decisions).

In May the Minneapolis branch found itself leading a strike of teamsters which achieved nationwide prominence. The story of that dispute – the most important Trotskyists have led even today – is well known. Every socialist should read Farrell Dobbs’ account, Teamster Rebellion. Not only is it a manual of how revolutionaries should operate in the unions, it is a wonderful account of how a revolutionary organisation can intervene and recruit the best leaders.

Cannon, Shachtman and Oehler threw themselves into the dispute. As a result the Communist League gained widespread publicity and credit in radical circles.

The teamsters dispute in Minneapolis together with the docks strike in San Francisco and the strike at Autolite in Toledo sparked a nationwide revival of militancy with their success. The dispute on the San Francisco waterfront was led by the CP, but the dispute in Toledo, where mass demonstrations of unemployed joined the strikers to battle the National Guard, was led by an organisation called the American Workers Party.

It was a loose grouping led by a radicalised ex-preacher, A.J. Muste. It contained Christian Socialists, disillusioned CPers moving right, together with young militants who were active round strikes and unemployed work.

In the wake of Toledo it was clearly moving left and being eyed by the CP for ‘fusion’. Instead the Trotskyists offered to discuss creating a joint organisation. By not concealing political differences but not pursuing a sectarian stand on organisational matters Cannon and Shachtman were able to win over Muste and create an organisation of several hundred militants, the Workers Party of the United States.

On May Day in 1934 the Trotskyists were able to help organise a powerful demonstration in New York, along with Lovestone’s group which included the textile unions and the Socialist Party.

The sectarianism of the Stalinists, coupled with the impact of Hitler’s victory, had created a radicalisation which was reflected in the Social Democratic parties, particularly their youth wings. In France the Trotskyists made contact with a crucial group of militants within the Socialist Party. In Spain the Socialist Youth discussed Trotsky’s position of building a new international and whether they should back it.

But in the wake of Hitler’s victory Moscow’s line had changed. Now they wanted an alliance with France and Britain to protect Russia from the Nazi threat. Communists were now told to build alliances, firstly with the reformists, and then a popular front with those sections of the middle and ruling class who opposed Hitler.

Inside the Social Democratic parties this line, coupled with the continuing prestige of the Comintern, was a powerful draw on those who saw the fascist threat spreading.

Trotsky, grasping what was happening, advocated that his supporters enter the Social Democratic organisations to win the best elements. The first group to do so were the French organisation, resulting in the entry manoeuvre being dubbed the ‘French turn’.

Trotsky was not advocating a long-term entry. His supporters were to declare their position openly, particularly the need for a new party opposed to Stalinism and social democracy, and a new international. He expected expulsions and insisted they be fought openly so his supporters could influence the widest layer and then set up an independent organisation.

In France the turn paid off initially with the Trotskyists breaking out of a faction-ridden ghetto for the first time and winning a wide range of support.

On a trip to visit Trotsky (at that time in France), Cannon was convinced that the newly-formed Workers Party should enter the US Socialist Party.

Cannon and Trotsky were convinced that beneath the right-wing leadership of Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party was attracting radicalised youth and activists in the unions repelled by Stalinism. They also believed – correctly – that the party would be torn apart by the new radicalisation, and if the Trotskyists did not intervene directly then the Communist Party would swallow up the left.

The entry tactic was raised around that immediate perspective – of the Trotskyists going in to win the best elements and then re-forming a stronger organisation.

On his return from visiting France, Cannon, supported by Shachtman, was opposed by Hugo Oehler. He argued that if there were elements worth winning in the Socialist Party then they should find their way to the Workers Party, and entry was ruled out as a matter of principle.

The faction around Oehler was joined by two other groups. One round Muste – the founder of one half of the newly-fused organisation – started from a position of pure pride in the new party and could not countenance entry. Another, around Martin Abern, had maintained their opposition to Cannon from two years earlier in the Communist League. Their position was not one of principled opposition but moans about ‘the way things are being done’ and Cannon’s undemocratic doings.

For nearly a year the debate raged. But Cannon and Shachtman, backed directly by Trotsky, won the clear majority. Their victory coincided with the culmination of the crisis in the Socialist Party. The left had secured a majority and the hard right broke away. Cannon was able to secure a negotiated entry with faction rights – though the Trotskyists were forced to give up their paper. He conceded later, however, that too much emphasis was put on these negotiations rather than discussing with the Socialist Party rank and file.

The entry period can be split into two periods – both of which tended to parallel the experience in France. The first period was one in which the Trotskyists operated openly, publishing two papers, Socialist Appeal in Chicago and Labour Action edited by Cannon from California. They were able to make gains.

But in March 1937 the Socialist Party leadership under Norman Thomas moved to ban factions, suppress the Trotskyist papers and limit discussion in branches. In his History of American Trotskyism, Cannon is open about the Trotskyists’ response:

Trotsky encouraged us and even incited us to go forward to meet their challenge and not permit them to push us any further for fear it might lead to disintegration of our own ranks, demoralisation of the people whom we had led that far along the road. We proceeded cautiously, “legally”, at first.

The similar thing had occurred in France. Entry met with initial success. The right attacked and Trotsky urged open defiance, coupled with preparing for setting up an open organisation. But the Trotskyists stayed in and suffered a loss of support and finally split.

In the American case the Trotskyists hung together. Trotsky was now in Mexico and was in close touch. Finally, their branches were kicked out. On New Years Day 1938 the expelled branches formed the Socialist Workers Party.

The period of entry coincided exactly with the explosion of working-class militancy following the 1934 victories at Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis.

In 1935 a strike in General Motors plant, in which the Workers Party was centrally involved, threw up a new union, the United Automobile Workers, because of the AFL’s refusal to organise the car workers. The new militancy spread like wildfire in unorganised industries such as rubber, steel and crucially auto production, the new industries of the post-war boom which were generally held to be unorganisable.

John L. Lewis of the United Mineworkers grasped which way the wind was blowing and broke from the AFL because of their refusal to organise the unskilled in these industries, forming the rival Congress of Industrial Organisations. The centrepiece of the new CIO soon became the UAW.

In order to recruit workers Lewis was prepared to ride the wave of militancy. In order to build the new unions of the CIO he recruited from the readiest available source of cadre – the Communist Party. The CP in turn were prepared to toe Lewis’s line. The CP were not using Lewis. He was using them. They helped consolidate the bureaucracy’s hold, but in the process they recruited many of the best workers.

The CIO’s ‘Gettysburg’ was the battle for recognition of the UAW at General Motors, centring on Flint. At the end of 1936 the Flint GM workers re-invented the sit-down. The tactic spread across the combine. At Flint itself the strikers fought off the police and eventually won by seizing the crucial engine plant in a military-style operation.

A month after the victory at GM there were 193,000 workers involved in occupations and 1937 would see an amazing total of one and a half million workers on strike.

Cannon asked:

Did we overlook some opportunities for the application of the new toward mass work? Undoubtedly we did. Except in a few localities, we let the great movement of the CIO pass over our heads. But we did grasp some of the main opportunities ... When the ferment in the Socialist Party offered favourable opportunities for our intervention, we steered a course directly toward it, smashed the resistance of the sectarians in our own ranks, entered the Socialist Party and effected a fusion with the left wing. We seized opportunities to penetrate the trade union movement in several localities and today have the firmest proletarian bases of the party there.

