Rising from its Death-bed

A socialist party that some say is a relic from the past clinging to life-support, is hoping its message can still resonate, and is attempting to sow its ideas in more favorable soil, now that American political life is showing promising signs of a revival. However, a definite class ideology by no means exists as yet and the task still remains to build a mass workers’ movement.

The increasingly reformist nature of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) led some of its members in Detroit to leave in 1916 and form the Socialist Party of the United States although a name change was soon required when the SPA challenged them on the use of the name so the Workers Socialist Party of the United States (WSPUS) was born. At its formation, it had only 43 members, but that’s more than it has now. The WSPUS sent its manifesto to Jack London, who in his last political statement, answered:

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…

Its birth proved to be premature. As a consequence of the political repression from the infamous Palmer ‘Red Raids’ of 1919, the WSPUS became the Socialist Education Society. In 1930, the Workers’ Socialist Party was re-formed and later re-named itself the World Socialist Party to avoid confusion with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party. A fortuitously name change in that it emphasizes the WSPUS’s internationalist world outlook and it is a companion party of the World Socialist Movement, which is, at the present time, more an aspiration than actual reality.

The WSPUS is not large and never ever was. There is no reason to be arrogant or boastful. In truth, it remains minuscule and inconsequential. It failed to make the transformation from a small study group to a mass socialist party. However, it has left its mark. It was WSPUS member Sam Orner, whom Clifford Odets based the character of Lefty in his famous play about the New York taxi drivers’ strike, “Waiting for Lefty.”

The renowned Marxist scholar, Anton Pannekoek, was an occasional writer for the party’s former journal, the “Western Socialist”. While visiting Harvard to accept a prestigious award for his astronomy research, Pannekoek chose to forgo the customary lavish university banquet to address a small meeting of the WSPUS.

Working people do not need yet another reformist party.  Of those, there are plenty enough to pick from, all proposing a plethora of palliative policies. What the WSPUS say is that what really is needed is an organisation that is grounded in the materialist principles of Marxism. The WSPUS has always held to a clear and precise definition of its aim since its foundation: A worldwide system of society in which goods and services are produced solely to satisfy human needs, not profit; which will only be possible when all the productive resources are owned in common and democratically controlled, rather than at present where they belong to private individuals or the State on the “people’s behalf”. Such a society cannot therefore be a system of buying and selling or bartering. It cannot be brought about by promises of political leaders. If the World Socialist Party of the United States at some point in the future were to run a candidate for President and won, their mission would be to abolish the very office they were elected to. It needs knowledgeable working people who understand and desire it. And a clear recognition that the working class are robbed and that the thieves are the capitalist class. Thus, the WSPUS takes up the political position of uncompromising hostility to all supporters of capitalism in any shape or form.

WSPUS has gone against the prevailing wisdom of the Left by not advocating reforms. Undoubtedly, some reforms do benefit workers but as far as political struggle is concerned, the position of the WSPUS is quite simply that it opposes the practice of reformism, on the grounds that campaigning for reforms is incompatible with the goal of achieving a socialist revolution. Once you go down that route, there is no limit to the number of reforms you aim to seek. Sooner or later in the bid to push for more and more reforms, the revolutionary objective of changing society will be neglected and eventually forgotten altogether. Not just that, but many gains of particular reforms are transient and temporary, given with one hand, to be taken away with other. It becomes a constant treadmill struggle to retain them.

For the WSPUS, the strategy of social revolution isn’t just a long-term policy – it is also a good short-term tactic. Faced with voters who refuse to endorse pro-capitalist candidates, confronted by voters who no longer hold to TINA “there is no alternative” theory and challenged by a growing active militant movement for socialism, what else can those in power do but offer as many concessions as possible?

Is the WSPUS an anachronism, well past its use-by date? Or is its efforts to breathe life into itself again in the the age of the internet and social media an optimistic sign of the resurrection of the assumed dead “impossibilist” socialist tradition.

Alan Johnstone is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement. He contributes to the blogs: Socialism or Your Money Back and Socialist Courier. Alan can be reached at: alanjjohnstone@yahoo.co.uk. Read other articles by Alan.