• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 in this country has ever had.”

In line with recent scholarship,1 Howe stresses the predominance of the West and South in the early years of the movement, with the greatest strength of the party lying in the trans-Mississippi states. In 1912 Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana gave Debs nearly a tenth of the votes he received. Oklahoman Socialists built the strongest state party in the country and claimed more dues-paying members than the largest state. In 1914 its candidates received 15,000 more votes than the Socialists of New York, which at that time ranked only twenty-ninth among states in the percentage of Socialist votes, and most of them came from upstate.

The grass-roots appeal of early American socialists recalls the mood that E.P. Thompson attributes to the Methodists, who carried into early English radicalism “a profound moral earnestness, a sense of righteousness and of ‘calling’…and (at its best) a high degree of personal responsibility.”2 The evangelical message of Debsian socialism combined religious with secular millenarianism, and thousands of native American Protestants responded as to the preacher’s call to salvation. The old Populists, who joined the movement in great numbers, had tapped the same religious vein and in their old-style evangelist camp meetings had converted church hymns to party uses, as the Socialists did after them. Genuine economic conflicts, many of them of a class nature, and sectarian dogma as well, undoubtedly helped to intensify party zeal. But without the quasi-religious appeal in native accents it is doubtful that grass-roots socialism would have got as far as it did in its attempt to become a major American party.

Like most Americans of their era, the socialists had more than their share of innocence. With a nonpartisan faith in “progress” and no time at all for self-doubt, they were, as Howe puts it, a people who had “not yet heard our century’s bad news.” That news began to pour in after the start of the war in 1914. Not all the bad news for American socialists was related to the guns abroad. Already the reformist elements on the right, along with many of the old Populists, were slipping away to President Wilson’s New Freedom, while the defection or expulsion of leftists was shortening the other end of the spectrum. Intellectuals of all kinds began to join the exodus from the Socialist party. All these troubles, however, were dwarfed by the ones that followed on the American intervention in World War I. The Socialists convened immediately and, heedless of the consequences, took their stand on principle, denounced the intervention as “a crime against the people,” and called for all-out opposition to conscription. The predictable government response was devastating for the old Socialists. Their leaders were jailed or silenced, their publications banned from the mails, their headquarters raided, their meetings broken up, a third of their western locals destroyed.

Paradoxically, the immediate result of the antiwar position was a growth in party membership during the war. But most of the new members came from Slavic immigrants who were seized by sudden enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution. Most of the losses resulting from wartime repressions, on the other hand, were suffered by native-born members from the West and Southwest. A sharp geographical shift in the center of party strength took place. In 1912 fewer than 15 percent of party members were foreign-born, but by 1919 they made up a clear majority. After 1917 the Socialist party bore small resemblance to the old heterogeneous, grass-roots movement. The new recruits knew little about American conditions and scorned the advice of such provincial Socialists as Dan Hogan of Arkansas, who warned that “the psychology of American workers is different” and that the party should “not appear to support Russian methods for America.” The new majority was bent on splitting the movement in order to form a Communist party, in line with the strategy of Moscow. What remained of the socialist movement after the split of 1919 was a pathetic remnant.

In his analysis of this early failure, Irving Howe finds “a thread of continuity” that he believes runs throughout the history of the left in America. “It is a thread of failure to recognize the distinctive characteristics of American life and society, complicated by an equally damaging incapacity, or refusal, to recognize that a strong native tradition of sectarianism contributes heavily to this failure.” In some degree this reverses the more familiar thesis that the faults in the American left are lack of principle and consistency, and a weakness for compromise. The native tradition of sectarianism is illustrated for Howe by the defiant intransigence of the weak American Socialist party’s antiwar stand, at a time when the powerful members of the Second International in European countries were willing to abandon principle and support the war. It was another instance of “the Debsian socialists’ habit of draping a fierce rhetoric onto a somewhat less-than-fierce politics,” a nonrevolutionary party indulging in revolutionary postures. The price was the destruction of their party.

Howe picks up the “thread of failure” in the 1930s, when he became a young participant instead of a reader of socialist history, and he follows the theme through the sad story of that decade. An admirer of Norman Thomas as he was of Debs (both “models of selflessness”), he nevertheless believes that “the purism of the party’s leadership helped speed the decline.” Leaders of the 1930s, like their predecessors, “indulged in a ‘leftist’ rhetoric that brought them moral comfort but no political gain. They were the victims of a fundamentalist Debsian theology regarding the American electoral process.” They never learned “how to reconcile a leftism induced by sensitivity to European events with the need for relating to the greatest wave of social reform this country had seen for many decades”—the New Deal wave that swept along with it many of their potential constituents of the working class. Socialists stood aside, clung to fundamentalist purity, and watched Huey Long and Father Coughlin win the loyalties of their own natural public in the South and West. They refused support for Upton Sinclair’s movement in California and shunned efforts to tilt the New Deal to the left for fear of betraying their principles and being contaminated by the wickedness of the old party. They did not realize that “purity could be had only at the cost of impotence,” and became “victims of their own rectitude.” Howe believes that if “they had only bent a little more, they might not have been broken.” They should have known, he thinks, “that the best way to rally the American people against fascist demagogues was to invoke the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—to appeal, that is, to sacred standards, felt memories, powerful myths of a native democratic past.”

These confessions of party flaws and failures Howe makes painfully, as if they somehow were a breach of personal integrity. (He confesses that the first ballot he cast for a Democratic party candidate made him “almost physically sick.”) He reveals no such qualms in his treatment of the “deeper historical reasons” for the long-term collapse of American socialism. By this he means “the terrifying rise of Stalinism, which led to a perhaps fatal besmirching of the socialist idea.” He traces the ironies and treacheries of the Communist Popular Front in America, which coincided with the peak of the Stalinist terror and the Moscow trials, but he does not go deeply into the tragicomic history of American Communism and its subservience to Moscow. This reticence may be because he has already written extensively on the subject elsewhere.3 And in an engaging autobiography he has described his personal encounter with “the inanities of American Stalinism—posturings of rectitude, fantasies of violence, complete incapacity to attend to the pulse of American experience.” His account of the appeal of Marxism for all its sects is worth recalling in view of the current retreat from the faith:

  1. 1

    Mainly that of James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895–1943 (Louisiana State University Press, 1978).

  2. 2

    E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Random House, 1963).

  3. 3

    Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (1957; Da Capo, 1974).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print