Spinning film and skimming books (18-19)


This is a light week for new creation for me, with the manuscript for Volume 1 needing to be totally put to bed so that the Haymarket production team can get to work doing the final page layout. Nevertheless, my mailbox provided a little bit of intellectual stimulation this week, with the arrival of a publication which I had never seen — and of which I had never even heard as few as six weeks ago.

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A new source for the socialist movement in California


Front page of the Jan. 5, 1901 issue of Advance….(I always knew that 7.5x-9.5x zoom lens would be good for something…)

This week’s new arrival is three reels of Advance, a socialist weekly published in San Francisco, filmed from the holdings of Harvard University. I first learned of the publication from an issue of its predecessor, The Class Struggle, which was preserved en toto in the Debs scrapbooks filmed for the Papers of Eugene V. Debs microfilm collection. These are rare reels, pretty much one copy out there, located at the filming institution, Harvard University, only.

The forerunner publication was known as The New Charter, a privately owned weekly edited by M.W. Wilkins, who moved to San Francisco in 1898. Based upon the publication’s numbering system, it appears that The New Charter was launched in the summer of 1894. The name of the paper was changed to The Class Struggle, not later than 1899. It was sold on Oct. 7, 1899 to a group of five San Francisco Socialists, headed by George B. Benham, who became the paper’s new editor.

This group of five sold the paper to the Social Democratic Party of California for $600 on June 23, 1900, with Emil Liess, a lawyer from San Francisco, named the new editor. Not long after, the name of the publication was changed to Advance.

At some point in 1900 a change was made, and the new editor was J.J. Noel, who remained on the job until the first issue of February 1902, at which time the faltering financial condition of the paper made it impossible to pay him for his editorial services, forcing his regretful departure. Noel was replaced by an unpaid three member editorial board including Cameron King, Jr. (later a very important figure in the Socialist Party of California), Mary Fairbrother, and a certain Ober. At the same time a move was made back to a broadsheet layout.

The first issue on the slim first reel is whole no. 318, dated September 8, 1900. The single 1900 issue is an oddball, however, as the core content of the reel begins with the first issue of January 1901, whole #335, and runs through the first issue of June, whole #356, uninterrupted. The film is so short that it easily could and should have been part of the following reel.

Reel 2 picks up where the first left off, issue #357 of June 8, 1901. The apparent cause of the split reel is a format change, with a move made to smaller paper stock, no bigger than tabloid size, and the four page layout expanded to eight.

Reel 3, marked by another change of paper size, takes the run to the end of 1902, with a couple of missing issues and some less-than-perfect physical issues with which they were forced to work.

The filming of Advance is first-rate, high-contrast work done in 2008, and the issues filmed appear to have been extracted from a bound volume and filmed flat — which is the correct way to do these things. Total tab for the three reels came to a touch over $250 and Harvard was very efficient in helping achieve replication of their holdings. The process between initial request and delivered film took about a month.

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So What Did We Learn?

Advance is an invaluable resource for the activities of the Springfield SDP in California. It also gives us another first-hand take on the Socialist Unity Convention of July-Aug. 1901.

The Debs-related content is as follows:

Carey of Massachusetts was chairman on Tuesday [July 30, 1901]. A capitalist lie about “repudiating Debs” was nailed and a telegram expressing “esteem and love” was sent, to which the following reply was received:

“The expression of the Convention is gratifying in the extreme. May a united and harmonious party crown your labors. Press reports do not disturb me. I am a Socialist. A thousand thanks to the delegates for their personal expression. But for illness in my family I would be with you.”

Nothing new there.

As for Theodore Debs’s report to the convention as National Executive Secretary of the Chicago SDP:

Secretary Theodore Debs next reported for the Chicago NEB. The report was a brief one and showed receipts since Jan. 1, 1901, of $3,707.01, and disbursements of $3,637.64. Liabilities for loans and salaries were stated at $1,083.55. He stated that a complete report would be given when the work of the convention is accomplished and his office transferred to his successor. He expressed his hope that unity would be effected and said that when relieved from the office he would not be a candidate for any official position in the party. (Source: Advance, “Organic Unity Achieved At Last,” Aug. 10, 1901, pp. 1, 4.)

There were two delegates from California, William E. Costley from San Francisco, representing the Northern part of the state, and Gaylord Wilshire of Los Angeles, representing Southern California. (The decision to send two regional delegates was made by referendum vote of the state party.)

