Friday, September 29, 2017

The Russian Coup

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a complex worldwide shattering event, as was the French Revolution launched 1789, and occurred in two stages.

The history of the Russian Revolution is complex and highly controversial. In my opinion, the best outsider account is that by American journalist John Reed (played by Warren Beatty in the film "Reds") who wrote the fairly slim volume Ten Days That Shook the World. The best insider account, Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, includes hilarious inside-jokes but is, I regret, three volumes.

In March 1917 there was effectively a palace coup. Russia was losing its front in World War I and the establishment and some reformists thought the Tsar had to go. Thus far it was a bourgeois revolt.

The French word "bourgeois" originally meant the inhabitants of an urbanized and incorporated borough, “bourg.” The bourgeois were the new class of city merchants that developed starting in the Renaissance, when urban life revived in Europe at the birth of capitalism; Marx extended the term to refer to the new class of investors, entrepreneurs, managers and white collar workers that emerged with industrialization, which he called the bourgeoisie, effectively comfortable people of the cities.

The February Revolution (March in modern calendars) was bourgeois in the sense that it was not a popular outburst. It was primarily the establishment exasperated with a backward monarch who thought he could beat back the modern German army with the same cavalry that had defeated Napoleon (although what Joseph Stalin would call “General Winter” had a lot more to do with the 19th-century victory than Cossacks).

There was no social or economic change intended by the provisional government, which decided to continue to abide by its obligations to the western Allies and continue the highly unpopular war. Peasants and workers perceived that they were fighting for the benefit of the wealthy.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Early 20th Century Socialism

Another answer to capitalism, came in several attempts at actual political action by U.S. socialists. In 1876, the Socialist Labor Party was founded by Daniel De Leon and in 1901 the Socialist Party of America started, led by Eugene V. Debs. Then came World War I, which wreaked havoc on the new parties of the Left.

The second Socialist International effectively collapsed over whether to support the war. Reformist-minded socialists argued that participating in government meant accepting majority rule, even when it came to war. The more radical revolutionaries argued that approving of the war meant pitting workers against each other and were opposed to the internationalist idea of socialism, within which class trumped nationality.

Somewhere in the middle of this maelstrom, was Russian socialism, beat back ferociously in an attempted revolution in 1905, after which much of the leadership ―  including one Vladimir Illyich Lenin ― went into exile. Lenin proposed an interpretation of Marx that diverged with all but the most radical socialists. It forever cleaved a divide between Leninists (commonly called Communists, after the name they gave their party) and all other socialists.

Lenin believed that armed revolt was the only path to socialism, led by a vanguard of professional revolutionists who would seize government, then govern in name of the working class ― or to use the 19th-century term favored by Marx, the proletariat. “Proletarian” was how Romans referred to citizens too poor to pay taxes who instead contributed their children ― “prole,” in Latin ― as soldiers who went into the Roman Legions.

To muddy the waters as to the standing of his faction within Russian socialism, Lenin played a word game. Lenin’s faction was a numerical minority (“menshevo,” in Russian), which split off from more gradualist and moderate Russian socialists chastised by the 1905 debacle. Yet, in order to lead and speak for all Russian socialists, Lenin told the story in reverse arguing that the majority (“bolshevo”) had stuck with him. Thus his followers called themselves Bolsheviks.

The collapse of the International and the rise of Lenin's Russian splinter group of socialists would have a momentous effect on the ideas that would shape what Walter Lippmann would call “the American Century.”

Monday, September 25, 2017


In the same way a tamed Labor Day celebration of unions stole the thunder of socialist May Day, a political movement arose in the United States to attempt to prevent revolutionary change by offering mild reforms.

Marx and early socialists were concerned with Europe, not the United States and their ideas were mostly imported through immigration from Central Europe and Italy, at a time when industrialization was demanding an ever greater number of workers for new and expanding factories. Up to the 1890s, when the American Frontier was effectively declared closed, the existence of what to some were vast "vacant" lands (not how Indians or Mexicans viewed them), had been a kind of social and economic safety valve. If you didn’t like being on the bottom of the pecking order, you just went West.

Once the Frontiers closed or became crowded, however, the urgent problems of capitalism began to take on urgency. Because capitalism encouraged speculative investment, the entire economic system was chained to a recurring cycle of booms and busts that left millions of workers out of work. This happened again and again and again, every 5 to 15 years. The Great Depression of the 1930s was the deepest and longest bust, but it was by far not the only one. The cycle has continued happening through the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

One answer, from well-meaning but essentially capitalist quarters, were the reformist "Progressives." In the presidential election of 1912 all three major candidates — Teddy Roosevelt for the "Bull Moose" Progressive Party (a split from the Republicans), Republican William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson — claimed to be "progressive" at one point or another.

