Chapter Seven: The Socialist Party (1900-1905)

7. The Socialist Party (1900-1905)

Eugene Debs became influential during this phase,
running for President of the United States.
At its foundation in 1900-01 the Socialist Party, which was eventually to give birth to the Communist Party, confronted a powerful and triumphant capitalist system in the United States. From 1860 to 1900, the value of manufactured products had leaped up from $1,885,825,000 to $11,406,927,000; the amount of capital invested rose from $1,000,856,000 to $8,975,256,000; the number of workers in industry increased from 1,310,000 to 4,713,000 and 14,000,000 immigrants had poured into the country. The population grew during these four decades from 31,443,321 to 75,994,575- The United States had been transformed from a predominantly agricultural country into the leading industrial nation in the world. Its tempo of development was to go right on through the period we are here discussing.

American capitalism, at the turn of the century, had definitely entered the stage of imperialism, as scientifically defined by Lenin. Its industries had acquired a high degree of monopoly; its financial system had become dominated by a few large banks; its big industrialists and bankers had fused into an oligarchy of finance capital which dominated the state; it was already a decisive factor in dividing up the world's markets; and it had, in the Spanish-American War, begun its grab for its imperialistic share of the world's territories. The agrarian country of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln had become the monopolist, imperialist land of the Morgans and the Rockefellers.1

The big capitalists, in forging their way ahead to solid class domination of the United States, had slugged the workers, farmers, and middle classes in many hard-fought political battles since the Civil War, as we have seen, and they controlled the government from stem to gudgeon. In 1900, under the leadership of Bryan, the Democratic candidate, and with their main slogan directed against American imperialism, the farmers and small business elements made another bid for power. But to no avail. The Republican candidate of Wall Street, William McKinley, won handily. And when the new president was assassinated in Buffalo, on September 6, 1901, by Leon F. Czolgosz, an anarchist, he was succeeded by the ultra-jingoist and imperialist, Theodore Roosevelt.


Toward the workers the arrogant employers followed a two-phased policy of repression; on the one hand, violently combating every attempt at labor organization and struggle, and on the other hand, making minor wage concessions to the skilled workers in order to use them as a means to paralyze the struggles and to keep down the wages of the mass of the working class. The many bloody strikes of this general period and the extreme corruption of the A.F. of L. leaders were eloquent testimonials to the vigor with which the employers followed this labor-crushing policy.

By 1900 the top A.F. of L. leadership, ardent supporters of capitalism, had become thoroughly corrupted, politically and personally. They had accepted as their basis the employer policy, which became more and more marked as the imperialist era developed, of bribing the skilled workers at the expense of the semi-skilled and unskilled. They were indeed what De Leon called them, "labor lieutenants of the capitalists." The A.F. of L. leaders, in line with this policy, clung to their antique craft union system of having a dozen or more unions in each given industry, although the rise of the trusts and intense specialization of labor had rendered craft unionism obsolete. They fought desperately against every left-wing suggestion of industrial unionism, whether in the shape of new organizations or by the transformation of the old craft unions. Scores of lost strikes, in which habitually some of the unions would remain at work while the rest were striking, testified to the complete inadequacy of the craft form of organization and indicated the urgent need of the workers for industrial unionism. If the unions managed to register some growth during this period it was in spite of the policies of their reactionary leaders and because of the desperate need of the workers to defend their living standards. The Socialists militantly urged the foreign-born to unionize.

Especially did the labor bureaucrats of the A.F. of L. and Railroad Brotherhoods, loyal to the basic interests of the bosses, stand guard against independent political action by the workers. In 1895 the A.F. of L. convention decided "that party politics, whether they be Democratic, Republican, Socialistic, Populistic, Prohibitionist, or any other, would have no place in the convention of the American Federation of Labor."2 This policy, the Gompersites interpreted by making rabid . attacks against the Socialist Party and by a solid resistance against all attempts to form a labor party. They developed a sort of "economism,"

American brand, having practically no labor political program whatever. At the same time they were venal agents of the capitalist parties. With their slogan of "reward your friends and punish your enemies," they kept the workers locked in the two-party system. All of which worked measureless harm to the political interests of the working class.

