Communist League of America

James Cannon, the first chairman of the American Communist Party, attended the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928. While in the Soviet Union he was given a document written by Leon Trotsky on the rule of Joseph Stalin. Convinced by what he read, when he returned to the United States he criticized the Soviet government. As a result of his actions, Cannon and his followers were expelled from the party.

James Cannon and Max Shachtman now joined with other Trotskyists to form the Communist League of America. The party also published the journal, The Militant. In 1938 the party changed its name to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

James Cannon was arrested under the Alien Registration Act in 1941. He was detained in Sandstone Prison and was not released until 1945. Cannon remained as national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party until replaced by Farrell Dobbs in 1953. Dobbs was the SWP's presidential candidate in 1960 but received only 60,166 votes. He retired as the SWP's national secretary in 1972.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In a letter to Theodore Draper written on 27th May 1959, James Cannon explained why he decided to support Leon Trotsky in 1928.

In the summer of 1928 in Moscow, in addition to the theoretical and political revelation that came to me when I read Trotsky's Criticism of the Draft Program of the Comintern, there was another consideration that hit me where I live. That was the fact that Trotsky had been expelled and deported to far away Alma Ata; that his friends and supporters had been slandered and expelled and imprisoned; and that the whole damned thing was a frame-up!

Had I set out as a boy to fight for justice for Moyer and Haywood in order to betray the cause of justice when it was put squarely up to me in a case of transcendent importance to the whole future of the human race? A copybook moralist could easily answer that question by saying: "Of course not. The rule is plain. You do what you have to do, even if it costs you your head." But it wasn't so simple for me in the summer of 1928. I was not a copybook moralist. I was a party politician and factionalist who had learned how to cut corners. I knew that at the time, and the self-knowledge made me uneasy.

I had been gradually settling down into an assured position as a party official with an office and staff, a position that I could easily maintain - as long as I kept within definite limits and rules which I knew all about, and conducted myself with the facility and skill which had become almost second nature to me in the long drawn out factional fights.

I knew that. And I knew something else that I never told anybody about, but which I had to tell myself for the first time in Moscow in the summer of 1928. The footloose Wobbly rebel that I used to be had imperceptibly begun to fit comfortably into a swivel chair, protecting himself in his seat by small maneuvers and evasions, and even permitting himself a certain conceit about his adroit accommodation to this shabby game. I saw myself for the first time then as another person, as a revolutionist who was on the road to becoming a bureaucrat. The image was hideous, and I turned away from it in disgust.

I never deceived myself for a moment about the most probable consequences of my decision to support Trotsky in the summer of 1928. I knew it was going to cost me my head and also my swivel chair, but I thought: What the hell - better men than I have risked their heads and their swivel chairs for truth and justice. Trotsky and his associates were doing it at that very moment in the exile camps and prisons of the Soviet Union. It was no more than right that one man, however limited his qualifications, should remember what he started out in his youth to fight for, and speak out for their cause and try to make the world hear, or at least to let the exiled and imprisoned Russian Oppositionists know that they had found a new friend and supporter.

(2) James Cannon, The Militant (January 1, 1929)

In the period that has intervened since our expulsion on October 25, we have continued to regard ourselves as party members and have conducted ourselves as Communists, as we have done since the foundation of the party, and even for years before that. Every step we have taken has been guided by this conception. Those acts which went beyond the bounds of ordinary party procedure in bringing our views before the party were imposed upon us by the action of the party leadership in denying us the right and opportunity to defend our views within the party by normal means. Our views relate to principled questions, and therefore it is our duty openly to defend them in spite of all attempts to suppress them.

We are bound to do this also in the future under all circumstances. However, we said on October 25, and we repeat now, that we are unconditionally willing to confine our activity to regular party channels and to discontinue all extraordinary methods the moment our party rights are restored and we are permitted to defend our views in the party press and at party meetings. The decision and the responsibility rest wholly with the majority of the Central Executive Committee.