The entry did actually win a crucial layer of activists in the UAW: Kermit Johnson, Sol Dollinger and Genora Johnson in Flint – the first masterminded the tactics of the GM strike, and the latter organised the famous women’s auxiliary on the picket lines. In San Francisco the Trotskyists established themselves in the crucial waterfront unions during the 1937 strike there.

At a numerical level the new SWP was virtually double the size of the pre-fusion Workers Party, securing control of the SP youth organisation, the Young People Socialist League.

But the lost opportunities resulted from the Trotskyists’ own failings in carrying out the entry. An organisation of a thousand spread across the USA needed to grow. Without a conscious strategy for growth it could not dare compete with the CP or relate directly to hundreds of thousands of radicalised workers.

The entry negotiations, however, dragged on and were conducted in a formal manner. The emphasis was too much on discussions with the Socialist Party’s hierarchy. The second failing, one implicit in any entry operation, is a failing to break away when the time is right. The Trotskyists spent nearly a year, the crucial year of the CIO’s birth, buried in the SP under attack from the leadership.

Another factor has to be added. The Workers Party was not in itself a stable organisation. Muste’s American Workers Party had consisted of: ‘the Toledo people; the rank-and-file militants in the unemployed movement, and some rank-and-file trade unionists. In addition ... there were some YWCA girls, Bible students, assorted intellectuals, college professors, and some nondescripts who had just wandered in through the open door’.

Trotsky himself recognised that he had overestimated the possibilities:

I personally believed the Socialist Party was stronger than it was in reality: I believed it had 20,000 members, but it was weaker. I believe we committed some tactical mistakes during our sojourn: we made some unnecessary concessions, such as giving up the Socialist Appeal, and the practical mistake of giving up the printing press, possibly connected with a long-term perspective ... (Writings 1937–38, p. 393)

He also recognised the weakness of much of the membership:

At the moment there are not a few half-revolutionists, tired out by defeats, fearing difficulties, aged young men who have more doubts and pretensions than will to struggle. Instead of seriously analysing political questions in essence, such individuals seek panaceas, on every occasion complain about the “regime”, demand wonders from the leadership, or try to muffle their own inner scepticism by ultra-left prattling. I fear that revolutionists will not be made out of such elements, unless they take themselves in hand.

A crisis which would divide the new party up the middle was developing.

The flight of the intellectuals

Today it is possible to read an advert in the New York Times supporting the Nicaraguan Contras signed by such doyens of American intellectual life as the writer Saul Bellow and the philosopher, Sidney Hook. Today these people are crusaders against communism. What is swept under the carpet is their adherence to Trotskyism in the 1930s.

The list of intellectuals attracted to American Trotskyism then forms the virtual intellectual elite of the period. The wealth of talent attracted to Trotskyism cannot be exaggerated.

The Wall Street crash had radicalised a generation of US intellectuals, largely living in New York and many of them Jewish. The threat of fascism had attracted them towards the Communist Party and Russia.

Alan Wald’s recent book, The New York Intellectuals, details the process through which this layer was first attracted to Stalinism, then repelled by it after the Communist Party’s criminal part in allowing Hitler to take power emerged.

By 1935 the heroic figure of Trotsky with his incisive writings on culture was a powerful draw to these intellectuals. Many of them had formed in 1932 a CP front organisation, the League of Professionals. But when its leading figures began attacking the ‘third period’ they were jeered by CP members. Sidney Hook’s philosophical views were roundly denounced and a manifesto written by Lewis Corey (Louis Fraina) was suppressed.

By April 1933 two of the key figures involved, Herbert Solow and George Novack, were Trotskyists. They managed to split away a large chunk of the CP’s intellectual sympathisers in support of Trotsky’s call for a united front against fascism. When in February 1934 the CP broke up a Socialist Party rally in solidarity with the Viennese workers’ resistance to the Dolfuss coup, Solow drafted an open letter in protest signed by the leading novelist John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson (later author of To the Finland Station), and two young intellectuals who would soon become Trotskyists, Felix Morrow and John McDonald.

Many of those that signed broke with the CP and joined Muste’s American Workers Party – they included one New York professor, James Burnham, whose Catholicism had foundered in the Wall Street crash. The majority of these backed the fusion with the Communist League.

In 1936 Herbert Solow (who had quit the CLA along with John McDonald over the entry into the Socialist Party) helped set up the American Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky – in answer to the slanders of the Moscow Trials. In turn he helped organise the Dewey Commission of Inquiry which met in Mexico City to examine Stalin’s charges against Trotsky. Presiding over it was the great pragmatist philosopher John Dewey.

The importance of this inquiry and the American Committee is not so striking today. But in 1936 Trotsky faced alone the weight of Stalinism denouncing him as a fascist terrorist in the pay of Hitler or whichever Western ruler fitted Moscow’s needs. In Britain individuals like George Bernard Shaw refused to defend Trotsky. In France the Communist Party scared off support. The American Trotskyists alone were able to organise a weighty response and organise the hearings in Mexico which received widespread publicity.

The novelist James T. Farrell was present in Mexico City. He wrote of the hearings:

It is a spectacle to see, a spectacle rare in history. Imagine Robespierre or Cromwell under such circumstances. Well, this is more, because neither Cromwell or Robespierre had the intellectual breadth that Trotsky has.

Trotsky’s summation in his defence ended with spontaneous applause.

But the downturn in the class struggle both at home and internationally, coupled with the horrors of the Moscow Trials had a demoralising effect on the intellectuals. On a philosophical level the bulk of them never accepted historical materialism, and the dialectic in particular, instead holding to ideas which reflected the dominance of pragmatism in American academic life.

Individuals like Sidney Hook who broke with Trotskyism in 1936 established a pattern which this generation of intellectuals would follow. It was characterised very well in an article in the New International at the beginning of 1939 [2] by, ironically, Max Shachtman and James Burnham, titled Intellectuals in Retreat. The drift rightwards began with a criticism of Marxist philosophy and the dialectic in particular as being ‘fatalistic’. It went on to make an equation between Stalinism and Leninism, with Leninism being presented as favouring a one-party, totalitarian dictatorship. Finally it ended with the conclusion that Trotskyism equalled Stalinism and an emphasis on the need to maintain ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’: ‘The main intellectual disease from which these intellectuals suffer may be called Stalinophobia, or vulgar anti-Stalinism’. This was an illness caused: ‘by the universal revulsion against Stalin’s macabre system of frame-ups and purges. And the result has been less a product of cold social analysis, it is moral rather than scientific and political’.

The article explained that intellectuals represented a petty bourgeois social layer who were pulled between the two great classes, the proletariat and bourgeoisie, with the balance of class forces influencing their sympathies. Now a new form of that pressure had emerged:

The foulness of Stalinism and imperialism can today breed only maggots; in particular it is impossible for intellectuals to avoid degeneration not merely of their characters as human beings but also of their minds if for any length of time they give their allegiance to these allied monsters of the lie.

Burnham was part of the SWP’s secretariat together with Cannon and Shachtman. A product of Princeton and Oxford, and a philosophy professor at New York University, he had read Marx after the Wall Street crash and, influenced by Sidney Hook, had become a leader of the American Workers Party and by that route became a Trotskyist. Together with Shachtman he edited New International.

