Max Shachtman

Only Socialism Can Bring
Peace and Freedom

Speech Opening the Convention of the Workers Party of the U.S.A.

(February 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 9, 28 February 1944, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In behalf of the National Committee, I call the third national convention of the Workers Party to order and extend a comradely welcome to all the delegates and guests.

Almost four years have passed since our founding convention in April 1940.

Those who assembled in that convention were not newcomers to the principles of revolutionary socialism and the struggle for their vindication.

They met to reassert their attachment to these principles and to continue the preparations for the victory.

The Second World War, which we had foretold and warned the people against, was already six months old. The imperialist lie of a durable peace that was to follow the First World War gave way to the imperialist lie that the second world slaughter within the life of a single generation was a just war.

To one extent or another, every public organization in the county, every organization of the working class included, became the propagator or the victim of this lie. But there was one exception, and the significance and value of its position are still to be realized in full. That exception was our young party, mature, however, in the ideas, traditions and principles of the great builders of international socialism which it made its own on the day it was founded. We branded the lie for what it was. We solemnly declared that Truth, first victim of the war, would continue to find in us an unyielding champion. We declared that England, France and Poland were not fighting for democracy or against fascism, but for imperialist gain and power; and that, in this decisive respect, they differed not at all from the equally predatory Axis. We urged upon the workers of this country that they too would find themselves catapulted into the imperialist war, with all the appalling suffering and mounting reaction that would follow, unless they took over control of society by establishing a workers’ government.

The Role of Stalinist Russia

We refused to give our support or sanction to either of the two imperialist camps. We rejected with merited contempt the Stalinist swindle that Russia: – ally of Hitler! – was fighting a war of liberation. We rejected just as decisively the self-deception of those well-intentioned revolutionists who declared that Stalin’s Russia was fighting a just war of national defense that deserved the unconditional support of the international working class. It is not true, we said. Stalin, jointly with Hitler, is fighting a war of imperialist expansion. The loot of the war is to be divided between them. Stalin comes not as a liberator but as a slave-master.

Against the two war camps, we said, the banner of the Third Camp must be raised. That is the banner of the oppressed classes and nations, of the colonial and semi-colonial peoples and the working class of the advanced countries. It is the banner of the struggle against imperialist war and for the triumph of socialism. Our task, we said at our founding convention, is to maintain confidence in the emergence of the Third Camp again, is to keep that perspective constantly before us, and to work with all our strength to organize that camp, and promote its victory.

We continued to hew to it when the first big shift occurred in the war camps. When the two big partners of the Axis fell out between themselves, when Hitler launched his attack upon Russia, when Stalin was obliged to leap into the camp of his enemies of yesterday – we did not follow suit. The democratic imperialists suddenly found only virtues in the same Stalinist Russia where they had seen only vices the day before. In return, the Stalinists rediscovered the virtues of imperialist democracy which up to the day before they had excoriated as mainly responsible for the war and its continuation.

Our critics inside the radical movement, who condemned us as the “petty bourgeois opposition” and “capitulators to bourgeois-democratic pressure” because we refused to support Stalin’s Russia when it was allied with Hitler, confidently expected that we would now turn coat, presumably under the same “bourgeois-democratic pressure,” now that Stalin’s Russia was allied with that citadel of democracy, the British Empire. There were a baker’s dozen among us who, to use our critics’ language, did thereupon capitulate to bourgeois-democratic pressure and called upon us to come now to the “defense of the Soviet Union.” Inasmuch as the pressure or interests or politics of capitalist democracy never determined our basic line, we did not heed this call. The capitulators quit our ranks and, lo and behold, were received with open arms by none other than our calumniatory critics! We reaffirmed. our fundamental position toward the war as a whole and toward Russia’s participation in it.

Our Party Told the Truth

Our second national convention met virtually on the eve of the tragic events of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war in this country. Even under the tremendous stress of these events, our party did not flinch or waver for a moment.

