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

By Edward Remus

The National Party

The seven books discussed in this section fall within the four broad intellectual-political categories described above and comprise the core historiography of Debsian socialism. This is especially true insofar as “Debsian socialism” refers to the accumulated successes and failures of the SPA at a national scale between 1901 and 1919.

The SPA’s Rand School of Social Science published Nathan Fine’s Labor and Farmer Parties in the United States, 1828–1928, mentioned previously, in 1928. By that year, Debs himself was two years deceased and the SPA’s mass Debsian character had ceased to exist for nearly a decade. In its drift from Marxian socialism to reformist social democracy, the 1920s SPA pursued electoral coalitions with populist-progressive farmer-labor third parties. Thus, the scope of Fine’s book can itself be read as a symptom of the SPA’s late-1920s political outlook. Nevertheless, Fine’s account gives center stage to the SPA’s distinctively Debsian period. Fine narrates the SPA’s development as a simultaneously electoral and civil-social party, treating its factional disputes with nuance and evenhandedness, and he ties Debsian socialism’s terminal 1919 crisis to the broader fate of the Second and Third internationals amid World War I and worldwide revolution. As such, the five chapters devoted to the SPA within Labor and Farmer Parties remain invaluable for their specifically political study of Debsian socialism.

The year 1952 witnessed the publication of two books bearing the historiographical markings of the Cold War: Daniel Bell’s Marxian Socialism in the United States and Ira Kipnis’s The American Socialist Movement 1897–1912. Approaching Debsian socialism as an anti-Communist social democrat and disillusioned former member of the rump, politically marginal, late-1940s Norman-Thomas-led SPA,1 Bell judges the SPA’s extremely poor postwar electoral showings against the comparative electoral successes of the British Labour Party. For Bell, Debsian socialism failed insofar as the SPA, unlike the Labour Party, failed to evolve into a junior partner in capitalist governance capable of brokering the sectional interests of organized labor. Only if it had abandoned its Marxist “purism,” Bell suggests, and followed Samuel Gompers’s craft unions and supported Woodrow Wilson’s war effort, for example, could the SPA have avoided the fate of becoming eclipsed by Democratic Party progressivism after 1912. Kipnis likewise dates the SPA’s terminal decline to 1912, but for the opposite reason: the recall of Bill Haywood from the SPA’s National Executive Committee (NEC) for advocating industrial sabotage and the subsequent exodus of the SPA’s IWW-affiliated faction. Here the convergence of Kipnis’s interpretation with that of the Stalin-era CPUSA must be kept in mind.2 After the 1919 split, Kipnis’s lionized industrial-unionist constituency gravitated toward the CPUSA, whose labor organizers eventually led its numerous unionists into the New Deal-era Democratic Party, following the Popular Front strategy. In doing so, the CPUSA abandoned the political independence once maintained by SPA faction leaders Morris Hillquit and Victor Berger, whom Kipnis vilifies. By ending his account in 1912, Kipnis leaves unaddressed the reformist ends toward which the CPUSA later led its labor constituency; he likewise sidesteps Hillquit and Berger’s opposition to World War I. Kipnis’s polemic against Hillquit and Berger as right-wing opportunists thereby gains greater plausibility. Despite these limitations, Kipnis’s account remains the essential expression of the prevailing “Leninist” interpretation of Debsian socialism by those who retrospectively identified with the Communist side of the 1919 split. It remains equally essential as a register of reformist tendencies within Debsian socialism.

The first book devoted exclusively to studying the SPA’s entire history (through 1955) is David Shannon’s The Socialist Party of America (1955), mentioned previously. Shannon showcases the Debs-era SPA’s diversity in terms of region, constituency, and faction before narrating the Debsian party’s terminal 1918–19 crises. Though Shannon interprets the SPA’s failure through the liberal tropes of American exceptionalism, he grants that the SPA succeeded qua party insofar as it meaningfully addressed local issues and built solid voting machines.

Published in 1967, James Weinstein’s above-mentioned The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925 represents the single greatest revision in the historiography of Debsian socialism. Weinstein depicts 1912–17 not as a period of decline and loss, whether to Wilsonian progressivism (contra Bell) or to industrial unionism (contra Kipnis), but as a period of broad civil-social and electoral consolidation. If the SPA’s anti-war stance cost it the defection of pro-war collectivist socialists, it also secured the SPA’s position as a clarion of anti-war sentiment nationwide. This led to the first of two fatal political blows suffered by the SPA. Brutally repressed by the Wilson administration, the SPA found its mail grounded, its public meetings broken up, its members hounded by vigilantes, its elected representatives unseated, and its leaders jailed. While the SPA could have recovered from this, Weinstein argues, the definitive coup de grace came when the 1918–19 split of international socialism was transplanted in procrustean fashion onto the factional divides internal to the SPA. This resulted in a politically unprincipled sectarianism among American leftists that persisted, in Weinstein’s view, well into the era of the New Left.

Two books comprise the twenty-first-century historiography of the SPA: It Didn’t Happen Here (2000) by Lipset and Marks, and The Socialist Party of America (2015) by Ross, both mentioned previously. Both hail from the social-democratic strain of interpretation, yet they differ considerably in method, scope, and intent. Like Bell, Lipset and Marks approach Debsian socialism as sociologists. They subject the liberal hypotheses of American exceptionalism to the comparative method, asking why the Debsian era gave rise to durable, reformist labor parties in Western countries other than the United States. Also like Bell, they attribute the SPA’s radicalism not to its working-class base but to its intellectual leaders and spokespersons, concluding that the SPA’s political estrangement from the pro-war, Gompers-led craft unions guaranteed the party’s marginalization and decline. The ethnic (as opposed to class) affiliation characteristic of American workers, argue Lipset and Marks, was more a consequence than a cause of the resulting absence of a mass labor party in the nation. 

If Lipset and Marks widen the analytical scope in terms of space, Ross widens it in terms of time. Though largely unoriginal (generally concurring with Weinstein and frequently inveighing against Kipnis—more original is his treatment of oppositional politics within the 1930s SPA), Ross’s account is significant for its treatment of the three organizations that emerged from the SPA’s 1972 collapse—the Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA); the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), precursor to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); and the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA)—as fragmentary symptoms expressing the political potential of the once-unitary, Debs-era party. As the first millennial-generation historian of Debsian socialism, Ross’s perspective on the SPA’s fateful late-twentieth-century trajectory enables him to catalog the simultaneous ideological exhaustion of the New Left (whose Socialists-turned-Democrats in DSOC and the DSA became implicated in progressive-statist neoliberalism) and the New Right (whose Socialists-turned-Republicans in SDUSA became implicated in militarist neoconservatism). Ross portrays a politically oppositional socialist party whose organizations and ideologies once channeled a teeming and diverse set of anti-establishment, populist-progressive discontents in American life. Contending that the entire century of American political history after 1919 can be read in terms of the absence of such a party, Ross makes a powerful argument for the stakes of the historiography of Debsian socialism.

1. Howard Brick, Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism: Social Theory and Political Reconciliation in the 1940s (Wisconsin, 1986), 188.

2. See Ross, The Socialist Party of America, xix.