Understanding Socialism: Part Five
1871 to 1917. Revolutionary Divide.
Summary: This is technically the final installment of our series “Understanding Socialism,” where we cover the period between the Paris Commune in 1871 and onset of World War I, which precedes (and leads to) the Russian Revolution in 1917. We’re going to cover the Russian Revolution briefly in an epilogue that speaks to the divergence from classical Marxism from the Revolution forward, and where socialist movements stand today. This final essay brings new figures into the spotlight such as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg and crosses the pond to introduce the likes of Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs.
Remember that summer? The best one ever? The one after high school ended and before you and your friends set off for the next chapter of your lives? Waking up late to stay out even later. Cobbling together internships or summer jobs, working as few hours as possible to make just enough money to burn a hole in your pocket. Maybe college was in your future, or maybe you were ready to jump into the working world to get a head start on your laboring years.
Either way, September would be the dividing line between youth and adulthood. And so every waking moment was spent in search of a good time. In search of yourself. The best and worst countdown clock because it was the first time in your life that you felt the excitement of emancipation, the openness of possibilities, the freedom of relative irresponsibility. In a few short weeks, you would set off on a 50-year journey to build a life of encumbrances, all in service of shedding them someday so that you can recapture this exact moment.
Only this moment will prove impossible to recreate. Those encumbrances will never leave. They’ll only get bigger. They’ll harden like concrete on your feet, change your perspective and sour your outlook. And the further away from this moment you get, the more distant the memory becomes. Some of your friends won’t recall it at all. Others will have a different interpretation of what happened. Distance, loss, dashed expectations and unexpected debts will crowd out your memory and distill these weeks into a handful of faded photographs in your mind.
That incredible summer? That’s the Paris Commune.
A few short weeks where potential met reality, emancipation was real and the guardian class was unprepared to rein in the indomitable spirit of the working class. Free education. Dissolution of the professional military. Dismantling of the bureaucratic apparatus. Debt and outstanding rents settled. Free elections, not just of top officials, but all officials.
And then the violent blow of reality. The September to that glorious summer of your youth.
Like you, France would never be the same. In fact, the world would never be the same. Recall the lessons of Marx and Hegel. We, the people, shape the world, and in return it shapes us. Just like the United States will never be the same after Donald Trump, Europe’s radical intelligentsia were never the same after the Paris Commune. Not because similar models appeared all over the world, but because it changed the language of dissent.
It put the ruling class on high alert and hardened their resolve to suppress any like-minded idealism. It fueled the imaginations of revolutionary thinkers from Paris to Latin America. All of the ideas that had, until this point, only lived on the pages of radical pamphlets and journals suddenly, and surprisingly, came to life. No intellectual class planned the revolution. No organized political movement seized the levers of power. Just an organic power grab of ordinary citizens and workers who took control out of necessity and frustration.
Most of the radical intellectuals recognized the power of spontaneous revolution. And it would later give credence to the Marxian hope in the dictatorship of the proletariat and inform the widely held Marxist belief that power could be seized from below. But few would agree from this point forward on how best to recapture this moment. Like we’ve said before, every city, every country, every culture was different, and any attempt to recreate the revolutionary tendencies present in Paris during the time of the Commune would prove to be utterly elusive. As Marx and Engels famously wrote, “France is the land where, more than anywhere else, the historical class struggles were each time fought out to a decision.”
Thereafter, the radical intellectual class would splinter in all directions and give way to praxis that no longer resembled the theories they pretended to emulate. Nowhere was this more the case than Lenin’s Russia. As historian Hans-Josef Steinberg wrote, social democracy from this period until the First World War is “the history of the emancipation from theory in general.”
And so began the revolutionary divide.
Chapter Ten: Revolutionary Conditions.
Goldman. Kropotkin. Lenin. Debs. Kautsky. Luxemburg. Trotsky. These are the enduring names of the next chapter in our story. Intellectual heirs to Marx and Engels, John Stuart Mill, Mikhail Bakunin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; themselves the products of Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. Since the time of Plato, philosophers have been trying to organize society via economic and political means with class struggle often at the center of new thoughts and disciplines; each generation of thinker reflecting back the norms that exist in religious, economic and cultural structures and trying to explain the nature of power dynamics, determine models of fairness and equity and agitate for new ways of thinking about the natural world and humankind’s place in it.
And then along came capitalism. Capitalism was not fait accompli. But it was compelling. And brutal. And inspiring. And growing. Oh boy, was it growing.
Prior to it, the world was harsh, but simple relative to what capitalism introduced. There were essentially two classes: rulers and peasants. The ruling class controlled the wealth, the church, and the government. Aristocracy and rulers were hereditary. Artisans worked at the pleasure of noblemen. Education was reserved for male elites. Daily life among the working class consisted of subsistence farming and toil.
The Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, coincided with advances in agriculture and exploration that opened the minds of intellectuals who began to question the nature of power and wonder aloud if perhaps there was a better way to organize society. Pure economic capitalism, the formation of market economies; both created the possibility for a more just and open society and the possibility for the ruling class to prevent this from ever happening.
Our exercise in understanding socialism only extends thus far to the European experience, though we’re going to broaden our scope to include the United States. It should be reiterated that we’re excluding developments in other parts of the world that we’ll tackle at later dates. But insofar as Europe was the nucleus of classic Marxist thought, we should start once again by evaluating broader circumstances in different parts of Europe.
One of the central tenets of Marxism is that it’s designed to be an international movement. This is a critical concept to understand, as the rise of nationalism would pose one of the biggest obstacles to the spread of socialism. And we get a good sense of this when we look at how movements were organized in different regions that differed due to cultural differences, economic circumstances, the maturity of labor movements, strength of the church and other institutions of power, and so on.
So let’s take a brief tour around Europe to examine the difference between labor and socialist movements in respective countries.
The United Kingdom
For example, during this period, Britain was undergoing enormous change. Imperial exploits in India were underway during this period, as were tensions with Ireland. The labor movement in urban parts of Ireland was more radical and defiant than that of England, and the Irish peasantry and farmers were agitating against the British government for control of their land. The mid-century famines were fresh and painful, and the agrarian working class was keen to change their circumstances. But the British working class was far less ideological and more interested in participatory politics and reform.
