Pessimism of the Spirit and Contemporary Socialism: Recovering Louis Fraina’s Time

James D. Young

Dreamer’s Paradise Lost: Louis C. Fraina/Lewis Corey (1892-1953) and the Decline of Radicalism in the United States(Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1995), 192 pages.

What the Spirit of the Times you name,

That, at bottom, is the Spirit of the Master Class,

In which the Times reflect themselves.

IN THIS STIMULATING work, Paul M. Buhle reflects the tragedy of late 20th century Western socialism. Indeed, the dominant pessimism of the spirit of most present-day socialists is summed up in his unavoidably long sub-title Louis C. Fraina/Lewis Corey (1892-1953) and the Decline of Radicalism in the United States. Buhle’s is a well-written, sober–perhaps too sober–and thoughtful, yet also an enthusiastic book.

Since Buhle is steeped in the history of modern American socialism, no one is better equipped to reconstruct the life and times of Fraina/Corey. [The subject of this biography, amazingly, was a central figure in the founding of American Communism, yet purged from all the Communist Party’s official histories, as well as a distinctive and original Marxist and cultural thinker–ed.]

In doing so, Buhle presents the really lost world of American immigrants and the radical movement, Bohemianism, free thought, the Industrial Workers of the World, the major socialist thinker Daniel De Leon–a unique figure in the Second International whose sectarian behavior obscures his insights and innovative contributions to socialist thought–as well as the New Review and the origins of American communism.

Furthermore, reflecting Buhle’s own now decades-old interests, he focuses on hitherto hidden links between Fraina, De Leon and C.L.R. James. In an interesting discussion of the analogies between James and Fraina, Buhle concludes that by the l940s: “Corey had long since lost his hopes for workers unguided by their union leaders, and he manifested no interest in the qualities of mass culture newly developing.”

And in a sentence summing up most contemporary socialists’ pessimism of the spirit and the intellect, Buhle says: “He (Fraina) had perhaps seen too much and hoped too much already.” Not surprisingly, there is a probably unconscious tension in Buhle’s biography between his sympathy for workers’ struggles from below and what he calls in his final chapter, “The Perils of Disillusionment.” The first three chapters on “The Immigrant and the American Radical Movement,” “Bohemian Rebel and Revolutionary Agitator” and “On the verge of Communism” are the most exciting. Certainly, Fraina was in some ways a more interesting character than the one who, in Theodore Draper’s phrase, “ceased to exist in 1923.”

Buhle is at his best in describing “the strident revolutionary-politico Louis Fraina–a pre-First World war radical who had been “an editor of Modern Dance magazine, an early champion of jazz dancing and free-verse poetry.”

Optimism and Pessimism

Since 1848 two of the tacit themes in the changing socialist culture of the Left has been the alternation between extreme optimism and extreme pessimism.

When I first met Raya Dunayevskaya in London in 1958, she told me that “It is easy to write good socialist biographies and histories when the proletariat is chalking up victories.” I was not convinced of that then; and I am now sure that she was very wrong. Ironically, it may actually be easier to write good (sic!) socialist biography in the face of the continuing counter-revolution in the 1990s than it was in the l910s or mid-1940s.

At the conclusion of his massive book The New York Intellectuals (1987), Alan M. Wald argued against those who insist that it is now harder to be a socialist than it was in the l930s. Discussing such arguments with the utmost seriousness, he asserted that such observations need to be “balanced with the recognition that in the 1980s we have the distinct advantage of knowing far more about the problems and possibilities of fundamental social change than did our radical predecessors.”

But, although he acknowledged the contribution of C.L.R. James, Wald did not really discuss the major role of the “Black Plato” in integrating and indeed in helping to rescue something of what he described as the “theoretical consciousness about political strategy” from the shipwreck of international socialism after the murder of Leon Trotsky in 1940. And this is, as we will see, relevant to any sympathetically-critical assessment of Buhle”s book on Fraina/Corey.

