To break Debs: An interview with David Walters
Platypus Review 128 | July 2020
David Walters is a co-editor, with Tim Davenport, of The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs, a six-volume set currently in publication through Haymarket Books. Walters is a founding member and director of Marxists.org and is the primary administrator for the Eugene Debs, Daniel De Leon, and Trotskyism archives. Walters’s career also includes time in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and at the Holt Labor Library.
On February 22, 2020, Edward Remus and William Lushbough interviewed Walters with a focus on Debs’s path to founding and leading the Socialist Party of America (SPA). What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation. A follow-up interview, to be conducted upon the publication of subsequent volumes of The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs, will focus on issues related to Debs and the SPA raised during the years 1912–1926.
William Lushbough: We’d like to begin by asking about your intellectual and political coming of age. When did you first encounter Eugene Debs and the history of the Socialist Party of America? Where did that encounter fit within your political-intellectual trajectory?
David Walters: My father was a theater director and TV guy in New York. He comes from the Yiddish-speaking theater of the International Workers Order, the cultural group of the Communist Party (CP). My mother was a Zionist and then briefly active in the CP as well, for a few years, during New York's Vito Marcantonio's postwar election campaigns. So I call myself a “pink diaper baby” because I was actually born after they were in the CP. If you watch Barbara Streisand's movie The Way We Were, that was my mom. I got dragged to every “Ban the Bomb” demonstration in the early 60s as a kid; all I remember is 5,000 Jewish women's tuchuses marching for hours to the Pentagon in their wing-tipped glasses and banging their high heels on the Pentagon doors. My parents were involved with the Southern Conference Educational Fund, Anne Braden’s group out of Kentucky, building support for black organizing in the South. My parents come out of the Ashkenazi Jewish proletarian stuff that Irving Howe talks about in World of our Fathers. I grew up in that whole world, in this rambunctious New York Jewish Left household.
When I was about 13, I discovered a cache of books that had been sent from one of my parents’ best friends who had been sent from New York to Houston to become the Texas organizer of the CP. She gave us the books but my mother hid them up in the attic and I found them. I started reading them and found an early version of Eugene V. Debs Speaks. It must have been the first book I read. The second book I read was the first edition of Ten Days that Shook the World. Trotsky stood out for me in that book and Debs stood out in his writings, which are so amazing. I read everything about Debs, such as Ray Ginger's The Bending Cross. I started reading a lot of stuff about Debs and the Socialist Party. I didn't quite know about the history of the different factions, but I started getting an idea. I also started questioning Zionism in a big way, which was devastating for my mom. All the dots connected about colonialism and imperialism. I said, “This guy Trotsky's really interesting.” My mom asked, “Are you a Trotskyite now?” She'd only do a Jewish accent when she was polemicizing.
In 1971 I picked up a copy of The Militant that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was selling. I guess I was about 13 or 14. I read it and agreed with its perspective on the anti-war movement. I supported the Linda Jenness campaign in 1972 in my high school. I joined the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) and SWP. I left before the big purges that took place in the 1980s over their industrial turn. I later ended up with Socialist Action, later Socialist Organizer. Now I'm basically independent though I work with the John Brown Gun Club because I have a separate hobby of liking guns. I was a founder of the Marxist Internet Archive (MIA) where I’ve found my niche for 20 years, even though it’s a keyboard warrior type of niche. Building the MIA (alongside dozens of other volunteers) is the most gratifying thing that I've done, and certainly the most appreciated by people.
Edward Remus: Your biography points to how the Debsian legacy gets shot through the prism of the Old Left, especially through Stalinism and the Popular Front, but also through Trotskyism. On the Trotskyist side, as you mentioned, the SWP published Eugene V. Debs Speaks and that collection of Debs’s writings and speeches was read by the New Left. On the Stalinist side, James Weinstein comes to mind; Weinstein left the CP in 1956, by which point the CP had internalized certain assumptions of its Popular Front period, and he went on to publish, in 1967, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925, which was similarly read by the New Left. What do you make of this 1960s re-engagement with the history of Debsian socialism, and how do you trace the arc of the American Left’s consciousness of Debsian socialism and its legacy into the present?
DW: The CP and SWP views of Debs are about 80 percent congruent. I don't know if Weinstein gave Debs a Popular-Frontist point of view; he could try, but there's nothing in Debs’s writings that ever talks about any of that. In Debs’s time a Popular Front would have been with the progressive wing of the Republicans in the Midwest or with the Democrats on the East Coast―but it just didn't happen. I'm not going to say that Debs would have been against the Popular Front; I'm not arrogant enough to suggest that I know what would have been in Debs’s mind when confronted with fascism, FDR, etc. I would just say that there is no evidence at all that he leans in that direction while he was alive through 1926. It just doesn't exist. He was always against class collaboration.
The SWP actually didn't put a spin on Debs through the publication of Eugene V. Debs Speaks. The introduction of the Pathfinder Press version has James P. Cannon's essay on Debs. It's a wonderful essay; I know CPers who have read it and loved it. It's really well written because Cannon is somewhat contemporaneous with Debs. I don't know if Cannon ever met Debs, but he was in Debs's party and that says something. In fact, if you read Bryan Palmer's biography of Cannon you see a lot of references of Cannon to Debs and the leadership of the Socialist Party of America (SPA). It's a really good reference on that early period. People should read Eugene V. Debs Speaks because it's a good synthesis of Debs at his best. That is what I would tell everyone to start with. Not even a biography, not The Bending Cross, none of that. Read Eugene V. Debs Speaks, read the Canton, Ohio speech, and then ask why Senator Sanders votes for every defense budget that comes up. What would Debs think about that?
