Spartacist English edition No. 60
“We Want the Comintern to Give Us Assistance”
1922 Speech by James P. Cannon
We publish below a speech given by James P. Cannon (using the pseudonym Cook) to a 27 November 1922 meeting of the American Commission convened in conjunction with the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (CI). To our knowledge the speech has never been published before. This publication is by permission of the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), which holds the original transcript. Cannon’s speech supplements the material on the American Question at the Fourth Congress that we published previously (“The American Question at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International,” Spartacist No. 40, Summer 1987).
The Workers Party (WP) had been founded in December 1921 with the approval of the Comintern to test the waters as to whether or not it was possible for the American Communists to function openly. Participating in the party’s formation were both the underground Communists and the Workers Council group, a pro-Bolshevik split from the Socialist Party that included the important Jewish and Finnish federations. The former Workers Council members who joined the Workers Party did not become members of the underground Communist Party of America (CPA) and were referred to as “centrists” by all the speakers at the American Commission.
The formation of the Workers Party had led to a split by about half of the underground CPA membership, concentrated among the party’s foreign-language federations, who formed their own legal party, the United Toilers of America. By the time of the Fourth Congress, the majority of the splitters had rejoined the underground CPA, largely through the efforts of a representative of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), Henryk Walecki (Valetski), a founding member of the Polish Communist Party. At the American Commission, Sullivan, a Latvian from Boston, spoke for the minority of the United Toilers who refused to reunite with the CPA.
Walecki had been delegated by the ECCI to attend the CPA’s famous August 1922 Bridgman convention, which was raided by the FBI. He sought to adjudicate a raging debate over the Workers Party that had broken out in the CPA, pitting the “Liquidators,” who wanted to abolish the underground party because the Workers Party could function openly and legally as a Communist Party, against the so-called “Goose Caucus,” whose position was codified in a thesis written by Israel Amter (J. Ford) and Abraham Jakira (A. Dubner). The Ford-Dubner thesis conceded that the Workers Party might become, under certain conditions, an open Communist Party, but insisted that the clandestine CPA would still be necessary as a “directing and controlling” body.
In a motion prepared for the Bridgman convention, Walecki arrived at a compromise formula evidently agreed to by both factions. The compromise mandated that the majority of Communist work be carried out in the name of the Workers Party, but insisted on maintaining the underground party. The Goose Caucus won the upper hand at Bridgman, winning a majority on the incoming Central Executive Committee. But their victory proved short-lived. The Walecki-sponsored compromise was overthrown at the Fourth CI Congress in favor of the position of the Liquidators.
Cannon was a delegate to the Fourth Congress and one of the principal spokesmen for the Liquidators. Ludwig E. Katterfeld (who used the pseudonym Carr) spoke for the Goose Caucus. Cannon’s speech indicates impatience with the Walecki-engineered compromise.
As an illustration of the backwardness of the American working class, Cannon cites the fact that the American Federation of Labor unions refused even to join “Amsterdam,” referring to the Social Democratic-led International Federation of Trade Unions formed in 1919 at a conference in Amsterdam. The “Spetzes” referred to by Cannon were bourgeois military/technical advisers who worked under the direction of the Soviet state.
The victory of Cannon and his cothinkers at the Fourth Congress was greatly facilitated by a one-hour meeting with Leon Trotsky that party sympathizer Max Eastman set up for Cannon and another Liquidators leader, Max Bedacht. Trotsky agreed to support the Liquidators’ position and to get the support of other Russian party leaders, requesting that Cannon and his cothinkers write down their views “on one sheet of paper—no more.” This document, read by Cannon at the end of his speech, is not reprinted here. It appears in Spartacist No. 40 and in the Prometheus Research Library’s James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism.
The discussion on the reports occurred at subsequent American Commission meetings on November 30 and December 1. Cannon later described the discussion:
“Then the big guns began to boom. First Zinoviev, then Radek and then Bukharin. The noncommittal attitude they had previously shown in our personal conversations with them, which had caused us such apprehension, was cast aside. They showed a familiarity with the question which indicated that they had discussed it thoroughly among themselves. They all spoke emphatically and unconditionally in support of the position of the liquidators.”
—Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism
The final ECCI decision declared, “The Fourth Congress and the new Executive of the Communist International are of the opinion that the American communists must commence a new chapter in their work. Illegality for the sake of illegality must cease. The main efforts must be devoted to work on the legal field.” In April 1923, the underground CPA formally dissolved itself.
