30 April 2014

Socialism in America and the Birth of Nonviolence

Q: Why capitalism?  A: Because the greed of the few (the 1%) overshadows the needs of the many (the 99%).

Q: Why socialism?  A: Because the needs of the many should outweigh the greed of the few.

Socialism, real socialism, is not some invasive foreign import but is as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie, or life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Real socialism (as opposed to what the Bolsheviks erected after their coup d’etat known as the October Revolution) is not the end of democracy but the beginning of true democracy.  Without economic, social, and industrial democracy, political democracy is but a farce, an opiate for the people, especially in an oligarchy masquerading as a republic where corporations are people with citizenship and bribery equals speech.

Other than those who followed the line of Lenin and his ideological offspring, most American socialists never wanted to set up anything like a “People’s Democratic Socialist Workers Republic” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat” controlled by a party “vanguard”.  No, their idea, their goal, was a Cooperative Commonwealth.

Lenin, by the way, never made any attempt to introduce socialism to the USSR.  He and his acolytes set up what he himself called state capitalism modeled upon that of the Prussian Junker capitalists against whom Marx and Engels struggled with the Communist League. 

It was Lenin who introduced the idea of a “vanguard party”, Lenin who replaced democracy with “democratic centralism”, Lenin who used the Taylorism that was the bane of American labor to micromanage workers in the USSR, and Lenin’s chief lieutenant Zinoviev who made the newly-established Communist International a mere puppet of Russian policy.  Leninism and its ideological offspring (Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, Fidelism, etc.) are an aberration rather than fulfillment of the vision of Marx and Engels.  Their true heir was not Vladimir Lenin but Karl Kautsky, which Engels made explicit.

The deepest roots of socialism live in the soil of America.

Many today recognize as progenitor of modern socialism the very same activist recognized as godfather of Irish, Scottish, and English republicanism, hero of the French Revolution, and father of American independence: Thomas Paine.  Paine cut his political teeth on a letter to Parliament protesting the working conditions of officers of excise in the United Kingdom.  It was the quality of that writing which led Ben Franklin to conscript him for the movement in America.

To most Americans, the name Thomas Paine means Common Sense and The Crisis, while to the rest of the world it means Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.  The first major advocate of independence in the British colonies of North America, Paine may very well be called the First American, in the sense of “American” being a citizen of the United States. 

His Rights of Man was a defense of republicanism and of the French Revolution against former ally Edmund Burke’s advocacy of constitutional monarchism and condemnation of events in France.  His The Age of Reason defended freedom of thought and the creation of an atmosphere in which that can grow against ideology, superstition, sectarianism, and theocracy.

Not as well known is Paine’s staunch advocacy of the rights of workers as first evidenced in the above-mentioned letter.  He also wrote essays against slavery, illiteracy, poverty, and other social evils, as well as for equal rights for women, public education, universal suffrage, old-age pensions, a guaranteed income, and the fair distribution of land.  In many respects, Paine was far ahead of his time.

The very first socialist party (which also functioned as a labor union) in the world was founded in New York City and Philadelphia in 1828.  It lasted only five years but left its mark on America and the rest of the world.

When Marx and Engels put together their first organization, they called it the Committees of Correspondence, the same name used by the Patriots of revolutionary America.  Marx strongly supported the cause of the Union as a reporter in New York City during the Civil War, despite his sharing of Lincoln’s misgivings about the “money power of this country”.  In the question of imperial capitalism versus planter slavocracy, the choice for Marx was easy.

In 1864, Marx and Engels helped found the International Workingmens’ Association (the First International, or IWA), anticipating the horrific abuses of the Second Industrial Revolution that began around 1867 and continued into the Gilded Age (“Belle Epoque” in Europe).  The IWA gained its first American section in 1867 and by 1870 had enough sections to support an IWA Central Committee for North America. The 30+ sections in America formed the North American Federation of the IWA the next year.

The NAF included such figures as pioneer suffragette Victoria Woodhull and former slave Frederick Douglas.  These two ran for President and Vice President respectively on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872.  When the followers of the anarchist Mikail Bakunin left the IWA after its Congress at The Hague that year to form their own group, the IWA’s international headquarters moved to New York City.  There it remained until its congress voted to dissolve in 1876.  The American sections joined together with other groups to form the Workingmens Party of America, which later became the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLPA). 

In 1884, a socialist writer named Laurence Gronlund published an examination of Marxist doctrine aimed at the American worker called The Cooperative Commonwealth in its Outlines, an Exposition of Modern Socialism.  It gave American socialists a name for what they wanted to achieve, but a more popular and influential book was the utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward.  Written by Edward Bellamy, cousin of the author of the Pledge of Allegiance, the novel tells the story of the protagonist going to sleep in his basement in the late 1990’s and waking up in the year 2000 in a Cooperative Commonwealth. 