Another keystone of A.F. of L. policy was to prevent the organization of the unskilled masses, especially the Negro workers, by keeping them out"of the unions through high initiation fees, "male white" clauses, apprenticeship regulations, refusal to organize the basic industries, and various other devices. As for the Negro people as a whole, they were abandoned completely to the mercies of the employers, the plantation owners, and white supremacists generally.

The essence of Gompersite policy was class collaboration, which meant class subordination of the workers to the capitalists. During the period from 1900 to World War I this policy was symbolized as well as organized by the National Civic Federation. The N.C.F. was established in Chicago in 1893, supposedly "to bring about better relations between labor and capital." In 1900, under the guidance of Ralph M. Easley, it was broadened out onto a national scale. "Employers, labor, and the public were separately represented on the leading committees of the Civic Federation. Senator Mark Hanna was Chairman, Gompers was Vice-Chairman, and among the representatives of the "public" were "August Belmont, Grover Cleveland, and President Charles W. Eliot."3 John Mitchell, head of the Miners Union, and many other labor leaders also became members. The Civic Federation set out to stifle every semblance of radicalism and life in the labor movement.

The establishment of the Civic Federation, with the help of tire Gompers leadership, was one phase of the employers' offensive against the working class, which took on added virulence after 1900. The other phase of the offensive was a big drive of many big employers' associations to establish the "open shop," or more properly speaking, the anti-union shop. This union-smashing drive was backed up by the courts, which annulled one labor law after another and confronted every important body of strikers with drastic injunctions. The immediate impulse for all this capitalist reaction came from the fact that the unions, despite the Gompers misleadership, were in a period of rapid growth, which carried them from 300,000 in 1898 to 1,676,200 in 1904.

It was in the middle of this general situation of expanding capitalism and labor misleadership that the Socialist Party came into being in 1900-01. Its predecessor, the Socialist Labor Party, under the leadership of De Leon, had signally failed to meet the new problems placed before the workers by the rise of imperialism. The main political fight of the most advanced sections of the workers, thenceforth for almost twenty years, was to be organized through the new Socialist Party. The foundation of the S.P. was another stage in the evolution of American Marxism, which was finally to produce the Communist Party.


As we have already remarked, the seceding Hillquit faction of the S.L.P., at its January 1900 convention in Rochester, sent a proposal to the Social-Democratic Party convention, proposing the fusion of the two groups. Eugene V. Debs, leader of this party, was born in 1855. A railroad worker for many years, he was formerly active in Democratic and Populist politics. He became interested in socialism, under the tutelage of Victor L. Berger, while he was serving six months in the Woodstock, Illinois, jail as a result of the American Railway Union strike of 1894. It was some time, however, before he was ready to take a definite stand for socialism. At the 1896 convention of the People's Party, 412 of the 1,300 delegates gave written pledges to Debs for his candidacy against that of Bryan. 4 The latter was nominated, however, and Debs supported him in the election. In January, 1897, Debs declared himself a Socialist.

In June 1897, at Chicago, the American Railway Union, now only a skeleton organization, dissolved itself into the Social Democracy of America, with Debs at the head. This party had a confused program, its principal aim being an impractical plan of colonization. The idea was to capture some western state at the polls and then to launch socialism within that area. This Utopian scheme, however, soon bred an opposition inside the party, especially from the more socialistic elements. At the organization's first convention in June 1898 in Chicago, therefore, a split developed, the seceding minority creating a new body, the Social-Democratic Party of America. This party, with a radical labor program, and with Theodore Debs, Eugene's brother, as national secretary, scored some local election successes in Massachusetts. At its first national convention, on March 6, 1900, it had an estimated membership of 5,000.

The S.D.P. convention delegates responded favorably to the proposals of the Hillquit group for amalgamation. Debs and others of the party leaders, however, were a bit shy. After complicated maneuverings by both sides, the two organizations finally agreed to put up a joint ticket in the 1900 presidential election. The candidates chosen were Debs of the S.D.P. and Job Harriman of the S.L.P. seceders. The ticket polled 97-73 votes or triple the vote secured by the old S.L.P. in the election.

