Max Shachtman


The Socialist Party
A Head Without a Body

(June 1938)

Source: The New International, Vol. 4 No. 6, June 1938, pp. 175–177.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

It is a long time since a convention of the Socialist Party of the United States has met in such a state of internal apathy and amid such general indifference towards its deliberations on the part of the labor movement and the public in general. The bourgeois press, which has in the past accorded the SP national assemblies an attention more or less befitting America’s second minority party, dismissed the Kenosha convention with obscure paragraphs. The labor press was scarcely more concerned, if at all. In significant contrast to its attitude towards the Chicago 1937 convention, the Stalinist movement and press devoted, this year, virtually no attention at all to the gathering of the Socialist Party.

No great wizardry is required to explain this state of affairs. The American Socialist Party has succumbed to a malignant malady known as centrism. The progressive development of the party signalized by the victory over the ossified Old Guard at the Detroit convention in 1934 and confirmed two years later at Cleveland, when the Old Guard finally split away, was abruptly arrested a few months after the Chicago convention last year. Terrified by their own verbal audacity, the party centrists made common cause with the right wing of Thomas-Hoan-Laidler. They launched a red-baiting expulsion campaign against the “Trotskyists” as a prerequisite – we quote one of the expulsionists – to putting the party on the auction block in the New York municipal elections where it was sold, without bids, to the LaGuardia combination, amid the applause of the Stalinists.

The mass expulsion of the left wing, carried out in as brutally bureaucratic a manner as ever under that Stalinist regime for which Thomas, Tyler and Co. profess such a virgin abhorrence, ripped the revolutionary heart out of the Socialist party. Whole state and local organizations of the party disappeared from the roster; the decisive majority of the youth organization came over to the Fourth International, leaving the old party with an all but empty shell; large numbers of members, in addition, dropped out of the party, disgusted and disillusioned by the turn in policy and regime of the official leadership. Except for the sovereign state organization of Wisconsin, an autarchic principality of the right wing whose frontiers cannot be crossed by out-of-state party representatives without visa in hand, the rest of the party was reduced in the following months to a rather expanded but not overly active propagandist sect. That is the Socialist Party today.

Sects, very often, have their virtues which compensate in part for their smallness, lack of influence, isolation from the mass movement into which the revolutionists are sometimes driven by powerful waves of reaction. They can have no greater virtue and, in periods of reaction, they can have no other justification than a firm adherence to soberly worked-out revolutionary principles and an uncompromising struggle to defend them from all petty bourgeois attacks.

On the other hand, an organization without a very clearly defined program or set of principles, or one which does not yet have a fully developed revolutionary doctrine but is only in the process of elaborating it, can justify its existence at certain periods on the condition that it is moving towards the left, is permitting the unhampered expression of revolutionary currents, and is bringing masses of workers into its ranks on that basis. It is in this sense that every genuine step forward, every mobilization of the masses in a revolutionary direction, is worth a dozen programs, more accurately, a dozen confused or underdone programs.

But here lies the tragedy of the present-day Socialist Party. It has neither the revolutionary intransigence and principle of a Marxist sect without masses, nor the masses of a large and growing reformist party without revolutionary principle. It is a centrist propaganda group, with the weight of political emphasis plated at the right. The Kenosha convention did not fail to underline this fact, as a few points will reveal.

1. Neither during nor after this convention was any appeal made to the “unattached radicals” to join the ranks of the Socialist Party. After the victory of the “Militants” at Detroit, this appeal was frequently repeated, in particular by Norman Thomas. It was attractive and exercised a strong influence on many revolutionary militants who, revolted by Stalinism, were nevertheless reluctant to join a “small group”, however correct its program. The SP then appeared to be developing in a sound direction and offered them the right of presenting and defending a consistent revolutionary position in its ranks. This democratic aspect of the SP compensated, in the minds of these militants, for plant, of its defects.

The party leadership took this right seriously only in the hope that it would not be seriously exercised. As soon as it was, the bureaucracy abrogated it by administrative ukase. It has no intention of restoring it. So far as the left wing is concerned, there is no need of restoring it – for the left was expelled long before the convention and was as completely unrepresented in its sessions as it is in the ranks of the party. So far as the right wing is concerned, there is no need of restoring it either – for the right wing was never deprived of the tight to criticism, inside the party or outside, to autonomy, and freedom of action, regardless of conformity with the official party line.

2. The anti-war resolution unanimously adopted at the convention is of a piece with the most recent development of the party. Compared with the by no means adequate resolution of the Chicago convention a year ago, it marks a tremendous shift to the right. About petty bourgeois pacifism, or pacifism in General, there is literally not a single word, not one. In Chicago, under pressure of the left wing, the party at least formally disavowed pacifism. This year it left it unmentioned, for otherwise how could a unanimous vote be obtained? About imperatively needed proletarian independence and a class struggle policy in the fight against war, again, not a word. About using the social crisis in the course of war for overthrowing the bourgeoisie, not a word, although this was clearly indicated a year ago in Chicago. As for the “biggest” enterprise of the party – the “Keep America Out Of War” movement – the resolution is as silent as a carp; it doesn’t even mention it. The active social-patriotic position of the Second International – of which the SP is the American section-might just as well have been an obscure phenomenon of the Middle Ages for all the reference made to it in the Kenosha resolution. The vital question of the defense of the USSR in war, and its relationship to the question of Soviet-imperialist alliances against another imperialist group, is simply ignored. (Such an attitude is called: “giving leadership to the workers”.)

