American Socialist Historiography: Pushing Back

Gary Dorrien highlights the vital contribution of Christian socialists to the tradition of democratic socialism
Most scholarship on American socialism contends that its significant tradition was the Communist one and the Socialist Party never had a chance of becoming significant. And virtually all scholarship on American socialism slights the distinct contribution of Christian socialists to it. I take a different view on both counts. 

          Two classic books published in 1952 dominated this field for a generation, summarizing opposite traditions of assessment yielding a similar verdict. Political scientist Ira Kipnis, in The American Socialist Movement, argued that the Socialist Party was doomed from the beginning by its accommodating social democratic reformism. Kipnis said the right wing of the party led by Milwaukee journalist-politician Victor Berger was consumed with winning elections and the mainstream of the party led by New York journalist-politician Morris Hillquit was only slightly less opportunistic. The party debated immediate demands and true Marxism at its founding, but adopted the wrong answer. It got a second chance at correcting its course in 1905 when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded, but Eugene Debs did not stick with the IWW and most of the party loathed the anarcho-syndicalism and violence of the IWW.

          The party lost its last chance of becoming important when it censured its left flank of IWW members in 1912 and expelled IWW leader Bill Haywood from the Executive Committee the following year. Kipnis contributed mightily to the legend that the IWW Wobblies were the real thing and the flanks led by Hillquit and Berger were sellouts. The real thing was anarchist in hating government and syndicalist in contending that worker syndicates should run the country. True leftism versus opportunism explained the failure of the Socialist Party, culminating in the Haywood drama. Had Kipnis peaked ahead to World War I, he would have had to explain how it was that Hillquit and Berger stoutly opposed the war while nearly all its intellectuals—some of them true-believing left-wingers–capitulated to it.1

          Sociologist Daniel Bell, in Marxian Socialism in the United States, agreed from an opposite standpoint that the party was hopelessly futile from the beginning, contending that every Socialist leader espoused a utopian vision of social transformation that made the party alien to American society and marginal in it. According to Bell, AFL leader Samuel Gompers was the wise hero who figured out how to make social democratic gains in capitalist America, whereas Debs, Hillquit, and Berger clung to an un-American fantasy. Subsequently the Socialist Party crawled onward at the national level only because it had a compelling figurehead, Thomas. Just as Kipnis looked down on his subject from the superior vantage point of pro-Communist radicalism, Bell looked down as a Cold War liberal, having recently outgrown his youthful attachment to Norman Thomas Socialism. The Socialists, Bell said, were ideologues in a pluralistic and technocratic society that eventually put an end to ideology itself.2

 “Alabama Communists came from the working class, had little or no connection to Euro-American traditions of radical politics, and consisted mostly of religious black wage earners and sharecroppers, housewives, and renegade liberals.”

          These rival books cast a long shadow over scholarship on the American Left. The fact that they drove to the same conclusion about the futility of American democratic socialism solidified this verdict as a convention. Cold War liberalism, combining anti-Communist containment and the domestic reforms of the New Deal, dominated the scholarship and politics of the 1950s and early 1960s. To render the legacy of American democratic socialism less negatively, one had to take the Kipnis and Bell outcome for granted while alleviating the story of their harshness. Two political historians, Howard Quint and David Shannon, took this approach in the mid-1950s, winsomely playing up that a remarkable array of Americans identified with the Socialist Party over the decades.

          Quint, in The Forging of American Socialism (1953), and Shannon, in The Socialist Party of America (1955), suggested that American democratic socialism could not have been such a hopeless idea if it attracted so many prairie Populists, Jewish garment workers, Protestant clerics, old-American patricians, and sewer socialists. Quint covered the period between 1865 and 1901, and Shannon from 1901 to 1950. They got the main thing right without grasping the defining sociological weakness of the party. The Socialist Party was a social movement bound by an ideology and a very weak organizational structure. It was never an organized political party that overcame its factional disputes, and its ideological separatism thwarted the labor party option back when it was a real option. Quint and Shannon eschewed interpretation to the point of failing to explain what went wrong for American democratic socialists; presumably, what went wrong was self-evident.3

