Max Shachtman

Left Opposition Demands Broad United Front
at N.Y. Unemployment Conference

Presents Revolutionary Program to Stalinist Confab Oriented
on Opportunist Half-Turn

(January 1933)

From The Militant, Vol. VI No. 4, 28 January 1933, pp. 1, 2 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The New York conference held under the auspices of the A.F. of L. Committee for Unemployed Insurance on Sunday, January 22, 1933, was of such significance for the struggle against unemployment in general, and the Communist movement in particular, that it deserves a detailed account and treatment.

The importance of the Conference did not lie so much in the organizations represented. In this respect, the gathering fell far short of the possibilities as well as the requirements of the situation. Of the American Federation of Labor locals in the city, only a handful were represented (the official report lists 23 of them). With isolated exceptions, the balance of the organizations present were those in which the Communists have already gained predominance. When it is considered that the ravages of the crisis, plus the treacherous passivity of all the reformist leaders and the exclusive position occupied by the

Communists in leading whatever militant fight for unemployment relief there has been in this country, it will be seen that the representation at Sunday’s conference was far below the vast possibilities at hand for the mobilization of a strong fighting movement. The very fact that the meagre response can be said by the Dally Worker to have “exceeded the best expectations of the Committee”, is only an indication of the extent to which the sectarian policies of the official party in the past period have isolated it from the bulk of the workers and their organizations.

This phase of the Conference may be summed up in the following observation: To the extent that the representation from non-Communist organizations was small in comparison with what it should and could have been, its size is to be attributed to the “Third Period” antics of the past, the elimination of the united front, the ultimatist policy of the party, as well as to the inadequacy of the turn made in the recent Chicago united front and at the present Conference. To the extent that non-Communist participation “exceeded the best expectations” it is due to the turn made in dropping the idiotic verbiage about “social Fascism” and approaching the standpoint on the Leninist united front which the Left Opposition has sought to drill into the mind of the party for the past few years.

Our Reservations Justified

The fact that the turn was made, and while still defective, was nevertheless made in the right direction, could not fail to bring it the endorsement of the Left Opposition. At the same time, however, all the shortcomings and dangers already perceptible at the first stages of the party’s turn – which we pointed out from the very beginning as factors which made it impossible for the Opposition to accord the turn an unreserved endorsement – were obtrusively present at the very first Conference in New York.

The keynote of the Conference was struck by the Committee representative who opened the meeting, Bordman, and by the Committee chairman, Weinstock, who made the general report for the hand-picked credentials committee. The burden of their appeal was the need of presenting to the legislature soon to convene in Albany a program for “unemployment insurance and other labor legislation”. The burning problem of connecting with the fight for unemployment insurance, the demands for immediate relief, the six-hour day and five-day week without pay reduction, and long-term credits to the Soviet Union – this was not dealt with at all by either of the two spokesmen before the Conference. Anxious to get as far away as possible from yesterday’s “fight for the streets”, of the “Third Period”, the speakers sedulously avoided any reference to the need of mass pressure from the workers in the attainment of their demands. The whole program of action outlined by them simmered down to the presentation of a petition to the capitalist legislators assembled at the Capitol. With not a single word did these two Communists – who apparently thing that the way to function in the trade union movement is to cease acting and fighting like Communists – emphasize the danger of entertaining any illusions about what could be obtained by “petitioning the legislature”, or the limits necessarily set by a parliamentary campaign. They neither drew a clear line of demarcation between their program of action and the pernicious “lobbying system” of the A.F. of L. and the Socialists, nor did they stress the quintessential importance of organized action by the masses to force concessions from the ruling class and its government.

The warning we gave a week ago against the tendency towards parliamentary opportunism already visible in the party’s half-turn, proved to be more than well-founded. The straining towards “respectability” was positively painful. In an overwhelming Communist assembly, the party members and apparently been instructed to adhere strictly to the solemn ritual of avoiding the term “comrade” and addressing each other as “brother” and “sister”, obviously for the sole purpose of impressing the half-dozen or less “pure and simple” A.F. of L. delegates present with the fact that the sponsors of the Conference were beyond reproach or the suspicion of being connected in any way with the “Reds”.

