The Left Wing at the Cleveland Convention

Haim Kantorovitch

Published: American Socialist Monthly, vol. 5, no. 5. July 1936. Pages 8-12.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2022.


There seems to be unanimous opinion, shared by right and left wingers alike, that the National Convention of the Socialist Party recently held at Cleveland was a great victory for the left wing. Even before the convention had adjourned, Abraham Cahan, the real leader of the old guard, had published what he called "preliminary observations" on the convention. There are people, he commented, who think that the convention, in spite of the fact that the New York old guard delegates had not been seated, nevertheless had moved to the right. This is not true he exclaims. All "their" resolutions, "their" platform, even the Declaration of Principles as amended, are full of "left phrases". To clarify what he means by left he adds, left, coming from Moscow! And he concludes that the convention went left, left, left.

It is not surprising to hear Cahan shout left! left! left! To Cahan and his faithful disciples of the Rand School, left connotes everyone and everything that Cahan disapproves. When a good orthodox right winger expressed the doubt whether the Forward should accept the Hearst advertisements, Cahan looked at him scornfully and said, I noticed long ago that you have been falling under the influence of Moscow! The same note was struck at the first membership meeting, held in New York, of the newly organized Social Democratic Federation: We are compelled to organize the Social Democratic Federation as an opposition to the Socialist Party because the latter went left, left, left.

There are however indications that many left wingers, or comrades who mistakenly believe they are left wingers, also believe this legend. There is no question, of course, that the courageous and decisive way in which the convention dealt with the New York old guard clique is a victory for the left wing. We must, however, in this case distinguish between the left wing, and left wing Socialism. The victory over the New York old guard is a victory for the left wing, but not a victory of left wing Socialism. The fight between the old guard and the militants in New York centered not around certain opposing principles and programs, but purely around questions of party democracy and party discipline. Not that there were no deep rooted and fundamental differences of theory and tactics between the two warring factions. Of course there were. But the fight was not conducted around these differences of fundamental principles. Neither was the outcome of the fight determined by them. On the contrary, the exigencies of the fight often compelled the militants to compromise and shove principles into the background in order to get the support of socialists who would not accept left wing Socialism, but who could not endure the cynicism, arrogance and senility of the old guard. Many convinced right wingers participated actively in the fight against the New York old guard. The old guard was to them, as indeed to everyone else, not a group of right wing socialists fighting for their principles, but a clique of old people, who cared little for Socialism of any kind, a group that had lost faith in Socialism as well as in the future of the Socialist Party. Many right wingers and centrists felt that the party was doomed to impotence so long as this clique ruled the party. Moreover, everyone knew that this clique had no majority behind it, that its rule was maintained by purely mechanical, anti-democratic means.

In his speech at the Cleveland Convention, Louis Waldman spent considerable time defending himself against the accusations that he and his followers in New York had capitulated to La Guardia, and were ready to do the same thing, nationally, for Roosevelt. Waldman did not really deny these charges. He defended himself by pointing out that others had done the same thing but that no charges had been brought against them. He pointed specifically to Wisconsin. There is no question that in citing Wisconsin he had placed his finger on a very sore spot in the life of the party. Yet the entire argument was out of order. The N.E.C. had not revoked the charter of the State of New York because the leadership of the State Committee was reformist, was friendly to La Guardia, or was looking longingly towards the Roosevelt camp. The charter was revoked solely because the old guard had placed itself above the party, had refused to abide by the party constitution, had broken every rule of party discipline and democracy, of socialist ethics and even common decency ; because it conducted an open and vicious campaign, not against the principles of revolutionary Socialism, but against the party as a whole.

I do not minimize the victory over the old guard, but I want to warn comrades against exaggerating it. It must be clearly understood that this was a victory not of one concept of Socialism over another, but solely of the principle of party democracy and democratic centralization.


Was the time appropriate for the presentation at Cleveland of the entire left wing program, or even part of it? Perhaps not. I do not know.[01] But one thing is beyond doubt. The victory over the New York old guard could have been utilized to further the principle of democratic centralization generally, a principle of no minor importance for the left wing. A strong effort should have been made, using the New York old guard as an example, to amend the party constitution so as to lay the foundation for one united Socialist Party in the United States instead of the forty-eight independent autonomous parties we now have. As the party is now organized, resolutions, programs or declarations of principles are really of no great importance. If a state, or rather the leadership in a state, does not agree with this or that resolution it simply ignores it; if it does not agree with this or that decision, it simply does not carry it out. What does the Socialist Party stand for? It depends where. It seems to stand for one kind of Socialism in Wisconsin, for another kind in Chicago, and again for another kind in Bridgeport. I am certain that everybody is for freedom of opinion in the party, but freedom of opinion in a Socialist Party must be limited by unity of action. Has the Cleveland Convention done anything to achieve this unity of action? No. It did nothing in this direction. Organizationally the party remains as decentralized as it was before Cleveland, and iedologically [sic] it seems to have moved to the right.

And what was the left wing doing? What was it fighting for?

It seems that after the victory over the old guard the left wing disappeared as an organized force in the convention. There were left voices and left amendments to be sure, but no organized left wing. A few illustrations will suffice. In nominating a platform committee, surely a very important committee, a committee just where opinions would clash, where each faction would fight for its conception of political action, a left winger nominated whom? A right winger. From the point of view of the proverbial concept of sportsmanship it is "nice" to be tolerant and nominate your opponent--in this case, the comrade nominated, a right winger, is really a very fine comrade and a lovable personality--but, that nomination for such an important committee is a political act never occurred to our left winger.

