American Radicalism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
James P. Cannon, International Socialist Review
From International Socialist Review, Vol.21 No.1, Winter 1960, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Daniel Gaido and Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
This speech was given at the West Coast Vacation School and Camp, Labor Day, 1959. James P. Cannon is the National Chairman of the Socialist Workers party. He was a founder of the Communist party of the United States and a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International until 1928 when he supported the Trotskyist Left Opposition in the Soviet Union. Before World War I, Cannon was active in the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist party.
The biographical information which the Chairman provided in his introduction doesn’t necessarily qualify anyone to give a coherent account of what happened in the past fifty years or so in the movement of socialist and labor radicalism. The woods are full of people who have been through at least a large part of this experience, but their accounts of it may vary widely. The stormy events of American radicalism during this century may be compared to a long series of explosive and catastrophic experiences after which every survivor tells a different story.
It is not only necessary to have been a participant and an observer to explain the ups and downs of American radicalism in this century. It is equally necessary to have understood what was happening in the world over that period, and to relate it all to a consistent historical theory. You’ll be better able to judge at the end of my speech than at the beginning whether I, in part at least, meet those qualifications.
This is a very big and complicated subject to be compressed within an hour or so. But we need a general view of the preceding events of the present century as a means of giving us some perspective on the years that remain in it.
The Great American Contradiction
Let’s begin with the present reality, with what might be called the great American contradiction. Here we live in the most advanced country in the world from the point of view of its technological and industrial development and its productivity. Because it is the most advanced country in these respects, it is the country where the material conditions and foundations for the socialist transformation of society are prepared to a degree not yet existing anywhere else in the world.
Marx explained that capitalism not only greatly advances the forces of production and is therefore a more progressive stage of society than the feudal past, but, in developing the forces of production and proletarianizing the great mass of the population, capitalist society prepares its own gravediggers in the person of the industrial proletariat. That also has been provided in the United States to a greater extent than anywhere else in the world. The gravediggers of capitalism are more numerous here, and, in some respects, better organized than elsewhere on a trade union level. It is potentially the most powerful working class in the entire world.
The contradiction to all these prerequisites for the socialist transformation of society is the other side of the picture which we all have to recognize. We have here the most conservative political climate of any country in the world, at least among the great powers, and the weakest movement of labor radicalism and socialist consciousness. Despite all the rich experiences of the working people in the rest of the world which should have come to our aid and eventually inevitably will—despite all the favorable developments for socialism on a world scale, the situation of American radicalism today, from the point of view of socialist consciousness, socialist organization and socialist morale is worse than it was thirty years ago. It’s even worse than it was sixty years ago at the turn of the century, when the first modern movement of socialist and labor radicalism in this country began to get a popular hearing.
There are objective causes for this tremendous depression of the radical movement at the present time. They are well known and don’t need to be elaborated here. The unprecedented boom, a prosperity based on war expenditures and preparations for war and so forth, have had a tremendously conservatizing influence. In any case, radicalism would very likely be on the defensive in this country under such conditions. But our concern today is not with these objective causes of the present conjuncture in the development of the historical movement toward socialism. I propose to deal mainly with the subjective causes of the present weaknesses of American radicalism: above all, the failure of leadership which has made conditions ten and a hundred times worse than they needed to be, and which makes our problem of preparing the great socialist revival more difficult.
The present situation which I have briefly sketched can change very rapidly into its opposite. That’s what happened in the thirties, in the decade following the first postwar boom of American capitalism with the concomitant decline of radicalism in the twenties. Very few of you may remember that we went through a period in the 1920’s after the rise of radicalism in the first twenty years of this century, when the unprecedented boom of American capitalism on the one side and the inadequacies of the revolutionary leadership on the other produced a collapse, and almost dispersal, of the previous radical movement. But within the next decade that entire situation turned upside down in a few years’ time.
The subjective reasons for the current depression of United States radicalism cannot be understood without a critical analysis of the inner history of the American socialist and labor radical movement in the sixty years since the turn of the century. We can learn something from this review of the past that will be useful both for the present and for the future. Of course, in a single lecture we can only hit the high spots and must omit many interesting and significant details. But such a condensed review may make the main aspects of the historical development stand out more clearly.
