In the middle of Bernie Sanders’s unexpected surge in the Democratic presidential primary, Missouri governor Jay Nixon echoed some folksy wisdom against him: “Here in the heartland, we like our politicians in the mainstream, and [Sanders] is not — he’s a socialist.’’
Nixon would no doubt be shocked to learn of his own state’s history with the red menace. In the early twentieth century, the Socialist Party of America (SP) boasted 135 locals in Missouri. In St. Louis alone, 24 of the city’s 28 wards had a local.
St. Louis was hardly an anomaly. For the first two decades of the twentieth century, the SP was deeply embedded in American life. In 1912, just eleven years after its founding, the party netted nine hundred thousand votes in the presidential election — 6 percent of the total. Across the country, Socialists won seats on city councils and in town halls. In workplaces from breweries to mines, Socialists served in elected union positions, and locals (and even entire internationals) passed socialist resolutions. Socialist periodicals, like the iconic Appeal to Reason, were among the most read publications in the country.
However, accusations that the SP cut against the American grain haven’t just come from red-baiters like Jay Nixon. Prominent voices on the American left have seconded this verdict.
Daniel Bell, whose 1952 book Marxian Socialism in the United States served as the authoritative history of the party for a generation of leftists, argued that the SP was “trapped in the unhappy problem of living ‘in but not of the world.’” The Socialists, Bell wrote, isolated themselves from American society with endless squabbles over Marxist doctrine, its members contenting themselves with “the illusions of settling the fate of history, the mimetic combat on the plains of destiny, and the vicarious sense of power in demolishing opponents.” Irving Howe, another socialist of Bell’s generation, largely concurred with his assessment, declaring that “Debsian socialism … may provide later generations of American radicals with moral and emotional inspiration, but if they turn to it for political guidance they are likely to get into trouble.”
When the New Left emerged in the 1960s, it set about trying to uncover a domestic radical tradition. Leading this effort was James Weinstein, closer in generation to Howe and Bell, but closer in sensibility to Students for a Democratic Society. In 1967, he published The Decline of American Socialism 1912–1925, a densely researched tome aimed at rescuing the Socialist Party from its critics, and extracting its lessons for a new generation.
For Weinstein, the SP grew from deep roots in American society, from the Protestant reform tradition to the class conflict of the late nineteenth century. The party’s growth to a hundred thousand members by about 1912 reflected these deep roots, and though the party didn’t rise beyond that mark, it maintained its vitality until the end of World War I. At that point, already beset by state repression for its antiwar stance, the party underwent a devastating split.
In Weinstein’s view, the influences that effected the schism were foreign to the American socialist tradition. While the party was divided between a left and right wing, Weinstein argued that these were little more than “differences in tactical approaches.” The chasm only opened when the party left, entranced by the siren song of Bolshevism emanating from Russia, embraced a revolutionary perspective that made no sense in the American context, and launched an ill-considered war against the party right.
The result, Weinstein lamented, was “the alienation of American socialism”: the SP left ultimately morphed into the Communist Party, initiating a long tradition of slavish subordination to the Soviet Union. The right, which held some promise of responding to American particularities, found itself unable to recover from the split. And American radicalism, stripped of its foundations in US society, never recovered.
However influential, Weinstein’s account is flawed. Above all, it effectively depoliticizes Socialist Party history, confusing real disagreements over socialist strategy with rank sectarianism. For a socialist historian, Weinstein’s account is curiously focused on consensus.
The history of the Socialist Party that we have inherited from previous generations has thus rendered the party’s past less usable than it might otherwise be. Bell and Howe depoliticize it by identifying romanticism as the party’s key flaw, while Weinstein sees a viable, internally coherent party wrecked by the influence of Russian Communism.
Today, the history of the Socialist Party demands a reevaluation. In the years since Occupy Wall Street, the political mood of the American left has changed decisively. Where once a loose anarchism reigned, suspicious of organization or program, party politics are again all the rage. This shift has been driven both by the limitations of Occupy-style politics and the appeal of efforts like the Sanders campaign.
The Socialist Party sprouted from similar impulses. Convinced of the urgent need for social transformation but confronting a landscape of fragmented oppositional efforts, the founders of the Socialist Party resolved to build an organization capable of leading the fight against capital in the United States. Like socialists everywhere in those years, they saw the ballot box as the central tool for building a socialist society. Through their party, they would take this strategy as far as it has ever gone in the United States.
In doing so, American socialists revealed the promise and perils of such an endeavor. Successfully unifying the American left and projecting socialist politics from the Lower East Side to the Pacific Northwest (not to mention strongly opposing the First World War), the SP accomplished a number of tasks today’s American left can barely dream of. At the same time, the party was also beset with internal tensions.
From the very beginning, conflict erupted over questions like whether the party should directly challenge the conservative officialdom in the American Federation of Labor, or whether it should act as its loyal opposition. Similarly, party members engaged in heated back-and-forths over the relationship between the party’s electoral efforts and the broader class struggle. These differences persisted throughout the life of the party, and eventually proved so intractable that they splintered it.
Yet the history of the Socialist Party offers more than warning lessons about the dangers of romanticism or sectarianism. It also offers us a preview of the kinds of questions our movement will no doubt have to grapple with as it grows.
The Socialist Party did not blossom solely, or even primarily, because of the brilliance of its organizers. It arose as the final expression of a half-century of social convulsion that began after the Civil War’s conclusion. These were the years when an anarchist militant assassinated the president and striking workers engaged in gun battles with state and private armies, when the radical democratic experiments of Reconstruction flourished for a brief moment and workers fought tenaciously for the eight-hour day.
It was this legacy of insurgent politics that the Socialist Party drew on and tried to consolidate into a coherent political force. And no two movements were more important to that effort than the Populist movement and the union movement.
The Populist Moment
The movement now known as Populism began as an organization called the Farmers’ Alliance. Farmers in the late nineteenth century found themselves locked into a system of indebtedness, constantly under the thumbs of their landlords and creditors. The Alliance began as an effort to secure some breathing room for poor farmers within this system. Launched in central Texas in the mid-1870s, the organization honeycombed the state just a decade later, claiming fifty thousand members. Though it would later be denounced as a force for anarchy and communism, originally the Alliance was politically quietist. Its organizational efforts focused on facilitating cooperative buying and selling, and securing new sources of credit for farmers.
More important than its demands, however, was its existence: it brought exploited farmers together into a collective organization. The Alliance gained strength by periodically holding massive encampments, where thousands of farmers would converge to hear lectures, discuss their situations, and commiserate. Between these events, Alliance lecturers would travel from county to county, preaching the good word of cooperation.
As the Alliance expanded, however, its attempts to circumvent the crop lien system through cooperative buying were frustrated by the power of the landlords and the banks backing them. So it decided to adopt more radical tactics, like boycotts, and began setting its sights on political office. In 1892, it launched the People’s Party, with a platform calling for railroad nationalization, a progressive income tax, a shorter workday, and a ban on land speculation.
Many future socialists got their start in this agrarian upsurge. Debs supported the Populists, who in turn saw him as one of their most important allies. After Debs was imprisoned for leading the Pullman Strike in 1894, one Texan Populist paper carried the headline “With Debs in jail, no American is a freeman.” Similarly, the first venture for future Appeal to Reason publisher Julius Wayland was running a newspaper for Populists in the Western states.
By the early 1890s, the movement had hundreds of thousands of members and appeared poised for victory.
As Populism gained steam, however, both internecine conflict and external opponents also swelled in size. Two key sources of tension materialized. First, in the South, a cleavage along class lines opened up. Wealthy farmers, who had become landlords by buying up the land of their less fortunate neighbors, began to assert themselves, promoting a bloodless vision of improved agricultural technique and fighting attempts by poorer farmers to restrict landlord power. The Alliance’s ability to advance the interests of poor farmers cratered as a result.
Second, the Populists’ electoral efforts ran up against the same obstacles that have dogged nearly every left electoral strategy since them: the Democratic Party and the power of money in politics. In the 1894 congressional elections, the Republican Party won a sweeping victory, nearly wiping out the Democrats in much of the West. The Democrats, now chastened, proposed an alliance with the Populists using fusion voting (a set-up in which candidates are listed on multiple parties’ ballot lines). Populists south of the Mason-Dixon could hardly stomach such a pact: in the one-party South, it was the Democratic Party that was leading a campaign of fraud and terror against the Populist insurgency.
The Democrats’ overtures were soon bolstered, however, by the mining lobby’s machinations. For years, the Populist and Alliance platforms had endorsed the coinage of silver as an anti-deflationary measure, without ever lending it much prominence. That all changed when the mining industry launched an all-out campaign to promote silver coinage, touting it as a cure-all for the economy’s woes. Politicians who promoted the silver cause found themselves awash in cash and backed by newspapers owned by mining firms. A new crop of office-seekers — more concerned with silver coinage than the power of landlords — ascended the Populist Party’s ranks.
It all came to a head in 1896. William Jennings Bryan, a former editor of a mining newspaper, captured the Democratic nomination, promising relief for farmers centered around silver coinage. The Populist leadership, long since won over to the mineowners’ program, isolated the radical Southern farmers and brought the organization squarely behind a fusion ticket, with Bryan at the top.
Even on its own terms, the strategy failed miserably. Bryan was trounced by William McKinley’s Republican machine. The Populists fell apart, as the moderates left to become Democrats. And the poorer farmers were left with nothing but their desperation.
In the years after Populism’s defeat, farm tenancy and sharecropping expanded even more rapidly, laying the foundations for agrarian discontent that would soon be organized by the Socialists.
The Labor Question
At the same time farmers were organizing against their landlords, American workers were struggling to assert their interests against capital.
