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Julius Falk

Socialism in the United States —

The Origins of the Communist Movement
in the United States

Communist Tendencies in the Socialist Party – I

(Fall 1955)

From The New International, Vol. XXI No. 3, Fall 1955, pp. 151–173.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

EXCEPT FOR THE SUDDEN AND all too brief revival of the Socialist Party in the early 1930s, the numbers, quality and influence of American socialism have been marked by a steady and precipitous decline from their peak some 35–40 years ago. The favored position of American capitalism, the peculiar characteristics of the American working class, government repression, the defeat of the European revolution, the growth of Stalinism – all these related factors have conspired to reduce socialism as an organized force to little more than a shadow of its once robust proportions. This virtual extinction of the socialist movement has made it uncommonly easy for the joyous would-be pallbearers of socialism to create the myth that socialism never amounted to anything in the United States, or that its early successes were an aberration of American life never to be repeated, or, certainly, that the decline of socialism is both evidence and proof of the invulnerability and dynamism of American capitalism. There are those such as Daniel Bell who would bury socialism with a condescending sigh, explaining in fact-studded rites how’ American capitalism has given us a virtually classless, equalitarian society. Then there are the pulp writers ranging from Benjamin Gitlow to Jacob Spolansky who simply try to inter socialism under an avalanche of abuse, filth and distortions. The more serious biographers of American socialism such as Ira Kipnis and Ray Ginger have been, unfortunately, all but obscured by these embalmers and undertakers.

While socialism as an ideological and organized current in the American labor movement has fared poorly at the hands of the pulp writers, the particular currents in American socialism which led to the formation of the American Communist Party have been treated with studied indifference to facts, superciliousness and venom. In these articles, primarily concerned with the beginnings of Communism in America, we cannot pretend to provide all or most of the facts and political circumstances leading to the emergence of the American Communist movement. But, at the very least, we propose to treat the subject with the respect it merits.

BY 1912, JUST ELEVEN YEARS AFTER its founding convention, the American Socialist Party could boast of 150,000 book members. In the presidential elections of that year Eugene V. Debs received nearly 900,000 votes, six per cent of the total cast. The party published 13 daily newspapers in English and foreign languages, nearly 300 weeklies and a dozen monthly periodicals. The Appeal to Reason was one of the most popular and widely read newspapers in the midwest, reaching a circulation of 500,000. The party had fourteen locals in Alaska, one in Puerto Rico and members-at-large in the Canal Zone. It maintained a network of socialist schools for children and provided Lyceum courses for adults. In nation-wide local elections held in 1910 the party elected hundreds of local officials and by 1912 there were over 1,000 elected office holders with red cards, including 56 mayors, several state senators and one congressman. The leading spokesman of the party, Debs, had been for years a nationally prominent figure whose activities were as a matter of course reported in the press.

The American Socialist Party was by no means comparable in size or political maturity to the mass party of German social democracy. But it had become a balance of power organization with seeming possibilities for growth which provoked extravagant exaggerations of its potentialities in the bourgeois world.

Partially as an effort to curb the growing popularity of the Socialist Party the Democratic Party incorporated many of the S.P. demands in its platform. Even the Republicans included “radical” planks in their program; and the newly organized Bull Moose party led by “Roosevelt I” (as Mencken titled a “glorified bouncer” [A]) adopted S.P. reform proposals as its very own. Socialist leader and congressman Victor Berger protested before the House in 1912 that “... ‘progressives’ are simply trying to appropriate some of our minor planks.” This progressivism was impelled by the need to stabilize, make more palatable and somewhat civilize, America’s raucous corporate wealth. But it was also inspired by a growing popular resentment against capitalist violence, and fed by a consciously felt need to head off the Socialist Party, whose reform campaigns were winning votes among progressive elements in the country. Progressivism was successful in deflecting votes from the S.P. to Wilson and Roosevelt, and its emergence was a tribute to the rapidly acquired strength of the Socialist Party.

The growth of the Socialist Party was in many ways unique when compared to the development of European social-democracy, particularly the German Social-Democratic Party. The party’s progress did not follow or parallel a comparable expansion of the trade union movement. It grew at a time when America had hardly emerged from its frontier days, when a permanent, stable industrial working class was still in its formative stage. It grew without major assistance from a significant body of alienated intellectuals or radicalized youth. But the party could grow despite these inhibiting factors for it had become, in effect, not so much a party with a clearly defined social program, as a broad movement of social protest. It had attracted workers who, defeated in pitched battles with the bourgeoisie, felt they could continue the struggle against their oppressors via the party; following the collapse of the People’s Party thousands of populists joined the SP (in 1909, 15 per cent of the Socialist Party members had been previously associated with the Populists); middle-class reformers, ministers and professionals, outraged by the savagery of American capitalism, joined the party as a means of fighting social ills; thousands of German and Jewish immigrants born to socialism in the “old country” naturally found their way into the party. Populism, Utopianism, Christian Socialism, reformism, syndicalism and Marxism – all had been poured into the Socialist Party vessel.

But the fact that the party had become an all-embracing organization was not a source of permanent strength. As a coalescence of various and conflicting currents of political dissent the Socialist Party could prosper – but only for a limited period. By 1912, when the party was at its numerical peak it was also at its lowest potential, torn by irreconcilable factions.

THE TERM “PETTY-BOURGEOIS” is perhaps used loosely at times in the Marxist movement. But as applied to the bulk of SP leadership and a significant proportion of its membership by 1912 it is a literal as well as an ideological description. The party had become flooded with lawyers, doctors, accountants, small businessmen, farmers and reform-bent clergymen. Many brought with them prejudices common to their class: they attacked class hatred as immoral, they equivocated on racial discrimination, some were opposed to drinking and others thought women biologically inferior creatures ordained to cook and sew. Above all, they abhorred “extremes.” They were firmly convinced that the party was going to be voted into power. And Socialism, to them, was inevitable, not as the aftermath of revolutionary working class struggles, but, because capitalism was organically evolving in a socialist direction. The electoral successes of the party were confirmation for this Right Wing that its heavy emphasis on reform campaigns and de-emphasis of the class struggle was the road to social salvation.

On the other end of the political spectrum in the party were the “reds,” the revolutionary elements in the party, many of whom were members of the Industrial Workers of the World along with their acknowledged leader, Bill Haywood. This Left was not Marxist in character but revolutionary syndicalist. It was also as politically primitive as it was fundamentally correct in its reliance on the working class in the struggle for freedom. The Left Wing was repelled by the new paunch the party had grown following its electoral gains; it could not abide the 1,000 elected officials who now had a vested interest in maintaining a moderate reform party; it could not stand the unscrupulousness of a man like Victor Berger and it was not smitten by the highly polished Marxist phrases of the talented lawyer, Morris Hillquit.

