Eugene V. Debs was one of the country’s most prominent socialists when the socialist movement was a major force in American politics. His ability to translate the everyday aspirations of workers into radical politics made seminal contributions to the US left — his work helped embolden the American labor movement, found some of the most significant working-class institutions and political parties in American history, and made him the closest thing to a presidential contender the working class has ever had in this country.
Debs’s political vision offered the possibility of a better society for millions of workers.
But often he is wrongly associated with the hamfisted politics of the Socialist Party of America, a big-tent organization whose ideological incoherence during its early years sometimes descended into naked racism.
In truth, as historian William P. Jones writes in the following article (adapted from International Labor and Working-Class History), Debs’s commitment to bettering the lives of black Americans was profound. The position alienated him from other white socialists, but it won the admiration of black radicals, including W.E.B. Du Bois and A. Philip Randolph.
Eugene V. Debs began “The Negro in the Class Struggle” (1903) by criticizing socialists who “either share directly in the race hostility against the Negro, or avoid the issue, or apologize for the social obliteration of the color line in the class struggle,” so it is remarkable that the essay and its author have come to epitomize white radicals’ alleged indifference to racism and its significance to the history of the working class in the United States.
Robert Craig expresses the common sense in his assertion that, “Like so many well-meaning radicals before and since, Debs tried to subsume the race question in the class struggle, and in the process he moderated his radicalism and failed to come to terms with the unique quality of the African-American experience.” The term “Debsian” serves as shorthand in the work of David Roediger and Nelson Lichtenstein for white labor leaders who, as Roediger writes, “never reckoned with labor’s past where race was concerned.”
Repeating one of the only well-known phrases from the Socialist leaders’ voluminous writings, Nikhil Pal Singh, Beth Bates, and other scholars contend that the racial politics of white radicals and reformers in the early twentieth-century United States were summed up most clearly in Debs’s statement that “we have nothing special to offer the Negro.”
Taking a single passage out of context and interpreting it as the Achilles’ heel of American radicalism, scholars have distorted Debs’s complex and still poignant critique of white supremacy. That process began soon after the essay was published by the International Socialist Review, which commissioned Debs to respond to a platform adopted by the Socialist Party of Louisiana calling for “separation of the black and white races into separate communities, each race to have charge of its own affairs.”
Debs happened to be campaigning for president in Louisiana and Texas at the time, and he took the opportunity to criticize not only local bigots but the international culture of white supremacy that Rudyard Kipling celebrated four years earlier in his poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Drawing on works by African-American contemporaries including W.E.B. Du Bois, he insisted that the Socialist Party would be untrue to its mission unless it welcomed “the Negro and all other races upon absolutely equal terms.”
Confusion about Debs’s intentions arose over the meaning of equality and how it was interpreted by subsequent generations of radicals. He ended the essay by urging socialists to “repeal the resolutions on the Negro question,” stating:
The Negro does not need them and they serve to increase rather than diminish the necessity for explanation. We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make appeals to all the races. The Socialist Party is the party of the working class, regardless of color — the whole working class of the whole world.
That statement seems to have referred not to the Louisiana platform but to a “Negro Resolution” adopted at the founding convention of the Socialist Party of America in 1901. Subsequent statements suggest that Debs opposed the resolution because it implied that African Americans had emerged from slavery unprepared for equal citizenship. Nevertheless, socialists later interpreted his objection as a justification for avoiding struggles against racism, a critique adopted by Communists during the sectarian battles of the 1920s and 1930s.
Discussion of socialist approaches to racism was muted during the Cold War, but renewed by activists and scholars who were interested in the links between racial and economic inequality in the 1960s and 1970s. In that context, the argument that racism could be addressed effectively through economic reform became identified with what historian Philip Foner dubbed “the ‘Debsian view’ of the Negro question.”
Debs’s association with economic determinism is particularly ironic given his appreciation for the cultural roots of white supremacy, which Roediger, Singh, and other scholars contend were obscured by his Marxist analysis of racism. To illustrate the dialectic between race and class, Debs described his encounter in a Texas rail depot with “four or five bearers of the white man’s burden perched on a railing and decorating their environment with tobacco juice.” As Debs left the station carrying two suitcases, one of the white men called to him, “There’s a nigger that’ll carry your grips.” Another shouted, “That’s what he’s here for.” Debs noted that the white men were dirty, uneducated, and demoralized and yet still believed they were superior to “the cleanest, most intelligent and self-respecting Negro.”
