James P. Cannon Memorial Meeting
James P. Cannon Memorial Meeting
by Jim Robertson
27 August 1974
[First printed in Spartacist #38-39, Summer 1986]
We have had a bittersweet response to Jim Cannon for a long time, and so when he died we had a false-but real feeling of loss. The loss took place a long time ago, but it was still incorporated in the living body of the man that is no more. I don’t have any thesis to propound tonight but I will argue that he does belong to us, not to the SWP. And he obviously knew pretty well long before he died, not that he belonged to us, but that he did not belong to the SWP.
What I want to present to you tonight is what the historians call oral history. I was told these things by senior comrades of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Workers Party (WP) who were in a position to know directly the various observations, anecdotes and characterizations. There is an inevitable slippage in the absence of documentation. But I believe it to be true. I believe it to be true not only in general, but precisely.
There is always a problem of generations in their understanding. I was raised in the WP (at the age of most of you) with the proposition that Jim Cannon was a supreme c1iquist, the meanest tiger in the bureaucratic jungle (and the phrase “bureaucratic jungle” is a standard phrase from the Shachtmanite movement). Then I joined the SWP and found that it was inconceivable from every aspect that Cannon could have been a c1iquist. He was a hard and lonely man. And I wondered why.
Here’s an anecdote. Bill Farrell, who was the organizer in San Francisco during the Shachtman fight, had occasion as a seaman to do an important courier mission. He came thousands of miles under a very difficult period, walked into comrade Cannon’s office and said: Here’s the stuff. Cannon said: All right, thank you, go. No backslapping, no glass of whiskey. no nothing. Cannon was an aloof man.
Art Sharon, who was the first SWP member of the United Secretariat, a very senior guy, always used to say, “James Perfidious Cannon.” And Sharon was a hard Cannonite! He was an old bosun turned construction site chief.
And I wondered why. You’ll find a clue in some of Cannon’s writings. The Cannon faction in the Communist Party (CP) was not the Cannon faction, it was not the Cannon/Shachtman faction; it was the Cannon/ Dunne faction. Dunne (William Dunne, Bill Dunne) stood a little less in stature than Cannon but was a strong independent leader, a figure of the American CP in the 1920s. They were very close collaborators: Cannon being the political leader, Dunne being the trade unionist. They were very close personally. Bill and Margaret Dunne and Jim and Rose Cannon shared an apartment in New York (they call them “communes” today I think but the reason was the same: cheap rent). They were very close. There were also a lot of other Dunne boys, about five of them. But Bill Dunne had the misfortune to be on Comintern assignment in Outer Mongolia when the Trotskyist split came in the United States. So he stayed with the CP. That was Cannon’s last best friend so far as I know. He didn’t have any other friends after that; he became personally entirely family-oriented.
Cannon had been through a lot of political battles already. As I trust all of you know, he’d been an ardent young Wobbly-looked to Vincent St. John-in the best revolutionary syndicalist section of the IWW. Then he went through all the factional brawls in the CP and wasn’t destroyed. I just don’t think he made any more friends after that. I think he probably felt that political friendships were too impermanent, and he stuck with his family.
The idea of this guy as a cliquist is absurd! In fact, the human dimension of the founding cadre of American Trotskyism was added by Martin Abern. Martin Abern was not a cliquist in the way that we know the word “cliquist.” He happened to be a very warm, sympathetic human being, an effective organizer, and deeply repelled by the cold, aloof Cannon. You want some of the testimony? The SWP’s Education/or Socialists series published “The Abern Clique” in which Joseph Hansen, a young Abernite, recounts how he was won over by this cold, aloof, impersonal James P. Cannon on the basis of the issues. I think that Cannon, out of personal hurt, bent the stick the other way and genuinely was not accessible in understanding the personal side of politics, the personal needs of comrades. So those needs, which we all carry, tended to become the monopoly of the Abern/ Shachtman group. The warmth and geniality of the Abern/Shachtman group were not artificial; they actually did service a part of the needs of the membership. This in turn assisted in laying the basis for a certain dual power situation in the American Trotskyist movement for ten years.