Neither wing of the party was interested in building a broad forum of public opinion. Both wanted to build mass movements. And both wings were moved by an optimism which made a split inevitable. The revolutionary syndicalists were confident that the proletariat in America’s rapidly expanding mass industries would heed the “propaganda of the deed”; the Right Wing was even more convinced that the voters of the nation would soon be swept up by its ballot box appeal. The split came at the 1912 convention of the party, initiated and pushed through by the Right Wing. In the words of Berger at the convention: “The time has come when the two opposite trends of thought that we have had in our party must clash again. And the parting of the ways has come again.” The parting of the ways was effectuated by a constitutional amendment, passed by 191 to 90, making membership incompatible with the advocacy of industrial sabotage and violence (Article II, Section 6). Years later Berger boasted that he was the author of the amendment. The Right Wing succeeded in splitting the party. Bill Haywood was recalled from his position on the National Committee. The party membership which had reached 150,000 a few weeks before the convention (held in Indianapolis, May 12–18) dropped to a yearly average of 118,000. The difference between the peak and average figures was largely due to the exodus of thousands of militants from the party. Their energies, however, were to be dissipated. A large number were immediately lost to the revolutionary movement and thousands of ex-party members who went to the IWW exclusively went to a movement that was foredoomed. For the IWW – given its aversion to political action, its hostility to theory and intellectuals, its uncompromising opposition to the official labor movement and, most important, its failure to understand the psychology of the American worker and the growing strength of American capitalism – could not, in its very nature have achieved any degree of permanence.

Following the expulsion of the syndicalist Left in 1912–1913 the Socialist Party moved rapidly – in reverse gear. By 1916 the membership declined to 83,000, little more than half of its 1912 high point. Its vote in the 1916 presidential elections was cut to 600,000 – two-thirds of the total received in 1912 but given the rise in the voting population only one-half of the six per cent of the votes garnered four years earlier. Ironically enough, the 30,000 Left Wingers forced out of the party who had nothing but contempt for the vote-getting policy of the SP were an important factor in explaining the party’s declining fortunes at the ballot box. It was in those sections where the Left Wing was strongest that the 1912 SP vote showed an enormous increase over the 1908 figures and a corresponding drop in 1916. [1] Also, responsible for the loss of votes was the choice of Allan Benson, a Right-Wing nonentity, as presidential candidate. Much to the delight of the party leadership, Debs, a Left-Winger with enormous popular appeal, had neither the inclination nor the physical energy to run for the presidency as he had on four previous, successive occasions.

The only claim to fame that history will reserve for Benson was his striking contrast to Debs as a socialist presidential candidate. Debs always stamped his campaign with his own personality – energetic, colorful, militant. Benson also left his mark, a barely visible imprint of an imposter in the socialist movement. It was only six months after his campaign was over that Benson, the “anti-war” candidate of the party denounced those who upheld an anti-war position adopted at the St. Louis convention of the party a few days after the U.S. entered the war. He noted, with an antediluvian’s sulkiness, that:

Young hotheads who were wearing knee breeches when many of the middle-aged men present became socialists, felt entirely prepared to brand such of these older men as disagreed with them with regard to tactics as “traitors.”

The “tactics” were whether or not to support the imperialist war!

The party was in a state of organizational decay. It was not only because of the failure of Debs to run or the exit of so many thousands of militants. “Progressivism” was becoming a competitive force to the party. The appeal of Wilson’s liberal rhetoric and the “radicalism” of the Bull Moose Party undoubtedly drew many thousands of voters away from the SP by 1912. As the party continued to water down its program “progressivism” and Socialism were almost tangential movements. In 1916, not only party supporters refused to vote for the SP candidates, but well known socialists such as John Reed [2] and Max Eastman declared themselves for Wilson. Even the presidential candidate of the party, Allan Benson, moved by Wilson’s pacific declarations in the 1916 campaign asked the electorate to vote for the Democratic candidate – if they didn’t vote for Benson.

In the midwest a farmers’ movement wrought havoc with the party organization. The Non-Partisan League of North Dakota had been organized in 1916 by a former active socialist, A.C. Townley. It had a farmer’s program, demanding a state marketing system, a state agency to purchase and distribute farm supplies, a low interest state rural credit system, etc. As a pure farmer’s organization with a militant reform program it attracted large numbers of farmers who previously had been loyal only to the Socialist Party. By 1918 it had over 180,000 members and was to elect governors, congressmen and scores of state officials, spreading to South Dakota, Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Idaho, Colorado, Washington and Montana. In a special report to the Socialist Party’s National Committee, John Spargo, an extreme Right-Winger (a McCarthyite today!), stated that the League is going “far toward wrecking the Socialist Party, unless some adjustments in our party organization can be made ...” Instead of an “adjustment,” however, the party took a hostile position toward the League, branding it a dual, competitive organization and forbidding party members to join. But the pull of the League proved irresistible not only for rank and filers but even for members of the National Committee. Lewis J. Duncan of Montana, a leading Left Winger at the 1912 convention, and Arthur Le Seuer, a Right Winger from North Dakota, were members of both the National Committee and the Non-Partisan League.

While Progressivism was taking its toll in the Socialist Party, the prosperity of 1915–1916 born of the World War was also dissipating the influence of the party. The 1912 election campaign took place on the threshold of a new economic crisis; four years later the United States had replaced England in the South American market and factories were humming, producing war materials for the Allies.

By 1916 the party was not only in an organizational funk, but intellectually, it had become utterly lifeless. Its official publications had a somnambulistic quality born of piety, reformism and confusion. As a sample of confusion we might offer the following excerpt from an article by a leading party intellectual, Max Eastman:

I think that men’s hereditary intuitive reactions are such that they will go to war (even against their economic interests) whenever a plausible war is declared, that our only hope is in preventing declarational war, that this can be accomplished only through international federation and that the main driving power toward international federation is international capital – the biggest of big business. We ought to support and encourage the capitalistic governments in their new motion toward internationalism, because they will go there before we will. (Masses, February 1917. Italics in original)

A DETAILED DISCUSSION OF the Socialist Party prior to America’s entry into the war is outside the scope of this article. The above sketchy paragraphs on the SP from 1912 to 1916 are intended merely to illustrate an important point in considering American Communism: that the American Communist movement began from virtually nothing. It was not the continuation of the Left Wing of 1912, and was fundamentally different from it. The earlier Left Wing was directly the product of the American class struggle. It fought that struggle on the picket lines and, in a sense, it fought that struggle within the Socialist Party against the petty bourgeois leadership. It was a revolutionary but utopian syndicalist group which tried to push the working class onto the path of revolutionary industrial unionism in a manner alien to that class – and toward an objective for which it was not historically prepared. During the war, a new Left Wing was to emerge, but unlike the earlier syndicalists, it was generated by world-shaking international events: the World War and the Russian Revolution. This Marxist Left Wing was as removed from direct participation in the class struggle at home as the syndicalists were a part of it; it was as devoted to the cause of the international working class as the syndicalists were indifferent to world politics. In social composition and attitude toward theory the two Left Wings were different: the first had as its basis proletarians and underprivileged farmers, who shied away from theoretical debate; the later Marxist Left Wing acquired considerable support from the more advanced and educated workers and middle class intellectuals, and was absorbed with the theoretical problems of international socialism.

In any analysis of the American Communist movement it is necessary at all times to bear in mind that communism in America had a pre-history of but a few years. It had no native Marxist traditions to draw on and the personnel of the Socialist Party’s 1917–1919 Left Wing had little previous experience in the American class struggle. In fact a number of leading Left Wingers of 1912 who remained with the party were among those most hostile to the Left Wing which grew up after April 1917: Frank Bohn, Rives La Monte, H.L. Slobodin, William English Walling.

The failure of the American working class to develop a significant and continuous Marxist tradition was, to be sure, a reflection of the special characteristics of the American bourgeoisie and the American working class. By the time the United States declared war on the Central powers it had become the world’s most powerful capitalist nation. But the ascendancy of finance capital in the United States was swifter than in any European nation. The industrial revolution in this country’ was not under way until after the Civil War and the American frontier was not closed until the 1890’s. By the time an American proletariat was beginning to emerge the working classes of the advanced European nations had already made their mark on history.

