James P. Cannon: An introduction

[This the introduction to Building the Revolutionary Party: An Introduction to James P. Cannon (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1997). Dave Holmes is now a leader of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne. This and other writings are also available at Dave Holmes' blog, Arguing for Socialism.]

By Dave Holmes

James P. Cannon was a pioneer of the Communist Party of the United States and one of its central leaders in the 1920s. Breaking with the Stalinised CP in 1928 he founded the US Trotskyist movement and played the decisive role in building it for over three decades.

Cannon's name is not known to millions around the world, as are those of his acknowledged teachers, the Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky. Rather, he is known only in much smaller circles and-regrettably-as yet appreciated in even narrower ones. Cannon was, however, a revolutionary leader of the very highest calibre. Arguably, he is the most outstanding figure produced by the socialist and revolutionary movement in the United States. His life and work deserve to be far more widely known and studied by socialist activists around the world.

His efforts to build a revolutionary party in the United States, the heartland of world imperialism, are without historical precedent -- in the results obtained; in the richness of the experiences; and in their sheer tenacity and duration over many decades.

We can learn a lot from Cannon's inspiring struggle about the building and organisation of a revolutionary party in an advanced capitalist country and about the meaning of revolutionary leadership. Cannon's writings contain so many acute and incisive analyses and insights. But they also convey so much of the socialist outlook and values which sustained him throughout his long life of activism. (His wonderful and instructive History of American Trotskyism exemplifies all these qualities.)

Cannon's life itself is an inspiration of the highest order. When he died at the age of 84 he had devoted some 66 years of his life to the cause of revolutionary socialism. In a tribute at a memorial meeting held shortly after Cannon's death, Joseph Hansen, one of his longtime collaborators, summed up this truly epic accomplishment:

The capitalist class nearly always has talented political organizers at its disposal, some of them coming from wealthy families that specialize in offering political leadership. They are rather rare in the working class, one reason being that many with the talent for it are drawn into serving the capitalist parties. A person with talent in this field must be capable of great dedication and capacity for self-sacrifice to take up the cause of the working class and to remain devoted to it for decades and even a lifetime.

Jim was such a person …

[His] achievement was to build a viable nucleus of a revolutionary party inside the United States, the main bastion of world capitalism. Not only did Jim build this nucleus, he maintained it and continued to build it for an unprecedented number of decades in face of enormous pressures. There has been nothing like it in the history of the revolutionary socialist movement.

Jim held this nucleus together against the lure of posts in the trade-union bureaucracy, none of which are without considerable emoluments.

He held this nucleus together against the merciless blows and venomous slanders of American Stalinism, once a powerful force in the radical movement and in many trade unions in the United States.

He held this nucleus together in face of the hysteria of World War II, marching to prison at the head of the Trotskyists convicted as the first victims of the Smith Act for their political opposition to imperialist war.

He held this nucleus together during the infamous decade of McCarthyism in the United States, when the Trotskyists were hounded from their jobs by the American political police, the FBI, and when our movement was almost completely isolated politically and virtually paralyzed for lack of funds.

He held this nucleus together against the deadly combination of McCarthyite repression and economic prosperity that led to years of passivity in the labor movement. [James P. Cannon As We Knew Him (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1976), pp. 13, 18]

Degeneration of the SWP

Of course, no assessment of Cannon and Cannonism can avoid addressing the evolution -- after his death -- of the organisation he founded, the Socialist Workers Party. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, under the leadership of Jack Barnes, the SWP underwent a sectarian degeneration.

This evolution resulted from serious political errors. These are analysed by the Democratic Socialist Party in the pamphlet by Doug Lorimer, The Making of a Sect (Pathfinder Press, Australia: Chippendale, 1984), and here in his following article. In short, instead of a Marxist analysis of US politics the SWP leadership adopted a workerist schema which led the party to turn away from its traditional involvement in the progressive social and political struggles of the day-struggles still largely occurring outside the framework of the organised labor movement. The mistaken political course of the SWP leadership was accompanied by an organisational degeneration which led to mass expulsions and the forcing out of a large proportion of the party's cadre. Today the SWP is just another sect on the US left with a number of small clone groups abroad.

The demise of the SWP was a tragic waste in so many ways -- of the political capital built up through the party's long and glorious history; of the precious cadres that had been accumulated so painfully; and, above all, because it broke up the nucleus of the revolutionary party in the US on the eve of big and acutely testing developments in the world political situation. The SWP's evolution was especially painful and thought-provoking for our party because of the long collaboration between our two organisations, a relationship which had been especially fruitful for the DSP.

The fact that the US SWP went right off the rails after surviving for so long -- some 50-odd years -- shows that no revolutionary organisation is guaranteed forever against big political errors and the pressure of the capitalist environment. This illustrates a basic proposition of Marxist dialectics -- that under certain conditions things can turn into their opposites.

In itself, the collapse of the SWP is not a cause for pessimism about the revolutionary project, about revolutionary Marxism. Similar questions are raised by the fate of Lenin's Bolshevik party: it lasted some 20 years during which it led a successful socialist revolution, the first in history. Yet from 1923 it was destroyed as a revolutionary organisation by the rising bureaucratic reaction and the ebb of the world revolution. However, we reject all interpretations of this experience which conclude that socialist revolutions are impossible or are bound to undergo bureaucratic degeneration or that Leninism somehow leads to Stalinism.

Indeed, the demise of the SWP under Jack Barnes' leadership makes Cannon's accomplishment seem all the more impressive. Moreover, Barnes' errors are not a result of Cannonism but are precisely a sharp departure from it. It is interesting to note that this is also the general view taken by the left historian and ex-SWP member Paul Le Blanc in his two very interesting essays in the book, Trotskyism in the United States (Humanities Press: New Jersey, 1996). It is also relevant to point out that the DSP is built on the traditions of Cannonism and has decidedly not evolved in a Barnesite direction.

It is arguable that — "Barnesism" notwithstanding — Cannonism will have its victory, not only in the final triumph of socialism in the USA, but also in the essential contribution it will make to the development of revolutionary parties, especially in the imperialist countries. It is simply not possible for revolutionaries to bypass or ignore this tremendous historical experience. Our own modest successes to date owe more than a little to the heritage of James P. Cannon.


At this point it might be as well to ask, just what is "Cannonism"? In essence, it is the Leninist revolutionary perspective applied to an advanced capitalist country. Several ideas seem crucial:

1. An unyielding commitment to the socialist revolution and the building of a new society as the only way out of the horrors and misery of capitalist society.

2. Only the working class can make this revolution; the irreplaceable instrument needed for this struggle is the vanguard party.

3. Such a party, facing the most colossal tasks in history, cannot arise spontaneously: "it has to be continuously, consistently, and consciously built", as Cannon put it in his essay on "The Revolutionary Party" (Cannon, Fighting for Socialism in the 'American Century' [Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2000], p. 13).

4. The utmost attention must be given to all aspects of party building, from determining the party's line on the big political questions — including the defence of that line within the party — to all questions of internal party organisation. Especially decisive here is the selection, training and consolidation of the party's leadership team: without the development of a tested and authoritative leadership the party cannot play its historic role.

5. Cannon was a firm defender of the Leninist organisational principle of democratic centralism and he applied this fundamental idea in a flexible and masterful way in building the SWP.

Those wishing to become more familiar with Cannon's ideas can turn to the many collections of his writings and speeches now in print [especially our Cannon collection, Building the Revolutionary Party: An Introduction to James P. Cannon (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1997].

Early years

James P. Cannon — the "P" stands for Patrick — was born in Rosedale, Kansas in 1890. He died in Los Angeles in 1974.

A socialist father gave him an introduction to left-wing ideas. At the age of 18 he joined the Socialist Party. Three years later he left it and joined the more militant Industrial Workers of the World-the IWW or "Wobblies" as they became known. Pre-Russian Revolution radicalism in the United States was tied up with the SP — and more particularly with its outstanding public figure, Eugene V. Debs — but also with the syndicalist IWW.

In 1955 Cannon wrote commemorative essays on each of these organisations. [They can be found in Fighting for Socialism.] He assesses the strengths and weaknesses of both Debs and the IWW and contrasts them with Lenin's concept of building a revolutionary vanguard party.

The Socialist Party's greatest asset, Cannon explains, was Debs. A revolutionist through and through, he "denounced capitalism with a tongue of fire" (ibid., p. 28) and developed a huge following for the party. In the 1912 presidential election Debs gained almost a million votes (probably equivalent to five or six times that figure today). But within the party he avoided entering the lists against the right-wing leaders — the middle-class lawyers, preachers and academics with which the party abounded. Debs stood for an all-inclusive party where there was a place for both reformist, pro-capitalist elements and revolutionists.

Debs' blind spot [wrote Cannon] was the narrower, but no less important field of internal party politics and organization. On that field he evaded the fight. This evasion was not inspired by pacifism; it followed from his own theory of the party …

He himself always spoke for a revolutionary program. But at the same time he thought the party should have room for other kinds of socialists; he stood for an all-inclusive socialist party, and party unity was his first consideration …

Debs' refusal to take an active part in the factional struggle, and to play his rightful part as the leader of an organised left wing, played into the hands of the reformist politicians. There his beautiful friendship and generosity played him false, for the party was also an arena of the struggle for socialism. Debs spoke of "the love of comrades" — and he really meant it — but the opportunist sharpers didn't believe a word of it. They never do. They waged a vicious, organized fight against the revolutionary workers of the party all the time. And they were the gainers from Debs abstention.

Debs' mistaken theory of the party was one of the most costly mistakes a revolutionist ever made in the entire history of the American movement. [ibid., pp. 39-41]

Cannon goes on to explain that capitalism's real strength is the bases of support it has within the working-class organisations and that "nine-tenths of the struggle for socialism is the struggle against bourgeois influence in the workers' organizations, including the party" (ibid., p. 41). Lenin understood this clearly.

Lenin believed that for victory the workers required a party fit to lead a revolution; and to him that meant a party with a revolutionary program and leadership — a party of revolutionists. He concentrated the main energies of his life on the construction of just such a party, and on the struggle to keep it free from bourgeois ideas and influences.

