James P Cannon still has a lot to teach Marxists today and the balance sheet on his life and politics is largely positive (Solidarity 3/56 and 3/57). There is no doubt his decision to support Trotsky in 1928 was of enormous significance in creating the international tendency opposed to Stalinism, on whose shoulders we stand today.
However, we know quite a lot more about Cannon today than at the time of his death in 1974, and not all the material available casts him in a positive light. A number of collections of his writings from the early years have been published, and although these volumes confirm the heroic role he played during the 1920s and 30s, they also reveal mistakes on Stalinism and on party-building which detract from his legacy.
In 1933 Cannon advocated the intervention of Stalin’s Red Army in Germany after Hitler had come to power. Cannon argued that: “the Red Army must be made ready” and that “the knife of fascism is poised over the body of the German working class and the Red Army must be mobilised to shoot this knife out of its hand” (Dog Days).
He was opposed by Max Shachtman in the US Trotskyist movement and soon withdrew his proposal. However, the incident revealed a conception of Stalinism quite different from the one Trotsky developed at the time and one sharply at variance with the hard anti-Stalinism he was later renowned for.
In the debate on Stalinism in the SWP in 1939-40, Cannon played a terrible role. In particular, his insistence that simply affirming the “fundamental analysis” of the class nature of the USSR, and therefore no further assessment was necessary — even after the USSR had carved up Poland with Hitler and attacked Finland — derailed what could have been a serious and necessary debate.
Cannon’s reasoning in these discussions was poor. He argued that the USSR was analogous to a trade union with a bureaucratic leadership, i.e. it must be supported in spite of the behaviour of its leaders. But the analogy did not clarify matters. Unions can organise reactionary strikes, e.g., racist strikes, which revolutionaries would not support — hence, by analogy, unconditional support for the USSR was not always necessary.
Unions can also expand to recruit new members even under bureaucratic leadership (i.e., a positive development) — but the expansion of the USSR did not enhance the freedoms of the peoples taken over. Again the analogy didn’t hold.
In the course of the debate, Cannon wrote to Trotsky that: “Stalin could take the path of
Napoleonic conquest not merely against small border states, but against the greatest imperialist powers, only on one condition: that the Soviet bureaucracy in reality represents a new triumphant class which is in harmony with its economic system and secure in its position at home, etc. If such a thing is really the case, we certainly must revise everything we have said on the subject of the bureaucracy up to now” (The Struggle for a Proletarian Party).
However, when Stalin overran Eastern Europe and also part of Germany, Cannon made no such revision. In fact he avoided the need to rethink with a ridiculous sleight of hand. In November 1945, he wrote: “Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think that the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage and is now in the process of regroupment and reorganisation from the second. The war is not over…” (The Struggle for Socialism in the American Century).
We also know that when Stalin’s Red Army stood on the edges of the city during the Warsaw uprising in 1944, and watched while the Nazis wiped out the resistance movement, Cannon scolded the editors of the Militant newspaper from prison for reporting the facts about Stalin’s betrayal. He also argued that the Polish “guerrilla forces”, as he called them, should “subordinate themselves to the high command of the main army, the Red Army” (Fate of the Russian Revolution).
Cannon’s “orthodoxy” of 1939–40 was frozen after the split, in tendentious collections such as Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism and Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, which made more rational assessment of the nature of Stalinism almost impossible. Instead, Trotskyists after the war largely adapted to Titoism, later Castro and others, and failed to explain the collapse of the USSR.
Cannon himself admitted that he emerged from the Communist Party as a “first class factional hoodlum” (The Socialist Workers’ Party in World War Two). During the 1920s he was strongly influenced by Zinoviev’s methods as a Communist leader. We now know he carried some of those attitudes into the fledgling Trotskyist movement, in sharp contrast to the kind of party he wrote about so eloquently in theory.
For example, in 1933 he tried to bureaucratically exclude Martin Abern, one of the key youth leaders he had recruited to Trotskyism in 1928, from the leading committee. He also imposed a “committee discipline” that meant disagreements within the leadership were not aired in front of the membership. Whereas internal disputes were carried in the Militant in the early years of Trotskyism, after 1933 Cannon was instrumental in confining disagreements to the internal bulletin, and sometimes excluding minority articles as well (Dog Days). Although Trotsky condemned these moves as administrative solutions to political problems, they were to set the organisational standards for many Trotskyist groups, making their internal regimes little better than the Stalinist parties they opposed.
During the 1939–40 debate, Cannon’s methods escalated the differences to the point of a split — something evident in his letters early on in the struggle. He apparently offered Shachtman the opportunity for a “cold split”, dividing the property of the organisation instead of having the discussion out and clarifying the political differences rationally.
Most of the minority’s material was never published in the public organs of the party, nor in its internal bulletin — indeed, some of it still remains buried in the archives.
Cannon’s bureaucratic methods were well summed up by the resolution that drove out the minority. In April 1940 the minority were requested to “accept the convention decisions” and to “carry them out in a disciplined manner”, and when they abstained, were “suspended from the party and all party functions” (Fate of the Russian Revolution). Cannon won the faction fight, but the SWP shrivelled into a sect thereafter.
This assessment doesn’t mean Shachtman was always right, nor does it cancel out Cannon’s irreplaceable role in fighting for Trotskyism during the terrible days of the 1920s and 1930s. However, it does tarnish his image and should be part of any rounded appreciation of his legacy, especially for those of us who remain Cannonites.