The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Jim Cannon's socialist hope

Speaking of optimism, here's the peroration of a speech that James P. Cannon, an American socialist, made in 1953.
All will be artists. All will be workers and students, builders and creators. All will be free and equal. Human solidarity will encircle the globe and conquer it and subordinate it to the uses of man.

That, my friends, is not an idle speculation. That is the realistic perspective of our great movement. We ourselves are not privileged to live in the socialist society of the future, which Jack London, in his far-reaching aspiration, called the Golden Future. It is our destiny, here and now, to live in the time of the decay and death agony of capitalism. It is our task to wade through the blood and filth of this outmoded, dying system. Our mission is to clear it away. That is our struggle, our law of life.

We cannot be citizens of the socialist future, except by anticipation. But it is precisely this anticipation, this vision of the future, that fits us for our role as soldiers of the revolution, soldiers of the liberation war of humanity. And that, I think, is the highest privilege today, the occupation most worthy of a civilised man. No matter whether we personally see the dawn of socialism or not, no matter what our personal fate may be, the cause for which we fight has social evolution on its side and is therefore invincible. It will conquer and bring all mankind a new day.

It is enough for us, I think, if we do our part to hasten on the day. That’s what we’re here for. That’s all the incentive we need. And the confidence that we are right and that our cause will prevail, is all the reward we need. That’s what the socialist poet, William Morris, had in mind, when he called us to

Join in the only battle
wherein no man can fail
for whoso fadeth and dieth
yet his deeds shall still prevail.
Cannon's deeds have prevailed all right. You may never have heard of him, but the world we live in would be noticeably different if Cannon had never lived, or had made different choices. Ignazio Silone once said that the final conflict would be between the communists and the ex-communists. One less-than-final but still significant conflict today, that over the left's response to war, is between those who work and think along the lines that Cannon laid down and those - the inheritors, whether they know it or not, of Shachtman on the one hand and of Stalinism on the other - who don't. Without Cannon, there wouldn't be an antiwar movement. There would be a 'peace' movement, begging the warmakers to see sense. There would be a 'Decent left', cheering the warmakers on. And that - give or take a few fringe intransigents - would be that.

How did Cannon acquire the confidence that the cause for which he fought had 'social evolution' on its side? As a youth he walked into a meeting to hear a lecture on 'Marx and Darwin'. That lecture, and further study, convinced him 'theoretically - and that is the firmest conviction there is' that capitalism is inseparable from crises and wars, that the great majority of working people would sooner or later be compelled to move into action against these crises and wars, and that they would establish as capitalism's successor system one of global co-operation for abundance, peace, and freedom. 'The victory of Socialist America is already written in the stars.'

Nothing that has happened since his death in 1974 would have surprised him if he'd lived to see it, or disillusioned him. He had no illusions. Cannon's theoretical conviction allowed him to face unflinchingly the terrible realities of the 20th Century: World War, the rise of Stalinism, the Depression, the Yezhovschina, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings, the Stalinist labour camps, the Cold War and the colonial wars. Unlike some, he faced and fought them all while they happened, in real time. He never gave an inch.

We're all so much more sophisticated now.

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James P. Cannon was an extraordinarily man, but i take issue with this ‘Human solidarity will encircle the globe and conquer it and subordinate it to the uses of man.’
It can said that the notion of unlimited material progress is a habit of the Enlightenment the left has not kicked. Sadly i suspect the one thing that was truly socialist about the USSR was massive enviromental damage.
Capitalism is already planning for a post scarcity world, as seen in the havoc being wrecked by the bio fuels industry. The future left must be the voice for moderation, for living in harmony with the planet against domination.

It can be said, but not everything that is real is rational.
Russia returning to private capitalism without a social counter-revolution might have surprised him, if his commitment to human solidarity had won out over his attachment to the letter of Trotskyism, but I would say that.

Word verification: "Deacent". Is there a message there?

Marek - I have more or less the diametrically opposite view to you on material progress. Unfortunately much of the left has indeed kicked the notion, and the Enlightenment, and that's why the left has so little appeal.