The growth of large scale industries here was so swift and their organizers so powerful and ruthless that the newly formed proletariat could not adequately defend itself. The embryonic proletarian class had neither the economic wherewithal, the stability, the experience or the public sympathy to resist the blood spattered wealth of America’s “Robber Barons” with their spies, thugs, economic resources and friendly courts. The political and economic organization of the working class was complicated by its culturally diversified character, composed in its great majority as late as 1910 of foreign born from all parts of the old world. Its organization was further inhibited by the fluidity and social mobility of American life. Chances for advancement did exist within expanding industries and if an immigrant did not advance his position in society, he felt that his children, at least, might achieve the respectability and security denied to him.

The new magnates of American industry were a cold-blooded and pragmatic lot. They were not concerned with ideology or political finesse. The working class, too, showed a similar disdain for political theory. The violent and telescoped growth of concentrated capital combined with the misery of a worker’s existence did not allow the growth of an intellectualized body of workers who could, by their own efforts, raise themselves above the limited political insight of their class. Those sections of the working class which resisted the bourgeoisie were often waylaid by simple political panaceas or exhausted themselves in magnificent trade union struggles which had little chance of immediate success. And at no point in its early history did the socialist movement recruit to its banner numbers of educated, middle-class Marxists who could identify themselves with the working class. America produced its literary realists and muckrakers who performed invaluable services in exposing the inhumanity and corruption accompanying the growth of monopoly. But at no time could the American socialist movement boast of a sizeable group of theorists respected by the ranks, integrated into the life of the movement, absorbed in the problem of building a working class party and capable of understanding the special problems of the American working class.

This lack of theoretical leadership was common to all wings of the American Socialist Party. By 1912 the German Left had Rosa Luxemburg while the American Left was led by Bill Haywood; the German Center had Kautsky while the Americans had Morris Hillquit, the German revisionists had Bernstein while the extreme Right Wing in the American party had to settle for Victor Berger.

It was more than a difference between individual talents, accidentally placed. It was the difference between two worlds, two histories.

FOR FIVE YEARS AFTER THE COLLAPSE of the syndicalist faction there was no well knit Left Wing opposition in the Socialist Party. But not all the direct actionists left with Bill Haywood. In addition, not all the Left Wingers of 1912 were in agreement with the growing anti-politicalism of the syndicalist Left. Some of the leading figures in the party, whose denunciations of the Right Wing rivaled the colorful epithets of the syndicalists, remained political socialists. Men such as Debs, Louis Boudin and Henry Slobodin did not revile the SP for participating in elections; they attacked the party for making electioneering a political way of life and for the mildness of its campaigns. And they emphasized the necessity of the political organization of the working class to overthrow the political institutions of the bourgeois state. Although they supported the Left Wing as against the Right there was no reason why they should have left the party along with the thousands who dropped out after the 1912 convention. In their view, and they were correct, the Socialist Party was still the only political, socialist movement in which to function. (The Socialist Labor Party had been, for years, a hopelessly sterile, bureaucratic, i.e., sectarian, group).

The only individual who could have taken up the cudgels once again for a militant program was Eugene Debs. His popularity was enormous and his position in the party inviolable. But Debs never abandoned his saintly attitude toward factionalism, thus doing himself and the movement a grave disservice. He would not participate in faction fights or, even, in conventions, on the ground that his weight in the party was so great that if it were harnessed to a particular faction in an organizational fight it might produce an unthinking endorsement of his views. What Debs would not do in the way of reorganizing the remnants of the Left neither Boudin, the major Marxist theorist in the party, nor Slobdin, former national secretary of the party who was to become a militant chauvinist, nor Charles Ruthenberg, a leader in the Ohio SP – a gray and overestimated man in the history of American socialism, nor a dozen other leading leftists in the party could do. The mood in the party – and in the nation – ran counter to the re-emergence of a strong, unified Left.

THE SIGNS OF A NEW LEFT were first visible early in 1915 with the formation in the SP of the Socialist Propaganda League.

This League from its very inception was composed primarily of foreign born workers. It was organized largely through the efforts of two foreign socialists: Fritz Rozin and S.J. Rutgers. Rozin, born in Latvia, was a representative of the Lettish Social Democratic Party on the Bolshevik Central Committee. Arrested by the Czarist police in 1907 he escaped to the United States where he edited a Lettish newspaper and became secretary of a Lettish socialist organization in Boston. Rozin returned to Russia after the October revolution where he died in 1919. Rutgers’ role is perhaps even more important in its influence on the Left in the Socialist Party which was the forerunner of American Communism. He was also a “Bostonian” but not of the Back Bay variety. Rutgers was active in the Boston Lettish group and like Rozin worked on a Lettish newspaper. He was Dutch by birth, however, and a member of the Social-Democratic Party there until he emigrated to the United States. After the Bolshevik revolution, Rutgers went to Russia where he engaged in Comintern activities as a member of the Dutch Communist Party. His contributions to the English language Left Wing socialist press were among the best political writings of the Left.

Lenin established contact with the League upon receiving one of its handbills in 1915. In exchange for the leaflet Lenin sent material on the Zimmerwald Left and a copy of Socialism and War in German “in the hope that there is a comrade in your League who knows German.” Lenin placed considerable importance on the role of the League urging A. Kollontai – who made two trips to the U.S. between 1915 and 1917 – and N. Bukharin – who was here in the winter of 1916–1917 – to maintain contact with the League and to pay particularly close attention to the strong, militant, Lettish wing of the party.

Upon receiving material of the Zimmerwald Left the League immediately adopted its views pressing them inside and out of the Socialist Party. It was not until January 1917, however, that the League published its first regular periodical, The Internationalist, which shortly was renamed The New International and edited by Louis C. Fraina. [3]

The League achieved considerable notoriety inside the SP but in its early period was in no position to function as a national, cohesive faction fighting for organizational control of the party. It was not until America’s participation in the war was imminent that the proper political topsoil was laid in which a new revolutionary Left Wing could flourish in the party. This soil, watered by the Russian Revolution, permitted the Socialist Propaganda League and similar tendencies to sink their roots deep into the party with branches embracing thousands outside the SP, as well, and crushing the Socialist Party in the process of growth. By June 1917, The New International was able to boast that the Socialist Propaganda League had 20 organized groups in 12 states. But this growth was even outdistanced by the political influence of the League and complemented by the emergence of other organized Left Wing currents.

PRIOR TO THE WORLD WAR, the American socialist movement’s attitude on foreign policy bordered on indifference. It suffered from a provincialism which reflected the general sense of insular security from world political problems shared by the vast majority of the population. The Left Wing was certainly no more conscious of international developments than the Right. At the 1912 convention there were resolutions on Temperance and White Slavery but no one seemed to feel the need for a special resolution or discussion on war, imperialism and foreign policy.

The American party was, nevertheless an anti-war movement. It formally endorsed the vigorous anti-war resolutions of the 1910 and 1912 international socialist congresses. It ran occasional articles which attacked militarism and the growing concern of American capitalism with foreign markets and sources of raw material. There was also in the party a strong element of Christian socialism which on pacifist principles was opposed to all wars.

Before August 4, 1914, the party had implicit faith in the ability of the Second International to prevent a European conflagration. It never doubted that in a war which pitted worker against worker in the interests of capitalism the mass parties of European social democracy would be true to its promise of carrying on class struggle activity to frustrate the ambitions of European militarists. When the war came, not over the opposition of European Socialism, but with its blessing, the American party was genuinely shocked – though not sufficiently aroused to call a special convention to discuss both the war and the betrayal of the Second International. (A convention was not to be held for another 2½ years.) Shocked though it was by the conduct of the International, the Socialist Party refused to condemn its “brother parties” in Europe. This reluctance was one of the important political differences on the war which sparked the new Left Wing.

