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A.J. Muste

What Next in the Socialist Party?

An Analysis of Developments Arising Out of
the Recent Old Guard Triumph at the N.C. Meeting

(10 August 1933)

From New Militant, Vol. I No. 33, 10 August 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

War clouds become thicker and blacker. Daily occurrences and speeches furnish conclusive and final proof that the Stalinist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union and the Comintern have capitulated to French imperialism, sold the revolutionary integrity and soul of the Third International for a mess of pottage. Under the circumstances Socialist workers in the United States and elsewhere – those of them who have abandoned the fallacy of classic Social Democratic reformism and who claim to be “revolutionary” – are more and more insistently confronted with the question: How and under what banner may the revolutionary elements in this period be welded together into a powerful, international, revolutionary party, under whose leadership all the forces of the working class and its allies may unite, not merely for defense against Fascist aggression but for the counter-attack to destroy capitalism.

Socialist party members in the United States in evaluating their own party and their own responsibility in the face of this question must make up the balance sheet of the party development during the little over a year that has elapsed since the Detroit convention of the S.P. and the adoption of the Detroit Declaration. This development has been reported and provisionally analyzed in the New Militant and the New International and it is not necessary to review it at length.

The Detroit Turn

At Detroit, in 1934, a National Committee was elected which the Militants claimed to dominate. The Detroit Declaration was far from a Marxist one. It represented, however, a certain turning away from reformism. In other words, it was a Centrist declaration. The election of the N.C. and the adoption of the Declaration were hailed by the Militants, on the one hand, as a climax of their work over a period of years, as representing a decided turn to the left, and the vindication of their contention that the S.P. could be made a “revolutionary” party. On the other hand, they stated that this was the beginning of a vigorous and more rapid move toward the latter goal. On this basis “unattached radicals” were invited to join the S.P. and “Communists” such as Goldman, Gitlow and Zam accepted the invitation. Those who were not convinced that organizations such as the A.W.P. and the C.L.A. should be liquidated and join the S.P. were put down as hopeless sectarians.

The Old Guard in the S.P., and especially the New York section, promptly took the offensive. Organizationally it defied the N.C. Politically, it declared that the Detroit Declaration was “Communism” if it meant anything and that the Socialist Party must stand openly and unequivocally on a gradualist and democratic basis, that is, on reformism. At the Boston session of the N.C. as a result of this course the Old Guard again proceeded promptly to follow up this opening and further baited the N.C. The Militants on their part, as well as their “allies” such as Norman Thomas, realized that the Old Guard was gaining ground and that they must put up a much more determined fight if they were not to be routed. So the Socialist Call was projected and established, and talk that those who had hoped to be able to avoid a split in the party were wrong and that the Old Guard must be kicked out began to be heard.

The First Blow

At Buffalo three months later the Thomas-Allen, etc. group made a gesture of attack on the Old Guard, laying down certain requirements which they must meet within a given period or (presumably) be kicked out At the same time a much more decisive attack, however, was made on the left wing by means of the resolution which declared “advocacy of armed insurrection” as incompatible with membership in the S.P. The notion that one could hold any views, and especially revolutionary ones, in the S.P. was thus abandoned. The Centrists made an attempt to establish a political position of their own as that of the S.P. by an organizational gesture against the right and a political blow against the left.

The denouement which might have been expected and which some of us had frequently enough predicted, came at the recent New York Plenum of the N.C., which has been reported in the columns of the New Militant. There Thomas, Hoan, etc. signed a peace pact with the Old Guard so that all good Socialists could get ready to roll up a big vote for the party (meaning for Hoan?) in the 1936 presidential election. The basis of the pact is the exclusion of “Communists,” that is, Marxists from the S.P., technical “acceptance” by the Old Guard of the Detroit Declaration with the understanding that the right to “criticize and modify” exists, etc.

Militants Fail to Create Left Wing

The first point that stands out today to that after all these years of work by the assorted varieties of militants in the S.P., no revolutionary left-wing of any proportions has been crystallized in the party.

The militants who said they were going to do this job – yes, even make the S.P. itself revolutionary – and who rode so high and sung so confidently a year ago, suffered at the New York Plenum an obvious and shameful defeat. So far from being kicked out, the Old Guard is in the ascendancy and in a stronger position to advance its avowed purpose of undermining any attempt to build a left wing.

