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Farrell Dobbs

Marxism vs. US Social Democracy

Speech in the Debate with Norman Thomas,
New York, October 17, 1948

From Fourth International, Vol.9 No.8, December 1948, pp.231-235.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A notable feature of the debate between Farrell Dobbs and Norman Thomas was that it brought out strikingly to what extent the thinking of the Social Democracy, in the person of Norman Thomas, had drifted to the right, becoming virtually indistinguishable from middle-class liberalism. In their past debates with revolutionary Marxists, Social Democrats have customarily placed the main stress on their “agreement” as to the goal of socialism but their disagreement as to the means of attaining this goal, putting forth gradualism or the patching up of bankrupt capitalism as the most effective and “economical” way of gaining socialism. Norman Thomas dropped all this. He was frankly pessimistic about the working class, not only discarding all talk about attaining socialism but openly flaunting the Marxist doctrine. Especially noteworthy was Thomas’ open acknowledgment of his betrayal of his pledge to oppose World War II. He also avowed his determination to stay in the camp of the war-mongers and support not only the next war when it breaks out but the actual preparations for it, especially those already undertaken under the cover of the Marshall “Aid” Program. In this connection Farrell Dobbs succeeded in exposing and smoking out Thomas completely. — Ed.

* * *

Comrade Chairman, Comrades and Friends, The question we are debating today — “Which Program Will Lead to a Socialist America?” — is not a new one. We are actually dealing here with a century-old struggle waged by the adherents of scientific socialism against all pretenders who have advocated, under a socialist label, programs and theories that have nothing in common with socialism. This struggle has been in progress since the. day the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels was first published in 1848.

Seen in this light, the only correct one, it is easy to understand that the issues in this debate go far beyond mere rivalries in an election campaign, whose immediate outcome will settle nothing fundamental. Let me pose these basic questions:

Why has the bankrupt system of capitalism survived? Why has the Russian Revolution degenerated? Why has the scourge of fascism lacerated mankind? Why have the devastations of one world war been followed by another, with a third and more terrible war in open preparation?

There is only one answer to these questions, and it has been given by history: Bankrupt capitalism has survived beyond its time, and inflicted untold evil on the world, primarily because of the betrayal of the program and principles of socialism by those who pretended to speak in its name.

The imperialists were able to dragoon the socialist working class of Europe into the First World War in 1914 thanks only to the betrayal of the Social-Democratic leaders. For years they had spoken in the name of socialism, but when the decisive test of war came they acted as agents of capitalism. For years before the outbreak of war they had preached international working-class solidarity and threatened revolutionary action in case of war. But when the war broke out they forgot their promises and supported the war of the imperialists. They set the pattern in World War I which Norman Thomas followed in World War II. The great Russian Revolution of 1917 was led by real socialists, honest disciples of Marx, who had fought capitalism in war as in peace. Lenin and Trotsky hoped to extend the revolution to Germany and then to the other European countries, and establish the Socialist United States of Europe.

That would have sounded the death knell of capitalism, and it was entirely possible. The war-tortured masses of Europe had been raised to their feet by the Russian Revolution and were ready for the great transformation.

But here again the pseudo-socialists, who controlled the great Social-Democratic parties and trade unions, intervened to play their tragic role of deception, sabotage and betrayal. They continued to preach socialism in words, but in practice they placed themselves at the service of the capitalist class and its regime. The Social-Democratic leaders saved tottering capitalism, and took over the responsibility of government when the capitalists were no longer able to rule in their own name.

When Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg worked to pave the way for the socialist solution in Germany in 1918 and early 1919, they were murdered at the instigation of the self-proclaimed socialists Scheidemann and Noske, who were in power at that time in Germany under the “socialist” President Ebert.

By their policies, by their actions, the Social Democrats helped to drag mankind to the edge of the abyss. It was this ruthless crushing of the German socialist revolution that opened the road to Hitler and enabled Stalinism to rise in Russia.