The novel, the third-best seller of the 19th century after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur, launched a movement based on the hope of achieving the Cooperative Commonwealth visualized in the book’s pages that came to be called Nationalism.  “Nationalism” in this case signified the Nation, common citizens, vis-a-vis Capital, society’s plutocrats, oligarchs, and their loyal, subservient supporters.  Gronlund himself was so impressed he withdrew his own work from publication, at least for several years.

The American socialist movement’s attraction to a work of fiction is anything but unique in this country.  Much earlier, Harriet Tubman’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped spur abolitionist sentiment in the pre-bellum years.  The work of Horatio Alger hangs like a yoke around the necks of the poor and middle class along with Ayn Rand’s bad fiction aggrandizing sociopathy.  The silent film “Birth of a Nation” gave rise to the birth of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The two foremost leaders of the American socialist movement at the dawn of the 2oth century, Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party of America, and Daniel DeLeon, leader of the SLPA after 1890, frequently referenced the Founding Fathers.  For instance, one of DeLeon’s earliest essays was “The Voice of Madison”.  In spite of their rivalry, Debs and DeLeon respected each other and worked together on several projects, such as joining with Bill Haywood to organize the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) in 1905.

Jack London, best known for literary expressions of man’s rugged individualism in the face of wild nature such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang, was one of the leading literary lights of the SPA.  His socialist writings include the dystopian future history novel The Iron Heel and the nonfiction novel People of the Abyss.  Along with Clarence Darrow, Walter Lippman, Helen Keller, Sinclair Lewis, and others, London founded the SPA’s Intercollegiate Socialist Society, the party’s literary arm.

The growing American socialist movement of the early 20th century foundered in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution due to persecution by the government, splits within its ranks, and the direction of the revolution in Russia once Lenin and his acolytes had achieved full control.  At first, praise for their accomplishment in the October “Revolution” (actually a coup d’etat) was well nigh universal among socialists world-wide. 

There were actually two revolutions in Russia in 1917, a February Revolution, a true mass uprising, and an October Revolution, really a coup d’etat by the Bolshevik faction under Lenin’s leadership.  Ironically, one of the more moderate Bolsheviks, the only major figure in Russia at the February Revolution and one willing to work with Mensheviks, liberal democrats, and others, was Josef Stalin.  Returning exiles like Lenin, Trotsky, and Zinoviev were far more extremist.

Once news began to trickle out about the lack of real democracy, the increasing centralized control by the Party with no input from below, various atrocities, and the emasculation of the soviets (workers’ councils), respected socialist leaders spoke out loudly.  Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg was one of the first.  From America, Debs, DeLeon, and virtually every American socialist not part of the new Communist Party joined such international voices as Scotland’s John Maclean in condemning the Bolshevik coup once it became apparent that’s what it was. 

Kautsky remarked at the time that, “Socialism without democracy is unthinkable,” echoing Luxemburg’s earlier statement that, “There is no democracy without socialism, and there is no socialism without democracy.”  One can easily imagine Marx looking at the events in Russia, shaking his head, and saying, “If this is Marxism, all I can say is that I am not a Marxist”.

In the early twentieth century, socialism, and American socialism at that, gave the world nonviolence as a means of mass social protest.

Nonviolence civil disobedience as a mass social protest tactic began in Spokane, Washington, in 1908, during the Free Speech fights of the IWW with the municipal government there. Wobblies were perturbed by the fact that whenever one of them gave a speech in the street, he or she was arrested for disturbing the peace while the Salvation Army went unmolested doing the same, even when doing so to the music of a brass band.

The Wobblies sent out a call to all men willing to be arrested. One would take the soapbox, literally, speak until arrested upon which another would take his place. So many volunteers showed that soon both the city and county jails were packed, and eventually the city surrendered.

It was from the Wobblies that Gandhi derived the practical application of his principle of nonviolence, and, of course, from Gandhi that King derived his own. Ironically, one of the chief developers of the Wobblies’ tactics was none other than Irish socialist James Connolly, who eight years later was shot in Kilmainham Jail in Dublin, Ireland while tied to a chair because of wounds he received helping to direct the Easter Rising.

Connolly started his socialist political career in his Scottish hometown of Edinburgh before moving to Ireland, then to America (where he worked with both the SPLA and the IWW), before returning to Ireland.

Of the two methods of a “weaker” opponent carrying out a war of attrition against a superior foe, guerrilla war and nonviolence, nonviolence is the only one that permits eventual reconciliation while allowing both sides to save face.  Historical experience has shown that when a minority gets into power using violence, it never ends well.  Take, for example, the Montagnards (usually but incorrectly called Jacobins) of the French Revolution, the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution, or the Khomeinists of the Iran Revolution.

At Tyner Junior High School, there was a small group of us who got picked on a lot. Then one day we decided, “Hey, an injury to one of us is an injury to all of us”. So, when one of us got picked on, we all would go meet the bully and tell him he would have to fight each of us one at a time, or he could quit.  We never picked fights or pushed anyone around, but we did stand up for each other and even kids outside our group. And we never had to fight, not even once. We were the runts, but not even the biggest bully wants to fight 100 runts, even one at a time.

“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” – Eugene Debs, 18 September 1918

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