Max Shachtman


The Stalinist Convention

(July 1938)

From The New International, Vol. IV No. 7, July 1938, pp. 202–205.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE PASSIONATE AVOWALS OF love for the flag, the Constitution and the traditions of the United States, delivered in rolling Jeffersonian accents by Earl Browder at the tenth convention of the communist party, have met with distressingly poor response on the outside. Not even Israel Amter trying his utmost to look like Daniel Boone and Ella Reeve Bloor like Barbara Fritchie, were of much help. The big bourgeois papers did not even try to suppress a horse-laugh; the liberal dailies declared the deception – that the protestations were anything but a deception properly occurred to nobody – too thin; even the anxiously friendly Nation tittered politely in one part of its comment and made a wry face in the other. The hurt expression of the party’s spokesmen at not having their declamations taken seriously, and their pathetic insistence on their innate honesty and sincerity, have only added a superfluous touch to an already overdone burlesque. There is very good ground for the unrelieved skepticism with which the CP convention was greeted. Every half-informed person is perfectly well aware that the policies and public declarations of the Stalinist parties are decided in every important particular by the Kremlin bureaucracy in accordance with the prevailing requirements of Soviet Foreign Office. The only reason why the official communist parties have not long since been dissolved (their original aim – the revolutionary struggle for power – having been proscribed years ago) is that they still have two functions to perform for their patrons: 1) as a means of pressure upon the so-called “democracies” for an alliance with the Soviet Union in the coming world war, or in a preventive war against Russia’s present direct enemies; and 2) once the alliance is consummated, or as a demonstration of its desirability to the bourgeoisie, as a gendarme in the ranks of the working class, impeding its political and revolutionary development. The Communist International, as the perspicacious New York Times pointed out some time ago, is the world’s stoutest pillar of the status quo; as such it is, basically, quite reconciled to the existing social order and the bourgeoisie and comes into conflict with it only when, and to the extent that, the latter seeks to alter the status quo in a more reactionary direction. Wherever the bourgeoisie seeks to maintain the system of private property in its present form, it finds in the Stalinists a trustworthy and ferocious – witness Spain! – bodyguard.

The important and often decisive point is, nevertheless, this: the bourgeoisie understands perfectly well that the Stalinists are ready to defend its “democratic” rule only as a function of their subservience to the Moscow bureaucracy; that, for example, if it served Stalin’s policy to make the alliance with Hitler which he tried to achieve in 1933, the communist parties everywhere would once more discover that the Versailles Peace Treaty and the status quo are viciously reactionary and bourgeois democracy a hoax and a snare. The British had no illusions whatsoever about the loyalty to Crown and Country of the Hessians who served them against the American colonists. If the captains and lieutenants hired out to the British by the Prince of Hesse had met in convention to declare their undivided fealty to King George, their love of the House of Hanover and their pride in the glorious traditions of the Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, they would scarcely have met with greater incredulity – and revulsion! – than was encountered by Browder’s convention.

Yet, it seems that no party that once stood for the socialist revolution and was the sworn foe of capitalism and its institutions, could have made more prodigious efforts to convince itself as well as outsiders of its respectability. No former disturber of the peace of mind of exploiters and oppressors could have gone through more contortions to prove that he was housebroken. But like every over-zealous parvenu, the Stalinist convention did not confine itself to donning the sober garments of the more dignified and restrained bourgeois, but decked itself out in the trappings of the most blatant, that is, the most reactionary representatives of the ruling class.

The first example of this is the new preamble to the party constitution, which is more than the hypocritical fraud for which it was properly and universally derided; it is a gross scandal, without precedent in the militant labor movement. The formula is in the nature of a public pledge of all members:

The Communist Party of the United States of America is a working class political party carrying forward today the traditions of Jefferson, Paine, Jackson and Lincoln, and of the Declaration of Independence; it upholds the achievements of democracy, the rights of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and defends the United States Constitution against its reactionary enemies who would destroy democracy and all popular liberties ...

