OFFICIALLY, the chief parties of the Second International, such as the German, tended to repudiate revisionism and in phrases to uphold the orthodox views of revolutionary Marxism. In practice, however, the Right Wing had its way, the orthodox, like Kautsky, really occupying a Centrist position. Besides these two factions, there was a so-called revolutionary Left Wing composed of supposedly intransigent fighters. When closely analyzed, however, the Left Wing was seen to be made up, in the main, of two entirely different elements, a group really on the road to communism, typified by Lenin, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, and perhaps certain groups of internationalists and maximalists, and another group of sectarians symbolized by such leaders as Guesde in France, DeLeon in the United States, and Hyndman in England. The two sections of the Left had really very little in common. We shall treat the activity of those represented by Lenin under Communism. They were of relatively secondary influence within the Second International. Those who shouted most loudly about being true revolutionists were the sectarians.
The sectarians in the Second International were as unable to utilize Marx’s dialectics as were the other revisionists and centrists. Indeed it could be said of the entire Left Wing that the mere fact that they could remain within the Second International and hail those who supported such elements as Millerand and others as their comrades was eloquent testimony of their immature character. The non-Marxist views of the sectarian Left were to be seen on every front of the struggle.
In philosophy, for example, many were confused on the question of dialectical materialism, some of them going the way of neo-Kantianism. Kautsky had opened up the official paper of the German Socialist Party to all philosophical opinions, and displayed considerable tolerance to various schools of agnosticism. Many of the sectarians had no fault to find with this, Daniel DeLeon in the United States, for example, declaring that religion was not a party affair but a personal matter. (*1) It is true that to DeLeon the Catholic Church was not a religion but a political organization and had to be attacked as such, but to draw a distinction between church and religion was to tolerate precisely the point of view of the Right Wing that religionists of all sorts had a place in socialist ranks where they could argue for Socialism, not from the scientific point of view, but from the religious, ethical, and idealistic angles. Thus the party was to be neutral on religious and philosophical questions and not to take a positive position for dialectical materialism. This evasion of philosophy, however, meant an escape from scientific method and was bound insidiously to affect the whole program of the revolutionary party.
Only Lenin, practically alone, demanded that the Party take a stand on questions of philosophy, and refused to declare that religion was not a party matter. The State, even the workers’ State, of course, was not to abolish religion by force, since such superstitions would gradually wither away as socialism proceeded. The Party, however, was not the State. The Party program was an epitome of proletarian science and could not tolerate as its creators any active agent propagating mysticism and obscurantist prejudices of this or that supernatural faith. Lenin called for an expulsion of such people from the Social Democratic Party.
The Right Wing, of course, would never play up Marx’s statement that religion was the opium of the people, the idealistic counterpart of alcoholism, needed to besot and befuddle the masses so that they could not struggle in this world. The Right made no analysis of the relation of religious institutions to the class struggle, and they permitted inside of their ranks religious preachers of all sorts. While the sectarian Left Wing disagreed with this mode of approach, it tolerated such an attitude not only when appearing in the ranks of the Right Wing, but to some extent even within its own midst. This was summarized in the statement that religion is not a Party matter.
On questions of historical materialism, the sectarian Left Wing tended too much to a mechanical materialist approach and did not consider sufficiently the secondary social forces which joined together to contribute to a given historical result. It was of them that Engels was speaking when he wrote: “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place, or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights.” (*2)
To correct the mechanical viewpoint of the Left Wing, Engels wrote: “According to the materialist conception of history, the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract, and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure-political forms of the class struggle and its consequences, constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc.—forms of law—and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the combatants. political, legal, philosophical theories, religious ideas and their further development into systems of dogma—also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements, in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (i.e., of things and events whose inner connection is so remote or so impossible to prove that we regard it as absent and can neglect it), ,the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory of any period of history one chose would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.” (*3)
On questions of economics the sectarians again took a mechanical and too simplified position. Agreeing with the theory of Marx as to the general law of accumulation of capital and the driving out of the old middle classes, they tended to view the process as entirely completed, and failed to make sufficient efforts to win to their side middle class elements such as the peasants, which still played an important part in social action. (*4) Thus they fell into the error of conceiving that all those not in the ranks of labor were one reactionary mass against labor. They were unable to adopt the position on the peasant question that Engels had worked out for them… And indeed we stand decidedly on the side of the small peasant; we will do everything in any way admissible to make his lot more bearable, to facilitate his transition to the co-operative… . We do this, not only because we regard the small peasant who does his own work as virtually belonging to us, but also in the direct interests of the Party. The greater the number of peasants whom we can save from actual downfall into the proletariat and win for ourselves while they are still peasants, the more rapidly and easily will the social revolution take place. It can be of no service to us if we are obliged to wait for this transformation until capitalist production has developed itself everywhere up to its final consequences…. It is the duty of our Party to make clear to the peasants over and over again the absolute hopelessness of their position while capitalism rules… .” (*5)
In fact, as a general rule, so much were the Left sectarians impressed by Marx’s cataclysmic theory that they seemed to believe that the end of capitalism would come of its own accord, that capitalism would collapse of its own weight. This led to a fatalist attitude that induced these parties not to struggle for immediate conditions but simply to wait for and propagandize the coming revolution.
