Cannon: A life worth living

Submitted by AWL on 19 November, 2007 - 10:27 Author: Paul Hampton

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928, by Bryan D. Palmer (2007) reviewed.

James P. Cannon (1890-1974) was a titanic figure in the history of Marxism, yet in spite of a long life devoted to socialism, he has until now eluded a decent biography. This book by Canadian Marxist Bryan Palmer has been long in gestation but has been worth the wait: at last Cannon’s life — or at least the first 38 years of it — has been told.

Cannon’s time is also very much the history of the revolutionary left in the United States, at least at its origins. First thrust into political activity in 1906 in defence of the miners’ leaders like Bill Haywood, Cannon joined the Socialist Party in 1908, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1911, and was part of the socialist left that rallied to the Russian Revolution in 1917. Cannon was a founder of the Communist Party in the US and a central leader of the party until 1928, when he was expelled for Trotskyism. He was a frequent visitor to revolutionary Russia and a participant in the Communist International (Comintern), the cadres of the international revolutionary left whose work still carries lessons for today.

“A life worth living”

One of the many virtues of this biography is that it reveals much more about Cannon’s personal life than has been in print before. Cannon was born on 11 February 1890 in the state of Kansas. His parents John Cannon and Ann Hackett were both of Irish extraction, but born near Bolton in the north-west of England. The young Jim was closest to his mother, who tried to instil her Catholicism every day and twice on Sunday. However she died in 1904 and her son went to work as a meatpacker, railworker, printer and clerk in the family firm.

His father was a supporter of the Irish Land League and for a while before the boy was born, active in the Knights of Labour union and a subscriber to the socialist press. However by the time his son was old enough to talk, Cannon senior was a notary public, estate agent, insurer and possibly even a local judge at some point — something his son did not mention when he talked of his origins. Palmer also argues that the young Cannon probably lost his thumb at home or in a prank, rather than at work as has previously been suggested.

Cannon junior went to high school, where he became active in the Rosedale Society of Debate, defending women’s suffrage and industrial dispute resolution. It was at school that he met the teacher Lista Makimson, seven years his senior, who would become his first wife in 1913. They had two children, Carl (b. 1914) and Ruth (b.1917), although their relationship barely lasted more than a decade — mainly because of Cannon’s political commitments.

Cannon cut his teeth politically in the IWW, rapidly becoming one the union’s outstanding soapbox orators and hobo organisers, living off the proceeds of literature sales and jumping trains to get to industrial disputes. The IWW leader Vincent St John set Cannon on the road to becoming a professional revolutionary, involving him in its 1912 convention. This was also where he learned to write — turning out articles for the Wobbly paper Solidarity. It was in the IWW that he learned that socialism was “a creed that begins with solidarity and ends with freedom” (p.60).

Cannon was involved in some of the most bitter labour battles of the period, notably the Akron rubber workers strike. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the class struggle, “preaching the eight-hour day while working eighteen” in support of whatever workers’ fight he was directed to go to. It was during this period that he got his first taste of prison and that he realised that a life worth living is “to at least have committed ones ownself to an effort to change it”. (p.86)

“A Wobbly who learned something”

Such frenetic activity seemed to have burned Cannon out and he began a more settled life with his young family, starting to study law three evenings a week and taking an office job. But then the Russian revolution changed his life forever. For Cannon, the actuality of a workers’ revolution was earth shattering. But the real revelation was that it was not led by an all-inclusive militant industrial union but by “a party of selected revolutionaries united by a programme and bound by discipline” (p.91). The Bolsheviks had demonstrated direct action, but they had won because they had theory and an organised party. This simple truth was to shape the rest of his life.

Cannon joined the Socialist Party and took part in its left wing, which agreed to split from the party to found a Communist Party modelled on the Russian Bolsheviks. He took part in the underground and illegal United Communist Party and its successors, including the “shotgun marriage” of different communist organisations, the majority of them foreign-language federations that came over from the Socialist Party, in 1921. He chaired the founding conference of the Workers’ Party, the legal Communist Party later that year. Although it rarely exceeded 10,000 members in the twenties, the party nevertheless brought together most of the finest worker militants who sincerely wanted to overthrow US capitalism and replace it with socialist democracy.