Lenin recognized that this involved internal discussion and conflict, and he never shirked it …

Lenin believed in his bones that the internal problems of the party were the problems of the revolution, and he was on top of them all the time. [ibid., pp. 41-42]

By comparison to the Socialist Party, the IWW was a clearly proletarian organisation but its effectiveness was hampered by some key errors. Reacting against the rotten capitalist political system and the timid reformism of the conservative SP leaders, the IWW rejected "politics" in favor of direct action. It also projected itself, not as a party, but as a union. In essence, however, it was a sort of proto-party, i.e., a selection of militant activists.

"In truth," Cannon explains, "the IWW in its time of glory was neither a union nor a party in the full meaning of these terms, but something of both, with some parts missing. It was an uncompleted anticipation of a Bolshevik party, lacking its rounded-out theory, and a projection of the revolutionary industrial unions of the future, minus the necessary mass membership. It was the IWW." (ibid., p. 54)

Formation of Communist Party

The First World War and the 1917 Russian Revolution brought a fresh influx into the Socialist Party and there developed a strong left wing in which Cannon played an active role. The left split in 1919 and formed the Communist Party. Cannon became one of its central leaders: when the legal, above-ground Workers Party was formed in 1921, he was its national chairperson.

Those interested in the early years of the Communist movement in the United States can consult Cannon's First Ten Years of American Communism (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1973) — mostly a series of letters to the historian Theodore Draper but with substantial additional material. There are also the first two chapters of The History of American Trotskyism and the compilation of Cannon speeches and articles from this period, James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism, published by the Spartacist League's Prometheus Research Library.

The formation of the Communist Party was a tremendous advance, Cannon stressed.

It was composed of thousands of courageous and devoted revolutionists willing to make sacrifices and take risks for the movement. In spite of all their mistakes, they built a party the like of which had never been seen in this country before; that is, a party founded on a Marxist program, with a professional leadership and disciplined ranks …

They learned to take program seriously. They learned to do away forever with the idea that a revolutionary movement, aiming at power, can be led by people who practise socialism as an avocation. The leader typical of the old Socialist Party was a lawyer practising law, or a preacher practising preaching, or a writer, or a professional man of one kind or another, who condescended to come around and make a speech once in a while. The full-time functionaries were merely hacks who did the dirty work and had no real influence in the party. The gap between the rank and file workers, with their revolutionary impulses and desires, and the petty-bourgeois dabblers at the top was tremendous. The early Communist Party broke away from all that, and was able to do it easily because not one of the old type leaders came over wholeheartedly to the support of the Russian revolution. The party had to throw up new leaders out of the ranks, and from the very beginning the principle was laid down that these leaders must be professional workers for the party, must put their whole time and their whole lives at the disposal of the party. [History of American Trotskyism (Pioneer Publishers: New York, 1944), pp. 13-14]

One of the points Cannon was always at pains to make — and where he differed radically with Draper — was on the positive role and impact of the Russian Bolshevik leaders on the US Communist Party in its early years. Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev helped the party overcome its early errors which it was unable to do on its own. Later, as the Stalinist degeneration in the Soviet Union developed, the Russian influence became malign.

But even then, Cannon stressed, the Stalinisation of the American CP could never have taken place without the softening up and loss of faith in the revolutionary perspective brought about by the long capitalist boom of the 1920s.

The American boom of that period, carrying European capitalism with it to a new stabilization after the post-war crisis and revolutionary upsurge, was the prime influence generating the mood of retreat to national reformism, and therewith the rise of Stalinism in Russia.

At the same time, the astounding vitality of expanding American capitalism seemed to close off all perspectives for a revolutionary movement in this country. As the wave of labor radicalism was pushed back by the ascending prosperity, the party began to run into difficulties on all fronts …

The great crisis of the Thirties, with its limitless possibilities for the revolutionary party, was just around the corner, but the party leaders could not see it. They spoke about it, from old habit, but they began to doubt it. The degeneration of the party as a revolutionary organization definitely began already then, and partly for this reason. When the crisis finally arrived-pretty much on schedule according to the Marxist prognosis-the party was no longer the same party. [First Ten Years of American Communism, pp. 22, 23]

Break with the Communist Party

Cannon's account of how he came to Trotskyism and his break with the Stalinised Communist Party is told in The History of American Trotskyism. It remains a great and inspiring story, a testament to the power of the great ideas of Marxism which animate our movement. It also endures as a monument to conscience and faithfulness to the revolutionary socialist cause.

In short, in mid-1928 Cannon was part of the CP delegation in Moscow attending the Sixth Congress of the Comintern (as the Communist International was known). Together with Canadian CP leader Maurice Spector, he accidentally got hold of a copy of Trotsky's criticism of the draft program of the Comintern (today this critique is contained in Trotsky's The Third International After Lenin). They were completely convinced by its powerful arguments and made a pact to go home and fight for Trotsky's Left Opposition, come what may.

Cannon, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern — all leading figures in the CP — were expelled in October. They were derisively dubbed by the Stalinists the "three generals without an army". The first issue of The Militant appeared on November 15, 1928. It bore the headlines: "For the Russian Opposition! Against Opportunism and Bureaucracy in the Workers Communist Party of America!"

There began a long and painful process of recruiting people to the tiny Opposition group one by one. All their efforts were aimed at the cadres and periphery of the CP. It was a heroic struggle, in every sense of the word. As Cannon recounted it in The History of American Trotskyism:

While we were busy with our singlejack agitation, as we used to call it in the IWW-that is, proselytizing one person to another-the [CP's] Daily Worker, with its comparatively big circulation, blazed away at us in full-page and sometimes double-page articles day after day. These articles explained at great length that we had sold out to American imperialism; that we were counter-revolutionists in league with the enemies of labor and the imperialist powers scheming to overthrow the Soviet Union; that we had become the "advance guard of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie". This was printed day after day in a campaign of political terrorization and slander against us, calculated to make it impossible for us to retain any contact with individual members of the party. It was made a crime punishable by expulsion to speak with us on the street, to visit us, to have any communications with us. People were brought up on trial in the Communist Party charged with having attended a meeting at which we spoke; with having brought a paper which we sold on the streets in front of the headquarters on Union Square; or with having had some connections with us in the past-they were compelled to prove that they had not maintained this contact afterwards. A wall of ostracism separated us from the party members. People whom we had known and worked with for years became strangers to us overnight. [pp. 63-64]

In May 1929 the Communist League of America (as the Left Opposition group was called) held its first national convention. Delegates representing some 100 members attended. From 1929 to 1933 Cannon and his comrades went through four harrowing years — in The History of American Trotskyism he calls them the "dog days" of the Left Opposition. After six months, recruitment to the CLA dried up, mainly due to the Stalinist "left" turn internationally and in the US.

This was the so-called Third Period. The turn — really an ultraleft turn — was marked by an extremely sectarian attitude to the socialist parties and their mass following. In Germany the Comintern's Third Period line meant that the powerful Communist and Social Democratic parties were unable to form a defensive united front to bar Hitler's march to power. In the USSR, the Third Period was marked by forced collectivisation in the countryside and the first five-year plan for industry. In a capitalist world wracked by the mass unemployment and misery of the Great Depression, the Soviet plan aroused considerable enthusiasm among sections of the working class.

The Stalinist "left turn" piled up new difficulties for us" [Cannon recounted]. This turn was in part designed by Stalin to cut the ground from under the feet of the Left Opposition; it made the Stalinists appear more radical even than the Left Opposition of Trotsky. They threw the Lovestoneites out of the party as "right wingers", turned the party leadership over to Foster and Company and proclaimed a left policy. By this maneuver they dealt us a devastating blow. Those disgruntled elements in the party, who had been inclined toward us and who had opposed the opportunism of the Lovestone group, became reconciled to the party. They used to say to us: "You see, you were wrong. Stalin is correcting everything. He is taking a radical position all along the line in Russia, America and everywhere else …"

In those dog days of the movement we were shut off from all contact. We had no friends, no sympathizers, no periphery around our movement. We had no chance whatever to participate in the mass movement. Whenever we tried to get into a workers organization we would be expelled as counter-revolutionary Trotskyists. We tried to send delegations to the unemployed meetings. Our credentials would be rejected on the ground that we were enemies of the working class. We were utterly isolated, forced in upon ourselves. Our recrutiment dropped to almost nothing. The Communist Party and its vast periphery seemed to be hermetically sealed against us.

Then as is always the case with new political movements, we began to recruit from sources none too healthy. [The History of American Trotskyism, pp. 90-92]

The struggle was to hold on and fight it out until a break came and then to take advantage of every opportunity. Trotsky wrote an article in this period entitled "Tenacity! Tenacity! Tenacity!" (Writings of Leon Trotsky (1929) [Pathfinder Press: New York, 1975])

It is worth noting that in the midst of this grim period, the internal situation in the CLA was highly factionalised, at least in the central leadership. Cannon was ranged against Shachtman and Abern. (Those wishing to read about this struggle should consult the Cannon volume, The Communist League of America 1932-34 (Monad Press: New York, 1985).)

Trotsky played the decisive role in overcoming this situation and averting a split. While later on it was clear that this dispute foreshadowed or contained in embryo the big struggle of 1939-40 between the proletarian and petty-bourgeois wings of the party, at this point the issues were not clearly posed on principled grounds. A split on such a basis would not have been clear to either the CLA membership or the radical public. It would have shattered the authority of both groups and compromised the cause of the Left Opposition in the United States for a long time to come.

A split was averted and collaboration between Cannon and Shachtman was restored for a further seven fruitful years. When the great struggle of 1939-40 developed, the principled differences were of such depth to be clear to all.

A new situation

The political situation began to turn in 1933. In January Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Fascism had triumphed without any serious resistance from the powerful working-class movement. The responsibility for this debacle rested, in the first place, with the pro-capitalist leaders of the Social-Democratic Party, but also with the insanely sectarian policy of the Stalinist Comintern and its German section which rejected seeking to pressure the socialist leaders into a united front to resist the fascist onslaught.

The Militant came out three times a week, pounding away on the German question and getting out Trotsky's message. There was a new respect for the Trotskyists. Trotsky had been proven right: he had forseen the catastrophe and had urged the Comintern to change its policy.

