Socialist Labor Party versus the kangaroos - 1899


JULY 1999
VOL. 109 NO. 4

A page from SLP history -- the battle of July 10, 1899

The following article was written to mark the 50th anniversary of the infamous midnight raid on the national offices of the SLP by an element known to SLP history as the "kangaroos," so-called because of its abortive attempt at overthrowing the elected officers of the party by physical force on the night of July 10, 1899. That element centered around the New Yorker Volkszeitung, a German-language newspaper that Frederick Engels once described with contempt as a "business sheet." Although the Volkszeitung was supposed to be an SLP publication, it was, as explained below, privately owned and largely controlled by non-Socialist and even anti-Socialist stockholders. Following the botched coup d'Etat of July 10, 1899, that element attempted to appropriate the party's name and the name of its official journal, The People -- pretenses that were eventually abandoned. For about two years after the midnight raid, the Volkszeitung element attempted to merge with Eugene V. Debs' Social Democratic Party, but was rebuffed until Debs finally relented. The two groups "merged" in 1901 to become the Socialist Party.

We reprint the "The Battle of July 10" in this issue to mark the 100th anniversary of an event that irrevocably drew the line between revolutionary and bourgeois socialism in the American movement.


(WEEKLY PEOPLE, July 9, 1949)

A few minutes before midnight, July 10, 1899, a group of men representing themselves as the "new National Executive Committee" of the Socialist Labor Party, came to the national headquarters of the party and demanded admission. This was denied them and they left. A half hour passed quietly. Then, suddenly, the stillness was broken by hundreds of feet running up the stairs. The feet belonged to several score ruffians armed with clubs, heavy mallets and iron sticks and bent on taking forcible possession of the premises.

They failed to complete their mission for the reason that they were met at the top of the stairs by a handful of SLP stalwarts- -"picked comrades" according to contemporary reports in THE PEOPLE. The battle that ensued, and in which blood flowed freely on both sides, lasted for fully 10 minutes. When the police finally arrived and came charging up the stairs with drawn guns, they found the duly elected officers of the party, including Daniel De Leon, editor of THE PEOPLE, and Henry Kuhn, national secretary, still in full possession.


The incident was a minor one in and of itself. It takes on significance, and is deserving of this commemorative note, because it was the climax of a fateful struggle within the Socialist Labor Party. The climax was a violent conflict over physical possession of the party's insignia and property, but the struggle that preceded it centered on the very principles of socialist organizations. It is for this reason that we mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of "the battle of July 10." The occasion serves as an opportunity to review the principles -- principles that time and experience have vindicated.

Who were the contending elements? What were the issues between them?


One of the contending elements, and the one representing a majority of the membership, was planted firmly on Marxian science. It was uncompromising in its adherence to the class struggle. It understood, and was guided by, Marxian economics. This was the element that, under the vigorous intellectual leadership of Daniel De Leon, had made the SLP an American party, and one bent on organizing the English-speaking majority of American workers.

Aligned against the uncompromising Marxists was an element known collectively as the "VOLKSZEITUNG crowd." Most of them had been German workingmen immigrants with whom socialism was a kind of habit, but whose viewpoint had changed either because they had become petty employers, or had discovered the fleshpots of capitalist politics and the corrupt craft unions. A combination of labor fakers, East Side lawyers who made their living drawing up "union" contracts for sweatshop contractors, tired-out Socialists and lager beer anarchists, they were united by two things, viz., their hatred of the uncompromising Marxist influences in the party and their German nativism.


Their paper, the NEW YORKER VOLKSZEITUNG, drilled into them a curious German socialist-jingoism, the central idea of which was that while a non-German, more particularly an English-speaking person, might, by dint of strenuous effort, learn to understand a good deal about socialism, he could never, never become a full-fledged Socialist! "The VOLKSZEITUNG itself, when writing about America and American conditions," said Henry Kuhn, "always did so in a strain as though the writer sat in some German village and discussed owlishly upon the interior of Africa, or some other outlandish territory."

A word concerning the VOLKSZEITUNG and its publisher, the Volkszeitung Corporation, or, as it was known legally, the Socialist Cooperative Publishing Association.


The association was set up by the party to function as its publishing committee. Although it was given the form of a private corporation, it was believed that the party was protected by the provision in the association's constitution stating that none but party members could become members of the association. However, while an SLP card was required for admission, once an individual was in, there was no way to remove him even though he forfeited his party membership. Thus the Volkszeitung Corporation became a roosting place for disrupters and others with anti-SLP axes to grind.

The corporation printed THE PEOPLE and the party's official German-language newspaper, the VORWAERTS, and its own German daily was constitutionally required to be edited in accord with the principles and tactics of the Socialist Labor Party.

The issues between the Marxist element in the SLP and the VOLKSZEITUNG crowd were basic. The latter resented the Americanization of the movement, preferring the pre-1889 SLP which was degenerating into "singing and drinking societies, with an occasional outing when a member died, and periodical celebrations in which thrilling speeches were delivered by themselves to themselves" -- and, of course, in the German tongue.


But the first sharply defined issue to arouse the ALTE GENOSSEN (old German comrades) and the VOLKSZEITUNG crowd generally was the establishment by the Socialist Labor Party of the principle that the workers must organize economically on the basis of the class struggle.

