From the archives: The Greatest … in the foulest “sport”

June 5, 2016 at 9:27 am (civil rights, class, good people, history, James P. Cannon, Jim D, mental health, spoofs, United States)

I’m not sure whether or not it’s entirely seemly to bring this up just at the moment; but I really do think that as well as honouring a heroic, courageous human being, we also need to ponder what boxing did to Mohammed Ali in the end, and has done to thousands of other fighters over the years.

I wrote this nearly ten years ago, on the occasion of Ali’s 65th birthday:

Above: a bloodied Henry Cooper battles Cassius Clay (as he then was) in 1963 (Getty images)

Muhammad Ali is 65 today and suffering from Parkinson’s disease – a cruel fate for a man once renowned for his physical and mental speed and agility. Perhaps surprisingly, the most fulsome tribute to Ali I’ve seen today is from the Daily Telegraph, which devotes five pages of its sports section to a splendidly illustrated tribute, plus part of the main paper’s leader column:

“…Who can rival him as a sporting hero? His achievement in a sport of which some disapprove was not just to knock men out. He was an artist, not a psychopath; knocked down by Henry Cooper in 1963, 40 years later he telephoned him to reminisce. Psychic presence and witty self-promotion brought him double success in the ring and as a civil rights champion.

“Ali showed moral as well as physical courage. He refused to serve in Vietnam out of religious principle, he explained, but added ‘No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger’. His career seemed at an end, yet he made an amazing comeback in 1974 in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. More recently, when asked why he thought he would have beaten Mike Tyson, Ali simply tapped his temple: he was always the cleverer fighter.

“We need heroes, and Ali really is the greatest”.

Once over the shock of the voice of the retired colonels of Tory middle England praising a black, Muslim, civil rights activist and opponent of the Vietnam war, I have to say that I don’t dissent from any of that. Ali most certainly was (and is) a brave, generous and thoroughly admirable human being.

But the “sport” at which he excelled (and that may also be responsible for his Parkinson’s) is a foul business. I don’t think it should be called a “sport” at all: the object of boxing, unlike any other sport (including dangerous sports), is to render the opponent unconscious by repeated blows to the head and body. Since 1945 there have been 361 deaths in the ring, and the number of boxers reduced to shambling, punch-drunk wrecks by brain damage is uncounted. That’s not to mention permanent eye damage (up to and including blindness), ruptured eardrums, broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth, the famous ‘cauliflower ear’ and renal damage.

It has long amazed me that so few liberals and lefties seem at all concerned about boxing, and some even support it. The main reason for this is, I suspect, because boxing is traditionally a proletarian “sport” and a way for poor young men (often black or from other ethnic minorities) to achieve something in life. But that’s exactly the reason that socialists should oppose boxing: we want a society where that sort of barbarism simply isn’t required as a way to escape poverty, prejudice and lack of opportunity.

One of the few socialists to write extensively opposing boxing was the American Trotskyist James P. Cannon. Commenting on the death of 20-year-old Georgie Flores in the ring at Madison Square Garden, he wrote:

“It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from the dunghill, that nobody came forward with the simple demand to outlaw prize fighting, as it was outlawed in most states of this country up till the turn of the century. Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters in a pit and incite them to spur each other until one of them keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into the pit to fight for a side bet. But our civilisation – which is on the march to be sure – has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators. Such spectacles are part of our highly touted way of life”.

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James P. Cannon on why boxing should be banned

April 5, 2016 at 4:09 pm (From the archives, history, James P. Cannon, posted by JD, sport, trotskyism)

Blackwell was taken from the ring on a stretcher and transported to hospital after collapsing nine days ago

It’s good to hear that Nick Blackwell has woken from the induced coma he was put into, a week after his title fight against Chris Eubank Jnr.

Blackwell was carried from the ring on a stretcher, at the SSE arena in Wembley following his defeat to Eubank Jnr on 26 March. The fight was stopped in the 10th round after a doctor decided Blackwell could not see from his swollen left eye. It’s lucky for Blackwell that his eye was visibly damaged, or the fight would have gone on, and in all likelihood he’d have suffered irreversible brain damage or worse.

The general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, Robert Smith, summed up the attitude of those who run this ‘sport’ with these words: “Nick Blackwell wanted to be a boxer. Like everyone else who wants to take part in boxing, we all know the risks. I don’t think anybody did anything wrong.”