In our century we have seen two widespread and popular movements of socialist and labor radicalism. If we examine what they were, how they came into existence, what they did and failed to do, and what happened to them—we can draw some useful conclusions about the prospects of a new revival of American radicalism and about the nature of our problems and our tasks in preparing the way for it.
The Debsian Movement
At the turn of the century, there was a great upswing of radicalism in this country prompted by the objective conditions of the time—the accelerated development of industrial and monopolistic capitalism, the dispossession of small businessmen and farmers, the unbridled exploitation of the workers who were without organization, and so forth. This rebirth of American radicalism got its big impetus in 1901 with the formation of the Socialist party of America as a fusion of different socialist currents, which up to that time had been isolated groups without any wide popular influence. The distinctive factor which made possible the development of this new socialist movement at that time was the turn of a number of influential individuals and groups away from the policy of class collaboration in politics to the policy of independent socialist action.
Many of you have heard of the great role played by Debs and the Appeal to Reason, the socialist agitational paper which had a half million and more circulation. What is perhaps not so well known by comrades of the younger generation is that Debs, the Appeal to Reason and a very large percentage of the people who were influential in giving the Socialist party its start in the first years of this century had previously been Populists. They had supported the Populist movement and then in 1896, when the Populist party was swallowed by the Democratic party, they went along with it. Debs, the Appeal to Reason, Victor Berger and others who promoted the formation of the Socialist party in 1901, had supported Bryan and the Democratic party in 1896. But by the turn of the century, they broke out of that blind alley and had come to the conclusion that it was necessary to have an independent socialist position. That’s what made the big difference.
The most significant change in the attitude of these influential people, and of tens of thousands of others who supported them, which made possible the emergence and growth of the Socialist party in the first years of this century, was their break with capitalist politics altogether and their espousal of socialism. They emphasized and acted on the fundamental principle that a socialist movement must have its own party and its own candidates and cannot combine with or support any capitalist party, whether Republican, Democratic, Progressive or Populist. This new revelation inspired the emergence for the first time of a popular socialist movement in this country.
The Socialist Labor party and other socialist sects which had existed prior to that time had never gained a popular hearing. But the Socialist party brought into its ranks a great number of people who had had their fill of experimentation in one form of capitalist party politics or another. They gave a great impetus to the new Socialist party. So much so that, by 1912, the Socialist party of the United States had a hundred thousand members and got almost a million votes in the Presidential election. That was before women’s suffrage, and was about six percent of the total vote cast. This would be equal to between three and a half and four million votes at the present time. That gives you an idea of the popular appeal of the Socialist party in that period.
The IWW, which was a very militant organization on the industrial field, was a part of this first popular movement of American radicalism. It is important to recall that the IWW was founded by socialists. At the Founding Convention in 1905 all the leading figures were from a socialist background: they came from the Socialist party, the Socialist Labor party, some Anarchists and other kinds of radicals. This sentiment predominated in the IWW throughout its first twenty years of existence. It called itself not merely an industrial union, but a revolutionary industrial union.
In these early years of our century socialist and labor radicalism attained some proportions of a mass character in this country. The movement had its weak sides. In the course of its electoral activities, as we look back on it now, we can see that it placed too much emphasis on municipal politics and reform. The reformist tendency within the Socialist party was quite strong, although I believe a fair assessment of the history would show the majority were revolutionary.
The composition of the party was also unfavorable in some respects. Comrade White told us last night that the Populist movement in the South was deflected into a reactionary channel. But there was another part of this Populist movement which was drawn into the Socialist party. The Socialist party in many parts of the country consisted of a very large percentage of former Populists. The composition of its membership in the western part of the country was very heavily weighted on the side of the petty bourgeoisie in the cities and in the countryside. At one time the largest single state membership of the Socialist party, and, if I’m not mistaken, the largest socialist vote proportionally, was in the state of Oklahoma. In the other western agrarian states also the hard-pressed tenant and mortgaged farmers and desperate petty bourgeoisie streamed into the Socialist party from the Populist movement and swelled its ranks. So the class composition of the party was not as proletarian as an ideal Socialist movement should be.