Those who fought for immediate demands were considered as opportunists, Right Wingers, who wished to have the capitalist grant a few more crumbs to the workers so as to bribe them from struggle. While this criticism was indeed true regarding the Right Wing, the intransigents failed to see that this refraining from participation in the day-to-day struggles of the workers turned them into sterile sectarians, completely futile, and as far removed from revolutionary activity on the one hand as the Right Wing was on the other. As inadequate as Bernstein, they acted as though the word was everything, the movement nothing. They laid down ultimatums to the masses and were proud of being called “impossibilists,” that is, people who had no concerns in getting as much as possible under the circumstances. They demanded all or nothing and they got nothing. It was in answer to such types that Engels had written, using the American situation as a concrete example: “It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than ’durch Schaden klug werden’ [to learn by one’s own mistakes]. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working-class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist, H. G. [Henry George] or Powderly, will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own…. Our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of evolution, and that process involves successive phases. To expect that the Americans will start with the full consciousness of the theory worked out in older industrial countries is to expect the impossible. What the Germans ought to do is to act up to their own theory—if they understand it as we did in 1845 and 1848—to go in for any real general working class movement, accept its faktische [actual] starting points as such and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views in the original programme; they ought, in the words of The Communist Manifesto, to represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present. But above all give the movement time to consolidate, do not make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse confounded by forcing down people’s throats things which at present they cannot properly understand, but which they soon will learn.” (*6)
In many countries, socialist sects refused to participate in parliamentary activity on the ground that, since bourgeois democracy was a sham, activity should be concentrated entirely on the necessity to overthrow parliament rather than to run in elections as candidates for that same assembly. This was a natural reaction against parliamentary cretinism and Millerandism which had infested the large parties of the Right Wing. Yet, in failing to participate in parliamentary campaigns, the Leftists failed to understand the dialectical connection between ballots and bullets. They failed to appreciate that it was necessary for the revolutionary proletariat to take advantage of every crack in the wall of capitalism so as to widen the breach further, in other words, to use every democratic measure that the employers permitted in order to overthrow the rule of capitalism. They refused to appreciate the fact that parliamentary activity was a convenient barometer indicating the pressure of class forces and the temper of the masses. They would not listen to the argument that the masses of workers still believed, to a considerable extent, in the omnipotence of parliament and the advisability of having representatives there, and that these illusions best could be destroyed through practical participation in the life of the people.
Instead of patiently understanding the prejudices of the workers and winning them over in the course of their daily struggles, exposing the character of the capitalist state and its parliamentary institutions, the Leftists withdrew to a great height from which they preached to the ignorant below as though they were mighty, superior individuals. Like the opportunists who made parliamentary activity an end in itself, the Leftists would not recognize that parliamentary activity and democratic rights would be obtained only as by-products of revolutionary action and that these instruments were to be considered as levers to aid the masses in further mobilization. Boycotting elections and parliamentary activity, on the whole, could only play into the hands of reaction.
Often these anti-parliamentarian Left Socialist groups developed trends in a Syndicalist direction, sometimes influenced by Anarcho-Syndicalism. Not parliamentary but trade union activity was to be the actual way of winning the workers. This position was well exemplified by the trade union socialists known as the Economists in Russia. Only by such a practice, they argued, would the socialists lose their intellectualist character and become truly proletarianized. A similar view was expressed by certain elements in the Socialist Labor Party in the United States.
At the bottom of this position was an extremely healthy orientation, responding to the great need to change the character of Socialist membership so that the majority would be industrial workers. Such elements of the Left Wing could not fail to see that often the Socialist parties, taking a professional and intellectual attitude, stood entirely aloof from the real struggles around them. The opportunists were playing down strikes and direct actions in the street. The Leftist Wing, on the contrary, wanted the Socialists to organize the unorganized workers in industrial and trade unions and guide them to socialism.
