The Socialist Party of America: A Historiographical View

P. Josh Hatala I Politics & Government I History I December 17th, 2013

For more than a century historians, political theorists, and social commentators have attempted to explain the absence of a robust, socialist party in the United States, capable of winning elections or framing political discourse.[1] Over the last half century the United States has stood nearly alone in its lack of a viable socialist or social democratic party capable of meaningfully influencing national politics. There was, however, a brief period of limited success for American socialists at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1912 Eugene V. Debs, Socialist Party presidential candidate, received six percent of the national vote. In the same year socialists held 1200 public offices, sent one member of their party to congress, and had an impressive roster of 118,000 dues paying members.[2] Then, suddenly, the Socialist Party ceased its expansion and receded even further into the backdrop of American political life. What happened? This challenging and persistent question has garnered a wide array of responses from historians who, from the 1950s to the present, have made it the subject of book length monographs, essays, and journal articles. These authors, while sharing a common focal point, have approached this question employing historical frameworks reflective of the age in which they were interpreting and writing history. An analysis written in the 1950s on the decline of the Socialist Party, for example, will not be the same as one written in the 1980s by virtue of the fact that the historical profession itself has expanded its repertoire and developed new theoretical "lenses" through which to interpret the past- a reality that becomes evident through the primarily chronological format I have used in this non-exhaustive historiographical essay. In spite of this diversity of lenses, the question of why socialism has failed, as well as what this failure says in broad terms about American life, were central concerns of these historians who blamed the Socialist Party's decline on party factionalism, external pressures brought by World War One and the Russian Revolution, the appeal of mainstream reformism, lack of Leninist style organizing, and more. As socialists in the 21st century begin to reassess electoral and movement strategy, exposure to this work might serve to allow socialists, even in some small measure, to better analyze and contextualize the current and future state of the socialist movement in the United States

In 1952 Iris Kipnis presented the first book length monograph on the socialist movement in the United States, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912. Kipnis dealt with the origins and rise of socialist movements from 1897-1912, but focused primarily on the decline of the Socialist Party of America. Before Kipnis's work, only a handful of journal articles on the socialist movement had been published. This paucity of research on the socialist movement, Kipnis believed, was attributable to the notion adopted by historians that the socialist movement was something of an historical aberration in US history, making it unworthy of extensive research and study. Kipnis rejected this point of view, positing that an understanding of the Socialist Party of America was an essential component in understanding other developments connected to the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century. Kipnis's seminal study was to be referenced, supported, altered, or rejected by subsequent historians of the American Left.

Kipnis examined the Socialist Party as both a political party and a social movement, focusing on the internal developments and discord within the Socialist Party itself. Conceptually, he relied heavily on the "Rankian model" of history with its focus on politics, diplomacy, and political parties as the prime agents of historical change.[3] His primary pool of sources was official- coming directly from the Socialist Party: Socialist Party newsletters and newspapers, proceedings from Socialist Party conventions, and official party statements made up the bulk of his research material. Kipnis focused on leaders of different factions within the party, as well as the factions as entities within themselves, and how they respond to external political forces, and to each other. In discussing his view of agency in history Kipnis wrote, "Surely the activities of the Socialists themselves had something to do with the nature of the results they achieved. If not, history must be merely the record of the movements of human puppets pulled by invisible strings."[4] However, the workers and dues paying members of the party are conspicuously absent from his account. Kipnis built a case for a growing factionalism within the Socialist Party that led to its demise following the height of its success- the presidential election of 1912 when Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs earned roughly six percent of the national vote. In choosing 1912 as an end date in his study, Kipnis made it clear that to him this date marked the end of the Socialist Party as a viable force against the two party system- an assertion that will be challenged fifteen years later (1967) by James Weinstein, whose work will be discussed below.

Kipnis argued that leading up to the elections of 1912 two factions had emerged within the party- both a left and right wing. The party's left wing was concerned with revolutionary change and strategy, focusing its energies on developing strong bonds with industrial unions in hopes of revolutionary upheaval. In 1901, the year of the party's founding, most leaders and members belonged to the left and center factions. "They held that socialism would be ushered in only after the working class had gained state power through Socialist control of a majority of national and local offices." [5] To do this, socialists would educate workers in "scientific socialism" and aid unions in struggles. Kipnis argued that the left's orientation, however, which relied heavily upon the concept of class solidarity, was faulty because American workers had little developed sense of class consciousness. Although the left and center factions did concern themselves with electoral success, for them the purpose of elections was primarily educational because true change could only be won through a workers' revolution, not elections.

