Kangaroos and SDP politics (18-12)


First, let us be clear about one thing — the term “Kangaroos” used in the context of the dissidents who fought a losing battle for control of the Socialist Labor Party in 1899 was an epithet, not a self-description. While it may be the name by which the history of the SLP has remembered them, it is not an appropriate name for description of the faction. “Kangs” was an insult.

The origin of the defamatory jibe is unclear, other than a certainty that use of the term sprung from the SLP’s hardline Kuhn-DeLeon leadership group in New York. Some believe the phrase to be a reference to the “Kangaroo courts” of the old West, in which process and the rule of law was set aside for the preordained result — a slick commentary about the way the faction attempted to seize power by deposing the sitting National Executive Committee through semi-legalistic shenanigans.

An alternative theory, one that I personally favor, posits that the kangaroo was made a naturalistic analogy for the SLP dissidents, madly jumping from one organization to another.

In any event, 120 years after the events described here, it is time to set aside the name used to mock the anti-DeLeon split group of 1899. We shall instead refer to these elements as the “SLP dissidents.”

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The top leader of the SLP dissident faction of 1899 was Morris Hillquit (née Moishe Hilkowitz, 1869-1933). A founder of the United Hebrew Trades in New York, the Riga-born Hillquit was a native German speaker, educated in Russian schools before emigrating to the United States, where he learned English and Yiddish and passed the New York bar. A thorn in Debs’ side in 1900, the two would eventually become personal friends.

I was originally planning on spending a whole week on the SLP split of 1899, breaking down the personalities and the issues. It didn’t take me long to figure out that if that’s where I went in terms of subject matter, it would mean getting nothing done on Debs — spinning microfilm reels of The People, the SLP official organ, and The People, the dissident SLP official organ, would have allowed the subject to be explored, but at the cost of time spent looking at the publications that Debs actually wrote for.

So instead I will merely presume this basic knowledge of that split: (1) the New York-based SLP leadership attempted to take over the Knights of Labor organization in the name of socialism, (2) got tossed out, and (3) started a rival umbrella industrial union, (4) thereby alienating virtually all of their members with union ties. Simultaneously (5) the German-language New Yorker Volkszeitung fought over control of its staff and content of its pages (only partially related to the union conflict), while at the same time (6) membership outside of the SLP’s centers of power seethed at the New York leadership’s undemocratic ways… (7) A huge, dramatic split followed, with (8) the Daniel DeLeon faction winning control of the party name and ballot line and (9) two organizations putting out rival editions of The People as their official organ.

See Kipnis and Quint for further information…

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After losing a battle in the courts for control of the Socialist Labor Party name, ballot line, and assets, a strong desire for unification with the SDP followed.

The dissident SLP — which was as much a New York City-centered organization as was the official party — held its organizing convention upstate in the city of Rochester from January 27 to February 2, 1900. This conclave was the object of flirtation by the National Executive Board of the SDP — based in Chicago — which sent the gathering a telegram inviting its members to join forces with the SDP.

The SDP leadership wanted to pick and choose individual applicants, retaining the party name, city headquarters, official publication, and control of the central leadership.

The SLP dissidents wanted to combine forces en bloc, establishing a new organization with a new party name, a new headquarters city that was neither New York or Chicago. They also, problematically, would soon suggest a survival of the fittest policy with regard to official publications, with members of the combined organization free to choose either or both the SDP’s Social Democratic Herald or the SLP dissidents’ The People.

Both organizations, it should be noted, were political action-driven organizations at this juncture, seeking to implement immediate ameliorative reforms en route to socialist revolution through the ballot box, and working within actually existing unions to win both immediate gains in wages and working conditions as well as to win support for the socialist cause through participation and persuasion.

There was precious little difference in either the program of the two organizations or the basic strategy for its implementation. The big differences, as noted above, surrounded personalities and practical details like name, headquarters, and publications.

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Margaret Haile, the former SLP State Secretary of Rhode Island, filled a like role for the SDP’s booming Massachusetts state organization. The most influential woman in the SDP, Haile wrote frequently for the party press and did as much as anyone to delay unity between the SDP and the SLP dissidents in 1900.

As you will recall, Social Democratic Party, established in June 1897 as the Social Democracy of America,  was a heterogenous amalgam of reformers seeking to build socialist industrial colonies in the wilderness (sadly without a benevolent millionaire or five to finance the operation) with focused efforts that would enable them to take over a state government in the sparsely populated West.

