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Socialist Appeal, August 1936, Volume 2 No. 07, Page pp.14-16
Transcribed and Marked Up by Damon Maxwell in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

Two Defenses and an Analysis

By Melos Most

AN EVALUATION OF THE SOCIALIST CONVENTION. By Jack Altman Socialist Call, June 6, 1936.

THE SOCIALIST CONVENTION. By Aaron Levenstein Modern Monthly, July, 1936.

THE LEFT-WING AT THE CLEVELAND CONVENTION. By Haim Kantorovitch, American Socialist Monthly, July, 1936.

At the time of the fourth congress of the Communist International in 1923, Lenin, in order to make clear his position in relation to that of Bukharin and Zinoviev, declared: “I am a right winger.” One would at least expect some of our convention apologists to introduce themselves with the same modesty.

The fact that they do not choose to do so makes two of the three above-listed articles all the less understandable. I refer to the contributions of Altman and Levenstein. Kantorovitch’s offers a sharp contrast. The contrast can be made despite the differences in form and apparent purpose of the three pen products; for Altman and Levenstein discuss not only inner Party matters, but even inner left wing matters, to as intimate a degree though not as great a length, as does Kantorovitch.

The Credentials Contest

With or without introduction, all of the articles begin as did the convention, with the contest of the two New York delegations. This says Altman, was a struggle of "two philosophies. One, a compromising, tired, and besmirched ‘socialism,’ *  *  * the other the vigorous, militant socialism of the left wing.” Levenstein likewise explains, “the issue between them was clear,” it was “the philosophy of Socialism through press releases” versus “the philosophy of Socialism through struggle.”

These are two astonishing conversions. For, while many revolutionary Socialists insisted that the conflict should be a principled one and while the speakers of the Old Guard persistently attempted to bait the Militant New Yorkers into a discussion of these principles, Altman’s and Levenstein’s delegation refused to be led astray! Principles were not to be discussed when there was a question of vote-getting.

That an organizational victory should be labeled a principled one by some of the very people responsible for having refused to make it so, is like having your pie and eating it. Kantorovitch exposes this at great length, concluding, “it must be clearly understood that this was a victory not of one concept of Socialism over another, but solely of the principle of Party democracy and democratic centralization.”

After the Seating

Whatever there is to be said about the conduct of the left wing in the fight to seat its New York delegation, however, it may be interpreted as an incorrect but well-intentioned means to the necessary end of beating the Old Guard. Not so for its behavior after New York was seated. Now that the imminent danger was over, here was the real opportunity for asserting themselves. And this they did, according to Altman: “These delegates fought for a more centralized and therefore disciplined Party, and always put the interest of the Party as a whole above their sectional interests.” While this may not seem a spectacular method of asserting oneself, Levenstein’s account is even more negative and indeed anti-climactic: “Young but not rash, impetuous but not reckless, they turned to face the problems before the Party. With right wing elements in their midst on the one hand, and ultra leftist forces on the other, they directed their energies toward. ...” (I pause in anticipation) “... maintaining the all-inclusiveness of their ranks”! There seems to be some disagreement here as to exactly what the left wing WAS doing after the credentials scrap. Kantorovitch has his own explanation: “It seems that after the victory over the Old Guard the left wing disappeared as an organized force in the convention.”

Let us see what Altman says to bear out his contention that the left wing asserted itself on organizational questions at least. For the organization report he has nothing but passing praise. Apparently the complete capitulation before the Washington State right wingers, who refused to accept the jurisdiction of a nationally appointed western states committee was a “fight for a more centralized Party.” For the constitution committee report he has considerable criticism as has Kantorovitch (Levenstein doesn’t mention it). But the fact that he opposes it AFTER the convention, does not mean that the LEFT WING opposed it AT the convention. It did no such thing, Kantorovitch points out. So where was the “fight for a centralized Party?”

