James P. Cannon and American Trotskyism

May 13, 2011

From the early 1920s, a conflict raged inside the Russian Communist Party between those who remained faithful to the principles of the Russian Revolution and those who defended the interests of the developing bureaucratic apparatus. By 1928, the forces of reaction, led by Joseph Stalin, had defeated Trotsky and his supporters.

As Bill Roberts shows, however, Trotsky won support internationally, including an important group inside the U.S. Communist Party.

BY THE end of the 1920s, the future of the Communist Party (CP) was threatened by a major political crisis.

The party's leadership was in the hands of an incredible bureaucratized clique, exhausted and cynical after almost a decade of working-class defeats and internal wrangling. The defeat of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent counterrevolution led by Stalin brought the crisis to a head.

The struggle to preserve the real Marxist tradition was carried out by a small group in the party under the leadership of James P. Cannon. A founding member of the party, Cannon led the American delegation to the Sixth Congress of the Communist International (CI) in 1928.

While at the Congress, Cannon, who had refused to engage in the anti-Trotsky line now rife in the CI, came across a copy of Leon Trotsky's "Criticism of the Draft Program" (now published in the book The Third International after Lenin.)

In that document, Cannon found many of the answers he had been looking for to explain what was wrong with the direction of the CI and the American party's policies. He later recalled:

James P. Cannon
James P. Cannon

When I read Trotsky's "Criticism of the Draft Program,"...I was convinced at once--and for good--that the theory of "Socialism in One Country" was basically counterrevolutionary and that Trotsky and the Russian Opposition represented the true program of the revolution--the original Marxist program.

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.

Cannon's decision to support Trotsky's Left Opposition and fight for their perspectives in the U.S. party involved considerable personal sacrifice.

As one of the leaders of the CP in the 1920s, he was in a relatively comfortable position to head the party had he stayed with the majority. But as Cannon recalled in 1959:

I never deceived myself for a moment about the most probable consequences of my decision to support Trotsky in the summer of 1928. I knew it was going to cost me my head and also my swivel chair, but I thought: What the hell--better men than I have risked their heads and their swivel chairs for truth and justice.

Cannon managed to smuggle out a copy of the Trotsky's document hidden in a teddy bear belonging to the child of a returning British visitor.

Already Cannon was under the eyes of the GPU--Stalin's secret police--and they reported his interest in Trotsky to the U.S. leadership. Cannon knew from the beginning that the fight would not be fair and would require careful preparation if he was to rescue a viable section of the party to carry on the tradition.

BACK IN New York, he began recruiting supporters in small numbers by having them come to his apartment and read, in one sitting, a copy of the book-length document. His companion, Rose Karsner, was the first. Then came Max Shachtman, editor of the magazine Labor Defender, and Martin Abern, leader of the CP's Young Workers League.

These four were to become the central leadership of American Trotskyism over the next 12 years. At the time, they were ridiculed as "generals without an army."

As the number of those who read the document grew, it became more and more difficult to prevent the leadership of the CP from finding out.

Cannon was confronted by William Z. Foster, a former ally in another party dispute, about his position on the Left Opposition. Cannon stalled for a time, refusing to confirm or deny his views. Eventually, the rest of the leadership found out, and Cannon, Shachtman and Abern were put on trial.

Recognizing that their days in the party were numbered, they used the trial to involve as many members as possible. In the end, they declared their adherence to Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Copies of their statement were circulated by their supporters, and within a week, they had issued a paper, The Militant, headlined "For the Russian Revolution."

All three were expelled, along with their supporters. And in order to insure a sanitized party, the Lovestone leadership also expelled those members who questioned the expulsions--including a key group of workers in Minneapolis who were to play an important role in leading workers' struggles in the 1930s.

In 1928, for a leader of Cannon's experience and stature to openly declare for Trotsky and win a section of the party cadre was unparalleled. Trotsky understood the importance of Cannon's contribution, and the immense boost in morale this action gave the tiny groups who had rallied to the Left Opposition. As Cannon remembered:

[O]vernight the whole picture, the whole perspective of the struggle changed. Trotskyism, officially pronounced dead, was resurrected on the international arena and inspired with new hope, new enthusiasm, new energy...

In the darkest hour of the Opposition's struggle, they learned that fresh reinforcements had taken the field across the ocean in the United States, which by virtue of the power and weight of the country itself, gave importance and weight to the things done by the American communists.

The Left Opposition in the U.S. took the name Communist League of America (Opposition). Their orientation was to the rank and file of the CP who they felt could be won to an alternative perspective. Even though the CP had shrunk to a little over 7,000 members by 1928, it was still by far larger than anything the Trotskyists could boast.