That contradiction was evident not just in the status of poor white men, he observed, but also in the broader regional and national culture. Black workers had created the Southern economy before the Civil War and “the South of today would totally collapse without” them, he wrote, noting that in addition to the physical labor provided by African Americans the high price commanded by Southern cotton in the international marketplace was due also “to the genius of the Negroes charged with its cultivation.” He presented the tobacco-chewing Texans as an analogy for a society that denied its dependence on African Americans, declaring, “Here was a savory bouquet of white superiority.”
Far from accommodating white supremacy, such statements placed Debs on the radical fringe of his own party in the Jim Crow era. Other socialists took a more pragmatic approach to the wave of racist violence, disfranchisement and segregation that drove the Democratic Party to power in the South and was spreading rapidly across the United States. Louisiana Socialists defended their call for segregation on the grounds that support for “social equality” would alienate them from white voters at a time when Democrats were disfranchising African Americans, a position echoed to various degrees by party officials in Texas, Mississippi, and Florida.
Others adopted the tortured logic, codified in the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessey v. Ferguson, that segregation did not necessarily create racial inequality. When asked how socialism would benefit African Americans, for example, the journal Appeal to Reason replied that they “will have cities and plantations and shops in which there will likely be no white people except as teachers and other instructors.”
That logic went only so far, however, and socialists often resorted to the position that segregation merely confirmed a preexisting hierarchy, as when Milwaukee Congressman Victor Berger defended segregation on the grounds that “negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race — that the Caucasian and even the Mongolian have the start on them in civilization by many years.”
Debs did not explain his objection to the 1901 resolution in “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” but his subsequent statements suggest that he rejected its assertion that African Americans, “because of their long training in slavery and but recent emancipation therefrom, occupy a peculiar position in the working class and in society at large.” Philip Foner later praised that passage for acknowledging the intensity of American racism, but at the time it accommodated the white supremacist argument that Jim Crow only ratified a preexisting condition.
The resolution condemned Democrats and Republicans who “betray the Negro in his present helpless struggle against disenfranchisement and violence,” but it agreed with them that “the causes which have made him the victim of social and political inequality are the effects of the long exploitation of his labor power.” Suggesting that racial equality would be achieved after the revolution, socialists invited black workers to join “the world movement for economic emancipation by which equal liberty and opportunity shall be secured to every man and fraternity shall become the order of the world.”
Debs also disavowed “social equality,” suggesting that he did in fact believe that social interaction was less important than economic justice. “Social equality, forsooth!” he declared, claiming that African Americans had never asked for “social recognition” from whites and pointing out that whites were not inclined to treat each other as social equals; “This phase of the Negro question is pure fraud and serves to mask the real issue, which is not social equality, BUT ECONOMIC FREEDOM.”
Daniel Letwin points out that this was a common rhetorical strategy employed by both black and white workers seeking space for interracial cooperation around economic issues in the Jim Crow era. It was true, as Debs suggested, that the specter of “social equality” was invented by white supremacists to claim that racial equality would lead to interracial sex. While it made sense for union activists to avoid the question, however, a political party could not so easily distinguish between economic, political, and social issues.
While Jim Crow laws were often premised on the specious goal of preventing miscegenation, they had the clearly economic and political effects of depriving African Americans of social services and the vote. Debs evaded those questions: “The Negro, given economic freedom, will not ask the white man any social favors; and the burning question of ‘social equality’ will disappear like mist before the sunrise.”
Whereas other socialists and trade unionists used the rhetoric of “social equality” to avoid a confrontation with white supremacy, Debs insisted that economic freedom was impossible without political equality. His support for racial equality was direct enough in “The Negro and the Class Struggle” to elicit “apprehension and fear” from an anonymous reader who charged Debs with leading the Socialist Party toward disaster.
The critic quoted Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe will forever forbid them living together on terms of social and political equality” and urged Debs to read Thomas Dixon’s white supremacist novel, The Leopard’s Spots. “You get social and political equality for the Negro,” he warned, “then let him come and ask the hand of your daughter in marriage, and we will see whether you still have a hankering for social and political equality for the Negro.”
Rather than denying his support for social equality, Debs countered that black and white workers were already social equals. “In the first place you don’t get equality for the Negro, you haven’t got it yourself,” he replied, explaining that white employers viewed both black and white workers as “wage slaves” and would thus allow neither to marry their daughters. Debs reprinted the 1901 Negro Resolution to demonstrate that the reader did not represent the mainstream of the Socialist Party, but he clarified that his own position was more radical; “I say that the Socialist Party would be false to its historic mission, violate the fundamental principals of Socialism, deny its philosophy and repudiate its own teachings if, on account of race considerations, it sought to exclude any human being from political equality and economic freedom.”