Another terrible defect of the socialist and radical movement of that time came from the weakness of the organized labor movement. The great mass production industries in this country were completely without trade union organization. Trade unions were limited almost entirely to the skilled crafts, and were very weak in many places even in that field. Outside of the mines and the railroads, it was very hard to find a single union in the big industries. As I listened the other night to the report about the present steel strike, a general strike shutting down all the mills of the country, with the union so strong it doesn’t need to send more than token pickets—I recalled a very different steel strike in 1913 that I participated in as an IWW organizer. There we ran up against company thugs dressed up in police uniforms who sometimes outnumbered the pickets. And that was a single local strike on the ore docks in Duluth and Superior.
This was a common experience of the IWW and socialist attempts to organize in the steel industry or any place else. The most you could do was conduct a guerrilla attack at a single locality. The idea of a general strike, which was our ideal and our program, was far from realization. Yet that’s taken as a matter of course today.
This weakness of the trade union movement naturally was a weakness also of the socialist movement of the time. Without a strongly organized working class in the basic industries, it is quite futile to expect a socialist and revolutionary transformation of society. The IWW which had played a prominent part in the general radicalization of the period, turned to Syndicalism and that was a big defect of the movement too. The unfavorable class composition of the Socialist party, the weakness of the trade union movement, the mistakes of Syndicalism and reformism—all these defects prepared the way for the decline and eventual collapse of the first big experiment in socialist labor radicalism after twenty years of upswing.
The real trouble began with the First World War and then with the Russian Revolution. The movement as a whole proved unable to assimilate the lessons of these world-shaking experiences. They produced a deep division in the socialist movement, a split in 1919, the formation of the Communist party as a separate organization and the great weakening of what was left of the Socialist party.
This split in the forces of American socialist and labor radicalism, beginning with 1919, was followed by the tremendous post-war boom of the twenties.
The Communist Party in the Twenties
Of course this wasn’t anything like the current boom. But considering the conditions that had previously been known in the country, it was pretty lush. From the end of the war in 1918, up until the stock market crash in 1929, there was a continuous upswing of production, interrupted only by a recession in 1921, which was overcome within a year. And, for the first time in this country, there was year after year of almost full employment, fairly good wages, lots of overtime, and all the rest. Some workers even began to own automobiles. That was a sign of what we called their “bourgeoisification.” Everything is relative—and relative to the previous period, the automobiles of the twenties were a sign of workers’ prosperity.
The big boom of the twenties was interpreted by all kinds of learned people as the final solution of the contradictions of capitalism. Then as now that was a common theme of the economists and intellectuals: Karl Marx was out of date. His theory of the cycle of boom-and-bust had been overcome by the genius of American capitalism. We were going to have ever-rising permanent prosperity from now on. A great many people, including workers, believed that, and radicalism lost its previous attraction.
The result was that by the end of the twenties the original movement had become dispersed. At least ninety percent of the people who had been active socialists and labor radicals in the two decades before had fallen aside. There was nothing left except a weak and rotting right-wing Socialist party and the Communist party, with a greatly reduced membership.
That was, you may say, the end of the Debsian movement. It had lasted twenty years. What remained after that was merely a hangover, a survival of remnants—never the dynamic center of radicalism as it had been before. But despite that eventual failure of the movement, I think the over-all judgment of the Debsian period must be favorable, because out of this movement came the cadres and some of the main ideas for the second big upsurge of American labor radicalism in the thirties.
There never could have been a Communist party in this country in the twenties if there had not been a socialist movement in the twenty preceding years. This first big experiment in socialist and labor radicalism failed in its ultimate mission. But it left behind—and this is what we should remember in our historical appraisal, because it is so pertinent for today—it left behind a residue, in the form of cadres, ideas and attitudes which continued and advanced the socialist tradition. What was left from that older movement eventually became the leaven in the movement of the thirties.