Stalinism is not an aggressive crusading force for international workers revolution, as the American imperialists falsely and cunningly represent it, and as some victims of their propaganda mistakenly understand it. On the contrary, Stalinism is a a timid, cowardly, national reformist movement which began with the repudiation of revolutionary internationalism and thereby broke fundamentally with the doctrines and the tradition of Bolshevism. That is the real reason for the purges. The Stalinists had to massacre a whole generation of revolutionary internationalists to achieve their aims.

Stalinism is a new variety of reformism which has nothing in common with the revolutionary internationalism of the Bolsheviks. But at bottom, Stalinism has very much in common with the reformist Social Democrats.

It is not an accident or a misunderstanding that the Stalinists have consistently and unceasingly fought the Marxist internationalists, the Trotskyists, with every weapon from frame-up and slander to mass murder and individual assassination, while they have frequently collaborated in the most intimate manner with the reformist socialists of the Social-Democratic camp in all countries of the world, including the United States.

Of course, Stalinism and Social Democracy are not identical. There is a fierce rivalry between them for control of the labor movement. But it is the rivalry of bureaucratic cliques and not the rivalry of irreconcilable ideological opponents. They are both reformists to the marrow of their bones. They both fear and hate the proletarian revolution above everything else, and never hesitate to unite against it as they did in Spain and France in 1936 and the subsequent years. And they never cease to hound and slander the Trotskyists, precisely because the Trotskyists are the consistent and uncompromising advocates of the workers revolution.

The prolonged survival of capitalism, with all its frightful consequences, is due primarily to the influence and the treacherous work of these two reformist currents in the labor movement, one falsely calling itself “socialist,” and the other “communist.” All the might of American imperialism could not save international capitalism, nor save itself, without their aid.

Consider the situation throughout the world for the last 34 years.

We have witnessed the complete bankruptcy of capitalism as a social system, above all in Europe. The working people of Europe showed themselves eager to find the socialist solution. Despite deceit and treachery, the European proletariat fought over and over, again, in one country after another, to put an end to decaying capitalism and to establish a socialist order.

But in every crisis, whenever the capitalists were no longer able to rule in their own name, they turned to the so-called socialists and to the reformist labor parties — alone, or in combination with the Stalinists — to save their rule.

A similar situation is again unfolding in Europe today. The British Labor Party is working with might and main to prop up senile British imperialism, thereby only paving the way for a return of reaction. The decrepit French empire was saved after World War II by a coalition of Stalinists and reformist Socialists, thereby paving the way for the coming of General de Gaulle to power. And that can mean nothing else than the establishment of a military-police state which will attempt to crush all workers organizations with the economic and military help of American imperialism. It was likewise a coalition of Stalinists and Socialists that salvaged Italian capitalism, only to be booted cut of office when their services were no longer needed.

These are the bitter fruits of opportunism and class collaboration policies, practiced with equal vileness by Social Democrats and Stalinists.

We of the Socialist Workers Party have nothing to do with these brands of so-called “socialism” or “communism.” We are orthodox Marxists, because we know that Marxism is the only revolutionary socialism of the working class, and that is the only genuine socialism. History has demonstrated the spuriousness of every other brand.

Marxism is a theory of social evolution which affirms that capitalism is obsolete and bankrupt, and that it must be, and inevitably will be, replaced by a higher form of social organization which Marx and Engels called socialism, or communism.

Marxism teaches that socialism will not fall from the skies. Neither will it be gained by any appeals to the good will and compassion of the capitalist exploiters, as the Utopians, who preceded Marx, used to think, and as some people still seem to think.

Socialism can be realized only as the outcome of the class struggle of the workers.

The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, in which the principles of scientific socialism were first proclaimed to the world 100 years ago, begins with the words: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The class struggle is the motive force of history. Politics has no serious meaning except as the expression of conflicting class interests. Marx and Engels asserted, and we repeat after them, that there is an irreconcilable conflict of class interests between the workers and their capitalist exploiters. The political program of a working-class party must be determined accordingly.

