From Socialist Appeal, Vol.3 No.03, March 1937, pp.36-39.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
JUDGED by every standard, the Institute which met at Chicago for three days (Feb. 20-22) under the auspices of the SOCIALIST APPEAL has a significance which no revolutionary Socialist can fail to recognize, The number present, the social composition of the delegates, the important role which many of them play in class struggles throughout the country, the spirit of those attending the Institute – both as delegates and visitors – , the high level of the discussion, the character of the resolutions adopted, all just tied the feeling of everyone present that a remarkably effective and successful gathering of left wing Socialist had taken place.
And all this in Spite of the fact that less than twenty days elapsed between the publication of the call for and the holding of the Institute. It must be remembered that only after all efforts to hold a united left wing conference had been exhausted was it decided by the Appeal Association of Chicago to conduct an institute. No one had in mind the calling of an Appeal Institute; it was taken for granted by practically everyone interested in the organization of the left wing forces prior to the party national convention that a united left wing conference of some kind would be held. Irreconcilable differences on the method of calling such a conference made it essential for some group to take the initiative in preventing complete disorganization of the left wing prior to and at the convention. The Chicago Appeal Association took the initiative and it must be admitted that few, if any comrades, had great hopes for a fair attendance. The time was too short for adequate preparation; the season of the year made attendance more difficult; there were no organized groups outside of Chicago; it was too close to the national convention. Under the circumstances the presence of thirty-five delegates would have been considered a good attendance.
A few days before the Institute it was estimated by the optimists that close to seventy five delegates would attend. No one dreamed that one hundred and eight delegates would register and had it not been for comrade Abern’s abilities in handling the technical side of the Institute there would have been considerable confusion. As it was the feeding and housing of the delegates reached a high degree of efficiency and set a standard for all conferences to emulate.
Twelve states were represented at the Institute. California comrades were unable to attend but sent greetings and financial support. About seventy five of the delegates were participants in some form of mass work. The steel, automobile, railroad, electrical, trucking and rubber industries were represented; many were active in the unemployed movement. That the most revolutionary section of the Socialist party could bring together under such adverse circumstances a group of comrades of the type represented at the Institute is of great significance and certainly furnishes encouragement to those comrades who see in the left wing of the Socialist party the hope of the revolutionary movement. And most encouraging of all was the fact that the so-called “natives” as contrasted with the members of the former Workers’ party, were present in substantial numbers.
As is most proper in any gathering of revolutionary Socialists the Institute was opened by an address on the international situation, by Max Shachtman. That gave the tone to all of the sessions of the Institute in the sense that all of the problems discussed and analyzed were done so with the understanding that we are part of an international movement and that we must help build an international revolutionary force. After Shachtman’s analysis of the forces at work on the international scene the writer reported on “The Road Ahead,” the platform, published in the December 15 issue of the APPEAL. An exceedingly heated and interesting discussion followed the report.
To the Institute, as observers, came comrades Herbert Zam and Frank Trager, representing the Socialist Clarity group. Since Zam and Trager furnished the elements of controversy in the Institute a vote of thanks is due them for making the Institute more interesting than it would otherwise have been. As much time was given to Zam to speak against the platform as was given the writer to report in its favor. Comrade Zam took up most of his time in his first speech with the internal situation and only after that fact was pointed out by subsequent speakers did Zam in rebuttal launch into a criticism of the Appeal platform.
Zam’s criticism of the platform revolved around two alleged defects. One, that it was not sufficiently complete in that it failed to treat such fundamental questions as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the road to power; it did not give a full position on the Labor party question or on the International question. The other defect dealt with the attitude of the platform to opposing working class parties. This attitude was labelled as coming close to the theory of social-fascism. Zam did his best but he had such a difficult position to defend that his best was hardly effective. No wonder he spent most of his time on the question of the attitude of the comrades responsible for the platform and not on the platform itself.
