Friday, November 25, 2016

*****Those Who Fought For Our Communist Future Are Kindred Spirits-James P. Cannon

*****Those Who Fought For Our Communist Future Are Kindred Spirits-James P. Cannon

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From The Pen Of Josh Breslin

Back in the early 1970s after they had worked out between themselves the rudiment of what had gone wrong with the May Day 1971 actions in Washington, D.C. Sam Eaton and Ralph Morris began some serious study of leftist literature from an earlier time, from back earlier in the century. Those May Day anti-Vietnam War actions, ill-conceived as they in the end turned out to be, centered on the proposition that if the American government would not close down the damn blood-sucking war then they, those thousands that participated in the actions, would close down the government. All Sam, Ralph and those thousands of others got for their efforts was a round-up into the bastinado. Sam had been picked off in the round-up on Pennsylvania Avenue as his group (his “affinity group” for the action) had been on their way to “capture” the White House. Ralph and his affinity group of ex-veterans and their supporters were rounded-up on Massachusetts Avenues heading toward the Pentagon (they had no plans to capture that five-sided building, at least they were unlike Sam’s group not that naïve, just surround it like had occurred in an anti-war action in 1967 which has been detailed in Norman Mailer’s prize-winning book Armies Of The Night). For a time RFK (Robert F. Kennedy) Stadium, the home of the Washington Redskins football team) had been the main holding area for those arrested and detained. The irony of being held in a stadium named after the martyred late President’s younger brother and lightening rod for almost all anti-war and “newer world” political dissent before he was assassinated in the bloody summer of 1968 and in a place where football, a sport associated in many radical minds with all that was wrong with the American system was lost on Sam and Ralph at the time and it was only later, many decades later, as they were sitting in a bar in Boston across from the JFK Federal Building on one of their periodic reunions when Ralph was in town that Sam had picked up that connection.

Sam, from Carver in Massachusetts, who had been a late convert to the anti-war movement in 1969 after his closest high school friend, Jeff Mullin, had been blown away in some jungle town in the Central Highlands and was like many late converts to a cause a “true believer,” had taken part in many acts of civil disobedience at draft boards, including the one in hometown Carver, federal buildings and military bases. From an indifference, no that’s not right, from a mildly patriotic average young American citizen that you could find by the score hanging around Mom and Pop variety stores, pizza parlors, diners, and bowling alleys in the early 1960s, he had become a long-haired bearded “hippie anti-warrior.” Not too long though by the standards of “youth nation” of the day since he was running a small print shop in Carver in order to support his mother and four younger sisters after his father had passed away suddenly of a massive heart attack in 1965 and which exempted him from military service. Not too short either since those “squares” were either poor bastards who got tagged by the military and had to wear their hair short an appearance which stuck out in towns like Cambridge, Ann Arbor, Berkeley and L.A. when the anti-war movement started embracing the increasingly frustrated and anti-war soldiers that  they were beginning to run across or, worse, cops before they got “hip” to the idea that guys wearing short hair, no beard, looked like they had just taken a bath, and wore plaid short-sleeved shirts and chinos might as well have a bulls-eye target on their backs surveilling the counter-cultural crowd.

Ralph, from Troy, New York, had been working in his father’s electrical shop which had major orders from General Electric the big employer in the area when he got his draft notice and had decided to enlist in order to avoid being an 11B, an infantryman, a grunt, “cannon fodder,” although he would not have known to call it that at the time, that would come later. He had expected to go into something which he knew something about in the electrical field at least that is what the recruiting sergeant in Albany had “promised” him. But in the year 1967 (and 1968 too since he had extended his tour six months to get out of the service a little early) what the military needed in Vietnam whatever else they might have needed was “cannon fodder,” guys to go out into the bushes and kill commies. Simple as that. And that was what Ralph Morris, a mildly patriotic average young American citizen, no that is not right, a very patriotic average young American citizen that you could also find by the score hanging around Mom and Pop variety stores, pizza parlors, diners, and bowling alleys in the early 1960s, did. But see he got “religion” up there in Pleiku, up there in the bush and so when he had been discharged from the Army in late 1969 he was in a rage against the machine.

Sure he had gone back to the grind of his father’s electrical shop but he was out of place just then, out of sorts, needed to find an outlet for his anger at what he had done, what had happened to buddies very close to him, what buddies had done, and how the military had made them animals, nothing less. (Ralph after his father retired would take over the electric shop business on his own in 1991 and would thereafter give it to his son to take over after he retired in 2011.)

