From the grave, James P. Cannon warns the left

September 30, 2007 at 12:27 am (Jim D, political groups, politics, sectarianism, socialism, trotskyism)

James P. Cannon was a leader of the US Trotskyist movement from its very beginning. He was expelled from the US Communist Party because of his support of Trotsky, but he always hated being in a small group: his background was as a syndicalist trade union militant, and he never forgot it. Cannon had many faults, but he always remained true to the working class and the labour movement. Here he describes the time in the early 1930’s when the US Trotskyists were isolated and had little contact with the working class. A bit like the British left at the moment (so we should harken unto Cannon):

“In those dog days of the movement we were shut off from all contact. We had no friends, no sympathizers, no periphery around our movement. We had no chance whatsoever 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 the 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. Our recruitment dropped to almost nothing. The Communist Party and its vast periphery seemed to be hermetically sealed against us.  

“Then, as is always the case with new political movements, we began to recruit from sources none too healthy. If you are ever reduced again to a small handfull, as well the Marxists may be in the mutations of the class struggle; if things go badly once more and you have to begin over again, then I can tell you in advance some of the headaches you are going to have. Every new movement attracts certain elements which might properly be called the lunatic fringe. Freaks always looking for the most extreme expression of radicalism, misfits, windbags, chronic oppositionists who have been thrown out of half a dozen organizations-such people began to come to us in our isolation, shouting, “Hello Comrades.” I was always against admitting such people, but the tide was too strong. I waged a bitter fight in the New York branch of the Communist League against admitting a man to membership on the sole grounds of his appearance and dress.

“They asked ‘What have you against him?’

“I said, ‘He wears a corduroy suit up and down Greenwich Village, with a trick mustache and long hair. There is something wrong with this guy.”

“I wasn’t making a joke, either. I said, people of this type are not going to be suitable for approaching the ordinary American worker. They are going to mark our organisation as something freakish, abnormal, exotic: something that has nothing to do with the normal life of the American worker. I was dead right in general, and in this mentioned case case in particular. Our corduroy-suit lad, after making all kinds of trouble in the organization, eventually became an Oehlerite”.


  1. johng said,

    This might be the situation your organisation finds yourself but I’d suggest that that has something to do with your politics not the objective situation. The notion that a historical period which has seen the largest political mobilisations against imperialist war ever seen, the delegitimation of neo-liberal politics on a global scale, the emergence of new movements of opposition from Latin America to Egypt and back again, are comparable to the situation of Trotskyists in what Victor Serge described as ‘Midnight in the Century’ is simply laughable. Such an argument smacks of frantic excuses for irrelevence. Perhaps this is what explains the rather bizarre political positions you’ve embraced on all these things.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    Right enough, the main reason why I don’t go to meetings of the Dublin left is that usually a high proportion of the attendees are certifiable. And I’m only being slightly flippant.

    Nice to see that old story of Cannon’s again. Does this explain why AWLers are usually better turned out than other lefties? My own thoughts on corduroy here:

  3. pmg said,

    Great stuff from JP.

    Far too many corduroy wearers around on the left.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    But the tweed sports coat with leather patches on the elbows, that’s another matter.

  5. Dr Paul said,

    I was about the only person in or around the Revolutionary Communist Party who wore a hat (usually a cloth cap); I am one of the very few RCPers who has remained a Marxist. Is there a connection?

  6. Jim Denham said,

    Gameboy: so your organisation is doing just fine, eh? The (Brit) SWP’s deal with Galloway and the MAB is about to pay dividends, eh?

  7. Clive said,

    I have to say this has never struck me as JP Cannon’s finest moment, whether or not the guy in question was a nutjob. I have recently bought a couple of hats, in a deliberate effort to be less timid about how I look (I can’t actually wear them really, due to terror of being pointed at and laughed at in the street), but it would seem, you know, not the best grounds for political exclusion.

    I also have to say that the suggestion that the AWL are better dressed than other lefties is uttely incomprehensible.

  8. Janine said,

    Sorry, was that *Jim Denham* warning us against accepting weird people into membership?! Surely not …

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    Surely a rash line to take… were it not for weird people, the left might actually disappear.

  10. Clive said,

    And come to think of it, Jim, if the left excludes weird people, that pretty much eliminates the possibility of recruiting jazz musicians, doesn’t it? Remember, I know a *lot* of jazz musicians, including all my in-laws…

  11. johng said,

    I should say so Jim yes. In any case we’re not going round talking about as if it were ‘midnight in the century’. there was another organisation which was fond of this comparison, one suspects for similar reasons. it was called the rcp. they also went through a phase of confusing liberalism with marxism, except they tended to embrace multi-nationals and the like rather then the rhetoric of liberal internationalism.

  12. Jim Denham said,

    Cive and Janine: “ouch!” and “touche!”, respectively, I think.

  13. Clive said,

    en garde?

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