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Julius Falk

Origins of Communism in U.S. – III

The Formation of Two Rival Communist Parties

(Spring 1956)

From The New International, Vol XXII No. 1, Spring 1956, pp. 49–58.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In our previous installment we examined the political character of the communist left-wing in the Socialist Party. In this issue our discussion is continued with a review of the events leading to the organization of two rival Communist parties and a summary of the main factors responsible for the decline of American radicalism in the post-war period. – J.F.

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The Left Wing Splits

The first split in the American communist movement took place before its birth; what finally emerged out of the womb of the Socialist Party were twins; similar though not identical organizations with no fraternal love lost between them.

Prior to the formal organization of the left wing, its generally accepted tactic was to consolidate and organize its forces for capturing the Socialist Party. Largely due to the insistence of the left wing the party leadership called an emergency national convention to open in Chicago on August 31, 1919. It was there that the left wing planned to make its bid for power. As we have already seen, however, the Socialist Party leadership in an effort to retain its hegemony expelled or suspended more than a third of the party’s book membership. The problem then posed for the left wing was whether to continue in its efforts to capture the party at the convention which would require the seating of elected delegates from suspended and expelled sections or to ignore the SP convention and prepare a founding convention of a communist party.

At the June National Conference of the left wing this question split the party opposition in two. One-third of the 90 delegates, led by a bloc of Russian Federation and Michigan SP leaders, walked out on the conference when the majority agreed that despite expulsions and suspensions it was necessary to try to win the party for the left wing. The majority’s strategy was outlined in the Revolutionary Age as follows:

All state and local organizations of the Socialist Party (whether expelled or suspended) must elect their delegates to the Emergency Convention. Not to do this is to abandon the struggle in the party, to surrender to the bureaucracy.

If the Emergency Convention refused to rescind the disciplinary actions of the party leadership and seat the disputed delegates, then and only then, “all left wing delegates will secede and organize a new Communist Party.” The Russian-Michigan bloc’s refusal to participate in the SP convention was condemned as striking “directly at the left wing and revolutionary socialism.” The majority set up a National Council as an administrative body to carry out the political and strategical line adopted at the Conference.

The so-called minority of the left wing, which claimed, not without some justification, to represent more individuals than the Conference majority, organized its own leading committee, the National Organization Committee (NOC). The NOC issued The Communist (not to be confused with the New York Communist), first appearing in July, 1919. It was published in Chicago and edited by Dennis E. Batt, a prominent Michigan socialist. In The Communist and in Novy Mir, the official organ of the Russian Federation, the Conference majority was roundly condemned as “centrists” and “capitulators” for its policy aimed at capturing the SP. Whatever chance did exist for the left wing as a whole to win the party was lost by the uncompromising activities of the Russian-Michigan bloc.

The alliance between the Russian-led federations and the Michigan left wingers was an unholy affair. While they both condemned the Conference majority as centrists, the Russian federationists and the Michiganers had least in common, politically and temperamentally, of all the groups within the left wing. The Michigan left wingers, as we have seen, were opposed to the theory of mass action which was the political pride and joy of the Russians and of the left wing majority. They also had a much more modest – and accurate – appraisal of the receptivity of the American working class at the time to revolutionary agitation. The Russian Federation, on the other hand, was the most politically extreme tendency in the left wing under the delusion that it was the American counterpart of the Russian CP. These two tendencies were held together in their assaults on the left wing majority by their determination to split the Socialist Party. Once this had been accomplished and a Communist Party organized, the frail basis of their collaboration dissolved and the Michigan socialists split away from the Russian Federation-dominated CP to form the Proletarian Party.

The attacks of the Russian-Michigan bloc were not without effect. The Russians posing as the most authoritative representatives of Russian bolshevism surrounded themselves with an air of revolutionary glamour which, in a few months, was to prove irresistible to a majority of the left wing’s National Council. On July 26–27 at a conference initiated by the Russian-Michigan bloc (NOC) a “compromise” was worked out with the National Council which, in effect, was a submission of the Council to the NOC. A joint declaration was issued which called for the organization of a new party on September 1, but still left the door open for participating in the Socialist Party convention. Shortly thereafter the door was closed and all talk by this new left wing alliance of attending the convention was dropped.

This reversal of the decision of the National Left Wing at its founding conference by its National Council was politically wrong and undemocratic. The National Council was elected as an administrative body to carry out the decision of that conference to make a determined effort to win the Socialist Party for communism which it had no right to countermand.

