The Socialist Convention (18-17)


I am a bibliophile — a serious book collector. Yeah, that makes me a nerd, and that’s okay. I have come to terms with and embraced my nerdiness decades ago.

We book nerds all have favorite books in our assemblages. Here is mine: a set of original mimeographed (or carbon copy?) typescripts of the stenographic report of the Founding Convention of the Socialist Party in the summer of 1901, professionally bound in library buckram. God knows where it came from originally, but it has a $600 selling price marked up front on the pastedown by my friend John Durham of Bolerium Books in San Francisco. From Bolerium it was sold (or traded) to Herb Romerstein, one of the premiere private collectors of American radical ephemera. And then later Herb sold (or traded) it to me.

This collector-scum showboating has a point: YES, the 1901 Founding Convention of the Socialist Party was stenographically reported — a first for any American Socialist convention. And, YES, the stenogram has been preserved. And, YES, that stenogram is readily accessible to me for this project.



Every word by every delegate at the Socialist Unity Convention of 1901 was preserved.

Now, do you want to know exactly what the co-founder of the American Railway Union, founder of the Social Democracy of America, co-founder of the Social Democratic Party of America Eugene Victor Debs said at this monumental four day session — this veritable linking of the political intercontinental railroad joining the “Western” Chicago SDP and the “Eastern” Springfield SDP into one unified organization?

He said nothing.

Debs said nothing because he did not go.

His wife and his mother-in-law and his mother were all sick, he said. He couldn’t possibly make it from Terre Haute, Indiana to Indianapolis, even for one day…

Here is biographer Bernard Brommel’s take:

Certainly Debs could have taken any one of several trains that daily made the 70-mile trip to Indianapolis and appeared briefly at the convention. He chose not to attend the convention. He said that illness in his family prevented his coming to Indianapolis. Both his wife and aged mother-in-law, who now lived with the Debses, were ill and suffering from the extreme heat…. A curious reporter checked and found both women ailing; however, Debs worked daily in his office and visited about town.

(Source: Bernard Brommel, Eugene V. Debs: Spokesman for Labor and Socialism, page 67, citing the Terre Haute Express, July 31, 1901.)

His brother Theodore, former National Executive Secretary of the Chicago organization, didn’t make a notable mark at the convention either, but he had been called away shortly after the start by the sudden death of his father-in-law.

That was a legitimate excuse.

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The Proxy Voting System.

The so-called Socialist Unity Convention was called to order at 10 am on July 29, 1901. The Chicago SDP’s system of proxy voting — used previously at the regular convention of March 1900 and the special convention of January 1901 — was utilized. Under this system any party member could attend the convention as a delegate, with those not able to attend assigning their proxy votes to any party member they desired from the same state by means of a signed document.


Attorney Morris Hillquit (1869-1933) was a masterful tactician and diplomat as well as one of the first serious historians of the American socialist movement.

It was clear from the start that the Springfield SDP would dominate, holding 4,900 proxies to just over 1,500 for the Chicago SDP, with representatives of three state organizations that had previously stood aloof from either national group casting another nearly 350 proxy votes. (The DeLeonist SLP, predictably, did not attend, even though the call of the Chicago SDP specifically invited them.)

In other words, Springfield had Chicago outgunned by a ratio of more than 3-to-1 in terms of raw voting power and if it had organized into a disciplined faction through caucuses, it could have shaped the new party in any way it liked.

This they consciously chose not to do.

The delegates in Indianapolis were present according to the terms of parallel convention calls. While the Springfield delegation pledged to accept the results of the convention as final, come what may, the terms of the Chicago group’s participation specifically required a ratification vote of their membership through referendum after the convention’s conclusion. No amount of urging could move the Chicago delegates from this stance. They retained their veto power jealously. This was the Chicago party’s main strength — the implied threat of a veto of the entire convention, just as unity had been scuttled the previous year.