They instead put on display for all to see 12 months of a scatterbrained and unfocused Colonization Commission that ran hither and yon pursuing crackpot schemes like becoming railroad contractors or selling shares of land deals or establishing Colorado gold mines to fund their operations. The SDA and their political actionist cousin, the Social Democratic Party had as a result been on the receiving end of a torrent of ridicule and scorn from the SLP, with party editor Daniel DeLeon and his co-thinkers delivering a thick layer of their patented insults and mockery.

This was deeply resented by the individuals who became the leadership of the SDP, including particularly the grouchy German-language newspaper publisher Victor Berger and his English-speaking protegé Frederic Heath; touring orator Gene Debs and his brother,  Theodore, the SDP’s National Secretary; young attorney Seymour Stedman, a Debs worshipper from People’s Party days; Jesse Cox, an aging veteran of Chicago progressive politics; party editor Alfred S. Edwards, a veteran of the failed Ruskin colony of Tennessee who had only recently come to Jesus as a committed political actionist; and Margaret Haile, a powerhouse activist who was the nominal head of the party’s successful Massachusetts organization.

After the SLP dissidents fought so long and hard to retain the name and apparatus of the Socialist Labor Party, going so far as to launch a rival official organ with the same name and banner logo, they unwittingly became the inheritors of a great part of this enmity.

Substantial identity of program and strategy was seen and appreciated by the SLP dissidents; depth of partisan antipathy towards them on the part both the top SDP leadership and a majority of the rank-and-file was grossly underestimated. Good faith was in short supply; outright hostility or, at best, deep suspicion was commonly held by their prospective suitors.

This set the stage for organizational chaos.

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Job Harriman (1861-1925) was a California attorney and Presidential nominee of the Socialist Labor Party dissidents at their convention in January 1900. He stepped aside in favor of Gene Debs at the SDP’s convention in March of that same year, running instead for Vice-President on a joint ticket.

The SLP dissidents had moved first at their January 1900 convention, nominating California attorney Job Harriman and Cleveland radical newspaper publisher Max S. Hayes as the “new SLP” candidates for President and Vice-President of the United States, respectively. The convention had also, by a 55 to 1 vote, approved and named a nine member Unity Committee, to attempt to broker organic unity of the two organizations.

Four members of the committee were dispatched to the SDP’s regularly scheduled nominating convention, held in Indianapolis from March 6 to 9, 1900. This delegation consisted of multilingual Morris Hillquit, an urbane intellectual, union organizer, and attorney; both members of the Presidential slate of Harriman and Hayes, both very personable individuals, and another Californian, G.B. Benham of San Francisco, who seems to have been the party’s top leader in the state’s biggest city.

The visitors were granted the floor of the SDP convention, spoke positively, and were received warmly. Job Harriman graciously offered to stand aside for Debs to assume the top spot in a unity ticket. A “peace conference” was held between three of the SLP dissidents and a group of ranking SDP members at which promises about continuing the “Social Democratic Party” name in a unified party were either made or not made.

Victor Berger, Fred Heath, Margaret Haile, Seymour Stedman, and A.S. Edwards found themselves facing a tidal wave of pro-unity sentiment at the convention. They astutely bided their time, seeing that Berger, Stedman, Heath, and Haile were all elected to the 9 person Joint Unity Committee by the gathering. It seems that no anti-unity rhetoric was part of the election process, all were widely respected and trusted leaders of the party capable of winning election through power of their personality, combined with a thick stack of voting proxies.

At the 11th hour a recalcitrant Debs was persuaded to put his hat into the Presidential ring, narrowly averting an SDP endorsement of the dissident SLP ticket of Harriman and Hayes. Debs of the SDP would be the nominee for President and Harriman of the SLP the nominee for Vice-President — a fortuitous situation which helped keep factional trouble from spiraling into an irreconcilable split in coming months.

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The two 9 member Unity Committees met in New York City from March 25-27, 1900. Never was the old expression “the devil is in the details” more true. The division between the SLP-hating Milwaukee-Chicago crew and the rest of the delegates became instantly clear over matters of party name, organizational headquarters, and official publication. Berger, kept home by illness, missed the session, and the SDP delegation split 5-3, with the pro-unity majority led by William Butscher of Brooklyn and Mayor John C. Chase of Haverhill, Massachusetts.

