In the early years of this century, prior to World War I, there was in the United States a growing, vigorous, powerful socialist movement. In many respects it was further advanced than the British socialist movement of the time. The usual indicator you run across in the history books is the Presidential campaign of 1912 in which Eugene V. Debs gained some 6% of the vote as the candidate of the Socialist Party. But this statistic in fact underestimates the strength and significance of the movement. The socialist press, represented by dozens of newspapers and journals, had a wide circulation. Socialists were an open and well organized force in the AFL, winning almost a third of the vote for their candidate in 1912. At the local and state levels numerous socialists held office and the Party ran a number of municipalities. Despite the wide scale persecution that accompanied World War I, during the war and in the early 20s the American left experienced a new surge of growth and activity. While the Socialist Party split in the early 20s, the labor movement swung sharply to the left and a serious attempt to build a new party based on the unions arose. Members of the Socialist Party and the new parties affiliated with the Communist International played important and influential roles in this revived labor movement.
For a few years, during the late 20s, this revival appeared to falter. But the Depression and the collapse of confidence in the capitalist system even among its beneficiaries changed that. It was in 1932, in the midst of this widespread radicalization, that Hal Draper joined the socialist movement. Of course, as the son of immigrant garment workers, this formal act was not his real initiation into the world of the socialist and labor movements.
From 1932 until his death in 1990, Hal Draper was a prolific Marxist writer and a socialist activist. He is one of the few people from that era who maintained and expanded this American socialist tradition which has almost disappeared. World War II and the Cold War were a political space-time warp and very few individuals or political tendencies passed through it intact. This is true of the socialist movement worldwide of course but the damage was greatest in the United States. Draper is one of the few who, instead of abandoning the movement in despair and rejecting his own political past, analyzed what was happening with the combination of rigorous research and passionate outrage that is the stamp of the Marxist tradition. In the 50s, a time of general collapse and demoralization in the American left, Draper edited the weekly Labor Action, a political journal widely read in Europe as well as the United States because of its uncompromising rejection of the American consensus which did not depend on accepting that other form of despair – the slavish defense of “real existing socialism” as the only alternative.
It was not possible, of course, to remain in opposition to the “real existing crap” of both sides of the Cold War without rethinking the history of the movement. Draper’s 4-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution is his principal achievement in this regard. The works collected here are manuscripts that were either not published or are hard to obtain and they emphasize sides of Draper’s career and writing that are not included in KMTR.
It is a truism that the aim of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was not to replace the capitalist system, but to save what could be saved from the wreckage of the Depression by making those concessions he had to and using them to disarm and demoralize a potentially revolutionary movement from below. He succeeded admirably. Even today, when liberals and conservatives alike are dedicated to dismantling the welfare state he created, even Republicans pay tribute to this “Great President” and rightly so from their class standpoint. More important, however, than the immediate impact of Roosevelt’s reforms in blunting popular discontent was the long term benefit. Roosevelt’s ersatz revolution destroyed the real socialist movement of opposition described above. Even historians and pundits who, usually approvingly, note Roosevelt’s role in saving capitalism pay little or no attention to the movement he was saving it from. Draper’s essay on the Student Movement of the 30s is a good short introduction to the real politics of this period and in fact a good introduction to what Draper represented.