Unity between the two organizations, however, was not yet achieved. The leaders of both factions jockeyed for position, while the membership pressed for unification. Finally, on July 29, 1901, a joint convention assembled in Indianapolis, The total membership represented by all groups numbered approximately 10,000. Of the 125 delegates, 70 came from the Hillquit group, 47 from the Debs group, and 8 from smaller groups. It was the largest and most representative gathering of American Socialists ever held up to that time. In addition to the Debs and Hillquit factions, there were representatives from the more or less independent Socialist groups of western metal miners, from the left wing of the disintegrating agrarian People's Party, and from grouplets of Christian Socialists. Three-fourths of the delegates were native-born. For the first time, there were Negro delegates (three) at a Socialist convention.

The convention formally united the Socialist movement. It adopted a constitution, worked out a platform, named the new organization the Socialist Party of America, established national headquarters in St. Louis, and elected Leon Greenbaum, a relatively unknown figure, as national secretary. Debs was the outstanding mass personality at the convention, with Hillquit and Berger the real political leaders.


The unity convention was pretty well agreed on the general aim of the Party which was broadly stated as "conquering the powers of government and using them for the purpose of transforming the present system of private ownership of the means of production and distribution into collective ownership by the entire people."5 On specific issues, however, sharp divisions prevailed. Strong De Leonist influence was present; nevertheless, the Hillquit-Berger forces wrote the bulk of the program.

The S.P. convention, like that of the S.L.P. in the previous year, displayed little understanding of the general question of imperialism, notwithstanding the fact that Bryan, the Democratic candidate, made this, confusedly, the central issue of the campaign. Both Debs and De Leon had opposed the Spanish-American war, and the A.F. of L. in its 1898 convention adopted a sharp resolution condemning the seizure of the Philippines and combating imperialism in general.6

But neither Debs nor De Leon had a grasp upon the basic significance of imperialism. De Leon (and pretty much Debs also) looked upon imperialism as simply "expansionism," as merely a quantitative growth of capitalism. The trusts, they both considered as a basically progressive development, about which nothing could or should be done in an opposition way. Said De Leon, "The issue of imperialism, which seems to be a political question, is only an economic question, being based upon and part of the economic question, expansion." Thus, De Leon mechanically accepted the development of imperialism, even as he did the growth of the trusts.7 In both respects, his fatalistic attitude tended to cut the party off from those masses, who wanted to fight both the trusts and imperialism generally.

In November 1898, an Anti-Imperialist League was founded in Chicago.8 Eventually it had some 500,000 members. It was essentially middle class, with leaders such as U.S. Senators Hoar and Pettigrew, Carl Schurz, Mark Twain, Finley Peter Dunne, and the big steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie. Samuel Gompers was a vice-president of the organization, and Debs displayed some interest in it. There was a strong pro-Philippines independence sentiment among the Negro people, and this found widespread expression in the Negro press of the time. Generally the tendency of the Socialists in the 1900 campaign was to reply to Bryan's and other attacks upon American imperialism by intensifying their anti-capitalist agitation, without grasping the special tasks thrust upon them by the rise of imperialism. Not the fight against imperialist policies, but the fight to destroy capitalism itself, is the issue, cried the De Leonites. Both Socialist parties in their current platforms completely misunderstood, underestimated, and ignored the entire question of imperialism.

A sharp debate occurred in the unity convention over the question of immediate demands. The "impossibilists," the incipient left wing, reflecting De Leon influence, insisted that all such demands should be kept out of the Party's program, and that the Party should confine itself to making propaganda for socialism. The "possibilists," however, beat down this argument, and by a vote of 5,358 to 1,325 the convention decided to support a policy of partial demands. The party's platform, therefore, in addition to demands for public ownership of public utilities and the means of transportation and communication, included demands also for reduced hours and increased wages, social insurance, equal civil and political rights for men and women, and the initiative, referendum, and recall.

The convention stated only generally its principles on the trade union question. It declared that both economic and political action were necessary to bring about socialism, and it also took the position that "the formation of every trade union, no matter how small or how conservative it may be, will strengthen the power of the wage working class." No mention was made in the Party's program, however, of the vital issue of industrial unionism.

