By Paul Le Blanc

Haymarket Books. 304 pages. $22. ISBN 978-1-60846-682-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“Is socialism possible in the United States? Why has there not been in this country the kind of massive socialist labour movement that arose, for example, throughout Europe?”

Two questions that resonate throughout Paul Le Blanc’s collection of essays exploring aspects of American radicalism. Aspects, I should add, largely looked at from a Trotskyist point of view, though the question of what is referred to as American “exceptionalism” is one that has bedevilled many left-wing historians and analysts for decades. And I’m not sure that anyone has so far come up with a satisfactory answer. Why were (are) American workers, militant though they may be at times and in specific circumstances, so reluctant to identify with political parties that propose socialist policies as a way of opposing the imperfections of capitalism?

I can’t acknowledge that I found the answer in anything that Le Blanc says,  though he works hard in the long essay, “Socialism in the United States,” to at least provide some suggestions as to why American workers prefer, on the whole, to live with the uncertainties of capitalism rather than the supposed assurances of socialism. It isn’t just a simple case of them having seen the limitations of “actual existing socialism” in operation in Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries following the Second World War. That would be too easy an answer to the puzzle. Reluctance to take to socialist ideas can be traced back many years before that. There were periods in the past when socialist politicians were elected to various governing bodies on both a local and national level, but never in sufficient numbers, or for sufficient lengths of time, to make any long-term radical changes. It may be just a fact that, “While left-wing intellectuals want the workers to focus on the goal of proletarian revolution, real workers naturally prefer a capitalist economy in which they can seek guarantees of a job with improved wages, hours, and working conditions”. Some might refer to this as “narrow pragmatism”. Others might claim that it’s just “common sense”.

There is an interesting comment by Le Blanc when he says that, “the US experience might not be an exception to but instead a precursor of European (and global) capitalist developments. Consistent with present-day trends of ‘globalisation’, such lines of analysis include optimistic and pessimistic notions of what the future might bring”. He quotes Eric Foner as claiming that “because mass politics, mass culture, and mass consumption came to America before it did to Europe”, American socialists have been “the first to face the dilemma of how to define socialist politics in a capitalist democracy”.

To give Le Blanc his due, he does seem to see himself as among the “optimistic” camp in terms of still hoping that some sort of situation will develop where the “working-class” will lead the way to a socialist society. I worry when I see a term like “working-class” and wonder just who is meant by it? There may be working-classes, different grades of occupations which involve workers who can often combine in pursuit of their specific interests, but beyond that they often have different concerns and involvements. They surely cannot be all lumped together to suit the convenience of activists steeped in ideological aims that fail to acknowledge individual ambitions and commitments.

I don’t want to extend this discussion beyond what I’ve said so far. But it seemed to me necessary to comment to some degree on Le Blanc’s opinions, if only to give an idea of where he is, as they say, coming from. He’s worth reading even if you tend to think that it’s not getting very far to keep worrying away at the same old problems. Le Blanc would probably respond by saying that “worrying away” is precisely what is required, and that to abandon a dedication to finding a solution is to lose faith in the possibility of a better future. Patience is very much a required virtue in this field.

Some of Le Blanc’s writings are concerned with the history of the Left in America. “The Haymarket Revolutionaries: Albert Parsons and his Comrades” provides the background to the tragic events when, during a demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4th, 1886, a bomb was thrown into a group of policemen, killing several of them and wounding more , and the police opened fire and killed and wounded some demonstrators. The authorities then rounded up a number of alleged anarchists and eight were put on trial for murder. There is an interesting remark by Le Blanc regarding the use of the word “anarchists” to describe Parsons and the others: “The word had a different connotation for them than it does today. The sharp differentiation between socialism and anarchism developed only in later years. In fact, the so-called anarchists were far closer to revolutionary Marxism than were the moderate leaders of the Socialist Labour Party”.

Those are the basic facts, but Le Blanc goes beyond them to outline the labour turbulence in Chicago and elsewhere at the time, the strong opposition to it on the part of the business community and city authorities, and the advocacy of violence that was often a hallmark of certain radical publications and pronouncements of the period. There is no getting past the fact that violence was seen as justified by some participants in radical circles – “Dynamite! Of all the good stuff, this is the stuff” – and one of the men on trial was most likely the person who made and threw the bomb – but others probably had nothing to do with it, and were tried and convicted because they were known militant leaders of labour organisations. Four were found guilty and hanged, three were sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment, and Louis Lingg, the alleged bomb-maker, died in what Le Blanc refers to as “mysterious circumstances” in prison.

