American Socialism, Then and Now (Part One)


Eugene Debs at Canton. (Wikimedia Commons)

When this post by the esteemed Nelson Lichtenstein came our way, we were both surprised and honored. It also felt like a proper entry into our “Bad Socialists” series. (You decide who’s the bad socialist here.)

As Mark Twain once said, history never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes. So here are some observations about the outlook of self conscious leftists during three historic moments: the Debsian era just before and during the First World War; the Depression and CIO years; and finally the post-World War II years when racial issues became of the utmost importance within the labor movement.

I’ll try to explain when and why the Left could sometimes play a strategic role, and then why first Socialists and then Communists seemed to vanish from political life even as some of their most important ideas triumphed. And I’ll hint at some Twenty-first-Century parallels, although such historical rhyming can as easily lead us astray as it can frame our contemporary strategy.

A Debsian moment for socialists.  The era just before World War I resembles the contemporary U.S. in the following sense: while capital ruled supreme at the national and international levels, and while the union movement was weak and episodic in its influence, there was a powerful current of activism and reform both on the left, and among liberals a powerful current of activism and reform.

As with so much anti-Trumpism today, resistance came from urban America. The left-wing press, both Progressive and Socialist, was growing, hundreds of cities had socialist mayors and city councilmen, and the left in America had been invigorated by a wave of immigrants, many of whom had been radicals and revolutionaries in the old country. The National Consumers League embodied a species of socialist or laborite feminism. Yiddish socialism and Italian anarchism had a mass constituency, while German, Scandinavian, Bohemian, and Scottish skilled tradesmen often formed the trade union base for socialists within the unions.  And of course a tribune like Eugene V. Debs foreshadowed the influence of a Bernie Sanders, and like Sanders, Debs often presided over a socialist left whose enthusiasm could not mask its divisions.

There were two broad wings to the socialist movement. The “Milwaukee socialists” under leadership of Victor Berger – and the several other such city based socialist organizations – were and are often denominated as the “right wing.” They were based on a strata of skilled northern European workers who disdained the new immigrants, but maintained a dense web of social and educational associations that helped maintain a strong socialist culture. They enacted municipal reforms that their leftwing rivals called “sewer socialism.” Their rivals were the industrial unionists, some organized into the Industrial Workers of the World. Debs aligned himself with the left, although unlike the IWW, Socialists of his stripe ran repeated campaigns for office, both at the presidential level and below. In short the Socialist party of this era was divided politically and ethnically, and full of contradictions.

It inspires us still, but I want to say a word here for the Milwaukee right wingers. As David Montgomery once reminded his students, sewer socialism was a very good thing for the immigrant slum dwellers of urban America who lacked proper sanitation; moreover, the incremental reformism of the right wing socialists extended a transitional invitation to the decidedly non-socialist rest of the working class, not to mention the petty bourgeoisie. Church-going Irish were not about to sign on to the IWW, but as Lizabeth Cohen demonstrated in her account of trade unionism in depression era Chicago, the collapse of religious and ethnic self-help organizations in the early depression years, opened the door to a more secular and social democratic conception of society. The Reds of her era thereby became “radical boosters of the state.” The same men and women who turned out for anti-eviction protests in 1932 became the cadre pushing for and sometimes staffing the social welfare apparatus that ballooned during the Depression years and afterward. An earlier  generation of historians and socialists were likely to look with great skepticism upon this melding of radical demand and state response: it was the essence of co-optation. But today, some of us are more likely to cheer it on.

Many Socialists also cheered the Bolshevik Revolution, but the idea of forming a revolutionary Communist Party in the U.S. divided American leftists. The Socialists split, with many first generation immigrants forming the membership of the new Communist Party, while the middle class elements remained loyal to the Socialists. The Bolsheviks tended to sniff at those professionals in the Party. Trotsky called the World War I era socialists a “Party of Dentists”, but that kind of workerist condescension is a grave mistake, because a political formation is best known and most effective not because of its demographic composition but for its energy, elan and organizational initiatives. The new socialist enthusiasts inspired by Bernie and the Trump resistance are hardly representative of the entire American polity, but while we should strive to reach out to people of color and others who are more representative of multicultural America, we should not feel sheepish about the demographic peculiarities of our movement: it has always been so and those who become self defined radicals have never been a mirror image of the entire population.

William Z Foster was not an educated professional . He was however one of the most creative figures in the years before he became a Stalinist stalwart. Foster had been a Wobbly and he was always a syndicalist. He never put much effort into political action unlike the other Debsians. However, Foster was hostile to dual unionism and he found inside the AFL and its local affiliates numerous partners in the era of World War I. He was a creative opportunist, taking the lab  or movement as i t existed and then prodding it in the direction he thought most efficacious. Foster was against the war, but unlike the Debsians he did not advertise it; and while he was an industrial unionist, he did not fetishize that either. Along with others of an Irish or British background he imported into the US the amalagamated idea; craft unions would cooperate under a central council to build power in an industry, but retain their membership and identity. This he brilliantly put into play in 1917 with formation of the Stockyard’s Labor Council, which itself was closely linked to the Chicago Federation of Labor, then under the progressive and dynamic leadership of John Fitzpatrick.

The meatpacking drive was an economic if not an organizational success – in the midst of war and with the demand for packinghouse labor acute, the government pushed the packers to dramatically improve working conditions, even as formal union recognition remained illusive – and it provided the template for the great steel drive of 1918 and 1919, another amalgamated effort that stood at the core of the greatest strike wave in U.S. history. The steel strike was a huge success among immigrant workers, who stayed out for months, but it failed utterly among two other groups, skilled, English speaking workers of Northern European descent and African Americans whose jobs in both packinghouse and in steel were in an immediate sense a product of the Jim Crow outlook of so many U.S. unions and the willingness of capital to use that racial exclusivity against white labor by hiring black workers during the wartime labor shortage.

The effort to do something about this racial chasm would during the next four decades constitute the single greatest contribution of the Communist Party to U.S. trade unionism and to American society more generally. W.E.B. DuBois voted for Eugene V. Debs in 1904, but he also asserted, in a socialist party publication no less, “That the Negro problem then is the great test of the American Socialist.”

Tomorrow, how labor’s power transmuted the conversation, and how a bunch of pacifists saved socialism.