But Burnham appears somewhat an unlikely leader of a revolutionary organisation. Alan Wald writes that he would: ‘occasionally attend political committee meetings in a tuxedo because he had just come or was en route to cocktails at the Rockefellers ...’

Burnham refused to go full time, refused to visit Trotsky to discuss his positions and refused to shorten his vacation in Connecticut to conduct an educational series in Minneapolis.

In December 1937 Burnham rejected the idea that Russia was a workers’ state. In part this reflected the influence of the ideas of Bruno R in The Bureaucratisation of the World that new, non-capitalist societies were emerging in Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany and Roosevelt’s America. Societies administered by a bureaucratic elite of technician/managers.

Burnham’s views were still couched in orthodox terms. Accordingly: ‘the economic structure as established by the October Revolution remains basically unchanged’. The bureaucracy did not constitute an independent class but it had ‘entered the road of destruction of the planned and nationalised economy,’ was being brought ‘into ever increasing and deepening conflict with the needs and interests of the nationalised economy’ and accordingly ‘the actions of the bureaucracy are actively sabotaging the plan and disintegrating the state monopoly’.

Trotsky replied:

This degeneration as the present orgy of bonapartist terror shows, has approached a crucial point. That which was a “bureaucratic deformation” is at the present moment preparing to devour the workers’ state, without leaving any remains, and, on the ruins of nationalised property to spawn a new propertied class.

Trotsky invited Burnham to Mexico, an invite Cannon urged him to accept but to no avail.

That the ‘Russian Question’ should now be raised amidst the horrors of the Moscow Trials was not surprising. Trotsky’s own views were in flux and his designation of it as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ was one which stressed its transitional nature, as we have already seen.

At the same time Burnham, backed by Hal Draper, the national secretary of the YPSL, criticised the organisational principles of the new SWP from a position critical of democratic centralism.

The differences Burnham had were never argued out within the SWP at the time. Cannon would write:

I personally never had any sympathy with Burnham’s ideas and conceptions in this respect. But along with others, as long as Burnham remained an isolated factor unable to assert any decisive influence on the course of the party, I saw no reason to draw our differences with him out to the end. (Struggle For The Proletarian Party, p. 120)

The SWP faced with a downturn was thrown into confusion by the turn in fortunes. In particular they now faced a growing CP.

In March 1938, during discussions with Trotsky and the SWP leadership in Mexico, Cannon said of the CP:

Do you think that the Stalinist movement has any prospect for further growth in the US – for further expansion? During the past few years they have grown tremendously not only in membership but in ramifications. I’m inclined to think that they have reached their apex in the US ... in general the terrible reception the Moscow trials have received and the collapse of the Peoples Front policy and their foreign policy in general have dealt serious blows to the Stalinist movement in the US. There is a much broader attack against Stalinism now. Then also in many trade unions where they have had control a powerful opposition has developed. Now our comrades tell us that the hatred against the Stalinists, in the painters union for example, where they combine with the worst gangster elements, is growing.

But this perspective took no account of the growing war threat. Nor the fact that a radicalised anti-Stalinist current was not likely to emerge with the struggle now in decline. Instead the dominant ideas in the CIO were those of Roosevelt, ideas reinforced by the bureaucracy and, until August 1939, the CP.

The blocs that Cannon was describing were now with elements who were moving right. In addition many good militants during the sit-downs were now caught up in the CIO bureaucracy.

The effect was to pull the Trotskyists towards seeing the CP as the main enemy. In the UAW the president, Homer Martin, had allied with the right and the supporters of Jay Lovestone against the CP and the left. Martin unleashed a red Scare. In Cannon’s absence Burnham and Shachtman took a position of backing Martin. It took a rebellion by the auto fraction of the party, round Bert Cochran and Kermit Johnson, to overturn this line.

While the CP were backing Roosevelt, and by implication war with Germany, in pursuit of the Popular Front, the SWP could hope for gains. But in line with the Hitler-Stalin pact the CP switched positions in the Autumn of 1939.

The pact threw the SWP into a faction fight. Burnham re-raised the ‘Russian Question’.

The internal state of the SWP was confused. Cannon himself described the leadership as ‘an unstable coalition’. Within the party apparatus Martin Abern was still leading opposition to the way the party regime functioned. The newly-won YPSU was not really integrated. In particular the New York membership was overwhelmingly petty bourgeois and greatly infected by the intellectual milieu it was drawn from.

Trotsky, writing in May 1939, said of the paper. Socialist Appeal:

The paper is too wise, too scholarly, too aristocratic, for the American workers and tends to reflect the party more as it is than to prepare for the future ... Of course it is not only a question of the paper, but of the whole course of policy. I continue to be of the opinion that you have too many petty bourgeois boys and girls who are very good and devoted to the party, but who do not fully realise that their duty is not to discuss among themselves, but to penetrate into the fresh milieu of workers. (Writings 1938–39)

One of his suggestions was that all petty bourgeois comrades should be placed on probation until they recruited a worker.

Burnham now accented Bruno R’s conclusions, arguing a position that Russia was a non-capitalist class society, defined as bureaucratic collectivism, not a workers’ state but representing a new historic form. Shachtman too accepted Burnham’s overall position – but maintained a position of defending Russia in war. And while Abern maintained Trotsky’s position, he blocked with the others against the ‘bureaucratic conservatism’ of the Cannon leadership.

Cannon would correctly describe this bloc in these words:

There has never yet been an opposition in our movement so heterogeneous, so far removed from Marxism and the spirit of proletarian revolution, so weak in proletarian composition and so lacking in leaders with the necessary political firmness, devotion, singleness of purpose and capacity to sacrifice.

The faction fight is documented in Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism and Cannon’s The Struggle For The Proletarian Party. Trotsky correctly labelled them the ‘Petty Bourgeois Opposition’, a title not just reflecting their social roots but the forces influencing their stance.

He and Cannon cooperated closely. When it became clear that Burnham in particular was being dragged into a position of viewing Russia as a new barbarism, worse than Western imperialism, Trotsky described the process at work, quoting Burnham and Shachtman’s own Intellectuals in Retreat to describe what was happening.

In particular he took issue over Burnham’s rejection of dialectics. This was something he had previously hoped to convince Burnham on privately. But now, though not until the factional lines were fully drawn, Trotsky took up the cudgel. Burnham’s reply, Science and Style, makes pathetic reading.

The faction fight split the party down the middle. In accordance with Trotsky, Cannon was prepared to let the discussion continue after the 1940 convention, the publication of the minority’s documents in New International, the creation of a special internal publication by them and the maintenance of minority comrades in the leadership.

Burnham-Shachtman-Abern replied by demanding the right to publish their own paper. When that was refused they left, setting up the Workers Party.

Balance sheet of a faction fight

Cannon formally won the 1940 faction by a vote of 55 to 31 at the convention. In reality it was a 50/50 split if the YPSL was taken into account. The minority took the majority in New York.

Today Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism is held up as proof for the Orthodox Trotskyist position that Russia remains a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. Rather it shows Trotsky believed it to be a ‘Bonapartist regime’, balanced between the two great classes, which faced imminent destruction.