Following the German disaster, the Trotskyist movement internationally made a sharp turn. In the US, the CLA turned away from the CP towards mass work and an independent party — but not without having to overcome a crisis of sectarian opposition from those members who had grown used to the enforced inward-looking existence and endless discussion.

As the depression eased slightly, labor struggles began to revive. In March 1933 Roosevelt was elected promising a "new deal" which had the unintended effect of stimulating workers struggles. There were three broad waves of labor upsurge in the 1930s. The high point of the second wave was the Minneapolis truck drivers and helpers strikes of May and July-August 1934. In these great struggles the native militancy of the US workers fused with the revolutionary leadership of the Trotskyist cadres, including the central party leadership who worked in the closest contact with the local comrades.

The strikes were marked by a tremendous level of organisation: women were organised in a mass auxillary; a daily strike newssheet played a decisive role in countering the bosses' lies; and mass militant picketing met every attempt to break the strike. In one famous episode, thousands of unionists and their supporters went into action against cops, deputies and vigilantes trying to open up the central markets to scab trucks and chased them from the field. The struggle ended victoriously with the recognition of the union. It brought national — and even international —fame to the small CLA. These and other struggles in Minneapolis in the thirties are chronicled in Farrell Dobbs' four Teamster books (Teamster Rebellion, Teamster Power, Teamster Politics and Teamster Bureaucracy).

Splits and fusions

April 1934 saw another militant strike at the Auto-Lite plant in Toledo. Strikers and their supporters (mainly organised in unemployed leagues) held their ground in a six-day battle with the police and national guard. The strike was led by cadres of the American Workers Party. The main figure in the AWP was A.J. Muste, a former preacher. Even as the Minneapolis struggle was proceeding, the CLA moved to fuse with the AWP.

The AWP was a heterogeneous formation containing revolutionary-minded workers, preachers and academics. The well-known intellectuals James Burnham and Sidney Hook were members of its national committee. Timing was crucial to the proposed fusion as the Stalinists were also watching the AWP. Furthermore, Cannon and his supporters had to defeat a sectarian opposition to the proposed merger within the CLA led by Hugo Oehler.

Helped by the very generous organisational proposals made by the CLA, the merger took place in December 1934 forming the Workers Party of the United States. It represented the first significant fusion on the US left since 1921. Hitherto there had only been an endless process of splitting and splintering.

The fusion was obviously very important in building a bigger and stronger organisation. However, in some later remarks Cannon puts it in a much broader perspective:

Trotsky once remarked that unifications and splits are alike methods of building the revolutionary party …

We have seen, in our own experience, the same principle working out. We began with a split from the Stalinists. Unification with the Musteites in 1934 and later with the left wing of the Socialist Party were great milestones in the building of our organization. But these unifications were of no more importance, and stand rather on an equal plane, with the splits of the leftist sectarians in 1935 and of the revisionist Burnhamites in 1940, and with the split of the new revisionists today. All these actions have been part of the process of building the revolutionary party.

This law enunciated by Trotsky, that both unifications and splits are alike methods of building the party, is true however only on the condition that both the unification and the split in each case is properly motivated. If they are not properly prepared and properly motivated they can have a disrupting and disorganizing effect. I can give you examples of that.

The unification of the Left Opposition under Nin in Spain with the opportunist Maurin group, out of which was formed the POUM, was one of the decisive factors in the defeat of the Spanish revolution. The dilution of the program of Trotskyism for the sake of unification with an opportunist group robbed the Spanish proletariat of that clear program and resolute leadership which could have made the difference in the Spanish revolution in 1936.

Conversely, the splits in the French Trotskyist organization before World War II, several of them, none of which were properly motivated-contributed to the demoralization of the party. It has been our good fortune that we have made no false unifications and no false splits. Never have we had a split in which the party did not bound forward the day after, precisely because the split was properly prepared and properly motivated. [Fighting for Socialism, pp. 200-201]

Into the Socialist Party

Following the events in Germany, Trotsky pointed out that internationally there was an influx of radicalised workers into the old social-democratic parties, despite their sorry record. In the United States a new left wing developed in the Socialist Party. This led to recruitment to the Workers Party dropping away since radicalising workers were attracted to the much larger SP.

It was essential for the WP to relate to this development. In collaboration with Trotsky the WP leadership proposed that their forces enter the Socialist Party and operate there as an organised tendency attempting to build a bigger revolutionary current. The French Trotskyists had earlier executed a similar maneuver with some success.

Cannon and his supporters had first to overcome a sectarian opposition led by Oehler and Muste who were opposed to "liquidating" the WP into another party — and a social-democratic one at that. However, an overwhelming majority of the WP members were rallied behind Cannon's proposal. The WP negotiated with the SP leaders on the terms of entry.

They made very hard conditions [explained Cannon]. We had to give up our press despite the fact that it had been the tradition of the Socialist Party to let any faction have its own press …

They wouldn't allow us the honor and dignity of joining as a body and being received as a body. No, we had to join as individuals, leaving every local Socialist Party branch the option of refusing to admit us. We had to join individually because they wanted to humiliate us, to make it appear that we were simply dissolving our party, humbly breaking with our past, and starting anew as pupils of the "Militants" caucus of the SP. It was rather irritating, but we were not deflected from our course by personal feelings. We had been too long in the Lenin school for that.. We were out to serve political aims. That is why, despite the most onerous conditions, we never broke negotiations and never gave them an excuse to shut negotiations off from their side. Whenever they showed signs of indifference, of evasiveness, we kept after them and kept the negotiations alive. [History of American Trotskyism, pp. 226-227]

The WP suspended publication of The Militant and entered the SP in the middle of 1936. The Trotskyists spent about a year in the SP. That period saw the start of the big upsurge of the CIO — the industrial union movement — in the US; the huge French sit-down strike wave; the start of the Spanish civil war; and the Moscow purge trials and Trotsky's campaign to expose them. The Trotskyists were finally expelled from the SP in the latter part of 1937.

A conference of the expelled SP members was held in Chicago and on New Year's Day, 1938 the Socialist Workers Party was founded. The convention summed up the results of the work in the Socialist Party. They had won a majority of the SP youth and the best of the revolutionary workers; there had been a big development of their trade union work; the entry had facilitated their work with left and liberal elements in exposing Stalin's frameup trials; and finally, they had dealt the SP a fatal blow, leaving it a declining shell with little attraction for radicalising workers.

Struggle for a proletarian party

In 1939-40, on the eve of US involvement in World War II, a great struggle erupted in the Socialist Workers Party. Adapting to the pressure of capitalist public opinion, a minority led by Burnham, Shachtman and Abern sought to ditch the party's fundamental position of defence of the Soviet Union — Stalin notwithstanding — against imperialism. As Cannon explained:

Even a revolutionary party is not free from the pressure of its bourgeois environment. In the case of Burnham and Shachtman this pressure was reflected in its crudest form. Stalin in alliance with the brigands of French imperialism, and prospectively with the United States, was acceptable to democratic public opinion; his frame-up trials and purges and his bloody work in Spain were passed over as the peccadillos of an eccentric "democrat". During all this time — the time of the Franco-Soviet pact — all the leaders of the opposition fully agreed with us that the defense of the Soviet Union is the elementary duty of every workers' organization. When the same Stalin "betrayed" the imperialist democracies by making an alliance with Hitler Germany, he became anathema to the bourgeois democrats. Immediately, as if by reflex action, our heroic Burnham, and after him Shachtman and the others, disavowed the defense of the Soviet Union by the world proletariat as an "outmoded" idea. This is the essence of the dispute they started in the party, and its immediate causes. [The Socialist Workers Party in World War II (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1975), p. 33]

The issues of the struggle can be followed in Trotsky's In Defence of Marxism and Cannon's Struggle for a Proletarian Party, the first focussing on the political and philosophical issues of the dispute and the latter on the organisational aspects.

There is no textbook or manual on the Leninist theory of party organisation. Most Marxist works take the form of polemics in specific situations. So it is in this case. But Cannon's work is a masterly exposition of Marxist teaching on the question.

The opposition was characterised by the majority as a petty-bourgeois faction. This designation was not an epithet but a scientific characterisation based on the minority's political positions, its social composition and its methods of struggle.

The minority was actually an unprincipled combination in which major political differences were subordinated to forming a faction to struggle against the party "regime". The opposition actually had three positions on the fundamental question of the USSR: Burnham repudiated defence of the Soviet Union; Shachtman abstained on the issue; and Abern was an orthodox Trotskyist on the matter. But all three united against the "Cannon clique", i.e., they subordinated political principles to organisational goals.

After a long and democratic discussion in which every effort was made to clarify the political issues in dispute and reduce to a minimum any organisational frictions, the minority split after the April 1940 convention. They took some 40% of the party and most of the youth and writers. Of the three central leaders of the last period-Cannon, Burnham and Shachtman-only Cannon remained. After the split the party had some 600 members.

In August of that year the party suffered another blow with the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico by a Stalinist agent. During the period of his Mexican exile the axis of the world Trotskyist movement had been Trotsky and the SWP leadership. All of the work in the US had been undertaken in the closest collaboration with Trotsky.

Cannon, at the age of 50, was considered to be the most prominent leader of the world Trotskyist movement [Joseph Hansen recounted]. In his opinion it was unrealistic to believe that any single individual could fill the void left by the death of Trotsky. Most certainly no one should look to him to attempt it. He was no genius, he said, and he considered it pretentious and a mockery to play the role of being one.

However, he did have a plan for carrying on the struggle in the absence of Trotsky. The plan was not an elaborate one. It consisted of closing ranks, of trying to keep the team together, of strengthening it, of expanding it, and of renewing it.

In this way the continuity of leadership could be maintained. If another Trotsky appeared, that would be extraordinarily good luck. It would shorten the struggle for socialism. But if another Trotsky did not appear, we would continue to struggle on the basis of Trotsky's program and teachings, and eventually teamwork would win. [James P. Cannon As We Knew Him, p. 17]

Against imperialist war

As the United States prepared for war, patriotic hysteria mounted. In the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the brunt of government repression fell on the Stalinist CP. But with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the CP's switch to all-out support for the war effort, the main government efforts were now directed at the SWP.

The blow came in Minneapolis. The party had strong positions in the labor movement there and used the Northwest Organiser, an official Teamsters Union journal, for vigorous antiwar propaganda. In July 1941 a federal grand jury indicted a number of union and party leaders for "seditious conspiracy" under the Smith Act. In October, 18 SWP leaders — Cannon among them — were convicted in the most famous civil liberties trial of the war years.

The party was able to use the trial to further explain its real positions. Cannon's masterful courtroom testimony can be found in Socialism on Trial. The current edition also includes his later defence of the trial strategy: Cannon's polemic "Marxism Versus Ultraleftism" is a classic exposition of Marxist tactics and can truly be regarded as a worthy supplement to Lenin's famous pamphlet on the same theme. [It can also be found in Socialism on Trial (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1999).]

The defendants received 12-18 month jail terms. They remained free on bail for two years and then served their time in 1944-45, most of them in Sandstone prison in Minnesota. A substitute party leadership, selected in good time, took over and the party's work continued with very good results.

A collection of Cannon's wartime writings and speeches has been published as The Socialist Workers Party in World War II. Among many topics, it deals with the party's struggle to retain its legality and its paper without compromising its revolutionary principles. Cannon was always mindful of the heavy — and often unnecessary — sacrifices made by the IWW in World War I: its militants were jailed in droves for their refusal to be drafted and the organisation was crippled.

This volume also contains Cannon's speech on "The Problem of Party Leadership" and his Letters from Prison contains much more on the same topic. In Cannon's view, the party leadership stands — or should stand — in the same relation to the party as a whole as does the party to the class. Thus the continual selection, training and consolidation of the leadership of a revolutionary party is the decisive question of revolutionary strategy. Without solving this problem the socialist revolution is impossible and Cannon devoted a great deal of attention to it.

Theses on the American Revolution

As World War II ended, a huge labor upsurge developed in the US. In his introduction to Cannon's Speeches to the Party (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1973), Al Hansen gives a feel for its scope:

At the end of World War II, the United States experienced the greatest strike wave in its history-far greater in scope than those of the 1930s …

In 1935-39, the average yearly working days on strike was 17 million, in 1945 this jumped to 36 million, and in 1946 it was 116 million.

The growth of the Socialist Workers Party and its activities reflected the rise in the class struggle. Its press expanded in size and circulation; it had fractions in the unions in auto, steel, maritime, rubber, packinghouse, railroad, longshore, painters, electrical workers, paper workers, shipyard, food handlers, etc; its racial composition altered dramatically with Black workers constituting about one-fourth to one-third of the membership. Many new branches were established; there were, for example, six branches in the New York City Local; the Trotsky School — a resident school of advanced Marxist study — was also established. With a firm proletarian cadre, the party began to think and plan in terms of developing from a propaganda group addressing itself to the most politically advanced workers into a much larger party which could undertake to lead masses of workers in action. [pp. 7-8]

It was to educate this growing membership in the basic Marxist revolutionary perspective of the party that Cannon wrote the "Theses on the American Revolution", adopted by the SWP's November 1946 convention. [They can be found in Fighting for Socialism.] They are a resounding declaration of confidence in the prospects for a socialist transformation in the United States and in the ability of the workers to carry it through led by the revolutionary party, the decisive nucleus of which already existed in the SWP.

Furthermore, following Trotsky, the "Theses" stress that: "The issue of socialism or capitalism will not be finally decided until it is decided in the US … The decisive battles for the communist future of mankind will be fought in the US." (p. 155) They reject any notion that US capitalism is immune to the laws of the class struggle. On the contrary, its drive for global supremacy means that it embraces and is vulnerable to all the contradictions of the world capitalist system.

Although the immediate situation evolved differently to that expected by Cannon in the "Theses", the longterm perspective remains valid and is the only sure foundation on which a revolutionary party in the United States can base itself.

Defending the revolutionary perspective

The party was soon confronted with a new reality. The labour upsurge came to a halt with great suddenness in early 1947 and a reactionary offensive developed all along the line as the Cold War got underway in earnest.

On June 23, 1947 [Al Hansen explains], the Taft-Hartley Act was passed and the drive to housebreak the union movement in this country was underway in full force. All union officials were forced to sign noncommunist affidavits under the act and there was a general attack against radicals of all persuasions.

Systematically, union by union, the government went to work on the radicals and militants in the labor movement, witch-hunting them out of the unions and out of their jobs. Most of the victims were members of the Communist Party, which was then no inconsiderable force in the unions …

While the Stalinists were the easiest target of the witch-hunt, the government extended it to all radicals and militants, including members of the SWP. By 1950 SWP members had been excluded from practically all leading posts in the unions. An atmosphere of fear pervaded the union halls. Red-baiting by the government and the union bureaucrats, even by the companies, was encouraging a lynch spirit among the more conservative workers.

In this atmosphere the powers-that-be took the country into the Korean War; and conditions went from bad to worse. The witch-hunt was extended to all walks of life-from actors to seamen, from miners to preachers. The Coast Guard screened every known radical and militant out of the maritime industry by taking away their seaman's papers, thus eliminating one of the SWP's strongest union fractions at one blow …

This was the period of the Communist Trials, the passage of the McCarran Act and other reactionary legislation, the setting up of concentration camps on a stand-by basis. By the summer of 1952, sixty-one leaders of the Communist Party were either in jail or under indictment …

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came to Detroit in the spring of 1952. This committee, in a bloc with UAW President Walter Reuther, succeeded in stirring up a real lynch atmosphere in the automobile plants throughout Michigan. The daily papers published long lists of the names, addresses, and places of employment of suspected reds. Gangs of right-wing workers roamed through the auto plants looking for those workers listed to beat them up and run them out of the plants. Some well-known Stalinists had to flee for their lives. Some of our own members were advised by their party fractions to stay away from their jobs until things cooled off, while others had enough support so that they didn't have to worry. [Speeches to the Party, pp. 9-11]

In this grim period it was a fight to keep the party intact: one of Cannon's greatest accomplishments was the survival of the SWP despite the very heavy losses it sustained. In this context a great struggle took place in 1952-53 to defend the party's revolutionary perspectives against a minority led by Bert Cochran, a well-known trade union militant from the 1930s. The Cochran grouping was based in the party's auto fraction in Detroit and Flint in Michigan.

The political judgement of the Cochranites was clouded by the tremendous pressure of the witch-hunt. The minority was based on a conservatised layer of trade unionists-militants of the 1930s, now some 15 years further up the seniority ladder. They wanted to pull their heads in, go slow and wait for better times. They were defeated and split, taking about 20% of the membership with them. Cannon's speeches and articles from this dispute are to be found in Speeches to the Party. [Many are also carried in Fighting for Socialism.]

At the end of 1952, with Farrell Dobbs taking over as national secretary, Cannon moved to Los Angeles. He remained the SWP's national chairperson but no longer had responsibility for the party's day-to-day running. A number of his writings and speeches from this latter period are included in this book [Building the Revolutionary Party].

The SWP survived the hard period of the fifties and slowly began to grow again. It participated in the Black civil rights movement. The party hailed the 1959 Cuban revolution and threw itself into defending it and publicising its achievements. From the mid-sixties on it played a major role in building the mass movement against the imperialist intervention in Vietnam. It renewed itself by recruiting significant numbers of radical youth. In the seventies the SWP was a small but impressive party, finally beginning to eclipse the CP in many areas.

However, due to errors made in the later 1970s, this promising development came to a halt. The long struggle to build a revolutionary socialist party in the United States is certainly not developing in a straight line and the way forward is not clear. But we are convinced that — in Australia no less than in the US — Cannon's teaching remains an indispensable foundation for such a project.

Some remarks by Rose Karsner, a founder of the Communist Party and the Trotskyist movement in the United States and longtime companion to Cannon, will perhaps serve as a conclusion. She made them in 1962 at a celebration of the commercial publication (by Lyle Stuart) of The First Ten Years of American Communism.

From the moment we threw our lot in with the socialist movement, more than 50 years ago, we have never wavered in our conviction that a socialist world will come into being. Whether we live to see it or not. That's immaterial. We never faltered in our devotion to this conviction, or in our allegiance to the party we believed was working toward that end. In times of personal difficulty, and we all had them, we sometimes took out time to straighten these matters. But never with the idea of dropping out.

Never did we feel that we were sacrificing for the party. On the contrary, we were always conscious of the fact that to have to give up the party, that would be a sacrifice. Because through activity of the party, we got fulfillment of life and satisfaction and the confidence that we were working not merely for our own little selves, but for the entire human race. [Speeches for Socialism (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1971), pp. 279-280]

[Dave Holmes is now a leader of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne. This and other writings are also available at Dave Holmes' blog, Arguing for Socialism.] 


It is a bit strange responding to an article written 17 years ago by someone you may or may not be dead, for all I know. It is a bit like arguing with a ghost, given that the DSP is no longer in existence and that a part of its old leadership claims to be its historical continuity (in an other party) and that the other part of its old leadership is building, by Cannon's definition, a centrist catchall. One wonders what is the political reasoning by the editors of LINKS in reprinting this, and for what purpose.

However, here goes. As one who was a member of the Canadian section of the Fourth International, and who left it at the start of the looney turn to industry in 1976, I have more than a little interest in the subject of the degeneration of the SWP, and more importantly, as a result of a long period of reflection, on the root causes of of the failure of Cannonism and its proclaimed "Leninist Strategy of Party Building", not only in North America but in all the advanced capitalist countries.

Comrade Holmes has written a marvalous presentation of Cannon's life, and has indeed defined the essence of Cannonism in the five points outlined by him. I am going to look at each of these five points from the point of view of constructing a mass revolutionary movement, and whether or not these essential points help or hinder that process.

1. An unyielding commitment to the socialist revolution.... This platitude applies not only to Cannonites, but extends from revolutionary Marxism through Maoism to various petite bourgeois sects and tendencies of a non-Marxist variety. That is, that the need for constructing a socialist society to save humanity from capitalist barbarism is not an exclusive preserve of the Cannonites.

2. Only the working class can make this revolution, the irreplaceable instrument is the vanguard party. Here Cannonism is wrong on both counts. In Yugoslavia,China and Vietnam (and now, maybe in Nepal) the revolution was made by the peasantry, although both were lead by revolutionary parties of a non-Trotskyist tendency, while in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the revolution was neither of a working class leadership nor was it lead by a vanguard party: the political leadership instrument in all three cases was a multi-class alliance, a revolutionary front.

Comrade Holmes has tried to qualify this discrepancy by the following phrase:..."it is the Leninist revolutionary perspective applied to an advance capitalist country." This however, was not the view of Cannon nor was it the view of the SWP and the International Committee which it lead during the split years in the Fourth International, that is between 1953 and 1964, when Cannon was still alive and active in the SWP. It was during this time when the "Leninist Startegy of Party Building became the mantra to be used against the "Pabloite liquidationists", that is against those who disagreed with Cannon on how to construct a revolutionary instrument for the masses. It was also the mantra used against the majority of the Fourth International in the debate on armed struggle and the concept of the "armed party".

Against the supposed "foquismo" of the majority, was poised "The Leninist Strategy of Party Building", not only in the advanced capitalist countries, but to be applied everywhere, at all times and in all circumstances. This is an historical fact which Comrade Holmes gets wrong.

3. The building of a revolutionary party has to be a consistent and conscious process, and cannot be left to a spontaneous appearance. This is so abstract as to be platitudinous. If one is to do any thing, or to achieve any thing, then it must be done consistently and consciously if success in the endevour is to be realized. This goes without saying. So, if the central political activity is to build any political party, it must be done consciously and consistently. This presupposes that the central political activity of revolutionaries is to build revolutionary parties. For the Cannonites, it is.

4. The comments in regards to point three are equally applied to point four which says: pay attention to details and get your team together. Again elementary points in building any type of organisation, Cannonite or not. Obviously, this was something missing in the transition from the Cannon team to the Barnes team in the SWP. A great deal of "credit" for this must fall on the shoulders of Joe Hansen. Or perhaps this was Hansen at his "consistent" and "conscious" best.

However, the notion of assembling the "team to lead the revolution" is a deluded fantasy at best and at worst is the cause of the messianic cults of personality around which microscopic "internationals" proliferate: Pablo, Posadas, Moreno, Cannon/Barnes, Healy, Lambert, etc. all trying to be a new Lenin, each with their groupascules in a handful of countries.

But this notion of building "the team" to lead the revolution flows naturally from the essence of Cannonism; which is that the duty of revolutionaries is to build the revolutionary party. All else becomes subordinated to this task.

From that comes a reluctance to question the line of the leadership (after all, don't we all want to be team players and be part of "the team").From that flows an instrumentalist approach to popular movements, that is to say that real mass movements and organizations are used as recruiting grounds for "the party", and that control of these organizations does not arise necessarily from real political leadership, but by false majorities, manipulated meetings and agendas, etc.

5. The democratic centralist model which was supposedly existing in Lenin's time with the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party, and to which Cannon supposedly adhered has two problems. The first is that it didn't exist, accept on paper. The debates and counter debates within the Bolshevik wing were printed editorially in newspapers, pamphlets or articles in the party and sometimes non-party press.

The best example of this was the appeal by Lenin over the head of the Central Committee to the party rank and file on the question of the nature of the revolution, that is, the famous April theses. This however, was no rare occurance. Open and public debate regarding the line of the party was the norm in the Bolshevik organisations (there were actually many different Bolshevik committees, which during the February to October period arose spontaneously throughout regions of the Soviet Union where no Bolshevik organiser had ever set foot).

It was precisely this LACK of open honest and spirited debate within the SWP at the time of the Barnes transition which lead to the degeneration of the SWP. The pretext for this was the tendency struggle within the Fourth International between the Mandelites and the Cannonites-Morenoites (more "-ites" than you can shake a stick at). Hansen and company used this opportunity to whip the troops into line, and began expelling supporters of the majority tendency from the SWP. If I remember correctly, the DSP at that time was aligned with the SWP and the international minority. It is to its credit that it didn't follow the SWP down the same road.

The leadership of the SWP was able to do this because of the history within the SWP as to how to defeat oppositional tendencies. Cannon continually refered to all those who opposed his political analysis as some sort of non-proletarian elements- petite bourgeois academics, shiftless cosmopolitans without working class roots, etc. In effect, he set himself up as the interpreter of working class revolutionaries, those on his team, and any who opposed him were by definition not working class revolutionists. If you were with Cannon, you were a "worker Bolshevik"- really, this was the term used by the Cannon/Barnes team to describe how the cadre of the SWP and its Canadian branch, the Revolutionary Workers League, was to be remade. If you were not, then you were obviously not cut out for "the team."

And by extension, if you were politicaly active on the left but not part of the SWP you were certainly not part of the revolutionary party. It is this atitude which is really at the heart of Cannonism: with us or against us.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. The political descendents of Max Shachtman are to be found all over the globe in the form of the International Socialists (which is the largest Trotskyist organisation in the United States (how's that for some political irony). The Cochranites are still active in Detroit and elsewhere. The Socialist Party of America has revived and running a fine comrade for the US senate, in the person of Dan Blotz. The Pabloites are active around the globe in the form of the International Marxist Tendency. And those of us who are Trotskyists and followers of the political ideas of CLR James are to be found around the globe, building socialism from below.

The fundamental flaw in the thinking of Cannon and those he inspires is to be found in the Second Declaration of Havana: the duty of the revolutionaries is to make the REVOLUTION. For the Cannonites it is to build The Revolutionary Party.

This not just a difference in emphasis. It is an acknowledgment that the political instrument for the emancipation of the working class will be built by the workers, with the leadership of that instrument arising from those "organic intellectuals" of the working class, through the revolutionary struggles of the working class as Gramsci argued.

It is a recognition that while one may hold conceptions of how the class struggle should unfold, these may be wrong and ones views will have to be adjusted accordingly. It is a recognition that others on the left who hold different views are not by definition class enemies, petite bourgeois elements without a working class world view, etc. ad naseum. It is a recognition that some may falter, and some others shall arise. It is a recognition that the methods of Paolo Freire are more apropos than the caricatures of Leninism , it is most of all a recognition that the contributions of all are valuable, though they may not all be correct.

But most of all, it is a recognition that a revolutionary's first duty is to organize and lead struggles which will find ways of unleashing the creative potential of the masses to solve their problems the way they want them solved, that is, to deepen the process for the self organization of the masses in struggle.

This response is not in any way meant to denigrate the personal legacy of Jim Cannon. He was a product of his circumstances, and these exceptional circumstances produced an exceptional political leader. Comrade Holmes is right in saying that studying Cannon's work as an important historical record is a worthwhile task.

However, because Cannon is as clear on his conception of what constitutes valid political work, it is necessary to be equally clear in questioning his very premises. The one tendency fight which Comrade Holmes fails to include in his introduction was the Johnson-Forrest tendency: this is the fight between the great Caribbean revolutionary CLR James and Cannon. It was the fight not over political lines (as was the Shachtman-Abern tendency) but over political conceptions of how revolutionaries and revolutionary organisations should act in the class struggle. It is this tendency struggle which is being played out today between those revolutionaries who devote their energy to the "Leninist Strategy of Party Building", and those who devote their energy to building the revolution from below. Those who are building from below are revolutionaries who can be found in and outside parties, who can be found in barrios and factories, who are leading struggles of workers and peasants, who are teaching volunteer literacy programs and acting as barefoot doctors, who sit and play endless games of cards to learn from elders, and who help Mothers carry babies to a clinic. They come in all colours, have a myriad of sexual orientations, are modest in their demeanor and work for the revolution with a great sense of love.

They are the real revolutionary vanguard, and are found by the millions throughout the world. It is these cadres who make up the world party of socialist revolution, many are in the political spectrum known as Trotskyism, many are not.

Unlike Cannon, I believe that the all those who are willing to sacrifice and struggle for the socialist revolution are in my party, or I in theirs. With the Internet acting as "the collective organiser" we can share the experiences and stories of the global class struggle, we can share our analysis with others who will have a different take on things, and we can learn from each other. We will quickly sort out the social liberals from the socialist revolutionaries, for the latter are known for what they do, the former by what they don't, and for them there is no hiding place. We can out the lies, and shout out the truth around the globe. This in building the mass revolutionary movement, a revolutionary spirit and a revolutionary and socialist ethic.

Like Debs, I believe in unity, but Revolutionary Unity. Not unity with the betrayers of the working class, for they killed Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnicht, but unity with all those who through their actions and commitment are willing to bring about a new society from the ashes of the old.

Cannonism, because of its fundamentally flawed premises, stands as an obstacle to that type of Revolutionary Unity. In Argentina today, there are 23 different Trotskyist organizations all claiming to be the nucleus of THE revolutionary party, each one building THE leadership team for the revolution, carefully selecting ,mixing and matching the cadres in the various leadership positions so as to provide true proletarian leadership.

Many, because of Nauhel Moreno's political alliance with the SWP, all claim to be following the Cannonist model. All claim adherence to the legacy of the transitional program, the first four congresses of the Comintern, all give at least lip service to the notions of proletarian democracy, and so forth. What keeps these comrades apart is straight sectarianism, which is impulsed by the notions that a fight over this or that issue is really a fight over the proletarian line or the petite bourgeois line, either in or between organizations.

This hogwash can be traced directly back to the type of fights Cannon mounted within the SWP, which were raised to the level of theoretical ritual in order to justify his team maintaining power. What Cannon and those who would emulate him failed to realize is that the harder you squeeze the sand, the less sand you have.

Almost all political disagreement are over tactics, which arise in the context of an analysis of this or that conjuncture or situation, and which history sooner or later will prove or disprove. A difference in analysis has nothing whatsoever to do with the class background of those providing the analysis, or whether one is succumbing or not to bourgeois pressures. Was Lenin succumbing to bourgeois pressure when he formulated "the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry" vs. Trotsky's formulation of the "dictatorship of the proletariat". Indeed, is Olivier Bescancenot and Francois Sabado succumbing to petite bourgeois pressure to drop the term of the proletarian dictatorship from the program of the New Anticapitalist party. Or are they adjusting the language to more effectively explain to workers the need for the workers to take power through their own government and to build society the way they would like it.

To some on the left this question matters greatly, for it signals the end of the LCR's quest to build a vanguard party of the Leninist Bolshevik type. To most vanguard workers, they are more interested in the ideas of the NPA to help them win power, not the formulas they use.

