The WSM: Our Practical Program

An article by the late comrade Isaac Rab. This was published in The Socialist,1929.

What practical program do you fellows propose? What are your demands? Such comments have been made concerning our first issue. A perusal of the contents of that number ought to have cleared away this confusion regarding our position. The similarity of the concluding statements of many of the articles is striking: 

“Whenever a majority of the workers understand and decide to do it — to establish Socialism.” “The moral is obvious. Up with socialist education.” “Our immediate task is to arouse a Socialist understanding, to the end that we … may … establish Socialism.”

 In a word, a Socialist revolution first must take place in the heads of the workers; then will follow the conquest of political power, overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of Socialism. Certain characteristics distinguish the Socialist Revolution from all previous revolutions. For the first time has a social revolution become possible and necessary in the interests of the great bulk of the population, the working class. The revolution can not be rammed down the throats of the workers against their understanding or desire. A Socialist working class, conscious of its position in society, has no need for special program or blueprint plans. Whatever measures are dictated by the particular social forces then operating will be adopted by a Socialist proletariat. The socialization of production, together with the concentration of capital, has already laid the economic foundation for Socialism. Political ignorance, rather than the lack of schematic policies, is our major difficulty. “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men Gang aft a-gley.” Historic circumstances tear up plans and programs like so many scraps of paper. Our “practical program,” if you please, is clear and definite. It is predicated upon the scientific analysis of capitalist society. Let our Declaration of Principles shout it out from the housetops: — “The working class must organize consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government.” In order that we may the more readily see the limitations of practical programs, let us briefly review such measures as are advocated by the alleged Socialist organizations.

1. The so-called Socialist Party of America is not a Socialist organization. Even the cloak of Socialist appearances was shed at their last convention, when the clause subscribing to belief in the class struggle was dropped from their application for membership form. Their capitalistic character was brazenly flaunted during the mayoralty campaign just ended in New York City … We found Norman Thomas urging (comrade) La Guardia, Republican, to quit in his favor because of their “unity of purpose.” (New Leader, Nov. 19, 1929.) Need more be said? Thus we see the pitiable consequences of thirty years of the “practical” policies of that most practical Socialist Party of America.

2. Not to lag behind their foster-mother, the Workers (Communist) Party exceeded the S. P. of A.’s most fantastic antics by proposing 102 demands in the last presidential campaign. So involved was their practical program that it required 64 pages, “The Platform of the Class Struggle,” to state these demands. A little comment on but a few of these “revolutionary” gems will serve as an object lesson in the pitfalls of a “practical program.” Of course, one must bear in mind that every Tuesday and Friday calls for a new line of action by the Communist Party. It gets one dizzy trying to keep pace with their constant appearance of seeming to shift positions.

(a) On page 21 we find demanded the “immediate enactment of a Federal law … for a … forty hour, five day week … and forbidding all overtime.” As the industrial process increases the productivity of the workers, the masters see to it that the working time is reduced. It requires not the demands of the C.P., but the needs of capitalism for the inauguration of shorter hours with, incidentally, fewer workers. This is a measure that helps capitalism run more smoothly, and is a favorite palliative of capitalist reformers. Observe Ford and Hoover.
(b) On page 24, we must “struggle against the speed up system.” Just as reactionary was the resistance of the cotton workers in England to the introduction of machinery, and their smashing of the machines.
(c) It is further demanded, on page 40, that an independent, federated Labor Party, composed of trade unions and labor organizations, be formed. This measure does not support the working class. A political party is an expression of class interests. The varying programs of the different units composing this proposed federation are inimical to Socialism. There can be no unity of policy based upon such a hodgepodge. Unity can only be based on a common understanding of the need for Socialism. A revolutionary scientific, working-class party is hostile to all parties which serve to deceive and side-track the workers.
(d) Another pearl of wisdom appears on page 45. Here is demanded the abolition of all indirect taxes. The Communist Party does not tire of demanding. Unless you have power to enforce them, demands are meaningless verbiage. Inasmuch as the working class does not pay taxes, whose battle is the Communist Party fighting, anyhow? Their program is not based upon working-class interests, but, like that of their foster-mother, of disreputable memory, suits the needs of the petty, cockroach capitalist.
(e) On page 48 is demanded a 5 year moratorium on farm mortgage debts, including debts on chattels (and farm hands, too, I suppose). The working class, of course, is “burdened” with mortgages! But why continue with these demands ad nauseam, such as “propaganda against alcoholism,” “fixing of low rents” (presumably so that wages may be reduced). Remember, there are 102 demands by these practical people. If all this activity resulted in the arousing of revolutionary understanding there might be some justification, but sorry experience has shown that it only results in apathy because of the false hopes raised, then dashed.