So why do we talk about Cannon’? Comrade Cannon for a number of decades in his prime evidently had “merely” one capacity, which has been sneered at, in a fundamental article by Shachtman which I’ll get to later, and extravagantly by all kinds of mice like Tim Wohlforth and every sort of wiseacre (Wohlforth by his own modest admission is the first American Marxist). All that comrade Cannon could do-and it was not a personal capacity but was evolved out of his times and out of his battles-was to be the successful strategist and leader of a proletarian revolution in North America! That was what he was. That was his strength and that’s why we memoriaiize him now.
I don’t know much about his early history. Let me talk a bit about his wife. Rose Karsner was a very strong individual and seems to fit the stereotype of the hidden history of women. You will hardly find a documentary track of her record. She was a pretty tough cookie and played a major role: there was obviously always a significant political collaborative relationship between Rose Karsner and Jim Cannon. It was manifestly there.
Near the end I saw it myself. It was the last time I ever saw Cannon, and Rose had come in from listening to that horrible woman who wrote something about how Shakespeare was a Marxist: Annette Rubenstein. Rubenstein was on tour and Rose drew the assignment to go. She came back while I was sitting there talking with old Jim. She walked in, a sprightly little creature, kind of like a sparrow, and said “Garbage! Disgusting! Stalinist!” Just laid it all over the old man.
They did not come together when they were young. Rose Karsner had been David Karsner’s wife. He was an early biographer of Debs. They had had at least one child. She came to work in the International Labor Defense (ILD) that Cannon was running, and rapidly became assistant director. I do know that when Cannon was out of town she reported to the PolCom on behalf of the ILD.
About Cannon’s kids. One of them died quite miserably and tragically. This is a piece of party history that will sound very strange in terms of the SWP of today-like an act of idiot adventurism. Those who say that the SWP during the period of the Second World War was not trying to be internationalist ought to think on this. The SWP knew that the Russian political revolution was very important.
We had many party seamen in those days; some went on the Murmansk run. Comrade Bill is old enough to know what that meant-whole convoys were dispersed and you lasted 30 seconds in the water. Take a look at that book Maritime by Frederick J. Lang (Frank Lovell) and you’ll see how many seaman comrades were lost in the war. One of them was Cannon’s kid [son-in-law Edward Parker].
I knew a party comrade [Barney Cohen] (he was in the U.S. Navy) out ofthe Boston branch. Murmansk convoys were made up on the East Coast, final assembly was in Boston. Then they would make the bigjump, around North Cape (where they’d die) and then to Murmansk in north Russia. Finally the branch insurrected as the convoy was assembling-they went in and pulled all of the party comrades off that convoy (which of course was shot to pieces). That insurrection taught the party leadership something: that this was a mechanical thing that was using up the party members.
I want to talk about a couple of myths or rumors about Cannon. They say he drank … (I got an awful lot of this in the Shachtmanite organization, believe me.) Well he drank all right. But he wasn’t an alcoholic, he was a drunkard. He’d go off the wagon once in a while on a big bender. Rose used to track him all across the country. She was really worried when he left town. He’d make promises; she’d try to monitor him. She exercised a lot of control and tried to suppress it. I don’t know about the earlier drinking, but one of the last bouts he ever had (and he quit long before he died) was I think in about 1955. He hit San Francisco on one of the last tours he ever made. They had stashed him in a hotel but the old boy got loose, and he laid one on. They found him, and the organizer (a nice woman, Francis James, a Weissite) was really angry. They started pouring coffee into him, denouncing him, saying they were going to phone New York and have his ass before the National Committee. How could he do such a thing? Well, they got him pretty sobered up (they thought) and brought him into the meeting. The SWP had little affectations in those days, so they had Nora Roberts and a couple of other little girls running around collecting money from the audience. Cannon gave what was apparently a magnificent speech, and the baskets of money came forward. And he started taking the money and throwing the bills all over the stage!
Rose found out about it, of course, and I think that was the last time he ever broke loose on tour. Seriously. And you see what I mean about anecdotes. This story is testified to by four or five comrades that were present at that incident, but it’s still oral history. It really happened (that’s why I’m taking the trouble to tell it to you) but I don’t think one can put this in an obituary. I guess Cannon was under a lot of pressure and that this was a safety valve.
