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James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928

by Bryan D. Palmer

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Bryan D. Palmer's award-winning study of James P. Cannon's early years (1890-1928) details how the life of a Wobbly hobo agitator gave way to leadership in the emerging communist underground of the 1919 era. This historical drama unfolds alongside the life experiences of a native son of United States radicalism, the narrative moving from Rosedale, Kansas to Chicago, New York, and Moscow. Written with panache, Palmer's richly detailed book situates American communism's formative decade of the 1920s in the dynamics of a specific political and economic context. Our understanding of the indigenous currents of the American revolutionary left is widened, just as appreciation of the complex nature of its interaction with international forces is deepened.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252077227
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 03/10/2010
Series: Working Class in American History
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 576
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Bryan D. Palmer is the Canada Research Chair at Trent University. He edits Labour/Le Travail and is the author of ten other books, the most recent being Canada's 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era.

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James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928



Copyright © 2007 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03109-0


The Communist Can(n)on

Questioning American Radicalism

We ask questions of radicalism in the United States. Expectations and preconceived notions of what radicalism should look like abound, and our queries reflect this. Why is there no socialism in America? Why are workers in the world's most advanced capitalist nation not class-conscious? Why has no third party of laboring people emerged? Some want the questioning to stop; it seems wrong-headed. Yet the interrogation continues, periodically sparking debate and efforts to reformulate and redefine analytic agendas for the study of American labor radicals, their diversity, their ideas, and their practical activities.

This book is not exercised by such concerns. It views socialism, syndicalism, anarchism, and communism as minority traditions in United States life, just as they have often been in other settings. The revolutionary Left is, and always has been, a vanguard of the exceptional. Life in a minority is not, however, an isolated, or inevitably an isolating, experience. In the late nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies, the United States gave rise to a significant Left, rooted in what many felt was a transition from the Old World to a New Order. Populists, anarcho-communists, Christian Socialists, early feminists, bohemian intellectuals, trade unionists, immigrant Marxists, exiles from failed European revolutions, Wobblies, co-operators, and countless other stripes of radical rubbed shoulders in metropolitan centers, in the towns of middle America, and in frontier settings, all of which sustained varied institutional and cultural spaces in which the sociability and politics of the Left were generated and regenerated over time. Weekly journals, like the Girard, Kansas, Appeal to Reason (which Lenin considered "not at all bad"), had a readership of more than 760,000; special theme issues associated with particular mobilizations sometimes exceeded print runs of 4 million. A revered figure such as Eugene Debs could rally hundreds of thousands to the electoral standard of the Socialist Party of America. He polled an unprecedented 6 percent of the presidential vote in 1912, and eight years later, from a jail cell, Debs garnered nearly a million votes in his symbolic run to occupy the White House. It was a heady time for those who thought themselves revolutionaries, although it was not without its dangers, the latter most evident in the wave of repression that engulfed radicalism in the period from 1917 to 1921.

Joseph Freeman, whose An American Testament (1936) was praised by Theodore Draper as "one of the few Communist human documents worth preserving," and by Max Eastman as the "best and most engaging book written by an American communist," recalled the developing radical politics of the United States in the early twentieth century vividly, capturing a sense of its disruptive, destabilizing impact on all aspects of life. Writing in 1934-1936, Freeman, like many who gravitated to the revolutionary Left in the period associated with World War I and the Russian Revolution, came to regard the Communist Party of the United States (CP), for a time at least, as the place where the struggle for the new radical order was to be carried out to best effect. An editor of the communist magazine New Masses and a teacher at the party's Workers' School when he penned his testament, Freeman was drawn to the inspiration of the party ranks, "selfless, incorruptible." From them he learned, and for them and for himself, he worked "to abolish poverty, ignorance, war, the exploitation of class by class, the oppression of man by man," and to create "the utmost imaginable freedom for the mass of humanity."

Freeman's passionate communist commitment was not to survive the 1930s Red Decade of economic depression and social upheaval, which had done so much to steel his anti-capitalist convictions and dedication to socialist humanity. An American Testament was insufficiently critical of the exiled Russian revolutionary Left oppositionist, Leon Trotsky, whom the United States cultural radical had witnessed firsthand in one of the last Comintern debates of the 1920s. As a consequence, Freeman was, in his word, "excommunicated." Party leaders demanded that the communist author self-censor his own publication by barring mention or advertisement of it in New Masses, call off a promotional speaking tour, and cancel a large order placed by the Workers' Bookshop. That accomplished, and with the seemingly well-ensconced "captain of cultural activities" of the large communist movement sufficiently humbled, the Comintern then insisted that Freeman's CP affiliation be terminated. The ex-communist's next novel, Never Call Retreat (1943), sounded the inspirational cry of ongoing struggle with a predictable awkwardness, but an articulate voice of radicalism had been quieted.