The bulk of the blame for the Socialist Party's decline, according to Kipnis, lay with the party's right-leaning members and eventual orientation. Kipnis argued that the right saw socialism evolving gradually in America by influencing American political and economic structures. As elections were won across the nation, the center elements within the party began to move to the right, seeing electoral success as a more expedient path to change. As the Socialist Party veered right, the left faction became increasingly disillusioned and left the party, leaving the Socialist Party to represent a kind of extreme form of American reformism, but not a revolutionary party. Emblematic of this shift in the party's orientation was the expulsion of Bill Haywood, a prominent leader of the left faction. After Haywood's dismissal, the party fell too much in line with the progressivism of the era, Kipnis believed, leaving it irrelevant in an era in which the banner of reform was carried by larger and more influential parties.

Also published in 1952, Daniel Bell's Marxian Socialism in the United States did not deal exclusively with the Socialist Party, yet remains a frequently cited work in the historiography of the Socialist Party, socialist movements, and the failure of the American left broadly speaking. In a 1967 paperback edition of his work, Bell found fault with Kipnis's thesis that the Socialist Party would have succeeded if it had only increased its militancy, calling it simply, "wishful thinking about history".[6] Additionally, Bell criticized Kipnis's seemingly static labeling of "left" and "right" factions within the Socialist Party as arbitrary, arguing that the composition and principles of these tendencies within the party meant different things at different stages in the party's history.

Trained as a sociologist, Bell took a self-described Weberian approach to interpreting history and contended that the decline of the American left, of which the Socialist Party was an integral part, could be attributed to its being "in the world but not of the world". [7] Working from Weber's premise that modern politics cannot be guided by ethical absolutes but must be grounded in pragmatism, Bell posited that the socialists failed because they refused to accept the basic rules for political discourse, of which compromise is a component, while attempting to be a part of American political life. "The socialist movement", he wrote, "by its very statement of goal and in its rejection of the capitalist order as a whole, could not relate itself to the specific problems of social action in the here-and-now, give-and-take, political world… so it could only act, and then inadequately, as the moral, but not political, man in immoral society". [8] Bell's use of Weber was indicative of the post-war years during which some historians came under the influence of sociology, employing it as a tool for historical inquiry.[9]

Bell went on to argue that the Socialist Party, like much of the radical left, was infected with chiliastic sensibilities which caused it to be too ideologically driven to adapt to real world circumstances. Living in "another world" made the party irrelevant to most people. While employing Weber for his theoretical framework, Bell's sources were similar to those of Kipnis and Shannon- socialist periodicals, proceedings from conventions, and the writings of major party leaders like Eugene V. Debs. In addition to Weber, Bell stood apart in citing the theoretical considerations of Socialist Party leader and historian Morris Hillquit whose occasional Marxist orthodoxy, Bell argued, led the party to accept ideological principles divorced from pragmatic politics.

In addition to his theoretical considerations, Bell examined more tangible, tactical errors of the Socialist Party as well as external constraints. At the forefront of his argument, Bell contended that the Socialist Party's opposition to World War One placed the party firmly outside of mainstream politics and the labor movement, thereby causing it to lose the trust of the American people. While Kipnis saw a "left" and "right" vying for control of the party up until 1912, Bell saw between 1917 and 1921 "a complete shift of the entire socialist movement to a frame of reference completely outside the structure of American life"[10] which led to the death of the Socialist Party. This "frame of reference" was connected to an ethical rigidity that served to further remove the party from mainstream discourse. Additionally, Bell cited as reasons for decline the expulsion of the left-wing of the party from 1912-1913, the expulsion of the growing Bolshevik contingent following the Russian Revolution, as well as the attractiveness of Wilson's reforms for the intellectuals of the Socialist Party who left en masse in favor of "The New Freedom", forming the Woodrow Wilson Independent League.

