The SLP of America: a premature obituary?

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Article, à paraître dans le Socialist standard d »octobre, qui rappelle les points communs et les divergences entre le Parti socialiste de Grande-Bretagne (SPGB) et le Parti socialiste ouvrier d’Amérique (SLP), les deux « branches » de l’impossibilisme anglo-saxon.

By some accounts the Socialist Labor Party of America has ceased to function. It has lost its premises and its paper, The People, has not appeared for many months. Some of its locals are still meeting and its ideas live on in its offshoots and breakaways but that’s all. [*]

Founded in 1876, for the first twenty or so years it was a reformist organisation – at least, it advocated reforms of capitalism as well as its concept of socialism – not unlike the German Social Democratic Party of which many of its founding and later members had been members before emigrating to America. Things began to change with the entry into its ranks of Daniel De Leon and his election as editor of The People in 1892. De Leon campaigned for the SLP to drop its reform programme; which it did in 1900 (which led to a split and the formation of the reformist Socialist Party of America of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas).

The SLP of America, and its translations by De Leon of Marx’s writings, was one of the inspirations of the ‘impossibilist revolt’ within the Social Democratic Federation in Britain against the opportunism and undemocratic practices of its leaders, a revolt which led to two breakaways, the first, in 1903, to found the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain, the second, in 1904, to found us, the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

During this period De Leon’s position on the relative importance of political and industrial action changed. At first he insisted that political action – as action aimed at getting control of political power – was paramount, with industrial organisation as supportive, to back up if need be the verdict of the ballot box as well as to take over and run production immediately after the capture of state power. Later, as the agitation built up that eventually led to the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 (in which he played a prominent part), he changed the emphasis, arguing that it was organisation on the industrial field – to ‘take and hold’ the means of production – that was the more important, with political action relegated to the role of supporting the take-over of industry by neutralising and disbanding the state.

The SPGB in effect adopted De Leon’s original position while the SLPGB embraced his later ‘socialist industrial unionism’. Even though a casual observer might struggle to detect the subtlety of the difference but would see rather the points of similarity between the two parties, ideological battle raged over this issue for decades between us and them until the demise of the SLPGB in the 1970s.

In the meantime other, perhaps more important, differences emerged. Like us the SLP of America recognised that socialism was out of the question in Russia in 1917 (though most of the SLP in Britain went over to the Communist Party when it was formed in 1921, providing some of its early leaders). When, however, it was reported that Lenin had made a passing favourable comment on De Leon’s ‘socialist industrial unionism’ blueprint as a way to run industry, the SLP took a more favourable view of Bolshevik Russia. In fact, until the Russian invasion of Finland in 1939, the SLP held that Russia was some sort of ‘proletarian regime’ even if its politics were wrong (a bit like the Trotskyist position). Even after 1939 it didn’t recognise Russia as state capitalist, preferring to call it ‘industrial feudalism’ or, later, ‘bureaucratic collectivism’.

Another difference to emerge was over ‘socialism in one country’, especially America. De Leon had always tried to project the SLP as in the American revolutionary tradition (partly to dissipate its early German-American character), for instance praising the founding fathers of the US and criticising schoolchildren who refused to salute the American flag. His successors continued this and in its publications reference to a ‘socialist America’ and a ‘socialist Britain’ could be found. Even so, the SLP continued to publish material for pre-1914 immigrants in non-English languages (Hungarian, Bulgarian, South Slavonian) until the 1960s.

Then there was the question of ‘labour time vouchers’. Marx had mentioned these as one possible way of distributing consumer goods and services in the very early days of socialism had it been established in 1875. De Leon and, after his death in 1914, his successors turned this into a dogma, insisting that these vouchers had to be introduced and maintained for a number of years as the method of distribution, despite the fact that the development of the productive forces since 1875 had made it possible to introduce free access more or less immediately after the establishment of socialism. Believe it or not, this is still a burning issue between us and some DeLeonists on internet discussion forums.

There were similarities too. The SLP had the same definition of working class as us (despite its logo being a working man with bulging muscles wielding a big hammer). It contested elections – every US presidential election between 1892 and 1976 – on a programme offering no reforms of capitalism. It defended Marx’s view against the Leninists about the possibility of a peaceful establishment of socialism. Most SLP members eventually came to see Russia as state capitalist and that free access was the socialist method of distribution to be reached as soon as practicable. The SLP also abandoned its policy of setting up rival socialist unions and, like us, joined the existing unions for all their faults.

The SLP has its place in the history of working class ideas and organisation in the English-speaking world. ‘Names’ such as Jack London and James Connolly passed through it. It made some important mistakes, but was not fundamentally anti-working class like Leninism and its offshoots. Unfortunately, they still survive.

