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January 2003 • Vol 3, No. 1 •

From the Arsenal of Marxism

America’s Road to Socialism

By James P. Cannon

Introduction by George Novack

The Introduction reprinted below was written by George Novak for the Pathfinder edition of Cannon’s America’s Road to Socialism printed in New York in 1974. The first edition was a folded and stapled pamphlet printed in 1953 by Pioneer Press, New York, and it had no introduction. Each chapter was one of six lectures given by James P. Cannnon in Los Angeles during the winter of 1952-1953.


Supporters of the established order have little doubt about what the future holds for the American people. As the Gershwin lyric goes: “Castles may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, they’re only made of clay, but” capitalism is here to stay—indefinitely.

U. S. capitalism is so rich, so productive, so almighty, so deeply rooted “in the hearts of our countrymen,” that it can never be dislodged and replaced, they fervently believe. Because of its inherent strength, its special path of development precludes the possibility of revolutionary changes. These may occur elsewhere, but they are foreign to America.

From this perspective, socialism has no future on American soil. A revolution based upon an upheaval of the working masses is a pipe dream. Most wage workers are so snugly incorporated into the “consumer society” of the corporate hucksters that they will never aspire to seek anything better or to go beyond it. “America’s Road to Socialism” is a Utopian fantasy without relevance to the realities of our national life or our political future.

In this book James P. Cannon controverts such conventional wisdom, shared by liberals and conservatives alike. He holds to the contrary that socialism is the only progressive alternative to monopolist and militarist misrule, that it is both a liberating and realistic goal, and that it must be foreseen and prepared, organized and fought for. He peers beyond the coming struggle for power between the rulers and the ruled. Predicting a victory for the workers and their allies, he asks: What could this country become under the leadership of a different class, one that is motivated not by the pursuit of profit at all costs but by concern for the welfare and culture of the working people who create the wealth?

Many individuals, disgusted with the intolerable evils of American capitalism, have exclaimed at one time or another: “There must be a better way of living and making a living than this one!” There is, there can be. That is the essential message presented and argued in these pages. A socialist America, operating with a planned economy under democratic control of the working people, could assure everyone the basic necessities of food, clothing, and housing and provide an increasing abundance of material benefits and cultural advantages that would radically transform the habits, customs, and relations of human beings for the better. Such a system would eventually eradicate oppressive inequalities of all kinds and enhance individual opportunities and freedoms in a fraternal atmosphere of social solidarity.

This vision of what a socialist future could achieve in contrast to the capitalist way of life is the most inspiring feature of this work. It can act as an antidote to the widespread apprehension that a successful socialist revolution in this country might have the same result as the worker-peasant revolutions in the first half of this century, which have led to the establishment of bureaucratic dictatorships. Nothing has done more to discredit the appeal of socialism than the “monstrosity of Stalinism.” Cannon points out the specific historical factors responsible for the bureaucratization of the post-capitalist states and explains why they will not be repeated when the workers come to power in the United States. The American socialist revolution will unfold under diametrically different circumstances and will thereby be able to avoid the difficulties and deformations that have beset the pioneer revolutions in the more backward countries.

James P. Cannon, who died on August 21, 1974, at the age of eighty-four, was one of the eminent veterans of the revolutionary movement both internationally and in the United States. For almost seven decades he devoted his energies to the socialist cause and was involved in the building of a revolutionary party that can guide the workers and their allies to victory on a national and international scale.

He began his career as a volunteer organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World and became a member of the Socialist Party’s internationalist and antiwar left wing during the First World War. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, he became a prominent founder of the Communist Party, the first editor of its daily paper, The Toiler, later renamed The Worker, and a delegate to congresses of the Third International in the 1920s. After his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1928 for his fidelity to Leninism and opposition to Stalinism, he became the prime organizer and leader of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, a founder of the International Left Opposition, and, as a close collaborator of Leon Trotsky, a founder of the Fourth International in 1938. At the time of his death, he was National Chairman Emeritus of the Socialist Workers Party.

Cannon carried forward the heroic traditions of such working-class figures as “Big Bill” Haywood, Eugene V. Debs, and other pioneer American socialists by blending those traditions with the lessons learned from the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky. The wealth of knowledge about the ideas and ideals of socialism he gleaned from this exceptional range of experience formed the background and basis for his reflections on capitalism and socialism.

These talks were originally given in December 1952 and January 1953 as a series of weekly forums in Los Angeles. That was at the beginning of the Eisenhower administration. Twenty-two years ago American politics presented a different scene than today. The Korean War, the predecessor of Vietnam, was still raging, but there was no mass resistance to it. Reaction held the country in an iron grip. The anticommunist cold war was a bipartisan policy pursued in the international field. At home McCarthyism was rampant. Liberalism was cowed into acquiescence. Organized labor was dormant and deeply conservatized.

The broad radicalism that had flowered in the 1930s was in total retreat. Leftists of any shade were being persecuted, victimized, jailed. All groups without exception suffered splits, desertions, and attrition.

The prolonged prosperity further strengthened the belief in the perpetual reign of capitalism. Tens of thousands of ex-radicals renounced their former hopes in socialism and concluded a separate peace with the status quo, seeking some safe corner in which to cultivate their private lives. They discarded the last shreds of confidence in the prospects of American socialism. This eclipse of revolutionism, when conformism was the supreme commandment of the day, was a severe test for all partisans of Marxism.

