Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 13, 2007

Bryan Palmer speaks at NYU

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:58 pm

Last night I attended Bryan Palmer’s talk at the Tamiment Library at NYU. Palmer spoke about volume one of his newly published biography of James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism who died in 1974 at the age of 84.

Bryan D. Palmer

James P. Cannon

Due to poor subway connections, I missed perhaps the first 15 minutes of his talk but came away with the impression that Palmer has a somewhat different take on Cannon than the small propaganda groups (to put it diplomatically) who sponsored the meeting. Palmer saw Cannon as promoting the unity of disparate groups who literally and figuratively spoke different languages. In his concluding remarks, he referred to Cannon as somebody who could help us work through the problems of “revolutionary regroupment” today, a term that the Spartacist League, one of the sponsoring groups, regards as evidence of Palmer’s apostasy from Trotskyism. In hair-splitting sects such as these (to dispense with the diplomatic), Trotskyism is about nothing except fighting for “the program”, which amounts to a bundle of ideology that has almost no connection to politics. Typically, this involves how to pinpoint when the USSR became “state capitalist” or “a degenerated workers state”, etc.

Volume one is titled “James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928” and covers Cannon’s career in the Communist Party. After 1928, he devotes himself to building a Trotskyist party–the subject of the second volume that Palmer worries might encounter resistance from his publisher, the University of Illinois Press. They were reluctant to publish all 576 pages of volume one and might even be more reluctant when it comes to a topic that is even more narrow in scope.

In his presentation, Palmer focused on Cannon’s IWW past, which in his eyes accounted for much of his orientation to the new Communist movement. Revolutionary syndicalism with its emphasis on “An Injury to One is an Injury to All” translated into the CP’s united front orientation in the 1920s almost seamlessly. For Palmer, Cannon was first and foremost a defender of basic working class rights in a period of deepening repression. In order for the CP to be effective in this struggle, it required seeing “the big picture,” something that Cannon was adept at.

I want to reserve judgment on Palmer’s book until I have had a chance to read it, but I did get a sense from browsing through his discussion of Ludwig Lore that he might not be fully aware of the deeper implications of the “Bolshevization” turn of the 1924 Comintern. For Palmer, Lore is a somewhat “flaky” character who kept running afoul of the more grounded and consistent Marxists who were receiving guidance from the Comintern. My reading of the Lore affair is somewhat different. I view him as a victim of a purge of the sort that “Marxism-Leninism” would be marked by from the early 1920s onward. He was deemed “petty bourgeois” and all the rest by the Moscow loyalists, including James P. Cannon and the Dunne brothers would soon be purged themselves as the Comintern moved against Trotskyists. It should be mentioned that Lore was the first supporter of Leon Trotsky in the US, a so-called “premature Trotskyist” I suppose.

The Q&A period left something to be desired. Representatives from the five sponsoring groups got up first and made the case about how each of their groups was the living embodiment of James P. Cannon’s teachings. At this stage of the game, I will accept them at their word. They do indeed embody Cannonism and are welcome to it. As I have tried to explain over the years, James P. Cannon inherited a very problematic understanding of how to build a revolutionary party from the Soviet party, which for obvious reasons thought it was appropriate to provide organizational recipes. The 1924 Comintern codified this cookbook approach and our movement has been suffering the consequences ever since. It is only when you burn the cookbook metaphorically speaking that real progress can be made.

After growing more and more impatient with the gaseous rhetoric spilling from the mouths of the commentators, I finally left. I was struck, however, by the remarks made by Lillian Pollak, a sprightly 91 year old who had been a member of the Communist League of America, the group that Cannon initially launched as a new Trotskyist formation and that would become the Socialist Workers Party eventually. Pollak warned against taking too much of a reverential attitude toward Cannon, especially in light of his dismissive attitude toward her in the 1930s when the “French turn” was proposed by Leon Trotsky. This was a tactic that involved Trotskyists entering the Socialist Parties as a bloc and trying to engineer a leftwing split. Pollak thought that this was a mistaken approach (as do I) and spoke up at a meeting where Cannon was present. Afterwards, he came up to her and patted her on her head in a both patronizing and sexist manner as if to say that her criticisms didn’t deserve consideration.

This morning I discovered that Pollak is still active politically. Here is a book review she wrote for Against the Current on a memoir by Eva Kollisch, a veteran of Max Shachtman’s Workers Party. And here is a picture of her and other activists in the Grannies Peace Brigade from Michael Moore’s website. Long live Lillian Pollak!

