One of the most consequential Socialist Party conventions, the 1936 Cleveland meeting saw the right-wing ‘Old Guard’ fully split away to form the Social Democratic Federation as the radicalization of the 1930s reached the S.P. In response, the Trotskyists in the Workers Party decided to follow their French comrades and launch an intervention, splitting the Socialist Party in 1937.
‘Day to Day Report of S.P. Convention at Cleveland, Ohio’ by James Burnham and Max Shachtman from New Militant. Vol. 2 No. 21. May, 1936.
CLEVELAND. – The struggle between the Right and Left wings of the Socialist Party, dramatized two years ago by the victory of the Militant group at the Detroit national convention and the adoption of the much-discussed Declaration of Principles, reached a new climax at the nineteenth national convention of the Socialist Party. Following the action taken by the majority of the 250 delegates from all parts of the country, the New York Old Guard, led by Louis Waldman, James Oneal and Algernon Lee, has definitely parted company with the Socialist Party and is organizing an association of conservative social democrats all its own. The tremendous significance of this separation for the future of the revolutionary movement of the United States is evident when one compares the split in Cleveland in 1936 with the split produced by the first post-war crisis in the Socialist Party at its Chicago convention in 1919. Whereas the latter convention marked the triumph of the Hillquit-Oneal Right wing and the ousting of the Left wing assembled around the Communists, the 1936 convention, on the other hand, repudiated the fossilized representatives of Old Guard Socialism which has produced such tragic catastrophes in the international working class movement.
The convention provided another contrast, however, with the crisis in 1919. Whereas the struggle between Left and Right in 1919 represented a fairly clear-cut division between the revolutionary Marxian current and the Right wing bureaucracy in control of the party, the fight of the various tendencies in 1936 is far more complicated in its divisions by virtue of the fact that the bloc which held together against the New York Old Guard consists of tendencies which are far removed from common conceptions on the fundamental problems pressing for solution in the Socialist Party.
Because of the fact that so much depends on the development of the struggle in the Socialist Party, the reader should have before him as rounded a picture of the important issues before the convention as can be given in this space.
The Keynote Speeches
The underlying issues facing the Socialist Party, but still unclarified, were implicit in the keynote speeches delivered at the opening session. The contrast between the two principal opening speeches, those of Danial W. Hoan and Norman Thomas, suggested almost the form of a debate, an impression which was emphasized by their repetition of key passages for the newsreel cameras. Hoan laid his chief emphasis upon advocacy of a “Farmer-Labor Party” which, in his statement of it, clearly meant a conservative combination of reformers of all brands similar to the petty bourgeois mess into which the Socialist Party of Wisconsin has been dragged by association with the Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation organized in that state under the aegis of the LaFollette dynasty.
On this score, Norman Thomas delivered his most decisive remarks of the convention. Contrary to Hoan, he stressed the necessity of socialism and of a socialist campaign in the presidential elections and dismissed the Farmer-Labor Party with simple reference to the impossibility of its organization in 1936, at any rate. His remarks about those labor leaders who had jumped on the Roosevelt bandwagon with the slogan of “Roosevelt or Reaction” were entirely in order. Thomas rightly compared this piece of deception with such treacherous slogans as “Wilson or War” in 1916, pointing out that just as we had got Wilson and war, so the victory of the Lewis-Hillman-Dubinsky course would mean Roosevelt and Reaction. He insisted that the only genuine choice before the workers in the present period was: Socialism or Reaction and Imperialist War. Even if his speech was gravely marred by ambiguous formulations on more than one question – that of the Farmer-Labor Party not excluded – the great stress he laid on a straightforward socialist campaign so obviously harmonized with the sentiments of most of the delegates that he was constantly interrupted by bursts of applause.
Indeed, significant of convention sentiment was the fact that while Krzycki’s “prediction” that there would be a strong Farmer-Labor Party in this country “before many months are over”, was greeted apathetically, spontaneous applause followed every statement of a clear cut campaign for socialism. The temper of the delegates is not so much to be judged by their mild interest or outright unconcern in those sections of the three keynote speeches which were diluted with liberal and reformist platitudes, but by their enthusiastic response to any sentence that smacked of militant socialist aims and tactics.