As late as August 2, the Revolutionary Age ran articles advocating the position taken by the left-wing majority at its June conference. More than a week later, less than two weeks before the SP convention, this influential left-wing paper somersaulted and became a spokesman for the Russian-Michigan view. Fraina, the paper’s editor, who had argued with convincing dexterity for attending the convention now denounced his earlier views as though he had never held them. When the Revolutionary Age capitulated to the Russian-Michigan bloc, John Reed, Benjamin Gitlow and Eadmonn MacAlpine resigned from the paper’s staff on August 23, accusing Fraina of unscrupulously abandoning his views in order to ingratiate himself with the Russian Federation.

Thus the left-wing majority was reduced to a minority. But it still had a substantial number of left-wing socialists and a majority of the left wing’s English-speaking supporters who still aimed at making a fight for their views at the SP convention on August 31.

Early in August the National Organizing Committee issued a call together with the National Council (in violation of the June Conference decision) for the formation of a Communist Party in Chicago on September 1st – one day later and in the same city as the SP convention. The call declared that “Those who realize that the capturing of the Socialist Party as such is but an empty victory will not hesitate to respond to this call and leave the ‘Right’ and ‘Center’ to sink together with their leaders.” The “Center,” i.e., the left wingers who remained loyal to the plan of the June Conference to capture the SP, were in a hopeless position. They could not possibly overwhelm the right wing at the convention. But the attempt was made. Their strategy was to appear at the SP assemblage and demand of the convention that its first order of business be the question of the legality of the expulsions and suspensions which deprived the left wing of so many voting delegates. The contested left wing delegates attempted to take their seats as the contention was convened. With the aid of the police, summoned by SP leaders, the unrecognized left wing delegates were removed from their seats. Despite this, the left wing caucus decided that it would not as yet bolt the convention. A move was made by left delegates to take up the question of contested seats. The right wing made the empty gesture of offering to seat all contested delegates except those from Ohio and a number from New York whose cases would be reviewed later on by a committee headed by Jacob Panken. As this would still give the right a majority the left withdrew from the convention and met to organize the Communist Labor Party. Chicago became the site of three radical conventions – the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party. It was the beginning of the protracted decline of the American socialist movement.

The failure of the left wing to make a unified effort to win the name and prestige and machinery of the Socialist Party was a calamity for the early Communist movement. It was typical of the hopeless sectarianism of this left wing that it could not work toward this objective intelligently and responsibly. It wasn’t poor tactics or poor organizational leadership which was at fault – though both were the case. The problem was ideological. The politics of the left wing were such that its supporters could not regard the Socialist Party as anything more than a sinking vessel worthy only of being scuttled. The left wing conducted a political campaign against the SP and its leadership which often bordered on vilification. It exaggerated the failings, hesitations and misdemeanors of the party in a political manner and technique that could only be reserved for the parties of European social democracy but not for the Socialist Party of America. The Socialist Party did falter in its anti-war stand as we have shown, but it never repudiated the St. Louis resolution and never rallied workers to the armies of imperialism as did the major socialist parties in Europe. For its stand, party leaders here were hounded, persecuted and jailed by the government while leaders of European socialism were rewarded with ministerial posts for their supineness. In Germany, social democracy crushed the revolution of 1919 while in the United States the SP defended the Spartacists and welcomed the revolutionary upheavals of 1919. Despite all this, the left wing coupled the Socialist Party of America with the parties of counter-revolution and its leaders were dubbed “Noskes,” “Scheidemanns” and “Kerenskys.” Instead of a reasoned and forceful criticism of the leadership, the left wing, moved by its revolutionary optimism, engaged in a frontal assault on the party which contributed to its disengagement from militants inside the Socialist Party and from the labor movement as a whole. Thousands of the best party workers were understandably repelled by the tactics of the left wing. In describing the procedures of the SP convention of 1919, for example, William Bross Lloyd, a charter member of the Communist Labor Party made some parting remarks about the SP which summed up the distorted image the left wing presented of that party. (Lloyd’s remarks were inspired by the screening of delegates to the SP convention by a special committee which interviewed all delegates to weed out those from suspended and expelled sections. The recognized delegates were given a special card. The color of the card was white.) Lloyd wrote:

The card was white, historically symbolic of the work of Finland’s White Guards and her bloody fields and streets, or Berlin’s streets red with workers’ blood spilled by our “comrades” Scheidemann, Ebert and Noske; symbolically prophetic of the part for which the Socialist Party of America has cast itself.

