Quest for fire

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Sep 7 10:51:14 MDT 2002

Unless the DSP comes to terms with the Cannon legacy, I am afraid that
the approach to the Socialist Alliance might repeat sectarian errors
from the past. Although the DSP broke with the Cannonite American SWP
after it meddled in their internal affairs, it has never really broken
with Cannon's party-building methodology. Sometimes I have referred to
this as Zinovievism. It can also be described as "the quest for fire".

Although Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Enemy at the Gates" does not really do
justice to the Battle of Stalingrad (more later), his "Quest for Fire"
is a tip-top film. Leaving aside the veracity, this story of cavemen
trying to transport some burning embers in a stone bowl across hostile
territory filled with saber-tooth tigers, wooly mammoths, etc. to their
home settlement is really thrilling. In the opening scenes of the film,
hostile Neanderthals had destroyed their campfire (some scholars
question this, arguing in effect that they had demonized an essentially
peaceful group.)

Just as fire (and the missionary position in sexual intercourse)
symbolizes civilization in this film, so does the "revolutionary
program" function in the Trotskyist movement as an element that has to
be protected from hostile forces. Rather than wooly mammoths, the
vanguard or the nucleus of the vanguard always has to watch out for
alien class forces.

If you read James P. Cannon's self-vindicating "History of American
Trotskyism," you get this sense of a trek against enemy territory on
nearly every page. Cannon begins his quest for fire in Moscow, where as
a delegate to the Comintern he accidentally comes across Trotsky's
critique. Transformed like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, he resolves
to spread the word of Trotskyism to the sinful world. Smuggling the
document across the ocean in a teddy-bear rather than a stone bowl, he
takes immediate steps to launch a Trotskyist party in the USA.

Although Cannon is rock-hard and inflexible on the purity of the
revolutionary program, he shows an impressive ability to regroup with
other forces. In 1934 he takes the Trotskyist cadre he has accumulated
as the Communist League of America into A.J. Muste's American Workers
Party. While the CLA might have dissolved itself, the Trotskyist cadre
keeps the quest for fire alive. Poor A.J. Muste didn't know what hit him.

In a couple of years the AWP, which has now transformed itself into a
Trotskyist cadre organization as opposed to the sensibly broad
revolutionary formation that Muste had launched, now takes itself into
the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas which had begun to veer to the
left. After clashing with rightwing forces in the SP over a range of
questions, Cannon leads his troops into a new formation called the
Socialist Workers Party. In "History of American Trotskyism," he crows
that the SP never recovered from the confrontation with the Trotskyist
entryists. Muste's party and now the SP are wreckage on the side of the

Throughout the 1940s, the SWP strode ahead on a triumphalist head of
steam. Even when Cannon was imprisoned during WWII, the party was
confident of final victory as long as it keep the purity of the flame
alive. Morris Stein, who was filling in for Cannon, told the party
faithful in 1944:

"We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can't stand any
competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the
revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the
lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history
since the October Revolution. Isn't that a fact? This is why we are out
to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of
being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct
program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception,
treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists."

Almost immediately after Cannon's release, he found himself locked in
battle with the "Cochranites" who had decided that the quest for fire
approach could not work. When the SWP split in 1954, it was difficult to
sustain the kind of triumphalism that had marked the 1940s period. With
the left battered on all fronts and rethinking old shibboleths after the
Khrushchev revelations, it would be necessary to at least offer
lip-service to the need for regroupment.

For Cochran's American Socialist Union, regroupment was NOT a means to
an end, but an END in itself. He had high hopes that a new revolutionary
movement could emerge from the ferment of the 1950s. Unfortunately, cold
war conservatism and the calcified thinking of most of the organized
left made that impossible at the time. For Cannon's SWP, regroupment was
a means to an end--that end being the strengthening of the SWP. Any
gains made by the Trotskyist party in that period were exceedingly
modest, since most of the people who had left the CP in droves had no
appetite to join a party that probably appeared even more straitjacketed
than the one they had left.

With the rise of the student and civil rights movement, winds once again
poured into the sails of the SWP. By the 1970s the party had branches in
every major city in the USA and over 1500 members. Except for a "fusion"
with a small state capitalist formation, the SWP had for all practical
purposes dispensed with the need for any sort any kind of major
organizational transformation for the foreseeable future. Like all
Trotskyist groups, it essentially saw itself as a finished product. As
long as the purity of the revolutionary program remained intact, there
would be a guarantee that in the event of some kind of fusion,
regroupment, etc., the fire would not go out.

I would suggest an approach that differs from the quest for fire. It
would appear to me that no revolutionary program exists for Australia,
the USA or any other country where the revolutionary movement has not
become a mass phenomenon. All that small, self-described revolutionary
organizations have in fact is a set of ideas about society and history
that have been handed down from generation to generation like an antique
pocket watch. In nearly every case, these ideas are totally disjoined
from strategy and tactics facing the mass movement on the ground. So
then it is not unusual for Maoists and those coming from a Trotskyist
tradition to find that they agree on the conjuncture, as Phil Ferguson
discovered in New Zealand.

Now I am certainly not a mind reader and have no idea what John Percy
and other leaders of the DSP intend. In and of itself, I believe that
the move to abandon the DSP is a step forward since the challenge of
operating in a more fluid environment such as the SA can only lead to
further rethinking of party-building methodologies. I certainly wish
them good luck and only hope that they really begin to rethink the
Cannon legacy, which has not been vindicated by history except in a
negative sense.


Louis Proyect

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