The gathering attempted to stifle publication of a minority report to no avail. Stedman and Heath hurried home to Chicago and set to work undermining the formal unity proposal agreed upon by the other 14 delegates. A “Manifesto of the National Executive Board,” written on April 2, was published in the Social Democratic Herald in the issue of April 7 — a full week before the majority report saw print for consideration, debate, and referendum vote. Signed by four of the members of the NEB, but not by Debs, the document accused the SLP delegates to the SDP convention of having practiced deception and exceeded the bounds of their authority. The specter of a devious takeover by the nefarious Socialist Labor Party was promoted. A referendum was rushed to vote of the party on whether unity was possible at all ahead of the vote on the majority report and an agitation campaign to defeat the unity effort begun in the party press.

Debs made his own contribution to the anti-unity hysteria on April 21, urging that the unity effort be halted and the majority report defeated in a lengthy and bitter article, “The Lessons of Unity.” In it Debs repeated his previous statements that the dissident SLP continued to mock and criticize the SDP and that their efforts at unity were made in bad faith. He nevertheless continued to stand as the two parties’ nominee for President and never called for the removal of Harriman as his running mate, despite the criticism.

On May 12, 1900, the results of the NEB’s unity referendum were announced by National Secretary Theodore Debs: For Unity, 939. Opposed to Unity, 1,213. The matter was considered closed by the Chicago-based leadership.

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In fact, the NEB’s snap referendum on unity was regarded as being of dubious legality by pro-Unity members of the SDP, who further resented the biased editorial content of the Social Democratic Herald, with bitter unsigned editorials by A.S. Edwards written in the party voice, skewed content in which two anti-unity statements were printed twice while pro-unity comments were delayed, abbreviated, or not printed at all. The “election,” ironically, was run straight out of Daniel DeLeon’s SLP playbook — the party press, sole source of information for many members around the country, was played like a musical instrument by the Herald editor (an individual who had a financial stake in the outcome of the vote, it should be noted.

Pro-unity forces headed by Butscher and Chase were not deterred, however, and a second meeting of the Joint Unity Committee was held in New York on April 20, attended by Debs by invitation. Haile, Berger, Stedman, and Heath protested that the meeting was unofficial and exploratory; the SDP committee majority and the SLP dissidents proceeded with unity preparations.

The name “Social Democratic Party” was conceded by the SLP dissidents, and a new headquarters was established in Springfield, Massachusetts — outside the rival urban centers of New York and Chicago. William Butscher was elected National Secretary of the new, unified organization.

A split of the anti-unity SDP right feared by Debs had, after the set of dirty machinations made to prevent it, had been transformed into a split of the pro-unity left. The SDP stood on the verge of civil war.

•          •          •          •          •

Unity from Below.

Antipathy of the Chicago-based leadership of the Social Democratic Party notwithstanding, there was authentic pressure from below to achieve organizational unity between the SDP and the SLP dissidents.

In New Hampshire a joint convention bringing together members of the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Labor Party dissidents took place on May 12, 1900. The gathering at Manchester City Hall, called by the state affiliate of the Chicago SDP, passed a resolution recognizing “the necessity of a union state ticket” and agreeing to meet in joint session without preconditions. Local branches were urged to establish “union caucuses in each locality” to implement joint nominations, thereby avoiding nomination of rival tickets for the November election.

The gathering nominated Sumner F. Claflin for Governor and Benjamin T. Whitehouse, of Dover, for Congress. “The most perfect harmony and good feeling prevailed,” according to an account of the conclave in the socialist press. (Source: “Socialists Unite!” Haverhill Social Democrat, May 19, 1900, pg. 1.)


Alfred Shenstone Edwards (1848-19XX), was the pugilistic editor of Social Democratic Herald. He was instrumental in scuttling unity with the SLP dissidents in 1900, using press tactics straight out of the Daniel DeLeon playbook.

In New York state a unity convention was held June 16, 1900, the big majority of which were former SLP dissidents but with a contingent of members of the pro-unity SDP also in attendance. Social Democratic Herald editor A.S. Edwards was at his neo-DeLeonist best when he headlined coverage of the gathering in the June 30 edition “The New York Outrage.”