Smith’s words are true, as far as they go. But they leave out of the equation the simple fact that professional boxing is a ‘sport’ that involves two men (usually working class and often from ethnic minorities) set up to throw punches at each others’ heads with the aim of rendering the other incapable of continuing, up to and including causing unconsciousness and  permanent brain damage.

This bestial ‘sport’ should be outlawed, and at least one great socialist – the US Trotskyist pioneer James P Cannon – wrote some articles calling for just that.

The following excerpts are from Cannon’s articles “Murder in the Garden” and “A Dead Man’s Decision,” They first appeared in The Militant on September 17 and 24, 1951, respectively, and are published in Notebook of an Agitator (Pathfinder Press). The two articles have been edited and combined together, into what is published below:

_________________________________________________________________________

Murder in the Garden … A Dead Man’s Decision
By James P. Cannon

This begins as a straight news story with the who, what, where and when right up at the front. The why and the wherefore come later, after the bare facts are set down in proper order. The who in this story is, or rather was, Georgie Flores, 20-year-old Brooklyn welterweight. He was knocked out in the semi-final bout with Roger Donoghue at Madison Square Garden August 29. He collapsed in his dressing room a few minutes after the knockout and died in the hospital five days later without ever recovering consciousness. Georgie leaves a wife, Elaine, 18 years old, who was at his bedside when he died, and a month-old baby son who hasn’t heard about it yet.

Other technical information, as reported by the experts at the ringside: The fatal blow was a sharp left hook which floored the young boxer just 46 seconds after the opening of the eighth and final round of the bout. His head hit the canvas hard and he was counted out by the referee as he lay flat. Cause of death, as reported by the medical experts at the hospital, was a brain hemorrhage resulting from a torn blood vessel. Two operations were unsuccessful. His last hours were spent in an iron lung.

Georgie Flores didn’t die of old age or incurable illness, and there was no suspicion of suicide. He was killed. Murdered, if you want the truth unvarnished. And he was not the first to die that way. Sudden death is an occupational hazard in the prize-fight business. Six boxers have been killed in the U.S. already this year, if you count only those who died more or less immediately, as a result of blows in the ring. The score would be much higher if you include those who were badly hurt and had their life expectancy sharply cut down in this grisly business, which is sometimes described by fools or cynics as “the sport” or “the game.” This sort of thing goes on all the time. As a rule, the killing of a prize fighter doesn’t rate more than a few paragraphs in the news, a few floral offerings from the fight mob, and a small purse scraped up for the widow…

Dead men tell no tales; but sometimes, as is well known, the memory of what they did, or the way they died, exerts an authority over the living and affects their actions and decisions. The continuing influence of great men needs no argument. And once in a while, in exceptional circumstances, the lowly, too, speak from the grave. Even the lowliest of the lowly. Georgie Flores, the young boxer who was killed in the ring at Madison Square Garden just recently, cast a long shadow over the Turpin-Robinson fight for the middleweight championship at the Polo Grounds last Wednesday, and most probably determined the outcome of this million-dollar affair.

Turpin was on the ropes, but not out, when the referee stopped the fight with only eight seconds to go in the tenth round of the scheduled 15-round bout, and gave the decision to Robinson on a technical knockout. But it is highly doubtful if Robinson was the winner on actual merit. The fight was scored even up to the tenth round. Robinson was bleeding like a stuck pig from an eye cut; and Turpin, with the stamina of youth in his favor, figured to recuperate during the intermission between rounds and take charge from there on. Turpin and his manager protested the referee’s action on these grounds, and subsequent evidence seemed to bear out their contention. Turpin, according to all reports, was fresher and stronger than Robinson in the immediate aftermath of the fight….

Georgie Flores’ tragic and most untimely death was just another nine-day sensation. That’s all. It lasted just about long enough to influence the decision in the Turpin-Robinson bout. The echoes of the uproar are already fading away. The jitters have yielded to the sedative of time – it didn’t take long – and the boxing business is just about back to normal, back to business as usual. All that the hullabaloo produced, while it lasted, were a few proposals for better supervision of boxing bouts in the future; for some more elaborate rules and regulations; for what Governor Dewey, in his humane wisdom, called “precautions” which might keep boxers from getting hurt when they get hit.