Above all the fate of Stalin’s Russia would be settled by the war:

This war provokes, as we firmly believe, a proletarian revolution, it must inevitably lead to the overthrow of the bureaucracy in the USSR and regeneration of Soviet democracy on a far higher economic and cultural basis than in 1918. In that case the question as to whether the Stalinist bureaucracy was a ‘class’ or a growth on the workers’ state will be automatically solved. To every single person it will become clear that in the process of the development of the world revolution the Soviet bureaucracy was only an episodic relapse.

Again: ‘Degeneration must inescapably end at a certain stage in downfall.’

Hardly grounds for maintaining Trotsky’s conditional description of Russia as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ nearly 50 years on!

What then was wrong with the Burnham-Shachtman position? After all in stressing the development of ‘statism’ – the growth of state control of the economy, the totalitarianism of Stalinist rule and Russia’s imperialist role in the war it identified new factors.

The bureaucratic collectivist (or new class society theories it spawned like those of Tictin or Furedi) are deeply fatalistic. The stress is on the power of the state, the barbarism, of Russia. Above all if new societies of this type can be created the choice is no longer socialism or capitalism. There is a third choice, even worse than capitalism.

Burnham drew the conclusion from this rather quickly. He resigned from the party. Within a year he had published The Managerial Revolution which echoed Bruno R in describing Russia, Germany and America as ‘managerial societies’ and that a ‘managerial revolution’ awaited the world. Russia represented a new ‘Asiatic despotism’. Increasingly it was the threat. The choice was between US-style ‘democracy’ and Stalinism, and Burnham knew which side he was on there.

By 1947 he was calling for a ‘preventative’ atomic war against Russia. During the McCarthyite witchhunt when the Workers Party he had helped found (now the Independent Socialist League) took proceedings against its presence on the subversive list Burnham was the key witness against them.

Burnham died in July 1987. By then he was an established figure on the fringes of the US right – championing the racist regimes of Southern Africa and the Contras in Nicaragua.

Shachtman did not follow that path, nor was his rightwards shift so sudden. In April 1940 he took a ‘Third Camp’ position, supporting: ‘the submerged, smouldering working masses of the world’, and ‘for the defeat and overthrow of both imperialist camps’. The position of defending Russia had now been dropped.

In September 1948 amidst the growing witchhunt he concluded: ‘Stalinism is a reactionary, totalitarian, anti-bourgeois and anti-proletarian current in the labour movement but not of the labour movement.’ He concluded that:

... it would be absurd for the militants to proclaim ‘their neutrality’ and fatal for them to support the Stalinists. Without any hesitation, they should follow the general line, inside the labour movement, of supporting the reformist officialdom against the Stalinist officialdom. In other words, where it is not yet possible to win the unions for the leadership of revolutionary militants, we forthrightly prefer the leadership of reformists who aim in their own way to maintain a labour movement, to the leadership of the Stalinist totalitarians who aim to exterminate it.

The Workers Party stagnated and split. In 1949 it became the Independent Socialist League. Ten years later it joined the Socialist Party which a year later joined the Democrats.

Shachtman himself moved sharply to the right – supporting the Bay of Pigs invasion (claiming the ‘third camp’, represented by the remnants of the Social Democrats and the union bureaucracy, were taking part). Over Vietnam, opposition to Stalinist barbarism led to his support for the bombing of Hanoi. In 1972 at the end of his life Shachtman opposed McGovern for the Democratic nomination and advised support for Nixon in the presidential poll.

A minority of the old Workers Party, mainly around Hal Draper, retained a revolutionary position. But increasingly they were isolated. In the 1960s while they opposed the Vietnam War they refused support for the NLF as a break from the third camp position. Their failure to relate to Students for a Democratic Society ensured their isolation from that radicalisation.

If the history of the Shachtmanites justified Trotsky and Cannon’s position, the SWP too had been subject to pressure from the milieu they had recruited from at the beginning of the war.

Immediately after the faction fight ended the SWP leadership met with Trotsky. Pointing out that the CP opposed the war now, Trotsky quizzed them on their failure to back the CP’s 1940 presidential campaign. In response Cannon replied that a position of supporting a vote for the CP would cause problems because:

The Stalinists are hated by the militants. It is not the psychological attitude of our members but the broad anti-Stalinist movement. If we started to play this kind of politics we would run into this indignation of these militants. For example the food workers of New York. Our comrades succeeded in creating a strong progressive faction. They may possibly be elected to posts. We built our strength on opposition to Stalinist control of the union. Such a line would disrupt our work. (all the following quotes from SWP Internal Bulletin, Vol. 15 No. 10, April 1953)

Trotsky replied correctly concerning these ‘progressives’ the SWP was blocking with that: ‘The support of the progressives is not stable. It is found at the top of the union rather than as a rank-and-file current. Now with the war we will have these progressives against us.’

Trotsky correctly cited the SWP’s failure to build a rank-and-file current as opposed to blocs with sections of the bureaucracy. He also pinpointed the party’s Stalinophobia and its refusal to accept opposition to the war coloured everything. A CP vote was a clear anti-war vote in 1940 and the only one for an independent working-class-based party.

Turning his attention to the North West Organiser, the Minnesota Teamsters paper edited by the Trotskyists in Minneapolis, he declared:

Our policy is too much for pro-Rooseveltian trade unionists. I notice that in the North West Organiser this is true. We discussed it before, but not a word was changed; not a single word. The danger – a terrible danger is adaptation to the pro-Rooseveltian trade unionists. You don’t give any answers to the elections, not even the beginning of an answer.

Cannon did not accept the argument. The SWP did not support the CP’s election campaign. Later, in September 1940, he said:

It has been our general practice to combine in day-to-day trade union work with the progressives and even the conservative labour fakers against the Stalinists. We have been correct from this point of view, that while the conservatives and traditional labour skates are no better than the Stalinists, are no less betrayers in the long run, they have different bases of existence. The Stalinist base is the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. They are perfectly willing to disrupt a trade union in defence of the foreign policy of Stalin. The traditional labour fakers have no roots in Russia nor any support in its powerful bureaucracy. Their only base of existence is the trade union: if the union is not preserved they have no further existence as trade union leaders. That tends to make them, from self-interest, a little more loyal to the unions than the Stalinists. That is why we have been correct in most cases in combining with them as against the Stalinists in purely trade union affairs. (The Socialist Workers Party in the Second World War)

This view parallels that of the Shachtmanites, though other pressure was later to push them in the opposite direction. The method of looking for alliances with the bureaucracy would however remain and become a hallmark of Orthodox Trotskyism.

Before leaving the 1940 split one final point must be made. Cannon’s conduct of this factional struggle, as enshrined in The Struggle for the Proletarian Party, together with his conduct in such future internal fights, was held up as the way to proceed for a generation of Trotskyists that followed.

On grounds of success it is not a strikingly good model. Not only did Cannon only just secure a majority in 1940, owing much to Trotsky’s help, but he came near to a premature split in 1933 on simple organisational issues. And his allies in each faction fight would invariably end up as the protagonists in the next one.

Thus Hugo Oehler was the key to the fight with Shachtman-Abern in 1933 but then led the opposition to the Socialist Party entry and quit with his faction. In the 1940 fight the Cannonite faction used a young auto worker, Bert Cochran, and a New York intellectual, George Clarke, in the van of the fight. Both would split with 20 per cent of the membership in 1953. That is the product invariably of what happens when you have to push hard in a certain direction. When it comes to correcting the emphasis people are often loathe to shift. It takes discussion and education.