The US labor movement had emerged as a national force in 1877, the same year Reconstruction came to its anti-climactic end. That year, more than one hundred thousand workers went out on strike in the Great Uprising. Spurred by wage cuts for railroad workers, the wildcat strike announced the working class’ presence as a force in American society.
For capital, it brought flashbacks to the Paris Commune, which had briefly terrorized the entire Atlantic ruling class. In St. Louis, the uprising developed into a general strike that united black and white workers. The wealthy moved quickly to protect their privileges. Militias and private armies battled with strikers across the country, and eventually the National Guard was deployed to put down the strike city by city. Over one hundred workers ultimately died in the fighting, and the strike was crushed.
The Uprising of 1877 set the general pattern for American labor history for much of the rest of the century. Compared with the rest of the capitalist world, the American union movement remained small and defensive, constantly subject to the threat of violence both legal and extralegal. What made the American experience so unique, however, was the combination of this violence with the extraordinary growth of the US economy. Millions of immigrants were drawn in from the European periphery by capital’s expansion. At the same time, a wave of mergers and consolidations swept through corporate America, with new conglomerates emerging of unprecedented size and power. The United States thus emerged as a world power with the dynamism of England, the most advanced capitalist power, and the labor relations of Russia, the historical laggard in the economic race.
This combination goes a long way to explaining the supine position of American labor. While theories of “American exceptionalism” often focus on the working class, a more profitable route is to look at the power of the US ruling class, and to look at labor’s various strategies as attempts to deal with it. In this light, the history of the American working class looks a good deal less exceptional.
The roots of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) — which by the time the Socialist Party formed was American labor’s leading organization — lie in its attempts to adapt to this inhospitable climate. Samuel Gompers, who would go on to lead the AFL until his death, was particularly instrumental. As head of the Cigar Makers International Union, Gompers devised the “union label” strategy, which tried to convince consumers to boycott cigars not made by union labor. Instead of directly confronting employers, the unions were to enter into a coalition with their bosses, against both non-union bosses and their workers. In addition to championing the “union label,” craft unions sought to boost their wages by controlling entry to the workforce.
Both of these strategies, of course, lent themselves to exclusionary and anti-solidaristic stances. Campaigns for the union label accused non-union (often immigrant) workers of shoddy craftsmanship and unhygienic production, while union shops melded seamlessly with the desire of some white workers to exclude non-whites from their workplace. Even if capitalists had to regularly battle striking craft unions, the anti-solidaristic posture of Gompers-style unionism prevented its growth into a more general challenge to capital.
The same was true in the political arena. With craft unionism dominant — unlike in other countries, where industrial unions were mushrooming — any attempt to institutionalize class struggle politics was bound to confront difficulties. And so they did. Before long, the impotence of industrial unionism would spark vigorous debates in the newly formed Socialist Party about how to relate to the craft unions of the AFL, and the insurgent industrial unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
By the time the SP emerged in 1901, the country had been through almost forty years of upheaval. Class conflict was not something isolated radicals talked about in small rooms, but a fact of life for Americans as varied as Texan farmers and Chicago stockyard workers. This was the context that gave the party its vitality, and that the party hoped to organize politically.
As grand as this history is, the origins of the Socialist Party are rather less impressive. Within the period of its founding, the party’s organizers managed to exhibit all of the pathologies that bedevil the Left a century later. Indeed, the early history of the SP stands as a rebuke to the cynicism that places responsibility for the American left’s decline on the simple inability of leftists to just “get it together.” The founders of the SP evinced every bit as much incompetence and blundering as any contemporary left group. But in the crucible of the early twentieth century, even ineptitude wasn’t enough to derail the formation of a new Socialist Party.
The SP was created out of the merger of two groups, each with their own distinct histories. On one side was Eugene Debs and Victor Berger’s Social Democratic Party of America (SDP), founded on the belief that a mass base for socialist politics existed in the United States. Debs had become a socialist in 1897, after the Pullman Strike was crushed, and was eager to lend his formidable writing and oratorical skills to the cause. Berger, an Austrian immigrant, had built a durable independent socialist organization in Milwaukee that enjoyed a strong base in the unions and in the city’s immigrant community.
At least initially, Berger was a steadfast proponent of Marxist orthodoxy. Berger had been friends with socialist leader Karl Kautsky while in Germany, and he saw his mission as replicating in the United States what the Social Democratic Party had accomplished there. Debs, an organizer and agitator who never had much time for theoretical matters, complemented Berger’s strengths nicely, and by 1900 the SDP was ready to launch its first presidential campaign, with Debs at the top of the ticket.
The other main group in the party emerged from Morris Hillquit’s group of socialists, based in Rochester, New York. Hillquit, a lawyer who represented local unions, had spearheaded a split from the SLP, the largest organization of American socialists at the time. With several thousand members, the SLP was a real force. However, it was crippled by the sectarianism of its leadership, particularly the former Columbia international law professor Daniel De Leon.
A relentless polemicist, De Leon insisted on two points of principle. First, the SLP advocated organizing socialist unions, outside the AFL. Pushing such “dual unionism” on principle was deeply alienating, forcing party members into uncomfortable situations like trying to organize upstart socialist locals against established unions, or attempting to convince AFL-affiliated locals to come over to the SLP’s alternative federation. Second, De Leon opposed attempts to secure reforms under capitalism, contending that they would only prop up a dying system. Though this stance has often been attributed to Leninism, and condemned as a foreign import corrupting American radicalism, its most developed articulation in US socialist politics would come from the pre-Leninist SLP.
Unhappy with the party’s self-marginalizing policies, Hillquit first waged a faction fight inside the SLP. When that failed, he set up a new group with the same name. In 1899, the rank and file of both Debs and Hillquit’s groups began to push for unity. The leadership of the SDP — which was the larger organization — tried to ensure that unity would only occur on their terms. As SLP delegates were welcomed to the 1900 SDP convention as guests, the convention’s committee on the merger issued a majority report demanding that a unified party retain the name “Social Democratic Party.” A more conciliatory minority report urged adoption of the same appellation, stopping short of an out-and-out demand.
Victor Berger rose to denounce the minority report, claiming that if it were adopted, all the SDP had worked for over the previous few years would be destroyed. The reports sparked a fight between the two groups that would smolder for the next eighteen months. Denunciations ran freely, with each side accusing the other of underhanded maneuvers to secure dominance in a unified party. Yet despite their best efforts, by 1902 the leaders of the two organizations found themselves with a unified group called the Socialist Party, with a membership of a few thousand.
The party — in spite of the leadership’s blunders — began life with some clear strengths.
First, there was the tremendous popularity of Debs. After gaining a national profile as the leader of the Pullman Strike, Debs had quickly emerged as the country’s most prominent advocate of socialism. Debs’s 1900 presidential campaign marked his first bid in what was to become a perennial crusade. From his platform, Debs denounced the American occupation of the Philippines, lambasted the two parties as twin representatives of big business, and called for “wage-slavery [to] be supplanted by co-operative industry.”
Second, the new party had a small but dedicated base in the union movement. While only a few internationals were completely behind the SP (including the Brewery Workers and International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union), it also had real footholds in the United Mineworkers of America, the International Association of Machinists, and the International Typographers Union. In the latter, Max Hayes, a leader of the union in Cleveland, acted as the Socialists’ main voice in the AFL, challenging Gompers in elections for head of the federation during the early years of the SP. Though Hayes never came close to unseating Gompers (who ran the federation as his own fiefdom), his campaigns demonstrated the strength of Socialists in the union movement. In the years after the party’s founding, dozens of union locals passed resolutions in support of the new party.
Third, the party inherited a thriving socialist press. In Milwaukee, Berger’s Social Democratic Herald and Milwaukee Leader circulated widely, anchoring the SP’s presence in the city. In Cleveland, Max Hayes edited the paper of the Cleveland Central Labor Council. The International Socialist Review, published out of Chicago, became one of the main venues for theoretical argument in the party, and soon affiliated itself closely with the advocates of industrial unionism and the SP left. Towering above them all, Julius Wayland’s Appeal to Reason claimed a circulation in the hundreds of thousands, bringing socialist politics to a mass audience.
The young party thus seemed well-positioned to fulfill Berger’s ambitions of recreating the German example in the US. Though still small, it had some infrastructure, cadre with decades of organizing experience, and most importantly, an audience embroiled in all manner of class conflict. These strengths, however, were accompanied by weaknesses that would only reveal themselves in the years to come.
A Divided House
The SP’s first real test came in the 1904 presidential election. In the local and congressional elections of 1902, the party had captured about two hundred thousand votes, doubling Debs’s 1900 total. In anticipation of further growth, the Socialists assessed each member half a day’s wages in extra dues to create a campaign fund. Debs toured the country relentlessly, speaking six to ten times a day; his orations directly reached a quarter million people. The party backed up Debs’s efforts by sending organizers across the country, distributing literature, and holding marches. In Illinois alone, the Socialists fielded forty-five speakers and handed out half a million pieces of literature.
The results did not disappoint. The party’s vote total doubled again from 1902, with Debs receiving over four hundred thousand votes. There was more good news further down the ballot. Berger came in second in a bid for US Congress, beating out a Democrat. And a worker in Anaconda, Montana, a mining company town, was elected mayor on the Socialist ticket (leading the Anaconda mine company to fire hundreds of workers in retaliation). The party was ecstatic. If the Socialist vote continued to double every two years, it would not be long before Socialists were challenging Democrats and Republicans on a national level. Across the party, the results were viewed as vindication of the SP’s basic strategy of winning socialism through the ballot box.
But the euphoria obscured the creeping divisions. New fault lines had begun to reveal themselves, deeper than those that had wracked the original unity process, and along entirely different lines.