It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from a dunghill, that nobody came forward with the simple demand to outlaw prize fighting, as it was outlawed in most of the states of this country up till the turn of the century.

Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters into the pit and incite them to spur each other until one of them keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into the pit to fight for a side bet. But our civilization – which is on the march, to be sure -has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators. Such spectacles are a part of our highly touted way of life.

The “precautions,” advocated during the brief excitement over the killing of Georgie Flores, simmered down to a few piddling suggestions that fighters not be overmatched; that they be required to train properly and enter the ring in good condition; that the boxers’ gloves and the ring canvas be padded a little more; and that each boxer’s head be thoroughly examined by X-ray before each bout to see if he had suffered a previous brain injury. “Boxing can be made a safe sport,” said Dr. Frank R. Ferlaino to Milton Gross, sports writer for the New York Post, “if these regulations are observed.” The doctor, of course, is talking through his hat.

The precautions, which are supposed to take care of everything, in reality take care of nothing. When you get inside those ropes your head is a target for self-propelled missiles known as fists, and there is no way of making that safe. As the soldier said, when he was asked why he ran away from the front lines: “You can get hurt up there.” Blows over the head never did anybody any good. And if anybody ever got any fun out of it, he hasn’t been heard from yet. The “sport” in prize fighting is strictly for the spectators and the managers and promoters.

The incomparable Joe Louis himself testified to this in a notable statement at a newsreeled press conference when he renounced his title to turn promoter. A reporter asked: “Which do you think you like best, Joe, fighting or promoting?”

Joe, a man of few words, answered: “I like promoting.”

“Why is that, can you explain it?”

“Sure,” said Joe. “They can’t hit you when you’re promotin’.”

Those words belong in the Book of Proverbs.

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Herman Benson, aged 100, is still an anti-Stalinist socialist democrat

February 19, 2016 at 4:54 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, posted by JD, Shachtman, trotskyism, United States)

Also published in the current issue of Solidarity:


Above: Shachtman (left) and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

Herman Benson was a founding member, along with Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others, of the Workers Party, which broke from the US Socialist Workers Party (no relation to the British group of the same name) in 1940 following a debate about how to understand the Stalinist state in Russia.

While the SWP majority maintained that the USSR remained some kind of “workers’ state”, however “deformed” or “degenerated”, a large minority, which went on to become the Workers Party, argued that it was a deeply oppressive society based on a new form of class exploitation. They developed their ideas into what became known as “third-camp” Trotskyism, arguing that the global working class must constitute itself as an independent force against both the two camps of US-led capitalism and Stalinism.

Herman was a member of the Workers Party National Committee, and labour editor of its paper, Labor Action. Later, he founded the Association for Union Democracy and was its first Executive Director. In 2012, he contributed to a Workers’ Liberty symposium of recollections and reflections from activists involved in the “third camp” tradition, which can be read here.

He spoke to Daniel Randall of Workers’ Liberty about the debates which are examined in The Fate of the Russian Revolution Volume 2: The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism, in which some of his writing from the time is included.  At 100 years old, he is – almost certainly – the last surviving member of Shachtman’s Workers Party


What, for you at the time, were the primary motives for siding with the opposition in the 1939-40 battle?

In 1939, I was not an old-time Trotskyist. I had joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party (SP), in 1930, at the age of 15. By the time the Trotskyists joined the SP, the depression, the rise of Hitler, and the destruction of German Social Democratic Party turned me into a kind of Leninist, but one repelled by crazy antics of “Third Period” Stalinists and then by their popular-front turn. When the Trotskyists left the SP in 1937, I, along with many other YPSLers, went with them.

I mention this to explain why I never gave much weight to the complaints against Cannon’s bureaucratism. They [the “old-time Trotskyists”] went through unexplained factional frictions and personal combinations in the Communist League of America (CLA, the first US Trotskyist group, founded by Cannon, Max Shachtman, and Martin Abern in 1929), not me. Even now, I don’t think our disputes of that period shed any light on the question of the party.

Old-timers could vent their grudges against Cannon, but for me, and most in early opposition, the immediate issue was clear: the Russian invasion of Poland and Finland was an oppressive “imperialist” attack, to be condemned.