In the same article Lloyd referred to “‘Comrade’ ‘Seymour Stedman Noske’” and declared that the Socialist Party would be “financed by capitalism.”

The methods employed by the party leadership to secure its control at the convention were no less revolting than its conduct during the entire fight with the left wing. But nothing done before or during 1919 justified this amalgam of white cards, White Guards and the SP. In fact the resolutions adopted by the SP at this split convention mark the revolutionary high point in the life of the Socialist Party. In its Manifesto the convention “unreservedly” rejected “the policy of those Socialists who supported their belligerent capitalist governments on the plea of ‘National Defense’ – during the war and the party went on record with a pledge of “solidarity with the revolutionary workers of Russia.” And if the party leadership was opposed to unqualified support of the Third International, the overwhelming majority of the party revealed their support of the Comintern in a referendum vote on the question of international affiliation. These were not the statements or actions of a party preparing to drown the American revolution in workers’ blood. The outburst by Lloyd was more than the product of a post splitconvention fever. It was in the tradition of left wing discussion of party program and party personnel for the previous six months.

The thoughtless abandon with which the left wing castigated its opponents in the party grew out of its expectation of an approaching revolution in the United States. Those in the party who did not make similar prophecies and adapt themselves accordingly were not only blind fools but against the revolution and in the camp of “Sausage Socialism.”

What would have happened, we must ask ourselves, if the left wing modulated its voice? If in a unified and considered manner it took the party to task for its confusions and hesitations and directed its energies toward winning the Socialist Party to communism at its 1919 convention? The answer is speculative, of course, but not without its lessons for the future. The probability is that they could have succeeded. The left wing would have been even stronger numerically, it could have won the support of many old-time socialists, and it may have even won over sections of the moderate leadership. With a realistic program and a reasonable factional strategy its political and moral position in the organization could have been so strong that, despite expulsions and suspensions, the party might have been won by the left. Instead, the entire socialist movement was set back by the chosen course.

On August 31, 1919, there was one socialist organization (we discount the SLP); a few days later there were three. And in each of the three parties disunity reigned supreme. In the SP there remained a strong left wing which was to split away on several occasions in the next two years. In the Communist Party convention there was dissension from the start between the English-speaking members and the bulk of the Russian-led federations over what attitude to take toward its simultaneously organized rival, the Communist Labor Party. The former group, led by those members of the National Council which violated the decisions of its parent body, the Left Wing June Conference, sought unity with the “Centrists” now in the Communist Labor Party. But the Russians were prepared to go it alone and opposed unity negotiations with the CLP on an equal footing. The Russians prevailed, at first, as they were in a position to claim the leadership of 35,000 foreign language communists out of a total membership of 58,000. (Both figures are unquestionably exaggerated although the ratio between foreign and English speaking book members is probably accurate.) This convention had its political problems, too. Differences between the Michigan Communists and the majority of former SP left wingers came to the surface. Two political manifestos were contested, with the Michigan position presented by Dennis Batt, firmly repudiated. The two most important posts in the CP went to Charles Ruthenberg (who flitted between the two communist conventions) elected National Secretary and Fraina (until a month earlier associated with those who formed the CLP), was chosen International Secretary.

The convention of the Communist Labor Party did not fare much better. It was not a homogeneous affair and its political platform presented by John Reed ran into considerable opposition, winning by a 2–1 vote. The CLP claimed approximately 20,000 members, a figure no less inflated than that of the CP. Alexander Wagenknecht was elected Executive Secretary and John Reed picked as International Secretary.

Neither Communist convention was smoothly run, although the CP conclave had much more the air of a machine organized affair. Delegates made the rounds of the three conventions unsure of their own allegiances and often without any mandate from the rank and file. One day Charles Ruthenberg was introducing a resolution at the CLP convention and several days later he was elected to the highest post in the CP! In principle, the political programs adopted by the two conventions were essentially the same. All the sectarian traits of the left wing reached their climax in both conventions’ documents. There were differences between the two organizations, though, which would be obscured if we judged them only by their common errors. The CP manifesto was particularly harsh in its tone, abounding in cliches and pseudo-revolutionary “daring,” while the CLP document, in principle the same, was softer in language and less addicted to jargon. They were literary differences of political importance.

The political dialect of the Communist Party, led by the Russian Language Federation, revealed a party much further removed from the American political scene. The Communist Labor Party, on the other hand, had a leadership and following which was more closely attuned to American conditions and this was reflected in the idiom of its declaration and proven in the subsequent history of both organizations.