One day he had gone to Albany on a job for his father and while on State Street he had seen a group of guys in mismatched military garb marching in the streets without talking, silent which was amazing in itself from what he had previously seen of such anti-war marches and were just carrying a big sign-Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) and nobody stopped them, no cops, nobody, nobody yelled “commie” either or a lot of other macho stuff that he and his hang out guys used to do in Troy when some peaceniks held peace vigils in the square. The civilian on-lookers held their tongues that day although Ralph knew that the whole area still retained a lot of residual pro-war feeling just because America was fighting somewhere for something. He parked his father’s truck and walked over to the march just to watch at first. Some guy in a tattered Marine mismatched uniform wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers in the march called out to the crowd for anybody who had served in Vietnam, served in the military to join them shouting out their military affiliation as they did so. Ralph almost automatically blurred out-“Big Red One” and walked right into the street. There were other Big Red One  guys there that day so he was among kindred. So yeah, Ralph did a lot of actions with VVAW and with “civilian” collectives who were planning more dramatic actions. Ralph always would say later that if it hadn’t been for getting “religion” on the war issue and doing all those political actions then he would have gone crazy, would have wound up like a lot of guys he would see later at the VA, see out in the cardboard box for a home streets, and would not until this day have continued to support in any way he could, although lately not physically since his knee replacement, those who had the audacity to march for the “good old cause.”                           

That is the back story of a relationship has lasted until this day, an unlikely relationship in normal times and places but in that cauldron of the early 1970s when the young, even the not so very young, were trying to make heads or tails out of what was happening in a world they did not create, and were not asked about there were plenty of such stories, although most did not outlast that search for the newer world when the high tide of the 1960s ebbed in the mid-1970s. Ralph had noticed while milling around the football field waiting for something to happen, waiting to be released, Sam had a VVAW button on his shirt and since he did not recognize Sam from any previous VVAW action had asked if he was a member of the organization and where. Sam told him the story of his friend Jeff Mullin and of his change of heart about the war, and about doing something about ending the damn thing. That got them talking, talking well into the first night of their captivity when they found they had many things in common coming from deeply entrenched working-class cultures. (You already know about Troy. Carver is something like the cranberry bog capital of the world even today although the large producers dominate the market unlike when Sam was a kid and the small Finnish growers dominated the market and town life. The town moreover has turned into something of a bedroom community for the high-tech industry that dots U.S. Interstate 495.) After a couple of days in the bastinado Sam and Ralph hunger, thirsty, needing a shower after suffering through the Washington humidity heard that people were finding ways of getting out to the streets through some side exits. They decided to surreptiously attempt an “escape” which proved successful and they immediately headed through a bunch of letter, number and state streets on the Washington city grid toward Connecticut Avenue heading toward Silver Springs trying to hitchhike out of the city. A couple of days later having obtained a ride through from Trenton, New Jersey to Providence, Rhode Island they headed to Sam’s mother’s place in Carver. Ralph stayed there a few days before heading back home to Troy. They had agreed that they would keep in contact and try to figure out what the hell went wrong in Washington that week. After making some connections through some radicals he knew in Cambridge to live in a commune Sam asked Ralph to come stay with him for the summer and try to figure out that gnarly problem. Ralph did, although his father was furious since he needed his help on a big GE contract for the Defense Department but Ralph was having none of that.    

So in the summer of 1971 Sam and Ralph began to read that old time literature, although Ralph admitted he was not much of a reader and some of the stuff was way over his head, Sam’s too. Mostly they read socialist and communist literature, a little of the old IWW (Wobblie) stuff since they both were enthrall to the exploits of the likes of Big Bill Haywood out West which seemed to dominate the politics of that earlier time. They had even for a time joined a loose study group sponsored by one of the myriad “red collectives” that had sprung up like weeds in the Cambridge area. Both thought it ironic at the time, and others who were questioning the direction the “movement” was heading in stated the same thing when they were in the study groups, that before that time in the heyday of their anti-war activity everybody dismissed the old white guys (a term not in common use then like now) like Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and their progeny as irrelevant. Then everybody was glued to the books.

It was from that time that Sam and Ralph got a better appreciation of a lot of the events, places, and personalities from the old time radicals. Events like the start of May Day in 1886 as an international working class holiday which they had been clueless about despite the  May Day actions in Washington, the Russian Revolutions, the Paris Commune, the Chinese Revolutions, August 1914 as a watershed against war, the Communist International, those aforementioned radicals Marx, Lenin, Trostky, adding in Mao, Che, Fidel, Ho whose names were on everybody’s tongue (and on posters in every bedroom) even if the reason for that was not known. Most surprising of all were the American radicals like Haywood, Browder, Cannon, Foster, and others who nobody then, or almost nobody cared to know about at all.