Of particular note was a group called the Fabians. As famed 20th Century economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote, “The Fabians emerged in 1883, and remained for the whole of our period a small group of bourgeois intellectuals. They hailed from Benthan and Mill and carried on their tradition.”
Like other movements at this time, the socialist movement was developing apart from the labor movement, which was obviously anathema to Marxist ideology. This split, or misalignment between labor and the socialist movement, was only one phenomenon that prevented the rise of Marxism. Compared to other European countries, the UK was relatively stable, both economically and politically. It had a robust industrial economy, a mature democracy, and it was culturally isolated as an island compared to the open borders and interconnected cultures in central Europe. It had also long before gone through the pain of separating church and state and reducing the role of the monarchy in governance. As such, it was less prone to class ruptures and political crises at this time.
Thus, the socialists in the UK were of a different character. Less revolutionary, more tactical. More polite, if you will. Schumpeter refers to them as reformers who “greatly disliked the phraseology of class war and revolution.” Instead, he argued:
“Formulation and organization of existing opinion were all that was needed in order to turn possibilities into articulate policy, and this organizing formulation the Fabians provided in a most workmanlike manner...They were genuine socialists because they aimed at helping in a fundamental reconstruction of society which in the end was to make economic care a public affair.”
Contrast the British socialist experience with the movement in Germany, and we find few parallels in terms of tactics and circumstances. In many ways, Germany was the heart of the socialist movement. We don’t necessarily think of it that way today because it was ultimately Russia where the revolution took hold. But Germany is where several prominent Marxist intellectuals gathered during this period to build on the ideas of Marx and plot a path forward for international socialism.
Germany was home to the largest and most politically active socialist party in the world called the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as the German acronym translates differently. The SPD was dominated by the great theorist Karl Kautsky, who was probably the most influential figure in the Marxist movement. It’s significant that the party developed during this period on the heels of German unification and the rise of nationalism. So, from the start of this period, there exists a tension between the more nationalistic tendencies of Germany, which would rear its ugly head twice in the next century, and the more internationalist sentiments of the SPD.
Where the British and German experiences somewhat align is in the maturity of the political apparatuses and the rise of a bureaucratic class of socialists. Whereas this class would toil quietly within the British system, however, the SPD played a prominent role in creating German policy. It’s why several Marxists pinned their hopes on Germany, not Russia, as the most obvious and natural place for classical Marxism—the more evolutionary form of socialism as successor to capitalism—to take hold.
Many consider it a historical curiosity that Bismarck allowed for radical fringe groups to exist, as they would ultimately take shape into formal parties that participated in the system. But many Marxists and, most notably the Russian revolutionaries of the time, would begin to sour on the reformist movement in the SPD, referring to them in literature as “opportunists.” But for the better part of the late 19th Century, Kautsky was the leading Marxist figure in Europe.
As the Jacobin writes:
“Kautsky’s greatest pre-war political limitation was that he, like all other Marxists of the era, failed to fully predict, or prepare for, the rise of this bureaucracy. As was the case with Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin, he incorrectly assumed that an upsurge in class struggle would either sweep the ‘opportunist leaders’ aside or force them to return to a class struggle stance. As such, neither he nor Luxemburg built an organized Marxist tendency inside the SPD that could effectively challenge for leadership.”
It’s important to note that this article, which aligns with the sentiments of many more mainstream Marxists still today, is a defense of Kautsky’s beliefs.
“History has confirmed Kautsky’s predictions. Not only has there never been a victorious insurrectionary socialist movement under a capitalist democracy, but only a tiny minority of workers have ever even nominally supported the idea of an insurrection.”
This foreshadows the ultimate split among German and Russian Marxist revolutionaries and remains a point of contention to this day. This context is crucial as we drive closer to the Russian Revolution, as well.
Now, contrast the maturity of the SPD with what was happening in France, home of multiple revolutions, a radical working class, the birthplace of Proudhon’s anarchism and so much more. France begins to develop in a more anarchical fashion. It’s still a time of tremendous upheaval in France. The citizenry was still smarting from the loss to Germany and the heavy tax Germany would extract as a result. Trade unions developed quickly throughout France, as opposed to industrial unions that many Marxists hoped for. Acts of terrorism were commonplace in urban environments. These were reflections of Proudhon’s decentralized beliefs and the inherent revolutionary strain within French culture.
However, gradually, a professional socialist political class would emerge late in the 19th century and begin to coalesce, though it too would contain multiple strains of socialist and anarcho-syndicalist leaders who fought over tactics and strategy. Perhaps the most significant chapter in French history around this time, however, was the Dreyfus Affair. While not an event that can be tied to socialist theory, it greatly divided the French people and would become a longstanding cultural and political touchstone that echoed in all corners of French society.
Here’s an excerpt from Adam Gopnik’s piece in the New Yorker:
“On a January day in Paris, in 1895, a ceremony was enacted in the courtyard of the École Militaire, on the Champ-de-Mars, that still shocks the mind and conscience to contemplate: Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish artillery officer and family man, convicted of treason days earlier in a rushed court-martial, was publicly degraded before a gawking crowd. His insignia medals were stripped from him, his sword was broken over the knee of the degrader, and he was marched around the grounds in his ruined uniform to be jeered and spat at, while piteously declaring his innocence and his love of France above cries of ‘Jew’ and ‘Judas!’”
Now, the end of the story, where Dreyfus is concerned, is a happy one, as he is ultimately vindicated and goes on to lead a long and productive life. But the reason this moment—actually, it dragged on for years before he was cleared in the courts—was vital to the story of France at the turn of the century because it drew on several themes and tensions that existed at the time.
One of the democratizing factors and sources of pride among the French people was the creation of a more civil and representative military. Rather than being a weapon of the elite, it was transformed into a body designed to protect the people. And it was welcoming to all who wished to serve, which is why it was notable that such a respected Jewish member of the middle classes would be subjected to such hatred and raw anti-Semitism. More germain to our story is that it was French liberals and socialists who fought tirelessly on behalf of Dreyfus and against the last vestiges of Catholic prejudice.
