The Socialist Party and the war

April 1, 2011

At the time of the Socialist Party's greatest electoral success in 1912, the party was internally divided. Brian Erway explains the issues behind the growing left-right split in the SP--differences which led to its disintegration in 1919, and to the subsequent formation of the Communist Party.

A MAJORITY of Socialist Party (SP) members saw the party as essentially electoral. Political action for them consisted of contesting regular elections, and of educating workers to vote for the socialist ticket.

Furthermore, they believed that work in the unions should be focused on the American Federation of Labor (AFL) despite the conservative leadership of Samuel Gompers.

The opposing current in the party included sympathizers of syndicalism and industrial union organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They were hostile to the craft unionism of the AFL and deeply suspicious of electoral activity, regarding it as a diversion from the real struggles within the factories and mines.

The factional conflict in the SP was therefore heavily focused on the issue of industrial militancy, picket line violence and sabotage as a tactic in the class struggle.

At the 1912 convention, the right wing succeeded in amending the party constitution to provide expulsion for any member who "advocates crime, sabotage or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation."

Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for opposing the First World War
Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for opposing the First World War

Within half a year, this clause had been used to attack William Haywood, the militant union leader and founder of the IWW, in a campaign to remove him from the party's national executive committee. When Haywood left the party, a great number of other working-class militants and syndicalists left as well.

Those who remained in the party were much more in tune with the gradualism and exclusive electoralism of the right-wing leadership. Its ascendancy was well represented by the prominence of Victor Berger, a Milwaukee editor who was several times elected to Congress. It gained an aura of doctrinal legitimacy from Morris Hillquit of New York, who combined intellectual authority as a spokesman of Marxism with a successful and lucrative practice as a corporate lawyer.

But within the temporary triumph of electoralism were the seeds of further divisions and strife in the party. The prospects for winning power by a steady and gradual growth in socialist voting strength were challenged in the next several years by the outbreak of world war and then by the workers' revolution in Russia.

WAR ENGULFED Europe in August 1914. The socialist parties of the belligerent nations renounced past pledges of opposition to war and lined up instead behind "their own" ruling classes in the conflict.

American socialists reacted with disbelief and confusion. A few, like Eugene Debs, condemned the parties of the Second International as traitors to the working class. Most, however, tended to excuse the European socialists for supporting the war.

"They were victims of the present vicious industrial, political and military system," declared the party's national executive committee, and "they did the best they could under the circumstances."

After some initial demoralization, the SP stood a strong stand against U.S. involvement and the support of antiwar leaders in Europe like Karl Liebknecht. Its Antiwar Manifesto placed the blame for the war on the capitalist system and the imperial ruling class, but spoke otherwise as a purely pacifist document, condemning war in general.

The SP's program urged the U.S. government to pursue peace among the combatants, with no forced annexations or payments of indemnities. As finally adopted, the program also called for self-determination of colonial countries and for socialist opposition to all military or naval appropriations in the U.S.

The Wilson administration, while professing neutrality, favored England and France and made sure that they received supplies and loans from American business. Soon the government began a military build-up dubbed "preparedness." The SP was in the forefront of the "anti-preparedness" campaign.

The 1916 election was fought on the basis of the party's "unalterable opposition to war," with Allan Benson as presidential candidate. Benson, relatively unknown in the SP, had gained prominence from his antiwar writings, and from his advocacy of a law limiting declaration of any offensive war to a national referendum--with those voting in favor of war the first in line for the draft.

Woodrow Wilson won re-election largely on the notion that "he kept us out of war." Once in office, be began immediately to push the U.S. into involvement.

Even as the SP convened an emergency convention in St. Louis in April 1917, Congress was declaring war on Germany. The convention's mood was strongly antiwar, and the manifesto adopted called for "continuous, active and public opposition" to conscription, as well as "vigorous resistance" to government attempts to censor the press or to limit free speech or the right to strike.