At that point, everybody would still be for defence of the Soviet Union if it really came under attack. It took a long period of intricate debate over complex ideological issues to free even us from notions of defending one of the most oppressive regimes in history. The “orthodox” majority said, “we’re not defending the regime, only nationalised property”. People like [Albert] Goldman and [Felix] Morrow needed more time.

Do you think The Fate of the Russian Revolution Vol. 2 accurately conveys the substance and the balance of the disputes between the two strands of Trotskyism in the 1940s?

I think the editor does a great job, although I may be prejudiced. For me, reading it at 100, it activates the juices of a 24-year old zealot. One minor quibble, though: what’s the point of the final extract from Trotsky on dialectical materialism?

Looking back, do you see any of those issues in a new light?

Of course. More than half a century has elapsed. The world refused to evolve as we hoped or expected. But that’s the big story.

The Workers Party/Independent Socialist League (WP/ISL) tradition didn’t hold up in a discrete form, but rather diffused, in different ways and in different directions, into other organisations. Do you think that was inevitable? If not, how could it have been avoided?

I do think that the demise was “inevitable”, whatever that word means. Both sides in the 1939/40 dispute counted on worldwide socialist revolutions in the post-war period. When capitalist democracies and Stalinist dictatorships emerged intact, the political-social foundation of that position was undermined. The WP splintered, and the SWP , as the book describes, was transformed into something alien.

A kind of desiccated, academic Marxism found refuge in the universities, without connection to workers’ revolution. In the United States, most nominally “socialist” currents lost any distinguishable socialist quality. Once, socialism meant concentration of industry in the hands of the state (nationalised property) and a planned economy in a democratic society. Now, each group has transmuted socialism into an amorphous dissatisfaction with the status quo plus whatever their hearts desire. The perspective of a traditional socialist society emerging from a workers’ revolution and a workers’ state has vanished and is not likely to be revived here. In that atmosphere, the WP could not survive.

Do you think the debates of 1939/40 have relevance for socialists today? If so, what is it?

I believe there is a lot to learn from the old WP/SWP dispute, not only for socialists, Marxian and others, but for all crusaders for social justice. In the broadest sense, it reminds us that when our ideology appears somehow to justify a horror or an act of oppression, maybe there’s something flawed in our ideology.

More to the point, especially for me, those discussions restore the defence of democracy in society as a central theme not only for socialists but for all who seek social justice. In that sense, reflection on those debates, for those who undertake it, is an antidote for the persisting residue of Stalinist thinking in the labour and socialist movements.

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The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism

December 16, 2015 at 5:16 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, literature, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, Uncategorized)


Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna puts the record of the two sides into perspective.


The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.

The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).

We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.

To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.

French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.

Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not

James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.

I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.

The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.

This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.

______________________________________________________________________

A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/ecljgu22im9yfjh/dec-all.pdf?dl=0

Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).

 

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Matgamna on the two Trotskyisms

September 5, 2015 at 5:11 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, USSR, war)

August was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police (remembered by his grandson, here). Workers’ Liberty is publishing a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna, puts the record of the two sides into perspective:

_________________________________________________________________________


Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.

The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).

We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.

To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.

French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.

Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not

James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.

I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.

The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.

This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.

*****************************************************************************************************

You can order a copy of the book here

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70 years on: Cannon on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

August 6, 2015 at 8:41 am (capitalism, hell, history, imperialism, James P. Cannon, posted by JD, science, trotskyism, war)

The first nuclear bomb killed 100,000 people and razed two-thirds of the city of Hiroshima

The leading American Trotskyist, James P Cannon spoke at a memorial meeting in New York for Leon Trotsky on 22 August 1945. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had just taken place (August 6 and 9), and Cannon used the occasion to express his outrage at the atrocity:

What a commentary on the real nature of capitalism in its decadent phase is this, that the scientific conquest of the marvellous secret of atomic energy, which might rationally be used to lighten the burdens of all mankind, is employed first for the wholesale destruction of half a million people.

Hiroshima, the first target, had a population of 340,000 people. Nagasaki, the second target, had a population of 253,000 people. A total in the two cities of approximately 600,000 people, in cities of flimsy construction where, as reporters explain, the houses were built roof against roof. How many were killed? How many Japanese people were destroyed to celebrate the discovery of the secret of atomic energy? From all the reports we have received so far, they were nearly all killed or injured. Nearly all.

