Why Did the Socialist Party Decline?

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

Arne Swabeck

SEVERAL HISTORIANS HAVE conscientiously assembled and published valuable material restoring the record of the Socialist Party. Some historians have been less than conscientious about tracing this record and more concerned with writing their own preconceived notions into the party history.

Most historians, though, agree that the year 1912 was the Socialist Party’s peak year in terms of membership as well as electoral votes obtained; it never reached that peak again. But one latecomer, James Weinstein, the author of The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 (Monthly Review Press, 1967), disagrees with this estimate. The liberal historians, he claims in his introduction, take the position that the irreversible decline “occurred because of the success of Wilsonian liberalism, and the unpopularity of the Party’s antiwar views. The Communist historians . . . take the view that the decline was the result of the betrayal of socialist principles by the Party, and by its vacillation in the war. Both groups are incorrect. There was no serious decline after 1912; the Party grew in strength and popularity during the war.”

Weinstein’s effort to correct all the other historians turns out to be the farthest removed from reality. In fact, his description constitutes an attempt to rewrite history, an attempt to blur its healthy images and its class content, to blunt the edge of the principles involved and conceal its real significance. It is Menshevik-inspired, of course; and every page in the book reveals the author’s close political kinship with the high priests of social reformism.

No effort is spared to make these high priests and their entourage appear in the best possible light while slyly demeaning and denigrating the opponents, those who had no other course open to them but to split away and launch the Communist Party. Obviously the intention is to have the former stand out more nobly by comparison. To back up this intention, reference is made to beliefs “that the ranks of the Communists were `honey-combed with spies’ and that many Communist leaders were `financed by the government and Big Business’ to corrupt and destroy the Socialist Party.”

That the author shares these beliefs seems quite evident, but to make amply sure, he adds the declaration: “Of course the split would have taken place even in the absence of these agents. It is significant, however, that the role of the left wing and the new Communist Parties played so directly into the hands of the enemies of the socialist movement.”

This anemic effort to prettify the outlook, the actions, and the internal relations of the Socialist Party may not be very important. But the period under discussion is one of the most crucial periods of revolutionary development in the United States. It included the irrevocable decline of the Socialist Party and the rise of the Communist Party. An analysis of these events, as they actually did occur, is important, for in the lessons of the real history there is much food for thought. This is especially so for those of the younger generation who consider themselves a part of the New Left and mistakenly dismiss, or even deprecate, revolutionary leadership through a vanguard Marxist-Leninist party.

During the early part of 1962, Weinstein wrote to me concerning certain information pertinent to his study. He told me then, “It is my thesis that the split was an error and that the Left was wrong on the one issue which irreconcilably divided it from the `old guard’ — the imminence of revolution in the U.S. On the question of support of the Soviet Union, as on the war, the Left and Right differed little, if at all, until three or four years after the split — or so it seems from the dead evidence.” At that time I was convinced that history would not fit his thesis. Apparently that would be just too bad for history or — so it seems from the completed study.

The completed study has remained faithful to this thesis. The central theme is the denial of any differences between the groups within the Socialist Party, even on questions of fundamental principles. The emphasis is on the “unifying strength of the Socialists’ anticapitalist perspective.” The author states: “In terms of their ultimate commitment to thoroughgoing social transformation, both wings of the party, or, rather, all groups were `revolutionary.’ In terms of their ability to adjust their tactics to the needs of their constituencies, all groups were `constructivists.’ How principled each group was, was rarely tested; when it was, as on the question of racism and opposition to American participation in the First World War, the division did not follow Left-Right lines, as we shall see.”

But the truth, as I remember it from first-hand observation and from active participation in these developments, is the exact opposite. Neither logical deduction nor the facts of history support the contention of no real differences. Since facts must be the basis of any serious evaluation, let us start with some facts.

