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Introduction to Hal Draper’s "Toward a New Beginning"

Ernie Haberkern

IN THE EARLY years of this century, prior to World War I, there was in the United States a growing, vigorous, powerful socialist movement. In many respects it was further advanced than the British socialist movement of the time. The usual indicator you run across in the history books is the Presidential campaign of 1912 in which Eugene V. Debs gained some 6% of the vote as the candidate of the Socialist Party. But this statistic in fact underestimates the strength and significance of the movement. The socialist press, represented by dozens of newspapers and journals, had a wide circulation. Socialists were an open and well organized force in the American Federation Labor, winning almost a third of the vote for their candidate in 1912. At the local and state levels numerous socialists held office and the Party ran a number of municipalities.1

Despite the wide-scale persecution that accompanied World War I, during the war and in the early ’20s the American left experienced a new surge of growth and activity. While the Socialist Party split in the early ’20s, the labor movement swung sharply to the left and a serious attempt to build a new party based on the unions arose. Members of the Socialist Party and the new parties affiliated with the Communist International played important and influential roles in this revived labor movement.

For a few years, during the late ’20s, this revival appeared to falter. But the Depression and the collapse of confidence in the capitalist system even among its beneficiaries changed that. It was in 1932, in the midst of this widespread radicalization, that Hal Draper joined the socialist movement. Of course, as the son of immigrant garment workers, this formal act was not his real initiation into the world of the socialist and labor movements.

From 1932 until his death in 1990, Hal Draper was a prolific Marxist writer and a socialist activist. He is one of the few people from that era who maintained and expanded this American socialist tradition which has almost disappeared. World War II and the Cold War were a political space-time warp and very few individuals or political tendencies passed through it intact. This is true of the socialist movement worldwide of course but the damage was greatest in the United States. Draper is one of the few who, instead of abandoning the movement in despair and rejecting his own political past, analyzed what was happening with the combination of rigorous research and passionate outrage that is the stamp of the Marxist tradition. In the ’50s, a time of general collapse and demoralization in the American left, Draper edited the weekly Labor Action, a political journal widely read in Europe as well as the United States because of its uncompromising rejection of the American consensus which did not depend on accepting that other form of despair – the slavish defense of "real existing socialism" as the only alternative.

It was not possible, of course, to remain in opposition to the "real existing crap" of both sides of the Cold War without rethinking the history of the movement. Draper’s 4-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution is his principal achievement in this regard.2 Although the essay "Toward A New Beginning" was written for a specific polemical purpose in 1970, its subject – how to organize a mass revolutionary party of socialist opposition to modern capitalism – is one of immediate and pressing concern to any serious socialist. And, as evidence of this, the essay has already gained a fairly wide distribution without any serious attempt to publicize it.

Nevertheless, its origins make some references unclear. In particular, the reader cannot help wondering who the "we" are who are referred to throughout the essay. In part the "we" refers to his comrades of the Workers Party especially when the reference is to union activity during the period of World War II. But the political tendency referred to found new recruits in the left wing of the Socialist Party, the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1950s and ’60s. Since these new recruits considered themselves to be joining an ongoing "third camp" political tradition references to this period also use "we".

Like all polemical essays, this one is easier understood if the immediate background is filled in. With the self-destruction of the student antiwar movement in 1968-69, thousands of people were looking for a new direction. Among the various fractions and splinters of the New Left the verbal commitment to the "working class" as an abstract concept was replaced by a move to "go to the workers" themselves.

But this was a movement of students overwhelmingly of middle class background whose knowledge of the American working class and its institutions, in so far as it existed at all, was based on what their bourgeois professors told them. Since what they had been told was that the trade unions were dominated by narrow-minded and corrupt bureaucrats with no social concerns, these students entered the world of work with the quite explicit notion that the immediate enemy was not the employers but the unions. The student activists who made up the majority of the membership of the various "third camp" political groups were no exception in this regard.

This was an extreme case of a sickness that has plagued the socialist movement from its beginnings. The following essay was directed at this immediate audience. Unfortunately, the attitudes and politics of this audience are still quite widespread even if they are expressed in less extreme form. And the organizational practices that follow from these politics continue to plague the movement. Which is why this attempt to point to a different road for the socialist movement is important.


1. The source for this brief description is a really excellent book by James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America 1912-1925, which can be ordered from the American magazine In These Times.

2. Published by Monthly Review Press.