Buhle does not address the problem of the extremes of alternating moods of pessimism and optimism at the heart of the culture of the Left, yet he cannot escape from it. Thus on his very first page Buhle insists that his biography is “a study of the 1910s and their long-lasting “consequences.” Sketching the aims of A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost, he says:

“Louis Fraina’s glory days, his youth, seem more and more the brightest moment of a bitterly disappointing century. The early symptoms of modernism, including such fields as painting and design, music, dance, and, of course, prose styles, did not merely coincide with a multifold social rebellion. Third parties, trade unions militancy, feminism, immigrant radicalism, black nationalism, and much else gave inspiration and a general sense of purpose to artistic efforts.” Born in Italy in 1892, Fraina went to America in 1898. He was raised in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York. When he was still a teen-age boy his father died. “You are now the man of the house,” his mother told him.

Serious and intellectually mature for his years, he left school to work at the Edison Company. Precocious and a voracious reader, by 1909 he had been active in and then left the Socialist Party before joining Daniel De Leon”s Socialist Labor Party (SLP). Attracted by De Leon”s basic conception of the self-organization of the immigrant workers, Fraina began to write for the Daily People before joining the staff of the Marxist magazine the New Review.

Fraina’s work on the New Review would, in Buhle’s words, “substantially unfetter his modernist impulses.” And American radicalism in the 1910s was both exciting and modernist as Buhle acknowledges: “Placed at the New York epicenter of the excitement, Fraina found himself in the throes of his own modernist mission.”

Buhle is at ease, and also at his best, when he produces biographical writing. Unlike the late Raya Dunayevskaya, he is not a practitioner of the Hegelian idea that biography is “the impersonal” biography of an idea. In Buhle’s discussion of American radicalism, however, there is sometimes not enough historical context. And in a worldwide context when socialists themselves are increasing dismissing the very possibility of socialism in the 21st century, the reconstruction of the historical past is of critical importance. So, despite my unqualified enthusiasm for Buhle’s book on A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost, the weaknesses in his analysis of American radicalism must be addressed.

Immigration, Socialist Hope, Racism

An authority on Daniel De Leonism, Buhle argues that: “The Socialist Labor Party (SLP) had no real stake in the emerging cultural revolt.” The SLP was “a sect of deeply literal-minded proletarians” and “probably the least bohemian radical organization imaginable.”

Yet as an immigrant Italian in a dominant cultural world of Wasps, Fraina “could have served his apprenticeship in far worst quarters.” The De Leonist sect and the members of the Industrial Workers of the World–or Wobblies–could bring Fraina and his “oppressed and ridiculed group” of Italian outsiders “regarded by the WASP world as virtually nonwhite” into a new thought-world of socialist hope.

At the beginning of his chapter one Buhle says: “As a young intellectual, he (Fraina) precociously envisioned a “new racial type” made possible by the conditions in the Americas, a process begun by capitalism but destined to be completed by socialism. Obviously, he was a self-conscious exemplar of the emerging species, free of Old World insularity and New World racism alike.”

Passages like this–and Buhle’s wonderful poetic prose recapturing the world of modern dance and the New Review–abound. The question for the labor historian, however, is simply this: Where did Fraina pick up such revolutionary and emancipatory ideas as the emergence of “a new racial type”?

In his fascinating and provocative preface to Within the Shell of the Old: Essays on Workers’ Self-Organization (1990), titled “Visions of Emancipation–Daniel de Leon, C.L.R. James and George Rawick,” Buhle emphasizes that “Between the two West Indian immigrants, De Leon from the small Dutch island of Cuacao and James from Trinidad, a whole era of American Marxist activity directed at working-class self-emancipation could be summarized.”

Arguing that “the early socialist movement saw the race problem resolving itself through workers” rise to State power,” Buhle insists that “James had several distinct advantages” over De Leon. When Buhle rather ahistorically asserts that “James came of age with the modern anti-colonial movement,” he is unwittingly concealing Fraina’s intellectual debt to De Leon.

Daniel De Leon, Anti-Racist Fighter

Of the major thinkers within the Second International, De Leon in fact belonged to the minority who opposed racist ideas and doctrines inside the internationalists’ own ranks.

