James P. Cannon and R. Palme Dutt: Communism and philistinism:

Submitted by AWL on 15 August, 2004 - 9:42 Author: Sean Matgamna

James Patrick Cannon, one of the founders of the international Trotskyist movement, and for decades one of its central leaders, died 30 years ago, on 21 August 1974.
Cannon considered himself to be an agitator and an organiser, and first of all a party organiser. He would have believed that his legacy would consist in the Trotskyist organisation he founded and led, not in his writings.

The thought that led Cannon to that belief - that revolutionary ideas are not really revolutionary unless embodied in effective activist organisation - was right.

Yet the organisation (in the USA) which he founded and led was long ago turned by his successors into a kitsch-Stalinist Castroist sect. They still circulate some of Cannon's writings, but have no use for his politics. Were Cannon alive today he would, I have no doubt, have only bitter scorn for them.

He is "alive" today not, in fact, in the successor organisation which is historically "his", but in ideas learned from him which animate other organisations, like the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, which publishes Solidarity.

The AWL has its roots in the politics of the Cannon tendency. If we were able finally to understand that Cannon had been wrong and Max Shachtman and his comrades right on most of the issues on which they disagreed in the 1940s and 50s, it was, paradoxically, as a result of the attitude to Stalinism which we took from Cannon's writings of the 1940s and early 50s, from such works as the 1947 pamphlet American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism and some of the articles in the collection of Cannon's journalism, Notebooks of an Agitator.

After Trotsky's assassination, Cannon got many fundamental things wrong. Honest and serious people who fight for the same anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist aims to which Cannon gave his life, and about which his writings can still teach us, have to recognise that and try to undo and correct the mistakes. That is what we have tried to do.

The Castroites in the USA are only the reductio ad absurdum of the course on which Cannon led the international Trotskyist movement when he decided to hold on to "Trotsky's theory" that the Stalinist USSR remained a workers' state long after it had become clear - according to the ideas expounded in defence of that thesis in 1939/40 by Trotsky and even by Cannon himself - that that position was no longer tenable.

A detailed criticism of these and other aspects of Cannon is to be found in the AWL book, The Fate of the Russian Revolution.

Making our criticisms, we retain our respect and affection for Cannon, who all in all made a tremendous contribution to the cause in which the Alliance for Workers' Liberty fights. To mark the 30th anniversary of his death we reprint here (in two parts) an obituary article first published at the beginning of 1975 in our magazine Permanent Revolution contrasting Cannon's political life with that of the British Stalinist leader, Rajani Palme Dutt, who died soon after Cannon.*

[* For those who concern themselves with such things: where in the 1975 article reference to Cannon's conception of Russia is phrased so as to express the author's then agreement with Cannon, the text has been rephrased here to identify these views as those of Cannon only. The critical remarks on Cannon are here as in the 1975 article. A couple of paragraphs of too-extravagant praise at the end have been removed.]

"I am grateful to the Russian Bolsheviks, and I am convinced to the bottom of my soul that it is better to be here with them, to feel that here I am one with them, than to be anywhere else under any conditions and be against them."

James P Cannon, Sandstone Prison
7 November 1944

"The degeneration of the Communist Party began when it abandoned the perspective of revolution in this country, and converted itself into a pressure group and cheering squad for the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia which it mistakenly took to be the custodian of a revolution 'in another country'Â…. What happened to the Communist Party would happen without fail to any other party including our own, if it should abandon its struggle for a social revolution in this country, as the realistic perspective of our epoch and degrade itself to the role of sympathiser of revolutions in other countries. I firmly believe that American revolutionists should indeed sympathise with revolutions in other lands, and try to help them in every way they can. But the best way to do that is to build a party with a confident perspective of revolution in this country. Without that perspective, Communist or Socialist Party belies its name. It ceases to be a help and become a hindrance to the revolutionary workers' cause in its own country. And its sympathy for other revolutions isn't worth much either."

