Max Shachtman


Right Face in the Socialist Party

(December 1934

From New International, Vol.1 No.5, December 1934, pp.131-134.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“WHILE one may count upon the vertebral firmness of the Right wing,” we wrote in our last issue about the situation in the socialist party, “the same cannot be said of its opponents. Properly speaking, the question is not so much ‘Will the Right wing split?’ as it is ‘Will the Militants retreat before the Right wing threat of split?’”

The Boston meeting of the National Executive Committee of the socialist party has replied with a thumping affirmative to the latter question, in exactly the manner we indicated last month. The decisions made at Boston not only register a victory for the Right wing all along the line, but mark a decisive turn-about-face for the party. The swing to the Left has been brought to an abrupt halt and given way to an equally unmistakable swing to the Right.

The Detroit convention was the culminating point of the Leftward development in the socialist party. The explosion of the prosperity myth in the United States by the unrelieved crisis, the succession of strike waves, helped to undermine the position of traditional reformism in the party. The catastrophes produced by classic social democratic policies in Europe also impelled thousands to reconsider the fundamental questions of the movement and to conclude that a thorough revision was needed. The influx of new elements, including many radical working class forces, served to give the Leftward current greater bulk and speed. The shrewder sections of the party officialdom, could not afford the complete contempt for events and popular moods that characterizes the extreme Right wing whose position is assured by the institutions it bureaucratically controls. They saw the need of mixing a harmless dash or two of scarlet into the party’s colors so as to make them more attractive to those restless elements seeking a revolutionary party of action.

This singular combination of forces operated to inflict the first serious defeat suffered by the Right wing of the socialist party since 1919. A new declaration of principles was adopted which, while it did not meet any of the requirements of a Marxian document, was nevertheless enough of a departure from the straitlaced reformism of yesterday to provoke angry screams from the Right wing statesmen who promptly predicted eternal perdition for the party if the document was ever ratified. Worst of all for the Right wing was the election to the National Executive Committee of the “Militant” slate of candidates.

Especially after the declaration of principles was endorsed in party referendum, and the Right wing launched an ominous crusade against the usurping infidels, a growing chorus of voices was raised to proclaim that the socialist party was now definitely on the high road to becoming the revolutionary working class party in the United States, and that in a very brief period of time.

In the first place, however, a genuine Left wing did not exist. In its stead was to be found one of the most motley collections of heterogeneous elements that ever composed a convention majority or took over the leadership of a party. The majority which dominated the Detroit convention and carried the declaration of principles on the floor and in the referendum, included conservative labor bureaucrats like James Graham; Right wing municipal politicians like Daniel Hoan who sided with the “Militants” because the practical politicians in Wisconsin chafed under the party domination of the “orthodox” and “un-American” (Yes!) New Yorkers; astute Centrists like Krueger and Sullivan who consciously advocate greater (but not too great) radicalism in the party so as to prevent a flow to communism; Norman Thomas, who is a radical in the French sense of the term, that is, a liberal in the American sense of the term; real militants who genuinely sought a revolutionary program but who were hampered by confusion and general lack of development; supporters of the Revolutionary Policy Committee who, under Lovestone’s guidance, executed the grand manoeuvre of holding the stirrup-cups for Krueger in exchange for one seat on the NEC; plus a variety of odds and ends who defy political description.

The first card of the Right wing in its campaign to regain power was not a split, but the threat of a split. Contrary to all the rules of Hoyle. but in harmony with the relationship of forces, this one card has taken all the tricks up to now. With this single card, the Right wing came to the Boston meeting, after several months-of systematic slugging in the party ranks, pressed the “Militant” leaders right into the corner and extorted from them one concession after another – to such a point, indeed, that the distinction between Thomas and Waldman is now more theoretical than practical.

It is true that the Right wing did not get everything it formally demanded. But then again, it did not expect to get that much. Here too, however, it showed itself vastly superior to its “Militant” opponents – if one may still use the word. It very impudently demanded, for instance, a constitutional amendment providing that the declaration of principles be inoperative in those states where the party had voted against it. It demanded that a number of its partisans be added to the National Executive Committee by the method of cooptation. It demanded a number of other things which it had no reason at all to believe would be granted it. But these demands were all part of the aggressive strategy of the Right wing, one element of which was to demand 150% in order finally to get 100%. This tactic of over-bidding on one’s hand is, to be sure, a tactic of bluff. But in dealing with timid people and cowards, bluff is often highly effective and, one is almost tempted to say, justified. At all events, it worked wonders in Boston.

