The socialist movement in the United States has long been only a minority on the political scene. The influence of the movement and its ideas, however, is very much a part of American working class history.
Those who have claimed Marx and Engels as their political mentors have played a significant role in the history of American social protest—from the earliest days of 19th century trade unionism through the rise of industrial unionism during the Great Depression and the mass social protests of the 1960s against the Vietnam War.
One high point of socialist influence occurred during the first two decades of the last century. In 1912, Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party presidential candidate and founder of the American Railway Union, garnered some 900,000 votes (or six percent) in the national elections. The same year the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike, led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), galvanized the nation as the largely immigrant workers heroically defied a Goliath of powerful manufacturers. The movie, “Reds,” directed by Warren Beatty, which profiled journalist and early communist leader John Reed, recalled some of the flavor and vibrancy of those early days.
Leader of the Socialist Left Wing
A less well-known but equally significant figure during this period was Louis Fraina, a young working-class intellectual and leader of the socialist left wing. Paul Buhle’s, A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost, was the first biography of this important if now largely forgotten figure. Buhle, who directed New York University’s Oral History of the American Left Program at the time of the book’s publication in the mid-1990s, portrays Fraina (born Luigi Carlo Fraina in Galdo, Italy in 1892) as a sympathetic, but also tragic figure.
Fraina’s early brilliance as a left-wing socialist retrospectively marked, Buhle notes, the “glory days” of a career whose long-term trajectory “staggered downward” toward acceptance of the inevitability of “government directed by the giant bureaucracies of business and politics.” Indeed, Fraina, who after leaving the Communist Party in the early 1920s built a reputation as a noted Depression-era radical economist under the name Lewis Corey, eventually ended his career in the 1950s as a liberal opponent of the Stalinist Soviet Union.
A prolific journalist and influential editor, the youthful Fraina helped shape the character of the radical left during the 1910s through his work with such publications as The Communist, The Revolutionary Age, The Class Struggle, The New International, and the New Review. His writings for the New Review were described by historian Theodore Draper as “by far the best insight into the mind of the Left Wing before and after the outbreak of the war.” Fraina was also editor of the book The Proletarian Revolution in Russia, a collection of writings by Lenin and Trotsky, which when published in 1918 represented the first major work for an American audience by the Bolshevik leaders.
The first American socialist during the war to call for the replacement of the Second International by a new revolutionary international, Fraina’s activity in collaboration with the Socialist Propaganda League of Boston marked the origin of the drive to split the left wing away from the Socialist Party and organize a separate communist movement. Later, Fraina became the first international secretary for the Communist Party of America, representing it as a delegate to the Second World Congress of the Third (Communist) International held in Moscow and Petrograd in 1920.
The Strategy of Mass Action
Fraina’s serious attention to political theory stands out as a pioneering effort to forge a distinct theoretical outlook for the emerging revolutionary movement in the United States. His book, “Revolutionary Socialism: A Study in Socialist Reconstruction,” also published in 1918, brought to left wing socialism its most significant theoretical statement by an American supporter of the Bolsheviks.
As a theoretical treatise, the book offered a unique amalgam of influences. In Fraina’s hands, Lenin and Trotsky’s general views on strategy and leadership in the unfolding Russian Revolution were combined with ideas on mass struggle drawn from Dutch leftist Anton Pannekoek (and indirectly from Rosa Luxemburg). In turn, Fraina was also influenced by the more native syndicalist traditions of Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party. The result was a somewhat pedantic outline of a strategy for “revolutionary mass action” that took as its starting point a rejection of the idea (then common among many Social-Democrats) that a peaceful transition to socialism was possible.
As Buhle observes, Fraina’s book represented “the nearest approximation of a full-blown theoretical text of American revolutionary socialists in response to the war.” It was an attempt to reorient the American movement to the new epoch of imperialism, to the end of the era of “peaceful “ capitalist growth, and the resulting collapse of confidence in the Second International among left antiwar socialists. This crisis of confidence stemmed largely from the support of Europe’s leading socialist parties for the war efforts of their respective national governments. For many, this betrayal of socialist principles of international solidarity shattered expectations that socialist electoral and trade union influence in Europe would continue its steady growth, until the day came when the socialist movement was strong enough to do away with capitalism at the ballot box.
In a sense, the more than two decades of steady organizational progress registered by the Second International’s most influential parties (such as the German Social Democratic Party) had blurred their original revolutionary aims—as the concrete struggle for “minimum” democratic demands thus gradually became the de facto “maximum” program. Accordingly, the goal of socialist revolution had over the years become less important next to the growing subscriptions, treasuries, and practical, day-to-day influence of elected officials.
The world war exposed this trend toward accommodation with the status quo with disastrous clarity, as the social-democratic parties largely buckled under the pressure of patriotic hysteria. In the United States, liberal reformers and labor leaders who yesterday had to some degree sympathized with socialist peace slogans now endorsed a war that was transforming Europe into a slaughterhouse. To it’s credit, there was strong opposition in the Socialist Party to U.S. entry into the war, courageously personified in the defiant antiwar stance of Eugene V. Debs. But under pressure not to resist the war effort, there were also notable party defections. The party was also subject to government persecution, with the arrests of many of its most vocal antiwar leaders, including Debs.
“The decades-old socialist agitational and educational effort had ended in a cul-de-sac, unless the revolutionary wing could find a way out,” explains Buhle. For Fraina, that way out had been revealed in the example of the insurrectionary Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants, led by the Bolshevik Party. As a budding revolutionary thinker, Fraina’s strategic ideas for organizing the working class emphasized the dialectic of the masses in motion as the road to class-consciousness. It was through their own living experience and struggles, Fraina argued, that the working class would throw off the constraints of the traditional labor organizations and forge new leadership capable of overthrowing capitalism. The goal was a revolutionary workers government.
