While I am no Cannonite and think that the American Trotskyist movement has narrowed its vision by seeing Trotskyism as personified by the 19(choose your decade)’s Socialist Workers Party there is plenty to appreciate in the SWP and in the role of its historic leader, James Cannon.
Some comrades and I often play a game of lighting rounds “would you rather be in (some obscure left wing group) or (some equally obscure left wing group)”. This week, chosing a little less obscurity, was the British SWP or the US Workers World Party. It was a split decision.
While we differ in our appreciation of lots of current and historic tendencies of Marxism we all pretty much share a universal respect and more for the generation of Trotskyists from the 30’s and 40’s. In the US that almost invariably means members, wayward or otherwise, of the SWP.
Later this summer there will be a conference on the legacy of US Trotskyism. I participated in a conference in 2000 at New York University on a similar topic. It seemed to me to be, despite lots of positive things, a wake so that older generations could bury their Trotskyist past with dignity.
Marxism is still here, and experiencing something of a resurgence, after the full scale assault of the last 25 years or more and the final collapse of the Soviet Union. I can’t imagine Marxism surviving the slaughter-house and obfuscations of the 20th century without the struggle of Trotsky and Trotskyists. I can’t imagine then, a world without Trotskyism, or rather I wouldn’t like to.
Without the Trotskyist critique and struggle with Stalinism as well as numerous other contributions the world of revolutionary possibilities would be so much smaller and impoverished, even if we were to accept some of the various critiques of the movement’s organizational or political inadequacies (do you know of a movement without them?).
That said I am much more interested in, for example, what The Old Man’s views on the nature of bureaucracy has to tell us for today than, say, the class forces inherent in the Johsnon-Forest tendency.
I have only in my life heard snippets of Cannon speeches and was delighted to be able to access this. I once knew a comrade who had several on audio tape but would never play them for fear that it would degrade the tape (there is some strong, but inconclusive, psychological evidence of a link between anal retentiveness and branch chairs of socialist organizations).
In this speech, “The Triple Revolution” from 1964, Cannon at 74 shows all of his strengths and some of his weaknesses. He was an exceptional speaker; full of humor and irony and historic perspective. 1964 was an interesting time; signs of the deluge to come were gathering for those who looked for it. The black liberation struggle was developing new horizons; the civil rights movement was becoming something else. Cannon anticipated these changes even if his predictions, as he was want to give, were not all born out.
Listening to the speech in the here and now is valuable for all of the insights Cannon had on the world of his day, some of which are plenty applicable in broad terms today. I recognized politics and characters from Cannon’s talk even though the political world we inhabit is vastly different.
Cannon’s great asset is his Marxism; his absorption of a long view of history and struggle. When we look at the world with this long view we and Cannon exist in much the same time and face many of the same challenges. The class war is not new and Cannon knew the class war as well as anyone has. Anyone interested in Marxism, history and activism will find ample food for thought.
The full speech can be found here as well as the equally interesting speech “Problems and Perspectives of the American Revolution.”