Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-38 (Haymarket Books 2023), 1208pp. Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-38 (Haymarket Books 2023), 1208pp.

James Cannon, a leading founder of Trotskyism in the US, is given the biography he deserves by Bryan D. Palmer, finds Chris Bambery

The name James P. Cannon is not one that is much known within the radical left today, yet he deserves to be remembered. James Patrick Cannon was born 1890, in Rosedale, Kansas, to Irish immigrant parents who were firmly on the left. He joined the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1908 and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1911.

Cannon’s life is virtually a record of the American left and the international Communist movement in the years following the Russian revolution. He personally knew Eugene V Debs, the great leader of the Socialist Party, worked with leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), the revolutionary ‘one big union’, like Vincent St John, Big Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, together with the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly, and the founder of the Irish Transport Workers Union, Jim Larkin.

Cannon’s roots in the IWW, and indeed in the Mid-West, were important. In the preface to this volume, Bryan D. Palmer notes something of great importance:

‘Cannon considered himself to be a Wobbly who learned from the world-historic events associated with 1917. This brought him to Marxism, the theory of working-class revolution, and internationalism. Cannon’s story, as much as the life course of any other individual on the American left, shows how revolutionary politics could develop in the world’s most advanced capitalist nation. Nothing in Cannon’s history is more striking than his ability to retain an acute sensitivity to the particular experiences of Americans, while appreciating the significance of major historical events beyond the borders of the United States’ (p.xiv).

Within the American Communist Party, he knew and worked with all the key personalities from John Reed, author of the eye-witness account of the October revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, so highly recommended by Lenin, and Louis Fraina (later known as Lewis Corey), an Italian American whose editorship of Revolutionary Age popularised Lenin’s ideas from 1918 with great effect.

Bryan D. Palmer’s James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism is likely to the first volume of the definitive biography of the man. This volume charts the growth of the American Trotskyist movement from the 350 members of the Communist League of America in 1934 to some 1500 members when the Socialist Workers Party was launched in 1938. This was a complex process, entailing fusions, splits, and a period of ‘entryism’ in the Socialist Party of America from the spring of 1936 to the fall of 1937.

The significance of American Trotskyism

The fact that Cannon broke with the Communist Party to support Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition in 1928 was of major importance, for three reasons. These are the significance of American Trotskyism for Trotsky himself, Cannon’s counterexample to the charge that Marxism was a foreign import to the US, and Trotskyism’s role in the upsurge of workers’ militancy in the second half of the 1930s. Briefly on the third point, Trotskyists led a textbook strike of Teamsters to victory in Minneapolis in 1934. The account of Farrell Dobbs’s Teamster Rebellion is a crucial must read for any working-class activist (Dobbs was a key player in the strike). But more of this later.

To return to the first point, Trotsky opposed the rise of Josef Stalin by defending and maintaining the continuity of Bolshevism’s revolutionary internationalism, in contrast to Stalin who, breaking that tradition, proposed the building of ‘socialism in one country’. In reality, this entailed the creation of a brutal and exploitative top-down, state-controlled economy, and the prioritisation of Soviet diplomatic demands over any nominal commitment to international revolution by the Communist International (Comintern), the organisation grouping Communist Parties across the globe.

Trotsky was, in late 1928, cut off in his internal exile from his supporters in Russia and abroad, and under constant vilification in the party press. The news that a senior leader of the CPUSA backed the Left Opposition was a huge morale boost for him. From then until his assassination in 1940, he held Cannon in high esteem and relied heavily on his American followers, even more so when he was forced to take exile in Mexico, where he arrived in January 1937. Along with Frida Kahlo, waiting to greet him were Max Shachtman and another intellectual figure, George Novack. The American Trotskyists provided secretarial support and bodyguards. For this support we should be grateful because it was vital to maintaining Trotsky in exile in, first, Turkey, then France, Norway and Mexico.

