The 1973 Reconstitution of the Socialist Party: 3 Tenets of Continuity in the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, and David McReynolds.

by Larry Rockwood

The easiest way to document the continuity between the Socialist Party, “reconstituted” in 1973 as the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA), and the Socialist Party of America, constituted as the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1901, is by a comparative analysis of the positions and actions of its most prominent members and leaders.  Although, from 1960s and 1980s, the “new social historians” warned approaching history except as a window into the lives of ordinary people, the theoretic and organizational vagaries of the organizations of the American Left have not impacted the “lives of ordinary Americans,” at least not the ordinary American worker.  Therefore, in the context of the historical analysis of the original SPA and reconstituted SPUSA, we must accept that “ideas do count” and the organizational histories Socialist Party, in particular, and of the American left, in general, are the inescapable province of intellectual history. As a result, the present discussion, here contained, argues a historical continuity between the positions and actions of prominent members of leaders of both the SPA and SPUSA. For the sake of brevity, the views of David McReynolds for the SPUSA and Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas for the SPA will be analyzed and contrasted along three major intellectual themes: (1) anti-war activism operating under the understanding of peace as the attainment of social justice; (2) a third-way approach to socialism emphasizing dignity of the human person over both the individualism of capitalism and collectivism of authoritarian forms of socialism; and (3) the ideal of a mass movement led by the decisions and mass actions that can be undertaken by ordinary people.

To “reconstitute” something literally means to try to restore something to its earlier form. To truly appreciate the significant of the 40th anniversary of the “Reconstitution” of the Socialist Party one has to examine the original institution and compare it the “reconstituted” institution. It is also important to note the historical situation that made the “reconstitution” necessary. I want to contribute to the speeches on the anniversary discussing “who and where” by adding one on “what and why.  The main attributes of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) constituted in 1901 as an electoral party was to address both immediate worker demands and establish a revolutionary party calling for the immediate overthrow of capitalism.

By 1972, disagreements over the policy of “realignment,”   the decision to run and support progressive candidates of the Democratic Party and the character of the War in Vietnam found a party out of alignment with the electoral and peace policies of the SPA in the time of Eugene Debs. The policies of the Shachtmanite leadership that controlled the national conventions and national party no longer reflected the consensus of a wide-portion of the party membership. The three successor organizations of the SPA included the Social Democrats USA (SDUSA) led by the former final leadership of the SPA under the influence of Max Shachtman, the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) who continue the policy of “realignment” with the Democratic Party, and the SPUSA under the leadership of Frank Zeidler. The SDUSA soon became extinct as its worldview, while supported by a majority of a national convention held at a certain point in history, was so diametrically opposed by the majority of those identifying with the intellectual tradition of the early SPA represented by the words and actions of Eugene Debs. Only the SPUSA can, in any way, be considered a “reconstitution” of the Socialist Party founded in 1901 as it was reconstituted by former leading members of the SPA such as Frank Zeidler and David McReynolds.

1.   An Anti-War Party:  Peace as the Attainment of Social Justice

The SPA was one of the few affiliates of the pre WWI Second International that remained committed to the anti-war mandate of international democratic socialism in the face of the First World War. It attempted to found a new socialist international consisting of all anti-war socialist parties during and after the war. Many leaders of the SPA faced prosecution and imprisonment for anti-war activities during WWI. The most famous American imprisoned for anti-war activities was the SPA perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.

The most important anti-war organization founded in the aftermath of the war based on the achievement of peace resulting from the achievement of social justice was the War Resisters League (WRL). Its first national secretary was SPA member and repeated SPA candidate for New York City Alderman, Jesse Wallace Hughan. The most well-known leader of the WRL during the Vietnam War was David McReynolds, who left the SPA over the discontinuity of its position on the Vietnam War with the historical anti-war tradition of the SPA. McReynolds was the most important figure in the effort to “reconstitute” the Socialist Party as an anti-war party in 1973.

The Socialist Party has never mandated doctrinaire pacifism on its members. Although opposed by many of its membership, in 1936, the New York City local called for organizing the formation of a “Eugene Debs Column” to fight against the Fascists in Spain and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the SPA reluctantly adopted the position of “critical support” of the war effort against Hitler. The indisputable fact of the Cold War is that there were those claiming to be socialists on both sides of the conflict. However, by 1972, the opposition to a unilateral American military withdrawal of Vietnam by the SPA under the leadership of Max Shachtman was so out of consensus with the wider party and wider American Left that the continued organizational existence of the party under such an extreme anti-communist leadership became impossible.

