Building the revolutionary socialist party today: celebrating James P. Cannon’s legacy

Max Eastman, James P. Cannon, and Big Bill Haywood in the Soviet Union in 1924.

Max Eastman, James P. Cannon, and Big Bill Haywood in the Soviet Union in 1924.

The following pieces by Ernie Gotta and Erwin Freed were based on talks given to a recent meeting of Socialist Resurgence commemorating the 131st birthday of the founder of Trotskyism in the U.S., James P. Cannon. 


Our meeting tonight was called to consider and celebrate the contributions of James P. Cannon on his birthday. Our meeting is taking a look at the past to find meaning and direction today, and to look toward the future for the next steps in our collective struggle for socialism. What in Cannon’s legacy do we in Socialist Resurgence think is important? How does Cannon’s thinking on the question of party building help us understand how to reconcile the problems of workers and students who, while having many ideological divisions, are beginning to stir?

Cannon would likely conclude (I think this is obvious) that the revolutionary leadership of the working class in our present moment is in poor condition. He might suggest that our historic role in 2021 must be in reforging a revolutionary leadership in the U.S. with a deeply internationalist perspective. As we begin resolving the problems of revolutionary socialist leadership in the U.S. through fusions and regroupments, we’ll have to do the same internationally as well.

In Socialist Resurgence we see our involvement in the Revolutionary Socialist Network as part of that process. A new revolutionary socialist party in the U.S., which was able to regroup different tendencies in a principled way, would have a serious gravitational pull. Such a party could turn its forces toward the mass movement of workers and begin to build a base with real roots.

Our task is difficult, but it’s offset by the fact that world capitalism isn’t exactly in great shape either. The downward spiraling rate at which capitalists make profits is driving the working class deeper into misery through economic crisis, war, environmental catastrophe, and now pandemic. New developments of inter-imperialist rivalry raise the question of a greater conflict and war among the world powers over who gets to be the dominant super-exploiter of the working class everywhere. In the United States, companies from imperialist nations like China and Germany are building factories in the South and Midwest to take advantage of high productive capacity and low wages. What does that mean for workers?

The absence of a mass revolutionary leadership has created a void in the working class that is being filled by some dismal forces. For example, in response to the assault on living conditions, a section of the white middle and working classes are coming to reactionary and even fascist conclusions.

It is also true that the policies of the capitalist class are creating the raw material for our future socialist movement. Each day, more young working people are drawing anticapitalist conclusions from their daily experiences.

That is why we see great potential in the current and future fights for unionization. There is tremendous potential in industries like car manufacturing as it expands across the South or in logistics at Amazon. A victory for the union drive at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama would be a huge inspiration for workers.

We also see potential in the mass movement that came up like a wave following the murder of George Floyd. This movement was not spontaneous but instead part of a rising tide of fighting racism from the murder of Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Breonna Taylor. It represents oppressed and working-class people who are fed up with suffering indignity after indignity. Great waves of militancy come crashing down with a lot of force, but the leadership to unite these movements and break completely from Democratic Party tactics and blaze an independent path is still coming together. The recent statement issued regarding the Black Lives Matter-Inland Empire’s departure from the BLM Global Network highlights the need for BLM to break with the Democratic Party.

How do we reach workers not yet convinced of a revolutionary socialist perspective? And at the same time, how do we bring honest and genuine revolutionary socialists from different tendencies into the same organization?

In the U.S. today, the working class, especially the youth, state that they prefer some conception of socialism. The ruling class knows this. There has been more than one article in the capitalist press expressing the fear of a revolt of the working masses. The majority of the working class is angry and resentful toward the ruling class. The capitalists are preparing in a number of ways to deal with current unrest. There is a growing threat of fascism that is very visible following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that will be used to recruit the shock troops who will confront the workers’ movement of tomorrow. 

At the same time, the ruling class uses politicians like Bernie Sanders and AOC, who speak about “democratic socialism,” to try to funnel the socialist views that permeate through the youth into the manageable channels of the Democratic party. The rise of the Democratic Socialists of America is an expression of this reality. The organization has reached nearly 100,000 members and that says something important. Even if the membership is largely on paper and not the hardened cadre we all want, 100,000 people have essentially said publicly, “we don’t want the exploitative system we have today.” They’re not quite sure how to change it or if a revolutionary party or even if a revolution is necessary. Yet they still have expressed that they want to organize society in a different way, and they’re willing to count themselves as a member of an organization that claims to fight for socialism.

Something similar can be said about the thousands of young people and immigrant workers flooding into union jobs because they realize that a union is a vehicle to attain better wages, health care, and job security. The potential grows when you think of the nearly half a million public sector union workers who have contracts expiring this year. They have the potential to unleash a strike wave to push back the massive pressures to make concessions. It’s imperative that revolutionaries find our way to mobilize solidarity and support for these workers and write about in our press and on social media.