The second point of significance was that from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution onwards, peaking during the Cold War of the 1950s, within the USA there was a massive campaign to portray the American Communists as being creatures of Russians, largely composed of foreign migrants. There was an obvious anti-Semitic message in this, as so many Communists were from Jewish migrant families. James P. Cannon represented an indigenous rebel tradition, best represented by the IWW. This is not about chauvinism, it is about demonstrating the potential of the American working class, and that revolutionary Marxism was not some Russian export bolted onto the American left.

Palmer takes to task the two dominant narratives of the New Left which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, which took two approaches to American communism. The dominant one was to dismiss it wholesale as a creature of Moscow. The other tendency pointed to the achievements of Communists in standing up to vicious racist segregation and discrimination. They played a key role in the great strike wave and sit downs of the 1930s, which threw up a new, combative trade-union federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Also, many Communists went to Spain to fight in the International Brigades during the Civil War. What Palmer does is to show that it is correct to say they were, in many ways, the cream of the US working class, but they were part of a Party which did follow every twist and turn imposed from Moscow.

This is important, in that from the inter-war period there has been a strong argument for ‘American Exceptionalism’. This is the idea that America was an exception in the capitalist world and, more crucially, that ideologically the American working class had been bribed and had become subject to ‘material bourgeoisification’.

A central part of that narrative is the lack of a labour or social-democratic party in the USA. By focusing on the 1930s and the huge working-class upsurge which threw up the new trade-union federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Palmer helps explain why. The Communists played a key role in that and provided many of its professional officials. A natural development from the creation of the CIO was to launch a labour party. Because the Communists were now pursuing an alliance with the supposedly anti-fascist Democrats and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, they directed their energy into support for supposedly pro-working-class Democrats. We live with the legacy of that decision today with formal US politics reduced to a choice between two parties of big business.

Origins of American Trotskyism

American Communism was born from the solidarity and inspiration which followed the 1917 October Revolution and the creation of workers’ power in Russia. A working-class upsurge in 1919 and 1920, shadowing that in Europe, was met by vicious red baiting by the state, employers and the media. Migrant workers who had not regulated their official status in the country were deported en masse. Communist and radical organisations were made illegal.

From the outset, the forces that rallied to the Bolshevik Revolution and the Communist International (Comintern) were spilt between those, mainly first generation migrants, who insisted it was a principle of Bolshevism to operate underground, citing the ongoing red scare, and those who wished to organise openly.

The Communist Labor Party, which Cannon joined, rejected the underground model and looked for ways to operate legally. It included key ex-Wobblies such as Big Bill Haywood (exiled in Moscow), Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Cannon himself. Another recruit was William Z. Foster, who led a rank-and-file movement within the main trade-union federation, the American Federation of Labor, which restricted itself to organising skilled workers.

When the two rival Communist Parties merged into a legal Workers Party of America and a still illegal united Communist Party (CPUSA), it became caught up in the faction fights within the Soviet leadership in Moscow. William Z. Foster would become a supporter of Stalin, Jay Lovestone, a supporter of Nikolai Bukharin’s Right Opposition, while Cannon attempted not to take a position. But when the Stalin and Bukharin factions united against Trotsky and drove him out of the party, in exile into the Caucuses and then expelled him from the Soviet Union, the Moscow leadership of the Comintern demanded everyone approve the actions of Stalin and Bukharin.

Cannon found himself a delegate of the CPUSA to the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow during the summer of 1928. Each delegate was assigned to a Commission discussing key areas of concern. Cannon was assigned by the other American delegates to the one drafting a programme for the Comintern, because they saw it as unimportant.

Incredibly, however, Cannon came across two articles by Trotsky, translated into English, that maintained the Bolshevik tradition of revolutionary internationalism in opposition to Stalin and Bukharin’s new idea that ‘socialism in one country’ was possible. Cannon took time out to read Trotsky, and was won over to the Left Opposition. The documents were smuggled out of Russia in the teddy bear of the child of a Canadian comrade, Maurice Spector, later republished as The Third International After Lenin. Back in the USA, Cannon began giving them to comrades to read, starting with his own partner, Rose Krasner, an active revolutionary in her own right.

