Introducing Arne Swabeck

Against the Current, No. 96, January/February 2002

Christopher Phelps

CREATED IN 1901, the Socialist Party, USA, turned one hundred years old last year. While its members justly celebrate a century of commitment to socialism and democracy, the occasion invites reflection.

The high water mark of the Socialist Party came in its first two decades, when hundreds of thousands joined it, the legendary presidential campaigner Eugene V. Debs drew millions of votes, hundreds of related newspapers and magazines appeared regularly, and many Socialist candidates won election, even to Congress. By the 1920s, a severe decline set in from which the party never fully recovered in spite of the slight revival of the 1930s.

Why did the Socialist Party slip into relative obscurity? Is American culture and society impervious to socialism? Were there severe flaws in the party’s own practice, ideology, composition, organization, or strategy? Was fierce governmental and vigilante repression at fault? Did the Democratic Party co-opt Socialist ideas? Did the party’s left wing provoke a premature split in 1919?

This article, published here for the first time, provides unusual answers to such questions. Written by Arne Swabeck, who had been a young radical in the Debsian era, it combines a sharp defense of the party’s left wing with a strongly political and class analysis concerning the reasons for the Socialist Party’s greatest split.

Born in 1890 in Denmark, Swabeck was one of ten children fathered by a syndicalism-inclined dissident Lutheran preacher. Already a socialist at 18, Swabeck set out to see the world; between 1909 and 1914, he journeyed through Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Jerusalem, Romania, and Austro-Hungary before returning to Denmark.

In 1916, having just set foot in America, Swabeck joined the Socialist Party in Chicago. By the time he first heard news of the Soviet Revolution in Russia in 1917 at age 27, he was living in Caspar, Wyoming as a house painter and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

In 1918, he moved to Seattle in time to take part in the volcanic general strike of 1919 — that first Battle of Seattle — as one of three hundred local union delegates elected to the city’s Workers, Soldiers, and Sailors Council. The same year, Swabeck was also a delegate to the famous Chicago convention of the Socialist Party portrayed vividly in “Reds,” Warren Beatty’s epic movie portrayal of John Reed and Louise Bryant, where the Socialist Party split asunder and two Communist parties were declared.

From Communism to Trotskyism

Swabeck joined with John Reed and others to found the Communist Labor Party, serving on its labor committee and editing the newspaper briefly published by the expelled Socialist Scandinavian foreign language federation. A significant early Communist, Swabeck was district organizer of a large midwestern area that included much of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

In 1922, he represented the American Communists (by then united and called the Workers Party) for six months on the executive committee of the Comintern and as a delegate to its Fourth Congress, sitting in conferences with the Bolshevik leaders Trotsky, Bukharin, Radek, and Zinoviev. He returned home to coordinate Communist work among mineworkers. In 1925, he was elected to the central committee of the Communist Party, USA.

Because Swabeck supported the Left Opposition in its campaign against Stalin’s bureaucratic counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928.

He moved to New York in 1930 as a key leader of the small American anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist movement. In 1933, he served as its emissary to Trotsky, then exiled in Turkey. Swabeck was national secretary of several successive mainline Trotskyist groups. As a consequence, he briefly re-entered the Socialist Party in the mid-1930s, exiting to help launch the Socialist Workers Party in 1938, and subsequently serving for almost three decades on the SWP’s national committee.

Swabeck returned to Chicago in 1937 and moved to Los Angeles in the postwar period. From 1958 on, he supported Mao and the Chinese example, for which he was expelled in 1967 from the SWP, which viewed Mao’s regime as a bureaucratic dictatorship. After a brief collaboration with the Progressive Labor Party (PL), Swabeck led a small independent Maoist formation that eventually joined the new left influenced New America Movement (NAM) in the 1970s. Swabeck, thus, was an eyewitness to virtually every permutation of the twentieth century left, combining eclecticism in trajectory with unbroken revolutionary socialist commitment.

The following extract is drawn from his unpublished autobiography, From Debs to Mao. Drafted during the late 1960s and early 1970s, it never found a publisher. The socialist firm Charles H. Kerr advertised the book as forthcoming in 1975, but lack of funds scuttled the plan.

The other publishers who rejected it were not mistaken. The document is more a serial political exposition than an autobiography, lacking the kind of personal anecdote, revelation, and introspection essential to memoir.

This particular chapter, however, is of great interest so long as it is taken as a contribution to historical understanding, rather than autobiography. Originally called “The Socialist Party Splits,” the article conveys Swabeck’s assessment of the party’s fissure and decline.

An actor in the events described, Swabeck writes with considerable authority. His challenge to the interpretation of historian James Weinstein, whose work still remains highly influential, is uncommonly strong.

A historical document in itself, and not just a work about history, Swabeck’s text is marred by rhetorical excesses characteristic of its time and type. But it also displays conviction and clarity, as well as first-hand impressions, that render it deserving of public accessibility.

NOTE: The whole manuscript From Debs to Mao was drafted sometime between 1968 and 1975 and is found in Boxes 10-12 of the Arne Swabeck Collection, Hover Institution, Stanford, CA; “The Socialist Party Splits” may be found in Box 10, Folder 22; further information in “Notes for an Autobiography,” Box 6, Folder 11. I wish to acknowledge the gracious assistance of Dale Reed and David Jacobs of the Hoover Institution’s archival staff. This article is published in ATC by permission of the Swabeck family.–Christopher Phelps

Some of his papers can be found at:

from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)