David Shannon's, The Socialist Party of America, published in 1955, relied on sources similar and sometimes identical to Kipnis's, yet branched out to include a more diverse range of evidence. Along with official Socialist Party convention minutes, essays in socialist journals, and official party pronouncements, Shannon made more frequent use of personal correspondence between party leaders as well as materials from the Columbia University Oral History Project. Shannon also made use of the official records of the Socialist Party housed at Duke University and criticized Kipnis for overlooking such a valuable pool of source materials. Along with this criticism of Kipnis's work, Shannon faulted Kipnis for being, "too uncritical of Haywood and his wing of the party and overly critical of the more conservative groups among the Socialists"[11]. Furthermore, Shannon remaiend completely unconvinced of Kipnis's thesis that "the failure of the Socialist Party is to be understood in terms of the party's factionalism…"[12] Shannon's alternative thesis will be discussed below.

Like Kipnis, Shannon examined disagreements within the party as resulting from conflict between factions, but also focused on conflict between the personalities of leaders within the party as well as their decisions and motives. Instead of seeing the Socialist Party from the "ground up" as later historians would, Shannon interpreted the party in terms of the moves of its great leaders as well as within the context of an American culture that held to traditions that socialists could do nothing to change. America's two-party system that is difficult for third parties to break into played a role in this but, more importantly, it was America's lack of class-consciousness that prevented the Socialist Party from gaining more ground. The historical absence of a feudal system or aristocracy, the fact that capitalism, despite its problems, gave people a better life, as well as a high degree of class mobility, all made the Socialist Party's appeal to the "working class" irrelevant. Though this argument is not presented in Marxist terms, Shannon did take class into account to a larger degree than Kipnis in his interpretation of socialism's failure. In the discussion of class, however, he focused on the movement's leaders and their interactions with a "national character". For example, Shannon wrote, "When Debs during his war trial said, 'While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free,' he expressed a noble sentiment, but relatively few Americans recognized the statement as an expression of solidarity with themselves."[13]

Shannon also moved beyond 1912 as an ending point for the Socialist Party as a viable political force, arguing that after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Socialist Party saw world revolution as imminent and became more radical. It was not, as Kipnis argued, the post-1912 election fallout and move to more mainstream politics that destroyed the Socialist Party, but the radicalization of the party that took place in the latter half of the 1910s and into the 1920s.

In almost direct contrast to Kipnis, Shannon argued that the Socialist Party failed because it aimed its propaganda at a non-existent American proletariat. America, he believed, was not nearly class conscious enough to accept socialism as presented by the Socialist Party. "The Left", he wrote, "thought the Right was hopelessly bourgeois, and the Right thought the Left's radicalism was more glandular than philosophical". [14] To Shannon, the party became too dependent on doctrine and a working-class ideology, leaving it irrelevant. He also cited the rise of incompetent leaders in the party as a major reason for the party's decline. It was these leaders of the party and the party's factions who, by becoming too ideologically driven, failed to control the party as a true American political party willing to make compromises. As a result, the party lost its appeal. Other historians, of course, would disagree.

James Weinstein was the first to argue that the socialist movement did not decline before and during World War One, but in fact "grew in size and prestige during the war"[15], despite government repression during this period. The height of American socialism, he argued in The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925, was not the election of 1912 when Eugene V. Debs won the largest number of votes a socialist candidate would ever receive. Instead, Weinstein showed growth in the party and electoral success in the years during and immediately following World War One, with the Socialist Party finally falling away as a real force around 1919. In opposition to Kipnis who argued that the Socialist Party met its end with the expulsion of Bill Haywood from the National Committee of the Socialist Party and the decline of the left faction in 1912-1913, Weinstein claimed that this reorganization led to no major shift in the party's orientation, nor to its decline.

In his refutation of Kipnis, Weinstein focused on the continued inclusiveness of the party from 1912-1919. He showed a broad membership base and a party that served as a kind of umbrella organization for members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Christian Socialists, atheists, those involved in mainstream politics, as well as those apathetic to electoral success. The party did not, as Kipnis suggested, become too right-leaning in its orientation and thereby irrelevant in an age of more viable progressive political parties. Weinstein argued that though the Socialist Party did lose support from those who sided with Wilson's reforms, as well as those socialists who left the party to support the war, the party managed to grow. As the only political party in America that did not support the war, some of this new membership came from fellow war resisters. Even more significant were those immigrants who joined the party following the Russian Revolution- many of whom were of Slavic descent and supported the Russian Revolution. The percentage of foreign-born party members jumped from 20 percent before the war to 52 percent following it.[16] By 1920 the party had 109,000 members- just a few thousand below its 1912 levels.[17] These demographic changes were mirrored in geographic changes with much of the party's membership being concentrated in eastern cities. With the supporters of Wilson and the war gone from the Socialist Party, a more revolutionary element had entered through this new membership.

