New International, July 1934


James P. Cannon

The Socialist Party Convention

8July 1934)

Source: New International, Vol.1 No.1, July 1934, pp.12-13, 32.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

IT HAS been remarked before that the ferment which heralds the struggle to solve the crisis in the international labor movement is now manifested conspicuously in the camp of social democracy. The Detroit convention graphically demonstrated that this international trend has struck the Socialist Party of America with full force.

The influence of events impresses itself on the labor movement in peculiar and seemingly contradictory ways. Shut out of the Comintern by the frightful and unprecedented bureaucratization and ideological decay of recent years, the discussion of new paths is breaking out in the socialist parties. The Comintern stagnates and dies before our eyes. The international organization which arose out of the crisis of the world war and the Russian revolution, having failed in its mission, is passing from the scene amidst incredible corruption and degeneration. No doubt further developments of the crisis will bring cataclysmic eruptions in the Stalinist parties also. But, for the present, new life asserts itself most prominently in the social democracy.

In many respects we are witnessing today a repetition of certain peculiarities which marked the first emergence of American Communism. The official Communist party is reenacting the role of the IWW. This organization, which had stood in advance of the SP, failed to react to the great international events of war and revolution. The new Left wing, which was destined to become the Communist party, took shape in the SP and passed over the head of the IWW, leaving it behind. A striking analogy is to be seen today. There is one important difference however. An independent body of Communists, armed with the program of the future movement, has long since separated itself from decaying Stalinism and is in a position to exert an independent influence on the development of the new movement. Their task is to see where the living movement is and to strive to influence its course. This obligates them at the moment to devote special attention to the ferment hi the SP. The Detroit convention revealed the depth of this ferment more clearly than before.

The strong sweep of radical sentiment in the ranks of the Socialist party was officially registered at Detroit. At the same time the inadequacy of all the present radical groupings in the party was cruelly demonstrated. The convention marked the definite official shift of the party from social reformism to Centrism, even if it is a diluted form of European Centrism. The happenings at Detroit prepared the way for an accelerated development of the genuine Left wing forces. And, finally, the Detroit convention met under the predominating influence of international events. Its whole course, from beginning to end, was decisively affected by the trend of developments in the European movement. Here, once again, the determining role of internationalism in the labor movement was made manifest.

The reaction of the American Socialist party to international events, and to the devastating crisis at home, revealed several distinct groupings in this once more or less homogenous body of social reformism. The Old Guard, who control all the important and rich institutions and are in the habit of ruling, fought a desperate battle at the convention. They appeared there in struggle for the first time without the leadership of Hillquit, and the loss they have suffered was painfully evident. Hillquit, in such a situation, would have tacked and manreuvred and cheated the convention majority with a compromise. Without the adroit leadership of Hillquit, the Old Guard was able only to bludgeon.

The leaders of the Old Guard, by far the outstanding personalities of the convention with the exception of Thomas, impressed one as a group of Tories who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing and who are incapable of recognizing the frightful debacle that has been suffered by social reformism in Europe. They are old and aging men, settled in life, well satisfied with the status quo. They gave the impression of wanting everything to remain as it is in the Socialist party, and in social life also. They are grey, hard-faced men. “Socialism” is their business, and it has paid. They are getting their socialism now. They are mostly lawyers or officials, with lucrative positions, salaries, fees and other fat emoluments which cushion their sacrifices for the cause and enable them to live comfortable, middle-class lives. They enjoy honors and run no risks. The prospects of a disruption of this idyllic situation arouses in them sentiments of indignation. This broke out in their voices every time they spoke.

They are ready men on the floor, fluent speakers, skilled debaters,. dogged fighters for their own interests. From their die-hard attitude at the convention, to say nothing of the furious offensive they have launched to overthrow its decisions in the party referendum, any grown-up person could understand that the leaders of the Old Guard will never give up their positions, the institutions they control or their way of living. They will live in the same party with the faltering amateurs of the “Militant” group, and suffer the pious exhortations of Norman Thomas, only so long as they are left with their positions and their possessions.

The term “Militants” is a very loose and decidedly inappropriate name for the new party majority established at Detroit. If the term “militant” means fighter, the Old Guard deserve it more. The “Militants” would better be described as combinationists. Horse-trading to line up votes for the National Executive Committee was their principal occupation at the convention. Lacking dynamic personalities and leaders, except for Thomas, and making a miserable showing in the forensic conflicts with the Old Guard, they nevertheless did an effective job of vote-wangling behind the scenes.

