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Socialist Appeal, February 1935, Volume 1 No. 1, Page 22-66
Transcribed and Marked Up by Damon Maxwell in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.


An examination into the tactics and aims of Local Cook County Socialist Party as a political organization of the working class, in the current election campaign.

By Arthur G. McDowell.

In the period of the rapid, almost mushroom growth of the Socialist Party in the years before the war, a quite simple faith actuated the bulk of the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party as such was to grow in numbers, influence, and political office, until finally sufficient power was attained to establish socialism in the United States. Thus, independent labor political action to the Socialist meant that the labor movement should support the Socialist Party. Victory for the socialists in the struggle with Gompers in the A. F. of L. was expected to lead to a situation somewhat akin to that already attained in Germany. There a vast membership party gave a vague lip service to the revolutionary philosophy of Marx, while actually carrying out a reformist agitation and program in accordance with the needs and demands of the trade union movement which the Social-Democrats dominated, but whose machinery and immediate interests at any given moment actually dominated the theoretically – “Socialist” party, even in conflict with the most fundamental principles of socialism.

The socialist attempt to capture the trade unions in the United States was either defeated by Gompers or diverted by socialist participation in dual union movements. In time of World War crisis, the trade unions therefore went their way and the American Socialist Party, its own, instead of as in Germany, the socialists going to the trade union way also. The government war persecution shattered socialist membership strength in the populist American hinterland, and the majority of the new foreign language federation strength gained in the post-war period, as a reflection of the revolutionary upsurge in Europe, was carried off by the various communist splits.

The Socialist party was left extremely weak, and with its preponderance of strength in the industrial states, and the leadership pretty completely in the hands of the active leadership of the traditionally socialist trade union section, including the depressed prestige of the German movement among American socialists as a result of its war record, turned socialist attention and admiration more to the English model where the Independent Labor party (closely associated with the American Socialist party internationally during the war) was a Socialist party within a confessedly non-socialist Labor party.

In 1924, without any adequate preliminary preparation, the socialist party was swept into the LaFollette movement. The party’s weakness matched with its close attachment (dependence) on the trade unions in its few strongholds, places like New York, betrayed it. The mistake was not in the Conference for Progressive Political Action, but in the kowtowing to trade union officialdom which prevented the Socialist party from playing an independent role and perhaps forcing a permanent national federated Farmer-Labor political party. As it was, a promising movement dissolved without issue, leaving the Socialist party even weaker than before and with a distorted conception and a bitter taste of mass farmer-labor political action.

As a result, the nominal position of the Socialist party from that time forth has been approximately that “if the trade unions and basic organizations of farmer and worker start a labor party, we will not refuse to go along or stand in the way”. Obviously this negative attitude was scarcely worthy of being called a policy or tactic. The 1954 convention did little more than rephrase this stand a little more positively and socialist delegates at the 1954 convention of the A P of L were active in support of a motion for independent political action of labor for the first time in many years. This was more the result of logical association of tactics in the minds of the socialists who as an element had for two years been becoming steadily more active and aggressive in the trade unions, than of a positive party policy on the labor party question.

To clarify the question, let it be stated clearly that the belief of the writer is that there is positively no hope for the American Socialist party imitating German or French development. The Socialist party is not going to become the mass labor party, Some federated movement of trade unions with some farmer allies is logical to the point of complete exclusion of the other possibility.

The question then is the nature of the function to be filled by the Socialist party. It is obviously our job to lead this farmer-labor movement when it emerges, to heavily Influence its immediate as well as final program, to determine its tactics and policies in the direction of socialism. How can this be done?

First, it will be necessary for the socialists not merely to accept the development when it comes, but to be the leaders in the agitation which brings it about. This involves a much clearer and more positive trade union policy and program than before. Second, it will be necessary for the socialist organization to be ready to offer something much more essential to the very life of the new movement than either a platform or philosophy, for both of which the Socialist party has rich experience and tradition to draw upon. However there are scores of groups with some baggage of this kind hanging around the fringes. If the Socialist party, as a group, is really to occupy the unique position of leadership that it is capable of, it must be able to offer a rising farmer-labor party concrete experience and machinery for the carrying out of the indirect action constituting political activity.

It cannot be too much emphasized that political action in the sense of electoral agitation is a very indirect type of action as contrasted with the relatively direct type of action involved in trade union activities. It requires techniques with which the bulk of organized labor and its leadership are not familiar. The staging of political rallies, financing working class political party work, platform and publicity drafting, literature writing, public speaking, and organization of a press, those require special abilities and training all too seldom found in the trade union movement itself.

There are various sources from which the labor party when it comes can draw those abilities. First, they can by high wages hire experts away from the similar capitalist organizations, but even were staffing with that kind of talent advisable, it could not be financed on a scale large enough to fill the need. Second, the “politicians” in the trade union movement will undoubtedly come to the front. This group is almost completely corrupted by training in and commitments to the old capitalist parties. Third, there are the fringe opportunists, at bottom thoroughly middle class and reformist in philosophy, like the LaFollettes who have something immediate to offer. Fourth, there are the “wildmen movements” like the Townsend Planners. Fifth, there are the radical groups of which the Socialist party is easily the most significant, bound together by a definite philosophy and with a fairly clear-cut economic program covering the entire range of present-day industrial civilization.