Weinstein's thesis was built upon an alternative reading of the sources used by Kipnis and Shannon and, perhaps more importantly, the use of local labor newspapers. It is in examining the local, as opposed to the national character of the Socialist Party, that Weinstein was able to arrive at his conclusions. Despite a poor showing in the 1916 presidential election (as compared to 1912), the Socialist Party grew in 1917 and 1918 at the local level through election to local, less prominent offices. Weinstein's focus on changes in the local character of the Socialist Party placed his work in opposition to Kipnis and Shannon who focud primarily on major party leaders, factional disputes, and America's "national character". Likewise, the oversight of Kipnis and Shannon regarding the obvious importance of the foreign-born membership in revitalizing the party during and immediately after the war is mysterious. Being aware of the increase in party membership from foreign-born rank and file members while still declaring the party dead in 1912 makes one wonder if their theses were not informed by an element of xenophobia. Weinstein, on the other hand, saw growth as growth, even if the Socialist Party ceased to be primarily a party of native-born Americans. In fact, it was the foreign-born who had the greatest impact on the party in the post-war years. Still, despite the growth, Weinstein too recognized the Socialist Party's decline. So what did destroy the Socialist Party?

Weinstein argued that the party's downfall as a viable force was purely the result of internal factionalism spurred by Bolshevism. Following the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks preached the necessity and inevitability of world revolution. The foreign-born members of the Socialist Party, many of whom were of Slavic origin, accepted the Bolshevik call and began a struggle for control of the party. By 1919 the "old guard" of the party, recognizing the impossibility of immediate revolution in America, fought for unity and re-organization while the new left of the party pushed for insurrection. Battles for supremacy of vision ensued and in little time those calling for revolution, primarily the foreign-born, left the party for one of the new Communist organizations. This split marked the death of the Socialist Party.

Accepting Weinstein's thesis that World War One and its consequences effectively ended the viability of the Socialist Party, Sally Miller examined the role of Victor Berger and his faction within the party in her 1971 work, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910-1920. Miller worked from sources nearly identical to the ones used by the authors discussed above, yet naturally focused more narrowly on those documents relating to Victor Berger, the first socialist to obtain a seat in the United States Congress (1910) and leader of the party's center-right, reformist bloc. As the fifth work in a historiography concerned with the inability of the Socialist Party to survive in the American political landscape, Miller also worked from and refutes the findings of the authors above.

Through her focus on Berger, Miller set out to challenge Bell's belief that the Socialist Party was "in the world but not of the world". Instead, Miller highlighted the ability of Berger and the center-right faction of the party to retain socialist belief in the midst of American political realities. Whereas Bell saw the maintenance of socialist ethics as an impossibility in the American political arena, Miller saw the real application of these ethics through the person of Berger and his followers. Miller believed that in Berger's "willingness to act as a moral man in immoral society" and "in his attempt solve the ethical paradox inherent in political action, he was striving to become Max Weber's 'genuine man' with a 'calling for politics'". [18] It is this attempt by Berger to embody Weber's theory that was the main focus of Miller's study. In choosing this focus, Miller was therefore greatly concerned with the agency of individuals in the workings of history. Even though Berger had achieved a measure of success in integrating socialist idealism with politics, internal and external obstacles, as well as personal failings, prevented the growth of the Socialist Party.

Miller accepted a number of the findings of her predecessors in her discussion of the party's failure. She agreed with Shannon that the Bolshevik Revolution galvanized the leftist elements in the party, spurring them to preach an imminent socialism divorced from American realities that relied on appeals to a non-existent class-consciousness. Miller also accepted Weinstein's view that the foreign-born members who came to dominate the party were central to this leftist orientation, adding that they sought to graft European realities onto an America where the same opportunities for revolution did not exist. Miller, however, did not place all of the blame on the left. She agreed with Bell that the intellectuals who left the party in support of Wilson's reformism, as well as those who left in support of the war, were also responsible for the party's disintegration.

