From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.1, Winter 1959, pp.3-7.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
THE Cleveland conference of socialists, held November 28-30, marks, we believe, the end of one stage of the process of regroupment of revolutionary socialist forces in this country and the opening of another. The perspectives, in our opinion, are quite hopeful.
The conference itself met simply to assess the effort at united socialist electoral activity in 1958 and to discuss the possibility of a more intensive effort in 1960. No action was taken except to agree to meet again within a year. A committee was set up to coordinate correspondence and discussion.
America’s various shadings of socialist opinion were represented in their complete range. Participants included leaders of the defunct Progressive party and American Labor party, the Socialist Workers party, and the Communist party, as well as unaffiliated independents and former members of the Communist party. The Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation and Socialist Labor party sent observers. Christian socialists were present. A leader of the Oehlerite Revolutionary Workers League spoke for the ultra-left.
The Socialist Labor party, in a five-page, single-spaced letter explaining why it was only observing and not participating, called the conference “one nondescript brew.” However, most of those in the brew felt that the adjective “nondescript,” used by Frederick Engels at another time in another context, did not indicate the central significance of this gathering. What really occurred in Cleveland was a resumption of the old tradition of free discussion, fraternal exchange of opinion, and readiness to seek points of united action against the common class enemy that characterized the American socialist movement before the advent of Stalinism. Engels, if we must appeal to his shade, would have considered this revival of democracy an encouraging development, we think.
The strength of the sentiment for reviving this fine tradition was most tellingly indicated, in our opinion, by the presence at Cleveland of leading spokesmen of the Social Democracy and the Communist party. Neither of these tendencies played an exactly heroic role in the effort to put up united socialist tickets in the 1958 election; yet both found it necessary to attend the conference where this was the main topic under consideration.
When the United Independent-Socialist ticket was fighting for its place on the New York ballot, the Social Democratic leadership harassed the new electoral party with threats of court action, thus aiding the De Sapio machine in its attempt to maintain the Big Business monopoly on the voting machines. At Cleveland, the Social Democratic spokesmen sought to cover up this sorry lapse in the defense of democratic rights in New York by strongly championing democratic rights in Soviet bloc countries. The response of the conference was scarcely enthusiastic but the patience displayed indicated the importance attached to even the most formal gestures of the Social Democrats in the direction of comradely discussion.
The Communist party leadership, committed like the Social Democrats since 1936 to supporting candidates of the Democratic party, had similarly sought to block the United Independent-Socialist ticket. They were not so crude as to threaten court action. They sought first to prevent formation of a united socialist ticket; and then, failing in this, they sought to dissuade the ticket from running a candidate for the key office of governor, since this meant opposing Harriman. Finally they withheld support in getting signatures for the nominating petitions and when this failed they tried to cut down the vote for the socialist gubernatorial candidate. As precinct workers of undoubted energy in the Democratic party, they stayed on De Sapio’s ill-fated bandwagon to the last, calling for Rockefeller’s defeat “at all costs.”
At Cleveland the Communist party spokesmen, while proclaiming devotion to distant socialist goals, tried to justify the anti-socialist policy of “working within the Democratic party.” They did not succeed in convincing anyone not already convinced, so far as can be judged, but even their most unyielding opponents sought an amicable, if vigorous, refutation of their point of view.
The Socialist Workers party was well represented at the conference, but unaffiliated socialists and former members of the Progressive and American Labor parties easily constituted the strongest contingent. Such figures as Vincent Hallinan, John T. McManus, Annette Rubinstein and the Rev. Joseph P. King set the tone, which was one of optimism and confidence. There was nothing forced or artificial about this. They came fresh from auspicious electoral actions, particularly in New York, in which – not least in importance – they had demonstrated that it is possible for socialists in America to find common ground for united action despite serious differences. Then the exchange of views from all over the country rapidly gave proof that the New York experience was not something freakish. As John T. McManus put it in the National Guardian (Dec. 8), “... the approaches to socialist unity – at least among independents and rank and file Socialists, Communist and Socialist Workers Party members – were certainly clearer and apparently more realizable after two days of matching views.”
It is not our intention to go into the details of the meeting. These are available in the issue of the National Guardian mentioned above and in the December 8 Militant. We wish only to discuss features of the conference touching most closely on larger questions of policy and their relation to preparations for 1960. One prominent fact, however, deserves special comment: the size and quality of trade-union representation. This, if we are not mistaken, was a refreshing surprise to some of the conference participants who in recent years have become inured to seeing former militants, grown fat between the ears and elsewhere, taking orders from the Democratic high command. The trade unionists at the Cleveland conference represented those lower levels in the labor movement who are somewhat less than enthusiastic about the way the political policies of the Reuthers and Meanys have paid off in anti-labor barrages and weakened unions. Their inclinations are to go in the direction of a labor party that could effectively express the true weight and importance of the American working class in the political field. Many of them, as was clear at Cleveland, are prepared to go much further in the direction of socialism.
