The American SDP
Its Origin, its Press, and its Policies
The Socialist, July 1903.
Republished in James Connolly: Lost Writings, (ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh), Pluto Press 1997.
The notes, which are © 1997 Pluto Press, have not been included.
HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
In my article in the June issue of the Socialist I sought to place before our readers a correct picture of the position of the Socialist Labour Party of America, by contrasting it with the London SDF, and in doing so to expose the misrepresentations of Mr Hyndman and ‘comrade Justice’. One point in the Justice American letter, however, I missed. It was the statement that the SLP had lost its place on the ballot in several states through corrupt practices. Of course no particulars were given, because none could be given as the statement was as destitute of any foundation in fact as the persons who made and retailed it were destitute of honour. Yet the persons who utter such slanders are they who whine about the “outrageous language” of the writers in the Socialist. We would ask those honest men who still remain in the SDF to require from the organ of the Twentieth Century Press the particulars, state, and date where the SLP lost its place through corrupt practices, and the name of the correspondent who makes the charge.
In this article I propose to give some details about the Social Democratic, or Socialist Party, the pet protege in American politics of the SDF. This party was established by Eugene V Debs, and at its foundation was not a political, but a colonising party. That is to say, that it did not propose to realise Socialism through the conquest of the public powers of government by the working class marching to the ballot box in their respective localities. Oh, no! The bright brains of the leaders conceived a more brilliant plan than that. This plan was that all the Socialists in the United States should leave their then homes and move simultaneously into one State to be fixed upon by the party, and so secure a majority in that State. Then that they should elect the legislature of that State, appoint Socialists to administer the public powers, and so inaugurate the Socialist Republic. Then the theory ran that all the other States in the Union would be lost in admiration of the Socialist institutions in full working order, and would signify their admiration by rushing into Socialism. This plan was undoubtedly simple – so were the people who thought it practicable.
But the Socialist Labour Party men began attending the meetings of this SDP and asking irreverent questions. They wanted to know why, if Debs was a Socialist, he supported Bryan the Democrat in 1896. Considering there were already many unemployed in each State, how the Socialists, who gave up their situations in order to colonise, were going to find employment in the new State while waiting for the majority. Seeing that the United States Government was a capitalist government, and had already sent the Federal troops into Illinois in order to put down a strike, what would it do when the Socialist governors or legislature of Mr Debs’ colony-state started in to socialise any capitalist property?
A few questions like these continually driven home and supplemented by vigorous criticism soon punctured the colony scheme, and eventually it was dropped by its promoters, thanks entirely to the light let in on the subject by the SLP men. But with the dropping of the colony scheme the SDP definitely entered politics as a Socialist (?) party. In 1898 its ranks received an accession of numbers from those who had either been expelled from the SLP for treachery, or had incontinently fled its councils to escape expulsion. These formed what was styled the kangaroo party, and the circumstances attending its formation are worth recording.
The People, the organ of the Socialist Labour Party, was at that time published in the office of a private printing corporation, which was known as the Volkszeitung Corporation, from the fact that it had been established to print and publish a Socialist paper in the German language – the Volkszeitung. This paper accepted capitalist advertisements, even the advertisements of capitalist politicians, and advocated all kinds of tax reform as Socialism. Eventually a motion was sent round the SLP sections, to be voted upon by the entire membership, in favour of placing the printing and publishing of the SLP organs and literature generally in the hands of the party itself. In passing, I may remark that in the SLP general votes are taken by individual membership and not by sections or branches. In the case of the vote under consideration, all those in favour of compromises, of conciliating the Debsites, and truckling for the support of pure and simple trade unionism, were in favour of leaving the paper in the control of the Volkszeitung Corporation. But as the vote came in gradually and was duly tabulated in the columns of the People, it was seen that the straight and uncompromising members were in the majority, and that the private ownership of the party press was doomed.
Affrighted at this, the unclean section of the party strove to avert disaster and keep the press in their hands by making a midnight raid on the premises of the National Executive, and by force to override the constitution of the party and set at naught its vote. They failed, but as a last measure formed another party and issued a rival paper, both party and paper usurping the titles of the original until compelled by law to abandon the fraudulent practice. Now they are called in New York the Social Democratic Party, and their organ is called the Worker, owned of course not by the party, but by the aforementioned private corporation.
