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"Comrades Across the Ocean:" the German-Dutch and American Socialist Lefts, 1912-1917

Note: This is a paper I wrote for a grad school class on the history of print. It dates back to 2008-11-17. The paper was meant to focus on the print culture of the Socialist Party of America, and particularly how a widespread socialist press allowed it to forge a connection with the revolutionary elements that later became the German and Dutch communist left. I'm finally sharing it, 10 years on, because I am back to studying the history of American socialism.

What's below is very nearly what I turned in for class. I have not tried to fix any flaws, of which there are many, including a lack of direction. I'm also aware that the title referencing the communist left is anachronistic. Yet it works. Many of the militants and parties discussed here adhered to their revolutionary principles and thereby became part of the communist left. Others didn't and joined the Social Democrats or Stalinists in defending statified capitalism.

You may also wish to read my paper The Groups of Council Communists and the Spanish Civil War. It is like a sequel to this. It mentions many of the same people, parties, and publications.

-- 2020-05-10

Traditionally, the American socialist movement has been seen as lilliputian and theoretically retarded. The German-Dutch socialist left[01], on the other hand, was widely known for the quality of its theoretical analyses. That the two movements began a close alliance in the 1910s defies conventional wisdom. As we shall see, conventional wisdom has been quite mistaken, for the American socialist left was an integral part of an international movement that challenged both the capitalist political establishment and the Socialist parties that stood in the way.

The American and German-Dutch Lefts to 1912

Following the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, German emigrants brought Marxism to the United States.[02] Cloistered and intensely possessive of ideas which ossified into dogmas, these exiles had little influence on their new countrymen.[03] Nonetheless, restive indigenous reformers and romantics still managed to stumble towards an inchoate socialism in the 1870s and 1880s. Most significant of all these efforts was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. The Utopian novel, published in 1888, is credited with introducing socialism to millions of Americans, including Eugene Debs and other future leaders of the Socialist Party.[04] It was not until 1890, when the Columbia-educated Daniel De Leon took the reins of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), hitherto German and ghettoized, that a thoroughly Marxist political party made any headway among American workers. Numerically insignificant even in its heyday, the SLP's dubious contribution to American socialism, stemming from De Leon's iron leadership style, was a long lasting aversion to a strongly organizing political party.[05] In 1897, the remnants of Eugene Debs's American Railway Union, along with members of J.A. Wayland's Brotherhood of the Co-Operative Commonwealth, formed the Social Democracy of America.[06] A year later, after the Social Democracy of America endorsed a scheme of colonizing the West, Debs and other politically-minded socialists fled to form the Social Democratic Party of America.[07] By 1900, the Social Democratic Party had an impressive 4500 members and 226 branches in 25 states.[08] The next year, after cantankerous discussions with "kangaroos" jumping over from the SLP ship, the Socialist Party of America succeeded the Social Democratic Party. Initially, the party's upward climb seemed to have no limits. In 1904, the Debs received 420,000 votes as the party's presidential candidate and membership was tallied at 20,000.[09] At the 1912 party convention, delegates from every state but South Carolina represented 100,000 members.[10] That same year, Debs won 5.97% of the votes cast for president -- almost 900,000 votes.[11]

In light of this, it might appear astonishing that by 1920 the party was rent by a series of splits in which no less than three Communist Parties issued from it. Yet the very conditions that enabled the party to rise to such lofty heights (for an American socialist party, at least) contained the seeds of its dissolution. Indeed, the soil for these seeds was fertile; because many of the founders of the Socialist Party had fled from the intellectual dictatorship Daniel De Leon exercised over the SLP, in the new party was organized to preclude centralization. State organizations had so much power, Bell observes, that the Wisconsin branch of the party was able to prevent Eugene Debs, the face of the party and its perennial presidential candidate, from lecturing in the state.[12] Bell further suggests that the loose organizational structure of the Socialist Party inhibited the development of a stable, responsible national leadership.[13] There was little effort to ensure any kind of ideological uniformity -- and few resources to do so, in any case. The Socialist Party was thus the "big tent of American radicalism."[14] A third of the party, John Reed seethed, were "middle-class persons who think that Karl Marx wrote a good anti-trust law."[15] On the other end of the spectrum were men like William "Big Bill" Haywood, a former miner from the Western states, who declared in a 1912 speech that he abhorred the law, was not a law abiding citizen, and that "no socialist could be one."[16] Simplistically, the party can be divided into a right wing that believed that the ballot box would peacefully lead to socialism and a left wing that predicted and preached violent revolution. As long as this violent revolution remained a proposition reserved for the distant future, left and right could agree on enough day to day issues that unity was possible.