The Militant was the main tool of the CLA. It reprinted Trotsky's criticism of the Comintern program and outlines the CLA's views of the class struggle and what direction the party should take.

For example, in a December 1, 1928 Militant article, Cannon answered the party leadership on the nature of debate in a Leninist organization:

"The Communist Party is not a debating society." Behind this statement, true enough in itself, all the bureaucrats who fear discussion seek to hide their incompetence.

We communists are not a group of interminable debaters. Neither are we an army of voting robots. The automatic hand raiser is no communist any more than the undisciplined, endless talker. The one of these conceptions is just as far away from Leninism as the other.

Cannon went on the point out:

The great principled questions raised by the Russian Opposition--questions of decisive importance for the whole future of the world proletarian revolution--have never been fairly and fully discussed in any party of the Comintern, including our own party, and consequently, have been decided wrongly.

The CLA was able to recruit over 100 members in the first few months, but conditions were not easy. Paper sales and meetings were often attacked by Stalinist goons and many party members feared to be seen talking to the "renegades."

But perhaps the biggest obstacle to further growth was the CP's mid-1929 adoption of the "third period" turn to left-unionism and organizing the unorganized.

Most rank-and-file CPers saw this turn as a necessary correction to the go-slow approach of the Lovestone perspective of "American exceptionalism" and as an acceptance of many of the Opposition's perspectives. They could not understand why the CLA would criticize this "turn to the class."

To many party members, the CLA's criticism of the CP's ultraleftism seemed like sour grapes. They saw the party as an active force doing something about the conditions under which workers were forced to live. That there were more defeats than victories did not inspire the victims of the "third period" to join the CLA in large numbers. In the end, many of these people were lost to radical politics.

The founding conference of the CLA was held in Chicago in May 1929. There were 48 delegates and alternates from 12 cities. The CLA did not present itself as a rival party to the CP, but as a faction fighting to reform it. This followed Trotsky's view at the time that the Comintern could still be won to revolutionary politics.

The sudden shift of the party to ultraleft mass work under its new head Earl Browder, however, forced the CLA to abandon its criticism of the party's drift to the right for a critique of the Comintern's ultraleft line.

The zigzag of the fully Stalinized party left the CLA isolated from its primary audience inside the CP. Recruitment soon dried up, and American Trotskyism entered what Cannon referred to as the "dog days."

BESIDES THE loss of audience inside the party, the small Trotskyist organization had to soon operate in a world where millions of workers were out of work. The October 1929 stock market crash signaled the start of the Great Depression. While economic collapse had been expected by most revolutionaries, its depth was a shock. Unemployment jumped to over 2 million two weeks after the crash.

By 1933, a third of the workforce--15 million--were totally unemployed; in industries like coal the percentage was over 60. Workers, stunned by these conditions, did not begin to fight back for several years.

Still there were struggles to work around. The CP had enough prestige to attract workers inspired by the Russian Revolution and who looked to the job security of Russian workers as reason enough to work with the unemployed organizations of the CP.

The CP also did work in Black communities against evictions and in building a defense of the Scottsboro Boys, which won them a sizable number of Black supporters during this period.

The CLA was shut out of this work by the Stalinists. This forced the small group to work underground to reach activists. The results were tiny, and the work was slow and tiresome.

Even a propaganda organization needs to be involved in whatever real work is available in order to make the propaganda concrete. Unfortunately, the CLA found itself isolated from the main body of revolutionary workers in the U.S.

The effects of these conditions on members of the CLA took their toll. A few went back to the CP, accepting the "mass work" as more important than political principle in a tiny, isolated group. Others sought to regroup with other fragments of the communist movement, hoping to build a force capable of intervening in the AFL unions. This get-rich-quick scheme completely ignored the differences that put the two factions into opposition.

There was also the problem of unhealthy recruitment. As Cannon put it, "Many people came to us who had revolted against the Communist Party not for its bad sides but for its good sides; that is, the discipline of the party, the subordination of the individual to the decisions of the party in current work."

Tensions also existed between key leaders like Cannon and Shachtman that required the intervention of Trotsky to keep them in perspective to the tasks at hand. As Trotsky noted:

The lack of progress in the movement...aroused all sorts of personal antagonisms, group antagonisms...The same lack of progress in the movement does not permit these antagonisms to take on a political character...The struggle of the groups becomes, in its turn, an obstacle to the further progress of the movement.

Despite the difficulties, setbacks and mistakes, the CLA's contribution to the maintenance of the genuine Marxist tradition proved invaluable.

This article originally appeared in the in February 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

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