While Socialist Party growth and influence reached its peak in 1912, this also initiated the most sordid period in the party’s internal life. It begins with the notorious anti-sabotage provision. This brought to a head the longstanding and often turbulent struggle between the left-wing advocates of class struggle policy and industrial unionism, and the right-wing promoters of the more respectable parliamentary social reform program.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had become the home of the typical gradualist municipal reform “socialism.” From that background Victor Berger emerged as the most notable spokesman for the right wing. However, authentic leadership of the party central apparatus was in the hands of Morris Hillquit, whose ability to balance Victor Berger on the right against Eugene V. Debs on the left always served him well. But on all decisive issues of internal conflict, the proletarian left wing faced a Hillquit-Berger combination. Hillquit usually proved capable of modifying somewhat, or polishing up a bit, the crudely expressed position of Berger and thus made it more palatable.

At the 1912 party convention, the conservative leaders were determined to put an end to both class struggle policy and industrial union agitation. The Hillquit-Berger combination pushed through the following amendment to the constitution: “Any member of the party who opposes political action or advocates crime, sabotage or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation shall be expelled from membership in the party. Political action shall be construed to mean participation in elections for public office and practical legislative and administrative work along the lines of the Socialist Party platform.”

We may contrast this action with the inspiring words of the Communist Manifesto: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling class tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!”

How does this convention action square with the contention that in their ultimate commitment to thoroughgoing social transformation, all groups were “revolutionary”? The facts of history attest the opposite. By this constitutional provision the right wing committed the party to bourgeois law and order and ruled out the advocacy of any method of working class action which might interfere with it. The convention action was followed by the recall of Bill Haywood from the National Executive Committee; and it brought the exodus of several thousand revolutionary workers from the party.

What was the role of Debs in the internal party struggle? Together with Haywood he had been one of the founders of the IWW. In his own public agitation Debs never deviated from the class struggle line. He always remained a steadfast champion of industrial unionism; he never compromised that issue as the official party leadership did. Debs lived by the socialist ideals; his actions corresponded to his words. Wherever there was working class action, he would most likely turn up in the thick of it.

Though by far the most popular and influential member of the party, Debs nevertheless drew back in dismay from any active participation in internal party disputes. This was one kind of fight he always evaded. His abstention played into the hands of the professional opportunists. It removed one important restraint upon their ruthless factional manipulations, and their opportunist proclivities. To that extent, Debs shared responsibility for the decline of the Socialist Party. His abstention from internal party struggle was not inspired by pacifism. The reason for it must be sought rather in his mistaken theory of the party. This turned out to be a costly mistake indeed. It contributed a great deal to the disgraceful failure of the Socialist Party.

Although deeply committed to the concept of social revolution, Debs did not recognize the prime prerequisite for its triumph — a revolutionary party with a Marxist leadership. Much less did he see the need for internal struggle to develop such a party.

Debs seemed quite satisfied with the idea of an all-inclusive party; he felt that all such tendencies, from the revolutionary to the out-and-out reformist, could cooperate without expulsions or splits. But the all-inclusive party had become a contradictory phenomenon. At the point of its greatest external success, in terms of membership, influence and electoral gains, the issue of the class struggle began to tear apart the internal fabric.

While the left wing fought for a proletarian program, the right wing promoted and nurtured bourgeois influences in the party. This negates the thesis of no difference between the conflicting political groupings. The contention that all groups were equally revolutionary in their ultimate commitment to thoroughgoing social transformation is blown sky high.

Impact of War and Bolshevik Revolution

Yet, judging by surface manifestations, the American party leaders made better efforts to uphold socialist antiwar principles than their European counterparts. This was only what appeared on the surface. The real test showed opportunist corruption rampant, particularly in the top leadership.

As the United States in 1917 moved swiftly toward active participation in the war, the Socialist Party National Executive Committee called an emergency convention at St. Louis in April to formulate a wartime program. On the outcome Weinstein comments in his history: “Its majority resolution, written by Morris Hillquit, his close associate Algernon Lee and the militant Cleveland left winger Charles E. Ruthenberg, symbolized the new unity of Left and Center that had been developing since 1914.”

Although Victor Berger voted for the majority resolution, left wing elements accused him of being privately pro-war. On this, says Weinstein, the left wing critics were “on shaky ground . . . As we shall see, the war drove Berger steadily leftward, and he remained a consistent advocate of immediate peace and total non-support of the war in his public utterances.”