The Right wing came to Boston in full force and in many disguises: delegations from the New York Committee, from the “Socialist Unity Conference”, from the “Interstate Conference”, from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, and from wherever else the Right wing could scare up some representatives who would come to Boston to scare the NEC. The sessions of the latter were a field day for the Right wing. On five distinct points, the Right wing scored a victory.

  1. The united front with the communist party or the “splinter groups” was pigeon-holed.
  2. The NEC opened the way for a drastic revision of the declaration of principles.
  3. The Revolutionary Policy Committee was condemned and an investigating committee established to track it down.
  4. A committee was established to investigate the Oklahoma party organization’s misconduct, an investigation demanded by Oneal and the Right wing primarily because the state voted 7 to 1 for the “Militants”.
  5. The “Militants” had to undergo the mortifying experience of having one of their partisans resign from the NEC under fire because this particular “Militant” leader, Dr. M. Shadid of Oklahoma, could not distinguish between Upton Sinclair, whom he congratulated by telegraph, and the socialist party.

The complete right-about-face on the question of the united front with communists is easily one of the shabbiest capitulations of recent times. Only a few weeks ago, the “Militant” leadership, headed by Norman Thomas, voted exactly the other way. The records of the NEC, as late as October of this year, show that “James Oneal moved that negotiations with Communist organizations should not be undertaken by the NEC Motion lost by vote of seven to four. Favoring the motion were Graham, Hoan, Hoopes and Oneal. Opposed, Krzycki, Daniel, Hapgood, Krueger, Shadid, Thomas and Coolidge”. With no change in the objective situation, the Boston meeting of the NEC reversed itself completely on the question. The Hapgood motion which was unequivocally for the united front, received only the support of Daniel, an RPC man, whereas eight voted against. The Graham motion, just as unequivocally against the united front, was lost by the tie-vote of Hoan, Hoopes, Coolidge, Graham and Oneal in favor and Thomas, Hapgood, Daniel, Krzycki and Krueger opposed. One representative from each side – Krueger and Hoopes – then retired, and with the blessing of Norman Thomas, brought back the miserable “compromise motion”, which compromises and discredits only those who supported it. The “compromise” gives the Right wing just about 90% of what it wanted.

First, the national party organization is to conduct no negotiations for a united front with the CP or with “the so-called splinter groups” (how tall they talk!) until the next convention. That is, the class struggle and the interests of the American working class must wait two years, until 1936, to be satisfied, just because the “Militant” leaders of the socialist party buckled up under the assault of their Right wing.

Second, even local united fronts on urgent specific issues, are now prohibited. In organized states, a local of the SP must first get the permission of the State Executive Committee; in unorganized states, of the National Executive Committee. This automatically means no united front in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey (which the Right wing has just recaptured), Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, California – that is, in all those states, with the possible exception of Illinois, where the socialist party, and consequently the united front itself, has any significance and importance. As for localities under the direct jurisdiction of the NEC, it is highly doubtful that they will get permission for a united front in view of the frame of mind into which the Right wing has intimidated the “Militants”.

The “compromise” motion was adopted by a vote of 7 to 3, Daniel and Hapgood voting against it because it rejected the united front, and the intransigeant Oneal voting against it because it “permitted” local united fronts. In the course of the discussion on the motion, Thomas expressed his position in such a manner as made his position indistinguishable from that for which, in the past, the socialists have condemned the communists, namely, that they want the united front “only in order to expose us”. The report of the New Leader reads: “Norman Thomas said he wanted to negotiate with the communists only to get the communist party on record, black on white. ‘I believe we want a united front [What a singular way the NEC has of showing it! – S.] and that it is the communists who make it impossible.’” Which means, it appears, that “we” have advocated a united front only in order to prove that it cannot be realized. When did Thomas make the sudden discovery that it is impossible? The resolution of the NEC virtuously declares that

“Before proceeding with any negotiations with the communist party or the so-called splinter groups on the question of united action, the socialist party must be convinced by their actions that such policies and practises, particularly the theory of ‘social-Fascism’, the use of splitting tactics and disruptive methods in the labor organizations, are no longer in use and will not operate to discredit the cause for which united action is proposed.”

