The Historiography of Debsian Socialism: A Century of Interpretations, Part 1 (April 2022)

This essay first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Choice (volume 59 | issue 8).


The Socialist Party of America (SPA) is a unique phenomenon in American history. Of the many “third” parties to which American politics has given rise, few have claimed socialist revolution as their goal. Of these few, none but the SPA has transcended the sectarian party model to operate as a genuinely mass oppositional party. And no avowedly revolutionary socialist party has gained as widespread a presence in American life as did the SPA during the lifetime of the Party’s five-time presidential candidate, Eugene Debs. The Debs-era SPA featured multiple civil-social constituencies, internal factions, and organizational strategies cooperating (and often competing) within a single political party. While the SPA persisted as an organization for many decades after Debs’s death in 1926, the period between its 1901 founding and its 1919 crisis is generally taken to be its high-water mark, and Debs consciously supported the SPA’s mass party model during this period (though he often took clear sides during its numerous and bitter factional disputes). For this reason, the term Debsian socialism has come to refer not only to Eugene Debs’s political commitments, narrowly considered, but to the SPA between the years 1901 and 1919 more broadly. For some, the Debs-era SPA remains the best, and perhaps the only, model of a mass revolutionary political party for socialism in the United States.

About the Author:

Edward Remus is an Assistant Professor and Social Sciences Librarian at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago.