James P. Cannon: An introduction

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[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.]