Is the platform incomplete? If it be considered as a programmatic document formulating answers to all the theoretical problems confronting the revolutionary movement it is of course incomplete. But it was not intended to be such a document. The platform itself speaks of the adoption, in the future, of such a fundamental program which will “proclaim the historical necessity of the workers’ dictatorship as the only means for the conquest of power, as the only guarantor for genuine workers’ democracy and the only weapon for the attainment of socialism.” But this is not the purpose of the platform nor is the party or the left wing prepared to adopt a correct program on all fundamental questions. The purpose of the platform was a much more modest one: to point out the general direction in which the party should travel, to indicate the immediate problems confronting the party and the left wing and in a general way to point to the proper solutions of these problems. The platform is a document of minimum demands, so to speak, for the purpose of rallying all of the genuine left wingers around it. As such a document it is complete in every sense of the word.
Necessarily not all questions of immediate importance were treated in the platform with the necessary detail. The problem of the People’s Front, the question of Spain were left for further analysis in the spirit of the platform. And in so far as these two problems were given separate treatment they make the platform more complete and more correct. No one claimed that the platform said the last word on all the questions that it mentioned. But it did indicate an attitude to those questions and that was its purpose and no more.
A great point was made by Zam and Trager about the fact that the supporters of the platform at the Cleveland convention insisted that the question of the road to power be included in the election platform whereas they did not treat that question in the Appeal platform. Such an argument is inexcusable. The election platform of the party had an altogether different purpose. In addition to pointing out to the working class the immediate problems confronting it and their solution it should have educated the workers in the most fundamental of all problems – that of the gaining of power by the workers. The APPEAL platform is a document intended for the party members and especially for the left wingers, indicating the immediate problems confronting the party. In such a document it would have been the height of scholasticism to include a dissertation on the road to power.
It is not denied that the platform does not deal with the questions of the Labor party and of the international relations of our party in an exhaustive manner. These problems were treated so sketchily with a definite purpose in mind. The framers of the platform wanted to formulate a document acceptable to all left wingers and since there are vital differences of opinion on the Labor party question and on the International question it was felt that these questions should be formulated in a way as not to exclude any left winger.
At the Institute it was clear that the majority of delegates favored a resolution on the Labor party which would oppose categorically the idea that it is the duty of Socialists to help create a reformist Labor party. But it was made clear that the resolution on the Labor party was not “mandatory,” that is, that the delegates did not make the acceptance of such a resolution a condition precedent to joining the APPEAL Association. A party member can join the Appeal Association and feel absolutely free to propagate ideas with reference to a Labor party which are contrary to the ideas formulated in the resolution so long as they are in agreement with the formulation of the Labor party question found in the APPEAL platform.
The same is true of the international question. No resolution on that question was adopted but comrade Burnham in his report stated the views of the majority when he favored the idea of a complete break with the Labor and Socialist International. In this case also the question was not treated as a mandatory proposition. So long as any comrade is willing to accept the general formulation on the International question contained in the platform it is sufficient and he is not bound by the views of the majority.
To contend that the platform is incomplete is to assert that at this particular juncture of the development of our party it is necessary to say everything on every conceivable question in a platform intended to mobilize all the left wing forces. A proposition which no Marxist interested in the development of the left wing and of the party would be guilty of. No one who knows anything about the character of the APPEAL and the comrades supporting it will make the charge that we believe in concealing any of our ideas. We shall always state them openly but that is a different thing from making the acceptance of those ideas a sine qua non for the joining of a left wing group.
Nor did the charge that the platform tended towards the idea of social-fascism because of its attitude to opposing working class parties have any greater merit than the accusation that it failed to say everything on all questions. Do we and should we consider the Stalinist party as an enemy? Of course. But we must also consider it as a party of the working class, a party to which we must constantly appeal for united fronts on specific issues. This has nothing in common with the theory of social fascism. Nor would it be correct in the slightest to consider the rank and file members of the Stalinist party as enemies. But the Stalinist party as such, representing all that is poisonous in the revolutionary movement, is an enemy of any party that will attempt to play a revolutionary role. Some may be squeamish about the use of the word ‘enemy.’ We shall not quarrel with them so long as they agree that a revolutionary party must have an attitude of implacable hostility to the party representing the ideas of Stalinism and that if is necessary to say so in so many words.