Still, fierce disputes regarding tactics consumed much of the party's energy. The earliest disagreement to emerge, and one of the most central, revolved around the party's relationship to Gompers's American Federation of Labor. The right wing of the party was consistent in its insistence that no effort be made to supplant the AFL. Instead, they focused their energy first on capturing the union. When that failed, they became resigned to coexistence. The left, ardent advocates of organizing workers on an industrial basis rather than the narrow craft basis of the AFL, sought alternatives to the AFL. Thus in 1905 Debs participated in the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW soon fell into the hands of a resolutely anti-political faction, at which time most of the IWW's backers in the socialist party backed away. Nevertheless, the early successes of the IWW rallied much of the party's left to the notion of "direct action." Described by advocate Frank Bohn as "any action taken by the workers directly at the point of production with a view of bettering their conditions."[17] Seemingly capable of resolving the long-running intraparty debate regarding immediate demands and distant goals by offering a vision in which everyday skirmishes laid the groundwork for a final assault on capital, direct action gave the party's left something to rally around. The right, however, was quick to counter. At the 1912 party convention, the party's constitution -- already calling for the expulsion of those who rejected political action -- was amended to allow for the expulsion of those who "advocate crime, sabotage, or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation."[18] Shortly afterwards, the amendment was used to remove Haywood from the party's National Executive Council.[19] Haywood and his supporters filtered out of the party in the ensuing months, leaving the politically-minded left bereft of allies and unable to stop the rightward drift of the party.[20] By 1916 even a right-winger like A.M. Simons could accuse the party of having become a "Socialist Tammany."[21] The stage was thus set for the battles in which the German-Dutch left came to the fore as the left's outstanding international ally.

Understanding the interaction between the German-Dutch and American lefts requires an introduction to the Socialist press. In 1912, the party was able to "take credit for 5 English and 8 foreign-language daily newspapers, 262 English and 36 foreign-language weeklies, and 10 English and 2 foreign-language monthlies."[22] The most successful of these, the folksy Appeal to Reason, had a circulation of 750,000 in 1913.[23] When a dozen socialist publications had their mailing rights suspended in 1917, over a million copies thereof were kept out of the mail.[24] Sales figures indicate a press that reached many readers; for some of these, the press was often the only means of connecting to the national movement.[25] Books, too, played an important part in the exposition of socialist ideas. The eponymous Charles H. Kerr & Company publishing house began to publish the Pocket Library of Socialism series in 1899. By 1902, 35 socialist classics had been printed and 500,000 copies circulated.[26]

One of the most important left wing socialist publications was the International Socialist Review. Because of its role in uniting the left wing of the party, and because it was the primary means by witch the German-Dutch leftists communicated with the American left, an examination of the life of the ISR is in order. Published by Charles H. Kerr & Company beginning in July of 1900, the ISR for most of its first decade served as a theoretical journal in which leading American Marxists debated the central issues facing the party.[27] Its task was conceived of as "educating the educators."[28] At the same time, ISR was designated by the International Socialist Bureau -- the agency of the Second International tasked with maintaining communications between constituent parties -- as the American organ responsible for carrying its bulletins.[29] Thus the ISR served to keep the entire American movement appraised of European developments. Despite the journal's importance to the intellectual life of the party, most readers were put-off by its reputation for abstruseness. Readership never surpassed 5,000 in this first phase. By 1908, the ISR's editor, Algie Martin Simons, hitherto on the party's left, parted ideological company with the increasingly radical Kerr. Kerr's assumed the editorship and remade the ISR into the "fighting magazine of the working class," as it prided itself in its subtitle. The ISR remained committed to theory, only now it had combined theory with an open-eyed analysis of the everyday struggles of the American working class. This newfound focus on the working class led Kerr and his collaborators towards a greater faith in the ability of American workers to educate themselves.[30] A similar perspective was central to the outlook and method of the German-Dutch left. The ISR became clearinghouse for the leftmost elements of the party -- indeed, it was one of the only print venues open to the left. In the eyes of many on the right, the ISR was an irresponsible, subversive element that undermined the party and harmed its credibility. Relations were so acrimonious that in New York the state organization urged its members to stop circulating the magazine. When leftists tried to distribute copies of the ISR at a rally at Madison Square Garden held Deb's presidential campaign, the right-wing group responsible for arranging the event called the police![31]

Another feature in each issue of the ISR (which received greater space from 1908 on) was the News and Views section. Laconically described as a "sounding board for revolutionists throughout the country," News and Views was essentially several pages set aside for letters from the ISR's readers (sales totaled 50,000 per month in 1912[32]). The News and Views section let socialists comment on previous articles or current events, call for support and solidarity, praise the ISR or call attention to notable local socialists. One submission invited readers traveling to Guelph, Ontario to stop at James Smith's newsstand for a "warm welcome" and "an opportunity to purchase a lot of Socialist literature."[33] Such invitations undoubtedly connected socialists throughout North America, but even the mundane letters offering nothing more than the writer's hearty salutations must have had the effect of creating at least the feeling of a socialist community. While J.S. Collins of Dunlap, Kansas lamented that "the Review is the best magazine that comes my way, and I take them all. I am a lone Socialist here; there is no local," he or she must have gleaned some sense of fraternity from the News and Views pages. And by no means was this socialist community found on the pages of ISR limited to the United States or even North America. A few lines from a letter from a reader named Hugh Craney published in the February 1917 ISR establish this: "I have just returned from a trip around the world and found men in Australia, Africa and Japan who were reading the REVIEW. It is truly a great international magazine."[34] More dramatic was the letter from a German prisoner of war held in England who wrote that "as a member of the Party [presumably the SPD], I wish to congratulate our Comrades in America for the stand they have taken towards this horrible war ... We are not allowed to read the International Socialist Review, but somehow or other we manage to get one in, and whenever this happens, it has to go the whole round of the camp."[35] Likewise, though less personally, the International Notes section of the paper covered labor and socialist developments in the movement as they occurred across the globe, from Germany to Japan to Mexico. This thoroughgoing internationalism permitted the German-Dutch left, as well as other international socialists, to contribute as if it were there own.

