James P. Cannon

The Socialist Party and Radicalization of the Masses

(February 1931)

Written: February 1930
First Published: The Militant, New York, Vol. 3 No. 7, February 15, 1930, pp. 3 & 8.
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
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Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (September 2012).
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The ten-year period following the end of the war was marked by an integration and growth of the American Communist movement and a concurrent decline in the organization and influence of the Socialist Party. For the past year or so we have been witnessing a reversal of this process. The relation of forces between the two contending tendencies – of revolution and reform – has undergone a change. These are the important facts which merit consideration and analysis.

It profits the revolutionary wing of the labor movement nothing to evade or deny this state of affairs. On the contrary it will do harm, for the radical workers see what is going on before their eyes and are apt to draw false conclusions regarding the efficacy and future prospects of revolutionary ideas. Such indeed is the meaning of the recent noticeable shifting of allegiance of many workers, particularly in the needle trades, who had conscientiously supported the left wing and the Communist Party for several years. The Communist workers are entitled to an appraisal of the situation.


The advance of Communism in the struggle against the Socialist Party, and to a large extent at its expense, over a tenyear period, is undeniable. A few facts: The left wing gained a majority in the party struggle of 1919; and the Hillquit-Berger machine was able to prevent its capture of the convention only by wholesale expulsions (aided, however, as has so often been the case, by stupidities of the left-wing leadership). Even after the split in 1919, which reduced the Socialist Party membership from 100,000 to less than 20,000, a new left wing developed within it under the pressure of communist sentiments in the ranks. This culminated in the second split – a weak one, it is true, with still weaker leadership – of the “Workers’ Council” group at the end of 1921. The Communists became organizationally stronger than the Socialists despite the terrific handicaps of the Palmer terror and the three years’ period of underground organization. The CP extended its operations throughout the country while the SP influence and strength were confined to isolated localities, notably New York and Milwaukee. The superior strength and fighting ability of the Communists were graphically demonstrated in the big movements which engaged the attention of the workers: the labor party campaign, the organization of the left wing in the trade unions, the Passaic strike, the Sacco-Vanzetti movement, the needle trades struggles. The collapse of the New York Call, the daily paper of the SP, just preceding the establishment of the Daily Worker, symbolized the waning power of one party and the upward swing of the other.

A Period of Communist Growth

Over that entire ten-year period our party continued to win recruits, individually and in groups, from its Socialist rival, with no shuffling in the other direction. The tides in those days swept out of the SP and into our ranks such eminent pillars of presentday Communism as Engdahl, Schneid, 01gm, and almost the whole Freiheit staff; not to speak of Kruse, who has begun to drift back by way of the Lovestone detour. Scott Nearing left the SP in 1923 and joined the – CP in 1926. Weisbord, who became justly renowned as the Communist organizer of the Passaic strike in 1926, had been the secretary of the Young People’s Socialist League and a campaigner for La Follette in 1924. All of these people, and many others who could be mentioned, were, in one sense of the word, weathercocks indicating the way the wind was blowing.

Now, after ten years of stagnation and decay, the Socialist Party is showing manifest signs of a revival, partly at the expense of the CP. The facts which demonstrate this trend are as incontestable as are the reasons which explain it. The greatly increased Socialist vote in the recent New York municipal election, while the Communist vote was reduced to insignificance, is one of these signs. The reestablishment of the right-wing unions in the needle trades is another. The increased recruitment of new members is a third sign. (For example, the report of the secretary at the latest meeting of the National Executive Committee claimed more members enrolled in 1929 than in the whole five preceding years.) Socialist influence in the CPLA and renewed activity in the general trade union movement are a fourth sign. The reformist Socialist Party confronts the revolutionary Communists in 1930 as a stronger foe than at any time since the split in 1919.


