Max Shachtman


An Exchange of Views

A Rejoinder to Theodore Draper

(Winter 1958)

From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 1, Winter 1958, pp. 53–58.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Theodore Draper wants to restrict himself “to a historical question only: Was there any relationship between the pre-1919 Left Wing and the American Communist movement.” He reiterates his denial of the “thesis” that “the American Communist movement was totally unrelated to the Socialist Left Wing of 1912” and the even broader “old Left Wing as a whole in all its different manifestations.”

All right.

After reading my article in the last number of the New International in which I review his book on The Roots of American Communism (which a diabolical proof-reader allowed to appear in a footnote as The Roots of Russian Communism), Draper ascribes this thesis to me: “... there is a thesis of total negation represented by Shachtman and others.” And:

“As I understood Shachtman, he does not merely deny a connection between the Socialist Left Wing of 1912 and the Communists; he goes much farther and denies a connection between the old Left Wing as a whole in all its different manifestations and the Communists.”


“I suspect that Shachtman is so eager to cut off the Communist from any and all links to the American radical past that he cuts them off from the Socialist Left Wings of 1912 and 1917 in the process.”


“Does Shachtman believe that there would not have been an American Communist movement without the [local, American] Russians? If so, I think he is profoundly mistaken.”


“For the Americans, Communism at first represented no abrupt break with their Left Wing past. On every important issue – violence, trade unionism, politics, immediate demands – the Americans carried over their Left Wing preconceptions into the Communist movement.”

Now this is not all right.

I am afraid that Draper has misread me. This may well be due to my inability to express myself plainly. It is not due to the thesis which Draper assigns to me, for I do not hold it. I do not “represent” the “thesis of total negation.” I would not dream of denying that “there was any relationship” between the two movements in question; I never thought to “deny a connection” between them; I am not “so eager,” or eager at all, “to cut off the Communists from any and all links to the American radical past.”

My concern in the article, in this respect, was rather with the extent of the relationship between the two; with the degree of the connection; with the nature of the continuity and of the discontinuity as well as with their forms; with the theoretical and political as well as with the personal (or what Draper loosely dismisses as the “numerical”) links and breaks between them; with what was the real and not merely formal connection between the two and what were the limits of this connection. I felt, as I still do, that without defining all these aspects of the famous “continuity” it is not only impossible to place the main emphasis where it properly belongs, but impossible also to understand that “peculiar development of American Communism” which is a central theme of Draper’s work – precisely that peculiarity which distinguished the American Communist movement from the Communist movements of other modern countries, and particularly that peculiarity which distinguished the Communist Left Wing from the older Left Wing in this country so that it represented not a continuation but a break.

Let me approach the question from Draper’s own standpoint. I consider his book to revolve around a central theme, stated at the very end of the volume:

“But something crucially important did happen to this [the Communist] movement in its infancy. It was transformed from a new expression of American radicalism to the American appendage of a Russian revolutionary power. Nothing else so important ever happened to it again.”

I subscribed to this statement in my article and I reiterate my agreement with it here. But this transformation, exceeding everything else in importance, according to Draper – this “pecularity” in the development of American Communism – is precisely what can not be explained by stressing its continuity with the older Left Wing but only by examining the nature and extent of the discontinuity between the two. This is so self-evident to me as to render all counter-arguments trivial and even irrelevant in advance.

That is why I wrote in my article:

There was a peculiarity about the early Communist movement in this country (one among several others, it may be noted), but it lies in precisely the other direction from that indicated by Draper. It was peculiar precisely to the extent [my emphasis now] that it was not related to the ‘Socialist Left Wing of 1912’ or more generally to ‘American radical traditions.’ Draper is not altogether wrong [my emphasis now] in denying that the Communist movement was ‘totally unrelated’ to the old Left Wing, for within very narrow limits the relationship is obvious; but he is quite wrong in his emphasis.

Where is my “thesis of total negation?”

I would indeed have been “profoundly mistaken” if I believed that there would have been no Communist movement in this country without the Slavic Federation people. That is why I wrote in my article that “It does not follow, as some epidermal thinkers have put it, that the ideas of the [Bolshevik] Revolution were ‘alien’ and ‘unacclimatizable’ to the American social soil.”

