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Ernest Erber

The Significance Of The Struggle Between The Yipsels And The Old Guard In New York

(A Letter to the New York Yipsels)

(June-July 1935)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol.1 No.4 June-July 1935 pp.14-18.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dear Comrades:

The New York comrades are no doubt anxious to know how the rest of the country reacts to the fight they are carrying on. Widespread approval or disapproval in the country at large will greatly effect their outlook and also their spirit. I do not know how many other midwest Yipsels’ opinions I am voicing, but I imagine that a considerable number of the comrades who know what the issues at stake are, will probably agree with my view. Particularly, will those agree who are politically developed to the degree of seeing the connection between the present fight and the future development of the party and consequently the whole future complexion of the American labor movement.

I was prompted to write this letter because of the attitude of a minority on the YPSL National Executive Committee and its differences with the majority on the inner party situation, which threw into bold relief a school of thought in the party that well merits examination. The fact that a number of NEC Members wanted to sit as judges in the affair between the Old Guard City Executive Committee and the NYC YPSL and decide on the technicalities of the case, as to who had a greater amount of right on their side, greatly surprised the New York Yipsels who had looked to their NEC for full and unreserved support.

Yet the position of McDowell and the rest of the minority has a deeper basis than a mere attempt to tee above factions and decide only on the evidence and the law without regard for the consequences. I believe the basic conception which divides McDowell and the New York Yipsels is the difference of opinion on the question of whether a split with the Old, Guard is inevitable or not.

If one accepts the position that a split is inevitable, one adopts such tactics as will put one in a favorable position for a split. One fights uncompromisingly, knowing that compromise can only be temporary and might have a demoralizing effect on one’s forces. One attempts to maneuver one’s enemy into a position where he will have to take the overt step in the direction of a split (and consequently, the blame) or will have to retreat thus weakening his prestige and following. Whether the New York Yipsels have consciously held this conception, I do not know. They have done a creditable piece of work in carrying it out in practice.

If one believes that a split is not inevitable, one then acts in a manner to avoid it almost at any cost. The most outstanding tactic is then compromise. One scolds both sides and enumerates the violations of ethics and law by both camps. One seeks out every unwise move to show that both sides are equally irresponsible.

The compromisers make a great fetish of technicalities. They write bewildering theses to show the logic of their position, balancing the authority of the NY SEC against that of the YPSL NEC, the meaning of the simple English word “support” against the possible meanings the SP NEC might have had, and the authority of their logic against each and all who base their reasoning on a factional position instead of law.

Those who accept the inevitability of a split do not nor should they, base their arguments on the simple fact that they consider the political position for which their side stands as being correct. Their arguments must be based on every ruling and precedent in their favor. They do not, however, deceive themselves by thinking that their position is the result of a study of all the legal and ethical questions involved. Rather they understand that all their legal and ethical arguments are used to support a position already arrived at by the logic of the factional fight.

One cannot justify the position that a split is inevitable on a short-sighted view of the day-by-day developments only. For this, one must look backwards and forwards also. It is therefore necessary to review very briefly the past of the contending groups. On the surface the most obvious feature in the fight is the difference between the average age of the Militants and the Old Guard. This line-up on the basis of age (realizing, of course the many exceptions on both sides) cannot be explained simply by the rashness of youth and the conservatism of age. It rather bespeaks a peculiar historical development of the Socialist party.

When the split of 1919 resulted in about 80% of the membership of the party going over to the Communist party or dropping out because of the inner-party fight, the Palmer raids, and the attractions of high wages, it left the Socialist party strength concentrated in a few spots like Milwaukee, Reading, and New York City, due in the first two cases to Socialist influence in municipal politics, and due to influence in the local trade union movement and the Daily Forward in the latter. The Communist split had carried off most of the younger party members and almost the whole youth movement. The party control was left in the hands of men already set in their opinions and constituting a right wing theoretically. The years that followed saw the influence of the party narrow even more to just the above-mentioned centers (and of course, the more or less stable foreign federations), These years of capitalist prosperity and general working class aloofness from radicalism made the Old Guard feel more correct than ever for having resisted the Communists when they were prophesying the Social Revolution in 1919.

With the crisis lowering living standards and bringing on unemployment, the Socialist party entered a new period of development .To the Old Guard the crisis meant a justification in their faith that capitalism would break down. Now was the time to build up the Socialist party they had nursed during the Coolidge boom days, into a strong political mass movement to capture political power. Theoretically, their outlook remained the same. Their numbers were reinforced all over the country by other Old Guardists who had dropped out and were now coming back into the party. The party experienced a revival. And for the first time in years, large numbers of young people forced into action by the depression came into the party. Well I remember the first branch meeting I attended in 1932. Out of some 40 present, hardly more than 5 were under 50 years of age, the rest averaged around 50. Due to the youth being carried off by the Communist split and the years of inactivity, there had developed a situation where a whole generation was missing in the party.

The younger people joining from 1929 on, were seeking a way out of an economic calamity. They wanted action and more action. The Old Guard, still moving by the inertia of the years before 1929, looked upon them as novices who lacked both knowledge and experience. Almost all of the first differences between the Old Guard and the Militants were on questions of practical activity. Here in Chicago, the Old Guard was not charged with being reformist, but rather with being inefficient in administering the County office. On theoretical questions there was little occasion for difference of opinion until the Detroit Declaration of Principles.