Weathercocks also reflect the new situation. The first of these was Schneid, president of a Chicago local of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union, who came to us from the SP on the tide of Communist influence in the union in 1922. Last year, the reaction carried him back to the SP. A recent convert to reformism is Hendin, once a member of the CEC who demanded “armed insurrection#8221; – nothing less – at the first underground convention of our party in 1920. (He overestimated the radicalization at the time.) There are many others, less prominent, traveling the same path; one in particular named Streit, who led a squad of Stalinists to break up a meeting of the Communist Opposition in Philadelphia less than a year ago.

The Course of Lovestone’s Faction

Besides those individuals who desert Communism and pass over directly into the reformist camp of the SP – and more significant – are those who have started on an indirect route, by stages, to the same place. Speaking from the standpoint of political logic – which is decisive – and disregarding personal intentions – which are not – this is the destination of the Lovestone faction. We do not see any ground for the permanent existence of a political party halfway between Communism and reformism, which is the sum and substance of right-wing wisdom.

The example of the 2½ International and all similar national groupings excludes such a prospect. That Lovestone and Wolfe understand this as well as anyone, cannot be doubted. The Forward’s estimate of Lovestone’s present work as the “most useful he has ever done for the working class” is, from their standpoint, a quite intelligent judgment.

It ought to be easily understood why Lovestone and Wolfe cannot proceed directly to their political destination. Conscientious worker communists, revolting against the stupidity and brutality of the Foster regime, have been caught in Lovestone’s trap. Deception and maneuver are necessary to keep these workers together on a graduated reactionary course. Lovestone and Wolfe need time, but they are known for speed and they are making headway. They have already succeeded in leading their followers to Brandler and his program of “National Communism” without a centralized International. They have already translated “Socialism in one country” – the slogan under which they expelled us from the party – into “Communism in one country.” This is progress enough for six months. The rest will follow.


A number of factors contribute to the phenomenon of a Socialist Party revival after ten years of retrogression. The most important is the beginning of a radicalization of the workers, about which so much is being written these days. The fearfully accelerated exploitation involved in the development of industrial technique, which goes by the name of rationalization, plus wage cuts, plus swelling unemployment and its attendant horrors, stimulates a labor discontentment which is beginning to grope for expression. It is of decisive importance to have a precise estimate of the character and degree of this discontent.

In this field nothing is helpful but actual facts. In the light of such facts there is no ground whatever for the assumption that this radicalization of the American workers has anything approaching immediate revolutionary implications, or that the masses are ready for Communist leadership. So far it is possible to speak of tentative movements in the worker masses as radicalization in a strictly defined and limited sense.

The traditional lack of class consciousness of the American workers, and their specific indifference to social questions, as they record it on every occasion (the elections, for example)absolutely preclude the attempt to fit them into any European or world formula of radicalization. This term can be used intelligently only on an American scale, in comparison with the recent years of prosperity; and then only with the reservation that this radicalization is shown in its first stages, as symptoms of deeper movement to come.

The Strike Barometer

This is the only possible conclusion which ascertainable facts will allow. Take the record of recent strikes, always a good barometer of working-class militancy. Exact figures of strike movements over a period of years are not at hand at the moment, but the general outline is well known. The textile workers’ strike in the South, the sporadic strikes of auto workers, and similar outbursts certainly show an awakening mood of the workers involved. But all together they have so far involved only a few thousand workers, a number in no way comparable to the hundreds of thousands who took part in the great strike movements in coal and steel and on the railroads in 1919 and 1922.

Moreover, the responsiveness of the workers generally, all over the country, to these strikes was negligible. The elections, another yardstick of proletarian class development, show a Communist debacle, a Socialist gain, and a reactionary victory. The various political demonstrations organized by the Communist Party have yet to show serious working-class support. They are real Communist demonstrations in the sense that only Communists take an active part in them. It is self-deception to represent curious spectators as participants in these actions. The unemployment movement shows promise but is, as yet, only in its initial stages.