On the same page a footnote reveals that Berger secretly bought $600 worth of Liberty Bonds. He so testified in hearings before a Congressional committee. But the author is not deterred; he extends his dissertation by insisting that “Right wing Victor Berger emerged as the Party’s most consistent and effective opponent of further American participation in the war.”

These plaudits are continued as the author puts renewed emphasis on his central theme:

“The war, and then the Russian revolution, moved the Socialist Party’s center of gravity leftward, and served to unite the Party’s various wings and tendencies and to reduce earlier hostilities. Hillquit, Lee and Ruthenberg’s joint authorship of the St. Louis manifesto had symbolized this unity, and the emergence of Hillquit and Victor Berger as the most widely known Socialist opponents of the war reinforced it.”

We shall return to the question of unity between the various wings and tendencies. Meanwhile the tribute paid to Berger’s publicly firm and undaunted anti-war stand continues as if this purchase of Liberty Bonds was a mere trifle, an incident of no real significance. But surely it is not sufficient to observe and examine the official declarations of social opportunists; it is necessary to watch their fingers.

Liberty Bonds were issued by the government to help finance the war, and as a means to enlist the citizens in political and material support of the war. Berger’s secret purchase of Liberty Bonds, while he formally and publicly appeared as a socialist war opponent, simply meant to practice the opposite of what he preached. It should have been called by its right name: treachery.

Rank and file members were more dedicated and resolute in their defense of socialist principles. By referendum vote of 11,041 to 782 the membership adopted a constitutional amendment making mandatory the expulsion of any elected socialist who voted either for war or for war credits. But Berger was not expelled. Nor were Algernon Lee and five other socialist aldermen in New York City expelled for their vote to support the third Liberty Loan. When left wing elements rose to voice their objection and to criticize these flagrant violations of both socialist principles and party rules, the violators were defended by the right wing leaders in control of the party organization.

In view of these developments, the party’s antiwar resolution remained devoid of any real meaning. To the young members of my generation, who came under the draft law, the whole question appeared far more acute than merely waiting to vote socialist at the next election. Some of us did not hesitate to say so during question and discussion periods at public party meetings. Needless to say, this always brought a clash with the right wing. The actual fact is that among party leaders only Debs and Ruthenberg stood up against the war, and both went to prison for their conviction.

Yet Weinstein seems blissfully unaware as he pursues his central theme. Once again he insists, “as in their attitudes toward the war, so in their attitudes toward the revolution in Russia there was little difference between Left and Right.” If this were true, any logical justification for the split and the launching of the communist movement would be lacking. But it was not true. Reality shows the opposite to be the case.

More than any other events, the war and the Bolshevik revolution widened the division and intensified the antagonisms between left and right in the Socialist Party. Prior to the appearance of these issues, the left wing had been a rather rudimentary, loosely knit formation; it was an inexperienced, somewhat heterogeneous, theoretically immature, and politically uncertain minority. Now the theoretical formulation of these issues by the Russian Bolsheviks provided the basis for a reconstructed left wing program.

From Lenin we learned that the struggle against war is inseparable from the struggle to overthrow the capitalist system. To turn the imperialist war into civil war is the only correct proletarian slogan, said Lenin. All class struggle in time of war, consistently and earnestly conducted, must inevitably lead to this result. Thus formulated and elucidated, the slogan corresponded to the indispensable socialist tasks. The dialectical relation between the struggle against imperialist war and the struggle for the proletarian revolution was clearly established; theory was integrated with practice.

The Bolshevik revolution shook the Socialist Party to its foundation and brought new lessons and new inspiration to the left wing. The Marxist prediction of proletarian revolution, which we had formerly visualized only dimly, was now brilliantly confirmed. Here was demonstrated in the concrete the conquest of power by the proletariat. We saw the Soviets in action. Though originally created as instruments of the revolution, they became the organs of state power. Similarly we witnessed the translation of the dictatorship of the proletariat from theory into practice.

For the left wing in the American Socialist Party the great privilege of partaking in the lessons of these developments became extraordinarily exciting; it was exhilarating; it galvanized and enkindled; all our previous efforts were now redoubled. The great ideas of the Bolsheviks provided a new foundation for the left wing.

