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An American History of the Socialist Idea

The American socialism movement's open participation in and with the broad democratic left benefits the socialist cause.

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.