A Revolutionary Life

Against the Current, No. 129, July/August 2007

Alan Wald

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928.
Bryan D. Palmer
Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007,
542 pages, $50 hardcover.

ONE OF THE most inspiring leaders of the early United States Communist movement has at long last found a biographer worthy to recount the first four decades of his life. James P. Cannon (1890-1974) is little known today beyond activists familiar with the history of Marxist political organizations in the United States, and a handful of scholars who specialize in Communist historiography.

Even in these circles, Cannon (usually called “Jim” Cannon) is chiefly remembered for the leadership provided by his Trotskyist political current (then called the Communist League of America) to the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, and his prosecution in 1941 under the Smith Act for allegedly conspiring with other members of his organization (after 1938 called the Socialist Workers Party) to teach the overthrow of the U.S. government. Until now, however, no author or researcher has come forward to chronicle the formative years of Cannon’s story with the intricacy and erudition that it merits.

In scholarly studies fifty years ago, Cannon received some sympathetic treatment in Theodore Draper’s The Roots of American Communism (1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960). But Cannon  was subsequently eclipsed by the study of other Communists of his generation, such as William Z. Foster in Edward P. Johanningsmeier’s Forging American Communism: The Life of William Z. Foster (1994) and James R. Barrett’s William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism (1999); Earl Browder in James G. Ryan’s Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism (1997); Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in Helen C. Camp’s Iron in Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left (1995); and Jay Lovestone in Ted Morgan’s A Covert Life: Jay Lovestone, Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spymaster (1999).

Regarding leaders connected with the Trotskyist movement, there exists primarily a first-rate political biography of Max Shachtman by Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist Odyssey Through the “American Century” (1994), and several studies of C. L. R. James. For more than four decades, Cannon was represented above all through his own writings, published in the United States by Pathfinder Press, Monad Press, and the Prometheus Research Library.

With the publication of James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928, the state of affairs is dramatically altered. Bryan Douglas Palmer, born in 1951 in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, is among the most widely respected social historians in North America today. For many years he taught at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and at present he is Canada Research Chair at Trent University as well as editor of the esteemed journal Labour/Le Travail.

Palmer’s commitment to working-class struggle and revolutionary socialism animate his numerous books, including A Culture in Conflict: Skilled Workers and Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860-1914 (1979); The Making of E. P. Thompson: Marxism, Humanism, and History (1981);  Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880-1900 (with G. S. Kealey, 1982); Working-Class Experience: The Rise and Reconstruction of Canadian Labour, 1800-1991 (1983); Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia (1987); Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (1990); E. P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions (1994); and Goodyear invades the Back Country: The Corporate Takeover of a Rural Town (1994).

Especially enthralling is Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression (2000), a masterpiece of synthesis that explores the hidden spaces of oppositional culture — from witches to urban rebellions — over eight centuries. Palmer has also edited numerous collections of essays. His range is stunning, covering most often the decades of the 19th and 20th centuries and the countries of Canada, the United States, and England. His subject matter might take in union organizing, film noir, postmodernism, and gay culture.

The Biographer’s Challenge

Admittedly, James P. Cannon is not the full-length heartfelt biography for which one might have wished, analogous to Nick Salvatore’s highly political yet equally intimate Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (1982). Palmer was faced with unique challenges; in particular, there are comparably fewer biographical sources available about Cannon’s personal life for the period under examination. But it is equally important that Palmer set for himself a different agenda than did Salvatore.

The two blurbs on the back cover of Palmer’s book make his choice unambiguous. Mike Davis writes: “Palmer recovers the lost history of the Left in the 1920s and completely reframes the debate about the origins and nature of the CPUSA.” Paul Le Blanc agrees: “Destined to become a path-breaking classic on American Communism, Bryan Palmer’s study of Jim Cannon offers a coherent and richly detailed account of that movement’s formative decade.”

I’m not suggesting that the book lacks caring biographical concern or detail. The early chapters present a sizeable quantity of previously unknown background data on Cannon’s parents; his youth in Rosedale, Kansas; his initial attraction to socialism; his activities leading up to and during World War I; and his response to the Russian Revolution.

Cannon’s relationship to I.W.W. leader Vincent St. John receives particular consideration, as does his pro-labor activities in places such as Akron, Peoria, and Duluth.