We will not dwell here on the historically reactionary concept that a revolutionary workers’, i.e., socialist party should base itself upon the traditions of bourgeois revolutionists, however great and progressive in their time, whose watchwords could be nothing more than ideological expressions for their social aim, namely, the establishment and consolidation of capitalist property relations and rule. We wish instead to indicate another point, which is that the new C.P. preamble, by declaring its attachment to the constitutional, or legal, basis of American capitalism not only abandons the struggle for socialism but binds its members with a loyalty oath to the existing order. For the heart of the preamble is taken, in part word for word and in the spirit wholly, from the Loyalty Oaths which impertinent reaction has imposed on school teachers in numerous states. This may be seen from its striking similarity to the official oath which the teachers of Georgia are forced to take, swearing that they will

Uphold, support and defend the Constitution and laws of this State and of the United States, and will refrain from directly and indirectly subscribing to or teaching any theory of government of economic or of social relations which is inconsistent with the fundamental principles of patriotism and high ideals of Americanism.

What CP member could now consistently refuse to take this oath, or to continue the fight against its adoption in those states where it has not yet been put on the statute books by the red-baiters?

An even more striking plagiarism from the arsenal of American reaction is contained in Article VI of the new constitution of the CP on the Rights and Duties of Members.

The Communist Party of the United States of America upholds the democratic achievements of the American people. It opposes with all its power any clique, group, circle, faction or party, which conspires or acts to subvert, undermine, weaken or overthrow any or all institutions of American democracy whereby the majority of the American people have obtained power to determine their own destiny to any degree.

This utterly appalling paragraph can be found in any of dozens of indictments and prosecutors’ pleas for the conviction of revolutionists in the courts of the United States! The Stalinists scarcely altered by a syllable the professional jargon of capitalism’s cops and turnkeys: “conspires or acts to subvert, undermine, weaken or overthrow any [!] or all institutions of American democracy”! Why, both the chairman and secretary of the CP were indicted and the state prosecutor demanded their imprisonment in the famous Michigan cases of 1922 in virtually those very words. Flesh and bone and blood, spirit and text, they are lifted from American “democracy’s” infamous Criminal Syndicalism Laws, which, in Michigan, for example, provide against the crime of “conspiracy” by

Any person who by word of mouth or writing, advocates or teaches the duty, necessity or propriety of crime, sabotage, violence or other unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.

However derisive the bourgeoisie of the United States may be about the democratic pretensions of the American agents of the Stalin totalitarian regime, its more astute sections realize that in an “emergency”, such as is created by a war, they will be able to rely to a large extent upon these police-spirited gentlemen to ferret out and hound genuine revolutionists with the same brutality and system that their similars have employed against the anarchists, the POUM and the left-wing socialists in the Spanish civil war. It was to emphasize their readiness to play this role that the Stalinists went out of their way so demonstratively to insert the quoted passages in their party constitution.

The same purpose is behind the new provision in the constitution – a piece of xenophobia and of truly 100 percent American chauvinism, which no self-respecting trade union has in its statutes – limiting membership in the party only to those patriots who are citizens of our Great and Indivisible Republic or who have declared their intention of becoming citizens. Even more sickening is the section on discipline which declares that

Party members found to be strikebreakers, degenerates, habitual drunkards, betrayers of party confidence, provocateurs, advocates of terrorism and violence as a method of party procedure, or members whose actions are detrimental to the party and the working class, shall be summarily dismissed from positions of responsibility, expelled and exposed before the general public. (NY Times, May 29, 1938)

There have, it is true, been “workers’ “ parties before this who excluded from membership “advocates of violence”, but they never had a very high standing in the revolutionary movement, and not one of them ever reached the depths of reactionary shamelessness represented by the new Browder clause. Never has anyone dared to insult the revolutionary movement by bracketing degenerates, drunkards and scabs with advocates of terrorism, stool-pigeons with advocates of violence. To put the strike-breaker and pervert in the same bag with the William Tells, the Haymarket martyrs, Hirsch Leckerts, Vera Zasuliches and scores of other great spirits of revolutionary protest, is worthy only of those who in the same breath associate the spy and informer with Marx, Engels, Lenin and even Stalin, the greatest advocates of revolutionary violence in their time, yes, and even the Browders, Fosters and Olgins of yesterday.