Costley wrote a letter home after the close of the convention which was published in Advance, in which he noted:

…[A]t the beginning of the convention a spirit of cautiousness was shown by all parties represented. The adherents of the Chicago Board were instructed to report on every measure taken back to a referendum vote of their constituency, and they insisted that the parties vote separately on all questions of importance. This cautiousness finally gave way to a feeling of confidence on both sides, and after the first day’s session, unity was assured. (Source: Costley, “A Letter from the Convention,” Advance, Aug. 10, 1901, pp. 4-5.)

In reading the stenographic minutes, one is struck by this discernible shift in mood mentioned by Costley: an uneasy jockeying for position by the Chicago NEB at the opening of the floor debates, with Berger and Margaret Haile playing the most vocal part, before their deep uneasiness was finally buried beneath an overwhelming show of pro-unification sentiment.

No doubt the decision for equal representation of the parties on committees was the decisive factor in this transformation of the gathering’s tenor. This achievement of organizational trust was the big story of that four day event in Indianapolis.

By the way, Debs apparently only wrote one original article for Advance: “The Climax of Capitalism,” April 27, 1901.

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The Victor Berger Letters

Victor Berger Letter No. 1: The People’s Party Convention.


Victor L. Berger was a leading activist in the People’s Party during the first half of the 1890s, as this 1894 poster illustrates.

The letters of the Debs brothers for the years of Volume 3 (1897-1904) are few and far between — I have mentioned that several times. Another big socialist leader of the period, Morris Hillquit, has papers which begin only in 1902 or 1903, after all the first round of confusing factional action had already been resolved. Fortunately, the third big leader of the Socialist Party in this era, Victor L. Berger, also left a few pieces of political correspondence in the form of letters to his wife, Meta, which provide a glimpse at the backstage politics of the era.

First, here is a snippet written from the national convention of the People’s Party in July 1896.

Well, little Meta, I tried hard to get up an anti-Bryan combine. Succeeded, because circumstances helped me. Telegraphed for Debs. He promised to come, but hasn’t so far. Henry D. Lloyd, also one of our radical leaders and prominently mentioned in connection with the nomination has just left me. He is rather disgusted with the leaders of the People’s Party.

Whether Bryan will be nominated or not, I do not know. He is certainly very popular personally. And the leaders, seeing the party break up on account of the “silver question,” tried to “sneak under” in the new [progressive] Democratic Party. But the rank and file of our party, the so-called “Middle-of-the-Road” people stood it, like a stone wall so far; they don’t want to hear anything about Bryan….

If the People’s Party puts up its own candidate it means certain defeat to Bryan. If we endorse him, or rather if we also nominate him, it means certain victory. But it also means surrender of all our principles and the death of the People’s Party. (Source: VLB in St. Louis to MB in Milwaukee, July 21, 1896; in Michael E. Stevens, ed. The Family Letters of Victor and Meta Berger, 1894-1929. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1995; pp. 49-50.)

Debs never made his promised appearance at the 1896 People’s Party convention, instead sending a telegram instructing Lloyd and his cohorts to remove his name from consideration as an alternative nominee to Bryan. With no viable national “name” to put forward, the convention inexorably nominated William Jennings Bryan.

After that, Berger went 1-for-2 with his predictions — a worst of all possible worlds outcome in which Bryan failed to win and the People’s Party was essentially destroyed over its opportunism.

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Victor Berger Letter No. 2: Founding the Social Democratic Party.


Together with Debs and Morris Hillquit, Victor L. Berger (1860-1929) was one of the most important figures of the Socialist Party of America during its first two decades.

Another published letter was written on Day 2 of the June 1898 convention of the Social Democracy of America, a day and a half ahead of the split which formed the Social Democratic Party. The short missive is absolutely pregnant with hints about the undocumented corridor politics of the organization:

This is the slowest, most boring, and weirdest convention I ever saw. The whole convention has been dragged into the battle of the parties on the executive board, which for a long time had been waged in secret, and in fact without either side having issued a proper declaration of war. The battle cry is: Here Colony, there Political Action!

I am regarded as one of the leaders of the “Political Action,” or rather as the leader, although that is not what I want.

The main battle was about the committee for the drafting of the platform, or, expressed more correctly, about the election of the members thereof. The opposition had offered me a compromise, which I simply rejected, although thereby I would have been elected unanimously. I was elected in spite of it but with a very small majority.

Because of the colony swindle it could easily come to a split tomorrow, in which case however Eugene V. Debs will obviously go along with us. (Source: VLB in Chicago to MB in Milwaukee, June 8, 1898, in Family Letters, pg. 53.)

Berger was prescient about the forthcoming split and about where Gene Debs’s loyalties would lie — although EVD once again managed to miss the actual factional fireworks and dramatic foundation of a new organization in the dead of night, having taken sick to bed. Per usual.