We also have to find a way to integrate revolutionary ideas into the existing labor movement and social justice movements to reach all of the diverse sectors of the class and to build united fronts in action. We have to promote the idea of building a mass independent labor party that can break free of the stranglehold of the Democrats. Ultimately through this process, we aim to rebuild a revolutionary leadership and political program that reflects those struggles.

Cannon, perhaps more than any other revolutionary leader in the U.S., had a deep understanding and a vision of how to bring together the diversity of the working class to form a revolutionary leadership. Cannon’s ideas on party building crystallized from his experiences in the IWW, to the Socialist Party, to the Communist Party, to finally one of his most important contributions—the consolidation of the Fourth International and the founding of the Trotskyist movement in the U.S. Cannon worked closely with Trotsky to formulate the Transitional Program, which raised demands like the sliding scale of wages. These transitional demands and methods helped educate the workers’ movement as it was undergoing a process of radicalization in the 1930s and ’40s.

Cannon waged a serious fight in the Communist Party, before being expelled by the Stalinist leadership, pushing to unite the various factions in the party. He went on national speaking tours where he adeptly maneuvered to bring the party above ground following a period of deep government repression. He worked to bring together the diverse language federations, which had their own unique qualities. He brought together the Jewish needle trade and garment workers in New York City with white and Black miners in Illinois to help construct a revolutionary vanguard working-class leadership in the U.S. He also organized the International Labor Defense, which mobilized working-class forces in a united front to defend workers like Sacco and Vanzetti or Tom Mooney who had been victims of state and company repression.

The elements of that party work remained with Cannon; following the Stalinist purges of left oppositionists in the Communist Party, he did not become demoralized. At first, the Trotskyists tried to win over their old comrades. When that course of action had been exhausted, they looked for openings to reach the masses of workers with the program of their new party, the Communist League of America.

The 1934 Teamster strike in Minneapolis is one of the most well-known and celebrated expressions of our revolutionary legacy and program in action. The Teamsters strike, of course, also led to the fusion with the American Workers Party that had led the Toledo Autolite strike. And this, of course, led to the further development of Trotskyism in the U.S., which survived government repression under the Smith Act during World War II, and then again saw a revival during the Vietnam War to help lead the call of “Bring the Troops Home Now” as the basis for a mass protest movement.

Looking back on this history raises the urgent and important question of what our contribution in Socialist Resurgence will be to this tradition.

My hope is that we continue to explore and apply the Marxist methods as elaborated by Cannon. He was a humble comrade who perhaps is undervalued as a theoretician. Yet he deeply understood how to distill the lessons of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and the Russian revolution to build a party with a clear political program that related to the experiences the working class was facing. He also understood that while socialists may have differences of opinion, a party program should not be an impediment to connecting and building relationships in our movement. A party program should instead explicitly open an organization to the possibilities of working with other principled and honest revolutionaries based on a clear politics.

Unity in action while striving for political clarity should be the basis on which we find common ground. That is the potential we see in the socialist movement today. That is the project we want to advance with our comrades. In the tradition of Cannon, Trotsky, and the best days of the Fourth International, we look to do our part in driving forward the process to rebuild a revolutionary leadership in the U.S. and everywhere around the world to challenge the capitalists for power.

Cannon on the party press and education


I want to talk about two aspects of Cannon’s legacy that are often overlooked and which are fundamental parts of constructing a revolutionary organization. Those are education and media, or the party press in a broad sense. I’m going to talk a little about how the two fit into his biography, their role in cadre development and recruitment, the ever-present task of building a class-struggle left wing, with some thoughts on how Cannon’s method of thought can influence our work today.

The press is a central component of all Bolshevik organizations. As Cannon said, the purpose of the vanguard party “is deep-rooted in two of the weightiest realities of the 20th century: the actuality of the workers’ struggle for the conquest of power, and the necessity of creating a leadership capable of carrying it through to the end.” Cannon took seriously the paper’s role in realizing these actualities, which Lenin defined as “not merely a collective propagandist and collective agitator, [but also] collective organizer.”

Inspired by his own father’s experience with the Socialist Party’s Appeal to Reason newspaper, Cannon emphasized the importance of actively involving and acknowledging the party rank and file and even contacts in distributing the press. By having a foot in the game, so to speak, people came to identify themselves with the publication and, through many discussions while slinging papers, its politics.

As in everything, Cannon saw the press as a tool to educate the broadest possible sections of the working class in the traditions and history of their own movement. The party’ program, its historical continuity, is and was the backbone of the press. At the same time, Cannon was quite clear that the paper needed to be accessible to people at all stages of political development and from all different social strata. By connecting broad agitational material with more developed pieces on history and theory, the newly radicalizing militant could be brought from one level of political consciousness to the next. Still, as Trotsky said, “not by politics alone does man thrive,” and Cannon took this dictum quite seriously. In all of his writings about the press in the Socialist Workers Party’s internal Party Builder Bulletin, he underscored the need to utilize the techniques of the bourgeois papers in including poetry, editorials, art, and other colorful materials.