Socialist Workers Absent

The same game of hide-and-seek was played by the party in the selection of the chairman. The call for the conference, while saying nothing about “social Fascists”, did not address itself to the Socialist party or the A.F. of L. Such a turn-about face – demanded by the situation as well as by the elementary Leninist conception of the united iront – was too much to expect from the Stalinist bureaucracy which only yesterday opposed any united front at all. The result naturally was that only the most advanced sections of the A.F. of L. – and comparatively few of them – responded to the call and the militants were deprived of the opportunity of pressing the A.F. of L. leaders to the wall on a concrete issue and revealing to the rank and file conservative workers what their leaders are worth. The same held true with regard to the Socialist party. The call was addressed to “locals of the Socialist party”, thus making it unnecessary for the S.P. hierarchy to put themselves on record. Concrete results of this “united front from below” of the second edition? One local of the Socialist party responded to the Conference, and not a local from the metropolitan area, but one of the least important groups – Huntington, Long Island. The rank and file of the socialist workers, who by and large feel as much attached to their organization as do the Communist workers to their party, responded just as coldly to the Sunday Conference call to the “locals of the S.P.” as, let us say, the individual shop nuclei of the Communist party would respond to a “united front” appeal of the Socialists addressed to the “lower branches” of the Communist party. This simple fact, which does not require a course in the Moscow Lenin School to be comprehended (more accurately: only such a course is capable of rendering the student incapable of comprehension!) has not yet penetrated into the skulls of the Stalinist bureaucracy. If it has, they have thought the better of it in the interests of maintaining themselves in the international apparatus.

To make up for this mortifying failure to bring the socialist workers into the conference, the Conference directors elected as chairman the sole S.P. delegate from Huntington! This decorative trick – worthy of the intellectual level of a stage manager in a small-town theater which is short of appropriate scenery – was the Stalinist substitute for the united front proposed by the Left Opposition which would bring together into a militant movement not only the Communist hut also the socialist workers.

In the invention of such two-for-a-cent tactics, the Conference stage-managers were inexhaustible. The call asked for the election of two delegates from every organization; but the call was not meant for the Left Opposition. When the self-appointed credentials committee reported, its secretary proposed the unseating of one of the two delegates from the New York branch of the Communist League of America (Opposition), one of the two from the Young Spartacus Club, from the Unser Kamf Workers Club and from the Protomagia, the Greek workers’ club sympathetic to the Left Opposition. Furthermore, James Gordon, unanimously elected by the cafeteria department of the Food Workers Industrial Union, was marked for the discard by the credentials committee. Finally, the Lovestoneite youth group was to be unseated altogether, as were also two of the three delegates sent by the parent body.

“Brilliant Tactics”

The motivation for these unseatings was positively brilliant and worthy of the masterful strategist who conceived it. Where the central organizations – like the A.F. of L. or the S.P. – did not have delegates, it was explained, their local organizations were entitled to two apiece. But where the central organizations did send delegates – like the Communist party, the “Communist Oppositions”, the Unemployed Councils they would be adequately represented by one delegate! Thus, the TUUL, with its how-many-thousands of members was given one delegate, while a carpenters’ local of, let us say, a hundred of more members, was given two delegates. What could be fairer? Thus the Communist party, with Hathaway, its one official delegate (together with the dozens of Rubins, Winters, Benjamins, Neesins, and others from party-controlled auxiliaries), was on an “equal footing” with the Left Opposition or the Lovestone group!

Protests against this ruling were voted down. Another ruling was that there shall be one speaker from each “trade” or “political” group. That is only one carpenter could speak at the conference; only one member of an Unemployed Council could speak; only “one” member of the Communist party could speak as a “Communist”; naturally, only one Left Oppositionist could speak; and let us not omit to mention that comrade James Gordon, the Oppositionist whom the bureaucrats just expelled from the party, could not speak at all because he was unseated on the grounds that the Executive Board of the Food Workers Industrial Union had sent a delegate, thus voiding the unanimous decision of the Cafeteria department to send its delegates. In this manner, Shachtman of the Left Opposition delegation, Carter of the Spartacus Youth Club, Bonanes from the Protomagia, and two Lovestone delegates were required to leave the conference when it went into “executive session”. With this ingenious tactical plan the Stalinists won the signal and decisive victory of ridding themselves of a handful of Oppositionists from the Conference, even if their pretensions to “respectability” made it extremely difficult to unseat us altogether. The motion of comrade William Kitt, of the Alternation Painters Union, to seat as fraternal delegates those whom the Stalinists proposed to exclude, was defeated by a show of hands, thus saving the American revolution, the Communist. International and the Soviet Union.

This picayune trick did not keep the Opposition from presenting its standpoint to the conference, just as little as the well-oiled maneuvers at the New York “anti-war” conference prevented us from making known our point of view.