One week after the opening of hostilities in Europe the party issued an anti-war manifesto which began:

The Socialist Party of the United States hereby extends its sympathy to the workers of Europe in their hour of trial, when they have been plunged into a bloody and senseless war by ambition crazed monarchs, designing politicians and scheming capitalists.

But in the same manifesto, a few paragraphs later:

The Socialist Party of the United States hereby pledges its loyal support to the Socialist parties of Europe in any measures they might think it necessary to advance the cause of peace and good will among men.

We doubt that this appeal for “good will” produced more than a yawn on the military visage of the Second International but for the Left Wingers in the party it was to provide political ammunition.

The National Committee of the party made repeated attempts to revive an International which did not want to be and could not be reactivated as a force “to advance the cause of peace.” One of the earliest efforts was made in September 1914. The party issued an appeal to all European socialists to consider meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss ways and means of ending the war. The party promised to foot the bill. Quixotic, to say the least, and, as could only be expected, nothing came of it. Included in this appeal was the following:

We do not presume to pass judgment upon the conduct of our brother parties in Europe. We realize that they are the victims of the present vicious industrial, political and military systems and they did the best they could under the circumstances.

The Left Wing elements in the party demanded that the leadership face up to the reality of the Second International betrayal. Without branding European socialism for its conduct, the sincerity of the party’s antiwar manifestos was questioned by the Left Wing. But for the Right Wing leadership of the party to condemn, say, German social-democracy implied a repudiation of itself. German social-democracy had been held up to the membership by the SP leadership as a model organization. Just two years earlier, the leadership of the party at the 1912 convention used Karl Legien, Social-Democratic member of the Reichstag and president of the German Federation of Trade Unions, to beat the syndicalists over the head. Legien accepted an invitation to address the convention and in his speech immediately proceeded to use his authority and prestige to belittle the syndicalists: “In our German movement we have no room for sabotage and similar syndicalist tendencies.” To repudiate the German party, and Karl Legien and the whole of the International required a self-effacing act of courage which it was constitutionally incapable of doing at the time.

In September 1915, nearly forty observers and delegates from anti-war socialist parties and anti-war tendencies within pro-war parties met in an international conference at Zimmerwald. According to A. Kollontai, who made two trips to the United States between 1915–1917, the initial attempts to recruit the American Socialist Party to the Zimmerwald movement failed, when at a meeting of German language socialists a proposal brought in by Ludwig Lore to join the movement was defeated “after heated debates” by Morris Hillquit and Maxim Romm (Romm was a Russian political exile living in the United States). A month later, however, the organizing committee of the Zimmerwald movement (the International Socialist Committee) received a communication from the Executive Committee of the SP announcing that it and all its affiliated foreign federations joined the Zimmerwald movement. Joining the Zimmerwald movement unquestionably reflected a growing left mood in the party, although the Zimmerwald movement was itself very broad, embracing all wings of anti-war socialism from moderate pacifist-socialism to the revolutionary, class struggle views of the Zimmerwald Left, led by the Bolsheviks.

The critics of the party leadership had more to go on than the embarrassed apologies made for the “brother parties” in Europe. In the life of the Socialist Party, during the war, before and after America’s entry, there was a considerable gap between the manifesto and the deed. The antiwar declarations had an inflamed, passionate quality which gave a distorted image of the political convictions of the leadership, its activities and the party’s day to day propaganda. In May 1915, the National Committee of the party proposed an amendment which would expel any SP office-holder who voted for military or war appropriations. This amendment was passed in referendum by the one-sided vote of 11,041–782. But this didn’t stop the seven socialist aldermen in New York from supporting the third Liberty Loan three years later, nor did it deter Mayor Hoans’ Socialist administration in Milwaukee from meeting its patriotic obligations; and socialist congressman Meyer London met with no rebuff from the party officialdom when he failed to vote against military appropriations immediately after America’s declaration of war.

While the military posturing of American politicians was condemned, the architect of American imperialism, Woodrow Wilson, was often regarded in the party press as a misled, somewhat inconsistent pacifist. As late as December, 1916, the party’s official organ, The Call, editorially referred to “... President Wilson’s latest move in the interest of peace ...” A much touted brochure by Allan Benson, the party’s 1916 presidential candidate written in that year was a mish-mash of pacifism, an appeal to the better side of Wilson and an endless number of pages intended to prove that instead of building battleships Congress could use the money better to mine the entire Atlantic coastal waters – a mine every few hundred feet.

In addition to the party’s tolerant views on its “brother parties” and the gap between its resolutions and activities, the leftists in the party had a third serious grievance. They charged that a number of party leaders were moved in their formal denunciations of Allied imperialism by a pro-German sentiment. An editorial in the May–June issue of The Class Struggle (published by the Left-Wing Socialist Publication Society) referred to:

... the offensive and degrading pro-Germanism of a large proportion of our membership and party bureaucracy, who seek to cover up the sin of Germany and of Germany’s majority-Socialists by the mantle of “neutrality.”

Considering the month and year this Left-Wing charge was made it was at best a gross exaggeration. There can be no question, however, that for at least the first year or two after the opening of hostilities a pro-German sentiment did exist within the party. Among the Jewish workers, there was no love lost for the Allies. Many of them had recently fled from Czarist anti-Semitic terror and all of them took bitter note of pogroms accompanying the Russian armies’ advances and retreats. When Russian pogroms were matched against the reputed benevolence of Franz Joseph many Jewish workers found themselves sympathizing with the latter in the military conflict. But this was no longer a factor at the time The Class Struggle made its charges for the Czar had been overthrown two months earlier and Jewish workers, in particular, celebrated, for it meant the end of pogroms in Russia as a conscious, Czarist-inspired policy. There was also a pro-German tendency among German party members who could not bring themselves to denounce German war aims and among a strata of party members who would not renounce German social-democracy. But these sources of pro-Germanism had also been largely dissipated by the middle of 1917.

ON APRIL 7, 1917 THE Socialist Party met in its historic St. Louis convention. Called as an emergency convention by the party’s National Committee it was given a special dramatic and timely significance as its opening sessions followed by a day Congress’ declaration of war. The convention called but one month earlier was long overdue. It was five years since the last convention and more than two since the opening of European hostilities. The convention was not preceded by organized discussion in the ranks and voting delegates appeared at convention sessions without proper authorization by the membership.

There were nearly two hundred delegates at the St. Louis convention. A fifteen-man Committee on War and Militarism was chosen and after several days of debate three reports were made to the convention: the majority report signed by 11 committee members, including Berger, Hillquit, Ruthenberg and Algernon Lee; a minority report signed by Boudin, Kate Sadler and Walter Dillon; a second minority, pro-war report signed only by John Spargo.

Spargo’s report consisted of all the trite arguments for support of the war gaining currency among an important section of party writers and intellectuals. The Allied powers were to be supported because:

The present war, which broke out in the summer of 1914, had its origins in the economic conditions and the political institutions and national ideals prevailing in Europe. Germany began the war, and rejected all attempts at arbitration, because of the peculiar conjunctions of economic conditions and political institutions and national ideals characteristic of her national life.

American capitalism entered the hostilities not out of imperialistic considerations but because:

The provocation to war, which this nation has borne with a patience and forbearance which will glow brightly in our history, has been great indeed. No nation with power to defend itself has, in modern times, endured so much.

