Address by National Secretary of the Socialist Labor Party

The People
April 1996
Vol. 106 No. 1

1896-1996: HOW LONG IS A CENTURY?

The following is the text of an address delivered at the National Executive Committee Banquet of the Socialist Labor Party, Santa Clara, Calif., March 23, by SLP National Secretary Robert Bills.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Comrades and Friends of the Socialist Labor Party, and Members of the National Executive Committee:

Anyone who works with a newspaper will tell you how difficult and dangerous it is to make predictions.

I work with a newspaper, though it is not a newspaper in the ordinary sense of the word. The newspaper I work with is The People, the official voice of the Socialist Labor Party. The People recently completed its 105th year of publication. In a sense, then, our gathering this evening is a birthday celebration, and I thank you for coming.

Of course, I am sure that 105 years must sound very old to some of you -- as certain as I am that some of us wished that 105 years still sounded as old as it used to. Socialists are prone to tell you that a century is but a twinkling in the eye of history, which always seems to annoy some people. It especially annoys those who are in a hurry to get to somewhere -- mostly those who are in a hurry to get to socialism, or to what or where they conceive socialism to be. They look at you as if to say, "You're crazy!" Then they march off to some other organization, where they promptly fall in step to march off, not toward socialism, but deeper into the morass of capitalism. They don't stop to consider the simplest of simple scientific facts -- that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, or as straight as you can make it without walking into a brick wall to get to the other side, or jumping from a 10th-story window to get to the street.

How long is a century? One way to put it into perspective might be to tell you a little something about the membership of the Socialist Labor Party.

The Socialist Labor Party is made up of working men and women -- I should say working class men and women -- some might say "ordinary people." They are auto workers and steelworkers, schoolteachers and college professors. They are active in their professions and they are retired. They are young, they are old, and they are everything in between. Some have been members for only a few months, others for years, some for many years. A few have been members for 50, or 60, even 70 years or more -- and we were all surprised recently when one informed us that she has been a member for 82 years!

These are facts, and from just one of them it can be seen that when we look back over a century it is not simply a matter of history. There are men and women living today whose lives span most of that time -- living links to history, as older people are sometimes called, often to their annoyance.

I make the points only to illustrate another.

Anyone who knows anything at all about history will tell you how dangerous it is to make comparisons between one era and another. Somewhere Daniel De Leon observed that, while history tends to repeat itself, it never does so in precisely the same way, or with precisely the same results. The reason, of course, is that changed conditions have their effect, even when circumstances arise that pose social questions that -- in broad strokes, at least -- seem virtually identical to those that arose earlier. But changed conditions often lead to different results. At any rate, they open the possibility for results that are not only different, but better -- or worse.

In short, comparing the past to the present in hopes of foreseeing the future is a dangerous undertaking. Nonetheless, historians constantly indulge themselves because, as imperfect as history may be as a guide to what the future may hold, it is the only guide available.

Comparisons between American social conditions in the 1890s and the 1990s are fairly common these days. In his recently published book, The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s, for example, historian H.W. Brands put it this way:

"There is something about the end of a century that sets people to thinking about their collective prospects and ultimate destiny. The current final decade of the 20th century (and of the second millennium, which exacerbates the tendency) hadn't even begun before America's airwaves, newspaper columns and bookstores were filled with a debate over whether the United States was commencing a post-Cold War renaissance as the planet's sole superpower and the linchpin of a new world order, or entering an era of decline...."

Much of what Mr. Brands has to say in making his own comparisons between the 1890s to the 1990s -- their differences and their similarities -- is silly. The silliness involves his assertions about what so-called liberal reforms of the 20th century have accomplished toward mitigating the glaring economic and social injustices the capitalist system created during the 19th century. However, the following passages are good enough for setting a stage. In the first of these, Mr. Brands wrote:

"In each decade, the cities were the product of forces that were reshaping the American and world economies. At the top of the economic food chain of the 1890s were the captains of industry and finance, men such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, who...by virtue of their wealth wielded enormous influence over the lives of millions of Americans. At the bottom were those who labored for dimes a day, when they labored at all. During much of the 1890s they didn't, for the nation's worst depression to date seared the slums and working-class neighborhoods, casting millions into despair...."

