Leftism and Sophistry (An Answer to The Road Ahead – Philadelphia)

First Published: Turning Point Vol. III, Nos. 4-5, April-May 1950
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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[The Feb.-March issue of TP carried an article, “The Left-Sectarian Attitude towards the PP”, which dealt with the ideas of the West Coast Committee and The Road Ahead group in Philadelphia. Following this, the third issue of The Road Ahead attacked TP’s article.]

There are goods reasons for considering carefully the arguments of The Road Ahead. They are the common refuges of American “left” Communists, presented with the superficial cunning which has become the stock-in-trade of straight-and-narrow left-wing Communism. Lenin dubbed left Communism an “infantile disorder.” TRA’s reaction to complications on the road ahead to Socialism impresses one as a “mature infantilism”, a particularly dishonest stage of infantilism, notable for its deliberate oversimplification. We will try to indicate in this article how this “mature” stage uses sophistry to evade basic problems.

Those American Communists who go left on the rebound from their own opportunist history and in retreat from the complexities of current politics continually fall back on sophistry as their mode of polemic. Politically, sophistry is not a personal quirk of word quibbling. It is the calculated technique of magnifying tangential points and obscuring focal points through oversimplification.

Part of the technique of Communist agitation (of its very slogans), in fact, part of the technique of all orderly thought is the distinction between focal and subordinate points. This technique can be applied positively for the sake of clarity, balance and perspective, or negatively – for confusion. A communist, if he does not allow himself the sloppy pleasure of distortion through magnifying or through obscuring, can gauge objectively the relation between focal and subordinate points. The manipulation of facts produces theories which are historically ridiculous. For the left-wing Communist, the technique of sophistry is the pseudo-logic behind the manipulation.

Sophistry is no small consideration in our movement. It is ever present and attractive (in a lewd way) for bitter radicals. Whenever problems seem insuperable and disintegration is rife, whenever the political nerve of comrades breaks down, sophistry rears its split-haired head. This has been evident in the American expelled movement since 1946. In this light we would like to TRAce the arguments of TRA.

The first thrust of TRA is that “TURNING POINT’s position on these questions [PP] is basically the same as that of the CP leadership...” This “accusation” is repeated in the article and generally in the political life of the expelled movement.

The point is whether or not every CPUSA position is wrong per se. Granted the CPUSA and we are for the PP, and TRA is not. This does not of itself prove that Communist support for the PP is opportunism – just because the CP is involved. There is a tremendous gulf between the CP’s attitude towards the PP and ours, as we have often made clear. (One of the reasons for our expulsion from the CP was our “premature” insistence in 1946 on the formation of a third party.) The guilt by association is meaningless. It is an unfortunate characteristic of the expelled movement in America today that in the difficult fight against opportunists, the CP leadership often out maneuvers its expelled critics (hypocritically to he sure) by formally adopting correct positions while its critics do not. This undoubtedly, has served on some occasions to confuse our comrades abroad.

The CPUSA leadership is aware of the extremes to which bitterness and frustration have propelled many expelled comrades. Some expelled comrades, having lost a sense of balance, fall into the dangerous practice of automatically damning all pronouncements of the CP leadership. They fail to differentiate between the letter of the CP’s position and the hypocrisy behind it. The hypocrisy is reflected in the actions which constantly conTRAdict the formal positions. TRA is fearful of analyzing the real position of the CP because then it could not damn us by association. Its whole point is to repeat the association for what we suppose it considers psychological reasons.

In preparing for a big polemical thrust, TRA indulges in a bit of sleight-of-hand:

“True – the leadership of the PP states that the PP Is a capitalist party. True – the leaders of the CP state that the PP is ’not an anti-capitalist party.’ True, even TURNING POINT itself declares that the PP is ’essentially a petty-bourgeois party.’ But all these characterizations, according to TP, do not justify ROAD AHEAD in characterizing the PP as a capitalist party.”