In 1912, in attempting to oust and crush the syndicalist and “red socialist” left wing, the Hillquit gang forced through the Indianapolis convention of the socialist party the infamous Article II, Section 6 of the constitution, which while it was not one-tenth as depraved as the new Stalinist clause, nevertheless provided for the automatic expulsion of “any member of the party who opposes political action or advocates crime, sabotage or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation”. Every historian of the American movement for the past quarter of a century has understood that the notorious Section 6 was an expression of the opportunistic degeneration of the Hillquit party, so redolent of toadyism to bourgeois respectability that its very authors shamefacedly proposed its concellation a few years later. Only two years ago, William Z. Foster, one of the fathers of the Stalinist Section 6, commented on the SP’s 1912 constitutional change as follows:

The basic meaning of all this ran far beyond the suppression of the advocacy of sabotage; it meant that the party leadership had rejected the policy of class struggle and had turned still deeper into the reformism that was killing the party. Its lawyer-doctor-preacher heads were determined to wipe out the revolutionary tendency in the party and they followed up this convention victory by having Haywood recalled by referendum from the National Executive Council. Thus, Bill Haywood, the revolutionary fighter who was worth several carloads of the opportunist intellectuals who were running and ruining the Socialist party, was not deemed worthy of sitting upon the party’s executive ... The outcome of the 1912 convention was a real disaster to the socialist party, one from which it never fully recovered. (The Crisis in the Socialist Party, p. 34)

This entirely accurate characterization now applies, but with a hundred times as much force, to Foster’s own party, for, among other things, a Bill Haywood today would find it a thousand times more difficult to be a member of the communist party, much less to “sit upon the party’s executive”!

What little kindness we feel towards the Stalinist party dictates that we pass over lightly the last innovation in the constitution: the provision, compounded of perfidy, downright fear and total lack of self-confidence, prohibiting all party members from any political or personal (!) relations with “confirmed Lovestoneites and Trotskyites” – not with fascists or scabs; no, only with Trotskyists and Lovestoneites.

These constitutional alterations constituted an appropriate background for the political line set forth by the convention, or, more accurately, for the undebated, unanimous endorsement of the divine revelations handed down to the convention like Mosaic tablets by the party Führer.

The People’s Front of yesterday has been relegated to the background; it was scarcely mentioned throughout the proceedings of the convention. Place of honor goes now to the “Democratic Front”, which awaits only the passage of a little time to be amended into the “American Front” – an absolutely certain slogan of tomorrow.

It is not necessary to enter in great detail into the analysis which Browder made of the crisis in the United States. Suffice it to say that the ridiculous, outworn, exploded thesis of Marx and Engels to the effect that periodic economic crises are inherent and inevitable in capitalist society, regardless of the wishes or politics of the ruling class, was replaced by the brand-new discovery that it is not capitalism that engenders crises but rather that “Every economic crisis is the result of the policies of the capitalist class” (The Democratic Front, p. 23). The economic Columbus of the tenth convention sucked this thesis out of his thumb in order to bolster the political line which aims to make the party, if not the saviors of the bad-policied bad-capitalists, then at least the personal physician of the capitalist system.

The Democratic Front marks a new low in the evolution of American Stalinism. Put in the most objective manner, the formal adoption of the new policy underlines the fact that the American communist party plays not a progressive but an outstandingly reactionary role in the labor movement of this country. It seeks to drag it back to where the German working class, for example, stood or rather lay almost a century ago.

With all its opportunism, its increasing corruption, it parliamentary cretinism, its bureaucratism and suppression of the left wing, the Second International played an historically progressive role in the great period before the World War. Why? Because it presided over the birth of an independent working class movement. Defective in a thousand ways, the parties of the Second International in such countries as Germany, Austro-Hungary, France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, England and the Scandinavian countries led the working class in the first giant’s step towards socialism. Not even the most backward and opportunistic of the little socialist groups that made the start, took as its point of departure the present Stalinist conception that, since the workers “are not ready for socialism”, and since they support the liberal bourgeoisie and its party, we too must support that party. Quite the contrary.

Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of the German labor movement, gained immortality in the annals of the revolutionary movement not so much because of his rigid adherence to Marxism or the flawlessness of his tactics, but because he succeeded like no one else, in separating the German workers from the party of the liberal bourgeoisie, of the Fortschrittsmänner, and organizing them into an independent, integral party of their own class. Lassalle was subjected to the most furious slander campaign by the bourgeois philistines and their prototypes in the labor movement, who charged him and his movement with being agents of the Prussian reaction because he was “dividing the progressive front”. In the same way, the pioneers of the British Labour party, in attempting to establish labor’s independent political organization, had to breast the tidal waves of calumny from the Liberals and their trade union lieutenants who, when the Labourites put up an independent candidate, charged them with splitting the “liberal front” because they were in the pay of the Tories.