In the [New York] Times today there is a report from the Tokyo radio about Nagasaki which states that “the centre of the once thriving city has been turned into a vast devastation, with nothing left except rubble as far as the eye could see”. Photographs showing the bomb damage appeared on the front page of the Japanese newspaper Mainichi. The report says: “One of these pictures revealed a tragic scene 10 miles away from the centre of the atomic air attack”, where farm houses were either crushed down or the roofs torn asunder.

The broadcast quoted a photographer of the Yamaha Photographic Institute, who had rushed to the city immediately after the bomb hit, as having said: “Nagasaki is now a dead city, all the areas being literally razed to the ground. Only a few buildings are left, standing conspicuously from the ashes.” The photographer said that “the toll of the population was great and even the few survivors have not escaped some kind of injury.”

In two calculated blows, with two atomic bombs, American imperialism killed or injured half a million human beings. The young and the old, the child in the cradle and the aged and infirm, the newly married, the well and the sick, men, women, and children — they all had to die in two blows because of a quarrel between the imperialists of Wall Street and a similar gang in Japan.

This is how American imperialism is bringing civilisation to the Orient. What an unspeakable atrocity! What a shame has come to America, the America that once placed in New York harbour a Statue of Liberty enlightening the world. Now the world recoils in horror from her name.

One preacher quoted in the press, reminding himself of something he had once read in the Bible about the meek and gentle Jesus, said it would be useless to send missionaries to the Far East anymore. That raises a very interesting question which I am sure they will discuss among themselves. One can imagine an interesting discussion taking place in the inner circles of the House of Rockefeller and the House of Morgan, who are at one and the same time-quite by accident of course-pillars of finance and pillars of the church and supporters of missionary enterprises of various kinds.

“What shall we do with the heathens in the Orient? Shall we send missionaries to lead them to the Christian heaven or shall we send atomic bombs to blow them to hell?” There is a subject for debate, a debate on a macabre theme. But in any case, you can be sure that where American imperialism is involved, hell will get by far the greater number of the customers.

What a harvest of death capitalism has brought to the world! If the skulls of all of the victims could be brought together and piled into one pyramid, what a high mountain that would make. What a monument to the achievements of capitalism that would be, and how fitting a symbol of what capitalist imperialism really is. I believe it would lack only one thing to make it perfect. That would be a big electric sign on the pyramid of skulls, proclaiming the ironical promise of the Four Freedoms. The dead at least are free from want and free from fear…

Long ago the revolutionary Marxists said that the alternative facing humanity was either socialism or a new barbarism, that capitalism threatens to go down in ruins and drag civilisation with it. But in the light of what has been developed in this war and is projected for the future, I think we can say now that the alternative can be made even more precise: the alternative facing mankind is socialism or annihilation! It is a problem of whether capitalism is allowed to remain or whether the human race is to continue to survive on this planet.

We believe that the people of the world will waken to this frightful alternative and act in time to save themselves…

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James P. Cannon on the separation of church and state

January 22, 2015 at 6:02 pm (atheism, Catholicism, Christianity, Civil liberties, class, Free Speech, From the archives, Human rights, James P. Cannon, Marxism, posted by JD, religion, socialism, trotskyism, United States)

In view of the craven capitulation of sections of the “left” before religion in recent years (and, notably, following the Charlie Hebdo murders), it seems timely to reproduce the views of the great US Trotskyist James P Cannon. This article, entitled ‘Church and State’ originally appeared in the Militant (paper of the US Socialist Workers Party) of November 19, 1951. It was later republished in Notebook Of An Agitator (Pathfinder Press, 1958).

James P Cannon

It’s a fairly safe bet that President Truman didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he announced his decision to send a US. ambassador to the Vatican, nominating General Mark W. Clark to the post. Inhibited by training and constitutional disposition from seeing anything more important or farther in the future than the next election, he probably thought he was just firing off a cap pistol to attract “the Catholic vote in 1952. He didn’t know it was loaded.

But the recoil of the gun and the noise of the explosion leave no doubt about it. The shot heard ’round the country has had results undreamt of in the philosophy of the Pendergastian politico in the White House. A bitter controversy, long smoldering, has burst into a flame that brings both heat and light into American politics. Sides are being chosen for a fight. In my opinion, it’s a good fight worth joining in.