We became firmly committed to a revolutionary reorientation of socialist policy and practice in accord with the imperative requirements of the new revolutionary epoch. Internationalism appeared in a new and a more real meaning. We became completely convinced that socialism signifies the revolutionary transformation of society; anything less than that is mere bourgeois reform. The party must, therefore, be able to act as the conscious agency in preparing the workers for the socialist revolution. Lenin’s party had demonstrated its ability to be such a conscious agency. There could no longer be any doubt that the creation of a Leninist type of party had become a necessity.

An Irreconcilable Conflict

But the right wing had entirely different ideas. Honeyed words by some of its leading spokesmen praising the young Soviet republic for being in the vanguard of democracy turned out to be so much hypocrisy, for they would hasten to add: “Socialists must not appear to support Russian methods for America.” Hillquit made this even more explicit by insisting it does not mean that “we accept for this country . . . the special institutions and forms into which the struggles have been molded by the historical conditions of Russia.” What they rejected were, of course, revolutionary methods and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This posed the crucial issue. It involved the role of the party — whether revolutionary or reformist in theory and practice. The left wing aimed to carry the lessons of the Bolshevik revolution into the concrete reality of American political life by assuring the emergence of a revolutionary party. On this issue the right wing leaders drew the line. They were determined to have done with revolutionary ideas, which they viewed simply as foolish, dangerous and harmful to society and the party; and they acted accordingly. But this is the story of the party split and how they conspired to bring it about.

From the deep-going impact of the Russian revolution the Socialist Party experienced a period of especially rapid growth; new members were literally recruited by the thousands. This became most pronounced among the Slavic sections of the foreign language federations.

The new recruits who rallied to the Socialist Party were chiefly the immigrant proletarians who had been forced into the worst city slums and sweatshops, or into the company-controlled mining or steel towns. They were deeply stirred by the Bolshevik revolution and readily identified with the left wing, quickly swelling its reinvigorated ranks.

The showdown between the two basic political tendencies came in the national referendum to elect party officials in the spring of 1919. The left wing won 12 of the 15 seats on the national executive committee. Left-wingers were elected international secretary and international delegate, with large majorities over Hillquit and Berger. But the old national executive committee, controlled by the right wing and finding itself in a minority, refused to yield office; it simply declared the elections null and void.

In order to make this decision effective the committee suspended all Slavic language federations, since all were considered to be left wing supporters. It expelled on other grounds the entire Michigan state organization. (The suspended and expelled numbered many thousand members.) Having completed the purge, the committee called a special party convention to meet in Chicago on September 1.

These actions of the right wing leaders were taken in cold-blooded defense of their own position. Their sole political criterion turned out to be that of the survival of their own leadership — the preservation of their control of the party machinery and treasury. The wholesale suspension and expulsion of many thousand members, who supported the demand for a revolutionary party, was the logical outcome of the continued political degeneration of the Socialist Party.

From the high point of its growth and influence in 1912, the party had gone downhill on its course of irreversible decline. This has often been disputed. In rebuttal a whole series of party election victories, after 1912, for mayors and alderman in numerous localities, including elections of pound keepers, have been offered. Viewed superficially this kind of evidence looks impressive.

In fact, if the socialist transformation of society was simply a process of winning enough such election victories, as many party leaders fervently believed, then one would have to admit that the Socialist Party was indeed making progress. Of course, these activities yielded many victories for office seekers, if not for socialism.

The party itself experienced a serious and deep-going change. As a result of the betrayal of socialist principles at the 1912 convention, when the right wing leaders committed the party to bourgeois law and order, thousands of revolutionary workers left the party. This quantitative change produced a qualitative difference. And the qualitative features of a working class party are far more fundamental criteria of its actual condition than are ever so many local election victories.

Not only did the right wing leaders carry bourgeois ideology more extensively and more freely into the party, but the election victories strengthened the reformist influence in the party. There was a steady and unimpeded shift of the official policy from the class struggle basis to reformist gradualism.

With the U.S. entry into the war we witnessed the treachery by members in leading circles posing as socialist war opponents in words and acting as imperialist war supporters in deeds. And the right wing leadership turned with savage fury against the left wing when the latter sought to emulate the Bolsheviks in building a revolutionary party. Election victories did not abate or alter the appalling qualitative decline of the Socialist Party.

