Louis C. Fraina

Revolutionary Socialism

Socialism in Action

THE action of the Socialist movement has been largely the very opposite of its fundamentals. It has theoretically cleaved to these fundamentals, – in Germany most, in the United States least; but it has repeatedly and cumulatively violated them in the actual activity of the movement.

Socialism in action has been making for State Capitalism, not Socialism; it abandoned the proletarian class struggle, and became a general social reform movement; it occupied itself with parliaments and legislation, not with the action of the proletariat itself; instead of awakening the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat, it deadened that consciousness. Socialism became a petty bourgeois Messiah, where it should have been proletarian pioneer and rebel; it has not fulfilled its function of being the intellectual and revolutionary expression of the proletariat.

The revolutionary Socialism of Marx developed into the petty bourgeois Socialism of the Second International. The Paris Commune and its consequent reaction marked the downfall of the First International. The conditions of the ensuing epoch, the. epoch of development along national lines, compelled the proletariat, which, moreover, had not as a whole assumed its typical class character, to lay aside the great task of revolutionizing the world, and to pursue the peaceful development of organization activity. But this organization activity represented only a part of the proletariat; moreover, it came under the influence and domination of petty bourgeois ideals. The organized Socialism that developed out of this state of facts was petty, hesitant, compromising; and it retained this character after the proletariat emerged into the new revolutionary epoch of Imperialism.

In becoming a movement of general social reform, Socialism expressed the interests of the aristocracy of skilled labor and the lower layers of the petty bourgeoisie, and of the new middle class in its earlier stages of development. Practically every revolt, every aspiration of a middle class being destroyed by concentrated industry was echoed in Socialist propaganda and activity. The demand of this class for government ownership of industry became the leit-motiv of Socialist propaganda, and Socialism in practice was a movement for government ownership and the extension of the functions of the state generally. Compromise after compromise was struck with the fundamentals of Socialism in order to placate and secure the support of non-revolutionary and non-proletarian groups. The thought of the movement, its activity and representation, became that of the liberal petite bourgeoisie and the aristocracy of labor.

The fatal consequence was the betrayal of the new, the real proletariat, which was emerging to consciousness and action, the industrial proletariat of average, unskilled labor. Instead of appreciating the revolutionary potentiality of this class and arousing and expressing its activity, the dominant Socialism betrayed unskilled labor, used it directly and indirectly to promote the petty interests of the aristocracy of Jabor and the small bourgeoisie. The revolts of unskilled labor against this reactionary domination were repeatedly crushed, brutally and unscrupulously, by the bureaucracy of organized Socialism. [1] Every intellectual expression of the unskilled in the movement was met with contempt and rejection. It was easier to build a party and a bureaucracy, easier to secure political offices, by catering to non-revolutionary elements; it was a task of real magnitude, and acceptable only to the real revolutionist, to represent and awaken the despised, inchoate mass of the unskilled. But this is precisely the task of Socialism, to express and awaken the real revolutionary class for action and the conquest of power; and in rejecting this task, Socialism became a liberal reform movement, fundamentally non-proletarian and non-revolutionary.

Moreover, Socialism adopted the policy of the pacific “penetration” of Socialism into Capitalism, realizing the Socialist community by the extension of capitalist collectivism. The practice of the movement based itself upon the development of Capitalism, instead of upon the revolutionary development of the proletariat. It was a policy that expressed the trend toward State Capitalism and emphasized the trend. Where the Socialist movement was large, as in Germany, it practically absorbed the national liberal forces of social reform; where small, Socialism became an integral part of the national liberal reform movement. Capitalism, not the proletariat, was to bring Socialism, – this was the actual policy of the movement, in spite of utterances and a theoretical system to the contrary.