James P Cannon, 2 March 1954

"The emancipation of the proletariat is not a labour of small account and of little men; only he who can keep his heart strong and his will as sharp as a sword when the general disillusionment is at its worst can be regarded as a fighter for the working class or called a revolutionaryÂ…"

Antonio Gramsci, 24 September 1900

In the last half of 1974 two of the founders of the Communist International died. James Patrick Cannon died in Los Angeles on 21 August, aged 84. Rajani Palme Dutt died in London on 20 December, aged 78.

Both had set out after the Russian Revolution to build a world-wide organisation that could lead the world proletarian revolution. Their ways parted almost 50 years ago. One died after a lifetime of fidelity to the ideals of Lenin's and Trotsky's Comintern and of struggle first to reform it and then to build a replacement for it. The other's life had been a seismographic depiction of the gyrations demanded by their masters from those who in the 1920s opted for "Stalin" rather than "Trotsky".

To compare one to the other will be instructive, but it is not my intention either to dignify Dutt or to downgrade Cannon.

Cannon was born in Kansas in 1890, became an active militant in the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World about 1910, and shifted over to the anti-World War One wing of the Socialist Party about 1915.

The Socialist Party was then a substantial party whose presidential candidate, Eugene V Debs, could get over a million votes. It divided for and against the Russian Revolution.

From the first, Cannon was for the revolutionary road to socialism, for reconstructing the Socialist Party into a Communist Party, for "going to school" with the Russian Bolsheviks who had led the first victorious proletarian revolution.

The Socialist Party split and, amidst a reign of government terror, wholesale jailings and deportations of foreign-born leftists, an independent Communist Party was founded. Many of the outstanding pro-Bolshevik working class leaders were either in jail or not yet ready to join the Communist organisation. It fell to Cannon to play a leading role in forming the movement.

He fought against control - of an organisation with the task of putting down roots in and winning the American working class - by the foreign language federations which the Communist movement took over from the old Socialist Party, and which were not properly in touch with American conditions.

Later, in the early 1920s, he fought to legalise the movement, against conservative tendencies which had failed to see that the reign of terror was past, that legality for the party was possible and would bring tremendous advantages.

By the mid 1920s, as capitalist America boomed, the Communist Party had been consolidated. However, it had problems. Political problems of the earlier period had led to the formation of factional internal groupings. In addition, the party was made up of differing layers - petty bourgeois intellectuals, trade unionists, etc. By the mid 1920s, the party was plagued with what Cannon was later to describe as "dead-end factionalism".

The factions were permanent formations, gangs. Political differences erupted and were resolved or faded. Still the gangs remained, horns locked struggling for power. The party had earlier received political aid from the leaders of the Comintern, as when Trotsky helped Cannon and his comrades carry the day for a legal party. Not so now.

The situation in the CPUSA can only be understood in the context of the world party of which it was part.

In the Communist International, whole layers of revolutionaries rallied to the Russian Revolution and set about reconstructing old and decrepit Socialist Parties, or fusing disparate elements into a new organisation, in the maelstrom of the post-World War One revolutionary crises.

Everywhere they were defeated; sometimes, as in Hungary, Germany and Finland, with tremendous casualties. Their defeat isolated the Russian Revolution.

It was only after the temporary stabilisation of capitalism became apparent to the Comintern, in 1921, that the work of building the Communist International and winning the masses of workers to its banner began in earnest.

But the defeat in the West, and the consequent isolation of the Russian Revolution amidst backwardness and devastation, continued to take its toll. The privileged bureaucracy that soon entrenched itself as ruler of of Russia exerted a effect on the Communist International.

Thus the defeat in the West, caused mainly by the immaturity of the CPs, reacted back, through the Russian bureaucracy,which controlled the Communist International, on the Communist Parties, thwarting their attempts to overcome their immaturity.

The parties of the Communist International. were young and raw. At the beginning of the 1920s they had not even purged themselves of alien elements who had been carried in by the tide of working class mass enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution - for example, the notorious wartime French chauvinist Marcel Cachin.

Not without struggle, but with relative ease. the Russian bureaucracy asserted its control in the Communist International through expulsions, through reliance on malleable careerists, and through ideological terrorism.

Other Communist Parties were purged: in the American party, as Cannon, looking back on it, later explained, the factions were manipulated.