          Many scholars specialized in the ostensibly more important subject, American Communism. In 1957 political historian Theodore Draper, a former correspondent in the 1930s for the Communist Daily Worker, wrote a pioneering, detailed, astute, and devastating insider history, Roots of American Communism. Draper argued that the Communist Party surpassed the Socialist Party because it slavishly carried out every shift, reversal, alliance, and conspiracy ordered by its masters in Moscow. This was a story of orders transmitted by Kremlin bosses to their compliant servants in New York. Whatever laudable things that American Communists did—defending the poor, supporting black Americans, helping to found the CIO, trying to create a Farmer-Labor party—were incidental by comparison. Communists, whenever so ordered, were willing to reverse direction, sabotage unions and coalitions, and lie about anything, especially their own politics.

          Draper portrayed American Communism as more evil than stupid. Socialism was deeply alien to American society, exactly as Bell said, and the only kind that succeeded in America was totalitarian, never mind that Communist and pro-Communist dupes shielded themselves from realizing what sort of outfit they defended. Many scholars amplified Draper’s picture of America’s homegrown Communist menace, notably Shannon, Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, Nathan Glazer, and Harry Overstreet. Nearly always they came from Socialist, pro-Communist, or Communist backgrounds themselves, citing former Communists who became professional anti-Communists. Jay Lovestone and Benjamin Gitlow, upon falling from the top of the American Communist hierarchy, were pioneers of the former-Communist anti-Communist genre; later there were many others, notably James Burnham, Max Eastman, and Whittaker Chambers.4

          Scholarship on American Communism shifted dramatically when scholars applied the social history approach to it, focusing on Communists who never got a directive from Moscow. Maurice Isserman wrote the breakthrough social history, Which Side Were You On? (1982), reinterpreting the role of American Communism in the Popular Front campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s. Isserman contended that Communists fled the party in the late 1950s because the Cold War abolished any prospect of a new Popular Front, not because they were disillusioned by Soviet rule at the Draper level. A gusher of social histories ensued, usually focusing on black Communists and the CIO unions, where Communists controlled or exercised dominant influence in 15 internationals numbering approximately 1.4 million members.

          Ronald Schatz, Mark Naison, Bruce Nelson, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Michael Goldfield were pioneers of the social history genre. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (1990) made a seminal contribution, detailing the struggles of Alabama Communists against the racist police state of Alabama in the 1930s and ‘40s. Kelley stressed that Alabama Communists came from the working class, had little or no connection to Euro-American traditions of radical politics, and consisted mostly of religious black wage earners and sharecroppers, housewives, and renegade liberals. Reflecting on the chasm between black Alabama Communists and the party bosses in New York, Kelley noted aptly that if black Alabamans had waited “patiently for orders from Moscow, they might still be waiting today.”5

          American democratic socialism exploded under the Communist eruption of 1919, fought American Communism at the Draper level for decades, and fell behind the Communists in the 1930s in racial justice activism and organizing CIO unions. The New Left revisionism that famously disputed Cold War liberalism in the 1960s and yielded the social histories of the 1980s extended to how the early Socialist Party should be understood. Political historian James Weinstein was the leading New Left revisionist about the Socialist Party. In The Decline of Socialism in America (1967), he contended that Kipnis and Bell were too prejudiced against their subject to get it right.

          Kipnis said the sellout leaders who opposed Haywood sealed the party’s fate; Bell said Woodrow Wilson’s liberalism sealed the party’s fate, making socialism irrelevant in American life; Weinstein showed that Socialist activism increased after the anarcho-syndicalists bolted and Wilson entered the White House, contrary to Kipnis and Bell. Moreover, none of the party’s leftwing leaders (Debs, Ella Reeve Bloor, Louis Boudin, Emil Herman, Kate O’Hare, Charles Ruthenberg, and Rose Pastor Stokes) or its leading leftwing intellectuals (Frank Bohn, Jack London, J. G. Phelps-Stokes, and William English Walling) dropped their Socialist politics.6

“The Socialist Party outperformed all its European counterparts in the electoral arena up to 1918 despite its small size and union base.”

