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James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 576
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  • Book Info
    James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928
    Book Description:

    Bryan D. Palmer's award-winning study of James P. Cannon's early years (1890-1928) details how the life of a Wobbly hobo agitator gave way to leadership in the emerging communist underground of the 1919 era. This historical drama unfolds alongside the life experiences of a native son of United States radicalism, the narrative moving from Rosedale, Kansas to Chicago, New York, and Moscow. Written with panache, Palmer's richly detailed book situates American communism's formative decade of the 1920s in the dynamics of a specific political and economic context. Our understanding of the indigenous currents of the American revolutionary left is widened, just as appreciation of the complex nature of its interaction with international forces is deepened.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09208-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  4. Introduction: The Communist Can(n)on
    (pp. 1-20)

    We ask questions of radicalism in the United States. Expectations and preconceived notions of what radicalism should look like abound, and our queries reflect this. Why is there no socialism in America? Why are workers in the world’s most advanced capitalist nation not class-conscious? Why has no third party of laboring people emerged? Some want the questioning to stop; it seems wrong-headed. Yet the interrogation continues, periodically sparking debate and efforts to reformulate and redefine analytic agendas for the study of American labor radicals, their diversity, their ideas, and their practical activities.¹

    This book is not exercised by such concerns....

  5. 1 Rosedale Roots: Facts and Fictions
    (pp. 21-38)

    11 February 1890: A boy child is born in the working-class hamlet of Rosedale, Kansas. Childbirth does not occasion a great deal of fanfare in the poor industrial districts of the Greater Kansas City region, where Rosedale is situated adjacent to both of the Kansas and Missouri cities of the same name. In most working-class households, deliveries take place at home, rather than in a hospital. Neighbors help, large families rally, and a midwife undoubtedly attends at this Rosedale birth. The physician’s role is almost certainly minimal, perhaps limited to reporting that a child has come safely into the world....

  6. 2 Youth’s Discoveries
    (pp. 39-51)

    Ann Cannon died in 1904. No older than forty-seven, she had lived a hard life. It was her fate never to see her modest aspirations realized, or, at best, to experience them only partially and briefly. Her disappointments would have been evident to young Jim Cannon, who was a mere fourteen years old at the time of his mother’s passing, and they no doubt nurtured a sense of injustice that eventually turned against wider issues of inequality, unfairness, and victimization. For the moment, though, Jim Cannon’s hurt was a personal one.

    That John Cannon’s move into insurance and real estate...

  7. 3 Hobo Rebel/Homeguard
    (pp. 52-86)

    Jim Cannon dated his entry into the ranks of the revolutionary movement from 1911, rather than from 1908 when he joined the Socialist Party.¹ “I committed myself when I joined the IWW in 1911,” he told Reba Hansen in 1948. “Before that I was a sympathizer. I make a distinction. When I joined the IWW, my life was decided.” Cannon felt no hostility to the Socialist Party; he simply stopped paying dues, drifted away, and dedicated himself to a different and, in his view, more resolutely revolutionary wing of the movement.²

    His father may well have had ties to the...

  8. 4 Red Dawn
    (pp. 87-112)

    Harrison George sat in a Cook County, Illinois, jail cell in December 1917, awaiting the trial that would net him a $30,000 fine and a total of seventeen years on four criminal counts. He heard much of new developments in the East, where workers had turfed out their feudal-like ruler, the czar, and supposedly established a society governed by “soviets,” an “industrial parliament.” Cook County’s incarcerated Russians were elated; others, however, were skeptical. George was an enthusiast. He penned a twenty-six-page tract, the first pro-Bolshevik pamphlet published in the United States. The imprisoned IWW litterateur, who would soon issue a...

  9. 5 Underground
    (pp. 113-134)

    Cannon was often pressed by comrades to write an autobiography. Those who knew his character, especially, as he would have put it, “the merit of his defects,” could have predicted that it would never come to pass.¹ But had he managed to pen his life’s story, Cannon once claimed that he would have entitled one of the chapters, “A Suit of Clothes.” The anecdote central to the chapter was set in 1919, with Cannon languishing in jail. It took the comrades two months to scrape together $30,000 in property/cash that could be put up as bail needed to secure Jim...