Facing this, in a diplomatic masterstroke the Springfield group agreed to equal representation of the two Social Democratic Parties on all committees, not only eschewing any attempt to crush minority participation but bending over backwards to give Chicago disproportionate power. This unforced and generous demonstration of goodwill had the effect of immediately unifying the gathering and defanging factionalism. The actual cost to Springfield of underrepresentation on committees was ultimately very small, the benefit of disarming the few remaining enemies of a united party in the Chicago party was massive.

This sort of calculated diplomatic move has Morris Hillquit’s fingerprints all over it.

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The Inequality of Proxy Voting.


The most proxies at the 1901 Unity Convention were held by Puerto Rican newspaper publisher and socialist activist Santiago Iglesias Pantín (1872-1939).

Party “stars” held dramatically more proxies than their lesser known peers, with Victor Berger controlling 349 votes of the Chicago organization (22.8% of the faction’s total). Springfield was dominated by Santiago Iglesias Pantín of Puerto Rico (483 votes); E. Lux from New Whatcom [Bellingham], Washington (347); Job Harriman (343); Max S. Hayes (341); Morris Hillquit (337); Henry Slobodin (334). Together those six Springfield delegates controlled 2,185 votes — more than the entire Chicago organization put together and about one-third of the total votes at the convention!

Is it possible that the Springfield SDP was somehow more efficient in gathering proxies than their Chicago SDP rivals? Perhaps. Here is the testimony of former Executive Secretary of the dissident SLP Henry Slobodin:

I represent 334 comrades who attached their signatures to my credentials. I assure you that when they attached their signatures they did not know who represented them. I got 300 votes, and they represented 1,100…. We had it announced in our papers that comrades could attach their signatures before delegates were elected. The signatures were collected by the officers, and after the delegates were elected their names were inserted into the credentials. Now you see how that system works.

(Source: Stenogram, 10th Session, pg. 68.)

The three heavy hitters from New York City were: Harriman (343), Hillquit (337), Slobodin (334) — 1,014 votes. The same mechanism was also clearly used in ultra-radical Washington, which appropriated all its proxies to the single delegate making the long trip to Chicago. A similar system must have also been used on behalf of Max Hayes in Cleveland and Victor Berger in Milwaukee.

•          •         •         •         •

What about the Chicago National Executive Board?

The list of Chicago NEB members and close associates who successfully short-circuited unity discussions in 1900 is a short one: Victor L. Berger and Frederic Heath from Milwaukee; Margaret Haile from Massachusetts; Gene Debs from Indiana and implicitly his brother, Theodore, the Executive Secretary; as well as Jesse Cox, Seymour Stedman, and party editor A.S. Edwards from Chicago. That’s close to a universal set of members of the leadership clique — a very small and closely organized faction.


Victor Berger (1860-1829) in his home office, 1898. Along with Debs, Morris Hillquit, and later Norman Thomas, the Bernsteinian Marxist Berger was one of the iconic leaders of the Socialist Party.

These were able to sink unity negotiations in 1900, but by 1901 overwhelming support for unity had made itself felt from the bottom up throughout the entire Chicago SDP. Jesse Cox, a lawyer with other interests in life, quit the organization in May 1900 over impending unity, which he foresaw months in advance. He was replaced by Corinne S. Brown, also an opponent of unity with Springfield.

We know that Gene Debs was petulant about the situation in November 1900, ultimately making a lame excuse and skipping the convention the following summer, having gathered zero proxy votes in preparation.

What about the others members of the NEB? Did they march into the convention, at which the Chicago SDP promised to be outnumbered, with stacks of proxy votes at the ready? Or did they just show up with their own vote and their voice? And, if so, did they participate actively or were they merely present and biding their time, standing ready to take offense so as to gain the ammunition needed to sink a bad unity deal should one emerge?

