Max Shachtman


In Opposite Directions

The Cleveland Convention of the Socialists
and the Swing to the Right of the Stalinists

(June 1936)

From New International, Vol.3 No.3, June 1936, pp.65-67.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

DEVELOPMENTS of the greatest importance are taking place in the two main sections of the American radical labor movement. Reflecting, each in its own way, the stirring events we have lived through in this country and abroad for the past few years, both the Socialist and Communist parties are alive with movement. Neither of them has been able to stand stock still under the impact of the great social events. First anchored at opposite ends, the winds have driven them from their old moorings and toward each other. But because the ships are differently constructed, differently manned and differently ballasted, they have not only failed to meet anywhere in midstream, but have actually passed each other by and are continuing to sail in opposite directions.

This singular phenomenon has been recorded in recent times to one degree or another in virtually all important countries. In the United States, however, for a number of reasons, the development is more marked than in most other lands. Briefly, before us is a situation where the traditional party of the Left is moving swiftly to the Right while the party of reformism is moving distinctly to the Left. At least in this country, the two parties have all but changed places politically on a number of fundamental positions in the proletarian movement. It is hard to find an analogous evolution in the history of the modern working class. Its importance, therefore, is perfectly obvious and requires the close attention of the revolutionary Marxist.

What the two parties were in the first post-war decade, is fairly well known. The Socialist Party had declined to an insignificant force. In 1919 its dominating Right wing drove out of the party more than half the membership, partisans of the Russian revolution and the Third International; in 1921 the last of the Left wing that had remained in the Socialist Party departed from it. The party that had risen to a membership of almost 120,000 during the World War was left with a bare 5,000 adherents, a figure around which the debilitated Right wing organization hovered feebly for the following period. For the next decade the SP was ruled by its ossified conservative leadership, which gained for it a most unenviable reputation among the class conscious militants in this country. The SP – that was Hillquit, Cahan, Oneal, Berger, the reactionary bureaucracy of the needle trades unions, the hated Jewish Forward, the virulent anti-communists, the embittered enemies of the Russian revolution.

The Communist Party, however much it suffered from the ailments of childhood and adolescence, nevertheless made a persistent effort to implant the ideas of revolutionary Marxism in the soil of the American labor movement. Not a dilettante “friend” of Soviet Russia, but flesh of its flesh, it incarnated the reborn spirit of progress after the reaction of the war years. Add together all its errors, and it nevertheless remains the centralizing force that assembled and clarified the forces of militancy and progressivism in the world’s most conservative trade union movement. It was painfully beginning to make a rounded conception and practise of revolutionary Marxism a political force in this country – and who had ever done it before?

If the tersest general balance-sheet were drawn up of the first decade of the coexistence of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, it would say: the latter acted as the brake on progress in the labor movement; the former acted as accelerator. The CP revived the best traditions of Marxism as elucidated by the experiences of the post-war struggles in Europe, above all in Russia. The SP was reduced to a miniature edition of all that was decrepit, reformist, conservative in the retrograde European social democracy, but without the latter’s power to inflict the same injuries on the working class.

The decay of the official communist movement in the post-Lenin period, which is not unconnected with the revival of the socialist movement, fills the longer part of the second post-war decade. The connection is quite clearly discernible in the United States. Given a generally correct policy and a democratic internal regime that could correct the policy if it was not correct, there is no reason to believe that the Communist Party in this country would not by now have become a truly powerful political force without a serious social democratic rival. In the absence of both correct policy and regime (missing in the rest of the world as well as in the US), the Socialist Party not only found a basis for revival but it has become one of the most important channels through which the Leftward movement of the American workers is flowing.

The simple fact is: those elements who, awakening to radical consciousness, are drawn into the Communist Party, have their development arrested and diverted into opportunistic bypaths. The brutally rigid internal regime of the party makes practically impossible any organized resistance to this devastation of potential revolutionary power. Out of the old Socialist Party, however, is emerging a new and virile movement which, unhampered by the bonds of a bureaucratically state-controlled regime, has responded to an encouraging extent to the signs and needs of the time in the revolutionary movement

What tremendously important events have we not experienced in the last few years! The most terrific crisis capitalism has yet recorded in its convulsive career; the obvious triumph in the Soviet Union, despite the wasteful and reactionary bureaucracy, of the socialist principle of planned economy over the anarcho-capitalist principle of production for the market; the stupefying collapse of the apparently powerful Socialist and Communist parties in Germany and the subsequent collapse of the Austrian social democracy.