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Victor Berger Letter No. 3: The Massachusetts SDP and Margaret Haile.

A third impressively relevant letter was written from Boston in January 1900 — after Henry Slobodin, Morris Hillquit, and the Volkszeitung dissidents had left the Socialist Labor Party, but before they had attempted to join forces with Berger’s SDP. Berger had arrived from New York City and already been given the grand tour of the SDP enclaves of Haverhill and Brockton, mill towns with socialist mayors:

The movement here is simply splendid, and within a few years we will be the second party in Massachusetts, i.e., the Democratic Party will be wiped out.

As to Margaret Haile, I only saw her once, but I will see more of her tonight at the meeting and the reception that is to follow. I also intend to make a short call at her home in Roxbury, one of the leaders of the Boston movement wants to take me out.

Margaret Haile looks fearfully old and wrinkled — I think she looks much older than she did two years ago; she dresses shabbily to the extreme, her gray felt hat, ancient and spotted and with two rooster feathers on it, is a sight, and when she took off her old brown cloak — the same evidently that she had worn for many years — I noticed that the lining was torn in a dozen different places.

I understand that she has lost the good place she has had, or that she has given it up in order to be able to give more time to the movement, and is working as a typewriter in a lawyer’s office. The pay there cannot be very much, I suppose, and she has to support herself and child…. (Source: VLB in Boston to MB in Milwaukee, Jan. 19, 1900, in Family Letters, pp. 54-55.)

It’s easy to dislike Haile for her right-socialist sectarianism. Berger’s depiction of her as an impoverished working mother who was truly committed to the cause makes for a useful counterbalance.

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Victor Berger Letter No. 5: Unity with the “Kangaroos.”


Meta Schlichting Berger (1873-1944) as she appeared in the late 1890s. After visiting the USSR in 1935 she moved into the Communist Party’s orbit.

Another letter has survived from March 8, 1900, written home from the Indianapolis first convention of the Social Democratic Party, which agreed with their Eastern counterparts, the Socialist Labor Party dissidents, to field a joint ticket for President and Vice-President in the 1900 campaign:

Concerning the convention: this time I saved the party in the literal meaning of the word. We are going to unite with the New York SLP but the name of the united party will be Social Democratic Party.

E.V. Debs will function as the candidate for the presidency, the candidate for the presidency of the SLP [Job Harriman] will be the vice-presidential candidate. The party will probably cast one million votes in the next election.

I, however, will withdraw after the election: that is now absolutely certain. Through the unification the party is becoming independent and strong enough to continue. (Source: VLB in Indianapolis to MB in Milwaukee [in German], March 8, 1900, in Family Letters, pg. 57.)

The big surprise here is the definitive nature of his assertion that union was forthcoming and the extreme emphasis on the name of the new organization, rather than its structure, organizational nexus, or any other question. This fetishization of the name goes a long ways towards explaining the “Manifesto of the National Executive Board” which effectively scuttled unity for a year — which put a hysterical emphasis on an alleged breach of faith over the name of the organization.

It was Berger who caused the rift, not Cox or Haile or Heath or Debs.

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Victor Berger Letter No. 6: The 1900 Electoral Debacle.

Berger was in Boston shortly after the city elections which shattered socialist hopes in Haverhill and Brockton. The letter illustrates that Berger was seeing the socialist movement as a whole in the process of being unified rather than as the subject of a factional war between rival enterprises:

I read in the Boston Globe that our party was snowed under in the election held last Tuesday in the towns of Massachusetts. John C. Chase and three aldermen were defeated in Haverhill, and only two councilmen elected. The Social Democratic mayor of Brockton got there by the skin of his teeth — a plurality of 35. 

[Frederic] MacCartney and some of the others who received me at the depot expressed satisfaction about it — Margaret Haile I haven’t seen yet, will see her tomorrow — they expressed satisfaction because Haverhill had gone over to the New York faction [Springfield SDP] and played the part of a socialist Mecca to the detriment of the movement of this country. 

But I take a different view of the matter. I am afraid of the loss of prestige for our party — besides, I would rather have seen [Rep. James F.] Carey, who is a conspirator and a mischief-maker, defeated and [Mayor John C.] Chase elected. As it is the real guilty person has been elected to the assembly in November, while Chase, who simply went with him because he dare not go against him, was defeated.

However, this may be one thing is sure: the prestige of Haverhill, Brockton, etc. has been diminished in this election while that of Milwaukee has grown considerably. I am not selfish enough to be glad of that, as long as the movement at large has not grown to my expectation. (Source: VLB in Boston to MB in Milwaukee, Dec. 6, 1900, in Family Letters, pp. 59-60.)