The other issue in dispute was the question of the labor party. At issue was not the party’s attitude to the slogan per se, but its orientation to the existing currents in the American labor movement that were then flirting with the idea of a labor party, including John Fitzpatrick, the leader of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) and of the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP). In February 1922, delegates from the FLP and CFL had joined the effort sponsored by some railway union tops to found the Conference of Progressive Political Action (CPPA) as a vehicle to support “progressive” candidates of any party in state and local elections.
In his report, Walecki wrongly portrayed the FLP and the CPPA as part of a growing movement in the left wing of the American trade unions to found “an independent labor party.” He wanted the Communists to participate in this movement and noted that the Goose Caucus had opposed this at Bridgman. Walecki insisted, “This labor party is not a theoretical idea, but the founding of the party is imminent. It will immediately be a party of millions” (our translation from the original German transcript). Cannon in his speech agreed with Walecki and mentioned a March meeting of trade unionists in support of a labor party—probably referring to the founding of the CPPA in February. The labor party dispute is discussed in greater detail elsewhere in this issue (see “A Biography of James P. Cannon,” page 24). The original transcript has been lightly edited, correcting obvious typographical errors and grammatical inconsistencies. Words that have been added or changed because the uncorrected transcript was garbled appear in brackets.
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Comrades, I am sorry that I cannot join in the general love feast of comrades Walecki and Carr. I am here to tell you, comrades, that there is a serious and fundamental struggle in the party and there has been for three years, and what we want the Communist International to do is to give us decisive directions. I speak here in the name of the minority delegation, in the name of the entire delegation of the Trade Union Educational League, in the name of the Young Communist League [delegation] to the Young Communist International.
It is not necessary to go into an analysis of conditions in America. I am sure they are known to you comrades sufficiently to make it clear that we are not confronted with a revolutionary situation. The American workers are not class conscious. They think and act as citizens in society. The majority of them vote for the capitalist parties. The unions reflect this condition; they are reactionary and numerically weak. They never had the experience of a Second International. They rejected Amsterdam because of the socialist phrases it employed. Their only indications of revolt are the armed rebellions they resort to now and then.
You read about Herrin, Illinois, where a band of union miners slaughtered 18 or 20 scabs, and you think that perhaps there is a revolutionary situation. But this is a mistake. He is fighting in defense of what he believes to be his rights, and when he marches across the country to Mingo, when he slaughters scabs, he is doing it in protection of his rights, which he thinks belong to him as an American citizen, and not because he is engaged in a struggle against the government. There is no doubt there is an awakening, and one of its manifestations is this desire for a labor party.
Comrade Carr is mistaken if he thinks it only began with the Daugherty injunction. Are you going to ignore the fact that in Chicago last March was held a convention to discuss political action? It was not very clear in its ideas, but it was not a small group. There were the miners union, the American railroad brotherhoods, the printers, garment workers, and central labor unions. This was unmistakable evidence of a first attempt for political action on the part of the workers. I endorse the idea of a labor party, something after the nature of the English Labour Party. What we want the International to answer is: What shall we do in this matter? What shall our tactics be? We have a clear position which we will submit to you for your approval. Because our conception has not agreed with the conception of comrade Carr and his faction of the party is one reason we are here in Moscow, determined to fight for our position.
What we say is this: If we remain passive or inactive on the question of the labor party, we will find that it will gradually develop and that the other elements in the left wing will push it along. The result will be the crystallization of the labor party. That will be a process. In the city of Chicago, the Federation of Labor will put up an independent stand. Detroit, Seattle and Denver have supported this maneuver. This will be extended, and out of this process the labor party will develop. It is one of the most important tasks of our party to get immediately into this movement, to be one of the sponsors of this movement, to have nuclei in it, and always to work for the labor party.
We cannot possibly steal the offices before we capture the trade unions. A child can see that we cannot capture the unions. There is a danger in America that we will lose this opportunity as we lost others, because we have to fight too long on this simple, obvious, fundamental question. There is a danger that while we sit at ease, the Socialist Party and the various radical fringes in the labor movement will take advantage of this situation and will succeed if we do not get busy. We do not want to find ourselves in that position, or worse. Say that the labor party is finally launched and becomes a main factor in the political life of the workers—the political birthday of the workers of America, as comrade Walecki has said—and that our party is outside of that movement, like the Communist Party in England, and that we are trying to get inside to say our say.
