The History of American Trotskyism by James P. Cannon

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Second Pathfinder edition 1972, 2nd printing 1974

Ch. 1—The First Days of American Communism

What is Trotskyism?

How did the Communist Party USA form? What were its initial concerns or activities? What later replaced them?

Characterize the Socialist Party pre-1917. How were its members affected by the Russian Revolution?

What forces dominated the early Communist Party? What strengths did they have? What weaknesses?

What was the Communist Labor party? Why did it, like the CP, go underground?

Explain what Cannon means by the sickness of ultraleftism. What are some examples?

Why did ultraleftism have such appeal for the youth in the early days of the CP?

What important lessons did the early Communists learn by working underground?

Why was it necessary to “liquidate” the underground party?

What was the Cannon-Lovestone-Ruthenberg alliance?

Characterize the Workers Party.

Describe how Cannon took the controversy over the underground status of the CP to the Communist International in 1922. Why did the Russian leaders initially misunderstand the “liquidators”?

What is the requisite factor in choosing an organizational form to carry out revolutionary work?

Ch. 2—Factional Struggles in the Old Communist Party

Before World War I, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWWO was the dominant force on the U.S. left. By 1922, it had been supplanted by the CP. Why?

Explain what Cannon means by characterizing the fledgling CP’s trade union work as “opportunist adventures.”

How would you answer someone who said, “All those CP faction fights in the 1920s showed that their party leaders were just a bunch of power-hungry bureaucrats”?

If corrupt leaders didn’t cause the faction fights, what did cause them?

Why was the fight over on organizational question—where to have the national headquarters—politically important?

Why was the factional fighting in the CP so protracted? What could have changed this?

Who became the leadership of the CP after 1928? Why?

How did the experience in the early CP benefit the founders of the Fourth International?

Ch. 3—The Beginnings of the Left Opposition

The struggle between Marxism and Stalinism had been going on for four years before Cannon or others in the U.S. got involved in the dispute. Why didn’t Cannon support Trotsky right away?

Explain Cannon’s statement that “dissatisfaction, doubts are not a program.

What does Cannon mean by his criticism that “we were still trying to solve things on an American scale?

Why were the Lovestonites so quick to denounce Trotsky? How did Foster’s faction respond?

At the February 1928 National Committee Plenum, why didn’t Cannon speak in the discussion of “the Russian question”?

What other key international questions were being debated in 1927-28?

What was the “Anglo-Russian Committee” in England? Why did Cannon think that Trotsky’s Left Opposition was correct on this question?

How did Cannon come to agree with Trotsky’s analysis and program?

Why didn’t Cannon defend Trotsky at the 1928 World Congress? Why didn’t he immediately declare a pro-Trotsky faction on returning to the U.S.?

What was the response of the CP leadership when they began to suspect Cannon and others of supporting Trotsky? How did Cannon et al respond?

How did the Cannon-led faction fight over Trotskyism differ from the interminable faction fights of the CP-USA’s first ten years?

How did the U.S. Left Opposition grow? How did the bureaucratic CP leadership inadvertently help?

What role did the issue of democracy play in the dispute?

Ch. 4—The Left Opposition Under Fire

In 1928, the Communist Party (CP) was mired in a sterile, protracted factional struggle. No one in the U.S. had access to Trotsky’s ideas because the Left Opposition (LO) had been organizationally smashed. What made a transformation of this situation possible?

What impact did taking up the struggle for Trotskyism in the U.S. have on other parts of the world?

How did Cannon, Abern and Shachtman begin building the LO in the U.S.?

What weapons did the CP use against the Trotskyists?

How did the Trotskyists counterorganize against the CP’s physical assaults?

What happened at the Minneapolis lecture of Cannon’s national speaking tour, and what important lessons did the Trotskyists learn from this experience?

What “won free speech for the Stalinist gangsters”? What impact did this have on others in the U.S. radical movement?

How did the Trotskyist faction’s platform prepared for the February 1929 CP convention differ from other, earlier CP convention documents?

Why didn’t Cannon and his group form a new party immediately? How did they constitute themselves, and why?

If Trotskyists are internationalists rather than focusing just on revolution in one country, why were discussions on The Russian Question the dominant question or dispute “at every juncture, at every critical occasion, at every turn” until 1940?

Cannon says they could have had hundreds of recruits if they had been willing to—what?

Describe the first national conference of Trotskyists in the U.S.

