Communism and philistinism
This is the second part of an obituary article of James Patrick Cannon, one of the founders of the international Trotskyist movement.
It was first published at the beginning of 1975 in Permanent Revolution, a magazine of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty tendency. We reprint it here to mark the 30th anniversary of Cannon’s death. The AWL has criticisms of Cannon’s political career (see Solidarity 3/57) but honours and respects the great contribution he made to the struggle against capitalism and Stalinism. The article contrasts Cannon’s political life with that of the British Stalinist leader Rajani Palme Dutt, who died soon after Cannon.
By Sean Matgamna
In the early mid-1920s, Stalin and his junior partner Nikolai Bukharin began to look for an instrument in Britain stronger than was the small Communist Party, to help protect the Soviet Union. A number of TUC leaders, some of them with “left” backgrounds, were willing to declare themselves friends of the Soviet Union and to establish links with the Russian trade unions. The Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee was duly set up.
Great things were expected of these trade union leaders in defending the Soviet Union. Thus the importance of keeping them in the Anglo-Russian Committee loomed very large in Moscow. At home their prestige with the left wing and with militant workers was, naturally, enhanced by the association with the Russian trade unions and the Russian revolutionary state. The problem was that they were time-serving bureaucrats, willing to ply their trade with as much alacrity as others of their ilk — and all the more efficient at it because of the reflected militant glow from the Soviet Union.
In the 1926 General Strike, while they were betraying a potentially revolutionary mass mobilisation of the working class, they could still parade as left-wingers. The Communist Party called for “All power to the General Council of the TUC”! That is, to those “friends of the Soviet Union” who were simultaneously leading and selling-out the General Strike!
They called off the strike when its strength was still growing, inflicting a needless defeat on the working class.
Their strictly-for-export leftism was important to them in riding out the storm of indignation which the TUC’s betrayal of the General Strike stirred up.
Trotsky’s demands that the Russian trade unions break off relations with them were fended off in factional self protection by Stalin, Bukharin and their supporters. Finally, the British trade union leaders took the initiative for a break — exactly at the time when a possible war between the USSR and Britain was looming, after Britain broke off diplomatic relations with the USSR, in May 1927.
The Anglo-Russian Committee was the first major attempt by the Stalinist bureaucracy to draw the practical conclusions from the logic of “Socialism in One Country”. The British CP was plainly too weak to be a knife with which Moscow could frighten the British government away from thoughts of a new war of intervention against Bolshevik Russia; it was not even considered important enough to be built up as a revolutionary force. So the Stalinists found a substitute.
The results of this operation were to derail the British Communist Party, first by turning it into an unwitting auxiliary in smashing the 1926 General Strike, and then into a very important factor in covering the tracks of the TUC traitors afterwards.
In China, a variant of the same approach led the Chinese CP to liquidate itself into the bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang. Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai Shek was installed as an honorary member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International! The affair culminated in 1927 when Chiang turned on his Communist allies and his armies inflicted a sudden mass slaughter on many thousands of Chinese communist workers.
Rajani Palme Dutt was far more in touch with affairs and issues in the Communist International than was Cannon. Somewhat out of step with the Kremlin’s line on Trotsky, he had in 1926 published a favourable review of Trotsky’s 1925 book, Where is Britain Going. But in general, from the mid 20s he hewed to the line of the Stalin faction of the Communist International.
In the aftermath of the strike and of a whole series of debacles — Britain, China, and, within Russia itself, the semi-revolt of the kulaks — the Communist International lurched, still, through blunders covered up for factional reasons, rather than cynical betrayal, to a wild ultra-leftism, the so-called “third period”.
In Britain, Dutt, in alliance with Harry Pollitt, emerged as a leader of a faction driving for a full scale implementation of the Comintern-decreed “third period” politics in Britain. In 1929 they gained the majority. Pollitt replaced Albert Inkpin as Communist Party General Secretary.
Dutt, an honest communist to begin with, as were they all (something Cannon in later years never tired of pointing out about such people) now began to play an enhanced role in the central leadership of the party. In terms of the real party leadership, he was probably more important than National Secretary Pollitt.
Under the Dutt-Pollitt leadership, vigorously pursuing the new ultra-left third period policy, the Communist Party was quickly reduced to a shell. It attempted to transform the influential Minority Movement into independent “red” trade unions — and created only empty shells. The CP lost the mass trade union influence it had previously enjoyed through the Minority Movement.