Anti-Semitism would of course only continue to increase over the course of several decades, leading to the mass exodus of eastern European Jews at the turn of the century through the First Great War, and then again in the Holocaust. Despite the existence of Anti-Semitic attitudes among earlier radicals such as Bakunin and Proudhon, it was more natural for European Jews to align with socialist thought, though from a decidedly secular standpoint. Increasingly, however, Jewish socialists would find themselves on the margins of political action and navigate more to the anarchist wing of the leftist movements. I think it’s fair to say that it’s no accident of history that the Jewish revolutionaries of the time, such as Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, wound up dead or in exile rather than occupying a seat at the table.
This was surely the case as we look further south toward Spain, where the Catholic church continued to play a prominent role in governance and society. It was also home to radical trade unions that partook in direct actions more than some of their northern counterparts. The strength of trade unions and the dominance of the Church laid a different kind of foundation than some of the other nations where socialist concepts took shape more naturally in the political realm. Thus, Spain developed more in the tradition of Bakunin-style anarchism rather than any classic expression of Marxism.
Ah, mother Russia. The backwards peasantry and enormous land mass posed challenges for the Marxists intellectuals of the time. Kropotkin, Bakunin, Lenin, Trotsky and Goldman were all of Russian descent. Rosa Luxemburg was from Poland, but grew up under Tsarist Russia rule. This was really the foundation of the Marxists and anarchist intellectual class, though it was widely believed that the circumstances in Russia were too immature to foment a true Marxist revolution. We’re going to spend more time in Russia in our epilogue because the Russian Revolution is so central to the development of communism and so many of the shibboleths that persist in present times.
But in terms of the general conditions of the time, there are a few key developments that help us contextualize where Russia was during this revolutionary period. Geopolitical and economic concerns dominated Russia in the late 1800s more than the formation of a socialist movement, though this was taking root as well. The more significant preoccupation was with an increasingly militant and unified Germany.
Social structures were breaking down at the same time as rapid industrialization was taking hold, and the monarchy was also coming apart. In 1881 alone, Russia entered into an alliance with France in a show of force against Germany. Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, an event blamed falsely on Russian Jews, which in turn led to widespread pogroms and the beginning of a mass exodus of Russian Jews that would total more than two million over the next few years.
The important context for our story is that Russia was still very much a feudal society under monarchical rule and enormously disparate conditions between urban and rural areas. In all important ways, to Marxist thinking at least, Russia lagged so far behind its contemporaries that even the inspired class of radical revolutionaries that it produced believed that the fertile ground for socialism lay elsewhere.
Chapter Eleven: Revolutionary Divide.
So, we can see that conditions differed among the European nations in the late nineteenth century. The economies of Europe were developing in fits and starts, still punctuated by down cycles, periodic famines and labor uprisings. Political changes were also in the wind, and alliances were shifting. Anti-Semitism was on the rise alongside hyper nationalistic tendencies that were beginning to emerge in response to German unification. But there was one consistent theme among all nations: the steady march toward capitalism.
Every passing decade that capitalism took hold, it strengthened the resolve of the bourgeoisie as well as its ability to control the political system. End of monarchy means democratic institutions are now for the taking. Wage labor means the laboring class is both agitating for change, but also reliant on wage earnings and becoming less and less self-sufficient. So, while capitalism was creating a new form of wage slavery and discontent during recessions and depressions, significant portions of the population were moving into the petit bourgeoisie and upper classes. And they were determined to hold onto this newfound status.
So, the great socialist intellectuals of the time were presented with several challenges. First, capitalism was gaining momentum and rapidly transforming the world economy. Power dynamics were shifting as well, and the old monarchical structures were giving way to democratic rule. To most, that signifies progress; but to Marxists, it was a threat because the political class wasn’t hereditary or steeped in tradition. Nor was it tied to the church. The political class was tied to nationalism and state control.
Then there was the matter of the working class. Labor movements had already been developing prior to Marxist theory penetrating class consciousness. And, within the labor movement, class distinctions were also developing. Trade, or “craft” unions, organized by discipline and sectors, were dominant, and they were becoming increasingly political in their advocacy for concepts like eight-hour workdays, weekends off, anti-child labor laws and the like.
Again, these seem like positive developments, but to Marxists who viewed history through the lens of class struggle, this presented a dilemma as trade unions were leaving the so-called unskilled, or industrial laborers behind. It was believed, and still is by most Marxists, that in order for a socialist revolution to take hold, the working class must be aligned in all ways against the bourgeoisie.
There’s also the matter of the battles the trade unions fought. It’s interesting to understand the labor view of victory as compared to the anarchist or pure Marxist view. Labor would view the eight-hour work week, abolition of child labor, safe working conditions, minimum wage and collective bargaining as complete victories. Whereas the radical left viewed these as capitulations to the capitalist system, themselves acknowledgement of the power dynamic between the two classes. This is so fundamental to understanding a purely Marxist critique of the labor movement.
Now, the two concepts that unite socialists, the very foundation of Marxists beliefs in fact, are that private property should be abolished and the working class must form an international bond. “Socialism in one country,” as Stalin would later promote, was a fallacy. A socialist state alone among a sea of capitalist economies would never work. So, on this, nearly all theorists were in agreement. But what to do about the rise of capitalism with respect to these tenets led to a fracture among the intellectual class. It’s here we see the real split between the anarchist and Marxist movements.
Before we dig into the specifics of this divide, let’s zoom out again to look at the competing narratives:
- Russia is still monarchical, backward and just starting on the path to industrialization.
- Germany is unified, militant and maturing politically, which in and of itself was feeding into nationalist sentiment.
- The UK was doing its own thing taking a more bureaucratic and reform-minded approach to socialization and trying to expand its power through imperial measures.
- France is rife with bombings and terrorism.
- Trade unions are exploding throughout Europe, both pushing back against the capitalist system while leaving unskilled workers behind; all the while courting the political class. And the Dreyfus Affair in France and pogroms in Russia signified an unsettling shift in sentiment among the masses against the Jewish European population.
When you zoom out like this, one begins to understand how the 20th century unfolded the way it did.
Because consensus on principles and a platform are crucial to any movement, the revolutionaries of the time recognized that a new organization was required if socialists were to make any headway against these conditions and an increasingly capitalist society. Thus, in 1889—five years after Marx’s passing— a new international organization was formed called the Second International* to unite the disparate socialist movements throughout Europe, with the SPD playing the most prominent role as the biggest organized socialist party in the world at the time.