All the political actions and judgments of a workers party must always be directed against the capitalist class, and never be taken in collaboration with them. The class struggle is the central and governing principle of socialist politics. It is by carrying the class struggle to its necessary conclusion — that is, to the victory of the working class and the abolition of capitalism — that the socialist society will be realized. This is the teaching of Marxism. There is no other way.

And every attempt to find another way, by supporting the capitalists, by conciliating them, by collaborating with them, in peace or in war, has led not toward the socialist goal but to defeat and disaster for the workers.

“Whenever revolutionary socialists discuss the socialist road for their own country, they talk in terms of a worldwide struggle. This is especially necessary today when we discuss “Which Program Will Lead to a Socialist America?” Involved is not only America but the entire world. For everybody knows that American monopoly capitalism is the main bulwark, one might even say the only bulwark, of tottering capitalism the world over.

The tyrannical Greek monarchy, the moth-eaten British empire, the paralytic French regime, the Vatican government in Italy, the puppet regime of the Japanese Mikado, the corrupt and bloody dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek in China — all of them would have crumbled into dust long ago, were it not for American support.

Let me add, that the monstrous Stalinist regime of police oppression, forced labor and bloody purges could never survive the American socialist revolution.

This role of American imperialism as the main powerhouse of world reaction places tremendous responsibilities on American socialists. Among these is the responsibility to learn from the lessons of the terrible defeats of the European working class, and to teach these lessons to the American workers. This is what we Trotskyists are trying to do.

Bourgeois Liberation Versus Marxism

The American working class, so powerful in its trade union organizations, is on the verge of a great political awakening. All the more incumbent is it upon socialists, or those who want to be socialists, to educate this working class in the true program of socialism. And that is the program of Marx and Engels, of Lenin and Trotsky.

There can be no greater crime than to miseducate or deceive this working class upon whom so much depends for the salvation of mankind. It is a crime to offer them a program of middle-class liberalism under the label of socialism. That is essentially what the program, and even more the practice, of Norman Thomas and the Socialist Party sums up to.

Some 12 years ago there was a glimmer of promise that the Socialist Party would once again become a potent factor in the class struggle of the workers for socialism. Those were the days when the Old Guard gang of conservative and contented bureaucrats broke with the Socialist Party and founded the Social Democratic Federation. Those were the days of revolutionary-sounding resolutions against war and capitalism, when revolutionists were invited to come into the party. That promise didn’t last very long.

The approach of war made it clear that the brave words of the party resolutions would soon be put to the test, and Thomas and the group around him shrank from the test.

The split with the Old Guard had taken place precisely over the anti-war resolution. But Thomas and the others, who reject the socialism of Marxism, the socialism of the class struggle in war as in peace, turned against the revolutionists who remained true to the struggle against imperialist war and again sought unity with the Old Guard war-mongers.

The Socialist Party, as represented by the heroic, fearless revolutionary socialist, Eugene V. Debs, has changed its character beyond recognition under the leadership of Norman Thomas. The middle-class liberalism of war-supporting Norman Thomas has no more in common with the militant socialism of the anti-war fighter Debs than Stalinism has in common with the Bolshevik Party of Lenin. The Socialist Party today represents not a continuation of Debs’ tradition but a complete break with this tradition.

Trotsky once said that Norman Thomas calls himself a socialist as a result of a misunderstanding on his part. Trotsky did not mean this remark as a personal insult, but simply as a reference to the fact that by rejecting Marxism and the class struggle as the guiding line of politics, he could not carry on a consistent struggle against the capitalist rulers and their government.

This remark was made in 1940, a year before America entered the war. The evolution of Socialist Party policy since that time under the guidance of Thomas has amply demonstrated the correctness of Trotsky’s appraisal.

Ever since America entered the war, for profit and plunder, in December 1941, Thomas has found himself in fundamental agreement with the United States State Department on all the fundamental questions of foreign policy while critical on secondary points.

