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Albert Gates

Crisis of American Socialism

Factors Contributing to Its Decline

(June 1954)

From The New International, Vol. XX No. 3, May–June 1954, pp. 124–145.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One hundred years after the introduction of Marxian Socialist ideas into this country by the post-revolutionary German immigrants, and seventy-five years after the formation of the Social Democratic Party of North America, the socialist movement is at its lowest ebb. Its organizations are few in number; those that exist are small and with little influence. In relation to the many millions of workers and lower middle class people whom they seek to win and influence, the socialist groupings are sects.

Such a condition does, in truth, call for an examination of the causes of the fateful decline of the only social force capable of regenerating and revolutionizing a decaying society. Studies made of the crisis of American socialism have had unhappy results. For one, these re-examinations have been made either by capitalist opponents of socialism or by apostate socialists. In the first case, we are presented with the repetitious thesis of an American alien to the world and insulated against any “foreign” ideas; in the second, a revision of formerly held socialist views and a re-discovery of an America which does not in fact exist. More recently, these “studies” have appeared in magazine essay form, and in the two-volume work on the subject issued by the University of Princeton Press, under the editorship of Stow Persons and Donald Drew Egbert. [1]

No important study of the crisis of socialism, however, has as yet been made by an American socialist, or American Marxist, still adhering to his ideas, on a subject which merits serious attention. Although it does not treat with this problem directly, Ira Kipnis’ study [2] of the most important formative phase of Socialist Party history will be amply referred to in the course of this essay.

The historical factors that need to be considered in understanding the evolution of American socialism are complex and subtle. It is incumbent upon socialists to explain why, in the most advanced capitalist nation in the world, in contrast to most European countries, no mass socialist movement arose to speak in the name of the working class and to challenge the two bourgeois political parties. In England, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy, for example, such parties made their appearance long ago to challenge the bourgeois parties in the contest for political power. Even after two world wars which so gravely deepened the decay of European society, even after the rise of the post-war reaction of Stalinism, socialist parties, whether radical or reformist, made their reappearance in varying degrees of strength. But in the United States, with no large Stalinist movement to challenge it, socialism has not only failed to experience such a rebirth, it has declined to even smaller proportions. It has done so when, contradictorily enough, the preconditions and the possibilities are present for a swift development of the political class movement of the American working class.

The intellectual opponents of socialism explain the failures of American socialism not so much on the shortcomings of the movement and its leaders (they assert this too, however) but on the nature of the society. Briefly, the thesis reads as follows:

Socialism can grow only in those nations where there is a sharp class division and a long-standing class stratification; where there has been a feudal past and strong aristocratic remnants; where there has been no fluid movement of wealth and ownership, and where the capitalist society was outworn, in a process of decay, without resilience, inventiveness, or ability to improvise. American capitalism, if indeed it can even be called capitalism, is different from the European. It is a progressive society. Classes there may be, but the kind of class divisions that existed in typical capitalism are not to be found in the United States. Daniel Bell, an editor of Fortune and familiar with socialist theory and history advances the view that American society is not in fact a class society; economy is a “managed” one, a form of a planned economy (Republicans, please note!) and the nation is divided into “interest blocs” or “regional groupings,” rather than classes. The differences between the “interest blocs” and “regional groupings” produce conflicts, it is true, but no class conflicts. These differences may be sharp, or they may be resolved and the “interest blocs” coalesce as often as they may separate. No class movement, therefore, is possible in a fluid society such as we have in this country. It is not exactly a new theory, but a skillful version of an old one, for the American bourgeoisie in its rapacious accumulation of wealth, never failed to assert that this is a classless society.

The verisimilitude in the foregoing lies in the fact that American capitalism did experience an origin and development quite different from any other capitalist nation. Its rise as a capitalist-imperialist power was quite unique. American socialists and Marxists have for the most part evaded their theoretical and political responsibilities by overlooking the unique aspects of our national development in favor of the more simple and abstract scientific socialist theories of capitalist evolution. They did not do what Marx and Engels advised all socialists to do: to be concrete; to understand their national history, traditions and developments so they might be able to apply socialist theory intelligently to the problems of their respective nations. American socialists approached the problems of the class struggle from the point of view of a narrow economic determinism rather than through the incisive, all-embracing and penetrating conceptions of historical materialism.

We shall present what, in our opinion, are decisive and distinctive aspects of American development which determined the unique rise of capitalism and its classes. Some of the phenomena have been cited before, but they have not always been accurately understood. Nor have they been viewed in their total effect upon social developments in this country.


To say that the development of the American working class has been intensively uneven, that it is a class without class consciousness, nay, a class with a bourgeois ideology, or a bourgeoisified class, may be sufficient as a descriptive statement which is both true and untrue. The working class of this country has had a contradictory evolution, just as the socialist movement did. In more than one period of our history, large sections of the native American working class, not immigrants or foreign-born workers, reached a high degree of consciousness and combativeness against the bourgeois ruling class. Class struggles of genuine historical importance have been written permanently into the history of the country. Periodic rises of the working-class movement occurred up to the First World War, and once again during the great crisis of the Thirties. There were simultaneous advancements of socialism. Even as late as the Thirties, the hopelessly reformist Socialist Party became quite radical and began to expand rapidly while retaining its program and "philosophy.”

In the very early years of this nation, before its rapid industrialization, Utopian Socialism appeared on the horizon as millennial hope. The stark, bitter and endless struggle for existence and economic equality in the young agrarian capitalist nation witnessed the flourishing of Owenist and Fourierist socialism. Producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives arose and disappeared for over forty years. Kipnis points out that between 1820 and 1850 nineteen cooperative colonies were founded under the influence of Robert Owen, and more than forty “Fourierist phalanxes,” championed by the elder Albert Brisbane.

These were merely symptomatic developments. The continuous evolution of capitalism in this country precluded any further development of these experiments.

The beginnings of a modern socialist movement in the United States are at least as old as they were in England, and not far behind any other European country. As a matter of historical fact, socialism arose almost simultaneously in all modern capitalist countries. In the European countries, however, the socialist movement developed steadily and surely to become the movement of the largest class in society. Whether they were called Socialist, Social Democratic, or Labor, these parties became the parties of the working class capable of making the bid for political power. Only in this country, despite great promise and possibilities, did such a party fail to mature.

The question naturally arises: was such a party possible in the United States? If such a party was not possible, could a large, substantial, but less influential party have emerged out of the particular and peculiar conditions inherent in the nature of American economic and political development? Or was and is the United States really an exceptional or new type of capitalist nation, with characteristics wholly untypical of “normal” capitalism, different enough to make impossible the creation and growth of a Marxian socialist party and an even larger movement around it?