What you really have to do now is skip all the way up to 2016 and the rise of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders's personality aside, I personally resent not so much the DSA but Sanders taking up the cause of Eugene V. Debs. He does this by stripping Debs of all of his revolutionary credentials. Debs was for socialist revolution and Debs hated the Democratic Party. It’s hard to get around that. You can only twist and turn so much before what you are doing is breaking it. And what people have done is to break Debs. They say that Debs would have supported Sanders! It's like a modern-day little Leninist sect saying, “Lenin would support us!” This is arrogance. This is wrong. It's very hard, first of all, to project a guy like Debs, who led a mass movement, into the 21st century, which is the failure of the socialist movement. What we have today is the failure of the socialist movement to have organized.
The 1960s and the New Left was the last spurt of organizing. Party building of the different self-described revolutionary organizations peaked in the 1970s. Today we’re in a different period, but if you are being consistent, Debs would condemn all these folks who are posing as socialists while working as Democrats in a capitalist party that has led, since Debs’s death, the largest imperialist war ever, one of the largest military enterprises in Southeast Asia ever. I think someone like Sanders, who was around the SWP a little bit in the 1970s, probably knows better. Some of the red-baiting of Sanders is not altogether wrong. He was a socialist professor at a radical university. How could he not consider himself a Marxist? But I don't think it's relevant to anything. This is history; he broke with that by becoming a Democrat in Congress.
ER: Paul Buhle’s recent graphic novel biography of Debs struck me as symptomatic of everything you’re describing, of the liquidation of Debs's Marxist and proletarian socialist perspective into a Democratic Party social-movementist perspective. One gets little sense from Buhle's biography that Debs founded and led a political party, that he led not only oppositional organizing but also, and relatedly, oppositional party politics.
DW: Right. I was on a radio show six months ago. A documentary came out last year, American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, and it has been making the rounds on the Left. The filmmaker, Yale Strom, is sort of apolitical. He is a personal admirer of Debs and not someone who understands Debs’s politics at all. So the radio show host invited me on to talk about what Debs was really about. I said: Debs was first of all for socialist revolution. I could hear an “uh oh” from Yale Strom. The host asked me how Debs would view the current subordination of American trade unions to the Democratic Party. I said, “Well, he would come back after throwing up and he would denounce everybody who did something like that. He would say the working class should always be independent.” I really laid into the reformist perspective on Debs!
WL: This brings us to the second volume of The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs, which covers Debs’s transformation from an industrial-unionist labor leader and supporter of the Democratic Party’s populist wing into a revolutionary Marxian socialist opponent of the Democratic Party. How did Debs come to define himself as a Marxist?
DW: At no point in Volume I (1877–1892) is Debs a socialist. He's anti-socialist; he’s very much a Samuel Gompers- or William Green-type American Federation of Labor (AFL) bureaucrat. He used to write against strikes, against union shops, against violence. He was a pacifist in this period. He didn't think workers should ever organize to defend themselves. This is the early Debs, circa 1877. In 1877 there’s the first true national strike in the United States, centered in Pennsylvania railroads. When Debs was laid off in 1877 because no trains were coming through from Pittsburgh, he attacked the Knights of Labor for being a militant union. He actually polemicized in the 1880s against the idea that labor is a commodity, which he then viewed from a Christian, moral point of view rather than from Marx's scientific point of view on the role of labor in the development of capitalism. Debs had prejudices against Marxism not because he had read something by Marx with which he disagreed, but because of what he was told by or picked up from other people who considered themselves Marxists. So it's important to understand this evolution of Debs in terms of the labor movement and the working class and what the working class needs to do to defend itself; this radicalizes tremendously from 1877 to 1905, to the organization of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Debs was rooted in the workers' movement from the grassroots. He’s a genuine working class leader because he got his feet wet in suffering through all these depressions; he lived capitalism. His views changed throughout his life. That’s why Volume I is really the most important, because no one has read a damn thing from Debs in Volume I, ever, because it has never been published. Most of it comes from a locomotive firemen’s newspaper which he edited, and all the editorials are his; he wrote them all. That’s the difference between Debs and someone like August Bebel or the European leftists. The only comparable figure who comes to mind is Trotsky, because Trotsky in his pre-Social Democratic days organized with the Southern Russian Workers' Union to some degree.
To find Marxism, you really must go to Volume II (1892–1896), around 1894. Debs is won to Marxism by Victor Berger, who visits Debs in jail and gives him all sorts of writings by Marx, including the three volumes of Capital. Interestingly, it was Capital that won Debs over. What Capital does for him is to put it all together regarding the problems of capitalism. The problem with the label “Marxian socialist” is that Marx hardly defines socialism. He leaves that to others. Debs became a supporter of Marx in a very practical way given what was going on with capitalism in the 1890s, a dozen depressions and currency crises. He felt Marx would give him a structure in which to put all this together from the point of the view of the working class, which was always Debs's perspective. He saw suffering under capitalism and Marxism simply explained it. Debs's conversion was not about the more subtle points of Marxism from e.g. The Civil War in France or Class Struggles in France about Marx's position on revolution; it was simply about the economics of the time. This is also true of Victor Berger, who also reflected a Marxism of analysis as opposed to action.