Henry Wallace, whom we oppose just as Thomas does but for opposite reasons — Thomas criticizes Wallace because he is friendly with the Stalinists; we say the Stalinists have once again betrayed the workers by supporting the capitalist politician Wallace — Wallace didn’t miss the mark very far the other day when he characterized Thomas as a. fellow-traveler of the bipartisan foreign policy of the Republican-Democratic coalition.

To make that characterization more precise and accurate, I would add that he is a critical fellow-traveler of this imperialist foreign policy, but a fellow-traveler just the same. He supports all their major decisions and invariably limits his criticisms to methods of executing them and similar secondary matters.

He supported the war of the American imperialists but insisted that they conduct it as humanely as possible. Consider his comment on the dropping of the atomic bomb on defenseless Hiroshima, the most terrible atrocity in the history of the human race.

When this Japanese city and its doomed population were blasted into atomic dust, Norman Thomas wrote in the Socialist Call, August 20, 1945: “Certainly that bomb should not have been dropped on a crowded city without warning.”

Not without warning! Such humanitarianism is on the same plane as criticizing an assassin because he has failed to inquire about his victim’s health before plunging a dagger into his heart.

The so-called socialism of Norman Thomas and the Socialist Party turns out in practice to be nothing but critical support of American imperialism. The capitalist rulers understand that very well. That’s why they have such a benevolent attitude toward him and give him so much free and friendly publicity in their press.

The Socialist Workers Party is an irreconcilable opponent of American imperialism. They understand that too. That’s why they persecute and prosecute us. And even deprive a legless veteran, James Kutcher of Newark, New Jersey, of the right to make a living as a clerical worker for the simple reason that he is a member of the Socialist Workers Party.

It is true that the Stalinists derive their policy directly from the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and sell out the interests of the American working class every time, in response to every twist and turn of Stalinist diplomacy. That’s why we are the irreconcilable opponents of the Stalinists and their so-called “communism.”

But it is equally true that Norman Thomas derives his basic policies from the American State Department, as shown by his support of the imperialist war from 1941 to 1945 and his present support of the Marshall Plan which is nothing but the program of preparation for another world war. That’s why we are irreconcilable opponents of Norman Thomas and his so-called “socialism.”

Our Program

In contrast to the Socialist Party and the Stalinists, the Socialist Workers Party pursues on all questions, especially the war question, a policy independent of both the Kremlin and Washington. Our policy is designed to serve the interests of the working people and not of their masters or bureaucratic betrayers.

Our Election Platform demands the taking of the war-making powers out of the hands of Congress. We are opposed to all secret diplomacy. We stand for the withdrawal of all troops from foreign soil. We demand the complete independence of the colonial peoples. We place no confidence whatever in the United Nations, or in the Marshall Plan, or the Baruch Plan, or any other plan, scheme or subterfuge designed to cover and promote the predatory aims of American imperialism.

Our program, for war as for peace, is summed up in two fundamental propositions which proceed from the principle of the class struggle as the guiding line of working-class politics.

  1. No support whatever to the government of the capitalists in war or in peace.
  2. In place of the capitalist government which rules America and seeks to rule the whole world and seeks to dominate the peoples of the entire world — in the interests of a small minority — we advocate a government of workers and farmers which would rule in the name and the interests of the immense majority at home and offer peace and friendship to all the peoples of the world.

The War Question

The question of war, in which all questions of socialism are concentrated, now has a burning urgency for all the people everywhere who live in dread of the terrible things in preparation, in these twilight days of the long-outlived and utterly reactionary capitalist system.

What hope can we ever have of socialism, or even of the preservation of the remnants of democracy, or even of the salvation of the human race, if we don’t resolutely oppose the endless wars which capitalism inflicts upon mankind?

I wish to put this burning question before you now as the central and decisive issue of our discussion, as it is the center of all discussions taking place throughout the world. I will begin by asking Norman Thomas not what he is doing, but why?

