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Ambiguous Legacy: The Left in American Politics, by James Weinstein

Ambiguous Legacy: The Left in American Politics.
by James Weinstein.
Franklin Watts/New Viewpoints. 179 pages. $9.00.

American Marxist movements, it is now almost universally agreed, have been a collective failure. Even at its height, more than sixty years ago, the Socialist party, the most successful of the movements, had the support of only a minuscule portion of the working class of this country. Since then the organized political Left has declined steadily; today it is almost totally ignored except as an interesting subject of scholarly nostalgia.

The cause of this failure has engrossed observers from the earliest days of the century. Analyses have placed the blame variously on the quasi-religious nature of the socialist movements—an argument put forward most eloquently by Daniel Bell; on the relative prosperity of the American working class—a rationale first espoused by Werner Sombart in 1906; on the failure of the Socialist party to accept the revolutionary trade-unionism preached between 1901 and 1916 by its left wing—a thesis on which Ira Kipnis based a quasi-history of the pre-1912 party; on the irrationality of socialism itself—the position of Martin Diamond and other conservative political thinkers; and on internal feuding in the movement, particularly the Communist split of 1919-21—a point argued vigorously by James Weinstein in his 1970 book, The Decline of American Socialism, 1912-1925. Each of the explanations has considerable validity; none of them, taken individually, is completely accurate.

In his new book James Weinstein addresses himself to this problem once again. Unfortunately, his aim is less historical than polemical. Where a historian first accumulates facts and then attempts to develop a hypothesis, Weinstein first establishes the theory he has decided to prove, and. then sets about fitting those limited facts which support his thesis into a mold whose primary aim is to bolster his position.

His hope, Weinstein announces, is to resurrect the socialist movement of yore. He proposes to establish a new party which, eschewing the errors of the past, will unite within itself the Black Liberation, Women’s Liberation, and working-class political movements (such as they are). To prove the feasibility of such a party, he sets out to examine the American socialist and Communist movements, with an excursion into the New Left of the last decade and its offspring. His new and, ostensibly, invincible movement, will, he suggests, make “the need for socialism the major political issue of the 1970’s and 1980’s.”

Weinstein’s intention may or may not be laudable, but his argument is faulted by limited and, at times, misleading data culled from secondary sources. And his analysis is, at best, simplistic. He claims, for example, that two closely related factors—syndicalism and reformism—caused the old Socialist party of America to disintegrate. His argument is based on the assumption that syndicalism, or trade-unionism, is, by its very nature, precluded from being a socialist or even a revolutionary ideology, since it is limited to the struggle for immediate improvement of conditions rather than for long-range social revolution. The syndicalist perversion, according to Weinstein, reached its height in the 1919-21 Communist breakaway from the still-vital Socialist party.

Facts do not bear out Weinstein’s contentions. Syndicalism and reformism did help destroy the Socialist party—but not in the way he suggests. And the party which was destroyed in 1919 was a mere shadow of its old self. As early as 1901, the year of the party’s founding, there was among the Socialists a significant group which rejected the whole idea of reform. These “impossiblists” insisted that the sole hope for the American working class was revolution—the complete abolition of the corrupt capitalist system and the substitution of a socialist Utopia. They argued that reform would merely serve the needs of capitalism—by making society more livable—and would thus prolong the agony of working-class exploitation. This was an interesting topic for debate, but it hardly offered a practical approach to politics, as Socialists elected to public office soon discovered.

Socialist politicians recognized that they would face political extinction if they ignored immediate issues and the needs and desires of the working class they were elected to represent. But this fact of life did not bother the intellectuals who dominated the anti-reform wing of the party and who were repelled by practical politics. These intellectuals—most notably William English Walling, Frank Bohn, Hermon Titus, and Robert Rives LaMonte—rejected political activity and opted instead for revolutionary syndicalism, which they labeled “Industrial Socialism.” They tied their hopes to the Industrial Workers of the World, and assailed and ridiculed the Socialist party leadership as lackeys of the corrupt American Federation of Labor and slaves to the ballot box. The intellectuals helped tear the party asunder by their anti-political activity, and in this they were joined by a collection of irresponsible syndicalists—including William “Big Bill” Heywood, Vincent St. John, and William Z. Foster.

It cannot be said that the more “political” Socialists served the cause of socialism any better, however. Between 1911 and 1913 nineteen Socialists served in the legislatures of nine states. They introduced approximately two hundred measures of political and social reform, but not a single socialist proposal. Most of the bills introduced by Socialist legislators merely duplicated what progressives—independents, Bull Moosers, progressive Republicans or Democrats—had already proposed. The result was an electoral disaster for Socialists in 1916, one from which the party would never be able to recover. In California, for example, the election of the progressive Hiram Johnson erased the once-potent Socialist party of that state. In North Dakota, the Nonpartisan League captured the Republican party in 1916, enacted a platform of agrarian reform, and thus eliminated the Socialist party there. The same happened in Minnesota a year later.