Here’s the answer:

  • Victor Berger — 349 votes, participated very actively in the debate.
  • Corinne S. Brown — Did not attend convention.
  • Gene DebsDid not attend convention.
  • Theodore Debs — 1 vote, forced by circumstances to leave convention early.
  • A.S. Edwards — Was not a delegate, possibly attended as a journalist.
  • Margaret Haile — 1 vote, participated very actively in the debate.
  • Frederic HeathDid not attend convention.
  • Seymour Stedman — 87 votes, participated modestly in the debate.

Seen in this light, Gene Debs’s absence looks even more like a calculated decision, does it not?

We know that by the summer of 1901 Seymour Stedman, having been active in the upbeat, positive, ecumenical grassroots radical politics of Chicago, had already overcome his fear of the unknown and accommodated himself to the idea of organic unity between Chicago and Springfield.


Before 1901, Victor Berger only published newspapers in the German language, with Die Wahrheit (The Truth) his party newspaper. In the aftermath of the Unity Convention, he acquired the former official organ of the Chicago SDP, The Social Democratic Herald, and began his English-language publishing empire.

For his part, Berger was clearly playing another game, and playing to win — which he ultimately accomplished when the new Socialist Party of America adopted the federation model of weak national organization with strong state organizations.  Decentralized power allowed Berger to continue to control the Social Democratic Party of Wisconsin unimpeded and little changed. The Wisconsin party never changed its name to Socialist Party, by the way, remaining the Social Democratic Party of Wisconsin for the entirety of Berger’s life.

Berger also fortified his position in the new organization by taking over publication of the floundering Social Democratic Herald, moving it and its factionalist editor, A.S. Edwards, to Milwaukee and launching his career as a English-language newspaper publisher and editor.

Viewed in hindsight, Margaret Haile’s participation at the Joint Unity Convention seems to have been more in the nature of obstruction and marked her swan song in American socialist politics. Haile relocated with her family to Toronto shortly after the convention, where in 1902 she would become the first woman to run for provincial office in Canada.

The Debs brothers? They were barely there and not there at all, respectively…

•          •         •         •         •



Algie Simons (1870-1950) was the chief advocate of abandoning all immediate demands at the Socialist Unity Convention of 1901.

The ideological split of the convention, such as it was, did not fall along organizational lines, but rather was fought over the question of whether the organization should adopt a minimum program of ameliorative reform, with the “impossibilist” left wing represented by International Socialist Review editor A.M. Simons of Chicago and E. Lux of Washington (the latter of whom was formally bound by direct instructions of that radical state organization through the results of a referendum vote to oppose any short term demands).

Impossibilism was an emerging ideological perspective in these years, with the DeLeonist SLP deciding to abandon its immediate program for ameliorative reform at its 1900 National Convention. The desire for a similar abandonment of every demand short of a call for the establishment of socialism was obviously influenced by the SLP’s decision the previous year.

The basic argument went like this: due to the inherent and inexorable logic of capitalism, no lasting ameliorative reform was possible under that system. Any partial measures on behalf of the working class merely postponed the possibility of lasting social change by delaying the overthrow of capitalism. Therefore, all effort must be concentrated upon bringing about socialist revolution through capture of state power through the ballot box and the only program needed was that which elucidated this goal.

The debate over the question was lengthy although the final result never really in question, with the following result:

  • Springfield SDP — 1,012 votes for striking immediate demands; 3,936 (79.5%) opposed.
  • Chicago SDP — 142 votes for striking immediate demands; 1,247 (89.8%) opposed.
  • Independents — 171 votes for striking immediate demands; 175 (50.6%) opposed.

(Source: Stenogram, 6th Session, pg. 44.)

Impossibilism would continue in America as a trend in the early American communist movement, visible in the ideology of the Socialist Labor Party, as well as part of the fundamental ideology of sects such as the  Proletarian Party of America and the World Socialist Party.

•          •         •         •         •

Locating Headquarters.