After the split of 1919, the new Communist party took over and rapidly displaced all other contenders for supremacy in the field of radicalism, as the Socialist party had done in the preceding two decades. What was the Communist party like in the twenties? I was there, and I remember, and in the light of later thought and study, I think I understand it and can report it truthfully.
The CP in its early years had certain basic characteristics. Its cadres, formed in the previous radical movement, consisted of younger comrades who were conditioned to irreconcilable struggle against capitalism. It was inspired by the Russian Revolution and was the carrier of its ideas as well as it understood them. Its message was revolutionary, not at all moderate, not in the least conciliatory, or liberalistic, or conciliationism. The idea of class collaboration was simply anathema. Its guiding doctrine was the class struggle.
One of the main slogans of the Communist party in that period was: “Organize the Unorganized!” That was a bold program that only revolutionists could take seriously. If you think it is tough in the steel union or any other union today, look back to those days. Steel, rubber, auto and every other big industry had no unions at all, or company unions, controlled by the companies and led by company stooges. The Communist party conducted a struggle against company unions for bona fide unions of the workers, under the slogan: Class Struggle vs. Class Collaboration! That was a revolutionary slogan for the time, and it did a lot to prepare the great upsurge of union organization in the next decade.
In the main the composition of the Communist party in the twenties was young. The age level of the Communist party today, or what’s left of it or its peripheral circles doesn’t resemble what the Communist party was in the twenties. That was a young movement, as dynamic revolutionary movements always are.
At its inception the “old men” of the party among the leaders were Ruthenberg, Bedacht, Wagenknecht, Katterfeld, later Foster—they were all turning forty years old. A second layer of leaders, represented by Earl Browder, Bill Dunne, Arne Swabeck, myself and others, were turning thirty. And a third layer of the top leaders, represented in the Central Committee and the Political Committee by Lovestone, Weinstone and Wolfe, were in their early twenties—fresh out of college.
That was the composition of the leadership. The ranks, I believe, were even younger. The old men of the Socialist party—of the period before the split—did not come with the Communist party. It took the youth to understand the war and the Russian Revolution and to make the new movement fit for new times.
Maintained Class-Struggle Policy
This Communist party held the line of class struggle and revolutionary doctrine in that long ten-year period of boom, prosperity and conservatism before the crash of 1929. It was in that period—fighting for revolutionary ideas against a conservative environment as we are trying to do today, refusing to compromise the principle of class independence—that the Communist party gathered and prepared its cadres for the great upsurge of the thirties.
Not more than ten percent was left from the old prewar movement. Although the Communist party itself continued to recruit individuals from day to day and month to month, it also continued to lose people and its over-all membership declined. The left wing leaders in the Socialist party had claimed, with some justification, that they had 60,000 votes supporting them in the Referendum of 1919—shortly before the split. But then followed the Palmer Raids, the witch hunt, the deportations, the illegality of the party, and the long boom. It was tough going.
By the time of the stock market crash in 1929, which ended the myth of permanent capitalist prosperity, the Communist party had under 10,000 members. Ninety percent of these were foreign born. But it was a young movement—and primarily proletarian.
That was what the CP had to start with at the end of the twenties. It was up against the fact that the trade union movement was even weaker than it had been at the beginning of the twenties. A peculiar phenomenon was recorded: for the first time in modern history a protracted period of prosperity with its increase of production and increase in the size of the proletariat didn’t increase the size of the unions. On the contrary, it depleted and replaced them in many instances by company unions. The country was so conservative, the bosses were in such firm control, the union leadership was so weak, and its craft form of organization was so inadequate, that the trade unions embraced not more than three million at the time of the 1929 stock market crash. As far as CP influence in the unions was concerned, it was pretty well purged out, except in the garment trades and among the miners.