In the presidential election of 1900, this element sent a deputation to the National Convention of the Debsite party and succeeded in getting their nominee, Job Harriman, nominated as candidate for Vice-President of the United States. This was to bring unity between the two sections of those opposed to the SLP, but it did not succeed, for as soon as the Convention was over Debs sent a letter to his press vehemently denouncing what he termed the trickery and treacherous methods of the Harriman party. As a result, although the nomination held good for the election, the two candidates, who were supposed to be running in harness and harmony, never appeared on the same platform.
Some time ago a letter from that wonderful ‘American Correspondent’ appeared in Justice announcing the consummation of unity among the socialists of the United States, “except the De Leonite faction”, of course. This unity was arrived at by means of a resolution at a convention in Indianapolis, if I remember aright, in which it was agreed that all sections should unite on the following basis:–
That each State should have full local autonomy in all matters, including policy and tactics.
That each State organisation should sail under whatever name it chose, or the laws of the State allowed.
That there should be no official organ of the party.
In other words, that everybody could join who chose, and could do what he blamed well pleased after joining. That each State should frame its own policy, even if that policy was in direct opposition to that of the party in the adjoining State, and that the party should have no official organ in case the members should get to know the muddled condition in which the party was. Thus was unity accomplished. What anarchist could desire more? The result of all this is made manifest in the present position of that united party. In some States it is named the ‘Social Democratic’, in some the ‘Socialist’, in some the ‘Public Ownership’, in some the ‘Union Labour’ party. Its policies are as varied as its names. In the Eastern States where the example and record of the SLP is to be reckoned with, it gives a lip adhesion to the principle of the class struggle, and appeals to the working class. In the Middle West, where capital is not so highly developed and the petty middle class is still a force, it trades mainly in schemes of municipalisation for the benefit of the taxpayer. In the Western Agricultural States it declares that the hope of the Social Revolution is in the farming class, and in California it withdrew its candidates in favour of those of a Union Labour Party formed by the trade union, and supported Mayor Schmidt of San Francisco, a Republican trade-unionist and enemy of socialism.
Each faction of the party represented by those various policies has an organ in the press devoted to its interests, but always privately owned. The manner in which those various organs of the united party speak of their ‘comrades’ who belong to opposite factions makes the “abusive language” of De Leon seem complimentary by comparison.
The following are the names and locations of the principal representatives in the press of the faction indicated:– The Worker, New York, the Socialist, Seattle, Wash., the Chicago Socialist, the Social Democratic Herald, Milwaukee, the Los Angeles Socialist, California. The body which acted as a National Executive of this hybrid organisation was situated at St Louis, Mo., and its official designation was the ‘Local Quorum’. Early in the present year its chief members made a furore by openly repudiating the principle that the wage worker and his interests should be the basis of the Socialist movement, and by insisting that the farmer was the real basis, and that our policy should be shaped accordingly. After a bitter and acrimonious discussion the members of Section St Louis met and suspended the chiefs of this local quorum for treason. Setting their suspension at defiance, the Local Quorum moved itself to Omaha, Nebraska, an agricultural State, and proceeded with their new propaganda. They were supported by the Social Democratic Herald, and denounced as traitors by the Seattle Socialist. The Chicago Socialist declared the seat of the Local Quorum as the party executive should neither be at St Louis nor at Omaha, but at Chicago, and the Los Angeles Socialist darkly hinted that both were wrong, that Salvation lay not in Socialist consolidation, but in Socialist support of trade union nominees.
This unity of purpose and principle is still further exemplified by the fact that in the Eastern States they support the American Federation of Labour, the head of which is Mr Samuel Gompers, and in the West they cater for the support of the Western Federation of Miners, whose official organ, the Miner, correctly stigmatises Mr Gompers as a “traitor”, a “fraud”, and a “Judas”. Quite recently this latter organisation enacted a rule to the effect that none of its members could be allowed to accept nomination for office by any capitalist party. This seems to show that it is marching towards the light, and I have no doubt that when it realises that the SDP is busy all through the States in accepting those capitalist nominations the Western Federation of Miners will not allow its members to accept, then it will not hesitate to throw that bundle of inconsistencies overboard and cleave to the Socialist Labour Party with its clean record and uncompromising policy.
This brief sketch of the SDP of America will explain why Justice has such an enthusiastic love for that organisation, viz, it seeks its affinity.
Inconsistency and sacrifice of principle for the sake of votes mark both organisations, and “Be all things to all men” might be the watchword of either.
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Last updated on 11.8.2003