Thursday, July 31, 2014
From The Pen Of American Communist Party Founder And Trotskyist Leader James P. Cannon
Markin comment on founding member James P. Cannon and the early American Communist Party taken from a book review, James P. Cannon and the Early American Communist Party, on the “American Left History” blog:
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 by the editors gives an analysis of the important fights which occurred inside the party. That overview highlights some of the now more obscure personalities (a helpful biographical glossary is provided), 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 prisoner 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 disputes in the Russian Communist Party and in the Communist International shipwrecked the party as a revolutionary party toward the end of this period.
In the introduction the editors motivate the purpose for the publication of the 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 Socialist Workers Party so their perspective is obvious. What does the documentation provided here show? I would argue that the period under study represented Cannon’s apprenticeship. Although the hothouse politics of the early party clarified some of the issues of revolutionary strategy for him I believe that it was not until he linked up with Trotsky in the late 1920’s that he became the kind of leader who could lead a revolution. Of course, since Cannon never got a serious opportunity to lead revolutionary struggles in America this is mainly reduced to speculation on my part. Later books written by him make the case better. One thing is sure- in his prime he had the instincts to want to lead a revolution.
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. It is also a useful companion to Cannon’s own The First Ten Years of American Communism. I would add that this is something of a labor of love on the part of the editors. This book was published at a time when the demise of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was in full swing and anything related to Communist studies was deeply discounted. Nevertheless, for better or worse, the American Communist Party (and its offshoots) needs to be studied as an ultimately flawed example of a party that failed in its mission to create a radical version of society in America. Now is the time to study this history.