Debs rooted his analysis of “the Negro question” in what David Blight calls an “emancipationist” history of the Civil War, which rejected the white supremacist position that emancipation and Reconstruction were misguided experiments in racial equality. “The fact is that it is impossible for the Anglo-Saxon and the African to live upon unequal terms,” he replied to the anonymous letter writer’s invocation of Lincoln. “A hundred years of American history culminating in the Civil War proves that.”
David Roediger does not associate Debs with the emancipationist tradition, but he notes that it was characterized by use of the racially egalitarian term “wage slave” and that it “represented a new millennial hope, often rooted in long-held religious beliefs but borne of witnessing the greatest transformation in United States history, the movement of millions of Blacks from slavery to full constitutional rights in less than a decade.”
Debs sustained that hope often inconsistently with less egalitarian beliefs about race. He ran for state senate in Indiana on the Democratic ticket in the 1880s, even collaborating with the racist terrorist Ben Tillman, but “bolted his party to vote with the Republicans,” according to Ray Ginger, in an unsuccessful effort to eliminate racial distinctions from state law. Nick Salvatore notes that Debs delighted in telling racist jokes and did nothing to prevent his own union from excluding black workers, indicating that he “obviously found it difficult during these years to break with the dominant racial attitudes of the culture that formed him.”
By 1903, however, he insisted that white supremacy was justified by neither biology nor history. “Lincoln was a noble man, but he was not an abolitionist,” Debs observed, “and we are not bound by what he thought prudent to say in a totally different situation half a century ago.”
The contradictions within Debs’s racial views were perhaps most evident in his use of the Social Darwinist language that pervaded American political and intellectual discourse at the turn-of-the-century. “The Negro, like the white man, is subject to the laws of physical, mental and moral development. But in his case these laws have been suspended,” he wrote to his anonymous critic. Whereas white supremacists used such language to distinguish “African” from “Anglo-Saxon” civilization, however, Debs stated repeatedly that the history of the United States made it impossible to examine the two in isolation.
Debs did not deny the white supremacist charge that black men raped white women, for example, but responded that if this were true it resulted from centuries of sexual predation by white men. “There are no rape-maniacs in Africa,” he contended. “They are the spawn of civilized lust.”
Echoing Hegel’s theory that modern civilization was defined by the dialectic between masters and slaves, Debs attributed white supremacy to the shame that white people felt from living off the labor of others: “You can forgive the man who robs you, but you can’t forgive the man you rob,” he observed, “in his haggard features you read your indictment and this makes his face so repulsive that you must keep it under your heels where you cannot see it.”
Like other fin de siecle antiracists, Debs responded to white supremacy by manipulating a popular “discourse of civilization” that, Gail Bederman explains, “revolved around three factors: race, gender and millennial assumptions about human evolutionary progress.” Echoing black radical Ida B. Wells’s contention that racist violence reflected the failure rather than the triumph of Anglo-Saxon civilization, Debs wrote: “The whole world is under obligation to the Negro, and that the white heel is still upon the black neck is simply proof that the world is not yet civilized.”
Nick Salvatore observes that Debs’s approach to questions of race and nationality “rested upon an identification of the labor movement with Anglo-Saxon male Protestants intimately familiar both with the prophetic strain in Christianity and with the traditions of American democracy.” That premise conflicted with his otherwise egalitarian views of women and it animated his most xenophobic comments, which were directed at Asian, Jewish, and Catholic immigrants. He supported Chinese exclusion in the 1880s, for example, and claimed the Italian “works for small pay, and lives far more like a savage or a wild beast, than the Chinese.”
On the other hand, identification with native-born Protestants reinforced his belief that African Americans were integral to American civilization. “The African is here and to stay,” he declared, adding that if his critic was ignorant about how Africans had arrived in the Americas then he should “Ask your grandfathers, Mr. Anonymous, and if they will tell the truth you will or should blush for the crimes.”
It is likely that Debs was familiar with Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign of the 1890s, but his intellectual debt to W.E.B. Du Bois is almost certain. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk was published earlier in 1903 and a second edition was selling two hundred copies a week when Debs wrote “The Negro in the Class Struggle.” It would have been an obvious choice of reading material for a northern radical embarking on a tour of the South. Debs’s comments about the South’s dependence on black labor paraphrased Du Bois’s claim that “the Negro forms to-day one of the chief figures in a great world-industry; and this, for its own sake, and in light of historic interest, makes the field-hands of the cotton country worth studying.”