Opposition Speaks

No sooner was the floor thrown open for discussion than comrade Cannon, representing the League, was up to the front of the room and ready to speak for the Opposition. A vigilant Stalinist promptly jumped up to propose a limitation of speaking time to seven minutes, which was adopted and to which comrade Cannon was held with laudable strictness! The Opposition had already issued a leaflet to the conference in which our point of view was set forth. In addition, we had handed out to every delegate a copy of the two resolutions which we presented to the conference for consideration. One dealt with the need of organizing immediately for a second conference on a broader basia to which would be invited not only local but central organizations, like the A.F. of L., the Socialist party, the Communist party and the independent trade unions. The other proposed a concrete and all-embracing program of action on unemployment which would go beyond the mere demand for an unemployment insurance bill and a parliamentary agitation forit. All three documents are printed elsewhere in this issue, as is also the speech delivered by Cannon.

Our representative spoke on the resolution for a broader conference and expounded, for the first time in years before an audience composed overwhelmingly of Communist party members, the ABC of the united front as outlined in the Communist International by Lenin and Trotsky. There was not only the closest attention paid to his remarks, and a complete absence of interruptions, but at the end of it there was a good round of applause. The presentation of our standpoint, in the resolutions and the speech, was a striking advance of the Left Opposition. The turn made by the party was in the direction we had been demanding for a long time and the apparatus men felt uncomfortable about the fact. By the very nature of things, the Opposition set the tone for the conference from the outset of the discussion.

The numerous party members who took the floor after Cannon, spoke generally in an agitational spirit, but none of them ventured to attack or abuse the Left Opposition in that contemptible routine manner which has always been the stock in trade of the Stalinists in their campaign against the Bolshevik-Leniuists. Of considerable interest was the speech of one of the two Huntington S.P. delegates who referred to comrade Cannon: “I deny the assertion of the first speaker that the Socialist party is unwillingly to fight for unemployment insurance and relief,” he said. “It is necessary to use politics. The Labor party in England had unemployment insurance. In Germany and other countries the Socialist party got unemployment insurance for the workers. In Holland, they have good unemployment insurance. (All of which will be gratifying news to the German, British and Dutch workers!) I will conclude with the hope that we will support the Socialist party – but we must not fight amongst ourselves.” The Communist delegates carefully refrained from dissipating the illusions of the socialist delegate. Like him, they were anxious “not to fight amongst ourselves” – which they understand to mean the concealment of the Communist point of view.

Stalinist Confusion

The Negro delegate from the Carpenters’ Union, comrade Moore, opposed the Opposition’s resolution and offered a sorry example of Stalinist mis-education. “Don’t waste time on the leaders of these organizations,” he urged, referring to the S.P. and the A.F. of L. “The rank and file are with us”. The only trouble with his assertions was that they were, unfortunately, not true. It was and is precisely because the rank and file are not yet “with us” that the revolutionists must “waste time on the leaders” and organizations whom the “masses still follow.

Among the delegates who did support our viewpoint was comrade Dreyer, of the Pharmacists Union, who called our resolution the only united front proposal made along the line of Lenin’s teachings. His speech is not even mentioned by the Daily Worker. It does, however, mention the “fact” that the Left Opposition “did not have a single worker representative of organizations outside of themselves”. Not only were we supported by the Spartacus Youth Club, the Unser Kamf Workers Club and the Protomagia, bu also by such delegates as Dreyer of the Pharmacists, Bill Kitt of the Alternation Painters Union, William Hermann of the Carpenters Local 2090, Henry Stone of the Technical Men’s Union, and a couple of delegates from the International Labor Defense. Out of a total of 90 delegates, Cannon received 18 votes as candidate for the resolutions committee, with the highest vote cast for a candidate standing at 61.

