Tuesday, May 19, 2020

John Keracher and the Proletarian Party

 Founding member of the World Socialist Party of the United States, the late I. Rab, wrote this appraisal of John Keracher of the Proletarian Party of America,  a relatively unknown Scottish socialist.

Our differences with Keracher was whether parliament or soviets offered the best strategy for socialism. His major works can be archived at Marxists.org

About John Keracher

John Keracher was born in Scotland in 1880. He spent the early years of his adulthood in England, where he was exposed to the ideas of the Social Democratic Federation. Thus, his entry into the Detroit Local of the Socialist Parry of America in 1910, soon after his arrival in the United States in 1909, was a natural outgrowrh of his background.

As a human being, Keracher was full of lively wit and good nature; his calm manner went unruffled by obstreperous opponents, critics; and hecklers. I can readily attest from personal experience that to those seeking personal advice or enlightenment on socialism, he was like an oasis in the desert, a quenching cactus. He was uncompromising in his principles but refrained from ad hominem attacks, and confined himself to the issues as he saw them. He relied on the logic of his arguments to counter critics.

Throughout both periods of his career, as identified later, Keracher always retained the same admirable qualities - both with me and with others, alike when we agreed and when we disagreed. In addition, he was an outstanding organizer, lecturer, and writer; and one always willing to do his share of the "Jimmy Higgins" tasks.

This introduction to the 2nd edition of How the Gods Were Made describes his valuable participation in the American socialist movement until his death in Los Angeles in 1958.

Socialism and Religion

It is significant and encouraging that the demand for Keracher’s pamphlet How the Gods Were Made necessitates a new edition. Its great merit lies in its presentation, in clear and understandable language, of the evolution of the idea of God in its basic essentials as well as of its role in modern society.

For years there has raged a continuing controversy between two schools of socialist thought on the significance of religion. One school would avoid any discussion of religion as though it were a plague, insisting that religion is a private matter for every individual to decide for himself. It holds that any other view only antagonizes prospective socialists and keeps them from joining the socialist movement. The other school maintains that religion is a matter of social import, both practically and theoretically.

In How the Gods Were Made, Keracher demonstrates that religious beliefs, in any of their forms, are incompatible with an understanding of socialism, both as a science and as a movement.

The apologists for outworn religious superstitions emphasize that religion is, primarily, concerned with moral and ethical principles. But, despite these nebulous explanations, it cannot be denied that the essence of all religions is the service and worship of God or the supernatural. Actually, man made God in his own image, in spite of the contention of religionists that the reverse is the case. No longer can religion be justified on its own terms.

It is true that there are many gaps in our knowledge, but whenever we get answers they always prove to be physical, material ones. 

This applies to the social sciences, including morals and ethics, as well as all other branches of science. Science has made tremendous advances in the last hundred years. It might be said that as our knowledge and understanding have advanced, religion has retreated.

The growth during the ’60s and the ’70s of mysticism, new religions, "Jesus Freaks," etc. only reflects the sad plight of living in capitalist society and the resultant search for happiness by psychological adjustments to the immediate environment.

Keracher shows how religion diverts workers from realizing their primary class interest: to get rid of the wage-slavery of capitalism, and to inaugurate socialism, which is practical and necessary here and now. Quite relevant is the old ’Wobbly’ song:
"You will eat bye and bye, In that glorious land in the sky. Work and pray, live on hay, You’ll get pie in the sky when you die."

Socialists do not go out of their way to attack and kill gods. They are not professional Atheists but rather, atheists in the scientific sense. At one time in history, because of man’s lack of knowledge, religious explanations of natural phenomena were the only possible ones. Today, the Materialist Conception of History together with modern science points up the fallacies of religion, as Keracher amply demonstrates.

How did Keracher become involved with the necessity of exposing the dangerous illusions of religion? The answer is best found in his own introduction to this pamphlet. More generally, the following background describes the nature of his long political activity.

