James P. Cannonism, By Owen Gager.

From Spartacist: A Marxist Journal Vol 3 No 1 1973.

There has been a long argument in the American Trotskyist movement over what went wrong, and when, with the longest standing American party claiming to be Trotskyist, the Socialist Worker's Party. This argument is now spreading far beyond the original small groups of American Trotskyists who began it, as it becomes clear that the Socialist Workers' Party has moved and is moving to the right even of the discredited Stalinist, hopelessly pro-Soviet, American Communist Party, and its trying to push the Mandelist Fourth International to more and more reformist positions, as shown in the political practice of the N.Z. Socialist Action League.

The argument as it has so far developed centres around personalities far more than around ideas. James P. Cannon, the undisputed leader of the SWP at the time of Trotsky's death in 1940, has retained his role as leader of the party until the present day, though as he has grown older more and more authority has been assumed by his supporter and co-thinker Joseph Hansen. Cannon enjoyed Trotsky's blessing as leader of the party, yet Cannon went wrong - or so American "anti-revisionist" groups like the Spartacist and Workers' Leagues see the situation.

They ask why Cannon went wrong and find the answer partly in the divisions of labour within the Party before Trotsky's death; where Cannon was the Party's main organiser and Shachtman, who left the SWP in 1940 because he believed the Soviet Union was "State Capitalist", its main theoretician. They claim that this division of labour should never have been allowed to grow up, and allowed Cannon to make theoretical errors later. It is also argued that in the discussion in 1953 in the Fourth International around Pabloism, the view that the colonial revolution of that period was the `epicentre' of world revolution. Cannon failed to take a stand against Pablo until Pablo won support in the SWP. Cannon's attitude, it was claimed, was "provincial".

Attention is thus focussed on Cannon's leadership and its deficiencies, rather than on the ideology of the Party, and the effect on that ideology of the Party's Social environment. The view that Cannon, as an individual, was responsible for the degeneration of the SWP is a version of the "great men make history" idealist methodology used to explain, of all things, revisionism in the Trotskyist movement.

A critique of revisionism, which fails to examine the historical development of theory as a guide to action cannot explain revisionism because it accepts rather than explains the gulf between theory and practice in an allegedly Marxist party. To argue this is not to deny that the criticisms so far made of Cannon do not point to 'symptoms' of revisionism within the SWP. But it does insist that the discussion so far has been about the symptoms of the revisionist disease, not the disease itself.

The reason why the so-called "anti-revisionist" groupings in the United States have not examined the growth of a Cannonist theory of the SWP is simple: they also share in the support of, and elaboration of, this theory. These "anti-revisionist" groupings defend Cannon's refusal to heed Trotsky's advice, after the split with Shachtman, that the Party headquarters should be moved from the petty-bourgeois intellectual milieu of New York to a working class centre like Detroit. In fact their headquarters remain, to this day, like the SWP's, in New York.

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