Notwithstanding De Leon’s unquestionable sectarian faults as a socialist activist, he was well in advance of the racists in the Second International like the German revisionist Eduard Bernstein and the French revolutionary Jules Guesde. American radicals, moreover, have yet to rediscover the degree to which the American socialist movement was rotten to the core with racism before the First World War. (See, for example, the extreme racist comments in the letters and articles of Jack London and in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (1906) and the newspaper Appeal to Reason.) Unlike De Leon, who expressed his sympathy for the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese war during 1904-1905, Jack London, who covered that war for the right-wing Hearst press, wrote about the ‘yellow, inferior race.’

Much has been made in books on international socialist history about the two representatives of Japanese and Russian “working class”–Sen Katayama and George Plekhanov–“demonstratively clasp[ing] hands” during the Amsterdam Congress of the Second international during the Russo-Japanese war.” What was much more important, however, was De Leon’s role in persuading Dutch, American and Australian delegates to withdraw their “anti-immigration resolution.”

In his neglected book Flashlights of the Amsterdam Congress (1906), De Leon wrote: “Socialism knows not such insulting, iniquitous distinctions as ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ races among the proletariat. It is for capitalism to fan the fires of such sentiments in its scheme to keep the proletariat divided.”

What is not in serious doubt is that Fraina developed his ideas about a “new racial type” inside the militantly De Leonist SLP before he joined the staff on the New Review in 1914. Moreover, De Leon waded into the battle of ideas inside socialist movements by opposing and ridiculing racist doctrines and behavior. Certainly, the Western ruling classes were aware of the war between the white Russians and the “inferior” and “yellow” Japanese.

At the same time as he took up the struggle against the racists in the Second International, he wrote elsewhere about the long-term significance of the Japanese military and naval victory against the Russians in 1905. In December 1905, for example, De Leon contributed an article to the Daily People called “Is It To Be?” in which he celebrated the Japanese victory as the beginning of the break-up of Western imperialism:

“At any rate, the start has been given. The ‘white man’s burden’ was suddenly assumed by the yellow man in Nippon. ‘Backward’ Japan in the Far East gave a kick westward; that set Russia agoing. Is Russia, in turn to transmit the kick further West and each successive nation to pass it on further and further West, successively rising to their feet stamping out their special varieties of Czarism?”

Moreover, because classical Marxism itself did not free itself from racist assumptions during and beyond the life and times of Marx and Engels, it needs to be emphasized that De Leon pioneered and sustained his critique of racist doctrines. Describing Admiral Togo’s visit to America in 1911, De Leon asserted that “the greatest living historic figure” from Japan had “delivered his message–the refutation of the conceited-engendered and progress-retarding theory of ‘Backward Races.'”

A Tragic Figure

Leaving aside this important criticism of Buhle’s neglect of the intellectual sources of Fraina’s theoretical alternative to racism, this excellent biography of Fraina is based on interviews going back to 1967. With sympathy for the immigrant communities and the promises held out by American radicalism, Buhle sketches the pitfalls of yielding to the intoxication of the unwarranted visions of the socialism-is-around the corner mentality induced among radicals by the Bolshevik revolution.

Yet in the process, Buhle today is in danger of succumbing to “pessimism of the spirit”–unlike the founder of Radical America, not yet acculturated by the experience of defeat, the Buhle who, in 1982, argued that “We must bring into any movement our whole selves” and “deliver as much as we can of our maximum message.”

Certainly, “the terrible hell of the 20th century” was seen in the life of Fraina/Corey. As a leading representative of Bolshevism inside America, Fraina was to become a truly tragic figure. In a comment on John Reed and Louis C. Fraina that remains valid in almost thirty years later in 1996, Theodore Draper said: “Important as their contributions were, something else makes these men stand out for special attention–the symbolism of their lives. They went through in the first months of the new movement what many other communists were to go through in the years to come.”

Capturing the tragedy of and offering this sobering and detached judgment in the midst of a chapter of his book entitled “The Revolution Devours Its Children,” Buhle has the edge on Draper by showing that idealistic socialists like Fraina/Corey were really devoured by the Russian counter-revolution.

