The Future of Radical Political Action
The last election did not settle the future of political parties in the United States. It rather demonstrated the discontent of at least seven million voters with existing alignments. The general trend was definitely in behalf of policies which would use the agencies of government for the social control of industry and finance. It was far from an expression of confidence that the Democratic Party is capable of bringing about such control. For all who, like the present writer, believe that it is thoroughly incapable of doing the needed work, the article of Norman Thomas in The Nation of December 14 on The Future of the Socialist Party raises the question of what instrumentality will be the efficient agent for radical political change. Mr. Thomas holds that the Socialist Party alone has the philosophy which meets the political needs. Such a position certainly simplifies the situation. But it also narrows it. In view of the size of the Socialist vote, and of the extent to which it was in part an expression of confidence in Mr. Thomas personally, and in another part a protest vote from non-Socialist liberals, it narrows the problem perhaps unduly.
It is natural that Mr. Thomas should feel that the Socialist Party is the only way out. He has been twice the candidate of his party for the Presidency. There are divergences within the party, such as were manifest in the Milwaukee convention. It is not surprising that he should take the opportunity to set forth his solidarity with the section which officially controls the party; and that he should wish, even at the risk of ungraciousness to the non-Socialists who supported him and of indulging in recriminations, to clear his skirts of any leaning toward those who do not accept the ipsissima verba of official Socialist doctrine. But for the millions of the politically discontented who are outside the Socialist Party, the exigencies of the internal strategy of that party cannot go far to settle the larger question of the future of unified political action aiming at social control.
In discussing the matter I feel free to approach it from the angle of the League for Independent Political Action. I do not do so because of Mr. Thomas's unfortunate references to that organization. The league is not a party and has no ambition to become a party. Its function is to promote education and organization looking toward the organization of the desired new alignment. Since it aims to act a s a connecting link, and as far as may be as a clearing-house, for groups and individuals who are seeking similar ends, it may stand at least as a symbol for one type of approach to the problem. We agree that a philosophy is needed a s a basis for an effective political movement. We have never prejudged the question as to just how far that philosophy agrees or disagrees with that which Mr. Thomas says is the only possible philosophy. I shall not now try to pass on that question. I shall rather set forth our philosophy positively; leaving it to the reader, Socialist or non-Socialist, to judge our degree of divergence and agreement.
The first point in our political philosophy may be stated in connection with the charge brought by Mr. Thomas that the league holds "an intellectualized version of a watered-down socialism.'' For the statement shows a radical misconception of what our stand is. It is quite true that many of our planks are socialistic and agree with the more immediate demands of the Socialist platform. It is true that we recognize the educational work done by the party and by Mr. Thomas and are grateful to them. But the league's agreements are not imitative. It has not first borrowed and then diluted. We believe that actual social conditions and needs suffice to determine the direction political action should take, and we believe that this is the philosophy which underlies the democratic faith of the American people. The belief is the mark of a positive philosophy, not of the absence of one. If charges against the League for Independent Political Action signify that our program is, in an ultimate sense, partial and tentative, experimental and not rigid, we do more than accept them as a compliment. We claim them as indications of our philosophy. We are confronted with a situation in which certain long-span economic forces are operative and which are sufficiently definite to provide a basis for a constructive political program. But we know that this situation bristles with unknowns and we cannot assume that all issues are settled in advance.
In saying this I am not charging the Socialists with being dogmatic or doctrinaire. I notice that Mr. Thomas in his statement calls for government ownership of the "principal" means of production and distribution. As far as the Socialist Party accepts the distinction between "principal" and other means, it inclines in the direction of what in the case of the League for Independent Political Action is dismissed as a "watered-down socialism." For how can "principal" ones be settled upon, save on the basis of actual conditions and tendencies? And while collective ownership of all natural resources is called for, there is evidence that the Socialist Party recognizes a gradation in importance and in urgency, and would concentrate first of all upon coal and the water power from which electric power is derived. So far, then, as the Socialist Party is not doctrinaire, there are no differences which are not subject to discussion and conferences—and not so much with the L. I. P. A. itself as, through it, with the other groups which are concerned with bringing about a new type of politics in this country.
We are thus led to the second main point in the philosophy of the L. I. P. A. This is the belief that politics is a struggle for possession and use of power to settle specific issues that grow out of the country's needs and problems. There is very little difference of opinion among radical groups as t o what these issues at present are; there is more difference, though not to an amount insuperable for unity, as to how they should be dealt with. Since it believes that politics is a struggle for power to achieve results, the philosophy of the league stands for that strength which can be had only by unity. It believes in working far agreement, not for emphasizing and magnifying the differences that stand in the way of unity. I do not charge the Socialist Party with standing for sectarianism and division. I do say that we desire a union of forces to which Socialists can and should contribute.
Because we desire a union of forces instead of that isolation and division which have so weakened liberal and radical forces in the past, we are strongly opposed to all slurs and sneers at the farmers, engineers, teachers, social workers, small merchants, clergy, newspaper people, and white-collar workers who constitute the despised middle class. Since they also constitute a great part of the American nation, and since they are influential and are sensitive to the injustices and inequalities of the present economic order, we do not indulge in the fantasy that effective power can be gained by taking pains to alienate them, by assuming, for example, that they are animated by anti-social class motives. This attitude does not signify that we think their present political views are, upon the whole, sufficiently enlightened to afford the basis of a political program, but that we do believe that they are readily capable of education under competent leadership.
It is nothing less than misrepresentation based on ignorance to assert that this effort to reach the elements just spoken of is connected with disregard of the interests of the manual workers, to say nothing about those who go into the field of motives to search out unworthy ones, similar, for example, to those which members of the Communist Party constantly attribute to the Socialist Party. It has been a constant aim of the L. I. P. A. to find labor groups which believe in independent political action, to bring them together, and to carry on education among those labor groups which have not vet seen the light. We are opposed to the defeatist policy which assumes that there can be no effective radical political action in this country until the majority of the population have sunk into the "proletariat." We are not yet convinced that the Socialist Party has taken this latter position even though individual Socialists have done so.
Because we are an organization working to secure unity of action where division now exists, we are necessarily exploring the field. We cannot prejudge the amount of unity that can be achieved. For this reason, we are proposing to have a conference of all progressive and radical groups in 1933 to consider this very question. Naturally we shall be disappointed if Socialist leaders slam the door in advance on all hope of cooperation.
Since Mr. Thomas in his "As I See It" states that the essential is to achieve the substance rather than the name, we hope he may be willing, "without prejudice" as to any ulterior commitment, to recommend to the party of which he is the honored head that it enter upon the exploration discussions which are the necessary preliminary to the united action which alone will achieve desired results. But in any and every case the L. I. P. A. invites the cooperation to this end of all individuals and all groups who are of like mind about the need for political action to bring about radical changes in our present economic and financial system.