The tying the aspiration of peace to the actual attainment of justice necessarily creates a spirit of activism rather than passivity. Simple avoiding particular acts in one’s personal life does not constitutes innocence of one’s society’s collective acts. Such an activist-centered approach precludes the scapegoating of certain sectors of society as being personally responsible for war, such as current and past members of the armed forces. It is entire societies that are responsible for failing to attain justice, not individual humans or even occupational or professional sub-species of a human society.

Nobody is killing in our name; war is carried out and justified by both our active and passive consent, no matter how manufactured this consent may be. It is the denial of the passive consent to injustice that is the genius of the non-violent tactics of such individuals as Gandhi and SPA member A. Philip Randolph (along with his civil rights protégé, Martin Luther King, Jr). We give passive consent because it is convenient, whether it is buying clothes manufactures in other countries or utilizing a segregated bus service.

2.  A  Third-Way Approach: Upholding the Dignity of the Single Human Person.

One of the first persons who articulated an approach to social justice that was opposed both to the individualism of liberal capitalism and the collectivism of authoritarian forms of socialism was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day. While Day agreed with liberals that it is the single human person that should both be the focus of society’s benefices and is also to be free, as much as possible, from restrictions on liberty, the distinction with liberalism is that it is the single human, not in the first person associated with the egoism and selfish interest associated with individuals, but with the grammar of the “second” person, the other.  Solidarity with the human other is distinct from solidarities exclusively based on creed, nation, gender, race, culture, or even class. It is a solidarity based on a shared human condition of those who are oppressed and downtrodden.  This third-way became known as “personalism.” Almost one hundred years ago, Dorothy Day based her version of personalism on the  Christian social mandate that all should be treated as would treat Jesus Christ himself.   One hundred years ago, the SPA was populated by many, both laymen and clergy, who considered socialism as  apractical extension of the social mandates of Jesus Christ affirming society’s obligation “unto the least of these.”  Many years later, this spiritual personalismwas secularized, and by being secularized, radicalized by David McReynolds. By holding that  the human person could not be compensated for the injustice experienced in present life either by all powerful deity or a process of Karma, our obligation toward establishing justice for the human person is multiplied.

This radicalized personalism was espoused by many anti-authoritarian socialists and anarchists going back to such as historic figures as Emma Goldman in the Nineteenth Century. Today it is usually articulated in the modern language of human rights. Although the concept of international human rights was not well developed a century ago, the final separation of the SPA from authoritarian centralist communism was directly related to a disagreement over human rights. This “disagreement” is documented in the words and actions of the SPA’s most prominent member. Although SPA Presidential Candidate Eugene Debs declared himself a Bolshevik “(F)rom the crown of my head to the soles of my feet” before he went to prison in 1919 and later supporting joining the Leninist Third International without reservation while in prison, he clearly changed his position upon his release from prison to a final critical position at the end of his life of the Soviet government on the basis of issues of human rights. This change of views was documented in his appeal to Lenin to stop executions of non-Bolshevik socialists and revolutionaries published in the New York Times on July 28, 1922, which was furiously criticized by the new American Communist Party.

One of the first major American figures to criticize the use of the atom bomb on Japan as it was announced at the end of WWII was repeated SPA Presidential Candidate, Norman Thomas. Thomas was also one of the founding members of the American Civil Liberties Union. The SPUSA since its “reconstitution” has been involved in numerous human rights campaigns to include anti-Islamophobia, anti-torture, pro open immigration,   anti-capital punishment, anti-fascist, anti-police entrapment / brutality and anti-racist projects.

There is not and never was a conflict between the majority of SPA’s membership’s over a commitment to an economic understanding of history and a concern with contemporary ethical and moral concerns. The labeling of all ethics, morality, and humanitarian norms as mere bourgeois constructs, as is common with authoritarian socialist theorists, implies that an appreciation of the historical material basis of such superstructures as positive law necessarily implies an acceptance of moral relativism.

Moral relativism is no less relativistic when authoritarian Leninist talk about dialectical thinking than when Henry Kissinger talks about “real politick.” American historical examples include Karl Marx’s (and his two closest protégés, “General” Frederick Engels and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Weydemeyer) support of the Union cause and anti-slavery campaigns during the Civil War. In fact, it was Marx who argued against the pro-Southern  British press who were claiming that the war was not about the moral issue of slavery, but mere sectional economic competition.