This was even more clearly evidenced in the spirit prevailing during the fight over the seating of one of the two contesting delegations from New York, a dispute which consumed most of the time of the numerous sessions devoted to organizing the convention itself. The fight was at bottom a highly significant struggle between political tendencies – the delegation headed by Thomas representing the general line of the Militant group and that headed by Waldman representing the Old Guard. The stage of the development of the political struggle in the Socialist Party is still embryonic and more often than not the underlying issues of principle are obscured by the emphasis laid on the confusing organizational aspects they assume. Nevertheless, those speeches that broke through the organizational crust and touched the political heart of the conflict, were the ones that aroused the keenest interest of the delegates and created the clearest demarcations.
The first test of strength came in the vote on seating the disputed New Jersey delegations. The National Executive Committee, functioning as a credentials committee and represented by reporter Kruger, proposed the seating of the Militant delegation. Oneal, as minority reporter, proposed a contrary motion. The N.E.C. proposal was upheld by a vote of 115 to 55. The minority was composed of the Right wing delegations drawing their main strength from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, parts of Pennsylvania, Washington, Montana and some scattering delegates. The majority vote was made up of a combination of the delegates supporting the Militant group, plus 30 out of the 31 delegates from Wisconsin. The vote of the majority was not greater because, due to the contest, neither of the two New York delegations was permitted to vote until their own dispute was decided by the uncontested delegates.
Rhode Island and Texas were settled in favor of the Militants with approximately the same division, bringing the Left wing strength up a notch or two after each decision. The section of the Pennsylvania delegation led by Darlington Hoopes of Reading, who had been leaning strongly towards the Old Guard without committing himself too irrevocably, had been challenged prior to the convention and on its floor. The Credentials Committee, however, upheld the claims of the Hoopes group, and just before the fight opened up over the New York contest, the challenge against Hoopes was withdrawn, thus seating his contingent without actual dispute.
Among the results of this arrangement was the loss by the New York Old Guard of the outright support of the Reading delegation upon which they had previously counted. Other results of the arrangement were made clear to observers in the discussion of other questions brought on the floor at later sessions, as will be seen below.
Old Guard States Its Case
The settlement of all these minor disputes set the stage for the New York contest – the one which aroused the sharpest division at the convention. After considerable parliamentary jockeying, Oneal led off with an indictment of the National Executive Committee, the Militants, and all those associated with them, as “communists” and “insurrectionists” – a term which he uttered with all the horror and hatred of a prosecutor demanding a verdict against a revolutionist in the dock. In spite of the unbelievably dull presentation of his speech, it nevertheless sought to bring forward some of the political differences at bottom of the fight, and in general it might be remarked that the representatives of the Old Guard were less inclined than were their opponents to rest their case on purely organizational points and legalistic detail. However ludicrously exaggerated were Oneal’s and Waldman’s efforts to label the S.P. leadership “communist”, their speeches were aimed at emphasizing the fact that their intransigence was based primarily upon differences in principle and policy rather than on obscure squabbles of persons and posts. The Militants did indeed make at least one distinctive effort to emulate the Old Guard in this respect when the New York State Committee of the Left Wing circulated a statement summarizing the issues in the conflict. The character of the statement, however, failed to set the tone for their speeches in the convention, which is saying a good deal in criticism of their position, especially when it is borne in mind that the statement itself was far from meeting the obvious requirements of the situation.
The high point reached by the Old Guard was undoubtedly marked by the one-hour speech of Louis Waldman. Skillfully constructed, polished, effectively though at times too melodramatically delivered, aggressive through and through, it was designed to rally every available delegate around the banner of the Right wing for the purpose of getting the best possible send-off for his new party. His castigation of the Militants reeked of the reactionary social democrat’s hatred of everything progressive and revolutionary in the labor movement. Nor did he remain silent about the principal ally of the Militants – Hoan and his Wisconsin delegation – although his boldness here was based primarily upon the fact that, after a meeting with the Hoan delegation, it had become clear that it would not support the demands of the Old Guard. To the Militants’ criticism of his flirtations with LaGuardia and Roosevelt, Waldman therefore challengingly replied with what Norman Thomas called a “tu quoque” – that is, “so are you.” You condemn Waldman, he said, but you praise Hoan for doing no less in Wisconsin with the LaFollettes than Waldman is supposed to have done in New York with LaGuardia. Why the discrimination between Hoan and Waldman? Because you have Hoan’s vote! – This rather provocative comparison, which aroused considerable interest, and not only among the press, did not succeed in drawing elaborate replies from the Militants who took the floor subsequently.