Miller's central thesis was that because of the loss of many stable, center-right leaders, by the end of World War One the Socialist Party was not equipped to combat the rise of the left faction. "Old leaders who were responsible for the consistent tenor of party policy", she wrote, "were unable to guide the Socialist Party in its moment of agony. At a time when the old left merged into a new one, cemented by stimuli that produced its greatest momentum, the right wing found itself fatally crippled and incapable of meeting vigorously the severest internal challenge." [19] Berger was among those leaders criticizing the left while calling the party back to a reformist position. However, in opposing the war, Berger and the Socialist Party had become too far removed from the sentiments of most Americans. Miller also suggested that Berger's egotistical and aggressive character played a role in the deterioration of the center-right. Berger could have united the center-right, Miller argued, were it not for his unsavory personality. The party found itself without a strong reformist component while the left was about to leave the party in favor of a more revolutionary position. This combination of "external events and internal errors combined to destroy the dream". [20]

Another biography, Nick Salvatore's 1982 Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, examined the life of Eugene V. Debs, perennial presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in the early part of the twentieth century. Salvatore set out to correct what he perceived to be misrepresentations of Debs promulgated by preceding histories of the man and the period. Salvatore wrote that, "Too often Debs became a larger-than-life hero, a born radical eternally at odds with the culture that nurtured him."[21]

Salvatore extended his focus beyond the political life of the leader to try and capture the actions and values of Debs as springing from specific historical contexts. Salvatore wrote that, "the book is… a piece of social history that assumes individuals do not stand outside the culture and society they grew in and from."[22] In this sense, Salvatore's work stood in the tradition of the "new labor history", with its lack of emphasis on "great men" or labor organizations as the primary agents in history. Instead, it is the culture of the masses of rank and file workers[23], as well as pre-industrial American cultural values, channeled through Debs within a socialist context that most interested Salvatore. His work was also something of a psychohistory, in that it ascribes psychological characteristics to Debs that were acquired through his childhood and upbringing. Debs's psychological makeup, in effect, motivated his actions and responses to the changing world around him. Additionally, manhood and dignity, within the context of the family, were central values to the working class climate from which Debs came. The value of manhood, "demanded that [a man] secure a living wage; establish through industry and proper habits his own self-respect; and in this manner secure the respect of other men- goals defined primarily from the work experience." [24] The values which informed Debs' and other Americans' worldview were challenged by the growth and abuses of the advent of large-scale American industry and capitalism, leading to a point where, "The meaning of manhood no longer seemed a given birthright, and this still earnest native son began his search for another beacon light upon a hill."[25] This "beacon light" would be based upon a vision of justice and equality derived from the nineteenth century American political and social experience.

Debs was successful, Salvatore argued, not because of who he was, but because of what he represented. In this vein, Debs was not the kind of historical anomaly that preceding biographies or textbooks have interpreted him to be, and the socialism Debs represented was not a foreign import of a strictly theoretical Marxist bent. Instead, Debs's socialist political thought stemmed from his immersion in America's democratic traditions and values. In his discussion of these values, America's character, and Debs' place within this world, Salvatore addressed the question of socialism's failure in the United States.

Salvatore rebutted those historians and leftist critics who, "have suggested that [Debs's] particular adaptation of Karl Marx and American political thought was reformist and have argued that this lack of orthodox Marxism in large part accounts for the failure of Socialism in America." [26] Here Salvatore had in mind those like Iris Kipnis who argued that the Socialist Party pandered too much to the middle-class, or the right-wing, and that a more leftist orientation would have led to greater growth and success. And, although writing fifteen years before Brian Lloyd (discussed below), refuted his thesis that the party was not Marxist-Leninist enough in orientation and failed because of its refusal to accept doctrinaire Marxism. Instead, Salvatore argued something quite different.

