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The Historiography of Debsian Socialism: A Century of Interpretations, Part 2 (May 2022): Civil-Social Constituencies

By Edward Remus

Civil-Social Constituencies

While a broad range of civil-social constituencies were organized under the banner of Debsian socialism, organized labor was arguably the most strategically significant among them. Historians have therefore undertaken numerous studies of the SPA’s relationship to labor organizations and their politics. Historians have also examined the SPA’s relationship to civil-social constituencies including immigrants, Black Americans, and women.

Marc Karson’s American Labor Unions and Politics, 1900–1918 (1958) catalogs the political conservatism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. The AFL supported the Democratic Party, lobbied in favor of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and accommodated both racial segregation and American imperialism. Karson’s most distinctive contribution rests in his account of the AFL’s alignment with the anti-Socialist activism of the Catholic Church, which threatened to organize separate Catholic labor unions (as it had done in Germany) if socialists were allowed to gain leadership of the AFL. Karson concludes that socialists failed to win majority support among unionists because a thriving American capitalism rendered workers insufficiently discontented.

John M. Laslett’s Labor and the Left: A Study of Socialist and Radical Influences in the American Labor Movement, 1881–1924 (1970) shifts attention away from the AFL’s national leadership (and the purported conservatism of the rank and file) by focusing on six geographically and ethnically diverse unions, both craft and industrial, in which Socialists and other third-party advocates gained significant followings. Echoing Lipset’s emphasis on the two-party system, Laslett concludes that external factors were primarily responsible for the failure of SPA members and other socialists within the labor movement. That is, while socialism’s appeal was indeed undermined by Gompers’s conservatism (as well as by the dual-unionist tactics adopted by ultra-leftist socialists), it was the socialists’ own political pragmatism, Laslett argues—contra Daniel Bell, who casts Debs-era socialists as utopians, as discussed in part 1—that drove them to abandon their commitment to third-party politics and to align with a capitalist party, typically the Democrats, in various attempts to win issue-specific victories. Laslett challenges Weinstein’s assertion that Socialist trade unionists grew in influence after 1912 by documenting how numerous unions that supported the SPA prior to 1912 shifted their alignment toward the Democratic Party once the Wilson Administration appointed the first U.S. Secretary of Labor and oversaw reforms such as the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 and the 1915 Seaman’s Act. If the SPA gained strength among new adherents after 1912, Laslett concludes, this support could only have come in large part from intellectuals and middle-class elements.

Two studies return the historical agency to leaders of labor and capital, and both engage the question of whether the SPA was “revisionist” in its approach to Marxism: William M. Dick’s Labor and Socialism in America: The Gompers Era (1972) and Michael Nash’s Conflict and Accommodation: Coal Miners, Steel Workers, and Socialism, 1890–1920 (1982). Unlike the Socialist Labor Party, Dick argues, the SPA was revisionist in character: had the AFL been willing to organize the mass of unskilled workers into unions, the SPA would have formed or supported a political party like the British Labour Party, a party that would have sought to politically represent the interests of all of the country’s wage workers, both organized and unorganized, within capitalism. This would have meant abandoning the orthodox-Marxist model of a revolutionary socialist party seeking organized proletarian control of productive relations. Dick argues that Gompers’s irrational grudge against socialists drove him to refuse cooperation even with the SPA revisionists in the AFL, who generally shared Gompers’s aims. As a result of Gompers’s antipathy to the organizing-oriented Socialists, Dick concludes, the AFL failed to organize unskilled workers until the trade union movement was revived by the New Deal and the 1930s war economy. The SPA, meanwhile, neither won AFL leadership nor received the AFL’s support. Nash concurs with Dick in viewing the SPA as dominated by its Berger-led revisionist wing; this wing viewed reforms in capitalism as steps along a gradual evolution into socialism. At the same time, in and around the National Civic Federation (NCF), capitalists such as Mark Hanna, George Perkins, and E. H. Gary supported reforms for precisely the opposite reason, viewing labor-friendly reforms—e.g., corporate recognition of conservative trade unions, “fair” wages, and/or welfare capitalism—as the surest means of undercutting the SPA. Though SPA co-founder Eugene Debs was a revolutionary rather than a revisionist Marxist, Nash observes, this capitalist-led shift from labor-management conflict to labor-management accommodation prompted Debs to leave the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), with its anachronistic vision of perpetually escalating class conflict in the economic realm, in 1908. After 1908, Nash concludes, Debs moved closer to Berger’s focus on specifically party-political organization based on alignments with established trade-unions.

