Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Eugene Victor Debs on "Sound" Tactics

"Sound Socialist Tactics", by Eugene Debs, was written in Feb 1912 and was part of the Socialist Party USA's discussion period before their convention that year. It is well worth reading today.

You can read it as a PDF here, and I am also republishing it on this blog.

Sound Socialist Tactics
By Eugene V Debs

Published in The International Socialist Review [Chicago], v. 13, no. 8 (February 1913).

Socialists are practically all agreed as to the fundamental
principles of their movement. But as to tactics
there is wide variance among them. The matter of
sound tactics, equally with the matter of sound principles,
is of supreme importance. The disagreements
and dissensions among Socialists relate almost wholly
to tactics. The party splits which have occurred in the
past have been due to the same cause, and if the party
should ever divide again, which it is to be hoped it
will not, it will be on the rock of tactics.

Revolutionary tactics must harmonize with revolutionary
principles. We could better hope to succeed
with reactionary principles and revolutionary tactics
than with revolutionary principles and reactionary tactics.
The matter of tactical differences should be approached
with open mind and in the spirit of tolerance.

The freest discussion should be allowed. We have
every element in every shade of capitalist society in
our party, and we are in for a lively time at the very
best before we work out these differences and settle
down to a policy of united and constructive work for
Socialism instead of spending so much time and energy
lampooning one another.

In the matter of tactics we cannot be guided by
the precedents of other countries. We have to develop
our own and they must be adapted to the American
people and to American conditions. I am not sure that
I have the right idea about tactics; I am sure only that
I appreciate their importance, that I am open to correction,
and that I am ready to change whenever I find
myself wrong.

It seems to me there is too much rancor and too
little toleration among us in the discussion of our differences.
Too often the spirit of criticism is acrid and
hypercritical. Personal animosities are engendered, but
opinions remain unchanged. Let us waste as little as
possible of our militant spirit upon one another. We
shall need it all for our capitalist friends.
There has recently been some rather spirited discussion
about a paragraph which appears in the pamphlet
on Industrial Socialism, by William D. Haywood
and Frank Bohn. The paragraph follows:

"When the worker, either through experience or study
of Socialism, comes to know this truth, he acts accordingly.
He retains absolutely no respect for the property ‘rights’
of the profit-takers.
He will use any weapon which will win
his fight. He knows that the present laws of property are
made by and for the capitalists. Therefore he does not
hesitate to break them.

The sentences which I have italicized provoked
the controversy.

We have here a matter of tactics upon which a
number of comrades of ability and prominence have
sharply disagreed. For my own part I believe the paragraph
to be entirely sound.

Certainly all Socialists, knowing how and to what
end capitalist property “rights” are established, must
hold such “rights” in contempt. In the Manifesto Marx
says: “The Communist (Socialist) revolution is the
most radical rupture with traditional property relations;
no wonder that its development involves the most radical
rupture with traditional ideas.”

As a revolutionist I can have no respect for capitalist
property laws, nor the least scruple about violating
them. I hold all such laws to have been enacted
through chicanery, fraud, and corruption, with the sole
end in view of dispossessing, robbing, and enslaving
the working class. But this does not imply that I propose
making an individual lawbreaker of myself and
butting my head against the stone wall of existing property
laws. That might be called force, but it would not
be that. It would be mere weakness and folly.
If I had the force to overthrow these despotic
laws I would use it without an instant’s hesitation or
delay, but I haven’t got it, and so I am law-abiding
under protest — not from scruple — and bide my

Here let me say that for the same reason I am
opposed to sabotage and to “direct action.” I have not
a bit of use for the “propaganda of the deed.” These
are the tactics of anarchist individualists and not of
Socialist collectivists. They were developed by and
belong exclusively to our anarchist friends and accord
perfectly with their philosophy. These and similar
measures are reactionary, not revolutionary, and they
invariably have a demoralizing effect upon the following
of those who practice them. If I believed in the
doctrine of violence and destruction as party policy; if
I regarded the class struggle as guerrilla warfare, I would
join the anarchists and practice as well as preach such

It is not because these tactics involve the use of
force that I am opposed to them, but because they do
not. The physical forcist is the victim of his own boomerang.
The blow he strikes reacts upon himself and
his followers. The force that implies power is utterly
lacking, and it can never be developed by such tactics.
The foolish and misguided, zealots and fanatics,
are quick to applaud and eager to employ such tactics,
and the result is usually hurtful to themselves and to
the cause they seek to advance.