Salvatore appears to accept an element of the "American Exceptionalism" thesis when he writes of the working class that, "the task of affirming a collective identity in a culture that boasted of its individualistic mores was difficult indeed."[27] The author suggested that America's unique character, in contrast with Europe's, for example, prevented greater class-consciousness from taking root among workers. In this context, Salvatore said that preceding historians formed a badly posed question in asking why the Socialist Party failed. He wrote that, "Failure assumes the possibility for success, but that was never a serious prospect for the Debsian movement." [28] Because of America's character, nothing the Socialist Party could have done would have led to revolution. It was a doomed project from the start. However, Salvatore remained somewhat optimistic about the meaning of the Socialist Party for American society, seeing the principles and program of the Socialist Party as an example to those in the future committed to issues of social and economic justice.

Moving into newer history, Richard Judd's 1989 urban history, Socialist Cities: Municipal Politics and the Grass Roots of American Socialism, focused on grassroots efforts to make socialism a reality in the United States. Instead of focusing on the party's leadership as other works did, Judd looked at the Socialist Party from below in a kind of microhistory concerned with the Socialist Party in urban areas. This microhistory, influenced by anthropology, (an influence seen in Judd's concern with parades and picnics, for example) "place[s] small communities, single events, or even one individual under minute scrutiny."[29] Judd was concerned with the, "grass roots level [which]offers a picture of boundless energy and enthusiasm- Socialist lectures, rallies, parades, picnics, and street-corner speeches held weekly, tons of Socialist literature, hand-carried throughout the cities, and Socialist papers circulated to hundreds of thousands of readers." [30] From these phenomena, Judd draws broad conclusions about the party's failures.

In the first chapter of his book, "The Debate on American Socialism", Judd provided a thorough review of the literature which preceded him, separating most previous interpretations of the Socialist Party's failure into two camps- one which has dealt with the party in terms of internal factions, and the other which suggested external factors, namely "American Exceptionalism", prevented the party's success. In the first camp, Judd placed Kipnis, Shannon, and Miller, while he placed Bell in the latter. Suggesting that each point of view possessed shortcomings, he wrote, "taken singularly, each explanation appears too comprehensive; the overarching presumptions of each analysis ignore the complexity of the whole. In light of the plausible alternatives, none of the explanations-external or internal-seems to yield definitive answers."[31] Judd went on to criticize much of the preceding historiography, with the exception of Salvatore's work, as lacking, "a view of the worker as an active historical agent." [32] His critique extended to these historians' focus on the "great men" of the socialist past, namely Debs and DeLeon, as indicators of trends within American socialism and the relationship of the rank and file to the party. Because of his emphasis on the rank and file, local elections, and the social character of the party, Judd's work was an amalgam of social and urban history, as well as a microhistory. Along with Salvatore, Judd was a product of the 1960s theory explosion within the field, naturally responding to and utilizing the diversity of theoretical and historical frameworks that emerged in those and subsequent years.

Judd's sources reflected his local focus. He relied on material not employed by the previous historians such as contemporary scholarly articles on local socialist activity in the Midwest, an unpublished dissertation on socialist municipal administration of the same era, and newspaper and journal articles focusing on local socialist administration written in the early twentieth century. Judd also utilized local Socialist Party newspapers from the period, convention minutes, and socialist pamphlets written and distributed in Midwestern cities. With these sources he weaved together the meaning of socialist politics in five Midwestern cities where socialist candidates experienced various levels of success. These types of cities, he argued, were where socialists saw their greatest chances of establishing solid bases of support which would in turn influence national politics.

Judd saw the Socialist Party in the cities as having a changing base of support. At first, members of the middle-class who were displeased with corruption in the political parties, along with industrial workers, united to put socialists into office. Once in office, socialists faced opposition from businesses and middle-class reformers, stifling the possibility for real change. The working classes continued to support the Socialist Party but the middle-class gravitated towards other, more powerful progressive movements. Bound up with this explanation was a more complicated view of the decline of the Socialist Party than previously expressed. Judd cited nearly all of the previously mentioned internal and external crises mentioned by previous historians- factionalism, external pressures brought by World War One and the Russian Revolution, the appeal of Wilson's reforms, and others, as multiple factors precipitating the decline of the party. However, other than this "synthesis", he did not put forth any kind of original thesis, opting instead to suggest that the history of the Socialist Party's decline, whether it be from a kind of "American Exceptionalism" or not, be a lesson to future radicals. What the lesson is that they should take away is ambiguous at best.

