Intellectual trajectory (17-11)


 Individuals change over time. Some remain consistent in their thinking and behavior for longer periods than others, but everybody evolves as life marches on. To lefty types concerned with the biography or the written output of historical actors or political commentators, this evolution of the thought of those they study is known as “intellectual trajectory.”


Exercise: Count the greyhairs in this picture…

That young people tend to be more left wing than their elders is a common platitude. With less of a stake in the economic status quo, a more vivid imagination and greater willingness to “think outside the box,” a lower level of cynicism, and bright eyes viewing a broader expanse of life with its myriad possibilities ahead of them, political radicalism and youth seem at times to go hand-in-hand. See, for example, the 2016 demographics of the supporters of Bernie Sanders versus the crowds and cliques swirling around more staid or reactionary flavors of capitalist politicians. The young have less of a stake in what is and more of a willingness to take a chance to achieve what should be.

As time passes, so the common thinking goes, the institutional pressures of life — job, bills, home, family, hedonistic pleasures — tend to temper or blinker the enthusiastic and optimistic visions of youth. People grow more safe and stable and stodgy, it is said, less willing to take a risk in what could be in favor of building themselves the most comfortable iteration of what actually is. Old biases and prejudices and the cynical conclusions of disappointments and broken dreams come to the fore; the individual grows more conservative.


Max Eastman (1883-1969): Radical magazine editor and translator of Leon Trotsky in the 1920s, Readers’ Digest editor in the 1940s…

The intellectual trajectory of a fairly enormous number of intellectuals and political radicals of the early 20th Century moved inexorably from left to right. Big names like Max Eastman, Max Shachtman, James Burnham, Bert Wolfe, and Jay Lovestone; lesser known lights such as William Bross Lloyd, John Spargo, Eugene Lyons, Joseph Zack, Oliver Carlson, on and on — it was always the same: left-to-right, left-to-right, left-to-right, left-to-right, left-to-right…

Obviously, the degeneration of the hope and promise of the Russian revolution into its negation — a particularly ugly, anti-libertarian, militarized, nationalistic police state — was a prime factor in this transformation of the radicals of the 1920s and 1930s into the conservatives of the 1940s and 1950s. But it is worthy of note that the same process may be observed again on a smaller scale a generation later when a certain number of 1960s anti-capitalist and black power radicals gradually mutated into their antithesis by the 1980s — David Horowitz, Eldridge Cleaver, and others less known. “Oh, how foolish we were…”

That there was in the 20th Century such a broad general tendency for intellectual trajectories to move from left-to-right, that such a tendency has been seen by many commentators as an inherent “law” (to use an archaic, 19th Century-flavored phrasing), strikes me as axiomatic. As for the veracity of the underlying theory itself — well, perhaps there are elements of truth to the notion that people tend to become more conservative as they age, perhaps not. I’ll profess agnosticism on the matter and note anecdotally that it doesn’t seem to have applied to me.

Here is what is interesting about Gene Debs though: he moved the other direction hard as he grew older, right-to-left, at least from 1877 until 1922, when he started to soften up again as the Russian Revolution began its downslideThat particular intellectual trajectory is downright rare.


Historian David A. Shannon was born in 1920 in Terre Haute and was an alumnus of Indiana State University.

 I haven’t studied the question closely enough to figure out whether he was the first to identify the phenomenon, but historian David A. Shannon deserves points for being the first Debsologist to state assertively that The Great Socialist Debs started on the right side of the political spectrum. In December 1951 Shannon published an article in the Indiana Journal of History called “Eugene V. Debs: Conservative Labor Editor,” and with a memorable hook like that, I don’t think that any serious biographer after 1951 has missed at least acknowledging that fact. None come to mind anyway.

It’s pretty obvious really to anyone taking 20 minutes to read early magazine articles edited by Debs. For example, here’s a short list of pre-1885 Debs articles in Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine that will probably make the cut for Volume 1: “Benevolence,” “Temperance,” “The Square Man,” “Masterful Men,” “Man’s Power and God’s Power,” “Honesty,” “True Benevolence,” “The Mission of Our Brotherhood,” “Charity vs. Malice” — and so forth, you get the point.

Shannon indicates that Debs was conservative in the “early 1880s,” when he was filled with “adulation of the self-made man.” That’s correct and well put. By the end of the decade he was something else. That is also fairly obvious. It is a matter of debate as to exactly when Debs made the first big leap in his leftward evolution, from an early belief that “strikes are knives with which laborers cut their own throat” (1883) to his scornful assertion that it was a long-running “error” for another brotherhood to have attempted to “secure justice to its members by a mistaken conception of obligation and duty” (1890) and elsewhere his mocking observation that even in 1890 there remained “men who deprecate agitation, and who have a holy horror for strikes.”

Historian of American socialism Shannon asserted that Debs was “jolted” into a “slow revision of his views” only by the Burlington strike of February 1888. I don’t think a close reading of Debs’s editorializing in the middle 1880s bears this out. My own belief is that Debs’s views started to change in 1886, when he cut himself loose once and for all from a promising career as a Democratic Party politician and dedicated himself wholeheartedly to life as a labor brotherhood organizer and magazine editor. There is a real difference in the length, content, and tone of his writing in the Magazine that took place during the interval from 1885 and 1887, to be sure.