Locked into this situation of permanent gang warfare, Cannon led a group of loyal Comintern supporters standing between the dominant group, led after 1926-7 by Lovestone, and a faction, mainly proletarian in composition, led by William Z Foster.

The struggle in the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International between the Left Opposition and the bureaucracy had few echoes in the USA. The most prominent supporter of Trotsky was the Bohemian Max Eastman, who translated and published documents such as the Platform of the Left Opposition, but had never been a party man.

Cannon was initially sympathetic to Zinoviev, who was first in a bloc with Stalin against Trotsky and then in 1926 and '27 in a block with Trotsky (until late l927, when he surrendered to Stalin). Cannon was disturbed, as he later recalled, but undecided and unclear on the political issues involved.

This is not surprising, because, right from the outbreak of the campaign against Trotsky at the end of 1923, the Communist International had ruthlessly suppressed real discussion of the issues, for example, purging the French party, whose leadership favoured Trotsky. The US party was something of a political back-water.

The expulsion of Trotsky did however concentrate the minds and crystallise the dissatisfaction not only of Cannon, but of Maurice Spector, chairman of the Communist Party of Canada.

Cannon's first decisive act, the point where he began to part company with Dutt in the international communist movement, was at a session of the National Committee of the CPUSA. Trotsky-baiting was by now the most common coin in the Comintern and the most elementary badge of "loyalty" to those who controlled it. Despite urging by his faction's cohorts to "say something for the record", Cannon sat sullen and silent.

Before going to Moscow for the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, in 1928, Cannon and Spector talked together about the disturbing events in the Russian party. At the World Congress, Cannon was elected to the Commission dealing with the draft programme which the Communist International was to adopt. There he got a copy of the long critique Trotsky had written from his exile in Alma Ata ("The Third International After Lenin").

Trotsky's concise and merciless critique of the Communist Parties in Britain and China - these clinched Cannon in his support for Trotsky.

Together with Spector he smuggled a copy of the critique to America and began organising a secret faction. To operate other than secretly was to court immediate expulsion. When the position of Cannon and his cothinkers became known they were tried and expelled. Together with comrades numbering less than 100, he set out to rebuild a Communist Party in the USA.

The official party soon fragmented as well. The Lovestone Right wing was soon expelled too and a leadership entirely dependent on Stalin put in power.

The party then descended into ultra left lunacy (1928 to 1934), followed, under Moscow's direction, by a sharp right wing turn and collaboration even with the bourgeois Democratic Party.

In the mid-30s the CPUSA gained mass influence in the new industrial union movement, the CIO, which then developed. They used that influence to pursue a policy of class collaboration and betrayal,which included organised scabbing during World War Second.

Eventually the power of the CPUSA (which at its height had 100,000 members) was shattered by the cold war offensive of the US ruling class. Having, by its war-time scab-herding, isolated itself in the working class movement, the CPUSA was defenceless; having built its power in the unions in alliance with careerists and even gangsters it now found itself deserted by its allies.

For Cannon, the long battle following expulsion was a grim and bitter battle - and it was to be nothing else to the end of his life. Not for nothing did so many men and women of the "first draft" of revolutionaries to rally to the Russian revolution shirk and draw back from defying the might of Stalin and the Comintern. The consequences - when they did not involve imprisonment, deportation, or a bullet in the back of the head, as they did in Russia and sometimes outside Russia - were isolation from the mass of communists for whom the Russian Revolution and those apparently now leading it continued to be the lodestar.

The Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky had rallied a world-wide army of revolutionaries to the banner and programme of communism. In the 1920s the Russian bureaucracy usurped the Communist banner and surreptitiously substituted their own programme - "Socialism in One Country" - for the Bolsheviks' programme of world revolution. Because they controlled what was still seen as the workers' state they kept the allegiance of the revolutionary masses, to whom the issues in dispute were anyway obscure.

The fundamental issues, the survival of the Communist International as a revolutionary force or its transformation into an anti-revolutionary and then a counter revolutionary force, was not clearly posed, and by no means was it self-evident. The rulers of the Soviet Union were a self-serving privileged elite and soon became the bitterest enemy of new October Revolutions. But they were able to present themselves in the Communist International as the custodian of the "conquests of the October Revolution"; and that is how the communist workers continued to see them.