I want to highlight a few examples that help to illustrate the centrality of the party and the press in Cannon’s thinking and the practical work of the organization. The first is the basic fact that immediately upon being expelled from the Communist Party in 1928, the very first thing the Left Opposition did was to set up and begin distributing The Militant newspaper. That the paper was the fundamental activity of the Communist League of America in its founding years is an indisputable fact. At all periods of upsurge, the press played prominently in the party’s activities, even if in a broader sense than the party itself. Thus the main leader of the U.S. Trotskyist movement threw himself into editing The Organizer, the strike paper that coalesced and helped organize the great Minneapolis Teamsters upsurge of 1934.

Lastly, the press, then called Socialist Appeal, was the primary means through which the Trotskyists carried out their successful entry into the Socialist Party in the late 1930s. Of course, there are many more examples of the press as organizer, not least of which includes political defense and electoral campaigns, but I simply want to highlight some foundational examples that were carried out under Cannon’s leadership.

Next, I want to talk about Cannon’s understanding of education and the crucial importance of maintaining a party staff of professional revolutionaries. One of Cannon’s first published pieces in the Marxists Internet Archives comes from his days in the Workers Party, “How to Organize and Conduct a Study Class.” Even in that early stage of 1924, Cannon said, “Enthusiasm for [educational] work among the party members must be aroused and maintained. A general recognition of its fundamental importance must be established. It must be organically connected with the life and struggles of the party, and must not become academic and sterile. And it must be conducted in a systematic manner, becoming an established part of the life of the party throughout the year. This last will not just “happen.” It will take much work and the introduction of correct organizational and technical principles. All our theories will come to nothing if our educational apparatus does not function properly.”

This forceful appreciation of revolutionary education continued throughout his life. As soon as he was released from prison in 1945, and even when he was still behind bars, Cannon pushed the wheels into motion to begin removing important cadres from day-to-day party tasks in order to support their attending intensive all-encompassing schools on the party’s dime. He explained that this is a necessity for a working class organization to do.

Echoing Lenin, Cannon said in the March 1945 Party Builder, “Militant workers do not come to the party already [equipped with a full revolutionary education]. And if they have to work every day in the factory, and carry a load of practical party work in addition, their educational advancement must necessarily be slow and difficult. … I will not accept the idea that the intellectual leadership belongs of necessity to those who have been taught at college at the expense of mamma and papa. Neither do I think it right to leave the talented workers to their own devices, to the hard and bitter task of educating themselves in their limited spare time, for fear of corrupting them by full-time periods of study at party expense. That would mean, in effect, to close the doors of the highest circles of the leadership to the worker militants.”

Similarly, the party began organizing retreats to allow for intensive study by rank-and-file comrades and contacts without the daily struggle of working-class life. Comrades would do well to look back at those old Party Builders and pay attention to the balance sheets drawn, methods used, and employment of attendees.

I want to finish by relaying a few thoughts about what these articulations by Cannon meant and what they mean for us today. 

  1. In media work, we must create content that is attractive not just in its correct political line and analysis, but also in the broad range of techniques created by bourgeois culture. I think it is a fair assumption that Cannon, [Joseph] Hanson, and even Trotsky would say that a revolutionary party ought to be familiar with and utilize whatever forms of media are most popular with workers and youth and to keep an eye on cultural trends with the intention of using them to attract people to our politics.
  2. The party should strive towards being both interactive and accessible. The fact that Cannon emphasized the possibilities of creating personal connections with the party through the press, using examples that are now over 100 years old, highlights the tactical importance now when we have so many new communication technologies available to us. Our program is not a static document and neither need be our methods of distributing it. 
  3. The education of cadres in revolutionary politics, theory, and history is perhaps the single most important task facing any serious socialist organization. In order to facilitate conditions to have real learning for working-class people from all sorts of backgrounds, this means using party resources to allow for times where people can be completely devoted to study. I want comrades to really think about the implications of having the party not just support developing comrades financially, but actually taking them out of their work as activists, union militants, and party organizers to do so. 
  4. Lastly, the method of education must be flexible but emphasize using the basic texts of Marxism to facilitate a first-hand understanding of who we are and what we stand for. Cannon liked to focus on the seminar style of learning versus lectures, and I think this is right. Struggling with and discussing the material is the only way to really internalize it, alongside seeing the basic conclusions of class analysis play out in the real world and especially in the mass movements. 
  5. Everything that Cannon stood for, and everything directing Socialist Resurgence’s activity, is aimed at creating a combat party with a revolutionary program that can meet the needs of the moment and really lead the working class to power. The press and the educational processes are fundamental parts of this orientation. 

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