Gilded Age socialism — historically past?
Presented on a panel with Spencer Leonard, Pamela Nogales and Edward Remus at the 15th annual international convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society, held at the University of Chicago on March 30, 2023.
The great question regarding Marxism today is whether it is still current or rather belongs to the past: was Marxism in its highest moment confined to its contemporary period of the 2nd Industrial Revolution? — to the industrialization of the United States after the Civil War, which took place contemporaneously with that of the other countries where the 2nd Industrial Revolution was centered, Germany, Japan, Italy and Russia, where Marxism also, as in the U.S., had its greatest influence over the socialist movement.
By “Marxism” I mean, of course, not the theory of Karl Marx, but rather proletarian socialist politics in the historically Marxist mould, which combines social and political action, economic and political struggle, as opposed to other forms of socialism.
The question before us today (on this panel) is that of the historical Socialist Party of America, member of the 2nd or Socialist International, and led by Marxists such as Eugene Debs, its most prominent public political figure Download Infinite Stratos. Was the SPA a phenomenon specific to the era of the rapid industrialization of the U.S., the Gilded Age between the Civil War and World War I. For the SPA did not really survive the war and its aftermath, split as it was into the new Communist Party of the Third or Communist International, and repressed by the government both during the war and afterwards, in the notorious Palmer Raids.
I am going to deliberately place certain blinders on my consideration, namely confining my history to specifically American socialism. In so doing, I am going to have to ignore some glaring omissions — for instance leaving aside the Russian Revolution and the subsequent history of Soviet Communism and Stalinism. That being said:
The long legacy of the SPA is found today in such phenomena as First Amendment freedom of speech and association disputes contra public safety, as in the expression that “one cannot yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater,” which dates back to the suppression of SPA, as Debs’s vocal opposition to the war was the supposed threat to public safety not protected by the First Amendment, according to the Supreme Court. The SPA’s members had previously established the ACLU American Civil Liberties Union — as well as having established the NAACP National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The issue, then, is the relationship between the Socialist Party and Progressivism, for the latter eclipsed socialism in the United States, starting with Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912 and culminating in FDR’s election in 1932 and New Deal reforms implemented in the 1930s that flipped the U.S centos openjdk. capitalist political party system, and replaced the prior ruling Republican Party since the Civil War with the Democrats as the progressive liberal party. — This latter change was so profound that it was been regarded as a Third American Revolution — after the original and the Civil War.
It is significant that the SPA peaked in 1912 — when it so happens that the SPD in Germany also peaked — and Progressivism replaced it since then, namely, replacing the struggle for socialism with the reform of capitalism.
As I have written in “The end of Millennial Marxism,” historically, workers have engaged in new organizing efforts with each successive wave of capitalist development, motivated by transformed conditions created by new industries.
Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, for instance, had his formative experience in the 1894 Pullman Strike, which took place in the era of the rapid expansion of American railroads. We might observe that the wave of worker militancy and socialist organizing that made Marxism into a mass political movement took place around the world in the wake of the 1893 Panic Download The Maneuver Gundam nt. This led to the growth and development of the SPD in Germany and led to the birth of the Labour Party in the U.K. and the SPA in the United States. It also created the conditions for the formation of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party of Lenin.
In capitalism, great economic depressions — nowadays called “recessions” — have not brought an end to capitalism but rather to its reinvigoration. Capitalism reproduces itself through crises and resulting regeneration. Capitalism is reconstituted through its self-destruction. Working class movements are part of this process. The question, then, is how this could lead to socialism instead of rebooting capitalism.
What is peculiar is how, although capitalism has experienced countless business cycles of boom and bust in the last 200 years, only one era saw the emergence and blooming of Marxism as a mass movement in the advanced capitalist countries, namely, the historical period in question, that of the 2nd Industrial Revolution Gilded Age, or roughly the 50 years between 1870 and 1920, scarcely two generations in time.
These two generations, those of August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Georgi Plekhanov, and Eugene Debs, on the one hand, and Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, on the other, brought the Marxist movement into existence and experienced its historical crisis and downfall Cvx.
What we are concerned with here is the potential reproduction of such an achievement for our time — or at least at some point in the foreseeable future. Is there a future for Marxism?
So the question hinges on conditions for social mobilization and political radicalization: how to build a revolutionary movement? Unfortunately, many misconceptions abound regarding what that even means: what a revolutionary movement fundamentally is. These misconceptions have their basis in distortions of memory, how this history is misremembered, subject to a selective reduction in hindsight.
There are two questions: How did workers become radicalized? And, how did intellectuals become revolutionaries? For normally workers, like everyone else, are not especially radical under capitalism, and intellectuals serve not to change but rather to preserve the status quo. In both cases, we are concerned with workers and intellectuals becoming socialists: workers might be mobilized in capitalist politics; and intellectuals might contribute to change, but within the overall maintenance of capitalism 삼국지 10.
Capitalist politics plays a role in the periodic crises and waves of destruction and reproduction in capitalism. Is there a specifically socialist as opposed to capitalist way that workers and intellectuals might take part in these cycles of history?
In certain respects, the period 1870-1920 was the first and remains the only time that the subaltern have constituted a mass social and political movement, and not been merely the followers of those already dominant in society. Certainly, it was the period of its greatest extent in the advanced capitalist countries. What made this period so unique? Was it contingent and unrepeatable, or was there something of this time that continues in its essence today?