Let’s look carefully at what strikes TRA as unanimity. (l) It is not true that the PP considers itself a capitalist party. Wallace may sing “progressive capitalist”, Rogge may sing Titoite, etc., but so far, the PP has not become idiotic enough to try to attract the American people to a capitalist party. If the presence of a few Wallaces justifies TRA’s term “capitalist party”, we wonder through what device TRA finds a labor party headed by Murray and Green to be non-capitalist or anti-capitalist. (2) The CP leaders, to our knowledge, have never labeled the PP a capitalist party; even TRA had to settle for quite a different quote – that the PP is not an anti-capitalist party. Even what TRA did quote was incorrect for the CP to state. The CP was trying, according to its habit, to keep the PP “respectable.” What should be said, as we have discussed in detail elsewhere is that the PP, although non-socialist, is actually anti-capitalist whenever militant actions implement its program. (3) Here again, TRA could only give the impression to its readers that it was also quoting us to the effect that the PP is a capitalist Party. Actually their quote from TP says something quite different. If TRA had presented our position in context, it would have at least included at this point our idea that most of the PP’s present active members are generally socialist. TRA asserts a unanimity which it cannot prove, which it merely gives a shrewd impression of proving.

Actually, besides a few individuals at the top of the PP and the left sectarian section of the expelled movement, who does call the PP a capitalist Party? The Communists don’t, the Republicans and Democrats don’t. The Liberal, Vegetarian and Prohibition Parties don’t. But the Trotskyites do. There are many dangers brewing in the PP. The PP can become a capitalist party, one carrying forward the aims of Wall St. It can become an anti-Communist party; it can become an ADA. We would fight against this possibility. It seems that TRA is waiting hopefully for the worst to materialize.

And now, we come to TRA’s a tour de force. TRA is both outraged and delighted over a word used by TP. Darcy, whose ideas are embodied in this article, was once attacked by a Trotskyite for using the “anti-scientific” word “people.” The Trotskyite instructed him to use a “class term.” Now, it seems, the Darcy school has adopted the same sophist method of attack used against Darcy.

TRA has chosen to wage war against all maudlin, anti-scientific analyses made involving the “feelings” of people. TP used the word “feelings”! As a result, we are accused of revising Marxism (as Darcy did with the word “people” – according to the Trotskyite?). TRA has picked the following sentence from our article, as its arsenal of sophistry:

“It would seem that Road Ahead hardly thought it necessary to include the feelings of the ordinary members of the PP”! (TRA’s emphasis.)

Ecstatically, TRA proclaims: “Henceforth, a political party represents the interests of a class or a part of a class plus ’the feelings of its ordinary members.’” Then TRA wants to know, “Since ’ordinary members’ exist in every party, and all have ’feelings’ we assume that TP’s definition will apply to all parties with equal force.”

TRA uses “a naive technique of unprincipled criticism. It thinks it settles arguments by brazenly misrepresenting the point of view of the opposition. This is what TP actually said:

The Road Ahead, with that arbitrary categorical manner which is the symbol of ever easy argument, declares: ’All agree that the PP is not an anti-capitalist party.’ We will not repeat here our arguments against this designation. We only wish to point to the ridiculous character of the assertion that all agree. To give a little standing to this assertion, the article zealously points to the statements of Wallace and the CP leaderships. It would seem that The Road Ahead hardly thought it necessary to include the feelings of the ordinary members of the P.P.”

Now consider the sophistry. TRA said that all agree that the PP is not an anti-capitalist party. It sought to prove this by referring only to the feelings of the CP and Wallace on the subject. TP could not understand such arithmetic, so it asked that the feelings of the PP rank and file be considered, not just the feelings of a few big operators. TRA decided that since an investigation, of the feelings of the rank-and-file might contradict TRA’s analysis, the easiest way out was a dishonest sophist one, a crusade against an allegedly anti-Marxist word, “feelings.” It isn’t that TRA objected to considering anyone’s feelings. No, it only wanted to restrict its investigation to those few big operators whose irresponsible pronouncements might strengthen TRA’s argument.

Contrary to TRA, it would be a revision of Marxism to eliminate the feelings of people because these feelings involve various political orientations. Exactly what is so bad about the word “feelings”? Marxism fought all moralist or universal ethical trends in analyzing the material facts, of the world. But this is a long jump from substituting a mechanical formula-machine in which the thought of people is censored out. Stalin once said that of all the capital in the world the most important capital was people.

