The SLP – SP Unity Drive of 1908 (19-15)


Throughout his life, Debs had little proclivity to participate in the day-to-day affairs of party politics. While his beloved brother and closest political associate, Theodore, had done a stint as chief executive of the Social Democratic Party based in Chicago, Debs played no similar role in any organization. When decisive factional conflict erupted, he would invariably get sick and dodge. Occupying a place above mundane politics, Debs at the same time abrogated responsibility and surrendered what might have been a powerful voice in the decision-making process.


Debs as he was depicted in a syndicated clip in the mainstream press. (From the Appleton [WI] Evening Crescent, Aug. 18, 1907.)

Although effectively living in Girard, Kansas at the time, Debs was elected a delegate by the Socialist Party of Indiana to the 1908 national convention of the SPA — one of just four delegates allotted to that state. Yet when the time came for credentials to be presented and the delegates seated for the opening of the conclave on May 10, Debs was (rather predictably) nowhere to be seen. Instead, an alternate was seated. (fn. John M. Work (ed.), National Convention of the Socialist Party Held at Chicago, Illinois, May 10 to 17, 1908. Chicago: Socialist Party, n.d. [1908]); May 10, afternoon session, p. 17.)

This self-inflicted absence left Debs unable to intervene on the question of proposed unity with the rival Socialist Labor Party.

On January 9 he had written to National Secretary Frank Bohn expressing his positive sentiments towards a proposal by the National Executive Committee of the SLP naming a 7 member negotiating committee to meet with a similar body from the Socialist Party to examine a basis for unity.

Debs wrote:

No matter what differences there may be they are not of sufficient account to prevent joint nominations and political unity all along the line in the national, state, and local campaigns this fall.

I shall do all I can to have the Socialist Party accept the resolutions of the Socialist Labor Party in the spirit in which they are offered. I am writing National Secretary Barnes and sending an article to the Appeal to Reason, urging favorable action. (fn. Debs to Bohn, Jan. 9, 1908, Weekly People,  vol. 17, no. 45 (Feb. 1, 1908), p. 6.)

•          •          •          •          •

Debs’s Personal Unity Initiative

For all his flaws as a party politician, Debs did do his best on this matter. On Jan. 22, 1908 he arrived in New York City ahead of a meeting scheduled the next day to explore a basis for unity between the two American socialist political parties. Representatives of both parties were in attendance, as was Big Bill Haywood — Debs’s choice to head the ticket as candidate for president in the election of 1908.

It seems that the model used in the 1900 campaign was favored by the SP negotiators — a joint presidential campaign effort featuring two independent but essentially like-minded organizations behind a single ticket, to be headed by Haywood. Present for the Socialist Party in addition to Debs were Morris Hillquit — in whose office the meeting was held — and veteran party journalist Alexander Jonas of the German-language daily, the New Yorker Volkszeitung. (fn. “Debs Toga for Haywood,” New York Sun, vol. 75, no. 145 (Jan. 23, 1908), p. 2.)

The meeting at 320 Broadway was unsuccessful, probably due to differing conceptions of unification and inability of the Socialist Party negotiators to speak with authority in the name of the party. Debs sought unification in terms of a joint effort of the two independent parties in the 1908 campaign behind a common ticket headed by William D. Haywood — who as a key founder of the Industrial Workers of the World was a candidate which the SLP could swallow. However, Debs, Hillquit, and Jonas had no power to name a party ticket and could only speculatively offer the name of one potential nominee. The two small negotiating teams seem to have agreed that negotiated amalgamation needed to proceed such a ticket and no further meetings were scheduled pending official decision by the Socialist Party.

Afterwards, Debs announced to one reporter that he would be returning home to Girard by way of Charleston and Harper’s Ferry so that he could better write the story of John Brown from a socialist perspective. (fn. “Socialist Amalgamation Postponed,” New York Tribune, Jan. 24, 1908, p. 4.)

•          •          •          •          •


Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) was one of the major power players in the Socialist Party during the Debsian era. His Yiddish-language daily newspaper, Forverts (commonly known as the Jewish Daily Forward), had a large circulation and was both ideologically influential and financially successful.

