A set of more or less vaguely related observations about the Socialist Labor Party of America (18-11)


Even though I’ve been paying attention to his writing for years, I still feel like sort of a drop-in on Debs, learning as I go. My real subject of expertise, developed from a crazy amount of reading microfilm and typing up documents done over the last 15 years or so, is the history of the American socialist and communist movement for the years 1916 to 1924. One recurring theme from this focus period — particularly strong in the communist movement — is an ongoing tug-of-war between New York and Chicago as the nexus of party organization.

Here is an observation about two partisan rivals, for what it is worth and without further comment: the Socialist Labor Party of America was a New York organization. The Social Democratic Party of America was a Chicago organization.

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Anti-fusionism as an ideological principle.

One of the biggest, mostly unrecognized, impacts of the Socialist Labor Party upon the Socialist Party of America was the transference of its hardline and utterly uncompromising antipathy to cooperation with other parties in order to advance specific political objectives — behavior characterized as commission of the party-crime of “fusion.” Orthodox acceptance of the doctrine of “anti-fusionism”  was pervasive — far bigger than the personality of party editor Daniel DeLeon, to which the story of the SLP is commonly reduced by the organization’s detractors and devotees as they have written history.


Henry Kuhn, Executive Secretary of the SLP from 1891 to 1906, was among the most important figures in the party’s New York hierarchy.

An extremist antipathy towards any cooperation with other political parties was one of the most important ideological principles of the SLP, from the top leadership down to true believers in the rank and file.

Here is party National Secretary Henry Kuhn’s harsh official statement on behalf of the NEC in the matter of Boston “American Section” member P.F. O’Neil and others participating in a conference with representatives of the Prohibition Party and the People’s Party in advance of O’Neil’s being placed on the ballot as a candidate for Boston City Council in the elections of 1895:

The purity of a man’s motive in making an error will not mitigate or efface the effects of that error, and the SLP can certainly ill afford to be swayed by such purely personal considerations, when the well-established policy of the party is at stake. Nor can the party afford to wait until in the language of the Section’s [explanatory] statement a member finds out himself that he is mistaken. For all the party knows, he may never “find out” and it is the plain duty of the Section to call him to account and make him understand that the SLP must not be drawn into fusion with the freakish political movement of the Prohibitionists, nor the middle-class capitalist movement of the Populists, nor in fact with any other political party…

The policy of our party is based upon the recognition of the historic struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and upon the consequent deduction that the working class — and it alone — has a live interest and is in fact destined to solve the social problem, for the solution of which the SLP is striving, and for which it has been formed.

The capitalist class cannot do this because its interests are opposed to any solution that threatens its existence as a class and the middle class cannot do it, because its interests are opposed, and because it is a class in waning, and that must in the course of the further evolution of capitalist system disappear and cease to be a factor in our social an political life.

From this point of view all fusion is not only fruitless and impotent to advance the cause of Socialism one whit, but it is decidedly harmful, inasmuch as it blurs the issue, detracts attention from the real purpose of our movement, and makes of it a weak and oscillating thing, desirous at all times of finding something or somebody to lean upon. Such a course never can nor will gain for us the respect and the confidence of the class which we represent, and from which we must draw our strength. (Source: The People, Dec. 15, 1895, pg. 3.)

The almost religious devotion to anti-fusionism in the Socialist Party of America is sometimes viewed as a direct response to the mortal wounding of the People’s Party by fusing with the Democratic Party in the election of 1896. In fact, the doctrine was a direct continuation of the fundamental policy, long established and firmly instilled, by the SPA’s true political antecedent — the Socialist Labor Party.

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Anti-fusionism in actual practice, 1895.

While widely accepted by the orthodox element in the SLP, such anti-fusionist extremism was not universally accepted within the party — which was for most of the 1890s an electorally-oriented institution which simultaneously and secondarily engaged in union-related activities inside the declining Knights of Labor.


Max S. Hayes (1866-1945) was the publisher of the Cleveland Citizen and the most important figure in Section Cleveland SLP. Hayes left that party during the 1899 split.

Early in 1895, prior to the date when Kuhn made the above remark about the apparent opportunism of key members of Section Boston, Section Cleveland had been suspended by the NEC for violation of Article IX, Section 9 (“…no section shall enter into any compromise with any other political party…”). Their great party crime? They participated in a city campaign as the leading element of an umbrella group called the Independent Labor Party (ILP).

