James P Cannon became the leader of the US Trotskyist movement in 1928 after attending the Sixth Congress of the (by then Stalinised) Communist International, getting a copy of one of Trotsky's major documents by chance, reading it,becoming convinced, and then returning to the USA to win supporters for Trotsky's ideas there.
Cannon had been a leader of the US Communist Party, and before that an activist in the Socialist Party USA and the Industrial Workers of the World.
He remained a day-to-day leader of the Trotskyist movement in the USA (after 1940, of what he himself called the "Orthodox Trotskyist" branch) until 1953. He was influential in the movement for some years after formally retiring in 1953, but was at odds with its chief office organisers from the mid-60s. He died in 1974, aged 84.
AWL values many of Cannon's writings, but also considers that the "Orthodox" version of "Trotskyism" which he shaped misled the movement.
From the Introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 1
In many of the polemics in this volume, J P Cannon is not only antagonist but villain: he is what Shachtman is to the "orthodox" Trotskyists. Lucifer, Satan. Since Cannon did more than anyone else to determine the fate of the "official" Trotskyists - those who stood with Trotsky in '39-'40 - there is, I think, some justice in this.
Nonetheless, it is one-sided, inadequate and essentially unfair. Cannon was no villain. He was and remained a Marxist working with ideas on Stalinism he took from Trotsky, and conceptions of socialist organisation that proved wrong or inadequate. He insisted on calling himself an "agitator", indicating perhaps a too modest conception of his own capacities; at the same time he had too much confidence and too much self-assurance that he knew what was what in the field of socialist organisation - and far too much assurance that it could be sufficient.
Cannon would, according to Shachtman, say to his intimates that he was a Trotskyist in his politics but a "Leninist" in organisation. Shachtman plausibly argued that Cannon's organisational notions had been shaped by the mid-'20s Zinoviev-led Communist International.
The factional battle in 1939-40, and Trotsky's death, left Cannon the undisputed leader of the biggest Trotskyist
organisation, and the one around which the FI would regroup at the end of the war. To Cannon and those he could find for the work fell the task, if they could do it, of liquidating Trotsky's political errors and repairing his tardiness in re-evaluating the USSR. But Cannon was tied as by an iron shackle to the logic of the locum workers' state that would remain a comparatively progressive force no matter what it did so long as the economy remained nationalised. In response to the World War experience of Stalinism, he might have chosen to follow through on Trotsky's 1939 - and his own - indication of the need to revise the whole position: he chose instead to follow the logic of "totalitarian economism" through to the end.
Possibly, he was a late casualty of the '39-'40 faction fight: he had spent too much energy denouncing the indicated changes as criminal "revisionism" and betrayal of "the programme of the FI" to find it easy work. The continuing competitive struggle with the "Shachtmanite" Workers Party did not make it easier.
There is perhaps a suggestion of relief in the way in which Cannon in late '41 seems to have accepted that the destruction of the USSR had virtually been accomplished. There can be no doubt that Cannon hated and taught others [the writer, for example] to hate Stalinism. But ultimately, Cannon chose to tie himself and those for whom he had the authority of guardian of Trotsky's legacy, to "progressive" Stalinism; he chose to freeze the movement politically and theoretically at the point Trotsky died. He used his authority after the war to "appoint" and back official theoreticians who extrapolated and developed in a scholastic spirit socialist perspectives from the existence of the anticapitalist Russian Stalinist empire and the new autonomous Stalinist states such as China.
He reconstructed the FI (after the close of discussion in the three-year transitional period after 1945) as a mono-tendency sect around the frozen Trotsky of 1940, in a world that had not remained frozen.
Cannon played little traceable part in the theoretical re-evaluation after 1945. He could not have done worse than those he licensed and endorsed. The Catholic Church is a mutated piece of the bureaucracy of the later Roman Empire, that has floated down to our time through a number of different types of society; the typical "official" Trotskyist organisations shaped and influenced by Cannon's organisational conceptions can be seen collectively as a fragment of the mid-20s Zinovievist Communist International. Even where comparatively sizeable organisations have been built, they have been politically sterile.