3. We are now confronted with Cinderella, the neglected twin sister of the Communist Party, i.e., the Proletarian Party, “more communist than the Communists,” which has discovered that the Soviet is the transitional form of the proletarian state! (The Proletarian, p. 10, Jan. 1926) A Soviet is merely a council. Applicable to the historic circumstances of developing Russian capitalism though it may be, no evidence is forthcoming that, in highly developed countries like England, U.S. and Germany, such special machinery will be needed to accomplish the proletarian revolution. The Proletarian Party, too, has a “practical” program. They “call for the unfaltering support of the class-conscious workers everywhere” to “the movement of Anti-Imperialism among the backward nations,” because they “fight … the Imperial Capitalist Class.” A travesty on Marxism, indeed. The class conscious workers, everywhere, have nothing in common with the nationalistic struggles of backward nations. What lies behind the developing national consciousness of China, India, Nicaragua, Arabia? — the economic interests of different sections of the bourgeoisie. Countries like China, India and the rest, are blossoming out into capitalist countries on their own hook. No longer are they merely sources of raw materials and markets for the disposal of commodities. The newly rising bourgeoisie in such backward countries find the ideologic expression of their economic and political needs in movements of nationalism. They are anti-imperialist only whilst being choked by the capitalist imperialism of England, the U.S., and the rest of the great powers. They aim at monopolizing for themselves the natural resources and the opportunities for profit by exploiting the workers of their respective countries. A pity it is that such befuddlers should seek to enlighten the workers on Socialism.

4. Finally, we have the Socialist Labor Party. In their letter, “The Socialist Labor Party and War,” addressed to the parties affiliated with the “Socialist International Bureau,” is stated officially their practical program: — “Not a ‘general strike’ of the workers but a ‘general lockout’ of the Capitalist Class is our slogan. And this can only be done by organizing the workers, industrially, to take and hold the means of production.” Of course, “only” eliminates any other means. On page 10, of the SLP Manifesto of 1921 is stated flatly: — “the might of the Working Class lies on the economic field and there alone” (emphasis theirs). The lip service the SLP have always paid to what they term the “political arm of labor” is seen here in its true colors. A study of history will show that control of economic resources is only made secure by control of the State. For example, with all their economic influence the rising capitalist class in France and England were economically and politically shackled by feudalism and the absolute monarchy. It was necessary for them to achieve political supremacy in order to make secure and extend their economic power, as the French bourgeoisie did in the French Revolution. It is impossible for the working class to take and hold industry as long as the state is in the hands of the capitalist class. All the industrial unions in the world are powerless in face of the armed forces of the modern states with their machine guns, bombing planes and poison gas. Moreover, this power is placed in the hands of the capitalist class by the workers themselves. To expect these workers to do two diametrically opposite things simultaneously, is going it a bit too strong. On the economic side the working class is weak. They are propertyless. They own nothing but their ability to work, which they must sell to the capitalist class in order to live. The objectives of a union are confined to questions of hours, wages and conditions, problems within the four walls of capitalism. A union, regardless of type, to be effective today must depend primarily on numbers rather than understanding. Ever changing productive methods as well as the continuous introduction of new industries, make unions powerless to cope with even their immediate problems. Their view that the industrial union is the only means of taking and holding industry, is but the pipe dream of the SLP.

In the light of this review, it should be apparent that our concern is not what “practical” measures to advocate. The Declaration of Principles on the last page states our position. Our task at the moment is to carry on the work of socialist education. The capitalists rule today because the workers sanction and uphold the existing form of property relationships. “The possessing class rules directly through universal suffrage. For as long as the oppressed class, in this case the proletariat, is not ripe for its economic emancipation, just so long will its majority regard the existing order of society as the only one possible … On the day when the thermometer of universal suffrage reaches its boiling point among the laborers, they as well as the capitalists will know what to do.” (EngelsOrigin of the Family, p. 211.)