The goal of the Second International was to partner with trade unions and move them more toward an industrial union mindset, to widen their scope in terms of membership and internationalism, while supporting local actions.
The First and Second Internationals are important bodies because they leave a trail of documents that give us access to developing wisdom. And in many ways, the profound disagreements found in the minutes of the meetings and among the radicals that gathered from all over the world offer even more insight than where they were aligned. Recall that it was during the First International that we first saw the split between Bakunin and Marx, cleavage that would widen and deepen as the world hurtled toward the Great War.
To better understand the evolution of thought that both guided and divided leftists during the Second International, let’s get to know the protagonists.
*Marxist historians note that an earlier attempt to organize a Second International occurred in 1880. Though the delegates disbanded, their workpapers and socialist manifesto served as a foundation for a reconstituted Second International formally convened in 1889.
Karl Kautsky reigned supreme in the German SPD Party and as ranking member of the Second International. He was greatly admired by nearly all the leading socialist and even anarchist thinkers of the time.
A native of Prague who was educated at the University of Vienna, Kautsky was influenced as a student by the work of Marx and Engels. And, in fact, he would go on to become a close friend of the latter during his time in London. While he would remain a devotee of Marx and Engels, Kautsky wasn’t afraid to construct his own theories of socialist evolution, pointing out that wage growth among the working class brought many within it closer to the bourgeoisie, thereby exacerbating tensions between the lower and upper classes and negating the revolutionary spirit among wage earners that Marx believed would create the conditions for socialism.
Thus began Kautsky’s steady march toward centrism. While he retained a position of great influence in both the Second International and within the SPD, his pragmatism would often set him at odds with both entrenched bureaucrats and more radical members of the leftist movements in Germany. He rejected any entreaties on the left to engage in violence, favoring a more political and policy-driven solution to building coalitions with the SPD. But his refusal to side with the SPD over its support of war credits later put him at odds with the party he helped build. As the Jacobin writes:
“Virtually no influential political current in Germany or beyond sought to implement Kautsky’s political prescriptions. Despite his steady turn to the center after 1909, Kautsky’s entreaties were ignored by the bureaucratized officialdom of the German Social Democratic Party throughout the revolution. Germany’s radicals, on the other hand, rejected their former mentor for having abandoned his long-standing commitment to revolutionary class politics.”
Essentially, in playing the middle, Kautsky alienated himself from the hawkish bureaucrats who pushed Germany toward the war and the radical left that was determined to foment revolution despite the fractures among the laboring class. Through a current lens, Kautsky would be considered a radical leftist. But at the time, Kautsky looked increasingly out of step with more radical intellectuals such as Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin. Though he returned to Vienna and the SPD after World War One, he would end up fleeing Austria during the German occupation in 1938, the year he died.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating, brilliant and bold minds to emerge during this time was Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg was born in Poland during the tsarist rule under Russia and was an agitator from day one. Brilliant, brash and rebellious, she found herself at odds with authorities in school and joined the socialist movement in Poland during her teenage years. Thus began a life on the run and shouting truth to power.
First stop on the Luxemburg express was Zurich, where she aligned with other Marxist ideologues and began developing her own economic theories based upon the rise of nationalism. She was one of the first theorists to connect imperialism to capitalism’s need to exploit labor and posit the theory that hyper nationalism would severely impede, if not stamp out, any hopes of an internationalist labor movement. Furthermore, she was equally critical of state-sponsored capitalism and state-sponsored socialism. In her mind, they were two sides of the same coin that excluded the working class from accessing surplus capital.
Like so many of our protagonists, Luxemburg would spend much of her life on the run from government authorities, and sometimes she was imprisoned. Her philosophy was a bold defense of revolutionary Marxism. She favored international strikes. Spoke out against the liberalization of trade unions, feminism and socialism. But she was as important to the field of economics as she was to revolutionary Marxism. In fact she was already known widely as “Bloody Rosa” for her revolutionary provocations when she published an enduring work called “The Accumulation of Capital” in 1913, which became a philosophical cornerstone of the Second International.
Her economic work deserves another minute here. While her radical activities would ultimately get her killed, there were several years when she was recognized as a leading theorist within the Marxist movement and inspired countless prominent figures from members of the SPD to the Bolsheviks. On economic matters, her profound theory regarding nationalism and the exchange value of labor helped refute one of Marx’s primary claims. Specifically, in Marx’s view, if labor was the central ingredient in creating the exchange value of a commodity, then displacement of workers due to industrialization would therefore reduce profitability for owners. In this, he felt the workers possessed more control than they realized.
But Luxemburg better understood the ability of capitalism to exploit external markets for cheap labor and sometimes even cheaper goods. Thus, while capitalism could allow for skilled laborers to move up the ladder, it could just as easily separate the lumpenproletariat from other higher wage laborers and divide the working class. Furthermore, she extrapolated the danger posed by the growth of trade unions and nationalism, both factors that would divide the classes along both wage slavery lines and geographic borders.
Like the work of so many other great theorists, we take Luxemburg’s contributions for granted. Because she was right. When you look closely, she was one of the first people to offer a critique of globalization and to predict that it would prevent the working class of the world to unite as Marx had hoped.
The last few years of Luxemburg’s life are illustrative of the divide on the left that would ultimately fracture beyond repair. Luxemburg had collaborated closely with all the great leftists of the day. She was particularly close with Lenin, despite her disappointment at the nature of authoritarian control he, Stalin and Trotsky exerted in the early stages post Russian Revolution. Despite her criticism, she and Lenin vehemently opposed any war efforts in Europe. In fact, Lenin was forced into exile, while Luxemburg was imprisoned for standing against the German government in 1914. She would celebrate the Russian Revolution from a prison cell. Upon her release, she immediately continued speaking out against the war and the bureaucratic behavior of the SPD.
