Debs and Socialist Unity

The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs, Volume 3: The Path to a Socialist Party, 1897-1904

Tim Davenport and David Walters, eds. 

Haymarket Books, 2021, 733pp., $26 paperback.

Editors Davenport and Walters certainly have some heavy trekking as they follow the irreplaceable central figure of the emerging U.S. Left through thick, thin, more thin and finally some thick in the recognized leadership of a growing Socialist Party.  Debs emerges as a cagey political craftsman or captain of a ship amid a storm, not as the naif that Left and Right, even noted biographer Nick Salvatore, have too often seen him. He is also, notwithstanding many characterizations by later Leninists in particular, a serious intellectual.

A good 400 pages repeatedly reference the struggle for socialist unity. Until 1901 and even afterward for a few years, factions dating to the middle 1890s or earlier remained at each others’ throats, between shared curses at common enemies, mostly the Socialist Labor Party and its iconic leader Daniel De Leon. Contrary to many accounts, the differences transcended geography and ethnicity, to a considerable extent, even when hidden in those terms. Was it all really a race for power or even domination of a new socialist entity? 

But we need to start with a little background. At the opening of this volume, Debs is extricating himself from the “Social Democracy,” the post-Pullman strike, post-American Railway Union project to create a literal cooperative colony somewhere in the West. For a variety of reasons, this effort quickly collapsed, but Debs felt compelled to recover the financial debts incurred by new comrades. For the first time and for this specific reason, he went on the road as a public lecturer, not for the unions he had served in the past but to cover the debt and also to present himself to large crowds eager to hear his insights or to enjoy his socialistic appeals.

By 1898, Debs was honing his talents, explaining his philosophy on the vast accumulation of wealth in the United States, which “instead of blessing the race, has been the means of enslaving it.” He excoriates capitalism for punishing the least among us, as the “Child Slaves in Georgia” toiling in the cotton mills or the grown men and women driven to crime and thence to prisons. He rails against the expansion of the U.S. military and the monstrous Spanish-American War. He meets holidays such as July 4 with his own version of socialistic patriotism. In short, he is exploring the subject of a unique U.S. socialism as no one had done before. His glory is on display here, and we do not wonder that later socialist orators, emphatically including Norman Thomas, drew lessons and energy from Debs’s public appeals.

Creating a socialist party, a unified party, was a somewhat different matter, and not even a book as comprehensive as this one could encompass the private meetings with members of the contending factions. But Debs seeks, in an open letter of January 1900, to explain or at least explore the complications. His own Social Democratic Party is not quite ready to merge with the faction of the Socialist Labor Party that has not shaken off its sectarian past or ceased to pose itself as more legitimate than Debs’ own entity. Partly to fend off charges of power-seeking, he announces in November 1899 that he will not allow himself to be nominated for president. Was he being evasive? By March, in any case, he retracted his refusal. He noted in April that his misgivings about the SLP faction may have been partly mistaken. Inevitably, he had a few caveats, and one was particularly clear. On the new National Executive Board, women would be represented by a woman. This is not at all surprising: he had defended more than one visiting woman’s suffrage lecturer in Terre Haute, long before he had become a socialist.

Much more time was spent, even in these early days, in Debs arguing that being a progressive, supporting a progressive, especially one running against a corrupt urban machine, was not good enough. Addressing the famed mayor of Toledo, Sam “Golden Rule” Jones, who professed to be a socialist but who proceeded to work with the Democrats, Debs complained that Jones took no real stand for the working class. And so it would be when socialists lost many local offices after early victories, often to “fusion” candidates who professed to be reformers but had support from both parties and ran for the purpose of defeating socialists.

Some of the finest of Debs’s writing comes in his tributes to the fallen: Martin Irons, a martyr to the Knights of Labor; John Peter Altgeld, the great Illinois governor who pardoned the surviving Haymarket defendants; Jesse Cox, a Chicago follower of Edward Bellamy who leaped into the Social Democracy and followed Debs faithfully; and Bellamy himself—these are only a few, among the many tributes to Debs’s living and dead heroes.

There is too much richness here to describe, so much more that the reader will discover. Read entry after entry or skip through and look for items of particular interest. Any method will satisfy curiosity about Debs and the particular era and will warm the heart of any socialist. But the final word on this volume, like its predecessors, belongs to the exquisite care for historical detail. Extensive footnotes follow many entries, explaining and exploring topics as no Introduction could do.  Although the footnotes are ostensibly a sidebar, in them the editors have written a deep scholarly volume about Debs and his world.