His assertion that racism reflected European Americans’ inability to acknowledge African Americans’ place in American civilization paralleled Du Bois’s observation that the “history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double-self into a better and truer self.” Du Bois contended that such strife contained the seeds of a distinctly African-American culture. Debs was not so optimistic, stating simply that “The history of the Negro in the United States is a history of crime without a parallel.”
The most striking parallel between the two essays is that both predated their authors’ disillusionment with Social Darwinist conceptions of progress. Adolph Reed explains that Du Bois’s optimism about “double consciousness” reflected the belief that racial equality could be achieved through the personal and collective development of African-American culture, a belief he rejected soon after publishing The Souls of Black Folk.
His famous critique of Booker T. Washington was not that the latter placed “economic independence before social equality,” as Farah Jasmine Griffin contends. Du Bois explained later that he believed at the time that “social equality” was not necessary for racial equality. Rather, he objected to Washington’s assertion that African Americans could advance economically without developing intellectually and culturally as well.
Debs agreed, writing, “Socialism simply proposes that the Negro shall have full opportunity to develop his mind and soul, and this will in time emancipate the race from animalism, so repulsive to those especially whose fortunes are built out of it.” He would also reject Social Darwinism before long.
Despite the similarities between The Souls of Black Folk and “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” the essays and their authors came to represent polar opposites in the historiography of race and class in the United States. In contrast to “the traditional Marxist habit of emphasizing class over race,” according to David Roediger, “no body of thought rivals that of W.E.B. Du Bois for an understanding of the dynamics, indeed dialectics, of race and class in the US.”
Nikhil Singh credits Du Bois with arguing “that rather than being substituted for class, racial struggles were the locus of the most insurgent democratic aspirations in the public sphere.” Such assessments provide further evidence for Reed’s observation that scholars have appropriated Souls to support a variety of “intellectual and political projects” in the century since its publication.
Contrasting interpretations of the two works are difficult to reconcile with the fact that Du Bois voted for Debs in 1904, however, and later praised him for insisting that “unless white labor recognizes the brotherhood of man it becomes a helpless tool of modern industrial imperialism.”
Interpretations of the two works diverged initially in the decade following their publication, when a resurgence of racist violence shattered both authors’ faith in evolutionary change and led them and other radicals to seek more directly political avenues toward racial justice.
Du Bois was teaching at Atlanta University in 1906 when a race riot in that city convinced him that neither economic nor cultural equality could be achieved without political power. White socialists William English Walling and Anna Strunsky arrived at a similar conclusion after witnessing a riot in 1908 and they cooperated with DuBois to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Leon Fink explains that the creation of the NAACP reflected a broader revolt by radicals who believed the socialist movement had capitulated to racists in the labor movement.
Economist Isaac M. Rubinow led the revolt in New York City, asking how “does the radical Negro, how does a Du Bois or a [William Monroe] Trotter know that Socialists will treat him any better” than the American Federation of Labor or racist populists such as Tom Watson or William Jennings Bryan? Declaring that party leaders could no longer evade the issue by appropriating Debs’s statement that “We have nothing special to offer the Negro,” he pointed out that Debs himself had contradicted that statement in his reply to the anonymous critic. Du Bois concurred, writing in the Socialist weekly New Review that “The Negro problem then is the great test of the American Socialist.”
Rubinow implied that party leaders misinterpreted “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” an implication which was supported by Debs’s allegiance with antiracist radicals in the 1910s. “I am with you thoroughly,” he wrote to Walling in 1909. “The Socialist Party has already catered far too much to the American Federation of Labor, and there is no doubt that a halt will have to be called.”
Debs refused to silence his criticism of segregation during the Presidential election in 1912, forcing party leaders to cancel a southern speaking tour and winning praise from Hubert Harrison, a black socialist who later edited Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist newspaper, The Negro World. A. Philip Randolph, who joined the Socialist Party soon after migrating to New York City in 1911, recalled never having “met a white man with such spiritual character, such a great and warm feeling for the human mission of socialism.”
Cynthia Taylor observes that the two men were united more by messianic Protestantism than political economy, noting that when Debs died in 1926, an obituary in Randolph’s magazine, The Messenger, compared the “Grand Old Man” not to Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin but to “the Carpenter of Nazareth” and “the Bible preacher in the South.”
