J.R. Johnston

An Exchange on the Socialist
Attitude to the Bilbo Problem

A Reply for the Editors

(24 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 12, 24 March 1947, p. 6.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Comrade Goldman’s criticism of the editorial on Bilbo in the Labor Action of January 13 loses sight of the function of the revolutionary party which is to organize and to educate the working class on the issues of the day. He claims that the editorial did not point out clearly enough the undemocratic character of Bilbo’s election. The editorial states clearly enough: “Suppose Bilbo didn’t have cancer, what would they have done? And if they’re interested in barring Senators who prevent Negroes from voting, we can provide them with a long list of Southern Senators who, if not as personally nauseating as Bilbo, are equally determined to keep the Negro in chains.”

But the editorial goes further. Far from neglecting the point, it states: “A democratic procedure would have been first to seat him and then to bring him up on trial for expulsion on the ground that he violated democratic rights of Negroes.”

Therefore we cannot agree with Comrade Goldman that the editorial is weak on this particular point. We do not mean to say that it might not have been stated more vigorously but inasmuch as the whole editorial was based upon the refusal of the Republicans to face an exposure of Jim Crow in the South and Bilbo’s participation in it, we fail to see that an excessive emphasis on this particular point would have altered the basic political analysis which the editorial tried, and in our opinion, succeeded in bringing forward.

The editorial, for us, is not at all to be considered as an isolated statement, despite its title of Balance Sheet. There are few political questions of the day before the public on which Labor Action has been so consistent, so vigorous and so comprehensive as in its mobilization of working class opinion and action against Bilbo and everything that he stands for. Nor was our propaganda and agitation of a general kind. We aimed in all parts of the paper at the driving of Bilbo out of Congress by the organized action of the working class and the masses of the Negro people.

Goldman’s Main Point

The main point of Comrade Goldman’s criticism is of the indication of our opposition to the particular means whereby Bilbo was kept out of Congress. Comrade Goldman urges that Senate rules require only a majority to keep Bilbo out of the Senate whereas to expel him after he has been seated required a two-thirds vote. Inasmuch as a two-thirds majority could not be mustered, to ensure his expulsion, therefore we should have joined those wjio supported the Senate in keeping Bilbo from taking his seat.

First of all, if Bilbo had taken his seat and then been tried, the resulting exposure of Bilbo and the whole Senate would have been of first class political importance. In our opinion it is a valid contention that this would have transcended the mere keeping of Bilbo from taking his seat. Others besides Bilbo might have lost their seats or have been indelibly smeared. This is precisely what the Republicans wanted to avoid. The exposure that they tried to avoid is the particular exposure that we as revolutionaries should have tried to achieve. From start to finish our main concern is not the punishment of this or that particular political scoundrel of bourgeois society but the revolutionary education of the masses by the exposure of the entire system. And when this exposure can take place by means of mutual recriminations of contending parties on so conspicuous an arena as the legislative councils of the country, then this opportunity is not to be lightly dismissed as Comrade Goldman dismisses it under the heading that we should do nothing which would “practically assure” Bilbo a seat in the Senate.

Furthermore, we cannot accept Comrade Goldman’s confidence that under such conditions Bilbo was certain to keep his seat. This seems to us to be placing much too great a reliance upon the mere counting of votes. It seems to us to pay too little to what was undoubtedly the fact, that the Senate had come to the conclusion that in its own defense and its own reputation it was impossible to continue to keep Bilbo in face of the rising wrath of a large proportion of the population.

Issue of the Precedent

The second point is in regard to the precedent set for barring radicals or Socialists in the future by the same methods which were used in the case of Bilbo. Comrade Goldman says gorrectly that Socialists or radicals would be barred for totally different reasons. Obviously. But that would not alter the fact that they would be barred. And a socialist would be barred precisely to prevent him being able to state in the Senate – the reasons that the bourgeoisie had trumped up to prevent him taking his seat. Goldman seems to think that a statement to the press is sufficient presentation of a defense. We would not place much reliance on a presentation of the defense of a radical or a socialist in the bourgeois press.

The editorial was warning the workers of a counter-revolutionary trick of the bourgeoisie well known to our. movement. Whenever public, opinion or its own maneuvers compel the’ bourgeois to take steps against obviously reactionary encroachments on bourgeois democracy, it always does so in a manner that gives it a weapon to strike against its real enemy, the militant working class. The revolutionary movement, therefore, from long experience has learned that while mobilizing, the proletariat to use parliamentary procedures, as far as convenient, against the enemy, never to join in the hue and cry to such an extent as to lose sight of the weapons which, while being forged against a particular individual or organization, may ultimately be used against the proletariat. It is precisely this that the editorial tried to do and in our opinion rightly.

We did our share in the organization of the general campaign against Bilbo. But is our special function, ours and ours alone, to warn the working class against the bourgeois method of misusing the steps which public opinion has forced upon it. Against all this Comrade Goldman, while admitting some possible validity, insists that we should have done everything in our power to keep Bilbo from getting a seat in the Senate.

Revolutionary Policy

We think we can sum up the whole by stating that while we should do everything in our power to keep Bilbo from getting a seat in the Senate, in this as in every other political struggle, we are responsible not only for the immediate but the ultimate aims of the working class and its allies, in this case, the masses of the Negroes.

Our whole record shows that we were in the vanguard of the struggle to get Bilbo out of the Senate. But we could, not subordinate our conceptions, and in our opinion, our valid conceptions, of revolutionary policy, to an immediate aim, however urgent and however possible. To do that in our opinion would have been an abdication of our function, which as we have said above, we alone can perform.

We are confident that although they might not agree with us, the Negroes and the radicals who follow opr position and activities on the Negro question and particularly on Bilboism Would not for one moment look upon this as anything else but What we intended it to be, a warning not to lose sight of the general interests of the struggle in the heat of a particular goal.

Last updated on 6 January 2022