J.P. Cannon on leadership election

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 20 15:20:24 MST 2002

Richard Fidler wrote:
> As Cannon explains, the procedure he outlines is in sharp contrast to the
> undemocratic slate procedures common in the social democracy and the early
> U.S. CP. And it is profoundly democratic in conception, based on the
> underlying principle that leading bodies must reflect, and be accountable
> to, the rank and file membership of the party.

Frankly, from what I've read, there was much more rank-and-file
assertiveness in the CPUSA. The rank and file of the SWP was always
looking for clues from the leaders about everything. Not just who to
nominate for delegates or the NC, but about how to do party work in a
given city. Branch organizers knew nothing much about the cities they
lived in. They were hustled around like pieces on a chess board. Once
they got settled into a new branch, organizers would be on the phone
with NYC every single day of the week in order to decide what to do.
They would then take the proposal to the branch executive committee and
say something like, "The NO thinks we should do more work around the ERA."

Frankly, I find Richard's harping on Dobbs, Halstead and CLR James
somewhat astonishing. In the 11 years I was in the SWP, every NC'er I
ever ran into was a undistinguished hack. Those that weren't usually
found themselves pushed aside. This was true even when I first joined,
no matter what people in Socialist Action think who were looking for
some mythical golden age of the SWP.

Camejo once told me that during his entire time on the PC, there was
never a split vote. He also told me that people used to have cocktails
at Jack Barnes's apartment before convening at West Street. Gus Horowitz
(hi, Gus) got hammered into resigning after giving one stinking report
that had a somewhat heterodox interpretation of the meaning of the term
"democracy". People in the SWP who had been in for more than 20 years
and who believed in permanent revolution as a fundamental principle of
Marxism changed their mind overnight when Barnes changed his mind.

Now there are two ways you can look at this. You can see this in
psychological terms as Paul LeBlanc does. I prefer to see it in
political terms. Here is my explanation--once again--of how the SWP
ended up functioning in this fashion. It was a very old method of
operation that Cannon learned in the 1920s and taught his disciples.


Like the German party, the American Communists were molded by the
Comintern during the 1920s. And like the German party, the
transformation took some time. In 1917, the people who would go on to
form the Communist Party in this country had no inkling of what a
"Marxist-Leninist" party was. For example, Charles E. Ruthenberg
explained Bolshevism in 1919 not as something "strange and new", but
something similar to the revolutionary traditions of the United States.
His own Socialist-syndicalist background led him to believe that the
Soviet state was a "Socialist industrial republic."

The process of transforming the American movement into a caricature of
Lenin's party took a number of years and it was the authority of the
Comintern that made this transformation possible. After all, if the
Russians tell us to have "democratic centralism", they must know what
they're talking about. They do have state power.

The first organizational expression of the American Communist movement
showed its roots in the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs. The party was
organized on the basis of branches rather than cells, as the Comintern
dictated. Another feature of the American Communist movement that was
distinct from what is commonly known as "democratic centralism" was the
open debates that various factions took part in. While it is beyond the
scope of this article to trace all the divisions within the American
movement, suffice it to say that they tended to reflect very real
differences about the character of the movement--whether it should
orient to the more radicalized foreign language speaking workers, or
develop roots in the English speaking sector of the class. The
Comintern, needless to say, used all of its power to shape the direction
of American revolutionary politics despite Zinoviev's open admission in
1924 that "We know England so little, almost as little as America."

The Fourth National Convention of the Communist Party was held in
Chicago, Illinois in August, 1925. This convention was inspired by the
Bolshevization World Congress of the Comintern that was held in 1924.
The American delegates came to the United States with the understanding
that their party would adopt more stringent organizational norms in line
with Zinoviev's directives. To give you a sense of the importance of the
language question, the proceedings of the convention report that there
were 6,410 Finnish members as opposed to 2,282 English speaking members.

The American party had its own dissident minority that the new
"Bolshevization" policy could be used as a cudgel against. This minority
was led by one Ludwig Lore, who was the main demon of the American
movement as Leon Trotsky was in the Soviet movement. The Majority
Resolution laid down the law against Lore:

"We also endorse fully and pledge our most active support to the
Comintern and Parity Commission decisions providing for the liquidation
of Loreism in our Party. We demand that the Party be united in a
uncompromising struggle against this dangerous right wing tendency. We
pledge our fullest support to the whole Comintern program for
Bolshevizing our Party, including a militant fight against the right
wing, the organization of the Party on the basis of shop nuclei, and the
raising of the theoretical level of our membership."

This is quite a mouthful. They are going to liquidate a dangerous right
wing tendency and reconstitute the party on the basis of factory cells
all in one fell swoop. And "the raising of the theoretical level of our
membership" can mean only one thing. They are going to get politically
indoctrinated by the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin faction in order to destroy
all of its opponents wherever they appear.

Poor Ludwig Lore was in a political fight with other leading Communists
about how to relate to the Lafollette Farmer-Labor Party. This third
party was an expression of American populism and it was not clear which
direction it was going. The disagreements over how to approach it are
similar to the sorts of disagreements that crop up today about how to
regard, for example, the Nader presidential campaign.