The Labor Committee

However the major problem of discipline and centralization has been posed as one of organizing Socialist leagues within the unions – to which accomplishment New York can and does point with pride. This was to be the real test. What happened? On the labor committee, Gross, representing New York, was defeated in his proposal to advocate Socialist leagues, and DECLINED TO BRING OUT A MINORITY REPORT. Is this “fighting”? The committee’s report did, however, call for compulsory local coordinating labor committees. Biemiller of Wisconsin, a Militant, moved an amendment from the floor to make the committee voluntary! AND THE AMENDMENT WAS ACCEPTED BY THE COMMITTEE! Certainly THIS is not fighting.

“We are,” says Kantorovitch, “just where we were before.” And then he makes his first mistake. “I do not for a moment believe,” he goes on to say, “that the left wing was for the amendment.” That word “for” is hard to define, but if the left wingers, struck suddenly dumb, did not approve the amendment, then Biemiller who made it, Gross who accepted it, and Altman and Levenstein who review Gross’s action sympathetically, are all apparently exceptions. The Party, they imply, was not ready to accept such a revolutionary step. This was a reason for not taking the amendment to a vote and allowing the convention to decide!

Two years from now will be time. As Levenstein explains, the Party will “learn from the experience during the next two years of the locals that set up such committees.” Are these committees then, something new? Well, Altman is more exact, if less effective. He says “two MORE years.”

For anyone to say that the left wing “fought for a more centralized, and therefore more disciplined Party,” may be good wishful thinking, but it’s not “evaluation” by a long shot.

The Election Platform

Now we come to the question of revolutionary ideology, “the philosophy of Socialism through struggle.” None of the three articles deals with the election platform, which was the main point of criticism of the convention in this magazine’s lead editorial last month. Presumably discussion is restrained out of fear lest such criticism extending beyond Party boundaries might hurt the campaign.

But our general impression of the convention requires a complete picture and what took place at the Platform Committee’s report is of great significance. Levenstein states that “a political united front with the Communist Party for the 1936 elections had already been rejected by a unanimous convention, determined to wage a revolutionary Socialist campaign.” This means, if anything, that the convention, recognizing an election campaign as primarily an occasion for educating the masses, wanted to run the campaign on the basis of a full Socialist program, which obviously cannot be made identical with the full Communist program, even assuming that they have one left. This is perfectly correct.

But what happened to the full Socialist program? If any political group adopted our present platform as its full ideology, we would not hesitate to brand it as vague and confused, to say the least. Is it all right for us, then, to go about sowing that very vagueness and confusion among the masses of America by means of our platform? I do not wish to do the left wing an injustice here. An inch-by-inch fight WAS made on the election platform, with numerous unsuccessful amendments. The most important of these, the now-famous Whitten Amendment giving some idea of what our goal is, received the support of virtually the entire left wing. Perhaps the biggest scandal of the convention was that New York voted with the right wing against it and caused its defeat.

The Declaration of Principles

The first thing the resolutions committee reported on was the Declaration of Principles. For this it had amendments which, Altman says, “strengthened and clarified it.” Levenstein describes them as “a few clarifying changes.” These changes occurred precisely at points which the Old Guard had raised objection to Kantorovitch also calls them “clarifying,” but he puts the word into quotation marks. The revisions were made, “to appease the Old Guard,” he says plainly. Altman points to the fact that the right wingers failed to criticize the revised Declaration as an example of their complete defeat and bankruptcy. Has he forgotten the old adage that silence means assent?

Other resolutions mentioned are the War Resolution, on the excellence of which all three agree, the one on armed insurrection, to which I shall return shortly, the Farmer-Labor Party, and the United Front. In reviewing the disagreement on the Labor Party both Altman and Levenstein seem to regard the minority of the left wing as representing a psychological rather than political attitude, caused by a reaction of the Minnesota Socialists against the Olson machine. Psychoanalysis of opponents is not a method of discussion; one would prefer to see some answer to the minority ARGUMENTS, rather than an exhibition of hostility, evinced by Altman, or of critical sympathy, shown by Levenstein, toward the minority members. In addition, “localizing” the minority in Minnesota, when it was spread throughout the mid-west, south, and west coast, is not exactly fair.

