One reason Marxist historical writing often—not, of course, always—turns out to be dry and pedantic is that the Marxist mind finds itself drawn, with an almost punitive willfulness, to such abstractions as “social forces,” “political positions,” and “relations of production.” Before these formidable categories, the actual figures of history tend to fade.

Eugene Debs
Eugene Debs; drawing by David Levine

As if by way of correction, there has recently emerged a group of historians—under the influence of Herbert Gutman, himself influenced by E.P. Thompson—who retain a Marxist flavor but also try to present the history of American labor and radicalism as something richer than a mere unfolding of economic forces and political ideologies. With a glance now and then at psychology, these historians concentrate on the growth of semiautonomous communities and “political cultures,” each of which, in our spacious country, takes shape through abiding by its own peculiar norms. The American socialist experience is thereby seen not just as an endless beating of factional “wings” but as a complex and impassioned enterprise.

At its best, as in Nick Salvatore’s recent biography of Eugene Debs, this school of historians has written strong works that recreate neglected portions of the American past. At its less-than-best, as, say, in Mari Jo Buhle’s recent Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920, it has given us a mixture of firstrate research, bad prose, and a leftish sentimentalism that would make the experience of “community” central to the radical past—as if what matters is not whether socialist movements achieved, or should have achieved, their proclaimed ends but whether they gave a “meaningful experience” to their members.

Nick Salvatore’s biography is very solid work. He really knows the inner world of Debsian socialism, and he is shrewd in relating Debs’s public presence to his personal life. There is little jargon in the book, and the prose is often alive—for example in his account of the bitter defeat of Debs’s American Railway Union in the Pullman strike of 1894. Salvatore offers more information about Debs’s early years as a trade unionist than even fervent admirers are likely to want, but they can skip some of it.

Earlier biographies of Debs have tended to hagiography, but Salvatore, while deeply admiring, avoids this trap. Tracing Debs’s career in forming the American Socialist party—he was its presidential candidate five times after 1900—Salvatore shows Debs to have been a troubled man, and troubled in ways that seem special to his historical moment. Marriage to a snobbish, ambitious woman not really in sympathy with Debs’s outlook; a close dependence on an adoring brother, who cared for Debs with slavish faithfulness; a rhythm of exhausting, almost orgiastic speaking tours followed by weeks of collapse in bed; a Victorian-style love affair, sweetly hopeless, with intervening visits to brothels during the lecture trips—the mixture of puritan asceticism and Midwestern roughhouse is sympathetically portrayed by Salvatore. He refrains, one is glad to note, from pasting a psychiatric label on Debs or from indulging in the tricks of the debunker.

The Debs who emerges is a flawed human being—very flawed—yet an extraordinary person; a man deficient in self-knowledge, as public figures usually are, but also a great tribune. Especially interesting, at least to me, is the fact that, with all due allowance for shifting fashions in culture and sexual behavior, many of the contradictory elements Salvatore observes in Debs are also present in the socialist leaders who followed him. Perhaps anyone who leads opposition minority movements must bear so much pressure that it causes internal cracks of character or aggravates those already present.

Salvatore places Debs within a tradition of native evangelism but does so without vulgarly reducing Debs’s politics to mere displaced religiosity. Here is a characteristic passage on this theme:

The tradition of evangelical Protestant reform that had so structured the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement did not disappear in the post-war years. Both the temperance and women’s suffrage movements retained part of that tradition, and labor organizers and working people often appealed to it in their struggles with industrial capitalism. The Bible provided a complex of values that justified workers’ struggles against autocratic authority, values that were seen as the “fixed and eternal laws of God for the ordering of society.” As with the American Revolutionary heritage, itself perceived as based on these eternal truths, the folk religion of American Protestantism offered both justification for labor’s opposition to aspects of industrial capitalism and assurance of ultimate success.

Debs was primarily a speaker in the great tradition of American public speaking, indeed, more an agitator than a party leader, and in all his oratory there is a steady appeal to a norm or ideal he called “manhood.” Become a socialist and you will redeem your manhood, an attribute of which industrial capitalism has robbed you. What I think Debs meant to invoke was the idea of independence, which allowed for, even required, a sense of community, as against the more extreme, Social-Darwinist varieties of individualism. His language was calculated to appeal to Americans displaced by the rise of the city and the factory—craftsmen and farmers who had suffered falls in status, shocks of identity, and a loss of opportunity for using traditional skills. It is a rhetoric that has its links with the Whitman of Democratic Vistas and the Sherwood Anderson of Poor White.


