WOBBLY ROOTS OF THE GUILD: A Piece of Our Hidden History

WOBBLY ROOTS OF THE GUILD: A Piece of Our Hidden History

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 by Bryan D. Palmer: Book Cover

A Book Review of:
University of Illinois Press, www.press.uillinois.edu, 2007

A root of the National Lawyers Guild, formed in l937, goes further back to the post WWI American revolutionary left, to the newly established Communist (Workers) Party (1919) and beyond that to the legendary Industrial Workers of the World, the legendary often romanticized fighters for industrial democracy and the precursor of the CIO, the magnificent Wobblies.

For the IWW, “An Injury To One Is An Injury To All.”  It was the Wobby poet Ralph Chapin who wrote the famous working class anthem “Solidarity Forever”.  They expressed their class solidarity in the concept of “mass defense”, a practise the NLG undertakes to this very day with its support to and work in the defense, say,  of Mumia Abu Jamal, The Cuban Five, or The Jena Six.  The one person most responsible for this aspect of our heritage  was James P. Cannon, as Professor Brian Palmer shows in his beautifully written and exhaustively researched new book JAMES P. CANNON and the ORIGINS of the AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY LEFT 1990 – 1928.

Cannon was a radical Irishman from the Midwest.  His dad, John Cannon, was a rank and filer, what was called then a “Jimmy Higgins”, and a stalwart in the Debsian wing of the Socialist Party.  Jim Cannon, at age 18, joined the SP in 1908.  He took up with the Wobblies in the left wing of the SP and developed into an excellent organizer and speaker.  Jim worked with two outstanding Wobbly leaders, Vincent St. John and the founder in1905 of the IWW and head of The Western Federation of Miners, the great almost mythical figure William “Big Bill” Haywood.

The IWW defended immigrants, persons of color and strike victims.  They insisted on freedom of speech and assembly.  They were very radical and knew deep in their bones the truth about law as Bill Kunstler once described it.  “To me, (the law) is in its fundamental essence, nothing more than a method of control created by a socioeconomic system determined, at all costs, to perpetuate itself by any and all means necessary, for as long as possible.  Clarence Darrow put it even more expansively…..when he said ‘there is no justice – in or out of court.’”

When their Russian socialist comrades, led by the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky, overthrew capitalism, stopped World War One, and got rid of the Russian feudal monarchy and the Christian Orthodox church, the left wing of the American movement gave total support and solidarity.  Jim Cannon helped form and was one of the three leaders of the new Communist Party.  Actually two parties were formed.  They soon merged. Cannon was elected Chairman of the Workers Party.

Cannon helped get the movement – faced with fearsome repression, jailings, deportations and the Palmer Raids – up from underground and into the public political arena.  He worked to bring together the native American born radicals and their foreign born brothers and sisters then in the foreign language federations.

Revolutionary parties formed around the world in support of the great Russian revolution.  They banded together in what was called The Third International and met periodically in Moscow to conference and plan how to carry forward their work of defending and extending the revolution.  Because they didn’t have teleconferencing, e mails, or DHL, these meetings often lasted for months.  Cannon was the delegate from the American party to the conference in l926.   He and his companion, Rose Karsner, current NLG leader Matt Ross’ grandmother, met there with “Big Bill” Haywood, who had escaped a frame-up and was living in exile, protected by the Russian comrades as Assata Shakur is now protected by the Cubans.   Together they sketched
out the plans for  an American mass defense organization.  It was to be known as The International Labor Defense.   James P. Cannon became its first national secretary and Rose Karsner headed up the office.

They truly enacted the axiom of “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.”  They defended what they called “class struggle” victims, regardless of their political affiliations.  They raised money for legal defense, secured competent counsel, packed courthouses and rallied in the streets,  gave money to the men and women in prison, and to their families, especially to the children, precursors in a sense, to the wonderful Rosenberg Fund for Children.   Cannon traveled the country builidng support.  Rose ran the office with Martin Abern, then head of the Young Communist League.  The kept scrupulous books.    So as not to go over the heads of the different political formations to which the victims belonged, all monies collected for the victims went to their organizations.

The International Labor Defense took up dozens of cases throughout the country starting with Socialist party and trade union leaders Mooney and Billings in California and then, most famously, the case of  Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchist militants who had been extensively involved in labor strikes, political agitation, and anti-war propaganda.  They were framed up for robbery and murder in Massachusetts.  The men were doomed, fighting as they were in the teeth of an orchestrated anti-anarchist (bomb thowers they were called) anti-immigrant hysteria known then as “the red scare.” Despite an national and international movement in support, the men were electrocuted on August 23, l927.

A year later Cannon and Karsner fell victims to the split in the international communist movement and were expelled from the party for “Trotskyism.”   The ILD continued on under different leadership and eventually folded into the National Lawyers Guild founded in l937.

It is a tribute to the good work of the ILD under their leadership that the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti was so massive that fifty years later, in l997, the governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis posthumously pardoned them, stating “the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti should serve to remind all civilized people of the constant need to guard against our susceptibility to prejudice, our intolerance of unorthodox ideas and our failure to defend the rights of persons who are looked upon as strangers in our midst.”  This truth has not been lost to present day NLG members active in the current stuggles to defend Arabs, Muslims, and Southeast Asians victimized in the orchestrated “war on terror.”

Bryan Palmer is a master historian.   Here is what two foremost left historians have written.  Mike Davis: “ Palmer’s book recovers the lost history of the Left in the l920s and completely reframes the debate about the origins and nature of the Communist Party…beyond Cold War calumny or Popular Front fairy tale.”  I predict that JAMES P.CANNON and the ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY LEFT 1890 – 1928 will become a classic.  It shows that our movement today is, as Paul LeBlanc has observed about the formative decade of the twenties and Palmer’s research, “a promising outgrowth of U.S. radical traditions boldly intersecting with the contradictory realities of Russian Communism.”

By Michael Steven Smith

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