Ch. 5—The Dog Days of the Left Opposition

Cannon says that, “The fate of every political group…is decided…by the way in which it
answers two decisive questions.” What is the first of these, and why is it important?

Describe how the fate of the Lovestone group shows the necessity of a correct program.

Why is it so critical that a group “decide correctly what shall be the nature of its activities, and what tasks it shall set itself”?

What factors must be taken into account in deciding what tasks to take on?

As noted in the last chapter, the first conference of Trotskyists took up the Russian Question. How did they answer the question of whether to continue to support the USSR now that a bureaucratic, conservative caste had taken control and was destroying the gains of the Russian revolution?

Many radicals disagreed with the early Trotskyists and broke with the USSR, stating the revolution had been completely destroyed. What happened to them?

What was the second key programmatic question taken up by the first Trotskyist conference? What was it important to address?

Why did the Stalinists tend to have wild leaps in their policies, from rightwing opportunist to ultraleft adventurism and back again? How was this manifest in trade union work?

Why does Cannon characterize the CP attempt to build communist trade unions as “sectarian”?

Explain why the Trotskyists defined themselves as a faction of the CP rather than declaring themselves a new party. Were they correct?

How did this decision not to form a new party affect the Left Opposition’s decisions about what tasks to set themselves?

Explain Cannon’s statement that “the road to the masses leads through the vanguard and not over its head.”

What was the Stalinist “left turn,” and why was it a devastating blow to the Left Opposition?

What other events or actions helped to reestablish people’s illusions that Stalinism was the most revolutionary force in the U.S.?

Explain why Trotskyists had a hard time convincing people that the Stalinist theory of socialism in one country would, in the end, be fatal? How has history, particularly in the last decade, answered them?

Explain what Cannon means by saying, “as is always the case with new political elements, we began to recruit from sources none too healthy.”

What was the character of the NY branch of the CLA at this time? What is a dilettante? an iconoclast?

How does Cannon explain why the CLA had such fierce “squabbles” over minor issues?

Explain what Cannon means by the “moral authority” of the CLA leaders.

How does Cannon describe internationalism contributing to the growth of the CLA?

Where does the slogan “Tenacity, Tenacity, Tenacity” come from? What does it mean to you?

Ch. 6—The Break with the Comintern

Summarizing the previous chapter, what were the factors that made the first four years of American Trotskyism difficult?

What were the Trotskyists’ key tasks during their early period of isolation?

What were some of the key theoretical questions the early Left Opposition addressed?

Previously, Cannon emphasized that it would have been a mistake to leap into mass work, but in 1933, the Left Oppositionists began to be active in the labor movement. How had the CLA changed to make this now the right policy? What objective outside developments made this possible?

What was the CLA’s urgent message to the workers’ movement in 1933? What was the position of the CP and the Social Democrats?

What have Engels and Trotsky taught is “the worst and most demoralizing of all defeats”? Why?

What was the Communist International founded?

Why does Cannon say that in 14 years, the Comintern had been “converted into its polar opposite”?

What was the impact of the rise of fascism in Germany on workers in other countries?

Why did the Trotskyists conclude the time had come for a new International and new parties (rather than being a faction seeking to reform the CP)?

What new internal problem appeared with the Trotskyists adopted the slogan “Turn from a propaganda circle to mass work?” Where did this resistance come from?

What approach did the Trotskyists take in their campaign for a new party?

How did the way Trotsky and the Left Opposition were seen by other leftists change during this time?

Ch. 7—The Turn to Mass Work

Explain the difference between propaganda and agitation.

What “sweeping change” in the workers movement was taking place in late 1933? How did this pose new tasks for the Left Opposition?

What does Cannon mean by not getting “bogged down in trade union fetishism”?

Describe the balance in mass work struck by the CLA during this period.

Cannon describes the union bureaucracy as “ossified” despite the rising activity among the rank-and-file. What did the CLA do beyond criticizing the labor bureaucracy? Why?

What was politically significant about the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (Muste’s group) scheduled in November 1933?

What tactic(s) did the Left Opposition use when Stalinists tried to physically disrupt their meetings? What success did the L.O. have?

How did the CLA find itself in the leadership of the NYC hotel workers strike in January 1934, with one of their members the secretary of the union?

Cannon asserts that “In every relationship ever established between the Trotskyists and any other political group, the initiate always came from the Trotskyists.” Why is this?

Did the CLA dominate the hotel workers strike leadership? Why or why not?