Their main contribution at the Cleveland conference was to indicate more precisely how socialist activity can be linked with such popular issues as defeating the referendums on the miscalled Right-to-Work laws. Both the Ohio and California experiences offered much food for thought on this. In California, for instance, socialists and trade unionists of this type ran a pilot campaign of socialist opposition to the Right-to-Work proposition with encouraging results. This stood in contrast to Communist party utilization of the issue to ring up votes for the cold-war candidates of the Democratic party.
The significant number of trade unionists who showed up at Cleveland testifies to the inspiring effect of united socialist campaigning in 1958. Union militants are attracted by candidates capable of standing up to the political spokesmen of the corporations; and the demonstrated capacity of socialists of varying views to get together in a united effort has given many unionists new hope that the long monopoly the two parties of Big Business have exercised in American politics can finally be breached. The lesson is obvious. The socialists who conferred at Cleveland are on the right road to attracting wider support in militant sectors of the labor movement.
THREE main political positions were voiced at the Cleveland conference in connection with the main issue confronting socialists in electoral activity. John T. McManus summarized them succinctly in the National Guardian:
“The possibilities of independent electoral action were brought into much better focus as unionists, students, and gray political veterans took the floor to argue for middleground maneuverability between hardrock positions represented by the Communist Party, which advocates operating within the Democratic Party with the labor movement, and the Socialist Workers Party, which refuses to support candidates of ‘capitalist’ parties, and advocates challenging them with independent socialist candidates in every possible situation.”
These positions were debated during the formation of the United Independent-Socialist ticket in New York. Neither the Communist party nor the Socialist Workers party altered their stands. The “middlegrounders” could see little difference in repugnant evils between the dynasties of Harriman and Rockefeller; and so a basis was provided to put a united socialist ticket on the ballot, offering voters a genuine choice. Communist party officials were much exercised over this “sectarianism,” while members of the Socialist Workers party and readers of the National Guardian, pitching in enthusiastically to overcome the difficulties of putting the ticket on the ballot, felt that a big turn had been made.
The discussion on this question at Cleveland, we take it, was not intended to register a congealing of previous positions but rather to open up further discussion which can now proceed at a more leisurely pace in the absence of major electoral opportunities in 1959. It is important, we think, to go as far as possible in removing differences, or at least in getting a clearer understanding of the differences, in advance of an action.
An instructive case in point was the discussion last summer over including a plank in the United Independent-Socialist platform in support of efforts of workers in the Soviet bloc to achieve restoration of proletarian democracy. This was resisted by a majority of supporters of the ticket, who felt that it placed an unnecessary obstacle in the way of Communist party participation in the united campaign. The Socialist Workers party, which” had been pressing for this plank, reluctantly agreed to concede and leave it out. The Communist party did not respond to the gesture and the candidates soon found themselves forced to take a stand anyway on the need for democratic rights in the
Soviet bloc. The issue was posed very sharply in the murder of Imre Nagy and the shameful campaign against Boris Pasternak. But once the candidates had indicated on radio and TV how they felt on this question, they found it easy to defend the progressive Soviet achievements which the October Revolution and the planned economy made possible. The redbaiters, on the other hand, found it difficult to attack the ticket. The American people are interested in Soviet successes; at the same time they are deadly earnest in their distaste for dictatorial Stalinist practices. That is a fact of life.
It would seem fair to conclude that even though it was not possible to reach agreement on this question when the platform was drawn up, the free discussion made it easier later for the candidates to make the necessary adjustment when the issue came up in press and radio interviews. But it would clearly have been politically advantageous in answering early attempts to smear the ticket as “Stalinoid” to have been able to refer to a simple statement in the platform on the need for Soviet democracy.
In this spirit – looking forward to 1960 and its problems – we would like to continue the discussion that occurred at Cleveland on support, “maneuverability” or opposition in regard to candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties.
First, it would prove instructive to see how well the course toward united socialist tickets, in complete opposition toward both Democratic and Republican parties, measured up to the general voting pattern of the working people. The Worker made much of the fact that McManus, the candidate for governor on the ISP ticket, came short of the 50,000 votes required by New York’s reactionary electoral statutes to qualify for permanent ballot status. (The final vote for McManus and Rubinstein was 31,658; Mulzac, 34,038; Gray 31,746; Lamont, 49,087). Lack of funds and time for registration of supporters and time for public campaigning, the court attack of the De Sapio machine and the studied silence of the press, are sufficient to account for the inability to reach the goal. Under the circumstances the ticket did remarkably well. It is clear that the actual vote can not be taken as the decisive gauge in measuring how well the political course paralleled voting trends.
