Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 27, 2010

Elena Kagan’s senior thesis on the Socialist Party

Filed under: sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Ironically, the best thing that Elena Kagan ever wrote was her senior thesis at Princeton University, To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933. Everything went downhill after that apparently.

This 134 page work is not only written from a leftist perspective, it also is extremely well-researched and well-written. I actually find it rather disconcerting to think that such a promising mind has been wasted at the altar of careerism.

Kagan’s thesis covers a lot of the same territory I have covered in articles on the problems of “democratic centralism”. Like the 21 year old Kagan, I concluded that the CP split-offs from the Socialist Party were not necessary, even if they were understandable. Most of my information on this period comes from Theodore Draper’s very useful “The roots of American communism” and “American communism and Soviet Russia, the formative period.” Despite his social democratic politics, Draper’s research is impeccable, all the more so since it relied on input from James P. Cannon, a veteran of the internecine battles of the left in the early 1920s. Indeed, Marxist historian Bryan Palmer characterizes Draper’s research this way:

Yet, ironically, Theodore Draper’s founding traditionalist texts of the late 1950s and early 1960s, on which so much liberal anti-communist scholarship as well as New Left writing builds, remain unsurpassed as sources on the origins of United States communism and are among the most accomplished studies of the revolutionary left in the 1920s, regardless of national setting.

Unfortunately, the Scribd version of Kagan’s thesis omits the bibliography and footnotes but my strong impression is that she bases her analysis on his work, but brings new research to bear from primary sources on the evolution of the Socialist Party in New York, which had an overwhelmingly Jewish membership.

If you want a popular culture version of this fascinating period, I can’t recommend Warren Beatty’s “Reds” highly enough. The movie is laced with testimony from people of Cannon’s generation, including Arne Swabeck, a founding member of American Trotskyism along with Cannon who was 90 years old at the time the movie was being made. In the 1960s, Swabeck turned into a Maoist and found himself on a collision path with the Socialist Workers Party leadership. At my first meeting of the New York branch in 1967, I voted along with everybody else to expel Swabeck. My mistake was not turning in my resignation at that very meeting since I had grave misgivings over the long procession of people getting up to denounce him as some kind of traitor. It looked like something out of a 1950s Red Scare movie. It took another 3 years for me to learn how to read people out of the movement in the same fashion. Sigh.

The introduction and conclusion to Kagan’s thesis turned up on liberal economist Brad DeLong’s blog. For those lacking the patience to wade through the full dissertation, I recommend visiting his blog where you can read this excerpt:

Ever since Werner Sombart first posed the question in 1905, countless historians have tried to explain why there is no socialism in America. For the most part, this work has focused on external factors–on features of American society rather than of American socialist movements. Socialists and non-socialists alike have discussed the importance of the frontier… the fluidity of class lines… the American labor force’s peculiarly heterogeneous character, which made concerted class action more difficult than it might otherwise have been. In short, most historians have looked everywhere but to the American socialist movement itself for explanations of U.S. socialism’s failure. Such external explanations are not unimportant but neither do they tell the full story. They ignore or overlook one supremely important fact: Socialism has indeed existed in the United States…. The Socialist Party increased its membership from a scanty 10,000 in 1902 to a respectable 109,000 in the early months of 1919… a party press that included over three hundred publications with an aggregate circulation of approximately two million….

The success of the socialists in establishing a viable–if minor–political party in the early twentieth century suggests that historians must examine not only external but also internal factors if they hope to explain the absence of socialism from contemporary American politics. The effects of the frontier, of class mobility, of an ethnically divided working class may explicate why the Socialist Party did not gain an immediate mass following; they cannot explain why the growing and confident American socialist movement collapsed….

We are, then, left with three ultimately inadequate explanations of the sudden demise of a growing socialist movement. The otherworldliness of the socialists, the expulsion of Haywood in 1912, the Russian Revolution of 1917–none will satisfactorily explain the death of social- ism in America. What, then, was responsible? In attempting to answer this question, this thesis will focus almost exclusively on the history of the New York City local of the Socialist Party….

For DeLong, the lesson drawn from her thesis (I really don’t know if he actually read it) is this:

I think that her takeaway from her thesis was Clintonian (and Obamaian): radicals in America need to shut up, take their place at an oar, and row like hell for minor reformist victories.

That might have been true eventually but the thesis itself supports no such analysis. I think DeLong was engaged here in what the Freudians call projection.

The questions that Kagan poses are the very same that have preoccupied me for the better part of the last 3 decades. She clearly rejects Sombart’s version of “American exceptionalism”, a theory that is drummed into the heads of high school and college students as part of our indoctrination. Back in junior high school, we learned that the USA was different than Europe where they had social classes. We also had a huge geographical spread with access to free land that enabled European immigrants to prosper as farmers. Of course, this sort of happy talk was consistent with rising income in the 1950s and thus more difficult to refute than today when the country is lashed by economic insecurity and ceaseless wars.