ALB

[*] Le SLP ne présente plus de candidats aux élections depuis celle de gouverneur du New Jersey en 1985 et a cessé en 2008 la publication de son journal The People (devenu mensuel en 1979).

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2 Réponses to “The SLP of America: a premature obituary?”

  1. arminius Says:

    Editor
    The Socialist Standard
    October 2009 issue
    RE: The SLP of America: a premature obituary?

    To the editor:

    There are a few misinterpretations in the above article I would like to address.
    Let me disclose at the outset that I am presently not a member of any political
    party nor do I speak officially for the SLP—USA.

    Let us note that DeLeon had no previous models in the U.S. on which to base his
    changes in tactics. There were no 20/20 hindsighters during his time on which
    to rely. Let us start by focusing on the following paragraph:

    During this period De Leon’s position on the relative importance of political
    and industrial action changed. At first he insisted that political action – as
    action aimed at getting control of political power – was paramount, with
    industrial organisation as supportive, to back up if need be the verdict of the
    ballot box as well as to take over and run production immediately after the
    capture of state power. Later, as the agitation built up that eventually led to
    the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 (in which he
    played a prominent part), he changed the emphasis, arguing that it was
    organisation on the industrial field – to ‘take and hold’ the means of
    production – that was the more important, with political action relegated to the
    role of supporting the take-over of industry by neutralising and disbanding the
    state.

    DeLeon was actually interested in worker organization much earlier as noted by
    his formation of the silk workers of New Jersey into The Socialist Trade and
    Labor Alliance in 1895. Technically this was a trade union, but as its name
    suggests, recognized the class struggle. This organization originally had
    upwards of 10,000 to 15,000 members. The ST&LA would later join as one of the
    founding IWW unions in 1905. At that time its numbers had shrunk to one-fourth
    to one-third its original membership. DeLeon’s evolution on the need of
    industrial organization as a framework to operate a socialist industrial society
    didn’t fully develop until 1904. You claim that he « changed the emphasis » of
    importance of political organization to industrial organization as the « more
    important. » This is not true.

    DeLeon always emphasized that both political and industrial organizations were
    important to the inauguration of socialism. His duck analogy was that the
    working class movement needed both wings—political and industrial—otherwise it
    couldn’t fly. There was never any claim that the industrial organization was
    more important than the political one. He recognized that a political-only
    approach was doomed to failure. History should have pointed out that pitfall to
    all socialists! DeLeon recognized that socialists elected as political
    representatives can easily become capitalist politicians. To remedy this he
    felt that an industrial organization, although projected to be the future
    framework of production, was also necessary to preclude this possible devolution
    of socialist revolutionists to capitalist politicians. In DeLeon’s mind there
    was to be no « neutralilzing and disbanding the state » without an industrial
    organization to support the political efforts of the working class. This is
    clearly spelled out in the last part of Socialist Reconstruction speech
    originally published as « The Preamble of the IWW. » See page 38 of
    http://www.slp.org/pdf/de leon/ddlother/soc_recons.pdf.: « Without political
    organization, the labor movement cannot triumph; without economic organization,
    the day of its triumph would be the day of its defeat. » There is no emphasis of
    economic organization over political organization as your article would have us
    believe. However there is the implication that socialist industrial unions must
    be formed before any political takeover, and can not be a last minute
    construction as the SPGB recently suggested on the WSM forum.

    The SPGB membership should ponder that workers of all nations have only one
    thing in common and that is their working class status. This should be the
    obvious organizing principle that knits them together—to say the least, for
    world socialism. This commonality is the only one they have—not the varying
    political parties and winds in each of their respective countries—the principle
    favored by the SPGB! « Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but
    your chains. » If the SPGB feels that the workers aren’t yet ready to organize
    industrially, then what makes it think they would be ready to support the SPGB
    now? So much for politics first and foremost.

    This brings me to DeLeon’s view of the U.S. flag, but first an observation about
    « socialism in one country. » DeLeon had good reason to believe this was possible
    in his day; since most of the raw materials for a contemporary industrial
    society existed in the U.S. at that time. Even now, if one included both North
    and South America a regional socialism is theoretically possible. With
    international corporations and the rapidity of trade as it is, along with
    disorganization of the working class this is extremely unlikely.

    Immigrant Literature, DeLeon and The Flag

    Let us consider another misleading paragraph:

    [DeLeon] « praised the founding fathers of the US and criticised schoolchildren
    who refused to salute the American flag. His successors continued this and in
    its publications reference to a `socialist America’ and a `socialist Britain’
    could be found. Even so, the SLP continued to publish material for pre-1914
    immigrants in non-English languages (Hungarian, Bulgarian, South Slavonian)
    until the 1960s.