ER: As the Second Industrial Revolution unfolded and transformed both capitalist society and capitalist politics, progressivism emerged alongside populism as a central political tendency of the era, with populism tending to express the aspirations and discontents of falling classes and progressivism tending to express the aspirations and discontents of rising classes. How did Debs seek to relate to the political and social forces of both populism and progressivism, while also standing in some sense apart from these by founding a party and movement for socialism? How did he imagine that a socialist party could lead both populism and progressivism, without simply devolving into either one?
DW: This is really important to understand Debs. There is a difference between progressivism and populism. The dictionary definitions are fine. The populist movements of the period were very broad and amorphous, from William Jennings Bryan on the right to The Grange on the Left. One of the things to note about the populists is that they did come from the bottom, from the popular movements of the time, especially in the Midwest. Progressivism is more like an intellectual philosophy, including everything from Robert La Follette on the Left to Woodrow Wilson on the right. Wilson was considered a progressive. He came up with self-determination for nations and was an anti-imperialist, while at the same time he supported the Ku Klux Klan. These are very amorphous terms, but they were important for Debs. We started with Debs becoming a socialist in 1894; his activities within the Democratic Party and the populist movement of the period were leading up to that. Even though he became a Marxist (according to him) in 1894, and even though he sincerely believed that, he campaigned for Bryan in 1896 and he spoke a lot to labor audiences, to unions, to workers’ chapels, to social democratic and socialist collectives around the United States. His speaking tours almost killed him. He even went to Canada to speak on this election, having been invited by workers in Toronto and southern Ontario.
When Bryan got smashed in the election of 1896, this jolted Debs out of his belief in “fusion,” a topic that periodically resurfaces in American politics, where different parties are supposed to unite with each other at least for the purposes of elections if not organizationally. There was a movement to unite the Populist Party with the populist wing of the Democratic Party, the Bryan wing. Debs played a role in pursuing this, but when Bryan got smashed, that put him over the edge toward having to build a socialist movement. We can say that he is a Marxist in the revolutionary and organizational sense coming out of the 1896 election. That’s why Volume III in our series starts in 1897. From 1897 Debs is becoming committed not just to the socialist ideal but to the socialist organization. Populism certainly played a big role in this, and his flirtation with it ended abruptly in November of 1896.
WL: During the late 1890s, prior to the founding of the Socialist Party of America in 1901, there was a split in the American socialist movement...
DW: The period between 1897 and 1904 is fraught with splits. The first one worth talking about occurred in the Social Democrats of America, which is two groups removed from the Socialist Party of America. When it formed the Social Democrats of America, the American Railway Union leadership (including Debs and his brother Theodore) rapidly got themselves into a three- or four-year utopian colonization movement. One of their projects was to buy 400,000 acres in Tennessee and turn it into a communist society―all within the boundaries of capitalism, of course. This is, I think, one of the biggest deviations that Debs took; it was a huge distraction. Nobody cared about colonization except a very small number of people who were excited by the idea; this is at an intellectual level. The majority of the Social Democrats of America pursued this colonization scheme and left Debs and his brother and a few dozen others. This woke up Debs; he and his group formed the Social Democratic Party of America and moved towards more political work.
The Socialist Party of America was formed because of a split within the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) led by Daniel De Leon. Dubbed the “kangaroos” by De Leon, a group around the Vorwärts newspaper (the German daily Socialist newspaper in New York and Chicago) split from the SLP. There was also a Milwaukee group who wanted to engage in a non-ideological, non-De Leonist approach to industrial unionist organizing and politics. They led the Brewery Workers of America, for example, which was a strong socialist union in Milwaukee that had branches in the Midwest. They wanted to form a big socialist party like the German Socialist Party, which didn't exist in the United States at that time (in 1901), and so they joined with the Social Democrats to do this. Immediately there was a split to the right. Debs was right in there fighting a factional battle.
Debs's factional work before 1905 is unknown on the Left and it should not be. That's a real oversight by people like James Weinstein and by others who have written biographies of Debs. The myth of the non-factional, irresponsible Debs, the Debs not wanting to take responsibility for the internal workings of the Socialist Party, is all true only post-1905 or post-1906. In the two volumes that cover this period, Volume III and Volume IV, you'll see this in Debs’s writings. Debs wrote an article titled “Why I Like Splits” in 1904. Berger had factionalized the Milwaukee branch and Debs wrote a letter to the head of the Milwaukee branch saying, “Splits are good. Splits can clarify politics. If splits need to occur, then let them occur.” Debs participated in the expulsion of the leadership of the Milwaukee branch. He engaged in purges and splits. He wasn't trying to round everybody up; he was putting it to these groups. Almost all of these splits are to the right. That needs to be understood. In fact, I can't think of one that was to the Left. They were mostly based in various municipal socialism outfits, but they were significant to the internal politics of the party.
WL: Between 1901 and 1905, what were some of the key debates within the SPA, and how did Debs intervene in these debates?