Then there is the shallow “lesser-evilism” which has become such a cheap and popular game with ex-radicals who, losing heart in socialism have done the next best thing, embraced the bourgeoisie, or, at best, remained aloof from the class struggle:

... Regardless of the capitalist motives involved, it is a fact that on one side are ranged the greatest autocracies in the world, the most powerful reactionary nations, while on the other side are ranged the most progressive and democratic nations in the world. To this fact we cannot be indifferent.

Spargo’s report, crude in its construction and permeated with enraged chauvinism, mustered a grand total of five votes. However, the actual support for a defensist position was much greater. Following the rejection of his report, Spargo drew up a new resolution, much briefer and less obvious in its meaning, but consistent with his rejected report. According to this resolution:

We opposed the entrance of this Republic into the war, but we failed. The political and economic organizations of the working-class were not strong enough to do more than protest.

Having failed to prevent the war by our agitation, we can only recognize it as a fact and try to force upon the government, through pressure and public opinion, a constructive program.

This resolution, whose greater ambiguity carried a greater conscience sop to the pro-war elements in the party was signed by fifty-two convention delegates. It was submitted to the membership in a referendum vote and overwhelmingly defeated.

The rejection by the convention and then by the membership of Spargo’s position soon brought to a close one chapter in the fragmentation of the Socialist Party.

Some of the most talented party spokesmen and publicists, including a few associated with the Left Wing in the past, but most of them inveterate Right-Wingers, collapsed completely under the social pressure of a liberal, bourgeois nation preparing for, then entering the war. Charles E. Russell, a leading party educator, more impatient than his patriotic colleagues, had moved into the pro-war camp two years before the St. Louis convention, and shortly afterward wormed his way up as a collaborator of the arch-reactionary Elihu Root. A few months after the convention Frank Bohn announced in a letter to the New York Times that the war was between feudal Germany and the modern West. Therefore he had to leave the party which did not accept these formulations or his conclusions. (Bohn had already been dropped by the party for non-payment of dues!) In a letter to The Call printed a few days before the delegates convened, A.M. Simons, an outstanding historian and a founding member of the party, announced that there was a “close connection between the German foreign office and the Socialist Party.” Simons together with Winfield Gaylord as their parting crack at the party wrote a letter to Senator Hastings of Wisconsin a week after the St. Louis convention in which they denounced the anti-war position finally adopted by the party and urged “the discreet use of authority for the prevention of general circulation of this pernicious propaganda.” Walling, Upton Sinclair, Stokes, Stoddard also left the party. After Spargo’s resolutions met a crushing defeat he sent the party a kindly resignation announcing that he could not live in a party making “Teutonic” demands. And Allan Benson announced that “Socialist lawyers” who were convention delegates told him that parts of the Majority resolution “were treasonable” and thus ended his brief fling with socialism.

The Committee on War and Militarism’s majority report to the St. Louis convention met with the approval of 140 of the 200 delegates. From its opening sentence – “The Socialist Party of the United States in the present grave crisis solemnly reaffirms its allegiance to the principle of internationalism and working-class solidarity the world over, and proclaims its unalterable opposition to the war just declared by the Government of the United States” – to its last – “The Socialist Party calls upon all the workers to join in its struggle to reach this goal (socialism), and thus bring into the world a new society in which peace, fraternity, and human brotherhood will be the dominant ideals” – the St. Louis resolution was as militant, as clear and as impassioned a protest against imperialist butchery as the socialist movement in this country has produced. Wars, “whether they have been frankly waged as wars of aggression or have been hypocritically represented as wars of ‘defense,’ they have always been made by the classes and fought by the masses.” The resolution called “upon the workers of all countries to refuse support to their governments in their wars ... The only struggle which would justify the workers in taking up arms is the great struggle of the working class of the world to free itself from economic exploitation and political oppression, and we particularly warn the workers against the snare and delusion of so-called defensive warfare.” As a course of action the resolution called for: “Continuous, active, and public opposition to the war, through demonstrations, mass petition, and all other means within our power,” at a time when “... the acute situation created by war calls for an even more vigorous prosecution of the class struggle ...”

Although this resolution received the votes of two-thirds of the convention delegates it no more presented an accurate reflection of the political composition of the party than the meager five votes given to Spargo’s.

The views in the majority resolution were not subscribed to even by some of its authors. This charge was made by both the extreme Right and the new Left in the party. It was also to be acknowledged by a number against whom the charge had been directed.

How does one explain the leftward turn of the Socialist Party? The party leadership was no less reformist than its European counterparts who rallied to the “defense of the nation” when war was not merely a threat but a horrible reality. The answer lies in a combination of circumstances:

(1) Unlike German social democracy the Socialist Party had no stake in society. It could not be made to feel the same pressure and responsibility as German social democracy which was a powerful mass party whose actions could have a direct bearing on the military fortunes of the Kaiser. The American party was small, and in a sense, this weakness was a source of political strength for it afforded reformist elements the luxury of militancy without being made to feel that their anti-war policies had any practical consequences.

In Germany, there was the best organized and most powerful working class in the world. The bureaucracy of the German Federation of Trade Unions was intertwined with that of the Social Democratic Party. It was a relatively easy matter for a reformist party, given its strength in this powerful trade union movement to adopt a policy of civil peace in time of war. The need to protect the living standards of the German workers and the need to defend the economic and political institutions of Europe’s most advance proletariat required, so the rationalization went, a suspension of the class struggle. In the United States the trade union movement had grown considerably by 1917 but the Socialist Party had become a negligible factor in the AFL. From 1911 to 1913 socialists had a considerable base in the AFL, actually challenging the Gompers leadership and winning the support of one-third of the AFL convention of 1913. Gompers immediately waged a successful war against the Socialists and as the AFL grew in strength from 1913 to 1917 the Socialist strength dwindled to the vanishing point. By the time of the St. Louis convention the party’s trade union strength was eagerly confined to radical, Jewish unions inside and out of the AFL. Unlike German social democracy, then, the party’s weakness in the organized labor movement also served to discourage any thought that it had a material stake in the war.

(2) The United States entered the war when all of its ghoulishness had fully unfolded. Given this simple fact it is easy to understand how the chauvinist elements in the party, primarily middle class intellectuals, could not rally any enthusiasm in the ranks for their views and were compelled to leave. The horrors of war were not only apparent to the ranks of the party. They were clear to the nation as a whole. This, plus the isolationist background of American political life, Wilson’s past hypocritical declarations of peace which won the election for him, left large sections of the American people cold, even hostile, toward the military, imperialist ambitions of American capitalism in 1917. This anti-war sentiment provided a fertile field for recruitment – for an anti-war socialist movement.

(3) The Russian revolution and the resurgence of anti-war sentiments in European socialism also operated as a Left-Wing pull on the political consciousness of the reformist leadership of the party and, above all, the ranks.