Issac Rabinowich is one of the founding members of the Workers Socialist Party of the United States, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement in the United States.

The Party now known as the World Socialist Party of the United States was formed, in Detroit, in July 1916. Probably its most enthusiastic founder-member was Isaac Rabinowich, generally called Rab for short. His granddaughter and long time member of the WSP, Karla Rab Ellenbogen, has just written and published Role-Modeling Socialist Behavior: A Biography of Isaac Rab, which also contains a selection of Rab’s letters and articles.

Rab’s parents, Sheppie and Sara Rabinowich, came from Navaradok in Minsk-Gobernia, on the Russian-Polish border. Sheppie’s father and grandfathers for many generations had been rabbis; and Sheppie also studied to be a rabbi, but then decided that it was irrational to believe in a god. He gave up being a rabbi, and became a lay teacher. In August 1893, Sheppie and Sara, who was already pregnant, arrived in Boston in the United States, and on December 22 had a son whom they named Isaac.

Sara was, even before emigrating to America, the pioneer revolutionary socialist in the family. Almost immediately after arriving in the United States, Sheppie joined the Socialist Labor Party, and then with its formation, the reformist Socialist Party of America. He later became a charter member of the Communist Party, although neither Sara nor their son fell for Bolshevism. In 1909 at the age of 16, Isaac Rab joined the Socialist Party of America, and served as the Boston Locals secretary until he left in 1912.

In 1915, Rab moved to Detroit, Michigan, and as soon as he arrived joined the Detroit Local of the SPA. Detroit was a boom town with auto plants attracting workers not only from other areas of the USA, but also from Canada and Great Britain. Among them at that time were members of the Socialist Party of Canada and of Great Britain, including Tom Bolt, Bill Davenport, Adolph Kohn and Moses Baritz. As elsewhere, the reformers in the Detroit Local of the SPA predominated, but the revolutionary minority drew encouragement from the new reinforcements and socialist literature, as well as the International Socialist Review published by Charles H. Kerr & Co.

Rab soon heard about a Marxist study class conducted by Moses Baritz and Adolph Kohn in Duffield Hall. He immediately joined. And soon after rejected the majority reformism of the SPA. Rab also met, and became friendly with John Keracher, the Michigan State Secretary of the SPA, who originally came from Scotland. Karla Rab Ellenbogen relates that, in April 1916, at a lecture in Duffield Hall with a friend, Bob Reynolds, Rab “couldn’t pull his eyes away” from the girl taking the collection a little way down the aisle from them. It was love at first sight. Her name was Ella Riebe. Rab was introduced to her.. “I’m going to marry that girl,” Rab told Reynolds. And on September 27, 1916, Ella and Isaac were married.

The revolutionists within the Michigan SPA felt that a new political party was needed, in the words of the SPGB declaration of principles, “determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist…”.

Keracher largely agreed, but with Dennis Batt decided to remain in the SPA for the time being. On July 7, 1916, however, 43 members of the Duffield Hall study group, including Rab and 18 other members of the Detroit Local, formed the Socialist Party of the United States. They included Bill Davenport, who became the first secretary, Lawrence Beardsley, George Ramsay, Walter Green and Bill Gribble, the first organizer (although not mentioned by Karla, Gribble had been an active member of the Socialist Party of Canada). Ella joined later. Shortly after, the Socialist Party of America challenged the new party’s right to use the name, and Workers Socialist Party was substituted. The WSP adopted the object and declaration of principles of the SPGB. On August 11, 1917, Ella gave birth to a boy who was named Willie.

Following the Bolshevik coup d’état in Russia, writes Karla Rab Ellenbogen, “the socialists in the new Workers Socialist Party were sneered at for their failure to recognize a socialist revolution when it took place”. And she adds: “To their credit, the WSP comrades saw that there was no conscious, political majority of convinced socialists in Russia; any revolution there could only lead to the establishment of a capitalist government.”

Faced with a hostile political climate, of government repression against “reds”, anarchists, radicals and socialists, the WSP membership had to make a hard decision. Without changing its principles, it decided in 1919 to abandon the structure of a political party, and re-group as the Detroit Socialist Education Society, generally referred to as the SES. In 1921 it changed its name again to the Marxian Club. In April, 1920, Ella Rab gave birth to another baby, whom they named Anna Hope. Rab, who was working for Ford, was warned that he was not to propagate socialist ideas in the factory, and was then blacklisted. In the same year, the family moved back to Boston.