The German-Dutch left developed in response to the rampant revisionism (that is, the revision of Marxism to minimize class struggle and revolution and to emphasize electoral politics and gradual reforms) of European Social Democracy. Though the first major theoretical statement of revisionism was published by Eduard Bernstein in 1895, only a few months after Engels died, younger, more radical members of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) had already begun to challenge the party's reformism by the beginning of the 1890s.[36] In the Netherlands, the left of the Sociaal Democratische Arbeiders Partij (SDAP), grouped around the Nieuwe Tijd paper, fought its first battles with revisionism in 1901. Herman Gorter, a poet and leading socialist intellectual, first took the party's leader Troelstra to task over a clause in the party's program calling for land reforms that would facilitate the employment of waged labor by small farmers.[37] Gorter contested that the clause constituted a break from Marxist principles. Anton Pannekoek, an astronomer by training, a rising star in the party, and a future leading voice in the German-Dutch left, joined the debate on the side of Gorter, albeit circumspectly. Later that year Gorter again attacked the party, this time for its support for state funding of religious education.[38] In 1903, the country was rocked by what remains the largest labor strike wave in its history. The initiative and spontaneity of the workers, on the one hand, and the apathy of the SDAP and the official unions on the other etched into Pannekoek's mind, as his political biographer notes, the notion of "the primacy of the masses, rather than the organization, as the key agent of socialist transformation."[39] Attention to the development of the class consciousness of the working class, along with its militancy and capability for autonomous action, stand out alongside a hostility towards the dilution of the Marxist theory of class struggle as hallmarks of the German-Dutch left.

Pannekoek left the Netherlands for a teaching job at the SPD's school in Berlin in 1906.[40] As a foreigner, the police soon banned him from teaching.[41] Remaining in Berlin, he juggled his time between publishing theoretical articles for German socialist papers and partaking in the Dutch left's contest with center-right leadership of the SDAP. In late 1907, the SDAP's left launched the weekly De Tribune, the first issues of which Pannekoek used to spar once again with Troelstra.[42] Over the course of the next year and a half, the group around De Tribune fought incessantly with the party's reform-minded elements. By the party congress of 1909, the editors of De Tribune were issued an ultimate: suspend the publication or face expulsion from the party.[43] They chose the latter. In 1909, the Sociaal Democratische Partij was formed. At its outset, it had a mere 400 adherent. Five years later, it could only claim to have gained an additional hundred members; De Tribune had a paltry circulation of 1266.[44] Despite the weakness of the left in the Netherlands, Pannekoek and Gorter were soon to find enthusiastic supporters -- and fervent opponents -- in Germany.

Before World War I, the German SPD was seen as the crown jewel of the socialist movement. It was the party with the largest membership, the most representatives in the government, the strongest unions, and the most advanced theorists. Of the latter, Karl Kautsky was widely considered to be the greatest living Marxist. Yet it was against Kautsky that Pannekoek was pitted in 1910 in a series of acrimonious exchanges over the issue of "mass action." The debate was prompted by a series of mass demonstrations and strikes against Prussia's restrictive suffrage laws.[45] When it seemed that the actions might escape the control of the party, the party leadership stepped in to discourage further support for the "mass actions." Rosa Luxemburg, on party's left, had written a supportive article about the mass action only to see it refused publication first by the party's official paper Vorwärts and then Kautsky's Die Neue Zeit.[46] Kautsky soon countered the proponents of mass action by "reassert[ing] the validity of the socialist movement's 'tried and trusted' tactics of parliamentary and trade union struggle."[47] Pannekoek, taking up the debate on the side of Luxemburg, riposted that mass action was the only means by which the working class could acquire the strength, in the course of its own struggles to organize itself, necessary to overcome the power of the bourgeois state.[48] Subsequent articles covered much of the same ground. The debate ended in 1912 with Kautsky calling Pannekoek an "anarchist" -- to Marxists, a loathsome slander -- and Pannekoek shrugging off the charge.[49]

On the eve of the First World War, nearly every major socialist party had a dominant centrist component committed to electoral tactics -- and often nothing but. They were challenged by militants on the left who called for greater flexibility in the tactics employed in the fight for socialism. The outbreak of World War I and the capitulation of the major parties -- the German SPD above all -- to what the left saw as an imperialist war brought the antagonisms between left and right to a head.

The American and German-Dutch Lefts between World War and Revolution

The international left slowly regrouped and recovered from the demoralizing blow struck by the failure of the Social Democratic parties to stop or even resist the war. The most famous step in this direction was undoubtedly the Zimmerwald conference spearheaded by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1915. Another international development, less spectacular and far less known, was the forging of ties between the American and the German-Dutch lefts. This section of the paper considers those ties in the context of the struggles put up by the lefts in those two countries in the period 1912-1917.