Pittenger's 1993 intellectual history of the American socialist movements, American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920, considered the impact nineteenth century evolutionism had on socialist thought. Interpreting American socialism and the Socialist Party through the field of the "history of ideas", Pittenger returned to a framework initiated by historian and philosopher Arthur Lovejoy in the early decades of the twentieth century that assumed ideas have the ability to shape outcomes.[33] In examining the "inner world" of late nineteenth and early twentieth century socialist thinkers, Pittenger concluded that evolutionist principles supplanted theoretical Marxism, leading American socialists to accept the gradual, seemingly inevitable evolution of society. Evolutionary thought also explained why American socialists were not as critical of racism, sexism, and nativism, as they could have been. And, perhaps more importantly, why American socialists were not as radical as many of their European counterparts. Even though a more theoretical, Marxist approach came to characterize the tenor of the Socialist Party in the early part of the twentieth century, the party's thinkers still remained infused with a spirit of optimism and positivism, while maintaining a reliance on progress in "scientific" terms.

Pettinger made his case using writings of well known, and lesser known, authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century- many of whom have become associated with "Utopian Socialism". He looked to prominent authors like Jack London, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edward Bellamy to tease out evolutionary thinking. This approach was aided by late nineteenth and early twentieth century journals like the International Socialist Review, as Pettinger sometimes read "against the grain" to see the ebb and flow of evolutionary thinking on socialism. Socialist authors from the period, especially Morris Hilquit and Laurence Gronlund, were also cited to support his thesis.

For American socialists in the early twentieth century, "attaining scientific literacy often seemed a first step toward socialist commitment." [34] Pittenger cited the fact that even Bill Haywood, leader of the left faction expelled from the Socialist Party in 1913 for his radical positions and call for direct action, was known to read Darwin and Spencer in his formative years and considered their thought an influence in his own political awakening.[35] Pittenger cited the prevalence of this phenomenon- American socialists moving from evolutionary thought, or a belief in the natural progression of society toward a better end, to more scientific socialism, while they retained the residual influence of evolutionary thinkers on their Marxism. This worldview, to Pittenger, influenced both the right and left wings of the party. Pittenger wrote that evolutionary theory came to be, "…seen as a part of the Marxist intellectual tradition," [36] and that, "Socialist Party members, like their predecessors, …found in Darwin and Spencer ways to unite ardent desire with scientific certainty."[37]

For American socialists, Marxism was influenced by the hopeful positivism and scientific determinism of the nineteenth century. These philosophical underpinnings provided a space for racism, sexism, and nativism to exist within a "socialist" framework in a time when, "One could consistently be a socialist and, by modern standards, a reactionary on a wide array of issues that were understood in evolutionary terms." [38] In other words, exclusion based on race, sex, and ethnicity were "scientifically" justified in the minds of many early twentieth century socialists. This pervasive pseudo-science which colored American Marxism also allowed for a kind of political passivity which, Pittenger suggests, aided in the decline of the Socialist Party. While socialists did fight for change, they relied too heavily on the notion that progress would inevitably come for the worker in the course of humanity's evolution, leaving socialists less effective than if they had operated without this principle. This evolutionary approach was weak and ineffectual according to theorist Brian Lloyd who thought that the Socialist Party could have been more successful if built and organized along Leninist lines.

Situating his work within the context of Marxist-Leninist historical and political theory, while supported by intellectual history, Lloyd set out to attack the "American Exceptionalism" thesis. Through his Marxist paradigm, which interprets events and movement in history through a lens of class conflict, Lloyd argued that it was a lack of understanding of true Marxist theory by American radicals that defeated socialism's chances for success. Although his work dealt with the American left in broad terms, Lloyd did address the Socialist Party using his theoretical framework. Lloyd's thesis stood in direct conflict with Bell's, which argued that the left's failure can be attributed to its acceptance of doctrinaire Marxism, as well as Shannon's, which saw factional disputes over the meaning of Marxism as the prime culprit.

