Gustav Eckstein in the “Neue Zeit”

Democratic and Syndicalist Illusions

Source: The British Socialist, Vol. 1., No. 3. March, 1912, pp.129-133, (words).
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Gustav Eckstein (1874-1916) was a prominent member of the Kautskyist center of the SPD and a highly gifted theoretician. Trotsky wrote his obituary: See here—Note by transcriber


The great trial in California has terminated for the present in the confession of, and sentence on, the brothers MacNamara. The investigation concerning the dynamite outrages still continues, and it is the great aim of the prosecuting authorities to involve in it as many trade union leaders as possible. But of far greater import­ance still are the reflex effects that this trial, which was so remark­able even considering American conditions, will have on the political life of the nation, and in particular on the Socialist Party.

It is true the brothers MacNamara were not Socialists, and did not belong to the Party. But the latter was only doing its duty when it threw all its energy into the defence of the accused, who, simply as workmen, could make a claim on their support. This was all the more necessary from the fact that, in America more than anywhere else, well-filled coffers are absolutely necessary in order to meet with even a limited amount of justice before the Courts, and as already the illegal and violent method of the introduction of the trial showed in what spirit if would be carried on.

Of course, the opponents of the Socialist Party eagerly took advantage of this opportunity to represent it as the protector of assassins and dynamitards, and to accuse it of propagating crime. The suddenness of these attacks and the consternation at the un­expected turn in events, at the apparently spontaneous confession of the men whom most people had up till then supposed to be innocent, resulted at first in a violent repudiation on the part of the Socialists, who were not content with declaring that the Mac­Namaras had never been members of the Party, and that the Party had never advocated attacks on property, but who also, to a great extent joined in the moral condemnation pronounced by the bour­geois Press on the violent “crime” admitted by the accused, and even in some instances took part in the general cry for the con­demned to be hanged.

But soon other opinions began to be voiced in the ranks of the Party. Especially the Left wing, which is intimately connected with the Syndicalist “Industrial Workers of the World,” took the part of the accused, and William D. Haywood, delegate to Copen­hagen in 1910, one of the best known and most remarkable personalities in the Party,[1] went so far as to express, in a speech to the Coopers’ Union, his strong sympathy with the brothers MacNamara and their act.

“There are few who know,” he said, according to the Press reports to hand, “what the class struggle means. These men who were incarcerated at Los Angeles and then brought to San Quentin, they know what it means. They knew it, and, therefore, my heart is with the MacNamara boys, as long as they continue in the fight against capitalism.”

And after setting the innumerable victims of capitalist rapacity against the 21 victims of the dynamite outrage, he said again: “I repeat once more: I am, and always shall be, on the side of the MacNamaras.”

This speech made all the more sensation in the American Press for the reason that a pamphlet appeared at the same time by Hay­wood and Bohn, expressing the same point of view.

“In war,” it says,[2] “the killing of men and the burning down of cities is reckoned as a patriotic work. Success gives to many such actions the appearance of being legitimate and commendable. In industry the capitalists enslave little children, and the profit wrung from their hard labour is used to build churches and univer­sities and to support Christian missions. The murderous capi­talist who gets his money by robbing children is extolled as being highly charitable, virtuous, religious, etc.

“If the worker, either in consequence of his own experience or through the study of Socialism, realises this, he acts accordingly. He has absolutely no respect for the profit-getter’s ‘right’ of property. He makes use of any weapon which will decide the struggle in his favour. He knows that the present laws of pro­perty are made by the capitalists, and for them, and therefore he does not hesitate to break them. He knows that any action is right which tends to promote the interests of the working class; for such action saves the workers from ruin and death.”

Both the speech and the pamphlet made an enormous sensation, and raised excited discussions in the whole of the Party Press. Some of the most esteemed leaders of the Party expressed them­selves with great decision against these views, and labelled the instigation to illegal acts as morally unjustifiable and ruinous in practice. In an autocratically governed country, such as Russia, they said, a revolutionary Party was obliged to fall back upon violent methods; but not in a democratic Republic, where the proletariat enjoys the same rights of citizenship as the other classes, and where the political struggle can, therefore, be waged within the limits of legality.