To speak of political radicalism as a way of redeeming “manhood”: isn’t this to echo Emerson’s theme of self-reliance and Thoreau’s eccentric attacks on alienation? Salvatore makes it clear that Debs, while hardly a scholar of American transcendentalism (or anything else), was consciously appealing to a cherished strand of the American past, intent on showing that the tradition of “radical republicanism” could now, in the industrial age, be fulfilled only through the politics of socialism.

By providing this emphasis, which I regard as essentially correct, Salvatore disposes of all the talk about American socialism being a mere alien “import,” a “European ideology.” Of course, in part it was exactly that, but except for immigrant sects in the late nineteenth century, it was also decidedly more. In Debs’s hands the socialist message underwent a transformation: it took on an authentic native accent and reflected strong native sentiments. We come here to a paradox that is very important for anyone trying to understand the history of American radicalism. Those of us who, in recent decades, suffered the repeated failures of socialism in America have searched for ways to escape the rigidities of old-line European Marxism, especially its Bolshevik offshoot. We have therefore turned back with some eagerness to Debsian socialism—everyone needs a golden age!—as a possible instance of a more generous, less sectarian left-wing politics. And so in part Debsian socialism was.

But the truth is, and Salvatore doesn’t quite face up to it, that much of what has been doctrinaire and sectarian in American socialism—for instance, its claims of electoral rectitude which, at least until recently, led to the rigid insistence that it’s sinful to vote for liberal candidates of old parties—springs precisely from the evangelical tradition to which Debs lent so bright a glow. If you are leading an army utterly confident that it’s marching into the dawn, you aren’t likely to stop at ballot boxes to vote for the lesser evil. Debsian socialism, then, may provide later generations of American radicals with moral and emotional inspiration, but if they turn to it for political guidance they are likely to get into trouble.

That Debs had a profound impact on his listeners and could stir them to strong emotions of fraternity, almost everyone who heard him has testified. A “hard-bitten Socialist,” writes Salvatore, once confessed that, while disdainful of the “sentimental flummery” of socialist rhetoric, he felt that

the funny part of it is that when Debs says “comrade,” it is all right. He means it. That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around I believe it myself.

Well, I suspect that if I’d been “around” at the time I’d have “believed it,” but I would also have been grumbling about Debs’s deficiencies as a leader. He had a way of dissolving hard political problems in a wash of sentiment, and that caused his movement, especially once it progressed from large sect to small party, a good deal of grief. Within the Socialist party he played an ambiguous and by no means entirely positive role, making whatever he said in his speeches appear to be socialist policy simply because it was he who said it, yet also refusing to play a responsible part in the movement’s internal life or its troubled efforts to hammer out a common policy. Debs didn’t even attend most of the party’s conventions, and while he surely didn’t mean to do anything that could be called antidemocratic, the consequences sometimes were.

Salvatore suggests that one reason Debs shied away from the party’s inner life was that he felt inadequate before such “theoreticians” as Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit—which, even as it makes one smile a little, may be true. Berger, as it happens, was no theoretician at all, only a very shrewd tactician better attuned, despite his German accent, to American realities than the maximalist socialists and the syndicalists of the IWW. Hillquit, in his quieter way, was a thoughtful man who rarely tried to bully Debs. Again we encounter a recurrent problem of socialist politics: so great is the respect in which its participants hold intellectuality that a good many of those who are ill-trained intellectually end up with a strident resentment of intellectuals.


The above-the-factions attitude that Debs usually maintained within his party kept him free from factional burdens but it also meant he could enjoy the authority of leadership without accepting many of its responsibilities. Again, for some curious reason, this would be a recurrent problem in American radicalism—the charge of being simultaneously in and out of the party would later be brought against Norman Thomas, though not with as much justification as against Debs. During the late 1960s a charismatic leader of the civil rights movement, Bob Moses, would refuse to accept the tokens of leadership, sitting in the back of the hall when his group held meetings. Some observers were enchanted with this visible modesty, but I thought it signified an unwillingness to accept the reality of a leader’s position and thereby served to smudge democratic procedures. A leader ought to sit in the front if only because that makes it easier to criticize him openly.

