By Frank Jackman
History in the conditional, what might have happened if this or that thing, event, person had swerved this much or that, is always a tricky proposition. Tricky as reflected in this piece’s commemorative headline. Rosa Luxemburg the acknowledged theoretical wizard of the German Social-Democratic Party, the numero uno party of the Second, Socialist International, which was the logical organization to initiate the socialist revolution before World War II and Karl Liebknecht, the hellfire and brimstone propagandist and public speaker of that same party were assassinated in separate locale on the orders of the then ruling self-same Social-Democratic Party. The chasm between the Social-Democratic leaders trying to save Germany for “Western Civilization” in the wake of the “uncivilized” socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 had grown that wide that it was as if they were on two different planets, and maybe they were.
(By the way I am almost embarrassed to mention the term “socialist revolution” these days when people, especially young people, would be clueless as to what I was talking about or would think that this concept was so hopelessly old-fashioned that it would meet the same blank stares. Let me assure you that back in the day, yes, that back in the day, many a youth had that very term on the tips of their tongues. Could palpably feel it in the air. Hell, just ask your parents, or grandparents.)
Okay here is the conditional and maybe think about it before you dismiss the idea out of hand if only because the whole scheme is very much in the conditional. Rosa and Karl, among others made almost every mistake in the book before and during the Spartacist uprising in some of the main German cities in late 1918 after the German defeat in the war. Their biggest mistake before the uprising was sticking with the Social Democrats, as a left wing, when that party had turned at best reformist and eminently not a vehicle for the socialist revolution, or even a half-assed democratic “revolution” which is what they got with the overthrow of the Kaiser. They broke too late, and subsequently too late from a slightly more left-wing Independent Socialist Party which had split from the S-D when that party became the leading war party in Germany for all intents and purposes and the working class was raising its collective head and asking why.
The big mistake during the uprising was not taking enough protective cover, not keeping the leadership safe, keeping out of sight like Lenin had in Finland when things were dicey in 1917 Russia and fell easy prey to the Freikorps assassins. Here is the conditional, and as always it can be expanded to some nth degree if you let things get out of hand. What if, as in Russia, Rosa and Karl had broken from that rotten (for socialism) S-D organization and had a more firmly entrenched cadre with some experience in independent existence. What if the Spartacists had protected their acknowledged leaders better. There might have been a different trajectory for the aborted and failed German left-wing revolutionary opportunities over the next several years, there certainly would have been better leadership and perhaps, just perhaps the Nazi onslaught might have been stillborn, might have left Munich 1923 as their “heroic” and last moment.
Instead we have a still sad 100th anniversary of the assassination of two great international socialist fighters who headed to the danger not away always worthy of a nod and me left having to face those blank stares who are looking for way forward but might as well be on a different planet-from me.
Those Who Fought For Our Communist Future Are Kindred Spirits-
Every January, as readers of this blog 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. That future classless society, however, will be the true memorial to their sacrifices. This year we pay special honor to American Communist party founder and later Trotskyist leader, James P. Cannon, Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, and German Left Communist Karl Korsch.
Note on inclusion: As in other series on this site (“Labor’s Untold Story”, “Leaders Of The Bolshevik Revolution”, etc.) this year’s honorees do 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, Levellers, Jacobins, etc.) whose efforts contributed to the international struggle. Also, as was true of previous series 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.
From the Intercontinental Press, September 1974
James P. Cannon
February II, 1890-August 21, 1974
James P. Cannon died at the age of eighty-four of a heart attack August 21 at his home in Los Angeles. By coincidence, August 21 marked the thirty-fourth anniversary of the death of Leon Trotsky.
Cannon was a founding member of the Communist Party in the United States, and was a founder and leader of the world Trotskyist movement. His political life spanned sixty-six years of participation in the class struggle — from the pre-World War I socialist movement to the radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s. At the time of his death he was national chairman emeritus of the Socialist Workers party.
At the age of twenty-one, Cannon joined the Industrial Workers of the World, becoming a skilled agitator and organizer. In the example set by Eugene V. Debs and other leading opponents of imperialist war, he refused to support the slaughter of World War I. As a member of the left wing of the Socialist party, he hailed the victory of the Russian revolution in 1917.
As a member of the American section of the Third International, he learned from the Bolsheviks what kind of party was necessary to carry the revolutionary struggle to victory—a fighting, disciplined, democratic party based on a clear-cut Marxist program. When the Stalinist bureaucracy arose in the Soviet Union, Cannon rejected its doctrine of "socialism in one country," and after his expulsion from the Communist party in 1928, founded
The Militant with a handful of co-thinkers who became the nucleus of the future Socialist Workers party. In 1938 Cannon and others collaborated with Trotsky in establishing the Fourth International, the World Party of the Socialist Revolution.
Together with other members of the SWP, he was sentenced to prison because of political opposition to the war aims of U. S. imperialism. Cannon emerged from prison in 1945, after serving a year and twenty days of a sixteen-month sentence, to help lead the party through the postwar upsurge and the subsequent witch-hunt of the 1950s. While many other revolutionists became discouraged and turned away from Marxism in that period, Cannon remained confident that the United States was subject to the same historical laws as other capitalist states and would one day witness the revolutionary rise of the working class.
The leadership team he helped forge held the party together in anticipation of a more favorable political climate. This began to appear in the 1960s. The 1,250 socialists who, at the time of his death, were gathered in Oberlin, Ohio, for the 1974 Socialist Activists and Educational Conference testify to the success of his effort to lay a solid basis for a revolutionary-socialist party in the United States.