DW: One of the big ongoing debates was around the American Federation of Labor. The biggest political split (not organizational split) was over the AFL. As most students of Debs know, he went from being an early opponent of industrial unionism (originally called amalgamation) to becoming a big advocate of industrial unionism. The larger movement for industrial unionism started around 1900. In 1905 the Wobblies formed their first convention. Debs was a keynote speaker. He gave militant keynote speeches at the IWW convention and they were published in a lot of places; we’re publishing some that haven’t been republished before. This was in sharp contrast to the Victor Bergers and Morris Hillquits who were tied up in unions that were AFL-supported. (Their unions were actually not craft unions―they were also wall-to-wall industrial unions―but they supported the AFL.) This presented a problem for the leadership of the SPA. People like Big Bill Haywood, who had led an industrial union (and an armed one at that), became part of the IWW. That flew in the face of municipal socialism and the “why can't we just get along” style of good-government politics. Now, it did not lead to a split. That’s because, at this time, the Socialist Party had the dominant role. The Socialist Party was more than the sum of its parts. It became representative of the working class in a small way. Nobody wanted to give that up. So a lot of these debates were over the right wing pushing to de-emphasize industrial unionism, to de-emphasize especially the IWW, which was seen as militant (correctly). The IWW led strikes which often led to violence, violence not by the IWW but by the bosses. Whereas the Socialist Party's union people were becoming increasingly bureaucratic.
There is an allegory here with the German Social Democracy. One of the ways that the followers of Eduard Bernstein and later reformists solidified their power against the Marxist, revolutionary wing of Karl Kautsky and others was to build the unions. They built the unions in part to develop a bureaucracy that could act as a weight against the radical left wing among the rank-and-file of both the unions and the party itself. This also happened in the Socialist Party of America. The details will be published in Volume III and Volume IV.This is a problem with textual history: you see Debs respond but you don't always see the other side. On the other side you had people who were obviously upset about Debs speaking about revolution: “What about our election campaign in Lorain, Ohio?” Most Socialist Party mayoralties and city council majorities were in the Midwest, in the Upper Midwest, in places like Ohio and Indiana. Some of the splits that took place took place within that context. You don't hear a lot about them because anything that split from the SPA kind of died―either that, or it dissolved itself into the Republican Party, which was the progressive party, or into the Democrats, or into one of the various progressive parties in the period. The splits weren't really over undemocratic organizational functioning of the party. Debs is defending the party down the road.
There were people who just left the Socialist Party to do Wobbly work in the IWW, but not in a faction fight. They just didn't do Socialist Party work anymore. They transferred their allegiance to the IWW, even though you could do both, technically speaking. Debs didn't break with the IWW per se; he just let it wane.
ER: If Debs is breaking from (but also leading remnants of) populism in the direction of revolutionary socialism, beginning around 1897, he is simultaneously in alliance with socialists like Berger whose politics could appear retrospectively to resemble progressivism. Populism had a largely rural, agrarian character; progressivism had a largely urban, municipal character. Berger’s power base in the SPA was rooted in a trade union electoral machine. It was about good, honest municipal government, ending corruption, cleaning the streets, using elected office to support the reproduction of the working class via things like public parks―a socialism later castigated by its critics as “sewer socialism.” Yet neither Debs nor Berger organized a progressive party. They organized a socialist party, one that (as in Milwaukee) nonetheless did some of the same things the progressives were doing while standing apart from progressivism politically. Debs, like Berger, seems to have wanted to lead the progressivism that was rising during this period, but to lead it under the banner of a socialist party.
DW: The biggest difference, and you said it, is that Debs is for socialism and not for progressivism, which is openly reformist. When Debs was campaigning for local congresspeople and mayors in towns like Milwaukee, which was led by the Socialist Party until 1960 under mayor Frank Zeidler, he very rarely dealt with the “sewer socialism” that would be coined later when looking back on these “good government” parties. Debs in the period before World War I and the Russian Revolution is focusing on the concept of socialism and how capitalism has to be overturned. He does not polemicize against the progressives in terms of “this is a distraction.” He says they are not for the working class. His Marxism and his deep-rooted, proletarian understanding of the working class having interests independent of the capitalist class really comes through. You never hear that from the progressives. What you hear from the progressives, from La Follette and others, is: “The condition of the working class is really bad, and we have to make it better. What policies can the American government do to make the working class better, to make the conditions of the poor, etc., better? How can we get rid of Tammany Hall and the corruption that stifles the ability of governments to really serve the people?” You do not hear Debs talking about that. Debs is saying that these governments need to be swept from office, and we need to have a revolution, and everybody should get a gun! He runs an election, which is a big part of what we know of him, but he is saying that the miners in Idaho or Montana must pick up rifles. You would not hear a progressive do that. Progressives at the time would be the Ralph Naders of today. They are militant liberals. They are sincere. They would pass every form of food and drug administration, health and safety standards, etc., and mean it, and actually organize around it. But Debs wanted to overthrow the whole system.
Debs did not have bad relations with the progressives. He gave interviews to all the progressive journals even at a time when there was an active socialist newspaper movement in a hundred languages. In the bourgeois press in the late 1890s, there were progressive journalists who worked for non-socialist bourgeois dailies who were big Debs fans, from a distance. They covered Debs as a personality, not because he was a socialist and trade unionist. They would contextualize Debs as saying that we need to sweep away corruption. But the progressives feared that Debs would upset the apple cart of progressive good government.
William Jennings Bryan served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was considered more of a progressive; Bryan was a populist. Nevertheless, there was much that was common to both of those currents in American politics compared to the class politics of Debs. Debs simply centered on the working class. Throughout the 1890s, you see that Debs’s Christian morality, which I do not think he ever gave up, was a profound motivation for him to push for workers' revolution, in arguing how bad the capitalists were and how they cannot be reformed and we need to get rid of them.
