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Present and Future of U.S. Labor

H.W. Benson

Books in Review

The Socialist Party of America

(Winter 1955)

From The New International, Vol. XXI No. 4, Winter 1955–56, pp. 269–272.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Socialist Party of America
by David A. Shannon
Macmillan, 320 pp., $4.00, 1955.

A prominent bourgeois economist, Sumner H. Slichter recently pondering the state of the labor movement came forth with the following historical generalization:

“The ideas of radicals have always been so completely unacceptable to American workers that no radical group has ever had a significant effect upon the thinking of workers in this country.”

So finely attuned to the spirit of our times is this ignorant observation that it deserves to be true; if only the past could be patterned on the ideological needs of the present, we might enjoy an aesthetic symmetry whose highest culmination is an attorney general’s list. Socialism has been branded as something illicit: its followers are denied security clearance in government and industry and refused honorable discharges from the armed forces. It remains for historians, educators, commentators and plain thinkers to bar them from history. But, first history must be spruced up and scrubbed clear of all derogatory information. Thus, in the campaign against socialism today, it is fitting to wipe out the memory of yesterday. If it never was, it probably never will be.

But there was the old Socialist Party, founded at the turn of the century, a party which, for a time, made a deep impression on American political life and thought, which had an impressive following among the working class and widespread influence in the trade union movement. The Socialist Party of America is the first full length account of its history. Its author, David A. Shannon, Associate Professor of History at Teachers College, is not among those who rework history to pass muster before a loyalty review board. He handles his subject with genuine sympathy and with a noticeable regret at American socialism’s decline. What he offers is not so much an analytical history as a running chronological account fundamentally accurate except where his strong bias toward the right wing in any fight leads him away from objective reporting. In 1919, for example, the party Right Wing, a minority among the membership by Shannon’s own account, but still in control of the official machinery, suspended and expelled the Left, in an arrant disregard of elementary democracy and ignored a national membership referendum in which it had been deposed. The author strains hard to justify the high handed course of the Right Wing machine.

Nevertheless, if we remain on guard against such irritating intrusions, we can value Shannon’s work as a positive contribution to restating and preserving the record of American socialism and as a reminder of the impact it once made.

As the story of the Socialist Party, it begins at the beginning, ends at the end and tells what happened in between. The tale swings along nicely, like reading old newspapers or attending meetings of days past. A hundred little incidents give us the flavor of party life; activists and leaders spring to life in scores of biographical vignettes. From day to day, so to speak, we get a sense of how the party grew; how it settled its little squabbles and big faction struggles; how it enrolled farmers and middle class reformers; how its class composition became predominantly working class, and finally reverted to petty bourgeois; how it revived for a moment in the thirties and then disintegrated. In this, the book is as complete and comprehensive as a normal sized one volume record of almost fifty years could be.

Valuable as such a narrative proves to be, it is subject to many weaknesses. If a loyal and serious member started a diary of party life from the day it was formed in 1901 and kept a running account till now, has record would resemble Shannon’s history. Events are impressed upon us in their most obvious, outward guise. Party disputes often remain vague: divisions between groups and factions are only roughly indicated by text book rule of thumb: this was the Right; that was the Left. Party development is presented chronologically with little reference to the times or to the state of the whole labor movement; with virtually no connection to international events and trends within world socialism. And finally, because this is a history of the Socialist Party and not of the socialist movement, it loses connection with the main line of development.

When the Socialist Party split after World War I, the Left Wing took its proletarian and vigorous sections and founded two Communist parties, later fusing into one, which, like the world communist movement, finally degenerated into Stalinism, an anti-socialist, anti-working class political tendency. The rise of Stalinism and the growing realization by American workers that it represents anti-labor dictatorship; its confusion with socialism – all this stands among the decisive causes of the decline of socialism in the United States. Shannon hardly mentions the subject.

Shannon summarizes the faction fight between Left and Right in these words:

“Although the basic issues – evolution or revolution, political democracy or proletarian dictatorship, parliamentary action or ‘revolutionary mass action’ – were seldom debated on their merits, these differences were fundamental and important.”

And some pages later, describing a debate in the early ’20s between a Socialist and a Communist he comments:

“Democracy was the issue which split Oneal and Minor, democracy in the sense of universal political participation and civil liberty, the meaning of the term that has been generally understood in western Europe and America, not in the sense of the ‘peoples democracy’ of the Soviet Union.”