But these expressions of opinion did not remain uncontested, and especially the assertion of the moral objectionableness met with much opposition. As a matter of fact, it is just in America that this conception is extremely unconvincing, even if one otherwise admits its reasonableness. One need only glance at the practices of the great American undertakings, one need, above all, only read the crushing accusations raised and substantiated against the mag­nates of capital by Gustavius Myers in his “History of the Great American Fortunes,”[3] to find it utterly absurd to exact from the workers that they alone should in their struggles consider them­selves bound by the legal code, and that on moral considerations. For in America the great capitalists do not only commit those crimes which are in the nature of capitalism and permitted by its laws. They do not confine themselves to merely crushing down their weaker opponent by competition and denuding him of all he possesses, to starving the workers and making them “pliable” by means of lock-outs, to shutting down works and throwing the workers on to the street, to driving women workers to prostitution, and young workers to crime by starvation wages, to leaving the most dangerous machines in factories without protective appli­ances, to neglecting the ventilation in mines, thus killing and mutilating hundreds of workers year by year. All that is their “just” and legal right; but the American magnates of capital do not stop there. Trusting to the colossal power of their money­bags, they scoff at bourgeois law and justice, and there is hardly a crime from which they would recoil in the carrying out of their financial plans, if it only seemed likely to serve their ends.[4] It is, therefore, no wonder that a clergyman, Rev. John Haynes Holmes, speaking recently in the Church of the Messiah, New York, declared from the pulpit:—

“If I had to choose, I would rather be a criminal with blood­stained hands than one of the leaders of the Steel Trust.” And, turning to the MacNamara case, he went on: “As long as human nature remains human nature, dynamite is inevitable in such cir­cumstances. For what means of protest has the worker to-day but deeds of violence? There are no laws in his favour, and no courts of justice which would carry out such laws. The Press misunderstands him, and the Church shrinks from taking his part. Violence cannot be justified from the point of view of absolute ethics; for America is not yet Russia, even taking the steel indus­try into account; but neither can it be indicted as long as the accusers shall not have removed all provocations and given the worker a means of protest.”

Similar views are expressed by Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s candidate for the presidency, in an article as thoughtful as it was courageous, in the January number of the “International Socialist Review”:—

“If, the two MacNamara brothers had been trust-detectives, and if they had shot 21 innocent pickets instead of laying dynamite under the walls of the ‘Los Angeles Times,’ they would be pro­tected by the law and extolled as heroes by admiring capitalists.”

The quarrel about the attitude towards the act of the Mac­Namara brothers is creating a tremendous stir in our American brother-Party. This is seen with special clearness by the many letters received by the Party papers from their readers, taking sides hotly both for and against Haywood’s attitude in this affair. And it is, indeed, a question which is not only of importance in itself, but one in the discussion of which the two tendencies become sharply defined which have gained a large following among Ameri­can workers, and even in our American and other brother-Parties ­the democratic-opportunist and the syndicalist tendencies.


The kernel of the question upon which the discussion turns is this: Whether the Social-Democrat should consider himself bound to respect the existing laws. Above all, what is the value of law and legality in the eyes of the Social-Democrat?

Here two fundamental conceptions stand in sharp opposition to each other, which can be expressed most concisely in the following two sentences:—

“The law is the result and the expression of the will of the people.” “The history of every previous state of society is the history of class struggles.”

According to the first, bourgeois democratic, conception, the law is based upon a sort of tacit agreement between all the indi­viduals of which society is composed. That does not, it is true, mean that it must answer to the needs and wishes of them all. But it is then the business of those who are at a disadvantage to bring about an alteration in the law. An absolute State force can only exist so long as it answers to the wish of the people. If that ceases to be the case, and if the will of the people expresses itself in a decided manner, it has to resign. If it does not do so, then the people have the right to a violent revolution. But this is not the case where the political machinery grants to all the citizens of the State the same rights, where, therefore, the expression of the popular will is not restricted by extra-legal forces, thus especially not in a democratic Republic.

