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AMERICAN LEFT

AMERICAN LEFT

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Published by: api-19962936 on Dec 03, 2009
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AMERICAN
LEFT

"Promising indeed," Eugene Debs wrote in September l900, "is the outlook for Socialism in
the United States. The very contemplation of the prospect is a wellspring of inspiration."
Debs, a gifted and militant leader of America's railroad workers, seemed to have been granted
a prophetic gift. When he ran for President in 1900 as the candidate of the newly unified
socialist movement, he attracted a mere one hundred thousand votes. As the Socialist Party's
standard-bearer twelve years later, he won nearly a million votes, some 6 percent of the total.
In some states, such as Oklahoma, Washington, and California, the Socialist share of the vote
climbed into the double digits. Over the same twelve-year period, the Socialist Party
expanded its membership from 10,000 to nearly 120,000. Twelve hundred of these Socialists
were elected to public office across the United States, including mayors from Flint, Butte, and
Berkeley.

Socialists were influential in the leadership of some major American Federation of Labor
(AFL) unions, as well as in independent unions such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers.
Socialist and non-Socialist radicals in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) pioneered
in the organization of unions among immigrant workers in mass production industries in cities
like Lawrence and Patterson, and among migrant workers in the lumber camps and mining
towns of the far west. While the Socialist Party was not immune to the racism endemic in turn
of-the-century America, Socialists were among the founders of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The ideas of the Socialist movement attracted
a growing following on college campuses, in church groups, and in the settlement house and
women's movements. The key to the Socialist Party's success in the 1910s was unity in
diversity. Its members disagreed with each other on some issues (whether, for example, to put
their main emphasis on electoral or union organizing), but for a while the common goal of
democratic socialism seemed more important than tactical or ideological differences.

In the long run, Debs's optimism proved misplaced. The year 1912 was the high-water mark
of Socialist strength. The party fell on hard times with the coming of the First World War.
Pre-existing internal tensions were exacerbated by debates over the party's attitude towards
American involvement in the war, followed by debates over whether (or how best) to support
the Russian Revolution. Official repression of antiwar dissent led to the imprisonment of
Debs and dozens of other Socialist leaders, while Socialist legislators were expelled from
public office and the Socialist press was banned from the mails. As a Communist Party on the
Russian model split from the Socialist Party, and the IWW went into a sharp decline, the
radical movement in general slipped into the doldrums in the 1920s.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, however, faith in American capitalism went
into a tail-spin, and the fortunes of the radical movement revived. Despite the deep divisions
that beset the left, radicals from a number of different groups -- Socialists, Communists, and
Trotskyists among them -- played a central role in the struggles of the unemployed to win
adequate relief in the early 1930s, and in the vast expansion of industrial unionism through
the organization of the new Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) in the later 1930s.
Socialists helped to organize Detroit autoworkers and southern sharecroppers; Communists
were influential in drives to organize the auto, steel, electrical, and longshore industries,
among others.

1

While neither Socialists nor Communists were able to replicate the electoral successes of the
Debsian era, the Socialists were able to attract a million votes for Norman Thomas, their
Presidential candidate in 1932. Running in the Democratic primary, the Socialist novelist
Upton Sinclair captured the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in California in 1934. And
during the "Popular Front" era of the later 1930s, when Communists sought to build a broad-
based American movement not so explicitly tied to the Soviet model, the Communists
developed a considerable political base and measure of influence within the Democratic Party
in such states as Washington, Minnesota, and California, and in the American Labor Party in
New York. The Thirties did not usher in "the Revolution," contrary to the expectations of
many at the start of the decade. Nevertheless, much had changed for the better in American
politics in the space of a few years. While Franklin Roosevelt's administration was never the
hotbed of radicalism it was portrayed as in right-wing propaganda, it is certainly true that
radicals helped play midwife at the birth of the liberal-labor "New Deal coalition" that would
shape the contours of Democratic Party politics over the next three decades.

