Annotations on the Failure of Socialism in America

By Jason D. Martinek.

Published by The International Journal of the Book

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In this paper, I posit a cultural explanation for the failure of Debsian socialism in America. I argue that socialists’ radical use of literacy placed an inordinate amount of faith in ordinary people to see the necessity for dramatic social change. Debsian socialists believed that if individuals sat down and read about socialism that they would come to the same conclusion that thousands of converts had already reached: that socialism is the only answer to America's problems. Their faith in the American reading public to convert to socialism was overly optimistic. In fact, socialists’ print culture sometimes, if not often, produced unintended consequences. Socialists’ intended their print culture to convince readers of socialism’s efficacy. Yet, it could result in the reverse, the hardening of one’s opposition to the movement.
Indeed, uprooting hegemonic assumptions about individualism, competition, and private property proved to be socialists’ greatest challenge. Nothing is as difficult to change as people’s minds, and for socialists, this was no exception. Socialists oftentimes faced a cultural conservatism that they could not adequately surmount. Socialist Labor Party leader Daniel De Leon had dealt with the problem by creating a tightly-knit cadre of vanguard revolutionaries. Debsian socialists, however, refused to lose hope in the democratic possibilities of print. They were convinced that their educational efforts would usher in a new era in American politics, one in which the collective needs of society came before those of the individual. Eugene V. Debs and other socialist leaders had trouble separating sales of socialist literature from the success of the socialist movement itself. This, in the end, may have been Debsian socialists’ greatest downfall.

Keywords: Annotations, Literacy, Social Movements, American Socialism

The International Journal of the Book, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp.27-38. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.279MB).

Dr. Jason D. Martinek

Department of History, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

I recently completed my Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University. I am currently expanding my doctoral research into a larger study of the role of books in the turn-of-the-twentieth century socialist movement.


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