Many words have both general meanings and more specific technical meanings. A most obvious example of this is the word “socialist.” This word has a variety of meanings historically developed. But basically, it has a general usage which covers both socialism and communism and a specific Marxist-technical meaning which differentiates between the two. Or as another example, the word “free” has a general, obvious usage. But it must be used carefully from a Marxist point of view. In the technical sense – as in the case of “Free state” (as Lenin discusses it in “State and Revolution”).

Engels once stated both sides of this problem of general and technical usage very simply in “The Housing Question”: “While in everyday life, in view of the simplicity of the relations which come into question, expressions like right, wrong, justice, conception of justice, can be used without misunderstanding even in relation to social matters, they create...hopeless confusion in any scientific investigation of economic relations...”

Therefore, in analyzing the various political orientations within the PP, only sophistry could produce a rampage against the word “feelings.”

TRA insists that “a political party represents the interests of a class or a part of a class”. It is astounded that TP has added the feelings of the ordinary members. One doesn’t have to add feelings since these feelings are the expressions of class interests. What one does have to add is that aspect of class interest omitted in TRA’s analysis. In judging the class interests of the PP, the TRA examined Wallace’s bourgeois liberal interests and the CP leadership’s revisionist interests, but omitted the middle class and working class interests of the rank and file.

A word is unimportant. If TRA wishes, we will substitute “class interests” for our word “feelings.” Our statement then reads – with the same meaning: “It would seem that The Road Ahead hardly thought it necessary to include the class interests of the ordinary members of the PP.”

By its own definition, TRA considered everything but the class interests of the PP membership. Standing by itself, however, a mere statement of the class Interests of a group does not mean that the group is aware of its class interests. In this respect we went further and indicated that there certainly was some awareness, considering that the PP active membership is generally socialist.

Despite our pains, we suppose TRA will object even to this, because it has no time to waste in a maudlin manner in the consideration of mere members. TRA judges all by leaders. It might therefore be in order to remind TRA that classes are composed of people and not of words and split hairs. Most simply, TRA shouldn’t get lost in a word. There is a long history to such word torture. In “What Is to Be Done”, Lenin, having used the word “dream”, is suddenly overcome by sardonic guilt and says:

“’We ought to dream!’ I wrote these words and then got scared. It seemed to me that I was sitting at a ’unity congress’ and that opposite to me were the editors end contributors of Rabocheye Dyelo. Comrade Martynov rises and turning to me says threateningly: ’Permit me to enquire, has an autonomous editorial board the right to dream without first obtaining permission of the party committee?’ He is followed by Comrade Krichevsky who (philosophically deepening the words of Comrade Martynov who had long ago deepened the words of Comrade Plekhanov) continues in the same strain even more threateningly; ’I go further. I ask, has a Marxist any right at all to dream, knowing that according to Marx, man always sets himself achievable tasks and that tactics is a process of growth of tasks, which grow together with the party?’

”The very thought of these menacing questions sends a cold shiver down my back and makes me wish for nothing except a place to conceal myself in. I will try to conceal myself behind the back of Pisarev.” (Lenin then quotes Pisarev.)

TRA says: “On TP’s basis, we definitely need a new evaluation of the Democratic Party. TRA feels (!) that TP, to be consistent, would have to “re-characterize the Democratic Party as a potentially progressive and anti-capitalist working class party.”

TRA has so distorted the sense of the discussion that it forgets the obvious – that the Democratic Party doesn’t even have a membership in the sense of the PP. TRA is oblivious to the difference between the working class voting Republican or Democrat and the working class joining the PP with an advanced (even If still not completely clear) consciousness of anti-capitalism. To point to the individuals in the PP who contradict this merely proves the rule. Why does an American worker give up the endless suckerdom of voting for the major parties and cast his lot with a weak minority group? The basic change, realized in various degrees, is disillusionment with the representatives of Wall St. and the desire to fight capitalism through a party of the oppressed. Perhaps this fight against capitalism is a non-revolutionary one in many cases, but it is still anti-capitalist.

Members of the PP, unlike voters who have no control over the Democrat, or Republican parties, can stop the retreat and save the PR, For this reason the feelings of the PP membership are of great importance in determining the final character of the PP. If the membership can finally force the PP to become what it was conceived as, it will be a workers and farmers anti-capitalist party. It will either become this or a red-baiting party. TRA should not gloat over the latter possibility; it might “die laughing” because the PP would then be an ADA, an instrument of American fascism.

