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The ‘American Approach’

A.J. Muste

The ‘American Approach’

The Use of Polemics in the Labor Movement

(18 May 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 22, 18 May 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Ed. Note: This is the second of a series of articles by Comrade Muste. The third article will appear next week.)


There is another idea advanced by Comrade Budenz which along with certain valuable suggestions exhibits the same individualism, unreality, “other-worldliness,” the pioneer’s longing for a fresh start, the yearning for the ideal, as the conceptions we have been discussing. The “American approach” means, he suggests, that in building the American revolutionary party we must make a fresh start. The movement in this country must be “foot-loose from the broils of European radicalism.” Our workers and farmers are “nauseated with the charges and countercharges of ‘opportunism,’ ‘renegadism,’ etc. which fill the radical air.” They are “fed up on the neurasthenic fictions which one radical group must, as a. matter of duty, create about the other – muddying the waters and hiding the lesson of correct tactics.”

There is here, be it said in passing, a hint that it is only European radicalism which is afflicted with broils, that American radicalism would be free of them if these bad Europeans had not brought them over or if, perhaps, foolish Americans had not imitated the Europeans. There is surely no foundation in fact for such an assumption of the peaceableness of Americans, red or any other color, and a tendency is evident here to slip into language which might easily be given a nationalistic interpretation which its author would be the first to disown.

Mud-Slinging Methods

Now there is no question that radical parties and groups have sometimes devoted time and energy to wrangling over non-essentials or issues that had become dead. It is also true that controversy has descended at times to the level of petty sniping. The C.P. has pursued a policy of mud-slinging, character-assassination (at this very moment directed against Comrade Budenz), lying, double-crossing, breaking up meetings of other groups, which have introduced a demoralization and bitterness into the radical movement. With any protest against any of these tendencies wherever they may appear, the W.P. will associate itself. It has taken and will take the lead in the effort to eradicate them.

But there is here a lumping together of all controversies in the radical movement and the suggestion that they are not over serious and genuine issues but the product of “neurasthenic fictions” which each radical group has to trump up against the others as a justification for its own existence. Are the discussions which have indeed raged furiously many times in the radical movement thus to be discussed as the ravings of neurasthenics about fictions? Was there not a real issue between Marx and the Utopian socialists? Or Marx and Bakunin? And was it not essential to the advancement of the working class that these issues be fought out and clarified? To take another illustration, comrade Budenz would be the last to argue that there is no real issue as between the Social-democrat and the revolutionist or that it is not necessary to break the hold of the Social-democracy on the mind of the working class.

The Issue at Hand

It really comes down, then, to the question as to whether the conflict between the C.P. and the W.P., between the Third International and those who have raised the banner of the New, Fourth, International, has to do with significant issues. But to ask this question is to answer it! Conceivably an honest worker may be on one side or the other in the controversy, and we do not class those workers who differ from us as counter-revolutionists and social-fascists (a breed that, seerns suddenly to be as extinct as the dodo). But every day in the field our comrades encounter those who belong to the C.P. or are under its influence. They must be equipped to reason with them. What else should a responsible worker do with other workers?

Furthermore, the issues of the united front, the trade union policy of the C.P., social-fascism, party and workers’ democracy, socialism in one country, the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, cannot be dismissed as unimportant, “neurasthenic fictions,” any more than the controversy between Marx and the Utopians, or Lenin and the Social-Democrats could be. The advent of Fascism, the reasons why the workers’ movement did not prevent it, the debacle of the C.P. in Germany, the fact that in seven years, and such years, the Third International, claiming to be the general staff of the world revolutionary movement, has had no congress – all this, the W.P. claims, can only mean that the working class of the world has entered upon a new epoch, as truly as a new epoch dawned with the debacle of the Second International in 1914.

Confronted with such a situation, the revolutionary vanguard must first decide whether the basic principles of the movement remain or whether a new set is to be worked out. The W.P. bases itself upon the principles of Marx and Lenin. No one has come forward with any others that merit serious consideration.

The Point of Departure

It then becomes necessary to ask how the basic principles have been perverted, misapplied, departed from. How can the revolutionary movement possibly go on, unless it is simply to make a leap in the dark, save on the basis of an evaluation of the past, its successes and its failures? Since when has it become scientific and realistic for a movement not to strive earnestly to benefit by its own experience? To propose to “start from scratch” with a brand-new revolutionary movement is to cry for the moon. We cannot wipe out history. Our opponents will talk about it if we do not. It is not even true that the workers of the U.S. are nauseated with discussion of these issues. Most of them do not know anything about them, it is true. They are uninterested, rather than nauseated. But will any one say that there is less discussion in the S.P. for example, or among the more advanced workers generally, about revolutionary principles and the evaluation of European events, etc. than a few years ago?

