THE HEROIC AGE OF AMERICAN COMMUNISM
THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN TROTSKYISM, James P. Cannon, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1972
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 communist 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 (SWP), 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 underlined this reviewer's approach to these volumes. 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 through the early 1930’s with the start of the great labor upsurge which would bring wide spread unionization to the working class to 1938 and the formation of the SWP. 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.
This book is based on a series of lectures that Cannon gave in New York in 1943 before he, along with 17 other party leaders, went to prison for revolutionary opposition to World War II. Volumes of his writings, as noted above, published later have dealt much more fully with some of the subjects of these lectures. I note The History of American Communism on the origins of the Communist party; The Left Opposition, 1928-31 on the early “dog days” after his expulsion from the Communist Party; The Communist League of America, 1932-1934 on the fight to go to the masses with an upsurge in labor struggles; and, the separately published James P. Cannon and the Early American Communist Movement on the internal struggle in the early period.
Thus, I want to take up for review and analysis here the last part of the present book the period and policies which have come down in the history of the international Trotskyist movement as the ‘French turn’. In America this policy meant that the Workers Party, predecessor of the SWP formed in 1934, dissolved and entered the Socialist Party (SP) as part of an international tactic of revolutionary regroupment in the process of forming a vanguard party.
This writer has long been interested in and a little uneasy about the implementation of the policy of the ‘French turn’. Since it is not immediately apparent why one political organization would enter another organization for such a purpose and because many of today’s militants may not be familiar with the period a little pre-history is in order. After the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933 and after the defeat of the heroic Austrian working class in 1934 there was great turmoil toward the left in the international labor movement. That movement, in reaction and disgust at the erroneous policies of the Communist International and its ‘third period’ catastrophic theory of capitalist collapse, gravitated toward the international social democracy.
Trotsky, after declaring the Communist International and its parties dead as revolutionary organizations in the wake of Hitler’s rise in Germany maintained that new parties internationally and a new International was on the political agenda. Thus, the question for the mainly small and somewhat poorly organized pro-Trotskyist propaganda groupings was the need to move away from acting as a faction of the Comintern in order to take advantage of turmoil in the international labor movement in order to break out of their isolation and create at least small vanguard parties. Trotsky responded by strongly suggesting that his followers, at first in France then later elsewhere, enter social democratic and labor organizations in order to take advantage of this leftward movement.
In America, under Cannon’s leadership, the Communist League of America (CLA) after successfully leading labor strikes in Minneapolis and elsewhere, fused with other radical labor activists in 1934 into the American Workers Party headed by A.J. Muste to form the Workers Party (WP) in 1934. While the cadre of the CLA were politically well-educated and theoretically grounded that was not as true of Muste’s forces. In a sense this fusion represented on the American terrain an application of the Trotsky-inspired international entry policy. Nevertheless, Cannon led the drive for what amounted to a second use of the entry tactic into the Socialist Party in order to intersect the growing left wing there.
The implementation of this policy was the subject of two internal fights in the WP before the policy was finally approved. The first fight was led those who were opposed to such an entry on the principle that revolutionaries could not enter a party affiliated with the betrayers of the Second International (the Oehlerites). That policy leads to sectarianism and isolation. The second fight, led by Muste himself, was concerned with the separate organizational integrity of the WP. That policy leads to organizational fetishism and isolation. At the time, and in hindsight, no militant could or should have argued on either of these grounds. Nevertheless, this writer believes an argument could be made on tactical grounds against entry in the Socialist Party. Why? Because of the untested nature of the newly-formed and politically undereducated WP. A sophisicated maneuver such as entry against a hardened, opportunist Socialist left wing with such forces would cause later problems. As indeed they did. The reviewer’s alternative. United front, that is march separately but fight together, the Socialist Party to death whenever and wherenever common issues came up, especially on trade union policy in the rising CIO, the role of their comrades in the Spanish Civil War and their response to the Moscow Trials.
Cannon, in defending the policy at the time mentions that, despite the onerous conditions of entry set by the left-wing leadership, he believed, as did Trotsky, that the results of entry were justified by the organizational wreckage of the Socialist Party after the expulsion of the Trotskyist forces. Additional factors included the accrual of new forces, the freezing out of the Stalinists from influence in the Socialist Party and the work of the Trotsky Defense Committee. Those results may be creditable but this writer believes that such results could have been obtained more easily from the outside.
The reviewer’s position has always been colored by looking at the policy from the hindsight of the divisive and fundamental faction fight of the 1939-40 period which basically split the party in two over the question of defense of the Soviet Union when it became operative in the lead up to World War II. Not an inconsiderable section of the opposition to defense of the Soviet Union came from the forces, especially from the socialist youth group, recruited during the entry. Thus, I still remain troubled by the policy. In the future militants will once again have to face this problem of how to regroup revolutionary forces, although naturally it will be under different conditions. Nevertheless the question of whether to use or not use this tactic in any particular situation will come up. Read this section of the book and make up your own mind on this question.
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