An answer to these questions, even a provisional one, is long overdue. For in seeking such an answer we are compelled to investigate the genuine problems of American socialism and create a basis for a resurgence of the socialist movement. It is necessary to begin, therefore, at the very beginning. The basic errors of the socialist movement occurred not in its later years but in its formative periods. It never understood this nation, its development, its needs. It never developed a program that provided a perspective capable of leading to the creation of an influential socialist working-class party.

Engels, way back in the ’90’s, spoke of the “exceptional position of the native-born workers” and what an obstacle they were to the newly-risen socialist movement. At the beginning of the crisis of the Thirties, Trotsky attributed the absence of a mass revolutionary socialist party to the nature of the unprecedented development of capitalism and the traditions which accompanied it. Let us see exactly what they meant.

A. The United States began as a colony which established its independence in a revolutionary war against its “mother” country, England. The war for independence was the work of a “minority.” That fact is of no decisive significance. The population of the country was small. The revolutionists were in the majority over the loyal supporters of the Crown; the large numbers of “indifferent” people, if they did not actively support the Continental Congress certainly were not hostile to it and the armies it put into the field. A colonial war for freedom, it embraced virtually all political, social and economic groupings in that simple society. Such a struggle, antedating the French Revolution, produced some history-making ideas and documents of a plebeian character, announcing the fiercely democratic aims of an early agrarian, incipient capitalist society.

There was no feudal past to contend with. That meant an absence of feudal class relations and as important as that, the absence of the deadly tradition of feudal relations. Capitalism could develop in this country in a free manner without going through the stage of the internal “bourgeois revolution” – except in the form of the later Civil War.

If the plebeian masses did not have to shake off the remnants of a newly-overthrown feudalism, they did develop a sense of the community of national interests of all the people regardless of conflicts which separated different groupings.

Staunchly democratic, these masses made it impossible for the rise to power of aristocratic tendencies in early American society. When the peaceful economic relations threatened to break out into fierce warfare, as they did more than once, the existence of limitless land and the expansion of the frontier permitted the absorption and softening of these conflicts.

B. From the beginnings of the nation to the Civil War, the United States remained a predominantly agrarian nation. The proletariat which did arise was a scattered group, small in numbers, and certainly not yet a class. So long as the nation spread its borders westward, so long as there was land to be had by settling on it, just so long did internal class relations remain fluid and softened. Moreover, this steady expansion was accompanied by an ever-rising productivity in the land and a growth of manufacture, which translated themselves into a generalized rise in the living standards of all the people. Economic crises arose; but these were shortlived. They were followed by new and unprecedented expansions.

The conflict which overshadowed all others was the Civil War. It not only resolved the great contradiction of American society, but was the impetus to the unprecedentedly swift emergence of modern capitalism with powerful monopolistic beginnings. The fact that the popular mind conceived of the great issues of the war, union and the abolition of slavery, as moral ones, only served to obscure the reality: a development of modern capitalism was not possible without the simultaneous destruction of the dual economy of the south. The Civil War created a general feeling of unity in the North which transcended the loose and soft class and group antagonisms. Thus, while European society was already sharply divided into distinct social classes the formation of permanent classes in the United States corresponding to modern capitalism was to come only after the Civil War.

The real “industrial revolution” of the nation began then but at a rate of progress unknown to any other capitalist nation. Even before the War, the borders of the country were pushed to the Pacific. Geographic expansion, piled onto economic expansion, offered all peoples the opportunity of escape from given conditions to new situations and produced a general state of social impermanence. The country was endowed with relatively unlimited natural resources. The land, too, was limitless, capable of absorbing millions of people. A new, expanding labor force was provided by mass immigration. A favorable geographic location with little or no military demands made upon it enabled the country to concentrate on economic expansion for fifty untrammeled years.

These were the decisive years of growth, “the Gilded Age” of American capitalism, as Woodward called them. The great monopolies and great family fortunes made their appearance. Class lines were more rigidly formed and the class struggle broke out in vigorous response to the severe exploitation which accompanied this tremendous growth of capitalism. These were not small skirmishes between impermanent and competing, undefinable, economic groupings, but genuine conflicts between class and class. The former unstable equilibrium of American society was replaced by the new one based on industry, finance and hardened class division in contrast to the agrarian decades. Yet, though class relations were becoming firmly established, the possibility of movement was still present to a great extent. The tremendous growth of the United States not only created a modern proletarian and bourgeois class, but also an enormous new middle class, completely subordinated to and at the mercy of Big Capital.

C. From 1870 to 1900 we saw the consolidation of the bourgeoisie and its virtual “ownership” of the government which spared nothing to insure the economic and political domination of this new class. Middle class and agrarian revolts against the “octopus” took the political form of Populism. The new working class, without important traditions and without a significant social and political ideology, fought back with the only “natural” methods at hand, the strike. The new capitalist class, young, vibrant, powerful and with an unshakeable faith in its own destiny, responded to strikes with a fury hitherto unknown in American life. Through local police, hired gunmen and thugs, the bourgeoisie sought to resolve all class conflicts.

C. Thus, the incipient class movement of workers appeared. Unlike the bourgeoisie, the new American working class had as yet no consciousness. Only the bare struggle forced its progressive and militant sections to seek an ideological understanding of the new society. Whatever socialist ideas did exist were to be found mainly among small groups of German immigrants who were themselves isolated from the main stream of the American working class. There was no harmony between the native American workers and the millions of immigrant proletarians who brought with them a prehistory of struggle and ideas. The American working class had so to speak no pre-history, nor any traditions that might guide it in the newly formed class society of an industrial capitalist America.

Yet, what appeared to be the beginning of permanent formations of proletarian organizations in America were merely temporary groupings isolated from the main trend of the society. Expansion, growth, the unprecedented, continuous increase in production, wealth and the prosperity of the nation served, at each apparently decisive stage of class development, to absorb and soften the class relations. There was enough freedom of movement, enough possibility for changing one’s class position, to hinder the rise of a working-class movement of any significance.

To develop class consciousness, class organization, and traditions a relative geographical and industrial stability is required even within a rising capitalism. In contrast to European countries, with fixed borders, small territories, classes of long origin and traditions of struggle, the United States presented a picture of impermanence and instability. There was nothing settled about the American nation. Not until the Thirties did the United States exhibit what every Marxist knew: its basic capitalist characteristics which had finally caught up with all the illusions about it.

As long as there was this instability, as long as there remained a possibility of inter-class movement, breath-taking expansion and prosperity, it was not possible to develop the kind of class movement which arose in Europe, even though socialist ideas had already appeared in organized forms.