In raising the question of policy in pointing to the low vote, the Worker fails to mention the effect of the 22-year Communist party and Social Democratic policy of calling for a “lesser evil” vote in favor of the Democratic party. If a consistent policy of independent political action had been followed during this same period by these organizations, with their once powerful trade-union influence, the socialist movement in 1958 might have been close to taking office, if not already in office, in many of America’s industrial centers. The real explanation the Worker owes its readers is why it began supporting Democratic party candidates and why it continues to this day to support them despite the disastrous consequences.
The nationwide swing to the Democrats continued the shift away from the witch-hunt atmosphere of the McCarthy period. The Democrats profited from it, cashing in on a distorted expression of popular mood. In 1952 the swing was toward Eisenhower and the Republicans because the Democratic wing of the capitalist political machine had become identified as the war party and the General offered an end to the Korean conflict. In 1958 the swing was toward the Democrats because ever since the thirties the Republican wing of the capitalist political machine has been identified as the depression party and the “recession” of 1958 again confirmed this impression. Behind the political twins, the popular mind sees the twin evils of war and depression.
It was apparent that big segments of voters have made an elementary association: under the two-party set-up a mere vote against war may mean a vote for depression and a mere vote against depression may mean a vote for war. Such a conclusion constitutes a rejection of both Democrats and Republicans.
This mood was spotted from coast to coast in such illuminating pre-election surveys as those made by the New York Times. Widespread bullet voting and crossing of party lines confirmed the accuracy of the surveys. The outstanding example, of course, was the countershift from the Democratic to the Republican column in the most populous state in the country and the deep inroads Rockefeller made in the working-class and minority-group voting bloc in New York City, the country’s political capital. Rockefeller’s gimmick was to appear neither Republican nor Democratic. He succeeded in proving thereby that in this key state a decisive layer will take a vacuum in preference to war or depression.
On a nationwide scale, the voters pounded on the walls of the two-party system like prisoners seeking escape.
The other important new fact was the mobilization of workers against the Right-to-Work propositions. No credit for this goes to Democratic candidates, who reaped part of the benefit. They played it cool in view of the money Big Business shifted from the Republican to the Democratic column of its political expense book. It was the rank and file unionists who singled out these ultra-reactionary propositions and set out to deal them a resounding defeat.
Viewed objectively, the conclusion is inescapable that the strong stand which the ISP and similar formations elsewhere took against both Democratic and Republican candidates in 1958 reflected a widespread if inadequately organized, sentiment in America today.
This, of course, is proof only of the timeliness of independent political action. That fact, however, should give anyone favoring socialism on any grounds long pause about holding open the possibility of a “maneuver” involving support of a capitalist party candidate. If we have read the election signs correctly, further economic decline or even continued stagnation, with its accompanying unemployment and general insecurity, can lead to rapid radicalization of the American working class. Nothing would be more out of season in such an atmosphere than advocacy of support to this or that “lesser evil” candidate of the parties of war, depression and witch-hunts. To promise it in advance would cast a pall over any independent enterprise in its very infancy. Militant workers, who take their politics seriously, would cast a cold and suspicious look at it, and they would be fully justified in this. Why take a ride with a driver who announces he may crack up manipulating the first curve?
More than a century of the most variegated experimentation has shown that it simply does not pay to support candidates committed to the ruling class, no matter how liberal their promises, or demagogic their oratory. In every case such support has at least undermined independent political action and more often led to political catastrophe. The recital would fill a good-sized book; we will return to this in the future, hoping that it is sufficient here to pose a single sentence: Why vote for a Democratic candidate on the American Labor party line when you can vote for him directly on the Democratic line?
The theoretical explanation of the political folly of supporting capitalist candidates is not too difficult. To back a Democrat, for instance, implies the possibility of “capturing” the Democratic machine. (You bolster the “good” side in preparation for ousting the “bad” side. ) Advocating a “lesser evil” is a negative expression of the same thing. (Agreed that you can’t capture the machine; but Hangman Brown, you must admit, does tie a better-fitting noose than Hangman Jones. ) The sage advice that a half loaf is better than none belongs here too. (That green hue is not mold but arsenic. ) The Communist party variant is that socialists must stick with the majority. (A normal sheep follows the flock into the slaughter house. ) Then there is the opening-wedge argument that an “exceptional” Democrat, say a trade unionist who bucked the local ward-heelers in the primaries and is now running against a reactionary Republican, “deserves” socialist support. (What is he – a candidate for window dressing or an innocent who needs wising up to the fact that you can neither hijack nor reform the Democratic party?)