What’s interesting about Luxemburg is how closely she continued to align with classical Marxism and how well she understood the politics on the ground and among the people. While no doubt a revolutionary figure, her understanding of working class hearts and minds actually led her to take a position against the far left in 1919. The Russian Revolution had inspired radicals in Germany, most notably Berlin, to push for a German revolution. Luxemburg understood, as did Lenin and Trotsky, however, that Berlin was a bubble and this sentiment was not shared throughout Germany. So, she advocated for a complete takeover of the parliamentary system in the upcoming elections to place leftists in all positions of elected power. She wanted to break the bureaucracy by taking it over because she believed any uprising would ultimately fail.
She was outvoted in the Communist Party, and German revolutionaries instead took to the streets. They were brutally and quickly put down by far right German officers. And, though she had personally pushed to take over government positions through elections and cautioned against revolt, Luxemburg and her close associate Karl Liebknecht were discovered in a hiding place and beaten to death; her body was discarded into the Landwehr Canal.
The Anarchists: Goldman and Kropotkin
There are so many important figures that emerged during this time that demonstrate the evolution of Marxist thinking, but I want to veer off for a moment to briefly discuss two activists that best define the anarchist splinter movement. Much in the spirit of Proudhon and Bakunin, Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin symbolize the divergence in strategy and beliefs of the far left movements.
Emma Goldman is also our first real bridge to the United States. Though born in Lithuania in 1869, Goldman was raised mostly in Rochester, New York and she has one of the more fascinating life stories one could imagine, considering she is largely lost to history. So much so that the great historian Howard Zinn was astonished to learn of her later in his life and committed himself to teaching her story. He even wrote a play about her. He describes Goldman as a, “free spirit, bold, speaking out against all authority, unafraid, and…living her life, as she wanted to live it, not as the rules and regulations and authorities were telling her how to live it.”
How radical and influential was Emma Goldman during her lifetime? Well, J. Edgar Hoover called her “one of the most dangerous women in America” and deported her in 1919.
Perhaps the most formative event, similar to Eugene Debs, was the execution of radicals blamed for the Haymarket uprising. More on that later. But it galvanized Goldman in a way that few were prepared to dedicate themselves. Goldman consumed anarchist literature and traveled the country giving fiery speeches to thousands of people. She became a nurse overseas and would practice for the remainder of her life with such deep compassion she even offered to treat President McKinley when he was shot by a fellow anarchist. Obviously, no one took her up on this, and it would have been difficult since she was imprisoned at the time.
Throughout her life, Goldman would move between Europe and the United States and practice her trade (sometimes anonymously on people who would rather kill her than be treated by her).
I wanted to surface Goldman for a couple of reasons. One, because she was a high profile female leader in the United States who gained an international reputation as an influential theorist and activist. And, because she offers some of the clearest ideas of anarchism that help define the split between classical Marxism and the anarcho-syndicalist movement to the left of it. Here’s Goldman in her own words:
“Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination. Anarchism is therefore the teacher of the unity of life; not merely in nature, but in man. There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one, the receptacle of a precious life essence; the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong; the individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence—that I, the individual—pure and strong.”
What I find fascinating about the anarchist movement is that it recognizes all the practical aspects and challenges of the Marxist movement, the evils of capitalism and the danger of bureaucracy. But it breaks down artificial constructs to get to the root of human nature, materialism and social orders and creates a system based upon more fundamental aspects of the human condition.
It’s extremely clear that the cheap knockoff of anarchist thinking in modern times is the libertarian movement. But libertarians have appended themselves to capitalist constructs in ways that would have offended the likes of Goldman.
I have to confess that I often found myself wondering why people like Goldman, Kropotkin and Bakunin were so far afield of the dominant Marxists of their day, including Marx himself. One of the clearest pictures that helped me understand the fundamental difference between them is in the vast literature related to the criminal justice system.
In a compendium of anarchist essays regarding criminology curated by Anthony Nocella, Mark Seis and Jeff Shantz, they offer a glimpse into the split:
“The overwhelming majority of crimes committed under state capitalism are property related crimes committed by those who are marginalized from the means of production, not to mention the colossal crimes committed by those who own the means of production.”
In many ways, this reflects a core belief of Marxism. The campaign against private property is fundamental to the Marxist critique of capitalism, but mostly to the extent that it extends to the means of production. This is where anarchist thinking goes even deeper to suggest that not only is private property a destructive concept, but any system of justice built upon the very notion of protecting property must therefore be destructive and unjust. Now take it a step further as the authors again note:
“Another major unquestioned assumption of criminology and criminal justice is that punishment through the deprivation of liberty equals justice.”
To the anarchist, if state sponsored systems, whether socialist or capitalist, are built upon the concept of property, regardless of who’s in control of it, then the justice system that protects it is built upon a lie. This means that property belongs to us all and is therefore set free. A kind of material liberty. Again, you can begin to see the roots of modern libertarianism here.
Well, if all these suppositions are true, then anarchists also denounce the deprivation of liberty as punishment for liberating property. Deprivation of liberty is perhaps the greatest sin in the anarchist playbook, which is hardly surprising considering so many of them wound up behind bars.
To the anarchist, all such constructs of jurisprudence and economics are artificial, and therefore unnatural. Their primary critique of evolving socialist praxis, whether the bureaucratic form practiced by the SPD or the state sponsored apparatus of the Bolsheviks later on, is elucidated in these words from Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin:
“Collectivists begin by proclaiming a revolutionary principle—the abolition of private property—then they deny it no sooner than proclaimed by upholding an organization of production and consumption which originated in private property.”
Kropotkin was a mentor and hero to many, including Emma Goldman, who considered him the “godfather of anarchism.” Despite noble Russian origins and a respected career in geology, Kropotkin would lead a life of activism and philosophy, building on the works of Marx, Bakunin, Proudhon, Darwin and countless others whose work he consumed voraciously. Though he cut a fatherly and scholarly figure, Kropotkin was as radical as any of his contemporaries and would find himself in prison and exile just as frequently. Throughout his life, he lived in Russia, France, England, the United States and eventually found himself back in Russia, where he was able to witness the Russian Revolution and heartily criticize what became of it.
Kropotkin looked down upon the evolution of socialist theory and the founding intellectuals Fourier, Owen and Saint-Simon saying, “The three great founders of Socialism… looked upon it as a new revelation, and upon themselves as the founders of a new religion. Socialism had to be a religion, and they had to regulate its march, as the heads of a new church.”