U.S. Progressivism of the 1880s to the 1920s was a decidedly centrist, reformist effort to ameliorate the ill effects of capitalism, regulating it rather than getting rid of it; its principal and last policy achievements in the USA were the Federal Reserve, the Food and Drug Administration (which ended the actual "snake oil" salesmen) and the federal income tax. Less effective was anti-trust legislation, which did not stop corporations' unfettered growth in power.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Labor Unions

Elsewhere during this period there emerged labor unions, which the Chartists in England organized on a trade basis along the lines of the collapsed medieval guilds. Other labor organizers argued that workers should organize themselves by broader industries rather than trade.

Originally, all unionizing was illegal in the United States as a form of “conspiracy” of workers to raise their wages by trying to bargain as a group. This changed with the 1842 landmark case of Commonwealth v. Hunt, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that “labor combinations” (or workers offering labor as a group) were legal provided that they has a legal purpose and used legal means to achieve their goals.

The National Labor Union, founded in 1866, was the first U.S. national labor federation, but it dissolved in 1872. Around that time also, the regional Order of the Knights of St. Crispin was founded in the northeast in 1867 and had 50,000 members by 1870. The Knights of Labor, focused on the railways, organized in 1869. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, eventually called the American Federation of Labor, began in 1881 under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. The Western Federation of Miners was established in 1893.

Many unions leaders in the 19th century were socialists, some were anarchists, or anarcho-syndicalists (unions were sometimes called syndicates). In the 20th century, there occurred a shift, as we shall see.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Reform or Revolution?

The popular American view of socialism today is of a monolithic Communism led by what was once the Soviet Union ― continued today by rump periphery states such as Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam ― in which the seizure and retention of power by a guiding party was violent and undemocratic. This is a false Cold War myth.

Actually, the bulk of the socialist movement is and has been democratic. However, beginning in the 1880s there began to be a fissure between two kinds of socialists over tactics.

In one corner, were those willing to gain ascendancy gradually, legally, with a practical socioeconomic agenda and very little pretense of presenting a dogmatic philosophy rather than a view subject to scientific criticism. In the other, were those impatient with injustices, willing to jump past the legalities and niceties and seize power by the force of arms and hold onto it through terror.

In admittedly oversimplified terms, this is the crucial socialist debate in the late 19th century, after both the 1848 revolutions and 1870 commune failed. Socialists agreed in broad terms on the ultimate outcome ― socialization of the means of production ― but they came to disagree quite bitterly about how to get there.

The advocates of reform were exemplified by the renown Eduard Bernstein, a German social-democratic political theorist and politician, a member of the Social Democratic Party (the socialist party German workers identified with their interests, inspiring the Nazis to fly the false flag of “socialist” for their party’s name). Bernstein wrote a work called Evolutionary Socialism and became the standard leader of socialists who espoused social democracy, reformism and an electoral path to socialism.

He had known Marx and Engels well, but he regarded Marxist philosophical thinking, in particular the theory of historical materialism, as “immature.” (Contrary to all Cold War propaganda, pro or con, Marx himself made explicit in comments concerning a program of the early German socialists that atheism and related ideas, were his personal opinions, not socialism.) Bernstein helped develop the Second International (1889–1916), the precursor of modern and moderate western European socialism, which brought together socialist parties of 20 countries in a unified effort.

Against the reformist socialists stood firebrands such as Rosa Luxembourg, a German-Polish Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist, anti-war activist and revolutionary socialist of Polish origin. She founded the Spartacus League in 1915 (Spartacus was a Roman slave who led an uprising) and ultimately joined the Communist Party of Germany. A radical, she wrote a scathing response to Bernstein's book, an 1899 pamphlet titled Social Reform or Revolution?

Thursday, September 14, 2017


After the 1848 rebellion mentioned earlier, which was a series of political upheavals throughout a year; it involved workers from France and Spain to as far as Hungary, who went on general strikes, set up provisional governments in some cities and generally shook the continent. It remains the most widespread was of revolutions in European history and occurred all more or less at the same time, with no coordination.

