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Ben Hall

WP and SWP in the Michigan Commonwealth Federation

Socialist Policy on the Labor Party Question

(25 November 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 47, 25 November 1946, p. 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

If you find it difficult to convince a man, mystify him! And how better to mystify than with the obscure or the unknown? What members of the Socialist Workers Party were ever intimately informed of their party’s policies in the Michigan Commonwealth Federation in its active period more than two years ago? And, of these, how many were aware of the points at issue between the Workers Party and the SWP inside the MCF? Hardly a full half dozen!

Thus the author of the August, 1946, Internal Bulletin of the SWP, which draws up a balance sheet between the “revolutionary Marxism” of the SWP and the “petty bourgeois revisionism” of the WP, writes the following: “Ostensibly both we and the Workers Party have the same or very similar positions on the question of a Labor Party ... But even where we agree abstractly, as in this cage, our approach is so different from theirs that we have never yet been able to agree on supporting the same candidate in any election! We advise the workers to vote one way; the Workers Party advises them to vote a different way. In 1944, both we and the Workers Party were active in the Michigan Commonwealth Federation, an embryonic Labor Party. It must be recorded as a fact that in every important debate that took place in this organization, our comrades were on the opposite side of the fence from the Workers Party.”

In the MCF, therefore, we are afforded an opportunity to study the SWP’s “revolutionary Marxism” as distinct from our “revisionism” – not merely in theory but in practice. Good. But having called our attention to this important fact, the author leaves us staring at a blank wall. This is all he has to say about the MCF. Caution dictates the omission of all details, of all real facts.

This is not the first such vague and misleading reference to the MCF. I intend here to fill in the relevant material which does in fact show a difference between revolutionary Marxism and opportunism. Let the reader judge which fits whom.

The New International and Labor Action devoted many pages to an evaluation of the MCF and of the various trends within it. However, the actual events were taking place at that very moment and we did not want to be accused of “exposing” the members of the SWP or of making impossible its policy of “caution”; we were consequently unable publicly to give the SWP what was its due. Not only has the situation changed but the SWP itself has seen fit to raise the question.

Issues in Dispute

What were the main issues in dispute between the SWP and the WP inside the MCF?

I – Bloc Affiliation: At the first MCF conference in March, 1944, provisions were made for bloc affiliation by unions. This rule militated against its becoming merely a reformist or liberal sect. The problem was to retain that provision, for the MCF leaders did not want the new party to be “dominated” by labor. Such “domination” would scare off the farmers and professionals, you see. At the founding convention of the MCF at Lansing in July 1944, this rule was abandoned; bloc affiliation disestablished; and emphasis placed upon neighborhood clubs.

A host of reasons were cited by the leaders of the new party for this departure. But the real reason for the change was the fact that the MCF leaders, themselves second-ranking and third-rate officials in the CIO, feared that a fight in the locals for bloc affiliation to the MCF would bring them into conflict with the higher officials of the CIO and with Reuther and Thomas. (At present when the factional scene has changed, the MCF after two years of stagnation is once again considering bloc affiliations.)

At the Lansing convention, the spokesmen for the WP defended the policy of bloc affiliation, stressed its importance, and proposed that it be inserted into the new Constitution. The leading speaker for the SWP on the other hand endorsed the proposal of the leaders to abandon the policy of bloc affiliation, giving their proposal a twist of his own. Bloc affiliation is unwise, he said, because it could be construed as a violation of the Smith-Connolly Act. (This “lawyer” forgot that the PAC was based upon bloc affiliation.)

This was one of the “important debates” in the MCF. The SWP and the leaders of the MCF won out against us.

II – Statement of Objectives of the MCF: “We both advocated the adoption by such a party of a program of transitional demands,” says the SWP Bulletin. Where and when and how did the SWP fight for any ONE such demand or any variation thereof?

The convention Constitutional Committee proposed to state the “Object” of the MCF in typical liberal jargon: “To bring to our public life a new type of public servant”; “economic plenty and justice,” etc., etc. The WP proposed a simple statement declaring for a “government of the working people.” Where did the SWP stand? Arthur Burch, Detroit organizer of the party was present AS A DELEGATE. They did not speak or VOTE for our proposal.

On Negro Question

III – The Negro Question: The Declaration of Principles proposed to the convention made no reference to the Negro question. The WP proposed to incorporate a brief statement demanding complete, social, political and economic equality for Negroes and all other minorities. One need not be a revolutionary Marxist but simply a consistent democrat to endorse this idea. (The PAC platform for 1944 was far superior to the MCF declaration on this point for it called for full political, economic and civic equality for Negroes.)

I need not nauseate the reader by repeating the arguments used at the convention against our proposal. The leading SWP delegates were silent. They did not vote for our proposal. Burch remained quiet.