By the way, Rose was a militant socialist feminist of the 1910s and 1920s. “Feminist” meant something else then among other things was that marriage was an abomination: it was bowing down and putting on chains before a man and before the state. So Rose would never marry, and she and Cannon were never married until they got very old and were told that if they were to get Social Security in retirement they’d have to get married. They were in their sixties when they went through the legal ceremony-and then, to her utter disgust-they found out that an affidavit instead of this odious act would have done it! But I have to regretfully report to you that they died as man and wife.
The main source-virtually the only source that I know of-for all anti-Cannon material comes out of an article that Max Shachtman wrote in the January-February 1954 issue of New International (“25 Years of American Trotskyism”- Part I of a two-part appraisal). In order to set Cannon up for the attack, Shachtman had to acknowledge as a precondition that Cannon was the finest communist politician ever produced in this country. Having explained the importance of the target, Max then went to work on demolishing the target. And everything that Wohlforth and others have written against Cannon is drawn straight out of that article! Nobody wants to acknowledge that, because the author and the circumstances aren’t too creditable.
Shachtman only wrote part one, carrying the story through 1940, and we waited for a long time but he never could write part two. The reason was that it was already pretty late and he was getting ready to liquidate the International Socialist League (ISL) and to acknowledge that there was no systematic and principled basis for a centrism that stood between the revolutionary Marxism of Trotsky and the social democracy. He’d arrived at that conclusion, so he just could not write a history going beyond 1940. But he tried to do the job on Cannon-did a pretty good job, too, everybody has borrowed from it.
But there is a problem here and I want to talk about it a little bit. Most of life is contradictory and equivocal. It’s not written in black and white but in shades of grey-which at the same time possess qualitative decisiveness. And it’s that combination-that everything is in shades of grey and at the same time behind the shades of grey lie fundamental truth and falsity-which is one of the hardest things in historical interpretation. It is necessary to grasp this in order to arrive at the answer of what to do today.
It is unfortunate that there are not many more of the historical materials of Russian Menshevism available, so that the comrades could be treated to just how plausible, how often correct, how sensible, the Mensheviks were (on many occasions) as against the Bolsheviks. What we have handed down to us instead is a version of “revealed truth” as from the Bible: Lenin said such and such, Martov said such and such; obviously Lenin was right and Martov was wrong. That is the fundamental truth. But if you had been there then, comrades, it would not have been so obvious, and over particulars Martov would have been right! And Trotsky, then a Menshevik, would have been right on certain key political questions too. That is the problem of historical interpretation: it is not a religious act, to find an essential purity which because it is essential must therefore be total. If the comrades learn nothing else from their reading and their study, they should learn that. Because when faction fights break out around us, there’s going to be so much truth on both sides that if you resort to either accepting secondary grounds as your basic determinant of action, or, if you resort to the ultimate philistinism: “Well, there’s truth on both sides, and where there’s smoke there’s fire”-then you had better give up and start trying to sell used cars.
So there’s a problem with contradictory, equivocal phenomena, and Cannon was contradictory. Cannon had an abiding failure. He became the principal individual authority responsible for the world Trotskyist movement in August 1940 and basically didn’t do anything about it (though the SWP was internationalist and willing to commit energy, lives). I think the reason was pretty simple: Cannon felt he was not good enough to be a world leader of the Marxist movement, and he was right.
He had just come back from France. We secured a particularly rare internal SWP bulletin containing Cannon’s report on his trip to France in 1939. The trip, it is clear, was a catastrophe. Cannon didn’t know French; the French leaders ignored him. He saw that the situation was going utterly to hell. He had at his fingertips a mass of experience in how to function-nobody would listen. Cannon spent six months in France while Shachtman, Burnham and Abern were doing the job back home. The trip was a failure: Cannon found that he could not work internationally. That was in 1939-then came the big fight in ’40.