    Should the SLP not have published material in other languages? The U.S. is
    unlike its European counterparts since it is a country of immigrants. This
    reflected the conditions then. Immigration continued after 1914, well into the
    1930s. This is general knowledge that your author should have been aware.

    The flag issue: The reference here is to an article that DeLeon published in
    November, 1912, about a Utah student who refused to state the pledge of
    allegiance—a pledge written by a self-proclaimed Christian socialist and
    preacher, Francis Bellamy, cousin of Edward Bellamy of « Looking Backward » fame.
    (Of historical interest, Francis was forced to leave his post as preacher for
    preaching socialist sermons. It should also be noted that he didn’t have the
    phrase « under God » in his original pledge.) DeLeon used this news item as an
    artifice to reflect the difference in the founding of America compared to the
    countries of Europe. It should be remembered that America was over 90%
    land-owning peasants at its founding. Later the Homestead Act in 1861 allowed
    anybody the right to 160 acres of land if they lived on it for a short period of
    time. This was free land and there was a lot of it! This was unheard of in
    Europe—mainly due to pre-existing land ownership that dated back hundreds of
    years.

    DeLeon’s own words from this editorial are the best defense of his position:

    « He who knows history knows also the history of flags. There is hardly a flag in
    Europe that was not born of rapine, and does not symbolize rapine. Whether it be
    the British flag, with its `Three Crosses quartered », symbolizing the
    practically forceful annexation of Scotland and Ireland to England; or whether
    it be the Austrian flag emblematic of the mailed hand that organized feudal
    disorder into an imperial system, and crushed down the peasantry; or whether it
    be the Russian flag, a testimony to the theory that bloody tyranny is of divine
    right, and, the bloodier, all the more divine: or whether it be the German flag,
    the insignia of militarism rampant; or whether it be the flag of Spain
    hearkening back to the terrorism of body and mind; – whether it be the flag of
    any of these and most of the nations of Europe, their flags are living modern
    mementos of cruel oppression in the Past and reminders that their Past reaches
    into the Present. . . .

    « While all the European flags rose out of the fumes of human sighs, were planted
    upon the prostrate bodies of subjects, and were meant defiantly to proclaim the
    double wretchedness as a social principle, it was otherwise, it was the exact
    opposite, with the `Stars and Stripes’.

    « Apart from the circumstance that the American Flag was first raised by men,
    who, however, and pardonly mistaken in their sociology and economics, did
    sincerely believe that the American flag, raised over the boundless natural
    opportunities which the land offered to industry, would insure the citizen the
    power and responsibility of being the architect of his own fortune; apart from
    the circumstance that the American flag was the first to wave over a
    Constitution that `legalized revolution’ – apart from these and many other
    kindred circumstances, the historic fact that the scientist, the noble-minded,
    the venerable Franklin, when the scheme of the flag was presented to him, a blue
    field with a star for each State, expressed the hope that the day would dawn
    when every nation in the world would be represented in that blue field with her
    own star – that fact confers upon the American Flag the lofty distinction of
    being the first on earth to urge the Brotherhood of Nations; the first to herald
    the Solidarity of peoples; the first drapery-symbol of Peace on Earth – that
    fact renders the American Flag the anticipation of the Red Flag of International
    Brotherhood, and endears it to the heart of civilized man. »

    Americans have always been very isolationist and insular, thanks to the oceans.
    To try to make an appeal to them, even the working class, back then would have
    seemed to drag them back into a foreign swamp, which many had but recently
    escaped. The point was to build the movement on the liberation principles upon
    which the USA was founded, a peculiar grounding which no other people, not even
    other anglophones, could make use of. So the sneering implication by your
    author that DeLeon and the SLP were « nationalists » is, to say the least,
    disingenuous! DeLeon’s use of the amendment clause of the U. S. Constitution
    that `legalized revolution’ was also a brilliant reference to these liberation
    principles.

    The Russian Revolution

    There is some truth to the following observation, but it must be clarified:

    When . . . it was reported that Lenin had made a passing favourable comment on
    De Leon’s `socialist industrial unionism’ blueprint as a way to run industry,
    the SLP took a more favourable view of Bolshevik Russia. In fact, until the
    Russian invasion of Finland in 1939, the SLP held that Russia was some sort of
    `proletarian regime’ even if its politics were wrong (a bit like the Trotskyist
    position). Even after 1939 it didn’t recognise Russia as state capitalist,
    preferring to call it `industrial feudalism’ or, later, `bureaucratic
    collectivism’.