Palmer exhaustively scrutinized all relevant scholarly works, local and radical newspapers, and government records; he consulted with numerous individuals (some now deceased) variously connected with Cannon; and he drew upon interviews that Cannon provided later in life as well as primary materials in locations such as the James P. Cannon and Rose Karsner Papers at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and especially the Prometheus Research Library (under the direction of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League).

In addition to fleshing out many episodes in the first 38 years of Cannon’s life with specific facts and a rich contextualization, Palmer forthrightly corrects some inaccurate information in circulation about Cannon over the years.

One rectification relates to Jim Cannon’s father, John Cannon. In later reminiscences, Jim Cannon depicted his father as a radical worker, blacklisted for membership in the Knights of Labor. This was not true; originally the father was a frequently-unemployed building trades worker, and, after the son turned four, John was a “marginal real estate broker and insurance agent” (36) who ran a business called “Cannon and Sons.”

Another concerns Cannon’s missing thumb, thought by some of his comrades to be the result of an industrial accident but actually due to a childhood mishap. Yet a third involves Cannon’s romance with his high school teacher, who was only seven years older and not the 13 years recalled by his Socialist Workers Party associate Reba Hansen. Cannon’s father seems to have been married more times than the son wished to remember.

Regrettably, there is information lost about Cannon’s immediate family that may never be recovered. Almost nothing is known of his sister, Agnes, and brother, Philip, beyond their birthdates and Cannon’s later recollection that they remained devout Catholics until their deaths. The situation is even more vague with his three half-brothers and half-sister.

A vital source for Palmer regarding Cannon’s youth is an unfinished narrative he drafted in the late 1950s called “Iron City.” Yet Palmer properly cautions us that this is fiction, and must be treated circumspectly. As a result, a compelling emotional and intellectual portrait of the young Cannon remains to some extent elusive.

Nevertheless, Cannon emerges from this volume as the epitome of devotion to working-class self-emancipation. This contrasts with other published assessments of Cannon’s character,  especially that of Johanningsmeier in his biography of Foster. Johanningsmeier sees Cannon as parallel to Lovestone in aspiring to the personal leadership of a splinter movement, in distinction to Foster’s alleged willingness “to defer the question of personal leadership” (Johanningsmeier, Forging American Communism, 230).

My own appraisal of Cannon 20 years ago, in The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1960s (1987, 164-192), is far closer to Palmer’s.

Communism vs. Stalinism

At the heart of Palmer’s book is a political argument about the authentic dynamics of the formative years of Communism. Palmer is at one with Cannon’s own judgment that the early Communist movement — in Cannon’s day called the Workers’ Party and the Workers (Communist) Party — consisted of a rank and file betrayed by a “squandering, Stalinist leadership.” (3)

Like Cannon, and Leon Trotsky, Palmer defines Stalinism in shorthand as “a designation of political defeat.” Palmer’s view is that the “aspirations and expansive potential of revolutionary communism” were crushed by “bureaucratization, compromise of political principle, abandonment of theoretical and programmatic consistency, waning of commitment to socialism and its spread throughout the world, and a narrowing of agendas to the most defensive and mundane.” (4)

The causes were both subjective (the policy of Stalin) and objective (starting with the legacy of czarism and predominance of the peasantry in the USSR). In Palmer’s view, Trotsky was not fully innocent in regard to the mistaken policies that led to Stalin’s consolidation of power.

Palmer also believes that the repression of political freedom (through the growing power of the secret police) in the USSR was at first necessary to “preserve the revolution and its advances,” and the Communist International’s “heavy-handed, authoritarian intervention” in other CPs during 1923-25 was not a calculated power grab but an error. (5)

In sum, adherence to other policies might have produced a qualitatively different outcome: “it is possible that had the Soviet party retained a healthy revolutionary program, the wrongs of the mid-1920s could have been righted.” (6)

Stalinism is defined as the exact opposite (“the political antithesis”) of “revolutionary communism,” which was expressed in 1917 through “the proletarian revolution” led by “the Leninist party.” The social basis of Stalinism is theorized as “the socioeconomic phenomenon of bureaucratized governance and political rule rooted in collectivized property forms that, in their origins, were ultimately meant to produce genuine workers’ democracy.” (7)

This aspect of Palmer’s framework — no different from that of Cannon and Trotsky — is the weakest facet of the conceptual viewpoint underpinning the book, at least for this reader.