The First Amendment

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So reads the first clause of the first amendment to the U;S. Constitution, adopted under the pressure of the people to protect their rights and freedoms. The meaning of this constitutional provision is quite clear to all who have no special interest in muddling it. It is the doctrine of “the separation of church and state.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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James P. Cannon: A Blood Transfusion

April 25, 2014 at 6:05 pm (Anti-Racism, class, history, James P. Cannon, posted by JD, Racism, socialism, solidarity, United States, workers)

Claiming rights as Americans

Back in March, the sometime-socialist Seymour posted this piece of far-right apologia (and rank anti-Semitism) on his blog. He has since received a resounding rebuke, and replied – characteristically- with childish, yah-boo petulance  predicated upon the idea that long words equal serious thought. If I thought it would do this buffoon any good, I’d dedicate the following elementary lesson in the socialist attitude to race, to him:

The veteran Trotskyist James P. Cannon, writing in the US Socialist Workers Party’s paper The Militant, in May 1947:

Things are not exactly what they used to be in South Carolina. The mob of 31 white men who lined the Negro Willie Earl, and admitted it with ample detail in signed statements, were put to the inconvenience of a trial in court. That is something new. But it turned out to be a very small point, for the lynchers were all triumphantly acquitted and the dead man is still dead. That’s the same old story. Lynch law is still riding high; the courtroom “trial” only added a touch of mockery.

Well, that’s one way of handling the race problem and advertising the American way of life to the benighted peoples of the world, who were looking in and listening in through the press and the radio, and it may be safely assumed that the lesson will not be lost on them.

But I have seen it done another way — here in America too — and perhaps it would be timely now to report it as a footnote to the South Carolina affair. This incident occurred at Sandstone prison during our sojourn there in the fall of 1944. I wrote about it at the time in a letter, as fully as I could in the rigidly restricted space of the one sheet of paper allowed for prison correspondence. This left room only for the bare facts, a strictly news report without amplification. But I believe the factual story speaks well enough for itself as then reported, without any additional comment.

Here is the letter:

“I have seen a triumph of medical science which was also a triumph of human solidarity here at Sandstone. When I went up to the hospital at ‘sick call’ one day to have my sore toes dressed, I immediately sensed that something was missing, something was wrong. There were no nurses in evidence; the door of the doctor’s office was locked; and the other convicts on sick call were standing in the corridor in oppressive silence. The reason soon became manifest. Through the glass door of the record office, and beyond that through the glass door of the operating room, we could see the masked doctors and nurses moving back and forth around the operating table. Not a sound reached us through the double door. Now a doctor, now a nurse, moved in and out of view, only their heads, rather their drawn faces, showing, like figures on a silent movie screen.

“The word was passed along the ‘line’ in hushed whispers: a colored man was dying. A desperate emergency operation was failing; the poor black convict’s life was slipping out of the doctor’s hands like a greased thread. But we could see that the doctors were still working, still trying, and one could sense the unspoken thought of all the men on the line; their concern, their sympathy, and in spite of everything, their hope for their comrade on the operating table.

“After what seemed an endless time, the prison pharmacist who was assisting in the operation came out through the double door into the corridor. His face was a picture of exhaustion, of defeat and despair. There would be no ‘sick call’ he said: the doctors would not be free for some time. The case of the colored man was apparently hopeless, but the doctors were going to make one final desperate effort. They were sewing up the abdominal wound on the slender, practically non-existent chance that by blood transfusions, they could keep the man alive and then build up his strength for the shock of another stage of the complicated and drawn-out operation.

“Then came a new difficulty. The sick man’s blood was hard to ‘type’. The blood of the first colored fellow-convicts who volunteered was unsuitable. But the sick Negro got the blood he needed just the same. The white convicts rose up en masse to volunteer for transfusions. I think every man in our dormitory offered to give his blood. The sick man hung between life and death for weeks; but the life-giving fluid of the white convicts, steadily transfused into his body, eventually gave the strength for a second, and successful, operation.

“I sae him line up with the rest of us for the yard count yesterday, this Negro with the blood of white men coursing through his veins, and I thought: The whites, over the centuries, have taken a lot of blood from the blacks; it is no more than right that one of them should get a little of it back.”

(NB The US Socialist Workers Party, of which Cannon was leader, has nothing to do with the UK group of the same name).  