I was aware, it seems, that “for the Americans, Communism at first represented no abrupt break with their Left Wing past.” So I wrote that

“even though the native Left Wingers were not the continuators of the old Left Wing, they took over most of the negative, that is, the sectarian, traditions of the old Left Wing ... opposition to ‘immediate demands’ and ‘reforms,’ hemi-semi-demi-opposition to parliamentary activity, opposition to the existing labor movement, the unrequited amour passionel for the I.W.W., and radicalism of language which passed for radicalism of thought.”

I held, however, and still hold, to what the article emphasized:

“If, then, it is true, that the Bolshevik Revolution ‘did not create a new Left Wing out of nothing,’ as Draper says, it is not true, or it is ‘misleadingly true,’ that the revolution ‘transformed the Left Wing’ – if he is speaking, as he is, of ‘the Socialist Left Wing of 1912.’ There was not enough of it left by 1917–1918 to be transformed into anything. It would be far truer to say: the Bolshevik Revolution created the Communist Left Wing and its program and its leadership ... By virtue of what we insist is ‘the fact’, we can understand the ‘peculiar development’ of American Communism which caused it to be transformed, more easily and more rapidly than any other Communist movement of importance, ‘from a new expression of American radicalism to the American appendage of a Russian revolutionary power.’ Draper’s first ‘thesis’ is wrong to the very extent [my emphasis now] that it makes such an understanding difficult.”

DRAPER FINDS A REFUTATION of the viewpoint that I do not hold in such data as he cites, as an example, from the American Labor Who’s Who of 1925. He adds up 28 Communist leaders who belonged to the pre-war radical movement. For whatever his case is worth, it can even be strengthened! Who’s Who gives 43 of the persons it lists as being members of the then Workers Party (the Communist party). From my own direct knowledge, there are no less than 61 of the persons listed in Who’s Who who were in the Communist movement. But what is interesting is precisely this fact: Out of the 61, there are not ten percent who were known as Left Wingers in the 1912 radical movement as a whole outside their most immediate circles; and of this half-dozen, only two or three could be regarded as any sort of spokesmen for the Left Wing, be it as members of the S.P., the I.W.W., or the S.L.P.; and not a single one of the nationally prominent and authoritative spokesmen for the Left Wingers of those days is included in the list. The same holds substantially for the “representative fifteen figures” in the Communist leadership who are named by Draper.

Since he seems to have missed my point, it is necessary to restate it here. It could not even occur to me to deny that among the authentic (or at least the more durable) of the Communist leadership that developed there were a significant number who had been in one or another Left Wing movement before the war, even going back to 1912. Most of those who were in these movements played an insignificant role in them. I would not spend time arguing that they “could not help but feel a kinship” in 1919 with the Left Wingers of 1912. I grant it (even though only more or less, for I regard Draper’s formulation on “violence” pretty loose and questionable). But in 1917, these individuals – the fifteen or the sixty-one – while they may have felt a kinship with the Left Wing of 1912, broad or narrow, did not constitute a Left Wing, much less a continuation of the 1912 Left Wing. With few – very few – exceptions, the future leaders of the Communist Left Wing and Communist Party were just so many isolated individuals, not a few of whom had quit the radical movement altogether or had not yet ever been in it. The old Socialist Left, as I wrote, had “nullified itself, came apart and lost its bearings before the Communist Left Wing came on the scene.” I see nothing in Draper’s facts that contradicts this view, and I do not believe better facts exist. On the other hand, my own view is confirmed by such an authoritative source as the editors of the Class Struggle in the statement they wrote for the first number of that review in 1917, dedicated to reassembling and reconstructing a Left Wing movement.

For these factual reasons, which could easily be multiplied and buttressed by others, I repeat that while “it is true, in the literal sense, that the Bolshevik Revolution ‘did not create a new [Left Wing] out of nothing,’ as Draper says ... it would be far truer to say” that the Bolshevik revolution created the Communist Left Wing. In other words: the Revolution did not “create” the Left Wingers – it found them here, as it did everywhere else – but it did create the Communist Left Wing.

And I repeat that because, in large part, these Left Wingers had so little in common with the old radical and Left Wing movements, played so little a role in them, had so little experience and knowledge, had so little authority and self-confidence – especially as compared with the Communist leaders of Germany, Poland, Italy, France and England who were a real continuation of the traditional Left Wing – we got that “peculiar development” of American Communism which “caused it to be transformed, more easily and more rapidly, than any other Communist movement of importance” into an abject object. It is just on this point that I find no comment in Draper’s letter.