The task of the proletariat was conceived as decisively the immediate improvement of its material welfare, but this process of improvement was determined almost exclusively by the proposals of skilled labor and the small bourgeoisie. The transformation of Socialist tactics was general; the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of Capitalism was displaced by the policy of “modifying” Capitalism and softening of class antagonisms. The Socialist theory of Marxism maintained itself, although not in any sense expressing the actual basis of the movement; against it washed the tides of revisionism, which desired an adaptation of theory in accord with the bourgeois practices of the movement, and the tides of revolutionary thought, which desired to have the movement adapt its practice to the requirements of Imperialism and the new revolutionary epoch into which the proletariat had emerged. [2]

The apparent futility of theoretical controversy among the Socialist intellectuals was a consequence of considering differences in tactics as theoretical problems, instead of as essentially problems in practice, in the actual relations of classes and the expression of class interests. The doctrinaire Socialist, the pseudo-Marxist, conceives Socialism as a sort of super-science, unaffected by the conditions which affect bourgeois science. The illusion has an apparently materialistic basis. The doctrinaire Socialist assumes that there are no divisions within the proletariat, its interests being one; and that, accordingly, Socialist theory possesses a unity of thought impervious to reactionary influences. But the assumption is not valid. The immediate interests of the working class are not one – although they are, ultimately; it is split by divisions – between the skilled and the unskilled; and Socialist theory is not only susceptible of reactionary interpretation, but was used for reactionary purposes.

Skilled labor was the reactionary factor, aided and abetted by the lower layers of the bourgeoisie – two groups which psychologically approach each other, in the measure that capitalist development raises one and lowers the other. The actual practice of the dominant Socialism produced Revisionism in Germany and Ministerialism in France, the softening of class antagonisms, the open or covert policy of bringing Socialism by the co-operation of classes. It also produced violent tactical differences, in .which pseudo-Marxism actively and consistently discouraged and rejected new revolutionary practices; instead of appreciating the significance of new developments in class relations and tactics, it used these developments to bolster up its pseudo-Marxism, to maintain the status quo which allowed the opportunists and moderates to direct the movement straight to disaster. In the hands of these pseudo-Marxists, Marxism was perverted into a reactionary system. In our coming revolutionary struggles, says Anton Pannekoek, Marxism will be our weapon: “Marxism, regarded by the theoreticians of Socialism as the method to explain the past and the present and in their hands degraded into a dry doctrine of mechanical fatalism, again is to come into its birth-right as a theory of revolutionary action.” Marx himself said of the pseudo-Marxists: “I sowed dragons’ teeth and I reaped fleas.”

The acute tactical disputes of Socialism were general. The controversy in the American movement over direct action and political action, IWW and AF of L, was an expression of the conflict between skilled and unskilled, between the proletarian and the petty bourgeois, the early expression of that great upheaval which is coming in American Socialism, and which alone can make Socialism vital and vitalizing. The controversy was complicated by the fact, that the American Socialist Party was peculiarly affected by the conditions of reaction. In Germany, Social-Democracy had a material basis and an ideology of its own, compounded of the liberal aspirations of the Bismarck era and skilled labor, which because of historical conditions lined up with the Social-Democracy. But in this country, and this explains the stunted growth of American Socialism even in its petty opportunist phase, the party had no material basis and ideology of its own. It imported these from Europe. Skilled labor, organized in the AF of L, had determined upon its policy prior to the time it might have been influenced by Socialism, and all attempts of the Socialist Party to “capture” the unions failed miserably: the party adapted itself to the craft unions, but these unions as a whole would have nothing to do with the party. The middle class acted through its own movements, and supported the Socialist party only sporadically and in a small way. The party did not sense the task of expressing the unskilled, of adapting itself to the new conditions which everywhere were developing, and which were largely dominant in the United States. The development of “internal” Imperialism affected the alteration of class groupings and the expression of class interests early and definitely; the party did not appreciate this circumstance; and the Socialist Party became a sort of Mahomet’s coffin suspended between heaven and earth. The American party is the most miserable failure of the Second International, measuring its success either in practical or theoretical achievements. It had, and has, all the vices and none of the virtues of the European movement. It is not a representative of the revolutionary proletariat; nor is it honestly even a representative of skilled labor and the small bourgeoisie: it simply tries to represent these groups.

Under the petty bourgeois conditions in which it was operating, Socialism became necessarily and essentially a parliamentary movement. The state was the center of Socialist activity. Legislation was conceived as more determinant than action of the proletariat, laws more dynamic than proletarian class power. This activity, naturally, increased the functions and power of the state; the state, under the impetus of Imperialism, intensified its tyranny and brutality against the workers; and the answer to this of Socialist parliamentarians was – more laws, and more power to the state! As governments entered the orbit of Imperialism and State Capitalism, the necessity arose of a struggle against the state through the creative mass action of the proletariat. The necessity was slighted; instead of seeing parliamentarism in its true proportions, parliamentarism became more of a fetish as it became more impotent. Socialism, in fact, was now a part of the government, a prop of the state, a conservative and conserving factor in the ruling system of things. [3]