Are capitalist parties constructed so that they can be captured by the people? The most cursory study of the way the Democratic and Republican machines are owned, controlled and operated will reveal how illusory it is to imagine that these political instruments of Big Business can be torn out of the capitalist grasp and used against their possessors. You are up against billions of dollars, a hand-picked professional political gang hoary in the treacherous art of minority rule. You are up against organized corruption, lies, demagogy, back-stabbing, bribery and ruthless determination to maintain the capitalist character of the bi-partisan twins. Is it so difficult to uncover the elementary law of politics that parties reflect the class structure of society? If this is true, then it is simpler and easier to go to the economic root of things – capture the giant corporations themselves and let their political extension wither on the vine. To do that, the workers need their own political party.
Such is the thinking behind the decision of Marxists to make it a principle; that is, a fundamental policy not to support capitalist candidates under any circumstances, any time, any place and to put their energy and resources, instead, into building an effective political instrument of the working class. The kind of party needed is utterly different in program, structure, control and operation from the capitalist machines. It has to be built from the ground up. It can’t be captured ready made.
PEACE came up at the Cleveland conference along with other issues that figured in the 1958 election. However, little discussion occurred on the more specific international issues that are troubling the world today. One of the reasons for this was that the conference proposed only to discuss the 1958 election and possible preparations for 1960. This limitation was understandable and, in the circumstances, completely justifiable.
The fact remains, however, that American socialists have much to consider in attempting to reach a common viewpoint on international issues. Many socialists today can give you facts and figures by the yard on how Big Business is carving up our natural resources and seeking to extend its hooks further into the national domain. They are also up on what is happening in outer space, including the latest findings about radiation in the belt pierced by the new rockets. In between, where the bulk of humanity lives, their knowledge leaves much to be desired. Their tendency is to by-pass questions involving those areas, in the belief that we have enough to handle in our own back yard.
True enough, our national yard is sufficiently cluttered. But we can never afford to forget that the world’s greatest imperialist power is located right here at home and that one of its biggest preoccupations is intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. American socialists are duty bound to follow events abroad with sufficient care to be able to determine which figures and forces line up on the side of Wall Street and which are in opposition.
It is not simply a question of good will and solidarity with oppressed people abroad fighting for their freedom, important as this is. An incorrect position on a struggle abroad, even abstention, can materially aid the monopolies, thereby making the domestic class struggle against them more difficult. On the other hand, helping to achieve a victory abroad weakens the monopolies and thereby aids the struggle for socialism in America.
All this is known, in general, to every American socialist. Where things get sticky is in those cases where the forces are contradictory. Here it is absolutely necessary to have certain knowledge and the aid of Marxist method and experience. Take the current example of Arab nationalism. Should socialists be for or against it? Or should they be for and against? Should they be for at one time and against at a different time? Or at one and the same time? What criteria should they use in taking a position?
The difficulty or obscurity of some of these questions does not lessen their importance. The Korean problem, too, was complicated and obscure – until thousands of American boys began returning in coffins. The fact is that a whole series of time bombs were planted all over the world in the closing phase of World War II and these have been going off, one after the other, each of them threatening to set off World War III. The entire struggle for peace, so acute in the minds of American socialists, is intimately tied up with such troublesome places as Quemoy, Taiwan, Viet Nam, Cyprus, Lebanon, Algiers, Berlin ...
Moreover, the repeated outbreaks in these and similar areas all point to the great enigma of World War II. Why wasn’t it followed by a series of socialist overturns in Western Europe that would have settled the fate of capitalism once and for all?
That question should haunt every socialist. World War I gave us the October Revolution in Russia, although there was only the small persecuted party of the Russian Bolsheviks to lead it. World War II was far more ghastly, far more destructive, far more conclusive in its revelation of the abyss into which capitalism is taking humanity. A great power, great enough to defeat German imperialism, claimed to have achieved socialism in the thirties and thereby to have set an example for the entire world. Tens of millions of workers throughout Europe turned toward the Soviet Union for leadership. Yet only in Yugoslavia and China, where Kremlin directives were defied, did overturns occur under national leadership. In the heart of Europe where the decay of capitalism was most advanced and most visible, this rotted structure managed to survive. How is this to be explained?
A riddle for historians? Yes. But what if the policies that secured the structure of European capitalism are still active? What are the connections between De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 and the Communist party policies since 1941? What does this signify for the struggle to achieve a world of enduring peace?
We do not suggest that interest in such questions should supersede interest in winning the struggle for integration in American schools, or in pressing for the thirty-hour week at forty-hours pay to combat unemployment, or in demonstrating for a sane nuclear policy, or in freeing Morton Sobell, or in reforming America’s reactionary election laws to make it easier for minority parties to get on the ballot, or in building the circulation of the socialist press, or in getting socialists together.
But we do have the opinion that in America we suffer from a kind of socialist “isolationism” that takes a deprecating attitude toward some of the most burning questions on our planet simply because our visualization of geography lags behind today’s jetplane timetables.
We hope that one of the consequences of the Cleveland conference will be to inspire a discussion that will bring this side of socialist politics into better balance.
Last updated on: 1 May 2009