    It is true that many socialists adopted a romantic view of the Russian
    Revolution. Lenin fully understood that this revolution was not a genuine
    socialist one and wrote of the necessity of Germany or the U.S. to come to
    rescue by a revolution of their own to support the Soviet Union. This, of
    course, didn’t happen and the combination of the dismantling of the Soviets and
    Trotsky’s repression of the the Kronstadt sailors ended any speculation of
    Russian becoming socialist. The Noam Chomsky video from 1987 referred in the WSM
    forum (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDJee4stYN0) makes reference that Lenin
    thought that the Russian Revolution was a holding operation for the revolution
    to come in the future—one that never arrived. This has been noted by many
    others.

    The SLP sent two observers to one of the Internationals sponsored by the Russian
    Communist Party in 1921 and came back with a negative view. They noted that the
    Russian Communist hierarchy looked upon themselves as the only legitimate head
    of the working class movement despite the nation’s backward state coupled with
    notions that revolutions must follow the Russian model. This was reported to
    the NEC upon return of these members. Some still held out hope: notable was
    then editor of the Weekly People, Olive Johnson who believed that the Russian
    working class had defeated capitalism and stated so in her « Industrial Unionism »
    pamphlet of 1930.

    It is true that the SLP never called the Soviet Union a « state capitalism » but
    usually referred to it as a « bureaucratic state despotism »—not « bureaucratic
    collectivism » as your article suggested. One might argue about specific
    terminology, but the SLP’s description didn’t serve to support the Soviet
    system. This is hair splitting.

    Labor Time Vouchers

    The comment in The Standard on its views on LTVs is most revealing—revealing of
    an undeserved air of superiority. To wit: « Believe it or not, this is still a
    burning issue between us and some DeLeonists on internet discussion forums. »
    « Believe it or not? » Why is this unbelievable? No, you have not won the day of
    this disagreement by a slam-dunk despite what you may imagine. The substance of
    these differing views can be found on Mike Lepore’s site:

    http://www.deleonism.org/v2.htm

    Adding to this displayed haughtiness is outright nitpicking: « The SLP had the
    same definition of working class as us (despite its logo being a working man
    with bulging muscles wielding a big hammer). » Thank heaven for small mercies.
    At least you agree that the SLP endorsed your definition of the working class!
    The Party’s logo was decided upon in the 1890’s when most workers were manual
    laborers. Is your objection due to the constant change in job technology
    sufficient reason to change an historic symbol?

    Socialist Industrial Unions

    Finally « The SLP also abandoned its policy of setting up rival socialist unions
    and, like us, joined the existing unions for all their faults. » This isn’t so.
    The SLP has never abandoned the idea of the necessity of socialist industrial
    unions. They did abandon the IWW when it became an anarchist organization
    after 1909, but did realize the necessity of joining trades unions to retain
    one’s employment.

    The Final Assault

    The final paragraph of your article can be formulated as a negation of what the
    SLP wasn’t by casting them a pearl of feigned praise.

    The SLP has its place in the history of working class ideas and organisation in
    the English-speaking world. `Names’ such as Jack London and James Connolly
    passed through it. It made some important mistakes, but was not fundamentally
    anti-working class like Leninism and its offshoots. Unfortunately, they still
    survive.

    Another mercy: « The SLP. . . .was not fundamentally anti-working class »—as the
    author gulps and swallows in his acceptance of the SLP-USA being a minimally
    acceptable working class party. As previously enunciated, any mistake the SLP
    may have made was because it was plowing new ground in the U. S. labor
    movement—no previous examples from the U.S. were historically available.

    I realize that the final sentence refers to the Leninists and for that reason is
    forgivable, but those not familiar with the subject might interpret it to mean
    that it is unfortunate that the SLP still survives. In any event it is time to
    quit shining your fingernails on the lapels of your assumed superiority.

    Finally there is hope for « impossiblists » like the SLP and the SPGB, if not
    within, or despite the existence of, any weaknesses of the existing
    organizations. Hardly a week goes by without acknowledging a new group arising
    out of past socialist efforts and present pressures of capitalism. The World in
    Common comes upon them with great regularity. Many are not in lockstep with the
    SLP or SPGB/WSM, but the wind isn’t silent and continues to blow in the
    direction of working class rebellion.

    Byron D. Danelius 12/25/09

  2. petey Says:

    a long post and i don’t mean to distort the focus by choosing one comment, but:
    « Later the Homestead Act in 1861 allowed anybody the right to 160 acres of land if they lived on it for a short period of time. This was free land and there was a lot of it! »
    well, you know how it became free and plentiful:
    « There is hardly a flag in Europe that was not born of rapine, and does not symbolize rapine. »
    that way.

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