Having become a national liberal movement of social reform, and a part of the state, Socialism adopted the national ideal and submerged the international. In the measure that the dominant Socialism softened its antagonism to the governing system of things and merged into that system, it drew further away from the militant proletariat and from the Socialism of other nations. There being nothing virik and revolutionary in its policy within the nation, Socialism could not produce a virile and revolutionary international policy. The Socialist movement, operating in an epoch of national development, had become nationalistic, and its nationalistic bias persisted into the new international epoch of Imperialism; it was dominated by the vague democratic nationalism of a preceding era. In the meanwhile, the nation developed into a carrier of Imperialism, discarding democratic nationalism. Socialism went out to fight for the democratic nation, and lo and behold! – Imperialism claimed it for its own, as the nation was now imperialistic. The catastrophe of the Socialist collapse in the crisis of war flowed equally from the circumstance that neither nationally nor internationally had Socialism adapted itself to the conditions and requirements of the era of Imperialism. Socialism had itself become a fetter upon the revolutionary development of the proletariat.


1. In the United States, the unskilled, because of the high degree of “internal” imperialistic development, have acquired a large self-consciousness and activity, and the betrayal of the unskilled by the dominant Socialism and its accessory American Federation of Labor, has nowhere been as complete as in this country. McKees Rocks, Paterson, the Mesaba Range, the great strikes of the unskilled and the IWW generally, have not secured any real support from the dominant forces in the Socialist Party, and have been usually betrayed, either actively or by default. It is true that the party took up the Lawrence strike and the Ludlow outrages, but this was done equally by liberal bourgeois representatives; and in this, again, the Socialist Party was true to its official petty bourgeois ideology.

2. Marxism, originally and essentially a revolutionary system, was perverted by the pseudo-Marxists into an instrument for maintaining the status quo in the Socialist movement, a status becoming increasingly antiquated and consequently reactionary. The struggle between Marxism and Revisionism resulted in a theoretical victory for Marxism; and yet the Social Democracy in practice became increasingly Revisionist, while it was held up by “Marxists” everywhere as the model Socialist Party. These Marxists, typified by Karl Kautsky in Germany, Jules Guesde in France and G. Plekhanov in Russia, were fundamentally a reactionary factor, and each in his particular way collapsed miserably under the test of the war. Their thought expresses the characteristics of bourgeois revolutions, in which, according to Marx, “the phrase surpasses the substance.” They represent the “center,” the Marxism of which is neither revolutionary nor of Marx, and which, precisely because it uses revolutionary phrases in its criticism of the “right,” is particularly dangerous. In a brochure written in April 1917, N. Lenin said:

“The center is the heaven of petty bourgeois phrases, of lip internationalism, of cowardly opportunism, of compromise with the social-patriots. The fact is that the center is not convinced of the necessity of a revolution against the government of its own country; it does not preach that kind of a revolution, it does not wage an incessant fight for the revolution, and it resorts to the lowest, super-Marxist dodges to get out of the difficulty. The members of the center group are routine worshippers, eaten up by the gangrene of legality, corrupted by the parliamentary comedy, bureaucrats accustomed to nice sinecures. Historically and economically they do not represent any special stratum of society; they only represent the transition from the old-fashioned labor movement, such as it was from 1871 to 1914, which rendered inestimable services to the proletariat through its slow, continued, systematic work of organization in a large, very large field, to the new movement which was objectively necessary at the time of the first world-wide war of Imperialism, and which has inaugurated the socialrevolutionary era.”

3. Socialism grew into the state, not the socialist state of the future, but into the capitalistic state of the present. It became a part of this state. It strengthened its own position, but in doing so it strengthened also the state of which it formed a part. It aided the capitalist governments in so developing their powers that they could finally extend their activities beyond their own boundaries. Indirectly, then. Socialism aided in creating the very forces which have brought on the present war. Social Democracy ceased to be an organization of those without a country and became a party of valued citizens whose constructive co-operation was useful to the government and is now especially essential at a time when this government could hardly achieve its purposes without the help of the Socialists. – Heinrich Laufenberg and Fritz Wolfheim, The Old International and the New. (This pamphlet was published in 1915, and is an expression of a revolutionary Socialist group in Germany.)


Last updated on 14.10.2007