Very few voices were raised at that time in defense of a socialist future for America. Cannon’s was one of the most vigorous and forthright. As a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, he affirmed his convictions about the principles of revolutionary Marxism and the necessity for continued intransigent struggle against big business rule. He pointed to the vulnerability of the capitalist colossus at the height of its supremacy when it appeared to be the unchallenged and invincible master of all it surveyed. He declared that, for all their power and wealth, the U. S. monopolists were running against the tide of historical progress in the contemporary world and would find that their imperialist sovereignty would not prevail unchallenged for as long as that of their British predecessors in the nineteenth century.

Twenty years later, after Vietnam, the Black ghetto rebellions, the Watergate horrors and Nixon’s resignation, and a growing world economic and financial crisis, these perceptions are obvious to millions of Americans. But they were bold predictions to make at the height of the cold-war hysteria when it appeared as though the Washington juggernaut, bristling with nuclear weapons, could easily roll over any and all opposition abroad and at home.

Cannon’s fundamental position and outlook has withstood the test of two decades. However, from that vantage point in time, he could not possibly foresee in detail what twists and turns further social struggles and political developments in the country would go through and, above all, what particular pattern a resurgence of radicalism would assume.

When the situation did shift during the 1960s, it displayed certain novel and unexpected features that neither he nor others anticipated. Cannon predicted that the new radicalization would result from an economic downturn and renewed attacks on workers’ living standards. From this he construed the dynamic of the coming radicalization much in terms of its predecessor of the 1930s. In that decade the aroused industrial workers, organized into the CIO, took the lead in the procession and pulled other sectors of the discontented along with them.

In fact, the new radicalization developed initially along other lines. The postwar prosperity, which kept labor quiescent, lasted far longer than Cannon anticipated. Indeed, the white workers have still to move forcefully and in large numbers. Instead, other social forces arrayed against the status quo entered into action first, and the new radicalization arose in the midst of the longest peacetime capitalist boom in history as the result of the impact of the Black liberation struggle and U. S. intervention in Vietnam.

This time the initiative has been taken by the largest oppressed nationality, the Blacks, who have set the pace in action for others to follow. Cannon recognized then that “the Negroes will play a great and decisive role in the revolution, in alliance with the trade unions and the revolutionary party; and in that grand alliance they will demonstrate and conquer their right to full equality.”

Even so, he did not properly assess the progressive character and revolutionary implications of Black nationalism as a power in its own right, expressing the aspirations and aims of the most oppressed and super-exploited body of American workers. Black resistance to racial discrimination and indignities would have a tremendous effect in stimulating and intensifying the anti-capitalist struggle in this country.

This underestimation was not a personal fault; it was shared by the whole radical movement. Moreover, Black nationalism itself did not become a powerful current until the early sixties and the advent of Malcolm X, when it became easier to grasp its significance for both the Black liberation and socialist movements. Cannon himself made a valuable contribution to the reorientation of the American Trotskyists on this question in an article he wrote in 1959 entitled “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” which is reprinted in his book The First Ten Years of American Communism.

This essay traces the history of the attempts of the American radical movement to analyze the role of the Black liberation struggle from the days of the early socialist movement, which saw no independent role for the Black liberation movement, maintaining that racial oppression would be eliminated as a matter of course after the revolution; to the attempts of the Soviet leadership to educate the young Communist movement of the early twenties on the importance of Black nationalism as a driving force in the revolution; to the distorted attempts of the Stalinized Communist Party to apply these lessons during the thirties. Cannon concluded that the Black struggle in the U. S., while an integral part of the struggle of the working class as a whole, has an independent dynamic and will play a special role in the coming American revolution. He wrote: “The movement of the Negro people and the movement of militant labor, united and coordinated by a revolutionary party, will solve the Negro problem in the only way it can be solved—by a social revolution.”

The role of students is another novel aspect of the new radicalization. Although students had played a role in the thirties radicalization, no one foresaw how important they would become. The “silent generation” of the fifties was followed by the militant student activists of the sixties and seventies, who provided the leadership and the shock troops for the international mass movement against U. S. aggression in Vietnam and continue to play an important role in emerging social struggles.

One of the most strikingly contemporary aspects of Cannon’s vision for the future is his remarks on women’s liberation. Although he did not foresee the precise tempo of the second wave of feminism that we know today, he did predict a resurgence of the women’s movement in the period of socialist reconstruction.

“One thing I’m absolutely sure is going to happen early in the period of the workers’ government … there will be a tremendous popular movement of women to bust up this medieval institution of forty million separate kitchens and forty million different housewives cooking, cleaning, scrubbing, and fighting dust …. The mass emergence of the socialist women from the confining walls of their individual kitchens will be the greatest jail break in history—and the most beneficent.…”

Although Cannon could not predict the details of the third American radicalization of the twentieth century, he did keep the spotlight fixed upon the central role of the working class as the irreplaceable agency destined to confront and combat the capitalists and blaze the trail to workers’ power and socialism. Sooner or later, he affirmed, the slumbering giant of American labor will shake off its lethargy and go forward to fulfill its historical mission. On this perspective hangs the future of humanity.

This view of the problems and prospects of American socialism as seen from the early 1950s has already given a generation of radicals a clearer picture of what socialism stands for and promises. It is reprinted here according to the text published in pamphlet form by Pioneer Publishers in October 1953, omitting the first lecture, which was devoted to an analysis of the Eisenhower election victory in 1952. Its republication should induce many new readers to accept Cannon’s invitation to join “the great work of preparation for the great tomorrow.”

November 1974


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