The proposed election platform included a section on “Civil rights.” We advocated an amendment which would demand that discrimination be made a criminal offense. As a result of our fight on the Declaration of Principles, a concession was made to us on the platform. The committee revised its report to include our amendment.

But we were “punished” for this victory. John Saunders, who reported the convention in The Militant (August 12, 1944) was aware that the WP alone had successfully raised the Negro question and therefore concluded that it was best for a “revolutionary Marxist” to overlook the whole thing. As far as he was concerned, it had no significance. His story did not so much as mention it.

But Charles Jackson, in his column in The Militant, The Negro Struggle, thought otherwise. He said: “The flat-footed demand for laws making segregation of races by any public institution, private business, organization or individual a criminal offense is the fulcrum of the entire race question. A program must include this demand if it is to really pull up racial oppression by its vicious roots. Halfway platforms which take a few noisy steps but do not reach this balance point will not tip the board to the other side.” (His emphasis.)

Who was correct in this “important debate”? Was it The Militant’s reporter and the SWP delegates or The Militant’s columnist and the WP delegates?

On Supporting Candidates

IV – Against Veiled Support to Democrats: The MCF was officially on record in opposition to supporting candidates of any other party. In the given situation, this meant the Democratic and Republican Parties. The leaders of the MCF, however, were torn between two contradictory lines. They “personally” announced that they were supporting Roosevelt for a fourth term and that they endorsed the policy of the PAC which was for the endorsement of “progressive” candidates of the two old parties. Thus, they had two policies. In the MCF they gave lip service to the idea of independent politics. Outside the MCF they accepted the contrary policies of the PAC. To extricate themselves from this embarrassing position, they resorted to a series of crude maneuvers, which the representatives of the SWP supported and endorsed. As a result, the MCF could never adhere to a firm policy.

a) The founding MCF conference took place in March 1944. In April, a convention of the Wayne County PAC was held. Ben Garrison, who was a member of the MCF State Committee and later one of its candidates in the 1944 elections, was chairman of the PAC Resolutions Committee and in that capacity reported out favorably resolutions endorsing “progressive” Democrats. All the MCF leaders were present as delegates. Not one spoke out against this policy. R.J. Thomas publicly revealed that “leading members” of the MCF at a meeting in New York with Sidney Hillman had promised to support the candidates endorsed by the PAC. “If that is their policy,” said Thomas, “I can go along with them.”

It is obvious that the MCF leaders had to find some formula whereby they could support independent candidates and at the same time not oppose Democrats and Republicans endorsed by the PAC. They worked out their formula with the help of the representatives of the SWP.

Note: Two members of the SWP were delegates to the PAC convention. One of them, X, spoke out against the endorsement of Roosevelt and called for the formation of a Labor Party. He discharged his duties as a revolutionary with honor. The other, however, was C., who went along with the Roosevelt stream. When we declare our support of Roosevelt’s program, he said, we must make clear that we do not endorse those of his policies which are anti-labor. This same C, in a panel discussion at the March MCF conference, in reply to a clear-cut WP motion that the conference go on record “opposing the endorsement of any candidate running on the tickets of the Republican or Democratic Parties for any office,” said that while he himself had no intention of voting Democratic or Republican, he would oppose any motion which meant opposing Roosevelt. (See Labor Action, March 20, 1944)

Making the Lines Clear

b) A few days after the performance at the PAC convention, a small meeting of Detroit MCF members took place. The two leading spokesmen for the SWP, C and E, were not present. In this absence, L, a rank and file member of the SWP who had been active in the MCF up to then, sharply criticized the actions of the two leaders of the MCF at the PAC convention. As a result of his speech, it was decided upon the motion of a WPer to call another meeting of Detroit members and invite these leaders to explain their point of view. The WPer reached an agreement with SWPer L to present a common point of view at the coming meeting and arrangements were made for an informal consultation in advance. But that was the last the WP or the MCF saw or heard from. L. He was obviously withdrawn from activity in the MCF by the local SWP leader.

c) L’s “error” was speedily corrected by C and E, who both attended the next membership meeting. L, as has been explained, was absent.

In the presence of the two leaders of the MCF, a speaker of the WP criticized their course at the PAC convention and insisted that to vote for the policy of supporting “progressive” Democrats was in obvious contradiction to the policy of independent labor political action in general and to the stated policy of the MCF in particular. In reply, the MCF leaders drew a very fine, hair-splitting distinction between their actions as leaders of the MCF on the one hand and their actions as leaders of the PAC on the other. Paul Silver, one of the MCF leaders, praised the PAC policy which had succeeded in driving Martin Dies off the Democratic list.