The period of beginnings of union and socialist organizations was one of great hustle and bustle. There was no time for settling down. Industries were born, old ones expanded, and new lands opened. The population increased and moved ever onward toward the west. Despite the climate of never-ceasing change, of growth and movement, of new wealth and prosperity, a whole new era tacked on to a historical background unfavorable to the growth of socialism, and unionism as well, the first union and socialist organizations made their appearance. In the most important industrial areas, the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor were born as the organizations of the skilled craftsmen of American Labor. Socialism was most importantly represented first by the International Working Men’s Association, then by the Social Democratic Party of North America, and finally through the fusion of these two into the Working Men’s Party of the United States, which thereafter assumed the name of Socialist Labor Party.

Already one can observe a sharp distinction from what appeared to be parallel developments in Europe, a distinction which has had a disastrous effect upon the socialist movement to this very day. In continental Europe, the political and economic organizations of the working class were erected simultaneously. Socialists organized the union movements of the several nations and gave them an ideology and a program to work for in a field separated from but integral to the political activities of the various socialist parties. The union movements of Europe were not merely class economic organizations of the workers, but they reflected, together with the parties, the total class consciousness of the whole organized working class.

In the United States, from the very outset, there was a marked separation between the political and economic organizations of the workers. This became a “principle” of American union organization. Politics was regarded as something alien to the union movement, although the relationship between the socialists and unionists was still close (Gompers even attended the Brussels Congress of the Second International in 1891.) Underneath suspicion and hostility were unmistakable. “Political neutrality” was a byword of the Knights of Labor; it became a principle of the AFL. By that they did not mean political neutrality before all political parties, but only in a choice between the two bourgeois parties which the AFL did not regard as class parties but as representatives of all sections of society.

Although the Socialist Labor Party tried desperately to win control of the union movement and establish the kind of relationship which existed in Europe, the resistance of the pure and simple unionists was too powerful. The petty-bourgeois ideology of the union movement accurately reflected the objective conditions of the nation. Then, too, the methods of the Socialist Labor Party, composed largely of immigrant socialists, were highly objectionable. The party was ideologically out of tune with the real America. It did not have a genuine perspective of the problems and needs of the American working class, nor did it really understand the nature of American developments. And although it did champion the progressive idea of industrial unionism against the crippling, debilitating and self-defeating practice of craft unionism, its haughty, sectarian and ultimatistic attitude toward the AFL resulted in its almost total isolation from those sections of the working class which were organized and therefore made up the advanced section of the proletariat.

Frederick Engels, who interested himself greatly in American affairs, studied its problems very minutely and wrote some brilliant observations and proposals to the American movement (he even visited the country in 1888). He was much concerned and overwrought at the failings of American socialists who professed themselves the direct representatives of Marx and Engels and their scientific socialist ideas.

In a sometimes pedagogical and friendly tone, and at other times in anger, he tried to draw the attention of the Americans, most particularly the arrogant German immigrants, to what the real problems of the country were. More than that, he endeavored to explain from England what the American socialists did not understand about themselves and their own country, what tasks confronted them and what program they should pursue. We shall refer to him in some detail to show first, that he had no illusions, or few of them, about the United States; second, that through the method of historical materialism he understood better than anyone else at that time the nature of the new country; third, that he did not suffer from opportunism or sectarianism (the two diseases which contributed so heavily to prevent the rise of a substantial socialist party in this country); and finally, that while he erred in the matter of time, he was correct in his main recommendations.

Toward the end of 1892 he wrote to Frederick Sorge:

... Here in old Europe things are somewhat livelier than in your “youthful” country, which still doesn’t quite want to get out of its hobbledehoy stage. It is remarkable, but quite natural, how firmly rooted are bourgeois prejudices even in the working class in such a young country, which has never known feudalism and has grown up on a bourgeois basis from the beginning. Out of his very opposition to the mother country – which is still clothed in its feudal disguise – the American worker also imagines that the traditionally inherited bourgeois regime is something progressive and superior by nature and for all time, a non plus ultra [not to be surpassed]. Just as in New England, Puritanism, the reason for the whole colony’s existence has become for this very reason a traditional heirloom and almost inseparable from local patriotism. The Americans may strain and struggle as much as they like, but they cannot discount their future – colossally great as it is – all at once like a bill of exchange: they must wait for the date on which it falls due; and just because their future is so great, their present must occupy itself mainly with preparatory work for the future, and this work, as in every young country, is of a predominantly material nature and involves a certain backwardness of thought, a clinging to the traditions connected with the foundation of the new nationality. The Anglo-Saxon race – these damned Schleswig-Holsteiners, as Marx always called them – is slow-witted anyhow, and its history, both in Europe and America (economic success and predominantly peaceful development) has encouraged this still more. Only great events can be of assistance here, and if, added to the more or less completed transfer of the public lands to private ownership, there now comes the expansion of industry under a less insane tariff policy and the conquest of foreign markets, it may go well with you, too. The class struggles here in England, too, were more turbulent during the period of development of large-scale industry and dies down just in the period of England’s undisputed industrial domination of the world. In Germany, too, the development of large-scale industry since 1850 coincides with the rise of the Socialist movement, and it will be no different, probably, in America. It is the revolutionizing of all established conditions by industry as it develops that also revolutionizes people’s minds.

Earlier that year he directed the following comments to Herman Schlueter, editor of the New York Volkszeitung, indicating how accurately he measured the development of the working class:

Your great obstacle in America, it seems to me, lies on the exceptional position of the native-born workers. Up to 1848 one could speak of a permanent native-born working class only as an exception. The small beginnings of one in the cities in the East still could always hope to become farmers or bourgeois. Now such a class has developed and has also organized itself on trade-union lines to a great extent. But it still occupies an aristocratic position and wherever possible leaves the ordinarily badly-paid occupations to the immigrants, only a small portion of whom enter the aristocratic trade unions. But these immigrants are divided into different nationalities, which understand neither one another nor, for the most part, the language of the country. And your bourgeoisie knows much better even than the Austrian government how to play off one nationality against the other; Jews, Italians, Bohemians, etc., against Germans and Irish, and each one against the other, so that differences in workers’ standards of living exist, I believe, in New York to an extent unheard of elsewhere. And added to this is the complete indifference of a society that has grown up on a purely capitalist basis, without any easygoing feudal background, toward the human lives that perish in the competitive struggle ...

In such a country continually renewed waves of advance, followed by equally certain setbacks, are inevitable. Only the advances always become more powerful, the setbacks less paralyzing, and on the whole the cause does move forward. But this I consider certain: The purely bourgeois foundation, with no pre-bourgeois swindle back of it, the corresponding colossal energy of development, which is displayed even in the mad exaggeration of the present protective tariff system, will one day bring about a change that will astound the whole world.