The most important Dutch contribution to the American left was the theory of "mass action." At the same time as the debate over "mass action" took center stage in the German SPD, American socialists, as already noted, were grappling with the question of "direct action." Terminological similarities aside, the two theories had less in common than has sometimes been supposed. Theodore Draper, one of the most astute historians of the American communist movement, finds the origins of direct action in the brutal contests between labor and capital waged in the American West, where "buckshot won or lost many a strike."[50] Direct action was simply "the I.W.W.'s free translation for the facts of life in the neo-feudal company towns."[51] These workers were some of the most radical in America, but voting for the Socialist Party was not high on their list of priorities. The class struggle was an everyday fact of life, not something to be enacted once a parliamentary majority was acquired. Politics occupied a subordinate position in the schemes of the direct-actionists. According to Big Bill Haywood and Frank Bohn, the leading ideologues of direct action, the only use for politics was to confirm the accomplished fact of the seizure of the workplace by militant workers.[52] Direct action, therefore, was primarily economic.

Pannekoek conceived of mass action as "less as a tactic, or even a series of tactics, but more as a total orientation toward revolutionary activity."[53] Hesitant to offer a simple formula for mass action, he focused instead on the necessity -- and inevitability -- of forms of struggle in which the entire class was engaged, educated, and made more firmly committed to the socialist cause. These positive developments also had the effect of beating down the moral authority of the bourgeois state, setting the stage for the final showdown between the state's instruments of force and the instruments of force of the working class.[54] Mass action differed from direct action in that its emphasis was political and that it retained a central role for the party as the coordinator of the activity of the masses.[55]

In the end direct action and mass action were bound together more than anything by their common implication: the expansion of the tactics of class struggle to activities beyond the narrow purview of the parliamentarian. Morris Hillquit, the leading figure on the party's right, evidently saw such similarities. During the right's successful crusade against Haywood and the direct-actionists, Hillquit wrote to Kautsky asking for his input on the socialist stance on the law.[56] Though Kautsky was criticized for slavishly soliciting the opinions of the Germans, the party's right apparently found in Kautsky's work a useful rejoinder to the direct action left. The New York Call, which was to insist later that year on Haywood's removal from his position of leadership in the party, reprinted the Kautsky-Pannekoek debate in its pages over the course of 1912.[57] With the direct action wing of the party an accomplished fact by the middle of 1913, the German-Dutch left's concept of mass action was of little use to the party.

More of Pannekoek's writings came to the United States in 1912. Charles H. Kerr and Company published as a pamphlet a translation of Pannekoek's essay Marxism and Darwinism.[58] Within the pages of the International Socialist Review, William E. Bohn translated an article on the German elections of 1912. Surveying the political scene in Germany, Pannekoek first analyzes imperialism, which he defines as the stage of capitalism marked by export of capital abroad and the concentration of capital domestically. Under imperialism, he continues, parliamentary efforts can win no succor for the working class and therefore "it is no wonder that during the past five years mass actions have become more and more common in Germany." Spelling out in simple terms what mass action entails, he writes that "Mass actions begin with mere meetings and demonstrations, developing sometimes into huge street demonstrations like those which played a part two years ago in the fight for a new electoral law in Prussia; and as the last, and most powerful weapon the working class has at its disposal, the general strike."[59] Still, Pannekoek insists, parliament has its uses:

Parliamentary activity still serves to carry the truth about capitalism and its tyranny into the smallest villages and weld the workers into [sic] powerful united body. But parliamentary activity is no longer viewed in Germany as the cure-all of the Socialist movement. During the past ten years there has come about a great change in the thinking of the German working class. This fact has not been universally observed because it is not evident in the press; in numerous socialist papers of the more radical sort it is being remarked with increased frequency that the conquest of power is not to be brought about by the use of the ballot alone, but that the masses themselves must enter into the conflict.[60]

Pannekoek ends by warning that unless mass action is brought to bear upon imperialism, the threat of war will loom ever larger.

By the time of his next appearance in the pages of ISR, his dire prediction of war had come to pass. Leading off October 1914's ISR, "The Great European War and Socialism" contained a lucid review of the left's theory of imperialism and a rebuke of the SPD for repressing mass action. Allen Ruff, a historian who has investigated the left milieu associated with ISR, sees a parallel between Pannekoek's analysis and Mary E. Marcy's demand that American socialists endorse the general strike as a means for preventing American entry into the war.[61] The next month, Pannekoek's "The Downfall of the International" -- widely read in a number of European languages[62] -- was published in an issue of The New Review, another left-wing monthly. Declaring that the "ignoble death of the second [International] is an indication of the fact that its usefulness is at an end," he predicted the future birth of a "new International of Labor," one "more firmly founded, more strongly organized, more powerful and more Socialistic than the one now perished."[63] Pannekoek thus became "the first contributor to an American Left Wing organ to bury the Second International and raise a cry for the Third."[64] Yet another Pannekoek article -- "The War and Its Effects", a continuation of "The Great European War and Socialism" -- appeared in the December edition of ISR.