The break with Stalinism

Palmer quotes Cannon from his own account in The First Ten Years of American Trotskyism, happening to be my favourite quotation from Cannon, thus:

‘The foot-loose Wobbly rebel that I used to be had imperceptibly begun to fit comfortably into a swivel chair, protecting himself in his seat by small manoeuvres and evasions, and even permitting himself a certain conceit about his adroit accommodation to this shabby game. I saw myself for the first time as another person, as a revolutionist who was on the road to becoming a bureaucrat. The image was hideous, and I turned away from it in disgust’ (p.4).

He must have been aware that the dominant faction of Josef Stalin was already looking to place working-class figures with records as class fighters, but 100% loyal to Moscow, as leaders of the various Communist Parties: Maurice Thorez in France and Ernst Thälmann in Germany being the two most important. If Cannon surrendered his principles, he would have a glittering career ahead of him as a loyal sycophant of Stalin.

As it was, his stance involved breaking with old friends and comrades, not having the back wages owed to him and Krasner, and having their apartment burgled by Communist Party members. Stalinist goons would attack Left Opposition members when they tried to sell papers or leaflet Communist events.

Cannon and his two key factional allies, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, managed to spin out their final expulsion from the CPUSA for six months, exploiting the factional differences between Lovestone and Foster. The latter had blocked with Cannon in the past, so now Lovestone wanted to tar Foster with the Trotskyist brush. That allowed Cannon time to make a pitch to more party members, but in December 1928, they were kicked out. The three immediately launched the Communist League of America (Opposition), and within a week published the first edition of The Militant.

Over the next six weeks a series of some sixty party members were also expelled because they supported Trotsky and Cannon. They included leading Young Communists Arne Swabeck and Albert Glotzer in Chicago, Ray Dunne in Minneapolis, and others in Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. Maurice Spector was also expelled from the Communist Party of Canada.

The Communist League of America

In May 1929, they formed the Communist League of America with some 100 to 120 members across some twenty towns and cities. The CLA, in accordance with Trotsky, still argued that the Communist International could be reclaimed for Bolshevism via the ousting of the Stalinist leadership, and thereby saw itself as an external faction of the CPUSA, operating to achieve that purpose.

In his History of American Trotskyism, Cannon recalled:

‘In the past we, and especially I, had been accustomed to speaking to fairly large audiences … Now we had to speak to individuals. Our propagandistic work consisted mainly of finding out names of isolated individuals in the Communist Party, or close to the party, who might be interested, arranging an interview, spending hours and hours talking to a single individual, writing long letters explaining all our principled positions in an attempt to win over one person. And in this way, we recruited people — not by tens, not by hundreds, but one by one’ (pp.62-3).

Almost immediately things changed dramatically in Moscow. Having ousted Trotsky and effectively broken the Left Opposition, Stalin now turned on Bukharin and his supporters, labelled the Right Opposition. They wanted to keep the peasants onside, but now Stalin supported a policy of break-neck, state-imposed industrialisation and the forced collectivisation of peasant farmers.

This shift required Stalin to use radical rhetoric against the new enemy. On the international stage he now declared that the ‘First Period’ of revolutionary upheavals in 1919 and 1920 and the ‘Second Period’ of capitalist stabilisation had been succeeded by a ‘Third Period’ of capitalist crisis and new revolutionary opportunities. The social-democratic and labour parties were identified as the key props of capitalist rule and as ‘social fascists’, on a par with Mussolini and Hitler as dangers to the revolution. Any collaboration with them was thus out of the question.

Workers were encouraged to break from the major trade unions controlled by those same social fascists to form ‘pure’, but tiny, Red Unions. This was the policy which led the powerful German Communist Party to reject any united front against Hitler, allowing him to take power in January 1933, with disastrous consequences. Palmer rightly points out that this Third Period put the Trotskyists on the back foot. Prior to it they were the ones representing the revolutionary continuity of Bolshevism, now Stalin seemed to be passing them by on the left wing.