Accused of being a spy for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fraina was subjected to three “trials,” one in New York and two in Moscow. Soon disillusioned by the factionalism, the absence of freedom of thought and “Russian domination” of communists outside of Russia, he became “Joseph Charles Skala” while he earned a crust as a substitute proofreader on the New York Times.

The rest of his fascinating biography is told with Buhle”s usual verve. And the life of his protagonist was hard and unrewarding in the 1920s.

After assuming the name Lewis Corey, when his books The Decline of American Capitalism and The Crisis of the Middle Class were published in 1934 and 1935 he made a new name for himself. Unhappy and miserable at the core of his personality after his deep disillusionment in the 1920s, he could not accept his “success” in the bourgeois world he had rejected in the 1910s. The theoretical problems of socialism and capitalism continued to preoccupy him; and in 1951, after ten years of teaching at Antioch College, he took a job as educational director for a trade union affiliated to the American Federation of Labor. [He was fired from his union job in January 1953, at the height of the McCarthyite witchhunts, at the same time that he was fighting a deportation order–circumstances that almost surely contributed to his death from a cerebral hemorrage nine months later–ed.]

The Final Chapters Buhle pays insufficient attention to the impact of the Moscow trials and other Stalinist crimes on the libertarian Left in 1930s America. Citing an article by Corey in The Nation, Max Nomad wrote: “It took the Soviet-Nazi pact on top of all the other Stalinist infamies of the late thirties to remove the inhibitions which many radical thinkers had against finding not merely an external, but also a basic, essential class similarity between anti-Marxist fascism and ultra-Marxist Bolshevism.”

Buhle ignores Nomad’s important article in the organ of the Socialist Party, which demonstrates Corey’s contribution to rescuing the emancipatory idea of socialism in the midst of international socialism’s shipwreck.

In the final part of his biography Buhle offers an excellent account of Corey”s political disorientation, pro-Western attitudes to the Cold War and failure to find agencies for humane social improvements in working people’s lives after 1941.

As Buhle demonstrates so ably and so eloquently, biography is not the impersonal history of an idea; and ‘the personal is political.’ Moreover, Buhle has written a fine tract for our times; and it deserves to be widely read and discussed. Yet the work is marked by Buhle’s own socialist pessimism of the spirit, and the theoretical consciousness of his own historical determinism.

Discussing Corey’s work on a biography of the American feminist and Utopian Frances Wright, Buhle says: “But surely Corey understood her dilemma, and perhaps sought a way back, over the era of Leninism and Marxism, to a historic moment when the future had been more open to free thought and free practice.”

But in the very last sentence of his biography of Fraina/Corey, Buhle asserts: “The world faced by Lewis Corey, despite his assertions to the contrary, had precious little room for his free development.” This statement expresses the subtext of Buhle’s book, but vitiates this illuminating work on an important figure in the history of American radicalism.

Today, the extreme crisis of a barbarous capitalism challenges leftist intellectuals to re-learn the secret of John Bunyan’s great book The Pilgrim’s Progress that we possess the keys to unlock our own prisons. It was De Leon who said: “The dawn always inspires. It even intoxicates. But the socialist carries the corrective within him.”

In 1998 the Left needs tough ideas for hard times, and a different kind of socialist “corrective” in circumstances where an extreme pessimism of the spirit is weakening our participation in the centuries-old battle of ideas. In skirting around the question of the strong strain of milennialism in the writings of the young Fraina during “the brightest moment of a disappointing century” and among the Left more generally before the collapse of Russian totalitarianism in 1989, Buhle forgets the never more appropriate and now exhilarating words of the late E. H. Carr:

“Pregnant failures are not unknown in history. History recognizes what I may call ‘delayed achievement’; the apparent failures of today may turn out to have made a vital contribution to the achievements of tomorrow–prophets born before their time.”

James D. Young is a Scottish labor historian. His eight books include The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class (London, 1979), Socialism Since 1889: A Biographical History (New York, 1988) and John Maclean: Clydeside Socialist (Glasgow, 1992). He is about to publish a book on Scottish radical history between 1688 and 1995 titled The Very Bastards of Creation, and is working on a book on C.L.R. James.

ATC 75, July-August 1998