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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(11 July 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 49, 11 July 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For four days I have spent most of my waking hours – and a few of the sleeping hours as well! – at Irving Plaza listening in on the second national convention of the Socialist Workers Party. Although I am not a member of the S.W.P., as a regular contributor to the Appeal, I was invited to sit in on the sessions. It was an enlightening, and heartening, experience.

From the convention I carried away chiefly an impression of youth – the average age of the delegates was announced as twenty-eight and a half years – and seriousness. This was no convention of middle-aged cafeteria-table Marxists, splitting fine points of dialectics over the coffee cups. In fact, the convention seemed to indicate that the S.W.P. has struck its roots far deeper into the American working class than I had supposed. These were for the most part working class leaders – in steel, in auto, in rubber, in the maritime field, among the unemployed. There were also, of course, a number of middle-class delegates as well – teachers, journalists, even an accountant or two.

But whatever their class origin, the delegates all quite clearly took with the utmost seriousness the sharpening crisis of American capitalism and the imminent threat of war. The high point of the convention, in many ways, was Cannon’s brilliant speech on the war question, and the discussion from the floor that followed it.

The convention revolved around a central axis: the problem of changing the S.W.P. from a propaganda-discussion sect into a mass party, how to turn the party’s face toward the masses. The level of the discussion was extremely high, and a great many excellent suggestions and illuminating bits of data came from the delegates’ comments. So far as I could see, the sessions were conducted in completely democratic fashion. I was particularly interested in the discussion on the press, with its constant hammering on the point that the Appeal must be written in simpler language, that its articles must be shorter, more concrete, and that it must be changed from a journal of comment into what Burnham called “a campaign paper”, concentrating its fire on certain definite objectives. Much the best suggestion seemed to me to be that there should be more letters and news stories from workers in the field, and less journalistic comment written in the editorial office. The responsibility for the lack of original material from the field is hard to place. The Appeal staff pointed out that their correspondents out of New York just didn’t write in usable stuff, while, on the other hand, comrades from Chicago and from St. Paul charged that the Appeal had failed to print what they had sent in. Whatever the reasons, the lack of first-hand stories from the field is the glaring weakness of the Appeal today.

Two Dangers

The convention illustrated pretty well the two great dangers in this transformation of the S.W.P. into a mass party. On the one hand, there are still some bad hangovers from the old propaganda-sect days, not so much in the rank and file as in the top leadership. The sessions, for example, all began from forty-five minutes to almost two hours late. On Tuesday, the last day, when many extremely important items on the agenda had not yet been taken up, the session, scheduled for ten a.m., did not begin until ten minutes to twelve. As a result, the unemployment discussion was cut so short as to be of little value, and the convention never did get around to several important items on the agenda. There was not the slightest reason, except sloppy management, that the report on unemployment could not have been presented as scheduled at ten.

I am told that at the last convention, in Chicago, meetings began promptly on time. The atmosphere of New York doesn’t seem to demoralize the bourgeoisie – so far as I know, banks open promptly at nine and close promptly at three, and directors’ meetings begin on the dot – but it has a terrible effect on the leaders of the S.W.P.

In the old days, punctuality was a minor virtue: it didn’t make much difference whether an all-day discussion on the nature of the Soviet state began on the minute or not. But in an active mass party, punctuality is a minimum requirement. How can people make a revolution who can’t even make an appointment?

The other danger comes from just the opposite quarter. If the top leadership is, understandably enough, not yet free of the attitudes of the old discussion-group days, the new rank-and-file is open to another disease. It was expressed in more than one contemptuous allusion to “petty bourgeois intellectuals”. It also came out in a tendency to set the rest of the country in opposition to New York City – a false and fatal antagonism. Several speakers seemed to think of New York as a nest of sterile, isolated, long-haired and long-winded intellectuals for whom every honest worker can have nothing but contempt. This anti-intellectual, anti-New York attitude – which unhappily finds some real justification in the hangovers from the party’s sectarian past I have mentioned above – seems to me to be the rankest sort of Philistinism. I see nothing immoral about brains. On the contrary, a party obviously needs all the brains, both practical and theoretical, it can command. To damn all theoretical intelligence because intellectuals have their typical weaknesses, is to throw out the baby with the bath.

It remains to be seen whether these defects will be remedied. The intelligence and seriousness of the delegates, and their closeness to the masses – all this seems to promise that they will.

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