Although the CP wasn’t in first-class shape in those earlier days, it was young, confident and revolutionary—even ultra-radical at times. The Socialist party and the IWW had withered on the vine. In the Communist party itself, the corruption of Stalinism had already started but as yet had not deeply affected the consciousness of the rank and file. Despite its reduced membership, the Communist party entered the thirties—the period of the great radical revival—as the dominating center of American radicalism. It had no serious contenders. It had to its left only the dissident group of the Trotskyist, who were numerically small and isolated. The right wing group of Lovestoneites was equally weak; the attenuated and decrepit Socialist party offered no real competition; and the IWW had fallen victim to its Syndicalism dogmatism and become a sect. That was the shape of American radicalism when the thirties began.
Then the situation changed, almost overnight. The terrible financial and social crisis really shook up this country—and the workers. The radicalism produced by this shake-up was far stronger than the radicalism of the previous two decades. It had a much firmer social composition. This time the industrial workers in the main centers were the spearhead of the radicalism and gave the new movement a class composition of invincible power. It had the advantage of a more advanced ideology. The inspiration and ideas of the Russian Revolution permeated the Communist movement of that time and gave it a tremendous advantage over all other tendencies.
And then, in the changed situation in the thirties the impossible was accomplished. The impossible task of organizing the automobile industry, the rubber industry, the electrical manufacturing industry, the steel industry, the maritime industry—and actually bringing the monopolistic powers of American capitalism to the point where they had to recognize the unions—all that was accomplished in the great days of the CIO uprising in the thirties.
Along with that there was a growing sentiment for a Labor party which under proper leadership could have brought this whole movement of labor radicalism toward a glorious new epoch of independent class political action in this country. But that didn’t happen. And the main reason it didn’t happen was that the Communist party, which was the main leader of this new movement of labor radicalism, failed in its mission, even more shamefully, even more disgracefully than the Socialist party of the previous two decades. And more catastrophically, because it was not defeated in battle; it was corrupted from within. The Communist party has left less behind it from the great radical movement of the thirties than the Socialist party left in the beginning of the twenties.
You know the CP expanded its organization and influence in all directions in the thirties. Why did it collapse so miserably in the fifties? In fact, it had collapsed before then, but we have only seen in recent years how catastrophic it has been. Although many like John Gates, ex-editor of the Daily Worker, (I use him only as a symbol, because his name is legion) went through the experiences of the thirties, they didn’t understand what happened and they can’t make a true report about what they saw. They attribute the successes of the CP to the party’s cleverness in putting on the mask of “progressivism,” supporting Roosevelt and the New Deal in the late thirties and in the war period. And, conversely, they think the collapse of the CP has been caused by sectarianism, which is the way they describe the policy of class struggle and revolution.
The Big Appeal of the Communist Party
But that’s a complete misunderstanding of what really happened. The main cadres of the Communist party, which played such a big role in the second big wave of American radicalism in this century were forged, as I said before, in the twenties. Then they were renewed and greatly expanded in the early thirties by the policy of the class struggle. (In fact, during the first half of the thirties the Communist party was devoted to what we called ultra-leftism, ultra-radicalism, not at all “progressivism.” It did not maneuver with capitalist politics.)
In 1932, the Communist party nominated a Negro, James Ford, for Vice-President with Foster. And the slogan of their 1932 campaign was: “Class against Class.” There was no mealy-mouthed “progressivism” about that. With this slogan and the spirit emanating from it, the main cadres of the young unemployed workers of that time, the student youth without prospects, and, for the first time in the history of American radicalism, significant numbers of Negroes—thousands of them—and displaced intellectuals in droves—were recruited to the party. In this early period of the depression they were not repelled by the party’s radical and revolutionary aspect, but were attracted precisely because of it. Not in spite of its appearance as the representative of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, but, in large measure, because of it.
That was the big appeal of the Communist party in the first years of the thirties. The discontented turned to the most radical and aggressive movement they could find, and thought they had found it in the Communist party. In that, I think, is a lesson for the future. In times of social crisis, when the workers, the Negro people, the troubled students and the intellectuals of many kinds see no prospect in capitalism, they want to hear the word of a radical social transformation and a new beginning. That’s what the Communist party represented in the eyes of these people; and that’s why it grew.