So the question to comrade Holmes on this point is pretty straight forward: has the French Trotskyist movement, represented by the LCR and its ideological place within the New Anticapitalist Party, abandoned revolutionary Marxism? Has Alain Krivine and crew thrown Lenin overboard? Are they the ultimate Pabloite liquidationists?

To even pose the questions this way sinks to the level of petty sectarianism which, while common amongst Cannonite sects, does nothing to advance the cause of the workers one millimeter forward. Not one. And for this Cannonism is a great part of the problem, not the solution.

This was written in response to John Percy back in 2003, when he was still a leader of the Australian DSP in its hard Cannonite phase.

Reply to John Percy on building a revolutionary party

posted to www.marxmail.org on June 11, 2003

These are comments on selected portions of an article titled "Looking backward, looking forward: Pointers to building a revolutionary party" by Australian DSP leader John Percy. Mostly I have limited myself to areas of disagreement and find much that is positive in this piece, including the Socialist Alliance initiative and some refreshingly modest insights on building new internationals, etc.


JOHN PERCY: The idea of a revolutionary socialist party, or one taking any cues from the Bolshevik experience, is also hotly contested in the milieu, the "party" of former members of parties, reformed Leninists who've seen the error of their ways. Many people pass through revolutionary parties, here and around the world. The revolution is a great devourer of people, that's a fact, and this can be intense in difficult objective situations in which we are pushing uphill. Some comrades tire out, some have bad experiences, and some get other priorities in their lives. Most move on, some adapt to the prevailing political orthodoxy, but some still haven't settled with their past in the revolutionary party and for a while can spend a good part of their political activity attacking their own past by attacking those still actively building a party.

The Marxism List based in the US has many people with this sort of background and outlook, who have espoused or developed a description of their perspective as "anti-Zinovievist", although I haven't seen any attempt by them to clearly distinguish themselves from anti-Leninism. Really, that's what they are, even if they feel better hiding behind Zinoviev.

COMMENT: John is missing the point. There really is no such thing as "Leninism". This was a term coined in the 3rd International almost based on a caricature of the Bolshevik Party. Lenin was sensitive to what he perceived as a kind of schematic understanding of the Bolshevik Party early on:

"At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions. That is its good side, but it is also its bad side, bad because scarcely a single foreigner--I am convinced of this, and I have just re-read it-can read it. Firstly, it is too long, fifty paragraphs or more. Foreigners cannot usually read items of that length. Secondly, if they do read it, they cannot understand it, precisely because it is too Russian...it is permeated and imbued with a Russian spirit. Thirdly, if there is by chance a foreigner who can understand it, he cannot apply it...My impression is that we have committed a gross error in passing that resolution, blocking our own road to further progress. As I said, the resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs. But I must say that we have not yet discovered the form in which to present our Russian experience to foreigners, and for that reason the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not discover it, we shall not go forward."

Lenin's misgivings were prescient for within 3 years these "Russian" tendencies had only deepened. By 1924 the Comintern had ratified a version of "Leninism" that was totally at odds with the living historic example of the Bolshevik Party. To single out just a few examples where the two diverge:

1. The Bolsheviks carried out their debates publicly. As editor of a major Bolshevik newspaper, Bukharin hammered away at Lenin's position on the national question. This is documented in great detail in Stephen Cohen's political biography of Bukharin. Not only that--horrors of horrors--they often voted against each other in the mass movement. In John Reed's "10 Days that Shook the World", there is a reference to divided votes among party members over key questions such as whether to expropriate the bourgeois press. At a November 17th 1917 mass meeting, Lenin called for the confiscation of the capitalist newspapers. Reed quotes him: "If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press." He continues: "Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the press." So you have a kind of cognitive dissonance at work here. For "Leninists" like John Percy, these facts might suggest that the historic Bolshevik Party was a beta product and that only after the rules of conduct for building Bolshevik Parties was codified at the 1924 Comintern world conference did you end up a production version. It was only after I saw the self-destruction of the SWP, which was built on Cannon's strict adherence to the 1924 party-building formulae, that I decided to review the history of these organizational norms. I eventually came to the conclusion that we had to GO BACK TO BOLSHEVISM and dump the schematic, formulaic "improvements" that has led to sect and cult formations time after time.

2. The Bolsheviks were much more relaxed on questions of internal discipline than is the case in "Leninist" parties today. To my knowledge, the only person ever expelled from Lenin's party was Bogdanov, about whom there is little doubt that he had broken with Marxism. Even after Zinoviev and Kamenev broke discipline and denounced the party's decision to take power, they were not expelled. In "Leninist" parties, expulsions happen routinely over simple political differences. For example, the SWP expelled Proletarian Orientation Tendency members right and left after the 1971 convention, who were simply arguing in favor of the kind of "workerist" turn that the SWP eventually decided on some 5 or so years later. I have heard DSP (and WWP) members argue that expulsions almost never happen in their own organization. But discipline can take a variety of forms. You can employ the stick, but you can also enforce a kind of ideological uniformity through peer pressure. Members will be reluctant to vote against the party line because that will earn them the reputation of being "suspect". This in fact is how the CP's kept its membership in line most of the time. And the Trotskyists are no different. In 1978 the NYC SWP leadership was trying to "motivate" some members, including me, to quit their middle-class jobs, move out of NYC and go into industry. I thought the politics behind this, which was based on a overprojection of the tempo of the class struggle, was flawed but that did not stop me from getting up at a branch meeting and announcing that the American factories were ripe for recruitment to the revolutionary party. The desire to be accepted is a deeply human need, but it is a dagger at the heart of the revolutionary party. As Marx once said in a letter to Ruge, we need a "ruthless criticism of all that exists", starting with positions submitted to the membership of a revolutionary party.

3. The Bolsheviks were far more ideologically heterogeneous than is the case in "Leninist" parties. When Lenin argued in favor of an all-Russia Marxist organization, he saw Iskra as a way to unite the scattered forces and provide a platform for debate so that a program for the Russian revolution could take shape. In "What is to be Done", he wrote:

"Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise our unity will be purely fictitious...We do not intend to make our publication a mere store-house of various views. On the contrary, we shall conduct it in the spirit of a strictly defined tendency. This tendency can be expressed by the word Marxism. ... Only in this way will it be possible to establish a genuinely all-Russian, Social- Democratic organ. Only such a publication will be capable of leading the movement on the high road of political struggle."

You'll note that Lenin did not call for a party based on an interpretation of some historical questions, such as the class nature of the USSR under Stalin, etc. He wanted to unite *Marxists*. This conception is radically different from the Leninist "improvement".

JOHN PERCY: This argument is belied both by common sense—the required instrument isn't going to spring ready-made from the ground when the revolutionary situation matures, especially since revolutionary situations can be quite short and arise quite rapidly. It's also belied by our experience: without our perspective of building a Leninist party, we wouldn't have the team of cadres, the wealth of experience, the resources and tools such as Green Left Weekly that we have today. It's also belied by the whole practice of the Bolshevik party, still our best and most successful example of a revolutionary workers' party.

It's also explicitly answered by Lenin, for example, when he wrote after the 1905 revolution, during a particularly demoralising downturn in the Russian workers' struggle. He answered those who argued that you didn't need a party in a period like this, that later, when the struggle revived and it wasn't so difficult, it would be appropriate to build a party: "Whoever finds the work tedious, whoever does not understand the need for preserving and developing the revolutionary principles of Social-Democratic tactics in this phase too, on this bend of the road, is taking the name of Marxism in vain".

COMMENT: This is an argument that was drummed into my head when I joined the Trotskyist movement, that you cannot have a successful revolution without a revolutionary party. When you stop and think about it, this is what can be regarded as a tautology. Unfortunately, the real question before us is not whether we need a revolutionary party or not, but how to build one. In Cuba, during the late 1950s, THERE WAS NO REVOLUTIONARY PARTY according to the definition understood by DSP leaders. In fact, there is little doubt that if Fidel Castro had sat down with James P. Cannon's "Struggle for a Proletarian Party" and tried to apply its "lessons" as the Percy brothers did in Australia, we might be seeing Batista's son running the country, or some variant.

JOHN PERCY: So while we are always attempting to build a party as the advanced detachment of the working class, we realise that the party is not just a society for the preservation of the truth, but a process of continually testing and developing ways to go forward. It's certainly ridiculous just to proclaim that we're the party, or to act as though we're already such a party when there's so far to go. But such a party is still necessary—a real Leninist party, not a caricature. And we continually test our course in practice and try again.

COMMENT: Of course, what John has not come to grips with is the clash between these sensible words and the party-building traditions that the DSP adheres to. At the 1944 SWP convention, Morris Stein, who was regarded as one of James P. Cannon's top lieutenants, told the convention:

"We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can't stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn't that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists."

My experience tells me that despite your best intentions, you cannot avoid thinking in these terms as long as you view your organizational tasks within the framework set down by James P. Cannon.

JOHN PERCY: The classic case in recent left history is the Cuban Revolution, an example we use in our party to illustrate the difference between currents that responded to reality, and currents that refuse to recognise facts, even in the form of an actual revolution. The 1959 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement was not expected or understood by any of the Trotskyist currents. However, as the revolution unfolded, some, such as the US Socialist Workers Party, and leaders of the European International Secretariat of the Fourth International, such as Ernest Mandel, (the FI having split in 1953) were able to recognise what was happening and welcome and support it. Others, such as the Socialist Labour League in Britain led by Gerry Healy, refused to support it—it wasn't led by a Trotskyist party! (Other currents outside the FI framework, such as the state capitalist current led by Tony Cliff, were also hamstrung by their theory, and were unwilling to adjust their schema.)

COMMENT: Of course, the real challenge to Trotskyists, and those who retain committed to its "Leninist" organizational principles whether or not they agree with permanent revolution, is to come to grips with how a true vanguard was formed in Cuba. It started by throwing out all the schemas found in books like "Struggle for a Proletarian Party".