          I take the latter point from Weinstein while stressing that American socialism never acquired anywhere near the labor movement base of the British Labour Party and the Continental Social Democratic parties. The early Socialist Party was too extraordinary for its own good, combining so many ethnic groups, regional cultures, and social movements that Debs and Hillquit saw no need to ally with anybody except on Socialist terms, while Debs and Haywood castigated the entire AFL as a corrupt sellout. Even after the party lost the Haywood anarcho-syndicalists, it remained a thriving political force that improved its record on racial justice, supported the rights of women, and welcomed a gusher of immigrants. The party’s early factionalism gave way to a more coherent democratic socialism, to the extent that such a thing was possible in a ramshackle federalist structure, and Debs forged a genuine friendship and political bond with Hillquit. The Socialist Party outperformed all its European counterparts in the electoral arena up to 1918 despite its small size and union base. The vicious government persecution of the party for its antiwar stand might have been enough to cripple it irreparably; as it was the Communist eruption tore apart the entire Socialist world. The American Communist Party arose at the expense of the Socialist Party it devastated.  


The Vital Role of Christian Socialism 

          Most historical scholarship on American democratic socialism underplays the importance of racism and black Socialists, feminism and feminist Socialists, and religious socialism, and thus misses as well how these subjects relate to each other. I am grateful to scholars who have addressed one or more of these issues. Sally Miller and Mary Jo Buhle wrote pioneering works on women in the Socialist Party, filling a crucial gap; Jack Ross extended Weinstein’s basic story line about the Socialist Party and added an appreciative twist about the Old Guard; Heath W. Carter superbly detailed the working-class roots of the social gospel in Chicago, highlighting Catholic unionists; Philip S. Foner was the first scholar to give George W. Woodbey and other black socialists their due. The socialist contention that all forms of oppression are secondary to the class struggle naturally yielded accounts of white male Socialists saying so. But Christian socialism was not a latecomer in the United States, it spread across the entire nation, and it did not take a back seat to non-religious socialism.7

“Most of the women who came into the socialist movement came through social gospel socialism.”

          Most of the women who came into the socialist movement came through social gospel socialism. The U.S. was like Britain in producing vital Christian socialist traditions that spoke to broader middle-class audiences than the Socialist parties, demanded to be included in Socialist politics, built significant organizations, and outlasted the Marxist traditions. Kipnis dismissed the Christian socialists in three quick strokes, noting that George Herron was briefly famous, something called the Christian Socialist Fellowship existed, and all Christian socialists, being religious, were of course opportunists. On occasion Kipnis cited a Christian Socialist cleric saying something moralizing about public morality. Christian socialism itself he dispatched with a single sentence: “Since the Christian Socialists based their analysis on the brotherhood of man rather than on the class struggle, they aligned themselves with the opportunist rather than the revolutionary wing of the party.” The party’s many Christian socialist leaders and authors, whoever they were, could not have mattered, since they were religious.8

          Bell similarly pushed aside the Christian Socialists, without employing “opportunist” as a broad-brush epithet. He devoted a footnote to the Christian Commonwealth colony at Commonwealth, Georgia, noted that Edward Bellamy’s Fabian nationalist utopia Looking Backward (1888) won most of its fame through Christian socialist clergy, and observed that a cleric named George Herron was “one of the leading figures of the party.”

That was it. Even a bit of following up on Herron would have vastly enriched Bell’s picture of American socialism, but he wasn’t interested. It could not be that these people mattered. The struggles for racial justice and feminism had no role in Bell’s story, so the Christian socialist roles in both didn’t matter either. Bell’s very insistence that socialism is always religious—that is, eschatological—exempted him, he thought, from paying attention to any actual religious socialists, whether or not they were indebted to Marx.9

          Herron was a lecture circuit spellbinder and Congregational cleric who befriended and showed Debs how to translate ethical idealism and populism into sermon-style socialist evangelism, and electrified the social gospel movement by calling America to repent of its capitalist, racist, sexist, and imperialist sins. W. D. P. Bliss was a tireless organizer and Episcopal cleric who tried to unite the reform movements and failed to persuade the Socialist Party that uniting the reform movements was its mission. Woodbey was a brilliant black Baptist cleric who spoke for the Socialist Party and the IWW, was beaten and jailed for doing so, and tried to improve how the party and the Wobblies talked about racial justice.