Practically, the adoption of this principle meant open warfare with the American Federation of Labor and all other procapitalist unions. It took the form of an endorsement (in 1896) of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, a new union built on "the principle that an irrepressible conflict rages between the capitalist and the working class -- a conflict that can be settled only by the total overthrow of the former and the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth."


The party arrived at this milestone after it had tried, unsuccessfully, to influence the craft unions (AF of L and Knights of Labor) with socialist principles. It had tried the policy known as "boring from within." As De Leon put it, "We went into the unions and bored from within. We tried to teach the class struggle. One division, in which I was active myself, was in the K of L. We struggled and we struggled with the labor lieutenants of the capitalists; it came to hand-to-hand encounters; finally, we landed on the outside."

"'Boring from within,'" De Leon continued, "resolved itself accordingly into this: either you must bore to a purpose, and then you land quickly on the outside; or you don't land on the outside, but then you knuckle under, a silent supporter of the felonies committed by the labor lieutenants of capitalism. Such was the experience."

The VOLKSZEITUNG crowd was infuriated by the party's open attack on the craft unions. Many of them were doing business with the unions, or were themselves playing the role of labor fakers but trying to conceal the fact under the pretense that they were "boring from within." The NEW YORKER VOLKSZEITUNG, restrained by the requirement that it adhere to the party's policies and tactics, did not at first challenge the party openly. Instead, it wrote veiled attacks alluding to the need for a new "labor" party. Several years later the NEW YORKER VOLKSZEITUNG admitted its culpability. In its issue of Sept. 2, 1909, it said:

"Yes, the NEW YORKER VOLKSZEITUNG went so far in its defense of the American Federation of Labor that it accepted the risk of a split in the socialist movement of America in order to prevent a split in the trades union movement of the land, and to keep up the American Federation of Labor as the united body of American unionism."

Finally, of course, the VOLKSZEITUNG openly attacked the party's position and there began a running fight that lasted for several months. It was in the course of this conflict that the taxation issue arose.


It began when the VOLKSZEITUNG, in an effort to becloud the issue of the class struggle and to discredit De Leon and THE PEOPLE, published an attack on the party's Marxian position that taxes are a capitalist issue and one with which the worker should not concern himself. As this involved the very heart of Marxian economics, the attack could not be allowed to go unchallenged. By his analysis of capitalist production, Marx showed that the workers are robbed as producers, and only as producers. They receive wages which are the value of their labor power as a commodity. But, in delivering their labor power to the capitalists they produce new values in excess of their wages, values to which Marx gave the name surplus value. This the capitalists appropriate. It is the source of profit, interest, rent, fees, commissions, etc. -- in short, of the plunder pocketed by the capitalists and their hangers-on.

If it could be shown, as the VOLKSZEITUNG claimed, that workers are robbed as taxpayers, then, obviously, Marx would be proved wrong. But this could not be done successfully. Superficial appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, taxes are the exclusive concern of the capitalists. As Frederick Engels put it:

"'...Taxes'! Matters that interest the bourgeoisie very much, but the worker only very little. What the worker pays in taxes goes in the long run into the costs of production of labor power and must therefore be compensated for by the capitalist. All these things which are held up to us here as highly important questions for the working class are in reality of essential interest only to the bourgeoisie, and in particular to the petty bourgeoisie, and, despite Proudhon, we assert that the working class is not called upon to look after the interests of these classes. (THE HOUSING QUESTION.)

The mischief of the VOLKSZEITUNG's claims concerning taxes was that workers who were swayed by the paper's argument became easy victims for the first tax-reform politician who came down the pike. Nevertheless, the controversy had the effect of clarifying a vital point in economics for thousands of workers and, in upholding Marxian science, the SLP raised a new milestone to guide the American working class.


The battle of July 16, itself, was the culmination of a conspiracy on the part of the VOLKSZEITUNG crowd, the details of which we have no space for here. What is important is the principle that was brought into sharp focus by the conspiracy itself, and the conspirators' attempt to capture the party press.


The party -- the party itself, not a few party members -- must own its press in order to control it. Only by owning its press, and controlling the selection of an editor, can the party control the policy of its press and preserve its Marxist integrity. This much the experience with the Volkszeitung Corporation proved beyond peradventure. Oneness of principle, oneness of goal and oneness of method are absolutely indispensable to a party of socialism. And this homogeneity simply cannot be achieved where several voices, each claiming to speak with authority, present contradictory views, positions and arguments.


As is now generally known, the VOLKSZEITUNG crowd failed in their attempt to seize the party. The day after the battle of July 10, the party's property was removed from the VOLKSZEITUNG building to new premises. There followed what is known as the "Kangaroo exodus" -- often wrongly described as a "split in the socialist movement." Actually it was a cleansing of the socialist movement of an antisocialist element. This element soon found its soulmate in the Debs colonization-socialist democracy and founded what is now called the Socialist Party.

We do not say the bloody midnight battle of 50 years ago was a decisive one. If the SLP stalwarts had been beaten back, however, and the usurpers had taken possession, the party might have encountered far more difficulty than it did in establishing its rights in the courts. If it had lost THE PEOPLE, for example, years of labor that had gone into building up the paper's reputation as a sound Marxist journal would have been lost.

But our SLP stalwarts were not beaten back. They held their ground as the party has held the fort of Marxist principle for nearly six decades. We salute them on this, the golden jubilee of their midnight battle. THE PEOPLE of July 16, 1899, in reporting the fracas, said, "Three Cheers for the SLP." So say we today. THREE CHEERS FOR THE SLP!