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March 2004 • Vol 4, No. 3 •

From the Arsenal of Marxism

Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Party of 1901-1920

By James P. Cannon

Editors’ Introduction

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This month’s selection from the Arsenal of Marxism is a testimonial to Eugene V. Debs by James P. Cannon that was originally published in the Marxist quarterly, Fourth International under the title “The Debs Centennial” on the occasion of the centenary of Debs’ birth (November 5, 1855). Cannon’s assessment of Debs was subsequently republished in a slightly revised version as an introduction to a collection of writings and speeches by Debs, under the title, Eugene V. Debs Speaks. The original version of Cannon’s article first published in Fourth International appears below. However, we have added most of the subheads borrowed from the subsequent version of Cannon’s assessment of Debs and his Socialist Party that appear in the book.

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In the best tradition of Marxist analysis, James P. Cannon brings to life Debs’ role in bringing the Scientific Socialism of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to the American working class. Cannon explains in great detail Debs’ outstanding role in orienting workers in the early Socialist Party and in the United States as a whole to the revolutionary Marxist principle of independent working-class mass political action in the streets and workplaces of the land in which they live, as well as in the electoral arena of political struggle.

But Cannon also sheds light on what is less known about Debs, but which was perhaps his only important political limitation as a leader of the Socialist Party. A mistaken approach to leadership that Cannon patiently explains should also be a lesson to those who aspire to continue along the principled line of march that Debs in all other respects led his party so effectively.

That is, Cannon discusses the little-known fact of Debs’ insistent refusal to accept nomination to the National Committee of the Socialist Party, from shortly after its formation in 1901 until the day he died. A shortcoming that ultimately contributed to a big setback for the American workers and their first mass political organization, the Socialist Party, in its most promising period from 1901 until 1919.

Cannon points out that from 1904 on, Debs refused to attend party conventions, leaving the door wide open for the many preachers, lawyers and careerists—who not having served their apprenticeship in the day-to-day class struggle in the streets and workshops of the country, were ill-equipped to assume the tasks of leading a workers party in the many-sided struggle between the two main opposing classes in modern society—workers and capitalists.

In contrast to Debs’ role in the Socialist Party, Cannon compares it to the role of V. I. Lenin, another legendary revolutionary leader of the working class. Lenin, however, was a workers’ leader who actually succeeded in leading his Bolshevik Party and the workers of Russia to the conquest of state power and the world’s first successful socialist revolution.

Cannon notes that Lenin’s attitude to the revolutionary party was directly opposite to that of Debs. Cannon points out that Lenin “saw the Party Congress as the highest expression of party life, and he was there, ready to fight for his program…. He regarded the Central Committee as the executive leadership of the movement, and he took his place at the head of it.”

We shall see below that Cannon, like Lenin before him, showed American workers the kind of party needed to lead humanity out of capitalism’s accelerating descent into barbarism and the indispensable role of both Party leaders and members to fight for the program they believe is in the best interests of the working class as a whole, as well as in the interests of the natural allies of the workers; that is, all those victimized by capitalism and the capitalist class.

In a word, Cannon convincingly explains why workers need the kind of democratic-centralist party that Lenin built, rather than the pseudo-democratic, “all-inclusive” party that Debs’ allowed to be constructed by people less endowed with the virtues of loyalty, devotion and commitment to the cause of the working class and to the human race than was Debs.

Cannon’s ‘apprenticeship’ in Debs’ Socialist Party

Cannon, served his apprenticeship as a revolutionary leader in the workers’ movement in the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and as a trade unionist, in the Industrial Workers of The World (IWW) in conjunction with and under the leadership of the IWW’s Vincent St. John, who Cannon credited as one of his teachers, in the strategy and tactics of industrial unionism.

By the time the U.S. entered the first imperialist World War, Cannon had become one of the national leaders of the left wing of the SP, which had supported Debs’ principled position in opposition to World War I. Debs’ Party, and the Bolshevik Party of V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky were the only two national sections of the Second International to have remained true to the principle of international working class solidarity by opposing that war.

In 1919, Lenin and Trotsky faced with the fact that the Second International had failed the acid test of war between imperialist nations called for the formation of the Third (Communist) International as an alternative to the Second (Socialist) International.

In the United States, the Socialist Party left wing was expelled that same year by the SP’s chauvinist majority for advocating a break with the Second and affiliation with the Third International.

The fact that Debs was serving time in prison and could not attend this convention, even had he wanted to, helps underscore the superiority of Lenin’s concept of the revolutionary party and the role of leadership over the organizational policies followed by Debs’ party which were at odds with Debs’ own revolutionary political policies and his class instincts.

