Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2


The Socialist Labour Party

Frank Girard and Ben Perry,
The Socialist Labour Party 1876–1991: A Short History,
Livra Books, Philadelphia, 1991, pp. 108, $10.00

We are the select and chosen few,
The rest of you are damned.
There’s room enough in Hell for you,
We don’t want Heaven crammed.

THESE memorable lines were written about the Socialist Labour Party of Britain, and they describe equally well its ‘father party’, the Socialist Labour Party of the USA. Founded in 1876, the SLP has now been in existence for more than 117 years. After the German SPD, the SLP is the second oldest Socialist party in the world. Yet until now it has lacked any concise history of its own. Frank Girard and Ben Perry, two former SLP militants, neither an historian by profession, have now filled the gap. We are all in their debt as a result. The authors tell the story of the SLP in an engaging fashion, and complete the whole tale in little more than 100 pages. The text is illustrated by most evocative photographs and illustrations.

Readers of Revolutionary History will be surprised to learn that the SLP ran its own candidate in every Presidential election from 1892 to 1976. Girard and Perry give us in a precise statistical table the candidate and the result for every one. The text also includes a most useful book list for all who wish to learn more about this veteran organisation. The outcome is a valuable work of reference for the history of Socialism in the USA, and one which no well-educated Socialist, or for that matter no serious labour movement library, ought to be without.

The SLP was the first Socialist party in the USA. Out of its activity, and (it must also be said) directly or indirectly out of its continually recurring splits and divisions, came most of the other more famous radical organisations, including the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Morris Hillquit, and the Industrial Workers of the World of Big Bill Haywood and Vincent St John. Three thousand strong at its foundation, 7000 strong with 72 locals in 1878, at its peak around 1896, the SLP possessed some 250 locals in no less than 25 states. Its weekly organ, The People, launched on 5 April 1891, and still in existence, is by now the oldest Socialist journal in the world. In 1896 The People (which ran as a daily between 1900 and 1913) claimed a circulation of 6,000 copies an issue, a figure which many contemporary revolutionary sects might well envy.

The range of foreign language journals published at one time or another by the SLP is truly astonishing. Their kaleidescopic range included journals in the Flemish, Czech, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latvian, Mexican, Polish, Scandinavian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Yugoslav languages, with a further publication in Esperanto thrown in for good measure. Some of these publications were short lived. Others, such as the Hungarian A Munkas (The Worker), which began life in 1904, were still being published in 1960. Boris Reinstein, a longstanding member of the SLP, was present at the founding congress of the Communist International in 1919. The British SLP contributed an important contingent to the Communist Party of Great Britain at its foundation. Brother parties to the US SLP were founded in Canada and Australia, and it also had some influence in South Africa.

Daniel De Leon, the leading figure in the SLP from his recruitment in 1900 to his death in 1914, was an intellectual authority of some weight in the Marxist movement of his time. A ‘pure’ revolutionary of a somewhat sectarian hue, he gave the party a detailed doctrine of its own which his successors have kept in pristine purity up to the present day (a detailed elaboration will be found in my The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900–1921). Although not formally ‘democratic centralist’ by constitution, the SLP seems nevertheless to have been run in an authoritarian fashion by its New York head office from the very early years. In the first 23 years of its existence, the SLP went through some 11 National Secretaries. Arnold Petersen, the SLP’s own ‘man of iron’, ruled the party as National Secretary for the next 55 years, and his successor Nathan Karp for a further 11. Was this because of a rigid adherence to a particular ‘Marxist’ doctrine? Or was there some hidden ‘bureaucratic’ reason? One would like to know.

The SLP currently has some 200 members. In some ways no more than a sectarian relic from a long forgotten past, the SLP may in other ways still have a lesson to teach. The SLP has waited for ‘The Revolution’ for a full hundred years, and ‘The Revolution’ has still to come. Yet De Leon, the prime theoretician of the SLP was no fool. He proposed in 1901 that the party disaffiliate from the Second International on the grounds of its reformist character, an insight that Lenin was not to share until over a decade later. What went wrong? The question is one we all ought to ponder.

If you want a copy of this most interesting book, contact Frank Girardi at 4568 Richmond NW, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49504, USA, telephone 616-453-0305.

Walter Kendall

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011