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February 2002 • Vol 2, No. 2 •

From the Arsenal of Marxism:

Theses on the American Revolution
(October 1946)

By James P. Cannon


Unlike his two most influential Marxist teachers and comrades—V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky—James Patrick Cannon’s name is recognized by few among the general population. But he is well known and even more highly respected by some of the most serious participants in the historic workers’ struggle for world socialism. Cannon stands out ahead of all other American Marxists because of the contributions he made to the revolutionary workers’ movement. The most important of which was his role in helping to apply the organizational principles that served the Russian Bolsheviks so well in their revolution, to the building of a section of a world revolutionary workers’ party under American conditions.

Born on February 11, 1890 to an Irish working class family in Rosedale, Kansas, Cannon was won to socialism by his father, an Irish Republican who had embraced socialism soon after Eugene V. Debs, a highly respected railroad union leader, had joined the Socialist Party.

James P. Cannon joined the Socialist Party in 1908 at the age of 18. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1911 when he was 21. He went on to become a founding leader of the American Communist Party until his expulsion in 1928.

Sent by the American section of the Third, or Communist, International to serve as a delegate to its World Congress that year, Cannon came into possession of a document, “The Draft Program of the Communist International: A criticism of Fundamentals,” introduced by Leon Trotsky who was at the time the leader of the Left Opposition. This document represented the critical views of a faction in the Soviet Communist party formed to fight against the Stalin-led majority faction’s break from the fundamental principles that had been advanced and defended by Lenin and Trotsky. (The two together had been the main leaders of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian Socialist Revolution of October 1917.)

But a short time after Lenin died in January 1924, Stalin abandoned the struggle for a world socialist society and sought, instead, an accommodation with world imperialism based on the capitalist status quo. Trotsky explained that Stalin’s theory of “Socialism in one Country,” was really a rationalization for putting the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy ahead of the world revolution.

Why Cannon wrote the Theses

This month’s selection for the Arsenal of Marxism is Cannon’s “Theses on the American Revolution.” It should be obvious from the title that this resolution which had been adopted by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) at its 1946 National Convention was not written to serve as a conjunctural document analyzing past policies and outlining the line of march for the two year period following that convention. Rather it was intended to reaffirm the fundamental principles of the SWP and of revolutionary Marxism. Such a restatement of its basic program was made necessary because the relative “prosperity” that was a product of the war economy—which actually began with the outbreak of World War II in September 1939—had begun to adversely affect the consciousness of the workers’ vanguard.

In a subsequent speech to the party, Cannon had noted that by 1941 the working-class militants that had been in the vanguard of the fighting union movement of the 1930s was being conservatized by the combined effects of two big changes in the objective world. First and most important was the effect of living standards they had won in battle that were higher than they had been before the Great Depression brought mass living standards crashing down after the stock market collapsed in 1929. Thus, to put a complex process concisely, though somewhat over-simplified, from hungry fighters with nothing to lose, the best militants, now with seniority protecting their economic security, had much more to lose than their chains.

And the second big change was the McCarthyite red-baiting witch hunt instigated by the U.S.-led world capitalist class in 1946. The opening gun of what became an effective assault on the left wing of the American trade union movement and the workers’ movement generally was fired by Great Britain’s war-time prime minister Winston Churchill in his infamous “Iron-Curtain” speech delivered in Fulton, Missouri in 1946. That was also the opening gun of the not-so-cold Cold War.

But what was most destructive was the role played by the labor bureaucracy which saw the witch hunt as an opportunity to rid themselves of the most militant wing of the union movement. While denouncing the Taft-Hartley Act as a “slave-labor” law—which it indeed would be, when and if it could be fully implemented—the labor bureaucracy with few exceptions embraced its key provisions as a weapon to be wielded against their left-wing critics inside the unions.

Cannon had also explained the impact on American workers of a similarly treasonous role being played at the time by labor and socialist bureaucrats in Europe and Asia. Thus, the revolutionary upsurge that began in Italy and France toward the end of the second imperialist World War had by 1946 shown much evidence that the post war revolutionary upsurge would most likely be defeated by the treachery of the reformist Social Democracy and the Stalinized Communist Parties.

These developments led Cannon to the conclusion that it was necessary to reaffirm the fundamental principles of revolutionary proletarian leadership—while the memory of its efficacy was still fresh in the minds of the vanguard of America’s class struggle fighters. That is, it was necessary to rearm the workers’ movement for the difficult times that had just begun for revolutionary socialism.

