Friday, December 16, 2016

James P. Cannon on C.L.R. James

I have been re-reading James P. Cannon's book The Struggle for a Proletarian Party this week. 

The book is well-described at the Pathfinder Press website:

On the eve of World War II, a founder of the communist movement in the U.S. defends the program and party-building course of the Communist International in Lenin's time. 

I'll be posting a few more excerpts, but I wanted to share the below quotes/judgments Cannon made about the now-famous Hegelianizing state capitalist philosopher C.L.R. James.  

At the time of the 1940 faction struggle covered by the book, James was known by the pseudonym J.R. Johnson.  He was a supporter of the petty bourgeois opposition in the Socialist Workers Party at that time, which tried to cover their political capitulation to U.S. imperialism by claiming that Cannon and the proletarian base of the party were bureaucratically abusing their rights.

....Johnson, the lyrical historian of our movement, who has seen nothing and knows everything, writes: "For 10 years the leadership has been Cannon's." (If Johnson, as it may be assumed, is referring to the entire history of the Fourth Internationalist movement in America, it should be pointed out that it began not 10 years ago, but 11 and one-half years ago.)
....Johnson, who learned all about Bolshevism and Stalinism from Souvarine....

48. A Letter to C. Charles
New York, March 6, 1940
C. Charles, Organiser
Los Angeles Branch
(Copy to all California Branches)

Dear Comrade:
Concerning Johnson
I hear that Johnson is in California promoting the split program of the opposition and giving sermons on the organisation question. I hope the comrades who value the unity of the party will give him a suitable reception. Here is a first class example of an irresponsible adventurer in our movement who deserves to be handled without gloves. Let me tell you a few things about him.
Johnson was appointed director of a party department under the supervision of the PC. He leaves town and turns up in California without so much as notice to the Political Committee of his departure, to say nothing of permission. This is no doubt a sample of the "organisational methods" which the petty-bourgeois opposition recommends to the party. I am sure that every serious worker in the party will repudiate and condemn such lightminded irresponsibility. The procedure of Weiss in returning to California stands in marked contrast to that of Johnson. He did not venture to leave his post as branch organiser at Youngstown until he received the formal and official approval of both the PC and the Youngstown branch. There is a difference in the men and in the method. The method of Weiss is better, more responsible, more revolutionary ...
Our party, like every other, also has its share of inexperienced members who are inclined to mistake oratorical and literary facility for the qualities of revolutionary leadership. Cruel disappointments await such young comrades. But perhaps some of them will learn from their experience to demand better credentials next time ...
I hear that Johnson, the disorganiser, is going to lead a discussion of the Los Angeles comrades on the organisation question. This impudence can only be based on the assumption that any kind of quackery can prosper in Southern California. But I know another California—the California of a group of resolute Trotskyists who have shown in practice that they know how to organise a party and do serious work in the mass movement. Instead of lecturing such comrades on "organisation" Johnson should go to school to them ... I greatly regret that I cannot be present when Johnson elucidates these questions. They go to the heart of the issue. It may seem impolite and even "bureaucratic" of me to put the questions so bluntly and so concretely. But that is the only way to bring the discussion of the organisation question down to earth. Engels was fond of the proverb: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." The organisational puddings Johnson has cooked up to date have not been very digestible.
With Trotskyist greetings,
J.P. Cannon


50. A Letter to Murry Weiss
New York, March 7, 1940
Murry Weiss
Los Angeles, California

Dear Murry,
... I have today written a letter to the Los Angeles organisation about Johnson. You should go after him hammer and tongs along the line of this letter, and pull a few feathers from this peacock. 


53. A Letter to C. Charles

New York, March 12, 1940
C. Charles
Los Angeles, Cal.

Dear Charley,

I received your letter of March 7 and I am awaiting with some impatience a report of the debates with Johnson and the reaction of the comrades to the biographical material I sent on this fly-by-night expert on the organisation question.

There is no sense in taking time to write an answer to Lebrun. Even historians of the movement will have to dig a long while through the mass of material already printed to get to anything that is written now. The party is waterlogged with the discussion.

It is important to keep pounding away on the minority on the split question to shatter their morale in confronting this decisive break with

our movement. I agree with your comments on the minority. I don't care what the Los Angeles comrades do with the official status of Johnson. As far as we are concerned, he is 3000 miles away from his post of duty without authorisation and what he does or does not do is not our affair.

I received the copy of --'s letter on China. You will receive a copy of a letter from the Brazilian section which shows that the opposition claims about that are mainly the bunk.

J.P. Cannon


The 1950 article "Marxist Method and Ideas and the Method and Ideas of Johnson-Forest" by William F. Warde and John G. Wright can be read here.

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