Skip to Content

Marxian education in the United States

We continue our series on the spread of socialist ideas in other parts of the world.

A “Socialist Party of America” was first formed in 1901 following a split with Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party. It did not have as its objective – its sole objective – the establishment of socialism but instead was basically a left-wing, social democratic, reformist party with, in the early years of the last century, hundreds of thousands of members and supporters. The First World War profoundly shocked the SPA, with at least some of its members questioning its policies, tactics and objectives. In particular, as early as 1915, the SPA, particularly in Michigan – the centre of the American auto industry – came under the influence of anti-war Marxist elements.

In 1915 SPGB member Moses Baritz moved to Detroit where he soon began to hold lectures and meetings in Duffield Hall. Many who attended were members of the Socialist Party of America, while others were members of the Socialist Party of Canada who had settled in Detroit, partly to get jobs in the auto industry, but also to escape any possible army draft back home. A Marxist “Study Circle” was formed.

By 1916, Baritz had moved on, but before he left Adolph Kohn – another member of the SPGB – came to Detroit. Members of the “Study Circle” began to argue that a new, anti-reformist party separate from the SPA should be organised. Others, such as leading left-wing members of the SPA in Detroit like John Keracher and Dennis Batt, were at first sympathetic, but they felt that Marxists should remain in the SPA for the time being, and swing it towards socialism. The formation of a new socialist party was premature, they claimed.

However, at the urging of Adolph Kohn and Wilfred Gribble, a small group decided to organise separately. At a meeting in Detroit on July 7 1916, the Socialist Party of the United States was launched. At the meeting, 19 members of the Detroit local of the SPA resigned from that party. The SPUS was unable to make contact with other like-minded groups elsewhere in America and, at its formation, had only 43 members. Nevertheless, it decided to continue. Lawrence Beardsley wrote its anti-war manifesto, Gribble became the organiser and Bill Davenport was elected general secretary. The Socialist Party of the United States adopted the Object and Declaration of Principles of the SPGB.

At the end of August, the SPUS sent its manifesto to the author, Jack London, and on September 21, just eight weeks before he died, he replied to the party:
“Please read my resignation from the Socialist Party,  and find that I resigned for the same reasons that impel you to form this new party . . . I congratulate you and wish you well on your adventure. I am not bitter. I am only sad that within itself the proletariat seems to perpetuate the seeds of its proletariat.”

Probably the most enthusiastic recruit to the new party was a former member of the Socialist Party of America, Isaac Rabinowich (or Comrade Rab as he was affectionately called), whose mother and father were revolutionary socialists in Russia before he was born in 1893. In 1921, “Rab” moved from Detroit to Boston.

For a while, Marxist and socialist influences were strong in Michigan. The group around John Keracher founded a journal, The Proletarian (later, Proletarian News), in August 1918, which in fact adopted the object and principles of the SPGB. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party of the United States was informed by the SPA that it had copyrighted the name “Socialist Party” and that the SPUS could not use it. The SPUS, therefore, renamed itself the Workers’ Socialist Party of the United States (WSPUS). The Keracher group, which had become pro-Bolshevik, was expelled from the SPA in May, 1919. Together with a number of other former SPA factions, it assisted in forming the Communist Party. But within a year, Keracher’s Michigan group was expelled from the Communist Party charged with “Menshevism”, as they did not believe that a socialist revolution was imminent in the United States. And whilst they continued to support Bolshevism, they also denied that socialism had been established in Russia. Six months later, they formed the Proletarian Party, which did not advocate reforms. John Keracher was the author of a number of easy-to-read basic pamphlets mainly on Marxian economics, but also How the Gods were Made, which has recently been republished by the SPGB. The Proletarian Party finally disappeared in 1971. The Workers’ Socialist Party felt that it was unfortunate that it was not able to save “these otherwise valuable socialists” from their “infatuation” with Bolshevism. Unfortunately, Marxist and socialist influences declined in Michigan after about 1925.

New York had always been a hot-bed of radicalism; and, during the first three decades of the last century, the Socialist Party of America had thousands of supporters in the city. The SPC and the SPGB were also well-known there. Moses Baritz had addressed large crowds on Coney Island. During the First World War, members of both the SPC and the SPGB arrived in New York, and on January 25 1921, they founded the Socialist Educational Society. During the 1920s, their activities resulted in them becoming an increasingly influential local of the Workers’ Socialist Party. They republished the SPGB’s pamphlet, Socialism and Religion and in 1929 the New York local of the WSPUS began to publish the party’s first official journal, The Socialist.

Almost alone, after moving from Detroit to Boston, “Rab” worked tirelessly for socialism in that city. It was not wasted effort. Indeed:
“During the Depression years the membership grew until it became the largest and most active group within the WSP. In fact, outside of the Communist Party, Boston Local of the WSP was without doubt the most active and widely-known organisation professing to Marxism in New England” (W. Jerome, Western Socialist, No. 4, 1966)

During the 1930s, the Boston Local held outdoor and indoor meetings, debates and economics classes six days or evenings a week. The WSP, however, made little headway elsewhere in the United States, although locals were founded in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1947 the Workers’ Socialist Party changed its name to World Socialist Party because it was being confused with the Socialist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyist organisation. The change also emphasised the WSP’s internationalism and world outlook. In 1939 the Western Socialist had been moved from Canada to Boston, and, subtitled “The Journal of Scientific Socialism in the Western Hemisphere”, for the next forty years was the joint publication of the SPC and the WSPUS.

At the beginning of the 1950s, the World Socialist Party of the United States entered a period of decline, partly due to a lengthy post-war period of relative prosperity for the working class in America, and partly due to the “anti-red” hysteria of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Of the situation, Jerome comments:
“Dissenters who voiced social criticism were suspected of indirectly assisting the enemy, that is, they were all but guilty of treason. Threats of social ostracism, loss of jobs and government persecution silenced most critics who had any large audience.”

Internal controversies broke out in the WSP, and a number of members resigned from the party. In 1950 the headquarters was transferred from Boston to Detroit, where it remained for some years before returning to Boston. The World Socialist Party of the United States had a difficult task of attempting to pick up the pieces. Nevertheless, it continued the work of propagating socialism in a hostile environment and, thanks to the coming of the internet, is enjoying something of a revival. Its journal is now called World Socialist Review which can be found, with other material, on its website.

PETER E NEWELL