On The 100th Anniversary Of Newly-Fledged German Communist Leader Rosa Luxemburg And Karl Liebknecht-Oh, What Might Have Been-
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.
Post World War II Socialist Blahs
Every January militants of the international labor movement, the European sections more than the American, honor the Three L’s, the key leaders of the movement in the early 20th century- Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Since opening this space in early 2006 I have paid individual honor to all three in successive years. For this year’s and future January observances, in that same spirit, I will to add some other lesser figure of the revolutionary pantheon or those who contributed in some way to the development of this movement, mainly American at first as befits the title of this blog but eventually others in the international movement as well. So to honor the Three L’s this year I will start with an American revolutionary figure from the mid-20th century who I have written extensively on in this space, James P. Cannon. Cannon, pound for pound warts and all, represented to this militant’s mind the most accomplished (if not the most successful and therein lies the bitter irony) communist of that first American generation who formed the core of cadre directly influenced to the left by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
The following review is another in a fairly large series of books featuring the writings of James P. Cannon published by Pathfinder Press (or its subsidiaries) the publishing arm of the party that Cannon was instrumental in organizing and leading, the Socialist Workers Party. I will, as I have done with previously reviewed Cannon writings, use the same couple of introductory paragraphs that sets out the important questions concerning Cannon’s place in the revolutionary pantheon.
The Struggle For Socialism in the “American Century", James P. Cannon, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1977
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 the victorious American (mainly) outcome to World War II then this book is for you. This book is part of a continuing series of the writings of James P. Cannon that were published by the organization he founded, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), in the 1970's, a few years after his death in 1974. Look in this space for other related reviews of this series on this important American Communist.
In their introduction here the editors motivate the purpose for the publication of this 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 SWP so their perspective is obvious. What does the documentation provided here show?
This is certainly a continuation of the period of Cannon's political maturation after a long journeymanship working with Trotsky. The period under discussion starts as Cannon reaches his mid 50's, shortly after his release from federal prison for his principled (along with 17 other leaders of the SWP and Minneapolis Teamsters Union) opposition to America's entry into World War II. The party at that time needed to adjust strategy in order to come to terms with the ramifications of a victorious American imperialism in that war, some internal opposition (to be discussed below) from those who wanted to, again, fight out the "Russian" question that seemingly had been firmly resolved in 1940 and the fight to determine whether it was appropriate to "unite" with that opposition that split from the party and formed its own organization (also addressed below). One thing is sure- in his prime which, arguably, includes this period Cannon had the instincts to want to lead a revolution and had the evident capacity to do so.
It is almost axiomatic in the Marxist movement to state that war is the mother of revolution. Certainly the experiences of World War I would serve those formed by those years as a signpost. Trotsky, in his various manifestoes, pamphlets and other writings from shortly before the outbreak of World War II in Europe until his murder by a Stalinist assassin in Mexico in 1940 hammered away on this theme. With the proviso that the forces around the Fourth International, including importantly the SWP, had to redouble their efforts at programmatic clarity and cadre recruitment in order to take advantage of the post-war possibilities (if not before).
It is that spirit that animated the worldview of the SWP in the immediate post-war period. The party had been recruiting based on its black liberation perspective and its opposition to the various Communist Party and AFL and CIO labor bureaucracy efforts to continue to enforce a war time 'no strike' pledge. There were other empirical examples such as increased readership and efforts in the GI movement that further buttressed their upbeat prognosis. Moreover, as a practical matter, in the hard, hard tasks of trying to create a new society by overturning the old one completely revolutionaries better be animated, at least in part, by optimism.
That said, the post-war program prognosis got totally undermined from the beginning by the virulent campaign by the American ruling class to clamp down on "reds", especially in light of the foreign policy disputes with an emergent and militarily strong Soviet Union and the domestic fights by organized labor for wage increases to play catch up after the wage stagnation of the war period. Reading the SWP programmatic notes of this period, the rather Pollyannaish expectations in light of what really happened and a certain denial of reality did not stand the party in good stead for the oncoming "red scare" that effectively politically defeated a whole generation of militants- Stalinist, Trotskyist and others- for at least a decade. We, those of us who came of political age later, have faced other such periods such as during the Reagan years and partially in the 9/11 period where we were also isolated so we are painfully aware of that optimistic/ pessimistic dichotomy that runs through every revolutionary movement.
