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The Historiography of Debsian Socialism: A Century of Interpretations, Part 1 (April 2022): Home

By Edward Remus


This essay first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Choice (volume 59 | issue 8).


The Socialist Party of America (SPA) is a unique phenomenon in American history. Of the many “third” parties to which American politics has given rise, few have claimed socialist revolution as their goal. Of these few, none but the SPA has transcended the sectarian party model to operate as a genuinely mass oppositional party.1 And no avowedly revolutionary socialist party has gained as widespread a presence in American life as did the SPA during the lifetime of the Party's five-time presidential candidate, Eugene Debs. The Debs-era SPA featured multiple civil-social constituencies, internal factions, and organizational strategies cooperating (and often competing) within a single political party. While the SPA persisted as an organization for many decades after Debs’s death in 1926, the period between its 1901 founding and its 1919 crisis is generally taken to be its high-water mark, and Debs consciously supported the SPA’s mass party model during this period (though he often took clear sides during its numerous and bitter factional disputes). For this reason, the term Debsian socialism has come to refer not only to Eugene Debs’s political commitments, narrowly considered, but to the SPA between the years 1901 and 1919 more broadly. For some, the Debs-era SPA remains the best, and perhaps the only, model of a mass revolutionary political party for socialism in the United States.

The SPA and its leaders did not envision socialist revolution as an exclusively political revolution, as a mere regime change within capitalism. Neither did they imagine socialist revolution as an undemocratic coup. The Debs-era SPA aimed to take governing political and social power in the United States in concert with mass socialist parties then organized in countries throughout the world. These parties participated in an avowedly Marxist representative body, the Second International (founded in 1889), which aimed to coordinate its member parties’ efforts through meetings and conferences of party delegates.2 Their goal of social revolution referred not only to a situation in which they won the ability to exercise governing political power across industrialized countries, but also, crucially, to a situation in which socialists organized and prepared the working class to exercise conscious control of society’s production. In Debs-era terms, socialist revolution meant seizing control of the economic trusts and using them to abolish unemployment, poverty, and drudgery on a global scale; it also meant eliminating the political inequalities capitalist states placed on women, Black Americans, and many others. These goals were born of bourgeois social and political demands expressed under industrial conditions. They were theorized by Karl Kautsky, an orthodox Marxist theorist based in Germany, whose writings (such as The Class Struggle and The Social Revolution) inspired SPA founders Eugene Debs, Victor Berger, and Morris Hillquit.

One can begin to understand the SPA’s multifactional character by examining the subtle differences of political vision that existed between Debs and Berger circa 1905, the year in which Debs joined fellow SPA member and labor leader Bill Haywood in founding the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In Debs’s vision, the goal of socialism was two-fold. It tasked socialists with organizing skilled and unskilled workers on an industry-wide basis to prepare to confiscate and assume operation of the trusts. Socialists could organize new industrial unions for this purpose insofar as the established craft unions in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) proved unwilling to organize unskilled workers. It simultaneously tasked socialists with organizing a political party that could use electoral campaigns and elective offices for various purposes: to support socialists’ and unionists’ organizing efforts across civil society, uphold civil liberties, win reforms beneficial to the working class, and educate mass audiences on the tenets of socialism. Whether organized in craft or industrial unions, socialists could spread socialist ideas among the rank and file. Once socialists succeeded in building a mandate for socialism throughout the working class, their political party could be used to register this mandate electorally and to defend this mandate, via state power, against any attempt at capitalist counterrevolution. For Debs, the instrument of socialist revolution was less a narrowly electoral party with a civil-social base than a mass civil-social movement with an electoral arm.