The communist "Old Believers" around Trotsky were easily isolated.

Those who grasped what was at stake and stood by the Comintern's founding programme of world revolution had to stand against a tidal wave of reaction. They had nothing but their ideas to hold on to. They held to and propagated those ideas because they knew that without them the Communist International would face destruction. They knew that if destruction could not be avoided, it would be impossible to build a new Communist International on any foundation other than the ideas they defended.

A man like Maurice Thorez, General Secretary of the French Communist Party until his death in the 1960s, might flirt with Trotskyism and still decide to stay in the party machine - initially, perhaps, with dreams of regeneration. No doubt very many others did too. For Cannon and for Spector the illusion that it was better to stay with the party in the hope of being able to manipulate and influence it for their ideas must have been tempting indeed. Especially so because when they came to understand the issues, Trotsky had, so it seemed, been decisively beaten.

They resisted the temptation because they grasped that communism is first an "ideology", a programme, based on underlying objective realities and not on the transient balance of forces - and that "influence", or whatever, gained by sacrificing, hiding, abandoning or prostituting that programme is and must be an anti-communist force.

Cannon himself explained the reasoning that led him to raise the banner and rally a handful of supporters "for Trotsky" when Trotsky was already defeated and routed within the Communist International:

"I have seen my revolt against the Stalinised Comintern in l928 variously described as a 'mistake', an 'accident', and a 'mystery', the mistake, accident, or mystery being why a communist faction fighter of the Twenties who, like all the others, fought to win, should deliberately align himself with a 'lost cause' - and stick to it.

"There was no mystery about it, and it was neither an accident nor a mistakeÂ…. When I read Trotsky's 'Criticism of the Draft Programme' at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, I was convinced at once - and for good - that the theory of 'Socialism in One Country' was basically anti-revolutionary and that Trotsky and the Russian Opposition represented the true programme of the revolution - the original Marxist programme. What else could I do but support them? And what difference did it make that they were a small minority, defeated, expelled and exiled? It was a question of principle. This may be Greek to the philistine, but it is not an 'accident' for a communist to act on principle, once it becomes clear to him. It is a matter of course.

"My decision to support Trotsky and the Left Opposition in 1928, and to break with all the factions in the Communist Party over that issue, was not a sudden 'conversion' on my part; and neither was my earlier decision in 1917 to support the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks and to leave the International Workers of the World behind.

"Each time I remained what I had started out to be in my youth - a revolutionist against capitalism. The Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks in the first instance, and the heroic struggle of the Left Opposition in the second, taught me some things I hadn't known before and hadn't been able to figure out for myself. They made me a better and more effective fighter for my own cause. But they did not basically change me into something I hadn't been before. They did not 'convert' me to the revolution; I was a revolutionist to start with."

Palme Dutt, a half-Indian intellectual, was an adherent of the utopian-reformist Guild Socialist movement and a member of the Independent Labour Party who rallied to the Russian Revolution. He was victimised and expelled from Oxford University because of his communism.

The British Communist Party was formed mainly from a fusion of the British Socialist Party and members from the much smaller Socialist Labour Party. The BSP, tracing its history back through the British Socialist Party to the Social Democratic Federation of the 1880s, was a loose propaganda society with a tradition of sectarianism which it had not quite shed even though it underwent internal turmoil and split in the course of World War One.

The SLP had been formed (by, amongst others, James Connolly) under the influence of the American Socialist Labour Party, led by Daniel De Leon. It had split from the Social Democratic Federation in 1903. The SLP propagated the ideas of industrial unionism, and was intellectually and in its selection of members a much more rigorous organisation than the BSP.

The new party faced many complex problems. It had to shed the inadequacies of British 'Marxist' groups in their previous history of almost 40 years, and it had to relate to the British Labour Party, an arm extended into the bourgeois parliament by the working class under pressure of blows from the ruling class (the Taff Vale and Osborne Judgments).