However, in this as in the other questions, the sectarians could not devise a workable policy. The existing trade unions, as a whole, were heartily denounced as mere instruments of the capitalist class to bribe the skilled workers. It was of the trade unionists that Hyndman wrote, “… but the British workers have not understood the economic and social effects of capitalist colonization, and many of them are—as the voting of the infamous Transvaal War showed—Imperialists in the worst sense of the word.” (*7)
Especially emphatic were the Leftists concerning the trade union leaders whom Daniel DeLeon called labor lieutenants of the capitalist class and whose principal function was to harness the workers to the chariot of imperialism. The Socialist Labor Party went so far as to declare that no officer of the American Federation of Labor could be an officer of the Socialist Labor Party.
In their emphasis upon trade union activity, the Leftists frequently reasoned from a mechanical Marxist base that political organization is but the reflection of economic events and that the political party is entirely secondary to the trade union. Among the Russian Economists there also existed the theory that mobilization of the workers had to proceed in stages, first, purely economic, then in the form of economic struggles with political demands, finally, purely political.
In all of these policies the sectarians showed themselves as far removed from the basic interests of the working class as the Right Wing itself, and just as opportunist, although in, an opposite direction. In idealizing the trade union and the strike struggle, these Left Wingers, like the Russian Economists, really showed a contempt for the masses, not believing that the masses would understand the necessity to overthrow the political machinery of the State, but rather that they would have to be gradually educated to that realization.
Making the same mistake as the Right Wing in identifying political activity with parliamentarism which they, however, completely scorned, the Left sectarians turned to participation in strikes as a means of diverting attention from the necessity of joining in insurrectionary movements. They did not appreciate sufficiently that the State could be overthrown only on the basis of demands far broader than those of a merely trade union character. The emphasis on trade unionism often prevented these Socialists from participating in the day-to-day demands on other important fields of the battle front.
In their denunciation of the existing trade unions, the sectarian elements of the Second International went to the extreme of removing their members from the unions, splitting the unions, and building dual organizations to fight the old. Such a policy lumped the rank and file together with their bureaucratic officials; by such an abandonment of the fight in the old unions they could not win members of the reactionary unions over to their side.
Here again these socialists displayed a certain lack of confidence in the working class. They failed to realize that, in the period under question, the skilled workers would naturally be leaders of the unskilled, and that, to an increasing extent, sections of the unskilled would be found in the ranks of the regular trade union movement, although as a minority. They failed, besides, to appreciate the effects of capitalist contradictions upon the ranks of the skilled, and the possibility of winning some of them over to the side of revolutionary action. Moreover, this was the only organized element; to desert the trade unions was to relinquish the only section of the working class that was articulate and organized.
In this way, the Left Wing played directly into the hands of the labor bureaucrats in the trade union movement, supplementing by their Leftist errors the action of the Right Wing Socialists. The Right Wing, in participating in trade union movement, always supported the bureaucratic officials and did not attempt to win the workers for revolutionary action against the wishes of the highly-paid, well-fed bureaucracy. On the other hand, the Left Wing, in abandoning these unions, in calling out its own members, in building paper dual unions, really consolidated the position of the officials and of the Right Wing Socialists. Whatever discontent existed in the unions was thus isolated, and the rule of the opportunist was made firmer than ever. At the same time, revolutionary socialism was brought into disrepute.
In building their own dual unions, Left Wing Socialists frequently revealed themselves as no better than the opportunists they denounced. When they succeeded in controlling unions, they utterly failed to understand the proper relationship between unions and a political party. This was well exemplified in the Socialist Labor Party in the United States. Its Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance was not appreciably different from the Knights of Labor and other unions which had gone before. The Alliance was based not on an industrial but on a craft union structure. The difference between the S. T. and L. A. and the A. F. of L. was supposed to lie in the contention that the former had revolutionary leaders who were preaching socialism in the unions.
At the same time, the formation of a separate, relatively small trade union body really isolated the revolutionary workers from the main army of organized labor, and created a deep hostility between the two. Thus, instead of acquiring a broad, wholesome perspective of the movement as a whole, the S. T. and L. A. could attain only a narrow sectarianism. The Socialist Labor Party officials completely dominated, demanding that the unions officially go on record in support of all the vagaries concocted annually by the Socialist Labor Party, every member of the union being branded as a Socialist and compelled to adhere to the platform of the S. L. P. Naturally, this militated strongly against the average worker’s joining the union, and the union was reduced gradually to a mere propaganda sect. The purposes of the union to struggle for the day-to-day demands of the workers were nullified completely.