I ask him point-blank to explain to this audience why he betrayed his promise to oppose the Second World War.

I ask him to explain why he supports the present bipartisan foreign policy of the United States government, which is nothing but a sinister preparation for a Third World War, that threatens the life of the whole human race on this planet.

I want to ask him to explain to this audience why he is doing that, and how he reconciles it with the principles and traditions of socialism.

It is not necessary for me to ask Norman Thomas what position he is going to take in the impending war. You and I already know. His whole course shows that he is going to support the same American imperialist gang that he supported in the last war. This time for the domination and enslavement of the world by the most bloodthirsty enemies of the human race, whose twin headquarters are Wall Street and Washington.

And it is not necessary to ask us where the Socialist Workers Party will stand. We proved in the last war, not without risks and sacrifices, that we are opposed to this imperialist gang in war as well as in peace, as every genuine socialist must be.

The war which the cold-blooded financiers and militarists are preparing will be a war of aggression by American imperialism for the domination and enslavement of the whole world. Irreconcilable opposition to this projected war will be a defense of the human race. We take our position in this defense for the life and freedom and independence of mankind. And no one worthy of the name of socialist can do otherwise.

One of the aims of this war for the conquest of the world, by reducing a few hundred cities and a few hundred million people to atomic ashes, will be the conquest of the Soviet Union, the overthrow of its system of nationalized economy and planned production, its dismemberment and reduction to colonial status, the reestablishment of the rule of capitalists and landlords under a fascist regime serving as the agents of the American imperialist overlords and sharing their blood-drenched profits with them.

An essential part of the war program of American imperialism will be the cementing of alliances with the most reactionary elements in all countries against their own people.

In the period of preparation of this third war for so-called “democracy” we already see in the first line the reactionary, authoritarian Vatican and its army of priestly enemies of human freedom throughout the world; the ecclesiastical vultures who blessed the dictator-murderer, Mussolini, and sprinkled holy water over the head of the butcher Franco.

Reaching its foreign tentacles into this country, our “democratic” ally, the Vatican, has only recently given us a demonstration of its love for free speech and democracy by instigating the exclusion of the liberal Nation from the public schools of Newark and New York; by working night and day to undermine and destroy the American public school system; and by uniting and organizing all reactionary forces in the trade unions — through the instrument of the priest-controlled “Association of Catholic Trade Unionists” — to drive out all militant unionists.

Those who wish to enter this so-called “democratic” coalition for the Third World War must begin by kneeling to the Pope, for he is the first and most powerful ally of the American State Department.

Those who support the coming war for so-called “democracy” under American leadership must shake hands in friendship and smoke the pipe of peace with all the dethroned monarchs who have found ready asylum in America and England in flight from the wrath of their own people; and the King of Greece who is supported on his bloody throne by American money, arms and generals.

They must shake the blood-stained hand of the dictator Chiang Kai-shek; unite with the reactionary feudal gang in Turkey, and with de Gaulle, the American candidate for military dictator of France.

And finally, gagging and protesting, but going along just the same, they must accept the partnership of Franco, who will soon be rebaptized as a “democrat” and furnished with American arms and money for his part in the holy war for “democracy” and “freedom” and the “rights of man,” and the sacred profits of American financiers.

The Socialist Workers Party will not go along with this alliance. It is madness! It is a conspiracy against humanity! And it will not succeed! The threatened peoples of the world will never consent to become the colonial slaves of Wall Street.

And the American working class — the greatest social power in the world — will soon discover that they are marked as the first victims of this imperialist war against humanity, and they will rise up against it.

The alliance of the American imperialists with all the reactionary, privilege-seeking elements throughout the world is a great and fearsome power. But the alliance of the great American working class with the oppressed and freedom-seeking peoples of the world is a still mightier power. And in the end it will prevail.

The victory of this alliance will bring peace and socialism to the world.

The Socialist Workers Party will fight in this alliance and for this victory at all costs and with all its strength.

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