In coverage elsewhere in the same issue, James Allman, a fanatical opponent of union with the SLP dissidents, described the scene as follows:

Its make-up consisted of some very good beer, some very bad shyster lawyers, 30 delegates from the SLP, six delegates from an alleged SDP, and a few hysterical females who always most do congregate in SLP joints. Of the six delegates present from the SDP, two were from newly founded branches up the state and four were form this city, where the convention is being held…. Brooklyn, Butscher’s own borough, sent only one delegate, and that one from Butscher’s own local, which meets in Butscher’s own house, and Butscher himself was that one delegate…. The comrades here refuse to be transformed into the “tail of a kangaroo.” (Source: James Allman, “Allman on Situation in New York State,” Social Democratic Herald, June 30, 1900, pg. 3.)

In Connecticut, a joint convention of the SDP and SLP was held in New Haven on the 4th of July, the gathering open to “all socialists believing in social democratic principles.” The meeting went off a hitch, passing a resolution which declared that “the SDP and the SLP unite on Presidential, state, and local candidates, platform, and state campaign committee in the state of Connecticut.” (Source: “Connecticut State Ticket, SD Herald, July 21, 1900, pg. 1.)

William P. Lonergan of Rockville, a member of the Chicago SDP’s joint unity committee, was elected permanent chair of the convention. The 50 delegates endorsed the platforms of both constituent parties and nominated a joint slate of candidates for state office, headed by George A. Sweetland of Bristol for Governor. (Source: “Nominate State Ticket,” Hartford Courant, July 5, 1900, pg. 11.)

In Ohio, according to the testimony of Toledo activist Charles R. Martin, most of the active SDP branches in the state shifted allegiance to Springfield in the aftermath of the Chicago NEB’s manifesto, but nevertheless “worked in perfect harmony” by jointly supporting the state organization with a portion of their dues. “This united force footed the bills of the State Committee” and were ready to work together to gain joint ballot access, Martin noted in a letter to the New York socialist press. (Source: “Doesn’t Like New Jersey Plan,” The Worker [NYC], vol. 11, no. 13 (June 30, 1901), pg. 4.)


Haverhill Mayor John C. Chase (1870-1937), himself a former member and candidate of the SLP, was a leading force for the unification of the SDP with the SLP dissidents, a process which ended with the formation of the Socialist Party of America in August 1901.

The unity sentiment burned strongest in Massachusetts, the crown jewel of the Social Democratic Party in 1898 and 1899. This situation was despite the fact that State Secretary  Margaret Haile was among the fiercest opponents of unification, more  vocal in the official organ than Berger, Heath, Cox, or Stedman. Despite the State Secretary’s adament opposition, on June 12, 1900, the Massachusetts State Committee nevertheless voted to open up their July 8 state convention to members of the SLP on an equal basis.

Haile noted that the two powerful locals of Haverhill and Brockton had gone separate directions in the dispute, with Mayor John C. Chase and the Haverhill organization lining up with the future “Springfield SDP” and Mayor Charles H. Coulter and the Brockton organization standing with Chicago. The two Massachusetts SDP state representatives similarly split, with James F. Carey aligning with Springfield and Frederic O. MacCartney remaining with Chicago.

By Haile’s count (and do consider the source) some 25 local branches were aligned with Brockton/Chicago and 14 with Haverhill/Springfield. Another three were evenly split and eight remained undetermined. Her editorializing in the official report of the convention makes it clear that the actual correlation of forces was likely different, with the gathering splitting 107-107 on a test vote for temporary chairman, with Haile casting the tie-breaking vote for her faction.

A joint ticket was named, with a substantial component of Springfield SDP candidates elected to the State Committee. Haile contributing more pious squalling after the fact about “machine” tactics in the battle between “those who stood for loyalty to the national organization and for the principles of Democracy” and “the others.” (Source: Margaret Haile, “Cause of Socialism is Disgraced in Massachusetts,” SD Herald, July 28, 1900, pg. 3.)

In Iowa the 1900 state SDP convention was also held on a joint basis, with the Aug. 10 gathering at Oskaloosa to be delegated by one representative from each local branch of the SDP or section of the Socialist Labor Party, with each delegate to cast as many votes as there were paid members of that branch or section. (Source: SD Herald, July 14, 1900, pg. 3.)