Was the SLP earnest in its 1908 unity appeal? This seems doubtful. The Yiddish-language socialist daily Forverts, edited by Abe Cahan, probably got close to the internal thinking of the SLP with this January 16 editorial:

It is noteworthy that the “statesmen” of the SLP have for years without let-up shouted that the SP is a party of fakirs, cockroach businessmen, etc., and only last week the said “statesmen” discovered that the comrades of both parties differ only in their opinion of certain practical questions. Did they really make this wonderful discovery only last week or did it happily serve their purposes last week to make the discovery? In the first case they may label themselves “Idiotic Fanatics;” in the second we label them “Shameless Hypocrites.”

. . . 

First of all the leaders of the SLP do not believe that Unity will be realized. They know the ones higher up in the SP. They know that these will use all their power for different results from their [unity] resolutions. They probably hope that their resolutions will bring about a demoralization in the ranks of the SP; that this demoralization will later cause a split; and, as a consequence of this split, the left wing of the younger party will attach itself to the elder. And then will the SLP be the larger and stronger party, and will be able to whistle at the other. (fn. Forverts [New York], Jan. 16, 1908; quoted in The People, vol. 17, no. 45 (Feb. 1, 1908), p. 5.)

Once the one-day long independent negotiating effort of Debs, Hillquit, and Jonas had failed, there proved to be little hope for the SLP’s unity proposal through regular party channels. The unity resolution of the NEC of the SLP in New York City was transmitted to the Chicago office SPA National Secretary Mahlon Barnes, who dutifully sent a copy of the communique to the 64-member National Committee which governed the party’s operations.

Barnes quickly received back a motion for action from anti-DeLeon hardliner Victor Berger of Milwaukee. After making a sarcastic editorial comment about the SLP’s proposition (remarks not thus far located and perhaps no longer extant), Berger happily invited members of the SLP to “join our party individually or in sections, and make their applications to our respective locals,” upon the pledge “to accept our platform and our tactics.”

This was, of course, a clear deal-breaker — a call for the SLP to liquidate itself and for its members to beg for admittance to the victorious SPA. Berger’s proposal did, however, clearly reflect majority sentiment on the National Committee, and the resolution easily passed by a tally of 36-20 (with 8 abstentions). The SLP’s 1908 bid for unity was thus squelched by the first days of February. (fn. “Motion No. 11,” Socialist Party Official Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 6 (Feb. 1908), p. 3.)

•          •          •          •          •

Daniel DeLeon Responds with the “Unity” Speech

Although defeated for the moment by the National Committee of the SPA, the unity question would continue to percolate through the first half of 1908.

Although not himself a member of the SLP’s National Executive Committee, party editor Daniel DeLeon nevertheless remained the leading luminary and chief decision-maker of that party’s small pantheon. The time had come for one of his relatively infrequent statements from the mount.


Daniel DeLeon responded to the National Committee of the Socialist Party rejecting the SLP’s January 1908 unity initiative with a public speech on Feb. 21 that was professionally reported word-for-word and published as a pamphlet. DDL emphasized the differences between the “Marxist” SLP (“the Mountain”) and the politically oriented SPA (“the Vale”).

A speech was hastily booked for New Pythagoras Hall in New York City and a stenographic reporter arranged for what would be a major policy statement. DeLeon’s February 21, 1908 address, entitled “Unity,” would appear in the party press and be rapidly released in pamphlet form, becoming a major brick in the Socialist Labor Party’s ideological firmament.

DeLeon began:

Almost immediately upon the issuing of the Unity Resolution by the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Labor Party, a number of acquaintances, and many who were no acquaintances, approached me with the request for a public expression of opinion in The People, from me, on the move. I declined. My reasons were that, in my editorial capacity, I had no right to comment on an act of the National Executive Committee; and that in my individual capacity I had no right to space in The People until the matter should come before the party membership on referendum. I yielded, however…to express, from this independent platform, the views I have on the subject. (fn. Daniel DeLeon, Unity. [1908] Second Edition. New York: National Executive Committee of the Socialist Labor Party, 1914; p. 4.)

DeLeon emphasized that he was speaking as an individual and not as a SLP official or even as a common member of the party in the party’s name — a humble status belied by the fact of the stenographic recording of DeLeon’s prepared remarks for posterity and their publication in an official pamphlet of the SLP.

DeLeon stated that he would approach the question of why there were two rival parties “both calling themselves socialist, both having the word ‘Socialist’ in their names, and both heralding the ‘Socialist Republic’” yet running opposing slates of candidates, parallel circuits of stump speakers, and each claiming exclusivity in the field.

