Written: May 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 21 (Whole No. 117), 21 May 1932, p. 4.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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One of the most pathetic cases of hard luck – and one of the most instructive lessons – in recent days is the denial of citizenship to S.S. Saralieff, editor of the Bulgarian S.L.P. paper, by the United States District Court of St. Louis, Saralieff, true to the S.L.P. teaching, told the court that he was for the overthrow of capitalism by strictly legal and peaceful means. But even this undertaking to confine the struggle against capitalism within the legal rules and limits laid down by the ruling class itself did not gain for him the coveted citizenship. With that contempt for lackeys whose services are not needed at the moment, for which the masters ever have noted, the District Court booted him and his servile application aside and withheld – to quote the S.L.P. Convention resolution – “the important privilege of American citizenship.”
The Weekly People, which never notices violations of the legal rights of revolutionary workers except, inferentially at least, to condone the violations, is having spasms over the Saralieff case, It is, they protest, “unjust even according to capitalist ethics.” If you understand the point of view of the S.L.P. legalists you have to admit there is ground for their dignified complaints. Those who agree to restrict their operations to the narrow groove marked out by the capitalist law, and spend nine-tenths of their energies in condemning those who refuse to make such an agreement, have a certain right to feel aggrieved when this treacherous servility goes unrewarded. The denial of citizenship to S.L.P. Saralieff is an act of ingratitude on the part of the Government. And in addition to that it is a dirty trick. The threat of the S.L.P. convention resolution “to use every civilized method to force a reversal of this most unjust decision” is fully justified by the outrage.
Legal rights have a great value for the working class in the period when it is assembling its forces and working out its policies, and every encroachment on these rights has to be resisted in the most determined manner. The Marxists always understood and defended this position, and no different opinion is admissible in the name of Marxism. The crime of the S.L.P. consists in the fact that they – like so many others who invoke the names of Marx and Engels in order to betray their teachings – make a fetish and a final method of capitalist legality instead of regarding it, as Marx and Engels did, merely as a field for the pre-revolutionary organization and mobilization of the proletariat. It is just such a decision as that in the Saralieff case – a flagrantly “illegal” decision in which the capitalist court trampled on its own constitutional provisions – that demonstrates the fallacy of legalistic fetishism. Engels, in advising the German workers to make the fullest use of legality for propaganda and organization, told the bourgeoisie to “be the first to shoot”. Neither he nor any other revolutionist ever doubted for a moment that they would “shoot”, i.e., violate their own legality when it served their purpose. That is why Marx and Engels always maintained that the emancipation of the workers by purely legal means is an impossibility.
This fundamental tenet of Marxism – which Marx and Engels defended to the last days of their lives – has been confirmed by all the experience of the international proletariat. It is not a small point about which Marxists may have different opinions. On the contrary, it is a sharp and clear dividing line between the revolutionary Marxists and the betrayers of Marxism. The former by no means reject “legality”, but they utilize it, organize and prepare the proletariat for the revolution by force and to propagate the idea of its inevitability. The necessity of doing so lies at the root of the whole of Marx’s and Engels’ teaching. The perversion of this teaching by the S.L.P. – their deception of the workers with the idea that capitalism can be overthrown by purely legal methods alone – brings their betrayal of Marxism into the sharpest relief. The court decision in the Saralieff case gives an ironic refutation to the legalistic dogma of the S.L.P.
Last updated on: 15.6.2013