At that point workers began to understand themselves as a socioeconomic class: those who possessed nothing (neither land nor factories) and had to sell their time at work. The 19th century word favored by Marx was "the proletariat." Proletarian is a Latin term used in Imperial Rome to refer to people so poor and uneducated that their principal contribution to Rome was to have children (prole, in Latin) who would then go into the Legions. Socialists argued that the land and factories should be controlled by workers, who were the ones who made these things productive, presumably through a government dedicated to serving workers.

Anarchists went a step further: they argued that the institution of government (along with the concept of property and all religion) was in itself evil and that instead workers should form voluntary associations to organize common ownership of the means of production. The French politician and writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is deemed the "father" of Anarchism, although he abandoned it, but the classic Anarchists are Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Leon Tolstoy and others.

The most notable act of Anarchists in the 19th century was a short-lived rebellion known as the Paris Commune, a revolt during the Franco-Prussian War that led to the collapse of the French Second Empire under Napoleon III (aka Louis Napoleon, a nephew of the original) in September 1870. As Prussia besieged Paris, which was a hotbed of working-class radicalism, workers refused to fight to defend the capitalist-industrialist elite and seized the city from within, proclaimed a "Commune of Paris" led by Anarchists. They were ruthlessly suppressed by the French Army in what was later called "The Bloody Week," beginning May 21, 1871.

However, the ideas of the Commune — voluntarism, no property or religion and even free love — had enormous influence on Marx, who described the event as an example of his fateful phrase, "dictatorship of the proletariat" in his famous work, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Early Socialists

Socialism existed before Marx. American Founding Father Thomas Paine had proposed a plan to tax property owners to pay for the needs of the poor through something very similar to the Universal Basic Income being talked about today — but he was not consciously socialist.

In Europe, the first movements to become conscious of themselves as socialists were the Owenites, Chartists and Saint-Simonians, among others.

Robert Owen was an eccentric Welsh mill owner in Scotland who developed utopian ideas and in 1824, Owen traveled to the United States to invest the bulk of his fortune in an experimental 1,000-member colony on the banks of Indiana's Wabash River, called New Harmony. Owen originated the idea of an eight-hour work day in 1810!!!

Owenites overlapped with a number of other working-class movements, most notably the Chartists (so called for their People's Charter of 1838, which called for universal suffrage for all male adults); in England, as in the USA, voting was limited to property owners. The Chartists, like the Owenites called for a more equitable distribution of income and better living conditions for the working classes — which were, in truth, abominable.

Count Henri de Saint-Simon was the first person to actually use the term "socialism." He was fascinated by science and technology its potential to eliminate hard work; he advocated a socialist society that would eliminate the disorderly aspects of capitalism — such as booms and busts — through administrative efficiency and science as the path to a rationally organized and planned economy.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


While Americans argued over slavery, Europe had begun to divide over what began to be called “wage slavery.” Just as the liberalism of Locke and Mill and capitalism of Smith had become the pillars of the social and economic order, an English economist named David Ricardo observed that the value of traded things — commodities — is determined by the quantity of labor needed to produce them, which industrialization made variable, rather than the material from which it comes, which remained more or less fixed.

This idea caught fire in the mind of Karl Marx, a German intellectual exiled in England who was then observing the new industrial economy. Marx concluded that capitalists — people with money beyond that needed for well-being, also known as capital invested in productive ventures — make profits from the difference between the costs of production (the labor and raw materials they pay for) and the market price they obtain. A key advantage in the process lies in the difference between what it costs for workers to stay alive and the ultimate price of the goods they make, which Marx called “surplus value”; this is what, Marx argued, capitalists take from workers.

Marx did not blame capitalists, whom he saw as trapped within the rules; instead, he viewed the economic system and capital itself as the cause of the surplus value theft. No real change would occur, he proposed, until control of production and markets was in the hands of all society, especially the workers.

The idea first appeared in a document called the Communist Manifesto, which Marx wrote with fellow exile Friedrich Engels in 1848. It was a fast and furious summary of complex ideas, written just as worker revolts broke out in the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history, from France to as far as Hungary. This was the dawn of what would be called the socialist movement, its ideas later developed in detail in many books, especially the three-volume Capital. Their key and simplest concept would prove maddeningly difficult to bring about.

To understand what was to happen in the United States, we need to review the emergence of socialism in Europe, which occurred in four steps: 1) the proto-socialism that built up to Marx and the First International; 2) Anarchism; 3) labor unions and 4) a broad-based debate within socialism between reform and revolution. All of this took place between from about the 1820s to the 1880s and a little beyond.