Under the circumstances those who question whether any considerable left-wing will be built in the S.P. have some basis for their doubts. The real point, however, is that no left-wing can be built on the basis and by the methods the Militants have employed in the last half dozen years.

What is the reason for the failure of the Militants to do what they professed they were going to do? First, they have never worked out a political program and sought to gather followers, educate the membership of the S.P. and carry on the fight against the Old Guard on the clear basis of such a program.

Secondly, having no clear political basis on which to fight, their struggle has been an organizational one. “We will get control of the N.C. and of the party by uniting all elements opposed to the Old Guard for this purpose and then we will use our control to make the party revolutionary” – this is in effect what the Militants said to themselves. The Old Guard on its part carried on a political fight on the basis of a program though, of course, an incorrect one, and they won out. The opposition to them, not standing united on a program, being composed of politically unclear, heterogeneous elements, fell to pieces just at the critical moment. Norman Thomas, for example, having no principled differences with the Old Guard, could not make a final break with them, no matter how many violations of discipline they committed, how ruthlessly they might hold him up to ridicule, and how many oaths of loyalty he might swear to the Militants, and thus run the risk of having the party get into the hands of “revolutionists” with whom he does have differences and whose control of the party would mean to discredit it “in the eyes of the trade unions,” that is, of the A.F. of L. bureaucrats.

The Fetish of Unity

Because of this inherent political weakness the Militants also had their hands tied by a formal and fetishistic conception of the “unity of the party.” Keep the party together, there must be no more divisions in the working class, was their plea. Suffice it at this point to make three brief observations:

If the Militants have learned anything from recent experiences and expect to go seriously about crystallizing the left-wing, they must begin by facing the fact that they are now in a very weak position. The Militant leaders have themselves given the clearest indication of their helplessness and unpreparedness, by the failure of the Socialist Call, for example, to make even a plausible attempt to state their position and plans since the N.C. Meeting.

Important Questions

Among the chief sources of their weakness in the fight against the Old Guard and as a force for the crystallization of a genuine left-wing is their attitude on the labor party question. With few exceptions they are for a Labor party and have in no important sense differentiated themselves from the Old Guard on this point. The role of a Labor party in the U.S. in this period is bound to be a reformist one. Politically, how build a revolutionary wing on the basis of building a reformist labor party? Organizational activity to build a Labor party, get votes for it and get elected to office on its ticket will furnish a means of evading fundamental revolutionary problems. In such activities all militants will have to play a tail-endist role, no matter how fine a face they may try to put on it, to the Old Guard and the trade union officialdom – the role of a minority which does not know precisely where it is going.

Secondly, the Militants are weak because of their lack of a clear position on what are now the real test questions before the international working class movement – the questions of the Soviet Union, the role of the Stalinist bureaucracy in international relations, the attitude to the Second and Third Internationals and to the movement for the Fourth International, the question of how in the approaching war crisis a betrayal more infamous and tragic than that of 1914 is to be prevented. Even the R.P.P.A. forces are either unclear on these points or in some instances tend still to a Lovestoneite position. The Old Guard does not conceal its purpose to follow the same fundamental policies of betrayal as in the past. How pretend to be crystallizing a revolutionary wing unless you have a clear answer to the masses as to how you are going to prevent this betrayal? How postpone this answer?

The Trade Union Problem

Third, the economic basis for existence upon which many Militant leaders depend will prevent them, unless, of course, they break away from it, from following an out and out revolutionary policy. The Old Guard leaders in the S.P. are professionals, lawyers, for example, who are related to the top officials in the unions and get their practice, directly or indirectly, from them. They behave accordingly. The Militants are younger professionals on the make, the second layer of officials in the unions, etc. Now if they held their positions in the unions as representatives of a rank and file opposition to reactionaries and conservatives, they would be pushed to the left because the interests of this rank and file in the capitalist crisis would demand it But in the main this is not at present the case. Therefore, though advocating progressive measures up to a certain, point the Militants cannot contemplate an intransigent battle against the trade union bureaucracy and a decisive break with it, for this would mean a threat to their jobs and also to the basis of their prestige, their social position, in the labor movement. Thus even at Detroit the Militants either offered no opposition, or only the weakest sort, to the Old Guard’s blunt refusal to pass even a mild resolution of censure on the A.F. of L. officialdom. As we pointed out at the time, so far as the American labor movement and specific American problems are concerned, the trade union question is the test question today. On this the Militants failed, and must fail unless they effect a right-about-face.