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The most laughable, preposterous and irrelevant left-wing faction fight … ever

January 29, 2014 at 9:21 pm (Beyond parody, comedy, ex-SWP, fantasy, gloating, good honest filth, James P. Cannon, jerk, Jim D, middle class, perversity, political groups, Pornography, Racism, strange situations, surrealism, wankers)

I was going to put a question-mark at the end of that headline, but on reflection decided not to. I think we can be unequivocal about this.

When I was a callow young Trotskyist and James P. Cannon fan, older, more experienced comrades told me that Cannon’s organisation, the American SWP (no relation to the Brit group of the same name) had gone off the rails very badly in the 1950’s, when Cannon began to take a back seat and handed the reins over to lesser figures like Joseph Hansen. Evidence of this petty bourgeois degeneration, I was told, was a ludicrous faction fight over the question of women’s cosmetics that threatened to tear the SWP apart. In the end, good ol’ James P. came out of semi-retirement to bang heads together and tell Hansen and the comrades to get a grip and stop arguing about such irrelevant nonsense. Anyway, that’s how I remember being told about it.

As you can imagine, I never (until now) took the trouble to investigate the matter in any detail, but if you’re interested, quite a good account is given here, and you can even read some of the contemporaneous internal documents here, if you scroll down to No. A-23, October 1954. On the other hand, like myself when I was first told about the Great Cosmetics Faction Fight (GCFF), you may feel that life’s too short…

The point being, that I’ve always carried round in the back of my mind a vague recollection of the GCFF as a prime example of petty bourgeois leftist irrelevance, and probably the most ridiculous and laughable left-group factional dispute of all time.

Until now.

The recent row within the International Socialist Network, resulting in the resignations of some of its most prominent members, makes the SWP’s GCFF look quite down to earth and sensible. If you ever wanted an example of why serious, socialist-inclined working class people all too often regard the far left as a bunch of irrelevant, posturing tossers, this is it. Don’t ask me what it’s all about, or what “race play” is. Comrade Coatesy gives some helpful background here and here. More detail for the serious connoisseur (aka “more discerning customer” wink, wink, reaching under the counter) here and here.

I’ll simply add, for now, that this preposterous business does appear to be genuine (rather than, as some might reasonably suspect, an exercise in sitautionist performance art and/or anti-left political satire) and is also one of those rather pleasing situations in which no-one in their right mind cares who wins: both sides are unspeakably awful self-righteous jerks. Actually, the ISN majority strike me as, if anything, even worse than Seymour, Miéville and their friend “Magpie” – if that’s possible. Still, it’s hard not to endulge in just a little schadenfreude at the discomfiture of Richard “Partially Contingent” Seymour, a character who’s made a minor career out of sub-Althussarian pretentiousness and “anathematising” others on the left for their real or imagined transgressions against “intersectionality“, and now falls victim to it himself.

Those who live by intersectionality, die by intersectionality.

Or, as Seymour himself put it in his seminal postgraduate thesis  Patriarchy and the capitalist state:

“My suggestion is that as an analytic, patriarchy must be treated as one type of the more general phenomena of gender projects which in certain conjunctures form gender formations. What is a gender formation? I am drawing a direct analogy with Omi and Winant’s conception of racial formations, which comprises “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed … historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized.” This is connected “to the evolution of hegemony, the way in which society is organized and ruled,” in the sense that racial projects are linked up with wider repertoires of hegemonic practices, either enabling or disrupting the formation of broad ruling or resistant alliances. A gender formation would thus be a ’sociohistorical process’ in which gender categories are ‘created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed’ through the interplay and struggle of rival gender projects. From my perspective, this has the advantage of grasping the relational, partially contingent and partially representational nature of gendered forms of power, and providing a means by which patriarchy can indeed be grasped in relation to historical materialism.”

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Old comrades

November 24, 2013 at 5:07 pm (good people, James P. Cannon, Jim D, left, Marxism, political groups, revolution, sectarianism, Shachtman, socialism, solidarity, song, trotskyism)

I’ve just returned from a get-together with some old comrades – in a couple of cases (well, three to be exact), people I’ve known more or less since first getting involved with the serious left in the early-to-mid seventies. It dawned on me that as well as being comrades they’re some of my oldest and closest friends. And one of them, at least, I rate amongst the most admirable and principled people I’ve ever known.

I also learned a new (well, new to me) sectarian song that some readers might enjoy:

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