Monday, September 11, 2017


The United States simmered to a boil over what South Carolinian lawmaker John Calhoun called the “peculiar institution” in the American South. At odds were two regions:
  • a Southern agrarian society organized as a caste system supported by unpaid laborers brought from Africa sold as chattel; 
  • in the North a new kind of social order based on capital and industry, which fed on immigrants recruited to work for bare survival wages in the North’s Blakean “Satanic mills.”

Americans did not think of the problems in the terms of social sciences that were then very new, but rather in terms of the national Messianism developed by the first Protestant English dissenters in Massachusetts. In a 1630 sermon delivered at sea, Puritan leader John Winthrop told his little community that they would be building “a city upon a hill” (Matthew 5:14) watched by the world and urged them to set an example of communal charity, affection and unity; if they failed, he warned, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” of God’s judgment.

Slavery supporters pointed to the St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, which addressed a Christian slave owner; the letter was carried by Onesimus, a runaway slave baptized by Paul and persuaded to return to his master. Christians of the Confederacy saw this as biblical writ for slavery; however, U.S. slavery was vastly unlike the slave system of antiquity St. Paul knew, particularly in the degree of dehumanization imposed on kidnapped Africans, including lifelong hereditary servitude.

Abolitionists could also point to Paul’s urging Philemon to treat the runaway no longer as a slave but as a brother in the faith, which he apparently did, to the point that Onesimus eventually became a bishop of the Church at Ephesus. In the wake of Protestant movements such as the Great Awakening and Pietism, both of which stressed personal transformation through spiritual rebirth and renewal, as well as individual devotion and piety, many Christians in the North supported Abraham Lincoln’s distinctly biblical oratory on the subject; they were supporters of escaped slaves’ “Underground Railroad” and embraced the fiery anti-slavery militancy of the renown insurgent John Brown.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


The American foundational framework of ideas around which the budding conflicts would be resolved were not American. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, Thomas Jefferson borrowed quite liberally from John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, from which also are derived many ideas in the Constitution, including separation of church and state.

In this groundbreaking work, the 17th-century Enlightenment philosopher, also deemed the father of English and U.S. liberalism, proposed the notion of the social contract. In his words: “That which begins and actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a society. And this is that, and that only, which did or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world.”

In an age of absolute monarchy, in which a French king boasted that “L’etat c’est moi” (I am the State) and English kings still claimed power over Parliament, this was a revolutionary idea. It was extended by a 19th century thinker, John Stuart Mill, who conceived of liberty as the absence of restraint from government or others to develop one’s own unique abilities and capacities. In On Liberty, penned in 1859, he stated “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.”

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Seeds of Conflict

It seems proper in a time of strife to recall early signs that in the young American republic all was not right nor yet perfected.

In the 1791–1794 Whisky Rebellion, more or less independent Pennsylvania family farmers rose up against a tax on distilled spirits they produced. The levy was enacted by Congress and President Washington to pay the rich interest on the bonds floated to finance the war of independence.

There were also 14 widespread major slave revolts between 1794 and 1859 — students usually only learn of Nat Turner’s. Besides that, there were enough escapes to justify legislation on their return and to spur the “Underground Railroad” to freedom.

Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), there was a movement to gain property rights, access to education and later voting rights for women. With typical generosity of spirit, its leaders campaigned for the abolition of slavery and temperance before championing women’s rights.

Finally, although four signers of the Constitution were Irish (mostly Anglo-Irish), when a million and a half people fled the Emerald Isle’s Great Hunger of 1845-1852, these newly arrived white Europeans began to experience discrimination and mistreatment. This would repeat itself with every successive later immigration wave from Europe, with Germans, Poles, Italians, Russian Jews and others, who quickly formed self-defense organizations and rallied around the political leadership of the only immigrants who were native English speakers, the Irish.

Friday, September 08, 2017


Political conservatives today celebrate capitalism as if their predecessors wisely invented it. Actually, “capitalist system” was first used in Karl Marx’s criticism of the mid-19th century economy.

The thought basis of capitalism was laid down by Adam Smith, some 75 years earlier, arguing that the best route to national wealth was open markets, free trade and laissez-faire (French for “let [it or them] do”) policies. He wrote that as little government restraint or taxation as possible should be imposed on wealthy investors, bankers, merchants and captains of industry.

