Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

League for a Labor Republic

Book Review: Then and Now–Searching for the Path to Revolution

First Published: The New Voice, Vol. X, No. 14, April 26, 1982.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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William Z. Foster’s From Bryan to Stalin, although published in 1937, is particularly significant right now. Foster lived through times bearing many similarities to the current situation in the U.S. economy.

Foster was a U.S. radical who played a prominent role in the left and trade union movements his entire life. For people already familiar with some of Foster’s other works, the book will be somewhat repetitious. For other readers, the book is a gold mine of otherwise unavailable information on class struggle in the U.S., as told by an active worker who was on the scene of many battles. For revolutionaries today, Foster has many lessons to teach, both by what he says and what he fails to say.


Foster characterizes the left prior to 1919 as being split among various trends, no one of which had the depth and clarity of vision necessary to build the revolutionary struggle in the U.S. Among the trends was the old Socialist party, a rankly opportunist party, political representative of the small businessmen then being crushed by the advancing monopoly capitalists. The Socialist Party was led by lawyers, preachers, shopkeepers and professors who opposed organizing the working class. Many honest working-class socialists joined this movement only to become disillusioned or split away to more fighting organizations like the Socialist Labor Party (SLP)and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The SLP represented another trend, the syndicalist trend. Initially led by Daniel DeLeon, the syndicalists were anti-party and anti-political struggle. The syndicalists put overemphasis on the trade union struggle and had an extremely hazy notion of how the working class was to gain power. They believed in separate “revolutionary trade unions” divorced from the AFL unions. The hope was that these super-unions would attract and lead the majority of the working class in a series of general strikes that would make the capitalists walk off the stage of history.

Foster belonged for a while to the syndicalist trend, with the exception to his lasting credit that he believed in boring from within the existing trade unions. Most leftists of the time were dual unionists who would not participate in the AFL unions.

Most successful of the dual unionists were the IWW members–“Wobblies.” They fearlessly organized thousands of unorganized workers but missed the mainstream by refusing to participate with the thousands more honest workers organized in the AFL unions. IWW members were also syndicalists, who believed the general strike was the way to overthrow the capitalists. Although Foster showed all of the syndicalist weaknesses, he and the boring-from-within crowd led two major labor struggles of the period–the Chicago Stockyard strike of 1917 and the Great Steel Strike of 1919.


With the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, Leninism began to reach the U.S. and many of the left’s worst ideological errors were laid to rest. Dual unionism was discredited, a disciplined revolutionary party was formed, and leftists began to broaden their work among the working class outside the trade union arena.

Foster goes on to give a largely trade union history of the New Deal and the 1930’s, a time of fierce class struggle with many great victories for U.S. workers. His summary from a 1937 perspective is entirely too rosy. Foster speaks as if the big battles are past and the rest is a mopping up operation.


Foster and his contemporaries labored in ideological confusion much of the time. Partly this was because they were somewhat isolated from the full spectrum of international socialist theory and practice. One gets the impression that the October revolution took Foster and his friends completely by surprise, after their having for years followed the example of the French syndicalists and German opportunists. Foster’s book leads one to conclude that even after the October revolution set them on a more correct path, U.S. leftists had trouble thinking for themselves, instead mechanically copying slogans from Soviet Union without thinking through their application in the United States.

Combine this ideological confusion with U.S. conditions which tended to blur class lines. These were the generally more favorable economic conditions, leading to prosperity and illusions among segments of the working class; the development of a large, conservative labor aristocracy; the passage of large numbers of workers through the petty bourgeoisie and some even into the big bourgeoisie; and the capitalists’ ability to coopt many working-class leaders with some of the imperialist fat.


U.S. imperialism’s dominant world position following World War Two led to previously unheard of prosperity for broad sections of the working class in a capitalist society. Good times were not for everyone, particularly the oppressed black people as the civil rights movement showed, but there were enough imperialist crumbs available to forestall radical social change.

Despite whatever diehards like Ronald Reagan may do, the clock cannot be turned back; the U.S. is an imperialist power now on the decline. The possibilities of renewed class struggle are immense in the coming years. The prosperity illusions of the U.S. working class which held them back politically are evaporating. The question arising is–which way out of the developing crisis? The revolutionary leaders of past generations are not here to provide today’s revolutionaries with answers, but their written experience is available for those who take the time to seek it out.