And I don't see what biofuels have to do with a post scarcity world.

Skidmarx - of course there was a social counter-revolution in Russia. What might have surprised Cannon was that it wasn't the result of civil war, if he had stuck by 'the letter of Trotskyism', but that has very little to do with anything that post was about.

But why HAVE a "post-scarcity world", when out there in space are all the resources we need?

But do those resources cost more to exploit than they're worth?

Ken - it is somewhat contentious to append "of course" to a point that is contentious, and it seemed relevant when you assert that nothing would surprise him, no matter.
I'm also a little doubtful of the claim "Without Cannon, there wouldn't be an antiwar movement." Chomsky, who constantly rejects the Leninist tradition, springs to mind as someone who pointed out the failure of those who merely saw the American war in Vietnam as an aberration.
And I don't know about Silone's suggestion. final conflicts aren't always that final.

None of this should be meant to say that Cannon wasn't a vital link in the revolutionary and socialist tradition, who grasped the truth when all around socialists were falling for Stalinism or abandoning the struggle, and the world today would be much poorer if it hadn't been for him.

Skidmarx - sorry, your comment got caught in Blogger's spambucket!

What I meant was that without the fights Cannon waged the SWP (US) would not (ok, might not) have been well placed to advance the 'Out Now' position and to popularise the arguments about imperialism and self-determination and single-issue campaigns and so on that have become the common sense of the antiwar movement. So in a sense the SWP (UK) and the STWC owe a lot to Cannon.

But just in case I'm sounding too non-sectarian, I've always thought Cannon's stand on Korea was much better than Cliff's.

"But do those resources cost more to exploit than they're worth?"

Well, it has been said that there is no instance of productive energy unaccompanied by expansive energy - and it has also been said that freedom requires a frontier!
The expansion into space will inevitably generate a plethora of new techniques and ideas, just as the "Wild West" and the British Empire did. Besides, the more places there are human beings across the sky, the better...

Grif - but if the expansive energy exceeds the productive energy it's unsustainable. If new techniques can change the equation,great, but it's unlikely they will be able to change the laws of thermodynamics.

Ken - you Spart,you, dragging up Korea. As it happens I do have a little more sympathy for the North's case after watching the Snows' documentary with its mention of US napalm attacks, plus other mentions I've seen of the barbarity of the US advance, but I'd still think the Cliff group's position was pretty much on the ball. As might have been indicated by my first comment, I'm not beholden to having an argument about this, but I might listen if you want to elucidate.
And if we're doing Cliff v Cannon, if the Second World War ending passed Cannon by, what else would he have missed?

Interesting speech by a seemingly intereesting man. You've inspired me to look at the man in more detail (as he did with Marx apparently). Ive always thought if I do die I'd like to live on after just to be able to watch what happens as Ive always had a deep conviction that capitalism is like the snake from norse mythology in that it will eventually eat itself alive. Thansk for bringing my attention to the man

Gareth - if you want to check out Cannon, see if you can get hold of Notebook of an Agitator and Speeches for Socialism. Unfortunately msmy of the talks and essays in these are currently unavailable in his online work thanks to the dog-in-the-manger policy of Pathfinder Press, but you can always get them second-hand or in/through libraries if you don't want to shell out for Pathfinder's rather pricey editions.

A less expensive paperback selection (most of whose content the publishers have kindly made available online at the archive above) is available from Resistance Books, and you can sample it at Google Books (Google "Fighting for Socialism in the 'American Century'" and it's the first link up.)

I've come to think the two greatest figures in American socialism were James Cannon and Eugene V. Debs. I like to imagine what could have happened if Debs had had more Cannon in him and Cannon had had more Debs.

That's an interesting thought, Frank. I would add Daniel De Leon, and that the fusion of talents that was missed (and that at least in abstract possibility could have happened) was that of Debs and De Leon.

Your memoirs are fascinating and I hope your project to get them all out on the net goes well. Thanks for commenting here.

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