A WORD NOW ON THE “CURIOUS contradiction” that Draper finds in my “case.” There is no logic in my conclusion that the 1919 split was a “heavy mistake” because I make the two movements so alien to each other as to “remove all the reasons against a split.” He concludes:

“The men who split from the Socialist Party felt a compulsion to do so, arising out of their past, that we cannot feel today. It is too late for regrets and history cannot be written that way.”

If I read these words rightly, they represent a kind of reasoning and conclusion which is a little disconcerting. I always thought it was the attribute of a school of historical writing of diminishing acceptability and one to which Draper’s competence does not permit him to belong.

If a good dentist, after years of practising sound tooth maintenance by systematic prophylaxis or curing or removing a diseased molar, suddenly decides for some reason or other (perhaps he has read a book presenting a radically novel theory on dentistry) that the best way to remedy a toothache is to split the skull of the patient, with the result that the patient is highly distressed and the dentist is subject to loss of license, incarceration and public obloquy – then I, who am friendly to the progress of scientific and effective dentistry, am to be gently chided for observing that the dentist made a “heavy mistake.” Why? First, because the skull-cleaver had been a dentist in the past and continued to call himself a dentist. Second, because he felt a compulsion to do what he did. I must either deny that he ever had anything in common with dentistry, or I must refrain from calling his novel means of treatment a “mistake.” Is it proper for me to point out that other dentists would be well advised not to act as he did, or that other patients should go elsewhere for treatment? Apparently not. It is too late for regrets, and history cannot be written that way.

It is indeed too late for regrets. But then, I am not interested in regrets, in lamentations, in breast-beating, in faultfinding and condemnation, or in re-wishing history. As I indicated in my article, I am interested in the history of the events as a socialist, as one concerned with the building of a healthy and effective movement today and tomorrow. I must try to overcome the objective difficulties for socialism by reducing my quota of mistakes to the minimum. It is not possible to insure the socialist movement against any and all mistakes to come. But it is possible to avoid those made in the past. For that, it is essential that the errors of the past be named, described, analyzed, clarified and understood. And when there are socialists who dream of repeating them, not in the name of a mistake but in the name of a virtue, it is all the more necessary to point out the mistakes, why they were mistakes, and why they must be rejected. If Draper looks upon this attitude as representing belated regrets, he is strictly within his legal rights. I look upon it differently. To me it is one of the indispensable means whereby a socialist movement finds the right road and avoids the wrong one.

When, however, Draper writes that the men who split the Socialist Party felt a compulsion to do so “arising out of their past,” I must challenge him. Those five words he will not find it possible to sustain, if by “their past” he refers to their past in the older Socialist Left Wing – and I cannot think of anything else he might be referring to.

In my article I pointed out that the Communist Left Wing held the theory that the socialist movement can allow into membership only those holding the Communist view, as defined at any given time by the party leadership, and must in advance and automatically exclude from membership all socialists not holding this view.

“It is this theory,” I wrote, “which was the most important distinguishing mark of the Communist Left Wing from its real beginning ... and distinguishes it and all its ideological derivatives to this day.”

I added parenthetically:

It is somewhat remarkable that this point does not appear to impinge upon Draper’s studies at all. The point appears to us to be of decisive significance. It challenges the contention that the Communist Left Wing was a continuation of the traditional Socialist Left, for such a theory was alien to it. The old one fought the Right Wing, but never thought that it could not live with it in the same party – quite the contrary ... [The Communist Left] stopped fighting Hillquit for leadership of the party, and began fighting for a party that would expel Hillquit, all his co-thinkers, and in consequence all their followers in the organization.

In the most furious days of the prewar fight between the Left and Right wings, I cannot think of a single Left Winger, not even the stoutest sympathizer with the I.W.W., who ever proposed to split the party, and form a new one from which all Right Wingers or “Centrists” would be excluded by program and statute. The impulsion to split the party did not arise in the Communist Left Wing out of its past in the old Socialist Left Wing.

I do not see where Draper has answered or even posed for himself the question: was there a single one of the elements in the similarity between the Communist Left Wing and the old Socialist Left which represented the “continuity,” that prompted the Communist Left Wing to form its own independent party, separate from the Socialist Party and aimed at wiping it out? Or was it not rather that feature of the Communist Left Wing which represented a radical break from the old Left Wing – the distinguishing feature that was impressed upon it by the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution – which impelled it to take the unique course that it followed?

I will not say that you can’t have it both ways. You can. But only if your answer to the first part of the question contains the strictest limitations, and the answer to the second part contains the overwhelming and enlightening emphasis that it demands. That is what I tried to do.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 11 January 2020