The early 1920s saw Cannon at the height of his power and influence. According to one communist, he was “a very eloquent orator, with a lot of emotion, a lot of feeling and even some poetry in his eloquence… a true revolutionary, one that a person could model himself after”. (p.122) Cannon, a tobacco chewing, hard drinking, physical, authentic agitator who epitomised the indigenous working class that the Communist Party set out to win.

Cannon was instrumental in the development of the early Communist Party. In particular he led the struggle to establish the party on a legal basis, at first maintaining the parallel underground organisation but then becoming a full-fledged open party. Cannon was also pivotal in turning the party towards the organised working class, which in US conditions at the time meant working with the IWW to organise the unorganised as well as “boring from within” in the mainstream and largely craft AFL union centre. It was this conception of building the party on the logic of the class struggle — something the Bolsheviks had done successfully in Russia — which Cannon applied in the US and would prove to be his most important contribution to Marxism.

Politically Cannon stood head and shoulders above other communist leaders from the period: the vain administrator Charles Ruthenberg, the chameleon functionary John Pepper and his bureaucrat protégé Jay Lovestone; even trade unionist William Z. Foster, with whom he was in alliance for much of the 1920s. Much of the book is a detailed and well-documented description of the factional activity within the American Communist Party. Cannon himself was no lightweight in these affairs — his supporters apparently armed themselves for the fourth convention in 1925 (p.242) but the record shows that he tried to develop the kind of collective leadership necessary to build a functioning democratic centralist party capable of taking on the might US capital and its state. His own recollections on the period, published in the First Ten Years of American Communism (1962) is his best book, in part because it is a manual on how to develop a mass working class party. Cannon’s greatest legacy was his party-building efforts and the period remains his best attempt to create a serious Marxist organisation rooted in the American working class.

A second legacy that repays attention was Cannon’s efforts to build a non-partisan labour defence campaign for class war prisoners. Cannon was already intimately concerned with the party’s trade union work, but it was in the International Labour Defense (ILD) organisation that he developed his united front approach. Cannon’s protégé from this period, Max Shachtman argued that ILD was “the best non-party organisation created by the CP” (p.280) and this verdict stands up. The ILD, run by another Cannonite, Martin Abern, was able to organise high-profile solidarity with a host of socialist, anarchist and communist militants — most notably (though unsuccessfully) with Sacco and Vanzetti. The ILD paper, The Labor Defender, edited by Shachtman, utilised innovative photomontages and modern techniques to spread its message. It had a circulation of 22,000 — greater than the rest of the CP’s press put together.

The book also charts Cannon’s personal life, including the final breakdown of his relationship with Lista in 1923 when the CP centre moved from New York to Chicago. We also learn a great deal about Rose Karsner, a considerable revolutionary in her own right — particularly as the national secretary of the Friends of Soviet Russia — and who became Cannon’s partner from this time and for the rest of his life.

“A convinced Cominternist”

It is not possible to understand Cannon’s life or the history of the American Communist Party during the 1920s without detailing the role of Comintern. The messages to and from Moscow gave rise to the well-known joke: why is the CP like the Brooklyn Bridge? Because it is suspended on cables [i.e. telegrams from Moscow!].

Palmer distinguishes his approach from the cold war histories that portray the CP as largely a foreign import, whose influence was almost entirely negative, and which led inexorably to Stalinism. Instead he is more nuanced, looking at the matter more concretely. For example the Comintern was right to insist in 1921 that the squabbling factions fuse and work together to build a united open party, since politically their differences were negligible.