(4) Finally, the reformist wing of the party feared the growing strength of the Left Wing. Certainly, under more normal circumstances an individual such as Berger could no more vote for the St. Louis Resolution of which he was an author than Jasper MacLevy could join the I.W.W. today. But there is this difference: Berger was faced with a resurgent revolutionary Left-Wing in the party which had to be headed off, while MacLevy has excellent reasons to believe Bridgeport safe from wobbly control. Berger later admitted that though the St. Louis resolution was completely alien to his way of thinking he feared that if he and others were to insist on a more moderate resolution, given the mood of the party, the Left Wing might have presented to the membership and won its support for an even more militant declaration than the one adopted. It is also possible that had the United States thrown its weight on the German side of the trenches Berger might have taken a more “principled” stand against an antiwar resolution. But Berger was not typical of the reformist wing of the party. He was an inflexible municipal “socialist” without a touch of Marxism in his bloodstream. This was not true of men like Algernon Lee and Morris Hillquit, the principal authors of the resolution, who were genuinely influenced by events in Europe, affected by the isolation of the party from the labor movement, aware of the anti-war feelings of large numbers of Americans and, of course, unwilling to allow the real Left Wing of the party to be sole spokesmen for a revolutionary, anti-war stand.

There was, in the St. Louis Resolution, the element of compromise in some of its phraseology. But the document, as a whole, was, in fact, not so much a compromise resolution between the Left Wing and the leadership as a case of more moderate elements forced to bargain for greater “reasonableness” in some of the resolution’s formulations. For example, Hillquit, apprehensive of the militancy of the Left Wing with its theory of “mass action” (a theory which we will discuss in detail in the next issue – J.F.), insisted that the phrase “mass movement” be inserted in the following action plank of the Resolution: “Should such conscription [military and/or industrial] be forced upon the people we pledge ourselves to continuous efforts for the repeal of such laws and to the support of all mass movements in opposition to conscription.” Hillquit was anxious to have concrete party manifestation of anti-conscription activity based on a “mass movement.” He feared – not without justice – a tendency in the Left Wing to engage in isolated, adventuristic, anti-conscription protests. The other “concessions” to the moderates were of a similar nature; they did not always subtract from the Majority resolution’s militancy and sometimes added to its theoretical correctness. The moderates were frightened by their own child somewhat reluctantly conceived and born of “compromise.” Sooner or later most of them began a long process of disowning the spirit and eventually the letter of the antiwar manifesto. In less than a month after the resolution was penned, Hillquit said of that section pledging party opposition to the war through demonstrations, mass petitions and “all other means within our power.”

As to the phrase “all other means within our power” what means are in our power except the legitimate ones, and then only such of them as the powers that be will care to leave open to us?

There was nothing in the resolution specifically favoring use of anti-militarist techniques outside the framework of “legitimacy”; but in the spirit of the resolution there was anything but the commitment to wage the struggle against militarism within the confines of legal operations circumscribed for the party by the “powers that be.”

The attitude of the Left Wing toward the majority resolution was a curious thing, indeed. For months after its passage the Left Wing press acted as carping critics. It was attacked by influential Left Wingers as the product of “compromise” and derided for not taking a clear-cut revolutionary position on burning problems of the relation of nationalism to internationalism, of class struggle to national struggle, on the question of defense of small nations, etc. The criticisms of the resolution’s deficiencies as a final, definitive, theoretical and all-knowing exposition of every political problem posed by the war were either wrong, misplaced, irrelevant or unfair in their severity. These Lefts claimed that the convention majority “was the result of political tricks and maneuvers such as has seldom been seen before at a Socialist convention.” That there were maneuvers, even tricks, is not to be doubted. But the all important point was missed by many Left Wingers: after the smoke of battle “maneuvers” had cleared the moderates had to sign an armistice with the Left via a moving and politically sound, class struggle oriented condemnation of the war. Some of the Left Wingers were apparently more enraged by the names of Berger and Hillquit being coupled with that of Ruthenberg on the resolution than impressed by its close correspondence to their own views. This hostility was shared by 31 Left Wing delegates at the convention [4] who did not vote for the majority resolution.

When one considers the resolution these Left Wing delegates did vote for, their post-convention criticisms become “curiouser and curiouser.” If one could turnabout and move backwards in socialist history, coming upon the Left-Wing criticisms of the St. Louis convention he could only expect to see, shortly, a detailed, brilliant and revolutionary Left Wing analysis of the war. What a disappointment would await our time-inverted traveler. The Left Wing resolution was far inferior to that supported by the convention. Half the length of the majority resolution, it had no separate suggested course of action as did the majority’s, its language was pedestrian, and its formulation no more precise or Marxistical than the majority’s. And if the dissenting Left Wingers were disappointed with a resolution which did not explicitly condemn the Second International it could not have been inferred from their own resolution which did not have one censorious line on the European parties of War Socialism.

The failure of the entire Left Wing to support the majority resolution at the convention demonstrates what was to become a characteristic failing of the Left: an unreasoned sectarian impulse to differentiate itself from all other tendencies inside the movement, and radical and working class organizations outside of it.

The disunity of the Left Wing elements at St. Louis, half voting for the Majority resolution and half for its own document, was due only in part to the Left’s lack of organization inside the party and the speed with which the convention was assembled. The common misrepresentation of the pre-Communist left in the Socialist Party is of a bunch of irreconcilable hotheads torn only by inner factional maneuvers of different power oriented blocs. Nothing could be more erroneous. In no sense was the Left Wing at any time in its history a monolithic or even a cohesive tendency. True enough, it was to be rent by petty bickering, but it was also divided in a much healthier fashion by genuine differences of political conceptions, sometimes obscured but always operative.

As an example of how wide a gulf sometimes existed among prominent members of the Left and pertinent to our discussion of the Left and the war we should pause for a moment to note the war position of Louis Boudin. Louis Boudin, as we have already mentioned, was the party Marxist, high in the councils of the Left Wing, the most important Left Wing figure at the St. Louis convention and probable author of its minority report.

In Boudin’s many and lengthy articles on the war he always began with the roar of a famished lion flushing out weak game, but by the time Boudin finished his polemics the would-be victims could feel safe in their lair. For Boudin’s roar was not that of the Lord of the Jungle but of the timid lion in the Wizard of Oz. Boudin was highly critical of the St. Louis resolution for its alleged lack of revolutionary, Marxist clarity. But his own articles on the war often included proposals on how to achieve lasting peace which, by comparison, would make the United World Federalists look like flaming revolutionaries. Boudin, the Left Wing leader at the St. Louis convention believed that the bourgeoisie, brought to its senses, realizing that war was self-destructive, could be persuaded that out of self-interest it adopt the policy of “complete disarmament, and international organization.” Boudin gives a detailed blueprint of how this bourgeois “United States of the World” would meet and resolve problems:

But there is a certain minimum of powers which such international organization must possess, in order to answer the present emergency: the administration of all underdeveloped countries, and the protectorate of all semi-developed countries, must be placed in its hands; to be administered primarily in the interests of the natives, and then of the world at large without discrimination between nations; and to remain under such administration until they shall have become ripe for self-government, when they shall be admitted into the community of nations. Once the fear of war, and with it all strategical reasons, are abolished, there is absolutely no reason in any enlightened self-interest, even from the capitalist point of view, why the different nations interested should not turn over all of their possessions in Africa, for instance, to the International Administration, just as the American colonies gave up their claims to the Northwestern territory in favor of the Federal Government, and why the entire African continent, with the exception of the self-governing communities of the South African Federation, should not, thereupon, be administered internationally, and new states carved out therefrom, from time to time, to be admitted into the World-Union, or some integral part of the World-Union, as its Constitution may provide.

The World-Union, and its International Administration, must, of course, have an armed force, in order to be a real power.

As neither this writer nor the readers of the N.I. are likely recruits for the Legion of Space Cadets we need not debate the interminable sentences just quoted: a melange of world-federalism, pacifism and imperialism. They are of significance, however, as an example of the diversity of political concepts this country’s prenatal Communist movement.

