The Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth (18-03)


Debs addresses the founding convention of the Social Democracy of America, June 1897.

One error of mine that I’ve discovered over the past couple weeks relates to the founding of the Social Democracy of America by Debs and his Woodstock Jail and American Railway Union associates Sylvester Keliher, James Hogan, Roy M. Goodwin, and William E. Burns. I had previously believed that the organization was formed through merger with the socialist colonist organization known as the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth. In reality, these remained two distinct groups working in close alliance during 1897 and the first half of 1898. Full organic unity was never achieved.

The Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth (BCC) was organized in September 1896, with three stated objectives: (1) to educate the people in the principles of socialism; (2) to unite all socialists in a single “fraternal association;” and (3) to establish cooperative colonies and industries “in one state until said state is socialized.” As such it reflected almost perfectly Debs’s own perspective on strategy and tactics at that particular moment. He, however, remained committed to the atrophying and dying American Railway Union until the last moment — even when the BCC attempted to draft him into their organization by naming him their national organizer, there is no evidence that he took the first step in this regard.


Rev. Myron W. Reed (1839-1899)

During the first few months of 1897, we recall, Debs spent about ten weeks touring the states of the Mountain West at the invitation of the Western Federation of Miners, which was then embroiled in a long and bitter strike of the silver mines of Colorado. One of the places at which Debs spoke — on the afternoon of Jan. 10, 1897, to be completely precise — was at the Denver church of Myron W. Reed (1839-1899), regarded as one of the foremost Christian socialists in America. Reed was also, not coincidentally, the President of the BCC, and it is certain that he and Debs had at some point a deep discussion and a meeting of the minds, as Debs quickly evolved the idea that his moribund industrial union should be transformed into an explicitly socialist organization with an altogether similar program. It was hoped that the two groups would formally join forces in the near future.

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In the spring of 1897, Debs began teasing the idea that a forthcoming special convention of the ARU, called for a June 15 start in Chicago, would be an eventful gathering. It would be, indeed, with the ARU going into session just long enough to wrap up its affairs and shut itself down before reconvening in a larger hall under a new banner — that of the Social Democracy of America. Not coincidentally, the officials of this new organization would be the same as those of the old: a “Woodstock Mafia” of Debs, Keliher, Hogan, Goodwin, and Burns.


Victor L. Berger (1860-1929)

But this was a new organization, too, and it attracted fairly massive and enthusiastic coverage in the American daily press. Loyalists of the Socialist Labor Party of America — far and away the biggest and most influential Marxist political party in the United States — were on the scene, as was Victor Berger (1860-1929), a former schoolteacher and German-language socialist newspaper publisher from Milwaukee. Independent radicals from Chicago and elsewhere were there, too, including Lucy Parsons and a circle of likeminded revolutionary socialists (called “Anarchists” in the lingo of the day) from Chicago.

The program of the new organization was muddled. On the one hand, it posited that the trade union struggle was ultimately fruitless, with the armed force of the state and the entire judicial system in the pocket of capital. Only a capture of the state through the ballot box and transformation of the entire political and judicial structure would make just change possible. It also sought to advance the rather contradictory agenda of transformation by economic example, though the formation of a connected set of cooperative colonies in a single, sparsely-populated state in the West, which would attract a massive influx of people of good will. The political “take over” would start small, in this one place, inspiring emulation which would ultimately result in a victory at the Congressional and Presidential level and a new constitutional convention that would usher in the socialist millennium.

It sounded good on paper. In real life: not so much. There were plenty of people to go to meetings, but coming up with sufficient capital to fund communal cooperation was a bit more difficult.

Regardless, the effort was made. The founding convention of the Social Democracy of America established a three member “Colonization Commission” consisting of one civil engineer — Richard J. Hinton of Washington, DC — and two journalists. These were Cyrus Field Willard of Boston, editor of The New Time (the monthly forerunner of International Socialist Review published by radical Unitarian Charles H. Kerr), and W.P. Borland of Bay City, Michigan, a prolific socialist propagandist.