The first factional rift to appear concerned the emergence of a self-conscious right wing of the party. Shortly after the original unity convention in 1901, Victor Berger began to propound the theories of German socialist Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein was an advocate of what became known as “revisionism.” Breaking with the German Social Democratic Party’s Marxist orthodoxy, Bernstein famously declared that the goal of socialism was nothing, while the movement for reforms that socialists fought for was everything. Socialists should give up all talk of revolution, he contended, and instead concentrate on reforming the system (which would end up midwifing socialism anyways). In the German party, leading figures like Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg launched a ferocious attack against Bernstein, marginalizing his ideas for a time.
In the United States, however, Berger claimed that Bernstein’s ideas had found their true home. He welcomed the title his critics gave him — the “American Bernstein” — and argued that Socialists should concentrate on winning elections and, once in office, pursuing reforms such as good governance and municipal ownership. He also saw the burgeoning Progressive movement of middle-class reformers as not just a natural ally, but a prime audience for socialist politics. Distressed by talk of class struggle, Berger demanded that the 1904 Socialist platform delete all references to the Communist Manifesto — class hatred, he contended, would only deprive the movement of possible converts. In Milwaukee, Berger took these ideas to their logical conclusion, bragging that “the Social-Democrats in this city have opposed almost every strike that has ever been declared here.”
All this was too much for the rest of the party. From moderate figures like Morris Hillquit to radicals like Debs, much of the SP found themselves in constant conflict with Berger and his allies in the Wisconsin party. For most of the SP, middle-class reformers — like those on the board of the National Civic Federation, an organization dedicated to labor-management cooperation — were simply trying to pull the wool over workers’ eyes, prettifying an exploitative social system in order to preserve its life. These forces were the deadly enemies of socialists — not their latent allies.
When Berger went so far as to endorse a Republican in a judicial election, the party was livid, leading the exasperated national secretary to declare “the dissatisfaction with opportunism and Bergerism is national in scope.” In response to such criticism, Berger acted as a petty tyrant, refusing to pay Wisconsin’s share of dues to the national party and rebuffing any attempts to discipline him within the organization.
At the same time arguments raged over Berger’s revisionism, signs of more profound schisms began to appear. The object of contention: the party’s relationship to the labor movement.
On the broadest level, there was widespread adherence in the party to the “German model” of party-union relations. There, the social democrats had worked out a division of labor between the two organizations: the party and the unions would support each other, but refrain from intervening in the other’s internal affairs. What this meant in practice, however, was a different matter.
In its early years, the party’s trade union policy was rather underdeveloped. While the SP obviously supported unions, and encouraged its members to join them wherever possible, it was less sure of how its political struggle should interact with working-class struggle on the shop floor. Much of the time, socialists fell back on a simple formula, holding that unions waged a defensive struggle against exploitation, but that the ruling class could only be defeated through political action.
In 1902, this stance was put to the test. In May of that year, miners in Pennsylvania went on strike, demanding higher wages, shorter hours, and recognition of their union, the United Mine Workers of America. Socialists in the state immediately threw themselves into propaganda work, arguing that a Socialist vote among the strikers could help bring the mineowners to the table by raising the threat of nationalization. At the national level, the party raised over $9,000 for strike relief.
On one hand, the engagement was an unalloyed success: the party’s vote share shot up 400 percent that fall in mining country. But the strike also raised political questions that the party couldn’t necessarily answer yet.
In July, party secretary Leon Greenbaum declined an invitation to address the mineworkers’ convention, wary of intruding on the unions’ turf. That same month, miners began to debate whether to call a general strike for all coalworkers. Greenbaum (who happened to be employed by the AFL) and other Socialist leaders agreed with Gompers and other union officials that a general strike would be a breach of contract, and must be opposed. Debs and others on the left argued that a general strike was necessary for victory against the mineowners, but that it was outside the party’s purview to tell the union what to do. As a result, on the crucial question of whether the struggle would escalate, the entire party took a curiously passive stance.
The party did begin to take steps to intervene directly in the AFL. In 1902, Max Hayes, the party’s leader of such efforts, proposed a resolution at the AFL convention calling for the union to endorse “overthrowal of the wage system and establishing an industrial co-operative democracy.” A toned-down version of the resolution was eventually defeated in a close floor vote. Other socialist resolutions also failed, though again by small margins.
Even this degree of internal dissent was too much for Gompers, however, and in 1903, he launched a bitter attack on the socialists. “I am entirely at variance with your philosophy,” he declared. “Economically, you are unsound; socially, you wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility.” Even the most conservative socialists were outraged at Gompers’s broadside. Victor Berger pronounced Gompers “one of the most vicious and venomous enemies of Socialism and progressive trade unionism in America.”
Politically, though, the reaction of Berger and the party’s center was more quietist. They viewed the defeat of the party’s resolutions as evidence that socialist work in unions should be restricted to winning over individual union members. (Later, Berger and his allies would oppose resolutions by the SP to encourage unions to organize the unorganized and unskilled.) Berger may have hated the anti-socialist Gompers, but it wasn’t enough to get him to actually challenge Gompers’s hegemony in the union movement.
Debs was much more forthright. In 1904, he published “Unionism and Socialism,” laying out a militant strategy for working-class struggle. Unions, Debs argued, are simply the working class’s elemental response to its exploitation by capital. As class struggle escalates, however, the state begins to intervene in industrial disputes, deploying both injunctions and the national guard against striking workers. The state’s anti-union activity teaches the working class a valuable lesson: workers must control the state themselves, or they’ll be crushed by its power. Socialist politics, then, are the logical culmination of the union movement. Without them, unionism is at best incomplete.
Debs summed up his strategy with a declaration that would win broad assent in the SP: “The trades-union expresses the economic power and the socialist party expresses the political power of the Labor movement.” Yet Debs’s pamphlet also outstripped the party consensus in multiple places, providing glimpses of the road other socialists would later explore more thoroughly. Craft unionism, he argued, was no longer appropriate. Because modern plants were so massive, with hundreds of different trades represented inside, to organize them on a craft basis “is to divide and not to organize them, to give them over to factions and petty leadership and leave them an easy prey to the machinations of the enemy.” While much of the SP would have agreed with this in principle, Debs also discussed internal sources of tensions in unions that figures like Greenbaum and Berger would never broach. The trade union officialdom, Debs noted, were at once “the leaders of labor and the lieutenants of capital . . . who, in their dual role, find it more and more difficult to harmonize the conflict interests of the class of who they are the leaders and the class of whom they are the lieutenants.”
Though Debs never fleshed out the implications of this line of analysis (and never articulated a corresponding strategy), they are considerable. If unions as organizations had built-in tendencies toward conservatism that stemmed from the social position of the officialdom, it could hardly be presumed that the union movement would naturally evolve in the direction of socialism. Indeed, Gompers’s tenure at the AFL seemed a repudiation of such a simplistic perspective.
Soon, the party would be forced to confront the question of unions and politics head on. Industrial unionism was emerging as a political current within the labor movement, explicitly challenging the AFL leadership.
In the first half-decade of the twentieth century, the locus for this challenge was the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Formed in the 1890s, as metalliferous mining developed in the Western states, the WFM grew up in mining towns where little law existed beyond the word of the mineowners. The WFM left the AFL in 1897, following a strike in which the federation offered only the most desultory support. The union announced its intention to organize the unorganized, regardless of their skill level and regardless of their trade. To extend its influence beyond the mines, it formed the Western Labor Union in 1898, and then the American Labor Union in 1902. Three years later, with the help of socialists like Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood (and even Daniel De Leon), it founded the Industrial Workers of the World.
Buoyed by a membership of more than twenty thousand workers, the IWW immediately began spreading the gospel of industrial unionism across the country, embracing groups like migrant timber workers in the northwest and farmworkers in Kansas. Its raison d’etre was to bring all workers under the union umbrella and, relatedly, to chip away at the AFL’s hegemony over the American union movement.
From its beginnings, the IWW garnered strong support from the left wing of the SP. For Debs, the IWW was a way to confront “these rotten graft-infested [A.F.L.] unions, which are dominated absolutely by the labor boss.” The right wing of the party recognized the challenge the IWW posed to the AFL, and reacted accordingly.
Victor Berger accused Debs of trying to wreck the American union movement. Socialist union leaders like Max Hayes protested that while they supported industrial unionism in principle, it could not be imposed on the labor movement from above — it had to be won organically. (Hayes’ pleadings on this score would have been more convincing if, at the previous year’s AFL convention, he hadn’t declared that the Socialists were done trying to secure leadership in the AFL, and would confine themselves to trying to attract union workers’ votes.) Throughout the party’s right wing, members argued that the AFL was on the verge of adopting industrial unionism, but that the confrontational tactics of the IWW were scaring Gompers and his acolytes away.
The IWW was experiencing some inner turmoil of its own. A strong syndicalist current developed in the IWW in spite of the presence of leading socialists like Debs and Big Bill Haywood. For the syndicalists, any political campaign was useless, a distraction from the class struggle. “The ballot box,” they argued, “is simply a capitalist concession.” Though the original IWW constitution had offered a vague endorsement of working-class political action, syndicalism quickly came to dominate the organization.
As the syndicalists rose, other supporters of the IWW found their enthusiasm waning. Most significantly, the Western Federation of Miners, which had accounted for the bulk of the IWW’s membership at its founding, withdrew from the union in 1908, leaving it both much-diminished and under the firm control of its ultra-left, anti-political faction. Debs was similarly disillusioned with the IWW’s direction, and although he didn’t publicly attack the Wobblies, he allowed his membership to lapse the same year.