It is of interest that the views expressed by Boudin were not at all foreign to the Socialist Party. The party peace program in 1915 called for “international Federation – The United States of the World.” In 1917, after the St. Louis convention Hillquit wrote that peace can be attained “even today before the competitive system of capitalism, the most direct cause of modern wars, is abolished.” This was in direct conflict with the St. Louis Resolution which Hillquit helped author, which explicitly states that the war “was the logical outcome of the competitive capitalist system.” But Hillquit at least modified his views of permanent peace within the framework of world capitalism – and contributed to political confusion – by adding that “To this end the governments must first of all be divorced from the capitalist interests, and be true mouthpieces of the people.” With Boudin, however, such qualifications were not essential to his view.

IN THE YEAR FOLLOWING THE United States’ declaration of war the Socialist Party made capital gains on the basis of its anti-war position. This was graphically demonstrated in the 1917 election campaign of the party. In New York City, Morris Hillquit, running for mayor, received 142,000 votes, nearly 25 per cent of the total cast. When one considers the large number of foreign-born workers who were not citizens and additional allowances for Tammany fraud as the party claimed, the percentage of actual party support in the city unquestionably topped the 25 per cent figure. Four years earlier, Charles E. Russell, running for the same office, received 33,000 votes. New York elected ten socialists to the State Legislature, seven party members to the Board of Aldermen, and one socialist was elected to the municipal bench. In Chicago the socialist candidates received 80,000 votes out of 240,000. In Cleveland the socialists went up from 6,000 in 1915 to 21,000. In Dayton, Ohio, the party received 45 per cent of the total, losing out to the combined efforts of the Republicans and Democrats. Similar increases were recorded in other industrial centers, including Buffalo, Yonkers, Utica, Toledo, Ft. Wayne. Allentown and a host of other communities in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

The party campaign was subjected to the sharpest criticism by Left Wing writers. As was to be so often the case with the Left Wing their criticisms combined elements of theoretical correctness and poor judgment. Whether or not some moderate party campaigners wavered in their attacks on the war, the party campaign on the whole was conducted on an anti-war basis, revolving around the injustice of the war itself and attacking the high cost of living and other hardships it induced. The voters took the party at its word – the St. Louis Resolution – and their vote could only be understood as a mass demonstration against war and capitalist oppression.

The gains the party made were not restricted to the ballot box. The May 1917 circulation of The Call doubled that of 1916. More important, was the membership turnover in the party. Where, before the war, the strongest sections of party influence were in rural areas, the centers of organized party strength had shifted to larger Eastern and industrial metropolises, without incurring any loss in numerical strength. Thousands left the party immediately before and after the St. Louis convention but their places were taken by new members.

These recruits were largely foreign born workers who could not work up any enthusiasm for the imperialist ambitions of their new homeland where conditions of life were often more like Gehenna than the Promised Land. Opposed to the war and inspired by revolutionary developments in Europe, large numbers of these immigrant workers joined the foreign federations affiliated to the Socialist Party and formed the mass base of the Left Wing. [5]

THE LEFT WING CRITICISM OF the SP election campaign was but one example of how an abstract, theoretically correct criticism could be transformed into petty sniping at all the deficiencies of a progressive mass movement. The fact that such left wing Wilsonians as Amos Pinchot and Dudley Field Malone supported Hillquit was enough to bring jeers from the Left Wing press. But while the criticism of the SP campaign was unwise and not always justified in all specific instances, and its articles generally weighted too heavily in a critical direction, the Left Wing, at least, did support the candidates of the Socialist Party.

The first major demonstration of the negativistic purity of the Left was its hostility to the peace movement in the United States which assumed mass proportions following Congress’ declaration of war. This peace movement is a sadly neglected chapter in the history of American radicalism. We cannot remedy that in this article, but a brief review of it is an integral part of our analysis of the Left Wing spearhead of the American Communist movement.

In the most important section of the organized labor movement, the AFL, a modest peace movement was manifested in 1915. A conference of trade unionists was organized consisting mainly of representatives from the West and Midwest, which met in Indianapolis in May 1915 under the chairmanship of Daniel Tobin. Among the delegates were miners, carpenters and teamsters. It was prompted by the downpour of militaristic propaganda following the sinking of the Lusitania. But the conference, though of an anti-militarist nature, took no concrete measures and was fated to collapse under chauvinist pressure from the outside and the Gompers leadership within. The Socialist Party was in no position to provide leadership to this anti-war sentiment in the labor movement for it had successfully isolated itself as a political force inside the AFL. Whether the organized labor movement in the United States would have withstood the test of war, remaining true to its anti-militarist traditions, if the Socialist Party had a constructive policy of functioning inside the AFL as an organized political tendency, or had the revolutionary dual unionists of the I.W.W. chosen a policy of “boring from within” the AFL, is a purely speculative question. All we can say with certainty is that the SP policy of “non-interference” in the affairs of the union movement and the attitude of dual unionists who wanted to destroy the AFL reduced to a minimum any opportunity for a successful struggle against the pro-war Gompers leadership within the “house of labor.”

Although organized labor resistance to militarism waned in the years 1915–1917, the pacifist movement, nonetheless, gained momentum. Unfortunately, the pacifist movement in this period was of a middle class nature consisting of religious organizations, women’s leagues, liberal intellectuals, etc. It fought a losing battle for U.S. neutrality and, occasionally, some of its leading members were attracted by such preposterous projects as Henry Ford’s famous peace mission to Sweden.

Just prior to U.S. entry into the war the Emergency Peace Federation was organized out of the American Neutral Conference Committee which included among its leaders, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, George Kirchwey, and Jane Addams. This new organization included a large number of socialists and made a highly concentrated effort to attract segments of the labor movement. An important conference called by the Federation in May 1917, one month after the declaration of war, was attended by Morris Hillquit, John Haynes Holmes, Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, Lillian Wald (of the Henry Street Settlement), Edward J. Cassidy (President of the Big Six Typographical Union) and about 35 others likewise prominent in socialist, pacifist, reform and labor movements. They agreed upon an “immediate program” of the Federation which previewed an interesting shift in the pacifist movement. With war now a fact in the United States the Federation program reflected an interest in broader social problems. It was concerned with questions of political democracy, war aims and terms of peace, and was inspired by the Russian Revolution. Impelled by the need to further broaden the social outlook of the peace movement, the Federation was instrumental in organizing the First American Conference for Peace and Democracy held in New York on May 30 and 31, with a second major conference held in Chicago. These conferences revealed the growing strength of the anti-war movement, the increased prestige of the Socialist Party within it, and its evolution as a movement with political perspectives adopting the Russian peace program as its own.

The New York Conference was climaxed by a jam-packed rally in Madison Square Garden and a call for a “People’s Council.” Many local “councils’ were organized. And with a significant use of language a “Constituent Assembly of Peoples Councils” was called, to be held in Minneapolis the first two days of September. Minneapolis was chosen as the city most likely to be safe from government persecution because of its Socialist administration. Its meeting rights were denied, however, by the governor of Minnesota and the delegates to the Council moved to Chicago. After succeeding in holding its main sessions there, the Assembly was broken up by troops sent by the Illinois governor. At the session held, however, a program was projected advocating: repeal of the conscription law, the defense of civil liberties, rights of national self-determination, a democratic control of foreign policy and a referendum on war, safeguarding labor’s rights, taxing the wealthy for the war and an international organization for maintaining world peace. A permanent People’s Council was set up with headquarters in New York.

