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

By Edward Remus

Party Leaders

Victor Berger, Morris Hillquit, and Bill Haywood each led distinct political factions within the SPA. Eugene Debs served as a figurehead for the Party overall while charting his own distinctive political course within it. These four leaders’ theoretical and practical commitments changed considerably between the 1890s and the 1920s. Caution is warranted when affixing permanent political labels to any of them. Describing Haywood as a syndicalist, for example, risks obscuring his endorsement of the SPA's electoral campaigns between 1901 and 1912. Similarly, describing Berger as right-wing risks obscuring his enduring commitment to public ownership and control of the trusts as an SPA end goal, however electoralist Berger's methods may have been. The biographies enumerated here are particularly useful for clarifying these figures' political perspectives as they developed in relation to multiple historical junctures in the internal and external life of the SPA. These biographies also provide profound insights into these leaders' respective bases of political support within and beyoad the SPA.

Ray Ginger’s The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (1949) remains an essential starting point among Debs biographies. Ginger narrates Debs’s attempts to preserve unity among the SPA’s divergent factions while consistently aligning himself with the SPA’s revolutionary wing. As Ginger shows, Debs sought to transform craft unions into industrial unions while opposing dual unionism and anarcho-syndicalism, championed the SPA’s electoral work while opposing the reformism and trade-union opportunism of the SPA’s electoral machines, and declared himself a Bolshevik (and accepted the necessity of a transitional proletarian dictatorship) while deploring the abrogation of socialists’ civil liberties in the Soviet Union and refusing to take orders from the Third International in Moscow. After the 1919 split, Ginger reveals, Debs distanced himself from the disputes that divided the American Left while remaining an SPA figurehead. Nick Salvatore's Bancroft Prize-winning Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (1982) is similarly essential. Salvatore presents Debs as “an indigenous American radical,”1 tracing his political evolution from conservative craft unionism to Democratic Party populism to industrial unionism and, eventually, socialism. Debs came to recognize the necessity of class struggle and socialism, Salvatore argues, because he applied his long-standing commitments to democratic politics and republican citizenship to the late-nineteenth-century reality of permanent and nationwide industrial class conflict. Additional studies of Debs include McAlister Coleman’s Eugene V. Debs: A Man Unafraid (1930), a serviceable early biography; Alexander Trachtenberg’s The Heritage of Gene Debs (1930), a (Third Period) Communist assessment of Debs as a revolutionary socialist; Herbert Morais and William Cahn’s Gene Debs: The Story of a Fighting American (1948), a later Communist interpretation of Debs as an SPA left-winger; Ronald Radosh’s edited volume Debs: Great Lives Observed (1971), featuring essays by notable historians including James Weinstein and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; Harold Currie’s Eugene V. Debs (1976), a shorter treatment addressing Debs’s approach to the labor movement, World War I, Communism, religion, government, and other topics; Bernard Brommel’s Eugene V. Debs: Spokesman for Labor and Socialism (1978), a study highlighting Debs’s role as a popular communicator; and Marguerite Young’s Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs (1999), a portrayal of the cultural and intellectual climate in which Debs’s thinking developed toward socialism.

Among Haywood biographies, Joseph R. Conlin’s Big Bill Haywood and the Radical Union Movement (1969) is distinguished by its nuanced discussion of Haywood’s relationship to the SPA. Before its 1912–13 exodus from the SPA, Conlin explains, Haywood’s industrial-unionist faction supported the SPA’s electoral-political work for the numerous roles it could perform: withholding police strikebreaking, extorting reform legislation, conducting mass socialist education, registering public support for socialism, and, eventually, liquidating the capitalist state during socialist revolution. Conlin suggests that the 1905–12 period of cooperation between IWW and SPA members marked a high point in each organization’s potential. By contrast, Melvyn Dubofsky’s ‘Big Bill’ Haywood (1987) presents the SPA as a vote-gathering party with revolutionary pretenses. Haywood’s turn from the socialism of the SPA to syndicalism, Dubofsky shows, was premised on his commitment to organizing the lowest stratum of the labor market: migratory laborers, unnaturalized immigrants, Black Americans, women, and children. Denied the franchise, the only weapon available to these workers, Haywood held, was direct action at the point of production, which could entail strikes as well as “sabotage” (i.e., passive resistance). Haywood argued that industry-wide unions were needed to organize unskilled workers; he rejected the SPA’s strategy of “boring from within” the AFL’s craft unions, whether to build electoral support for the SPA (as Berger and Hillquit attempted) or to likewise encourage these unions to organize along industry-wide lines (as Debs attempted). By the time of his 1913 removal from the SPA’s NEC, Haywood’s revolutionary strategy favored the general strike over the SPA’s “parliamentary road to power.”2 Compared to these two studies, Peter Carlson’s Roughneck: The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood (1983) focuses more exclusively on Haywood’s relationship to the IWW. 

In Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910–1920 (1973), Sally Miller situates Berger as the boss of the SPA’s Milwaukee electoral machine, describes Berger’s participation in the SPA’s NEC and his 1910–12 term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and narrates his 1910–12 factional maneuverings against Haywood and the IWW. While Berger encouraged the public to buy wartime Liberty bonds, Miller argues, he nevertheless refused to direct the SPA toward a pro-war position seemingly conducive to his reformist socialism. Indeed, Berger privately accepted and publicly defended the anti-war position of his revolutionary-Marxist factional enemies. Through a Weberian framework reminiscent of Daniel Bell, Miller views Berger’s opposition to World War I as having condemned the SPA to political marginalization. The SPA’s opposition to the war, Miller shows, resulted in the defection of many of Berger’s erstwhile factional allies, a subsequent period of dominance for the SPA’s left wing (until the 1919 split), and Berger’s conviction under the Espionage Act. 

Norma Fain Pratt’s Morris Hillquit: A Political History of an American Jewish Socialist (1979) provides equally essential insights into the SPA’s factional contours. Like Berger, Hillquit founded the SPA as a former member of the SLP. In abandoning the SLP, Hillquit rejected the strategy of forming new socialist “dual unions” in favor of “boring from within” AFL unions to build support for the SPA there. He likewise rejected “impossibilism” in favor of struggling to win reforms beneficial to the working class within capitalism. After 1903, Hillquit aligned with Berger and sought to emulate Berger’s electoral machine in New York City’s Lower East Side. Hillquit campaigned against middle-class Progressive reformers and opposed efforts by Job Harriman to fuse the SPA with labor and reform parties. If Berger represented the SPA’s “right” wing, Pratt shows, Hillquit held up the Party’s “center” and typically sought party unity. Like Berger, Hillquit maintained an anti-war stance after 1914 while stopping short of advocating draft resistance or mass strikes in war industries, tactics advocated by the SPA’s “left” wing, which captured the NEC in May 1919. Pratt marks this as a turning point. Hillquit argued that the extra-parliamentary methods advocated by the Third International were inappropriate for the SPA because a proletarian dictatorship was not imminent in the United States; his writings were used to justify the NEC’s expulsion of sections of the SPA’s left wing. By the early 1920s, Hillquit looked to the British Labour Party as a model and advocated the “fusion” strategy he had previously rejected. The Berger- and Hillquit-led SPA rejoined the Second International parties that had followed their trade-union bases in support of their respective nation-states’ war efforts. Hillquit’s broader distrust of working-class autonomy, Pratt concludes, undergirded his failure to build a permanent working-class base of support for the SPA.

1. Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Illinois, 1982), 343.

2. Melvyn Dubofsky, ‘Big Bill’ Haywood (St. Martin’s Press, 1987), 58.

Works Cited