James Cannon’s Sixtieth Birthday Speech
Sixtieth Birthday Speech
by James P. Cannon
[Transcribed from wire recording. Los Angelos, California March 4 1950. Reprinted in Notebook of an Agitator]
As you know, my sixtieth birthday, which also rounds out my 40 years of activity in the movement, was already celebrated at a dinner in New York, That was three weeks ago, but f haven’t grown a day older since then. Time has stood still for me during these three weeks because I was waiting for this second celebration in Los Angeles. I maintained that my sixtieth birthday was not official until it was celebrated here. As you know, I am partial to Los Angeles. Perhaps that is because the Los Angeles comrades have always been partial to me, and have always given me the benefit of their most generous judgment. I like that friendly indulgence; and as a matter of fact, I need it.
In these 40 years of struggle people have been talking about me ever since I started, and most of what was said–at least what I heard —was harsh and critical. Those who might have had other opinions Were not so articulate. I never complained about the brickbats tossed in my direction, and perhaps some people thought I was indifferent to the opinions of others. But that wasn’t the reason. I had simply learned to recognize hostile criticism as an occupational hazard of the political struggle. If you can’t take it you are licked before you start. I learned from Engels that when you go into revolutionary politics you should put on an old pair of pants. And I learned from Marx that you must not let people get you down with pinpricks. So I dressed for battle and developed a tough hide.
But still, I must tell you—although you won’t believe me—that when I used to hear people denouncing me and criticizing me, I was hurt and bewildered, for I am by nature friendly and peace-loving. I felt something like Eddie Waitkus, the star first-baseman of the Philadelphia Phillies, who was in the news the other day. He had an unfortunate experience with a deranged woman who was a total stranger to him. She lost her head, and for no reason at all, broke into his hotel room and shot him. They took Eddie to the hospital for an operation, and when he came out of the anesthesia they told him what had happened. His only comment was a question: “Why did she want to go and shoot a nice guy like me?” That is what f have thought all these years about my critics and opponents. They have been shooting the wrong guy all the time.
On the occasion of the celebration in New York, I received letters and telegrams from friends and comrades throughout the country. In several of them there was a recurrent note somewhat as follows: “Celebrating your 40 years in the movement, we expect you to give 40 more.” That sounds like a large order, but if, as it is said, longevity is determined by heredity, things might possibly work out that way. I come from a long-lived ancestry. All four of my grandparents lived into their eighties. Two of my aunts lived to be nearly 90. My father lived to be 89. It may be that I still have a long way to go. But I am not making any long-range commitments tonight.
Now I must frankly tell you that I have appreciated in the highest degree the joint celebration—this prolonged birthday—in New York and in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t go for the idea that I should stand in the corner and pretend not to know what was being prepared. I was the biggest promoter of the affair in New York.
I was assigned to be chairman of a public meeting where Vincent Dunne was the speaker, about a week before the birthday celebration. The New York organizer was in a dither as to how to announce my birthday celebration, with me as the chairman of the meeting. He thought it would be too delicate a matter for me to announce myself. When I called him up the afternoon of the meeting and asked him for last instructions about announcements, he said: “You don’t have to say anything about the dinner; that will he taken care of by someone else.”
I said, “Well, if I am chairman of the meeting, I might as well announce it”.
He said, “Would you?”
I said “Damn right I will. I’ve been waiting 60 years for this birthday!”
And I used the occasion of Vincent Dunne’s lecture to invite everybody down to the birthday party, and to make it very clear that I was as much in favor of it as anybody. I made only one proviso: I said, I want it to be a real party of friends and comrades, and I don’t want any enemies of our movement coming around telling me what a good fellow I am. I don’t want any Farleys or Baruchs or anybody else who has been opposed to the things I’ve fought for, coming around to give me some hypocritical personal compliments. I would feel dishonored if those whom I’ve fought against all my life came around to pay tribute to me on my sixtieth birthday.
I have enjoyed it here tonight, as I did in New York because there have been no formal compliments, no hypocritical praise – just, maybe, a little exaggeration. I understand that, and I don’t take it to heart. Flattery means falsehood, deceit. I take all the kind words you have said, rather, as what we Irish call the blarney. The blarney is not falsehood, it is the truth exaggerated and embellished to make it sound better. We always feel that under the husk of exaggeration there is a grain of truth and sincerity in the compliments, and we love the blarney.
After 40 years of experience, of ups and downs and battles and denunciations, criticisms and hardships and rewards – it is nice to sit down at the end of 40 years and hear the friendly words of comrades. Somebody once said: “The sweetest music a man ever heard is the applause of his fellows.” And if one can be sure, as I am tonight, that the applause is sincerely meant and freely given, it is doubly sweet.