Factionalism on the margins

As the Wall Street Crash ushered in the Great Depression, it seemed capitalism might be in its death throes. Looking back Cannon wrote of 1929:

‘The Communist Party … appeared to be the most radical and revolutionary force in the country. The party began to grow and swell its ranks and to attract sympathizers in droves. We, with our criticisms and theoretical explanations, appeared in the eyes of all as a group of impossibilists, hair-splitters, naggers. We were going around trying to make people understand that the theory of socialism in one country is fatal for a revolutionary movement in the end; that we must clear up this question of theory at all costs. … we were shut off from all contact. We had no friends, no sympathizers, no periphery around our movement. We had no chance whatever to participate in the mass movement. Whenever we tried to get into a workers’ organization, we would be expelled as counterrevolutionary Trotskyists. We tried to send delegations to unemployed meetings. Our credentials would be rejected on the ground that we were enemies of the working class. We were utterly isolated, forced in upon ourselves’ (p.8).

In the beginning, the Communist League of America consisted, in essence, of two groups. One was the working-class activists, rooted in the native working-class tradition. Most prominently, there was another ex-Wobbly, Vincent Ray Dunne in Minneapolis, who by the late 1920s was a key leader locally in the Teamsters Union. The other was made up of young intellectuals, often from New York and Chicago, often Jewish, grouped around Cannon’s old factional allies in the CPUSA, Max Shachtman and his former comrade from the Young Communists, Martin Abern. Abern was a talented organiser but also a man addicted to building a faction around himself by feeding his followers tit bits from leadership discussions.

Cannon had a long, and often difficult, relationship with Max Shachtman, beginning from shortly after Shachtman joined the Workers Party of America in 1921. Shachtman become shortly after a leader of the Communist Youth and aligned himself with Cannon. They saw periods of close collaboration and others of open hostility. Shachtman came from the Jewish community of New York City, a fertile breeding ground of young Communists, many of whom overcame hard, working-class upbringings to get to college. He was a brilliant journalist and polemicist, skills Cannon appreciated, though its true to say Shachtman never fulfilled his potential.

Later during the crucial 1934 Minneapolis Teamster’s strike, Cannon would summon Shachtman to edit the strike bulletin. He did a great job, but with the CLA operating virtually underground, he infuriated Cannon by wearing a bright ten-gallon hat, hardly appropriate for working under cover. The incident might raise a smile, but for Cannon it represented a tension between middle-class intellectuals’ commitment to the working-class struggle and their often petty-bourgeois life style.

During the ‘dog days’ of American Trotskyism between 1929 and 1932, factionalism broke out, pitting Cannon against Shachtman. Cannon dealt with this intelligently, understanding that such conflicts were a product of isolation and frustration. He decided to let it simmer until circumstances changed. Looking back when writing the History of American Trotskyism, Cannon wrote:

‘We had to go through the long drawn out period of stewing and discussing … This little fragile nucleus of the future revolutionary party had to be held together. It had to go through this experience. It had to survive somehow. One had to be patient for the sake of the future.’

The factionalism of those ‘dog days’ came at a long-term price. One fascinating section of Palmer’s book charts what seemed to be a profitable discussion on revolutionary socialism, but one that was never resolved. The CPUSA was supporting the creation of a black state based on those areas of the American south where black sharecroppers were the majority. It was, in many ways, an unrealisable demand but – and this is a big but – it represented a decisive break from the history of the US left whereby the issue of racism and black liberation was overlooked, in the belief that it all would be resolved through common economic struggle. The CPUSA recruited a strong black cadre. The American Trotskyists did not.

The upturn begins

The change came with the beginnings of a fight back by the US working class, and the crisis on the left created by Hitler’s coming to power in Germany in January 1933. The CLA threw itself into the growing unemployment agitation, and it was involved in industrial action in the Illinois coalfield. It reinvigorated Cannon who threw himself into such activity. Previously the Trotskyists had been excluded from labour-movement events. That changed now. In January 1933, Cannon addressed a New York unemployment conference at which the League had five delegates. Further opportunities arose in the coalfield and in the unemployed movement, where the Trotskyists had some success in arguing against the Stalinists’ support for breakaway unions, and in favour of united-front work with left-wing trade unionists and reformists.

