Featuring leader Eugene Debs
American socialism was in transition in 1896. In a complicated election, socialists made a variety of choices. The Socialist Labor Party Convention, held July 4-5 in New York City, nominated Charles H. Matchett of New York for President. The party had been founded in Philadelphia in 1876 andwas led by the fiery Daniel De Leon, a prickly Marxist who rejected any alliance with Populists or other "reformers." The SLP's small voter base was concentrated in a few cities, primarily in the Northeast.
Thousands of other Americans called themselves socialists despite disagreements with the SLP. Some emphasized local concerns—like Victor L. Berger of Milwaukee, whose "gas-and-water socialism" focused on government ownership of municipal utilities. One of the nation's most popular socialist newspapers, The Coming Nation, was published from a utopian colony in rural Tennessee. Julius A. Wayland, founder of the colony, was a follower of the English philosopher John Ruskin. Soon after the 1896 Populist convention, the paper's editor, Alfred Edwards, declared for straight-ahead socialism.
Shocked by the condition of laborers and the misery of the depression, some middle-class Americans declared themselves "Christian Socialists" during the 1890s. Prohibitionist leader Frances Willard and novelist William Dean Howells were among these. Though influenced by many of the same writers and thinkers as SLP members, these socialists as yet had little agreement on organization.
Many present and future Socialists worked for Bryan in 1896. In Chicago, Democrat John Altgeld had appointed socialist Florence Kelley as a factory inspector, and she campaigned for his re-election. In New York, Populist Mary Lease endorsed socialism in a speech at Cooper Union Hall. Bryan acknowledged none of these allies, who made up a tiny portion of his overwhelmingly Democratic voting base.
Eugene Debs, (left) radicalized by the Pullman Strike and his subsequent six-month imprisonment, was the most important future Socialist who maintained Populist loyalties in 1896. As a leader of the American Railway Union he declined to run for any office but represented the Union convention's endorsement of Populism. Debs was deeply disillusioned by Bryan's defeat. On January 1, 1897, he declared his official conversion to socialism.
In June 1897, six months after McKinley's victory, various socialists created a new coalition, the first step toward foundation of the Socialist Democratic Party in 1900. Debs ran as its presidential candidate that year and in 1904, 1908, and 1912. At peak, in 1912, he won 6 percent of the national vote. In the wake of World War I, during the anti-communist "Red Scare," Debs was imprisoned for giving an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio (the hometown of William McKinley, then dead for 17 years). From prison, Debs ran for president on the Socialist Party of America ticket in 1920 and won 3.5 percent of the vote. He died in October 1926.
Our Future Course.
From The Coming Nation, August 4, 1896
New occasions make new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of truth...
The people's party is not a party for all of the people, but for some only.... Its entrance into the arena of politics was hailed with the acclamations of thousands and to the advocacy of its principles a multitude of self-sacrificing men and women have loyally devoted their abilities and their means. To most of these earnest people the party has proved a disappointment....
While THE COMING NATION has never been a partisan paper, it has cordially supported the platform of the populist party so far as the principles therein contained were socialistic.... It has believed that the party stood for the abolition of industrial slavery, and found justification for this belief in the undeniable fact that a large proportion of the active, non-office-seeking element of the party sincerely desired and labored for the triumph of the fundamental ideas of social reconstruction contained in the platform. This sincerity of purpose has been woefully lacking in the leaders, who, ... have by subtle dissimulation and a resort to the commonly accepted methods of politicians generally, eliminated from the platform the basic principles above quoted...
Our course is as clear and well defined now as that of the managers of the people's party has been devious and crooked. THE COMING NATION will no longer "favor Socialism within the people's party," or any other party. We have made the discovery that Socialism is bigger than any political party yet has capacity to hold. But we shall favor Socialism, and desiring the comradeship of all who labor for the Co-operative Commonwealth, extend greeting to the Socialists and the Socialist press of the world. With all the ability and resources at its disposal, THE COMING NATION will continue to wage battle against a system that sanctifies property and crucifies man.
"How I Became a Socialist" by Eugene V. Debs
It all seems very strange to me now, taking a backward look, that my vision was so focalized on single objective point that I utterly failed to see what now appears as clear as the noonday sun.... The skirmish lines of the American Railway Union were well advanced. A series of small battles were fought and won without the loss of a man.... Next followed the final shock—the Pullman strike—and the American Railway Union again won, clear and complete. The combined corporations were paralized and helpless. At this juncture there were delivered, from wholly unexpected quarters, a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes....
