Max Shachtman

Straddler Norman Thomas
Jumps Into the War Camp

(January 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 3, 19 January 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Socialist Party has come out for support of the war. Following an ambiguous statement issued by its National Action Committee when war was declared by the United States, the National Executive Committee of the Party has issued a new declaration, far less ambiguous, which was adopted by the slim majority of 6 out of 11 votes. It appears in the current issue of the SP paper, The Call.

To anyone who is acquainted with the party which has been cajoled and coerced into an image of Norman Thomas, the new statement of the Socialist Party is not a shock. Still less of a shock is the explanatory declaration by Thomas. Even less of a shock is the demurrer entered by the spokesman for the “loyal opposition” in the SP, National Secretary Travers Clement, which also appears in the current Call.

To quote the official statement of the SP is really superfluous. Why? Because it is a classic product of Thomasite “compromise” in a situation when two views are in dispute. Is there a conflict? Simply solved! Vote down the left wing decisively, even if it is only a pitiable apology for a left wing, and then write a document which satisfies the right wing but from which the left wingers can draw some comfort, particularly if they have elastic spinal columns, insatiable capacities for swallowing their own views, enormous will power over the dictates of their conscience and above all a terror at the thought of what they would do if N. Thomas decided to pack his bags and move to more commodious quarters. And evidently, this time too, this is the kind of left wingers for whom the loyal opposition speaks.

Thomas’ Personal Statement

Much more to the point are some quotations from Thomas’ personal statement, for the SP has for years been an organization in which that counts far more than any official declaration published in the name of the party.

Thomas and the official SP were opposed to the war up to the time it was declared. Their opposition took the most peculiar forms, to be sure, and at times the socialist element of that opposition was all but concealed by dripping layers of pacifist slush and Thomas’ inglorious collaboration with those eminent foes of imperialism, Burton K. Wheeler and Charles Lindbergh. At all events, the SP nevertheless characterized the war as imperialist on both sides, and therefore reactionary. In itself that wasn’t everything, but in these dark days of hypocritical flag-waving and imperialist pseudo-patriotism it was something. Most important, it reflected the desire of many rank and file members of the SP and especially its youth group, that the party should not emulate the social-patriots of bad odor and memory of the First World War.

But all this was before war was declared. Now, as Thomas so lucidly explains, “the objective situation” has changed. You can’t very well “demand that the government stop fighting NOW and at once begin peace negotiations.” No, you can’t; we’ll grant that readily, especially since we suspect that the Roosevelt government, wouldn’t listen very attentively to such a demand even if made by Thomas AND Travers Clement. At the same time, you can’t very well oppose the war, even if it is imperialist, can you? Of course not. Clement and Symes may say in their resolution that “we cannot give our political support to any war conducted for imperialist aims,” but Thomas knows better. He writes:

I am completely convinced that a responsible political party which speaks of political non-support or opposition at so critical a moment owes it to itself and the country to have a political alternative to offer ... Try as I may I can see no practical political alternative today to the war as a means of stopping the world-wide triumph of fascist totalitarianism”

For ... Community Service!

The literal hell of a victory by Hitler and the Japanese militarists, says Thomas, “must be prevented even while we struggle against the spread of Hitlerism at home – a task which others’ neglect may make peculiarly our own. Therefore socialists (except if they are individual conscientious objectors whose rights we all respect and would defend) are accepting the draft. They pay taxes; they take part wherever they can constructively do so in civilian defense, always working for sanity and community service.”

Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts for here we have a truly breathtaking, noble and inspiring program of action. Accept the draft? Yes, that you must do; even taxes must be paid; and God knows it is high time something constructive was done about civilian defense. As for sanity and community service, these are watchwords such as have stirred people to their depths throughout written history and probably even before then.

It does not occur to Thomas that there is such a thing as consistent socialist principle which holds no less in war than in peace, which is in fact better tested in wartime than in peacetime. He evidently does not begin to understand that the socialist refusal to give political support to imperialist war and imperialist governments flows from a fundamental adherence to the principles of the class struggle and loyalty to the interests of the working class. And that, therefore, opposition to imperialism means less than nothing – in fact, is a deception – if it is confined to peacetime and is put into a safety deposit vault “for the duration.”

That is why Thomas sees “no practical political alternative to the war today,” and has consequently committed himself and his party to political support of the war. If one were to speak of continuing unremittingly and unconditionally the defense of the class interests of the proletariat, regardless of the situation, we are sure it would be as intelligible to Thomas as Amharic is to an Aztec. It is only a pity that Thomas cannot fly a plane as well as Lindbergh ...

The Loyal Opposition

As for the “loyal opposition,” it is hard to believe that it speaks authentically for those militants in the Thomas organization who take their position on the war seriously. Clement pulls himself up to his full height and declares in his statement that in view of the position adopted by the majority of the NEC, he is resigning as editor of The Call. A heroic gesture!

But, lest you think that Clement understands that he is dealing with social-patriots, and all that this implies, he hastens to disillusion you. He will (1) continue to contribute, to the organ of the social-patriots; (2) he urges “all possible support to The Call and to the new editor or editorial committee that will succeed me,” that is, all possible support to the social-patriotic editors of a social-patriotic journal; and (3) he will continue to occupy his post as national secretary of the party which has adopted an anti-socialist position on THE most important question of the day. One can only conclude that either Clement does not take his office very seriously or his own political views do not weigh too heavily on his mind.

This war is different in many respects from the last one. But in one respect at least it follows the same pattern. It is taking its brutal toll of people whose views and principles simply do not stand up under fire, and who don’t scorn the use of subterfuge, sophistry, deception, cynical rationalization to cover up their lack of socialist character and the bankruptcy of reformism and centrism. Old, familiar, time-worn words! But they suffice to describe old, familiar, time-worn, but not time-honored, events and practices.

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