Ours was the only organization in the entire country, the only one, that made public a declaration in which we stated, weighing every word, that the character of the war had not been changed by the entry into it of the United States, and that as a consequence our attitude toward the war could not and would not be altered.

We stated that national defense in this war could mean for us only one thing, the defense of the position and the interests of the working class.

We weighed every word, not out of fear, but out of a feeling of the heavy responsibility that lay upon us as a working class socialist organization, and of the attacks to which we would be subjected for our uncompromising principled position by governmental reaction and reaction inside the labor movement. We did not have to tell the workers the truth about the war and about the role they should play in it. We did it as a matter of course, we did it because we were trained that way, because it was our elementary duty to our class and to ourselves.

And that is our great pride, which nobody shall ever take from us and to which we shall always be faithful. It is the great tragedy of the American labor movement that its leaders and spokesmen decided to suppress the truth, and with it to render labor docile, to tie it to the machine of imperialism. It is our great pride that, despite our smallness in numbers, despite the ominous threats of persecution implicit in the trial of the Minneapolis Case just before war was declared, we nevertheless spoke out with tht same simple and honest words that we learned from the lips of the fearless unconquerables of the First World War, Lenin and Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Now the war is in its fifth year, following four years of such devastation and so much killing as the world has never before known or dreamed of.

And our truth is making its way!

Millions are awakening to the realization in this country that under cover of this war for democracy capital is coining unheard-of blood profit, is becoming increasingly arrogant, is determined to wipe out the economic and political standards of the working class.

Millions are having their illusions disturbed and even dispelled at the sight of the imperialist democrats doing all in their power to prevent the authentic voice of the people from being heard in the very lands from which the Axis oppressors have been driven; at the sight of the Darlans, Girauds and Badoglios with whom the Allies seal their compacts of friendship.

Our predictions about Russia’s role in the war also become increasingly confirmed by events. What is left of all the pernicious nonsense about Russia fighting a just war, a war of liberation, a war of national defense? Not very much. What has happened to the tongues of those who amused themselves so much by deriding us for speaking of Stalin’s imperialist aggression and plans for expansion? They do not wag so animatedly today. They don’t wag because they are hanging out at the spectacle of Stalin’s now widely recognized plan for annexing and subjugating Poland; his plan for converting Yugoslavia into a vassal state; his plain for establishing the totalitarian rule and terror of the Kremlin bureaucracy over as many nations and as many peoples as his armed forces and the agreement of his imperialist allies make possible. The myth of the “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union” is beginning to evaporate.

Faith in the Workers Confirmed

And what has happened to the tired and retired radicals, the cynics, the faint hearts, the turncoats, who asked us at, the beginning: Where is your famous Third, Camp? They are not so derisive now. The Third Camp is growing in power and growing in consciousness! After more than twenty’ years in power, Italian fascism lies in ruins, and the Italian working class is once more on the march. All over Europe can be heard the rumblings of the approaching revolution. All over Hitler-dominated Europe the earth shakes with the heroic efforts, of the revolutionary workers and peasants in the illegal underground – workers and peasants who do not want to overturn the Nazi overlords merely in order to restore the old power of the old bankers, monopolists and landlords, who do not want a return to the old order but an advance to the new – workers and peasants in whom can be seen, through all the vapors of nationalism and of political prejudices and illusions, the authentic aspiration for a world of freedom, of peace, of brotherhood, of equality, of security – the kind of world that only socialism can create.

Our confidence in the reanimation of the Third Camp has been justified. We were right, a thousand times over, and the Allied imperialists know it better than anyone else. That is why they can argue and intrigue against each other; that is why they can quarrel over and over again about the spoils; that is why they can (and have to) meet in conference after conference – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – and find no fundamental agreement – except on one point: the coming revolution of the masses must be crushed jointly and with all the force at our disposal. That revolution they fear more than anything else, more even than they fear the expansionist plans of their respective partners, and they are entirely justified in their fears!