We leave aside for the moment the question of which of the “so-called splinter groups” is supposed to be a defender of the theory of social-Fascism and the use of splitting tactics and disruptive methods, in order to ask another question: What has happened between the October meeting of the NEC, at which the Oneal motion to drop united front negotiations was voted down by the Thomas majority, and the December 2 meeting of the NEC, at which a similar motion was carried by the same Thomas majority? We, at least, are aware of no particularly new variation on the theme of social-Fascism advanced by the Stalinist party in these brief five weeks, or of anything out of the ordinary (for Stalinism!) in the realm of splitting tactics and disruptive methods in the same period of time. In order to produce this Thomasian somersault, we ask, just what new thing happened in the camp of Stalinism that wasn’t there several weeks ago? Or just what is new in the objective situation? In all fairness to Mr. Thomas, let us quote at length from his explanatory letter to the New York Times of December 8:

“Since that time [the Milwaukee meeting of the NEC], however, events have not moved auspiciously. The communists here and in other countries, for example Poland, gave new evidence both by word and by deed that they had not abandoned their intention of using the united front as a manoeuvre not only, or perhaps chiefly, to fight Fascism but to destroy the socialist party. At some points they seemed to intensify rather than abate their disruptive tactics in the American labor movement Sentiment in the socialist party was clearly in large majority opposed, therefore, even to negotiations until such time at least as communist tactics might change [the 1936 convention of the SP, perhaps? – S.] and until the party as a whole could pass on this important matter through the regular machinery of the convention. For this reason the NEC at its last meeting definitely ended all talk of united front negotiations with the communist party.”

A marvelous counry – Poland! The Jewish Khazars used her as a land to settle on when they were expelled from Constantinople a thousand years ago; the Mongols used her as a gateway to Hungary; for centuries she was the eastern outpost of true Christendom; her cavalry was used to save Vienna from the last Turkish attack; even the Swedes used her – or rather her later king, John III – to fight against Poland herself; Frederick the Great, Catherine the Second and Maria Theresa of Austria used her for territorial aggrandizement: in turn she gave Kosciusko to the American revolution, Dombrowski to the Paris Commune, Luxemburg to Spartacus, Pilsudski to Austria, and Karl Radek to Stalin; France used her as a vassal state from 1919 onward, and Hitler is now using her in his bloc. But never, never before has long-suffering and innocent Poland been used by anyone as a cover behind which to crawl out of a difficulty created by an internal party dispute, as a bridge between an October pro-united front position and a December anti-united front position!

The feeling of friendship which all liberty-loving persons, from Karl Marx’s time down to the present, have felt for the integrity of Poland, rises in us, too, and prevents us from accepting her as a deus ex machina to help Mr. Thomas out of his unenviable plight. And indeed, there is no need to go abroad, or to import an explanation for the change of front by the socialist NEC. It is to be found right here, and it is a simple one. The Right wing, whom the paladins of the “Militant” group set out a year ago to challenge so recklessly, swooped down in full force, made a few menacing gestures, threatened to split away and deprive the party of its institutions, its wealth and its respectability – and the paladins crumpled up pitifully. The explanation for the change lies in the fact that the “Militant” leaders have a string of gelatine where their spine ought to be and an oil-drenched knee-hinge where a brace ought to be, that is, they have the physical as well as the political characteristics of Centrism.

How else explain the head-over-heels speed with which the December NEC made so many changes in policy? How explain the New Leader report from Boston that “On Sunday, the committee voted to set up a committee to receive suggestions and recommendations in the matters of rendering the declaration of principles satisfactory to all sections of the party”. Surely, not to all sections. Not, for example, to the Revolutionary Policy Committee. Not, for example, to the “Militants” themselves, for as we understood it they wrote it, adopted it in Detroit, and endorsed it in the national referendum. If we may venture a bold guess, the declaration of principles is to be made satisfactory to Mr. Louis Waldman, or Mr. James Oneal, who represent the only remaining section of the party that we know of. Why has it become necessary to satisfy them now, when their feelings in the matter were so impolitely ignored a few months ago? Knowing the integrity and firmness in questions of principle which is so characteristic of the “Militant” spokesmen, we would not even presume to think that their re-awakened sensitiveness to the injured feelings of the Right wing was evoked by the latter’s rude prodding. It is probably attributable, let us say, in the words of Mr. Thomas, to the fact that “events have not moved auspiciously”, and that the Trotskyists in Transylvania “have given new evidence both by word and by deed” that the declaration of principles requires a new rendering.