Being versed in history and in the philosophy of history, the traveler from Mars will be aware that different sets of people will frequently believe their goal to be identical, and will give it the same name, and yet, unconscious to most… the goals are, in fact, not quit identical, the difference in goals being fatedly manifested by the differences in methods. For instance the traveler from Mars will realize that the concept of a “Socialist Republic,” whose central, or directing authority, that is, its government, is to consist of the representatives of the several industries and branches of occupations, must needs be a goal somewhat different from the goal presented by that concept of a “Socialist Republic,” the government of which is to consist of a majority, or even a totality, of Socialist, instead of Democratic and Republican congressmen, members of legislatures, or aldermen. (fn. DDL, Unity, pp. 4-5.)

DeLeon indicated that the Martian traveler “would see in the opposing tactics the reflex of the different goals; and he would consider, not absurd, but perfectly legitimate, and true to history, the existence of the two warring political bodies.” (fn. DDL, Unity, p. 5.)

DeLeon proudly borrowed a page from Jacobins of the French Revolution, declaring his Socialist Labor Party to be the “Mountain,” which

has gather in its camp a class-developed revolutionary element. That renders its membership homogeneous; their homogeneity quickens their sense of sacrifice; their sense of sacrifice focalizes their effort — with the consequence that they have been able to set up and uphold a press owned by themselves — not only a weekly, but a daily English Socialist paper — a magnificent monument of what organized well-developed class-consciousness can achieve. (fn. DDL, Unity, p. 16.)

The Socialist Party, on the other hand, lacked the necessary homogeneity needed to sacrifice and work to maintain a party-owned press, and therefore was forced to choose between silence and reliance upon a privately-owned press.

Seeing that the material possibilities of its composition disable it from producing its own party-owned press, the Socialist Party singes the praises of a privately-owned press. …[T]he less-developed class-consciousness of its composition is the reason why it believes that party-ownership spells “tyranny.” (fn. DDL, Unity, p. 16.)

In this DeLeon was at a minimum tone-deaf to the real SP criticism of dictatorial policy logically following from (his) absolute control of centralized party information sources. Be that as it may, DeLeon contended that the press issue offered no insurmountable barrier to “establishment of a modus vivendi, always, of course proceeding from familyship” in which the two organizations would be left to their own devices with regards to the press, “mutual criticism would continue,” and eventually over time the centralized, party-owned model would triumph and a truly unified party would emerge.

And as time passes and class-conscious clearness increases, such increasing clearness would lead in its train the qualities that will cast off the private-ownership and set up the party-ownership principle. At present when such development takes place, friction is the consequence, or rupture. In the united party the transitions would be accompanied by no such disagreeable consequences. …[U]nity can be effected without sacrifice of principle by either side. (fn. DDL, Unity, p. 17.)

While the press issue was first and foremost in DeLeon’s mind, two other major departures between the Socialist Labor Party and the Socialist Party were enumerated — the questions of State Autonomy and the Trade Unions.

The Socialist Party was founded upon the principle of federation of largely autonomous state political organizations, free to control the propaganda and activity within their own territories subject to the constraints contained in the national constitution. DeLeon ascribed this to the different class compositions of the two parties:

For the identical reason that an organization of “Mountain” elements will necessarily move in focalized shape, and, accordingly, exhibit the aspect of “centralization,” an organization of “Vale” elements is bound to move divergently, and exhibit the aspect of “autonomy.” … The one acts “centrally,” the other “autonomously,” as a result of their different compositions. …[F]or the same reason that private-ownership of the press is a necessary transitional period with a “Vale” element, and party-ownership the necessary condition for the successful…“home-stretch,” “autonomy” has its transitory, “centralization” its permanent function. (fn. DDL, Unity, pp. 18-19.)

Again, DeLeon contended that the direction of the International for parties to unite within each country was not insurmountable, that “the two American members of that family, if they are really of one family, should find no difficulty, on this subject also, to find a modus vivendi, to the advantage of both, seeing that an agreement would result advantageous to the Movement.” (fn. DDL, Unity, p. 20.)

It was the trade union question that DeLeon saw as the most difficult, with the Socialist Party looking upon unions as “a transitory affair; as an organization that capitalist development tends to wipe out; as a sort of Kindergarten in which to train Socialist voters,” while the SLP saw the union as a permanent institution that capitalist development did not tend to wipe out, but which marshals the workers into “industrial battalions.” (fn. DDL, Unity, pp. 20-21.)