In the morning session following the midnight meeting which was taken up mainly by the speech of Waldman and Thomas’ reply, a number of briefer presentations were made by spokesmen of the contending factions. For the most part they followed the lead given by the two principal speakers, although some of the rank and file Militants, like John Fisher of Illinois, distinguished themselves by the truly aggressive and uncompromising demand they made for a clean break with the Old Guard, not merely organizationally but above all politically. However, it had become clear at this point that virtually every delegate had already decided his course, and that the vote was predetermined.
Old Guard Overwhelmed
Four proposals were before the convention on the New York contest. The first proposal, made by Oneal, for the Old Guard, to seat its New York delegation as a whole, was voted down on a weighted ballot: 4,397 in favor and 9,322 against, with some 1,200 not voting. These 4,397 thus represented the maximum outright support which the Old Guard could count on in the convention.
The Reading delegation proposed a compromise motion to seat 22 members of each of the New York contestants. Obviously designed to take a “neutral” position in the dispute and to continue the existence side by side in one party of the Right and Left wings, this met with scornful rejection by the consistent elements of both sides. The motion lost by a vote of 3,537 in favor and 11,097 against.
In the name of the Wisconsin delegation, Mayor Hoan proposed a second compromise in a motion to seat 32 of the “Thomas delegation” and 12 of the Old Guard delegation, on condition that all delegates seated should agree to abide by convention decisions and to recognize the reorganized State organization. Repeated demands from the floor addressed to the Right wing for the purpose of obtaining a categorical Yes or No with respect to the conditions, failed of success. The Right wing was – and properly so – adamant in its demand for all or nothing. The Hoan motion was thereupon defeated by a vote of 4,393 in favor and 10,201 against, with some scattering abstentions. It was the last effort to arrange for the peaceful cohabitation of the conflicting currents. And the defeat of even so “conciliatory” a proposal is sufficient evidence of the depth of the division which the utmost in parliamentary maneuvering was unable to bridge.
The defeat of the Hoan motion, however, gave the Wisconsin delegation the basis for its final vote. “We have done our all; nothing remains but to seat the Militants” – this was the spirit in which they cast their final ballot on the motion of the Credentials Committee to seat the Militant delegation as a whole. The frenzied cheers of the convention when Wisconsin’s favorable vote was cast on the motion was eloquent of the thoroughly ambiguous position which the Hoan delegation had taken throughout the fight in the last two years. The motion of the Credentials Committee was carried by a vote of 9,449 in favor and 4,809 against, with a few abstentions.
It had been expected by many that this vote would be the signal for a walkout on the part of the entire Right wing. The Right wing had, however, decided upon another strategy. Waldman’s defeated group withdrew, and proceeded forthwith to set up “The Social Democratic Federation” and to issue statements to the press denouncing the Militants and all their works. The politically allied delegations from other states, on the other hand, remained in the Convention – though thenceforth playing a comparatively minor role – apparently aiming to carry through the split in a more leisurely manner at home, hoping thereby to achieve the maximum of disruption in the Socialist Party proper.
Meanwhile, the Convention proceeded to complete its organization. The Committees were elected with solid Militant majorities, and Hoopes of Pennsylvania was fittingly rewarded by being selected as Chairman of Monday’s sessions. These were devoted for the most part to the nomination of Thomas as Presidential candidate, of Nelson (of Wisconsin) as Vice-Presidential candidate, and to the various speeches and demonstrations in connection with the nominating, acceptance, etc. Since a considerable part of Tuesday’s sessions (the Convention adjourning Tuesday night) were given over to the elections to the National Committee, discussion and action on the Platform, Committee reports, and various political resolutions, had to be sandwiched in here and there as the occasion permitted. The results were confusing on the surface, but nevertheless of the utmost significance in the tendencies which, explicitly or implicitly, emerged.
