Bryan D. Palmer

Jun 8, 2022

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928

University of Illinois Press 2010

The history of revolutionary politics is rich enough that it includes the full spectrum of inspiration and tragedy. Those with revolutionary aspirations have a number of rocks in their shoes to deal with, perhaps most famously the failure of the Soviet Union and the shadow of Stalinism. Those looking to remain faithful to the spirit of revolutionary Marxism while still seriously reckoning with the tragedies of the past will need to develop new routes, and for that to happen, alternative figures and histories will need to be turned to.

One such figure many have found inspiration in is James P. Cannon, the American activist and agitator, most famous as the leading founder of American Trotskyism, and no one knows his life and times better than Bryan D. Palmer, here to discuss the first entry in his multi-volume biography of Cannon. The volume discussed in this episode, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (U Illinois Press, 2010), covers Cannon’s life from his birth in a small town in Kansas to his expulsion in 1928 from the Communist Party. It’s a story of a small-town local agitator who ends up mired in international controversy, surrounded by factional infighting in his own country but also deeply rooted in the revolutionary degeneration happening in Moscow as Stalin took over the party. In the face of this, Cannon slowly became depressed and disillusioned, in a political fog that wouldn’t be cleared until he stumbled upon a document in 1928 by Leon Trotsky that would point the way towards a revolutionary alternative that neither succumbed to Stalinism or capitalist-capitulation. It’s for this reason that Palmer’s account of Cannon’s life allows him to tell a very different history of communism in the 20th century, one that has been banished and dismissed for too long, and that will no doubt provide inspiration for many in the 21st century.

Originally published in 2007 as part of the Illinois University Press series The Working Class in American History, it won the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize of the Canadian Historical Association. Its sequel, the much longer James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-38, was published much more recently and will be discussed in a later episode. In both works Palmer’s command of the vast archives of material are combined with an incredible capacity for storytelling, hitting a sweet spot of rigorous research and compelling historical reading. Anyone interested in the history of Marxism, American labor, class struggle, or simply looking for an alternative to the rot and decay of our current order will find in this book richly rewarding.

Bryan D. Palmer is professor emeritus of history at Trent University. He is the former editor of Labour/Le Travail, and is the author of numerous books on radical social movements and labor history including Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers Strike of 1934, Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression, and Marxism and Historical Practice (2 volumes). He was also a coeditor with Paul Le Blanc and Thomas Bias of the 3-volume document collection US Trotskyism 1928-1965.

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