I’ve already mentioned the succession of progressive liberal capitalist politics over socialism at the end of this historical era. How did Progressivism succeed over socialism? Was socialism a variety of progressivism, but just an inferior or antiquated one?
I would offer that we still live with the consequences of the failure of Marxism, and with the continuing effects of how that failure was institutionalized in progressive capitalist policy and politics. Progressivism has provided a successful way of managing capitalism as a substitute for socialism — although lately it seems to have itself reached certain limits. Insofar as it has succeeded, economically, politically and socially, progressivism has made the struggle for socialism redundant or unnecessary, and considering the great effort required for the latter, undesirable, if not impossible. We have experienced now two waves of progressivism: those of the early and late 20th centuries, or, in terms more familiar to Platypus, of the 1930s Old Left and the 1960s New Left. In both cases, the struggle for socialism was replaced by capitalist reforms. Today, we are facing the limits of the progressive capitalist reforms instituted in the wake of the New Left, namely neoliberalism. We are also apparently facing the limits of the progressive capitalist reforms that were instituted in the era of the Old Left, in response to the Great Depression, the welfare state.
Intellectuals in our time — the Millennial Left — have harked back, first to the Old Left reforms and more recently to the New Left reforms, hoping to rejuvenate them. What has been forgotten by the Millennials is how those historical reforms were expressions of crises that were supposed to lead not to reconstituting capitalism but to socialism — at least in the minds of the original Old and New Leftists of the 20th century. In this way, socialism has been confused and mistaken for the reform of capitalism.
In this way, the dialectical relationship between capitalism and socialism has been misapprehended.
An example to help illustrate how this has functioned can be found in the history of the labor movement that is related but not identical with and at some distance from the history of socialist politics.
The American Federation of Labor or AFL was led by Samuel Gompers, who was a socialist educated in his perspective by Marxists. Eugene Debs had a famous conflict and contest with Gompers over the direction and character of the labor movement, with Gompers representing older craft-based trade unionism and Debs representing a newer perspective of industrial unionism. Eventually this led Debs with other socialists to found the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. Related to this was Gompers’s preference for supporting Progressivism in the Democratic Party instead of Debs’s Socialist Party. Later, after Debs and Gompers’s time, industrial unionism was accomplished by the Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO, with leading participation by socialists of a variety of ideological tendencies, including the Communist Party, which filled the new needs of labor organizing neglected by the old AFL. Eventually the AFL and CIO merged, and they are now a key constituency of the Democratic Party.
But the older craft trade unionism was radical for its time — it was led by socialists and even Marxists. As was industrial unionism. But both became not movements leading beyond capitalism but rather institutions within and part of capitalism.
There was an upsurge of labor militancy and organizing in the 1960s and 1970s, but it did not transform the existing labor unions nor produce a new form of unionization as might have been required by the new form of capitalism that emerged at that time, what we now call neoliberalism, namely, the more service-based and decentralized forms of work, at least as compared to the older.
What prevented the last major wave of new capitalism from producing new forms of labor organizing as well as new forms of socialist politics? One could say that the surviving legacy organizations and political parties stood in the way of meeting the challenge and achieving this.
What is remarkable about our time, then, is the test to which the existing political parties and civil social organizations are being subject in the latest crisis of capitalism. Unlike the 1960s and ’70s, the existing formations seem unable to meet the new needs, in however minimal ways.
This is what makes the Millennial capitulation to the Democratic Party so painful to witness: it was so unnecessary. But there was evidently a significant lack of imagination — filled, however spuriously, by the haunting ghosts of past Leftism. There was a sense of an old need being presented anew, but it was ill-defined. The lack of clarity was precisely over the meaning of socialism and Marxism for which the Millennials reached back: they became subject and beholden to the confusion and mistakes of their ancestors.
Perhaps it is inevitable that the past should be recalled and rehearsed. But the question is, which past, and how? It is specifically tragic that the past that was remembered was not the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and the 2nd International but rather the Great Depression-era Communist Party of Stalin and the Comintern and the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s. The Millennials could only imagine emancipation as expansion of the welfare state and of identity politics. They could only imagine more Democratic Party policies.
There are failures and there are failures: not all are equal in significance or poignancy in their tragedy. The 1930s and ’60s were much lesser failures than that of original historical Marxism. And worse still, the 1930s and ’60s are misremembered not as failures but as successes, not as tragedies but as heroism — forgetting that what makes heroes heroic is their tragedy.
The question is what results from the tragedy: what is the lesson to be learned in the cosmic story that is told? The story at this point is the history of capitalism. What is the lesson to be learned from the history of socialism? What was the purpose of that struggle? Was it to reform capitalism or to get beyond it? That is the question we are faced with today.
It is clear in hindsight that, unlike the original era of Marxism at the turn of the 20th century, both the 1930s and 1960s lacked dedication and belief in overcoming capitalism, at least not directly. Now that we are reaching the exhaustion of the capitalist reforms born from those times, we might be haunted rather from that earlier time which was so much more hopeful and organized, but which bequeathed us no significant reforms of capitalism — nothing to be confused with and mistaken for socialism. The old socialism accomplished nothing, not even to change capitalism. It is this that might be its redeeming virtue. | P