From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.1, Winter 1963, pp.25-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The First Ten Years of American Communism: Report of a Participant
by James P. Cannon
Lyle Stuart, New York. 1962. 343 pp. $6.
JIM CANNON once said, “I have thought many times that, if despite my unbelief, there is anything in what they say about the hereafter, I am going to be well rewarded – not for what I have done, but for what I have had to listen to.” Actually, if Cannon is in line for rewards it should be given because of this book, his best yet. And obviously he wrote this book with deep enjoyment and not from onerous duty. Here is a book about the past, written for the future.
The author, who began as a Wobbly and a Socialist in Debs’ day, was a central leader of the Communist Party of the US in its early years. He writes about that period as he experienced it and sees it in retrospect as an unreconstructed American Leninist.
The First Ten Years of American Communism is not a history in the usual meaning of that term. It is more accurately a narrative, by a participant and witness, of the first decade of the American communist movement – its earlier heroic days and its later corruption. The First Ten Years tells what happened and why, and perhaps more important to its purpose, it tells how it happened.
Cannon’s work is the outgrowth of correspondence initiated in 1954 by Theodore Draper who began making inquiries of participants for his own history of the American communist movement. The book is a gathering of letters extending over a five-year period plus related essays, resultant from Draper’s probing questions, on such divergent topics as the Negro question, Eugene V. Debs, the IWW and a critical review of Theodore Draper’s history. Surprisingly this compilation hangs together as a unit.
The reason is that the book has a line – a central theme. Several related themes run through the narrative all bound together. Cannon’s book is really a critique of Theodore Draper’s volumes, The Roots of American Communism and American Communism and Soviet Russia. Draper’s thesis is that the course of the American CP was determined at the beginning when it became influenced by the Russians and looked to Moscow for advise. Looking toward Soviet Bolshevism at the beginning, in Draper’s view, led to the downfall of the American communists in the end. Cannon’s line, on the other hand, is a defense of the Russian Revolution and its influences here expressed in its genuine internationalism and in the validity and applicability of Lenin’s organizational methods for American soil.
The First Ten Years traces the assembling of the socialist left wing under the impact of the first world war and the 1917 Russian Revolution. It depicts the Bolshevizing of the American communists as the militant spirit of the Russian Revolution fused with native radicalism. It helped make them thoroughgoing American revolutionists determined to build a vibrant movement. These were the years the Comintern played a helpful advisory role.
Cannon’s narrative tells about the years of degeneration, 1924 to 1928, when the movement became permeated with blind factional dog fights and its original aims became blurred and then buried. Cannon describes this atmosphere:
“In the underworld of present-day society, with which I have had contact at various times in jail and prison, there is a widespread sentiment that there is no such thing as an honest man who is also intelligent. The human race is made up of honest suckers and smart crooks, and that’s all there is to it; the smartest crooks are those who pretend to be honest, the confidence men. Professional factionalism unrelated to the living issues of the class struggle of the workers, is also a sort of underworld, and the psychology of its practitioners approaches that of the other underworld.”
The moral fiber of the CP and its leaders were sapped by the prosperity of the Twenties and the effects of Rus-sianization and finally Stalinism.
“These two combined national and international factors,” Cannon wrote, “operated interactively on the American Communist party in the later transition period of its gradual degeneration, which began in the middle of the Twenties and was virtually completed by the end of the decade. At that conjuncture the deadening conservatism of American life, induced by the unprecedented boom of post-war American capitalism, coinciding with the reactionary swing in Russia, caught the infant movement of American communism from two sides, as in a vise from which it could not escape.”
Cannon takes the reader through these broad stages and their various phases and turns. The witch-hunted party, its Americanization and legalization, the disputes over the labor party question, the Passaic strike, the different party regimes and factions, the Comintern plenums and Moscow’s interventions are kaleidoscopically presented in these letters. They are like nails aimed at anchoring a point firmly in the reader’s mind. Cannon hammers his nail home so that it would be very difficult to remove, should the reader want to.
Interwoven in this narrative is another important theme. Along the way, the CP lost its character as a self-governing party and the great majority of its members and leaders lost their bearings. How did this happen? How did it happen that most of those who started as honest revolutionists ended by serving either the Soviet bureaucracy or American capitalism? Why did they succumb? Foster, Browder, Lovestone, Bittleman, Pepper, Fraina, Gitlow, Bill Dunne are representative character types who change on the way and are perceptively portrayed in the pages of the story. “Revolutionary politics takes a lot out of people who take it seriously,” Cannon tells us. Eventually, in one form or another, most of the leaders lost their way or forgot what they stood for.
All were affected, but those that survived retained their youthful ideals and stood by their principles. It was a question of character.
Can such qualities as character and principled politics be learned? Cannon tells this story as one who believes it can be learned and that perhaps today’s youth can do better than his generation. That’s the purpose of his book. That is why he tells it as it really happened.
Last updated on 22 May 2009