Many delegates of the Springfield SDP to the 1901 Joint Unity Convention voted to locate headquarters of the Socialist Party in Chicago rather than St. Louis.

The vote taken on the location of headquarters was surprisingly close, with St. Louis edging Chicago in a roll call vote by 3,517 proxies to 3,096 — a margin of just 421 votes. More than 35% of the votes of the Springfield SDP were cast in favor of Chicago, with almost 85% of the votes of the Chicago SDP cast in favor of retaining that city for party headquarters.

The Springfield SDP never made an effort to locate the headquarters of the new organization on the East coast, acknowledging a central, Midwest location, while dividing surprisingly closely over the matter of getting headquarters out of Chicago to some other less factionally antagonistic location.

Headquarters would eventually arrive in Chicago, but it would be a process that took several years.

(Source: Stenogram, 10th Ses., pg. 69.)

•          •         •         •         •

My Collecting Acquaintance Herb Romerstein Remembered.

I will conclude with a personal digression:

I met Herb Romerstein by mail as a collector a few years before he died. He was selling off some of his duplicate pamphlets, and he was always trying to find something that he didn’t have. I was looking to buy some of his duplicate pamphlets and my collection was expansive enough that I had a few things that he needed. Herb was a very serious pamphlet collector. So am I.


Herb Romerstein (1931-2013) — politically “to the right of Attila the Hun,” but a nice person and one of the most thorough collectors of radical paper ephemera since Jo Labadie.

Herb had been a full-time Republican staffer for the House Un-American Activities Committee during the late 1960s and early 1970s, back when the notorious HUAC was finally being hauled to its well-deserved and long-overdue termination. The word “conservative” doesn’t quite touch the intensity of Herb’s political views. His politics, I like to tell my political friends, were “to the Right of Attila the Hun.” I’m sure he never voted for a Democrat in his life and probably thought the Democratic Party itself was some sort of Communist front.

Herb was pretty wacky that way. He was an anti-communist zealot, a man of McCarthy’s 50s… One of his earlier books was on the influence of the notorious Communist Party USA on impressionable American youth. (I believe he had briefly been just such a youth before flipping completely.) His later work dealt with Soviet espionage and subversion.

DzerzhinskiiHerb was the proud owner of a small bust of Felix Dzerzhinskii that he imported from Russia through an eBay auction. Yes, the terrible Dzerzhinskii — head of the Extraordinary Commission (Cheka), the revolutionary secret police during the Russian Revolution, when they were running firing squads.

The revolutionary tribunal says “guilty” — tie them to a stake, line up the firing squad…

Ready! Aim! Fire! Bang!!!  Quite Easily Done.

The Russian Civil War was ugly. The Bolsheviks were bad. The other side was worse.  Much, much worse.

So why would Herb Romerstein, the ultra-right wing Republican, own a statue of the notorious head of the dreaded Cheka, you ask?

“Because that Pole killed more Bolsheviks than anyone else in the Russian Civil War!” Herb chortled. Herb wrote that joke. He slayed himself with it. He told it to me at least three times in our three or four phone conversations, while talking about books and pamphlets that he was selling.

Herb traded me my copy of the stenogram to the Founding Convention. It was a direct hit on my collecting battleship while it had been a costly near miss on his. Such things can be parted with by all but the most obsessive collectors. We made a deal — I honestly don’t quite remember what it was. It probably involved my swapping him a little stack of rare postcards put out by Workers International Relief in the early 1920s as well as a couple hundred bucks. That sounds about right. That would put me into the deal for a manageable $250, my having picked up an even bigger stack of postcards on the cheap in an eBay auction. From his perspective he would have realized his $600 purchase price out of the exchange — such postcards being unobtainable rarities with big price tags if one were blundering into them and buying them piecemeal.


Hamilton Fish III (1888-1991) of New York. One of the fathers of modern Congressional red hunting, Fish was a real reactionary that would have been at home in today’s Republican Party.

