Whatever Happened to Socialism?

Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America

by James Burkhart Gilbert
Wiley, 291 pp., $6.95

In the years immediately preceding the First World War, the socialist movement laid down deep roots in the United States, in spite of many obstacles. James Weinstein, in a brilliant study of the Socialist party that will alter many of the prevailing assumptions about American radicalism, shows that at its numerical peak in 1912, the party had 118,000 members well distributed throughout the country. It claimed 323 English and foreign-language publications with a total circulation probably in excess of two million. The largest of the socialist newspapers, The Appeal to Reason of Girard, Kansas, had a weekly circulation of 761,747. In 1912, the year Eugene V. Debs polled 6 percent of the Presidential vote, Socialists held 1,200 offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. As late as 1918, they elected 32 state legislators. In 1916, they elected Meyer London to Congress and made important gains in the municipal elections of several large cities.

In sharp contrast to later radical organizations, the Socialist party was broad enough to include many different tendencies and points of view; nor did these harden into factions. Contrary to an accepted view of pre-war Socialism as narrow and marginal—a view, according to Weinstein, that reads back into an earlier period the characteristics of American radicalism in the-late Twenties and Thirties—the party was inclusive, nonsectarian, and given to “searching and open debate.” Another cliché about Socialism is that the party declined rapidly after 1912; but a close study of the evidence, Weinstein argues, discloses “a patchwork pattern [of losses and gains] which does not lend itself to generalizations.” In his view, neither Wilson’s New Freedom nor the war destroyed the Socialist party; rather, it died from internal wounds inflicted in a series of struggles growing out of the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of a militant new left wing. Weinstein’s detailed analysis of these battles, together with his reassessment of the pre-war Socialist party, casts the entire history of the American Left into a new light.

The strength of the pre-war party, according to Weinstein, lay in its ability to combine a commitment to thorough-going social transformation with “constructive” political action, in the party’s terminology—that is, responsiveness to the needs of its constituents. Thus the Socialists cooperated with the trade union movement in its attempt to win immediate gains for workers, and opposed dual unionism on the grounds that it jeopardized those gains. Yet, on the other hand, it did not identify itself so closely with the union movement that the party itself, as in Europe, was absorbed into the industrial system, becoming dependent on its continuation and therefore unable to dissociate itself from the catastrophes into which capitalist society was about to plunge. If the Socialist party of America, alone among socialist organizations in the West, opposed the First World War, that was because it saw its function not as the promotion of unionism as such, but as the creation of socialist consciousness in the working class and its middle-class allies. On the…

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