One need not adhere to the “straight-line thesis” (the simplistic notion that Leninism led ineluctably to Stalinism) to see the progression from October 1917 to the triumph of Stalinism as disastrously coupled, not merely a transformation into opposites.

The justification of violent political repression in the name of defending alleged revolutionary “advances” is also a stance that seems untenable today, more than ever when the “advances” turn out to be the early stages of one of the most brutal dictatorships known to humankind.

Then there is the view that certain vanguard groups and individuals possess the true “revolutionary program,” one that will rescue humanity from economic and political catastrophe; claims of this type have become the hallmark of too many cult-like political sects — Trotskyist, Maoist and otherwise — to be affirmed so categorically. And the rooting of the definition of “Stalinism” in a highly specific economic theory (Trotsky’s pre-WWII analysis) seems more likely to fuel intra-Trotskyist polemics than to clarify matters for the general reader.

Critical Historiography

On the other hand, what Palmer affirms about U.S. Communist historiography is exceptionally apropos. He grants reasonably that the U.S. Communist Party experience, even after the process of Stalinization was complete, is praiseworthy in many respects; this is above all the case with the Party’s efforts to eradicate racism.

Concurrently, Palmer properly observes that most scholarship sympathetic to the Communist Party “both sidesteps Stalinism too easily and avoids the original decade of international communism’s faltering steps into problematic defeats (and worse).” He quotes University of Michigan Professor Geoff Eley’s shrewd observation that not only histories of the Left but even autobiographies have trimmed down “the significance of formal communist affiliations, leading in extreme cases…to a history of communism with Communism left out.” (8)

These observations, along with the corollary that U.S. Communism cannot be understood one-sidedly as an expression of Soviet policy or home-grown radicalism, are the foundation for any fresh scholarship into the history of the U.S. Left.

What is most original here is Palmer’s interpretation of the evolution of the thought of Theodore Draper between the first and second halves of his monumental two-volume work on Communism in the 1920s. Palmer observes that the first volume began with an equal emphasis on the parts played by individuals and events in the Soviet Union and the United States; but Draper worked his way to the conclusion that, after 1923, “Moscow domination” and not “the transformation of the Soviet revolutionary process” was the explanation for the corruption of the U.S. revolutionary Left.

Theodore Draper’s second volume proceeded to exaggerate the policy “contests of 1923” and “projected them both backward in time and forward into the mid-to late 1920s” to give an “almost biologically determinative understanding of revolutionary internationalism as pure and simple communist dictation.” (12)

From an examination of the various drafts of Draper’s manuscript, Palmer reaches the conclusion that the weight of Cannon’s ideas was strong at first but receded as Draper grew closer to publication. Fortunately, the independent printing of Cannon’s remarkable letters to Draper was an important offspring of Draper’s scholarly project.

These letters appeared as James P. Cannon’s The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962), a volume that also emphasizes the tragedy of the post-1924 “’power fight’ of permanent factions struggling blindly for supremacy or survival in the form of political gang warfare.” (Cannon, The First Ten Years, 18)

Palmer maintains that, for Theodore Draper, the notion of “Stalinism” was mostly a “description of the wielding of communist power” rather than “a lever used to open a conceptualization of revolutionary degeneration.” (13) This critical observation might be read against Bert Cochran’s criticism of Draper’s methodology as flawed due to his view of socialism as utopianism (Cochran, “The Birth of American Communism,” American Socialist, June 1957, 8-13).

Cochran downplays Cannon’s role, however, whereas Palmer views the life of Cannon up to 1928 as providing evidence of the basis of Communism in “native American working-class radicalism,” and also for the existence of an authentic Bolshevism in the U.S. that was not “snuffed out by Stalinism.” Palmer thus declares that the resurrection of Cannon’s legacy is “absolutely necessary to the rebirth of the revolutionary Left.” (18-19)

Research and Narrative

It is out of the question here to recapitulate the colossal amount of research into U.S. radicalism — in both the pre-and post-1917 eras — that Palmer has brilliantly shaped into his lucid and energetic narrative. Exquisitely inspired by his subject, Palmer displays a gift for rousing chapter and sub-chapter titles,  and compact biographical vignettes.

Following nearly 90 pages that review Cannon’s activities as a young socialist in Kansas, as a soapboxing IWW militant, and in opposition to World War I, Palmer stands by Cannon’s side to travel through every stage of the evolution of U.S. Communism: the impact of the Russian Revolution, the formation of the Communist Labor Party, the fractious debate over “Underground” and “Above-Ground” parties, and so forth.

