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The Historiography of Debsian Socialism: A Century of Interpretations, Part 1 (April 2022): Brief Treatments and Major Interpretations

By Edward Remus

Brief Treatments and Major Interpretations

Brief treatments of Debsian socialism are scattered across numerous scholarly and political works addressing broader topics. Their interpretive approaches can be divided into four main political categories: liberal, social-democratic and democratic-socialist, Stalinist and Trotskyist, and neo-Debsian. As indicated below, the seven major treatments of the national Debs-era SPA discussed in the following section (“The National Party”) likewise fall into these four broad categories of interpretation.

A theory of American exceptionalism defines the liberal approach to Debsian socialism. Owing to its bourgeois-revolutionary political origins, the liberal argument goes, the United States was uniquely unencumbered by the “feudal holdovers” that impeded the political integration of rising working-class constituencies in other countries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. American Progressivism therefore proved exceptionally capable of ameliorating any sociopolitical discontents born of the Second Industrial Revolution (insofar as these discontents were not precluded by the United States’s distinctively high working-class standard of living). The role of the nation’s two-party, first-past-the-post electoral system in stymying third-party challengers also figures prominently in liberal accounts. Liberal historiography tends to locate the origins of political radicalism beyond the mainstream of American society, somewhere near the intersection of “foreign backwardness” and psychological maladjustment. In this spirit, a triumphant New Deal liberalism addresses the history of Debsian socialism in two books published in the 1950s: Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) and Theodore Draper’s The Roots of American Communism (1957). In a fashion typical of Cold War liberalism, Draper characterizes the Marxist element within the SPA as a foreign transplant inimical to American soil. David Shannon’s The Socialist Party of America: A History (1955), discussed in the next section, likewise analyzes the SPA within liberalism’s American-exceptionalist framework. The upsurge in radicalism witnessed during the 1960s and 1970s prompted Bernard K. Johnpoll to rearticulate the liberal account of Debsian socialism as an episode of delusional utopianism in The Impossible Dream: The Rise and Demise of the American Left (1981). The American-exceptionalist critique of the SPA is more recently rehearsed in Daniel J. Flynn’s A Conservative History of the American Left (2008). Adding neoliberal arguments to his assessment, Flynn charges the SPA with hypocrisy for failing to practically embody its theoretical commitment to liberate women and African Americans.

Social-democratic and democratic-socialist historians hail the SPA’s record of organizing civil-social movements and representing their interests electorally. At the same time, these historians tend to characterize any revolutionary socialist party that opposes the Democratic Party as fated to political failure, though these historians sometimes gesture toward a labor, farmer-labor, or reformist-socialist third party as an electorally viable alternative. Two historians affiliated with the post-Debsian SPA give expression to this social-democratic, third-partyist gesture in their treatments of Debsian socialism: Nathan Fine’s aforementioned Labor and Farmer Parties in the United States, 1828˗1928 (1928), discussed in the next section, and William Hesseltine’s The Rise and Fall of Third Parties: From Anti-Masonry to Wallace (1948), which considers the Debs-era SPA only briefly. Another historian affiliated with the post-Debsian SPA, James Oneal, polemicizes against the proto-Communist tendencies incubated within Debsian socialism in American Communism: A Critical Analysis of Its Origins, Development and Programs (1947). Many social-democratic historians combined a hardline anti-Communism with a vigorous support for organized labor, viewing the SPA through a comparative lens and judging its eclipse and decline against the trajectory of the more durable labor-based parties that coalesced in Europe. This characterizes the approach of sociologists Daniel Bell in Marxian Socialism in the United States (1952) and Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks in It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States (2000), whose scholarship is discussed further in the following section. These three authors ultimately fault revolutionary Marxist ideology for dashing the Debs-era SPA’s prospects for evolving into a labor party. The kindred historical perspective of the non-Marxist, mid-twentieth-century Labour and Socialist International is expressed in Harry Laidler’s sketch of the SPA in History of Socialism (1961).

During the New Left period, as some social democrats gravitated toward neoconservatism, others adopted a democratic socialism, which broadened the politics of interest-group representation beyond organized labor to encompass the 1960s˗70s social movements organized around race, gender, and sexuality. They embraced the strategic legacy of the Popular Front and forged a rapprochement with Communists who were committed to the Popular Front strategy, operating together within the Democratic Party to build a coalition around progressive, state-led interest-group brokerage. Several books address Debsian socialism from this democratic-socialist vantage point: Milton Cantor’s The Divided Left (1978), Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), Irving Howe’s Socialism and America (1985), Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2011), and Gary Dorrien’s previously mentioned American Democratic Socialism (2021). Dissenting from these democratic-socialist histories, Jack Ross’s aforementioned The Socialist Party of America (2015), discussed in the next section, expresses a populist-progressive, third-party laborism of an earlier (pre˗New Left) social-democratic vintage.