WL: You mentioned that the progressives liked Debs as an individual personality. In a 1912 piece titled “The Socialist Party’s Appeal,” Debs makes the point that support for an individual candidate is unwanted if it is not linked to supporting the Socialist Party on principle. What about Debs’s politics leads him to that perspective on elections?
DW: He wanted to make clear that a vote for Eugene V. Debs is not a vote for Eugene V. Debs; it is a vote for the Socialist Party leading a revolution. He was not pimping for votes. He never said, “vote for me and I will make things great.” That’s the populists and the progressives. Debs wanted a large vote total, but he wanted to see that as a vote for socialism. That is how the Socialist Party often projected the issue, both Debs and his vice presidential candidates (most of whom were to his right politically).
Even Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit―who were the reformists, the revisionists, the Bernsteinites in the Socialist Party of America, its conservative wing―had an institutional prerogative to make elections about the Socialist Party. They were smart in that regard. It was not about vote totals so much as it was to organize the working class into the Socialist Party. They also saw the Socialist Party, small as it was even circa 1912 when it had well over 100,000 members, in the same way Rosa Luxemburg viewed the Social Democratic Party of Germany. This view was that the party was, or at least had to become, the working class. All wings of the party agreed with that. That’s really different from the discussion you would have with the progressive journalists of the period, who would gather together in salons and after-work barrooms and talk about what was going on in the world. The Progressives were talking policy; the Socialist Party was talking politics and revolution. Even Berger and Hillquit, to be fair to them, had to tip their hats to revolution. They did not argue for a parliamentary road to socialism like Bernstein and his “super minimum, never the maximum” program. They weren’t even really advocating, “elect us and then we’ll have a period of the Socialist Party running capitalism.” That wasn’t what Berger and Hillquit were doing. They were seen by the great majority of the members of the SPA as revolutionary socialists.
ER: By the late 1890s, Victor Berger was styling himself the “American Bernstein.” Considering the dialogue between Berger and Debs in this period, to what extent is Debs influenced not only by Marx but also by Marxism, especially by the Marxism of the Second International, i.e. by figures such as Karl Kautsky? Do you see evidence of Marxism after Marx coming into Debs's mind?
DW: That is a very interesting question. I have seen very little evidence of the role of the Second International. There is a lot of international solidarity expressed in a sentimental way by Debs in this period, but not much in terms of the Marxism of, say, Kautsky. The world's greatest socialist party was German Social Democracy, and everybody, including Daniel De Leon (up to his death in 1914), looked to the SPD. This was true of Lenin and many others. It was, as Rosa Luxemburg said, “When you talk of German Social Democracy, you talk of the German working class; there is no difference.” That is fairly accurate, if a little hyperbolic. There is very little evidence that Debs looked to any Europeans beyond the occasional quote from Marx. All the European parties in the early 1900s were considered revolutionary parties, or multi-tendency groups that took a broad view of how to build a party while at the same time being revolutionary. They did not use the word “multi-tendency” then like we do today. Another phrase you do not see then is “the Left;” it was simply “the working class.” There was an amalgamation of the Left with the working class and unions. People often did not make the distinction. The whole concept of organizational norms and forms, which were very factionally-specific issues, was not referenced in these debates that took place in the Social Democratic Party of America (SDPA), or in what became the SPA in 1901. The degree to which European Marxism influenced Debs was the degree to which European Marxists were in the SDPA and later the SPA. The Germans and Yiddish speakers from New York were dominant; they brought with them their Marxism. Berger was in a lot more touch with the Second International as a representative of it, but Debs never played that role and likely never had access to it beyond the American supporters of Marx in the U.S.
ER: The SPA’s National Committee was led by two Marxists, Victor Berger in Milwaukee and Morris Hillquit in New York City. Each had once been a member of Daniel De Leon’s SLP, but they both—Berger earlier, and Hillquit later, among the “kangaroos” who left the SLP—came to see the SLP and De Leon as fundamentally limited. Debs would seem to have shared this assessment of the SLP by the time he joined Berger and Hillquit in founding the SPA. What, then, was Debs's conception of the model of the party he was founding and helping to lead? Would it be accurate to describe Debs as an “American Kautskyan,” as aiming to build a multi-tendency mass party similar to Germany's SPD? And how did the SLP serve as a counterexample, as an organizational and ideological model that had already proven inadequate on American shores?
DW: You are posing the SLP as a counterexample to the SPA, which is interesting considering that Lenin, after De Leon’s death, wrote that he liked De Leon on the organizational question of the party. But setting aside the Russians, who do not play a role in this period, I think we have to examine what the criticisms were of De Leon and the SLP. All the parties were riddled with factionalism. It was not a neutral, multi-tendency situation. Factionalism arose as a response to the failure of the parties to integrate themselves into the working class and to lead working class struggles, as well as due to the inward-looking problem of the power of individuals within organizations. De Leon was leading an increasingly centralized organization, but centralized around him, not necessarily as a model of anything that existed elsewhere in the world. The SLP turned people off. It had a mechanical view of union work, to the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (STLA), which organized its industrial arm. The SLP actually proposed the STLA as the future of industrial unionism when the IWW was formed in 1905.
People like Berger and Hillquit, who knew about the SPD, knew that the SPD was quite a centralized party. It was a campaign organization for centralizing their work. Kautsky's advocacy of this was problematic because his description of the SPD did not match the reality of the organizational and political status of the party. It was something he projected onto it, and he certainly got Lenin to believe in that as a model for the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (which is another debate today that has been going on among intellectual Marxists for 20 years).
