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.”

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