I said that the significance and value of the exceptional position that our party alone took when the war broke out is yet to be realized in full. In that position is our great capital, for our capital is our principles.

The workers are beginning to awaken to the realities of the war, the fundamental realities. They are beginning to think, and to think deeply. As the illusions wear off, as clarity dawns, the resentment of the deceived people will grow at a great pace.

But with it will grow the question in their minds: Why were we deceived again, as we were in 1914 and in 1917? And they will begin to see: There was one party that told us the truth from the very beginning. There was one party that told the truth when it was not popular to tell it. It told the truth because it was devoted to the interests of the people, of the working class. And even when we did not believe what it said about the war, it nevertheless stood by our side in every fight, we fought to defend our rights and our standards. That is the party for us.

In a very small way – for we do not want to exaggerate – in a small but highly gratifying way, that process has already begun among workers in this country.

Our Party Carries On

The most impressive sign of it is the great circulation and the tremendous sympathy of our magnificent Labor Action among tens of thousands of workers in this country. Tens of thousands already look upon our Labor Action as the paper which best expresses their feelings, their aspirations, their interests. Thousands have already been won to the program it stands for, won to it, to be sure, only in part for the time being, but in that part whose acceptance logically leads to acceptance of the whole.

Our party has not grown as rapidly as Labor Action has. But it has grown and the manner in which it has grown is indicative of the bigger things ahead. Like Labor Action, our party has been in the midst of every working class struggle in this country in which we have been able to enter.

We did not decide, when the war broke out, that the first and main task of the revolutionary socialist party is to “preserve the cadres” by remaining silent in the factories and the unions, by effacing ourselves in the actual class struggle, by sowing defeatism among the workers. Our teacher Trotsky warned, just before the war, that a party that acted that way in the difficult days would deserve, after the war, to be treated by the workers like “preserves,” that is, to be put on a shelf. We therefore left that policy as the exclusive possession of the critics who specialize in calling us the “petty bourgeois opposition.”

For our part, we entered as actively as our strength permitted into every fight of the workers, seeking everywhere to heighten their class consciousness, to imbue them with a determination to defend themselves and their rights from the attacks of capitalist reaction, to emphasize to them the need of turning to a counter-offensive.

Because of our position and our activity, we brought down upon our heads repeated attacks from reactionaries. They are not disturbed by the existence of the Social-Democratic vegetables. They are not worried about the activities of Norman Thomas, who sometimes calls himself the Socialist Party. The Stalinists are doing all in their power to break the back of the labor movement, and to that extent they meet with approval and not reprobation from the ranks of reaction. We are different, thank God. That is why the Post Office authorities tried to harass Labor Action, which always tells the truth. That is why the Stalinists attack us in their venomous way in the Daily Worker, for they have felt the effects of our influence among the workers in the unions and it is not pleasant for them. That is why you can find repeated attacks upon us in the official publications of the labor bureaucracy of one union after another – in highly gratifying contrast to the approval with which we are greeted by the rank and file workers. We are not ashamed of these attacks. They are a testimony to us. The reactionaries attack us, but the best rank and file militants are finding their way straight into the ranks of our party.

You will remember that when we first founded our party, our critics predicted hopefully: “You will disintegrate. In six months there will be nothing left of you.” We refused to accommodate the prophets. In one city after another our branches have been recruiting new members from out of big factories and mills, from shipyards and ships, and from the farms, the best workers, the best fighters, the best unionists.

We are especially jubilant at the progress of our influence among Negro workers. At our last convention we had in attendance two Negro agricultural workers from the deep South, representing a great hope for our party. It is only the party that wins this most exploited, poverty-stricken and disinherited section of the toiling population that really deserves the name of a revolutionary socialist party.

