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Whatever Happened to Socialism?

Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America

by James Burkhart Gilbert
Wiley, 291 pp., $6.95

In the years immediately preceding the First World War, the socialist movement laid down deep roots in the United States, in spite of many obstacles. James Weinstein, in a brilliant study of the Socialist party that will alter many of the prevailing assumptions about American radicalism, shows that at its numerical peak in 1912, the party had 118,000 members well distributed throughout the country. It claimed 323 English and foreign-language publications with a total circulation probably in excess of two million. The largest of the socialist newspapers, The Appeal to Reason of Girard, Kansas, had a weekly circulation of 761,747. In 1912, the year Eugene V. Debs polled 6 percent of the Presidential vote, Socialists held 1,200 offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. As late as 1918, they elected 32 state legislators. In 1916, they elected Meyer London to Congress and made important gains in the municipal elections of several large cities.

In sharp contrast to later radical organizations, the Socialist party was broad enough to include many different tendencies and points of view; nor did these harden into factions. Contrary to an accepted view of pre-war Socialism as narrow and marginal—a view, according to Weinstein, that reads back into an earlier period the characteristics of American radicalism in the-late Twenties and Thirties—the party was inclusive, nonsectarian, and given to “searching and open debate.” Another cliché about Socialism is that the party declined rapidly after 1912; but a close study of the evidence, Weinstein argues, discloses “a patchwork pattern [of losses and gains] which does not lend itself to generalizations.” In his view, neither Wilson’s New Freedom nor the war destroyed the Socialist party; rather, it died from internal wounds inflicted in a series of struggles growing out of the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of a militant new left wing. Weinstein’s detailed analysis of these battles, together with his reassessment of the pre-war Socialist party, casts the entire history of the American Left into a new light.

The strength of the pre-war party, according to Weinstein, lay in its ability to combine a commitment to thorough-going social transformation with “constructive” political action, in the party’s terminology—that is, responsiveness to the needs of its constituents. Thus the Socialists cooperated with the trade union movement in its attempt to win immediate gains for workers, and opposed dual unionism on the grounds that it jeopardized those gains. Yet, on the other hand, it did not identify itself so closely with the union movement that the party itself, as in Europe, was absorbed into the industrial system, becoming dependent on its continuation and therefore unable to dissociate itself from the catastrophes into which capitalist society was about to plunge. If the Socialist party of America, alone among socialist organizations in the West, opposed the First World War, that was because it saw its function not as the promotion of unionism as such, but as the creation of socialist consciousness in the working class and its middle-class allies. On the one hand the party consistently criticized those tendencies in American unionism which tied the unions ever more closely to capitalism, while on the other hand it refused to lend itself to raids on existing unions which for all their inadequacies spoke for the immediate interests of the working class. Eugene V. Debs joined the IWW when it appeared that it would organize the unorganized and promote the growth of industrial unionism; he left it when the IWW began to devote itself not to organizing workers whom the trade unions had refused to organize, but to winning workers away from established unions.

IN THE REVOLUTIONARY MYSTIQUE currently fashionable in some sections of the Left, the IWW, not the Socialist party, represents the vanguard of American radicalism. It is not hard to see why: Haywood’s militancy, his advocacy of violence and sabotage, his tirades against the “scum proletariat” of “lawyers, preachers, authors, lecturers and intellectual non-producers generally,” and his view of radicalism as a movement based on marginal people, all correspond to the anti-intellectual tendencies of the contemporary student Left. Weinstein’s study, however, argues convincingly that “while the romantic appeal of the Wobblies has triumphed in literature and history, as a social force the IWW did not approach the Socialist Party in its impact on contemporary American life.”

Even the Communists, who joined the IWW in denouncing the Socialists as bourgeois reformers, eventually recognized that the Wobblies’ dual unionism, their refusal to join political movements, and their obsession with direct action were attitudes fatal to the attempt to organize a mass movement for revolutionary change. As William Z. Foster pointed out in 1921, shortly before he entered the Communist party, the Wobblies violated “the first principle of working class solidarity” by forsaking the “real organizations of labor, based on the common economic interests” of workingmen, and forming instead “outside organizations, based upon revolutionary creed.” Only when the Communists adopted this position regarding the IWW—in other words, the Socialist position, which they had earlier opposed—did respected unionists like Foster join the party.

BY THAT TIME the Socialists themselves had been fatally weakened by the revolt of their own left wing, and could derive little comfort from the Communists’ belated acknowledgment of the superiority of certain Socialist principles. The immediate effect of the war and the Russian revolution, Weinstein shows, had been to move “the Socialist Party’s center of gravity leftward, and…to reduce earlier hostilities” within the party. The left and right wings joined in condemning the war, Events in Russia, however, led some left-wing Socialists to believe that the Bolsheviks’ success could be duplicated in America, and thus revived the lingering suspicions of the moderate leaders, Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit, who argued that the war had “strengthened capitalism, reaction and treason within the working class,” making the prospects for immediate revolution even bleaker than before. “While we can learn from [the Bolsheviks],” Berger wrote, “we cannot transfer Russia to America.” The new left wing, including Louis Fraina, Louis Boudin, Charles E. Ruthenberg, and Ludwig Lore, disagreed.