Weinstein argues that the Socialist party continued in vibrant existence until 1919-21, when the Communist split tore it apart. During 1916-19, he contends, all that changed was the center of Socialist strength: from West to East. But the fact is that in 1916 almost half of its one million supporters deserted the Socialist party to vote for Woodrow Wilson. The desertions, moreover, were spread among all of the states: East, West, and Central. Even in those states where the Socialist vote did show a slight rise—Oklahoma and Arizona—the Socialist percentage of the total showed a sharp decline. Weinstein to the contrary notwithstanding, the center of Socialist strength did not move from West to East; it simply evaporated.

Admittedly there was a sharp increase in both membership and voting strength during 1917-19, but this had nothing to do with socialism. Socialists made remarkable showings in New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin elections in 1917 and 1918. Morris Hillquit ran an amazingly strong race for May or of New York in 1917 and Victor Berger came close to being elected Senator from Wisconsin in 1918. But these strong returns were primarily demonstrations against an unpopular war. Hillquit carried districts that had a preponderance of anti-Czarist Jews, anti-British Irishmen, and anti-Allied Germans. And Berger’s vote was particularly strong in the German areas of Wisconson. Even Socialists conceded that these elections were merely plebiscites on the war.

The sudden upsurge in party membership during 1918 and 1919 likewise did not reflect a growing socialist consciousness in America. True, the party’s dues-paying membership rose to 109,000 by May 1919; but 53 per cent of the membership was now in the foreign-language federations (party organizations of basically non-English speaking residents whose primary interest was revolution in their homelands). Most of these “October Socialists” were East Europeans momentarily enamored of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia and were only peripherally interested in the United States. Within a year almost 90 per cent of them had withdrawn from the radical movement.

Weinstein persists in refusing to accept the obvious: that the Socialist party had, by 1919, disintegrated for a myriad of reasons; and that its demise could not have been stemmed. The 1919 Communist split was an insignificant coup de grâce.

As for Weinstein’s treatment of the Communist party, it is little better than his study of the Socialists. He believes that the Communist party was the Marxist movement in the United States between 1930 and 1957, and he again uses selective data—gleaned from secondary sources—to prove his point. Even a cursory examination of the record would indicate that the party was neither Marxist nor socialist.

Of all the ostensibly radical movements which followed the Socialist party to the revolutionary fore, none seemed more likely to succeed than the Communist party of the 1930’s. Admittedly, its rhetoric was pure hyperbole, and its publications appeared to be verbatim translations—in both content and style—from the Russian. But its predictions of imminent economic collapse and of the concomitant immiseration of America’s working and middle classes were being borne out; capitalism was in a state of complete disintegration. Moreover, professional anti-radical politicians, who saw in their violent opposition to the tiny Communist movement a means of personal advancement, had created an aura of “immediate revolutionary potential” about the party.

It should thus have followed that the Communist party would become a major factor in the development of a depression-generated Marxist movement. It did not. Behind the failure of the Communist party were three major causes: (1) the party was completely subjugated to the momentary needs of the Soviet government; (2) it was unable to relate to the American social environment; and (3) American workingmen, concerned primarily with economic relief rather than with the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system, were repelled by the foreign-sounding rhetoric of revolution. Each of these elements played an equal part in preventing the Communist party from becoming a viable organization; the latter two were the products of the first.

In his treatment of the Communist party Weinstein overemphasizes its Marxist rhetoric and minimizes (although he does not ignore) its total obeisance to the Soviet Union. He blames the Communists’ incessant shifts of line and persistent betrayal of principle on what he calls their “syndicalism,” rather than on their toadying to Moscow. And yet anyone who studies the party and its gyrations from 1920 to 1957 must conclude that it was little more than a puppet controlled from the Kremlin, totally lacking in genuine revolutionary consciousness.

Weinstein’s treatment of the New Left is hardly better than his analysis of the Socialist or Communist parties. He ignores the dishonesty and subterfuge which permeated the early SDS, the struggles for power within the movement in the earliest days of its existence—struggles, essentially, for the jobs and funds its founders were able to extort from the labor-oriented League for Industrial Democracy and some progressive unions. He ignores the fact that SDS could scarcely win support on any campus on any issue except Vietnam. His treatment of the Weathermen ignores the utter frustration which engulfed the SDS leadership on account of its failure to attract a significant following. SDS, like all earlier “socialist” movements, degenerated because it was irrelevant to the United States and to the working class for which it claimed to be fighting.



Weinstein’s dream of a new major socialist party in the United States is also doomed to failure, for like his predecessors he fails to show the slightest appreciation for the reality of history. The new “socialist” movement he proposes is, like the old Communist alliance of the late 1930’s, little more than a popular front. It would be composed of disparate “liberation” forces that more often than not are mutually antagonistic. Such a coalition could exist only during a period of détente, when the “socialist” world has proclaimed a tactical armistice in its war against pluralistic capitalism—indeed, Weinstein’s book may itself be seen as a symptom of détente. Once this policy, and the situation it is intended to address, undergo a change, the popular front of the 1970’s will go the way of the popular front of the 1930’s. And another generation will have been disillusioned by the socialist myth.

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