In Victor Berger’s vision, meanwhile, socialism tasked socialists with winning an electoral mandate for a socialist government to “buy out” the capitalists who owned the trusts and thereby inaugurate a social revolution. He also saw an armed working class as the surest safeguard against counterrevolution. The socialist party’s purpose was to win elections and prove that socialists could deliver responsible government once in office. Berger hailed every municipal reform as a step forward in society’s gradual evolution toward socialism. He championed the theoretical revisionism of German Marxist Eduard Bernstein, author of Evolutionary Socialism, and feared that revolutionary rhetoric would only serve to alienate middle-class voters. However desirable it may be to organize workers on an industry-wide basis, Berger held, the most reliable electoral base for the SPA remained the AFL-affiliated craft unions of skilled workers. Like Debs, Berger recognized that AFL leaders like Samuel Gompers opposed socialism and reserved their political support for the capitalist parties. Socialists should therefore “bor[e] from within” the AFL to advocate for socialism among the ordinary members of their existing unions. The alternative strategy of “boring from without” by organizing “dual” socialist unions among the unskilled, Berger cautioned, would only provide fodder for critics who accused socialists of dividing the labor movement.

If a central tension can be said to animate the history and historiography of Debsian socialism, it is that between Debs’s political vision (variously described as industrial-unionist, revolutionary, and left-wing) and Berger’s political vision (variously described as trade-unionist, opportunist, electoralist, constructivist, reformist, revisionist, and right-wing).3 

This bibliographic essay aims to organize and explicate the full scope of English-language scholarly books on Debsian socialism. Journal articles and dissertations are mentioned only occasionally; researchers should consult scholarly databases and the bibliographies of the books presented here for a complete picture of the secondary literature. Primary sources (including autobiographies and memoirs) are omitted from consideration, as are secondary sources published during the SPA’s Debsian era.

This essay is divided into two parts. Part 1 addresses the historiography of Debsian socialism from the widest angle, presenting the major lines of interpretation that have shaped the scholarly literature before examining treatments of the national SPA, its leaders, its theory, and its relationship to national politics. Part 2 covers more narrowly defined studies of Debsian socialism, addressing the SPA’s activities in specific cities, states, and regions; its relationship to particular civil-social constituencies; and its significance in the lives of intellectuals, organizers, and officeholders who once championed the Party’s politics.

The secondary literature on Debsian socialism begins with Nathan Fine’s Labor and Farmer Parties in the United States (1928), a history published in the aftermath of the SPA’s Debsian period, and includes far more recent scholarly publications, among them Jack Ross’s The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History (2015); Adam Hochschild’s Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes (2020); Eric Chester’s Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I (2020); and Gary Dorrien’s American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory (2021). Some recent scholarship on Debsian socialism has been motivated, however indirectly, by the 2016 and 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary campaigns of US Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist, as well as by the growth in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America during the 2017–21 term of Republican U.S. President Donald Trump. A realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties likewise motivated historians of the New Left period to reconsider Debsian socialism. Indeed, while recent scholarship on Debsian socialism has done much to illuminate specific historical issues and personages, this recent literature marks no essential departure from the major frameworks of scholarly and political interpretation that were consolidated by historians of the New Left generation. These interpretive frameworks are described in the following section.

Edward Remus is an Assistant Professor and Social Sciences Librarian at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago.


1. The Communist Party USA (CPUSA) arguably qualified as a mass party during its 1930s–40s Popular Front period. However, historians have questioned the extent to which it functioned as a party of genuine political opposition to the dominant parties of U.S. capitalism insofar as the CPUSA entered the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition and identified itself politically with progressive liberalism. See, for example, Jack Ross, The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History (Nebraska, 2015), 592˗96.

2. The SPA’s fate is best understood in relation to the fate of the wider Second International and its member parties. See James Joll, The Second International 1889-1914 (Harper and Row, 1966); Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905˗1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Harvard, 1955)

3. The political visions of Eugene Debs and Victor Berger are more fully described in the secondary sources referenced in the “Party Leaders” section of this essay. See especially Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Illinois, 1982), 181-219; Sally M. Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910–1920 (Greenwood Press, 1973). Valuable primary-source collections include Jean Y. Tussey (ed.), Eugene V. Debs Speaks (Pathfinder Press, 1994); Victor L. Berger, Broadsides: Essays from the First Socialist Party Member to Be Elected to the US Congress (Social-Democratic Publishing Company, 1912).

Works Cited