Many of the articles in this book center around Cannon's leadership of the fight against an internal opposition, the so-called Morrow-Goldman faction. That faction formed based on an reflexive anti-Sovietism, a conciliation toward American imperialism and, more importantly, a craven desire to forge unity with the previously-mentioned 1940 anti-Soviet opposition that split from the SWP and formed the Workers Party, led by former Cannon associate Max Shachtman, with a rightward social democratic orientation. Moreover, the glue that held the whole cabal together was the inevitable question of the party "regime", meaning always the leadership of one James P. Cannon.
In the American revolutionary socialist milieu the so-called "Russian question", that is, practically, the need for militants to military defend the Soviet Union as the blemished but fundamental example of the baseline for socialist evolution was fought out in the SWP in 1939-40. The results were that a significant minority of the party, led by Shachtman, split and formed the Workers Party. During the war years both organizations led very separate and different existences. In the immediate post-war period, at a time when the question of defense of the Soviet Union was NOT a burning issue there was considerable talk about a unification of the two organizations. This is the impact of the so-called Morrow-Goldman dispute that takes up much of this book. In the end no unification came about, nor was one truly possible under any rational standard of political discourse, especially as the American-led anti-Soviet Cold war heated up with the introduction of the Truman Doctrine and the ratcheting up of the "reds scare". The later personal fates of Morrow and Goldman (and Shachtman's and his various organizational incarnations, as well) as apologists for American imperialism only highlight the differences between Cannon's party of the Russian Revolution and Shachtman's "State Department" socialism- that is craven support for every American imperialist adventure they could get their hands on.
Although this dispute, seemingly, is strictly for insiders or aficionados of the esoterica of extreme left-wing politics there are many points made by Cannon that still ring true today for those of us who still wish to create a revolutionary party capable of making the revolution. Those include the role of the press as a party organizer (Cannon gives a very good description of the sometimes absurd prior socialist practice in this regard.), a serious attitude toward the question of unification and splits as a means for creating a revolutionary party unlike the SWP-WP fiasco, the very different tasks and obligations that confront a propaganda group as a opposed to a mass party (and the former's stronger need to have a homogeneous political and organizational line) and, most importantly, as has been true since 1917 a correct evaluation of that thorny "Russian Question".
Although defense of the Soviet Union is not an issue today that issue is still with us in the form of the question of China (and other non-capitalist states like Cuba). China is that Russian Question for today's militants. For a still relevant analysis of what to do (and what not to do) about Stalinism in its Chinese form Cannon's long article here "American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism" reads, in part, like it was written today.
That said, let's place Cannon in prospective. Earl Browder, William Z. Foster, Jay Lovestone, Max Shachtman, Albert Glotzer, these now obscure names were political associates of James P. Cannon's at various stages of his political development as a communist. Some became hardened Stalinist leaders; some became hardened social democratic leaders but a comparison of the political profiles of them and Cannon shows that they lacked one thing that Cannon did not. That evident capacity to lead a socialist revolution in America, if circumstances arose to permit such a fight.
No one can read Cannon's works from early in his career as a rising Communist functionary in the 1920's through to his adherence to Trotsky and not notice that here was a man who was trying to work these problems through. Of course, to his opponents, particularly those who one way or the other split from the Trotskyist movement and who always placed their opposition in the context of the abhorrence of the "regime" meaning, basically, they could not do just as they pleased Cannon was like their worst political nightmare. They, in turn, however had not problems touting the virtues of American imperialism when the political situation warranted their essentially literary inputs thereafter.
Finally, no one has to take Cannon for a political saint to realize that, on the record, the various "regimes" that he ran based on political support from the worker cadre would cause the so-called `free spirits" to chaff at his acknowledged policy of not suffering fools gladly (if at all). This reviewer having personally been in and around, as a youth, various Stalinist organizations before coming over to Trotskyism knows that the mere fact that there were vigorous factions and other political oppositions INSIDE the SWP and that they survived leaves the charges of Cannon as a crypto-Stalinist, or better, a Zinovievist, as so much hot air. Read Cannon's Struggle For A Proletarian Party along with this book to see what I mean.