De Leonite influence was strong so far as the Party's attitude toward farmers was concerned. But the convention could not come to a decision on what to do about the matter, so the whole question was postponed until the next convention. Also, no demands were made for Negro rights —a resolution was adopted, however, inviting Negro workers to join the Party. This was the only resolution on the Negro question passed by the Party for many years, in fact up to the time of World War I.

The unity convention in Indianapolis revealed the political immaturity of the founders of the Socialist Party, by compounding many De Leonite weaknesses and by displaying various reformist tendencies. The "unity" on the trade union question did not resolve existing basic differences on the matter, what with Hillquit leaning toward collaboration with Gompers, while Debs' tendency was toward dual unionism. In the main, the convention failed to hammer out sound political policies and tactics firmly grounded in Marxist principles. Nevertheless, the founding of the Socialist Party, by bringing the socialist movement into contact with broad masses, was a progressive development. It broke with the De Leonite sectarianism which was strangling the advanced working class movement. But the Socialist Party could not be the "party of the new type," as later defined by Lenin, as it finally failed to meet the demands of the imperialist era into which it was born.


Meanwhile, led by the National Association of Manufacturers, the attack of the employers against the trade unions and the living standards of the workers went on ferociously. In 1901, 62,000 steel workers, striking against the U.S. Steel Corporation, were defeated and unionism was practically wiped out in the trust mills. During the same year the National Metal Trades smashed a national strike of 58,000 machinists, knocking the union out of most of their big plants. From 1901 to 1904 a whole series of strikes and semi-civil wars raged in the Rocky Mountain mining regions, led and largely won by the militant Western Federation of Miners, headed by such fighters as Bill Haywood and Vincent St. John. In 190a the anthracite miners of Pennsylvania, organized in the United Mine Workers and led by the conservative John Mitchell, waged a long and mostly unsuccessful strike.9 And in 1905 the Chicago teamsters lost a strike of 5,000 men; casualties—20 killed, 400 injured, 500 arrested.

All these strikes were savagely fought by the employers, with every known strikebreaking weapon—troops, injunctions, scabs, gunmen, and all the rest. The A.F. of L. leadership, deeply corrupted by the employers, met the onslaught by laying every obstacle in the way of the workers' solidarity and militancy. The general result of the anti-strike drive was to weaken the craft unions gravely in the basic industries. Nevertheless, the unions managed to grow—from a total of 868,500 in 1900 to 2,022,020 in 1905—mostly in the building trades and the lighter, not yet trustified, industries.

The arrogant employers also pushed their drive against the workers in the political field. N.A.M. agents in 1902 defeated the eight-hour and anti-injunction bills before Congress. They also knocked out many local and congressional election candidates who showed sympathy toward labor. In 1903 there began, also, the celebrated Danbury Hatters' Case, which was eventually to outlaw sympathy strikes, boycotts, and the union label. Divided and misled, organized labor's political influence, nationally and in the various states, was down almost to the vanishing point.


The Socialists, at least partially freed from the fetters of De Leon's crippling sectarianism, plunged into this maelstrom of class struggle; that is, the worker Socialists, the growing left wing, did. They were active in all the strikes and union-organizing campaigns of die period. Consequently, they became influential in many local unions, city labor councils, and international unions. They also carried their struggle into the A.F. of L. conventions, where the bureaucratic union leaders were a definite section of the employers' strikebreaking forces. In these years the Socialist militants fought for independent political action, industrial unionism, the organization of the unorganized, a more effective strike strategy. They ran Socialist candidates against the Gompers machine.

In the A.F. of L. convention of 1902 in New Orleans the Socialist group introduced a resolution, calling upon the A.F. of L. to "advise the working people to organize their economic and political power to secure for labor the full equivalent of its toil and the overthrow of the wage system." After a prolonged and heated debate, the Gompersites defeated the resolution by the narrow margin of 4,899 to 4,171. 10 Among the unions which supported the Socialists' resolution were such important organizations as the miners, carpenters, and brewery workers. A similar political resolution, together with one on industrial unionism, were brought up in the 1903. convention, but both were beaten by a large margin.