The National Left Wing Movement of disaffiliated Constituency Labour Parties was pronounced to be not a bridge to the Communist Party but a barrier that had to be smashed. It duly was smashed, but the Communists gained nothing. By the early 1930s the Communist Party membership was down to around 2,000.
After the terrible implications of Hitler’s victory in Germany, during January-March 1933, began to register in Moscow, the Communist International made a new turn — to the right. The Comintern now re-enacted its earlier search for allies to protect the Soviet Union — only now it was utterly without restraint.
In Britain this never reached the degree of open depravity displayed in France, where the French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez offered a common national front to “patriotic”— that is, anti-German — French fascists. But it was only a matter of degree.
They called for a “Popular Front” Government of Labour, Liberals and “progressive” Tories. Trotsky pointed out that the proposal for a government of the trade union-affiliated Labour Party with the bourgeois parties put the CP to the right of the right wing of the Labour Party, who wanted a Labour Government!
Under Dutt’s leadership the CP covered up the collapse of the German Communist Party and the German working class before Hitler. This was a catastrophic event, to which revolutionary Marxists could only react by declaring the Third International dead for the socialist revolution, and orientating towards building a Fourth International.
The Communist Party of Great Britain now abandoned anti-bureaucratic trade union activity in favour of manoeuvring with and within the trade union bureaucracies.
It gave extravagant support to the Stalinist purges and show trials of the mid 1930s, in which virtually the entire Bolshevik Party was annihilated.
It became openly jingoistic after 1935. It abandoned in practice agitation for the freedom of Britain’s colonies. Black militants such as George Padmore broke with the Party over this.
Then between August 1939 and June 1941, while the Stalin-Hitler pact lasted, they made pro-Hitler propaganda, embellishing the German regime, its “desire for peace”, which British imperialism was frustrating, the “historical significance” of Hitler choosing to make a pact with Moscow… Some prize examples of this sort of stuff can be found in Dutt’s magazine, Labour Monthly.
Pollitt had to retire as Secretary for two years in this period, being too closely identified with the advocacy during the “Popular Front” period of a British-USSR anti-German alliance; but Dutt continued; and Pollitt came back.
When in 1941 Russia became embroiled in the war, the CP again became patriotic — super-patriotic, and, as with their comrades in the USA, a strikebreaking and scab-herding agency for the bourgeoisie, now the allies of Stalin’s Russia. Pollitt made an infamous speech in which he insisted that nowadays it was “the class-conscious worker” who will cross the picket line!
Now the party openly supported the British Empire in the colonies. In 1940, when the party was siding with German imperialism against the British Empire, Dutt had published a book on the condition of India and British imperialist oppression there. He dedicated it to his father, who had, he said, taught him “to love the Indian people”. When Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941 led the CP to become “the best British patriots”, he withdrew it and reissued a bowdlerised version…
The Indian CP, for which Dutt bore a heavy responsibility within the Communist International, scabbed on the fight for Indian national independence.
Having whole-heartedly participated in prostituting the programme of the Communist International and killing its spirit; having supported the slaughter of its early leaders, in the USSR, in Spain, and elsewhere, Dutt and his comrades could hardly have cared very much when, in 1943, Josef Stalin declared it dissolved, and formally buried its corpse as a gesture to his wartime allies.
By the end of the war, in 1945, the Communist Party, still led by those who had taken control of it on an ultra-left programme, thereby wrecking its prospects in the mass labour movement, was again to the right of the Labour Party right wing. It advocated not a Labour Government, but a continuation of the war-time coalition with “Progressive Tories” — especially Eden and Churchill!
With the Cold War came decline from the party’s maximum war-time membership of 60,000. (Though the decline in Britain was not as catastrophic as in the USA, where the US Communist Party had 100,000 members at the end of the war, and was a mass movement in New York).
The CP continued to support Russian policies with utter slavishness, including the trials of communists — a repeat of the Moscow Trials of the mid-1930s — which Stalin staged in Eastern Europe in the late 40s and early 50s. They supported the police state terror there; they supported the bloody suppression of the Hungarian commune in 1956.
When Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, “revealed” and denounced a small portion of Stalin’s crimes, Dutt would only make the grudging admission that there had been “aberrations”. He was forced to admit that he, together with Pollitt and Gollan, had been perfectly aware of such things as the slave labour camps.
He ended his days somewhat isolated and discredited within a Communist Party that had made a few shifts away from the Neanderthal period of Stalinism. He died a Neanderthaler, unapologetic and seemingly unrepentant.