Again: Berger was not the extreme faction fighter here. This helps to explain why he was such a willing participant in the Socialist Unity Convention the following summer, while the rest of the Chicago NEB either unenthusiastically participated (Theodore Debs), acted as obstructionists (Haile), or boycotted the proceeding altogether (EVD, Heath, Editor Edwards).

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Victor Berger Letter No. 7: The Chicago January 1901 Snap Convention.


Elizabeth H. Thomas (1856-1949) was one of the key figures in Victor Berger’s Wisconsin machine. The independently wealthy Thomas was a chief stockholder in Berger’s publishing company and served as State Secretary of the Wisconsin party for two decades.

The January 1901 special convention of the Chicago Social Democratic Party remains wrapped in mystery. There are ample hints that the event was pre-planned ahead of the election with a view to delaying or halting the growing sentiment among the rank and file towards unity. Whatever the original intention, pro-unity sentiments rapidly overwhelmed those seeking distance from the larger and more vital Springfield organization, with a convention call for a Joint Unity Convention the end result of the gathering:

I know I am a base wretch for leaving my sweet wife and three darling babes for three days without any information from papa, but enclosed clipping will show you that I am very busy. I am as you can see the chairman of two committees; but I am a member of two other committees besides. Had very little rest at nights, I don’t believe I’ve slept five hours on an average.

The convention is a very hot one, all kinds of propositions of “unity” and reorganization are in the air and I am bitterly opposed by some of my “best friends” — Corinne Brown for instance. Your prediction that I may be forced out of the movement may come true. (Source: VDB in Chicago to MB in Milwaukee, Jan. 17, 1901, in Family Letters, pp. 60-61.)

This letter raises more questions than it answers but it indicates deep division over strategy moving forward among the leadership of the Chicago SDP, with some sort of fundamental issue dividing the Executive Board.

Unfortunately there is nothing from the July-August 1901 Joint Unity Convention. There seems a high probability that Meta Berger attended the event with Victor, thereby eliminating the need for a letter.

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Some words about the Debs biographers.


Some future Debs collector is probably going to be entertained with my brutalized copy of Salvatore’s book after I’m a dead guy.

I’m periodically sifting through several of the most important Debs biographies as I chronologically work through Debs’s output. I’ve always considered Nick Salvatore’s Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (University of Illinois Press, 1982) to be the best of the lot and I haven’t come off that opinion. I usually hate writing marginal notes in books and only rarely do it, but I decided to have a dialog with the author in the margins of this  one and have been marking the hell out of my copy. I thought it was a super common title, but the joke’s on me, it’s gonna cost me $20 to get a clean copy for the shelf, and that’s without a dust jacket.

Salvatore is still living — and still teaching, as far as I know — but has blown off several of my emails and has never acknowledged the existence of this project with so much as a grunt or a shrug. A prominent historian has told me not to take it personally, that Dr. Salvatore doesn’t play well with others. This is unfortunate. His implicitly disrespectful attitude does add a little spice to my research — a little polemic fire in the belly is always a great aid to history writing, as anyone who practices the craft will affirm.

Honestly now: Salvatore is very, very strong for EVD’s early years. He, like absolutely everyone else, misinterprets Debs’s attitude toward socialist unity in 1901. He also does a far less satisfactory job covering the second half of Debs’s life than the first — but for the early material he is really good. Salvatore spends half the book to get to the turn of the century and then tries to tell the rest of the story in a little over 160 pages. While such a task can be done, as he demonstrates, it simply can’t be done well, as he demonstrates.


Worst. Dust. Jacket. Ever.

The favorite biography of my historian friend John Holmes — and a recent Haymarket Books reprint — is Ray Ginger’s The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (Rutgers University Press, 1948). Speaking for myself, I absolutely can not get past the fact that there are ZERO footnotes in the volume — zip, nada, zilch, none. This deficit should have got the unpublished manuscript gonged by the Rutgers until it was fixed. It is an otherwise fine book, mind you, but no university press worth more than two shakes of iodized sodium should have accepted such a work unfootnoted. Bad, bad publisher!

Again, Ginger spends half his volume on Debs’s childhood and railway brotherhood activities, leaving a couple hundred octavo pages to tell the rest of the story. This, of course, is the same basic skew as Salvatore. My sense is that Ginger does a better job making good of this difficult, not to say impossible, task than does his literary successor, Salvatore. But this orientation nevertheless does mean that the early life story and union activities are again told relatively well, while the complicated later story is necessarily a hasty recounting.