Among the majority which they patched together were delegates of every type and tendency. There were the New York and Chicago “Militants” – typical Centrists. There were the Municipal Socialists from Milwaukee, who were primarily interested, as one delegate expressed it, in “overhead sewers and steam-heated sidewalks”. There were trade union bureaucrats such as Krzycki, Vice-President of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and Graham, President of the Montana Federation of Labor – officials who would risk their positions by getting crossways with Hillman and Green as readily as you would give up your right eye. There were old “post-office socialists” from the hinterland, smelling faintly of moth balls. There were the Christian Pacifists, such as Norman Thomas and Devere Allen. And, in this motley assemblage – that constituted the convention majority in Detroit – there was included the Revolutionary Policy Committee which had raised the flag of the dictatorship of the proletariat a short while before.

The RPC was under fire for the first time at Detroit. There it appeared as a weak, amateurish and ineffective group which was unable to grasp its opportunity or to measure up to the expectations which had been aroused by its manifesto. 25 to 30 delegates, it was reported, were ready to follow the leadership of the RPC in a principled fight. Instead of concentrating on that, they got involved in caucus manoeuvres with the “Militants” for a place on the National Executive Committee. A fatal error which ended in a miserable fiasco for the RPC In the end they got their representative on the NEC. But for that they gave up their independent position and never presented it to the convention. A wonderful bargain – like that of the farmer who traded his farm to a confidence man for a half interest in the City Hall.

The political instability of the majority of the convention was shown in the fights on the floor over the three main questions: The International Report, the Trade Union Question and the Declaration of Principles. The Militants didn’t carry a single one of these fights to victory on the basis of their pre-convention program. Their resolution of the international report was cut to pieces by an amendment of Thomas. On the trade union question they capitulated before the offensive of the Old Guard. The famous declaration of principles, as it was presented and adopted, was primarily a document of militant pacifism.

An interesting debate developed around the international report, originally slated for the central place in the convention. The resolution proposed to endorse the report of the majority of the American delegation at Paris – supporting the standpoint of the Centrist majority there – and to declare this to be the official policy guiding the work of the American party. The Old Guard attacked the resolution in the name of “democratic socialism” and already began to mutter their threats about a split. Mayor Hoan of Milwaukee, who was to combine with the Militants in the majority bloc, testified to his interest in revolutionary internationalism as follows:

“I don’t give a hoot in hell which report is adopted ... Only let’s not get excited or bitter about it ... for my part, I’m in favor of not sending any more international delegates if they come back here and stir up trouble in the party.”

As the debate came to a climax Thomas came forward with his amendment to strike out that paragraph which committed the American party to the policy supported by a majority of its delegation at the Paris conference of the Second International. This amendment was carried by a majority of delegates present. On the roll call according to membership represented, the entire resolution was defeated.

Here, early in the convention, Thomas appeared in the rôle which he hoped to play at Detroit and afterwards. His aim was to stand somewhat above the factions, to conciliate and compromise and keep peace in the family. But in this attempt he encounters the stubborn intransigeance of the Old Guard. They want no mediator between themselves and anything that suggests radicalism. They want “democratic socialism” without any radical frills or phrases. Besides, they hate the pious idealism of Thomas. They envy him his popularity and moral influence and do not wish to add to it.

The debate on the trade union question was a real test of the SP and especially of the convention majority. The result was a sorry picture of timidity and cowardice. The trade union resolution proper was a routine declaration that did not touch the vital question of attitude to the treacherous officialdom of the AF of L. In the resolution on the NRA and Socialism, however, one mild paragraph of criticism was smuggled in. It read as follows:

“The NRA has also shown fundamental weaknesses in the American labor movement. It has shown up more clearly than any other event the obsolete ideology of the AF of L. The many instances in which leaders have counselled workers against striking or even ordered them back to work in the face of an overwhelming indication by the membership of a desire to strike, has indicated their abandonment of the belief that unions are fighting organizations. It has shown that inadequacy of the AF of L structure in organizational work and the positive harm of the craft form of organization.”

But even this plaintive bleat at the labor agents of capital was too much. The Old Guard launched a ferocious offensive at this mild criticism of their blood brothers, and in this offensive they were joined by a heavy section of the “allies” of the Militants. “Don’t attack the unions,” they shouted in chorus, conveniently identifying the unions with the bureaucracy. “What the trade unions want of us,” said Vladeck, “is not advice but service.... The leaders are often more radical than the rank and file.” Judge Panken took off on a flight of oratorical denunciation of the offending paragraph and warned the convention of disaster for the party if it ventured to make faces at the labor skates. Mayor McLevy of Bridgeport declared the SP should “stop telling the trade unions what to do. Let’s attend to our own political business and let them attend to theirs”, said the Mayor.