In the early years of the thirties, the program and tradition of independent class politics completely dominated the Communist party and its tremendous periphery. So strong was this principle and this tradition that it couldn’t be changed abruptly. The rank and file of the movement, educated in the principle of the class struggle—which has its highest and sharpest expression in independent socialist political action—had to be corrupted gradually, a step at a time. The snuggling up to Roosevelt and the Democratic party couldn’t be presented directly to the Communist party membership and its supporters in the middle of the thirties. It had to be presented as a maneuver to fool the class enemy.
“The Mask Becomes the Face”
Of course, it was really a Stalinist maneuver to fool the communist workers; they were the real victims. This new turn was inspired and directed by the Stalinized bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, and designed to use the promising movement of American radicalism as a pawn in its diplomatic game. The leaders in Moscow were concerned with the short-term interests of their foreign policy, and not at all with the American workers and the American revolution. Roosevelt had recognized the Soviet Union, and the Stalinists, in turn, decided to recognize Roosevelt. They looked upon the great movement of American radicalism as something to be expended cheaply. They diverted it, through the leadership of the Communist party, into the Roosevelt camp. They steered it away from the movement for an independent Labor party, which was called for by the conditions of the time and the sentiments of hundreds of thousands of workers. The big switch in policy, from class struggle to class collaboration, was made in the shortsighted temporary interest of Stalinist diplomacy.
That’s the great divide between the rise and the decline, and the eventual complete collapse of the radical movement of the thirties and of the Communist party that led it. The big turn-around began with disguise and double talk. Just think what was done and how it was done in 1936! There was a Presidential election. The Communist party leadership didn’t yet dare to endorse the candidates of a capitalist party. They had a grand convention and nominated their own candidates, Browder and Ford, as independent candidates of the Communist party. This was a concession to the traditional purpose of a socialist or communist party. Then came the double talk. They said: We’re nominating our own candidates, but—“Socialism is not the issue!”
This crooked formula was the great contribution of Browder, as the agent of Stalin, to the betrayal of American radicalism. “Socialism is not the issue?” Well, people might logically ask, if socialism is not the issue, what in the hell are you nominating a socialist candidate for? The Stalinist leaders didn’t answer that question directly. They worked their way around it deviously.
They didn’t call for people to vote for the Communist party candidates. And they didn’t come right out for Roosevelt. They conducted the campaign on the slogan—what do you think? Well, by now you know it happens in every election—“Beat Landon at all costs!” That was the slogan of the Communist party in 1936, in the middle of the social crisis, when the possibility of a ringing campaign to further radicalize the workers was on the agenda. “Beat Landon at all costs!” meant of course, “elect Roosevelt at all costs!” That’s what such a slogan always means in reverse.
It was supposed to be a very slick maneuver to fool everybody. “No, we’re not voting for Roosevelt, we’re putting up our own candidates.” But all the trade unionists who were under the influence of the CP got the word: “Vote for Roosevelt.” It was presented to the communist workers as a maneuver, to fool the class enemy. But those who started out that way, thinking to outwit the class enemy by supporting him, eventually became victims of their own deception. They began to play the capitalist party game in earnest.
The most incredible thing, for one who has been raised in the old socialist tradition, is to run into people by the score, and, if you look around for them, by the hundreds and thousands, who have been educated in the Communist party of recent years, who think they should play the Democratic party game for keeps. They believe in it. The mask has become the face. The dupers have become the duped.
Of course, the Stalinists didn’t capture the Democratic party. I can tell you that, in case you have any doubts about it. But class collaborationist politics did capture the Communist party. The Stalinists went to work, running errands and ringing doorbells in order to beat some capitalist political faker at all costs in order to elect some other capitalist political shyster at all costs. Over a period of time the program of the class struggle and independent class politics was lost sight of altogether by the bulk of these people. The Communist party members and sympathizers forgot the ABC of socialism which Debs understood sixty years ago. They continued to support the Democratic party long after the Democrats had no further need of them and gave them the boot.