Despite the ILP’s socialist platform, borrowed in large measure from that of the SLP, on March 12, 1895, Section Cleveland was suspended by the NEC. This decision was appealed to the National Board of Grievances — a geographically-determined body which ironically (or suggestively?) consisted of a subset of the members of Section Boston.

This appeals board on April 19, 1895 found that Section Cleveland was “not guilty of any violation of the spirit and purpose of Article IX, Section 9” since the umbrella group made use of the SLP preamble and platform and did not practice fusion “with either of the boodle capitalist parties, nor even with a quasi-capitalist party, but with fellow workingmen who, although not members of our party, are in sympathy with socialist principles…” Section Cleveland was therefore restored to membership. (Source: “Party News: Section Cleveland,” The People, May 12, 1895, pg. 3.)

In short, there was political tension within the SLP over the issue of fusion. Anti-fusion was a universally accepted proposition, but there was considerable divergence in the practical application of this principle in the real world of retail politics, in which the SLP actively participated as an organization putting forward slates of candidates and trying to gain election.

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Pop quiz: In which Eastern state did the Social Democratic Party explode onto the scene with electoral victories in the fall of 1898?

A: Massachusetts.

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The burning question of trades unionism.

There were also strong contradictions which manifested themselves within the SLP on the matter of trade unionism.


James Sovereign, General Master Workman of the Knights of Labor from 1893 to 1901, was a more strike-friendly leader than his predecessor, Terence Powderly.

In 1893 the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLP), working in concert with the United Hebrew Trades of New York City, effectively took over District Assembly 49 of the Knights of Labor (KoL), sending a group of socialist delegates to the General Assembly (national convention) of the KoL organization. There the conservative leader Terence Powderly was deposed and elected in his stead was James Sovereign, who ran as a much more militant and strike-oriented union leader.

Over the next two years the SLP followed a strategy of “boring from within,” attempting to radicalize the Knights of Labor through participation in its ranks.

While the SLP was successful in taking over District Assembly 49 of the KoL, it wasn’t a pretty process. It involved winning control of the executive followed by a host of expulsions of “paper” and hostile local councils. This, of course, generated a reaction by the friends of those who had been summarily expelled, with the result that DA49 was denied a place at the national convention of the Knights of Labor by the national leadership.

The SLP leadership was big on rage and vengeance. A retaliatory foray soon followed, with the party abandoning the KoL to pursue the strategy of dual unionism, launching in December 1895 a rival trade union umbrella organization to the “reactionary” American Federation of Labor and the “fakir-led” Knights. This dual unionist tactic was an accelerant to flame, alienating party members who sought to participate in the actually existing unions of the day and was a primary cause of the massive 1899 split.

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The Yiddish press.

Factional strife within the Yiddish-speaking sections of the SLP was rife in 1895. Central to the dispute was the management of three newspapers — the Dos Abend blatt (The Evening Paper), Die Arbeiter Zeitung (The Worker News), and Der Emeth (The Truth). A convention of Yiddish-speaking members of the SLP called for the National Executive Committee to appoint a Board of Arbitration with “full power to fully and finally determine all matters in controversy.”


Louis E. Miller (1866-1927), née Efim S. Bandes, was co-founder with Abe Cahan of the Jewish Daily Forward and a defector from the SLP in the 1897 split.

In accord with this request, the National Executive Committee appointed a three member Board of Arbitration at the end of 1895. This special committee included Daniel DeLeon loyalists Hugo Vogt as chair, Henry Kuhn as secretary, and Charles B. Copp as stenographer. This Board of Arbitration first met on Jan. 9, 1896 at the New York Labor Lyceum, 64 E 4th Street, to organize itself before sitting to hear evidence on Jan. 11, 12, and 15. (Source: “Party News: Board of Arbitration,” The People, Jan. 19, 1896, pg. 3.)

One of the leading figures in the SLP’s New York leadership at this juncture was Abraham Cahan, a member of the National Executive Committee in 1895. According to the published summaries Cahan rarely attended the weekly meetings of the committee however.

The first big Yiddish-language split in the SLP happened in 1897, with a group of key intellectuals exiting the party and joining the newly minted Social Democracy of America. These included such major forces as Cahan, Morris Winchevsky, Meyer London, and Louis Miller.