An army of detectives, thugs, and murderers were equipped with badge and bludgeon and turned loose; old hulks of cars were fired; the alarm bells tolled; the people were terrified; the most startling rumors were set afloat; the press volleyed and thundered; and over all the wires sped the news that Chicago's white throat was in the clutch of a red mob; injunctions flew thick and fast, arrests followed, and our office and headquarters, the heart of the strike, was sacked, torn out and nailed up by the "lawful" authorities of the federal government; and when in company with my loyal comrades I found myself in Cook County jail at Chicago with the whole press screaming conspiracy, treason and murder ... I had another exceedingly practical and impressive lesson in Socialism.
The Chicago jail sentences were followed by six months at Woodstock and it was here that Socialism gradually laid hold of me in its own irresistible fashion. Books and pamphlets and letters from Socialists came by every mail and I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered...
—From the New York Comrade, April 1902, in Speeches of Eugene V. Debs (New York: International Publisher, 1928)
THE COMING NATION Printery
"Will it succeed?" has been the uppermost question in the minds of thousands of people regarding the effort in co-operation at Ruskin. "Can such an enterprise be made permanent, even if it does attain material success?" and "Will the men and women engaged in it be able to hold together and work together for their common interests?" ... Ruskin HAS SUCCEEDED, and the measure and kind of its success INSURES ITS PERMANENCY and the accomplishing of greater things in the future. We are now in the material stage of development and the close of the first year of co-operation shows a favorable termination to the enterprises started in that time. The year began with the establishment of a co-operative hotel on the old site, it closes with the occupancy of the commodious and substantial structure, herewith illustrated, on the new. THE COMING NATION publishing house is the largest building in this section of Tennessee. It is a frame structure, built entirely of oak, sawed from timber taken from our own land and in our own saw mill. Everything entering into its construction that possibly could be made by Ruskinites is a product of co-operative labor.... —The Coming Nation, July 18, 1896
"Free the Tools of Production."
Not "free silver," not "free trade," not "free gold," not "free high tariff" is what the working class needs. All of these "free" things are like free coffins to be buried in. Our slogan is "Free the Tools of Production."
—The People, New York, in Public Opinion, August 6, 1896
Cartoons with References to Socialism
Socialist Labor Party Platform
Reaffirmed at New York City, July 4, 1896.
The Socialist Labor party of the United States, in convention assembled, reasserts the inalienable right of all men to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
With the founders of the American republic we hold that the purpose of government is to secure every citizen in the enjoyment of this right; but in the light of our social conditions we hold, furthermore, that no such right can be exercised under a system of inequality essentially destructive of life, of liberty and of happiness.
With the founders of this republic we hold that the true theory of politics is that the machinery of government must be owned and controlled by the whole people; but in the light of our industrial development we hold, furthermore, that the true theory of economics is that the machinery of production must likewise belong to the people in common.
To the obvious fact that our despotic system of economics is the direct opposite of our democratic system of politics, can plainly be traced the existence of a privileged class, the corruption of government by that class, the alienation of public property, public franchises and public functions to that class and the abject dependence of the mightiest nations upon that class.
Again, through the perversion of democracy to the ends of plutocracy, labor is robbed of the wealth which it alone produces, is denied the means of self-employment, and by compulsory idleness in wage slavery, is even deprived of the necessaries of life.
Human power and natural forces are thus wasted, that this plutocracy may rule.
Ignorance and misery, with all their concomitant evils, are perpetuated, that the people may be kept in bondage.
Science and invention are diverted from their humane purpose to the enslavement of women and children.
Against such a system the Socialist Labor party once more enters its protest. Once more it reiterates its fundamental declaration that private property in the natural sources of production and in the instruments of labor is the obvious cause of all economic servitude and political dependence; and
Whereas, The time is fast coming when, in the natural course of social evolution, this system, through the destructive action of its failures and crimes on the one hand and the constructive tendencies of its trusts and other capitalistic combinations on the other hand, shall have worked to its own downfall; therefore be it
Resolved, that we call upon the people to organize with a view to the substitution of the co-operative commonwealth for the present state of planless production, industrial war and social disorder; a commonwealth in which every worker shall have the free exercise and full benefit of his faculties, multiplied by all the modern factors of civilization.
We call upon them to unite with us in a mighty effort to gain by all practicable means the political power.
In the meantime, and with a view to immediate improvement in the condition of labor, we present the following demands:
—from The Coming Nation, July 11, 1896
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press
Major events of the campaign,
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