The Gompersites violently resisted every effort of the Marxists to improve and modernize the craft unions. Their denunciations of socialism were as violent as those of the capitalists. Gompers himself, who only a few years before had freely expressed his sympathy for the First International, set the pace in this redbaiting. At the 1903 convention of the A.F. of L. he delivered himself of his well-known denunciation of the Socialists: "Economically you are unsound; socially you are wrong; and industrially you are an impossibility."11 This feud between the A.F. of L. leadership and the Socialists, which dated back to De Leon in the early 1890's, was to rage with greater or less intensity until the end of World War I.

Many petty-bourgeois intellectuals in the S.P. looked askance at the struggle against the corrupt and reactionary A.F. of L. leadership. They figured that it interfered with their vote-getting activities. Their reformism, in fact, was the same in substance as that of the A.F. of L. bureaucracy, arising out of the corruption of the labor aristocracy by imperialism. Gompers' bitter fight against socialism was directed basically against the left wing, the sequel showing that he had no real quarrel with the middle class intellectuals.

Already Hillquit and his fellow opportunists were developing their policy of "neutrality" toward the trade unions. A correct Marxist policy signified working in the unions in order to strengthen them, to defend the rights of the workers, and to develop their class consciousness in the direction of socialism. The opportunist "neutrality" policy, on the contrary, meant no struggle; that is, allowing the workers to be influenced by the ideas of the bourgeoisie and dropping all fight against the corrupt Gompers misleaders. Consequently, with the latter line in mind, at the 1904 convention of the A.F. of L., no general Socialist resolution was introduced. Max Hayes, a printer and prominent Socialist unionist, declared "that the Socialists had come to realize that socialism would win not by passing resolutions, but by agitation."12


The Industrial Workers of the World was founded in Chicago, on June 27, 1905. 13 Present at the convention were 203 delegates, representing an estimated 142,991 members, of whom about 50,000 actually joined the new organization. There were 16 local and national A.F. of L. unions in attendance, but the main constituent bodies were the Western Federation of Miners (27,000), American Labor Union (16,750), United Metal Workers (3,000), United Brotherhood of Railway Employees (2,087), and the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance (1,450). C. O. Sherman of the United Metal Workers was selected general president.

The purpose of the new organization was to re-establish the labor movement on a new, Socialist basis. Its form was the industrial union; its method was militant struggle in both the economic and political fields, and its goal was the abolition of the capitalist system.

The I.W.W. was left-wing dual unionism. It was a militant answer of the workers to the stupidities and treacheries of Gompersite trade unionism—with its major concentration upon the skilled and betrayal of the unskilled; its craft unionism and union scabbing in an industry that had become highly trustified, where the skilled craftsmen played less and less a role and where worker solidarity had become imperative; its overpaid and financially crooked officials; its vicious practices of class collaboration; its corrupt alliances with the Republican and Democratic parties; and its worshiping at the shrine of the capitalist system. The fundamental mistake of dual unionism, however, was that by with-drawing the most advanced elements of the trade unions into ineffective competitive unions, the basic mass unions in the A. F. of L. were left in the virtually uncontested control of the corrupt Gompers machine.

The I.W.W. at its inception was a Socialist union, the creation of the left wing of the S.P. All its chief founders called themselves Marxists. Debs, De Leon and Haywood, 14 the three outstanding left-wingers of the period, "shook hands over the bloody chasm" of past quarrels in setting up the organization. The anarchists and other "direct actionists" were but a negligible factor at the initial stage.

The immediate impulse for forming the I.W.W. came from the metal miners of the West. The Western Federation of Miners, born in fierce struggle, had been organized in 1893 in Butte. Receiving no support from the A.F. of L., however, this union became independent. In May, 1898, it established the Western Labor Union, the aim of which was to organize generally the workers of the Rocky Mountain areas. In 1902, the W.L.U. reorganized itself into the American Labor Union, with the idea of one day superseding the whole A.F. of L. It was a national dual union. The A.L.U. had a Socialist leadership, and both Haywood and Debs were active in its formation. It was in following out this general line of independent Socialist unionism that the A.L.U. leaders three years later took the initiative in forming the I.W.W. De Leonist dual-unionist thinking predominated in the whole development.