Cannon’s method was fundamentally formalistic. It meant not discussing out differences when they arose in embryo but rather once they emerged openly insisting discussion must fall along formal factional lines. Invariably that leads to splits.

The second problem which flows from Trotsky’s scientifically correct definition of the minority as being ‘petty bourgeois’, is a tendency, clearly evident in The Struggle For The Proletarian Party, to define internal division along lines of class composition:

The crisis is the direct reflection of alien class pressures upon the party. Under this pressure the bulk of the petty bourgeois elements and the petty bourgeois leaders, lost their heads completely, while the proletarian sections of the party stood firm ... (p. 9)

Trotsky, however, did not come to the conclusion that the minority were a petty bourgeois tendency on a sociological basis. In reality the majority were not overwhelmingly proletarian. The definition rested on their political positions and was only adopted with great care after discussion had ensured clarity of the differences.

To conclude that ‘alien class forces’ operate directly in this way within a revolutionary organisation creates a logic which has been all too clear in the way Orthodox Trotskyist organisations have duplicated a Stalinist-style internal regime (generally among those who quote the Cannon model).

Cannon and the crisis of Orthodox Trotskyism

The SWP emerged from the split weakened and facing America’s entry into the war. In August 1940 Stalin’s assassin murdered Trotsky. The Fourth International’s ‘leadership’ was transferred to New York. In reality it consisted of Trotsky’s ex-secretaries.

Trotsky had however left his followers a firm forecast of events. That of war, continuing slump, the break-up of Stalinism and social democracy leading to revolution. He also left The Transitional Programme which sought to provide a strategy for this scenario. As Cannon repeatedly pointed out The Transitional Programme was written with America very much in mind.

Trotsky was firm on the imminence of revolution:

What is clear is that in countries involved in the war the collapse will come not in four to six years but in six to twelve months ... And the revolution will come not in four years but much earlier, after some months.

It was a heady perspective for a few hundred Trotskyists who were assured their ranks would swell accordingly.

The Transitional Programme was to become central to the SWP’s work, as it was for all other Orthodox Trotskyists (orthodox in the sense of their allegiance to the Transitional Programme and not their faithfulness to Trotsky’s revolutionary beliefs).

In The History of American Trotskyism, Cannon made clear the centrality of having the ‘correct’ programme:

We always believed that the programme overrides everything. A group which is assured of the adoption of the Marxist programme does not need to fight too hard over every organisational detail ...

Transitional demands – acting in Trotsky’s words as a bridge between the struggle for reformist or economic demands and the struggle for power – only have meaning within a particular revolutionary context. The problem occurs when such demands are laid down in advance. Bread, land and peace were transitional demands in 1917, unrealisable without destroying capitalism. That was feasible because of the mass struggle of Russian workers, the existence of Soviets and, above all, of the Bolsheviks under Lenin.

As Trotsky pointed out, when the same demands were raised by the Popular Front in France in 1936, not only did they have no revolutionary content but they acted as a brake on the struggle, limiting the goal to reformist measures.

Above all having a ‘correct’ programme means nothing unless the class is in struggle and a strong revolutionary organisation exists.

Fetishising the demands listed in The Transitional Programme as laid out in 1938 can lead to all sorts of problems. For instance, during the post-war confrontation between the United Automobile Workers under Walter Reuther (then adopting a left face) and Fords, Reuther adopted the ‘correct’ demand of open the books. He did so not out of concern for creating workers’ control, as Trotsky envisaged the slogan as meaning, but because he knew Fords were making good profits and it would make a good PR exercise.

Again faced with post-war inflation and the greatest strike wave America has yet seen, the SWP raised Trotsky’s demand for a sliding scale of wages, to rise in line with inflation. Reuther in contrast called for ‘Wage Rises Without Price Increases’. Reuther’s slogan fitted the mood better. But above all the sliding scale of wages did not offer a clear way forward and was in no sense transitional as it did not challenge capitalism, which could meet the demand (as indeed it did in Italy).

But the situation of imminent revolution and the creation of mass Trotskyist parties that The Transitional Programme was based upon was not to occur. In the immediate term the SWP faced popular support for America’s entry into the war. Cannon responded to America’s entry into the war with the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’ which was originally formulated by Trotsky. Cannon argued:

We are willing to fight Hitler. No worker wants to see that gang of fascist barbarians overrun the country or any country. But we want to fight fascism under a leadership we trust ... We will fight all the time for the idea that the workers should have officers of their own choosing. That the great sum of money that is being appropriated out of the public treasury should be allocated in part to the trade unions for the setting up of their own military training camps under officers of their own selection.

The perspective was one in which Trotskyists could work to create dual power, directly controlling military units.

But this was not the reality between 1941 and 1945. The truth was that the SWP was confined largely to making propaganda. And in that situation a position for workers’ control of the war effort was sailing dangerously close to the edge of acceptance of the war. For instance, writing in The Militant in March 1941 Albert Goldman stated that the SWP did not advocate defeat of the USA, adding that Hitler was the ‘greatest enemy of the working class’ and that ‘all those we influence must go to war and do what they are told by the capitalists’.

However the SWP, following Trotsky, was clear that the Second World War was not a war against fascism but an imperialist conflict.

In contrast, the Workers Party took a clear revolutionary defeatist line. Writing in their paper Labour Action in May 1942, Irving Howe declared:

We are in favour of the defeat of fascism. We believe, however, that an indispensable prerequisite for that defeat is the establishment of workers’ and farmers’ governments in the allied countries, which, by freeing the colonial people now enslaved by the Allied imperialist powers and extending the hand of brotherhood to the German workers oppressed by Hitler, can alone effectively fight a revolutionary war to smash all forms of fascism.

The Shachtmanites took a position of supporting the ‘third camp’, that of the working class, against fascism, Stalin and the imperialist allies. In the beginning of the war that meant they took a position to the left of the SWP. But the SWP came through the war without capitulating to imperialism. On the day America declared war Cannon and 17 leaders of the SWP and Minneapolis teamsters were jailed for 16 months for their opposition to the war.

Cannon’s testimony to the court, reprinted as Socialism on Trial, is an excellent revolutionary defence. SWP members agitated against he no-strike pledge agreed by the trade union chiefs and Roosevelt. They supported back demands for civil rights. Trotskyists who entered the merchant navy (thereby avoiding the draft) volunteered for the deadly Russian convoys in order to carry Trotskyist propaganda to Murmansk.

Within the Trotskyists’ ranks new pressures were developing. In October 1941 the exiled International Communists of Germany, based in New York, produced Three Theses on the European Revolution. In essence they argued Nazism was a new, more repressive form of capitalism which had destroyed the organisations of all classes in occupied Europe. What was involved was a struggle for national liberation, involving all classes which would create a ‘democratic’ revolution. This meant that socialism was off the agenda until democracy and national freedom were restored.

The SWP correctly denounced this as accenting popular frontism and a stages theory of revolution. But by 1944 the Shachtmanites were supporting this position along with the exiled ‘leadership’ of the Fourth International.

In 1942 Felix Morrow, a central SWP leader, supported the Three Theses. By the time Cannon and the SWP leadership served their jail sentence in 1944 clear political difference were emerging between Cannon, and Morrow backed by Albert Goldman.