Similarly,  support of SPA orthodox Marxist theoretician, Morris Hillquit’s, decisive support for women’s suffrage in New York during his 1917 New York City mayoral campaign did not indicate that Hillquit was lacking in Marxist theoretical vision. The continuity between the SPA and SPUSA on contemporary ethical and moral concerns has been the recent support of SPUSA in campaigns against police brutality, torture, militarism, immigration rights, and against Islamophobia and other organized hate campaigns.

3. A Party of Ordinary People:  Undertaking Ordinary Actions and Leading Themselves      

When discussing the failures of many Germans and Russians to stand up to the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin, Norman Thomas once said “(T)he amount if bravery that is available at any given time against any government, even on the part of those who suffer, is very limited most of the time.”  Years later, David McReynolds held forth that this declaration should not be one of scorning moral cowardice, but affirming social relevancy. You cannot base a true mass movement on what the masses do not possess, physical bravery. The curse of the American Left is the glorification of the heroic “Che Guevara” figure wearing a beret, holding an AK-47, coming down from fighting in the hills to take his place among the leadership of a vanguard party. The real revolution comes to pass when ordinary people take ordinary actions that one would have to concede to not include martyrdom or heroic insurgent warfare. That is not to say that non-ordinary actions have not changed history on occasion.

One of the most ordinary political actions is to vote in an election or run for office. The one major positions of consensus of those to constituted the SPA in 1901 and reconstituted in 1973 was the advocacy of electoral politics outside the two major capitalist parties. Whether they were from Eastern Europe with the example of a Marxist party or former Populists from the West and Mid-West, both groups categorically rejected the two major capitalist parties in the US, the Democratic Party and Republican Party.

There was never consensus in the old SPA as to the relationship of the SPA to other third-party groups or campaigns, such as Senator Robert La Follette’s 1924 presidential campaign running on the Progressive Party ballot line, or non-socialist Fiorello LaGuardia’s 1922 US Congressional campaign on the SPA ballot line.   Today, in the SPUSA, there is still not a party-wide consensus on SPUSA members running on other third-party ballot lines. Despite the questioning of the SPA continuity of opposition to the two major capitalist parties in the later years of the SPA,  the SPUSA is the only one of the three successor organizations of the SPA (the others being DSA and SDUSA) that categorically rejects participation in the politics of the two major capitalist parties.

A key characteristic of party conferences throughout the history of both the SPA and SPUSA is the unending, sometimes healthy and sometimes not, debate over which should have the higher priority: the immediate demands for the amelioration of conditions of workers and the underclass or the immediate overthrow of capitalism. Just as the lack of physical courage is not to be disparaged in a mass party, the lack of disciplined theoretic “unity” should not be disparaged either. Just as the SPA and SPUSA are not parties of heroes, they are not parties of a specially trained and disciplined “cadre” with an extraordinary heroic understanding of Marxist Leninist theory and scripture. Even though the term multi-tendency would not be formulated until 1941 as an antonym of Leninist centralism and vanguardism, both the SPA and the SPUSA were “multi-tendency from the beginning.

In 1901, the SPA was created as the fusion of two distinct groups with separate worldviews, one, mainly from New York City, who were of Eastern European and German decent and who identified with the theories of Karl Marx and the model of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and the others from the American Mid-West and West who mainly were former members of the Populist Party who rejected that parties decision of fusion with the Democratic Party.  The most promenade example of the former was Morris Hillquit, who, along with the German Karl Kautsky and the Russian Georgi Plekhanov, was considered one of the greatest theorists of orthodox Marxism of the age. The best example of the later was Eugene V. Debs, a radicalized union organizer who along with many Christian ministers in the party did not stress the “determinism” of scientific socialism.

The SPA in 1920 rejected the two of Lenin’s Twenty-One Conditions, rejecting the conditions of centralism in internal party politics and vanguardism requiring the SPA’s deference to Lenin’s Third International.  The SPUSA today enshrines the rejection of both centralism and vanguardism in its central documents, the SPUSA Statement ofPrinciples, the SPUSA Statement of Understanding, and the SPUSA Handbook.

