An American History of the Socialist Idea

An American History of the Socialist Idea

If there’s a lesson to be derived from Gary Dorrien’s account of American socialism, it’s that the movement’s open participation in and with the broad democratic left benefits the socialist cause.

Eugene Debs delivers a speech in 1912. (Library of Congress)

American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory
by Gary Dorrien
Yale University Press, 2021, 752 pp.

Seven years ago, I reviewed in these pages the first major history of the American Socialist Party to appear in several decades: Jack Ross’s The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History (2015), an exhaustive and, for the reader, exhausting tome whose text ran to roughly 600 pages before the election tables, notes, and index, which ran for 200 more.

Now, Gary Dorrien, a professor of religion at Columbia and of social ethics across the street at Union Theological Seminary, has produced his account of this nation’s democratic socialist history, a text that also runs to nearly 600 pages (before endnotes), though with smaller type squeezing in many more words than Ross had managed. Dorrien is a distinguished historian of socialist movements both here and in Europe, with a particular specialty in the rather under-documented field of religious socialism.

What’s striking about the two books is the extent to which they don’t overlap. Other than their obligatory Debs-to-Thomas-to-Harrington chronology, there are just three particulars in which they resemble each other. First, neither is a social history of the socialist movement; neither dives into the daily lives and tasks of Lower East Side garment union organizers or sewer-socialist Milwaukee block captains. Second, both authors see the failure of socialists in the Debs era and for a few years thereafter to help form an enduring farmer–labor party, of which they could be the socialist wing—much as the Fabians did in Great Britain’s Labour Party—as American socialism’s great missed opportunity. And third, like most historians, each sees the savage repression of the Socialist Party during the First World War, followed by the abrupt rise of American communism after the Bolshevik Revolution, as body blows from which American socialism never really recovered. (Ross’s book predates by the narrowest of margins the Bernie boom of 2015–6, while Dorrien’s gives it a full treatment. Dorrien’s account, accordingly, has a happier ending than Ross’s.)

Once past the tomes’ three points of accord, the similarities end. If you want to know the documented history of the Socialist Party right up to Norman Thomas’s final presidential campaign in 1948, Ross is your man. His account of party conventions, local elections, and how rival factions voted; of the position papers and pamphlets through which its internecine battles were waged, and of its myriad fissiparous tendencies is altogether authoritative. His characterizations of these events may at times be shaky—he never quite understands that the battles of the 1930s between the party’s old guard and its young militants were more generational than ideological—but if you want to know which side a particular comrade was on, say, in the vote to repudiate the Wobblies, Ross delivers the goods.

Dorrien, by contrast, tells you what made that comrade tick. His is not a history of the party but the history of the socialist idea, of what brought particular people to embrace it, how exactly they did embrace it and change it in the process, what part of it they carried into their work in other movements, and, if they abandoned it, what prompted them to do so and what stuck with them nonetheless. In a sense, his is a work of collective biography, though, as the subtitle warns us, it also consists of Dorrien’s analysis of and advocacy for those portions of the socialist vision he finds most plausible and compelling (hence his dive into the complexities of market socialism). To these tasks, Dorrien has brought a lifetime of research into largely neglected realms of socialist history and a keen aptitude for telling the stories he’s uncovered.

Quite unlike Ross, Dorrien dedicates a good deal of his storytelling to how socialists built progressive organizations and movements that were not in themselves explicitly socialist, and how they navigated the tensions inherent in those efforts. Mary White Ovington and William English Walling, for instance, were prominent Debsian socialists who disagreed with the party’s (and Debs’s) position that racism would be eradicated by the nation’s move from capitalism to socialism—a position they felt did nothing to alleviate the dangers faced daily by African Americans. Indeed, that Debsian argument was so pervasive within the party that it was not just shared but consistently articulated by George Woodbey, the sole Black delegate to the party’s conventions in 1904 and 1908 and a brilliant street-corner orator whose story the author has pieced together. Dorrien also documents the racism that ran through quadrants of the party and found frequent expression in the speeches of Kate Richards O’Hare, second only to Debs himself as the most popular socialist orator of the early twentieth century.