There have been times in the past, and there are
countries today where the frenzied deed of a glorious
fanatic like old John Brown seems to have been inspired
by Jehovah himself, but I am now dealing with
the 20th Century and with the United States.
There may be, too, acute situations arising and
grave emergencies occurring, with perhaps life at stake,
when recourse to violence might be justified, but a
great body of organized workers, such as the Socialist
movement, cannot predicate its tactical procedure
upon such exceptional instances.

But my chief objection to all these measures is
that they do violence to the class psychology of the
workers and cannot be successfully inculcated as mass
doctrine. The very nature of these tactics adapts them
to guerrilla warfare, to the bomb planter, the midnight
assassin; and such warfare, in this country, at least, plays
directly into the hands of the enemy.

Such tactics appeal to stealth and suspicion, and
cannot make for solidarity. The very teaching of sneaking
and surreptitious practices has a demoralizing effect
and a tendency to place those who engage in them
in the category of “Black Hand” agents, dynamiters,
safe-blowers, holdup men, burglars, thieves, and pickpockets.
If sabotage and direct action, as I interpret them,
were incorporated in the tactics of the Socialist Party,
it would at once be the signal for all the agents provocateurs
and police spies in the country to join the party
and get busy. Every solitary one of them would be a
rabid “direct actionist,” and every one would safely
make his “getaway” and secure his reward, a la
McPartland, when anything was “pulled off ” by their
dupes, leaving them with their necks in the nooses.

With the sanctioning of sabotage and similar
practices the Socialist Party would stand responsible
for the deed of every spy or madman, the seeds of strife
would be subtly sown in the ranks, mutual suspicion
would be aroused, and the party would soon be torn
into warring factions to the despair of the betrayed
workers and the delight of their triumphant masters.
If sabotage or any other artifice of direct action
could be successfully employed, it would be wholly
unnecessary, as better results could be accomplished
without it. To the extent that the working class has
power based upon class-consciousness, force is unnecessary;
to the extent that power is lacking, force can
only result in harm.

I am opposed to any tactics which involve stealth,
secrecy, intrigue, and necessitate acts of individual violence
for their execution.

The work of the Socialist movement must all be
done out in the broad open light of day. Nothing can
be done by stealth that can be of any advantage to it in
this country.

The workers can be emancipated only by their
own collective will, the power inherent in themselves
as a class, and this collective will and conquering power
can only be the result of education, enlightenment and
self-imposed discipline.

Sound tactics are constructive, not destructive.
The collective reason of the workers repels the idea of
individual violence where they are free to assert themselves
by lawful and peaceable means.

The American workers are law-abiding and no
amount of sneering or derision will alter that fact.
Direct action will never appeal to any considerable
number of them while they have the ballot and the
right of industrial and political organization.

Its tactics alone have prevented the growth of
the Industrial Workers of the World.
Its principles of
industrial unionism are sound, but its tactics are not.
Sabotage repels the American worker. He is ready for
the industrial union, but he is opposed to the “propaganda
of the deed,” and as long as the IWW adheres
to its present tactics and ignores political action, or
treats it with contempt by advising the workers to
“strike at the ballot box with an ax,” they will regard it
as an anarchist organization, and it will never be more
than a small fraction of the labor movement.

The sound education of the workers and their
thorough organization, both economic and political,
on the basis of the class struggle, must precede their
emancipation. Without such education and organization
they can make no substantial progress, and they
will be robbed of the fruits of any temporary victory
they may achieve, as they have been through all the
centuries of the past.

For one, I hope to see the Socialist Party place
itself squarely on record at the corning national convention
against sabotage and every other form of violence
and destructiveness suggested by what is known
as “direct action.”

It occurs to me that the Socialist Party ought to
have a standing committee on tactics. The art or science
of proletarian party tactics might well enlist the
serious consideration of our clearest thinkers and most
practical propagandists.

