Early American Marxism: Document Download Page: 1898

Early American Marxism

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“Against Fusion: Debs Reiterates his Declaration for the Benefit of Doubters: He Urges the Importance of the Convention, Where a National Platform Will Be Adopted,” by Eugene V. Debs [May 19, 1898] The split of the Social Democracy of America in two groups came suddenly, as evidenced by this article by Eugene Debs published little more than 2 weeks before the fractious first regular convention. Debs gives nary a hint of any fundamental disagreements within the organization between colonization exponents and advocates of political action. “We confidently look forward to our first national convention as a Socialist convention of such character and proportion as to immensely strengthen the movement and inspire the whole membership with fresh zeal in the cause,” he enthusiastically declares. The main point which Debs seeks to make with the article is that speculation about a proposed fusion of the Social Democracy with the Populist Party in the 1898 elections was idle, since the Social Democracy was a socialist political party, whereas “the Populist Party is a capitalist party and the Social Democracy will not fuse with it any more than it will with the Republican or Democratic Party.” “The only object of such fusion would be the securing of office—the loaves and fishes. We are not after office, we want Socialism. We care nothing about office except in so far as it represents the triumph of Socialism,” Debs declares. Debs also denounces the war craze of 1898 in no uncertain terms: “We are opposed to war, but if it ever becomes necessary for us to enlist in the murderous business it will be to wipe out capitalism, the common enemy of the oppressed and downtrodden in all countries. We are not afflicted with the kind of patriotism which makes the slaves of our nation itch to murder the slaves of another nation in the interest of a plutocracy that wields the same lash over them all.”




“Report of the Colonization Commission to the First Annual Convention of the Social Democracy of America,” by C.F. Willard [delivered June 9, 1898] The definitive account of the actions of the 3 member Colonization Commission of the Social Democracy of America during the 10 months of its existence, from its formation in Aug. 1897 through the first days of June 1898. While the original scheme of the SD of A was to establish colonies in a single relatively unpopulated western state—Washington or Idaho—and to thereafter take over the state government via the ballot box, late in September 1897 the Colonization Commission received from a real estate broker an offer of sale of thousands of acres in rural Tennessee at a favorable price. The commission spent the better part of the year investigating this property, negotiating terms of the deal, and establishing a legal entity, the Cooperative Commonwealth Company, for the sale of bonds and the holding of property deeds. The eruption of hostilities between the United States and Spain seems to have disrupted financial markets, however, and at the 11th hour the owner of the Tennessee property proved unwilling to undergo the expense of deeding the property and placing it into escrow pending the successful sale of $2.5 million in interest-bearing bonds—a dubious prosepect. Finally on May 13, 1898—less than one month before the first annual convention of the SD of A—an impasse was declared and the Tennessee land deal effectively scrapped. The Colonization Commission then made the ill-advised decision to immediately leap into an alternate proposal for a colony, this the purchase of a Colorado gold mine for $5,000 within 90 days and $95,000 funded through the sale of bonds, to be paid off from gold extracted from the mine. This was the colonization proposal taken to the first (and only) regular convention of the Social Democracy of America in June 1898, which resulted in a split of the political actionist minority headed by Victor Berger to form the Social Democratic Party of America.


“Speech to the First Annual Convention of the Social Democracy of America, June 9, 1898 - excerpt,” by Eugene V. Debs Short extract from the hour-long speech delivered by Chairman of the National Executive Board of the Social Democracy of America, Eugene Debs, to the ill-fate Chicago convention of that organization. During the course of his remarks, Debs comes out for a reduction in the rate of dues from the current 15 cents per month (dues were ultimately reduced to $1 per year) and says of the SLP that “it is too narrow to appeal to the great broad spirit of American Socialists.” Although no doubt tendentiously excerpted for use in the factional struggle agains the political actionist minority headed by Victor Berger, Debs is quoted as saying: “I have not changed in regard to our procedure. Give me 10,000 men, aye, 1,000 in a western state, with access to the sources of production, and we will change the economic conditions and we will convince the people of that state, win their hearts and their intelligence. We will lay hold upon the reins of government, and plant the flag of Socialism on the state house.” Debs notes that the division of the USA into states is a great boon for the American Socialist movement not found in any European country: “We can take possession of one state, and not wait until we get the whole United States. We must get one state at a time.”


Statement of Principles of the Social Democratic Party: Adopted at Chicago, June 11, 1898. A first platform issued by the fledgling socialist political organization which was to merge with the insurgent so-called “Kangaroo” faction of the Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America in 1901. In this document, the Social Democratic Party of America categorized socialism as “the collective ownership of the means of production for the common good and welfare” and called upon “the wage-workers and all those in sympathy with their historical mission to realize a higher civilization” to sever ties with existing conservative capitalist and reformist political parties and to instead work for “the establishment of a system of cooperative production and distribution.”.