The second point that stands out from, an analysis of the part year’s developments in the S.P.U.S. is that a terrific blow has been struck at the conception that the S.P. could be “reformed,” that is, that a majority could be won to a Marxist position and so make this the position of the partly and the basis of Hie party membership, On the contrary, the coarse of those who rejected this road and who worked for the merger of the A.W.P. and C.L.A., established the W.P. as the independent revolutionary party, and raised the banner of the Fourth International, has been justified.

The Open Letter

There was a timeliness which was perhaps not altogether an historical accident, and in any case is significant, in the publication here and elsewhere, right upon the heels of the N.C. S.P. meeting, of the Open Letter for the Fourth International. The forces in the United States who have entered the W.P. and have accepted the program of a Fourth International are not entirely insignificant, compared with those of the S.P. Indeed, the number of S.P. members who accept or claim to accept our theoretical position is not small. But even if this were not so, S.P. members, Militants, all who are not reformists in the S.P., must face the challenge of the Open Letter and draw conclusions in the light of it as to which party represents the revolutionary vanguard, the future of hope for the proletariat and not the past of betrayal and defeat.

For the numerous Marxists and militant workers in the U.S. who are at present unattached, there can now, after the developments which have taken place in the S.P. and the revelations of the Comintern Congress now in session in Moscow as to the final capitulation of the Comintern to social patriotism, be no question of going into the S.P. or C.P. The Workers Party is the revolutionary party in the United States. Its doors are open. This is no time for any Marxist or honest militant to stand on the side line. There is no time to lose even in the U.S. in increasing and welding together the party of the vanguard.

We are aware that there are a considerable number of individuals in the S.P. who are not yet ready to accept our program or if they do, to draw the organizational conclusions from it. We never have, and we do not now in the Stalinist manner call them counter-revolutionists and Social Fascists. On the contrary, we expect them to be our comrades in the struggles of the working class today and hope that many, if not all of them, will be not merely fellow-travelers but comrades in the fullest sense of the term in the approaching revolutionary struggle.

The Duty of Left Wingers

We do say to them, however, that if they are serious in asserting that they are not reformists or mere Centrists it is, in the first place, their duty to study the program of the W.P. and. the Open Letter, and to see to it that they are discussed in the Socialist Party. If these comrades are not prepared for such discussion of the problems before the revolutionary movement, they have no right to the name of revolutionist. If these issues cannot be discussed in the Socialist Party, there is no use talking of building a revolutionary wing in it.

Secondly, the leftward moving elements in the Socialist Party who still believe that something can he accomplished there must make their own program covering the crucial issues of today, not seeking an escape in generalities, and they must win followers, educate the S.P. membership, and carry on the fight against not only reformism but centrism on the basis of such a program. Thirdly, these comrades cannot expect to be taken seriously if they can make collaboration with the reformists of the Old Guard in the S.P. and collaboration with elements such as Norman Thomas, on the basis of toleration of such a surrender to the Old Guard as the recent “peace pact,” the basis for their procedure, while they hold aloof from or objectively even struggle against revolutionary elements in the S.P. or outside. To say that they have differences with these elements is to say exactly nothing or else to cover up organizational fetishism and cowardly evasion, for they claim to have differences with the Old Guard and the trade union bureaucrats also. Any movement in the S.P. which makes serious pretensions at aiming at the crystallization of a left-wing must make a clear and final break with the organizational horse-trading and maneuvering which have marked the Militant tactics in the past, must stand unequivocally and from the outset on a program of break with all reformists and Centrists and unity with the revolutionary elements on the basis of a revolutionary program. Let the rank and file in the Socialist Party and especially the Socialist youth apply that test rigorously and without delay to every program submitted to them and to every would-be leader who stands up before them.

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