My Decision to Join the Trotskyist Camp in 1928
By James P. Cannon
This is a letter sent to Theodore Draper, a historian of the American communist movement. It was written in 1959. 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, New York.
May 27, 1959
It seems to me that I have already written myself out on The Birth of American Trotskyismin 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 couldnt add much to what I have already written in the History of American Trotskyism, in my letters to you, and in the big articleThe Degeneration of the Communist Party and the New Beginning in the Fall, 1954 issue of Fourth International.
Thats my case. If I were to write about it again I could only repeat what I have already said. Youll 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 actionwhich 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.
The whole damned thing was a frame-up!
In the summer of 1928 in Moscow, in addition to the theoretical and political revelation that came to me when I read Trotskys 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 wasnt 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 maintainas 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 hellbetter 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:
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.
1 Secretary of State under the Roosevelt administration.
2 The reference to Trotskys army is more than an ordinary metaphor. It had a double meaning in that it referred to his unique role as the organizer, the leader, the teacher, the general of the Soviet Red Army that led the revolutionary war in defense of the great Russian Socialist Revolutionas well as the political founder and leader of the world party of socialist revolution, the Fourth International.