The most pronounced expressions of the symptoms of radicalization of the workers have been through reformist channels. Such is the meaning of the increased Socialist vote insofar as it came from the workers; of the general revival of SP influence among the workers; of the appearance of “progressive” movements in the trade unions under SP leadership. Such is the real explanation of the fact that thousands of workers in the needle trades are turning to the reorganized right-wing unions.

The signs of Socialist Party revival, appearing simultaneously with the beginning of working-class radicalization, is no contradiction. It appears so only to those who grossly exaggerate the extent of the radicalization process and attempt to substitute noisy and flamboyant proclamations for actual moods of the masses. They cannot reconcile these imaginary revolutionary moods with a growth of reformistic influence and they try to dispose of the latter by ignoring or denying it. The refusal to see things as they are has always been a fool’s dangerous game. Nobody, least of all revolutionaries, ever yet won a war against facts. But this is precisely the whole military strategy of the Foster generals.


A second reason for the recent prosperity which has overtaken the long insolvent firm of Hillquit and Company, bound up with the symptoms of labor radicalism which the capitalists see as clearly as we do and which they fear as much as we welcome, is the patronage of the liberal wing of capitalism. The more farsighted elements of American capitalism, profiting by European postwar experience, fear a revolutionary influence on a radicalized working class and wish to prepare a buffer against it in advance.

For this purpose they are not unwilling to build up the liberalized Socialist Party, of which they have no fears whatever. The “good press” which the SP received in the New York municipal campaign, including the direct support of several papers, had far deeper implications than a mere gesture of protest against the crudities of Tammany Hall. The New York papers were helping to prepare a safety valve before the social boiler has begun to steam.

On its part, the gaining of this capitalist patronage has been facilitated by the deliberate movement of the Socialist Party to the right. It has spared no effort to establish respectability and harmlessness to the existing social order. It is more and more becoming the haven of inoffensive liberals as well as the shield of labor reactionaries, such as the Black Hundreds in the needle trades. Norman Thomas, a spokesman who makes no pretense of Marxism, is a perfect symbol of this metamorphosis of a party which once proclaimed – in words always, and sometimes in deed – the doctrine of the class struggle.


A third important factor which has aided the Socialists is the crisis in the Communist Party and the incompetent leadership by appointment, which is made to order for Socialist progress at Communist expense.

The party crisis, which grows deeper from day to day, has had a profound effect on the radical workers. Without understanding the principled issues, they see only the splits and get an impression of disintegration and decay. They see a once formally united party appearing as three separate factions, each publishing its own organ. In such circumstances the official assurances of unity sound to them like a scared boy whistling in the dark. The recruiting power of the movement is paralyzed and thousands of party members fall away in discouragement and despair. Some of them have become victims of reformist illusions – a fate for which they have been prepared by the reign of opportunism in the party and in the Communist International.

The Fosterite Contribution in the S.P.

The incredible weakness of the appointed leadership, which piles blunder on top of blunder in a vicious system, robs the party of its opportunity to plunge forward on the basis of the new trend in the working class, and thus facilitates the game of the reformists. The substitution of noise for thought, and vituperation for argument – the political method of Foster and Company – hurts nobody but the workers’ vanguard and is grist to the SP mill. Many of the new recruits of the SP are Foster’s contribution to Hillquit.

It is quite the fashion these days for the party overseers to remind the workers of the overwhelming importance of the “leadership” they are receiving like a gift, as it were, from the skies. The idea appears in the party press again and again in the most offensive and patronizing manner. Leadership undoubtedly has a great importance in the proletarian struggle. But it works both ways, and in stressing this question the bureaucrats of the day are only helping, unwittingly, to furnish an explanation of Communist defeats and Socialist victories. An ignorant and corrupt leadership, such as now afflicts the party, can deal the heaviest blows against the cause of the workers’ vanguard, and is dealing them.