However, the greatest opportunity came with Hitler’s taking of power constitutionally in Germany. The Comintern had reacted by claiming ‘After Hitler Us’, an argument that Hitler would not last long and then the German Communists would take power. Trotsky, of course, had argued from Hitler’s first electoral breakthrough in 1929 that the German left had to join together in actively opposing the Nazis through mass, collective action: the united front as espoused by Lenin a decade previously.

At the beginning of 1933, the Communist League began a nation-wide tour on Germany, gaining an audience of 500 mainly CP members in the Bronx. A successful tour followed. Membership grew for the first time to 150. The ‘dog days’ were over. Shachtman now joined with Cannon to construct a united leadership. The Communist League was facing a turning point in the fortunes of American labour, as Palmer explains:

‘The labor front was relatively quiet for the first six months of 1933, but thereafter the numbers of workers walking picket lines jumped dramatically. In July 1933 some 1,375,000 worker days were lost to strikes, a figure more than double that of any similar monthly count in the January – June period; August 1933 saw an astounding 2,378,000 worker days eaten up in labor-capital conflict. All told, 1933 witnessed more strikes than at any time in the United States since 1921. With 1934, the strike wave reached tsunami proportions: 1856 work stoppages involving almost 1.5 million workers’ (p.340).

The working-class upturn in struggle during 1933-1934 was spearheaded by young second-generation migrants who spoke English and were fully American. The American dream had turned sour, with the Great Depression trapping them in either unemployment or menial work. The hidebound, bureaucratic AFL alienated them. They were ready to rebel.

A new generation of struggle

Palmer is excellent at describing the dynamic at work here:

‘The working-class rebels of 1933–34 thus resisted unbridled autocracy. Raw corporate power and its abuses registered most visibly in enclaves of authoritarian class relations like the mill towns of Rhode Island or South Carolina …

In many of the 1933–34 strikes, wages and hours were less important than other, often symbolic, markers of class oppression. Strikers fought for the democratization of the workplace and the realization of civil liberties. This vague, but powerfully mobilizing package of rights seemed overdue. It was both part of a working-class quest to truly become American and indistinguishable from planting the standard of trade unionism on territory where its previous roots had been weak or non-existent. The rowdy contingent of second generation immigrant youth that often proved the ballast of class struggle was complemented by a smaller cohort of experienced, older radicals, many of whom were pivotally placed in the bottlenecks of production as skilled craftsmen or maintenance technicians. In addition to the mass of foot soldiers and strategically placed veterans of labor-capital conflict, the landscape of industrial and resource extractive settings in the United States was dotted with dissidents from a now highly variegated left-wing. Communists were but the most numerous of the small but often influential bands of revolutionary cadre eager to raise loud voices against capitalist exploitation.

The result was that 1933–34 proved a volatile prelude to the consolidation of industrial unionism in the 1937–48 years. Creative strike tactics, in which “flying pickets” were simply the most visible, effective and imaginative articulation of the infectious nature of mass struggle, lent the battles of the early 1930s an air of determined solidarity’ (p.320).

In 1933 Roosevelt was elected with the promise of a New Deal, but it’s important to stress that the labor revival was already underway. The National Recovery Act did, however, encourage it, as it seemed to give legal support for union recognition. It provoked a rash of disputes, despite the opposition of the union bureaucrats in the American Federation of Labour, who refused to organise unskilled workers. The strikes were largely defeated but they were the first signs of a real shift.

In these circumstances Cannon’s strengths came into play, as Palmer points out:

‘… his undeniable abilities as a workers’ leader capable of appreciating and reading the pulse of American working-class militancy, intervening in class struggles to advance revolutionary politics, and extending the best that comrades had to offer, even as those talents sometimes reached past his own in specific areas’ (pp.307-8).