To return for a moment to the paragraph above
quoted from the pamphlet of Haywood and Bohn. I
agree with them that in their fight against capitalism
the workers have a right to use any weapon that will
help them to win. It should not be necessary to say
that this does not mean the blackjack, the dirk, the
lead-pipe or the sawed-off shotgun. The use of these
weapons does not help the workers to win, but to lose,
and it would be ridiculous to assume that they were in
the minds of the authors when they penned that paragraph.
The sentence as it reads is sound. It speaks for
itself and requires no apology. The workers will use
any weapon which will help them win their fight.
The most powerful and the all-sufficient weapons
are the industrial union and the Socialist Party,
and they are not going to commit suicide by discarding
these and resorting to the slingshot, the dagger
and the dynamite bomb.

Another matter of party concern is the treatment
of so-called “intellectuals” in the Socialist movement.
Why the term “intellectual” should be one of reproach
in the Socialist Party is hard to understand, and yet
there are many Socialists who sneer at a man of intellect
as if he were an interloper and out of place among
Socialists. For myself I am always glad to see a man of
brains, of intellect, join the movement. If he comes to
us in good faith he is a distinct acquisition and is entitled
to all the consideration due to any other comrade.

To punish a man for having brains is rather an
anomalous attitude for an educational movement. The
Socialist Party, above every other, should offer a premium
on brains, intellectual capacity, and attract to
itself all the mental forces that can be employed to
build up the Socialist movement, that it may fulfill its
emancipating mission.

Of course the Socialist movement is essentially
a working class movement, and I believe that as a rule
party officials and representatives, and candidates for
public office, should be chosen from the ranks of the
workers. The intellectuals in office should be the exceptions,
as they are in the rank and file.

There is sufficient ability among the workers for
all official demands, and if there is not, it should be
developed without further delay. It is their party, and
why should it not be officered and represented by

An organization of intellectuals would not be
officered and represented by wage-earners; neither
should an organization of wage-earners be officered
by intellectuals.

There is plenty of useful work for the intellectuals
to do without holding office, and the more intellectual
they are the greater can their service be to the
movement. Lecturers, debaters, authors, writers, artists,
cartoonists, statisticians, etc., are in demand without
number, and the intellectuals can serve to far better
advantage in those capacities than in official positions.

I believe, too, in rotation in office. I confess to a
prejudice against officialism and a dread of bureaucracy.
I am a thorough believer in the rank and file,
and in ruling from the bottom up instead of being ruled
from the top down. The natural tendency of officials is
to become bosses. They come to imagine that they are
indispensable and unconsciously shape their acts to
keep themselves in office.

The officials of the Socialist Party should be its
servants, and all temptation to yield to the baleful influence
of officialism should be removed by constitutional
limitation of tenure.

There is a tendency in some states to keep the
list of locals a solemn secret. The sheep have got to be
protected against the wolves. No one must know what
locals there are, or who its officials, for fear they may
be corrupted by outside influences. This is an effective
method for herding sheep, but not a good way to raise
men. If the locals must be guarded against the wolves
on the outside, then some one is required to guard
them, and that some one is a boss, and it is the nature
of the boss to be jealous of outside influences.
If our locals and the members who compose
them need the protection of secrecy, they are lacking
in the essential revolutionary fiber which can be developed
only in the play of the elements surrounding
them, and with all the avenues of education and information,
and even of miseducation and misinformation,
wide open for their reception. They have got
to learn to distinguish between their friends and their
enemies and between what is wise and what is otherwise
and until the rank and file are so educated and
enlightened their weakness will sooner or later deliver
them as the prey of their enemies.

Still another matter about which there has been
not a little ill-natured discussion is the proposed investigation
of the Kerr publishing house. I cannot help
wondering what business the National Committee has
making such an investigation. It would be quite as
proper, in my opinion, to order an investigation of a
building and loan association in which members have
their savings invested.

