Books of the Month

How the program of the Bolshevik Revolution took root in the US

November 15, 2021
Meeting of factory committee during 1917 Russian Revolution. The victory of the Bolshevik-led socialist revolution inspired millions to build communist parties worldwide, including in U.S. Workers founded party here with “perspective of revolution in this country,” said James P. Cannon.
Meeting of factory committee during 1917 Russian Revolution. The victory of the Bolshevik-led socialist revolution inspired millions to build communist parties worldwide, including in U.S. Workers founded party here with “perspective of revolution in this country,” said James P. Cannon.

The First Ten Years of American Communism: Report of a Participant by James P. Cannon is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for November. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia inspired revolutionary-minded workers worldwide. Cannon, one of many won to the Russian Revolution’s example, helped found the Communist Party in the U.S. He describes how the Communist International led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky helped them. He also tells how the counterrevolution carried out against Lenin’s proletarian internationalist course by the bureaucratic caste led by Joseph Stalin helped corrupt the U.S. party and destroy its revolutionary heart. Cannon remained true to the Bolshevik program and traditions and was a founding leader of the Socialist Workers Party. This excerpt from Cannon’s introduction describes the early days. Copyright © 1962 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


In its later evolution the Communist Party has written such a consistent record of cynical treachery and lying deception that few can believe it was ever any different. A quarter of a century of Stalinism has worked mightily to obliterate the honorable record of American communism in its pioneer days.

Yet the party wrote such a chapter too, and the young militants of the new generation ought to know about it and claim it for their own. It belongs to them. The first six years of American communism — 1918-1923 — represent a heroic period from which all future revolutionary movements in this country will be the lineal descendants. There is no getting away from that. The revolutionist who would deny it is simply renouncing his own ancestry. That’s where he came from, and without it he would not be. …

From 1917 to 1919 the life of the left wing of the Socialist Party — out of which the first troops of American communism were assembled — was governed primarily by international events and influences. Two “outside” factors, namely, the First World War and the Russian Revolution, created the issues which deepened the division between the left and the right in the American SP; and the theoretical formulation of these issues by the Russian Bolsheviks and the Comintern gave the left wing its program.

The factional struggle of this period occurred along clearly defined lines of political principle. The left wing, which had previously fought as a theoretically uncertain and somewhat heterogeneous minority, was armed with the great ideas of the Bolsheviks and unified on a new foundation. The left wing as a whole clashed with the traditional leadership of the SP over the most basic issues of doctrine, as they had been put to the test in the war and the Russian Revolution.

Leaving aside all the mistakes and excesses of the left-wing leaders, personal antagonisms engendered in the fight, etc., the lines of principle which separated them from the old leadership of the Socialist Party were clearly drawn. The split of 1919, resulting in the formal constitution of the communist movement as an independent party, was a split over international issues of principle in the broadest and clearest sense of the term. …

As a matter of fact, in the modern world, internationalism is not an outside influence at all. The whole is not foreign to its parts. America, especially since 1914, has been a part of the “One World” and a very big part indeed. In reacting to events in other countries, America also reacts upon them. There is no such thing as “the international situation” outside and apart from this country. And the American communist movement, in all its reactions to international influences, was never free from the simultaneous influence of its national environment.

The causal factors which brought the Communist Party into being in the first place were both national and international. The same holds true for its later evolution at every stage. American communism, at the moment of its birth, represented a fusion of the Russian Revolution with a native movement of American radicalism. It is not correct to say that “everything came from Russia.” The ideas of the Russian Revolution needed a given social environment to take root in, and receptive people to cultivate them; as far as we know, the Russian Revolution did not create a Communist Party on the moon.

International events and ideas were the predominating influence in bringing the American Communist Party into existence, but these events and ideas needed human instruments. These were provided by the native movement of American revolutionists which had grown up before the Russian Revolution out of the class struggle in the United States. …

Objective circumstances are powerful, but not all-powerful. The status quo in normal times works to compel conformity, but this law is not automatic and does not work universally. Otherwise, there would never be any rebels and dissenters, no human agencies preparing social changes, and the world would never move forward.

There are exceptions, and the exceptions become revolutionists long before the great majority recognize the necessity and the certainty of social change. These exceptions are the historically conscious elements, the vanguard of the class who make up the vanguard party. The act of becoming a revolutionist and joining the revolutionary party is a conscious act of revolt against objective circumstances of the moment and the expression of a will to change them. …

This was demonstrated when the Second International, which collapsed so ignominiously in the First World War, nevertheless provided the forces, out of its own ranks, for the new parties and the new International. Some socialists remained socialists; not everybody capitulated and betrayed. From the Russian party, in the first place, from the German party, and from every other Socialist Party in the entire world, uncorrupted socialists, who simply remained true to themselves, stood up against the degeneration of the old organizations and began to build the new. Even the Socialist Party of the United States, that ugly duckling of the Second International, which really wasn’t much of a party, furnished cadres not undeserving of mention in this honorable company.