The concept of multi-tendency party was framed by the Socialist Party’s own internal history. The concept was most eloquently described in the introduction to the 1957 requested resolution for the Independent Socialist League to merge with the SPA:”The differences of opinion, which are legitimate in an American socialist movement today, cannot be forced into the Procrustean bed of monolithism and smothered under humiliating “confessions of error,” enforced acceptance of doctrine, and a deadening obedience to orders. From this view we draw the conclusion: socialism can be reunited and grow into a movement if it welcomes into its ranks all those who profess the goal of socialism and, regardless of difference of opinion on controversial questions, are willing to accept in full loyalty the responsibilities and rights of equal membership.“ Unfortunately, these beautiful words were penned by the hands of Max Shachtman, while one of the most gifted Marxist theorists in the 20th century, he was criticized for not himself adhering to the “multi-tendency” ideal in his leadership of the Workers Party (subsequently the Independent Socialist League) and his latter leadership of the Socialist Party of America in its final years.  Actually, the very term “multi-tendency” was coined to point out Shachtman’s inability to overcome the leadership style of single-tendency or centralist organizations that he previously broke with and criticized.

A commitment to democratic socialism does not mean we denounce the intellectual contributions of those who at one time adhered to the theories of Marxist-Leninism, such as John Reed, WEB Du Bois, Irving Howe, Sydney Hook, Philip Rhav, Dwight McDonald, Michael Harrington, CLR James, Frantz Fanon, and yes, Max Shachtman, puritanically honoring only those who have been consistent democratic socialists for their whole lives such as Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, and David McReynolds. For better or worse, we are the sum of the history of American socialism. Nor does a commitment to democratic socialism rule out the possibility with working in movement or electoral coalitions that are in the party’s interest or the interest of a mass movement supported by the majority of party members.

Although distinctively a multi-tendency party, the SPA and SPUSA have tried to be parties of collective collaboration with parties, organizations, and movements. In Condition Nine of Lenin’s 1920 Twenty-One Conditions for Membership in the Communist International it mandated that “(E)very party that wishes to belong to the Communist International must systematically and persistently develop communist activities within the trades unions, workers’ and works councils, the consumer co-operatives and other mass workers’ organizations,” while his 1921 Ban on Factions within the Russian Communist Party ensured his party would not be subject to reciprocal treatment.

Both the SPA and SPUSA have the shared experience of being subjected to repeated attempts at entryism and member culling from organizations intending the creation of internal conflict. The SPA experienced the entryism and culling of its members ordered by Trotsky in 1936 after members of the Cannonite Workers Party were allowed to join the SPA during the failed “all inclusive” party initiative supported by Norman Thomas. The SPUSA has experienced similar attempts at entryism and member culling in the 1970s and in recent years.

In their relations with movement allies, labor unions, and other parties, neither the SPA or SPUSA have a history of deceptively entering parties or other organizations by hiding their intentions or identity. While the relationship of both the SPA and SPUSA with other parties and organizations have strained the internal unity of the Socialist Party, such relationships where were never covertly intended to shatter the unity of other parties, organizations, or movements. The recent intense participation of the SPUSA’s New York City local with Occupy Wall Street documented a policy of “organizing into, not out of” mass movements of the Left.

Both the SPA and SPUSA have been parties of the “s” word; not a “socialism” defined with theoretic purity by a self-appointed priesthood of ideological rigorousness, but again, as defined by ordinary people and hands-on activists. The reconstitution of our party represented our continued identification with the word socialism and our belief that it cannot be supplanted by other terms, terms that may be more pleasant to the uneducated ear, but not more accurate. To replace words with a history with words without a history constitutes a denial and refusal to learn from experience.

Both the SPA and SPUSA understood the word “socialism” has been associated in the 20th century in the popular mind, especially in America, with authoritarian regimes that not only undertook some of the greatest human rights crimes in history, but failed in spite of these crimes, to maintain a regime that challenged, rather than facilitated and took part in, the international capitalist market order. That even among authoritarian socialist groups that have never exercised government power, such as those in the United States, most have organized themselves along rigid ideological lines allowing for no tolerance of differences of opinion within these organizations or possessing the tolerance to allow fraternal cooperation with other political grouping, even those claiming to be adhering to the same authoritarian theorists.

That regardless of the above, the SPA and the SPUSA have remained committed to the century old vision of democratic socialism being the natural expression of democracy and human rights and has been informed and advanced by many who have had the direct experience to learn from the failures of  authoritarian socialism and/or modern social democratic / labour parties.


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