Nevertheless, Debs’s statement provided a convenient explanation for the Socialist Party’s failure to build a following among African Americans in the 1910s and 1920s. Sterling D. Spero and Abram L. Harris repeated Rubinow’s critique of “The Negro in the Class Struggle” in their pioneering 1931 study, The Black Worker, apparently without consulting the original essay. “He believed that racial and national lines were obliterated by the common exploitation of all workers by the capitalist class,” they explained, despite the fact that Debs rejected that position in the first line of his 1903 essay. Spero and Harris were equally critical of the Communist Party, which broke away from the Socialists following the Russian Revolution, but they argued that Communists rejected “the passive theory of ‘white and black labor solidarity’ that had been enunciated by the socialists.”
This was also a misrepresentation. When African-American Communists were summoned to develop a “Negro Policy” in Moscow, most agreed with the rather Debsian position articulated by Randolph’s friend and former Messenger editor, socialist Lovett Fort-Whiteman, that black workers had “no peculiar role to play as a race in the American proletarian revolution.”
Communist leaders William Z. Foster and Joseph Stalin favored an alternative theory proposed by Harry Haywood, however, who argued that African Americans had created a distinct culture in the plantation regions of the South and that Communists therefore had a duty to support “self-determination for the Black Belt” just as they supported political independence for the “oppressed nations” of Africa and Asia. Party leaders settled the debate in favor of Haywood, and accused opponents of the “Black Belt Thesis” with sustaining the socialists’ alleged complicity with white supremacy.
Ironically, Debs’s legacy fared little better within the Socialist Party. Ernest Doerfler attempted to defend Debs when he ran for the New York City Assembly on the Socialist ticket in 1932, insisting that to treat black and white workers equally “does not mean, as Communists have declared with a modicum of logic, that we must therefore ‘refuse the immediate struggle for the release of the Negro from his special oppression.'”
Socialist Party activist Margaret Lamont disagreed. She acknowledged that individual socialists had succeeded in pushing a few AFL unions to be “sincere and receptive” toward black workers. She was also impressed by socialists who cooperated with Communists, particularly in the South, while retaining “their right to criticize the Communist formulation of the Negro question.” But she insisted that as a whole, the Socialist Party was “not militant and aggressive in its policy in regard to Negroes, partly because it is not now militant or aggressive as a party, and partly because the line laid down by Debs on the race issue has not been altered.”
Lamont distorted Debs’s influence on the Socialist Party, but it may have consoled him to know that she was fairly effective at pushing it toward a more aggressive opposition to white supremacy. With Randolph and Frank Crosswaith, who some called “The Black Debs,” she helped create a committee on “Negro Work,” which renewed the Socialist Party’s ties to the NAACP and assisted branches in fighting racism in their communities and local unions.
They raised money for the socialist-led Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Highlander Folk School, each of which were critical in the emerging struggle for racial equality in the South. They also supported Randolph’s union of mostly African-American Sleeping Car Porters, who achieved a tremendous victory by gaining recognition from their employer as well as the AFL in the 1930s. Meanwhile, Communists muted their demand for “self-determination” and joined socialists and liberals in a Popular Front that reinvigorated organized labor through the interracial Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Expressing an ideal that could have applied to Debs as easily as any of her collaborators, Lamont stated, “A militant socialist will make no reservation about standing for full political, legal, and social, as well as economic rights for the Negro here and now, although he will also say clearly that these fundamental human rights will not and cannot be achieved, except to an insignificant degree, under the present economic system.”
Debate over socialist approaches to racism faded during the Cold War, when anti-communists used any association with radicalism to discredit the struggle against racism. McCarthyism did not eliminate socialists from the civil rights movement, as a number of scholars have suggested, but it gave them good reason to hide their partisan affiliations. That disconnect was evident at the Debs Centennial celebration, a yearlong series of events coordinated by Randolph and white activists Herman Singer and John P. Burke in 1955 and 1956.
Socialist leaders Norman Thomas and Frank Ziedler spoke passionately about Debs’s commitment to economic justice, peace and democracy, but they said nothing of his dedication to racial equality. Neither did they mention Thomas’s role in raising money for civil rights activism in the South, or that Zeidler was involved in a heated campaign for mayor of Milwaukee, in which his opponent branded him a “nigger lover” for advocating integrated housing, sponsoring interracial dialogue, and — according to an unfounded rumor — encouraging black workers to migrate from the South.