In a confused and distorted, but very real, way, the Convention was facing some of the problems involved in the step to the left marked by the rejection of the New York Old Guard. For example, the report of the Organization and Campaign Committee contained a provision “That a Western States Organization Committee be set up having as its chairman a member of the N.E.C.” This met at once with a bitter and slashing attack from the Right. Graham of Montana and the demagogic McKay of Washington led a reactionary onslaught against “dictation” and “the meddling of college boys from New York.” Both were frank in stating that they would not abide by any such arrangement, that such a Committee would not be recognized in their states. McKay reached a climax in his demand: “You leave us alone and we will leave you alone.” The proposal was then watered down to provide for a committee elected by the western states, rather than appointed by the N.E.C.; and was passed over the continuing opposition of the Right.
Trade Union Policy
The same result followed the presentation of the report on Trade Union Policy, Section (7) of this report provided: “The National Executive Committee is instructed by this convention to set up a permanent National Labor Committee. Each local organization shall elect a Local Labor Committee whose duty it will be to coordinate the action of Socialists within the Trade Union in order to carry out the policy of the party … This section was assailed from the Right; a Wisconsin delegate moved to strike it out; Graham, McKay and others supported the motion to strike out on the grounds that the policy of the Section meant the building of Communist “cells” in the unions, that it would isolate the Socialists from the unions, that the business of the Socialists was to follow and not to try to lead or “interfere with” the trade unions, that it meant party “dictatorship” – and in general gave all the reactionary arguments common to their camp. The defense of the Committee report showed interesting variations. Fisher of Illinois spoke sharply from a clear-cut left position, and made his remarks another attack direct against the Old Guard. David Lasser of New York defended the Committee, but at the same time dissociated himself from any policy of building “cells” or attempting to “interfere with” the mass organizations. A compromise was proposed to change “shall” to “may” in the Section of the report under discussion. Paul Porter spoke for the compromise, and emphasizing how thoroughly he was against any “dictatorship from the top.” Through its Chairman, Murray Gross of New York, the Committee accepted the compromise; Gross, however, expressing his personal disapproval of the change. But Glenn Trimble of California, a member of the Committee, rejected the compromise from the left, and forced a vote. The compromise carried. The motion to strike out the entire section was lost – with the Wisconsin delegating voting with one or two exceptions to strike out; and the section as amended was adopted.
The peculiar status of the Wisconsin delegation was again brought out during the nominations to the N.E.C. Hoan, in accepting nomination, stated that he did so conditionally, since, as he put it, his very considerable duties in his own state might force him to withdraw later on. His election, however, followed in due course.
Conflict on the Platform
It was the discussion and action on the campaign Platform which brought out most fully the conflicting currents present within the Convention. It had been rumored that four platforms were under consideration: one prepared by Harry W. Laidler, one by Gus Tyler, one by Herbert Zam, and a fourth which had been published in the June issue of the Socialist Appeal. The Platform Committee, controlled by the New York Militants, first reported out what was said to be essentially the Laidler platform: a document throughout of standardized social-democratic reformism, with scarcely a breath of revolutionary content There was no phrase in it which could not have been wholeheartedly accepted by the Old Guard. When it reached the floor, it became at once apparent that the left wing delegates were prepared to open up a fighting attack on it all down the line. Jack Altman of New York thereupon stepped forward and moved to have the platform referred back to the Committee; and this action was taken.
On Tuesday the Platform made its appearance in a somewhat modified form, with certain sections deleted, and in a few cases sentences from the Appeal Platform – a document of militant class struggle, thoroughly imbued with vigorous revolutionary spirit – substituted for phrases from the original. In substance, however, the Committee Platform was not altered, remaining a consistently reformist statement – a fact attested by the support it received from the Right wing delegations. Laidler, for the Committee, read the Platform paragraph by paragraph, stopping at the end of each to ask for objections; when there were none, the paragraph was adopted; if there were objections, the paragraph was debated.
An interesting division occurred on the very first paragraph: The Platform (in its revised form, though not in its original) called for a society in which “the industries of the country shall be socially owned …” The Right wing proposed to change “socially” to “publicly.” Laidler accepted the proposal; King, of Michigan, a member of the Committee, objected; and, on a vote, King was upheld.