“The Convention: A Notable Gathering of the People Representing Socialism: Stirring Events in Which Those Who Stood For Political Action Exclusively Were Defeated—They Bolt.” [June 16, 1898] Participant’s account [by W.P. Borland?] of the 1st regular convention of the Social Democracy of America, held in Chicago from June 7-11, 1898, published in the official organ of the pro-colonization faction. The author reduces the struggle between the two groups to a battle between “old German Socialist methods, with its ‘class-consciousness’ club tactics” and “American Socialist methods.” The former position, that of the convention minority which bolted the gathering to form the Social Democratic Party of America on June 11, 1898, stood for political action alone. The latter position, that of the convention majority, stood for “both political action and colonization,” in the words of the author. This position had been supported at the convention in an hour-long report delivered by National Executive Board Chairman Eugene Debs on June 9. Factional leaders were Victor Berger of Milwaukee and Isaac Hourwich of New York (father of future CPA leader Nicholas Hourwich) for the adherents of the “old German Socialist methods” and John F. Lloyd of Illinois and James Hogan of Utah for the “American Socialism” pro-colonization faction.


“A Weak Argument: Laurence Gronlund Condemns the Action of the Bolters: Berger’s Platform Analyzed and Its Defects Pointed Out—Americans Demand a Practical Movement,” by Laurence Gronlund [June 23, 1898] While Eugene Debs split with the political action wing of the Social Democracy of America to help found the Social Democratic Party in June 1898, the second “big name” in the American movement stayed loyal to the SDA. Laurence Gronlund, author of the enormously influential book The Cooperative Commonwealth, published this critique of the actions and program of Victor Berger and the political actionists in the final issue of the official organ of the SDA. Gronlund calls Berger and friends “childish” for refusing to accede to the decision of the majority of the June convention to proceed with colonization, thereby attempting “to break up and destroy a new and splendid instrument for the emancipation of the masses,” the Social Democracy of America. “No matter how right they have been on the question of political action vs. colonization, they should for the time being have bowed to the will of the majority and afterwards tried to persuade and convince their comrades,” Gronlund opines. Gronlund likens the new SDP to the Socialist Labor Party, now 25 years old and which “has just as little chance of winning an American majority as a 50 year old maiden has of being married.” In the realm of ideas, Gronlund sharply criticizes Berger’s adherence to the “fatal German theory” of class consciousness, which he characterizes as “entirely un-American.” Gronlund observes that “The theory of class consciousness means that society is divided by a horizontal line into two sections: the wage-earners below the line and the possessing classes above the line, and then a class war is proclaimed between the two sections.... There is, to be sure, a dividing line in society...but it should be a vertical line through all classes, so that we have friends of our cause in all classes, and unfortunately there will to the last be workingmen who are our foes.”




“American Socialism,”, by Victor L. Berger [July 9, 1898] The first regular convention of the Social Democracy of America, held in Chicago June 7-11, 1898, was also its last, resulting in a split of the organization between a majority faction intent on pursuing the strategy of establishing cooperative colonies in a western state and attempting to take over the state government for socialism by democratic means, and a minority faction which rejected the notion of rural communalism as retrograde and which instead sought to win the entire nation for socialism via the power of the ballot box. The minority faction bolted the organization and on June 11, 1898, established the Social Democratic Party of America. This article by SDP leader Victor Berger from the debut issue of the party’s official newspaper, The Social Democratic Herald, explained the basic political ideas of this new organization in contradistinction to the so-called “American Socialism” of his factional opponents. Berger rejected out of hand the notion that there was anything particularly American about rural cooperative communes, which he derided as an alien import to American soil, declaring “not one of the innumerable communistic or cooperative colonies that have been founded and failed in America, even if made up of American membership, was of American origin. Not one. They were all founded upon the ideas of French or German utopian Socialists—notably Fourier, Cabet, and Weitling.” The recent spate of so-called socialist communities influenced by the writings of Edward Bellamy—including that of the Social Democracy of America and the Ruskin Cooperative Association in Tennessee—were unconvincingly stripped of “American” status due to the fact that Bellamy “had no original Socialist ideas” but merely gave the ideas of German scientific socialists in utopian form. As opposed to the implied barbarism of rural cooperative colonies, Berger contrasts the idea of Socialism, “the child of civilization,” based upon the collective ownership of large-scale modern productive machinery. Socialism’s success depended upon its adoption on a national scale, with America alone possessing the size and economic independence that might make socialism achievable in one nation alone. The mechanism for winning power would be the electoral process, for “the ballot, if used rightly, forms a far more powerful weapon in this country than in any other.” “We want to make use of our political liberty and take possession of the public powers,” Berger declares, adding that “while this process is going on we also want to lighten the burdens on the shoulders of the wage workers and producers in general by constantly agitating, enacting, and enforcing laws in their favor, so as to strengthen their power of resistance in the great struggle.” In this battle the Social Democratic Party would fight alone, “open and aboveboard everywhere” and in opposition to all capitalist parties alike, Berger indicates.


“The Future” by Eugene V. Debs [July 16, 1898] Letter from the former head of the industrial American Railway Union and leading participant of the Social Democracy in America to the members of the newly-formed Social Democratic Party of America. Debs gives his wholehearted blessing to the new political organization and remarks upon the recent split of the Social Democracy in America between the SDP political action faction and the colonization faction as follows: “The separation at the late convention was inevitable. It had to come. The contemplation of division was painful, as only those can fully realize who were party to it. But painful as it was, the operation had to be performed.” Debs notest that all members of the new SDPA “are full fledged Socialists. They are in accord with the program of International Socialism. There is not only in the number opposed to independent political action, not one that asks or expects anything from any old capitalist party, by whatever name it may be called.” He adds that “There is harmony. There is oneness of purpose, there is true-hearted fidelity to principle, there is unrelaxing energy, and these qualities in alliance presage success.”.