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R. Fahan

Future for American Socialism?

(7 March 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 10, 7 March 1949, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The low vote received by Norman Thomas in the last election, the general decline of the Socialist Party over the past decade, the beckoning temptations of jobs and prestige in both the union movement and the governmental apparatus that have led so many leaders of the SP to abandon “socialism in our time,” the overall political demoralization that has beset the political left in America – these, together with other factors, indicate that the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas, pale, fragile ghost that it is, is not long for this world.

Geared intellectually and emotionally for electoral activity alone, lacking any sustaining programmatic strength and completely disoriented by recent history, the SP is now in the process of debating how best to bury itself.

No socialist in his right mind can view this fact with mere glee. Were it the consequence of a turn to the left by American socialists, were it the prelude to a new, lively political formation such as the RDR in France, the disappearance of the SP would be cause for satisfaction. As it is, its present dilemma (once one leaves aside factional considerations) must be seen as part of the GENERAL decay of the socialist movement in America.

Today, the SP is debating several variant proposals: shall it surrender its traditional electoral role? shall it continue as a party? shall it merge with the Social Democrats? But more important, it is debating what its POLITICAL view should be: shall it become, even more than it has thus far been, a mere “critical” defender of Western capitalism?

One issue that is agitating the SP is the question of what attitude to take toward the Atlantic Pact: unconditional or “critical” support. Norman Thomas is reportedly on the “left” in this dispute! To such depths has American socialism sunk.

Proposes Suicide

In an interesting article in the January 1949 Modern Review, Daniel Bell discusses the future of the SP in America. Bell is a young Social Democrat with a touch of academic sheen and sophistication; he is intelligent and realistic – oh, terribly, terribly realistic. His proposal, in effect, is that the SP officially and frankly commit suicide, so that its people and supporters can engage, without impediment, in old-party politics.

The amusing thing about Bell’s article is the vocabulary with which he dresses up his none too remarkable proposal. The SP, he says, has always fluctuated between being a POLITICAL and an ETHICAL movement. Listen to Bell’s distinction:

Society, he says, “is an organized system for the distribution of tangible rewards and privileges. Within that frame, ethics deals with the ought of distribution, involving a theory of justice. Politics is the concrete manner of distribution involving a power struggle between organized groups to determine the allocation of privilege ... if there is a genuine commitment to politics, as a means of implementing the ethical ideal, then one must accept the hazards of evil that are implicit and shun utopianism. Politics then becomes the acceptance of the relevant alternative.”

Here is something queer indeed. A Social Democrat defines ethics as being the equivalent of a revolutionary approach to politics – though we had thought that for the Social Democrats ethics was a perennial monopoly and that it was the revolutionists who were unethical. Politics, however, means being realistic, accepting the “relevant alternative” – that is, accepting the capitalist status quo. In other words, says Bell to his friends in the Socialist Party, stop being socialists! Be reformers, be ADAers, be left-wingers in the Democratic Party – but don’t try to build for independent class politics or independent Marxist thought.

Bell is frank enough: “compromise after compromise is necessary.” He sneeringly points to the record of the SP “left wing” which had passed “revolutionary” resolutions in the late 30s and a few years later was plumping for Roosevelt. He is for “independent labor action” but not for an independent labor party. Socialists, he thinks, should work in the Democratic Party primaries, acting as “intellectual catalysts” (read: intellectual stooges) of the labor leaders. (Bell thus has the honor of codifying in theory what has been taking place in fact: the shameful history of such once “revolutionary” figures as Gus Tyler, Jay Lovestone and Will Herberg in becoming the “think men” of labor bureaucrats.)

But Bell is not content with mere pragmatic motivation; he has a theory, too. First, the trade union movement today is committed, not to overthrowing capitalist society (hear! hear!), but to assuring itself a better place within it. Second, as a consequence of recent economic policies in capitalist countries – deficit spending, managed economy, labor-capital partnership – it is unlikely that violent depressions will break out. Hence, the problem for socialists is one of increasing labor’s share of the “take” and not worrying about eventual goals.


A few words are in order on these notions. First, the theory. One wonders: what world is Daniel Bell living in? Has he ever heard of such matters as war economy, the preparation of America for war, and the economic consequences of that preparation?

Implicit in Bell’s article, is the assumption that the present uneasy “prosperity” will continue in America indefinitely, that somehow capitalism will succeed in stabilizing itself. It follows on an economic theory, or rather notion, that by virtue of tight governmental regulation of economy and the creation of what C. Wright Mills aptly calls the “garrison economy” in preparation for an active war, capitalism will be able to avoid cyclical depressions. This is a theory about which one may be properly skeptical, but even if one decides to accept it, that hardly means that any sort of genuine stabilization will follow. (Bell speaks of the workers having a “settled” feeling. What feeling of the workers is settled, except their fear of unemployment?) For what the theory implies is that war and war economy have become so natural, so unavoidable under capitalism that there is no “room” for the classical short-run cyclical capitalist development. In other words, the worst aspects of capitalism will completely replace its “normal” line of fluctuation.

Let us grant that. But then what follows? Is it possible for such a war economy indefinitely to grant the labor reforms which Bell believes are the only consequential matters for the labor and socialist movement? Will there not, must there not arise a fundamental clash between the war machine and the reform tendencies of the garrison state, even though these reforms (mostly, by the way, quite hypothetical, in the bush rather than in the hand) be politically necessary for the militarized state in order to keep labor docile. Such questions do not concern Bell – which shows that he is writing not about America as it IS but America as it is imagined in the editorial offices of the New Leader.