As an aside, I think there was bad blood between these “Class of 1897” New York Jewish SLP expatriates and those who left the party as part of the “Class of 1899” — Morris Hillquit, N.I. Stone, Henry Slobodin, Julius Gerber, and the Volkszeitung group. If I were writing a book and knew Yiddish, I’d spend a couple months on the question…

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Was hyper-centralization a fundamental ideological principle of the SLP? Was it merely a convenient rationalization for dictatorial behavior by the Great Grey Eminence, party editor Daniel DeLeon? Or was something else at play?


Obligatory portrait of Daniel DeLeon (1852-1914), editor of the English-language official organ of the SLP and designated bogeyman of history. A key figure in the history of the SLP, but only one element of a complex story…

I don’t see evidence that centralization-as-a-principle had anything like the importance to the SLP leadership that it did to Lenin or Trotsky, for example. I would argue the extreme centralization of decision-making authority exhibited by the SLP over the course of its history was the inevitable byproduct of the party’s organizational structure.

The SLP’s leadership was geographic, with the Sections (primary party units) of certain cities elected to certain functions by the organization at their quadrennial conventions. One city would host the National Executive Committee. Another the Board of Appeals, intended in part as a check-and-balance upon the NEC’s administrative fiat.

New York City, home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, some of whom were already radicalized, was the strongest nexus of organization for the SLP as well as the site of the party press and its book distribution operation. It was, quite naturally, the section from which was drawn the National Executive Council. This focusing of the NEC on a single city allowed for regular weekly meetings of the executive, which had the positive aspect of strong, timely, and active direction of party activities — but was a situation which also inevitably fostered the emergence of a self-important, antidemocratic, centralized leadership group with a low tolerance of dissent.

Sections at the perimeter felt themselves excluded from the party’s decision-making process. This proved to be one of the fundamental contradictions within the SLP, a driving force behind a seemingly unending series of splits. A certain duality was seen within the party’s active membership, with some being enthusiastic loyalists to the New York leadership, while others disagreed with New York’s policy mandates and felt growing frustration in trying to seek alternatives in the face of a micromanaging party center. It was not a stable situation.

In the final analysis, I feel that Daniel DeLeon was the product of the party machine as much as its creator and conductor. Nothing illustrates this better than the group’s subsequent history after DeLeon’s death during the regime of DDL’s handpicked successor, the Danish-born Arnold Petersen. Under the micromanaging and intolerant Petersen the same form of centralized party control continued unabated for another 55 years.

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The last ditch of decentralization.

Dissatisfaction over the strong central leadership lead to an constitutional referendum in the fall of 1895 proposed by Section Syracuse, NY and endorsed by Sections St. Paul, Rochester, Passaic County, and Indianapolis. This proposal sought to replace the New York City based NEC with a more representative body that included one member from each state organization — a form later emulated by the early Socialist Party with its “National Committee.”

This proposal brought the inevitable objection of the New York NEC, headed by National Secretary Henry Kuhn (a figure as important as Daniel DeLeon in the 1890s and first half of the 1900s), who replied for them in the party press:

Section Syracuse has failed to point out how this new arrangement is going to work; whether the National Executive Committee thus constituted is to hold sessions with any degree of regularity, and for that purpose draw its members together from all over the country, or whether the business of the national organization is to be conducted by the National Secretary alone, making him, as it were, the boss of the whole concern.

Kuhn added that the Syracuse model emulated “the manner the old parties are constituted, where representation of states is insisted upon, because all want to have a voice in the division of the spoils.”  (Source: “Party News,” The People, Sept. 15, 1895, pg. 3.)

The proposed reform was defeated. Major party splits in 1897, 1899, and 1902 followed, essentially sealing the deal, as reform-minded activists from the periphery voted with their feet. The organization was left to devoted followers of DeLeon and the central leadership. All hope at establishing a serious political party was abandoned. A pedantic, impossibilist sect was born.

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The history of a party logo.

The Socialist Labor Party of America, as an organization making use that name, dates back to 1877. (N.B.: The early organization was almost exclusively German so they translated the first word of the party name as “Socialistic” rather than “Socialist” for about a decade.) The SLP are known for a ubiquitous party logo that featured a heavily muscled male arm wielding a heavy blacksmith’s hammer. Yet, as fellow political pamphlet collectors will attest, that very distinctive logo is nowhere to be found on early party publications.