If we do not act now, that will happen to us. That is one of the things that comrade Walecki had to put to these people. Since the [Bridgman] convention in the latter part of August, what tremendous things have happened to change comrade Carr’s mind and those of his group unless it has become obvious to them that there is nobody in sympathy with their position? The Daugherty injunction and big strikes were not new. They were on before. This is what we are afraid of. We are afraid of this idea of slipping over things that tear our party to pieces, without in any way changing the attitude of our opponents. We have voted on all kinds of questions. We find this—they always change their position, but never change their minds. We fully agree with comrade Walecki on the question of the development of the labor party.
Now we get down to the point that is tearing our party to pieces, the thing that has been an issue for nearly three years, the question of legality and illegality. The illegality of our party is a tremendous handicap. We have the disadvantage of being a new party. We have not tested our leaders in the open struggle. Our party was underground the first year of its existence, and it has very little confidence of the working masses. The working class in America has democratic illusions. They do not understand why we are underground as a party, and they do not have the sympathy for us that it is necessary for them to have for our party to be a factor in the life of the workers. I say it with great regret: Our underground party, instead of having the sympathy and attraction of the workers, is regarded by the masses as a good deal of a joke. They think it is illegal because we want to be illegal, and I must say that is true of a large majority of the illegal party.
Our party never made a fight for legality. We have been driven underground the first year of our existence as a party, and it is because of this illegality that we have the results that we have outlined before. There has been persecution in America not only against our party but against the trade unions, also against the IWW. There is not a strike in America where men are not shot down and beaten and jailed, yet the trade unions have not been driven underground. The IWW has not been driven underground. The IWW, in contradistinction to our party, never was willing to accept illegality. They went back time and time again to the halls from which they had been expelled and made a fight for the right to keep them open, with the result that they now keep them open in many parts of the country.
The white terror in America that is so much talked of is certainly not in the same degree of intensity as it is in those countries in Europe where there are underground parties. The white terror that you hear so much about in Moscow is a white terror that has been manufactured in the minds of those comrades to justify their romantic conceptions of the movement. Nevertheless, these persecutions take place. The party is illegal, it is underground. We do not consider it a solution to adopt a resolution that for the time being the party must remain illegal, because nobody will dispute it in our faction at least. I want an illegal party if a legal party cannot exist. But that is negative. What about the future? There must be a determined fight for an open Communist Party, a purposeful fight to bring the party into the open.
Further, the working class of America will support this fight, but it will not support an illegal organization that makes no fight. The very fact that the democracy believes that free speech belongs by right to everybody in America will make them support that. The IWW never at any time in its career had such decisive influence upon the general labor movement as it had when it was a small organization and was conducting its free speech fights openly and publicly against all forms of suppression. Many of us who are here participated in that movement. We know that this will get a response from the laboring masses. In every labor union you will get a hearing. I do not know whether those comrades want to accuse us of being liquidators and legalists in America, but there is not in our faction one man of any influence in the organization who has any legalism or respect for the country’s laws in him or who has any illusions about the possibilities of the legal movement. They are men working in the open class struggle, in the open, who want to utilize every possibility that can be got or fought for to carry on our work. We do not say we can have a legal Communist Party. We do not guarantee it, but we are going to fight for a legal party. I want the Communist International to say what is wrong with this program. We do not say that we can or that we will be successful.
There are three possible results. It is by no means impossible that we will, after a hard fight to rally to our support wide masses of the workers, if we have the guts, if we have the courage to fight ourselves, that we will gain for a time a legal existence. Can anybody measure what this would mean for us, if only for a time? There is nothing the party could do that would be better for it, or gain more friends for it among the working class. We may lose this fight, there is that possibility, and I think that the most probable outcome of this struggle will be that we will gain a semi-legal position. We will be a tolerated organization. In many places we will be able to operate under our own name. That in itself is a tremendous advantage in all respects. It frees us from the necessity of camouflage with the workers, and it admits us as a fighting party which does not accept the decrees of the capitalists that the party has to go underground. That we have to go underground as a party is not certain, but if, after a hard and determined struggle, we have our party finally driven underground and the workers know the men, then they will begin to have some faith in the Communist Party. It will cease to be a joke and laughingstock to the workers of America, who cannot say that it is our own fault that we are underground.
Anyway, no matter what the result of this legality is, everything is in favor of a hard and determined struggle, and comrade Carr has not said one word on the other side that has any weight. Now these comrades who a few months ago were against the legal party in principle, these comrades who would not listen to the very idea of a legal party because, they claimed, revolution being illegal, the party has to be illegal, have changed their positions but not their minds. They are still illegal in principle. They admit that it would be a good thing to have a legal party in America, and they say, “How are you going to fight for a legal party in America?”
