From Socialist Appeal, Vol.2 No.8, September 1936, pp.11-13.
Transcribed by Damon Maxwell.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
IT IS AN open secret that influential members of our party, members who consider themselves and who are considered to be left wingers (of a sort) were skeptical about the advisability of the party’s running Norman Thomas as its presidential candidate in the 1936 campaign. Rumor had it that some of these members were convinced that the Socialist party should run no presidential candidate altogether.
Two main reasons were advanced to justify such a position. One was that organized labor in the persons of its progressive leaders such as Lewis and Hillman were anxious to re-elect Roosevelt and any vigorous campaign on our part which would tend to draw votes away from Roosevelt would be frowned upon by these “progressive” labor leaders. And since it is the duty of the party to keep close to organized labor, especially its progressive wing, it would be a mistake to antagonize those of the labor leaders who were moving in the direction of a labor party.
Another reason given was that the chances for Thomas to poll a large vote as presidential candidate, as large even as during the last campaign, were very small. As a matter of fact, so ran the argument, Thomas would obtain a very small vote and this would injure the prestige of both Thomas and the party. Interesting is it to mention that some of the protagonists of such a viewpoint are very close to Lewis and his Committee for Industrial Organization. Nor is it out of the way to take notice of the fact that quite a number of prominent Socialists who are active with the CIO are not in the least active in the Socialist campaign.
That the proponents of abstention from the campaign, or of conducting a nominal campaign, did not dare to come out into the open with their ideas speaks volumes for the active membership of the party. It is a sure indication that the vast majority of the membership would have decisively voted down any such proposal. The healthy attitude of the majority of delegates to the Cleveland convention and of the vast majority of the active members of the party is easily recognized in the decision to conduct a vigorous campaign with Norman Thomas as the party candidate.
Clear as it is that the active membership of the party was determined to conduct an independent Socialist campaign, it is not so clear that there is a correct understanding as to the exact nature of a Socialist campaign and as to the methods of carrying on such a campaign. All circumstances point to the fact that once having decided on an independent campaign it would be folly and utterly useless to conduct any kind of a campaign other than a revolutionary Socialist one. And that means a campaign the fundamental purpose of which is to teach the necessity of the destruction of the capitalist system and the substitution therefore of a socialist society. Failing that there is no conceivable justification for the participation of our party in this campaign.
To go out amongst the masses and try to get them to vote for our candidates merely because we promise them some immediate reforms is to enter into competition with Roosevelt, with the Farmer-Laborites, with the Union party and with the Communist party on their own ground and there is no earthly reason why the workers should prefer our brand of reforms to those of the others. We can offer the masses no more and no better reforms than can any other party and the workers would be entirely correct if, on the basis of an appeal for reforms, they would turn their backs to us and vote for the more “practical” parties. To distinguish ourselves fundamentally from all reformist groups by carrying on a campaign for revolutionary Socialism is not only theoretically correct but in this case also coincides with the demands of “common sense.”
This is not to claim that if we do conduct a campaign on revolutionary socialist lines our vote will be a huge one. It must be clearly recognized that if we don’t conduct such a campaign there is no use having one at all.
Nor does conducting a revolutionary socialist campaign signify a campaign where all immediate demands are disregarded and emphasis placed only on the ultimate goal of the destruction of the capitalist system, in the manner of the Socialist Labor party or of the Proletarian party. Both reformists and sectarians see a contradiction in advocating immediate demands and at the same time stressing the necessity for socialism. The reformists solve that “contradiction” by concentrating exclusively on the immediate demands as a bait for getting votes; the impossibilists refuse to have anything to do with immediate demands. The task of revolutionary Socialists is to utilize immediate demands such as social security, the reduction of the number of working hours, etc. for the purpose of attempting to mobilize the workers for an extra-parliamentary struggle during the election campaign and to teach the workers that the capitalist system is responsible for their miserable conditions and that the destruction of that system is essential for the solution of all their problems.
There is no contradiction in presenting a revolutionary socialist platform which points out the necessity for a struggle to achieve socialism and at the same time including in the platform those immediate demands which are most likely to rally the masses in a struggle against the capitalist class.