Stalinist and Trotskyist historians lionize the SPA’s industrial-unionist wing for organizing unskilled workers at the point of production and credit Eugene Debs for his revolutionary politics. At the same time, these historians take the looseness of the SPA’s organizational model—a national party with highly autonomous state sections, harboring significant revisionist-Marxist, reformist, and electoralist tendencies (alongside the Stalinists’ and Trotskyists’ preferred revolutionary and industrial-unionist tendencies) to justify an ideologically and strategically disciplined revolutionary Marxist party as an alternative model. This “Leninist” party model—initially premised on a Marxist assessment of the need to break with reformist socialists to politically lead the world revolution circa 1917–23 and persisting after Lenin’s 1924 death—descends from the criteria established for parties affiliated with the (Communist) Third International in its early congresses, criteria to which the Trotsky-led Fourth International also laid claim. In tandem with Ira Kipnis’s The American Socialist Movement, 1897–1912 (1952), discussed in the next section, William Z. Foster articulates the criticism of the Debs-era SPA typical of the industrial-unionist wing of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in his History of the Communist Party of the United States (1952). Despite their serious political differences on other matters, James P. Cannon (a Trotskyist) shares with Foster (a Stalinist) this “Leninist” critique of the Debsian party model in “E.V. Debs: The Socialist Movement of His Time—Its Meaning for Today,” the essay introducing Eugene V. Debs Speaks (1970). In Bourgeois Socialism: Its Rise and Collapse in America (1951), Arnold Peterson espouses the revolutionary industrial-unionist vantage point of the Debs-era SPA’s rival socialist party, the Socialist Labor Party (SLP). Led by the Marxist theorist Daniel De Leon, the SLP remained distinct from Stalinism and Trotskyism while similarly critiquing the Debs-era SPA as reformist.

The neologism “neo-Debsian” is used here to describe historians seeking to rehabilitate the very same multitendency, multistrategy mass socialist party model condemned by Stalinists and Trotskyists. Neo-Debsian approaches took shape during the early New Left period and aimed to overcome the ideological and organizational rigidity that had, by then, become characteristic of Stalinist and Trotskyist organizations. During the 1955–57 crisis years of Stalinism, Communists and ex-Communists published reconsiderations of Debsian socialism in Communist or Communist-adjacent journals such as Political Affairs and Monthly Review, eyeing the possibility of forging a broad left-unity party in the wake of McCarthyism.1 Within a few years, the ex-Communist historian James Weinstein began publishing reappraisals of Debsian socialism in the American New Left journal Studies on the Left, culminating in his major revisionist history of the SPA, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925 (1967), discussed in greater depth in the subsequent section. Christopher Lasch reviewed Weinstein’s book in the context of his abortive attempt (with Weinstein and ex-Communist historian Eugene Genovese) to reestablish a Debsian-socialist party in the United States.2 Lasch’s widely read review of Weinstein’s book appears in The Agony of the American Left (1969). Though he would eventually embrace democratic socialism, Weinstein upheld the Debs-era SPA as a political model as late as his Ambiguous Legacy: The Left in American Politics (1975).

Parallel neo-Debsian thinking manifested among ex-Trotskyists during the early New Left period. In 1957, as the ex-Trotskyist Max Shachtman led the Independent Socialist League to join the remaining members of the Norman Thomas–led SPA, he simultaneously reevaluated the political desirability of the 1919 Socialist-Communist split (in which a faction of the SPA left to form the CPUSA) and praised the vitality of the Debs-era SPA in his book review essay, “American Communism: A Re-examination of the Past.” The spirit of Shachtman’s essay is shared by the erstwhile Shachtmanite Irving Howe who, with Lewis Coser, addresses the Debs–era SPA in The American Communist Party: A Critical History (1919–1957) (1957). Hal Draper, a one-time Shachtmanite and Marxist theorist, refused to follow Shachtman when the latter led his cadres into the Democratic Party during the early 1960s. From the vantage point of independent socialist party politics, Draper embraces the legacy of Debsian socialism in essays that were eventually published in Socialism from Below (2019). Eric Thomas Chester lends historical depth to Draper’s perspective on Debsian socialism in two books: Socialists and the Ballot Box: A Historical Analysis (1985), which characterizes the Debs–era SPA as the single most viable historical model for Marxian socialist politics in the United States; and True Mission: Socialists and the Labor Party Question in the U.S. (2004), which argues for the revival of a Debsian socialist party (as distinct from a labor party).

Two edited works contain article-length contributions whose authors span the four viewpoints outlined in this section: Socialism and American Life (1952), edited by Donald Drew Egbert and Stow Persons, and Failure of a Dream? Essays in the History of American Socialism, edited by John H. M. Laslett and Seymour Martin Lipset. The second volume of the former work contains a useful bibliography of primary sources; the first edition (1974) of the latter work contains many valuable essays unavailable in the revised (1984) edition.

1. D.H. Leon, “Whatever Happened to an American Socialist Party? A Critical Survey of the Spectrum of Interpretations,” American Quarterly 23, no. 2 (May 1971): 250.

2. Tim Barker, “Wars of Position: Studies on the Left and the New American Marxism, 1959–1976” (undergraduate thesis, Columbia University, 2013).

Works Cited