Smith was a rebelling, on behalf of the industrial revolution, against the taxes and controls by kings and lords. He also fought against mercantilism, in Britain exemplified by Oliver Cromwell’s establishment of a merchant marine. That was a policy enhancing the trade position of one’s own nation at the expense of all others (yes, you guessed, Trump is unconsciously a mercantilist), originally in what turned out to be the 16th- to 18th-century ruinous pursuit of gold and silver reserves.

Smith placed his trust instead on what he described as the market’s “invisible hand” to provide “the necessaries of life.”

This continues the We Hold These Truths series, into which we inserted a Labor Day entry that broke the scheme a bit, simply for timeliness.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Why U.S. Labor Day is in September and not May 1st

The U.S. Department of Labor website omits the ideological and antisocialist origins of the date chosen for the federal holiday that is celebrated the first Monday of September under the name of Labor Day. That's today.

In Europe and South America it is held on May 1st,  to recall the Haymarket Massacre, which occurred on May 4, 1886, in Chicago. The incident leading to the deadly events occurred during a peaceful demonstration convened at a Chicago park called Haymarket; its purpose was to demand the eight-hour workday, now an almost universal practice. The workers were mostly immigrants from Germany and the Kingdom of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).

A stranger — believed to be a provocateur hired to give police the excuse to crack down on the demonstrators — threw a dynamite bomb at the police, which responded predictably and dispersed the gathering. So much for the right to assembly. Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed and dozens injured.

Lest you think these were rebels without a cause, consider that for their work they were paid $1.50 per day. Adjusted to 2017 dollars, it would be $38.63 a day, or $12,043.20 annually, just below the federal poverty level for a single person and half the level for a family of four. Plus, the work week, which then included Saturday, consisted of 60 hours of work.

In general, they protested the work of 10 hours a day for sums that did not yield enough to support a family, then or now. The Haymarket rally was also in response to the killing of several workers by police the day before.

The protests were not isolated incidents.

In October 1884, the Federation of Organized Workers and Unions unanimously fixed May 1st, 1886, as the target date for the adoption of the eight-hour working day. As the chosen date approached without action by the government to require an eight-hour day, the unions prepared a general strike.

On the appointed day, Saturday, May 1, 1886, which would then have been a workday, thousands of workers went on strike in major cities such as New York and Detroit, and crowds estimated between 300,000 and half a million chanted, "Eight-hour day, with no cut in pay."

After the riot in Chicago three days later, in Congress many lawmakers began to recognize the need to celebrate Labor Day. Most of the labor organizations, many affiliated to the First International, preferred May 1st, to commemorate the general strike that had led to the Haymarket Massacre.

President Grover Cleveland believed that such a holiday on May 1st would invite disorder and further strengthen the socialist movement. The chubby Cleveland belonged to the industrialists' wing of the Democratic Party, then known as the "Bourbon Democrats."

The alternative date used today has its origin in a parade celebrated Sept. 5, 1882, in New York by the Knights of Labor, an anti-socialist union of Catholic inspiration. The parade was repeated in 1884 and the Knights of Labor continued to hold it annually the first Monday of September. In 1887 Cleveland gave his support to the Knights' date as a national holiday.

All of this had at least two consequences.

First, popular pressure for the eight-hour day continued. At the 1888 convention of the American Federation of Labor, the same union that had protested in 1886, it was decided to launch another campaign and on May 1, 1890, was the date set set for another general strike.

The International Association of Workers (or Second International), meeting in Paris in 1889, endorsed the date for international demonstrations, thus beginning the international tradition of May Day.

But the struggle was long.

The eight-hour day in the United States was first won by the miners' union in 1898. Construction workers in San Francisco obtained it in 1900, typographers in 1905 and in 1914 the Ford Company doubled its current pay to $5 per day and reduced the workday from nine to eight hours.

However, it was not until 1916 that the federal government established the eight-hour day as a national standard.

Second, after the massacre eight anarchist workers were accused of conspiring to incite violence at the Haymarket demonstration. Five were sentenced to death (one committed suicide before being executed) and three were sentenced to prison terms.

The workers' movement called the accused the Martyrs of Chicago. The trial, which lasted until 1893, was universally viewed as illegitimate and deliberately malicious.

The new governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the defendants and joined in the criticism of the courts. Altgeld, one of the founders of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, could have been a candidate for president if he had not been born in Germany, as were many of the immigrants who fought for their rights as workers in Haymarket.