The establishment of the I.W.W. brought about the first real crystallization of the left wing nationally within the Socialist Party, of those forces which, under new circumstances and with a sounder program, were to produce the Communist Party. The S.P. right-wing leadership condemned the I.W.W. vigorously, as they had rejected the A.L.U., on the grounds that it compromised the position of the Socialist forces in the trade unions. Between right and left the struggle sharpened over the basic question of trade unionism, with the I.W.W. in the center of the fight. This quarrel was fated to become more and more intense as the spectacular history of the I.W.W. developed during the next few years.


Immediately upon its formation in 1901, the Socialist Party began to flourish. At its second convention, in May 1904, it had 184 delegates, representing 1,200 locals in 35 states. The Party's dues-paying membership had doubled since 1901, now being 20,768. The Party press was also growing rapidly, amounting at this period to several dailies in German and other non-English languages, 20 English weeklies, and seven monthlies. The Socialist workers were active in all strikes and organizing campaigns; they vigorously attacked Gompersism, and they carried on a militant anti-capitalist campaign. The Party's trade union influence in consequence was rapidly on the rise, and its success in the 1904 national elections was significant. The S.P.'s candidates, Eugene V. Debs and Ben Hanford, polled 409,230 votes, or about a 350 percent increase over the vote in 1900.

Despite all this vigor and progress, however, the Party was already beginning to feel the effects of numerous negative influences which were to undermine it and to prevent it from becoming the vanguard party °f the working class. For one thing, the Party was already attracting a large and motley array of doctors, lawyers, dentists, preachers, small businessmen,  and other reformers  and opportunists.  These  elements, the radical wing of the city middle class, then being crushed by the advancing trusts, hoped to make use of the proletarian membership and following of the Party for their own ends, and they descended upon the Socialist Party in force. By concentrating upon innumerable opportunist partial demands and by damping down all militant struggle and revolutionary propaganda, they were transforming the Party into a vehicle for middle class reform. Closely allied with the reformists of the Second International, these elements fought against the Party basing itself upon the industrial proletariat and developing an anti-capitalist program. Already by 1905, the petty-bourgeois elements were busily consolidating their hold upon the Party, a control which was to last throughout the life of the organization.

The opportunist intellectuals were able to seize the leadership of the Socialist Party because the working class left wing of the Party, afflicted with sectarianism, lacked an effective program. Moreover, the bulk of the working class members, who were foreign-born, had big language difficulties, and were split into more or less isolated national groups (eventually the "language federations"), lacked the unity necessary to cope with the highly vocal middle class opportunists. Not until World War I and the Russian Revolution, as we shall see, did the proletarian left wing of the Party develop the program and solidarity necessary for it to become dominant in the Socialist Party.

A specific grave weakness of the Socialist Party, largely a reaction against the former experience with the stifling overcentralization of the De Leonite regime in the S.L.P., was the extremely decentralized form of the Party. Each state organization in the Party did pretty much as it pleased, with little or no direction from the national center (except when it wanted to curb the left wing). National Party discipline was almost at zero. The Socialist press, privately owned, was also in chaos. The various papers propagated their own particular ideas of socialism and Party policy. These ideas were many, various, conflicting, and often bizarre, ranging all the way from Christian socialism to leftist "impossibilism." There was no established body of Socialist thought, developed and defended by the Party as such. This confused and undisciplined programmatic set-up provided a perfect situation wherein the opportunists could peddle their wares, and they made the most of it.

From the beginning the S.P. leadership displayed a deep lack of appreciation of the role of Marxist theory. They were afflicted with so-called American practicality, devoting themselves almost exclusively to immediate tasks, combined with an abstract propagation of socialism. They and the Party as a whole paid little attention to the theoretical and tactical struggles going on in the European parties.

Another serious shortcoming of the party, also in evidence at the outset, was its sectarian attitude toward the labor party movement, local outcroppings of which were frequent. The National Executive Committee stated, on January is, 1903, that "Any alliance, direct or indirect, with such [labor] parties is dangerous to the political integrity and the very existence of the Socialist Party."15 The Party leadership definitely considered the labor party a rival. This anti-labor party policy, a mixture of De Leonism and a right sectarian attempt to apply European Social-Democratic policies artificially in the United States, was to continue in force in the S.P. for many years, until after World War I, and the appearance of the Communist Party upon the scene. Such a policy of abstention set up a high barrier between the S.P. and the spontaneous political movements of the masses, and it contributed much to the Party's eventual isolation and failure.

