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International Socialist Review, March-April 1968


Judy White

Turning to Radicalization


From International Socialist Review, Vol.29 No.2, March-April 1968, pp.58-59.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Letters From Prison
by James P. Cannon
Merit Publishers. 354 pp. $5.95.

James P. Cannon has led the kind of life that young radicals in the United States today can look to for inspiration and emulation. Unlike many former radicals who have given up the struggle for a socialist America, Cannon devoted the major part of his 78 years of life to the revolutionary movement – as an IWW organizer and strike leader, as a leader in the left wing of Debs’ Socialist Party, as a founding member of the American Communist movement and, from the time he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 to the present, as the key builder of the American Trotskyist movement.

In 1944 Cannon and seventeen other Socialist Workers Party members and leaders of Teamsters’ Local 544 were jailed under the witch-hunting Smith Act. They were its first victims. The attack on the Trotskyists originated in Minneapolis where they played the foremost role in the labor movement. But jailing these revolutionaries had national significance because of their outspoken opposition to Washington’s participation in the second imperialist world war.

Letters from Prison is a collection of the letters Cannon wrote during his eighteen-month internment in Sandstone, Minnesota, federal penitentiary. All but two were addressed to Rose Karsner, Cannon’s wife and close collaborator in the Socialist Workers Party. They served as his principal line of communication with the rest of the party. Although written over 20 years ago, they contain capsule discussions of many questions young radicals are asking today, and particularly the question of how to build a revolutionary party.

Cannon’s letters are focused upon how the revolutionary party should deal with the beginnings of a wave of massive radicalization. This was the working-class radicalization that began when the initial flush of patriotic fervor started to wear off – first with the Harlem explosion of 1943 and the union movement against the wartime no-strike pledge, and culminating in the giant strike wave of 1945-46 and the Bring-the-Troops-Home movement at the close of World War II. This promising upsurge ebbed with the Cold War, McCarthyism and two decades of “guns and butter” prosperity.

Now that prolonged passivity is evidently ending. The campus radicalism, opposition to the Vietnam war and the black liberation struggle have spurred a new development of anticapitalist consciousness and combativity among a broad and growing layer of youth, black and white. It is the job of Marxists to find the best means of recruiting these rebellious young people to the ranks of socialism. Cannon’s book comes at the right time.

His aim in 1944 and 1945 was to get the leadership and membership of the Socialist Workers Party to think in a new way about their work. To those who counselled patience to Cannon’s insistent demands for action, he said, “[patience] is all right for people who are not going anywhere in particular, and it may be good for cows to chew their cud with. But it is no good for executive leaders, traffic managers, etc.” It is certainly not a virtue for revolutionaries in this fast-moving phase of forming a new generation of revolutionary cadres in the United States.

Over and over Cannon explained that the party must begin to “think big” about itself and its work. On the question of increasing the circulation of The Militant, the party’s newspaper, he pushed for a giant subscription campaign, saying,”...the party must be mobilized and driven into action from the National Office and all party attention and activity centered on the attainment of the quota goal.”

He elaborated an extensive plan for the systematic education of new members in the traditions and lessons of working-class struggle, emphasizing that socialist education should keep pace with external activity. He wrote,

“... the convention and the year’s experience which it summarized and represented was a great triumph for the conception of a party based on great principles, whose cadres have been educated and selected in the struggle for these principles ...”

Cannon’s approach exemplifies the aphorism in one of the letters that, “The art of politics consists in knowing what to do next; that is, how to apply the program of Marxism to the specific situation of the day.” For revolutionaries in the 1960s, the Letters from Prison of James P. Cannon show what this guiding generalization means in real life. It is up to them to make good on the challenge.

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