The Debsian party was a far-flung hodgepodge of distinct subcultures, and Ovington and Walling weren’t often compelled to listen to O’Hare’s vicious racist asides. But the official stance of the party struck them as so blind to racism that they ending up playing major roles in founding the NAACP. They brought in W.E.B Du Bois to edit its magazine and contributed to his advocacy of race-conscious socialism and socialist-conscious anti-racism.

In a similar spirit, Dorrien argues that the chief success of Norman Thomas–era democratic socialists was that of A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, and Martin Luther King Jr. in building the civil rights revolution. In telling this story, Dorrien also writes about a woman who was the complete opposite of Kate Richards O’Hare: Ella Baker, who, not yet an acclaimed public figure, worked in obscurity to build and maintain the movement’s organizational foundations. That Baker’s story is crucial to understanding the civil rights movement’s achievements and its deeply sexist shortcomings is readily apparent; that she is part of a chronicle of American socialism, however, might not be all that obvious.

But the history of American socialism, as told by Dorrien, can’t be extricated from those of the movements it helped spark and infuse, just as the movements that brought people to socialism are part of his narrative, too. The author makes a very convincing case, for instance, that groups like the turn-of-the-century Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) brought many of the leading women of the Debs era to the party. Dorrien notes that women were more accepted in the Socialist Party’s ranks than they were in the two major parties: by 1912, 10 percent of its convention delegates were female; at Democratic and Republican conventions, that figure hovered at 1 percent. Notably, in a party dominated by working-class men, the women “were middle-class, white, native-born, college-educated, and Protestant,” Dorrien writes. “Nearly all came from middle-class Christian churches” and organizations like the WCTU. “Only four of the forty-one leading female socialists came from working-class backgrounds.”

The porous boundary between Social Gospel Protestantism (and later, just plain liberal Protestantism) and the democratic socialist movement is one of Dorrien’s chief topics. While others have focused on New York City Jews and Oklahoma sharecroppers, Dorrien makes the case that a considerable share of socialists—from the Debs era to the Religion and Socialism Working Group of today’s Democratic Socialists of America—have come to socialism with the moral concerns sparked by their religious convictions. That certainly describes Thomas himself, though he abandoned his ministry soon after becoming a leading spokesperson for (and later, the personification of) the socialist cause. Dorrien recounts the results of a 1932 survey sent to 99,890 ministers and 609 rabbis (of whom 20,879 responded) that showed 51 percent favored “drastically reformed capitalism” and 28 percent socialism, “defined as the democratic socialism of the Socialist Party or something like it,” as Dorrien puts it. (Of course, in 1932, quite a number of laypersons were inclined toward socialism, too.)

Dorrien tracks Thomas not only in tandem with Randolph, with whom he was almost always quite close, but also with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, with whom Thomas was once close but later often bitterly at odds. In the depths of the Great Depression, Niebuhr espoused a militant, uncompromising socialism (over the long span of his life, Niebuhr embraced even his compromises with uncompromising zeal). But he parted company with Thomas, as did Randolph and many others, over Thomas’s fervent pre–Pearl Harbor opposition to any U.S. involvement in the Second World War. And just as Ella Baker’s travails in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which may not be part of the annals of socialism as such, are part of the tale that Dorrien tells, so too is the post-socialist career of Niebuhr. His role in creating Americans for Democratic Action, the leading postwar liberal pressure group, is emblematic of the evolution of many of the young socialist militants of the 1930s, who became stalwarts of New Deal liberalism and (sometimes nuanced, sometimes not) anticommunism. In another sense, Dorrien—who is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological—feels that the socialist record isn’t complete without Niebuhr’s critique of what he saw as American socialism’s refusal to recognize the imperfect “real-world” options that, for example, the rise of fascism presented it with (a critique that considerably overlaps that of another midcentury former socialist, Daniel Bell).