By now the Shachtmanites were raising the slogan ‘Through National Freedom to Socialist Freedom’. For them the emphasis was now on reforms, on recreating democratic ‘freedoms’. It was an emphasis which flowed from the bureaucratic collectivist position, and one which pulled Shachtman and the vast bulk of his supporters to the right.

The SWP emerged strengthened from the war. In July 1944 The Militant’s editorial carried the headline ‘7,614 New Readers’. Membership had doubled from just after the split, when it stood at 500, by the summer of 1944. The Militant had expanded and now had a black columnist – a reflection of the fact that for the first time the SWP was recruiting black workers. Pioneer publishers had begun in earnest to publish books – starting with Struggle for a Proletarian Party by Cannon and Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism.

The No-Strike Pledge by union leaders could not stop an explosion of labour militancy. In 1943 John L. Lewis’ United Mineworkers broke with the CIO to strike successfully. The end of the war saw the strike wave mushroom. In 1945 there were 4,750 strikes involving 3,470,000 workers (compared to a figure of 4,740 strikes in 1937 which involved just 1,861,000 workers). In 1946 the figure increased to 4,985 strikes involving 4,600,000 workers.

The centre of the militancy was the United Automobile Workers where there was a struggle for control between Reuther and a CP-backed faction which supported preserving the no-strike pledge.

A wave of demonstrations swept the armed forces with 4,000 GIs demonstrating in Kerrila, 3,500 taking part in a hunger strike on Guam and then in January 1946 a mass demonstration down the Champs Elysees in Paris.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the main black organisation, grew from just 85,000 in 1940 to 530,000 in 1946. When 26 blacks were killed by racists in 1943 in Detroit it sparked the first black ghetto uprising in Harlem.

The SWP grew to 1,500 members in 1946, mainly among industrial workers. For the first time it had an impressive black cadre.

By September 1945 The Militant was selling 31,000 copies and reached the capacity of its printshop’s production. On one day, designated ‘Red Sunday’, SWP members nationwide signed up 1,526 new subscribers.

But despite the strike wave the militancy remained under the control of the union bureaucrats, unlike in the sit-down strikes of 1936 and 1937. Nowhere was there a repeat of Minneapolis, Toledo or San Francisco.

In particular Roosevelt had consolidated working-class support for the Democrats. There can be no doubt that his main ally in this was the CP. American Stalinism was never that big but it was decisive in providing the organisational backbone of the CIO. And it was the CP which put the brakes on the struggle.

But the SWP’s perspective, clinging firmly as it did to Trotsky’s predictions, were increasingly at odds with reality. Despite the post-war radicalisation there had been no revolutionary outbreaks in Europe. Russia, far from being weakened or witnessing the overthrow of the bureaucracy, emerged strengthened.

For eight years the SWP continued to cling to each one of Trotsky’s predictions. If reality proved them wrong in turn, reality must be wrong. The SWP’s theoretical magazine, Fourth International, greeted Victory in Europe Day with the headline ‘There Is No Peace’. [3] Five months after the war in Europe ended, Cannon told a New York audience on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution:

Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union could be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think that the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage and is now in the process of regroupment and reorganisation for the second. The war is not over, and the revolution which we said would issue from the war in Europe is not taken off the agenda. It has only been delayed and postponed, primarily for lack of leadership, for lack of a sufficiently strong revolutionary party. (The American Century, p. 200)

Felix Morrow correctly pointed out that ‘the Trotskyist movement would become a madhouse if it followed Cannon’s line’.

Worse was to follow. In November 1943 the SWP leadership passed a resolution on the European Revolution that included a firm rejection of bourgeois democracy being restored:

The decay of capitalism and the acuteness of class conflicts, forbids another extended period of bourgeois democracy for war-torn Europe. While interim bourgeois democratic regimes may be set up here and there as by-products of uncompleted revolutionary movements, they must, by their very nature, prove unstable and short lived... the economic preconditions for an extended period of bourgeois democracy have disappeared ...

The Trotskyist parties everywhere have the basic duty to expose and fight against the illusion that stable bourgeois democratic regimes, which have lost their material foundation, can be restored in Europe ...

Roosevelt and Churchill understand that it is not in the cards to establish stable ‘democratic’ capitalist governments in Europe today ... The choice, from the Roosevelt-Churchill point of view, is a Franco-type government or the spectre of Socialist Revolution.

In conclusion it was spelt out that bourgeois democracy was ‘incompatible with the continued existence of capitalism in Europe’.

On the economy it was baldly stated, ‘In all the “liberated” countries the bourgeoisie is incapable of restoring economic life’. Similarly, Russia was held to be in a terminal crisis:

The Soviet Union will emerge from the war a devastated country. Millions of the lower of manhood are dead, wounded or missing. A great section of its industry is destroyed, and innumerable cities as well as great sections of the countryside lie in ruins. Far from having increased its independent strength, under Stalin the Soviet Union has been debilitated and today is weaker than ever in relation to the capitalist world.

The Second World Conference [4] of the Fourth International declared that ‘only the intervention of the proletarian revolution can save the Soviet Union from an early and fatal end’.

But what was to be done about Russian-occupied Eastern Europe? These societies were duplicating the system inside Russia itself. Yet Trotsky had said Russia was ‘only a temporary transitional regime’ which would not survive the war. The spread of that regime into Eastern Europe raised a crucial problem.

Once again the answer was provided by denying reality. The ‘Buffer Zone’ as they were termed remained capitalist according to the Fourth International’s Second Congress. ‘The capitalist nature of the economy of the “buffer zone” is apparent’. As to the political structure, ‘the state of the “buffer countries” represents at the same time an extreme form of Bonapartism’ (Fourth International, June 1948).

Russia remained a bureaucratic degenerated workers’ state. China and Eastern Europe were qualitatively different.

Inside the SWP Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman challenged the economic catastrophism of the Cannon leadership and in Britain the majority of the Revolutionary Communist Party around Jock Haston, Ted Grant and Tony Cliff had also moved independently to similar positions.

A discussion also began on a re-evaluation of the Russian question. One of the key contributors was Tony Cliff who recognised that Russia and Eastern Europe were reflections of each other and therefore to say that Russia was in any way a workers’ state meant that socialism was possible without the working class’s own self activity. As a result he developed his analysis that what existed in Russia was state capitalism.

But by that time Cannon, aided by the ‘International Secretariat’ in Paris (Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel and Pierre Frank), had moved to overturn the elected majority and split the organisation. Gerry Healy became the SWP’s effective voice in Britain organising a minority faction in support. The International Secretariat intervened directly to split the organisation, throwing their mandate – and that of Cannon – behind Healy.

Within the SWP Morrow and Goldman were pressing for unity with the Shachtmanites. Increasingly in counter-position they adopted positions for more modest perspectives which increasingly became closer to reformism. Goldman quit the SWP to join the Shachtmanites and then broke with them quickly. Morrow was expelled by the SWP and dropped away.

The bulk of Trotskyists in Europe opposed the International Secretariat but an elaborately devised system of voting guaranteed Cannon-Pablo-Mandel control at the Second World Conference.