The year 1934 saw a revival in the US economy, and the tempo of CLA activity was able to rise. That May the Minneapolis branch found itself leading a strike of teamsters, which achieved nationwide prominence. The story of that dispute – the most important Trotskyists have led even today – is well known. Every socialist should read Farrell Dobbs’ account, Teamster Rebellion. Not only is it a manual of how revolutionaries should operate in the unions, it is also a wonderful account of how a revolutionary organisation can intervene and recruit the best leaders. Cannon, Shachtman and Oehler threw themselves into the dispute. As a result the Communist League gained widespread publicity and credit in radical circles.

The Workers Party of the United States

The teamster’s dispute in Minneapolis together with the docks strike in San Francisco and the strike at Autolite in Toledo sparked a nationwide revival of militancy with their successes. The dispute on the San Francisco waterfront was led by the CP, but the dispute in Toledo, where mass demonstrations of unemployed joined the strikers to battle the National Guard, was led by an organisation called the American Workers Party. It was a loose grouping led by a radicalised ex-preacher, A.J. Muste. It contained Christian Socialists, disillusioned CPers moving right, together with young militants who were active around strikes and unemployed work.

In the wake of Toledo it was clearly moving left and being eyed by the CP for ‘fusion’. Instead, the Trotskyists offered to discuss creating a joint organisation. By not concealing political differences but not pursuing a sectarian stand on organisational matters, Cannon and Shachtman were able to win over Muste and create an organisation of several hundred militants, the Workers Party of the United States.

Palmer describes the significance of the CLA/Musteite fusion thus:

‘As Cannon later wrote: “Toledo and Minneapolis had become linked as twin symbols of the two highest points of proletarian militancy and conscious leadership. These two strikes tended to bring the militants in each battle closer together; to make them more sympathetic to each other, more desirous of close collaboration.” Muste viewed the matter similarly: “It was in a sense inevitable that these two streams – the AWP and the Communist League of America … should come together.” The leaderships of both organizations were also undoubtedly aware that the mass appeal of their militant stands in Minneapolis and Toledo brought them to the attention of other dissidents…’ (p.742).

The new organisation, the Workers Party, grew to some thousand members. It was not large, but it brought together working-class militants steeled not just in the Minneapolis and Toledo strikes, but in the agitations in the coalfields and the unemployed struggles.

In the course of 1935, the entrenched, bureaucratic leadership of the Socialist Party clashed with a growing left and with the party’s best known figure, Norman Thomas, who argued they had stifled the party’s growth. The party’s left forces began to see the Workers Party as potential allies against the right-wing machine. The sectarianism of the Stalinists, coupled with the impact of Hitler’s victory, had created a radicalisation which was reflected in the social-democratic parties, particularly their youth wings. In France, the Trotskyists made contact with a crucial group of militants within the Socialist Party. In Spain, the Socialist Youth discussed Trotsky’s position of building a new international and whether they should back it.

But in the wake of Hitler’s victory, Moscow’s line had changed. Now they wanted an alliance with France and Britain to protect Russia from the Nazi threat. Communists were now told to build alliances, firstly with the reformists, and then a popular front with those sections of the middle and ruling class who opposed Hitler. Inside the social-democratic parties this line, coupled with the continuing prestige of the Comintern, was a powerful draw on those who saw the fascist threat spreading.


Trotsky, grasping what was happening, advocated that his supporters enter the social-democratic organisations to win the best elements. The first group to do so was the French organisation, resulting in the entry manoeuvre being dubbed the ‘French turn’. Trotsky was not advocating a long-term entry. His supporters were to declare their position openly, particularly the need for a new party opposed to Stalinism and social democracy, and a new international. He expected expulsions, and insisted they be fought openly so his supporters could influence the widest layer and then set up an independent organisation.

