The Party-Owned Press: A Point of Principle

The Party-Owned Press: A Point of Principle

from The People, April 6, 1991, page 3

The People has been an official organ of the Socialist Labor Party since it was founded in 1891. But it has not always been owned and published by the party. The principle of party ownership of its press, which today guarantees that The People truly is the voice of the party, and is subject to the same democratic principles of organization, is more or less taken for granted today. But the principle was by no means taken for granted in the early days of the movment. It is a principle that only revealed its necessity over time, and it took quite a battle to establish it.

When The People was established in 1891 it was published by the Socialistic Cooperative Publishing Association (SCPA). The association had been established by the Socialistic Labor Party, the Lassallean-dominated organizational forerunner to the Marxist Socialist Labor Party that emerged in 1889-90.

Influenced by petty bourgeois elements among the German immigrants that then dominated the party, the association was set up as a business. Its principal publication was the German-language Volkszeitung, and later, the party's official German-language paper, Vorwaerts, and The People.

But membership in the party was the only meaningful constitutional requirement of membership in the association. The association was not subject to the same democratic procedures and principles as the party. Moreover, a large number of disgruntled former members of the party were entitled to retain their membership in the association.

THE VOLKSZEITUNG ASSAULT

As the party evolved, differences arose between the petty-bourgeois influenced and the sound socialist elements, primarily over the need to build revolutionary socialist unions as opposed to the "pure and simple" trade unions of the AFL, and secondly, on the tax question. Elements of the SCPA began to use their positions within the association to attack the party, using the voice of the Volkszeitung as their vehicle.

In 1899, the Volkszeitung faction even began using The People's mailing list to circulate attacks on The People and the SLP! In response, the party's National Executive Committee brought matters to a head by calling for a referendum vote on a proposal to sever all connections between the SCPA and the SLP, and to begin party publication of The People and Vorwaerts.

With the referendum vote going against them, the Volkszeitung faction proceeded to call together, through the Volkszeitung newspaper, a bogus "General Committee" of Section New York of the SLP, which then "deposed" all the party's elected officers -- though both the creation of this "General Committee" and its actions were clearly invalid under the party's constitution.

On the night of July 10,1899, this rump faction actually made a physical assault on the national headquarters and staff of the party and The People, in an effort to throw out the legitimate party officers and take hold of the headquarters. The attackers were armed with clubs and outnumbered the hastily assembled defenders, and the ensuing fight was violent indeed, but the legitimate party defenders prevailed.

A protracted legal battle ensued. During this time the rump Volkszeitung crew claimed to be the real SLP and even issued a bogus version of The People. The bona fide SLP at one point had to ignore a court injunction, its officers nearly jailed, in order to continue publishing the genuine article. But the real SLP finally prevailed, and The People has been the official organ of the SLP, in legal and material fact as well as in principle, ever since.

The bolters from the party were dubbed the "Kangaroos," after the notorious, swindling "kangaroo courts" of the Old West, and the events of 1899 have since been described in party history as the Kangaroo split or Kangaroo controversy.

The Kangaroos, further revealing their true petty bourgeois colors, soon fused with the Social Democratic Party, led by Eugene Debs, to form the reformist Socialist Party.

VALUABLE LESSONS LEARNED

Daniel De Leon drew some vital lessons from the Kangaroo affair in the Sept. 20, 1903 Daily People:

"Owned and controlled by the party membership, the party press expresses the collective view of the body. No impure and outside influences can affect it. The seed it scatters is sound and healthy.... However well the individual may mean, the cause of the masses is not safe in one man's hands; and as to corporations [the SCPA was also called the Volkszeitung Corporation and was organized as a corporation] their very makeup places their interests at war with those of the people....Only the press of the SLP is seen in the land to uphold unflinchingly and unshakably the principles of the working class to wage war upon the many-shaded foes of labor, and to furnish the working class with the healthy information that it needs.

The Volkszeitung, and many other privately owned "socialist" (actually reformist) papers which stood opposed to revolutionary socialism, like the Appeal to Reason and The Call, bit the dust decades ago.

That was not a surprising fate to those of the revolutionary SLR As De Leon wrote in 1903, "Outside of the press of the Socialist Labor Party, there is none that does not obey more or less the impulse of interests baneful to the working class. It cannot be otherwise. None of those papers is but private property. They are either owned by one individual or by corporations. Without exception they are 'on the make."' In most cases, capitalist papers that were better endowed with capital and similarly "equipped" with a reformist outlook undercut these papers and stole their "fury." Readers had no material reason to prefer a "socialist" superficial muckraking paper over a bigger or better-looking capitalist one.

The People, on the other hand, rang out loud and clear with an uncompromising, principled and consistent revolutionary socialist message. It became, as an editorial in 1931 put it, "the party's child, nourished by the membership at heavy costs that were never looked upon as a sacrifice, jealously guarded from the slightest connection that could establish even the minutest hostile influence-to the extent of finally cutting off even that universally recognized support of the press, the advertiser. The SLP members know that if the workers shall control their press they must own it completely."

Today, a hundred years after The People was founded, the democratically determined message of the Socialist Labor Party, still the only party educating and organizing for the revolutionary self-emancipation of the workers, continues to sound loud and clear, thanks in large measure to the Socialist Labor Party's early establishment of the principle of party ownership of the press.