Krzycki and Graham, part of the majority that voted for the Declaration of Principles, broke over the traces on this question that brought principle too close to home. Krzycki prophesied the doom of the party if this innocuous paragraph was left in the resolution. “I can’t speak to the unions any more if you carry this,” he said. Most entertaining of all were the fulminations of Graham – later put on the NEC by a deal with the Militants – against the “college professors” and other high-brows who want to violate the independence of the trade unions. “These monkeys don’t, know what they’re talking about,” he shouted, in language not too professorial, to the accompaniment of loud applause from the Old Guard and the trade union officials. It was a field day for trade union conservatives. Thomas, retreating under the barrage, declined to speak on the question except to express agreement with “what has been said and well said”. The Militants who had sponsored the paragraph, made a sorry showing in the debate. They appeared to be as frightened by the ferocity of the attack as a group of boys caught stealing apples in a private orchard. They ran for cover, and the debate ended with the announcement that the Resolutions Committee had withdrawn the contested paragraph.

It was a miserable and shameful capitulation on the key question of proletarian policy. The real caliber of the Militants was well demonstrated in this skirmish. For the trade union question is precisely the question which puts theories and general declarations to the concrete test and brings immediate repercussions in the class struggle. All the great questions – war, Fascism, revolution – converge on this point Without a real basis in the trade unions, conquered in relentless struggle against the reactionary officialdom, no serious resistance to war and Fascism is conceivable, not to speak of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society which rests on its supports in the labor movement represented by the conservative bureaucracy.

The feverish internal life of the Socialist party is centered now on the campaign of the Old Guard to overthrow the Declaration of Principles adopted at Detroit. To a revolutionist who takes formulations seriously, the clamor raging around this Declaration seems entirely uncalled for. There is an element of unreality, even of burlesque, in the exaggerated denunciations poured out on this document, which reminds one of the campaign of the super-reactionaries against such “dangerous Reds” as the editors of the New Republic and the director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

This Declaration in reality is pretty thin soup. It is not a document of revolutionary Marxism on the question of war, as has been maintained, but rather of militant pacifism. It is the program of the pacifist preachers, not of the revolutionary workers. The war section under dispute was written by Devere Allen, a prominent worker in the “peace” movement and an avowed pacifist. In his speech for the Declaration he announced himself as “a pacifist and proud to bear the name”. As for the other sections of the Declaration, they are shot through and through with ambiguous formulations and characteristic Centrist bombast. A bizarre combination was assembled to make up a majority for the Declaration as a whole. It extended from the Milwaukee advocates of municipal reform to the Revolutionary Policy Committee. Everybody was for it. Except the Old Guard. They are not even radical pacifists. Thomas made the most eloquent speech for the Declaration and ended by committing himself into the hands of his Maker with the invocation, “God give me the grace to live up to it.” After that there was no way to stop the stampede to carry the Declaration. By the grace of God – and a more terrestrial horse-trade for the NEC – the resolution was adopted with a large majority and the SP shook its fist at war and Fascism. But there is nothing in the fist. Neither war nor Fascism will be impeded by it.

There were Left wing delegates at the convention – quite a few of them. But they were juggled and manoeuvred out of their rights by the caucus sharks, railroaded and denied the floor by the chairman of the day, Vladeck, who frankly stated that he was selecting speakers according to the lists prepared by the caucus leaders. One delegate, Peter Fagin of Michigan, managed after a long fight to get the floor to explain his vote and to denounce “the Centrist steam-roller in the convention which suppressed the voice of the Left wing”.

The convention took no position on the Soviet Union. On this pivotal question of proletarian policy the Centrist majority simply “ducked” and referred the matter to the new NEC The weakness, confusion and cowardice which is the soul of Centrism were manifested on this question with singular clarity. Does the SP propose to defend the Soviet Union or not? Does it support the Stalin bureaucracy? What is its standpoint on the foreign policy of the Soviet Union? Or, is it indifferent to the position of the workers’ fatherland in the sphere of diplomacy? Does the SP demand “freedom of expression” for the counter-revolutionists in the Soviet Union or does it confine its demands to democracy for the loyal defenders of the revolution? Is the SP for “socialism in one country” as the guiding policy of the Soviet Union, or does it take the standpoint of revolutionary internationalism? The convention gave no answer to any of these fundamental questions; and, sad to relate, there was no other group in the convention to force an answer one way or the other. Delegates were there ready to support such a fight, but there was no one to lead them.