Another American communist, James P. Cannon-the main subject of this book-would be harder to sideline and impossible to silence. He had been drummed out of the CP a decade before Freeman was given his walking papers. Cannon never relinquished his attachment to the original Workers' Party, later renamed the Workers (Communist) Party (and, a few years thereafter, subsequent to Cannon's expulsion, the Communist Party, USA or CP), that he had very much helped to establish. Long after he himself had come to see the party as an impediment to revolution, Cannon saw as victims those won to its struggles through their sincere desire to create a better, socialist, world; to him, they were a radical generation motivated by the best of intentions but misguided by a squandering, Stalinist leadership: "The chief victim of Stalinism in this country was the magnificent left-wing movement, which rose up on the yeast of the economic crisis in the early Thirties and eventually took form in the CIO through a series of veritable labor uprisings.... The story of what happened to these young militants; what was done to them, how their faith was abused and their confidence betrayed by the cynical American agents of the Kremlin gang-that is just about the most tragic story in the long history of the American labor movement."

How radicals like Cannon and Freeman came to embrace communism, and how that communism repudiated so much of itself in the 1920s, is the subject of this book. Such a treatment of the origins of the American revolutionary Left necessarily concerns itself with another question historians have often wrestled with. Was United States communism a genuine or natural expression of a native radicalism, or was it a foreign import, imposed on indigenous conditions from without, an external domination?

I end this journey of analysis and accounting with Cannon's expulsion from the Communist Party late in 1928, at least for the time being. In a future volume, I plan to pursue Cannon's history further, following him as he struggled to build Trotskyism as a political force and a party formation in the United States, and to develop an alternative to the Communist International around the world. That study, though, in effect takes us beyond the origins of the American revolutionary Left, which had built on the eclectic radicalisms of the nineteenth century and been consolidated through the discussions and debates of the 1900s. It was an atmosphere in which Marxism, social democracy, populism, socialism, syndicalism, anarchism, and other strands of dissident thought and practice contended for the hearts and minds of those on the Left. World events of momentous consequence and implication, encompassing war and revolution, altered the map of global politics in the next decade and, alongside particular repressive developments in the United States, ushered American communism into being.

Cannon allows us to view those beginnings with new eyes, forcing us to look where many have perhaps not wanted to see. The history of America's revolutionary Left, in its origins and in the uneasy years of communism's birth in the United States, cannot be understood, I suggest, without attention to the ways in which the communist project was transformed by Stalinism in the 1920s. Moreover, the varied historiographies that chart developments, accent particulars, and lay interpretive stress on specific parts of the Left experience in America are also understandable only if we begin to grapple openly with Stalinism's forceful historical presence. As the words and experiences of Cannon and Freeman suggest, Stalinism matters in what happened to twentieth-century American radicalism.

Stalinism: What's in a Name

A profound unease marks both the history and the historiography of United States communism. Participants, advocates, and scholars-the lines of distinction by no means always clearly discernible-have found it difficult to address the complex meaning of what is surely one of the most influential segments of the American Left. Many who spent their lives in circles justifiably proud of their Bolshevism, and content to live attached to the considerable historical accomplishments of the world's first successful proletarian revolution and its state, the Soviet Union, never managed to adequately work through the experience of degeneration that lowered on the revolutionary drama of communism with Joseph Stalin's rise to power.

As a shorthand term, Stalinism is not so much a personalized denunciation as a designation of political defeat. The aspirations and expansive potential of revolutionary communism were suffocated in bureaucratization, compromise of political principle, abandonment of theoretical and programmatic consistency, waning of commitment to socialism and its spread throughout the world, and a narrowing of agendas to the most defensive and mundane. Stalinism was, of course, guided in part by the subjective agenda of the individual whom Trotsky would come to conclude was capable of proclaiming "I am Society," but it was also determined to some extent by objective historical conditions and developments detrimental to sustaining the revolutionary cause, much of which took place in situations once-removed from Stalin's direct influence. The revolution's making in a political economy of backwardness, with its history of czarist autocracy and the class dominance of the peasantry, for instance, ensured that the road to Russian socialism would inevitably be a rough one. This original difficulty was complicated by the immense drain on the resources of the Russian/Soviet social formation during World War I and the subsequent containment of the first workers' state by a hostile grouping of powerful capitalist nations, all of which continued to oppose what Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood for well after the end of hostilities in 1918. In the crucible of civil war, the practice of governance in the world's first socialist state was inevitably hardened over the course of the years from 1917 to 1921, and many Bolsheviks faced the necessity of institutionalizing an apparatus of repression, centered in the Cheka, in order to preserve the revolution and its advances. Internationally, the failure of the socialist revolution in Europe and especially Germany, on which the healthy continuity of the Russian Revolution depended, first in 1919 and then in 1921-1923, constrained Soviet possibilities even further. All of this conditioned an internal regime within the Soviet Union in which a series of misplayed hands at the table of Russian revolutionary politics, some of them involving Trotsky himself, consolidated Stalin's power, weakened and marginalized his potential opponents, and, ultimately, culminated in the decimation of the Leninist Party that had registered such gains in 1917 and the immediate post-Revolution years.

