Tuesday, April 25, 2006

*The Dog Days Of The American Communist Left Opposition (1930s Version)- James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman

Click on title to link to the James P. Cannon Internet Archive for an article by James P. Cannon relating to the subject of the tasks for the American Communist Left Opposition in the early 1930s, "The Dog Days Of The Left Opposition".



If you are interested in the history of the American Left or are a militant trying to understand some of the past mistakes of our history ( and some of the things that went right) and want to know some of the problems that confronted the early 20th century American Communist movement this book is for you. This book documents the struggle of the Communist League of America (hereafter, CLA), an offshoot of the American Communist Party, expelled in 1928 for supporting the Leon Trotsky-led Russian Left Opposition in its fight in the Russian Communist Party and the Communist International against the growing Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

At first glance one can question the need to publish, in 2002, a book of documentation about the internal struggle of now obscure propaganda group in the early Depression era. After all, who but historians of the American Left or unrepentant left communists would be interested in such material? However, you would be wrong. With all historical proportions guarded, differences of period taken into account and accumulated defeats for the international working class recognized, the CLA’s trials and tribulations presented in this book has more than one lesson helpful concerning the tasks of militants today.

Despite the tremendous numbers who rallied in opposition to the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq there has been no subsequent accrual of political or organizational power to the American Left. If anything there is more political fragmentation and lower political consciousness than in the early 1930’s (or the 1960’s for that matter). Thus, our task is not now to pretend to lead the masses in the struggle for governmental power but to build a stable fighting programmatically- based propaganda group to open the way to leading the masses we keep talking about. That was the CLA’s task and, within limits, it was successful. The Cannon-Shachtman factional struggle, if Trotsky had not successfully intervened to end it, would have produced under a victorious Shachtman’s direction a very different kind of organization than that which grew under Cannon’s direction. And not for the better.

The documentation presented here highlights material, in some instances for the first time, the problems that this organization led by James P. Cannon and his fellow expelled factional associates from the Communist Party, chiefly Max Shachtman, wrangled over as they tried to act first as an expelled faction of the Party and then after the victory of fascism in Germany in 1933 in creating a new party. Implicit in the title of the book and in the presentation of the material is that while program for a revolutionary organization is decisive Marxists have never denied the role of personal conflict as an element, sometimes an important element, of political struggle. Such is the case here.

In the introduction the editors motivate one of the purposes for the publication of the book by stating that James P. 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 Communist League of America and then through a series of regroupments , splits and entries into other socialist formations to the creation of the Socialist Workers Party in 1938. Thus, their perspective is open and obvious.

What does the documentation provided here show? This certainly is the period of Cannon’s political maturation, despite the bruising factional struggles of the 1920’s in the Communist Party and the hardships of political and sometimes personal isolation after his expulsion. I believe that Cannon’s long collaboration working with Trotsky ultimately provides the key to the correctness of the editors’ observation. The period under discussion started with Cannon’s leadership of the fight to orient the CLA toward internal stability and then, as opportunities arose, toward leadership of exemplary actions of a section of the American working class such as the great Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of 1934. Cannon won his spurs in those fights and in his struggle to orient the CLA 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.

At the beginning of the 21st century after the demise of the Soviet Union and the apparent ‘death of communism’ it may seem fantastic and utopian to today’s militants that early in the 20th century many anarchist, socialist, syndicalist and other working class militants of this country coalesced to form an American Communist Party to fight against the American colossus. For the most part, these militants honestly did so in order to organize an American socialist revolution patterned on and influenced by the Russian October Revolution of 1917. James P. Cannon represents one of the important individuals and faction leaders in that effort and later in the CLA. Whatever his political mistakes at the time, or later, one could certainly use such an experienced militant leader today. Cannon’s mistakes were the mistakes of a man looking for a revolutionary path.

And what of the other leading participant in the internal factional struggle, Max Shachtman? Throughout the 1920’s Shachtman was a key junior associate of Cannon’s faction in the Communist Party and did yeoman’s work, and sometimes more than yeoman's work, as a journalist and editor when Cannon was assigned by the Party to run the International Labor Defense. There is the rub. Although a revolutionary workers’ organization needs intellectuals (and needs them desperately, at times) those intellectuals it does recruit must come over fully to the side of the working class. The documentation presented here clearly shows that the Shachtman faction had more in common with a gossipy literary society, a variant, if more serious, of the literary Trotskyism fashionable in some intellectual circles, particularly in New York, in the 1930’s, than a vanguard nucleus organized as a fighting propaganda league.

I have long held the view that, after Lenin and Trotsky’s theoretical guidance and leadership of the Russian Revolution it was not absolutely necessary to have party leaderships equipped with that level of theoretical capacity. Needed were a few good people who had fully assimilated the lessons of revolutionary history and wanted to act on those lessons. Alas, we have been plagued by not having such leaders available when opportunities arose, for example, the Brandler leadership of the German Communist Party in 1923. Or, as in Cannon’s case, the opportunity never arose to test his leadership capacity. Shachtman career does not show such a desire. He has far more in common with Brandler’s associate and 'theoretican' August Thalheimer. Shachtman’s later personal history leading the fight in 1939-40 in the Socialist Workers Party away from defense of the Soviet Union (when it became really operative and necessary) to eventual ‘State Department’ socialism and worst bears this out. From what I can gather the only people who admired him at the end were his factional partner Albert Glotzer and the hacks around the union headquarters of the late Cold Warrior American Federation of Teachers leader, Albert Shanker. Enough said.

As an addition to the historical record of this period this book is a very good companion to Cannon’s own The Left Opposition in the U.S, 1928-31 (Monad Press, New York, 1981) and The Communist League of America, 1932-34 (Monad Press, New York, 1985). These volumes contain articles and letters written in Cannon’s usually masterly expository form in defense of the revolutionary socialist perspective. In contrast, Shachtman (and Glotzer) have nothing important to say on this period except dismay at the stifling of their intellectual talents by the boorish Cannon. That comparison says it all.

This book was published at a time when the demise of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had been fully completed and anything related to Communist studies was deeply discounted. Nevertheless, for better or worse, the early American Communist movement (and its offshoots) needs to be studied in order for today’s militants to take up its mission to create a radical version of society in America. Now is the time to study this history.


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