Three quarters of a century ago, the scintillating tribune of the German proletariat was compelled to devote a good deal of his time to answering, in his own admirably masterful way, the “progressive” bourgeois traducers of the working class whose only interest in the latter was as electoral cattle. All the reactionary arguments of the Browders and Fosters of today were crushingly answered seventy and eighty years ago by Lassalle, to say nothing of Marx and Engels.

From its “third period” to the present day, the Stalinist party has steadily developed to the point where it is the main obstacle in the working class to the latter’s inevitable development as an independent political force, having its own class party, with its own class leadership and objectives. The frenzied efforts the CP is now making to keep the American working class under the tutelage of one or another of the old bourgeois parties, or an admixture of both of them in a new form, is what brands the Stalinist party as an essentially reactionary force in the labor movement. For a political party cannot be characterized otherwise unless, especially in the United States, it sets forth as its immediate and primary task the separation of the working class from the capitalist class, the political establishment of the proletariat as a class for itself, the proclamation of its Declaration of Independence.

For reasons of Soviet foreign policy alone, i.e., in the interests of convincing the democratic bourgeoisie of the desirability of an alliance with Moscow, the political line and activities of the communist party are calculated to prevent such a Declaration of Independence. That and nothing else is the meaning and purpose of the Democratic Front, which has now superseded not only the entirely suppressed labor party slogan of the CP, but even its slogan of the People’s Front. And by Democratic Front, bear in mind, the Stalinists want to emphasize not only their attachment to “democracy” but above all their attachment to the Democratic party, specifically to that New Deal section of the party which only a few years ago they denounced as fascist.

Already in 1936 [reads Browder’s convention report], the main body of the democratic mass movement had shifted to support of the Democratic Party in most places, and nationally; while the main camp of the reactionary forces formed around the Republican Party. Theft are still, however, some progressive groupings under the Republican flag, here and there; while under the Democratic flag is a whole organized wing in alliance with reaction, and fighting for official control of the Democratic Party ... If the camp of reaction is to be defeated, if victory is to be won by the people, the democratic camp must be equally united and mobilized. (p. 38)

In the sense that the working class and its organizations were and still largely are under the domination of the Democratic party, this analysis is correct. But precisely because the working class is tied to the bourgeois parties does it become mandatory upon revolutionists to work out those tactics which will most speedily and effectively assist the working class in their groping efforts to break from any and all the bourgeois parties. The crime of the Stalinists consists in the fact that they take the present situation as the answer to the very problems which that situation presents for solution. They seek to perpetuate substantially the status quo in the American proletariat’s relations to capitalist class politics.

The Democratic Front means the continued imprisonment of the working class within the framework of the present or a reconstructed version of the Democratic party and “some progressive groupings under the Republican flag”. That is why there is no mention at all in the tenth convention documents of the class struggle, of independent working class political action, of the need of helping the American workers break away from the bourgeois parties. Just the contrary. The break from the bourgeois parties – in the Year of Our Lord one thousand, nine hundred and thirty-eight! – is condemned as premature, and therefore false. Thus, even the LaFollette movement is attacked not primarily and not so much because of its reactionary program, but because it is a rupture of the traditional method of the late LaFollette, which is extolled by Browder as exemplary because “Fighting Bob’s”

... method was to emerge from the old parties into independent existence at such a moment and upon such issues, as would ensure the unity of the progressive majority behind it from the moment of its birth, thus avoiding the danger of splitting the progressives and handing a cheap victory to the reactionaries. (p. 18)

Phil LaFollette’s method, on the other hand, “disturbs the unity of the democratic front”. In other words, the unity of the Democratic Front means condemnation of any division not only in the Democratic but also in the Republican party! It not only proscribes the formation of a genuinely independent working class party, but even of an independent third, petty bourgeois party!

That is why the Stalinists did not even call for an independent labor ticket after the Pennsylvania primary defeat of Kennedy, but instead urged upon the AF of L and the CIO to make every effort to “forget” the deplorable division in the primaries and to unite the Kennedy-Guffey and Earle-Jones factions into a reconsolidated Democratic party. That is why the Stalinists were deliriously happy in the columns of their paper when they learned that the rumored report that the American Labor Party in New York would break away from the domination of its Republican party allies and henceforth pursue an independent path, was false.