          W. E. B. Du Bois had one foot in the black church, joined Socialists Mary White Ovington and William English Walling in willing the NAACP into existence, and provided intellectual leadership for black social gospel radicals. Walter Rauschenbusch was the leading social gospel socialist of his time, who never quite joined the Socialist Party because its atheist ethos repelled him. Kate O’Hare was a brilliant prairie socialist writer and speaker who reflected the racism of her milieu and attracted a following exceeded only by Debs. Vida Scudder was a prolific organizer, writer, Episcopal laywoman, feminist, and lesbian who worked with Bliss and tried to drag Rauschenbusch into the Socialist Party. 

          These apostles of Christian socialism absorbed more Marxist theory than they usually found it prudent to cite. Bliss and Herron were like Debs in coming to socialism through the Populist movement and its outraged moral sensibility. Bliss, Herron, Scudder and Rauschenbusch struggled with the paradoxes of their ethical Christian idealism for socialist activism, but like Debs, they believed the class struggle and the limits of middle-class American moral idealism compelled them to be socialists. They said so eloquently a generation before Reinhold Niebuhr became famous for saying it. Marxian social democracy and Populism were the two main highways into American socialism. Christian socialism was the third, and much of the Populist movement was Christian socialist. Norman Thomas, in the 1920s, became the symbol of the hope that that a renewed Christian socialism might revive the party, or at least keep it afloat. Niebuhr entered the party on that basis and gravitated swiftly to its leftwing. The fallout between Niebuhr and Thomas in the 1940s dramatized nearly everything that went badly for the Socialists, and caused some of it. Afterward the fallout reinforced the incorrect view of historians that Christian socialism no longer mattered, if it ever had. The Christian socialism that still mattered stuck to its stubborn ethical radicalism instead of tacking with Niebuhr into the Democratic Party mainstream.

1 Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952). 

2 Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952; reprint, 1967); Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the 1950s (New York: Free Press, 1960). 

3 Howard Quint, The Forging of American Socialism: Origins of the Modern Movement (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1953); David Shannon, The Socialist Party of America: A History (New York: Macmillan, 1955).

4 Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: Viking, 1957); Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period (New York: Viking, 1961); David A. Shannon, The Decline of American Communism: A History of the Communist Party of the United States since 1945 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959); Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1957); Harry Overstreet and Bonaro Overstreet, What We Must Know About Communism: Its Beginnings, Its Growth, Its Present Status (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958).

5 Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party during the Second World War (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1982); Ronald Schatz, The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse (Urbana, Il: University of Illinois Press, 1983); Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana, Il: University of Illinois Press, 1983); Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s (Urbana, Il: University of Illinois Press, 1988); Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), “patiently,” xiv; Michael Goldfield, “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism during the 1930s and 1940s,” International Labor and Working-Class History 44 (Fall 1993), 1-32.  

6 James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in the United States, 1912-1925 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967). 

7 Mary Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981); Sally M. Miller, “For White Men Only: The Socialist Party of America and Issues of Gender, Ethnicity and Race,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2 (July 2003), 284-296; Jack Ross, The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2015); Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Philip S. Foner, Black Socialism and Black Americans: From the Age of Jackson to World War II (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977). 

8 Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 44, 269, quote 269. 

9 Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States, 52, 58, quote 61; James Dombrowski, The Early Days of Christian Socialism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936). 

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Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His twenty authored books include most recently Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 2018), Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism (Yale University Press, 2019), and In a Post-Hegelian Spirit: Philosophical Theology as Idealistic Discontent (Baylor University Press, 2020). 


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