James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-38


Bryan D. Palmer reinterprets the history of labour and the left in the United States during the 1930s through a discussion of the emergence of Trotskyism in the most advanced capitalist country in the world. Focussing on James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, Palmer builds on his previously published and award-winning book, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (2007), with a deeply-researched and elegantly-written study of Cannon and the Trotskyist movement in the United States from 1928-38.

Situating this dissident communist movement within the history of class struggle, both national and international, Palmer examines how Cannon and others fought to revive a combative trade unionism, thwart fascism and the drift to war, refuse Stalinism’s many degenerations, and build a new Party and a new International, both of which would be dedicating to reviving and realizing the possibilities of revolutionary socialism. The result is a study that provides a definitive account of the largest and most influential Trotskyist movement in the world in the 1930s, a mobilization whose history recasts understandings of the more extensively-studied experience of United States working-class militancy and the place of the Comintern-affiliated Communist Party within it.

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Bryan D. Palmer, PhD (1977), State University of New York, Binghamton, is Professor Emeritus and former Canada Research Chair, Canadian Studies, Trent University, Peterborough, Canada. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, former editor of Labour/Le Travail, and has published extensively on the history of labour and the revolutiona3ry left, including the two-volume, Marxism and Historical Practice (Brill, 2015) and the co-authored, Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History (Between the Lines, 2016).
“This book is an irreplaceable resource for anyone seriously interested in working-class history and labor struggles in the United States, in the complexities of U.S. Communism, in the history of the Trotskyist movement, and in struggles for a better world. (…) Palmer’s scholarship is meticulous, thoughtful and balanced. Even where one disagrees with his judgments and conclusions, his work on Cannon and the Trotskyists is a necessary reference point.”
——Paul Le Blanc in: Against the Current, Vol. 223, March/April 2023.

"Bryan Palmer’s biography of James Cannon is a brilliant, lucidly and compellingly written tour de force. Palmer has taken the life of the leader of a small, seemingly obscure US revolutionary organization to shed light not only on US oppositional politics, but on the deepest currents of US, North American, and world history. This is an essential primer for all who have an interest in radical labor and social movements across the globe."
——Michael Goldfield, author, most recently, of The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s

"James P. Cannon, a steely Marxist tactician radiating defiant strength in his bearing and biography, was also that rare historical actor who defined a political movement. With a trove of inside details, Bryan Palmer, the commanding figure in original scholarship about US Trotskyism, provides the fullest and most discerning portrait we will ever have of Cannon’s middle years in the 1930s. Writing about this tumultuous past with his gaze fixed upon the future, Palmer offers an incisive breakdown of a cascade of knotty political engagements while pulling no punches about his own provocative judgments on personalities and organizations. By every conceivable metric of rigorous writing, this book is a triumphant addition and corrective to the historiography of the Left and seems destined for a readership inside and outside the academy."
——Alan Wald, H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan and author, among many books, of The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s

"The movement associated with Trotsky has been nearly alone in defending a working-class politics based on internationalism, working-class self-activity and self-organization, and democracy in the working-class movement. In the US, James P. Cannon was a founder and central figure in the preservation of this beleaguered political current. This second volume of Bryan Palmer’s biography, James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-1938, is a crucial contribution to our understanding of that tradition, grappling with both Cannon’s political and organizational strengths and weaknesses. It is an essential addition to the history of the global and US left and their relations to the ongoing struggles of working people."
——Charles Post, author of The American Road to Capitalism and member of the editorial board of Spectre: A Marxist Journal

"The American revolutionary James P. Cannon has found the perfect biographer and champion in Bryan Palmer, the accomplished historian of the international working class. Palmer’s subject is the socialist, Wobbly, and early Communist militant who helped found and direct American Trotskyism in the first decade and beyond. What makes his profile of the leadership branch of the International Left Opposition so enlightening, indeed indispensable, is that it is simultaneously a sophisticated account of the Stalinized CPUSA that it opposed. No account better documents the early anti-democratic, violent roots of the American Communist Party, expelling anyone who refused to toe the line, turning public meetings of the nascent Left Opposition into murderous melees. Palmer details the process in an impressively researched study that interweaves the struggle to create an effective revolutionary organization with the travails of the international effort, undermined by Stalin’s obsession with wiping out socialist critics to his left everywhere. Tracing the revolutionary red thread running from the Russian Revolution of 1917 through the end of the 1930s, Palmer deftly demonstrates Cannon’s multiple talents as a political organizer, winning recruits to radical socialist politics by means of effectively intervening in the titanic labor struggles that distinguished the era. This meant agitating in the coal fields of Illinois, organizing the 1934 teamster rebellion in Minneapolis, and mobilizing the Pacific seamen and cannery workers in California, while simultaneously masterminding the fusion with Muste’s American Workers Party, entering into the Socialist Party, building the 1937 Dewey Commission to expose Stalin’s Moscow Trials in Mexico, and participating in the efforts to build a new revolutionary International. Bryan Palmer has produced a profound work of scholarship that is simultaneously a riveting narrative. You can’t put it down."
——Suzi Weissman, author of Victor Serge: A Political Biography, longtime radio broadcaster, and co-producer of a Trotsky documentary entitled The Most Dangerous Man in the World
Preface and Acknowledgments
List of Figures

