From Wobbly to Left Oppositionist

James P. Cannon: American Bolshevik

We print below, with permission, edited excerpts of Bryan D. Palmer’s presentation at the book launch for James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928, held at Tamiment Library in New York City on 12 October 2007.

James P. Cannon worked throughout his life to realize the American revolution—to create a working-class vanguard party capable of providing leadership in the struggle to make a revolutionary workers’ state. Cannon is an intrinsically important figure who traverses and intersects in his political life almost all strands of the revolutionary left, in both the pre- and post-Bolshevik periods. Largely through his united-front work he linked Communist (and later, Trotskyist) militants with revolutionary anarchists and other leftists, while, at the same time, providing a trenchant critique of their programmatic shortcomings.

In writing my book I wanted to try to use Cannon’s story to introduce an appreciation of the impact that Stalinism and the political defeat of the Russian Revolution of 1917 had on the American party in the 1920s. In doing this I hoped to offer an alternative historiographic interpretation that would help put communist possibility back on the interpretive and political maps.

So how to sum up Cannon’s complicated history for an audience such as this? In this, the first volume, which runs from his birth in 1890 to his final expulsion from the Communist Party in November 1928, I treat it in six, roughly chronological, segments. The first we might call “native son.” Most people who have read the recollections of Cannon published in the Trotskyist milieu are aware of his Kansas background as the “Rosedale native son.” What I tried to do, and I think this is of limited importance politically, is to dig into his background to fill out our understanding of Cannon and put flesh on some bones. What I found both confirms Cannon as he presented himself to history, and also calls into question some of the Cannonesque narratives of his own beginnings. The scholar in me likes those chapters because of how deep they dig into the historical truth about his origins, and also because the peculiarities and particularities of the sources—some of which are fictional accounts he wrote that were never published and are buried in the Cannon papers in the Wisconsin archives—throw new light on his background, his childhood and his relations with his parents.

The second part of the book deals with how Cannon came to join the revolutionary left. This involves a combination of factors both in his family background and his break with his small town roots. I think there are some interesting points to be made about how Cannon came to identify with the revolutionary left. He got involved through his intense interest in social justice and his youthful involvement in labor defense campaigns. He did not begin as a trade unionist, although he would be involved in left-wing union politics (as a Wobbly [member of the Industrial Workers of the World—IWW] and later as a communist) for most of his life.

The chapter on Cannon’s activity as a Wobbly—which has a lot of detail—differs with the standard historiography by treating the IWW as more than simply a syndicalist/spontaneist organization. In fact, the IWW was a multi-faceted political organization, and Cannon was part of what we might call the “Vincent St. John wing.” As such, he was part of a cadre of hand-picked organizers who were sent into the hot spots of the class struggle, in places like Akron and Duluth, to organize workers and help provide leadership in class confrontations.

In this sense, the Wobblies really were, as Cannon described them later in a pamphlet, “the anticipation of revolutionary communism.” At the time he had never heard of Leninism, but he was learning important things about organizing and tactics that he would later employ, in a far more sophisticated manner, as a Bolshevik. For Cannon, the Wobblies were not the antithesis of a vanguard party as they are so often presented. Their “St. John wing” was an embryonic formation that pointed in some senses in the direction of a party formation.

Cannon was not really schooled in trade unionism during his time in the IWW so much as he was schooled in the class struggle, which is something slightly different. He’s thrown into a series of labor-capital conflicts as part of a nascent revolutionary force orchestrated by St. John, and gets his training in the course of strikes, mass mobilizations, free-speech fights, etc. I think this was critical in Cannon’s later development as a revolutionary because, with his outlaw Wobbly origins, Cannon never really absorbed the methods of class compromise of the trade-union bureaucracy. You really cannot say that about [William Z.] Foster, who, despite his positive contributions—and there were many—came to politics through his experiences as a trade unionist.

A critical turning point for Cannon comes at the age of 27, when the Russian Revolution erupted in the middle of World War I. He is transformed by seeing what a Leninist vanguard party can accomplish and understands the necessity to connect particular struggles at the point of production with a larger, political struggle to overthrow the bourgeois order and create a workers’ state. And he is acutely aware of the importance of labor defense at a moment when working-class militants were being jailed and deported en masse, their offices raided by police and their meetings attacked by vigilantes.

Cannon began to see the necessity of a theory that could tie this all together—an internationalist approach that could distill the lessons of the Russian Revolution, particularly the organizational form of the Leninist party. His subsequent development is largely a process of filling in, refining and developing a more sophisticated understanding of the Bolshevik experience.

In 1917, Cannon realized that he could no longer really be a Wobbly, and moved into the communist underground, where he was one of very few figures of national importance. I think C.E. Ruthenberg noted that at the formation of the Communist Party there were really only maybe half a dozen people who had any direct experience in the class struggle—and Cannon was one of them.

In that milieu Cannon, the native-born Irish-American radical, rubbed shoulders with the socialist theoreticians of the Russian and Finnish language federations, and became familiar with both their strengths and weaknesses. Theodore Draper and other historians have tended to dismiss them as sort of other-worldly sectarians, but Cannon, who battled these people over the need to create a mass legal communist party, nevertheless had tremendous respect for the Marxist thinkers of the Lettish and Russian sections. He also saw their limitations—not just their separation from the American class struggle, but their difficulty even imagining the possibility of revolutionary class struggle in America.

Cannon made his way through a maze of different underground bodies in this period: the Communist Labor Party, the Communist Party (which he was not in, but negotiated with) and the United Communist Party. It all culminated in the birth of American communism with the founding of the Workers Party in 1921, which represented an entirely different organizational framework for revolutionary activities.