Omissions and Evasions

These are the resolutions that WERE introduced. There were a host of other vital questions which should concern any party with the least pretence at being revolutionary. Can it be that a Party which seeks leadership over the working class of a nation, cannot even formulate an opinion on the People’s Front, the world crisis, American imperialism and the colonial struggles in Latin America, the Negro question, the Soviet Union, the International ? One of the reasons given is that there was less time than anticipated AT THE CONVENTION. This is just another wav of saying that the resolutions were not formulated IN ADVANCE; that nobody gave advance thought to the question of continuing the left wing struggle after the Old Guard was out.

Kantorovitch is the only one of our analysts who seems to imply this. Altman and Levenstein do not notice it.

Some of these omissions may be the result of a lack of a sense of values. But several missing resolutions defy such an explanation. Certainly nobody was not keenly aware of the timeliness of the People’s Front question. The only possible reason that no resolution on the subject was formulated by the committee was a desire to evade the issue. Other evasions took the form of negative resolutions. This has come to be such an accepted procedure in the movement that nobody notices it. Even the War Resolution is largely negative, as Kantorovitch fails to note, and gives us as its main constructive program a set of legislative demands! Not a thing, in a Socialist resolution, about our basic anti-war strategy before and during wartime.

“Armed Insurrection”

But there is no question that the War Resolution does say a great deal that has to be said, even negatively. This is in marked distinction to the resolution on “armed insurrection.” Altman apparently induces it in his “strengthening” amendments to the Declaration of Principles, but does not mention it specifically. Levenstein tries to make it appear less ridiculous by calling it a “repudiation of putschism.” But Kantorovitch tears it apart, reveals its meaninglessness and concludes: “Putschism has been condemned not only by revolutionary Socialists but even by Communists. It therefore is simply a waste of time to reject what has never been accepted. In any case the added section does not in any way clarify the Declaration of Principles. It only raises anew the problem of the road to powder, which it certainly has not settled.”

This “resolution” is a sort of caricature of the convention. It was written by a left winger. It was written in order to appease the right wing, and evades the issue it is supposed to clarify. And, not even content with imagining the “resolution” as a necessary evil into which they were forced, many left wingers actually delight in it as if it were a great victory.

From their different approaches, the convention critics arrive at different conclusions. Kantorovitch puts it rather brutally : “The one real achievement of the convention of which the left wing may be proud is the resolution on war. Outside of this resolution the left wing seems not to have introduced or fought for anything.”

Altman’s conclusions do not bear the faintest resemblance to this. For him the left-wing was not only “unified theoretically” but “came to the convention with a positive program.” He is satisfied with its accomplishments.

Kantorovitch therefore sees the need for “reeducating the Party membership along the lines of revolutionary Socialism.” To Altman that job appears completed or at any rate secondary; what is needed now, he sums up, is “Comrades, to work!”


He has a right to his own opinion. But when he begins to declare that people who do not agree with it cannot be left wingers he is overstepping the bounds of reason. And that is exactly what he has done. For in this article, while describing the forces at the convention, he suddenly announces to the public that a certain section of the Militants are not Militants at all but “ultra-leftists” and that they cannot be considered under the same heading as the Militants. Who decided this ? Was it the left wing of the Mid-West and the West Coast, where Altman’s “ultra-leftists” are located? No. Was it even the left wing in the East, where Altman is located, which suddenly decided to settle the West’s affairs to his satisfaction? No, it was not.

Altman, in a singlehanded tour de force, simply tracked down the ultra leftists, lodged charges against them, found them guilty, convicted them, and executed them! Fortunately the prisoners were not present for the ceremony.

However, the thing cannot be too lightly dismissed. It was entirely uncalled for, to say the least. Levenstein’s repetition of the reference to “ultra-leftists” in his own article does not help either.

In the face of this, Ernest Erber’s appeal for national left-wing unity in this magazine last month, was of the utmost importance. Let me close with a final quote from Kantorovitch: “The Cleveland Convention has shown that a left wing is now even more necessary than before. *  *  * We missed our opportunity at Cleveland. Let us not repeat our mistakes.”

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