Dual unionism was a further weakness of the Party. This trend was already strongly marked at the time of the Party's foundation, as we have seen in the formation of the American Labor Union and the I.W.W. Dual unionism was particularly a disease of the left wing, one of the worst hang-overs of De Leonism. Indeed, for a quarter of a century, from the launching of the American Railway Union by Debs in 1893 until Lenin's blistering attacks upon dual unionism in 1920, 16 the left wing was hamstrung by the leftist notion that a new trade union movement could be established, in rivalry to the existing mass unions and on the basis of ideally constructed, Socialist unions.


Throughout its entire existence the Socialist Party has had a chauvinist line on the Negro question. It has not only failed grievously to come to the assistance of the Negro people, harassed by lynching, Jim Crow, and a host of other discriminations and persecutions, but it has always completely misunderstood the theoretical nature of the question. Traditionally, it has been S.P. policy to ignore the national character of the Negro question and to present it all only as a class matter. The S.P.'s sole answer to the oppressed Negro people was that they should vote the Socialist ticket and hope for socialism. The S.P. could not see the Negro people as allies of the working class because of its opportunist-sectarian policies toward the Negro masses; neither could it understand the nature of the oppression of the Negro people because its leaders were blinded by the white chauvinist ideology of the ruling class.

This policy, to ignore the special status of the Negro people as an oppressed people and to treat the matter only as a class question, which was also De Leon's policy, was already manifest in the founding convention of the Socialist Party in 1901. The resolution on the Negro question adopted by that convention proclaimed "that we declare to the Negro worker the identity of his interests and struggles with the interests and struggles of all workers of all lands, without regard to race or color or sectional lines—that the only line of division which exists in fact is that between the producers and the owners of the world—between capitalism and labor."17 This policy, to consider the Negro people as proletarians (whereas about 85 percent of them worked on the land, mostly as sharecroppers), and to reduce their whole immediate problem primarily to one of trade unionism, was the policy of the Party for many years, with but slight variations.

The left wing of the Party also did not rise very much above this narrow right-wing sectarian conception of the Negro question. While condemning lynching and insisting upon the admission of Negro workers to the industries and unions, the left did not work out special demands to meet the Negro people's most burning problems. Thus, when proposals were made in the Party in 1903 to develop a Negro program, Debs opposed them, arguing: "We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races. The Socialist Party is the Party of the whole working class regardless of color."18 Debs said also, on the Negro question, "Social equality . . . forsooth ... is pure fraud and serves to mask the real issue, which is not social equality, but economic freedom."19 And, "The Socialist platform has not a word in reference to social equality."20

Behind the failure of the Socialist Party from its outset to take up the Negro people's special grievances and to penetrate the South lay a very obvious white chauvinism, particularly among the petty-bourgeois leadership within the Party. This often found open and brutal expression in the Party press. Thus, Victor Berger, in the Social Democratic Herald, in May 1902, stated that "There can be no doubt that the Negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race."21 And William Noyes, writing as a "friend" of the Negro, had an article in the International Socialist Review, reeking with outrageous and unquotable anti-Negro slander, repeating every slave-owner insult and belittlement of this oppressed people. And nobody in the Review challenged his chauvinism.

Today, not even the most blatant white supremacist in the Deep South would dare to say publicly what Noyes, as a matter of course, wrote in 1901 openly in the Socialist press. 22 The fact that the constant expressions of white chauvinism on the part of the S.P. leaders did not provoke a bitter condemnation from the left showed that the Marxists in the Party were themselves by no means clear about this deadly political disease. With such false policies and attitudes prevailing, small wonder then that the Negro members of the Socialist Party were few and far between and that the Party's influence was negligible among the Negro masses.


Another detrimental influence upon the young Socialist Party, and one that was to continue to injure it from then on, was the opportunistic pressure of the Second International. During the period of the First International (1864-1876) and for a decade thereafter, the American Marxists had the inestimable advantage of the direct advice of Marx and Engels. But with the development of the policy of the Second International into more and more of an opportunist position, after that body's foundation in 1889, the former revolutionary international leadership came to a sudden halt. The Marxists in the United States were cut off from the left forces in Europe and exposed to a full stream of revisionist poison. Although, at the turn of the century, there grew up in Russia a great Socialist genius—Lenin—comparable to Karl Marx, the American Marxists down to World War I knew practically nothing about him and his writings, or of the growth of Bolshevism in tsarist Russia. Even the Russian Revolution of 1905, filtered as it was through the interpretations of the opportunistic leaders of the Second International, impressed few major lessons upon the American Socialist Party.