And even if, as he implies, there will not be an immediate large-scale depression with millions thrown out of work, will there not also be an increasing “hidden” economic hunger? Can the pride of war wastage be indefinitely postponed? Who will pay? Will not the workers, even if working regularly, find that they are being squeezed increasingly? And will this not lead to an intensification of. the class, struggle? (The class struggle, Daniel Bell, is something one can observe in practice, in life; it is not a myth concocted by “ETHICAL” socialists.)

The Simple Truth

Bell is correct about one thing: that the labor unions are being forced to commit themselves increasingly to politics and that, in the present situation, they are being increasingly integrated into the capitalist state apparatus. But from labor’s point of view, or at least from ANY sort of socialist point of view, that is a great DANGER. For the more the labor leadership is drawn into the garrison state, the more it becomes the junior partner (assigned to the task of running errands at election time) of the capitalist class, the less desirous and able is it to fight for labor’s rights. The “statification” of the labor leadership is proceeding quickly, but that is a hindrance to the workers, not an aid.

Bell’s political advice ... He should have listened in at the political action session of the recent UAW conference in Milwaikee, where delegate

after delegate (not socialists, not members of the WP or any other party) got up to tell the same story. The story goes something like this: “We worked our heads off for the Democratic Party when no one thought it had a chance. We provided the manpower, the drive, and a lot of money. We elected their leaders. As soon as the Democrats win, all the old-time party hacks, smelling jobs, came rushing back and gradually began to crowd us out. In effect, we revived their party – FOR THEM.”

In those simple words is the truth about the proposal to work in the Democratic Party. Bell himself, being a realist, remarks that when the socialists before the First World War entered the Democratic Party, “they won a party but lost their socialism.” That doesn’t seem to bother him, and if one were malicious one might say he doesn’t have too much socialism to lose. But now, in 1949, what can be lost in the Democratic Party is not merely socialism, but simply labor militancy. What are the glorious consequences of “labor’s great victory” at election time? What has been won? What will be won? Is any labor leader sanguine about Congress? Isn’t there a reason for Philip Murray’s recent attack on the Truman administration for boggling the “fight” against the Taft-Hartley bill? Is the great consequence of working in the Democratic Party the program advanced in Congress by leaders of both parties to build some 700,000 homes ... by 1955?

Of all these things, Bell has little to say. Nor does he have anything to say, incidentally, about the dangerous trend to squeeze civil liberties that is evident throughout the country.

For in truth Bell is not talking about America as it is, and as it is BECOMING. (Were we not fearful of being accused of being amoral Bolsheviks, we would say he is not talking dialectically.) He sees no war economy, no problem for workers in that economy, no futility in tying up with the Democratic Party, no pattern of repeated betrayal of labor by Democratic Party leaders (including the liberal ones). Though he calls himself a socialist, he makes no effort to place America in the general pattern of capitalist development, to see it in decline and in a death- struggle for existence. Instead he envisages an endless vista of social peace in which labor will snuggle into the state a bit more happily, get itself a few more reforms ... indeed, the mind of a reformist is a cozy apartment.


It is very possible that a majority of the Socialist Party leaders will take kindly to Bell’s article. For them his article may well represent “realistic” thinking. And it is more than likely that his proposal will, in one form or another, become the policy of the SP. If so, that means that there

will be left on the socialist scene only two groups – both tiny, both insignificant numerically and in terms of influence. Those groups will be the Workers Party and the Socialist Workers Party (Cannonites).

And this raises an important problem which we would draw to the attention of whichever members of the SP or its youth affiliate still think as class-conscious socialists. On the one hand, the SP is to surrender its ghost, either by depoliticalization or by merging with the Social Democratic Federation. On the other hand, the SWP becomes increasingly the wretched shadow of Stalinism. Is there not a need for a socialist group which will continue to speak for independent socialism, against a fatal dependence on either Washington or Moscow?

The Magnets Pull

The Bell course, with which a majority of SP leaders will probably agree, means to become a pale left wing of the ADA – that is, to stop being socialists and become liberals. It means supporting a series of liberal candidates and thereby moving closer and closer to the atom bomb war. On the other hand, the SWP is unable to break itself off from Stalinism – e.g., its preposterous, fatal, incredibly stupid line on China (that the Stalinists are insufficiently decisive in their fight against the Chinese bourgeoisie).

The magnets pull. The magnets of America and Russia pull apart the socialist movement. But are there not still socialists who see the tragic consequences of allying oneself with either side? Are there not socialists who see that supporting either Stalinism or capitalism is a form of political and moral suicide?

To those who see this, we would say the following: whatever criticisms you may have of the Workers Party, it remains the only alive, democratic center of socialist rebellion in the United States, the only party free of encumbrances with either of the two major power blocs. To those who want – not to become oppositionist liberals supporting the capitalist status quo or harried shadows of Stalinism – but to persist in the struggle for independent class action and the rebuilding of an independent socialist movement, come with us toward the WP.

The magnets pull. But who will have courage and wisdom enough to resist them, to realize that resistance means merely the life of socialism itself?

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