All together, they have had opposite effects on the two big parties in this country. To the Communist Party, enfiefed to the nationalistic Soviet bureaucracy, they have meant a change of line in the direction of classic Kautskyanism. To the Socialist Party, enriched by the influx of young and militant elements, they have meant a change of line away from Kautskyanism, away from the principles and practises which wrought such havoc in the world labor movement, away from the policies that dominated the SP when the self-styled Old Guard held sway. The parties are traveling roads that lead in opposite directions. Both of them are still in motion; neither of them has yet come to rest at the final position which their movement logically indicates. But to Marxists able to read signposts and to draw arrows over a line of march, the tendencies represented by the two parties is unmistakable.

Take a few of the fundamental questions of Marxism: the struggle for power, imperialist war and civil war, bourgeois democracy and Fascism.

In all these questions, the Stalinist party has taken a position (in the post-”Third period” period) that is infinitely closer to the position of the Old Guard and the Second International than it is to the present-day Socialist Party. In every essential, the old social democratic theory and practise of the “lesser evil” is now official dogma in the Stalinist ranks. To prevent Fascism – support bourgeois democracy; support actively or at least “tolerate” Azaña, Beneš, Cardenas, Blum-Daladier and – not quite directly but by obvious indirection – Roosevelt. On the crucial question of imperialist war, the Stalinists are in the same camp as the social-patriots of 1914. As the latter defended the “democratic” imperialists and the “small nations” against the “reactionary” imperialists, the former announce their intention of defending their “democratic” fatherland and “poor little Czechoslovakia” (read: “poor little Belgium” or Serbia) against the “Fascist” imperialists. Where Kautsky revised Marx to read that between the capitalist and socialist societies lies the peaceful transitional period taking the political form of a coalition government, the Stalinists, for all their purely reminiscential and formal references to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, merely substitute a re-worded formulation of the same concept. According to the latest revelation (read: plagiarism from Kautsky), between the rule of the bourgeoisie and the rule of the proletariat, there lies the peaceful, parliamentary conquest of power by some ectoplasmic supra-class force known as the “government of the People’s Front.” After having cunningly removed from power the bourgeoisie without the latter’s knowledge, it turns over this power, just as unobtrusively and peacefully, to the proletariat itself, led, it goes without saying, by the Communist Party.

That there exists a poisonous hostility – in this country – between the social democratic Old Guard and the Stalinists, should blind nobody to their political kinship. During the war, for instance, the French and German social democracies were massacring each other in the trenches because they served the ruling bureaucracy of their respective capitalist fatherlands; but politically there was no difference between them. The Stalinists merely serve the Bonapartist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union; the Old Guard aspires to serve the capitalist bureaucracy of a “democratic” America. Both bond and antagonism between the two are determined by these facts.

That is why, of late, the Stalinists have ceased to level criticisms of principle against the Old Guard and have confined themselves to purely episodic, conjunctional and tactical recriminations against Cahan-Waldman-Oneal. The latter “are against the Soviet Union”; yet their recent pronouncements (cf. John Powers’ highly significant comments in the Right wing New Leader on Stalin-Litvinov’s foreign-political “realism” with regard to the League of Nations, “democracy vs. Fascism”, etc.) have showed them to be much closer to the Stalinist bureaucracy than the Daily Worker would care to admit. The only other criticism that the Stalinists make with any spirit against the Old Guard is the latter’s refusal to join them in a united front. But that is hardly a matter of principle ... and when it comes to principles the CP must strain every muscle to find the line of demarcation. Astounding as this may seem, it is the all-too-incontrovertible fact.

The events that produced this breath-taking swing to the Right of the Stalinist camp, have had a contrary effect in the ranks of the Socialist Party. They have moved away from the Old Guard and its policies and towards the policies of revolutionary Marxism. The word “towards” is intentionally italicized to indicate two things: 1) that it is a question of the direction in which the main stream of the SP is moving, even if jerkily; and 2) that the SP is far from having arrived at the positions of revolutionary Marxism. But what is important about a party which is in a state of flux is not so much – and sometimes not primarily – the official programmatic position that it occupies on paper at a given moment, but the main line of the direction in which it is moving.