After 1922 the Communist Party began the work of organising itself in the trade unions, and by the mid 1920s the party initiated and controlled Minority Movement had the affiliation of organisations representing one million workers - one quarter of organised trade unionism in Britain.

The Communist Party attempted, on the advice of the Communist International and under Lenin's influence, to affiliate as an autonomous organisation to the Labour Party. The definitive refusal of CP affiliation was not made until the Liverpool Labour Party Conference in 1925. But here too communist advances were made, and some dozens of Constituency Labour Parties refused to exclude CPers. Disaffiliated, they formed a National Left Wing Movement, within which the CP, though small, had a dominating influence.

Potentially this National Left Wing Movement, like the majority of the German Independent Social Democratic Party in 1921, could have come over to the full CP position, making Communism a major political force in Britain.

In 1921 Dutt became founding editor of the Communist Party "broad" magazine Labour Monthly. He was a major leader of the party, responsible, with Harry Pollitt (the party's main trade union organiser) for producing in 1923 a report with recommendations for a complete organisational overhaul of the party. The objective was to change it from a loose propagandist movement into a force able to intervene in and lead the broader labour movement.

The British Communist Party had to face a more complicated set of problems than the CPUSA - but it had immensely more promising prospects, too.

Whereas the mass trade union organising drive in the USA did not come until the mid-1930s, a proletarian revolution was possible in Britain in the 1920s.

In Britain the unions were old and had already taken their first limited political steps in founding the Labour Party. The USA was booming; the social crisis in Britain was moving to a paroxysm. The CP, small though it was, had, as we have seen, real influence in the unions and among Labour Party dissidents. Moreover, the British CP was not plagued with dead end factionalism.

But the British CP had problems too. The issues involved in the fight in Russia between the authentic communists around Trotsky with the entrenched bureaucracy led by Stalin, barely touched the CPUSA directly. The CPGB had the doubtful honour of being amongst the first parties to have its work and its prospects ruined by the intervention of the Russian-dominated and Stalin-controlled Comintern.

The battle between the Stalinist faction and the genuine communists in Russia, led by Trotsky, was first joined over the question of party democracy, in 1923. Later as the bureaucracy hardened and consolidated its control, the malign influence of its self-interested policies created blunders and catastrophes for Russian and for international Communism alike. A deep chasm opened between the Trotskyists and the Stalinists in 'discussing' the issues, a chasm later to be filled by a river of blood in the mass slaughter of the mid-1930s, when Stalin annihilated the Bolshevik party.

One of the chief 'issues' in the political phase of the struggle in the mid 1920s was Britain.

In late 1924, Stalin propounded the idea that socialism could be built in one country - and that country none other than backward Russia! This 'illiterate nonsense' was in direct contradiction to the programme on which the Bolshevik party had been built and had led the Russian Revolution. In this new idea,which they imposed as a dogma on Communist parties all over the world, the bureaucracy gave expression to its growing conservatism and its disinterest in and disillusion with the programme of world revolution.

It was not so much the possibly harmless illiteracy of the 'theory' of Socialism in One Country that was in itself so significant, as that it was counterposed to the theory of Permanent Revolution - that is, to world revolution.

Lenin in 1918 had openly said that the Russian Revolution should be prepared to face certain defeat if that would bring about victory in Germany, which was far more important for the world proletariat. Stalin's theory implied not a programme of world revolution, with the Soviet Union as only part of it, but a programme of Russian national socialism.

It implied that the Communist International was not to be a world revolutionary party, but a world puppet in the service of the Soviet Union - in reality, of its increasingly dominant bureaucracy, whose interests and psychology 'Socialism in One Country' expressed.

Revolutionary activity would be subordinated to even the short term interests of 'defending' and promoting the interests of the Soviet Union. As Trotsky pointed out, 'Socialism in One Country' implied socialism in no other country for the immediate epoch ahead.

For Britain this logical implication was soon spelled out in real life. For, after all, the British CP was a very small party. Too small to be a reliable threat for use against the British ruling class to make it think twice about restarting an interventionist war against Bolshevik Russia.

Continued next issue

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.