The ordeal of Cannon in relation to dozens of factional debates, not to mention his heroic efforts as the leader of International Labor Defense, are meticulously chronicled and documented. The footnotes alone comprise 155 pages but merit careful study for additional insights and sources.

Palmer’s account ends in 1928 with the expulsion of Cannon from the Communist movement on charges of “Trotskyism.” The “Conclusion” contains a number of flash-forwards in Cannon’s subsequent career, enough to indicate that Palmer is in fundamental sympathy with Cannon’s political trajectory through the mid-1950s, and he also cites favorably a November 1966 letter in which Cannon warns that the Socialist Workers Party is in danger of over-centralization.

In his “Introduction,” Palmer avows that he projects “a future volume” in which “I plan to pursue Cannon’s history further, following him as he struggled to build Trotskyism as a political force and a party formation in the United States…” (34)

This will be a difficult task, but Palmer has demonstrated the rigor, honesty and intellectual capacity to carry it out. Moreover, such a volume is a necessary sequel, for the termination of James P. Cannon’s achievements in 1928 begs many of the critical questions of his career, and, indeed, of the revolutionary Marxist trend known as “Trotskyism.”

One can scarcely disagree with Palmer’s call to reclaim pre- and anti-Stalinist communism for the construction of a new revolutionary Left, but the precise significance of Trotskyism for the 21st century is another matter. Surely the U.S. Left would have been better off had Cannon successfully won a majority of the idealistic Communist rank and file to his program, yet there is little point in playing the “what if” game in regard to subsequent developments.

We know that promising political, social, and religious organizations evolve in all sorts of unexpected ways, especially after carving out a small arena of success. Moreover, the history of the 20th century strongly suggests that a “healthy” socialist revolution was not on the agenda for any advanced industrial society, so it seems doubtful that even a sizable U.S. party with a true “revolutionary program” could have done much to replace Stalinist authority internationally.

While Trotskyism in the 1930s and 1940s was immensely overshadowed by the Communist movement, it was given a second chance during the 1960s radicalization. At that time the international Communist movement was internally fractured in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations of Stalin’s brutality in his “Secret Speech” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and  the drably oppressive Soviet-style “socialism” was unattractive to participants in the international youth rebellion under way.

Yet even when the playing field became more level, those organizations prioritizing a “Trotskyist program” did little more than isolate Trotskyism from the activists. Instead, groups that may have had a Trotskyist origin but sincerely offered a more variegated ethos (such as embracing Malcolm X and Che Guevara, albeit not uncritically) and carrying out disciplined interventions around broad concerns (“Bring the Troops Home Now,” Teamsters for a Democratic Union) made the positive contributions.

Even as Leninist theory retains many compelling features, and is certainly a component of any 21st century revolutionary outlook,  it would be difficult to find a “Leninist” organization that has led the way to a lasting socialist (or even politically democratic) society; so perhaps this outcome (the failure of self-proclaimed Leninist parties to achieve hegemony) was for the best.

But it’s also true, and more surely a tragedy, that Trotskyist theory was never able to displace the attraction to Maoism that distorted U.S. radicalism in the 1960s and after. After all, whatever one’s particular notion of the socio-economic formation of the Chinese state, the role played by Maoism in the U.S. Left was analogous to that played by Stalinism and the USSR in earlier decades — although perhaps with fewer redeeming features than was demonstrated by the Communist Party.

The recrudescence of this kind of thinking among all kinds of radicals who had no prior training in the traditional Stalinist movement demonstrates a deep-seated need in the U.S. Left to idealize a far-off country and adapt one’s politics accordingly. Thus the problem typified by Stalinism remains.
As a critique and antidote to this, historical Trotskyism persists as compelling because it provides the foundation of a coherent explanation that is profoundly Marxist. Yet 70 years after the death of Leon Trotsky, Trotskyism hardly remains the only game in town for an explanation of Stalinism — if it ever was.

Only when stripped of dogmatic, “orthodox” and self-inflated interpretations will Trotskyist thought play a  central, even if far from pivotal, role in forging a new far Left.*  No one who wants to participate in that process can afford to ignore the riveting scholarship of Bryan Palmer on the legacy of James P. Cannon.

ATC 129, July-August 2007