In place of theory, Lloyd's 1997 Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922 argued, radicals before the rise of Eugene V. Debs accepted a version of Marxism infused with positivism and Darwinism. Lloyd's thesis fell in line with Pittenger's discussion while delving more deeply into the reasons for socialism's decline and offering an alternative historical outcome if only the application of theory had trumped pragmatism. During and after Debs, socialists relied too heavily on experience and pragmatism- a natural outgrowth of positivist thinking. This version of American socialism, infused with excessive pragmatism, essentially watered down Marxist principles to the point where it was easy for adherents to accept similar brands of a more powerful progressivism. By this process Marx, writes Lloyd, was "whittled down to the size of a social historian."[39] This absence of theory and ideology, which stood in sharp contrast to the theory driven Bolsheviks, for example, explains the failure of the Socialist Party. Lloyd believed that this brand of doctrinally sapped "Marxism" was an ideological trap that continues to ensnare the American left to this day.

To make his case, Lloyd closely examined socialist theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and drew conclusions similar to those of Pittenger. He probed the works of economist and sociologist Throrstein Veblen, particularly his work, Socialist Economics, as an intellectual pathway from Marx to an outright acceptance of pragmatism by socialists sometime between 1905 (the date of the book's publication in English) and 1912. Lloyd also explored the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey as influences on American socialist thought in addition to a number of the sources used by Pittenger (Hillquit, for example), and early twentieth century socialist periodicals. Lloyd contrasted the character of these influences and sources with what he interpreted as genuine Marxism- a Marxism that, "reflects a sympathetic engagement with the works of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Georgy Lukacs, and Mao Tse-tung."[40]

With such a departure from "pure Marxism" on the part of American socialists, historical debates over the role of factionalism in the party as a prime culprit in the Socialist Party's failure was trivial in Lloyd's analysis. The main problem, which ran much deeper than infighting, was an ideological one. Toward the end of his work, Lloyd implied a Marxist-Leninist solution to the "poverty" of American socialists and what he perceived to be their belief that electoral success, or working within a capitalist framework, can create revolution. He wrote, "No matter how patiently it was awaited or urgently it was summoned, no natural agent of revolution emerged from the cauldron of modern industry. Trade unionism has never, of its own volition, transmuted into anti-capitalism; no electoral socialist, on either side of the Atlantic, has used a bourgeois state to dismantle capitalism." [41]

Investigating why something did not happen, rather than why it did, presents a unique set of problems for historians, as well as socialists today. To present an argument for the absence of a strong, viable socialist movement in the United States, or its decline in the early part of the twentieth century, is to argue something about the forces that prevented the growth of this movement. While some historians have argued that internal disputes or party orientation are primarily to blame, others have pointed to external factors, positing that there is something unique about America's character that secured the triumph of capitalism and the death of a strong left. This "internal vs. external" debate has been colored by shifts within the discipline of history. These changes have allowed historians to reassess the socialist movement with fresh theoretical frameworks and provide new analysis that further elucidates the period while laying the groundwork for future historians to continue to solve this perennial question. We know that, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." With these future historians, a future socialist movement can and should learn from the successes and failures of our own American past and be fully cognizant and realistic about the circumstances given and transmitted from that past that continues to weigh heavily on the present.


[1] This question was first posed by the German Werner Sombart's 1906 publication, Why is there no Socialism in the United States?, (New York: Sharpe, 1976).

[2] Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left, (New York: Knopf, 1969), 35.

[3] Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, The Houses of History, (New York: New York University Press), 2-3.

[4] Iris Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 5.

[5] Ibid., 425.

[6] Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), 195.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Green and Troup, 110-114.

[10] Bell, 116.

[11] David Shannon, The Socialist Party of America, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955), 270.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 264.

[14] Ibid., 129.

[15] James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1967), 327.

[16] Ibid., 328.

[17] Ibid., 327.

[18] Sally Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910-1920, (West Port: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1973), 14-15.

[19] Ibid., 231.

[20] Ibid., 244.

[21] Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982), xi.

[22] Ibid., xi.

[23] Green and Troup, 38.

[24] Salvatore, 23.

[25] Ibid., 55.

[26] Ibid., 271.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Green and Troup, 174.

[30] Richard W. Judd, Socialist Cities: Municipal Politics and the Grass Roots of American Socialism, (Albany: State University of New York, 1989),183.

[31] Ibid., 9.

[32] Ibid., 10.

[33] Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976).

[34] Mark Pittenger, American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 121.

[35] Ibid., 122.

[36] Ibid., 123.

[37] Ibid., 124.

[38] Ibid., 198.

[39] Brian Lloyd, Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 91.

[40] Ibid., 457.

[41] Ibid., 414.