The Road to Power
Left wing delegates from Arkansas and Minnesota, moved certain short but important changes in sentences dealing with the war question. The most important test, however, came on the motion of Whitten of Arkansas to substitute the paragraphs in the Appeal Platform on The Road to Socialism for the watery, reformist statement given in paragraph eleven of the Committee Platform. The issue at this point was entirely clear: it was in effect on the altogether decisive question of the road to power and the nature of the Workers’ State; with the Committee Platform giving the reformist answer, and the Appeal Platform the revolutionary answer. Delegate Whitten presented his case well, and was applauded with full enthusiasm by the rank and file delegates of the Left. David Lasser at one point interrupted to enquire sarcastically whether Whitten was proposing an amendment or an entirely new Platform – a justified question, which served to point the issue even more clearly.
The division was by a rising vote. Remarkably enough, Whitten’s amendment lost only by a vote of 52 in favor, 72 against (with a number of abstentions). His support came chiefly from the delegations of Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Colorado, California, with scattered votes elsewhere. There was particular interest in the New York vote, which held a balance of power on the question. Only two delegates from New York were seen to rise in favor of Whitten’s motion. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and the Right wing delegations thus had their way with the Platform.
War Plank Disputed
Approximately the same division occurred on the motion of Delegate Parshall to strike out the pacifist paragraph of the division on immediate demands dealing with Militarism and War, and to substitute the simple double slogan of the Appeal Platform (“Not a penny, not a man, to the military aims of the government; unconditional opposition to any war engaged in by the American government.”) Here, amusingly enough, after voting Parshall down, the Convention moved to add the Appeal statement.
The motion of Ernest Erber of Illinois to amend the final paragraph by substituting the corresponding paragraphs of the Appeal platform – unfortunately defended weakly by Erber because of the shortness of time allotted to him – was voted down by a voice vote. A number of additional paragraphs on Socialized Medicine, The Commonwealth Plan, etc., were thrown into the pot. When the Platform was then adopted as a whole, a considerable group of left- wing delegates rose to their feet demanding that their names be inserted in the records as opposed.
Two more vigorous struggles remained for the crowded closing minutes of the final session: on the Farmer-Labor Party resolution and the United Front. In between, a number of significant motions and resolutions dealing with the Y.P.S.L., the war question, “armed insurrection,” changes in the Constitution and the Declaration of Principles, were passed without discussion, and will not be taken up here, since they failed to reveal clearly the demarcations and tendencies in the Convention itself.
The Farmer-Labor Party
The Committee report on the Farmer-Labor Party was ambiguous in the extreme, and of a kind to provide no resistance to the maneuvers of the Stalinists on this question. It favors a Farmer-Labor Party, but declares that one is not possible in 1936; it states that Socialists must work vigorously for it in the unions, and spends most of its space discussing the form that a “genuine” Farmer-Labor Party should take. It was attacked sharply both from the right and from the left. The left opponents distinguished their opposition clearly from that of the Right pointing out the extremely reactionary character of the opposition from the right; and at the same time criticizing vigorously the confused and basically reformist character of the Committee resolution.
At the same time that it attacked the Committee resolution, the left wing took positive action when Pemble of Minnesota, as a minority member of the Committee, introduced as a substitute a shortened form of the Resolution on the Problem of a Farmer-Labor Party passed at the pre-Convention Conference of the Socialist Party of Minnesota (this is reprinted elsewhere in this issue – Ed.). Pemble defended the uncompromising Revolutionary perspective of the Minnesota resolution. The Minnesota resolution was lost on a voice vote; and the majority resolution carried by a vote of 109 in favor, 64 against.
United Front Resolution
The Convention ended with a short but bitter debate on the United Front resolution. The majority report, far from clear in form, included clauses providing for United Fronts with the Communist Party. (At an earlier session a proposal from the C.P. for a united election ticket and a standing joint committee on united front actions had been tabled without a dissenting voice.) A minority resolution against any United Front involving the C.P., introduced by the Right wing, was lost 67–89. The Left wing was anxious to force the issue (it is significant that on this issue alone during the last sessions did the New York Militants stand with the left wingers who had fought the central questions with respect to the platform). Darlington Hoopes openly threatened to split if the question were voted on. After hasty caucusing, Thomas took the floor for the Militants and proposed to carry the matter to a referendum, to be held after the November elections. The Convention thus closed, as it had begun, on the thin edge of a split, but this second time more profound and far-reaching in its implications.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/themilitant/1936/may-30-1936.pdf