The growing militance of the IWW-oriented American Left coincided with the increasing influence of the foreign-language federations which made up only 35 percent of the Socialist party membership in 1917, but which by 1919 had grown to 53 percent—a reflection of wartime losses suffered by Western and Southern Socialists and of the growth of socialist feeling among immigrant workers in the industrial cities of the North. The foreign-language federations, in their preoccupation with European events, convinced themselves that the Socialist party had played the same role in American politics as the social democratic parties in Europe—in Fraina’s words, “had become part of the governing system of things, indirectly its ally and protector.” This analysis made some sense in Europe, where the social democrats had supported the war and now opposed the Bolsheviks (though even there it rested on the fundamentally erroneous premise that world revolution was imminent); but its application to the United States showed nothing but ignorance of American conditions. As Weinstein points out, “In the American Party, there were virtually no right wingers in the European sense: i.e., supporters of the war and of the postwar attacks on the Soviet Republic. But…the left wing converted the European reality into a universal formula. If the facts did not fit the formula, in the United States, so much the worse for the facts.”

Convinced that splitting the Socialist party was the necessary prelude to revolution, the new left wing, led by Nicholas I. Hourwich and Santeri Nuorteva of the Russian Language Federation and their American allies, prepared either to capture the party or to desert it. The moderates responded by expelling the dissidents, who themselves split into hostile factions, one dominated by the Russian Federation, more Leninist than the Leninists, and the other by American left-wingers carrying on the dual-unionist, anti-political traditions of the IWW. In September, 1919, the former organized the Communist party, and the latter the Communist Labor party. (In 1921 the Comintern ordered them forcibly merged.)

The effect of these events, not only on the Socialist party but on American radicalism itself, was immediately reflected in the decline of membership. Early in 1919 the Socialist party still contained 109,000 members; after the split, the three parties together had a membership of only 36,000. Nor was this all. “Socialist influence in the labor movement, except for pockets in the garment trades, was all but destroyed by the split, and the socialist press…was permanently debilitated. In the decade that followed the split, the lines drawn in 1919 were erected into walls, and the movement became one of hostile and warring sects.” By the middle Twenties American radicalism had acquired the characteristics it has retained until the present day: sectarianism, marginality, and alienation from American life.

THE HISTORY of white radicalism in the twentieth century, as it emerges from Weinstein’s history of the decline of socialism, remarkably resembles, in essential respects, the history of black radicalism as analyzed by Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Together these works help to provide a new understanding not only of radicalism but of the nature of American society itself, which differs in critical ways from the European societies on which so much of the radical tradition has, unfortunately, been based. In both cases, the early years of the twentieth century saw impressive and partially successful attempts to create a mass-based, indigenous radicalism among disaffected groups—socialism among the working-class poor and among middle-class intellectuals, black nationalism in the Negro ghetto. Had these efforts persisted, they might eventually have converged, each movement enriching and strengthening the other. Had a dialogue between socialists and black nationalists taken place forty years ago, the black nationalists would have provided radicalism with an awareness of the need to shape socialism to the peculiar requirements of American ethnic-group pluralism; while the socialists could have led “self-determination for the ghetto” to its logical conclusion, not to a separate black capitalism, but to the socialization and decentralization of the entire economy. Instead both movements simultaneously underwent a process of Europeanization which set in directly after the Bolshevik revolution. Black nationalism gave way to the “revolutionary solution” of the Communists—“a fighting alliance of the Negro masses and white workers” to organize the working class and create a proletarian culture.

The Socialist party suffered a similar fate. Instead of perfecting their analysis of American conditions and continuing to present alternatives appropriate to those conditions, the new militants, both white and black, imposed on their movements an ideology drawn from European experience and tied organizationally to the fluctuating political requirements of the Soviet Union. The tremendous prestige of the Russian revolution overrode the opposition even of those supporters of the revolution who nevertheless argued that it was not necessarily the best guide to events in America. The new militants enjoyed the inestimable advantage of their association with what appeared to be a worldwide revolutionary wave, and even when the immediate hope of revolution receded, the Soviet Union continued for a long time to command an “almost mystical prestige.” Moreover, during the years immediately following the revolution, the Kremlin’s call for the immediate overthrow of capitalism coincided with, and reinforced, the romantic, anarchistic tendencies within American radicalism, undermining those who believed in the patient work of organization. The militant left wing of American radicalism, as the Socialist Ralph Korngold pointed out in 1919, appealed to “revolutionary romanticists” who were “tired of voting” and “tired of teaching the masses how to vote,” and who proposed to make a revolution, “as far as anyone is able to make out,” by “the general strike, supplemented by general rioting.” The euphoria of 1919 was quickly dissipated, but by that time the radical movement had been split beyond repair.

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