In 1981, when Kagan wrote her thesis, the country was still suffering the collective hangover of the Vietnam War and a Black liberation movement that challenged the precepts of “American exceptionalism”. If anything was exceptional, it was the racist treatment meted out to people of color. It was also a time when a powerful feminist movement still existed, something that would have had an impact on Kagan’s thinking.

The Village Voice wrote:

Obama nominee Elena Kagan, 50, has impeccable ULS credentials and genes: Mom Gloria taught public school’s best and brightest at Hunter College Elementary School; dad Robert was a lawyer who represented tenants. Robert Kagan was chairman of Community Board #7 in the 1970s and was a fierce battler against the superhighway that City Hall wanted to pave along the Hudson River and through Riverside Park, which came to be known as Westway. Kagan Sr. was one of a couple dozen early anti-Westway protestors, and he showed up at a City Hall briefing in November, 1974, to denounce the plan. “A six-lane proposal is just not an acceptable proposal,” he told the Times. “I am convinced this plan induces new traffic in Manhattan.”

Then there’s Kagan’s brother, Marc, who was a transit worker and union reformer in Transport Workers Local 100. Marc Kagan was one of former Local 100 leader Roger Toussaint’s top aides until the two had a falling out in 2003. That’s par for the course for the Upper Left Side, where if you can’t launch two feuds before lunch, the day’s a waste.

Since Marc Kagan does not exactly strike me as the kind of person who would end up working for the subway system (he is now a public school teacher), I wonder if he made that choice like so many others (including many Trotskyists from that period) as a way to do political work in the same fashion as the subjects of Kagan’s thesis, the socialist activists of the ILGWU.

Chapter five and six of Kagan’s thesis provide an eye-opening account of the implosion of the New York left, reminiscent of what took place about 50 years later when SDS, the Maoists and the Trotskyists all went a similar route. Under the impact of the Russian Revolution, the NY left immediately after WWI began a process of fragmentation that was repeated all too often. While there was a need for a Socialist Party that purged itself from characters like Morris Hillquit, a class-collaborationist par excellence, the revolutionary-minded members of the party decided to clone the Russian Bolshevik party whether or not that made sense for American conditions. Lenin, the leading Bolshevik, sensed something was wrong early on when he had a chance to look at a proposal made in Russia for how to organize a Communist Party in 1921. He stated:

At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions. That is its good side, but it is also its bad side, bad because scarcely a single foreigner–I am convinced of this, and I have just re-read it-can read it. Firstly, it is too long, fifty paragraphs or more. Foreigners cannot usually read items of that length. Secondly, if they do read it, they cannot understand it, precisely because it is too Russian…it is permeated and imbued with a Russian spirit. Thirdly, if there is by chance a foreigner who can understand it, he cannot apply it…My impression is that we have committed a gross error in passing that resolution, blocking our own road to further progress. As I said, the resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs. But I must say that we have not yet discovered the form in which to present our Russian experience to foreigners, and for that reason the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not discover it, we shall not go forward.

I think if he knew how mistaken the conceptions that could produce such a resolution actually were, I am sure that he would have been far less gracious.

The left in NY was polarized between the official SP leadership, consisting of sell-outs like Hillquit, and those who would join the new Communist movement. Foremost among them were the Wasp John Reed (played by Warren Beatty in “Reds”), the Italian-American Louis Fraina (played by Paul Sorvino) and Max Eastman, a Jew (played by Edward Herrmann). Kagan quotes Eastman:

There is no use pretending that this split in the Socialist Party is new…It has always been exactly the same—on the one hand revolutionary Marxists, on the other reformers and diluters of Marxian theory.

By 1941, Eastman had become fairly diluted himself and by the 1960s was identified with the conservative movement whose goals he promoted in the pages of National Review.

Reed and Fraina drafted a leftwing manifesto in 1919 that was circulated in the Socialist Party branches around New York, much to the chagrin of Hillquit and the reformists who eventually suspended those branches that supported the manifesto.

While the left wing could have emerged out of this fight with the political authority to build a real alternative to the reformists, it soon began to squander this opportunity with sterile and misguided attempts to win the official franchise from the Kremlin. One group, the Communist Party, consisted mainly of immigrants while the Communist Labor Party was largely American-born. But both groups basically supported the new orientation of the Reed-Fraina manifesto. For a modern-day version of this kind of split, you can look at the Workers World Party/Party of Socialism and Liberation formations. Both groups, the product of a split in the WWP, have virtually the same program but decided that they could not exist in the same organization. To this day they have not provided the left with an explanation of their differences. This, of course, is not the way that the Bolsheviks functioned whatever else their other faults.