What happened to B. J. Field, the young intellectual from the CLA, as the hotel strike developed?

What does Cannon say is the only way to have any leverage at the negotiating table? What was Field doing instead?

Why did Field and his followers think they could ignore the policy and discipline of the CLA?

What action did the CLA take regarding Field?

What did the CLA members and contacts learn from the experience with Field? How were the lessons quickly put to a new concrete test?

What was the key question debated with the Lovestoneites at a public forum in March 1934? What was the outcome of the meeting?

Ch. 8—The Great Minneapolis Strikes

What does Cannon say caused the ineffectiveness of the first great wave of depression-era strikes in 1933?

Explain the dynamic that led to the strike upsurge.

Who provided the leadership of the Auto-Lite strike, which inspired other workers to mobilize?

What did the first major labor action led by Trotskyists take place in the coal yards of Minneapolis?

What does Cannon say is one reason workers are so reluctant to criticize or break off from established unions, even when they’re very conservative?

How did the Trotskyists break through their isolation, having been purged from both the AFL and the Communist Party?

What was the nature and role of the “Organizing Committee” of Teamsters Local 574?

How did the Organizing Committee make sure the striking workers would not be isolated?

Explain Cannon’s statement that, “All modern strikes required political direction.”

What kinds of preparations were made before the strike started?

Why did the Stalinists criticize the strike? What was the Trotskyists’ response?

What was the Citizens’ Alliance? What did they convince the trucking bosses to do after the Teamsters won union recognition in their 6-day strike in May 1934?

What tactics did the trucking bosses use to try to chisel away at the concessions they had made to settle the strike?

Why was a second Teamster strike necessary?

Why is the July-August 1934 Teamster strike considered one the greatest in U.S. history?

What specific contributions did the Trotskyists make to the strike?

What was the role of federal mediators? How did the Trotskyist strike leadership respond?

What was the Daily Organizer, and why was it important?

Who was the Governor of Minnesota? Explain his relation to the strike.

Who were the first to be arrested when martial law was declared? Why did they agree to accept the condition of leaving town in order to be released?

What happened when the federal mediator, Father Haas, tried to force the strike leaders to give in to the bosses?

In summary, what made the Minneapolis Teamsters strike a high point of the 2nd wave of strikes in the 1930s?

Ch. 9—The Fusion with the Musteities

What was the state of the Communist League of America and the Militant in September 1934 when the Trotskyist leadership proposed a merger with the American Workers Party?

Cannon describes the AWP as heterogeneous. What gave the AWP its progressive character?

Why, in Cannon’s analysis, did Muste fail to become a true revolutionary?

Who was Salutsky, and why does Cannon call him a “half and half man”?

Explain Cannon’s comment that “Mass work is hard work and it devours many people.” How do you think this applies to Budenz?

Characterize the opposition to the merger with the AWP that arose within the ranks of the Communist League of America.

Why was it politically important to seek a merger with the AWP?

Explain why the CLA leadership considered the AWP’s reference to the Soviet Union a “provocation.” How did they respond, and why?

What was the “French Turn”?

What does Cannon mean by “program decides everything”?

Characterize the organizational proposal made by the CLA for unification with the Musteites.

What did the Stalinists have to say about the CLA-AWP fusion?

Explain how opposition to Trotsky’s exile in France was met with an unprincipled alliance.

If the socialist parties/Second International had betrayed revolutionary politics to the point of necessitating the founding of the Third International, why, two decades later, was it correct for Trotskyists o join or fuse with them?

Summarize Cannon’s answer to the argument that the U.S. Trotskyists shouldn’t fuse with the Musteites because the political independence of the revolutionary party is a principle.

Explain the statement, “Sectarians are always afraid of their own suppressed desires to be opportunists.”

Ch. 10—The Struggle Against Sectarianism

Explain Cannon’s statement that “The revolutionary labor movement … grows through a continuous process of internal struggle.”

Are unifications of revolutionary groups always more desirable than splits? Why or why not?

Why was unity between the Communist League of America and the Workers Party progressive?

Why was the preceding period—from 1928 to 1934—one of “a continuous and uninterrupted series of splits”?

What objective factors favored regroupment in the mid 1930s?

Characterize the leadership of the Left Wing of the Socialist Party. Why were the Trotskyists interested in this group?

Describe the lost opportunity presented by an emerging socialist movement in Spain during this time.

What is meant by organizational fetishism?