Radicals were not, however, in a position to take independent advantage of the new political
possibilities opening before them. The Socialist Party finished the decade once again in
disarray, wounded by an internal factional battle with Trotskyists (with whom they shared
little beyond a hatred of Stalinism), and divided over the question of whether they should
abandon their long-standing refusal to back Democratic Party candidates. The Communist
Party, though nominally more "revolutionary" than the Socialists, had proven tactically more
flexible, and its tacit alliance with Roosevelt had helped it to grow to perhaps as many as
75,000 members by 1938 (with another 20,000 in the Young Communist League). After a
bruising few years when its international guide, Stalin, was allied with Hitler, the American
Communist Party seemed to emerge triumphant during the years of the "Grand Alliance,"
when the United States and the Soviet Union were allied against fascism and it was possible
to be both "patriotic" and "pro-Soviet." But with the onset of the Cold War in 1945,
radicalism of any sort was again suspect, and the Communists came under particularly
ferocious attack.

By the mid-1950s, dozens of Communist Party leaders had been imprisoned under the Smith
Act, while thousands of rank and file Communists were harassed by the FBI, dragged before
Congressional investigating committees, denied passports, and in many instances fired from
their jobs. Several of the most unscrupulous men in postwar American political life, including
Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, built their careers on the shrewd manipulation of
anticommunist hysteria. In the end, the Communist Party was able to survive McCarthyism.
What finally led to its demise as the most important force on the left was its own internal
disagreements, brought to a head in 1956 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation
of his now safely-dead predecessor Stalin. This "de-Stalinization crisis" led many American
Communists to question not only their previous unquestioning support of Soviet policies, but
also the undemocratic nature of Soviet-style socialism and the authoritarian nature of their
own movement. Most of these dissenters left the party after 1956.

2

Even as the Communist Party disintegrated in the mid-1950s, a new wave of radical activism
began to take shape. This time, however, it would not be the traditional socialist parties of the
left that would lead the way, nor would the organization of the industrial working class be the
main concern of the new radicals. Starting with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, led
by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and accelerating with the sit-in movement launched by black
students in Greensboro and a dozen other southern cities in 1960, movements emerged that
were destined to change the U.S. political landscape. White students, inspired by the example
of their black counterparts in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC),
were drawn into civil rights protests, and from there into a wide range of movements for
peace, university reform, and social change. Many joined a new campus group, Students for a
Democratic Society (SDS), which became the main organizational vehicle for what was
beginning to be called the "new left".

A series of developments in mid-decade -- including John F. Kennedy's assassination, the
murder of civil rights activists in the South, and the mounting escalation of the Vietnam war
-- spurred the growth of the new left, while tarnishing the optimism of the early 1960s. Over
the years in which the war in Vietnam raged on, a loose coalition of radical activists
developed the broadest and most diverse antiwar movement in American history. It was, to be
sure, a turbulent and in many ways a tragic era. Some student protesters, in despair over
bringing the war to an end (and sometimes egged on by government agents), turned to
selfdefeating violent street confrontations and even to bombings. But it should also be
remembered that, by the end of the 1960s, antiwar sentiment had spread from elite Ivy League
universities to working-class community colleges and high schools, and that groups like the
Vietnam Veterans Against the War were playing an increasingly prominent role in antiwar
demonstrations. The general cultural and political ferment of the decade also gave rise to a
revived feminist movement and a new gay liberation movement.

At the end of the 1960s the left again faltered. If the old left Socialists and Communists had
been too wedded to the "New Deal coalition" of urban ethnics and industrial workers to
respond adequately to the new black, youth, and women's insurgencies, nevertheless those
new constituencies alone could not build a stable base for a mass new left. Martin Luther
King's assassination in 1968 hastened the demise of the civil rights movement, while SNCC
and SDS collapsed from sectarian excesses. The antiwar movement held on into the early
1970s but, by the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, had lost most of its momentum.
And not only was the left collapsing, but this time the New Deal coalition itself -- the mass
base for American liberalism -- was showing signs of increasing instability, as Richard
Nixon's victories in 1968 and 1972 indicated. This liberal weakness became progressively
clearer as Nixon's fall in the Watergate scandal led, not to a revival of the New Deal coalition,
but to a long-term revival of radical conservatism in the Republican Party under Ronald
Reagan.

From the beginning of this long period of deepening conservatism in the early 1970s, several
groups continued to uphold the traditions of the American left. Two in particular sought to
recreate the broad and tolerant spirit of the Debsian Socialist Party, while absorbing also the
new lessons, causes, and constituencies over which the left had stumbled in the intervening

3

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