Looking back over the ten years’ record of the party, with its ups and downs, its often sad experiences with leaders who have come and gone, one can say with complete assurance that history – insofar as it takes note of the matter – will sustain the judgment that the present leadership of the party is the worst it ever had. We say this without forgetting any past experience at any stage of the party’s evolution. The Foster regime has all the stupidity of the Hourwich group without their principle, and the corruption of the Lovestone group without their intelligence.

The Communist workers, staggering under defeat after defeat in times when progress ought to be the rule, will do well to take the usurping bureaucrats at their word when they urge them to remember the decisive importance of leadership. The first conclusion they will come to after a serious consideration of this question will be the necessity of overthrowing the present leaders and organizers of defeat. They will find – since the American bureaucrats are simply the appointed agents of the Stalin ECCIthat the first steps in this direction will lead them toward participation in the great international struggle over the foundation principles of Communism, which the Bolshevik-Leninists are defending against the new revisionists. The disintegration of the American Communist movement is bound up with an international situation and cannot be isolated from it. A real fight against this disintegration can be conducted only under the banner of the International Opposition, for that is the banner of communism.


The spectacle of Socialist Party advancement and Communist retrogression at a time when there are many signs of a new upward trend of working-class activity, are transient phenomena based on illusions of the workers, cleverly exploited by the reformists, and misleadership and internal crisis in the Communist movement. In the temporary fluctuation in the class struggle there is no cause for alarm, to say nothing of despair, in the revolutionary ranks. The ultimate victory belongs to communism, but there is no law that it will proceed to this victory on a straight, ascending line.

In reality there is nothing strange or inexplicable in the present developments. Reformism is a blind alley which diverts the workers from a class advancement and even from any real struggle for their immediate needs. But how are the American workers, not yet through the primer school of class education, to know that? The majority of the workers of Germany, trained for generations in the class struggle, many of whom have seen revolutionary battles, do not know it yet. If they will learn only from day to day on the basis of their own experience, as Lenin said, how will the American workers learn it overnight?

American Labor and Reformism

It must be remembered that the American workers have never seen Social Democratic betrayal on a big scale, for the simple reason that these agents of capitalism have not yet had such an opportunity. The American Socialists have never held any power except in such isolated and relatively unimportant sectors as the needle trades. The American worker, bound all his life to capitalist ideology, is apt to consider a vote for the Socialist Party a radical step forward. He is not fated to stop there. He is not a “fascist” when he takes that step, but a deceived worker who wants to improve the position of his class. Such a worker is, and should be regarded as, a potential Communist.

The Communist struggle for the support of the masses in America has many aspects different from those of the same struggle in the capitalistically developed countries in Europe. There, the great majority of the workers are already politically organized in the Socialist and Communist camps, and the recruiting of workers to the banner of Communism requires the breaking down of long-established traditions and habits and organizational bonds. The struggle here, in the main, is to win workers away from direct allegiance to the capitalist parties. In this the Socialist and Communist parties are and will be rivals.

Despite the primary stage of the class struggle in America, and the consequent lack of class consciousness of the workers, the prospects of the revolutionary party, even for the proximate future, are good. There is plenty of ground for the assumption that developments in America, on the basis of its inextricable involvement in world economy, once fairly started will be swift. In such a setting Communism, given a correct policy, can bound forward and become the banner of the workers’ struggles as well as of their aspirations for freedom from the capitalist yoke.

This presupposes a correct approach to the workers – the politically unorganized as well as the victims of reformist deception. The Communist International, in the fundamental documents of its first four congresses, has given a clear guide in this task. It is necessary to restore our movement to this basis and cast overboard all revisions and “improvements” which have been smuggled into the International since Lenin’s death. Among other things this means to revive the united-front tactics and apply them in place of the counterfeit dogma of “social fascism.” It means to strengthen and support the Opposition, which fights for communist fundamentals on an international scale.

The sooner and the more aggressively the Communist workers turn to these basic tasks, the sooner will the present advance of reformism be transformed into a temporary incident, and the better will the awakening workers be prepared for future victories.

Last updated on: 22.9.2012