The Divided Left

Milton Cantor obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is currently Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Prior to the publication of The Divided Left, Cantor edited six books and authored two others. His articles have appeared in a variety of liberal publications. Cantor’s research interests span labor, radical, and intellectual history.

Cantor begins his study of the left with an examination of Daniel DeLeon and his Socialist Labor Party (SLP)—the first major Marxist organization in United States history. Curaçao-born, DeLeon was “a professor without a professorship” and a man intensely concerned with maintaining the “revolutionary purity” of his Marxism, regardless of the consequences. As a result, though DeLeon was one of the tiny handful of first-rate leftist theoreticians to emerge in the United States, his “monopoly” on the correct strategies led to the first appearance of factionalism—something that would decimate DeLeon’s SLP and all subsequent left-wing groups in the country. DeLeon was, as a result, the ultimate leader of a small sect, made up predominantly of non-English-speaking immigrants, with no substantial roots in the labor movement. The scenario of the early SLP set the tone for what was to come. Leftist movements would come and go, but all would suffer from the same liabilities. First, the left would remain isolated from the very working class so essential in any Marxian plan for revolution. Under varying circumstances, no left-wing group in American history sank deep roots in the labor movement. And, second, as each group failed to secure a mass base for its outlook, members would turn inward, closing ranks around whatever was deemed the true and proper path to revolution—and expelling any and all members with doubts or disagreements.

Witness the rise and fall of the Socialist Party (SP), founded in 1901. Its early charismatic leader, Indiana-born Eugene V. Debs, was a product of various railroad workers unions, and had led the massive Pullman Strike of 1894. Debs made several runs for the U.S. presidency, with his greatest success coming in 1912, when he polled 900,000 votes. Socialists were elected to many state and local offices in the years before World War I. Socialists also controlled several of the trade unions in the American Federation of Labor. Then came World War I.

Socialist Party voting strength, where it existed, was based on reform rather than revolution. The crucial point is this—the SP gained a substantial degree of public acceptance, perhaps greater than any other leftist party in United States history, but it did so...

(The entire section is 1094 words.)


Library Journal. CIII, July, 1978, p. 1404.

Washington Monthly. X, July, 1978, p. 59.