The Lost Cause

Socialism and America

by Irving Howe
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 225 pp., $17.95

Lost causes, especially those that foster lingering loyalties and nostalgic memories, are among the most prolific breeders of historiography. If survivors deem the cause not wholly lost and perhaps in some measure retrievable, the search of the past becomes more frantic and the books about it more numerous. Blame must be fixed, villains found, heroes celebrated, old quarrels settled, old dreams restored, and motives vindicated. Amid the ruins controversy thrives and books proliferate.

Few would deny that at present the socialist cause in America has rarely looked more lost, its prospects more dismal, or its adherents more divided and confused. Yet the search of the past for answers to the old questions continues undiminished. Why is this country the only industrial nation in history that has produced no significant movement for socialism? Were the causes of failure to be found outside or inside the movement? In either case what were they? Why the ups and downs of such small successes as were briefly enjoyed? Why, in the last upswing, did members of the New Left assume that they had no history and cut themselves off from their forebears?

Irving Howe, long-term editor of Dissent and author of several works bearing on this subject, describes his book as “a modest contribution toward the renewal of socialist thought,” but “not a history of that movement.” And yet history forms the matrix of his reflections and is a constant reference point: what happened and why. “Let us stop the clock at 1912,” he begins, thus starting with the golden age of American socialism, the era of Eugene Debs. This was the brief period before American intervention in the First World War, when the Socialist party seemed to be entering the mainstream of American political life. In the 1912 election it polled nearly 6 percent of the total vote, and elected more than a thousand Socialists to office, including one congressman, fifty-six mayors of cities scattered from Michigan to California, and many councilmen and aldermen. More than three hundred socialist newspapers, most of them weeklies, with an estimated total circulation of two million or more, spread the message. But that was the peak of the movement, never again approached, and the promise was never fulfilled.

Reflecting on those years of the movement, Howe is impressed, as others have been, with its heterogeneity as well as with its ingenuous enthusiasm. Its impassioned editors and orators mixed fierce calls for direct revolutionary action with bland Christian moralizing, homespun Marxism, western syndicalism, and naive idealism, all of them caught up in the prevailing optimism of the Progressive era. Among the oddly assorted components of the Socialist party for a time were stolid Wisconsin social democrats, fire-eating Wobblies of the IWW, Yiddish-speaking New Yorkers, Texas Populists, Oklahoma tenants and miners, and Christian socialists from all over. Presiding over this conglomeration, but keeping himself aloof from its internal disputes, was Eugene Victor Debs, “an orator able to establish a rapport with the American people such as no other radical …

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