And the official condemnation of the RPC, and the decision to “investigate” it, which Mr. Thomas insisted upon – how explain that? The latter is reported to have said that he was “shocked beyond words” when parts of the RPC program were read at the Boston meeting. It is difficult to add understanding to the sympathy that is elicited by such a reaction. The RPC has made no particular secret of its point of view. Its program has been public property for months and those ready to be shocked could purchase it any day at the Rand School bookstore. Its position on the fundamental problems, as we thought was generally known inside the SP and out, is that of the communists, deeply discolored by Lovestone. Nor has there ever been much difficulty in establishing its – shall we say, intellectual ? – kinship with the Lovestone group. Evidently, the “Militant” section of the NEC is very slow in learning what is happening under its very nose, and in broad daylight, inside the socialist party. The same perplexing conclusion must be drawn from Mr. Thomas’ speech at the New Jersey state convention banquet, a week after the Boston meeting. Addressing himself anonymously to Francis Henson and Irving Brown, the RPC leaders present as delegates to the convention (New Jersey seems to serve certain “revolutionists” either as a purgatory before entering the heavens of the SP, or as temporary shelter from which, unlike other states, they cannot be expelled to the outer regions), Thomas launched a bitter attack, according to the New Leader account, “holding that there was no room in the party for any who as delegates, officers of the party, etc., acted on orders of any caucus or group within or without the party”. Surely, it was wrong to conceal the fact from Mr. Thomas for such a long time that in all important sections of his party, delegates and officers, including some of his very closest political friends, have been acting on the orders of either the “Militant”, the Right wing, the “Unity”, or the RPC caucuses and groups. In general, it may be said that had the NEC been informed somewhat earlier of what it always knew, it would not now be confronted with the difficulty of explaining away its political contortions and capitulations by the rather obscure assertion that “events have not moved auspiciously”, or that the Lovestoneites in Latvia “have given new evidence both by word and by deed” to prove that all RPC supporters should be expelled, or any other explanation except the one that the “Militant” NEC sank whimperingly to its knees at the first stiff blow dealt it by the Right wing gang.

In his reports to the New Leader, its reporter, W.M. Feigenbaum, calls the Boston sessions “the longest, most exciting, and in many ways the most dramatic meetings of the party’s highest governing body in over fifteen years”. In essence, the time-spacing is correct and significant. Almost exactly fifteen years ago, the socialist party, faced with fundamental problems of the working class movement, split in two, and lost more than half its membership to the communist movement. From that moment began its political and organizational decline and its swing to the Right, interrupted only a couple of years ago. The new radical wing which came to the top in recent times – by far the most woeful the party has ever seen – did not take long to exhaust its radicalism. It has now inaugurated its period of capitulation to the Right wing, of conservatism, and according to present indications, it will even seek to outbid its reformist adversary of yesterday in the zeal with which the Left wing elements and tendencies are to be hounded. To be sure, all this is done under the hallowing cloak of “unity”, which is, as a rule, an excellent thing in the working class movement. “It was felt by everyone present that nothing mattered more than finding some basis of unity and harmony,” writes Feigenbaum. The situation could not be more admirably stated. Nothing matters now except unity between Waldman and Thomas, Krueger and Oneal. Nothing – not even the “Militant” position on the united front (thrown overboard), on the declaration of principles (on the rail and ready for the last shove), on the fight against reformism (thrown overboard), on the democratic right of expression for Left wing opinions (thrown overboard). Unity with Waldman, Oneal, Cahan and Lee is always possible, any time of the day or night, on such a basis, and that is the unity which is being established.

Here are some of the new signs of the times in the SP:

In Missouri, which voted six to one for the declaration of principles, the State Executive Committee has just defeated a motion to “consider a united front with the CP on specific issues”. At the same time it adopted a motion to “support any consolation with Farmer-Labor, Sinclair Epic, Progressive and other parties only if the principles and aims of socialism are not compromised”. The picture of such a consolidation is really too excruciating to contemplate.

The last meeting of the California State Executive Committee had before if two resolutions, one asking that the declaration of principles be revised by the NEC and another proposing that California withdraw from the party. After the jabberwocky of the “Militants”, the blunt English of the Right wing is like a cooling draught.

The post-Boston state convention in New Jersey, a state in which the Detroit declaration got 57% of the vote, defeated a motion to reaffirm the declaration and make loyalty to it the first test. By a clever Right wing motion, it prohibited the incoming state committee from taking any united front actions or from using the state paper, New View, for “factional” purposes, thus smashing another Left wing white hope.