The practical consequence of this constellation of inhibitions and steps backward inside and outside the Soviet Union was thus formidable. Under Zinoviev, the Communist International (Comintern/CI), formed in 1919, was subjected to increasing bureaucratization after the defeat of the German Revolution precipitated the forces of revolutionary internationalism into problematic postures. The consequence was an unhealthy and arbitrary Zinovievist penchant for centralism that often overrode considerations of national contexts. Under the guise of a campaign for Bolshevization, first proclaimed in 1924, Zinoviev's CI addressed obvious problems inherent in the relations of various communist parties and the particularities of specific national struggles, grappling awkwardly with how to overcome a marked lack of revolutionary discipline and draw more from the organizational strength of revolutionary parties and their work to build communism. Unfortunately, the way the Comintern negotiated these relations in 1923-1925 erred on the side of heavy-handed, authoritarian intervention. To be sure, the ease with which Zinoviev transformed the CI, subordinating national sections and, indeed, in Deutscher's words, "shuffling, displacing, and breaking up at will" the once powerful Central Committees of the French, German, and Polish Communist Parties, suggests an unhealthy atmosphere of Russification within the Comintern-a slavishness that Lenin himself had expressed concern over. That the Polish and French committees protested in 1923 against the initial assaults on Trotsky, however, suggests that kernels of independence did exist within the CI. Nevertheless, the defeats of 1923, and the parallel campaigns of Zinovievist Bolshevization and early Stalinist moves in the consolidation of party power, fused for the moment in an anti-Trotsky defamation that was inadequately responded to by a nascent Left opposition, including Trotsky himself. The once-revered leader of the Red Army retreated into his own obeisance to the Comintern. He failed to gain election to the Executive Committee of the Communist International, and Stalin was voted the seat in his stead. A language of "monolithic Bolshevism" dominated the CI podiums in 1924; it was an ill wind that blew no good. Given that there were positive aspects to Bolshevization, which attempted to address genuine problems in the practices of communist parties and their constituencies, it is possible that had the Soviet Party retained a healthy revolutionary program, the wrongs of the mid-1920s Comintern could have been righted. But this was not to be. The parochialism and chauvinism of the constricting advocacy of "socialism in one country" replaced the proletarian internationalism and widening reach of a program of world revolution.

Within the degenerating revolutionary Soviet society, the ruthless elevation of the lider maximo, Joseph Stalin, produced an autocratic state eventually governed by terror. Stalin ordered the first Bolshevik shot in 1923, and between 1927 and 1940 he orchestrated the trial, exile, or execution of virtually the entire corps of revolutionary leadership. Beyond the boundaries of "socialism in one country," a series of defeats and international misadventures (beginning with the routing of the Chinese Revolution in 1926, and reaching through the debacles of fascism's rise to power in Germany and the bloodletting of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s) haunted the revolutionary conscience in decades that might well have witnessed pivotal political advances and radical successes. This dismal record of opportunities tragically wasted was eventually blunted with the Stalinist brokering of a reconfigured Europe in the aftermath of World War II: a buffer zone of supposedly socialist economies being established in Eastern and Central Europe was the price the capitalist world was willing to pay for the monumental losses the Allied Soviets sustained in helping to liberate Europe from Hitler's awful designs. Such Iron Curtain socialism was born deformed, though, as would be the postcolonial regimes of national liberation, such as Cuba and Vietnam, that ended up taking both material aid and political inspiration from the Soviet Union. From possibly as early as 1926, then, and certainly from the late 1920s and 1930s on, the forces of the international Left faced not only the resolute opposition of global capital and its considerable power, vested in nation-states and their militaries (as well as the widening material and ideological reach of hegemonic capitalist markets and cultures), but also the constraining defeatism of leaderships, structures of power, and political orientations committed, in their Stalinism, to anything but world revolution. Specific communist parties paid dearly in the process, as evidenced in Isaac Deutscher's and Pincus Minc's (Aleksander's) recollections of the sacrifice and destruction of the Polish Communist Party (KPP) which, in 1938, was dissolved by Comintern dictate.


Excerpted from James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 by BRYAN D. PALMER Copyright © 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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