DeLeon was critical of the Stuttgart Congress’s resolution of unionism, which conceived of the political and economic aspects of the workers’ movement as two wings, with a primacy accorded the political wing. DeLeon complains of the parliamentary procedure followed by the congress in passing the resolution, which forced the SLP into opposition to the resolution rather than putting their own “Industrial Workers of the World” amendment to a test vote.

Fundamental difference between the SPA and the SLP is glossed over, the matter is declared resolvable, and DeLeon concludes to great applause.

•          •          •          •          •

The Unity Question at the 1908 SPA Convention

The matter of unity between the two rival socialist political parties would arise anew at the 1908 SPA convention. There the convention’s resolutions committee would consider the matter of unification before issuing a majority report signed by six of its nine members stating simply

Resolved: That no steps looking toward the unity of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Labor Party be taken at this time, other than to invite all members of the Socialist Labor Party who so desire to become members of the Socialist Party.

Although leaving no room for interpretation, this perspective was by no means a unanimous sentiment; not one but two pro-unity minority resolutions were offered as alternatives. The first minority report, authored by M. Kaplan of Minnesota and co-signed by Chicago publisher Charles H. Kerr, called for a message to the SLP expressing a favorable position towards unity of the two organizations, postponing a negotiating conference for the duration of the 1908 campaign, and stating if the SLP did not nominate a national ticket for president and vice-president, that joint action between the two organizations at the state and local level would be expressly permitted. (fn. 1908 Convention, May 14, afternoon session, pp. 123-124.)


Alfred Wagenknecht (1881-1956), an adherent of pursuing unity after the 1908 campaign was finished, would later play a pivotal role in the 1919 split of the Socialist Party, emerging as Executive Secretary of the Communist Labor Party.

The Public Ownership Party of Minnesota (the name the Socialist Party was forced to adopt due to state ballot name restrictions) had already been exercising its state autonomy and practicing unity from below, joining forces of SP and SLP activists in joint work in Minnesota. Kaplan sought to push this model forward at a national level.

A second minority report, written by Alfred Wagenknecht of Washington and signed by him alone, pointedly omitted reference to joint activity at the state and local level as a distraction in the 1908, which accepting the call for unity implicit in the first minority report.

Wagenknecht noted that the SPA and SLP were already working in harmony in Michigan and Minnesota, but declared “we know they do not work in harmony in the rest of the states. The fact that they do not work in harmony in the rest of the states means that if this question is brought into the states…then these states’ contentions will be distributed throughout the national campaign,” thereby weakening the effort. (fn. 1908 Convention, May 14, afternoon session, p. 125.)

After a break for dinner, debate on the question began, with Ben Hanford of New York unleashing a bitter onslaught:

I want to say, first, that the reason I am opposed to the minority report of the comrade from Washington [Wagenknecht] is that I do not recognized that the so-called Socialist Labor Party is a socialist party. I do not recognize that it is a labor party, and I do not recognize that it is a political party. The so-called Socialist Labor Party is a scab labor party. The Socialist Labor Party is a labor union faking party.


Ben Hanford (1861-1910), a New York printer who wrote extensively for the socialist press, was an outspoken opponent of unity with the SLP at the 1908 Socialist Party convention. Hanford was again nominated for vice-president of the United States by the convention, running alongside Debs. He would die of cancer two years later.

Hanford detailed the role of the SLP’s Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance (ST&LA) in scabbing a 1900 strike of cigarmakers in the Davis factory in New York City, replacing strikers who were out fighting a reduction of wages. Hanford continued:

I want to say that any man who calls himself a socialist and proposes to take the place of any man that is on strike on a question of wages…does not deserve the name socialist. I say further, that we want to communication with these men. I say that I honestly believe that the only purpose of the resolution passed [in January] by the Executive Committee of the SLP was to get a wedge into the Socialist Party for the sake of splitting the party. The tactics of the Socialist Labor Party have not changed, and such being the case, if leaders were honest they could not and would not ask for unity with the Socialist Party. I am fully justified in believing that they do not look for unity with us in good faith and for any good purpose.

Hanford enumerated the SLP’s factional transgressions, including prompting a split of the SLP itself in 1899 with formation of the ST&LA, its role in splitting the IWW in 1906, and its ongoing efforts to follow around Socialist Party speakers to heckle them:

They did their best to destroy our party. Now, shall we take the serpent to our bosom and warm hm so that he can disrupt this party has he has tried to do with everything else? I say no, and no, and no. (fn. 1908 Convention, May 14, evening session, pp. 126-127.)