The WSP and Keracher

Detroit became a boom town from the years 1910 to 1918. Because of the growing automobile and other industries, it attracted hosts of workers seeking "good-paying" jobs. An added stimulus was the advent of World War 1, with its cost-plus government contracts for heavy and light military supplies. Among the influx of workers to Detroit were Canadian socialists from across the border, who had been active in carrying on socialist work. They were soon followed by Canadian and British "slackers" running away from British conscription.

Contemporaneously, the Detroit Local, SPA, was involved in a bitter internal controversy between the large majority of "socialist" reformers and the small minority of socialist revolutionists opposing the principles and policies of the Michigan Socialist Party. Most conspicuous in this dispute was Comrade Keracher on the side of the Socialist Revolutionists.

Two other factors existed at this time: the publication by the Kerr Cooperative Publishers of (a) their International Socialist Review with its many Marxist articles and (b) the Marxian classics and other pamphlets. They served a useful purpose in stimulating the reading of meaningful socialist literature. Subsequently, when the Proletarian Party purchased the Kerr Company for the purpose of perpetuating the supply of socialist literature, Keracher, in turn, made an excellent administrator and a valuable contributor.

The combination of these circumstances led to the establishment of a noteworthy Marxian study class in Duffield Hall a highlight of the period. Comrades Moses Baritz and Adolph Kohn of the Socialist Party of Great Britain were the instructors, with Keracher paying a leading role in this class by enlarging it to include debates and lectures. The class proved invaluable in spreading an understanding of Marxian science and the validity of the principles of the SPGB.

In July 1916, 43 members of the study class, including 19 members of Local Detroit, SPA, of whom this writer was one, decided it was time to organize a genuine socialist party in the United States along the lines of the SPGB. The Workers’ Socialist Party of the United States resulted. Worthy of note is that Keracher defended the members of the new party who were being heatedly criticized for resigning by members of the Detroit Local, SPA.

By this time, Keracher had become state secretary of the Socialist Party of Michigan. He was deeply involved in advocating that the next state convention of that party supplant reforms to patch up capitalism with a plank for revolutionary socialism. He also urged that the Party’s position on religion be changed from being considered as a private matter to one of social concern. He and his supporters were successful in changing the constitution of the Socialist Party of Michigan to conform with basic socialist objectives. At the time, this was a bombshell!

Under these circumstances, it was understandable that he was unable to participate in the organization of The Workers’ Socialist Party. Whilst recognizing the need for a new genuine socialist party, he was unable to join it. Instead, conditions being what they were, he, together with the socialists remaining in the SPA in Michigan, organized an educational group within the Party to disseminate socialist ideas. Thus was born the Proletarian University, soon followed (in May, 1918) by its publication The Proletarian, which was in harmony with SPGB principles.

In the columns of The Proletarian could be found articles by Kohn (signed John O’London) and one by this writer titled "Letter to a Wage Slave." In addition The Proletarian published an official statement by the National Secretary of the Workers’ Socialist Party, Lawrence Beardsley, with its endorsement. At that time, the Workers’ Socialist Party was not in a position to have its own journal.

Keracher’s Politics

There were two Kerachers - the pre-Russian Revolution one and the post-Russian Revolution one. Beyond question, the pre-Russian Revolution Keracher was a Marxist. This cannot be said unqualifiedly of his post-Russian Revolution position.

On November 7,1917, came the startling news of the Russian Revolution. Distinct from the earlier Kerensky Revolution, it spoke the language of Marxism. It issued proclamations, the most stirring being the Appeal to socialists in Germany and elsewhere: "We have seized power in our country, take power in yours and come to our aid." It aroused emotional fervor and inspired the hope for international solidarity for the socialist revolution! However, despite the previous pledges of the Second International that, in the case of war, comrades on opposite sides would not fire on each other, but would shake hands across the lines with the greeting, COMRADE! — events proved that the professed "comrades" were patriotic nationalists, not socialists.

