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The New International, Winter 1958

Theodore Draper

An Exchange of Views

A Reply to Max Shachtman


From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 1, Winter 1958, pp. 49–53.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


At the risk of seeming ungrateful for Max Shachtman’s kind words about my book, I think it may be best to answer his criticism of one point in order to avoid unnecessary confusion or misunderstanding. Though I have the highest respect for his devotion to his cause and the seriousness of his judgments, he has not convinced me, and we have agreed to have a friendly little discussion. We may not benefit from it, but innocent bystanders should!

Shachtman’s article covered a great deal of ground, past, present and future. I intend to restrict myself to a historical question only: Was there any relationship between the pre-1919 Left Wing and the American Communist movement?

Since the entire question revolves around a paragraph in my book, it is necessary for the reader to have it clearly in mind:

Some students have expressed the opinion that the American Communist movement was totally unrelated to the Socialist Left Wing of 1912 [at this point I have a note referring to two such views]. This view seems to minimize historical continuity. The Bolshevik revolution transformed the Left Wing, but it did not create a new one out of nothing. On the contrary, the leading roles were played by men and women who were prepared for them by past inclinations and experience. The Bolshevik revolution came to fulfill, not to destroy. The peculiar development of American Communism can be understood only in terms of the way in which the new Bolshevik influence impinged on American radical traditions. The interaction of the two was a long, painful, complex process. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that something new was born with the Bolshevik revolution. It was born precisely because the old Left Wing was famished for something new, different, more successful. But as with all newborn things, the flesh out of which it came was not new.

Shachtman interprets this paragraph as a “thesis,” though he does not drive this term too far. Actually, it is more the rejection of a thesis. If there is any thesis, it is on the other side. The paragraph starts out with a “denial,” as Shachtman himself put it in quoting the passage, of the thesis that “the American Communist movement was totally unrelated to the Socialist Left Wing of 1912.” I rejected this view as an extreme position of total dissociation. In effect, that is the only positive content of this paragraph. For the rest, I tried to trace the relationship in all its living complexity in the body of my book; I never attempted to reduce the whole development to a thesis that might oversimplify the entire story.

To repeat: there is a thesis of total negation represented by Shachtman and others. That I reject. All I urge is a sense of continuity from the Socialist Left Wing of 1912 and even farther back to the newly formed Communist movement of 1919.

Shachtman confines most of his attention to the Socialist Left Wing. The first sentence in my paragraph may perhaps be partly responsible for this emphasis. In a footnote, I cited two formulations which, it seemed to me, sought to separate completely the Socialist Left Wing of 1912 and the particular Left Wing that formed the Communist movement. Later, in the same paragraph, I went back to the more general expression of “the old Left Wing” because I wanted to make a broad point as well as a narrow one. As I understand 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. Now, it is perfectly conceivable that we might differ about the specific connection with the Socialist Left Wings of 1912 or 1917, and still agree that there is some connection between the Communists and previous Left Wing movements. I suspect that Shachtman is so eager to cut off the Communists 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.

There is another reason for not thinking of the problem in terms of this or that organization at a particular time. The pre-World War I Left Wing was a rather loose, amorphous radical community. A great many Left Wingers, like the hero of the Socialist Left Wing of 1912, Bill Haywood, had one foot in the I.W.W. and one foot in the Socialist Party, organizationally, intellectually or emotionally. There were sharp programmatic differences and organizational loyalties, but there was also a deep feeling that all radicals belonged in the same family, especially when faced with the common enemy. The members of the family were competitive rather than mutually destructive, and there existed a relatively high degree of mobility within the family.

For this reason, I should not give the Socialist Left Wing undue importance against the syndicalists or a hybrid of the two which was often the case. A Ruthenberg need not be given more emphasis than a Fraina or a Foster in the transition from the Left Wing to Communism.

By chance, however, the American Labor Who’s Who, edited by Solon De Leon in 1925, gives the previous affiliations of 28 representative Communist leaders of the period. They break down as follows: Socialist Party, 20; I.W.W., 1; Socialist Labor Party, 2; S.P.-I.W.W., 3; S.L.P.-I.W.W., 1; S.P.-I.W.W.-Syndicalist League, 1.

There is still, of course, the specific problem of the Socialist Left Wing of 1912. The issue in Article II, Section was that of revolutionary violence, to put it most briefly. The early Communists were violent believers in violence. They flaunted it in their programs and leaflets, and made it a fundamental dividing-line between real revolutionaries and traitorous reformists. Those who fought for revolutionary violence in 1919 could not help but feel a kinship with those who had fought for it in 1912.

I cannot follow Shachtman at all in his version of 1917. The Wallings were wrathful because they succeeded in disrupting nothing at all; they were completely isolated in 1917 (incidentally, should Rose Pastor Stokes belong in this list, since hers was a temporary defection?). Shachtman also seems to say that the anti-war St. Louis resolution disoriented and disassembled the Left Wing which had to be reoriented and reassembled thereafter. As I see it, the resolution itself did not disrupt the party or the Left Wing; rather, the crisis came in living up to it subsequently. The Left Wing represented an extreme anti-war position in theory and practice. The extreme antiwar position of the Left Wing created one of the first and strongest bonds of sympathy with the Bolshevik Revolution which took Russia out of the war and claimed to possess the social antidote to war itself.