In what is considered his most influential and perhaps most poetic publication, The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin wrote:
“Anarchism emerges and develops within and in response and opposition to state managed industrial capitalism’s associated harms ranging from enclosures, to dispossessions, to displacements, to mass murder and genocide, to slavery and exploitation.”
Pulling on Historical Threads
Before we move to the next chapter to talk about the surging labor and socialist movements in the United States during this period, I want to explain why I’ve spent so much time talking about key figures in movements adjacent to socialism. I find it useful to analyze where movements break apart. These fractures tend to echo over time, and I think there’s a lot we can apply to the liberal and leftist movements of today.
It’s fairly clear in retrospect that capitalism quickly ate at the roots of what nearly every leftist held as foundational. From the bureaucratic Fabians to the cast of exiled anarchists, there was an understanding that the working class should own, or control, the means of production and that movements must be organic and of the masses.
Capitalism gutted these foundational tenets by constructing legal and economic systems and protections around the concept of private property. Furthermore, it created hyper competition between industrial centers of influence that relied on the kind of protectionism that could only be afforded by nationalism. By pitting German workers against Russian workers and stoking tensions along nationalistic lines, the capitalist class was able to coerce members of the working class into a protectionist mindset. Thus, when national pride was attacked, as in the case of Germany’s punitive attitude toward the French after 1870, the bourgeoisie was able to partner with governments to militarize.
It’s why the most successful movements were drawn upon national lines and found mostly in union organizing, with the strike being the most potent weapon of dissent. Bureaucratic socialists recognized the strength of organized labor and the potential power it wielded against structures of power. But because labor movements were organized by sectors and trades and along national lines, they were unable to coalesce across borders and industries to generate mass mobilization along class lines.
These were the circumstances our theorists and activists were contending with. More than a century later, we’re having the same discussion, except there is much less consensus among activists and capitalism has become entrenched in nearly every country across the globe. Markets have matured. Supply chains have been established. Trade alliances have been formed. A global financial system has been finely tuned to manage transactions at every level. Any separation between the bourgeoisie and political power has been eliminated, and any talk of mass mobilization that crosses national boundaries has been long forgotten.
And yet, we continue to twist ourselves in knots on the left in particular and argue over whether it’s better to replace the roof of the house with solar panels and use non-toxic cleaning supplies or burn the barn to get to the nails. Schumpeter examined this tension in the past by comparing the Fabians to classical Marxism:
“Thus, though it might be said with truth that, in the matter of class war as in others, Fabianism is the very opposite of Marxism, it might also be held that the Fabians were in a sense better Marxists than Marx was himself. To concentrate on the problems that are within practical politics, to move in step with the evolution of things social, and to let the ultimate goal take care of itself is really more in accord with Marx’s fundamental doctrine than the revolutionary ideology he himself grafted upon it. To have no illusions about an imminent catastrophe of capitalism, to realize that socialization is a slow process which tends to transform the attitudes of all classes of society, even spells superiority in fundamental doctrine.”
Echoes of this argument can be found in the discussions surrounding Trump versus Biden, 2.0. Is it better to elect a past president who promises to destroy the foundation of democracy so we can break the system that suppresses us or re-elect a sitting president who personifies incrementalism?
Social Democrats in the United States, essentially the Bernie wing of the left, will point to the Scandinavian model as an example of tangible incrementalism. But Schumpeter had an answer for that as well seventy years ago, in speaking of Sweden:
“Like her art, her science, her politics, her social institutions and much besides, her socialism and her socialists owe their distinction not to any peculiar features of principle or intention, but to the stuff the Swedish nation is made of and to its exceptionally well-balanced social structure. That is why it is so absurd for other nations to try to copy Swedish examples; the only effective way of doing so would be to import the Swedes and to put them in charge.”
Essentially, he’s saying we can’t handle a smooth transition to a Scandinavian model because we’re not built that way. It’s just not in our DNA. Not to mention the institutional barriers we’ve constructed along the way that have all been in support of capitalism. He uses a phrase that I absolutely love to describe this. He calls it the “performance of the bureaucracy.”
Anywhere the bureaucracy has done its job well, to protect and uphold the status quo, it becomes increasingly difficult to reform let alone tear down. By referring to it as a “performance,” he brings bureaucrats to life and makes them purposeful rather than mindless and faceless. There’s a wonderful little film that came out in 2022 called Living that captures this aesthetic perfectly. Those faceless bureaucrats hold tremendous power.
Chapter Twelve: The Red Special. Socialism, U.S. Style.
Our audience is probably pretty familiar with the final protagonist of this essay. The uninitiated are going to hear a lot about him over the next year because a certain GOP candidate might be running for president from prison. And it won’t be unprecedented.
After the Civil War in the United States, we went on the most uninspiring run of presidents in the republic’s brief history. Impeached Johnson, corrupt Grant, lackluster Hayes, two month Garfield, banal Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison and Cleveland again. And McKinley, who was gunned down by an anarchist. Reconstruction started, then failed. Mass urban migration spurred by emancipation and reckless industrialization. Deep and frequent economic calamity. Riots. Protests. You name it, we went through it.
In terms of mass social movements and populism, there was one man who stood quietly apart from all the rest. A man so credible, honest and moral that he would slowly imprint onto the consciousness of the working class and come to embody the heart and spirit of both the industrial labor movement and the burgeoning socialist party in America.
Eugene V. Debs was born into a relatively prosperous family in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855. From an early age, Debs proved to be a hard working man of the people, forging a lifelong bond with rail workers beginning at the age of 14 when he dropped out of high school to clean engine grease from rail cars. Over the years, Debs would perform several different functions as a laborer on the railroads, and the rail system would become his public education. While he was barely educated in a formal sense, Debs was a voracious reader and a tireless raconteur who enjoyed the company of working folks, poets, intellectuals, politicians and union leaders alike. Even his most fervent detractors throughout his life, his political adversaries, the judges who sentenced him and his jailers held an enduring respect for the polite and gregarious man from Terre Haute.
Though he was only a young boy at the time, the first formative event of Debs’ life was the execution of radical abolitionist John Brown for his attack on Harpers Ferry. Something about Brown’s story captivated the imagination of a young Debs, who would bear witness to the second formative event in his life through the lens of John Brown.