Again we repeat, despite TRA’s strict requirements for a real anti-capitalist labor party, it still plunks for a party led by Murray and Green. TRA must feel that since Murray and Green head big labor organizations, they represent the working class.

For a moment let us consider another Party, the CP. If the TRA were to ignore the feelings of the ordinary members of the CPUSA, it could not correctly evaluate its function at this time. Judging by the hypocritical pronouncements of the CPUSA National Committee, TRA might conclude that the CP is simply a misguided but real Communist Party. (Some expelled members take this attitude) Judging by the CP’s actions, the TRA could conclude that the CP was a cesspool of enemy agents only. (And many expelled members have adopted this wholesale version.) But, if we include the feelings of the ordinary CPUSA member, we find that despite fears, blind loyalties, and ignorance of Marxism, despite the presence of many enemy agents in the CP, the ordinary rank and filer wants Socialism and believes his party is working for it. This forces the leadership to offer lip service to the cause of Socialism because it has to “act up” enough to keep the loyalty of its members.

So eager is the TRA to simplify all its problems that it attempts to slip this one over on the reader: “Since, the omission of these feelings is the sole reason for TP taking issue with, our characterization of the PP... etc.– Of course, we took much greater issue with TRA – that is, as far as it allowed itself to make known ots position. However, the TRA’s characterization of the PP is enough to determine its position on war and fascism. TRA says: “A coalition party is a political impossibility, since only one class and the ideology of one class predominates in apolitical party, and all groups within the party are subordinated to the predominant ideology.”

At the outset let’s nail another sleight-of-hand. What TRA should have said to make all things clear in a discussion Involving the CP and the People’s Front is that it is impermissible for the CP to dissolve into any other party, liquidate its own party, and leave the working class without a vanguard Party led by Marxists. What TRA was dishonestly trying to cover was their opposition to the ideas of the People’s Front. According to these ideas, one of the forms of a broad alliance against war and fascism as applied to the United States is a Farmer-Labor Party. Obviously, this does not necessitate any dissolution of the Communist Party; the CP should maintain its own party and the right of criticism within the broad peace movement. Would TRA be willing to state that a political party cannot be a form of the People’s Front? The answer is that TRA won’t answer this question, just as it won’t answer the underlying question: are you for the People’s Front? The real answer is that TRA opposes the People’s Front. It believes only in the Murray-Green Front – if we are to believe our eyes.

In other words, TRA is again stalled by a word – party. If the coalition for peace and democracy in America is to assume the name party, then TRA cannot partake of it, because coalition parties are impossible.

The cat jumps out of the bag when TRA says: “Is not the leadership of the PP dominated by bourgeois liberal, that is to say, capitalist ideologists, who in turn are dominated by the absurd illusion of ’progressive’ capitalism?” This is not so-much ignorance as falsification. TRA knows that it is the CP which really dominates the PP, not a few individuals of the Wallace ilk. (And again we wonder: by what ideology would the TRA-envisioned labor party of Murray and Green be dominated?)

Every problem is twisted in TRA’s hands: “TP does not attack the root of the problem, namely that once Communists take the opportunist step of merging with the petty bourgeoisie in a political party – what happens is that some ’coalition’ is thereby formed but that the CP capitulates to petty-bourgeois ideology, organization and leadership.”

This is enlightening. It spotlights the blind bitterness which has set TRA against anything the CP lipserves. There’s a difference between what the CPUSA has done and what a real CP should do. The fact that the CPUSA has over and over dissolved its organization does not prove the point that a CP cannot take part in a People’s Front. Is it incorrect for a CP to help build a farmer-labor party in the United States, while it builds its own Party or while it maintains the right to criticize any incorrect positions or actions of the PP? TRA probably feels that this can’t be done – Dimitroff notwithstanding.

TRA wonders how we expect the petty bourgeois PP to lead the working class. This is of course a model “T” question packed with sawdust to fool the customer. We want a CP to lead the working class. We also want a broad farmer-labor party to gather together all those who are hot yet ready to accept the leadership of a Communist Party. We want this for the reason of maximum unity against war and fascism. We invite Darcy and TRA to give their opinions on the 7th World Congress of the C.I.; to tell us why they feel it was all wrong; why they think the decisions of that congress slowed up the real work of the American CP. Darcy should finally get off the “off-the-record” and finally get on the “on the record.”