The test of attitude to the Russian revolution could not be measured by fair words expressed by party leaders. On the contrary, this could be attested only by the party’s readiness to follow the example in terms of its American requirement, i.e., to act as the conscious agency in preparing, educating and organizing the American workers for the socialist revolution. That conscious agency can only be the Marxist-Leninist party.

Reviewing these developments as they actually did unfold, the consequences were inevitable. The differences between the two conflicting groups in the Socialist Party proved to be irreconcilable. The struggle between them involved the basic issue, whether to support or reject the Marxist doctrine that the Bolsheviks had put to the test in the war and the Russian revolution.

Any pretense of no difference in attitudes simply stands the whole question upside down. When turned right side up, it reveals the left wing carrying on a struggle for a Marxist-Leninist party along clearly defined lines of political principles, while the right wing retaliated by the most odious, cynical and contemptible bureaucratic methods.

This internal struggle in the Socialist Party reflected the class struggle in American society at large. Fundamentally it was a contest for hegemony in the party between the bourgeois influence represented by the right wing and the proletarian ideology of the left wing. In this contest the right wing had gained ground since 1912; its reformist gradualism became predominant. Instead of preparing the workers for the socialist revolution, the reformist gradualism served as a means to stunt and deform their progress toward political consciousness. Objectively and subjectively it turned out to be a historical force of retrogression.

The First World War and the Russian revolution were the cataclysmic events that ushered in the new epoch characterized by Lenin as the epoch of imperialist wars and proletarian revolutions. The issues of these external agents became inextricably interlinked with the internal struggle in the American Socialist Party. All political differences were henceforth more sharply delineated. As the controversy over these issues served the political elevation of the left wing, it simultaneously demonstrated the hopeless inadequacy of the all-inclusive party. Nevertheless, the fundamental cause of the development and the outcome of this struggle was not external but internal; it grew out of the contradictions within the Socialist Party itself.

The principal contradiction was the all-inclusive party. Within its disjointed structure the opposite political tendencies — the proletarian revolutionary and the petty bourgeois reformist — clashed over the most basic issues of theory and practice. Over a number of years this battle had raged without letup in all sections of the party. However, contradictions are not only awkward and perplexing stumbling blocks, but motive forces of contention and historical progress.

In the struggle for the solution to this contradiction, the regenerated and reinvigorated left wing grew and gained strength and clarity of purpose. As the Socialist Party went down to its lowest depth of political degeneracy, it gave birth to an entirely new and vital movement. This new movement rose to a higher level of revolutionary consciousness through the formation of the Communist Party. The forces that created the Communist Party came out of the Socialist Party, within which they had, by negative example, learned of the necessity for a Marxist-Leninist approach.

For a long period the two opposite political tendencies, the revolutionary and the reformist, had been united in their common defense and support of the Socialist Party, yet simultaneously engaged in constant bitter struggle. The unity between the two tendencies was critical, relative and conditional; the struggle between them was absolute, intrinsic and inherent in the nature of the all-inclusive party. Now they separated.

The new movement superseded the old; and for the next period it became the central pole of attraction for all the earnest, vital, and vigorous elements in American radicalism. Thus did the historical process and its contradictions develop dialectically.

Initially, however, not just one Communist party emerged but two, with practically identical programs. The forces of the left wing were at that moment themselves divided. Issues of principles were not involved in this division. Rather, the dominant forces of the left wing, comprising primarily the suspended and expelled language federations, insisted on immediate launching of the Communist Party and called a convention for that purpose to convene in Chicago, September 1, 1919. Most prominently known among the leading members of this group were Louis C. Fraina and Charles E. Ruthenberg.

The other forces of the left wing, who formed the Communist Labor Party, were concerned primarily with carrying the struggle in the Socialist Party to the very end, in order to win all potential adherents to the new revolutionary party. Best known of this group were John Reed (who had taken part in the Bolshevik revolution and brilliantly and truthfully recorded the events in Ten Days That Shook the World), Benjamin Gitlow, James P. Cannon, and Alfred Wagenknecht. These forces decided to attend the Chicago Socialist Party convention and fight the issue to a finish.