We repeat: the Stalinist party is the most perfidious and reactionary enemy in the ranks of the American workers to their independent political progress.

Yet, how does it happen that all this is so docilely and unanimously swallowed by the convention delegates and. party members, even though it represents a complete and irrevocable break with everything the communist movement once stood for? With totalitarian pride worthy of an Achille Starace or a Rudolph Hess, Browder and Foster boasted of the absolute unanimity with which the 35 district conventions endorsed the resolutions of the Central Committee. There is an explanation for this complete monolithism of mind which has a parallel only in the fascist parties.

In the first place, the overwhelming majority of the party membership is composed of people who have come into the party only in the last two or three years. They know nothing and are taught less about the revolutionary past, or the foundation policies of the Communist International. And since the Leader principle is today paramount in the Stalinist movement, it suffices for Browder to tell them that his policy is good communist doctrine to have it adopted without much if any debate.

In the second place, the ideological terrorism inside the party and the police surveillance over every word and action of the party member, is so great that it has been virtually impossible up to now for protesting or questioning members to come together to discuss their own opinions or doubts, must less to put them forward inside the party in an organized way. The result is the still substantial turnover in membership: thousands vote against the party policy and the party regime with their feet.

In the third place, the greatest number of recruits to the party have come not from the industrial proletariat, who are least receptive to opportunism and class collaboration, but from the middle classes, the intellectuals, the professionals and the white collar workers, who are most receptive to them. Whoever knows the origin and history of the degeneration of the pre-war and post-war Second International will understand the great significance of this phenomenon. The party leaders lament the fewness of the industrial workers in the party, and admit that only “26.2 percent of the communist party’s membership are employed in heavy industry; 73.8 percent are middle class, farmers, professionals, white collar, agricultural workers and unclassified occupations” (Daily Worker, May 28, 1938).

In the fourth place, the delegates are not only hand-picked by the party leadership, but the overwhelming majority of them – 647 out of the 776, or more than 83 percent, according to the credentials committee report (Daily Worker, June 1, 1938) – are party functionaries, who, particularly in the CP, are completely dependent for their jobs on the benevolence of the central party bureaucracy.

In the fifth place, those who are more or less aware of the difference between a revolutionary and a reformist policy, and who might be expected to object to the prevailing party policies – they include some of the young elements as well as “old-timers” – have been corrupted by the very double-dealing and double-bookkeeping which they condemn with tongue in cheek. In the privacy of their bedrooms, with shades drawn and keyholes chinked, they will cynically explain that the “respectable” policy is an ingenious trick with which to put the bourgeoisie off the track and win those workers “not yet ready for socialism”; and when The Hour strikes, the party will throw off its mask and reveal itself in pristine revolutionary purity! Alas, they are duping only themselves, as would an atheist if he planned to destroy religious prejudices with a popular mass movement recruited by arguments to support the infallibility of the Pope and the scientific basis for Genesis.

Finally, the political level of the average party member is incredibly low. The official membership figures lay claim to 75,000 members, to which are added 20,000 members of the youth organization. In contrast to this group of 95,000 organized communists, is the official (i.e., the exaggerated) figure for the circulation of the Daily Worker, stated earlier this year in the formal declaration to the United States Post Office: about 30,000 copies. This was before the establishment of two more daily organs. Even if not a single copy of the party’s central daily organ was sold to non-party members – which is obviously not the case – it would mean that there is not one member out of three who reads his own party press – a percentage which is at once amazing and revealing! (Remember that the vast majority of the party and youth membership today is English-speaking and English-reading.) As for the “theoretical” monthly, The Communist, not one member in ten (more likely: not one in twenty) reads it, a fact which might, it is true, be put down as a plus.

While these factors explain the present unanimity with which the Browder policies are swallowed, they are anything but a guarantee of the same unanimity for always. The impact of the class struggle, which all signs indicate is becoming more powerful in this country, is certain to drive mighty wedges into the ranks of the Stalinist movement, especially as they become more numerous. Social crises after the war broke in two the apparently no less powerful and unanimous social democracies. When the crash takes place here it will not even leave remnants of the wretched bureaucratic clique that has brought nothing but shame and catastrophe to the revolutionary movement.


Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 11 September 2015