Had a genuine socialist movement been predominant in Europe, there might have been a different story to tell. In the absence of a socialist majority, a socialist revolution was impossible, both in Russia and the rest of the world. Certainly the material conditions in Russia were not ripe for socialism in 1917. Lenin himself put it very well: "Reality says that State Capitalism would be a step forward for us. If we were able to bring about in Russia State Capitalism, it would be a victory for us." (The Chief Task of Our Times).

Arising from Lenin’s emphasis on the importance of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat during the transition period capitalism and communism which Lenin called "socialism," the Proletarian University became enthused with this doctrine and joined in the efforts to organize a communist party in the United States in support of the Bolshevik regime.

In contrast, the SPGB and its companion parties maintained that the material conditions in the highly developed capitalism of 1917 were ripe for socialism, except for the lack of socialists. Further, they contended that "socialism" and "communism" are synonymous.

Shortly after the Third International was organized on March 4, 1919, a referendum was initiated in the Socialist Party of America by the supporters of Soviet Russia calling for quitting the Second International and joining the Third International. This referendum was sponsored by three groups: the Left-Wing group, the Foreign Language Federation, and the Michigan group. The referendum was carried by a majority of ten to one. However, the Executive Committee of the SPA vetoed the referendum on the grounds that the result was "fraudulent."

According to Theodore Draper in his Roots of American Communism, soon after the veto of the referendum, "in April 1919 a call was issued for a national conference of the three groups to formulate a national declaration of principles and to conquer the Socialist Party of America for revolutionary socialism."

On May 24, 1919 the charter of the SPA-Michigan was the first to be revoked on the grounds that it had "amended its constitution to repudiate legislative reforms." In short order, both the Foreign Language Federation and the Left-Wing were expelled.

In the ensuing meetings of the three groups, differences between them made it difficult to organize a communist party to represent America in the Third International. The Michigan group could not fit in with any other group but was tolerated on a technicality. To its credit, it had refused to accept any office or to affirm any responsibility for the programs that were adopted. It was finally settled by orders from the Third International in Moscow, to the exclusion of these factions as groups, who should constitute the Communist Party in the United States.

In January 1920, the central committee of the Communist Party ordered that the Proletarian University become a party institution under its supervision. The Michigan group refused to accept this decision and chose to leave the Communist Party for good. In June 1920, the Proletarian Party was organized by Keracher and his comrades. Draper describes it as a "small, self-satisfied sect." Obviously he was no sympathizer of either the new Proletarian Party or of the SPGB and its companion parties. However, the factual accounts in his Roots of American Communism are historically accurate.

The post-Russian Revolution Keracher was a Leninist-Marxist, caught in the dilemma of two "socialisms" - Marxian socialism as a system of society, and Leninist "socialism" as a transitional dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet, when the chips were down, Keracher’s Marxist background interfered with any blind conformity to Soviet dogma.

The reader of How the Gods Were Made may be inspired to read other Keracher pamphlets, as well as other socialist literature. As of September 1, 1974, the Kerr Publishing Company has produced altogether eight Keracher pamphlets, of which three are now out of print. It is hoped that one of them, Economics for Beginners, may be reprinted in the near future. The three Keracher pamphlets now in supply are: The Head-Fixing Industry, Frederick Engles, and Crime, Its Causes and Consequences.

It is impossible to present fully the various facets of the socialist case in these necessarily brief pamphlets. They serve the important function of introducing the reader to socialist thought and encouraging further study in the classics.

Keracher was not only an organizer and propagandist for socialism, he was a pamphleteer in the tradition of Tom Paine. His clarion call to the working class was to get rid of the bedlam of outworn capitalism and to replace it with the sanity of socialism. His pamphlets attempt to disseminate socialist knowledge and understanding essential ingredients of the socialist revolution.

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