Reading Debs’s speeches today one finds it hard entirely to grasp the source and nature of his appeal: they often seem like wilted flowers from the garden of nineteenth-century eloquence. To say that, however, may be no more than to acknowledge the loss of élan, the dissipation of hope that are characteristic of the present movement. Yet especially for those of us who have had more than a taste of the sour fruit produced by an ideologically “correct” radicalism, Debsian socialism still has many attractive qualities. It was generous in its sentiments, quick to offer solidarity to the oppressed—Debs raced through the country joining with striking workers, besieged farmers, isolated miners, exploited sharecroppers. Debsian socialism linked immigrant laborers and native craftsmen; it brought together, as comrades no less, “Red Tom” Hickey of Texas, who wore red shirts to party conventions as a way of showing where he stood politically, and Meyer London, the somber labor lawyer from the Lower East Side of New York. It tolerated a large diversity of opinion within the ranks, never lusting for monolithism. It gave thousands of Americans a conviction that they could become historical actors.

But what seems most impressive about the Debsian party is that it wasn’t a sect. There were near-sects within the party, but on the whole Debsian socialism had succeeded in wrenching itself out of that narrow righteousness and complacent hermeticism which marks the sect. Nothing is today easier than for sophisticated historians to point out the frequent incoherence, rhetorical excesses, and intellectual laxities of Debsian socialism. All true enough. But you cannot expect to find in a popular movement the kind of ideological rigor or even moral purity that can thrive in a sect. Nor can you expect to find in a party which by 1912 had more than 100,000 members those intellectual refinements said to be present among elite scholarly groups. Nor should you be surprised that a movement opposing the dominant culture nevertheless takes on many of its qualities, betraying, for example, deplorable failures on such matters as racism. A socialist movement may aspire to transform human consciousness—to “redeem manhood,” as Debs would have it—but insofar as it gathers to itself large numbers of people it must deal with consciousness untransformed.

By 1912 the Debsian party had reached a dangerous point. It was safely past the isolation of the sect, but had not yet reached the comforts of a mass movement. It had become large enough to be regarded as a threat by the reigning powers, yet it was not strong enough to defend itself from the attacks it would soon have to face—attacks which, because of its utterly American innocence and rashness, it partly brought on itself. And its flaws of thought began to count more heavily, quite to the extent that the party itself did.

I can mention here only one of these flaws—the persistent inability of the Debsian party to work out a clear stand on trade unionism. Had there been at the time a trade union movement indisputably strong, the problem would have been eased; but the AFL was small, stodgy, and craft-conscious, while the rival IWW was vivid, reckless, and exactly the sort of movement that would appeal to the American romantic imagination. Should socialists, in a grand gesture of defiance, throw in their lot with the syndicalist IWW? Or accept, as a mark of inescapable reality, the limitations of the AFL? Or seek a more complex policy requiring them to work loyally within the AFL while criticizing its failures and trying gradually to modify its positions?

On this central matter Debs was seriously at fault, and Salvatore lets him off too easily. Debs failed to understand or at least to act consistently on the understanding that there are severe limits to what the left can expect from the unions. The one thing it has no right to expect is that they should do its own work. At times Debs shrewdly criticized the fecklessness of the IWW; but then, carried away by his own rhetoric, he would lapse into a sectarian insistence upon trying to form “revolutionary” industrial unions.” Now, except perhaps for brief intervals of extreme social tension, the idea of a “revolutionary” union is a contradiction in terms. When Debs attacked Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, for the failure to organize low-paid industrial workers, he made sense; but when he stomped all over Gompers for “class collaboration”—and worse still, through intermittent support of the IWW opened himself to charges of “dual unionism”—he was helping to deepen the split between labor and socialists which would prove to be so great a disaster for the American left.

Salvatore understands what I’ve put here summarily, but a part of him—his heart, no doubt—seems still to respond to the old rebel enchantment with the Wobblies. He writes that “Taking control of the national [Socialist] party apparatus from those exclusively committed to a narrow, AFL-oriented policy, while striving to preserve a place for them within the party, could have greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the Socialist movement.” Almost half a century of painful experience leads me to doubt this. The IWW was a movement responsive to marginal circumstances in American society; its “frontier radicalism” was effective for a time in mining and lumber camps, but finally it was ill-suited to the growing industrial working class. The IWW could not maintain its occasional spectacular gains won through dramatic strikes. It proved unwilling or unable to nail down lasting contracts with employers. It lacked the stability and doggedness that trade unions need. All this Debs knew in part of his mind, yet he could not make a sharp enough break, not so much from the IWW itself as from the emotions and styles it embodied.

