December 12, 2011

New week, new topics…

Filed under: Uncategorized — carrite @ 9:47 am

Monday morning.

Socialist Labor Party Executive Secretary Philip Van Patten, c. 1880.

Out of bed at 8:45, showered, made coffee, crunched Wheaties, glanced at the Oregonian. I actually remembered to do the garbage today, who says I can’t learn? I’m chomping at the bit to really get after it this week.

On Saturday evening I made my 137th start, Philip Van Patten, best known as the head of the Socialist Labor Party, the dominant socialist organization in the United States, from 1876 until he abruptly quit in 1883. I don’t know either birth or death dates for Van Patten, which makes this a rather unusual bio to be writing. Closely related to this fact, I’m not aware of a single biography having been done on him anywhere in any form. So this one is going to be plowing a new field to some extent.

There are no shortage of sources on him, mind you. He was a fairly enormous figure in radical history for his little 7-1/2 year interval and it is nearly impossible to write about the history of Socialism in America in these years without mentioning him.

The “book” on Van Patten — not that there are books on Van Patten — is that he was a “Lassallean” rather than a Marxist. That is, it is intimated that he believed in the use of elections as a vehicle for the achievement of socialism alone, believing the trade union movement to be essentially irrelevant in the long run due to the inherent nature of capitalism to pay only wages sufficient for a worker’s survival and reproduction. Short term wage victories by unions were illusory, the Lassalleans thought, ultimately the competitive system would batter down and eliminate whatever transitory wage  gains had been won.

The Marxists, on the other hand, were the trade union people — willing to delay participation in elections in favor of building a united working class movement through the trade unions. Only when the working class movement had achieved sufficient size to exert itself electorally without being laughed off the stage would participation in political campaigns be desirable, the Marxists felt.

I’ve already got material showing belying this stereotype of Van Patten as a “Lassallean.” It is fully documented that he was one of the two or three primary leaders of the Chicago railroad strike movement of 1877 — events which lead to the killing of something like 18 strikers by the state militia and in the dispersal of two “mass meetings” of the Socialist Labor Party (attended by thousands) by truncheon-wielding Chicago cops.

Not so Lassallean, eh?

The real story is that Van Patten was opposed to the Lehr und Wehr Verein. These were armed workers militia units that trained and paraded with rifles in hand, pledged to defend the working class from similar violence by the capitalist class and their lackeys in government that wielded the guns of the National Guard against strikers. Van Patten was committed to elections rather than armed insurrection, making him a Democrat rather than a Revolutionary. The Anarchists, consequently, hated his guts. As did, it seems, our friend from last week, Paul Grottkau, who made nice with the Anarchists in an attempt to cleanse the SLP of Van Patten and his pals.

In the end, the SLP essentially melted down in 1883, its ranks falling to fewer than 1500 members, and Van Patten gave up the ship. He packed up his library, hinted that he was thinking about suicide, may well have even left a suicide note — and he moved to another city (Washington, DC???) where he became a government functionary.

And radicals have been pissing on his grave ever since.

Other projects for the week: a compilation of the second batch of 22 pdf files from the FBI’s Morris Childs/Operation SOLO archive dump into a massive file uploaded to, expansion of the bio of Ellen Dawson, a start on the Leon Trotsky Bibliography thing… I’ve got my film reader cued up with a piece by DeLeon’s SLP on the establishment of the Debs Social Democratic Party (1898), and want to go treasure hunting for another piece or two by Van Patten.

Busy week, time to get to work…


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