A revolutionary socialist platform might not differ in the least from a reformist one in the character of the immediate demands. Social security and reduction in the number of hours are demands included in both platforms. A revolutionary platform distinguishes itself from a reformist one in that the former gives the workers an idea of the whole nature of the capitalist system and the necessity for its destruction. And what is more important by far, is, that a reformist party simply asks that its candidates be elected on the promise to fulfill the immediate demands while a revolutionary party asks that the workers organize and struggle for the immediate demands. A revolutionary party resolves whatever contradiction there is between immediate demands and ultimate goal in the actual conduct of its campaign.
To many comrades political work is confined exclusively to and is synonymous with election activities. Very frequently some party member asserts with great conviction that we either must or must not be a political machine, thereby meaning that we must or must not transform the party into a vote-catching machine. For a revolutionary Socialist political work is every kind of party activity which sharpens and deepens the consciousness of the working class, A demonstration for some vital demand of the workers during a period when there is no campaign is political work and may be far more important than election activities.
An election campaign is only one part of our work and is not and can no-wise be a substitute for any other activities. It is true that during a campaign our party must, in addition to all other activities, carry on work which is peculiar to election campaigns, such as getting signatures for petitions, guarding polling booths etc. But it would be disastrous for our whole work if we were to consider our campaign in that light. The issues around which our activities must center in non-election periods are the issues which form the basis of our activities during an election campaign and it is only necessary to connect them up closely with the campaign.
A functioning revolutionary Socialist party should be active on behalf of the unemployed at all times, election or no election. Part of our campaign should be to organize demonstrations on behalf of the unemployed. Should strikes occur in any industries during a campaign period our “election” work should consist of involving our members on behalf of the strikers. In this way the election does not become a simple vote-catching proposition but a means of teaching and mobilizing the workers.
At the present moment one of the great opportunities for Socialist propaganda during a campaign is being almost completely ignored by our party. One would think that the tremendously important struggle in Spain is not part of our election campaign. It is true that our platform says nothing about it but that does not mean that for the moment we should not make it the center of our whole propaganda. Every local, every branch should be busy with meetings and discussions about the life and death struggle between the workers and fascists; our press should be full of news and interpretive comments on the heroic struggles of the Spanish workers and peasants. Would our “election” work suffer? Ridiculous! It would strengthen the party and its influence tremendously.
Were we to conduct an active campaign thousands of workers would be convinced that our party is not simply a party which offers a program for the workers but is part of the working class and is active in all its struggles.
Of necessity our campaign involves a criticism of every other party asking for the support of the working class. No Socialist would for a moment question the necessity of attacking the Republican party as a party representing the interests of the capitalist class. It is really astonishing that at the present time the Socialist Party must even attempt a justification for its implacable hostility to Roosevelt and the Democratic party. The activities both of the Communists who emphasize the reactionary character of the Republican crowd as against the liberalism of Roosevelt “who only yields to the reactionaries” and of the labor leaders anxious to gather in votes for the “humanitarian” Roosevelt, have created a situation where it is necessary to concentrate our attacks on Roosevelt and the Democratic party.
And in doing so we must of necessity criticize sharply the attitude of the Communists and the labor leaders of the Non Partisan Labor League. Will we antagonize these labor leaders? Will we cause a decrease in the number of our votes? What of it? It is necessary to tell the truth about every group and party misleading the working class.
No one can deny that there is a tendency in our party to soft-pedal on the Communists, the Farmer-Laborites and the leaders of the unions involved in the Non-Partisan Labor League and the American Labor party. It is scandalous that our party campaign platform, amongst other serious weaknesses, has omitted a criticism of the Communists, the Farmer-Laborites and the labor leaders supporting Roosevelt.
If our campaign is to be a campaign for what our party represents, a campaign of education for socialism, then it follows that we must show why every other party is wrong and cannot solve the problems of the working class. We must distinguish ourselves from those parties that claim to represent the interests of the working class as well as those parties that are openly against the idea of socialism. Especially in those sections where the Communist or Farmer-Labor parties have any influence is it incumbent upon us to criticize their position on every problem. And that is also true of the labor leaders who are trying to deliver the workers into the hands of the New Deal.