In 1886, thousands of workers took to the streets of Chicago in what became known as the Haymarket Riots. Fed up with lousy pay and poor working conditions, the working class went on a raucous and sometimes violent campaign to demonstrate for workers’ rights. On May 3rd, the police killed one of the strikers, which led local anarchists to gather in Haymarket Square in protest of the murder. What began as a peaceful demonstration devolved into terror when a bomb was set off, killing several policemen. Retribution was swift, brutal and most likely wrong as eight prominent anarchists were arrested and sentenced in a sham trial. One of the condemned men committed suicide, four were hanged and three were sent to prison.
The Haymarket Affair would galvanize more than just a young Debs. It enraged members of the working class throughout the nation. But it also had a chilling effect on street movements, just as the political class intended.
At the time, Debs was already a prominent figure in the labor movement and had proudly organized a union shop that printed a publication called The Magazine. As his biographer Ray Ginger wrote in The Bending Cross, “The Magazine thus became the first official labor publication in the country to carry the union label, an honor about which Debs never tired of boasting.”
But there was one thing that haunted Debs throughout his life. Believing that he could convince anyone to fight for the working class and work within the system in doing so, he spoke out too late in defense of the Haymarket rioters; a mistake he vowed never to make again.
Debs was mostly apolitical in his early life, preferring to expend his energy on the labor movement. His first love, the railroad, would be his proving ground for organizing. Equally comfortable in the boardroom as he was on a picket line, Debs straddled a fine line between classes and endeared himself to nearly everyone he met. Because he and his wife Kate Metzel never had children, Debs would commit himself fully to promoting the safety and wellbeing of working men and women everywhere.
His first opportunity to compensate for his fatal mistake during the Haymarket Affair was to speak out against the treatment of protestors during the Pullman Strike. So active was he in fighting against Pullman and the dirty Pinkerton mercenaries who literally murdered activists in cold blood, that the uprising soon became known as the Debs Rebellion. Debs had formed his own rail worker union by this time. According to Ginger, in the same year as the Pullman Strike Debs’ union, “signed up a hundred fifty thousand railroaders, while the combined Brotherhoods could list only ninety thousand names.”
Because of this, Debs would ironically find himself at odds with looming union figures of the day such as Samuel Gompers. He would also find himself at odds with the Cleveland administration that he had previously supported. Anxious to make amends with the capitalist class, the other unions eventually capitulated to Pullman’s demands, and Debs wound up as a target of the Cleveland justice department who charged him with conspiracy. The Pullman affair was Debs’ grand disillusionment with the whole system. It served to radicalize him personally, while building the legend that would turn him into one of the most prominent political and activist figures in U.S. history.
Ultimately, Debs had to serve time for the conspiracy charges. In prison, he quickly became a favorite among both the incarcerated population and those in charge of the prison. It’s during his incarceration that he began educating himself on other struggles of the day and reading the works of the great Marxist and anarchist intellectuals. But it wasn’t in Marx that he found inspiration. It was in the works of Karl Kautsky, the German socialist attempting to transform Germany from the inside-out through the auspices of the SPD.
Upon his early release, and with a new radical political education under his belt, Debs set out to align himself with a political movement and against the two major parties. As Ginger writes:
“In 1896, the only Marxist party in America was the Socialist Labor Party, dominated by the beliefs and personality of Daniel DeLeon… The Socialist Labor Party had become a narrow sect, a religion which followed the Messiah DeLeon.”
Over the years, DeLeon and Debs would hold one another in personal contempt, but often put their differences aside to fight on the side of labor. But the thought of being in a political apparatus of DeLeon’s likeness didn't appeal to Debs.
There was another option at the time, however. The People’s Party, which was the first party that attempted to draft Debs as a candidate for president. But Debs wasn’t interested in becoming a candidate, only in aligning with a party that might have some influence over labor politics regionally. Without a candidate for the top of the ticket, the People’s Party wound up endorsing the Free Silver candidate of the day, William Jennings Bryan, who might have won if not for a bumper crop in the west that year that placated the rural agrarian voters who had recently been suffering.
Many historians believe that if not for the sudden reversal of fortune in America’s “bread basket” Jennings might well have prevailed and Debs might never have turned to the Socialist Party.
Debs’ political education even included a lunch with none other than Emma Goldman, who found him “genial and charming” and said he agreed with keeping the revolutionary spirit alive. But Debs was a practical man who reluctantly stood in the limelight and remained loyal to the labor movement above all else. But this loyalty illustrates the divide within labor, as well, that Europe was experiencing.
Unionization movements spread quickly in the United States, but they developed along trade lines. There was far less desire for industrial unionization on a mass scale, which made individual labor efforts susceptible to cooperation with the capitalist class, especially around election time. But when labor did rise up, movements would be brutally crushed by the likes of the Pinkertons, and always with the support of governors and presidents all too happy to scramble police and even military support to crush any attempt to stem the tide of capitalist interests.
So fractured was the labor movement, and so brutal was the treatment of it by the political class, that Debs eventually resigned himself to participating in the political system. And the only logical place remaining after the turn of the century was in the warm embrace of the Social Democratic Party, officially founded in 1898. And in 1900, they convinced Debs to be their presidential nominee, but the campaign garnered little attention. But by 1904, however, the party had matured and things had changed as Debs hoisted the movement atop his shoulders.
As a candidate, Debs operated like a union organizer. He traveled by rail, of course, from state to state, and spoke to more than 250,000 people until his voice and body gave out. Along the way, he cautioned against demagoguery and channeled his inner Marxist. It was Debs who helped Americans understand in explicit terms that it was the capitalist system that oppressed them and that it was their choice, if not responsibility, to challenge it. Here’s Debs in his own words:
“If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in someone else could lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands and get yourselves out of your present condition.”
Debs went on to garner more than 400,000 votes. It’s important to note that the Republican candidate, Teddy Roosevelt, promoted himself as a reformer and a progressive. The trust buster who took on wealthy elites. A man of the people. Young. Vibrant. Bombastic. And a self-styled hero of the Spanish American War who cultivated a farcical but effective avatar of the Rough Rider. Essentially, he was too popular and easily rode to victory.