The split over the Wobblies was the most profound political schism in the Socialist Party’s short history, and it would define politics in the party for much of the remainder of the decade. Many who had opposed Berger’s revisionism now recoiled from the IWW. Supporters, meanwhile, worked to develop a new vision of socialist strategy that retained the Wobbly emphasis on revolutionary unionism. As fierce as the conflict between these two groups was in 1905–6, it would only intensify in the coming years.
The tensions in the party did not stop the Socialists from going all out for the 1908 presidential campaign. Expectations were high. Max Hayes predicted a million votes for Debs. Victor Berger anticipated 1.5–2 million. Across the party, Socialists fully expected to build on the tremendous gains between 1900 and 1904.
The party campaigned on a scale it had never before attempted. Debs traveled across the country in a train called the Red Special, speaking daily to thousands. From New York to California, he blasted the capitalist system for crushing workers and destroying the natural brotherhood of man. He electrified audiences in working-class cities like Rochester, thundering: “The capitalist refers to you as mill hands, farm hands, factory hands, machine hands — hands, hands!. . . A capitalist would feel insulted if you called him a hand. He’s a head. The trouble is he owns his head and your hands.”
Such speeches cultivated a deep bond between Debs and his audience. His biographies overflow with stories of the devotion he elicited from workers across the country, who took to viewing Debs as a latter-day Jesus Christ, preaching kindness and humanity against a corrupt social system. His basic understanding of the injustice workers faced, and his affirmation that they deserved more, won him a following no American socialist has replicated since.
In the Southwest, as part of its effort to organize among farmers and agricultural workers, the party cribbed from the Populist playbook and started putting on massive multi-day encampments. Thousands of people, spread across multiple counties, would load up their wagons and congregate for socialist festivals that culminated in a speech from Debs. For workers listening to Debs on the 1908 campaign, it was easy to see joining the Socialist Party as joining a movement of the masses.
The mainstream political parties and their allies looked with trepidation at the party’s success. Newspapers regularly fabricated stories about corruption in the party. Samuel Gompers, who had thrown the AFL’s support behind the Democrats that year, accused the party of financing the Red Special with donations from business. Debs fired back: “Sam Gompers is trying to line up the labor fakirs for [William Jennings] Bryan. But their enthusiasm does not last longer than the effect of the whiskey which produces it.”
These attacks on the party did little to dampen enthusiasm for the campaign. In mid-October, Debs was speaking at a Cincinnati venue a few days after Republican presidential nominee William Howard Taft had done so. Taft had barely filled the building, even though his talk was free; the Socialists charged a dime at the door and had to turn people away. Later in the campaign, the two were speaking in Evansville the same night, and, again, more people paid to see Debs than watched Taft speak for free. Pressing their advantage, the SP offered Taft the chance to speak at their meeting if Debs was allowed to address a Republican audience. The Republicans wisely declined.
In spite of the palpable excitement, however, Debs received only 421,000 votes in November, just 13,000 more than in the previous election. Though the Appeal to Reason put on a brave face, running the headline “Taft is elected; Bryan defeated; Debs Victorious,” members across the party were deeply disappointed.
Party members put forward three explanations for the failure to grow. First, they argued that the recession of 1907 had caused many workers to move in search of jobs, leading them to lose their registration for voting. Second, Gompers’s decision to throw the AFL behind the Democrats, abandoning the political neutrality the federation had previously claimed (often as an excuse to refuse endorsing the Socialists), drove many workers into the Democratic camp. Finally, both major parties had included an assortment of reform planks in their platforms, stealing the issues on which Socialists had often campaigned.
For the right wing of the party, this final explanation represented an opportunity. If the reform vote was growing, and the capitalist parties were being forced to court it, didn’t this mean the audience for socialism was bigger than ever? All the party had to do was demonstrate it was more committed to reform than the Democrats or Republicans. And that required jettisoning the party’s image as an instrument of class struggle. Socialists like Hillquit, who had once opposed Berger’s attempts to take the party in this direction, now got on board. At the International Socialist Congress in 1907, Hillquit bragged that the American party was beating other socialist parties in “recruiting adherents from the better classes of society.”
Socialist leaders began declaiming any interest in “physical revolution.” Socialist locals were counseled to concentrate all activity on elections and education. The SP, one newspaper proclaimed, “is not so much a party militant as an organization for the study of political economy and the teaching of a true political economy to the masses.”
Simultaneously, Hillquit was developing a more thoroughgoing theoretical rationale for this shift in the party. In a series of works published shortly after 1908, Hillquit laid out a theory of the transition to socialism that would match the party’s new reform-oriented practice.
Hillquit argued that socialism was nothing more than the culmination of a series of reforms, such as laws protecting labor and municipal ownership of industry. In an age of reform, the conclusion was inescapable: “it may well be said that we are in the midst, or at any rate at the beginning, of the socialist ‘transitional state.’” (Ironically, Hillquit’s conception of socialism seems similar to the one imagined by reactionary paranoiacs in Obama’s America — a kind of stealth social order that can creep up on a nation unawares.)
If reform was already on the way, and socialist transition had already begun, the Socialist Party was the natural choice to oversee the entire process. While the capitalist parties offered measures that were indeed moving the nation along on the road to socialism, these changes were only partial, with far too many stops along the way. Electing the Socialist Party would be like buying an express ticket.
At the same time the SP right was orienting the party away from class struggle and toward middle-class reform (a shift aided by the right’s strong presence in the leadership), the party was retreating even further from challenging Gompersism in the AFL. Led by Berger, Socialists now abjured even attempting to win endorsements from union locals. When the Second International issued a condemnation of craft unionism and an endorsement of industrial unionism, the SP responded that this was all well and good for Europe, but “conditions are entirely different here.”
Previously, figures like Hayes and Berger had argued that organizations like the IWW hindered their efforts to win the AFL over to an industrial form of organization. Now, they dropped even the pretense of supporting industrial unions, and began to sing the praises of craft unionism. The craft organization of the AFL, Hayes declared in 1914, “is the logical economic organization for this country.” Meanwhile, socialist newspapers published instructions for speakers, reminding them to avoid endorsing one form of unionism over another and imploring them not to attack all capitalists as thieves or scoundrels.
Berger and his supporters were no longer viewed as renegades. They now spoke for broad swathes of the party, and enjoyed the support of the bulk of the leadership.
Not everyone in the party was happy with its rightward drift, however. The same forces that had supported the IWW in 1905 were now horrified to see conservative tendencies expanding within the party. Grouped around Charles H. Kerr’s journal the International Socialist Review, they began to chart a strategy for the left wing of the party.
Even before the consolidation of the SP right, left socialists had begun to expound a syndicalist understanding of socialist practice, in which industrial parties, not unions, were the key agencies of social transformation. In this view, the only goals of socialist political action were education (in strange symmetry with the developing right-wing view) and demonstrating increased socialist support in elections.
It dissented sharply from the core tenet of Berger-style “constructive socialism” — that society was already evolving toward socialism through reforms. The SP left looked at the United States in the early twentieth century and saw an abattoir, consuming workers’ lives by the thousands.
Perhaps no other document articulated the syndicalist politics of the SP left in greater detail than Industrial Socialism, a pamphlet written by Big Bill Haywood and Frank Bohn, an SLP leader turned Wobbly and SP member. The first half of the 1911 pamphlet surveyed the history of capitalism in the United States, explaining how it had evolved from the small workshops of the early nineteenth century to the massive trusts of the early twentieth. While workers produced more wealth than ever before, they were “becoming thinner, shorter, weaker — that is, they have less life — than the American people of fifty years ago. . . . [T]he vast majority of toilers . . . die premature deaths caused by overwork, by underfeeding, and diseases.”
After detailing the history of American capitalism, Bohn and Haywood turned their attention to the forms of resistance workers mounted against it. Craft unions, they argued, were organized by skilled workers in an attempt to bid up the price of their labor. They restricted entry to the union, often limiting it to the family of current members. While this strategy could succeed for a time, Bohn and Haywood contended that the coming of the machine doomed craft unionism. Where workers depended on controlling the spread of their skills to preserve their wages, they could compete with employers only insofar as the latter had not yet devised a way to make their skills superfluous. In addition, the principles of craft unionism directly contradicted the principles of class solidarity, since their membership was based on possessing particular skills, rather than being in a common position vis-à-vis employers.
A better alternative, the pair argued, was “class unionism.” Bohn and Haywood’s term for industrial unionism, class unionism seeks to unite all workers in one union, in opposition to all employers. For Bohn and Haywood, recognizing class war precluded the signing of union contracts, a practice the IWW also largely rejected. Contracts, they argued, hamstrung workers by banning strikes, while at the same time failing to prevent the employer from “shutting up his shop and turning the workers into the street whenever he pleases.” To sign an agreement with the employers was to abdicate its responsibility to prosecute the fight against the boss.
While the Industrial Socialism stressed the importance of union action on the shop floor, it also endorsed socialist political action. Bohn and Haywood lauded the SP as “the party of the workers” whose purpose was to “to seize the powers of government and thus prevent them from being used by the capitalists against the workers” — a rather defensive conception of politics, but wholly intelligible given the state’s frequently violent response to strikes.
Bohn and Haywood’s support for socialist politics belies the right’s characterization of them as “impossibilists” who scorned any demands short of revolution. In fact, the SP left wing devoted real attention to thinking about the kinds of reforms that socialists could secure for workers before achieving revolutionary industrial democracy. In Industrial Socialism, Bohn and Haywood even endorsed the quest of socialist city governments for expanded services, including public water utilities, schools, and parks.
This agenda of “sewer socialism” was closely associated with Berger and the right, and while the left pilloried the right mercilessly for reducing socialism to such reforms, they still appreciated their importance for American workers. Similarly, while the SP left rejected nationalization of industry, a key demand of the right, as little more than a way for capitalists to unload their unprofitable ventures onto the state, they backed reforms like an eight-hour day, freedom of speech for workers, and the elimination of voting requirements like residency.