Pannekoek returns to the pages of the American socialist press in February 1915 with an article each for The New Review and International Socialist Review. In "New Tactics Against War Basis of a New International," published in The New Review, Pannekoek began by reiterating the arguments he had been making in the American press for the four months prior. He then turned his attention to an article that appeared in the November 1914 ISR.[65] Pannekoek's reply, a depiction of the revolution as a drawn-out process of conflict rather than a single action reserved for the distant future, is perhaps less noteworthy than the simple fact that a leader of the left wing of the European socialist movement was reading, and reading seriously, an American publication. This is only further confirmation of Ruff's assertion that "The ISR group played a central role in the Atlantic community of left-wing socialism."[66] Ruff emphasizes the American's need for "political support and affirmation" from the European left, but, as discussed below, there is good reason to believe that the European left -- or at least the German-Dutch left -- paid close attention to American developments.

The May 1915 ISR printed what appears to be Herman Gorter's first article in the American press. Parenthetically, "Imperialism, The World War, and Social Democracy" was introduced as a section of a book being written by Hermann Gorter, which Charles H. Kerr and Company hoped to soon release in the United States; the note closes with an assurance from Pannekoek, who brought the book to the magazine's attention, that Gorter is the "ablest theorist" of the German-Dutch left.[67] After repeating the usual analysis, the article concludes with "to be continued." Mysteriously, the next mention of this particular article or book comes over a year later in the July 1916 issue of ISR, in which a small advertisement for "Der Imperialismus, Der Weltkrieg und Die Sozial-Demokratie von Herman Gorter" informs readers that "after the book was in type, the author felt obliged to insist on suppressing the edition for reasons of his own. He has now sent us several hundred copies of this edition in the German language ... Every German-speaking reader of the REVIEW should read and circulate it."[68]

Perhaps fortunately for readers who tired of reading Pannekoek repeat his analyses -- however sound -- in each subsequent issue of ISR, July 1915 saw the entry of S.J. Rutgers into the American left wing scene. Rutgers took over from Pannekoek the task of expounding the Dutch-German viewpoint in America. A prolific writer, he wrote no less than 20 articles for ISR alone in the next two years. He also played an important role in organizing a strong left outside the pages of their journals.

Described by Draper in personal terms as a "big, broad-shouldered, handsome man with a little beard and an aristocratic manner,"[69] Rutgers received a more formal introduction preceding his first ISR article:

one of the foremost civil engineers in Holland. He is also a member of the revolutionary Dutch S.D.P. And one of the group comprising Drs. Pannekoek and Gorter, whose book on war we hope soon to publish. Comrade Rutgers has spent several years in the Orient and perhaps no socialist whom we have met in a long time is so capable of telling our readers the meaning of Imperialism or Colonial Expansion in the far East.[70]

His first article in ISR, "Down with American Militarism," examined in simple language the practical consequences of "imperialism" for both colonial populations and western workers. The conclusion he draws is the necessity of "opposing imperialism and militarism together with the workers the whole world over -- black, white and yellow."[71] This theme was taken up again in a series of short articles entitled "Far Eastern Imperialism" that were published in the September, October and November 1915 issues of ISR.

Returning briefly to Europe now, we see that by the fall of 1915 the Bolsheviks, along with other European socialists opposed to the war, had organized the Zimmerwald Conference. The conference consisted of representatives from all the European socialist parties and groupings opposed to the war. Though the Dutch SDP refused to officially attend on the grounds that it was "opportunistic," including as it did parties that were not revolutionary but merely pacifistic, Pannekoek and the Dutch Socialist Henriette Roland Holst, thanks to their support for the conference, found themselves tasked with editing Vorbote, the German language paper of the "Zimmerwald Left" organized by Lenin.[72] The relationship between Lenin and the German-Dutch left quickly deteriorated, but not before plans could be made to save the floundering New Review in the United States by transforming it into the English-language version of Vorbote.[73] In the United States, Rutgers criticized the conference in May 1916's "The Battle Cry of a New International" for "compromising with those who did not even recognize that a split in the old parties is enevitable [sic] and necessary".[74] Nonetheless, he pledged that "our INTERNATIONAL REVIEW [sic], which always took the part of uncompromising class struggle and of revolutionary mass action, will no doubt be in the front line, will no doubt become the rallying point for those, who, not satisfied with theoretical discussions only, will prepare for a practical fight against the new form of imperialistic capitalism."[75] Events soon proved him right.

Beginning in June 1916, Rutgers launched a series of articles entitle "The Left-Wing." The long introduction from the editors prefacing the first installment is worth quoting at length, as it shows the internationalist orientation of the American left:

Dr. S. J. Rutgers, who has been for years associated with the best known socialists of Holland and Germany, as a member of the uncompromising Social Democratic Party of Holland, and who in close touch with the European comrades who are planning for a new Socialist Conference, to be wholly International in its aims, has consented to write a short series of articles for the REVIEW ... His general subject is the attitude towards Imperialism and toward Internationalism of the LEFT WING, or revolutionary group, in each of the Socialist parties in Europe today. These groups seem to us to contain within themselves the only hope of a real working class International. We want every reader of the REVIEW to read these articles carefully and discuss them with comrades who have become discouraged and left the Socialist Party. We believe that an overwhelming majority of American Socialists will welcome the plan of action suggested in these articles and will desire to swing the Socialist Party of America into line with the new International that is even now taking definite form. We believe these articles will prove to be the most valuable series we have ever published in the REVIEW. Thy [sic] will put the American comrades, who want a revolutionary organization, in touch with the comrades across the ocean who have like aims and a more definite program.[76]