But these faction struggles, their significance as well as their ludicrous aspects, the real issues as well as the exaggerations can be understood only on the background of the times: the Russian Revolution and its enervating struggle against armed reaction and intervention; the German Revolution and the reconsolidation of right-wing militarism against an armed working class. At that moment in history, the working class had taken power in backward Russia. In advanced Germany, where the workers organizations held actual power in their hands, militarism and proto-fascism were allowed to re-consolidate. In both cases, the armies and political parties of reaction took refuge against socialist revolution behind the hypocritical watchword of “democracy.” And it was in the name of “democracy” that German right wing socialists raised militarists and bourgeois reactionaries to the seats of power. All this is lost on Shannon whose account centers around a few lifeless formulas.

THE THIRTIES BROUGHT ANOTHER CRISIS in Socialism, and a similar treatment is meted out to the contestants by the author. Years of deep depression had revived the desultory Socialist Party; a group of young “militants” demanded a more activist line. Meanwhile, in Germany the most powerful social democracy in history was powerless before Hitlerism and finally succumbed without stirring its lax muscles to avoid extermination. It is only by mustering the most incredible selfisolation from events that Shannon can describe the militant Old Guard dispute without one reference to the rise of the Nazis. And so, he misuses the militants as he misused the early communists.

“The Militants’ view toward democracy was in some respects similar to that of the Communists. Democracy was to them a bourgeois quality, a device adopted by the bourgeoisie to defeat the aristocracy that was now being abandoned by capitalists as their conflict with the proletariat became more intense. Wrote one Militant, ‘Capitalist democracy can be viewed as a game between capital and labor in which the capitalist is at liberty to make the rules, count the points, or suspend the rules entirely,’ Socialists, then should not make a ‘fetish’ of democracy.”

Shannon’s attention is riveted upon the oversimplified view of his chosen Militant writer. But he appears utterly unaware of the fact that the German social democrats were using their own oversimplified view of democracy to dodge responsibility for defending the labor movement against fascism. In 1933, misused slogans of democracy became a pretext for passivity before totalitarian dictatorship. The fight between Militant and Old Guard in the United States was only one facet of a world wide crisis of social democracy, a crisis created by the failure of its views on democracy to cope with the rise of fascism.

But all this is beyond the purview of Shannon’s chosen subject matter. Of 268 pages, only the last 14 examine the causes of the SP’s demise. A brief, sketchy analysis – little more than an appendix unrelated to the main body – concludes:

“But despite all the shortcomings of the Socialist Party, its failure was not primarily its own fault; the failure of the Socialists was due less to their errors than to the basic traditions and conditions in American society which the Socialists could do little or nothing to change.”

This reviewer is in full accord with that thesis. Others have reached a like conclusion but with other motives. Anti-socialism today is almost a prerequisite to an advanced career. For most writers, it is not enough to discover that the weakness of American socialism is the product of profound social causes. Simple, malicious or ignorant critics would merely censor socialism out of history in retrospect. Others who recall the glories of old ascribe the downfall of socialism to factors that are not merely profound but eternal, or at least permanent and unalterable in American capitalism. They are not content with rejecting socialism; they are not satisfied with the attempt to refute it; they would wipe it all out for all time by simple literary declaration.

Although not a socialist himself, Shannon refuses to fall victim to the passing ideological pressures of our times and in this respect remains free of the disease of acute conformity. He sums up socialism at its high point thus:

“In 1912, it was not altogether foolish to believe that within a generation or so the Socialist Party would be, if not the dominant political party of the country, at least a major political group as strong as the British and continental social-democrats.”

He is not hypnotized by the present strength of American capitalism, pointing out:

“As socialists predicted, capitalism has not provided the American nation with a confidently stable economy. What economic stability and health there has been in the nation’s economy since 1940 has been largely attributable to past, present, or possible future war.”

And finally, looking back upon the wreckage of the Socialist Party, he concludes his book with the following two sentences:

“The ideals of social democracy will remain part of the American tradition as long as American soil produces rebels, and there may develop some day, under the impact of fundamental social change, another social-democratic political movement of significance. But should there again be a vigorous political organization with democratic and socialist principles in the United States, it is most unlikely that the party of Debs, Hillquit, and Thomas will provide its impetus.”

The author is able to handle his subject matter, socialism in the United States, with a basic objectivity and with integrity. In these days, that is not a small achievement.

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