The Cleveland convention of the SP, two years after the Detroit convention at which the Militant group first ousted the Old Guard from its long tenure of office, marked the second big milestone along the road which the party has been traveling. What needed to be said about the vacillations of the Militant leadership, its political trepidation, its penchant for compromise, its hesitancy, its inconsistency and ambiguity on fundamental questions, has often been stated on the pages of our review and, even today, easily bears reiteration. Nevertheless, what is decisive is that one plain, big, highly important fact stands out after Cleveland, a fact which loses none of its objective validity and significance simply because the Militants did not strive consciously and consistently to make it a fact. We refer to the final, organizational separation from the Socialist Party of the Old Guard. Whatever may have been the desires of some of its leaders, the Socialist Party is now split in two distinct parts: the party under the leadership of the Militants and the Social Democratic Federation under the leadership of Waldman, Cahan, Oneal, Lee and other premature nonagenarians. That many Right wingers, politically indistinguishable from Waldman and Co., still remain in the Socialist Party, hardly modifies the significance of the split. In the first place, the departed Old Guard represents the head and backbone and heart of the Socialist Party’s Right wing; in the second place, those who have remained in the official party have given anything but an enthusiastic indication of their determination to stay much longer.

Nor can the significance of the split be vitiated by reference to the fact that leaders of the Socialist Party pleaded, to the very last minute, with the Old Guard and urged it to remain within the party, insisting that there was room for it and its ideas in the one organization. If one assumes that the Old Guardists are not clique politicians or political bandits who fight merely for spoils and place, but are men with a clear-cut political program, then the fact that they turned a deaf ear even to the most conciliatory proposals and were adamant on the split, should be proof enough that the political tendencies represented by those who left and those who remained, far from being identical, have such a gulf between them as to have made reconciliation a practical impossibility. Only tyros and old gossips can conclude that the split was caused by the conflicting desires for leadership of Norman Thomas and Louis Waldman, or any other such puerile superficiality. Neither consciousness nor unconsciousness determines being; that many followers of the Militants are not conscious, or fully conscious of the fact that a great political division caused the final break with the Old Guard, does not alter the situation fundamentally.

If further indication of the distance the Socialist Party has traveled on the road to Marxism is required, the Stalinists supply it in their criticism. Read Browder’s latest book; or better yet, Bittelman’s pamphlet, Going Left, which devotes itself specifically to criticism of the Militants’ draft program. It is not where the program is really weak that Bittelman aims his dull shafts, but where its strong points are to be found. What the Old Guard says irascibly, Bittelman, like a mellowed elder statesman who fondly chides the impetuous youth for follies which he himself, thank God! has outgrown, says condescendingly: “... sectarianism is creeping into” the Left wing (p.33); and – unmentionable horror! – the “American labor movement [read: the Stalinist appointees] is too vitally interested in the success of the Left wing to let it, under Trotskyite counter-revolutionary influence, ruin its prospects”.

What are the positions that would “ruin the prospects” of the Left wing about which Bittelman expresses such touching paternal solicitude? The Militants’ refusal to accept the Stalinist social-patriotic position on war, their healthy recoil from the treacherously seductive “People’s Front”, that is, positions in which are implicit the dividing lines between reformism and revolutionary Marxism.

Therein, however, also lies the outstanding deficiency of the Left wing movement: what is implicit in it has not yet been made explicit: it has not yet drawn the full implications of its tendency to their logical, fully revolutionary conclusions. The Cleveland convention, with all its numerous shortcomings, was a long step in this direction and, by virtue of the split between the Left and the Right, confronted the revolutionary Marxists in this country with a new situation and new problems.

The revolutionists who stand under the banner of the Fourth International have no narrow sectarian interests and are guided by none. However exacting they are in their demands for cameo-clarity in principle, they are at all times conscious of the need of rooting these principles in an ever larger mass movement. The Socialist Party today represents the largest concentration of class conscious militants moving in the direction of consistent Marxism. Its promise is great, and so are the responsibilities which our epoch puts upon its shoulders.

Such responsibilities of the Socialist Party also imply responsibilities for the much smaller group of the Fourth Internationalists. There is every reason to believe that the Workers Party, embracing the vanguard forces of principled fighters for Marxism, will not stand aloof from the movement unfolding before it. Like a comrade-in-arms, it will march side by side with this movement, seeking to help it draw the full lessons of its struggle so that it may reach its logical goal more truly, more smoothly and more speedily than in the past.


Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 17.11.2005