Today that hope is on the way to realization. We are well-established and ably represented among Negro sharecroppers and day laborers, as their delegates to this convention will testify. They were won to our party, not by abstractions, not by mere sermons on socialism, but above all, by comradeship in actual struggle.

In the deep South they saw how Labor Action fought with them and for them during the splendid and courageous fight of the Negro and white sharecroppers of southeast Missouri. Thousands know from direct experience that Labor Action was the ONLY labor paper to do so, week in, week out.

Let me here, parenthetically, pillory the disgraceful attitude of The Militant, in the course of the southeast Missouri strike. For the entire period of three months during which this most important single action of the Negro people in the United States was being prepared and carried on, The Militant could not find space in any of its issues for so much as a paragraph, a word, even a syllable, that as much as mentioned the struggle. Its silence was due not to ignorance of the facts, but solely to its disgustingly factional narrow-mindedness, which impelled it to remain silent about so important an event on the ground that Labor Action, its spokesmen and its friends, had some connection with the fight.

The process of growth, of which I spoke will continue. Our ranks will swell. Our task will be performed by ever greater numbers.

To facilitate the accomplishment of our task is the primary purpose of our national convention. It is summoned to hear an account of the stewardship of the party from its national committee and to pass judgment upon it.

It is called not primarily to approve, but to criticize, so that we may be able to do better in the next period.

It is called not merely to listen, but to exchange views, to exchange experiences, to give all the benefit of the opinions and experiences of each.

It is called to establish the political line of the party for the next period – this above all. It is not our basic principles that need to be established; that was done by us and for us long ago. It is our current political program that is involved.

That must be decided by you, as is our good custom. We are not at a Communist Party convention – if such gatherings are still held – where the delegates come to find out at what hour they are supposed to vote unanimously for the latest switch in policy worked out for them by the GPU. In fact, we are not at all the kind of convention or party that takes particular pride in its “unanimity.”

We are happy, instead, that there are not only fruitful exchanges of opinion in the party, that there are not only differences and discussions of differences in the party, but that we have the kind of party in which such differences are possible, in which such discussions are possible and profitable, and in which ample provision is made for the democratic conduct of the discussions and the democratic settlement of the differences. Discussion is our life’s blood, and we will not drain it for the embalming fluid of “monolithic unanimity.”

We will discuss – again as is our custom – with much vigor. That is not the worst thing in the world, in my opinion. I have always felt that only hose views and convictions that are not of importance, or that are not seriously entertained, can be put forward in a dispute without “passion.” If the limits of propriety are sometimes overstepped that is not as bad, I think, as the kind of dispute that is discussed so lackadaisically that the only thing it can produce is the yawn of boredom.

The Future Belongs to Us

But the discussions, however passionate, are aimed, and must be aimed, at providing the party with such a policy, or policies, as enable it best to fulfill its revolutionary working class and socialist duties, as enable it best to serve the working class, as enable it best to recruit into its ranks the most conscious, the most self-sacrificing, the most devoted and the most militant members of the working class.

We have people who know how to work – others are in training.

Their tools are the policies of the party, which will be reaffirmed, revised or expanded upon at this convention.

We have people with unshakable convictions and a deep, ineradicable confidence that win we can and win we shall.

We have people with warranted optimism, for after all it is the OLD social order that is crumbling into a new barbarism which entitles its defenders only to the right to pessimism.

We have all of us just had another and most dramatic example of the irrepressibility of the proletariat and its all but magic powers of recuperation – the revolution in Italy. A class like that cannot be destroyed.

Socialism, the historic mission of that class, cannot be indefinitely postponed.

We, soldiers of socialism, have thus far met our tests and passed them not badly. The really decisive test is still a distance off in this country.

Between now and then, let this convention so prepare the party for that test of tests to come – for the socialist society – let the party as a whole so prepare itself that when the hour strikes our class will say of us:

They did their duty and did it well;
Our freedom is witness to it.

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Last updated on 12 August 2015