THE FIGHT FOR A REVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE IN HARD TIMES
SPEECHES TO THE PARTY; JAMES P. CANNON, WRITINGS AND SPEECHES, 1952-54, PATHFINDER PRESS, NEW YORK, 1973
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 that has underscored my previous reviews which detail earlier periods in Cannon’s political career and does so here as well. 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?
The period under discussion- the early 1950’s- is essentially the swan song of his role as the central leader of the organization. Fortunately, Cannon had one last fight in him and went out swinging. However, unlike previous fights in the party he was slow to pick up the gravity of the implications of the opposition’s positions, in the party and internationally in the Fourth International, for the future revolutionary perspective. That said, Cannon did fight, if partially and belatedly, and that accrues to his merit as a revolutionary. Revolutionaries too get old and tired and do not always live in revolutionary times so they can show what they are made of. I will repeat here what I have mentioned in earlier reviews. One thing is sure- in his prime- 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.
Let’s face it, the post-World War II period, after an initial outburst of class struggle, was not a good time for revolutionaries in America. As a victor America became the dominate economic and military power in the world. That coupled with an out and out ‘red scare’ witch hunt backed by most elements of the ruling class forced revolutionaries to duck their heads and hope for better days. This is the background to the fight which Cannon led against those who wanted to negate the role of the revolutionary party or to liquidate its public tasks.
No political person wants to be isolated from the arena of their work and that applies to revolutionaries as well. Feeling irrelevant has the same effect. Those conditions inevitably lead a revolutionary party inward. Cannon, having experienced about every trial and tribulation a revolutionary could face in a bourgeois democracy, actually felt the fight coming. Cannon stated he had put a question mark over the party’s existence as a revolutionary organization in 1952. He believed that he might have to start over with the youth out in Los Angeles (where he was living at the time). Given that prospect, Cannon, as they say, got his Irish up.
As to the particulars of the fight, known in radical history as the Cochran-Clark fight, there were two trends. The main one represented by Cochran, a leading party trade unionist in the automobile industry, under the pressure of the witch hunt essentially wanted to reduce the organization down to a propaganda circle and liquidate any revolutionary perspective. The other represented by Clark ,which also was reflected internationally in the Fourth International, was to orient to the Stalinist milieu essentially refurbishing the credentials of the American Communist Party in light of Stalin’s death and revolutionary developments in Eastern Europe. This was a different form of liquidation of the revolutionary perspective which the Socialist Workers Party had fought over the, at that time, 25 year history of its fight against Stalinism.
An interesting note about this faction fight is that unlike most such fights in leftist organizations the key elements of the opposition here are the party trade unionists. Usually it is the volatile petty bourgeois elements that develop political differences when times get tough or when the petty bourgeois milieu turns hostile, for example, in 1939 with the Hitler-Stalin Pact which was the immediate prelude to World War II. Party trade unionists, reflecting immediate practical pressures historically tend to be the right wing of revolutionary parties-but they stay in the party. For revolutionaries, this trend is sometimes frustratingly so, as occurred in the American Communist Party in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin Pact mentioned above. Thus, mark it down that a revolutionary party is in trouble when the trade unionists begin to balk. In any case, Cannon was able to pull the majority of the trade unionists back. While the future developments of the party in the 1960’s and 1970’s, after Cannon left the day to day operations, might make one wish that he did take those youth out in California and start over this writer is glad that he fought this fight. Thanks- James P. Cannon.
SOME OF THE BOOKS REVIEWED HERE MAY NOT BE READILY AVAILABLE AT LOCAL LIBRARIES OR BOOKSTORES. CHECK AMAZON.COM FOR AVAILABILITY THERE, BOTH NEW AND USED. YOU CAN ALSO GOOGLE THE JAMES P. CANNON INTERNET ARCHIVES.