Debs did not play a role in what became “the kangaroos” who split from the SLP to join his group and form the SPA, but he followed the matter closely. There is nothing substantial that Debs wrote on the SLP. Debs was not one for balance sheets, unfortunately, whereas Hillquit and Berger were. I would argue, without any evidence, that to the degree that Berger and Hillquit expressed their differences with De Leon, that would also find a reflection in Debs. After all, Debs went with Berger and Hillquit and not with De Leon.
I do not think there is something called “Kautskyism” in 1901, but if you want to assign that label to Debs, it would fit insofar as much of the world's social democracy was organized around this. I was not aware that Berger considered himself an American Bernsteinite. That would put him at real odds with Kautsky. What Kautsky and Debs had in common was a profound belief in the rightness of socialist revolution, whereas Berger and Hillquit did not. Whereas Berger, Hillquit, and Debs all participated wholeheartedly in election campaigns, Debs, rhetorically and pedagogically at least, was in his mind organizing for socialist revolution, for workers’ revolution. You never hear those words uttered by Hillquit or Berger. So it’s a bit of a triangle between the three of them. In many ways Debs was closer to Kautsky, but not as a model; I haven’t found any evidence for that. You will not find even a hint in writing of Debs saying, “I, Eugene V. Debs, support Kautsky's views on the formation of a social democratic party”―but you do see Debs arguing that the Socialist Party of America is the revolutionary party in the United States. In the context of the late 1890s and 1900s, and later, that was in fact a Kautskyan point of view in the revolutionary sense, since only Kautsky was putting forth that idea, or at least was the best known for that idea.
ER: If you try to find within the SPD a figure parallel to Debs within the SPA, perhaps a very loose approximation could be found in August Bebel. Both figures, Debs and Bebel, have been characterized as seeking “unity at all costs”―and as you said, no faction wanted to give up the idea of the party of the working class. How did Debs view these questions of party unity? How did he approach the ability of the party to lead, rather than end up being led by, the civil-social movements (such as the labor movement) that its factions were organizing?
DW: The metaphor with Bebel is interesting. Bebel was popular among the party ranks beyond the leadership, which meant the working class. Debs after 1905 fits this description. Debs is for unity at all costs, too, but I want to emphasize that this doesn't happen until after 1905. Before 1905 he's very much open to splits and expulsions―not like DeLeon was, but in the way of preserving the party. But Debs wanted unity at all costs after 1905. The 1904 presidential campaign and the 1905 factional infighting almost destroyed his health; he did not have a strong constitution. He was basically exhausted for all of 1908; we only have around three essays from that year because he was dead on his feet. So we don't know what he thought for a lot of these questions.
Debs becomes more and more loyal to the Socialist Party after 1905. The factional strife dies down and he can really start seeing socialism; he's on full time for the Socialist Party, his income now derives from the Socialist Party, and he's on tour for the Socialist Party in a really big way. Debs started getting extremely saddened when people would leave the Socialist Party because at a certain point people weren’t leaving because of political differences (which he was fine with); people were leaving because they lost faith in the Socialist Party. This is where he becomes “unity at all costs.” Now, I wouldn't use that expression. He could have done things to adapt toward capitalism that may have unified the Socialist Party more. He didn't do that. I think he was principled in viewing the Socialist Party as the be-all, end-all to the American working class, even more than the unions in a sense. He was for unity at all costs as a general statement in the sense that he wanted everybody to be in the same party. And that showed obviously in 1919. The last volume we have of Debs's writings, Volume VI, will show that he's devastated by the split with the Communists, all his old friends, from the Socialist Party.
WL: Debs is often remembered as just a popular agitator as opposed to a theoretician like Lenin, Luxemburg, or Trotsky. Why do you think that is the case?
DW: You’re right. This is an important point. You might want to ask the question: what was Eugene V. Debs? If you were to metaphorically transpose him to today, Debs was an op-ed writer. We have enough volumes of his writings to publish 32 700-page books by him. And we're only doing six. Meaning, Debs was the talking head of the day; he had syndicated columns for hundreds of newspapers. He opinionated, writing short essays. He was a propagandist for socialism. People say he was an agitator, but really, most of his time was taken up being a writer. But a popular writer, not the Lenin type of writer. He didn't deal with any theoretical issues, except for capitalism as a theory, which he would attack a lot. In his role, he would have been on CNN or some other radio or TV station to provide commentary from the Left, because that's how he was viewed. That's one of the reasons people knew him so well. He was quoted and published in a lot of Socialist Party newspapers, and he was interviewed by bourgeois newspapers all the time, where he was quoted a lot. Combined with his agitation and propaganda around socialism―when he ran for president five times―people got to know him this way. So that's what Eugene V. Debs was. He was an opinion-maker on the issues of the time, which was everything from the Black Question to temperance to guns to violence.
ER: Socialists of the Second International championed bourgeois-democratic rights such as those inherited from the American Revolution and enshrined in the Bill of Rights. They considered themselves better defenders than the liberal-capitalist parties of our rights to free speech, to free assembly, to bear arms, etc. How did Debs approach these issues?