At two separate periods it appeared that the above prediction was being realized, but, alas, two world-shaking events were to prove the undoing of the movement. But even in those years, Engels understood the tasks of the socialists better than not only his contemporaries, but those who tried to build a movement in the decades of the new century.

Writing to Sorge in 1892 on the political problems, he said:

There is no place yet in America for a third party, I believe. The divergence of interests even in the same class group is so great in that tremendous area that wholly different groups and interests are represented in each of the two big parties, depending on the locality, and almost each particular section of the possessing class has its representatives in each of the two parties to a very large degree, though today big industry forms the core of the Republicans on the whole, just as the big landowners of the South form that of the Democrats. The apparent haphazardness of this jumbling together is what provides the splendid soil for the corruption and the plundering of the government that flourish there so beautifully. Only when the land – the public lands – is completely in the hands of the speculators, and settlement on the land thus becomes more and more difficult or falls victim to gouging – only then, I think, will the time come, with peaceful development, for a third party. Land is the basis of speculation, and the American speculative mania and speculative opportunity are the chief levers that hold the native-born worker in bondage to the bourgeoisie. Only when there is a generation of native-born workers that cannot expect anything from speculation any more, will we have a solid foothold in America! But, of course, who can count on peaceful development in America! There are economic jumps over there, like the political ones in France – to be sure, they produce the same momentary retrogressions.

The small farmer and the petty bourgeois will hardly ever succeed in forming a strong party; they consist of elements that change too rapidly – the farmer is often a migratory farmer, farming two, three and four farms in succession in different states and territories, immigration and bankruptcy promote the change in personnel in each group, and economic dependence upon the creditor also hampers independence – but to make up for it they are a splendid element for politicians, who speculate on their discount in order to sell them out to one of the big parties afterward.

The tenacity of the Yankees, who are even rehashing the Greenback humbug, is a result of their theoretical backwardness and their Anglo-Saxon contempt for all theory. They are punished for this by a superstitious belief in every philosophical and economic absurdity, by religious sectarianism, and idiotic economic experiments, out of which, however, certain bourgeois cliques profit.

What disturbed Engels above all was the failure of the socialists to understand the nature of the country or the tasks of socialism in this “peculiar” and “exceptional” nation. In the numerous letters which he exchanged with personal and political friends, he tried as patiently as possible, to indicate correct perspectives and tactics for the movement. Through these years his trenchant criticism of the “arrogant” German immigrant socialists and the sectarian and stiff-backed Socialist Labor Party (dominated by the same immigrants), became open opposition to their policies and practice.

When in March, 1893, Mr. F. Wiesen of Baird, Texas, wrote critically about social democrats putting up candidates for elective office Engels replied, of course, that there was no principle involved and added about the United States that:

... the immediate goal of the labor movement is the conquest of political power for and by the working class. If we agree on that, the difference of opinion regarding the ways and means of the struggle to be employed therein can scarcely lead to differences of principle among sincere people who have their wits about them. In my opinion those tactics are the best in each country that leads to the goal most certainly and in the shortest time. But we are yet very far from this goal precisely in America, and I believe I am not making a mistake in explaining the importance still attributed to such academic questions over there by this very circumstance ...

Engels’ observations and opinions were not given much heed by the organized socialists. He lost all patience with their sectarian and ultimatistic attitude to the working class, and his comments became more and more severe. In a letter to Schlueter, he wrote:

The German Party over there must be smashed, as such; it is becoming the worst obstacle. The American workers are coming along all right, but just like the English they go their own way. One cannot drum theory into them beforehand, but their own experience and their own blunders and the resulting evil consequences will bump their noses up against theory – and then all right. Independent peoples go their own way, and the English and their offspring are surely the most independent of them all. Insular stiff-necked obstinacy annoys one often enough, but it also guarantees that what is begun will be carried out once a thing gets started ...

What did Engels have in mind? He knew at first hand that it had taken the European working class at least five decades to evolve its proletarian organizations in countries of long existence, with a continuity of peoples and traditions and where class divisions were not only understood by everyone, but taken for granted. There were strong bourgeois and democratic revolutionary traditions on the Continent, and yet years and years went by before the European proletariat proved capable of becoming a class for itself.

In the United States, events had moved much quicker without the great experiences of the European workers. Just as the nation had to start at the beginning, so to speak, so, too, the working class. But within a short number of years, the American working class, which American public opinion in 1885 held was not a class, organized its first union and socialist bodies. Great class battles burst out, the historic struggle for the eight-hour day began (yes, the struggle for the eight-hour day, a momentous demand, began in the United States!), the Pennsylvania miners’ strikes took place, followed by struggles in Chicago and Milwaukee. An incipient labor party made its first appearance in New York, Chicago and Milwaukee.

Following the pattern of European developments a few decades later, these were the first expressions of class consciousness, which seemed to become transformed immediately into political party organization. But it was only the first expression and the first attempt. It did not develop very far, for already other tendencies invaded the field. Yet the organized socialists, particularly the Socialist Labor Party, which already put itself forward as the party of the working class demanding that the working class must support it, opposed all such independent political developments.

As early as 1887, Engels wrote a rather pointed analysis of the political situation. After describing enthusiastically the prospect of an American labor party and analyzing the various forces in the country he came finally to the SLP. He wrote:

The third section consists of the Socialist Labor Party. This section is a party but in name, for nowhere in America has it, up to now, been able actually to take its stand as a political party. It is, moreover, to a certain extent foreign to America, having until lately been made up almost exclusively by German immigrants, using their own language and, for the most part, little conversant with the common language of the country. But if it came from a foreign stock, it came, at the same time, armed with the experience earned during the long years of class struggle in Europe, and with an insight into the general conditions of working-class emancipation, far superior to that hitherto gained by American working men ... but ... they will have to doff every remnant of their foreign garb. They will have to become out and out American. They cannot expect the American will come to them; they, the minority and the immigrants, must go to the Americans, who are the vast majority and the natives. And to do that, they must above all things learn English ...

To bring about this result, the unification of the various independent bodies into one national labor army, with no matter how inadequate a provisional platform, provided it be a truly workingclass platform – that is the next great step to be accomplished in America. To effect this, and to make that platform worthy of the cause, the Socialist Labor Party can contribute a great deal, if they will only act in the same way as the European Socialists have acted at the time when they were but a small minority of the working class ...


The objective development of the United States in the new century did not allow for the settling process to which Engels had looked forward. On the contrary, some of those very characteristics remained in the period of greater class cohesion which had forestalled the development of the political movement of the working class. Neither the Socialist Labor Party, nor its successor, the Socialist Party, understood or cared about Engels’ opinions and proposals to them.