As they learned more information about past American movements Sam, the more interested writer of such pieces began to write appreciation of past events, places and personalities. His first effort was to write something about the commemoration of the 3 Ls (Lenin, Luxemburg, and Liebknecht) started by the Communist International back in the 1920s in January 1972, the first two names that he knew from a history class in junior college and the third not at all. Here is what he had to say then which he recently freshly updated. Sam told Ralph after he had read the piece and asked if he was still a “true believer” said a lot of piece he would still stand by today:       

“Every January, as readers of this piece are now, hopefully, familiar with the international communist movement honors the 3 Ls-Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, fallen leaders of the early 20th century communist movement who died in this month (and whose untimely deaths left a huge, irreplaceable gap in the international leadership of that time). January is thus a time for us to reflect on the roots of our movement and those who brought us along this far. In order to give a fuller measure of honor to our fallen forbears this January, and in future Januarys, this space will honor others who have contributed in some way to the struggle for our communist future. [Sam did so for a few years but as the times changed, he expanded his printing business and started a family he gave that up.] That future classless society, however, will be the true memorial to their sacrifices. This year we pay special honor to American Communist Party and American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon.

Note on inclusion: this year’s honoree does not exhaust the list of every possible communist worthy of the name. Nor, in fact, is the list limited to Bolshevik-style communists. There will be names included from other traditions (like anarchism, social democracy, the Diggers, Levelers, Jacobins, etc.) whose efforts contributed to the international struggle. Also this year’s efforts are no more than an introduction to these heroes of the class struggle. Future years will see more detailed information on each entry, particularly about many of the lesser known figures. Better yet, the reader can pick up the ball and run with it if he or she has more knowledge about the particular exploits of some communist militant, or to include a missing one.




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 the writings of James P. Cannon that was published by the organization he founded, the Socialist Workers Party. [Cannon died in 1974.]

In the 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, especially after his long collaboration working with Trotsky. The period under discussion- from the 1920’s when he was a leader of the American Communist Party to the red-baiting years after World War II- started with his leadership of the fight against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and then later against those who no longer wanted to defend the gains of the Russian Revolution despite the Stalinist degeneration of that revolution. Cannon won his spurs in those fights and in his 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 volume is a compendium of Cannon’s speeches over most of his active political life beginning with his leadership role in the early American Communist Party and his secondary role in the Communist International. Some of the selections are also available in other parts of the series mentioned above. I would also note here that in contrast to his "Notebook of an Agitator" the pieces here tend to be longer and based on more general socialist principles. The socialist movement has always emphasized two ways of getting its message out- propaganda and agitation. The selections here represent a more propagandistic approach to that message. Many of the presentations hold their own even today in 1972 [and in 2015] as thoughtful expositions of the aims of socialism and how to struggle for it. I particularly draw the reader’s attention to "Sixty Years of American Radicalism" a speech given in 1959 in which Cannon draws a general overview of the ebbs and flows of the socialist movement from the turn of the 20th century until then. At that time Cannon also predicted a new radical upsurge which did occur shortly thereafter [the blazing 1960s of Sam, Frank and my youth.] but unfortunately has long since ended.

Cannon’s speech correctly marks the great divide in the American socialist movement at World War I and the socialist response American participation in that war and subsequently to the Russian Revolution. Prior to that time socialist activity was a loose, federated affair driven by a more evolutionary approach to ultimate socialist success i.e. reformism. That trend was symbolized by the work of the great socialist leader, Eugene V. Debs. While that approach had many, ultimately, fatal flaws it did represent a solid attempt to draw a class struggle line for independent (from the capitalist parties) political action by the working class.

Drawing on those lessons the early Communist Party, basing itself on support of the Russian Revolution, became dominant on the American left by expanding on that concept. That is, until the mid-1930’s after it had already long been an agency under orders from Moscow in support, by one means or another, of the Rooseveltian Democratic Party, a capitalist party. That was fatal to long term prospects for independent working class political action and Cannon has harsh words for the party’s policy. He also noted that the next upsurge would have to right that policy by again demanding an independent political expression for the working class. Unfortunately, when that radical upsurge did occur in the 1960’s and early 1970’s the party that he formed, the Socialist Workers Party, essentially replicated in the anti-Vietnam War movement and elsewhere the Communist Party’s class collaborationist policy with the remnants of American liberalism.

Obviously, as a man in his sixties Cannon was no longer able or willing to fight against that policy by the party that he had created. Thus, the third wave of radicalism also ebbed and the American Left declined. Nevertheless this speech is Cannon’s legacy to the youth today. [2015] A new upsurge, and it will come, must learn this lesson and fight tooth and nail for independent political expression for the working class to avoid another failure.

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