DW: Like Marx, Debs really believed this. He said: we have to stand in the best traditions of the American Revolution. The Wobblies would say, beyond what's written in the First Amendment of the Constitution, that we have a right to say what we want and organize the way we want. Debs was always involved in the free speech question. In the United States, as a general rule, if you got up in front of a factory and agitated for socialism, you would be set upon by either the company goons or the local constabulary. In every defense case started by Socialists or Wobblies being arrested, Debs would lend solidarity, he would send money, and he would organize the local Socialist Party groupings who were often the victims of this. So the issue of free speech was paramount. It was immediate and always had to be defended. They defended it by citing the right to free speech, by showing the hypocrisy of the state for not defending it, and by forming united front groups to have mass demonstrations, picket lines, and rallies to free people who were arrested for charges like incitement to riot. Very few of the charges actually held up in court and they were usually dropped. The idea of arresting people was not necessarily to crush the movement but was designed to demobilize people on that day. You arrest the speakers and a few of the stewards at a rally to disperse everybody and that's it. People wouldn't come back for weeks, months, or even years. That was the point of that form of anti-free speech terrorism. Debs would combat that in his writings. The IWW dealt with that a lot more than the Socialist Party ever had to. Free speech was very important and was always contextualized by the First Amendment. Why wouldn't it be? It wasn't like they were adapting to bourgeois constitutionalism by doing it. Socialists and Debs viewed this as a right that was won and not something that just happened to be handed down from on high.
Freedom of assembly was the basis of union organizing. That’s not just people getting together on the street; it's actually forming organizations and parties. And it’s not just a theoretical fealty; it's also practical because you can't organize unless you have democratic rights. Otherwise they can make you illegal. Not that it would stop the government; they almost made the Communist Party illegal in the McCarran Act of 1950. The bourgeoisie started to get its act together by passing the anti-syndicalist laws and the progressives pushed back against that by getting laws passed making it illegal to cross state lines to break a strike. But these laws had to be held up in the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of what's constitutional or not. Debs was aware of this.
Now, very interestingly, Debs doesn't say we should take up weapons for the revolution. He uses what Cannon termed “defensive formulations” and he never opened himself up to the charge of advocating violent revolution, which very early on would have landed him in jail. But he did say that workers should get guns and he defended the Second Amendment. I thought of Debs when I saw Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz give a talk at the Howard Zinn Book Fair about three years ago. She said, “the Second Amendment, that's only for good old boys,” for the racists in the South. That’s just not accurate throughout any part of the 19th or 20th centuries when workers had organized. If you see a picture of the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a nonviolent organization, you’ll see that they had assault rifles lined up against the wall, because they were certainly going to defend themselves if attacked. Now, that doesn't really address how Second Amendment rights are now being taken up as a petit bourgeois right wing issue. But I'm in the John Brown Gun Club, so I'm an advocate of people getting guns―not to make a revolution, but because it's good to know how to use them and to offer self-defense for socialists and workers and immigrants when they ask for it, if they're interested in learning how to do that. I think it's a worthwhile thing to do and my precedent for that is people like Debs and the workers' movement of the period.
In the current period, academics will dismiss the Bill of Rights, but there isn't a single struggle in the United States, including the struggle against slavery, that wasn't based on the fight for equality. And equality emanated in the American context from the struggle around the Bill of Rights and the constant expansion and application of the Bill of Rights to all sectors of society, up to and including the franchise. That's why Debs and Marx would be astounded―Trotsky, everybody would be astounded―to see the kind of discussion we have today.
ER: The extent to which the SPA actually succeeded in organizing the American working class (and in organizing American society more broadly) can appear obscure today. We can look at Debs’s presidential vote totals; we can look at the number of SPA members who held elected office throughout the country; we can look at the circulation numbers of the Appeal to Reason,and of the hundreds of other Socialist Party papers, etc. But the deeper question is: how far did the SPA’s civil-social reach actually extend during this period? Was its reach in any way comparable to that of the SPD in Germany, where the socialist party essentially did succeed in organizing the working class?
DW: No, it was not comparable. They copied Rosa Luxemburg's haiku about the working class of Germany being the SPD; that’s how the SPA viewed itself. But I don't think they had any illusions. In hindsight, the SPA never became the party of the working class. It was a small mass party. It was a party that had the vanguard, to use that much maligned word, in the sense that class conscious workers everywhere joined the Socialist Party or voted for it or campaigned for it even if they weren't members of it. (Although there were still some radical workers in the Midwest who instead went with progressive politics because of progressivism’s history there.) But the Socialist Party never was the mass party of the working class. To have done that, it would have had to have led, as a socialist party, the major struggles.
In 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party―even the Mensheviks―were opposed to unions. People should understand that. They thought unions were a distraction, just like, for instance, most of the Bolsheviks―the Iskraists―opposed soviets when they first came about. They said, “We're supposed to be building the party; it’s all about the party.” That's what they learned from Germany: it's all about the party; the unions are a secondary issue. Transposing that to the United States in the same period, there were a lot of unions, but I don't think you can name one that had a contract. Most unions were small, voluntary organizations. Even strong unions that won strikes, like the brewery workers’ union in Milwaukee or the garment workers’ unions in New York, weren't institutionalized in the sense that they didn’t have dues checkoff and they didn't have a lot of staff. They weren't recognized. There was no labor law.