Lillian Pollak (pointing her finger)



  1. Is she any relation to the bloke who spoke on behalf of Socialist Action at the meeting last night? I may have misheard but I thought he also said his name was Pollak (or Pollock)?

    Comment by Darren — October 13, 2007 @ 6:27 pm

  2. How many people were at the meeting, Lou? I was a bit disappointed to see the sponsorship list for the meeting. Couldn’t a broader sponsorship be arranged? Cannon certainly deserves it. Whatever his faults he was head and shoulders above the cockroaches who speak in his name these days.

    Comment by David Altman — October 14, 2007 @ 2:08 am

  3. I was at the meeting also. I’m new to all this. The only thing I have read of James Cannon so far is ‘ Socialism on Trial ‘ which is a good introduction to Socialism for a beginner. He explains it all very nicely.
    I have read some Trotsky (His autobiography, the History of the Russian Revolution and the Transitional Program. His stuff is great. The Transitional Program really explains things. Great analysis.)
    The whole event seemed really academic and theoretical. I don’t know most of the names and groups they were talking about. It seemed as though the people who spoke during the Q & A were just pontificating and telling everyone how smart they were. Nobody actually asked a question.
    As for the sponsors, I like reading the literature and going to the various websites.
    Could you tell me more about what these sponsoring groups stand for and how they are hair splitting in regards to Trotsky. I thought they all had that in common that they liked Trotsky and Cannon. I like going to the tables with the literature and talking to the people who man the tables.
    I liked Lillian Pollack (everyone did). She was great. I probably saw her at antiwar protest events.
    Basically, what did you think of James Cannon and also Max Shachtman and the building of the party.
    I found your review interesting, but could you simplify it a bit more for the uninitiated. I found what they were talking about at the talk going a bit over my head. I’m finding your review of it a bit of the same. ‘ Socialism On Trial ‘ was so much easier to understand. Its hard to believe that it was the transcript of an actual court trial—that all these explanations of Socialisms were allowed to come out. I wish the people at the event could have spoken so clearly and simply.
    Could you elaborate and simplify your review of the event. Basically, what is the book about. How did Palmer see Cannon? How did they see Trotsky? How do the sects, the groups who sponsored the events see them and how does this differ?
    I was happy to see a review of the event, but I wish I could have understood it more. I hope it doesn’t make me sound stupid to say that I wish they would use simpler words and not battle over minutia. Cannon was good at that. He looked at the big picture. Thats what the people there weren’t doing. Cannon wanted people to understand and join the movement. I wish they had been more like Cannon. I guess they assumed that everyone there was a scholar on the subject.

    Comment by Carol — October 14, 2007 @ 2:51 am

  4. The Spartacists: Jesus fuck. I ran into one selling their paper here in Chicago (where I’ve just moved) yesterday. After a labored and painful discussion of my involvement in the New Socialist Group in Canada (Canada’s 4th International-affiliated re-groupment equivalent to Solidarity), and an interruption in which I discussed the link between capitalism and imperialism with another passerby, the Spartacist guy keeps repeating the same two phrases:

    1) “So, why don’t you subscribe to our paper for a year!?”
    2) “So, are you interested in socialist politics?”

    I replied: Wow, you’re an automaton. I’ve just spent 10 minutes elaborating on my commitment to socialist politics.

    These people–I am convinced–all have a psychological disorder of some sort. They think it’s 1917 and the enemy rests everywhere beyond their membership. They remind me of conspiracy theorists I’ve encountered: petty, immature, two-dimensional, completely lunatic.

    Comment by Andrew — October 14, 2007 @ 5:11 am

  5. I was also there and have also not read the book but was struck with how impressively Palmer accomplished the task he set for himself i.e. bridging the gap between those of us who have not yet read the book and those who have read it multiple times (perhaps in preparation for a 20 page book review, like that provided by the Spartacists). As no doubt one of the youngest in the room (37 and open to charges of ‘third-campists’ apostasy) I found the meeting to be both historically and sociologically fascinating ( outside of any masochistic curiosity about sectariana).