We say clearly that we propose to do it through the legal party that we have already organized. We said this [to the Workers Council group] in answer to those comrades who wanted an open Communist Party then. We want to build it up as a process. We want to regard this as a step in the process of forming an open Communist Party. We say, first, to transfer to this party all the functions that can be carried on in the open. Next, increase the duties and the responsibilities of the members of this legal party in every way possible. Strengthen it and give it a Communist character in all its makeup. Make it appear more and more before the workers as an exponent and defender of the Communist International, by this process at the same time drawing into it wider masses of the workers, making out of it a Communist Party which will become the section of the Communist International. Comrade Carr did not have one word to say about the pressing question in the movement, the question of fighting for a legal party in America. In their conversations in the party they did say this: They would fight for a legal party by building up the underground party, and have it come out as a legal party.
The International has to decide this question because it brings us to a fight on every other question. We can remember well how the fight developed on the question of going out to the workers organizations and of going into the trade unions. We said, yes, we propose this, because we want to mobilize every possible member to strengthen our influence in the trade unions. In accord with our theory, we want to develop our ideas of disciplined action in the trade-union movement. We want to teach them how to be Communists in action, to get them to read our program. Disciplined action in the trade unions is one of the methods. These comrades come back with the argument that that will be taking away its functions from the illegal party.
[When] we were proposing to issue a manifesto on the Mingo insurrection, when we wanted to issue this manifesto in the name of the legal party, they put up the argument (comrade Carr was not present on this occasion) that if you do not give the illegal party something to do, the illegal party will die out; therefore you have to issue this manifesto illegally to give this party something to do. This may seem ridiculous here in Moscow, but it is not ridiculous in America.
The situation in the party is intolerable. We have No. 1, which is the illegal party; the legal party is called No. 2; and these comrades say they have taken No. 1 away from us, but we, the underground party, are the real Communist Party, the others are not Communists at all, and are not to be treated as Communists. They want to set one authority against the other. Carr betrays this in his remarks. They betray it by saying that the party is not a part of the Communist movement in America. They deprecate it in every way because of their conception that you cannot have a legal party in America. The hostility to the membership of the Workers Party is to be seen in the proposition, the jackass proposition, to exclude from this debate the members of the Workers Party of America because they are not members of No. 1. Take this psychology and see it permeating through the whole American party, and you will see that this assumption that things are settled in America, that the question is settled by the decision of the convention, is not true.
I said a while ago that many of the workers think that our party is illegal because it wants to be. Our convention a little over a year ago insisted upon putting into the constitution of the party a clause as follows: “The name of this organization is the Communist Party of America. The Communist Party of America is an illegal, underground organization.” And they said that anybody that does not subscribe to this is a Menshevik, because they think, naturally, that if the Communist Party says it is illegal, then it is illegal. They regard the members of the Workers Party who want to work in the trade unions in the same light as the trade-union leaders. They regard them as something else than real Communists, they look upon them as “Spetzes.”
I will cite the Chicago elections. That is where we have some real leaders of the labor movement in our organization—of the whole left-wing movement. We have a number of other comrades engaged in the industrial work of the party, all capable and having the confidence of wide masses of workers. But they are not 100 percent Communists because they are not 100 percent illegal, and they need to be controlled by a higher grade of Communists, who do what they call “party work.” These “party workers” are all within a small circle, controlling what they call the real Communist Party. They have never been heard of in the labor movement in America.
I do not need to mention the Ford-Dubner thesis. This Ford-Dubner thesis [advances] this proposition that the most important task of the Communist Party in America is the carrying out of propaganda for armed insurrection, and have come to this conclusion that in America, even if we finally have a legal Communist Party, we will still have inside it an illegal party to control it. These comrades have changed their position, but not their minds. You will have the same difficulty with them again. You will find that they will change their position, but not their minds. The crisis in our party has been brought about by two opposing conceptions: the conception of a mass labor movement and the conception of work separate from the class struggle.
Let us take the case of the contest for a delegate from Minneapolis. There were two delegates contesting the seat—one from our faction and one from the other faction. The man whom we were supporting happened to be the chairman of the strike committee of the railroad strike in Minneapolis, a man standing at the head of the labor movement in Minneapolis. The other man was a shopkeeper, a party worker who spends all his time in the underground party. The other man only was active in the class struggle; the shopkeeper is a party man, a No. 1 Communist. Multiply this man from Minneapolis by a majority in the party, and you will have the organization in America.