But the SP left wasn’t without its own shortcomings. The refusal to sign contracts with employers made it almost impossible to consolidate the gains from successful union action. Similarly, the left’s focus on industrial over political action meant that much of the left was simply less aware of what was happening inside the party, allowing the right to maintain its outsize advantage through its control of the party administration.
Not all opposition to the right was syndicalist-tinged. Debs himself fought against socialism’s identification with reform, while simultaneously highlighting the centrality of political action for socialist advance. Debs argued that the SP’s attempts to win reform votes would inevitably backfire — voters pulled in because of the party’s advocacy of reforms instead of its commitment to the working class would simply abscond to capitalist parties in the next election. The party’s current course of “eliminating whatever may give offense to bourgeois sensibilities” was destined to leave the party demoralized and disoriented.
Debs assigned “first importance” to “the working class character and the revolutionary integrity” of the SP. The party’s goal was socialism, and working-class struggle was the only way to achieve it. Those who saw the socialist task as simply accumulating more votes for reform forgot that “voting for socialism is not socialism any more than a menu is a meal.”
The battle between left and right was not the only schism in the SP in these years. A number of other issues divided the party, and often in ways that did not map easily onto the left-right split. Three in particular merit attention: immigration, women’s emancipation, and the race question.
The Socialist Party and Immigration
As US capitalism expanded in the late nineteenth century, it drew in massive amounts of labor from the semi-capitalist periphery of Eastern and Southern Europe. Millions of migrants came over, and were absorbed almost immediately into the workforce. In this context, debates over immigration raged in the American labor movement and on the Left more broadly. The Knights of Labor, for example, while willing to organize black workers in the 1880s, wholeheartedly endorsed Chinese exclusion. The AFL maintained a similar attitude towards immigration, combining support for Chinese exclusion with racist rhetoric about protecting the white man’s standard of living from unfair competition.
In the Socialist Party, immigration exclusion found favor on both the right and the left. Hillquit had backed restriction, voting in 1904 at an International Socialist Congress in favor of barring immigration for “backwards races.” While the Congress rejected the resolution, it came up again three years later, precipitating a more general debate in the party. Again the Congress voted down the measure. In response, many SP members accused the socialist body of abandoning the working class.
Berger in particular indulged in the most lurid rhetoric, denouncing the invasion of “yellow men” and arguing that socialism was only possible in a white man’s country. In 1910, when the SP National Congress held a debate on immigration, he explicitly argued that the party needed to support racial immigration restriction. Doing otherwise, he insisted, would “place the Socialist Party in opposition to the most militant and intelligent portion of organized workers in the United States” — in other words, the AFL.
Berger and his restrictionist allies (including Max Hayes) found anti-immigration confederates outside the SP right. Herman Titus, a leader of the left wing on the West Coast, argued that proletarian principles of international solidarity meant little in his region of the country because racial incompatibility was supposedly a daily fact of life there. Ernest Untermann, another Berger critic, went even further, denouncing race-neutral immigration controls since they could potentially keep out whites.
Likewise, criticisms of immigration controls didn’t emanate exclusively from the left. In the debates at party congresses, one of the most eloquent opponents of immigration restriction was John Spargo, a key theorist of the party right. He explicitly attacked the racism of immigration restrictors, noting that on the West Coast, Japanese Americans had proved to be fighting unionists wherever they were able to join unions. Directly challenging the racism of his opponents, he declared “If the Jap will carry the highest standard of civilization, if he will carry the Socialist banner where the white man fails, all hail the Jap; let him carry it for me.”
Debs excoriated the restrictors from the left. His argument was simple: “if Socialism, international, revolutionary socialism, does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly uncompromisingly for the working class and for the exploited and oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for none and its claim is a false pretense and its profession a delusion and a snare.”
Despite these arguments, in 1910 the party lent its imprimatur to race-based immigration restrictions. In 1912, it went even further, affirming such limitations and also arguing that “race feeling” was a natural product of biology, and would play an important role in a socialist society as well.
In a country where a massive proportion of the working class consisted of immigrants, and where pogroms against Asian Americans occurred regularly in Western states, this position was a tremendous weakness. It committed the party to upholding divisions that aided employers, placed it on the side of lynchers rather than justice, and subordinated working-class unity to the reactionary craft unionism of the AFL.
Women’s Place in the Party
The debate over the place of women in American socialism was never as fierce or extended as the back-and-forth on immigration. From its founding, the SP committed itself to gender equality, and backed causes like women’s enfranchisement.
As historian Mari Jo Buhle points out, what really would have been noteworthy is if the party hadn’t made a firm programmatic commitment to women’s equality. After all, the defense of women’s rights had a long history in the American reform tradition, from abolitionism to populism. Similarly, the international socialist movement had a long tradition of supporting women’s emancipation.
But despite this doctrinal commitment, the party’s actual record of fighting for women’s liberation left something to be desired. Of the 128 socialists present at the party’s founding in 1901, only eight were women. And after nearly a decade of significant growth, the ratio had hardly improved; in 1909, only two thousand of the party’s fifty thousand members were women. Observers commonly noted the SP’s hostile internal culture, which thought nothing of holding meetings in saloons that barred women.
Inside the party, some socialists expressed dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. Among male socialists, John Spargo spoke up most insistently for his female comrades. He questioned why women’s emancipation received scant attention at party meetings and in party publications, and, citing the English suffragette movement, pointed to the revolutionary spirit women were manifesting. The party, he argued, was failing women.
The most important critics were socialist women themselves. Though often few in number, they played an important role in the party from the beginning. Women like Kate Richards O’Hare and Luella Roberts Krehbiel worked as lecturers and field organizers, touring the country to win audiences over to the socialist cause. Josephine Conger-Kaneko helped edit Appeal to Reason, augmenting its pages with regular columns about women and socialism. At the grassroots, women socialists formed their own auxiliary clubs to SP locals.
Women socialists voiced considerable discontent over their status within the party. “Not all men who call themselves socialists,” one noted, “are fully so where women are concerned.” Conger-Kaneko protested that “[w]omen are tired of being ‘included,’ tired of being taken for granted. They demand definite recognition, even as men have it.” Lena Morrow Lewis, a prominent West Coast Socialist, insisted that the “the prejudice of small-minded men should not be catered to” in the party.
In 1908, the party finally responded by approving a campaign specifically aimed at winning women to socialism. As part of the same resolution, the party formed a Women’s National Committee to oversee socialist work among women. Finally, the work of women assumed a more prominent place within the party.
Outside events also forced the issue onto the agenda: when class struggle broke out in sectors dominated by women workers like the New York garment industry, the party gained first-hand familiarity with working women’s twin struggles against male domination and capitalist exploitation.
By its second decade, the Socialist Party was taking an active role in the struggle for women’s liberation.
The Race Question
In the history of American radicalism, the Socialist Party has often come to stand in for the “color-blind” approach to fighting racism. And some in the SP did hew to this line, seeing struggles against racism as unnecessary distractions from the class struggle — or worse. Yet the reduction of the party to a racism-blind formation is, as historian William P. Jones has pointed out, a distortion that obscures the real contributions Socialists made to the struggle for black equality.
The SP’s complicated legacy on the racism question go back to its establishment in 1901. At the founding convention, three black socialists participated in the proceedings. One white delegate introduced a resolution that recognized the special oppression faced by African Americans, and encouraged them to join the SP to fight it. This measure drew opposition from many socialists, who denied the need to make any specific appeals to a given group. Two of the three black delegates agreed. However, the third delegate, William Costley of San Francisco, argued that the resolution should be even stronger, and introduced an amendment pointing out that black Americans suffer oppression both from the ruling class and the white working class, and condemning “lynching, burning, and disenfranchisement.”
In response, some white delegates protested that such a resolution would doom the party’s efforts to build among white workers in the South. Costley and his allies — including prominent socialists like Max Hayes — fought the compromise, asserting that it was better to lose every white vote in the South than to pander to racism. In the end, the party deleted the references to lynching, but kept the recognition of the additional oppression black workers face, as well as the appeal to join the SP.
The following year, the party published a pamphlet entitled Socialism and the Negro Problem. The work, authored by a Christian socialist, argued explicitly against the economic reductionist position so often ascribed to the party. It acknowledged that a socialist society could not abolish racism in one fell swoop, and that pro-equality measures would be needed to “destroy race prejudice.”
Once economic competition between black and white workers in “the auction of the new slave market” was eliminated, equal, integrated education for black and white children would dissolve whatever racist attitudes remained. While education alone may seem like thin fare for a socialist antiracist program, the very fact that the party was thinking about how to deal with racism in a socialist society undermines much of the received wisdom about the party.
Unfortunately, these kinds of initiatives — which were revolutionary steps for an overwhelmingly white organization like the SP — were accompanied by racism of the most vile sort. Unsurprisingly, Berger was one of the most vicious exponents. He wholeheartedly embraced the race science of the time, asserting that black people were a lower race than whites and attributing the supposedly high numbers of rapes in areas with large black populations to the “degeneration” resulting from contact between the two races. Other socialists were similarly enamored of race science, holding forth at length about the supposedly distinctive characteristics of black anatomy.
The SP in the early twentieth century thus contained both the most enlightened thinking among white Americans on the race question, as well as endorsements of the nation’s most destructive racial fantasies.
The most important perspectives on the race question in the party, however, were undoubtedly black socialists themselves.
The Reverend George Washington Woodbey was the most important black socialist in the party’s early history. Passing through the prohibition movement, and then Populism, he joined the SP soon after its founding and quickly became a prominent lecturer on the West Coast. Among his speech topics was Booker T. Washington, whom he accused of playing into capitalist designs to pit black and white workers against each other.