To this conception that of the proletarian Social-Democrats is sharply opposed. The latter do not look upon the people as a homogeneous whole, nor as a number of individuals, but as a conglomeration of classes with different, often sharply opposed, economic and social interests. For them, therefore, the law is not the expression of the general will, but the expression of the rule of a class, and at the same time a weapon for the preservation of that rule. This way of regarding it, of course, involves quite a different valuation of the various State-constitutions. These are not products of art, results of a creative agreement; but, on the contrary, they are the forms in which class rule finds its expression, forms not freely chosen, but necessarily resulting from the structure of society, from the nature of the ruling class and the resistance of the oppressed, even though the same State-forms often seem to answer to quite different economic conditions. Thus the demo­cratic republic is to be found among peasant peoples as well as at the highest stages of capitalist development. But this similarity of State-forms is only apparent; their nature varies very much. The American Republic under Roosevelt is as different as possible from that Republic under President Lincoln, although the old Constitu­tion is nominally still in force. The Third Republic of France, has little but the name in common with the First. The modern bour­geoisie has understood in a most masterly way how to convert the once revolutionary State-forms, won in the struggle against absolutism, into the tools of class-rule. To-day it need not take refuge beneath the protecting wing of a Napoleonic military dictatorship in order to be safe from the proletarian on-rush; to-day it has means at its disposal the effect of which is more certain, without the same degree of danger to itself.

In his article in the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung” on the June battle of the year 1848, Marx raises the question:—[5]

“Should the deep gulf that has opened before us confuse the Democrats, or lead us to suppose that the struggles around the State-form are empty and illusory?”

And he replies:—

“Only, weak, cowardly souls can raise this question. The collisions which arise out of the conditions which govern bourgeois society itself must be fought through, they cannot be charmed away. The best State-form is that in which the social antagonisms are not obscured, and are not forcibly or artificially covered up or restrained. The best State-form is that in which these conflicts can be fought out freely, thereby attaining their proper solution.”

Marx considers the Republican State-form as the one in which the social antagonisms can be best fought out to a finish. But there he over-estimates the courage, and under-estimates the meanness, of the bourgeoisie. The examples of the French, and especially of the North American Republics have shown that the modern bourgeoisie has succeeded in making the Republic into a State-form wherein the social antagonisms are more and more blurred and veiled than in any other. Of course, we must aim with all our might at the realisa­tion of the Republican State-form; for only on the foundation of a republic is it possible to force through our most important demands; but a Constitution such as that of France or the United States to-day would not help us much.

Marx had feared that the oppression exercised by an absolute or even constitutional monarchy would unite all classes, all oppressed elements, among the people in a common self-defence, thereby veiling and bridging over the class antagonisms. Thus it hap­pened in Russia to a considerable extent before the revolution, when country noblemen, capitalists, peasants, and proletarians joined in the struggle against Czarism. It was only the revolution itself which proved how deceptive were the hopes based on such an alliance. And this led to its sudden collapse.

In a republic, Marx thought, this danger need not be feared, for here the social antagonisms were brought directly into opposi­tion, and no external, absolute power intervened either to repress the class struggle artificially or to unite all classes of society in the struggle against that power itself. Facts have shown that Marx was mistaken in this. In monarchies the extension of the prole­tariat, and of its social and political importance, scared all the bourgeois parties into taking refuge more and more under the protection of the sword, which, however, has had the effect of constituting the monarchical power the evident patron of all the propertied interests against the forward movement of the prole­tariat. Even the Russian bourgeoisie preferred to take up the yoke of Czarism again rather than owe to the proletariat a victory the fruits of which they would have to share with it. But Czarism, on the other hand, found itself obliged to act as the patron of large capitalist and landed interests against the proletariat in order to finish with the latter. So also to-day in the apparently constitu­tional but really absolute monarchies, where capitalism has assumed highly-developed forms, as in Germany and Russia, the class antagonisms are much more sharply defined, they force themselves much more visibly to the front, than in republics like France and the United States. It is true the State-form is not the only cause of this phenomenon, but it is one of the most important determining factors.

(To be continued.)

1. Since then Haywood has been elected on to the Party Executive.

2. “Industrial Socialism.” By William D. Haywood and Frank Bohn. (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co.) 64 pages. Price 10 cents. (Page 57.)

3. Chicago, 1910 Charles H. Kerr and Co. Three volumes.

4. Myers especially has given proof of this in his book.

5. Mehring: “Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von Karl Marx, Friederich Engels, and Ferdinand Lassalle.”