In the tradition of the American Trotskyist movement, the conference at Oberlin held a "Political Tribute to Jim Cannon," at which party leaders and activists who had worked with Cannon during his long career paid homage to his contributions to the socialist movement.
Speakers at the meeting were Jack Barnes, national chairman of the Socialist Workers party; Karolyn Kerry, a comrade and co-worker of Cannon's for forty years; Andrew Pulley, national chairman of the Young Socialist Alliance; Peggy Brundy, one of a team of comrades who lived in the Cannon household during the last few years, sharing the chores and helping organize Cannon's work; Joseph Hansen, the editor of Intercontinental Press; and George Novack, collaborator with Cannon in the revolutionary-socialist movement for forty-one years.
By the time the meeting of tribute was held, messages and telegrams from Cannon's comrades and friends had begun to arrive from around the world.
The Oberlin meeting concluded by launching a financial campaign—the James P. Cannon Party-Building Fund — to help move forward the struggle to build the revolutionary-socialist party to which Cannon dedicated his life. Participants at the meeting contributed or pledged more than $50,000 toward this effort.
Readers who wish to share in this effort are invited to send their contributions to the James P. Cannon Party-Building Fund, 14 Charles Lane, New York, N. Y. 10014.
Internationalism is the Central Principle of Our Entire Movement
James P. Cannon delivered the following speech via tape to the tenth anniversary celebration of Intercontinental Press on May 5, 1974.
This celebration of Joe and Reba Hansen's tenth year as the producers of the great international publication Intercontinental Press, combined with the celebration of their forty years of active work — and I mean work —in the movement, should make it clear from the start that this movement was not born yesterday.
Then, if we add to these two momentous events the fact that we are also celebrating the forty-sixth year of The Militant, it sets the theme for the whole celebration, which might be properly called "Where We Started and Where We Are Going."
We started with the conception, which we learned from Trotsky, that the central principle of all revolutionary activity in this epoch must be the conception of internationalism — as opposed to the nationalist theory of Stalin and his gang of "socialism in one country." We have stuck firmly to this principle throughout all the intervening years. And that is the reason, first of all and above all, why we are still here and still going forward.
On top of all their other work since they joined the movement in 1934, Joe and Reba have been consistent upholders of the principle of internationalism and have promoted this idea, as they promote everything they believe in, by active work for its fulfillment. For that, we honor them above all tonight, and the Tenth Anniversary of Intercontinental Press is a good time to say it out loud.
The world we live in is formally divided up into all kinds of countries great and small, but in reality this nationalism is an obsolete idea. In reality, we live on one planet, and all the countries and all parts of it are joined together in mutual interdependence. And what is done by one country affects all the others as the part affects the whole.
This requires that they all find a way to work together as one —until eventually they actually all become one single country. Or if you want to express it another way, one single planet, each part contributing its share to the whole, and the whole affecting the lives of each single unit. The whole system of capitalism, with its exploitation of the many who do the useful and productive work by a very small minority who produce nothing and contribute nothing, has long been obsolete. Just as the division of the world into national states belongs to the past and has no rightful place in the present and will be done away with entirely in the future.
"We believe in socialist future'
We believe in the socialist future and are confident that it will be realized. But this will not happen by itself. The perpetuation of capitalism can lead to nothing but destruction in economic crises, wars, and eventual destruction of the entire human race, if it is allowed to go its own course. But we firmly believe it will not be allowed to do that the working class of the world, whose power is unlimited, will act in time to avoid such a catastrophe by eliminating capitalism and inaugurating the socialist society of the future.
But even this historical process will not take place automatically. It requires the intervention of those who are conscious of the great historical necessity and are capable of explaining it to others, until a sufficient number of the workers acquire the same consciousness and act accordingly in a socialist revolution.
We begin our movement with the recognition that internationalism is the central principle of our entire movement, and that internationalism means, first of all and above all, collaboration of those people in all countries who recognize the international character of our historical problem.
International collaboration means that those who understand the historical problem, and agree on the basic principles which must guide the movement towards its solution, must learn how to work together, exchange ideas, think together, learn from each other — and learn how to solve all the problems which arise in the course of historical development by this collaboration of each and every individual in our movement, in all countries and on all continents.
This indispensable collaboration on an international scale will not happen automatically any more than the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a socialist order will happen automatically. Both require deliberate thought and conscious effort to solve the problems of working together, of collaborating in this great historical task. This holds true also in the present national fields in each and every country. People must learn how to work together and think together so that the work and thought of each individual becomes a contribution to the whole.
The great lessons of the Russian revolution, which marked the historic turning point from capitalism to socialism on a world scale, were accomplished by the collaboration of many people of different abilities, of different talents and different capacities, who had combined their efforts in a revolutionary party. And this party, in turn, supplied the leadership to the working class which alone has the power to make the revolution and transform society.
The two comrades whom we honor tonight are models of this capacity to work together, not only as a team of two but as a part of a larger team in this country and, especially in the last ten years, have made their great contributions to the development of the international movement as models of collaborators and team workers. They have contributed mightily to the dissemination of this idea to comrades around the world through the magnificent publication which they started, and have continued to publish and reach ever wider circles of readers, Intercontinental Press.
Among the many contributions that Joe and Reba have made in national and international collaboration has been the understanding, and the application in practice, of the fundamental idea that every person in the movement is important; and that everyone's contribution, in whatever field it may be, makes up a part of the whole which makes the movement possible.
I believe this celebration tonight will be another contribution to the great idea that everyone's work for the party is important; and as Trotsky expressed it once, that each of us carries on his shoulders a particle of the fate of humanity, and that thereby our lives are not lived in vain.