It was during the discussion on the APPEAL platform that Zam and Trager attempted to justify the existence of the Clarity group with the contention that what the party required was a group of left wing Socialists to struggle both against the right and ultra left sectarian tendencies. Zam denied that he meant to indicate that the Appeal group is the sectarian ultra leftist group in the party. Why then should any group be organized with the purpose of fighting against sectarian tendencies? And why should the Appeal Institute be asked to come out with such a slogan? Because, according to Zam, there are indications of sectarianism in different parts of the country. Necessarily Zam had a hard time to point out any organized group with a sectarian policy and that is why it appeared absurd for him to raise the question. That there are sectarian tendencies on the part of individual comrades in the party no one cared to deny. But that these tendencies represented a danger to the party was a proposition so preposterous that no one could take it seriously. When Jack Altman and Paul Porter talk of sectarianism it is understood that they mean the revolutionary left wing but why should the Clarity group raise such a fictitious issue?
It was not difficult for the speakers on behalf of the Appeal platform to demonstrate that the only danger in the party is a danger from the right and that to fight that danger it is necessary for the revolutionary left to unite on a minimum basis. That the delegates to the Institute, at least, accepted the right danger as the only danger was made clear by the vote on the adoption of the APPEAL platform. Seventy six voted for adoption and two abstained.
The resolutions on the People’s Front, on the Spanish Situation and on the Trade Union question were adopted without any differences appearing except on questions of formulation or on matters of secondary importance (the resolutions on the first two subjects were printed in the last issue of the APPEAL. The amendments to these resolutions appear in this issue, as well as the resolution on the Trade Unions.) These three resolutions were the basic documents, together with the platform, adopted by the Institute. Basic in the sense that they were considered to be the resolutions which determined the political character of the Appeal group at the present stage of the development of the left wing of the party. It was not expressly formulated but it was clearly understood that the Appeal group would insist upon the acceptance of the basic principles contained in those resolutions for the entry of comrades into the grouper for the uniting of different groups into one left wing group. This does not mean that every formulation of the resolutions must be accepted but it does mean that every basic principle enunciated in the resolutions is considered essential by the Appeal group as a basis for any left wing. Nor does it mean that membership in the Appeal Association is confined to those who think that the resolutions are correct; a party member can join the Association with the idea of changing the resolutions but he must agree to be bound by them.
As was indicated above, the attitude of the Institute on the Labor party and on the International question differed from its attitude on the People’s Front, the Spanish and Trade Union questions. On the Labor party a resolution was introduced (published in this issue of the APPEAL) which gave the opinion of the majority of the delegates on that question but which is not binding on any one who is or wants to become a member of the Appeal Association. No resolution was introduced on the International question but comrade Burnham’s report was adopted as the basis for the formulation of a resolution by the incoming Action Committee and neither will that resolution be binding upon any member or would-be member of the Association.
Why should such a distinction be made? For the simple reason that a left wing should be built not on problems that appear to have no immediate relevancy to the issues confronting the party but on such problems upon which the party is called upon to take a definite stand at the next convention. Those of us who believe that it is not the function of Socialists to build a Labor party will continue to say so and say so in a manner which will not be misunderstood; at the same time we shall give our opponents the right to convince us that we are wrong and our opponents can be members of the group that we belong to. Everyone must however agree that it is the primary function of revolutionary Socialists to build a revolutionary party. Those of us who believe that the Socialist party should break with the Second International and proceed to take the initiative in forming a new revolutionary international will say so openly but we do not think that at the present moment it is an issue of such a character, although tremendously important, as to justify us in building a left wing group on the basis of that issue.
Next to the discussion on the Appeal platform the most interesting feature of the Institute was the report and discussion on the internal situation. Comrade Shachtman gave the report and if there was any doubt in the mind of any one as to the sincerity of the efforts on the part of the Appeal sympathizers of New York to create a united left wing group, it was dispelled after Shachtman finished. Tracing step by step the events which led to the formation of three separate groups in New York out of the Revolutionary Socialist Educational Society – the entry of the Workers’ party members into the Socialist party, their willingness to work amicably with the Militants, Altman’s underhanded obstructionist tactics, the creation of the R.S.E.S., the vacillation of the Zam-Tyler group, the final splitting of the R.S.E.S – Shachtman proved conclusively that the blame for the existence of two left wing groups must be placed on the lack of a principled struggle waged by the Zam-Tyler group against the right wing represented by Altman.