Immediate Causes of Communist Decline

THE COMMUNIST MOVEMENT in this country was cursed at birth with a “crisis in leadership.” Both the CP and CLP were led by individuals only a few of whom had the necessary experience in the American working class to lead such ambitious movements; and a large number of whom seemed as much given to intrigues, maneuvers and manipulations as to socialist idealism. It was, also, a socially heterogeneous leadership and one that had not been cemented by extensive personal collaboration. Among the leaders of the CLP, for example, were John Reed, a graduate of Harvard, recently won to the cause of revolutionary socialism, a brilliant journalist and courageous idealist but not really equipped to lead a communist movement; Jim Larkin who arrived here in 1915 from Ireland as unofficial emissary of the Irish Republican movement, jailed in 1920 and deported to his native land a few years later; William Bross Lloyd, scion of a millionaire family whose revolutionary career was short-lived; Louis Boudin who never survived the CLP founding convention; Ludwig Lore, one of the most gifted early communists with long experience in the socialist movement, expelled from the communist movement six years after its inception. The leadership of the CP was no more cohesive or durable in its formative years than the CLP. Louis Fraina, the party theorist, lasted two years in the party before he disappeared from the Communist movement with an enormous sum of Russian communist funds; Charles Ruthenberg, an “organizational man,” whose reputed organizational talent could not mean much given his political line and the organizational policies pursued by the CP under his leadership; Isaac Ferguson dropped Mass Action when released from jail to take up a more sedate profession as a lawyer writing briefs instead of manifestos; Dennis Batt and John Keracher called it quits after six months as CP leaders and left with their followers to found the Proletarian Party.

With this lack of a cohesive, continuous leadership, the communist movement operated from the outset under a serious handicap. If the leadership of the movement was unstable, it was no less true of the bulk of the rank and file. The membership of the Russian Federation in particular was not one which could resist government terror and the demoralizing fact that the European revolution was ebbing. And it could not be impervious to the internecine warfare the CP leaders from the Russian Federation waged against others in their own party, and the rivalry between the CP and CLP which had no basis in principle. The Russian Federation toward the end of 1919 claimed around 10,000 members. Even if this figure is highly exaggerated, it had a substantial membership. But just three years later the Workers Party [1] claimed less than 700 members in its Russian-language section. Apart from government repression, the Russian born worker communists in 1919 lacked the political education to withstand the reaction in the United States and in Europe. What was true of the Russians was also true of thousands of other left wingers who had been recently recruited to the socialist movement via the left wing of the Socialist Party. They left in droves when the promised “spontaneous” revolt of the American working class failed to materialize. It is interesting to note in this connection that the Communist Party in 1923 was composed in its majority of those foreign-language socialists who went over to the communist movement from the Socialist Party in splits subsequent to 1919. The Finnish Federation, for example, was accredited with nearly 6,500 of the 12,400 members the Workers Party claimed in 1922. But the Finnish Federation, with a long history in the socialist movement, refused to leave the SP with the left wing in 1919. It was composed of more politically educated workers who had been active in the American labor movement and were, consequently, highly critical of the sectarianism of the 1919 left wing.

TOMES HAVE BEEN WRITTEN on the exceptional economic and political strength of American capitalism as the root cause for the inability of socialism to establish itself as a significant, independently organized force. As an explanation for the minuscular size of the present socialist movement this theory is beyond debate. No reasonable person could deny that under American capitalism today the effect of the relatively high living standards of the American working class has been to keep it in a politically dependent temper.

Those Marx-slayers, bourgeois and ex-radical historians, who are so fond of dwelling on the economic power of American capitalism, not only project this strength as a permanent characteristic which dooms socialism as an archaic, historically irrelevant utopian ideal and a living refutation of the Marxist concept of the class struggle, but generalize back into the past. To give the present strength of capitalism an appearance of permanence, a certain glamour and mythical power is attributed to its history designed to prove that socialism in this country was always engaged in a predetermined futile siege of the impregnable fortress of American capitalism. We would be the last to deny that even in the early history of the American labor movement socialists were limited, when compared to their European comrades, by the enormous rise in American productivity as a result of which the working class, not without struggling for it, was able to benefit. But this was not the fundamental social-economic reason for the decline of socialism shortly after the first war. In 1912, when the economic muscles of capitalism were bulging, new industries and new fortunes springing up throughout the nation, one out of every fifteen voters cast their ballot for the Socialist Party. And seven years later there were several hundred thousand workers in the socialist movement and in syndicalist and socialist conscious unions. But by 1921, the IWW was a declining organization, the Socialist and Communist parties reduced to large sects and the labor movement as a whole was on the defensive.

There was certainly nothing dynamic about the severe depression of 1920–22, the two years which witnessed the virtual collapse of the once proud and feared socialist movement in this country. Workers weren’t blinded to the appeals of socialism in those years because they were getting bigger slices of that famous economic “pie.”

There were, in this writer’s opinion, four related reasons for the decline of socialism in the decade of the twenties: government repression, the defeat of the European revolution, the rise of Stalinism and growing prosperity at home. But what was the weight and relation to one another of these factors? Did the revolution in Europe fail because of the objective strength of American capitalism? Obviously not. But what about the converse of this proposition? How was the stability of American capitalism affected by the defeat of socialism in Europe and the degeneration of the Soviet Union? The answer to this should be clear to everyone. The ability of the American bourgeoisie to entrench itself firmly in the twenties and to cut the ground from under a socialist movement was predicated on the defeat of the European revolution. Had socialism been victorious overseas not even Daniel Bell would have been able to write today of the dynamic genius of American capitalism. Exactly how the course of American history would have changed is impossible to determine but it is a certainty that the American movement would have grown enormously. The U.S. was the only nation to emerge victorious out of the war and this combined with the narrow triumph of European capitalism over the working class, permitted the American bourgeoisie with all its given advantages of geography, natural resources, labor supply, etc., to attain its national and internationally dominant position.

The correct causal sequence – socialism defeated in Europe and capitalism victorious at home – is not only missed by most writers on the subject of American socialism, it is practically ignored. How could it be otherwise for either a crooked Gitlow or a scholarly Bell? They assign themselves the same task, performed in different ways of showing how romantic or useless an expenditure of energy it has always been to fight for socialism in the United States. And history has lessons for the present and future which they prefer to overlook. If the economic superiority of capitalism was a necessary but not sufficient cause for the defeats of socialism here, if it required the defeat of the European working class and the rise of Stalinism for American capitalism to prove itself in the twenties, then what merit is there to the theory which asserts the future stability of U.S. capitalism and the alleged failure of Marxism by way of production and income figures. America’s post World War I crisis was resolved fundamentally by European events, its ability to pull out of the depression of the thirties was made possible by an international crisis – the Second World War and its political preliminaries, and the fate of American capitalism today is no less contingent on international developments, faced now with the impossible task of insuring a favorable world wide political and economic position.

THE AMERICAN BOURGEOISIE understood the threat to its security stemming from the European revolution. And it reacted in the only way it knew how: repression and terror.

Mass persecution of non-conformists, however, predated the Bolshevik revolution. Immediately before and during U.S. participation in the war, wholesale arrests took place and anti-radical mob violence was encouraged. Through the Espionage Act the socialist press was largely put out of commission by Post Office censorship. From April 6, 1917, to November 11, 1918, there were nearly 5,000 prosecutions, with 1,500 jail sentences handed out in civil liberties cases. Five leading members of the SP were tried and convicted in February 1918 of conspiracy to create mutiny. And in Chicago, 101 members of the IWW were found guilty of interfering with the war effort with sentences handed out up to twenty years and fines levied totaling $2,620,000. Bill Haywood was kept in jail for almost a year before his $25,000 bail was accepted. Debs was arrested in June 1918 and sent to jail 10 months later.

Serious as the anti-socialist campaign was during the war it did not match the violence of the bourgeoisie immediately before, during and after the European revolution reached its crest. City and State sedition and criminal syndicalist laws were added to the federal Espionage Act as basis for arrests and convictions. And added to the local mobs and patriotic societies during the war were the activities of the American Legion and the reviving Ku Klux Klan. The weight of the intensified reaction was now heavily concentrated on the IWW and the communist movement. Benjamin Gitlow, Harry Winitsky, secretary of the N.Y. CP, James Larkin, Isaac Ferguson and Charles Ruthenberg were all convicted and jailed for their roles as Communist leaders. In 1920 the Communist movement, particularly its Communist Party wing, was virtually driven underground by the government. Deportations were added to war-time repressive techniques. In the two years following the war about 600 were deported as “anarchists.” In the raids organized by Attorney General Palmer in January, 1920, thousands were arrested with and without warrants, and Secretary of Labor Wilson, ruled the Communist Party an illegal organization.

Thus, the concrete contribution of American capitalism toward overcoming socialism, and all radicalism, immediately after the first world war was not economic largesse or political democracy. It was repression.

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1. The Workers Party was the broader, legal organization established by the underground communist movement in 1922.

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