And then suddenly he was supposed to be the principal political leader. moreover under conditions in which the world, as a result of the Second World War, was desperately segmented. So he backed away from the role, temporized during the war. As soon as Michel Pablo, Pierre Frank and Ernest Mandel came along and claimed they knew how to do it-claimed they had the language capacity, the knowledge, the science, the savoir-faire (poor old Jim; he’s just an ex-train worker from the Midwest) Cannon said all right, these guys will do it. They don’t have any experience; they don’t know anything; they’re arrogant. (There’s a phrase that the fancy sociologists in colleges like to use-and when I had to fight Shachtmanite right-wingers I learned plenty of these sociological jargon/ mystification words-called “hubris.” And among other qualities good and bad, Pablo sure had hubris!)
So Cannon backed off, and we’re stuck with the job. He stuck us with it doubly. Because he was a lot better than we are-and when I say “he” I mean not only Cannon personally but the immediate working crew that made up the “Cannon regime” (horrible word: for 20 years every Shachtmanite thrilled with horror at the image of the jackbooted, anti-intellectual, vicious Cannon regime).
Well there was a Cannon regime, and they were doing the best they could. But they didn’t accept the international challenge, and yet it is an obligation. Yes, if you know that you don’t know anything, go patiently, quietly, perseveringly; struggle with the greatest patience and attention for international collaborators. We have to go that way, not back off and wait in national isolation for somebody else to come forward and say, “I can do it,” and then we say, “all right; we’ll give you our authority.” We have to persist; we have to intervene.
That was Cannon’s abiding failure. And then he did it to us a second time, in the 1952-53 period. The party got all geared up in 1945-46: it was growing like crazy; it survived the Smith Act convictions; recruited a thousand workers, black and white-the first black Trotskyist cadre hundreds of white steel workers, auto workers both black and white. And so they said, “Whoopee,” and Cannon wrote The Coming American Revolution. It was an affirmation of the power of the proletariat, but already it had faults-I’ll give you three right off the bat: it ignored racial divisiveness; it ignored the existence of the Communist Party; and it ignored the rest of the world outside the United States! Allowing only for these three criticisms, it was really great. Really. That’s called an equivocal position. Ardent SWPers sworn to protect their heritage no matter what will say it was a perfect set of theses; if you run into somebody who says Cannon never did nothing right they’ll say it was an abomination.
It had a strength: it was an affirmation of the power of the proletariat in America. That stands out, like a beacon. At the same time it was badly politically flawed, and the reaction which would have come anyhow was perhaps intensified by the weaknesses in the document. “Cannon promised us this and that, and now we’re losing all our members and we’re getting cynical; we’ve got to find a shortcut, and besides the Stalinists do exist”-you got the phenomenon of American Pabloism, which is not exactly the same thing as European Pabloism.
Cannon was a good faction fighter. I recommend to you comrades to go and read either Theodore Draper’s American Communism and Soviet Russia or Cannon’s The First Ten Years of American Communism on the faction Cannon put together in 1923-1924. He got six thousand Finnish farmers, two internecine warring factions of the Jewish Federation, more mutually hostile trade unionists, disgruntled elements in the other factions-and he put it all together and made it go. Well, he did the same thing in 1952-53, and it was a catastrophic mistake. The Cochranites attacked on two fronts: they attacked Trotskyism as a political program and they attacked the existence of an independent SWP organization. We had about a hundred young comrades under Murry and Myra Weiss, mainly in Los Angeles, in the party at the time. And they still had some spunk and steam. So the Cannon/Weiss faction was formed of those who wanted to defend the party program. Go and read what Murry Weiss wrote in the I’-‘filitant in the summer of 1953 on the East German uprising: Hurray, the proletariat raises its fist. The need now is for a Leninist party to consummate the political revolution and lay the foundation for the revolution against capitalist imperialism! Very good, very correct. You can also read what the Cochranites had to say: Hurray, the Russian bureaucracy is liberalizing itself. In the same paper, sometimes on facing pages.
But the Cochranites also proposed to liquidate the independent party organization, which meant to attack the wages and pensions of Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry, Hansen, and a bunch of other fellows who were perfectly content to let the European Pabloites do anything they wanted, or to pursue any pOlitical line in this country, as long as it was going to be pursued from the organizational framework of the SWP. (And this isn’t just a venal question of needing operations which the party would pay for, pensions and the like. The organization was their whole life.) They had become politically blunted but were not prepared to organizationally liquidate.