Why was Muste opposed to unifying with the Left Socialists?

Describe the “medicine” that Cannon prescribed for sectarianism in the Workers Party? What “surgical treatment” was then applied, and why?

What public project did the newly merged Workers Party undertake, and how was this received?

What was the “Bolshevization program”? Why does Cannon characterize it as sectarian?

How did Musteites react? What would have been a better tactic for the Trotskyists?

What was the “Active Workers Conference”? What role did the Oehlerites play at the 1935 Pittsburgh conference?

How did Cannon fight against sectarianism in the party?

How does Cannon explain that one never gets “smooth sailing” in revolutionary politics?

What is “the real source of serious faction fights”?

Why did the Workers Party have a worsening financial picture during this period?

Cannon warns that unemployed organizations are often met with exaggerated views of their stability and revolutionary potential. Why are they “loose and very scattered formations,” even at their best?

Explain Cannon’s critique of Muste that he “tended to adapt himself to the masses more than a real political leader can afford to do?

What kind of political proposal did Budenz make to the party under the guise of “Americanization”? Why does Cannon characterize this as “a philistine program of the crudest kind’?

Summarize Cannon et al’s program against sectarianism and for regrouping with the Left Wing of the Socialist Party. What did Cannon mean by “leaving our organizational perspectives open”?

How did Cannon’s faction defend the “French Turn”?

How does Cannon explain the purpose of a faction fight, if it means more than just winning a vote?

When the Oehlerites had clearly lost the majority of the question of the Socialist Party, what did they demand? Why was this demand denied? On what grounds were they subsequently expelled?

What new development in the Socialist Party at the end of 1935 opened the door further to unification with its Left Wing?

Ch. 11—The French Turn in America

What political lesson can be drawn from the outcome of Muste’s bloc with Oehler?

What did Muste do when it became clear Oehler was disloyal to the Workers Party?

Why didn’t Cannon’s group push for entry into the Socialist Party (SP) after the October 1935 plenum?

Characterize Muste’s faction’s attitude toward the SP during this period.

In what way are organizational questions important? To what are they subordinate?

Describe the split that occurred in the SP in December 1935. How did this create an opportunity for the Workers Party?

In order to grow, what does a party need to do beyond “the routine exposition of principles”?

What “hurdles” did the Trotskyists have to clear before joining the SP?

What was the attitude of the leadership of the SP Left Wing toward the Trotskyists’ proposal to join?

Characterize the SP Left Wing leadership. What were their faults?

To what conditions did the Trotskyists agree in order to join the SP?

What kinds of problems arose in the Allentown WP chapter during this period? How did the Trotskyist leadership respond? What was Muste’s role?

What was the outcome of the Allentown dissension?

How did the Trotskyists explain publicly their apparent dissolution and entry into the SP?
Ch. 12—The Trotskyists in the Socialist Party

What does Cannon say is “the gist of political leadership”?

Cannon says that “there are times that even the best leadership cannot move the party forward by a single inch.” Explain what he means. Think of an example in addition to the ones Cannon gives.
In a political period dominated by reaction and isolation, what were the two things Marxists needed to do to prepare for the upsurge that must inevitably come?

Characterize the Socialist Party at the point when the Trotskyists joined.

What “great events” were taking place in the world at this point?

What mistakes does Cannon say were made during the entry into the Socialist Party? What mitigated the negative impact of these mistakes?

Why is it impossible for Trotskyism’s enemies to write it off as “provincial dogma”?

Why was it so important that the Trotskyists were in the Socialist Party at the time of the Moscow frame-up trials?

Why was the Dewey Commission a defeat for Stalinism?

What was the other major political campaign carried out while the Trotskyists were in the Socialist Party?

What new opportunity arose in the labor movement?

How did the Trotskyists, who had officially joined as individuals rather than a faction, “legally reconstitute” themselves?

Who was behind the call to “Drive the Trotskyists out of the (Socialist) Party”?

How did Norman Thomas use the 1937 Convention to try to get rid of the Trotskyists? What did they do to get around this restriction?

What tactic did the Trotskyists employ after being expelled to consolidate themselves and as many supporters as possible?

What was the outcome of the year the Trotskyists spent in the SP? In contrast, what did the Oehlerites, who refused to join, accomplish?

What weakness emerged in the fall of 1937 as the Trotskyists prepare to found the Socialist Workers Party? How did this foreshadow an important internal struggle to come?

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