The two SWPers felt compelled to defend the MCF heads. Fawning on Silver, C said that he resented such criticism of a man (Silver) who had gone far out on a limb in organizing the MCF and this was a great service to the workers. Silver, said C, is gaining nothing for himself, in fact he could probably get farther if he stayed out of the MCF.

[Two notes: (1) Paul Silver now occupies a reasonably warm post in the appointed officialdom of the UAW and has been part of the “no-third-party-now” caucus of Thomas, Addes, CP. (2) C resigned from the SWP not long ago. Probably concluded that outside of the SWP he himself could go farther.]

E denounced the “impractical” views of the WP speaker. In his opinion, said E, the MCF leaders had followed an absolutely correct policy at the PAC convention and in NO WAY contradicted the principle of independent political action. E split a few hairs of his own. The PAC, he said, is NOT a tail to the Democratic kite but it is the political arm of labor. (As though it could not be both!)

Where to Run Candidates

d) Where to Run Candidates: For what posts shall the MCF run candidates in the 1944 elections? Involved here was the same problem raised by the PAC convention. Shall we follow a genuinely independent course in the state elections, or shall we give veiled support to “progressive” Democrats? This question was discussed publicly on two occasions at MCF gatherings. First, at a state-MCF conference in June 1944. Second, at the MCF state convention at Lansing in July.

At the state conference the discussion beat merrily around the bush. Shall we run a candidate for Governor? Shall we run in this or in that district? Somehow, no definite decision could be reached by the leaders at this small conference. Finally it was decided to postpone the whole matter and to appoint a special committee which would “consider” the whole question and report a month later to the state convention.

The diffidence with which this subject was handled becomes quite understandable when we remember that the PAC had not YET announced its endorsements in the coming elections. The representatives of the Workers Party pointed out to the conference that the discussion on where to run candidates involved not some minor technical question requiring “investigation” but the whole principle of independent politics itself. We must not only oppose “reactionary” Democrats and Republicans but also the “progressive” ones, even though they might have been rewarded for their “progressivism” by PAC support.

It was a terribly hot and humid summer afternoon. SWPer C, as always, felt compelled to defend the policy of the officials. “I came here,” he said, “to discuss practical questions, but if I had thought that we would end up by discussing principles (pr-r-r-rinciples, with a rolling sneer), I could have spent my time more enjoyably at the beach.” (Probably C resigned from the SWP to take that enjoyable swim.) But was. the problem a “practical” one or a “principled” one? The state MCF convention gave the final proof, for by this time it was quite clear that the PAC would endorse the Democratic candidate for Governor and “progressive” Democrats for other posts.

After a lengthy discussion, the convention accepted the proposals of the MCF leaders and decided to run candidates in those place where they would oppose “reactionaries” but not PAC endorsed “progressives.” Thus, the reconciliation between the policy of the PAC and that of the MCF which was so important to the MCF heads was finally effected.

The Workers Party proposed that the MCF run its own candidate for Governor, seeing in this proposal one means of blocking the policy of veiled support to the PAC-endorsed Democrat. Although our delegates received resounding applause for their efforts, we were badly defeated in the vote. The SWP adopted a policy of “diplomatic silence.” Its delegates voted against us. The Militant was also silent. Saunders, reporting the convention in the issue of August 12, “forgot” the whole thing.


Other issues were debated in the MCF. However, on some of these such as the fight to change the name to “Labor Party,” the SWP and the WP were in agreement. In what is written above, I confine myself to the main issues in dispute, where the SWP and WP members of the MCF found themselves on opposite sides. Yes, it is true: “in every important debate” the WP and the SWP “were on opposite sides of the fence.” For one good reason: we refused to follow the SWP representatives in their groveling, sycophantic, lick-spittle policy. These were the issues. If that is contested. I ask: “What else was debated in the MCF?”

Revolutionary “Models”

One thing remains. How is it possible that the local leaders of the SWP could follow so opportunist a course? Here we see that they are not only NOT rebuked, but are praised by the author of the Internal Bulletin. More: their conduct is mentioned as an obvious model of “revolutionary Marxism.”

The answer, I believe, is two-fold: (1) In the bureaucratic atmosphere which dominates the SWP in general and the Detroit branch in particular, the rank and file finds it difficult if not impossible to correct and check its local leadership, which tends to opportunism. (2) On the other hand, the local leaders are the staunch defenders of the Cannon regime in their party. Therefore they must be protected by the national leadership. The policy is less important. And when the membership of the SWP is ignorant of the facts, the granting of protection becomes so much easier.

Let us hope that after comparing the pronunciamento of the SWP leadership in regard to the MCF with the actual facts, the membership will be encouraged to seek the truth behind their fanfare and boasting.

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