The post-Boston Philadelphia city convention of the party urged the NEC not to engage in any united front activity with communists, and called upon the national and state committees to expel members or supporters of the RPC. The immediate result of this resolution was that nine local leaders of the Revolutionary Policy Committee, including Felix, Hanson, van Gelder, Lee and Riemensnyder, resigned from that body.

In New York City, the “Militants” and the Right wing are now working in tender solidarity. The last meeting of the local Central Committee “was the most peaceful held in New York in many moons ... [it] ... unanimously accepted the report of a special executive meeting which had elected a ‘harmony committee’ of five consisting of Alex Kahn, Emil Bromberg, Issay Minkoff, Jack Altman and Max Delson”. At the same meeting, “action was taken – in the appointment of a ‘harmony committee’ – which bids fair to begin a new era”. A new era, indeed!

What the new era will look like, beginning with New York, is visible from the decisions of the State Executive Committee. All party and YPSL branches are strictly forbidden to enter united fronts with the CP “or any of the communist splinter parties or groups”. In addition, the Committee has formally launched the first expulsion drive – not for violations of party discipline, but for political opinions – that the SP has known since 1919! “The State Committee voted unanimously to condemn all organized factions in the party and to prohibit party officials and delegates to be bound by instructions emanating from factions and caucuses. The SC also condemned the so-called RPC and ordered, the expulsion from the party of all members belonging to that organisation or holding views of that faction condemned in the resolution of the NEC.” (New Leader, December 15, 1934. My emphasis. – S.)

“Or holding views”! – that’s as good as the Stalinist bureaucracy any day. In the words of a noted attorney-at-law, Albert Goldman, who recently announced his conversion from communism to socialism in a speech delivered at a Chicago SP branch forum: “A party that demands of its intelligent members not revolutionary discipline but silence on the pain of expulsion, is not a Marxian party but a caricature of such a party and represents a grave danger to the revolutionary movement.” His legal skill is already urgently required to combat this grave danger, for his Marxian party in New York has just brought up several party and YPSL members on charges of expulsion for “holding views” in favor of a Fourth International.

Do the latest events in the socialist party mean that the whole organization will swing solidly to the Right? There is no reason to draw such a sweeping conclusion. Waldman and Co., it is true, will not be content until they have drawn everybody and everything to their position of extreme reformism. The “Militant” leaders, once started down the incline, will not be able, even if the will were there, to come to many halts before they reach bottom. Once they have shifted their fight from the realm of principles and tactics to the field of unity-at-all-costs, they are doomed to extinction in the strangulating embrace of the Right wing. As for the RPC, it has compromised itself hopelessly with the Lovestone group, forfeiting its right to lead a struggle for revolutionary policy by defending a Centrist group outside the party against a Centrist group inside the party. One has but to read the brackish articles in the first (and last?) issue of its quarterly, to see that its two outstanding leaders are drenched with Lovestoneism. Brown’s exercizes are poorly if elaborately re-written copy from the Workers Age. Henson, author of the recent statement – “I am a Marxist. I, also, am a catholic Christian” (which makes him the only living joint representative of Jesus Christ and Jay Lovestone) – seeks to break a lance with “Trotskyism” and finds that its “attitude toward the Soviet Union is perhaps the most reprehensible in the whole international radical movement”, neither more nor less. After its conduct in the past, what else is left to this group but for members to resign from it or to flee for safety across the river to New Jersey?

But besides the leaders of the various groups, there are still hundreds of workers and youth in the socialist camp who are seriously concerned with the revolutionary movement. They have been fighting for a revolutionary Marxian position. They will not easily retire from the fight because leaders about whom they entertained illusions have surrendered everything they stood for. The Cassandra of the Right wing, Oneal, lamenting the Boston decision, writes: “In every state where majority opinion is against the united front there will be a drive in some locals and branches for it, resulting in disputes and increasing bitterness. In states that negotiate, those who are opposed will fight it – and with the same result.” Oneal would, of course, prefer a papal bull prohibiting any member from opening his mouth to say anything about the united front or any other problem which conflicts with the petrified views of the Right wing. The hope for the progress of the revolutionary trend in the socialist party, however, lies in ignoring the preferences of Mr. Oneal and his associates. Ignoring them – and carrying on a vigorous, systematic fight against them. The royal road to unity, to revolutionary unity, cannot be found by making a truce with reformism, or by cowering before it. It lies in the direction of an unremitting struggle against the Right wing and the cowardly Centrists who have capitulated to it.


Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 17.11.2005