Of great importance is the fact that the philosophy of the Old Guard has not changed since the Hillquit group broke away from the Socialist Labor party more than 35 years ago. If anything, they have shifted to the right. They are firmly convinced that they were correct in every major question in the past and are correct now. They built the party and their policies preserved the party. Any newcomer is not worth refuting, he is only to be told his place.

The Militants joined the party looking to it as the best means to find a way out for depression-ridden America. They rebelled against Old Guard control because of lack of activity. However, they sooner or later developed politically to the degree where they saw the Old Guard attitude on activity linked up with the Old Guard’s conception of the road to power. Consequently, the point of emphasis in the fight, particularly in New York, where the Militants have not displaced the Old Guard and must still fight them ideologically, shifted ever more to the deeper political questions involved. In Chicago, where the Militant victory in 1932 was a comparatively easy one, the Militants are correspondingly less developed theoretically.

If the situation were as in the years from the split of 1919 to around 1924, it would, be much simpler. Young people going to the left during this period went to the communists either directly or after a short stay in the Socialist party. The extreme difference of political questions, the one party composed of elderly men preaching a theory of growing into socialism, the other party with much youthful energy preaching revolution and having all the attendant romantic glamor, presented an easy choice and youth usually chose the latter.

Today, however, the situation is different. The tactics of the Communists, the falsehoods in their press more than anything else, repulsed large numbers of intelligent youth. The depression drove them to the left. The Communist tactics drove them away. Where were they to go? The Socialist party was not accepted because they agreed with it, but as a political necessity. Not only did they join the S P, but they stayed, despite, or perhaps because of, the bellowing of the CP. The essential fact is that these young people were driven in the direction of a revolutionary party by the objective factors but entered a party of reformism as the leaser of two evils.

Such elements in the midst of a party of reformism had not the opportunity for a rapid education in revolutionary Marxism. They groped about to unbelievable confusion in looking for theories to stand on that were neither those of the Old Guard nor of the C.P. Due to their sectarian isolation, the minority communist groups never even-reached them. The effect of the MacDonald betrayal was great, only to be pushed aside by the greater lessons of the German catastrophe. The great inspiration and lessons of the Austrian Civil War shock them to their depths. Here were practical answers to theoretical questions they were pondering over. The political education of the Militants has begun. It can end only with an under standing of Revolutionary Marxism.

These events did not stir the Old Guard, with the exception of the sentimental feelings aroused by the Austrian events. Why should it stir them? They had always been correct. These events are occurring in Europe. America is different. Nor will future events in Europe move them. And events in America will move them as it did their German counterparts, in the direction of defeat.

The fact of the Militants moving to the left continually and the Old Guard, remaining stable is the cause of the irreconcilability of the conflict. As the Militants develop and understand more clearly the necessity for a revolutionary Socialist party, understand it because the study of theory and daily practical lessons teach it as both teach the bankruptcy of the C, P., the chasm between them and the Old Guard widens. The impending class wars in France, if they occur in the near future, are going to have a tremendous effect on this tendency.

The conflict between the two groups is decisive. The progress of the struggle can only deepen and widen the gap, Once one understands this, as I believe the New York Yipsels do, one looks with grave distrust at any attempt to compromise. McDowell does not believe a split inevitable. He thinks a compromise possible. He cannot support the Old Guard. To support the Militants makes a split more probable. Therefore an attitude of “A plague on both your houses!”

I can really see how the New York Yipsels who were expecting support from their NEC without “ifs”, “ands” and “buts”, looked upon their attitude of scolding both sides as trying to build a “logical position in the middle on the basis of technicalities.

Should the NYC YPSL be canonized? If this is accomplished by declaring that they acted in accord with “socialist law and ethics”, then yes. But let us not canonize them because they acted in accordance with “socialist law and ethics”. Let us canonize them because upon the success of the fight against the Old Guard hinges the future of the party. Is this factionalism? Yes! Just as every decision of the SP NEC is made with its effect on the factional fight in mind. As every decision of the N Y SEC and NYC NEC is made with its effect on the factional fight in mind. Just as the actions of the NYC YPSL EC were made with their effect on the factional fight in mind.

If a split is inevitable there can be no retreat. A retreat brings on demoralization. Because of this the establishment of the Socialist Call marks a distinct Militant victory. It was decidedly an offensive move. Militant forces can rally around it and its growth will buoy up their courage.

Since the Militants find it necessary to keep the Call a non-factional publication, there is a distinct need for a left-wing theoretical publication. The establishment of the Socialist Appeal in Chicago was to meet this need. Nationwide support must be mobilized to make it a printed magazine or to establish some other in its place. It is obvious that the ASQ cannot fill this need. The establishment of such an organ will have as healthy an effect (if not a healthier one) as the appearance of the Call. Beyond this a national leftwing caucus or conference must be called to determine a program and course of action. Such a conference will solidify the Militant forces and carry the offensive further. An offensive that will stop only when the Socialist party has become the revolutionary party of the American working class.

With Socialist Greetings,
Ernest Erber.

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