By now it’s hard not to conclude that Debsian socialism contained too large a quota of innocence, too great a readiness—quite in the American grain—to let spirit do the work of mind. The vision of the future held by the Debsians was remarkably simplistic: remember, they were Americans. Questions that have since troubled thoughtful people on the left—the relations between workers and a party speaking in its name, the difficulties of aligning economic planning with personal freedom, the specter of bureaucratism—were seldom discussed by the Debsians, and then only by a few intellectuals like William English Walling. Familiar enough with defeat, Debsian socialism was temperamentally alien to tragedy. Like most Americans of their day, the Debsian socialists had little talent for self-doubt; like most Americans, they looked toward a gleaming future with the assurance of people who had not yet heard this, or any other, century’s bad news.

The decline of the Debsian party was rapid, between 1912 and 1917. Daniel Bell argues that it was caused mainly by the dispute between the left and right wings of the party in 1912; James Weinstein that the party didn’t really suffer serious losses until the liberal Wilson administration began its assaults on the socialists once this country entered the First World War. It’s hard to decide who is right. So little time elapsed between one supposed cause of decline and another that it seems almost impossible to distinguish among the effects.

Here, in outline, is the sequence: in 1912, an “antisabotage” clause adopted at the party’s convention led to the departure of leftist, pro-Wobbly elements, mostly in the West, at about the same time that Wilsonian progressivism was luring away comrades from the party’s right; but only a few years intervened between these events and the entry of the US into the war, which the Socialist party opposed vehemently, perhaps even rashly, and therefore it soon bore the brunt of government assault. Yet only a few years later the Bolshevik revolution tore apart the entire movement and led to the establishment of the Communist International with its weird American grouplets. All of these events cascaded so rapidly, the Debsian party could hardly orient itself to what they signified. It was hard for the socialists to respond to the rise of the progressive movements, which ran counter to the Debsian premise that there are two basic sides in society and no intermediary group can matter very much.

About all of these events Salvatore writes intelligently, but not, I think, with sufficiently critical focus—and that, after all, is what the American left needs most. He tends to see the Debsian crackup as unavoidable, and perhaps it was. But he doesn’t take up, for instance, Daniel Bell’s charge that Debs was relatively restrained in his criticisms during the first months of the war and only launched his fierce attacks on America’s entry into the war when some of the right-wing socialists started moving toward a “moderate” position that tended to muffle the antiwar stand.

This is a matter requiring analysis beyond the scope of a review; but let me just say that while I think the socialist analysis of the First World War and America’s role in it was largely correct, there was something innocently suicidal—and utterly American—in the vehemence with which Debs and his comrades bucked the Wilson war machine. It was as if they hadn’t troubled to measure the consequences for their organization or couldn’t really believe their own rhetoric about capitalist repressiveness. A small and vulnerable party might have been a little more cautious or, what often seems a scandalous idea to the American left, a little more clever than the Debsians were; it might have tried to retain the core of its principles while taking cover in a bad time. As it was, American socialism as an organized movement never quite recovered from the blows that the Wilson administration dealt it and the mob violence that followed. In saying this, I’m threatening one of the sustaining myths of the American left—namely, the glory of the socialist opposition to the First World War—but perhaps it’s time to do that.

Once Debs made his famous Canton speech attacking the war, he was indicted by the government and, upon conviction, sentenced by an inflamed judge to ten years in prison. It was an outrageous sentence; indeed, the hysteria unleashed by Wilson and his friends forms one of the heaviest blots on the record of American liberalism. Before the court Debs then spoke the great words of his life:

While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Nick Salvatore has brought Debs back to us, with more weaknesses and troubles than we knew about, but still as a vibrant and touching figure, that gaunt American whose voice trembled with the persuasion “that there can be such a thing as a brotherhood of man.” Imagine, in an America as flat-spirited and ungenerous as it is today, anyone presuming to resurrect these words!

This Issue

November 10, 1983