Within the United States the post-war upsurge coupled with the perspective outlined above meant Cannon was arguing that the American revolution was imminent. Cannon’s Theses On The American Revolution started from the view that:

US imperialism which proved incapable of recovering from its crisis and stabilising itself in the 10-year period preceding the outbreak of the Second World War is heading for an even more catastrophic explosion in the current post-war era ... What is really in store is not unbounded prosperity but a shortlived boom. In the wake of the boom must come another crisis and depression which will make the 1929–32 conditions look prosperous by comparison. (The American Century, p. 256)

But America and the world was entering into the world’s greatest capitalist boom. The world economy grew twice as fast between 1950 and 1964 as it did between 1913 and 1950.

The post-war labour upsurge came to an abrupt end. By the Spring of 1947 the strike figure had slumped to the lowest since the formation of the CIO.

The UAW had been central to the upsurge, and in turn was central to the SWP’s industrial work. But within the UAW the Trotskyists had become trapped within the factional war engulfing the leadership.

On the one side was the ex-Socialist, Walter Reuther. On the other the Addes-Thomas faction backed by the CP. In 1944 all had united to defend the war-time no strike pledge against the militants who had combined into the Rank and File Caucus in opposition to both wings of the bureaucracy and the no-strike pledge. At the 1944 UAW convention the Rank and File Caucus (some of whose leaders were close to the Workers Party) gained 36 per cent of the vote. Support for the no-strike pledge was only maintained through Reuther’s manoeuvring.

But with the end of the war Reuther moved left and the Rank and File Caucus collapsed into Reuther’s faction – a position shared by the SWP and the Workers Party. In March 1946 Reuther secured election to the UAW presidency – it wasn’t delegates who secured his success. Both the SWP and the Shachtmanites started from a position that Reuther had to be supported against the Stalinists who were the real threat inside the UAW. Reuther, it was held, had the support of militant anti-Stalinist workers.

In 1947 Reuther turned on the Addes-Thomas-CP faction with a vicious red-baiting campaign. He helped sabotage effective opposition to the crippling anti-trade union Taft-Hartley Act. The SWP switched sides realising the witchhunt had to be opposed (the Shachtmanites remained supporting Reuther). But the reality was that the Thomas-Addes-CP faction was largely discredited among the best militants and was set to fall apart as result of the anti-Communist witchhunt.

The SWP’s militants were left isolated to face the growing McCarthyite witchhunt from Reuther, the state and the employers.

What this reflected was a view of the trade unions which did not see the central divide as between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. Instead Cannon argued it was crucial to exploit divisions within the bureaucracy, blocking with whoever took a more progressive position. Instead of organising the rank and file the key was organising a ‘class struggle left wing’ including elements of the bureaucracy. Members of the SWP including Farrell Dobbs could become trade union officials. Supporters of a rank-and-file position are denounced by Orthodox Trotskyists for having a ‘sociological’ view of the unions and not understanding the difference between left- and right-wing union chiefs.

From their 1946 position of expecting an imminent third American revolution the SWP now faced an offensive from all sides. In 1946 membership reached 1,470. Then it dropped to 1,277 in 1948, 825 in 1950 and 758 in 1952.

In 1946 Cannon stated:

It might be argued that a big wave of persecution would alter this perspective [of a revolutionary show-down] ... our perspective is not based on the contemporary policy of the ruling class but upon more fundamental considerations of the weaknesses of the system economically and that it cannot be changed by persecutions – as a matter of fact, it might even be accelerated by them. (The American Century, p. 281)

Today McCarthyism is seen as something which mainly befell Hollywood. In reality the main victim of the witchhunt was the working class. The red scare, intensified with the Chinese revolution and the Korean war, was aimed at systematically isolating militants on the shopfloor and eradicating any tradition of rank-and-file organisation stemming from the upsurges of the 1930s and 1940s. It guaranteed the dominance of the trade union bureaucracy and the close collaboration which has held between the unions and the employers since the late 1940s.

In 1952 for instance the House of Un-American Activities visited Detroit at Reuther’s behest to investigate Local 600 of the UAW in Fords. It was the biggest union branch in the world, with 50,000 members and a bastion of opposition to the Reuther leadership. The HUAC investigations and the witchhunt it unleashed helped remove the branch’s left-wing leadership and wreck the nucleus of shop stewards’ organisation it had created.

For SWP members the collapse of the post-war upsurge and the euphoria associated with the perspective of imminent revolution threw the organisation into crisis.

The SWP was unable to adjust to a situation of isolation where it was confined to propaganda. Instead it continued to hope for growth through election campaigns, subscription drives and even an agitational anti-witchhunt campaign which never got beyond the drawing board.

In this situation a new opposition developed. The central figure was Bert Cochran, the leader of the SWP’s work in the UAW. The grouping around him in Detroit argued for a propaganda perspective and opposed the growing stress on elections as the one remaining area of ‘mass work’. In particular Cochran pointed out that Cannon was wrong to stress the ‘progressive anti-Stalinism’ of the American working class. Any validity that might have had during the war when the CP opposed strikes or during the post-war strikes when it was to the right of the likes of Reuther had now been swept aside. Cochran won the support of the majority of the SWP’s auto fraction, the party’s jewel in the crown.

But into this crisis a new element emerged. In June 1948 Stalin turned on Tito’s Yugoslavia, expelling it from the Eastern bloc and threatening invasion. The world congress of the Fourth International had decided in case of war ‘the strictest revolutionary defeatism’ applied to the Bonapartist dictatorships in Eastern Europe. In contrast the Russian ‘workers’ state’ had to be defended at all costs.

The Militant responded initially by stating workers ‘will surely reject this trap of choosing between the type of gold braid worn in Belgrade, as against the type Stalin prefers in the Kremlin’ (19 July 1948).

The International Secretariat in Paris responded by sending an Open Letter to the Communist Party of Yugoslavia which announced: ‘You hold in your hands a mighty power if only you persevere on the road of socialist revolution ... Keep up the fight!’ It concluded:

We wish rather to take note of the promise in your resistance – the promise of victorious resistance by a revolutionary workers’ party against the Kremlin machine ... Long Live the Yugoslav Socialist Revolution.

Strangely no mention was made of the Fourth International’s position that Tito led a counter-revolutionary Bonapartist clique, responsible for destroying the socialist movement in Yugoslavia!

But by 1952 Pablo’s line that a socialist revolution had occurred in Eastern Europe without the working class, on the bayonets of the Red Army, was adopted by the SWP. It was now also decided China was a workers’ state – though the SWP argued the real change came not with the revolution’s triumph in 1949 but later, during the Korean war when Mao was forced to nationalise the economy faced with internal opposition.

Pablo was now arguing the decisive form the class struggle took was between the two blocs which had emerged in the cold war. A new war was imminent. In that situation:

In countries where the CPs are a majority of the working class they can, under exceptional conditions (advanced disintegration of the propertied classes) and under the pressure of very powerful uprisings of the masses be led to project a revolutionary orientation counter to the Kremlin directives.

In July 1952 at an SWP leadership meeting a supporter of the state capitalist position, Art Fox, called attention to Pablo’s positions and the fact they junked everything Trotskyism had stood for in its rejection of Stalinism and that class struggle had been transcended by the struggle between states.

Cannon replied to the last point, ‘not entirely, but partly’. After applauding Fox’s ‘thoughtful speech’ he denounced it as a ‘personalised attack’ on Pablo, who was an ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ and represented the collective view of the International. In particular Cannon stressed the unanimity between himself and Pablo over the positions of the Third World Congress.