I also like the fact that this drawn-out celebration, beginning in New York and ending here tonight, has not been isolated and separated from our life and our work, In New York it was simply one of the features of the plenum of our National Committee. We had already been meeting a whole day. We held the celebration in the evening, and then we went back the next morning into another session of the plenum to deal with the problems of today and tomorrow, and not merely to confine ourselves to reminiscences.
I don’t want to do that here tonight: but still I think I might be justified to make a brief review or, more correctly, a summary of these 60 years. Rose and I are the same age, with only a few weeks difference, and we have both been in the movement all our lives. This gathering marks her 60 years of life and 40 years of socialist activity too. In all the years we have been together, we never paid much attention to birthdays. The years went by. We were busy and had no time. I don’t even remember celebrating birthdays in our house as a rule. Not from year to year at any rate. But when we reached the age of 60, it occurred to both of us, as it has probably occurred to others who have reached that age, to take a little time out to think what has happened, and to make a sort of appraisal of the 60 years.
Speaking for myself, and making a bow to the acquisitive society we live in, I will begin with point one: What have you accumulated’? Well, even there it’s not so bad. I have a new suit of clothes which was given to me by a friend as a birthday present. I have my weekly allowance from Rose in my pocket. That’s more than I had to start with, and it’s as much as I ever had. So I feel that in the matter of accumulation, if I haven’t gained much ground I haven’t lost any. That’s a satisfactory inventory.
The second point I ask myself: What have you accomplished? There, I can tell you that I have perhaps made a more objective judgment than you have. I am one man who took seriously the injunction of the Greek philosophers: Man, know thyself. And if I don’t know myself, I’ve come as close to it as a man can. Because I know myself, I don’t claim great accomplishments. I am well aware of all the negligences and all the faults. I can’t, in good conscience, stand up and say that I did the best I knew; I only – did the best I could. That’s quite a difference. I only did the best I could, falling short of the best I knew, because I am human and therefore fallible and frail, prone to error and even to folly, like all others. In summing up the answer to that question — what have you accomplished? — I can only say honestly: I did the best I could.
Then I come to the third point of my self-examination: Has your life been consistent with your youth? For me that has always been the most decisive criterion, for one’s youth is the gauge to measure by. Youth is the age of wisdom, when our ideals seem to be, as they really are in fact, more important than anything else in the world. Youth is the age of virtue, or more correctly, the age of courage, which is the first virtue. Every man’s younger self is his better self.
The struggle for socialism, with all its hazards and penalties, has always been comparatively easy for me, throughout the entire 40 years, because my youth was always with me. My youth was like another person who never forsook me, not even in the darkest hours. It was then that he was always most vividly present as a friend, easygoing and indulgent as a friend should be, with a benign indifference to my faults and my follies which disturbed other people so much. The faults and follies never disturbed my younger self, and I liked that, because I like to have a little leeway in my personal life.
I never promised anybody to be perfect. I only promised to be myself and to be true to myself — that is, to my better self, to my youth. That in itself was a pretty big undertaking, easier to promise than to perform. And this seemed to be the view of my younger self, who followed me everywhere I went. He insisted on that, but on nothing more. He consistently checked me up on that. He was a friend, as I said, but also a censor and a judge — sometimes looking over my shoulder, sometimes looking me straight in the eye, but always confronting me with the one imperious command: Remember, I am your youth, don’t betray me!
As long as I didn’t do that—-and I never did –I felt sure, with never a doubt, that I was on the right road, even though it put me in the minority, and more often than not in the minority of the minority. That wasn’t my fault. I have been in the minority, not because I don’t like crowds, not because I am sectarian by nature, but because I couldn’t agree with the majority. I couldn’t agree with things as they are. I was in favor of things as they ought to be and will be.
That is what put me in the minority and out of step with the others. I found the explanation of that in the writings of Thoreau, and the justification for it too. Thoreau wrote: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Have 40 Years of activity, of struggle, of life, resulted in defeat or victory? That is a fair question to put on such an occasion as this. And I say the answer depends on how you measure defeat end victory. Our goal is the socialist society, and it is clear that that goal has not yet been attained. But in my youth, when I became a socialist, I associated the ideal of socialism with my own way of life. I decided to be a socialist and to live as a socialist, insofar as physical restrictions would permit, even within the capitalist society. And having that philosophy, I have felt that every little thing [ contributed from day to day to the struggle for the socialist goal of the future, was a vindication of my own life that day, and that every day was a victory. If one has that conception of socialism, and lives by it, he does not need to wait for the final victory of socialism. He has his own share of socialism as he goes along.
The prophet Joel, prophesying great things for his people. said: “Your young men shall see visions.” In my own youth I saw the vision of a new world, and I have never lost it. I came out of Rosedale, Kansas 40 years ago looking for truth and justice. I’m still looking, and I won’t give one percent discount.
