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The Historiography of Debsian Socialism: A Century of Interpretations, Part 2 (May 2022): Conclusion

By Edward Remus


The historiography of Debsian socialism remains dominated by interpretations generated during the New Left period and its long intellectual aftermath. It was during this period that a crisis and realignment of U.S. party politics generated civil-social discontents that could not be easily accommodated by either of the two dominant political parties of U.S. capitalism. This crisis gave rise to various third-party challenges and movements on the political left and beyond, though none of these even began to coalesce into a durable mass party of socialist opposition. If the future holds some fundamental revision in the interpretation of Debsian socialism, such a revision may be motivated, however indirectly, by a crisis of capitalist party politics equal in depth and intensity to that experienced during the 1960s. Jack Ross’s The Socialist Party of America (2015) anticipates such a revision insofar as Ross registers the 2000s–2010s political crises of neoconservatism and neoliberalism; Ross traces the surprising ways in which Debsian socialism’s political inheritors became implicated in these two varieties of capitalist politics. Short of major reinterpretations, there remain numerous opportunities for further historical research. Scholars may continue to deprovincialize Debsian socialism by situating its theory and practice more firmly within that of the wider Second International; many of the most insightful studies of the Debs-era SPA are keenly sensitive to its transnational dimensions. Intellectual history is another fertile field. With ongoing efforts to digitize the SPA’s historic newspapers and other primary sources, it is now easier than ever for researchers to reconstruct the social and political outlooks of those who marched under the Party’s banner. Some scholars have suggested broad parallels between the Gilded Age and today’s era; such parallels could motivate a renewed interest in how Debs-era Socialists approached recurring problems in capitalist society and politics. This is also true at a practical level: in various settings, Debs-era Socialists organized what the historian Vernon L. Lidtke termed (in reference to the SPA’s German counterpart) an “alternative culture” of civil-social institutions and voluntary associations, only some of which have been examined in detail.1 Finally, new studies of specific geographic areas, constituencies, and individuals related to Debsian socialism continue to be published at a modest but steady pace. By the historical standards of the American left, Debsian socialism occupied a massive presence in American life at the height of its power. Researchers would face little difficulty in identifying as-yet-unexamined subjects for further study. This bibliographic essay intends to serve as a point of departure for any such efforts. 

1.    Vernon L. Lidtke, The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany (Oxford University Press, 1985).

Works Cited