Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The American Socialist Split

I am bored with the election campaign at the moment; with little of substance coming out of either camp, I have opted to ignoring it until either candidate picks their VP, or when they enter their conventions. I recommend both candidates take this time to go on vacation, and hopefully we can have a more interesting debate when they return, rested and less cranky. It will also be interesting to see what the talking heads on cable news networks will talk about when they don’t have every campaign zig and zag to dissect.

I did notice that while the Socialist Party of the United States (SP-USA) has Brian Moore as their Presidential candidate, they also have a page at Obama’s website, which leads me to believe they would prefer him in office to McCain (I don’t think this is a leap in judgment, nor do I intended it to be a smear against Obama, but disagree with me if you must).

I find socialist parties within the United States and like minded groups on the left to be endlessly fascinating, so this seemed like a good time to go into an important split to the party’s ranks that produced some of those ex-Trotskyite Neocons everyone loves to hate.

Originally, the SP-USA was part of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), but like all left wing parties, it experienced schisms throughout its history. The first major split came in 1917, when hardliners in the party left to create a pro-Bolshevik grouping known as the Communist Labour Party. This group would later combine with the Communist Party of America to form the Communist Party USA (a group that has also endorsed Obama for that matter).

Eugene Debs is one of the most recognizable socialist candidates in American political history, and ran for President on a number of occasions, picking up almost a 100,000 votes in 1920 from behind bars. He was a founding member of the SPA.

The SPA eventually included a group known as Independent Socialist League; a group lead by Max Schachtman, an individual who was a Trotskyite even before Trotsky. Sean Matgamna writes:
“In August 1939 the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact freed Hitler’s hands for war. On 1 September 1939 the Nazi army invaded Poland. On 17 September the Russian army invaded Poland from the East, by agreement with the Nazis, and took control of a large part of the country. In November the USSR gave Finland an ultimatum to surrender certain strategic parts of its territory to the USSR or go to war. This had been agreed with the Nazis (as had the Russian occupation of the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia). The Finns decided to fight. Instead of an easy victory, Stalin got a war. The war ended on 13 March 1940 with Finland ceding territory to Stalin.

Trotsky, who thought that Russia’s embroilment in World War Two was imminent, was for the unconditional defence of the USSR. Shachtman wanted the defeat of the Soviet Union in Finland, though in general still advocating its defence "against imperialism". The debate which ensued became mixed up with organisational grievances inside the American Trotskyist movement, which split in April 1940.”

By the late 1950s, Schachtman had moved away form his previous Trotskyism, and had come closer to a democratic socialist one. He none-the-less maintained a strict party line for those working beneath him and within his organizations, keeping within the democratic centralism common amongst socialist parties. In 1957, his group joined the SPA which was floundering during this period. Commentary writer and prominent Neoconservative Joshua Muravchik, recalls his time with the Young People’s Socialist League (the youth group for the Socialist Party of America) in a piece he wrote about YPSL leader Penn Kemble, who died in 2005. He wrote:
“In the student world of that era, groups reflecting mainstream America held the allegiance of few. As a result, we YPSL’s, although earnestly regarding ourselves not only as socialists but even as Marxists of a sort, and thus to the Left of 99 percent of Americans, spent the largest portion of our energies battling student groups even farther to our Left. Sometimes this allowed us to capture the ostensible middle ground.”

He goes on to argue:

“In the early 1960’s (we were) on the losing side. In what proved a harbinger of the increasing radicalization of student activism throughout the decade, the left wing soon took command of YPSL, and the organization flew apart in an explosion of new factions, each more radical than the last. By 1965, most had found their way to more fertile fields in the emergent New Left. Ironically, they also thereby cleared a path for our rump of right-wingers to re-create the YPSL according to our own lights.”

They worked to focus the party’s attention towards aligning with the Democratic Party to pull it towards an anti-Soviet and more centrist minded stance, and since their portion of the organization was better organized and more active than others, they were able to successfully do so. However, by the late 60s the SPA was pulled in three separate ideological directions. There were those like David McReynolds, who hoped to bring the party back to its leftist roots as a separate and independent third party. Michael Harrington represented those who were interested in keeping the party aligned with the Democrats, but wanted a stronger push to the left within the organization. Schachtman hoped to make the party staunchly anti-communist and interventionist, as well as supporting Great Society programs at home.

