[Marxism] Quest for Fire

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 19 10:50:03 MST 2006

originally posted on September 7, 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 (AWP). 
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 road.

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.



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