It suddenly starts appearing during the second half of the 1890s and then never goes away for the next 100 years… Whence did it emerge?


I’ve bumped into the answer to this very minor question of history in the pages of The People. As I’m not quite sure whether this factoid has ever been documented in the limited literature on the party — the SLP remains a very unfashionable topic for historians — and I figured I might as well put the answer into play here.

The logo first appeared in the Socialist Labor Party context in 1883 when it was used as a motif of the nameplate of The Workman’s Advocate of New Haven, Connecticut, one of the pioneer Marxist newspapers in the United States published in EnglishIt was never a party logo per se, but was rather an emblem of the privately-held, more or less official SLP newspaper. When The Workmen’s Advocate was absorbed by a new party-owned newspaper, The People, in April 1891, the arm-and-hammer logo was very nearly retired, used only as a microscopic illustration for the regular “Workmen’s Advocate” column running inside the merged publication.

At 10:15 am on July 10, 1895, the New York State Convention of the SLP was called into session at Germania Hall in Troy, New York by Hugo Vogt, Secretary of the State Committee. The mandates of 24 delegates were recognized by the Committee on Credentials of the convention, including the four core political figures of the national party — People editor Daniel DeLeon, the aforementioned Vogt, National Secretary Henry Kuhn, and former party editor and intellectual-without-portfolio Lucien Saniel.

The convention was called to nominate candidates for the state ballot. During the debate the Committee on Nominations pointed out that a ballot logo was needed in accordance with a new New York state law, under which the names of the complete slate of nominees of the party would appear. Debate about what logo to use on behalf of the SLP followed.

The Nominations Committee made the recommendation that the party’s logo be a “lifted arm and hammer.”

Frank A. Sieverman from the “American” section of Rochester counter-proposed a more complex logo consisting of “two men in workingman’s attire, grasping hands to symbolize unity, and some machinery in the rear,” which he favored “because it accentuated the necessity of unity.”


More than 120 years later, the arm-and-hammer logo is still being used by the now moribund SLP…

Daniel DeLeon liked the arm-and-hammer. Henry Kuhn opined that the Sieverman idea “did not seem aggressive enough, while the uplifted arm-and-hammer denoted that that hammer would some day come down upon and crack the head of the beastly capitalist system.” Hugo Vogt argued that the arm-and-hammer was “so unqualifiedly distinctive of labor that no other party would dare to adopt it, much as such party might be inclined to otherwise throw deceptive sops to the workmen to catch their vote.” Other delegates pointed out the already common use of shaking hands in the labor movement as well as a certain similarity of Sieverman’s suggestion to the official logo of Tammany Hall.

So after discussion on July 10, 1895 the arm-and-hammer was unanimously chosen by the 24 delegates as the official SLP ballot logo for New York state — far and away the largest and most influential state organization of the party. Shortly thereafter the design was adopted for use on a national basis, first appearing in The People with the caption “Our Emblem” in the issue of September 22, 1895. By the end of October a Peter E. Burrowes poem, “The Hand with the Hammer,” had been set to music and the sheet music run on the front page of The People. The arm-and-hammer had been permanently established as the rallying emblem of the SLP…

(Source: The People, July 14, 1895, pg. 3.)



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 15 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “The Degradation of Mine Labor” — May 5, 1897 — 1,559 words
  • “Mine Managers Culpable in Leadville Strike” — May 12, 1897 — 1,372 words
  • “Speech of Acceptance of Nomination for President of the United States” — March 9, 1900 — 335 words
  • “Manifesto of the National Executive Board” [APPENDIX ITEM] — 3,271 words — April 2, 1900.
  • “Letter of Acceptance of the Nomination for President of the United States” — July 31, 1900 — 487 words

Word count: 124,696 in the can +  7,629 this week = 132,325 words total

I also typed up for background a 460 word piece, “How to Organize a Section of the Socialist Labor Party of America,” detailing minimum requirements, officer structure, order of business, dues rates, and reporting requirements. (Dues were 10 cents per month to the NEC plus whatever local rate was fixed by the primary party unit, the “section.”)


THE BIGGEST REPOSITORY OF DEBS MATERIAL ON THE INTERNET is located at Marxists Internet Archive, curated by David Walters. Here’s the link if you want to track down an article or explore the Debs body of work…


About carrite

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