TRA criticizes Wallace and asks how we can accept leadership from him. Ridiculous! Who has asked TRA to accept leadership from Wallace? The whole point is to work to free the PP of the Rogges and the Wallaces. But TRA actively helps hand over the PP to the Wallaces and the Rogges by condemning not the Wallaces, but the PP.

Realizing how empty its position is, TRA finds it advisable to state: “A coalition of the CP with (not in) the PP is advisable and logical.” Now TRA is stuck on a preposition; with, not in. What is the straw preposition the TRA has set up to knock down? TP has certainly not suggested that the CP liquidate itself and join the PP as a party. The truth is that TRA does not consider it possible for a CP to help build a PP without liquidating itself.

And now let us watch TRA reach new depths as it drags Stalin along with it for protection – as it fights the ideas of Stalin:

TP’s continued support of the coalition-within-one-party tactic contradicts Comrade Stalin’s clear advice that ’the ideology of subordination of the interests of the proletariat to the interests of the petty-bourgeoisie within one common party... is alien and abhorrent to Leninism.” (Stalin’s emphasis, p. 16, History of the C.P.S.U.)

The “History of the C.P.S.U.” quoted the above to throws some light on centrism, on the period in which the Trotskyites were fostering centrism. TRA quotes it to obscure quite a different situation. The problem here is not whether we should contain the petty-bourgeoisie within the Communist Party. There shouldn’t be any argument on that. The point is whether or not Communists can adopt Lenin’s advice in “Left-Wing Communism.” What is more irresponsible than to confuse the maintaining of the ideological purity of the CP and the ability to use varied tactics in working with people at various stages of development?

TRA reasons with us that although the Greens and Murrays control the Labor Party from the outset, things won’t always be this way. But why, when we have the beginning of a Farmer-Labor Party, do we have to sabotage it to make way for one a million times more backward like TRA’s Murray-Green party.

Note this later development of TRA logic: “it must be understood that the Greens and Murrays and other reformist labor leaders, at the present time, are not interested in a Labor Party.” This is very interesting from two angles. First, this is a fine anti-climax: the PP must give way before the Murray-Green party and you can’t have the Murray-Green party because Murray and Green aren’t yet in the mood. What kind of finagling is this? Secondly, we hope TRA isn’t as naive as its argument. TRA should know that whenever, from inception, the 3rd party movement showed signs of catching hold of the workers, the reactionary labor leaders were quick to drag a Reuther-type 3rd party out of the mothballs.

This continues to the present day. Most recently even the Labor Zionist Council of America recommended it. The stronger the PP gets, the more insistent will be the demand for a new labor party from the worst reactionaries. We will best be able to influence such a broad labor party by being in the strongest position – that is by having the strongest PP.

In any case, first putting the Murray-Green labor party in place of the PP and then finding that such a substitution is not on the order of the day, TRA emerges free of all responsibilities regarding a Farmer-Labor party and its organization against war and fascism.

TRA quotes Engels on the importance of a “distinct workers party” in the U.S. But it would take diabolics as against dialectics to prove that Engels would want to replace a PP (with all its weaknesses) with a reactionary war party of Green and Murray. TRA loses sight of its own logic when it quotes Engels to the effect that the “inevitable evils” of such a new party are “also transitory ones.” How true, and yet TRA couldn’t remember this when it damned the PP for its transitory evils. Engels was speaking of an America, which had not yet had a workers’ party of any sort. At the moment, the American scene is pregnant with, possibilities for the rapid growth or the rapid destruction of the PP. This situation gives rise to the Murray-Green party as a counter-irritant against the PP. Engels was not boosting a stooge party designed to confuse the workers long enough to destroy their party and then dissolve back into the Democrat party.

According to TRA, Engels wanted to see a labor party in America – but not a PP. Engels wanted a labor party, even with evils – but not the PP. Engels wanted to see the working class move as a class – and TRA adds under Green and Murray, not under the PP. A strange dead end for a road paved with Marxist quotations.

In America today we fight for peace under especially difficult conditions because we have no real CP. Nevertheless, we have the responsibility for building a peace movement as we work for a real CP. TRA has defaulted on its responsibility and doped itself in sophistry. It has nothing constructive to offer for peace – or for the light for a real CP.