New International, August 1935


James P. Cannon

At the Crossroads in the Socialist Party

(August 1935)

Source: New International, Vol.2 No.5, August 1935, pp.151-153.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

THE DECISIONS of the July meeting of the National Executive Committee of the Socialist party in New York throw a revealing light on the road this party is traveling and also provide an instructive political lesson for the revolutionary elements in the party.

The trend of the NEC toward the Right had been indicated at the Boston meeting eight months ago, and again at Buffalo, as we pointed out in our comments at that time. This appraisal was hotly disputed, especially by those who had so recently hailed the SP as “the party of revolutionary unity”. But now, after the New York meeting of the NEC the predominance of the Right wing in the internal struggle can hardly be contested. The Socialist Call admits that “the action of the NEC is a turn to the Right”. The Call only neglected to add: It was also a crushing blow to the strategy of substituting organization combinations for principled struggle.

The NEC meeting revolved entirely around the struggle against Socialist party members who so far forget themselves as to advocate “abandonment of [bourgeois] democracy”. As a touch of irony, the same people who had gained support of the radical socialists by denouncing this same democracy as bogus in the Detroit Declaration, appended a proscription against the use of “deceitful tactics even as a means to a worthy end”. Reformism in its crassest form had a field day.

The bizarre combination of Leftists, Centrists, pacifists and reformists which had carried the Detroit convention against the Old Guard fell apart as we had long ago foretold, and those radicals in the party who had relied on this combination were left high and dry.

It is to be expected that a heresy hunt against revolutionary elements in the party will follow the NEC decisions. This is foreshadowed by the refusal to reinstate the five members expelled at Buffalo. Indeed, such a reactionary crusade in the party is the only logical outcome of the position taken. In effect, the NEC has revised the Detroit Declaration and, having thereby usurped the functions of the next convention, will seek to make its position good by suppressing or getting rid of their revolutionary opponents before the convention. The worshippers of bourgeois “democracy” have never had a very high regard for democracy in a workers’ organization anyway.

The political reconciliation of Thomas and Hoan with the New York Old Guard does not solve the crisis nor clear the way for “harmony” in the Socialist Party as the New Leader jubilantly proclaims. An underlying political harmony between these reformists always existed; their organization struggle only confused and distorted the real conflict of tendencies in the party which arises from profound causes. The relation of forces between these tendencies – petty-bourgeois reformist and proletarian revolutionary-, is not changed basically by the decisions of the NEC On the contrary, the unification of the reformists, some of whom were mistakenly regarded as representatives or friends of the proletarian tendency, is bound to aid the process of differentiation in the party on political lines and to improve the conditions for a genuine Left wing to take shape on a programmatic basis.

There is undoubtedly a strong impulse in sections of the party rank and file toward revolutionary socialism. It arose not at all from the radical gestures of Thomas, Hoan and the so-called “Militants”, but from the influence exerted by great events and developments upon the minds of many socialists. In the past two years they have seen the strongest party of social democracy surrender to Fascism in Germany without a sign of resistance. In Austria and Spain they have seen that even an armed struggle, organized at the last moment without previous political and technical preparation, also led to crushing defeat despite the heroism of the socialist workers. In this country the devastation wrought by the crisis has not passed over the socialist workers without effect. In addition, fresh forces, repelled by Stalinism, have come into the party to the number of several thousand in search of expression from their profound and bitter antagonism to the existing state of affairs. And then the youth, always a barometer, have reacted with great sensitivity to these national and international occurrences and have moved far to the Left in the recent period.

Such are the real elements of the Socialist party crisis. The net result is an unclear but nevertheless genuine revolutionary impulse in the party ranks. The SP is caught in the general crisis of the international labor movement. The “peace pact” of the NEC and the New York reactionaries cannot dispose of it any more than the sham battle between them has truly reflected the party struggles.

As a result of the New York decisions of the NEC, the party crisis will very likely enter a new stage. The harmonizing of the groups at the top will be accompanied by an increased fermentation in the ranks. Whether this results in the demoralization of the Left forces or the strengthening of their morale depends directly on the degree of clarification that is brought into their ranks. The questions of program and leadership, in other words, consciousness, will now play the determining role in the further evolution of the Left wing.

The deal of the NEC with the New York Old Guard came as a great shock to the Centrist wiseacres, misnamed “Militants”, who publish the Socialist Call. Up to the end they staked everything on the flimsy organization combination rigged up at the Detroit convention and suppressed the struggle over the principle issues which would have enabled a Left wing movement to take shape and to harden itself in struggle. Unfortunately, too many party members, who really desire a revolutionary policy, acquiesced in this unprincipled comedy. The result was to be foreseen.