In this sense, Fraina’s writing in “Revolutionary Socialism” tended to reflect more Rosa Luxemburg’s view of the revolutionary party as agitator and propagandist of action than Lenin’s concept of the party as a highly disciplined leadership organization. In the United States, Fraina’s conception of mass action sought to bridge a conceptual gap that had long counterposed political action to industrial action in the American labor movement. This division was evident at the time in the Socialist Party’s emphasis on winning elections versus the more syndicalist union struggle orientation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
While Buhle aptly describes Fraina’s role and the movement he led, he shows less appreciation otherwise for the influence of the Bolsheviks on the American left. He is critical of Russia’s revolutionary leaders, for acting, even if unintentionally, in “a manner as to discourage utterly any independent thought or creative adaptation within the national parties.” He also repeats the argument long fashionable among some left academics that the split in the Socialist Party and the division of the left into forces defined by their relationship to the Russian Revolution—rather than substantive issues of American life—cut short real opportunities for further growth of the socialist movement in the United States.
This assessment opens up a larger and more complex historical debate and deserves further discussion, beyond the scope of this review. It’s true that as the Socialist Party splintered, many in its left wing joined either of the two newly formed Communist parties, both of which in this formative period tended toward ultraleft radicalism. Unfortunately, many socialist and labor activists were subsequently lost to the heightened factional strife of the period, dropping out of the Socialist Party and activist politics all together. But for other American radicals, the Russian Revolution represented an accelerated leap in ideas for organizing the socialist struggle for power. Inspired by the revolution and the possibility for it to spread in a worldwide revolt against capitalism, it was for many young radicals and socialists a time of fervent ideas and dreams for the future, both in the United States and worldwide. It is certainly also true that the early years of the new Third International were characterized by open and critical debates on all manner of topics, from the character of the imperialism to issues involving electoral and trade union strategy, nationalism, agrarian reform, the nature of workers’ leadership, and many other issues. There was none of the stifling of dissent that later became the norm under Stalinism.
Fraina Becomes Lewis Corey
For Fraina, however, the era’s promise would soon turn to disappointment. His eventual departure from the Communist Party would occur as a result of a demoralizing complex of personal and political problems. Prior to the Second Congress of the Third International, Fraina had been accused of being a government spy (notably, the charge was made by a then-undercover Justice Department agent). An investigating commission authorized by the Third International would eventually exonerate Fraina. However, John Reed, author of the best-seller, Ten Days That Shook the World, and a leader of the rival Communist Labor Party, suggested in the wake of the investigation that it might be prudent for Fraina to assume a more low-key role for a time. Thus began what turned for Fraina into a personally demoralizing mission on behalf of the International to Mexico. For a variety of reasons, including charges that he had mishandled funds assigned to him, it was there in 1923 that Fraina left the communist movement.
But Fraina was a talented man. Within a few years, he began writing on economics, eventually building a national reputation as an independent Marxist under the name Lewis Corey, author of “The House of Morgan,” “The Decline of American Capitalism,” and other influential books. In the early 1930s, he appeared marginally sympathetic to the Lovestone group, a faction of Communist Party members expelled for supporting Russian leader Nikolai Bukharin over Joseph Stalin in the Russian party’s internal power struggle. He also was associated with the short-lived Marxist Quarterly, an independent journal launched in 1937.
On the eve of World War II, Fraina as Corey could still criticize the Stalinists for abandoning revolutionary aims for the sake of anti-fascist unity, warning that the war to come will be “more destructive, more barbarous, more menacing to civilization” than any previous conflict. But this was only a final spark from the once flaming, but now nearly burned-out ember of Fraina’s early revolutionary outlook. For Corey, the disheartening spectacle of the Moscow Trials and Stalin’s growing terror, including the debacle of Stalin’s disastrous policies in the Spanish Civil War, reached its denouement with the signing in 1939 of the Stalin-Hitler pact between the Soviet Union and Germany. Soon after Corey broke with Marxism, as he explained in a three-part series published in 1940 in The Nation.
Until his death in 1953, Corey dismissed Marxism as a “Hegelian hangover,” advocating instead a type of capitalist/socialist “mixed economy” (He was perhaps the first to use that term). The mixed economy was to be achieved through the peaceful transformation of the “democratic state” by a “multi-class coalition” of society’s most democratic-minded forces. Ironically, Corey’s intellectual retreat from his early Marxism could not entirely convince right-wing forces that he was now a trustworthy recruit to the anti-Communist cause. His appointment at Antioch College in the early 1940s (perhaps the only university professor in the country not to graduate from high school) engendered red-scare headlines, and in the last year of his life Corey was forced to fight a government deportation effort. Sadly, Corey died of a stroke in 1953, only a day before mail arrived at his home informing him the deportation order had been rescinded.
In the end, Fraina/Corey’s life represented, as the American socialist leader James Cannon once observed, “a life which was offered to two opposing causes and was rejected by both.” “A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost” is a fascinating and worthwhile account of that life. It will hopefully renew interest in the man Cannon called the “first writer of pioneer American communism.”
“A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost: Louis C. Fraina/Lewis Corey (1892-1953) and the Decline of Radicalism in the United States,” by Paul M. Buhle. (Humanities Press, 1995)
This review from 2012 has been revised and updated.