So Lore found himself in a bitter dispute about a purely American
political question. What he didn't figure out, however, was that he had
no business being open-minded about Trotsky while this dispute was going
on. Lore had befriended Trotsky during a visit to the USSR in 1917 and
retained warm feelings toward him, just as the French Communist Boris
Souvarine did. Not surprisingly, Lore had very little use for Zinoviev.
On one occasion, according to Theodore Draper, Lore told Zinoviev to his
face that his information about the American labor movement was
questionable. Considering Zinoviev's track record in Germany, this
hardly comes as a surprise.

What really got his name in the Comintern's little black book, however,
was his caustic observations about the infamous "Bolshevization" World
Congress of March, 1924:

"The Third International changes its tactics, nay, even its methods,
every day, and if need be, even oftener. It utterly disregards its own
guiding principles, crushes today the these it adopted only yesterday,
and adapts itself in every country to new situations which may offer
themselves. The Communist International is, therefore, opportunistic in
its methods to the most extreme degree, but since it keeps in its mind
the one and only revolutionary aim, the reformist method works for the
revolution and thus loses its opportunistic character."

This was just what the Comintern would not tolerate at this point, an
independent thinker. Lore was doomed.

The "Resolution on Bolshevization of the Party" spells out how the
American Communists would turn over a new leaf and get tough with all
the right-wing elements in the party. "...the task of Bolshevization
presents itself concretely to our Party as the task of completely
overwhelming the organizational and ideological remnants of our
social-democratic inheritance, of eradicating Loreism, of making out of
the Party a functioning organism of revolutionary proletarian
leadership." And so Lore was expelled at this convention.

The party was re-organized on the basis of factory cells and a rigid set
of organizational principles were adopted. For example, it stipulated
that "Wherever three or more members, regardless of their nationality or
present federation membership, are found to be working in the same shop,
they shall be organized into a shop nucleus. The nucleus collects the
Party dues and takes over all the functions of a Party unit." What
strikes one immediately is that there is absolutely no consideration in
the resolution about whether or not a factory-based party unit makes
political sense. It is simply a mechanical transposition of Comintern
rules, which in themselves are based on an undialectical understanding
of Lenin's party.

The expulsion of Lore and the new organizational guidelines was adopted
unanimously by the delegates, including two men who would go on to found
American Trotskyism: James P. Cannon and Vincent Ray Dunne. Cannon and
Dunne are regarded as saints by all of the Trotskyist sects, but nobody
has ever tried to explain why Cannon and Dunne could have cast their
votes for such abysmal resolutions. There really is only one
explanation: their understanding of Bolshevism came from Zinoviev rather
than Lenin.

Cannon's myopia on these sorts of questions stayed with him through his
entire life. In his "First Ten Years of American Communism", he
describes Lore as someone who never "felt really at home in the
Comintern" and who never became an "all-out communist in the sense that
the rest of us did." That says more about Cannon than it does about
Lore. Who could really feel at home in the Comintern? This bureaucratic
monstrosity had replaced the heads of the German Communist Party 3 times
in 3 years. It had intruded in the affairs of the German Communist Party
as well, coming up with the wrong strategy on a consistent basis. Those
who "felt at home" in the Comintern after 1924, as James P. Cannon did,
would never really be able to get to the bottom of the problem.
Furthermore, Cannon himself took the organizational principles of the
1925 Communist Party convention and used them as the basis for American
Trotskyism as well.

Zinoviev was responsible for not only ostracizing Trotsky in the Russian
party, but Lore in the American party as well. Zinoviev was a master of
casting people into Menshevik hell. Cannon himself was plenty good at
this as well. Over and over again in American Trotskyist history, there
were others who were to face ostracism just like Lore. Schachtman in the
1930s, Cochran in the 1950s and Camejo in the 1980s. In every case, the
current party leadership was defending the long-term historical
interests of the proletariat while the dissident were reflecting
petty-bourgeois Menshevik influences. What garbage.

Cannon's views on Zinoviev were those of a student toward a influential
professor. In "The First Ten Years of American Communism", Cannon pays
tribute to the dreadful Zinoviev: "As far as I know, Zinoviev did not
have any special favorites in the American party. The lasting personal
memory I have of him is of his patient and friendly efforts in 1925 to
convince both factions of the necessity of party peace and cooperation,
summed up in his words to Foster which I have mentioned before: 'Frieden
ist besser.' ('Peace is Better')."

What a stunning misunderstanding of the events of 1924-1925. Zinoviev
had broken the back of the German Communist Party and the Soviet party
and now was doing everything he could to destroy any independent voices
in the American party. Zinoviev himself would soon be a victim of the
same process. Yesterday's Bolshevik would become the Menshevik of 1926
and 1927.

The sectarianism and rigidity of the Comintern party-building model are
still upheld by the Trotskyists and other "Marxist-Leninists" of today.
If these groups were as critical of their own history and ideas as they
were of the ruling class, much improvement could obtain. This is not
something to be hoped for. Those of us who prefer to think for ourselves
must create our own organizational and political solutions, just as
Lenin did in turn-of-the-century Russian. Any effort which falls short
of this will not produce the outcome we so desperately need: the
abolition of the capitalist system and the development of socialism.


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