The party's rank and file overwhelmingly supported the principled and antiwar stance taken in St. Louis. But a number of the SP's most prominent journalists and intellectuals bolted from the party to support the war. These included Upton Sinclair, John Spargo, William English Walling and even Allan Benson.

Yet these defections did not hurt the party, for its position struck a direct chord of popular opposition to the war. Resistance to conscription was widespread, as men declined to register for the draft, or failed to appear for their physical examinations, or pursued exemptions from service.

In some cities, draft lists were stolen in efforts to slow the induction process. Protest meetings were held, and boycotts organized of merchants and bankers who supported the war.

In Texas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and other places, opposition to the war and conscription went in some instances as far as armed revolt.

The most famous episode was the "Green Corn Rebellion" in August 1917, when a thousand poor tenant farmers in eastern Oklahoma assembled as an "army" to march on Washington to end the "rich man's war." They dispersed after waiting in vain for two days for promised columns of reinforcements to arrive.

The SP set about trying to rally opposition, and gained new credibility as the only significant national organization to come out against the war. It staged mass meetings and parades, which met with a warm public response. So successful were its efforts that it drew the wrath of those intent on whipping up patriotism and war fever, who launched "loyalty" campaigns and raised hysterical warnings of "the Hun within our gates."

Public officials in federal, state and local governments charged themselves with suppressing antiwar dissent by banning meetings and arresting socialists. Federal courts handed down indictments and prison terms for violations of the Espionage Act, passed to make antiwar activity illegal.

Eugene Debs, Kate O'Hare and other party leaders received 10-year prison sentences for speaking out against the war.

The government also used the act to silence effectively much of the socialist press by seizing publications from the mails. Vigilante groups organized by chambers of commerce and business clubs meted out threats, violence and even lynchings to those agitating against the war.

SOCIALISTS HAD a strong showing in the elections of 1917. The SP's share of the vote increased several-fold over previous level, without, however, many candidates winning office.

Despite the public support for its antiwar stance, government and vigilante repression made the party's customary methods of work impossible. Organization in the cities continued to function and to grow. But socialists scattered throughout the country in mining communities and small towns ceased to be active. They were the most politically isolated when socialist publications stopped coming through the mails, and they were also the most vulnerable to physical attack.

In the last year of the war, 1,500 of the party's 5,000 local organizations were destroyed, primarily in small communities. The entire SP of Oklahoma dissolved itself out of fear of government harassment connecting it to the Green Corn Rebellion.

When the Bolsheviks led Russian workers to power in October 1917, socialists everywhere saw a whole new series of possibilities open up for them.

The Russian Revolution won universal support from SP members, but it posed a question which was shortly to lead to the party splitting: what were the prospects, if any, of workers' revolution in the U.S.?

The wartime loss of members from the SP in rural areas was more than matched by the influx of new members in the cities. Many of these urban workers, being recent immigrants to the U.S., joined the foreign language federations affiliated with the party. Whereas early in the war the foreign language federations had accounted for about 30 percent of the membership, but the war's end, they constituted a majority.

The Bolshevik Revolution had an especially radicalizing effect on the membership of a number of the foreign language federation, most notably the Hungarian, Russian, Lettish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian federations.

These socialists grew impatient with the obviously reformist direction of the SP leadership, and argued for an immediately revolutionary program like the Russian model. They allied themselves increasingly with those on the left wing of the party, who called for similar changes in the SP's political orientation.

The party's left wing had for some time been taking shape around publications such as Revolutionary Age and The Class Struggle. In the early months of 1919, as the call for a Third International went out from Moscow, the left wing established itself as a formal organization within the party and won control of locals in dozens of cities.

In the spring elections for the national executive committee, the left won 12 of 15 seats and four of five international delegates.

The party's old guard, however, were not about to give up power so easily. The old executive committee met in May and invalidated the election. They also expelled the seven foreign language federation affiliated with the left wing, and the entire SP of Michigan.

Such high-handed actions alienated many in the party who otherwise might have hesitated over secession. A split in the organization became inevitable and imminent.

This article originally appeared in Socialist Worker in October 1989.

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