A HANDBOOK ON WHAT IS TO BE DONE- STARTING OVER
THE LEFT OPPOSITION IN THE U.S. 1928-31; JAMES P. CANNON, WRITINGS AND SPEECHES, 1928-31, MONAD PRESS, NEW YORK, 1981
If you are interested in the history of the American Left or are a militant trying to understand some of the past lessons of our history concerning the socialist response to various social and labor questions this book is for you. This book is part of a continuing series of volumes of the writings of James P. Cannon that were published by the organization he founded, the Socialist Workers Party, in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Cannon died in 1974. Look in this space for other related reviews of this series of documents on and by an important American Communist.
In their introduction the editors motivate the purpose for the publication of the book by stating the Cannon was the finest Communist leader that America had ever produced. This an intriguing question. The editors trace their political lineage back to Cannon’s leadership of the early Communist Party and later after his expulsion to the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party so their perspective is obvious. What does the documentation provided here show? This certainly is the period of Cannon’s political maturation, and the beginning of a long political collaboration working with Trotsky. The period under discussion- from the late 1920’s when he was expelled as leader of the American Communist Party to the early 1930’s and the start of the great labor upsurge which would bring wide spread unionization to the working class. Cannon won his spurs in this struggle to orient those organizations toward a revolutionary path. One thing is sure-in his prime, which includes this period- Cannon had the instincts to want to lead a revolution and had the evident capacity to do so. That he never had an opportunity to lead a revolution is his personal tragedy and ours as well.
As an expelled faction of the American Communist Party, which continued to stand on the program of the defense of the Russian Revolution, the Cannon group needed an orientation. That they considered themselves as an expelled but loyal faction of the Communist Party was the correct orientation for a small propaganda group. The party was where the vast bulk of the advanced political workers were. Immediately going to the “masses”, as has occurred with other expelled groupings then and now, would have proved disastrous. Cannon’s group needed to cohere a programmatic basis and recruit a cadre to win over workers and intellectuals from the party. Its Platform of the Communist Opposition, a generally good programmatic statement, was its key analysis and tool to win cadre. There are two points in that document that should be of interest to today’s militants. Those are the slogans for a workers party and for the right of national self-determination for blacks (at that time called Negroes).
In a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary period a revolutionary workers organization would recruit militants directly to the party. Other events like the labor upheavals in the United States in the 1930’s fall in the same category. Thus, using some algebraic formula for drawing workers to a broader revolutionary formation is not necessary. At other times, and the late 1920’s and early 1930’s was such a period in the United States, the call for a workers party, presumably based on less than the full program, by a propaganda group would be appropriate. In short, propaganda and agitation in favor of a generic workers party is a tactic. The call for such a formation today by militants in the United States is appropriate. In any case, no militant makes such a call for a workers party based, for example, on the model of the British Labor Party, then or now.
The left-wing movement in America, including the Communist Party and its offshoots has always had problems with what has been called the Black Question. The Communist Opposition’s position on this question reflects that misconception, taken over from the party. This position has always been associated with American Communist Party member Harry Haywood (see his book Black Bolshevik reviewed elsewhere in this space at February 2008 archives). Marxists have always considers support to the right of national self-determination to be a wedge against nationalists and to attempt to take the national question off the agenda and put a working class resolution on the agenda. In any case, that programmatic point has always been predicated on there being a possibility for a defined group to form a nation. Absent that, other methods of struggle are necessary to deal with the special oppression, in this case, of black people.
Part of the problem with the American Communist position was that the conditions which would have created the possibility of a black state were being destroyed with the mechanization of agriculture, the migration of blacks to the Northern industrial centers and the overwhelming need to fight for black people’s rights to survive under the conditions of the Great Depression. If one really thinks about it the only realistic time that this slogan could have been apropriately raised or supported would have been shortly after the American Civil War when the black population was more compacted geographically and there might have been some political will by Radical Republicans to back such a scheme. This misconception on the viability (or desirability) of a black nation would later came back to haunt Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party when the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s presented opportunities for intervention in the black struggle. That organization stood aside at the time rather than recruit blacks to communism.
The Cannon faction was not the only group expelled from the American Communist Party during the period under review. One cannot understand this period inside the Communist movement if one does not understand which ways the winds were blowing from Moscow. A furious struggle for power in the Russian Communist Party, reflected also in the Communist International, was under way during this period. First, the Stalin faction defeated the Trotsky-led Left Opposition, and then shortly thereafter the Bukharin-led Right Opposition was defeated. In America, this was reflected in the expulsion of the Lovestone group, previously the leadership of the Party. The political shakeout from these events was a certain pressure to unite the two expelled factions. Trotsky, and through his influence Cannon argued strenuously that such a combination was unprincipled and unworkable.
Most parliamentary parties, and here this reviewer includes reformist workers parties, do not confront the question such of these abovementioned left-right blocs for the simple reason they are not, and do not want to, carry out a revolution. Therefore, such parties, will freely bloc with any other organization under any advantageous conditions for any reason. Not so a revolutionary party. While it may unite, for the moment, with a wide range of organizations for general democratic demands it must have a fairly homogeneous program if it is to lead a revolution. The program of the Right Opposition, in effect, was a transmission belt for reformism. In short, if you unite you have two parties, at least in embryo, in one organization. The experences of the Russian Revolution and later the Communist International in its better days should have put that right-left unification question to rest for good. However, it continues today and not just as a matter of historical speculation.
For Trotsky, Cannon and the International Left Opposition this necessary separation was shown most dramatically in Spain when the formerly Trotskyist Left Opposition led by Andreas Nin fused with the Right Opposition led by his friend Maurin in 1935. The result, the Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), while being the most honest revolutionary party in the Spanish Civil War floundered over revolutionary strategy due to its confused orientation on the popular front, political rather military support to the bourgeois government and a whole range of questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics. The POUM experience is the textbook example of what not to do in a revolutionary period. Unfortunately, for his confusion on this issue Nin lost his life at the hands of the Stalinists, the POUM leadership was arrested after the May Days in Barcelona and the Spanish Revolution was derailed.
In Communist history, the period under review is called the ‘Third Period’, in theory allegedly the period of the final crisis of capitalism. The conclusions drawn by the Stalinists from this theory was that revolution was on the immediate agenda everywhere and that it was not necessary, and in fact, was counterrevolutionary to make alliances with other forces. This writer has read a fair amount of material about this ‘Third Period’, mainly at the level of high policy in the Communist International, especially in regard to Germany in the pre-Hitler period where it was a disaster. This volume gives a very nice appreciation by Cannon in a number of articles of how that policy worked at the base, in the trade unions and among the unemployed. It is painful to see how the Stalinists withdrew from the organized trade union movement and set up their own “red” unions composed mainly of Communist sympathizers. That the Stalinist did not suffer more damage and isolation after this flawed policy was changed later during the great labor battles of the 1930’s testifies more to the desperate nature of those struggles than any wisdom learned by the Stalinists. Read this book for more on how to build a workers organization in tough times.
As an addition to the historical record of this period this book is a very good companion to Cannon’s own THE COMMUNIST LEAGUE OF AMERICA, 1932-34 and DOG DAYS: JAMES P. CANNON vs. MAX SHACHTMAN IN THE COMMUNIST LEAGUE OF AMERICA, 1931-1933, PROMETHEUS RESEARCH LIBRARY, Spartacist Publishing Co., New York, 2002.
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