Skip to Main Content

The Historiography of Debsian Socialism: A Century of Interpretations, Part 1 (April 2022): U.S. Politics and Progressivism

By Edward Remus

U.S. Politics and Progressivism

Debsian socialism’s significance in U.S. politics has been articulated largely in terms of its relationship to a declining populism and a rising (and eventually triumphant) progressivism. Howard Quint’s The Forging of American Socialism (1953) traces the twelve years leading up to the SPA’s 1901 founding, highlighting the aftermath of the Populist Party’s 1896 collapse and the victory of the SPA’s founders over two anti-party strains of socialism: Fabianism and communitarianism. Stephen Burwood situates the Debs-era SPA within a transnational socialism that was distinct from (and politically opposed to) the concurrent phenomena of transnational populism and transnational progressivism in his 2003 article, “Debsian Socialism through a Transnational Lens.” H. Wayne Morgan’s Eugene V. Debs: Socialist for President (1962) tracks the SPA’s presidential electioneering between 1900 and 1920, monitoring the concurrently rising electoral waves of socialism and progressivism which together reached a high tide in 1912, while James Chace’s 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—the Election That Changed a Country (2004) narrates a notable year of crisis in capitalist party politics, the year in which Debs won his largest-ever percentage-total vote.

After 1912, the SPA was eclipsed, defeated, and suppressed by Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Party. Over and against SPA opposition, Wilson led the United States into World War I and facilitated the integration of the labor movement into the domestic and foreign arms of the U.S. state. Two books provide excellent treatments of this history: Ronald Radosh’s American Labor and United States Foreign Policy (1969), which highlights the role of the “Wilsonian Socialists” who left the SPA for progressivism on account of the SPA’s anti-war stance, and Elizabeth McKillen’s Making the World Safe for Workers: Labor, the Left, and Wilsonian Internationalism (2013), which highlights the SPA’s opposition to imperialism in the context of its struggle for democratic control of American industry. During and after the war, Wilson’s administration repressed SPA socialists’ and other radicals’ civil liberties to a historically unprecedented degree. Robert K. Murray’s Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919–1920 (1955) narrates the Wilson Administration’s attacks on Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists during the Palmer Raids. Eric Chester’s aforementioned Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I (2020) reveals how Wilson’s failure to covertly silence Debs’s anti-war dissent led to his prosecution of Debs under the Espionage Act. Ernest Freeberg’s Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent (2008) narrates the campaign for Debs’s amnesty, out of which the American Civil Liberties Union was eventually formed.

Although state repression under a progressive Democratic Party administration marks the terminus of Debsian socialism, liberal-progressive and democratic-socialist historians have nevertheless presented the Democratic Party’s New Deal as a partial fulfillment of the Debs-era SPA’s political platform. Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones’s The American Left: Its Impact on Politics and Society since 1900 (2013) treats the legacy of Debsian socialism in this vein. Other historians present progressive capitalism as a political alternative to Debsian socialism (rather than as a partial fulfillment of it) and ground the origins of Debs-era (and later) progressivism in the state’s imperative to stabilize capitalism by disciplining and regulating the capitalist class.1 During the Great Depression, the Norman Thomas-led SPA experienced a revival and strained to resist the New Deal coalition’s gravitational pull. Frank Warren’s An Alternative Vision: The Socialist Party in the 1930’s (1974) highlights the renewal of oppositional politics within the 1930s SPA and showcases its critical perspectives on the New Deal, Stalinist Communism, the Popular Front, and World War II. Jack Altman’s Socialism before Sanders: The 1930s Moment from Romance to Revisionism (2019) explores the 1930s SPA’s organizing efforts among labor organizations, churches, and women and documents the Highlander Folk School’s roots in SPA socialism. By the end of the 1930s, Altman reveals, the SPA had abandoned the proletarian socialist politics characteristic of Eugene Debs and embraced the social-democratic reform politics more characteristic of Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

1. See Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (The Free Press, 1963); Kolko, Main Currents in Modern American History (Pantheon Books, 1984): 122–56.

Works Cited