Happy Birthday, Arne Swabeck

James P. Cannon

Source: The Militant, September 21, 1953.
Published in Building the Revolutionary Party, © Resistance Books 1997 Published by Resistance Books 23 Abercrombie St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Permission for on-line publication provided by Resistance Books for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.
Arne Swabeck (1890-1986), a Danish immigrant, was a leader of the US Communist Party from its inception and later of the Trotskyist movement. He was a longtime close collaborator of Cannon. (He is referred to as "Ben Webster" in The History of American Trotskyism. In the 1960s he became a supporter of Maoism—which he identified with revolutionary Marxism—and was expelled from the SWP for violations of discipline in 1967. [note by Resistance Books.] Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack

Birthday parties in ordinary life are pretty much the same, but this gathering in honor of Arne Swabeck is different, a sort of upside-down birthday party.

For most people a birthday is a good excuse to lay off and eat cake and let others do the work. It was characteristic of Arne to book himself for an educational lecture at a branch meeting on his birthday, so that the celebration had to be held up until he finished his party chores.

This birthday party is different in another respect, too. Usually friends assemble to present gifts to one who has passed another milestone, the implication being that he needs something to help him up the hill that gets a little steeper every year. Here the birthday celebrant is the giver and the assembled guests, present in person or in spirit—all his party comrades throughout the country and throughout the world—are the grateful beneficiaries.

What we offer him tonight, in the way of trinkets and mementos, are not so much for his benefit as for our own. They are intended not as material gifts to sustain him, but rather as receipts, as acknowledgments of all that he has given to us, to help us, to instruct us by his teachings, and above all to inspire us by his example, and thus to sustain us in the long fight for socialism to which our lives, like his, are committed.

This is a gathering of friends. The word “friend” is one of the biggest words ever spoken, but it is often used too lightly. Friendship formed in fair weather is an unknown quantity. It takes the test of adversity to measure its true value.

We used to have a saying in the old IWW, that you never know a man until you have been in jail with him, or broke and on the bum with him. That was just another way of saying that you can’t really tell what a man is made of until you see how he conducts himself when the road gets rough, when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune fly at him from all directions.

Such were the conditions under which I first got acquainted with Arne Swabeck 32 years ago at an underground convention of the Communist Party. We met as comrades of a persecuted band at a rough spot in the road. We have travelled together ever since, always sticking together, with our eyes on the goal ahead, no matter who else might falter and fall by the wayside. In the course of the long journey we became friends.

The road we have travelled together has had many twists and turns; we have seen and experienced many things, and the goal we saw 32 years ago is clearer than ever in our vision; but we haven’t found a smooth road yet. They don’t run that way this side of socialism.

The firmest bond of sustained personal association is allegiance to common ideas and ideals. That is what makes the difference between someone you know and someone you can depend on in hard and heavy struggle. That is the iron bond which unites Arne Swabeck with those who celebrate his triumphant birthday tonight.

It has united some of us with him over the long stretch since the pioneer days of American communism; and this association, in turn, has maintained the unbroken continuity of the movement, its tradition and its leadership. This allegiance to common ideas and ideals unites the old guard with the party youth—the leaders of tomorrow.

Arne Swabeck has always believed in this primacy of ideas and taught others to believe it. He took Marxist theory seriously, studied it attentively, and taught it to others. That has been his chief service to the party, and especially to the younger generations of the Chicago branch, who have learned from him and who gratefully acknowledge their indebtedness at this birthday gathering tonight.

But the lesson would be barren without its correlative. Our theory is a guide to action, not only for the party but for each individual member. It is only by action that one can give valid testimony to his theoretical convictions. Faith without works is dead. The true revolutionist lives and acts the way he thinks and talks.

Here, too, Arne Swabeck has set us the perfect example. He has taught us, by the consistent example of his entire life, what it really means to be a socialist, not only in theory, but also in practice; not only in words but in deeds.

The true art of being a socialist consists not merely in recognizing the trend of social evolution from capitalism to socialism, and striving to help it along and hasten on the day. It consists not merely in the prophetic vision that life will be better and fairer under socialism; that human nature, crippled and deformed in the class society, will assert itself and change for the better; and that people in the socialist society will be different and better.

The true art of being a socialist consists in anticipating the socialist future; in not waiting for its actual realization, but in striving, here and now, insofar as the circumstances of class society permit, to live like a socialist; to live under capitalism according to the higher standards of the socialist future.

The comrade whom we honor tonight has helped to teach us this art of being a socialist by the method of the good teachers who teach by example: by living a socialist life himself.

His contributions and achievements in many fields of work have been gratefully acknowledged here tonight. But his greatest achievement of all, that which we honor above all, is the simple fact of his consistent socialist life—not just on special occasions, but every day in the week and twice on Sunday.

And that is the main reason he has turned out such good pupils, who in turn have become teachers, here and in other sections of the party. For Arne has taught not only from the books, important as that is, but also from life, by the example of his own life.

I understand that the Chicago branch has decided to demand less active work from Arne in the future and give him more time for writing. You can afford to do that now, precisely because he has done his work as a leader well—by the highest socialist standards, not as an individual performer, crowding others from the stage, but above all as a teacher, teaching and inspiring others by precept and example.

Those who have been so taught and so inspired—and that includes every one of us—will be well able to take care of things if Arne obeys the command of the branch to ease up his strenuous activity a bit. This is not an underestimation of his leadership, but the highest possible compliment to it; for the best socialist leaders are those who teach and inspire others, and prepare them to take their place.

If the leaders do this, as Arne Swabeck has done so well, and still stick around to lend a hand once in a while, it is all the better. The comrades of Local Chicago are doubly fortunate in this respect. They have the benefit of his past teaching and example—and still have Arne, too. Thus equipped, they can confidently face their great future.

In toasting Arne Swabeck, and all that he stands for, they are saluting their future victory.