The aristocratic position of the American working class remained even as its class position became consolidated. It continued to be an “exceptional” working class. Ideological backwardness remained a hallmark of the working class, organized and unorganized. All of this was true, despite the outbreaks of class struggle which surpassed all previous experience. The fact remained that the process of maturation of this capitalist society did not take place until the end of the Twenties and the tasks which Engels believed were posed to American socialists remained present and to a fundamental degree remain to our very time.

The American working class has never yet become transformed, in Marx’s terms, from a class an sich (in itself) to a class für sich (for itself). That is, it never became class conscious and remains to this day a bourgeois-minded, or bourgeoisified, working class which has reached the stage only of union consciousness. This was the raw material out of which it was hoped to build the movement of socialism.

If all this be true, and we believe it to be incontestable, then the socialist movement faced an insuperable task. Clearly, in retrospect, it was impossible for the American movement to duplicate the success of the European socialists. It was not possible to organize this kind of working class as a socialist class, in the form of the third party in American politics. But, if that was not possible it was yet possible to create a large and influential movement capable of realizing its historic mission when the changes that were certain to come did, at last, arrive. The background reasons for this failure are to be sought not with the beginning of Stalinism in this country or the Socialist Party of 1920-1950, but in the formative years of the Socialist Party from its birth in 1900 to the presidential elections of 1912.

It is too bad that Kipnis’ book which describes these years in great detail contains no reference to Engels’ penetrating observations. He might then have been able to relate the material of his book to the theoretical and political views of the leader of world socialism and have drawn the indicated lessons from the great experiences of the party. The book is so splendidly documented, however, that the following observations draw naturally upon that material.

The Socialist Party was the result of a fusion of the “left wing” of the Socialist Labor Party under the leadership of Hillquit, Untermann, Harriman, Max Hayes, and William Mailly among many others, and the Social Democratic Party, whose outstanding leaders included such disparate figures as Victor Berger, the narrow-minded, anti-Marxist, reformist director of the Wisconsin organization, and Eugene V. Debs, the outstanding working-class leader of his times and an uncompromising rebel.

In the first years of its existence, the new party had to overcome the effects of the split with the DeLeonist SLP to guide the fused organization, composed of an almost unimaginable combination of forces from a non-socialist right wing to the sectarian, militant left, to a more normalized existence. The unity was not easily come by. Berger, Seymour Stedman, and Berger’s right-hand man, Frederic Heath, were not too eager for fusion, having felt that the “left” SLP ought to join the Social Democratic Party. Were it not for the vigorous pressure of the ranks of both organizations, unity would never have taken place. The “manipulators” at the summits of both organizations would have seen to that.

The militant Washington State organization of the SDP attacked the leadership and accused it of trying to attract “all the ‘Reformers’ ... [who] are ‘Socialistically inclined.’ With the magic name of Debs [who differed with the leadership on almost all questions and who was despised by them – AG] at the head of the party ticket, that policy may win votes, but they will not be socialist votes.” Berger, in an editorial in the Social Democratic Herald, wrote an attack on unity and denounced the Hillquit SLP for its “faith in Marxism”!

Berger, whose deadly influence on the Socialist movement has never yet been lived down by the SP, could not even tolerate Hillquit’s lip service to Marxism. The fact that Hillquit was not a Marxist did not stop this pro-German chauvinist with anti-Semitic feelings from denouncing Hillquit as a “thorough class conscious lawyer of New York,” a “Polish apple Jew,” a “Moses Hilkowitz from Warsaw,” and a “rabbinical candidate.”

For all their boasting, the SDP leadership lacked the strength to compete with the “left” SLP. Neither could it resist the pressures of the rank and file and the various proposals for unity carried in both parties despite the opposition of Berger, Stedman and Margaret Haile. After a brief period of the existence of several “unified” organizations, the Socialist Party emerged in the elections of 1900 with Debs as presidential candidate. The party polled 96,000 votes in its first campaign, surpassing the much older SLP. Henceforth, the political vote of the party was to increase until it reached 900,000 votes in 1912.

“The new Socialist Party,” writes Kipnis, “was united structurally by a loose party federation. Ideologically, however, there were few signs of unity. Almost all party leaders gave lip service to the philosophy of scientific socialism as expounded by Marx and Engels ... But when party leaders attempted to apply Marxism to twentieth century America, considerable disagreement appeared among the ‘scientists.’ ”

By 1904, the party was divided into three indistinct factions of Right, Center and Left. The Right, in the beginning at least, represented those elements in the SDP which had opposed unification. The Center and Left came from the SDP faction which had its center in Massachusetts and from most of Hillquit’s former organization. The latter made up the majority of the party. It was presumed to stand on the principles of Marx. The truth was that few in the party knew or understood the principles of Marxism.

The center-Left coalition, for example, “explained that the science of socialism was based on the ‘economic interpretation of history,’ or as Marx ‘unfortunately’ called it, the ‘materialist conception of history.’ They considered Marx’s name for his theory ‘unfortunate’ because it tended to inject historical materialism into the conflicting ideologies of philosophic materialism and idealism.” This is only one example of the kind of ideology that prevailed in the party, and it was not the worst by far.

In the person of Victor Berger, the party had a vigorous leader whose participation in a socialist organization remains a mystery to modern students. He was an American edition of Edward Bernstein, the father of socialist revisionism, but that was the only way in which he did resemble the learned and capable leader of German reformism. In all other respects, he was more nearly the opportunist type of American radical, often found in either the Republican or Democratic parties. His socialism consisted in a struggle for government ownership and “municipalization,” to be achieved in an electoral struggle against the Republicans and Democrats. The program of this right wing bore a close resemblance to Populism, from which it borrowed many of its ideas. Little wonder it was that the center-left bloc appeared quite radical to the right wing and the bourgeois world at large. The Center-Left bloc saw the revolutionary movement consisting of “three concentric circles.” An outer ring of Americans with a “ ‘dim, nebulous something called radicalism,’ ” a middle ring of those who accepted and voted for the ideas of socialism, and an inner ring of active, organized, party socialists. The Center-Left bloc of the party sought not only to win votes but to build the party into a mighty organization. There was no agreement within this bloc on the best elements that make up a socialist party. The Left expressed its strong doubts about the middle class and the Center emphasized the unity of brain and manual workers, expressing the fact that there were few or no workers among its leading elements. In general, the conception of workers’ power in this Center-Left bloc was naive and confused, just as the ideology of the whole party over an extended period was reformist, unreal and naive.

