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 Young Spartacus, September, 1974
James P. Cannon
The death of veteran communist James P. Cannon on 21 August brought to an end a long life of dedicated service to the working class. While still a teenager Cannon joined the Industrial Workers of the World as a revolutionary syndicalist. Later he entered the Socialist Party and took his place in the revolutionary wing of the social democracy. Under the impact of the Russian Revolution Cannon was among those who formed the Communist Party, and during the difficult years of reaction in the 1920's led the International Labor Defense.
With the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist International Cannon came forward as one of the principal defenders of the Leninist program and was expelled from the CP in 1928 for Trotskyism. Cannon built the Trotskyist party in this country and tempered its cadres above all through his principled programmatic intransigence, for which Trotsky paid him tribute. For revolutionary opposition to imperialist war Cannon and the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party were the first to be jailed under the Smith Act.
After the post-war upsurge Cannon had to struggle to preserve the party and its cadres from the demoralizing isolation of the long McCarthy era and from the influence of the growing revisionism of Pablo in the Fourth International. Cannon and the SWP, however, withdrew from an international fight against Pabloism. Cannon's tragic political degenera¬tion was part of the final succumbing of the SWP to this revisionism in the early 1960's.
For years the SWP has trampled upon the revolutionary program and heritage that for so many decades in so many struggles had been defended by Cannon.
It is with revulsion that we watch the Kautskys of the SWP today shamelessly recall the revolutionary achievements of Cannon in order to kick off a fund-raising jamboree for building this reformist party.
The birth of the Spartacist League in the struggle against revisionism in the SWP is a process that Cannon once understood well: the cadres of the revolutionary party of the future must and will come from those who remain steadfast to the principles of proletarian socialism. With this sense of revolutionary continuity, we firmly assert our rightful heritage to the traditions of Cannonism and our determination to rebuild the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution.
From the American Left History blog, dated December 10, 2007.
The Making Of An American Communist Leader- The Early Days Of James P. Cannon
JAMES P. CANNON AND THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY LEFT, 1890-1928, BRIAN PALMER, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS, 2007
I have reviewed many of the writings of the American revolutionary James P. Cannon elsewhere in this space. This review should serve as an interim evaluation of this excellent biography of the premier Communist leader to come out of that movement in the 20th century. As such it is long overdue and, as pointed out below timely. I have read through this book once but want to read it again before making a full evaluation. I also want to dig more deeply into the incredible number of footnotes, perhaps more than the average reader may comprehend, the author has provided. More later. Kudos to Professor Palmer.
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 want to know some of the problems that confronted the early American Communist Party and some of the key personalities, including James Cannon, who formed that party this book is for you.
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. 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 was in the thick of the battle as a central leader of the Party in this period. Whatever his political mistakes at the time, or later, one could certainly use such a militant leader today. His mistakes were the mistakes of a man looking for a revolutionary path.
For those not familiar with this period a helpful introduction and copious footnotes by the author give an analysis of the important fights that occurred inside the party. That overview highlights some of the now more obscure personalities, where they stood on the issues and insights into the significance of the crucial early fights in the party. These include questions which are still relevant today; a legal vs. an underground party; the proper attitude toward parliamentary politics; support to third party bourgeois candidates; trade union policy; class war defense as well as how to rein in the intense internal struggle of the various factions for organizational control of the party. This makes it somewhat easier for those not well versed in the intricacies of the political disputes which wracked the early American party to understand how these questions tended to pull it in on itself. In many ways, given the undisputed rise of American imperialism in the immediate aftermath of World War I, this is a story of the `dog days' of the party. Unfortunately, that rise combined with the international ramifications of the internal dispute in the Russian Communist Party and in the Communist International shipwrecked the party as a revolutionary party toward the end of this period.
As an addition to the historical record of this period this book is a very good companion to the two-volume set by Theodore Draper - The Roots of American Communism and Soviet Russia and American Communism- the definitive study on the early history of the American Communist Party. I have, as is the nature of the case, dwelt here on Cannon’s development as a Communist in the early days of that party. When I update this review I will discuss his formative years in Kansas, his father’s tutelage in his development as a socialist, his self-education in the rough and tumble of socialist and IWW (Wobblies) politics and some details of his personal life as they affected his political development. For now, if you want to know what it was like in the 'hothouse' (some would say loony bin) in the early days this is the book for you. Hopefully the author will continue this biography further to the later more decisive events that finished Cannon’s education as a communist leader.