Mr. Brands goes on to make two more comparisons that I would like to cite in setting my stage. The first reads as follows:

"The industrialization of America in the 1890s was accompanied by the consolidation of industrial power in the hands of the titans; it was accompanied by violent protest on the part of those who found themselves at the mercy of the new conquistadors. While the deindustrialization of America during the 1990s saw nothing so violent as the Homestead strike of 1892 or the Pullman strike of 1894, its myriad mergers, acquisitions, downsizings, outsourcings and offshorings created anxieties that, if anything, were more pervasive than those facing Americans a century earlier...."

There is one final prop that Mr. Brands offers for my stage that I wish to recite before moving on, and it is this:

"For Americans living in the 1990s, the events of the 1890s would be worth exploring even if they imparted no insight into the present. Life on the edge frequently evokes the best and worst in people and societies. It did so during the 1890s, when the United States produced more than its normal quota of demagogues and dedicated reformers, scoundrels and paragons of good will, when the American people lived up to their better selves and down to their worse...."

Now then, the Socialist Labor Party and its newspaper have been in the field since those bad old days that Mr. Brands talks about. That fact often causes people to ask why, after all those years of hard and dedicated work, more workers have not responded to the SLP and why the working class seems so apathetic. Some wonder why the SLP fails to attract as many members as some other groups and organizations seem to.

On the surface, it would appear that conditions are ripe for the SLP to grow and to gather strength. On the surface, it would seem that workers in large numbers should be responding to the SLP and its program of Socialist Industrial Unionism. Yet, the SLP has not experienced the growth one might expect at such a juncture. However, it is a fact, and as De Leon once observed about Socialists and facts together:

"The first prerequisite to make a Socialist is the capacity to see facts and the willingness to adhere to them without qualification."

That the SLP is not as large and influential today as we would like, and as it should be, is a fact, and there's no doubt about it. Does that mean that the SLP has been wrong for all these years?

The Socialist Labor Party is based on a principle, and as with any true principle it corresponds to a fact. If a principle reflects a fact -- as, say, a principle of mathematics -- then it is true and ought to be heeded. If it does not correspond to a fact -- then it is false and misleading -- and it ought to be discarded and branded as being silly as I said of Mr. Brands' ideas about the efficacy of 20th-century "liberal" reforms, or even dangerous.

The principle the SLP bases itself on is the class struggle. That principle is as old as history itself. It is as old, say, as Ptolemy's theories of astronomy, yet as fresh and up to date as the astronomical discoveries of the orbiting Hubble telescope. Furthermore, as De Leon once explained:

"The principle of the class struggle is preeminently a socialist one. It is...only by recognizing the class interests as the root from which social conflicts arise that correct tactics can follow. The workingman who is not enlightened by the principle of the class struggle will fly into the arms of the capitalist politicians who hold forth promises to redress his wrongs. Enlightened, however, on the class struggle, the workingman is aware that no 'reform' could possibly make things better; he knows that the 'reformer' is the upholder of a system under which he is borne down...."

Ptolemy was wrong, but Copernicus, Hubble and the telescope that bears his name, were right. Is the SLP right about the class struggle? Was it right to say that reforms and reformism could only work mischief, prolong suffering, cause confusion and delay real progress?

At the outset I said that anyone who works with a newspaper will tell you how difficult and dangerous it is to make predictions. Still, a newspaper such as The People -- which has based itself on this principle of the class struggle for more than a century -- did predict that reforms of capitalism could only work mischief, prolong suffering, cause confusion and delay real progress? Was it right?

Let's test the theory by asking some questions.

Have we really traveled very far from the Homestead steel strike of 1892, from the Tennessee coal miners' strike of that year, or from the Pullman strike of 1894, when we land next to the just-ended GM strike, the Boeing strike, the Caterpillar strike, the Detroit newspaper workers' strike or to the Oakland teachers' strike?