The Second International, with its parties, unions, co-operatives, and parliamentary groups growing rapidly in the 1890's, early developed reformist illusions to the effect that it was therefore in the process of establishing socialism step by step in various countries. 23 Its leaders came to believe that Marx, with his perspective of a militant struggle for socialism, had become outmoded and obsolete. This right opportunism was an outgrowth of the developing imperialist stage of capitalism, with its markedly increased bribery and corruption of the labor aristocracy upon which the Social-Democratic leadership mainly based itself.

This revisionism took strong root and the most outstanding spokesman of the trend was Eduard Bernstein, in Germany. 24 In 1899 he expressed his revisionist doctrines in his book, published in the United States under the title Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein rejected the Marxist theories of surplus value, concentration of capital, the progressive pauperization of the working class, the class struggle, and the materialist conception of history, and he ridiculed the social revolution as the "ultimate goal." In this period, Bebel and Kautsky in Germany, as well as Lenin, Plekhanov, and others in Russia and on an international scale, waged energetic war upon Bernsteinism. Nevertheless it eventually became the predominant philosophy of the opportunist leaders of the Second International, with disastrous results to the working class movement in many countries.

This reformist poison the Second International steadily pumped into the veins of the young American Socialist Party. Victor Berger, from the early 1900's, openly supported Bernsteinian revisionism through his paper in Milwaukee and in the Party councils. Scores of other middle class Socialist Party leaders in the United States took a similar position. Thus they sapped the very foundations of Marxism in the Party. As in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany and in the general leadership of the Second International, Bernsteinism, with specific national adaptations, became, as early as 1905, the predominant philosophy of the ruling group of intellectuals in the Socialist Party of America. Hillquit himself, however, was a centrist, a follower of Kautsky, who, as the sequel showed, was only a disguised brand of Bernsteinist.

1 Anna Rochester, Rulers of America, N. Y., 1936.
2 Proceedings of the 1895 Convention, American Federation of Labor, p. 79.
3 Selig Perlman and Philip Taft, History of Labor in the United States, Vol. 4, p. 48, N. Y., 1935.
4 Social-Democratic Handbook, p. 54.
5 Hillquit, History of Socialism in the U.S., p. 349.
6 American Federation of Labor, History, Encyclopedia, Reference Book, p. 243, Washington, D. C, 1919.
7 The Weekly People, Sept. 22, 1900.
8 Henry Steele Commager, Documents of American History, p. 19, N. Y., 1949.
9 During this big strike the notorious President Baer of the coal-carrying Philadelphia and Reading Railroad declared that industrial relations would be regulated by "the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom, has given control of the property interests of the country."  (The Independent, Aug. 28, 1902.)
10 Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor, p. 74.
11 Proceedings of the 1903 Convention, American Federation of Labor.
12 Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor, p. 74.
13 Paul F. Brissenden, The Industrial Workers of the World, N. Y., 1920. 
14 For biographies of  these three men  see  Ray  Ginger,  The Bending  Cross, Harry Kuhn, ed., Daniel De Leon, a Symposium, and Bill Haywood's Book, an autobiography.
15 International Socialist Review, Feb. 1903.
16 V. I. Lenin, "Left Wing" Communism, an Infantile Disorder, N. Y., 1934.
17 Alexander Trachtenberg, ed., American Labor Year Book, p. 125, N. Y., 1916.
18 Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross, p. 260, New Brunswick, N. J., 1949.
19 Eugene V. Debs in the International Socialist Review, Nov. 1903.
20 Eugene V. Debs in the International Socialist Review, Jan. 1904.
21 Ginger, The Bending Cross, p. 259.
22 International Socialist Review, Dec. 1901
23 Joseph Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, p. 20, N. Y., 1939.
24 V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, Marxism and Revisionism, N. Y., 1946.

Chapter 8

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