Trager replied and like Zam did the best he could but he had an incorrect position to defend and the best of us are helpless in such a situation. His best argument was that the Appeal Association of Chicago evidently believed in two groups. He did not realize that at the time the Appeal Association was organized there was no Clarity group in Chicago and only those who were known sympathizers of the Appeal were invited. The members of the Appeal Association in Chicago are now ready, willing and anxious to discuss the formation of a united group on the basis of the “mandatory” resolutions passed at the Institute.
To avoid any possibility of misunderstanding in the future a statement on the internal situation was drafted and adopted by the Institute. In addition to taking a clear position on the need for unity in the party and coming out definitely against the splitting tendencies of the right wing (which intends to use Trotskyism as an excuse to expel all left wingers) the statement reiterates the desire of the Appeal group for unity of the left wing forces and asserts that, if such unity is found to be impossible of achievement, the Appeal group is most anxious to co-operate with the Clarity group to struggle for the unity of the party and for pushing the party towards a revolutionary position. (The statement appears in this issue of the APPEAL).
While not so spectacular, questions dealing with the problems of the party in mass work –A.F. of L., C.I.O., and unemployed – consumed as much time as the discussion on the internal situation. The charge that the Appeal group is composed of sectarians assumes ludicrous character in the face of the number of mass workers present at the Institute. But the Socialists who were present and who are active participants in mass work are also interested in theoretical questions. If there was ever a gathering composed of revolutionists who realized that in the revolutionary movement separation of theory from practice is fatal, it was the Appeal Institute. Not only were there reports on the work of Socialists in trade unions and unemployed groups; there were discussions organized by comrades who are active in different kinds of mass work. Not one important aspect of a revolutionary Socialist party was omitted from the various discussions.
From the Institute there emerged a national left wing. The Appeal Association was organized on a national basis. Branches of that Association are to be formed in every part of the country, based upon the positions adopted by the Institute on the questions which are considered to be the basis of a united left wing. A national action committee was elected to co-ordinate the work of all the branches and to formulate the policies of the APPEAL which was recognized as the organ of the Association.
But nothing was stressed so much as the idea that the Appeal Association does not consider itself the only left wing group in the party. It is true that the Appeal Association has taken the lead in formulating a position on the important problems confronting the party; it has spoken out forcefully on behalf of unity in the party, on behalf of democracy and freedom of discussion without which there can be no real unity. We shall disdain to answer those people who think that we are maneuvering and that we come out for democracy only because we are in the minority and that should we gain the majority we shall sing a different tune. We depend entirely on the correctness of our position on all questions – theoretical and tactical. And we intend to depend upon the correctness of our position to defeat our opponents and not upon organizational measures. Let them who can not defend their ideas because they are incorrect have recourse to expulsion.
The Appeal Institute, if it has done nothing else, has shown that there is no longer any barrier between the members of the former Workers’ party and the revolutionary Socialists who have been in the party before the entry of the W.P. comrades. Out of nineteen members of the National Action Committee eleven were not members of the W.P. No one will deny the dominant role played at the Institute by the former W.P. comrades but it occurred to no one to make any distinction. In building a revolutionary left wing what counts are ideas and activity and not the past of any comrade or group of comrades.
It would be entirely wrong to claim that the problems of the party and the left wing have been solved by the Appeal Institute. Only a beginning was made; only the foundations were laid for a national left wing and upon these foundations it will be necessary to erect a solid structure in the form of a revolutionary socialist party held together by revolutionary theory and activity. To hammer out of our party a revolutionary instrument capable of leading the workers to ultimate victory is a task which will require time and patience. It is this task which the Appeal Institute has commenced in all seriousness. Basing itself upon revolutionary Marxism which necessarily includes theory and practice, firm in its insistence for unity, democracy, freedom of discussion and discipline in our party, the Appeal Association calls upon all left wing comrades to join its ranks or to co-operate with it in the work of building an effective revolutionary Socialist party.
Last updated: 01.15.2009