James P. Cannon

Socialist Party Adopts
“Militant” Position at
Detroit National Convention

(June 1934)

Published: The Militant, Vol. VII No. 23, 9 June 1934, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: This work is in the under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists’ Internet Archive/Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors, translators, proofreaders etc. above.

Detroit, June 4. – The national convention of the Socialist Party, which concluded its sessions here last night, recorded a definite shifting of the party to the left – following the main tendency of international social democracy, Centrism has replaced social reformism as the official policy of the party.

The “Militants” combined with Norman Thomas and the Milwaukee group against the New York “Old Guard” to pass a diluted Declaration of Principles and elect a slate to the National Executive Committee. The age at which members of the Young Peoples’ Socialist League (Yipsels) may enter the party was lowered from 21 to 18, thus insuring an influx of radical young Socialists into the party. On the trade union question the Centrists capitulated to the Old Guard and all criticism of the A.F. of L. leadership – the heart of the trade union resolution – was stricken out.

As for the Revolutionary Policy Committee, its independent resolutions on the principle questions were never brought to the convention floor, despite the readiness of a group of left wing delegates to support them. The R.P.C. traded off its independent position for a seat on the National Executive Committee for one of its leaders, Franz Daniel of Pennsylvania.

Such are the main results of the Detroit Convention.

The New “Declaration of Principles”, which was carried by a vote of 99 to 47 (10,822 to 6,512 according to membership represented) evades the central questions of the state and revolution and the struggle against war with ambiguous formulations sufficiently elastic to admit of different and contradictory interpretations, and they were so interpreted in the debate by various speakers, and to attract the combined support of pacifists, Municipal Socialists and those who consider themselves revolutionary Marxists.

The leaders of the “Militants”, the principal sponsors of the declaration, appealed to the authority of Hillquit on every contested point and explained the stand taken on the question of war as a re-statement of the St. Louis resolution of 1917. As before stated, the position of the Revolutionary Policy Committee was not brought forward. One delegate, Peter Fagin of Michigan, protested against “the Centrist steam roller which prevented the left wing from being heard” and several other delegates filed similar declarations with their votes for the adopted resolution.

The “Old Guard”, on the other hand, which stands pat on “Democratic Socialism” of the European pre-Hitler type and makes no concessions whatever to the tragic outcome in Germany and Austria, waged a furious struggle against the resolution. Denouncing it as “an anarchistic illegal doctrine”, Louis Waldman of New York declared : “It is inconceivable to me how I can remain a Social Democrat and vote for this declaration.” In a voice quavering with indignation and amazement at the suggestion of a possible violation of the rules of class warfare laid down by the capitalists, Waldman shouted: “How can a party dedicated to peaceful and legal struggle speak of mass resistance to war?” Greeted by a storm of boos from the gallery, in which many delegates joined, Waldman declared, “I will stand all the boos, and also agree to defend in court all those who may be indicted on the basis of this resolution.”

This was the strain of all the arguments of the extreme right. Be careful – or we will all be arrested. In speech after speech they strove to incite fear of consequences and demanded the restriction of the socialist struggle to the framework of bourgeois democracy. This, said Panken, was a fundamental question, and collectively they rejected a proposal to offer amendments on this or that paragraph. “We are confronted here”, said his Honor the Judge, “with a fundamental cleavage of philosophy and theory. Do we want to abandon the democratic methods? Do we want to resort to violence?”

The veteran Ohio Right Winger, Joseph Sharts, went his fellow attorneys from New York one better and flatly stated that if he had to choose between the flag and “red revolution” he would follow the flag. This brought such a violent demonstration against him that the chairman of the day, Vladek, threatened to “clear the galleries”. There was no suggestion to throw Sharts out of the meeting, although someone shouted, “You have no place in the Socialist Party.”

Powers Hapgood, in speaking for the resolution, declared that it was not fully satisfactory to him and to other left wing delegates. He said it should be amended not to the right but to the left; that the workers object to the S.P. not because it is too radical but because it is not radical enough. Dan Hoan, the the Mayor of Milwaukee, however, assured the terrified members of the Old Guard, who are comfortably enjoying their “socialism” right now in the form of substantial incomes and other emoluments, that they were unduly alarmed. This resolution, he said, doesn’t go as far as the St. Louis resolution. And, besides, he added slyly, we didn’t carry out the St. Louis resolution.

The sections in the Declaration of Principles which evoked such a stormy debate read as follows:

“The Socialist Party is opposed to militarism, imperialism and war. It purposes to eradicate the perpetual economic warfare of capitalism the fruit of which is international, conflict. War cannot be tolerated by Socialists, or preparedness for war. They will unitedly seek to develop trustworthy instruments for the peaceable settlement of international disputes and conflicts. They will seek to eliminate military training from schools, colleges and camps. They will oppose military reviews, displays and expenditures, whether for direct war preparedness or for militaristic propaganda, both in wartime and peacetime. They will loyally support, in the tragic event of war, any of their comrades who for anti-war activities or refusal to perform war service, come into conflict with public opinion or the law. Moreover, recognizing the suicidal nature of modern combat and the incalculable strain of war’s consequences which rest most heavily upon the working class, they will refuse collectively to sanction or support any international war; they will, on the contrary, by agitation and opposition, do their best not to be broken by the war, but to break up the war. They will meet war and the detailed plans for war already mapped out by the war-making arms of the government, by massed war resistance, organized so far as practicable in a general strike of labor unions and professional groups in a united effort to make the waging of war a practicable impossibility and to convert the capitalist war crisis into a victory for socialism.