Neither Cannon nor anyone else had any idea, however, that the highly unfavorable period that he and many others had anticipated would last as long as it did. There are, of course, always solutions. But some solutions are very costly as was the one that ended the Great Depression—World War II.

And while the unprecedented prolonged expansion of capitalism for some 60 years may have been entirely without malignant side-effects for the capitalists in the advanced industrial countries, it has resulted in the most severe decline in living conditions of the long-suffering billions of human beings in the super-exploited and oppressed nations of the colonial world.

Moreover, the price the world will be made to pay for this 60-year credit-driven, lop-sided global false “prosperity” is a Himalayan-sized debt that will result in a crisis that will make the Great Depression look like the good old days. This solution, based on the freeing of capitalist economy from the dictatorship of gold can only end with the bankruptcy of the global capitalist monetary system and economic collapse.

— By the editors

Theses on the American Revolution

This resolution, which constituted the SWP’s basic programmatic document of the postwar period, was completed by Cannon at the beginning of October, 1946. It was adopted by the Twelfth National Convention of the SWP in November 1946. The text is from the pamphlet The Coming American Revolution (New York: Pioneer Publishers, April 1947).


The United States, the most powerful capitalist country in history, is a component part of the world capitalist system and is subject to the same general laws. It suffers from the same incurable diseases and is destined to share the same fate. The overwhelming preponderance of American imperialism does not exempt it from the decay of world capitalism, but on the contrary, acts to involve it ever more deeply, inextricably, and hopelessly. U. S. capitalism can no more escape from the revolutionary consequences of world capitalist decay than the older European capitalist powers. The blind alley in which world capitalism has arrived, and the U.S. with it, excludes a new organic era of capitalist stabilization. The dominant world position of American imperialism now accentuates and aggravates the death agony of capitalism as a whole.


American imperialism emerged victorious from the Second World War, not merely over its German and Japanese rivals, but also over its “democratic” allies, especially Great Britain. Today Wall Street unquestionably is the dominant world imperialist center. Precisely because it has issued from the war vastly strengthened in relation to all its capitalist rivals, U.S. imperialism seems indomitable. So overpowering in all fields—diplomatic, military, commercial, financial, and industrial—is Wall Street’s preponderance that consolidation of the world hegemony seems to be within easy reach. Wall Street hopes to inaugurate the so-called American Century.

In reality, the American ruling class faces more insurmountable obstacles in “organizing the world” than confronted the German bourgeoisie in its repeated and abortive attempts to attain a much more modest goal, namely: “organizing Europe.”

The meteoric rise of U.S. imperialism to world supremacy comes too late. Moreover, American imperialism rests increasingly on the foundations of world economy, in sharp contrast to the situation prevailing before the First World War, when it rested primarily on the internal market—the source of its previous successes and equilibrium. But the world foundation is today shot through with insoluble contradictions; it suffers from chronic dislocations and is mined with revolutionary powder kegs.

American capitalism, hitherto only partially involved in the death agony of capitalism as a world system, is henceforth subject to the full and direct impact of all the forces and contradictions that have debilitated the old capitalist countries of Europe.

The economic prerequisites for the socialist revolution are fully matured in the U.S. The political premises are likewise far more advanced than might appear on the surface.


The U.S. emerged from the Second World War, just as it did in 1918, as the strongest part of the capitalist world. But here ends the resemblance in the impact and consequences of the two wars upon the country’s economic life. For in other major aspects the situation has in the meantime drastically altered.

In 1914-18 continental Europe was the main theater of war, the rest of the world, especially the colonial countries, was left virtually untouched by the hostilities. Thus, not only sections of continental Europe and England but the main framework of the world market itself remained intact. With all its European competitors embroiled in the war, the way was left clear for American capitalist to capture markets.

More than this, during the First World War capitalist Europe itself became a vast market for American industry and agriculture. The American bourgeoisie drained Europe of her accumulated wealth of centuries and supplanted their Old World rivals in the world market. This enabled the ruling class to convert the U.S. from a debtor into the world’s banker and creditor, and simultaneously to expand both the heavy (capital goods) and the light (consumer goods) industries. Subsequently this wartime expansion permitted the fullest possible development of this country’s domestic market. Finally, not merely did the American bourgeoisie make vast profits from the war but the country as a whole emerged much richer. The relatively cheap price of imperialist participation in World War I (only a few-score billion dollars) was covered many times over by the accruing economic gains.

