From The Pen Of Josh Breslin
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.”
SPEECHES FOR SOCIALISM- JAMES P. CANNON, PATHFINDER PRESS, NEW YORK, 1971
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.]
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.  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.