OF REVOLUTIONARIES, DILETTANTES AND SUCH
THE COMMUNIST LEAGUE OF AMERICA, 1932-34- THE WRITINGS AND SPEECHES OF JAMES P. CANNON, Monad Press, New York, 1985.
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 this organization 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 faction 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.
That said, there are three related points of interest in this book for today’ militants; the necessity of a small propaganda group to struggle in order to cohere an authoritative leadership in the face of severe internal disputes and other difficulties; the necessity for it to break out of its isolation and intersect mass struggles when they develop; and, the necessity of following a policy of regroupment, splits and fusions to create at least a modest vanguard formation, when possible. The history of the American left political landscape is filled with long forgotten groupings that could not surmount these problems. Within limits Cannon dragged the Communist League of America into a modest vanguard formation.
In the post-October Revolution period every serious revolutionary has had to confront the question of the organizational form of the vanguard workers party. The ideas put forth by Marxism have since the time of Marx and Engel held a certain fascination for young alienated intellectuals and others interested in changing the world. And this accrues to the benefit of the working class movement, as the movement needs intellectuals, sometimes desperately, to help formulate theoretical problems and write propaganda.
The problem, particularly acute under the conditions of the small propaganda group under discussion, is to find the right mix of revolutionary intellectuals and advanced workers in order to push the work forward. That means, in Trotsky’s famous phrase, that the revolutionary intellectuals have to, as he did, harness themselves to the work. Failing that intrigues, squabbles and merely literary propaganda prevail. The beginning section of this volume is filled with such doings. This is the axis that the Cannon-Shachtman struggle ran on here during this period. And that tension would later cause problems in the Socialist Workers Party when all hell broke loose over the question of defense of the Soviet Union became operative at the beginning of World War II. Whether this tension between intellectuals and workers can be solved short of the transition to socialism is an open question. In the final analysis the problem was not resolved by this group. Read on.
As an addition to the historical records of this period this book is a very good companion to Cannon’s own THE LEFT OPPOSITION IN THE U.S., 1928-31, Monad Press, New York, 1981 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.
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.