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Arne Swabeck

The Significance of the Browder-Thomas Debate
for the Revolutionary Movement

(21 December 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. 1 No. 51, 21 December 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The complete stenographic report, printed in the Daily Worker for Dec. 14, fully confirms the unusual character of the Browder-Thomas debate, held In the New York Madison Square Garden on November 27. It reveals in some respects a historical reversal of roles of the two parties: The Communist Party now standing on the platform of social-patriotism while the Socialist Party, endeavoring to rid itself of its right wing ballast, is moving in a leftward direction and its representative presenting the important arguments in the debate.

Norman Thomas defended militantly the position of the Socialist Party. It was, of course, not the position of the Social Democracy of 1914 nor the position of the Old Guard. Thomas spoke from the point of view of the Socialist workers who have moved leftward and attacked the perfidious social-patriotism of Stalinism. Undoubtedly he was more to the left than usual, blithely accused by Browder of using phrases in the style of Trotsky. “It is certainly something new in the world when Socialists find obstacles to the united front in a supposed move to the right by the Communists,” said Browder. He was bewildered and unable to understand that Socialists could actually have learned from the disastrous international working class defeats and draw certain conclusions tending in a revolutionary direction.

The Lines Cross

Apparently Thomas feels the sharp rightward turn of the Stalinists equally bewildering. “Here we are confused,” he said, “we are confused by the nature and the magnitude of the change, by the far point in the arch to which the pendulum has swung.” As for Browder, the only thing that can be said in this respect, is that he adhered to the present “line.” In a bureaucratic system where leaders appear, not in their own rights or by virtue of their own political abilities but simply because they are the most consummate and most servile type of mediocrities, sufficiently flexible, however, to fit into this system, nothing else could be expected.

So Thomas argued for the Socialist road, in reality building up a case, not against Communism, but against its Stalinist emasculation. He quoted profusely from the “third period” position of the Stalinists. Their official declarations aimed to “break-up the reformist unions,” and to “destroy the American Federation of Labor.” They “rejected any alliance with Social Democracy.” One quotation read: “Therefore, to beat the enemy, the bourgeoisie, we must direct the main blow against its chief social bulwark, against the chief enemy of Communism, in the working class, against Social Democracy, against Social Fascism.” To this there was no answer from Browder. An honest leader, when departing from such a position and going over to the exact opposite, would, in any case, be obligated to admit the falsity of the past and explain to his following the reason for the change. But Browder made no such attempt. He made no attempt to defend the Communist road and he could not do so since the ideological baggage of Stalinism is now entirely devoid of any ideas of Communism.

“Come to Jesus”

Browder had thoughts only for an escape from the pointed charges made by Thomas. Throughout the debate he reiterated continuously in the most garrulous, cringing and grovelling fashion his plea for unity:

“Why can’t we unite on a wide campaign? ... Why can’t we work jointly in these mass organizations? ... Why can’t we unite forces to begin building? ... Why don’t we do it?”

Why, oh why – in the style of the evangelist – why don’t you come to Jesus tonight? Only the deepest feeling of revulsion could arise from the cringing tone of this supposed spokesman for communism, repugnant and distasteful to upright, conscious workers.

Browder pleaded for a united front not only for the everyday struggles of the workers, but also for the defeat of the class enemy:

“Comrades,” he said, “let me put the question sharply: Between today and a future victory of Fascism in the United States there stands historically only one thing – a powerful people’s anti-Fascist front, a Farmer-Labor Party.”

No, this is false to the core: Between today and a future victory of Fascism there stands first of all the historic necessity of a revolutionary party and a revolutionary policy. Only with this essential prerequisite can a united front defeat Fascism. And whatever may be said in favor of one side, it is certain that neither of the parties whose representatives met in this debate present such a policy or constitute such a party.

People’s Front

To Norman Thomas this new “line” of the C.P. appeared bewildering and unreal. He undoubtedly had in mind the frantic pleas for unity. Otherwise the new “line” stood out in a very real sense in every issue touched upon in the debate. The most important of these issues deserve special comment here.

Some caustic criticism of the people’s front was offered by Thomas, motivated in the main by his doubts of the “sincerity” of his opponents. The People’s Front in France he considered, however, to be a great achievement. In view of this it seems strange that he should find faults with the New York C.P. election platform from which he quoted the demands for, “a people’s front, uniting workers, farmers, unemployed, professionals, small business men, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Socialists, Democrats, Republicans.” On a small scale, and adapted to the American scene, this platform merely proposed what the people’s front in France actually is. The difference is only in magnitude; the policy, with its confusion and deception, is the same. In France the Radical Socialist Party, whose leader is Herriot, one of the senior partners in the Laval government, gives its own peculiar political nuance to the people’s front. This party still represents today that political instrument of the big bourgeoisie which is best adapted to the traditions and the prejudices of the petty-bourgeoisie. Its program is the national defense of imperialist France.

The Franco-Soviet Pact

Thomas did assert that it troubled him a little to see his “Communist friends make more love to Herriot than to Leon Blum.” This love-making, however, flows from definite political considerations and from the kind of political considerations which have now become the guiding line for Soviet foreign policy under the Stalin regime. In this instance, most particularly, the considerations of the Franco-Soviet pact. Its contradiction with the class interests of the proletariat should be apparent, for Thomas was absolutely correct when he complained about the love making to Herriot. To the extent he did, his criticism of the Franco-Soviet pact he was also correct. But he did not nearly say all that should have been said. He reminded the audience of the Stalin-Laval communique to the effect that:

“M. Stalin understands and fully approves the national defense policy of France in keeping her armed forces on a level required for security.”