Less now than ever before is it possible or advisable for the revolutionary movement in the U.S. to ignore or isolate itself from European or world-experience. As capitalism in the U.S. rapidly approaches the same stage of development as in Euroean countries and resorts to much the same devices to thwart the labor movement, we can learn very direct and specific lessons from European experience. Fascism is not a remote or abstract issue for American workers. War is not a remote or abstract issue for us. Furthermore, they are international, not national issues. Still further, it is utterly impossible to comprehend what is happening to the pocket-book, the home, the dinner-table of American workers and farmers, or to devise a way out, save by an understanding of what is happening to world-capitalism and of what the working class of all lands can do about it.

Unity – Its Real Meaning

One other point in this connection. It is true that the workers desire unity. They must achieve unity in order to win their freedom. But a revolutionist has no business to lapse into sentimentality or muddle-headedness. As we have pointed out on other occasions, there was a united labor movement in Austria, but it went down before Fascism because it was united on a false, social-democratic, basis. We must not, therefore, seek to evade the controversy as to what is the sound basis for unity. Rather must we fight with all the mental resources at our command for our conception as to what that basis is.

Are we then to become a “debating society” or an “academy of theoreticians?” If by that is meant that we have vigorous internal discussions over real issues, in the national and international sphere, we say, By all means: no organization has any vitality which does not have that sort of internal life. If, however, it is meant that we talk and write, but do not act, that we develop an ingrown party, the answer is that we shall permit that to happen at our peril. Again and again we say, the Party must get into the class struggle, yes, here in the U.S.A. It must prove itself in action, and if it does not, it will be thrown into the garbage-can, where it would belong, by the working class. Theory is with us the guide to action and is to be tested in action.

The Question of Stalinism

Are we to be an “anti-Stalinist” rather than an “anti-capitalist” party? It seems to mo that there are certain comrades in the Party who from different angles take an unrealistic view of the matter here raised. On the one hand, there are comrades who to all intents and purposes say that we have to answer the Stalinists’ arguments and if we do that we can dispose of them and go ahead, and those who from a slightly different angle contend that until the C.P. has been put out of the running, by whatever means, there is very little we can do.

For one thing, the Stalinist arguments nave all been answered, but that has not made the C.P. disappear. The arguments of the capitalists have all been answered too. Only comrades with a very academic, intellectualistic, i.e. non-Marxian, approach could possibly think that arguments, oral or written, by themselves, dispose of institutions and organizations. We have to demonstrate to the workers not only that we can win a debate With the C.P., but that we can offer them a living alternative, a revolutionary party that can actually function in the class struggle. Obviously, if we have to prove that we can function in order to win the leadership of the workers as against opponent parties, we have to function while these parties still exist and are also at work. Who would expect to be otherwise in the world of reality? Who can give the matter a moment’s thought and then propose that we put off trade union work until the C.P. has been liquidated rather than contest the field in the unions now with the C.P.? Yes, comrades, again: Project the party into the class struggle!

The Ostrich Method

On the other hand, there are comrades who practically take the position that the Party should ignore the existence of the C.P. “simply go ahead with its work,” spread its anti-capitalist message, build branches, help organize the unemployed, enter the unions, etc., but eschew controversy either about principles or practical matters. If the comrades referred to in the preceding paragraph suffer primarily from being academic, these latter comrades are afflicted with a sentimental outlook. It would indeed be pleasant if there were no serious controversies in the working class, if they were all engaged in a united attack on the capitalist system. But then the revolution would be here! The world does not happen to be as we would like it. In the real world we must fight those who mislead the working class in order to fight capitalism effectively. In any event, they will attack us and leave us no alternative but to fight.

And though argument about principles does not of itself suffice to wrest leadership from an opponent party, it is just as true that in order to achieve leadership the Party must do more than conduct picket lines. It must demonstrate its intellectual superiority. Partly because only thus can the most advanced and intelligent workers and intellectuals be won. Chiefly, because the Party’s job is not merely to conduct a series of skirmishes with the employing class, but nothing less than leadership in the overthrow of capitalism. The Party must have intellectual competence and satisfy the advanced workers that it has.

The Job Before Us

It makes a tremendous difference, however, whether the attack on Stalinism is regarded as a means or as an end, whether we think of ourselves or act as if we considered ourselves critics of another party which is after all to do the job or whether we are really conscious of being the revolutionary party whose task is to rally the workers for the assault on capitalism, which justifies itself in action on a broader and broader scale, and pays just so much attention to other parties as may be necessary as an incident in that major task. We are the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, revolutionary Party and our pre-occupation is not with the C.P. but with the capitalist system in the U.S. and throughout the world – the system which with our sister parties we aim to overthrow.

(The third article of Comrade Muste’s series will appear next week.)

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