Is it really so different today from the time when, as Mr. Brands expressed it, those at "the top of the economic food chain of the 1890s...wielded enormous influence over the lives of millions of Americans," while those on "the bottom...labored for dimes a day, when they labored at all?"

How far a distance have we come in 100 years when such an apologist for capitalism as Lester Thurow, a professor of economics at MIT, can say in January 1996:

"America seems poised to go back to the 19th-century variant of capitalism. Then, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer formulated a concept called 'survival of the fittest' capitalism...Spencer believed that it was the duty of the economically strong to drive the economically weak into extinction. That drive was in fact the secret of capitalism's strength. It eliminated the weak."

Was the SLP, its official newspaper -- The People -- and its editor, Daniel De Leon, right or wrong when, in January 1896, he responded to Prof. Thurow with these words:

"...Capitalism means every individual's hand raised against all others; its motto is: 'One man's misfortune is another man's chance'; the survival of the fittest ruffian, or of the pappiest doughface, is its ideal. A social system like that can never present a united front; and, as immorality is its basic principle, it has no dignity to preserve."

What social progress has been made since 1896 when, in 1996, David Kusnet -- a former speech writer for President Clinton -- could contemplate AT&T's decision to lay off 40,000 workers and write (and I quote):

"During the 1990s, workers' productivity has increased three times as fast as their real wages."

To which he added:

"It was another harbinger of a harsh workplace, where casual cruelties defy conventional economics and the social contract." (Whatever that is.)

Is the SLP out of step with the times because, in 1896, its newspaper and its editor anticipated Kusnet, and said:

"In one respect, the modern social system, the capitalist system, partakes of the feature of a shipwreck: under capitalism, the same as at a shipwreck, the life of all is impossible; for some to live many more must die; the survival of the fittest implies the slaughter of those less fit to struggle for existence under conditions that lower man to the level of the brute."

How far forward have we moved from the 1890s when, in 1996, Allen Sinai, an economist with Lehman Bros., could correctly observe:

"Never in our history have workers been asked to do so much for so little."

Did the SLP, The People or its editor miss the target when, in 1897, they replied:

"The class that does all the nation's thinking and sweating, that produces all the nation's wealth, and without which the nation could not survive, that is the class fittest to live, and the only one that deserves to enjoy life."

Was the SLP dreaming a silly dream when, in 1897, The People proclaimed:

"We are at the threshold of one of those epochs where events turn upon the settling of that very question -- which is the class fit for civilization, which is the class that endangers society. At each such epoch, the ruling class promptly decided in its own favor...But history never did, nor never will, be turned aside from its course by this false judgment. It did not when the feudal system of England was cast aside; it did not when the British Parliament was sent by the board in this country; it did not when the besotted nobility of France was thrust aside; it did not when the Copperhead Bourbons in this country were squelched; and it will not in the pending revolution. The extermination of the poor is a job infinitely above the power of the capitalist class. It is equivalent with sending civilization back; and that no class has ever yet been able to accomplish. The badge of poverty is the badge of nobility at the present social cycle, and poverty today is the fountainhead from which will flow the torrent that must take society to the next step forward -- the Socialist Commonwealth, by wiping out the class that produces poverty."

If the SLP was dreaming a silly dream in 1897, what was it, in 1996, that led the syndicated columnist, Jim Hoagland, to worry:

"A backlash is building, and not only in France, among people who feel that they are being declared surplus labor units in the era of downsizing, rapid technological change and information superhighways. The inability of industry and of governments to absorb or assure these 'surplus people' is at the core of the political gridlock that is surfacing in country after country."

Have we come very far over the last 100 years? Is a century so long a time, after all? The answer is summed up in the life of that 14-year-old girl who joined the Socialist Labor Party 82 years ago, in 1914, the same year that De Leon died and the First World War began -- and the answer is an emphatic, No!