    There were two issues that were raised for me most clearly. First, I (also) left the meeting thinking that the engagement around ‘bolshevisation’ was the most significant in unpacking the subsequent legacy of Cannon. Palmer seemed to think that Cannon was focused on domestic strategic concern in building the embryo for U.S. Trotskyism and used the conjunctural considerations to downplay charges that bolshevisation was equatable with bureaucratisation. (Interestingly enough, the issue was actually raised by former-Workers Vanguard editor Jan Norden….). Second, Palmer spoke of Cannon’s coming to Trotskyism as centrally driven by a revelation about the need for a ‘correct program’. Knowing a little something about the subsequent history of the SWP and its splinters, I was also left contemplating the space through which the insistence on correct program moves from a defence of principle to a defence of an idealist totem. Seems that only a broad, organic connection to the working class in motion is what prevents that former from moving into the latter. A connection that perhaps provides a good definition of the revolutionary party. The meeting was certainly a reminder of how far away we are…

    Comment by Aaron Amaral — October 14, 2007 @ 4:50 pm

  6. Groups like the Sparts have little connection with reality, let alone the working class. I think it’s best to see them more in terms of a religious sect (like other avowedly leftist groups whose annual conferences nearly fill a phone booth). Either that, or just people who, by a simple twist of fate, ended up parroting revolutionary jargon rather than being computer nerds.

    Comment by Doug — October 15, 2007 @ 8:53 am

  7. I think it’s important to look at Cannon’s contribution in the context in which he was operating and recognize the distinct phases in his career. That’s one reason why I don’t share the wholly negative assessment of Cannon (and Trotskyism generally) that you do. I don’t see an alternative to what he did in the late 20s and early 30s – split from the Stalinist CP and try to start a new party, after forming a faction within the CP to change its direction went nowhere.

    Perhaps the negatives Cannon inherited from or developed based on the practice of the early Comintern didn’t come out until later in his career? Perhaps that’s why Palmer didn’t address it in his talk, especially given that he’s only written the first two volumes?

    Also, on the French Turn. I agree with you and Pollak. Sharon Smith argued in her book Subterranean Fire that the Trotskyist-reformist faction fight inside the SP in 1936 absorbed all the attention and energy of the Trots and they missed the monumental Flint strikes in 1936 that was probably one of the single most important turning points in the working class struggle in this country. They were on the sidelines fighting Norman Thomas and Hillquit while the radicalizing workers were defeating GM. As a result, the Stalinists essentially had a much larger influence in the UAW than they would if the Trotskyist workers weren’t distracted with this other fight.

    I wish Pollak would write a book about her experiences. It would be a nice complement (or contrast?) to the Barry Sheppard books about the SWP in the 60s since it’s obvious she had an independent viewpoint and a sharp mind that hasn’t dulled even though she’s 91. Also, I’d like to hear more about women in the Trotskyism movement (I’ve read Genora Dollinger’s memoirs but they focus mainly on Flint and the UAW fights) since apparently there were some major shortcomings based on that Cannon anecdote.

    I guess I see Cannon, like all revolutionary leaders, as someone to learn from, not idolize or demonize.

    Comment by Binh — October 15, 2007 @ 5:29 pm

  8. Cheers for the report Louis. There is a review of the book itself in the latest issue of International Socialism

    Comment by Snowball — October 21, 2007 @ 5:58 pm

  9. There are lots of socialists in NYC, San Francisco and DC. What of it? There are quite a few national socialists around too. The national socialists have as much controversy and schismic argument within their ranks as teh Trotskyites and the like. Heck, in Russi there’s even a strong Stalinist following.

    So long as these assorted nutjobs and fruitcakes have no influence over my life, I could care less what they have to say or what they do on their free time. Let alone whether they’re repentant or not for 100 million or more deaths.

    To be honest, I rather enjoy these get-togethers, and frequently bring friends. People won’t normally believe what I have to say about socialists, so it’s always handy to have them in a nice group like this, speaking to the unwashed about what tehy really think. After such events I find myself never having to argue about socialism or Marxism again.

    Comment by DrCruel — January 3, 2008 @ 4:55 am

  10. Re: ‘I wish Pollak would write a book about her experiences.’ Binh (above) Lillian Pollak HAS now written a book which – although a novel – is largely based on her experiences. ‘The Sweetest Dream: Love, Lies and Assassination’ published by iUniverse.

    Comment by Carolyn Gammon, UK — September 13, 2008 @ 11:00 am

  11. Yes, I just finished reading Lillian Pollak’s book, “The Sweetest Dream: Love, Lies and Assassination,” and have seen her speak about it at Bluestockings in NYC.

    The book is wonderful (although filled with distracting typos on just about every page — she needs to do a bit of correcting, and reprint it), gets right into the heart of what it was to be a Marxist political activist in New York and in Mexico in the 1930s. In some ways, just like today: Meetings, meetings, and more meetings.

    Thank you, Lillian Pollak!

    Comment by Mitchel Cohen / Brooklyn Greens — October 28, 2008 @ 6:20 pm

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