So popular was Woodbey among California socialists that when a Los Angeles hotel refused him admission due to his race, the LA branch of the party waged a successful boycott campaign against the venue. Soon after, he was elected to the state party’s executive board. Inside the SP, Woodbey was a consistent voice for egalitarianism, resisting the anti-immigrant tide that plagued the West Coast branches in particular.
Woodbey was joined by a number of black preachers in the party, as well some secular voices. W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, briefly joined the party and then left in 1912 to support Woodrow Wilson. But by far the most important black voice in the SP was Hubert Henry Harrison.
A Caribbean immigrant, Harrison became a member in New York and quickly established a reputation as one of its most formidable voices. In New York’s vibrant street speaking culture he reigned supreme, attaining wide recognition as the most eloquent representative of the socialist cause. He also wrote for the party press, authoring a series of articles on “The Negro and Socialism” that narrated the history of black oppression and explained why the SP needed to take a decisive place in the struggle for black equality.
“Socialism is here,” he declared, “to put an end to the exploitation of one group by another, whether that group be social, economic or racial.” While Harrison did not expect socialism to destroy “race prejudice,” he did expect it to “take the white man from off the black man’s back.”
Disgusted with the rampant racism in the AFL, Harrison became a supporter of the IWW and an impressive representative of the party’s left. As tensions between left and right escalated, he found himself targeted by the New York leadership. Harrison, who made his living as a party lecturer, was forbidden from speaking on the question of industrial organization. When he objected to this ban — and accused the leadership of treating him different because of his race — the party slapped a three-month suspension on him. Harrison, disgusted with his comrades’ conduct, decided to leave the party altogether.
Harrison wasn’t the last black socialist of prominence in the party. A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen edited the Messenger, a radical black socialist monthly starting in 1917. And Frank Crosswaith was an important party organizer in New York unions. But none would be as insistent a voice for radicalism on the race question as Harrison.
The SP’s legacy on race, then, is far too complicated to be encapsulated in any pat summary. The party took more steps toward uniting class struggle and the fight against racist oppression than any organization that preceded it, yet it also tolerated truly shameful behavior from its members and leaders. Ultimately, however, the best of the SP laid the basis for a class struggle approach to fighting racism that would find fuller expression in the decades to come.
The Left Insurgency Routed
By about 1910, tensions in the party were reaching a breaking point. Disagreements had escalated well beyond debates, and the party infrastructure itself was beginning to crack under the pressure. Across the country, expulsions and secessions proliferated. The left had seen a surge in membership since 1908, anchored in states like Oklahoma and Ohio. United by a devotion to industrial unionism — and a semi-syndicalist suspicion of political action — the left had attained a measure of power in the party.
The right wasted no time in punching back. As early as 1908, the right had indicated its tolerance for left-wing advance was limited. That year, Alfred Wagenknecht, a left-wing leader on the West Coast, was denied a national organizer position on explicitly ideological grounds. By 1911, the infighting had reached the point where the California state committee, led by some of Berger’s closest allies, forbade Haywood and even Debs from speaking before socialist locals in the state.
Unbowed by the counterattack, Big Bill Haywood ran for a seat on the National Executive Committee in 1911. For the right of the party, this constituted a line in the sand. If a Wobbly could make his way onto the party’s executive committee, all hope was surely lost. Morris Hillquit led the campaign against Haywood, arguing that socialists couldn’t abide direct action and lawbreaking. After all, how could they expect capitalists to obey socialist laws if socialists would not obey capitalist ones? As one supporter of the left pointed out in response, if taken seriously, this position would mean refusing to support strikes in the face of injunctions — the very action that had rocketed Debs to national prominence as a union leader.
Despite the campaign against him, Haywood garnered the third highest vote total in the NEC election, beating out Hillquit himself. Immediately after winning, he demonstrated exactly why he inspired such opposition from the right, giving speeches denouncing capitalist law for tolerating the murder of workers and their families. To the tremendous embarrassment of the party right, the bourgeois press quickly began covering Haywood’s speeches. As soon as he was elected, they began calling for his removal.
Haywood’s support was substantial enough that in New York, the right agreed to a debate on industrial unionism. His opponent? None other than Morris Hillquit.
In his address, the New York lawyer contended that while the entire party supported the principle of industrial unionism, the question was whether it was the party’s place to advance that cause in the unions. He answered in the negative — the party, Hillquit argued, should concentrate on winning workers’ votes. And really, industrial unionism hardly needed the support of the party — “within five years and no longer the American Federation of Labor and its rank and file will be socialistic.” In the name of hard-headed realism and pragmatism, Hillquit had embraced a disorienting utopianism.
Yet Haywood did himself no favors. He delighted in baiting the SP right as middle-class misleaders, and was well aware that his rhetoric around sabotage and direct action would incite them.
It’s important to contextualize Haywood’s rhetoric. As Mike Davis has pointed out, the IWW saw sabotage as simply “the conscious withdrawal of efficiency in work.” This was hardly a radical principle — craft unions had long set rates of work that every member agreed not to exceed. The IWW’s radical pivot was to join the rhetoric of sabotage to a delegitimization of the boss’s private property. Yet even this did not entail the breaking of machines or the dynamiting of factories. In IWW-led work stoppages like the famous Lawrence textile strike in 1912, machine-breaking actually decreased as the Wobblies assumed leadership.
Haywood knew all of this. But his aim wasn’t to calm fears with a dose of clarity. His rhetoric was calculated to inflame — and it had its desired effect on much of the SP.
Most importantly, and tragically, Haywood’s discursive decision cut him off from his most important potential ally: Eugene Debs. The socialist tribune had left the IWW behind in 1908 as it embraced syndicalism, but remained devoted to the cause of industrial unionism. Haywood’s rhetoric, however, led him to spurn his former comrade. Debs understood Haywood’s argument as “anarchist individualism,” as opposed to “socialist collectivism.” As such, he saw in direct action and sabotage merely a repeat of nineteenth century “propaganda of the deed.” These tactics, he argued, would do nothing more than make the work of agent provocateurs even easier.
Debs also saw the party right as a real problem. They had, after all, begun to ban him from speaking in front of the party. In a letter to Victor Berger, he confided that “I favor putting an end to Hillquitism, which has become synonymous with bossism.” Of course, Berger himself had often led the charge against Debs. Yet he could not bring himself to organize within the party against either of his foes. Intimidated by their theoretical knowledge, chary of jeopardizing his role as the spokesman of American socialism, Debs never pressed a fight internally for the kind of politics he favored — a fusion of class struggle unionism and political action.
As a result, the right was able to mobilize its support in the party to expel Haywood. The decisive move came at the 1912 national convention. At first, it seemed as if the left would continue its ascent. The party passed a landmark resolution calling for the organizing of the unorganized and unskilled, and urged unions to eliminate “artificial restrictions” on membership. Haywood saw this as evidence of progress in the party, effusing to the delegates that, as a result of this policy, “I can go to the working class, to the eight million women and children, to the four million black men, to the disenfranchised white men . . . and I can carry to them the message of Socialism.”
But the right quickly struck back. They proposed an amendment to the party constitution calling for the expulsion of any person who advocates “crime, sabotage, or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation.” Playing hardball, Berger threatened to withdraw the Wisconsin organization from the party if it was not adopted. Hillquit — demonstrating why the left used “lawyer” as a pejorative — said that while it was not the place of the party to tell unions what to do, it was perfectly acceptable for the SP to kick out members who advocated sabotage in their unions. More ominously, he declared not only that the party’s left was an enemy within, but that it was more threatening to the party than the capitalist class itself. The convention passed the amendment.
So confident was the right at the 1912 convention that it tried to dislodge Debs as the party’s standard-bearer. They offered up Charles Edward Russell of New York and Emil Seidel of Wisconsin, both representing the party right. Russell and Seidel ended up securing 110 votes, while Debs garnered an outright majority of 156. In putting forward two candidates, the right’s tactical ineptness had doomed the effort to topple Debs. But even so, they had come within striking distance of removing the country’s most beloved socialist from the head of the ticket.
After the convention, the right wasted no time in exploiting their major victory. When Big Bill Haywood continued to give speeches advocating sabotage, the party organization in New York launched a campaign to recall him from the National Executive Committee. In February, in a party-wide referendum that saw just 11 percent turnout, Haywood was booted from the committee, 13,000 to 4,000.
For once the SP found itself the object of praise in the bourgeois press, who congratulated the party on its newfound sense of responsibility and judgment. Much of the party left saw the handwriting on the wall, and simply exited the party. Within a few months, the SP had lost about a third of its membership.
The chaos in the party did not prevent the Socialists from mounting another presidential campaign for Debs. In 1912, just as in 1908, Debs’s speaking events drew massive crowds — eighteen thousand in Philadelphia, twenty-two thousand in New York City. The campaign also received a boost from the fractured state of bourgeois politics. Teddy Roosevelt left the Republicans for the Bull Moose Party, while both Wilson and Roosevelt borrowed liberally from the Socialists’ array of reforms. Despite losing membership, the party managed to double its vote total to more than nine hundred thousand, or 6 percent of the electorate. It was the party’s greatest electoral success to date.
But in many ways, it also represented the party’s peak. Further progress eluded the SP in the years that followed. Local elections failed to produce any further advance. In 1916, with Debs sidelined by illness, Allan Benson took up the torch as the party’s presidential candidate. Benson, a writer for the Appeal, won the nomination almost entirely on the basis of his proposal that declarations of war must be made by national referendum (and that those assenting to war would be drafted first). Lacking Debs’s name recognition or abilities, Benson received only 3 percent of the vote.