While the two groups battled each other, both had to fend with the Palmer Raids and other forms of Red Scare repression. Under such hammer blows, the Communists found solace in support from the Soviet Union which increasingly began to play the kind of role in their political life that the Vatican played in the Catholic Church. Kagan writes:

Alexander Bittelman, a New York communist, admitted in 1921 that, while they were underground, the CP and the CLP did not “exist as a factor in the class struggle”. Furthermore, as they grew increasingly removed from American life, the communists became ever more attached to their Bolshevik brethren. The Soviets themselves bear partial responsibility for this. As the years passed, the Bolshevik leaders grew increasingly dictatorial toward the other members of the Third International; indeed, Gregory Zinoviev (played by Jerzy Kosinski in “Reds”), the head of the Comintern, stated flatly that the Soviets believed it “obligatory to interfere” in the internal affairs of the world’s communist parties.40

I only wish that I had access to footnote number 40 since that would provide some useful grist for my ongoing mill.


  1. Max Eastman was not Jewish. Both of his parents were Congregationalist ministers.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — May 27, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

  2. Good research. Thanks for bring this to our attention.

    Perhaps the thesis can be obtained by inter-library loan and then you can scan and post the footnote!

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — May 27, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

  3. Lou,

    Max Eastman was not a jew. His parents were protestant clergy. His mother was quite famous. You should read his autobiography, LOVE AND REVOLUTION. It is much more fun than the movie.

    Your posting reminds me of a story Max Schachtman told us at dinner when we had invited him up to Bard in ’63. He said that as a kid from Harlem he had come downtown to become a communist. Only in 1921 there were two communist parties: the CP and the CLP. One of the parties stood for “mass action” and the other for “action of the masses”. Everything depended upon making the right choice. This was his first (of how many?) faction fights. He was still convinced he had made the right choice in this decisive battle.

    Comment by Paul Mueller — May 27, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

  4. OFF TOPIC: Speaking of Jerzy Kosinski, if you’ve never read his twisted novel “The Painted Bird” about a juvenile Jewish boy both parentless & homeless who frightfully roams about the East European countryside during WWII, experiencing one horror after another, then I encourage you to do so as it’s one of those strange & terrible sagas that can scar the brain tissue of the weak at heart.

    There’s one scene where after yet another set of adult slavic tormenters has dunked him up to his next in a trench full of thick raw sewage they toss him into a raging river that’s rising fast. Not knowing how to swim the boy manages to cling onto whatever’s available, which happened to be the floating air bladder with entrails of a giant gutted catfish on which he was safely washed down to the next village where a new set of sadistic peasants awaited to torment him anew.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 27, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

  5. Ha, I got fooled by the first name Max.

    That reminds me that Jewish boys tended to get first names associated with the British aristocracy, a factoid Manus Pinkwater once pointed out to me. Like Irving, Seymour and Milton. I just assumed that this included Max.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 27, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

  6. SP? The word “next” should have read “neck.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 27, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

  7. Brian Palme’s book on Cannon actually covers a lot of the early CP quite well, in excruciating detail.

    Comment by David Walters — May 28, 2010 @ 2:41 am

  8. Wasn’t “The Painted Bird” twisted in the sense that the portrayal of the Polish wasn’t true. That the Polish that took Kosinsky into their house were facing death themselves when the germans would find a jewish boy.

    Comment by Bob — May 28, 2010 @ 7:11 am

  9. Perhaps. I was 13 when I read the book and never followed up on the author’s historical accuracy or politics although I vaguely recall some controversy in that regard. I hadn’t even realized the author played Zinoviev in Beatty’s Reds until now.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 28, 2010 @ 11:36 am

  10. Kagan’s thesis and her apparent sympathy with socialism seems like a good thing (her careerism not withstanding). Maybe, just maybe, if she wins the nomination she will carry these sympathies into the Supreme Court.

    Comment by Ed — May 28, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  11. Re the left wing of the Socialist Party leaving in 1919…my understanding is that they were expelled, beginning with the convention in 1919 and for a 6 month period afterwards.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — May 28, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

  12. “10.Kagan’s thesis and her apparent sympathy with socialism seems like a good thing (her careerism not withstanding). Maybe, just maybe, if she wins the nomination she will carry these sympathies into the Supreme Court.”

    That’s almost exactly what the Right-wing has been saying when arguing against her.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — June 13, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  13. Will those able to learn and apply practical lessons from the disastrous Comintern split from the SP of America, and other SPs, do so?

    The SP USA today has several hundred members, mostly young, and a diverse mostly young leadership that is looking forward rather than oriented to fighting old battles. All leadership bodies have gender parity. The SP ran a slate for President and VP in 2012 that was composed of an African American and a Latino. Its magazine (http://www.thesocialist.us/) would benefit from submissions by persons with experience and knowledge from struggles in the 60s to 80s.

    Comment by David Keil — August 23, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

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