Now, all of this was not necessarily a bad thing. The Socialist Party could then represent the aspirations of the working class as the manifestation of working-class consciousness, as opposed to just the union or only a union. Unions existed―they had tens of thousands of members―but they didn't have millions of members. There were whole industries that didn't have any unions at all. So the Socialist Party could fill in that area like the Social Democratic Party of Germany did in the 1880s: there were no unions, but the SPD called strikes, and they won. Nationally, they would have strikes and win in industries. I don't think the Socialist Party of America was necessarily looking to that example, but that was the reality.
The Socialist Party did play an ideological leadership role among workers. You have to think about that in the real world. Workers who got out of a 12-hour day looked at who's helping to lead them in their day-to-day struggles and those leaders were Socialists by and large. Standing outside the gate or at the bar agitating, they told workers: think for yourself. Is it in your interest to continue to support these politicians who get money under the table in cigar smoke-filled rooms from the bosses you're going on strike against? If you read Debs's speeches―there aren’t enough that were taken down on the street, unfortunately, but there are a few―they read very much like Cannon's speeches in Notebook of an Agitator. Debs more than anybody pushed the Socialist Party’s ideological leadership role tremendously. That's the thing he had most in common with De Leon, because De Leon did the same thing. De Leon's whole axis was socialism, just a more detailed, concise―perhaps even mechanical―outlook on socialism, but certainly one similar to Debs. Debs was an agitator for socialism. Debs didn't do this abstractly, like, “You guys are workers, you're suffering.” He did that, but he also researched the current conditions. If there was a strike at a foundry, he would find out who was the owner and who the owner was in bed with. Was the mayor part of the board of directors of the company? He attacked that, put it in a very local context, and he would end by saying: this is why you need to join and support the Socialist Party.
What you had is a mass influence of Socialists. Every major strike in this period from the 1894 ARU strike through the first two decades of the twentieth century was led by supporters of the Socialist Party of America (and not by supporters of De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party). The Western Federation of Miners had many tens of thousands of members. After 1905 they became Wobblies for about a decade (and then left the IWW), but the leadership of it was Socialist Party. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America had written into their bylaws that you had to be a member of the Socialist Party for ten years before you could become an officer in the union. But if you look at the membership of both the Western Federation of Miners and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, a very small percentage of the workers actually joined the Socialist Party. What did they do to actually build the Socialist Party among their own members at the base level? That's a question for labor historians to answer. Certainly among Jewish garment and needle workers in New York City you had a very high Socialist Party membership. Among Finnish iron workers on the Mesabi Iron Range and in a few other places you find very strongly that “the party is the working class.” Everybody looked to the party. Even if you’re not in it, you’re asking, “What's the Socialist Party going to do? How can we fight the boss?” That's rare inside this period, though, and that's one of the big differences you have between the SPA and the SPD.
ER: At the same time, if you take proletarian socialism in America from its origins to the present day, would you say that the period we’re discussing―Debsian socialism, prior to the First World War―was the historic height of the American working class being organized by and for socialism through a political party?
DW: Yeah, it's the height. When Cannon said the SPA started falling from its height in 1912―oddly, not necessarily politically speaking―he was talking about two things specifically. The two things were, first, the highest totals of votes and membership. Secondly, the party went down tremendously starting in 1912 organizationally speaking. The AFL was at this time building up resistance to Socialist Party infiltration of the different AFL affiliates. In 1914 there was a split of working-class members in Michigan and some other places. By 1916 the Socialist Party of America remained opposed to World War I, unlike everybody else in the Second International, and there were all these little splits based on that opposition. Splits were happening before 1912, too, but by and large they happened after 1912. The problem was bridging the gap between an actual Socialist revolution and the “sewer socialism” of the municipalities and of many Socialist Party activists. This is fertile ground for reformism in my opinion. Debs didn't know how to deal with that. I think he was naive to a large degree. If he wasn't, he certainly did not express it. There was this “scissors effect” of quiescence. People don't understand that World War I, though the United States did not enter it until 1917, was a boom period in the American economy that lowered class struggle. Spain also went through a boom period selling munitions and food to both sides during World War I. The war developed productive forces a lot in the United States. The boom began before the war actually started in Europe in 1914. The Socialists were grappling with this.
The Bolsheviks led the working class to power only 14 years after they organized the first Bolshevik tendency in 1903. But throughout the socialist movement after 1919―even with its highs in the 1930s Old Left (i.e. the CIO and all that), and even with the expansion of the New Left, which included the Old Left (because the CP, the SWP, and even the SPA grew during the 1960s)―none of them rose to the tasks of organizing our class for power. I don't mean actually winning power, but developing even the groundwork for a functioning highway system, for a railroad, on which to march toward power. None of them have done that. There is not a single group around that has. That is true in a lot of countries, not just the United States. I always ask every socialist who considers themselves a revolutionary, who bemoans the state of what is called the socialist left in the United States: How do you maintain a Marxist perspective for workers' revolution without adapting to the quiescence of the class struggle, without adapting to capitalist politics? It's a very hard thing to do. I think it was also hard back then. | P
Transcribed by Mike Bartlett, Ethan Linehan, William Lushbough, Jason Roland, and Duyminh Tran.
The Platypus Review looks forward to publishing a follow-up interview with David Walters upon the publication, in the years to come, of subsequent volumes of The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs. This follow-up interview will focus on Debs's approach to issues and events including race and racism; the 1912 U.S. Presidential Election; the eclipse of American socialism by progressivism; the First World War; the October Revolution; the founding of the Third International and the splitting of the Socialist Party of America; and the early 1920s.