Cannon, more than any other figure in the early communist movement, brought people together, sought out people with personalities very different than his own, appreciated what they could contribute, put them where they needed to be and developed them. Alexander Bittelman, a leading figure in the Jewish Socialist Federation who became William Z. Foster’s leading theoretician, had tremendous respect for Cannon, even though they were factional opponents in many disputes in the party. This is what Bittelman had to say about Cannon’s role in the formative period of the Workers Party:

“As I became acquainted with Jim, I began to notice and appreciate his skills in internal party politics, bringing unity into the warring groups of the Jewish Communist and left-wing movements. He managed by his political skills as well as by his charming personality—when he chose to be charming—to win the respect and also the confidence of our group, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, as well the Olgin-Salutsky group which had formerly been the Jewish part of the Workers Council. I remember a certain image of him that I acquired after a while: it was the image of a caretaker of a large experimental institutional laboratory moving about various machines, tools, gadgets, testing tubes, et cetera making sure they operate properly: oiling, fixing, changing, improving, adjusting. His humor and his wit played no small part in all of that.”

This is an incredibly laudatory—and I think very important—assessment of what Cannon was doing at that critical moment. If you want the negative version you can read Benjamin Gitlow’s book, or Earl Browder’s unpublished remembrances.

Cannon’s campaign to create an effective, above-ground revolutionary party in America had the active support and guidance of the Communist International in those very early years. The revolutionary Communist International also pushed the young communist movement in the U.S. to seriously address the question of racism in America for the first time, and to break from the Socialist Party’s policy on the black question, which had been heavily influenced by the lily-white racism of the craft unions.

Cannon’s successes in the early years were considerable. He was instrumental in bringing together personalities of very different sorts—Lovestone, Shachtman, Abern, Bittelman and even leaders like Ruthenberg—and also in integrating the foreign language federations into an effective party that recognized the necessity of bringing communist ideas into the mainstream of the American working class. The tragedy, of course, for Cannon (and for all of us) is that this occurred in the relatively short period during which the Communist International was healthy. The defeat of the German Revolution in October 1923, and the death of Lenin in early 1924, set the stage for the political degeneration of the Communist International, as a bureaucratic faction, headed by Joseph Stalin, gradually consolidated control within the Russian Communist Party, abandoning the perspective of world revolution in the name of “socialism in one country.”

Cannon later noted that this shift had its counterpart in the U.S., where in the mid-1920s the trade unions were in retreat and there was generalized political movement to the right. Even in the traditional bastions of working-class radicalism, the garment trades and the mines, where revolutionaries had played essential roles, there were anti-communist pogroms. The Communist Party was wracked by bitter factionalism and there was a great deal of programmatic confusion.

The brightest spot for the CPUSA in this period was the work of the International Labor Defense [ILD], led by Cannon, which through its Leninist united-front strategy in defense of class-war prisoners broadened its appeal beyond the CP’s traditional base and mobilized vastly larger forces in ongoing campaigns. Cannon used his connections in the workers’ movement to help broaden support for Sacco and Vanzetti and bring attention to the cases of the Centralia Wobblies, Tom Mooney and many others. The ILD also sought to challenge racism—particularly Southern lynching—and the deportation of immigrant radicals. The ILD’s activity, while the CP’s best work in the mid- to late-1920s, was at the same time hindered by the factionalism and ongoing Stalinization of the American Communist Party.

This brings me to the final section of the book. It took Cannon a long time to come to appreciate the critique of Stalinism offered by Trotsky. This is understandable given the dearth of information and his immersion in labor-defense work. When he and Maurice Spector (the leading figure in the Canadian Communist Party) did get access to Trotsky’s critique in 1928 at the Sixth Comintern Congress, the lights went on. My book concludes with his expulsion and an account of how the Stalinists provided the Left Opposition with its initial American cadres.

I want to close with a few remarks on the current period and the lessons Cannon can provide. The first point, which Cannon came to with difficulty, and slowly, was the realization that much of his development as a Bolshevik leader during the mid-1920s took place in a political environment which was becoming increasingly toxic as the Stalinization of the American party progressed. He only slowly grasped the primacy of program—i.e., that factional alignments must be determined on the basis of agreement on decisive political questions. The second point, which, while obvious, is still very relevant today, is the importance of labor-defense work and the value of a united-front approach where possible.

My final point is the issue of revolutionary regroupment. Many people in this room believe—fervently believe—that without a revolutionary alternative the prospects for humanity are dim indeed. It is necessary to work today to bring together those people who are serious about creating the only instrument that can carry out a socialist revolution—a mass Leninist combat party. Of course it all pivots on the question of political program.

Some divisions have a principled character—and are unbridgeable. Yet, if we look back to the situation in 1919 when Cannon sought to regroup subjectively revolutionary militants dispersed among a welter of mutually hostile far-left formations, it is clear that sometimes the initiative of even a few individuals (aka the subjective factor) can help change enough minds to unlock the existing configurations and produce a regroupment on a principled basis. We live in a very different time of course, and have the benefit of a rich accumulation of historical experience and also the burden of a long string of defeats, betrayals and capitulations. The last couple of decades have produced some new and very significant obstacles. But in the heartland of imperialism it has never been easy to build an effective mass revolutionary party—or even a sizable propaganda group with roots in the working class. From Cannon we can learn how it was done in the past, and that can tell us a lot about how it can be done in the future.

Published: 1917 No.30 (April 2008)