James P. Cannon: American Bolshevik

The following remarks were delivered by our comrade Jason Wright at the 12 October meeting held at New York University’s Tamiment Library, “From Wobbly to Bolshevik,” featuring Bryan D. Palmer. The three-minutes allotted to speakers were insufficient for Jason to complete his comments. We have included his undelivered conclusion (the final two paragraphs below).

James P. Cannon is the most important communist leader to have so far emerged in North America. As Bryan’s book documents, Cannon’s formative years were as a footloose Wobbly, and he never really lost the fiery conviction he had as a soapbox orator. Unlike most of the important figures in the early American Communist movement, Cannon remained true to the revolutionary convictions of his youth, and this is what led him to join Trotsky in the uphill struggle against the Stalinist perversion of Bolshevism.

Cannon proved to be the most important of Trotsky’s supporters and central in building the SWP [Socialist Workers Party]—the flagship of the International. Cannon did not make an original contribution to Marxist theory on the order of Trotsky or Lenin, but he did have the capacity not only to lead the masses in struggle, but also to swim against the stream and maintain the program of Bolshevism through some of the darkest years of the Twentieth Century. From resisting the Stalinization of the Comintern in 1928 to the belated, flawed, but critically important, struggle against Pabloism a quarter of a century later, Cannon was an important link in the chain in the struggle for revolutionary continuity.

His detractors have dismissed Cannon as a narrow organizational manipulator – a sort of Marxist Boss Tweed. But looking at the record and reading Cannon’s contemporary writings show how false this is. Cannon recognized the value and commitment of subjective revolutionaries who devoted their lives to leftist politics, and he struggled to find a way to win over Stalinist cadres for Trotskyism. When [Max] Shachtman and [James] Burnham set off on a split course for the “Third Camp,” Cannon agreed to a public debate in the party press in an effort to win vacillating comrades back.

Cannon played a central role in the [1934] Minneapolis General Strike—an event that showed that Trotskyists could lead mass struggles just as well as write sharp polemics. Cannon was not afraid to engage in united fronts with reformists and centrists. Under his leadership the American Trotskyists regrouped with A.J. Muste’s Workers Party, and then successfully implemented the “French Turn” and won an important layer of subjectively revolutionary youth away from the reformist Socialist Party of Norman Thomas. Cannon was programmatically firm, but he was no sectarian.

From his early involvement in the defense of WFM [Western Federation of Miners] leaders [William “Big Bill”] Haywood, [George] Pettibone and [Charles] Moyer to his lead role in the defense of [Nicola] Sacco and [Bartolomeo] Vanzetti, Cannon worked in non-sectarian defense campaigns that recognized: “An Injury To One is an Injury to All.” There are valuable lessons in this work for those of us engaged in similar defense work today, notably the campaign to free former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal. Cannon was a hard factionalist, but did not stoop to slander and [he] always opposed political gangsterism in the movement. Under his leadership the SWP had a vibrant internal life where no one was afraid to say exactly what they thought.

Cannon was also a strong defender of the degenerated Soviet Union, just as Trotskyists today defend the deformed workers’ states of China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea. Cannon was a workers’ leader who was not afraid to criticize the misleadership of the labor bureaucrats, even when in a bloc with them during the course of strikes. He understood the importance of racism in America and wrote about the special oppression of black workers. The SWP under Cannon, despite its subsequent wholesale programmatic capitulation to Black Nationalism, did recognize the vanguard role that the super-exploited and strategically-located black working class will play in the coming American Revolution.

Cannon was not without his political weaknesses, and it is regrettable that, even though officially retired, he supported the SWP’s reunification with the Pabloites which prefigured a relatively rapid descent into sectoralism and reformism. But taken as a whole, Cannon’s dedication to the Trotskyist program, his record of providing skillful Marxist leadership in the unions, of carrying out non-sectarian defense work, and of principled political struggle both within his own organization and the broader workers’ movement have many lessons for revolutionaries today. We in the IBT are proud to play our part in carrying on the work to which he dedicated his life—the struggle to forge a mass, revolutionary, international workers’ party.

Posted: 22 October 2007