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The Historiography of Debsian Socialism: A Century of Interpretations, Part 2 (May 2022): Organizers, Intellectuals, and Officeholders

By Edward Remus

Organizers, Intellectuals, and Officeholders

Scholarly biographies provide valuable insights into Debsian socialism as it figured in the lives of notable individuals. These biographies can be organized into groups based on the political trajectories of their subjects. Many prominent SPA members who left the Party between 1911 and 1917 went on to support syndicalism, Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and/or progressive capitalist politics more generally. A second set of SPA members left the Party during the 1919 Socialist-Communist split, the event that arguably marked the terminus of Debsian socialism as a mass political and civil-social phenomenon. A third set of individuals remained with the SPA throughout the 1911–19 period of political defections to progressivism and Communism; some of these Socialists went on to shape the politics of the SPA during its long post-Debsian afterlife.

The first SPA members to defect to progressive capitalist politics did so for reasons largely unrelated to World War I. Mother Jones, a labor organizer and IWW co-founder, began working as a traveling speaker for the SPA in 1905. By 1910, she came to view the SPA as dominated by middle-class job-seekers divorced from the labor movement. She ceased being a Party member in 1911 and endorsed Woodrow Wilson for reelection in 1916, arguing that Wilson would be more accommodating to labor than his Republican opponent. Elliott Gorn’s Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America (2001) traces her political trajectory. Though he supported Democrats in the 1908 and 1910 elections, W. E. B. Du Bois joined the SPA in 1911 while working as editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis. Du Bois left the SPA to endorse Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom” campaign in 1912, hopeful for patronage and policy favorable to Black Americans. Du Bois’s relationship to socialism is discussed in David Levering Lewis’s W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919 (1993); it is also discussed in Jeffrey B. Perry’s richly detailed study, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918 (2009). Hubert Harrison became an SPA orator and organizer in 1911, and by 1912, he identified with the Party’s industrial-unionist faction. This put Harrison at odds with the executive committee of Local New York, which temporarily suspended him in 1914. Harrison left the SPA and launched the race-conscious New Negro Movement by founding The Liberty League and The Voice, the movement’s first grassroots organization and newspaper, respectively. He favored allowing both capitalist parties to court Black support. Harrison rejoined the SPA in 1918 only to break with the Party for good later that year—Perry argues that Harrison probably left the SPA because the Party ran two Black Socialist candidates against two Black Republican candidates. Margaret Sanger joined a New York SPA branch in 1911, affiliated with the Party’s IWW-oriented faction, and resigned circa 1912–13 in the wake of Bill Haywood’s expulsion. Sanger eventually came to view birth control as more fundamental than proletarian control of production, leading her to open the first birth control clinic in the United States and later, the American Birth Control League. Sanger’s period of involvement with the SPA is discussed in Ellen Chesler’s Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (1992); Patricia Walsh Coates’s Margaret Sanger and the Origin of the Birth Control Movement, 1910–1930: The Concept of Women’s Sexual Autonomy (2008); and Jean H. Baker’s Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (2011). The novelist Sinclair Lewis joined a New York SPA branch in 1911 but drifted out in 1912. His brief involvement is discussed in Mark Schorer’s Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961) and in Richard Lingeman’s Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street (2002). Socialist author and onetime mayoral candidate Jack London resigned from the SPA in 1916, citing the Party’s lack of emphasis on the class struggle; by this time London favored U.S. entry into World War I and publicly preferred Theodore Roosevelt to the presidential candidates on the 1916 ballot. London’s relationship to Socialism is documented in Alex Kershaw’s Jack London: A Life (1998) and in James L. Haley’s Wolf: The Lives of Jack London (2010).

The career of Walter Lippmann bridged the pre-1917 defection to progressivism, common among the figures above, and the “war collectivism” of later defectors, described below. Lippmann led the Harvard Socialist Club in 1908, joined the Fabian Society in 1909, and worked as assistant to George Lunn, the newly elected SPA mayor of Schenectady, NY, in 1912. Lunn’s good-government reformism prompted the syndicalist-friendly Lippmann to leave his position after four months. By 1913, Lippmann urged Socialists to cooperate more closely with progressives. In 1914, Lippmann left the SPA, co-founded The New Republic, and began drafting the labor plank for Theodore Roosevelt’s proposed 1916 presidential campaign. After 1916, Lippmann worked with the Wilson Administration to build support for U.S. entry into World War I. Lippmann’s path from Socialist to progressive is charted in Ronald Steel’s Walter Lippmann and the American Century (1980) and Barry Riccio’s Walter Lippmann: Odyssey of a Liberal (1994). Lunn himself defected to Wilson’s Democratic Party in 1916. Bill Buell traces his path in and out of the SPA in George Lunn: The 1912 Socialist Victory in Schenectady (2019).