The relationship between the SDA and the BCC was close but remained independent. The actual leader of the BCC was not Reed, who was largely a figurehead, but rather the group’s Secretary, Norman Wallace Lermond (1861-1944) of Thomaston, ME. Lermond paid a visit to Chicago in anticipation of the ARU convention and had additional talks with Debs, building an almost embarrassing enthusiasm in him for the colonization idea as the be all and end all of the movement, a giddy glee that lasted about six weeks, judging by the published record.

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In the September 1897 faction fight between moderate Chicago Local Branch No. 1 and radical Local Branch No. 2, Debs came down forcefully on the side of the former.

There would be infighting in the SDA — the battle between the revolutionary left and the reformist center in the American socialist movement predated the organization by almost a generation, and it unsurprisingly reemerged within months of establishment of the new organization. The pretext for a purge related to certain inflammatory resolutions passed by Chicago Local Branch No. 2 calling for physical retaliation against capitalists and their property in the aftermath of the Lattimer Massacre — a premeditated bloodbath in which 21 striking coal miners were shot to death (and dozens more wounded) by a county sheriff’s posse.

The massacre took place on September 10. Branch 2 passed it resolutions on September 12. The President of moderate Branch 1 made a similar pronouncement to the press on September 12 — which he expeditiously retracted when it made print. Debs wrote an editorial on September 12 which he mailed out to certain newspapers provocatively declaring “Were I not unalterably opposed to capital punishment I would say that the Sheriff and his deputy assassins should be lynched.”

Then on September 18 Debs presided over the 4 hour midnight meeting of the SDA executive which drummed Lucy Parsons and her Branch 2 comrades out of the movement. It’s a dirty little episode of sectarianism and opportunism that really hasn’t been previously documented in the literature.

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spicyHere’s another good little story. At a regular Sunday night meeting of Local Branch No. 1 in October 1897, the President of the branch disparaged the President of now-expelled Local Branch No. 2, falsely claiming that he was a Pinkerton agent. Those were fighting words, and the wife of the defamed head of the expelled revolutionary socialist group apparently went after the Branch 1 chief with a buggy whip, with at least some success. A near riot ensued, as one might imagine.

Bad blood, bad blood.

•          •          •          •          •

The BCC, which regularly published exact figures, recorded 2,268 paid members in 135 “Local Unions” as of the end of July 1897, with the fledgling SDA adding an unspecified number of additional members in “Local Branches” scattered across 16 states. Coming in the wake of the ARU — which consistently exaggerated its membership figures on the way up and suppressed discussion of them on the way down — the SDA never matched the openness of the BCC. I’ve never seen anything that resembles an honest tally of actually paid membership for the group. In round numbers, 10,000 would probably not be a bad guess.

Ultimately Debs was swayed by the cynical sniping of the SLP (he read their newspaper, his scrapbooks indicate), the ongoing criticism by Berger and the Milwaukee crew, and the realization that no great wave of funds was coming to enable the purchase of a vast tract of land and the establishment of socialist industries thereon. Debs moved back into a more conventional political channel. Nor did he give up on trade unionism, for all the defeatist bluster, spending the second half of 1897 agitating in conjunction with a massive coal mine strike that captivated the nation — which is part 3 of the “Debs in 1897” saga.



The deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 3 is October 15, 2018. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 23 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “‘No Hope Except Through the Back Door of Suicide’ : Speech on the Coal Strike at Wheeling, West Virginia” — July 26, 1897 — 2,724 words
  • “Open Letter and Call for National Miners’ Day” — July 28, 1897 — 521 words
  • “The Social Democracy” — Aug. 1, 1897 — 1,228 words
  • “‘It is Something More Than a Strike’ : Speech in Chicago at Kuhn’s Park” — Aug. 1, 1897 — 4,276 words
  • “‘Reduced to a Walking Hunger Pang’ : National Miners’ Day Speech at the Duquesne Wharf” — Aug. 5, 1897 — 1,534 words
  • “Labor Day is Near at Hand” — Aug. 28, 1897 — 1,452 words
  • “Statement to the Press on the Forthcoming St. Louis Conference of Labor Leaders” — Aug. 28, 1897 — 228 words
  • “To the Hosts of the Social Democracy: A Message for Labor Day” — Aug. 30, 1897 — 2,874 words
  • “‘I Plead Guilty to Being a Radical’ : Speech to the St. Louis Conference of Labor Leaders” — Aug. 31, 1897 — 1,705 words
  • “The Lattimer Massacre” — Sept. 12, 1897 — 882 words
  • “Statement to the Press Regarding the Suspension of Local Branch No. 2, Social Democracy of America” — Sept. 19, 1897 — 452 words
  • “Keynote Speech to the Chicago Conference of Labor Leaders” — Sept. 27, 1897 — 469 words
  • “Workingmen and Social Democracy” — Oct. 28, 1897 — 2,160 words
  • “The Indiana Coal Miners” — c. Nov. 30, 1897 — 366 words