Another instance. The resolution on trade union policy was discussed. The resolution provided that there shall be a national labor committee and that "each local organization shall elect a local labor committee whose duty it will be to coordinate the action of the socialists within the trade unions in order to carry out the policy of the party." We have learned by bitter experience that without such labor committees no coordinated socialist work is possible in the trade unions. But lo and behold! It was a left winger who moved an amendment to change the word shall to the word may. Each local may elect a local labor committee. And what is the effect of this amendment? To leave everything as it was. No local before the Cleveland Convention was forbidden to have a labor committee if it so desired. Now, no local is obligated to have: a labor committee if it does not want to. We are just where we were before. The very comrade who amended that section of the resolution made a good speech against his own amendment, though he seems not to have realized that he was speaking against his amendment. "If people are to be members of the Socialist Party," he exclaimed, "they must act as socialists within the trade unions." He knew, however, that many did not act thus. Why? Because the socialist work in the trade unions was not coordinated by responsible party committees. It was left to the interpretation and personal whims of each individual socialist. The resolution would have remedied this anomalous condition. His amendment, however, reduced the resolution again to nothing but a pious wish.

I do not for a moment believe that the left wing was for the amendment, but the fact remains that it did not fight against it.

Only one amendment to the constitution was proposed. This is the addition of a sixth section to article three.

"The state organization shall have full and final authority over the admission and expulsion of members, being responsible however to the N.E.C. and the National Convention for any abuse of state power."

For some reason which I cannot gather, many comrades from the right, as well as from the left, thought this addition was a step in the direction of centralization. In reality it is another concession to decentralization and states rights. The chairman of the session at which this amendment was discussed interpreted it as follows:

"But there would be no direct appeal by the member who is excluded. There would only be a question of the abuse of authority which was raised and brought before the N.E.C." (Stenographic report, p. 397.)

In other words, if the N.E.C. should happen to issue an appeal to groups to join the party as it once did, or if any state committee should decide to expell an individual or many individuals, as the New York old guard tried, neither the rejected nor the expelled could appeal to the N.E.C. The N.E.C. would only have to decide whether the state committee had abused its power. While the amendment is very clear as to the rights of the state organizations, it is very vague as to what would constitute abuse of power.


The fight betwen the militants and old guard in the party was centered, since the Detroit Convention, around the Declaration of Principles. The left wing never considered the Detroit Declaration of Principles as really a left wing document. In my pamphlet, "Socialism at the Crossroads", published and distributed by the militants, the Declaration of Principles is declared to be only a first step in the development of the party towards the left. The old guard saw "Communism, Bolshevism, Anarchism and even a call to dual unionism" in the Declaration. To appease the right wing the convention felt that some of the vague and unclear sentences should be clarified. With this view in mind the resolutions committee set to work to revise it. It added a few sentences clarifying the question of democracy. We will not discuss this addition because it is not really important. The committee was not content however with "clarifying". It also added a new section on armed insurrection.

The question of armed insurrection is part of a larger question, the road to power. This was not discussed or even mentioned at the convention. The resolution reads:

"The ability of the Socialist Party to continue to rule and build Socialism once it has won political power, will depend upon the active support of the masses of the nation. The Socialist Party, therefore, firmly believes in the strengthening and maintenance of existing democratic institutions through which the socialist will of the masses may be cultivated and expressed. The advocacy of a policy of armed insurrection by a minority against a stable state machinery is romantic impossibilism, entirely inconsistent with membership in the Socialist Party, etc." (Italics H.K.) Note first of all the fundamental thesis of the resolution.

It rejects the advocacy of armed insurrection because "once it has won political power" it will depend in its work of building Socialism upon the active support of the masses, etc. In other words, the resolution refers to armed insurrection after the Socialist Party has won political power. Has any member of the committee ever heard of any socialist, no matter how revolutionary, who advocated armed insurrection after the socialists had won political power? Those who do advocate armed insurrection do so because they believe that without it socialists will never win political power. To be sure, there may be danger of armed insurrection after the socialists have won political power. The defeated capitalists may resort to it in order to regain power, but surely this is not the kind of armed insurrection the Convention had in mind.

And again. The resolution speaks of armed insurrection and really refers to "putchism". An armed insurrection by a minority against a stable state machinery is a "putch", and "putchism" has been condemned not only by revolutionary socialists but even by communists. It therefore is simply a waste of time to reject what has never been accepted. In any case the added section does not in any way clarify the Declaration of Principles. It only raises anew the problem of the road to power, which it certainly has not settled.

The one real achievement of the convention of which the left wing may be proud is the resolution on war. Outside of this resolution the left wing seems not to have introduced or fought for anything.

This article is not an analysis of the entire convention but merely of the left wing at the convention. I will therefore omit discussion of some very important problems,--platform, Labor Party, to be dealt with in subsequent issues,--but there is one point to be stressed. The Cleveland Convention has shown that a left wing is now even more necessary than before. There is the great and difficult task of re-educating the party membership along the lines of revolutionary Socialism. That cannot and will not be done by the party. The party is inclusive and is, therefore, in the battle of ideas which are natural to an inclusive party, helpless. The task will have to be taken up by the left wing. We missed our opportunity at Cleveland. Let us not repeat our mistakes.


[01]. I must note that illness prevented attendance at the Convention. Yet, I am not basing my judgment on casual newspaper reports, but on a very careful study of the stenographic report of the Convention.