Many notables broke with the SPA to pursue progressive capitalist politics on account of their opposition to the SPA’s anti-war stance. After an August 1917 convention codified the SPA’s opposition to the war, leading pro-war Socialists left (or were expelled) to form the Social Democratic League (SDL). Through the SDL they provided intellectual and organizational support to the AFL’s participation in the war effort and liaised with European socialists on behalf of the Wilson administration. The SDL also worked closely with Samuel Gompers’s American Alliance for Labor and Democracy (AALD). SPA members who founded or joined the SDL included the muckraking journalist Charles Edward Russell, the onetime International Socialist Review editor (and correspondent of Karl Kautsky) Algie Martin Simons, the writers Upton Sinclair and John Spargo, and the intellectual and organizer William English Walling. Their political trajectories are tracked in the following biographies: Robert Miraldi’s The Pen is Mightier: The Muckraking Life of Charles Edward Russell (2003); Kent Kreuter and Gretchen Kreuter’s An American Dissenter: The Life of Algie Martin Simons, 1870-1950 (1969); Lauren Coodley’s Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual (2013); Markku Ruotsila’s John Spargo and American Socialism (2006); and James Boylan’s Revolutionary Lives: Anna Strunsky and William English Walling (1998). The poet Carl Sandburg began his Socialist career in 1907 as an organizer for Victor Berger’s Milwaukee branch and wrote for SPA papers there through 1912. That portion of Sandburg’s Socialist career is addressed in Penelope Niven’s Carl Sandburg: A Biography (1991). Philip R. Yannella’s The Other Carl Sandburg (1996) reveals a subsequent trajectory: Sandburg grew close to the IWW, authored attacks of anti-war Socialists and sympathetic treatments of the AALD, and informed on Berger for U.S. military intelligence.

While the SPA remained the foremost anti-war party in the United States, a majority of socialist parties throughout the world supported their respective nations’ war efforts. Within the Second International, a dissident revolutionary Marxist tendency led by figures such as Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky predicted that the war would culminate in a global wave of proletarian revolutions and argued that a revolutionary political party would be needed to lead the postwar revolution in each country. This tasked revolutionary Socialists with breaking from reformist Socialists, who were thought to include SPA leaders Morris Hillquit and Victor Berger in the United States. Trotsky was among the first to bring this perspective to SPA radicals during his 1917 American sojourn. Kenneth Ackerman provides a critical account of Trotsky’s influence in Trotsky in New York, 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution (2016). Trotsky recruited editor and former SPA member Louis Fraina to his perspective. Fraina rejoined the SPA in 1917 (having originally joined and departed in 1909) and authored the manifesto of the National Council of the Left Wing Section of the SPA in 1919. He came to represent a faction of the SPA’s left wing that consisted largely of the SPA’s radicalized foreign-language federations. Paul Buhle narrates Fraina’s intellectual odyssey in A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost: Louis C. Fraina/Lewis Corey (1892–1953) and the Decline of Radicalism in the United States (1995). The journalist John Reed, newly returned from witnessing the October Revolution, represented a more native-born tendency within the SPA’s left wing. Biographical treatments of Reed include Granville Hicks’s John Reed: The Making of a Revolutionary (1936), Robert Rosenstone’s Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed (1975), and Eric Homberger’s John Reed (1990). Despite an apparent electoral sweep, the SPA’s Left Wing Section failed to unseat the Berger-Hillquit faction in the SPA’s 1919 National Executive Council (NEC) elections; the incumbent NEC raised accusations of voting irregularities and conducted large-scale expulsions and suspensions of left-wing SPA sections, locals, and members. This prompted a mass exodus of the left wing out of the SPA and into two underground organizations: Reed’s Communist Labor Party of America and Fraina’s Communist Party of America. At the direction of the Communist (Third) International, these two organizations merged and dissolved into the above-ground Workers Party of America by 1923.