Coherent, concise, and comprehensive, "The Left Wing" was an invaluable review of the theories of the European left wing, particularly as they were developed by the German-Dutch left. The first in the series focused on the theory of imperialism. Rutgers began by pointing out that for Marxists imperialism meant more than the dictionary definition's as a rapacious foreign policy. It meant "an aggressive home policy as well at home," with the growth of trusts and monopolies spelling the end of democracy and the importance of parliamentary activity.[77] In the second installment of "The Left Wing," Rutgers concisely located the origins of imperialism in the capitalist tendency towards the revolutionizing of productive methods and the concentration of more and more capital into fewer hands. Imperialism is a "dialectic development, in which a quantitative change turns at a certain point into a qualitative one."[78] Politically, the development of monopoly capitalism did away with the need for parliamentary democracy, Rutgers argued in the third installment of the Left-Wing, since "under Imperialism the capitalist interests gradually consolidate into one common interest," thereby doing away with the need for "the capitalist class to rule with the help of the farmers and the old middle classes" or "uniting different groups of capitalists, with somewhat different interests."[79] In the fourth installment of "The Left Wing," this time subtitled mass action, Rutgers reaches the conclusion that since the parliaments have been stripped of their real power, "as long as the Socialist Party is working on the old lines, it is doomed to inactivity."[80] But "parliamentary action is not the only form of political action."[81] Thus Rutgers returns to the German-Dutch left's favorite panacea: mass action. He enumerated the forms of mass action as "meetings, street demonstrations, political strikes and revolts." Perhaps most importantly, Rutgers claimed that mass action would resolve the old division between political and economic action. Mass action offered the wage worker more than the old parliamentary methods, but it also solved the inadequacies of "direct action" and "industrial unionism," which left the political terrain to an uncontested capitalist state.[82] The fifth "The Left Wing" was a short summary of the series theretofore, necessitated, said Rutgers, by the difficulty of clearly remembering installments always separated by a month.[83]

The December 1916 ISR was home to two contributions from Rutgers. The first was a translation of an article that appeared in the Bremen Arbeiterpolitik. The article adds little -- its thesis is essentially identical to Pannekoek's defense of limited parliamentary participation that appeared in the ISR back in 1912 (see page 12) -- but is noteworthy for its German origins. By 1916, the preponderance of the Germans in the German-Dutch left was firmly established; though Pannekoek and Gorter, as well as a few other outstanding representatives of the movement were Dutch, the real organization successes of the German-Dutch left were to occur in Germany. In the early part of 1917, the Arbeiterpolitik group from Bremen, whose article Rutgers had just translated from American audiences, united with the 'left radicals' from Hamburg to form the Internationale Sozialisten Deutschlands (ISD).[84] Though the ISD was "more of a tendency than a definite organization," the groundwork was laid for the formation of a Communist party in 1918.

At the same time, similarly momentous doings were afoot in the United States. A Latvian named Fricis Rozins (he used Fr. Rosin in English), editor of Strahdneeks (The Worker), the paper of the Latvian federation of the Socialist Party, was preparing to lead a band of uncompromisingly militant socialists in an effort to seize control of the state party.[85] At the Massachusetts Socialist convention held in the summer of 1915, Rosin and the Latvians introduced four resolutions. The first called on the party to forbid its members from every joining any "military organization of the capitalists." The second called for the formation of a Third International. The third hailed the German Karl Liebknecht, the only one of 110 SPD members in the Reichstag to vote against war credits in December 1914, and the fourth criticized American aggression towards Mexico.[86] The resolutions were defeated, but in response the Latvians, along with native-born Americans, organized the Socialist Propaganda League.[87] Throughout the organization's first year, little headway was made. Things changed as soon as Rutgers discovered them. Apparently alerted to the League through the Dutch De Tribune[88], Rutgers offered the League a loan of $100 to defray the cost of their upcoming publication, The Internationalist, and publicized their cause through the December 1916 installment of "The Left Wing," subtitled "An Actual Beginning." Thus the Socialist Propaganda League went national.

Draper observed that many scholars on the quest to find the origins of American communism came across the December 1916 "Left Wing" and erroneously thought they had discovered in it the basis of the future Communist movement in America. After all, as Draper points out, the Socialist Propaganda League existed for fully a year before Rutgers discovered it.[89] Yet, as Draper like wise notes, the Socialist Propaganda League's manifesto bears the strong imprint of the German-Dutch efforts.[90] The theory of imperialism and the consequent disregard for 'bourgeois democracy,' ideas Rutgers drove him in essay after essay, found a forceful restatement in the Manifesto. At the same time, these some proclamations tragically foreshadowed the future: "There is no difference between 'darkest' Russia, with its autocratic form of government, and 'enlightened' United States, with its 'democratic' institutions that are distinguished by the denial of free speech and organization and shooting by militia and 'company thugs,' for examples of which we do not forget Calumet and Ludlow."[91] Likewise, "when the workers seek shelter in constitutional guarantees and essay to use these rights for the betterment of their conditions, they too often find that rights and guarantees are mere 'scraps of paper.'"[92] The manifesto also describes the coming fight in terms almost identical to those employed by Pannekoek in his theoretical discussions of mass action. Thus,

the principled function of the Socialist movement is to participate in the class struggle in such a way, that the workers are educated to realize that their industrial power must back up a political or general class fight, in which the masses are to gain such a degree of organization and understanding, that they can disorganized the political supremacy of capitalism...[93]