The Lovestoneite delegate, Lifschitz, spoke in favor of the united front, and Weisbord, representing his group, announced his support of Cannon’s argument for a new conference and a broad united front, adding that it did not “go far enough” because it did not propose to aim at a general strike. All during this discussion, the representatives of the official party were silent, apparently not greatly concerned with our intervention on the grounds that “we have the votes anyway; let them talk”. But at the end of the discussion, the floor was taken by the “sole” representative of the party, Hathaway. He took his place in the division of labor arranged for by the steering committee which he directed. The Communist workers and militants who did not directly represent the party, were allotted the task of speaking like trade unionists – not as Communist trade unionists but as “respectable” trade unionists! The “pure Communist” standpoint was to be presented solely by the official party spokesman. Thus, while the bulk of the speeches made by the Communist militants could have been made without much difficulty by a somewhat advanced representative of the A.F. of L. school, “comrade” (not brother, or sister) Hathaway took care to maintain appearances by telling the audience not to “think that the legislature will give anything it is not forced to give”. “We have to reject,” he added, “the proposal of Cannon as a proposal to delay.” What Hathaway meant was that the movement had to orient itself – not on the mobilization of the widest section of the working class, but on the legislative calendar at Albany. In this single sentence, Hathaway revealed that aside from a few formally radical phrases about “not relying” on the legislatures, his viewpoint differed in no serious degree from the vulgar parliamentary opportunism with which the speeches of the other party-instructed delegates was drenched.

Genuine United Front Rejected

The proposal to “invite the leaders”, as he put it, was also rejected by Hathaway because, you see, they are sabotaging the fight; Hathaway only neglected to point out that the workers still following these leaders by the millions, are not yet aware of the sabotage, unless Hathaway believes either that nobody of importance is following them or that they are being followed because they sabotage the interests of their followers.

In any case, it is interesting to note that Hathaway refrained from the customary slanders about our “counter-revolutionism”.

The resolutions committee report proposed that all the delegates present constitute themselves as the provisional committee for the Albany state-wide conference. As to the resolutions we submitted, the committee found itself obliged to borrow virtually all our concrete demands. Instead of confining the movement to social insurance, the program now included the demand for immediate relief, and for the shorter work day, without, however, specifying the six-hour day and five-day week. The only one of our proposals not incorporated by the committee was the one dealing with credits to the Soviet Union. Our resolution for a broader conference was rejected without a single political argument being presented against it. The cornered Stalinists merely argued that there were only six weeks left until the legislature convened, and they were so anxious to be on time to meet it that they would not be able to find time in which to call a wide united front conference to precede it!

Yet, so demoralized were the Stalinists, caught in the contradictions inherent in the half-heartedness of the turn, of its inadequacy and one-sidedness, that upon Weisbords motion that the central bodies – the A.F. of L., the S.P., the orkmen’s Circle and so forth – be invited to the Albany conference, the resolutions committee stated that this is what they had intended to do in any case, and when it was put to a vote, it was carried by a majority! Thus, on paper at least, the “united front from below” was rejected. It is most likely that the adopted motion will remain on paper. It involves too much of a blow at the party bureaucracy and its ever-changing policies to have much chance of being carried out seriously in practise.

From the whole course of the conference, it is clear that the party is in the midst of a serious turn-about-face, forced upon it by the increasing misery of the masses, the bankruptcy of its previous line of policy, and the incessant hammer-blows of Left Opposition criticism. Nor can there be any doubt that the turn is also the result of pressure from the party ranks which have been disturbed and discontented with the policy of sectarianism and ultimatism which proved so sterile for the movement. That the turn is inadequate, that it is rendered far less effective than it should be, was also demonstrated clearly by the New York conference. The retention of yesterday’s ultra-Leftism with regard to “no united front with the leaders or the organizations” continues to be a heavy anchor preventing the movement from advancing with the necessary power and speed. The combination with this feature of the turn of the opportunistic, parliamentary twist that has been incorporated into it, contains a grave danger for tomorrow. The Centrist bureaucracy, which swings between ultra-Leftism and a Right wing policy, is quite capable of dragging the promising movement into a stinking parliamentary swamp. In this respect, it has not changed fundamentally from the days when It worked in unbreakable harmony with Purcell and Chiang Kai-Shek. And that is what must be guarded against with the utmost vigilance.

Not only was the confused nature of the party’s leadership of the present movement strikingly shown at the conference (opposition to “united front with leaders”, but adoption of Weisbord’s last motion, to give one example) but it was clear that the Stalinists have not thought out what their next step will be. To neglect this factor in any movement, is fatal. The function of a revolutionary leadership is to make a thorough analysis of the situation at hand in the light of past experiences; and on the basis of it to forecast the line of development for the next period; to think out problems and programs to the end; and to drive consciously and clear-headedly along the right course. This the party leadership has done at no stage of the struggle. It is incapable of doing it. It is the task of the Opposition to stand unbendingly by its policy, which is verified over and over again by the events of every day, and to fight for its victory in the ranks of the Communist vanguard. The New York conference showed again that the Opposition is fulfilling its task.

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