Similarly, the Comintern role in pushing the Communists towards building a Labor Party was not all negative. Lenin’s pamphlet Left Wing Communism dealt a blow at the sectarian, conspiratorial approach of many ultra-lefts and the united front approach formulated in 1921 pushed communists back towards the unions and towards efforts at building independent working-class political action. When John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor began agitating for a labor party in 1923, Cannon and others who had understood the Comintern’s teachings supported the effort.

Although Pepper’s influence and the Comintern’s so-called “workers’ and peasant parties” thesis undoubtedly contributed to the debacle at the “Farmer-Labor Party” convention, (which the CP packed with its own people) and the following year almost led them (including Cannon) to supporting the bourgeois third party candidate LaFollette, it was the intervention of the Comintern, on the advice of Trotsky, which pulled the party back into line.

Although the Comintern intervention towards particular party factions sometimes put the wrong people in positions that their capabilities or indigenous support did not warrant, it was also the Comintern that pushed the American Communists, albeit without much success (they recruited only 50 black members in the 1920s), towards the understanding of racism as a question of special oppression not reducible to working class exploitation, as most US Communists maintained.

Similarly, many have telescoped the period of Bolshevisation from 1924 with the latter Stalinisation of the American party, whereas the book distinguishes these phases of its development. Cannon ardently embraced Zinoviev’s Bolshevisation plans, famously arguing for a “monolithic party hewn from one piece” and shorn of factions, tendencies and groups. (p.222) However Palmer argues convincingly that Cannon’s practice in the 1920s and after, as well as numerous other statements do not suggest he held an essentially bureaucratic view of the party and was cognisant that a party without debate was more likely to be asleep than in good health. He interprets Cannon’s support for Bolshevisation as much more about ending the dead-end factionalism of the American party and about putting it on a more systematic, professional footing than about proto-Stalinist bureaucratisation.

Cannon himself remained a committed Cominternist and although Palmer argues that he “adapted rather easily and uncritically to Comintern directives” (p.228), it was of course his presence at the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928 that put Cannon, through his engagement with Trotskyism, firmly on the road back to revolutionary socialism.

Cannon distinguished himself within the leadership of the CP in the mid-1920s by refusing to rush to condemn Trotsky as the Stalinist smears percolated through the Comintern sections. However he did “go along for the ride”, voting for resolutions up to 1928.

The book charts Cannon’s activity after he got hold of a copy of Trotsky’s Critique of the Draft Programme of the Communist International at the Sixth Congress. Palmer suggests that Stalin may well have allowed Trotsky’s draft to circulate at the congress, in preparation for the move against Bukharin, the author of the Comintern programme — and also to smoke out any remaining Trotsky sympathisers.

Once back in the US, with the document, smuggled out in a teddy bear, Cannon went about convincing his closest supporters of the new course, starting with Karsner, Shachtman and Abern. Cannon was supported financially by Max Eastman, who published documents also secretly gotten out of Russia by Eleazer Solntsev, a Soviet trade attaché in New York who like many paid for his oppositionism with his life. The book contains an interesting description of the role of Antoinette Konikow, like Cannon a veteran of the earlier movements who had come to Trotskyism in 1926 after a trip to Russia and who alongside her revolutionary communist work was a passionate advocate of contraception and abortion rights. The expulsion of Cannon and his immediate coterie was supplemented by overzealous purging of others, which meant they had around 100 supporters by the end of 1928. Palmer also recounts the violence the pioneer Trotskyists faced as they were ostracised from the Communist Party.

The book’s verdict on Cannon is rightly very positive, though not uncritical. Palmer points out his political weaknesses, particularly on gender and race as well as his personal foibles, of which alcohol was the most prominent.

Cannon remarked that “The mark of a man’s life is his capacity to march to the music of his youth” (p.364), and he was alone among the early generation of communist leaders in retaining his commitment to working class revolution. Cannon was an outstanding representative of the Marxist tradition and the period covered by this book was his best time. Palmer has written a fantastic history of a pivotal figure in an exceptional era. But he also has an eye on the revival of revolutionary left in the present. Cannon has much to teach us and, in this book, we now have a valuable guide for training the militants of the future.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.