David Montgomery corroborates Laslett’s focus on the decisive political agency of the capitalist state via a study of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) published in Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (1979). The IAM was divided between SPA-supporting and NCF-supporting factions. The NCF, with its purely voluntary schemes of business-labor cooperation, proved incapable of securing a clear victory over Socialism in the hearts and minds of IAM leaders. After the Democratic Party’s electoral triumphs of 1910–12, however, mediation services and working condition standards no longer depended upon the voluntary agency of business leaders; they could be enforced by the coercive authority of the federal government. It was this exercise of state power in a manner favorable to labor, Montgomery concludes, that caused the IAM and many other unions to endorse Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats in 1916. Socialist prospects for achieving leadership of the American labor movement were thereby eclipsed. Corporate executives’ support for regulation and reform at local, state, and national levels only strengthened this political logic, earning support for the Democrats among working-class voters and labor leaders. Capitalist state mediation of labor-business conflict expanded as the U.S. economy was steadily mobilized for war production over the course of Wilson’s administration, culminating in agencies such as the National Industrial Conference Board, the Council of National Defense, and the National War Labor Board. Against this backdrop, the SPA’s attempts to mount oppositional politics within the AFL are documented in Montgomery’s masterful study, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (1987).

A distinct body of historical scholarship addresses the IWW. Within this literature, two books intermittently address the IWW’s relationship to the Debs-era SPA and its leadership: Melvyn Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (1969) and Eric Chester’s The Wobblies in Their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era (2014). Joseph Conlin’s Bread and Roses Too; Studies of the Wobblies (1969) devotes more sustained attention to the IWW’s relationship to the SPA. Conlin holds that the SPA was usually strongest where the IWW was most active.

Several books address the relationship between the Debs-era SPA and immigrants. The SPA’s base among Jews who immigrated from Eastern Europe to the Lower East Side of New York City is explored in two books: Irving Howe’s The World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (1976), and Ronald Sanders’s The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (1969). Howe explores the political implications of the Russian Empire-based Jewish Labor Bund for Jewish-American émigré socialists; Sanders profiles the political thought of Abraham Cahan, founder and editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, a highly influential Yiddish-language socialist newspaper. The SPA also commanded an impressive base of support among Finnish-American miners settled across Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. This history is treated extensively in Peter Kivisto’s Immigrant Socialists in the United States: The Case of Finns and the Left (1984). Socialism among Finnish Americans is likewise explored in Paul George Hummasti’s community study, Finnish Radicals in Astoria, Oregon, 1904–1940: A Study in Immigrant Socialism (1979).

Charles R. Leinenweber’s Immigration and the Decline of Internationalism in the American Working Class 1864–1919 (2016) strikes a particularly critical note with respect to the SPA’s political approach to immigration. When Morris Hillquit led the SPA delegation in opposing a resolution condemning immigration restrictions based on race or nationality at the 1907 Stuttgart International Socialist Congress, this amounted to “socialist nativism,” Leinenweber argues (citing Debs). The SPA’s position on immigration effectively converged with that of the AFL, expressing the interests of the skilled craft unionists at the base of the SPA’s municipal-socialist wing. This “right” wing of the SPA only granted autonomy to the SPA’s foreign-language national federations, Leinenweber argues, insofar as these federations opposed syndicalism and impossibilism among their members. In 1919, after seven of the SPA’s Eastern European federations were radicalized by revolutions in Europe, they were expelled.