Events since our expulsion have only served to confirm more surely the correctness of the views of the Russian Opposition, which we support. The momentous developments in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and throughout the Comintern have that meaning and no other. Life itself is proving the validity of their platform. Even those who fought that platform, who misrepresented it and hid it from the party and the Comintern, are today compelled, under the pressure of events and forces which overwhelm them, to give lip service to it, to pretend to adopt it. Many of the statements and proposals of the Opposition which were branded "counterrevolutionary" a year ago are today solemnly repeated, almost word for word, as the quintessence of Bolshevism.

Meanwhile their sponsors - the true leaders and defenders of the Russian Revolution - remain in exile, and there is no guarantee whatever that the presently advertised "left course" will mean anything more than a cover for further concessions to the right wing, whose policy directly undermines the dictatorship. The victorious fight of the party masses in Russia and throughout the Comintern against this disgraceful and dangerous course cannot be much longer postponed.

Bureaucratic suppression has its own logic. It begins with the expulsion of individuals and ends with the disruption of the movement. Yesterday we saw the attempt to suppress the views of the Oppositionists who fight the party regime on principled grounds. Today already, in spired resolutions from the party units are making the same demand against the limited criticisms of the Foster group, with the threat of organizational measures after the packed and gerrymandered convention has "endorsed" the regime. Bureaucratism is alien to the proletarian Communist movement. Bureaucratism cannot stand criticism. It cannot stand discussion. Bureaucratism, which is an expression of bourgeois influence, and Lenin's proletarian doctrine cannot live together.

The regime of bureaucratic strangulation, which expels its outspoken opponents and bludgeons the party into silence, has become an international phenomenon of the period. This is the only key to an understanding of its absolutely unprecedented excesses. A real struggle against it cannot be made without an understanding of its international scope. On this, as well as on the other principled questions, the fight of the proletarian Communist elements in all parties unites with the Bolshevik fight of the Russian Opposition under the leadership of Trotsky.

At the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Stalin issued a warning against the course he later adopted, and predicted its disruptive consequences. He defended there the refusal to expel Trotsky from the Political Bureau and said: "We are against the policy of lopping off, of bloodletting (it was blood they wanted). It is a dangerous thing. One day you lop off this limb. Tomorrow another, and the next day a third. And after a while, what becomes of the party?"

Stalin forgot these words so full of prophetic significance. He formed a factional combination with the right wing to suppress and expel the left, the Opposition. He gave the signal for the same line in all the parties of the Comintern. As a result, in the recent years we have seen everywhere a strengthening of the opportunist elements, an enormous development and entrenchment of bureaucratism, and wholesale expulsions of the proletarian left - the core of the workers' vanguard. All the little Stalins in all the parties are bolstering themselves up by these means.

(3) James Cannon, History of American Trotskyism (1944)

The movement which then began in America brought repercussions throughout the entire world; overnight the whole picture, the whole perspective of the struggle changed. Trotskyism, officially pronounced dead, was resurrected on the international arena and inspired with new hope, new enthusiasm, new energy. Denunciations against us were carried in the American press of the party and reprinted throughout the whole world, including Pravda. Russian Oppositionists in prison and exile, where sooner or later copies of Pravda reached them, were notified of our action, our revolt in America. In the darkest hour of the Opposition's struggle, they learned that fresh reinforcements had taken the field across the ocean in the United States, which by virtue of the power and weight of the country itself, gave importance and weight to the things done by the American communists.

Leon Trotsky, as I remarked, was isolated in the little Asiatic village of Alma Ata. The world movement outside Russia was in decline, leaderless, suppressed, isolated, practically non-existent. With this inspiring news of a new detachment in faraway America, the little papers and bulletins of the Opposition groups flared into life again. Most inspiring of all to us was the assurance that our hard-pressed Russian comrades had heard our voice. I have always thought of this as one of the most gratifying aspects of the historic fight we undertook in 1928 - that the news of our fight reached the Russian comrades in all corners of the prisons and exile camps, inspiring them with new hope and new energy to persevere in the struggle.