There are numerous signs around us showing that the class struggle is growing more intense every day. Millions of workers have been thrown into permanent unemployment, and millions more are destined to follow as automation and "downsizing" continue their advance. As that advance progresses, more of the excruciating poverty and misery that has afflicted large segments of the working class for decades, even generations, spreads through the land and embraces even larger segments of our class.

It is a fact that the class struggle is heating up.

It is a fact that this principle the SLP has stood by for so long is correct.

It is a fact that the Socialist Industrial Union program offers the only viable path open for the working class to follow to resolve that struggle.

It is a fact that the SLP is the only organization that is clear on those principles, and the only organization capable of giving clear expression to the SIU program.

With that combination of facts to work from, the SLP should be gathering strength, and workers in large numbers should be heeding its call. Yet, its growth and its influence are not what they should be. And why not?

To a certain extent the answer is that every other organization or movement that touches on what we of the SLP call the social question -- be they political, religious or whatever -- has one thing in common. That one thing that they all share in common is that none of them offer any challenge to the misconceptions, illusions, prejudices or fears of the people they attract. They have no interest in challenging them, for that would only "scare" people away. They count on and build on those misconceptions, illusions, prejudices and fears. They thrive on them, nurture and exploit them. That is the key to their "success." And as a result they also eventually disappoint those whom they attracted.

De Leon may not have had religious cults, save-a-species, or Pat Buchanan in mind when, 100 years ago -- almost to the month -- he delivered his address on Reform or Revolution. But what he had to say about false movements applies as well to any group, coalition, organization or movement that is based on a false premise.

"In the first place," he said, "the tablets of the minds of the working class are scribbled all over by every charlatan who has let himself loose...[O]ne charlatan after another who could speak glibly, and who could get money from this, that or the other political party, would go among the people and upon the tablets of the minds of the working classes he scribbled his crude text. So it happens that today, when the apostle of socialism goes before our people...he must first clutch a sponge, a stout one, and wipe clean the pothooks that the charlatans have left there. Not until he has done that can he begin to preach and teach successfully.

"Then again," De Leon continued, "with this evil of miseducation, the working class of this country suffers from another. The charlatans, one after the other, set up movements that proceeded along lines of ignorance; movements that were denials of scientific facts; movements that bred hopes in the hearts of the people; yet movements that had to collapse. A movement must be perfectly sound, and scientifically based or it cannot stand. A falsely based movement is like a lie, and a lie cannot survive. All these movements came to grief, and what was the result? -- disappointment, stagnation, diffidence, hopelessness in the masses."

De Leon went on to survey the fallacies of several movements of the time, and then returned to sum up by saying:

"These false movements, and many other kindred circumstances that I could mention, have confused the judgment of our people, weakened the spring of their hope and abashed their courage. Hence the existing popular apathy in the midst of popular misery; hence despondency despite unequaled opportunities for redress; hence the backwardness of the movement...."

That people become infatuated with these other movements and organizations is a fact. That many of these other organizations claim that they are socialist -- but in truth are would-be "reformers" of capitalism -- is also a fact. It is a deplorable fact, and one that must be confronted and exposed. It must be confronted and exposed because, to cite De Leon one last time:

"To keep men, engaged in social conflicts, in the dark on the class struggle is to keep them in the dark as to the way out, and cause them to be food for cannon for every reformer that comes along."

The People has rarely indulged in predictions. Yet, from what I have said this evening, I think it fair to say that The People has hit more than one nail on the head over the 105 years of its publishing history. So, it may not be too risky to suggest that if you want to know what's going on in the world today, read The People.

If you want more -- if you want other workers to know what's going on -- then support and spread The People in every way you can.

But if you want to have a real influence on the direction we take from here on into the 21st century; if you want to do something to make sure that the history of the next 100 years is not a repetition of the last 100 years; then join with the fighters who comprise the membership of the Socialist Labor Party.

Thank you very much for listening so patiently and attentively to what I've had to say, and please enjoy the rest of your evening.