Though he was a committed member of the main socialist party now, Debs remained a union man at his core, and in 1905, standing on a platform with prominent figures such as Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones, Debs helped bring into existence the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). This would be Debs’ primary focus over the next couple of years, as he attempted to persuade workers to become members and trade unions to stand in solidarity with the IWW. But unions were professional and competitive organizations by now. There were powerful positions at the top and bureaucratic influence in the middle. Thus, when Debs was drafted for a third time to run in 1908, it was labor that fired the first shot to sell out the socialist movement, and Samuel Gompers who pulled the trigger by backing Jennings Bryan again and falsely claiming the Debs’ campaign train, the Red Special, was secretly funded by Republicans.
The Red Special was a tremendous asset for Debs, who immediately published the list of every person who donated to fund the purchase of it. He was in his element on a train and talking to people. As the Red Special traversed the country, Debs created a spectacle everywhere he went, which led even former President Cleveland to predict that Debs would win more than a million votes this time around. It was a wild race. Roosevelt still loomed large, promoting his hand picked successor and VP William Taft. William Randolph Hearst had thrown his hat into the primary ring. The Prohibition Party was making noise. Labor was fighting with the socialists, the socialists were at odds with the Labor Socialists, the People’s Party was still around and the Independence Party made a bid as well.
When all was said and done, Debs’ vote tally remained almost the same as it had four years before. It was a massive disappointment for Debs, who nearly killed himself in the process and wound up in poor health. The biggest reason the movement didn’t budge from years prior, however, was that once again—as capitalism does—the economy in 1908 had begun to recover, giving the appearance of stability, though it was just another uptick in the boom and bust cycle.
That being said, the movement didn’t die there. In fact, in 1912, with Debs again atop the ticket, the socialist votes totaled nearly nine hundred thousand. Debs didn’t run in 1916, but by this time Europe had descended into chaos with the First World War and the United States was about to join in. In so many ways, the onset of the Great War was the beginning of the end of the socialist movement. That might seem like a strange thing to say considering we’re only a year away from the Russian Revolution, but World War One altered the course of history to such an extreme that it crushed any hope of an international revolution along class lines.
America’s entrance into the war was a particular affront to the socialists and anarchists who understood that war profiteers built on the backs of the poor who were sent to die for capitalism in a foreign war. That may be a familiar theme by now, but it was radical at the time and a position held only by socialists and anarchists throughout the world. To defend its stance on the war, the Wilson administration strengthened the Espionage Act to include non military offenses that included profane and abusive language. The target was clear.
Just 13 days after giving a relatively benign speech in Ohio, at least where the war was concerned, a federal grand jury indicted Eugene Debs for speaking out against the war. In April of 1919, Debs was sent to prison to serve a 10 year sentence. Even in prison, he fought for prison reform and gained a following of all the prisoners who wept at the gates, along with Debs, upon his release when his sentence was eventually commuted by the new President Harding.
There’s a tendency to elevate Debs to some sort of pious deity. But even Debs’ biographer Ginger, whose account of Debs can only be considered fawning, said:
“Eugene Debs was neither a purist nor a moralist, but a trade-union leader and a Socialist. He firmly believed that basic changes in human behavior would follow rather than precede the establishment of socialism.”
And there we are back at the beginning. Right back to our first essay. That’s the dialectic that every philosopher from Hegel to Lenin would grapple with. Whether we as a people would bring about the socialist change we desire, or if implementing socialism could change us as people. Force it in Russia where the people aren’t ready and therefore need to be cajoled, or nurture it in Germany where gains were being made politically? Approach it systematically through programs and forget the doctrinal elements of the ideology, as in Scandinavia? Maintain a stiff upper lip and go about one’s business inside the system as would a Fabian in London? Align with socially radical priests in Madrid, or take to the streets with anarchists in Paris? If Eugene Debs couldn’t convert each and every voter whose hand he shook and gaze he matched as he rode the Red Special from dusk to dawn, can anyone?
If political and economic doctrines were allowed to grow in a lab, perhaps we would have cleaner, easier answers to all of these questions. But capitalism has proven to be the more forceful agent in the dialectic. Constantly changing the discussion and the facts on the ground. And all of the changes it brought about, when combined with hyper nationalism, laid the groundwork for the death of authentic socialism. World War One may have created the circumstances that paved the way for the Russian Revolution, but in doing so, it also killed all hope for a Marxist revolution, forever altered the dynamics between nation states and set capitalism ablaze with a surge of industrial innovation.
Here’s Margaret MacMillan from her book, The War That Ended Peace:
“Industrialization, the scientific and technological revolutions, the play of new ideas and attitudes, were shaking societies across Europe and calling old, long-established practices and values into question. Europe was both a mighty continent and a troubled one. Each of the major powers had prolonged and serious political crises before the war, whether over the Irish question in Britain, the Dreyfus affair in France, the standoff between crown and parliament in Germany, the conflicts among nationalities in Austria-Hungary or the near revolution in Russia. War was sometimes seen as a way of getting beyond the divisions and the antipathies and perhaps it was. In 1914 in all the belligerent nations there was talk of the nation in arms, the Union Sacree, the holy union where divisions, whether of class, region, ethnicity or religion, were forgotten and the nation came together in a spirit of unity and sacrifice.”
International collaboration, one of the pillars of Marxist thought, was destroyed by the war. Eugene Debs passed away in 1926. Kropotkin in 1921. Rosa Luxemburg, 1919. Vladimir Lenin, 1924. Others such as Emma Goldman, Karl Kautsky and Leon Trotsky would live to see the beginning of World War II and try to advise future Marxist Internationals on how to keep the flame alive. But by this time, there were only two empires that mattered, each working diligently to portray the burgeoning Soviet Union as a socialist state when nothing could be further from the truth.
In the epilogue of the series, we’re going to talk about the Russian Revolution as a historical reference point, then broaden the discussion to recap important lessons. We’ll try to pull together some important takeaways that help us contextualize current leftist movements, the struggles we face in mobilizing the masses around key issues and how new ideas are required to face the challenges of the future. It’s important to know from whence we came because so much remains the same; at the same time, there’s no question we’re stepping into a vastly different river.
Here endeth our series on Socialism.
- Socialist Party of America, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Changes were made.