Total Words this week: 21,022 ******************* Total Words to date: 50,114

I also typed up for background a major section of the constitution of the Social Democracy of America and a lesser 1,200 word version of the Aug. 31 St. Louis speech that will end up on the cutting room floor.



★ Rev. Myron Reed, one of the preeminent American Christian socialists of the late 19th century, was the President of the Brotherhood of the Cooperate Commonwealth during its early optimistic phase and was a key figure in winning Gene Debs over for the idea of colonization, however briefly. This book by James A. Denton, Rocky Mountain Radical: Myron W. Reed, Christian Socialist was actually published back in 1997 but seems to have been recently dumped on the market by University of New Mexico Press, as copies are cheap and plentiful at the moment. The timing of their catalog deletion is thus excellent for me, as this book is a fairly essential source for my background reading on the BCC and Debs.

I’m a little bit disappointed by the lack of graphics as I’m going to need to come up with a useable copy of a good Reed portrait for volume 3. The picture of Reed at the top of this blog I heisted from elsewhere on the internets, so I reckon I will just have to follow that one back to its source for permission to publish. Using the image in a shitty little blog that nobody reads, no issue — a book, rather more.

Jones★ Also tangentially related to the 1897 Debs  story is this new biography about revolutionary socialist orator Lucy Parsons. This 2017 book is actually the second full length biography on Parsons, the multiracial widow of Haymarket martyr Albert R. Parsons — the chief target of the trial that decapitated the leadership of the Chicago radical movement. Parsons was a prominent member of Chicago Local Branch No. 2 of the Social Democracy of America from the time of its founding and was one of the five leaders of the branch that were called on the carpet and ultimately expelled in the aftermath of the Lattimer massacre by Debs and the executive of the SDA. This appears to be a well-crafted book and I look forward to exploring it in the coming week. There is at least some coverage of the 1897 Social Democracy of America affair, judging by the index.


Volume 1: Building Solidarity on the Tracks, 1877-1892 is now going through the editing process at Haymarket, with Amelia Iuvino crushing commas and perfecting prose as our copyeditor. Nisha Bolsey is our general project manager and point of contact with the Haymarket editorial board. The book will be released in both hardcover and paperback formats sometime in 2018.

Volume 2: The Rise and Fall of the American Railway Union, 1892-1896 (unofficial title) is completed and is in house with Haymarket. It should appear in both formats late in 2018 or early in 2019.

• There is still no decision on our eleventh hour request that the Debs Selected Works include a sixth volume. If the project remains set for five volumes, Volume 3 will probably be for the time interval 1897-1907. If a sixth volume is granted, the most likely period is 1897-1904.

• In an ideal world, I think Haymarket would like to publish one volume each season (two books a year), but since the compilation and writing process takes more than six months there will almost certainly be a couple “empty” seasons. However, I am going to try to slam and get the interval between manuscripts down from a planned 12 months to 9 or so with a view to speeding this project towards the finish line.

• I’m actually starting to think about what I want to do when the Debs Selected Works are finished — although that is several years away. A new Debs biography while the material is fresh in my memory is one potential play. If I decide to leave Debs I’m pretty certain that I want to do a hefty one book treatment of the Morris Hillquit Selected Works before turning my attention to a planned three volume magnum opus on American radicalism, 1916-1924.

About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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