The US never developed a social democratic party with a share in power on the national level as social democrats in other countries had. However, there was a broad socialist movement in the US. In 1910 it was looking like it would one day be ensconced in the halls of Congress as a solid third ruling party. The first world war and the red scare that followed it, in the space of ten years, this changed. A hundred years later the largest organization that is popularly said to be on the political left in the US is the “Democratic Socialists of America”. It is an avenue for ex-leftists and Democratic Party functionaries to give themselves a leg up in their political fortunes. It is reformism’s death mask used as a facelift for a capitalist ruling party.
When one thinks of leftists taking sides in an imperialist war, the first imperialist power that comes to mind that they might side with is not usually the US. However, there is a long precedent for right-wing social democrats in the US that lend support to American imperialism. These elements often were particularly oriented towards support for war, eagerly trying to prove themselves to their favorite clique of capitalists.
Today they wave Ukrainian flags. Our latter day mensheviks love war. The frightened petty bourgeois liberal intelligentsia is so repressed that they can only vent their hatred in a direction acceptable to American imperialism. Now they hate Russia because it is one of the few places and peoples that are truly acceptable for them to hate. You have the bizarre spectacle of woke warriors supporting one of the most corrupt, racist, right-wing and decidedly non-woke political forces in Eastern Europe – Ukrainian nationalism. This wasn’t anything new. Many of this same western intelligentsia supported the war in Syria with its 28 religious fundamentalist gangs inspired by such progressive slogans as “Christians to Beirut! Alawites to the grave!”
Both in the Korean War and in the Vietnam War numbers of right-wing social democrats supported the wars and the respective governments propped up by the US, including the Dictatorship of Syngmann Rhee. As socialists it was their first duty to attack the Stalinist garrison states for being “Communist”. They had to prove themselves to the capitalist political faction they were attempting to join, and this was the price they were more than willing to pay.
The opportunists’ path
Bayard Rustin, Max Schachtman and many other figures on the American left have beaten a path into the co-ruling Democratic Party. The parliamentary-fixated social democrats held an idea that class consciousness could be created by electoral propaganda and measured in the number of votes their candidates received. In this view it became easy to argue that class is too narrow a focus to win reformist victories via the ballot box. Or that political independence from the ruling parties was impractical.1
While reformists seek to make use of the state, the state isn’t a neutral entity. Thus it is the capitalist class that makes use of them. The precursors of the modern DSA, the DSOC and the SDUSA existed as voting lists within the Democratic Party. For the capitalist class the remnant social democrats in the DP held vestigial relevance to the Democrats as long as they could give a left voice to support American imperialism.2
This collapse of social democracy was the product of repression and ideological collapse. At its peak in 1912 the Socialist Party of America managed to attract voters due to a period of popular disgust with the two ruling parties. So the 1912 elections saw the Socialist Party’s high water mark. After this many of the liberal progressive elements drifted off to vote for Woodrow Wilson. A vote for social democracy was not a vote for socialism.3
Further weakening the Socialist Party of America was the wave of expulsions that began in 1912. In an attempt to establish their legalistic democratic credentials they took first to expelling the “syndicalists” and figures like Bill Haywood. Later the Communist Party would do the same during its period of “bolshevization”. Eventually the expulsions culminated in the forced exit of all the left of social democracy in the US. The latter went on to form the first communist parties in the US. The First World War opened the existing fissures in the Socialist Party and left them without a left-wing. The remaining socialist party leadership, represented by Morris Hillquit and Victor Berger, was then freed to drift rightwards.4
The next stop could only be the Democratic Party. A ruling party that since its’ inception has always postured as a party of the “workingman” while at the same time being a party of slave holders and capitalists. It excelled at getting the votes of every immigrant group to arrive in America. Today its’ modern incarnation excels at appealing to people of all racial, sexual, ethnic and religious identities. The very existence of a social democratic party was a threat. So for a short time the Socialist Party was able to establish itself across the US as a third party against the two older ruling parties, the older ruling parties were never going to allow a third party a seat at the table.
A typical figure of this type of US government token social democrat is the figure of Carl Gershman who ran the US government’s “National Endowment for Democracy” from its inception in 1983 to 2021. In 2021 he was in the news for being pranked by a pair of Russian comedians,Vladimir Kuznetsov and Aleksei Stolyarov, who called him pretending to be working for Alexy Navalny. In the course of the prank call Gershman talked up all the many NED projects in Russia.5 Gershman set the course for the very organization that the US government uses to conduct much of its overt political interference around the world. Having gotten his start in the Young People’s Socialist League to being a favorite of the Reagan administration’s cold war propaganda effort. The Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) was once the youth organization of the Socialist Party of America (SPA). With Trotsky’s French Turn, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the US joined the SPA until it was kicked out taking YPSL with it. This was one of the few instances that Trotsky’s French Turn managed to gain more members for a Trotskyist party. YPSL became the core of many future cadres of James Cannon’s SWP. Trapped in a reformist minimum program and given the predominance of entryist political practice the only direction they could move was to the right. Once moved to the right, the only other logical move is further to the right.