JOHN PERCY: Another more recent case is the implementation of the "turn to industry" in the Fourth International in the late 1970s. This turn was initiated by the US SWP, and followed by others in the FI, including our own party, still in the FI at the time. The arguments for the turn were based on the prediction of a working-class upsurge in the advanced capitalist countries, of which there were some signs. In this scenario, the working class, especially in the US, would move to centre stage, and revolutionaries would have to be alongside workers in the coming struggles. We carried out that turn, with some positive results and useful experiences, although of course there were costs too. When it became clear that the predicted working-class upsurge on which the turn was predicated was not occurring, we made adjustments, allowing us to quickly step up our political work among students, and in the varied campaigns and movements. But the US SWP refused to face facts, persisted in their turn, even "deepening" it, rolling it out again and again (I think they're in their fourth turn now). That's not the only factor contributing to the degeneration of the US SWP, but it was a major contribution—their refusal to face facts, and all the political distortions that flowed from that.

COMMENT: It was a sign of the health of the DSP that it rejected this workerist schema that the SWP tried to force down its throat. I would only hope that they dig deeper into the kind of internal culture that made such a counter-productive policy possible. I would suggest that this goes with the territory in "Leninist" formations and will eventually bite you in the ass, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

JOHN PERCY: Lenin argued that a revolutionary party "is worthy of its name only when it guides in deed the movement of a revolutionary class".10 And again, "It is not enough to call ourselves the `vanguard', the advanced contingent; we must act in such a way that all the other contingents recognise and are obliged to admit that we are marching in the vanguard".


Revolutionaries have to win that leading role, not "exercise" it, as the Socialist Party of Australia, now the CPA, and so many other little groups argue. You don't become a vanguard through a franchise. As Fidel Castro said in 1967:

Anyone can give themselves the name of "eagle" without having a single feather on their back. In the same way, there are people who call themselves communists without having a single communist hair on their heads. The international communist movement, to our way of thinking, is not a church. It is not a religious sect or a Masonic lodge that obliges us to hallow any weakness, any deviation; that obliges us to follow a policy of a mutual admiration with all kinds of reformists and pseudo-revolutionaries.

COMMENT: This is a pretty good section, even if it closely parallels something that a tired, petit-bourgeois, ex-Leninist like myself wrote--including the same exact quote from Castro.

JOHN PERCY: Over the years of our experience in building the DSP, we've developed a better understanding of how a revolutionary party operates. We adopted democratic centralism as our method of operating, but perhaps initially had a tendency to see it as a set of rules, a constitution. We developed a better understanding of the principles involved as we matured, and had more experience in actually building a party.

Simply defined, it's full freedom of discussion, and unity in action. "In the heat of battle … no criticism whatever can be permitted in [the party's] ranks", Lenin wrote. But before the call for action, the broadest possible discussion was needed. Understood properly, this is common sense, but it is vital for a successful revolutionary party.

COMMENT: This is okay as far as it goes. But discussion related to a specific action such as whether to participate in civil disobedience or not just scratches the surface. The big problem for "Leninist" organizations is that democratic centralism has tended to spill over into areas that it does not belong in. For example, is it breaking discipline for "Leninist" party members to challenge an *analysis* found in the party paper? In the American SWP and other such groups, party members are required to defend the line put forward in the newspaper or other official publications between party conventions, when they will have the opportunity to argue for a new line. This means that if an SWP member thought that the return of Elian Gonzalez to his father under the auspices of the INS was a good thing, he or she would have to keep it to themselves. In a nutshell, I have found that this encourages ideological slavishness of the kind that can in extreme instances lead to cult-like formations. As I stated above, we need ruthless criticism of all that exists, including party publications. Now I have heard one ex-member of the DSP, who still supports the party strongly, say here that the DSP does not discipline its members in this fashion, but I afraid that peer pressure of the kind I described above might play the same role.


Sorry cde Ross, but this is my real name and I am from Canada, and a member of the Newsocialist network, and a former member of the YS/LSA and RMG, among other things (bush pilot, trade union organizer, NDP MLA, etc.)

The comments below are excerpted from an article I wrote criticising the Australian far left's organisational templates (especially the DSP of which I was a member from 1993-2009)

Loose Cannon
I am inherently skeptical of theories of “leadership building” and “organisational theory” on the left. The leadership requirements of a small isolated group of socialists are too removed from the broader situation, and become impossibly abstract when theorised. Timeless, eternal theories can seem very attractive, but only seek to draw the group’s attention further from the reality they (at least nominally) aspire to influence. Internal logic too easily replaces the need to correspond to reality. This is what has happened to the left’s organisational methods over the last 20 years or so. At worst, you end up with a cult-of-the-organisation, and there are seeds of that unattractive outcome in all the existing organised left.

To name one bad political influence, many have misused an insight of the 20th century US socialist James P. Cannon on leadership. In “Factional Struggle and Party Leadership”, Cannon wrote that “I believe, that just as truly as the problem of the party is the problem the working class has to solve before the struggle against capitalism can be definitively successful – the problem of the party is the problem of the leadership of the party.”

Cannon’s insight may be true in some senses, but if you interpret it in a reductionist sense (meaning all we have to do is train a party leadership) you end up with a introverted sect believing its day will come and it just has to prepare the leadership for that day. Not all the left groups study Cannon, but most still practice some version of this error.

Who wants to be a follower?
One of the more amusing moments of the DSP’s recent faction fight was when Melbourne branch assigned one minority and one majority supporter to work together in a campaign. The minority supporter demanded to know which of the two was “heading up” the DSP’s intervention. So if you ask two socialists to work together, they need to know who is in charge… wouldn’t the anarchists love that one!

The practical outcome of the “leadership-building” theory is that a section of the organisation are reduced to being followers: you can’t have leaders without followers. That term is of course avoided: they are up-and-coming leaders, leaders in training, loyal members doing our work. Of course our leadership is “inclusive”. We can even pay lip service to the IWW aspiration that all members are leaders, but in practice what happens is that a heirarchy is established with leaders and followers. It’s not about authoritarianism (although that can develop); it’s about where and how the decision making discussions happen.

At worst, the leadership can act like a clique (or permanent, undeclared faction) which manipulates the structure to maintain its position. Ideas are formulated at the top level, who then go to convince or instruct each lower body of their correctness, right down to the general membership. Of course, any member can voice a different opinion, but when you have the weight of a huge leadership pyramid coming down behind an idea, an individual member is unlikely to change much in a meeting.

And the leadership pyramid often is huge. Branch executive bodies in the DSP have often comprised half or even more of the active branch members. Too many chiefs, not enough indians! This leadership group formulate the proposals to put to the branch and act as a bloc in branch meetings. This method is common on the left. Actual clique activity was not the norm within the DSP leadership as far as I could see in my 17 years of membership, but the leadership structure and methods tend to replicate clique leadership problems regardless.

Since the internal leadership of a left group is usually so powerful (and often self-important, collectively if not individually), it can also hand-pick who is let into its own ranks in the same way it can swing the members behind its decisions. All the rhetoric about “inclusive” leadership and the most democratic of elections in branches do not negate the pressure of argument coming down from the leadership above in discussion and decision making and even voting. Having said that, the problem is not usually who gets elected, but how the elected body functions after that. It is a discussionocracy: those most involved in the discussions tend to be those most comfortable with the long discussions of leadership bodies, with the time or articulation skills, and they motivate to their ranks those most like themselves. But this does not necessarily reflect the most activist members, leading in struggles.

Homogenised... and pasteurised?
The DSP took pride in its long period through the 1980s and 1990s without serious faction fights, and in the level of “ideological homogeneity” which it had maintained. As the group on the left that paid the most attention to intensive Marxist education, with a one-month Party School (and schools of up to six months in the 1980s, held in a dedicated party-school building) ideological homogeneity is to be expected in some degree. But ideological homogeneity – a common reading of the ideas of Lenin, or the course of the Cuban revolution – can’t explain the homogeneity of practical discussion in branches where reports from the leadership are nearly always adopted without serious debate, where alternative proposals from the “rank-and-file” are rare (and even more rarely followed through).

The amount of attention paid to ideological “homogeneity” has its own overheads: it takes a lot of time to educate members on matters of history and theory. Yet as useful as a knowledge of history is, it does not automatically produce the ability to understand and relate to the present. And there is always the risk that the chosen historical lineage might be missing something. As a Philippine revolutionary once explained, in the Communist Party of the Philippines members were only ever allowed to read Lenin “with a Mao condom”, i.e. as quoted and interpreted by Mao. This problem applies to a lot of the left if you replace Mao with Cliff, Cannon, or whoever.

And in this atmosphere of homogeneity, real debate – over history or over current tactics – is difficult. Many leave left groups without ever really giving their reason: it’s hard to break out of group-think, it’s hard to know where your genuine disagreement trails off into negativity and many would rather just leave it behind them. Others who do express differences are often excused by, or accused of, “demoralisation” meaning that their opinion is allegedly worth little because of its subjective coloration. That denigrating response is called “poisoning the well” and is considered a dishonest ad hominem method of debate, but sadly, many of the leftists educated on so much detail of Lenin and Trotsky are not aware of such “everyday” subtleties. (I think even football players know it – having coined the phrase “play the ball, not the man!”)

Ideological homogeneity is a hallmark of left propaganda groups. In the best cases, it is achieved through rigorous education, but when idealised, it is another false friend: if real-world, current-day differences arise, it suddenly becomes apparent that the most ardent Leninists and Trotskyists and so on can come up with as many different assessments of the situation as individual members.

Propaganda with the narrow aim of self-promotion, and an heirarchical “leadership” cult-of-the-organisation go together. They share a commitment to the abstract ideal rather than the living experience. A young inexperienced activist can become an instant “leader” because of the organisation’s decision, because of their ability to organise their co-thinkers in the group, and articulate its propaganda, without needing any ability to relate to normal people outside. Insofar as this gives new members confidence, it is useful, but without the corrective of political interaction outside the organisation such “leadership building” is mostly an exercise in building a house of cards.


"Cannonism" should be neither idealised nor demonised. Everything depends on how it is applied in practice.

It seems to me that in the 1960s and early 1970s the US SWP did a pretty good job. It played a key role in building the movement against the war in Vietnam. It defended Cuba which was under severe attack from United States imperialism. It also supported a range of other movements such as the black struggle, womens liberation and gay liberation. As a result the party grew.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the SWP made some major political errors, which set in motion a process of degeneration.

There is no recipe book, whether written by Cannon or by his critics, that guarantees against such mistakes.