It is true, without a doubt, that The International
Socialist Review has published articles with which many
of us disagreed, but why should it be investigated on
that account? Are we Socialists who are constantly protesting
against the suppression of free speech now going
to set an example of what we propose doing by
putting a gag on the lips of our own publications?
I don’t agree with a good deal that appears in the
Review, and I like it all the better on that account.
That is the reason, in fact, why I subscribe for it and
read it, and I cannot for the life of me understand why
any one would want to suppress it on that account.

If the Review and the concern which publishes
it belonged to the national party it would be different,
but it does not belong to the party, and the party is in
no wise responsible for it, and if I were a stockholder I
should regard the action of the national committee as
the sheerest impertinence and treat it accordingly.
I do not know if the house of Kerr & Co. needs
investigating or not. I am satisfied that it does not, but
it is none of my business.

The Kerr Company consists, as I understand it,
of some 1500 stockholders, nearly all of whom are
Socialists and none of whom, as far as I am advised,
are feebleminded and in need of a guardian. They have
paid in all the money, they own all the stock and they
are responsible for the concern; and if they want their
publishing business investigated that is their affair and
not the affair of the national committee of the Socialist

If the object aimed at is to punish Kerr & Co.
and cripple the Review for its advocacy of industrial
unionism and for opposing pure and simple craftism,
and for keeping open columns and exercising the right
of free speech, then it will be found in due time that
the uncalled-for investigation of the National Committee
and the uncomradely spirit which prompted it
will have produced the opposite effect.

I cannot close without appealing for both the
industrial and political solidarity of the workers.
I thoroughly believe in economic as well as political
organization, in the industrial union and in the
Socialist Party.

I am an industrial unionist because I am a Socialist
and a Socialist because I am an industrial unionist.
I believe in making every effort within our power
to promote industrial unionism among the workers
and to have them all united in one economic organization.
To accomplish this I would encourage industrial
independent organization, especially among the
millions who have not yet been organized at all, and I
would also encourage the “boring from within” for all
that can be accomplished by the industrial unionists
in the craft unions.

I would have the Socialist Party recognize the
historic necessity and inevitability of industrial unionism
and the industrial union reciprocally recognize the
Socialist Party, and so declare in the respective preambles
to their constitutions.

The Socialist Party cannot be neutral on the
union question. It is compelled to declare itself by the
logic of evolution, and as a revolutionary party it cannot
commit itself to the principles of reactionary unionism.
Not only must the Socialist Party declare itself in
favor of economic unionism, but the kind of unionism
which alone can complement the revolutionary
action of the workers on the political field.

I am opposed under all circumstances to any
party alliances or affiliations with reactionary trade
unions and to compromising tactics of every kind and
form, excepting alone in event of some extreme emergency.
While the “game of politics,” as it is understood
and as it is played under capitalist rules, is as repugnant
to me as it can possibly be to any one, I am a
thorough believer in political organization and political

Political power is essential to the workers in their
struggle, and they can never emancipate themselves
without developing and exercising that power in the
interests of their class.

It is not merely in a perfunctory way that I ad-
vocate political action, but as one who has faith in
proletarian political power and in the efficacy of political
propaganda as an educational force in the Socialist
movement. I believe in a constructive political
program and in electing all the class-conscious workers
we can, especially as mayors, judges, sheriffs and as
members of the state legislatures and the national

The party is now growing rapidly, and we are
meeting with some of the trials which are in store for
us and which will no doubt subject us to the severest
tests. We need to have these trials, which are simply
the fires in which we have to be tempered for the work
before us.

There will be all kinds of extremists to deal with,
but we have nothing to fear from them. Let them all
have their day. The great body of the comrades, the
rank and file, will not be misled by false teachings or
deflected from the true course.

We must put forth all our efforts to control our
swelling ranks by the use of wise tactics and to assimilate
the accessions to our membership by means of
sound education and party discipline.

The New Year has opened auspiciously for us,
and we have never been in such splendid condition on
the eve of a national campaign.

Let us all buckle on our armor and go forth determined
to make this year mark an epoch in the social
revolution of the United States.

Published by 1000 Flowers Publishing, Corvallis, OR, 2006. • Non-commercial reproduction permitted.

Transcribed by Joseph B. DeNeen. Edited by Tim Davenport.

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