So the political revisionism and organizational liquidationism of the American Pabloites brought together in response a common faction, which was a bloc inside the SWP, of Cannon and Dobbs. The deal was made to get rid of the Cochranites and restore the prior peace in the party. That was wrong. Cannon said at the end of the fight that he had feared he might have to start all over again with a hundred kids. Oh how I wish he had started again with just the Cannon/Weiss faction; he would have done our job for us. (The Weissites of course were destroyed in the course of the ensuing clique wars.) So that’s the second thing Cannon did to us.
It took Dobbs 25 years to get rid of Cannon! It wasn’t until 1965 that finally they got the old man off the National Committee-kicked him upstairs to emeritus (consultative) status. Then with the greatest of satisfaction Dobbs called Carl Feingold into his office-Carl Feingold (currently of the International Socialists) being the personal representative and spy of old Jim and in the center-and said: Carl, you’re a member of the National Committee and the Political Committee; get out of here, I never want to see you again-because Cannon was off the Committee.
But by then Dobbs was a very shaky old man; he aged faster than Jim did. I traveled a bit with Dobbs in 1960 and he’d gone grey in the face; he was tired, exhausted, couldn’t cut it. But that goes into the later history of the SWP and how they finally ended up with Barnes (having tried some of the more feeble-minded party leaders of my acquaintance in the middle of the 1960s).
So Dobbs never got satisfaction-he never really got to be the party leader. For 25 years they kept him in the wings; Cannon would keep going out to L.A. saying: This is it; I give up; I understand, younger men must take over-and then something would happen and Cannon would get on the phone again. So I don’t think Dobbs had a very happy life.
Dobbs was never a political leader. That raises an interesting point, by the way, about the kind of leader that Cannon was. He was a political leader not a trade unionist. If you read the Shachtman stuff you’ll think he was a trade unionist; he wasn’t. He was the communist political leader that the party trade unionists had confidence in and looked to-so long as they wanted, themselves, to be communists. That was the core of his link with the Dunne boys and the rest of that gang in Minneapolis, and Tom Kerry, and the ones that were deep into the Sailors Union of the Pacific out on the West Coast, and Bert Cochran and the gang that was working in the UA W. Trade unionists-those were the ones. And they trusted him; they looked to Cannon because they thought he was trying to build a workers party. (And they weren’t too sure about Max-he made too many jokes.)
In that connection, one of the particularly malicious things that Shachtman did to Cannon in that article was to suggest that part of being a trade unionist, as everybody knows, is to be an idiot, a goon and inarticulate. Suggesting that Cannon was “just” a trade unionist was a way of saying that Cannon couldn’t think or write; you’ll find a big section about how Cannon never wrote anything. But Cannon was a very good journalist. They made a kind of prize collection which you should read; it’s called Notebook of an Agitator, and if you want to see the kind of stuff that Workers Vanguard ought to be trying to get, that stuff is it. It’s very clear. It’s the hardest thing in the world, comrades, to write correctly and simply, because to write correctly tends to involve complex sentences with complex words. Cannon was also, in his polemical material, an extremely precise and effective political writer-very powerful. He tried to retain a popular quality about his writing.
But if I had to describe Cannon as anything, he was in his life, until he became a very old man, a Leninist. Leninism meant something precious for him. To us it is “received doctrine” and that’s what I was attacking a little bit: there’s a weakness in received doctrine, namely it’s just received doctrine. But comrade Cannon had struggled with all the problems that Leninism answered. As a young man he was a syndicalist and he had to fight the questions of maximalism/ minimalism, possibilism/ impossibilism, parliamentarianism/ anti-parliamentarianism-all these questions. For him, “Left- Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder was a revelation, because it showed him how you could be both right and smart at the same time. Leninism bridged that gap.
When Cannon embraced Leninism it was as a brand new thing: out of the peculiar alchemy of the combined developments in tsarist Russia there came this doctrine that answered the impasses of the workers movement in the west. That was the contemporary meaning of Leninism for that generation. Cannon had been a syndicalist and not a parliamentarian. I think it was Trotsky who said that when we founded the communist movement the best we got came from the syndicalists. Because you see, there was a choice: the social democrats would rather be smart than right, and the syndicalists would rather have been right than smart. There’s a gut question there, and the Communist International got more mileage out of those who came over from the syndicalist movement than from the social democracy.