Although a primary leader of the 1899 split of the SLP and an arch-nemesis of Daniel DeLeon, Morris Hillquit (1869-1933) was an advocate of unification with the Socialist Labor Party in 1908.

Adding his voice to the pro-unity side of the debate was, perhaps surprisingly, Morris Hillquit of New York — one of the leaders of the anti-DeLeon split of the Socialist Labor Party back in 1899. While acknowledging that the Socialist Labor Party’s unity drive was a last ditch effort of a dwindling party facing annihilation, Hillquit nevertheless pronounced unification as both salutatory and a “matter of correct socialist tactics and expediency.”

Advancing an argument best expressed by the old maxim of “keeping one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer,” Hillquit argued that “ridiculous resolutions” of the SLP were wrongly charged against the Socialist Party’s account by largely uninformed members of the organized labor movement. Moreover, large contingents of German, Polish, and Latvian socialists in America stayed aloof of both parties owing to the organizational dualism “because they cannot decide between the two parties intelligently.”

With the sole exception of DeLeon himself, Hillquit intimated, “the rank and file of the SLP is as devoted as our party membership” and would be a positive addition to the SPA’s ranks. (fn. 1908 Convention, May 14, evening session, pp. 132-133.)  Hillquit’s appeal — broader than the conception of Debs — was for true organic unity between the two rival socialist political organizations.

Hillquit’s argument did not sway the mass of delegates, who quickly disposed of the Wagenknecht alternative by simple voice vote before dumping the main pro-unity minority resolution by a vote of 131 to 48. The body then moved to the question of the majority resolution, which was quickly approved through a simple voice vote. (fn. 1908 Convention, May 14, evening session, p. 135.)

The 1908 socialist unity campaign was thus ended.



• See Also: The IWW Speeches of 1905 and the New Jersey Unity Conference




The official deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 4 is October 15, 2019. 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 Sundays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “‘Bat’ Masterson a Fiction Writer: Letter to the Editor of the New York Telegraph” (circa May 10, 1907) — 858 words
  • Monstrous Falsification: Letter to the Editor of the New York Times(May 16, 1907) — 1,224 words
  • “Letter to the Walt Whitman Fellowship” (May 31, 1907) — 191 words
  • “The Drift of Our Times: Lecture to the Fox River Chautauqua, Appleton, Wisconsin” [excerpt] (July 7, 1907)— 1,469 words
  • “Statement to the Press on the Haywood Verdict” (July 28, 1907) — 349 words
  • “Statement to the Appeal to Reason on the Haywood Verdict” (July 29, 1907) — 890 words
  • “For Joint Action in 1908: Letter to Frank Bohn, National Secretary, Socialist Labor Party of America” (Jan. 9, 1908) — 518 words
  • “Samuel Gompers in Politics” (Jan. 18, 1908) — 1,779 words
  • “Shall Warren Be Railroaded?” (March 28, 1908) — 3,062 words
  • “The Federal Court and Union Labor: The Buck’s Stove and Range Case” (April 11, 1908) — 1,139 words
  • “Labor’s Fight for Freedom” (April 11, 1908) — 1,486 words
  • “I Had Hoped That My Name Would Not Be Mentioned: Telegram to Seymour Stedman” (May 14, 1908) — 329 words
  • “Telegram Accepting the 1908 Nomination for President of the United States” (May 15, 1908) — 622 words
  • “The Issue: Speech at Courthouse Park, Girard, Kansas” (May 16, 1908) — 7,747 words
  • “Socialist Ideals” (November 1908) — 1,620 words

Word count: 175,705 in the can + 23,264 this fortnight +/- amendments = 198,967 words total.

David Walters will be running all of this material up on Marxists Internet Archive in coming days.

To find it, please visit the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive



Here’s the microfilm that I’ve scanned this week, available for free download. Bear in mind that there is generally a short delay between completion of the scanning and its appearance on MIA. Thanks are due to David Walters for getting this material into an accessible format.

• Chicago Daily Socialist — 1908 (July – Dec.)

Social Democratic Herald — 1907, 1908, 1909 (Jan. – Oct.)

• Studies in Socialism — 1907-1909 (all five available issues)




About carrite

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