Shachtman’s emphasis seems to be numerical, mine political. He is preoccupied with the question of how many of the old Left Wing went into the Communist movement. I look at the question in reverse. Among the early Communists were Ruthenberg, Fraina, Foster, Gitlow, Browder, Katterfeld, Reed, Bedacht, Cannon, Bloor, Dunne, Lovestone, Minor, Wagenknecht and Lindgren – let us limit ourselves to these representative fifteen figures. Every one, depending on age, had served a pre-Communist apprenticeship in some part of the Left Wing, though not necessarily in the Socialist Party or only temporarily in the Socialist Party. As I put it, “the leading roles were played by men and women who were prepared for them by past inclinations and experience” – and, I might have added, frustrations. The relationship to the Socialist Left Wing is not to be determined negatively by the fact that Walling & Co. supported the war, deserted the Left Wing and never became Communists; it should be determined positively by the fact that Ruthenberg & Co. opposed the war, carried on in the name of the Left Wing and became Communists.

But what about the local Russians? Here, the facts are not in dispute. The Russians and East-Europeans represented the overwhelming numerical majority of the American Communist movement in 1919–1921, after which they faded from the scene. The Russians were mainly “November Bolsheviks” who cashed in belatedly on the Left Wing tradition. But again, the real problem is more political than numerical.

The Russian preponderance was temporary. The American Communist movement was not so dependent on the Russians that it would not have come into existence without them. And it was not so dependent on them that it immediately collapsed after they had left. Does Shachtman believe that there would not have been an American Communist movement without the Russians? If so, I think he is profoundly mistaken. If not, how can he maintain that the Russians determined the very existence of the movement? The Ruthenbergs and Frainas could have started a party without the Russians, and almost did; the Russians could not have started an American party without the Ruthenbergs and Frainas, or they would have done so. In fact, one group of American Communists, led by Reed and Gitlow, formed the Communist Labor Party without and against the Russians. The Russians had no original ideas or program; they were merely the stand-ins or surrogates of the Russian Bolsheviks; and gradually everyone saw through the masquerade. Reed and Wolfe, not the Russians, wrote the Left Wing manifesto of February 1919; and Fraina, not the Russians, composed the Left Wing manifesto of June 1919. Later, the Finns replaced the Russians in even larger numbers, but the party’s history was not determined by them. The importance of the Americans was qualitative and enduring, that of the Russians quantitative and ephemeral.

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. At first, they even saw in Soviet Russia what they wanted to see at home – a peculiar American Left Wing hybrid of socialism and syndicalism. The ideological transition from the Left Wing to Communism took place within the Communist movement after it was formally organized.

If the Left Wing and the Communists were so unrelated, why did the early Communists organize in the name of the Left Wing? The answer is that the term had a long, honorable, radical lineage with which the early Communists identified themselves. The links in the chain of the Left Wing changed with changing times and issues. But one link was connected with another by a common bond of militant revolutionary extremism. The Socialist Left Wing of 1912 was one of the earlier links in this chain, and that is why I rejected formulations that seemed to cut it off from the Communist link. The Left Wing was always more than a particular aggregation of individuals; it was, above all, a revolutionary trend or tradition; individuals could go in and out of it without destroying its continuity.

Is there any doubt that the early Communists identified themselves with the Socialist Left Wings of 1912 and 1917 as their continuators and inheritors? The identification is all over the early literature. I will cite, for brevity’s sake, one example: After the founding convention of the Communist Party of America in September 1919, the newly elected International Secretary, Louis C. Fraina, wrote a report to the Executive Committee of the Communist International with an application for admission. In this report, he sketched the history of the Socialist Party, Socialist Labor Party and I.W.W. from the turn of the century. It should be noted that he grouped the three together and moved freely from one to the other in his effort to relate how the American Communist movement had originated. He made the Socialist convention of 1912 the “climax” of fundamental disputes in the entire movement; he recalled, with some exaggeration, that “thousands of militant proletarians seceded from the party in disgust at the rejection of revolutionary industrial unionism.” He devoted a paragraph to the anti-war issue of 1917, a part of which reads: “The St. Louis Convention of the [Socialist] Party, in April 1917 adopted a militant declaration against the war, forced upon a reluctant bureaucracy by the revolutionary membership. But this bureaucracy sabotaged the declaration.” [1] Historically, some of this may be open to question, but the whole paragraph clearly shows that the Communist Left Wing of 1919 viewed itself as emerging from the Socialist Left Wing of 1917. Fraina was not a member of the Socialist Party in 1912 or April 1917, but party affiliation was not the important thing to him or the others. Every Left Winger drew his inspiration from Haywood’s cause in 1912 and the anti-war fight in 1917–1918 whether he carried a red card or considered himself a revolutionary free-lance for whom no party was good enough.

Finally, a curious contradiction suggests that there is something radically wrong with Shachtman’s case.

He starts out by insisting that the Communist movement was primarily concocted by the Russians who “became the leaders of the Left Wing with whose past struggles and traditions they had had nothing whatever to do.” He ends up by deploring the split of the Socialist Party in 1919 as a “heavy mistake.”

But, on Shachtman’s premise, the split was natural and logical. A Communist movement based solely on the Russians with no roots in the Left Wing tradition had no basis for staying in the Socialist Party. By making the two movements so foreign to each other, so alien in their origins, Shachtman removes all the reasons against a split. Only if the Communist movement came out of the Socialist Left Wing is it possible to think of it going back or never leaving.

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.

* * *


1. Fraina’s report was published in Pamphlet No. 1 of the Communist Party of America, Manifesto and Program – Constitution – Report to the Communist International (Chicago 1919), pp. 26–40.

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