Yes, there are some things I might say about it that are almost too bitter to be said, even among ourselves. After three years of fighting to get a chance to do our work, we have still to come to Moscow to fight it out. Not one split, comrade Walecki, but four splits have been forced upon us, and they will force yet another one upon us. I might go on ad infinitum to contradict those rosy predictions that all is well in the party. There is a conflict there that you cannot settle till you go to the root of it.
I have my proposition, which I will put before you. We do not want this situation of two hostile parties. We want a legal party with an illegal center in it, consciously and deliberately fighting for the right of open party existence. We want no hostility between the legal and illegal organizations, nor between the members. We don’t want in the districts, as at present, two parties, one legal and one illegal and one controlling the other. In our district work, in the very nature of things, the man in control has got to be a man able to do something in the class struggle. He must be a speaker, a fighter, an agitator. You cannot put a nonentity in such a position. But according to the other theory, we are to put also in the illegal organization a man who does not need to be an agitator or who is not known by anybody, but still this man is controlling the man working in the class struggle. The Comintern must help us to rectify this. We want a party that is as much of a Communist Party as possible and which will become ever more Communist. Not something that might be non-Communist, but something to be made deliberately into a Communist Party. We want not merely legal work as the convention resolution said, but a legal organization, the development of a legal party in all its activities and functions.
Some of them say that we are in the legal organization because it is safe. That is unfair and untrue, because in America if you want something easy, you keep out of the class struggle. It is dangerous. There is nothing safe about it. It is a perversion of the facts to say that these men want something safe and easy. You will find that we are fighting for this point of view, that we have fought for it in the past and will continue to fight for it in the future. We are opposed to the present policy of the fight against the centrists. We say the centrists should be admitted into the legal and illegal party if they want to come in on the same basis with us, and we will not fight them.
CARR [Katterfeld]: That is the position of the Executive of the Party.
COOK [Cannon]: I am gratified to learn about this. They have kept it secret from me.
Comrades, what is the basic reason for this position? After three years it is time for us to be honest and frank. Why have we had four splits in the party? Why have we a section in the party propagating a split, as comrade Sullivan does? Why have we this inability to do the simple things? The large majority of our membership is a foreign-born membership, mainly Russian, Ukrainian, Lettish, etc., that has not assimilated itself. They live for the most part in separate colonies and their life is entirely a Russian life. And the peculiarity of the situation is that our party is not troubled with an American nationalism, but with an anti-American nationalism. It is troubled with prejudice on the part of these comrades against the American workers. There is a decided anti-American sentiment. I might cite the example of comrade Sullivan in Boston. I told them in the Congress, in these discussions with the Executive Committee, that they should become qualified American citizens. They said they are citizens of Russia and do not want to be citizens of America, and of course they said that my proposal was inspired by a patriotic motive. This has caused all the splits in the party, the irreconcilable attitude of those comrades, the fact that they refuse to act in terms of American life and American conditions.
Every issue in the party is at bottom a fight for control between these two irreconcilable elements. We spent three years in this futile fight. We are sick and tired of these fights. We are of the opinion that unity does not help us to solve our difficulties. We have been able to do more when these elements were outside the party than we had ever done before. We were able to organize the party and the Trade Union Educational League. We at least made an effort. Comrade Sullivan comes here to Moscow and he proves conclusively the weakness of comrade Walecki’s policy. I do not take issue with anything comrade Walecki has proposed here, except that it is not conclusive enough. I am sorry that I have had to take exception to his policy of unity. Comrade Sullivan proved from the rostrum of the Communist International that unity is impossible. Comrade Sullivan I am more inclined to speak of as representing a faction than anybody else here. I know that the comrades of his faction have sent him to state their case for them here in Moscow.
Comrades, I am here to tell you seriously there is a growing revolt against this situation in our party. A growing determination on the part of its members to work for Communism in the class struggle, those who want to build a Communist Party in America for that struggle. We want the Comintern to give us assistance, to give us guidance on the point at issue. On our side there is no danger of a split. We are not the split makers. But there is a danger on the part of some of our following to do this. We have repulsed tens of thousands of men in the labor movement. They are now coming back and they come up against this, and so there is a big danger of a movement out of the party. We want from the Comintern not diplomacy, but real political leadership, a clear statement on this question. We will be satisfied. What the Comintern says is the light we go by. I have a declaration here on the part of our group.
(For the text of the declaration, see “The American Question,” James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism.)