Throughout 1917, "mass action" was the word of the day. Not only did a slew of articles appear in ISR promoting mass action, it was now embedded in the American movement as the cornerstone of the manifesto of the main left faction within the Socialist Party. Yet the influence of the Dutch-German left in American socialist life was nearly at an end. The entry of America in the First World War spelled disaster for the left as well as the right of the party. The government punished even the mildest anti-war utterances with prison sentences. Debs suffered the most serious sentence -- 10 years -- but "almost every major Socialist Party official was indicted during the war."[94] Even more damaging was the destruction of the socialist press. Every major socialist publication had its mailing rights suspended. Some, including the ISR, did not survive their suspensions. Others, like the Appeal to Reason, eviscerated themselves to avoid censorship. The cumulative effect of this repression was the shattering of the Socialist Party and the I.W.W. Repression alone the German-Dutch influence could have weathered, for the repression did not bow the stalwarts of the movement. It was the Bolshevik revolution that divorced the German-Dutch left from contact with America. In the rush to embrace Bolshevism the American socialists seemingly forgot all about the German-Dutch left. The appeal of the Bolsheviks to American socialists is easy to understand. Not only did they have the prestige of leading the first successful socialist revolution, they did it in a country with a tiny working class and almost no prospects for revolution a year before. Draper perceptively notes that this was just the combination of qualities that would appeal to American socialists; the Bolsheviks gave them reason to think that a revolution could happen here.[95] But despite the repression, despite the newfound authority of the Russians, "mass action" clung to life. Without the convictions of the German-Dutch left to animate it, the "mass action" referenced in the first platforms of the two communist parties that existed in the United States in 1919 may have been little more than an empty phrase. Yet it was also a reminder of a past in which American socialists participated on an equal footing with their European comrades, a past in which socialism was synonymous with the self-activity of the working class rather than dictates of a party's inner circle.

The German-Dutch and American lefts were clearly bound by close intellectual ties. The ideas of the German-Dutch left did not enter an intellectual vacuum when they crossed the Atlantic. On the contrary, the appeal of mass action and other German-Dutch theories was not because they suited an American socialist movement bereft of ideology, eager to accept whatever the Europeans directed their way, but because they confirmed and justified the ongoing struggle of the left against the reform-minded elements that comprised the right wing of the socialist party. Indeed, considering that the German-Dutch left is often considered to be a more innovative Marxist tendency, it seems all the more remarkable that the Americans found their ideas so amenable. Furthermore, more research into the "pre-contact" ideological similarities -- perhaps particularly in the writings of Austin Lewis -- between the two groups could contribute both to situating the German-Dutch socialist left in a broader European context as well as salvage the reputation of American socialist thinks, who have hitherto been regarded as quite deficient. Inquires into "mass action" as it was practiced in the United States are also welcome, though it seems that what did occur that could be classed as mass action -- the I.W.W.'s free speech struggles, for instance -- was not spurred on by the ISR. Research should also consider the impact of American developments on the thinking of the German-Dutch left. For example, S.J. Rutgers may have written prolifically to Americans about conditions in Europe, but evidently he wrote far more directed towards Europeans about the situation in the United States.[96] Finally, the issue of the inactivity of the German-Dutch left in the United States after the October Revolution has to be broached. Was the sudden disconnect a result of the repression of the Socialist Press in the U.S. which destroyed the ISR, the German-Dutch left's traditional conduit? Additionally, were American socialists aware of the acrid dispute between the German-Dutch left and the Bolsheviks that developed in the early 1920s? In short, the American history of the German-Dutch left in the period 1918-1934 remains to be written.


01. This is an imprecise term at best, but an indispensable one. In brief, it refers to the more radical elements that existed within German and Dutch socialism. The two countries are lumped together because of overlap in personages and ideas, though generally the movement only becomes important in Germany.

02. Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 19.

03. Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: The Viking Press, 1957), 32.

04. Bell, 57-59.

05. Bell, 81.

06. Bell, 48.

07. Bell, 52.

08. Bell, 53.

09. Bell, 67-68.

10. David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America: A History (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967), 71.

11. Shannon, 5.

12. Bell, 81.

13. Bell, 82.

14. Shannon, 148.

15. Shannon, 292.

16. Allen Ruff, "We Called Each Other Comrade": Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 148-149.

17. Ruff, 153.

18. Shannon, 72.

19. Shannon, 77-78.

20. Shannon, 79.

21. Shannon, 79. Witness the remarks of Representative Meyer London, elected to Congress as a Socialist: "I am elected for only two years, and that is too short a time in which to bring about the Social Revolution, so I am going to leave that job until later. I am going to do hardly anything to bring it about. You see, I have to be re-elected in 1916 and I have to retain some votes in my district." See Shannon, ??

22. By contrast, in Washington the socialists reprimanded one of the men they elected to the state House for voting for a progressive as speaker of the house instead of nominating himself. See Shannon, 39.