The Convention and the Split

I came to the Chicago convention as one of the regularly elected delegates from Seattle, Washington. Reporting at party headquarters, I quickly learned that all known left wing delegates, I among them, were given white cards, while only delegates with red cards were admitted to the convention.

But we were not to be gerrymandered or kept out that easily. We organized a flying wedge, headed by Reed and Gitlow (Gitlow was a big heavy-set man and Reed was fair-sized and a good scrapper). We forced our way past the door guards into the convention hall to take our delegate seats, only to be ejected by the Chicago police acting on the behest of the right wing party leaders.

The next day 37 delegates bolted the convention when it turned down a motion to admit those who had been previously excluded from their rightful seats as delegates. All in all, this brought about 100 delegates from 23 states together in their own separate convention to launch the Communist Labor Party.

This assemblage took place in a hall on the first floor in the same building, the headquarters of Machinist Lodge No. 113. The Socialist Party convention continued in the auditorium on the second floor. Needless to say, we were jubilant; we had good reason to rejoice. We had carried our fight in the Socialist Party to the bitter end and made the most of it. Now we had definitely embarked upon our new tasks.

Relieved of the constraints within which we had previously been confined, both theoretically and practically, we faced the future with confidence. In between the serious business of working out program and methods of organization for the new party, we rose and sang the Internationale. Cheers rang out — three cheers for the Bolsheviks, three cheers for Gene Debs, then in prison, and three cheers for the IWW.

Our jubilant spirit reverberated in the auditorium above, causing a mixture of irritation and painful forebodings among the assembled right-wingers. Symbolically, the last half of our convention was moved from the cramped quarters in the machinists hall to the spacious IWW hall.

Simultaneously, left wing elements forming the Communist Party held their convention in another part of the city. Enjoying virtually unanimous adherence from the expelled foreign language federations, this gathering was the larger of the two. Instant unity was, as yet, not possible at this early and somewhat inauspicious beginning of the new movement.

In fact, unity became possible only after a period of severe trials under savage capitalist persecution. The whole communist movement was branded illegal by the capitalist rulers, who, as a special reward for their victory in the war to make the world safe for democracy, decided to make the United States safe for the open shop.

These capitalist masters had become alarmed by the impact of the Bolshevik revolution. In Europe the sequel was a mighty wave of revolutionary ferment. A series of turbulent events in Germany followed the overthrow of the monarchy in 1918; the Hungarian Soviet Republic was established in 1919; and in 1920 striking workers occupied the big factories in Italy. In the United States the war’s “sacrifices” had weighed heavily on the workers. The war’s aftermath brought mounting costs of living, with its corollary of working class restlessness.

Several powerful strikes broke out — both formally authorized and unauthorized ones. In fact, the strike wave was one of the greatest in a generation. It included the Seattle general strike, which featured the first occasion in American history when all wheels of industry through a whole city came to a complete stop in a magnificent demonstration of labor unity, determination and breathtaking power. For the first time in history also, 365,000 steel workers shut down most of the mills that had enslaved them and struck a formidable blow at the fortress of monopoly capitalism in a defiant movement for union organization, led by William Z. Foster.

One incident may help to illustrate the interconnection between these developments. While in Chicago for the convention, the steelworkers organizing committee called upon me to speak to the striking steelworkers at Gary, Indiana. Members of the committee told me that the reason for this request was my active participation in the Seattle general strike.

The meeting formed on a huge empty lot near the steel mills. An improvised speakers platform was in the center of the lot. Several thousand striking steel workers milled about leisurely. When the chairman introduced me as a member of the Seattle general strike committee, I observed that these workers kept moving up to the platform as they passed the chairman’s words to the rear ranks.

Shortly several thousand workers were gathered tightly around the platforem, not so much in response to what I had to say, which, in the absence of loud speaking facilities, few could hear. No! By their action these striking steel workers were demonstrating the existence of a powerful bond of class solidarity between them and workers engaged in struggle elsewhere.