But for that we find a program calling for “the abandonment by the United States of all imperialist ventures, whether of an economic, financial, or military nature, in Latin America,” the only criticism of which can be that it is not supplemented by a the abandonment of immodesty in all brothels, superstition in all churches, and cretinism in all cretins.

One could continue almost indefinitely on this unhappy document without reaching bottom. But important is the fact that its radical introductory ponderosities (“War has its root in imperialism”. is one earth-shaking example) simply have the purpose of covering up the completely reformist work of the party. And what is decisive is, as the Greeks say, ou gnosis alla praxis – not the theory but the practise. The pacifist practise of the SP in the “Keep America Out of War” movement, on the one side, and the perfunctory radicalism of a convention resolution which prudently omits mention – much less condemnation – of this practice, there is a picture of centrism for you, of the closed compartments in which it segregates its deeds from its words.

3. The trade union resolution is not less in character. If there is one thing that the SP leadership fears more than isolation from the unions, it is “offending” or irritating the American trade union bureaucracy. Even more threateningly than in the past, however, this bureaucracy is today the most pernicious obstacle in the path of an independent and aggressive development of the labor movement. No real progress can be made without smashing it, and replacing it with a leadership based on class struggle policies, free from contamination with and subordination to the bourgeoisie and its parties. The healthy movement of the ranks is there; it requires only direction, consciousness, encouragement, organization. The role and record of the Lewis-Green machines require no re-telling here. But the SP is quite able to hold a national convention and adopt a resolution on the trade union question which has not a word to say about this vital, fundamental aspect of the problem. It is as if it does not exist for the party. The resolution expresses the usual concern over the split between the AF of L and the CIO; so, God knows, does everybody. It urges, you may rest assured, unity and rank and file pressure for it. But a call for the organization of all militants to fight for the class independence of the unions, for a class struggle policy, for a serious battle against the bureaucracy which subjects the unions to the bourgeoisie – that, you see, would not be a “judicial” and “realistic” trade union policy.

4. “The Socialist Party,” reads the anti-war resolution “repudiates isolationism and narrow nationalism in all its forms.” Good. Very good. Then it endorses internationalism? Also very good. And it intervenes in international questions? Apparently, for it does not hesitate to chide the Stalintern for its war-mongering. But the S.P., we believe, does not belong to the Stalinist International; it is the American section of the Second International. Is that something like being affiliated to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks or the Phi Mu Sorority? Or is it to be taken seriously? Then what has the Socialist Party to say about the ignominious role of M. Leon Blum, fellow member of the International, during his premiership? What has it to say about Sr. Juan Negrin, fellow member of the international, and his suppression and imprisonment of followers of Caballero, also a fellow member? What has it to say about Major Atlee, another fellow member, and his passionate cries for bigger and better aviation and the defense of the Empire? What has it to say, in short, about the thoroughly chauvinistic, pro-war position of the whole International and its leadership? To condemn the Comintern is pretty easy nowadays and some- times pretty cheap. It would be more serious if the SP were to sweep clean the thickly besmirched doorstep of its own International first.

But about its own International and associate members, the Kenosha convention had nothing to say, absolutely nothing! It did, it is true, “condemn the actions of the Communist International and the conservative political elements of Loyalist Spain in denying civil rights to the left forces” But the “political elements” it speaks of include – indeed, are headed by – “comrades” Negrin and Prieto, of the Socialist Party. Isn’t it what those accustomed to strong language would call loathsome hypocrisy to condemn one gangster and to cover in silence another, just as guilty, only because he happens to be a member of your lodge or sorority?

It should be borne in mind that especially in these crucial days, with the war threat more imminent than ever, living internationalism is the only true touchstone for all those who call themselves socialists.

The Socialist Party today has neither numbers nor revolutionary principles and program. It does have Norman Thomas who leads a small coterie that dominates the party. The SP is in reality a head without a body.

Thomas has described a magic circle beyond which his “left” critics – if we may be pardoned the adjective – dare not go. Up to the rim, and no farther. For, as they say among themselves in awed-horrified whispers, if this or that point is pressed (i.e., if we take our radical talk seriously), Thomas will drop out, and then what will be left of the party?

One illustration out of literally hundreds will suffice. During the intense debate over the SP capitulation to the LaGuardia-ALP bureaucracy in the last New York election campaign, Tyler, Zam, Delson and confreres denounced Thomas as a traitor to the party and the principles of socialism, and his policy as treason. These are scarcely terms to be bandied about lightly. The treasonous Thomas-Altman policy was the one actually followed, as is known. Now comes the highest authority of the party – its national convention. Our “Clarityite” heroes, who talked so big last October, have a majority of the convention votes. Do they propose that the convention condemn the policy pursued in New York, that is, condemn the traitors to socialism and their treason? Their blood, never very rich, freezes at the very thought. For this lamentable “left” wing, which takes very seriously the ever-present threat of Thomas to leave the party if he does not have his way or something very much like it, does not take itself seriously. It understands quite well how little indeed it represents today.

Poverty and misery give birth and sustenance to religion. Solace for an empty stomach is often found by the wretched in the adoration of an icon. The S.P. today is pretty well reduced to the icon of Norman Thomas. That is why he so thoroughly dominates the party and, in the public eye, is the party – all that is left of it. That is why he has his personal political column in the party press. If his views therein coincide with the official party line, no matter; if they do not, no matter. (See, for a characteristic example, the conflict between the Thomas approach to the LaFollette party and the official party statement.) A head without a body – for where the body should be there is not the flesh and blood of numbers, the pulse of life, but an ectoplasmic emanation of centrist verbiage and political


Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 30 July 2015