Numerous organizers and intellectuals left the SPA and joined one of these Communist organizations between 1919 and the 1920s. Notable among them were the Ohio-based organizer and candidate Charles Ruthenberg, the New York-based activist (and future anti-Communist) Jay Lovestone, the orator and writer Rose Pastor Stokes, the economist Scott Nearing, the poet Floyd Dell, and Max Eastman, editor of The Masses. The lives of these onetime Socialists are narrated in the following biographies: Oakley C. Johnson’s The Day is Coming: Life and Work of Charles E. Ruthenberg, 1882–1927 (1957); Ted Morgan’s A Covert Life: Jay Lovestone, Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spymaster (1999); Adam Hochschild’s Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes (2020); Stephen J. Whitfield’s Scott Nearing: Apostle of American Radicalism (1974); Douglas Clayton’s Floyd Dell: The Life and Times of an American Rebel (1994); William L. O’Neill’s The Last Romantic, A Life of Max Eastman (1978); and Christoph Irmscher’s Max Eastman: A Life (2017). Also among the ranks of 1920s American Communists were three labor organizers and erstwhile Socialists who would play leading roles on the American left during the middle of the twentieth century: future Trotskyist James P. Cannon and future Stalinists Earl Browder and William Z. Foster. Their respective paths in and out of the SPA are documented in Bryan D. Palmer’s James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890–1928 (2007), James G. Ryan’s Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism (1997), and James R. Barrett’s William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism (1999).

The SPA retained a significant number of notable figures throughout this period of defections to progressivism and Communism. Some of these figures died as Socialists during the 1910s and 1920s, prior to the political transformations that the American left experienced during the 1930s. Examples include Julius Wayland, publisher of the Appeal to Reason; the Irish socialist James Connolly, who served as a national organizer for the SPA in 1909 and 1910; the Schenectady-based engineer Charles Steinmetz, who corresponded with Lenin regarding Soviet electrification efforts; the Texas-based, IWW-oriented party organizer Tom Hickey; and Meyer London, twice sent to U.S. Congress from New York’s Lower East Side. Their life stories are narrated in the following biographies: Elliott Shore’s Talkin’ Socialism: J.A. Wayland and the Role of the Press in American Radicalism, 1890–1912 (1988); Kieran Allen’s The Politics of James Connolly (1990); Donal Nevin’s James Connolly, A Full Life: A Biography of Ireland’s Renowned Trade Unionist and Leader of the 1916 Easter Rising (2005); Ronald Kline’s Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist (1992); Peter H. Buckingham’s “Red Tom” Hickey: The Uncrowned King of Texas Socialism (2020); Harry Rogoff’s An East Side Epic: The Life and Work of Meyer London (1930); and Gordon J. Goldberg’s Meyer London: A Biography of the Socialist New York Congressman, 1871–1926 (2013). Other notable individuals who were members of the SPA during the Party’s Debsian period only took up progressive politics during the 1930s or 1940s, long after the SPA’s Debsian period had ended. Examples include Abraham Cahan, mentioned previously, a staunch anti-Communist who was oriented toward the Jewish Labor Bund; Kate Richards O’Hare and Frank P. O’Hare, co-editors of the St. Louis-based National Rip-Saw who were aligned with Eugene Debs; Tom Mooney, the framed and imprisoned California labor leader; Helen Keller, the writer and speaker who was deaf and blind; and the realist painter John Sloan. Their lives are charted in  Seth Lipsky’s The Rise of Abraham Cahan (2013), Sally M. Miller’s From Prairie to Prison: The Life of Social Activist Kate Richards O’Hare (1993), Peter H. Buckingham’s Rebel Against Injustice: The Life of Frank P. O’Hare (1996), Estolv Ethan Ward’s The Gentle Dynamiter: A Biography of Tom Mooney (1983), Kim E. Nielsen’s The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (2004), and John Loughery’s John Sloan: Painter and Rebel (1995), respectively. 

Despite the fractures, the SPA survived the 1919 Socialist-Communist split by several decades. Initially a rump organization, the post-Debsian SPA experienced infusions of political vitality during the 1930s Old Left and the 1950s New Left. Its final demise as a party organization occurred in 1972–73 amid a three-way split. Two men did much to define the SPA’s political character throughout the middle of the twentieth century, and both joined the SPA in 1918: Norman Thomas, the minister and pacifist who would become the SPA’s six-time presidential candidate, and A. Philip Randolph, founding editor of The Messenger, a Black American labor leader and later impetus behind the “March on Washington” as a civil rights tactic. Biographies of Norman Thomas include Murray B. Seidler’s Norman Thomas: Respectable Rebel (1961), Harry Fleischman’s Norman Thomas: A Biography (1964), Bernard K. Johnpoll’s Pacifist’s Progress: Norman Thomas and the Decline of American Socialism (1970), and W. A. Swanberg’s Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist (1976). Scholarly studies of A. Philip Randolph include Jervis Anderson’s A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait (1986); Paula E. Pfeffer’s A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (1990); Cynthia Taylor’s A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader (2005); Andrew E. Kersten’s A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard (2007); Cornelius L. Bynum’s A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights (2010); and Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom, and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph (2015), edited by Andrew E. Kersten and Clarence Lang. 

Works Cited