The dialectical interconnection between the mighty world events, the strike wave at home, and the emergence of a revolutionary party, did not escape the attention of the ruling class. Frightened by these developments, it turned with unrestrained fury and frenzy against the political vanguard of the working class. Early in 1920 the Palmer Raids (so named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer) descended upon our heads and meeting halls, though it never reached into Seattle. Nation-wide indictment of party leaders, wholesale raids on party institutions, arrests of thousands of rank and file members, and summary deportations of foreign-born militants followed in rapid succession. This savage persecution drove both Communist parties underground.

Though very much reduced in size, influence and internal dynamics, the Socialist Party continued its existence unhindered. At a later period it experienced new growth and development. Its ardent supporters felt convinced that their party was still viable.

This question of party viability needs to be related to time and space. At certain periods of history the reformist working class party may prove more viable than the revolutionary. More often than not, the propelling reason for this phenomenon is that the bourgeoisie lends a helping hand in this development, always seeking to create bases of support in workers’ organizations. These it finds most readily in the reformist parties.

Indeed, by far the most consuming labor in the struggle for socialism is the struggle against bourgeois influence in the working class movement. This is one lesson we have learned, above all, from the Chinese proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The essential question is not that of which party shows the greatest viability in a capitalist environment; rather it is what kind of political party can actually serve as an effective instrument in the proletarian struggle for socialism. All other working class problems are related to and, in the final analysis, subordinated to this central issue. On this question, however, Weinstein’s history asserts: “The very formation of the Communist parties had been a mistake, both from the point of view of the best interests of the Socialist movement of the United States and the national interests of Soviet Russia.”

Lenin did not think so. In his “Letter to the Workers of Europe and America,” published in January 1919, he described the trends in the world socialist movement. About the right wing, he had this to say:

“Opposed to Liebknecht stand the Scheidemans, the Sudekums and the whole gang of contemptible lackeys of the Kaiser and the bourgeoisie. They are traitors to socialism just like the Gomperses and Victor Bergers, the Hendersons and Webbs, the Renaudels and Vanderveldes. They represent that upper stratum of workers corrupted by the bourgeoisie whom we Bolsheviks (speaking of the Russian Sudekums and Mensheviks) used to call “bourgeois agents in the working class movement,” and for whom the best of the American Socialists have found the remarkably pithy and extremely apt title of “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.”

And what did the Socialist Party leaders have to say? As early as 1918, Hillquit had pointed to the British Labor Party as being more relevant to American political development than the Bolshevik experience. By 1923 he declared: “To the sober observer of world politics, the development of the British Labor Party since the last election is a more thoroughgoing revolution than the Bolshevik coup d’état in 1917. The latter was a dazzling historical adventure while the former is a great historic event.” (Socialist World, July 1923)

What Hillquit glorified as a thoroughgoing revolution showed its real face in the MacDonald Labor Party government one year later. It was to be the classic example of labor lieutenants of capitalism applying bourgeois means and bourgeois methods to paper over deep cracks and fissures in the British Empire, and hence beguile and defraud the workers at home. To the American right wing leaders this duplicity became their model, not the Russian Bolsheviks. Their attitude to the Bolshevik revolution was the acid test, and that attitude quickly turned to bitter hostility.

From its inception the Socialist Party had included reformists and revolutionaries in common organization. By its very nature this could only be a transitory phenomenon. For the epoch of imperialist wars and proletarian revolutions this kind of party proved utterly inadequate — it failed totally and finally. Having purged the line of class struggle from all its activity, the Socialist Party became an obstacle on the road to emancipation of the working class. Its discredited remnants were, in fact, replaced by the Communist Party.

This marked a complete break with the whole concept of a common party for petty-bourgeois reformists and proletarian revolutionaries. The result was a leap onto a higher stage of political consciousness. It represented the first attempt in this country to establish a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, the first attempt to unite revolutionary theory with revolutionary practice.

The new American movement became firmly aligned with the triumphant historic reality of the Bolshevik revolution, and attempted to assimilate its profound lessons. With this the old process of socialist development in the United States had come to an end. Only a surgical operation — a split — could resolve its deep-seated contradiction. An entirely new process began, which, in turn, produced its own contradictions.

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: http://marxists.architexturez.net/history/etol/writers/swabeck/index.htm

from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)