I have always agreed with Emerson, who said: “He who has seen the vision of a better future is already a citizen of that future.” I take that literally. That was always true in my case. And that was all the reward I needed for anything done or given to the movement. I never found it possible, nor did I ever even think of renouncing my citizenship in the socialist future of humanity. And here with you tonight, in the midst of friends and comrades, I feel like a privileged citizen of the good society of the free and equal, of that future which Jack London so beautifully described as “the golden future when there will he no servants, naught but the service of love,”
It is very rarely, and only on the most exceptional occasions, that we revolutionists dare toy permit ourselves to express such sentiments, or even to utter such words. In the society which we have been fated to live in, a society divided into classes, deception and hypocrisy rule supreme. The noblest and most fraternal sentiments, which inspire the better selves of the great majority of the people in their relations with each other, are perverted for opposite uses and exploited for the selfish aims of’ a few.
The most beautiful and holy words that people have articulated to express their deepest feelings and their highest aspirations, have been so prostituted by misuse that they have lost their original values, like coins worn smooth from too much handling. All this perversion of sentiment and prostitution of language makes us cautious and reserved in expressing ourselves, lest we too sound like the hypocrites and the vulgarians who are so glib and free with the use of words which mean nothing to them.
But on this occasion, here among comrades, I will disregard that fear and tell you what I really think and feel, what I have always thought and felt since I became a socialist 40 years ago. I believe in people and in their unlimited capacity for improvement and progress through co-operation and solidarity. I believe in freedom, equality and the brotherhood of man. That is what we really mean when we say socialism. I believe in the power of fraternity and the love of comrades in the struggle for socialism. Walt Whitman said: “I will build great cities with the love of comrades.” I would go farther and say: We will build a great new world.
It is not illogical or inconsistent for us soldiers of the revolution to pause in the midst of our labors and our battles, as we do tonight, to rest and relax, to take it easy and have a good time. We are soldiers, that is true and therefore we must be Spartans. We must be able to endure hardship and privation, but we should never inflict it upon ourseIves. Soldiers and Spartans, yes but not aescetics. For socialism, the philosophy of the good life and the life more abundant, is alien to all asceticism. Socialism, if you stop to think about it, is the doctrine of the good time coming and “the great gettin’ up morning! “
That is how I have thought about it: and it was my good luck that this conception fitted so neatly with my own personal temperament. I just made a small amendment: if socialism means a good time for everybody in the future, why not have a good time in the struggle for socialism? I was always in favor of that. It wasn’t always possible. There were some tough times. Forty years of fighting for socialism was not all beer and skittles, as the British would say. But by and large, taking the good with the bad, I had a good time for 40 years and I really have no right to ask for sympathy. I had a good time, and perhaps that is one reason why I lasted longer than some of the others.
And finally, just by patience, the greatest achievement of all became mine. Just by having patience and waiting around I reached my sixtieth birthday, which formally ends tonight, and tomorrow morning I will be entering the first day of my sixty-first year. The question then naturally poses itself: What next? Rose and I have to answer that question, as we have answered every important question for 26 years, together.
When we were 40 we took stock of the situation at that time. That was when we had been expelled from the Communist Party for defending the program of Trotsky, and had to start all over again. We were 40—that’s older than 20—a little tired. We realized that revolution is rather a young people’s occupation, like athletics. But we had to recognize that the movement depended upon us more than ever then, and that we had to make an exception of ourselves. So we said: Well, we’ll give 10 more years to the party; after that perhaps they won’t need us so much.
Those 10 years passed so quickly, we didn’t have a chance to count them. Then we were 50. That was the time of the biggest fight for the existence of the party, in 1940, the fight with the petty-bourgeois opposition. Right in the middle of that fight we celebrated our fiftieth birthday, and we had to admit that we were still needed. There was nothing for us to do but agree to give 10 more years.
Those 10 years went by, busy, active years. We didn’t have much time to think about getting old. We were always on the go, both of us, and before we knew what had happened, we reached 60. So here we are, and where do we go from here?
Everybody, I suppose, gives to the movement what he can. It takes all kinds of contributions from all kinds of people to keep the movement going. All we ever had to give was our time, our years. So we sat down, on the eve of our sixtieth birthday, to consider one more donation. We thought: The party is growing, and growing up, and the demands upon us are not as heavy as they used to be. The young recruits of former times have become veterans. A great cadre of leaders has developed. They can do many things that we had to do in the past. We are by no means as much needed as we were 10 and 20 years aoo. But still, we thought, we might be useful if we’re there to help a little. So we decided: All right, we’ll give the party another 10 years. And then we’ll see.