But Pablo was now moving to secure the International Secretariat control and force the implementation of his new perspective.

By bureaucratic fiat the Majority of the French section were overturned by Pablo and a new leadership around Pierre Frank installed which had an entry perspective into the Communist Party – which followed logically from the view that it would be forced by events to lead a revolution.

But Cannon drew back from this conclusion and he carried the SWP into a split with Pablo and Frank, announcing: ‘We are finished and done with Pablo and Pabloism for ever, not only here but on the international field.’

Cannon himself was set for effective retirement. But the SWP and its allies were not ‘finished’ or ‘done with’ Pabloism. Both were pulled in towards political alignment with Stalinism by their acceptance that the working class was no longer central to the revolution, that socialism equated with state ownership of production and Stalinist or pro-Stalinist outfits could carry out the overthrow of capitalism.

In 1959 both sides hurried to claim that Castro’s revolution in Cuba was socialist. Joe Hansen eulogised that:

In the final analysis, the overturn in property relations in Cuba is an echo of the October 1917 revolution in Russia’, adding that, ‘Cuba entered the transitional phase of a workers’ state, although one lacking as yet the forms of democratic proletarian rule. (Joe Hansen, Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, p. 74)

A socialist revolution without the working class and a workers’ state without workers’ power!

The SWP adopted Castro’s Cuba, with its leaders making much-trumpeted visits and members joining work battalions there.

Both sides were able to re-unite in the ‘Fourth International’. But despite the whole apparatus which duplicated the Comintern, this was an organisation of few real forces. It was a sham international. And unlike the Comintern in Lenin’s day it had no political cohesion. The ‘American’ and ‘European’ blocs remained, disagreeing on more than what they agreed upon, and creating rival ‘sections’ in countries as far apart as Portugal and Iran.

The caution of the Dobbs-Hansen leadership ensured an intellectual stagnation and a drift rightwards, reinforced by their Orthodox Trotskyism.

Increasingly they became preoccupied with ‘ultra-leftism’ and preserving their legality, in reality their considerable electoral intervention. In 1963 Farrell Dobbs rushed off a telegram of condolence to Jacqueline Kennedy, fearing the SWP might be branded by the president’s assassination.

Having praised guerrillaism in Cuba the SWP now shifted to denouncing groups like the Provisional IRA when it first formed as being terrorist (in contrast the ‘Europeans’ under Ernest Mandel were prepared to recruit guerrilla groups like the Argentinian ERP which took to the countryside spurning the working class and proclaimed the need for a new international uniting the Trotskyists, Cuba, North Vietnam and North Korea).

Inside the United States the SWP abstained largely from the civil rights struggle in the Southern states, adopting an orientation exclusively on black nationalists like Malcolm X.

Internally opposition groups were thrown up repeatedly. Many of these were moving to become openly pro-Stalinist. A faction around a full-time organiser, Sam Marcy, split away after it supported the Russian suppression of the Hungarian revolution. In the early 1960s long-time SWP leader Arne Swabeck, a founder of American Trotskyism, became a Maoist and left (the SWP’s position on the Cultural Revolution was to support Mao’s opponent Liu Sho Chi because he stood for developing industry along Russian lines).

The SWP’s youth wing, the Young Socialist Alliance, became a factional battleground where only bureaucratic measures and the insane positions of the different factions (mainly grouped round the Healyites and the extremely bizarre Spartacists) allowed the leadership to retain control.

As various long-standing Cannonites began to grumble, they were removed. The Dobbs-Hansen leadership, in the absence of anyone else, handed over the reins to a group of ex-college graduates (no crime in itself) in the mid-’60s. All were relatively inexperienced, except in the factional battles of the YSA, and all were products of the growth from the pro-Cuba period.

Under them the shift rightwards continued.

The SWP itself had fallen to just 399 members by 1959 but it retained a position as yet unequalled on the American left and seemed set to make hay from the radicalisation of the 1960s. Indeed it quickly emerged as central to the movement against the Vietnam war.

But its position was for a ‘broad based campaign’, one which would include all sorts of religious and pacifist elements. Therefore it insisted the movement must simply demand an end to the war and could not take a position in support of the Vietnamese or raise wider issues in case it repel support. The SWP’s position was one of ‘Bring Our Boys Home’.

While the SWP blocked with Stalinists and Democrats in running the official campaign bodies the mass of people on the streets swept past them to the left.

The SWP also took, in line with the Shachtmanite remnants, a sectarian position towards Students for a Democratic Society. SDS was the body which reflected the campus radicalisation. The Trotskyists’ abstention from it, together with their right-wing positions on the war, meant that the Maoists reaped the benefits of the 1960s’ radicalisation. That had no small significance for the US left. Trotskyism was in many ways largely discredited by the positions of the SWP and the Shachtmanite groupings.

Cannon died finally in 1974. The organisation he had created was already dead. In 1974 the SWP backed the Portuguese Socialist Party against the growing forces of revolution. Denouncing the working class for seizing the its anti-revolutionary newspaper (and the Catholic church’s radio station – though on all of this they agreed with Mandel).

By 1978 they openly backed calls for an Islamic Republic in Iran. But above all it was the Nicaraguan revolution which ensured they formally renounced Trotskyism and permanent revolution. Trotsky was now just part of a ‘leadership team’ under Lenin, on a par with Zinoviev, Radek and presumably Stalin.

The remaining ‘Cannonites’ – many founders and long-term leaders of the SWP – were simply thrown out.

Following this logic their Australian group has gone further and openly declared its adherence to Gorbachev.


James P. Cannon died in 1974. Socialist Worker wrote:

The international revolutionary movement in general and the American movement in particular is immeasurably the richer from his life and work. Frequently wrong, sometimes wrong-headed, his great strength was in mass agitation, popular exposition of revolutionary politics, of making and enthusing revolutionary socialists.

He had retired from an active part in the SWP’s leadership following the Cochran split.

Cannon was one of the best of a generation of militants who grasped the lessons of the Russian revolution – militants who included Alfred Rosmer, Andreas Nin and Bill Haywood. But he went beyond them, firstly in building and leading a Communist Party, and then by rejecting Stalinism and creating the only substantial Trotskyist organisation prior to the radicalisation of the 1960s.

He took the best of the IWW and the syndicalists but broke from them to understand how politics and economics could not be separated. He took the best of Eugene Debs but broke from his concept a party to accept Lenin’s. And he left his swivel chair to follow Trotsky.

Above all Cannon represents the best leader that the American working class has yet produced.

But Socialist Worker was also correct in its choice of headline – ‘Magnificent Disciple Who Lost His Way’. Because lose his way he did, amidst the disintegration of the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s. And his responsibility for what happened then remains.

Today’s American SWP can, however, in no way claim Cannon. He belongs to the revolutionary tradition and that is how he should be remembered.

Notes by ETOL

1. In the printed version of this article the headline is given as “For the Russian Revolution”, however the actual headline was “For the Russian Opposition”. The article which is signed by Cannon, Abern and Shachtman, can be found here.

2. In the printed version the date is given as 1938, but it was actually 1939.

3. This headline actually appeared in the August 1945 issue of Fourth International.

4. The printed version says “Second World Congress”, which took place in 1948, whereas this resolution was adopted at the Second World Conference, which took place in 1946.

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Last updated: 5 February 2017