  10. 6 Geese in Flight
    (pp. 135-165)

    Manhattan’s New Star Casino was the site of the founding of the Workers’ Party, 23–26 December 1921. The casino convention summoned a diversity of early bodies, many of them overlapping in their constituencies, and some less integrated than others into the consolidated communist underground: the Communist Party, the United Communist Party, the American Labor Alliance (which by then encompassed a number of foreign-language federations), the Workers’ Council (largely Jewish Left remnants in the SP, but also containing some midwestern revolutionaries who had not affiliated with the movement for revolutionary unity), and the Arbeiter Bildungs-Vereine, or Workers’ Educational Association, composed...

  11. 7 Pepper Spray
    (pp. 166-201)

    Cannon returned to the United States late in January 1923.¹ The Workers’ Party (WP) that he chaired was now the undisputed center of American communism, and a few months later, in April 1923, the underground Communist Party of America finally dissolved itself. Reported membership in the WP at that time was 16,421, although the number of actual adherents to the above-ground communist milieu more likely hovered around 10,000 to 12,000. New York alone comprised almost 25 percent of the communist ranks, and Chicago contributed a further 15 percent; Boston, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Detroit were home to a remaining bloc of...

  12. 8 Stalinist Suspensions
    (pp. 202-251)

    The years from 1924 to late 1928 appear to most historians of the United States revolutionary Left to be a communist wasteland, a landscape scarred by incessant party wrangling and bizarre reconfigurations of leadership. First-person recollections, such as those of Benjamin Gitlow and Peggy Dennis, as well as commentaries by historians as different in their positionings as the 1940s social democratic duo James Oneal and G. A. Werner or the New Left spokesperson Paul Buhle, have tended to place analytic accent on the psychosis of a factional “gang warfare” that reduces communist history in these years to screaming matches, conniving...

  13. 9 Labor Defender
    (pp. 252-284)

    As Cannon embarked upon yet another transatlantic crossing, his sense of the politics of revolutionary communism was anything but settled. A public advocate of Bolshevization, he could not have helped but be aware of the human costs that were being exacted, month by grueling month, with the hard turn against the cultural softness and political indeterminacy of a language-federations-based cadre. Party membership had begun to inch back after a low point in 1922 and, all complications associated with the dual-stamp system that allowed husbands and wives to purchase a single stamp and record themselves as two, often fictitious, members (eventually...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. 10 Living with Lovestone
    (pp. 285-315)

    The International Labor Defense (ILD) mobilizations of the 1920s gave Jim Cannon a respite from the factional intrigues that had become a ubiquitous feature of the social and political relations within a divided Workers (Communist) Party of America leadership. As we have seen, though, such united-front labor defense work was never thoroughly insulated from the cold and hot drafts of factionalism’s changing seasonal climate. The intense factionalism of 1920–1923, dominated by a struggle to transcend undergroundism, gave way to the first forays into a factionalism colored by the bureaucratic degeneration of Zinoviev’s Comintern, of which Pepper and his theoretical...

  16. 11 Expulsion
    (pp. 316-349)

    The Sixth World Congress of the Communist International convened in Moscow from 17 July through 1 September 1928. It was the first time the Congress had assembled in four years. The internal situation in the Soviet Union was largely hidden from the revolutionary ranks who descended on the first workers’ state from all corners of the globe. Had they seen conditions as they actually were, it could not have been reassuring to the some 515 visiting delegates, who represented 58 national sections of the international communist movement. Unemployment was now a recognized reality in the workers’ republic. A bread crisis...

  17. Conclusion: James P. Cannon, the United States Revolutionary Movement, and the End of an Age of Innocence
    (pp. 350-370)

    The revolutionary Left in the United States has never had an easy time of it. Opposed, at times quite vehemently, by capital and the state, it has also had an uphill battle in its efforts to lift the ideological weights of supposed affluence and democracy from the shoulders of dissidence. It has also been plagued by various sins of omission and commission, errors the movement itself has promulgated taking their toll. But those who have advocated the fundamental socioeconomic transformation of the American order have nevertheless been a presence in the United States past, and one not without influence.


  18. Notes
    (pp. 371-526)
  19. Index
    (pp. 527-542)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 543-549)