Of course, there were other causes for the catastrophic decline and disgraceful collapse of the Communist party and its peripheral movement. But that’s the basic cause, because it goes right to the fundamental class issue of independent politics. That’s the basic cause of the defeat, demoralization and dispersal of the great movement of labor radicalism generated by the crisis of the thirties.
In the thirties and since, the Communist party, as the leading center of the new radicalism, directly reversed the trend of their predecessors of the turn of the century. That unspeakable betrayal stands out strikingly as you see it in historical perspective. Debs and Wayland, who had supported the Populist party and the Democratic party, turned around and led the movement forward from Populism and the Democratic party and all kinds of class collaborationist politics. The Stalinists reversed this whole trend and led communist and socialist workers back from independent class politics, back to class collaboration, back to support of capitalist politicians.
The leading forces of the Debsian period had the benefit of far less experience and far less study. Yet they did far better than their successors of the thirties. That’s a striking historical fact that ought to induce younger people to study the history of the movement. In this study of history they will see how colossal has been the loss of the tremendous potentialities of the radical movement of the thirties under the Stalinist leadership.
The Lost Generation of Radicals
If we’re going to make a new start and prepare for the next wave of radicalism in this country, there’s only one way to begin. We have to return to fundamentals. At least, to the one big fundamental of class politics. If some people, who still call themselves socialists or communists, can’t go directly to Marx and Lenin in one bound, they ought at least, for a start, to try to go back to Debs and the Appeal to Reason when they broke with the Democratic party in 1900.
The great movement of socialist and labor radicalism that was generated by the crisis of the thirties has completely spent itself. That’s what we have to understand if we are going to get a realistic picture of the actual situation. Due to the combination of circum¬stances, the objective difficulties, plus the corruption of leadership, this movement is worn out. All that remains of it, outside the cadres of those who remain faithful to the fundamental ideas of socialism, is a big lost generation of radicals.
They’re numerous in this country. But when I see these people, or hear about them which is more frequent, who have fallen out of the Communist party by the tens of thousands, who still want to consider themselves socialists and even communists, who want to gather every now and then to have a discussion—providing you don’t bring up any fundamental questions or propose any action—they strike me as people suffering from political amnesia. They can’t remember where they came from—from that revolutionary movement of the early thirties. They have a nostalgia for the big masses and big deals, but they’ve forgotten that that mass movement was produced by policies of the class struggle, not by class adaptation.
The radicalism generated by the social crisis in the thirties is not a total loss by any means. Like its predecessor of the Debsian time, the new movement of the thirties left something behind it to build on. First of all, and this is a tremendous thing, out of that great upheaval of the thirties came the CIO movement and the organization of the big industrial unions in the mass production industries. They have softened UP, shackled by government controls and saddled with a conservative, capitalist-minded bureaucracy. But the unions as organizations have survived. We see them in action every once in a while, as in the present steel strike. And they remain a great potential power.
It needs just a little shift in the situation to bring it forth. We got a slight intimation of this a year ago when the bosses went a little bit too far and attempted to pass “right to work” laws. They could have passed them in the twenties without any strongly organized opposition. When they tried it in 1958, they were suddenly made aware of the fact that a seventeen million strong trade union movement, created by the upsurge of the thirties and inspired by radicals, didn’t want to be broken up by “right to work” laws. That was a sort of political uprising, a portent of things to come, that upset all the calculations of the capitalist politicians.
Right now they’re probing again, provoking the steel workers, and provoking the unions generally with the Landrum-Griffin anti-Labor law. Let them go a little bit too far, let a political aggressiveness of the capitalists coincide with some social disturbance and workers’ discontent, and you’ll see what a colossal power this seventeen million strong trade union movement really has. And what a hearing you’ll get from workers then if you speak the true and honest word of class struggle against class collaboration! There’s an immense reservoir for genuine radicalism in this great trade union movement. That’s something left behind from the uprising of the thirties.
Something no less important, perhaps even more important in the long run, are the surviving cadres of class conscious revolutionists who preserve and represent the ideas, who are the continuators of the doctrine and the tradition of socialism. They are important because without the ideas, without the cadres, even though small, you can’t hope to build a consistent revolutionary movement. And the conjunction of a cadre of class conscious revolutionists who have assimilated the experience of the past with a new upsurge of labor militancy, will release a great power.
