Hanging Together

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Unity—a seductive word for everyone, particularly for those on the left. All too many times, however, the promises of unity and a bright future have been belied by the grim realities of post-union history. But some unions have succeeded. . . .

Two of the most positive cases in this century were the union of the American left in 1901 that created the Socialist Party of America, and the union of the French left in 1969 that created the Parti Socialiste.

On July 29, 1901, 125 delegates, representing 6,500 socialists, met in Indianapolis. Most of them were from Morris Hillquit’s so-called “Kangaroo” faction of the Socialist Labor party. . . . Some were independent socialists, but the majority of the other delegates represented the Social Democratic party, whose best-known leaders were former Populist Eugene Debs and Milwaukee socialist Victor Berger.

Within a decade of this convention, the unified group, the Socialist Party of America, had attracted 100,000 members. In 1912, Debs received a higher percentage of the presidential vote than did the British Labor party in the elections of 1910. Despite the crises of the World War I era, which split and destroyed the old Socialist party, that party remains the most successful expression of American socialism to date.

In 1969, delegates representing various factions of the French left came together to create the Parti Socialiste. . . . The 1969 unity brought together the [old French Socialist party] SFIO, François Mitterrand’s CJR (Convention of Republican Institutions), elements of the old French Radical party, and most of the independent socialist “clubs” that had sprung up during the decade. A few years later, Michel Rocard brought his faction of the PSU (the Unified Socialist party) into the new PS. Within a dozen years of its founding, the PS elected the first left president of the French Fifth Republic, as well as an absolute parliamentary majority.

What distinguished these successful mergers from the many unsuccessful ones that litter left history? The most important factor was an agreement on a strategy. The American Socialists of 1901 agreed on the concept of an independent, electorally oriented party which would combine a program of immediate demands with a long-run socialist goal and would work with the existing labor movement. It was the collapse of this strategic agreement in later years that led to a collapse of the party. The French Socialists of 1969 agreed on the Mitterrand strategy of a broad electoral coalition with the French Communists, but a coalition in which the Socialists would keep their identity distinct from that of the Communists. It was the continued prosecution of this strategy for a dozen years that finally led Mitterrand to the president’s chair.

The DSOC and NAM delegates meeting in Detroit represent as many socialists as were represented in the Indianapolis meeting in 1901. They represent people who have come from all the main intellectual and organizational currents in the American left of this century: Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists, new leftists, liberals, labor, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. The future lies before us, and only time and what we do will determine whether Detroit in 1982 will have the historical resonance of Indianapolis in 1901.