23. Draper, 42.

24. Paul M. Buhle, "The Appeal to Reason, New Appeal," in The American Radical Press, 1880-1960, vol. 1, ed. Joseph R. Conlin (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974), 57.

25. James Weinstein, "Anti-War Sentiment and the Socialist Party, 1917-1918," Political Science Quarterly 74, no. 2 (1959): 222.

26. Shannon, 111.

27. Ruff, 85.

28. Ruff, 161.

29. Ruff, 92.

30. Ruff, 161.

31. Ruff, 162.

32. Ruff, 156. Ironically, Debs was a frequent contributor to the ISR.

33. Ruff, 153.

34. International Socialist Review, May 1916, 700.

35. International Socialist Review, February 1917, 499.

36. International Socialist Review, August 1916, 73.

37. Richard Gombin, The Radical Tradition: A Study in Modern Revolutionary Thought (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), 93.

38. John Gerber, Anton Pannekoek and the Socialism of Workers' Self-Emancipation, 1873-1960 (Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History, 1989), 34. Interestingly, at the Socialist Party of America's 1901 party convention the issue of the party's relationship to the farmers subject of heated debates. See Bell, 63.

39. Gerber, 36.

40. Gerber, 39.

41. In a brief article entitled "The Social Democratic Party-School in Berlin," appearing in the December 1907 issue of International Socialist Review, Pannekoek writes that the aim of the school is to teach socialist principles "not alone to argue with the bourgeois parties, but also in order to correctly determine our own tactics. We must clearly understand the nature of capitalism not simply to incite the workingmen to fight against it, but also to find out for ourselves the best method of fighting it." 322 Vol 8, no 6.

42. Gerber, 45.

43. Erik Hansen, "Crisis in the Party: De Tribune Faction and the Origins of the Dutch Communist Party, 1907-9," Journal of Contemporary History 11, no. 2/3 (1976): 51.

44. Hansen, 58.

45. Hansen, 59. Gorter could justify the party's minuteness on the grounds that "a workers' party whose actions are not based on the knowledge of society is not a real party even if it has a hundred thousand supporters. It is only a crowd, masses of people gathered around a troop of demagogues." See Gerber, 93.

46. D.A. Smart, ed., Pannekoek and Gorter's Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 1978), 18.

47. Smart, 18.

48. Smart, 18.

49. Smart, 19.

50. Smart, 19.

51. Draper, 22.

52. Draper, 22.

53. Anthony V. Esposito, The Ideology of the Socialist Party of America, 1901-1917 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 192.

54. Gerber, 95.

55. Gerber, 96.

56. Gerber, 98.

57. Ruff, 151.

58. Esposito, 195.

59. The same publisher released Joseph Dietzgen's The Positive Outcome of Philosophy with an introduction by Pannekoek in 1906.

60. Anton Pannekoek, "The Elections in Germany," International Socialist Review, March 1912, 561.

61. Pannekoek, "The Elections in Germany," 562.

62. Ruff, 182.

63. Gerber, 108.

64. Anton Pannekoek, "The Downfall of the International," New Review, November 1914, 630.

65. Draper, 64.

66. Anton Pannekoek, "New Tactics Against War Basis of a New International," New Review, February 1915, 66.

67. Ruff, 169.

68. Herman Gorter, "Imperialism, The World War, and Social Democracy," International Socialist Review, May 1915, 645.

69. International Socialist Review, July 1916, 59.

70. Draper, 66.

71. S.J. Rutgers, "Down with American Militarism," International Socialist Review, July 1915, 33.

72. S.J. Rutgers, "Down with American Militarism," 35.

73. Smart, 23; Gerber, 110.

74. Draper, 86.

74. S.J. Rutgers, "The Battle Cry of a New International," International Socialist Review, May 1916, 647.

75. S.J. Rutgers, "The Battle Cry of a New International," 648.

76. S.J. Rutgers, "The Left Wing: Imperialism," International Socialist Review, June 1916, 728.

77. S.J. Rutgers, "The Left Wing: Imperialism," 728.

78. S.J. Rutgers, "The Left Wing: Economic Causes of Imperialism," July 1916, 29.

79. S.J. Rutgers, "The Left Wing: The Passing of the Old Democracy," International Socialist Review, August 1916, 96-97.

80. S.J. Rutgers, "The Left Wing: Mass Action," International Socialist Review, October 1916, 233.

81. S.J. Rutgers, "The Left Wing: Mass Action," 233.

82. S.J. Rutgers, "The Left Wing: Mass Action," 235.

83. S.J. Rutgers, "The Left Wing: Mass Action and Mass Democracy," International Socialist Review, November 1916, 303.

84. Smart, 26.

85. Draper, 68.

86. Draper, 68.

87. Draper, 69.

88. Joyce Moore Turner, Caribbean Crusaders and the Harlem Renaissance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 72.

89. Draper, 71.

90. Draper, 71.

91. "Manifesto of the Socialist Propaganda League of America," International Socialist Review, February 1917, 483.

92. "Manifesto of the Socialist Propaganda League of America," 484.

93. "Manifesto of the Socialist Propaganda League of America," 484.

94. Bell, 105.

95. Draper, 101.

96. Turner, 21.


Secondary Sources

Primary Sources