In Boston, there were no members of the socialist movement. So, in the words of Karla, “Rab had resumed the task begun in Detroit, his lifelong work of spreading knowledge and understanding of the case for socialism, almost as soon as he got back to Boston.” He was a charismatic speaker and soon drew large audiences wherever he spoke. Meanwhile, an active socialist group, the Socialist Educational Society, had been formed in New York, comprising former members of the SPGB and SPC, as well as others such as Sam Orner, the taxi driver immortalised by Clifford Odets in the play Waiting for Lefty.

In 1927, Rab and Ella, and their two children, marched in the funeral parade for Sacco and Vanzetti, the two anarchists executed by the state “for a murder of which they were patently innocent”, writes Karla Rab Ellenbogen in her biography of her grandfather. (Another charismatic socialist, Charlie Lestor, was also there).

Shortly after, Rab took charge of the Vagabonds, an athletic club which, in the words of Karla, “played a role in the growth of the socialist movement in Boston that no one could have anticipated”. The Vagabonds was not just an athletics club, but encouraged discussions of science, history, anthropology and, under Rab’s influence, socialism. Some members of the Vagabonds formed a Science Club, a number of whom became active in the socialist movement in Boston. In 1929, Rab and a number of his comrades were able to form a Socialist Study Class which moved into International Hall, which, incidentally, was also the headquarters of the local Communist Party. With increasing activities in Boston, New York and Detroit, the members of the various classes, clubs and groups voted to once again become the Workers’ Socialist Party of the United States. Rab continued to soapbox at various locations in Boston. And by 1931, he was joined by a well-known, top-notch local tennis player by the name of George Gloss. As Karla notes, George Gloss was to play a major role in the history and development of the WSP.

In November, 1933, the Boston Local of the WSP had just 12 members. By 1939, it had around a 100. The Local moved into the WSP headquarters at 12 Hayward Place; and members spoke regularly on Boston Common. In 1940, Karla was born to Rab’s daughter Anna and a young socialist, Lenny Feinzig. At the beginning of the Second World War, the WSP issued its anti-war manifesto, calling on the workers to establish socialism, and “put a speedy end to the profit system that breeds wars…”. Unfortunately they did not.

In 1946, the Boston Local was forced to move to another headquarters at 27 Dock Square. This put quite a strain on the membership. Karla’s grandmother, Ella, was the Locals secretary at the time. Rab was the National Organizer. In 1946-1947, there were at least a 100 active socialists in Boston. It was at this time that the Workers Socialist Party decided that it must change its name, largely because of the confusion caused by a Trotskyist group calling itself the Socialist Workers Party. Although many members of the WSP were reluctant to give up the old name, a majority, in a referendum voted for the party to be called the World Socialist Party of the United States. Rab said in later years that it had been a fortuitous choice, as it emphasized the international nature of the socialist movement.

By the 1950s, the WSP began to lose some of its often most active members. There were a number of controversies. Karla comments: “The material conditions were simply not conducive to a general desire for social change as they had been during the Depression. The American working-class were disinterested in socialism during the post-war years. McCarthyism was on the rise. It was a discouraging time for socialists.” The National Office was moved from Boston to Detroit in 1950. The McCarthy witch hunts made it particularly difficult for not just “Communists”, but also socialists and the WSP. Nevertheless, a much smaller party carried on. In September, 1954, Rab and George Gloss visited the United Kingdom. Indeed, this writer met Rab and heard him and George Gloss speak to a large and attentive audience one sunny Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park.

By the early 1970s, Isaac Rab began to age, although he continued to be active in the party. In December, 1975, there was, writes Karla, a huge celebration for Rab’s 80th birthday. Hundreds of people came. Ella Rab died in 1979. And Rab began to suffer from Alzheimers disease. He died on December 31, 1986. The World Socialist Party, of course, carried on. In fact, “Eventually, members in other parts of the country who had thought the WSP was no more, found the party again”, notes Karla Rab Ellenbogen.

The World Socialist Party continues the struggle.

Peter E. Newell