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Victor L. Berger (1860-1929), was editor of the Milwaukee weekly Wahrheit [Truth]. Far and away the most influential Wisconsin socialist, Berger helped scuttle unity talks with the SLP dissidents in 1900, a group closely linked to his rivals and political foes of  the New Yorker Volkszeitung [New York People’s News].

Rank and file desire for unity was far from universal. Clearly at the other end of the spectrum was Wisconsin which announced in a July 3 report of its affairs

Wisconsin stands pat. The slanders that the “purified” SLP papers are printing shows us that it is the same old SLP after all. We are not adverse to political affiliation, but an organic union so long as the SLP still holds on to its old stagnating, heresy-hunting, and narrow habits of agitation  would mean simply the turning over of the splendid Social Democratic movement into the control of men not at all in sympathy with its broadness, and put the American socialist movement back to where it was when the SLP was the only party and ruled despotically. Men who were inclined to join the movement were repelled with slanderous treatment, its spy system methods, etc. (Source: “Badger State Progress,” SD Herald, July 14, 1900, pg. 3.)

Despite some saber-rattling from Debs and the NEB there were no mass expulsions of those participating in “unionist” state conventions. Instead, a happy face was worn, and the period was touted as one of great growth for the Chicago SDP, with an all-too-round membership of 6,000 somewhat implausibly claimed by August 1900.




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

  • “Speech of Acceptance of the Nomination for President of the United States” — March 9, 1900 — 1,198 words words
  • “The Issues of Unity” — April 16, 1900 — 3,624 words
  • “Speech at the Second Joint Unity Conference” — May 20, 1900 — 819 words
  • “Social Democrats, Stand Pat!” — June 30, 1900 — 1,094 words
  • “No Organic Union Has Been Effected” — July 21, 1900 — 1,081 words
  • “Declination of Nomination for the National Executive Board of the SDP” — Aug. 18, 1900 — 339 words
  • “Wilhelm Liebknecht, the People’s Tribune” — Aug. 18, 1900 — 465 words

Word count: 132,325 in the can +  8,347 this week = 140,672 words total

I also typed up for background a 2,815 word set of minutes and commentary by Margaret Haile on the joint unity conference of the Committees of Nine of the SDP and SLP held in New York from March 25 to 27, 1900. Also I rendered into editable text via OCR a 10,900 word reply to the anti-unity onslaught published as a tabloid newspaper by the majority of the Joint Unity Committee during the merger debate in the spring of 1900.

Here is the original version of that latter document, a scan of a rare piece from my collection.

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…




The dust jacket of the first edition is blue. Subsequent early hardcover editions used the same jacket but in scarlet red.

★ I’m happy as a pig in slop — I just got a First American Edition of one of the most important books in my life, E.H. Carr’s What Is History? This was a series of lectures delivered eight or nine months before I was born (October 1961). Carr was an English historian and the true first was a UK edition published by Macmillan that same year.

The American first was published by Alfred A. Knopf in January 1962. Mine is a gorgeous VG+ copy with an itty bitty bit of concealed water damage to the inside of the dj and the top of the back board — honestly does not detract. It was pretty cheap, too, like $15 on eBay. I blundered into it…

I write on Wikipedia as “Carrite,” guess where that comes from…  I not only own but have read cover-to-cover his 14 volume History of Soviet Russia and the 1-1/3 related volumes that he published right before his death in 1982 at the age of 90. Carr was a working historian right up until the time of his death — he didn’t really get started until he was about 50, he was a career foreign service officer. Suffice it to say he is a personal inspiration in addition to a foundational influence in the philosophy of history and prototypical history writer.


E.H. “Ted” Carr (1892-1982)

Carr’s biography on Wikipedia is one of he largest — and I contributed almost NOTHING to it beyond inserting his commonly used nickname into the lead… I’m clearly not the only fanboy out there.

Here’s a quick dose of neo-Carrism-a-la-Timbo: (1) Facts are a real thing. (I wouldn’t have wasted those words a few years ago, but it is something that bears mention in this brave, new world of Trump and his reactionary enablers.) (2) Millions of facts exist. Facts must be selected by historians — this is the stuff of history writing. The choices made change over time to populate evolving historical narratives. (3) Historians are a product of their time and place. Pay close attention to the historian and his circumstances.  (4) Documents. Documents. Documents. Documents. Don’t trust memories. (5) Go big or go home. (6) History has no end and there is no such thing as “definitive.”

About carrite

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