The Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States: An Interview with Bryan D. Palmer (Part 1 of 3)


Part 1 of 3 parts.

In the spring of 1942, James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, gave a series of lectures in New York on the first decade of the movement. The challenges, the setbacks, the accomplishments and the lessons learned were recounted with Cannon’s trademark style that managed to be accessible while also maintaining the revolutionary militancy he was trying to carry on. The lectures would eventually become a book, The History of American Trotskyism, 1928-38: Report of a Participant. In a short editorial note, Joseph Hansen remarked “Historians of the future, writing the definitive history of American and world Trotskyism, will undoubtedly round out Cannon's history with additional material delved from original sources; but, while there is no pretension to exhaustive research or extensive documentation in this work, future historians utilizing it as source material will find that they must likewise depend heavily upon it as a guidepost.” This little remark has been proven correct by several later books on labor in the depression, but it now appears almost prophetic with the arrival of Bryan Palmer’s latest work, James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism, 1928-38 (Brill, 2021).

Published as part of the Historical Materialism book series, it starts off right where it’s sequel, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928, left off, with Cannon and several other comrades expelled from the Communist Party. With hardly a penny to their name, but an urgent political mission, they set about forming an oppositional faction, one that could both challenge the political degeneration emanating from a Moscow that was succumbing to Stalinism while also working to revitalize an American labor movement that was rediscovering it’s own fighting spirit. Through Cannon and his comrades, Palmer is able to tell a story of class struggle that shows what even a small group can do when political militancy and clarity are brought to life, even in the face of obstacles that appear insurmountable.

Clocking in at 1200 pages, the book is brimming with detail about both the day-to-day minutiae of class struggle in the period, but also spends a fair amount of time giving international and other historical context. Palmer’s capacity to wander through vast archives of material is matched by his storytelling abilities, turning a huge mass of information into a highly readable and compelling narrative. While reading it cover-to-cover will be richly rewarding for those who do, it will also be an excellent resource for those who read it’s chapters more selectively, whether looking to learn about the Minneapolis truckers strike of 1934, the Trotskyists entry into the Socialist Party or Trotsky’s trial in which he defended himself against accusations emanating from Moscow. It deserves to be on the shelf of anyone interested in labor history and radical politics, and anyone who feels the realm of political possibility to be dire. This book itself is not the revolution, but it will provide lessons and inspiration for those who are hoping to bring it about.

As an entry in the Historical Materialism book series, the book was originally published in hardcover by Brill, with the paperback made available by Haymarket.

As a final note before starting, this episode, like the book, is long. Almost five hours long. After our last discussion, Bryan and I agreed to try to cover the book in detail, and so I set about reading it and putting together a lot more notes than I usually would for one of these episodes. We then finally got together and spent a full day working through it. I say this both to warn listeners that they may have to listen to this episode across a few sittings, and also as a sincere thanks to Bryan for all the time he spent not only discussing the text with me, but looking over some of my notes beforehand and offering suggestions and feedback. It was a pleasure to work with him on this, and I hope that the book’s length doesn’t scare off would-be readers, as it really is worth the time. Give us a listen, give him a read, and be reminded that a better world is possible, provided that we fight for it.

Bryan D. Palmer is Professor Emeritus and former Canada Research Chair of Canadian Studies at Trent University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Society, former editor of Labour/Le Travail, and has published widely on the history of labour and the revolutionary left. His numerous books include Marxism and Historical Practice, Revolutionary Teamsters, Cultures of Darkness and Descent into Discourse. He is also the co-editor with Paul LeBlanc and Thomas Bias of the 3-volume document collection US Trotskyism, 1928-65.

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