By 1916, the war had become the overwhelming issue in both national politics and the SP. As Benson’s nomination suggests, the party was unified in opposition as war raged in Europe. Many socialists at the time — as well as historians like Weinstein — have thus concluded that the war brought the party together, helping to heal the wounds of 1912. But like the unity of the Second International, which was proclaimed by all sides right up until the declaration of war, the consensus of the SP was fragile, and easily shattered by the cataclysm of war.
As long as hostilities were confined to Europe, the party spoke with one voice. But as American involvement crept onto the horizon, dissent spread through the party. In April 1917, with US entry now inevitable, the party held an emergency convention in St. Louis to clarify its position. The resulting St. Louis Manifesto — drafted by Hillquit, his associate Algernon Lee, and the left’s Charles Reuthenberg — placed the party on firm antiwar ground. The Manifesto blamed the war on “the acute competition between the capitalist powers of the earth, their jealousies and distrusts of one another and the fear of the rising power of the working class,” and it committed the party to opposing all war measures, from conscription to the issuing of war bonds.
Immediately, a section of the party rebelled against this declaration and left the party. John Spargo led the renegades, having declaimed at the convention against the spirit of “intolerance” he perceived toward pro-war voices in the party. He was joined by other leaders of the right, including Charles Edward Russell, A. M. Simons, Winfield Gaylord, and even Allan Benson. The left was also represented in the exodus — William English Walling, Henry Slobodin, and Frank Bohn all departed — though to a far more limited extent than the right.
Those who remained in the party largely maintained an antiwar position. The party press denounced the militarism and jingoism sweeping American society. Leaders gave speeches against conscription, and demanded that the imperialist powers cease hostilities with no annexations and no indemnities.
Though some historians have faulted the SP for its opposition to the war, holding that this stance alienated the party from the naturally patriotic American people, the SP was actually tapping into a large reservoir of antiwar sentiment. Across the country, young men gave their draft boards false addresses, skipped their physicals, or filed exemption claims. NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson reported being laughed out of his neighborhood barbershop after asking the barber if he was joining the military. The barber replied, “The Germans ain’t done nothin’ to me, and if they have, I forgive ’em.”
In addition to these individual actions, opponents of the war also organized collective efforts. In Indianapolis, they stole the draft records for the entire county. In Minnesota, pro-war bankers found themselves the target of boycotts. In California, a group of alleged Wobblies sabotaged a troop train and fought with the soldiers onboard. Indeed, far from isolating the party, the antiwar stance brought the most exciting growth since 1912. In 1917, the party membership numbered about 80,000. By 1919, it had reached 104,000, nearly as high as its 1912 apex.
The party grew at the ballot box as well. In Ohio, Socialists swept the city elections in Dayton for the first time, winning nine of twelve wards. In similar towns across the nation, the party’s vote totals suddenly shot up as antiwar voters turned to the only party opposing the war drive. The Socialists’ success wasn’t limited to small towns. In Chicago, the party raised its aldermen count to three, its most ever. In New York, Morris Hillquit ran on an antiwar platform and refused to buy Liberty Bonds; his campaign quintupled the Socialist vote, bringing in 21.7 percent of the total. In all of these elections, the party’s electoral base wasn’t limited to immigrant communities — it polled well across the working class.
Still, despite the renewed vigor in the party, divisions lurked below the surface that would soon emerge with frightening force. Though their severity would only become apparent in 1919, after the war’s conclusion, a close look at the party’s course during the war itself reveals that they existed well before then. The rifts ran along familiar factional lines. While the party right largely adhered to the St. Louis principles, they did so on a quite different basis from the left, and with far more equivocation.
This was most obvious in the case of pro-war socialists, who were concentrated in the party right. New York City, one of the party’s strongholds, was a case in point. Even as the city’s organization united behind Hillquit’s explicitly antiwar campaign, pro-war voices in the city were not difficult to find. US congressman Meyer London had opposed the war before it began, but supported war appropriations after it was announced, arguing “when war is an accomplished fact, then there must be unity.” The city’s Socialist aldermen adopted a pro-war stance, and voted for Liberty Bonds. The United Hebrew Trades, a socialist association of Jewish labor unions, dropped its opposition to the war after Wilson announced his Fourteen Points.
At the national level, neither Hillquit nor Berger were exemplars of antiwar politics in these years. When the war first broke out, and the Second International collapsed, Hillquit was quick to exonerate the European socialists, arguing that “national feeling . . . stands for everything we hold dear . . . the workingman has a country as well as a class. Even before he has a class.”
After the United States joined the war, Hillquit was similarly equivocal. For one, the pro-war sentiment from New York elected officials could hardly have come as a surprise to him, as Hillquit maintained tight control over the party organization in the city. In addition, he actively defended the militarists. When the party membership across the country tried to censure London for his pro-war stance, Hillquit joined the rest of the national leadership in blocking the initiative. In an interview with the New Republic, Hillquit even denied holding any substantial antiwar position, saying, “I do not advocate an immediate separate peace, a withdrawal by America . . . I want America to act, not to withdraw.”
Victor Berger’s opposition was even more milquetoast. In the drafting of the St. Louis Manifesto, he fought for Spargo’s inclusion on the committee responsible for putting together the majority report, explaining that Spargo could express his views better than he could. When the resulting manifesto took a decisive antiwar position, Berger dismissed it as empty phrasemongering, and worried it presented the left in the party with an opportunity.
In Berger’s Milwaukee, pro-war activity among Socialist elected officials was even more prominent, thanks to the behavior of Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan.
When Wilson ordered mayors of large cities to carry out draft registration, the Socialist mayor complied, acting on Berger’s advice. Hoan helped organize a patriotic parade in line with the “Preparedness” festivities put on by pro-war politicians across the country. And he planned pro-war propaganda with a group of the city’s industrialists, looking to convince the population that the war had nothing to do with capitalist profits.
When he was finally forced to confront the contradictions between his actions and the St. Louis platform, Hoan announced his opposition to the platform. This was too much even for Berger. Though he frequently wrote of his dislike for the platform to friends in the party, in public Berger maintained the image of a loyal party man. Berger wrote an editorial denouncing “fence-sitting,” clearly aimed at Hoan. Yet the two quickly patched things up, subsequently working together to produce an election platform that endorsed the St. Louis manifesto, but didn’t alter the conduct of either one — Berger both bought Liberty Bonds and counseled his readers to do so as well.
The equivocations of the party’s right fueled an increasing sense of coherence on the left. In New York and Boston, new publications were launched to support the party left. These magazines, and the socialists they represented, looked with antipathy at the actions of Berger and Hillquit, and wanted a party whose models were the revolutionary movements in Russia and Germany. Confronting a party leadership that seemed incapable or unwilling to fully prosecute the antiwar case — even though the general public was full of war skeptics — the left decided to mount a fight for the party leadership for the first time since 1912.
Debs himself was drawn to this milieu. He was furious at pro-war socialists like Hoan, reminding Hoan that “[s]ocialists are not required to demonstrate their patriotism for the benefit of the capitalist class.” He also joined the editorial board of the Class Struggle, one of the new journals of the left. Writing to a friend in the party, Debs declared, “I am in sympathy with the radical tendencies in our party . . . We have got to take a clear cut stand in favor of revolutionary industrial unionism . . . [and] get completely away from Scheidemannism.”
The state, for its part, did little to differentiate between Debs’s militant opposition to the war and Hillquit or Berger’s half-hearted campaigns. From the moment the war was launched, the entire party found itself under assault. Socialist publications, from the International Socialist Review and the Appeal to Reason (which would soon relaunch itself as a pro-war journal) to Berger’s Milwaukee Leader and the New York Call, found themselves either banned from the mail or subject to vastly increased postage rates. Socialist leaders were arrested indiscriminately, from Charles Ruthenberg on the left to Victor Berger on the right.
Equally as devastating as the state crackdown were the actions of local vigilantes. In Debs’s hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, a socialist coal miner was lynched after he refused to buy a Liberty Bond. In Arizona, a mob loaded 1,200 IWW miners onto to cattle cars and dropped them off in the Mexican desert. In total, some 1,500 socialist locals — or one-third of the party’s chapters — met their demise because of wartime repression. The entire Oklahoma state party, once a bastion of the left, voted to dissolve itself out of fear of the violence coming its way.
This repression crippled the party, inhibiting its ability to capitalize on its distinction as the only major institution in American life to oppose the war. It also strengthened the most moderate voices in the party, as even left stalwarts could be induced to rethink their principles in the face of a decade-long jail sentence.
Repression, however, did not kill the party. Even in the fall of 1917, as the SP was coming under sustained attack from both the state and vigilantes, its vote totals continued to grow. What would crush the party, rendering it a truly marginal force, would not be repression from without, but disunion within.
From 1917 to 1919, the left in the SP surged forward. Three factors propelled its advance.
First, steadfast opposition to the American war effort gave the left a new purpose and, with a war-suspicious public, a new audience. Second, the outbreak of heightened levels of struggle in the US confirmed the left’s argument that revolutionary unionism was a central component of socialist strategy.
The third factor was the Russian Revolution. In early November 1917, the Russian government collapsed as the soviets — councils of workers and soldiers — declared their sovereignty over the country. Led by the Bolsheviks, who had recently won a majority in the soviets, the revolution shattered the tsarist autocracy, breaking the back of a state that for nearly a century had served as the chief force of reaction in Europe. To socialists around the world, the revolution seemed to validate everything they’d been working towards.
In the United States, both the right and the left of the SP hailed the revolution as a working-class triumph, soon to be repeated around the world. Eugene Debs, writing in the Class Struggle, proclaimed “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am a Bolshevik and proud of it. ‘The Day of the People’ has arrived!” Berger praised the new Bolshevik government, writing, “[T]he Russian people love the Soviets. They are the Soviets. Here is a government of the people and for the people in actual fact. Here is a political and industrial democracy.”