This perspective also helps explain Dorrien’s favorable take on the post-1972 Michael Harrington, whose stance that socialists should participate openly in the Democratic Party informed the electoral strategy of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), and later DSA, which rejected the Socialist Party’s strategy of making the perfect the enemy of the good. When Dorrien’s narrative reaches the Harrington era, it’s infused with the author’s personal experience; since 1974, he’s been a member of DSOC and then DSA, which was formed by a merger of DSOC and the New American Movement in 1982. He’s also been active in its Religion and Socialism group, which has enabled him to incorporate into his book a mini-biography of John C. Cort, a key if idiosyncratic Christian socialist of the late twentieth century. Dorrien includes accounts of his own discussions with Harrington over what Harrington saw as the demise of religion—a demise that Dorrien contested with data showing religious belief to be more prevalent than socialist belief. (More recent data might not show this so clearly, particularly among millennials and Gen Zers.)

Dorrien’s take on both Harrington and DSA isn’t uncritical, but his affirmation of their orientation and strategy is of a piece with his perspective on socialist history more generally: that the socialist cause does best when it works with and in other democratic progressive movements, including those that are only partially or latently social democratic. That perspective is borne out by the huge growth that DSA experienced in the wake of the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, which vindicated the Harringtonian strategy of working within the Democratic Party. It’s also been borne out by the considerable leftward movement of the Democrats—President Joe Biden included—in response to the broad appeal that Sanders’s social democratic platform won once it wasn’t confined to the sectarian margins of American politics.

On this point, Dorrien’s perspective couldn’t be more different from Ross’s. In his history, Ross largely dismisses the argument that the party’s opposition to the New Deal was a chief cause of its marginalization (Dorrien rightly views it as a near-fatal self-inflicted wound) and considers involvement with the Democrats as a defacement of socialist purity. Similarly, Ross pays little heed to the limits that Debsian socialism placed on the causes of Black and women’s rights, and on the struggles for recognition and power that Black people and women experienced within not only the Debsian movement but its successors as well. Dorrien, by contrast, tells the stories of those struggles, right up through the ongoing debates over the relative primacy of class, race, and gender—or the possible fusions thereof—in today’s left.

And therein lies one of his book’s problems. Dorrien rightly recognizes the period between Harrington’s death in 1989 and the Sanders revival of 2016 as a largely fallow one for organized socialism. The one socialist periphery that thrived during this time was the academy, so his book’s penultimate chapter focuses on that, with particular emphasis on the battles that socialist-feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser had with her socialist and feminist critics over her efforts to work through the conflicting claims of class and gender, of distribution and recognition, in search of a workable synthesis (efforts that Dorrien himself clearly supports). The problem is that the class-race-gender debates that raged in academia were largely conducted in insular, often neologistic academese, rather than in, say, English. In giving a thoughtful and full account of them, Dorrien plunges his readers—whose attention he’s riveted in the preceding 500 pages with a taut, if sprawling, narration of leftist history—into the miasmic gobbledygook of academic theory. There’s an old rule in musical theater that as the audience nears the end of the performance and may be wearying, it needs an “11 o’clock number” designed to wake it up (like, for instance, the uproariously upbeat title song of Oklahoma, which in an evening performance doesn’t come before 11 o’clock). Positioning his dive into academese at the 11 o’clock point in his narrative, Dorrien is asking a lot of his readers.

Happily, he offers a rather upbeat ending that deals with the Sanders campaigns and the rebirth, bigger than ever, of American social democracy. Lacking the temporal distance required of historians, Dorrien doesn’t really assess the current DSA, an organization of people chiefly brought to socialism by the successes of socialist campaigns and candidates within the Democratic Party, though also inhabited, and in some places directed, by sectarian groups who seek the comfort and control that comes with retreat to more confined, disciplined political spaces. If there’s a lesson to be derived from Dorrien’s account of American socialism’s occasional ups and frequent downs, however, it’s that the movement’s open participation in and with the broad democratic left benefits not just the left but the socialist cause—and every now and then, the American people as well.

Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large of the American Prospect and a longtime member of the Dissent editorial board.