Exactly how powerful this Council movement was is difficult to estimate. Its leaders claimed that its affiliated organizations – Socialist locals, labor councils, farm organizations, reform groups – represented well over two million members. This figure may be exaggerated but there is no question that the pacifist movement, which had been restricted in policy and membership before the war had grown to mass proportions and evolved a radical, though by no means revolutionary, social outlook. Scott Nearing, chairman of the People’s Councils, correctly referred to it as the “clearing house for the liberal and radical elements in American life.” A measure of the strength of the Council movement and its influence in the labor movement was the hysterical reaction of the government and of Samuel Gompers who now sat high in the government war councils.

Gompers, in collaboration with a number of the pro-war socialists who had deserted the party before and after the St. Louis convention, organized the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy. It was to counter the influence of the Socialist Party and to fight possible contagion of the peace movement in the ranks of organized labor. Intended as a demonstration of organized labor’s loyalty to imperialism the Alliance called its first national convention in Minneapolis to coincide with the planned Constituent Assembly of the Peoples Council. The Minnesota governor did not deny the American Alliance its meeting rights.

Gompers explained at the 1917 convention of the AFL:

I wasn’t going to run away. I was going to be there where they were. The psychology of the time and the situation demanded that there should be a clear cut distinction between what the People’s Council represented and what the American trade-unionists represented, and because the mind of the people of the United States was focused upon Minneapolis we decided the conference should be held there.

Meanwhile the Left Wing writers of the Socialist Party were also expressing their dissatisfaction with the peace movement and the People’s Council. Fraina wrote of the People’s Council:

The Socialist Party in its support of the People’s Council has again made a tactical error of the first importance. Indeed, the tragedy of the situation is seen in the circumstance that our party has practically lost its identity nationally as a force against war. All its antiwar activity is virtually centered in the People’s Council, an organization that does not accept revolutionary action, and the conservatism of which, moreover, is strengthened by the party bureaucrats dominant in its management.

... The People’s Council does not square with our general revolutionary aims, nor does it even adopt temporarily radical actions against the war. The party should immediately separate itself from this bourgeois concern.

Many of the specific indictments of the Left Wing against the People’s Council and against the party role in it were, in a limited sense, correct. The Council was neither revolutionary nor anti-capitalist and the moderate leadership of the party spent, perhaps, an inordinate amount of time and energy in it. Moreover, the People’s Council, although it had some support in the labor movement was not a working class organization. In the long run, a movement such as the People’s Council, if it does not win to it the organized working class, the only class capable of leading a successful revolutionary struggle against imperialism, may boil for a while but it will, eventually, only evaporate into steam. And this is what did happen to the People’s Council. But the People’s Council, for all its weaknesses in composition, compromises and hesitations was nevertheless a mass movement of social protest, moved by a genuine sympathy with the Russian Revolution – which it could not understand, and an aversion to war. It was responsible for an awakened political consciousness of thousands, with a radicalizing effect on American workers and liberals. By abstaining from it and condemning it, by not trying to make its views felt within it the Left Wing helped to assure the dissolution of a promising but politically limited mass movement.

The attitude of the Left Wingers would have been correct were they discussing a comparable organization in revolutionary Russia. And that was one of the fundamental weaknesses of this Left. It functioned on the American scene as if it were involved in a direct and immediate revolutionary struggle for power. It could not understand the level of American politics. It adopted an uncompromising, rigid political attitude, in disregard of the stage of development of the American working class and ignorant of the power of American capitalism. In this sense, Gompers understood the class struggle better than Fraina.

In the next issue we will discuss the reasons for the sectarian malady of the Left: What there was in the composition of the Left and its political environment and background that gave rise to self-destructive attitudes and activities. As part of this discussion we will deal with the theory of “mass action,” the Left and the labor movement, its view on reforms and elections; also, the effect of the Russian Revolution on the Left and the labor movement. Finally, we will present a detailed picture of the actual organization of the Left as an organized faction with its fusions and splits leading to the formation of two Communist parties.

* * *


1. The Left Wing was particularly strong in the following states: Montana, Nevada, Arizona, West Virginia, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Texas, Tennessee. In 1912 the S.P. in Montana received 13.6 per cent of the vote; in 1916 it was down to 5.4 per cent. In Ohio it dropped from 8.9 to 3.4 per cent; Washington from 12.4 to 5.9 per cent; Oregon moved down from 9.8 to 3.7. These ten Left Wing strongholds alone (there were others) account for a drop of approximately 100,000 votes from 1912 to 1916.

2. John Reed was a socialist in 1916 and collaborated with many leading party members though he did not formally join the organization until 1917.

3. If there were room for only one name in this discussion of the pre-history of the Communist movement it would be reserved for Louis C. Fraina. It was Fraina (better known later as Lewis Corey) who, as much as any individual, was responsible for the organization of the Left Wing of the Socialist Party. To those who are not at all familiar with the early socialist movement this may appear surprising; but only because the Stalinists have had considerable success in obliterating his role by ignoring it. In the latest Stalinist monumental history of the American Communist movement (William Z. Foster’s 600 tedious pages) Fraina is never once discussed! That is comparable to discussing the steel strike of 1919 without mentioning Foster. On the other hand where he has been mentioned by other “historians” it is usually with condescension at best or venality at worst. The most venomous account of Fraina, perhaps, is to be found in the pulp writings of that sickening personification of moral decay, Benjamin Gitlow, according to whom, Fraina was practically a sex-fiend, certainly a lunatic – and, worst of all, a factional opponent of Gitlow in the Communist movement.

Fraina was a very young man when he came to the Socialist Party in 1915 leaving the Socialist Labor Party behind him. By 1917 he was a leading figure in the Left-Wing. He edited the first national publication of the Socialist Propaganda League, The New International, he was on the editorial board of the superb Class Struggle, was editor of the Revolutionary Age which was to become the national publication of the powerful, organized Left Wing of the Socialist Party in 1918. He earned these posts while still in his mid-twenties.

The articles by Fraina on the war, his analysis of modern imperialism, his understanding of the Russian Revolution marked him as a man who earned his place. There were other men of theoretical talent in the Left Wing such as his co-editors on The Class Struggle, Louis Boudin and Ludwig Lore, but Fraina could hold his own with the best of them. In addition to his intellectual abilities, however, Fraina was an “organizational man,” obviously driven by a passion for organizational leadership. He constantly debated at local branch meetings and spoke at mass rallies. With a sharp tongue, a deft literary style and a genuine intellectual gift to draw from, Fraina rightfully rose from obscurity to national prominence in the socialist movement.

Fraina moulded the political views of the Left Wing as much as any other personality – but it was not an unmixed blessing. He brought with him from the SLP many of its ultra-leftist notions. While Fraina helped to lead the Left Wing in a Marxist direction on international class struggle issues, on problems related to the class struggle at home he must bear his burden of responsibility for the incredible stand of the early Communist movement on trade unions, elections, reforms, etc.

Fraina also suffered from a lack of moral fibre. His demise in the Communist movement was a tragic fall of an individual whose character proved no match for his ambitions or his talent. Some of the details of Fraina’s history will be discussed in the course of these articles.

4. In an article in The Class Struggle Boudin estimates that there were 75 Left-Wingers, over half of whom voted for the Majority Resolution.

5. In 1915 the Socialist Party had 79,000 members and the foreign language federations accounted for about 15,000 members. By the end of 1917 the party had well over 80,000 members with the federations claiming more than 30,000 members.

* * *

A. In the printed version “glorified banner,” but this was corrected in a note in the following issue.

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