Notes on James P Cannon's three "party" books

Submitted by martin on 13 December, 2012 - 10:31

James P Cannon's books "Struggle for a Proletarian Party", "History of American Trotskyism", and "Speeches to the Party" contain much of educational value.

They are skewed by political misconceptions, but it is possible and useful to separate out the valuable discussion from the misconceptions.


"Struggle for a Proletarian Party" was published not (as you might at first think) in 1940, just after the SWP faction fight and split, but in 1943.

"History of American Trotskyism" was published in 1944, and based on a series of lectures in 1942. Cannon's two books made a set with "In Defence of Marxism", a skewed selection of Trotsky's writings in the 1939-40 dispute, published in December 1942.

All three books date from the period after the Russians began to win the battle of Stalingrad. In 1941-2, the SWP had put little stress on "defence of the USSR", and indicated that it considered the USSR doomed. From December 1942, it swung into enthusiastic applause for the victories of what it called "Trotsky's Red Army", which somehow remained "Trotsky's" despite the bad Stalinist leadership. [See "Fate of the Russian Revolution" p.117ff, and chapters 6 and 9].

This "Soviet patriotism" was quite popular with public opinion in the USA (and Britain) at that time.

The SWP would sober up from it to a sizeable degree, partly under pressure from Natalia Sedova, in 1946-8. However, the three books, which came to define "orthodox Trotskyism", were shaped by the "Soviet patriot" period.

The books present the SWP's stance against the WP as that of the solid defenders of established Marxist programme against the dilatory "revisionists" who trash basic principles under pressure of bourgeois public opinion.

In fact the SWP was going on the offensive against the WP because the SWP felt the encouraging wind of public opinion in its sails to do so.

The books are slanted to present the "Russian Question" and "the programme" as items of what Bordiga called "invariant doctrine". But there can't be a single for-all-times principled position on the "Russian Question" irrespective of what happens in Russia.

And "the programme" can't be a "finished" thing. Trotsky wrote to the Prometeo group (19 June 1930): "You say that in all this time you have not departed by an iota from the platform of 1925, which I had called an excellent document in many respects. But a platform is not created so as to 'not depart from it', but rather to apply and develop it..."

Cannon was astute and energetic in looking for ways to apply the programme, and possibly more able than he thought in developing it, but wrote and, it seems, sometimes thought, as if "the programme" could be taken as already fully "developed".

In fact, the SWP itself had in the recent past (between 1941-2 and 1942-3) veered a great deal in what it said on Russia.

In fact, Cannon himself would indicate with admirable clarity (SPP p.104) the conditions under which "we certainly must revise everything we have said on the subject of the [Stalinist] bureaucracy up to now". Only by the time exactly those conditions developed, Cannon had walled himself from the necessary "revision" by the 1942-4 polemics.

Maybe in 1940, a feverish condemnation of the SWP minority as political captives of James Burnham could be excused as inevitable exaggeration in the course of battle. But Burnham had broken with the minority (by then the WP) in May 1940, and the WP had condemned him in terms very similar to those used by Cannon ["Fate", p.383]. It made no sense to condemn the WP as captives of Burnham three years after that break!

Maybe in 1940, again, a fear that the minority would drift with mildly-leftish anti-Stalinist public opinion towards reconciliation with US bourgeois public opinion might be reckoned understandable exaggeration. But by 1943 there were three years of proof that the WP's line against the USA's war was much more strident than the SWP's. In fact, I think, destructively and wrongly strident, and maybe because the WP was at pains to show that the accusations against it in 1940 were wrong.

The false amalgam made between the WP on the one hand, and Burnham and mildly-leftish anti-Stalinist public opinion on the other, was used to back up a claim that the 1939-40 faction fight was a reflection of social pressures, the minority representing the pressure of the petty bourgeoisie.

Since the claim was based on falsely-presented facts, it was wrong.

The other thing alleged to show the "petty-bourgeois" nature of the minority was its unclarity and confusion on t'he basic theoretical issues about the USSR.

The minority was unclear and confused about those issues. But then so was the majority: see "Fate" pp.264ff.

If no-one yet has a clear theory, that is bad. But politics can't stop and wait. You do the best you can. Both majority and minority tried to do that. But the majority additionally crippled itself by pretending that it had a clearly-set more-or-less for-all-time position on the "Russian Question" read off from its basic programme, and glossing over the differences within its ranks.


"Speeches to the Party" is skewed in a different way. It wasn't published until 1973, but I don't think it had special polemical purpose then. It was just that by 1973 the SWP was prosperous enough to publish books in a way it couldn't in the adverse conditions of the 1950s.

After 1948 the "orthodox Trotskyist" movement had lurched back towards a sort of "critical patriotism" for the so-called "Soviet bloc".

The theoretical foundation of this lurch was the idea that the Stalinists had created and would create "deformed workers' states" over large areas.

The lurch reached its peak during the Korean War (1950-3), which many "orthodox Trotskyists" saw as the preliminary skirmish of a coming "War-Revolution" in which a bloc of the Stalinist states, the Stalinist-led national movements in colonial and semi-colonial countries, and the Communist Parties worldwide, would be flung into confrontation with capitalism.