Chris Slee

Dear Comrade Slee:

Thank you for your thoughts. I do not believe anyone on this thread is trying to demonize or idealize Cannonism. I think that is an abstract way of approaching the question.

The thread is in response to the article by Comrade Holmes, published on the website. The article is highly supportive of Cannonism. Those of us who have developed a critique of this method of political organization disagree with the the author's contentions that it represents a valid form of organization. The evolution of the DSP is a de facto criticism of this form of organization. The concept of the Socialist Alliance, as does the NPA in France, or the PSOL in Brazil, for example, represent more of a true Leninist approach to organizing the vanguard, then does the creation of a plethora of Cannonist sects all proclaiming to be building the true revolutionary "general staff" of the workers movement.

In order to seize power, the workers and popular sectors need a political instrument which they themselves have built, control and direct, and from which they will choose their own leaders. May I direct you to Ernest Mandel's "The Leninist Theory of Organization" which will act as an antidote to the Cannonist texts. This small phamphlet sets out the theory which the NPA, the Portugese Left Bloc, the PSOL, to some extent, and others have been following, with a growing number of modest political successes.

Its emphasis on finding ways of strengthening the political and social vanguard layers of the working class, of building a broad Marxist hegomony within that vanguard, creates a cadre more concerned with critical thinking tasks, political alliance building, and self organizing principals, than with "following the party line" and looking to be proclaimed as the next "leader" of the group.

As for the growth of the SWP. Yes, it did a good job of building the anti-war and fair play for Cuba movements. Yes it did grow during the 1960's and early 1970's. But so did all the other political tendencies on the left, especially in numerical terms those who identified with Maoism. And all declined after the down turn in the mass movement. The result for the SWP is well known. But for those other Trotskyists, those expelled from the SWP or who left in disgust, many of them are still active in movements like Solidarity, Socialist Action (itself a Cannonist group) and others like them. The experiences gained while members of the SWP had allowed these comrades to develop a critical perspective, and circumstance forced them to become more aimed at building political alliances and to look outward towards linking up with the social movements and sectors wiling to struggle.

The two largest organizations of the far left in the United States, the International Socialists, and Solidarity are not Cannonist, and in the case of Solidarity are explicitly so. It is the same situation in Canada, where the IS, the Socialist Project and the New Socialist Group are the major forces on the Canadian far left. Again, none are Cannonist organziations.

As to your contention that anything is valid, it all depends upon how it is applied; I would respond that if you start a project with a faulty premise, with a set of plans which are out of wack, the chances of building a structure which will stand up straight are pretty slim.


More on Cannon

By Chris Slee

In response to the debate about Cannon in Links, I re-read Cannon's pamphlet "The Revolutionary Party: its role in the struggle for socialism" (Pathfinder Press 1971).

The pamphlet contains a mixture of correct and mistaken ideas. It includes some assertions that are clearly wrong. However these do not originate with Cannon but with Trotsky.

The pamphlet also includes some statements about party-building that are correct in principle, but which can lead to sectarian errors if interpreted one-sidedly or applied wrongly. (Of course, the same could be said of Lenin).

Cannon argues that the need for a revolutionary vanguard party arises from the uneven political consciousness of the working class. He says that those workers and intellectuals who "grasp the requirements for revolutionary action...sooner than the bulk of the proletariat" must organise in a party to educate and lead the rest of the working class: "The earliest formations of advanced workers committed to socialism, and their intellectual associates..., must first organize themselves around a definite body of scientific doctrine, class tradition, and experience, and work out a correct political program in order to then organize and lead the big battalions of revolutionary forces" (p. 4).

I think this general argument is correct. But one potential problem with the above passage is that the reader may assume that once the "correct" program has been developed, there is no need to re-examine it in the light of new experience.

Another potential problem is that an over-emphasis on the "correctness" of doctrine and program may lead to unnecessary splits in the revolutionary movement.

Cannon says that while the vanguard party "begins as a minority of its class", it "should aim at all times to reach, move and win the broadest masses" (p.4). The work of the US SWP in building the movement against the Vietnam war as broadly as possible around clear demands was a good example of this.

Cannon says that: "The vanguard party cannot be proclaimed by sectarian fiat or be created overnight. Its leadership and membership are selected and sifted out by tests and trials in the mass movement, and in the internal controversies and sharp conflicts over the critical policy questions raised at every turn in the class struggle" (p. 7).

This is a correct general statement, but a one-sided emphasis on "sharp conflicts" can lead to unnecessary splits. An Australian example was the split in the Socialist Workers League in 1972 over revolutionary strategy in Latin America, which both sides later agreed was an unnecessary split.

The most clearly incorrect statement in the pamphlet is a quotation from Trotsky: "...the crisis of proletarian leadership...can be resolved only by the Fourth International". (p. 8)

Today, 72 years after its formation, the FI has not yet led any successful revolutions, whereas some other organisations (e.g. the Chinese and Vietnamese communist parties, and the July 26 Movement in Cuba) have done so.

Of course, we must recognise that some of these revolutions were led by deeply flawed organisations and created deeply flawed post-revolutionary states (e.g. China).

We should also recognise that some of the sections of the Fourth International have played a very positive role in a range of struggles. Nevertheless the idea that the FI will lead the world revolution seems, at this stage, extremely unlikely.

To be fair to Trotsky, he did acknowledge that forces other than the FI might perhaps play some role in making revolutions. In the Transitional Program he wrote: "...one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc), the petty-bourgeois parties including the Stalinists may go further than they themselves wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie".

Cannon cites the above quotation, and adds: "In the postwar years these exceptional conditions in the more backward countries have been the prostration and collapse of the most corrupt colonial bourgeoisies, the weaknesses of the old imperialist powers in Europe and of Japan, and the mighty upsurge of the indigenous peasant and proletarian masses. Certain Communist leaderships were confronted with the alternatives of being crushed by reaction, outflanked by the revolutionary forces, or taking command of the national liberation and anticapitalist struggles. After some hesitation and vacillation, and against the Kremlin's advice, the Communist leaders in Yugoslavia, China and Vietnam took the latter course and led the proletariat and peasantry to power" (p. 9).

However, to cite "exceptional conditions" as an explanation for why revolutions were led by non-Trotskyist forces, while Trotskyists have not succeeded in leading revolutions, seems very inadequate.

Cannon says that: "The deformations of the regimes emanating from the revolutionary movements headed by the Stalinized parties, and the opportunism and sectarianism exhibited by their leaderships since assuming power, notably in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia and China, demonstrate that the need for organizing genuine Marxist parties is not ended with the overthrow of capitalist domination. The building of such political formations can become equally urgent as the result of the bureaucratic degeneration and deformation of postcapitalist states...." (p. 10).

Trotsky's analysis of the degeneration of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent extension of this analysis by the Trotskyist movement to apply to other post-revolutionary states, were important contributions to Marxist theory. However the FI did not succeed in building Marxist parties that could lead revolutions to replace the Stalinist regimes by democratic workers states.

Cannon goes on to discuss Cuba: "....the example of Cuba is often brought forward as proof that no party at all is required in the struggle for power, or that any kind of improvised political outfit will do the job. First of all, this involves a misconstruction of the political history of the Cuban revolution. The July 26 Movement had a small, close-knit nucleus of leaders, subjected to military discipline by the imperatives of armed combat. They had to construct a broader leadership in the heat of civil war against Batista. Once the Cuban freedom fighters had become sovereign in the country, they found not only that they could not dispense with a vanguard party, but that they desperately needed one. They have therefore proceded to construct one along Marxist lines and are still engaged in that task nine years after their victory." (p. 10-11)

Here Cannon makes some valid and important points, but the fact remains that the July 26 Movement, which led the successful struggle against the Batista dictatorship, was not a Marxist party (though some of its key leaders and cadres were Marxists).

Cannon goes on to discuss the struggle in the imperialist countries. He points out that the ruling class in these countries is much stronger than the ruling class in the oppressed colonial countries, and says: "Here the injunction to build revolutionary Marxist parties is absolutely unconditional" (p. 11)

He does however admit that: "The difficulties encountered by the Trotskyist vanguard over the past three decades show that there are no easy or simple recipes for solving the multiple problems posed by this necessity". (p. 11)

The experience of subsequent decades has confirmed that there are indeed "no easy or simple recipes". Nobody has yet made a successful revolution in an advanced capitalist country without a significant feudal legacy, so nobody has yet proven in practice that they have the answer. We still need to discover how to build mass revolutionary socialist parties in such countries.

Some of those who would like a "simple recipe" may think that Cannon's writings provide it. I don't think so. Nevertheless, the US SWP, prior to its degeneration, was one of the better attempts at building a revolutionary party in an imperialist country, so it is worth studying the writings of a man who played a key role in leading it.

In "The History of American Trotskyism" (Pathfinder Press 1972), Cannon says that: "Both splits and unifications are methods of developing the revolutionary party. Each, under given circumstances, can be either progressive or reactionary in its consequences. The general popular sentiment for unification all the time has no more political value than a preference for a continual process of splitting which you see taking place interminably in the purist sectarian groups....Splits are sometimes absolutely necessary for the clarification of programmatic ideas and for the selection of forces in order to make a new start on a clear basis". (p. 189)

As a general statement this is correct. But in the Trotskyist movement the main problem has not been a reluctance to split but a reluctance to unite.

In the 1984 book "The Struggle for Socialism in the Imperialist Epoch" (a resolution of the Socialist Workers Party, which was at that time the Australian section of the Fourth International, and which was later to be renamed the Democratic Socialist Party), we said that the Trotskyist movement was affected by "an inescapable pressure on small, isolated groups to retreat into the endless elaboration of the written program as a substitute for active involvement in the class struggle" (p. 93), and often had "an attitude towards other class-struggle or revolutionary currents that downplays their achievements and seeks for programmatic differences rather than practical agreements". (p. 95)

In an effort to break with this negative side of the Trotskyist tradition, the DSP took a range of inititatives for left unity, including the establishment of Green Left Weekly as a formally non-party paper, and the creation of Socialist Alliance.

But at the same time, we did not abandon the "Cannonist" ideas about the importance of a serious approach to party-building. Neither left unity nor involvement in mass struggles should be counterposed to the need to pay a lot of attention to party-building work.