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The Historiography of Debsian Socialism: A Century of Interpretations, Part 2 (May 2022): Cities, States and Regions

By Edward Remus

Cities, States and Regions

Many historians of Debsian socialism have narrowed the scope of their studies to the SPA’s activities in particular cities, states, and regions. Studies of municipal Socialism tend to address the SPA’s relationship to progressivism whereas studies of agrarian Socialism tend to address the SPA’s relationship to Populism. Studies set in remote rural areas where extractive industry predominated typically cover the SPA’s relationship to industrial unionism, while studies set in older industrial cities tend to examine the SPA’s relationship to trade and craft unionism. In general, all of these studies address the larger question of whether and how the SPA’s theory and practice could be described as socialist and/or Marxist in character. 

One of the earliest studies of the SPA’s municipal efforts is Henry G. Stetler’s The Socialist Movement in Reading, Pennsylvania 1896–1936: A Study in Social Change (1943). Stetler narrates the successful efforts of German-American Marxists to attain positions of leadership for themselves in Reading’s Socialist party as well as in Reading’s trade unions simultaneously. This approach was known as the “Milwaukee idea” after the city in which the SPA deployed it to greatest effect. Marvin Wachman’s History of the Social-Democratic Party of Milwaukee, 1897–1910 (1945) describes the Milwaukee Socialists’ painstaking coordination of brewers’ unions, party presses, and ward branches under Victor Berger’s leadership, culminating in the 1910 election of Emil Seidel as mayor. Berger’s Milwaukee machine served as a model for the SPA’s municipal efforts nationwide and endured well into the mid-twentieth century. Thomas W. Gavett’s Development of the Labor Movement in Milwaukee (1965) argues that Milwaukee Socialism’s unique success ultimately depended upon Berger’s willingness to work with conservative unionists to preserve the Party’s alliance with local labor. Unions remained wedded to the Milwaukee SPA because the Socialists proved themselves capable of riding reform sentiments into office and of delivering clean, honest government once elected.

New Left historians’ treatments of municipal Socialism are assembled in two edited volumes: Bruce M. Stave’s Socialism and the Cities (1975) and Donald T. Critchlow’s Socialism in the Heartland (1986). These studies generally find that Socialists were elected to municipal governments on local reform and anti-corruption platforms that reached beyond the Socialists’ initial base among ethnic immigrants and unionists. One essay not included in these volumes deserves mention: Melvyn Dubofsky’s “Success and Failure of Socialism in New York City, 1900–1918: A Case Study” (1968). Dubofsky argues that Morris Hillquit’s Lower East Side electoral machine, though powerful enough to send Meyer London to Congress, nevertheless failed to organize beyond its base of Jewish immigrant garment workers. Jerry W. Calvert’s The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana, 1895–1920 (1988) details the period between 1911 and 1916 when Socialists held elected office in the Wobbly-organized mining town of Butte, Montana. Despite the considerable improvements they made to municipal government, Calvert finds, Butte’s Socialists failed to surpass the political limits imposed by ethnic divisions among workers, business threats of capital flight, and anti-Socialist fusion campaigns mounted by the old capitalist parties.

The most politically penetrating and historically synthetic study of the SPA’s forays into municipal government is Richard W. Judd’s Socialist Cities: Municipal Politics and the Grass Roots of American Socialism (1989). Examining the trajectory of multiple Socialist city governments across Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, Judd finds the SPA’s leading cause of defeat in its relationship to progressivism. Where they did not block the Socialists’ rise altogether, Judd argues, middle-class progressives initially welcomed the Socialists as efficient stewards of city government. Socialist attempts to increase popular participation in politics and to improve the conditions of working-class neighborhoods, however, prompted progressives to unite with businesses and old-guard politicians in successful anti-Socialist fusion campaigns.

Errol Wayne Stevens narrates a similar political arc in Radical L.A.: From Coxey’s Army to the Watts Riots, 1894–1965 (2009). Led by Job Harriman, the Los Angeles Socialists forged an electoral alliance with the Union Labor Party. They organized citywide opposition to a “good government” administration for its corruption and abuse of police power, and they championed issues such as women’s suffrage and free speech. In response, local Republicans, Democrats, and good government nonpartisans forged an anti-Socialist coalition to ensure that the L.A. Socialists could elect no more than a single city councilman and a single state legislator.

Two state-based studies explore the topic of party factionalism. Henry F. Bedford’s Socialism and the Workers in Massachusetts, 1886–1912 (1966) narrates an early Socialist apex followed by a precipitous decline. Candidates of the Social Democratic Party, a precursor to the SPA, rode labor support and reform sentiment into elected office in Haverhill and Brockton. They failed, however, to defeat a 1903 counter-offensive. By 1913, Bedford argues, Massachusetts Socialists were hamstrung by the same factionalism between industrial unionists and electoral reformists that divided the SPA at a national level. Massachusetts Socialists proved capable neither of winning middle-class support by delivering meaningful reforms during their time in elected office nor of reaping political dividends among unionists from the support they lent to the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike. Bedford suggests that Massachusetts Socialists could have avoided this fate if only they had synthesized electoral reformism and industrial unionism. The latter tendency faces criticism in Frederick A. Barkey’s Working Class Radicals: The Socialist Party in West Virginia, 1898–1920 (2012), originally published as a dissertation in 1971. Drawing on interviews with SPA veterans, Barkey argues that West Virginia workers were quite susceptible to Socialist organizers’ reform and labor politics. West Virginia Socialists steadily built numerous and sizable local branches by working within established unions of skilled, native-born craftsmen. Beginning in 1914, West Virginia Socialists began to recognize the necessity of organizing mass industrial unions in light of mechanization, yet this in turn led them to neglect the tried-and-true work of local electoral and reform politics in favor of mass industrial action. This neglect rendered the Party organization weaker, Barkey concludes, and allowed the Democrats to edge into the Socialists’ hard-earned craft-labor vote.