An essay about Brookwood Labour College in Katonah, New York deals with a quieter side of radical agitation. Founded in 1921 it closed in 1937, and for much of its existence had A.J. Muste in charge. He is described by Le Blanc as a “tall, lean thirty-six year old who had been an effective leader of the 1919 Lawrence Textile Strike, Muste had been a scholarly pastor, associated with the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, and animated by the Social Gospel and by an enthusiasm for the socialism of Eugene V. Debs”. Le Blanc says that the college would “eventually educate close to five hundred organisers and activists who would later help transform the American political scene”.

Brookwood established a fairly wide programme of lectures and other activities which provided a general liberal education, as well as matters relating to union and political concerns. The fact that it was backed by trade unions did lead to some problems. The American Federation of Labour (AFL), which largely represented craft (and on the whole conservative) unions, said that the college was  “Communistic”, because it wouldn’t identify with the interests of the craft unions. On the other hand, the Communist Party also attacked Brookwood, saying it was “class collaborationist” in its general policies, and “a cloak for the reactionary labour fakirs”.  Le Blanc says that the Communist attack was the product of a factional struggle then taking place within the Party between Jay Lovestone and his supporters and those, including some at the College, who allied themselves with William Z. Foster. When the College began to lose its relevance it was partly due to factional fighting between Muste and his followers and other members of staff which caused Muste to leave, though it continued for some years after his departure, and it was “lack of funds” that eventually brought about its demise.

Factional fighting seems to have been a hallmark of much left-wing activity in the United States (and elsewhere, of course, though this is not the place to delve into it), and when Le Blanc turns to the Socialist Workers Party and other Trotskyist-influenced organisations, it is bewildering in its complexity. One would need to be of a frame of mind that finds interest and pleasure, perhaps, in trying to ascertain how many Trotskyists can dance on the head of a pin, to want to know about every small group that thought it had the right policies, and the required qualities of leadership, to turn the thoughts of the working-class towards revolution.

Le Blanc’s long account of the rise and fall of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in two long essays, “Making Sense of Trotskyism in the United States” and “Revolutionary Redemption” might make a reader elated or depressed, depending on his or her interest in the interior workings of what was/is, when all is said and done, a relatively minor group with a tendency to divide into even smaller bands of dissidents from the Party programme. Le Blanc points to the foundation of the SWP in 1938 and reckons that its members had “played a heroic role in US class struggles of the 1930s, and their reputation among many was as unyielding partisans of workers’ democracy, and Trotsky’s revolutionary Marxist orientation”. But he goes on to point out that, by the 1950s, their ranks had “dwindled down to a handful of stalwarts, perhaps four hundred aging members, in a handful of cities”.  McCarthyism, among other things, including factionalism, had taken its toll.

The fortunes of the SWP did take a turn for the better in the 1960s, as younger people, inspired by the upsurge of activity in those years, with Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam protests, and other issues, radicalising them, joined its ranks. The SWP had offices and bookshops in various locations and issued regular publications. It had paid staff and “many, many more hardworking volunteer activists”.  It should, in theory, have gone from strength to strength.

But, Le Blanc asks, “How could something so good go so wrong?”. And he names Jack Barnes as the main culprit in the decline of the SWP in terms of both membership and influence, though he does add that his rise to power “cannot be understood without reviewing some history about, and tracing some tensions within, the US Trotskyist ‘old guard’ “. I needn’t go into all that to make it obvious that the organisation was descending into yet another bout of factional struggles, in which Barnes appears to have come out on top, and, it seems, in the process expelled just about everyone who didn’t support him. There are suggestions that certain of the Trotskyists displayed the same dictatorial faults that they condemned in Stalinists. And Le Blanc makes a reference to “the inherent sectarianism of the Trotskyist programme”, and “the inherent authoritarianism of Leninist organisational principles”.

Being of the opinion that Trotskyists are usually more interesting than Trotskyism, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Le Blanc’s extensive, “A reluctant memoir of the 1950s and 1960s”, which, in its way, told me more about the period referred to than exhausting accounts of factional fighting and its negative results. Le Blanc was what I think is humorously referred to as a “red diaper baby”, his parents having been active with unions and, for a time, members of the American Communist Party. It wasn’t something he was encouraged to talk about at school, but their radicalism clearly had an influence on him. His memoir is an engaging story of discovering many things for himself which eventually took him to his present position as a loyal, but not uncritical supporter of Trotskyism.

Left Americana looks at other things, such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and its brief explosion on the Sixties scene, the rise of Conservatism in America, the life of C.L.R. James, the New Left, and similar subjects. It’s clearly written and avoids academic jargon. I’d recommend it to those interested in how and why the Left in America is what it is, even if all the factional fussing and feuding can be a bit dispiriting at times.