Born in Rosedale, Kansas, James P. Cannon was first a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and then of the Socialist Party of America. He was personally trained by Bill Haywood, a prominent IWW leader.
Cannon opposed World War I from an internationalist position and rallied to the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1919, he became a founding member of the Workers (Communist) Party (now known as Communist Party USA) and was part of its leadership from its earliest days, serving as Party Chairman from 1919 to 1928, a position that was actually secondary to that of general secretary.
In the factionalised CPUSA in the 1920s Cannon was responsible for the International Labor Defense organisation from which he built a power base. His followers were loosely organised in the so-called Foster-Cannon faction which looked to native-born American workers in the unions.
While in Russia in 1928, Cannon read a critique of the direction of the Communist International written by Trotsky which the Comintern had mistakenly circulated. He was convinced of the arguments, and attempted to form a Left Opposition within the W(C)P. This resulted in his expulsion. He then founded the Communist League of America with Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, and started publishing The Militant. It declared itself to be an external faction of the W(C)P.
Following the collapse of the Comintern in the face of Nazism in Germany they concluded with Trotsky that the Comintern could not be reformed and embarked on a struggle to build a new International and new parties. Concretely this meant that they no longer considered the Communist League to be a faction of the Communist Party but rather considered it the nucleus of a future revolutionary party. It also meant that they were far more inclined to look at working with other sections of the reviving socialist and workers movements from this point forth.
Although the Communist League had been a small organisation - opponents dubbing Cannon, Abern and Shachtman "Three generals without an army" - it had won a majority of the Communist Party branch in Minneapolis and St Paul. Therefore when the labor movement revived in the early 1930s the Communist league was well placed to put its ideas into action in the twin Cities and through their influence in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters the union rapidly grew after an historic dispute in 1934. Cannon played a major role in this dispute directing the work of the Communist League on a daily basis, along with Shachtman.
This led Cannon and the CL to fuse with AJ Muste's American Workers Party forming the Workers Party of the United States and later, with their augmented forces, to join the Socialist Party of America as a faction. This led to an internal struggle with a faction which opposed fusing with the Socialist Party and which went on to form the Revolutionary Workers League, led by Hugo Oehler. In 1937 having recruited large numbers of people from the SPA's youth group, the Young People's Socialist League, they left the SPA and formed the Socialist Workers Party. Cannon became its first secretary.
Cannon was also a leading figure in the Fourth International, the international Trotskyist movement, and visited Britain in 1938 with the intention of aiding the unification of the competing British groups. The result was a patched together unification, the Revolutionary Socialist League, which rapidly disintegrated.
In 1940, one of Cannon's co-leaders in the SWP, Max Shachtman, left with a large part of the membership to form the Workers Party. One of the key questions in this controversy was Cannon's belief that the Trotskyists should continue to defend the Soviet Union against western imperialism, and that the minority in the SWP should submit to the authority of the majority. The dispute is recorded in Cannon's book 'The Struggle for the Proletarian Party' and in Trotsky's 'In Defense of Marxism'. Another blow was suffered during World War II when Cannon was jailed under the Smith Act, along with other SWP members that opposed the war drive of the US government. Even in jail, however, his influence on the SWP was strong and he wrote to party leaders regularly; for example, recommending it change the party line on the Warsaw Rising. Cannon's book 'Letters from Prison' contains many of these missives.
Following the war Cannon resumed leadership of the SWP, but this role declined after he left the post of national secretary in 1953 to Farrell Dobbs. Cannon retired to California in the mid-1950s. However he remained an active member of the party's Political Committee. Cannon was very much involved in the splits which developed in both the SWP and the FI in 1952. He took a leading role in guiding the public faction supported by the SWP, the International Committee of the Fourth International, and supported the eventual reunification of the two sides in 1963 which led to the formation of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. He took no part in the various tendency disputes that developed between 1963 and 1967, except to decry firmer organisational norms developed by his erstwhile supporters. These letters are collected in Don't Strangle The Party. He died in Los Angeles in August 1974.
A profuse revolutionary journalist, many of his articles have been collected in a series of books, the best known of which are Notebook of an Agitator and The Struggle for a Proletarian Party.
Other important books written by Cannon are America's Road to Socialism, The History of American Trotskyism, Socialism on Trial and The First Ten Years of American Communism.
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