As a potentially effective measure, the Socialist Labor Party asserted that strikes were relatively futile, that trade unions were not of much value in improving the workers’ lot but had the function of educating the workers and organizing them to take over industry when the collapse of capitalism came. Thus, even in the trade union field, the Socialist Labor Party denied the efficacy of action and assailed the whole idea of a general strike. General strikes led to revolution; revolution was impossible; the general strike, therefore, was worthless. As a substitute for the general strike wherein workers came out on the street and took to violent rioting, DeLeon advocated the general lockout, where the workers, when organized 51 per cent, would remain inside the factories and throw out the employers. This was the peaceful way as opposed to the violent way of the out-and-out Syndicalists. (*8)
If, then, the Socialist Labor Party stressed economic rather than political action, it was with the theory that only the economic movement was constructive, the political movement brought about destruction, something which the Socialist Labor Party wanted to avoid. Objectively, such a viewpoint was a capitulation to the pressure of alien classes which wanted to persuade the workers not to take political action seriously. In the meantime, while avoiding action on the economic field and refusing to participate in immediate demands on the political field, the S. L. P. would project the unconditional surrender of capitalism and enter into parliamentary activity as a demonstration of the value of its, civilized method of the ballot as against the method of direct action. Thus the Socialist Labor Party was reduced to complete futility, reiterating a few trite slogans like a cracked phonographic record whose needle is stuck in the same groove. Later on the Socialist Labor Party, through the S. T. & L. A., entered the I. W. W., changed its craft union position to an advocacy of industrial unionism, but continued preaching its sterile policies until its spokesmen were ejected.
According to the sectarian Leftists like the Socialist Labor Party, the State was not to wither away, but was to be abolished immediately the workers were organized sufficiently on the trade union field to declare the general lockout. (*9) On the surface it seemed as though DeLeon’s program was an extremely revolutionary one, since he opposed the opportunist view of gradually reforming the State; indeed, it looked similar to the revolutionary Anarchist position. In reality, DeLeon was heartily in accord with the Right Wing in his fear of the use of force and in his phobia against being driven underground. The true situation was that the S. L. P. was so far removed from actual life that it entirely underestimated the strength of the State, believing it would collapse when the high priests of the S. L. P. blew their horns before the social walls of the new Jericho. The S. L. P. had turned from immediate tangible demands to abstract goals. Under no circumstances could it connect its preaching of socialism as a distinct break with the present with the necessity for a violent insurrection and a Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
Contrary to popular tradition, the S. L. P. intransigents were far from knowing their own minds, as their history showed. For example, in its platform of 1892 the S. L. P. had declared: “Whereas the time is fast coming when, in the natural course of social evolution this system … shall have worked out its own downfall; therefore, be it Resolved, That we call upon the people to organize with a view to the substitution of the co-operative commonwealth for the present state of planless production, industrial war, and social disorder… .” (*10) Since capitalism was doomed, the only method given in the platform of 1892 was to struggle for a whole series of immediate demands which in no respect differed from those of ordinary Welfare-Liberal Radicals.
In 1900, however, the national platform of the S. L. P. was suddenly changed and dropped all mention of immediate demands. This line was left to the Social Democratic Party, later to become the Socialist Party, to adopt. The S. L. P. now was to demonstrate its revolutionism by eliminating all questions of immediate interest to the working class; revolutionary activity was to be transformed into resolutions.
In 1912, influenced by the Syndicalism of the I. W. W., the S. L. P. again radically changed its position. This time it opposed the political State and advocated the industrial Socialist State which contemplated representation by industry. The Socialist Labor Party was the first group in the United States to foreshadow the demand for Soviets, although it formulated its demand in such a way as to give the impression that the State would last forever, and made not the slightest effort to reconcile this statist position with its old theories of abolition of the State. The method of obtaining this industrial State was to be neither by means solely of the ballot nor solely of the fist. Only the submerged layer of the slum elements in the working class could talk about using the fist. “The idea of capturing the Trust with physical force is a wild chimera.” (*11) Not the revolutionaries but only capitalist reaction would use force, the method of the bayonet, just as the capitalists planted spies and agents provocateurs to preach rioting and direct action to the workers.