Profoundly different in its effects is the Second World War. This time only the Western Hemisphere has been left untouched militarily. The Far East, the main prize of the war, has been subjected to a devastation second only to that suffered by Germany and Eastern Europe. Continental Europe as well as England have been bankrupted by the war. The World market has been completely disrupted. This culminated the process of shrinking, splintering, and undermining that went on in the interval between the two wars (the withdrawal of one-sixth of the world—the USSR—from the capitalist orbit, the debasement of currency systems, the barter methods of Hitlerite Germany, Japan’s inroads on Asiatic and Latin American markets, England’s Empire Preference System2, etc., etc.).

Europe, which defaulted on all its prior war and postwar debts to the U.S., this time served not as an exhaustible and highly profitable market, but as a gigantic drain upon the wealth and resources of this country in the shape of lend-lease,3 overall conversion of American economy for wartime production, huge mobilization of manpower, large-scale casualties, and so on.

With regard to the internal market, the latter, instead of expanding organically as in 1914-18, experienced in the course of the Second World War only an artificial revival based on war expenditures.

While the bourgeoisie has been fabulously enriched, the country as a whole has become poorer; the astronomic costs of the war will never be recouped.

In sum, the major factors that once served to foster and fortify American capitalism either no longer exist or are turning into their opposites.


The prosperity that followed the First World War, which was hailed as a new capitalist era refuting all Marxist prognostications, ended in an economic catastrophe. But even this short-lived prosperity of the twenties was based on a combination of circumstances which cannot and will not recur again. In addition to the factors already listed, it is necessary to stress: (1) that American capitalism had a virgin continent to exploit; (2) that up to a point it had been able to maintain a certain balance between industry and agriculture; and (3) that the main base of capitalist expansion had been its internal market. So long as these three conditions existed—although they were already being undermined—it was possible for U.S. capitalism to maintain a relative stability.

The boom in the twenties nourished the myth of the permanent stability of American capitalism, giving rise to pompous and hollow theories of a “new capitalism,” “American exceptionalism,” the “American dream,” and so forth and so on. The illusions about the possibilities and future of American capitalism were spread by the reformists and all other apologists for the ruling class not only at home but abroad. “Americanism” was the gospel of the misleaders of the European and American working class

What actually happened in the course of the fabulous prosperity of the twenties was that under these most favorable conditions, all the premises for an unparalleled economic catastrophe were prepared. Out of it came a chronic crisis of American agriculture. Out of it came a monstrous concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Correspondingly, the rest of the population became relatively poorer. Thus, while in the decade of 1920-30, industrial productivity increased by 50 percent, wages rose only 30 percent. The workers were able to buy—in prosperity—proportionately less than before.

The relative impoverishment of the American people is likewise mirrored in national wealth statistics. By 1928 the workers’ share of the national wealth had dropped to 4.7 percent, while the farmers retained only 15.4 percent. At the same time, the bourgeoisie’s share of the national wealth had risen to 79.9 percent, with most of it falling into the hands of the Sixty Families4 and their retainers.

The distribution of national income likewise expressed this monstrous disproportion. In 1929, at the peak of prosperity, 36,000 families had the same income as 11 million “lower bracket” families.

This concentration of wealth was a cardinal factor in limiting the absorbing capacity of the internal market. Compensating external outlets for agriculture and industry could not be found in a constricting world market.

Moreover, the need to export raw materials and agricultural products tended to further unbalance American foreign trade. This inescapably led to a further dislocation of the world market, whose participants were debtor countries, themselves in need of selling more than they bought in order to cover payments on their debts, largely owed to the U.S.

While appearing and functioning in the role of stabilizers of capitalism, the American imperialists were thus its greatest disrupters both at home and abroad. The U.S. turned out to be the main source of world instability, the prime aggravator of imperialist contradictions.

In the interim between the two wars this manifested itself most graphically in the fact that all economic convulsions began in the Republic of the Dollar, the home of “rugged individualism.” This was the case with the first postwar crisis of 1920-21; this was repeated eight years later when the disproportion between agriculture and industry reached the breaking point and when the internal market had become saturated owing to the impoverishment of the people at one pole and the aggrandizement of the monopolists at the other. The Great American Boom exploded in a crisis which shattered the economic foundations of all capitalist countries.

Cont in Part 2





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