The death of Michael Harrington in 1989 marked a melancholy turning point in the history of twentieth-century American socialism. Not since Eugene Debs made his initial run as the Socialist candidate for president of the United States in 1900 had the movement lacked an emblematic leading figure, someone who both voiced and seemed to embody the values of brotherhood and social justice that prefigured the coming of the cooperative commonwealth.
A new field of historical inquiry has taken shape in recent years, one that may someday come to be called, in the fashion of these things, “the new history of American social democracy.” Already distinguished by the appearance of such works as Nick Salvatore’s 1982 biography of Debs, Steve Fraser’s 1991 biography of Sidney Hillman, and Nelson Lichtenstein’s 1995 biography of Walter Reuther, this new history helps redress an imbalance in the existing historiography of the American left. The party of Debs and Norman Thomas has simply not attracted the same kind of attention lavished on the party of Earl Browder and William Z. Foster. For every study published on the history of American socialism in the past half-century, there have probably been a dozen books devoted to American communism. And although I and others have argued that the history of the latter is not simply a tale of disloyal adherence to a foreign state and a totalitarian ideology, nonetheless, given American communism’s fatal entanglement with the Soviet Union, it is not difficult to understand the causes for the movement’s ultimate demise. The reasons for the failure of democratic socialism to establish itself as a serious force in American political life in the twentieth century are not nearly as self-evident.