The socialist organization’s chief strength is its ability to offer the services of trained people accustomed to carrying out necessary political activities on a voluntary basis without the distorting influence of individual economic interest in one form or another. Surveying the varied groups which would under American conditions elbow to the front the minute the labor movement officially outers upon a political action course, the most important question that can today be raised in the Socialist party is, “to what extent is the Socialist party preparing a disciplined Idealistic membership trained to perform those functions indispensable to the life of a mass labor party actually contending for political office and power?” An analysis of the Chicago organization and its activity is in order.

The Socialist party, Local Cook County, is in the municipal election campaign of 1935, in Chicago. It is in to the extent of preparing and filing petitions to nominate an alderman in eleven wards as compared with eight in 1933. It has progressed definitely to the extent that an organized committee of party lawyers, this year, issued nomination forms after careful study and prepared instructions for petition workers based on detailed study of objections to petitions sustained in the contest of two years ago. In six out of the eleven wards legal objections were filed by the socialist organization against other candidates’ petitions, as a bargaining point. Finally, a serious attempt has been undertaken to place a city-wide ticket under the party name on the April election ballot at a cost of 60,000 signatures of registered voters in Chicago, gained by February 26th.

Platforms, petitions, letters have been printed, time and energy of regular and special party officers invested, and in short, the main force of central socialist organization exerted in the direction of carrying on the activities of a political party under the conditions of a capitalist political democracy. On the surface, this would seem to be the most natural thing in the world. When one youthful critic of the Socialist party a couple of years ago, complained that the Socialist party in the heart of industrial Pennsylvania was “too politically minded, the veteran party secretary rejoined coldly, “What do you expect a political party to do, knit?”

As a matter of fact, the assumption made by the party secretary in that remark is not made by the Socialist party membership as a whole, certainly not in Cook County, A few facts should give an index to the actual attitude governing the activity of the majority of the party members. There are on the rolls of Cook County over 1,000 members by count and around 700 by average dues payments. In the drive for petition signatures to put up a state and local ticket in the fall of 1954 the record shows less than 150 party members took part in the petition drive which was barely successful in getting a place on the state ballot, and less than 200 worked or watched at the polls on election day. Less than W/o participation in minimum political activity.

Again, in the campaign to put up aldermanic candidates 15 out of the county’s 31 branches did not participate or attempt participation. Two of the wards, the 40th and the 9th where real voting strength was shown two years ago, did not even seriously attempt to nominate candidates this year. The entire North District including seven branches does not have a candidate in a single ward. The strong Upper North Branch started out to nominate candidates in three wards and ended up ignominiously without filing a single petition. At the beginning of the year it might be remarked, 17 out of the county’s 51 branches did not in name or in conscious purpose correspond to any definite political subdivision.

The answer to the query of what do you expect the Socialist party to do would seem to be answered neatly by the overwhelming majority of party members as “knit”. This is not quite a full and fair verdict. The county did stage a public reception for Julius Deutech as a gesture of international solidarity and opposition to fascism in the course of which they brought nearly 3,000 people together in spite of some of the yearns worst weather. Over a thousand dollars were raised to make the meeting possible and a success. A considerable if not very intensive program of education of members and sympathizers has been carried on through branch meetings, forums and street meetings. Chicago is unique among cities of its size in having a Labor College officially endorsed by the central labor body and the pioneer work there was done by socialists. The Chicago Workers Committee on Unemployment has set standards among organizations of the unemployed and socialists have played an honorable part there. All of this and more can be said but it will not justify the continued existence of the Socialist party under the guise of an organization serving at present or at some future date hoping to serve as a needed political instrument for the working class to attain immediate alms or ultimate socialism.

Some sense of this was developed in the County Central Committee discussion which preceded the decision to attempt to get 60,000 signatures for a city ticket in the face of the fact that County could barely bring forth its half of the 25,000 quota for a state ticket last November. It should be remarked that the real drive of segment for this political action at any cost came from the active trade unionists in the county body. Two points were typical of their discussion. First, that in order to maintain respect for the socialist party and preserve existing support in the organized labor movement it was vitally necessary that the Socialist party make a serious show of political activity. Second, that sentiment for independent labor (class) political action was growing and should be capitalized by attempting to federate sympathetic labor bodies in direct support of the socialist campaign.

Those favoring political action in the municipal campaign carried the day by a heavy majority. The action was independent of any Decision handed down from a national or state convention. Responsibility for activity devolves clearly upon the local organization. If we are not to fail again to rally the party membership to support of this solemnly undertaken program it will be necessary to get over the critical importance of a Socialist party membership trained in political activity, in view of the fact that the next logical forward step of the labor movement as a whole will be a political step. There is only one school where political training is secured and that is out in the words and precincts doing the mechanical work.

The 1935 campaign has two main drives: (1) To bring about maximum participation of the party members in routine political activity through the quota of signatures for each member to secure and (2) To continue the work of involving sympathetic sections of the labor movement immediately in political action, under own banner. The first means training our membership, widening its field of contacts from which recruiting can take place and preparing the socialist organization as a whole for coming developments by making it more “politically minded”. The second drive does many of the same things but above all strengthens our base in the trade unions and increases our skill in working in cooperation with the mass organizations of labor. We will assess our success or our dismal failure according to the degree we attain our set objectives. For the sincere socialist there can only be one test of his or her devotion and that is by measuring his or her revolutionary spirit against the size and primitive nature of this political task.. By our performance let us be judged.

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