The acclaim with which the revolution was met, however, did not translate into equal political dynamism for the two poles of the party. The left was considerably more energized by the revolution than the right. While the right greeted the upheaval as a step in the march towards socialism, carried out in uniquely Russian conditions, the left saw the birth of the first socialist state through revolution as corroboration for their theory that the parliamentary road to socialism was closed.
Ironically, what triggered the explosive growth of the left was its initial repression by the party right. After the New York Socialist aldermen started backing the war drive in late 1918, the left in New York, concentrated in the outer boroughs, launched a campaign to discipline the officials. In early January, a meeting was held to assess the aldermens’ actions. Chaired by a loyal partisan of the right, the proceedings systematically shut out the left’s concerns. As the meeting dragged on to almost midnight, and not a single left winger had been allowed to speak, it became clear the fix was in. The left bolted from the meeting, set up a committee within the city to propagandize, and issued a manifesto to the rest of the party.
Soon after, the left expanded across the country. By April, it had gained control of the locals in Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Buffalo, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Newark, as well as the Queens, Brooklyn, and Bronx locals in New York. Equally important to the left’s rising prospects was its strength in the foreign language federations. Comprised of immigrants from countries like Russia or Latvia, these federations had seen their weight in the party soar as vigilantism drove down the SP’s native-born base in places like Oklahoma. In 1917, the federations constituted only 35 percent of the party membership in 1917; by 1919, they accounted for fully 53 percent. As they became more powerful they also became more radical, influenced by the revolutionary movements shaking Eastern Europe.
Ideologically, the party’s new left mixed left-wing mainstays with some novel elements. First, it replaced the purely syndicalist emphasis on industrial unionism with a more party-centered vision of social revolution. In Russia, after all, the revolution had not been launched by the unions, but by the Bolsheviks (after they had won a majority in the soviets). Moreover, the federations’ membership was only thinly connected to the mainsprings of American working-class life. Most spoke little English, and were not part of the union movement. As such, they tended to de-emphasize unions as a site of socialist activity.
They married this affinity for political action with an impossibilist strategy. With the hour of revolution appearing near, the party left disdained immediate demands, seeing them as props for a decaying social system. This was a devastating miscalculation: revolution was hardly on the agenda in 1919 America, and fighting for basic reforms was precisely the kind of struggle the US working class needed to put itself in a position to launch a broader assault on capital.
The right, of course, was horrified. Though figures like Hillquit and Berger correctly observed that the left vastly overestimated the prospects for insurrection, their opposition to the left went far deeper than a disagreement over short-term strategy. Massive differences of principle separated the party leadership from the left-wing insurgency.
Consider Victor Berger’s writings on revolution. In a 1918 article entitled “Socialism, Revolution, & Civilization,” he warned his readers that “Some day in the near future and soon after the war . . . there will be a volcanic eruption. The hungry millions will turn against the overfed few. A fearful retribution will be enacted on the capitalist class as a class.” Far from celebrating this prospect, however, Berger deplored it as “a revolution [which] will retrograde civilization — it might throw back the white race into barbarism.” Socialism, he argued, was the only way to prevent such a revolution.
This vision of socialism as the counter-revolutionary preserver of white civilization could hardly be more different from the left’s vision. A conflict between the two was inevitable.
The first blows came in spring 1919, during the elections for the NEC. The left dominated the vote, winning twelve of fifteen seats. Louis Fraina, an editor of the Class Struggle, captured the most votes overall; Victor Berger received about a third of his total. Flush with victory, the left called for a National Conference of the Left for late June.
The party right, however, was not about to let the left take over simply because they had won leadership in an election. In April, the party’s New York state branch voted to expel any local that affiliated with the left. Four thousand members were immediately kicked out of the party. Then, in May, the old National Executive Committee met and decided to simply invalidate the recent election results, citing spurious accusations of fraud and low voter turnout. The NEC also voted to expel the entire Michigan state organization, which had recently moved to write impossibilism into the state party constitution, as well as seven of the foreign language federations. Within a week, the NEC had thrown out more than twenty thousand members.
The conservative leaders’ haughty actions alienated it from much of the party membership. Hundreds of grassroots members penned furious ripostes to the NEC. “We do not accuse you of treason to Socialism,” one wrote, “We know you that you were never socialists.” Members who had been with the party since the days of the Social Democracy of America condemned the leadership for dispensing with internal democracy. But the right was remorseless. Over the next few weeks, it removed the state organizations of Massachusetts and Ohio, the Chicago local, and numerous others. Two-thirds of the membership would be kicked out during this period; by July, the party was down to thirty-nine thousand members.
The expelled left-wingers moved rapidly to set up a new Communist Party, in line with the perspective laid out by the recently formed Communist International. However, at their meeting in June, large differences erupted inside the left itself. The foreign language federations wanted to start a revolutionary party immediately. The native-born left, by contrast, voted to stick it out within the Socialist Party, until it either recaptured the party or was expelled.
As a result, two communist parties formed: the Communist Par-ty of American (led by the foreign language federations) and the Communist Labor Party (led by the native-born socialists). The two parties would eventually merge, under Comintern pressure, in 1921, but for their first two years they remained utterly marginal forces.
The Socialist Party, meanwhile, proceeded to its August convention, now finally shorn of its left. And as the conference would make clear, they had no desire to welcome the left back within its ranks.
When the Communist Labor Party members attempted to gain access to the conference — which was strictly controlled and choreographed by the leadership — the NEC used the police to forcibly remove the CLP. Then, in what must be regarded as one of the crowning acts of chutzpah on the American left, the right proceeded to issue a resolution condemning the police as a capitalist institution.
The Socialist Party’s time as the dominant institution on the American left ended in 1919.
What remained of the SP limped along, in a position no more favorable than the competing communist parties. One party member, in a letter to Eugene Debs, who languished in federal prison for his antiwar speeches, confessed that “[t]he Party is in a weaker and more disorganized condition than at any time in its history. We are entirely without courage or self-reliance.”
By the mid-twenties, the SP’s membership rolls had dropped to a few thousand, and it was desperately seeking alliances with various reform efforts to maintain some political sway. Though the party would regain membership in the late twenties and thirties, by then the Communist Party had eclipsed the SP as the leading organization of American radicalism.
American socialists today should be at once enlivened and chastened by the history of the Socialist Party. After all, every warning that bourgeois ideologues deploy today about the impossibility of socialism in the US was used against the Socialist Party, too. During the period of its ascent, Werner Sombart famously argued that American prosperity precluded socialism from gaining a mass base. The authorities, of course, were not quite as confident that Sombart’s “shoals of roast beef and apple pie” would be an effective prophylactic. They recognized that socialism did have a mass base, and in the crucible of World War I, when the country was making its first bid for global leadership, they resolved to do whatever it took to prevent the SP from organizing an effective opposition to the first project for a new American century.
All of the bromides about the American spirit of individualism, about our exceptional national spirit, and on and on, cannot hide the fact that a self-declared socialist party won the votes of hundreds of thousands of American workers in the early twentieth century by promising a revolution against the rule of capital. This is a history that should give confidence to any socialist today.
In light of the SP’s history, the verdicts of writers like Howe and Bell are hardly sustainable. Far from being out of touch with the realities of American life, the SP tapped into a deep wellspring of ferocious discontent with American reality. Declaring fundamental opposition to capitalist society wasn’t romantic alienation, but a recognition that society as a whole needed to be remade if sharecroppers and workers were to have any hope of justice. Indeed, it was precisely the forces most dedicated to accommodating to American realities – the SP right – who chose to destroy the party rather than let it fall into the hands of the left.
Similarly, Weinstein’s account of a once-promising party destroyed by sectarian imitation of revolutionaries abroad evades the real political questions posed by the SP’s history. Throughout its history, party members debated the best way forward for American radicals. As early as 1905, it was clear that diametrically opposed visions coexisted within the party. While the right was, at times, willing to challenge the AFL leadership, particularly when it came to Gompers’s dealings with the two major political parties, it was unwilling to countenance actions which would cast it as disloyal to the federation. This led to a peculiar utopianism on the right, which managed to convince itself that a federation built around the most exclusionary and anti-solidaristic forms of union activity was, nonetheless, naturally evolving towards socialism.
The left maintained an entirely different vision. Though compromised by syndicalist impulses, it was still clear-eyed about the level of class struggle that would be required to win even the most basic reforms from the American ruling class. If it often fell short of a strategy for mobilizing that level of struggle, it at least saw the terrain well enough to understand that the AFL or middle class reformers were not going to be any help in achieving it.
Ultimately, the history of the SP that comes down to us from figures like Howe and Weinstein has depoliticized the party. It obscures the debates over strategy that raged throughout the party’s entire history. It evacuates the conflict between the right and left of substantive conflict; the left are reduced to sectarians whose only animating principle is being the most radical people in the room, while the right’s equivocations and ultimate purge of the left are disconnected from their basic strategic vision. The history of the SP is both more inspiring and more instructive than this.
When Debs was sentenced to prison for his antiwar activities in 1919, he ended his famous courtroom speech with the following promise:
Your Honor, I ask no mercy and I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed and exploitation on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of industrial freedom and social justice.
I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own. . . . Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.
The night has lasted longer, and the cross has proven more solid, than Debs, or indeed any of his contemporaries, might have imagined. Yet the history of the Socialist Party shows us that the United States possesses no special immunity against socialist politics. Today, as a new generation turns left, the socialist movement has a chance to continue the work begun by Debs and his comrades. Understanding their history will be necessary for making our own.