Another body of literature addresses Debsian socialism in the countryside. This historiography centers on Oklahoma, once home to a remarkably strong Socialist state organization, and extends into the nearby states of Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In When Farmers Voted Red: The Gospel of Socialism in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1910–1924 (1976), Garin Burbank argues that the Oklahoma Socialists’ success owed more to the ideas and politics they inherited from Populism—Christian messianism and smallholder-friendly land reform—than to their professed Socialism or Marxism. Burbank highlights still another deviation from Marxian socialism among Oklahoma Socialists: their tendency to support racial segregation. James R. Green’s Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest 1895–1943 (1978) offers a series of counterpoints. Green acknowledges that Oklahoma Socialists compromised with Marxist orthodoxy on the land question (insofar as their program opposed land consolidation as a violation of the yeoman farmer’s “natural right” to land) and on the nature of Christianity (whose crusading and communitarian themes the Oklahoma Socialists fused with Marxian socialism). Nevertheless, Green argues, Oklahoma Socialists remained wedded to the goal of seizing governing power and creating a classless Cooperative Commonwealth—their class-struggle program (however revisionist on the land question) successfully recruited small farmers away from the neo-Populist rhetoric of the Democrats, while their week-long summer encampments (however similar to Christian revivalism) attracted a growing class of landless tenant farmers to Socialist politics. A majority of southwestern Socialists did support racial segregation in civil-social life, Green grants, yet they simultaneously opposed Black voter disenfranchisement. Additionally, many Socialist organizers recruited Black and Mexican workers into tenant unions and did more than most northern Socialists to recruit Black members to the party. They did so despite the fact that Black Americans under Jim Crow could not contribute votes to the SPA and were often politically tied to federal Republican patronage or to Black nationalism. Green corroborates James Weinstein’s argument (discussed in part 1) that wartime repression dealt a fatal blow to the SPA. Because isolated rural southwestern Socialists were more easily suppressed than their city-dwelling counterparts, Green observes, the SPA was rendered a largely urban and foreign-born organization by the time of its postwar 1919 split. 

John Thompson’s Closing the Frontier: Radical Response in Oklahoma, 1889–1923 (1986) argues that Debsian socialism’s unparalleled strength in Oklahoma was a function of the state’s status as “the last frontier.” In turn-of-the-century Oklahoma, Thompson holds, farmers and workers sought to build a cooperative bulwark against the competitive capitalism that had come to dominate the rest of the country. State forces and corporate dynamics inevitably succeeded in closing the frontier around the time of World War I, Thompson argues, prompting the failed armed neo-populist Green Corn Rebellion and forever eclipsing Socialist hopes. Whereas Thompson accounts for Oklahoma Socialism’s dramatic rise and fall with reference to external circumstances, Jim Bissett’s Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904–1920 (1999) emphasizes the internal sources of Oklahoma Socialism’s strength. After 1907, the Oklahoma SPA won the allegiance of Indiahoma Farmers’ Union organizers whose political strategy and program consisted of cooperative enterprises, crop withholding, and agrarian reform. Many of these seasoned activists were former Populists. They suffused the Oklahoma SPA with a culture of internal democracy, Bissett argues, and contributed significantly to building the SPA in Oklahoma.

Two state-specific studies likewise explore the theme of Debsian socialism’s selective inheritance of Populism: the richly detailed A History of Utah Radicalism: Startling, Socialistic, and Decidedly Revolutionary (2011) by John S. McCormick and John R. Sillito, and When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America (2020) by R. Alton Lee and Steven Cox. Lee and Cox situate the SPA’s national newspaper, Julius Wayland’s Appeal to Reason (published out of Girard, Kansas), within the statewide context of Kansas Socialism. 

Two additional regional studies deserve mention. Jeffrey A. Johnson’s “They Are All Red Out Here”: Socialist Politics in the Pacific Northwest, 1895–1925 (2008) plots the SPA’s familiar trajectory of post-1901 party-building, 1912 electoral apex, post-1912 factional strife, and post-1917 wartime demise across the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. An unpublished dissertation, Brad Alan Paul’s “Rebels of the New South: The Socialist Party in Dixie, 1892–1920” (1999), establishes Debsian socialism as a resistance movement and opposition party that operated across the industrializing Jim Crow South. Paul’s research reveals Socialist organizers who leveraged the political discontents of agrarian Populists and labor unionists against Black voter disenfranchisement and one-party Democratic rule.

Finally, two studies seek to draw conclusions about Debsian socialism and its fate by comparing it to the fate of contemporaneous socialist party politics on the Canadian side of the Canada-United States border. Seymour Martin Lipset intended his 1950 book Agrarian Socialism: The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan, a Study in Political Sociology to demonstrate the structural factors that rendered Debs-era agrarian socialism on the Canadian side of the Wheat Belt far more durable than its U.S. counterpart in North Dakota. Carlos A. Schwantes’s similarly comparative Radical Heritage: Labor, Socialism, and Reform in Washington and British Columbia, 1885–1917 (1979) finds that the capitalist parties (and their labor supporters) in the United States were better prepared to mobilize against Socialism in the Pacific Northwest frontier than were their anti-socialist counterparts across the Canadian border.

Works Cited