It is another advantage of great import for the future, that this surviving nucleus of the continuators is organized and active, and is recruiting, even though slowly, but quite consistently and noticeably, a new cadre of young revolutionists. That is the touchstone. That is ground for confidence. The living movement always appeals to the young, and the mark of a living movement is its ability to attract the young. Wherever you see a party anywhere that has no young people, you can say for sure that its prospects are dim. The experienced troops of every army, even the best, always need renewal and replenishment.
“The Party of the Youth”
Here is the central point I have been building up to. The radical movement of the thirties, with all its grandeur, glory and power, has spent itself. Individuals and small groups of the old, fallen-away radicals may be reactivated under new conditions; but the main forces of the new movement of American socialist radicalism have to come from a new generation. There is no room for doubt or misunderstanding on this score. The evidence of the recent years is conclusive. Our task is to hold the line and help the process along, provide some of the ideas, and make room for the new contingents of young militants.
That was Lenin’s idea a long time ago. Only, he was more radical about it than we are today. The New Republic a few weeks ago carried a review of a history of the Russian Komsomol—the Russian Young Communist League. Here’s a quotation from it:
“At the outset of a history of the Soviet Young Communist League or Komsomol, the author, Professor Fisher, cites a remark of Lenin’s made long before the Revolution to someone who complained that the Russian Social Democrats were mostly mere youths. Lenin said. ‘It’s perfectly natural that youth should predominate in a revolutionary party, since this is the party of the future, and the future belongs to the young ... We will always remain the party of the youth, of the most advanced class, i.e., the working class’.”
We have the same general idea and we take the attraction of the upcoming young rebels to our banner as a sign of things to come.
As Marxists, we count on the objective developments to prepare the ground for a great new movement. Trotsky, like all Marxists, based his revolutionary optimism on the contradictions of capitalism generating a revolutionary movement. So do we. In 1931, in the second year of the crisis, Trotsky wrote about America as follows:
“In the past, America has known more than one stormy outburst of revolutionary or semi-revolutionary mass movements. Every time they died out quickly. Because America every time entered a new period of economic upswing and also because the movements themselves were characterized by crass empiricism and theoretical helplessness. Those two conditions belong to the past. A new economic upswing, and one cannot consider it excluded in advance, will have to be based not on the internal equilibrium, but on the present chaos of world economy. American capitalism will enter an epoch of monstrous imperialism, of an uninterrupted growth of armaments, of intervention in the affairs of the entire world, of military conflicts and convulsions.”
Remember, this was written in 1931 when the official policy of the United States was isolationism.
Then Trotsky continued:
“On the other hand, in the form of communism, the American proletariat possesses, rather could possess, provided with a correct policy, no longer the old mélange of empiricism, mysticism and quackery, but a scientifically grounded up-to-date doctrine. These radical changes permit us to predict with certainty that the inevitable and relatively rapid revolutionary transformation of the American proletariat will no more be the former easily extinguishable bonfire, but the beginning of a veritable revolutionary conflagration. In America, communism can face its great future with confidence.”
The first part of Trotsky’s prediction about the militaristic eruption of American capitalism has been confirmed to the letter. The second part was only partly carried out; the revolutionary prospects of the upsurge of the thirties were not realized. But even there, Trotsky had qualified his prediction. He said, the American workers could possess a scientific guide in the form of communism provided its representatives had “a correct policy.” The American Communist party failed to provide that correct policy. Trotsky saw both the transformation of American capitalism into a world-embracing imperialist power on the one hand, and a revolutionary proletariat on the other, as a possible outcome of the thirties. And it really was possible. For the reasons we have cited, that possible outcome was lost the first time. We owe that failure, above all, to Stalinism. But the prospect remains fully valid for the next upsurge. The movement of revolutionary socialism has a great future in this country. And if we face it with confidence, and put our trust in a new generation, the future will become the present all the sooner.