As a matter of fact, how Debs might have voted had he been able to attend the 1919 SP convention will remain forever unknown because in Debs’ 1918 Canton Ohio speech, which led to his arrest, indictment, conviction and more than two years served of his ten-year prison sentence, had in that speech famously stated his support for Lenin’s Bolsheviks and for the Russian Socialist Revolution with these words:

“From the top of my head to the tip of my toes, I am a Bolshevik, and proud of it.”

Cannon as a leader of the Communist Party

In any case, after its expulsion, the left wing of the SP then constituted itself as the American section of the Communist International. Cannon served as a central national leader of the American Communist Party for its first ten years.

In the late spring of 1928, the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International was held in Moscow. Cannon was part of a big delegation representing all the factions in the Communist Party, which had not yet completely abandoned the democratic traditions of the international workers’ movement. However, by that time Trotsky had already been expelled from the Soviet Communist Party, which was well on its way to becoming a bureaucratic caricature of what it was before Lenin died.

Cannon, who happened to be assigned to the program commission at the Sixth Congress was inadvertently handed a copy of a document that had been banned by the Stalinist organizers of the Congress, but it had been mistakenly translated, printed and distributed to delegates assigned to the program commission. The document, authored by Leon Trotsky, was a sharp criticism of the draft program introduced to the Congress by Bukharin and Stalin and before the Congress for discussion and vote. Trotsky’s document was titled, “The Draft Program of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals.”

In Lenin’s time, the notion of obstructing in any way a free discussion in the Party over programmatic and other important political questions was completely alien to the democratic traditions of the Bolshevik Party, and for the first five years of the Communist International. That is, for the most part, Trotsky’s criticism had been exorcised from the Congress and the overwhelming majority of delegates left oblivious of its existence.

However, Cannon and Maurice Spector, a delegate from the Canadian Party, who was also on the program commission, were among the few with copies which they knew from bitter experience would land them in deep trouble if they dared to keep it, read it, and worst of all, dare to circulate it. In any case, Cannon and Spector, who like Cannon, was also disturbed by the slanderous charges against Trotsky, his expulsion from the Party, his banishment to a remote and sparsely inhabited region of the Soviet Union and other puzzling developments, kept their copies. Both Cannon and Spector studied together and discussed the document carefully and had become totally convinced of the validity of Trotsky’s criticism.

Cannon describes it thus: “Our doubts had been resolved. It was as clear as daylight that Marxist truth was on the side of Trotsky. We made a compact there and then—Spector and I—that we would come back home and begin a struggle under the banner of Trotskyism.”1

After his return from the Congress, Cannon proceeded to fulfill his pledge. But he was compelled to carefully restrict his efforts to win over at least a nucleus of comrades from among those mainly in his faction who were also disturbed by the growing bureaucratization of the Party and the strangling of internal Party democracy. He succeeded in recruiting a small group in the brief period he was able to operate before his dissident views were discovered. The pattern had developed whereby those who dared disagree with decisions made in Moscow were denounced as “enemies of the working class” and ushered out of the party before they could “contaminate” other comrades.

Cannon’s faction had been very influential in the Party before the Sixth Congress. His faction had been in a temporary bloc with the faction headed by William Z. Foster. Together the two factions had held a dominant position on the Party’s central leadership committee. But Foster was lined up behind Stalin and Cannon was compelled to conceal his new views from Foster. Consequently, in order not to be prematurely expelled from the Party, Cannon was forced to work quietly to win over as many of his closest comrades as he could before being discovered and quickly expelled.

But before he could get very far, rumors began spreading about Cannon’s new views and it wasn’t long before he was exposed as a supporter of Trotsky. He and two other leaders of the party he had won over after his return from Moscow—Martin Abern and Max Shachtman—were hauled before a joint meeting of the Political Committee and the Control Commission of the Party. After the trial, which Cannon prolonged for several weeks, the three Trotskyist leaders of the Communist Party were expelled on October 27, 1928.

A week afterward, the small cadre of Trotskyists put out the first issue of what would become the newspaper of the Communist League of America (CLA), The Militant. The first issue dated November 1928 included the first installment of Trotsky’s sharply critical assessment of Stalin’s Draft Program published in The Militant. The entire document was serialized and published in subsequent issues of the Trotskyist newspaper.

Well that is our introduction to James P. Cannon, but it’s just a small part of his role in the making of American working class and socialist history. But now we turn the floor over to the founder of American Trotskyism to tell our readers about Eugene Victor Debs.

—Nat Weinstein, Editor, Socialist Viewpoint

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1 A phrase made famous by Daniel De Leon, a revolutionary socialist (leader of the Socialist Labor Party, and contemporary of Eugene V. Debs. It had been widely embraced by class struggle militants in the IWW and the Debsian Socialist Party and was quoted repeatedly by trade union militants at least from Debs’ time until the end of the labor upsurge of the 1930s and ’40s.





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