James P. Cannon
The decision to join the Trotskyist camp in 1928
May 27, 1959
[This is a letter sent to Theodore Draper, a historian of the American communist movement.
The entire series of letters sent from Cannon to Draper has been published under the title "The first ten years of American communism" by Lyle Stuart Inc, in 1962. It was later reprinted by Pathfinder Press. It was originally posted on http://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1959djtc.htm]
It seems to me that I have already written myself out on "The Birth of American Trotskyism"-in which I played the central role because I just happened to be standing there at the time and there was no one else to do it. I couldn't add much to what I have already written in the History of American Trotskyism, in my letters to you, and in the big article - "The Degeneration of the Communist Party-and the New Beginning" in the Fall, 1954 issue of Fourth International. That's my case. If I were to write about it again I could only repeat what I have already said.
You'll find a better and fuller exposition there than I could write again today. I have the faculty, which for me is a happy one, of pushing things to the back of my mind once I have written them out. In order to write a fresh report on the origin of American Trotskyism, I would have to force myself back into a semi-coma, recalling and reliving the struggle of 31 years ago. That is too much for me to undertake again.
* * *
The only thing I left out of my extensive writing about that period, which I try to leave out of all my writing, was the special element of personal motivation for my action-which cynics would never believe and research workers never find in the files and cross-indexes. That is the compulsion of conscience when one is confronted by an obligation which, in given circumstances, is his alone to accept or to evade.
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 copy-book 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 foot-loose 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.
In the History of American Trotskyism, p.61 I wrote:
"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 the Moscow 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 far-away 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."
In Moscow, in the summer of 1928, I foresaw such a possible consequence of my decision and action. And I thought that that alone would justify it, regardless of what else might follow. Many things have changed since then, but that conviction has never changed.