Even Du Bois said little about racism in a speech entitled, “If Eugene Debs Returned,” which appeared in the American Socialist in 1956. Meanwhile, Randolph emerged as one of the most influential leaders of the civil rights movement. He did not call explicitly for socialism, but when a quarter million people answered his call to mark the centenary of Emancipation with a massive March on Washington, Randolph described them as the “advance guard of a massive moral revolution” aimed at creating a society where the “sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality.”
Interest in socialist approaches to racism was revived by the decline of anticommunism and the increasing recognition that political rights were necessary but not sufficient for racial equality in the late 1960s. “We must face the fact that, in the past, what we have called the movement had not really questioned the middle-class values and institutions of this country,” Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton wrote in their influential 1967 manifesto, Black Power: The Politics of Revolution. Paraphrasing Randolph (without attribution), they wrote, “Reorientation means an emphasis on the dignity of man, not the sanctity of property.”
Former Communist Harold Cruse chastised Carmichael and other young radicals for adopting political slogans without understanding the intellectual and institutional history from which they had emerged. He wrote in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual that Black Power was “essentially another variation of the old Communist left-wing doctrine of ‘self-determination in the black belt areas of Negro majority,’” updated to fit a situation where the majority of African Americans lived in northern cities and where young radicals had little influence in organized labor, which for Communists was “of paramount importance.”
Such criticism inspired considerable soul-searching among young radicals, and older radicals were happy to provide them with lessons from the past. Harry Haywood emerged as an influential figure in the New Communist Movement, which advocated a return to the sectarian militancy that characterized the Communist Party in the 1920s and early 1930s. The Communist Party sponsored a number of youth clubs named after Du Bois, Patrice Lumumba, and other black socialists and published an array of books and pamphlets exploring the links between struggles for racial and economic justice.
One of the most exhaustive and influential of these was American Socialism and Black Americans by Philip Foner, a professionally-trained historian who had been associated with the Communist Party since the 1930s. Bearing as an epigraph Du Bois’s statement that “The Negro Problem … is the great test of the American Socialist,” the study concluded that socialists acknowledged initially that African Americans occupied a “peculiar position” in the working class, but were misled in subsequent years by the “approach which came to be known as the ‘Debsian view’ of the Negro question.”
Despite its partisan overtones, Foner’s book solidified Debs’s reputation for evading the struggle against racism. Sallie Miller praised the “long overdue” study in the American Historical Review, although she criticized Foner for ignoring external limitations to socialists’ ability to recruit African Americans.
Thomas Holt also found the book lacking in analysis but endorsed Foner’s conclusion, writing in the Journal of American History that by “the end of Reconstruction the Debsian position on the race question had surfaced: the race problem was basically a class issue and would be resolved somehow by the ultimate victory of socialism.” Harold Cruse was more critical, noting in the Journal of Negro History that Foner’s stated intention to write a second volume on African Americans and the Communist Party “of course, fully explains his partisanship in elaborating on the failures of the socialists on the ‘Negro Question.'”
Foner published the second volume in 1986, and historians have devoted a great deal of attention to assessing his opening statement that “The significant impact of communism in combating racism in the labor movement and in support of Black liberation cannot be ignored by any serious student of United States history and society.” Few challenged his equally partisan portrayal of American socialism, however, or its most successful advocate, Eugene Debs.
By uncritically repeating Foner’s interpretation of Debs’s racial politics, scholars continue to overlook a rich history of antiracism within the Socialist Party. At a time when Victor Berger and other Socialists adopted the white supremacist position that Jim Crow merely conformed to preexisting inequalities, Debs maintained the emancipationist view that the Civil War had placed black and white workers on equal terms as “wage slaves.”
Explicitly rejecting the belief that racial equality could be achieved through colorblind “class struggle,” he insisted that African Americans’ struggle for economic freedom and political equality was critical to realizing the millennial promise of American civilization. That position aligned him with black radicals including Du Bois, Wells, and Randolph, and it inspired white antiracists to join with them in wresting control of the Socialist Party from the likes of Victor Berger. Some black and white radicals grew weary and left for the NAACP and later the Communist Party. Others continued to battle through socialist publications and committees and through unions that were more open to their message.
While they continued to debate the relationship between race and class, few maintained that one could be subsumed into the other. In fact, the position that Foner would later identify as “Debsian” was employed less often as a means to avoid the struggle against racism than as a cudgel against those who might have attempted to do so. Given the persistence of both racial and economic inequality in the United States, it may be time to put down that club and attempt to understand how Debs and his followers actually understood the relationship between “the color line” and “the class struggle.”