Tankies in reverse
In the last century a “tankie” referred to a Trotskyist who was so pro-USSR that they would celebrate Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary to put down the Hungarian uprising in 1956. The word has entered the mainstream to the point that it indicates anyone who is opposed to American imperialist wars implying that opposition to imperialist war is support for the enemy. The subtlety of being opposed to all imperialist powers while recognizing that the main enemy is at home is beyond those whose class interest or conditioning is to rally around a tricolor flag. The word tankie in itself is a part of this process of mainstreaming the subculture jargon of the left into the Democratic Party orbit and around the world of the English language internet. The primary use the bourgeoisie has for these reformed leftists is getting them to support imperialist wars, and thus help demobilize opposition to war.
While there are violent nationalist reactionaries on all sides of the conflict, Ukrainian nationalism represents one of the oldest of America’s imperialist proxies. With confirmed contacts with Ukrainian fascist organizations going back to the immediate post-WWII period. This support is decades old, dating back to 1946 according to the CIA’s own declassified documents.6 If you want to see what sort of government American imperialism had in mind for a “liberated” pro-western Ukraine one need not look further than the current repressive regime in Kiev that has banned all opposition political parties and centralized the political leadership and its propaganda apparatus into one ruling coalition umbrella. It is a government that officially defines itself as a nationalist republic that in structure bears a remarkable similarity to the Stalinist regimes of the soviet period but under the control of a puppet government run out of the US embassy in Lviv. There is a direct organizational continuity between the Ukrainian fascist organizations of the past and the Ukrainian nationalists of today. A large part of this continuity is that the US has chosen to do its business with the worst national chauvinist kakistocrats they could find. It was a nationalism fostered by expatriates in western academic institutions with Anglo-American state sponsorship. Led by the likes of Mykola Lebed and Yaroslav Stetsko throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century. With the coup in 2014, the US saw its golden opportunity to install its very own neo-fascists in power, with American politicians like John McCain and Victoria Nuland playing a leading role in promoting what was to become America’s newest puppet government.
Yet some DSAers have even argued for support for the Zelensky regime as the lesser of two evils that must be supported.5 There is never a shortage of lesser evils to support, even if that means turning a blind eye to the role of US imperialism and its proxies in Ukraine. The human rights record of the pro-US regime in Ukraine is well documented with instances of torture and nationalist violence from the last eight years of civil war. As a faction within the Democratic Party, they bear responsibility for a great deal of bloodshed in Ukraine. As the American policy, from the coup in 2014 on, was to aid the Ukrainian nationalist government. The only way to finally bring Ukraine into the American bloc would be to fully reset the ethnic balance of the country in favor of ethnic Ukrainians. For eight years the US supported the Ukrainian government in its civil war against the Donbass republics. During this entire period the Ukrainian army was built up and trained to NATO standards by the US, Canada and Britain. When the White House recently asked for $33 billion dollars for the war in Ukraine, the Congress increased the amount to $40 billion more. Not one DSA member in Congress voted against it.
For revolutionaries who do not take sides with American, Russian, or Ukrainian nationalists it is a given that any nationalist will regard such a position as de facto support for whichever capitalist faction they oppose. Such that by opposing a war one gets labeled a “tankie” even though the real tankies were supporters of imperialism. With the threat of a war between two nuclear armed imperialist powers looming, this bourgeois leftist political faction is working overtime to demobilize and discredit any anti-war sentiment and act as sheepdogs for their capitalist ruling party.
To accept the present war in Ukraine as an imperialist war can be deceptively interpreted as a relativization of the sides of the conflict. For both the US and Russia the conflict is existential. American imperialism cannot stop expanding. In capitalism one either expands or contracts. From the perspective of Russian imperialism, the US and its proxies cannot be allowed to gain a permanent foothold on their doorstep as this would only be a prelude to the attempted breakup of the Russian Federation itself. When we say “no to NATO, no to Putin”, we mean no to either imperialist power. To side with the class means that for workers their main enemy is at home. It is easy for bourgeois philistines and democratic cretins to “oppose imperialism” on the other side of the world, it is harder to oppose the imperialism of the enemy at home. It is easy for an imperialist power in conflict with another imperialist power to sound “anti-imperialist”. For workers in America’s NATO-land, a victory for their ruling class means inflation, poverty and all consequences surrounding participation in the war. For Russian workers it isn’t much different. It is worse still for a Ukrainian worker whose own ruling class wants to get as many of them killed as possible to try to guilt trip the West into more direct military intervention. Ukrainian workers are as trapped in this situation as the remnants of the Azov brigade were in the cellars of the Azovstal steelworks.
Within the English-speaking world information bubble the present climate of national chauvinism is tinged with the dementia of American imperialist decline. The US has lost Afghanistan and is losing its latest acquisitions in Ukraine. The threat of a conflagration between nuclear armed imperialist powers has never been greater. For years the western press has been awash with anti-Russian propaganda. The last thing workers need is bourgeois moralizing and pseudo-humanitarian war propaganda. For those who think Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine is bad they should try starting World War Three. Of course, these social democrats are already on the job there as well.
1 Esposito, A. The Ideology of the Socialist Party of America, 1901-1917. Garland Publishing. New York. 1997
2 Ross, J. The Socialist Party of America, a complete history. University of Nebraska Press. 2015.
3 Shannon, D. The Socialist Party of America: a history. Macmillan. New York. 1955. p. 92
4 ibid. pg. 72
6 Ruffner, Kevin C. Fifty Years of the CIA. Cold War Allies: The Origins of the CIA’s Relationship with Ukrainian Nationalists (s). Central Intelligence Agency. 1998. Pg. 29