Thomas called the Franco-Soviet pact a “military pact with that dishonest broker, Laval of France ... an endorsement of an army which in bourgeois France is still a probable source of Fascist trouble, an endorsement of an army under a Premier who even now is probably double-crossing Russia!” In his rebuttal he exclaimed “a very terrible responsibility was taken by Stalin when he specifically told Communists to stop their agitation within the French army, for that, and only that, was the meaning of his endorsement of French military preparations.”

And what did Browder have to say on this question? He brushed it aside in a very simple bureaucratic fashion. To him this criticism had no significance whatever, for had not “the Socialists and Communists registered a tremendously big increase in votes” in the municipal elections? But this, Mr. Browder, entirely begs the question. Big election gains, yes even tremendously big election gains, might very well have been scored without the existence of the Franco-Soviet pact. Moreover, in the final analysis, these election gains can prove only pyrrhic victories because they rest upon a foundation of political solidarization between Stalin and the brigands of French, imperialism. This strike-breaking act of Stalin, who “fully approves the national defense policy of France,” Browder was unable to explain away or even to cover up.

The Smell of Oil

Turning to the question of the League of Nations and sanctions, Thomas remained aggressively critical. When seeking to dramatize his point by saying be wished he could address himself to the dead amongst the Ethiopian and Italian soldiers who had “fallen because of Italy’s use of tanks driven by oil sold by the Soviet Republic,” he was greeted with boos and hisses from the largest section of the audience which was made up of Stalinist sympathizers. On the question of an oil embargo he accused the Soviet Union of class-collaboration. Together with this he stressed the necessity of organizing the strength of the workers to impose their own sanctions, which he did not believe could be done by “trailing along with the League of Nations, with British imperialism, with Britain’s navy in the Mediterranean and with the sale of oil to Mussolini ait the same time.”

Unquestionably the Soviet Union could have set a magnificent example and inspired the workers everywhere to struggle against war, if it had refused demonstratively to sell oil to Mussolini. But to Browder this meant nothing. In his opinion such a refusal would mean merely face-saving device for the Soviet Union because Italy could get plenty of oil elsewhere. He insisted the Soviet Union was doing something more practical for Ethiopia, “through its growing international power in diplomacy,” to work for a real world-wide embargo, as he called it, against Italy. So far, however, the road of diplomacy has produced nothing tan gible outside of the dastardly Hoare-Laval “peace” plan for the dismemberment of Ethiopia. Sanctions, in the thieves jargon of diplomacy, means war. And the League of Nations, to which the Soviet Union is affiliated, is beginning to assume its proper function as the general staff of world imperialism.

Jingo Browder

What were the positions presented on the question of the defense of the Soviet Union? On this point Browder spoke without equivocation. Picturing an attack by Germany and Japan upon the Soviet Union, he asked: “Will the militant Socialists adopt a position of neutrality? Will they advocate the slogan ‘Keep America Out of War?’ Impossible!” What jingoism! In this exclamation Browder nominated himself as recruiting-sergeant for “Uncle Sam”; and it did not make matters any better that he misnamed this as “patriotism to the cause of the working class, patriotism to the only country of Socialism today.”

This only gave Thomas an opportunity to ask:

“Since when have Marxists learned the doctrine of the state so as to believe that workers in minority parties can turn capitalistic armies into red armies before those armies have been defeated as in Czarist Russia? ... The chief consideration is to organize the workers against capitalism, against fascism, against war, for world-wide socialism ”

Yes, this is the chief consideration.

We may ask further, would the United States under any condition enter into a war for the defense of the Soviet Union, for the defense of the country of Socialism? Obviously not. It would enter a war only for its own imperialist purposes, and to take the position, taken by Browder, could mean nothing else but to throw the working class support behind the government controlled by the Morgans and the Rockefellers for the furtherance of these imperialist purposes. These people have entirely forgotten that the enemy is at home. And besides, the only way really to defend the Soviet Union is to fight against one’s own bourgeoisie and to organize in the process of this fight the world revolutionary party that will be capable of making an end to capitalism.

On the final question of importance in this debate, namely the proletarian dictatorship, it might be said that Thomas had a certain justification for asking Browder, in view of the latters boast of “the final and irrevocable victory of socialism on one sixth of the earth,” if Russia is still so weak that she cannot extend civil liberties now within her own borders. But Thomas displayed equally the falsity of his own position in regards to this cardinal question of Marxism in arguing against a “party dictatorship.” A revolutionary party can have no interests* separate and apart from those of the working class and consequently it can have no interests opposed to those of the working class. Nor is this what has taken place in the Soviet Union. On the contrary. The party is strangled by a bureaucracy that has usurped all power to itself. Hence the struggle of the revolutionists is. for the rebuilding of the party of Lenin and Trotsky.

The Madison Square Garden debate saw Norman Thomas as presenting the important arguments on every fundamental point, militantly, critical and arguing from the left against the reactionary position of Browder. As said in the beginning of this article, this indicates in some respects a historical reversal of roles of the two parties. But the Socialist Party has so far taken only one step leftward.

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