20 November 2021
Marxist labor historian Bryan D. Palmer recently spoke at an online forum to promote the upcoming release of the second volume of his biographical trilogy on the founder of US Trotskyism, James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928–38, due out in hardback in December.
Cannon represents the red thread of revolutionary continuity in North America. The first volume of Palmer’s trilogy, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890–1928, covered his early days as a Wobbly in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It runs through the birth of American communism, including Cannon’s role as a founding member of the Workers Party in 1921 and later as leader of the American Communist Party (CP) and principal architect of the party’s International Labor Defense work in the mid-1920s.
The second volume covers the expulsion of Cannon and his followers from the CP in 1928, the establishment of Trotskyism in the US and Cannon’s emergence as its central figure during the crucial period of the 1930s. It explores the internal dynamics of the American section of the International Left Opposition (ILO) and its relationship with Leon Trotsky, whom Cannon and other leading US Trotskyists visited in exile in Mexico.
These were turbulent times. The communist movement struggled to understand racial oppression in the US and debated the “black belt” thesis, which argued that blacks in the South formed a compact nation capable of exercising self-determination. US Trotskyists also reacted to international events such as the sham Moscow Trials (1936-38) and mass purges that consumed tens of thousands of party activists and whole layers of Soviet society. In 1937, the Dewey Commission exonerated Trotsky and ruled that the trials were orchestrated frame-ups. The movement for the Fourth International, including its American adherents under Cannon, were also concerned with the events of the Spanish Civil War and the Comintern’s policy of the “popular front” (aka “peoples’ front”).
Under Cannon’s leadership, American Trotskyism grew from a tiny collection of roughly 100 members in 1928 to the largest and most important section at the time of the founding of the Fourth International (FI) in 1938, with a membership of some 2,000 and deep roots in the industrial working class. It was Cannon who decisively shaped the entry of the American Trotskyists into the Socialist Party in 1936-37 and the successful regroupment efforts that allowed them to double their size and led to the founding of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in January 1938.
A projected third volume of Palmer’s biography intends to cover Cannon’s years as the leader of American Trotskyism after 1938, including the split with Max Shachtman’s Stalinophobic faction. The SWP took a leading role in maintaining the FI throughout World War II after the death of Trotsky. When the organization was threatened by liquidationist deep-entry strategies put forward by Michel Pablo in the early 1950s, Cannon and his co-thinkers, albeit with serious political deficiencies, created an anti-Pabloite wing to defend Trotskyist orthodoxy—only to reunify with the Pabloites a decade later over a shared capitulation to Cuban Stalinism. This was opposed at the time by the Revolutionary Tendency (forerunner to the Spartacist League), through which we trace our history and political heritage.
When asked by an IBT supporter during the discussion about the key lessons of Cannon’s efforts at regroupment from 1928 to 1938 for revolutionaries today, Palmer noted:
“We exist in very difficult times. The revolutionary left has not been weaker, really, than it is now; it’s as weak now as it has been at any given point over the course of the last hundred years, I would argue.…
“… The task very much is for the regroupment of the revolutionary left. And the regroupment of the revolutionary left has been in some senses on hold now for some time.…
“The particular politics of the moment are difficult ones to negotiate. There are a number of serious differences over what the state of the world is, how one judges that, what politics need to be addressed and confronted forcefully. I think any revolutionary regroupment has to both learn from the past and learn from the experiences like those of Cannon to tread in ways that do eschew both sectarianism and opportunism.…
“Because Trotskyism is weak at the moment, does not mean that its lessons are necessarily weak. It simply means that the work of building revolutionary organizations that are in a position to regroup with other revolutionary organizations is all the more challenging and all the more necessary.… The lessons from Cannon are that jettisoning principles, settling for less, compromising with the politics and the personnel that one knows are dead-ends, is definitely not the answer.”
The current period has been significantly shaped by the destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991, which led to demoralization and disillusionment among the far left. For many the prospect of regrouping the forces of genuine Trotskyism on the basis of a revolutionary program seems distant and unattainable. Yet, the fundamental task of constructing a Leninist vanguard remains.
Attendance at the online forum mostly comprised organizations and individuals who claim the mantle of Cannon and the Revolutionary Tendency yet have splintered in different directions. For instance, there were several representatives of the Internationalist Group (League for the Fourth International), which, like the IBT, broke from the once-revolutionary Spartacist League due to its political degeneration. It is an urgent task for all of us to carry out the difficult but necessary process of attempting to resolve any significant differences in the interests of building an anti-Pabloite (i.e., revolutionary) Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party.
The process of revolutionary regroupment necessarily involves transcending the history of division, the pessimism of the “art of the possible” and the politics of personal prestige that often infect the far left. The hard work of building a democratic-centralist organization capable of overcoming the current isolation above all requires embracing a commitment to revolutionary integrity to put “program first.” This is the historic legacy and fundamental importance of James P. Cannon’s efforts to defend Trotskyism—the revolutionary Marxism of our time.
The Cannon Biography & Its Critics (1917 No.30)
James P. Cannon: American Bolshevik (1917 No.30)
On ‘Revolutionary Regroupment’ (1917 No.30)