Two communists of the “first draft”, half a century ago; two “survivors” in 1974. Cannon died in fidelity to that which he had set out to achieve — proletarian revolution. Dutt died a grotesque symbol of one of the blackest experiences in the history of the working class.
Cannon was slow to see the issues. But when he saw, he chose the communist programme and a battle for revolution. He took arms against the bureaucrats at the moment of their most complete triumph, siding with the unbending communists around Trotsky when they were already organisationally routed. When Cannon finally discerned the essential programmatic ideas involved in the dispute, he was not mesmerised or intimidated by the power of the bureaucracy.
Nor was he prepared to abandon the fight for world revolution and for revolution in his own country, and instead become a mere “frontier guard” for the Soviet Union.
He knew that terrible blows had been dealt to the prospects of world socialist revolution by the usurpation of control of the Communist International by the Stalinist bureaucracy: but he set out to undo the damage, refusing to accommodate to the criminals who were responsible for it.
He remained devoted to what, until his death, he continued to see as “the conquests of the October Revolution in the Soviet Union”. But he refused to identify them with those who had imposed a totalitarian police state on the Soviet Union.
Palme Dutt, the petty bourgeois intellectual, sided with the victors in the battle in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Who knows at what point the full implication of their policies registered with those who made Dutt’s choice? At some point, it must have registered. But Dutt and the others chose to rationalise and accommodate. If the Communist International was no longer pursuing revolutionary politics, then abandon revolution and render philistine service to the corrupt and debased bureaucrats who ruled the Russian state.
Step by step those who made Dutt’s choice degenerated, in line with the demands of the Russian bureaucracy, into the opposite of what they had been at the beginning. Gradation by gradation, until there had been a total transformation, they turned against the revolutionary communist programme which they had started out to fight for. Eventually, still calling themselves “Communists”, “Marxists”, “Leninists”, they became its most bitter enemies, the active agents of the bourgeoisie wherever that role was deemed to be of use to the Soviet Union.
While Palme Dutt aided in the suppression of the last vestiges of democracy in the Communist International, Cannon rallied a handful of people to fight to regenerate the Communist International.
While Palme Dutt corrupted the consciousness of the revolutionary workers who had rallied to the Russian Revolution with patriotism, glorification of the Stalinist police state and illusions in democratic imperialism (and later, briefly, in German and Italian fascism), Cannon fought against insuperable odds to preserve the communist norms, consciousness, world outlook, morality.
While Palme Dutt defended Stalin’s annihilation of the Bolshevik Party, Cannon was the main supporter of Trotsky, who, against the terrible backcloth of the macabre and criminal Stalinist counterfeit, personified revolutionary communism in the 1930s, in defending the victims.
While Palme Dutt supported one imperialist side in World War Two, Cannon was in jail for opposing the US ruling class in the war, for maintaining the position which he and Dutt had shared in World War One.
(Indeed, as late as 1935 it had been commonly accepted even in the Stalinised Communist International that an alliance with the Soviet Union by one imperialist bloc in any future war would not at all affect the duty of communists within the states allied to the USSR to make a revolution there.)
When, in 1956, Stalin was partially repudiated by his heirs and successors and later when the Stalinist world monolith began to break into Russian, Chinese and other warring factions, Palme Dutt could only mumble that Stalin’s “errors” were “spots on the sun”; Cannon, after decades of struggle, could joyfully recognise the first signs that the Stalinist Ice Age was passing.
Cannon was a proletarian who grasped and never forgot that the central question for working class revolution is that a scientific programme, correct ideas given practical expression by the work of a revolutionary working class party, are preserved, cultivated, built and developed.
He knew and lived by the truth that “power”, “influence”, “masses” without a revolutionary programme, strategy, tactics, a party — these are meaningless or harmful from the point of view of the struggle for a workers’ revolution, to which he devoted his life.
Cannon was a fighter, not a philistine: when he saw that the Communist International had degenerated, he wasn’t prepared to give up in disillusionment or to be chained to the chariot wheels of the victorious bureaucrats of the Soviet Union. He joined the battle to rebuild a Communist International. The programme of communism was not an option, one set of ideas — it was the be-all and end-all of Cannon’s existence.
Palme Dutt above all accommodated to the victors in Russia — perhaps reluctantly at first. In the final analysis, he undervalued the most precious and profound ideological conquest of mankind so far — the world outlook of communism. He accommodated to power.