A tendency is already manifest which would concentrate our campaign around an amendment to the constitution, “to make democracy constitutional.” Should our campaign center merely on that issue and especially in the manner it is treated by most party members, it would fall flat and would not serve the interests of socialism.
It is true that revolutionary Socialists are not indifferent to the nature of the capitalist state and must struggle constantly to democratize that state. We too are against the power of the Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional; but we are decidedly against the idea that the Supreme Court is something separate and apart from the capitalist apparatus; that the Supreme Court is bad and that Congress is good. This idea is expressed in such asinine phrases as “judicial Hitlerism” or the “dictatorship of the nine old men.” In advocating the immediate demand for a constitutional amendment to permit Congress to pass laws for the benefit of the working class and to prohibit the Supreme Court from interfering with the legislation of Congress it is essential that we create no illusions in the minds of the workers. It is necessary to give the workers an idea as to the actual purpose of the constitution as expressed by such founding fathers as Madison; that a constitution created by people who were interested in protecting wealth and chattel slavery is not the kind of a constitution that can be of any benefit to the working class. It is essential to show that in spite of the constitution millions of workers are disfranchised, especially the Negroes of the south and that should the capitalist class be threatened it will have recourse to all the violence at its disposal. To demand an amendment to the constitution should not mean, by any means, an endorsement of the constitution; on the contrary, the real character of capitalist democracy should be laid bare.
The election campaign affords us an opportunity to teach thousands and tens of thousands of workers the meaning of socialism. Our success will be measured only partly by the number of votes cast for our candidate. In this present election there is no doubt that a great many workers will be deceived by the argument of Lewis, Hillman and the other devotees of Roosevelt that the latter is a friend of the workers. A great many will be deceived by the argument of the Communists that the Liberty League and the Republican party are the greatest fascist menace. In the present campaign our appeal will be listened to by the more advanced workers and because of that we must make a serious attempt to strengthen our party by utilizing the campaign for the purpose of increasing our membership.
Our party membership has decreased by virtue of the departure of the old guard from our ranks. We can confidently expect that those sympathizers of the old guard who are still in the party will take their leave in the not too distant future. Possibly they will use a decrease in the number of our votes to claim that the Socialist party has been rejected by the American workers. There is absolutely no need for alarm. A party of five thousand revolutionary Socialists can do a hundred times more effective work than a party of fifty thousand members of the old guard variety. Nevertheless we cannot be satisfied with a small party. Our aim is to become a mass party both in the sense of mass influence and mass membership. And to increase our membership during the campaign two and three fold is more valuable in the long run than getting the same number of votes as we obtained in the last election. It is because of this that our branches can best judge the effectiveness of their campaign work by the number of new members they succeeded in enlisting. All our campaign meetings must be membership drive meetings. The party will have waged a successful campaign if it can show a substantial increase in its membership at the end of the campaign.
Not that revolutionary Socialists are to be indifferent to the number of votes cast for our candidates. That is exceedingly important and we should do our utmost to convince voters to vote for socialism. We should make every effort to get local candidates elected to office. A revolutionary Socialist in Congress or in a State legislature would be tremendously valuable to our work of propaganda and education. But it must be remembered that a huge vote can be piled up by a reformist party more easily than by a revolutionary party under non-revolutionary conditions. And to be disappointed or disheartened by a comparatively small vote is not to understand the nature of a revolutionary Socialist campaign.
Votes obtained by a campaign conducted on revolutionary lines mean that those persons who voted can be counted on in a revolutionary crisis; votes obtained by offering all kinds of promises, if Socialists are elected, are votes of those who will vote Socialist today and shift to some other party the next election.
It would be folly to ignore the fact the left wing Socialists are handicapped by many factors. In the first place the platform adopted by the convention is a document of a reformist nature, no different than any document that Waldman and Oneal would have drawn up had they been permitted to do so. Then the appointment of Hoan as chairman of the national campaign committee does not augur well for the type of literature that will be issued by the campaign committee. But in spite of handicaps revolutionary Socialists are in a position to conduct a revolutionary Socialist campaign and thereby increase the prestige and membership of the party.
The revolutionary activities in the Socialist party must see in this campaign a glorious opportunity to increase their numbers and influence.
Last updated: 26.9.2008