The Debs biography that I liked second best going into this project, Bernard J. Brommel’s Eugene V. Debs: Spokesman for Labor and Socialism (Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1978) has been pretty much gathering dust after I bumped into a couple howlingly wrong misinterpretations of the politics of 1899 to 1901. This book may yet be cracked open again as I reach Debs’s post-prison years — it appears that Brommel has done a good job with this material — but for the complex middle period of the Debs story this book is pretty terrible.


Bernard J. Brommel in 1978.

Dr. Brommel, a retired speech professor, is still living, now in his late 80s, I believe. I dropped him a letter informing him about this project. I’m not sure if he received it, but it didn’t come back “Return to Sender,” at least.

Here’s some audio of Dr. Brommel talking about his book in 1981. (P.S. Uh, no, Debs’s father didn’t “work for the railroad,” unless you count one or two painful days laying track…)

The other two heavily used volumes in addition to the Salvatore and Ginger bios are The Forging of American Socialism: Origins of the American Movement: The Impact of Socialism on American Thought and Action, by Howard H. Quint (University of South Carolina Press, 1953), and Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912 (Columbia University Press, 1952). Both of these are heads, shoulders, and belly-buttons above Salvatore and Ginger in telling the story of the formation of the Socialist Party and Debs’s place in the movement. (The Kipnis has been reissued by Haymarket, the publisher of the Debs Selected Works. Haymarket should work out a deal to reissue the Quint, I say again.)

Jack Ross’s The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History (Potomac Books, 2015) has also recently been added to my stack of my ready references. I use this one cautiously. Jack’s red-baiting call-out of Ira Kipnis’s politics is mockable and worthy of special rebuke. (The right/left/center split of the Socialist Party was a real thing, Jack, and Kipnis’ emphasis on the same — while perhaps slightly overdrawn — was not some kind of Bolshie plot.)

One gets the sense that this bulky volume (overly thick paper and large type was used by the publisher, a University of Nebraska Press offshoot), while unquestionably well documented, loses much of its utility owing to the tendentiousness of the historian. An excellent writer, Ross turns the twisting history of the Socialist Party into an entertaining tale for the general reader, and that’s fine, but one must be constantly vigilant as to where that reader is being led. The need to constantly acclimate oneself amidst the unceasing political spin does make one weary.

Of course, the Letters of Eugene V. Debs edited by the late Bob Constantine in three volumes must be mentioned as a constant ready reference. I can’t recommend these volumes strongly enough, even if the surviving body of Debs letters for the late 1890s and early 1900s is regrettably inadequate. That fact is no fault of Constantine’s. Indeed, all hail this scholarly masterpiece. Decoding Debs’s chickenscrawl handwriting is only slightly less difficult than trying to comprehend that of Karl Marx, and Constantine should have received some sort of book award for successful translation from an alien language, if nothing else.

By the way, you can score a mint set of all three hardcover volumes of the Debs letters for just $45 from the noble Bhagwan John of Bolerium Books. If you still need a set, use this link. Money well spent. You’re welcome.


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 7 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 ABC of Socialism” — Oct. 10, 1902 — 1,809 words
  • “Labor and the Color Question” — June 20, 1903 — 590 words
  • “The Negro in the Class Struggle” — Nov. 1903 — 1,541 words

Word count: 207,118 in the can + 3,940 this week = 211,058 words total.

This was a short week because I was finishing up with the Volume 1 manuscript.

I’ve got a couple more articles to check out and one more to do for 1902, then it’s the rest of the time for 1903 and 1904. It takes me about three weeks per year, so I am pretty much on pace to finish on time… I might slop over a week or two since the presidential year of 1904 is potentially a big one.

About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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2 Responses to Spinning film and skimming books (18-19)

  1. @pplswar says:

    Glad I avoided purchasing Jack Ross’ book.

    Books I recommend on SP history are James Weinstein’s “Decline of Socialism in America” and David Shannon’s “Socialist Party of America: A History.” Both are superior to Kipnis’ work for the simple reason that they do not end at the SP’s 1912 electoral high point but go beyond to the difficult years after WWI began and the 1917 Russian revolution which together damaged the party irreparably.

    Richard Judd’s “Socialist Cities: Municipal Politics and the Grass Roots of American Socialism” is also worth reading since it covers what happened after socialists won local elections but is very hard to find. Check Amazon or Abebooks periodically and you may get lucky like I did. 🙂


    • carrite says:

      Jack’s book s very much worth owning if you are interested in SP history, although much like a margarita, it is best consumed with a lot of salt. —tim


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