Introduction: James P. Cannon and the “Prince’s Favors”
 1 Hope and the Dog Days
 2 Historiography’s House of Mirrors
 3 Mirror Image Refusals
 4 Analytic Alternative
 5 Cannon and the History of American Trotskyism

1 An American Left Opposition
 1 Exile off Main Street
 2 Stalinism Consolidating
 3 Stalinist Slow Dancing: Guile
 4 Picking up the Pace: Gangsterism
 5 Recruiting the American Left Opposition: Three Phases
 6 Cannon: Caretaker of the Original Left Opposition Cadre
 7 Recruitment’s Second Phase: Stalinism’s Heavy Hand
 8 “An Army of a Million People”: Hungarians, Italians, Finns, and Immigrant Birth Controllers
 9 A Publication Program
 10 The Founding of the Communist League of America (Opposition)

2 Dog Days
 1 Downturn: Economic Depression
 2 “Left Turn”: Revolutionary Politics and the Third Period
 3 Dimensions of Cannon’s Crisis: Material Being
 4 Dimensions of Cannon’s Crisis: Reconstituted Families and Domestic Complications
 5 Dimensions of Cannon’s Crisis: Rose Karsner’s Break-Down
 6 Cannon’s Collapsing World: The Personal Becomes Political
 7 The Weisbord Whirlwind
 8 Branch Bickerings: New York Cliquism and Youth Recruits
 9 Factional Waystation: June 1932, National Committee Plenum
 10 Factionalism Internationalized: The Turn to Europe
 11 International Intervention
 12 Dog Days Denouement: New Turns
 13 Internal Ironies

3 Daylight: Analysis and Action
 1 1933–34: Past, Present, and Future
 2 Context: Revival/Reorientation
 3 The Long and Trying March Back to a Labor Party Perspective
 4 Black Oppression in America: National Self-Determination vs. The Revolutionary Struggle for Equality
 5 The Momentum of Mobilizations: Unemployed and Labor Defense Work
 6 Miner Militants: Cannon’s “Bona Fide Proletarians”
 7 B.J. Field: A Napoleon among New York’s French Chefs
 8 Dawn of a New Left Opposition Day

4 Minneapolis Militants
 1 General Strike
 2 Class Relations in Minneapolis
 3 Trotskyists among the Teamsters: Propagandistic Old Moles
 4 January Thaw; February Cold Snap: The Coal Yards on Strike
 5 Lessons of the Coal Yards Strike
 6 Strike Preparations: Unemployed Agitations and Industrial Unionism
 7 Overcoming “Bureaucratic Obstacles”
 8 The Ladies/Women’s Auxiliary
 9 Rebel Outpost: 1900 Chicago Avenue
 10 The Tribune Alley Plot and the Battle of Deputies Run
 11 May 1934: Settlement Secured; Victory Postponed
 12 Stalinist Slurs
 13 Farmer-Labor Two Class Hybrid vs Class Struggle Perspective
 14 Interlude
 15 Toward the July Days
 16 A Strike Declared; A Plot Exposed
 17 Bloody Friday
 18 Labor’s Martyr: Henry B. Ness
 19 Martial Law/Red Scare
 20 Olson: The Defective “Merits” of a Progressive Pragmatism
 21 Standing Fast: Satire and Solidarity
 22 Mediation’s Meanderings
 23 Sudden and Unexpected Victory

5 Entryism
 1 1934: Militancy and Marginalization’s Movement
 2 The French Turn
 3 Cannon, Trotsky, and the Preparatory Ground of Entryism: Transcending the “Organic Unity” Imbroglio
 4 Fusion with the Musteites
 5 Building the Party amid Fusion’s Fallouts
 6 Anticipating the French Turn
 7 Americanizing the French Turn: Factions and Combinations
 8 The Intensification of Oehlerite Sectarianism
 9 Ousting the Oehlerites
 10 Socialist Party Schisms and Workers Party Entry
 11 Prelude to Entry: Cannon in Harness and Muste’s Conversions
 12 Entryism & Subordination
 13 A Farmer-Labor Detour and the Return of the Oehlerite Repressed
 14 Entry Proclaimed
 15 Cannon in California: The “Foot Loose Rebel” and the Agitational Road
 16 Entryist Estrangement
 17 The Return of the Prodigal Agitator
 18 Reaction from Above
 19 The End of Entry
 20 Assessing the French Turn in America

6 Trials, Tragedies, and Trade Unions
 1 1937’s Imperative: Assimilating Revolution’s Recruits
 2 The Origins of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky
 3 The Non-partisan Origins of Trotsky’s Defense
 4 Dancing with Dewey
 5 Trotsky’s Testimony
 6 Carleton Beals and Stalinism at Work in the Preliminary Sub-commission
 7 Delimitation by Default
 8 Social-Democratic Delimitation
 9 Brand Barcelona on Centrist Foreheads: Trotskyism and the Spanish Civil War
 10 Trotskyism Finds its “Sea Legs”: Cannon and the Maritime Federation of the Pacific
 11 Frame-Up in Minneapolis: Who Killed Patrick J. Corcoran?
 12 Trotskyism on the Line: Footholds in Mass Production and the CIO

Conclusion: Party/International

All interested in the history of the revolutionary left (internationally as well as in the US), labour movements in the United States, social histories of the working class, and the politics of opposition movements.
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