Certainly the Burlington strike was pivotal in moving Debs to advocacy of labor federation, but that is something quite different than his underlying worldview — which had already fundamentally changed even before the Burlington strike.


AllThingsNew This week’s new additions include a think piece that attempts to systematize the utopian collectivist movement of the 19th Century, All Things New: American Communes and Utopian Movements, 1860-1914, by Robert S. Fogarty (University of Chicago Press, 1990). This actually relates tangentially to Debs in “Volume 2,” when he was briefly associated with the Social Democracy of America in its initial planning phases for what would eventually become the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth in Washington state.

Utopian socialism — efforts to build model communities that attempted to demonstrate the superiority of collectivism in the midst of capitalist society — is mocked in the literature of International Socialism as inevitably doomed due to the financial pressure exerted by the capitalist economic system. Debs came to share such a viewpoint within about a year and a half or so of his new self-identification as a socialist in 1897 — but the Utopian millennialism of the era, which drew energy and broad inspiration from a 1888 novel by Edward Bellamy, was briefly an instrumental part of his world.

I mention this book and these facts now only because Bellamy has reared his head in Debs’s writings for the first time this week in a February 1890 review of the Boston novelist’s masterpiece of political fiction, Looking Backward, 2000-1887. In his summary for Firemen’s Magazine readers, Debs mentions his copy was the printing including the 154,000th copy, which means he wasn’t an early purchaser of the book. The degree that Bellamy influenced his thought is an interesting question of intellectual history, a matter that must be addressed no later than Vol. 2 of this project.

I blundered into the perfect Grover Cleveland biography for me. Fattypants Cleveland was, of course, the President that sent out the troops to crush the 1894 ARU strike led by Debs and a biographical subject of great importance to me. Over the last 100 years there have been Cleveland biographies strewn all over the map, ranging from the hagiographic to the bitterly antagonistic. Was Cleveland an under appreciated, earnest, and honest chief executive and forerunner of progressivism with measures like the Interstate Commerce law? An arch-reactionary “Bourbon Democrat” defender of big capital and corporate interest? Piles of metal shavings from the finely whetted political axes of historians have been heaped high arguing the matter. It takes a while to figure these things out just randomly falling into a shelf of books and there could be a lot of time wasted in the process. I’m not a historian of the 1880s by inclination, but rather a historian of the 1910s and 1920s, one full generation later.

Fortunately for me, Robert E. Welch, Jr.’s The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (University Press of Kansas, 1988) is just what the doctor ordered: a scholarly survey of the literature along with the author’s compelling personal take on Cleveland’s ideology and policies. Welch rejects the “Bourbon” label for Cleveland and the tendency of some to cast him as a corporation-worshipping arch-reactionary, instead arguing for a rather unintellectual, practically-driven, assertive conservative who believed in individualism and free trade while — with some contradiction — at the same time expanding the executive powers of the Presidency. From Mayor of Buffalo for one year to Governor of New York to the White House (twice) through the magic of “Cleveland luck”…

I’ve really been diving into the book. It is steering me towards additional background material about the era I will be writing about this summer in the way that only a really good scholarly book can do.

 I also managed to pick up up two more long runs of newsy publications on microfilm — Puck  (1878-1918) a Republican weekly modeled on the British Tory publication Punch; and The Arena (1889-1909), a liberal monthly essay magazine. Debs actually wrote for the latter publication twice, “The Significance of Labor Day” in October 1895 and “Socialist Ideals” in November 1908.

That computerized database of every known Debs article is pretty slick, huh?


 “Open Letter to P.M. Arthur of the B of LF” — Dec. 1889 open letter — 2,325 words

 “The Knights of Labor and the Farmers” — Jan. 1890 article — 770 words

 “Andrew Carnegie on “Best Fields for Philanthropy’” — Feb. 1890 article — 2,230 words

 “Austin Corbin — Russianizer” — Feb. 1890 article — 2,725 words

 “Looking Backward, 2000-1887” — Feb. 1890 article — 2,620 words

 “Do We Want Industrial Peace?” — March 1890 article — 1,700 words

 “Knights of Labor to Shape Own Destiny” — March 1890 article — 310 words

 “Mrs. Lenora M. Barry: General Instructor and Director of Woman’s Work, Knights of Labor” — May 1890 article — 3,150 words

 “The Eight-Hour Movement” — May 1890 article — 3,050 words

 “The Improvement in Railway Management” — June 1890 article — 2,400 words

 “The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Federation” — June 1890 article — 975 words

 “Conductors Overwhelmingly Endorse Protection” — June 1890 article — 800 words

 “Eight-Hour Day a Righteous Demand” — July 1890 article — 1,975 words

 “The Higher Education of Women vs. Marriage” — July 1890 article — 2,000 words

….Word count 407,750 words in the can + 27,030 this week = 434,780 words

• 9 more Saturdays to go until the July 1 target for the end of output of editable text. There are still 163 article pdfs remaining to be processed (or rejected at second reading).

About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s