After 1954 the section of the "orthodox Trotskyists" led by Pablo and Mandel would sober up. The "ultras" of the Korean war lurch - Michele Mestre in France, John Lawrence in Britain, and the minority led by Bert Cochrane and George Clarke in the US faction fight with which "Speeches to the Party" is concerned - split from Pablo and Mandel at the July 1954 4th World Congress of the Fourth International.

Mestre and Lawrence and their groups joined the French and British Communist Parties, respectively. The Americans were a bit different. The enthusiasts of the "War-Revolution" scenario, such as George Clarke and Mike Bartell (Milt Zaslow) were a minority within that minority, and even they didn't contemplate joining the despised CPUSA.

The Cochrane-Clarke minority, when it split, was dominated by Cochrane and the trade-unionist wing, and soon got rid of Clarke and Bartell/Zaslow. Cochrane and his comrades kept a loose discussion-circle-type group going until 1959, publishing a magazine, the American Socialist, and then wound up.

Cannon had gone along with the "deformed workers' states" thesis after 1948, by all accounts reluctantly and because he (reasonably enough) could see no alternative without discarding what he had cornered himself into describing as a principle not open to revision, the description of the Stalinist USSR (so long as it kept industry nationalised) as a "degenerated workers' state".

But the "deformed workers' state" idea, or rather range of ideas, was loose-knit and open to radically different emphases. Cannon evidently hoped to insist on a militantly anti-Stalinist emphasis.

With the faction fight in 1952-3 he saw that hope threatened by conciliation towards Stalinism (Clarke and Bartell) and the political tiredness of the settled trade unionists whom Cochrane spoke for. He rebelled.

His position was analogous to that of the minority in 1939-40: rebelling against the consequences drawn from a theoretical formula while not yet being able to propose a coherent alternative to the formula.

He was right to rebel; but he had boxed himself in too much, and maybe was just too tired, to work out an alternative theoretical basis.

Unlike Cochrane and Clarke, the SWP kept going as a militant revolutionary socialist organisation, and with many good things to be said for it, after 1953. However, under the leadership of Farrell Dobbs and Tom Kerry it lapsed into a culture of "steady as she goes" which eventually would lay the basis for the radical political degeneration of the SWP after 1979.

Cannon protested against Dobbs and Kerry squeezing internal political life out of the SWP - in letters collected in the pamphlet "Don't Strangle The Party" - but ineffectually.


"Struggle for a Proletarian Party" nevertheless has a great deal good to say about the priority of political debate and political clarification in sorting out disputes within a revolutionary socialist organisation.

Some, at least, of that is a refraction of what was drummed into Cannon, against the grain of much of his training in the CP of the 1920s, by Trotsky. Cannon would later write: "Probably the hardest lesson I had to learn from Trotsky, after ten years of bad schooling through the Communist Party faction fights, was to let organisational questions wait until the political questions at issue were fully clarified, not only in the National Committee but also in the ranks of the party".

What it says against "combinationism" is valid, even if it has to be read with the fact in mind that the 1939-40 SWP majority was at least as much a "combination" (because everyone was confused) as the minority.

What it says about "bureaucratism" is odd, but not uninstructive. On the face of it, it seems to say that bureaucratism cannot be a problem in a socialist organisation so long as the "apparatus" is not an economically privileged group.

What it says against the whingeing and over-sensitivity often displayed by half-committed activists is true enough, and well put, but in combination with the apparent dismissal of "bureaucratism" as a possible problem can be misused as a bludgeon.

However, Cannon also castigates "office leadership", which surely is just a translation of "bureaucracy" (bureau/office, -cracy/leadership). He emphasises that an effective leadership is built as a broadly inclusive team, not as a clique or faction.


The "History" is crisp and valuable on several issues:

• Undergroundism-on-principle
• Dead-end gang-warfare factionalism (in the late 1920s CP) and a fight for political clarification on a higher level as the only way out of it
• The priority of politics (above even good organisation, or excellent personal qualities of militancy) in building a revolutionary socialist movement, as shown by the experience of the CP and the IWW after 1917
• The need for "propaganda groups" to adjust realistically to their tasks and eschew pretences of "fake mass work".
• The enormous difficulties of building anything solid or stable out of attempts to organise the unemployed
• The politics of dealing with left-moving tendencies which you want to win over by patient work rather than just polemicise with (the Musteites, the SP youth and left wing), and how to deal with the negotiations necessary.


This contains valuable material on:

• methods of leadership in a revolutionary socialist party (pp.183ff). A particularly important point here is one made clearly by Cannon in "Letters from Prison" p.84: "a fatal procedure that is very easy for a busy leadership to fall into. That is to measure work done by volume rather than by design..." It is the syndrome in which, as long as the organiser is run off her or his feet, she or he feels she or he is doing the best possible, and all shortfalls can be blamed either on the general political situation or on the alleged sluggishness or incompetence of the people whom the organiser is organising
• trade-unionists and revolutionists (pp.51ff); not fetishising the pursuit of union office (p.203)
• the need for revolutionary socialist leaders not to shy away from or be squeamish about faction fights (see pp.150ff and critique of Debs, pp.306ff), but also to run faction fights by a permanent and patient search for the political high ground, and to avoid faction-fighting degenerating into "headless factionalism" (p.180) and gang warfare (pp.185ff)
• the disease of "Cominternism" in the Trotskyist movement
• how to build the movement in hard times (pp.287ff) and the importance of student work (p.206-7)

Attachment Size
DontStrangle.pdf(163.98 KB) 163.98 KB

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.