The Revolutionary Policy Committee was confronted at the convention with an exceptional opportunity to show its colors and establish itself firmly as a principled faction in the party. Formed only a short while ago, it rapidly developed a surprising strength. The revolutionary elements in the party took the RPC leaders at their word and were ready to shove them to the front of the genuine Left wing movement. But when the opportunity came, perhaps because it came too soon, they lost their heads completely. They appeared inexperienced, weak and unsure of themselves and they made a pitiful showing.

The horse-trade engineered by Matthews – to sacrifice their independent position for a place on the NEC – precipitated a crisis and split in the RPC caucus on the first day of the convention. So great was the demoralization and resentment of the Left wing delegates that the affair became common knowledge. A conciliation later, with the understanding that the position of the RPC would be presented independently after all, turned out to be deceptive. Nothing happened. The RPC didn’t even speak. Naturally such procedure fearfully undermined the prestige of the RPC. The Left wing elements in the party had begun to rally around it for want of another centre and, for the same reason, a formal unity of the faction was maintained even after the disgraceful performance at the convention. From all appearances the RPC still has a chance to make good, but it is under a real test now. The leaders, whose not too great authority was seriously weakened at Detroit, will be obliged to lead a principled fight in the near future or make way for others who are more steadfast in their convictions and more able to fight for them.

Since the convention the Right wing, led by the New York Old Guard, has taken the offensive and set up an apparatus to conduct a campaign for the defeat of the Declaration of Principles in the party referendum. Their fight is waged with great aggressiveness. Threats of split fly right and left. In this, however, there is a great deal of bluff. The split, in our opinion, will not come immediately. The Old Guard know the weakness and flabbiness of their opponents and count on clubbing them into submission. Thomas has already come forward with an “explanation” of the Declaration which opens the door to a complete retreat. On top of that the Declaration has been submitted to a committee of Socialist lawyers for an opinion as to its legality. The whole issue is thus switched from the political to the juridical field. This, as they say in Missouri, is duck soup for the Old Guard which is a miniature bar association all by itself.

Agreements or compromises at the top will not be able to stop this development. That is because the real pressure behind the conflict of the groupings at the top comes from below, from the proletarian sections of the party and from the youth. They will continue to push with increasing insistence and clearer aim for a revolutionary policy. The convention appears to us not as the end, but rather as the real beginning of the internal conflict in the party.

In the present situation the RPC is again presented with a great opportunity. As has been shown, it gave little promise at Detroit, but the group still has a chance. The next months will decide its fate. It will either show itself as a miserable windbreak for reformism and pass from the scene, or become a rallying center of those elements who are moving for a revolutionary party. In order to play the latter role it will be necessary for the leaders of the RPC to clarify their aims and answer the question: “Where are we going?” They must understand clearly that a break with the Second International, politically and organizationally – and that means also its American prototypes – is the indispensable condition to the constitution of a revolutionary party. And this necessary break leads with iron logic to the issue of fusion with the revolutionary elements outside the SP.

There also a fight is raging that is no less intransigeant and irreconcilable than the fight in the Socialist Party. Will the Left socialists go over to the Stalinists – that is, from one bankrupt International into another? To the Lovestoneites? This is the most miserable prospect of all – to break with one bankrupt organization in order to “reform” another from the outside. To escape such a fate the militants of the RPC might well appeal to Norman Thomas’ God for aid. Will the RPC eventually go with the revolutionary Marxists who are coming together from various sources to create a new party of the Fourth International?

These are the life and death questions facing the RPC and all the revolutionary elements in the Socialist party. Only that faction which knows where it is going will be able to lead the revolutionary socialist workers and the youth behind it. We, on our part, watch the Left movement in the SP with the greatest interest and sympathy and aspire to aid it. The best way to do that is to tell the truth and combine loyal cooperation with frank criticism.

In any case, whatever path the different existing factions in the SP take, we can be reasonably sure that a large detachment of the new Communist party, perhaps its most important detachment numerically, will come out of the ranks of the SP. For the truly revolutionary elements in the SP, and the youth in the first place, there is only one program, one banner: the program and banner of the Fourth International.

Last updated on: 18.6.2006