If Cannon was a cold aloof guy he was also obviously fundamentally very sentimental. Have you read what Cannon has written on Martin Abern? Cannon said: Martin Abern has spent ten years struggling against the Cannon regime. But they’d also had a long time together in the 1920s. In 1949 Martin Abern died and Cannon turned up drunk and crying at his funeral. Cannon came because he’d known him for too many decades. Marty Abern was not a bad man, and he was not a calculating cliquist. I really don’t see that, and you won’t either if you read the material. I think he tended to put personal relations above political ones and to be deeply committed to personal relations. Of course, that makes the most terrible, desperate, effective kind of cliquist-you know, the one who really btdieves in it, who’s not just a cynical maneuverer, but who really subordinates political to personal considerations.
Now if there’s anything that has been a significant historical acquisition for the Spartacist League it is getting the Communist League of America (CLA) bulletins for the first five years. It had been for a long time clear to me that I could never try to finish the history of American Trotskyism without looking into the Cannon vs. Shachtman fight of the early 1930s-the first big wracking fight. Even the documents that are now available to you all, namely Trotsky’s letters that appear in the Collected Works series, that they’re now bringing out, were completely unknown when I was a young comrade. Now we’ve got the bulletins If you read that stuff, in an inchoate way, without a clear programmatic basis, it was a prefiguring, an anticipation, of the 1940 fight. They fought like hell, and Trotsky said: Stop it! You’re killing yourselves; it’s not clear what is going on. Then what happened was Shachtman went over. Just Shachtman. The Shachtmanite faction remained in opposition: Glotzer (Gates), Abern, the youth. And there was a dual power situation, but so long as the ShachtmanjCannon regime held, Shachtman was able to neutralize his ex-supporters. There was another deal that was made too: The hardest of the Cannonites was Hugo Oehler. He didn’t buy the deal and went out. So the party ran under conditions which I cannot imagine how Cannon put up with, the tension of always buying time, of always dickering, of always negotiating. Fina\1y in 1939 the fundamental programmatic issues, under the pressure of the war and antiCommunism, seized each faction. And it blew up. It was stunning to find out that the American Trotskyist movement in the 1930s-in a sense, at the top-never real1y existed. It was always an uneasy truce.
That’s why one should go and read documents. Not just mindlessly. but in order to answer the questions which more broad historical considerations should raise.
One likes to make one’s personal reminiscences too. This was the finest communist that America has produced, and he died. I had four contacts with him. He sent me a letter one time. It was the only letter he ever sent a member of the YSA.
By the way, there’s a point: our faction in the SWP were never soreheads. We liked the party leadership fine. Tom Kerry, Farrell Dobbs, Joe Hansen, Jim Cannon, George Weissman, the rest of the gang-there were a lot of things wrong; we were pretty clear-eyed about them. But there were a lot of things right about them too. Our faction worked in the SWP. We made a political choice and we knew what it meant. Wohlforth didn’t make it in the SWP, you better know that. They didn’t like him, didn’t trust him.
So I got this letter from Cannon. It was a nice letter. It asked me to bring his personal greetings to a professor at Brown University, a historian of the American Federation of Labor, who he said did something much more important in his youth: he was a fine Wobbly and we worked together and I wonder if you would tell him. give him my personal greetings. I thought that was a very nice commission.
Got to know Cannon pretty well in 1958 I guess. The SWP was giving me the red carpet treatment. It was nice to get the red carpet treatment. So there was a West Coast summer camp and by “accident” we shared common quarters with Jim and Rose Cannon. So I had a long chance to talk with the old man. And it was good. He thought he was going blind then. He had cataracts and was about to have an operation which they might botch. So he was furiously, desperately sitting there with his pipe and strong tea (because he was on the wagon by then) reading. for what he thought might be the last time in his life. What book? The Revolution ‘Betrayed. He was trying to commit it to memory, the whole book. I liked him. I don’t think he liked me. He thought I was a wise-ass smart student. But I liked him.