In France, the turn paid off initially with the Trotskyists breaking out of a faction-ridden ghetto for the first time and winning a wide range of support. On a trip to visit Trotsky (at that time in France), Cannon was convinced that the newly formed Workers Party should enter the US Socialist Party. Cannon and Trotsky were convinced that beneath the reformist leadership of Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party was attracting radicalised youth and activists in the unions repelled by Stalinism. They also believed – correctly – that the party would be torn apart by the new radicalisation, and if the Trotskyists did not intervene directly, then the Communist Party would swallow up the left.

The entry tactic was raised around that immediate perspective of the Trotskyists going in to win the best elements and then re-forming a stronger organisation. On his return from visiting France, Cannon, supported by Shachtman, was opposed by Hugo Oehler. The latter argued that if there were elements worth winning in the Socialist Party then they should find their way to the Workers Party, and ruled out entry as a matter of principle.

The faction around Oehler was joined by two other groups. One around Muste – the founder of one half of the newly-fused organisation – started from a position of pure pride in the new party and could not countenance entry. Another, around Martin Abern, had maintained its opposition to Cannon from two years earlier in the Communist League. Their position was not one of principled opposition, but complaints about ‘the way things are being done’ and Cannon’s undemocratic style.

For nearly a year the debate raged. But Cannon and Shachtman, backed directly by Trotsky, won the clear majority. Their victory coincided with the culmination of the crisis in the Socialist Party. The left had secured a majority and the hard right broke away. Cannon was able to secure a negotiated entry with faction rights, although the Trotskyists were forced to give up their paper. He conceded later, however, that too much emphasis was put on these negotiations rather than discussing with the Socialist Party rank and file.

Entry and exit

Cannon would later describe the conditions under which the WP joined the SPUSA:

‘They made us give up The Militant and our magazine, the New International. They wouldn’t allow us the honor and dignity of joining as a body and being received as a body. No, we had to join as individuals, leaving every local Socialist Party branch the option of refusing to admit us. We received no welcome, no friendly salute, no notice in the press of the Socialist Party. Nothing was offered to us. Not one of the leaders of our party was offered so much as a post as branch organizer by these cheapskates – not one’ (p.869).

The entry can be split into two periods, both of which tended to parallel the experience in France. The first period was one in which the Trotskyists operated openly, publishing two papers, Socialist Appeal in Chicago and Labour Action edited by Cannon in California. They were able to make gains.

However, in New York, too great an emphasis was placed on negotiating with leaders of the left factions in the Party. Shachtman and James Burnham, a leading intellectual recruited from the Musteites to Trotskyism, believed they could win the entire party. Cannon did not share that assessment, did not trust the leading left wingers, and instead advocated building the Socialist Party so as to recruit working-class members.

International events were to bring strains between the Trotskyists and Norman Thomas and other factional leaders: the Moscow Trials and the Spanish Civil War in particular. In March 1937, the Socialist Party leadership under Norman Thomas moved to ban factions, suppress the Trotskyist papers and limit discussion in branches. In his History of American Trotskyism, Cannon is open about the Trotskyists’ response:

‘Trotsky encouraged us and even incited us to go forward to meet their challenge and not permit them to push us any further for fear it might lead to disintegration of our own ranks, demoralisation of the people whom we had led that far along the road. We proceeded cautiously, “legally”, at first’ (page reference?).

A similar thing had occurred in France. Entry met with initial success. The right attacked and Trotsky urged open defiance, coupled with preparing for setting up an open organisation. However, the Trotskyists stayed in and suffered a loss of support and finally split. In the American case, the Trotskyists hung together. Trotsky was now in Mexico and was in close touch. Finally, their branches were kicked out. On New Year’s Day 1938, the expelled branches formed the Socialist Workers Party.

Writing elsewhere concerning entryism, I have argued the Trotskyists made two mistakes:

‘The emphasis was too much on discussions with the Socialist Party’s hierarchy. The second failing, one implicit in any entry operation, is a failing to break away when the time is right. The Trotskyists spent nearly a year, the crucial year of the CIO’s birth, buried in the SP under attack from the leadership.’

The formation of the CIO

The period of entry coincided exactly with the explosion of working-class militancy following the 1934 victories at Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis.