“In its struggle for a new society, the Socialist Party seeks to attain its objectives by peaceful and orderly means. Recognizing the increasing resort by a crumbling capitalist order to Fascism to preserve its integrity and dominance, the Socialist Party intends not to be deceived by Fascist propaganda nor overwhelmed by Fascist force. It will do all in its power to fight Fascism of every kind all the time and everywhere in the world, until Fascism is dead. It will rely, nevertheless, on the organization of a disciplined labor movement. Its methods may include a recourse to a general strike which will not merely serve as a defense against Fascist counter-revolution but will carry the revolutionary struggle into the camp of the enemy.

“The Socialist Party proclaims anew its faith in economic and political democracy, but it unhesitatingly applies itself to the task of replacing the bogus democracy of capitalist parliamentarism by a genuine workers’ democracy. Capitalism is doomed. If it can be superseded by majority vote, the Socialist Party will rejoice. If the crisis comes through the denial of majority rights after the electorate has given us a mandate we shall not hesitate to crush by our labor solidarity the reckless forces of reaction and to consolidate the Socialist State. If the capitalist system should collapse in a general chaos and confusion, which cannot permit of orderly procedure, the Socialist Party, whether or not in such a case it is a majority, will not shrink from the responsibility of organizing and maintaining a government under the workers’ rule. True democracy is a worthy means to progress; but true democracy must be created by the workers of the world.”

If we take the three main points dealt with in the declaration – war, the state and revolution, and the fight against Fascism – it is easy to see that a straightforward revolutionary answer, proceeding from theory and experience, has not been given in a single case. To be sure, the declaration marks a sharp departure from the position and practice of the international social democracy from 1914 to the collapse in Germany and Austria. That is why the Old Guard, which has learned nothing and forgotten nothing, fought it so bitterly.

Centrism has re-arisen and come to dominance in the international Social Democracy precisely because the old methods of social reformism have brought such ignominious defeat and have been so thoroughly discredited. A change in front has become an imperative necessity in order to hold the organizations together and regain the confidence of the workers. This is the role of Centrism. The revolutionary impulses of the workers are met with general formulations which, sound extremely radical but which do not mean anything specifically. The Detroit declaration abounds in these treacherous and deceptive formulations. It is a classic document of Centrism.

The resolution promises a general strike against war – which is a myth, impossible of realization in the race of a war mobilization. And even this is qualified to read, “insofar as practicable”. Which is a way of saying, “We are only talking about a general strike; we don’t really mean it.” And in truth that is how many of the proponents of the resolution understand this bombast. That war is inevitable under capitalism, that it cannot be prevented or defeated by refusal to serve in the army or by any other form of passive resistance, that the only answer to war, in fact, is revolution – civil war, or the preparation for it – on all these main aspects of the question of war the resolution either remains silent, or speaks falsely, or resorts to ambiguous allusions and hints which may be interpreted one way or another.

The resolution promises to fight Fascism “all the time and everywhere in the world” and even to “carry the revolutionary struggle into the camp of the enemy”. Brave words! But all that, including the general strike to which the resolution says the S.P. “may” resort, was proclaimed by the German and Austrian Social Democratic parties with no less bluster. Will the S.P. form a united front with all workers’ organizations against Fascism? Will it teach the workers that the Fascist bands must be beaten down with their own methods before they have the chance to get the upper hand? Will it explain to the workers that the answer to Fascist violence is the Workers’ Militia and that it must be formed, on the basis of the united front before the Fascists get state power, not afterward? No. On this crucial question, as on all others, the resolution of the Detroit convention says nothing clearly, specifically and unambiguously. That is why such, a conglomeration of different tendencies could! unite to vote for it. The resolution was designed as a catch-all for votes, not as a clear guide to the workers in the fight against Fascism.

On the question of the state and revolution the Detroit convention adopted the formula of the American Workers’ Party which had been put into circulation long ago by the late Morris Hillquit. The S.P. henceforth is to apply itself to the task “of replacing the bogus democracy of capitalist parliamentarism by a genuine workers’ democracy”. Just what this workers’ democracy is to look like is not explained. Is it the! dictatorship of the proletariat? Some delegates thought so and for that reason accepted it. Other delegates thought the contrary and voted for it with that understanding. Like the resolution as a whole the expression “workers’ democracy’ is a vote-catcher, not a clear guide for the education and action of the workers.

The resolution omits any mention of the revolutionary struggle to establish the so-called workers’ democracy. Instead of that it refers to the possibility that capitalism “can be superseded by a majority vote”. If the rights of the majority are then denied the forces of reaction are to be crushed “by our labor solidarity”. With the aid of such empty verbiage as this, such treacherous double-meaning formulations which satisfy people of divergent views, the “Militants”, who express a progressive tendency in the ranks of the party, the Revolutionary Policy Committee, which had set itself up as the spokesman of the revolutionary left wing, and the Municipal Socialists of Milwaukee, who think it is time to become a bit more radical – they all got together on the basis of the new Declaration of Principles to present a new face to the working class of America. But it is not the face of revolutionary socialism.

By this statement I do not mean to deny that profound changes are taking place in the ranks of the S.P. and that the convention at Detroit reflected this process of change. A real movement to the left is under way. It has not yet formulated its position clearly, nor has it found its authentic leaders. The rapid transformation now taking place in the Socialist ranks is marked! by a great deal of confusion and contradiction. The Centrists who dominated the Detroit convention exploited this confusion and rode to power with it.

Will they be able now, by a partial turn of the party to the left, to arrest further developments? The answer to that question rests first of all with the revolutionary militants in the party. There are quite a few of them already. They will increase and multiply to the extent that they understand the role of centrism as a barrier to revolutionary progress and wage an unrelenting war against it.

I hope to return to this question and to other aspects of the Detroit convention in future articles.

Last updated on 13 May 2016