And then just after we had a YSA Convention up in Detroit over New Year’s, we came back driving and we went out to the desert to see Cannon to make a personal report. He already had the “real” report from that little rat, Feingold, who was at the Convention too. We got to see Cannon in the desert and that was very useful, because in the WP/ISL we had always heard the myth: Cannon’s stepchildren are very rich and Cannon lives out in the Southern California desert in a marble palace. Alas, he lived in a little bitty motel room. And the reason he lived out in the desert was, his wife had a case of arrested TB and had to have a very dry, warm ,climate. There they were cooped up in the winter period under these extremely meager, crowded conditions. So if you ever run into the myth of Cannon’s marble palace-I was there. We’re living better right now.
And the last time I ever saw him, we were in opposition and it was a kind of formal meeting. I was coming through on tour in L.A. for the youth org. At the same time I knew my throat had been cut, Cannon knew my throat had been cut; only Wohlforth didn’t know that his throat had been cut. So I went and made the formal meeting with comrade Cannon. We agreed mutually without saying anything not to talk about the active political questions. And I sat around and had three or four hours with him, chatting. (That’s when Rose came in halfway through, having gone to see this awful Annette Rubenstein.) Just for what it’s worth, those are my personal reminiscences of comrade Cannon, and they have no bearing on the politics and the main course of his career because I only knew him at the very end.
I said that I thought he didn’t like the SWP very much and here’s the reason why. In 1965 I had a talk with the Seattle leadership of the SWP-the Fraserites-who had just been thrown out or quit, and they mentioned that Cannon had broken loose in the West Coast summer camp and before two hundred people he denounced black nationalism in favor of class unity. Now, he did it from the right. It wasn’t very good. At that point some members of the SWP were playing with-it sounds so funny today something called the “Triple Revolution”: poverty’s been abolished, war’s been abolished, racism’s been abolished by new technology. Now there’s been this triple revolution, what are we going to do next? Doesn’t that sound absurd today? But it’s a fancy idea and Cannon was kind of drawn into it.
But he was also violently an anti-nationalist of all sorts. Go and look in his The First Ten Years of American Communism, his article called “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement” and you’ll see that he thought there was only one thing: a proletarian revolution. And so the combination of his quietism as a very old man and his fundamental instinct for a class solution … he blew up and denounced the party line in front of two hundred people. Jack Barnes, coming through Seattle, said: Well, we may have to take disciplinary action against Jim Cannon. He can’t get away with this sort of thing. But by then he was truly quite old; there was no question of any other kind of struggle. The SWP was what he had to cling to, and he chose to ride it down to the end. At the same time he was old, he was feeble, and his wife had died-and she meant a lot to him. So I think probably Cannon was glad to die. There wasn’t much left for him. He was used up.
So there you have it. And the problem is that the story is a pretty common human story-namely, that he went from being a revolutionist to being an acquiescent supporter, lending his authority to a party that had become counterrevolutionary (and that’s the meaning of the SWP). And that’s kind of sad. Yet in balance it is our task, not to ignore the last ten years, but to pay a great deal of attention to the first fifty years too.
I’ll give you an example. George Plekhanov was the founder of Russian Marxism, a brilliant propagandist not theoretician, he wasn’t that good-but a brilliant propagandist. He wrote the books that trained the generation of Lenin. He tried several times to go over from Menshevism to Bolshevism, and kept falling back. He played a despicable role in the First World War in defense of tsarism. At the end he died in 1919 and he never lifted a finger against the Russian Revolution. He said: The Russian workers have made a terrible mistake but it is their choice and I will not oppose them on behalf of the bourgeoisie. A contradictory figure. But anybody who thinks that we should erase a George Plekhanov, or a Jim Cannon, from the heritage of Marxism only has a Wohlforthite theological conception (not even a real one: see, there is theology, which represents simply fundamental oversimplification). It’s a falsification as well as a theological viewpoint. And that’s all really that I have to say. I suppose it comes down to this: that when finally life was extinguished in the old man’s body, I felt a little bit more an orphan.