Paul Temple

The War Issue Before
the Socialist Party Convention

(May 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 20, 18 May 1942, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Socialist Party of America is getting ready to hold a national convention at the end of this month in order to define its position on America and the war. An intense discussion is now in full swing in its ranks and in the ranks of the Young Socialists; and a large proportion, perhaps a majority, of the latter support the left wing of the organization in what they consider to be the anti-war position as opposed to the right wing pro-war line of Norman Thomas and the party leadership.

This crisis in the SP was precipitated by the first bomb that fell on Pearl Harbor. Up to that time the Thomasites had more or less described the war as imperialist on both sides and therefore undeserving of workers’ support on either side of the lines, Even so, the only ACTION to which this opinion had led it was – collaboration with those “anti-war” fighters, Wheeler, Lindbergh and Coughlin’s mouthpieces in the fascist-tainted America First Committee. But at least, its socialist criticism of the imperialist nature of the war was something, even in those comparatively peaceful times.

But with the entrance of its OWN capitalist government into the World War, the “objective situation” changed, as Thomas explained. And so the national executive committee of the SP met at the beginning of this year and adopted a resolution by a vote of 8 to 5, with the minority voting in favor of an amendment which stated that “we cannot give our political support to any war conducted for imperialist aims.”

Deliberate Ambiguity

The resolution is entirely characteristic of the politics of Norman Thomas’ party – deliberately ambiguous and cowardly, but for all that, clearly a full jump onto the bandwagon of the pro-war parade. Its ambiguity apparently has served the purpose for which it was intended: to enable the socialist left wingers to claim, as some of them do, that the trouble with the resolution is merely that it “doesn’t take a position” on the war. That, it would seem, is why left wing leader Lillian Symes presented her position as an amendment rather than as a direct counterposing of the socialist anti-war position to the NEC’s social-patriotism.

It is true that the resolution carefully avoids making a definite statement precisely on the main issues of the war: Is it an imperialist war like the first world conflict, or is it really a war for democracy or any other kind of just war? Does the SP oppose this war, which it says it predicted would result from Roosevelt’s policy, or does the Act of Congress legislate for its opinion also?

For twenty-five years members of the SP have swelled their chests in pride pointing to the famous St. Louis resolution adopted by the party on the outbreak of war in April, 1917. That resolution was forthright enough: “Unalterable opposition to the war just declared ... call upon the workers of all countries to refuse support to their governments in their wars ... imperialistic ... It is not a war to advance the cause of democracy in Europe ...” In fact, the St. Louis declaration was so good it is a pity that the party made no attempt to carry it out in practice even then, but instead backwatered as the war hysteria mounted.

But, a sign of the times: where TODAY the working class as a whole is enormously more suspicious and less enthusiastic about the prosecution of this war, the SP now adopts a declaration which only with the greatest difficulty can be construed to hint even at the fact that the war is rooted in the very existence of the capitalist system of production for profit!

Liebknecht – Upside Down

But it is not true that the resolution of the SP does not take a position, in spite of its cowardliness. Almost every sentence reeks with the social-patriotic spirit of its writers. The vials of wrath are poured upon Japan’s “treacherous attack” upon this country – a view several shades more moralistic and less realistic than that of Dorothy Thompson who only lamented that it had not been the United States that pulled the fast one first. The historic declaration of Liebknecht that the MAIN enemy is here at home is now deliberately stood on its head: it is “the leaders and ruling cliques” of the Axis powers who are “the prime enemies of the working class.” About the only thing that is left of the SP anti-war fulminations of pre-Pearl Harbor days is a nostalgic reference to their now-dead hope that the U.S. could be kept as “an area of sanity and peace” in the midst of the worldwide war – an isolated Shangri-La “in which democracy could be made to work.” How “treacherous” of the Japs to shatter such a dream!

The essential political meaning of the resolution stands out clearly from the verbiage; as was to be expected it is the position of “critical” support to the war, as a war against fascism. It is the position of “the fight on two fronts” – full support to the war effort on the one hand, and criticism of its CONDUCT on the other.

What else does it mean when the resolution proclaims that “We hate their (the Nazis’) cruelty and WILL RESIST THEIR AGGRESSION?” As long as the working class does not have full power, control of the struggle against the Nazis is the exclusive property of the imperialists. The resolution issues a call to the oppressed peoples of Europe “to cooperate in a struggle against the aggressor.” “Cooperate” with whom? With the forces of proletarian revolution or with the de Gaulles? The Axis’ “military power must be destroyed and undermined” so that “the democratic forces ... can achieve a democratic victory.” Of course, says the resolution in its weasly fashion, this will not mean that democracy will “AUTOMATICALLY” triumph – it is only the first step. For “military victory ALONE” is not enough.

The existence of a political line in the statement should be clear enough to the socialist left wing. For victory against the fascist “aggressor”! but watch out for those “certain elements” which do not differ from Hitler in any fundamental (... and who happen to own this country and its government).

Essentially the Thomasites’ line is that of an amendment to Roosevelt’s and Walter Winchell’s, not its socialist opponent. It is the more to be feared if the SP left wing began at the NEC session by making its own position an amendment to an amendment.

What to do? The NEC resolution comes out foursquare – you can hear Norman Thomas’ ringing tones – for socialism. That is the crux of the question. For it is only socialism that means a victory for democracy and the defeat of Hitlerism all over the world – not the mere wish for socialism, but the class struggle for socialism now.

“The day will come,” says the NEC and – take hope! – “perhaps sooner than we now dare to hope, when a peace offensive’ (what! not a SOCIALIST offensive?) “based on this world-wide appeal will accomplish far more than the continuation of this immensely destructive war. THAT DAY HAS NOT YET COME.”

The day of the struggle for socialism, you see, has not yet come. Today is only the day of victory for democracy against fascism. For such people, somehow, the day for socialist struggle never seems to come around – not even when capitalist imperialism is groaning and bleeding in mortal throes.

There is now only the question of the road that the convinced anti-war elements in the party will now follow, and it is to that question that we will turn next week.

Last updated on 15.6.2013