When the Center and Right formed their unity against the Left, they not only dominated the party as a whole, but produced an alien ideology and tradition that continues in one form or another until this very day.

The party was to become, and in fact did become, a purely electoral organization. It sought political power in order to effect its program of nationalization of, at one time, the monopolies, and at another, the “public utilities.” This program was to become the sum total of the socialist program around which its ideology revolved. Composed largely of middle-class elements, the program of the new Right-Center bloc reflected the dual interests of this group and the labor aristocrats in its ranks. In contrast, a large part of the Left wing was made up of manual workers, adherents to industrial unionism, and those who professed themselves to be Marxian socialists, even though they did not always know what Marxism meant.

In order to carry out a semi-Populist, purely reformist program in competition with the reformists of the Democratic Party and the Teddy Roosevelt Progressives, both of which won considerable strength from the Socialist Party, Berger had to amplify his opportunist policies with a broadside attack on Marxism, the object of which was to demonstrate the respectability of the party and to win the support of the middle class and, believe it or not, the capitalists themselves. Proudly assuming the mantle of the “American Bernstein,” he launched an attack on the whole system of Marxism.

The Right held that the conception of workers winning elections and then inaugurating socialism was false. It held such a theory to be “utopian and unscientific.” No doubt it was, but the reason the Right rejected the theory was because “Socialism was partly here now [in 1904], and more of it was coming every day” in the United States and under the bourgeois government. Proof of this expansion of socialism within capitalism were “limitation on dividends of public service corporations, the police department, the post office, and municipal ownership of street railways. Socialism was to replace capitalism by a gradual process of growth. It was to permeate and transform the capitalist system.” What remained for the Socialist Party? To increase this permeation and transformation! In the conception of the Right, socialism was inherent in the capitalist organization, was already present and growing, was, in fact inevitable!

The Right was not for nationalization. As Kipnis points out, they believed that economic justice “like charity, began at home.” Home was the municipality. Thus, home rule was a great ideal of the Right. This was followed by municipal ownership of public utilities, better schools and hospitals, and civil service reform. How did this differ from the bourgeois reformist parties? Oh, a great deal. The bourgeois reformist parties were interested in municipal ownership “in order to lower taxes, while the Socialists wanted to use the profits to aid the workers.”

So insular, provincial and narrow-minded was this Right Wing that they found it necessary to assert that such a program could not be understood in New York City “that Babel of sin and deviltry. There can be no doubt that even Socialism and Socialists will become corrupted – or rather poisoned – in that sea of evil.” The hope of socialism lay in the smaller cities like ... Milwaukee and San Francisco!

The Right "warned that if socialism were just a proletarian movement it could have no hope for success. The proletariat was not ‘ripe for socialism.’ ” Moreover, the masses were stupid, indolent philistines. Social progress was not carried by workers but by the intellectual “cranks,” the intelligent men who would guide socialism rather than the ignorant and desperate workers trying to obtain socialism through force and bloodshed. “Class consciousness,” said one of them, “is the idol of narrow-minded, dogmatic, pseudo-scientific Socialists of the orthodox type.”

If this was not in accord with the ideas of the Communist Manifesto, so much the worse for Marx’s historic work. It was necessary to realize now that “the ruling and ruled classes ... stood on exactly the same footing before the law ... wage workers in progressive countries have the same political rights as capitalists.”

Until the Right and Center came together, the above ideology did not dominate the party, but shortly after this alliance, Victor Berger and his hosts made such theories and practice those of the party as a whole. If Hillquit did, on ceremonial occasions, pay tribute to Marx and his system, he managed at all other times to pursue a policy not in any principled way different from those of Berger, assenting more than once that the Socialist Party was not a Marxist party.

This alliance could not but force into opposition the forces of Left. The Left, whose revolutionary instincts and concepts were far superior to that of the Right-Center bloc, was itself without a consistent theory. It was sectarian in many important ways and although it fought vigorously against the dominant party faction, its lack of theoretical clarity and a correct program of trade-union work did not help its struggle in a party which very quickly became a party of middleclass adventurers, job-seekers, and opportunists.

Between 1905 and 1912, the issues came to the forefront and remained in dispute until the Left was dispersed. The dispute intensified with the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Leading socialists like Haywood were founders of the IWW. Every officer at the time was a member of the Socialist Party. The movement arose as a reaction to craft unionism of the AFL. The leaders in the IWW contended, and quite correctly, that given the nature of American industrial development, the working class could not be organized, except on an industrial basis. As long as the AFL refused to change its form of organization or its orientation, it remained an aristocratic labor organization of the skilled workers and left the unskilled, the manual worker, who constituted the majority of the working class to the mercy of the capitalist class. The industrial unionists contended that no great socialist movement was possible without industrial unionism.

Although the party was oriented toward the AFL, it dared not openly denounce or disassociate itself from the IWW if only for the reason that, in large measure, the IWW was a creature of the SP. For a number of years it sought the endorsement of the AFL. It adopted the theory of separate domain: the economic activity of the working class belonged to the trade unions; the political activity to the Socialist Party. The party had no right to dictate policy or tactics to the unions; the unions ought not to dictate political matters to the party but should support it on the political field as the working man’s party.

The syndicalist idea gathered strength under these conditions. Many good socialists who became known as the “Wobblies” in the party, did not begin as syndicalists, but as industrial unionists. They were firmly convinced that the AFL would never organize the American working class and they were right at least up until the great crisis when the CIO was born and revolutionized the entire labor movement. The party’s ambiguous attitude toward industrial unionism and its equivocal relations with the IWW, at the same time that it curried favor of the AFL hierarchy, drove many fine unionists completely out of the corrupt AFL into the IWW and to pursue a syndicalist course.

The IWW did not begin with a program of opposition to political action or activities. That position arose somewhat later and no small reason for it was due to the reactionary campaign which the Right-Center leadership carried on against the IWW and its own comrades, who did a heroic job in trying to organize the lower strata of unorganized and unskilled workers. Indeed, Haywood was very active in many political campaigns of the party and so were countless other IWW workers and leaders. It was disgust with the type of political campaigns that the party carried on that drove many socialist Wobblies to adopt a disastrous anti-political policy. Certainly, Hillquit’s frameup to remove Haywood from the leadership of the party, following his election to the leading committee by the second highest vote of the membership, did not help.

In truth, however, the party was embarrassed by the IWW not only because of the strong current of syndicalism within its ranks, but even more so because of its militancy and the fights it waged. It was even embarrassed by the Wobbly struggle for free speech. Berger and the Wisconsin organization repeatedly threatened to leave the party and demanded on one occasion after another that the party choose between the “rabble” and the “respectable” social democrats. Again and again the party refused to support the political activities of the IWW. No wonder Haywood declared that the IWW had participated in far more political activity than the Socialist Party ever did.