Fundamentally the political line of Thomas and Hoan is the same as that of the Old Guard. The differences between them are secondary, whereas the differences between all the reformists and the revolutionary tendency are fundamental. The “Militants” tried to bridge over this contradiction by personal combinations and horse-trades. This aided, and finally ensured, the victory of the Old Guard which never concealed its reactionary program and fought for it militantly.

The “Militants” styled themselves “revolutionary socialists” but their paper, the Socialist Call, since its inception has not yet revealed the reasons for their claim to this title. The paper stood for “socialism in general” and made no criticism of the reactionary, social-patriotic line of the New Leader. They hoped to gain an organization victory over the stiff-necked Old Guard without bringing forward any fundamental political grounds for such a victory and without giving any clear indication of what it would mean in political terms. They did not represent the indubitable sentiment for revolutionary socialism in the ranks of their supporters ; they only exploited it. By their whole course they did not aid but thwarted the development of a revolutionary grouping on a principled basis.

Not the least culpable of this shabby school of politicians who impede the revolutionary development of the Left socialists are the reformed communists, who, having discovered the dubious merits of the Socialist party late in life, are all the more zealous in their devotion to it and make of it an organization fetish. Proclaiming the SP as “the party of revolutionary unity” – a rather hollow-sounding slogan especially since the New York meeting of the NEC – they forbid the revolutionary forces to operate in any other organization channel and inspire the Left socialists with an unholy dread of a split which would leave them with no organization except the one they build in struggle and nothing to rely on but their own strength. Thus they introduce additional elements of caution and diplomacy into a movement which can come to revolutionary fruition only by a bold and independent policy and a readiness, without shifting or dodging, to face the organizational conclusions of their political positions every time.

Not content with cultivating the decidedly Utopian idea that the program of revolutionary socialism can prevail in the SP, and must not under any circumstances find another organization medium, Zam even advanced the consoling theory in an article in the Modern Monthly that the victory of the Left wing is assured – by some sort of automatic process, as it were. Where is this law written? It has not been operative in the European parties of the Second International, and it certainly has not been verified by the recent developments in the SP.

In truth this theory of the automatic process has no standing whatever either in revolutionary theory or experience. Men make history, even if not out of the whole cloth, and there is no automatic process to take care of it for them. This holds good also in that crucially important aspect of current history, the revolutionary development of the socialist workers. It will not happen by itself, and it is by no means assured. Without discussing the fantastic idea that a Left wing can gain the majority in the SP and transform the party into a revolutionary organization – for that appears to us to be completely excluded by every consideration of political reality – it can be asserted that the Left forces in the Socialist party will not progress and develop their revolutionary potentialities, they will not even avoid a regression into reformism, or Stalinism, or into political indifference, without a conscious and deliberate struggle under the banner of a clearly-defined program. The policy of muffling programmatic issues and letting things take their course is guaranteed to bring defeat and disintegration.

Look at the fruits of this policy thirteen months after the Detroit convention which was hailed so widely as a revolutionary turn to the Left. The anti-Old Guard majority of the NEC is broken up and turned into a new majority under the political hegemony of the Old Guard; the expulsion of the five Left wing members at Buffalo is confirmed by reference back to the body which expelled them; and the advocacy of all methods except those sanctioned by bourgeois democracy is made incompatible with party membership – an anti-revolutionary declaration in every sense of the word. This is what the policy of the “Militants” has led to in the brief space of one year which was rich in objective possibilities for revolutionary advancement.

The collapse of the “Militants’” strategy at the NEC meeting is not a defeat for the revolutionary forces; properly understood, it is a certain advantage to them in that it discredits the asinine policy of speculation on the support of individual reformists, concentration on organization questions, hushing up principle issues and – crowning absurdity – refraining from “factionalism” against ruthless opponents who are blazing away with all the weapons of factional warfare.

The futility of the hollow organization struggle conducted by the “Militants” ought to be obvious now to all. With the solidification of the Right wing, buttressed now on the party organizations having more or less mass influence – New York, Bridgeport, Reading and Milwaukee – and supported by Norman Thomas, the most popular figure in the party, it ought to be clear that the subordination of the struggle for principle aims to organization manoeuvres is a fool’s game for the Left wing. The bad results of this sort of politics can serve a useful purpose, however, if the Left elements learn from the experience to stand on their own feet, that is, on their own program, and find leaders who are able to fight for it.