In 1935 strikes in the auto plants threw up a new union, the United Automobile Workers, because of the AFL’s refusal to organise the car workers. The new militancy spread like wildfire in unorganised industries such as rubber, steel and, crucially, auto production, the new industries of the post-war boom which were generally held to be unorganisable. John L. Lewis of the United Mineworkers grasped which way the wind was blowing and broke from the AFL because of their refusal to organise the unskilled in these industries, forming the rival Congress of Industrial Organisations. The centrepiece of the new CIO soon became the UAW.

In order to recruit workers, Lewis was prepared to ride the wave of militancy. He recruited from the readiest available source of cadre, the Communist Party. The CP in turn was prepared to toe Lewis’s line. The CP was not using Lewis. He was using them. They helped consolidate the new union bureaucracy’s hold, but in the process, they recruited many of the best workers.

The CIO’s ‘Gettysburg’ was the battle for recognition of the UAW at General Motors, centring on Flint. At the end of 1936, the Flint GM workers re-invented the sit-down. The tactic spread across the combine. At Flint itself, the strikers fought off the police and eventually won by seizing the crucial engine plant in a military-style operation. A month after the victory at GM, there were 193,000 workers involved in occupations and 1937 would see an amazing total of one and a half million workers on strike.

Cannon asked: ‘Did we overlook some opportunities for the application of the new turn toward mass work?’ His answer was:

‘Undoubtedly we did. Except in a few localities, we let the great movement of the CIO pass over our heads. But we did grasp some of the main opportunities … When the ferment in the Socialist Party offered favourable opportunities for our intervention, we steered a course directly toward it, smashed the resistance of the sectarians in our own ranks, entered the Socialist Party and effected a fusion with the left wing. We seized opportunities to penetrate the trade union movement in several localities and today have the firmest proletarian bases of the party there.’

The entry did actually win a crucial layer of activists in the UAW: Kermit Johnson, Sol Dollinger and Genora Johnson in Flint. They first masterminded the tactics of the GM strike, and the latter organised the famous women’s auxiliary on the picket lines. In San Francisco, the Trotskyists established themselves in the crucial waterfront unions during the 1937 strike there.

The entry of the Trotskyists was negotiated with a new left leadership of the Socialist Party, who saw them as key allies in consolidating the left’s hold on the party. But almost immediately two international developments intervened. The first was Stalin’s launch of the Moscow trials and the Great Purge. Sections of the SPA left joined in the vicious campaign against Trotsky and his followers, portraying them as agents of Hitler, wreckers and worse. This dovetailed with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The Trotskyists stood for revolution in Spain and the waging of revolutionary war. Much of the SPA left simply supported the existing Spanish Republic and its attempts, aided by the Communists, to wage a conventional war fought by a conventional army.

Matters came to a head in May 1937 when the Republic’s forces, led by Communists, crushed the revolution in Catalonia, and murdered the leader of the revolutionary-left POUM, proscribing it and attempting to create a show trial there. As the debates mounted in the SPA, the leadership attempted to suppress it by banning internal currents from publishing their own papers, magazines and pamphlets. This was, in fact, directed at the Trotskyists, and they understood it meant they must exit left.

The Socialist Workers Party

The new SWP, which was launched when they left the SPA, had a membership roughly double that of the pre-entry Workers Party, and the Trotskyists did win control of the SPA youth organisation, the Young People’s Socialist League. The SWP was by far the biggest Trotskyist organisation worldwide and played a central role in the launch of the Fourth International. Cannon and Shachtman attended its founding conference outside Paris. The launch of a new International containing tiny forces was premised on Trotsky’s perspective that a world war was coming fast, it would unleash a revolutionary wave like that of 1919 and 1920, and that Stalin’s regime would not outlast either.

The launch of the SWP in late 1938 was based on optimism for the future, but that would quickly evaporate as seismic events rocked the world. Palmer’s next volume will cover this period. James P. Cannon deserves a good biography. He has it now.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.