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The New International, December 1942



Enquiry: Into What?


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 11, December 1942, p. 347.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Call, weekly paper of the Norman Thomas party, has never been noted for its theoretical articles. The sermons of Thomas himself are half meaningless nonsense, half dissertations on the theme “Socialism in Retreat” – with Thomas leading. Lillian Symes’ contributions are as haphazardly written as Eleanor Roosevelt’s My Day. She has several times begun a topic, discussed something else, and ended with the observation that here it is the end of the column and I haven’t said what I wanted; guess it will have to wait till next week. Paxton, who was spread all over the front page of several issues as the new Far Eastern expert, is now dishing out the straight Churchill line on India for the New Leader.

The theoretical weakness (a charitable word!) of the party is even better revealed in its monthly magazines. For years, while they was not official magazine, the Modern Monthly (later Quarterly) served the purpose. Increasingly in its later issues this reflected more and more the personally charming but politically amorphous personality of Calverton, its editor, and when he died it died with him. The Socialist Review, edited by Herbert Zam, ex-Clarityite leader, was from the beginning pathetically weak and died even before its editor withdrew into political inactivity. For several years now the Socialist Party has had no theoretical organ, either official or otherwise.

Late last month there appeared the first issue of Enquiry, a Journal of Independent Radical Thought. It is a pocket-size, twenty-page magazine, at least two of whose four editors are SP members. The editorial statement speaks of a “revolutionary outlook,” which can mean anything, but lays emphasis on “a thoroughgoing concern for the maintenance and the extension of the procedures and institutions of democracy ... We want to put democracy first: before class privilege, before appeals to patriotism, before party banner ... We do not mean by this to cut ourselves off from all those who believe that an Anglo-American victory is ... preferable to one by the Axis. Verbal commitments one way or another are not in themselves decisive.”

This air of democratic indecision is carried throughout. The one point the magazine makes is that its editors are in a dilemma. “The dilemma of democratic leftist politics then lies in the fact that having repudiated the Jacobin concept of the seizure and maintenance of power in a revolutionary situation by a small determined minority (not merely as a matter of ethics but as a matter of long-range practical politics) the leftist finds himself in the midst of a world-revolutionary period (there seems general agreement on this) while he must await the development – for it certainly cannot happen overnight – of a type of political organization which, historically, should have developed in a period of capitalist expansion.” So writes Symes. Even the style reflects her dilemma. Even she considers the organization of a social democratic party, somehow lacking the faults of all past social democratic parties, “a large order to be placed so late on the calendar of history.” What to do?

“It is,” writes Philip Selznick, “as if we dared not do anything at all, in the fear that anything we may do will bring unintended evil in its wake ... a source of frustration which cannot be gainsaid ... prolonged soul-searching ...”

An adherent to this mish-mash of Michels and Dewey, not mentioning Marx, specifically denouncing Lenin and Trotsky, is reduced inevitably, in this period, to inaction. The butt of the argument is “democracy,” as understood by this group of ineffective well-wishers. “Democracy can survive,” says Selznick, “only when the concentration of power in the hands of a single social force is avoided, when factions and interests vie for power.” A revolutionary party must forego the doubtful benefits of being democratic by this definition. Small in numbers, harried on every side by reaction, the party today can find its only strength in unity. It cannot afford the luxury of – say, Symes, a top national leader of the SP, berating it in an “independent” journal for its almost complete lack of clarity of purpose, of an understanding of its rôle and of the objective situation, berating it for – indeed – “refusing to face the logic, as well as the possibilities, of its size.”

“So long as centrifugal society divides men into classes, so long as exploitation persists, a mass base will be at hand ... In the adding up of pros and cons, it is evident that the greatest weakness of the mass democratic movement is that of leadership.”

Here, in their own words, is the answer to this group of weak-kneed fence-sitters. Democracy and dilemma begin with the same letter, but they are not the same.

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Last updated on 18 January 2015