But if neither the ballot nor the fist would obtain the victory of socialism, what other method could be used? The S. L. P. answered ambiguously that it advocated the “constitutional method of political action, backed by the industrially and class-consciously organized proletariat, to the exclusion of Anarchy, and all that thereby hangs.” (*12) Thus the Socialists believed they could peacefully organize all the workers until the majority were in unions, while preaching abstract socialism without any activity whatever. It is no wonder the Socialist Labor Party withered away to the proportions of a dried prune.
In England, too, the so-called Left Wing, headed by Hyndman, refused to participate in immediate struggles, and severely criticized the trade unions and their leaders. Here again behind such a criticism was not a policy that would lead the workers to insurrectionary struggle, but an orientation that would confine all socialist activity to mere abstract preaching and the writing of books. According to Hyndman, “Strikes, Syndicalism, Anarchy, are but varying forms of restless working-class ignorance, or despairing revolts against unendurable oppression. There is nothing in strikes themselves, whether for a rise of wages for all, or for the enactment of a minimum wage for the lowest grades of labour in any industry, which can emancipate the propertyless workers… . On the contrary, the most successful strikes under existing conditions do but serve to rivet the chains of economic slavery, possibly a trifle gilded, more firmly on their limbs. Trade unions, by admitting wages as the permanent basis of the industrial system, virtually condemn their members to continuous toil for the benefit of the profit-takers so long as that view obtains. The organization of the trade unions is sometimes useful; their theory of society is hopeless.” (*13)
The French counterpart to this position was the determined opposition of the Guesdists to the general strike. The general strike meant revolution, and the workers were not prepared for revolution. Nor would the general strike be the means to realize the revolution. To seize the political power of the State, not trade unionism but revolutionary action was needed. Upon closer examination, however, of that revolutionary “action,” we find that it means a preaching of pure and unadulterated socialism couple with an avoidance of any action that would lead towards insurrection.
Contrary to the Right Wing, the Left Wing pretended to conceive of socialism as entirely distinct from bourgeois democracy, not its mere extension. To the sectarian elements, the old order could be abolished at one stroke. This erroneous idea was the direct opposite of the errors of the Right. The Right Wing believed that Socialism was a gradual evolution from the bases of Liberalism; the Leftists failed to comprehend the intimate interconnection between bourgeois democracy and socialism. Even mature Left Wing revolutionists failed to understand fully the theory of permanent revolution and the utilization of bourgeois democratic revolution for revolutionary purposes.
Just as in the case of the Right Wing, so with the Leftist there was an ultimate program of socialism, there were day-to-day actions and propaganda, but there was no strategy, that is, there was no connection between the tactics of the moment and the strategical objective, the goal that was to be obtained. A revolutionary strategy would have dictated the participation in the every-day action of the masses, not in order to obtain the immediate demands as ends in themselves, but as mere stepping stones on the road to struggle. The demands themselves would have been of such a nature as to have roused the workers to the highest level of militancy. Revolutionary strategy would have determined a policy based on the necessity of a workers’ alliance with other classes, not in order to submerge the interests of the proletariat, but to utilize the other class forces for revolution as far as possible under the lead of the working class.
On the whole, neither the opportunists, nor the Centrists, nor the Left Wing of the Second International could approximate a communist activity.
1. See, D. DeLeon: Father Gassoniana.
2. Marx and Engels: Correspondence, Letter of Engels to J. Bloch, p. 477.
3. Marx and Engels: Correspondence, p. 475.
4. See, for example, D. DeLeon ‘s pamphlet: Fifteen Questions.
5. Marx and Engels: Correspondence, Engels’ article: “The Peasant Question in France and Germany,” pp. 526-527.
6. Marx and Engels: Correspondence, Letter from Engels to Florence Wischnewetsky, pp. 453-454.
7. H. M. Hyndman: Colonies and Dependencies, pamphlet, Report to the International Socialist Congress, 1904, p. 3.
8. The recent wave of “sit-down” strikes both in France and in the United States apparently justify DeLeon’s position. A closer study of the movement, however, would reveal the complete falseness of such a conclusion.
9. See, DeLeon’s pamphlet: Socialist Reconstruction of Society.
10. Platform given in K. H. Porter: National Party Platforms, pp. 177-180.
11. See, S. L. P. platform 1912, given in K. H. Porter: the same, pp. 368-372.
12. The same, p. 372.
13. F. J. Gould: Hyndman, Prophet of Socialism, quoting Hyndman’s view, p. 99.