While a number of books explore the relationship between the Debs-era SPA and Black Americans, much of the literature on this subject exists in the form of scholarly journal articles. Laurence R. Moore’s “Flawed Fraternity—American Socialist Response to the Negro, 1910–1912” (1969) depicts the SPA as a party rife with anti-Black racism, which variously neglected the situation of Black Americans and conflated it, erroneously, with the situation of labor more generally. Sally Miller’s “The Socialist Party and the Negro, 1901–1920” (1971) attributes anti-Black racism to the SPA’s Berger-led faction in particular; Berger echoed the racial prejudices of the AFL’s conservative leadership, according to whom Black Americans were unorganizable, racially inferior, and prone to being used as scab labor. Miller describes how the SPA also gave rise to more creditable approaches: two Socialists, Mary White Ovington and William English Walling, were among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909; the SPA worked to recruit Black members away from the Republican Party across the South (even while the SPA’s locals in the Deep South remained racially segregated); the Party recruited W. E. B. DuBois, though he quit in 1912 to support Woodrow Wilson; The Messenger, edited by SPA members A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, helped turn out an impressive Harlem vote for Morris Hillquit in the 1917 New York mayoral election; and the SPA’s Rand School of Social Science offered a rare opportunity for Black students (among them Frank Crosswaith) to receive advanced education on equal terms. Miller contends that the SPA nevertheless failed to recognize the specifically racial (as distinct from class) inequities faced by Black Americans, such as anti-Black violence, race riots, and lynching. Even if the SPA had managed to do so, however, Miller concludes that it would have still been unable to recruit sizable numbers of Americans, Black or otherwise, away from the capitalist ideology of economic uplift.

The major book-length treatment of the SPA’s relationship to Black Americans is Philip S. Foner’s American Socialism and Black Americans: From the Age of Jackson to World War II (1977). As a corrective to Moore, Foner establishes the vast extent to which the “Negro question” was discussed throughout the SPA’s party press, well beyond The Messenger. Like Miller, but in considerably greater detail, Foner catalogs Socialist engagements with racial oppression—sometimes complicit, often oppositional—from New York to Louisiana, Oklahoma, and across the South, profiling Black Christian socialist preachers and Hubert Harrison’s “Colored Socialist Club.” The indifference to racial oppression demonstrated during the SPA’s factionalized 1912 national convention, for Foner, spelled the victory of “Southernism” over Socialism within the SPA; Foner asserts that only Bill Haywood’s industrial-unionist wing, working through the IWW, was willing and able to meaningfully organize Southern Blacks in the face of disenfranchisement. At the same time, Foner finds insufficient the “Debsian view,” according to which—as Foner interprets it—Black Americans faced no racially specific injustices requiring something more or other than economic transformation. William P. Jones’s “‘Nothing Special to Offer the Negro’: Revisiting the ‘‘Debsian View’ of the Negro Question’” (2008) mounts a sustained critique of Foner’s conflation of the “Debsian” approach to race with class reductionism. Jones situates Foner among a multi-generational set of historians (including Ira Kipnis, considered in part 1) who were heavily influenced by the Communist Party’s Stalin-era embrace of Black nationalism. What Foner and others neglect, Jones argues, is Debs’s repeated insistence upon political equality as a precondition of economic freedom for Black Americans. 

Some broadly parallel lines of interpretation can be seen in the literature addressing the SPA’s relationship to women. The essays collected by Sally Miller in Flawed Liberation: Socialism and Feminism (1981) examine the theoretically and practically diverse ways in which women Socialists took up the “Woman Question” within the SPA at local, state, and regional levels. Miller argues that party ambivalence and a lack of consensus among women activists resulted in the subordination of feminism to Socialism within the SPA. For Miller, this entailed the reproduction of traditional gender roles within the party. Mari Jo Buhle offers a more nuanced and charitable interpretation in Women and American Socialism, 1870–1920 (1981). Buhle argues that the SPA reproduced within itself a longstanding divide between native-born and immigrant Socialist women—the former typically drew upon a culture of sisterly solidarity with politically separatist tendencies and sought roles beyond housekeeping and childcare while the latter typically drew upon cultures of family solidarity and proudly embraced traditional, auxiliary roles for women in party schools and kitchens. Between 1901 and 1913, Buhle argues, the SPA succeeded in forging an uneasy mediation between these two tendencies while training a new generation of Socialist women activists. Buhle narrates the efforts of these Socialist women to politically position the SPA in relation to phenomena such as “bourgeois” suffragism, anti-prostitution propaganda, birth control agitation, and the women’s strikes of 1909–11.

Works Cited