He appears genuinely to have believed in the ultra-left policy of the “third period”, in recoil from the rightist policies of the mid 20s. But, disillusioned and disoriented in the wake of the catastrophe which that policy produced in Germany, he had little difficulty in shedding, adulterating, and prostituting the ideas of genuine communism.
He was a fighter all right — but one who needed the stiffening of belief in the tangible “socialist fatherland” — unlike Cannon who drew his strength from the working class struggle and the ideas of communism.
Cannon was consistent, like “the rock that troubles the living stream”— prepared to fight for the ideas of communism and the interests of the working class with any appropriate weapons, whether as a member of an organisation of 10 or of a workers’ international numbering millions. Dutt in his formative years proved malleable and flexible on these fundamental questions; and consequently he wound up betraying everything he, Cannon and countless others had set out to achieve.
Cannon played a major role in ensuring that there would be a continuity in the communist movement, despite Stalinism.
Since the death of Trotsky, enormous gaps and inadequacies have opened up and accumulated in revolutionary communist analysis of the last third of a century, due to the inadequacies of the Fourth International, of which Cannon was a leading figure. He shares responsibility for the failings of the FI. We leave it to those who succeed in solving the problems that have beset the Trotskyist, the authentic communist, movement, since the 1940s, to wag their fingers in accusation and condemnation. Those who specialise in self-righteous tub-thumping against Cannon are political bankrupts like the Workers Revolutionary Party*, whose whole political capital consists of shreds of Cannon’s ideas.
Cannon’s last decade was spent in retirement. In one of his last published articles, in 1967 (see the anthology Fifty Years of World Revolution), he attempted to assert the ideas of Leninism against the woolly vulgar evolutionism of the Fourth International reunification document of 1963 — in effect, he publicly reprimanded that organisation.
Cannon and the post-Trotsky Trotskyists leave us with many problems to solve. But the very possibility of repairing the ravages of the last decades and developing an adequate Marxist outlook is real only because of the work of the Trotskyist movement, real only because it represents the link with the heroic age of communism and the Marxist renaissance which flowered, however briefly, in the early Communist International.
To Cannon we owe a great deal for this possibility. He passes on to us a priceless heritage and a great example. In the files of Communist International magazines is to be found the evidence of the great ideological riches, the enormous resources in talented people that the Russian revolution rallied to the Communist International. By the late 30s the earlier movement had vanished — annihilated, disillusioned, corrupted.
A whole many-millioned revolutionary army organised in the Communist International, set out to change the world and fell victim to ruling class repression or to the virus of Stalinism.
When almost all of them had fallen in the battles with the bourgeoisie, sunk into discouragement or renegacy, taken up the trade of power-brokerage for Stalin, or become ministers in Stalinist or bourgeois governments; when the army of revolutionary heroes had sunk and shrunk and some, like Palme Dutt, had fallen into philistine power-worship. Cannon remained, unbowed and unchanged, uncorrupted and unrepentant.
In the early 20s, Cannon represented within the Communist International a raw, underdeveloped, backward layer of the revolutionary labour movement. Compared to people like Lukacs, or Korsch, or Togliatti — or Dutt — his ideological level was primitive. But Trotsky said of Lenin that his heroic spirit expressed itself in a stubborn struggle for growth. So with Cannon.
Let future historians of the communist movement of the 20th century philosophise, if they have a mind to, on the human tragedy of men like Dutt, hooked and corrupted as a result of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and Of their own weaknesses, and turned into bitter enemies of the goal they had set out to serve. For us the air seems cleaner that he is no longer breathing it. It will be cleaner still when all his works, the now shaky party he moulded and corrupted for Stalin, and all it stands for politically, is consigned to the black museum of history and has been replaced by the sort of movement the young Palme Dutt set out to build.
It is largely thanks to the men and women amongst whom Cannon was so outstanding that this generation of revolutionaries has the possibility of achieving that goal.
* In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party was the biggest revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain. It collapsed in 1985. Until about 1960, the leaders of this organisation, who in the end sold themselves as propagandists to Arab states, had been associates of Cannon; from the early 1960s they expended much effort in denouncing and traducing him.
** In necessary qualification and in justice, Amadeo Bordiga — the founding leader of the Italian CP, expelled from the CP when in prison in 1929 — should also be recalled. However, Bordiga’s unbreakable loyalty to the ideals of communism was made sterile by his arid ultra-leftism. Cannon leaves behind him a tradition and to some extent a movement which, if confused and disoriented, is far from dead: its roots are still alive.