Gene Debs, who sadly avoided all factional struggle within the party, sided openly with the IWW and the comrades of the left. He was intensely hated by the Berger Right Wing. Present-day socialists ought to know that every nominating convention of the old Socialist Party broke out into a struggle over the nomination of Debs. The Right Wing consistently opposed his candidacy, rejecting Debs as an irresponsible rabble rouser. If Debs was the party candidate in all presidential campaigns until 1916, when in the heat of war patriotism, Berger finally succeeded in preventing his nomination, it was the continuous revolt of the ranks that made it possible. Debs, who was tolerated by the Right-Center bloc because of his great popularity with the rank and file in the party and tens of thousands of workers who voted Socialist, had no great power inside the party. But he was in sentiment strongly attached to the left.

The victory of the Right-Center bloc began the most lurid period in the history of American socialism, a period which was to leave its mark on the party. With the adoption of the opportunist reformist program of competition with the Teddy Roosevelt Progressives and the Democratic Liberals, there was not much to distinguish the three, except the composition of the respective organizations, their respective traditions and names. No, there was something more. The Bull Moosers and the Democrats were comparatively cohesive organizations, while the Socialist Party did contain revolutionary elements which gave the party its contradictory appearance.

The new leadership strove hard to change the complexion of the party. The “party” press had wide circulation, tens of thousands of readers and, aside from The International Socialist Review, was mainly in the hands of the Right Wingers, the outright non-socialist reformists and refugees from Populism. They gave socialism an entirely different meaning than the founders of scientific socialism, but it was in accord with the ideology of the leadership. The party attracted adventurers of every description: intellectuals who despised the workers, unemployed editors who found jobs through and in the party, ministers of every description who achieved places of leadership in the party – but very few militant workers. This was accomplished by the design of the new party leadership.

And what a party it produced! Its conceptions of socialism have already been indicated. In every important struggle and on every important issue, it equivocated for fear that its respectability might be questioned by the bourgeois world. It hesitated to support the great fight of the Western Federation of Miners in the famous Haywood-Moyer-Pettibone case, even though the leading defendants were members of the party. It warned against “impatient” actions by the workers; it would not tolerate violations of what it regarded as “law and order.”

The party was now dominated by men like Berger, Stedman, Spargo, Simons, Barnes and Thompson, while Hillquit and his New York and other Centrist supporters played the role of softening the effects of the course that was to prove permanently disabling for the Socialist Party.

Symptomatic of what was wrong with the party can easily be seen in the great debates on the immigration question. The Japanese Socialist Party had appealed to the American party leaders against the vicious attacks on Japanese and Chinese immigration by West Coast Socialist papers. It asked the party “to be true to the exhortation of Marx – ‘Workingmen of all countries, unite.’ ” In March of 1907, the National Executive Committee adopted a resolution, endorsed by the National Committee, which was submitted by Hillquit to the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart. The resolution called upon all Socialist parties to educate immigrants in the principles of unionism and socialism and to “combat with all means at their command the willful importation of cheap foreign labor calculated to destroy labor organizations, to lower the standard of living of the working class, and to retard the ultimate realization of Socialism.”

Hillquit explained the position of the party leadership as not wholly in agreement with the trade union point of view, but it did oppose “artificially stimulated” immigration, especially from backward countries because the people “are incapable of assimilation with the workingmen of the country of their adoption.” The Chinese would be excluded and the exclusion of others would be determined as the question arose.

The Stuttgart resolution rejected the American resolution and adopted one condemning all measures restricting the freedom of immigration on racial or national grounds as reactionary. Recognizing the effects that mass immigration could have on a national working class, the resolution urged the organization of immigrants and the struggle for their political and economic equality. This resolution outraged the Right and sections of the Center and Left wings. Berger denounced Algernon Lee and A.M. Simons, as betrayers of the American proletariat for permitting the passage of a resolution that would admit “Jap and Chinaman” coolies into United States.

The debate prior to the adoption of the resolution and the Stuttgart Congress indicated just how reactionary were the Socialist leaders on this question. The party had been particularly violent over the danger of the “yellow peril” and joined with Hearst in his foul campaign against the Japanese and Chinese peoples. Ernest Untermann, a leader of the Centrist faction and considered a leading “Marxist” theoretician (they were all theoreticians!) found that he could not oppose immigration on economic grounds alone because that might exclude some desirable whites. “I am,” he averred, “determined that my race shall be supreme in this country and in the world.”

Berger declared that if socialism was to be achieved in the United States and Canada, these must be kept “white man’s” countries. Even Herman Titus, a leader of the West Coast left wing, reminded everyone that racial incompatibility was a fact and that “no amount of Proletarian Solidarity can ignore it. We must face facts.”

The December, 1907, NEC meeting considered the Berger-Untermann resolution to reject the Stuttgart position and readopt the American resolution. It was a fact, said Berger, that the country would soon have 5 million “yellow men” invading the country every years. Citing the presence of the Negroes, Berger added that, unless something was done, “this country is absolutely sure to become a black-and-yellow country within a few generations.” The authors of this resolution adopted Simons’ substitute motion saying that the International had no power to determine the tactics of the national parties and that the American party “at the present time, must stand in opposition to Asiatic immigration.” This resolution was at first rejected by the NEC but shortly thereafter adopted 26 to 11, insofar as the resolution applied to those “coming from Oriental countries or others backward in economic development, where the workers of such countries have shown themselves, as a body, to be unapproachable with the philosophy of Socialism.” They were, obviously, not nearly as approachable as Berger, Spargo, Stedman, Wilshire, Barnes and others! The debate in the 1908 convention was further evidence of what was wrong with the spirit of the party and what would finally destroy it as a vital socialist organization.

The viciously reactionary position of the leadership was cloaked in reasonable “socialist” rationalizations. The resolutions committee reported a compromise position which asserted the guiding principle of the Socialist movement to be the interests of the working class. Therefore the American working class could not be denied its right to protect its living standards from the competition of “imported laborers” and to do so would be “to set a bourgeois Utopian ideal above the class struggle.”

As a sugar coating to its real views, this compromise declared the party opposed all immigration “subsidized or stimulated by the capitalist class,” although it could not yet (!) commit itself on legislation designed to exclude any particular race. The committee did not feel itself competent on the subject of racial differences but recommended that the subject be investigated!