The party’s schism came to a boiling point during the 1972 election, with each of the three tendencies supporting a separate Democratic candidate, with Schachtman and his followers pledging not to support George McGovern if he won the nomination.

McReynold’s left the party to form the Socialist Party USA, and has run minuscule electoral campaigns over the years. Their candidate for President in 2004 was Walter Brown, who received just over 10,000 votes (which was the strongest showing the party had seen since its creation). Its current candidates are Brian Moore and Stweart Alexander. Their platform calls for the “unconditional disarmament by the United States.” So you get the idea where these folks are coming from.

Harrington formed the Democratic Socialists of America, a group that sits comfortably within the left of the Democratic Party. It is also a small group, but it includes in its ranks prominent public intellectuals like Cornel West. The group is anti-interventionist, as can be seen form their statements on Iraq and Colombia.

This left only Schachtman’s followers, who went on to form the Social Democrats USA (SD-USA), effectively ending the SPA. Muravchik said of the split, “Dropping the two words “socialist” and “party” signified an overdue relinquishment of our self-concept as “radicals” and a dawning recognition that we were now centrists.” Although also small in numbers, the SD-USA would become more of a think tank than an actual political party, and many of its members (such as Carl Gershman, Arch Puddington, and Sandy Feldman) would go on to work in both Democratic and Republican administrations in very prominent positions. The group’s staunch internationalist and interventionist positions has connected them to neo-conservatism, and with that, the scorn of those on the left and right who have argued the entire NeoCon movement is a conspiracy hatched by Jewish socialists.

Since the death of Penn Kamble, the SD-USA has rolled into the Social Democratic Party of America.


NeoConstant said...

Hey, brilliant piece. I think I shall have to read it a second time prior to commenting...

jams o donnell said...

Ah why is it that when you get two trotskysits together for more than 10 minutes you end up with five factions?

Roland Dodds said...

Very true Jams! I only focused on a specific split in the Socialist Party, but there were others, some of which had to do with other Trotskyits. They are a volatile bunch.

TNC said...

Nice job. I remember reading Muravchik's article on Kemble a few months ago.

I've grown very interested in the work of James Burnham lately. He was a comrade of Max Shachtman in the SWP. Eventually Burnham broke completely from the communist movement. He went on to write "The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World" but is better known among contemporary conservatives for "Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism".

Peter Stanton said...

If only the two main parties would split so easily, right? I feel the most sorry for libertarians in the U.S. They're by far the most underrepresented political persuasion.

TNC said...

"If only the two main parties would split so easily, right?"

We're lucky they haven't split. The last thing this country needs is loads of small, militant, ideological parties. Look at Italy.

Libertarians might be the loudest underrepresented population. The largest? I'm not convinced.

An author whose name escapes me at this time said the prevailing ideology in the U.S. is inverse libertarianism. What he meant is when you ask Americans whether they support government spending they are generally negative. But when you ask Americans whether they support government spending in their particular district or locality, they are positive.

So we dislike it when our taxes are used to support a program for someone else but we dislike it even more when government aid is cut to ourselves, our families, our neighborhood, our state.

Roland Dodds said...

Peter: When I was younger and involved in smaller third parties on the left, I dreamed of having the major parties splinter into smaller more ideologically focused groups. There is something to be said of a system like they have in Britain or other Parliamentary systems in Europe, where you can win seats with a small party that better fits each individual’s personal worldview.
I do believe the American system is a superior system however, in that it forces the fringe elements to compromise on a more centrist policy to win any influence at all. Jumping around forums that are filled with activists on both the right and left during election seasons will demonstrate how some of the scarier elements of any movement often find themselves compromising on a candidate that represents ideas far different than their own. We are going to see plenty of theocratic right wingers vote for McCain, and plenty pro-communist left wingers vote for Obama, knowing that neither of those candidates share their politics. I think that is healthier than having a politician elected leader of our nation with only 30% of the vote, which would surely happen if we had a more “representative” system. Forcing people to compromise or lose any chance of having a say in government makes for a healthier system in my humble opinion.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Very interesting, if sometimes too convoluted for a simple apolitical mind. Great stuff

Atlee said...

There was a time in Florida when they had Instant Runoff Voting and after Governor Catts won in 1917 the other two parties did away with the system to prevent third party say, but still allow access to the ballot to keep "Thirds" at arms distance when they need voted to swing their way.

That was how we once solved the 30% takes all because the election would continue until someone had 51%, it give Thirds more dealing power that the two party system did not like so they stole it legally.