Making that deal opened doors. Herb later helped hook me up with virtually complete bound printed records of the Fish Committee, the Dies Committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the Senate Internal Security Committee. He had a friend (whose name I was never told) who was also on the HUAC staff who was wanting to sell part of his library. Herb brokered the deal. Money changed hands in that transaction, which happened over time and in parts. I ended up with half a bookcase of bound documents. It wasn’t a cheap proposition, but you just can’t find such things at all.

Herb seemed to be a really decent person, something you really can’t say about some modern conservatives. He had his political views and his obsession with Soviet spies. I had my diametrically opposite political views. We each had our own collecting interests, mine being getting as much early stuff as I could put out by the early American socialist and communist movements. We had plenty of room to talk to each other without pissing the other person off.

The Herbert Romerstein papers — that is to say, his collection and book research notes — are now at the Hoover Institution. Herb was initially going to donate his enormously important collection of radical ephemera to some obscure liberal arts school in Minnesota that had been really nice to him when he was a visiting speaker, or some such. I’m glad he changed his mind. I need to spend a week playing those boxes. I’ve been to Hoover three times already. Palo Alto is a pleasurable place for a book nerd to pass a few days.

I just noticed in his bibliography on Wikipedia that I put together that Herb co-wrote a token catalog with the legendary exonumist Grover Criswell. Herb attacked collecting books with a sort of numismatist’s precision, which is probably why I think we got along so well despite being people with diametrically opposite political views. I co-wrote a token catalog as well, an obscure volume which the intrepid handful of sales tax token specialists still use a quarter century later.

I collect political pamphlets now and I also attack them like a coin collector.

I wish I had a chance to talk about numismatics with Herb. It would have been interesting.


So after reading my perfectly good story here, the good (?) Bhagwan John Durham assures me I have this sequence of events precisely backwards: that it was he who obtained the volume from Herb Romerstein (who got it god knows where) and in that in 2006 he sold it to me for “$300 cash plus trade goodies plus promise of a soul” — and he’s got computer records to prove it.


Far be it from me to let pesky details get in the way of a good story… Returning to the Carrite mantra: documents, documents, documents — never trust recollections or memories…



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

  • “Battle Cry of Superstition” — March 10, 1902 — 1,194 words
  • “Capitalism Has Nearly Reached Its Climax: Speech in Denver following the Joint Convention of the WFM and WLU” — June 8, 1902 — 4,393 words
  • “A Narrow Escape: Letter to Julius Wayland in Girard, Kansas” — Aug. 23, 1902 — 196 words
  • “How He Stopped the Blacklist” — Sept. 1902 — 1,144 words
  • “The Barons at the White House” — Oct. 4, 1902 — 1,229 words
  • “Society Must Reap What It Sows: Interview with the Terre Haute Gazette” — July 11, 1903 — 1,234 words
  • “The Growth of Unionism in America” — Sept. 3, 1903 — 1,431 words

Word count: 184,526 in the can + 10,838 this week = 195,364 words total.


haymarket-logoOn May 23 we received the proofread manuscript for Debs Selected Works Volume 1. I’m now going over this page by page to proofread the copy editor, as we fix and refine and polish. It’s a slow process. I will probably settle for 5,000 words in the can instead of 10,000 for the next week or two so that I have time to go over everything line by line. The manuscript for Volume 1 sits at 763 pages, excluding photos. Although this doesn’t actually correspond to the final printed version it nevertheless will probably be pretty close to the mark.

If I have to bend the August 1 soft deadline for completion of document compilation for Volume 3, I will bend it, of course. This project takes exactly as long as it takes. I think Haymarket would ideally like this to be a six month process per volume so that they could shoot out the volumes one per season (Spring, Fall) and build a little momentum. But it’s actually more like a one year process to get finished though and trying to move faster will only result in omissions and errors. After all, there are only so many free hours a week to read and write and type…

About carrite

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