If the Committee did not feel itself competent on the subject, almost everyone else did. Gustave Hoehn said that “No mere sentiments or ideals of the present can wipe out the result of centuries of blood and thought and struggle.” Another said, “The brotherhood of man has no place in a capitalist society.” Berger exclaimed that the white race could not hope to compete in a propagation contest with the yellow. The first duty of the comrades was to their class and family. The white immigrants or their descendants were striving to raise standards of living while the “yellow races” were not. Now the class struggle dominated Berger’s views! Finally, Max Hayes, of the AFL Typographical Union arose to demand immediate exclusion and referred “deprecatingly to Marx’s great ideal and slogan. After all, Hayes informed the delegates, Marx wrote sixty years before then and knew nothing of our Pacific Coast”!

The genuine left wing fought back as hard as it could. It prevented the adoption of an “immediate exclusion” resolution, but the committee position did carry. If the party was thenceforth to display an increasing chauvinism which burst forth once more during the First World War, the ideology behind it can be seen in the debate on immigration which was of incalculable significance. For in this debate, one could measure the departure of the dominant party leadership from socialist theory, politics and ideas.

Interestingly enough, the party showed signs of growth and increasing influence. Much of it was due precisely to the reformist and opportunist program and policies of the party, to the manner in which it hid its socialism. This was especially true in small localities, in municipal campaigns. But this is also true: in the great national campaigns, it won its greatest victories only when the Left wing forced upon the party its more militant views; especially when the party found itself drawn into the great New England textile strikes centering around Lawrence, and led by Haywood and other party men. The party declined in national campaigns when the Left was unable to impose its views and the party competed on “equal” grounds with the bourgeois parties.


We believe the evidence is clear: the Socialist party and the movement failed in the formative years not because the movement was Marxist, or revolutionary, but for exactly the opposite reason: it was non-Marxist or anti-Marxist; it was predominantly reformist and opportunist. The defeat of the Socialist Party did not begin with the Left Wing split in 1919, but with the victory of the Right Wing in 1905. The Right dominated the party ideologically and organizationally. Yet the party never did rise to the position of the leading organization of the working class, even if it was not possible for it to become the great third party in the United States.

In all important respects, its perspectives guaranteed its defeat. When it should have been the champion of the great mass of unskilled workers, all of them unorganized, it accommodated itself to the Gompers-led AFL, of craft unionists, the aristocrats of American labor. If it did not openly fight against industrial unionism (in effect that is what it did), it certainly did not help, did not stand out as the leader in the organization of the mass of American labor. Thus, it bound itself to an organized, self-interested, and most bourgeois-minded minority of the American working class.

Even then, it might have been possible to accomplish much given the large support the party had in the AFL, were it not for the fact that once more the party defeated itself with a theoretical and practical theory that surrendered the organized workers to its reactionary labor leadership. The influencing motive foi this policy was the party’s desire to win the middle class, whom it regarded as the harbinger of socialism, and sections of the capitalist class itself. It therefore approached the great events of the class struggle with diffidence and ignored such great questions as the organization of the unorganized, the problems of the poor farmers and the Negro question. Where it did express itself, its positions were wrong or reactionary.

The party had no real guiding perspective. If it did, it would have become the champion of an independent labor party for the many reasons that Engels already understood. But, given its views on the nature of socialism and the kind of electoral struggle it did evolve, it is easy to understand why the party regarded the formation of such a labor party as inimical to its interests and fought every manifestation of such a party. It did not set its sights on winning the working class to it and felt victory was certain on the basis of support from the populists, middle classes, and sections of the Republican and Democratic parties. An independent labor party was a competitor!

Thus, the Socialist Party was tied to a labor movement which was small and isolated from the great mass of industrial workers; it rejected a political course that could alone have broken down the barriers to this working class. The party alienated the immigrant workers and it did nothing in behalf of the millions of Negroes. Women’s suffrage left the party cold: all it had to offer the millions of women in capitalist society was the “community kitchen” after the achievement of socialism!

The resurgence of a Left Wing in the party after the Russian Revolution was to bring about the great split. This time, no Left force remained in the party. The Socialist Party was now free to pursue its course without serious interference. The objective circumstances were indeed bad for the party in the 1920’s. But a new opportunity offered itself in the Thirties, when the party did grow and became more militant. The militancy of the party, however, was pasted onto an ideology not far removed from the old. With the rise of the great struggles of the crisis years and the formation of the CIO, the basic orientation of the party was false: it still opposed the formation of a great class party of the workers, an independent labor party, which would mark the first step in this country of the emancipation of the working class as a class from the bourgeoisie.

The early Communist movement showed signs of real progress despite its own theoretical and political unclarity. But before this party had a chance to show its mettle, it had already been taken over by Stalinism and its degeneration began almost before it was born. Undoubtedly, it hurt the prospects of the Socialist Party among the class-conscious minority of the working class by its militant tone and activity in struggles. The Socialist Party became an inactive organization; divorced from all class activity. It again rested its hopes on a new political formation, not of the labor movement, but of the petty bourgeoisie (LaFollette). It spent most of its time in a feud with the Communist Party, not so much over current questions of the class struggle, but over the 1919 split and the responsibility for the split.

Today, the Socialist Party is a shell of its former self. It hardly exists as an organization. There is no future for it whatever, since even now, in seeking to emerge from its isolation and despair it turns away from militant socialism, from Marxism (which it regards as outlived) to a reunification with that tendency which bears the greatest responsibility for the demise of American socialism, the Social Democratic Federation.

The need for reconstructing a socialist movement in the United States occurs in unfavorable world circumstances. The rise of Stalinism, which has been so often treated in these pages, is a factor of tremendous difficulty. Even so, the troubles are of a continuous nature and the influences of the past weigh heavily upon the minds of this generation whether they understand it or not.

Socialism failed in the United States to accomplish those tasks which it was capable of solving not because Marxism is outlived and something new is needed, as Norman Thomas declared not long ago, but in large part because the Socialist movement in this country was non-Marxist, if not anti-Marxist; because the main perspectives of socialism were wrong, disorienting and self-defeating in relation to the kind of working class and labor movement we had and continue to have in this country; and finally, because the party was opportunist, ultimatistic and isolated from the main stream of the American working class.

The rise of a socialist movement in this country depends today on the rise of a politically-conscious working class, on its separation from the bourgeoisie and bourgeois ideology. That will come about, we believe, in the establishment of an independent political party of the workers, a labor party. This would be the first evidence that the class as a whole has broken with this society. There are many signs present that such a development can occur quickly. Socialists should dedicate themselves to the purpose of hastening and influencing such a development. And then we shall see.

* * *


1. Socialism in American Life, 2 vol., edited by Stow Persons and Donald Drew Egbert, Princeton University Press.

2. The American Socialist Movement 1897–1912, by Ira Kipnis, Columbus University Press, 496 p.

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