The potential forces of a revolutionary Left wing in the Socialist party are considerable – in the YPSL, the Revolutionary Policy Publication Association and in the ranks of the “Militants” – but they are still far from having a clearly defined program, and they are not united among themselves. A serious grouping committed to the principles of revolutionary Marxism applied to the present epoch has yet to make its appearance. But the conditions for the emergence of such a group which alone can wage a real struggle against the reformists and their Centrist assistants, are more favorable than before. The fever of combinationist politics which took possession of the RPPA as well as the “Militants” at the Detroit convention, arrested the lively movement for programmatic clarification which marked the party life before that time. The recent events will provide a strong impulse for a renewal of this ideological work. In fact, a new beginning along this line was to be noticed even before the NEC meeting. The programmatic statement issued by an influential group of New York Yipsels and the theoretical discussions in the magazine of the RPPA are important symptoms of this trend.

The statement of the New York youth represents a sharp break with the positions of social reformism on the key questions of the state and the struggle for power but refrains from taking a position on the questions of internationalism and war – the determining questions of the day on which political positions are concretely tested. The abstract Marxian formulations on the state and the struggle for power have not prevented Stalinism from betraying the international proletariat and reverting to the social-patriotic position of the reformists. By failing to express themselves on these concrete questions the Yipsels who signed the latest statement, by implication at least, adopt the standpoint of Stalinism. Carried to its conclusion that is not a real break with social reformism but, in ultimate practice, will lead to a reconciliation with it.

The errors of the RPPA group belong to the same category, except that in this case the approach to Stalinism (in the Lovestoneistic version) has been more direct and systematic. Nevertheless, the RPPA, despite its weakness and its programmatic errors can be a serious factor in the development of a socialist Left wing precisely because it concerns itself with the discussion of program questions and has stood by its positions under the reactionary assault launched against it at Buffalo. For the building of a revolutionary movement one declaration of principle, firmly maintained, is worth more than a hundred of the diplomatic manoeuvres and organization horse-trades which constitute the political method of the leaders of the “Militants”.

What the RPPA requires above all now is a reconsideration of its program in the light of the Stalin-Laval statement and the manifest degeneration of the Communist International to the standpoint of social-patriotic betrayal, signalized by the support of this perfidious document. Only on that condition can the RPPA become a force for revolutionary progress in the socialist ranks.

What is needed as a starting point for a real development of the Left wing is a re-examination now of all questions by the revolutionary elements, the burgeoning of political discussion in their ranks and the subordination of organization questions in all respects to political aims. The Left movement can consolidate itself and go forward only on the basis of great principles and the unremitting struggle for them under all conditions and despite all consequences. This is the rule of revolutionary politics laid down by all the great teachers. The latest experiences in the Socialist party confirms its wisdom once again.

We are convinced that a serious preoccupation with the great principle questions and a frank discussion of them will bring the Left socialists and Yipsels closer to the program of the Workers party and, eventually, to cooperation with us in a single party. In common with the world movement for the Fourth International we have given precise answers to the most important political questions of our time. We believe the answers are correct. Let the Left socialists consider our program and present their criticisms. We are ready and willing to discuss these matters at any time.

Up till now this programmatic discussion has been evaded by the leaders of the “Militants” on the ground that the WP is a small organization of “sectarians”, whereas they, much wiser and more practical, are concerned with the masses. They have sought to balance off their political weakness by numerical strength, which, as the results of the NEC meeting show, has been largely fictitious in their case. When it is considered that the Detroit Declaration of Principles was adopted only by a bare majority in the party referendum, and that the most influential leaders who supported it have reconciled themselves with the Old Guard, it is clear that the “Militants”, together with all the Left groupings, cannot boast of a very large membership.

More than that, the SP as a whole has been declining in membership, not growing, is only a propaganda organization and, outside of a few centers like Milwaukee, Reading and Bridgeport where mass influence is exerted on the basis of municipal reformism, not a very large propaganda organization at that. Neither the “Militants” nor any other section of the SP have a valid right to wave aside questions of program and talk about “masses”.

The American masses are yet to be awakened to political life. The political organization of even the most militant elements is still, for the most part, unaccomplished. If one has in mind to organize them for revolutionary aims and, through them, to lead the wider masses toward revolutionary struggle, one thing is certain: these aims must be clearly stated and consistently advocated under all circumstances.

Let the Left socialists who have experimented with other schemes for quick success, with such unfortunate results, now try this simple prescription. Let them work out a consistent revolutionary program and then seriously try to make it prevail in the Socialist party. We have taken a different road, but nevertheless we will help such a movement of the Left socialists in every way we can. We have every reason to do so, for if our goal is the same we must eventually come together in a common organization.

In our opinion this organization will not be the Socialist party but a completely independent movement of which the Workers Party represents the fundamental nucleus. Our reasons for taking the independent path have only been strengthened by the recent developments in the SP. We have no doubt that further experience of the revolutionary socialists will bring them to the same conclusion.

Last updated on: 18.6.2006